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On the Dark Horizon

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St. Mary's Convent

Ilchester, Maryland
October 15, 1972

Azazel likes the way this skin feels.

He likes the way it wraps around him, cocooning him in a vessel that's chaste and righteous and good. And Azazel is the oil-slick stain that will never disappear from this man's soul even once he's gone. It's ironic in a way that makes him positively delighted.

He's a fan of irony. Oh, he'd laughed long and hard when he'd first seen this place. Seen what was built over the gateway he needed to use. He saw it as a sign that he was on the right track, because really, what could be more perfect than using a priest's hands to slaughter a bunch of nuns for the blood he was required to spill in a convent built over the doorway to the Devil himself?

That was decades ago, and the amusement hasn't faded.

Here, now, the priest screams in the confines of his own wretched mind, and Azazel suppresses him ruthlessly. Normally, he'd enjoy letting the man drive himself mad. But he can't afford distractions, not when he's so close, and not when he's worked so damn hard.

Blood soaks his hands. He can smell it, just as he can see it painting every surface, just as he can still hear the echoes of beautiful, terrified screams. Nuns, he thinks, have a way of screaming that really sticks with you. These aren't the first he's killed, but they are the most important, and he wants to remember every nuance of every moment of this perfect, perfect day.

The blood, he knows, is what will be clearest to him when he tries to recall it later.

He walks toward the altar, where he has oh-so-carefully laid out one of his offerings. This, he knows, will be what his father speaks through, and so it's with reverence that he kneels before it.

"Father, look," he says, clasping his hands together, feeling a giddy sort of desperation. So close…so close… "I'm not exactly the praying type, but still. I made the sacrifice, got you back from the nuns. So, uh…can you hear me?" Please, father, please hear me… "Can you whisper through the door?"

He waits, holding his breath. Beside him, he swears he sees one of the candles flicker, and his heart leaps. But it's a weak sign, and when he turns his head, the flames all burn steady.

"Come on, dad," he tries, closing his eyes, bowing his head in further supplication. "You're so close, I know you have to be here. What are you waiting for?"

Azazel waits for hours. Days. The bodies grow colder, the blood darkens and congeals, and the sacrifices become worthless to anything but the maggots that begin to infest them.

Lucifer never answers.

*

Winchester household

Lawrence, Kansas
June 13, 2005

John came into the kitchen looking contemplative, which Castiel should have known was a bad sign. Unfortunately, he's still groggy while he waits for his morning coffee to brew, and Dean, who stole the cup that should have been pre-brewed for Castiel, is never suspicious of their father when he's wearing that look.

"Morning, Dad!" Dean greets, gulping coffee like it's water. Castiel glares at him blearily, then nods to John.

"Good morning, Papa," he says with a wide yawn.

"Hey boys," John greets them, snagging a glass from the cabinet and pouring himself some orange juice. He leans against the counter with one arm crossed over his chest while he drinks it and pointedly ignores the coffee brewer. John Winchester doesn't believe in coffee, and he only allows it in the house because Mary dotes on her sons (and knows they couldn't survive without it). Even without it though, he's already dressed (jeans and a flannel shirt) and put together (scruffy, but their mother seems to like his scruff), his years in the military training him in the fine art of being a morning person. For all that he tried to teach his sons the trick to it, only Sam ever really picked it up. Dean and Castiel would both sleep until noon if given half a chance. "So," John says in an off-hand sort of way. "Might have a job for you boys once Sam gets in."

That's about the moment Castiel realizes he should have been paying better attention, coffee or no coffee. He sighs when Dean sits up straighter, all his attention now on their father. "Yeah?" Dean asks curiously, green eyes glinting with interest. Dean is the eldest of the Winchester brothers at twenty-six, and he's always had a deep-seated need to please their father, whenever and however possible.

"Yep." John sips at his juice and doesn't meet Castiel's eyes, which doesn't surprise Castiel in the least.

It's not like Castiel hates hunting; he doesn't, and especially when he gets to work jobs with his brothers. But today? Really? "What's up?" he finally asks with another sigh, and his father graces him with an approving smile.

"You boys remember Bobby Singer, up in South Dakota?" John asks.

Dean pauses. "Oh, sure, older guy. Had that dog that Cas liked, right? The one with the weird name?"

"Rumsfeld," Castiel murmurs.

"Right," Dean says. "The one that looked like a monster but turned into a giant teddy bear as soon as he saw you."

Castiel has always had that effect on animals, and Dean knows it. He doesn't mind, though…he finds that more often than not, animals make better company than humans, and they have far less baggage as well.

"Yeah, that's Bobby," John says. "Anyway, he got a call about something not too far from here. It's a friend of his, and he'd take it himself except he's already working a case of his own right now up near Maine."

To his credit, Dean glances at Castiel before he jumps right in. Asks with a raise of his eyebrows if Castiel is cool with this, promises with a silent tilt of his head that they won't take it if not. Dean's a pretty awesome brother, Castiel thinks.

He lets one corner of his lips twitch up, a silent acknowledgement of Dean's awesomeness, and then he nods. He knows Dean's been itching for a hunt for weeks, and at least this way it will be all three of them, assuming Sam doesn't put up a fight about coming along. But the last time Dean went off on his own, he came back with a new set of scars and two broken ribs. He shouldn't have been by himself at all, and Castiel is still angry with himself for going off to New York for the weekend. This hunt, Dean will have backup, with or without Sam.

Dean grins at Castiel and turns back to their father. "Well, don't keep us waiting. Tell us more about this job."

The coffee pot dings, but Castiel thinks he's well past the point where coffee is going to get him going today.

Happy birthday to me, he thinks, resigned.

~

Castiel stares at himself in the mirror, but decides that turning twenty doesn't seem to have changed him in any noticeable way. Same eyes (blue, no laugh lines yet like both of his parents and even his eldest brother have developed), same hair (dark, kept relatively short, but perpetually messy in spite of that), same height (tall, but still shorter than everyone in his family except for his mother). He looks the same today as he did yesterday, which is the same as he's looked since his growth spurt in the eleventh grade.

Somehow, though, he can't shake the feeling that something is different. As though being on this world for exactly two decades has changed some intrinsic part of him that can't be seen but can certainly be felt, even if it can't be understood.

Shaking his head, Castiel scolds himself for being whimsical. Dean is always making fun of him for his quirky, daydreamer tendencies.

He finishes up in the bathroom quickly and is just heading into his room to get a bag packed when his mother steps into the hall, still wearing a nightgown despite her naturally wavy blond hair already being pinned back and perfect.

"Mom," he greets her warmly, bending to kiss her cheek.

"Good morning, Castiel," she says with a smile. Her eyes are tender as she looks him over, and then she pulls him into a warm embrace. "Happy birthday, sweetheart."

His heart fills to bursting the way it always does around his mother, and this is why when he was young, he was convinced she was one of the angels she promised were watching over her boys, one of the angels like he himself was named for. "Thank you," he says, burying his face in her hair and breathing in her favorite fruity conditioner.

"Does twenty feel much different from nineteen?" she asks, her eyes glinting as she pulls away.

He laughs, a little helplessly. "Not so far," he admits. "Though Papa just gave us a new case, so who knows what the day will bring?"

She sighs, shaking her head a little. "Just so long as you're careful. And don't forget to stop by your grandparents' to stock up on salt rounds. Your father's been working overtime at the shop and I doubt he realizes we're running low."

"We will," he promises. He knows his mother isn't a fan of her boys hunting, but with grandparents like theirs, who have often referred to hunting as being a family business, it was hard to avoid the truth of what was out there forever. And Dean, Sam, and Castiel are too much like their father in some ways – the desire to help people in need is too deeply imbedded in all of them.

"Oh!" she says, taking his wrist and leading her into her room. "I have a surprise for you, and if you're leaving, I should tell you now. At least I got to keep it a birthday surprise." Her smile is wide and bright as she pulls a small sheaf of papers from under her jewelry box and hands them to him.

He blinks down at what looks like a rather verbose contract of some sort. "What is –"

"I spoke with the gallery a few months ago," she tells him, and now her smile looks sheepish as his eyes shoot up and he stares at her. "They got back to me last week. Cas, baby, they want to showcase your work."

He almost drops the papers as shock makes his fingers go numb. "What?" he asks. His mother works for one of the largest art galleries in the Midwest, managing many of the artists they represent and a good portion of the showcases they display on a monthly basis. But Castiel never expected… "Mom, you promised you wouldn't –"

She doesn't hesitate to interrupt him again. "None of that," she says firmly. "I didn't tell them who the work belonged to until they told me they wanted it. They had no idea you were my son, only that you were an artist I discovered and had an interest in supporting, same as almost any other artist we've ever brought in."

He feels such a rush of warmth for her it almost knocks him over. Of course she kept her word, and he never should have doubted her for a single moment. She always keeps her promises, especially the ones that really count. "I can't believe you showed them…" He stops, swallows hard, stares down at the contract again. "They really want my work?" He's never thought of his pieces as anything special. His paintings, his drawings, they're just something he does. An escape, or an outlet for all the things inside him that he's never really understood.

"They really do," she says, and then she's hugging him again, laughing with such joy he can feel it like sunshine rushing through him. "Look over the contract when you get back. If you want, we can have the family lawyer take a look as well, but it's all very basic. We'll work out the details, but they want you, sweetheart. Of course they do."

"I can't believe this," he murmurs. And his next thought, of course: "I can't wait to tell Dean and Sam!" Because they're his brothers, and no matter how often they may mock him, they have always loved and supported him more than anyone else ever has or could.

As birthdays go, this one is certainly looking up, hunt or no hunt.

~

Sam gets home just before noon, and Castiel can't even imagine how quickly he must have been driving since he left yesterday morning to make it today in time for lunch. Maybe he didn't stop somewhere to rest? He doesn't ask, though, when he answers the door and is faced with his six-foot-four floppy-haired, hazel-eyed big brother. All he can do at that point is let Sam engulf him in a bear hug.

"It's good to see you, Cas," Sam says, releasing Castiel with a grin.

"You too," Castiel responds happily. With Sam away at school, they don't get to spend a lot of time together anymore the way they did when they were kids. Sam's breaks between semesters are something Castiel looks forward to as much as Sam does just so he gets both his brothers all to himself again. "Though I expect you won't be overjoyed by my first bit of news."

Sam's brows furrow. After a moment's thought, he groans. "Oh, don't tell me…"

Castiel nods. "Just a quick hunt, though. He claims."

Sam rolls his eyes. "Of course he does. Man, what a birthday gift, huh, kid?"

Shrugging, Castiel says, "It could be worse." Sam doesn't love hunting the way Dean does, and for that matter, neither does Castiel. But they've both trained long and hard to be good at it, and they both find satisfaction in a job well done, in another life saved. He narrows his eyes at Sam. "And don't call me kid. You're only two years older than I am."

Sam ruffles his hair with a grin. "That's two years I'll always have on you no matter what, little brother."

Castiel sighs, resigning himself again to the fact that he will forever be the baby of the family. He lets it go for now, and tugs Sam inside so they can go find Dean and plan out the details of their newest hunt.

~

Sam gets enough time to drop his bags in his room, grab his regular, smaller duffel, and give John and Mary hugs, and then the brothers are on the road. A brief stop at the Campbell residence ensures that they're well stocked and prepared for any sort of spirit who might take a swing at them, but otherwise, it's just a straight drive from Lawrence to central Nebraska.

By the time they pull up in front of the bar Bobby rattled off to their father, it's just heading towards dusk, and Castiel's already nodding off in the backseat, the way he almost always does on long drives. He blinks a few times when he hears the Impala roll to a stop, and peers up at the sign outside the establishment.

"The Roadhouse," he murmurs, voice rough with near-sleep. "An odd name for a bar."

Dean snorts from the driver's side. "It's a saloon run by a family of hunters. Doesn't get much stranger than that."

"Oh, yeah, says the guy who works in an auto shop run by hunters," Sam interjects, and Castiel imagines he can hear the eyeroll, even if he can't see it from his current position.

In the rearview mirror, Dean winks at Castiel, then turns to swat Sam upside the head. "Bitch," he says.

"Jerk," is Sam's prompt response.

The byplay is so familiar to Castiel that he can't help but roll his eyes and mutter, "Idiots."

"Squirt!" comes at him from both sides of the front seat simultaneously, and, sibling ritual complete, they all step out of the car feeling more lighthearted than they normally would after an hours-long drive.

A tall, broad-shouldered man with a grizzled face and an easy smile greets them just as they reach the entrance to the saloon. "You must be the Winchester boys?" he asks. His voice is a rough baritone, naturally commanding and a lot like John's, making Castiel wonder if their military backgrounds are at all similar. The long, jagged scar down one side of his face certainly says something about the sort of life he's led. The only thing to leave a mark like that are claws. Big ones.

"Yes, sir," Dean says, holding a hand out. "I'm Dean Winchester, and these are my brothers, Sam and Castiel."

"Bill Harvelle," the man replies, shaking hands with all three of them in turn. "Can't thank you boys enough for takin' the trip out here so fast. Bobby tells me your family has quite the reputation."

"We do what we can," Sam says with a small smile. "But it's our dad or our grandfather you really want. They were sorry they couldn't make it out themselves right now."

Bill waves a hand dismissively. "If you three are half as good as I've heard – and yeah, you bet your ass I've been doin' some checkin' – I imagine we'll be just fine without 'em."

"Thank you, sir," Castiel says. "That's very kind of you to say."

They all get a big smile from Bill, and then he opens the door and ushers them inside. "C'mon in, have a drink on the house and meet my family so we can tell you what's goin' on."

Castiel follows his brothers into the well-lit tavern, taking note of the patrons sitting up at the bar and the others seated at the tables. There's a pool table in one corner, and a man with the strangest hairstyle Castiel has ever seen – down to his shoulders in the back, and cut short up front – is making some easy money hustling like a pro. On the other side sits an old-fashioned jukebox, currently playing some kind of eighties power ballad that can barely be heard over all the chatter.

Most of the people Castiel sees he easily marks as hunters. He's been in the life long enough to recognize the look: the way they take note of the slightest movement, the way their assessing gazes land on him and his brothers instantly, the way none of them look entirely at ease even as they drink their fill and laugh with (or at) their companions.

Behind the bar are two women who competently mix and serve drinks, take orders, and converse easily with each person who speaks to them. The younger looks to be around Castiel's age, and is slender and willowy, with blond hair that falls past her shoulders in soft waves and lips that seem to curl into a smirk more often than a smile. The other is older, brown hair going gray at the corners, and looks to be tough as nails despite her ready laugh.

Castiel takes all of this in in about thirty seconds, and then he watches Bill sidle past the bar and into the older bartender's space, slinging an arm around her back and dipping her into a fast and fun kiss. Castiel already knew she must be his wife, but he can't help but smile at the easy relationship they clearly enjoy. The other girl, their daughter, rolls her eyes and makes a face at the catcalls and wolf-whistles heard around the room.

"C'mere, boys, want you to meet my family," Bill grins over to them. "This here is my wife Ellen, and the scowling creature there is my daughter Joanna Beth. El, Jo, these are the Winchester boys, Dean, Sam, and Castiel."

If any of the others are aware of the way the volume level in the bar decreases all of a sudden, no one says anything. Castiel pretends not to notice, but he's wary now.

"Pleasure to meet you," Ellen says, putting a hand on her hip and giving each of them a once-over with sharp eyes. Her smile is approving.

Jo doesn't say anything, just regards them with a raised eyebrow and the smirk Castiel is beginning to think is an inherent part of her charm.

"Have a few drinks," Bill tells them, gesturing to some empty seats. "We'll get you set up in the back room with some cots if you want, and you can make yourselves at home. We'll talk shop in the mornin'?"

Dean glances at Castiel and Sam, and they both nod. "Sounds like a plan," he tells Bill, and Castiel doesn't miss the flirty wink he sends Jo's way as soon as her parents' backs are turned.

He does take a sadistic sort of pleasure in the way she rolls her eyes and promptly turns her back on his idiot big brother.

~

Against most of Castiel's expectations, he enjoys an evening of laughter and companionship with Dean and Sam, who toast his birthday and then practically force-feed him tequila. Luckily, Castiel can hold his liquor well enough (except for that one memorable night of his high school graduation when he tried to match Dean shot for shot), and he doesn't fall victim to making a fool of himself in front of so many other hunters.

It's a relaxing and enjoyable night, even if they are technically here to work. Bill and Ellen swing by their table repeatedly to chat, each family learning about the other without the dark shadows that hunting tends to cast over everything. At one point, the jukebox begins belting out REO Speedwagon, and Dean even convinces Jo to dance with him.

Castiel and Sam both laugh uproariously when she steps on his toes accidentally-on-purpose more than once, and Dean comes back with a rueful grin.

"That girl is nuts," he tells his brothers, and Castiel gets the feeling this will mark the beginning of a lifelong friendship between Jo and him.

He doesn't yet tell his brothers about the offer the gallery made to display his work. He decides he would rather tell them when they're on their way home. It will give them another reason to celebrate, besides just another successful hunt, and he likes that idea.

The bar closes just after two a.m., and Bill locks up while Jo cleans and Ellen guides their guests to the room in the back. Castiel notices that the man with the strange hairstyle (he believes he caught the name "Ash" being directed his way once or twice) has passed out on the pool table he worked so smoothly, but Ellen walks by without comment, so he assumes this is a rather regular occurrence.

Castiel, Sam, and Dean each grab a cot, and thank Ellen for the hospitality. She smiles at them, just a small upward tilt to one corner of her mouth. "We're real glad you boys could come. It's us who should be thanking you, so don't mention it."

She turns out the light as she goes, and while Castiel knows Dean and Sam will lie awake in the dark talking for at least the next hour, he is asleep before his head even hits the pillow.

~

"Demons?"

Castiel rolls the word around in his mouth like he's tasting it, his head tilted to the side as he regards Bill and Ellen over the bar where they're eating breakfast. Beside him, Dean appears tense, his shoulders hunched as he plays with the scrambled eggs on his plate.

"S'what we think, anyway," Bill says, scowling. "Least three of 'em, and we can't make heads or tails of what they're tryin' to do."

Sam shakes his head. "Three demons?" He glances at Dean and Castiel. "You guys ever hear of Dad taking on more than one of those things at a time? I thought they were all out for themselves, wouldn't be caught working together for anything."

Castiel can't recall hearing much about demons at all, to be honest. They're a rarity in the hunting world, and very few hunters have more than only the most basic information on them. Bobby Singer is an exception, if Castiel remembers correctly, and it explains why the Harvelles went to him first. He shakes his head, and even Dean looks stumped.

"Yeah, that was my thinkin', too." Bill sighs. "Only reason I wanted to call someone else in for help, rather'n try and take 'em out on my own."

"Probably a good call," Sam says. "We've got a couple decent exorcisms in the trunk, I'm sure of it. Demons aren't anything we have experience with, I'm sorry to say, but with all of us here, at least we have an advantage."

"We'll kick their asses from here all the way back to the pit," Dean says, and there's fire in his eyes, the same as he gets before any hunt.

Castiel doesn't know why their confidence does nothing to settle the unease churning in his gut.

~

The demons are easy to find. Castiel specializes in reconnaissance; Dean is the fighter and Sam is the researcher, but no one is as good at the actual investigation as Castiel, and it's something he prides himself on.

This time, he doesn't even need to talk to any witnesses. He follows a trail of gruesome clues to the edge of town, and finds the demons holed up in an abandoned, desecrated thing that was perhaps a church at one time, but now lies in ruins. To Castiel, it feels as though its holiness has been tainted in ways that can never be cleansed. Whatever happened here, the damage was clearly done long ago, or Castiel might wonder if these demons are even more powerful than the hunters believed.

The demons are in what was once the sanctuary of the church, the raised space where once, a church leader of some kind had preached to his followers of sanctity and sin. The space is empty now, the walls graffiti-riddled and cracked, the place where the cross once hung now bare.

Castiel stands just outside the entranceway into the nave, watching the demons through the crack between the door's hinges. His heart is pounding so furiously he's sure that any moment now, one of them must hear. He clutches his bottle of holy water tightly enough that it's in danger of cracking, watching them with wide eyes as they rip and tear into the bloody carcass in front of them like animals.

