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To the Bitter End

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Castiel flew to Singer Salvage Yard. He couldn't leave things the way they were after Sam, Dean, and Bobby had fled Ellsworth's house, leaving Castiel in that ring of holy fire. Castiel had told them to run so they wouldn't be caught in the maelstrom of demons quickly descending, but there had been something in Dean's expression right before he ducked out that door that left a piece of Castiel feeling shattered. He needed to explain, needed to repair their trust…

…They'd attempted to ward the house against angels—against him. Stark red sigils stood out in every single window. It didn't matter that they'd gotten some of it wrong and it was useless, the action still stung, more than them trapping Castiel in that ring of holy fire. Because this here meant they had fully and completely deemed him an enemy. A monster to ward against. Despite everything they had been through together.

Still, rather than turn around, Castiel landed silently in the living room. Dean was asleep on the sofa, but he stirred, perhaps sensing the intrusive presence. He squinted at the warded windows first, and rubbed at his eyes groggily. Then he finally noticed Castiel. Dean surged upright in alarm.

"Hello, Dean," Castiel greeted gravely.

"How'd you get in here?" the hunter asked harshly.

"The angel-proofing Bobby put up on the house…" It hurt to say the words, though no emotion bled into his tone. "He got a few things wrong."

Dean shot a look at the windows. "Well, it's too bad we got to angel-proof in the first place, isn't it?" he said, slowly getting to his feet.

Again, that hurt, because Castiel didn't think he'd done anything so heinous as to deserve that.

"Why are you here?" Dean demanded.

Castiel moved forward desperately. "I want you to understand."

Dean's face twisted in a scowl. "Oh, believe me, I get it. Blah, blah, Raphael, right?"

Castiel stared at him incredulously. He didn't understand; how could Dean not see that Raphael winning meant that the archangel would restart the Apocalypse? All of their efforts and sacrifices to put Lucifer back in the Cage would be for naught if the Devil and Michael were released again. Dean and Sam would be hounded to the ends of the earth as the true vessels, and the world would be destroyed in their wake.

"I'm doing this for you, Dean," he said fervently. "I'm doing this because of you."

Dean snorted. "Because of me." He reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose and turned away. "You got to be kidding me."

Castiel struggled to find the right words. "You're the one who taught me that freedom and free will—"

"You're a freakin' child, you know that?" Dean snapped, whirling back to glare at him. "Just because you can do what you want doesn't mean that you get to do whatever you want!"

Castiel bristled at the hunter's rebuke. "I know what I'm doing, Dean."

Dean's expression didn't change. "I'm not gonna logic you, okay? I'm saying don't, just 'cause."

Castiel shook his head in exasperation.

"I'm asking you not to," Dean continued sharply. "That's it."

Castiel frowned. "I don't understand."

"Look, next to Sam, you and Bobby are the closest things I have to family—that you are like a brother to me."

Castiel gazed at Dean in open astonishment. Those words—family, brother—were not used lightly by Dean Winchester. And yet, Dean had trapped Castiel in holy fire, had immediately tried to repel him from this house with sigils. How could that possibly equate to Castiel being like family?

"So, if I'm asking you not to do something," Dean went on. "You got to trust me, man." He gave Castiel a hard look, a parental look, as though Dean knew best. He always thought he knew best. And that grated.

Castiel gazed back soberly. "Or what?"

Dean quirked a confused brow at him, before his expression shifted to cooly neutral. "Or I'll have to do what I have to do to stop you," he said levelly.

Castiel bristled. "You can't, Dean. You're just a man. I'm an angel."

Dean cocked his head. "I don't know. I've taken some pretty big fish."

So, that was that. Castiel looked away. He'd come hoping for understanding, for support. He knew the road he walked was dangerous, deadly, even, but he'd hoped he could count on the Winchesters, on his friends, to help keep him from failing.

"I'm sorry, Dean," he said sadly, no longer able to meet the hunter's gaze.

Dean was silent for a beat. "Well, I'm sorry, too, then."

Castiel didn't need to hear more to understand the finality in Dean's tone. He spread his wings and leaped.

Castiel flew to a park, a tranquil, isolated garden currently covered in a light dusting of snow. He sat on a bench and bowed his head. And he prayed.

Castiel had not offered up words to his father since Joshua had told the Winchesters that God didn't care, about the world, about any of them. He had left, leaving the angels to fend for themselves. That was why they were in this position, this civil war. God had granted them free will, but Raphael would squash it all if he won.

And so Castiel prayed more fervently than he had done in years, even when he'd been a devout soldier. He poured his heart out, explaining everything that had happened in Heaven since his return, of Raphael's ultimatum, Crowley's proposition; Castiel even confessed his sins of arrogance. In that quiet, secluded park, he said everything he had wanted to tell Dean.

"That's why I'm asking you, Father. One last time. Am I doing the right thing? Am I on the right path? You have to tell me. You have to give me…a sign. Give me a sign. Because if you don't…I'm gonna ju— I'm gonna do whatever I… Whatever I must."

Castiel sat in that park for a long time—hours—waiting for a sign from his father. The sun went down, and still there was nothing but silence. The stars, which used to hold such comfort, were now cold and distant, as if they, too, had turned their backs on him.

Finally Castiel rose, grim resolve settling heavily upon his shoulders like an iron yoke. He had chosen this path, and he would see it through, because he couldn't see another way. Even if this road would likely end in disaster. But that was the peril of free will, wasn't it? The potential to be wrong, to make a mistake.

Freedom truly was a length of rope. And God's silence said more clearly than anything else that he was satisfied to sit back and watch people hang themselves with it.

A high-pitched ringing filled Castiel's head, a call from Balthazar on a private channel. His chest constricted; at least there was still one friend he had in this world.

He flew to their rendezvous point deep in the Black Hills Forest where Balthazar was already waiting, pacing in agitation. The other angel looked Castiel up and down when he appeared.

"What happened with the Winchesters?"

Castiel's throat tightened with regret. "They know everything. They…figured out I'd been spying on them."

Balthazar snorted. "I could have told you that'd work out poorly. Oh wait, I did." He took in Castiel's despondent posture and sighed. "I gather they didn't approve," he said more gently, though still with a wry bite.

"No. They wouldn't even let me explain."

It baffled him, because Dean said they were like brothers, but he wouldn't have treated Sam this way, would have at least heard the younger Winchester out. So why did Castiel, if he was like family too, warrant only accusations and unforgiving glares?

Dean had also told him to stop, to give up his plan with the Purgatory souls just because Dean said to. As if Castiel was merely a hammer for the Winchesters to wield at their will. Which was more or less how they had been treating him for the past year. And Castiel was ashamed to say that he did let pride and indignation get the better of him in that moment. Thus, any chance at reconciliation he had hoped to forge had crumbled into chaff.

"Typical Winchesters," Balthazar commented. "They're so self-absorbed, they can't see anything other than their own backsides."

"They accused me of bringing Sam back soulless on purpose," Castiel admitted, because that had hurt too. He would never… Yet he had; unintentionally or not, his gross oversight had caused the younger Winchester to walk around soulless for a year, and by then Sam's soul had been so traumatized by its time in Hell, that taking it back had been a serious risk. Death's charity had cleaned up Castiel's grievous mistake before it could hang him. Or perhaps the Winchesters' mistrust and repulsion were the consequences Castiel was reaping for it.

Balthazar let out a sound of derision. "You should have left that twat in the Cage."

Castiel narrowed his eyes at his brother. Sometimes he honestly couldn't tell whether Balthazar was jesting or not when he spoke in such a way about the Winchesters. They hadn't gotten off to a good start when they first met, after all. And even though they were at odds now, Castiel still cared for Sam and Dean.

The other angel rolled his eyes at Castiel's reprimanding glare. "So what do you want to do, Cas? Now that the cat's out of the bag, are we moving forward or not?"

Castiel squinted, having no idea how a captured cat had anything to do with this…

He still didn't know if this was the right path. But God hadn't given him a sign, and he wished he could know for certain whether that was confirmation of his choices and not just that his father simply didn't care. He feared it was the latter.

"We continue with the plan," he said. "Nothing's changed."

He pulled out a soft, leather-bound journal from his coat. After his fruitless talk with Dean, Castiel had slipped into Bobby's study and taken it, as the contents contained someone's detailed ramblings about an author named H.P. Lovecraft, who had apparently entertained more than a passing fascination with opening doorways to other dimensions.

Balthazar's voice dropped to a low tone. "Even if this is a kamikaze mission?"

Castiel nodded gravely. "It's the only way, Balthazar; we're losing the war."

The other angel scoffed and turned away in a flare of frustration. "Why are you still so determined to protect the very humans who have now turned on you?"

Castiel's heart clenched painfully. "Because," he said softly, "not that long ago, I thought we were family." Even before Dean had said the conflicting words, Castiel had held the Winchester brothers in that regard. And if he'd learned one thing from them, you never turned your back on family. Even if they didn't feel the same.

"We're brothers, Cas. Let's just leave," Balthazar said suddenly.

"Leave?" he repeated dubiously.

Balthazar nodded. "You and me, enjoying a life of decadence. I'll show you all the great spots."

Castiel leveled a dry look at him. "Raphael will immediately start the Apocalypse again and destroy everything."

"I've got some safe houses that will survive even that." Balthazar stepped forward, gaze earnest. "Come on, Cas, we can just go. Live out the rest of eternity doing whatever we want. Free will and all that."

Castiel felt his heart fracture. He did not blame Balthazar for wanting to leave; the angel had done so once already, letting Castiel believe he'd died. But given that the Winchesters had just turned their backs on him, the abandonment stung. And for a very brief moment, Castiel wondered if it all was worth it, if maybe he should go with his brother. Balthazar, at least, was loyal and understanding, like real family should be.

"Just because you can do what you want doesn't mean that you get to do whatever you want!"

Dean had meant Castiel's plan to harvest the souls of Purgatory, but Castiel knew that what it really meant was he was still bound by responsibility and duty. And he couldn't just turn his back on that.

Castiel's shoulders sagged. "I understand. This was never your fight. You can go, Balthazar. I really do wish you the best."

Balthazar's eyes tightened with emotion, and after a long moment he sighed heavily. "Bloody hell, Cas, if you're staying, so am I." He spread out an arm to encompass the two of them. "Who else is gonna keep you from falling off the ledge?"

Castiel allowed himself a small smile, his morale renewed. He reached out to clasp his brother's forearm. "That's why I know this will work."

Balthazar shook his head, not seeming as convinced, but at least he was choosing to stand by Castiel when no one else was.

The other angel suddenly straightened, and a scowl swept across his face. "I'm being summoned by the Winchesters."

Castiel felt a pang of regret once more. Though it'd been exasperating when the Winchesters constantly called him for help, heedless that he might be in the middle of a battle, the knowledge that they would never call him again made his heart ache.

Castiel gave Balthazar a rueful look. "They might need help."

"I should smite them where they stand."

"Please don't."

Balthazar grumbled under his breath. "Fine." He crossed his finger over his heart in a gesture Castiel didn't understand, then pointed at him sharply. "You have work to do. I'll deal with the hairless apes."

Castiel nodded somberly. With the journal in hand, he spread his wings and took flight. He needed to track down information on how to open a portal to another dimension.


Balthazar had half a mind to level Singer Salvage Yard. Or, better yet, he could throw those two whining Winchesters into an alternate reality again. They'd particularly hated that.

Granted, Balthazar had known from the start that Castiel trying to keep his plans secret would end poorly. For one thing, Cas was a terrible liar. Balthazar had sussed out his intentions early on, and, he had to admit, had almost been as livid as the Winchesters apparently were. But what Cas lacked in subterfuge, he made up for in force of personality. Balthazar had none of the other angel's passion for defending humanity, and yet he still found himself devoted to the cause. Or, more accurately, devoted to his brother.

And he hated to see him hurting.

Balthazar landed outside the salvage garage on the hood of one of the junker cars with a static pop that blew all the lights out.

"I'm sorry boys, do I look like a man-servant to you?" he immediately snipped. The Winchesters exchanged a look. "No?" he prodded at their silence. "No? Then quit ringing for me, please."

"This is important, Balthazar," Dean snapped.

"As you always think it is with you."

"Crowley's alive," Sam spoke up.

And here it started.

"Well, you've been scooped," Balthazar replied, hopping off the car. "Cas already told me."

"Well, did Cas tell you that he is Crowley's butt-buddy, you smug little dick?" Dean said with a hint of a triumphant smirk.

Balthazar narrowed his eyes.

"Handshake deal," Sam added, misinterpreting his silence for surprise. "Go halfsies on all the souls of Purgatory. He fill you in on that?"

"Of course he did," Balthazar retorted. "Because unlike you, I understand what's at stake."

"You've got to be friggin' kidding…" Dean started, throwing his arms out in growing aggravation. "Popping Purgatory is only going to make things worse!"

"Worse than the Apocalypse 2.0? Because I assure you, if you thought the first one was bad, Raphael now has plans to decimate all of the earth and start Paradise over from scratch."

Dean's jaw tightened, but he maintained his furious glare.

"Purgatory is not the answer," Sam stepped in. "Working with Crowley is not the answer!"

"I don't see you two mooks offering up an alternative," Balthazar snapped. "Because, oh yeah, you blokes can't be bothered to look past your own problems."

"Look," Dean interrupted sharply. "Crowley and Cas took two people who are very important to me."

If there had been any light fixtures still intact, they would have exploded from the waves of umbrage radiating off Balthazar. The Winchesters may not have liked the Purgatory plan and working with Crowley—who did?—but accusing Cas of intentionally bringing back Sasquatch without a soul, and now of kidnapping…there was no excuse for that. No way would Castiel have had a part in this abduction, and dammit, if he found out about it, he was going to get distracted, which they could not afford right now.

"And I care about this because?" Balthazar said blithely.

A muscle in Dean's jaw ticked. "Because maybe there is a shred of decency underneath this- this snarky crap."

Balthazar rolled his eyes, unimpressed with the human's tact with diplomacy.

"They're innocent people and I'm asking for your help."

Well, wasn't that a first. The hairless ape sounded genuinely distressed by the whole thing, too.

"Hm, I see," Balthazar said, nodding thoughtfully. "Too bad you couldn't give Cas the same consideration."

He flapped his wings and took off. If he'd stayed any longer, he ran the risk of going through with his threat to smite those two, which would also displease Castiel. But unlike the other angel, Balthazar was not burdened by a misplaced sense of loyalty. Let the selfish bastards get out of their own mess.

Chapter Text

 

Castiel had just finished interviewing the man, Westborough, about the night of March 10th, 1937, in which a portal had been supposedly opened during a dinner party, when Sam's voice filtered through his head over a prayer line.

"Castiel, it's Sam. Um, so look, I don't know if you're in on this whole Ben-Lisa thing, but if you have any heart whatsoever, bring 'em back to us, man."

Castiel instantly flew to Sam's location, the open prayer letting him bypass the Enochian warding on the Winchester's ribs in order to find him. He stayed invisible, though, part of him wondering if they were setting another trap for him. Castiel wouldn't put it past them. But mentioning Ben and Lisa…that was strange. And what did Sam mean, "bring them back"?

Sam stood in the middle of Bobby's salvage yard, head turned toward the night sky. "C'mon. Please. I'm begging you. I am begging you, do you understand?"

Castiel watched, still not entirely sure what was going on. Sam looked around in expectation, and when nothing stirred, he let out a disgusted sound and walked away. There was no ring of holy oil waiting to be lit that Castiel could see, no Dean or Bobby concealed behind a pile of rusted car parts. And Sam had seemed genuinely distressed. If Ben and Lisa were truly missing…

Castiel flew to Crowley's lab. He swept through the dank corridors until he found the demon in one of the chambers, reading an anatomy book and listening to music.

Crowley looked up as Castiel stormed in. "Sweetie. You look tense."

"You took Ben and Lisa," he accused.

"Oh, that."

Ire flared up inside Castiel. "I told you—"

"Not to touch Sam and Dean," Crowley interrupted, setting his book aside. "And I've respected that. I'm merely exploiting the obvious loophole. As long as I have the woman and boy, your fop-coiffed little heroes will be scouring the earth for them, therefore not you, and not me. Everybody wins."

Castiel clenched his fists. This was not what he wanted. "You should've talked to me first."

Crowley canted his head. "I'd rather ask forgiveness than permission." He chuckled to himself.

Castiel took an imposing step forward. "Where are they, Crowley?"

The demon raised a hand to his mouth, making the motion of zipping his lips. Waggling his brows, he placed the imaginary key in his pocket.

"You are not to harm them, do you understand me?" Castiel growled.

Crowley straightened. "You know what, you're all maxed out on putting humans out of bounds. I'll do with them as I please," he said haughtily.

Castiel drew his shoulders back, on the verge of violence.

Crowley merely glowered at him. "Want to stop me? Go find freaking Purgatory!" he shouted, voice becoming shrill with rage.

Castiel's fingers twitched with the urge to smite the demon where he stood, but he was suddenly distracted by a distant ping. Not a prayer, but almost the longing of one. He touched his temple, trying to home in on the source.

"Call on the bat-phone?" Crowley inquired glibly. "Never call during business hours, do they?"

"I'll be back," Castiel warned, and leaped into the ether. He latched onto the thread of that desperate cry and followed it. His heart stuttered. It was Dean. He was in trouble.

Castiel flew faster. He landed inside Bobby's garage, and was horrified to see a broken Devil's Trap on the ground, and a demon currently choking the life out of Dean. Castiel thrust his hand upon the demon's head and poured the power of divine retribution into the heinous being. Light blazed forth in a deluge so strong that it exploded outward from the demon's eyes and mouth. The smoking corpse dropped to the ground, and Castiel found himself face to face with Dean, who was gaping at him in shock.

"I didn't ask for your help," Dean said roughly after catching his breath.

Castiel averted his gaze. "Well, regardless, you're welcome." He glanced up again, only to catch Dean's baleful glare.

"Why are you here?" the hunter asked gruffly. He moved past Castiel to inspect the broken Devil's Trap.

Castiel's chest constricted, and he couldn't bring himself to turn around, to continue to see such hatred delivered by one he'd thought was his dearest friend. "I had no idea Crowley would take Lisa and Ben," he said, willing Dean to understand.

"Yeah right."

Something cold coiled around Castiel's heart at Dean's cynical tone. He finally turned around. "You don't believe me." Did the Winchesters really think so little of him?

"I don't believe a word that's coming out of your mouth," Dean said with a sickened, bitter smirk.

Castiel looked away again. Why? Why had things gone so wrong when all Castiel had ever wanted was to protect his friends, his family?

"I thought you said that we were like family," he said pointedly. "Well, I think that too. Shouldn't trust run both ways?" Castiel didn't think he was asking for too much, not given their history.

"Cas, I just can't," Dean said, once again shutting him down without giving him the benefit of the doubt.

"Dean," he said desperately. "I do everything that you ask. I always come when you call…" His voice nearly cracked, and Castiel swallowed hard, closing the distance between them as he pleaded with his eyes for Dean to just understand. "And I am your friend. Still, despite your lack of faith in me, and now your threats, I just saved you, yet again. Has anyone but your closest kin ever done more for you?"

Dean's eyes looked pained with each word, and Castiel pressed on.

"All I ask is this one thing."

"Trust your plan to pop Purgatory?" Dean interrupted, face twisting once again with scathing disapproval.

"I've earned that, Dean."

The hunter scoffed, and Castiel felt something deep inside him break. Dean wouldn't listen. He would never listen. Never grant Castiel the same regard he would for true family. Those words, the promise of belonging the Winchester had offered Castiel only last night had been nothing more than an attempt to manipulate him. They had never been sincere.

Castiel looked away for a moment to collect himself. "I came to tell you that I will find Lisa and Ben, and I will bring them back."

Dean's brows rose in surprise.

Castiel felt that traitorous thread of hope tugging at him one last time, and he couldn't stop himself from pleading, just once more, "Stand behind me, the one time I ask."

Dean's expression shifted then, morphing into something hard and dangerous as he closed the distance between them. "You're asking me to stand down?" he said in a low, menacing tone.

No, this wasn't what Castiel meant at all. "Dean—"

"That's the same damn ransom note that Crowley handed me, you know that, right?" he rejoined, skewering Castiel with a withering look. "Well, no thanks. I'll find 'em myself. In fact, why don't you go back to Crowley and tell him that I said you can both kiss my ass."

Dean turned around and started walking away. Castiel stood there a moment longer, disappointment seeping through him like a poisonous anesthetic, blunting some of his anguish. He knew now beyond a shadow of doubt that any effort to regain Dean's trust was futile. There was no point in trying. Castiel had to focus on the task at hand, and finish what he'd started.

But he would keep his promise, and do what he could about Lisa and Ben. He took wing, heading for the Black Hills Forest and calling for Balthazar. They arrived at nearly the same time.

"Find what you needed?" Balthazar asked.

Castiel nodded absently. "Yes, I have a lead on someone who's actually traveled through a portal from Purgatory."

Balthazar raised his brows. "Jolly good, then."

Castiel shook his head. "Balthazar, I need your help. Crowley took Ben and Lisa, people close to Dean, and is holding them hostage. I promised Dean I would get them back."

Balthazar's mouth slackened in dismay. "For the love of- I didn't think they'd actually call you, considering."

Castiel furrowed his brow. "You knew? Is that what the Winchesters summoned you for?" Why hadn't Balthazar told him? The blatant mistrust was yet another blow to his confidence. He'd thought Balthazar was wholeheartedly on his side.

The other angel took a step forward earnestly. "Cas, you can't afford to be distracted right now. And look, this way the Winchesters will be kept too busy to muck things up. This Ben and Lisa will be returned safe and sound afterward, right?"

That's exactly what Crowley had said. But he was a demon and not to be trusted. Not only that, but Castiel would not condone any innocents getting caught in the middle.

Castiel shook his head fervently. "No, not like this. Balthazar, you have to help them."

The angel scowled. "Bloody hell, you really want me to go back to those two howler monkeys and work with them?"

Castiel held back a frustrated sigh. "Balthazar, please. I can't find Purgatory and Lisa and Ben, and I can't allow harm to come to them because of—"

Balthazar raised a hand. "Alright, alright. I'll find this Lisa and Ben. And you, focus. This whole crazy plan will be for nothing if you lose sight of the prize now."

