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***

December moves in, inevitable as it is grueling. The winter season always arrives hard and fast in South Dakota, the snow coming down in blankets of white that cover the world for months on end. Bobby's old Ford truck struggles over the snow-packed highway, but Dean maneuvers it expertly, knowing these old country roads like he knows the back of his hand. Dean remembers a number of occasions growing up where John left him and Sam at Bobby's for the winter, when money was tight and things were getting bad, and the boys needed a safe place to keep warm.

Dean still thinks of Bobby's home in that way – a safe haven from the storm, a place to keep warm. It's been all those things in the last few weeks, as well as a place to heal up and recoup. Dean glances over at the passenger seat and sees Castiel quietly watching the falling snow, a deep furrow creasing his forehead as he takes in the bleached white sky. Dean thinks: four weeks and three days. That's how long Cas has been back. And it's been one hell of an intense month for everyone involved.

Dean's eyes return to the road, and he grips the steering wheel tighter as he takes in the rolling countryside. They're driving north of the city, the state highway tracing a path through long stretches of wheat fields covered in thick blankets of snowfall. Soto Peak is capped with ice, glistening atop the distant mountain range. Snow weighs the surrounding pine trees down, branches sloping so low they almost touch the ground.

He sighs as they pass a downed power line. "Good thing we got that oil," he says, voice cutting through the sound of the tires crunching over the freshly-plowed road leading to Singer Salvage. "Should keep the generator running through the next few weeks. If another blizzard comes through, we'll be better prepared." He slants his eyes over to his right, sees that Castiel is still miles away, reaches over and pokes his friend's thigh. "Did we get all the supplies on the list?"

"I checked everything myself," Castiel says, and his voice is rough from disuse and exhaustion. He's holding the crumpled supply list in his hand, and Dean smiles at the crossed out marks Castiel made on the paper with one of Sam's lime-green highlighters.

Castiel falls silent again, and Dean wonders if it's the stress or the exhaustion that's weighing the most on him. The skin beneath Castiel's eyes is bruised from lack of sleep. Dean thinks, not for the first time, that he's out of his league here. He doesn't know what he's doing when it comes to helping Cas, or Sam for that matter, recover. Dean doesn't know how to make them better. He sure as hell doesn't know how to fix all the things that are broken inside of them, how to help them become whole again. He's afraid that whatever he ends up doing will just fuck them up even worse than they already are.

"Dean?" Castiel is looking at him, his gaze troubled. "Is there something you think we forgot?"

"No, no," Dean says quickly, his thoughts returning to the matter at hand. "I think we'll have enough food to get us through the month if need be," he adds. For the past week he's been making these regular supply runs with just Castiel. After their run-in with the hellhounds, Bobby thought it safer to have the angel accompanying them on these trips in case anything unexpected happened again.

Dean, though, has learned that Castiel comes with his own set of limitations now. His powers are not back fully, and no one knows if they ever will be. Between its suppression by the monster souls and its stint in Purgatory, Castiel's grace must have undergone significant enough trauma to leave the angel near-human. Castiel's body now needs sleep, food, and nutrients to function. He feels pain, heat, and cold like a human. He can't heal his vessel automatically, and exerting too much of his angel mojo like he did in the hellhound attack drains him for days, making his healing and recovery time even longer. For all intents and purposes, Castiel is living the life of a human, albeit an abnormally strong one who happens to have wings that Dean sees glimpses of in the rare moments when Castiel loosens his hold over his self-control. Maybe it's Dean's own time in Purgatory – and seeing Cas in something akin to his true form – that's to blame for him sometimes being able to see parts of Castiel he never could before: a hint of white light pulsing under his skin, a flicker of multi-hued wings arching out all around him, and a bright blue flame behind his eyes.

Dean sighs, drumming a beat with his fingers against the steering wheel. The snow clicks softly against the windows, and the wipers swipe across the windshield slowly, clearing away the gathering flakes of ice. Dean turns up the heater, wanting to fight back the growing chill. The radio's broken, and the sound of their heavy breathing fills the cab of the truck.

They're close to Bobby's now. The land around them is flat and uniform, and the roads are narrow and winding. They pass a couple of the neighboring homesteads, their hulking farming equipment and storage barns covered in mounds of snow.

"There's another storm coming," Castiel says out of the blue, distracting Dean from the soft pull of the road.

"Did you pick that up using angel doppler radar or something?" Dean asks with a smirk.

"I read it in the newspaper," Cas says, pointing to the stack of local and national papers Dean had purchased, hoping to find something weird enough to let them know that supernatural baddies are still alive and kicking (so to speak). It's been all-too-quiet on the Western front, and from experience Dean knows that usually means something nasty is cooking.

A short time later they're turning into the salvage yard, driving through the rusted old gate and following the cleared private road up to the house itself. The snow's still coming down, and the way the daylight hits the icy shroud that covers the heaps of car scraps and metal has it glinting, shimmering over everything. Dean slides the truck between the ruins of a beautiful, cherry-red Pontiac GTO and the hulking remains of the blue Oldsmobile station wagon Bobby towed in before the storm.

When Dean pulls up in front of the house, Sam and Bobby are both standing on the porch, coats and gloves pulled on. Last week Bobby got a new dog, a massive rottweiler named Cheney, which greets their arrival now with a series of loud barks. Dean never did find out what happened to good ol' Rumsfeld, but he suspects the dog had been through a lot in its years living with Bobby.

Dean climbs out of the truck, Cas following his lead, and the frigid wind whips and tugs sharply at the collar of Dean's jacket. Castiel shivers, and Dean bites back a curse at the cold air, the way the wind seeps in through his layers. While in town, they picked up winter necessities from the thrift store. Cas needed winter clothes and a coat that actually fit him, and Dean and Sam were both due for new jackets and thermals.

Dean feels clumsy as he moves to unload the truck, his body sluggish after a long day of driving. He shakes it off, fighting the coldness and the stiffness trying to settle in his bones. He turns to Cas, smiling when he sees the angel trying to dust snowflakes out of his windblown hair.

"You missed one," Dean laughs, leaning in toward Castiel and attempting to flick an already-melted flake from a lock of dark hair falling limply over Castiel's forehead. Failing to do that, he tucks the lock behind one of Castiel's cold-flushed ears. "Sorry I forgot to get you a cap, man," he says, taking a moment to raise the collar of Castiel's wool coat.

Dean had Cas try on a few different coats to find the best fit. They chose a couple of heavy parkas, but Dean's favorite is the dark, black peacoat Cas is now wearing. A bit reminiscent of the trenchcoat, but sleeker, better-fitted. Castiel looks tall and lean in it, and the coat carries with it the sort of sophisticated look Dean would expect to see in some book-laden Northeast academic.

"I'm still trying to get used to feeling the cold," Castiel murmurs, and Dean can read all the other things unvoiced in that single confession. I'm trying to get used to being so human.

Dean clears his throat, steps closer to Cas, blocking a part of the wind. His boots crunch in the snow and ice, and it sounds like the snapping of old bones. "It's not so bad," Dean says, hand reaching up to brush a couple of big, fat flakes off of Castiel's shoulder before he can do it himself. "It gets easier."

"Made the trip okay?" a voice asks from behind them, and Dean steps back, flushing as he turns away from Cas and toward Sam and Bobby.

Dean nods. "We made it in good time despite only half of the roads being cleared," he reports. "Got enough supplies to last us through the month. Got canned milk as well, so no more emergency late-night trips to town for milk to feed Sammy's shameful cereal habit."

"My shameful cereal habit?" Sam snorts, shaking his head. "Dean, you and Cas cleaned out four boxes of Lucky Charms last week."

Dean shrugs, flashing his brother a cheeky smile. "Sammy, Sammy, Sammy. Is this where I tell everyone about your Nutella addiction? I saw the empty jars in your room."

"It's really good!" Sam insists, before launching into his over-rehearsed spiel about the little-known health benefits of the hazelnut spread.

Dean can't pay attention though because Cheney's sniffing at his boots. Preferring to keep his distance, Dean doesn't bend down to pet the dog. He's been a bit wary of dogs since his stint in the Pit, memories of death by hellhound enough to birth a new phobia. Cas, though, is good with the dog, bending down even now to run his gloved hand behind Cheney's floppy ears. He's saying something to the dog in Enochian, and for a moment Dean wonders if it can understand Castiel's whispered angel-speak better than Bobby's slangy, shouted English commands.

"Bobby's got baked chicken and mashed potatoes on the stove for dinner," Sam's saying when Dean turns back to him, his broad arms loaded up with supplies.

"You're too good to us, Bobby," Dean calls out with a grin. Bobby's got his cap pulled low, but he's squinting over at Dean with a look that says, Oh, I know.

Between all four of them, they're able to unload the truck and get the supplies into the house in a matter of minutes. When the screen door closes shut behind Dean with a soft clack, he breathes in the warm, familiar scent of baking chicken. Bobby's house is dim and cluttered like always, not much light working its way in through the dingy windows. Dean finds Sam in the kitchen, unloading canned goods between the piles of books covering the dinner table.

Castiel is looking out of the kitchen window, his body quiet and still. He's been quiet all day in fact, and Dean knows that means something's on the angel's mind. If only Cas would talk to him about whatever it is.

"Cas, you okay?" Dean asks, and he's lost count of how many times he's asked that question in the course of any given day this past month.

"I think I'm tired," Castiel admits without meeting Dean's eyes. "I'll head upstairs now if you don't need me for anything else."

"We're good here," Dean says, watching the curve of Castiel's back as he disappears around the corner. There's a carefulness to his steps now, as if Cas is trying to find some new sort of balance, a new way of existing in his skin. Dean sighs, and when he turns around he finds Bobby watching him with a knowing look. He motions for Dean to follow him, and Dean nods.

"Hey, Sam, you think you can take care of putting everything away?" Dean asks, placing the can of pinto beans he'd been holding on to the kitchen table.

"No problem," Sam says, hair flipping into his face as he turns to look at Dean. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah, yeah," Dean says. "Bobby just wants to get on my case for forgetting to stock up on his Werther's Originals."

Sam snorts, and Dean huffs a soft laugh as he exits the kitchen, remembering all the times he and Sam teased Bobby about his "old man" candy. Dean winds his way through the foyer and into the cavernous, dungeon-dark library where Bobby spends most of his waking hours. He's got the fireplace blazing, and it's casting a soft light in the room, revealing the devil's trap painted on the ceiling.

Bobby's sitting behind his large desk, face half-hidden by a tower of books. "How's feathers?" he asks when Dean settles in a chair in front of him.

"Still not sleeping much," Dean huffs, hand coming to rest on a book of Navajo folklore. He's taken to sleeping on the couch in Castiel's room, staying close in order to help Cas through the fits that sometimes hit late at night.

"And you?" Bobby asks, and Dean can tell there's a tired smile hidden somewhere behind his graying beard.

"Still not sleeping much," Dean laughs, shaking his head.

"I'm not surprised," Bobby mutters, sitting back in his chair. "You're running yourself ragged taking care of Cas, and Sam too. You think your own trauma is just gonna take a backseat to everyone else's? You've been to Hell too, boy. And to Purgatory."

Dean balls his hand into a fist and raises his head to look at Bobby. "This is how I deal, Bobby. And I am dealing."

Bobby sighs heavily. His eyes move over Dean, a soft affection lighting his face. "I don't think you are, kid. And that's what worries me."

Dean looks out of the library's only uncovered window; the snow's falling faster now, coming down in thick gusts and swirls. "Cas says there's another storm coming in soon," he says, needing to change the subject, needing not to focus on the cold shiver of fear that lies just beneath everything he does, everything he says.

"We ready for it?" Bobby asks, voice gruff.

"I think so," Dean says, shifting his legs. "More ready than we've been in the past."

Dean meets Bobby's eyes, and he knows that Bobby's aware that he's talking about more than a blizzard or ice storm.

Bobby nods his head, turning to stare at the fire. "Something's coming. I can feel it in my bones."

Dean closes his eyes, shivers; he can feel it too.


***

Dean refers to them as panic attacks, but this one isn't like the others. Castiel doesn't hear the endless, inchoate jeer of their voices, and doesn't feel them slithering through his consciousness, seeking nooks and crannies to taunt him through. This panic attack isn't a flashback, isn't a fever-phantasm of pain and horror, even if there is still a sense of dread lapping at the outer limits of the illusion he finds himself in.

This isn't a hallucination or a memory at all, he realizes. It's a dream, and for a moment it sends him off-kilter with the memory of falling slowly, like a feather on the breeze, maybe one of his own feathers that worked loose on his long, leisurely tumble to earth and wafted back and forth on the gentle breath of the wind. Castiel fell slowly, and humanity crept up on him just as gradually: a dry mouth that signaled thirst, a gnawing feeling in his stomach that he recognized as hunger, a tight band of pressure around his temples that he knew was anxiety, and a lack of surety that appalled him. And weariness. He had been endless, boundless energy, intent, impulse, and force of will, filling the sky and stretching to the stars and beyond, always on the move. But as his grace dwindled, gravity constrained him and the effort to stay airborne exhausted him, so he began to sleep like humans do. After a time, he began to dream like humans do.

And this is a dream, he's as sure as he can be of it.

Castiel is walking on a beach, wet hard-packed sand underfoot and a steady drizzle spattering his face with tiny, cold droplets. In his peripheral vision he can see a figure abreast of him, but he keeps his eyes fixed to the horizon as they meander along. Castiel doesn't have to turn and focus on his companion properly to know who is keeping step with him, because his brother's presence reverberates inside him. It fills him with joy even as the memory of what he did sends guilt and remorse crashing relentlessly through him in time with the waves breaking on the shoreline.

"You're dreaming, Castiel," Balthazar tells him after some time has passed. "Dreaming of the ocean. The water."

The sand feels icy cold between Castiel's bare toes, and his feet sink down into its grip, a suction that doesn't seem like it wants to let go, that might pull him down into the sludge so that it engulfs him. He stares out to sea, across the flat gray expanse that meets an equally dreary sky miles away, in a dark line that bisects the view, and he shivers because he can't get past the feeling that there is something out there, watching him, waiting for him.

Balthazar folds an arm across his middle, tweaks at his chin with thumb and fingers as he mulls. "I suspect this dream means something," he supplies helpfully.

"I know that," Castiel says, slanting wary eyes towards his brother. "But what does it mean?"