He thinks it was human, though now it's hard to be sure. The demons go at it with knives and teeth and fervor, using the blood on their hands to smear symbols on the walls and floor, the places that were once home to crucifix and altar. They cackle and jeer and celebrate like they're getting ready to feast, black eyes gazing hungrily at the macabre scene they've created.

Inside, Castiel is trembling, terrified to breathe, so scared he can barely think properly. Outside, though, he stays perfectly still, one hand on the holy water, the other on his gun, ready to move at even the slightest hint that they've noticed him. He wants his brothers by his side more than he's ever wanted anything in his whole life.

Castiel has been on many hunts since he turned fourteen and his mother finally began allowing it. This is the first time he's ever truly feared for his life. More, he feels scared for his very soul, in ways he doesn't understand and doesn't want to.

Seconds or hours later – he can't be sure, because it feels like days – the demons complete whatever it is they've been doing. The body is left broken and mutilated on the floor, and they dance out the door next to the sanctuary like they're on top of the world.

They'll be back.

Castiel slips out of his hiding place with his breath held fast inside his lungs. He moves closer, just close enough to snap several fast pictures of the scene on his phone, and then he runs. He runs, and he runs, and he keeps running until it feels like the darkness has stopped chasing him for a few blessed moments. He runs until he can no longer see through the tears blurring his vision. He runs until he reaches the familiar sight of the Roadhouse, until he crashes right into his brother's arms, and it doesn't even matter which one caught him, because moments later he feels the other come up beside him and then they're both holding him close and steadying him and keeping him safe.

~

Sam sits beside him on the cot, rubbing his back comfortingly even though Castiel has finally stopped trembling. It's been a long time since he felt so young, but he can't bring himself to push Sam away, even as Dean paces in front of them and shoots him worried looks when he thinks Castiel isn't paying attention.

"Look, Cas –" Dean starts to say, but Castiel cuts him off at the pass.

"I'm fine. And I'm finishing this hunt." He all but growls the words. "I want to see those demons suffer as they're sent back to damnation." He realizes his fists are clenched in the bedspread, and Sam's hand has paused its trek along his spine. It doesn't matter. Castiel means every word. He wants revenge for that nameless, faceless corpse. For all the others that came before. He wants those things that did it to suffer as much as they've caused others to suffer.

Maybe if he sees it happen, he'll stop feeling like they're coming for him next.

"All right," Dean says, placating. "Okay, but Cas, we do this right. Not gonna let you go running in there just to get your dumbass self killed. So you follow my lead, and Sam's, and you don't do anything stupid. Got it?" He's watching Castiel like a hawk, clearly looking for any sign that Castiel means to disregard these warnings.

Any other day, Castiel might resent being treated like a child, like an amateur. But if it means he's allowed to go, allowed to watch what they do to those things, he'll take it. "Fine," he says.

Castiel never knew he had it in him to be merciless before today.

~

It would help if they could get a clear read on what the demons were trying to accomplish with their gruesome ritual. But even going through the hunter phone tree – Dean calling their grandfather, Samuel calling their father, John calling Bobby, and so on – no one seems to have any idea. Bobby tentatively suggested that it seemed like some sort of de-purification rite, but can't find anything more specific with the limited resources he has on his current hunt.

Which means that the best the Winchesters can do is wing it. Luckily, this is something they tend to excel at.

Ellen sets herself up to monitor the church, watching diligently for the demons' return, and as expected, they do come back. She calls Dean, and Dean puts her on speakerphone without being asked. She tells them that they've returned with a glass vial and a wicked looking dagger, and before any of them or her husband can warn her off, Ellen has already slipped inside the church, and she bears witness to them slicing into the body they left behind and collecting just a few drops of blood in the vial.

Castiel listens to her breathless whispers through the crackly speakerphone, his knuckles white where his fists are clenched again, his body already tense and ready for a fight that hasn't come yet.

The demons leave the church with their prize, whatever it is. Ellen stays close enough to hear them speaking, but not so close that they realize she's there.

In the background, Castiel can hear a gunned engine, the crunch and spray of gravel under tires. When she speaks again, Ellen is no longer whispering. She tells them where the demons are going.

Bill and Dean glance at each other, share a single nod. Castiel stands, already knowing that it's time to go, and beside him, Sam stands close enough to place a hand on his shoulder. He doesn't ask if Castiel is sure he wants to do this, doesn't say a word.

Castiel pulls away from him and marches out the door like the soldier's son he is, exorcism already on his tongue, ready for a fight he's determined to see them win.

~

It's almost unbelievable, how perfectly the fight goes down.

It's all a blur in Castiel's mind, from getting into the Impala with his brothers as Bill follows in his beat-up pickup, to their arrival at a park that seems to thankfully be devoid of people, to Bill and Sam and Dean going after the things for long enough to create a distraction, to the moment Castiel chants the memorized exorcism and the demons unceremoniously exit their hosts in a cloud of black smoke and vanish into a smoldering patch of ground.

There's barely a fight at all, and it feels so anticlimactic that Castiel is ridiculously disappointed. After the horror he was forced to witness, he wanted to see them writhe in agony, and instead he barely even got a scream as they were sent tumbling back into Hell.

But the job is done. And the demons are burning. That's all that matters, all that can be allowed to matter when you're a hunter. Winning and losing is the difference between living and dying, and Castiel, his brothers, and their new friends are all alive.

This is a win, no matter how unsatisfying.

Slowly, so slowly, the fire inside of him fizzles to embers, rage giving way to exhaustion, and he nods to Sam and Dean. Both of them have been watching him with no small amount of worry in their gazes, but at his gesture, they relax and both nod back, and he knows that tonight will be a night of drinking and celebrating a job well done.

A job Castiel has done well.

Two of the bodies on the ground are dead. Demons apparently ride their hosts hard and don't care what they leave behind. But the third, a teenage girl with short brown hair and frightened chocolate eyes, was a little luckier. Bill helps her up off the ground and she doesn't say a word, just clings to him as she stares at the carnage and then at the brothers and then at the giant tree towering over them.

Castiel's brow furrows as he watches her press a trembling hand to the bark. Her expression clears just a little, serenity slipping over her features like a veil.

"C'mon darlin', let's get you to the hospital," Bill says, tugging very gently on her hand.

She nods, her eyes skittering to Castiel, and then down to the ground as she allows the hunter to lead her away.

Castiel blinks as they drive off. His brothers also look very confused.

"Well that was…" Dean starts, but can't seem to find a good word to finish with.

"Different?" Sam suggests. He's looking at the tree himself now, tilting his head with one hand on his hip as he cranes his neck to see up into the branches that loom overhead. "You guys ever get a good look at what the demons were trying to do before Cas started exorcising?" he asks them without turning around.

"No," Castiel says, shaking his head even though Sam isn't looking at him.

Dean is kneeling on the ground at the base of the tree trunk, picking up the glass vial one of them had dropped and staring in distaste at the blood inside. "Y'know, I think the big one was holding this up to the tree just before I shot him." He glances up at Castiel and smirks. "Whaddya think Cas, unholy maple syrup collectors?"

Castiel rolls his eyes. "It's an oak tree, Dean." He steps closer, wanting to get a good look at the tree himself. It looks old, very old, and taller than any tree he thinks he's ever seen up close before. He hadn't taken much notice of it earlier, when he was high on adrenaline and itching for a fight, but now it seems impossible that he missed it. The way the tree stands all on its own, the sun that filters in through its leaves and branches, the serenity the spreads over the field as surely as the lush blanket of grass beneath their feet.

Something about this tree meant something to those demons, and Castiel wants to know what it was.

He presses a hand to the bark just as the girl did, heedless of what danger it may possess, and in his eagerness he is unprepared for the way he is instantly overwhelmed with

– song light love peace holy father Father FATHER

a rush of feeling so intense it brings him to his knees, eyes wide and heart pounding. His hand scrapes along the tree as he falls, but he can't bring himself to pull back, scrabbling frantically to get closer, to connect deeper, until other hands are suddenly pulling at his shoulders and voices are shouting in his ears and he is forced to fall away with a soft cry.

"No," he hears himself begging. "No, let me up!" He fights, trying to escape the weight that has him pinned to the ground. He needs to know, needs to feel

"Castiel!" Sam yells, and slaps him hard across the face.

Beneath him, Castiel freezes, breathing hard. His skin feels hot, not just where the handprint is stinging his cheek but all over. The ringing in his ears is familiar and enchanting and vital, but he can hear over it now, hear his brothers as they both try to talk at him at the same time. His chest is heaving as he drags in great gulping breaths, and Sam is straddling him, his weight pinning Castiel at the waist even as Dean's got him held down by the shoulders. "I'm all right," he breathes, his struggles ceasing. "I'm all right."

Dean's face appears over him, and even upside down, he looks frightened and angry. "What the fuck was that?" he demands.

"Dean," Sam says, shaking his head. He sits back a little, his weight letting up the smallest amount, but Castiel notices he doesn't move off entirely. He can't blame him.

"What?" Dean growls. "Don't Dean me when my baby brother just had a freaking meltdown, acting like he was goddamn possessed, right after we took out a gang of demons!"

Castiel dearly wants to take offense to the baby brother comment, but he can't. He can't, because Dean is right. He has no idea what just happened, but whatever it was, it was bone-deep (soul-deep) and all-consuming and terrifying in the aftermath. He wants to know what happened, and he never, ever wants it to happen again.

Except for the part of him that longs for it, that craves it, that can still feel it whispering over him like a Siren call.

"I don't know," he tells Dean, because answering his brother's question feels safer than giving in to whatever madness is still coursing through him. "I don't know what that was." His voice is high and reedy and so young that he can feel his ears flush with shame. But when Dean's hand moves from his shoulder to his chest in reassurance, he can't help but be grateful.

"We'll figure this out," Sam promises, slowly moving off of Castiel and helping him to sit up. "There's nothing out there we can't handle, remember?"

The same thing they've told him all his life, the Winchester brother motto. Such a chick-flick sentiment according to Dean, but he's always stood behind it as much as Sam, and he looks just as determined now as he ever has. More, even.

Castiel breathes out slowly, remembering what they've always told him. That as long as the three of them are together, there's nothing they can't defeat. He wants to believe it.

He's not sure he does.

~

There is no drinking and no celebration that night. They leave the Roadhouse just as it's beginning to get busy, throwing their bags into the trunk, shaking hands with the Harvelles and promising to keep in touch, and speeding away in the Impala while Jo and her father watch from the parking lot.

Castiel curls up in the backseat and tries to sleep, but everything inside him still feels too intense, like he's been electrified and his body is refusing to come down from the high of it. He alternates between sweating and shivering, and can't get comfortable no matter how hard he tries.

Dean drives through the night, eager to get them home as quickly as possible. He and Sam don't talk much, and when they do, they speak in hushed voices like they think Castiel won't be able to hear them. He knows they aren't trying to keep him out, only doing their best to let him rest, but it still sets his teeth on edge, makes him want to yell at them, force them to show him some damn respect. This is his life they're talking about, his body and his soul and his problem.

He stays quiet though, forces the bitterness down and shoves it as deep as he can. They don't deserve it, all they've ever done his entire life is support him. They love him and he loves them and he will not allow this unfair resentment to cloud those feelings.

Unable to sleep, and not allowing himself to focus on his anger, all Castiel can do is think about his fear.

They all decided before they left that strange field that they would be careful about who they went to for help with this. They didn't mention it to the Harvelles, and they aren't going to mention it to their grandparents, and they certainly won't be telling John and Mary what happened.

Maybe it would be different if it had just been the tree itself that was the problem. But before they left, before Castiel had so much as gotten to his feet, Dean stalked over and slapped a hand down on the rough wood, and…

Nothing happened.

Nothing.

Sam had been slower to try, but he'd glanced between Dean and Castiel, and then he'd stood as well, eyeing the tree up and down and tentatively laying his hand against it.

And again, there'd been no reaction.

Castiel had stared, slack-jawed. He could still feel the wild energy thrumming under his skin, even now felt the tree beckoning him closer, and his brothers, his closest kin, felt nothing?

It didn't make sense, and now, curled up in the back of the Impala that has always felt like a second home to him, he's scared of what it could mean. And his brothers are scared as well, because while no one has said it, the only thing it really can mean is that there's something wrong with Castiel.

"Hey squirt, you doin' okay?" Dean asks, reaching back from the front seat and holding onto Castiel's arm for a brief – too brief – moment.

"Peachy," Castiel replies, sarcasm broiling beneath the word in a way he knows is uncharacteristic. And sure enough, Dean glances at Sam, his jaw clenched the way it always is when he's deeply troubled about something.

Castiel buries his face in the crook of his elbow and begins to recite Latin verbs, hoping they will soothe him to sleep. Or at the very least, give him something else to focus on besides the tension in the air all around and inside him.

~

It takes a few days. Without being able to go to the truly experienced hunters in the family, and specifically trying not to attract their attention, it's difficult to track down any information that could be useful. But Castiel learned a long time ago that Sam always came through when it counted, and this time is no different.

Sam finds Castiel at his easel in his bedroom, painting furiously because it's the only thing he can do that helps to ease the roiling, churning energy inside him. A dark landscape is taking shape beneath his brush, darker and heavier than anything he's painted before, and he thinks maybe he'll hide this piece when it's finished, somewhere no one will ever find it and wonder.

Castiel is aware of Sam standing behind him, just over his shoulder, watching intently. For a few minutes, he ignores him, ruthlessly splashing varying shades of reds into the work, shying away from the way his mind connects it with something far more sinister than paint.

Maybe he needs a break from hunting. Maybe that's all this is.

As though it could be that simple.

"Cas," Sam finally says. He has the patience of a saint, and his interruption, especially when Castiel is working, wouldn't come unless he found something.

Castiel sighs, carefully washes the brush and puts it away, and turns to him. "Sam."

Sam nods towards the desk on the opposite side of the room, where he's already set his laptop. As Castiel walks over to take a look at the site displayed, Dean comes in as well, closing the door behind him and shifting his weight as though he's anxious.

"Got something?" he asks Sam, and Sam shrugs.

"Sort of," he replies as Castiel sits at the desk. "It's not much."

Castiel scrolls through the article open in the newest tab. There's a photograph of the tree, and a headline that proclaims, "Eden Returned: Miracle Tree Springs to Life and the Land is Healed," in big, bold letters.

Dean leans over his shoulder, whistling softly as he reads. "How's a tree that big grow literally overnight in some backwoods town in Nebraska?"

"Curing an entire park and a nearby forest from the drought that had plagued the town all year," Castiel adds, shaking his head. "Miracle tree is right. Something like that certainly wouldn't be possible, at least not without some sort of magical influence."

Dean's brow furrows. "You think witches?"

"No," Castiel replies thoughtfully. "That doesn't make any sense. They'd want to heal the land, perhaps, for their own selfish purposes, but any method they used wouldn't be so…" He waves a hand at the screen. So pure, he wants to say, but wonders if it really is.

It had certainly felt pure. Terrifying and intense, to be sure, but still pure.

"When did this happen, anyway?" Dean asks, eyes scanning for the information even as he asks.

"September thirteenth, nineteen eighty-four," Sam responds.

Dean blinks, straightening. "I know that date," he says. "Why do I know that date?"

"Mom and Papa talk about it," Castiel replies for Sam. He feels numb all the way down to his toes. "It's the day they saw the meteorite. They called it their good-luck charm because –" He stops, can't force the words to unstuck from his throat.

"Because it was the day you were conceived," Sam finishes. "Mom wasn't supposed to be able to have more kids, but then she had you." It's a story they've all heard several times, usually to Castiel's great chagrin.

"They can't be connected," Dean says. "C'mon, what could this even add up to? Doesn't make any sense."

Castiel's eyes close. "There are so many more things out there than Papa and even Grandpa Campbell know about," he says. "Oh, God, what…what am I?"

"Stop it." Dean is growling now, his hand clamped hard enough to bruise on Castiel's shoulder, squeezing to make Castiel look up at him. "You're our brother, and we're gonna figure this the fuck out. But I don't want to hear that shit from you, you got it?"

"But Dean, what if –"

"He's right, Cas," Sam pipes up. "Whatever this means or doesn't mean, we'll get to the bottom of it, but it doesn't change who or what you are to us. Not ever."

If hearts could be squeezed until they burst without ever being touched, Castiel thinks his would be in danger of doing so right now. He nods even as he's furiously swiping at the wetness that has gathered in his eyes, believing in his brothers as he always does because there is literally nothing else he knows how to do.

"In the meantime," Sam says, "I think it's time to go see Missouri."

~

Mary Winchester met Missouri Mosely one bright afternoon in the summer of nineteen seventy-eight. Mary was just a few months pregnant with Dean, and she got dizzy one day walking home from the store. Missouri was passing by and helped her get home, then stayed and fretted over her and talked with her for hours. Before she left, Mary thanked her and told Missouri she was an angel for helping her the way she did.

Missouri responded by folding Mary into a tight hug and telling her, "I'm no angel, hon. But I promise, you got them watching over you. I can feel them all around you and your family."

Mary had taken her words to heart, and from that moment on, she regularly told Dean – and both of her children after him – that angels were watching over them.

Castiel doesn't think his mother knows that he knows this story. She and John had been talking about it one night, and Castiel had hidden in the stairway to listen, curious about the raised voices, his papa demanding they be better protected, and his mother countering with her faith. At the time, Castiel hadn't been old enough to understand, but he's never forgotten.

Angels are watching over you.

He'd been named for his mother's faith, named for one of the angels she believed in so strongly, but now, he's not sure he's ever believed less in their supposed protectors.

"Boy, you look like you got the weight of the world on those shoulders," Missouri says, eyeing him over the rim of her teacup. She sets it down on the table after she drinks, then leans forward to take his hands between her own. "Cas, baby, what's wrong?"

Missouri has the kindest demeanor of just about anyone Castiel has ever met besides his mother. She's sassy, and she doesn't take bullshit from anyone, but she genuinely cares for every single person who walks through her front door, and especially anyone she considers family.

She's also psychic, which makes Castiel's chances of being able to lie to her, even by omission, next to impossible, even if he were so inclined. It's also not worth being threatened with a good beating from her wooden spoon.

Not that she would ever actually beat the Winchester boys. But that threat has always been her favorite, and they fear her spoon, even if they've never seen it.

The point is, Castiel never even considers lying to her. He just sighs, lowers his eyes, and tells her everything.

When he finishes, her eyes are soft, and she squeezes his hands as she says, "Are you sure you want to know?"

"I have to," he says, simple as that.

Missouri sighs, leaning back in her chair. "The truth is, Cas, I've been wondering for a long time when you were gonna walk through my door and ask me these questions. Ever since your mom came to me and told me she was expecting you."

He blinks. He thinks his heart misses a beat. "Then they are connected? My conception, and the meteor, and that tree?"

"Oh, baby. More than you know." She folds her hands together over her legs, staring down at the table as she sorts her thoughts. "I've always felt a…well, a light around your family. The presence of something bigger than she could understand."

"Angels," Castiel says.

Missouri looks up at him and nods, mouth turning up in a smile. "Angels," she agrees. "Your dad, he never believed me, but Mary always did. I think maybe she felt it too." She pauses, takes another sip of what now must be lukewarm tea as she gathers her thoughts. "Cas, when your mom came to me that day, after she saw that sign, the presence I'd always felt looking out for your family was much closer than it had ever been before."

Castiel is barely even breathing now. "How close?" he croaks.

Her gaze doesn't waver. "It's sitting right in front of me, right now, angel."

Angel. She's always called him that. Ever since he was a toddler and she used to babysit him and his brothers. Angel, she'd say when he was misbehaving, don't you make me get my spoon!

Oh, God.

Castiel sways, has to reach out and clutch at the edge of her coffee table so he doesn't faceplant into it. He can feel her hand on his arm and her concerned voice reaching across to him, but he can't focus on it enough to answer.

Angel.

It can't be. It's not possible. "I'm not…I'm not…" He says it over and over, a mantra that he can cling to, trying to stop the mad rush of thoughts from overtaking him.

"No, baby, you're not," She says, standing and coming around the table so she can kneel down and pull him into her arms. "Not anymore. You're as human as the rest of us."

He moans, laying his face against her shoulder as he trembles. "But I wasn't always."

"No. No, not always." She rubs a hand up and down his back. "I'm sorry, hon. I know how hard this is for you to hear."

He wonders if that's even possible, because right now, he's thinking of all the ways in which John Winchester – his father, his own father – would want to hunt him if he were sitting here right now. His father has never believed in angels, only monsters.

