It was a cold night for early December. There was a light dusting of snow on the ground, and frost was creeping slowly across the windows. Though the metal underneath him would’ve been icy enough to make a human flinch, Castiel remained still and quiet as he watched Bobby’s house. Inside, he knew, Bobby was the only one who slept with anything remotely close to peace. Dean was sleeping, but he was restless with the beginning of a nightmare, and Sam wasn’t sleeping at all.
He sensed the change in the air a second before it happened. Gabriel materialized next to him, dropping down onto the hood of the car. For once the perpetual twinkle in Gabriel’s golden eyes was missing, and he said nothing as he leaned back against the cracked windshield alongside Castiel. He looked as somber as Castiel felt. Neither of them spoke for several minutes. Together, they watched over the house and the three occupants within.
There was a part of Castiel that still felt discomfited at Gabriel’s presence. It had only been about a month since Gabriel had shown up out of the blue claiming that he had changed his mind and wanted to help end the Apocalypse. Dean treated this offer with outright suspicion. Sam had been a little more willing to listen, though wary. Castiel was conflicted. Gabriel had already proven he couldn’t be fully trusted, but at the same time Gabriel was his brother. Not only that, an archangel.
“Gonna strain something if you keep thinking so hard, little bro,” Gabriel said at length, lazily tipping his head to the side.
“If it would help me think of a solution that wouldn’t end in any more deaths, I’d welcome the strain,” Castiel answered. It was not the first time he had mourned. The deaths of his brothers and sisters still stung sometimes. But it was the first time he’d watched Sam and Dean mourn, and it hurt in a different way. It made him feel powerless when he couldn’t do anything to ease the suffering in Dean’s eyes. Short of bringing Jo and Ellen back, which was impossible at this point, nothing could.
Gabriel sighed, the sound unusually loud in the silence. “I did try, Cas,” he said, sounding uncomfortable. “I really thought there was a chance they’d help.”
“I know,” Castiel said, because he did know that the reason Gabriel hadn’t been there to help was because they’d collectively agreed that it was more important for him to seek help from the pagan gods and goddesses he’d hidden amongst for so long. And it was their fault, Sam’s and Dean’s and Castiel’s and Bobby’s and Jo’s and Ellen’s, for not waiting until Gabriel returned to move against Lucifer with the colt. It might have even felt worthwhile if Gabriel hadn’t returned with empty hands and a minute fracture in his grace from the pain of being rejected.
But it didn’t change anything, that was the problem. He looked back at the house. Right now Dean was sleeping, but not for long. If Castiel were to slip into Dean’s dreams, he already knew what he would find. No matter how many times he told Dean that the souls of Jo and Ellen were in heaven, Dean kept having nightmares about them in hell. Worse yet, most of those nightmares featured Dean as their torturer. It was little wonder Dean woke screaming and crying every night.
He wanted to wake Dean up before that happened. Wanted to stop Dean’s nightmares from happening in the first place. But his grace was fading a little more every day, and Dean insisted that he keep it for what mattered. Technically he was right, which made it hard to argue, but that didn’t stop Castiel from wanting to. Dean was his. His Righteous Man, saved from hell, now Castiel’s to protect. It chafed against every instinct he had to let Dean’s suffering continue without stopping it.
As though on cue, Dean’s soul flared with sharp distress – though no sound passed through the wards Dean had asked him to erect to keep Bobby and Sam in the dark. Castiel spread his wings and flew to the bedroom, appearing beside Dean’s thrashing form. He was caught in the blankets, and terrified, bitten off cries filled the small room. There was no sign of Sam; the other bed in the room was as neatly made as it had been before Dean went to bed.
As Gabriel appeared on the other side of the room, apparently having the sense to keep his distance from a panicking Winchester, Castiel sat on the edge of the bed and easily hauled Dean up onto his lap. With the hunter’s back pressed to his chest, Castiel wrapped an arm across Dean’s chest and slotted his hand over the handprint on Dean’s shoulder. It had the effect of pinning Dean down and keeping him from doing any damage to himself while also hopefully reminding Dean’s soul of who held him. This was how he had carried Dean out of hell.
