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Risa falls to a pack of croats on the second-story landing.

Cas is a flight ahead, reaching for the crash bar on the door to the third-floor hallway, when shouts echo through the stairwell, punctuated by the crack of gunshots. When he looks back, the door to the second floor is open and Risa is fighting to raise her gun, drowning in a riptide of bloodthirst.

She looks up as the croats drag her down, meeting Cas's gaze for only a fraction of a second. It's enough, at least, for Cas to figure the angle. Risa's dead before she hits the ground.

He half-expects to run straight into another ambush on the third floor, but the hallway's deserted. Cas jams his rifle through the door handle, angling it crosswise to bar the door behind him, and sets off down the hall with nothing but his handgun, held low and loose at his side.

He and Risa were the last ones left: the rest of Dean's little decoy party dropped before they'd gotten much past the sanitarium's front gate. When Cas concentrates, a small feeling of absence in his core suggests he may, by now, be the only one left at all.

Aside from the distant horror of that unaccustomed blank--distant because there's no point to acknowledging its significance, not now; he thinks traitorously that maybe it was never supposed to weigh heavily upon him at all--he can't say he's too terribly bothered. He's always known what Dean's true agenda would be the day he set out to shoot Lucifer in Sam's face. He just wishes, in the idle way of truly futile hindsight, he'd let Risa go ahead of him when they started up the stairs.

He thinks of Past Dean, and finds himself with a gallows grin. Maybe he'll get it right next time.

Wandering aimlessly, he turns a corner and discovers a demon lounging against the wall. Her possessed body has dark hair and high cheekbones, and she looks at him with smiling black eyes. "Well, if it isn't the little angel that couldn't. Howdy, Clarence. Long time no sear."

He remembers a disastrous mission: the unremarkable landscape of Missouri, a congregation of Reapers, a ring of holy fire. The feel of this demon-possessed body under his feet, and the sound of her screams. "Meg."

She seems pleased by his recognition. Pushing off the wall, she drifts toward him, her eyes gleaming delight as they rove the length of his body. "Look at you," she coos, "all tarnished and sad. I could just eat you up." She produces a knife, long and serrated. "Once you're in bite-sized pieces, of course."

Cas allows himself a moment to sigh: the pride of a demon relishing its success is so predictable, it's practically a comfort. Then he tightens his grip on the stock of his gun, slips his finger onto the trigger, and raises the muzzle to his temple.

But in the bare space of time between the movement of his arm and the squeeze of his finger, Meg is there, her hand wrapped around his and pulling sharply. His shot goes wild--

his wrist is broken--

his hand is empty--

he's crumpled on the floor, wracked with pain. Meg's fingers twist in his hair, jerking his head back, forcing him to look up into her hard, white grin.

Cas breathes jaggedly, preparing himself. Given a choice, he'd have preferred opiates or hallucinogens--but pain, he has made himself learn, is just sensory overload, and can be bent to similar purpose.

He can work with it, if he has to.

Meg amuses herself. Cas, lacking options and any motivation to escape, bleeds.

And then Lucifer is there.

Cas knew he was close. The dull remnants of his angelic senses started humming when the hunting party was still miles out from the sanitarium; the current's been running steadily through his nerves, warm and unsettling, for hours now. But Lucifer's presence in the room with him is a lightning strike. The sheer force of him charges the air, explodes the wiring throughout the building, and makes Cas--already physically overwhelmed--cry out.

Meg rises from where she's been straddling him. Cas rolls onto his side, curling in on himself. "I kept him for you, Father," she says, breathless and eager, and Cas spares a detached thought of disgust for the reflexive trembling of his body. "Just as you asked."

"So you did, my child." He doesn't sound nearly as familiar as Cas had expected--but then, his ears are no longer equipped to hear anything but an echo of the underlying harmonics of Lucifer's true voice, and he hasn't spoken to Sam in many years. Lucifer's tone is measured and calm; so calm that Cas can't be certain whether he really pauses as he continues, or if the pain is distorting his perceptions. "Your industry is to be… commended."

There's a sensation of approach, and closeness, and then Cas is being pulled, firmly but not roughly, over onto his back. A large, warm hand splays on his shoulder; quietly, Lucifer says, "Castiel," and Cas, responding with long-dormant instinct to the sound of an angelic superior, opens his eyes.

He saw Lucifer once, years ago, in the same small town where he had the misfortune of meeting Meg. Lucifer had worn a temporary vessel then, a profane placeholder of a man whose inadequate body rotted constantly, unable to contain the vast power of the being within. In that guise, his brother had seemed lessened somehow, almost prosaic. An anticlimax.

Lucifer in the body of Sam Winchester is glorious. Even Cas--disgraced, fallen, limited by mostly-human sight--can see it: an archangel inhabiting its true vessel in the only marriage of angelic grace and human carnality God ever designed. He is breathtakingly beautiful; heart-stoppingly serene. So bright as to blind.

Cas has been permitted to see this before dying. He stares, agonised and enraptured. He weeps.

Lucifer looks intently upon him and, after a moment, shakes his head. "You small, pathetic thing. There really is nothing much left of you, is there." Abruptly, he withdraws his hand from Cas's shoulder. Cas shudders at the loss of the touch; he's wounded, he's dying, and Lucifer--his brother--is all he has left.

But then Lucifer leans in close, closer than before, close enough for Cas to feel the icy burn of his grace through his body. He puts his mouth next to Cas's ear and whispers, "Never let it be said, little brother, that I don't take care of my family."

Cas's ragged breath catches hard on a fresh rush of terror, but Lucifer's fingers are already pressed to his forehead.

" …just outside Cleveland, which don't make a lick of sense, 'cause the thing's native to forests--"

A moment ago, Cas was sprawled on cold, bloody tiles; now, there's a balding rug under his back. His arrival interrupts a conversation, but he's nearly unconscious and too disoriented to notice.

"What the hell--?"

"Who--is that Cas? Cas!"

That voice catches his fading attention: it's Lucifer as Cas last heard him, but it's not Lucifer's voice. Sam. It's Sam's voice, and that was Dean's before it, and Bobby's. All of them, together, which means he's no longer where he was.

He should be grateful for that.

"Sam, stop. Don't touch him."

"What? Look at him! We have to help--"

"It's not Cas! It's not our Cas, it's--I think he's from 2014."

Bobby releases a convoluted string of obscenities, and Cas wants to laugh. He's missed Bobby. He's missed Bobby because Bobby has been dead for two years.

But Bobby is here, swearing somewhere above and behind him; and Dean is here, talking about 2014 like it's a foreign country; and Sam is here, and is not Lucifer. Which means--

He's no longer when he was. Lucifer sent him back. Back to before, which means--which means--

It's difficult to hold the thread of a thought. Cas is very tired.

Dean's voice catches him this time, because Cas hears in it the familiar sound of Dean's fear masquerading as anger and demand. "We're at Bobby's. Get here now."

He doesn't know who Dean's talking to. Then there's the sound of wings and a breath of wind and the sudden, shocking, aching presence of grace--weaker than Lucifer's but with a much stronger pull inside him, striking a much more voracious spark along his nerves--and Cas realises fully that Lucifer sent him back. And if Cas could, he would scream.

If Cas could, he would die.

Dean's speaking again. "The Croatoan virus. You know it?"


"Can you see it? Can you tell if someone's infected?"


"Is he?"

"No. The blood is--his."

"Okay. Okay, Sam. Now we help him."

And now, if Cas could, he would smile, and only a little mockingly. But the sound of bodies taking action is interrupted by a low, urgent, "Dean--"

"Cas, he's in bad shape. We gotta get in there right now."

"It may not be safe."

"Can you heal him?"

It's a rhetorical question, Cas knows, not a practical one. The silence preceding its answer is full of edges and accusation.

"No, I can't."

"Then get out of the way."

Cas does smile at that, and it's the last abuse his body is willing to suffer. It gives up.

Dean stands one step over the threshold, wound tight with caution. He asks bluntly, "You know where you are?"

Cas has been awake maybe a minute. He considers this impressive, as he hadn't expected to wake up again at all. Pushing clumsily out of the tunnel of blankets swaddling his remarkably intact, if tender, body, he glances around himself and tries to gather his slow thoughts. "Singer Salvage," he answers, voice thick with sleep. "Bobby's house. North bedroom, the one with the unreliable radiator." It's the room Dean always preferred whenever they stayed long enough that dropping on the couch downstairs was less practical than digging up Bobby's lone, frayed set of spare sheets. Lying in this bed again, after so long and so much, is a solid familiarity; it provokes a diffuse sense of pleasure that warms Cas despite his welter of confusion and the room's mild chill.

Dean's presence has much the same effect. Cas wakes to it; he basks in it. This is Dean as he was, Dean from before, in his own here-and-now, and so much better for it. At Chitaqua, this Dean's pre-war soul had been so out of context that Cas could barely look at him, despite wanting to very much. He stares now, greedily.

Dean blinks, taken aback by either the level of detail in his answer or his naked gaze, Cas isn't sure which. Both possibilities make him grin, even as Dean schools his expression and squares himself up. "You know when you are?"

"I suspect it's 2009." His gaze flickers down Dean's throat, and finds a conspicuous lack of amulet. "Late summer, at the earliest."

"You know how you got here?"

That punctures him. After everything Dean did to get his shot on the devil, Cas must now admit to having benefitted--presumably--from Dean's failure. His skin prickles with shame, which is ridiculous. This isn't even that Dean. Yet. "Yes."

When nothing more is forthcoming, Dean shuffles his feet. "Care to share with the class?"

"Not particularly."

They stare at each other, Dean's eyes narrowing. "Lucifer sent you," he says finally, and looks both satisfied and suspicious when Cas gives a reluctant nod. "Last time I saw you, you were gearing up for a suicide run straight into his trap."

"Last time I saw you, you were letting me." He says it without thinking, the habitual baiting of someone who stopped rising to it long ago. Dean's expression turns hard and blank, and it takes Cas a second to realise why such a familiar sight feels so dissonant. He can't let his mouth run on instinct here, he realises belatedly, feeling unsettled and mean. Here, all his instincts are wrong.

He shakes his head, gesturing carelessly. Shaking it off. "Sorry. Talking about time travel using human pronouns is regrettably imprecise." His hands land back in his lap; his fingers pluck at the blanket. He's still being ridiculous. Folding his hands together, he looks up at Dean. "I know he's dead. Did you see what happened?"

Dean meets his gaze silently for a moment, flat and assessing. Then he shrugs and crosses his arms. "Not really. He knocked me out before you guys made your move, and by the time I came to, it was all pretty much done. Lucifer killed him, and then we had a little chat." His flippant tone is belied by the tension in his arms, the set of his jaw. Cas ignores, with an ease that's both hard-won and entirely self-taught, the idle urge to smooth his palms along the taut line of Dean's shoulders. "Gotta tell you, though, Lucifer didn't seem too into anything but his evil overlord monologue. I don't get why he wouldn't just kill you along with everybody else."

The question Dean's pretending not to ask is painfully obvious. In his memory, Cas hears an echo of Meg's sycophantic voice: I kept him for you, Father, just as you asked.. "He sent me here as a threat, Dean. Or maybe as a puzzle. Distraction. Temptation." Cas grins again, delighted--in a small, barren way--by the irony. He hasn't been any of those things for Dean in a long time. "Frustration, torture, gloat. All or none of the above." He sighs. "I don't know. I couldn't exactly interrogate him about his motives." Dean nods, allowing the excuse. Cas tilts his head, considering a question of his own. "How long has it been? For you, since you came back?"

"About a month. You?"

"It's still the same day." Dean's eyes widen. Cas shrugs, indifferent in all but reality. "Or it was, when I left."

"Son of a bitch." Finally, tiredly, Dean's shoulders fall. Slouching against the wall, he uncrosses his arms and rubs at his eyes. "Our fucking lives, man, seriously." Cas chuckles in agreement.

They share a moment of quiet commiseration. Cas sinks comfortably into the surreal nostalgia of it. Unguarded moments were so rare from the Fearless Leader that all but a handful in the camp considered Dean's capacity for such a thing myth.

(Dean appeared in the door to his cabin, dressed for travel. "Christ, Cas, it's almost noon. Come on, you're with me."

Cas had slept in, which wasn't unusual. After he fell, he'd taken easily to sleeping; waking up, however, had yet to become less distasteful. With Dean standing impatiently in his doorway, staring fixedly at the wall instead of at the empty bottles, overflowing ashtrays, and used condoms that still littered the floor from yesterday's diversions, Cas pulled himself groggily upright and reached for the boxers crumpled at the foot of his bed. "Where are we going?"

"The shed."

Cas stopped halfway out of the blankets. "You know I have no interest in watching--"

"You won't be watching." And Dean was gone, striding off down the steps, across the yard, toward the trucks.

Cas sighed, dressed, and followed.

"Remember Rufus Turner?" Dean asked, once they were in the truck and jolting along the trail to the bare, one-room hunting shack nestled in the woods far enough from Chitaqua proper that most noises wouldn't carry. Cas nodded absently, most of his attention on the item he held gingerly in his hands. "Rabbi friend of his was killed by a pack of demons a couple weeks back. Rufus thinks they were looking for that."

It was a scroll, very old and very stained. Written on it, in an ancient script Cas had expected never to read again, was the text of an Enochian purification rite.

It was a misnomer. Really, the rite was an exorcism, designed for use on the angels who had fallen with Lucifer in the original Disobedience, or overly powerful demons that couldn't be burned from their vessels with grace.

Cas could feel Dean watching him, sidelong. "You been holding out on me, Cas?"

The Enochian rite was significantly longer than standard exorcisms, and significantly more ruthless. Like an exorcism, it prioritised the expulsion of the supernatural inhabitant, and was indifferent to the suffering of the human host; unlike an exorcism, it was unequivocally, universally fatal. Using the rite on a human possessed by a fallen angel or higher demon was effective. Using it to exorcise a lower demon would be akin to drying a leaf with a blowtorch, protractedly, from the inside out.

And yet, ultimately, the Enochian rite was no more efficient than the standard exorcisms Dean had used all his life. "No, I have not been holding out on you."

"Ever used this before?"

When the rite had first been in widespread use, Cas had still been in the lowest order of the garrison, unlikely to find himself facing adversaries that might require such drastic opposition. And when the first seal was broken and the rite returned to vogue, Uriel had always been first to volunteer. "No."

Dean hummed under his breath.

The shed was occupied by a demon in possession of a young woman with a mop of red curls and a pretty face mottled with bruises. She was bound to a utilitarian wooden chair at the centre of a stark, heavily-drawn Devil's Trap. When Cas entered, she raked her black eyes over him and grinned, revealing bloody gums and missing teeth. When Dean followed, her smile dimmed.

"Last chance, Carrot Top," Dean announced. He walked the circumference of the Trap as Cas settled himself in a corner, cross-legged on the cold, gritty floor with his back to the wall. When he'd made the full circle, Dean stopped squarely in front of the demon, one deliberate step inside the indelible line. "Tell me about the Colt."

Cas couldn't see her face, but he heard the sneer in her broken-mouthed reply. "Make the angel ask me."

Cas took a breath and began to chant, low and harsh and rhythmic.

The rite would last over an hour, but its effect was almost instantaneous. Dean stood as if rooted and watched with still, brutal avidity as Cas's words flayed the demon relentlessly from its host, piece by churning, screaming piece.

Eventually, the demon began answering Dean's questions, and he smiled.

Cas, chanting the rite like a mantra, tipped his head back against the wall and closed his eyes.

When it was over, dead wisps of the demon hung sulphurous and smoky in the closeness of the room. The body it had stolen was in shreds.

Cas's throat was scratched and sore. When he unfolded his legs to stand, his knees were stiff. He was exhausted, mind and body worn out by the intensity of the rite; he moved slowly, precariously. It felt like waking up.

By the time he exited the shed, blinking against the afternoon sun and coughing as the fresh air stung his throat, Dean was already outside. He stood over the tap next to the door, rinsing the soles of his boots. He had been standing inside the Trap; the water sluiced off tinged red.

Cas watched it pool and spill on the hard-packed dirt. "You have enough weapons in there, Dean," he said. His voice was a slurry, raw and rough. "I won't do that again."

Dean shut off the water. In the light, his skin was ashen; his eyes, when he turned them on Cas, held a dull, dangerous glint. "You will if I tell you to.")

Suddenly, Dean stops pretending not to watch him and fixes Cas with a look of open curiosity. "Hey, how do you feel?"

It's a more than valid question. Cas is glad Dean brought it up. He aches all over, but at worst, it's a persistent throb of discomfort, nothing like the mind-rending agony that characterises his last waking memories. His right wrist--the one Meg broke--is stiff, but the bones are clearly intact; the same is true for the knee Meg shattered and the ribs she cracked. He's not coughing blood with every breath, so he presumes his various internal injuries have been dealt with. And he doesn't feel even a nascent clutch of craving for alcohol, smoke, or pills; there's just the automatic, academic assumption that he should. "Nowhere near as awful as I would've expected."

"Cas--" Dean starts, then amends with a crooked smile, "our Cas--worked some mojo. Couldn't fix you up completely, but he managed to speed some things along."

