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A Prayer for Fire

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“If you wish for light,
be ready to receive light.”

- Rumi

+

They both order pigs in a blanket, and the waitress brings them two heaping plates that Sam isn't sure he can finish. He doesn't even usually like pigs in a blanket, but today they were the first thing that came to mind when the waitress asked him, "What'll you have?"

He watches Dean eat, though it’s hard to see with the morning sun in his face.

This is Dean's favorite diner in the state – possibly his favorite diner ever. They snap salt pork in half with their mouths. The juke is singing my my Miss American Pie, a song they've known by heart since forever because Dean knew no other lullabies. Sam taps his foot in time.

Bobby called earlier with a job and Dean relays the story of a man whose wife died so he's a ghost now. Sam accepts this, that somehow someone else's death can turn you into a ghost, something about transference of death, the logic of love. It's just another case.

"So are you going to eat that?" Dean jabs a fork at Sam's plate.

Sam looks down and he's eating salad. He's always been eating a salad. "You don't want my salad."

Dean looks offended and Sam is suddenly thoroughly irritated, like How was I supposed to know you wanted my food? His brother is a huge pain.

Dean gets up and puts on his coat and Sam says, "Hey, where are you going?"

He won't even look at Sam.

"We haven't even paid yet."

Dean heads for the door.

This is suddenly the worst thing. Dean is leaving the diner, leaving and leaving, and no one is reacting to Sam yelling hey and stop and you asshole, and Dean is going, going, gone. Sam tries to go after him but he’s stuck in his seat like glue, his limbs heavy as concrete.

Some people wake up from a dream because it's too much, but Sam wakes up because it’s not enough. His brother's silence is the monster catching up with him as he runs underwater, and Sam opens his eyes in a dark motel room with his heart feeling bruised and a plea still caught in his throat.

The blackout motel curtains are drawn, white sunlight leaking out the edges so that Sam can just see across the room to the other bed. It's empty. It's empty and made perfectly clean and untouched. It's a bed for nobody.

Sam struggles to breathe despite the seizing in his chest. It's been two nights since he left Bobby's, a week or two since they buried Dean. He has a room with two queens, one for him and one for his brother, who is in Hell.

+

The demon is possessing a boy who looks all of sixteen, complete with a hoodie whose emblazoned band name Sam doesn't recognize. He's sitting in their devil's trap like a kid who got sent to his room.

He's younger than Sam's used to, but whatever - he needs all the practice for Lilith he can get. When Sam finishes his drink and slurs, "Okay. Okay, let's do this," Ruby steps in front of him and holds out the knife with an arched eyebrow.

Sam looks at it dumbly, then looks at her. "What?"

"This isn't just some demon extra, Curly. I got him special; he's part of Lilith's entourage." She holds the knife by the blade and waggles it in front of his face. "Take this. Make him talk."

Her words have a sobering effect. Anger is a clarifying thing for him these days, the only clarifying thing. Anger and grief.

"He's just some kid," Sam says.

Ruby rolls her eyes. "He's a demon. There's a demon in there, and he can't get out. Now's the time, Sam. You know what you have to do. Go against that gentle nature of yours, or have you forgotten what you've been fighting for all summer? I mean, when you're not sucking on a bottle of Wild Turkey like some asswipe."

"He's a kid," Sam repeats, which is far from being his most elegant retort, but he often finds that logic fails in the face of Ruby's cruel practicality. His greatest defense is to be stubborn. That at least takes her some time to chip away. "I'm not torturing a kid!"

"You can let me go then, maybe," says the demon.

"Shut up!" Sam and Ruby yell at him.

Ruby glares at Sam. "You never learned anything from Dean, did you? You really are the worst little brother. He did what he had to do to save you. You can't do this one little thing?"

"I'm not gonna turn myself into a monster!"

She laughs. Oh, it's a beautiful laugh, she's so fucking delighted, and every peal feels like it exposes another layer of his own bullshit, because why isn't he turning himself into a monster? Because he promised Dean he wouldn't? And yet here he is, an entire summer spent pulling loopholes out of the fine print trying to justify this to himself, interrupted by periods of 'fuck promises, fuck Dean, they don't know,' practicing his powers on every demon he and Ruby could bag.

Lilith is waiting. So is Dean.

"You tell yourself whatever bedtime story you want, sweetheart," Ruby says. "But take the knife and make the puppet dance."

Sam grabs the knife and shoves Ruby as hard as he can, then he lifts his hand to the terrified demon. When Ruby yells and starts to run at him, Sam points the knife at her.

"Seriously?" Ruby demands.

"Don't test me," Sam hisses.

"You'd get a big fucking zero!" she yells, eyes flashing, but she stays where she is. She's learned not to underestimate him.

Like most things, doing an exorcism works best if you're not even thinking about it. Sam has enough rage and guilty self-loathing in him that it doesn't take that long to find the most solid part of the darkness and turn it like a key. Whatever deathly miasma hangs over his blood unfurls. The floodgates are opened, and suddenly he feels he can do anything. No: he can do anything.

The demon screams.

"After I went through all that trouble," he hears Ruby mutter.

The demon vomits black smoke, and Sam's vision starts to white out, but he forces himself to focus, going fuck you, you fucker, you little shit in his head and he wouldn't be able to tell you if it's directed at the demon or himself. His head hurts and his hand shakes - please, god, please - and eventually the smoke sinks through the floor, down through the earth, back to the infernal dimension it came from.

The boy is passed out, but still breathing. Ruby is still fuming. Without warning, Sam throws the knife at her and before she has time to be afraid, the knife embeds itself in the wall beside her with a sharp crack, an inch from her ear.

"Let him go," Sam rasps, then turns around and leaves.

+

Sometimes, on bad nights, Sam still runs through the events of Cold Oak in his mind, except in this version of events, he is winning. He's fighting Jake and winning because Sam knows now how important it is that he kill Jake before Jake kills him, before Dean makes that deal. Better here, better to take the knife and stick it in, once is enough, once will kill him. This time he won't blow it.

Imagines Azazel saying, "Good job, Sam." Pride in his voice, satisfaction in his golden eyes.

Blood all over Sam's hands and in his mouth and an army of demons behind him.

Dean, alive.

He's thinking about the crunched vertebra in his back when a car horn blares through his drunken reverie and Sam yanks on the wheel without seeing where he's going. This is it, this is it, he thinks wildly, but this isn't it; this is just Sam swerved up on the side of the road with the car horn fading in the night and the driver yelling, "Asshole!" out her window. He doesn't know which part of him is the one saying shoulda let her hit you. Sam would never end it all, not with Dean still in the pit, but he just gets so tired sometimes.

Please, god. It's all the prayer Sam has any faith left for anymore, thrown into the ether to anyone who may be listening. One long litany of please, punctuated by Dean and bring him back and I'll do anything.

He prays this prayer now, not because he has faith, but because his grief has nowhere else to go. Sam prays, eyes closed and hands white-knuckled around the wheel, until he can breathe again.

A breeze cools his face. He hears a sound like the rustle of feathers, and feels something soft brush against his cheek.

Sam opens his eyes.

There's no one else on the road. Nothing but him, his idling car, and the stars above them, but the silence no longer feels leaden. There is still the wound gnawing inside him, and he doesn't think that will ever go away until he sees Dean again, but the emptiness of the world feels clean. Sam touches his cheek, not knowing what he expects to find. He wouldn't exactly call himself a believing man, but maybe he believes in the power of tricks the mind plays when you're drunk and sleep-deprived and full of wishful thinking. Though he doesn't feel that drunk anymore.

He shifts the car into gear and gets back on the road.

+

Three-thirty in the morning.

Sam can't sleep, haunted by the ghosts of last year, by his need to keep Dean here, to hold on to him, the times when Sam found himself just watching him, trying to record every moment in case he failed to keep Dean out of Hell. Has he recorded enough?

The times when Sam found himself wanting to simply hold his brother, the few times he actually did, the fewer times Dean let him. Sam remembers waking up one morning and Dean was still asleep in the other bed, and Sam watched him, feeling like an intrusion on a secret, some world usually hidden from him where Dean didn't have ten thousand walls erected between them. Sam wanted to slip into Dean's bed and wrap himself around him, assure him walls aren't necessary, wanted Dean to open to him and trust that they can get out of this, because there used to be a softness in Dean's eyes that Sam hadn't seen in ages and he was so hungry for it. He missed a certain way Dean said his name, fragile and curious.

But Sam just stayed in his bed, his heartbeat in his ears, consumed. He is consumed now.

That time last year when Sam held Dean's face in his hands, checking for injuries, and there were none, but Sam couldn't let go, and fuck, how warm Dean was to the touch, and how soft when he pretends to be so hard. Sam just looked at him with a lump in his throat until the desire to do something, anything, became almost intolerable and he was both grateful and angry at Dean for interrupting with a "What, do I have something in my teeth?"

It's something else he's been trying to justify to himself, ever since he was a teenager. He blamed close quarters, he blamed seeing no one else for weeks on end, Dean's grin when he pinned Sam to the dirt, the merciless summer days when Dean walked around shirtless in a patina of sweat much to the chagrin of Sam's overactive imagination. It wasn't a constant thing. Most of the time they were as normal as brothers could hope to be in their situation. But occasionally Dean would sling a casual arm around his shoulder and offer him some adventure, or share with him a painstaking secret he didn't want their father to know, and Sam would feel helpless.

He spent all last year in a confused mess of constant need and preemptive grief. Wanting to keep his brother here with him bleeds into wanting to have, to touch, to know.

Sam kicks off the covers with decisive frustration and gets out of bed. He's halfway to the far table where the whiskey is, and then he makes himself stop. He's had way too much lately anyway, way too fucking much. Instead, he sits on the edge of the bed with his elbows on his knees and he rests his forehead on clasped hands. And then he goes, If You're out there, I know I haven't done this properly in a while, and I-

And he what? What can he possibly say? But he squeezes his eyes shut and forces himself to continue, trying to recast his human frailty into another form.

I know I'm the last person whose prayers You should be granting, but if You can hear me, please. It's not for me, it's for my brother, and he hasn't done anything wrong. He doesn't deserve to be where he is and he's there because of me, and I just want to set things right. I may not deserve anything, but he deserves everything, and I want to set things right. Please help me set things right.

Sam doesn't remember falling asleep, but he must have at some point, because the next thing he knows, he's dreaming.

+

It's so bright he can't see anything. Or maybe it's dark? With this kind of blindness, it's hard to tell because it doesn't matter. Is he floating or drowning? Is he on fire or frozen to the bone? It doesn't matter, it doesn't matter.

Something is calling his name.

You are chosen, Sam Winchester.

"No," Sam says automatically, not as a denial, but as a plea. In his experience, being chosen means you're fucked.

You're special, it says.

That's even worse.

"Who are you?"

Castiel.

"What are you?"

An answer, as long as your answer is the right one.

"Is that a threat?" Sam wants to say, because he doesn't respond well to threats, but he can't say the words. They die in his throat as something soft caresses his cheek, and he shudders at the gentleness of it, weak with how much he has missed a tender touch. He is not foolish enough to think it could be mercy, but it feels like it, and it scrapes him raw the way violence no longer can. And yet it's this that jars Sam from the suspension of disbelief into the awareness that he is dreaming. There is sudden anger that the solace he's been deprived of most of his life comes for him only now and only in dreams. Anger that it comes to him and not his brother, who surely needs it more.

The creature, Castiel, seems to sense this, but his rebuke is gentle. You don't recognize comfort when it's given to you.

This is a demon, it must be. This is just another demon lie. But since when do demons give him hope? Since when do things like Ruby appear to him with plans to destroy Lilith and get Dean out of Hell, and since when do they dare stray into his dreams to touch him with the intimacy that he's learned to stop wanting long ago?

"I'm not that kind of special." The kind that brings anything good.

The boy with the demon blood, running with demons, trying to break into Hell…

"It's my brother," Sam protests. They're the only coherent words he can gather from a maelstrom of complex sorrows. "It's my brother, I'm going to save him."

You can't trust demons to give you hope, Sam Winchester.

"What else do I have?" Sam shouts. "Why else are you here?"

I'm not a demon. And you do have something else. You have your faith. You've always had your faith.

"In God?"

So it would seem.

Sam laughs, but it comes out more like a sob. "Yeah, well, He's not listening."

For a brief moment, that tenderness is gone. The light flares, and it stings like a sunburn.

Don't make your self-pity a point of pride. We're listening now.

"What do you want?" Sam demands.

You want to save your brother. We can help you do that.

This is just a dream, but Sam lives in a world where that doesn't mean it isn't real. He can hear his heartbeat in his ears, the dream pulsing in time with his hope. He hears himself speaking before he intends to speak.

"How will I know?" Sam says. "How will I know you'll keep your word?"

Pray on this, he hears, and then the dream slips away, or he does. Heaven has heard you. We will give you signs.

+

In the daytime, Sam is ninety percent sure the dream was all just a manifestation of a summer's worth of grief. He needs to stop drinking before bed. Or maybe he needs to drink more. Things that are too good to be true usually are.

There's another call from Bobby that went straight to voicemail. The old guy just won't quit. Sam listens to the message, even if it's the same thing each time. He's glad enough to hear Bobby's voice to put up with the guilt over and over. Neither of them deserves this anymore.

There's a thick tome in Glagolitic on the motel table for Sam to translate in the hopes it might yield some scraps of trivia about the underworld, but he is unable to concentrate, so instead he gets in the car and drives. Doesn't matter where to.

The dream follows him.

What are you?

An answer, as long as your answer is the right one.

The memory of tenderness, facsimile of mercy. That touch along his being that unknotted him and uncoiled his grief. It makes him ache to remember it. Sam wants to feel that again, even if it was just made up in his head. It's been so long since he felt tenderness of any kind.

He drives and drives through this nowhere town, wondering about signs.

Heading back to his de-haunted squat with food, Sam startles when Ruby pops in the passenger seat and digs into his bag to fish out a few fries. Random teleportation aside, he still hasn't gotten used to her new body, but at least it isn't a living girl. He put up with recycling jokes and Al Gore potshots for days, but whatever; if he's going to be working with a demon, he will damn well minimize the trail of blood he leaves behind.

"You could've called first," Sam mutters.

"The fuck, Sam," Ruby says, going through his take-out. "These have salt on them."

"So leave my food alone. What do you want?"

She smiles sweetly. "I was thinking after we watch Titanic I could braid your hair."

Sam's lip curls.

"Relax," Ruby smirks. "Deer."

"What?"

"Deer. Sam! Deer!"

He looks back at the road. "Oh sh-"

Sam swerves across the solid yellow line on a two-lane county road to avoid colliding with a deer lying dead halfway into his lane. He nearly gets whiplash, and pulls over quick, the headlights of traffic coming around the corner glaring brightly in his eyes.

"Seriously?" Ruby asks as he stops and puts on his blinkers.

"Just a sec." He opens his door and it squeals – gotta oil that, Dean'll be pissed - and he hears Ruby get out too, chattering away about how sweet he is, she'll get cavities just hanging out with him, she doesn't have all night here. Sam doesn't have the patience to explain to her about signs. About faith. His heart is thudding loudly in his chest, anticipatory and hungry as wolves. He doesn't know how he knows. He just does. Maybe it's part of being chosen.

From up close Sam can see the animal’s chest is crushed. Its legs are shattered. It stares at him unseeing through eyes that have gone glassy and dull, bordered with flies.

When he grabs it by the antlers to drag it off the road, it bucks its head and kicks its forelegs.

Sam hears Ruby gasp, "What the –" and he nearly falls over as the deer leaps to its feet. There's not a mark on it, no bloody coat, and its broken legs are long and smooth and strong. Its hooves click heavily on the road, and it grunts as it looks at Sam with a wet black eye.

Pray on this.

The deer shakes the flies from its coat, unperturbed, and bolts into the woods as Sam and Ruby stand in shock.

"What was that?" Ruby demands. She gets angry when she's confused, a defense mechanism Sam knows well. But he is neither angry nor confused right now.

"A sign," Sam breathes. He looks at his hands. Did he do that?

"Sam, what the fuck!"

Was that him?

"I know you're into this whole necromancy thing, Sam," Ruby says, "but you couldn't have just –"

"It's a sign," Sam says, louder. "From Heaven."

"From what?"

"From Castiel."

"What the hell's Castiel?"

Sam looks at her, and he doesn't know what Ruby sees in his face, but it makes her back away. She gives him a look like he's a wild animal about to attack her.

"I prayed," Sam says, still awed, "and he answered."

"Who answered? Answered what?"

Still hazy with miracles, Sam simply replies, "I'm going to get my brother back."

"You've finally lost it," Ruby murmurs, but she's taking another step back from him. "Or this is way, way above my pay grade. You're talking to angels now? What dusty ancient phonebook did you find that in?"

"In my dreams."

Ruby told him once that you don't get very far being a demon traitor without being paranoid as fuck. Follow your instincts, however ridiculous. Know when the game is changing. Cut your losses. Like all ideologues, she believes that if you must die, then let it be a death of your own choosing.

Sam watches as she makes a choice.

"I'll see you around, or not," Ruby says. "Call me when angels aren't making house calls in your head."

She vanishes, bag of burgers and all. She leaves the fries.

Sam looks back at the woods, but he can no longer see the deer. A breeze gusts past like cold fingers pulling on his skin. He shivers.

Summer is ending.

+

He and Dean are in the Impala driving through the golden-green hills of Montana with every evening sunset shining in through their window, lighting up the foothills of something so great he cannot see how high it reaches. He's thinking of telling Dean about his dream and his prayer, because it's safe here, where everything is sepia-toned like their lost golden age before the storm, and Dean will turn to listen over the sound of Rock of Ages, to which they know every word. Sam's thinking of telling Dean yes, yes, it's always been yes, and he'd like that kiss now, he'd like so many things, so many things that he is afraid of. Sam is afraid of this, even though he is so sure of it, even though he wants very much to open himself up to Dean, just for him. He just doesn't know what will happen.

The landscape brightens and the sepia bleaches out. The sky shivers down to the land as the trees reach up for it, and where they meet, the world fades or the light gets in, he can't quite tell. He can't see Dean or the inside of the car, can't see anything anymore.

Something soft as feathers brushes across his cheek.

This, too, is a sign.

"I prayed," Sam whispers.

I know.

If he had to choose between floating and drowning now, he would choose drowning. He feels the edges of himself disappear, and while that frightens him in reflex, he is tangled in the hope that this thing, if it's what Sam thinks it is, will save Dean, and he can rest. They both can rest.

"You're an angel. Castiel. That's an angel name."

Yes.

Maybe Mom had been right, that angels really were watching over them. Maybe they only cut in when it counts.

You want Dean to be saved from Hell.

"Please, I – I don't know what else to do. I have to get Dean back, I don't care what it takes. I'll do anything. I'll give anything, you can have everything, just please…" He swallows. He doesn't know to make this any more clear.

Heaven has work for you, Sam.

"Yes. Fine. Fine, I'll do whatever you want. You'll save him?"

Heaven has work for you both.

He feels a twinge of wariness. "What's that supposed to mean? You are bringing him back."

The light seems to rearrange itself; it shimmers.

Dean will be raised from Hell. But you won't see it.

It's something Sam has come to terms with long ago: the possibility that if he saves Dean, giving up being together with him might be the price he has to pay. That's fine. That's okay. If he can't raise Dean himself, he can be the road that brings Heaven to him.

Still, he can't stop himself asking the next question: "Why me?"

It was always going to be this way.

"But I - I've got demon blood in me. I'm not -"

Worthy? No one can be worthy. God's grace will overcome that stain. What you must do is wait, and when the time comes, give yourself to Heaven. Will you give yourself to Heaven?

Sam pauses at signing a blank check, but it's only reflex. There is nothing he wouldn't give.

"Yes," he says. "Okay, yes. I'll do it."

+

Nothing happens.

This is the most difficult part. He doesn't encounter any demons, doesn't hear from Ruby, and there are no more omens anywhere he goes. Between stretches of waiting for revelation, he starts killing monsters and laying ghosts to rest again, just to have something to do. Sam pulls out his research folder on his computer one night while investigating a haunted house. He hasn't forgotten any of it. He knows it all, all the stories of people coming back from the dead. There's nothing new. There's nothing there. It's just that he can't concentrate on Glagolitic script and the millennia-long telephone game of research when he's just waiting for the ax to fall.

He wants to fall into the light, that all-encompassing embrace that soothed him and offered him impossible hope. Before Sam falls asleep at night he prays but doesn't have anything to say anymore. He just closes his eyes and thinks, Please, please, please, I'm ready.