Castiel set his jaw, and nodded. He would trust Balthazar to handle this. "Thank you."

"Yeah, sure," the other angel grumbled, and disappeared in the wake of wing beats.

Castiel took in a deep breath. He was close now. Just a little longer and it would all be over.


Balthazar stewed as he flew back to Bobby Singer's house, this time of his own accord. He couldn't believe he was actually going to help Sam and Dean. The bastards. The only reason he didn't turn sharply and head for Rome for some eleventh hour revel and debauchery was he wasn't doing this for them; he was doing this for Cas. That was the one person in the entire universe Balthazar didn't want to let down. Even if part of him thought it would serve them all right for the Winchesters to be left hanging.

He appeared in the kitchen of the old house just as Sam Winchester was pouring himself a glass of whiskey.

"Drinking your feelings, Sam?" Balthazar said when the hunter turned around. Sam gaped at him in shock. "I thought that was your brother's bag."

The younger Winchester glanced at the drink in his hand and cocked his head. "Stressful times," he said, and took a swig.

Balthazar spread his arms. "Well, lay all your worries to rest, because I'm here to help." God, it felt like swallowing shards of glass to say that.

Sam furrowed his brow suspiciously. "You are?"

"Yes," he said, gesturing impatiently. "Fetch your brother, we need to talk."

Sam continued to regard him warily, but nevertheless set his glass down slowly and inched toward the side door. After he'd gone, Balthazar arched a brow at the abandoned drink, and took the few steps to snatch it up. He needed something to wash down the rancor taste of humility coating his mouth. Balthazar took a sip and grimaced. Ugh, that was so far from the good stuff, it should've been used for lighter fluid instead of taking up space in a bottle. Still, better than nothing.

He cast an unimpressed eye around the faded wallpaper and cracked plaster as he continued to wait, and idly wondered where Señor Singer was.

A couple minutes later, the younger Winchester returned with elder brother in tow.

"What do you want?" Dean half-growled.

"Actually, what I want is to be drinking '75 Dom out of a soprano's navel," Balthazar replied flippantly, raising his glass. Sam's brows shot upward as he snapped his gaze to the empty spot on the table, then back at Balthazar with a constipated look of irritation. Balthazar ignored him.

"But instead I'm here," he continued, "offering my services to your plight." He waved one hand with a flourish.

Dean crossed his arms defensively. "And we should believe you why?"

"Would you believe I had a shred of decency?" he asked.

"No," Sam immediately said.

Balthazar shot him a wounded look. "Oh, that hurts."

Sam lifted his eyebrows sardonically.

Balthazar canted his head in acknowledgement. "Okay, you're right. Cas asked me to help."

Dean scowled and started shaking his head. "Then no, we don't need or want your help. You can be trusted as much as Cas can."

Balthazar shrugged and set the glass back on the table. "Fine by me. I have better things to do."

"Wait!" Sam said, throwing his brother a pointed look. He huffed out a breath as he glanced back at Balthazar. "Cas had nothing to do with Ben and Lisa getting taken?"

Balthazar rolled his eyes. "Of course not. And I'm offended on his behalf that you assumed he was. Though…" He narrowed his gaze shrewdly at them. "I am curious which one of you ended up reaching out to him."

Dean's brows furrowed in confusion, while Sam's throat bobbed and he flicked a nervous glance at his brother. Dean caught the look, however, and his eyes darkened with accusation.

"How enlightening," Balthazar remarked.

"You know what, no," Dean snapped, jabbing an angry finger at both of them. "Stop trying to defend Cas. He teamed up with Crowley, which means whatever that demon does, Cas is a part of it!"

"I suppose every less than standup thing you do is Sam's fault as well?" Balthazar rejoined. "Oh, and when Sam here plotted to kill your surrogate father, Bobby Singer, you get full credit for that too?"

The younger Winchester blanched at that, but Dean's face only reddened.

"So you admit that what Cas is doing is wrong."

Balthazar felt fire curdling his insides again. This was quickly heading toward turning from a rescue mission to an annihilation. "What he's doing is dangerous," Balthazar corrected darkly. "Swallowing a million nuclear reactors? These things can get a bit Chernobyl, you know?"

Sam sputtered incredulously. "Then why are you helping him?"

"To make sure that doesn't happen!" Balthazar seethed. "You think he wanted to work with Crowley? The demon is a means to an end. And Cas understands the risks, which is why he's gonna need help and support to ensure things don't go wrong. You two might try that some time, rather than automatically lumping Cas in with a demon."

"So Ben and Lisa getting taken is supposed to be things not going wrong?" Dean glowered.

Balthazar pursed his mouth. "Eh, touché on that one."

Dean shook his head heatedly. "As far as I'm concerned, Cas knew he was making the wrong decision, and he chose his side. So we'll do what we have to."

Balthazar scoffed. "Like you two haven't worked with a demon or two before."

"That was different."

He threw his arms up. "How? You justified it for the greater good at the time, didn't you? Well, winning the war against Raphael is the greater good at the moment."

"Get out," Dean snarled.

"Dean, no," Sam gasped, and turned a pleading gaze on Balthazar. "Can you help us find Lisa and Ben?"

Balthazar took a moment to calm his breathing. "Yes, though the more relevant question now is am I still willing to?"

Sam's eyes widened with borderline panic, seeming to care about this outcome more than Dean, whom these people were supposedly "very important to." But even Balthazar wasn't callous enough not to notice the roiling emotions swirling in the depths of the elder Winchester's eyes. Dean was just pouring every ounce of strength into concealing it.

Balthazar sighed in resignation. "Which I am. For reasons I can't fathom, Cas still cares about you two schmucks. So, voilà. Consider me the helpful ace up your sleeve."

Sam looked markedly relieved. A muscle in Dean's jaw jumped, but he didn't continue railing on Cas, so Balthazar could probably get through this without smiting him.

"Oh, and I already found your friends," he informed them. "Uh, took a while. Crowley's a clever one."

Dean's tough exterior finally cracked. "You found them?" he asked almost desperately.

Balthazar hesitated. "Well," he hedged. "The upside is yes. Uh, the downside is no, I can't get them for you."

"Why not?" Sam asked.

"Because Crowley's angel-proofed the whole bloody building," he said with a scowl. Otherwise, Balthazar would have swooped in and out and not have had to deal with this aggravating conversation. "I guess he doesn't trust Cas. Seems that marriage is going swimmingly."

In truth, Balthazar was concerned about what the fallout from that would be once Cas accomplished his task. One thing at a time, though.

"Okay, well get us as close as you can," Dean said, completely throwing his attention into the prospect of a rescue.

Balthazar nodded. "Sure."

It wasn't his first choice, but he had promised to help them. He hoped Cas was making progress and not fretting over this instead. Because Balthazar had enough to worry about at the moment.

Chapter Text

 

 

Dean hated traveling by angel, even more so when it was this angel. It irked Dean that he even needed Balthazar's help to begin with because Cas was a lying, two-faced son-of-a-bitch. He didn't care that Cas denied having anything to do with Ben and Lisa's abduction; the angel had secretly been working with Crowley for the past year, so nothing he said mattered at this point.

And that did not make Dean's gut twist with anguish. No, like he'd said, Cas had made his choice, had decided to spit on their friendship and ally himself with a demon. What point was there in shedding any tears over it? And if anything happened to Lisa or Ben…not even Heaven would be able to hide Cas from Dean's vengeance.

Dean swayed as he suddenly found himself standing in a deserted street outside an old, decrepit building. The nearby street lights were burnt out, though whether that was from neglect or the angel's arrival, Dean didn't know. Didn't care.

"Alright, boys," Balthazar said. "You have to disable the warding if I'm gonna be able to get in there and help."

"Right," Sam said, squaring his jaw and scrutinizing the place. Dean hiked his duffel bag of weapons higher on his shoulder.

"Well." Balthazar glanced at the building. "God be with you and what have you."

Dean pulled out Ruby's knife and crossed the street, Sam at his side. Everything seemed quiet.

A door suddenly opened and a guy Dean could only presume was a demon stepped out, taking up a watch position. Dean silently passed the duffel to his brother before ducking through a broken gap in the fencing. He crept up behind the demon, the shroud of night concealing him, and lunged the last few feet to stab him in the chest. Orange lightning flashed throughout the guy's skeleton as he let out a dying groan. Dean shoved the body over the gate to where Sam was on the other side. His brother quickly stuffed the corpse out of sight and then carefully lifted the latch to let himself in.

Dean turned toward the door and eased it open. Inside was dark and dank and equally still. He swept inside. Sam had pulled out a shotgun from the weapons bag, which he now passed back to Dean.

"Alright," Dean said in a hushed voice. "Be careful."

Sam nodded, and headed off solo to find and disable that angel warding. Dean turned and cautiously descended a set of stairs. The place was huge and like a labyrinth, with staircases leading up and down and across the upper levels. Dean didn't run into any more demons, though, which he couldn't say was a good thing or not. He hoped Lisa and Ben were actually here, and that this wasn't some elaborate ploy Cas had cooked up to keep him busy.

He wove his way through darkened passages, carefully stepping over debris so as not to give away his presence. He finally spotted two demons pass between corridors up ahead, and Dean quickened his pace to follow. Peeking around the corner, he watched them head through a door at the end of the hallway, which had a sentry stationed just outside it.

Dean swept into the passage and delivered a punch and successive kick before the guard could sound the alarm. Then he ruthlessly stabbed the demon with Ruby's knife.

He heard footsteps clomping up some steps from the other side of the door. Guess he hadn't executed that with one hundred percent stealth. Dean took a step back into the shadows and tightened his grip on the hilt. Let the bastards come.

The door squeaked open and then shut as the demon emerged. Dean lunged forward and knocked him down with one sucker punch, reducing him to a groaning lump on the floor. Then he moved in for the kill. There was at least one more demon inside that room, maybe more. Dean pressed himself against the wall once more and waited.

Sure enough, footsteps echoed from within again. Dean waited until two demons emerged this time, and then he leaped forward, planting his foot in one demon's chest and thrusting him back through the creaky wood. The door shattered. Dean slammed the other demon against the doorjamb and swung his arm up to stab him.

The guy caught his arm and drove him back, but Dean twisted out of the hold and rammed the blade into his chest. The demon let out a gasp and jerked away. Orange light flickered from the wound as he staggered back toward the stairs. Dean followed and gave him one last kick that sent him falling through a rotted out banister. Dean pulled up short as he caught sight of Lisa and Ben sitting on the floor in the dungy chamber, hands tied behind their backs to a post, eyes wide as they gazed back up at him.

He hurried down the rickety steps, pausing to pull Ruby's knife from the demon, and moved toward them.

"Oh, Dean, thank God," Lisa breathed.

"Still gotta get you out of here." There could be more demons in this massive place. He moved behind the pillar and cut Lisa's bonds first, then Ben's. Then he put his arms protectively around the kid's shoulders and started guiding him toward the exit. "Alright, Ben, c'mon, let's go. Let's go."

Dean was scanning the room for attacks, and was completely caught off guard when Lisa suddenly wrenched Ben away and snatched the knife from Dean's relaxed hand. Dean spun around just as Lisa put the blade to Ben's neck.

"Brat's not going anywhere," she said. "And neither am I." Her eyes flicked black, and Dean's stomach lurched. No

Ben was staring in wide-eyed fear and stupefaction at his mother as she held him tightly like a body shield.

"Crowley thought you might come," the demon said. "So he had me jump this hot little piece of ass for insurance. Can't go losing our leverage now, can we?"

Ice cold fury washed through him, and Dean took a menacing step forward.

The demon backed up, taking Ben with her. "Ah. Another step. Free appendectomy," she warned. Her eyes flicked back to normal and she glanced at Ben. "You know she's awake in here, your mom. I can hear her thinking."

"Don't listen to her, Ben," Dean said sternly. He had to do something…dammit, where the hell were Sam and Balthazar?

"What? I was just gonna tell him that you're his real daddy."

Dean's jaw went slack. What…?

The demon chuckled. "Just kidding." She glanced at Ben again, tone turning hard and brutal. "Who knows who your real dad is, kid. Your mom's a slut."

"You shut your mouth," Dean snarled.

"Oh what, you're her white knight now?" the demon scoffed. "She wishes she never met you, Dean. You're the worst mistake she ever made."

Dean's chest constricted, even though he knew the demon was just trying to mess with him.

She angled a pitying look at Ben. "Second worst, after keeping you."

Bile rose in the back of Dean's throat. "It's not your mom, Ben. She's lying," he urged. He would not let this piece of filth torture them like this. Sammy, come on.

"Says the C-minus lay with ten miles of daddy issues," she quipped. "Whatever gets you through the night, Tiny Tim."

Dean surged forward, but the demon retreated and shot him a warning glare.

"Uh uh. Back off, cowboy." She leaned in to whisper in Ben's ear. "You know she's begging me to kill you. She says you hold her back. Never had a lick of fun since you were born."

Dean clenched his jaw. He hated the demon trying to pour poison into Ben's ear, but he'd take the distraction. Slowly, he reached behind him to pull a flask of holy water from his back pocket. This ended now.

"Ben, look at me," Dean commanded, exuding every ounce of calm and confidence he knew the frightened kid needed. "Look at me."

Ben wrenched his terrified gaze from his mom's.

Dean nodded reassuringly. "You're gonna be just fine." He threw the holy water in Lisa's face.

She screamed, letting go of Ben.

Dean reached for the kid and pulled him away, then pushed him toward the staircase. "Go!"

The demon in Lisa snarled and lunged at Dean with the knife. He caught her wrist and swung her around, slamming her against the wall. Torquing her wrist, Dean made the knife drop from her fingers to clatter on the floor. He kicked it out of the way.

"Ben, knife!" he shouted, realizing the kid was still here.

The demon shoved him away, and Dean stumbled to regain his balance.

"What's the matter, Dean?" she taunted. "Hit me! Oh, you don't wanna hurt poor Lisa." She chuckled.

Dean put the flask of holy water away and held out a hand to ward her off. "Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus," he started.

The demon flinched, and then charged forward. "Shut your mouth." She threw a right hook that sent Dean backwards. He caught himself on the edge of a metal table.

"Omnis satanica potestas," he continued desperately. "Omnis incursio infernalis adversarii, omnis congregatio et secta diabolica, ergo draco maledicte…"

The demon was panting now, eyes flashing with rage. She surged forward again and grabbed Dean's throat. He shot a hand up to grip her wrist, trying to loosen her hold.

"Ecclesiam," he ground out.

"Stop it," she seethed.

"Tuam."

"I'm warning you."

Dean glowered smugly at her. "You can go to hell, you black-eyed bitch."

She suddenly reached past him to snatch something off the table, and then let him go. Dean held his throat as he gasped, and stared in bewilderment as the demon held up a straight razor blade.

"You sure about that?" she asked. She stabbed the blade into her stomach.

"Mom!" Ben shouted.

Dean staggered in shock and horror.

The demon yanked the razor out with a squelch. Thick globs of blood were already soaking through her blouse. "Exorcise me now. She's just a dead meatsuit. Now what was it you wanted to say?"

Dean could only stare at the growing blood stain. His throat tightened, threatening to close off completely under the deluge of grief. He glanced at Ben, who looked to him as though Dean had the power to fix it, to still save them. His heart fractured.

"Securi tibi facias libertate," he continued, voice nearly cracking. "Servire te rogamus, audi nos."

The demon threw its head back as black smoke was expelled from Lisa's mouth, which was already coated in blood. Lisa screamed, and then collapsed.

"Mom!"

Dean shook himself out of his haze. "Lisa!" He surged forward and dropped down beside her. She blinked at him dazedly. Oh god… "Lisa. Here, put pressure on that, okay?" Dean whipped out a handkerchief and pressed it to the gushing wound, then placed her hand over it to hold it in place. She let out a pained moan.

"I know, honey, I know," he soothed. Dean pulled out his phone and dialed his brother. It went to voicemail. "Sam, where are you, dammit?" Dean looked around in growing panic. "Alright, Ben, we gotta get her out of here, okay? Ben. Ben?"

Ben didn't respond, just kept staring in frozen horror at his mom.

"Ben." Dean instinctively slapped the kid across the cheek to rouse him, not having time to consider the implications of such harshness. All he knew was they were still in danger, and John Winchester's training was kicking in.

"Hey! Listen to me, I need you to pull it together, okay? You gotta be strong. Your mom needs you right now. Go open that duffel bag, grab the salt gun. I gotta carry your mom out, so if anything comes at us, you shoot it."

"But—"

"Go, now!"

Ben was still staring at Dean with something like horror, but he nevertheless got up and hurried to grab the gun. Dean scooped Lisa into his arms and hefted her up, eliciting a groan. He looked around, worried more demons might show at any minute. He'd given up expecting backup from Sam or Balthazar, and hoped the dick angel hadn't had anything to do with that…

"Okay," he said to Ben, and nodded toward the floor. "The knife. Get the knife." Dean made his way to the stairs, Ben close behind him. "Alright, Ben. Keep your elbow in, gun tight to your shoulder and watch for the kick," he instructed.

As they emerged onto the first level, a demon came charging down from the second floor.

"Ben!" Dean shouted.

The kid took aim and fired. Dean rushed past, only to pause and look back to find Ben staring in shock at the dead body.

"Ben? Ben!"

"Dean…" he said, sounding far too young and vulnerable to be in this position, but Dean couldn't give him that allowance, not here when it was life and death.

"Come on, pull it together," he snapped. "Do you want your mom to die? Let's go."

They navigated their way through the labyrinth of stairs and corridors. Ben had to shoot two more demons who tried to stop them. They were getting closer to the exit, had to be, when Dean heard a pounding just ahead and a muffled voice yelling.

"Dean!"

He slowed down. "Sam?"

"I'm in here!"

Dean gently set Lisa down and inspected the container Sam was apparently trapped inside. He drew his gun and shot the lock off. Then he dragged the sliding door open with a screech, revealing his brother, who staggered out, somewhat disoriented. Guess that explained their lack of backup.

"Come on, we gotta get out of here," Dean said hurriedly. "Ben, give the gun to him." He went over to pick Lisa up again while Sam took the shotgun. Then they continued to make their way out of the building. Ben kept throwing looks over his shoulder at his mom.

"She's fine, Ben," Dean assured him. "She's fine. She's gonna be just fine." And maybe he was saying it as much to convince himself as he was Ben. Lisa's eyes were half-lidded, her weight growing heavier in Dean's arms. He could feel blood soaking into his sleeve.

"You're gonna be fine," he whispered to her. "You're gonna be just fine."

They finally burst out of the last door and onto the street.

"Balthazar!" Dean shouted. "Balthazar where the hell are you?"

The angel appeared in a rush of air. "Bloody hell…what happened to disabling the warding, you morons?"

"Just heal her," Dean snapped, and bent down to lay Lisa on the ground.

Balthazar, to his credit, didn't hesitate, and stepped forward with two fingers stretched out to touch her forehead. And just like that, the blood and stab wound were gone. Lisa's eyelids fluttered open, and she gaped at them all in shock. Dean nearly sagged with relief.

Ben threw himself into his mother's arms, and she clutched at him tightly. When she looked up at Dean, though, there wasn't gratitude or awe at him being their savior. There was fear. And Dean realized he was still covered in Lisa's blood.

A spiky lump settled in his throat, and he moved away to give them space. Sam and Balthazar followed.

"Well," the smarmy angel started. "That could have gone worse."

Dean snorted, and reached up a hand to rub his face, only to stop and stare at the crimson glistening on his fingers. He wiped his hand on his jeans.

"You okay?" Sam asked.

No, he was far from okay. What had gone down in there…what he'd done… Dean knew he'd done what he needed to in order to get Ben and Lisa out alive, and he wouldn't take it back. Hell, it wasn't even the wrong thing to do. But that didn't change the fact that his stomach twisted as he recalled Ben's expression. Dean remembered feeling something similar way back when he'd made his first kill. He'd been much younger than Ben, and had felt just as appalled and sickened. His dad had beaten the trepidation and squeamishness out of him, though. And Dean was a better hunter because of it.

But Ben wasn't meant to be a hunter. Wasn't meant to face the monsters in the dark and almost lose his mom to them. Dean didn't want Ben following in his footsteps. But as long as Dean was in their lives—or not, even just staying on the periphery as he'd been doing—this was the type of situation they'd inevitably be dragged into again and again.

Dean swallowed hard. He knew what he needed to do now.

He turned to Balthazar, clearing his throat awkwardly. "There's one more thing you could do for me."

The angel narrowed his gaze suspiciously. "And what is that?"

Dean glanced over at Ben and Lisa, huddled together in a dirty street, shaken to their cores by the horror they'd just experienced. "Erase their memories," he forced himself to say. "Make it so they don't remember tonight, nothing about demons and monsters…nothing about having ever met me."

Sam sucked in a sharp breath. "Dean…"

He ignored his brother and glared at Balthazar. "Can you do that?"

The angel regarded him seriously for a prolonged moment. Finally, Balthazar gave a measured nod. "Sure, I can do that."

"And take them home," Dean added. "Please."

Balthazar, for once, did not affect an irreverent attitude. He simply kept silent, and turned to walk over to Ben and Lisa. Dean watched them look up at the angel in fear. Balthazar crouched down, lessening his imposing stance. Dean couldn't hear what the angel said, but a moment later, Balthazar reached out to touch their foreheads. Their eyes closed, and Dean felt hot moisture gathering in the corners of his eyes. He looked away.

"Dean," Sam started. "You know, you've pulled some shady crap before, but this…" He shook his head. "Has got to be the worst. Whitewashing their memories? Take it from somebody who knows—"

"If you ever mention Lisa and Ben to me again," Dean interrupted, "I will break your nose."

"Dean."

"I'm not kidding." He turned his back on the scene playing out behind them. There were no sounds, no indications that anything was happening. But a few moments later there was a rush of wind, and Balthazar was standing before them. Dean jolted in surprise and glanced back, only to see that Ben and Lisa were already gone, presumably returned home safely.

