The house was sort of quiet, all of a sudden. It wasn't something he'd noticed readily, but it had snuck up on him a little bit. The house was quiet, now.
Sam and Gabriel were in the other room, researching. At least, that's what Dean fervently hoped they were doing. Sam had been looking at Gabriel kinda oddly ever since the archangel had lost the plot and scooped him up over breakfast. Which, granted, had been more than a little weird, but that was no excuse for the kind of eyes his brother had been making at the bastard ever since. And now ...
Castiel and Crowley had had a little conference, before the demon buggered off to points unknown to start rustling up some sources. At least, Dean thought it was a conference. It seemed to mostly involve Castiel pointing out some of the things you could do with Enochian magic, followed by Crowley excitedly pointing out what you could do with that if you added, say, some of the Defense Forces' laser communications grids, followed by Castiel getting this thoughtful and sort of scary expression, and asking little questions about things like 'scoring' and 'velocity' and 'reflection', dropping little words like 'banishment loops' and 'remote seals' ... the end result of which was Gabriel stalking off muttering things about handing machine guns to five year olds, and Sam shooting a guilty look at everyone in the room before following him.
And then locking the door.
Dean wasn't sure what he should be more worried about. The fact that they might actually have been safer with the 'nuke em' plan than whatever Castiel was currently neck-deep in books trying to cook up, or the fact that his brother might be doing horrible things with an archangel in the next room.
So, to avoid thinking about either of them, he made his way to the kitchen to bother Aziraphale instead. And, maybe, ask about something that had been worrying the hell out of him since something Castiel had said earlier. Namely, about driving the angels from Earth.
Aziraphale, somewhat predictably, was in the process of making himself a cup of tea when Dean strolled in. The hunter just sort of looked a him for a minute, watching the plump angel bustle around the worktop, making a cheerful clatter with spoons and sugar bowls and milk, humming happily to himself. An hour ago, the angel had been standing beside a demon and announcing his intention to die on Earth if they didn't stop the Apocalypse, and now he was making tea like he hadn't a care in the world.
There were times when Dean seriously wondered if all angels were bi-polar, or something. Given Cas' propensity for going from 'look, I made a funny' to 'we are all going to die' in under a minute, given Gabriel's switching from 'smartass Trickster' to possibly genuinely caring at the drop of a hat, Anna going from 'I want to sleep with you' to 'I want to scatter your brother's atoms across the universe' ... actually, now that he thought about it, just about the only actually stable angels he'd met had been Uriel and Zachariah. Wow. That boded so well for them, didn't it?
"Can I help you, dear boy?" Aziraphale asked, having turned around while Dean was wool-gathering, and yeah, really smart thing to be doing there, Dean. Ignoring the angel in the room, that's never lead to anything bad before, has it?
"I, uh," he started, rubbing his neck uncomfortably under Aziraphale's friendly but worryingly knowing gaze. "I was hoping I could talk to you about something?"
Aziraphale beamed at him. "Anything, my dear! You know that."
Dean blinked a bit. He did? "Um. Yes?" he hazarded, moving from the doorway into the kitchen proper, trying not to flinch when the angel pulled out a chair for him at the table beside him, the sudden motion grating on nerves Dean hadn't been aware of having. Aziraphale smiled at him softly in apology.
"You can talk to me about anything, my dear," the angel assured him gently, smiling a little at Dean's discomfort. "But perhaps ... would you like a cup of tea before we start? You look like you could use something."
"How about a beer?" Dean answered, before he really thought about it, because really, tea? So not his thing. But maybe asking for alcohol wasn't ... but Aziraphale grinned at him cheerfully, and waved a hand. A bottle appeared in front of him on the table, and Dean just sort of stared. Aziraphale flushed, faintly.
"I know, I know," he said, sheepishly. "I shouldn't rely on miracles when I can just get up and walk to the fridge. But ... well, I'm sure I'll be forgiven a little indulgence now and then. All things considered." He smiled lopsidedly at Dean, a whole world of things in his expression, and that ... that was when Dean figured it out.