But Castiel is human. He's human now, maybe that counts for something.

God, he doesn't even know what it means to be an angel. Would his family hold it against him, that he started out as something he has no memory of being? His mother wouldn't, his mother sees angels as protectors and guardians and something as holy and awe-inspiring as the Sunday school teachers would have their young flock believing.

But are they?

Are they?

Why would he have left? What possible reason could he have had to give up being something like that, if they were really so wonderful?

"Cas," Missouri is saying, trying to drag him away from his thoughts. "Honey, come on, sit down again. Should I call Sam and Dean?"

He sits numbly, not so much acquiescing as simply being unable to hold his own weight anymore. Sam and Dean, he thinks. My brothers.

They'd promised. Always his brothers, no matter what.

What am I? he'd asked.

He shouldn't have asked. Should never have wanted to know.

"The tree," he asks, his lips barely able to form around the words. "What is it?"

Missouri, standing over him with a hand on his shoulder and sympathy in her eyes, gives another small sigh. "I haven't seen it, so this is just a guess, mind you. But I think that tree is infused with what made you what you were, baby. I think that was your grace."

Castiel's eyes close as he buries his face in his hands.

~

Missouri drives him home, because Sam and Dean stayed behind earlier so they didn't arouse their parents' suspicion, and Castiel doesn't think he can actually walk more than ten steps by himself right now.

When he walks into the house, Sam is sitting (fretting) in the living room. He takes one look at Castiel's face and rushes over, steering him up the stairs and into the privacy of his own room.

"Where's Dean?" Castiel asks, because he doesn't want to say it at all, but he especially doesn't want to say it more than once.

"Dad asked him to swing by the garage, they're really busy today. Jesus, Cas, what happened?" Sam sits next to him on the bed without even waiting for an answer, drawing Castiel into a one-armed hug that has Castiel nearly in tears.

Would Sam – and even Dean, in his own way – have been so affectionate with him his whole life if they'd known? Will they ever touch him again once he tells them the truth?

"We need to go back as soon as possible," he finds himself saying, even as he leans against his brother and squeezes his eyes shut. "To the tree."

"Okay," Sam says, not even questioning it. Never questioning, because he trusts Castiel just like he trusts Dean. Without reservation.

Still, Castiel has to say it. He has to. "I know what the demons were after. We have to get it before any others find it."

"We will," Sam says softly, holding him closer, tighter. "Can you tell me what it is, Cas?"

Castiel simply breathes for a long moment. Inhale, exhale. In and out, trying to calm his mind. Trying to say the words he knows he must. "An angel's grace," he whispers. "They were trying to take my grace, Sam."

~

An hour later when Dean comes home, Sam is still holding onto him, and Castiel still can't believe it.

He hasn't been able to explain a thing through the exhaustion that had overtaken him. He hasn't been able to sleep either, of course, but somehow he finds himself curled up like a child anyway, his head resting on Sam's lap as his brother combs his fingers through Castiel's hair the way their mother used to do when he was young.

Sam hasn't asked, and Sam hasn't left, and Sam doesn't hate him, and for the moment, Castiel almost feels like he can breathe again.

His eyes are closed, but he still hears Dean's footsteps on the stairs and coming up the hall. He's still hyper-aware of the exact moment Dean opens the door and comes into the room, no doubt staring at the scene before him in confusion and alarm.

He doesn't want to say it again, doesn't know if he can force the words out a second time, but Sam takes the burden from him before he can even try. He doesn't even stop running his hand through Castiel's hair as he says to Dean, "So it turns out our little brother is an angel."

Castiel feels like his spine is going to crack with how tense he goes. Sam's thumb caresses over his cheek, and he shushes him as though Castiel is an infant he needs to soothe.

It's far more comforting than Castiel wants it to be.

Slowly, fearing the worst in every way possible, Castiel opens his eyes and forces them up to meet Dean's.

Dean is standing stock-still in the doorway, his expression a myriad of things Castiel can't read. "There's no such thing," he says, his voice low. He steps further into the room and closes the door with a soft snick.

Castiel squeezes his eyes shut again, because he just doesn't have it in him to try and be convincing when he can hardly believe or understand it himself yet.

"Apparently there is," Sam replies. "Missouri wouldn't lie, Dean."

"Then she's just plain wrong, Sam," Dean counters. "In all the years people in our family have been hunting, don't you think they'd have found even a scrap of evidence –"

"It makes too much sense for you to just disregard because you're a pigheaded –"

"Stop it," Castiel says. Whimpers, actually, but he doesn't want to admit that even to himself. How weak he actually is. "Please don't fight." He casts his gaze to the ground as he shifts into a sitting position. He can feel both of his brothers staring at him, but he can't look at either of them.

"Cas…" Dean starts to take a step forward, but hesitates for a fraction of a second. That hesitation, however small, is enough to have Castiel breaking. He can feel the way his face crumples, the way his heart shatters.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry."

"Hey, Cas, dammit." Dean takes three big strides forward and hauls Castiel up and into his arms without so much as a by your leave. "Stop bein' stupid," Dean admonishes him. All Castiel can do is cling to him like a particularly tenacious barnacle. "Even if you are – were – whatever. That. Doesn't change anything. Don't you listen?"

Castiel keeps clinging.

"Besides," Dean says, and Castiel can hear him grinning a little now. Just a tiny bit. "Angels don't sound so bad. You coulda been a chupacabra in a past life. Or a wendigo. Or, oh man, a ghoul, remember what those are like? Then where would you be?"

The laughter Castiel can't hold back may have an edge of hysterics to it, but he doesn't care.

He keeps clinging.

Dean keeps holding on.

~

It was Sam that Castiel used to share a room with, back when they were both very young and Mary was still using one of the rooms as her office. But as much as Castiel loved Sam even as a small child, it was to Dean he went when he couldn't sleep. When the nightmares were so bad he would wake up shaking and crying, it was Dean's room he would tiptoe to, Dean's bed he would crawl in, Dean's arms that would hold him, Dean's voice that would whisper him back to sleep.

Apparently, becoming an adult hasn't stemmed that urge. It's been a long time since Castiel's had the sort of nightmares that he used to, but when he wakes up that night with a scream caught in his throat and sweat dripping from his brow, his first inclination is to curl up with his big brother.

It's a ridiculous urge and he knows it. He lies in bed for a long time, watching the clock tick from one minute to the next, letting his breathing even out and his heart rate go back to normal. He tries his trick with Latin verbs. Tries counting sheep. Even tries humming Metallica.

An hour and a half later, Sam shuffles into his room. "C'mon, squirt," he yawns. "Can't listen to you tossing and turning all night."

Maybe it's the late hour that has Castiel sliding out of bed without a thought, following Sam down the hall, creeping past their parents' bedroom and into Dean's.

Dean is already sitting up and shifting over on his queen-sized bed (an indulgence their mother had rolled her eyes over). He nods for Castiel to lie down, and Castiel doesn't even question it. He climbs in and curls up next to Dean the way he hasn't done in a dozen years or more. Dean curls an arm around him and holds on tight.

"Couldn't sleep, little brother?" Dean breathes into the stillness.

Castiel shakes his head, feeling very young again. He's barely aware of Sam getting onto the other side of the bed until he feels another arm come around him. "You can rest now," Sam whispers. "We've got you."

Castiel closes his eyes, begins counting heartbeats.

He drifts off before he can parse out whose heartbeats he's actually counting.

~

Pulling himself from the dredges of sleep, Castiel finds himself filled with a brand new sense of purpose.

The knowledge that now sits in the corner of his brain, the knowledge of what he is, or was, terrifies him. He can't deny that. He doesn't know what he feels beyond the fear, doesn't even know what he should be feeling.

But.

This is not the end of the world, not even the end of his world. And evidence from the past few days to the contrary, he's not a child in need of sheltering, nor has he ever been known to hide from his problems. He won't start now.

He can't run, and he can't pretend the knowledge away, so he's going to find answers. He's going to figure out who he is – who he was – and he's going to find a way to accept it and move on. This is his life, and he won't let a past that has no bearing now keep him from it for longer than absolutely necessary.

With this determination fueling him, he opens his eyes to the new day. Blinks when he finds himself alone in the bed, curled up with his arms wrapped around a fluffy pillow. He sits up, trying to smother a yawn, and finds Dean on the other side of a room, digging through his closet and shoving things into his large duffle.

"What's going on?" Castiel asks him, his voice sleep-rough as he rubs at his eyes.

Dean turns his head and tosses him a wink. "Packin' up for our road trip, duh."

Castiel blinks again. "Road trip?"

"Yep." Dean zips up his bag and stands, throwing it over his shoulder. "Better get a move on, squirt. Daylight's wasting, and I don't think you're packed." As he walks by, he leans over and musses Castiel's hair, making Castiel swat at him even as he's fighting for understanding.

"Dean –"

Dean just gives him a blinding smile and mouths, trust me.

That, at least, is never a difficulty.

~

"I can't believe they bought that," Castiel says an hour later, speaking of their mother and father. In the front seat, Sam and Dean grin at each other, reveling in their innocent (to them) duplicity. "And you two. How did you know?"

"What, that you were gonna go all Rain Man on us, trying to find yourself or whatever?" Dean snorts. "Dude, c'mon. We've known you for how many years?"

"And we sure as hell weren't going to let you go on a scavenger hunt for clues about your angelic past all by yourself," Sam chimes in, tossing a smile back.

"Yeah, I can only imagine what trouble you'd manage to get into without us there to back you up." Dean smirks at him in the rearview.

Castiel woke up fully prepared to do this on his own. He knows now that his brothers love him and accept him, despite whatever may lie in his past. But he never expected that they would want to be part of his journey to discover it.

He should have known better. They've proven time and time again that he could ask for no better family.

"Thank you," he tells them, the words heartfelt.

Someday soon, he knows, when he has the answers he seeks, he's going to have to tell his parents. He's going to have to face up to the truth, and it's not going to be easy. But for now, he's got his brothers by his side, and he's got a purpose.

It's a good start.

~

Their first stop is not, as Castiel had assumed, to the tree. Castiel doesn't even realize it until he sees the state sign for Illinois instead of Nebraska and jerks upright. "Dean?"

Dean glances back and gives him a reassuring grin. "Relax, Cas. Gotta make a pit stop if we're going to try to extract whatever…heavenly mojo is in that tree."

Which has been Castiel's plan all along, ever since Missouri told him. Short of taking the…grace from the tree, how else is he going to stop other demons or evil things from taking it, finding a way to use it? But he had failed to consider how he was going to do so. He flushes, realizing just how big an error that was on his part. "That…makes sense," he says, all but choking on the words. Usually he's the one accidentally-on-purpose making Dean feel like a moron. He's not used to this role-reversal. Nor does he appreciate the way Sam is trying (and failing) to stifle his laughter. "So where are we going?"

"Minnesota," Sam answers with a big smile, which is instantly mirrored on Dean's face. "We're going to see Pastor Jim."

Pastor Jim. Castiel hasn't had a chance to see him in almost two years, and knowing that's where they're headed now instantly makes him feel lighter. Pastor Jim, and his sometimes-hunting partner Caleb, have been friends of the Winchester family for nearly as long as Missouri has. Castiel doesn't know the story behind how they met, but however it happened, it formed bonds between all of them that have survived a long time.

The last time Castiel saw Pastor Jim was his high school graduation, and it feels like far too long. Jim Murphy is one of his favorite people in the world. If anyone can make sense of this, help Castiel come to terms with it, it will be him.

~

Stepping into Pastor Jim's church feels like being wrapped in a warm little cocoon of home, and he doesn't dare look at the irony of that. He spent two weeks of his life every summer here through a good portion of his childhood, some of the only times he wasn't with his brothers, who'd preferred things like soccer camp (Sam) and weapons training (Dean).

The sun is slanting in through the familiar stained glass windows as he walks past row after row of well-worn pews, and for a long minute, Castiel simply breathes in the memories. Sam and Dean hang back behind him, respecting the fact that this is more Castiel's place than either of theirs. They all view Jim Murphy as something like an uncle, but it's Castiel who's been around him the most, and who loves him like he loves his own parents.

Again, Castiel wonders why he's allowed so much time to pass between visits. He shouldn't be coming here like this, only because of his newfound quest for answers. He promises himself that when this is all over, he'll make it a point to come back and actually spend time here. To visit just for the sake of visiting, rather than with favors to beg.

Assuming, of course, Pastor Jim doesn't think Castiel has lost his mind when he tells him why he's come.

As though summoned by the very thought, that's when Pastor Jim himself elects to appear, coming in through the door by the Sanctuary and stopping very suddenly when he sees the three newcomers. Castiel notes that he's aged, even in just the last two years. His hair and goatee are going from the dark brown he remembers from childhood to prematurely gray, and his face is weathered in a way only hunting can be responsible for. Still, it doesn't stop his eyes from twinkling merrily as he says, "Well, now. What on earth could bring three young Winchesters to darken my doorstep like this?"

"Hello, Pastor Jim," Castiel says, feeling his lips twitch up in a smile.

"Castiel." Jim shakes his head fondly as he comes down the aisle. Placing his hands on Castiel's shoulders, he looks him over. "You are not the same young man I saw last time I was in Lawrence, are you?"

Castiel looks down, but that only lasts as long as it takes for Jim to pull him into a firm hug.

"And Sam and Dean," he says when he pulls away. "The troublemakers."

"Hey, Pastor Jim," they say together, and each are greeted with handshakes and the 'manlier' hugs the good pastor knows Dean, at least, is far more likely to accept.

"So, boys. I must assume you're here for a reason?" Jim looks to each of them in turn, before his eyes finally settle back on Castiel. He tilts his head with a curious frown. "Castiel?"

"May we speak somewhere a bit less open?" Castiel asks, his voice quiet.

Now Pastor Jim looks alarmed. "Of course. My office, or would you rather we go next door? I have company at home, but I'm sure Caleb would be willing to take himself elsewhere for a few hours…"

Dean perks up. "Caleb's here?" he asks. He's always had a fondness for their father's favorite weapons dealer.

Jim nods, his soft smile sliding back into place. "Just visiting for a few days. Will it be a problem?" This he directs to Castiel.

"No," Castiel assures him. Pastor Jim has never come out and said as much directly, but Castiel has long suspected there's more to Jim and Caleb's relationship than meets the eye. Even if their family wasn't so connected to both men, it would be enough to reassure him that he could trust Caleb.

"Come on then," Jim says, leading them out. "I'll get some tea going and we can talk."

~

Whereas Jim Murphy has gone gray a ways before his time, Caleb Masotti looks quite a bit younger than his thirty-seven years. His hair is close-cropped, military-short, and his eyes have a sharpness to them that Castiel likens to a badger. He's the best at what he does, and he doesn't even pretend at modesty about it.

Once greetings are exchanged and friendly backslaps delivered all around, Jim doesn't waste time hesitating over it. "Cal," he says, placing a hand on Caleb's arm. "Maybe you could take Dean and Sam, go and pick us all up some dinner?"

They exchange looks the same way Castiel does with his brothers, everything said with a single raised brow or tilt of the head, no words necessary between them. Caleb nods once after a moment, and turns to grin at them. "C'mon boys, let's go rustle up some grub. Got any preferences?"

He leads them out of the house to Dean singing the praises of a well-made taco. Castiel shakes his head fondly, then sighs as he turns back to Pastor Jim.

"So, Castiel," Jim says, leading them to the table and chairs in the sunlit little kitchen. They each take a seat, and Jim fixes Castiel with a compassionate look. "What is it you need?"

Castiel stares hard at the tabletop, tries not to fidget, and begins to tell Pastor Jim the whole crazy story.

~

The tree stands as tall and regal and pure as it did the first time Castiel saw it. Sunlight dancing through its branches, leaves rustling in the gentle breeze. It looks absolutely no different, and why should it? It's only been a week; no matter that it feels like that week has been an eternity.

Dean is hovering as Castiel tries to gather his resolve. He knows his eldest brother doesn't agree with him being the one to do this, but it's something Castiel needs to do. So Dean hovers, and Sam tries not to, and Castiel stands and clutches the tiny quartz crystal in his hand so tightly he can feel it cutting into his palm.

He lets himself remember Pastor Jim's words, spoken with kindness etched into every line of his face.

Whatever you chose to do then or decide to do now, it is because you have God's gift of free will. Not because you took it, but because He allowed you to have it. And that means something, Castiel.

Taking a breath, Castiel steps forward, kneels on the ground in front of the tree. He pushes the crystal into the earth, one sharp point digging down until he feels it press against something hard and unmoving.

Remember that it isn't the tree itself you should focus on, but the roots beneath that allowed it to grow.

He tries not to notice the way his hand is trembling as he cups it over the crystal and closes his eyes. Without touching the tree itself, the feelings he experienced before aren't as immediate or as bright, but he can still feel them hovering at the edge of his consciousness. He caresses them with his thoughts, draws them out and channels them through the ground. Visualizes the light of an angel's grace as it travels from the center where the tree began and through the roots, toward the quartz shard that will now hold it safe.

Whatever is buried beneath that Oak has the power and potential to change you. Think long and hard before choosing that course, Castiel.

He feels heat stinging his palm, but he doesn't move, staying focused on his task until he feels nothing from the tree itself. There's a cold sweat on the back of his neck and his face, fear making him feel clammy and shaky. But he opens his eyes and stares down at the crystal mostly buried in the dirt. Sees it glowing with a light so intense it almost hurts his eyes to look at. And knows he's succeeded.

Angel or human, Castiel, you are who you are. And I would not change that.

He brings his eyes up to the tree, presses a hand to the warm bark and feels nothing but the roughness against his fingertips. "Thank you," he murmurs, "for keeping this safe for me."

He imagines he can hear the tree whisper back its own gratitude.

~

"Dude, that thing is worse than the high beams the ass-clown behind me won't turn off," Dean says, casting a suspicious look over his shoulder at the quartz crystal resting in Castiel's hand.

"Sorry," Castiel mumbles, and closes his fingers around it. He doesn't want to let it out of his sight. He barely even understands what it is or what it can do, but he's afraid for it all the same. No matter how disconnected, what this crystal now holds is a part of him.

He'd planned on keeping it around his neck as a pendant, even got as far as threading the cheap metal chain through the hole drilled at the top of the crystal. But it is bright, too bright, and he doesn't want to draw attention to it unnecessarily. Whatever answers he's looking for, he knows they won't be easy to find. And the people he and his brothers speak with may have an interest in something so visibly beautiful and potentially powerful.

"We've got one of Mom's old lock-boxes in the trunk," Sam points out. "That would keep it out of sight and safe, probably even safer than it would be with you."

It's logical, in theory, but…

"I don't trust it to be anywhere but with me," Castiel mumbles. He's being stubborn and he knows it. Truthfully, there's a part of him that wants this grace as far away from him as possible. His frame of mind, at least, would probably be better without the constant shining reminder.

"All right, all right. Got another idea." Dean eases the Impala onto the shoulder of the freeway, flips off the SUV as it zooms past them, and puts the car into park.

Castiel watches curiously as he gets out and makes his way around to the back, popping the trunk. He can hear Dean rooting around for something, and he meets Sam's questioning gaze with a helpless shrug.

When Dean climbs back into the driver's seat, he reaches back and holds his fist out in front of Castiel. Blinking, Castiel obligingly opens his hand and a bullet casing drops into it. It's one of the ones for Dean's favorite .45. There's a hole drilled through the top of it, and curious little etchings all around that look like they were done with a knife. Castiel recognizes them after a moment as symbols of protection.

"Where on earth did you find this?" he asks, examining it in the flickering light from the streetlight across the freeway.

He looks up just in time to see the tops of Dean's ears flush read. "Made it myself," he mumbles. "No reason, just got bored."

Castiel and Sam exchange a glance. For a girl, then, they silently agree. And Castiel suspects it was probably for Cassie, the girl Dean hasn't spoken about in a year who Castiel privately believes broke his big brother's heart.

"Thank you," he says, genuinely touched. He threads both sides of the chain through the hole in the casing, slides it down and over the crystal. It's a perfect fit, and does a good job blocking the unearthly glow of the grace. Taking a breath, he fastens it around his neck.

No amount of metal shielding can stop the way his mind hums once the grace is resting so close to his heart.