Our Cas. He knows he's here, generally. It's the salad days of the apocalypse; where else would he be? Specifically, Cas can feel him. He knew he was present in the house the moment he awoke. With Castiel's proximity, his grace--Cas's own grace--sings its absence inside him, both echo and void, scraping along nerves that are no longer capable of conducting it. Nerves that fire for it nonetheless, automatically, despite their mortal disability.

But what Dean said can't be right. Cas frowns; he's certain that's wrong. "I couldn't heal people back then."

"Well, technically, he wasn't healing people." Dean gives him a conspiratorial look, seemingly unaware of Cas's disquiet. "He healed himself."

"Ah." Not wholly, though. Cas clings to the inadequacy. "That's an elegant loophole."

"You like it? Sammy found that one," Dean informs him, happy pride in every syllable, and Cas's world tips and yaws, lurches abruptly into an unknown shape that hollows his chest with its strangeness. Talking with Dean like this, in this room, had lulled him into a sense of his own past, a past in which Sam hadn't figured other than as something lost and gone. He'd all but concluded he'd hallucinated Sam's voice earlier, in his delirium.

"Sam," he comments noncommittally, and something in his voice makes Dean go still. "That's different."

"Yeah, well." Dean raises his chin as if daring an objection. "That's the point."

Cas can't think of anything to say to that.

After a long, heavy moment, Dean clears his throat. "So," he says briskly, "you were out over a day. We were just gonna get some grub on; you coming down?"

Cas is hungry--starving, now he thinks about it; he can't remember the last time he ate more than he drank--but he shakes his head. "After a shower. I haven't been this close to a fully-functional water heater in a very long time."

"Sure. You, uh, know where things are? Towels, and stuff?"

Dean's awkwardness over the discrepancy between what the Castiel of this time has cause to know about Bobby's house and Cas's obvious familiarity with it makes the corners of Cas's mouth twitch upward. "Yes."

"Okay." He pushes himself off the wall and turns to leave, then pauses. "Hey," he offers gruffly. "Whatever happened back there, with Lucifer--I'm glad you made it, man."

And then he's gone.

In the cramped upstairs bathroom, Cas slips out of the too-big sweats and worn-soft t-shirt someone dressed him in while he was out, and leaves them puddled on the floor. Then, slowly, he straightens, breathing roughly through the ache and strain of his stiff body, and raises his gaze to his reflection in the mirror above the sink. It wanders from the fading bruises ringing his throat to the hash of pink scars across his chest and torso, the only remaining visible evidence of Meg's exuberance.

When he'd awoken, in his first, muzzy moments of partial, confused consciousness, he'd felt--for the first time in years--the presence of power and divinity, the familiarity of grace.

He'd thought he was waking up in Heaven.

Then Dean was there.

Cas turns from the mirror.

The water that gushes noisily from the tap is, indeed, very hot. He doesn't touch the cold water faucet, and hisses as he steps into the narrow, coffin-like shower.

Pressing his hands flat to the wall, Cas bows his head under the scalding spray and shakes, and shakes.

Cas goes downstairs radiating heat. His skin feels tight with it, his limbs loose.

It's dark outside; the house is a mess of shadows and deep corners, but the kitchen is brightly lit, and draws him like a beacon. As he approaches, empty stomach clenching at the smell of hot food, Bobby is navigating his wheelchair back from the refrigerator, a six-pack of beer on his lap; Dean is talking animatedly as he gathers utensils from a drawer; and Sam is at the sink, pouring water and dish soap into a large saucepan, mouth quirked in good humour at whatever Dean's saying.

The last time Cas saw Sam--the last time he saw Sam--was five years ago. Cas had still been fully angelic then, not yet fallen hardly at all, and the demonic contamination in Sam's blood was something he felt in his grace, as psychically offensive as it was physically repugnant. He hasn't seen Sam since he became mortal; he's never looked upon him with his diminished senses. Now, all Cas can do is see the ghost of the stain, black and oily, limning the inside of Sam's skin.

The last time he saw Sam's body, it was radiantly, luminously clean. Purified and perfect. Cas wonders if telling Sam that Lucifer's inhabitation will burn the demon blood right out of him would make him say yes any sooner.

(Anna said, "Sam Winchester has to die."

Cas listened to her plan and said, "Yes."

Dean disagreed.

"I don't understand." Cas weathered the thunderous look Dean turned on him. He wasn't unaware of the magnitude of his proposal, but his patience for rash denials was finite. "You've already separated yourself from him."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean I want him dead!" Dean paced their motel room's thin carpet, restless with anger and offense. "Fuck, Cas, the whole point of separating us in the first place was to keep us both alive!"

"Tactically, that may never have been our best option." Dean halted mid-step, his back to Cas, every line of him drawn sharp. Cas gentled his tone a fraction, but continued resolutely. "Together, Anna and I could destroy Sam so utterly, and scatter his atoms so expansively, that any attempt to reconstitute him during your lifetime would be meaningless. The apocalypse would be stopped in its tracks--or, at the least, postponed indefinitely--because Lucifer's true vessel would be gone."

Dean stood silently, his head bowed. After a moment's hesitation, Cas moved to go to him. Their physical intimacy was a new thing still, but Cas had frequently found comfort, or something like it, in Dean's touch; he intended now to lay his hands upon Dean, work his fingers along the tightened cords of his neck and release the bunched muscles of his shoulders, provide physical relief as an inducement to mental equilibrium.

He was one step away and just reaching out when Dean's voice, hard and fierce and brooking nothing, stopped him cold. "Suggest that to me again, Cas, and I swear to God, I will take your angel sword from you and use it."

And that was that.

"I should have expected this from you, Cas," Anna said when he told her. The moment he'd declined, her grace had betrayed a flicker of disappointment and dismay; now, it shone with the pure burn of fury. "You'll consider doing the right thing, look like you will, make everyone else think you can be counted on--right up until your master of the day snaps his fingers and brings you back to heel." She bristled, vessel and grace, with staunch, merciless purpose, and Cas remembered how he'd felt under her command, the righteous serenity that came with following her every burnished imperative. Now, even as he brought his sword to hand against her, part of him longed to kneel. "If you won't help me find Sam," she told him, her face like marble, "I'll do it another way."

Twenty-four hours later and thirty-two years before, Cas stood disarmed and debilitated in a circle of holy fire, Anna's ashes thick in the air, choking his every breath. On the other side of the flames, Dean's battered body shook with desperation as he faced Michael, who was a pillar of divinity barely contained within John Winchester's flesh.

"Do you understand why Anna failed here? Why she never could have succeeded in preventing Sam's conception?" Michael gazed at Dean fondly, his indulgence tugging John's mouth into a benevolent smile. "You, your brother, your parents--all of you are meant to exist. The simple fact that you do is not random. It's not chance. It's a plan that is playing itself out perfectly, each step ensuring the next through the whole of history to the end of days." Turning, he fixed the unforgiving weight of his attention expectantly on Cas. "Surely, Castiel, even as far as you've fallen, you can still see the design at work."

Cas's gaze slid to Dean, at once kneeling helplessly over his mother's unconscious body and a small cluster of cells growing inside it. "I see it," he allowed, because Father help him, he still did. Michael nodded, satisfied, and Dean flinched as if physically struck, and Cas went on, "But I dislike it. Michael--" He looked imploringly to his brother. "All this suffering cannot be God's design."

Michael's satisfaction gave way to serene regret. "Then you see nothing," he said simply, and in that moment, Cas yearned to see as Michael did, with his exquisite clarity and transcendent faith.

He was sure that he had, once.

Michael still watched him--watched, no doubt, all Cas's conflicting wants spreading like sickness through his dimming grace. He smiled again, peaceably. "But you will see, eventually. You both will. It's all going to play out, one way or another." He looked from Cas to Dean, and the firelight danced in his eyes. "You can't fight City Hall.")

Dean glances up from his handful of cutlery and sees him standing in the shadows beyond the door. "There you are! Just in time, man. Grab a seat."

Cas enters the warm, crowded space of the kitchen, acutely aware of all the attention suddenly upon him. As if to ease the weight, Dean turns away, ostensibly to take the forks and knives to the table; he nudges his elbow playfully into Sam's side as he passes, and Sam retaliates automatically with a flick of water to Dean's face, a smirk when Dean sputters. "Watch it! Almost got soap in my mouth."

"Yeah, about time that thing got washed out," Sam retorts, his gaze following his brother away from Cas. Behind Dean's back, his smirk softens into a smile.

Cas watches, marvelling. It's so easy between them. They're together, despite Sam's mistakes, despite Dean's instincts. Despite Cas's memories of Dean ripping Sam from his life; of Dean telling him, over and over, unasked, first that it was for the best, then that taking Sam back wouldn't have made any fucking difference, anyway, 'cause look what he's gone and done, Cas, Jesus. Despite all that--despite the fact of Cas's mortal existence, despite five whole, agonising years gone to it-- somehow, the Winchesters have managed to impose change on the immutable past, and they're together.

And it's so inexplicably easy.

He looks away.

"Bobby," he says, focusing and smiling. "It's good to see you."

"It's good to be seen, I guess." Bobby sounds faintly derisive, but Cas takes no offense. He's heard exactly that tone before; it's aimed inward, back at Bobby himself, his own indirect commentary on his perceived usefulness since his paralysis. Cas wonders if Dean informed him of his general life expectancy, and if Bobby has started counting down.

Bobby's sharp eyes track Cas across the room and into a creaking, spindly chair on the other side of the table from where Sam has seated himself. "You look a hell of a lot better than you did."

"I imagine that wouldn't take much," Cas comments idly. He touches his fingertips to a rough spot on the edge of the plate before him, where the ceramic is chipped. "I hear I have you to thank for my miraculous recovery, Sam," he adds, and looks squarely across the table.

Sam is caught off-guard by his sudden attention: he straightens his back and shrugs, colour flaring lightly in his cheeks. Cas, not adept at reading him, doesn't know if it's pleasure at the recognition, or modest self-deprecation. "Not really. Cas--Castiel did all the work."

Cas's smile feels too wide on his face, and brittle. "He wouldn't have even thought to try without your suggestion, believe me." He stares at Sam, at the black residue beneath his skin, unblinking. His smile broadens like a crack. "You did more than you know."

Sam is uncomfortable now. He swallows convulsively, his long hands twitching on the table, his gaze darting up over Cas's head to where Dean is passing behind him.

Bobby changes the subject. "You want a beer, Cas?"

It's the best question he's been asked in ages. Cas is far too sober for this. He turns to Bobby, who's pulling bottles from the six-pack and lining them up on the table, and says cheerfully, "If there's nothing stronger."

Beside him, Dean freezes--just for a moment, but obviously--in the act of settling himself in his chair. Bobby looks briefly from Cas to Dean and back again, poker-faced. "Not for the guy who lost a pint of blood in my carpet and just woke up from a day-and-a-half long coma, there ain't."

Cas chuckles lightly. He takes the beer.

"Dammit, Cas, I can see your friggin' pores. Personal space, dude!"

Cas stops mid-step in the gloom at the base of the stairs, then turns slowly and silently to see the front door standing open, shadowy shapes in the darkness on the other side of the screen.

Out on the porch, Dean is bitching about personal space, which means Castiel must be up close and staring, and oh, Cas remembers this. At the beginning, he'd done it because physical boundaries meant nothing to angels and he genuinely hadn't understood the significance of ignoring them, but it can't have been long ago that he started doing it deliberately. Not because he intended to rile Dean, or because he'd realised what it was he was actually doing, but because something in him, something as yet nameless but addictively imperative, wanted to be that close. And because he knew that Dean, for all his voluble protests, wouldn't move himself away.

Cas remembers this. It's positively fucking quaint.

Before making his careful way downstairs, he'd been lying awake in the darkness of the north bedroom, waiting. He'd said next to nothing at dinner. Partially, he'd been too busy gorging himself on the wonderful strangeness of fresh, nourishing food, so different from the processed staples of every meal at Chitaqua, almost every meal he'd ever eaten as a mortal. Mostly, he'd felt the tension of Dean, Bobby and Sam's restraint as they swallowed the conversation they wanted to have, the questions they wanted him to answer, and taken advantage of their uncertainty and hesitation while he could.

He's spent large amounts of his mortal life retreating from tension, and sees no reason to stop now. The conversation they want to have is one he's in no hurry to instigate, because he has nothing, really, to share. Nothing so helpful as answers, anyway.

So he'd said little at the table and, as soon as the food was gone, excused himself back upstairs with breezy thanks and a repeat performance of his vacant, too-wide smile. And he'd waited, his thoughts restless as he listened to the murmurs of hushed debate below, followed by the various domestic noises of everyone else settling in for the night. Finally, after the house had been silent for a full hour, he'd thought it safe to venture back downstairs, quietly ferret something mind-numbing out of Bobby's liquor cabinet--or, better yet, his medicine cabinet--without running into anyone.

Clearly, he'd been foolish.

Outside, Castiel ignores Dean's complaint entirely. His answer is low and grave in the nighttime stillness, his choice of topic thoroughly unsurprising. "Allowing my future self to move and act freely among us is almost certainly unwise. We cannot trust him simply because he's--"


"I'm a soldier, Dean." Cas remembers that tone, too: not quite exasperation, not quite withering scorn, not quite utter solemnity, but carrying notes of all three. It's the way he used to state the obvious for the tiresome humans who, by accident or by design, couldn't seem to retain the facts most pertinent to the situation at hand. It's the way he used to speak to Dean regularly, before he learned that humour didn't necessarily signal carelessness or inattention. Before Dean stopped using humour to signal anything at all. That was when Cas's dourness became redundant, and subsequently, obsolete. "A strategist. If he came here with ill intent--"

"Come on, Cas, you make it sound like--" There's a dull sound of glass on wood; a bottle knocking against the railing, Cas thinks. His mouth waters for the burn of hard liquor, distracting him from the earnestness of Dean's defense. "Look, I saw him in 2014. Future Me trusted him, as much as he trusted anybody. He's on our side."

"Do you remember our meeting with Raphael? His suspicion that it was Lucifer, not God, who raised me?"

And that distracts Cas from his craving for a drink, from the soreness of his body, from the chilly air and the gooseflesh on his arms and the iciness of his toes, from everything. The last time he'd given serious thought to the possibility that it had been Lucifer who'd resurrected him after Raphael's thorough smiting was the day he'd finally given up his pointless quest for God. Given how far he'd fallen by then, and how miserable his rapidly-encroaching mortality was making him, Cas had decided it simply didn't matter who'd resurrected him. If God was responsible, it was a punishment Cas had no choice but to bear; if Lucifer was, it was a favour Cas intended never to return. Either way, Cas was alive, and there was nothing he could do about it.

Well, there was. But that wasn't something Cas would consider, consciously, for a long time yet. In the meantime--in the words of a poet he discovered one desperate day when he was searching Chuck's cabin for his alcohol stash and found books instead--he might as well live.

Cas sucks in a deep breath, filling his mouth and throat and lungs with cold autumn air, using the sharpness of it to focus himself. The timing of this conversation--that Castiel is broaching the subject of Cas's potential allegiances just when Cas is available to overhear it--is inescapably suspicious. Cas grins into the dark. Of course Castiel knows he's listening. Castiel wants him to hear. Castiel, as he has just reminded them all, is a strategist.

But his strategy here is flawed, muddled by Castiel's inability to decide whether Cas is best treated as a reluctant ally or a hidden threat. Historically, he's been both; it's not difficult to imagine that he could be either again, given the right motivation. But in his current state, Cas doesn't think he's particularly credible as either, and clearly, Castiel is struggling with the same doubts. Otherwise, he wouldn't let Cas hear any of this at all.

Cas wouldn't, if he were him. And he is.

Castiel is still using that tone, still advising caution. Playing Devil's Advocate, Cas thinks bitingly. "If Raphael is correct and Lucifer raised me--and Lucifer sent my future self here--"

"Whoa, whoa, wait. Is that what this is about?" Boots scrape on the boards of the porch. Cas imagines Dean creating his own personal space, finally, backing away from Castiel to square off against his conspiracy theory; Dean will be frowning, holding up one hand--maybe the one with the bottle in it--to emphasize his rejection of Castiel's cynicism. Cas enjoys that image, and savours his proximity to a Dean still capable of optimism, and feels only a twinge of guilt. "So what if Lucifer raised you? You didn't ask for it. You didn't make a damn deal with him. You're still you, Cas, and--fucked up as Mister 2014 is--he's still you. You make your own decisions, you choose your own sides, and you wouldn't choose Lucifer. I know you wouldn't."

The beat of silence that follows has the quality of a held breath. "I value your faith in me, Dean," Castiel says, and it's quiet, plain, and sincere.

Cas's pleasure in the moment turns dry and hard and dead. He feels the distance between himself and the pair on the porch as if it's not just a short hallway, but a vast chasm. Not just five mortal years, but a thousand.

Dean clears his throat. When he continues, he sounds excessively casual. "Anyway, who raised you might not have anything to do with anything. Maybe you did something that pissed Lucifer off so much, he sent you back to relive the whole apocalypse as punishment."

Cas hadn't considered that. He does now, to distract himself, and has to admit the idea certainly has a generous amount of evil, retributive logic to it. If it weren't for what Lucifer had whispered in his ear before sending him back, his words rushing into Cas's veins and replacing all the blood Cas had lost with ice, he might think Dean was onto something.

Never let it be said, little brother, that I don't take care of my family.