Not bi-polar, no. Not swinging from cheerful to grim. Just putting the cheerful on over the grim, whenever they could, whenever they could bear it. Even Gabriel, maybe. Putting smiles and cheer and smartass remarks over the knowledge that their world was slowly falling apart around them, and hoping that if they just did it enough, if they just smiled enough, they might come to believe there was something worth smiling about. Not so different from him and Sam, when it came down to it. Not so different from any of them. Though Cas needed a lot more practice at it, obviously ...
"Yeah, I hear that," he said, raising his beer to chink it gently against the angel's cup, grinning a little when Aziraphale looked pleasantly baffled for a second.
Okay. So cheering angels up might be becoming something of a hobby, alright? It wasn't the worst one he could have picked!
"Thank you, my dear," the angel said quietly, after a second, looking determinedly into his tea. Pink bloomed faintly in pale cheeks, while his ears turned a rather spectacular red.
Dean just shrugged, and tried not to grin too widely at the sight.
"Ahem," Aziraphale said suddenly, straightening himself up and deliberately putting his cup down so he could look at Dean properly again. "Right. Anyway. You said you wanted to talk to me about something ..."
Dean felt his grin fade as if it had never been. But he did need to ask about this. "It's about what Cas said earlier," he said, almost cautiously, since it was Aziraphale's plan he was about to question. "He said this plan, it's going to drive the angels from Earth, yeah?"
Aziraphale blinked at him in confusion, but nodded. "Not permanently, you understand," he cautioned. "But hopefully, if we can do it right, we can drive them off until the Apocalypse becomes no longer viable. Until Lucifer no longer has a body, and Heaven has its own worries when he appears among them. Angels only last so long in their real forms down here before Heaven recalls them, you know. It's a safeguard, I think. Our forms put too much pressure on the material world, so Father made certain we couldn't stay too long without a body ..."
"Yeah, okay," Dean nodded. It was useful information, that, but sort of not what he was interested in. "It's the whole angels leaving bit that I'm worried about. Because ... look, I don't know if you've noticed, but Cas ... he's sort of ... losing his mojo, you know?"
Aziraphale frowned at him. "I was wondering when you'd mention that," he said, softly. "But what has it got to do with the angels leaving?"
Dean blinked at him. "Wait. You mean it doesn't?" he stuttered, confused, and ... warily hopeful. "Zach told me ..."
Aziraphale's frown became serious. "Zachariah?" he asked sharply. "Zachariah talked to you?"
"No!" Dean said hurriedly. "Well, I mean, yes, but not ... this was a while back, and it was more ... He showed me something, yeah? He caught me, and sent me to the future for a while, and while I was there ..."
"He did what?" Aziraphale cut in, incredulous. "The future?"
Dean frowned. "Yes? I mean, it didn't seem like a big deal to him, he wanted ... well, he didn't get what he wanted, leave it at that, but he thought showing me what would happen if I didn't say yes would help soften me up or something, you know? So he showed me ..."
Aziraphale's teacup creaked, and he let go of it carefully. "I should have gone for him first," the angel muttered. Viciously. "To use that ... to do that ... I should have smote the little bastard when I had the chance!"
Dean pulled back a little, staring at him worriedly. "Ah. You okay over there?" he asked, shifting in case he had to make a break for it. Aziraphale was a nice guy, but he had this worrying tendency to up and smite people when he got annoyed ...
Aziraphale looked up at him, and blinked at the expression he saw on Dean's face. "Oh, yes, my dear, I'm sorry ..." He held out a placating hand, and waited until Dean sat back down carefully before continuing. "But, dear boy, you mustn't ... whatever he told you, whatever he showed you, you must understand ... the future is never fixed, my dear. It's never concrete, certainly not enough for an angel to be able to send you there. What he showed you, it must have been a vision, of a possible future, perhaps, or more likely something he constructed himself, the little toerag ..."
