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Set Me Free

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“Ants, Castiel,” Uriel said with a lilt of condescension in his voice. “Look at them scurrying around like ants… stupid little specks swarming over our Father’s beautiful world, like they even matter. Self-important insects. It’s funny, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Castiel agreed, because he didn’t have an opinion either way, and everyone agreed Uriel was the funniest angel in the garrison. If he thought it was funny, it must be.

************

Castiel’s regiment was among those summoned by Michael himself. Anytime Michael spoke, Heaven held its breath to listen. The gloried archangel gave them orders to infiltrate the bowels of Hell to rescue one tiny human soul. Dean Winchester. He was the righteous man, and God commanded he be saved.

The angels who had gathered to hear began to stir at the command. Castiel was privately uneasy about the venture. There was the prospect of going to Hell, of course, but that wasn’t what had Castiel unsettled.

He’d never been near a human soul outside of Heaven. And in Heaven, human souls were touched by the divine… changed – blessed – to exist in the ethereal plane alongside angels. They were nearer to angel than man in the fields of the Lord. So they hardly counted.

He’d never encountered an earth-bound human soul, and now he was going to the Pit to fetch a damned one.

He would do it without fear, because God commanded it and Michael told him to do it, but he wondered what it would be like to look upon an unclean soul. From the way Uriel’s wings shuddered in revulsion at the task laid before them, they were far removed from the Heaven-blessed souls that populated eternity.

************

Hell was worse than even Castiel had ever imagined. Sin pushed at them from all sides, dripping hot and putrid from their wings. Proto-demons, still human but halfway to demon, clawed at their arms… whether to tear them apart or beg for salvation, Castiel didn’t know. He dare not stop to find out. Every vile presence that pushed toward him he shoved back.

The demons that came under his direct touch were burned on the spot, scorched and taken apart at the elemental level of their twisted soul. Those that fell to his sword were cleaved in two and pushed aside. But there was no death… not here. Not for the damned within the grip of Hell; Lucifer’s power in the Pit was too great for even his brothers to negate. The beings of hate and fury and rage that were struck down by the angel warriors retreated to fester this new kind of pain, to subsume it into their tapestry of torment as Hell knit them back together so that they might suffer ever more. They would be that much more twisted and mangled for it, but there was no other way… this was Hell.

Castiel incinerated and sliced apart demon after demon, so many that he couldn’t count them all. His brothers and sisters around him were just as efficient, but no matter how much the angels meted out Heaven’s wrath against the Pit’s spawn, there were more demons to take their place. An endless sea of the damned crashing against the angelic soldiers.

The demons weren’t the worst. It was the human souls, still so intact if not marked for eternal damnation. Those that had not yet begun to turn into demons were the hardest clamoring creatures to bear. They were sane enough to still understand that there was an alternative to agony. They still ached with the hope of an end to the pain. They grabbed at Castiel, pleaded with him, crying, “Please, oh God, please…” “Mercy… mercy…!”

It caused him great remorse to shake them off and continue his quest deeper into the Pit. There was only one soul here deemed worthy of redemption, and that was the soul of Dean Winchester. Whatever reservations Castiel might have (which he did not admit he did) to turning a blind eye to all the others who were suffering in their singular mission to save one man went unspoken. It was God’s command, and that was law.

************

The angels had been given the ‘scent’ of Dean Winchester’s soul and sent into the fray like a pack of bloodhounds. They were expected to be separated; Hell was too overpowering to keep a battalion together under the onslaught. A garrison of angels locked tight in formation would only make themselves a single and irresistible target to all of the underworld’s predators. The angels’ only hope would be to scatter and pray that some made it through the throngs of demons to their target.

Some would die in the attempt, that they’d known from the moment Michael bade them go. While the demons here couldn’t die, angels could. Hell found any break in the integrity of an angel’s grace and pulled it out like so many miles of intestines. The filament of an angel’s very existence would be thrown to the beasts of Satan, where it was devoured. And so an angel died. Lucifer’s power had that much sway in Hell.

Others would turn back. There was no shame in that… angels were the mightiest warriors of God, but Hell was unlike any battlefield imaginable. The angelic would never be in a more hostile environment than this. This was beyond even the biblical warfare for which they’d been created, and if no where else, here the angels could be overwhelmed. Every aspect of Hell repelled them, sought them out and tried to tear them apart. And so some angels would flee.

Uriel gave up in the first decade. Balthazar in the second. Zachariah in the third. Through all his brothers turning back, Castiel kept going. He felt the same desire to escape this terrible place that his brothers had, but Castiel’s tenacity was greater than this repulsion. He would find Dean Winchester.

************

Hell was a convoluted place, with pockets of misery and pits of torture packed together in a structure reminiscent of porous igneous rock. The deeper Castiel went in his search, the more he relied on hollow caverns coated with blood and bile to hide. His search went from headlong charge to stealth infiltration. The depth and severity of the corruption was suffocating, but Castiel’s determination had never been greater. After years of following a vague sense of direction, Dean Winchester’s soul was now a distinct homing beacon in his grace. Castiel knew he was finally getting close to him. Nothing could deter him.

The humans were no longer reaching piteously for him as he hunted the bowels of Hell for Dean Winchester. This deep in the Pit, they were all bound and tethered, great chained hooks buried in their concept-flesh. There was no real flesh down here, but those souls that were still human clung to their self-concept of flesh and bone. They knew themselves as flesh and blood, and so it existed to them. Belief made reality, a twisted mockery of faith.

Castiel wanted to tell all of them to abandon the notion of the bodies they’d worn in life. If they didn’t imagine themselves as being made of flesh and bones, there’d be no flesh to skin off or bones to break. It would be a different kind of mutilation after that, of course, but maybe less horrifying than seeing their own skin peeled away. Less human, anyway.

The demons had conceptual figures, too. Some became horned beasts, remnants of their mortal understanding of the demonic. Some were visceral representations of death – the rot, the decay, the exposed organs. Some were terrifying creatures without human frame of reference. Some were knots of anger and rage tangled in tissue not quite flesh and nowhere near human. Some of them had no eyes, no hair, no form that held. Those amalgams of pain lashed out at Castiel with tendrils like whips, mouths of razor-sharp teeth opening, gaping from blood-clot-colored tissue to roar at him from several places at once.

Castiel beat them away, burned them when he could manage a firm hold, and soldiered on.

Castiel had a conceptual self-image here, too. Not the one he had of himself as an angel, but a human form he’d chosen. Unburdened with a vessel, he could command his grace to project whatever appearance he wished it to. He chose to look like his living vessel on Earth… Jimmy Novak of Pontiac, Illinois. It was a choice made with a great deal of care. Some of Castiel’s brothers and sisters went to Hell alongside him as they were, pure energy and light. Zachariah, perhaps to be contrary, went as a thundering beast with the head of a lion, serpent, falcon, and bull. Balthazar chose a dragon. Castiel chose to appear as a winged Jimmy Novak for two reasons. One – Dean needed to recognize his rescuer as an angel, and he’d been raised in a culture that proliferated the notion of angels looking like humans with wings. Two – should Castiel need to interact with Dean on the mortal plane, it would have to be using a vessel, and this way it would be a face Dean knew… even if he didn’t consciously realize it.

His form he chose for Dean’s benefit, but it had a profound effect on the hordes of Hell. The stereotypical angel appearance made the human souls even more desperate to get near him. The demons that were still slightly human were furious at his presence. Vindictive at his temerity to appear as a servant of Heaven after the fact, when it was too late for so many of them.

