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Doubting Thomas

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Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here he gives too little, there too much:
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If man alone engross not Heav'n's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
Rejudge his justice, be the God of God.
In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against th' Eternal Cause.
-Alexander Pope

 

It smells like blood.

Not normal blood—something toxic, something… Dean can’t see. Can’t see past the light pouring in from the… Is that a window? He blinks up towards the roofline, at the light, at the iron bars blocking a concrete opening. Wetness touches his forehead, but he can’t see it. Can’t feel anything, because there’s nothing to feel but everything. Alight, like he could crawl out of his skin at a moment’s notice.

The sound of someone gagging forces him conscious just the slightest bit, followed by a shallow scream. Someone kicks metal, colliding with the wall. “Sam,” Dean rasps, blood in his mouth. Blood in his hair. Blood in…

 

There’s still light. Dimmer now. Maybe it’s mid-afternoon. Night is coming, Dean thinks. Night is coming, and he can’t move. His skin is on fire and he can’t move, and something is trying to rip out of his back. Weight bears down from between his shoulders, and he wants nothing more than to rip himself open, flay himself alive to make it stop. But he can’t. His arms are too heavy, his eyes won’t open, his legs are too limp.

Someone is screaming louder now, calling for… maybe help. Dean can’t see. “Sam,” he tries again, the only name on his tongue. Black swims in his vision, from shadows and his consciousness, slipping in and out. A broken strip of nitrate film, fraying and threatening to burn if it runs one more time. His life, playing out before his eyes, sightless. “Sa—”

 

They come for Dean next. Someone tugs his hair, jerking him up off the floor and out of his own blood. It caves when they turn him over, concrete splintering halfway across the room. Darkness swallows everything save for the windows. Light pours into his attacker’s face, but he can’t see their eyes, can’t recognize if he’s ever seen them before. Featureless, blank—he can’t see because he’s blind. “We’re almost done,” the faceless man—he thinks it’s a man—laughs, all veneers and malice. “Aren’t we?”

“We’re…”

 

“Dean,” someone calls—Sam. Sam, it’s Sam. Dean opens a blurred eye, looking past the blood and concrete, past the metal legs of a chair. An IV stand, he recognizes—ankles strapped in, hands bound behind his back. Sam is bad off—Sam is hurt. Sam is dying.

Dean opens his mouth, throat dry, and tries to scream. Tries to make some noise that won’t scare Sam. Someone is standing over him, adjusting the device on his head, and Sam screams again, rattling in Dean’s ears. The floor cracks, the foundation shifts; it’s not until Dean stands, that he realizes that he caused it.

Dean doesn’t speak so much as wail, and Sam’s attacker falls to his knees, hands over his bleeding ears. He can die—they can all die, whoever did this. Whoever put them there. Whoever did… whatever this is. “Sam,” he says, but his mouth doesn’t move in the right way. The syllables don’t match up with his brain. Sam understands, though, despite his wet, scarlet eyes, despite the blood pouring from his forehead.

Behind Dean, someone cocks a gun and fires. The pain is nothing—he’s not even bleeding. All he knows, is that Sam is out of the chair before he can process it, and they’re in the air, somewhere in a warp, surrounded by black and streaks of light, brighter than anything he’s ever seen.

A city, Dean thinks, just before he crashes into soft earth, leaving a crater in his wake. His heart races on the ground, his bones vibrate, and his back is searing where an incredible weight sits, threatening to rip his spine in two. “Cas,” he calls, another cry, and all falls silent.

-+-+-+-

Sam won’t stop touching it. No matter how many times Castiel pushes his hands away, no matter how much force he puts into his pleas, Sam won’t stop trying to rip the screws from his forehead, wincing with every twist of the bolts; he only stops when Castiel succeeds in pulling his fingers free. “They’re too deep,” Castiel says, voice filled with horrified amazement. It’s been years since he’s seen anyone wearing this headgear, and admittedly, the last he saw of it, Sam once again had been the bearer. He’d bled after they removed it, and Castiel knitted his skin together effortlessly under the street lamps, no scars, no evidence left behind.