Dean looked at him hopefully. "You mean ... it wasn't real?"
Aziraphale looked up sharply. "Well, no. Not quite. It could have been real. Certainly, if he did what I think he did, as far as you were concerned it was real. But if you mean was it the future, then ... no. To put it bluntly. Time does not work that way. We can see possibilities, probabilities, but to take one future, based on one person, one choice, and say 'this is how it shall be' ... that, not even angels can do. Our Father, that is another question, but Zachariah ... No."
Dean slumped in his chair before he could catch himself. "I hoped ... I thought it seemed a bit too pat, I did hope ..."
Aziraphale reached out, patted his hand gently. "And you were right to," he said. "You were right. What will be will be, but only because we make it so, here and now. Our choices do matter, my dear. They do matter."
Dean grinned at him in almost dizzy relief for a long minute, but then, as his brain started catching back up with his gut, he remembered something else. "But Cas?" he said, carefully. "Something is going wrong with Cas."
Aziraphale nodded. "Yes. Something very bad. I wondered ... I had wondered if you'd noticed at all, or if you were all simply ignoring it. I wasn't ... I hadn't quite worked up the nerve to ask you, actually."
Dean nodded slowly. "We noticed. Zachariah ... in the future he showed me, Cas was human. Like, fully human. He was ... dying. Really dying. He ... died while I was there, and he ... He said it was the angels leaving. He said it was because he'd fallen, and when they left, all the mojo just ... went with them. Is that ... Is he ... Is that what's going to happen? If we ... if we drive them off?"
Aziraphale was silent for a long minute. Staring down into his tea like it held the answers to the universe, his expression distant and full of something Dean couldn't name. Something that made his gut clench. Then the angel put down his cup, very carefully, sat back in his chair, and fixed Dean with the most intense stare he'd seen since Cas had reminded him of all he'd lost.
"I need you to listen to me for a while," Aziraphale said, gravely. "This will take some time, but it is very, very important, and I need you to bear with me. Can you do that?"
Dean nodded mutely. Yeah. He could do that. Aziraphale nodded solemnly, and went on.
"There are things you need to understand. About angels. About falling. About Castiel. Very important things, that I think ... that I'm not even sure if he himself knows. If anyone knows, now. I know because of where I've been, what I've seen, what I've ... what I've endured, but if he has been following Zachariah, if he has been lied to as long as I think he has ... then perhaps he doesn't. And he needs to. You need to. Alright?"
Dean shook his head. "What do you mean?" he asked, more baffled than anything else. Well. Baffled and freaked the hell out.
Aziraphale sighed. "I mean that whether or not Castiel has Fallen has nothing to do with his losing his Grace," he said, quietly. "Neither does whether or not the angels stay or leave. If that were the case, Crowley would be having far more problems than he does. Lucifer too, at that. Being Fallen, being alone, those have nothing to do with our Grace." He stopped, paused. "Well. They can contribute to the problems, yes. But they are not ... they are not the cause. What is happening to Castiel, it's not that he is falling. It is something ... worse."
Dean had to swallow, at that, staring. "Worse?" he managed. "There's something that can happen to an angel that's worse than falling?"
Aziraphale smiled at that, just a little. "Falling needn't be so bad, you know," he commented. "Crowley tells me that being damned is often quite liberating, once you get used to it. That type of Fall, anyway. The First Fall. The other kind, the one I've heard they're doing now, ripping out Grace and being born ... I wouldn't know about that one. But I assume it must have some appeal, or angels wouldn't do it. Castiel, though ... if he has fallen, and of that I am not yet convinced, then it is the first kind, and has nothing to do with any of this."
Dean shook his head. That ... none of that made sense, not with what Cas had told him, with what he'd seen ... "I don't understand," he said. "Cas said ..."