But Castiel kept his form, kept to his mission, and cut a swath through Hell toward Dean.

************

When Castiel found Dean Winchester, it was not how he expected to come upon the righteous man.

There was a human soul on the rack, and initially Castiel assumed it to be Dean. It took him only a fraction of a second to realize Dean wasn’t the victim… he was the creature holding the knife and doing the slicing.

Dean whirled to face Castiel when the angel’s grace resonated in the small space, distracting the tormenter from his work. Castiel stopped and considered the soul before him. It was a bright thing, fierce and strong… but damaged. So very, very broken. Strips of it hung from him in tatters, bleeding pain and shame and manic frenzy. Castiel had pushed past many human souls to reach Dean, an untold number of souls in such unimaginable agony that they all began to look alike to the angel, and yet this one shone with an intensity the others had not had. There was potential, but there was miles and fathoms of blackness wrapped around it. A blanket threatening to smother the spark.

Castiel moved toward Dean.

The savage creature crouched and brandished his weapon. Lips curled back to bear blood-stained teeth. Dean’s eyes gleamed darkly with madness, confused and tortured beyond reason.

“Dean Winchester… fear not, I’ve come to save you,” Castiel intoned. He reached out a hand, expecting Dean to be like the others. They’d clawed at him and clung to him and begged him to take them. He imagined taking Dean with him would be no more difficult than reaching out a hand and letting Dean take it.

Instead, Dean lashed out at him, slashing wildly with the blade in his hand. A noise escaped him, animalistic and inhuman, a sound that was just as pained as it was enraged. Castiel flinched back, surprised. He hadn’t expected the one soul he had permission to save to put up a fight.

“Put down your burden, Dean Winchester, and come with me, for you are redeemed.”

The defensive creature was unimpressed. He backed away from Castiel, shaking and slavering like a rabid dog. Castiel followed after him, unsure now of what to do.

Dean snapped and lunged at him, swinging his weapon wildly and screeching a noise that sounded a lot like, “Sam!”

Castiel dodged the strike then quickly knocked the knife away.

Dean screamed.

Distracted from the human he’d come to save, Castiel sensed a powerful demon coming their way. He’d been told that, this deep in the Pit, their greatest foe next to Lucifer himself would be Alistair. Since Castiel would recognize his fallen brother’s twisted grace, the beast coming toward them could only be Alistair.

Castiel could either fight or flee. It was his nature to fight – he was the celestial embodiment of God’s justice and wrath – but fighting Alistair was not the reason Castiel and his garrison was sent into the Pit. Their only objective was to save Dean Winchester… not mount a holy war against the hordes of Hell.

Making his decision, Castiel reached past Dean’s flailing arms and grabbed him on the shoulder.

Dean seized and let loose a hideous scream, while Castiel felt the flesh beneath his touch sizzling. Burning. The way demons burned at an angel’s touch.

Surprise and horror made a bitter combination Castiel had never experienced before. But he didn’t have time to study the strange cocktail of emotion.

Castiel pulled Dean to him, tightened his hold, and flew.

************

It was hard for Castiel to fight back the way he’d come with Dean struggling the entire time. Dean fought wildly to break loose from the angel dragging him through Hell. Castiel held him tight with one hand, his sword brandished in the other to ward off attack. Castiel was worried. Dean’s essence hadn’t burn through completely at the angel’s touch, so he wasn’t pure demon, but he was well on his way. Castiel’s grace reacted to Dean’s soul like he was already one of the condemned. It sensed the wrongness in him, the disease of damnation. It seemed perverse. How could the righteous man be demon-tainted?

But God commanded Dean be freed, and Castiel did not question that. Or if he did, he would never dare to disobey, despite his own misgivings.

The press of demons swirling around them began to thicken. Castiel fought ferociously – blade singing against the bloodied hordes, and filled with his blessed purpose, Castiel knew he made an awesome sight – and the whole time Dean twisting and kicking and screaming in his grasp.

Castiel beat back great waves of the damned with his mighty wings, sending hundreds of them hurtling back from the brush of his grace. Every touch against an evil essence took a little bit out of Castiel, and the strain began to take its toll.

Castiel looked around for help from his brothers and sisters and realized in that moment that he was alone. None of the others that had come to Hell with him were still there. Only him. He was alone, a warrior of God in the bowels of Hell, surrounded by demons and carrying a half-demon soul.

The righteous man was fighting like a feral animal trying to escape his savior.

Knowing he was being overwhelmed, Castiel shifted from attack to evade. Uriel may be funnier, and Michael stronger, and Balthazar wilier, but Castiel was faster than them all. He used the only talent left to him and flew. The demons tried to keep up, but they were no match.

Castiel might have flown forever upward, straight back into the arms of Heaven, but there were just as many demons before him as there were behind. He couldn’t plow through them alone. With the combined might of the garrison, maybe, but not by himself. He might have tried anyway (ever ready and willing to sacrifice himself for the cause), but while his own existence was forfeit to the glory and service of God, Dean Winchester could not be sacrificed. Castiel had to protect him, and to do that he must remain alive.

The first moment of uncertainty and panic struck Castiel when he realized that though he might have the righteous man in his grasp, he could well be trapped in Hell forever with him.

He needed time to think… and to calm the wild creature he was carrying.

************

Castiel found a small fissure in the fabric of Hell and squeezed both him and his charge inside. It was free of demons, though the walls still reeked of bowels and roiled like an unsettled stomach. All that aside, it was a moment to rest, and Castiel needed it. He shoved into the space and released Dean Winchester for the first time. Dean leapt away from him, spitting and snarling. He contemplated escape only briefly, until he realized Castiel had planted himself in front of the only way out and spread his wings… an impenetrable wall to a puny human soul.

Dean backed into the far corner and glared at Castiel.

Castiel watched him in return while his wings recovered from their strenuous exertion. He laid his blade across his lap. Dean’s eyes followed it hungrily. Castiel didn’t doubt the human yearned to grab it up and use it against him. If Dean did manage to get the blade from Castiel, it would be the one way the human could actually kill him. He contemplated the peculiarity of it, if Dean somehow wrested control of the weapon and destroyed his own savior.

That, of course, could not be allowed to happen.

So Castiel would have to take great care to keep his weapon away from Dean, on top of everything else he had to worry about.

The caldron of Hell was all around them, swimming sickly with screams in the distance, but for the moment they were hidden. Castiel would take what time he could to think about his next move… and his reluctant charge.

Dean was scratching at the back of his hand with his fingernails, drawing blood and pulling off strips of skin until the bone shone through underneath. If he stopped for more than five seconds, the flesh knitted and he could start anew. He scratched and glowered and stared at the angel while he indulged in his bloody anxious tick.

“You’re not what I expected,” Castiel said at length. He didn’t know what good it would do to speak to him; Dean Winchester seemed more beast than man, but Castiel couldn’t help himself.

Dean’s lip curled in a look of revulsion.

Castiel rested his hands against his blade, comforted by its cool touch and deadly edge. “You need not fear me, Dean Winchester… I am here at God’s command to save you.”

Clearly, Dean didn’t believe him.

“You have been through a great deal, I understand,” Castiel said with care. Others of his brothers would have been better suited to speaking to a human – Castiel had no frame of reference – but there was only him, so he would do his best to tame this wild animal, Dean Winchester. “But I have been ordered to raise you from perdition, and what God has willed I shall do.”