Balthazar smirks and avoids answering. "Did you know dreams have the power to unify the body, mind, and spirit?" he deflects instead, his tone gone frosty as his lip curls up derisively. "And that dreams provide you with insight?"

Castiel does know this, because he remembers what it was like to dream before, in that other fall from grace, remembers how the transitional state before waking was filled with random, jumbled fantasies, a mixture of perfectly mundane doodles taken from the events of his long existence, and other more urgent images that often confused him but always transfixed him, visions that never failed to vividly express his concerns and preoccupations. Dean, always Dean, utterly consumed by Michael's light, Michael's single-mindedness, and Michael's divine justice, meted out obediently, as it ever was, because Michael was a hammer. The insight those dreams afforded Castiel after he woke came through his acknowledgment that he would die to protect Dean from his brother. And it was acknowledgment rather than dawning realization, because some small part of him had known, from the moment he first saw Dean's torn, damaged soul still glimmering in the murky smoke of the Pit, that he would give up everything he knew and was for it.

This isn't one of those dreams, even if it does vividly express his concerns and preoccupations, because he is lucid and aware in this dream. And aside from his preoccupation with the water, and the fear of being pulled into its darkness, it suddenly hits him that he's here in the dream with his brother, the brother he sacrificed so ruthlessly to his quest. He wants to believe that Balthazar's presence can mean only one thing, so he lets a wild hope flare up bright inside him. "You're dreamwalking me," he marvels. "That means you're—"

"Dead."

Balthazar cuts him off sharply, cuts the surge of relief off too. "Still dead. Thanks to you." He tsks. "I didn't see that coming. I have to hand it to you, Cas, that backstabbing was worthy of Zachariah at his most devious. But then, you were his protégé at one time weren't you? How ironic." He pauses, barks out a humorless chuckle. "If I'd known this would happen, I don't think I would have compromised my own position quite so thoroughly at your trial."

Castiel is young, and his goodness and compassion have misled him, Zachariah… Balthazar's voice had rung out as clear as a bell in the clamor, and all eyes had turned to him in his fervor and conviction. These are the same qualities that mark him as being among the very best of us.

The memory is scarlet agony, an explosion of grief as fiery and incandescent as his brother's grace when it twisted and burned like a supernova pinned on the blade of Castiel's sword. Castiel cries out his anguish and falls to his knees, prostrating himself there on the sand. "Forgive me," he chokes out. "It was the only way…I had to stop—"

"Foolish, foolish child," Balthazar chides. His eyes stay pale and frigid as he looks down, but his interruption is quiet and without the same scorn as before. "What have you done, Castiel?" he asks, and he shakes his head. "You stopped nothing."

As he registers what Balthazar said, uncertainty and confusion swell up inside Castiel, with fear close on their heels. But he retains enough presence of mind to question his brother's words. "What does that mean?" he repeats, an even more puzzled echo of what he asked a few moments before.

Balthazar sighs, and Castiel frowns because he can see there is sadness in his brother's expression now, but he doesn't understand why. "Balthazar, what does that mean?" he asks again, and now the world is shaking around him, and Balthazar is becoming translucent, flickering in and out like a mirage in the desert. "Wait," Castiel cries, his anxiety making him desperate as he reaches up. "What does that mean? And do you know what's coming from the darkness? Balthazar…"

His brother's voice is distant then, cutting in and out with a harsher sound, the sound of Castiel's name uttered urgently and tersely, but Castiel filters it out, strains to listen to Balthazar instead.

…who begins it, is the only one who can end it…


***

"Castiel. Cas, come on."

Castiel jolts to awareness abruptly, tracks his eyes along the forearm attached to the hand gripping his shoulder, up to stare at Bobby. He says the first thing that springs to mind, slurs it out thickly. "The dreamer has stopped sleeping."

Bobby raises an eyebrow. "Whatever you say." He jerks his head over toward the battered couch opposite the bed, where Dean is sprawled face-down in a cushion, fully clothed, boots and all, a hand dangling loosely off the edge. "He's dead to the world. And he needs the sleep." He releases Castiel's shoulder then, straightens, keeps his voice low. "If you're having screaming nightmares, best you take the couch downstairs from now on and let him have the bed. He's been up half the night dealing with you."

Castiel has only the barest memory of half-the-night, but he nods dumbly as he sits up. The fatigue he felt after he destroyed the hellhound is much less intense now; his body doesn't feel as leaden and exhausted as it did when Dean stumbled him up the stairs and ordered him to rest right after he flexed what's left of his grace. But even now, a little more than a week later, some degree of lethargy still lingers, made worse by the fact that his slumber is fitful at best, and he yawns widely.

Bobby rolls his eyes as he turns to head for the door. "You've been crashed out for near fourteen hours," he throws back over his shoulder in an impatient whisper. "Come on. Coffee's on, it'll give you a boost."

Castiel watches Bobby's back as he exits, listens to him creak slowly down the stairs. He shakes his head then, blinks eyes that are gritty with sleep. He glances over to the window, boarded up now and with thick clear plastic taped over the wood to keep the winter chill at bay. Weak sunlight seeps in between the pine slats, burnishing the air it beams through, and he leans over to swat his hand gently through a ray. For a moment he remembers gliding through the sky, the sun so close he could trail an idle finger through its fiery plasma, remembers basking in its scorching heat and watching as solar flares streaked out of its brilliance. He knows his grace is so fragile now that he might never soar so high again.

He pulls himself away from his regret, back to reality. He thinks he dreamed something that wasn't a vision of blood spilled by the abomination he was, is, but he can't recall it because his mind is unclear, draped in foggy bluish-gray that makes him think of drizzle, and dank, amorphous sea mist rolling in off some primeval ocean. He feels thirsty and his stomach feels hollow. How many days has it been since Purgatory?, he wonders, because he has lost track of time. Yet, he can feel himself weakening in microscopic increments, as this body's bones close around him, trapping him in their cage.

It is as it was then, he surmises, as it was when he was falling in the months before Stull Cemetery. It's no real surprise, because he knows he isn't what an angel should be. Soon the gaps between each ivory prison bar will be too narrow for his grace to squeeze through, soon he will gaze at the world with blinkered human eyes and rely on his fingertips to touch it, instead of feeling it electrify through every atom of his being simply by virtue of his presence on this plane. His light is dimming with each fraction of every passing second, the flame that blazed so bright in him little more than glowing embers now. His grace is tattered and frayed into rags. He's stained with the filth of the souls he carried inside himself, marked with their diamond-sharp teeth and polluted with their rank territorial pissing, and their lasting taint exiles him from his Father's kingdom as completely as he was cast out and cut off from it when Zachariah barred the gate to him.

Zachariah at his most devious…

Even through his melancholy, the random thought makes Castiel smile ruefully as he muses that Zachariah would likely be proud of him if he still existed. He gives voice to the irony. "I was his protégé at one time."

He shifts his legs over the side of the bed, plants his feet on the floor. The rug is grainy underfoot and for a second it feels like…sand? It makes no sense, and he dismisses the comparison as soon as it comes to mind. He looks down at himself. He's clad in soft plaid flannel pajama pants and a faded black t-shirt he recognizes as being one of Dean's. He can't remember putting them on, but he knows he's been waking up screaming, floundering and drenched in sweat so often it has become his norm, and the thought triggers a phantom memory of soothing words and capable hands cleaning him up. Almost without thinking, he fists a handful of the worn cotton shirt, closes his eyes, and buries his face in it, breathes in Dean, and it soothes and calms him.

A gauze dressing is still covering the slash where the hellhound's claws raked his belly, and Castiel picks at the tape, peels it away. The mark has been slow to heal; it's still puffy and inflamed with the contagion of brimstone. Unbidden, Castiel slides his hand up under the fabric of his shirt to the other new scar he bears, the raised red welt on the otherwise smooth skin of his chest. He fits his palm to it. A seal upon my heart, he finds himself thinking again, because he still can't believe this soul he redeemed was, in turn, his own salvation. Like the seal upon your arm.

The skin feels warmer there, feels as charged with static as it did when Dean pressed his own hand to it in the kitchen the first time Castiel ventured downstairs from his self-imposed exile. As he's remembering it, Castiel hears a stifled moan from the couch. He swivels his head to look, and Dean is shifting restlessly, rolling over onto his back. His body has tensed up, and his eyes are moving erratically under their lids. He looks annoyed, and he frowns in his sleep, makes another small, unintelligible noise that sounds like a protest as he flails a careless hand up and scrabbles at the top of his arm. He searches for a few seconds before his fingers fall still right where Castiel knows he left his own brand. And then Dean sighs out long and deep, and Castiel can see his muscles relax, see the crease between his eyes soften.

Castiel feels it again, a corresponding prickling, a smarting sensation in his own scar that has him gasping as it bursts into a tingle that simmers from the center of the mark out to its boundaries. He swallows, listens to Dean's breathing slow down again, studies Dean's face, flushed pink with the heat of sleep and looking too young in repose. "I'm here, Dean," he murmurs out loud.

Castiel's reverie is disturbed by a clatter from below and muffled cursing. More sounds drift up the stairs, drawers opening and closing, the clash of crockery, and as he pushes up to stand and pad over to the door, he can smell the rich, dark earthiness of coffee, hear the sizzle of oil in a skillet.

There is an open door opposite him, leading into the bathroom where Dean propped him up against the wall and used a wet washcloth to wipe sweat, tears, and putrid vomit from his face the week before. He shuffles in there, snaps on the light. The mirror has been replaced, and he studies his reflection again. He's used to seeing himself in the confines of his vessel, in the shape of a thirty-four-year-old human male. He looks and sees what other humans see – his eyes are a sharp shade of blue, and his dark hair is thick and tousled. He stares at his vessel, at himself, for soon he will be no more than this, and the eyes that look out of the mirror back at him are dull with guilt, and shadowed with the ashes of his grace.

Castiel can hear snoring from another room across the landing, the room Sam cleared out for himself the week before after too many nights folding his long limbs to fit the couch in the study. Castiel makes his way over to it, sneaks a look around the door to see a mattress on the floor, and a tuft of Sam's hair poking out from underneath a pile of blankets and comforters. One of Sam's bare feet is uncovered, and Castiel sidles closer, bends, and carefully rearranges the bedding to cover the extremity. Sam's hand is outflung too, seems to be reaching out in an unconscious imitation of the handshake he offered Castiel when they first met. Castiel studies it, sets his impression of the boy with the taint of demons against himself back then, so sure and so righteous, before setting it against himself in the present. "I'm the one with the taint now," he whispers.

Castiel shuffles back out, pulls the door closed, wincing as the hinge groans in protest, before he makes his stealthy way down the stairs. He hovers at the kitchen door and spies on Bobby for an uncertain moment, watching him bustle around the stove. It occurs to him that he hasn't spent any time alone with Bobby since returning from Purgatory, and the prospect makes him nervous and dry-mouthed. He's just debating slinking back up the stairs to wait for Dean to wake when Bobby sees him and nods briskly.

"Grub's up," he announces. "Sit." He heaps lurid yellow scrambled eggs onto two plates, and he swivels, sets the food down on the table before reaching back for a plate of toasted bread he positions dead center.

Castiel perches on the nearest chair as Bobby hooks the other one out with his boot. Bobby clears his throat as he reaches for a pot of coffee to his right, pours the steaming dark liquid into a mug and slides it towards Castiel before filling his own cup. Bobby raises it to his mouth, drinks long and deep, smacks his lips. "Jet fuel," he declares. "That'll wake you up."

Castiel remembers coffee from his previous attempt at becoming human, remembers its burnt, nutty taste on his palate, remembers how the buzz of caffeine set his heart racing and made him feel alert and restored. He hasn't had any since then, and it goes down hot and bitter, makes his eyes water. He sets down his mug, forks up a good-sized clump of his eggs, and tips it into his mouth. It's salty and drowned in butter, so much so he can imagine it clogging up his arteries. He muses briefly that he'll have to watch that in the near future.

Bobby winks at him. "Protein," he says around his own mouthful. "Looks like you need to build up some muscle, especially if your mojo is running low and we need you to break out the big guns." He grimaces. "You're no good to us if you can't fight."

That grates, and Castiel knows his response is testy. "Because without my mojo, I'm just a baby in a…" He glances down at his front. "In a… a…htabbas kcalb t-shirt." He frowns, momentarily perplexed. "I speak every language known to man, but I don't recognize that dialect. Perhaps I'm…" Oh. "Reading it back to front," he finishes off redundantly.

Bobby snorts, shakes his head. "Anyway, as I was saying. If you can't hold your own without your super powers, you could get one of us killed." His tone mellows then. "Or get yourself killed. Which would be a damn shame, considering."

There is a look in Bobby's eyes that might be kindness, and it disarms Castiel because he thinks it might be the first time he has ever seen Bobby's gaze fall on him and soften the way it often does when he directs it at the Winchesters. Perhaps it's an opening, and Castiel swallows, takes the leap, tumbles out words in a breakneck rush. "I'm sorry…for the things I did, for the lies, for your friend—"

Bobby holds up a hand to stop Castiel's breathless flow of words. "Stop." He lets out a long breath, his hand crumpling up a napkin, and it's clear to Castiel that he's having difficulty finding words. "We don't talk about her," he says finally. "It was wrong, what you did. You know that, and I ain't saying a damn thing to make you feel better about it. So it's best we don't talk about her. You're here, and I ain't kicking you out. So we just – we need to try to keep moving forward."

Castiel nods, swallowing around what feels like a lump of food stuck in his throat. "Dean said something similar. About not being able to excuse what I did, but needing to move forward."

Bobby nods. "Well, Dean would know something about moving past, about trying to forgive. He went through this with Sam, trying to get past the lies. And hell, I lied to Dean myself about his brother being topside for the best part of a year." He gives a wry huff, shrugs, and then returns to being as brusque as he ever was when he adds, "Now shut up and eat your eggs." He shovels in some more of his own, chews noisily as he reaches for a thick piece of toast and tears off a strip.

