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Save Dean Winchester.

Those are the words seared into Castiel’s grace. His directive — the mission. He has been preparing for months; circling his vessel, claiming it. Reviewing the battle plans. He has stood shoulder to shoulder with the angels of his garrison, ready; he has received revelation from the archangel Michael himself. Save Dean Winchester. Save Dean Winchester. The three words consume him. They are the only language he knows.

He’s ready for the pits of Hell. For fire, and the stench of perdition; for the demons with their foul faces and their wiles. He’s ready to slice through legions of them. His mission is righteous; Save Dean Winchester. He will not be halted. He will triumph, or he will die trying.

Save Dean Winchester. In this small human form, it’s a taste in his mouth; it’s a scent on the air. It’s the rhythm that beats the dance of atoms, the key that twists wavelengths of light. It’s the burn of ozone after a lightning strike. It’s the clap of thunder that might be Castiel’s father’s voice.

Save Dean Winchester. That’s his destiny, and he’s going to fulfill it.

Only — he wasn’t quite expecting this.

There are no flames. No screaming Hell-creatures. There’s an air conditioning unit humming creakily under the window, a painting of a palm tree by an ocean on the wall; there’s an empty bed, a duffel bag of weapons split open on it. And on the other bed — stretched out on top of the covers, face scrunched into the pillow — is a young man. He’s wearing a t-shirt and boxers, legs bare; his hair sticks up with sleep. He snores slightly, and shifts. His fingers stay curled around the grip of a handgun, hidden under the pillow.

Save Dean Winchester. That’s Dean Winchester. Castiel would know him anywhere. But what he’s supposed to be saving him from — where the rest of the garrison is, how he ended up here, what in the world is happening —

Castiel has no idea.

---

After a while, Castiel decides to sit down on the unoccupied bed and watch Dean Winchester sleep.

It seems like the best of his options. There is no evident threat; if he needs to save this Dean Winchester from something, that something isn’t here yet. Besides, he seems — tired. Castiel’s surprised to realize he understands that; something in the shadows on Dean Winchester’s face, the lines around his young eyes, makes him look weary to the bone. He twitches occasionally, breath hitching and shoulders tensing in his sleep, but Castiel discovers that a thread of grace can quiet him, even from across the room.

The TV is on, volume turned low, and Dean doesn’t seem to react to its flickering light. A man keeps talking excitedly about something called OxiClean. Castiel finds him annoying, but he discovers that he doesn’t want to risk disturbing Dean by making the TV turn off.

He peers outside the curtains once. If this is a trick, it’s a well constructed one; the parking lot is lit by halogen streetlights, their glow orange on the rain-shiny pavement. It’s about half full of cars, including a big black one that gleams outside the door. It’s mostly quiet, but there’s the occasional screech of tires on the highway, stoplights turning from green to yellow to red. Hotel Tropical, says the neon sign reflected in a puddle. A couple comes out of their room to smoke in the plastic chairs outside their door, then goes inside again. A pair of people across the parking lot have an angry, murmured conversation, and one gives the other money.

None of them look like demons. None of them display the slightest interest in Dean’s room, or Dean’s car, or the sliver of darkness that shifts in Dean’s curtains.

The newspaper on the table says the year is 2003. That seems incorrect to Castiel, though he’s unaccustomed to human reckonings of time; it should be 2008 by now. If he correctly recalls the revolutions around the sun since the business in Nazareth began —

He’s too lost in his thoughts to notice that the man across the room is moving again, muttering in his sleep, until it’s too late.

There’s a soft thump. Castiel turns to see that Dean’s pillow has fallen off the bed; his gun gleams in the TV light, clutched close to his chest. He’s mumbling louder now, and he thrashes as Castiel hurries back toward him — as Castiel extends his hand.

Castiel doesn’t know what possesses him to do it. He’s been able to soothe Dean’s nightmares from across the room just fine. Maybe it’s a latent instinct of his vessel, the human craving for comfort by touch; he wants to lay his hand on Dean’s forehead. He wants to smooth away his fears.

The moment their skin touches, Dean’s awake, and there’s the barrel of the gun pressing into Castiel’s vessel’s sternum.

Wide green eyes stare into Castiel’s, shocked round; Dean’s chest is heaving. That’s panic chasing itself across his face, and Castiel’s sorry, instantly; he didn’t want to be the cause of that. He raises his hands, eases back. “I apologize. I didn’t intend —”

“Who the fuck are you,” says Dean, and he doesn’t wait for an answer; he jerks the trigger, and shoots Castiel through the heart.

---

Castiel glances down at his chest.

There’s a round bullet hole, smoking slightly, through Jimmy Novak’s blue tie. Another one, rougher and larger, through the fabric of the trenchcoat at his back. He can feel the tissue inside of him knitting back together, all the extraneous parts — Jimmy Novak’s bones and blood vessels and heart. He looks back up at Dean.

Dean shoots him again.

And that won’t do; Castiel steps forward to take the gun from Dean’s hand. His grip is surprisingly strong, for a human, though it’s no match for Castiel’s. “Shh,” he tells Dean; “I don’t know the nature of the danger here, but I have to assume it is present. We shouldn’t make more noise than we have to.” He presses Dean’s arm back to his chest and pats it lightly, hoping that’s reassuring. “Do you have any reason to believe something may be threatening your safety?”

“Well, there’s this bulletproof guy in my room,” Dean snaps, and slams a knife blade into Castiel’s chest.

That was clever; Castiel didn’t see where he was keeping that. Dean rears back, scrambling across the bed, as Castiel looks down. The hilt juts out from a spot between his vessel’s ribs. He imagines this would be painful for a human. He pulls it free, slowly, and lets it drop to the floor.

Dean’s staring at him again. His eyes are enormous, mouth slack with disbelief.

Castiel finds that he could look into those eyes for some time.

Dean bolts for the door.

He barely has a hand on it, yanking it open, before Castiel’s grace catches up; he slams the door shut. Dean wrenches at the knob uselessly. Once, again. “Let me out,” he snaps, “Goddamnit, let me out —”

Then, abruptly, his shoulders go still; after a moment, they sag. When he turns to face Castiel, his eyes are glittering with fury and defeat. “You’re not gonna. Are you.”

Castiel doesn’t like the idea of being Dean’s captor. “It might be dangerous,” he counters, carefully. “You should stay in here, where it’s safe.”

Dean snorts. “Heard that one before.”

Castiel doesn’t like that either. He doesn’t like the shift in Dean’s posture, from anger to acceptance; he doesn’t like the message practically screaming out of Dean’s soul: Can’t kill him, so might as well find out what he wants.

There’s another painting of a beach on the wall at Dean’s back; it’s been knocked askew in his flight. There’s the outline of a flamingo on the doormat under his feet. The wallpaper pressing against his shoulderblades is printed in palm trees. They are approximately one thousand miles from the nearest ocean.

“Castiel,” says Castiel.

Dean’s chin jerks. “What?”

“You asked who I was. My name is Castiel.”

“That supposed to mean something to me?”