He tries to have faith.

Sam still checks in all his usual motels under the usual names he uses when he wants Dean to find him, and starts to think maybe Ruby was right. Maybe he really is just crazy. He remembers what he wrote in his Intro to Anthro final in Stanford, being as prone to indignant polemics as the rest of the freshmen: Religion may simply be the first and last refuge of human weakness, but its monsters are very real. But human weakness is a real thing too.

Sometimes he just wants to feel the angel's touch again and never resurface. He is so tired. He wants to let himself admit that he's suffered enough.

Sometimes he misses Dean so much he wants to shatter the world.

When Sam hears Castiel call, he is so relieved he could cry.

Sam, it says. Sam, it's time.

It's night and he's dozing in Pontiac's Astoria Motel, but as soon as the voice wakes him, he is alert. He's been sleeping in his clothes, rumpled in his jeans and boots and yesterday's shirt. He sits on the edge of his bed, takes a shaky breath, puts a gun with silver rounds under his jacket and pats to make sure the knife is in his boot. He doesn't think he'll need them anymore, but some habits are hard to break.

He goes outside.

"Castiel?" he says, very softly.

Sam.

The world shivers and becomes incandescent around the edges, just like in his dreams.

Will you give your whole self to the will of Heaven?

The wind whips his hair. He looks up and can't see anything but the fading stars.

"Will I-" Sam licks his lips, tries not to let his voice shake too much. "Will I get to be with him? Ever?"

You will be my vessel on earth. Dean is my charge.

"What does that mean?"

It means you're ours.

Sam feels a little sick. He knows too much about replies that aren't answers, but he's in too deep. He's too desperate, so he desperately tries to be practical. "Okay. Okay. But tell him, you have to tell him I chose this, that this way neither of us is dead and I'm – and tell him I'm not using my powers. And say I'll see him soon."

The breeze picks up; the light around him flares.

That is a lie.

"Just—give him this," Sam says, and closes his hand around Dean's amulet, the one Sam gave to him so many years ago. The one he could barely remove from his dead brother's neck to put around his own.

There is a hesitant pause, then Castiel says, As you wish.

Sam closes his eyes tight. "I'm ready."

Chapter Text

Dean says, "Wishful thinking, but maybe it's just the wind," because bullshit got him this far and maybe it can take him the rest of the way. He raises his sawed-off and out of the corner of his eye he sees Bobby do the same. Above them, the rafters bang and rattle, and outside, the wind howls.

He would say he is ready for whatever is coming, but readiness is not the same thing as anticipation. It is not simply waiting for the other shoe to drop. Practicality kept him moving when he broke out of his own grave, but even as he marveled at the sweetness of a Coke and the bright blue sky, a part of him is still waiting for hell to rise up and reclaim its prodigal son. It would laugh, Dean thinks. Hell would be amused that he ever entertained any thought of truly escaping, and now Hell is coming to take him home.

No second chances down here, my boy, Alastair had said to him. We're where you go when you're fresh out.

The barn doors burst open, and Dean's finger freezes on the trigger.

Dean knows that silhouette. The lightbulbs explode in a shower of sparks above them, and the thing draws closer to him in a series of stuttered photographs as the light flashes on and off. This is what Dean sees: his brother, the darkness, his brother, the darkness, so on and so forth until even the darkness is marked with his afterimage.

Forty years in Hell cannot supersede the thing after which Dean has learned to thirst for most, and he hears himself saying, "Sam?"

Bobby fires first.

Bobby's yelling at him and Dean's trying not to pay attention because Bobby is yelling, "That's not your brother!" and this is something Dean already knows. It makes him angry to hear it aloud, I know, I KNOW so why spend time stating the obvious when the thing that isn't Sam doesn't even slow down? It doesn't deign to hurry, doesn't even fucking blink, just keeps taking its measured steps towards them with an expression on Sam's face that Dean doesn't recognize.

Yes, he hears Alastair cooing at the back of his head. Yes, that's how we do it down here.

Whatever instinctive horror Dean feels at shooting his brother is overwhelmed by the thirst for revenge and habitual rage. After forty years in Hell, it's the language he knows best.

"You sick son of a bitch!" Dean yells. He shoots and reloads, shoots and reloads. "You son of a bitch, motherfucker, you fucking-"

The shots don't do anything. When it is close enough to touch, Dean takes a step back as disbelief makes the world run in slow motion. Sam, though a big guy, is a sloucher the way big guys tend to be. After his growth spurt in tenth grade, Sam developed the habit of pulling himself into himself, as if afraid to be noticed. This creature wears Sam tall and proud, his back ram-rod straight and his gestures stiff, almost ceremonial, and it looks nothing like his brother.

It takes Bobby down with a touch to the forehead, which reignites Dean's rage. Dean means to stab the thing in the chest, but then he looks into his brother's eyes and the blade buries itself in its shoulder. As luck would have it the creature barely reacts. It just looks at him with clinical curiosity. It's how Sam frowns over other people's abandoned crossword puzzles before he picks up the newspaper and starts finishing it himself.

Dean falls back on reflex. "Sammy?"

It removes the knife from its shoulder. There is no blood. In Sam's voice, the thing replies, “I am not your brother.”

+

Sam prayed for this.

Stupid son of a bitch fucking prayed for this, and the hell of it is that Dean can see it all in his head exactly the way Castiel is telling it. Sam, who can't let things go, who can't let sleeping dogs lie, falling on his knees for the next snake-oil salesman who says he can get him what he wants. Of all the habits to pick up from your big brother.

"And you expect me to believe that it's angels who heard him?" Dean scoffs.

That's when the wings come out.

Angel or not, the guy knows how to put on a show. The lightning flashes and the thunder sounds, but it doesn't feel like any storm. It's a monster cutting through the firmaments to show him things usually kept away from human eyes. Hell was like this. Even after Alastair gouged out Dean's eyes, there were other ways of seeing, and they were often more accurate, the things he saw more terrible. The shadow of wings stretch out behind Sam's body, larger than any set of wings Dean has ever seen, but he knows that even its true size is transliterated. For creatures like this, physicality is a formality.

Strange, some part of him observes, to believe Heaven only because he has known Hell.

Castiel exhales, and the shadow wings vanish.

"This is your problem, Dean," he says. "You have no faith. You should be more like your brother."

"Advice you're taking real seriously here," Dean mutters.

Castiel frowns, and it's the face Sam makes before he says stuff like 'how are we even related?'. "He did it for you," Castiel says. "He said yes for you. You should be grateful."

Was this how Sam felt when Dean made the crossroad deal? The beneficiary of the blessing cannot undo the price that has been paid, and so he must sit on his ass and honor the sacrifice. "Don't you tell me what to do," Dean retorts. "Riding him around like some demon. You're no better than those black-eyed sons of bitches."

"Yes, we are."

"If Sam's in there, let me talk to him."

"No."

"Why not?"

"My pact is with Sam, not with you."

Dean barks out a laugh. "Well, you gotta give me something, man, 'cause you're an inch away from getting ganked back to the pearly gates, one-way."

Castiel doesn't even acknowledge the empty threat. "You didn't want him to use his powers or give over to his darker nature, so he didn't. We've worked out a mutually beneficial agreement. "

"How do I know you're, you're not just some shifter, or, or-" Desperation steals his words. Dean has woken up from one nightmare to find himself in another.

Castiel holds out his hand. Resting in his palm is Dean’s amulet.

And that's when Dean cracks. That's when he knows he will assent, and this is why. Not necessarily because he believes, but because the faster he does this, the faster he gets Sam back. Dean takes the amulet from the angel; he puts it on.

Castiel says, "God has work for you, Dean Winchester."

“As long as you promise Sam gets to come home at the end.”

“If you succeed, we’ll let him go.”

“And if I don’t?” Dean bristles.

Instead of answering, Castiel says, "These are the terms of the deal."

Dean clenches his jaw. “Fine.”

Castiel opens his mouth as if to reply, but then something seems to interrupt him. He turns his head to the barn doors, frowning.

"What?" Dean asks, hand going to his gun again. "Something coming?"

"No…" He looks at Dean, then back outside, frustration at the timing apparent. Well, that makes the both of them. "I have to go."

"Go where?" Dean demands. "Hey-"

When Castiel looks back at him, Dean can tell the angel's already shifted gears. "We'll meet again."

"Hey, wait a minute. Don't-"

And then it's just Dean in the barn, surrounded by weapons and sigils that do nothing and answer nothing. On the floor, Bobby begins to stir. Dean takes a deep breath and tries to think of what to do next. He can't think of anything, anything at all.

+

Castiel spreads his wings and follows the sound.

It's not something humans can hear, but every so often there would be the equivalent of a burst of static on the angels' lines of communication, noisy enough to distract them all. These bursts are usually few and far between, but today it flares up every few hours. Zachariah explained that it must be infernal interference, and that the more seals Lilith breaks, the more that these visions of infernal fire would cross their lines.

"Stay strong, brothers and sisters," Zachariah urged them. "Don't be distracted by the enemy."

Castiel has another theory.

He rises into the sky above Pontiac and casts his attention in all directions, waiting for the next crackle on the lines. It comes as a scream wracked with pain and fear, the sensation of falling at impossible speeds. It comes from the east, and Castiel follows.

These interferences unsettle him as they unsettle all the garrison, but not for the same reasons. There is something about these bursts that he cannot quite put a finger on. Something familiar, which gives Castiel two things that his sister taught him are the most dangerous things for an angel to have: ideas and hope.

It's his sister that he holds in mind now as he zeroes in on a quiet town in northwestern Ohio, otherwise nondescript were it not for the flashes of cosmic horror that apparently emanate from it from time to time.

Castiel alights on a rooftop and looks around. Most of the town has turned in for the night save for a small cluster of life downtown where the college bars hold the last of tonight's carousing. He is close, and his human vessel translates his anticipation into a quickened heartbeat, which is distracting, and it is perhaps because of the pounding in his chest that he doesn't notice Zachariah until he says his name.

"Castiel."

Castiel whirls around.

Zachariah raises his eyebrows, letting the silence stretch in case Castiel might want to explain himself. He doesn't. They stare each other down, and Castiel tries to look as innocent and righteous as possible while straining to hear the interference that sounds so much like a distress call. He hears nothing. The trail has gone cold, and Zachariah is still waiting for an explanation. Zachariah's vessel is a short man who looks accustomed to office work. Sam Winchester's body looms large over him, but the way Zachariah looks at Castiel makes him feel very small.

The wind blows Sam's hair in his eyes and he has to brush it away.

Zachariah sighs and says, "So, have you talked to Dean Winchester? Soothed his ruffled feathers, so to speak?"

"Yes. He has been debriefed."

"I couldn't help but notice you didn't come back immediately." The smile on Zachariah's face is anything but kind. 'Expectant' might be a better descriptor. 'Predatory' would be better still.

"I," Castiel says, "followed some intelligence about Lilith's underlings going after a seal."

"Here?"

"Yes. I was mistaken."

"Clearly," Zachariah replies with condescending kindness. "Ah, well. Heaven values your initiative, regardless."

Castiel straightens. "I'm glad to hear it."

What is Zachariah doing here? He usually hates coming down to earth. Has he been following Castiel? Does he know? Or suspect? In Heaven, suspicion is enough to incriminate.

"I'm sure that's why you were so eager to take on this assignment, isn't that right?" Zachariah asks casually. "To be in this world so you can look for… intelligence. Save the world! Isn't that right?"

"Yes. Yes, of course."

"And nothing more."

"Of course," Castiel agrees. "Nothing more."

Zachariah studies him. "Doubtless you'll be more vigilant than our siblings who have already fallen under humanity's spell. Unfortunate side effects of the earth detail, wouldn't you know it." He doesn't say her name, but he doesn't need to. The negative space is loud and clear. "Those who stray don't deserve our sympathy or mercy. We're under Heaven's watchful eye, always.” Zachariah raises a meaningful eyebrow. “Stay on mission."

"Always," Castiel says stiffly.

"Wonderful." Zachariah turns down the malice in his smile. "Come, brother. Paradise awaits."

+

Dean and Sam watched this movie once about some magicians, he forgets what it's called. It was the only thing on TV, and both of them were too tired to change the channel. They just wanted white noise to cover up the things they weren't saying. This was up at Bobby's the week after Dad died, and Dean was getting sick of Sam's passive-aggressive proddings to, what, drop everything and cry or some shit. So they watched a movie, and nobody cried.

In the movie, some old guy was explaining magic tricks. "Making something disappear isn't enough. You have to bring it back." So the magician brought the bird back, but it wasn't the same bird. It was an illusion, not a return. For the rest of the movie, all Dean could think about was that first bird, the vanished bird, broken-boned and dead for the sake of the third act.

Sam liked the movie. Dean didn't, but then again, he hated most things at the time.

The image comes back to him again now in the dark of 3 AM, roused from a dream that was no dream. Dean begins to understand now why the angels saw fit to have his brother get possessed by an angel while trying to get Dean in line for whatever plans God supposedly has for him. Castiel uses Sam's body as a weapon against him. More than disorienting, it hurts. In the dream, all things about Sam that were familiar to him were rendered alien by angelic trespass. The smell of Sam juxtaposed with the malevolence in his eyes. The warmth of him that Dean couldn't tell was the body or divine fire. It inspires the simultaneous desire to embrace Castiel and to hold him down for slaughter.

I dragged you out of Hell. I can throw you back in.

Dean gets up and stumbles into Bobby's completely angel-free and Samless kitchen, and opens the fridge, squinting in its sudden light. He's going to have to go to the store tomorrow; he's drunk nearly all of Bobby's beer. He grabs a bottle and twists off the cap.

So this is what Pamela meant. When she was out of ICU, Dean couldn't help sneaking into her room and asking her for more. There had to be more. She called him a rude sumbitch, which was fair enough, then said, "I saw your brother, all right? It was your brother, but he isn't-"

And that was when the nurse came in and kicked him out, tearing him a new one for not letting an injured woman rest, what was wrong with him, didn't he have any manners, et cetera. Dean didn't care. My brother, he thought in a daze. My brother got me out. After all those times Alastair assured him that his brother was too weak to save him, and why would he bother saving you, Dean?

The truth, as always, is stranger and far crueler.

+

“Got any tidings of joy?” he asks when Castiel pops into the passenger seat and nearly gives Dean a heart attack.

Castiel tilts Sam’s head in a way that gives Dean the shivers.

There’s a relic that needs protecting from demons in the next state. Why the angels can’t just take care of this one, Castiel won’t say. He just sits shotgun and Dean wants to yell at him to get the fuck out, wants to pinch himself so he’ll wake up from this nightmare, wants to get to the point, the part where his torturers show their hand and their faces and push his nose in everything terrible he’s ever thought or done and more, the part where everything around him changes to some new torment.

Dean's still in Hell. He must still be in Hell. This is the only explanation that makes sense.

But the sun doesn't stop shining and the sky doesn't turn to blood. Demons still jump out of the woodwork to tear him apart, but his holy water still works, and in the corner Castiel exorcises them with a touch and a burst of light. Nothing is consumed in hellfire.

Dean watches with horrified fascination every time the bright light glows under Sam’s hands and makes the demons drop like flies. He wonders, Is this it? Is this what Dad warned me about? Sam’s become a monster, an angel - there’s no difference. He’s not human anymore. And it’s all because of Dean.

Maybe Dean should’ve left well enough alone. This wouldn’t have happened if it weren’t for him. Maybe he really should've let Sam stay dead, but the thought makes him sick. Would you rather have this grotesque facsimile of a brother, or a dead brother, or would you rather be certain you’re still in Hell?

Dean thinks of all the lucky assholes who never have to ask those questions. He can’t answer them; he can barely think them without feeling like he’s being eaten from the inside. That’s what the hunting’s for.

The universe has a real hard-on for doing shit like this: every few years it's going to take Sam away, then give him back wrong.

+

Dean hasn't had to do things solo since, shit, since Sam fucked off to Stanford. He did it, but it wasn't like he liked it, and that was when he thought Sam was off being goddamn happy and normal with his life. He doesn’t want to let this one out of his sight. If Castiel is going to deprive him of his partner, then Dean deserves some compensation.

At first, Castiel had other ideas.

"Where do you have to be?" Dean asked.

"You're not my only duty on earth," Castiel snapped.

"Why, what else you gotta do? You got a blessed virgin out there needs annunciating to?"

Castiel just glared. Dean knew that glare. He used to get it every time he made fun of Sam’s soft spot for country music.

Sam would sulk and bristle, and Castiel looks like he’s really getting ready to bristle long and hard, but when Dean looks back, halfway through some comment meant to jerk him out of his mood, there’s no one there. It’s like anticipating another step at the top of the stairs, only to have your foot fall and your stomach drop.

It’s those bare few seconds, the briefest of moments every now and again when he thinks Sam is back, that Sam's wrested control back from the angel. The little habits that he's always associated with Sam, that’s just Castiel easing into bodily tics, translating angelic motivation into human reactions. Castiel isn't Sam. It's only Castiel being more and more comfortable in Sam's body. Dean can’t really forget it but sometimes it confuses the hell out of him. It’s probably why he bullies Cas into sticking around.

Good thing, though, sometimes.

Take now, for example. There is – was – a chupacabra in New Mexico and it should've been an easy job, but Dean is off-balance these days and what should have been an easy hunt ends up with a monster consumed by holy fire and Dean bleeding out in Castiel's arms. It's fucking embarrassing. But then Castiel touches his forehead with two fingers and Dean is healed.

Who needs health insurance when you’ve got an angel on your side? Dean closes his eyes and takes a few shaky breaths, letting himself soak in the feel of Sam's arms around him. He's got nothing against instantaneous recovery, but it feels weird as hell and it always takes a few seconds for the phantom pains to fade.

It's the voice that snaps him out of his reverie.

"Will there be anything else?" Castiel asks. He says this in the placating tones Sam uses when the local deputy starts asking them too many questions about why the feds are in town.

"I'm fine," Dean says hoarsely. He opens his eyes, and Sam's face is frowning down at him. "I'm fine."

But Castiel doesn't move until Dean takes one more shaky breath and shifts away from his arms. Before Dean can say nice timing, Castiel vanishes.

Dean curses loudly into the night, a primal scream that falls short. No satisfying reverberation, no echoing reply - just his voice swallowed up by the desert, too insignificant to be piteous. He yells his brother's name, for no reason other than he hasn't said in a while. Nothing replies.

Later that week at Bobby’s, they exhaust the last of his immediate resources on angelic lore and a couple bottles of the rotgut Bobby had in his cabinet. They find nothing about exorcising angels.

It's harder even than when it was Meg riding Sam, flashing out through those demon eyes, using Sam's lips for sneering in a way he'd never seen before. It's worse than demons because demons don't sit there quietly like Sam would, don't shift uncomfortably, don't frown-squint that way (it's natural, natural as anything, even after looking long enough to notice all the facial expressions that aren't quite Sam). Castiel still makes that offended face at his music, like always - no. Stop.

Dean is jealous of Cas, getting to hold all Sam’s prayers and most fragile moments. He wants so badly to know how Sam is, he wants to comfort him, he wants Sam to know that Dean is back and it’s okay to come out now and end this charade. Dean’s life is the all-clear. But that’s not how his brother’s deal works.

He doesn’t ask Castiel to pry in his brother’s head. Probably doesn’t want to know some of the things up there. He’s afraid to know the details of those missing months, afraid of what Castiel knows about Sam, what secrets Sam needed to keep. And Dean feels guilty as hell for wanting to trespass, even though he can’t, he can’t ask a single thing.

"Bitch," he says, and Sam's eyes narrow slightly. His head tilts.

"You're supposed to say 'jerk'." It's like that djinn-induced hallucination all over again. Sam who doesn't know what he's supposed to be to Dean, who they are together.

"I don't -"

"Never mind."

He keeps waiting for Sam's eyes to go black.

It’s not like a shifter, where the guy knows everything Sam knows. Castiel has bits and pieces that he’s forthcoming with, some that he’s not. For one thing, Sam’s tells, like muscle memory. For another, irritatingly useful bits of knowledge that Dean at first wonders if Castiel knows himself, until Castiel says something about monsters not being his business.

And then, when Castiel does something less alien and more human, well, Dean can’t help but wonder if he’s just mining Sam’s head for tips and tricks on how to get in with Dean. It unnerves him. Castiel goes through Sam's secrets and Dean feels just as exposed.