Outside, there's another pause, this one lengthy enough that Cas finds it impossible to continue ignoring the various complaints of his body: his exhaustion, his soreness, his numb feet. Abruptly, he's done listening; craving the simple, cold comfort of the north bedroom, he turns away from the front door and starts easing his way back up the stairs.

He's almost at the top when Castiel's voice, lower than before but carrying surprisingly well, stops him. "I… wish… I could share your faith in him. I find him… unrecognisable."

It's like a physical blow. Cas stands immobilised, struck by his tone, the nakedness of it. The precision of his words, and the shame in them.

Castiel, Cas is certain, has sensed Cas's departure from the hallway, and underestimated his mortal senses. He thinks Cas can't hear him anymore. He thinks it's safe, now, to admit his weaknesses.

Clearly, foolishness is not one of Cas's more recent failings.

"People change, Cas."

"Angels don't."

Cas scoffs at the same moment Dean does, but with much less kindness. "Oh, right. You think the guy you were five years ago would recognise you now?"

"I don't want to become him." He says it with certainty, ferocity, and helpless desolation. As if declaring a war he's terrified he'll lose.

Of course, he's lost already. Cas, shivering and raw at the top of the stairs, proves it. He waits for Dean to tell Castiel as much, something base and spiteful in the anticipation curling inside him.

But Dean just says, quietly, "I know," and belatedly, Cas recalls their last conversation in 2014. In the Jeep on their way to shoot Lucifer, Cas's expectation that he would never see this Dean again had made him reckless with his disclosures: I used to belong to a much better club.

He pictures the scene on the porch as it must be now. Dean will be leaning against the railing, long body loose in the extremities with whatever he's been drinking, tight in his core with worry and responsibility. He agrees with Castiel's distaste, with his fear; he'll look at Castiel with compassion but say nothing more, uncomfortable with the emotions of the moment, uncertain about what he's beginning to feel stirring in their undercurrents.

And Castiel will be looking back, because he always does. He'll be staring, searching and intense, because he doesn't yet know any other way of looking at Dean, can't yet understand why he'd ever look at Dean without wanting, wholly, to see him. Everything he feels is new and dangerous and compelling--even the things he doesn't like, even desperation and disgust and this newest sensation, this novel development, this self-loathing--and when he looks at Dean, he wants to feel it. All of it, and everything. When he looks at Dean, he wants; in comparison, his exile from Heaven, his weakening grace, and the depths of his doubt become, somehow, bearable. And so, he stares.

The physical space between them will be entirely respectable. They'll both want, increasingly, to close it.

But because Dean is still unwilling to identify that want, and Castiel is still unable to, they won't.

Cas remembers this.

He returns to his bedroom, sickened.

It's the silence of the house that wakes him, close to noon, from shifting, turbulent dreams.

When he pads cautiously downstairs, he finds Sam at Bobby's desk, hunched over five thick books spread open in front of him; when Cas enters the study, Sam rears back in his chair, startled and smiling awkwardly. He must've been particularly absorbed in whatever he's researching, Cas thinks, to have failed to notice him until now. A glance at the nearest open page shows him an ancient woodcut depicting Satan being dragged into Hell draped in chains, and Cas thinks, Ah.

"Hey," Sam says, his voice hearty with nonchalance. "You're up."

Cas smiles reflexively. "Evidently."

"Bobby and Dean just left." Sam speaks hurriedly, as if he thinks Cas is anxious for reassurance that the others were here, and will be back, and it won't be just the two of them for long. He's perceptive, at least. "Supply run for that hunt we were talking about last night."

Cas nods. That would be the conversation they'd had instead of discussing the whys, wherefores, and what-ifs of Cas's presence. Bobby'd gotten a tip on a possible uakti--in Utah, of all places. Sam had wondered why a creature native to South America would be so far north, and Dean had joked that, as a woman-hoarder, it probably felt at home there, and Cas had eaten another mouthful of beef stew instead of explaining that Lucifer's presence on Earth disrupted the natural patterns and habitats of supernatural creatures of all kinds, causing them to roam farther afield--and, like threatened animals, become more aggressive--as the apocalypse progressed.

He doesn't feel any urgency to clear up that mystery for them. After all, they're going to figure it out themselves, eventually.

"So it's just us for lunch," Sam concludes. "Or, well, breakfast for you, I guess." Giving Cas an encouraging look, he stands and stretches, working out the strain of what must've been a long morning spent buried in books. Cas notices, in a way he never did before he fell, just how big Sam is, how imposing he can be without even trying. It's an animal observation, coming--to Cas's intense contempt--with the quickening of his pulse, the shortening of his breath. "I was gonna make grilled cheese. You want something?"

"Something," Cas echoes absently, and moves aside to let Sam pass around him to the kitchen. It's possible, he supposes, that they've been left alone together innocently; but in his experience, possibility rarely equates to probability. And he would be the first to admit that his behaviour at dinner could have been construed as necessitating a strategic response.

Maybe he was the first to suggest it.

Sam has made no mention of Castiel's whereabouts. Cas can feel his grace, but the sensation is weaker than it was, more diffuse. Castiel may not be here, but he's almost certainly not wholly absent.

As he casts about for a reason not to join Sam in the kitchen, Cas's gaze lands on the cot Bobby sleeps on now that he can't manage the stairs up to his bedroom. Hope grows like cancer inside him; kneeling, he reaches under the end with the pillow and finds a mostly-full bottle with ease, no small amount of satisfaction, and a fresh wash of keen-edged thirst.

He drinks the bourbon like it's water, taking long swallows directly from the bottle.

When he stops to breathe--and to enjoy, finally, the sensation of alcohol burning into his body, the promise of liquefied synapses and forgotten pain--Sam is watching him from the doorway, utterly disconcerted. "You, uh. Might want to take it easy with that," he says, fidgeting, and Cas thinks he disapproves but is trying, very hard, not to judge. It's both amusing and provoking; Cas finds himself curious about where Sam might draw his line. "Bobby's kind of sensitive about other people drinking all his booze."

"Bobby's hidden at least two more bottles in this room alone," Cas replies, and smiles again. It's easier already, even with his not-entirely-human tolerance for alcohol. He's always liked drinking on an empty stomach. "He won't miss this one too much."

Sam stares at him for another long moment, hard, before turning away.

As Sam busies himself with his food, Cas settles cross-legged on Bobby's cot and sinks into the feeling of the world beginning to dilute. He drinks, and watches Sam, and enjoys how Sam pretends neither of those activities is making him uncomfortable.

Sam moves confidently in Bobby's space, his familiarity with Bobby's things old and automatic. Dean, Cas knows, is the same; before Chitaqua became their base of operations, Cas used to watch him take casual advantage of this house, its resources and its relative safety. Bobby had complained constantly, of course--Dean ate all his food and drank all his booze; Dean was a surly sumbitch before his coffee, and so was Bobby, and there were too many weapons too easy to hand for the both of them; the house wasn't near big enough to have two extra grown men underfoot--but even Cas could understand the fondness in it, the sense of family.

("I grew up in this house," Bobby said. He'd turned his chair so he could look back at it squarely, as if he needed to face it down. Cas, who'd known what was buried behind the woodshed from the moment he first laid eyes on Robert Stephen Singer in a sigil-coated barn in Illinois, thought maybe he did. "And when John didn't leave those two in some crappy motel, he left 'em here."

Cas pushed the last of the boxes into the back of the truck and raised the tailgate, which let out a rusty groan. "You can't stay, Bobby. If the information we've obtained is more than panicked rumour, a Croatoan outbreak may be imminent, and in your condition--"

"I know that," Bobby snapped. He sent him a cutting look from under the bill of his baseball cap. "I ain't sayin' I want to stay."

"Good," Cas retorted, sending a look right back. Packing and lifting the boxes had been tedious, strenuous labour. He was sweating and uncomfortable, and lacked the patience to humour recalcitrance.

They glared at each other for a moment before Bobby rolled his eyes. "You might be off the God Squad, Cas, but you still don't know squat about people," he informed him, then lifted his hat and scratched at his head, sighing. "All I mean is--look, I don't feel too good about strippin' everything out to take with us. If anybody in the network found themselves in a tough spot--if Sam ever needs a bolt-hole--" But he stopped there, cutting himself off before he could finish the thought. Dean had emerged from the door, and was striding purposefully toward them.

Bobby's concern was moot, anyway. Sam, by then, was long gone.)

Cas has always known Bobby's home to be a place where Dean was welcome. But now it's Sam enjoying that particular quality of Bobby's hospitality as if he were born to it; Sam, occupying the spaces in which Cas is used to finding only Dean.

It disorients him. He looks away.

When Sam returns to the study, he carries two plates. He says nothing, and keeps his gaze averted as he leans down to set one of them, with two warm, golden sandwiches on it, next to Cas's knee on the cot. Cas looks from the plate to Sam's back as Sam takes his own lunch to the desk; he's reminded, bemusingly, of a penitent laying an offering, hoping for absolution. All at once Cas thinks of the day he and Sam first met: Sam's awed reverence, the eagerness of his outstretched hand. His aching, grasping desire for any small sign of divine approval.

Cas, devoid of divinity and sharply aware of it, takes another drink. As the bourbon burns down his throat, he stares at the sandwiches. They're a far, humble cry from the broken seal that set Lucifer free.

Sam is here. He's contrite and considerate, spending untold hours trying to find a way to fix what he broke. To make amends. He's comfortably ensconced in Bobby's forgiveness, and has somehow merited a reprieve from Dean's rejection. He doesn't much resemble an angry, prideful man whose disillusionment and wrath are strong enough to hollow him out for the devil.

And yet.

(Chuck knew before Cas did.

Cas and Dean had just arrived at Bobby's, just unfolded themselves from the car and were circling around to the trunk to start unloading, when the screen door of the house banged open, startling them both. They turned to see Chuck pelting down the porch stairs and across the yard toward them, bathrobe gusting behind him like a cape.

"Catch him!" he yelled, his already reedy voice pitched even higher with stress and fear. "Catch him!"

Cas had no idea what he meant. He turned to Dean, who wore an expression of similarly mystified alarm, and then Cas's knees buckled and he hit the gravel like something had slammed him down and he screamed.

The angels left, the song of the Host fell silent, and Cas screamed.

Eventually, they drugged him--with enough morphine, Bobby told him later, to overdose an ox--but even that wasn't enough. Cracked, near-soundless mewls kept rasping out of Cas's throat until his mind and newly-mortal body gave out, and he slept.

He woke to darkness, stillness, and stark, terrible silence. And Dean, sitting vigil on the edge of the bed.

Cas opened his mouth to speak, but couldn't. Just drawing breath made his throat burn hot enough to spill tears.

Dean reached out and brushed his thumb under Cas's eyes, brushed the tears from his cheeks with a careful, brisk touch. A comforting gesture with something inflexible beneath it. "Everybody gets left, Cas," he said, his voice thick with resignation.

Cas, reeling, wanted to say, But we left them, too.

Four months later, Sam said yes.

When the news finally reached them, so did Dean. Loudly, and at length.

Cas listened to him shout himself hoarse at all the empty heavens and thought, Everybody leaves.)

"Why would you say yes, Sam?"

Cas asks, just like that. Like his smile, it's just that easy. His conversational tone disguises his actual words, and a moment passes, oddly static, in which Cas imagines having to spell it out for him: Say yes to what? But then Sam jolts upright, his head snapping up, his eyes wide and fearful as they meet Cas's heavy-lidded gaze. He says, hoarsely, "I wouldn't."

"Well, that's a lie, because you did. You will. It's inside you right now, that yes, just waiting to come out." Cas's curiosity feels distant, peculiarly abstract, and he realises he doesn't actually care about the answer to his question. After all, what difference would having an answer make now? What good would it do?

Cas realises, with an electric sense of purpose, that he doesn't want to know. He wants to tell.

Bourbon vapours smoke at the base of his throat. Something dark uncoils in his chest. He tilts his head, regarding Sam thoughtfully. "Will he seduce you, like Ruby did? Or win your loyalty, like Dean? You've said yes to so many things, Sam, and you always have reasons."

Sam shakes his head, tight and vigorous. "Not for this. I won't. We're--we're changing things."

Cas shrugs. "Cosmetically. You won't change anything of significance. You can't, because the outcome will always remain the same: you, Sam Winchester, will say yes to Lucifer. You can't change the past." But he stops at that, a chill of uncertainty shivering through the banking heat of his anger, because they have. The basic fact of Sam's presence here--when, by now, he should have been gone for months--may prove to be a superficial change, insignificant to the ultimate outcome of the apocalypse, but it rasps at Cas, deep inside. It feels like something scratching away at the foundations of who he is, as if he can feel the undoing of everything he suffered over the last five years, everything that shaped the person he's become.

Cas doesn't like the person he's become. He doesn't like being a person. His one consolation after he fell had always been the thought that, in the end, his whole Godforsaken life would indeed prove to have been for nothing.

And it almost was. Almost. But the end Cas anticipated has come and gone, and Cas has no idea why he survived, again, something that should rightfully have obliterated him, and now, here's Sam. Changing things.

Trying to, anyway. Cas consoles himself, now, with the distinction. It's an important one.

Doubt crawls across Sam's face. He's pale, hunched in on himself; he seems much smaller. Cas drinks in the sight like it's another bracing swallow of bourbon, feels it fire the bitter, twisting thing inside him. "Let's say you could," he offers suddenly, with a careless gesture that makes Sam flinch. "Let's ignore, just for a moment, the absolute laws of causality, and say you could make that big a change." He looks for a flicker of hope in Sam's eyes, and gets a weight of despair instead. He cherishes it as right and good and cruel, and feeds it mercilessly. "You won't. It's not in your nature, and I'm not talking about the demon blood Azazel fed you, Sam, I'm talking about you. How many times, in how many ways, did you say yes to Ruby? And now you can't get enough of agreeing with Dean." He grins, wide and mirthless, with a hint of hysteria twitching at the corners. It unsettled Dean when he grinned like this, even long after nothing else did. "Is that to make up for having failed him so thoroughly with your little rebellion? To make sure he won't deny you again? 'Yes, Dean, whatever I can do so you'll let me stick around, Dean, yes.'"

Sam looks stricken, every line of him drawn with guilt. "I don't--that's not--"

"You haven't asked me to stop drinking." Cas brandishes his bottle, now empty. "You want me to, because you're used to him and I'm unnerving, but you haven't." In a fluid motion he stands, swaying just a little, then paces across the room. "Whose idea was it for you to stay here today? After dinner last night, do you actually want to be alone with me?" He reaches the desk, and likes how Sam tilts his head up to keep looking at him. Likes the bared length of Sam's throat as he swallows involuntarily. He laughs. "You're so accommodating, Sam. It's who you are. The abomination that can't say no."


"I think I'd like to hear it. The patented Sam Winchester Yes." He looks down at Sam consideringly. Pretends he has to think about what to ask. "Kill me, Sam."

"What?" Sam stands, a fast, ungainly rise that knocks the chair over behind him. "No!"

"Oh, Sam." Cas shakes his head, making an inebriated show of his disappointment. "What have I just been telling you? You don't say no."

"I'm not gonna kill you, Cas, Jesus!"

"Why not? Once you get Lucifer in you, you'll do everything but. Killing me now would just be finishing what you started." He leans forward, flattening his hands on the desktop when he threatens to overbalance. "It wouldn't even be difficult. You could shoot me; Bobby's pistol is right there in the top drawer, isn't it? Or--" He picks up a plain steel letter-opener from its tray and slams it down on top of the open books. "--you could stab me. I'm mortal now, Sam. You wouldn't even need an angel sword."

Sam shudders and squeezes his eyes shut.

Cas's grin becomes a small, thoughtful thing. He pushes himself upright again; Sam's eyes pop open at the sound of his movement, widen wildly as Cas begins to round the desk. He tries to back away from Cas's approach, but the fallen chair cuts off his retreat, and Cas pushes into his space the way he used to push into Dean's, stares up at him with all the old intensity. The evil under Sam's skin thrums, almost tactile, its blackness almost as clear to Cas as when he saw it with an angel's eyes. He pushes in close to feel it, and he stares to see its wrongness, and Sam is transfixed, and Cas is intoxicated. "If you kill me," he says, soft and persuasive, "I'll forgive you."


For the second time in as many days--after years of privation--Cas responds instinctively to the undeniable voice of angelic authority, and goes completely still. He closes his eyes to weather the sudden ache of absence where his grace, now so close, wants to be.

Then he opens them again, and turns to look at Castiel.

And stares, struck breathless, something cold and heavy like a core of iron inside him. Somehow, he'd forgotten: repressed, denied, taken enough mind-altering substances to damage his imperfect, mortal memory. Between the departure of the angels and the final, flickering fade-out of his grace and the years he spent feeling his angelic body atrophying inside his human vessel, somehow, he'd managed to forget. What he used to look like.

With his limited sight, it's all suggestion, spectre, something not very like heatwaves shimmering in and around and above and through his vessel. But it's enough. Too much. He doesn't want to remember; he can't look away.

If Castiel understands his silence, he doesn't show it. He stares back, solemn and stately. "Your behaviour is inappropriate," he announces, and a tremor runs up Cas's spine because oh, his voice. "You will stop, or I'll stop you."