~

It takes Castiel a long time to realize he's dreaming. He's in the backseat of the Impala, just as he's been almost all day. The car rumbles happily as it flies down the road, trees blurring by outside the windows. The sun is high in the sky and Led Zeppelin is on the radio, his sketchbook in his lap and the pavement smooth enough to keep his hand steady as he draws, and he doesn't even notice there's no one driving the car until he hears a rustle like the flapping of a crow's wings and looks up in alarm.

"What –" He stops immediately when he sees the empty front seats, inhales sharply before he realizes what it means. He's had this dream before, though usually his brothers are where they belong, and he's never had uninvited guests show up in the past.

The man beside him is watching him with a calculating gaze, eyeing him up and down and raising a brow at whatever he sees. He looks…suave, Castiel thinks. Polished. Blonde hair and blue eyes and a mouth that seems far too used to wearing a smirk. Even now, he can see one hovering at the corners, and it sets Castiel's teeth on edge.

"Oh, Cassy," the man says. British accent and a voice as smooth as honey. "Look at you. You are a sight for sore eyes. At least it seems those apes are taking care of you."

"Who…what…who are you?" Castiel asks, eyes wide. Outside, the trees continue to blur by, and up front, the car continues to drive herself, but now instead of feeling peaceful, the setting feels all wrong, and he wants to wake up. He tries to pinch himself, isn't too surprised when it doesn't work.

"You don't remember." The man's brow furrows, and he reaches out. Castiel dodges away, grasping for his pendant before his brain even catches up enough to realize that was what the man was after. The man's arms cross, and he leans back against the opposite corner of the backseat, frowning unhappily. "Why on earth would you be stupid enough to go after your grace if you didn't remember?"

"Demons went after it first," Castiel snaps. "I never would have known –" His brain catches up quicker this time, and he gasps. "You're an angel."

"I am," the man admits. "Damn, this does make things difficult, doesn't it?" He sighs. "My name is Balthazar."

"Castiel," he replies slowly. "Though…you…knew that already?" He frames it as a question, but it's not like there's any doubt. The man had called him Cassy, after all. Not a nickname he approves of or ever wants to hear again, but clearly based off his name. It makes sense that angels can read minds.

"Mmm, convenient, that. You keeping your name." Balthazar's eyes twinkle. "Wonder who gave Mary Winchester that idea."

Castiel blinks. "You…spoke with my mother?" Blinks again. "You and I were…friends." He can't even imagine it.

Balthazar's eyes soften. "We fought together in the same garrison for many millennia. There's no one I consider more of a friend than you, brother." He snorts. "Even skinny and kitten-weak as you are now." He reaches over, pokes Castiel in the arm before Castiel can dodge away again. "Ridiculous. How have humans survived so long when they're so flimsy?"

Castiel's eyes narrow. Friends? With this dick? Though Balthazar is a bit like Dean, he supposes. Only smarmier. And with douchier hair. Still, he wonders what sort of angel he was, if this was someone he considered a close friend.

"Oh, don't worry," Balthazar says, waving a hand. "You still had that stick up your arse even then. Actually, you seem far more relaxed like this. I suppose that's a bonus if I ever saw one."

"What do you want?" Castiel growls, tired of this game already.

"To warn you, though now I wonder why I bothered," Balthazar grumps. "Clearly it won't be appreciated. It's those Winchester genes, making you think you're invincible."

"Hardly," Castiel snorts. He eyes this…this being who called itself his friend. "Warn me about what?"

"They know, Castiel." Balthazar's tone is pure concern now, a jarring change. "With the grace reclaimed, they can find you now. You haven't long before they come."

"Who?"

Balthazar grinds his teeth, clearly frustrated. "The other angels, you clueless imbecile! You broke the rules, you Fell! Hell, coming to Earth at all is forbidden! Did you think there would be no consequence?" He rubs at his face. "Never mind, Of course you have no idea what you were thinking. Humans," he hisses like it's a curse. Then starts again. "There are certain rules we don't break, and this is one of them. The penalty is death, Castiel, and they will stab you in the heart and spread your grace so far out into the cosmos that Dad Himself wouldn't be able to reclaim it. You must protect yourself."

Castiel can't answer, his heart suddenly beating triple-time, his breath catching painfully in his throat. The angels were going to come after him? But weren't they supposed to be good and…and pure? Holy beings?

Balthazar grabs his hand while Castiel is distracted with the sudden rush of fear, yanks a pen from the floor and draws a sigil of some kind on his palm. "I must go before they discover what I've done. Use this. Draw it in blood on a wall wherever you stay. Even in this death trap of a car. It will hide you from all but the most powerful of our siblings."

"I…" Castiel tries to form words. "Balthazar, you…"

"Don't you dare thank me. I owe you far more than this begins to repay." Balthazar leans forward and claps a hand on Castiel's shoulder. "Stay safe, Cassy. I'll come again if I can. If you die before that, I'll be very grumpy with you."

He vanishes before Castiel can respond, on the same rush of wingbeats he appeared with, and Castiel wakes in a dark motel room, his heart still pounding and his head spinning.

~

He's already wrapping his hand – thanking God he didn't accidentally cut deep enough to require stitches – when Dean wakes up and stumbles into the bathroom, presumably to use the toilet.

Green eyes blink groggily and then flare wide when he sees Castiel already there. He grabs Castiel's hand to inspect it, and the bandage dangles loosely toward the ground. "The hell'd you do?" Dean growls, even as he takes over caring for the wound.

Castiel winces at the cold washcloth scrubbing away at the cut, but admits to himself that Dean has more practice at tending wounds than he does. "Sigil on the wall," he says. "To hide us." He decides not to tell Dean that there's a matching one on the inside of the trunk of his car. He'll worry about that if and only if Dean happens to notice.

"Hide us from what?" Dean demands.

"Do you really want to know?" Castiel asks wearily. At Dean's look, he sighs and tells his brother about the unexpected tête-à-tête with the angel – Balthazar – in his dream. The expression on his brother's face gets darker and darker as he speaks, and by the time he's finished, he thinks he may be in danger of witnessing Dean exploding right there.

"What makes you think this wasn't just a regular dream?" Dean bites the question out sharply.

"The sigil he drew on my hand was still there when I woke," Castiel tells him. "And it wasn't like a normal dream, it was too vivid. Also, I don't think my imagination could create a character like that. Smarmy bastard." He mutters the last part, remembering Balthazar's infuriating smirk, his disparaging remarks about humanity. "But," he adds grudgingly, "I think we – or at least I – can trust him."

"You sure?" Dean looks at him closely, and Castiel takes a long moment to consider. His gut instincts are rarely wrong when it comes to people, but it's that one time out of a hundred that could get them all killed.

"I'm sure," he finally says, feeling positive. "He was a dick, but an honest one. He considers me – or he considers the angel Castiel, at least – a friend. It means something to him. I get the feeling it doesn't to most other angels." He chews on the inside of his lip, worrying. "Dean, these are angels. How can they be so…" He searches for a word, any word.

Dean looks at him with sympathy as he finishing wrapping his hand. "Sammy's the one you should be talking to about angels, squirt. Up until a week ago, I never believed they existed. And even if I had, I would've pegged 'em to be dicks off the bat anyway." He grins a little, mussing Castiel's hair. "Least you were smart enough to get out. Obviously you were observant enough to notice that humans were way cooler."

At least Dean's pessimism about anything non-human is a constant Castiel can depend on. He shakes his head with a sigh, then thanks Dean for taking care of him by wrapping him in a big hug. "I'm sorry," he says. Can't help but say. "I'm sorry you got dragged into this because of me."

Dean gently smacks him upside the head as he pulls away, glaring. Holding onto Castiel by the arms like he means to shake him. "Didn't get dragged into anything, idiot. Me and Sam, we'd have been here no matter what. Gotta keep you safe, and don't give me that look, it's what we do."

It's true, they always have. Castiel has all the same training they do, can hold his own in any fight he's been in, but he's the baby of the family, the one they all watch out for and protect. He's always hated it, hated the idea that they could get hurt because of him. This is somehow a thousand times worse, because once upon a time, Castiel was apparently a soldier for God, a powerful angel part of an entire garrison. And now he's reduced to something that depends on his family to watch his back and put their lives on the line for his.

He should have left by himself, taken this trip of self-discovery on his own. If they get hurt –

"Damn, you think too loud, kid," Dean says, clearly fed up. He drags Castiel out of the bathroom and kicks Sam's bed as he walks by. "Sam! Up and at 'em! Breakfast, before our moron little brother implodes from stupidity."

Castiel rolls his eyes, scowling (but secretly feeling very warm), and tries to bury his fear. Whatever comes for him, they'll be ready. He'll make sure of it.

They have to be ready.

~

They do some surreptitious investigating with the few hunters they know, the ones who won't report straight back to John (which means the ones John wouldn't trust within a ten mile radius of his sons if given half a choice), and they come to one solid conclusion.

If they want to learn more about angels – the real angels – they either need to head to the Vatican, or they need to go to Bobby Singer. Since one of those is obviously not a real option, they start heading toward South Dakota. It would be only a day's drive if Dean punched the gas pedal, but he takes it easy, stopping for frequent breaks and staying close to the speed limit. Castiel understands. They have no idea how to explain their request to a hunter they barely know.

At least going to Bobby makes sense. Castiel figures that the one person who knows about angels would be the one who's spent half his life studying their opposites, the demons. Heaven and Hell are probably far more closely linked than most people realize. It would explain why those demons knew what his grace was and tried to claim it, and that's another thing Castiel intends to find out.

He needs to know what his unabsorbed grace is capable of. What sort of power it holds for whoever wields it.

No matter what he finds, he doesn't get the feeling he's going to like the answer.

~

Bobby stares from beneath the brim of a battered old baseball cap, so worn and faded it's impossible to tell which team it used to be for. "You wanna know about what now?"

Castiel fidgets. "Angels, sir. We need to know whatever information you have about angels."

Bobby eyes them. He'd seemed happy enough to have them show up unannounced on his doorstep bright and early in the morning, and Rumsfeld had been overjoyed to see Castiel after so many years. But Castiel is pretty sure now he's regretting ever opening his door.

And they haven't even gotten to the hard part yet.

"Unless you been ringing bells and seeing Clarence gettin' a pair of wings, you got no reason to want to know about anything of the sort." Bobby crosses his arms. "And for Christ's sake, cut the sir crap, I ain't no damn sir."

Castiel casts his eyes down. "Sorry, s– I mean, Bobby."

"All due respect," Sam says, stepping in front of Castiel, as though to shield him from harsh words as much as he and Dean seem determined to shield him from danger. Castiel tries not to glare at the back of his neck. "We wouldn't be asking if it wasn't important."

Bobby's gaze roams over each of them in turn, catches on the pendant Castiel is wearing. It's barely noticeable, but the soft glow of grace can be seen just barely against his t-shirt from beneath the bottom of the bullet, and it's apparently enough to have Bobby's eyes narrowing. "Don't tell me that's what I think it is."

Dean and Sam and Castiel trade glances, all of them wondering just how far they can trust this hunter they barely know.

It's Dean who takes the leap, once Castiel gives a tentative nod. "Grade A, organic, home grown angel juice," he says, not a hint of irony in his tone but a hell of a lot of challenge.

Bobby gives a low whistle. "You boys sure stepped in it, didn't you?" He scowls for a moment. "Fine then. Guess you'd best help me track down my books."

~

As it turns out, Bobby has a lot of books. Castiel stares at the pile and wonders if they could get through all of them even if they spent the next ten years doing nothing except reading. He's suddenly impossibly grateful to have Sam here, no matter what he thought about wanting to keep his brothers out of harm's way. Sam is the researcher. Sam will know what to do with all this.

Dean wouldn't even know where to begin, and Castiel doesn't think he'd be much better. Not on his own.

Sam, however, dives right in like a natural, paging through ancient tomes and grimacing at some of the pictures he sees. He scribbles notes onto a somewhat tattered old legal pad, doesn't even look up as one meal passes, then two.

Castiel is neck-deep in his own search, staring aghast at some of the depictions of biblical battles. Pastor Jim taught him about many things from Christian lore in their times together, but never anything quite like this. It's downright horrifying to see, especially as graphic as some of the artists chose to be.

Dean, meanwhile, is paging through a book of names (unalphabetized, of course, because that would be too easy), trying to see if he can find anything similar to Castiel. Castiel, personally, isn't holding his breath on that search turning anything up. He doesn't get the feeling he was a very important angel, if they let him go for so long until he decided to uncover his grace.

But then, he doesn't really know, does he?

While they're at their various tasks, Bobby stalks in and out of the room, grumbling under his breath about idjit Winchesters and their idjit missions and their idjit friends who are too stupid to know better than helping them. Castiel almost makes the mistake of laughing, but manages to hide it under a cough just in time.

The day passes slowly, and when it's over, Castiel doesn't feel any closer to the information he's seeking than he was this morning. His eyes hurt and his head is pounding and he's all but swaying on his feet when Bobby comes in and says, "Got the guest room upstairs made up for you boys. Figure you're gonna be takin' up space for too long to give up my couch and living room floor." He scowls at them some more, like they missed it the first twelve times. "Only one bed up there, but I got some cots set up too."

"That's very generous," Castiel says, consciously fighting not to tack the immediate sir onto the end. He's already been glared at enough today. "Are you sure it's no trouble?"

Bobby sighs. "Course it's trouble. But you're John's boys, and even if I didn't owe him, I figure you'll just get into even more trouble if someone's not here to smack some sense into you."

It's sound logic. Also, probably, very true. Castiel is honest enough that he can admit it. "Thank you," he says.

"Uh huh." Bobby stalks out without another word, and Castiel glances at his brothers. They yawn and stand and stretch and all three of them tromp up the stairs together. Too exhausted to bother getting the duffels out of the car, they strip out of their shirts and fall onto the bed by mutual unspoken agreement. It's been a long day, and the bed is far softer and more comfortable than the cots. Small for three grown men, but that's never stopped them before, and anyway, Castiel can admit that with the violent images all swirling together in his head, he's grateful for the comfort of his brothers so close.

He falls asleep clutching his grace pendant in his hand, the names of a hundred angels ringing in his ears like accusations.

~

There are many things Castiel wants to learn about the Heavenly Host, but the reference he finds himself searching for above all others is one for angels like him.

Fallen.

The problem is, aside from oblique allusions in a few of the more unreliable-looking tomes, the only mentions of the Fallen he and his brothers can find are those relating to Lucifer and his ilk. Those who Fell not just to Earth, but all the way to Hell, where presumably they were either trapped or turned to demons.

Surely, there must be another angel, any other angel, who made the same choice Castiel made, but if so, they never realized what they were, or they remained silent and well hidden.

"Look," Dean says when Castiel slams the fourth book in a row shut. "Maybe we're goin' at this all wrong."

Sam looks up from his own book with a weary but intrigued expression. "Well don't keep us waiting, Oh Brainy One," he says, smirking. "Do tell."

"We're lookin' for all this crap about something most people don't think actually exists. And hell, it's not like the angels are gonna write any of this stuff down, especially the fallen ones, if there are any. So maybe we should try looking at the human angle."

Castiel blinks. "I don't understand."

Sam, however, is looking like the proverbial light bulb just went off in his head. He grins at Dean, then looks at Castiel. "We're all really idiots for not thinking about this sooner. There were signs, Cas. Signs people took note of, have records of."

"You mean the meteors?" Castiel asks incredulously. "But meteorites falling to Earth isn't so rare a thing, and they can't all be angels."

"No, but a meteor crashing at the same time as a miraculous event, like a giant tree popping up overnight?" Sam winks, dimples flashing as he grins again. "That's a little more rare. I mean, it's not a perfect system, and it's going to require a lot of crosschecking. But it's an idea."

And, admittedly, a better idea than any of them have had in a while. They've been at this for three days already. Bobby's mutterings keep getting louder and grouchier. "Well then, let's try it," Castiel agrees.

"I'll grab the laptop," Sam says, no small amount of relief in his tone.

Castiel and Dean glance at each other, both releasing twin sighs at the knowledge that they're still stuck with the musty old books.

Bobby, who's been watching them from the dining room with his arms crossed and his habitual scowl firmly in place, sighs and goes into the kitchen. Castiel's willing to place money that he's making food for them, and he thinks he maybe loves the gruff old hunter a little bit.

~

"Oh, here's something!" Sam says brightly, not even two full hours later.

Castiel starts, then curses himself for almost falling asleep on the books. Dean, he notes, was all but drooling, which makes him feel only marginally better. "What did you find?" he asks, trying to cover a sleepy yawn.

Sam looks excited. "Fifty-five years ago, a little town in Vermont called Canaan. Residents all across the town reported seeing a meteor land somewhere close, but no one ever found it. At the same time as it touched down, a massive lightning storm popped up. The worst the town had ever seen in recorded history, but here's the strangest part: Every single place where lightning struck, a maple tree appeared. Overnight." He casts a significant look on Castiel. "These maples are special. Bigger than others all across the state, and they never lose their leaves, even in the dead of winter."

"Well. That does sound promising," Dean says, stretching. "Should we go there? Check it out, see if we can find a central point where the grace might be?"

"When and where was this again?" Bobby asks.

Castiel had almost forgotten the older hunter was here. He's been in and out of the room, pretending he's not interested in what they're researching, but now he looks…well, Castiel isn't sure he has a word for that look. Ill doesn't quite begin to cover it.

Sam double-checks his computer. "Canaan, Vermont," he replies. "1950."

"Balls," Bobby mutters under his breath. "I'll be damned."

~

"So this man we're going to see," Castiel says, back in the backseat where he belongs and sketchbook in hand as Dean eases onto the freeway. "He either knows something, Bobby thinks, or…"

"Or he's like you," Sam replies.

Castiel wishes he knew which one he should hope for more. It's a long drive to Vermont, and he settles into his seat in silence, feeling for the first time like he might be headed for some real answers.

Bobby's books didn't hold the clues Castiel was hoping for, but he's not too surprised. Mostly, there were just a lot of biblical references and a frightening amount of expansion on the book of Revelations.

But Dean did manage to uncover one other small thing, just before they packed up to leave. The tiniest tidbit, but something that suddenly made everything feel so much more real. He found a name.

Castiel was the angel of Thursday.

~

The house doesn't look like the sort of place Castiel would think to look for a hunter – even a retired hermit of one – with it's mint green paint and fire-engine red trim. A clothesline hangs across the porch and the grass is just this side of overgrown.

But a large, brilliantly green sugar maple stands in the front yard, and that's enough to have them exiting the car and walking up the concrete walkway. Not to mention the sign they find on the front door warning away…well, pretty much everybody, and the surveillance camera perched above the corner. That, at least, sounds characteristic of the paranoid man Bobby described.

Dean is the one to press the doorbell. From a speaker nestled just below the house address numbers, an annoyed voice yells, "What?"

The brothers exchange glances. "Uh, Rufus Turner?" Dean asks.

"Yeah, what?" the voice over the speaker shoots back, sharper this time.

Dean cringes. Sam shoves him aside, fixes his most pleasant smile in place as he glances at the camera. "Hi, Rufus, my name is Sam Winchester, and these are my brothers, Dean and Cas. Bobby Singer gave us your name, we were hoping we could talk to you for just a minute?"

There's a long period of silence, and then Rufus barks, "What kinda name is Cas, boy?"

Castiel swallows hard, looking to both of his brothers for help, but all they can offer are feeble shrugs. He leans toward the speaker hesitantly and says, "It's…it's actually Castiel, sir."

There's an ear-splitting whine-crackle-screech over the speaker, like something hit the thing and caused it to rupture sound. While they're all busy flinching away from it, the door flies open and Rufus himself steps out, six feet of angry black man, and he's glaring daggers right at Castiel.

"Um." It's possibly the least articulate Castiel has ever been in his life, but he's too busy stumbling back into Dean to try for real words. More intimidated by this man than he's been by zombies, shape shifters, ghosts, and ghouls. Possibly all at once.

Rufus glowers at him, and then his eyes slide down to the pendant against his chest. "Of course," he growls. "I'm gonna tell you this once and only once, and if you don't listen, I'm gonna go back inside and get my shotgun so I can give you a reason to listen, you understand?"

It takes all of Castiel's effort to manage a nod.

"Good." Rufus steps closer, looming over Castiel in a way that even Dean's warm weight holding him up can't protect him from. "Get. The. Hell. Off. My. Property."