“Let me guess, you gotta go, I dunno, talk to a man about a horse.” Dean’s swung into the driver’s seat and looking out the open window at Castiel, who stands there, big hands dangling at his side, looking kinda like a lost puppy in a Sam way. Son of a bitch is probably just trying to make him feel soft or something. Well, it’s working.

“Unlikely. I don’t have my instructions yet. I must go receive revelation.”

“Like from God?”

Castiel shifts his stance slightly. “Indirectly. My father is... busy.”

“Too busy to even tell his kids what’s going on? Now there’s your own personal Jesus.”

He narrows his eyes, and his reply doesn’t miss a beat. “Your father was no more attentive when he gave you your orders.”

Dean pounds the steering wheel with both hands, the shock of it jolting up his arms, jarring his shoulders. “You don’t get to talk about my dad like that!”

Castiel doesn’t reply. Dean’s seething, breath hissing through his teeth, hot with anger. He refuses to look up from the dash to see if he’s still there, if there’s anyone at all.

+

Somewhere in the forested mountains of west Java, the nineteenth seal breaks.

There is a thunderclap and one last scream, and the silence that follows is momentary but filled with split decisions. The demon laughs and drops the last human sacrifice on the ground, and Yohael yells, "Finish him," with the barely contained anger of those who know it will make no difference. Castiel leaves his commander's side before he finishes saying the command, sidestepping the fabric of reality to cut the demon off in its tracks and slam it against a tree.

"Too late," it crows, grinning because it knows it's right.

Castiel slams his palm against its forehead, and the demon screams as holy light burns through its host.

He feels sick.

No one can predict what happens to an angel when it inhabits a vessel with demon blood. Inias speculated that he might destroy the vessel, and Rachel thought he might simply purify the blood, in which case it would be twice the blessing. Zachariah assured them they were both wrong, and when Sam Winchester said yes to Castiel, Zachariah was proven right.

"The will of God," Zachariah explained with satisfaction.

Zachariah knew more about the will of God than anyone except the archangels; he told them so.

Demon blood swills around his veins and makes Castiel nauseous. Usually it is white noise to him, something he can ignore, but when he smites demons, his gorge rises. A rebellion of the body. There is little Castiel can do but wait, leaning against this tree for support until his hands stop shaking.

His brethren are clustered around the pile of dead bodies when Castiel returns, and Yohael gives him a distracted 'well done' before going into a tirade about strategy and timing, neither of which anyone has
anymore these days, or so he claims. His fellow soldiers have their heads bowed not in grief for the human cost, but in shame for a battle lost. Castiel keeps his eyes on his commander, but his mind wanders. The corpses - both of the sacrifices and the demons - are grotesque, eyes wide with the pain that followed them into death. Locals have been disappearing from the nearby towns and villages, and here they are, what's left of them.

Depending on who you ask, the screams and flashes in the mountains caused by their skirmish will be blamed on high-spirited youngsters making trouble or the ghosts of soldiers who died in these mountains in World War II. Of these supposed youngsters, Castiel has seen neither hide nor hair, but he senses the restless spirits of violent deaths watching them warily from a distance. There is a storm gathering in all the worlds, and spirits, being inhabitants of the space between, are sensitive to it. He can hear the wary rustle of the soldiers' whispers even from here, but he pretends not to.

"Dismissed," says Yohael, at the same time the burst of static that Castiel has been waiting for crackles in their heads like stars exploding. It is fiery, fearful, and almost recognizable, and Castiel once more tries to resist the hope that rises in him.

"What is that?" Hester wonders aloud, and Castiel doesn't stick around for the reply.

Maybe it's her. Maybe it's her. Castiel speeds across the Pacific ocean, and already he feels memory and longing burning through his cynicism. His sister, laughing, fighting, brighter than the sun. His sister, telling him to be brave. Anael, alive.

There is not a day that goes by without him wondering whether he should have fallen with her.

The static fades as he reaches North America's western coast, and he slows down and alights on top of the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to gather his bearings.

"You're looking for her, aren't you?"

Castiel tenses and looks sidelong at Balthazar. "Did you follow me?"

“I’m not making it my business if you are,” Balthazar shrugs. "It's just you left the crime scene awfully quickly. I followed you so no one else would."

Castiel confirms and denies nothing. He is closer to Balthazar than he is to most angels, but you can't trust anyone in Heaven these days. You never know who's listening, and you never know who is secretly nursing petty grudges, waiting to trump up an accusation to see you demoted or worse. There is a cadre of angels who report back to Zachariah, his secret eyes and ears, and no one knows who is a part of it. They are divided in ways they never have been before. It was one of the reasons Anael fell. "This is no longer the heaven we love," she had said, and then expressed a frustration Castiel didn't understand when he replied that even so, this was home.

Balthazar looks at him with eyes that seem guileless, almost amused, but it is every angel for themselves these days.

Castiel says, "I have business to attend to.”

"No doubt," Balthazar says mildly. "The angel who has taken Sam Winchester on as a vessel must have all kinds of business to sort out that I'm not privy to, I imagine."

"Who is your vessel?" he asks in an attempt at deflection.

"Why does it matter?"

"I suppose it doesn't."

"He was a professor of biology," Balthazar says, after a pause. The information feels like a peace offering. "He likes fine wines and cooking."

"Do you talk to him?"

Balthazar frowns. "What for? Do you talk to Sam Winchester in there?"

"No," Castiel replies, and it isn't a lie per se.

"Ah, well, then it is clear," Balthazar says, examining his fingernails. "No one is talking to anyone."

"Yes," Castiel confirms. "I should go check on Dean."

"Of course," Balthazar says, and Castiel steps off the bridge and disappears.

+

Dean's still in hell. Of course he's still in hell, because Mary Campbell, young and beautiful Mary Campbell who made a deal with a monster to undo her fiance's death, is holding Alastair's favorite dagger in her delicate hands. Dean can never escape the past. He doesn't know why he tries. When Mary speaks it's in the true voice of the demons, sibilant and grating. Her hands on Dean's face are soft and cool.

There are no angels watching over you, she says, sinking the blade between his ribs. There's just me.

Her whispers are louder than his screams. He begs mommy, please and she coos I know, baby, I know. She kisses his tears as her fingers dig into his wound. Take the knife, baby.

Mom -

Take the knife.

And then, an incandescent light. And then the deafening chorus of infinite voices raised in song, or perhaps war cries. Something falls upon them with the impartial fury of a hurricane and the brightness of a sun.

The word ‘no’ slips out of what passes for Dean’s mouth, but the creature cannot hear or understand, or perhaps it doesn’t care. The fire wraps around him, and he screams like a freshly damned soul new to the rack. It lifts him up.

Somewhere on the periphery of his consciousness, his mother curses and howls.

Stop, Dean gasps as hell falls away beneath him. You can’t, I belong here.

The creature, for all that it burns as bright as infernal fire, is gentle with him. It is frightfully gentle, and this is what disorients Dean the most. The unfamiliar jars him.

We need you, it tells him, and holds him closer. Dean begins to notice its contours - the impression of vast wings, a thousand eyes, a thousand wheels that turn and turn. Something terrible and incomprehensible is carrying him away from here with all the care in the world.

Take me back, Dean pleads, but he doesn’t struggle as much. The tenderness is soporific, and the rush of their ascent is a thunderstorm he feels protected from. He sinks into this strange embrace, and something soft as feathers caresses his face.

The creature replies, I am.

"Dean, wake up."

The motel room is dark and quiet except for the muted patter of autumn rains outside. His cheeks are wet, and his breaths come in shaky gulps. A familiar silhouette sits at the foot of his bed.

"J-jesus," Dean chokes out, still lost in the nightmare. "Jesus fucking christ. Fuck."

"It was just a dream," Castiel says.

Like it matters. Dean sits up in bed and digs the insides of his wrists into his eyes as if that would undo anything. It's too late anyway. It's too late to take anything back. He said yes and took up the knife, so any salvation that came to him thereafter came too late and is therefore no good.

"Your nightmares-"

"Was that-" Dean says, and stops. He waits until he can speak without his voice shaking. "Was that you, in my head? Or was that - was that - memory, or what - Was that real?"

"It isn't real," Castiel says, "anymore."

He can't look at Castiel, or rather, he can't look at Sam. Even though Dean knows it isn't really Sam sitting on his bed, he can't help the twist in his gut when he takes in the sharp curve of Sam's nose, the muss of his hair. It's getting long; he should cut it. It's not Sam, and for once, Dean is glad it's not. He doesn’t want to bring hell to his brother. He averts his eyes and focuses on the sound of Castiel's voice, which is different enough from Sam's, rougher and more measured, that it doesn't feel like a phantom limb.

"You saw me," Dean says muzzily. "You saw me down there."

"Yes," Castiel replies, and his voice is soft, like a fading dream.

Something unclenches inside him. This angel, for all that Castiel is uncanny valley population one, has seen the depths to which Dean had fallen. There is no hiding from that, and Dean falls into this relief like a fugitive finally caught. It's always easier to confess your sins to someone who already knows.

"You should have left me."

Castiel says, "I promised your brother I would take care of you."

"Fuck that. Fuck him, fucking stupid son of a bitch, why'd he - What about his promises to me?"

"What promises?"

There were never any explicit promises. It's just the faith and constancy that Dean has mistaken for promise: that Sam will always be there, that Sam will be okay, that Sam will not be ridden by a monster to get him out of Hell. If anything, this is more about Dean's promises to Sam.

The images of his mother holding Alastair's knife lingers in his head, calling him darling, her fingers in his hair as she called him my beautiful boy. When Sam said yes to an angel, it was to save him. Mom said yes to Hell for Dad. What did Dean say yes to down there except to make the pain stop?

"I belong there," Dean rasps. "If I didn't at first, I did in the end."

"But that wasn't the end," Castiel replies. "You are saved, and you are chosen, by your brother and by heaven."

Dean knows better than to think that ‘saved’ is synonymous with 'safe', but he keeps remembering the white light in hell, the fire that purifies instead of punishes. He takes a deep breath and looks at Castiel, trying to see in Sam's face something of the incandescence that gripped him tight and raised him from perdition. The human body obscures truth; this is one of the things he learned in Hell.

Castiel says, "I promised your brother no harm will come to you," and for the first time Dean sees not just a Sam that isn't Sam, but Castiel. The strange creature who saved him, who is inhabiting his brother, and holding all of them hostage.

"What, you gonna stay here all night?" Dean says. "Don't angels have shit to do?"

"Do you want me to go?"

Dean rubs his eyes and mutters, "Do what you want."

To his relief, Castiel stays.

+

A shot of whiskey and a few minutes of tossing and turning later, Castiel feels Dean's mind soften into the hazy landscapes of sleep. Castiel slips in and softens its edges, sets up barriers against the shadows lying in wait in his mind. There are so many. Dean’s body has been made whole but Castiel wonders if forty years was too long, if he and the garrison were too late to prevent the bones of Dean’s spirit from setting wrong. The nightmares are the least of what can be expected.

Castiel finishes, double-checks his work, and - once satisfied at a job well done - sits in a chair by the door, watching the rise and fall of Dean's chest and finding himself soothed by it. For all that he finds Dean abrasive and at times inconvenient, increasingly there have been moments where he begins to understand why Sam would give himself to save his brother. There is something about Dean, or perhaps something about Sam.

Castiel doesn't have to wonder if he would have the same courage to sacrifice himself for his sibling, because he already knows, and he is ashamed.

In moments like this, when he isn't saving seals from demons or saving Dean from himself, Castiel slips into Sam's head. At first it is out of curiosity, like someone exploring a new home. Eventually it’s because it comforts him and explains the body's instincts, often so different from his own and increasingly difficult to conquer.

Castiel is a soldier, not a spy, but he's coming to see that this is the post he's been given - to know the Winchesters, to prepare the Righteous Man with every resource he’s been given. He sinks into Sam's mind and picks out images that align with this one: Dean lying on top of the covers asleep, Dean’s shape in the bare yellow streetlight, Dean wearing all his clothes to bed. Dean younger and shirtless and under the covers asleep, then waking up when Sam is on the phone with their father, their father who they were afraid to think was dead but it was always a possibility, had been for as long as Sam remembered.

The fear and the questioning. The wanting to know why. Dean asking for the phone, their father answering nothing, telling them to go, where to go, what to do. How was Sam supposed to know he was a loving father? What did it matter to Sam whether their father was righteous when all Sam asked for as a display of love was for his family to stick around, be a family, not throw their lives to the wind?

It's strong, the feelings in this memory and every memory going back into the depths, colored over by the constant voice of John Winchester. Castiel is reminded, suddenly and painfully, of Anael.

Sam looked at Dean who held the phone, who heard their father and did not question, who had such blind faith in the man. How could they love their father in such different ways? Castiel had argued with Anael over this same thing. How could their father reward so selectively?

There is static on the phone and an anger that feels like static in Sam’s memory.

Dean stirs in his sleep and makes a hurt noise, startling Castiel from his reverie. In the blink of an eye, he is at Dean's side but he is still asleep. Castiel touches his forehead and lets grace flow until the creases on Dean's brow disappears. And then, after a hesitation, Castiel leaves. Perhaps that is better for everyone involved, after all.

+

It’s like being on fire, it’s like being underwater and on fire, it’s like hurtling in an endless loop through the night, freezing and burning. Sam can barely lift his head enough to stay conscious, dream-conscious, aware of himself instead of slipping into the black. Part of him wants to black out so badly, but he knows it isn’t like that, this isn’t sleep, this is a long journey he has chosen to surrender himself to. But surrender is not passivity.

The baseline of Castiel’s presence puts him in sensory overload and he has to live with it, in this timeless stream of unconsciousness. He remembers being possessed by Meg for about a week and this isn’t like that - that was like being a puppet, strings cut, being shoved under and eyes and mouth and ears filled with blackness. Sometimes she’d bring him up to be a puppet and talk to him, torment him with his complete inability, his torn-away agency, the demon she’d made of him.

But angels, they let him see nothing. So Sam has to go looking.

He’s still got himself. He tries to focus on who he is - I am, I am I am I am, I’m Sam, I’m Sam Winchester, I had a mother Mary and a father John, and I have a brother, Dean, who went to hell to save me, and now I’m here, drowning in light, to save him.

It’s not that Sam doesn’t have faith - how can he not have faith, he is enveloped in faith - but the thought beats through him: this is not the end, this is not enough, there is more after this. He has work to do.

So he thinks on who he is, collecting old fragments of memory that he digs up or latches on to as they float by, sometimes strange and crusted over like they’ve come from the bottom of the ocean, calcified and barely recognizable. Was this the day he moved into the apartment with Jess? Was this Dean teaching him how to drive? How did Sam know Sheridan, Wyoming, and how their motel was bleached by the sun? He can recall like a snapshot the blue sky and the yellow-brown dry fields all faded into a dusty, monotonous landscape pierced through by sun as they - he, Dean, Dad - drove down the highway, windows open and air billowing loudly.

He grasps for the images of their faces and comes up with scraps, holds them close, and moves on to find the next pieces that fit his growing endless puzzle of mind.

The golden color and the light on Dean’s hair drags him to walking through tall grass with Dean and a handle of whiskey, walking to the river, where Dean got him smashed for his seventeenth birthday. It was their second day in town and Dad on a hunt, a setup for the shittiest birthday ever, but then after sitting on the riverbank with Dean in silence for a bit they skipped rocks and shot cans with their .22s, and, achieving stumbling drunkenness when darkness was complete, crawled up the bank into the field to lie there and look at the stars.

It all becomes, somehow, concrete, and his sense of self consolidates like a levee against the storm. He stretches, feeling blindly for memory like the walls of a house. It’s like a mnemonic device, populating an imaginary or remembered place with details to remember, organizing your thoughts, but Sam is in the midst of a storm, groping blind without these touchstones set down around him. He doesn’t have these well-known structures stored up to conjure around him, no childhood home he knew long enough to love, no walk to school . His whole mind isn’t as expansive as the American highway system, and there are places he’s been to that can’t be mapped on that grid.

He gropes his way along walls and corners, inventing his sanctuary as he goes. It becomes staircases that wind up and up and end in balconies over gorges, not enough right angles to make mathematical sense, hallways that are dead ends and hallways whose walls crumble away at the end to reveal rooms filled with dusty books. This one looks like Bobby’s library, this one like the high school school library he spent lunches in, this one dark like a basement. He knows the stacks of photographs that lie around, all of them images taken from his memory; he knows the books, books he’s read, books he’s imagined, books whose pages are chicken-scratched with his own writing. Somewhere in here, Sam is sure, there are the pages of his father’s hunting journal that Sam has studied long and hard in the wake of Jess’s death; somewhere are the books for resurrecting the dead; somewhere are scraps of translated Glagolitic passages on the underworld.

Sam walks and walks, sometimes nearly blinded and stilled by a wave of rapture, sometimes seeing flashes of faces he’s not sure he knows, wonders if these are signs of surfacing or only memories that he’d forgotten till now. He’s not sure if he’s doing this right, if this is even what he wants - is he shoring up his defenses when he should be sinking deeper into surrender to the angel? Is he looking for the wrong kind of sign? It’s not about feeling safe. Sam has always had a hard time trusting, a need to know. Perhaps angels cannot be touched by knowledge. But he is inside the angel now, interior to it, and objectivity has long passed him by.

He feels close. He is close. Sam is enveloped in Castiel’s presence and yet still very alone with himself. Hunger and thirst have been replaced with a yearning: to know, to understand angelic beings, to rest from being battered and thrilled with glory while running through the spaces of his own mind.

“Castiel!” he shouts, and the sound echoes, warps, travels back to him every time.

In the end, of course, Sam only finds Castiel when Castiel comes to find him.

He comes like a bright light while Sam is sequestered in a dim and twisting room, walls spiraling around a center, covered with polaroids, some blurry, some clear. Castiel descends the staircase behind him, and Sam cannot turn to look, because he knows (somehow he knows) he would be blinded by the angel’s presence. He instead feels the heat at his back grow and sees the photographs before him brighten, shine, and begin to white out with reflected light.

Because Sam said Yes, and consented to give himself to Castiel wholly, Castiel is the master of the house that Sam has used his entire life to build, his mind to fill. Every memory, shame or treasure, whim or principle is here to be revealed if Castiel wishes to see it.

“You’ve been here before,” Sam says to the wall.

I have. Castiel’s voice behind him carries the music of the spheres. All the birds of the air are in it; the rumble of an earthquake is in it; the silence of space is in it. I have seen your memories. I have known your thoughts. I have felt what you felt.

Sam presses his hands to his ears but it does nothing. There is nothing he can do to keep this out, so he stops struggling. With the roar of flame at his back he lets the heat wash over him with the knowledge that he asked for this, he wanted this, he cannot hide. “So why come and talk to me? Why now? I’ve been...” He falters.

You’ve been calling out. I know. Feathers caress Sam’s face, but the flames are still at his back, and he trembles. Your brother is saved. Have faith.

“I do. Yes. How can I not?” Sam is shaking and on his knees, almost too overwhelmed by the angel’s presence to feel relief, and yet it courses through him, aided perhaps as some comfort Castiel is trying to give him. He didn’t have to tell Sam that. “Is he safe?”

I am with him.

“But why are you here?” He can’t tell if the shadows rise or the light fades. The world trembles. To Sam’s surprise, the angel seems... confused.

I have questions, Castiel admits. You have so many doubts for so much faith. Why were you so angry with your father? Why did you leave your family?

The questions hurt. It’s something Sam’s been trying to come to terms with for years, and now the angel who knows everything within him, knows him more intimately than even Dean, is asking him to justify himself.

“I - I loved him. I loved them so much.” He speaks slowly, lets the words work their way out from his heart. “I left because I was afraid to watch them die. Because I was tired of fighting with them, I didn’t want to fight with them, and I knew... I knew my dad and I couldn’t understand each other yet.” Sam’s throat seizes up. “I felt trapped. I had to find out for myself, what I was supposed to do in the world. I wanted to see more of it.”

Castiel seems to wait for more.

“I was selfish not to call and talk to them,” Sam continues, “let them know I was alive. I wish - I asked Dean to come with me but he didn’t want to split up the family. You know that, you know how much I...” Sam’s throat closes on the words. “I was just so angry. I didn’t like who I was turning into. I needed space and time, to find out what was important. But god, I was terrified of being alone.” His heartbeat pounds in his ears. “I was terrified of being without Dean.”

He’s always terrified of being without Dean. Even when he’s walking away, the absence of his brother is something that gnaws at him.