The proclamation rings in the air for a moment before Cas can drag his attention from the sight and sound of his angelic self and make himself focus on his words. And then, incredulous, he blurts, "Why do you care?"

Castiel raises his chin in defiance. "Sam is my friend."

"Your--" That breaks the spell, utterly. Cas laughs outright. "You don't have friends!"

Castiel's eyes narrow. He strides toward Cas, raising his hand.

Just before it lands, Sam startles toward them both, too late, from where he's folded himself into the corner against the bookshelves. "Cas, wait, I'm okay--"

But then Castiel's hand is implacable on Cas's arm, and they're upstairs.

And Cas is sober.

He throws off Castiel's grip, ignoring the yearning flutter in the pit of his stomach. Everything he's lost, and he hadn't realised how much he missed flight. "Fuck you."

Castiel just looks at him, hard-lined and steady. "Why did you do that to Sam?"

"Why not do that to Sam?" Cas demands. He turns and stalks away, through the narrow open space left between the bed and the outside wall. He feels trapped, with the sagging mattress and its unmade tangle of threadbare sheets on one side, the fading, peeling wallpaper and grime-coated pane of glass on the other. With Castiel, in his rumpled coat and crooked tie, luminous with grace even to Cas's finite senses, stolidly blocking the route to the door. "We don't owe Sam a damn thing."

"We freed him from the panic room, which freed him to kill Lilith." Cas turns abruptly on his heel and gapes at him. He hadn't expected Castiel to answer him at all, much less with that; he hasn't thought about that little failure of judgement in years. Not since he--and Dean, and Sam--started wilfully demonstrating much bigger ones. "He doesn't carry that guilt alone. We owe him that much."

"That's very noble," Cas manages eventually. "That's not what I meant." He watches Castiel's brow furrow, his mouth tip into a frown, and feels the corners of his own mouth curve contemptuously upward. "I'm a complete mystery to you, aren't I? I'm unrecognisable," he echoes, and enjoys, with a small, mean sense of triumph, the slight shift in Castiel's stance, his blink of subtle alarm. Cas spreads his hands, levelling his eyes with Castiel's. "Look harder, Cas."

Castiel stares back, unreadable and unmoving; then, his gaze flickers down over Cas's body, up past his shoulder. He doesn't flinch, but his lips press tightly together, and his throat works in a thick swallow.

Cas goes very still. Despite his brazenness in demanding it, he feels caught by Castiel's attention, pinned and spread open and naked--exposed--in a way he's never felt about his human body. But he stands there and subjects himself to it, subjects Castiel to the sight of what he's become, because fuck him--fuck him--he wants him to see.

After an excruciating silence, he asks, "What do they look like?" His voice, though steady, is raw. "Our wings."

(He was high on scavenged narcotics and half a bottle of tequila. His thoughts floated through stratospheres, and he loathed his body--loathed it--for its inability to follow.

He woke Dean in the middle of the night; slipped into his cabin, crawled into his bed, and stifled his tired noises of irritation with messy, breathless kisses. "Dean," he whispered into his mouth, onto his skin, "Dean, I need you." He slid his hand under the blankets and found Dean's, and felt Dean tense beneath him when he pressed the saw he'd brought against his palm. "I need you to cut them off."

Dean didn't understand. Dean thought Cas's wings had been lost with his grace, as if the angels' departure were a blade that amputated him cleanly from everything he used to be.

"They're still there," Cas corrected impatiently, wishing Dean would just understand, wishing Dean would just do what he asked, anxious to have it done before the drugs wore off. "I can't see them. I can't move them. They do nothing. I feel the useless, hanging weight of them all the time, every moment, and I'm sick of it, so sick of them, Dean, I need you to cut them off!"

Dean couldn't do it, of course. Wouldn't do it, a part of Cas thought, even after he'd cleared the mania that had allowed him to forget the utter impossibility of anyone actually carrying out his request.

But in the moment, he took Dean's hand and wrapped it around the handle of the saw, clutched at him and clawed at him and berated him until finally, Dean threw him off, pushed him to the floor and walked out of the cabin without looking back, taking the saw with him.

"You're fighting your war with civilians and cripples," Cas spat after him, sprawled where Dean had left him. In their unreachable plane of existence, the suffocating weight of his paralysed wings held him down. "No wonder you're losing.")

Castiel says carefully, "They are… disfigured." With a malicious thrill, Cas imagines what he must look like to him: his true form--all the structures that, to wondering human sight, suggest crackling electricity, endlessly spinning wheels, shifting beasts and gems and wings--like a desiccated corpse, empty, still, and dead. "As is your vessel," Castiel adds, and sounds more reproachful about that than anything else.

Cas's vessel--what's his name, the poor bastard who never made it back after the smiting, who apparently hadn't been as worthy of resurrection as Cas--is scarred from use, and misuse, and abuse. Skin, muscles, bones. Some of his organs, probably; he tries, generally, not to think about the state of his liver. It's Cas's body, now.

Castiel wears his vessel differently. He wears his vessel; he doesn't live in it. Not yet.

Castiel is still vain. Cas stopped seeing much of anything to be proud of a long time ago.

He shrugs off Castiel's reproof, dropping his hands back to his sides. "Well, take better care of your things this time around." Castiel cants his head on his neck, frowning. Cas folds his remaining discomfort into the fist of resentment curling up tight in his chest, and smirks. "So we're 'friends' with Sam Winchester," he muses, deliberately mirroring the head-tilt. "How did that happen? No, wait, I know this one: because he's Dean's, too."

Castiel stiffens. Guardedness narrows his eyes before he looks straight ahead and stares impassively at nothing. "Sam is a good man who was deceived, as we all were--"

"Oh, stop." Cas shakes his head, disgusted. "You might not understand me yet, Castiel, but I was you. Dean decided he wanted to take Sam back, and whatever Dean wants, you follow right along." He grins his empty, unsettling grin. "Hell, you already have. Straight into the end of the world."

Castiel draws himself up a fraction further, his jaw tightening. For a moment, Cas thinks--with a jumbled rush of accomplishment, derision, and shameful, clutching anxiety--he's going to leave; instead, Castiel returns his gaze, fixing it on him like a challenge. "Yes," he says firmly, his words clipped with pride. "And perhaps, with Sam, I'll follow him out of it, as well."

(Cas arrived in Dean's bedroom at Bobby's at almost three in the morning. The journey from Lake Hazen left him weak, all but graceless; he landed with a clumsy stagger that knocked over a chair and had Dean sitting up and aiming at him before he was fully awake.

"Cas," he muttered when he saw him, his gun hand falling tiredly to rest on the blankets. "What the hell, man?"

Cas shuffled wearily to the side of the bed. He was shivering. He'd expended a great deal of energy protecting his vessel against the frigid air of the Arctic, and hadn't enough left after his flight to inure himself to much of anything. His suit and trench coat felt barely adequate against the room's low temperature; the chill nipped at his exposed skin, and he wondered at Dean's ability to sleep here at all. "He's either indifferent or dead," he said dully, and held up his right hand. The amulet dangled from his clenched fist. "I can't find Him. I don't want to find Him."

Dean stared at the amulet like he'd forgotten what it was, like it might hurt him if he touched it. Cas wanted to laugh. It couldn't do anything. It was useless.

"Yeah," Dean breathed when he finally took it back. It pooled with its cord in the cup of his palm, a faint glint in the darkness. "Yeah," he repeated, his voice stronger this time. Rougher. "He's gone." He closed his fist and looked up at Cas with shuttered eyes.

When he tugged him ungently down to the bed, his hand burnt Cas's skin like a torch.

Cas never saw the amulet again.

A few days later, as they drove to Belle Fourche to consult one of Bobby's shaman contacts, Dean said, just loud enough to be heard over Zeppelin's 'Kashmir', "Sam wanted to come back."

Cas turned from the window, muzzy-headed from the interminably slow travel and the endless blur of passing scenery. "When?"

"Remember that night in Kansas City a while back, I almost got nabbed by Zachariah?" Cas nodded. Dean's gaze remained fixed on the road ahead. "Before Zach got to me, Sam called. Told me he was Lucifer's vessel, asked to come back so we could hunt him down together." He glanced at Cas then, a quick dart of his eyes. "I told him no."

He said it as if he expected to have to defend himself, as if Cas might've expected him to have answered Sam differently. But of course he said no. It had been Sam, initially, who chose to walk away from Dean, just as it had been Cas's brothers who initially broke their covenant of faith. He and Dean shared rejection between them, and were alike in their wounds, and since Cas had joined him Dean led them constantly away from Sam, away from Heaven's agenda, away.

And Cas followed.

After a moment filled with the rumbling engine and the percussive chug of the song, Cas asked, "Is this information pertinent to our meeting with the shaman?"

Dean's hands tightened briefly on the wheel. "Nah," he said, and reached out and turned up the music. "Just thought I'd mention it.")

A detached feeling of familiarity descends on Cas, recognition buzzing warmly through his head like a fever. That was him, following Dean from reckless plan to desperate damage control to grim, perfunctory survival; that vehemence used to be his. Cas remembers how it felt, sharing purpose with Dean after having been deceived by his brothers. The allure of it.

The comfort.

Cas rocks slowly back on his heels, lets his eyes fall half-shut, and watches Castiel speculatively through his lashes. "Has he touched you yet?"

Castiel startles. Something repressed surfaces in his eyes, equal parts glittering envy and panicky shame; under the worn cuffs of his coat, his hands spasm into fists. He opens his mouth as if to speak, then just breathes in sharply and closes it again.

Barbed satisfaction twists inside Cas, catching on memories that wind his whole body taut. "I take it that's a no."

Castiel's look of defiance is back, now more desperate than decisive. His hands are still white-knuckled at his sides. His restraint is a constructed thing, cautiously wielded, as if it might be in danger of falling apart.

Cas drifts across the room, one unhurried step after another. Castiel tracks his progress, motionless but wary, until Cas stops in front of him, close enough to touch. Close enough for the force of his grace to press tangibly, hotly against him, and everything in Cas--everything left of him--wants to feel it inside, wants it with a jealousy so striking it steals his breath. Desire is familiar; his body responds by rote, heat arrowing low in his belly, firing his nerves and filling his cock. As his gaze roams from Castiel's dilating eyes to his pink, parted lips, he wonders what he feels, this close, watching him so fiercely but standing so still.

"This is where we end up, following Dean." Cas leans in slowly, pressing himself to Castiel's unyielding body, mirror-fit against his chest and hips and yes, Castiel's getting hard against him, too. Grace sizzles heady and uncontrolled through his body, snapping along his skin, and Cas wonders if the intensity of it is because it's his, or if this is what every human feels, this close to an angel. If this is what Dean used to feel with him, and the thought makes Cas's hips jerk. "Don't worry," he breathes, grazing his whiskers along the smooth line of Castiel's jaw. His eyes fall shut; an afterimage of Castiel's true form--his true form, limned and filled with grace--flares behind his eyelids. Cas shapes his moan into a low, rich promise: "You'll like it."

Castiel's breath shudders out of him.

Cas knows that shudder, from the inside; feeling it like this is familiar and strange and addictive. He knows exactly how turned on Castiel must be, to tremble like that. Dean used to love to get him to that point; he'd watch him shake with pupils blown dark and hungry, crowd in close and hard and undeniable, and fuck--fuck--now Cas knows why. He rides that quiver of lost control straight into his own body and responds to it like a feedback loop.

"You two want some alone time, you need to learn how to close a door."

Castiel goes rigid. Cas stills; his mouth curves, his lips dragging lightly on Castiel's skin as he leans his head back and looks around him. "Hello, Dean. Care to join us?"

But with a rush of air, Cas is suddenly pressed wantonly against nothing. He barely registers the departure of Castiel's body, too struck by the abrupt absence of his grace: it hits him like a cold-water plunge, icing through him until there's nothing left but an empty ache. With an edge, he amends, "Or just me?"

Dean stares. Colour stains his cheeks, ruddy and honest. "I left you guys alone for three hours," he says, his voice quavering ever so faintly. "Three hours. And I get back, and Sam's in some kind of freaked-out guilt spiral, and you're--doing whatever the hell that was." He makes a sharp, helpless gesture. Under the anger, Cas realises, is genuine bewilderment. "What the fuck, Cas?"

He refuses to be shamed by Dean's naiveté. "Did you like what you saw?" he asks, extending his arms and rolling his shoulders in a calculated, ostentatious stretch. He watches Dean's eyes follow the movement. "Let me rephrase: I know you liked it, Dean. I know you."

Dean's gaze snaps back to his face. "Yeah? 'Cause I don't know you. I know him."

Cas laughs. Dean had defended his identity so passionately not twelve hours ago. "Forgot so soon? I am him."

"No." He harshes it out and stalks into the room, straight at Cas. He's stony now, furiously so, nothing bewildered about him, and Cas's pulse trips and quickens with recognition as he thinks, Finally. Finally. But then Dean continues, "No, you haven't happened yet. And Sam hasn't said yes yet. And I'm sure as hell not the cold, broken bastard who sits back and lets you--either one of you--wreck everything you are." He stops a step away, bristling with injured pride. "You can't treat us like it's all already done, Cas. It's not. Not for us."

Righteous determination burns out from his soul like a sun, scorching Cas's moment of relief in the familiar to bitter ash. This is exactly the Dean he wrecked himself for, who pushed and demanded and approved of his fall, and suddenly, Cas is much too tired for any of this. "It will be."

"So, what, free will's just a crock of shit, then? It doesn't have to be."

"All the choices have been made, Dean," Cas says wearily. "Rail against them all you want; invoke your right to free will, to the possibilities of random chance and chaos, whatever. Keep control of your own life. I've seen it all before." Meeting Dean's gaze, he smiles, small and sweetly sardonic. "Hell, so have you."

Dean flinches away from the long shadow of his future self, his eyes betraying guilt and self-loathing fear. Just for a moment, though; just a brief, uncertain moment before he looks back hard, as if measuring out where to draw a line. "Okay," he says, low and flat and pitiless. "Okay, then look at it this way. I don't know why Lucifer sent you back, Cas, and I believe that you don't know, either. But if you can't at least consider that we've got a chance at stopping him--at stopping the apocalypse--then you're not with us, you're against us. And I've got no use for you."

He is drawing a line. Just the first, Cas knows, of many. "You might as well get used to that, Dean. Me being useless."

Dean's eyes narrow. "You want to know why Sam should stick around?" he demands. Cas says nothing. Reasons are insignificant. Reasons are cosmetic. "Without me, he becomes Lucifer. And without him, I turn into the ugly son of a bitch who let you turn into this."

And he leaves.

Dean and Sam are talking in the master bedroom. Cas has been listening to the low, unintelligible murmur of their voices through the walls for almost half an hour.

They stop when he steps into the hall. Except for the floorboards creaking under his feet, he walks past their closed door to the stairs in silence. He's two steps down when he hears the unmistakable tone of Dean cursing, but he doesn't stop, and neither Dean nor Sam appears.

It's a relief, childish but sincere.

(Even before he fell, even when he was a model soldier of his garrison and had no purpose but to love God and oppose the enemies of Heaven, Cas disliked confrontation. He saw the necessity, of course, and fought as he was ordered to the best of his ability, but unlike Uriel beside him and Michael above him, it was neither tinder for his righteousness nor the soul of his service. He didn't enjoy it.

Then, one night, he stood with Dean Winchester in a darkened kitchen inside a dream, and the so-called Righteous Man blasphemed against those in Heaven who had given their lives to the cause of preventing the apocalypse. Castiel, infuriated by his casual malice and staggering ingratitude, demanded respect; under the holy intensity of true wrath, Dean flinched, and Cas felt--

--he felt.

And then he fell.

As a mortal, he retreated from tension and avoided conflict and only ever found pleasure in either with Dean. With the right provocation--and Cas, over the years, came to know all Dean's most devastating triggers, learned exactly how and when to pull them--he could get Dean to fight with him, to fuck him, and the best times came to be when their words were cruelest, the sex most violent. Those were the times when Cas was reassured that Dean could still care enough about something to lose control over it.

And then, one day, the Fearless Leader didn't react to Cas's best efforts at all. Just looked at him with flat scorn and walked out of his cabin like he simply couldn't be bothered.

"He's not empty," Cas emphasized later, the words stumbling from his mouth to swirl and eddy in the haze of smoke hanging over his bed. The distinction he was about to make was important. Or, at least, he wanted it to sound that way. To sell it. "He's just… scarred over."

Risa felt very distant, standing with all her impatience and disapproval on the other side of Cas's cabin. She never came in more than a step or two past the door, especially when he was lit. "Who isn't," she muttered.

Cas had tried so hard. He had said awful things, and used his body shamelessly, and smiled and smiled and smiled. And Dean had just left.

Cas couldn't fault Risa's lack of sympathy.)

Despite the late hour, he doesn't bother turning on any lights. The glow from the lamps out in the yard is bright enough through the windows; besides, these are the days when everyone made an effort to keep the main thoroughfares clear for Bobby's chair. Cas makes it to the kitchen easily enough in the dark, and squints against the sudden wash of light when he opens the refrigerator.

There's a plate wrapped in cellophane on the top shelf, filled with pasta, stewed tomatoes, and a small pile of broccoli. And on the bottom shelf, behind nearly-empty ketchup and a jar of homemade pickled beans, two bottles of beer.