Of course Castiel shouldn’t expect it to. Dean’s had an upsetting, confusing evening. “I’m an angel of the Lord,” he explains. “And I’m here to save you.”

---

If there’s one reaction Castiel has never experienced to his own annunciation, it’s laughter.

It takes Dean a moment. For a long beat of silence, he simply stares. Castiel has the distinct sense Dean’s taking in his human appearance for the first time; the dark, rumpled hair, the business dress, the blue eyes. The shape of Jimmy Novak’s body, athletic enough for a man in his thirties. Castiel has the odd thought that he’s older than Dean, a little, by human reckoning; of course, in his true form he’s older than Dean by hundreds of millions of years.

Dean’s gaze seems almost — approving, somewhere between the fury and the fear. Admiring, maybe, even. Which is why it takes Castiel by surprise when, a moment later, Dean bursts out laughing.

Not just laughing, no; he’s wheezing, doubled over, sliding down to the floor. He pulls his knees to his chest and he laughs and he laughs and he laughs, loudly again, which Castiel is sure he should object to on grounds of laying low, but — he doesn’t know what to do. He doesn’t know how to respond to mockery. He’s never faced it before; not from a mere human.

“I’m sorry,” Dean gasps, “I’m sorry, is this — some kind of joke? You a stripper or something? Hot holy tax accountant?”

Castiel stiffens. He doesn’t quite understand the words, but they seem profane. “This is a vessel,” he counters. “My true form is approximately the size of your Chrysler Building.”

That only makes Dean laugh harder. “So you are a stripper.”

“I am —”

“Angel of the lord, yeah, yeah.” Dean wipes tears from his eyes. “Well, hate to break it to you, buddy, but angels aren’t real. So, I don’t know what kind of hopped-up freak you are or what exactly you think you’re saving me from, but I’m thinking you maybe get on with it, ‘cause I gotta be in Des Moines by noon, and this whole thing has really — really just fucked with my beauty sleep.”

Castiel draws himself up. “I apologize for waking you. I already tried to apologize for waking you. But my mission is to save you. I am commanded by God.” He can hear his voice growing, changing, the galaxy echoing through it; he can feel his shoulders swelling, light flaring from his fingertips. “You should consider your mockery wisely, Dean Winchester. I am Heaven’s soldier, and you have Heaven’s favor — for now.”

He doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late that Dean is hunched now, not in laughter, but pain.

He has his hands over his ears. He’s squinting into Castiel’s light, shying away — trying to make himself small. Castiel’s voice echoes, reverberates down every frequency; the man on the TV finally shuts up, white light fuzzing him into nothing.

An instant later, the TV explodes.

Dean yells. And the window behind him is shattering too; glass flies. A streetlight outside lets out a bang and a shower of sparks. Castiel can feel his wings expand to fill the room, carving shadows by instinct — to shield Dean. To keep him safe.

There are people waking up in the neighboring motel rooms, yelling in alarm. Castiel lets his light fade, but the damage is done. The night air blows through their window, hot and humid, and the AC sputters and dies. Slowly, slowly, Dean lowers his hands from his face.

They need to get out of here. They’ve attracted too much attention.

Castiel says, “I will take you to Des Moines.”

---

He selects an unremarkable side street. A few run-down houses, a corner store; no one who will pay much attention to the sudden appearance of a big black car at the other end of the block. They’re facing east; the sun is just starting to streak the horizon. Someone in pajamas is out walking her dog.

Castiel watches Dean jerk his hands from the steering wheel with a start. “You — what? Where the hell are we?”

“Des Moines,” Castiel repeats. “I told you. You are — approximately six hours and forty-three minutes ahead of schedule.”

Dean lowers his hands slowly. He glances around, looking spooked. “I thought — you were just gonna lock me in that room or something.”

“I’m an angel, Dean. I don’t need to imprison you in order to watch over you.”

Dean swallows. Castiel’s use of his name seems to affect him. He glances around. “So, if I jumped out of this car right now and started running —”

“I wouldn’t stop you. I would go with you.” Castiel adds, scrupulously, “I might need to prevent you from doing anything stupid.”

Dean stares out the windshield. He seems to be thinking about something; it takes him a long time. His face is pale, and he looks shaken. “You’re really a — that. An angel.”

“I have only told you the truth.”

“And you’re — my. Uh, angel. Like a guardian angel?”

Castiel considers. “That concept does seem applicable here, yes.”

Dean looks down at his hands.

They’re starting to tremble. Castiel follows his gaze, watches as Dean turns his hands over to stare at the palms. The shaking intensifies, and Dean bites down on his lip. Castiel thinks for a moment he’s going to draw blood. But he doesn’t, just folds his hands closed again, pressing one thumb down hard against his own pulse point, and lifts his chin.

Some mask drops back into place. Dean snorts, lightly, and shoots Castiel a wry look. “All right, well. If I’m handcuffed to you anyway — what d’you say we get breakfast?”

---

Dean says he knows a diner on the other side of the city that has the best hash browns you’ve ever tasted. Castiel has never tasted a hash brown, but he agrees; a moment later, they’re in the parking lot, vehicle and all.

“Whoa,” says Dean. “You gotta — you gotta stop doing that, man.”

“It’s an efficient mode of transport.”

“It’s a mindfuck, is what it is.” Dean reaches for the door handle, then stops.

Castiel glances at him. “What’s the matter?”

“I’m, uh.” Dean clears his throat. His face is pink. “I’m not wearing pants.”

“Oh.” Castiel glances down at Dean’s lap; he’s still clad in a t-shirt and boxers, bare feet resting on the floor mat. “I brought your things. They should be in the trunk. Would you like me to — get them for you?”

Dean’s face is definitely red now. “That’d be great. Thanks, Cas.”

Cas. Castiel doesn’t object, just blinks himself to the back of the car and opens the trunk. There are two duffel bags in there, one filled with weapons, but the other seems to contain clothes; he takes that and Dean’s boots and blinks himself back into the passenger seat.

Dean’s staring at him again. “You couldn’t walk?” he asks, flatly, but he shakes his head and reaches into the bag, rifling through fabric. He glances over at Castiel again before levering himself up in the seat to wriggle into his jeans, then pulls on a pair of socks and shoves his feet into the boots. He’s halfway out of the car before he stops and glances back. “Well? You coming?”

Castiel hesitates. “I — don’t actually eat much. Or, at all. I could — if it would make you more comfortable for me to watch over you from here —”

“Jesus fuck.” Dean tips his face to the sky; for a brief moment, all his frayed nerves are back on display. “Come — eat breakfast, all right? Just — be normal, for half a second. If you don’t want yours, I’ll eat it for you. Okay?”

“Okay.” Castiel mimics the unfamiliar syllables; they feel strange on his tongue. He makes sure he follows Dean’s directive, opening his door to climb out of the car, following Dean across the parking lot; he doesn’t quite catch up until they make it to the door. Dean shoots a look back at him, and Castiel glimpses something complicated in his eyes; then he’s shouldering inside.

A waitress seats them at a booth near the back corner, and Castiel catches Dean shifting in his seat, eyeing the exit routes. “It’s okay,” he tells Dean, in an undertone. “I already checked the patrons. No one in here is a demon.”