This, though—this was intentional. The metal—warded, even, with sigils Castiel hasn’t seen in centuries—is wrapped too tight around Sam’s head, the two screws drilled in far enough to kill a human, dangerously close to his brain. Somehow, though, he’s alive and breathing, barely bleeding except for when he twists without Castiel’s permission. “Feel like they’re stuck in my skull,” Sam complains, eyes pinched shut. “Why does it—”

“Whoever did this drilled too deep,” Castiel hisses. Cautiously, he taps the leftmost screw, his stomach twisting when Sam almost shouts. “I need you to hold still.”

Sam complies with little objection and drops his hands to his lap, knuckles white where he fists them on his knees. Castiel can’t comfort him, not like this; the most he can do is attempt to alleviate the pain with words, directing Sam’s attention elsewhere. He pulls over a chair before he starts, the wood scraping dully against the library floor, creaking when he sits.

“Do you know what today’s date is?” Castiel asks, placing a hand atop Sam’s skull to keep him in place. Minutely, Sam shakes his head. “I need you to talk, Sam. Biting your tongue won’t make this hurt any less.”

“Kinda wish it did,” Sam huffs.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Castiel reiterates, softer now, more coaxing. Underneath his hand, he feels Sam loosen, only to once again tense when Castiel begins to unscrew the first bolt. “Do you know what today’s date is?”

“October sixth,” Sam answers, certainly a shock to himself. He jerks his head up, nearly undoing all of Castiel’s work. “…We’ve been gone for two months.” He swallows. “Two months—”

“You were hunting,” Castiel says, pushing Sam’s head down. “Do you remember where?”

That, Sam doesn’t answer immediately. He doesn’t fully speak again until Castiel removes the screw in full, all seven inches of it soaked red. Scarlet pours from the wound until, by some miracle, Castiel watches it heal underneath his fingertips, and not of his own Grace. No, Sam is doing this. Sam feels this, and Sam is healing himself in the aftermath, the hole knitting together and leaving nothing but a silvered, aged-worn scar.

Castiel blinks, his tongue dry in his mouth. “Sam,” Castiel mutters, his voice foreign to his ears, distant. He hasn’t seen this in years, hundreds upon thousands of years, when Angels still walked the earth. When the Nephilim reigned and threatened to destroy all of humanity with their presence. Sure, the Nephilim could regenerate themselves, but to watch a human do it…

He doesn’t know why he didn’t see it before. If Castiel looks close enough, if he places his hand over Sam’s breastbone, he can feel the subtle hum of foreign Grace underneath his fingertips, just faint enough to be present, almost answering his call. Whatever it is—and whoever’s it is—it’s terrified and fractured, not quite Grace in its final form, but more jagged, crying out for solace, to be pieced back together, made whole.

Sam isn’t human.

“…What’s wrong with me?” Sam asks, choked, and Castiel absolutely breaks for him.

“You have to understand,” Castiel starts, barely suppressing the ingrained instinct to destroy the creature in front of him. This is Sam. Sam, who he’s known for longer than he ever would have thought, who’s treated him with the utmost of respect, who would never put him in harm’s way if he could help it. Sam isn’t the enemy here—whoever did this to him is. “This is… well above my expertise.”

Sam nods along, just before Castiel holds him by the scalp once again, beginning to unscrew the last bolt. “I don’t remember what happened,” Sam admits through gritted teeth. “We were hunting. That’s what you said, we were hunting. This… place in Kentucky, we thought it was demons. Kept finding people with their eyes burned out after going on rampages.”

“But it wasn’t demons,” Castiel suggests.

If Castiel wasn’t holding him still, Sam would probably shake his head. “We tracked them down to this warehouse in the middle of nowhere and… That’s it.” He lifts his eyes, bloodshot from withheld tears; Castiel can barely look at him. “Was it really two months?”

Was it that long. Never would Castiel admit how long he spent searching for both of them, how many sleepless nights he spent tearing apart the library, looking for any sort of information on tracking spells or potential leads. Visiting the motel in Burkesville only confirmed their disappearance, and Castiel left with their belongings shoved into the trunk of the Impala. As long as Castiel never mentions it, Dean will never know that Castiel drove his car back to Kansas, nor will Dean ever know how many nights Castiel slept in the backseat in the garage, solely to remember that he was doing this for a reason.

But they’re alive—alive and whole, and Castiel would be able to breathe easier, if Sam wasn’t sitting in front of him. Disembodied screams echo from down the hall, ignored.