Cas ignores the plate and takes the bottles.

He's just twisting the cap off one, his mouth watering, when his gaze falls on the cutlery drawer. Recollection stirs, bringing with it a flutter of hope; suddenly craving something else entirely, Cas puts his beer on the counter and tosses the bottlecap into the sink. Pulling open the drawer, he lifts up the tray and slides open the false bottom, revealing the cache of baggies tucked haphazardly underneath. He surveys them expectantly, eyes skipping from one messily-handwritten label to the next--but finds, disappointingly, a total lack of salvia, jimson, and opium.

Bobby's voice grumbles from the study, muted through the closed door, but distinct: "I moved 'em."

Cas sighs. "Fair enough." He begins to close up the cache, but stops. His attention lingers on packets marked 'CAMPHOR' and 'MYRRH', all thoughts of hunger forgotten.

After a moment's steady deliberation, he takes them. "I'm just going out to the porch," he tells his attentive audience, to cover the rustling as he picks up both baggies and beer. Bobby answers with a noncommittal grunt.

As he goes, Cas lifts Bobby's jacket from the hook by the door.

Outside, his breath puffs visibly in the crisp, clear, nighttime air, and he pulls Bobby's coat on over his clothes. They're what he wore in 2014, back from the battered old washer and dryer in the basement, only a little bit stained and just as miraculously whole after their encounter with Meg and her knife as his body. It's such a paltry thing to have wasted healing grace on; but then, Cas remembers thinking--for an embarrassingly long time--of that stupid trench coat and suit and tie as just another part of his vessel, just as entitled to the divine privilege of imperishable permanence as the body they clothed.

Naïve though it is, he can't quite begrudge Castiel's diligence. The clothes are ill-fitting and utilitarian, second-hand like everything else he's ever worn; but they're his, proof of the future he came from, and familiar in a completely different way from everything native to this new 2009 and its left-of-centre history. They're oddly comforting.

Cas sits in a dusty, duct-taped folding chair by the front steps, hunched into himself and his layers of clothing against the cold, and drinks his beer. Despite temptation, he drinks only one, and drinks it slowly, and stares blankly at the mounds of scrap rusting under the floodlights while he considers his options. When he ventured out of his bedroom, he had no ambition beyond easing the empty twinge in his stomach; now, the bags of camphor and myrrh lying across his thigh feel heavier than they are, and his mind runs restlessly through too-old memories of what could be found where on any given day at Singer Salvage.

He is very aware of the people in the house at his back. He imagines Dean and Sam upstairs, united in discomfort now in addition to everything else. They're wondering, he thinks, what inappropriate and distasteful thing he's doing now, and why. Wondering why he's here at all, rather than safely dead the way he should be. Resenting his presence because of how everything he is reflects back on them.

He's aware also of the world before him, sprawling beyond the junkyard and past the midnight horizon. The population not yet decimated by Croatoan, and only just beginning to fall prey to acquisitive, war-mongering demons. Soil not yet too poisoned to sustain life, rivers that have yet to be polluted with blood. Heaven still packed to the rafters with the lying, scheming, self-serving dicks of the angelic Host, all of them unaware of his presence--or indifferent to it--because nothing about him is relevant to any them.

Almost any of them.

Cas finishes his beer and makes a decision.

There's a set of keys to the Impala on Bobby's key ring. Cas stuffs the baggies from the kitchen into his pockets as he walks across the yard, finds Bobby's wallet in his coat and counts the cash inside, then pockets it securely, too. He props the wallet up against the Impala's windshield to be found later, and goes to the trunk.

The amphora of holy oil is lighter than he'd hoped--lighter than it should be, he thinks; who, other than Raphael, have they been using it on this time around?--but Cas is accustomed to making do with barely enough, and besides, that's what the myrrh is for. He takes it, as well as a few likely-looking hex bags and a small, silver knife, then shuts the trunk as quietly as possible and heads for the garage.

He's almost at the bay door when Castiel appears directly in front of it, tense with distrust. Cas blinks and glimpses the shape of his wings, cresting high and haughty over his shoulders. "What are you doing?"

Cas doesn't even slow down, just veers around him and through the door. There's not nearly as much light inside, but he keeps going through the gloom, aiming for the old tool chest along the far wall, his hands clenched tightly around his plunder. "Nothing to worry your pretty head over," he answers breezily, flashing his teeth at the darkness. "Or Dean's," he adds as he reaches the wall, and opens his left hand, lets the knife fall to the oil-stained floor, and flattens his bloody palm to the banishing sigil painted blood-on-rust on the side of the chest.

Dean hadn't told him it was there until they'd been living at Chitaqua for three months.

He thinks about keeping his eyes open, seeing what he can see of the overload-flare of Castiel's grace as he's forced into the aether.

He doesn't.

The second Castiel's gone, Cas hurries to Bobby's truck, tosses his things on the passenger seat, and climbs behind the wheel. There's no way to hide the noise of the engine coughing violently to life; he throws the truck into gear and careens out of the yard recklessly fast, hoping that by the time Dean and Sam wake up enough to mount a pursuit, he'll be too far gone to follow.

Checking the rearview repeatedly for headlights, he takes the first turn he comes to, and the second after that, and the first after that. It doesn't matter where he goes, provided it's away from the Winchesters. Three hours should do it; he'll drive closer to four, maybe, just to be safe.

He's jostled brutally as the truck's ancient shocks meet the road's scarred and pitted asphalt, but he manages, clumsily, to undo one of the hex bags, and uses the cloth to wrap his bleeding palm. The small assortment of herbs, fetishes and bones that tumbles onto the seat is encouraging; if he augments the contents of the bags with the camphor from Bobby's stash and a few relatively common grocery items, he should be able to cast a masking spell to hide their location. And if all else fails, a banishing sigil is just another flirtation with tetanus away.

Cas speeds through the night to nowhere in particular, prepared, more or less, to summon the devil.

With an earth-shaking crack of thunder, a coruscant shudder of lightning, and a howl of displaced air, Lucifer appears inside a circle of holy fire in an empty, open-topped grain silo just east of Bassett, Nebraska. He glances around himself, more inquisitive than disoriented. His gaze passes over the few mouldy kernels still scattered across the dirty cement floor, and the tall weeds waving in the wind around the doorless opening to the outside. It lingers on the wards scrawled in blood on the curved walls.

When his survey reaches Cas, it stops, and expectant curiosity dissolves into fascinated revulsion. After a moment he says neutrally, "Well. Look at you."

Cas gazes placidly back. He feels calmer than he expected, facing the Adversary again. Their places were reversed the last time he saw his brother's stopgap vessel, but it's just as Cas remembers, ill-fitting and ordinary, and Cas is more unafraid than he's been since he woke up in Bobby's guest bedroom. "Look at you," he echoes, gesturing vaguely at the clusters of peeling sores developing on Lucifer's temple and cheek. "I think your vessel's seen better days."

"Better the vessel than the angel," Lucifer replies immediately, and Cas tilts his head in concession. "You're… Castiel? My upstart little brother on the run from the Host, crisscrossing the cosmos in desperate search of our Father. Or so I've heard." Lucifer rakes him over, head to toe and back up again, then past his shoulders along the same path Castiel's gaze had taken. His mouth curls unpleasantly. "But you're hardly capable of that."

Cas disregards the insult. His limitations are nothing new. "I'm his Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come."

"Really? How interesting." Just like that, Lucifer's avid with curiosity. "Who sent you back?"

"You did." He waits while Lucifer absorbs this, waits for the moment when he realises what it must mean, when his eyes widen and gleam with dawning satisfaction. "Where I'm from, you and I are the only angels left." And Lucifer shines, the arrogance of the Morning Star radiating from his true form through the fragile skin of his inadequate vessel, causing more sores to blister open. Cas forces his weak, mortal eyes to stay open under the onslaught. "I want to know why you sent me away."

As if he might actually care about Cas's discomfort, Lucifer reins in his triumph and offers a small, contemplative smile. He must be a particularly intriguing novelty, Cas thinks, to have commanded his brother's consideration so easily; but then, of course Lucifer can be magnanimous. He's won. "You do realise," Lucifer says, with the air of someone laying out terms, "that I'm not the one who sent you anywhere."

"Yes. But I'm hardly capable of asking the one who did."

"That's very true." Lucifer's smile hasn't wavered. He looks entirely comfortable inside the fire, not a hint of tension in his vessel or his grace. To Lucifer, Cas supposes, a little holy fire is nothing; he's used to a much more impressive cage than this. "Tell me, brother," he continues, sounding genuinely interested, "in all your gallivanting--however long it lasted--did you ever actually manage to find God?"

He knows the answer already. There's no possible way he couldn't. Cas suspects the question to be another point of negotiation, and broadens his smile emptily. "There was nothing to find."

Lucifer gives him a knowing look. "Hurts, doesn't it," he commiserates. The tone of his voice is a little too arch for true sympathy. "Realising He just… doesn't care."

Cas has never needed to sympathise with the devil. Not over God. "That's not why I fell."

"Oh, I know. Your present-day self's been crawling in the mud for a while now, as I understand it." He looks frankly at Cas now, wholly done with any approximation of sympathy. "I've heard so many things since my return to this sphere, Castiel. I know all about you."

Still smiling, Cas cants his head. "I doubt it."

"Maybe." Lucifer chuckles. His condescension is almost tangible. "But I do know that, where I fell for worship of our Father's greatest creation, you fell for His worst."

"And worship it I have," Cas replies mildly, with an easy, insolent wink. "In thought and in deed, in word and in action, with fingers and tongue and cock--" Lucifer's amusement sours, his mouth twisting with visceral disgust. Cas subsides.

(Cas took something that sensitized his body and anaesthetized his mind, and sank into the writhing, animal tangle on the floor of his cabin with a languorous feeling of submission.

He was greedy with his pleasures, but in fornication, he could be generous. When he was not the last to finish, he pressed himself to Jonah's back and mouthed at his neck and shoulders, slipped his hand down Jonah's broad chest, down between Penny's legs when Jonah's rhythm faltered.

They curled around him afterward, Penny and Jonah and the others, a fucked-out sprawl of sweating flesh and heavy breath. Cas soaked in the endorphins, enjoying the heady atmosphere of spent energy while he could, before it inevitably soured. Too soon, someone would become self-conscious and want to leave; others would follow, and then he'd be alone or left only with people who, outside of sex, made him wish he were. Orgies were great while they lasted, but the comedown--as it was from any human activity he'd found truly worth doing--was a bitch. "'For bliss,'" he found himself saying to no one in particular, his voice rough with recent abuses, "'as thou hast part, to me is bliss; tedious, unshared with thee, and odious soon.'"

"That's pretty," Jonah murmured. Penny, spooned drowsily against Cas's side--and, of the two of them, clearly the more attentive--snorted. "Is it from the Bible?"

In recent weeks, Cas had taken to declaiming Bible verses while cresting the heights of chemicals or sex. The words bubbled forth in his ecstasy for no rational reason he could discern. The Bible was a human document, imprecise where it wasn't outright flawed, and had never served him any purpose as an object of faith: he hadn't venerated it before his fall, and he didn't scorn it after.

So Jonah couldn't be faulted for his assumption, even though it was wrong.

Cas was boneless on the floorboards, heavy with satiation. The lines were from Milton's Paradise Lost, but he didn't want to talk, so he answered, "Yes.")

Conscious of the wind building steadily outside, the clouds beginning to roil thick and dark right above the roofless silo, Cas asks again, bluntly: "Why would you send me away?"

Lucifer crosses his arms. He regards him now with undisguised judgement and rather thinner patience. "You really don't like being here, do you."

"I've been here before," Cas points out. His own tolerance for Lucifer's sideways needling stretches tight. "I fail to see any point in being here again. I'm superfluous this time, and I certainly can't change anything. I have no place here."

"Did you have a place in the future?"

Cas hesitates, and Lucifer smirks, and frustration knots in Cas's chest at his brother's effortless insight and his own vulnerability. There, at least, he knew who he was. Everyone did. There, he was Cas, ex-angel junkie fuck-up and prodigious lay for the multitudes. Devotee of the path of least resistance. Mortal who failed, persistently, to achieve true mortality.


Cas feels again the sickening shift of his history being corroded away under this Dean's different choices. He shakes his head. "If I did, I can't be certain of it here. I can't be certain of anything, here."

"Why on earth not?" Lucifer blinks at him, incredulous. Pointed and pedantic, as if Cas has missed the most self-evident fact in all of creation, he says, "You said it yourself, brother: you can't change anything. I'm going to win. I will win, and all our sanctimonious brothers and sisters who cast me down will lose, and you will become what you have become, always and forever, amen. You'll be--" His gaze travels again, past Cas and up, as if unable to resist the spectacle of Cas's deformity. "--mortal. Human, basically. You're going to prove yourself faulty and inferior, and frankly, seeing you now, I can't help thinking that maybe I'll send you away because you have no place with me."

Lucifer's voice rings off the curved walls of the silo, his grace boils with loathing, and all at once, Cas is back on the floor of the sanitarium. There's a leaden void where his grace should be, a terrible blank space where Dean has ceased to be, and Lucifer's presence fills his senses beyond all tolerance. He's broken and bleeding, angry and afraid--faulty, yes, and inferior--and yet, his brother touches him gently and leans in close and promises comfort Cas never gets because then he sends him away.

Sends him here. To a Dean who has his brother and his angel and no room left for him.

Cas looks helplessly across the impassable fire of his brother's circle. "Lucifer, we're the only ones left."

Lucifer arches a chiding eyebrow. "I'm the only one left," he corrects with finality, and the yearning pit inside Cas ices straight through.

Lucifer watches him closely; after a long, searching moment, his vainglory relents. In the warm orange glow of the flames, his ineffectual vessel looks almost kind. "Castiel. Would you rather have stayed?"

Cas laughs out a torn, hollow breath. "I was dying at the time," he explains, truth falling from him like a burden. "So, yes."

Lucifer smiles. "Maybe that's why," he muses.

As Cas drives away from the overgrown lot, another thunderburst shakes the pre-dawn sky. Moments later, rain pours down directly over the silo.

He doesn't worry about Lucifer following him: he'd etched his own ribs early in 2010. The one relief that came with losing his grace was the realisation that he no longer felt constantly dislocated within his own body.

It's a long drive back. Ahead of him, the sun rises relentlessly out of the horizon, blood-red and brazen.

He stops at a diner, and barely tastes his food.

He stops for gas, and considers filling the empty cola can from the floor of the truck's cab, pulling off somewhere down the road, and sniffing the fumes until everything numbs out.

He stops at a liquor store, spends the rest of Bobby's money, and listens to the dull clink of full bottles vibrating against each other all the way back to Sioux Falls.

He pulls into Bobby's yard just after eleven o'clock, under a sky like slate. Before he can even shut off the engine, Dean's storming furiously out the front door and down the steps of the porch.

"Where the fuck have you been?"

Cas slides out of the cab, his bag of clinking bottles cradled to his chest. "Visiting Lucifer," he says, and is too weary to enjoy Dean's speechless apoplexy. There's nothing all that funny about it, anyway. "Relax, Dean. It was an unproductive meeting. We both left unsatisfied." It's a lie, of course: Cas doesn't think anything could make Lucifer happier than the news he gave him this morning. But up close, Dean's skin is ashen under the fever-blotches of his anger, and his eyes are circled in shadowy bruises; he doesn't need to hear about that. Instead, Cas pauses before walking around him, meeting his eyes for one plain moment. "It won't happen again."

He may be a mess, but his mess is contained. In 2014, the people he slept with didn't accost him in public to berate his transience; once he learned how to regulate himself, his abuse of whatever chemicals he could get into his body never interfered with his aim. His despair left others well-fucked and sated, not fucked over and dead. Here, in 2009, he brushes past Dean and goes inside, ignores Bobby and Sam where they're watching from the study, and withdraws, again, to the north bedroom. He takes a book at random from Bobby's shelves as he passes.

He spends the next few hours lying on the bed, working his way methodically through his bottles and the book, which turns out to be a history of witch-hunting written by a civilian academic. If Cas pretends it was intended to be fiction, it's actually somewhat entertaining.

He waits, but no one comes to check on him, talk to him, or yell at him. He doesn't want them to.

He's almost through his third fifth of whisky before he passes out.

Cas wakes, somewhat, at dusk. Out the window, the sky's a darkening shade of violet.

Just opening his eyes sends the bed spinning lazily and unstoppably beneath him. Cas breathes through it, dry lips pressed together, exhaling through his nose in short, heavy bursts.

He's not alone. He knows immediately, even half-drowned and half-unconscious. Castiel stands in the deepening shadows against the wall, watchful and silent. His grace feels muted, bound tightly within his vessel. Restrained.

Suicide watch, Cas thinks blearily, and laughs. It comes out choked, like a sob, but he's already sinking under again, and doesn't notice.

He wakes again, much more fully, and it's pitch dark. Castiel is gone.

Cas's head feels thick, his body at once sickeningly hollow and needing, urgently, to relieve itself. He lurches upright and to the bathroom, dragging one hand along the wall for balance.

Once he's finished, he stands again in front of the mirror, staring. Not at himself, this time, but at the mirror: it's hinged on one side, and serves as the front of a shallow cabinet. After a while, Cas reaches out and swings it open.