Aside from Bobby's usual stony glare, Castiel has never been really sure where he stands with the old man. Although he had come to feel welcome in Bobby's home, even going so far as to seek it out as a place of shelter when Rachel injured him, he has always sensed an underlying suspicion in Bobby's demeanor. Yet, Bobby trusted him enough to allow him to reach in and draw power from his soul, and sometimes he thinks Bobby may even think of him as a friend. But another part of Castiel fears that any familiarity Bobby directs his way is born of a grudging tolerance for his presence that is motivated by a practical, logical, and industrial appreciation of Castiel as a lethal weapon, rather than by real friendship. Bobby confuses Castiel, and right now Castiel's sheer bewilderment at the fact they're even sitting here together at all bubbles over into a frustration that means he can't shut up to order. "I don't know why you permit me to stay," he manages hoarsely, glancing up from examining his scrambled eggs.

Bobby's stare goes baleful. "It must be your sparkling personality." He reaches for the coffee pot, tops up first his mug and then Castiel's. "Stop wallowing," he growls. "You fucked up. Who in this house hasn't?" He spears a blob of egg with his fork. "Of course, on a scale of one to ten, you scored a goddamn billion with the crap you pulled. But there's no point bellyachin' like some bratty kid. It's over. Done."

It isn't so very different from Dean's summing up of their similarities as he raged against Castiel's apathy. "I take it you think I deserve saving as well," he mocks weakly.

"It don't always have to be an eye for an eye, son," Bobby says with what sounds like quiet exhaustion. "Despite what your holy how-to guidebook says."

Despite what everyone thinks, Castiel doesn't remember it all. He saw only appalling glimpses of the crazy crap he pulled, but he knows that he doesn't deserve absolution or even mercy, knows the gruff dispensation, It's over, lobbed out with what seems like little thought and consideration, is a convenient dismissal of things Bobby's decent, human frame of reference can never comprehend and doesn't want to confront. And there is irony in the fact that the man's underestimation of Castiel's capacity for ruthlessness, even in the face of what he has done, suddenly irks him. I have killed tens of thousands, razed the cities of antiquity, destroyed entire civilizations, he wants to roar, while he unfurls his wings, draws his sword, and blazes fury and burning anger that leaves the world in desolation and causes the heavens to tremble. I have walked through the fires of Hell. "I'm not a child, Bobby," he says instead, and his voice comes out thin and dangerous. "You can never conceive the magnitude of my sins. They are beyond your scope." He pauses a beat. "And so, I don't know why you permit me to stay."

Bobby is chewing still, but he exhales deeply and sets his fork down beside his plate as he swallows his mouthful and washes it down with a sip of his coffee. He wipes his lips with the back of his hand, and his stare is level. "Maybe I let you stay because it matters to Dean," he says evenly. "Or maybe I have enough scope to see past your sins. Maybe I have enough scope to see a friend who made a fuckin' awful mistake and needs a hand up. And yeah – a friend who deserves saving."

Castiel watches him through a moment of strained silence, until the tension is broken by an alarmed shout that echoes from above them. The thundering beat of boots sounds on the stairs, rising to a crescendo of frantic progress up the hallway until Dean crashes in through the half-open kitchen door. He skids to a clumsy halt on the linoleum as he yelps, "Bobby, where's…" He trails off then, panting, his eyes huge and panic-stricken as he looks from Castiel to Bobby, back and forth for a long few seconds. "My eggs," he covers stiltedly. "Eggs. Where's my eggs? Don't I get any?"

Since Castiel's appetite is gone, he pushes his plate over towards the empty seat at his right. "You can have the rest of mine," he mutters.

Dean recovers his poise, scrutinizes Castiel with narrowed eyes as he sits down. He looks at him for a long moment before he says, "You've been eating like a horse all this past week." He picks up Castiel's fork and starts picking at the leftovers. "So. Care to explain that?"

Castiel is thrown for a second, and he wonders if it might be a trick question. "But you want me to eat," he defends. "And sleep. You've been…" He pauses as the phrases intensely irritating and utterly infuriating compete to be first. "Most encouraging in that respect."

Dean is reaching for the coffee pot now, slopping the dregs in to supplement Castiel's half-empty mug. He takes a gulp of the brew before he replies. "Yeah, but I mean – it's been more than a week since you ganked Cujo, and you said you felt better. And since you're a t—"

"A tool you need to be able to use in your defense?" Castiel interrupts, pushing down his disappointment so he can see the sense in Dean's words. "I know this. But – I'm still damaged. Blemished. I'm not a weapon you can rely on, so—"

"You're not a tool," Dean interrupts, almost aggressively. His shoulders go rigid, and his eyes gleam with annoyance as he pulls his face into a frown. "Jesus, Cas, is that what you really think?" He glowers at Castiel for a brittle moment, drumming his fingers on the tabletop, until he slumps, and his look turns part-accusing, part-puzzled. "Come on, man," he appeals, his voice gone quiet and meaningful. "Do we really have to do this again? Remember what I said? I went after you. And it wasn't just because you're good in a fight."

Castiel is vaguely aware of Bobby in his side vision. His back is to them, and he's puttering at the sink, calculated, minimal movements Castiel can tell are designed to make himself as unobtrusive as possible. Castiel turns his focus back to Dean, allows himself to take comfort in what he knows is the truth, allows himself to feel the warmth of Dean's assertion. It makes him feel like things can be as they once were, and he hesitates only briefly before he says, "I'm sorry."

Dean snorts, rolls his shoulders, and suddenly the strained awkwardness dissipates, and the atmosphere is looser again. "If I ever hear that word again, it'll be too soon," he declares, and then he smiles crookedly at Castiel. "You're not a tool. Not that kind of tool anyway. Target. You're a target. That's what I wanted to say."

Castiel knows that his eyes go guarded at that. Dean notices it too, he can tell, because his gaze turns speculative as he leans back in his chair.

"Those wards," Dean offers, with the kind of offhandedness that isn't at all casual. "I see you scribbled a few extra patterns in there." He's still looking right at Castiel, but he slides his eyes away to direct them at the window and up to the strip of wall above the curtain rod. "I couldn't figure out what that was, sat here last night staring at it until I went cross-eyed, and then I knew. It's the one you painted on Bobby's fridge that day you crash-landed here after your lieutenant went postal."

Over at the sink, Bobby chuckles. He turns around to lean back against the countertop and shakes his head at Castiel. "Boy always was good with sigils," he remarks, and he taps his temple with his index finger. "Only ever had to show him once, and it was locked in there."

Dean nods triumphantly. "I got skills," he drawls. "Anyway, it made me think of what you said, Cas, right after it all went down." He cocks his head at Castiel then. "About how you'd be cleaning house upstairs. And it's got me wondering if we're about to have a rage of pissed-off angels on our ass."

Bobby huffs. "We even tried summoning your buddy Balthazar for a sitrep, but he was a no-show. Think he'll come if you call him now?"

Castiel knows he flinches reflexively as he swallows past the sudden, sickly surge of pain and remorse that snakes through his gut. He doesn't meet Bobby's eyes, tries to make himself think of something else, even while he gropes for an answer. "Balthazar – won't come," he mutters finally, his voice faded and weary.

Dean is oblivious to Castiel's evasion, makes a dismissive clucking sound with his tongue. "Yeah, we noticed," he retorts acidly. "Knowing Balthazar, he's probably somewhere throwing a non-stop kegger." He blows out a sharp exhale and sidetracks abruptly. "So, we have angels who might be coming to kick your ass. How about Crowley? Did you take him out of the equation while you were juiced up?"

Castiel finds that the unexpected diversion from his friend to his nemesis is a relief for only a second at most before it launches a cascade of memories, images, and snatches of conversations, a too-detailed record of the temptation and weakness that brought him so low. After clearing his throat of the despair that blocks it, he manages, "Crowley still lives." He turns up a helpless hand at Dean's withering eyebrow-raise. "He wasn't a threat," he defends weakly. "It seemed strategically wise to leave him in charge of running Hell." He sees the demon's endless, meandering, docile line of damned souls in his mind's eye as he continues. "He had…a system that seemed to work, and his sense of self-preservation seemed to promise cooperation."

Over to their right, Bobby makes a formless, venomous noise that combines disgust and exasperation, before he reaches up to tweak his beard thoughtfully and flicks his gaze from Castiel to Dean. "Well, now we're on the subject, do you think it's possible Crowley might have sent that pack of hellhounds after you to draw Cas out?" he suggests.

The hand Dean has resting on the table clenches, and his expression goes dark and troubled as he considers it. "He's got to be after his pound of flesh, Cas," he offers somberly.

Castiel casts his eyes down and away, breathes through the turmoil of bad memories the demon's name triggered. "It's possible," he confirms reluctantly. "He'll be aware of my – demotion. But…" He pauses, as he recalls the hellhound's confusion and fear, its lack of focus. "But that said, the creature was behaving erratically," he finishes. "It was afraid. And we still don't know what killed its packmates."

Dean bites his lip. "Okay," he says tightly. "If it means you're out of commission for a week afterwards, then I don't want you going superman unless we're really in the shitter. But it means we'll need to get you up to speed on fighting dirty as a human in case Crowley or one of the God-squad gets the jump on us." He nods decisively at Castiel, pushes the chair back and stands. "And we need to hit the books some more, find out what's out there that can kill a pack of hellhounds."

It's a welcome distraction, Castiel thinks, something that doesn't tear at him inside, something through which he might start to atone for all he has done.

He can do this.


***

It's still early, not yet sunrise, when Dean stumbles downstairs, sock-covered feet padding silently over the floor, a blanket pulled around his shoulders to ward off the chill. The weather has been unrelenting, cold and windy with the promise of another two to four inches of snow throughout the day. The wind screamed throughout the night, whistling through the cracks in Bobby's old house, sneaking under doors and windows.

Dean heads to the kitchen and puts on the coffee, settles against the counter to watch it brew. He sucks in a deep breath, holds it for long moments, tries not to think about anything that needs thinking about this week. When he finally has two hot mugs of coffee steaming in his hands, Dean heads to the library.

He knew he'd find Castiel down here. The angel is sitting on one of Bobby's tattered couches in front of the fireplace, old books and journals spread around him on the table. His head is lowered over a slim volume of water spirit lore, a book Dean recognizes from his own time spent researching in the confines of Bobby's library.

Dean enters the room, sets a cup of coffee on the table by Castiel's side before sipping from his own. Castiel looks up at that, eyes widening in surprise. "Dean? Did I wake you?"

"Nah," Dean says. In fact, tonight's actually one of the only nights Castiel's night terrors and panic attacks didn't wake him. Instead of nights spent screaming and throwing up, Castiel seems to have given up the ghost. Now he's taken up drinking more coffee than humanly possible and reading for hours on end. "I noticed you were out of bed again," Dean says, voice carefully neutral. "I figured you'd be down here researching, considering you've spent the last two days holed up in here."

"Bobby has a surprising number of books," Castiel says, brow furrowing. "It will take me a long time to get through them all."

Dean laughs, shaking his head. "Gotta pace yourself, man," he says, settling beside Castiel on the couch. He wraps his blanket tighter around his shoulders and picks up a heavy, leather-bound volume on demonology. The fire's dying in the fireplace, the orange glow still giving faint heat and just enough light to read by.

They read in silence for a long while until Dean decides to break it with, "So, instead of sleeping you're just going to spend your nights researching?"

Castiel lets out a weary sigh, as if he knew this would come up. He stares up at the ceiling for a long moment before turning tired blue eyes on Dean. Gravely, he says, "When I sleep, I dream. So, yes, I prefer not to sleep."

Dean sets his book down and turns to face Cas, prepping to get into the same argument they've been having for weeks. Castiel is looking away though, studying the dying fire. Then he gets up, his lean body moving soundlessly as he makes his way to the collection of encyclopedias lining the shelf in the far corner. He runs his hands over their spines, long fingers gathering years of dust.

"Cas?" Dean says, moving toward the edge of the couch.

"I was my garrison's best strategist," Castiel says, his eyes going around the room as if he is in fact strategizing right now: working out a plan, an escape route, cataloguing the exits and entrances.

Dean sighs, eyes focusing on the way Castiel's body pulls inward, how his hips lean back against the shelf. He's wearing what Dean has come to think of as Castiel's favorite pair of Dean's flannel pajama pants, overlong hem falling over his bare toes, and one of Dean's old henleys, sleeves pushed up to his elbow. His hair is wild and tousled, longer than Dean's ever seen it. He has patches of dark stubble lining his cheeks and jaw because he hasn't quite gotten the point of shaving. He looks deceptively human right now, rumpled and tired, and in the firelight his pale skin has gone softly golden.

The house creaks, its old wood beaten down by the snow and ice, as Dean turns Castiel's words over in his head. He says, "I hate to tell you this, but your Purgatory strategy really sucked, Cas."

Castiel is quiet for a beat, studying his hands as they run against the edge of the shelf. "At the time, it seemed the best option," he says eventually, but he doesn't volunteer anything else, and Dean feels a familiar frustration swirl through his chest.

Dean swallows against the feeling, holding the words and questions back for a time when he has the strength and energy to voice them. Instead he says, "You need to sleep."

Castiel stiffens, and Dean can tell his friend is verging on anger, the quiet intensity he usually carries sparking with a new kind of life. He's tense, his body all sharp angry lines. There's a tightness to the set of his jaw, a fierce heat in his eyes. "Dean, please just stop telling me what I need," he says, voice weighted like steel.

Dean blinks at that, then cuts his eyes away from Castiel and turns back to his coffee. His voice is low as he says, "You think this new strategy is going to work? Stop sleeping? Push me away again? That sound smart to you?"

"It seems the best option right now," Castiel murmurs.

Something inside Dean snaps at that, and he has to hold his tongue lest he curse Castiel out. After a long moment of uncomfortable silence, he says, "Fine, Cas." He heaves himself off the couch and tries to catch Castiel's eyes, but the angel won't even look at him.

Dean turns away and pads to the door of the library, feeling heavier than he's felt in a long time. He pauses there, before glancing back at Castiel, who's still standing silent and motionless in the dark corner. "Cas, I'm trying to find a way to forgive you. But man, you need to find a way to forgive yourself. When it comes down to it, that's the only way to sleep at night."

With that, Dean heads upstairs, to his own restless sleep and his own troubled dreams.


***

Despite the attic being dank and dusty, Bobby long ago converted it into what Dean would call a passable training room. Orange mats cover the rotting hardwood floors, and sets of work-out equipment line the walls to the left and right. Combined with their morning jogs together, Sam and Dean can get most of their strength-training and cardiovascular workouts done here. For the past two weeks, Dean's been using the room to work out some tension; all he needs to do is spend an hour with the punching bag, gloved hands pounding away until he's sore and covered in sweat, and then the day seems much more manageable.