Aziraphale cut in, very gently. "Castiel has been lied to," he said. "For a very long time, I think. He has served a Heaven that betrayed him, served directly under angels who lied to him. And I believe ... I believe that they have been telling the younger angels things, things to keep them under control, things to keep them from realising Heaven's ... corruption. I believe ... I believe that is why Castiel is enduring what he is. I believe that is why this is happening to him. I've seen it, in human armies ... I never thought I would see it in Heaven, but seeing Castiel I don't ... I don't see very many other answers."
And okay, that was enough. He could see that, could very, very easily imagine Zachariah doing that, to keep people stupid, to keep them obeying, but it wasn't the point, it was so not the point ... "What," he said, slowly and heavily. "Is. Happening. To. Cas."
Aziraphale smiled sadly. "He is dying," he said. And Dean stopped hearing things for a bit.
When he came back, his head still buzzing a little in shock, Aziraphale was leaning over him with a worried, almost frantic look on his face. "My dear! Oh, my dear, are you alright? I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to ..."
"What?" Dean cut him off. "What did you ... you said ..." He pulled himself up off the table, glaring, pushing the flapping hands away because they had bigger problems, they had really fucking big problems. "What did you say?" he rasped, reaching out to grab hold of the angel's shirt. "Cas is dying? Like, now?"
Aziraphale looked at him worriedly, but nodded. "I'm afraid so," he said, and he looked it. Afraid, that is. But mostly sad. Terribly, terribly sad. "I believe he has been ever since he left Heaven's service. And I believe it is mostly ... I believe that they have rather deliberately helped it along."
Dean shook his head in denial, his hand fisting in the cloth at Aziraphale's chest. "What do you mean, dying?" Please, please, please don't mean what I think you mean. Please don't mean ... what I saw, in that future world. Please don't mean that.
"There are things you need to understand." Aziraphale reached up, took his hand gently, pulled it away from his shirt and held it. "About angels. About what we are. You have to understand what is happening to Castiel. Alright?"
"We are beings of faith," Aziraphale explained, very gently. "That's more than just ... It's not as it is with humans, where faith is an optional extra, something they can live without. For angels, that faith is real. It's part of us. It's what forms the basis of our Grace, what allows us to work miracles. We need faith, we need to be able to believe. It doesn't ... It doesn't necessarily have to matter what we believe in, perhaps, but it is absolutely essential that we believe in something, if we are to maintain our Grace. If we are to keep existing. Do you understand? And Castiel ... since Heaven cast him out ... What afflicts him is not the Fall, Dean. It is despair. It is the loss of faith, in Heaven, in God, in anything. He has lost his faith, and it is quite literally killing him."
Dean tried to understand that. He really did. But most of what he could think of was Castiel, explaining to him what he had given for Dean, explaining that he had defied Heaven for Dean, and the thought suddenly lodged itself inside him, more firmly than ever before.
Congratulations, Winchester. You killed the fucking angel. You killed your angel. You killed Cas.
"Dean! My dear, listen to me! Listen!"
He came back, looked up enough to see the relief in Aziraphale's face. The angel sighed, letting go of his death grip on Dean's hand. "You had me worried for a moment, my dear. Don't do that."
Dean shook his head, mouth twisting. "Not me," he choked out. "Not me you should be worried about. Not ... not when it's my fault ..."
Aziraphale didn't even waste time staring at him. Instead, the angel up and slapped him, one quick, sharp blow across the face. Dean stopped babbling and stared.
"That's quite enough of that, thank you," Aziraphale growled coldly, flapping his hand as if it stung. "Honestly, sometimes I think Crowley might be right. The lot of you are simply stupid about each other. And yourselves, come to that."
Dean stared some more, for good measure. "What ...?"
Aziraphale sighed. Heavily. "Oh, for Manchester's sake! Look. First things first. It is not your fault, all right? In fact, if it's anyone's, it's Zachariah's and his ilk. Telling the angels beneath them that simply disagreeing with them will result in a fall. Telling them that disobeying will result in the loss of Grace ... that's what Castiel believes should happen, thanks to them. That's why he's not fighting it, that's why he's letting himself fall deeper and deeper. And really, our Father was hardly helpful either, I must admit. I know He is not fond of explaining, and perhaps Castiel should have known better than to believe himself fallen when our Father resurrected him, but ..."