"Sir, if we could just –"

Rufus turns on Sam, and Sam may be taller by a good few inches, but even he can't help cowering just a little. "I sound like I'm speaking Russian to you? Get. Out."

"No," Dean says, his own voice low and angry as he steps away from Castiel and puts himself between Rufus and his brothers. "I don't know what your problem is, but we've got questions, and we ain't leavin' till we get some answers. You want us gone, you'll just have to answer fast."

Castiel's eyes flick between them as they engage in some sort of macho stare-down, and he doesn't start breathing again until Rufus finally looks away first.

"Fine," he bites out, looking again at Castiel's pendant. His eye twitches, but he holds the door open anyway, looking like he might snap at any moment. "Well?" He glares at them all. "Safer inside than out, and I ain't sayin' shit where they might hear."

Castiel isn't sure he wants to know who they are. He follows his brothers inside with no small amount of trepidation, startling when the door slams closed behind them. Then Rufus is pushing past, leading them into the kitchen where he sets about pouring himself a generous glass of Johnny Walker while they cautiously sit at the small table.

"Okay. What do you want?" Rufus grunts. He seems a little mellower now, with his scotch in hand and the door closed. Understandable, since there are sigils hidden in every corner of every room Castiel can see. And not just the one Balthazar taught him, but others. More complicated, probably more powerful. Rufus also seems to have resigned himself to their presence for the time being, and while he still looks bitter and jaded, the anger has faded from his eyes, leaving him looking almost hollow.

Sam and Dean both look at him, and Castiel closes his eyes briefly, coming to terms with the fact that this is, indeed, his show. "My brothers and I –" He ignores Rufus' snort at that. "– tracked the signs we could find. We have reason to believe you know about something that fell here a long time ago. Something angelic." He looks down at the tabletop, absently tracing the scars there with a fingertip. "I'm just looking for answers," he mumbles.

Rufus sets his glass down and comes closer, leaning over the table until he catches Castiel's eyes and staring long and hard into them. "Boy, you don't remember a damn thing, do you?" he asks finally, straightening and crossing his arms. "It's nothin' but dumb luck, brought you to my doorstep." He shakes his head. "Trust me when I tell you, you don't want to know. Go home, kid. Get rid of that thing –" He nods at Castiel's necklace, "– in the first ocean you can find, and live your life for as long as you got it."

Castiel tilts his head, gazing solemnly at Rufus. "It's you, isn't it?" he asks. "The grace that fell here, it was yours."

Rufus' eyes tighten, and he goes back to his bottle, downs several fast shots.

"How did you remember? What triggered it? Was it before or after you found your grace?" Castiel doesn't notice right away that his hands are clenched in his lap, the rapid-fire questions pouring out of his mouth in a way he can barely control.

"Kid, if you got the choice?" Rufus shakes his head again. "Don't go lookin' for that kinda trouble. It ain't worth it." Another shot. "Hell, who'm I kidding? Probably too late for you already. Lemme tell you, I figured it out, and I left, fast as I could. Left my family before they could get caught in the crossfire. You got any smarts in that head of yours, you'll do the same, unless you want your brothers dead."

Castiel's heart stutters in his chest, but he puts a hand on Dean's arm when it looks like his brother is about to shoot the man. "Don't," he says as calmly as he can. "It's not worth it." To Rufus, he says, "I need to know."

Rufus grunts. "Suit yourself." His mouth twists. "October fifteenth, 1972. Demon by the name of Azazel does a ritual to try and talk to our fallen brother, one Lucifer Morningstar, used to go by the name Samael in happier times." He gives them a dark smile at their badly concealed shock. "Didn't work, but Azazel shook a lotta things loose doin' it. Shook a lot more loose with the hell he raised after." He taps his temple with a long finger. "That was part of it. Soon as I remembered, I pooled some resources, tracked down that pain in the ass grace of mine. And then I tainted the sucker so dark no angel would ever find it, hid it so no demon could, neither."

The shudder is instinctive, something in those words turning Castiel's insides to ice. "Tainted?" he asks, though he's sure he doesn't want to know.

"You take innocent blood shed by a demon in a desecrated church, and you mix it with angel grace? You got yourself something so unrecognizable – and so dark – no angel in Heaven'll ever go near it."

Castiel thinks he might actually be sick. Trapped suddenly in the memory of those three laughing demons as they slaughtered the man in front of his eyes…the vial where they stored his blood…the way they tried to tap into the tree before the Winchesters and Bill had taken them out.

Oh, God.

"Why would you ever willingly…" Sam trails off, staring at Rufus in horror.

He shrugs. "Better that then dead, right? And this way, I'm sure never gonna be tempted to take the thing back, no matter how desperate I get. I was born human, I'm damn well gonna die human."

"You can do that?" Castiel asks. He thinks his voice sounds meek. "Re-absorb the grace and…become an angel again?"

"Yep. But I don't recommend it. Boys upstairs don't take too kindly to angels who break the rules. They kill you human, least you just die. You go angel again, they throw your ass so far in the pit you'll never climb out." The shadows in his eyes speak volumes of what Rufus thinks of that. He also looks like he's rapidly getting fed up with questions.

"One more thing," Castiel promises. "Just one. Do you regret it? Falling?"

Rufus doesn't break eye contact for a single moment as he downs the rest of his bottle and slams it on the counter. "Every damn day."

Castiel bows his head, nods. "I'm sorry, Rufus."

There's another long silence. "Raamiel," Rufus finally says. Castiel blinks. "You're sorry, Raamiel. Might as well get it right. And don't be sorry for me, kid." He smiles a dark, broken smile. "I'm what you got to look forward to."

~

Dean finds them a motel two states over, and it's only because of how late it is and how shaken they are that he stops at all. Personally, Castiel wants to get as far away from Rufus Turner as he can, as fast as possible. He spends the entire car ride trembling, trying to get control of his shaking limbs to no avail until he finally gives in and curls up on the seat, burying his face in his arm to hide the pathetic whimpers that want to escape. He can feel the worried glances his brothers keep sending him, but they don't try to get him to talk, and he's grateful.

There's no surprise when he eventually staggers into the motel room and finds only one king-sized bed. One of them is hurt, even if it's only emotionally, and that supercedes the usual coin flip that would grant one of them a bed to themselves. Castiel doesn’t have it in him to argue, wouldn't want to even if he could think straight enough to bother. He sits down on the bed numbly and doesn't protest when Sam wrangles his boots off and runs a worried hand through his hair.

Dean lies down on one side of the bed and gently tugs on Castiel's shoulder until he's lying, still trembling, against his side, his face buried in Dean's shoulder as he's suddenly wracked with the fearful sobs that have been wanting to escape since Canaan.

What if Rufus is right? he wants to ask, but can't get the words out. What if you get hurt? What if I'm doomed to that life? What if they come for me?

"We're here," Sam says, kneeling over him and running a soothing hand up and down his arm. "It's okay, Cas."

It's not okay. Castiel isn't sure it will ever be okay again.

~

"Who are you?" Castiel asks tiredly. Apparently angels turning up in his dreams is going to be a regular occurrence now. He should have guessed.

"Name's Gabe," the man across from him says, wearing a sharp grin. He leans back in his chair, kicking his feet up on the table as his butterscotch eyes sweep over Castiel. "And you, little brother, are getting yourself into quite a bit of trouble lately."

"Don't call me that," Castiel bites out. There are only two people who have that right, and this, this Gabe, isn't one of them. "What do you want?"

Gabe holds up his hands, a look of innocence crossing his face that Castiel doesn't buy for a second. "Hey, I'm just here to do you a favor, kiddo."

Castiel eyes him suspiciously. "And what's that?"

"Left you a present. A sword, actually. You could at least say thank you." The angel - if his name is actually 'Gabe', Castiel will be very surprised - gives him a grumpy look.

"A sword that can kill angels?" Castiel asks, skeptical. "Why in the world would you give me access to something like that?"

Gabe looks away, jaw clenched in spite of the easy demeanor he's tried to affect. "I don't believe in angels killing angels. But I do think you should have the right to make your own choices, and stand up for them when others disagree."

Somehow, Castiel thinks there's more to Gabe's story then meets the eye, but he's not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. A weapon that can hurt the things hunting him would be invaluable. "Where can I find it?" he finally asks.

A slow smile curls its way onto Gabe's face, and he shrugs. "Little place in Illinois. Called Pontiac."

And then he vanishes from Castiel's dream with nothing but a snap of his fingers.

~

It says something, that his brothers don't so much as question Castiel's dream, or his insistence on making their way to Pontiac as quickly as possible. Someday, he's going to find a way to show his gratitude for the trust, the faith, they have in him.

It's a full day's drive from upstate New York, where they ended up after visiting Rufus (Raamiel, Castiel can't help but think in the privacy of his thoughts), to Pontiac. Castiel spends most of it dozing in the backseat, exhausted down to his core. He wakes several times clutching the pendant around his neck, and more than once catches both Dean and Sam sneaking worried glances at him from the rearview mirror.

"I'm not going to break," he finally says quietly, just as the sky is edging towards dusk. With luck, he thinks they'll be able to hit Pontiac and find a motel before dinnertime. "You don't have to treat me like I'm fragile."

"You're our kid brother, Cas," Dean says from the driver's seat with an unapologetic shrug. "I know you ain't fragile, or whatever, but looking out for you is just part of the package."

Castiel gazes out the window with a sigh and doesn't answer.

Pontiac is a moderately-sized town, population under twelve thousand according to the cheerful sign they pass. Like many modest, community-focused towns the Winchesters have visited on hunts, the first thing they see in Pontiac is a church, and several more just like it follow. Most of them are small, and none that Castiel see have the age or grace that Pastor Jim's does.

Dean pulls into a little fill-up station completely off the main roads. For a second, Castiel thinks it's abandoned...it's deserted except for the two beat up cars off to the side that look as though they haven't been driven in years. There are two pumps, and the building seems like a strong wind could knock it over. But there's a little mini-mart inside, and Castiel buys sandwiches and bottles of water from the ancient-looking man behind the register while Dean fills the Impala.

The wizened old man hands back Castiel's change with hands that shake violently, a cough that rattles in his lungs, and a smile that lights his eyes behind the cataracts. "Always a pleasure to see you, Jimmy m'boy," he wheezes. "Have a good day, son!"

Castiel blinks. "Um. You as well," he says, and stumbles out the door before the poor man can realize his mistake.

"So Cas, any idea where we're supposed to start looking for this angel blade your friend left you?" Dean asks as they both slide back into the Impala.

"He's not my friend," Castiel insists, remembering Gabe's smirk and the way he seemed to be laughing at Castiel just with his eyes. Between Gabe and Balthazar, Castiel is seriously beginning to question why all the angels who want to help him are such dicks. If Gabe had been a friend, back in Castiel's more angelically-inclined days, then he's going to start really questioning his taste in friends back then. But Castiel doesn't think that's the case, anyway. There's more to Gabe then meets the eye, but he didn't have that same look of recognition, or of loss, that Balthazar had when he saw Castiel. "And I have no idea. He didn't exactly hand me an instruction manual."

"It'll be hidden, anyway, almost for sure," Sam says. Dean pulls out of the gas station and they all start keeping their eyes peeled for a promising-looking motel. "I doubt this Gabe would want an angelic weapon falling into anyone's hands besides Castiel's. He really didn't give you any other clues?" Sam glances back at Castiel in the mirror.

Castiel thinks hard on the conversation they'd had in his dream. There was certainly nothing Gabe said, aside from the name of the town, but maybe there'd been a clue in the setting? Except that Castiel can't recall anything but a vague outline of the room they'd been in. He thinks there was a table, maybe something on the wall opposite him, but nothing clear. He sighs and shakes his head.

"Well, buck up, squirt," Dean tells him with a grin that doesn't quite reach his eyes. "We're in town now, maybe he'll swing by and give you another clue tonight."

"Oh, joy and rapture," Castiel mutters, the sarcasm sitting thick and heavy in his throat.

Dean laughs. "Aw, come on, it can't be that bad. At least you know he's one of the guys who doesn't want you dead."

Small comfort, Castiel thinks. His hand drifts up, fingers closing softly around the grace amulet. It feels warm and steady, but it still makes his heart race with fear. What if all this is for nothing? What if Rufus was right? What if -

Sam reaches back and puts a hand on Castiel's knee, squeezing gently. It's warmer and steadier than even the grace, and Castiel lets the amulet fall back against his chest so he can grasp his brother's hand in silent gratitude instead.

~

The motel they find is small and apparently busy this weekend thanks to a wedding in town, so the only room left has two queen beds. That's okay, though, Castiel assures himself, because he shouldn't need to cling to his brothers just to keep the bad dreams away. He's twenty years old, for god's sake, and the past few weeks he's been acting like a child.

He drops his duffel on the floor by the bed nearest the bathroom, sprawls out on the mattress, and silently dares either Sam or Dean to comment.

They don't.

Sleep comes quickly for Castiel, but he wakes to find that it was disappointingly dreamless. "Thanks for nothing, Gabe," he mumbles under his breath, and swears he hears the faint echo of laughter somewhere close by.

Sam and Dean are still soundly sleeping when he finishes brushing his teeth and getting dressed, so Castiel makes the executive decision to go and find breakfast for all of them so they can brainstorm ideas with full stomachs.

"Welcome to Johnny Mac's," a smiling waitress says when Castiel enters the diner. He nods to her and makes his way to the counter to order.

"That'll be about fifteen minutes," he's told by another young server, Flo, after he asks for enough food to feed a small army.

"That's fine," he tells her, and settles himself on a stool to wait. Five minutes later, he's feeling a little perplexed by the looks she keeps shooting him, to the point where he finally meets her gaze and raises an inquiring eyebrow.

She flushes darkly. "Gosh, I'm sorry, you must think I'm so rude. It's just, you look so much like Jimmy...are you family?"

Jimmy...the name pings his memory. It was what the gas station attendant had called him yesterday. "I'm afraid we're not acquainted," he says. "Just a coincidence."

"Well, they say everyone has a twin," she laughs, glancing up as the bell over the door chimes. "Hey, I'll be damned, speak of the devil!"

Castiel turns to get a look at this newcomer who apparently bears some resemblance to himself.

It's a mistake.

The man doesn't simply resemble Castiel, they could actually be twins, if Castiel was perhaps ten or fifteen years older and dressed like a tax accountant. Everything from the perpetual bed-head hair (as Dean calls it) to the blue eyes that no one else in his family possesses, the cleft in his chin, the slightly chapped lips...everything. Aside from the difference in age and his less purposeful stride, this man could be Castiel.

Everyone may have a twin, but this...this is impossible.

And, Castiel realizes abruptly, far too coincidental.

He feels dizzy all of a sudden, but he gets to his feet unsteadily, still staring. The man - Jimmy - hasn't noticed him yet, and Castiel intends to keep it that way. He thinks he hears Flo calling after him, but he's already out of the diner and halfway through the parking lot by the time it really registers.

There's nowhere to go, Castiel knows, that's going to help right now. Because right now, it feels like his whole life is a lie. Whoever that man, that Jimmy person was, he didn't steal Castiel's face. Castiel stole his. He must have, right? People here knew Jimmy, had known him probably his whole life, so it wasn't as though he were a shapeshifter.

Castiel's face belonged to someone else. Castiel wasn't even his own person.

Was this what it meant to Fall? Because there was grace involved, and because his real parent (Parent capital-P) was God, did a fallen angel simply somehow imprint on a human and steal their genetics? And why Jimmy, a random person with seemingly no ties to the supernatural, hundreds of miles from either where Castiel or Castiel's grace fell?

It doesn't make sense.

But even as this is all racing through Castiel's mind, the only thing he can really think is, My whole life is a lie.

I'm a lie.

And when he considers going to his brothers for advice, he stops dead and thinks, I'm not a Winchester at all.

He doesn't go back to the motel.

~

It's anyone's guess whether there is in fact an angelic weapon hidden somewhere in Pontiac, but Castiel finds that the thought of remaining there even one more minute to search is too much. So close to his doppelganger, he feels like he can't breathe, like he's stealing from the very air that belongs to the man called Jimmy, when he's already stolen so much else from him. No sword is worth the way his skin crawls at the thought of remaining, and so he makes his way toward the edge of town on foot, hoping he can find a ride going somewhere, anywhere else.

He'd hoped to be long gone by the time his Sam and Dean realized he was missing, but of course luck works against him. He's barely three miles down the main stretch of road before he heard the unmistakable sound of the Impala. He stops, balling his hands into fists as he closes his eyes and takes a deep breath.

They're not really your brothers, he reminds himself, and it feels like a lie even though he quite literally stared the proof in the face. You have nothing to feel guilty for by wanting to protect them from whatever you are. That, at least, feels truer.

Dean doesn't even shut off the car when he swerves in front of Castiel and storms out towards him. "Where the hell do you think you're going?" he demands, advancing on Castiel with anger and fear both pouring off him in waves.

"Away," Castiel responds as evenly as he can, refusing to back down or cower. "I have to go, Dean. I have to." Please understand.

But of course Dean can't possibly understand everything going on in Castiel's heart right now. Can only understand his own worry for a brother that doesn't really exist.

"Cas, come on, we've gotten this far, we just have to keep looking. You ditching us isn't gonna help you find answers any faster, little bro—"

"I don't want answers!" Castiel finally shouts. He never shouts, and it stops Dean in his tracks, green eyes going wide. "All the answers I've found have been awful, Dean, do you get that? I don't want to know anymore. I just need to go, need to take this-" He clutches the crystal around his neck in a grip so hard it's a miracle it doesn't shatter. "-and…and destroy it." It hadn't been his intention, but now that he's had the thought, that's exactly what he wants.

Dean sucks in a hard breath. "You want to do what Rufus—?"

"No." God, that's the last thing Castiel wants. "Not taint it. Destroy it. Utterly. I don't know how, but I want it gone. And I have to go by myself."

"Look, Cas, whatever you're dealing with, I can't even imagine, I get that. But we're your brothers."

"I'm not your brother, don't you understand?" Castiel spits, and it's cruel, so deliberately cruel it hurts as it leaves his throat. Hurts Dean more, judging by the way he rocks back like he's been punched. But cruelty is the only way Castiel knows he can get Dean to listen. He has to push until they break, even if it goes against everything inside him to do so. "I'm not a Winchester, I never was. I guess it was just…convenient, to hide amongst humanity for a while. But we all need to grow up, Dean. Accept the facts. I'm no more a human, or your brother, than you are a saint."

Dean's eyes are hard as flint, even the bright morning sun doing nothing to soften them to their usual warm jade color. "Cas—"

"If you try and stop me," Castiel says, fighting to keep the tremble from his limbs and his voice, "I'll break the crystal. I'll break it just to prove the point, Dean."

"You don't even know what that'll do," Dean tries, and his voice leaks with desperation.

"I can guess. And I don't care. I mean it, Dean. Let me go."

They stare at each other for a long moment that stretches into the late morning for so long it feels like it may snap and ricochet back on them, but finally Dean blinks.

Dean blinks first.

He gives a tight nod, and steps back towards the car. He doesn't look entirely steady, but his eyes stray to the grace still clutched in Castiel's fist, and he swallows. Still manages to get the last word in before getting into the car. "I love you, little brother. No matter how much of a stubborn idiot you are." He doesn't wait for a response.

Castiel holds it together until the lights of the Impala have vanished around the bend in the road, and then he falls to his knees, clutching his arms tightly around himself like they can hold him together. He lets one harsh sob break free in the still morning air.

~

Eventually a truck lumbers up from behind him and the driver rolls down the window. "Need a lift?" the old man asks, and Castiel nods, wary but desperate, too aware of the grace he's stuffed under his shirt.

"Heading to Ohio," the man tells him as Castiel climbs in. He has a friendly demeanor, not that that means much, and a long braid of grey hair hanging out the back of his ball cap. "Name's Denny."

"Ohio is fine," Castiel says. He adds, "I'm heading to New York," because he feels like sounding like he has a destination is better than the truth, that he has nowhere to be and no idea what he's doing. After a small hesitation, he also offers a name: "I'm Jimmy."

It tastes like ash as he says it, but the man doesn't even blink as he shifts the truck back into drive with a cheerful smile.