“Dean,” he said, low but insistent, and reached for their bond. It took so little grace, but it had a powerful impact. Dean’s body jerked and he inhaled sharply as his eyes snapped open. He was so tense he was shaking, looking wildly around the room for demons. He jolted when he saw Gabriel, reeling back against Castiel’s shoulder, and Gabriel mouthed the word ‘Sam’ at Castiel before he disappeared.
“What – who – C-Cas?” Dean stuttered uncertainly, head snapping back when he realized that he was being restrained.
“It’s me, Dean,” Castiel confirmed, wishing that he could run his free hand through Dean’s hair. Or wipe the remains of tears from his face. Or even turn Dean towards him and just give him a real embrace. But he already knew that would cross the line. Just sitting as they were was already pushing it. If Dean weren’t so worn down physically and emotionally, he never would have allowed this as it was.
Dean shuddered and looked around the room again, but it was empty except for the two of them. As his head swung back towards the nightstand, Castiel got rid of the two bottles of whiskey sitting there. He’d made that mistake only once, coming to Dean’s side after a slew of terrifying nightmares only to have to watch the shaken hunter drink himself back to sleep, and it was not one he intended to repeat. Either Dean drank lightly enough that he passed out and trapped himself in nightmares, or he drank deeply enough to risk killing himself. Neither one was an attractive option as far as Castiel was concerned.
Sure enough, Dean muttered, “Where’s my…?”
“Perhaps Sam took it with him when he left,” Castiel suggested. Dean was so beaten down from lack of sleep and nourishment and the stress of dealing with both the Apocalypse and the trauma from hell that he usually didn’t remember much about their nighttime encounters. He knew Castiel came to him when he woke up in the middle of the night, but not much else.
Maybe he didn’t want to remember, because in the cold light of day he’d feel compelled to put a stop to it.
“Sam…” Dean echoed, sluggishly looking at the empty bed.
“He’s okay. Gabriel went to check on him.”
“Prick,” Dean mumbled, and Castiel’s lips quirked up into a faint smile.
“Yes, Gabriel has his moments,” he agreed dryly, taking a risk by setting his free hand across Dean’s thighs. A little more pressure and it would’ve been a backwards hug. “But he’ll be able to help Sam sleep.”
“Sam doesn’t want to sleep,” Dean said. “Me either.”
“You have to sleep, Dean. You’ll get sick if you don’t.”
Dean squeezed his eyes shut. His breathing was shaky. “I see ‘em, Cas. They’re in hell.”
“Jo and Ellen are in heaven.”
“But I see ‘em,” Dean insisted.
“I know you do, but it’s just a dream,” Castiel said, knowing that the words were useless. He rested his forehead against the nape of Dean’s neck. The memory of those precious few moments when he’d held Dean’s soul in his hands as they escaped from hell nagged at him. Dean had curled into his grace so sweetly, burrowing in like a kitten trying to escape from a storm and reveling in the protectiveness of the soldier carrying him. Even then, Castiel had recognized that the feeling of being protected was foreign to Dean – but he hadn’t understood why.
Now he did, and it angered him deeply. Dean had lived his whole life trying to protect other people, but he didn’t think himself worthwhile of that same consideration. He poured everything he had to give into hunting and kept nothing back regardless of whether it came to Sam or to a perfect stranger, to the point where he would, at some point, be killed. It had been drummed into him from the time that he was a child that he was daddy’s good little solider, good for nothing else, even though it was tearing him apart inside.