Feeling that tension in his muscles now, Dean walks up the steps that lead to the attic, pausing at the top when he realizes he's not the only one seeking some kind of sanctuary here this morning. He'd assumed Castiel was with Sam and Bobby in the library, but the angel seems to have taken their advice to use the attic training room to work out, to hone his human body now that he's recovering his strength.

Right now Castiel is standing in the middle of the room, barefoot and shirtless, wearing only a pair of loose fitting black pants. Dean squints, trying to understand what he's seeing, and another moment passes before he realizes that Castiel is doing something that resembles t'ai chi or some form of yoga. But it's something Dean's never really seen before. In the course of his routine, Castiel performs a series of slow movements and stretches, leaps and turns that resemble a ballet dance as much as they do any form of fighting. It's amazing to watch, beautiful almost.

For a long while, Dean leans against the doorjamb, fascinated by how the angel's muscles move under his smooth skin with each new position he takes. Castiel never looks up, but Dean senses that Castiel knows he's here. His body is radiating calm though, a fluid grace that reminds Dean that no matter how human Castiel seems, he's still something other, something more. Even in his human skin, in his human body, he seems to float, as if his legs are gliding on air; his hands move through the air like wings.

He's all balance and control, and just watching him eases the tension from Dean's shoulders. Two weeks of eating and honing his fighting skills has allowed Castiel's vessel to fill out. No longer the starved stick-figure he became after Purgatory, Castiel is tight and lean, chest muscles flexing as he raises his arms in a slow arc above his head. The light catches and defines his muscles, and his back glistens with sweat.

Dean watches as the angel lunges forward with invisible blades, how he twirls, twisting from his narrow hips to his shoulders as he drives forward in a decisive jab. The muscles in his back shift, and then he's stepping back, parrying the thrust of his invisible opponent's sword.

Dean's shifts forward, and his boots slide too loudly against the old wood of the floor, breaking the calm of the room.

Castiel pulls back, standing up straighter. He turns around and their eyes meet as Dean slides fully into the attic. Castiel doesn't look away from him, and he doesn't say anything.

Dean breaks the tense silence by clearing his throat. He asks, "What is that? Some sort of martial art?"

Castiel is quiet for a long time before he finally says, "These exercises may be similar in theory and practice to some of your own fighting arts. They're about channeling energy, as well as perfecting fighting tactics. Through them, I can connect to the universe, to my Father's creations."

"So it's spiritual?" Dean asks, remembering the perfect curve of Castiel's back, the way he opened his arms upward like he was calling down the heavens.

"It's many things," Castiel says, and a soft mysterious smile curls his lips. "As much a form of worship, as a call to battle."

"That's pretty…intense," Dean says with a soft huff. Wanting to say more but not sure exactly what, he adds, "My dad taught me and Sammy to fight." His mind goes to late-night sparring sessions in secluded fields, overgrown backyards, on dusty freeways, and in diner parking lots.

Castiel stretches, his body still moving with the grace of his workout. "We were trained to be able to fight in our human vessels, to move in this skin as organically as we move in our true forms," he explains.

Dean nods, turning around to take in the attic-cum-training room. He makes a decision. "So, you gonna show me what you got?" he smirks.

Castiel frowns for a moment, but then he looks at Dean as if he's measuring him up. "There are always things I can show you, Dean." And he says it with a hint of teasing, his own slight smirk creeping across his face.

Dean laughs, shakes his head. He kicks off his boots and socks, and then he sheds his own t-shirt, throwing it on the floor by the side of the weight equipment. He's just in his sweats now, bare feet curling into the cool mat. "Alright, let's go then."

Cas nods his head, and they regard each other for a long moment. Dean moves forward, closing the distance until they're about two feet apart. They circle each other then, observing each other, like two ancient warriors squaring off in a dojo. Castiel's eyes are dark, his back slightly curved, long arms loose at his sides. But there's an alertness to his pose, a slight tension in his shoulders that tells Dean he's waiting for the right moment to make his first move.

Dean smiles, excited by the prospect. He tracks the angel's motions, his own feet stepping side to side on the mat in a mimic of Castiel's quick steps. And then Castiel strikes, swiping his legs in a smooth kick that Dean has to actually struggle to sidestep. It's on, Dean thinks, as he thrusts forward with a sharp uppercut, which Castiel blocks expertly.

They fall into a dance after that, their movements in tandem. It's all controlled force though, their sharp hooks, jabs, and kicks not meant to hurt, only to stun. Dean takes a couple of hits and throws his own as they fall into a pattern of twists and dips, spins and jackknifes, a seamless rhythm of attack and defense.

Castiel matches him, step for step, circling like a predator. Dean dives away to avoid a hit to his chest, sweeping his leg out in solid kick that finds its mark. Castiel eases back, grunting with exertion. They come together again in a series of swings that has them wrestling for dominance one moment and flat on their backs the next. Castiel pins Dean on the mat more times than not, but Dean can tell he's trying to rein in his strength, trying not to overpower Dean. There's something about Castiel's sheer force of will, his unbridled strength and the way he wields it, that has Dean breathing hard, wanting to see more of it, wanting Castiel to use all of that power and control on him. Wanting him not to hold back anything.

Dean surges up, going for a strike to the solar plexus, but Castiel manages to get a hand around his wrist in time, twisting Dean around by the arm, and holding Dean's back to his front. Castiel curls his arm around Dean's throat in a tight hold, and his breath is a hot bluster against Dean's ear. "Have I shown you enough?" he whispers.

"Not nearly," Dean grits out, pushing back with his hips and then his legs until he forces Castiel to release him.

Dean spins around, readying for another strike, but before he can even raise his arm Castiel sweeps his leg out from under him in a move of pure choreographed beauty. The impact of the kick knocks Dean flat on his back, sending a hard jolt through his body. Dean groans, head coming to rest on the mat.

Castiel is above him then, pinning Dean down with a strong and steady arm over his chest. Instead of wrestling him off like he'd done earlier, Dean looks up at him. Castiel is gleaming with sweat, his thick dark hair wet at the temples. His breathing is labored, and Dean feels his own chest contract with a need for more air. Castiel is watching Dean with one of those looks that holds the knowledge of the entire universe, a look that sees through worlds, through everything Dean throws up to block its path. There are millennia of truths in that gaze, and it's settled on Dean as if Dean is something worthy of eyes that have seen so much.

Dean rebels against the thought, throwing Castiel off of him in a motion that takes the angel by surprise. Moments later, they're on their feet again, circling each other warily, tension ratcheting up even higher. Dean feels the air charge, and he thinks it would be so easy for them to combust.

It's Castiel that finally says something, and it's nothing Dean was expecting.

"Is this where you finally ask me?"

"Ask you what?" Dean says, confusion lacing his words.

"About what it was like to kill thousands of my brothers? About all the heinous, abhorrent crimes I committed in the name of free will?" Castiel clarifies, and his words resound with a bitterness that makes Dean shiver. Castiel's knuckles turn white as he fists his hands, and he adds, "Ask me why I don't want to sleep at night, Dean."

Dean feels the muscles in his shoulders tense, and a hollowness takes root in his chest. He doesn't want to hear any of this; he doesn't want to ask these things. He doesn't want to know. "Cas, come on—"

"But don't you want to know?" Castiel interrupts, and he sounds angry, haunted even. "Don't you want to know all the ways I betrayed you? Manipulated you and lied to you? All the while, Dean, you trusted me. Believed in me. Called on me because you thought I was working with you, not against you. You foolish, foolish child."

"Shut up, Cas," Dean bites out. His voice is cold and low with an anger that resounds like a gunshot in the attic; he can feel that same anger swelling beneath his skin. "Just shut the fuck up."

"You never should have trusted me," Castiel continues anyway, words so wounded they bleed. "Just look at what I did to Sam."

The bottom drops out at that, and Dean lunges, reaching for Castiel at the same time the angel reaches for him. Castiel grabs him by the shoulder, turning him around, and Dean twists on the balls of his feet, swings out, and breaks free. They spar, and everything is quick and dirty this time. There's a sharpness to their motions, a fury feeding the fire.

Castiel blocks every blow, blocks every kick, and it makes Dean so goddamned angry because he wants Castiel to stop making things worse, to stop. Just stop. "Dammit, Cas," he growls, finally landing a solid left hook on Castiel's jaw. It's like hitting brick, and Dean suddenly finds himself being slammed back against the wall. Dean's shoulders connect hard, but the pain of the impact is needed, wanted; it reminds Dean that this moment is real. Dean remembers a dark alleyway and his desperate bid to say yes; he remembers the moment when Castiel didn't hold back, when the angel felt as betrayed by Dean's actions as Dean has felt by Castiel's this past year.

Castiel is pinning him to the wall, his body long and lean against Dean's own. Dean curls an arm around his back, hands pressing flat against his spine. The angel's face is close, his warm breath hitting the side of Dean's cheek, his lips close enough to touch. Castiel puts a hand on Dean's face, thumb rubbing over a fresh bruise. When he speaks, his voice is hesitant, roughened. "Did I hurt you?"

Dean's own voice is a whisper. "You did. Goddamn you, Cas. You did." He means this; he means everything.

Castiel doesn't say another word. He simply presses closer, and Dean falls forward, leaning his forehead against Castiel's brow. It's always been this way with them; they are two soldiers inexorably drawn to each other, in the dark, in the moments when the world pulls back and they can just breathe. Sometimes, Dean thinks, it's like they are mirror images of each other; they have the same cracks in their glass. If thrown, they shatter into the same million pieces.

Dean's hands slide down Castiel's sides, lying flat over his hipbones. He drags his fingers over the soft flesh there, and Castiel shivers. They're so close Dean feels the tremors racking Castiel's body, matched to his own.

In the dim light of the attic, his best friend's eyes are huge and dark, strangely vulnerable. His lips are full and soft, and slightly parted. Something inside Dean rolls at the sight of them, his heartbeat rioting in his chest. Dean's fingers flutter weakly against the dip of Castiel's waist. He wants to move his hand, he wants to move something. He wants…

Castiel grips Dean harder. The touch is all-too familiar, Castiel's long fingers curling warm around Dean's upper arm in a hold meant to comfort as much as it's meant to restrain.

"Dean." Castiel's voice is gravel, a half-whisper that Dean can barely hear.

Dean's eyes squeeze shut. "Yeah?" he whispers, sucking in a breath when Castiel pushes closer, and their bodies move together, sweaty chests sliding against each other, skin practically clinging.

Castiel curls his hand even tighter around Dean's arm, so tight it leaves Dean gasping for breath. Castiel's hips slide down as he shifts up, his knee pushing up between Dean's legs, and Dean closes his eyes because he has gone rock hard in his sweatpants, and fuckfuckfuck.

"Open your eyes, Dean," Castiel commands, and his voice comes out more like a growl than anything else.

Dean does, and Castiel captures his gaze. They look at each other for a long, tenuous second, barely a breath apart, and in that moment Dean feels the weight of everything he's ever wanted and couldn't have.

Castiel is raising his head, leaning forward until his breath puffs warm against Dean's lips. Dean feels suspended, weightless, and he's pushing closer, learning down, and then—

There's a noise from the stairway that sounds like the shuffling of feet.

"Hey guys," Sam calls out, and his brother's voice is like cold water poured over Dean's head.

Dean blinks, jerking his body away from Castiel, and Castiel pulls back quickly, releasing Dean's arms with a muttered apology. The angel looks away from him, a deep flush riding his cheeks, while Dean slumps back against the wall, breathing hard and fast. He bangs his head gently against the brick over and over again. Fuckfuckfuck.

Dean only looks up at the sound of Sam pointedly clearing his throat. His brother is still standing at the top of the steps, eyes comically wide as he takes in the tension-laden scene. "Um, sorry, guys," Sam says, bowing his head and rubbing a hand at the back of his neck. Dean doesn't miss the small smile he's trying to hide. "Was I uh…interrupting?"

"No," Dean grunts out, and his voice sounds too rough, too raw. He struggles to stand up straight, to calm his breathing. "What is it, Sam?"

Sam clears his throat again, eyes darting between Castiel and Dean like he's witnessing something hilarious. Castiel is looking down at his hands, and Dean has the urge to do the same. Fuck.

"Uh…so. Well," Sam continues, and Dean can hear a hint of amusement in his voice. "You know that thing where we thought there was radio silence on the supernatural front for the past month?"

"Yeah," Dean says, frowning. "Nothing. Not a peep. It's Twilight-Zone creepy if you ask me."

"Right," Sam says with a nod. "That's what I thought too. Well, apparently we weren't looking hard enough or in the right places."

"What are you referring to, Sam?" Castiel speaks up then, his voice sharp and hoarse. The sound of it makes Dean's heart skip a few beats, and he wonders if Castiel can sense it, because the angel glances at Dean for a moment, catching his eye, before turning back to look at Sam.

Sam holds up a file folder filled with paper and waves it around. "Tamara. You remember her, right, Dean? She's back living overseas, still hunting. Anyway, she just emailed Bobby in response to one of the calls he put out last week on the hunter grapevine. She emailed him about a dozen or so clippings from newspapers from across the world. Japan, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Samoa, Belize, Cape Verde—"

"Woah there, Carmen Sandiego," Dean interrupts, trying to conjure up a world map in his mind. "That's quite the mix."

"I know. Bobby and I have been doing mostly domestic news scans, with a few snapshots overseas through BBC links and such. But we haven't been digging this far abroad," Sam says, tapping a finger on the file. "Which is why we missed these – mass hallucinations and mass disappearances. Strange lights in the sky. Meteor showers. Animal mutilations. Seismic activity."

"Powerful portents," Castiel says, voice grave.

"Christ," Dean breathes out. "Portents of what?"

Sam's smile is sad and fleeting as he turns to look directly at Dean. "The end of the world. What else?"


***

The tick of the clock is loud as it punctuates the quiet stillness of the library.