Balthazar didn't say a word as he reached out to grip the Winchesters and return them to Bobby's as well. And then he left without even a goodbye. Not that Dean cared.

He didn't head for the alcohol cabinet, though he wanted to. But he didn't need to drown his pain; he needed to shore up against it, needed to steel himself. He'd never been good for Lisa and Ben, had dragged them into his world of hunting before and almost gotten them killed for it. They would have been better off having never met him. And now they were.

But even though Dean blamed himself for the horrors they'd been put through, another thing was blazingly clear.

He would never forgive Cas for this.

Chapter Text

 

It had taken some time, but Castiel finally tracked down the creature that had traveled to Earth from Purgatory back in 1937. Well, to be accurate, Bobby Singer had tracked her down while Castiel had secretly followed him. After getting distracted by Dean's plight and Crowley's perfidious actions regarding Lisa and Ben—Balthazar had been right, it had thrown Castiel off track—he'd returned to the mental hospital to question Westborough again. Castiel had sensed that the elderly man hadn't been completely truthful with him the first time. And he was correct, as he'd discovered when he'd found Bobby there, speaking with the gentleman. Castiel had remained invisible and listened in, and had noted with interest that Bobby seemed surprised when Westborough had shown the hunter a picture of his mother, almost as though Bobby recognized the woman.

And so Castiel had followed him to an isolated cabin in the woods where a woman Bobby addressed as "Ellie" admitted to being a creature from Purgatory. From there, Castiel simply bided his time. Bobby warned her that an angel was looking for her, but she refused his offer of protection—and refused to tell him how to open a doorway into Purgatory. Which suggested she would not be forthcoming with the information when Castiel asked. Still, he could not turn back now.

Bobby eventually left. Castiel waited, his thoughts constantly drifting to Dean and wondering whether they had found Lisa and Ben yet. He was tempted to fly off and check on them, but knew he couldn't allow his quarry to slip away. So he resisted, though it was difficult and left a hollow ache in his chest.

Night fell, and the woman exited her cabin and headed toward her vehicle. Castiel leaped the short distance to land behind her, disturbing the air as he revealed himself. She whirled, and he clamped a hand on her shoulder and whisked her away.

He flew to an abandoned masonry mill, actually on the other side of town from Crowley's lab, and deposited his captive in one of the hollowed out furnace rooms.

She staggered to catch her balance, then straightened with an unruffled air. "You must be the relentless angel," she sneered.

"And you are a creature from Purgatory," he rejoined with equal disdain. "I need to know how a doorway was opened to there."

She let out a derisive snort. "I would never tell the likes of you."

He'd suspected as much. "You told Bobby Singer you like it here," Castiel said, trying a new tact.

Her eyes narrowed. "How did you—"

"The archangel Raphael is plotting to destroy this world," Castiel barreled on. "And if you don't help me, he will succeed."

She scoffed.

Castiel took an imposing step forward. "You will share the information one way or the other. If you don't tell me now, the demon Crowley will find you eventually and torture it out of you."

She lifted her chin. "I am not afraid of a demon. Or an angel."

Castiel held back a huff of frustration. He wasn't getting anywhere this way.

There was a flutter of wings, and he turned to find Balthazar. Castiel's heart jolted with fear. "Ben and Lisa…?"

"They're fine," the other angel replied, flicking a questioning glance at Ellie. "Though it got pretty hairy there for a bit."

Castiel furrowed his brows. "So, they've been safely returned to Dean?"

"Erm…"

What relief Castiel had felt evaporated. "What happened?" he demanded.

Balthazar sighed. "Like I said, things got hairy. Lisa was wounded, badly. But I healed her, no worries. Dean was…rather upset."

"Dean Winchester?" Ellie interjected.

Balthazar arched a curious brow at her. "Well, honey, you aren't from around here." He canted his head thoughtfully. "Let me guess, came by way of Purgatory?"

Her gaze darkened. "Honey, you're playing with uranium."

Balthazar snorted. "Don't I know it."

"And I will die before I let you open that doorway again—"

Castiel lifted his eyes to the ceiling in exasperation, and spun toward her. She tried to jerk away, but Castiel touched two fingers to her head, and her eyes rolled back as she collapsed in a heap. He turned back to Balthazar.

"What happened with Dean?"

Balthazar scowled. "What have I told you about priorities?" He raised his eyebrows at Castiel's unyielding silence. "No? Fine. Self-absorbed Dean Winchester was so consumed with his own guilt and self-loathing that he asked me to erase Lisa's and Ben's memories of him altogether."

Castiel's tense jaw slackened in dismay. "He what?"

"Thought he was protecting them," Balthazar went on with a flippant wave of his hand. "Maybe he was, who knows. In any case, neither of them remember Dean, or all of the horrific events that happened to them because of said Winchester, including tonight. So they're safe, and Dean hates himself. Status quo restored."

Castiel was utterly stunned. He knew how much Lisa and Ben meant to Dean. That was why Crowley had targeted them, after all. For Dean to give them up like that, even if it was to protect them…it had to have been devastating.

Castiel grieved for the hunter's loss. Lisa and Ben, and the chance at a normal life they had offered Dean, was why Castiel hadn't turned to the Winchester for help in the first place. And now, even if they won the war, Dean wouldn't be able to go back to that life.

"Cas," Balthazar said sharply. "This was in no way your fault."

Castiel gave himself a small shake. "I know." He turned toward the unconscious Ellie. Dean may have suffered a grievous loss, but the Winchesters still had more to lose if Castiel failed.

He crouched down beside her and pressed two fingers to her forehead. If she would not tell him what he wanted to know, he would simply have to take the information. Castiel closed his eyes and sifted through her mind, pushing past decades of memories until he'd dredged up the one he needed. Then he pulled out.

Castiel stood. "The ritual needs to happen during the lunar eclipse tomorrow." Was it a sign from God that he'd discovered the information just in time? Surely if his father didn't want him to do this, he would have made it so that Castiel found out after their window had passed.

"I know what we need now," Castiel continued. "Can you return her to her cabin in Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest, Nebraska?"

Balthazar huffed. "I've become a glorified taxi service." He nevertheless reached down to grip Ellie's shoulder, and flew away in the next instant.

Castiel took wing toward Crowley's lab where he found the demon still idling time away. Crowley must not have heard that his hostages had been rescued. Good.

The Crossroads demon looked up expectantly. "Well?"

"I have the ritual," Castiel replied. He just needed to write it down so he'd have it right when the time came. "And the ingredients are the blood of a virgin and the blood of a Purgatory native."

Crowley arched an intrigued brow. "Really? Well, you have been productive." He straightened his suit jacket. "Now I suppose it's my turn." With that, he strode out of the room.

Castiel took a seat on one of the stools and pulled over a piece of blank parchment from a stack of ancient scrolls they'd searched early on, but which didn't possess the information they'd needed. He carefully transcribed the ritual he'd gleaned from Ellie's mind.

Once done, however, doubts began to plague him once more. The closer Castiel came to fulfilling his plan, the less opportunities he had to turn back, to tear it all down and find another way, just as Dean had said they could.

But Castiel had forever burned that bridge. Even if he backed out now and begged forgiveness, the Winchesters would not take him back, not even to work together to defeat Raphael. And it all came back to the fact that Sam and Dean didn't fully realize the true threat the archangel posed. They would continue to brush the problem off until it was too late.

And it was too late. Castiel had come this far, and he could not turn aside now. But he was not making one of the errors the Winchesters assumed he was.

Crowley returned, carrying a jar full of blood. "Your Purgatory power-shake, Monsieur," he said, handing it to Castiel. "Half monster, half virgin."

Castiel stared at the dark, viscous liquid. "Thank you," he replied quietly.

Crowley cocked his head. "You seem even more constipated than usual. Maybe get you some Colonblow?"

Castiel let out a measured breath, and lifted his gaze with staunch resolve. "I'm renegotiating our terms."

Crowley almost smiled. "Is that so? What terms do you propose?"

"You get nothing."

Crowley narrowed his eyes.

"Not one single soul."

Crowley stared at him as though not quite believing his veracity. "Can't help notice," he said, "seems a bit unfairly weighted."

Castiel didn't respond.

Crowley's tone dropped as he finally seemed to realize that Castiel was being completely serious. "Castiel. You wouldn't dare." The demon paced by him in growing agitation. "I brought you this deal!"

Castiel rose to his feet. "You think I'm handing all that power to the King of Hell?" He turned sharply to face the demon's back. "I'm neither stupid nor wicked."

Despite that the Winchesters seemed to think him so.

"Unbelievable," Crowley uttered under his breath. He whirled back toward Castiel. "Have you forgotten that you're the bottom in this relationship?"

Castiel, however, was not threatened by this simpering snake in the grass. "Here are your options. You either flee, or you die."

"We made a pact," Crowley pressed.

Castiel almost snorted at the ludicrousness. The demon had exploited every loophole in their "pact" that he could. Had tried to kill the Winchesters. Had kidnapped Ben and Lisa.

Crowley's nostrils flared. "Even I don't break contracts like this."

Castiel didn't relent. He knew, in principle, that the demon held the moral high ground here—how ironic. But then, Castiel no longer held out hope to survive to reap the consequences of something as trivial as breaking a contract.

"Flee. Or die," he repeated.

Crowley scoffed. "Boy, just can't trust anyone these days."

And then he was gone.

Castiel let out a resigned breath. Perhaps when this was all over, the Winchesters would realize he was not the monster they thought he was, and think better of him again.

But if not, at least Castiel could go out knowing he'd saved them.


Sam listened to the tortured screams emanating from the garage. Dean was back to capturing and interrogating demons, trying to find Crowley before he and Cas found a way to open Purgatory. And Dean was going at it with the same cold, calculating brutality as when Ben and Lisa had been missing. Sam was having more trouble stomaching it than he thought he would. Perhaps because he was still feeling somewhat sickened by Dean having Ben's and Lisa's memories wiped. Sam knew his brother thought he was protecting them; Dean always thought that keeping the truth from someone, when it was painful, was better than knowing. Sam disagreed.

But he knew not to bring it up with his brother again. Dean was hurting, badly, and his way of coping was to shut it down and throw himself wholeheartedly into a mission. Which left Sam to wade through the mire of his thoughts on his own. Thoughts that were now turning to Cas.

Sam had thought the angel had callously ignored his prayer, but apparently he hadn't, as Cas had somehow managed to convince Balthazar to come back and help them. And they had rescued Ben and Lisa. So Cas hadn't been behind their abduction. Sam had never fully believed he was in the first place. Cas may have been working with Crowley, but it wasn't because the angel was evil. He was just making some really bad decisions. And now that Sam had a little time and distance from the shocking revelation, he was able to look back on when they'd confronted Cas with more objectivity. And he didn't like what he saw.

He'd accused Cas of bringing him back soulless on purpose, and Cas's look of utter devastation made Sam's chest constrict. Of course Cas wouldn't do that on purpose. Yeah, he'd screwed up, big time, and had lied to them about it to cover his own ass. But he wasn't malicious. This whole thing with Crowley and Purgatory, Cas said it was to win the war in Heaven, to stop Raphael. It was still a bad plan, but Sam, Dean, and Bobby hadn't exactly handled it well themselves, had they? Because instead of trying to talk to Cas, they'd immediately trapped him in holy fire and lobbed baleful accusations and righteous fury at him. Sam remembered now how Cas had begged them to let him explain…and they hadn't.

Sam squeezed his eyes shut against a wave of shame. Yeah, Cas had screwed up, a lot, but so had they. He wondered if there was some way to fix it, but Sam knew with crushing despair that Dean would never be open to that. Not now, not after what had happened with Ben and Lisa. And Cas…what must he think of them? Trust had been broken on both sides.

But maybe there was still a way to repair it, to stop things before they went too far. As long as they already hadn't. Dean thought the only way to stop Cas was to treat him like an enemy, but maybe Sam could just talk to the angel, give him the consideration they should have from the beginning. Maybe Sam could talk Cas down and they could find another way.

He was just about to try praying to the angel when Bobby came marching out from the house.

"Cas got to Eleanor."

Sam's heart dropped into his stomach. Things were rapidly spiraling out of control.

Bobby banged the side of his fist on the garage door, and a moment later Dean came out.

"What?"

"Eleanor called, said Cas grabbed her," Bobby informed them. "She tried not to tell him anything, but said Cas basically ripped the info straight out of her head." His eyes darkened with barely contained wrath.

Sam frowned, not liking the implication Bobby was making but knowing better than to say anything that might be construed as defending the angel.

"Dammit." Dean spun around and slapped a palm against the side of the garage. "So it's happening. They know how to open Purgatory."

"Yeah," Bobby said gruffly. "But Eleanor said she got a sense of their location before she was knocked out. With that and her description, I found an address." Bobby handed a piece of notepaper to Dean, whose expression turned to steel as he read it.

"Okay then. We go in and stop them, whatever it takes." He stepped back into the garage for a moment, only to return with an angel blade in hand. Sam's pulse jumped.

"Dean, we know Cas wasn't behind Lisa and Ben. Yeah, we have to stop him from opening Purgatory, but he's not evil."

"Cas chose his side," Dean snapped. He nodded to Bobby. "Let's go."

Sam sputtered helplessly as they headed for the Impala parked out front. Was Dean seriously planning to kill Cas? Sam's throat tightened. What if Cas refused to stop? After all the mistrust and betrayal that had been thrown around between them, what if Cas didn't listen to reason? What were they willing to do to protect the world from getting torn apart by the power of those souls? What was Sam willing to do?

He hurried to catch up, having no idea what the answer to that was. They were a couple of yards from the car when a black cloud suddenly descended out of nowhere. It crashed into the Impala, lifting it into the air and flipping it. Sam threw himself to the ground to avoid getting clipped by the bumper. The car landed with a crash of crunching metal mere feet from them.

Dean scrambled to his feet, face livid. Crowley appeared out of thin air, along with a short black woman with an austere demeanor. Sam's heart leaped into his throat as he recognized Raphael's latest meatsuit. But what the hell was the archangel doing with Crowley?

"Hallo, boys," the demon greeted.

Dean raised his angel blade and started forward. Crowley merely snapped his fingers and flung Dean back onto the ground. The demon stalked forward. Bending down, he plucked the notepaper from Dean's hand.

"Well, well, well, I'm guessing this is where we'll find Castiel."

Sam didn't even have a second to wonder why Crowley needed to find Cas in the first place. Raphael took the paper with the address Bobby had written down, mouth curving upward at the corner.

"Bring them," the archangel commanded.

Sam looked up as the roiling maelstrom of demons swirled overhead, and then swooped down to swallow them all in a deluge of darkness.

Chapter Text

 

Castiel finished painting the requisite symbol with the blood mixture that would channel the portal to Purgatory. The sun had set and the moon had risen, and in a few moments, the earth would pass between the two celestial bodies, eclipsing the smaller satellite in its shadow.

Balthazar stepped up behind him. "Well, then, seems we're ready," he said grimly.

Castiel swallowed hard. "Balthazar," he started. "There's one last thing." He turned to face his brother. "After we return the souls…you understand I won't be in any state to return to Heaven. Our followers will need your guidance to resolve any lingering quarrels, and to begin repairs."

Balthazar let out a small snort. "And leave you to recover here alone? Defenseless? Oh yes, that's bloody brilliant." He shook his head. "Everyone can get on fine by themselves for a bit until you're ready to go back and lead them."

Castiel's heart constricted. That had been the original plan, but…absorbing that many souls, the power would be immense. It would push Castiel to the brink of his capacity…and he was already incredibly weary, worn down by the events of the past week. His spirit had suffered several crushing blows, and he knew now that it would take everything within him to simply not go nuclear.

"Balthazar," he tried again, voice turning more gravelly with heavy emotion. "Returning the souls will possibly kill me. But if it doesn't…" He slowly withdrew his angel blade and held it out, hilt first.

Balthazar stared at it blankly for a moment before his eyes widened.

"I need you to do this for me," Castiel pressed.

"Are you out of your bloody mind?" he hissed. "No!"

"The condition I'll be left in if I survive…please, brother. It would be mercy."

Balthazar took an earnest step forward, refusing to take the blade. "If you're not strong enough, then don't do it!"

"This is the only way to defeat Raphael."

"Raphael can go screw himself! And so can the Winchesters." Balthazar's eyes blazed with fear, and he reached out to grip Castiel by the shoulders. "Don't sacrifice yourself like this."

"It's not just for them," he argued. "This is for the world. For humanity. For all angels who will be subjugated under Raphael's tyranny." Castiel raised his other arm to return his brother's grip. "This is for you."

"And if you explode?" Balthazar countered. "You're risking taking a substantial chunk of the planet along with you."

It was a reasonable concern, but Castiel knew he could do this. The alternative just wasn't an option.

"I can hold it long enough. We have everything we need to open the portal a second time and return the souls. We can do this, Balthazar." Castiel squeezed his arm. "But I need you to assume my place in Heaven afterward."

"Now I know you've gone completely insane. Leave the state of Heaven's affairs in my hands?" He scoffed. "How do you know I just won't raid the vaults a second time?"

Castiel canted a wry look at him. "Because, just as you have done for me, I, too, have faith in you."

Balthazar wrenched away, turning to face the wall as waves of anguish radiated off of him. Castiel hated to do this to him, but there was no other choice. He felt regret that there would be no one to watch over the Winchesters afterward, and Castiel knew better than to ask that of Balthazar. Besides, with Raphael defeated, Sam and Dean would no longer face any threats from Heaven. And that was enough.

Taking a deep breath, Castiel steeled himself to embrace his bitter fate. He picked up the parchment with the ritual, and began to recite it. The words tumbled from his lips like stones, paving the way to his destruction. The floor and walls began to shake, and the blood-painted symbol began to glow. Castiel felt the air pressure increase, the currents displacing as the portal opened its maw wide.

The last line of the ritual would summon the souls, empty Purgatory's lands and funnel each and every one into Castiel's vessel. He plowed forward.

Blazing light exploded from the portal, and shot out in a gushing column, straight toward him. Castiel was nearly thrown back at the impact, but he held his ground and gritted his teeth as the souls poured into him. Their power swelled, burning like the sun until Castiel thought he might melt under their fusion. He focused on containing them, on keeping them constrained within the bounds of his will. The pressure in his head increased as the stream of souls showed no sign of letting up. Castiel clenched his fists so tight his nails dug into the flesh of his palm. And still he held fast.

After what felt like forever, the geyser cut off, and the last of the souls slurped into Castiel's vessel with a snap and pop. The sudden darkness left him momentarily blind, everything inside him on fire.

Castiel staggered, nearly dropping to his knees, but Balthazar caught him by the arms and held him up.

"Cas?" the other angel called, his voice sounding muffled. There was a vibrating thrum in Castiel's head that almost drowned out everything else.

"I can feel them," he gasped. "They're all inside me. Millions upon millions of souls." He groaned and flinched under the battering maelstrom of their power. "Ungh, their hunger, their thirst for blood…it's…so strong." They were calling out for violence, all those monstrous creatures. They craved it like mortal organisms needed oxygen. And they latched onto Castiel's anguish and despair, digging in their talons and feeding off of it, whispering to him of things like vengeance and satisfaction, urging him to give in and let them take it for him.

"Gain control," Balthazar urged sharply.

Castiel squeezed his eyes closed and nodded jerkily, focusing on pushing the voices down. "I'm alright," he finally grunted. Slowly, he managed to straighten. Balthazar regarded him warily.

Castiel sucked in a sharp breath, and squared his shoulders. He could do this. He was a soldier.

Balthazar let out a stressed huff. "Guess it's time to call out dear Raphael."

Castiel nodded, and was about to do so when the windows suddenly rattled and the building gave a violent shake.

"Castiel," Raphael's voice reverberated overhead like thunder.

Balthazar raised his eyebrows. "Or, you know, we could do this instead."

Castiel frowned. How had Raphael found them?

"I have your favorite pets," the archangel continued, and Castiel's heart clenched with terror. "Bring me the ritual and the blood."

"Oh, bloody hell," Balthazar cursed. He grabbed Castiel's shoulder and leveled a severe look at him. "Do not get distracted. If you don't finish this now, we all die."

Castiel nodded gravely. "I will finish it," he promised. The souls inside him hummed in response. He clasped Balthazar's shoulder. "Get the Winchesters to a safe distance."

The other angel scowled, but gave a clipped nod.

Castiel's jaw tightened, and he held out his angel blade. "It was an honor to fight beside you, my brother."

Balthazar's eyes darkened, and he looked as though he wanted to say more, but time had run out. With an embittered glare, he roughly took the angel blade.

Castiel turned his attention to outside, and flapped his wings. This would likely be his last act on this earth. He had better make it count.


Dean felt like he was being dragged through a swamp of cloying black gunk. It only lasted for a moment, and then he was thrown down onto some pavement and suddenly hacking up a lung as he fought to suck in oxygen. Meanwhile his stomach threatened to come surging up through his mouth. He heard the sound of dry heaves somewhere near him, and lifted his head enough to see Sam and Bobby also on the ground, complexions shifting between white and green.

Dean craned his neck around, wondering where the hell they were. It looked like the middle of nowhere, except there was an old facility, maybe a mill, directly to their right. Hadn't the address Bobby traced Cas to been an old masonry place or something?

There was a flutter of wings, and Raphael appeared standing over them, along with Crowley.

Dean rolled over with a groan and attempted to push himself up. He'd been divested of his weapons and didn't stand a shot against these two, but he'd be damned if he just laid down and accepted defeat.

"Since when are you butt-buddies with Raphael?" he grunted at Crowley.

"Since Castiel reneged on our deal," the demon replied.

Dean stilled. For a split second, he wondered—dare he say even hoped—that Cas had come to his senses and changed his mind about popping Purgatory. But realistically Dean knew that wasn't the case. Eleanor's news and the fact that Cas was out here in this secluded area meant he was still hellbent on his plan to swallow those souls. He'd probably just gone power mad and decided to keep them all for himself.

Sam also pushed himself upright. "Consorting with demons," he scoffed at the archangel. "I would've thought that was beneath you."

"Heard Castiel was doing it. Sounded like fun," Raphael replied.

Yeah, great job teaching the angels free will, Cas, Dean thought sourly.