His speech seemed to fall on deaf ears. Dean turned away from the angel with a vicious growl. Castiel’s eyes dropped to the human’s shoulder. A mark in the shape of his hand, like a brand, was burned into the skin of Dean’s conceptual self as well as into his soul. The sight made Castiel uneasy. It was a mark of how near Dean was to demon when Castiel found him. Surely God couldn’t mean for this to be their savior? No matter how brilliantly Dean’s soul shone under the gore and despair, Heaven should have a holier champion than this.

Someone more like Michael.

And yet, the twisted thing before Castiel fascinated him.

************

Castiel stayed in one place as long as he dared, but his grace was like a flower in a bone yard… the demons sensed it and began to track it toward him.

With no better notion of how he was going to get Dean out of the Pit, Castiel got up, yanked the human to him, and fled their hideaway. Dean was twisting and kicking again, biting when he could get teeth into Castiel’s form, but the angel ignored it all and flew.

It felt like he had to fly forever. It was so long that Dean stopped struggling, instead becoming a tense ball of discontent soul in Castiel’s grip. Even Castiel was growing tired. He wondered how much closer to freedom he could get them before he had to stop to gather his strength.

Farther than he thought. He wouldn’t have seen the demon lunge at him if Dean hadn’t suddenly screamed bloody murder after weeks of silence. Castiel jerked aside, flared his wings, brought up his sword, and cleaved the monster in two. The demon fell away jerking, in pieces, and Castiel knew it was time to find someplace to rest.

Even still, actually finding another cranny to wedge themselves into wasn’t easy. Castiel was near the point of exhaustion before he found out, and he all but threw Dean in before him, staggering in afterward and collapsing near the entrance, as before. There he sat and shook as his grace bowed under the strain of holding back Hell.

Dean had shuffled back toward the far wall away from the angel, like before, but he didn’t start snarling and yowling like a wild animal, and for that Castiel was grateful. Castiel watched Dean and felt the words come before he’d really considered them. “I apologize… that last demon came too close to you. I should not have let it happen.”

Dean studied him with mistrustful eyes. Again, his gaze flickered down to Castiel’s blade.

The angel hefted it into his lap and cradled it, making it clear that he would not let it leave his hands. He hated that even here, holed up with his ‘righteous man’, he felt like he was facing down an enemy.

But Dean didn’t lunge at him. Instead he paced the small space like an agitated beast, never taking his eyes from the angel. Castiel contemplated talking to him again, but in the end his own exhaustion won out and he let the screams outside their nook fill the silence. He was simply grateful that, for the time being, at least he didn’t have to fight Dean.

When Castiel had recovered his strength and moved to press onward, Dean didn’t fight against being snatched up and carried away.

************

The next time they stopped, the space they found to hide from the demons was larger than the others had been. Dean immediately made use of the space and got as much distance from the angel as he could. Castiel let him go… he was tired and cranky and more than a little concerned. Time was subjective to an angel at the best of time, and to a human in the grip of Hell severely warped, but together they must have been on the run for months. He couldn’t keep flying them around Hell forever… eventually, his strength would give out and he would be slain.

But he knew the moment he tried to actually break Dean out of Hell, the opposition of Hell’s army would go from steady heckling to intense mass assault. They weren’t making much progress as far as escape went, but Castiel kept them moving enough that they’d evaded capture so far. That would change the second Castiel made an offensive push to bust out of the Pit with his precious cargo.

And Castiel might be fast, but he was only one angel with a soul to ward over.

He took what he could and counted it a tiny success that Dean wasn’t scratching and biting at him anymore.

Once they’d hidden themselves, Castiel stashed his sword and stretched out his sore wings, wincing at the catches and twinges that raced up their joints. He’d never felt physical aches or pains in his wings, not like this. Hell was putting too much stress on his grace. Long enough trapped down here, and he’d be corrupted and taken down, just like a human soul. Rather than liberating Dean Winchester, Hell would have a new demon with strength and power unlike any other outside of Lucifer himself. It was very much the opposite of how the story was supposed to go.

He had to figure out a way to escape before then.

Castiel was quietly regaining his strength, senses tuned for any indications of closing enemies, when Dean spoke to him for the first time. “Why?”

Castiel looked up, startled. Dean was eyeing him warily from across the ruddy space, not coming any closer.

“Why what?” Castiel asked, puzzled and tired.

Why?” Dean snarled again, fire in his eyes.

“God commanded your soul be saved, and I am but a servant of the Lord,” Castiel answered.

From the twisted expression that crossed Dean’s face, either that didn’t answer what Dean had really been asking, or he was scornful of the idea. Castiel was stunned by that. His own was an existence that harbored no doubt about God’s will. He couldn’t fathom anything shy of a demon being aggressive toward the idea of God’s plans for it. Dean was many things – confusion, hatred, anger, shame, sorrow, pain – but one thing he wasn’t was the celebration of God.

Even though he was the righteous man.

Castiel would question Dean Winchester’s true purpose in the eyes of Heaven if he didn’t see the luminous star buried under all that Hell had shoved onto him. Castiel wondered, with dread, if he’d reached Dean too late. Maybe he could have been everything Michael had said he would be… if only they’d reached him sooner. Perhaps this mangled remainder was all they could hope for from God’s champion.

The thought left Castiel feeling very remorseful.

************

The next time they stopped so Castiel could rest, Dean turned to the angel the moment he was free of his hold and said, “I hate you.” Castiel just stared at the human, and he wondered if Dean meant it or if he was trying it on.

The look in Dean’s eyes didn’t give him any clues.

************

The longer Castiel flew, making his painstakingly-slow way toward Heaven, the stranger the sense he got of the creature in his charge. What had been, at first, a slightly distressing press of nascent demon in his grasp had become more nuanced as he learned him with his grace. Dean was dark, yes, and touching him made something perk up and take notice inside Castiel, but he wasn’t so certain that it was revulsion from the demonic that he was sensing. It was a very different response from when one of the demons trying to stop their escape got too close or he had to touch it to burn it out of their path. That was pure disgust that made Castiel feel sick and yearn to be cleansed.

No… Dean’s touch was different. It was an oddly-angled thing, and Castiel couldn’t help but be fascinated by the feel of it.

************

“You’re weak.”

Castiel looked up at Dean from his slouched position against a putrid-smelling wall. Dean had crossed the distance of their cavern to stand before Castiel as he hurled the accusation. The human was standing taut in front of him, staring accusingly. Castiel could not deny the truth.

“I am growing weak, yes… you are right, Dean Winchester.”

“Dean.”

“What?” Castiel frowned. He was so tired… each stop to rest was longer than the last. Castiel’s grace was buckling, shaking under the strain of holding off the armies of Hell.

Dean. Not Dean Winchester.”

That was baffling. “You are Dean Winchester. I don’t understand the difference.”

“There’s a difference. Call me what I tell you to.”

It was Dean trying to pick a fight, but Castiel was too weary. “Very well… Dean.” Castiel was just taking heart from the fact that Dean was owning his identity. It had been weeks, at least, of Castiel calling Dean Winchester by his name before he would respond to it. Whether Alistair had tried to erase it from him or Dean had tried to forget it, Castiel did not know.

“Why?” Dean asked lowly.

Castiel sighed. This question was growing tiresome, and he never seemed to know the right answer.

“Because I am an angel in the bowels of Hell… the sheer magnitude of the evil here is draining me.”

Dean sneered and moved away. Castiel let him; he wouldn’t go far. Castiel still made a point to block the exit with his body, though he wondered if Dean would still try to escape. Since he’d been in Castiel’s custody, he’d not been filleted or gutted once. If nothing else, that had to register to Dean’s warped mind.