It's dark outside, dark in here too, and the book-lined shelves and haphazard stacks of thick leather-bound tomes and careless piles of scrolls give the place the feel of ancient, dusty libraries, populated by crusty, untidily dressed, aging scholars far removed from the outside world and its mundane trivialities. Castiel muses wistfully that he has walked through the archives of so many glorious, forgotten pasts, thumbed through the earliest recorded adventures of the human intellect. He has observed from the spaces in between the passage of time, as great thinkers, scientists, mathematicians, and poets came together in their great seats of learning and research, to study and exchange ideas, to map the heavens and lay the foundations of science, to open up the cultures of the world and establish the first dialogue of civilizations.

The reading lamp on Bobby's desk casts just enough light so Castiel can see the words as he focuses on the musty parchment pages and tiny, close print of his book. He pauses and slants his eyes diagonally over at the couch every few moments, fascinated by the involuntary hypnic jerks of Dean's head as it dips down towards his chest and then jolts upright again. There is something different between them, something new. Castiel can feel it, felt it in the tightness of his chest and the churning in his groin in that moment when Dean splayed his hands out on his skin, and the electricity of the touch screamed its way to every nerve ending as Dean dipped his head forward to meet Castiel's brow.

Opposite him, Sam variously sighs, tsks, and hums in irritation, occasionally taps a frustrated fingernail on the desk. His head is bowed, his hair falling over to conceal his face, but Castiel can see his lips moving as he reads.

Pulling himself away from the memory of his skin sliding against a film of sweat as he stared at the soul blazing so brightly from Dean's eyes, Castiel clears his throat. "I was once in the great library at Alexandria," he confides softly.

Sam's head shoots up, and his jaw is already dropping open, his eyes already alive with the spark of awe and intrigue. "All the world's knowledge," he breathes avidly.

Castiel smiles. "I wish you could have seen it, Sam," he says, as his friend's expression goes dreamy. "Books, texts, cuneiform tablets, hundreds of thousands of them, a collection of inestimable value." He can see it now, and he tells Sam this. "I can see it…endless halls of shelves, reading rooms and lecture theaters, all packed with scribes and scholars pushing the boundaries of human knowledge." He closes his eyes as he remembers the marble frieze above the shelves, the inscription carved into it. "The place of the cure of the soul…"

The crash that resounds is abrupt and brutal, and Castiel snaps his eyes open, swivels his head to see Dean erupt off the couch, a blur of movement as he slides across the floor to where Sam lies, limbs jerking spasmodically.

Castiel shoots upright, steps over Sam's leg where it twitches, and Sam is staring up sightlessly, eyes fixed, his face a grim rictus mask. Castiel squats down beside Dean and reaches out a careful hand, fingers extended, and he feels a violent and wholly unexpected blow to his chest, feels himself flying backwards to land in an ungainly heap on his backside.

Dean's eyes are ice-cold emerald chips. "Get the fuck away from him," he hisses, and the unexpected anger in his voice rings loudly in the room. "You did this to him, Cas. Remember? You broke his fuckin' wall."

Castiel doesn't think or hesitate, he beats his wings and falls into the sky. Its inky black velvet swallows him whole, and the gossamer wisp of high-altitude precipitation is damp as he splits it in two, streaking up towards the stars to soar weightlessly while he still can, and already he can feel his strength begin to ebb, feel the pull of the world anchoring him to this plane now that his grace is depleted.

He stops, hangs there in the blackness, where it's freezing cold and utterly silent, contemplates what to do, where to go, now that his solitude is finally absolute. He doesn't allow himself to think of what he has lost, doesn't allow himself to dwell on his naivete for thinking he might be able to hold onto it. And…I'm not alone, he realizes, an instant before something slams into him.

The shock wave sends him tailspinning, and he chokes back a cry as he plummets. The world rushes up to meet him in a kaleidoscope pattern of swirling blues, greens, grays, and browns, until he manages to right himself and thrusts into a curving ascent that conceals him in the clouds. It's a defensive tactic because he suspects he isn't strong enough to have any real hope of winning this fight even if his own base ferocity and bloodlust is already spiking at the thrill of the chase.

He barely has time to formulate a strategy before his assailant barrels into him again, sending him into a wild, uncontrolled spiral before he recovers and banks into a slicing arc that rams him into his nameless brother. Castiel draws his sword, lunges desperately, a lucky strike that sends static snapping around him as his rival's grace flashes radiant. It lights up the darkness with its glow, and illuminates the other angel's features, blazing with rage and triumph. Cheriour, Castiel notes, in the split second before his opponent breaks left and circles behind him, and he thinks abstractly that it seems right and proper his executioner should be the angel charged with the pursuit of traitors and the punishment of crime.

Castiel whirls, raises his blade and meets his brother's as it slams down with near-lethal force, pushes Cheriour off, slashes, thrusts, and parries, dances back adroitly and advances hard to deliver a barrage of vicious blows. His weary grace burns brightly as the other angel's sword makes contact, and he takes evasive action, disengaging into a steep, straight plunge. And then it's pursuit, as he streaks ahead, zigging and zagging, weaving and rolling acrobatically in an attempt to dodge the blasts of power Cheriour sends buffeting out from behind him.

Castiel knows his brother is gaining, knows that tiring Cheriour out may be his best chance. He accelerates still more himself, ripping through the air at light speed even though he knows he needs to conserve his strength, maneuvering ever more violently even though he knows he should be staying on a true line to limit the energy-sapping drag of gravity. But he knows he's slowing, and he allows himself one thought, Dean, before he turns to face his brother's judgment as Cheriour bullets in, silent and deadly. Castiel twists and spins in place then, feinting and dodging a pitiless onslaught of scorching cuts, jabs, and swats, angelic justice that drains him so completely he falls to earth.


***

"I'm okay, Dean," Sam is snapping irritably when the thud of impact shakes the house right down to its foundations.

"What the hell was that?" Bobby yelps, and Dean is already up and headed for the window.

He tugs the heavy drapes aside, squints out into the darkness. "Shit," he breathes as he makes out the two shadowy figures squaring up to each other out in the lot, and his heart drops down into his boots as he assesses the unnatural speed and force of their combat and joins the dots.

He whirls, barks it out at Bobby, and it's a goddamn order: "Angel sword. Now."


***

Cheriour pauses briefly to take Castiel's measure, stalking around him and examining him with curious eyes, his sword at ease. "You know you deserve this, Castiel," he observes neutrally. "How many of our brothers have you slain in your quest? Even Balthazar, who defended you at your trial."

Castiel is opening his mouth to reply when the other angel strikes like a snake. He swings his sword up as precisely as he can to block Cheriour's diagonal slash, hears the clash of metal and sees it spark, but even so the edge of his brother's blade finds its target, leaving a jagged gouge across the front of Castiel's thigh. He hisses at its sting, recovers his equilibrium sufficiently to execute a lethargic riposte in the form of a barely controlled swipe that lacks any real finesse.

Cheriour ducks under the arc of the blade, scythes down with his own sword, and Castiel overbalances, aware of the glow of his own grace leaking out of him in radiant stripes and spotlights as he falls. He's exhausted, and his sword weighs heavy in his hand now, but he puts the blade up on the vertical, holds off the deathblow for as long as he can, though he doesn't really know why. His brother's face is set in stone, his force as he strikes is implacable, and Castiel knows there will be no appeasing him. And so it comes to this, he thinks, as his arm finally falls limp, but he feels no fear. It's retribution, he muses dispassionately, and this is how he will atone for his crimes.

Cheriour steps forward, a foot planted on each side of him. "Do you have anything to say for yourself, brother?" he asks coldly. "Do you wish to beg for mercy? For absolution?"

Castiel shakes his head, looks off towards the house. He hadn't noticed the door opening, but light is flooding out of the hallway, and Bobby and Sam are poised at the bottom of the steps leading up to the porch, both of them visibly tense, in fight-or-flight mode.

Cheriour raises an eyebrow as Castiel meets his unblinking stare. "No?" he sneers. "I confess I am surprised that a coward—"

"You talk too much."

The words are a vicious snarl in the darkness behind Cheriour, and Castiel sees his brother's eyes go wide and flash bright, sees his mouth form a surprised O around the fluorescence that streams out between his lips, sees him lurch forward in slow motion, his sword falling from his grip and his hands sawing the air as the silver blade protrudes from his chest. And then the sky strobes with the brilliance of his grace, and he crumples almost languidly at Castiel's feet.

Dean gazes down at Castiel from just beyond the other angel's body. "Evil monologue," he spits acidly, and he shakes his head. "They always let their guard down during the evil monologue. You can count on it."

Castiel lies in the dirt and looks over at his fallen brother. Stretching out on either side of him, the imprint of Cheriour's wings is immense. Balthazar's wings were too, Castiel thinks, remembering how they scorched the floor of the warehouse where he was slain, turning the concrete to gritty charcoal underfoot. Castiel can't see Cheriour's face, but he recalls that Balthazar's expression had been frozen in bemused disbelief as he slumped back against Castiel. Castiel had knelt beside the empty vessel and closed its eyes, but they had snapped open and pinned him in place with the gleam of reproach, while its open mouth poured out silent accusations. The memory makes his guilt swell until he can contain it no longer. "I killed my brother, Dean," he chokes out.

Dean is stepping closer, leaning down. "I killed him, Cas," he replies. "This one's on me."

Castiel shakes his head. "You don't understand," he insists tiredly. "Balthazar. I killed Balthazar. That's why he never came when you summoned him."

Dean freezes in mid-air, and his jaw tightens as he stares down at Castiel. "Jesus, Cas," he says softly. "Jesus." He straightens, rubs his hand hard across his brow, and Castiel sees him shoot a quick glance over towards Bobby and Sam, their silent audience.

Then Dean looks down at Castiel again, bends slightly and offers his hand. "Come on. You look like shit, we should get you patched up."


***

In the bedroom, Dean stabs a finger at the shredded plaid sleep pants. "Drop 'em and sit down. Shirt off too."

Castiel tugs the shredded henley over his head, starts easing the pants down as Sam appears in the doorway. He holds out a loose bundle of fabric. "Fresh pants," he tells Castiel, and he seems oddly amused. "And the next time you run away from home, I'd recommend getting dressed first."

Sam is gone before Castiel can ask him if he's alright, so he sits down heavily on the bed, examines the diagonal wound that starts just under the hemline of his boxers and bisects the front of his thigh. He sighs disconsolately as he tracks his gaze up his torso, across myriad smaller cuts and slashes. He glances over to where Dean is setting out medical supplies on a towel laid on the end of the bed. "I will heal," he ventures glumly. "Eventually. These wounds are sterile at least."

Dean makes an unintelligible noise under his breath as he sits down next to Castiel and directs his attention to the laceration on his thigh. Its lips gape bloodily, and scarlet is oozing sluggishly down towards the bedding.

"Fuck that, I'm Steri-stripping this one and covering it up," Dean decides tersely, as he reaches for a bottle of antiseptic and drenches a gauze pad with the bluish liquid. "Took more than a week for that hellhound slash to close up properly, and I don't want you ruining another pair of my pants."

As clipped as Dean's tone is, his hands are gentle. Castiel watches them move across his skin with practiced ease, swabbing the wound carefully, applying a series of small adhesive strips along its length to seal it closed. Dean's left hand is spread out flat at the top of Castiel's flank, the palm warm and steady against his skin, the thumb slowly moving left-right, idle stroking that Castiel finds comforting.

"Cas."

Castiel is so intent on following the rhythmic motion of Dean's thumb that he doesn't realize Dean is speaking to him at first, but the second time his name drifts through his absorption and he looks up.

"We need to figure out a solution to this," Dean says. "I don't want you getting bushwhacked every time you leave the house, and I don't want you getting hurt." His eyes are wide and frank, his tone quiet but firm. "You didn't need to leave. I got mad, and you were in range. Sam getting hurt is my weakness, you know that." He pauses to take a breath before continuing. "And I'll be honest with you. I don't know if I can ever forgive you for what you did to Sam, but I want us to try to move past it best we can. I don't want to lose you."

The numb, hollow dread Castiel feels lifts a little, and there are so many things he wants to say, but he waits, attentive, as Dean stops and scratches at his head. Castiel can see conflicted emotions playing across his friend's face: disbelief, disappointment, shock.

"Balthazar," Dean grinds out. "Man…" He shakes his head, purses his lips. "You know, Sam almost killed Bobby because of him," he says bleakly. "But the sly sonofabitch found Lisa and Ben for me. And I know he was your friend. He cared about you."

The acknowledgment makes Castiel feel empty, tight in his throat. "He was," he breathes. "He did." 

Dean's voice goes gentle, careful. "I can't give you absolution for that, Cas. That isn't mine to absolve. Maybe it'll have to be something you learn to live with. Sometimes that's your penance…living with what you've done." He stares unblinkingly at Castiel for a moment, before he looks down again then, starts to position gauze pads along the wound and tape them in place. "We're all tired, and it's been a long day," he says quietly as he works. "We need to get some sleep."

There is a strange tranquility to the atmosphere now, but there are things Castiel knows he needs to say, things that slither restlessly under his skin, things that haunt his nightmares. He feels hollow and anxious as he speaks. "Before that, there is something I need to tell you," he says, and Dean darts his eyes up again.

"I did it because I needed to distract you."

The second Castiel speaks, a muscle twitches in Dean's cheek, and his jaw tightens, and Castiel knows his friend is aware of what he's referring to.

"It wasn't – personal," Castiel continues hesitantly. "I don't wish your brother harm, I hope you know this, Dean. I did it because he was there, right there…in range. An easy target. And like you said, I know he is your weakness, and I played on it. It was a ruthless strategy. But I couldn't send you anywhere because I needed all my strength to withstand the souls. So I took action the only way I could." He pauses, swallows, feels the same sting in his eyes that welled up when he appealed for Dean's trust before he took in the souls. This is grief, he knows, even if it's tempered by the joy of knowing he has been given this, a second chance, and the knowledge that Dean doesn't want to lose him.

Dean hasn't cut him off, so Castiel presses on. "I know you're trying, Dean, but what I did…it can't be forgiven, and nor should it be. I don't expect your forgiveness, or Sam's, nor do I ask for it. But I feel regret, and I hope that one day I can redeem myself to you, that I can…" He trails off uselessly for a moment, because he suspects there can be no real atonement. "None of the choices I made seemed like the right choices, but they seemed like the only choices at the time," he mutters. "I just want you to know that I'm not complacent about what I did, Dean…that I realize the harm I've caused."