Dean startles visibly. “Demons — Jesus. What kind of shit are you getting into?”

“I told you, I’m an angel of the Lord, and —”

“You were sent to save me, yeah, yeah.” Dean hesitates for a moment, as if he’s making a decision, then leans in. “Why don’t we start at the beginning for a sec? Put our heads together. You first — you were sent to save me from what?”

That’s the thing, though. Castiel hesitates. He’s — not sure.

“You don’t know,” Dean says. “You actually — you have no idea.”

“Something went — wrong,” Castiel tells him stiffly. “Or — unexpected. I don’t know. I expected to be sent to you five years from now. In the year 2008.”

Whatever Dean was expecting, it doesn’t seem to have been that. He blinks at Castiel for a moment; his lips part in a small round o, shining softly under the fluorescent lights. Then he licks them and falls back in his seat. “2008,” he repeats. “You mean, that’s —”

He’s interrupted by the waitress coming over to take their orders. Dean’s countenance slips instantly into a charming smile; he orders for both of them, something about coffees and omelettes and cowboy breakfasts, which the waitress scribbles down with apparent understanding. As soon as she’s gone, Dean leans forward again, demand in his voice. “You’re saying you can time travel?”

Castiel’s shoulderblades feel irritable. He’s not accustomed to being questioned by a human. “On occasion. When Heaven desires it.”

“So this is — Heaven must have sent you here.”

His logic is hard to fault. Castiel knows some individual angels strong enough to time travel without assistance; it’s difficult to imagine why any of them would interfere with his mission, though. And then there’s his mission directive, strong and clear as ever: Save Dean Winchester. “I believe they did, yes.”

“And you’re supposed to — save me? Were you supposed to save me in 2008, too?”

“Yes.”

“Do you know what you’re supposed to save me from then?”

Castiel hesitates.

He feels, for some reason, like he doesn’t want to tell Dean. He doesn’t want Dean to know.

Why? To spare him pain? That’s not in Castiel’s directive. He was sent to save Dean Winchester, not to coddle him.

Still, he hesitates.

“Come on, man, spit it out,” Dean snaps.

“Hell,” Castiel says. “In 2008, I was sent to save you from Hell.”

---

Dean sways in his seat.

Castiel sees him swallow. Once, twice; he picks up a fork and sets it down.

“Okay,” he says. “So this is, like — a It’s a Wonderful Life type thing.”

“A — what?”

Dean’s eyes are fixed on the table in front of him, his voice forcefully light. “You know, angel sent to show a guy the error of his ways? Though I mean, like, that guy wasn’t gonna go to hell. Maybe more of a Christmas Carol type thing. Or, a — Emperor’s New Groove. Angel on my shoulder.”

Castiel blinks. He replays everything Dean just said again in his head, and draws a blank. “What?”

“I mean, it’s pretty obvious, right? You’re supposed to save me from Hell. So — I’m going to Hell. ‘Cause, I’m a, you know, shitty fucking person, which — no arguments here — but. You must have to, like — stop me from doing even worse shit.”

“Oh.” Castiel shakes his head. “No, that isn’t the directive.”

“‘That isn’t the directive,’” Dean mutters. “What, like suddenly you know what you’re supposed to do?”

He’s still avoiding Castiel’s eyes. Castiel leans in; on an impulse, he touches Dean’s chin with his fingers, forcing him to look up.

Dean’s eyes meet his reluctantly. There’s a fragility in them that belies his tone; once they catch on Castiel’s, they snag there, like he can’t quite look away.

“I’m a soldier of God,” Castiel murmurs. “A warrior. I am trained for battle, not — dispensing advice.”

Dean swallows. Castiel can feel his Adam’s apple brush against the backs of his fingers; he feels a strange urge to touch Dean’s throat. Turn his hand and cup it, just gently, not enough to harm — just enough to pin Dean where he sits. Just enough to fix that attention, that thrum of paralyzed focus, on Castiel and Castiel alone.

The waitress is coming back with their coffees. Castiel drops his hand abruptly and looks down; Dean’s face is pink, and he thinks his might be too. There’s a prickling in his grace, a hot wanting in his hands, that he doesn’t know what to do with.

“So I assume,” he says to the formica tabletop as the waitress retreats, “it must be demons.”

Dean shakes his head. If he’s still caught up in whatever moment they just had, he doesn’t show it; he’s frowning over at Castiel. “You keep saying that, man. I don’t — I’ve barely ever run into demons. It’s not like they’re — swarming the earth, or whatever. I mean — I can ask my dad when I see him later, but —”

“Your father?”

Castiel can’t explain the prickle of unease that spreads down his wings; he has heard, vaguely, of Dean Winchester’s father. Also in Hell. Cut from the same cloth — or maybe not quite the same.

Dean seems wrong-footed by the intensity of his response. “Yeah, uh — he’s who I’m meeting later. At noon. He’s — a hunter, he’ll know if anyone’s been seeing demons around.”

Castiel considers for a moment. Then he nods, judicious. “Good. We’ll ask him.”

“Oh, no no no.” Dean shifts out of the way to make room as the waitress deposits their plates in front of them; then he shifts back and points at Castiel with his fork. “No. You are not meeting my dad.”

“Why not?”

“Because —” Dean takes a big bite of food, chews for a moment, then sighs, revealing half-masticated eggs. “Because he’ll kill you, that’s why. Or try to, and then I’ll have to explain the whole angel thing, and then — he’ll probably think I’m crazy and hogtie me in the trunk.”

He smiles, as if that last part’s a joke, but it’s a pained sort of smile. Castiel says, “I can protect you.”

“Yeah, I also don’t need you — smiting my dad or whatever.” If anything, Dean’s smile grows more forced. “Look — you can wait in the car. Or, not the car, he’s gonna wanna see the car, but — I won’t run off or something, I promise. Just let me handle this.”

Castiel does not particularly want to let Dean handle this.

“Fine,” he says, and takes a big bite of Dean’s hash browns, even though they only taste like molecules.

---

Dean sets Castiel up at a Chinese restaurant across the street from the bar where he’s meeting his father. He parks his car around the back of another block, out of sight; “Sometimes he gets paranoid about that shit.” Castiel observes that Dean had no qualms parking his car in front of his own motel room, back where Castiel found him, and Dean just shrugs.

Castiel watches Dean disappear into the bar. He waits. He sips his tea, which Dean told him to just keep ordering if he really doesn’t want to eat anything. Thirty-seven minutes later, a big black truck pulls up and parks with its tires on the curb. The man that gets out has something of Dean in him — not in his features, really, or even his soul, but the way he holds himself, the tension in his muscles, the way his eyes dart up and down the block before he opens the door to the bar and goes inside.

Castiel drinks more tea. Time passes; fifteen minutes. Twenty. The bar door swings open again, and it’s John Winchester, alone. He climbs into his truck and drives away.

Castiel waits.

But Dean doesn’t come out. It’s one thirty now; one forty-five. Castiel is growing sick of tea.