"You know Raphael's gonna destroy you first chance he gets," Sam said to Crowley.

The demon slipped his hands into his pockets casually. "We have a deal. An agreement I'm sure he, she, knows how to uphold. Unlike someone else I could mention." Crowley shrugged. "Guess I should've seen it coming." He leered down at them pointedly. "Castiel so easily betrayed you, after all."

Dean climbed to his feet. Crowley arched an unimpressed brow at him, and with a wave of his hand, sent Dean sprawling on the ground again. He gritted his teeth, and glowered up at the demon.

"And the Apocalypse?" Sam threw out there, not rising above a crouch. "You change your tune about that, too, Crowley? Or does your agreement cover that?"

Dean shot his brother a sharp glare. Seriously, what the hell was he trying to get at?

Crowley gave Sam a simpering look. "I'm actually looking forward to a new world order." He pointed to himself. "New King of Hell—" he gestured to Raphael "—New God."

Raphael lifted his, her, chin smugly. Dean gaped incredulously at the archangel. Great, Cas's power trip just had to inspire another dick with wings to go off the rails. He really was batting a thousand, wasn't he?

"We'll start with releasing Michael and Lucifer," Raphael said, turning to the Winchesters. "And you two will assume your rightful roles as vessels."

Dean's breath caught in his throat. They couldn't actually do that…could they?

Crowley blinked, and then slowly canted his head toward the archangel. "Ah, Lucifer?"

Raphael gazed back at him blandly. "Of course. I am a traditionalist, after all. But he won't win the fight. Michael will. Or, to be more accurate, they'll destroy each other, and then I will assume the throne." The archangel lifted his head, eyes gleaming. "So the Lord says, so shall it be."

Dean couldn't believe this. Was Raphael serious? Cas had said as much, but Dean hadn't thought…it'd taken sixty-six seals to release Lucifer the first time…surely Raphael couldn't just open the Cage…

"Earth will be washed away in fire and water," the archangel went on in a lilting cadence. "And every last soul will be sent to Hell. I don't want to clutter Heaven with their pathetic cries for mercy."

Crowley grinned. "And that, my friends, is the new deal."

Sam had gone white as he'd listened, and even Bobby looked frightened. Dean could barely breathe. This…was so much worse than the first Apocalypse.

"We'll never say yes," he snarled.

"I've been working on a way around that," Raphael replied, unperturbed. "Castiel was brought back inhabiting a vessel whose soul no longer resided in it. All I have to do is blow your mortal shells to smithereens, and then reconstruct them around the archangels already inside."

Dean exchanged a horrified look with his brother. This couldn't be happening…

Raphael canted his head thoughtfully. "But if that fails, I suppose I'll settle with eviscerating your friend ever so slowly until one of you gives in." He gestured at Bobby, who mustered a defiant glower in return. The archangel's lips twitched. "Or maybe we'll start with that, just for fun."

Dean's gut twisted. Oh god, why hadn't he listened to Cas? All this time Dean had thought the civil war in Heaven was more of a pissing contest than a battle to decide the fate of the world. Desperation had driven Cas to making that deal with Crowley…and now Dean knew why, could see for himself the horrifying future that Cas was trying to avert.

Raphael tipped his head back, and when he opened his mouth, his voice bellowed as though amplified from every direction. "Castiel. I have your favorite pets. Bring me the ritual and the blood."

Dean went rigid. No. If Cas opening Purgatory was a bad idea, Raphael getting his hands on all those souls was a thousand times worse. Dean had to hope in that moment that maybe…maybe he'd made Cas hate them enough not to care about what happened to them. That the angel wouldn't give in to the ransom demand.

Deep down, though, he knew with a surety that should have sustained his faith in the angel this entire time—that Cas would never turn his back on them. And Dean was proven right when the angel suddenly appeared in front of the doors to the mill. Cas stood as still as a statue, his coat billowing about him, though Dean vaguely noticed there was no breeze.

Dean tried to catch Cas's gaze, tried to silently tell him not to give Raphael what he wanted, but Cas refused to look his way. He stared straight ahead at the archangel and Crowley.

"Castiel," Raphael said. "Give me the blood and ritual, or I squeeze these humans until they pop."

Cas slowly moved his arm from behind his back, and produced an empty jar stained with smeared crimson. Crowley let out a soft sound of disbelief. Cas tossed the container through the air to the demon, who caught it deftly.

"I see," Crowley said. "So, Castiel, how did your ritual go?"

Cas closed his eyes, and then his entire body started to glow. The light intensified, drowning out the night until everyone in that lot threw their arms up to cover their eyes. Then it dimmed, and Dean had to blink white spots from his vision. His blood ran cold. Cas had done the ritual already. He'd swallowed the souls from Purgatory.

Dean didn't know whether to be relieved—or terrified.

Raphael snarled. "Give me those souls, Castiel." He whipped a hand out to the side, and Dean felt a pressure close around his neck. He gasped and shot his hands up to clutch his throat. Beside him, Sam and Bobby started choking as well.

Cas finally looked at Dean, and despite the power crackling just under the surface, his eyes were still the same wavering spheres of blue that had pleaded several times for Dean to understand. And he did, god, he did now. But he couldn't telegraph it with his face contorted in pain as Raphael choked the life out of him.

Cas turned his attention back to the archangel. "I'll give you the souls," he said. In a whoosh of wind, Cas vanished, only to reappear as he tackled Raphael as though in mid-flight. The two twisted into the air and then disappeared.

The pressure around Dean's neck let up, and he gasped and coughed. Crowley shot them all a scathing look before teleporting away. Dean scrambled to his feet. He nearly fell backwards again when Balthazar materialized right in front of him.

"We need to move," the angel snapped.

"What about Cas and Raphael?" Sam gasped, still rubbing his throat.

Lightning split across the sky above their heads, illuminating churning storm clouds that hadn't been there before. The hair on the back of Dean's neck stood on end.

Balthazar grimaced, craning his head back at the sky. "Trust me, we don't want to get in the middle of that." He gestured frantically for them to get moving.

There was only one road leading out of there, so that's what they started running down. Dean kept twisting his neck back and up to catch glimpses of a roiling sky as blue and gold lightning continued to fork across it. At one point, Dean thought he saw shadows of huge, colossal wings tangled in the broiling fumes.

"Keep going!" Balthazar shouted.

Dean almost tripped when he threw a look over his shoulder to find that the angel had stopped and turned back. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw a comet of blazing fire start plummeting toward the ground. His heart leaped into his throat, as he couldn't tell who it was. The body slammed into the nearby field with an explosive force.

Dean staggered and nearly lost his balance as the ground beneath him rocked. A wave of heat briefly buffeted his face, even at this distance. Fire and smoke rose into the night, mixing with the storm clouds. Balthazar had vanished.

"Dean." Bobby tugged at his arm. "Let's go."

Dean shrugged out of the older hunter's grip, only one thing on his mind. He sprinted off into the field, ignoring the shouts and uttered curses his brother and Bobby let out behind him.

Dean's boots pounded over the rocky ground. He scrambled up a small rise, and skidded to an abrupt halt at the sight of a crater forty yards away. A figure was stumbling out of it, suit burned and bloody. Dean sucked in a sharp breath.

Cas landed beside Raphael's disfigured form, squiggles of white lightning running up and down his body. He thrust one arm out, and a cascade of blazing power spurted from his palm, striking Raphael in the chest. The archangel threw his head back and screamed. The soul-powered lightning continued to gush in a steady stream, pinning Raphael in place. The archangel's face began to crack and glow, fissures running through his body. Then he exploded.

The jet stream cut off, but Cas was still glowing like a beacon enough for Dean to see clearly.

"Oh my god," Sam uttered, making Dean flinch. He hadn't heard his brother and Bobby catch up with him.

Cas suddenly lifted his head to look straight at them. In the next instant, he'd flown across the field to land in front of them. Dean staggered back a step, the electricity coursing over Cas charging the air with needling prickles.

Cas cocked his head at them, but there was something remote about his gaze now, something almost alien. "So, you see," he said tonelessly. "I saved you."

Dean swallowed hard. Something wasn't quite right. "Sure thing, Cas. Thank you."

Cas continued to gaze at him unblinkingly. "You doubted me, fought against me, but I was right all along."

"Okay, Cas, you were," Dean admitted. "We're sorry. Now let's just defuse you, okay?" Before Cas's attempt to save the world ended up destroying it.

Finally, Cas blinked, but it was with confusion. "What do you mean?"

Dean frowned. "You're full of nuke. It's not safe. So, before the eclipse ends, let's get them souls back to where they belong." Surely that had been Cas's plan from the beginning, right?

"Oh no," Cas said. "They belong with me."

Dean gaped at him. "No, Cas," he sputtered, "it-it's scrambling your brain."

Cas shook his head. "No, I'm not finished yet. Raphael had many followers, and I must punish them all severely."

No, no, no, this couldn't be happening.

"Listen to me," Dean said desperately. "Listen, I know there's a lot of bad water under the bridge, but we were family once. I'd have died for you. I almost did a few times." His throat still ached. "So if that means anything to you…please. I've lost Lisa, I've lost Ben. Don't make me lose you too." Even though Dean had made the mistake of pushing Cas away in the first place. "You don't need this kind of juice anymore, Cas. Get rid of it before it kills us all."

Cas gazed back at him blankly. "You're just saying that because I won. Because you're afraid. Like when you told me we were family after you'd tried and failed to ward against me."

Dean's chest constricted. No, he had meant it, he did mean it.

"So, you're not my family, Dean," Cas finished.

"But I am," an accented voice interrupted as Balthazar appeared out of nowhere. He held a wary hand out toward Cas. "And you promised me, Cas. Remember? You swore to me that you would return the souls once Raphael was dead."

Cas's brow furrowed a fraction. "But his followers…"

"You promised me," Balthazar pressed, taking a single step closer. "I stood by your side because I believed in you. Because we're brothers. Are you going to prove as faithless as Raphael?"

Dean glanced back and forth between the two angels, the static on the air wavering on the verge of exploding. Finally, after an excruciatingly long moment, Cas grunted and staggered back a step. The coils of plasma that had been coursing over him winked out. Cas squeezed his eyes shut and reached up both hands to clutch at his chest.

"Balthazar," he gasped, sounding like himself once more.

Balthazar surged forward and gripped the sides of Cas's face. "Cas. Cas! Listen to me. You can fight it. You will not go nuclear, do you understand me?"

Cas gave a shaky nod, even as he gritted his teeth. "Have to…put them…back," he ground out. "Hurry."

Balthazar nodded, and moved his hands to support Cas's weight as they started heading back toward the mill. Dean made a move to follow, to help.

Cas lurched away from him, knocking against Balthazar. "Stay away," he said harshly.

Dean stood frozen. Balthazar shot him a black look, and then continued to guide Cas out of the field.

Sam came up beside him. "Dean…"

He gave himself a sharp shake. No way was he turning his back this time. Dean squared his shoulders staunchly and followed anyway.

Chapter Text

 

Balthazar was half supporting, half dragging Castiel's weight by the time they staggered into the room where the portal symbol was. He could feel the power radiating off the other angel like a live wire threatening to electrocute him at any moment. It pricked at Balthazar's grace like barbs trying to snag and yank pieces of his essence away. Yet he refused to let go.

They shuffled over to the far wall, and Balthazar positioned Castiel in front of the symbol.

"Almost there," he said bracingly, even as his gut clenched with worry. Castiel's vessel was already breaking out in poxed lesions along his temples and neck, a sign that this physical body was rapidly deteriorating under the strain of containing too much power. If they didn't put the souls back now, that power would reach critical mass and take out half of the Northern hemisphere.

Balthazar hurried over to the brick work station where he'd left the ritual. "Still with me, Cas?" he called.

Cas swayed, eyes fixed on that symbol with pure strength of will and determination to keep him standing. "Do it," he rasped.

Balthazar started the incantation, and the rune began to simmer and glow. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the Winchesters and Bobby Singer enter the room. Dammit, they couldn't ever just take a hint, could they? But Balthazar couldn't stop reciting the ritual to tell the bastards to beat it.

He raised his voice for the last line, and then braced himself as the portal opened. A huge column of blazing souls shot out of Castiel and began pouring back into Purgatory. The Winchesters and their hunter pal pulled up short, raising their hands against the raging nova.

The torrent went on for several long moments as millions upon millions of souls were expelled from Castiel. Howling wind battered Balthazar's face, but he felt the sizzle coming from Cas steadily decreasing. It was working.

Cas suddenly jerked and staggered back a step. "Argh, Balthazar!"

He leaped to his brother's side and gripped Cas's arm, gritting his teeth against the surge of fire that speared through him at the contact. Live wire indeed. Cas struggled to lift a pained gaze to his.

"Le- viathan," he ground out. "They're…t-trying…to hold…on."

Balthazar nearly reeled as terror flooded through him. Not the Leviathan. He should have known…God had created Purgatory for those monsters. But it'd been so long since the angels had warred with the abominations, that Balthazar had all but forgotten the threat they posed. He was betting Cas had, too. Oh, how they would rue that oversight.

Balthazar tightened his grip. "Yeah, well, those bloody bastards can't stay." Wrapping one arm through Cas's, Balthazar planted his other hand on Cas's head and pushed a surge of grace into him. Cas squeezed his eyes shut and let out an agonized cry.

"Cas!" Dean shouted from somewhere behind them, and Balthazar hoped the idiot had enough sense not to get too close. Because if the hunter got caught up in this blaze, Balthazar wasn't going to save him from getting vaporized.

Cas let out a long groan as the rest of the monster souls continued to be purged from his body. Balthazar could feel the Leviathan clinging to Cas, though, refusing to be jostled loose. A guttural scream ripped from Cas's throat as one of the Leviathan suddenly slashed at him from the inside, trying to claw its way out. Even above the roaring tide, Balthazar heard flesh rend and tear. Blood started soaking through Cas's shirt. Balthazar gritted his teeth and poured more divine fire into the angel.

Castiel screamed again, but this time the Leviathan were shaken, and their essences were ripped out with the others. Cas started to buckle. Balthazar adjusted his grip, holding Cas up until the last of the souls were ejected. Finally, the tail end of the stream whooshed through the portal, and it closed with a pop, the symbol reduced to charred lines on a solid stone wall.

Castiel collapsed in Balthazar's arms. Balthazar sank to the floor, cradling his brother. Cas's face and neck were mottled with blood, and there was a huge crimson stain spreading across his stomach. Balthazar's heart clenched.

"You stupid, bloody martyr," he hissed, hot moisture pricking the corners of his eyes. Balthazar had never been moved to tears in his entire existence before this moment. He almost let out a garbled laugh; leave it to good ole Castiel to make him do things he'd never wanted to.

There was a scuff on concrete, and Balthazar whipped a scathing glare up at Dean, who was trying to approach.

"Is he…?"

"Alive? Barely," Balthazar snorted. "I hope you're bloody well happy now."

A muscle in Dean's jaw jerked as he glanced at Cas, and maybe there was similar emotion swirling in his eyes, but Balthazar could give a monkey's arse.

"I tried to tell Cas not to open Purgatory," the older Winchester started, voice rough. "He should have just listened to me."

If Balthazar didn't currently have his arms full with the one brother he'd ever cared so deeply for, he would have backhanded Dean across the room.

"No, you should have listened to him," he retorted. "Cas defeated Raphael, saved you two from playing puppets in the second Apocalypse. And he never intended to just let the souls stay out of their box. But it took everything he had to control them, and he was already stressed and worn down from you turning your backs on him." Balthazar shook his head in disgust. "If he'd only cared less about you two pathetic sacks of lard, or, here's a thought, if you'd bothered to stand behind him, help bolster him up, he might have found the strength to withstand their destructiveness!"

Dean's face drained of color as he stared back at Balthazar. Good, he hoped the Winchester felt guilty.

Sam stepped forward tentatively. "Look, we all made mistakes, okay? But what can we do to help Cas now?"

Balthazar looked away, gaze drifting down to his brother's lax face. He reached out with his own grace, ghosting over Castiel's. And Balthazar could have wept at what he sensed.

He bowed his head. "Nothing," he said in a low voice.

"Is he gonna heal?" Sam pressed. "Because it looks like he's still bleeding…did Raphael stab him with an angel blade?"

Balthazar angled his gaze down to Cas's stomach where the Leviathan had attempted to tear its way out. Almost on auto pilot, he moved his hand down to hover over the wound he knew lay underneath the blood-soaked shirt. But when he tried to pour healing into the rent flesh and muscle, it was immediately neutralized by the lingering radiation from all those souls. Balthazar curled his hand into a fist.

"His grace is shredded," he told them. "And his injuries are beyond my ability to heal."

Sam's brow furrowed. "What does that mean?"

Balthazar didn't answer. He knew what he had to do now. Castiel had made him promise, after all, had known that this was what was going to happen. The selfish bastard, leaving the cleanup to Balthazar like this. He wanted to throttle Cas for it, would go back in time and chew his idiotic brother out for going through with this stupid plan in the first place if he thought it would change Cas's mind.

But it wouldn't. All Balthazar could do now was grant Cas a merciful death. He owed his brother that much.

He drew Castiel's angel blade.

"What are you doing?" Sam asked in alarm.

Balthazar ignored him, and placed the tip over Castiel's heart.

"Stop!" Dean yelled, panic tinging his voice.

Balthazar glanced up balefully. "This was Cas's last request."

"For you to murder him?" the Winchester snarled.

Balthazar bristled with indignation that crackled the air. "He's not going to recover from this. And I don't want to prolong his suffering."

Sam sputtered at him in horror. "You don't know that. There's a chance he'll survive!"

Balthazar's jaw clenched. Yes, there was a chance…though it might be better if Cas didn't recover, as he would likely never be the same. Glancing at the wounds on Cas's face, Balthazar didn't know if he could put his brother through that…

"You can't just kill him!" Dean shouted, voice rising an octave.

It irked Balthazar how passionately they were suddenly defending Cas's life, when just a couple of hours ago they'd been hellbent on stopping him, at all costs, as Dean had proclaimed earlier to Balthazar's face.

"Can't the other angels help him?" Bobby Singer interjected, having been quietly observing up until now.

Balthazar shook his head, grief swelling up inside and threatening to drown him. "He's tainted by the leftover…radiation, so to speak, of the souls."

Dean suddenly stiffened. "Are you saying Cas is, what, radioactive?"

Balthazar scowled. "No. It's more of an…afterglow. Inert, but it'll prevent him from entering Heaven for…a while." Not forever, but long enough that Cas couldn't hope to find aid upstairs. "And Heaven will be in flux now that Raphael is dead," he continued. "Cas made me promise to return and help."

A lump began forming in Balthazar's throat, and his hand holding the angel blade began to shake. He steeled himself to hold it steady, to make it a clean death.

"We'll take him," Sam blurted.

Balthazar blinked at the younger Winchester, surprised by his vehemence. "Excuse me?"

Sam took an earnest step forward, pleading with his eyes. "Let us take him. We'll look after him and get him better. Just, please."

Balthazar glanced at Dean, whose expression was crushed by grief, emotion glistening in his eyes like when Balthazar had taken Lisa and Ben away from him forever. The angel looked at Bobby Singer next, but the grizzly man didn't seem to be holding back a protest. Balthazar wavered. He knew Cas's chance of recovery was slim, and that it would be a long and painful one. Cas hadn't wanted that. But Balthazar did not want his brother to die. And what was it Cas had been touting this whole time? Free will? Well, then Balthazar was going to exercise his right to choose. He lowered the blade.

"Alright," he said, lifting his gaze to meet Sam's resolutely. He couldn't believe he was doing this. After all the hostility and flagrant disloyalty, Balthazar was going to let these three monkeys try to nurse Cas back to health?

The younger Winchester cautiously came forward to crouch down next to Cas, and placed a gentle hand on the unconscious angel's arm.

"I'm entrusting my brother to your care," Balthazar said severely.

Sam nodded soberly. "He's our brother too."

Balthazar refrained from delivering a sarcastic retort at that. Now wasn't the time or place. Besides, none of that past mattered anymore.

"I'll fly you home," he said.

Dean and Bobby exchanged a look before coming over as well. With Cas in his arms, Balthazar reached around him to clamp a hand on Sam's and Dean's shoulders.

"Hold on to someone," he cautioned. "This might get bumpy."

Both Winchesters lashed out one hand to grip Bobby, the other holding onto Cas. Balthazar tried not to read too much hope into the gesture.

Flying with four passengers wasn't easy, but he managed to get them all safely back to Bobby Singer's house. Once there, Sam asked Balthazar to then transport Cas upstairs to a bed, which he was obliged to do. He was tempted to linger, to stay and make sure his brother would survive the night. Or at least make sure he didn't die alone.

But Cas wasn't alone. Despite the bad blood between them, the Winchesters seemed genuinely worried about Cas. And Balthazar intended to keep at least one promise this night, especially since he'd broken one already. So he took wing and headed toward Heaven.

And hoped he'd made the right decision.


Dean hit the kitchen and the downstairs and upstairs bathrooms to grab every piece of medical supplies he could find, and then headed back to the bedroom where Cas was. Balthazar had flitted off shortly after bringing them all back to Bobby's, which Dean was somewhat grateful for. Things were tense enough without the smarmy dick adding commentary and snide remarks every five seconds. And right now Dean needed to focus, because Cas was hurt, bad, possibly dying. If the angels couldn't even help him, Dean didn't know if mere humans could, but he'd damn well try.

He rushed back into the bedroom where Sam was already unbuttoning the angel's dress shirt to get the blood soaked article off. If Cas had been stabbed, there wasn't a hole in the fabric, which was weird. Sam pulled the edges of the shirt away, and froze.

"Oh god," he choked.

Dean stepped closer, and sucked in a sharp breath. That wasn't a stab wound. A huge gash bisected Cas's abdomen from his left lower rib to his navel. Tattered flesh framed the inflamed fissure, and Dean's gorge nearly rose as he thought he could see some of Jimmy's internal organs. What the hell…

"Balls," Bobby uttered. Dean hadn't heard the older hunter come in, but it snapped him out of his stupor.