He can't meet Dean's eyes now, but Castiel can hear that his friend's breathing has sped up, and he can see that Dean's hand is curled into a fist now, the knuckles sharp and bloodless. And then they relax, resting easy on Castiel's skin again.

"Sam is going to be okay. He's working on it, and he can do this," Dean says finally, his voice rock steady. "Kid's goddamn strong, you know?"

"I know," Castiel replies, meeting Dean's eyes for a long moment, reading the pride there.

Dean inhales deeply and finishes putting the gauze back in the medical kit. "I say we take a page out of his book and work on this. We take it one day at a time, keep working on it. And maybe we'll be okay too."


***

It's usually after the third cut that they start to beg for mercy. Stop, please, stop.

Dean doesn't stop. He digs his knife into a lung, listens to the gurgling sound of the soul's failed attempt at breathing. This soul is a man in his forties, salt-and-pepper gray hair and brown bloodshot eyes. His voice is shattered, but he begs and he cries and he makes promises, and he voices regrets and stop, please, stop, but Dean just pushes the knife in further, harder, a twist for good measure, cutting the man's heart in half and feeding it to him in the same breath.

The man stops begging.

Alastair is proud. Dean feels the demon's blood-covered hands sliding across his back, coming to settle along his waist. He whispers in Dean's ears, You're my favorite, Dean. You're such a good boy. My good boy.

The knife is heavy in Dean's hand, and Alastair's own blade is cold against Dean's back, and the smell of sulfur and blood and shit and vomit is all around him. It's inside of him.

Alastair touches him possessively, and it feels like dying, over and over again. The demon's cold hands grapple at Dean's waist, staking claim, proving ownership. Dean knows he belongs to Alastair more than he's ever belonged to anyone else. Not his dad, not his mom, not Sam. Here, he finally belongs to someone.

Good boy, Alastair soothes, and he's spreading blood all over the side of Dean's body, fingers splaying out across Dean's hips. He licks the blood from Dean's neck, and he whispers promises of reward and pain before he says, This is who you are now. This is what you are now. You are mine.

Dean carves into another soul, flays her flesh until there's nothing left of her but bone and chunks of meat. She had thick brown hair and big brown eyes, and her pale skin smeared red with blood as he redesigned her. She had reached out her arms as if to beg for help, as if she knew that once upon a time Dean was someone who would help. As if she knew who he used to be.

Dean cut her arms off, and her screams tasted like damnation.


***

He wakes to screams, and for a moment Dean thinks he's still in Hell.

He's slow to come to awareness. When he does, he takes a long, deep breath, settling his mind in the real world.

He's had years to get used to these dreams, to tell himself that they aren't real. They're just memories, hellish and vile, remnants of the forty years he can never escape from, memories of what he became, and maybe what he still is, deep down.

The screams come again.

Dean jerks from the couch, patting for the knife he keeps under his cushion. His Glock is on the dresser, but he foregoes it, stepping from the guest room and padding down the dark hall, the wood cold beneath his feet.

The noise is coming from the bathroom, and Dean's heart slows down, recognizing the sound of Castiel's whimpers, the sound of him being sick. Pale light spills from the cracked door, and Dean knocks gently. "Cas?" he says.

There's no answer, but Dean enters anyway, hovering in the doorway as he takes in the scene. Castiel is on the floor, wedged between the toilet and the tub, head bent between his knees.

"Cas?" Dean says again.

"A bad dream," Castiel croaks, slowly pushing himself to his feet. He's shivering in just his t-shirt and boxer shorts, and his skin is eerily pale in the harsh bathroom light. Dean reaches out, offering his arm for support.

"Yeah, me too," Dean whispers, and Castiel looks at him, eyes bleary.

They return to the bedroom, moving slowly, taking the path one step at a time. Dean watches Castiel crawl back into bed, before tucking his knife back under the couch cushion and making himself comfortable in his nest of blankets.

When Dean wakes again, it's to the sound of whispering, a heated slew of soft-spoken words that Dean can't understand. It sounds like Castiel is chanting, and it's a rhythmic and patterned flow of vowels and consonants.

"Cas?" he calls out, his voice sleep-heavy and rough.

The chanting stops, and Dean climbs off the couch and settles on the edge of the bed. Castiel is still sleeping on his back, eyes screwed tight, chest moving up and down at a rapid pace.

Castiel starts thrashing then, whimpering softly, and Dean leans closer, tugging gently at Castiel's shoulders to snap him out of the nightmare. The angel jerks awake, bites off a cry. His eyes are wide and ghostly in the dark room.

"Easy now, Cas," Dean whispers and soothes. "It was just a dream." Dean thinks about his own dream, his blood covered body and the memory of Alastair's touch. He shivers.

Castiel takes a deep, long breath, then another, and Dean can see him calming down, coming back to himself. Dean thinks back to a moment years ago when he woke from a nightmare of blood and pain to find Castiel sitting on his bed looking down at him. Hello, Dean. What were you dreaming about?

Fast-forward to today. Castiel sits up in bed, the blankets pooling at his waist. His eyes are hazy, sleep-heavy in the dim light. "Hello, Dean. I believe I was dreaming."

"Hey, Cas," Dean says, patting him on the leg. "I know. Are you good to go back to sleep? You've had a rough night."

Castiel looks away, eyes trained to his hands, which he has folded over his lap. "I rather not go back to sleep. Will you insist on fighting me again if I wish to go to the library?"

Dean exhales softly. "How about you stay here instead? You don't have to sleep. We can talk. I'm not much for going back to sleep myself right now. So if you're up for company…"

Castiel looks up, a slight frown creasing his brow. "You've been dreaming too?"

"I'm not having the best dreams lately," Dean confirms with a shrug.

"Your return to the underworld probably triggered things you thought long buried," Castiel says solemnly. "Sam's experiences and my own may also be triggering memories."

"Like you guys need another person falling apart on you," Dean counters, shaking his head.

"We need you to care for yourself as much as you care for us." Castiel's words are sharp, zeroed in to their target.

Dean huffs. "You sound like Bobby."

"Well, Bobby is wise beyond his years," Castiel intones, but there's a smile in his voice.

Dean chuckles. "That he is."

The silence between them stretches out, tangles up in the pull of their breaths. There is a rectangle of light slanting from the hallway, but the rest of the room is cast in shadows. Castiel stands out like a ghost: white eyes and moon-pale skin.

"Hey, do you know what you were chanting in your dream?" Dean asks suddenly, his curiosity from earlier returning. "I didn't recognize the language."

Castiel frowns. "I don't remember." He sighs and adds, "I remember something calling for me from the darkness. Something seeking me out."

"Not cool," Dean says, frowning. He leans in, fitting his hand against the dent of Castiel's spine. "So, you wanna lie down and talk?"

Castiel nods, slipping back further in the bed. Dean goes to climb back on the couch, but Castiel reaches out, his fingers wrapping tightly around Dean's wrist. "There's more than enough space in this bed, Dean. I don't see why you shouldn't get to rest in it as I do."

Dean's chest suddenly feels too tight to breathe. But he nods. "Uh, yeah. Thanks. My back could use the extra padding," he admits. Castiel releases his wrist, and Dean sucks in a deep breath before he curls under the covers and takes the free spot in the bed. He lies on the back and stares up the ceiling, heart beating faster.

There is silence then, punctuated by their soft breathing. Dean doesn't know how long they lay together, neither of them comfortable enough to break the peace.

Dean's thoughts race and circle themselves. He wonders if Castiel is right about his nightmares returning because of the way everything seems to be weighing on him lately. His trip to the underworld, Sam's time in the Cage, and Castiel's time in Purgatory, all reminding Dean of his time in the Pit, bringing up long-buried memories.

The words he remembered from earlier still linger in his mind, shaping the darkness around him. What were you dreaming about?

"After a few years, I became a…a more efficient monster," Dean confesses into the bottomless quiet darkness of the room. "I cut out their tongues first. So I wouldn't have to hear them beg."

A long, heavy moment passes, and Dean's heart ricochets in his chest.

"I know, Dean," Castiel whispers, voice thick and soothing as his hand comes to rest on Dean's shoulder. "I know what you did."

"I hurt people, Cas," Dean bites out, self-loathing dripping from every word.

Castiel's grip tightens. "I know."

"I was a thing. A monster. The last person in the world that deserved to be saved," Dean says, and he doesn't know where the words are coming from, or why he's saying any of this, the unspeakable things, the things he's kept bricked up inside himself for so long, things he wanted never to think about again.

"Listen to me," Castiel says, soft but forceful. He twists onto his side, leaning toward Dean in the bed. "I've seen so many things, things you can't even begin to fathom. And yet…when I came upon you in Hell, the sight of you gave me pause. After tens of thousands of years, I thought nothing could do that again."

Dean's breath rattles around in his chest as he tries to suck in air. "I disgusted you."

"Oh, Dean…no," Castiel says, and his voice sounds heavy with memory. "You were the brightest human soul I'd ever seen. Even tortured, and damaged, and scarred as you were by Hell, even in the midst of the darkest filth, in the most putrid pit of hate and desperation, you were breathtaking."

Dean swallows down the bile threatening to rise in his throat. He remembers the souls he carved apart and splayed open. He remembers being baptized in their blood, reshaped by Alastair's hands, marked by his own sins.

"You were breathtaking," Castiel repeats fiercely as if he can tell what's knocking around in Dean's head.

Dean isn't put together enough for this, can't listen to the compassion in Castiel's voice, can't be reminded of Castiel's misguided belief in him, something that's always scared the living shit out of Dean. Castiel is wrong. Dean feels like there's something still left of Hell in his soul, something dark, and bruised, and bleeding out, something that still belongs to Alastair and the Pit. Something monstrous.

"I was Alastair's favorite because he knew what I was," Dean argues, trying to make his case. "A monster, a killer. And some part of me will always belong to him."

"You don't belong to him, Dean," Castiel insists, and he's leaning up on his elbow now, pushing into Dean's space, meeting Dean's eyes with his own.

Dean's teeth grit tight, and his jaw aches from the pressure of biting down. "What if I do?"

"You don't belong to Alastair," Castiel repeats, and the words are hard and unwavering. "I burned his vile touch from your soul."

Castiel is leaning over Dean now, and they're pressed together in the bed, practically chest to chest, breathing each other's air. They stare at each other for a long time in the darkness, and the air between them is heavy and charged, waiting for the right spark to light the world on fire.

"I'll always be his filth," Dean spits out, because he knows what he is, goddammit, and he doesn't need this friggin' angel telling him otherwise. Castiel is wrong.

"You don't belong to Alastair," Castiel tells him again, and this time the words are soft and hushed. "Because you belong to me, Dean."

Castiel presses his hand to his mark on Dean's arm, and the link between them is so strong in that moment, Dean feels it down to his bones. He closes his eyes, and his heart triple times in his chest. "Jesus, Cas, you don't get to say shit like that to me," he chokes out.

"You are mine," is Castiel's whispered response to that comment. His voice is hot and fierce as he adds, "I claimed your damned soul."

"You had no right to do that!" Dean growls, voicing the very thing he wanted to say to Castiel ever since the moment Death threw out that little revelation.

Dean watches the angel's face go very still, the way his eyes get hard and flinty. "I had every right," Castiel says, voice low. "You gave it to me."

Dean's eyes widen, and Castiel is watching him closely, mapping his reaction to that. "I asked you for your soul," he whispers, "and you gave it to me willingly. During our escape, I branded it with my mark." Castiel pauses, tracks his fingers across the fading handprint on Dean's arm, a motion that sends heat flaring throughout Dean's body. "This is but a visible mark of my grace connecting with your soul."

"I don't understand," Dean whispers, shaking his head. This is too much.

"We journeyed through Hell together for weeks, Dean," Castiel says, and his voice is low and wistful with memories. "The escape was long and arduous, and we almost didn't make it. I laid claim to your soul in Hell in order to save you, destroying the ownership that Lilith and your deal had over it. My claim protected you. Lilith and Alastair could not trace your soul while we escaped through Hell because neither of them owned it. I had ownership of it. You chose to come with me, Dean. You wanted to be saved."

Dean doesn't even know what to say to that. His memory of the Pit comes in snatches, images of blood and pain. But sometimes he remembers a soft blue light, a radiant warmth, and he knows now it has to have been Castiel. Always Castiel.

Castiel is looking at him with heavy eyes. "It's why I made the mistake of trying to communicate to you without my vessel. I assumed you'd be able to hear me because of the claim. I assumed you'd remember our exchange. Remember me."

"I don't remember you down there, Cas. I wish I could," Dean says, voice wavering. Then he smiles weakly and says, "Because I'm sure you were pretty damn breathtaking yourself. I mean, you were when I saw you in Purgatory."

Castiel looks away at that, and Dean can swear the angel is blushing. After a beat, Castiel says, "I gripped you tight and carried your soul inside of me as we escaped Hell, just as you gripped me and carried my grace inside of you when we escaped Purgatory," he says, and his voice is soft and even, as though he were talking about an everyday occurrence like the changing weather, and not something so insanely out of this world as a human soul and an angel's grace entwining.

"Cas," Dean whispers because what does he even say to that?

Castiel smiles, tilts his head up and gazes at Dean for a long time. "We saved each other, Dean," he whispers fervently, and he moves his hand from his brand, sliding his warm palm against Dean's stubbled cheek. "You are not, and have never been, a monster. I've seen thousands upon thousands of demons, and I've carried millions of monster souls inside of myself. You are nothing like them."

"Then what am I like?" Dean asks, and he can't stop the shake in his voice.

"You are Dean Winchester. Infuriating. Demanding. Righteous. Compassionate. Selfless. Caring. Loving…" Castiel trails off, shaking his head. "Do I need to continue?"

Dean arches a brow and smirks. "Please, don't stop on my account."

"Never one to be modest," Castiel smiles. "But you are mine."

Dean closes his eyes and takes that in. It's been a hard few weeks. Hell, it's been a hard few months. Years. Decades. Dean is exhausted beyond exhausted, the weight of everything wearing him down almost as much as Alastair's knives had.

You are mine. It's Castiel voice he hears in his head now, not Alastair's.

Dean feels Castiel stretching out alongside him, curling his arm around Dean's waist. The angel's skin is warm against his own under the blankets, and their legs twine together. Time passes in long endless minutes in which Castiel simply holds him, and Dean lets him because maybe he needs this a little bit. Maybe he came here tonight to take care of Castiel, but maybe Castiel ended up taking care of him. The room feels weighted now, full of their history, their shared pain.