Sam grunts as Castiel pulls the last screw free, and afterwards, Castiel helps him to lift the headgear off and set it atop the library desk. Before Castiel can look back, the wound has already healed, and Sam is ruffling his hair, now three inches longer than when he first vanished. The beard is new, too. Dean isn’t faring much better, from the scant few moments Castiel spent with him.

“Never did thank you,” Sam says, combing his hair back with his fingers. “Just… whoever did this to me, you know…”

“They did it to Dean as well,” Castiel affirms, swallowing around the thickness in his throat. What they did to Dean was worse, indescribable. Sam escaped relatively unscathed aside from the turbulent Grace flooding his veins, but Dean… “You should clean up,” Castiel says. Sam nods and stands with Castiel’s help, unsteady on his feet, but recovering. “I’ll check on your brother.”

A hand to Castiel’s exposed bicep keeps him from turning; Sam holds him still with skepticism in his eyes, brow furrowed as he stares for what feels like minutes. “You’re… cracking.”

Oh. Right. “Don’t tell Dean,” Castiel croaks and pulls away in haste. If anything, Sam’s frown only deepens, words lingering on his tongue; Castiel cuts him off. “I’ll explain later.”

“Are you—?”

“I’m fine.” It’s a lie—and as long as Castiel can help it, it’ll remain a lie. “Really.”

-+-+-+-

The room is too bright, too loud. Outside the metal doors, Dean can hear voices, whispers in dark rooms, gasps and the abatement of pain. A leaf falls on the roof, the first hints of winter beginning to sweep over Kansas. Two squirrels fight in a tree over four hundred yards away. A car honks at an intersection in a town a few miles from Lebanon. Clouds are building in Dodge City. Rain is falling, bordering on torrential and threatening to drown the plains.

Everything—Dean can hear every sound, every word, can feel the chill in the air and the warmth of his own breath, and he can’t make it stop.

The only thing he can’t hear is his own screams, muffled by his own throat, voiceless in the dark room. The lone light bulb shattered at least an hour ago, glass shards lost in the mass of what has to be either feathers or bones growing out of his back. For all he knows, he could’ve sprouted wings in the last hour, or days, or…

How long has he been gone, anyway? How long has he been awake?

Somewhere in the room—maybe to his front, maybe at the side, he can’t tell—the doors open, soft yet grating on every oversensitive nerve. “Dean,” someone speaks; knees hit the floor by his head, fingers touch his nape in some gesture of solace. It feels like fire, like he’s being burned alive.

Before he can stop himself, Dean flings Castiel to the floor; Castiel slams down hard enough to splinter concrete in every direction. In the pitch darkness, though, Dean can see him—can see Castiel down to his very essence, all white light and swirling, blue wisps of something he can’t describe, tendrils reaching out to Dean at his core. “Cas,” Dean mutters, soundless, blinking away the wetness in his eyes when Castiel reaches up to palm his cheek.

As much as it burns, Dean can’t turn away, not when Castiel speaks him, lips moving in words Dean can’t hear but can understand. “Breathe,” Castiel mouths, thumb sweeping under Dean’s eye. “Follow my lead.”

Breathing—he can do breathing. As harrowing as it is, Dean inhales, his lungs expanding despite the aching notion that he doesn’t need it. He hasn’t needed to for a while, his body running solely off its own energy. It would be terrifying if he wasn’t trying to concentrate on Castiel and steady the writhing mass inside of him and the storms outside, threatening to blow more than bulbs. The electricity could be out in the tristate area, for all he knows.

Despite the terror and the overwhelming sensation of the world turning underneath him, all Dean can think of is Castiel. Each breath eases the tension tugging at his heart, and slowly, ever so minutely, he feels himself falling, Castiel’s Grace guiding the way. “Can you hear me?” Castiel asks, the first words Dean’s heard in hours other than his own. “Dean—”

“I… Yeah,” Dean attempts. All that comes out is a hoarse whisper, indistinguishable above the constant roaring in his ears and Castiel’s brightness, his Grace singing against Dean’s palms.

Grace. It only dawns on him that what Dean sees in front of him, what he sees down at Castiel’s core, the swirling discolored mass flowing through his veins and reaching out to him, is Castiel’s Grace. Unseen for years by human eyes, but now, Dean can pick Castiel apart at the seams, every minor crack, every imperfection in Castiel’s existence bared before Dean at his purest. If Castiel were otherworldly before, he’s even more so now, the proof within reach, available to touch.