At two o’clock, he pays his bill — Dean taught him how to count out the money from Jimmy Novak’s wallet — and crosses the street.

When he enters the bar, he doesn’t see Dean. He looks around twice, then goes to the bathrooms. Dean isn’t relieving himself. Castiel returns to the front.

“Hello,” he tells the woman wiping down the bar. “I’m looking for a man.” How to describe Dean? “He’s — very beautiful. With green eyes.”

He sees her expression flicker, the moment of anger, then the weariness in her eyes. She sets down her rag. “Hon. Usually when a kid like that leaves through the back, it ain’t because he wants to be found.”

Kid? “Dean is not a child,” Castiel clarifies. “He’s a twenty-four-year-old man.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night,” the bartender mutters, which makes no sense at all; Castiel doesn’t sleep. “Well, anyway. He’s not here, so. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”

Castiel glances around. Her assessment does seem correct. “Thank you,” he tells her. Dean keeps scolding him to walk places, but he’s not sure what to make of the bartender’s comment about her aggressive door; it seems simplest to blink to Dean’s parking spot instead.

He catches a glimpse of the bartender’s startled expression as he vanishes. Then he’s on the sidewalk, the same spot he stepped out of Dean’s car earlier. Castiel let Dean drive them here; it seems to mean a lot to him, driving. There’s some novelty in the experience of sitting in a wheeled conveyance, moving at a human’s pace. 

The street is empty. Dean’s car isn’t there.

Castiel closes his eyes. He stretches out his awareness, on the wings of his grace. Over the city, the surrounding towns; the countryside with its fields of corn. Over the river of cars stretching west on a ribbon of asphalt, and — there.

Castiel blinks into the passenger seat. “Hello, Dean.”

Dean yells. The steering wheel jerks in his hands, and the car nearly veers into the other lane; Dean rights it at the last moment. He has one hand on his chest, eyes wide. “Jesus, dude. You scared the shit out of me.”

“You attempted to leave without me.”

“Guess that’s a lesson learned.” Dean shakes his head as if to clear it, darting a glance at Castiel. “How’d you find me?”

Castiel looks around at the dashboard, the upholstery. “You have a fairly distinctive car.”

“A fairly —” Dean repeats. He sounds like he’s having some sort of medical problem. “A fairly distinctive car?”

“Yes.”

“A fairly — dude, this is a ‘67 Impala. 327 four barrel, 275 horses. This is —”

And he’s off, rattling equivalencies that Castiel can’t begin to understand. Castiel has counseled with Solomon, laid judgment on the people of Canaan, watched Noah fill his ark; but however Dean is reckoning the power of horses in ratio to African antelopes, it’s beyond him.

He listens, though. He finds he likes listening to Dean talk.

It’s some time, then, before they circle back to the situation at hand. Dean has seemingly talked himself out; Castiel has gleaned that the car is to be referred to as Baby or The Impala, despite its utter lack of resemblance to a young gazelle. He says into the silence, “You said you wouldn’t run off.”

Dean’s shoulders rise, as if he’s about to fire some incomprehensible insult at Castiel; then they slump. “Yeah. Sorry.”

“Were you lying?”

The question seems to make Dean sad. He glances around swiftly as he drives, away from Castiel; then he says, “No. I just — things changed.”

“Your father?”

“He’s got a hunt he wants my help on, back in Colorado. I figured — I can’t let him see you, and you’ve probably got better shit to be doing, so —”

“My mission is to save you. There is no better shit.”

Dean runs his hand through his hair. He has that look in his eyes again, darting down; they might be shining more than usual. He says, softly, “Right.”

Castiel studies him. He means to anyway; next time he’s asking a bartender for Dean’s whereabouts, he should be able to provide a more precise description.

Dean has full lips. There’s a tremble at the corner of his mouth right now, as there often is, a potentiation; Castiel’s seen it slide into a grin, a joke, a snarl of defiance. It doesn’t look like any of those things right now. It looks sad.

He’s beautiful. With green eyes, Castiel said, but he forgot the eyelashes framing them. He forgot the faint freckles that dust over Dean’s cheeks, his nose; the ancients could draw constellations in them. He didn’t forget — he couldn’t — the way Dean’s eyes look when they land on Castiel’s, but he doesn’t know the words to describe them. Trusting and bitter and hopeful and terrified all at the same time.

The lines of Dean’s body would not disappoint a sculptor, though he hides them under a heavy leather coat. Neither would the bones of his face. A muscle flexes in his jaw, and his knuckles are tight on the steering wheel. Castiel’s scrutiny makes him uncomfortable. And yet he blossoms into it, yearns for it — and hates himself for the yearning.

He doesn’t believe he deserves to be saved.

Castiel wants to touch him. He wants to prove it to him, as if that could be done with a touch; as if his hands that could move Dean across continents, could deliver him sleep or healing or read the contents of his soul, could just as easily offer him love.

His hands. Jimmy Novak’s hands. But Castiel wants to touch Dean with them; like Ptolemy, like Michelangelo.

“Dude. You’re staring,” says Dean.

Castiel says, “Yes.”

“Well — quit it.”

“If that’s what you prefer.”

He doesn’t quit it, though. And Dean doesn’t object; he just swallows and drums two fingers on the steering wheel and says, “I asked my dad about demons, by the way. He hasn’t heard anything about recent activity.”

“I see.”

They drive for a while in silence. Castiel keeps thinking that maybe if he’s searching for someone who wants Dean Winchester damned, he could do worse than to start with Dean Winchester himself.

---

It’s around ten in the evening when they make it to Sterling, Colorado. They passed North Platte hours ago; that’s where Castiel found Dean, and he can’t help but point out that John Winchester could have simply met Dean there if he was going in this direction anyway. He’s somewhat proud of himself for working that out — the constraints and linearity of human travel remain perplexing to him, especially Dean’s insistence on adhering to them — but Dean just says, “Don’t worry about it.”

They’ve already agreed that Castiel will make himself scarce at the motel. John didn’t check on the Impala in Des Moines, but he’ll certainly want to do it here — it used to be, Castiel has learned, John’s car. Castiel acquiesces, on the condition that he doesn’t have to drink tea.

The simplest solution — as far as Castiel is concerned — is to sit in the Impala’s front seat, invisible. He thinks Dean might not like that, so he doesn’t tell him.

Instead he watches John and Dean come and go for two days. He sees the way they work together, fluid and familiar; the way Dean understands his job before John asks it of him, his ready yes, sir. They’re a commanding officer and his trusted soldier, and Castiel should approve of that. He does approve of that. He is, after all, a soldier himself, if one far from any command.

There’s no reason, Castiel tells himself, that he should dislike John Winchester more each time he passes the hood of the Impala. It’s only that Dean said his father would want to look at it. It’s only that Dean can talk about this car for twenty minutes without taking a breath; it’s only the way that Dean’s shoulders make him look small every time he climbs into his father’s truck cab instead of sliding behind his own steering wheel.

Castiel follows them most of the time, invisible. They go the library, and interview witnesses; Dean is better at that than John. Castiel gleans that they are hunting what they call a black dog. He briefly worries that it might be a hellhound, but there are no signs of demonic activity in the area when he checks.