Castiel didn’t realize he was drifting, losing his focus, until Dean was kicking him in the shin. “Get up… they’re coming.”

And they were. Dean was still shy enough of completely human to sense the demons coming.

Castiel rose, exhausted though he was, and turned toward Dean.

Dean stepped into his wingspan and allowed Castiel to grab him tight.

************

Castiel wasn’t entirely sure how he hid them that time, so thorough was his exhaustion. He only knew that one moment he was fighting and flying, then the next moment he found himself lying on the ground in yet another crevice, every part of him moving with aching slowness. He wasn’t sure where he’d lost time, but it didn’t seem to matter. His wings were crooked awkwardly, stiff with pain. He blinked and looked around at their latest hideaway. It was cramped, hardly big enough for them both, but it was safe… for now.

That was when Castiel realized that lying crumpled as he was, he wasn’t bodily blocking Dean’s path to escape, the way he’d always taken such care to do. Castiel felt a zing of panic… after all he’d done, to lose the righteous man in a moment of weakness and inattention would be unforgivable. If angels could weep, he might.

“Dean…?” he tried, expecting little but praying all the same.

“Here,” came a gruff voice near Castiel’s hip. Castiel turned slightly on his side and painfully moved his wing aside to look. Dean was sitting cross-legged on the ground next to him, staring at him. It felt a bit like a starving dog watching a rabbit choking its last gasp.

“Are you injured?” Castiel asked at length.

Dean looked confused at first… his existence for decades had been one tearing wound after another, he didn’t really understand how to quantify them anymore. He didn’t know how to distinguish the unending injuries from each other. Then, after a long time, he scowled. “You’re not going to make it.”

Castiel didn’t appreciate his pessimism, no matter how prescient or justified it might be. “I am on a mission from God; I will not fail.” He knew he sounded peevish… he was surprised. He’d never been ‘peeved’ before.

He slid another look toward Dean, considered the dark shadows about him, and amended, “But even if I should fail, others will come for you. My brothers and sisters. Don’t fight them, Dean… please. They mean to save you.”

“Shut up,” Dean snapped.

Castiel tensed in annoyance. He would never understand the turns this human’s mind took. He would expect gratitude or relief to know he was still going to be raised from Hell, regardless of what befell Castiel… instead, this.

Rather than try to make sense of this puzzling creature, Castiel settled himself more heavily against the ground, sinking into it and snatching what recovery time he could. It was all too fleeting of late, and Castiel was so very, very tired.

“You die and I’ll kill you,” Dean vowed darkly.

Castiel felt his first genuine tug of humor. Not the obligatory amusement he expressed at Uriel’s jokes, because everyone in the garrison agreed he was funny and so Castiel did along with them, but amusement at something based entirely on his own estimate of it being humorous. Dean Winchester would threaten to end the life of a dead angel in Hell. There were no less than twelve things wrong with that.

“Hey,” Dean kicked him in the stomach, “you hear me, angel?”

“Always,” Castiel muttered. Ever since Michael had given them the scent of his soul and Castiel had been the one to track it to its source and take hold of the actual Dean Winchester, Castiel could hear his soul. But the things he heard didn’t always make sense.

Dean was fidgeting.

Just the sight of furtive motion made Castiel weary. So Castiel made an appeal. “Dean… rest.”

Castiel had never seen Dean actually at rest, but at the same time he was far removed from the mad animal Castiel first encountered torturing a fellow human on the rack.

Dean resisted at first, almost just on principle, then he moved with stilted awkwardness. He stretched himself out on the ground next to Castiel. The tight space meant their bodies were close enough for Castiel to feel that echo-sense of Dean’s soul against his grace, like spiritual body heat. After carrying him closely for months, it was a familiar feeling. Castiel hesitated to think it, but it was almost comforting. For nothing demon-touched should be comforting to an angel. Castiel ought to find no respite in Dean Winchester’s soul.

But there were no other angels there to tell him not to, so he did. It was a tiny thing to cling to in the Pit, surrounded by the wicked.

Dean rested like he was waiting to be hit, curled tense and taut, but he laid still and Castiel was grateful.

Since he’d been drifting in and out of focus lately, and he didn’t want anything to happen to Dean without him being aware, Castiel carefully dropped his wing toward the human.

Dean tensed when Castiel lightly draped his wing over him, but he didn’t shove it away.

************

When Dean reached out and tangled his fingers in Castiel’s grace and hung on tight, Castiel was so surprised he almost allowed the demon he was fighting to strike a devastating blow. Always before, it had been Castiel clutching Dean like a tiny, precious thing. Dean had come to allow it without fighting, and Castiel believed it was the most he could ever ask of the damaged human soul.

But he was wrong and blindsided all at once when Dean went from passive to active in his hold.

Castiel was battling a demon, a particularly skilled and tenacious one. His wings served as shield and hammer, his blade he wielded with expert grace, but like always, one arm was reserved exclusively to holding Dean tight.

Perhaps Dean saw the angel struggling to defeat the demon he was fighting. Maybe he feared, for just a moment, he’d be snatched away from the angel and thrown back into the full agonies of Hell and the merciless tutelage of Alistair. Whatever the impetus, Dean decided that was the moment to take some action to aide in his own rescue.

So he reached out, grabbed fistfuls of Castiel’s grace, and hung on for dear life.

Castiel felt the contact surge through him like a tidal wave. Somehow, before, when it had been his hold around an unyielding and reluctant soul, there had been some sense of separation between them.

When Dean grabbed hold of Castiel, it was like he reached right into Castiel’s core and tugged hard. Castiel’s grace gave a strange buck… no human soul should ever touch an angel’s grace so intimately. It was obscene. It was also exhilarating. It was like the celebration of God, that kind of glorious exultation, but there was something entirely human about it that Castiel felt certain an angel should never know.

The shock of it made Castiel’s arm fall away, and it was just as well that Dean was holding on, because otherwise Castiel would have dropped him.

Then Castiel realized Dean had freed up his other arm to fight, and fight he did. The demon wasn’t prepared for the zeal and fervor in Castiel’s attack. Castiel wasn’t either, honestly. Something about Dean’s touch was still singing through his essence, filling him with an energy that seemed boundless.

The demon didn’t stand a chance, and Castiel cut him down quickly.

Then, nearly as strongly as the rush had filled Castiel, it left him. In its wake, he felt shaky and shocky.

Dean’s fingers in his grace gave an insistent squeeze, and Castiel snapped out of his fog and went in search of shelter.

************

When Castiel finally found someplace for them to hide, he was surprised that the moment his feet touched the ground, Dean’s did too, and the human’s insanely close and tangled presence was all that held Castiel upright. His legs were doing their best to fold under him.

“Stupid asshole,” Dean muttered. His death-like grip on Castiel’s grace loosened enough to ease Castiel to the ground. The floor, tacky with blood, felt foreign and filthy and unwelcoming, and Castiel leaned upward into Dean’s touch instead. Demon-stained though it might be, there was beauty there. Castiel was so sick of ugliness.

Dean scowled and shook Castiel off, dropping him on the ground and backing away from him a pace.

Castiel didn’t try to stop him. He didn’t understand half of what he’d experienced back there, anyway, and for a being who knew the workings of the fabric of the universe, the waves of unknown that had assailed him were unsettling. Since Dean had been the direct cause of all those unfamiliar sensations, Castiel was fine with having him at a distance.