Castiel breathes, and Dean breathes, and the sound of them together is a like a balm smoothed over the wounded night.


***

When he wakes, Dean can tell it's late morning; he can smell the promise of a hearty lunch on the air, Bobby's poor man's goulash if he's guessing right, and the addictive aroma of Bobby's overly strong brew. He stirs slowly, taking his time to revel in the good sort of sluggishness he hasn't felt in a long time – a relaxed heaviness to his limbs, a lightness to his mood, and a warmth that is pulling him deeper under the covers, asking him to stay.

He shifts, and that's when he feels the other body slide against his own. His eyes snap open in the same instant that he realizes that he's still tangled around Castiel. Sometime during the night, his hand slid under Castiel's shirt, pressed against his mark on Castiel's chest. Castiel's face is pressed against Dean's neck, and his arms are wrapped around Dean's waist. Their legs are tangled together under the blankets, their hips matched in a perfect curve. This should be all kinds of awkward, but Dean is too fucking happy to care.

The world is a languid blur, a dreamy haze, and Dean shivers, feeling Castiel's body roll against his in his sleep, feeling the smooth expanse of all that warm skin and lax muscle. This feels good, and Dean thinks it shouldn't. He shouldn't feel this good, not after everything he confessed last night. He thinks he probably should wake Cas up, push him away and out of the bed, but he knows his friend needs the rest.

But when the stiff, heavy weight of Castiel's morning wood slides along Dean's thigh, Dean has to force himself not to move, not to react to the sudden fire pooling in his groin, the flare of panic surging through his chest. He realizes he's hard too, his cock tucked snug against the dip of Castiel's hipbone. Dean shifts again, but it only brings Castiel closer to him, has him grinding against Dean in a way Dean knows he shouldn't think about at all. Dean's contemplating the easiest path of escape when Castiel suddenly blinks awake, his eyes puffy with sleep as he looks up at Dean.

"Hello, Dean," he whispers, and there's a softness to his voice that has Dean's panic melting away.

"G'morning," Dean says, and he smiles awkwardly. Castiel smiles too, and with his wild, tousled hair and ruddy cheeks, he looks almost boyish.

Dean's heart thumps unsteadily, and he has no idea how he got himself into this, but for the first time in a long time he thinks maybe, just maybe, they really will be okay.


***

Outside, sharp left, and then follow the sound of cussing, Bobby instructs Castiel when he asks where Dean is, so Castiel does just that, and as he trudges through the crusty snow he feels a tingle of anticipation threading through his contentment, muses that in some odd way he doesn't quite understand, this kinship forged in the fires of the Pit and fortified on the plains of Purgatory is helping Dean as much as it is saving himself.

Castiel's breath mists in the air and the chill eats into him as he walks, so that he hugs Dean's fleece hoodie tighter around himself to keep warm. As he rounds the house and makes his way back towards the shop where Bobby does his auto repairs, his ears pick up on a series of harsh expletives, uttered between metallic clangs and dull thuds, and he pushes the door open to see Dean's denim-clad legs trailing out from under the Impala and his tools strewn about the floor. Dean is singing now, crooning along to a song playing on the radio, keeping up with the words until another loud clunking noise sounds, immediately followed by a bitten-off insult.

Castiel squats, peers underneath the car. Dean's eyes are squeezed closed, and he's ramming a metal tool of some kind up into the chassis and exerting pressure on it in what appears to be a fierce effort to dislodge something Castiel can't see clearly. He starts to ask, "Can I be—"

"Jesus fucking Christ."

"…of assistance, Dean?" Castiel continues as Dean fixes him with a look like thunder.

"Dude," Dean exhales roughly. "You nearly gave me a fuckin' heart attack." He puts the tool in between his teeth and executes a skillful hand-based movement Castiel can't quite follow in the dim light, but which slides him out from under the car at surprising speed. When Dean sits up, Castiel can see he's lying on a low padded metal board with wheels on it.

"That's ingenious," Castiel observes interestedly, and he points at the contraption when Dean's look turns baffled. "Your wheeled carriage."

Dean snorts. "Creeper board."

That's irksome, and Castiel frowns. "I am somewhat bored, Dean, yes, but I can assure you that I'm not creeping again. I'm—"

"It's called a creeper board, Cas," Dean interrupts, and he grins and shakes his head before he stands. He rubs his hands on his jeans and leaves behind smears of dark grease, stretches, rolls his shoulders theatrically, so that Castiel can hear the cartilage pop. The maneuver complete, he makes his way around Castiel to a countertop laden with yet more tools, spread in a haphazard jumble. He snags a liquor bottle from the assortment of gadgets and equipment, leans back against the surface, takes a long swallow, and then wipes his mouth, before shooting Castiel a quick look and passing the bottle over.

Castiel remembers alcohol and its effects, its pleasant warmth and buzz, even if it took downing the contents of a liquor store for him to reach the point of inebriation. Dean uses this as a crutch, Castiel knows. He has heard Sam whisper the word alcoholic to Bobby, the worry in his voice enough to make Castiel wonder why he has never talked to Dean about it. Castiel takes the bottle from Dean, gulps a mouthful himself, and it burns him slightly so that he coughs and his eyes smart. When he slants his eyes right, Dean looks amused. "I remember alcohol, Dean," Castiel muses ruefully. "I remember how it wore down my inhibitions and loosened my tongue, how it made me question my choices and view them in a much more philosophical way. Maybe I should—"

"Stop right there," Dean cuts in firmly, and he plucks the bottle deftly from Castiel's hand. "Maybe you should stop right there. In fact, I insist you do." He rolls his eyes, ambles up around to the top of the car where he stares in at the engine, heaves a sigh, and starts picking distractedly at his lower lip.

As he stands there, Castiel notices for the first time that the shell of the car is pitted with dents and marked with scratches and scrapes, bare metal scars and blemishes that gleam an obtrusive, luminous bright silver against her usual ebony. "It's like her grace," he thinks out loud as he tracks his vision across the damage.

"Huh?"

Dean is frowning at him, and Castiel shrugs. "She is injured," he murmurs. "And her grace is seeping out through her wounds. Look how it glows."

He steps closer, walks along her body, trailing a finger along her skin, and there is a strange déjà vu that comes with this simple action, a familiarity that comforts him but troubles him too. He knows the car is important to Dean, so he pushes the odd feeling to the back of his mind. "Perhaps when my strength returns, I could repair her for you," he offers.

"Hell, no."

The harsh, panicked sound of Dean's protest has Castiel looking up, and he sees that Dean is staring at him wide-eyed now, his face suddenly bone-white under smudges of dirt and oil.

"I don't want you to fix her, Cas," Dean says, his voice an edgy snap. "I can fix her myself. That's what I'm doing."

The atmosphere is suddenly strained, and Castiel takes a few wary steps back, unsure of what to do in the face of Dean's sudden agitation.

"He fixed her already," Dean blurts out then, and his brow furrows. "Or – you did. Or he did. So I'd cooperate with him. I – unfixed her."

They stare at each other for a long moment, and Castiel fumbles for an adequate response. A stilted, "I don't remember that," is all he can come up with before he turns to leave, but Dean speaks his name sharply then, puts up a conciliatory hand.

"Cas, wait a minute." He bites his lip, flicks his eyes down towards the car, seems to come to a decision. "I mean, where's the fun in you fixing her up with your super powers anyway? Just because your angel juice gives you magical car-fixing powers does not mean you got to use them. We're gonna do this the old-fashioned way. C'mere for a sec."

Castiel ranges alongside him, though he isn't really sure what to expect given the assessing look Dean is now giving him. Dean stands and appraises him for a few more seconds, a hand on his hip, the other resting on the lip of the car. "This is a three-hundred-twenty-seven cubic inch, eight-cylinder engine block," he says. "You're looking at a four-barrel carburetor, two-hundred-seventy-five horses." He stops and tilts his head fractionally, as if he's waiting for Castiel to jump in.

"It's…powerful?" Castiel fishes.

Dean punches a fist into his opposite palm. "You're damn right it is."

Castiel places a hand on the car himself, bends down, and Dean's shoulder brushes against his, solid and reassuring. Dean's gaze sweeps over the engine, and his eyes are shining now, lit up with a pride that has Castiel feeling a definite sense of pleasure inside. He points at something. "What's that?"

Dean swivels his head, his approval clear. "That, my friend, is a valve. I could tell you so many stories about valves." He blows out a whistle. "Man."

An hour or so later, Castiel is fully conversant with valves and most other parts of the internal combustion engine, and he is utterly enthralled by Dean's vast knowledge. Dean is animated, alive in a way Castiel can't recall ever seeing him, his hands gesturing expansively, his voice confident. Castiel realizes that this is a Dean without the weight of the world on his shoulders, perhaps even a phantom-Dean whose mother didn't burn on the ceiling, and whose father never went to Hell, a Dean whose brother wasn't slain as part of some grand plan, a Dean who never died violently and never picked up Alastair's blade. And, he concludes wistfully, a Dean who never met Castiel, because Castiel never had to raise him from perdition.

Dean is leaning under the propped hood now, his t-shirt smeared with grease, his jeans covered with streaks of dirt. His shirt rides up as he leans over, and Castiel can see the shape of his hips, the sliver of pale, freckled skin above his jeans. Castiel's chest feels suddenly hot, and Dean looks back over his shoulder and flashes a smile at him, eyes crinkling like he's pleased that Castiel is still there with him.

Castiel loses track of time; he doesn't know how long they stand and talk together. When Dean pronounces himself assured of Castiel's knowledge, he allows Castiel to work at his side, pulling tools from the toolbox for Castiel to name and wield like a surgeon wields a knife.

Cas watches Dean closely as his friend coaxes the Impala back to life with a combination of soothing words and skilled hands, notes Dean's careful touch, and the quiet pleasure that consumes him. He feels his own smile animate his face as he reaches deep down inside the heart of the Impala, helps to fix something Dean cares so much about. Helps to fix, not break.

They're both under the hood now, working together to hook up a hose. "You just got to show her that you love her," Dean is saying, voice soft. There's a smudge of grease along his chin that Castiel finds somewhat distracting. He doesn't have long to ponder it though because Dean is reaching around him, arm brushing against his back, and Castiel has the sudden urge to arch back into the touch, to slide his back against Dean's arm, to curl them together the way they did last night in bed. Dean feels warm against him, and their hips slide together as Dean presses further around, reaching for the wrench Castiel left on the countertop.

Something hot twists inside Castiel's stomach as Dean pauses mid-motion, his chest pressed to Castiel's back. "Thanks for helping," Dean whispers, and his voice is right next to Castiel's ear, his breath a warm puff.

"Thank you for allowing me to help," Castiel says, his voice gone rough. Dean seems to take his time pulling away, but Castiel doesn't mind at all, and when their eyes meet under the hood of the car again, there's a warmth in Dean's gaze that absorbs him even more.

He must have drifted off for a moment, because he comes back to a vigorous slap on the shoulder. "We should do guns now," Dean suggests enthusiastically. "Hell, yes. You need to learn those too."

Dean beckons Castiel to follow him around to the trunk, unzips the weapons bag, and fishes out a revolver he tosses to Castiel before rooting around for two more firearms and a small metal box. He totes his armload over to a rickety table positioned against the opposite wall. "Sit, sit," he urges, and Castiel complies, placing the gun on the tabletop.

Dean reaches for one of the weapons, a large revolver he cradles reverently in his hand. "This is a forty-four Magnum, Cas," he husks out almost seductively. "The most powerful handgun in the world, and it could blow your head clean off. When someone points one of these mothers at you, you have to ask yourself a real important question…" He smirks, and his eyes are brilliant. "Do you feel lucky?"

Castiel answers honestly, pouring all of his gratitude, his respect, and his care for this man into his eyes, his smile, his tone. "Yes, I think I do. I feel very lucky, in fact."

Dean's eyes soften as he places the gun down and to the side and reaches for the next one. His tone turns more businesslike. "This is a Colt 1911 forty-five caliber recoil-operated semi-automatic. Here, feel the weight. But don't point it at me."

Castiel clasps the gun in his hand, folds his fingers around the grip, and it feels comfortable, feels almost insignificant in comparison to the damage he knows it can do. "For millennia, humans have been fascinated with launching high-speed projectiles at those who oppose them," he says thoughtfully. "This is the bleak reality of man's wicked nature, Dean, and it has permitted the worst and most destructive of your kind to gain dominance over—"

"Cas." Dean's stare is steely again. "Are you going to lecture me or are you going to field-strip that gun?"

Castiel mulls for bare seconds. "I'm going to field strip this gun."

He guessed right, because Dean brightens again. "You can load that up with a full magazine and one in the pipe for back-up," he tells Castiel. "But it's nice and slim, easy to hide." He opens up the metal box he retrieved from the bag, shakes out the contents. "Press that button just next to the trigger," he says. "And then tug on the magazine…right there at the bottom of the grip, it'll slip out."

Castiel follows the instructions carefully, places the magazine on the table.

"Good," Dean announces. "Now cycle it to check there isn't a round in the chamber. Just…" He touches a finger to the top of the gun. "Slide this back, take a peek. Empty?"

Castiel nods, and he finds himself transfixed again as Dean talks on, points, and instructs him on barrels, recoil spring plugs, slide locks, firing pins, extractors, breech faces, and feed ramps. Dean shows him how to use the assortment of brushes, patches, and cleaning oils, it has to be clean and shiny to work properly, Cas, you need to be able to see your reflection in that baby. Again, again, again, and Dean is ever patient, careful, methodical, his voice slow and gentle, look here, Cas, this is how…you're doing great, man. And Castiel finds he can work faster each time, that he doesn't have to be prompted, that it's becoming automatic, smooth, let's go once more.

Hours have passed, and the long day is closing when they finish.

"Target practice tomorrow," Dean announces decisively.

"You're a good teacher, Dean," Castiel says.

Dean smiles, shrugs. "Sometimes I think I would have liked to be a teacher," he says, and Castiel thinks he might see regret in his friend's eyes.


***

"You alright?"

Sam glances up from rubbing his brow with his fingers, and he sees Bobby standing in the doorway to the study, bundled up in his jacket and scarf, pointing narrowed eyes at Sam.

