“Give me a sign,” Castiel pleads. “Because if you don’t, I’m going to ch—I’m going to do whatever I…whatever I must.”
He bows his head and waits. For a long moment, a moment which feels like the sick endless plummeting towards a shrimping boat off Delacroix, there is nothing. Just before he gives up hope, though, images unfold in his mind like bright flashes of memory:
—Sam calling for him as a knife glinted bloody in Dean’s hands—Dean rejecting his plea for trust—Dean’s lover in a hospital bed as he gave and gave and gave everything Dean asked of him and none of it was enough—torturing a Purgatory native for the ritual—destroying Sam’s wall—breaking his deal with Crowley—killing Balthazar for trying to stop him—destroying Raphael as Raphael and Lucifer had once destroyed him—and his own voice, rich and mad, echoing silently in his incorporeal ears, proclaiming himself a god above God, demanding worship and adoration for himself, threatening the people he had fought so hard for with destruction—
The angel Castiel does not breathe, but he is breathless now; simply existing is a pain like Rachel’s blade in his vessel’s chest. His mouth shapes the word Father, all voice torn from him.
Across the park the kite flickers in the sky, high and warm. Castiel stares at that bright spot of red and feels, impossibly, some of the despair and shame ebb, like a second miracle after the first.
“Thank You,” he whispers, finally finding will for the words. He’s going to try again, whether or not it will change anything, because he must. Because he’s claimed free will and has no choice.
He returns to Bobby Singer’s house as dawn begins to bleed over the horizon. Dean is reaching for his knife before his eyes are even fully open, and then he freezes, staring at Castiel, who stares back and remembers.
“If Raphael wins, Sam will be in very grave danger.”
It is the one thing that could cut through any defenses, any unwillingness to hear, any sense of betrayal or mistrust, that Dean has, and Castiel wonders how he never thought to say it before.
“...I’m listening,” Dean says, sitting up and swinging his feet to the floor.
“Do you remember Maine?”
The corner of Dean’s mouth twitches. Castiel isn’t sure whether it’s toward a smile or a grimace, or both, or neither. “First time I met Raphael? Yeah.”
“Then you remember that there is a ritual that can call any angel back into their vessel, whether or not the vessel gives—can give—consent.” He sees the moment that Dean realizes what he means, but presses on anyway. “From the point when Lucifer is freed, Sam is seconds away from being taken by him again, Dean. Can you protect him at all hours of the day? From angels, demons, devout men and women believing they do the will of God, witches and others unknowingly in service to evil?”
“No,” Dean says, and it is an answer and a protest all in one. A few of the subtleties of human nonverbal language still escape Castiel, but the word that comes to mind when he looks at Dean now is open, and relief crashes over him, and in its wake leaves pain.
“I rebelled because you told me this world was worth saving, and I believed you. I’m trying to save it again, and I don’t understand why now you say I’m wrong.”
“You’re working with Crowley.” Dean makes it sound as if this is an explanation all in itself. “All I’m asking is that you find anoth—”
It’s too much for Castiel to listen to without protest. “You worked with Crowley!”
“You’re an angel!” Dean shouts. There is a long silence, during which Dean looks at him as if he’s trying to explain everything without words, but all Castiel can see are hurt and confusion and doubt almost to match his own.
“I don’t understand,” Castiel says at last, and, when Dean doesn’t answer right away, “I don’t understand why my being an angel changes anything.”
Dean scrubs a hand over his face. “We are some sorry, tarnished sons of bitches, Cas. One more mark against us doesn’t change much. But you—it’s not right. You shouldn’t be…”
No one has ever wanted to hold Castiel above humanity to protect him, and yet Dean’s concern grates like Uriel’s near-blasphemies did. “You are a righteous man, Dean, and a good one. Sam saved all Creation, which he couldn’t have done without you and Bobby. I had”—he hesitates for a moment, trying to find the right words—“killed brothers of mine before I ever made my deal with Crowley.”
Castiel takes a step closer. “Listen to me, Dean. I’ve died for you and killed for you and fallen for you and I would do any of them again. You wanted me to choose freedom and I did. Why are you telling me the choices I’ve made are wrong?”
“God. Cas, you can’t—” Dean’s voice breaks. He swallows and tries again. “You shouldn’t say shit like that.”
They’ve had this conversation before, over and over, and so Castiel gives up; he will accept, for now, that this contradiction isn’t his own failing, but stems from Dean’s inability to perceive his own worth. They are running out of time. “I believe Crowley is planning to take Lisa Braeden and her son to ensure your good behavior,” he says, and braces himself for another burst of anger.
It’s guilt he sees instead, self-loathing tightening Dean’s features. “Can you bring them here?”
And Castiel would do anything to ease that burden. “Yes.”
“Lisa, uh.” Dean shifts uncomfortably. “She knows who you are, that you’re family. That she can trust you.”
Castiel feels strangely warm despite the early-morning chill. “Thank you.”
“Don’t,” Dean says.
“You said we could fix this. I need another plan, Dean.”
“Yeah, I—I should have—anyway, I’ll get Bobby and Sam. You get Lisa and Ben. We’ll come up with something.”
Dean is overwhelmed by this, lost in it, but that makes two of them, and Castiel is desperately grateful that he’s no longer lost alone. He attempts a smile as he leaves, and just before the rush of wings blot everything else out he sees an answer in Dean’s eyes.
He’s reconsidering what freedom is—a length of rope, yes, but maybe not just a noose: maybe a line thrown to a drowning man, too.