Inside are three shelves. Except for an unopened bar of soap, they're empty.

Behind Cas, there's a creak. He turns; Dean's in the doorway, bed-rumpled in shorts and a t-shirt, but wide awake and wary. He looks from Cas to the open, empty medicine cabinet, and then he just looks defeated.

Cas goes to him on instinct. Dean's eyes widen at the approach; as Cas comes close, he backs away, his own, opposite instinct fueling what little retreat he can manage in the cramped space before he fetches up against the wall, trapped, nowhere left to go.

Cas stops with one inch of air left between them, one bare inch that might as well be five years. His whole body aches for contact, to push in that one inch more and lose himself in touch, let himself have; but Dean's leaning hard against the wall--leaning away--and so Cas doesn't move. Holds himself still and closes his eyes and breathes in, slow and deep, warmth and old cotton, whisky, coffee and Dean.

(The air between them was humid and heavy, rich with woodsmoke, acrid with gunfire, sour with alcohol and exertion. Cas, shuddering and needy, broke his open mouth from Dean's, nipped at his jaw, tasted the sweat-salty skin of his throat and tongued at his pulse.

"Cas," Dean gasped, and arched under him, tangled his hand in his hair and tugged, and held. "Cas, Cas--")

"Cas?" Dean says uncertainly. His hand settles, light and tentative, on Cas's shoulder.

Cas swallows down nausea and opens his eyes. He doesn't look at Dean. He goes back to bed.

Cas wakes again, and it's morning.

He's exhausted. He pulls himself out of bed anyway, steps over the empty bottles on the floor, wanders quietly down the hallway to the bathroom.

He showers in tepid water and thinks about nothing. His eyes in the mirror as he runs a listless hand through his dripping hair are vacant.

When he arrives in the kitchen, the others are ranged around the table in the sharp-edged silence of cut-off conversation, their breakfast dishes empty but not yet cleared. Cas's notice passes absently right over Sam's nervous, darting glance, Bobby's perpetual frown, and Dean's white-knuckled grip on his mug; he goes to the steaming pot on the counter and pours himself some coffee, then drinks it black, still holding the pot. It scorches into his stomach, too hot and far too strong.

"Okay, Cas, look--"

"Most hunters believe it's enough just to cremate a uakti, but that's untrue." His voice sounds relatively unabused; he's pleased by that, distantly. Turning, he meets three surprised faces. "There's a Tucano chant that needs to be spoken over the burning body to keep it from growing back out of the ashes. Linguistically, it's fairly complicated, but fortunately, you don't have to understand everything you're saying for it to work."

Dean sits motionless, staring up at him, disbelief and frustration and blankness and hurt warring openly through what Cas can see of his soul. The sight makes something flutter sickly under Cas's breastbone, weak and unwanted; he focuses instead on Sam and Bobby, who exchange a freighted glance. "You, uh," Bobby begins, then clears his throat and tries again. "You know this linguistically complicated chant good enough for jazz?"

"I do. I thought I'd teach it to you today; I'm sure your friend in Utah's getting anxious to have their uakti dealt with. Sam?" Cas ignores the way Sam startles. "What do you think? I'd teach Dean, but--" He ghosts a wry smile. "--we both know he lacks patience for that kind of thing."

"Uh." Sam glances at Dean, but gets nothing; looks again at Bobby, who raises his eyebrows and shrugs. Blinking back up at Cas, he says cautiously, "Sure, I guess. I mean--okay."

"Okay." Cas nods, the matter decided, and crosses into the study to start his day. He takes his bitter coffee with him.

After a moment, Sam follows.

Dean doesn't.

Sam memorises the trilingual chant perfectly. In the process, he forgets his discomfort with Cas; eventually, he's quizzing him animatedly on South American hunting practises and lore.

Cas lounges indolently in his chair on the other side of the desk. He answers Sam's intrigued questions, accepts his increasingly-frequent smiles of piqued curiosity and genuine appreciation, catches occasional glimpses of oil-black residue sluicing sullenly under his skin, and thinks him far too willing to accommodate anyone who satisfies his desire for knowledge.

It's what allowed Sam to be so easily led by Ruby in the wake of Dean's death, when she provided a ready answer to his only, desperate question: What do I do without him? Cas wonders if, in the wake of Dean's rejection, that quality might have played a role in swaying Sam toward Lucifer, as well.

Carefully, Cas stops thinking about it.

"So," Sam says, squinting a little at the screen of his laptop as he skims the information he's pulled up, "a machi is basically a witch."

Cas shrugs. "The traditions are much different; a better comparison would be to a priest or a doctor. But there are broad similarities."

Sam slants him a look. "Dean hates witches."

"Yes, he does. But if you're ever on a hunt in Chile, working with a machi might save your life." He doesn't know why he said it. They'll never be in Chile. He and Dean only made it into Mexico twice; the farthest south Dean ever travelled was Corpus Christi.

But that was then. Maybe, this time around--with Sam--they will find themselves in Chile. Or the Yukon. Or anywhere else Dean never had cause to visit when his apocalypse was populated solely by him and Cas and their chronic, self-cannibalising failures.

Carefully, Cas stops thinking about that, too.

Sam types in a note, nodding thoughtfully; then, glancing at the bottom of his screen, he startles. "Oh, crap. Hey, Bobby, we gotta get going. You're gonna be late."

In the kitchen, where he's spent the morning ostensibly paying his bills but really keeping a weather eye on everything happening in the study, Bobby throws down his pen. "Balls. Physical therapy," he explains to Cas, hunching resentfully in his chair as Sam abandons their notes to gather his coat and keys. "Ordinarily, I'd blow it off, but this chucklehead answered the phone when they called to confirm, so I'm stuck."

Cas stands as well, stretching. Without conviction, he says, "I'm sure it'll be good for you."

"Yeah, 'cause you're one for advocating healthy lifestyle choices." But Bobby rolls himself dourly to the door anyway.

As he pulls on his jacket in the foyer, Sam pauses, giving Cas a hesitant look. "You gonna be okay while we're gone?"

Cas's mouth curves automatically into his easiest, most self-effacing smile. "Dean's around here somewhere, isn't he?" He disappeared sometime after Cas and Sam started working. Cas hadn't noticed when he left the kitchen, and hasn't so much as glimpsed him through a window since, but Sam and Bobby wouldn't think of leaving if it meant leaving him alone.

"Well, yeah." Sam's tone, more than his words, confirms it. "But that's not really what I asked."

Cas looks at the harder angles of apprehension creeping back into Sam's posture. He supposes it wasn't. "I'll be fine, Sam."

Another pause; then, Sam nods--maybe not convinced, but willing to accommodate. As always. "Okay. And, hey. Thanks for the lesson."

When they're gone, Cas putters vaguely between the study and the kitchen: tidying papers and reshelving books; taking his coffee cup to the sink; glancing uninterestedly at the mess of Bobby's account books on the table.

He can feel Castiel's grace, but only distantly. He has no idea where Dean is.

His attention circles emptily around all the things he isn't thinking about.

He's still exhausted.

Eventually, he drifts back upstairs, trying to remember whether he drank all the whisky last night, or if there might still be some in a bottle tangled somewhere in his blankets. Neither possibility generates more than a nebulous feeling of apathy.

When he opens the bedroom door, Dean is leaning against the wall by the window, his arms crossed, his expression a careful blank. Beside him, lined up neatly on the windowsill, are Cas's bottles: one full, two fully empty, and one with just a few fingers left.

That answers those questions, Cas thinks, and greets Dean with a smile. "Of course. Time for my interrogation."

A muscle flickers in Dean's jaw: his usual tic of displeasure at being conflated with who he became. "No," he says flatly. "I'm not gonna interrogate you, Cas."

"Ah." Cas has his doubts, which he expresses with a wry cut of his gaze as he crosses to the bed and sits on the edge. "Then what shall we do, Dean? Can I interest you in a drink?"

Dean follows his nod to the line of bottles on the sill, and his lips press into a thin, pale line. But he keeps his anger--disappointment? Discomfort? It probably doesn't matter; in Cas's experience, the latter two usually lead gravitationally back to the first, with Dean--tightly leashed as he says, "When you want to get drunk, you don't screw around."

Nor had he when he wanted to get high, or laid. But opportunities to indulge those vices seem much harder to come by here. "My work ethic survived the fall."

It earns him a sharp look. Dean pushes off the wall but doesn't come closer, scrubs his hand over his mouth while he assembles his words. "No," he says again, decision hard and blunt in his voice. "You know what? Fuck it. This is an interrogation, Cas, because otherwise, I don't think you're ever gonna tell me shit." Glaring, he plants his feet and draws himself up, making an exaggerated show of intimidation: Is this what you want? "What were you doing with Lucifer?"

Satisfied in his earlier doubts, Cas answers him mildly: "Nothing important." Dean's expression, already unforgiving, gets stonier. Sighing, Cas laces his fingers together in his lap. "We talked."

"Oh, 'cause he's so friggin' worth talking to." But Dean pauses, his anger tempered suddenly with unease. "Were you trying to get yourself sent back?"

Cas laughs. He doesn't usually, when he's sober; usually, when he's sober, it takes far too much effort. It comes spontaneously now. "What could you possibly think would still be there that I'd want to go back to?"

"Then what the hell, Cas? He could've killed you!"

"If that's what he wanted, he would've let me die in 2014. I wasn't in danger."

"Did you know that before you had your face-to-face?"

Cas's mirth gutters out under the inexorable weight of renewed lethargy. He doesn't see why that should matter. "I went to him for answers," he explains finally, suffering the necessity of it with a strange pang of self-consciousness. Dean's seen him in withdrawal; he's been pinned down with him in a hot zone for days with no food; he was there throughout Cas's search for God, and when his grace evaporated for good. It strikes Cas as unpunctual, that he should feel ashamed admitting to a desperation for answers. "He had none that I wanted to hear."

"Okay." Dean seems relieved, latching onto a motive he can parse. "Okay, so you hit a bad patch, and you went on a bender. I get that. But Cas--" He moves earnestly forward, crossing almost to the side of the bed before stopping short like he's hit a wall. Like he's afraid to get too close. "--that can't be how you do things all the time."

"That's how I've been doing things for years, Dean." Cas thinks of the space he kept between them in the bathroom; then, fiercely now, stops. Falling back on his slipshod smile and a loose shift of his spine, he says lightly, "You never objected then."

The muscle in Dean's jaw flutters. "Yeah, well, my head was up my ass. I'm objecting now." But then he yields, incrementally, with a deep breath and a shake of his head. "Look, nobody expects you to be Joe Sobriety, okay? Mostly 'cause that'd make us all serious friggin' hypocrites, but--just--" He cuts one hand through the air, ineloquent and imploring. "Maybe don't drink alone so much, huh?"

It's like they're performing some kind of aberrant morality play. Cas gives him a tolerant look. "You're very accommodating, Dean," he says graciously; then, unable to stop himself, adds, "That would be Sam's influence, I imagine."

Dean goes tense again. "Yeah, okay, speaking of Sam. You wanna tell me where the whole National Geographic thing came from?" Cas blinks innocently; Dean's eyes narrow. "One day, you're going out of your way to treat Sam like some kind of war criminal--"

"It wasn't that far out of my way."

"--and now you're practically braiding his hair while the two of you geek out over creature features." Dean's interrogative menace is genuine now; he slips into it easily, so fully habituated to the task of guarding his brother by whatever means necessary. It required more effort, Cas notes distantly, when he first began doing it at Chitaqua, where all he guarded was his own autonomy. "Hell of a one-eighty, there, Cas."

Cas tilts his head thoughtfully. "Not really. I'm just following the Winchester example." He returns Dean's look, mock-stern. "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em."

Dean stares blankly for a moment--then scowls, offended and angry. "Oh, 'cause you still think Sam's gonna say yes? Well, hell, don't do us any favours."

Sam warps his perspective. Cas had intended his remark as a slight against Dean, as well, but that seems to have gone unnoticed. "That's not what I mean."

"Then what the hell do you mean?"

Cas sighs. He sits in a room that's always been too cold. On the windowsill, there's liquor he can't reach; standing over him, a Dean he can't touch; in the marrow of his bones, the cruelly empty thrill of grace he doesn't have. He's out of time, indefinitely. He's exhausted.

And Dean wants to know what he means.

"When I agreed to join you on that final mission," he says, "I expected to die. I intended to die, because so did you, and Dean, if I am anything anymore, I am going to follow wherever you lead. And you did it. You died, and I felt it, and I thought--hey, I'm trapped in a building full of demons and croats, I'll be dead in minutes." He laughs, a damaged chuckle that swells up and bursts out of him like blood bubbling from a chest wound. "But I wasn't. I'm not. Instead, I'm back at the start of it all, the whole goddamn apocalypse, and I can't even kill myself because you're here, too." It comes out too loudly, the truth laid too plain; Dean looks like he's been gutted. Cas takes a steadying breath, and relents. "So I'll help when I can," he concludes indifferently, "and I'll be completely fucking useless when I can't, and none of it will mean a thing, Dean. That's what I've decided: it'll be just like before, and none of it will matter." He smiles again, cracked and empty. Just like before. "I'll still be here."

Dean has caved in on himself, the uncompromising stance of his body gone fragile and afraid. His feet falter, toeing an invisible boundary on the floorboards; then, unsteadily, he mutters, "Damn it, Cas," and crosses the last small distance to the bed. He keeps his eyes lowered as he sits, fixed on the inches of rumpled blanket between them. "Look," he says, and clears his throat. "I appreciate the loyalty, I do. And we sure as hell could use all the help we can get, but--" Cas watches him struggle, captivated by the pained tightening around his eyes, the freckled pallor of his skin, the tug of muscles at the corners of his mouth. The muted gleam of his soul. Cas hasn't been permitted to study Dean like this in a very long time; he finds him beautiful. His failure is that he always does. "All I'm saying is," Dean continues, forced strength in his voice as he finally looks up, "Lucifer's a sore fucking winner. You've been through all kinds of shit for me already, and… if you don't want to keep doing this, I'd understand. I'd get it."

It's Cas's turn to stare, bemused; then he laughs again, full-throated and incredulous. "You think I'd do any of this out of obligation?" Dean--always too ready to assume personal responsibility for everyone's tragedies, always--doesn't understand, and watches his amusement with wide, bewildered eyes. Cas does touch him then, curves his hand around the side of his neck and rubs his thumb across his cheek, holds him where he is when he tries, instinctively, to lean away. It's the first time he's touched Dean since he arrived, he realises, and his fingers tighten of their own volition. "Dean," he says fondly, "oh, Dean. I can't believe I forgot how stupid you could be."

And because Dean doesn't understand and nothing Cas does matters, Cas kisses him.

It's entirely chaste; ridiculously so, their mouths closed and motionless as Cas presses them together. But under Cas's thumb, Dean's pulse jumps and pounds, and his body goes sharply still, and all at once, Cas no longer feels like laughing. He pulls away.

Dean's eyes stay closed. His lashes, long and pale, brush his gently pinked skin; he swallows thickly. When he finally opens his eyes, he looks at Cas like he's seeing him for the first time: like the moment he first saw him in Hell, when Cas was grace and glory and purpose and might and Dean's soul went to its knees because it knew just how powerless it was. And Dean breathes, " …oh."

The hollow in Cas's chest constricts. He doesn't think; he rises up, kneels over Dean's thighs, straddles his hips and settles his weight on Dean's lap, presses in close and kisses him again. It's an endless, anxious moment before Dean relaxes beneath him, opening up to him with a hitch of breath, cupping his hands around Cas's cheeks and letting him lick hungrily into his mouth.

And then it's all Cas can do not to lose track of time.

"I miss you," he finds himself saying, murmuring against Dean's skin. Cas wraps himself tightly around the solid warmth of him, his arms like bands across Dean's back, his hands clutching Dean's shirt and hair, his breath in Dean's mouth; Dean doesn't pull away when Cas leans their foreheads together, lets Cas nuzzle insistently at his cheek, presses soft, lingering kisses to the corner of Cas's mouth in return. And all the while, deep in Cas's core, the sense that blanked out in 2014 remains barren and nerveless and null. "I miss you, Dean, I miss you--"

There's a beat of wings; the air stirs. Cas's body, already humming with Dean's closeness, sings discordantly in sudden, graceless shock. Beneath him, Dean seizes up and leans back, pulling his hands off Cas as if burnt.

Time snaps back into pitilessly linear definition. Cas fists his hands in Dean's shirt and opens his eyes.

"I'm sorry, I--" Castiel's eyes are saucers. They flicker from Cas to Dean, then down and away, brimming with confusion and hurt. "--thought you prayed to me."

Dean tries to move, to rise, without putting his hands back on Cas. He looks past him to Castiel, urgent and pleading and jarred with guilt. "Cas, wait--"

But Castiel's already spreading his wings: Cas glimpses the ghostly suggestion of them filling the room, cutting the air almost clumsily in his haste to leave. There's no question of whether he'd return; for now and the next five years, he has nothing else. They all know he'd come back.

But Dean is afraid of what will change between them if he goes.

And Cas, crushed suddenly under a weight of envy, is afraid of what might not. "Yes, wait."

Startled, Castiel does: the sprawl of his wings goes still and invisible. Beneath Cas, Dean freezes, uncertain.

Cas rises fluidly from his lap.