Dean was pacing… Castiel thought that restless, caged behavior was over with, an aspect of the more-demon-than-human Dean Winchester from months ago, but apparently not. Castiel just let him pace and worried at the numbness in his wings. It couldn’t be a good thing that he couldn’t feel them.

Dean turned, stopped in his tracks, and his essence darkened. “Fuck.”

As a general rule, Castiel tried not to pay attention to the expletives and blasphemies that came out of Dean’s mouth on a disquietingly-regular basis, so he said nothing in counter.

He did yelp and jerk in pain when Dean strode over to where Castiel was slumped and laid his unclean hands on one of Castiel’s wings. At first it was a bright, arresting sensation because no one less than an angel had ever dared to touch his wings. They were pure grace, and Dean’s hands on them was like feeling Dean’s fingers fisting in him all over again.

Then he was tensed in pain and trying to pull away from the hot sense of burning and tearing awakened by Dean’s touch.

Dean’s hands held fast. “Stop… you’re hurt.”

Castiel frowned and craned his neck to look over his shoulder and examine the wing in question. He gently shook free of Dean’s hands to extend the wing in search of the wound Dean had seen. He knew it was there before he’d even fully stretched out the appendage… he felt the burn of torn grace. Castiel let his wing fall back to his side, folded against the disgusting floor in exhaustion. He hadn’t even felt the injury when it happened, but there was no denying now that he was hurt.

Dean was crowding close to him, scowling and angry. “Will this heal?” He asked angrily, like it was something Castiel had let happen to him.

Castiel didn’t have the strength to move. Or lie. “I don’t know. If we were in Heaven, yes… but here… Hell is breaking me down. It might heal… it might not.” The failure in that was choking. Not that he might die here, but that he’d die having failed to save Dean.

“Where the hell are your angel buddies?” Dean growled. It was the first time he’d ever asked about the others. Picking up on Dean’s reticence to discuss the other angels, Castiel had stopped bringing them up in conversation. So Dean’s question drew Castiel up short a second. And it made him realize just how long it had been since he’d spoken of his kin. It was strange to Castiel, to have gone so very long without even mentioning one of his brothers or sisters.

“They stormed the gates of Hell with me… some were killed. Others turned back and fled. I’m the only one left.”

“Winged dickheads.”

Castiel huffed. For some of his brethren, that was an apt description. Still… “They are my brothers and sisters.”

Dean went stiff. “Brothers don’t leave each other to rot in Hell.” Then Dean was turning his back to Castiel and going as far away from the angel as the space allowed.

Castiel wasn’t sure what Dean was thinking, but he found it generally too taxing to try and figure it out. He would much rather focus all his energies on healing himself… if it was even possible.

************

They stayed in one place longer than they should have. Castiel knew it, and he could tell Dean knew it, too. Dean’s restlessness grew exponentially the longer they stayed put, and Castiel knew they weren’t safe and that he should take them elsewhere.

But he couldn’t. His wing had grown painfully sore and stiff, and the very thought of flying made him cringe. They’d been lucky so far that no demons had found them (perhaps due, in part, to how diminished Castiel could tell his grace was)… but they couldn’t expect that to last. Sooner or later, something would find them, and Castiel had to prepare Dean for that.

“Dean.”

The human looked sharply at the angel, curled in a miserable ball in a corner. Admittedly, Castiel knew it was not the mightiest he’d ever looked. Dean eyed the angel shrewdly before approaching and crouching low to meet Castiel’s eye.

Castiel winced. “My bro… the other angels will come for you.” Dean’s look darkened. “We are not safe here, you know that. And I can’t fly. When the demons find us… you have to run. Find someplace to hide and wait for the others. They’ll come for you, I promise.” Castiel prayed they’d find Dean quickly.

For a long time, Dean just stared at Castiel with a look the angel could not begin to interpret. Nor could he make heads or tails of the anxious churning in his grace at the thought of his inevitable death. It was strange… before, as an unwavering servant of Heaven, he’d never feared death. Now, he feared it as that act which would forever separate him from this bright and perplexing human soul he’d come to take too much interest in. He was an angel trapped in Hell… he selfishly allowed himself that one personal preoccupation.

Finally, Dean responded. “I won’t go with them.”

That was not what Castiel had expected (though he’d predicted the cantankerous tone). “Dean… they want to save you.”

“Those dicks that turned tail and left you here, you mean? If they come for me, I won’t go with them and leave you here.”

“Dean…” Castiel pleaded, because the thought of being separated from this human was distressing, but the idea that he would let himself be taken by the demons was even worse. It made Castiel’s wings move restlessly, where he’d been taking great care for days not to move them at all.

“Shut up and get better,” Dean snarled. With that, Dean stood and went back to his uneasy pacing. The hole they’d climbed through to reach this tiny cavern was unguarded, as it had been from the start, but Castiel had long since stopped thinking Dean would run away.

Now he learned Dean wouldn’t run, even when Castiel explicitly ordered him to.

A new feeling was welling up in him, and he thought it might be frustration. Maybe also annoyance. He’d experienced pale imitations of them with his brothers and sisters (before he left, Gabriel’s antics could try the patience of the most stalwart angel), but this particular feeling Dean stirred in him was new and striking in its severity.

Was Dean changing him, or was Hell?

Perhaps it was both. Castiel wondered if the changes were permanent… assuming he ever escaped the bowels of Hell. He honestly didn’t expect to anymore. He felt worlds apart from the angel he’d been in Heaven, before the raid on Hell to save Dean Winchester.

Castiel looked long and hard at Dean. His soul was still a mess… pieces and strips hanging from him, like a thing half-shredded and left to rot. But that light past all the damage… it was worth it. Castiel knew that, at last, with certainty.

Dean was edging toward the hole, glaring out as if he could intimate away anything that might think to venture too close.

Castiel wondered if this stubborn refusal of Dean’s to abandon him in battle was a thing born and shaped in Hell or a peek past the ravaged soul to the real Dean Winchester.

He suspected he wouldn’t live long enough to know. He felt a new emotion at that thought… regret.

************

Castiel didn’t know if he could fly or not, but the decision to try was taken out of his hands when a demon wormed its way into their little spot of rest. Castiel rose to fight it off, but his grace was hard to rally and command. Everything burned and tore. He thought this was the end. He hoped Dean ran. He hoped the other angels found him quickly.

Before the demon could strike, Dean did first. He’d been hovering near Castiel, and when the demon came into their cavern, the Winchester reacted like it was instinct older than Hell. He crowded into Castiel’s space and stole his sword.

Castiel jerked in surprise, despite himself. He’d once believed the moment Dean got his hands on the angel blade, it would be his death sentence.

But Dean didn’t wield the weapon against Castiel… he took it in hand, expert like he’d been born to it, and charged the demon. Castiel watched, dumbfounded, as Dean slashed at the demon, his screams filled with so much rage and glee and fear and passion that it took Castiel a second to realize that Dean was standing between the demon and the angel. Dean was doing it to save Castiel.

The absurdity of that was astounding. A damaged human soul would face down a demon to protect an angel. The angel sent to save him.

That galvanized Castiel to action. His wings hurt, his grace quivered and strained, but he could not let Dean subject himself to the agonies of Hell for him. Not while Castiel still lived.