“You’re…” Dean croaks; the back of his throat tastes like copper. “You’re really… you.”

 

 

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“You’re holding it too close,” Castiel says, concern knitting his brow. Cautiously, he slips his hand down to Dean’s chest, fisting his hand into the bloodstained fabric of Dean’s shirt. “I need you to let go.”

Of what? What could he be holding so close to make him lose control, to allow him to see… “Something’s wrong with me.” With those words, he watches Castiel nod, feels Castiel’s hand drop. “Cas—Why can I see you—”

“I’ll tell you. You just have to promise to let it go. Can you do that?”

“I don’t… What am I—”

“Dean.” It still amazes him how his own name spoken from Castiel lips always grounds him, cements his feet into the very dirt beneath him. On his hands and knees, Dean stares down into cobalt eyes, the floor buckling beneath his weight. “Close your eyes,” Castiel says, an order laced with a plea.

Dean can’t help but obey.

The welcome comfort of Castiel’s Grace isn’t a surprise, nor are the two fingers pressed to his forehead. What is shocking, though, is how he reacts to it, his body singing, his bones threatening to vibrate their way through his skin. Screaming doesn’t deter Castiel, nor does it scare him away. All Castiel does is hold on, one palm pressed to Dean’s forehead, the other gripping his shoulder tight over frayed fabric, helping to guide him down.

Minutes pass, maybe hours, but Dean can feel himself dwindling, the exhaustion in his blood creeping free and seizing his limbs. As every sound diminishes—the thunder roaring in Smith Center, the rain pounding on the roof, a child crying in the night—Castiel holds him, his Grace working to drawn Dean into his body, back within a manageable range.

“You’re safe,” he hears Castiel mutter, just as his vision begins to darken at the edges and his fingers tingle. It takes all of his effort to roll off of Castiel before he does something embarrassing like pass out, the weight of his body colliding with the stone floor. Tawny masses unfurl to either side of him, one spreading up the closest wall, the longest feathers reaching the roof.

Feathers. “Angel,” Dean slurs, turning his head to Castiel; Castiel sits up, wary, one of the masses pillowed in his lap, dirtied with blood and God knows what else. “I’m an…”

“It appears that way,” Castiel says, amazed.

Dean’s throat threatens to close. It’s too much, too close to the surface. Too… inhuman. “Sam,” he says, close to a whisper, looking to Castiel for guidance, for some light in the abyss.

Slowly, Castiel nods. “He’s alive,” he mentions. “He’s… different though.”

“But he’s alive,” Dean insinuates, waiting for Castiel’s confirmation. “I don’t care if he’s… Just as long as he’s okay.”

“He’s fine.” Castiel moves fluidly, working himself away from the wing—a wing, an actual, tangible wing—and kneeling beside Dean’s head, running his fingers through blood-matted hair, over the holes Dean knows were there at one point, scarred like stigmata across his forehead.

The worst thing, though, is that he can’t feel it. The former rush of adrenaline from Castiel’s touches, the way his skin would flush and redden with praise, the erratic beats of his heart just from Castiel standing too close—all of it falls flat, souring his stomach. Nothing happens. The longer he stares, waiting for the flood of admiration to come back, the more discouraged he grows, even as Castiel cleans the blood away with his fingers. I loved him, Dean thinks, tears forming in the corners of his eyes, spilling into the crease of his nose. I loved

“I can’t feel you,” Dean mutters in horror.

Another nod. Castiel’s face falls, eyes falling shut. “I’ll remind you,” he says, pulling his hand away. “I’ll teach you again.”

-+-+-+-

Reading doesn’t help Castiel; if anything, it only frustrates him, having to pore through tome upon tome, only to find nothing at the end of each search. As it is now, he has close to fifteen books spread across his bedroom floor, the dusted, age-worn pages marked with multicolored Post It notes and notecards.

The longer he sits there, the more his stomach sours under the moonlight pouring into the glass panes overhead, his only illumination save for a knockoff Tiffany lamp sitting on the desk. At least five books, old and fragile and leaking page fragments, are strewn across his bed. The others rest on a carpet he got from the Lowes in Salina, the newest thing in his growing collection of antique fixtures. A wrought iron bed frame is shoved against the back wall, brought to the rooftop conservatory, now his bedroom, with an abuse of his Grace.