And Dean could argue with that, probably, but something more important had caught his attention. "Fighting it?" he asked, hurriedly, getting it in before the angel could keep ranting. "It can ... we can fight it? We can stop it?"
Aziraphale smiled at him. "Yes. Didn't I mention that?"
Dean swallowed the first response to that, and went with a simple: "How?" But Aziraphale didn't answer. Not at first. Instead, the angel pulled away. Pulled away, stood up, moved over to lean against the counter and stare down at his hands. Dean followed him desperately. "How?" he asked again, and tried not to throttle the angel into answering.
"May I ... tell you a story?" Aziraphale said at last, very quietly. And Dean almost told him no, almost yelled at him that they had no fucking time for stories, but something in the angel's face, something in the way he was hunched in on himself, stopped him.
Aziraphale looked up for a second, just long enough to flash him a pained smile, and Dean stared. "You might wonder ... well, you might be wondering how I happen to know any of this?" the angel said. Mumbled. "You might wonder how I recognise what this is in the first place?"
Dean frowned at him. "Yeah?"
"I know it," Aziraphale said, very quietly, "because I've been on Earth, away from the lies in Heaven, away from direct corruption. I know it, because I have seen the fallen, and understand the difference between myself and them. I know it because I have eyes, and ears, and because I am not as stupid as my superiors seem to have thought. But mostly ... I know it because it happened to me. I know it because I have been there. I know it because I have almost died because of it."
Dean stared. Again. These bloody angels, every time he thought he understood ... Even Cas. What the hell ... what the hell are you supposed to say?
"It was a long time ago," Aziraphale continued. "By human standards, anyway. A little over 900 years. I mentioned it before, actually. The al-Aqsa ... the al-Aqsa Mosque. The massacre. It ... it destroyed me, really. I couldn't ... I knelt there in the blood for ... I think it must have been days. There were so many, so pointless ... I couldn't ... I just couldn't understand why, you know? I have seen so many terrible things, in my time, faced so many. I don't know why that one was so ... why it did what it did. But I just couldn't ... come back. I just couldn't believe, not anymore, not after that. I couldn't bring myself to believe in right, in justice, in love ... in anything good. Not in the face of that. Not again. I couldn't. I just couldn't."
And hell, wasn't that familiar? Wasn't that something Dean could understand, could empathise with? Yeah. He got that. He got that a lot.
"What happened?" he asked, gently. Because Aziraphale needed gentle, now. Because one of the most badass angels Dean had ever laid eyes on looked ... fragile.
Aziraphale smiled at him, a wobbly little thing. "I almost died," he said. "It worked faster with me than it seems to be with Castiel, or perhaps it had simply been building longer, waiting for a crack ... I was almost catatonic. I don't think I've ever been ... ever been so weak. So pitiful. I was ... useless. Wretched. Dying. When the Crusaders came back, when they could see me for the first time ... they were not ... it was not ... That was not a good time to be meeting Crusaders. The slaughter throughout the city, the crimes they committed ... I almost died. And then ..."
He stopped, paused. Bit his lip. The fear on his face, the tremble of remembered horror ... it went away, faded almost completely, and something radiant filled his features. Something bright and wondering and soft. "Then Crowley came," he went on, so softly. "My very own demon." He laughed, a little, shaking his head, and smiled up at Dean.
"You wonder why I trust him, don't you?" the angel asked, grinning at Dean's expression. "I suppose I don't blame you. But you have to understand ... he could have done anything to me, back then. Anything at all. He was ordered to do something, to tempt me into a Fall, to help it destroy me, to kill me, if it seemed easier. He was ordered to. And he could have. When he found me, he could have done anything, everything. Whatever he pleased."