Castiel marshaled his strength and flared out his grace. His wings snapped open, and the cavern was too small to contain the wingspan… so the bone-marrow-like pocket cracked and shattered under the will of a determined warrior of God. Castiel felt his grace pulsing, burning with a strange ferocity that had everything to do with Dean. That human soul Castiel had suffered so long to safeguard, that human soul that was throwing himself into battle with a demon for the sake of a wounded angel.

The demon shrieked and scurried backward, smoking and burning in the places where it had witnessed the angel’s unleashed grace. Dean lowered the blade and turned, staring openly at Castiel. He didn’t burn. Once his shoulder had at the angel’s touch, but his soul bore witness to the angel now, and there was no fire.

Castiel knew in that instant that Dean Winchester could be saved. He could be redeemed.

The rush of ‘you will not take him’ wrath that had fueled Castiel’s display of Heaven’s power waned soon after, but there was still a great surge of determination within him. He would keep Dean Winchester safe.

“Dean,” Castiel bade, holding out a hand. The destruction of their small cavern left them exposed to the predators of Hell, and the monsters wouldn’t stand idle long.

Dean went immediately to Castiel. He gave him back his weapon, then pressed himself to Castiel when the angel held open his arms in invitation. Like before, Dean buried his fingers in Castiel’s grace and held on tight. Castiel’s grace flared. He could almost swear that some of Dean’s strength bled into him, forced into his grace by the stubborn intent of Dean’s soul.

The sense of Dean’s soul giving of itself to Castiel was invigorating and empowering, and where once Castiel might have refused the gift from an unworthy creature, so long in Hell had transformed him into something else… an angel that would accept the help of a human soul.

Then Castiel took off, flying despite the pain and despite the odds.

************

Castiel was right about one thing… the other angels returned to seek out Dean Winchester. Even the most optimistic among them was surprised to find the object of their holy quest so near the gates of Hell. They were also surprised to see their brother, Castiel. He’d been presumed lost with the others who hadn’t turned back and fled the Pit. But he was alive, and he had Dean Winchester’s soul clinging tightly to his grace.

Demons and their sinister beasts were everywhere, so close to Castiel as he fought to escape Hell with his passenger that their snapping teeth pulled out feathers.

Castiel was flying valiantly, bravely, suffering the shredding of his grace in his bid for freedom. His arms were locked tight around Dean, holding him safe from harm while hellhounds tore him to shreds.

Uriel moved first, but the others were quick to follow. They surged down to help their brother, the one among them who’d succeeded in the most important command passed down from God in millennia. Castiel was no Michael, no Gabriel, but in that fleeting moment he was admired by his fellow angels as much as any of the archangels were.

When the demons and hellhounds saw the great host of Heaven coming to Castiel’s rescue, they gave up their prey and turned away, fleeing. Castiel staggered and dipped wildly in mid-flight. There was nowhere to fall but Fall in Hell, and the nearness of it made the angels gasp.

Then Balthazar was swooping in and soon had Castiel in the shelter of his grace, buoying his beleaguered brother. For a moment, Castiel’s mutilated wings continued to flap, unable to believe that at last help had come. When he finally realized he was surrounded by angels, he went limp in Balthazar’s hold.

The angels crowded close and stared at their fierce, fearless brother, as near to unconscious any angel had ever been, and yet even with his senses slipping his arms were folded tight around one precious human soul.

The angels peered at Dean Winchester, sheltered in Castiel’s arms and clinging to him so tight that the angel’s grace was pulling and pinching in Dean’s hands.

Zachariah reached into the tangle of arms and tried to separate them only once. Dean became livid and animated, screaming and fighting, clutching Castiel harder and refusing to be taken from him.

Zachariah gave up and let him be.

It was just as well. They couldn’t pry Castiel’s arms away from Dean, anyway.

************

Because the angels didn’t know what else to do with the battered and beaten angel and the Hell-ravaged human soul he couldn’t be parted from, the two were placed together in a safe-room and left alone. They were watched, of course, but the other angels were leery of getting any more involved than that. This was God’s righteous man, but every angel could see the ruin of Hell all over him. They all heard and saw the half-wild creature he became when anyone tried to separate him from Castiel. They were uneasy and more than happy to put the pair somewhere alone and sit back and watch.

Angels had always been good at watching.

When Castiel finally came around, the first thing he registered was Dean’s soul, plastered to him and holding on so tight that Castiel’s wings felt the grip. The human was panting, taut and tense like the animal he’d been once.

The distress of feeling a return to that creature made Castiel stir. “Dean…?”

The human jerked and looked up quickly. His eyes met Castiel’s and there was desperation and hope there. He gaped at Castiel a moment. Then he said shakily, “You’re alive.”

“It would seem so…” Castiel said, though how that could be possible baffled him. The last thing he remembered was flying for all he was worth but the hounds of hell tearing into his grace anyway. But he sensed nothing now. After so long being aware of so much evil around him, the absence was suddenly eerie.

“Where are we?” Castiel shifted, trying to get his weakened grace to cooperate.

Dean let go of him and shuffled away… though he didn’t go far. “I don’t know. There were others.”

“Demons?” Castiel asked quickly.

“Not like any I’ve ever seen. One was part lion, for God’s sake.”

Castiel froze. Then he began to laugh.

Dean looked stunned by the sound at first, then he narrowed his eyes at Castiel. “Why are you laughing?”

“They were angels, Dean.” Castiel looked around and finally realized where they were. It would seem his prayers had been answered. Even in Hell, apparently God heard. “We’re safe.”

Dean seemed to be at a loss for what to do with that.

Castiel took a moment to consider the human he’d pulled from the Pit. Outside of Hell, the gory appearance of his soul in tatters was even more gruesome, but at the same time the spark of his soul was so much brighter. Castiel felt a ridiculous urge to reach over and gather that soul up tight against him, as they’d been time and again in Hell.

He thought he might have, but suddenly Zachariah was standing beside him. At least this time he appeared as a human; perhaps Dean’s apoplectic reaction earlier made Zachariah think twice about his form.

Dean leaped to his feet and went into a defensive crouch, eyes intense and harboring the darkness of the demon he’d almost been as he glowered at the new arrival.

Castiel got up awkwardly, still acutely feeling the damage done to him by his time in Hell. Zachariah didn’t offer assistance. When Castiel was standing unsteadily next to his brother, Zachariah grinned at him. “Congratulations! You found Dean Winchester and raised him from perdition, just as God commanded.”

Castiel looked askance at Dean, wondering why he felt the need to tell Dean that God’s orders had little to do with it by the end. It didn’t matter in the end because, in the presence of another angel, it was something he dare not say.

Dean was staring savagely at Zachariah.

The latter was unimpressed. “Although I wish you could have hauled him out of there in a little better condition. Didn’t really count on such a garage-sale soul. We certainly have our work cut out for us.” He eyed Dean, his soul hanging between shredded and stripped, and shook his head while making a tisking sound. “Oh, well, nothing a little spit and baling wiring can’t put back together, right, Humpty Dumpty?”

The harassment was agitating Dean, making him bristle and fume.

“Zachariah,” Castiel said low in warning. Castiel did not have the authority to issue anything even resembling a command to Zachariah, but he did it anyway.

The insolence earned Castiel a withering look from Zachariah, but it lasted only a second before the cynical angel was back to assessing Dean’s state like he was livestock.

“He needs to be fixed up,” Zachariah said with an offended gesture at Dean’s appearance. “Can’t stick him back in his meat suit like that… although, right now, his body looks just as bad.”

“Keep your stinking hands off me, you damn dirty ape,” Dean snarled.