This is his room now, though, decorated as he likes, his own space in the bunker away from human noise and pipes rattling in the walls. Some days, it’s the only place he has to escape and ruminate on his actions, on his own mortality and that of those around him. Flesh and blood is so fragile, prone to rips and tears with the gentlest of pressure. Hearts so susceptible to strain and abuse. Limbs weak with exhaustion. Stomach tearing at itself for food.

Why Castiel decided to fall for this, he can’t begin to fathom, especially now.

Four hours after both Dean and Sam retired for the night—or supposedly retired, based on how long Dean has been pacing downstairs, Grace tumultuous and frightened—Castiel can’t find anything aside from a text dating back to the first century, recalling mysterious encounters with men claiming they had ascended through the spheres. Probably the result of hallucinogens, but Castiel marked it anyway, the book now resting on his bedspread in a Ziploc bag.

“This is pointless,” Castiel tells himself and shuts a collection of fables, afterwards palming his eyes. Exhaustion is slowly creeping in, an ache his Grace can’t shake for much longer. He should’ve slept hours ago, but he’s been here, reading until his eyes verge on bloodshot.

Tomorrow, Castiel decides; tomorrow, and he’ll start anew, hopefully with fresh eyes and an answer to the unanswered, persistent memory in the back of his mind. Or, he would, if someone weren’t too busy climbing up the port in the far end of the room, wings clawing through the four-by-four hole and grappling for any sort of stable ground. Slowly, Dean pulls himself through the entryway and tucks his wings behind his back once his knees hit concrete, both terrified and awed at his discovery.

“Don’t touch the books,” Castiel says, more of a mumble, and begins to pick up his collection.

From his vantage point in the corner, Dean watches him silently. Castiel thankfully manages to stack his materials on his desk before Dean decides to speak, hoarse. “I thought you left,” he says, making his way to his feet without knocking any of the portraits off the brick-laid walls. His wings, massive and gold-hued, drag along the floor. “I told you, you had a room here.”

“I know,” Castiel says with a nod. Slumping onto his mattress, he places his hands on the bedspread and wrings the fabric absently. “You didn’t say where, though.”

Dean snorts, the barest hint of a smile overcoming his lips. “Shit. Thought you’d pick somewhere downstairs, not… What even is this place?”

“They used to store plants here.” Castiel shrugs. “They were all dead when I found it. I believe the Letters were attempting to grow their own spell ingredients.”

“Makes sense,” Dean says though a yawn. “Better than farming them out back.” He stops to swallow, his cheeks red in the dim light. “I think I…”

“I hadn’t planted yet,” Castiel offers in haste. He can retill the garden on his own time. Right now, Dean is more important, both him and Sam. “You didn’t destroy it.”

“Still left a crater. I just… wish I could remember what happened.”

“You don’t remember either?” Castiel asks, and Dean shakes his head. Faintly, Castiel can see his wings shaking, longing to expand, yet terrified. “Sam said you were hunting.”

A nod. “I remember that much.” It takes more maneuvering than necessary, but Dean seats himself on the bed, wings curled tight at his back; he bounces twice for emphasis, a behavior Castiel still finds endearing, no matter how many times he’s watched Dean over the years. “Demons. Shoulda been easy, y’know? Just walk in, a few exorcisms, knock out the nest before they killed anyone else. But…”

“It wasn’t that,” Castiel says, expectant.

Slowly, Dean lets out a breath, eyes slipping shut. “I don’t know what it was, man. Just… I woke up, and then everything just felt… hot. Like I was on fire, and then I saw Sam, and next thing, you’re dragging my ass into the dungeon.”

Castiel huffs. “To be fair, you fought me.”

“You could’ve been one of them,” Dean asserts, whipping his head over to face Castiel.

It only dawns on Castiel seconds later exactly what Dean said, more than enough time for Castiel to reach over and take his wrist, uncut nails digging into shower-warmed skin. “Who?”