The wound wasn't gushing blood anymore, but Cas's pallor was ghostly white, which made the red lesions covering the sides of his face and neck stand out in stark scarlet. Dean could see more peeking out from underneath the cuffs of the angel's sleeves. Who knew how much of the rest of his body was covered with them. But first thing's first.

"Bobby, grab the whiskey," Dean instructed. He wouldn't normally think an angel could be susceptible to infection, but all he knew was Cas wasn't healing and Balthazar said he was still irradiated, or whatever, so Dean wasn't taking any chances. He took a deep breath. "I'm gonna try to stitch that."

Sam threw him a dubious, almost scared look. Yeah, it wouldn't be easy. Hopefully Cas wouldn't wake up until it was over.

While Bobby went to fetch the liquor to disinfect with, Dean started setting out the needle and thread. Then he helped Sam get the trench coat, suit jacket, and shirt off of Cas, exposing his torso. The angel seemed so much…smaller, without the layers. They set about wiping the excess blood away and cleaning around the wound in preparation to stitch.

Bobby returned, amber bottle in hand, and Dean steeled himself. Picking up the threaded needle, he took up position over Cas, and nodded to Bobby. The older hunter tipped the bottle over the wound. Alcohol poured out across the gash, rivulets spreading out around the valleys in the tears. Cas made a strangled sound in the back of his throat, the first sign that he was, in fact, still alive, and while it made Dean's chest constrict, he was also glad for it.

"Sam, get ready to hold him if he starts waking up," Dean said, and bent to insert the first stitch. He focused on the practiced, methodical movements of the nip and tuck, letting his tempestuous thoughts fall away as he settled into a rhythm that could keep him grounded.

The wound started bleeding sluggishly again as he tugged at the edges, but Bobby was there with a cloth and more alcohol to wipe it away. A spasm ran through Cas's frame, and the angel let out a small whimper. Dean pressed on doggedly.

"His pulse is getting kinda fast," Sam said worriedly from where he stood at Cas's head, one hand on the angel's forehead, the other resting two fingers at the pulse point in Cas's neck.

"Almost done," Dean replied. He forced himself not to rush. Cas wasn't human; he could take it. He'd survived this much.

Dean finally placed the last stitch and tied the thread off, then straightened. His shoulders ached from holding such a rigid position for so long. Cas was even more white, almost gray. "Is he…?"

Sam looked up and shrugged one shoulder helplessly. "I don't know. I mean, he's still breathing. That- that's something, right?"

Dean ran his gaze over the unconscious angel. He could barely see Cas's chest rising and falling with shallow breaths, but then, did angels really need to breathe? Or maybe it just…helped, with his vessel so wounded. Though, Balthazar had said Cas's grace was shredded…did that mean he was human?

Bobby nudged him. "We're not done."

Dean gave himself a sharp shake. Right. The crash post-adrenaline rush was tugging at him, making his limbs feel weak, but he couldn't stop yet. He set a large piece of padded gauze across the stitched laceration and taped it down. Then the three of them set to cleaning and treating the leprosy-like lesions, bandaging them where they could. They even ended up removing Cas's slacks to tend the marks on his legs. When they were done, Dean retrieved a spare pair of sweat pants, which they wrestled Cas into. They left his chest bare, what with the bulk of bandages.

Dean took a step back and ran a weary hand down his jaw as he surveyed the angel. Cas had bandages wrapped around his neck and forearms too, and one gauze patch on his cheek. He sure looked like a radiation victim. Would he even heal from this? Balthazar hadn't thought so. Was the dick angel right, had they just brought Cas back here to prolong his suffering?

Dean shoved those despairing thoughts down. Winchesters didn't accept defeat, not even in the face of death. And Cas had survived dying before; he would come back from this too. Like a true Winchester, went through Dean's mind before he could think about it. His heart clenched in response. Right, because Cas was supposedly "family."

Dean thought back to that field when Balthazar was able to talk Cas down from going crazy with those souls. Cas came back from the edge because Balthazar was his brother and believed in him. Whereas when Dean had tried the same approach, Cas had coldly dismissed him.

"You're not my family, Dean."

Because Dean had trapped him in holy fire, had tried to ward against him, had threatened Cas if he didn't get in line and give up his plan for popping Purgatory. The angel had tried to explain about Raphael, but Dean had only seen red at finding out Cas had been secretly working with Crowley for an entire year, right under their noses.

Dean couldn't believe how dense he'd been. When Lucifer had been free, it was easy to see the ramifications and consequences for people as disasters and omens wreaked havoc across the globe. Raphael hadn't been as showy, though he'd apparently been planning quite the encore. Dean and Sam wouldn't have seen it coming until it was too late. And Dean had to admit that Cas's plan had worked; he'd defeated the archangel, and hadn't destroyed the world in the process.

As Dean gazed at his wounded friend, Balthazar's accusation echoed through his mind like poisonous barbs. If he had just trusted Cas, backed his plan as the angel had asked—begged for—several times, would Cas be as hurt as he was now? Would he have been stronger to endure holding onto all those souls? And was it really so much to ask for support, given how many times Cas had been there for them in the past, backing their crazy, harebrained ideas?

But Dean couldn't give him that. Why couldn't he have given Cas that?

Dean sank into a nearby chair and put his head in his hands. He had no idea how he was going to fix this. If he even could.

Chapter Text

 

Castiel slowly became aware of pain. Excruciating, all-encompassing pain. It filled his limbs with fire and lead, weighting him down as though bound by chains. He tried to move, but only managed a meager twitch which made agony erupt in his abdomen. A strangled keening mewled in the back of his throat.

"Cas? Hey," a disembodied voice floated somewhere above him. Why did it sound like Dean?

"Balthazar?" he croaked.

"Uh, he's not here right now." The air shifted, and a light touch landed on his shoulder. "Hey, can you open your eyes?"

Could he? It seemed an unusually daunting task. With great effort, Castiel cracked his eyes open—and stared owlishly at Dean Winchester. Dean, who was gazing back at him with something that looked like a mixture of relief and worry. But that couldn't be right. Castiel wrenched his gaze away to scan his surroundings. He was laying on a bed in a modest, albeit cluttered, bedroom. Was this…Bobby Singer's house?

Castiel's mind was foggy, and he didn't like the feeling. Something was wrong. He tried to sit up, only for fiery pain to jolt through his stomach with such ferocity that he couldn't hold back a cry.

"Whoa, easy," Dean urged, gently pushing him back down. "Don't try to move, okay?"

Castiel squeezed his eyes shut against another wave of pain. Once it eased slightly, he pried his eyes open again and lifted his head enough to glance down at himself. He was shocked to see the myriad bandages on his arms and chest, peeking out from a light blanket that had been draped over him. He felt the strange scratch of foreign fabric encasing his legs, and skin tape clinging to various parts up and down his extremities. Castiel reached for his grace, and his breath stole from his human lungs when he found it in tatters, sputtering specks like star dust scattered throughout the ruination of his vessel. He couldn't feel his wings at all.

"Where's Balthazar?" he gasped, chest tightening as panic threatened to overwhelm him. The restricted oxygen flow stirred a burning sensation in his lungs.

"He's, uh, in Heaven," Dean answered. "Said you made him promise to help clean things up after, uh, you know." He cleared his throat. "You kicked Raphael's ass."

Was that…awe, Dean was expressing? No, Dean was angry with him. And Balthazar was in Heaven, keeping his promise…

"I- I don't understand," Castiel said around a gravelly throat. "Balthazar was supposed to…"

"Supposed to kill you?" Dean snapped.

Castiel gaped at him. How had he known?

Dean's face twisted in a scowl. Yes, that was right; he was always scowling at Castiel these days. "You weren't dead yet."

Castiel briefly catalogued the traumatized condition of his vessel and his grace, and thought it would be better if he were. "Am I a prisoner now?" he asked resignedly.

Dean's expression slackened, and he immediately softened his voice. "No, Cas. We're trying to help you. Balthazar said that you can't go back to Heaven. Something about radiation from the Purgatory souls. And you're hurt pretty bad."

Yes, he was. In every way Castiel had feared and expected. Hollow disappointment squeezed his heart. "He didn't end it," Castiel whispered in devastation. His brother had abandoned him after all, in the end.

"No," Dean said, tone once again sharp. The fluctuation back and forth was making Castiel's head hurt. "I guess…he didn't really want to go through with it," Dean added, voice thick with emotion.

Castiel could understand that. If their roles had been reversed, it would have cloven his heart in two to have Balthazar ask Castiel to end his life, even if it was for the best. So Castiel couldn't blame his brother for weakness born out of love. But then there was the fact that Balthazar wasn't here, and Dean was…

"Why am I here?" Castiel asked.

"Like I said, you were hurt pretty bad."

"I know that. Why am I here? We did not part friends, Dean."

The hunter's throat bobbed. "I know. There's…there's a lot of bad water under the bridge."

Castiel furrowed his brow. Those words sounded strangely familiar, like an echo from somewhere. Oh, yes, from the field. Castiel had come so close to losing control, and he shuddered to think of the destruction he could have wrought if Balthazar hadn't been able to draw him back. Another black mark against him in Dean's book.

"We both made some bad decisions," Dean went on. "Neither of us listened to the other."

Castiel shut him out. He did not want to hear Dean berate him for his choices yet again. He had stopped Raphael and averted the Apocalypse once more; that was all that mattered. Surviving—if he could call it that—was an unexpected development, but one Castiel would have to come to terms with. He could barely move, which wasn't good. With his grace and wings inaccessible, he was nearly mortal. And stranded on earth. And in terrible pain.

Castiel squeezed his eyes shut against a crushing wave of despair. He didn't know what to do.

Two voices were suddenly warbling overhead.

"I'm pretty sure he's still conscious, but he won't say anything. I think he's in pain."

"We could try morphine. Though, I don't know how to calculate a dose for an angel." When had Sam come in?

Castiel forced his eyes open to find one Winchester on either side of his bed, looking down at him. Sam's brows shot upward when he saw him.

"Cas, hey. Are you okay? Are you in pain?" he asked, voice laced with what sounded like genuine concern.

Castiel didn't know how to answer. No. Yes. "What do you want from me?" he rasped.

Sam frowned. "Nothing, Cas. I mean, except for you to get better." He hesitated. "You are gonna heal, right? 'Cause, that wound looks pretty bad."

Castiel followed Sam's gaze as it flicked to his torso, and his stomach lurched with the memory of the Leviathan tearing at him from the inside. In his desperation to open Purgatory and harness its power, Castiel had forgotten how deadly those particular creatures could be, and was ashamed once again of his arrogance. Sheer luck had saved the world this time, not Castiel's own prowess.

He ghosted his fingers over the bulge of bandages under the blanket. The wound felt quite large. His heart suddenly seized. "The Leviathan, it tried to get out. Did it? Tell me it didn't."

Sam and Dean exchanged a quizzical look.

"Get out?" Sam repeated, and then his eyes widened in horror. "Oh god, you mean one of the Purgatory souls tried to rip its way out of you?"

Castiel's heart rate only increased with Sam's alarmed tone. "Did it succeed? I- I don't remember." All he remembered after that point was an inferno of agony swallowing him whole.

"No, Cas," Dean spoke up hurriedly. "All the souls got sent back."

Castiel dropped his head back against the pillow. Good, then his grievous error hadn't resulted in irreparable damage. Except to himself. At least that was fitting. He really didn't want to receive a lecture over it, though. He figured his current state was castigation enough.

"Can you summon Balthazar?" he asked.

"Uh, sure," Sam replied. "He implied he'd be busy in Heaven, but I bet he'd like to see you awake."

Castiel sighed. Balthazar would have his hands full restoring order and peace, and any disruption could upset the delicate balance he was trying to establish. "Never mind, don't distract him." Castiel considered his options. "There's a human service that sends a vehicle to your location to then transport you somewhere, correct?"

Sam quirked a bemused look at him. "Uh, a taxi?"

"If that's what it's called."

"What the hell do you need a taxi for?" Dean interjected, tone turning sharp again.

"To take me somewhere else," Castiel replied gruffly. He slowly started pushing himself up onto his elbows, gritting his teeth against every twinge and spasm that lanced through him at the minor movement. "Thank you for your care. I know it was the last thing you wanted to deal with."

Sam sputtered. "Cas, no, we wanted to help you. We had to beg Balthazar to bring you here so we could patch you up."

Castiel lifted a confused gaze to the younger Winchester. The Winchesters had…what? Why?

Sam tried to give him what he supposed was meant to be a small, encouraging smile, but Castiel did not feel reassured. He felt…empty, hollowed out. So, Balthazar would have probably gone through with Castiel's last wish, would have ended his suffering, if Sam and Dean hadn't interfered. They always interfered.

Castiel turned to Dean. "Is this retribution for Lisa and Ben? You wanted me to suffer as you've suffered?"

Dean stiffened, and his expression shifted through a myriad of emotions in a series of split seconds: shock, brokenness, and then settling into steely ire.

Sam had frozen as well, and was shooting worried looks between his brother and Castiel.

Castiel forced himself to sit up another inch. "I'm sorry for your loss, Dean, I truly am. I grieved when I heard what happened. But I wasn't behind them being taken, despite your belief that I was. So if it's alright with you, I would prefer not to stay where I'm so thoroughly hated."

Dean narrowed his eyes. "And where are you gonna go, huh? You've got no wings, no cash, and a friggin' split down your side that's gonna spill out your internal organs if you tear those stitches. Stitches I spent a friggin' hour putting in, by the way."

"I don't know why you bothered," Castiel muttered. The muscles in his arms were beginning to quiver under the strain of simply holding his upper half off the mattress. If he didn't leave now, he wasn't sure he'd be able to.

Castiel pushed himself up with a grunt. Searing pain exploded in his stomach, and he couldn't hold back a cry as he crumpled sideways. He started teetering off the edge of the bed, but hands grabbed his shoulders and rolled him back.

"I'll ask Bobby if he's got any morphine." Sam's voice sounded far away through the waves of pain cascading through Castiel. The younger Winchester cast an uncertain look at his brother, and then turned and disappeared from Castiel's line of sight.

He lay on the mattress, panting from the exertion his frail body had expended in trying to cope with the pain. Now he didn't have the strength to move at all. He was a wretched, broken thing, no longer an angel. Certainly not a hero. Castiel wished the Leviathan had succeeding in killing him.

"Don't you dare say that."

Castiel jolted, his breath hitching. Had he spoken aloud?

Dean lowered himself into a chair that was by the bed and scooted it closer. His eyes blazed with intensity, but not the scorn or condescension Castiel was expecting. "We do not give up in this family, so I don't ever wanna hear you say you want to die. You hear me?"

Castiel turned his head the opposite direction. Why did Dean keep torturing him with empty words of brotherhood and belonging?

"And I don't hate you, Cas."

He closed his eyes, trying to hold back the strange moisture pricking at them. "I betrayed you, Dean," he said in a wrecked voice. He heard the hunter let out a heavy sigh.

"I know you were desperate. I get it, man, I do. Hell, I've made deals out of desperation before. Saving Sam and selling my soul?" Dean paused. "And…and even though they turned out pretty bad…if I had to go back and do it all over again, I'd make the same call."

Castiel was beginning to feel strangely lightheaded. And cold. "The only thing…I- I'd change," he murmured. "Is t-telling you…first."

"Cas? Cas!"

Warm hands cupped his face, turning his head to the side. Castiel's eyelids fluttered in response. Dean's face was blurry, and Castiel tried to speak, but couldn't seem to muster the strength to manipulate his vocal cords accordingly. He couldn't control much of his vessel anymore.

The hands left, and Castiel's head lolled lazily. Something frantically flipped the blanket covering him away. "Dammit, Cas," Dean swore. "Sam!"

Footsteps pounded into the room. "What?"

"Son-of-a-bitch tore his stitches. He's losing too much blood."

Castiel vaguely wondered if that was a problem. It hadn't been when he was a fully powered angel, but now? Well, he was feeling rather strange. But the pain was more distant, so this seemed like a good thing.

Those calloused hands clasped the sides of his head again. "Cas? Cas, stay with me. Don't you dare clock out you son-of-a-bitch."

Dean was angry again. But it was a different kind of anger, the kind he got when he was scared. Castiel found himself wanting to reassure him.

He heard the tape and bandage get ripped from his abdomen, and he shuddered at the shock of cold air that washed over his exposed, raw flesh. Then something pressed to his stomach, and Castiel choked on a garbled cry.

"Easy, easy. We have to stop the bleeding."

"Dean, maybe we should start thinking about a hospital."

"And tell them what? He looks like a leper. They could throw us all in quarantine."

More heavy footsteps clomped into the room, followed by Bobby's gruff voice. "Here's some dilaudid, and a bag of O-neg."

"Where did you get that?" Sam asked incredulously.

"Put in an order to my supplier after we got Cas back here. Figured it couldn't hurt since we didn't know how human he was gonna be."

"Bobby, you are awesome," Dean said. "Okay, I think this is letting up. I'm gonna stitch again. Bobby, can you get that line in?"

"Already on it."

Castiel felt a pinch in the crook of his elbow, but it was minor in comparison to the fire still seething in his belly. He wanted to beg Dean to stop, to tell them all he was sorry, so sorry for what he'd done. To please let him go. If the words managed to get past his numb lips, he didn't know. The world around him muted and dimmed, and Castiel felt himself floating away.

He drifted for a bit, lost on a sea of blackness. It was peaceful at first, but slowly the waves began to churn and boil. Strident screeches cracked across the sky, and a susurration of malevolent voices gurgled in the deep, calling for blood.

He jerked awake with a gasp, only to find himself still in darkness. His pulse began to throb with panic, until he noticed the soft mattress beneath his battered body, and the faint moon glow drifting through the window. Not the dark abyss. Just night.

He turned his head, and tensed when he spotted a silhouette outlined in the chair at his bedside. But then his eyes adjusted and he relaxed. Balthazar.

"You know, you're quite the drama queen," the other angel began casually. "Everyone accuses me of having a flair for the dramatic, but you, you really like to overdo it on the near-death scenes, don't you?"

Castiel stared at him dumbly. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

Balthazar smirked for a split moment, but then sobered. "How are you feeling?"

Castiel turned his attention to his physical vessel. It ached dully, and his stomach was a blunt throb rather than the hot cinders from before. "Better," he said, not without some surprise. He was about to say his grace was returning, except a second look revealed it wasn't. It was still in pieces.

"Ah, yes, that would be the heavy duty painkiller," Balthazar said. "Good stuff, I hear."

Castiel frowned, and his gaze drifted to his left arm where a small cannula had been inserted into his vein. A tube filled with blood ran up to an almost empty bag hanging above the bed. It appeared he needed what he'd lost after all.

Castiel wrenched his gaze back to his brother. "What has happened in Heaven?"

Balthazar sighed dramatically. "Well, the fighting with weapons has stopped. The arguing, on the other hand…" He shrugged. "There's been some discord over how to proceed with restructuring Heaven's leadership. I'm not exactly everyone's favorite nominee, you know."

That was less encouraging than Castiel had hoped, yet not as disastrous as it could have been.

"I fear it will be a long time before I'm able to return," he said gravely. If ever…

Balthazar's mouth turned down. "I would gladly turn things back over to you if I could."

Castiel nodded. "I know, but I have faith in you."

The other angel snorted.

Castiel swallowed around a dry mouth. "Balthazar, I want you to take me somewhere else."

His frown deepened. "Why?"

"Must you ask? The Winchesters…I don't know why they've insisted on imprisoning me here, but I would like to distance myself from them."

Balthazar scoffed. "Imprisoned you? Goodness, you have been around me too long."

"Balthazar…"

"Where else would you go, Cas?" he said in all seriousness. "You can barely stand, and it's not exactly safe with Crowley out there somewhere, and probably not too happy with you."

"We can ward a sanctuary against demons—"

"That will hardly stop him. And how are you going to defend yourself?"

Castiel's jaw tightened. "I don't care." Let Crowley find him. He'd welcome a swift death. Though, realistically, the demon most likely wouldn't give him that. Crowley was a sadistic, vindictive being. Castiel sighed; his pain threshold was just wearing down, and with it his temperament and reasoning.

Balthazar's expression hardened. "Well, I do care. And as much as it pains me to say, those two neanderthals downstairs put a lot of effort into keeping you alive here, and I'd rather not undo all that hard work now."

Castiel clenched his fists in the blanket. "You shouldn't have let them try to save me in the first place."

"What can I say? I got bit by the free will bug."

Castiel closed his eyes. "Why are you doing this?" he asked, ashamed of the crack in his voice.

"Because you're my brother," Balthazar replied solemnly. "And while you may have saved the world and everybody else…someone needs to save you from yourself."

"I don't think I can do it," Castiel whispered.

Balthazar reached out to squeeze his forearm. "Cas, you just defeated the up and coming God and harnessed a power that would have splintered anyone else the instant they touched it. I think you can survive recovering from this." He hesitated, and flicked a glance toward the closed door. "But if you really want to leave, I'll take you somewhere else. Heaven can sort itself out without me."

Castiel opened his mouth to argue, but Balthazar cut him off.

"I mean it, Cas. You say the word, and I'll do it. But if you are stubbornly going to insist that I go back and help our family upstairs, then if I can't be the one to look after you, you can bet I'm leaving you with the two people on this planet who can. Just, uh, don't tell them I said that. Can't let them go thinking I have a shred of decency and all that."

Castiel felt despair pressing in upon him again. They were all against him, and he hadn't the strength to stand against them. He hadn't the strength to stand at all.

Balthazar cleared his throat awkwardly. "Uh, you know, for what it's worth, they seem genuinely committed here. They could have just taken off back at the mill, but instead they keep insisting you're family."

Castiel's heart twisted; he'd once thought the same. But he'd been burned too many times, and could no longer allow himself to trust it, to hope.

However, given his helpless state, there was nothing else he could do but rely on the Winchesters for their charity. Until they either changed their minds or he regained the strength to leave of his own accord.

Chapter Text

Sam leaned against the wall at the top of the stairs, waiting for Balthazar to come out of Cas's room. It was late, and Bobby had already gone to bed. Dean was downstairs, probably passed out by now after half a bottle of vodka. Sam really wished Cas hadn't brought up Ben and Lisa like that. The pain was still too raw for Dean, and while it wasn't Cas's fault, Sam wasn't entirely sure his brother knew that. But he knew better than to broach the topic with Dean, unless he wanted a broken nose.