But you wanted to leave, Castiel says, and there’s something defensive in his tone that Sam doesn’t understand.

“I wanted answers, and the answers I did have, I didn’t understand. Maybe I asked the wrong questions, I don’t know.” Sam’s breath comes hard and heavy. “Maybe at first I was just wanted to rebel, but afterwards, now I - I just want to know the truth. About who I am. And I have to figure it out, on my own.” Sam’s not even sure what he’s talking about anymore - what is now, what can he do, surrendered to an angel, trapped inside his own head, surrounded by blinding light.

Are you... happy that you left?

It’s the wrong question. Sam doesn’t know how to answer it honestly and still have the answer be right. In the end, it’s very simple to him, and he tells the angel the one thing Sam is sure of. “I loved them,” he says, his apology and defense in one. The ocean booms behind him. “I love them.”

The light lingers, seems to turn over Sam’s one truth, and it flares so bright it burns his eyes, and then begins to fade.

“Hey!” Sam shouts, hoarse, exhausted. “Where are you going?”

To your brother.

And then Castiel is gone.

Chapter Text

In Carthage, Missouri, Dean is digging the flamethrower out of the trunk because he knows what has to be done.

Once, Sam would have been the restraining hand, but Sam’s not here. Dean has a monster to kill and he’ll do it with ruthless judgment and reckless action. The thought of Sam, the doubts that he’s not here to have, they almost make him hesitate, but in the end there’s a man in there who’s going to kill somebody. Missing Sam at a time like this, even while it’s like missing a limb or a sense, even while it makes Dean feel like he’s working with a giant blind spot—doesn’t change anything. Feeling crippled won’t keep him from doing what needs to be done.

It’s only later, when he’s lying on the floor concussed with his vision blacking out in spurts, that he admits he could’ve thought this through a little more.

“Sam!” he yells, the instinctual call for backup, but of course there’s no Sam. Fuck, there’s no Sam. There’s no one, just the gutted corpse of poor fucking Travis, and Jack Montgomery, gone irreversibly monster, covered in Travis’s blood. The rugaru tosses Dean like a rag doll against the bookshelf, punching the air right out of him.

He mouths the shape of Sam’s name, even though he knows that Sam isn’t here, Sam can’t hear him, Sam could be thousands of miles away, Sam is comatose under an avalanche of angel. He’s got no brother and no backup, and only one prayer of a chance.

“Castiel,” Dean rasps, dribbling blood from his lip. He can’t get make a sound. Fuck, Castiel, help.

Dean hears the rustle of wings when he blacks out.

+

When Castiel heard Dean call his name he heard him call out Sam’s, too. Some part of his vessel’s brain was wired to respond, sent out the weak chemicals that barely tickle Castiel’s awareness. Castiel felt it, though, deep in Sam’s house of memories, the clarion sound of Dean’s voice carried to him by the acoustics of Sam’s spirit, the way a name’s owner knows the name in a crowd and the way Sam has constructed himself around Dean all his life.

As he touched Dean's chest to knit his brutal wounds with angelic power, Castiel knew a memory of Dean sewing up Sam's shoulder. Though Dean has never touched him like that and, as Castiel is invulnerable, will never have cause to, Castiel knows now through this memory how gentle those hands can be, and through Sam's quickened heartbeat how warm. Something hot and helpless pools in his gut, and that is Sam's feeling, but also now his own. The human body reveals truth; it's one of the things he's learned on earth.

Castiel has just obliterated a monster that, a week ago, he wouldn't have been able to tell from any other of God's favored creations. It was necessary, Dean explained, because Jack Montgomery was a monster and was going to kill, like his long-dead father before him. He had to be stopped. Castiel supposes this is Dean's reasoning; he obliterated the thing to save Dean, who is in his charge.

Dean says that it's monster nature to kill. It is also human nature; it is Cain and Abel's sin. Castiel expects no less from men like Jack Montgomery, man or monster, nor of the hunter Travis, or Dean Winchester, or even Sam.

“Sam used to hate killing,” Dean says as he opens the Impala’s trunk and puts the flamethrower back. “Bothered him every time. Well, I guess not after—” His eyes flick to Castiel quickly and then back to the arsenal in front of him. “Everyone finds their reasons.”

Dean says he doesn’t kill people, only things, but he doesn’t say much else. Castiel knows he’s thinking of Hell and the many things worse than death.

Heaven told him when his mission began: you must go into great danger. At first he thought it was Hell they referred to. Now, soaking up the memories of the boy with demon blood, so very human, with such a strong will to rebel for love, this is his truly greatest test. He must endure the refiner’s fire.

Castiel knows what Dean has said to his brother, the duty that their father put on him: He said if I couldn't save you, I'd have to kill you. Castiel feels the bewilderment Sam felt, the pain and the anger and the fear, both intimately and at a remove when he lets the memory go and puts it back on the shelf. Sam's nearly been the monster in the sights of Dean's gun and Castiel sometimes feels it, the wary eye, his and Bobby's research on how to drag an angel out of a body. Castiel was never in danger from it, had no need to feel afraid, and yet he knows the feeling anyway, twisting in Sam's remembered chest.

What sort of monster or ally is Castiel to Dean, now? What is he to heaven? He himself has felt the rushing weakness of demon blood in his veins when they failed to save the seal in Java. Is he already weak in Sam's tainted flesh? Is he, too, vulnerable to the influence of evil?

Castiel is not fallen, but he still loves his fallen sister. He loved her after she fell and he loved her before he ever entered Sam Winchester. Whatever fault or weakness is in him, it goes deeper than his vessel. But there is no coincidence, only fate that brought Castiel to Sam, and them to their beloved siblings.

+

The terrified scream crackles on the lines again, and this time Castiel is close. He has made sure of it. He circles Ohio like a frustrated hawk, waiting, and when he hears his sister, he changes course and picks up speed.

Castiel doesn't know what he'll do once he finds her. He'll figure that out when he gets there.

Perhaps it's selfish of him to prioritize Anael over the seals, but the longer he stays on earth, the more impulsive he gets. Maybe he is more Anael's brother than he thought. Two decades is nothing for an angel, but Anael's fall has stayed with him in a way no other angel's death has. The voice he hears is her voice, this is her pain, and he doesn’t know how he could have doubted otherwise. Up ahead, a scarlet flame burns closer and closer as the world rushes past him, and he'd know that light anywhere.

Despite the force of his speed and determination, Castiel alights gently beside her. Sam Winchester’s long shadow falls over her study carrel, but she doesn’t move.

Anael, the former commander of his garrison, who smote the wicked and dared to lose everything in the pursuit of truth, is slumped asleep over color-coded sociology notes in her college library. Stray locks of red hair fall out of her tangled bun. She is snoring softly enough that she can't be heard over the rattle of the library's out-of-date air-conditioning system.

The name on her notebook reads 'Anna Milton'.

She isn't an angel, not anymore. This human body isn't a vessel and this isn't angelic possession. The fallen are something else entirely. Still, she is his sister, and he feels broken open with the relief at finding her again.

Her fingers twitch. She gasps, and that's when Castiel realizes that the screams are coming from her dreams. He jumps in without thinking. He takes the liberty of rearranging the shapes and metaphors of her subconscious, just like they used to with the primordial stuff of stars long ago, before their father shaped any of it into a universe. It appealed to her artistic temperament the same way it appealed to his instinct for order. Dreams are very nearly the same. Castiel softens visions of fire into young stars, angry voices into the soothing hum of auroras. There is an erratic fear in her dreams, and he smooths it down into the old songs that Anael herself had taught him. In dreams, it's easier to replicate harmonies that no human ear can possibly hear.

Castiel watches as the dreamscape's new peace lets her remember bits and pieces of her old self. She is half angel and half human, dancing along the rings of a planet that humans haven't discovered yet, and he resists the desire to join her, to make her remember more, remember him.

Back in the waking world, Castiel tucks a stray lock of hair behind her ear.

That Anael wakes up does not surprise him. What does is that she looks straight at him. Castiel does not mean for her to see him. No human can see him when he intends to remain unseen, but Anael looks straight into his eyes.

"Hi," she says, frowning as if trying to place him. There is no fear in her eyes, no surprise.

"Do I know y-" she starts to say, and in his panic, Castiel flies off, leaving her to wonder if she is still dreaming.

+

"I'm not a hammer, as you say," Castiel is saying, and Dean finds himself unsurprised. The angel packs a lot of bluster and bravado about the glory of heaven, and it's a relief to see him break character. Good to know there's some kind of working bullshit detector in there, however rickety.

What happened to Castiel that spooked him so bad?

The frown lines on Castiel's face are too familiar, the clear hazel eyes, the furrowed brow, and Dean resists the urge to joke him out of solemnity. It's not Sam, after all. Joking Sam out of dark moods hasn't worked for a long time anyway. The year before Hell is still fresh in Dean's mind, and Castiel's expression makes Dean ache in complicated ways. This is the barely contained frustration that Sam wore all through last year. Dean understands nothing of Castiel's inner life, but its visible symptoms are the same ones that his brother showed. Dean didn’t know what to do about it then. He doesn’t know what to do about it now.

Right here, right now, this moment of revelation is probably the most honest Castiel has been with him. Dean’s surprised by his sincerity, and it’s a rare, tentatively good surprise. If Castiel can keep Dean's secrets about Hell, then Dean can keep Castiel's confessions of doubt. He may not know if they're friends or enemies, but they don't need to be friends to understand the toll of violence.

"I don't know what is right and what is wrong anymore," Castiel says.

Watching the familiar set of Castiel's face triggers a protective instinct in Dean. It makes him uneasy. When the haze of late-night vulnerability lifts, he’s certain these moments of connection are just a trick, a set-up. The universe is always waiting to catch Dean off guard. Maybe this is the universe getting sick of waiting.

"I don't envy the weight that's on your shoulders, Dean," Castiel says, and looks at him. "I truly don't."

And then that's it. Confession's over. Say ten Our Fathers and leave Dean sitting on his ass alone in a park on All Saints Day. He has a million questions, none of which he wants to ask. He hasn't liked any of the answers.

+

They're in a creepy old hotel room having the same conversation as always, about how many saved people is enough and whether destiny can be changed. Dean knows how this goes, how Sam rubs his hand drunkenly down Dean’s face and clings to his neck and then pulls him on top of him on the bed. Except this time they've switched places somehow, Sam got one over on him, Dean slipped up somewhere and now Dean is the one begging, Dean is the one who’s become a monster and Sam is the one refusing to release him from this life, pushing him down. Sam is the one pushing away, and it’s not supposed to be like this but what has Dean become after all. He can’t trust himself.

But Sam is saying now “It’s your destiny, Dean,” not that they can stop this, not that it will be all right. No empty promises, just some blank contract he signed when they pulled him out of Hell. “Dean.”

He looks up and Sam looks just like Sam but the suspension of disbelief in dreaming breaks, and Dean can feel that this is not his flesh-and-blood Sam.

“Cas?” Of all the times and places for him to show up. Of all the dream-garbled eternal memories. But it’s not him. Sam’s face doesn’t change; he doesn’t even blink.

“Dean, it has to be like this,” Sam says. “We can’t save each other.” He steps out of Dean’s grasp, and Dean lunges to grab him again. “We can’t have each other.”

“Fuck that,” Dean says, reeling Sam in by his wrist, by his belt loops, pulling him down.

Dean pulls Sam to him and Sam comes to straddle Dean’s hips and rest on his thighs, and Dean is dizzy with the weight of him, with his newfound power over his brother, over the dream. This insubstantial hair he tangles in his hands, the vague pressing mouth on his which isn’t, if he thinks about it, warm. This is the only way they can have each other: in his head.

He wakes up in a dark and thoroughly empty motel room, his dick half-hard as he ruts against the bed weakly. His fear softens him but he can’t let go of the dream, not yet, and he clings to its hazy aftermath, keeping the waking world at bay.

Rolling onto his back he puts a hand down in the undone crotch of the jeans he fell asleep in. He touches himself but he can already feel that nothing’s going to happen. He touches himself until he feels worn raw, persistently, violently thinking of Sam’s weight on him, Sam’s face under his hands, the worried eyes that Castiel tilted at him pleadingly earlier. He thinks of what he wants and he can’t have it so he thinks of it harder, until his hand finally stills and he falls asleep.

+

Anael lives in an apartment three blocks from campus that she shares with two roommates, and tonight both of them are out. She lounges on the couch with her laptop and watches an episode of The Sopranos while eating a bowl of ice cream.

Castiel sits in an adjacent armchair, watching, basking in her existence. An angel without their grace is nothing, has no identity, but here Anael is anyway, neither one nor the other, but still undeniably Anael.

Even when Lucifer became the devil, he was still an angel.

He hears the susurrus of wings behind him and is on his feet before Uriel says, "Castiel."

Castiel doesn't run. It's too late to run. The tainted blood in his veins suddenly feels like ice water, and he goes through a dozen potential lies, none of which are good enough. He was never very good at lies, only at omitting the truth. For that matter, he was never very good at the truth. That's why Anael left. That's why she left him. That's why history is repeating itself, because Zachariah is right: angels don't change, and it would be a folly to think otherwise.

"Brother," Castiel says. It sounds like a plea.

So this is it. This is how death will come to him - through the folly of his devotion, because he dared to miss his sister, to love her still even through their mutual abandonment.

Behind him, Artie Bucco is begging for forgiveness on the laptop screen and Anael spills chocolate on her shirt.

"You have found her!" Uriel's smile is cruel in its delight. "Good work, Castiel. Your unerring sense of justice wins out in the end."

These were not the words Castiel expected to hear.

"I admire your restraint in not smiting her on the spot," Uriel continues. "But these things have to be done properly. We must report this to Zachariah, then we will confront her. We will make her remember herself so that she will know justice in the moment of her destruction."

To Castiel's horror, he feels relief well up in his gut. They won't kill me. They won't cast me out. He thinks- "I-"

"Castiel."

"Yes?"

Uriel raises an eyebrow. "That is what you were doing, was it not? The explanations for your comings and goings that have nothing to do with the Righteous Man. There have been rumors that you meant to find our sister. Some said you would join her rather than turn her in, but that is slander. Isn't that so, Castiel?"

He remembers Anael telling him that he is better than this, telling him she knows him, knows his fears, but she knows his courage too. Isn't that so, Castiel?

Castiel says, "Yes."

Uriel nods in approval.

Castiel can't differentiate regret from fear and nausea. Sam Winchester would never give up his brother. He would destroy himself before surrendering Dean to any kind of destruction, this Castiel knows, but any attempt to draw courage from his vessel are too late. He isn't Sam. He is an impostor in this borrowed body. Anael's accusations from twenty years ago come roaring back, as true today as they were then.

"Surely," Uriel says, giving him a meaningful look, "your resolve is still strong, and your faith in our Father’s plan is likewise strong."

Behind Castiel, Anael clicks on another episode.

"My loyalty is to Heaven above all else," Castiel recites.

"As it should be." Uriel holds out his hand. "Brother, understand that I am only looking out for your best interests. Come, let us go to Zachariah so you can tell him the good news yourself, and we'll come back with reinforcements."

Castiel frowns. "We don't need reinforcements. She isn't an angel anymore; she's a girl."

Uriel raises his eyebrows. "Put on a little show, Castiel. Dispel the last of the notoriety still trailing you from your associations with our former sister."

Castiel looks at Anael, who has started singing along to the opening credits, unaware that she is not alone, that she has been betrayed.

"Blue moon in your eyes, woke up this mooorning!" she warbles, tapping her spoon against her bowl.

I'm sorry, he thinks. Like before, the apology is too late and she cannot hear it.

+

Anael. Anael, you must run.

Around him, his sister's dreamscape begin to fade, trembling at the weight of his presence, which he doesn’t pause to shield her from. There is no time. If Anael only remembers in her dreams, then that is where Castiel will meet her.

At the first sound of his voice, Anael's angelic form shrinks back to her human one, and she whirls around. Her eyes widen when she sees him. She screams.

Anael, please.

"That's not my name," she yells, stumbling backwards into a dissolving world. "Who are you? What's happening?"

They've found you. I can't protect you from them, sister.

The more she tries to run, the faster he rushes at her. Anael wails when Castiel wraps his wings around her, his every intention of gentleness absolutely irrelevant.

"What are you talking about?" she cries. "Who are you?"

Castiel. I'm Castiel, your brother, and you are Anael.

Her human voice is edged in familiar celestial tones that no human throat can make. "Castiel?"

Yes. It rends him more than he thought to hear her say his name again. Yes, Anael, it's me.

"No, I'm not Anael, no, please-"

If you don't remember, you must at least run.

"From what?" she sobs.

From us.

She screams and screams and doesn't stop even when she wakes. Her roommates rush into her bedroom and try to embrace her, asking her what's wrong. Castiel watches helplessly as one roommate dials a number and babbles panic into the receiver. He watches as his sister, no longer an angel and not quite the human she has always wanted to be, is held down by men in white coats and tranquilized. She's crying. She cries until the drugs take effect and she goes limp. This time he doesn't enter her dreams.

Castiel wants to take her away, far away from here, but if she was generating bursts of static along communication lines before, she's full-on hijacking them now. The angels would see him. They'd see what he'd be trying to do, and they'd mark him too.

I know you're brave, Anael had said to him once. Be brave now.

He watches as they take her away, and then he slips away.

+

Dean’s taking a night off, because he’s his own boss, at least when Heaven isn’t popping into the passenger seat telling him where to go and what seals to save. He’s stopped along the road at a bar he’s pretty sure he’s never seriously hustled or gotten kicked out of, and it sounds like a good time in there.

He ends up more than a few drinks in and the victor of a game of darts, and this smoking hot blonde has taken his arm, and he’s taking her out back. She’s leaning up against him up against the wall and he’s kind of hammered and it’s great, he deserves this pick-me-up, even though it’s not really picking him up so far but whatever. He’s Dean Winchester. This is what he does.

Suddenly she slams him up against the brick hard, and her eyes are black. Dean is literally caught with his pants unzipped.

“Yeah,” she croons, “I want a piece of you.”

Dean jerks to headbutt her but she’s short - short and demonically strong. He tries to knee her but she’s pressed all along him, holding his arms to the wall, and he’s trying to get the knife from his wrist but it won’t go. He’ll be lucky if he gets out of this one without a few bad, bad bruises, he thinks.

And then she screams. She jerks and slumps against him, and when he gets over his momentary shock, he pushes her off.

The demon has been stabbed through the gut.

When he looks up to see who’s trouble, there’s a short brunette woman with wicked curves and a wicked bloodstained knife standing there. Dean wipes his hands on his pants and looks down at the fallen demon. It’s only a split second till he does the double-take.

Ruby?” It’s the knife she’s holding. No other knife kills demons like that.

“Oh, so now you can tell who’s possessed,” she says, voice low and husky but bitchy as ever. “Sober up, Winchester. You’d have done a lot better if you’d remembered to slip her some holy water before sticking your tongue down her throat.”

Dean’s already got his flask out and splashes her in the face.

She screams and ducks away. “Fuck you! I just saved your ass!”

“Yeah, after you let the hellhounds munch it!” He swings to hit her but she blocks it and swings her knife. He leans back and away.

“Lilith got me, I thought that was obvious! I wasn’t - just let me tell you, okay?” Ruby glares at him, her face still smoking. “There’s this girl the demons are after. She needs your help.”

Dean hesitates. “Why’re you telling me this?”

“Because I’m trying to help stop the apocalypse,” Ruby says. Dean starts, and she rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I know about the seals. What do you think I’ve been doing this whole time?”

“Why do you care about the apocalypse?” he spits out.

“Just listen, dumbass. You don’t even know the levels of torture Lilith put me through when she dragged me down to the pit. And I know you were down there, I know you know how bad it gets.”

It’s the one thing she’s said that he can’t deny. Yes, Dean knows all about that. He knows how they break you to change you, and it’s not a cry for help; it’s a warning sign. Demons aren’t to be pitied; they are monsters, and Dean picked up the knife and became no better.

To Dean’s surprise, Ruby says, “I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For letting them get you.”

“Apology not fucking accepted,” Dean says, but his heart isn’t it. He longs for simpler days when things that weren’t human were things to be killed, not kindred spirits who share battle scars. If the only people who walk with him are angels and demons, what does that say about him?

“I know about Sam and his angel hitchhiker, too,” Ruby says, and doesn’t look happy about it; makes two of them. “So believe me, we all want this apocalypse thing over with.”