"But ... he didn't?" Dean asked, carefully, but really, the answer was kinda obvious. Aziraphale smiled at him.
"He didn't," he confirmed, happily. "Or rather, he did. He did tempt me. He put me to bed, and gave me rest while claiming he was tempting me to sloth. He fed me up, calling it gluttony. He told me terrible stories of what he'd done to people, trying to get a rise from me, trying to make me care again, and called it tempting me to wrath. He lied to me, challenged me, bullied me back onto my feet. He looked after me, and told his superiors that he was tempting me. And me ... he told me that he didn't want to have to endure someone else in my place, someone who wouldn't understand how things worked." He smiled. "He always was a terrible liar, even then ..."
He stopped, suddenly, turned to Dean, reached out to catch his hands and tug him close, so that Dean had to look at him, had to meet his eyes. "He brought me back," Aziraphale said fiercely. "He brought me back. He gave me something to believe again. Not the big things. Not Heaven, not causes, not justice. But in people. In him. In small kindnesses, in the mercy of an enemy, in the goodness that can live even in the worst of people. In love, Dean. In trust and friendship and love. In someone to stand beside me. In someone to watch my back when even my superiors were waiting for me to Fall. That's what I learned to believe in, before I could have faith again. That's what Castiel needs." He stopped, smiled, and reached up to trace a hand gently over Dean's cheek, to smile at the stunned expression he knew he was wearing.
"That," said Aziraphale, "is what he has. Now all you have to do, my dear, all you must do ... is coax him into knowing it. Into believing it."
Dean shook his head, his throat seized. "How ... how ...?"
The angel smiled, very gently. "Do you love him?" he asked, and when Dean tried to shake his head bore down, held tight, and forced the answer. "Dean. Do you love him?"
"Yes," he managed.
"Do you trust him?"
"Will you fight for him?"
"Do you believe in him?" His face softened, firmed. "Because that is the second most important thing, my dear. You must believe in him. You must."
"I do," Dean rasped, painfully. He did. If he believe in no-one else in this stinking mess, if he sometimes found it hard to trust even Sam ... he believed in Cas. He believed in his angel.
"Good," said Aziraphale, smiling like the sun, beaming proudly at him. And then, slowly, at someone behind him. "I'm glad, my dears. I'm so very glad."
Dean turned, very slowly. Turned to see the angel standing in the kitchen doorway, turned to see the look on Castiel's face, the look in those depthless, desperate blue eyes of his. He turned to face his angel, and saw the tears falling slowly down his cheeks.
"Cas ..." he whispered, helplessly. "Cas ..."
"What ..." his angel started, stopped, pulled himself together. "What's the most important thing?" The question was directed at Aziraphale, but Castiel's eyes never left Dean's. Never once.
"That you love each other," Aziraphale answered simply, gently. "That you can believe in that love. Because faith ... that's what it comes from. That's what's first. Love. And the rest will follow after. I promise you. The rest will follow."
Castiel said nothing for a second, just moved into the room. Just came to Dean, reached out, caught his hand. The angel's eyes never left his face, never stopped seeking. Never stopped finding. "Even if it doesn't," Castiel whispered, looking at Dean. "Even if it doesn't. This ... is worth it. Even if I die. This is worth it." He smiled, very faintly. "I do love you, Dean."
And there wasn't a fucking word he could say, not one, all of them strangled in his throat, but he didn't need to. Leaning in, holding tight, clinging to his angel, there wasn't a word needed saying. Not out loud.
But in the quiet of his head, he promised himself. Castiel was not dying. Castiel was never dying. Not even if Dean had to shove faith down his frikking neck, and make it stick. And if the fact that Dean loved him was all his angel had left to believe in ... well. Then he'd make damn sure it was something worth believing in. He'd make sure of that.
But first ...
He frowned, looked up. First they were going to have to find out who was suddenly trying to knock the fucking front door down.