On the second evening, Dean comes to sit in the Impala. He looks miserable, tension around his eyes, and he sits there blankly for a full minute before he pulls a cell phone out of his pocket and looks down at it. There’s only a short list of names; he scrolls, then stops over one that just says Sam.

He looks at it for a minute. Then he presses a button, and the phone screen goes dark. He turns it over, presses it into his thigh.

Castiel makes himself visible. “Who is Sam?”

Dean jumps. His phone clatters down into the footwell; he hunches to retrieve it. “Cas! Jesus. You scared the fuck out of me.” But his face looks happy, suddenly, for the first time in days. As he sits up again, he pivots toward Castiel, reaches out to clasp a hand to his shoulder; Castiel looks down at it. “You okay? I was worried. I haven’t seen you in — two days.”

Dean was worried about him? That makes no sense. “You had no cause for concern. I am an angel. I’m very difficult to kill.”

“Yeah, I got that.” There’s a small twist of humor on Dean’s lips. “What with the stabbing and shooting and all. I meant like — I dunno, just wondering if you’ve been doing good, is all.”

He says the last part in a rush. Castiel tilts his head, considering him.

He has not been doing good, all things considered. He has been frustrated and bored and ever angrier with John Winchester; he has been waiting patiently for a demonic attack that doesn’t seem to be coming. He has missed Dean, which seems like a treacherous small thing to admit.

“I have been well,” he says instead. It tastes strange on his tongue; is this his first lie?

Dean’s still looking at him like he can’t quite believe Castiel is real. Like he needs to memorize him, sitting here in the Impala, before he vanishes again. After a moment, he swallows, then blurts, “I didn’t even know you guys could die.”

“As far as I know, the only thing that can kill an angel is another angel.” Recklessly, Castiel manifests his blade; slips it from his sleeve. “With one of these. Perhaps humans can wield them; I don’t know.” He passes it to Dean.

Dean nearly drops it. The metal is heavy, Castiel understands; but he thinks it’s more to do with the weight of the gesture.

His grip recovered, Dean holds the blade carefully in both hands; he tests the balance of it, the sharpness of the edge. If he’s aware he could turn and stab Castiel right now, he doesn’t acknowledge it; his Adam’s apple bobs. He passes the blade back.

Castiel takes it, restores it to its place. “In any case. You asked me to lay low.”

“Yeah, but —” Dean runs a hand through his hair, huffing out a breath; he seems relieved at the change in topic. “Man, I had no way of getting in touch with you, nothing. Not like you carry one of these, right?” He lifts his cell phone.

“Oh.” Castiel smiles. “If you wish to contact me, Dean, you only need to pray.”

“Pray?” Dean echoes. His eyebrows scrunch up in that way that means he’s uncomfortable with a situation but still working out how to turn it into a joke. “What, you mean like — ‘Castiel who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name’?”

It does feel hallowed, on Dean’s lips. Castiel feels a shiver of pleasure pass over him, and again, that urge to touch — to press his thumb to Dean’s mouth and ask him to say it again.

“My name will suffice,” he murmurs. “Tell me what you need, and I will be there.”

Dean’s gaze hangs for a moment on his; then he flushes and looks down. “Don’t need anything, I just — just wanted to know you’re all right out there. You know — didn’t run out of cash of something.”

“Money is irrelevant to me.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Dean glances down at his phone, turning it over in his hands. “He’s my brother,” he adds. “Sam.”

Of course. Castiel remembers that, too; the younger brother headed down a dangerous road. He hasn’t received any further specific information, so it must not be mission-critical. Zachariah always sounded a little bit gleeful when he spoke about it, though. Castiel never understood why.

“He left,” Dean’s saying. “He’s at Stanford, and — I just miss him sometimes, ‘sall.”

“I’m sorry.”

That makes Dean glance at him, sidelong. After a moment, he says, “Yeah. Yeah, thanks.” He clears his throat. “Anyway. We’re going after this thing tonight. Black dog. I should — I should probably gear up.”

Castiel isn’t overly familiar with black dogs; all he knows is they’re not hellhounds. Are they dangerous? Maybe he’s making a mistake, assuming the threat to Dean will come from a predictable quarter. “I could go with you.”

Dean looks briefly startled by that; then his face folds into a complicated expression. “My dad can’t see you; I told you, Cas.”

He doesn’t need to see me. But Castiel doesn’t quite want to reveal all of his abilities. “My directive —”

“Look.” Dean’s voice is firm. “You’re supposed to — keep me safe or whatever, right? Well — I’ll be with my dad the whole time. He’s the best hunter in the business. I’ll be safe with him. Okay?”

“I’m supposed to save you.” It’s not quite the same as keeping Dean safe; though Castiel finds he would like to do both.

There’s something nagging on the edge of his consciousness, though. Something distracting.

This modern human world is full of distractions. A pop song on every radio frequency; people’s cell phone conversations flying through the air. But there’s — there’s another wavelength tugging at him, something familiar.

Something angelic.

Castiel hasn’t heard a single static note of revelation since he got here. Heaven has been quiet, and that’s not unusual; that’s how it’s been for centuries. Right now, the angels should be waiting. Preparing, quietly, for their father to give the word.

Now there’s another angel on earth. Somewhere nearby. Maybe two; their frequencies feel like a trick of the light, sometimes different, sometimes all but identical.

“Very well.” Castiel can always go find Dean later; he can always trail them unseen. For now — “Remember. If you need me — pray.”

---

The angelic frequencies are coming from a factory outside of town. By the time Castiel gets there, it’s too late.

The night watchman — or what’s left of him — is slumped against a wall.

Castiel has seen would-be vessels before with their eyes burned out. He’s seen discarded vessels rocking and clutching themselves, their minds seared away. He’s never quite seen something like this.

The man’s face is shattered. Burned out from within, his eyes gone, but his skull itself is in pieces — hanging together by a tortured mess of blood and muscle. Its geometry is a grotesque impression of what once might have been a face; now it’s cubist art. The man’s lips are moving, somehow, despite being split across two planes, but barely a sound comes out. When Castiel leans close, he hears: “Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.”

He shouldn’t be alive. Everything in him is broken. Still — Castiel reaches out, warily, to try and heal him.

The moment his grace makes contact, he’s thrown back.

He skids across the pavement and feels impact — metal crumples around him. The side of a car; he has to peel metal back to lever himself free. Inside Jimmy Novak’s body, blood vessels are knitting themselves back together; splintered bones are snapping into place. The man is still sitting there murmuring just like before. But the force that answered Castiel —

This vessel isn’t possessed. Not anymore. But he’s still sloppy with grace.

Only an angel can kill another angel, Castiel told Dean.

The vessel isn’t trying to kill him, though he came closer than Castiel likes. He’s just spilling grace everywhere, a mess of it, none of it doing what it should be doing — healing his wounds. Whatever angelic consciousness has touched his form, it’s departed again, leaving its leftover power directionless — a seething trap.

What could spill so much power without missing it? Who?