He straightened when the door at the end of the hall creaked, and Balthazar stepped out, softly shutting the door behind him.

"He's asleep," the angel said quietly.

"Were you able to heal him any?" Sam asked. That had been way too close earlier.

Balthazar shook his head. "There's no miraculous healing for those wounds."

Sam had suspected as much, especially after he'd gotten confirmation from the British angel about how Cas had gotten torn up like that.

"So what do we do? Is Cas fully human? Does he need to eat, drink? Do we need to be worried about infection?" Sam clamped his mouth shut abruptly as Balthazar had started giving him an odd look. His heart stuttered with misgiving. "You're not taking him, are you?" He knew Cas wanted to leave, but if Heaven wasn't an option, where else could he go? Besides, if Cas left now, they might never get a chance to fix things between them all.

"No," Balthazar finally answered. "He's staying. Against his wishes."

Sam felt both relieved and disappointed by that, because this wasn't going to be easy. But it was a starting place. "Okay, good. And the other stuff?" They seriously needed to know just how human Cas was if they were gonna take care of him properly.

"He won't deteriorate without food and water," Balthazar said slowly. He cast a thoughtful glance back down the hall at the closed door. "Though, if you can convince him to take some, I suppose it might help ease some of the burden of maintaining his vessel, at least."

Sam nodded. They could do that.

"The pain meds seem to be working," Balthazar went on. "You'll have to watch him carefully, though; he won't admit if he's hurting, not even if it was unbearable." The angel let out a disgruntled snort at that. "Thinks he's a bloody martyr."

A lump settled in Sam's throat. "He's not doing okay, is he?"

Balthazar scoffed. "I'm sorry, did you expect that a bandaid and an apology were going to fix everything?"

Sam winced. No, he didn't think that. "I want to fix it," he said.

Balthazar shook his head in apparent agitation, and then froze, tilting his head up and touching his temple. He cursed under his breath. "Believe it or not, the choir of angels is ringing with more pathetic mewling than you and your brother. I swear I'm going to start the next war just to get them to shut up."

Sam gave a sympathetic grimace—though whether he sympathized with Balthazar or the other angels, he wasn't quite sure.

"I have to get back," Balthazar said. He took a step forward and jabbed a finger at Sam's chest. "Don't botch things up."

A few days ago, Sam would have made a biting retort about Balthazar's own reliability or lack thereof; now, though, he saw past the snarky facade to someone who was simply torn up with worry for his brother. Sam could relate. He gave the angel a resolute nod, and then Balthazar was gone in the wake of wing beats.

Unfortunately, Sam's promise was more easily given than kept. For one thing, Cas was not being a cooperative patient. When Sam brought him oatmeal the following morning, Cas rejected it, claiming he didn't need to eat. Sam had tried to explain Balthazar's theory that it could help maintain his vessel, which only seemed to vex Cas more, and he stubbornly turned away and refused to speak to anyone for the rest of the morning. After that, the wounded angel was stiff and curt at best, and belligerent at worst. Which made keeping an eye on him—something he definitely needed—less than pleasant.

A task that fell to Sam most of the time. Bobby took a couple of turns here and there, but he had a worse bedside manner than even Dean, who was pointedly avoiding all of them and sequestering himself in the garage to work on the Impala after Crowley's demons had trashed it. Sam knew it was his brother's way of coping, but he still resented Dean a little for leaving him to look after Cas alone. Especially since the angel wasn't making it easy.

Sam's own nerves were wearing thin, but he had to remind himself to take the high road here. Cas was in severe physical pain, and obviously some emotional too, and Dean was drowning in grief and anguish. None of them were in good places, and Sam thought if they could just start mending things, they could stop suffering in silence and solitude.

Again, easier said than done.

After tucking his brother in downstairs after yet another night of binge drinking, Sam headed upstairs to catch a few hours himself. He was just about to enter his room when a faint sound caught his attention. He paused, listening. The house was quiet.

Then he heard it again, a series of clipped moans and grunts. They were coming from Cas's room. Sam hurried down the hall, hoping the mulish angel wasn't trying to get out of bed on his own. Yet when he pushed the door open, Sam found Cas still in bed, the sheets tangled around his twisted limbs as he twitched and thrashed in the throes of a nightmare. A whimper sounded in the back of Cas's throat, which suddenly erupted in a gut-wrenching scream.

Sam surged forward. "Cas! Cas, wake up!" He gripped the angel's shoulders and tried to jostle him awake, mindful of his wound. Cas tossed his head back and forth and let out another cry. Sam risked giving him a rougher shake.

Cas's eyes flew open, wide and glazed with terror. Ragged breaths hitched in his chest, and he suddenly bolted upright to cling to Sam like a lifeline. "Sam?" he gasped.

"Yeah, it's okay. You were dreaming, Cas."

Cas darted his gaze around the room frantically. "It- it wasn't real?"

"No. Hey." Sam took Cas's face in his hands to anchor his attention. "It wasn't real. You gotta breathe, okay?"

"What the hell is going on?" Bobby muttered gruffly from the doorway, hair mussed from sleeping.

"Nothing," Sam replied, shooting an apologetic look over his shoulder. "Just a nightmare. I got this."

The older hunter grumbled something under his breath, and then shuffled his way back to bed. Sam turned back to Cas, and frowned at his gray complexion and sweat-dampened hair.

"I need to check your wound, okay?" he said, flicking on the lamp. Then he shifted on the edge of the mattress to pull the twisted bedcover aside and take a look at the bandage. There wasn't a red stain seeping through the gauze, but he peeled up a corner of tape to peek underneath, just in case. The stitches looked intact. Sam taped the bandage back and tried to straighten out the bedspread. The angel shivered, and his breaths were still coming a bit fast. Sam grabbed an extra pillow off the floor to help prop Cas up in a more half-sitting position.

"I didn't think angels could get nightmares," he said quietly, only to mentally kick himself; Cas wasn't exactly much of an angel lately.

Cas, predictably, didn't say anything.

"Want to talk about it?" Sam prompted.

Cas shuddered, and clenched his fists in the sheets. "No," he said, voice thick with an extra layer of gravel to it.

"Okay." Sam didn't move. He waited while Cas's breathing gradually evened out, though the angel wasn't looking much better for it. He still seemed shaky, maybe from shock, or the cold, Sam couldn't be sure.

He started tugging the rest of the sheets straight and helping Cas get his legs untangled from them. "Talking about it can help," he tried again.

"Please stop," Cas said in barely above a broken whisper.

Sam stilled. Cas probably wanted to be left alone, but if Sam kept doing that, they'd never get anywhere. "Stop what?"

Cas stared at his hands resting in his lap. "When I was your friend, you didn't want to talk. Now that I'm not, you're asking me to?" He shook his head in frustration. "I don't understand what you want. So, please," Cas said, voice growing soft with weariness, "just stop."

Sam's chest constricted. Well…that was valid. They hadn't been very good at listening to Cas's problems over the past year. But he did have one thing wrong.

"We're still your friends," Sam said quietly.

Cas turned his head to gaze at the wall. "You accused me of leaving your soul in the Cage on purpose."

Sam closed his eyes for a brief moment. "I shouldn't have said that. I was just so thrown by finding out you'd been working with Crowley." And at finding out that Cas had been the one to bring him back, but hadn't told them.

Cas finally looked back at him, eyes swimming with fervency and desolation. "Everything I did was to try to keep you and Dean out of it. So you wouldn't be in danger, wouldn't be burdened by it."

"I know, I see that now. But, Cas, friends help carry each other's burdens."

Cas let out a soft snort and turned away again, and Sam felt another pang of conviction.

"We never really gave you a chance, did we?" he said softly. Sam wondered, if he hadn't been soulless for that stretch when they first saw Cas again, whether he might have bothered to give the angel the time of day. His shoulders sagged under the weight of all their mistakes, on both sides. "You have every right to hate us."

"I don't hate you," Cas said, surprisingly quickly. "I never…I never hated you."

Well, then that was a start.

Cas lifted a penitent look at him. "And I'm sorry I failed to raise your soul, Sam. That will forever be one of my most unforgivable mistakes."

Sam sighed. "You tried, Cas. I- I appreciate that." Did he wish that Cas had been upfront with them sooner? Yeah. But he understood why the angel might have been ashamed to admit he'd screwed up. And Sam was okay now. The wall Death had erected was keeping him sane, cut off from the horrific memories of being in the Cage for so long.

Sam leaned forward earnestly and placed a hand on Cas's arm. "I forgive you, Cas. And we're gonna help you through this."

Cas wouldn't meet his gaze, and Sam could see how much the angel still doubted his sincerity. Sam didn't blame him.

"You know Dean and I have had our rough spots," he went on. "We've said and done some pretty horrible things to each other. But we always manage to come back. To forgive. Cas, I know you never turned your back on us, even with all the crap we put you through, the past week, the past year. But you still came through for us, every time. And we're here for you now. I'm sorry it wasn't sooner."

"I don't want to be an obligation."

"Not an obligation. Family."

Cas squeezed his eyes shut, and Sam fell silent. There weren't enough words to convey how sorry he was things had gone down the way they had, not enough apologies to make everything better. But he could sit here, let Cas know he wasn't alone.

After a few moments, Cas's face scrunched up as he gritted his teeth and groaned.

Sam straightened. "Is the pain getting bad?"

Cas pried his eyes open to gaze at Sam, and yeah, it was obvious he was hurting. They'd been giving Cas scheduled doses without his feedback on whether it was helping or not, and it wasn't time for another shot of dilaudid yet.

After a long, drawn out moment, Cas slowly, reluctantly, nodded. Sam stood and went to get the bottle and syringe off the dresser. Cas watched him slide the needle into the crook of his arm and depress the plunger. A second later, his muscles began to relax, and he leaned his head back against the pillow.

"Thank you," Cas whispered.

Sam squeezed his shoulder. Maybe there was hope after all.


Dean brought the mallet down on the panel of the Impala's roof with a dull thump. Then again, and again. Crowley's horde of demons had really done a number on Baby, though nothing some tender loving hammering couldn't fix. After all, Dean had brought her back from worse.

He saw Sam enter the garage, but opted to ignore his brother as he concentrated on his work. Sam, for his part, stood back and watched for a good handful of minutes, at least until Dean had finished hammering out that particular dent. Then, when the clanging finally stopped, Sam took his opening.

"You know, Dean, I could really use some help with Cas."

"He doesn't want our help, Sam," Dean replied. Cas had made that abundantly clear. The angel barely looked at Dean when he came into the room, and hadn't spoken to him since that first day. Granted, Dean didn't exactly try to strike up a conversation, either. But he wasn't ready for Cas to bring up Lisa and Ben again, or say that he wanted to leave, because Dean wasn't sure he could keep his temper in check and that certainly wouldn't help anyone. So Dean was focusing on something he could fix.

Sam crossed his arms. "Well, we haven't exactly given him reason to trust us."

Dean bristled and tossed the mallet onto one of the shelves of the tool cart. "Like hell we haven't. We're busting our asses taking care of him." Okay, mostly Sam was busting his ass lately, though Dean had done plenty of rounds changing Cas's bandages.

"And Cas sees it as some sort of punishment, not a favor," Sam rejoined. "He's not getting better, I think because he doesn't want to. Like he's punishing himself. Or maybe it was like Balthazar said, he's been so beaten down mentally and emotionally that he just doesn't have the strength to heal. We have to fix this, Dean. And it's not gonna be easy, or quick."

Dean placed his hands on the Impala's hood and bowed his head, some of the anger draining from him. "I know," he said, more subdued. "I tried to apologize, Sam. But he won't hear me." Again. Cas wasn't listening to him, again. Could Dean really blame him, though? When he'd failed to listen to Cas? That was the core of their problems, wasn't it? That they never could seem to listen to each other.

"He's confused," Sam said, tone equally somber. "He doesn't understand why we want to help him now. When- when we didn't before."

Dean sighed. Yeah.

"We just have to keep at it," Sam pressed. "Keep at it until Cas trusts us again. And it would really help if you'd stop giving him mixed messages by avoiding him."

Dean's shoulders slumped. He knew he couldn't avoid Cas forever. He just wished he could guarantee a way to ward against the angel pushing his buttons, intentionally or not.

Dean ran a weary hand down his face. "I know." He finally straightened and turned to face his brother. "I'll go talk to him now."

Sam quirked a small, relieved smile at him. Dean wasn't feeling quite as optimistic about this, but dammit, he'd suck it up and try. Because his little brother was right; Dean's distance probably wasn't doing much to affirm their declaration that Cas was family. And Cas was totally justified in being wary and resistant to their offers of kindness, considering they hadn't done right by him recently. Dean just wanted the stubborn angel to see that Cas had made mistakes too, to understand why Dean had been so upset.

He could mentally kick himself. Right, he had to give understanding before he could ask for it.

Taking a deep breath, Dean repeatedly reminded himself he could do that as he went inside the house and upstairs to Cas's current room. Cas was sitting up in bed, but instead of reclining against the mountain of pillows stacked behind him, he was hunched forward, one hand fisted in the bedsheets with a white-knuckled grip, and he was staring straight ahead. Sweat beaded his forehead, and the muscles in his face were twitching.

Dean frowned. "Cas? You okay?" He should have asked Sam when the last dose of dilaudid was.

Cas didn't respond, just continued gazing fixedly at the space in front of him. Dean reached out to touch his shoulder, and Cas jolted as if he'd been struck by lightning.

With a gasp, Cas finally blinked owlishly up at him. "Dean?" he asked, sounding startled and somewhat lost.

"Yeah, jeez. You alright?"

Cas's face fell, shock replaced with a forlorn expression. "You were right, Dean. Opening Purgatory and consuming those souls was a mistake."

Dean stared at him blankly. Okay, that was…fast. He wondered if Sam had put Cas up to the apology.

Cas clenched his fists and added, "One I'm being punished for."

Dean tried to hold back a sigh; it always needled him when Sam was right like this. He moved to sit in the chair by the bed. "I don't think you're being punished, Cas. Shit just happens. And you did defeat Raphael and stop him from restarting the Apocalypse. That's a win in my book."

Cas didn't look convinced, and dropped his gaze to his lap. "I prayed for guidance," he admitted quietly. "God didn't answer."

Dean held his tongue. He could only imagine the desperation and anguish Cas must have felt to resort to praying to a father he knew had left the building long ago.

Cas lifted his head, eyes swimming with misery and dejection as they met Dean's. "If I asked for wisdom in discerning the right course, why am I being punished for choosing wrong when I didn't get an answer?"

Dean didn't know what to say to that, or at least, he didn't know what to say besides some caustic remark about Cas's deadbeat dad, but somehow that didn't seem like the best approach. "I don't know, Cas. But I don't think popping Purgatory was your mistake."

Dean had to admit that the crazy plan was probably the only thing that would have worked against that megalomaniac Raphael. It was the way Cas went about it that was wrong.

Dean leaned forward, resting his arms on his legs. "You should have come to me first."

"I did," Cas whispered.

Dean furrowed his brow. No, he didn't…

"You were raking leaves, at—" Cas averted his gaze, and Dean swallowed around a spiky lump suddenly constricting his throat as he remembered exactly where he would have been raking leaves.

"You were out," Cas continued quietly. "I didn't want to be the one to drag you back in."

Dean let out a heavy breath. "I got dragged back in anyway. That's…" He shook his head. "That's just what happens to hunters. We can't ever fully escape this life."

"You deserved to be happy." Cas hesitated. "I- I am sorry about Lisa and Ben, Dean. I wanted to stop Raphael so you could go back to them."

Dean closed his eyes against a swell of grief. The anger…wasn't there like he'd expected. Just sadness.

"Like I said," he started, voice coarse, "that was never in the cards for me. And I don't blame you anymore for what happened. I've made a lot of enemies through hunting. If it wasn't Crowley now, some big bad down the line was gonna try to get to me through them." Though it still killed him to have let them go, Dean knew it was for the best.

"If I had come to you," Cas said slowly, tentatively. "Would you have helped?"

Dean didn't answer right away. He'd never quite…fit, into the normal lifestyle. He'd been trying, though, really hard, so if Cas had appeared with a problem, Dean didn't know if he would have jumped at the chance for some action—or insisted on seeing the apple pie life through. Either way, Sam would have shown up eventually, and then Dean would have gotten completely distracted by his soulless, sociopathic brother…and Cas's problems probably would have fallen by the wayside. After all, Dean now knew that he hadn't taken the threat of Raphael seriously enough when there were other problems staring him directly in the face.

He caught sight of Cas's jaw tightening, and the angel looked away at Dean's prolonged silence.

"I don't know," Dean admitted softly, swallowing his pride. "And I'm sorry for that. I'm sorry for a lot of things, one of which is not trusting you when you asked. You were right, you'd earned that."

Cas shook his head. "Maybe, before Crowley. That was a betrayal. But, Dean, you have to know I never intended to let him take some of the souls."

"I know," Dean said. And he did, deep down. He just hadn't been able to realize it over the anger and bitterness of feeling betrayed. "We both should have done things differently. But I'm gonna help you now, Cas, like I should have before. Me and Sam are gonna help you get better."

Cas sighed. "I know my being here has been taxing on you all. I'm sorry."

Dean fought to hold back a scowl. "That's not what I said. We're your friends and we don't want you to be hurting."

Cas looked away. "I don't think my grace will ever recover enough for me to return to Heaven."

"So stay here, with me and Sam. Come with us on hunts." Dean quirked a small, albeit somewhat forced, smile. "The family business."

Cas stared back at him incredulously, and it made Dean's chest ache that his friend had to look so utterly stunned and skeptical by the suggestion. It wasn't even the first time. Now, though, Cas was probably leery of the word "family," which Dean couldn't blame him for. The road to recovery wasn't going to be easy, physically or emotionally. But Dean swore to himself that he would see it through, no matter what it took.

Cas's gaze slowly slid to the nightstand where a bowl of soup sat, probably left by Sam.

Dean cleared his throat. "If I heat that up again, will you try to eat some?"

Cas was silent for a long moment, mouth pinched in intense thought. Finally, he nodded and said softly, "Yes."

Dean felt hope swell up inside his chest, and he smiled as he stood up and took the bowl. Maybe now they could all finally start to mend.

Chapter Text

Now that Castiel had agreed to eat and keep his vessel hydrated, he was finally beginning to heal. Or perhaps something else had caused the turning point, though he was hesitant to put his faith in the Winchesters' promises. They were taking care of him, yes; Dean had even given Castiel one of his old t-shirts to wear once it wouldn't hinder the bandages around his stomach. Yet Castiel was still wary. He wanted to believe what they told him about forgiveness and being family, but there were voices whispering in his ear, cautioning him against it. That it was only a matter of time before they all turned on him again. After all, what he'd done was unforgivable.

Castiel did his best to shut the whispers out, but every night they gained free rein in his dreams, filling his mind with rivers of blood and skies blackened out with the cloying ash of burned wings, all at his hands. He would often wake screaming to either Sam or Dean in his room, trying to shake him out of it. And the shame Castiel felt at being reduced to such a pitiful state only served to twist his gut further.

Still, despite these obvious setbacks, Castiel was healing. The lesions from his vessel breaking down under the power of the Purgatory souls faded and those bandages removed, though the wound in his stomach was mending far more slowly. Which left Castiel unbearably and aggravatingly weak. He hated enduring such infirmity. His grace was still scattered embers throughout his now mortal body, and he was beginning to give up hope of ever feeling his wings again. Castiel didn't even know if they were still there, or if the nova of expelled Purgatory souls had burned them away into ash like in his dreams. That fear almost made Castiel want to give up, to crawl into a hole somewhere and mourn his ruined form of existence.

But he didn't. Sam and Dean were being incredibly patient with him, as was Bobby, to an extent. And a part of Castiel didn't want to let them down again. Even while another part of him urged to remain on his guard.

Sam was currently helping Castiel make his way downstairs, one arm braced behind his back, the other holding him up by his elbow. It was a slow and painstaking process, as every step made his stomach throb and his muscles quaver from lack of strength. But it was his first time leaving the second floor, and while it was excruciating and exhausting, Castiel was grateful for the progress, and the change of scenery.

"You doing okay?" Sam asked when they were two-thirds of the way down the staircase.

Castiel nodded jerkily. In truth, he did feel as though he were reaching his limit, but he didn't think he had the stamina to go back up the stairs, and so they might as well finish going down them. Then Castiel could at least rest on the couch before attempting the return journey. God, how it rankled him, a once stout and mighty soldier, to be such an invalid.

Dean waited at the bottom of the steps, watching their progress like a hawk. He didn't move in to help, though, simply stepped back when Castiel and Sam finally reached the bottom, and continued to supervise as they shuffled their way into the den. Castiel's mind prickled with the brief suggestion that Dean was cataloging each and every weakness for when he would later strike at the angel in his sleep, but the susurration was gone in an instant, and Castiel was too focused on putting one foot in front of the other to pay it any heed.

Sam guided Castiel toward the couch and helped ease him down onto the cushion.

"Thank you, Sam," he said.

The younger Winchester gave him a bright smile. He'd been rather pleased since Castiel had started accepting their food offerings. It'd also been Sam's suggestion for him to try getting out of bed. Not that Castiel was against getting back on his feet, but it was quite the daunting task at times.

A knock sounded at the front door, and Bobby hollered from the kitchen that he would "get it." Sam and Dean exchanged arched eyebrows; Bobby rarely received callers. Perhaps it was a delivery.

"Jody," they heard the older hunter greet after the door squeaked open.

"Bobby," a female voice responded. "Can we talk?"

"Sounds serious. Alright, come in. Boys are in the den if this is hunting related."

Both Winchesters perked up as though they knew the visitor and were eager to see her. Castiel suddenly felt rather uncomfortable in the borrowed clothes, essentially stuck on the couch as he was without assistance to leave the room. Bobby led the way into the den, and Castiel caught a glimpse of a sheriff's uniform before the woman behind him came into view. Alarm shot through Castiel, and he opened his mouth to shout a warning, but she whipped out her gun, aiming at Bobby's back, and pulled the trigger.