But despite coming through experiences that no human should have survived, Dean asked for nothing in return. He’d never once considered giving in to the angels in spite of everything Zachariah had tried to tempt him with, not if it meant the deaths of millions of people. He insisted that Castiel keep his grace and not ‘waste it’. He didn’t even want Sam or Bobby worrying about him, insisting that everything was fine when he was falling apart on the inside. He was determined to shoulder the weight of the world alone: the Righteous Man indeed.
It hadn’t taken long for Castiel to realize that Dean deserved to have his deepest wish granted: someone who loved and cared for him. That was all that Dean Winchester really wanted. Love. But he still didn’t feel like he deserved it, and so would push away anyone who tried to give it to him no matter how desperately he needed it. Castiel could see a dark future where this soul, this beautiful fragile soul, shattered into irreparable pieces. And sure, Dean would go to heaven – but that would be too little, too late.
Dean was his. That wasn’t going to happen.
“Can you hold on a little longer for me? I promise to make things better for you, Dean. Once we deal with Lucifer and Michael, you won’t ever have to be unhappy again,” he whispered, lips brushing against the plaid material of Dean’s shirt, knowing that the words were lost on Dean. They’d spent several minutes in silence, and Dean was more than half asleep. His body was supported now only by Castiel’s grip.
He sighed, wishing that he had the strength to take Dean somewhere safe. Though even if he did, Dean would never stand for it. Not when the angels would tear the world apart to find him again. Any plans would have to wait until the threat of the Apocalypse was over with. Until then, all he could do was try to hold Dean together as best he could – and as much as Dean would allow him to.
Castiel sat there for a few more minutes, indulging himself, until Gabriel summoned him. Regretfully, he eased Dean back onto the bed and spread the covers over the hunter. It didn’t matter what Dean said about wasting grace; he cupped Dean’s cheek, banishing the nightmares that were already teasing the edge of Dean’s mind and easing him into a deeper sleep. For a little while at least, until Dean woke up in the morning, he would have the chance to properly rest.
He would come back, but first he needed to help Gabriel. He spread his wings and flew to the small bathroom just down the hall, not surprised to find a fully clothed Sam Winchester sitting in a bathtub that was half full of cold water. Sam was huddled in on himself, the dark bags under his eyes speaking volumes about just how long it had been since he’d slept. Gabriel had his arms folded across his chest and a frown on his face.
“I’m not going to sleep,” Sam said the second he saw Castiel. “I’m not, okay, and you can’t make me because when I sleep Lucifer’s there trying to get me to say yes and I’d rather stay awake for the next month than see his face again.” The words came out in a muttered rush, but Castiel got the gist of it.
“Sam, you can’t stay awake forever,” he pointed out.
Gabriel held his hands up. “I’ve said that about five times now. I don’t think he believes me.”
“I’m fine,” Sam said stubbornly.
Only months of close proximity to the Winchesters kept Castiel from rolling his eyes. Sam and Dean were more alike than they realized sometimes. “What if you could sleep and know that Lucifer won’t visit your dreams?”
For the first time, Sam really looked at him. It took him a few seconds to be able to focus his gaze. “What?”
“Gabriel is strong enough to keep Lucifer out,” said Castiel.
“But I thought you didn’t want Lucifer to know about him.”
“He’ll know eventually either way,” Gabriel said, forcing a smile. “Doesn’t do us much good if you’re so incoherent from not sleeping that you say yes without even realizing it. And trust me, Lucy’s more than willing to drive you to that point.”
Sam glanced back and forth between them. He didn’t look convinced, but he lifted a dripping wet hand and held it out in Gabriel’s direction. Gabriel didn’t hesitate, gently taking Sam’s hand and pulling him to his feet, helping him to step over the lip of the tub and onto the bathmat. He was shaky, his legs nearly collapsing under him when he was standing, and Gabriel shifted close enough to thrust a shoulder under Sam’s arm to keep him upright.
“I don’t understand the purpose of the water,” Castiel said.
“It was to keep me awake,” Sam muttered, shivering a little. “I started out pacing, but I kept feeling dizzy. So I thought I should sit down, but then I fell asleep… Figured a little cold water couldn’t hurt.”