Dean winces when he touches his bruised side. “Fine. Tell me where to find her, and I’ll call in the God squad.”

Ruby huffs. “If demons want her so bad, you don’t think Heaven’s after her too? You call up your God squad and see if they’ll be up front with you.”

“Why wouldn’t they be?” Dean demands.

Ruby laughs. “Don’t be so naive.”

He bristles, hating her smugness, but what if she’s right? What if he can’t trust this world anymore? This world without Sam, this world where Heaven seems to think taking his brother is an okay thing to do.

He tries calling Cas, once Ruby’s given him Anna Milton’s location and vanished. “Hey, Cas. Come in, Castiel. Ruby says the demons are checking out something big. You know anything about an Anna Milton? Are your guys on top of this? Because I’m thinking of going after it.”

Silence.

Dean sighs. “I could use a little backup. Or some confirmation, at least. Let me know what the hell is going on with this seal thing.” By this point Cas usually shows up, even if he can’t stay. “Appreciate the help,” he finally mutters to the empty lot behind the bar. “I’m starting to feel like a real part of the team.”

What if Ruby was right?

He heads back to his motel to check out Anna Milton. She’s real. He tracks down the Connor Beverly Behavioral Medicine Center, and then gets the minimum hour or two of sleep. He doesn’t call Cas again. If he’s going to go this case alone, he’ll do it his way. Cas always seems to know where he can be found anyway.

Dean tosses his bag in the back and starts the engine when there’s a knock on the passenger window. It’s Ruby in the predawn dark. He hesitates, then figures what the hell, he’ll take a walk on the wild side.

“Get in,” he says, and she slides into the passenger seat.

They’re quiet until he asks who all is after this Anna girl. She tells him. He recognizes some of the demons’ names.

+

"She is far from innocent," Castiel tells Dean, and even his own words ring hollow to himself. The words are true, but her lack of innocence isn't the point. Anna’s guilt is only a sign of a greater justice that Castiel is too weak to reach for.

He can feel his sister at the back of the barn, just as he can feel this traitorous human heart beating with how much he would rather be elsewhere. Castiel takes measured steps as Uriel distracts Dean and Ruby with a brawl, and he wonders if he will be the one to kill his sister, if he can find it in himself to.

When Castiel feels the magic of the banishing sigil pull at his body, he is relieved.

+

In the moment Anna Milton gets her grace back, the world goes white and blinding, but Castiel cannot look away. He is struck by recognition, hope, and love. All the times Castiel never let himself think he'd see her again and here she is, full of her own grace and glory and power. Anael makes eye contact, and Castiel can't tell if she looks frightened or angry. He remembers that she doesn't want this, and the thought breaks the heart he is not supposed to have.

The light fades, and Anael is gone.

For a few seconds Castiel gives himself over to his vessel, breathing in and out, breathing deep. Loss translated by the human body congeals into coldness in his chest and a weight in his belly.

"Cas?" Dean's pushes himself up on shaky legs, eyeing him warily. "Hey, you okay?"

"Oh yeah," Ruby says from the ground beside him, "I'm just fine, thanks for asking."

Castiel straightens up and Uriel stands at his side. Ruby mirrors him with difficulty, half propped up by Dean as she clutches her bleeding abdomen as she schools her face into an expression of unimpressed derision. Dean's expression hardens, recognizing the stand-off, and iron enters his voice.

"Well, what are you guys waiting for?" Dean sneers. "Go get Anna. Unless of course you're scared."

Uriel bristles, and Castiel puts a hand on his arm before he can smite Dean Winchester himself. Uriel may be cunning, but he is too easily riled.

"This isn't over," Uriel spits out.

"Looks over to me, junkless."

Dean flicks his eyes over to Castiel, who gives a slight nod. Dean relaxes his shoulders and raises his chin, and takes a step back.

Uriel and Castiel leave.

+

Dean drives for hours, the afterimages of Anna's grace still haunting his vision.

Angels, man.

He had kept his eyes shut when Anna powered up, and when he opened his eyes again, he saw Cas crumpled against the far wall, wide-eyed and wondering, and with none of the frustration Dean's come to expect from him when something goes wrong. Instead, there was shock, and, somehow, grief.

Something doesn't sit right, and it goes on not sitting right for the next five exits until Dean sees a sign for an all-night diner at the next rest stop.

He prays in the parking lot: "Hey, you want to get coffee?"

A more practical voice scolds him in his head. This guy just tried to kill his own family, and you want to get coffee with him?

At first, Dean would bully Cas into getting some grub with him after hunts, citing that it was what he always did with Sam. These days Cas falls into step with him without needing to be asked. He doesn't eat anything, but he can on occasion be heckled into sipping the coffee.

When Dean walks into diner, Cas is already sitting in the corner booth.

Just Cas, he thinks, because sometimes that dream still flits through his mind, how it made him ache and want, how he had rationalized it a thousand ways the next morning over breakfast. He doesn't know whether it's better or worse that it's 'just Cas' right now.

"Where's your buddy?" Dean asks, sliding into the seat in front of him.

"Uriel is occupied," Cas says, sounding very clipped and official.

Dean wants to say why didn't you tell me? but it would be a stupid thing to ask. Instead he says, "You would've done it, wouldn't you. You would've killed her, just because your boss told you to."

"Because God told me to," Cas corrects.

"Whatever." But Dean's anger has nowhere to go. Cas does that to him, makes him revisit all his past sins in a way that makes it hard for Dean to fling further accusations. Dean hadn't been able to go through with it when Dad told him he'd have to kill Sam, and he is now faced with a 'what if' he hasn't had to think about in ages.

What if Dean had done it? What if somehow he had found the strength to overcome his crippling fear of living without his brother? A bullet to the heart, a knife to his back - how could Dean have done it? He already knows how it feels to hold his brother’s body while the life goes out of it. What if the one who took the life was him? What is the world where that is possible? Who is that Dean?

It makes him sick to think it. He wants to think he could've done something less fucked-up, but he can't regret his decision. Dean accepts with it the weight that falls on all those who have sacrificed more than they have to give. He can’t let himself look back. He doesn’t have the strength for that anymore. He wants to ask Cas, "How can you kill your family?" and doesn't, afraid that Cas’s answer might ring true.

"What can I getcha?" the waitress asks, and Dean orders coffee for them both.

Cas looks up at something behind Dean, and a scowl darkens his features.

Ruby says, "Shove over, sweetheart. I'm third-wheeling this date."

"Abomination," Cas growls.

"Really?" Ruby plops herself next to Dean, who grunts as he shifts a few inches. "I gave Dean the tip to get your sister out of there and that's the thanks I get?" She grins brightly at the waitress. "Order of fries, please." Ruby leans against Dean and loops her arm through his. "My boyfriend's paying."

Cas says, "Dean isn't your-"

"No salt," Ruby cuts in.

The waitress raises her eyebrows. "No salt?"

Ruby says, "I have a thyroid thing," as Dean attempts to extricate his arm.

She makes a note on her pad. "You got it."

"What do you want?" Dean and Cas chorus at Ruby when the waitress is gone.

"Whoa there, Brokeback Mountain," she says, and takes a swig of Cas's coffee. "Can you wait until I give you the intel before you get to first base?"

"What intel?" Dean asks.

"There's all kinds of whispers on the grapevine," she looks pointedly at Cas, "about our little cherub here. They say you've got a couple of aces up your sleeve."

Dean chews the inside of his cheek, then raises his eyebrows at Cas in a silent question. When all the response he gets is a glare, Dean snaps, “You haven't exactly been Mr. Show-and-Tell here."

Ruby beams. "Aw, Dean. I think that's the first time you've ever agreed with me."

"There's nothing up my sleeve," Cas retorts.

"Ruby, what exactly did you hear?" Dean asks.

"Let me rephrase." Ruby drapes an arm behind Dean's shoulders. He knows she's just trying to piss him off. It's working. "Castiel, they say you're the ace up someone else's sleeve."

Cas narrows his eyes. "What do you mean?"

"What exactly are Heaven's plans?"

"To vanquish Lilith," Cas says, like he's reading from a textbook. "To make sure Lucifer stays where he belongs."

Ruby gives him a long considering look. "That's what they say."

The waitress comes with the plate of fries, and Ruby pulls the whole thing in front of her, clearly no intent to share. Dean grabs a couple anyway, ignoring burned fingers, and dodges Ruby's attempt to slap his hand away.

"What, is that it?" Dean says. "Is that your intel?"

"I'm saying be careful around this guy," Ruby replies, gesturing at Cas.

"That's funny," Cas says. "A demon lecturing someone on being untrustworthy."

"Hey, I'm like Popeye, man - I yam what I yam. I don't pretend I'm not a douchebag. You angels, though." She cocks an eyebrow. Castiel looks like he might smite her on the spot.

"Okay, okay, simmer down before I send you both to your corners," Dean cuts in.

"Just keep an eye on this one, that's all I'm saying." She sees Dean wrap his hand around the salt shaker and she rolls her eyes. "Ugh, must you?"

"Apparently," Dean says.

"Thought we were friends."

"Oh yeah, you're Ross, I'm Phoebe, and Cas here is Kramer from across the hall."

"You're mixing up your nineties."

"Eat me."

Ruby rolls her eyes. "Such a child." She stuffs three more fries in her mouth, gets up with an ostentatious "see you, sweetheart!" that the whole diner can hear, and struts out the door.

Cas says, "Who's Kramer?"

"You are.” Dean sips his coffee. “Weren't you listening?"

"I'm not up anyone's sleeve," Cas says. "I don't know what she's talking about."

After studying Castiel for a few seconds, Dean says, "What does Heaven tell you, Cas? Why are you here?"

"I told you."

"Tell me again."

"You're going to trust the word of a demon over mine?"

"Should I?"

Cas leans forward, frustration apparent. "I'm here because when your brother prayed for you, Heaven told me to help."

"What happened to not being hammer?" Dean sneers.

He clenches his jaw, a habit of Sam's. "I'm not disloyal. There's a difference."

It's discomfiting being on the other side of this argument, an argument he's had with Sam a thousand times. He looks at Sam's face now, the wide eyes, proud but pleading, needing Dean to see his side. The openness of his expression. Dean knows Sam's tells when he's lying, and he sees none of them here.

"You're not a hammer," Dean says, like those fairy tales where saying things out loud would make them true.

To Dean's surprise, Cas does something very human and therefore unexpected - he leans back in his seat and rubs his face with his hands. It's Sam after a failed hunt. It's Sam in the days before picking up and going to California. Cas is telling the truth; Sam’s body says so.

“I don’t know what I am,” Cas says.

"Yeah, well, join the club, buddy," Dean says, lifting a corner of his mouth. He pushes Ruby's plate to the middle of the table. "Here are your inaugural fries."

+

Castiel moves fast.

Anael is clumsy with her powers as she reacquaints herself with them, and he follows her trail when time permits, but even though he is fast, she has always been faster. He touches down in Montserrat, Lombok, the Himalayas, always a few steps behind. He touches down near the ledge of Blood Falls, Antarctica, and feels the shimmer of grace she's left on the landscape, the residue of prayer to their Father. It soothes his heart that she still prays, that she is not so unlike him in this one aspect. Prayer is a hard habit for angels to break.

When Castiel finds Anael, she is swimming off the coast of a small uninhabited island in the Philippines. It usually sees a steady stream of tourists and backpackers on boats from nearby Boracay, but it is the off-season and Anael is alone, at least until Castiel alights next to her clothes hastily tossed on the sand. In the distance, Anael swims toward the horizon in strong, steady strokes, the red of her hair standing out against the water's bright blue.

She must know he is here, but she gives no sign of it.

Castiel doesn’t call to her when Anael emerges from water. She is naked but unashamed, carrying herself with the self-possessed dignity of any goddess. The sun rolls out from behind a cloud and gilds the shore, and his sister closes her eyes and raises her face to it as she walks. She does that, Castiel remembers. She always took the time to notice perfect moments.

When she is close enough to meet meets his eyes, she says, "Castiel. I'm surprised you're not trying to kill me."

"No, you're not." And then, for all the good it does, he blurts out, "I'm sorry."

Anael smirks. "Sure. Be sorry."

"Anael-"

"Don't call me that."

Castiel frowns. "But that's who you are."

"No, that was my name."

He is about to lob out some protest, but stops himself. Then he asks, "What should I call you?"

"Anna," she replies simply. "Walk with me, Castiel."

There is no good reason not to. "Your clothes-"

"Leave them."

The sky is a vibrant blue with only the barest wisps of cirrus clouds. They keep the sea on their left as they walk, and on their right, clusters of trees are punctuated here and there by open-air thatch-roofed shelters. The whisper of waves washes over the landscape like a veil, a secret. The only other life Castiel has seen here is a small orange cat, sleeping curled in on itself in the shade of a tree.

"Interesting choice of vessel," Anna says.

"So I've been told."

"How'd you get him?"

Castiel shifts uncomfortably. "Sam bartered a deal. Heaven saw it fit to grant him his wish. I raise Dean from Hell, and Sam gives himself over to me."

She frowns. "Why?"

Ruby's accusation in the diner echoes in his head, all the secrets she claims Heaven is keeping. Castiel pushes this thought aside. He knows no secrets, only enough to do his job. This should be adequate for an angel.

He answers, "Because Heaven is merciful. Because it knows justice."

She scoffs. "Don't talk to me about Heaven's mercy and justice."

"Anael, I tried-"

"Anna," she snaps. "My name is Anna."

"Anna," he says softly. "Sorry. Anna."

"You did it again," she bursts out. "You betrayed me, again."

He stops in his tracks because she does. "I didn't mean-"

"You never mean anything! All those things we talked about - free will, love, revolution. None of that ever meant anything, did it?"

"Of course it did," he protests. When Castiel gets flustered, his hair gets in his eyes. He doesn't know how Sam puts up with it. He should cut it himself.

"I remember everything now," she says. "I remember that it hurt. It still does. And you wanna know the last thing I remembered before I crash-landed on earth? While I was burning through earth's atmosphere, you want to know what was going through my mind?"

"What?" Castiel says. He doesn’t mean to shout it.

"You." His sister looks at him with the resignation and exhaustion of love. "That I'd miss you. That I missed you already, and that I hated you for not being brave enough to fall with me."

Castiel’s face softens. "You were the brave one among us."

She has always asked too much of him. She always believed he could be more, but he only has evidence of the opposite. He doesn't know what to do with the gentleness in her eyes.

Anna shakes her head. "I was scared, Castiel. I was terrified. But I did what I had to do."

She brushes closer into his personal space. Angels are used to being in each other's space, entangled as they are all the time, but the human body reacts differently. It makes angelic habits strange, and the intimacy that is normal to him in his true form is made catalytic by the trappings of flesh and bone. Anael - Anna - is so close to him, trapped in this small body. He can see the angel in her fanning out from her physical being, and he marvels at how she has fused these two worlds within herself.

“It’s good to see you again, Castiel,” she says softly.

"I'm sorry," Castiel says, and his mouth is so dry. The borrowed heart in the borrowed body pounds too fast. "For everything. Anael - Anna, I'm-"

"Shh," she whispers, her hands on his face. "Brother, I forgive you."

Forgiveness, for all that that the holy books attribute it to angels, has fallen into the human domain. Humans are the ones who crave it, who learn to give it, who mourn when they're denied it. Castiel thinks back to the barn and the kiss Dean and Anna shared. It was Gethsemane reversed - the betrayed kissed the betrayer. Perhaps Judas only wanted to be close to his savior one last time before destiny had its way with him.

She kisses his mouth, and her lips are so soft. Her eyes are closed, but his are open with awe and wonder. The kiss is tender as her small body leans into his, and something about the gentleness of the gesture breaks him open. To be given this when he has resigned himself long ago to separation. To expect loss and betrayal, and then to be humbled by love. Forgiveness is a choice and Anna chooses him even when he has repeatedly chosen something else.

Castiel breathes in, and feels something warm on his cheeks.

"Castiel," she murmurs. "Brother," she says in their language, and wipes his tears with her hands.

"I missed you," Castiel gasps. "I missed you, Anna, I-"

She kisses his forehead. "It's okay. Castiel, it's okay."

Maybe before, he would have blamed the things he feels on the vessel, the human body with its crude mechanisms transmitting intentions that nevertheless confound him. He knows what Anna would say: you can't blame the message on the messenger. This message has been in his heart for a long time, waiting for a time and a place and her mercy.

"It's okay," she says, and kisses him again. "It's okay."

Castiel lets himself be held, such a strange sensation, and he holds her tightly. The waves rush in, rush out, and they hold on to each other, stuck between two worlds but together, finally.

+

Sometimes Dean still does things like toss Cas the keys after a case and say, "You drive, I'm beat," and it jars him to hear the reply: "I don't drive."

Force of habit. Used to be that in Dean's world there were monsters to vanquish and then there was Sam, and you were one or the other. But then along came Castiel, who’s been straying from both categories into one of his own accidental design. It's getting easier to think of him as Cas instead of just 'not Sam'. Dean is beginning to recognize his habits.

Feathers rustle behind him and Dean turns around, knowing Cas will be there.

"Sure you don't have angel business instead?" Dean says. He can handle it by himself, he knows, but he's never liked hunting alone.

"You're part of my business," Cas says. "Where to?"

Dean tells him. Cas puts a hand on his shoulder and they're off.

Cas doesn't always stay. Sometimes he'll just zap Dean there and disappear again, like some celestial cab. He doesn't always come when Dean calls, but when he shows up late he gets irritated at himself, clenching his jaw and flaring his nostrils, just like Sam.

In any case, something has changed in Cas since the Anna thing. There is an ease about him, an unlocked softness that makes Dean curious about the follow-up to that particular family drama, but Cas never brings it up so Dean never asks. In any case, it seems to have removed the stick up Cas’s ass, and Dean is grateful for it.

"Stick around and have a beer," Dean says after a hunt.

Cas declines the beer, but he stays.

A couple of hours later, Dean has just finished another beer and is about to spin another hunting yarn when Cas stiffens and looks out the window.

"What's up?" Dean asks.

"I'm being summoned," Cas murmurs.

"What, another seal?"

"No."

"Let it go to voicemail." Dean gets up to grab another beer from the fridge. "You can zap us to this awesome diner in Virginia instead. I know eating's not your thing or whatever, but I will force their salt pork down your gullet if I have to, it's that fucking good. You ever been to Virginia, Cas?"

Dean turns around. Cas is gone.

Fucking angels.

He tells himself he isn't disappointed. He considers putting the beer back in the fridge, but fuck it. Dean takes the bottle cap off with his keychain and drains half the bottle in one pull. In the end, Dean is what his father made him. He keeps his head down, does the job, pushes back everything that isn't, and hopes that in the end, everyone gets what they want.

+

Cas isn't taking his calls, so to speak, when Dean goes to hunt an ifrit by himself. He vaguely remembers his father telling him to never hunt an ifrit alone, but that was years ago, and Dean figures he’s a better hunter now. Related to the djinn but with the M.O. of a trickster and twice as much pride, ifrits make quick work of overambitious hunters, leaving nothing but charred bones and shattered pride.

It's how Dean ends up on his back with a broken arm and a few cracked ribs too close to the edge of the cliff. The ifrit bends over his body like a hungry wolf. Its fire burns him, and the pain only intensifies the illusion.

"I knew you'd come back to me," Alastair croons as a twist of flame licks at Dean's cheek. "You came back, Dean-o, you came back."

He didn't, he won't, he'd never, he's saved and an angel told him so - but Dean can't get the words out, and as the ifrit closes its jaws around his throat, he calls out one desperate syllable.

Cas appears.

Dean is already going into shock by the time the ifrit is taken care of. Cas lays his hand on Dean's chest and bada-bing bada-boom, a miracle.

Instantaneous recovery is its own shock. He just lies there for a bit, fading back into reality. It takes him a while to realize that Cas still has his hands on him. Dean looks up at him, meets his eyes. Sees Cas swallow.

"What?" Dean says. "Do I have something stuck in my teeth?"

To Dean's surprise, Cas puts a hand on his cheek. His breath catches, or maybe Cas's does, he can't tell. Instead of pursuing the thought that just skittered out of the recesses of his lizard brain, Dean just says, "You're gonna put me out of a job," and pushes himself up to a sitting position, ignoring his hammering heart. "You're too good at this, man."

And Cas, being Cas, replies, "God has other work for you."