Zachariah smirked. “Cute.” Then a hard look slipped into his eyes, and Castiel knew that look. It was Zachariah thinking he’d been challenged, and nothing would stop Zachariah from having his way once he set himself on something.

“No one will touch you but me,” Castiel quickly assured Dean.

While Dean looked relieved, Zachariah looked scornful. “Oh is that so? You’re not really in a position to do much. Look at you.”

And he had a point. Castiel looked nearly as bad as Dean.

“I will heal; I only need a little time to regain my strength. Then I can repair Dean Winchester. Please.”

The word escaped him before he could stop it. Zachariah’s eyebrows rose.

“Suit yourself,” Zachariah shrugged. “Frankly, none of the rest of us particularly want to touch… that.”

Tattered and torn Dean growled.

In the next instant Zachariah was gone.

Immediately, Dean’s tight posture relaxed and he turned to Castiel. “What is going on?”

Castiel felt Heaven beckoning him, with its promise of restoration and peace. “I will explain everything when I get back, but right now I have to leave for a short time.”

Dean stiffened. Castiel realized it would be the first time in almost a decade, by Dean’s understanding of the passage of time, that they weren’t together.

The prospect seemed to unsettle Dean.

Surprisingly, it bothered Castiel as well.

“I’ll be back for you soon. You’ll be safe here until I return, I promise. Trust me.”

Dean’s eyes snapped to Castiel at that, and for a second there was wary suspicion. Then he was nodding.

Castiel sighed in relief, then he unfolded his wings and flew. He’d been away from Heaven so long. He was eager to go back home.

************

Castiel was away from Dean longer than he liked, but the more he was in Heaven, back amongst angels, the more he began to realize that everything was different. His brothers and sisters were different, the unseen faith in God was different… even the feeling of his own grace was different. He thought that ‘differentness’ would disappear once he’d recovered his strength, but it didn’t. It just settled in, unmoving and vexing.

He didn’t know how to make this odd sense that the universe had shifted while he was gone go away. He missed Anael. She had been a comforting friend, always with a gentle and sympathetic perspective of things. Even Gabriel’s unique brand of solace would have been welcome. Instead, all he got was a snort from Balthazar as he said, “Universe didn’t change while you were away, Castiel, you did.”

Castiel supposed that was right. It was impossible to think he could be in Hell for as long as he was, enduring all that he had, and not be changed. But he’d always thought of angels as unchanging. Static. Unwavering servants of God. The things he felt now were not so steadfast or certain anymore, and among the Heavens every misplaced thought felt blasphemous. Like he should be stronger than to let them invade his consciousness.

His own troubles kept him away from Dean, a strong trigger for all the things in Castiel now out of step from his brothers and sisters, until Zachariah appeared and said, “Your human’s about to tear the room down, and for Christ’s sake, do something about his Raggedy Andy soul!”

Castiel didn’t understand the reference, but he girded himself and went to Dean.

‘About to tear the room down’ seemed like an exaggeration, but Dean was definitely not pleased. He heard the sound of wings behind him and rounded angrily, full of ire and insults… until he saw who it was. Then he went oddly still. “Oh… it’s you.”

“Yes… I’m sorry I took so long. I presume you’ve been looked after.” Castiel swept his eyes up and down Dean’s soul. It was unsightly. Somehow, being in the presence of beauty and perfection in Heaven made Castiel see just how awful Dean really looked. Strange, how after a time in Hell, he hadn’t seemed quite so bad.

“Looked after? What do you think I am, a parrot?”

“Of course not.” Castiel searched for something to say. “Has anyone told you what happens from here?”

“Some dickhead named Michael stopped by earlier. Said God needed me or some shit. I told him to go to Hell, and say hi to some people I know while he was there.” Dean fumed. “Freak seemed way too interested in getting this back in order,” he gestured at his torn soul. Then he shot a fiery look up at Castiel. His voice was bestial as he said, “Don’t you dare let any of those fuckers touch me.”

His vehemence that the angels not touch him seemed excessive, but Castiel had to remind himself Dean had spent decades on the rack, where anyone that came near him did so to torture him.

“I won’t,” Castiel promised calmly. He stopped, hesitant. When he and Dean had been together, fighting their way through Hell, there had been such an intense closeness between them at times. Now, in a safe environment, Castiel didn’t know how close to get… or how close to let Dean get. Dean seemed just as awkward, but at least he wasn’t going on the attack. The other angels weren’t so lucky when they were around Dean.

“Will you let me put you back together?” Castiel finally asked.

“You actually think you can fix this?” Dean looked doubtful.

“I know I can… if you will let me.”

“Yeah, well, I think your pals would just hold me down if I said no,” Dean said testily.

“I would not permit them to restrain you,” Castiel assured. “Please, Dean.”

Dean dropped his gaze. “Yeah… okay.”

When Castiel moved close, the damage looked even worse. For a second, he seemed daunted, and Dean snorted. “Not enough duct tape in the universe, man.”

“You are not as broken as you think,” Castiel answered, then he reached out.

Dean stiffened but remained in place while Castiel reached a slender hand into a deep wound, going wrist-deep into black and gray muscle and sinew, and lightly traced his fingers along the jagged edges. Grace spilled from his touch into the wound, and as his fingers danced over ripped skin, the edges pulled together and healed. As Castiel blessed with touch, the color of rot and decay gave way to the reds and pinks of healthy tissue.

It was really the shattered soul being repaired, of course, and not flesh (that would come next), but Dean perceived it as flesh, so Castiel did, too.

Dean sucked in a breath when he felt himself healing under Castiel’s touch. He looked down at where the angel was carefully tracing his touch over cuts and holes, abscesses and necrotized flesh, leaving the skin afterward healthy and unbroken.

Castiel wished he’d been powerful enough to do this for Dean when they’d been in Hell. Maybe if one of his stronger brothers had been the one to reach Dean instead of him… but it was Castiel who’d found Dean, so this healing ritual could not have happened sooner.

Castiel would make up for the wait with diligence and attention to detail as he repaired Dean’s soul.

The silence was unbearably tense, so Castiel filled it while he worked. “Did Michael tell you what happens next?” It sounded like a script to a movie or a chapter in a book… and Castiel supposed it was. Prophecy read like reading before it was even written.

“When he started getting all skeevy and talking about laying hands on, I threw a fit and threw him out. So no.” Dean sounded affronted. Castiel supposed he could understand. Michael was intimidating.

“When I’ve rebuilt your soul,” Castiel said slowly, mesmerized by the sight of his hands stitching Dean Winchester back together, “I will rebuild your body. Then you will be returned to Earth. There is important work for you, Dean Winchester.”

“Just like that… back from the dead?”

“Yes.”

Dean looked mad, for some reason, and Castiel was confused. Just when he got close to thinking he understood the human, he proved just how befuddling he could be.

“Why?” Dean asked.

Castiel sighed. He thought they were over that infernal question. It never had an answer Dean didn’t hate. “Why what?” Castiel asked, though Dean had never bothered to elaborate before. It was a dance of a sort, he supposed. Dean asked ‘why’, Castiel asked ‘why what’.

“Why me?”

Castiel’s hand stopped and he looked up at Dean. The human was radiating tension, anger and shame sneaking back up Castiel’s grace and coiling unpleasantly in his core. Dean’s essence shouldn’t have been able to travel against the flow of grace, back to Castiel, but the angel had long since stopped expecting normal when interacting with Dean. He was far more interested in the question.

“What do you mean?”