A blink. Two, before Dean catches up to himself. His pulse beats wildly under Castiel’s fingers, the first hint of fear Castiel has felt off him in hours. “I don’t know,” Dean stammers. “I don’t… I assumed—”

“It’s okay.” Castiel reassures him with a hand to Dean’s shoulder, grip firm enough to calm Dean, as small of a gesture as it is. “You don’t have to remember now. But at some point…”

“Minute I figure it out.” Dean nods, exhaling deeply. “Minute I remember, you’ll be the first guy I run to.” Momentarily, he stops to glance over his shoulder, Castiel following him, to the masses taking up the entirety of the brick wall, clumps of feathers strewn about and pressed into glass panes. “They’re kinda…”

“Massive,” Castiel comments, temporarily awed.

Dean snorts. “I was gonna say in the way, but that works too.” He can’t turn like this, not much from what Castiel notices. Even when Dean is walking, his wings take up a good few feet to either side, threatening to knock over almost everything in his path if he isn’t careful. “They’re not gonna be out like this all the time, are they?”

Castiel offers, “I can teach you to hide them.”

Dean regards him, wary at first, but eventually slides onto the floor, only knocking over two books in the aftermath, both falling onto one of the longest pinions; he flicks them away with ease. Honestly, Castiel has seen more capable fledglings before; Dean will learn, though, and hopefully not destroy the rest of Kansas in the process. Smith Center is reeling as it is, a tornado having torn across the outermost edge and misplacing a herd of cattle, now roaming free in the plains. A small miracle for them, a nightmare for the farmhand. Dean would find it amusing, probably.

Castiel follows Dean onto the floor on fatigued legs, barely stifling a yawn as he watches Dean arrange himself in the middle of the rug. His wings are askew and twitching, no matter how Dean tries to stop them. “How do you want me?” Dean asks, the slightest bit humorous, deadpan in a way Castiel hates to hear him. This man, this formerly bright spot in his life, is afraid, reminiscent of a time Castiel refuses to remember.

The past is the past. Dean may be an Angel now, and his emotional processes may need to be relearned, but Dean is his future. Not a man who needs fixing, but a man willing to learn. “You’ll still feel them, but you can hide them to keep from destroying anything.”

To Castiel’s shock, Dean laughs, albeit hollowly. “You’re gonna hate what I did to the library.”

It can’t be any worse than what you did to the garden. “I’ll assess the damage in the morning,” Castiel says. He ushers Dean forward with his hand, fingers slipping around the frail inside of Dean’s wrist to find a pulse. More for Castiel’s benefit than Dean’s; if he can feel that simple rhythm, then maybe this isn’t a dream, and maybe Dean isn’t entirely what he’s become.

If only.

“You shouldn’t have to concentrate much,” Castiel begins, offering Dean his free hand; Dean slips his fingers between Castiel’s, clinging tight. “Your Grace will attune itself to hiding them, but you have to tell it.”

“I have to talk to my… Grace?” Dean asks, incredulous. Castiel would laugh if the situation were any different. “How’m I supposed to do that?”

“It’s probably simpler than you think.” To demonstrate, Castiel removes his shirt and straightens his spine. Lifting his head, he lets his eyes slip shut as black wings spill forth in their shared space, bones exposed in patches, several feathers beginning to molt and die, falling off onto the carpet. No matter how hard Castiel wishes, they won’t grow back, no matter if he reversed the process or not. He can’t—he made his choice, and now, he has to live with it until the day he finds himself watching his casket being lowered into the ground.

No use getting angry over it, Castiel tells himself, and lets his head drop. Dean watches him, wide eyed and awed. From the strain Castiel feels in Dean’s wrists, Dean wants to touch; for the first time, Castiel longs as well, to run his fingers through golden feathers, to feel the softness of fresh wings once again. It’s been too long since Castiel has touched another Angel so intimately, so reverently. Now isn’t the time. Probably never, either.

“You didn’t tell me they were…” Dean trails off, his arms going slack in Castiel’s hold.

The last Castiel ever saw of his wings—in person, at least—was years ago, when they were large enough to take up the entirety of a room; his power was dwindling even back then, but the wings still crackled, scorching everything they touched. The six of them could stir up storms in passing, could disrupt clouds, could bring sun to rain soaked towns. Now, the two wings Dean can perceive are tattered and worn, splintering even, their power fading fast. At the rate Castiel is falling, he has two months, maybe three, before he’s treading soil on his own two feet, bones set to shatter, his feathers useless.

His halo will be the last to go.