In moments of solitude he lets himself pick at that with equal wonder and suspicion: someone as hell-wracked and sin-stained as him, chosen for a mission by God. Chosen for life by Sam. He is reminded, briefly, of the dream, of his brother’s body warm around him. Dean never knows whether he wants to examine it further or shove it down.

He closes his eyes and lets himself think of pressing Cas down to the bed, of kissing him the way Sam in the dream had kissed him. Perhaps Dean would, if Cas weren't in his brother's body. But if Cas weren't in Sam's body, would Dean feel the same instinct towards intimacy? If he didn't feel the affection for Cas that he does, would he be having these kinds of dreams about his brother? The way Cas is the canyon between Sam and Dean, Sam is the gulf between him and Cas, and the bridges between them are getting complicated.

Dean opens his eyes and says, "Back to the manor, Jeeves."

Cas rests his hand on Dean's shoulder and Dean leans into the touch. They fly.

Chapter Text

The other great thing about being in cahoots with an angel, Dean tells him, is that they can zap literally anywhere, for any reason, not just hunts. Like, say, the Wagon Wheel diner, home of the best salt pork in the state of Virginia.

The diner doesn't look any different from any of the ones he's sat in with Dean, but Dean is clearly of an opposite opinion, rattling off a sprawling anecdote about how he and his father stumbled across this diner when they were in town for a manananggal problem, back when Sam was at Stanford.

"Those bitches are nasty, man," Dean is saying as they slide into a booth. "I mean, we got 'em, but my hands smelled like garlic for a week."

Dean tells stories with a half-cocked smile that dares Castiel to challenge the embellishments - how many manananggals there were, how many children they stole away, how bad his injuries were, how they managed anyway. "You'd think after all that, food was the last thing on our minds, but we were hungry. I mean we were famished." Dean gestures around them. "This was the only place that was open. And Dad was…" Dean pauses, mulling over the memory, something soft and wondering pulling at the corners of his mouth. "It was a good night. I… I mean, sometimes Dad and me, sometimes we made a good team."

It's a new side of him that Castiel hasn't seen before and it gives him déjà vu until he figures out that this is the Dean of Sam's memories: expansive, buoyant, always ready with an inside joke. Dean doesn't look at the menu when the waitress comes to take their orders. He told Castiel earlier that he already has the whole thing memorized.

"All right, all right," Dean grins, when the buffalo chicken comes. "Your favorite."

"They're not my favorite," Castiel says. "I don't have a favorite. I've never been here before."

"Well, they're Sam's favorite 'cause the salads here are so damn horrible, so he says. Take a bite and tell him hi for me."

So Castiel takes a piece of chicken gingerly between his fingers, and Dean, who is leaning forward on his elbows, chuckles and says, "Jesus, Cas, it's not gonna bite."

It is, he admits to Dean, very good.

Dean says, "Wait 'til you try the pork."

Anna told Castiel about the time in her second year of college when she tried to go vegan and it lasted exactly seven months and ten days. It was her roommate's Italian sausages that did it. There was something he did with the sauce, and she supposed she could have just eaten the sauce without the sausage, but that is no way to do things, or so she says. She ate six sausages in one sitting and was sick for the rest of the day, but she said it was worth it.

Castiel finds himself telling Dean this story, and Dean leans back in his seat and listens, attentive, attuned to the understanding that this is an offering of trust. Castiel is in contact with his fugitive sister, and he knows Dean will not tell.

"She had me try a sausage," Castiel says.

"Did you like it?"

"It wasn't as good as this pork."

Dean grins.

Castiel isn't sure he has a good reason for letting Dean in on this knowledge, or when Dean metamorphosed from an assignment into someone who keeps his secrets safe. Someone to whom Castiel, for some reason, feels accountable. He doesn't know what to blame on the habits of the vessel when Dean lets his touch linger and Castiel goes still. But he savors the moment. When Castiel tells Anna stories about Dean, he usually leaves this part out.

"What's the deal between you and her anyway?" Dean asks.

He hesitates. "It's complicated."

"So's everything."

“Shouldn’t we be getting back soon?”

Dean stops a passing waitress and asks for more coffee for the both of them, then turns back to Castiel.

"There isn't much to tell," Castiel concedes. "Mostly we talked. There used to be more time to talk, long ago, and I think we were both relieved to find someone who would listen, that there was someone else asking questions. Our father has been silent for so long. It's…" He settles on, "It gets difficult."

"I bet." Dean clears his throat and looks down at his coffee. "What, uh. What kind of questions?"

"The kinds we had to be careful about. Perhaps we weren't careful enough. She was my superior, after all. Some felt it odd that she and I should hold counsel so often."

Dean grins, or maybe 'leer' is the better word. "Oh, so it's like an Achilles and Patroclus thing."

"What?"

He points a pork rind at Castiel emphatically. "Say what you want, but Brad Pitt rocked that movie."

"No, it wasn't an Achilles and Patroclus thing."

"Alexander and Hephaestion, then. Colin Farrell doesn't rock as hard as Brad, though."

"Let me tell my story."

Dean holds up his hands in concession, and Castiel speaks.

In recent decades, Heaven has become fractured by its own paranoia, mired in schisms as Hell became more querulous. What does solidarity mean in the face of such factionalism? It's practically anarchy for angels, who quail in the absence of order. Retribution was swift and brutal, and sometimes preemptive. Anael was well-loved as a leader and admired for her courage in battle, but reputation couldn't protect angels against accusations of blasphemy. When the order came to bring her in, they both knew what it meant.

"Just her?" Dean asks. "Not you?"

"She… she protected me." He can't meet Dean's eyes when he says that. Anna may have forgiven him, but it's hard for him to remember how bright her love for him was before betrayal weighed it down. "As a soldier they blamed my wrongdoings on her influence. She encouraged that."

"Well, that was mighty good of her."

Castiel suspects he detects sarcasm. He's getting better at seeing it. "When she fell," he says, "she asked me to come with her."

"Yeah?" There's something strained in Dean's voice, something familiar in Dean’s eyes that Castiel almost understands.

"She said she knew I was better than this. She always had more faith in me than anyone. And I let her down,” Castiel says with a shaky breath. “I stayed with the garrison and I let her down, but we had work to do, there was so much chaos, we couldn't just-" He bites down on the desire to justify himself further. He has already made his decisions, after all, and he must try to live with those consequences. Forgiveness is not panacea; it is just the first step. "When I refused, she accused me of weakness, cowardice. And I suppose she was right. I wanted to come with her. I wanted to be with her, I-" He clenches his fists without knowing why. "I didn't know what I wanted."

"Sounds like you did, man," Dean mutters, and Castiel isn't sure if he's meant to hear that. It jars a memory loose from Sam's head: the days leading up to leaving for Stanford, the dozen fights already fought before they let their father find out. "Sounds like," Dean says, louder this time, steadier as he looks into Castiel's eyes, "you knew exactly what you wanted."

And then Castiel understands.

"Sam didn't think that of you, you know," he says.

"What?"

"All the things he said to you that night," Castiel says. "He didn't mean them. He was angry, and frightened."

"The hell was he frightened of?" Dean scoffs.

"Of being without you."

Dean doesn't say anything to that, just looks at Castiel like he doesn't know whether to fight or flee. He looks vulnerable this way, the way his breathing becomes very deliberate, the way he tries and fails to keep his expression neutral.

"Socrates and Plato," Castiel blurts out.

"…What?"

"Anna and I," he says. "Not Achilles and Patroclus, or Alexander and Hephaestion. We were, perhaps, Socrates and Plato."

"Which makes Heaven Athens?" Dean shrugs and sips his coffee. "Sounds about right. Didn't Athens make Socrates drink hemlock?"

"Socrates chose to.”

"Come on. They freaking sentenced the guy to death. That's not a choice."

Castiel frowns. "Of course it is. Sometimes you have to make a choice out of choicelessness.”

Dean raises his eyebrows. “Did Socrates say that?”

“No. Anna did.”

To Castiel’s surprise, Dean smiles. He makes a soft scoffing sound and says, "Angels, man."

"Yes," Castiel says, feeling oddly defensive. "Angels. That's correct."

He gives Castiel a considering look, and Castiel feels uncomfortable under the scrutiny. The question when it comes has the air of having percolated for a long time, waiting on the edge of Dean’s tongue. It comes out with many months' worth of careful curiosity. "So. What do angels look like? Like, really look like?"

Castiel frowns. "You don't remember?"

"Remember?"

"In Hell."

Dean looks at his coffee as if it might hold some answers. He runs a finger along its handle distractedly. "I remember a light. Fire, I guess. But there was always a lot of fire. Yours was different. And… and I don't know, that's it. How was I supposed to know it was angels?" He looks up at Castiel. "That it was you?"

It wasn't that Dean was supposed to know it was him, but that it wasn't supposed to matter. They weren't supposed to be anything to each other outside of the tasks laid out by fate, yet here they are, sharing salt pork in Virginia and stories about things they lost long ago.

Dean barks out a self-conscious laugh. "Whatever, never mind. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, I get it."

Castiel quirks his mouth. "This has always been your problem."

"What?" Dean snaps.

"You have no faith."

+

Once, in the quiet aftermath of a hunt that stretched into the late hours because neither of them wanted to be alone, Dean told Castiel about the time he went to Mexico. It was when Sam was at Stanford, and John was off investigating something alone.

"You have a lot of stories about the time Sam went to Stanford," Castiel observed.

Dean shrugged, peeling the label off his beer. "You figure out a lot of stuff when you're on your own."

Playa Bagdad was the first place Dean's heart unknotted after that great disaster. Castiel watched Dean's face go soft as he relayed the story. There, on its shores, he felt like he could breathe again for the first time in months. Dean had fished there, and he swam, he found a girl who licked the sea salt off his skin and taught him how to cuss in Spanish. The ocean had soothed him and asked for nothing back.

This is what Dean is dreaming about tonight. Castiel finds him now ankle-deep in the water, jeans rolled up to his knees and the sun gilding the beach with its late afternoon light. He hears a girl's gentle laughter but sees no girl. Still, the sound soothes Dean, and so it soothes the whole dream, imbuing even Castiel with a sense of peace.

Dean looks up, sensing Castiel near.

Castiel approaches slowly, learning from his intrusion of Anna's dream. Dean frowns, not quite understanding what he's seeing. Castiel reveals himself slowly. One wing at a time, or what humans understand to be wings. He abandons his shape, abandons earth's constrictive Euclidian geometry, but all attention on Dean, so as not to frighten him, not to alarm him. The last thing he wants is to disturb the peace of the dream.

("If your eyes burn out in a dream, do they burn out in real life?" Dean joked earlier, and Castiel told him no. If you can remember how to fly in dreams, you can see angels. You can get away with a lot of things in dreams.)

Castiel has no idea what Dean is seeing right now. An angel's true form exists on several planes at once, and Dean can only see what his human eyes are capable of seeing. Castiel tries to decipher himself through the look in Dean's eyes. Is that fear? Is that wonder? Dean walks to him with slow steady steps, his lips parted as if on the verge of imparting some great revelation. Castiel watches the tensing of Dean's muscles, his determination to breach his own trepidation to be here. To know and be known, halfway between bravado and trust.

"Hey," Dean says softly. He is looking at him. He is looking everywhere because Castiel is everywhere, large as nebulae, intrinsic as atoms.

Dean holds out his hand.

Castiel meets him halfway, gentle by his standards, but humans often can't withstand the gentleness of angels. Against their fragility, it becomes force, and Dean gasps as he is jostled, but Castiel holds him close, calms the waves, hushes the winds until to Dean, Castiel is as the sea, the breeze, the sun.

"Shit," Dean murmurs, full of wonder. "Is this… Are you…?"

The memories of Playa Bagdad fade around them until it's just the two of them. Just this.

Are you all right? Castiel asks.

"Yeah," Dean breathes. "Yeah, I'm fine."

Dean looks up and up. He looks around him, reaches out to run his fingers along a wing.

To Castiel's own surprise, he too is disarmed. There is something about seeing others vulnerable to you that makes you vulnerable to them. Castiel doesn't know what to say, but at this point they don't need words anymore. He just covers Dean with his wings, holds him close, thrums with grace. Dean sinks into it, whispers Castiel's name, almost like a question, more like an affirmation.

Castiel echoes back, Dean, wondrous, alight.

This is all the words they need.

+

In Lithuania, north of a village called Sialuliai, there is a hill crowned by a surfeit of crucifixes.

All kinds of crucifixes: wooden ones, metal ones, crude ones tacked together with rusting nails, tall ones, small ones, gigantic ones that tower over your head, ones that include the likeness of Jesus Christ suffering for all humankind, ones with rosary beads hanging from them, ones framing water-stained pictures of the Virgin Mary and the faded icons of saints. Many of them bear small wooden signs near the base, upon which people's prayers have been carved.

Angels hear all prayers, though they may not always listen. Humanity's prayers are a constant buzz at the edge of an angel's consciousness, but there is something illuminated about this hill that Castiel finds bracing. The place echoes with devotion, and he can pick out the individual desires in the air - prayers for more love, more faith, another chance, restoration, new beginnings. The usual litany of human misery, but with the rarefied quality of winter mornings - clear, bright, and cold.

Anna tells him the story of how this place came to be as they make their way along the boardwalk between the mountains of crucifixes, the prayers piled on top of other prayers. According to the stories, she says as Castiel watches the sunlight catch in her hair, the first crucifix was brought to the hill by a man who had run out of hope. One could call his journey a pilgrimage, or perhaps a reenactment of his savior’s sacrifice, except that this man carried the cross not for the salvation of humanity, but for the salvation of his daughter, who lay sick and dying in their home. The man brought the crucifix to the hill's apex, then fell to his knees and asked God for three simple things: forgiveness, mercy, and miracles.

"None of those things are simple," Castiel says.

"They are when you're about to lose someone you love," Anna replies.

"Did his prayers work?"

She laughs. "Look around you, Castiel. What do you think?"

It's late afternoon in Sialuliai, and the crucifixes cast long shadows across their faces and strange shapes against a clear blue sky.

"I come here sometimes," Anna says.

"What do you pray for?"

"My family."

In the recesses of Sam's mind, tucked away in the parts Sam rarely touches anymore, there is the memory of Jessica Moore's hands, how warm they were. Adjacent to it are memories of her laughter, her body tucked against his, her promise of a love that will last. Tentatively, as if conducting a dangerous experiment, Castiel reaches out and takes Anna's hand. She frowns at it, then looks up at him in surprise. Then she tightens her hand around his and smiles.

"Come here," she says.

"I'm here."

"Come closer. Come down here, you're so damn tall."

So he bows just low enough so she can kiss his cheek.

"Couldn't have picked a shorter vessel?" she murmurs against his skin.

"No."

They continue walking down the boardwalk, hand in hand, and Anna continues telling her stories. She has so many.

She has an aunt in Florida whom she visited every summer. They would go to the beach, and when she was younger, Anna would make sandcastles and her aunt would help her find seashells to decorate it. Her aunt called her Anna Banana and bought her ice cream, usually chocolate. Sometimes strawberry.

Anna Banana and an aunt in Florida. It discomfits Castiel to hear her talk this way. No, he wants to say, I am your family. If you have family that is not also my family, they are not your family. But that would be uncharitable and untrue, so he stays quiet.

"Do you want to see her?" Anna asks.

"See who?"

"My aunt."

Castiel frowns. "I don't think that would be wise."

"Come on, she won't even know we're there. I won't talk to her. I… I just - Cas,” she looks at him with pleading eyes, “I want to see her one more time."

So they wing down to Pensacola, to a little white house where Aunt Judy reads a Maeve Binchy novel in her kitchen. The garden is neat and vibrant with flowers. She likes to garden, Anna tells him, and she especially likes marigolds and irises because of how the colors look together. Castiel watches Anna list the things her aunt does and does not like, the way her face goes soft but restrained, as if guarding the memory. It's the same look Dean gets when telling stories about Sam.

Castiel says, “Maybe you should go say hello.”

Anna shakes her head. "It’s too late for that."

They stay in the garden, watching through the window as Judy turns another page and sips her tea. She's a tall, long-limbed woman with silvering hair and laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. Anna points out her bracelet to Castiel and says she bought Anna one just like it for her twelfth birthday, but in green.

Eventually, Anna says, "Let's go," like she wants someone to say 'let's stay'.

Castiel doesn't say anything.

She takes his hand.

In the blink of an eye, they are in someone's deserted vacation home in Spain. She does this often, picks out an empty house to rest in, as if soaking in the domesticity now denied her. Anna walks through the house, running her hands over someone else's possessions. She bends over the hall table to inspect framed pictures, then straightens again to look at the mirror hanging on the wall. He steps behind her, looking at their reflection.

Sam Winchester's face looks older than the first time Castiel saw him.

"It's strange," Anna says, "being an angel again."

"Would you rather have stayed human?"

"Don't think about the woulda coulda shouldas, my mom always says." She shrugs. "There are things I miss. But. I don't hate who I've become." She turns around and faces him. "There are just things I miss, that’s all."

Castiel asks the question he's been wanting to ask for ages. "Do you miss being an angel?"

"I am an angel."

"Not like you were before."

"But that's a good thing."

He frowns, and drifts away from her through the nearest doorway. It’s the kitchen, well-kept and dusty. Plywood floors, last year's calendar on the refrigerator, salt and pepper shakers in the shape of kissing lovers, and a large window over the sink through which they can see the sea. "I don't understand your self-loathing," he mutters.

She sighs. "This isn't self-loathing, Cas."

"What would you call it?" And he doesn't mean to sound bitter.

"I don't know. Change?" She leans against the doorway "I can't go back."

"But if you could," Castiel insists.

Anna smiles sadly. "Dean was right about you."

"What? What did Dean say?"

"It's not important."

"What about the things you miss? Are those important?"

"One of them's here with me now."

It feels oddly like pain, this sensation in his chest. Castiel feels it more frequently these days, but it's different now, looking at Anna. The locus isn't in the body. The body is not enough. They were more than this, once upon a time.

Castiel isn't expecting it but isn't surprised when Anna steps closer to him and kisses his lips. She closes her eyes. He closes his.

In an instant, they are in the bedroom.

Her fingers make quick work of his shirt buttons, and he slides his hands under her blouse. He knows how this goes, more or less, and she lifts her arms when he pulls her shirt off, whispers his name when they fall to the bed, and kisses him, and kisses him, and kisses him.

"You realize," Castiel says, "the only other angels who did this begat monsters and were smote by Gabriel."

"Shut up about Gabriel when I'm kissing you."

This seems like a fair request.

His brothers and sisters warned him about this. All angels going to earth are warned about this. Humanity is to be tolerated because they are the beloved of their Father, but you must not fall under their influence. Do not mistake duty for sympathy. Be careful, for if you walk among mortals long enough, you will learn to bleed. Or you will learn to love as they love, which is worse, or so they say.

+

Nick Monroe's reflection in the hotel mirror was a monster looking at Dean with an expression of gentle satisfaction, or at least it was until Cas appeared in the room, poster boy for the eleventh-hour cavalry. Now Nick Monroe is a burnt corpse on the shag rug that no one wants to explain to the motel manager.

"Dean?"

The syllable is fuzzy through the haze of the venom and it ignites him, catalyzes a slew of images he can't tell are memories or desires. He looks up at Cas in this very human body and remembers the dream. He remembers seeing Castiel as he truly is, but Dean can't remember what that looked like anymore, only that he was no longer afraid. He reaches for Cas, the subconscious craving, but the hands holding him up are Sam's.

How just like the world. How like his life to throw the absence at him, as if he hasn't had enough of negative space, and now here is something crueler, the negative space made real. It's no longer his imagination telling him the space looks like his brother; here is the absence confirming it for him.

"Dean, are you all right?" Cas asks, and Dean's hands are everywhere. His hands slide up Castiel's face, Sam's face, fuck, he doesn't even know anymore, he doesn't even—

It's just the venom in his body, all that poison in his blood rendering him helpless, always, it's always been like this, Sam's arms around him and Dean just trying to hang on. But this Sam smells like the rain of distant mountains, and there is a restraint to his power like a dam on the verge. When he says Dean's name, it's in Sam's lower registers, the voice he uses when he's just woken up. And when Dean looks up, he sees Castiel.

Dean kisses him before he runs out of excuses.

+

Castiel is both unsurprised and unprepared. Dean's kiss is an assault, sloppy with desire and the brand of desperation angels are so fond of scorning humans for. The kiss is the kind of passion that Anna values so much. Castiel kisses back, if only to fight against drowning.

"Cas," Dean murmurs against his lips. "Please."