“Why save me?” Dean met Castiel’s eyes squarely. “You saw me down there. You saw what I was doing. What I’ve become. Of all the souls down there, why would you save me?”

“Because God commanded it.”

That answer made him even angrier. “Right… God.” There was derision in Dean’s voice toward the idea of God, even though he’d been saved from Hell by an angel. Castiel recognized annoyance this time when it bubbled up in him.

But Castiel decided not to fight about it. He went quiet and returned to his work. After a while, Dean began watching him again. His brow knit at the condition of the skin left behind after Castiel’s healing touch. “Will my body be like this?”

“How do you mean?”

“I used to have a scar there… from a wendigo hunt when I was seventeen. It’s gone… you mojoed it away.” He accompanied the word ‘mojoed’ with an abstract wave of his hand.

Castiel considered the unblemished skin under his fingertips. He could not comprehend leaving any imperfection behind. There would always be deeper damage that no power in the universe could fix, of course, trauma deeper than any angel could reach (for humans were flawed creatures by God’s design), but restoring the wholeness of Dean’s soul was never in question. To leave a visible scar on his soul would be tantamount to leaving a piece of it unhealed. Castiel’s morals wouldn’t let him do that.

And Castiel had only a pristine human to follow as a template for repairing Dean’s physical body. He hadn’t known Dean before he went to Hell. He didn’t know his scars.

Though strangely, knowing Dean would miss them made Castiel wish he’d known his scars.

“It will be expected of me to return you unmarred. This is a miracle. It would be unfit for me to do an incomplete job.”

Something dangerously like humor glittered in Dean’s eyes. Castiel noted they were more green now than black.

“Nothing half-ass in Heaven, huh? Fine, I guess.”

Castiel resumed his painstaking work.

Dean was quiet for a while before he asked, “Will I remember anything?”

Castiel stopped again. “Some, maybe. Your unfettered soul can withstand more than your human body can.” The human body was, in all measures, rather weak. It made Castiel worry about how Dean would handle whatever he might remember of Hell when he was bound up in a frail human body again. He wished he had the power to spare Dean that.

Dean mulled Castiel’s words over a moment. Then he asked, “Will I remember you?”

Something caught in Castiel’s grace, hitched sharply and made his hand falter. “Probably not.”

Dean nodded silently and went back to watching Castiel work. “You know,” he said lowly, “all things considered, I don’t think I’m really upset about that.”

Castiel huffed. “I’d question your sanity if you were.”

Dean smirked, and Castiel was taken aback, because it had no hint of a sadistic twist to it. It was gentle, and clean, and kind, and the first time Castiel realized how beautiful Dean Winchester was.

“Do you think you could leave one scar?”

Castiel thought about it a moment, reluctant but inclined to relent. He probably should have expected a human’s attachment to their physical trademarks. “I suppose… which one?”

“This one,” Dean ghosted a hand over the handprint on his shoulder where Castiel had pulled him out.

Castiel’s eyes widened. He was momentarily speechless. He wasn’t sure what to call the knotted feeling that suddenly had his grace in a fist (much like Dean’s used to clutch at him), but he’d long ago learned to expect Dean to do strange, confusing things to him just by being.

Castiel nodded. “I can leave the scar, if you want to keep it.”

“Yeah.”

Castiel resumed his work, meticulously rebuilding Dean’s soul, erasing all signs of abuse and torture… everything wiped clean but for the handprint scar. He’d make sure it was mirrored on Dean’s physical body… Castiel knew that when Dean asked for a scar, he meant one he could see and touch. Dean didn’t think in terms of his soul; he thought in terms of his body. The fact that Dean had not yet lost his conceptual-self in Hell – that he still appeared in the Pit the way he’d looked in life – was ample evidence of that stubborn attachment he had to his earth-bound form. He was a base, physical, corporeal animal like that.

Castiel found he rather liked it. It was so fundamentally different from Castiel’s own self-concept. What had once seemed alien and unknowable had somehow become exotic and fascinating.

************

When Castiel was finished piecing back together Dean’s soul, he stepped back and examined his work. He was tired and wrung out and it had taken days, but Dean was whole again. And he was magnificent. Castiel understood now everything God saw in him that none of the angels did. And the blackness in him from the Pit, the darkness and the danger… those were part of the beauty. They made him exquisitely human. Without those qualities, Dean may as well be Michael.

Dean wandered over to a mirror and took a look at himself. He shied back at first, reluctant to look himself in the eye, then forced himself to look. His eyes skittered all too quickly over his body before he turned his back to his reflection. “Not bad… though you could have made me a couple inches taller.”

Castiel cocked his head, puzzled. “Why?”

Dean smirked, and it was different again. Not soft like before, not twisted like in Hell, but tight like it was painful… but a different pain from the pain of Hell. Castiel never knew human expressions could be so nuanced. “No reason,” Dean replied.

Castiel should have been able to anticipate Dean’s next question, if only he’d paid more attention to the other Winchester. “Do you know if my brother… is Sam alive?” Dean held his breath like he was afraid to know the answer but could not help but ask the question. And his world would hang on the answer.

“He is.”

The relief that took hold of Dean was powerful to witness. “Oh, thank God for that.”

“Not really,” Castiel mumbled. He didn’t like to talk about Sam Winchester, the boy with the demon blood. His fate was a mangled thing, and Castiel knew without really knowing Dean Winchester that the crooked path Sam walked would also be traveled by his older brother.

That Dean had gone to Hell was proof enough that Dean took on Sam’s burdens as his own.

Thinking about such things made Castiel uncomfortable. He longed to return to Heaven, where although things weren’t as they had been before, they were still less complicated. Familiar and home.

“We should restore you now… you’ve been away from Earth too long.”

“No arguing with you on that one.” Dean seemed to take a moment to steel himself. “I’m ready.”

Castiel moved forward, preparing to bundle Dean up and slide him back into his body. It would only take him a moment to repair the damage wrought there… manipulating physical matter was child’s play next to the weave of the soul. Castiel’s grace would dance with the speed of familiarity while he remade Dean’s body… he’d learned it all while he’d been stitching together Dean’s soul.

Then Dean would be one of them again, one of the human souls walking the Earth about which Castiel knew far too little.

He wondered how much living would change Dean. He wondered how well a human could adapt to life after going through Hell. He wondered how much of the Dean he’d come to know would remain in the Dean that would be resurrected in Illinois.

If nothing else, interesting times surely lay ahead.

Just as Castiel was reaching out to take Dean back to his life, Dean stopped him. “Wait…”

“Yes?”

“… what’s your name?”

Castiel couldn’t help a tiny smile. Nearly a decade together, and Dean had never asked.

“My name is Castiel.”

Dean turned that over in his head a few times, like he was memorizing it (Castiel didn’t have the heart to tell him not to bother, he probably wouldn’t remember). Then he made an approving noise. “Cas, huh? Okay.”

The truncated version made Castiel pause. No one had ever called him anything but his full name. He considered, only briefly, correcting Dean. But he didn’t. He suspected Dean had done it intentionally, and Castiel couldn’t say he found it unpleasant.

When Castiel began to reach out again, Dean stopped him once more. “Cas?”

Yes… the nickname was dangerously pleasant.

“Yes, Dean?”

“Hey, when I’m back and kicking… stop by sometime, okay?”

Castiel tried not to look too pleased at the request. “I will.” In all likelihood, Dean wouldn’t remember him, but strangely enough that prospect didn’t bother Castiel as much as he thought it would.

He would never tell his brothers and sisters just how much he looked forward meeting Dean all over again.