The crack of the bullet firing echoed in Castiel's ears, and both Dean and Sam stood stunned in that split moment as Bobby fell forward, catching himself on the desk before sliding off the edge and crashing to the floor.

"Jody, what the hell?" Sam exclaimed.

The sheriff jerked her gun toward the Winchesters, and her eyes flicked black.

"Hell, indeed," a new voice said from behind them that sent chills down Castiel's spine.

Crowley stepped into the library from the kitchen and waved his hands. Sam and Dean were suddenly flung against one of the bookshelves and pinned there by the demon's telekinesis. Castiel lurched off the couch. But he was still too weak, and only succeeded in pitching forward onto his hands and knees on the carpet. Castiel bit down hard on the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out as the impact jarred his wound.

Crowley cocked his head at him. "Well, if it isn't my old business partner. Seems your latest venture hasn't treated you too kindly, has it?"

Castiel forced himself to raise his head and glower at the demon. Balthazar had been right; Crowley had come to take revenge for breaking their deal. And now the Winchesters were paying for Castiel's oversight, again. He flicked a glance behind him at Bobby, who was laying on his side, eyes half-lidded and body trembling. Castiel's heart stuttered at the pool of blood slowly spreading out underneath the older hunter. No

Castiel gritted his teeth and pushed himself upright. He needed to get off his knees and on his feet… Crowley merely gave him an unimpressed smirk, and nodded to his demon minion. She holstered the sheriff's gun and strode forward, grabbing a fistful of Castiel's hair and yanking his head back. Castiel couldn't hold back a gasp. He wasn't physically ready for a fight, and in fact, the demon was the only thing keeping him upright at this point.

"Did you think I wouldn't find you here?" Crowley asked conversationally. "That you could just break an ironclad contract?" His voice had started rising to a shrill, angry pitch, but he quickly reined it in and calmly reached inside his suit jacket to pull out an angel blade. Castiel couldn't even muster the strength to attempt a struggle against the demon holding him.

"You son-of-a-bitch," Dean snarled. His face was growing red from straining against the telekinetic bonds, which was futile. "I will kill you."

"So you've said before. I think your bark is worse than your bite," Crowley replied glibly.

"You're still the King of Hell," Castiel said, desperate to find some way out of this. "And no one got to keep the Purgatory souls in the end. So you've still come out on top." With Raphael dead, Heaven undergoing restructuring, and Castiel in his current condition, Crowley truly was in a more powerful position in the supernatural hierarchy.

The demon canted his head in agreement. "True." He leaned over to sneer at Castiel in the face. "But no one crosses me. Ever."

Castiel swallowed hard. He knew that every second that ticked by was a precious second in which Bobby's life force was slowly bleeding out.

"Balthazar. Balthazar, we need help."

The other angel didn't answer—Castiel was too drained for angel radio to be working.

Crowley shifted to face the Winchesters, angling the blade at Dean first, then Sam, then back to Dean. "Eeny, meeny, miny, moe."

Castiel's heart leaped into his throat. "Leave them out of this."

Crowley tossed a blithe look over his shoulder. "Yes, that was part of our original agreement, wasn't it? But, see, you broke that. Therefore, the clause is null and void."

Castiel finally tried to wrench away from the demon-possessed sheriff, but she merely clamped her other hand on his shoulder and yanked him back against her. His stomach muscles began cramping at being held rigidly upright for so long.

"Your grievance is with me," Castiel persisted. "Take me back to Hell if you wish. You can torture me for as long as you want." Or until his weakened essence snuffed out. "Just leave the Winchesters alone."

"Cas, no," Dean grunted.

Crowley pursed his mouth as though he were considering it. "Tempting," he replied blandly. "But I know that the best way to hurt you is through your precious human pets."

He marched up to Dean and slashed the angel blade across the hunter's chest. Dean gritted his teeth against a cry of pain. Crowley hummed ruminatively as he glided the crimson-edged blade up and down Dean's torso, as though deliberating where to strike next. Castiel flinched when Crowley inserted the tip under Dean's collarbone and began torquing the blade slowly like a screwdriver. The Winchester threw his head back with a strangled cry.

"Stop!" Castiel shouted. But his protests only served to encourage Crowley. After all, this was what he wanted: Castiel's suffering. Even if it wasn't his own blood being shed.

The demon grinned as he scored several more marks across Dean's chest, the flannel shirt shredded and tinged in blood. Dean was breathing heavily under the strain, nostrils flaring, yet he still managed to shoot Crowley a murderous glare.

"I spent thirty years on Alastair's rack," Dean spat between heaving breaths. "You're a pansy compared to him."

"Hm," Crowley responded. "I admit, his was a different kind of art." He sidestepped to stand in front of Sam, and Dean had barely gotten a curse out before Crowley was slicing into the younger Winchester in similar fashion.

Castiel watched helplessly. He would beg, if it wouldn't give Crowley exactly what he wanted.

Sam stoically clenched his jaw in an effort not to scream as the angel blade sliced through tender, mortal flesh. Dean struggled until he was nearly purple in the face.

Sam lifted his chin and delivered an equally defiant glower at the demon. "And I spent a year in the Cage with Lucifer," he seethed. "You think there's anything you could do to me that would top that?"

Castiel briefly closed his eyes and silently pleaded for the Winchesters to stop goading Crowley.

"Well," the demon mused, "it's no fun if they ask for it." He took a step back from the Winchesters and turned toward Castiel once more. "But no matter. I'll still take plenty of satisfaction from this."

Castiel braced himself as Crowley thrust the blade between his ribs, not far enough to pierce any vital organs, but the explosion of pain still blackened Castiel's vision for a long moment, and he would have fallen over if the demon-possessed sheriff hadn't kept a firm hand fisted in the back of his shirt.

Crowley tilted the blade and began to drag it sideways, carving out a fissure of flesh inches above the bandage of Castiel's already healing wound. He choked on a stifled groan as he felt skin and muscle sundered. It was just like when the Leviathan had tried to rip its way out of him.

Wait…was there one still inside him? Castiel thought he felt something writhe. A burble of whispers filled his head, and Castiel realized in horror that one of the monsters had been secretly hiding in him this whole time. And Crowley was attempting to cut it out so that it could go on a rampage and slaughter everyone in sight. Castiel couldn't let that happen.

With a raging bellow, he surged forward, surprising both Crowley and the sheriff. Castiel threw himself at the new King of Hell and drove them both to the floor. Agony erupted through his vessel, and Castiel quickly rolled away, curling in on himself and trying desperately to keep the raging beast contained before it destroyed everything around them.


The instant Crowley was knocked off his feet, Dean felt the invisible pressure holding him pinned against the bookshelf vanish, and he pitched forward at the sudden freedom. Sam staggered as well. Dean immediately launched himself at Crowley before the demon could get up, and tried to wrench the angel blade from his grasp. Crowley shoved his other hand into Dean's chest and shot him into the kitchen like a canon ball. He went sliding across the linoleum and crashing into the cupboards. Blinking black spots from his vision, Dean scrambled to his feet again, only to freeze when Crowley shoved Sam back against the bookcase and arched the angel blade back.

"And now I kill you all."

There was a flutter of displaced air. "I'd like to see you try."

Balthazar raised a glowing palm toward Crowley, who hesitated only a split second before teleporting away. The angel whirled on the remaining demon, whose eyes were wide as divine retribution zeroed in on her.

"No!" Sam shouted.

The demon broke into a cocky grin. "That's right. I have a hostage in this spunky piece of ass. You boys like her, don't you? Feel sorry for her. Another innocent you just couldn't quite save all the way?" She canted a pouting moue at Sam. "You shot her boy."

Dean clenched his fists. He'd had enough of demon filth messing with his friends. "Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus," he started.

The demon snapped her attention to him with a snarl, and then whipped out her gun. Dean froze, the exorcism dying on his tongue as the memory of Lisa stabbing herself seized his heart. He vaguely heard his brother sputter at him before Sam picked up the litany himself.

"Omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii."

The demon raised the gun at him, but Balthazar flew at her, grabbing her wrist and slamming her against the wall. Sam rushed through the last of the exorcism, and black smoke spewed up out of Jody's mouth before spiraling through the floor and back to Hell. Balthazar stepped back, and Jody collapsed.

"Bobby!" Sam gasped, jolting Dean out of his daze. His gaze whipped to the older hunter, whose eyes were closed as he lay in a pool of blood.

Balthazar moved swiftly, taking two quick strides and crouching down beside him. The angel touched two fingers to the hunter's forehead, and in the next instant, Bobby was bolting upright, eyes wide and darting around in panic. Sam let out an audible breath of relief. Dean was still too aghast at how close he'd come to losing more people he cared about to even move.

Bobby spotted Jody, and clambered to his feet to get to her, one hand immediately going to check for a pulse.

"She's okay," Sam assured him, kneeling down next to them.

Balthazar stood and strode to Cas, who was curled up in a crumpled heap in the corner, shaking, eyes squeezed shut. Dean finally got a hold of himself and rushed to Cas's side as well.

"Cas?" Balthazar called. "Cas." He placed a hand on Cas's shoulder and tried to roll him over. There was a slash in the t-shirt from when Crowley had started carving into him. Balthazar cursed. "I told you that wanker would hold a grudge," he muttered.

"Don't let it escape," Cas moaned. "Don't let it escape."

"I'll deal with that demon ponce later," Balthazar said. "You alright?"

Cas pried his eyelids open, but his pupils were wild and dilated. They widened even further when they focused on Dean. "I'm sorry," he gasped frantically, eyes flitting over the injuries Dean had been able to ignore in the adrenaline rush. Now the cuts were beginning to sting with a fiery vengeance and he was a little lightheaded from blood loss.

Cas reached out a shaky hand toward him. "My fault," he rasped. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

"Whoa, Cas, it's okay," Dean interjected, cutting off the almost manic apology. Cas wasn't looking assuaged, and the next thing Dean knew, Balthazar had roughly pressed two fingers to his forehead, and the pain was gone. Dean glanced down at his restored clothes, suggesting the wounds had been healed as well.

"There, see?" Balthazar said to Cas. "No permanent harm done."

Cas's eyes were still too glazed, and Dean immediately tugged the bottom of Cas's shirt up to check if his stomach wound had gotten torn open again in the scuffle. But there was no blood seeping through the bandage, just from the newest slash across his ribs.

"Can you heal that?" Dean asked Balthazar.

The angel's jaw tightened. "I can try."

He hovered a hand over the wound, and a soft golden light began to emanate from his palm. Dean had to squint as it got brighter, but a few moments later, it dimmed, and the slash had closed to a thin, angry red line.

Balthazar huffed. "Well, seems that's the best I'm gonna get."

It was better than Cas needing more stitches, in Dean's opinion.

"We should get him back to bed," he said.

"Balthazar," Cas protested weakly. "It's not safe."

"It is at the moment," Balthazar replied.

Cas blinked at him, gaze not quite focusing. "But…" He looked around the room, brow furrowing in confusion. "Are- are you sure?"

Dean exchanged a worried look with Balthazar. Cas must be in shock.

"I got it," Balthazar told him, and placed both hands on the still trembling Cas before both disappeared in a puff of air.

Dean stood up and turned around to see Bobby helping a shaky Jody to her feet.

"That was not fun," she moaned.

"Here," Bobby said, gripping her elbow to keep her upright. "We'll get you something to take the edge off."

He started guiding her toward the kitchen. God knew she needed a stiff drink after an ordeal like that. Jody briefly glanced up to meet Dean's eye, but looked away just as quickly. His gut twisted. Innocent bystanders were always getting caught up in their shit.

Sam followed a couple feet behind as though to catch Jody if she needed it, but he hung back once she and Bobby reached the kitchen. Then he exchanged a disheartened look with Dean.

They left Bobby and Jody to deal with what happened in private, and headed upstairs. Voices drifted out from Cas's room, and they walked in to find Cas propped up slightly with pillows and a blanket draped over him.

"You were right," Cas was telling Balthazar morosely. "I shouldn't have dismissed Crowley."

"Yes, well, I should have dealt with him from the start," Balthazar replied. "Which is exactly what I'm going to do next."

"Are you going to kill him?" Sam asked.

The angel pursed his mouth in displeasure. "As much as I would like to, that would create a power vacuum in Hell, which is the last thing any of us needs right now. So, no. I'm going to track him down for a nice chat." Balthazar turned back to Cas. "Don't worry, he won't come after any of you again. He may be a vindictive little snot, but he's not stupid."

Cas just gazed back at him sadly. "He would have killed Sam and Dean if you hadn't come when you did. Bobby would have died."

"You can all give me a plaque later."

Cas shook his head. "I tried to call you for help, but I didn't think my angel radio was working." He frowned. "Did you hear me?"

Balthazar shifted somewhat awkwardly. "No, Cas," he said regretfully. "I didn't hear you."

Cas's face fell, and Dean swallowed hard.

Balthazar looked up to meet his gaze. "I heard him."

Sam shot Dean a bewildered look. "What?"

Even Cas was gaping at him. "You…prayed to Balthazar?"

Dean rolled his shoulder. "Crowley was going to kill you, Cas." It wasn't like it was a big deal. They were in trouble, and Dean had called on the one super-powered ally they had left. So what if it required a prayer channel, which they'd always reserved for Cas up until now? They hadn't exactly had time to do a summoning ritual.

"Yes," Balthazar said. "Given the meekness inherent in such a call, I figured it was rather urgent." His normally blithe expression softened as he looked back at Cas. "I'm glad I answered."

"Us too," Sam put in. "Thanks for saving Bobby."

Balthazar waved a dismissive hand. "Healings are a dime a dozen. Here." He stepped forward and touched Sam's head, healing his injuries in a flash. "Now, I have some things to take care of," the angel said meaningfully, and pointed at Cas. "And you, get some more rest."

Cas nodded slowly. "Thank you, brother."

Balthazar quirked a debonair smile, and then fluttered off.

Dean turned his attention to Cas, studying him carefully. He still seemed kind of dazed from the ordeal. "You okay?"

"Yes," he said, somewhat subdued. "Dean, Sam, I am sorry—"

"Don't," Dean interrupted. "It wasn't your fault. Crowley targets people you care about; that's just his MO."

Cas dropped his gaze to his lap. "It was my actions that made you a target in the first place."

Sam gave the angel a wry look. "I think we do a pretty good job of pissing off the bad guys on our own."

Dean snorted. Wasn't that the truth.

"You want some soup?" he asked.

Cas didn't respond right away, but after a long moment he lifted his gaze and nodded despondently. "Sure."

"I'll throw in some peanut butter toast," Dean decided as he headed for the door. "And maybe later a burger."

Sam scoffed. "Much later, Dean."

"Yeah, yeah." But hey, it was something to look forward to.

Chapter Text

Castiel couldn't stop fidgeting. He flitted his gaze back and forth across the room, snapping his attention to every minor shift of shadow as though it were rising up out of the woodwork.

"Dude, seriously, you're like a three-year-old," Dean scowled. He was currently changing Castiel's bandage. Or, trying to. Every time Castiel twitched, the Winchester either missed the area of stitching he was attempting to clean or ended up with medicated salve on his own fingers.

"Sorry," Castiel muttered, and attempted to hold still. He couldn't say why he was feeling so nervous. Crowley hadn't returned, and Castiel could only presume that Balthazar had succeeded in warning the demon to keep his distance. Castiel was also growing stronger, yet he couldn't help but feel as though something was off, that he needed to be on guard.

Dean had just started taping down a fresh dressing pad over Castiel's stomach when several monsters burst into the room. They had no faces, only gaping, hideous maws atop their necks, with rows of razor teeth. Leviathan.

Before Castiel could give a startled cry, one of the beasts ripped Dean away, and two others converged on Castiel, hands pawing at his stomach. Castiel tried to fight them off, but his arms were grabbed and pinned to his sides. He was still too weak to fight against supernatural strength.

He bucked, trying in vain to break free. Dean! Castiel couldn't see him anymore. No, he couldn't let the Purgatory monsters hurt the Winchesters.

The Leviathan cracked macabre grins at him, and placed sharpened talons against his chest. Castiel jerked as the tips pricked skin. And then the claws dug in deep, rending through muscle and sinew to gouge out his grace. Castiel screamed.


"Sam!" Dean bellowed over Cas's screams as the angel writhed and bucked beneath him. He'd been caught completely off guard when Cas suddenly shoved him away from taping the bandage down. At first Dean thought he'd accidentally hurt him, but then Cas was thrashing on the bed, and Dean had lunged to hold him down before he could hurt himself. Cas had let out a bloodcurdling scream at that. Dean had to throw himself on top of the angel's legs in order to pin him down so he wouldn't tear that wound open again. It was a good thing Cas was still weakened; otherwise he could have flung Dean into the wall.

Sam came barreling into the room, eyes flying wide at the sight he found. "What's going on?" he exclaimed.

"I have no idea!" Dean shouted back. "Help me!"

Sam surged forward and took over holding one of Cas's arms so Dean could shift his position. He'd been half-sitting on Cas's stomach and pressing against that wound, which had to have hurt like a son-of-a-bitch. Dean didn't think that was what was making Cas lose it, though.

"Cas! Cas!" he shouted, using his now free hand to clasp the side of Cas's neck. "Snap out of it!"

Cas just squeezed his eyes shut and screamed again.

"What in the blazes?" Bobby rushed into the room, throwing them all a bewildered look.

"He's having some kind of fit," Sam said unnecessarily.

Dean gritted his teeth as Cas let out the most gut-wrenching sob he'd ever heard. But he held on, he and Sam immobilizing Cas as much as they could until his struggles gradually started to lessen. Finally, Cas was mostly still on the bed, save for minute twitches running through his limbs and facial muscles. He'd stopped screaming, but his eyes remained wide open and dilated, staring at nothing. Dean slowly eased up on his grip.

"Cas? Cas?" Dean patted his cheek, but got no reaction. "Cas, dammit, can you hear me?"

"Dean," Sam interjected softly. "I don't think he knows we're here."

Dean's stomach clenched as he glanced at his friend's face, frozen in terror. They waited for a few more minutes, but Cas was completely catatonic.

"What the hell is going on?" Dean demanded as he finally stepped away from the bed.

Sam ran a hand through his hair. "I don't know." He looked at Bobby.

"How the hell should I know?" the older hunter groused.

Sam shook his head and turned back to Cas, placing the back of his hand to the angel's forehead. Cas didn't even seem to register the touch. "He doesn't have a fever."

"You think this is some kind of attack from Crowley?" Dean posited.

Sam frowned, but then started sweeping his gaze around the room. "We should check for hex bags." He immediately slipped a hand underneath Cas's pillow, then between the mattress and boxspring. Dean pivoted and went to shake out the curtains around the window, while Bobby rifled through the dresser drawers. After a thorough search, however, they'd come up with nothing.

"Okay, another kind of curse?" Dean suggested. "We can summon Crowley, set up a Devil's Trap."

Sam's brow furrowed. "I don't know, Dean. If Balthazar managed to warn Crowley away and this isn't actually him, we'd be inviting more trouble."

"So, what, you want to just wait? Leave him like this?" Dean gestured harshly to Cas lying on the bed.

"Of course not. But if we bring Crowley here and anything goes wrong, Cas is defenseless right now. Crowley could easily finish the job or take him back to Hell."

Dean bit back another retort at that. Okay, so summoning Crowley probably wasn't the smartest move.

"Dean?" a soft voice issued from behind them.

Dean whirled and surged toward the bed. "Cas?"

Cas's eyes were still wide and staring straight up. "Dean," he said again, voice frail and lost.

Dean's heart stuttered. "Cas, I'm right here."

The angel's face pinched, and then he started to toss his head from side to side. "No, no, stop!" His back arched and he let out another horrendous cry of terror.

Dean flung himself forward to hold Cas down, and Sam instantly moved in as well. Bobby rushed over and grabbed Cas by the ankles. The angel jerked and thrashed, pleas for them to stop ripping from his throat. Dean clamped his jaw shut against a surge of bile. They weren't hurting Cas, they were trying to help him. But Cas didn't seem to know that. Whatever flashback or hallucination he was trapped in, he was being tortured. He thought Dean was torturing him.

After a couple of minutes, it mercifully stopped, and Cas fell limp beneath them, eyes once more frozen open in paralyzed horror. A tear track slipped down the side of his face, and Dean nearly did lose his gorge then.

The three of them cautiously let go and backed up a few steps. Sam looked as pale and sickened as Dean felt. Bobby's mouth was set in a grim line.

"We're not gonna be able to keep this up," the older hunter said.

"What else are we supposed to do?" Dean rejoined. "Dump him somewhere like a psych ward?"

Bobby lifted one shoulder. "Well…"

Dean shot him a scathing glare. "No! I am not turning my back on him again. He needs our help and we will figure this out."

Bobby let out an exasperated huff. "We're not equipped to deal with this, whatever it is. I know Balthazar said Cas couldn't go back to Heaven, but that might be the only thing left that can help him."

Dean's jaw clenched. Sam gave him a helpless look that said he thought Bobby had a point. Dean didn't want to admit it, but Cas going back to Heaven would feel like losing him, would feel like Dean had failed to be there like he'd promised. What if Cas didn't come back? They'd been working on patching things up between them, but Dean didn't know if Cas actually wanted to be here. But Dean couldn't help him like this. And for once he had to put his best friend first.

"Alright, we can summon Balthazar."

Bobby put a hand on his shoulder. "I'll get the stuff for it."

Dean watched Bobby leave the room, then glanced back at Cas. He didn't understand, things were getting better…although, granted, Cas's nightmares were pretty bad, and this kind of reminded Dean of those, except Cas wasn't asleep right now, but having some kind of full-on mental breakdown.

He could feel Sam's worried eyes on him, but Dean didn't have any steadfast words of encouragement for his little brother.

Cas let out a small whimper, and Sam instantly moved closer to lean over the bed, hands spread non-threateningly but also poised to exert brute force just in case.

"Cas? Can you hear me?" Sam asked gently.

Cas's eyelids fluttered, his gaze finally shifting. But before Dean could feel an ounce of relief, Cas was bolting out of the bed and shoving Sam, hard. Sam went flying backwards into some furniture, shattering a full-length mirror that'd been leaning against the wall.