~

Denny drops him in a little town called Kripke's Hollow, leaving Castiel at the local diner when Castiel mentions he's going to get a bite to eat before continuing on. He hands Castiel a business card before he departs, telling him to call if he needs anything. Having never hitchhiked until this very day, Castiel can't say for certain if such behavior is normal, but it seems far more generous than he'd have thought to expect. Still, he smiles and thanks Denny for his kindness, and waves when the truck pulls away.

The diner is just like one of any of the dozens Castiel has dined in with Sam and Dean on various hunts, and he eats his BLT without tasting a single bite, nothing but fuel so he can keep going. No idea where to look next for information, unwilling to ask for help from anyone he cares about who could get hurt, and even more unwilling to search out another fallen angel after the last one. It leaves him with very few options.

He's hit by a wave of exhaustion so deep it nearly staggers him when he stands. A motel, then, he decides. One day in this nowhere town, before he figures out where to go next.

Just another hunt. Find a lead. Track it. Destroy the problem. Maybe Castiel isn't really a Winchester, but he has all the training of one. He can do this. And he'll worry about after, well…after.

The motel he chooses is nothing special, but it has a quasi-comfortable bed, and that's all Castiel wants right now. It's early for him to be this tired, but he chalks it up to a very long day, promising himself a short nap before he starts strategizing. It's a good plan.

He didn't count on Gabe.

The man is waiting for him by a picturesque lake this time, sitting at the end of a dock in a camp chair. A tackle box sits beside him, though he isn't fishing, and it takes Castiel a moment to realize that box is familiar. It's the same one Dean and their father use on rare fishing trips.

"Where are we?" he asks, coming to stand beside Gabe, eyeing him with no small amount of suspicion.

"Had to borrow dream space," Gabe says, tilting a grin up at him as he leans back in the chair, looking for all the world like he's incredibly relaxed, though Castiel can see the tension in his amber eyes he can't quite hide. "They might've been watching for your usual haunts, but they won't think to monitor tweedle-dee and tweedle dum's."

Castiel assumes he's talking about his brothers. "Who's watching?" He can guess, but wants to hear it verified.

"The angels, duh, where have you been?" Gabe scowls and stands. He's not as tall as Castiel, is in fact several inches shorter, but to Castiel it feels like Gabe is looming over him. "I'd ask if you're being a dumbass on purpose, but actually, I already know the answer to that."

Castiel bristles. "Excuse me?"

"What the heck were you thinking, anyway? Ditching your brothers right when you needed them the most?" Gabe shoves an angry finger in Castiel's chest. "I'd expect this sort of brainlessness from, say, Dean, but I figured you'd have more sense. You need to fix this, before—"

"Before what?" Castiel demands, and now he uses his anger to his own advantage, shoving Gabe's arm aside and glaring. "Before what, Gabe? If that's even your real name."

Gabe's eyes darken with temper, but instead of getting back in Castiel's face, he backs up, taking a deliberate step away and crossing his arms to stare moodily out at the lake. Castiel watches him for what feels like a small eternity, and finally Gabe huffs, meeting Castiel's eyes again with what seems like a great deal of unwillingness. "My name is Gabriel," he mutters.

"Gabriel," Castiel repeats. His hands feel numb where they've fallen to his sides. "Like the archangel."

"Not for a long time, kid." Gabe – Gabriel – sighs. "You're not the only one who'd be in a lot of trouble if his brothers found him. Difference is, I still got my mojo and a hell of a witness protection program. You've got bupkiss."

"Then you're not…" Castiel swallows, can't bring himself to finish the sentence, but Gabriel seems to hear the rest anyway, and answers.

"No, I'm not here to bring you in." He snorts. "Even I can't picture the stir that would cause, and I got a pretty good imagination, if I do say so myself. No, I'm here to try and stop you from getting yourself killed, although you seem hell bent on jumping straight into the fire from the frying pan." He turns back to Castiel, reaching behind him and pulling a gleaming blade seemingly from nowhere. He hands it to Castiel. "I was screwing with you, making you go to Pontiac. I'd apologize, but I'm not really the apologizing type. I wanted to see your reaction, thought it'd be a hoot. When you live as a trickster for long enough, some things…we'll say permeate." He pauses. "Actually it was a pretty good show, even if it backfired a teensy bit. For the record, that human back in Pontiac is from the bloodline meant for you. He'd have been your vessel. I think when you fell, you subconsciously modeled yourself after him, at least in terms of looks. Anyway, that's not important. The sword is important and I still want you to have it."

Castiel wants to ask more about Pontiac, about Jimmy, about modeling himself, but the blade is being thrust under his nose and he's forced to take it, gingerly, running the fingers of one hand along the length of gleaming silver as his other hand wraps around the rounded handle. All other thoughts fly out of his mind at the touch of cool metal. It's the strangest blade he's ever seen, and he's seen many a strange weapon in his time as a hunter's son. Worse than the strangeness, though, is the familiarity.

He knows this weapon. He's held it before.

"It was yours," Gabriel tells him, reading the look in his eyes, or maybe his direct thoughts. Can angels read minds? "It fell with your grace. Like a giant shiny billboard advertising 'angel grace here!'. It's not the first and won't be the last…I keep an eye out for signs, grab the blades when I can find them. Keep the angels off your back for a little longer."

Castiel wonders if he has Rufus' blade stashed away as well, but wisely doesn't ask. "Thank you," he murmurs, eyes drawn back down to the weapon. "I think."

"That blade will kill an angel." The sudden chill in Gabriel's voice startles Castiel into meeting his gaze again. "And don't kid yourself, you may not remember, but those angels are your family. Think carefully before engaging them in battle, Castiel. You may win – you were always a good fighter, and even human, you got some spunk in you, not to mention a lot of luck – but I'm not sure you'd like what a victory would do to you."

Castiel has killed. He's killed the monsters that prowl the world, preying on humans. He's killed wendigos and ghouls, sent dozens and dozens of violent ghosts to whatever beyond awaits them. He's killed werewolves, with help from his brothers. He's killed many things since he started hunting. But he's not sure he can imagine killing an angel. Even without knowing what he once was, the idea of it…it twists his insides into something tight and small and squirming.

"I promise I'll be careful how I use it, if I have to use it," he tells Gabriel. The only promise he can make, but also one of the truest he's ever made.

Gabriel nods once, then quirks a grin at Castiel, eyes gleaming. "You're a pretty good kid, Castiel. I didn't know you well as an angel. But hey, maybe that's a good thing. You and your chucklehead brothers…well, maybe my faith in humanity is a little bit restored, even if my faith in angels is still lacking. But Cas, my buddy, my pal, my bro…go back to Sam and Dean. You need your brothers, your real brothers, if you have any shot at not dying a messy death."

He doesn't wait for a response, just snaps his fingers, and the lake begins to dissolve into mist, leaving Castiel to wake in his motel room, fingers still clutching the cold hard silver of his angelic blade. Gabriel's parting words echo strangely in his head, and he sighs, turning his face into his pillow and wishing Dean and Sam were here with him. Maybe Gabriel's right, and he does need them, and Castiel's breath catches as he remembers the way Gabriel had called them his real brothers like it was nothing but plain fact.

Like maybe Castiel had it wrong, his fear that he wasn't real, that he wasn't a Winchester at all.

But it doesn't change anything, not really. If they're with Castiel, they're in danger, and nothing is worth that. Surely he was right to go his own way. He must have been.

~

Castiel stays in Kripke's Hollow, mostly because he doesn't know where to go next. There's something about this town that feels safe, somehow, and it's as good a place as any while he tries to work out a plan of action.

By day four, though, he's eyeing his dwindling cash supply with some trepidation, and decides it's high time he at least do some scouting. Maybe he can pick up an odd job for a few weeks before moving on. He would give anything for access to Bobby Singer's library again, but he won't put the gruff old hunter in danger any more than he will Dean and Sam, which leaves him with the town library and computer network. It's not exactly a plethora of information on the supernatural cosmos, but it's a start, perhaps, if Castiel can get his brain to work more like Sam's for once.

Kripke's Hollow Diner has become a place of familiarity in this small town, and the waitress gives Castiel a bright smile as he takes his seat. "Welcome back!" she chirps. "Any idea how long you're in town for yet?"

"No," Castiel tells her. "But I appreciate the good food while I am." He manages a weak smile for her and places his order for a cheddar omelet, then occupies his time waiting for his food by observing the few other patrons. A young blond woman is battling with her twin toddlers at a booth by the door. A business man with perfectly styled hair and a steely gaze is checking his watch as he waits for his coffee. And then there's the regular customer a few tables away, a short man with scruffy hair and a beard that looks more like laziness than style. His eyes are dark and troubled, and the circles beneath them speak of many sleepless nights. He doesn't meet anyone's eye, not even the waitress as she comes to take his order. Keeps his gaze glued to the table and fiddles with his silverware, just like the other three mornings Castiel has seen him. Something about him makes Castiel curious, but he's not the type to make conversation with strangers unless a hunt calls for it, and strangers seem especially dangerous right now, with angels tracking his whereabouts.

He eats his food when it arrives without really tasting it, and leaves a generous tip he can't really afford. Outside, the air is growing warm to the point of oppressive, and Castiel longs for the air conditioning of his motel despite his resolve to see about an under the table job in town. Maybe he could just hustle pool for the money he needs to continue onwards…he learned that skill from the best, after all, and it's never failed him in a pinch.

God, he longs for nothing more than his bedroom at home and his brushes and canvas and easel, letting all the fear inside him flow out in brushstrokes and paint splatters. He longs to forget about everything he's learned about his past and the angels who want to kill him and the demons who want to use his grace. He longs for his brothers, their love and their steadiness and their unwavering faith in him.

Caught up in these thoughts and so many more, Castiel almost misses the sound from behind him, a rustle like the sound of wings. He has just enough time to spin around in alarm, to catch the angry yell and a flash of silver and he doesn't have the blade with him, has no weapon at all to defend himself, he's such an idiot

"No!" The shout rings out like a gunshot, and something shoves into Castiel hard, knocking him to the ground, and he knows, he knows without even looking.

"Dean!" he cries, just as the angel who attacked stabs his own blade deep into Dean's side. "No!" Castiel hears his brother grunt, sees the way his face goes slack with surprise, and everything seems to be happening in slow motion, like time is swimming through molasses, and Castiel can't move, why can't he move?

"Stay down," Sam orders, coming up behind him.

The angel – wearing the shape of a bald man with dark skin and angry eyes – growls when he realizes he missed his intended target, but he doesn't seem too broken up about who he got instead. "Dean Winchester," he says, and his voice is deep like oceans, wrathful like hurricanes. He slides his blade from Dean's side and steps back, twirling it in his hand. Dean falls to his knees with a cry of pain that sounds like it's being torn from him unwillingly, desperately trying to staunch the flow of blood with one hand, shooting a frantic glance back at Castiel. "Get out of here," he demands through clenched teeth.

"Oh, Castiel won't be going anywhere," the angel says. "If I have to go through every Winchester to get to him, I will." This he directs to Sam, who has taken up position in front of Castiel despite Castiel's attempts to shove him away. Sam is built like a rock; he moves only when he damn well wants to move.

"Please," Castiel whispers. "Please leave them alone." He realizes he's clutching hard to his grace pendant, the rough edges of the bullet cutting into his hand hard enough to make him bleed. He stares up at the man and somewhere within him there's a flicker, a flash –

Side by side in battle, they stand against the rebellion with the rest of their garrison, wings outstretched, whirling and slashing and stabbing, and the massacre is atrocious, horrifying. This can't be what their Father wants, so why doesn't He do something, Castiel wonders, but there's hardly time to think, only react.

An angel, one of Lucifer's, comes up behind them.

"Uriel, down!" Castiel shouts, and his companion follows this instruction without hesitation, leaving Castiel free to stab again, and again, and again…

A flash of light, grace exploding into ether, another brother dead by Castiel's hand, and Uriel rises slowly. "Thank you, Castiel," he says, and Castiel doesn't want to be thanked but there's no time to say so; they're already pushing forward, marching deeper into a battle they must win –

"Uriel," Castiel sobs, "Please stop."

The angel – Uriel – pauses, head tilting. "So you're beginning to remember," he says, with something like satisfaction. "Good. That will make it all the more enjoyable to enact your punishment."

"We were friends, Uriel." Castiel stares up at him, left with nothing now but this plea, this desperation for Uriel to remember, to feel that connection one last time.

"And then you abandoned us to come down here and frolic with the mud-monkeys," Uriel says, distaste dripping from every word. "You've brought this on yourself, Castiel." He steps forward, raising his sword, then pauses, his gaze flickering around before freezing on something behind the Winchester brothers. He glares. "You'd do well to stay out of this, prophet."

Castiel doesn't want to take his eyes off the angel wielding that deadly blade, but he chances a short glance behind him, and his brow furrows when he sees the timid man from the diner standing there, hands clenching and unclenching, fear written in every line of his face.

"You…you need to leave," he tells Uriel, and it should be impossible that so great a warrior angel would listen to that trembling voice, but Uriel hesitates. "Now!"

His glare returns to Castiel. "This isn't over," he promises, and then he's gone on a rush of silent wingbeats.

Castiel sags, reaching for Dean even as he tries to calm the pounding of his own heart.

"What was that?" Sam demands, coming to Dean's other side and stripping off his plaid shirt to press to the wound, ignoring Dean grimacing and batting at his hands.

"Prophet." Castiel blinks, then looks to the man who's still standing, looking unsure now. "He called you a prophet."

"I, um. I. See things?" It comes out more like a question than a statement of fact. "Sometimes, anyway, you know, not like. Not like I'm crazy or anything." He crouches down, rubbing at the back of his neck. "I'm Chuck. Uh, Chuck Shurley."

Castiel offers his own name with some trepidation, then turns back to his brothers. "Prophets are…protected. Uriel couldn't continue his attack without risking harm to Chuck. It was very brave," he says to Chuck. "I don't know how to thank you."

"Please don't," Chuck says, grimacing. "I'm not, really. Just. You know how knowing the outcome makes doing some things easier? It's like that. I saw this, in a dream. A…vision, I guess. That's all." He turns to Sam and Dean. "Listen, I don't live too far from here. I have a first aid kit, and you could rest there. Safely, probably. I, uh, I haven't seen any further than this, but. I think it would be okay?"

Sam nods, overriding Dean's stubborn declaration that he's perfectly fine. "That would be great. Thank you. For everything." His jaw is clenched, and he keeps shooting worried glances at both Castiel and Dean. Castiel flushes, realizing he could have cost Sam two brothers today.

God, he's been so stupid.

They get Dean up and into the backseat of the Impala with Castiel. He mutters, of course, about how he's perfectly capable of driving, but his hands are stained with blood and more is already seeping through Sam's makeshift bandage. Chuck climbs into the front and quietly directs Sam through the streets of town until they get to his house, which turns out to be a two story residence painted dark red and containing a small porch in poor repair and a front yard that's even worse. Castiel can't even tell if the scraggly little tree is actually alive or not.

Castiel manages to take most of Dean's weight, supporting him into the prophet's house, and they get him laid out on the couch. Chuck brings his first aid kit and Sam patches the wound with the ease of long practice while Castiel hovers, hands clasped in front of him and guilt gnawing at his insides.

Dean swallows down some whiskey when Sam holds up the needle to start stitching, and his eyes find Castiel's. "You okay, kid?" he asks, perhaps trying to distract himself.

Castiel starts to nod, then stops, shakes his head instead. "I'm so…Dean, I didn't mean it, about not being your brother. I just didn't want to see you get hurt because of me."

"Well, no shit," Dean says, rolling his eye and then grunting when Sam stabs a little more harshly than he needs to. "I just mean, you're a goddamn Winchester. I'd be more worried if you didn't have a self-sacrificing streak a mile wide."

Castiel tries for a laugh, but it comes out choked. He wipes at his blurring eyes. "You never actually intended to let me go on my own, did you?"

"Course not," Dean scoffs. "We've been tailing you the whole damn time."

Sam glances up, lips quirking. "It's true, Cas. Sorry."

"Don't be. God, please don't be." Castiel sniffs, creeping a step closer, then another one. "I love you both."

"Jesus, no chick-flick moments, what've I told you about that, huh?" Dean says, but he's reaching out to reel Castiel into a hug, as much as he can hug while sprawled on the couch having the hole in him patched.

~

Chuck feeds them all take-out and brings two cots into the living room for Sam and Castiel to watch over Dean, maybe sensing that they won't want to leave him, maybe seeing it.

He doesn't say much to the brothers, seeming content to take up as little space as possible and not remind them that he's there, but Castiel catches the prophet's eyes on him a few times, can't help wondering what Chuck sees when he looks at him.

Neither Sam nor Dean have mentioned the exchange with Uriel, or the fact that Castiel clearly remembered something from his angelic past. None of them want to think about what it might mean, Castiel least of all. He catches himself clutching again at the grace around his neck, and wishes so much that he could just destroy it and be done. He doesn't think it will be so simple.

Nothing is ever so simple.

He begins to fall into sleep almost in spite of himself, curled under a threadbare blanket, head turned towards Dean, already snoring away on the couch.

He's almost completely out when some part of him registers soft footsteps, a shadow over him. A gentle kiss at his brow. He could swear, in the dwindling part of him that's still aware of anything, that he hears someone whisper, "You have made me proud, Castiel. I will never begrudge you the free will that brought you here. But you must make your own way."

The words should mean something, something important, but the last of Castiel's consciousness fades away before he can grasp it.

He dreams of light and faith and flying, and remembers nothing of the strange experience in the morning.

~

They depart the following day, early enough that the sun is only barely risen. They don’t have a destination in mind, and Dean is wincing with every step but seems eager to be gone. Castiel can’t blame him – there’s nothing stopping Uriel from returning, and there's no hiding from him, but still, it's unsettling somehow to remain in the place they were already attacked once.

For the first time in their lives, the Winchesters are the hunted instead of the hunters, and it’s not a good feeling.

Castiel thanks Chuck as Sam goes to fill up the Impala, and then he’s helping Dean out to the car and they’re rolling away with final waves to the nervous prophet who was more kind to them than they had any right to expect.

The drive to wherever they're going (and none of them have discussed yet where that is) is mostly quiet, Dean still relegated to the backseat, lying as comfortably as he can and grunting whenever the car hits a bad bump in the road. It’s strange to be in the front seat, and Sam must be feeling it too, because he shoots Castiel a reassuring smile and ruffles his hair, leaving it even more untidy than normal.

"I guess we should at least pick a direction," Sam says after most of the morning has passed. "Right now we’re wandering sort of back east. But we can’t just keep going aimlessly, can we?"

"Why not?" Dean mutters, and Castiel privately agrees. With no idea how to get rid of his pendant, and no way to avoid the angels coming for him, and no ideas…isn’t one place as good as any other?

"I was thinking," Sam says, clearly pretending Dean never spoke. "Maybe we can try to find another fallen angel? If there are any, maybe they have…better methods of hiding."

"Or they remember nothing and we’re bringing danger to their doorstep they don’t need," Castiel reminds him. "If they don’t have possession of their grace, they can’t be found. They’re safe." Unlike me. He doesn’t say that he doesn’t want to meet another like Rufus, doesn’t think he could take it. The name Raamiel brings images to mind now – a strong laugh, so vast and powerful it rolled like thunder over the newly created earth, sparking the first waves of the ocean. Not a friend, but a fellow soldier, a trusted brother.

It makes the knowledge of what he’s become so much worse.

"Look," Dean grunts from the backseat. "Let’s take a break, grab some grub, and go from there."

It’s as good a plan as any, so Sam pulls into the next promising stop they find, a little diner smack dab in the middle of Pennsylvania. He takes requests from Castiel and Dean and heads inside to get them all food. Dean is getting a bit pale, and Castiel thinks Sam has noticed as well. He suspects they’ll be stopping early to find a motel.

"I’m going to stretch my legs," he tells Dean. "Will you be all right?"

"Not an invalid," Dean mumbles, eyes closed and arm slung across his eyes. "I’m fine, squirt."

Castiel is uncertain, but he really does need to walk a bit, so he climbs out of the car and stretches, bending forwards and then back, muscles protesting from too long in the car. Next to the diner is a convenience store, and he decides to wander over and see if they have a rack of books he can purchase something from to occupy the long hours of traveling.

He makes it as far as the building when a hand grabs him by the arm and roughly pulls him around the side. Before he can so much as cry out he’s being pressed against the wall, fingers pressed against his lips.

"You will be silent if you do not want to die."