He'd almost had this, before; he'd been so close. But Dean had interrupted, and Castiel had been frightened off, and Cas had managed nothing more than his dry lips sparking along Castiel's cheekbone, the stubborn impermeability of Castiel's skin between him and the inhuman force of his old self. Now, he crosses the narrow space of the room, sinks into the heat spilling from Castiel like the tension of his restraint, and kisses him.

Castiel gives a half-voiced breath of surprise. Then, his body surging against Cas's, he kisses him back like he's been waiting for an excuse.

The fit of their mouths is hot and firm and mirror-perfect.

Under the heady sting of grace, Castiel tastes plainly, painfully human.

Dean curses.

Cas pulls himself back, feeling drugged. He opens his eyes; Castiel is watching him the way he watches Dean, searching and intense. Cas flattens his hand on Castiel's chest, on the lapel of his coat; under his palm--under his grace--Castiel's human heart thuds heavily, trapped in his ribcage, beat beat beat.

Need tugs inside Cas like a barbed hook sunk deep. His fingers twitch on the familiar fabric of Castiel's clothes. He glances back at Dean, who is transfixed, staring at them as if balanced on the edge of a precipice and petrified by how much he wants to tip over. "In my past, this happens not too far in your future," Cas says, and doesn't think about a dark room in a decrepit motel two hours from Carthage, Missouri. He smiles. "No time like the present."

Cas has always liked undressing Dean, always took pleasure in dismantling layers of flannel and cotton to bare the naked shape of him, the addictive expanse of his skin. Even after Cas's mortality left him unable to heal the wounds that increasingly marred Dean's perfectly remade body, he liked it. Exposing that ever-growing catalogue of physical imperfections gave Cas a self-affirming sense of abnegation; it allowed him to think, sometimes--in the chemical misfires of the occasional bad trip or the brutal, false clarity of a crash--he might point to them and say, See how little I could influence even that much of him.

But when Dean stops kissing Castiel long enough to grip the hem of his tee and pull it up over his head, the collection of scars Cas unthinkingly expects isn't there. Aside from the stark black lines of the tattoo high on his chest and the raised, discoloured print of Cas's own palm on his shoulder, he's undamaged and whole, his body and his soul both still so close to the pristine result of Cas's laborious reconstruction.

Cas never saw this Dean like this. He stares, longing curling low and tight around his spine.

Dean stares at him, too, when Cas strips easily out of his shapeless shirt and shucks his baggy pants and underwear onto the floor. It's not just his utter unselfconsciousness that captures Dean's attention; not only the extensive map of apocalyptically hard road etched and injected across his body in varyingly healed shades of red-pink-white. As he and Dean turn their hands to tugging Castiel's trench coat and suit jacket off his shoulders, unthreading his tie and belt and working open all his buttons--Castiel submits to being undressed with a passivity that twists something inside Cas--another disparity becomes obvious: where Castiel is still the picture of their vessel's lean, toned health, Cas is much skinnier, his sallow skin stretched tightly over his ribcage and the jut of his hipbones. Dean trails his fingertips over the sharp, scarred lines of Cas's ribs, and his gaze darts guiltily between him and Castiel, heavy with unspoken comparisons.

Cas feels as unexpectedly trapped by Dean's scrutiny of his human form as he did by Castiel's examination of his angelic one. He bears Dean down onto the bed to distract him, traces the bow of his upper lip with his tongue until Dean surrenders his self-reproach to his steadily building lust and touches Cas again with unpitying hands.

The warm, heavy stroke of Castiel's hand from the base of Cas's skull to the base of his spine is a surprise. Cas arches into it like a cat, caught on the hone and spur of grace in Castiel's palm. "You feel--" Castiel says, his voice a low, rough, barely-voiced breath, "--when I touch you--" Then he's pressing in close behind Cas, his long, fevered fingers skimming electrically over the bony contours of his shoulders, the column of his throat, the flat of his stomach, everywhere. Cas sways back against him as if magnetised, and feels Castiel's cock fit to the curve of his ass. Meeting the hot weight of Dean's gaze, he rocks his hips down in a slow, deliberate grind, and Castiel shudders against him and moans, like it hurts and he needs it to, like if it didn't hurt he'd never be able to stand it: "Are we always so hungry?"

Something fractures in the cavity of Cas's chest. Closing his eyes against the look on Dean's face, he reaches back and buries his hand in Castiel's hair, turns his head and seals their mouths together in a filthy-deep kiss.

It's distraction enough: Castiel licks into Cas's mouth like he wants to taste him everywhere, and after a moment, Dean exhales a shaky chuckle. "Shit, guys, not fair."

One more wet suck at Castiel's lower lip; then Cas pulls away and considers the decadent sprawl of Dean beneath him. "What do you want, Dean?"

Dean's eyes go wide, then dark, black swallowing up all but a thin rim of green as he looks from Cas to Castiel. "Jesus. Jesus. I--" His breath catches, and his gaze falters. In a lost-sounding mutter, he concludes, "Too fucking much."

Castiel moves out from behind Cas to lean forward over Dean, his attention roaming up his body until his eyes fix intently on Dean's face. "Dean," he says, his voice a molten rasp Cas feels in the base of his spine, and he curves his hand over the hard swell of Dean's dick. "I want you inside me."

Dean squeezes his eyes shut, his mouth falling open in what almost looks like pain, his hips jolting to push himself up against Castiel's hand. Cas knows exactly what he's seeing in the dark behind his eyelids; he sees it himself, feels it in a hot rush of sense memory, has to fist his cock too tightly and force himself to breathe through it.

It's been months since he and Dean last fucked. Since Dean stopped wanting him, stopped indulging him. Stopped using him. Just... stopped.

Cas gets himself back under control. He lets himself go and smooths his hand calmingly over Dean's chest, feeling the air working in and out of his lungs. "We can do that," he murmurs, and Castiel's gaze lands on him like a touch. "Dean. Dean, do you have--"

Dean turns his cheek to the pillow, pressing into it as if he's trying to hide. "Duffle in the closet," he grates, sounding broken. "Inside pocket."

Cas leans down and kisses him before he goes. Dean opens for it, warm and wet, gets Cas's tongue between his lips and sucks on it, chases his mouth when he pulls away.

The duffle's buried under a heap of wrinkled clothes. As he digs down, Cas listens to creaking bedsprings, hitched breaths, and the slick noises of skin on skin behind him, and tries not to notice the slight tremor in his hands.

In the pocket where he finds the lube, there are also condoms, which Cas disregards out of habit. But as he pushes the duffle back into the pile of clothes, he thinks of Dean peeling out of his worn shirt, the revelation of his clean, unblemished body; Cas is reminded again, violently, when he is.

None of it will matter, part of him insists, but he reaches back into the duffle for the condoms anyway.

When he straightens up and turns around, supplies in hand, Castiel is stretched out above Dean, between his thighs, kissing him fervently while Dean nudges his fingers into the cleft of his ass. As Cas watches, Dean crooks his fingers and Castiel breaks the kiss, pushing back into Dean's touch with a breathy, "Oh--"

Dean's arm flexes; Castiel's back curves, his hips angling down into Dean's, and then they're sliding against each other, pressing for friction, their cocks dragging between their damp bellies flushed hard and red and obscene. Castiel stares down at Dean with eyes blown wide, looking stunned; Dean stares raptly back, his spit-kissed lips parted around panting breaths.

Cas's thoughts go blank and dark. He watches; his free hand wraps around his dick; he strokes himself once, twice, again, smearing himself roughly with the wetness beading out of him.

Then he stops. And breathes. And goes back to the bed, and kneels behind Castiel.

When he pushes his slicked fingers alongside Dean's--further, inside--Castiel tips his head back and moans. Cas presses himself to Castiel's back, mouths at the juncture of his neck and shoulder and watches Dean beneath them, feeling a fresh wash of heat roll through him at the way Dean watches back: his lust-black eyes rove from his face to Castiel's, down to Cas's hand splayed in the centre of Castiel's chest, to Castiel's cock straining against his stomach, to the movement of Cas's hand working his fingers into Castiel's body. "Soon, Dean," Cas assures him, and twists his fingers to make Castiel thrust down hard against him. "Almost there."

Dean rides up to meet Castiel's bucking hips, his hands skimming up and down Castiel's flanks. Dragging his gaze up from where he and Castiel are rutting together, he gives Cas a tormented look and lets out a desperate-sounding chuckle. "--fucking tease, you know that?"

Cas smiles at him and licks a line up the side of Castiel's neck.

And then, to his shock--and Dean's, his whole body freezing, his breath catching in his chest--Castiel growls, "You are." Abruptly, he rises up off Cas's hand; kneeling over Dean, he reaches his own hand beneath himself and grips Dean's cock, holds it steady and sinks down onto it in one long, slow, utterly pornographic motion.

"Holy shit, Cas--" Dean says, strangled, and it's not directed at him but Cas's dick throbs anyway. Pulling back, he moves to Dean's side just in time to watch Castiel seat himself fully on Dean's hips, looking down at Dean as if he can't believe what he's feeling, huge-eyed and devastated as if he didn't know. And he didn't; Cas knows he didn't, because he hadn't. Having Dean inside him, taking him deep, feeling him come--he hadn't had any idea.

Beside him, Dean bends his knees, flattens his feet on the bed and rolls his hips haltingly against Castiel, whose breath quakes out low and vocal. It startles Cas back to the present, sends a blaze of want flaring through him; he says, "Wait, Dean--wait--" and leans over, and gets his mouth around the head of Castiel's cock. He pauses just long enough to hear Dean's shock-loud, "Cas--" before opening up and going down as far as he can, meeting the uncontrolled jerk of Dean's hips that shoves Castiel's dick right to the back of his throat.

It's not the best angle, but Cas has done more with worse. And he's never wanted it like he wants this: Castiel, filling him up, stretching his lips and heavy on his tongue; Castiel, taking Dean's cock and taking Cas's mouth and coming undone between them; Castiel, still surging with grace, positively shaking with need.

Castiel, so fucking hungry.

Bracing himself with one hand low on Dean's stomach, feeling the muscles there clench and twitch with the effort of keeping still, Cas fucks his mouth on him, tasting his own skin, slicking it wet and messy with his own saliva and the bitterness of his own precome. For a long moment Castiel just quivers, his body motionless as Cas works him; then, like a release, Cas feels his hand slide into his hair, curve around the back of his skull and grip, and Castiel starts a slow, rocking push: forward into Cas's mouth, back onto Dean's cock.

Dean bites out, "Motherfuck--" and then his hand's on Cas too, warm and a little damp on the back of his neck. Cas arches involuntarily into the touch only to feel Castiel's hand tighten, pull him back down as he pushes more urgently in. "Cas," Dean breathes, rough and awed. "Cas--fuck. Both of you, Jesus, look at you--"


"Yeah. Yeah, Cas, that's it, he's close, he's--fuck, come on, just--wanna see you come, Cas--"

And Cas wants--he wants--to make him. As Castiel rocks back, Cas goes with him, pushes him firmly onto Dean's dick and keeps him there while he swallows him down. Castiel makes a low, shocked noise; tensing, he holds Cas right where he is and comes in thick pulses down his throat.

Cas swallows and swallows--Dean's hand is heavy on his neck, his thumb rubbing restlessly back and forth on his nape--until Castiel makes another, less pleased noise and tugs at his hair. Cas pulls off wetly and barely takes the time to suck in a full breath before turning, leaning up and kissing Dean, licking the taste of Castiel--of himself--from his own tongue into Dean's mouth.

Dean groans and moves, fucking up hard into Castiel, finally. Cas kisses him once more, catches one more addictive taste of the three of them in the lush swipe of his tongue along Dean's lower lip, then pulls away and opens his eyes to watch.

And oh, it's beautiful. Dean's on the edge, wearing that wrecked look he gets when he's close, his eyes wide and glassy, his parted lips slick and red. The hand he hasn't tangled in Cas's hair clutches Castiel's hip, holding tight as he shoves in. And Castiel arches above him, skin flushed all over, gaze fixed on Dean and fucking ravenous; bending suddenly forward, he plants one hand on the mattress by Dean's head and pushes himself ruthlessly back onto Dean's thrusts, lean arm and shoulder muscles flexing. Dean curses, more a punch of air than a word, and Cas can't keep from touching himself anymore, makes a tunnel of his fist and starts jacking himself to the sight of them.

"Dean." Castiel's voice is ruined, low and thick with lust and wonder. He skates his free hand up Dean's heaving chest, lingering intently on the sweat-sheened line and dip of his collarbone, then sliding up his throat to his jaw. "Dean, you feel--"

Cas shudders and strokes his thumb hard along the underside of his cock, chasing the liquid heat building under his skin. Before this, he remembers, thoughts curling sluggishly through the heavy haze of sex, he'd known the entirety of Dean's body--but only intellectually, as a constructed thing, a sum of parts retrieved from the Pit and reassembled for a purpose that wasn't his to know. The discrepancy between that sterile awareness and his experience of it now, like this--as he makes it come messily apart in ways angels aren't supposed to begin to understand--makes him insatiate: Castiel touches Dean constantly, restively, because he wants to feel.

He's almost fully hard again already, his cock rubbing in sweat and its own slicks on Dean's stomach.

Abruptly, Dean releases his clawed grip in Cas's hair and reaches for Castiel instead, flattening both his palms to the base of Castiel's spine, holding him on the now-ragged thrust of his hips. "Cas," he chokes, staring shockily up at Castiel, whose hands scrabble onto Dean's chest as he follows Dean's urging, rearing back and bowing his body to take him as deep as he can.

And Cas--with ice-crack dissonance and a quake of dissociation--thinks: This isn't mine.

(They failed in Carthage, resoundingly. Failed to anticipate Meg's ambush. Failed to prevent Lucifer from raising Death or snapping Jo Harvelle's neck. Failed to pull Ellen away from her daughter's body before the hellhounds reached them.

"When Sam says yes," Lucifer said equably from atop a mass grave, his hand resting on the shovel planted upright in the mound, "we're going to tear you to pieces. And you know what? Sam will enjoy it just as much as I will. Trust me on that, Dean." He smiled, patronising, his face smudged with dirt and resentment. "I have a stifling older brother, too."

Dean drove, breathing raggedly and shaking minutely and not saying a word to Cas--not even glancing at where he slumped, drained from their escape, on the seat beside him--for more than two hours.

Finally, he swerved the car into the parking lot of a motel in the middle of nowhere. The cracked pavement was riddled with desultory tufts of dead grass; the eaves were rusted out, the shingles peeling free, and half the exterior lights were dead. The place looked condemned.

As soon as they entered their room, Dean pushed Cas against the mildewed wall. "I can take you apart like this, can't I?" he said, low and harsh, his eyes dark as his hand worked viciously between their bodies. "Just like this. Fuck, Cas--Castiel. Come for me." And Cas did, helplessly and hard, Dean, oh, Dean falling from his mouth until Dean kissed him, biting, to make it stop.)

"Cas. Cas, hey."

Dean's voice is rough the way it always is after he comes, but strangely, somehow, soft. Cas opens his eyes--he doesn't recall closing them--and finds Dean turned toward him, his flushed skin messy with sweat and Castiel's come, his pleasure-soaked gaze focusing around a hint of concern. Beside him, Castiel is stretched out and curved close, one hand resting high on Dean's chest, his fingertips dipped in the hollow at the base of Dean's throat. A languid sprawl of slaked intent, they watch him closely, both of them.

Cas trembles all over. His hand is circled painfully tight around the base of his aching cock.

"Hey," Dean says again. He offers a tiny, careful smile. "You with us?"

And Cas is obliterated.


In sudden motion, he climbs on top of Dean, lays himself out in the vee of his thighs, disregards the surprised noise he makes, kisses him and kisses him. "I am," he says urgently, barely pausing long enough to shape the words against Dean's parted lips. "I am, Dean, with you, I'm--Dean, I'm--with you--"

There's still slick on his fingers. It's not much, but he swipes his hand through the mess on Dean's stomach, then reaches between their bodies, down. Dean freezes up at the first blunt press of Cas's finger, his eyes going wide; but Cas kisses him again, mutters "Dean" and "please" and "Dean" against his mouth, and--after a moment--he nods. Even, a second later, rocks himself tentatively into the touch, and Cas shudders out a breath and works his way in.

He's not patient, not gentle--he needs this, fevered with it, desperation like demon blood under his skin, coring out his spine--but he knows Dean's body. He hooks his other hand under Dean's knee, lifts until Dean bends his leg up and out; leans down and sucks more kisses onto his neck, grazes the tendon with his teeth; inches a second finger in alongside the first and crooks them both again and again. Dean whines low, his hands running fitfully up Cas's back, his dick filling again between their bodies, and Cas can't wait any longer, he can't, he can't. He frees his hand and grabs a condom off the night table, rolls it on with trembling fingers, shifts himself into place against Dean and presses in.

"Cas." Dean stares up at him, mouth open and throat bared, and Cas makes himself go easy, opening Dean up around his cock with small, slow fucks of his hips. Dean feels hot and tight and incredible around him; he looks incredible beneath him, gasping and golden and Dean, and when Cas finally bottoms out they both go still for a long, breathless moment.