"Cas, no!" Dean shouted.

The angel scrambled out of bed, adrenaline overriding any discomfort or pain his wound would have given him. Cas snatched up a shard of broken glass before Dean could reach him, and slashed out with it. Dean skidded to a halt and twisted away before Cas could cut him.

Sam grunted as he tried to extricate himself from the splintered wood and glass pieces and get on his feet. Cas whirled toward the sound of crunching glass, shard brandished in warning.

"Cas, stop," Dean pressed, pouring every effort into keeping his voice level so he wouldn't spook the angel more. "It's Sam. Okay, Cas? It's Sam and Dean."

Cas whipped a crazed gaze back at him, jerking the glass fragment back and forth as well. He was gripping it so tightly that it had sliced his palm, and blood was streaming down his arm in bright rivulets.

"Cas," Dean said firmly, "put it down."

Cas blinked in apparent confusion, but then he flinched as if he'd been struck, and suddenly he was slashing at invisible foes as though the Winchesters weren't even in the room. Sam finally managed to scramble to his feet and back away, and both he and Dean kept urging Cas to put the piece of glass down.

"Cas, you're safe!"

Cas had backed himself into the corner, glass fragment clutched tightly to his chest. He was no longer waving it around, but the Winchesters were still wary of getting too close. Cas pressed his back against the wall and slid down to the floor where he hunched into a tight ball and started rocking back and forth.

"They're all dead," he moaned. "I killed them. Sam… Dean… They're all dead."

"Cas, we're right here," Sam pleaded.

Dean's heart dropped into his stomach. Screw it, they couldn't wait for a summoning spell.

"I pray to thee Balthazar, we need you down here right now! You hear me? I don't care what you're doing, Cas needs you—"

There was a puff of air and echo of wings fluttering, and then Balthazar was standing before him, hands on his hips. "Don't make me revoke your prayer privileges," he griped. "What trouble could you possibly have gotten into now?"

Dean thrust his arm out to point over the angel's shoulder, and Balthazar turned, only to go rigid at the sight of Cas curled forward and muttering to himself. The blood streaming down his arm was beginning to smear across his sweatpants as he hugged his knees, the glass shard still clutched tightly in a death grip.

"He's hallucinating or something," Sam said desperately.

Balthazar surged forward. Cas shrunk back sharply and raised his makeshift weapon, but Balthazar put two fingers to Cas's forehead before he could strike, and Cas instantly fell limp. Balthazar knelt down, pried Cas's fingers away from the piece of glass, and then scooped him up to place him back in bed. Dean and Sam came forward warily as the angel hovered a hand over Cas's lax face for several long moments.

Bobby came back into the room, summoning ingredients in hand. He barely blinked at the fact that Balthazar was already there, and simply dropped the items on top of the dresser. He did narrow his eyes at the broken mirror and scattered glass.

"You got any idea what's wrong with him?" the older hunter asked.

Balthazar didn't respond right away, but a moment later his face drained of color and he recoiled from whatever scan he'd been doing of Cas.

"What?" Sam asked in alarm.

Balthazar continued to stare at Cas in horror, which only made Dean's heart rate ratchet up.

"What is it?" he demanded.

"He…I should have seen this coming," the angel finally said. "What Cas did…"

"What?" Dean snapped.

Balthazar shot him a black look, but Dean could see that it was motivated by fear and worry. "Absorbing all those Purgatory souls, you have to remember they were monster souls. Everything about their essences was bloodthirsty and vile. That's why Cas wasn't himself near the end; they were corrupting him."

"Okay," Sam interrupted. "But he gained control and put them back."

"Yes, but carrying them left scars." Balthazar glanced back at his unconscious brother. "And now he's being tortured by their echoes."

Dean's chest tightened. It wasn't enough Cas was suffering physically after his ordeal, he had to mentally now as well? "Can you help him?"

A muscle in Balthazar's jaw ticked, and his expression pinched with regret. "No. Nothing can. The imprint has been seared into his mind. He'll never escape them."

Dean clenched his fists. No, that wasn't acceptable. There had to be a way. A demon deal, a spell, something. Cas had saved the world; he didn't deserve this.

"Scars," Sam mused out loud. "Like how my soul has scars from the Cage."

Dean furrowed his brow at how excited his brother sounded. Sam gave Balthazar a questioning look.

"Well, er, yes," the angel replied. "It's essentially the same."

"Then we put up a wall in Cas's mind, just like was done with me," Sam said eagerly.

Dean straightened. That was right; Cas had said Sam's soul was so scarred with memories of Hell that it would drive him insane, so Death had put up a wall to prevent that. He spun back toward Balthazar. "There, see?"

The angel's mouth pressed into a thin line as he considered it. "That…might work."

Dean broke into a grin. He knew there was always a way.

"But," Balthazar added grimly. "I don't possess the ability to do that. No angel does."

Dean felt that hope slipping away through his fingers. No, he was not giving up.

He drew his shoulders back with staunch resolve. "I know who does."


Sam shifted his weight nervously as Balthazar readied the ingredients to perform a summoning spell for Death. At least it didn't require one of them momentarily stopping their heart and cajoling a reaper into calling their boss. Even with Balthazar around to resurrect them, they had all come too close to dying recently for Sam's liking.

They had moved downstairs for the ritual where they had more space. Balthazar had flown Cas down and laid him on the couch. He was still unconscious, though Sam wondered if Cas was still being plagued by horrific images, even put under as he was. Sam hoped not. They'd wrapped a hasty bandage around his hand to stop the bleeding, but had opted to focus on the more pressing issue.

"Alright," Balthazar said, raising a knife to his palm. "Here we go."

He made a slit, and then squeezed his hand over the bowl of herbs on Bobby's desk. As blood dribbled down, the contents began to smoke, and the room shook. Sam looked around warily, and then flinched when Death himself appeared not three feet to his left.

The Horseman stood erect, both hands folded in front of him and resting on the knob of his cane. "Well," he said, roving his gaze over each one of them. "Isn't this interesting."

Dean stepped forward. "We, uh, need your help."

"Is that so? You should know by now that I'm not in the habit of doling out favors."

Dean hesitated. "Well, uh, it's a really small favor, probably wouldn't take much…" He gestured to Cas. "We need you to put a wall in his head, like you did for Sam."

Death shifted a disinterested mien toward the unconscious angel. "No."

"Cas is going insane from the Purgatory souls—"

"Shut up, Dean," Death interrupted coldly. "I'm not here to tie your shoes every time you trip. I warned you about those souls how long ago? Long enough to stop that fool." The Pale Horseman turned his pointed nose up at them. "He deserves his fate."

"Now wait just one bloody minute—"

Death flicked his wrist, and a bright light erupted around Balthazar. Sam threw his arm up to shield his eyes, and when the aura faded, the angel was gone. Sam shot a panicked look at his brother. This wasn't going well at all…

"Goodbye, Dean," Death said. "Don't summon me again."

"Wait!" Dean held his hands out, expression pleading. "Just wait."

Death paused, and angled a considering look at him.

Dean took a deep breath. "Cas doesn't deserve this. Yeah, what he did was risky and dangerous, but he saved the world. And nearly died for it. He's a hero. He shouldn't be punished for stepping up when no one else would."

Death's expression never shifted as he listened blandly.

Sam swallowed hard, and exchanged a tense look with Bobby.

Death slowly turned his shrewd gaze to Cas. "And what will you give this time in return?" he finally asked.

Dean faltered. "Uh…" He glanced helplessly at Sam, who didn't know what to say. Dean had told him about Death's wager when he'd asked the Horseman to retrieve Sam's soul from the Cage. Dean had lost, but Death had done it anyway. Should Sam offer to take Death's ring and be a reaper for a day?

"Would you give up your life in exchange for his?" Death continued, zeroing in on Dean again.

Sam stiffened. No. He saw his brother hesitate, eyes wavering with indecision, and then grim resolve. Sam tried to catch his gaze and subtly shake his head. Dean, don't.

Dean just gave him a small, sad smile. "Yes," he said, gaze still locked with Sam's. "I'd give up my life for one of my brothers."

Sam's heart clenched. He didn't want Dean to do this—but he understood. If Death had asked him instead…Sam would have said the same thing. He glanced at Cas, torn because he didn't know how to choose between him and Dean.

Bobby looked ready to have a conniption fit, but was staying remarkably quiet in the background. Sam was grateful; he didn't want Bobby getting blasted somewhere like Balthazar. And he never thought he'd say it, but he hoped the angel was okay.

"Very well," Death broke the tension. "I will put up a wall in his mind."

Dean flinched, but then held his head up stoically. Sam's chest constricted.

Death angled a dry look at Dean. "Don't worry, I won't reap your soul in exchange."

Sam felt the air practically whoosh from his lungs.

Dean blinked dubiously at the Horseman. "You won't?" he asked warily.

Death started moving toward Cas. "No," he said. "But I will only put up a partial wall. The angel will still remember his actions—and the consequences."

Sam frowned. "But—" he started, only to clamp his mouth shut fearfully when Death flicked his keen gaze at him. Sam pushed his terror down. "But you said I shouldn't scratch my wall, that even a leak of memory could be catastrophic. So- so how will a partial wall fix anything?"

"Think of it more like a transparent wall," Death replied. "The angel will be haunted by what he's done, but not crippled."

"But it'd be better if Cas didn't remember," Dean pressed.

Sam rolled his eyes in a surge of exasperation. Not this again. "Dean."

His brother whirled on him. "We can go back to the way things were before, before we all made a mess of things."

Sam cast a tense look at Death, uncomfortable with the Horseman as an audience. "We've been working through it," he returned in a low voice. "You can't just throw all that away, Dean."

His brother scowled. "You mean throw away the bitterness and mistrust? Things were better before."

"Or maybe we can make them better now. Now that we've all learned from our mistakes."

Dean skewered him with a pained look, but Sam was done backing down on this. It was one thing with Lisa and Ben, but Cas was Sam's friend, too.

"Which is exactly why the angel must remember the consequences of his actions," Death spoke up again. "Or he will never learn." He narrowed a pointed look at Dean. "This is the only offer you're going to get."

A muscle in Dean's jaw jerked, but he didn't try to argue further. Death moved to stand over Cas, and then the Pale Horseman reached a hand down to cover the fallen angel's forehead. And Sam held his breath.

Chapter Text

Balthazar was going to smite that prissy little dick into an alternate dimension. Never mind it being suicide. He didn't care how old and revered Death was, no one, no one banished Balthazar to Perth, Australia of all places. There was no high-class restaurant or bar to speak of where he could get a decent drink while he waited for his power levels to recharge. His wings had been singed in the unorthodox banishment and he'd been grounded for almost an hour. An hour in which he wasn't looking out for his defenseless brother. He could have leveled a street block, he was so furious.

The instant he felt his feathers rustle with restored plumage, Balthazar leaped into the air and flew straight back to Sioux Falls, South Dakota. He landed in Bobby Singer's living room and whirled around in search of the stringy-haired Horseman, but there was no sign of him. Bobby was reclining in the chair behind his desk, and Sam and Dean were sitting around Cas, who was still unconscious on the couch. Both Winchesters looked up at him with startled, yet oddly relieved expressions.

"What happened?" he demanded.

Sam shrugged. "Death said he put up a wall."

"You didn't wake up right away after yours was put in," Dean said.

Balthazar strode forward and knelt next to the couch, reaching out to touch Cas's forehead. He extended his grace to take stock of his brother's condition. The Winchesters watched anxiously.

After several moments, Balthazar pulled back, his shoulders sagging in relief. "Well, whatever Death did, it worked."

Dean perked up. "How can you tell?"

"Remember when I said Cas was contaminated with an afterglow from the souls? The echo was part of it. Now that there's a…wall, the effect is dimming."

Balthazar canted his head thoughtfully, and moved his hand down to Cas's stomach next. Healing energy poured forth in a soft, warm aura. There was still a trace of irradiation that blocked some of his power, but enough was able to get through and start to mend the damage underneath the stitches. Balthazar withdrew his hand.

"Were you able to heal him?" Sam asked excitedly.

"More than before. I'll have to do it in stages, but yes, I should be able to fully heal him much sooner than he would have otherwise."

The Winchesters exchanged a relieved look, which Balthazar shared on the inside. Now they just needed to wait for Cas to wake up…and hope that this time he appreciated being saved.


Castiel woke as though the Breath of God had fanned the flame of his grace for the first time, sparking a single ember into life. Consciousness stirred first, followed by sensation. But he was not light and celestial energy as he knew he was meant to be. Rather, he felt heavy, solid, cocooned in an embrace of gravity and something else, something soft and warm. Castiel opened his eyes.

An off-white ceiling was directly above him, along with the edges of a window frame to his right. The familiar scent of mothballs and dust tickled his nose. He knew he was at Bobby Singer's house—he even knew why he was there, in a bed like this. And yet, Castiel was feeling very strange, lightheaded almost.

"Cas? Cas, hey," a voice sounded to his left, and Sam's face appeared over him, quickly followed by Dean behind him, and then Balthazar on Castiel's other side.

"Cas?" his brother queried.

They all sounded quite concerned, and Castiel wondered if he'd managed to tear his stitches again. He shifted his hand to brush over his stomach, and frowned when he didn't immediately get a twinge of pain in response. His head wasn't muddy enough to have received a strong dose of painkillers.

"Cas, please say something," Dean said.

Castiel blinked at him. "What would you like me to say?"

"Um…" Sam exchanged a nervous look with the others. "How are you feeling?"

"The same as I have been," he replied, but paused. No, that wasn't right. He didn't feel as weak as he should have. Curious, Castiel pushed himself up onto his elbows, surprised when the movement didn't cause him pain or strain his muscles. Sam reached forward to help him sit back against the headboard.

Now that Castiel thought about it, there was also an odd clarity in his mind that hadn't been there since he'd woken from returning the souls to Purgatory. In fact, Castiel hadn't realized until now that all this time there had been…cracks, in his psyche, and that sinister things had been leaking through, sinking poisonous barbs into his mind and slowly tearing it apart.

There could only be one explanation for that, but not for how he suddenly seemed to be recovered. Castiel furrowed his brow as he examined the state of his consciousness deeper, and the breath stole from his lungs when he was assaulted with the memory of Leviathan attacking, of swarming down like a deluge and ripping him to shreds. Except…that hadn't happened. Sam and Dean were here, and safe, and there was no evidence of a battle.

"Cas? Cas!" Dean was calling worriedly.

"I- I don't understand," he gasped.

"Are you seeing monsters here, Cas?" Sam asked earnestly.

Castiel jolted in astonishment and confusion. "N-no. But…I remember, before…" He whipped his gaze between the three of them imploringly. "What happened?"

"There were mental scars left over from the Purgatory souls," Balthazar explained.

"Like how my soul has scars from the Cage," Sam put in.

Castiel swallowed hard. Okay, that made sense. But if Castiel was going insane, then he was a danger to everyone around him. Only…he didn't feel insane. He could look at those memories and remember the terror, but he wasn't reliving it as though it were real.

"So we summoned Death and had him put a wall in your head, just like with Sam," Dean said.

Castiel snapped out of his musing and stared at the older Winchester. "You…did what?" he sputtered, and straightened in alarm. "Did he harm any of you?" Where was Bobby? He wasn't in the room.

"Whoa, easy," Sam interjected. "We're fine. Death put in the wall and left." He exchanged an indecipherable look with Dean, however, that somewhat belied that summation. Yet, they did seem to be unharmed.

Castiel shot a dark look at Balthazar. "Did you know about this?"

The other angel snorted. "Of course. I even helped. Got banished to Perth for it, but ah well."

Castiel shook his head, still not quite able to comprehend what he was hearing. "That was dangerous," he admonished them. "Death is not normally amenable to people who summon him."

Dean once again glanced at his brother, and the two shared a knowing look before Dean turned back to Castiel in all seriousness. "It was worth the risk."

Castiel was taken aback by the declaration, and the fervency in Dean's tone and eyes. Sam was looking at him with equal staunch resolve, which left Castiel even more confused. Surely he didn't deserve such heartfelt devotion, not when he had yet to redeem himself to the Winchesters.

"Now that the echo of the souls is locked away behind the wall," Balthazar said, "I've been able to perform gradual healing sessions. Your wound should be feeling better."

Castiel's hand drifted subconsciously to his stomach. "It is. Thank you."

"I'd even say you could return to Heaven now."

Castiel blinked in amazement. He hadn't thought…hadn't hoped

He vaguely noticed Dean stiffening in response, though the Winchester said nothing. Even Sam's jaw looked tight. Castiel hesitated.

"What- what do the other angels think, about what I did?"

Balthazar's shoulders slumped a fraction. "Ah, yes, well, there has been some contention over that."

Sam furrowed his brow. "Why? Cas won the war."

"Yes, but he worked with a demon, which is bad enough in some people's eyes. Not to mention the fact that he took on God-level power. That makes some angels nervous."

"But he put it back," Dean argued.

Castiel's head was beginning to spin with how ardently they were defending him.

Balthazar huffed. "Yes, well, some people can be unreasonable," he said pointedly. Dean glowered at him, but Balthazar ignored it. "Look, Cas, I know you were hoping for peace once Raphael was gone, but restoring order to Heaven hasn't been as easy as that. However, I will box anyone who tries to give you a hard time."

Castiel's mouth tugged with a small smile, but it fell just as quickly. "I appreciate the support, Balthazar, but I still can't feel my wings." His throat constricted at that. His vessel may have been healing now that the Purgatory scars were safely locked away, but it wasn't restoring his grace. "I'm not really an angel anymore," he said sadly.

Balthazar gazed back at him in sympathy. "You're still a great leader, Cas. Heaven would benefit from your input. More than mine, that's for sure."

Castiel tried to force another smile. Balthazar always thought too little of himself. "I knew going into this that I would never return home," he said solemnly.

Balthazar's eyes pinched with regret.

"Your home can be here," Dean blurted.

Castiel startled, and furrowed his brow at the Winchesters.

Dean rolled his shoulder awkwardly. "I meant it when I said you can stay with us, Cas. Do you remember that?"

Castiel nodded slowly. Yes, he remembered. The moment had been shrouded in doubt and the seeds of paranoia, which he hadn't realized at the time, but Castiel was able to recall Dean's words.

"That is," Dean went on haltingly, "if you- if you forgive us."

Castiel stared at him incredulously. "Forgive you? Dean, I'm the one who needs your forgiveness."

"There's plenty of forgiveness that needs to go around," Sam interjected. "But I, for one, am already past it."

Castiel hesitantly glanced at Dean again, whom Castiel had wronged most of all recently. The hunter shifted his weight in apparent discomfort, but he ended up nodding.

"It's all water under the bridge."

Castiel thought back to the accusations and hurt, the betrayals. But he also thought about how steadfastly Sam and Dean had been watching over him, how they had faced Death himself to help him. And Castiel thought that perhaps they could be family again.

Maybe they already were.

He turned to Balthazar. "Thank you, for everything," he said sincerely. "But…I would like to stay here."

Balthazar rolled his eyes with a put-out expression, though there was a trace of fondness there as well. "Alright, stay with the hairless apes," he said with feigned annoyance. "You can always call if you change your mind."

Castiel smiled. "Of course."

"I'll check in a few more times, do some more healing sessions," Balthazar promised.

Castiel nodded gratefully, and then Balthazar was gone in a flap of wings.

Dean cleared his throat. "So, now that you're healing, do you not need food anymore?"

Castiel canted his head in consideration. "Actually, I think I might like to try that burger now."

Dean's face broke into a wide grin. "Comin' right up." He left the room with a slight spring in his step that made Castiel smile. It had been a long time since he'd seen the older Winchester happy. And the fact that Castiel could make that happen…well, perhaps he'd chosen right, after all.

Sam reached out to squeeze his shoulder, giving him a smile as well. Castiel did wonder why he seemed to remember everything, when Sam's wall had completely blocked out all recollection of the hunter's time in the Cage.

He quickly decided it didn't matter, though. It was better this way. Castiel was still burdened by guilt and remorse over what he did, even if the Winchesters proclaimed his forgiveness. But it meant that he knew how he should do better in the future, now that he had been given a second chance. And he wasn't going to waste it.


Dean stood at the edge of the park under a canopy of trees, half concealed behind one of their trunks as he watched Ben score a goal for his team. Beyond the field, Lisa jumped to her feet in the stands and cheered along with the other parents and spectators.

Dean's heart constricted with grief, but also a sense of peace. They were doing okay. The loss he felt was more about what Dean knew, deep down, he could never have. Not with the life he led as a hunter. He sacrificed so other people, like Lisa and Ben, could go to soccer games and barbecues and not have to worry about the things that went bump in the night.

A flutter of wingbeats sounded behind him.

"How'd you find me?" he asked without turning around.

Cas stepped up to stand beside his shoulder, gazing out at the field. It'd taken several weeks of rest and recuperation, but Cas had finally gotten back his ability to fly. Dean was happy for him; it'd nearly broken his heart when Cas had said he couldn't even feel his wings. The angel had lost so much, it seemed unfair to have to carry that, too. Granted, Cas was still building up stamina, and he couldn't actually flit off wherever and whenever he pleased. Which meant he'd be needing a ride home.

"I can sense longing," the angel replied.

"Oh yeah? What was I longing for?"

Cas turned his head to look at him solemnly. "Family."

Dean dropped his gaze at that. He'd let the opportunity for one life go, but he still had one waiting for him back home, with a brother, a best friend, and a surrogate father he cared about more than anything else in the world. Even more than the dream of an apple-pie life.

Dean turned his back on the soccer game and clapped a hand on Cas's shoulder. "There's this great diner on the way out of town, has the best pie in a hundred miles."

The corner of Cas's mouth curved upward in a small smile as he followed Dean toward the Impala parked along the curb. "I believe Sam had found a case for us," he said.

Dean waved a dismissive hand. "Pie first."

He slid behind the wheel, and Cas slipped into the passenger seat. The engine revved to life with a pristine purr, the damage from Crowley and his demons completely erased. Scars on people weren't so easily covered up, but they were endured. And sometimes you came out stronger for it.