“They’re healing,” Castiel lies, his eyes betraying his smile. Whether Dean notices or not, Castiel doesn’t pay attention. “Your Grace is attuned to muscle memory in some cases. Wings are controlled by emotions and actions. Right now, you’re…”

“Freaked out?”

Amusing as it is, Castiel can’t bring himself to grin. “All you have to do is imagine hiding them.”

“What, control my breathing and clear my mind?” Dean blinks, scrutinizing. “That’s it? No secret rituals or cutting my arm open?”

This time, Castiel snorts. “As I said, it’s simple. Watch.”

Over the years, Castiel has accustomed himself to the feeling of his Grace warping to accommodate the shift in planes, his wings folding against his back and slipping into a realm where only his siblings could trace them. Now, it stings, mangled bones creaking as they vanish, a few feathers left on the floor.

The pain on his face doesn’t go unnoticed; Dean watches him with caution, lips pulled into a frown. “Cas—”

“You try,” Castiel suggests, breathless.

As an afterthought, he releases Dean’s arms and rests his hands in his own lap, fighting the urge to wring them together. He aches to sleep, to rest in the dim twilight, but Dean is afraid. At least, Castiel selfishly hopes he is. For a man so ingrained in his humanity, so in tune with his emotions, Dean appears to be handling himself well; if Castiel dared to look past the façade though, the situation might be different. The only feeling they share in common now is fear, for each other more than anything.

Even after the demonstration, Dean wavers and looks to either side of himself, at the tawny, golden wings extending from his bare back. They’re speckled with dark spots across the top arch and down to the lower pinions, those almost snow white and soft. They’re painful to look at, Castiel thinks, heart twisting painfully in his chest, thoughts of Dean shouldn’t have to deal with this and I’ve lost him and I never thought about what they might look like if… plaguing his mind.

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until Dean thumbs underneath his eye, gathering his tears on his thumb. “You’re tired,” Dean says, more of a statement than a question; whatever the reason, Castiel nods and wipes his face with the back of his hand. It doesn’t work; the longer Dean sits there, shirtless and winged and everything he shouldn’t be, the more it tears at Castiel, an ache he can’t describe, pain he hasn’t felt before.

I’m scared for him, Castiel thinks, covering his face in both hands. I love him, and I’ve already lost him.

-+-+-+-

Sam, as Dean somewhat expected, is pacing the library the following morning. The last Dean saw of him months ago, he hadn’t looked so haggard. Now, his hazel eyes are exhausted, and his skin has gone sallow; his bangs cover his eyes, hair in a permanent state of disarray. He resembles nothing more than a man walking out of a homeless shelter in his best clothes, twitchy and wary of the world around him, like it could all be a dream if he just opened his eyes.

For months, Dean has wished it was a dream. That would make it easier, the weight on his back and the unsettled, anxious itch in his chest. No doubt from the muddied mass writhing within Sam, he feels the same, or at least close. He’s not as bright as Castiel, the gold in Sam’s soul fissured at the edges, twisting and fighting against itself, but he’s… unique, for a better use of words. Thriving yet warring, tearing itself apart just to gain advantage.

It would be fascinating if Dean weren’t too busy throwing Sam into a crushing embrace, hands fisted in the worn fabric of Sam’s nightshirt.

Sam exhales, his lungs struggling to inflate in Dean’s grip; even then, he clutches Dean in return, forehead pressed to Dean’s shoulder. “God, you don’t know how good it is to see you,” Dean whispers, eyes pinched shut.

“Could say the same to you,” Sam says, patting Dean’s shoulder. “Glad to see you without the…”

Right, the wings. The things Dean’s been dragging around since he was conscious enough to look at himself in the mirror. “Cas showed me how to… hide them.” Pulling away, Dean shrugs and rubs the back of his neck, unexpected guilt pooling in his gut. “Do you remember anything? Like, where we were or how I just… got wings?”

It takes him a moment, but Sam shakes his head, wrapping his arms around his middle. “Last thing I remember was that warehouse. Cas said it was two months ago.”

God—that number still floors Dean, that two months of his life are completely gone from his memory, a black hole he can’t pick at, no matter how hard he tries. Something in his Grace—that word again, foreign to his tongue and especially foreign in his body—keeps him from going further, from revealing what hell he endured just to escape.

“You don’t remember anything?” Sam asks, a brief reprieve from Dean’s thoughts.

Dean, with visible reluctance, shakes his head.