Anna's kisses had been gentle. She kissed him to explain herself, to claim. Dean kisses to search, but what he wants to find, Castiel cannot give him. He cups Dean's face in his hands and kisses back, surging against him. The response seems to give them both a certain clarity, something to hold on to, and hold on to it Dean does, lest it slip away again. This man, Castiel thinks in wonder. Always anticipating departure.

He doesn't miss the signals when Dean begins to tug them in the direction of the bed.

As they go, Dean fumbles with Castiel's belt. When Castiel takes the cue to undo it himself, Dean takes a step back and removes his shirt. Castiel is still trying to pull off his shirt when they tumble to the mattress. The warmth of so much skin against skin is overwhelming, and focuses the hunger in him. Angels can have sex, but they don't. Flouting this dichotomy seems to come second nature to Anna, but it disorients Castiel. What makes an angel? He sucks a kiss onto the side of Dean's neck, and Dean groans.

That is human folly too. Running straight into the arms of the very thing that undoes you, not because duty commands it, but because your wounds do.

Sex with Dean is nothing like sex with Anna. He still doesn't know where to put his hands or what to do with his mouth, so Dean tells him. Yes, right here. Yes, like this. But where Anna had been deliberate in her lovemaking, Dean is erratic. He kisses and wants to get to the touch. He touches and wants to get to the taste, as if afraid to linger. He barely gives himself time to breathe.

"Shit," Dean murmurs. "Have you done this before? Can angels-?"

"We can. We can."

This seems to be assurance enough for Dean.

Castiel understands now, how sex gets humans in trouble. He craves, and doesn't know for what. This is at once culmination and multiplication of the heat in his blood that has chased him for the past few weeks. He is filled with the desire to lose himself in this, to say yes to everything. "Are you-?" Dean says, and Castiel says, "Yes." Dean says, "Do you-" and Castiel says, "Yes." Dean says, "Can I," and Castiel says yes, yes, now, and cries out when Dean eases into him.

It's so crude, this way that humans have of being close to each other. Even with Anna, it wasn’t enough, like even though her body was soft and warm and felt good wrapped around his, it only emphasized what they have lost. Dean is looking at him with such frank desire and it disorients him, the way Castiel wants all of this and something more, something not to be found in any earthly vessel.

Castiel is not a child. He knows how humans love, the way they look at each other in the midst of love. Anna looked at him like that, and how strange it is that out of all things, it is the workings of the human body that coaxes her tenderness for him once more. Humanity brings them together; it is also what keeps them apart. But Dean looks at him with the same injured hunger that Castiel feels.

When Dean begins to thrust, all thoughts scatter.

Perhaps this is also why: humanity is not just freedom - it’s escape.

+

Dean is exorcising a demon in a swamp in Alabama. He’s been seeking out demons now because he knows this, because he has to make amends for what he’s become. Sam said something like this once, how the more people he could save, the more he could save himself.

He’s hunting something and it’s going to get him, probably. He wishes he had someone to talk to but there’s no one there.

Sometimes he wants to pretend that this is like Stanford and Sam is off having a normal life, but that’s not the truth. Sam got possessed by an angel and then Dean fucked him, them, both of them, and he can’t blame the siren—Dean’s the fucked up monster here. He’s the only one guilty of getting exactly what he wants.

Dean’s beyond saving, but maybe he can put the world right.

This one’s not talkative. Dean’s plenty used to interrogating, but he’s going light right now, anticipating a long night. Least it’ll keep him occupied.

“I know you,” the thing says after Dean’s done the standard holy-water-and-salt gargle, asked a few questions, read a line of exorcism.

He turns a knife in his hands, examining it. “Oh, have I sent you to Hell before?”

The demon coughs up some more holy water. “Aaah - no, only by reputation. I have to say, you’re not what they built you up to be. In Hell.”

Dean’s hand slips and the knife cuts deeper than he meant it to. The demon’s whine leaps into a yowl, sounds like a wild animal. Dean clutches the knife like a part of him and thinks, that makes two of them.

He’s already here, stuck knives into this one, and he’s off his game tonight but he hasn’t been trying to be on. He’s learned a surgical and clinical precision under Alastair; before that he was torturing demons for information and then sending whichever victims survived to the emergency room with an “I was mugged” cover story. This one’s already got a stab wound in his side from when he first jumped Dean and Dean knifed him back in reflex. He might make it, if Dean exorcises this one now. But his knife is in his hand like a part of him and he came out here to get his blood and adrenaline pumping. Something dark slips in, darker than self-loathing: Dean feels at home holding a knife to a stranger’s warm panting throat even when he knows it’s a person in there.

Sam would have balked.

Sam is not here to see what Dean’s become.

“Top of your class, Dean,” the demon sneers. “And I have to say, it’s good to see you taking advantage of your new,” he gags on salt, splutters, “environment. You’ve really brought Hell home.”

Dean puts a hand on the chair over the demon’s shoulder and leans in close. “You go give Hell my regards.”

“Why don’t you tell them yourself.”

Dean’s knife slips again and this time he snicks through a strand of rope.

He’s on his back before he knows it, face on fire and spurting hot blood down his chin. The demon’s slipped its ropes, moving like lightning for one of Dean’s knives. Dean scrambles for it and the demon lands a kick in his side, pressing down with the heel right over Dean’s kidney.

“They’re going to be so happy to see you,” he says, and then screams. Dean rolls towards his knife at the distraction and grabs it, expecting the demon to fall on him, but when he looks up Dean sees the thing still standing, held up by Ruby’s knife through his chest. When he’s done twitching and crackling with lightning, Ruby, lip curled, pushes him forward and slides the empty body right off her knife.

Dean struggles up, clutching his side. Ruby doesn’t offer him a hand and he wouldn’t take it anyway.

“I had it handled.”

She tosses her hair over her shoulder. “Yeah, sure looked like it.”

“How’d you know where to find me?” Dean asks, brushing mud and hay off his clothes.

“A little bird told me.”

Dean raises an eyebrow, retrieves the stolen knife from the demon’s hand, wipes both of them on the jacket he’d taken off him.

Ruby rolls her eyes.

“You’ve been following me,” he says.

“Call it insurance.”

Dean holds the jacket up to dab at his still-bleeding face. He’s got a split lip and bleeding nose, but it’s not broken. Probably. “Well, thanks.You gonna stick around and help me tip this body into the swamp?”

Ruby smiles and a shudder runs down her like this is flirting for her, joking about corpses.

“I’ve got intel on Lilith.”

“You’re giving it away for free?” He’s not sure about looking for Lilith. He’s not a free agent anymore; he’s trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea now, a destiny to follow. An apocalypse to avert. But what does that mean, even? Following the angels’ trail of seals?

Fuck what heaven says, what they tell Cas to make him do—their plans involve jerking Dean around to teach him lessons they could just tell him. Destiny, his own mistake, or conscripted by heaven’s army, however he got dragged into this apocalypse he’s going to finish it. For him, and for Sam.

He lugs the body under the shoulders to drag it out of the barn. Ruby sees him wince and shoves one of Dean’s hands out of the way, getting her own grip under the dead man’s shoulder.

They drop him at the edge of the swamp, and Dean shoves the body into the weeds, then goes to get a shovel. Ruby leans against the car.

They end up driving off together, and Dean wants to make a joke demon abduction, but they can’t hang around with that guy’s body if anyone’s looking for him. Ruby’s got plenty to tell him, and Dean doesn’t mind listening, for once. Needs a distraction. She knows seals and she can tell Dean some of the omen patterns he hasn’t had time to put together yet. That, and demon politics. If Dean thinks too hard about it it’s uncomfortably close to gossip, so he doesn’t think, just swigs from his bottle of whisky once they’re parked a ways away down a nameless side road.

Ruby’s talk of hell’s factions and alliances, the list of seals that could be broken, are more interesting than horrifying anymore. They’re the details of a war that Dean’s been in longer than he’d like, and if sitting in a car playing catch-up with a demon is the last place he expected to end up - well, it’s still better than Hell.

“So we’ve got clues about where she could strike next, but too many options. How does this help?”

“‘Thanks for saving my life, Ruby,’” she says in a mocking voice. “‘Thanks for helping save the seals.’ You’re such an asshole.”

“Thanks for the input, you gonna throw in some free tips on torturing demons with that?”

“Funny, you weren’t doing too good just now before I showed up.”

“And you wanted a piece of me while I was down, that’s why you came.”

“I’m hurt.” Dean snorts and Ruby continues, “Look, I get it, you don’t trust me.”

“Trust? Sure I trust you, I trust that you want to make yourself an ally because you think if we stop this apocalypse it’s going to get you a place in Hell. Move Lilith out so you can get your piece.”

“You think anyone wants a piece of Hell?” she scoffs. “It’s Hell. You don’t want it, you can’t get rid of it, so leave Hell to the demons. So what if I’m selfish, but at this point we’re being selfish together. I just want the bitch dead.”

“Fine. Good luck with your demon competition.” Dean grunts, shifting and tilting his head back, still cynical but too bone-tired and pessimistic to do a damn thing about it for now. “But you’re pretty bloodthirsty, you know that?”

“You’re one to talk,” she mutters.

Dean feels that hot surge behind his vision again, but it’s shame now, shame more than rage. “See,” he says, drinking straight from the bottle, “I’ve been to Hell. I know where you’re from. You’re gonna screw me any way you can.”

Ruby grabs the bottle from Dean’s hand, takes a long gulp, looking straight at Dean the whole time. Her hair looks dark red in the dim light. She puts the bottle in the footwell and then climbs up on to Dean’s lap, digging her fingers into his shoulders. He grabs her arms but isn’t pushing her away, just clawing back, shaking under her slight weight.

“If that’s what you want,” she says in his ear, hot breath, hot mouth.

Maybe. Maybe he can’t tell what he wants from what he deserves anymore. Dean strains, groans, bites at her ear, her neck, hard enough for pain but not pushing her away, not hurting her as much as he could. “You—” She cuts him off with a yank on his hair.

“What’s wrong, Dean? You’re not afraid to go there with a demon, are you? Get a little dirty?”

And maybe that’s all he’s good for. Dean touches her sides to erase the touch memory of Sam’s sides under his hands, kisses her mouth hard to forget Cas kissing him. Her hair is dark and thick and smells strangely sweet, and she pushes up against him, going right for under his shirt, and he lifts hers right off.

“If we’re gonna fraternize, ah,” her breath hitches as he jerks her jeans open, “we might as well have some fun.”

Dean’s still got dried blood on his hands when he touches her, hot and wet between her legs. She rocks into it, and goes for his fly. He knocks her hand away but she pushes back, undoes his jeans and pulls him out. Dean gnashes his teeth and closes his eyes.

+

Pamela Barnes loved many people, and they loved her back. Her funeral was a full house, and Dean is an awkward speck in the corner with his hands in his pockets, trying to simultaneously blend in and stay apart. To add insult to injury, it is a beautiful day, crisp with early spring. The cemetery's headstones gleam in the sunlight.

Some distance away, two people watch the ceremony under the trees.

"Something is wrong here," Tessa says. She looks at Castiel. "You know that, right? Someone's not saying something, or saying the wrong thing, and people are getting hurt because of it."

Castiel raises an eyebrow. "You're not one to complain about people getting hurt."

"I'm one to complain about people screwing with the order of things."

"It's destiny."

She rolls her eyes. "Right. And what Dean's going through, what you're doing to him - that's destiny too?"

"We're saving the world."

"That's not what I mean."

He tries to sound as irritable as she does. "Then what do you mean?"

"You should be careful with him."

Castiel refuses to meet her eyes. "I won't let harm come to Dean."

"Look,” Tessa says, “I've been around a long time—longer than even you, kiddo—and I've seen this story happen a million times before. Even gods aren't immune to this kind of thing, so what does that say about you?"

"That maybe I'm part of another story," Castiel says in neutral tones.

"About what?"

"Saving the world."

Tessa studies him a moment. "Let's say you are. Say you're not the lead in some star-crossed tragedy, after all. Let's say you guys will be the light," her tone takes on sarcasm, "that shines in this dark world."

Castiel says nothing and watches Dean throw a handful of dirt on top of Pamela's coffin.

Tessa scuffs at the dirt with the toe of her boot. "Just remember what happens to Prometheus in the end."

+

Dean doesn't want to be disrespectful, but he feels nervous sticking around after paying his respects. Pamela's blood was literally on his hands, and seeing so many people devastated over her death was not something he’s prepared to deal with for longer than he has to.

He's opted instead to drive all night on not enough sleep, replaying the same fifteen seconds from yesterday over in his head.

"To everything, there is a season," Cas had said, and Dean just wanted to deck the guy.

"You made an exception for me," Dean insisted.

He couldn't help the vicious relief he felt Cas's composure cracked, but then Cas schooled his face into one of benign distance again, and it infuriated Dean to no end. He’s losing Cas, maybe already lost him, all because of some fucking siren and the culmination of more than half a year's worth of a soul-deep longing. The way Cas just played him for a puppet today, they might as well have been strangers. It was one of the more distressing versions of the "let's pretend it never happened" game that Dean has ever played.

Then Cas had said, "You're different."

It wasn't the words, but the clenching of his jaw and the apprehension that crept into Cas’s eyes as he tried to fight the tenderness hiding behind the truth. For a second, Dean thought Cas would say more. For a second, he thought he might say more, and didn't know which option he feared more.

There was a rustle of wings and Cas was gone.

The scene haunts him as he drives, and it uncoils other memories he's been trying not to think about. Cas's skin, for one. No, Sam's skin, the taste of it. The sounds Cas made are sounds Dean's never heard Sam make, and Dean doesn't know what to do with this knowledge except tighten his grip on the wheel and press down on the gas.

When his eyes start feeling too raw, he pulls into the next motel he finds.

Dean opens the door and sees the familiar shape of his brother first, as he does in any room. There's that air of holding back, the way he draws into himself, whereas Cas usually stands rigidly tall. Dean almost says Sam, the guy looks so guilty, but the world will never be that kind to Dean Winchester, because the next thing he hears is Uriel saying his name.

When they tell him what Heaven needs him for now, the surreal feeling buries him completely. Any second now, Cas is going to rein Uriel in and stop all this. Any second now, Cas will meet Dean’s eyes and Dean will see his friend, his brother, anything but this. He is in a nightmare he can’t wake up from and that won’t go away. There is no one to soothe it no matter how many times he looks pleadingly at Cas and that downturned mouth, those hazel-green eyes that won’t look back.

+

It took the whole squadron to wrangle Alastair and secure him in his bindings. Castiel does not lead the charge this time; his task is to stay and write the protective Enochian, and use his sway with Dean Winchester to gain his cooperation.

“Think of it as an opportunity to sit back and observe a different command strategy, reevaluate your approach, touch base,” Zachariah had said. “We realize your assignment is a unique one, but you don’t want to go too native.”

Castiel remembers Zachariah’s chuckle as he hears Uriel talk about the mudmonkeys, and it makes him think of the nature documentaries Dean seemed to find calming. “Pull up a seat, Sam loves these things,” he would say, as if this would help Castiel understand. Castiel knows nature, but hearing the narrator describe the drama of the life cycle in a pride of lions as though it all spanned only an hour of television - well, maybe Castiel is going native, if he thinks Zachariah and Uriel should show more regard for humans than humans do for animals.

That’s not their purpose in the cosmos, to sympathize with humans, to feel emotion - as his superiors have always explained. Their place is to guide and protect the course of their Father’s ineffable plan.

Castiel tries to put Iowa out of his mind. There is much work to be done.

+

Dean tests the knives and finds that they’re razor-sharp. What does Heaven need with knives? What does Heaven need with him, if they have knives and vessels who can use them? The image of Sam with Cas’s burning-cold gaze calmly cutting into Alastair hits his mind and he suppresses a full-body shudder. No. He damned himself for Sam; he’ll do it again to keep the knife out of those hands.

Cas hadn’t begged like Sam would have. Just said that this was what needed to be done. Dean’s gut always roils with ugly and twisted feeling around these stiff angels, but then Cas’s eyes drop, and lift again with a strong jaw that says this isn’t easy to say but I have to tell you.

“Cas?”

“They’re my brothers and sisters, Dean. The angels that are being killed.”

Uriel isn’t here. Dean wants to ask what’s going on, but it’s pretty clear that Cas’s superiors have caught him misbehaving. He doesn’t want to to think about the implications, what that could mean.

“Why are you telling me this?”

“Because I know how you would feel in my place.”

How I would feel? Dean clenches his jaw and says nothing.

“For what it's worth, I would give anything not to have you do this.”

Any second now, Cas will whisk him away from here, another last-minute rescue in the nick of time. Any second now, Dean will feel the hum of grace ripple through his mind, dismantling this dream. He will wake up. He will be saved. Any second now.

Dean turns so he doesn’t have to see those beseeching eyes, see his brother wielded like a weapon that cuts down to his every weakness.

+

What scares him most is how easily he slips back into the routine of it.

Dean slides the knife’s blade just under Alastair’s ribs, so it rests against the bruised skin there. The demon’s eyes go wide and his grin holds laughter and animal fear clenched in his teeth. “Ooh, yeah. Put it in me.”

Dean scowls and keeps his eyes on Alastair’s face. He can almost see the twisted features of the demon’s real face under the skin and muscle of this possessed man. He can see more if he uses the knife to peel them back. There is a craftsmanship to pain, and Alastair is Hell’s foremost artisan. Alastair told Dean it was a privilege to learn from him and that Dean should be grateful. Alastair told him this as he sliced the flesh from Dean’s face.

This is not just carrying out Heaven’s orders, and is far more complex than revenge. This is remembrance. This is what Sam and Cas are supposed to save him from, but maybe there’s no saving Dean Winchester. Even so, a part of him is still expecting for the darkness to tear apart and reveal the light descending, the thousand wings enveloping him, the voice that he hears not with his ears but with his heart.

“I can see you’ve found another partner for this dance.” Alastair hisses and spits through his teeth, gasps and whines, the horrible music of hell. “Your angel friend put you right back in the torture seat and gave you the knife. They want to see you at work, and I must say, you’re an artiste, Dean.” Dean withdraws and the demon hisses. “I’d prefer a different seat, of course.”

“Let me know how I can make you more comfortable,” Dean says, tapping his syringe.

“You must wonder,” Alastair says, “if this wasn’t Hell all along. Your brother possessed, egging you on. A little piece of Hell waiting for you up here, and you left a little piece of yourself down -”

Dean finds the vein he was looking for and Alastair stops talking.

+

It’s twenty years ago all over again. It’s the same disappointment in his sister’s eyes, the same accusatory silence that lingers when she leaves him to his work. Castiel is still remembering the feel of Anna’s hands on his, her pleas to stop and walk away, when he hears the crash and thud of a cart, the metallic skittering of knives on the floor. The shouts are no longer scattered but intent, and Dean’s voice is among them.

The stink of it hits him as soon as he opens the door. Demon blood is everywhere, on the knives, on the ground. Even Dean is covered in it, Alastair’s hands smearing it on his throat. This is the worst Castiel has felt its influence, and he sways on his feet with the urge, the pull of blood towards blood in this vessel’s veins. The undeniable thirst and urgency pulls him to his knees.

Dean? says a voice that sounds like Sam in his head, with an instinct that trumps awareness. The bone handle of a knife is by his right hand; Castiel grasps it and stands, catches Alastair’s shoulder, plunges the demon-killing knife into Alastair’s chest.

“Well, almost,” Alastair sneers as his chest sputters a few weak sparks, and Castiel’s stomach sinks as he begins to pray for aid. “Looks like God is on my side today.”

Castiel tries to twist the knife but Alastair kicks his legs out from under him, and instead he pulls it out. Dean is unconscious and bleeding on the floor, and Castiel can’t afford to hesitate.

He puts his hand covered in Alastair’s blood to his mouth and licks it, licks down to the knife’s handle till Alastair kicks it away and takes Castiel by the throat, but that is enough. With a foul metal and sulphur smoke in his teeth and throat, he feels something dark and powerful rise in him. As Alastair squeezes, Castiel’s hand shoots out to his throat.

Dean! Sam’s voice shouts in him, louder than ever before. Castiel is barely strong enough to stand with Alastair’s hands squeezing his windpipe, but it’s not he that moves the smoke within him. Alastair gags.

“Who’s murdering angels?” Castiel’s voice is strong, piercing.

“You think I’m -” Alastair chokes. His eyes roll up white into his head. Castiel sees this all through a red haze.

“Tell me how you’re doing it.”