Gabriel looked amused as he dried Sam instantly. “Next time you want something to keep you awake, Sammy, let me know. I can be a lot more inventive than cold water.”
“The goal is to get Sam to sleep right now, not keep him up,” Castiel reminded him. Gabriel just smirked in reply, bringing Sam with him as he flew back to the bedroom. Sam collapsed the instant his feet touched the floor, swooning into Gabriel’s arms. Gabriel lifted him effortlessly, carrying him over to the other bed and setting him down.
“I’ll have to stay in close proximity to him to make sure Lucifer stays away,” Gabriel said, reclining across the bottom of the bed.
“I wanted to watch over Dean anyway,” Castiel said, shooing his brother off the bed so that he could grab the covers. He coaxed Sam into uncurling so that his head was on the pillow, then spread the blanket over him. Sam mumbled something unintelligible and rolled over, pressing his face into the pillow. He sighed and then went still.
Dean was still sleeping peacefully. Castiel returned to his side of the room and sat down on the edge of the bed, lightly pressing his fingers to the foot peeking out from under the covers. Through the contact, he could tell that Dean was dreaming about that lake he seemed so fond of. Curiously, Dean never dreamt about swimming in the lake. He was always sitting on the dock watching. And it wasn’t because he was afraid to go in, but more because it never seemed to occur to him that was swimming was even an option.
“You’re gonna do it, aren’t you?” Gabriel said, voice loud in the otherwise silent room.
“Take Dean as your nestling.”
Hearing it spoken out loud was more appealing than Castiel had expected. “Yes, I am. If Dean wants that.”
“Kid already looks at you like you hold up the stars, Cas,” Gabriel said. “Pretty sure he’ll say yes.”
Castiel shrugged. With Dean, you could never be sure. “Either way, I haven’t spoken to him about it. And I won’t until the Apocalypse is dealt with.”
“Might give him something to look forward to.”
“It might,” Castiel said quietly, but he was more inclined to think that it would just be too much. Dean and Sam were under enough stress as it was, and it didn’t help that Dean felt so responsible for his brother. There were many nights that Dean had stayed up late, worrying about Sam and punishing himself because he didn’t know how to help.
“Well, either way, don’t expect me to baby-sit,” said Gabriel.
“Good. ‘Cause I, for one, am looking forward to a long vacation away from any Winchesters after this is all over.” Gabriel stretched his hands over his head and then reclined across the bottom of Sam’s bed. “Mmm. I’m thinking Aruba. Maybe Hawaii.”
“You’re not planning to stay with Sam?”
“What? No. Why would I?” came the quick response – maybe a little too quick. Castiel hid a smile by looking back down at Dean.
“No reason,” he said, keeping his voice as bland as possible, and pretended he didn’t notice the suspicious glare being drilled into the top of his head. It might’ve only been a couple of months since Gabriel had outright joined them, but Castiel could tell that Gabriel’s attachment to Sam ran far deeper than Gabriel was willing to admit. Why else would Gabriel have wasted all those Tuesdays just trying to spare Sam some pain by bringing him around to his way of thinking in the first place?
Not to mention the fact that even now, Sam was gravitating towards him: shifting under the blankets until one foot was pressed casually against Gabriel’s shoulder, as though for reassurance that the archangel was still there.
“Whatever,” Gabriel muttered finally, and it wasn’t a pout but it was close. “Sometimes I wonder why I signed myself up for this pointless venture in the first place. I’d be better off leaving you three to fight the useless fight and get going.”
“But you won’t,” Castiel said, confident in that if nothing else. The task of keeping the Winchesters safe often seemed insurmountable. But it was slightly easier to handle with Gabriel there too. With him around Sam would be safe, and that meant Castiel was free to concentrate on Dean.
Gabriel sighed, though there was a small, if resigned, smile on his face. “No,” he said. “I won’t.”