“This was my fault,” Sam blurts, before Dean can even gather his thoughts. Now, the mass inside Sam churns, riddled with colors, black blots melting into maroons and deeper reds. Terror, Dean realizes, but he can’t understand why. “I thought it was demons, I swear. If I’d’ve known—”

“Hey.” Dean stops him with a hand to Sam’s shoulder, digging his fingers in hard enough to hurt; Sam remains unresponsive, regardless. “This ain’t either of our faults, got it? Whoever…” Whatever, more likely. “Whoever did this, we’re gonna find them. We’ll get them to fix it, alright?”

“But what if they can’t?”

Dean narrows his eyes. Somewhere inside him, he knows he should be affronted. He should be jumping down Sam’s throat to get him to understand that this isn’t on them, it’s on whoever did it in the first place. But he can’t feel it, no matter how hard he tries. Gone are the memories of physical joy and sorrow, of the grief that once encompassed his entire body, of the anger that fueled him to commit atrocities in the name of the greater good. Now, all he wants to know is how and why, and when he can grasp his sanity again, when he can cut his wings off and watch his Grace burn.

“What if they… What if this is permanent? What if we’re stuck as Angels for the rest of eternity?” Sam holds himself tighter, beginning to rock. “I don’t… I think something’s wrong. With me.”

Dean’s stomach drops. “Sam—”

“I’m not like you, Dean,” Sam stops him. “You’re… You and Cas are bright and pure and I look at myself, and I don’t like what’s there.” He lowers his head, hair covering his eyes. “I don’t think I’m… really an Angel. Not entirely.”

“Of course you are,” Dean asserts, despite Sam shaking his head repeatedly. “You got wings, don’t you?”

“That’s the thing,” Sam sighs, shaky. “They’re not there. I don’t feel them, not like you do. Cas won’t tell me anything. Shit, this morning he looked at me like I was infected, and I looked at myself in the bathroom, and…” Sam’s hands tremble, knuckles beginning to blanche. Whatever empathy Dean might have for Sam is gone, thrown to the wayside, and all Dean can think is how much he hates himself for it, the weakness accompanied with nothing to go on but intuition. “I think whatever happened, it only half worked.”

Shifting his weight between feet, Dean weighs the implications. If whatever happened—whatever spell or ritual or God knows what that blood soaked thing on the library table is—had been stopped, if Sam had been left in the throes of physically changing, then whatever Dean did had to be the cause of it. Of course it would go back to that. Of course Dean had to be the reason for Sam’s inhumanity, unseen to world probably in all of existence. Dean ripped Sam away and hurled him through space, with the full expectation that Sam was fine. If he could save Sam, then all would be right.

Guilt, Dean knows well. Apathy for his transgressions, not so much.

“Look,” Dean says, voice wavering despite how steady he holds himself, his Grace faltering ever so briefly. “Look, we’re gonna fix this, alright? Cas is gonna help, and we’ll get whatever this is out of you.”

“You don’t see it, do you?” Sam’s laughter, hollow and mournful, falls flat on Dean’s ears. “You don’t… You can’t. This isn’t something we’re gonna fix. Whatever they did, it’s permanent.” Agitated, Sam lowers his hands, thumbs tucked into the pockets of his sweatpants. “You can exorcise demons, you can cure vampirism, but you can’t rip the Angel out of someone. I see it in my soul, Dean—this is inside me, and it’s in you too, and you can’t just tear into yourself and expect everything to be the same!”

His final words resonate, sparking something akin to anger to flow through Dean’s veins, yet not quite there. Not enough to act on it, or even to consider it, given the circumstances. Still, Dean’s mouth moves before his brain can catch up, spouting, “I’ll rip it out of you if I have to do it myself. I won’t let you become one of them,” before turning to storm off. He nearly throws himself into Castiel standing three feet away, Castiel carrying a roll of parchment and what looks to be the oldest Bible in existence.

Whatever it is, Dean doesn’t care. Doesn’t turn around, despite feeling both Sam and Castiel’s eyes on him, even after he’s turned the corner and locked himself in his room. I can fix this, he thinks, bordering on hysteric, and slumps against the door, hitting the floor with a hard thump. He’s gotten Sam out of worse situations—raising him from the dead, exorcisms and curses, more than he can even begin to name—and he’ll do it again, if it’s the last thing he does.