But Castiel already knows. He already knows the resonance of those tones; he already knows the power of the force that knocked him back.

An archangel.

That must be what’s holding the body together — what’s continuing to animate it despite his condition. Castiel feels sick. It’s a horrible thing to do to a vessel — to anyone. This man is beyond healing. He is beyond anything Castiel can do to save him, or even to help give him peace. He is doomed to simply suffer; to die slowly, horribly, as the force keeping him alive finally ebbs away.

Castiel glances around. An archangel came to this town. Were they looking for Castiel — trying to return him to his own timeline? Trying to clarify his strange mission? They could have simply spoken to him, then.

Were they looking for Dean?

Castiel feels uneasy. He has never questioned an archangel before. But he looks down at the body before him, and what he feels is disgust. Not for the man in his suffering, no; for anyone who would do this, and then leave him to die alone.

Regardless — the night is quiet now. If an archangel was here, they’re long gone. Castiel would sense them if they came back. And Dean — Dean is off hunting with his father. But Dean knows to pray to him if he needs help.

Castiel won’t leave the vessel to die alone.

He eases himself down to sit on the pavement beside it. He can hear the broken stream of words again — “Yes. Yes. Yes.” Like the man is trapped in the instant of possession — the instant of consent.

Is this how Jimmy Novak felt, when he gave himself to Castiel? Is this how he feels even now, buried so deep Castiel can’t even hear him — or is he gone?

Which possibility is the worse one?

Castiel can’t touch the vessel with his grace. But maybe — if he’s very careful —

He reaches out with his hand, and his hand alone.

Blood seeps between his fingers as he laces them through the vessel’s. But there’s no recoil; no force throwing him back. Just two men sitting on the pavement, hand in hand.

It takes hours. The murmuring stops quickly — Castiel thinks his touch has something to do with that — but the death takes longer. It’s slow and gurgling and horrible, and every moment of it Castiel wishes that he could be somewhere else, anywhere, but he doesn’t let go.

Finally — at long last — it’s done.

Without the grace holding it together, the body is barely recognizable as a body. It’s more just an awful smear.

The humans will identify it anyway. They can do that now, Castiel knows; they’ve developed technologies for reading their own DNA. The watchman will be missed, and the stain on the pavement will be the obvious answer. They’ll take a sample. It’ll be confirmed.

His loved ones will suffer; they’ll never understand what could do that. What happened to him, and why.

A strange death. It might make news. Dean and his father might feel called to investigate it.

Castiel reaches out tentatively with his grace. And it’s not repelled this time — this time, when he tries to knit the man on the pavement back together, he succeeds.

He was moderately handsome. A man in his forties; he reminds Castiel vaguely of Dean. He lies there with a peaceful look on his face, clothes free of blood. The coroner will find that his heart stopped. A tragedy.

Castiel feels blindingly angry.

His hands are shaking, clenched into fists. Come down here, you son of a bitch, he wants to scream to the heavens. Come down here and face me. Face what you did.

He doesn’t.

But he needs to dispel this furious energy somehow, so — he walks.

It’s eight miles back to Dean’s motel. Castiel walks all of them, quick bitter steps on the side of the road. The morning grows gradually light, and cars start passing him by, on their way to work; a few of them honk their horns. Castiel ignores them and keeps walking.

The sun is high and hot by the time he makes it back to the motel, steaming off the dun concrete of the parking lot. Castiel barely remembers in time that he’s supposed to be invisible. A moment later, he realizes that John’s truck isn’t here — only Dean’s car.

He frowns. Are they still hunting? He stretches his awareness out, past the motel room door, and —

Dean.

Castiel slams the door open. It swings back behind him, doorknob dangling useless from the splintered wood, but he doesn’t care.

This is the first time he’s set foot in this motel room. It doesn’t look dissimilar to the last one; dark wallpaper, zealous decor. There’s a painting of dogs playing poker on the wall, a wooden screen painted with aces of hearts and spades separating the two beds from the small kitchenette. It couldn’t be clearer that John’s bed is abandoned — there are no bags beside it. The covers are smoothed into place with military precision.

The curtains are drawn, and no lights are on in the room, but one is spilling out from under the bathroom door.

Castiel pushes this door open slowly. After all, he doesn’t want to hit Dean.

And there Dean is — sprawled out on the tiles. He’s propped between the toilet and the bathtub, half-sitting, and his shirt’s off. There’s a bottle of whiskey by his left hand and a needle in his right and a long, lurid gash, studded with stitches, across his side.

“Dean,” Castiel says. He thinks he’s shaking.

Dean opens his eyes.

The green of them is hazed with pain and maybe whiskey. “Cas,” he slurs, “I was jus’ thinkin’ about you.” He smiles. “Cas. Castiel. Hey, Cas.”

“You’re hurt.” The bathroom light flickers. Castiel’s hands are in fists.

“‘Salright.” Dean blinks. “Jus’ a — just a flesh wound.” He giggles, uncharacteristic. There’s blood on the ceramic. A balled up, bloody shirt on the floor.

“Where is your father?”

“Had to — had to go.” Dean shakes his head, letting it loll left. “Next job. New lead. Wouldn’t tell me what.”

And he’s moving, attempting to lever himself against the rim of the bathtub. To move — toward Castiel. His hand slips, and he lands with a thump on the tile.

“Dean,” says Castiel again, and takes two steps, and catches him.

With one of his hands, he cups Dean’s jaw, lifting his chin. The other, at Dean’s shoulder, presses him back against the wall. Dean lets out a small oof, like it causes him pain.

After the night he’s had, Castiel’s grace feels threadbare — a thin and flickering thing. It doesn’t matter. He gathers it within him, coiling and coaxing, stoking it to whatever blaze he can muster — and then he presses it into Dean’s skin.

He feels Dean go still and startled. His lips part, and his breath stutters, eyes finally locking on Castiel’s.

He has more than just the slash on his side. Two cracked ribs; innumerable bruises. Mild head trauma. A sprained wrist. Castiel stuffs his power into one injury, then the next, reckless — somehow, he can keep going. And beyond — into the old scar that tugs at Dean’s thigh muscle. Into decades-old burns in his lungs. Into all of him, cleansing — as if he could burn away everything that’s ever hurt Dean. His father and his brother and all the ghosts and black dogs in the world.

Dean’s body is suffused with blue light; it arches, up toward Castiel’s. His mouth opens, but no sound comes out; only light spilling from his throat. His eyes reflect the blue blaze of Castiel’s grace, shining and shining until there’s nothing left Castiel can find to heal — until Castiel’s fire has chased every phantom night on a motel bathroom floor away.

When he releases Dean, Castiel staggers. He lands on the floor himself, sitting down hard, and his back hits the doorframe. He feels dizzy; with anger, with relief. With weakness, probably, though he’d do it again. He’d do it again.

“Holy fuck,” says Dean. He’s staring down at his own body, suddenly lucid. “Holy fuck. You — Cas?”

“You said,” Castiel mumbles. “You said he’d keep you safe.”

“What?”

And it wasn’t just last night. “Your father.” Dean’s body is a record — a lifetime of broken promises. “You said he was the best in the business.” Shattered ankle at age twelve. Bullet wound at fifteen.