"I'm alright," Sam assures.

"Only you're rubbing your head," Bobby continues doubtfully. "You about to keel over?" He flaps a hand in Sam's direction for emphasis.

"No, no, I'm good." Sam thinks on that for a minute. "I actually am. It's taking less time to come out of them." He passes his hand across his brow again. "Headache's still a motherfucker, though." He laughs weakly. It isn't so very different from the head-kickers he'd get after one of his visions, he suddenly thinks, and it roils a wave of distaste through him that he can damn well do without. "I took something for it anyway," he offers. "It'll ease off in a bit."

Bobby hovers there for a minute, then motions a hand at the open laptop. "Anything on the world wide web of weirdness?" he asks. "I put a map up in the library, thumbtacked all the places Tamara mentioned."

Sam chews his thumbnail, frowns. "I haven't found anything definite in the States," he murmurs as he flicks his eyes down to the computer screen again. "Except for this…could be something, could be nothing. Report out of Bayou Golf Club in Galveston, apparently a busload of old-timers on a rotary club day-out just upped and vanished. It just made me think of what Tamara said about mass disappearances." He rubs his eyes, sighs. "I'll keep at it. Pick it up in the morning maybe." He eyes Bobby up and down, glances at the clock. "Off to the local bar?" he inquires.

Bobby snorts. "No such damn luck. Marci Ward crisis."

Sam raises a meaningful eyebrow. "Uh-huh. She need you to lube her woodchipper again?"

"Don't even think about that, boy." Bobby starts pulling on his gloves. "Her generator packed in, and with all the outages we've been getting in this weather, she's having a cow over it. So I said I'd take a look. Might get some peach cobbler out of it." He sighs then, examines Sam for a long moment. "You really alright?"

Sam nods, smiling. "I'm getting there, Bobby. Long and winding road, scenic route, no map or GPS…but I think I'll make it." Through the open door he can hear the low rumble of voices drifting from the kitchen, and Bobby tracks his glance.

"Dean's putting the protection tattoo on Cas," he confirms. "Guess we'll see if it works, considering he's got an angel bounty on his head now. But you might want to think about rustling up those hexbags just in case." He turns to leave, stops and looks back, a measured stare. "Fresh air might clear your head too."

True that, Sam thinks, and he grins. "I'll get my jacket."


***

Dean has the tattoo stenciled on three sheets of paper laid out on the kitchen table beside a large cardboard box, and when he turns from watching Bobby's truck smoke and dust its way up towards the road, Castiel is parked in a chair and peering down at one of them, his eyebrows pulled together as he concentrates.

"Do you think this might work?" Dean throws out there tentatively. "Because otherwise you'll be confined to barracks with Bobby. Which is a fate worse than death, believe me."

Castiel scrunches his nose up as he studies the symbols. "I'm not sure," he decides. "But I think it might. The spell forms a powerful and ancient protection." He glances up. "You said you saw these runes tattooed on the wise woman who told you how to enter Purgatory?"

Dean nods, tapping his temple with a finger as he echoes Bobby's words. "I always was good with sigils. I tracked them down in one of Bobby's books, and they seemed to be mostly Sumerian in origin. But I added some of the Enochian protection symbols from that chest x-ray I got in Delaware after Bobby stabbed himself." He can't help shuddering at the memory, moves his brain swiftly onto something else. "Sam was talking about making you one of Ruby's extra-crunchy hexbags, but this is more permanent. So…think it'll do the job?"

Castiel blows out a decisive puff of air. "I think we need to…" He reaches for the marker on the table-top, anchors the paper under the loosely curled fingers of his left hand and leans over to add something extra on the right-hand side, before snagging one of the other stencil sheets and repeating the action to the left of the design.

He lays them out for inspection and Dean steps forward and stares down at the additions. "It's the number thirteen."

Castiel executes a modest eyeroll. "It's my name, in Enochian. Or at least the first letter."

Dean flicks him a dubious look. "Looks like the number thirteen to me," he says again, but he gives it another once-over and yeah, he concedes inwardly, the tendril that coils from the center of the three, and the exaggerated serifs that flare out from the ends of the two symbols, turn them into calligraphy that might just be more than the number thirteen.

After a patient sigh, Castiel tells him again, "It's the first letter of my name. It should personalize this spell to me, protect me from its effects." He frowns again, and his voice goes thoughtful. "I'd rather not repel myself, after all."

That makes sense, though Dean doesn't like the should part of his friend's statement, and would have much preferred a will. He fakes one-hundred-percent definite positivity. "Sub-clause," he notes. "Good thinking." He can't resist a final poke. "Still looks like the number thirteen to me."

Castiel raises an eyebrow and stares owlishly up as Dean opens the box up and starts placing various different items on the table, and Dean smiles back, sort of. He feels suddenly self-conscious under his friend's regard, bashful even, which is nine kinds of fuckin' weird. He tells himself it's the awkwardness of saying too much in the dark, things he never meant to voice, things he has repressed, the embarrassment of waking up tenting his sweats, his morning wood shamelessly rigid against Castiel's thigh and his hand resting over his mark on the angel's chest. He feels his cheeks heat at the memory of Castiel's face turned into his shoulder, his breath gusting warm and gentle on Dean's neck, the sandpaper texture of Castiel's stubbled jaw, the memory of how Castiel shifted and rolled until Dean could feel the unmistakable hardness of his friend's own erection grinding up against him. His mouth goes suddenly dry as he recalls the primal urge and want that streaked low and hot through his groin, and he wonders if maybe—

"That looks like an electric toothbrush, Dean."

Dean snaps out of it, jumps to attention. "What?" he blusters, and he looks down at the device he's currently holding. "Huh? Electric toothbrush?" It is of course. "It is," he says. "Was, anyway. Now it's a tattoo gun." He can't help a shy note of pride creeping into his voice. "I made it. Electric toothbrush, pencil eraser, a pen and a guitar string. And yes, before you ask, it really works."

"That's impressive," Castiel decides. "Have you always had a skill with constructing such things?"

"It's something I've always done," Dean says with a shrug. "We couldn't afford much growing up, so I'd tinker with stuff…fix what needed fixing, build the stuff we didn't have." He fakes a scowl. "Although Sam still teases me about the EMF detector I made out of my walkman."

Castiel cocks his head and considers Dean's words solemnly. "You like fixing things."

He's looking at Dean with a gentle, liquid fondness in his eyes that makes Dean's heart do a little flip-flop in his chest, and he feels his throat constrict a little. "Yeah," he confirms hesitantly, sensing the double meaning in Castiel's words. "I like fixing things, I like to build things. I like machines, they're logical…components moving together in a system, and if they aren't working, it's just a glitch, you know? It isn't personal, and they aren't screwing with you. And you can fix them or just replace them without having to beat yourself up over it."

The significance of the words hangs heavy between them for a moment, Dean knows. People have screwed him, people who can't be fixed, and can't be replaced, and he has spent so many years beating himself up about it. Castiel is staring up at him still, and the sorrow in the angel's eyes tells Dean he heard the subtext loud and clear, knows that he's one of them. Dean clears his throat awkwardly, backtracks to the matter at hand. He clicks the button on, optimistically he knows, because the device has been tucked away in this box in Bobby's hall closet for years. He huffs at its stubborn silence, gives a sloppy shrug. "Just needs a recharge is all. I made it for the devil's trap tattoos. But it's really only good for tattooing bananas."

Castiel seems to take it in stride, asks, "Tattooing bananas?" in a way that suggests mild intrigue but no real surprise that Dean should ever decide to tattoo fruit.

It's surreal, Dean thinks, the polite formality they've both adopted since that moment of awkwardness when they woke up. Some part of him thinks it's necessary too, but he doesn't want to think too closely on why that is, so he nods and stays on-topic. "For practice. Takes way too long to do anything really detailed with this, and you need proper needles."

Dean sets the toothbrush down on the table, rifles through the box and hooks out a few necessary tools of the trade before producing the tattoo gun proper and brandishing it. "Sam made me buy a real one. This baby punctures the skin maybe two thousand times per minute, penetrates a millimeter or so." He places it on the table, fishes out the box of needle bars and rummages through it until he finds the one he needs. He holds it up for Castiel's impassive examination. "Liners. There's no real shading, so these'll do."

He pulls out his own chair, sits, and scrapes it up closer so his leg fits between the v-shape formed by Castiel's, resolutely ignores the fact that his knee is wedged tight up against Castiel's inner thigh. He tears open an antiseptic wipe, rubs it across Castiel's upper chest, under his collarbone. "Speedstick," he announces as he reaches for a new stick-deodorant. "Helps the stencil transfer."

Castiel nods interestedly as Dean swipes on enough of the slick substance to make the tattoo site slightly tacky, before he positions each separate piece of paper carefully in place so the ends join to form one linked design curving its way under the clavicles. He pats the paper carefully with his fingertips. "Okay…" he murmurs, as he grasps the first edge and pulls it slowly away. He grins. "The eagle has landed. Now we just ink it in place."

Talking about it isn't the same as doing it, Dean is realizing a half-hour later.

Talking about it isn't the same as having a hand spread out across Castiel's upper chest to stretch and hold the flesh taut against the reflexive twitch of Castiel's pectorals. It isn't the same as being acutely aware of how hard the flat, muscular planes of his friend's body are in comparison to Lisa Braeden's soft curves, isn't the same as reveling in the marble smoothness of Castiel's skin under his own calloused palm, and isn't the same as knowing that the nub of flesh jutting up stiffly between his middle and ring fingers is Castiel's nipple. It isn't the same as feeling the same burning thrill of proximity to the handprint scar that he felt before, isn't the same as feeling the steady, reassuring thrum of Castiel's heart judder erratically each time his thumb teases across the outer border of the mark as deliberately as if it's being drawn there magnetically.

Talking about it isn't the same as feeling Castiel's ribs rise and fall underneath his own torso as he leans in to focus on the swirls and loops of the rune, isn't the same as feeling Castiel's breath caress his eyelashes as he peers down at his handiwork. It isn't the same as seeing Castiel in his peripheral vision, eyes blazing electric blue, biting down on his lower lip every few minutes as the needles drive in to engrave him, isn't the same as knowing Castiel's pain threshold is in the stratosphere and that it can't be the sting that is making him shift minutely under Dean's touch.


Talking about it isn't the same as noticing Castiel's hand on his leg, and feeling Castiel's fingers kneading his thigh muscle spasmodically, isn't the same as noticing that a bead of sweat is trickling down Castiel's temple and that Castiel's breathing is speeding up. It isn't the same as noticing how the tip of Castiel's tongue streaks along the seam of his mouth swiftly, leaving the gleam of moisture in its wake, and isn't the same as remembering the press of lips in the trainyard, the Judas kiss that helped send his friend tumbling into Purgatory, and wondering if Castiel will still taste broken and tormented.

Talking about it isn't the same as the frantic hammering Dean can feel in his own chest, the growing tightness that sucks the oxygen from his lungs. It isn't the same as the silence that snaps into existence when his foot slips distractedly off the power pedal, isn't the same as the hypnotic, inexorable reality of seeing Castiel's eyes fold closed into thick black crescents on his cheekbones as he tilts his face. And somewhere far away inside himself, Dean acknowledges that talking about it isn't the same as feeling the rock-hard bulge of Castiel's dick against his kneecap, isn't the same as feeling his own cock twitch convulsively, isn't the same as knowing this is real and hearing himself make a soft, desperate sound at the back of his throat as he leans in towards Castiel—

The front door doesn't clunk shut any louder than usual, but it's like a gunshot, and Dean jerks upright and spins around so fast the chair he was sitting on teeters on its back legs for a second before clattering to the floor.

The door to the kitchen creaks open, and Bobby glances around it. "We're back," he announces unnecessarily. "We come bearing gifts…got peach cobbler and apple pie." He directs a critical eye away from Dean to study Castiel. "Looks good," he judges, and then he's gone as abruptly as he appeared.

Dean swallows, and he's pretty sure he's blushing scarlet as he half-turns towards the table, tattoo gun positioned strategically over his crotch. Castiel is blinking up at him, a wary, hunted expression in his eyes, but when Dean meets his gaze, he looks away. It's the same game of peek-a-boo they played in the attic after they sparred.

The atmosphere is suddenly so thick Dean fancies he could cut it into chunks if he had his Bowie, and he has to force himself to some degree of lucidity, force himself to think past the heat in his groin, the churning in his gut, the tremor in his hands. He focuses on the runes that wend their way along the top of Castiel's chest, the whorls, curlicues, and asymmetrical slashes inscribed perfectly, his penmanship steady even if he can't remember etching the design into Castiel's skin, even if all he can recall is falling in to meet Castiel as the angel's lips began to part.

He makes himself stare at the linked script as he speaks, and he knows his voice is halting, and uncertain. "Cas. Do you think…do you think this might work?"

There's a brief pause before Castiel answers, his response low and equally cautious. "I'm not sure, Dean. But…I think it might."


***

Bayou Leroux, Louisiana

The swamp weaves around him as he weaves his kayak through the endless marshy wetland of mud and cordgrass. This channel he's paddling along braided off the mainstem a mile or so back, and now he's threading his way down stagnant, brackish creeks, the shadow of cypress trees casting the route in murky darkness even though the sun is high in the sky.

It's unseasonably warm for this time of year, even in the bayous of the South, and he pauses every ten minutes or so to wipe the salt-sting of sweat from his eyes and drink from his canteen. He keeps his eyes sharp, watchful for deceptive dead-log alligators sunning themselves on the banks, and for reptilian eyes breaking the surface of the water; he keeps his ears attuned to the call of the clapper rail as it reverberates through the marsh, soaring high and far above the distant clamor of wintering geese as they feed. Every so often a splash announces the presence of fish and the river otters that pursue them.

He's alert, his binoculars hanging around his neck, his camera ready.

There's movement, a dark shadow in his side vision, stalking him…Bobcat? Coyote? He muses that maybe if he's lucky he'll catch a glimpse of the big, dark coyotes descended from the red wolves that once roamed these coastal marshes. He lifts up his camera, focuses on where he's sure he saw motion.

He barely has time to scream before it explodes out of the water at him, and his last thought is that it wasn't his lucky day after all.


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A/N: We were inspired by the idea of Dean and Castiel journeying through Hell together by a wonderful fic called The Sharp Edge of Earth by dotfic.


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