Castiel blinks at the woman…or woman-shaped being…standing before him. She’s tall, taller than he is especially in her heels, dressed in a red halter top and slim black pants that go well with her dark complexion. A belt of silver drips charms shaped like skulls, and her hair falls in a dark tumble of waves just past her shoulders. She is dangerous, and dangerous looking, though Castiel would be hard-pressed to say what exactly it is that makes him think so. His heart pounds, but he stays silent.

When it's clear he doesn’t mean to call for help, she removes her fingers from his mouth, permitting him to speak. "Who are you?" he asks, very careful not to make it sound like a demand because he thinks this is not a person who would take well to demands.

Her painted lips curl. "I go by many names, child of the god who would claim dominion over all. Most often, I am called Kali."

Castiel releases a slow breath, heart kicking hard again behind his ribs.

"I have a message for you," she says. "And it doesn’t include your death, so you don’t have to keep looking like I’m moments away from slaughtering you where you stand. If I wanted you dead, you’d already be so."

Of that, Castiel has no doubt. "Who is the message from?"

Kali’s lips curve further. "One who also goes by many names. To me, he is Loki, the trickster. To you, he is Gabriel, the Messenger of your God. An archangel."

A hell of a witness protection program, Castiel remembers Gabriel saying, and yes. It would have to be, wouldn’t it?

Kali leans in conspiratorially. "He thinks I'm unaware of this secret. He only told me to tell you the message was from a friend. But this seemed more fun. And less likely to get you killed."

"He…doesn’t know that you know he’s an angel?" Castiel gapes at her. He wants to laugh, but holds it in for fear that if he starts, he won’t be able to stop. He thinks maybe he likes this Kali, this goddess who could destroy him with a thought.

"Someday, when it suits my purposes, perhaps I’ll tell him." She shrugs. "For now, it suits me more to let him think he has the upper hand." She draws back from Castiel, crossing her arms and tapping a well-manicured nail against her elbow. "He wants you to know that Azazel hunts you."

"Azazel?" Castiel blinks, recalling the name from Rufus’ story. "He’s a demon…"

"Third in command to Lucifer himself, yes," Kali informs him. "Only behind Lilith, and that only because Lucifer finds Lilith to be an amusement. He is considered a prince of Hell, and has weapons at his disposal most demons don’t." She raises a brow. "Do not leave that blade of yours out of reach again."

Castiel flushes. "I won’t." He makes it a vow. With angels and demons after him, he’d be very stupid to do anything else.

"Good." Kali nods with something like approval in her dark eyes.

"Do you know…" Castiel stops, looking down and swallowing. He doesn’t want to ask. But he has to. "Do you know how I can get rid of it? My…" He brings his hand up, touches two fingers to the bullet-and-crystal-enclosed grace pulsing against his chest. "Where should we go?"

She gazes at him for a long moment, then slowly shakes her head, sympathy in her ancient eyes. "I’m sorry. I know blood magic and death magic, and neither can help you now. I don’t have the answers you seek."

He nods, disappointed but unsurprised. "It’s all right. I don’t know if anyone does. But we’ll figure it out. We always do." The we have to goes unspoken, but they both hear it clear as day in the echoing silence.

"One last thing," Kali says. "If Gabriel dies because of you, please know you will feel all the wrath of a death goddess. I won’t make it quick. I won’t make it easy." She says it easily, in the same tone one would talk about the weather. It's disconcerting.

Still… "I understand," Castiel says softly, and while he may not like Gabriel all that much, he’s finds that he's still glad to find the archangel has friends in high places. People willing to protect him. A family of his own.

Kali nods, then vanishes without another word, without so much as bidding him farewell, and he shivers. Makes his way slowly back to the Impala to find almost no time has passed and wonders how she managed to slow time enough for them to talk without suspicion. Goddess, he reminds himself. With the backing of an archangel.

A powerful duo, and he finds himself desperately grateful they seem to be on his side, as much as they can be.

Azazel, he thinks as he climbs into the car. What on earth could he want with me?

But it’s not about him, he realizes, the warm pulse against his skin a reminder. It’s about his grace. About all of the things a demon could do with the bottled grace of an angel.

Castiel is past panicking. He won’t give in to the despair of before, won’t let dark thoughts overtake him so badly he can barely function. He has his brothers back at his side and feels stronger mentally and emotionally than he ever has. He has the memories of a soldier of Heaven buried in his subconscious, and his own celestial weapon at his disposal. He is not without help, or defenses.

But oh, God, he has no idea what they’re supposed to do now. No idea if there’s truly any way out of this.

~

"No more surprise visits for a while would be fucking peachy," was what Dean said when he collapsed (gingerly) onto a motel bed and slid his eyes closed, after Castiel told them about the message from Kali.

Dean, Castiel thinks, should really know better than to open his mouth, because not ten minutes later, there’s an angel sitting in the overstuffed armchair across the room. This is getting to be a habit.

Thankfully – maybe – it’s at least a familiar angel, and not because it’s one who’s recently tried to kill him.

"Balthazar," Castiel says, and sees Dean struggle to sit up from the corner of his vision. Sam, at the desk, is already reaching for a gun that will do nothing against a creature such as this. Castiel holds up a hand to forestall his brothers. "He’s a friend. He claims." Even as he says this, he feels something pricking at his mind, something that could maybe be a memory if he only reached a little harder—

"Don’t strain yourself, Cassy," Balthazar says, amusement dragging at the corners of his mouth. "You’ll remember or you won’t. For now, that’s the least of our concerns, hmm?" He stands fluidly, crossing the room to stand over Dean, still lying prone on the bed and glaring up at Balthazar in challenge.

Castiel sighs. "What do you want?"

"To help, obviously." Balthazar turns to grin at him. "If you’re to win, you need all your wits about you. This lump here is a bit of a liability at the moment, isn’t he?"

"Hey—" Dean starts angrily, but Balthazar wiggles his fingers and then places his hands over the bandaged wound in Dean’s side. There’s a hum inside Castiel’s head, a flash behind his eyes, and Dean sucks in a startled breath, scrabbling at the bandage immediately when Balthazar pulls away and steps back.

The skin beneath is smooth and undamaged, as Castiel guessed it would be. Both Sam and Dean stare with slack jaws and wide eyes.

"Thank you," Castiel says to Balthazar, only a little begrudgingly. "I know you’re risking your own safety by being here."

Balthazar watches him for an uncomfortably long moment. "Oh, Cassy," he finally sighs. "Some things are worth it."

He doesn’t leave time for goodbyes, simply vanishes in a rush of wingbeats. Castiel finds he’s getting tired of these dramatic exits.

But when he sits on Dean’s bed and pulls him into a rough hug, the kind where he holds too tightly and buries his face in Dean’s shoulder and doesn’t let himself think about what could have happened if Uriel’s blade had left nothing for Balthazar to heal, he decides maybe he doesn’t mind so much.

Sam joins them and it becomes an awkward group hug that would normally have Dean muttering about his masculinity, but he doesn’t say anything, just reaches around to pull Sam in tighter, while still holding onto Cas with the other arm, and it’s good. For just this moment at least, everything is good.

~

Dean asks him the next day, back on the road and behind the wheel where he belongs. Castiel has been waiting for it from either of his brothers, but the question still somehow takes him by surprise.

"Do you remember things? From Heaven?" Dean asks, and of course he must realize Castiel remembers some, Dean’s not an idiot no matter how hard he tries sometimes to appear otherwise.

"Dean," Sam starts, elbowing their brother, but Castiel reaches forward to place a hand on his arm.

"It’s okay, Sam. You must both be wondering." He hesitates. "I don’t, really. There are some things, obviously, like…microbursts. Flashes. Like when you fought Uriel."

"Not much of a fight," Dean mutters, but it’s low enough that Castiel thinks he wasn’t supposed to hear, so he tactfully doesn’t respond.

"I’m not sure I could remember everything, to be honest." Castiel thinks about it, can’t help the shudder that runs through him. "That would be several millennia of knowledge and memories, wouldn’t it? Could a human brain really handle that? Rufus Turner didn’t seem to deal with it well, and who knows how much he actually got back."

"You’re pretty tough, little brother," Dean tells him. "I think you’d be okay."

Castiel shakes his head, smiling. "The point is, I don’t remember, not really. But I think…perhaps I could. Some things, anyway. If I tried."

"Why don’t you?" Sam asks quietly.

Castiel thinks about how he wants to answer, because he’s thought about it a lot himself since this started, but he’s never allowed himself to linger on it for long. "I was…I assume, anyway…a vastly different person – being – then. My time as a human, being raised by our parents, being your brother, those things have shaped me into who I am now. If I were to remember such an immense past, how could it not devour me?" He swallows. "How could I remain myself?"

Dean releases a slow breath, glancing at Sam and then back to Castiel in the rearview mirror. He gives him a slight grin, clearly trying for reassuring. "Well, it’s true, we kinda like you the way you are, squirt."

"So do I," Castiel murmurs. He doesn’t think he’d like the angel he was. He doesn’t want to find out for sure. "Anyway, things have leaked through already. Keeping my grace so close, maybe, or just all the demonic and angelic activity around us. We can’t avoid it – I’m sure more will come back to me. I just don’t want to force it sooner than I have to."

"Of course not," Sam says. "Whatever you need, Cas. We’ve got your back. Always."

"I know," Castiel says, overwhelmed with how much he loves them both. He could never have asked for better brothers. "I’m grateful."

~

They get a few days to regroup, landing first in Massachusetts and then wandering slowly down the coast, biding their time until any fresh ideas come to them. Castiel is constantly aware of the pendant around his neck, glow hidden but ever present beneath the bullet casing, warming him in ways that feel both unnatural and perfectly right.

Their parents call while they’re in Rhode Island, and all three of them do an award-winning job of coming up with road trip adventures on the fly to tell John and Mary about, trying to throw off suspicion.

Castiel isn’t sure if it works; his parents are seasoned hunters after all, even if their parental instincts weren’t also honed to perfection. But they say nothing outside of the ordinary, which is good enough for the moment. He promises himself that if they make it home, if they can end all of this, he’ll tell them the truth. About everything. They deserve to know.

God, he wants to live long enough to tell them the truth.

It’s in southern New Jersey a week after leaving Ohio that his luck runs out again. They’ve pulled over to the side of the road; Dean’s got his head buried under the hood of the Impala, checking on a slight rattling sound, and Sam is leaning against the side poring over the same map he’s been studying for days. Castiel is drinking a soda and sitting on the back of the car watching the sunset when he hears the angels.

Wings. They can’t seem to mask the sound of their wings, but it’s only a fraction of a warning before they’re on him. Still, that fraction is enough to pull the angel blade from behind him and parry what would have been a fatal blow.

Uriel’s face is menacing from where he’s pressing Castiel backwards against the car, his lips pulled back in a snarl and his eyes wild. "You will face the punishment you have been sentenced to," Uriel growls. "And no prophet will interfere this time." He pulls back, raises his blade again, but Castiel dodges and this time manages to roll off the car.

"Why are you doing this?" he yells. "Is Heaven not meant to be merciful?"

Uriel sneers at him. "Children's stories designed to keep humans unafraid will not save you."

"God cannot want this," Castiel presses, because he believes it. Lessons from Pastor Jim's sermons, lessons that have stayed with Castiel his entire life, race through his mind. He cannot believe even an angry god would demand justice like this.

"Our Father." Uriel scoffs, advancing a step. "Our Father is dead, or just doesn't care anymore. And Lucifer, who I would have followed in his stead, is just as silent. So I take my directives from Heaven because all any of us can do now is keep order." His grip on his blade tightens. "And you go against the order of Heaven, Castiel. You are a traitor."

It’s then that Castiel notices his brothers, who must have tried to help him when he was trying to buy time, but are now being pinned in place by the other angel. Castiel gets a glimpse of fiery red hair from the corner of his eyes. He desperately wants to help Sam and Dean, but she doesn't seem to be attacking them, and he has his hands full with Uriel, who’s suddenly rushing him again, blade swinging.

Blow by blow, Castiel is pushed back, closer to the other angel behind him, and he can sense her calling on her own weapon to jump to Uriel’s aid.

"Cas!" Sam yells, his voice hoarse as though he’s been screaming, though it’s the first sound he’s uttered since the angels appeared.

Castiel thinks he is going to die. He's no match for an angel – they are both stronger and faster, not to mention fighting with far more experience than he could ever dream of having.

And yet…

And yet

Uriel is merciless, and there's no time to second-guess, no time to try and think of a better idea. Castiel draws on the grace pressed against his chest, and something in his mind releases. And then he's suddenly matching Uriel, strike for strike. He senses more than sees the second angel coming up behind him, and whirls to block her blade. Spins back to Uriel, deftly flipping his blade to the other hand, to attack the side Uriel has left unguarded. Scores a hit that bleeds light, and then the other is trying again, attacking faster, but even then, neither of them can keep up.

Castiel loses track of his movements, loses track of everything but the feel of battle, familiar in a way it should not be. He can sense Uriel growing angrier with every moment Castiel remains alive, and he knows, someplace he doesn't have a name for, that it's going to prove to be the angel's undoing.

And yes, finally, there it is. An opening, and Castiel attacks it with all his strength, stabbing hard and deep into the gut of the poor man that was Uriel's vessel. A mortal blow, and it won't only kill the human. Not while Castiel wields his celestial blade.

Uriel chokes, gasping, and falls to his knees. Light so intense it burns rises up from deep within him and bursts out like a solar flare, erupting from his eyes and mouth and then everywhere.

When Castiel can finally see again Uriel had already fallen. Dead. An empty, lifeless vessel and ashes in the shape of wings spread out from the body.

"No!" The other angel cries, staggering back a step. "How?" She whirls back to Castiel with fury in her eyes, but though he keeps his weapon readied for an attack, it never comes. "You shouldn't have been able to do that! You shouldn't…they said you didn't remember!"

The knuckles of her vessel are white from her too-tight grip on her weapon, and she has the most wretchedly hopeless look in her eyes. Somewhere deep in Castiel's mind, he finds a name.

"Anna." He takes a step towards her. His once garrison leader. The angel who once trained both Castiel and Uriel.

"Don't." Her blade whips up, pointed at his throat, though her stance is tenuous at best and easily broken. "Do you know what you cost me, Castiel? Do you have any idea?"

"No," he says, because he doesn't. He can recall no details of their acquaintance, and certainly nothing wherein he might have betrayed her specifically. A few scattered images and a name already seems more than he could have hoped to expect.

"I was going to Fall," she hisses, and she takes a step forward, like she wants to drive the point home, but he lifts his blade and she stares at it for a long moment before backing away again. She seems to find her composure, straightens, wipes the expression of rage from her face. "I was going to Fall," she says again. "But you beat me to it. You and your need to be close to the human who wasn't even in your charge anymore. After you pulled that stunt, all of Heaven went on lockdown. They were watching too closely, and I missed my chance."

Castiel stares at her. "You hate me because I did exactly what you planned on doing?" he asks. "I didn't purposely thwart you! Did I even know of your plan?"

She scoffs. "Of course not. No one did. That doesn't mean it wasn't your fault." Her eyes go to Uriel's body on the ground beside them, and they harden. "If you're going to kill me, just do it."

He thinks perhaps he should, but his heart already hurts from being forced to kill Uriel, an angel he'd once considered a friend. He's remembering his promise, too, the one he made to Gabriel about being careful before he raised his weapon to an angel. It was self-defense, and he knows he had no choice, but this isn't a fight, Anna's grip on the blade at her side is slack. She wouldn't defend herself, not now, and Castiel won't lower himself to murder. She was his sister, once.

"You need to leave," he says, taking a step back and lowering his own blade. "Now."

"No!" she cries, and he almost stumbles at the anguish in her tone. "Just kill me!"

Is that it, then? One escape as good as any other? Is Heaven truly so terrible? He doesn't mean to ask that last out loud, but he must, because Anna laughs. It's not a pretty laugh; it's broken and torn like a gaping wound, but she must realize he won't give her what she wants, because her weapon disappears and her gaze goes flinty again.

"If you can't remember that, then you should be grateful," is what she says, and then she's gone. A dozen yards away, Sam and Dean suddenly fall forward, no longer held still by celestial power.

There are a thousand questions in Castiel's mind, and probably many more running through theirs, but for now, all he can do is grit his teeth and shake his head.

"I'm going to bury Uriel." Even as he says it, he knows it's a meaningless gesture, but his brothers don't question him. Dean gets the shovels out of the car. None of them say a word, but Dean grabs him into a rough hug, and Sam clasps him on the shoulder, and they both start digging before he's managed to swallow back the hard lump in his throat.

He sends a silent prayer, not to God, but to Gabriel. I killed one of our brothers. I'm sorry. You were right. I know I had to do it, he left me no other choice, but…you were right.

I'm not sure I'm worthy of this weapon you've given back to me.

I'm not sure I want it anymore.

~

"I've been thinking," Sam says later that evening, answering Dean's "uh oh" with a raised middle finger as he continues, "We’ve been on the defensive this whole time. Maybe it’s time we go on the offense. Take the fight to them, or some of them anyway. Worrying about the angels is bad enough, but the demons, we can maybe do something about. Let’s go somewhere we know Azazel has a connection to. Let’s go to Ilchester. We can always summon the bastard, right? We have rituals for that?"

Dean looks skeptical but intrigued. Castiel is mostly just tired, but maybe that's why the idea has some merit.

"I copied some from Bobby's books," he admits. "Some are less scary-looking than others, and I'm not sure how well any will work on a demon who's as powerful as I believe Azazel is." He doesn't point out that it only deals with one side of the problem, and the side that hasn't even manifested as an actual threat to him personally yet. Just knowing the demons are out there is bad enough; having that threat neutralized, if at all possible, would likely do wonders for his general feelings of hopelessness.

"I think it would be worth the shot anyway," Sam says. "What do you guys think?"

Dean shrugs. "I'm always up for a fight. But really, it's Cas's call." He looks over at Castiel with a raised brow. "No pressure, little brother. You don't wanna go this route, we'll figure something else out."

What? Castiel almost asks, but doesn't. His brothers are trying, they've stuck with him through all this madness, even when he tried to force them away. They deserve better than that. They deserve better than him.

Almost as though he can sense these thoughts, Sam gets up from the desk chair and makes his way over to perch on the bed next to Castiel, nudging shoulders and looking down at him, clearly asking without words if he's okay.

Castiel bites back a sigh and instead leans against Sam's shoulder, taking the comfort being offered even if he doesn't deserve it. "It's a good idea," he says. "It's the only idea we've had, at any rate, and it would feel good to do something. You're right…we've been on the defensive this whole time, and I don't like it."

"You did good today, though," Dean offers.

"I did what I had to." Castiel swallows. "I shouldn't have even been able to. And I don't feel particularly good about it."

"We'll find a way to shut this down, Cas," Sam promises, like he can make any such vow. "Hopefully with as little bloodshed as possible. I know you don't like the idea of killing any angels." Any more angels, he doesn't say, and Castiel is grateful.

"Dicks with wings," Dean mutters, but he's also meandering over to Castiel's bed now, ruffling his hair before he sits next to him and tosses an arm around his shoulders. "But they were your family, once. And if I know anything about you, I know that means something, just like it would to any of us. So we got your back, like always. We'll follow your lead."

The words should be comforting, but they fill Castiel with a sort of dread. If it's his lead they're following, it's his responsibility if something happens to them.

Then again, it would be anyway, given it's him the angels are after.

And damn it, he's a Winchester. Winchesters don't back down from a challenge. That's one of the first lessons John taught his boys, and it's a lesson that's stuck, through hunting and through each of their own pursuits outside of the supernatural. It means something. And this may be the worst challenge he's ever faced, but Castiel won't back down.

He's a Winchester, no matter what Heaven has to say about it.

~

"This place feels evil," Castiel says, and can't quite hold back the shudder as it prickles at his skin.

Dean's hand finds the back of his neck, squeezes gently. You're okay, the touch says, when Dean would have a hard time uttering the words out loud. I got you.

"I don't feel much," Sam says. "But I'm not sure Dean or I would. It is creepy as hell, though."

He's not wrong about that. At one time, the St. Mary's Convent was probably a nice place, but now it's overgrown and falling into disrepair. Broken walls have Castiel questioning the integrity of the structure, and he keeps having to scrub cobwebs away from his face as they make their way further inside. Grimy windows allow for a sickly bit of sunlight to come through, but the illumination does nothing to brighten the place. In fact, it seems to make it worse. The dank smell prickles in Castiel's nose, making the crawling feeling over his skin even worse.