“Yeah, well —” Dean shifts onto his knees, suddenly limber. “I mean, Cas, he is, but shit happens, you know? I woulda been in way worse shape if he hadn’t been there, I can tell you that much.”

“You said he would keep you safe.” He’s echoing himself now. He feels like he’s falling down a long, dark tunnel.

“And now I’m telling you — Cas. Cas, are you okay?”

Castiel blinks. Dean is kneeling between his legs, close; he must have moved across the floor. His face is pale and wide open with worry. “There’s — Cas, there’s blood on your shirt.”

The vessel’s blood, soaking through the fabric of his sleeve. Castiel spent all night sitting there with him, while Dean was in danger. “Why didn’t you pray?”

“What happened? Are you hurt?” Dean catches one of Castiel’s hands in his, then both, squeezing hard. “Cas. Look at me.”

Castiel looks at him.

He always wants to look at Dean. “Watch over you,” he mumbles, but that’s not quite right. “Always look at you.” He’s beautiful, with green eyes.  

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Dean squeezes again, fingers digging into the points of Castiel’s pulse. “Castiel. Focus for me, okay? Are you hurt?”

Dean is worried about him. That’s not right; it’s supposed to be the other way around. But — Castiel pauses, and then answers truthfully. It takes him an effort to bring forth the words. “No. Not — maybe used too much grace.”

“Grace. That’s your power, right? What you used to heal me? You dumb fuck.” The insult sounds strangely affectionate. “Does it — will it come back?”

“Yes. Takes time.”

“Okay, next question. Whose blood is that?”

Castiel looks down, again, at his sleeves. “Vessel.”

Dean’s frowning. “You mean — your vessel? The body you’re in?”

“No.” Castiel shakes his head. Why is communicating so hard? Everything feels fuzzy. “Not me. Archangel. Maybe two.” He’d forgotten that — he remembers it now; the weird sense he had, when he first felt their presence, that the signal was doubled. Maybe that’s what overcame the watchman’s physical form.

“Okay — okay.” Dean bites his lip. He looks lovely like this, close; Castiel’s glad he healed him. “This vessel — are they okay? Do they need help?”

The words bring Castiel crashing down from his moment of warmth. “No. Dead.”

Dean sucks in a breath. “Did you —?”

Castiel shakes his head. He would never. He needs Dean to know he would never. “No,” he’s saying, and he realizes he’s saying it over and over again; “no, no, —”

Time might slip from him. “No,” he tries to say, again, and — “Okay,” Dean murmurs, soothing. “All right, big guy. I’m thinking — I’m thinking you need some rest. That sound all right? We’re just gonna — gonna — here, up.”

He loops one of Castiel’s arms over his shoulders — and he’s standing, dragging Castiel with him. He’s surprisingly strong. His skin is warm. Castiel gets lost in that, a little, and suddenly they’re in the main room; Dean is making an annoyed huff at the state of the door. But when he tries to deposit Castiel in the neatly made bed — John’s bed — Castiel refuses to let go.

“No.” He musters the dignity to add, “That one.”

Dean rolls his eyes, but his lips twitch. “Well, okay, you can steal my bed.” He’s depositing Castiel slowly down into it. “Weirdo. I’m just gonna jerry-rig this door, okay? Then we can both get some shuteye, and — and figure out what next.”

Castiel watches as Dean re-seats the doorknob. It won’t keep the room secure, but from the outside it might look all right. Then he sets the deadbolt and moves toward the empty bed.

Castiel sits up. “No.” He doesn’t want anything of John Winchester’s touching Dean. Touching either of them. He doesn’t want Dean sleeping wrapped up in John Winchester’s covers.

Dean looks exasperated. “Cas, there’s two perfectly good beds.”

And there’s plenty of space in this one. “No,” Castiel says again.

“All right, you freak.” Dean shimmies out of his jeans by the side of the bed, leaving himself in only boxers. There are fine golden hairs on his thighs. Castiel wants to touch them. There’s a place where a scar used to be and isn’t anymore. “Quit staring and budge over.”

Castiel budges over. He sort of quits staring, or at least he lets his eyelids lower. He turns on his side, though, so he can still see Dean, mere inches away. Dean’s profile, silhouetted against the cracks of light from behind the curtains. Dean’s lips and his nose and the curve of his cheekbone; the bob of his throat. Dean’s chest, rising and falling, deeper as he slips into sleep.

I’ll watch over you. That’s what he promised, and that’s what he’ll do now — that’s what he tells himself. Angels don’t need sleep. He’ll just lie here and watch Dean breathe.

And that’s what he does, until his eyelids droop; until the steady rhythm lulls him into nothingness. Then he dreams of Dean breathing. Only, in the dream, Dean is watching him back.

---

When Castiel wakes, the curtains of the room are wide open, letting daylight spill in. Dean’s sitting at the table, drinking coffee and reading a newspaper. When he sees Castiel looking at him, he grins. “Morning, sunshine.”

Castiel sits up. His head feels very fuzzy; when he speaks, it comes out even deeper gravel than usual. “How long did I sleep?”

“Just about twenty-four hours.” Dean folds up his newspaper, turning in his seat. “Woulda been real easy to ditch you, too. I think I deserve a thank you for that.”

“Thank you,” Castiel says, dutifully. It causes an odd reaction in Dean; the teasing laughter in his grin fades. Castiel wonders if maybe he wasn’t supposed to say thank you after all. If that was something Dean considered a joke.

“Anyway. This vessel you were talking about.” Dean turns back to his paper. “Think I tracked him down, though it wasn’t easy — I was looking for someone who died bloody, ‘cause, well, you know. But then I figured, if Cas can heal my old scars, he can probably make somebody who died bloody look like they died clean. So I looked again. Night watchman, right? At the factory north of town.”

Castiel feels a surge of panic. He’s been asleep for twenty-four hours, and Dean has been — working the case? Anything could have happened. Does Dean not know what an archangel means? Does he not understand the danger they’re in?

Of course he doesn’t. He’s just a human. He understands nothing.

“Did you go back there?” Castiel snaps. Anyone could have been watching, could have spotted him — anyone, anything. Demons, on the trail of an angelic signal that must have reverberated across the continent. Or worse — the archangels themselves. “Dean, did you go back there? We need to get as far away from here as possible. We need to —”

“Jesus, Cas, calm down. I went at night. No one saw me. Are you — are you all right?”

“I need to hide you.” Castiel’s not sure when he stood, how he moved across the room, but he’s standing before Dean now — kneeling before him, reaching out to place his palms on Dean’s ribs. “Hold still.”

“Cas, what — ow! Fuck!”

Castiel ignores his protest. His grace is back, at least enough for this, but he can’t afford a lapse in concentration. He closes his eyes and traces the sigils one by one, perfect; when Dean tries to squirm away, he anchors him in place by force, pressing harder. He can feel Dean shaking, feel his chest heaving, but it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters except keeping him safe.

When he’s done, when he drops his hands, Dean shoves his chair back violently. “What the fuck, Cas?”