"Dean, I--need--"

"Yeah, Cas, got you, come on--"

Cas goes slow until he can't, until all he can do is brace himself over Dean and fuck in deep. Dean holds on, his legs wrapped around Cas's waist, his heels digging into the backs of Cas's thighs, his hands sliding through the sweat on his chest to his neck, to his jaw, into his hair. Dean pulls him down to kiss him; Cas rubs their slack mouths together, licks wetly at the taste of him, and it's so good, he and Dean, it was always so good--

Movement beside them catches Cas's attention, drags it irresistibly from the needy fit of Dean around him: Castiel is propped up on his side, hard again--Cas remembers, in a wild moment of nostalgia, what it was like having that kind of refractory time, fuck--and stroking himself. His eyes are intent on the swell of Dean's cock against his hip, the slide of Cas's cock fucking in and out of Dean's body.

Cas makes a wordless, fractured noise. With an effort, he shifts his weight, lifts one hand up to curve heavily on the side of Castiel's neck, thumb splayed over his mouth. His grip breaks Castiel's focus; he looks up at him, startled, but then his eyes flare darkly and he reaches for Cas in return, wraps his warm hand with its thrumming undercurrent of grace firm and sure on Cas's upper arm, just under his shoulder.

"Jesus--" Dean chokes, his hands clawing at Cas's straining shoulderblades, and he comes for the second time, in hot spatters all over his stomach and chest. Cas's blood pounds, rushing thick with Dean's climax and fired through with Castiel's grace; his hips stutter frantically, driving his cock into the perfect-hot clutch of Dean's body; his shoulders burn, his one hand braced on Castiel supporting his own body at a punishing angle. But it's the light, darting touch of Castiel's tongue to the pad of Cas's thumb that sends him over the edge: with a torn-out moan, he shoves in raggedly once, again, goes still and comes hard, spilling endlessly deep inside Dean.

He's distantly aware of Castiel's long fingers tightening on his arm, more wet warmth pulsing onto his skin. Cas gives his last, helpless shudders with Dean's hands smoothing slowly up and down his back.

Beneath him, Dean pants, " …damn."

It takes Cas a minute to rouse himself, even after the all-consuming, whiteout mindlessness of his orgasm has receded. His body feels sandbagged; it takes more effort than he wants to expend to ease out and get the condom off and into the trash.

When he rolls back over to sprawl heavily against Dean, he's mirrored by Castiel on the other side of the bed. The sight of him catches Cas's detached attention: the ocean-glass of his eyes, the mussed and carded shock of his hair, the debauchery he inhabits as intensely as he does everything. His waning grace and tarnished glory, grasping at purpose and prostrate before Dean.

You've already become me, Cas thinks, not unkindly; Or maybe we were always this way.

"That really just happened, didn't it."

There's wonder in Dean's roughened voice. Cas looks away from Castiel; Dean is glancing drowsily between them, his mouth a curve of wicked pleasure, the green of his eyes bleary with fucked-out bliss. It's another surprise: in a moment where Cas has long since resigned himself to expecting nothing more from Dean than weariness and dismissal, here he is suffused with lightness, satiation and rest.

Cas's heart clutches around his memories of this Dean, holding them tightly against the scent and feel and taste of reality as he leans in and presses a slow kiss to Dean's mouth.

When they part, Dean sighs, his hand making easy circles low on Cas's back. "Hey."


"I was just thinking--us, in your past." Like a clear dawn, Dean's smile turns triumphant, his eyes lighting with cleverness and satisfaction. "It didn't ever happen like this, did it."

On the other side of the bed, with Dean's fingers threading through his hair, Castiel watches steadily.

Cas hears, You with us? He answers, again, in the positive.

"No, Dean," he says, and barely recognises his own voice. "It never happened like this."

Cas stands in an overgrown rose garden. There are brown leaves and shaggy grass under the soles of his boots; over his head, the twisting branches of green-crowned trees and a grey, sunset sky. A downpour has ended not long ago: everything around him looks crisp and vibrant, freshly-washed, and raindrops make dark blotches on his shirt as they fall from every nearby leaf. Even the air tastes clean.


An eyeblink ago, he'd been dozing in Bobby's chilly north bedroom, curled around the furnace of Dean's body in an attempt to make up for having lost one of the sheets to lazy clean-up. Dean was advocating, with sleepy enthusiasm, for the three of them to share one shower--for expediency's sake, of course; it wouldn't be very long before Sam and Bobby returned, and they should really be considerate of Bobby's aging ticker and Sam's near-virgin sensibilities and be presentable when they did. Castiel, doubtful of the capacity of even the larger downstairs bathtub to accommodate three grown men, offered instead to use his "mojo" to restore them all to an "acceptably" "ejaculate-free" state, at which point Dean scolded him for not being any fun until Castiel silenced him with a kiss and caress that, to Cas's practised eye, certainly looked fun enough. But just as Cas started dropping open-mouthed kisses of his own onto Dean's clavicle, Castiel went whipcord-tense; he broke from Dean and looked to Cas, stared at him in helpless horror, began to say, "Cas--"

And then Cas was standing, fully dressed and freezing, in the rose garden.

He knows what's happened even before he recognises the sanitarium's dirty limestone wall behind a border of scraggly bushes.

"Welcome home, little brother."

Lucifer is resplendent in Sam, radiant with the exquisite purity of atrocity. He stands next to a stone planter sprouting spindly, thorny stems that bob heavily under their rich red blooms. The flowers have a crystalline quality; Cas stares at them until he realises that Lucifer's proximity has frozen the rain slicking each delicate petal into a thin coating of ice.

His brother has always burned cold.

At Lucifer's feet lies Dean, his head at a ragdoll angle.

Cas feels nothing. Or, possibly, everything; too much, all at once. His breathing is fast and shallow, he notes distantly. His knees are trembling. "You could have mentioned," he says hoarsely, his throat still raw with the welcome abuses lavished upon it five years ago, "you were going to bring me back."

"Did you really think I wouldn't?" Lucifer asks rhetorically, with a benevolent smile. When Cas makes no reply, he blinks his surprise, then sighs his pity. "Oh, Castiel. Our Father made you so faithless. How you must have suffered." Without looking down, he steps over Dean's body as if it were nothing more than a patch of mud and approaches Cas with the calm certainty of one with a captive audience. When he stops, right in front of him, he reaches out and takes him gently by the shoulder. "I was always going to bring you back."

He turns the air frigid: Cas's breath streams from his mouth in thin, curling clouds. But Lucifer's hand--not Sam's hand, not anymore; angelic possession doesn't have to erase everything of who the vessel was, but Cas knows more of Sam now than he did, and knows there is nothing left of him here--is so warm. "Then why send me away at all?"

Lucifer looks down at him so kindly. "Because you've been lying to yourself, little brother," he says. "After Heaven denied you, you thought you had to go outside your family to find your place. You made yourself believe that lie, and look. Look what that's done to you. Look what you've done to yourself."

Even as his eyes flicker to the ruined shape of Cas's wings, there is less repugnance in his tone than condolence. It is, Cas thinks through the feverish roar of his blood in his head, a committed performance, at least. "And the truth, I suppose, was that I could have joined you when I first rebelled, and been--" The word snags on his tongue, the things it admits and the void in his core weighing it down. "--happy?"

"Your crime was the same as mine," Lucifer says, releasing Cas's shoulder to spread both his hands. This time, Cas doesn't mourn the loss of his touch. "You loved God. You loved him, just as I did, too much not to question. Because of that, I would have opened my arms to you at any time." His hands fall to his sides, a gesture of defeat. "But you wouldn't let yourself see that you were wanted. Where you were wanted. Instead, you mutilated yourself trying to fit in where you were never meant to be."

"So you sent me back to remind me of what I was?" Cas shakes his head. He means to do it only once, but momentum carries the motion on for a long moment, his head swivelling side to side on his neck. The trembling in his legs has risen to his stomach, a fluttering ache of exhaustion. "I know what I was, brother. I know what I am now. I didn't need you to play my Ghost of Christmas Past."

Lucifer gives him an earnest look. "I sent you back to the beginning of your fall," he explains, seemingly endless in his depths of tolerance and compassion, "to show you the lie that predicated your allegiance to Dean Winchester: how he took your assistance, and your sacrifices, and your worship, but never wanted you. Not as you were, Castiel. Not as you're supposed to be. He was an ape among apes, and he dragged you into the mud with him, and the truth was that you never belonged there." His voice hardened toward the end of his speech, loud in the garden's peaceful quiet; now he subsides, with a sigh, back into composure. "I wanted you to understand that, little brother, so you could understand this: you belong here, now. With your family. With me."

Jimmy, Cas remembers suddenly; The name of my body used to be Jimmy Novak. "But my mutilation," he points out, his gaze straying past Lucifer to the dark windows of the sanitarium. He wonders what happened to Meg. "I'm fairly certain I disgust you."

Lucifer's mouth twists wryly. "Your fall wasn't as… graceful… as mine. And you were preyed upon by bad influences." A light kindles in his eyes, an unnerving gleam in the settling dusk, and he reaches out again to clasp Cas's shoulder. "But I'm going to fix you," he breathes, and with a swift stab of clarity--another immensity added to the already crushing weight of Cas's numbness--Cas knows what he's about to say. "I'm going to give you back your grace, Castiel. You'll be an angel again, and then you and I--the rebels, the outcasts of Heaven, our Father's greatest creations--will rule over all the others. Together."

Cas's nerves sting and yearn under the force of Lucifer's closeness, the cyclonic tower of grace funnelling through Sam's body. He feels an echo of Castiel's hand dragging down his spine, trailing his own grace like a flame across the impenetrable barrier of his mortal skin. Cas's esurience had pulled at Castiel like an undertow; he wonders what Lucifer feels, touching him, gripping his arm so firmly. He starts shivering, and can't stop. "You're going to fix me," he repeats. He doesn't know why that concept, in particular, tugs at him--until, suddenly, he does. "Again?"

Lucifer's beneficent expression goes blank. His fingers twitch on Cas's shoulder, then release it. "What?"

"The day Sam released you from the Cage, I helped Dean escape Heaven's staging area, and Raphael smote me into oblivion for my trouble. But then I got better." Cas thinks he should feel more urgency in this moment, more hope and more terror. Other than cold, and the juddering of his molars against each other as his shivering turns violent, he still feels nothing. "Did you bring me back, brother?"

Lucifer is silent. His eyes flash with anger.

"It was God, then," Cas concludes, and there is the smallest, warming frisson of satisfaction at the confirmation. Smallest because, really, what good does it do, knowing that now? But the warmth, at least, calms the shaking of his body. Cas tilts his head, regarding his brother thoughtfully, thinking about the difference between loving God and loving God's creations. "You must have realised that when you first learned I was an outlaw from Heaven. How galling it must have been for you, Lucifer, discovering that our Father had favoured another angel's disobedience after he cast you down for yours."

"It was hardly a favour," Lucifer says shortly. "Unless you think this is your final reward." He waves one hand in a gesture encompassing the wreck of Cas, Dean's broken body, the blood-spattered sanitarium, the apocalyptic waste of the world. Cas glances about uninterestedly, then gives him a mild look. Lucifer's eyes narrow, haughty and cruel. "I don't have to restore your grace."

"Of course you don't," Cas agrees, smiling. "In fact, you probably won't, now. In fact, I would be surprised if you ever actually intended to."

"I didn't lie." There's nothing tolerant or generous or kind about him now. Lucifer looks at Cas with open hatred, his grace boiling cold with corruption. "You're disfigured; it's sickening. I'm going to give you back your grace just so I don't have to look at you like this for all eternity."

"And I will be with you for all eternity, won't I." Cas knows better than to make it a question.

Lucifer's lip curls. "Well, Castiel--" He spits his name, all sharp consonants and sibilance. "--I was right. I won. Someone has to know that; someone has to see my reign. And of all the holier-than-thou Host of my dear brothers and sisters, you're the only one left."

Cas hears himself in Lucifer's bitterness, plaintive and grasping and alone: Lucifer, we're the only ones left. "I wish I'd never summoned you to that silo," he mutters, and crosses past his brother to slump onto a stone bench near Dean's blueing corpse. He's tired. Lucifer's chill and the damp evening air lie clammy on his skin and have seeped into his bones. All he feels is physical discomfort, and without letting himself think too much about the prospect, he resigns himself to never feeling anything else ever again. "That's when you decided to fuck me around like this, isn't it? It's a closed time loop: you sent me back, where I summoned you for that immeasurably helpful little chat, which gave you the idea to send me back."

As he speaks, Lucifer's hateful gaze turns impassive. Slowly, as if unsure whether he's being tricked, his brow knits. "Silo," he repeats, his tone caught between doubt and suspicion, and Cas realises he's confused.

"Don't you remember, brother?" he asks without thinking, and it's barely out of his mouth before he's struck by another piercing bolt of clarity, run right through. It punctures his numbness; opens a tiny space inside him, thin and fierce and gutting, for hope.

("But I don't remember this," Dean said. He paced a short, abrupt path at the foot of Cas's bed while Cas reclined against his threadbare pillows and watched, cigarette in his hand and absinthe on his mind. One of the new girls had brought a bottle to the orgy that afternoon, but they hadn't gotten around to opening it; Cas planned to indulge after the meeting Dean had called that evening. He liked absinthe. And he'd deserve it for having made it through being in a room with Past Dean again without beating him bloody or kissing him breathless or both. Or clawing his own eyes out. "It never happened to me. By bringing him here, hasn't Zach already changed things?"

Cas eyed the flex of Dean's thigh under the straps of his holster, and sighed out a long wash of smoke, coughing dryly at the tail. Dean hadn't sought him out voluntarily on an orgy day in… ever. Rarely sought him out voluntarily at all, anymore. Of all the things that could've brought Dean back to his door, it was farcically fitting that Dean's past self actually did. "You might think so," he answered, brushing idly at a fall of ash on his shirt, "but on the other hand, here we all are, so, no. All time loops have to start somewhere, Dean." Dean shot him a look; before he could speak, Cas rolled his eyes and added, "That's only a paradox from limited perspectives."

For a second, Dean looked like he was going to argue--but instead, his heavy steps dragged to a halt, and he stood as if stranded in the middle of the floor. "What's the point, then," he muttered, lowering his head and raising his hand to scrub roughly at the back of his neck. "If it's just--if he can't--" He sighed. "What's the goddamn point."

Cas didn't recognise, at first, what he was seeing; then, with a jolt of perverse delight, he did. "Why, Fearless Leader!" he exclaimed, and Dean startled at the nickname, frowned at the amusement in his tone. "Were you hoping that Zachariah's little object lesson to Past You would have any bearing whatsoever on our lives? Did you hope?"

Dean watched him laugh, his eyes like flint. "Fuck you, Cas," he said eventually, and left.)

Cas understands, finally, what Dean had been hoping for, the simplicity of it stark and so easy. "It couldn't have changed our lives," he says to Lucifer's bewildered glare, "but it didn't need to. It only had to change theirs." He grins, delighted again, but for an entirely different reason. "And it did."

"What are you--?" Lucifer takes a step closer, looking into him like a microscope, reading him through his skin. Cas knows when he finds the right thought: his eyes flash again, this time with shock. In the distance, thunder growls.

The sense of erosion Cas felt almost every moment in 2009 grates violently through him again, and here, in 2014--where Sam is consumed and Cas is mortal and Lucifer has won and Dean is dead at their feet--he welcomes it. He embraces, finally, the rasp of the Winchesters' conviction grinding his history inexorably away. "You don't remember," he tells Lucifer, "because it's not your past. Which means this--" He mimics Lucifer's gesture at their desecrated world. "--is not their future. They've changed it."

"They can't." Lucifer's voice is tight, angry with disbelief. "It happened. I won. We're here."

"They're not." Cas feels empty--still--but it's no longer a held breath waiting for everything that will crush him when it falls; now, it's lightness, open and free. Smiling, he looks past Lucifer again, this time to see the first small handful of evening stars pricking whitely through the navy expanse of the sky. If it weren't for the impending storm of Lucifer's wrath, he thinks, it would be a beautiful night. He'd have enjoyed it. "In their apocalypse, Dean took Sam back. And together, they killed a uakti just outside of Cleveland, Utah. And you, brother, followed a summons to a silo in Nebraska, where you met your last surviving sibling and disowned him."

"Insignificant details!" Lucifer spits, in Sam's body like a deadly weapon. The absolutes of their past are disintegrating into uncertainties just at the moment he claimed his victory; he's furious. "Sam will always say yes, and Dean will always say no, and you, Castiel, will always become nothing--"

"Maybe," Cas admits. With achy joints, he lowers himself from the bench to sit cross-legged on the damp grass next to Dean's body; then, easily, lifts Dean's hand and laces their cold, stiff fingers together on his knee. "But those insignificant details are enough to make a different past than ours." He considers his error: he'd been so fatally convinced of the futility of any change, he hadn't seen the crucial, fundamental importance of changing anything. The trick, he realises, wasn't accepting that nothing mattered; it was believing that everything could. He strokes his thumb across Dean's marble skin in wry apology, then looks back up at Lucifer, graceless and defiant. "Whatever their future turns out to be, at least it won't be this."

Lucifer's face twists with rage as he raises his hand. At the snap of his fingers, the last remaining hollow of nothingness inside Cas expands like a balloon, like the mouth of a snake, like a black hole.

The instant before he joins Dean in the void, Cas feels nothing but relief.