They haven't even started yet and he wants to be finished. He wants to leave this place in a way he's only felt one other time…the church where he watched those first demons.

It's almost unbelievable that that was so short a time ago. Castiel feels like he's lived a lifetime since then. In a strange way, maybe he has.

The place where Azazel tried to contact Lucifer is easy to find. Rows of pews, most broken and rotting, line the room leading to the altar and lectern. Castiel knows this is where Azazel's ritual happened, would know it even without the overwhelming darkness that presses on him the moment he enters the room because there are still dark stains littering the place. Stains that can only be blood.

Castiel whispers a prayer for the nuns who unwillingly gave their lives to this madness of Hell and Heaven both. "Please can we get this done quickly?" he asks, and the echoing silence only amplifies the slight waver in his voice.

"Yeah. Definitely," Dean says, looking around with his jaw clenched. He dumps their bag of supplies on the floor, takes out a piece of chalk, and begins to draw.

The ritual Castiel chose was one to summon a specific demon, which meant hunting down the sigil of Azazel himself. No easy task, when they couldn't ask the expert in demons without tipping Bobby (and possibly therefore their parents) off. But that is, as Dean put it, why they pay Sam the big dollars.

The sigil itself is simple, just a V overlapping an inverted V and a straight line running through the center where they connect. Circles are drawn at each point, and candles placed within. Castiel lights them without allowing himself to think about what he's doing. The angelic blade at his hip provides a comforting weight, but this is still a prince of Hell he's attempting to summon. It could end very badly for all of them.

It very well might.

He kneels before the sigil and places a small bowl of herbs and oil in front of him. Glances back at his brothers, who are standing directly behind him, ready to fight for him if necessary. Sam nods.

Castiel recites the necessary words in Latin: "Attenrobendum eos, ad consiendrum, ad ligandum eos, potiter et solvendum, et ad, congregontum eos, 'coram me." As he finishes, he drops a lit match in the bowl, and a flame jets out, searing in its intensity. It sputters quickly, but the damage is done. A slight change in the air teases at Castiel's hair, and the back of his neck prickles.

"Well now, isn't this cozy!"

Castiel jumps to his feet, spinning around. The demon is hiding in the shadows at the corner of the room, but there's no mistaking the way his eyes pulse and swirl with unearthly yellow light. "Azazel?" he demands, shoving in front of Sam and Dean lest those idiots get themselves killed before they can accomplish anything.

"In the flesh." A menacing smile slides like oil across the demon's face as he gestures at the body he's wearing, a rather forgettable middle-aged man with lines on his face that speak of a life well-lived before the demon entered it. "Not my favorite outfit, but I was in a rush when I got your call." He slinks forward a few paces. Castiel doesn't budge. "Not your brightest move, summoning me here. You know what I want. What I've been hunting." His eyes go hungrily to the pendant resting against Castiel's chest.

"I know what you want," Castiel agrees. "What I want to know is why."

"And why," Azazel hums, "would I tell you anything at all?" His eyes glint, and Castiel doesn't miss the way he inches yet another step closer.

"Because if you don't, I'm going to break this," he says, tapping at the trapped grace. "And then I'm going to burn you from that body and enjoy the scorched smell of dead demon."

He hears Dean take a sharp breath; he hadn't told his brothers this part of the plan, but he wasn't dumb enough to walk into this place without a backup plan. Some sort of insurance policy. He doesn't have any angels on call except himself, and if it comes down to getting the answers he seeks or saving Sam and Dean, there's no choice at all.

Azazel pouts. There's really no other word for it, the way his lips curl down and he rocks back on his heels. "You're no fun at all, are you?"

Castiel stares him down, silent.

"Look," Azazel finally relents, glaring now at the pendant Castiel is still holding. "A fallen angel's grace, that's some serious mojo right there. But one that's been fermenting in the earth for a couple decades, gobbling up all the best nutrients of your daddy's little masterpiece, brushing up against every soul that ever touched that tree?" The slimy grin is back, and the look in his unnatural eyes is hungrier than ever. "Well now, that's something special."

"That tells me nothing," Castiel says. "What would it be used for? What can it be used for?"

"Ohhhhhhh my little fallen angel," Azazel purrs. "The sky's the limit, and even that…well, who's to say? I don't know what other demons might use it for. We all have our hopes and dreams. You understand. As for me, I just want to restore a little order to my household, you know? Hell is…chaotic. It's messy, and I don't like it. With Lucifer in the picture, making changes would have been stepping on toes, but…well, my Dad's not answering his phone any more than yours is, so it looks like the kiddies are in charge." His smile is gleeful now, and Castiel startles as he realizes the demon has somehow crept much closer while he's been speaking. Castiel stumbles back a step, and Sam's hand on his arm steadies him. On his other side, Dean is reaching for a weapon that will be next to useless. His own hand goes to his blade, and Azazel's eyes follow it before rolling.

"You really think you can best me?" he demands. "I'm a prince of Hell. You're a rugrat angel with no memory, trapped inside a mortal body. What do you expect to do?"

Sam brandishes a bottle of holy water, and Azazel laughs.

"You think something like that works on something like me? Oh, boys, I honestly expected better." Azazel claps his hands as he says this, and suddenly two more demons are at his side, eyes black and menacing.

Castiel's grip on his pendant tightens, and he's already sliding the bullet casing off, ready to yank it from his neck and smash the crystal under his boot, let whatever will happen happen even if it destroys him, but Dean's hand settles over his and he shakes his head. Don't you do it, his eyes say. Don't you dare leave us.

Castiel never would, if given any choice in the matter, but he's not sure there's another choice left. Still, he hesitates, and in that moment, the two lesser demons strike.

"Get back!" he yells at his brothers as he brings his blade out and rushes to meet the demons head on. Sam listens, but it's only so he can begin chanting the exorcism he memorized without interruption. Dean, meanwhile, is right in the thick of it, blocking a blow one of the demons had aimed at Castiel's head while Castiel stabs brutally at the other. He only gets the shoulder, but it's enough to have the demon howling, and it disperses from the body and presumably back to Hell before Castiel can cause further damage.

Dean takes a heavy blow to the side from the second demon, which sends him sprawling across the floor and slamming into a pew, but Castiel is already standing in his place, ready to fight. He dodges one strike, then a second, trips the demon when it would have kicked out at him. Before it can gather its bearings to strike again, he's on it, one knee to its chest and stabbing straight through the jugular.

He feels far less guilty killing a demon than he had an angel, and takes grim satisfaction in the dark energy that sparks through the body as it dies. He spares a thought for the vessel the demon was inhabiting, some poor human who'd been used as a puppet for who knew how long, but he has little time to swell on it as Azazel yanks him up by the hair and reaches for his pendant. The grace within pulses almost violently, making Castiel stagger. It should be his undoing. If he were alone, it would be.

Castiel hears both of his brothers simultaneously, Dean shouting his name from one side of the room and Sam chanting in Latin behind him: "Benedictus deus. Gloria patri!" And suddenly, just like that, Azazel's grip is loosened, the demon staggering just as Castiel himself had. But for Azazel, there will be no quick recovery, no savior in the form of an older brother. He's already choking, clawing at the throat of his vessel.

"No, no, no, no, nooooooo!" The last is a scream as a cloud of black erupts from the vessel's mouth, spinning angrily through the air for a long moment before being sucked brutally through the cracks in the floor. Presumably straight back down to Hell.

There's a moment of shocked, relieved silence.

"Well," Dean finally offers. "He ain't dead. But I bet it takes the sucker a good long time to crawl his way back out of that pit."

"Let's hope so," Sam says heavily.

Castiel says nothing at all, because Castiel remembers, now. Oh, God, he remembers.

Everything.

~

"There was a plan," he tells Sam and Dean that night over burgers in their motel room. They’re tasteless in his mouth, as most food has been lately, but he knows he has to eat. "Heaven believed…well, that doesn’t matter. The point is, it was…destined, they thought. The final showdown, Heaven versus Hell. They needed the perfect vessels for each of their champions, Michael and Lucifer." He swallows.

"Cas, if you don’t want to talk about this—" Sam starts, but Castiel shakes his head.

"No, it’s okay." He takes a deep breath, closing his eyes to focus his thoughts. Memories are still trip-tumbling through his head, and drawing what he wants from the chaos is difficult. But this…this story, he knows on a level deeper than bone. "Once they realized Azazel was trying to find Lucifer and bring him forth, they set their plan. Bring together the right couple, produce the right offspring. It might have worked, except they made all these plans without realizing Azazel had failed. Lucifer never spoke, and so nothing that might have otherwise happened…happened. The vessels who were meant to belong to Michael and Lucifer could never be primed the way they would have needed to be."

"What was your part in all this?" Dean asks. Quiet in a way Dean rarely is, but he’s leaning against Castiel, shoulder to shoulder and warming Castiel all the way through with the reassurance of his presence.

"I was meant to…" He hesitates, can’t help looking at Dean. "You won't like this, but. You were meant to go to Hell. It would be the signal that things were truly beginning. I…I was the one who was to grip you tight and raise you from perdition."

There’s a moment of silence and they all blink. Dean, of course, is the first to crack, waggling his eyebrows and knocking his shoulder into Castiel’s as he grins. "Really, little brother? My own guardian angel, huh?"

Sam is smiling too, rolling his eyes at Dean’s antics but also baffled at the idea of his kid brother doing righteous angel things.

"I know, it’s…" Castiel huffs a laugh of his own. "I know, all right, stop it. Anyway. Without Azazel, obviously nothing that needed to happen for you to go to Hell was going to happen, and so my original orders were useless. I was adrift. I did the only thing I could think to do instead, while all my brothers and sisters panicked. I watched. As I was tasked to be your…okay, yes, your guardian of sorts, I watched your family. First John and Mary, and then you and Sam. It was like…I couldn’t stop." He shivers, remembering what it was like, what he was like. Cold. Distant. Just like Heaven itself. "I’d never had cause to interact with humans before, I was a relatively young angel, especially to have been tasked with something so important. I was naïve. I think that's what they wanted. The point is, I didn’t know humans could be so…" Shaking his head, he realizes that if he’d ever had the words for it, they were gone now.

"I grew…too close. There was talk of rebellion in Heaven; our Father had gone silent eons ago and none of my brethren were paying any attention to anything but their own sense of abandonment, especially in light of this failure. Mary was upset, having just learned she could never have another child. You and Sam…your light was like nothing I’d ever seen before. And I just…I wanted to be closer. I wanted to understand this…this thing I was feeling. This…love."

"So you fell," Sam said. "Just like that."

"Just like that." Castiel sighs, suddenly exhausted.

There's silence as both of his brothers try to absorb that.

"That might actually be the most touchy-feely shit you've ever said before," Dean says, finally breaking the tension. "In a long line of touchy-feely shit. And hell, I don't even mind. Get over here." He twists sideways to yank Castiel into a hard hug. The bed dips as Sam sits on his other side, pulling Castiel into his own embrace the moment Dean releases him.

"Whatever the reasons, however it happened," he says softly, "I'm glad you're our brother."

Castiel's smile feels a little wobbly where it's pressed into Sam's shoulder, but it's genuine. They haven't solved many of his problems tonight, not really, but he feels…good, somehow. He feels, for the first time since this all started, like he knows who he really is.

He remembers being Castiel, an angel of the Lord, a soldier of Heaven. Remember when he had wings and fire and grace, righteous purpose in supporting the Will of God. And maybe some part of him still is that angel.

But he's also a Winchester, through and through, and there's no longer any doubt in his mind about his place with his brothers, his real brothers, the flesh and blood family he chose. He could never go back to being the cold ethereal being he once was, could never get swallowed by all that power after knowing what it was like to be human. Millennia in Heaven, and yet it's the last twenty years on Earth that have shaped him most of all.

Castiel Winchester is exactly as he was always meant to be.

~

The clock display reads 3:00 AM when Castiel squints his eyes open, and the room is pitch black. For a moment, he has no idea what woke him, but then the floorboards creak. His heart pounds as he slides his hand as quietly as possible beneath his pillow, where his blade is ready.

"Peace, Castiel." The light clicks on. "I'm not here to hurt you."

Castiel blinks the spots from his eyes, trying to adjust to the sudden brightness of the room, wondering why Dean beside him and Sam on the other bed aren't so much as stirring.

"They'll sleep until I no longer need them to."

"…Dad?" Castiel asks, because yes, that's John Winchester's outline swimming before him, John Winchester's voice speaking to him. "What are you—"

"I'm not your father," John says, mouth twisting in a sardonic grin that has never crossed John Winchester's face before. "Or your Father, for that matter," and Castiel can hear the slight emphasis enough to recognize the capitalized letter.

Castiel swallows. "You're an angel." One he can't fight, not while it's using his dad as a vessel. It's the smartest move they've made so far. "How did you get my father to consent?" Because demons can take the bodies of whoever they want, but angels…angels need to give permission.

And oh, God, he realized suddenly, if it's using John Winchester, it can only be…

"Michael," Castiel croaks, scrabbling to stand. His blade remains untouched. He wouldn't wield it against this angel. Couldn't even if he wanted to. Michael was born to fight; Lucifer himself could not best him.

Michael smiles using John's face, and it's wrong, it's so horribly wrong that Castiel wants to vomit. "I thought you might know me. Your memories have returned, then."

Castiel remains silent.

"Castiel." Michael sighs. "Firstly, your father consented because he had a feeling you were in trouble, and with the help of Missouri Mosely I was able to convince him I could help you." He pauses, waits for Castiel to process that; that's going to take a lot longer than the few moments Michael gives him, though, as he continues, "Secondly…you've caused us a lot of trouble. I understand it, though. Earth is appealing, in many ways. And you were young when your assignment was given to you. It's no wonder things happened the way they did."

"If you're going to kill me, I'd ask that you do it away from here," Castiel finally manages to force himself to say. "My brothers don't need to wake to see that."

"I already told you, I mean you no harm," Michael says, tilting his head.

Castiel barks out a bitter laugh, hands clenching. "You sent Uriel and Anna to kill me, angels from my own garrison. My brother in arms, and I had to kill him to defend myself and my family. You've probably sent others I don't even know about to spy on us, kill us if an opportunity presented itself. How am I supposed to trust that you won't hurt me now?"

"Things have changed." Michael turns, looking out the window with his hands clasped behind his back. "Do you know, the stars look so different from down here. I never realized before – it's been so long since I visited." He stares for a long moment, then glances back. "I understand you want to stay."

Castiel sucks in a sharp breath, not even daring to hope. "I belong here," he says, with all the conviction he has in the soul he isn't supposed to possess and the heart that led him here in the first place.

Michael nods, turning back. "Yes, I suppose you do. If you truly mean it, if you intend to live your life as human, I can grant you that. But I require your grace. You can have no chance to reclaim it, so I'll take it, and I'll spread it among the cosmos where it can't be used against Heaven or Hell or even humanity. As it stands, it's a weapon that can't be tolerated to remain where it can be claimed by anyone. Surely you understand that."

Castiel's fingers move to the pendant around his neck, clasping around the bullet casing, worn almost smooth from his constantly rubbing it over these past weeks. He removes the necklace, sliding the bullet casing away and staring at the crystal shard, shining brilliantly with what remains of his past self. Larger, brighter, more powerful than he could ever be as a human. "How do I know I can trust you?" he asks Michael without looking away from his grace.

"Because I could have killed you where you stood a hundred times over by now," Michael replies. "I have no reason to offer anything when I could slay you where you stand and simply take your grace for myself. It's much easier, housed as it is outside of you."

"Then tell me why? Why would you offer this?" Because it makes no sense. Michael is right, it would be child's play to simply take the crystal and enact Heavenly justice on Castiel for his crime of Falling.

"Ah, well." Michael shakes his head, lips twitching up again, deepening the lines of John's face. "You have friends in high places, it seems. My little brother returned to Heaven, to speak on your behalf."

Gabriel, Castiel realizes, stunned. "Why would he do that?" It barely comes out as anything more than a whisper, and he has the overwhelming urge to sit down, because his limbs have gone suddenly numb.

"Seems you made an impression," Michael says. "He came home and made peace with us, on the condition that you be left alone to live the life you fought so hard for. He's promised to keep an eye on you, make sure the balance is not disrupted. I think that's just an excuse to sneak to Earth whenever he wants to, but it was an easy agreement to come to. I have missed him, deeply."

Castiel doesn't doubt that. From what he recalls of stories of the archangels, they were once a very tight-knit cluster. The closest of siblings, until Lucifer's betrayal.

"Tell him…tell him thank you." Castiel swallows, his eyes going back to the shard of grace in his palm.

"Tell him yourself. He'll hear you. He told me to tell you he heard you before." Michael raises an eyebrow. "He didn't tell me what that meant, just that you would know."

"I do," Castiel says, remembering his desperate prayer after killing Uriel. Stealing himself, Castiel takes a breath and meets Michael's impenetrable gaze. Holds out his hand, the pendant dangling from the metal chain. "Take it, then. I have no wish to reclaim it."

Michael nods, and in a less than a blink, the grace is simply gone, folded away from Castiel's view and hidden from his senses. He feels the loss like a punch to the gut, staggers back until the backs of his knees touch his mattress and he sits heavily.

"It was always a part of you, Castiel," Michael says, and wearing such a familiar face, Castiel can recognize the sympathy in his eyes. "But, I think, not the important parts."

"Not the important parts," Castiel agrees, his voice sounding strained to his own ears. Would he have handed it over so easily if he'd known it would be gone so fast?

Yes, he realizes. A hundred times over.

"I must go," Michael says. "I'll return your father to his home, no worse for wear, you have my word. Though I expect he'll be eager to speak with you."

"Wait!" Castiel says, his thoughts going to the last angel he spoke with as he realizes he may never see any of them again, unless Gabriel or perhaps Balthazar choose to make their presence known to him. "I just…if I'm allowed to remain here, to be human…is there a chance you'll stop punishing others for the same? Shouldn't they be allowed to make that choice?"

"Yours are special circumstances, Castiel," Michael says, no small amount of warning in his voice. But he hesitates. "I know the angel on whose behalf you speak." His lips twist in a grimace. "I can make no promises, and more angels choosing to Fall would cause too much dissent in a Heaven already rife with unease. But her unhappiness is its own disease."

"Just promise you won't kill her," Castiel asks, unsure why he cares so much.

"I make promises to no one," Michael says. "And you would do well not to press your luck."

Castiel nods; he said what he needed to say, and holds no special interest in Anna's fate except in that he feels connected by their shared desire to be human, even if their reasons were different.

"Goodbye, Castiel."

"Goodbye, Michael. And…thank you."

Michael nods, and then he's gone, nothing to mark his departure except for the sound of feathers rustling and the empty space where he'd stood.

"Cas?" Dean's sleepy voice comes from behind him, where his brother is sitting up in bed. Across the room, Sam is also blinking, squinting his eyes in the bright light of the motel lamp. "What's going on?"

Castiel realizes there are tears in his eyes, blinks and lets one slip out and down his cheek. Feels the smile bloom across his face until his cheeks hurt, and then he's laughing and sobbing and burying his face in his hands, full of more emotion than he feels capable of processing right now.

He's free. He's free.

He feels his brothers on either side of him, baffled and frightened of his bizarre display, but always, always there to have his back.

"Let's go home," he finally manages to gasp out, and throws his arms around both of them, clinging to them hard and fast because he came so, so close to losing this, losing them.

Castiel Winchester is many things. He is an artist, and a student. He is a hunter. He is human. He is a son, and a grandson.

And he is, above all else, a brother.

~

~

~

Chuck walks away from the motel, smiling. He never had any doubt in Castiel, or in the family Castiel has chosen for himself, but it's still nice to see him happy. At peace with himself. Would that all His children could have the same. Would that they could all understand the gift He gave them.

Free will – not just for humans anymore, not for a long time. They'll understand the message eventually, He hopes.

In his hands, Chuck holds Lucifer unmade – the remnants of His brightest angel's grace, which He's held close to him since 1972. It's now barely more than a spark. A possibility.

Someday, Chuck will plant this sliver of grace, and see what can grow from the beauty, and the hope, that Samael once represented.

Chuck sighs, content, and raises His eyes heavenward.

Yes. This story was worth the rewrite.