“Listen to me,” Castiel tells him, urgent. “No angel can possess you without your consent. Do you understand? They have to ask, and you have to say yes. Don’t ever say yes, Dean. Promise me. If they find you —”

“You’re talking fucking crazy!”

“— they shouldn’t find you, not with those sigils on your ribs. No angel should be able to track you now, not even me. But if they do —”

“You telling me you’ve been carving fucking sigils in my bones?”

“Yes. Dean, please pay attention. Please promise me you won’t —”

“No!”

The shout takes Castiel by surprise. He stops short and looks at Dean properly.

There are tears in Dean’s eyes, spilling down onto his cheeks. His jaw is clenched, fists tight on the arms of the chair, wedged back in it as far as he’ll go. He’s still breathing hard, like he’s been running, breath hissing back and forth through his teeth. 

“Dean,” Castiel says, shocked gentle. “Are you all right?”

“Do I fucking look all fucking right?”

Castiel evaluates him. “You’re having a panic attack. Your pupils are dilated and your heart rate is elevated. I’m sorry. I should have realized.”

“A panic attack,” Dean echoes. “A fucking panic — sure, great. That might as well happen.”

Castiel wants to touch him; he doesn’t think he should. “Have you experienced this phenomenon before?”

“What, the phenomenon of some guy I’ve known for three days carving his name in my ribs? Nope, that’s a new one.”

That isn’t what Castiel meant. “I didn’t carve my name. I told you — it’s Enochian sigils, to prevent —”

“To keep angels from finding me, yeah, got it.” Dean’s words are still short, clipped and furious, but they seem steadier now. “You ever think about asking first? Talk a big game about consent over there, ‘til you realize you can just —”

Castiel says, “It was necessary —”

“— and what about yesterday? I mean sure, it’s nice to not spend three weeks healing up, but I didn’t ask for a brand new body. I didn’t ask you to just — stroll in here and start turning me into your — little Barbie or something, all dolled up and ready for the prom —”

“Dean.” Castiel feels close to tears himself; he didn’t know he knew the sensation. “I’m sorry. I’m — I’m so sorry. I should have asked. I didn’t think.”

“Damn straight you didn’t think.” But Castiel has the sense that Dean’s shoulders are shaking now with relief; that he’s coming down, slowly. “I woulda let you. If you asked. I’m not a — I’m not a fucking baby, I don’t mind a little pain. But you didn’t fucking ask.”

“I’m sorry.”

Dean closes his eyes. “Damn it,” he says. “Would you —”

He stops there. But Castiel understands. Whether it’s instinct, he isn’t sure, or maybe a thread of a prayer — but he scoots closer to Dean on the floor. He coaxes Dean’s hands free of the chair arms, relaxing their death grip. And he holds them — like Dean did his last night. Just holds them, until Dean’s racing pulse finally slows.

“Even my dad,” he says, after a while. “Even my fucking dad tells you before he pops your arm in.”

Castiel drops his head. “If you wanted to make me feel terrible,” he admits, “that statement was an excellent choice.”

“You really hate the guy, huh?”

Castiel shifts, uncertain. “He left you here. To tend to your wounds alone.”

“He knows I can handle it.”

“You said he’d hog-tie you in the trunk if he found out about me.”

“That was — that was a joke.” Now it’s Dean who sounds uncertain.

But Castiel just nods. He isn’t going to challenge Dean on this; not today.

“Maybe I did,” Dean says after a while. “Want to make you feel terrible.”

Castiel can accept that. “It’s understandable.”

Dean adds, “Maybe I don’t want you to feel terrible anymore.”

Castiel lifts his head.

Dean is looking down at him, and his eyes are dry; he looks in control of himself again. He’s still holding onto Castiel’s hands, though. He looks wrung out, but calm.

“I’m not sure it’s that simple,” Castiel confesses.

“Yeah, I get that.” Dean offers him a threadbare smile. “You should stop sitting on the floor, though. You should probably get up here and tell me about angels — and why you suddenly think they’re after me.”

---

Castiel finds that it’s difficult to unfold his logic. There’s so much that Dean doesn’t know — about Heaven, about Hell, about the wars that are fought between them. And there’s so much that Castiel doesn’t know, too. It surprises him sometimes, these lacunae — like when Dean asks why the angels wanted to rescue him from Hell in the first place. “Because God commanded it,” Castiel answers automatically, “because we have work for you,” but it feels like an answer by rote.

“Okay, what work?” Dean asks, and Castiel finds he isn’t ready with an answer.

Dean is working on getting the bloodstains out of Castiel’s clothes. Castiel suspects he could do it himself, with his grace, though he’s never really thought about how. He likes watching Dean scrubbing away at his shirt cuffs, though; he likes the way Dean keeps sneaking looks at Castiel’s bare chest.

What work? Castiel has an idea. He doesn’t like it, though. “Will you let me try something?” He remembers what Dean said about consent; “I’ll need to touch your wrist. You may feel a slight tingling.”

Dean glances at him, wary. “Nothing permanent?” he asks, but he’s already rolling up his shirt sleeve, extending his arm across the table for Castiel.

“Nothing temporary, even,” Castiel agrees, and sets two fingers to Dean’s pulse.

He knows in an instant he was right. He already knew he was right — his senses have spent too much time now tangled with Dean’s blood and bone to miss the obvious. He just — he just hoped he was wrong.

He releases Dean and sways in his seat. After a moment, Dean pulls his arm back. He touches the place Castiel did with damp fingers, then drops it into his lap. “So? Am I dying, doc?”

“All humans are,” Castiel answers, absent. Then: “No. Maybe not you. Not if I’m right. But it might be worse than dying.”

“Okay. You’re freaking me out here, man.”

Castiel swallows. “Vessels, they’re — not every human can be a vessel. It burns them out. The more powerful the angel, the greater the tax on the human body it occupies. When it comes to archangel vessels — few of them survive the experience with their minds intact.”

Dean nods. “Okay. So — you said that already, about the one at the factory. What about it?”

Castiel hesitates. He hates this. “Strong vessels, they — they run in families. Often attuned to the particular angel who intends to make use of them. Heaven will go to great lengths, sometimes, to — to prune and train those family trees.”

“Okay, and?”

“The vessel at the factory.” He hates this, he hates this. “He was a distant relation of yours. A third or fourth cousin, some number of times removed. He — you and he shared blood.”

It takes Dean a long, long moment to respond.

“So you’re saying,” he finally says, “I’m a vessel.”

“Not if you don’t say yes.”

“I’m a goddamned angel condom.” Dean glances up sharply. “For who? An archangel?”

“I suspect as much. I could venture a guess as to which one, but —”

He doesn’t want to. He doesn’t want to, he doesn’t want to.

“Well, venture it!”

It only makes sense. Who was there, when Castiel went tearing through time — who might have sent him? Who might be trying to reach them now, possessing and destroying a lesser vessel? Who might — who might there even be two of, if he followed Castiel here from five years in the future?

And why go to all this effort, present or future, for Dean, if not —

“Michael,” says Castiel. “I think you’re the Michael Sword.”