“It’s not us.” Castiel’s hand is a vice. “Demons - would kill a thousand angels, not seven.” Alastair chokes. “Go ahead. Send me down.”

Do it. Sam’s voice rumbles through him. Do it!

The power moves through Castiel like lightning and cracks through Alastair’s body. This isn’t an exorcism. This is a kill. Castiel’s grace is weak; this bolt comes from somewhere else, deep within him, within Sam.

Alastair falls without a sound and Castiel suddenly does too, his weakness overtaking him, gasping with adrenaline and shortness of breath. He reaches for Dean to touch his forehead, and then the room disappears around them.

+

In the hospital room, Castiel is the only one at Dean’s bedside this hour of the night.

“Find someone else,” Dean says, wrecked. “It’s not me.”

Dean won’t look at Castiel, though his tears are plain on his face. Castiel can feel the pain coming off him in waves. Anna’s words echo in his mind: you think this is righteous? If it isn’t righteous, then perhaps it is at least right, but this line of reasoning falls apart when he sees Dean’s battered body.

Suddenly the room feels too small, Dean’s pain too harrowing, Castiel’s own guilt too much, and he wants to leave. He needs to be anywhere else, to be anyone else but the person who throws Anna’s forgiveness back in her face.

He tenses his shoulders, preparing for flight.

“No,” Dean says quickly. “Don’t you disappear on me.”

He looks at Dean. Dean looks at him. Tentatively, Castiel puts a large hand on Dean’s knee in a gesture of affection that wells up in him, Sam’s impulse to comfort coming quickly to Castiel.

Dean starts and looks at the hand, breathing always with difficulty. Castiel thinks twice and moves it but Dean says, barely audible, “Don’t.”

“Dean -”

“Don’t. Just - don’t.” He takes a shuddering breath and just looks, eyes pleading in the haze, and Castiel takes refuge in that what Dean sees is not an angel, but his brother. Castiel sinks into this, relieved to be free of himself, even if only in someone else’s eyes. There's a plea in those eyes that triggers a hundred memories of Dean asking his brother 'please', asking him 'stay' or 'don't' or 'now'. The hundred memories of Sam reacting with the kind frustrated affection that lies at the root of his love for his errant brother.

They sit there in silence, for a while.

Chapter Text

Dean's never setting foot inside a comic shop again if he can help it. Meanwhile, he recruits the comic book guy's help in transporting all the copies of Supernatural into his car, and then he drives straight back to the motel, locks the door, closes the curtains, and reads from the beginning with the kind of morbid fascination he hasn't felt since the first time he inspected the dead body of something he shot himself. When you’re reading about your own life through someone else’s eyes it’s hard to look away. These Supernatural books the comic shop guy accused him of… larping? They're giving him some serious heebie jeebies.

He skips 'In My Time of Dying'.

He skips 'All Hell Breaks Loose'.

He reads 'Mystery Spot' and suddenly a lot of things make sense that didn't at the time.

Jesus fucking christ. Sam.

Dean skims the rest of the series and then - needing reassurance that he isn't just some tulpa that Carver Edlund fans brought to life - he calls Bobby, who is more worried about the books containing information that might incriminate them until Dean yells that he's not the one full-frontal in book 13. The conversation becomes very brief and awkward after that.

It's very strange, the chain of events that can lead to yelling at a writer of cheesy horror about how you are not just one of his characters, no way, no how. His life is his own as much as it can be said while angels claim he owes heaven a destiny. Dean can't help the smug satisfaction he feels at seeing Chuck's tired cynicism turn into horror when he realizes that yes, Virginia, there is a real Dean Winchester, and he's also real pissed.

Chuck tells him about the unpublished manuscripts.

"Here's the one I was working on before you came," he says, and Dean snatches the pages from his hands with as much disgust as he can muster. "Skip to the end, that's where it gets weird."

So Dean does.

“Wait, Cas?" he blurts out. "Throes of demonic passion? With Lilith?"

Chuck holds up his hands. “I just write what I see. It's not like I want to see it."

This is too bizarre to deal with alone. This man saw the worst moments of Dean's life and made pulp fiction out of them, and it has to be someone's fault because Dean really needs someone to punch right now. “Fine. All right. You know what I’ll do? I’ll give Cas a call and he can clear all this up for us. Straight from the horse's mouth.”

“Well, yeah, but he’s not going to -”

Dean holds up a hand for silence, and closes his eyes.

A few seconds later, Chuck shits himself when Cas appears out of thin air.

Cas still has that penitent guarded look about him, giving off the impression that he is ready to disappear at the earliest convenience. He looks as if he's waiting for Dean to tell him there's been a mistake, as if Dean meant to talk to the other Castiel he knows. But the wisecrack Dean had on the tip of his tongue vanishes, seeing that familiar face, replaced by a dozen other things he doesn't know how to nor will ever articulate.

"…Um," says Chuck.

Oh god, did Chuck see them when they-

Before Dean can finish that line of thought, he shoves the manuscript at Cas and blurts out, “You know anything about this?”

Cas flips through the pages, then frowns and says, “Of course.”

He looks like Sam looks when he thinks that the whole situation is so obvious that he doesn’t need to explain it to Dean. Dean hates that look.

Dean raises his eyebrows. “Well do you mind helping me out with it? Because I am not some cheap paperback character! No offense," he adds to Chuck.

"None taken," Chuck says.

In the tone someone might use when saying the sky is blue, Cas says, "Chuck is a prophet."

"A what?" Dean says.

Chuck chugs the rest of the bottle down.

"A prophet."

The sky may be blue on Cas's end, but it's fucking chartreuse where Dean is. "Seriously? I mean, I know you're an angel, and apparently Heaven and Hell are real, but why would a prophet be writing about me? I haven't exactly accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior."

"You are closer to the word of God than most other beings in the cosmos." Cas looks at Chuck meaningfully. "There is faith in actions."

Chuck is quiet. Dean can't see a lot of faith going on there. "Yeah, sure, Cas. Just read the last page."

Cas does, and comes to the following conclusion: "That doesn't sound like me."

"Right?" Dean says.

Cas looks hesitant. “Perhaps if Chuck dreamed again.”

Chuck throws up his hands. “That’s not how it works!”

+

“So how do we keep this from happening?” Dean grips the steering wheel tightly, fiddles with the tape deck but doesn’t play anything.

“We don’t.” Cas is restless in the passenger seat. “I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself, Dean."

"Really, Cas? From Lilith? I don't think so."

"I think it's as unlikely as you, Dean, but your concern is unwarranted."

"Unwarranted?" Dean jerks the wheel and they pull into the parking lot of a burger joint. "Last time you took on a bigwig demon it was Alastair, and he nearly freaking broke you before you got your grace turned on."

Cas rubs the bridge of his nose, looks away from Dean.

"This demon bitch is bigger and badder, and you're telling me you can take her? And I know you're going to tell me you have the power of Heaven but in case you forgot, that's my brother you're riding, and I'm not about to let you put him in danger. Lilith wants him dead. I'm sure she'd be happy to take you down to get to him."

"The only thing that can kill an angel is another angel."

"Damn it, Cas!" Dean opens the car door with a bang. “I’ve seen you nearly get popped out of Sam and sent back to heaven! Isn’t this your mission? What you were sent down to do, keep Sam under lockdown?”

Cas is silent.

“You know what, screw this.” Dean’s breathing shallowly, staring at a stubborn face whose determined gaze he never could dissuade. “You want to accept the inevitable, then fine. But no matter how things end up I’m going to do my damnedest trying to keep you and Sam safe.”

He can’t read Cas’s face. It’s a complex and layered thing, and he’s got a catalog for the things that face can do. The main one he registers is the old stubborn, condescending, “I’m fine and you’re worried for no reason, I don’t need any help” look. He can’t get past it, not now, when he’s angry and there’s urgent stuff going on.

“Your ability to equivocate for the sake of free will is admirable,” Cas says. “But this is not your prophecy to defy.”

“Like hell it isn’t!” And that’s the last fruitless word he has, cutting off any reply or any last look of pity as he slams the car door.

Dean's protective instincts are worn thin. He's built them up with years of living with Sam and now he's got a rogue angel instead of a brother. He knows how to work with and against his brother, but this is a whole different ballgame.

When Dean lays hex bags around the motel room, Cas raises his eyebrows. "I can protect us, Dean."

"Yeah, but the way Chuck tells it, you're not gonna.”

“Dean.” Cas grabs Dean’s arm. Dean shakes it, uncomfortable at the intent stare, but Cas doesn’t let go. “I know you think I’m walking into a trap, but you need to trust me. I have a plan.”

Dean is breathing heavily, angry and prickly. “What plan?”

And then Cas vanishes without a word.

After rattling off every curse word he knows, Dean calls in his only other angel-sized favor. Anna might not take this destiny crap seriously, but he hopes she’ll think the angelic plan sucks, if willfully falling from Heaven is any clue.

“Anna, hey,” he says to the warped popcorn motel ceiling. “I don’t know if you’re there, but your brother’s about to throw himself at trouble, so -”

The lamp behind him pops and sparks the room into darkness. When Dean turns on the overhead light, he is no longer alone.

“What kind of trouble?” Anna asks.

+

Castiel finds Ruby leaning against the back wall of a bar in Montana, eyeing a game of pool like she’s about to cut in.

“Well, well. You found me.” She holds her beer by the neck of the bottle, thumbs the lip, her tight grip belying her casual drawl. “I swear, officer, I didn’t know how fast I was going.”

“I need your help.”

“Was it hard, swallowing your pride?” He can see her eyes light up but her body is still tense, and she’s checking the exits.

“Ruby.”

Her gaze flicks between his eyes, measuring. “You really do need help.”

“Lilith’s coming for me. For Sam. I need... I need to have Sam’s powers to defeat her.”

Ruby draws back, eyes wide. “Like hell you’re bringing her here!”

“No, not here. But. I need your help.”

“The word you’re looking for is ‘please’.” Castiel’s lips draw back from his teeth, and Ruby sighs. “But I can see you’re in a hurry.” She turns, and he follows her to the restroom.

Jamming the door shut, Ruby pulls out a knife from her boot, holds it to her wrist. Cas can feel his vessel’s heart hammering. She smells like Hell and the smoky beer-soaked bar and, underneath it all, like sulphur-laced iron, her host’s blood alchemized by possession and pumping through her veins. She’s about to make a shallow cut on the underside of her arm, but then pauses, smiles a small smile, and takes his hand. Castiel holds still. Her eyes are on him and his eyes are on her hand, moving his hand to hold his fingertips oh so lightly over the thin skin of her throat where her pulse moves.

“You can feel it, can’t you?” Her voice is warm and low, and she’s clearly enjoying this: Castiel’s discomfort, his sweating desperation. “You’re thirsty. You know what Sam’s body needs. And it’s not just him. It’s what you need, now.”

Castiel doesn’t speak, doesn’t move, just stares down at her. Ruby smiles and makes a shallow cut in the flesh near her throat, draws him down by a handful of hair.

He buries his face in the warm pungent corner of her neck and puts his lips to her skin. He feels the muscles there tense and loosen, tense and loosen, and he sucks the strong, hot stream of her blood.

Ruby still has a hand in his hair, holding him close as she breathes hard and deep. Castiel can feel her chest move against his, the strange jolts of energy mixed with a sick drugged feeling, but above all else power, heady power, rising in him. His hands have found her waist and he only realizes he’s squeezing her when she makes a complaining noise in her throat, pushes one of his hands down to her hip. She hums low in her throat like a sympathetic vibration to the thrum Castiel feels in his vessel’s flesh.

Castiel has had his tastes of temptation, but this is the first time he’s drunk it right up. He must, he’s decided he must, it’s not because he wants to. He doesn’t see Ruby’s smile but feels her low humming like laughter as he flexes his grip on her body and she moves under him, pressed up tight, smooth and sensuous and rich-tasting like smoke.

+

“That’s it?” Dean asks skeptically. “That’s your plan?”

“If it goes wrong, it could get me killed," Anna says. "If it goes right it could still get me killed. I’m not that worried about you.”

Dean crosses his arms. “Gee, thanks.”

“No, Heaven's invested in you for some reason. You'll be safe."

"How sure are you that this will work?"

"Seventy-five percent," she shrugs. "Seventy-six. And a half."

"Son of a bitch."

And that's about all the discussion their rescue plan gets.

Dean recognizes the same lock-and-load attitude in Anna that he's feeling in himself. Their brothers are in danger. She's infuriated with worry and keeps saying "that little shit, I'm going to kill him myself." Dean would have smiled at how often he has been in her position if the fate of the world weren't hanging in the balance. When Cas told that story about Anna, in Virginia, Dean had the benefit of the audience's distance —he could think, then, that deflecting the blame from Cas to herself was stupidly headstrong, but it makes sense now. Of course she would. Of course this is what you do for family.

Dean nods. "Let's go."

Anna touches his shoulder and the parking lot bends into the dank squalor of Chuck's kitchen. The dishes are still hosting their own ecosystem, the counter is still covered in empties, and Chuck is bent over behind his laptop at the kitchen table, typing away.

"Prophet!" Anna yells, and Chuck may or may not have squeaked.

"Wait, what are you doing, what are you-" Chuck babbles as Dean and Anna grab an arm each and lift him from his chair. "I didn't write this!"

"How'd you like to see your story in 3D?" Dean asks.

"How'd you like to stop it?" says Anna.

Chuck says, "I… wouldn't?"

With another gut-wrenching pop, they appear in the motel room where Cas is already on his knees, blood streaming from his nose down his face, and Dean can't stop himself from yelling, "Cas!"

Chuck tries to struggle out of his grip, and when Dean turns to snap at him, he sees that Anna is already gone, as per the plan. It's all up to him now. Or rather, it's all up to Chuck. Or maybe destiny. Lilith, standing over Cas and monologuing like a Bond villain, whirls around. Her eyes are as white as her grin, white as Alastair's.

"Oh, wonderful," she beams. "The main course is almost over and dessert is early."

Dean shoves Chuck forward.

“They made me do it!” Chuck wails, and the room begins to shake.

Through the slats of the window blinds, a white light grows and blots out the world.

“Guess who's coming to dinner,” Dean crows, and Lilith's face twists into rage. He can see the moment Lilith releases her grip on Cas. The angel goes loose and collapses on the floor, shaking as he gasps his breath.

"You think you've won," she spits out, "but you know nothing."

"Bon fucking appetit!"

Dean hears an ear-splitting hum, and it only gets louder and more painful; archangels apparently like to make an entrance. His eyes sting. His bones feel like they're clattering against each other, and his blood feels on the verge of evaporation. Dean can't tell if he's screaming or if his throat has gone raw from the sound alone. Through squinted eyes, he sees the silhouette of Lilith smoking out of her body. She’s taking forever, jesus fucking christ, his ears are on fire and they're all going to die.

And then she’s gone, and the archangel is gone, and the room is engulfed in darkness. Lilith's host falls to the floor. Dean hopes she isn't dead, but he doesn't really have a lot of concern to spare for her right now, or for Chuck, who is curled up in a ball against the wall, muttering incoherently.

Dean scrabbles to Cas and drops to a kneel, dragging Cas's body up against him.

"Cas," he says. His heart pounds in his chest. "Cas, hey. You stupid fucking son of a bitch, wake up!"

“Dean,” he says, opening his eyes. “You aren’t supposed to be here.” He looks so young, eyes blinking and head sagging, and the memory of terror jolts through Dean.

“You’re gonna be okay,” he says, not even resisting the urge to pat him down in familiar ways for injuries. “We got you.”

“I’m not supposed to... Dean. It’s okay.”

It's not okay, it's not fucking okay, because Cas looks fucked up, strung out and like he hasn’t slept in a week, even though it was only earlier that day they argued about destiny’s script over cheeseburgers. Dean can see Cas slipping, shaking, the way he claws at his own skin. Dean grabs his hands. Sam's hazel eyes meet Dean’s and his breath catches, and he doesn’t know, Dean just doesn't know if he can do this again. He's felt the life go out of Sam's body once, and if it happens again, Dean will follow after, swear to god. He can already feel the same terrible panic, inspiring the same terrible instinct. He can already imagine eyes glowing red, welcoming him home.

"Let me go," Cas slurs.

"The hell did you do to yourself?" Dean demands.

"I needed to stop her." Cas sounds much fainter now. "It was the only way."

“What was?”

Cas’s head jolts up again and his breathing slows. “I’m fine."

“'Course you’re fine. You're peachy keen and your plan to gank Lilith totally worked.”

Cas wrenches out of Dean's grip and miraculously sits up, straining with the effort not to topple. “Was… was Anna here?”

“She had the plan that saved your ass," Dean snaps. "Cas, you need to shut up and lie down.”

Cas closes his eyes again, and shakes off Dean's hands when they touch him. “I - we - fine. Fine, I’m not fine. Dean, I'm sorry, I should have-”

“If you're not telling what the hell's got you all messed up, then you need shut your yap and calm the fuck down." Okay, calm down, Winchester. Next part of the plan. Dean lifts his head, and prays his damndest. "Anna, coast is clea-”

A bright flash of light interrupts him, followed by a mirror-shattering crack of sound that splits the air and makes Dean clap his hands to his ears in pain. When Dean opens his eyes, the last of a white glow fades from Cas’s eyes and mouth as he breathes out, “Anael.” When the spots fade from Dean's vision, Anna is in the room, hair flying and looking like she just ran twenty miles.

"Castiel?" she says. "Dean, how is he? Cas?"

"You tell me," Dean says. "He looks like shit."

Anna notices that the blood around Cas's mouth. Dean assumed it was Cas's - Sam's - own blood, but Anna touches it, inspects the red on his fingers, and then her face goes dark and she rubs her hands on tacky motel carpet.

"What is it?" Dean demands.

"Demon blood," Anna says tightly. "Castiel, you idiot, demon blood."

"What does that mean? What do you mean it's demon blood?"

But Anna ignores Dean's question. She holds Cas's face in her hands, inspecting his face, and Cas turns to her, leans into her touch. When she gathers him into her arms, he doesn't even struggle. Dean watches them with his heart in his mouth, takes in the way Cas closes his eyes and sinks into Anna's embrace, and suddenly he wants that, wants what they have, what's been taken from him.

Anna takes Cas's arm and slings it over her shoulders. She's got angel strength, and it looks almost funny, her lifting a huge Sam-shaped hulk. Anna's lips thin. "He's weak, but. He'll be all right."

"What do you mean it's demon blood?" Dean demands again.

"I'll contact you when I can," Anna says.

With what seems to be great difficulty, Cas turns his eyes to him, and says, "Dean-"

The angels vanish, leaving Dean with nothing but his heartbeat in his ears and the quavery voice behind him saying, "This chapter's gonna be a pain in the ass to rewrite."

+

Dean hasn't seen Cas since, but Anna does stop by - finally, after Dean's volley of infuriated prayers - and confirm at least a few worst-case scenarios, and all Dean can say after a brief stunned silence is, "What do you mean he drank it?"

"He mixed it with some spritzer and sipped it through a straw. You want me to draw you a picture?"

"What does that do to Sam?"

"I don't know."

"Is Cas gonna be okay?"

"He won’t die."

They're in a cheap motel just off a backwoods road in some bumfuck county where Dean is ostensibly checking out a local haunting, except he mostly stays inside and goes through six-packs. Anna took in the scattered empties around the room with a cool eye when she showed up, but Dean has no space inside him to feel self-conscious. There are bigger fish.

"Whose blood is it?" Dean asks.

Anna says, "That, I don't know."

And on top of all this, Heaven was now riding Cas's ass, which, wow, no way, you mean Heaven's not fine with angels defying prophecy?

One fucking thing after another. While Dean is up by Lake Michigan and trying to decide what to do about Cas, the glove compartment starts to ring. Dad's phone, some teenager on the line.

It's a hell of a call.

Dean wouldn't have risen to it any other time, but his life really is a trashy paperback novel, and maybe the guy who calls and says he’s the long-lost Winchester brother really is. Dean tries to tell himself it’s only a missing-persons case, and he’s hardly in danger of getting attached to the kid. They’ve got nothing in common. Hell, as far as Dean’s concerned, from what he’s heard about Adam’s ballgames and birthdays childhood, they didn’t even have the same dad.

When Dean finally drops the “coworker” pretense, Adam’s eyes widen and he almost smiles, despite the fact that Dean’s been giving him a horrible time for someone who just found out his absent father is dead, not to mention pointing a gun with consecrated iron rounds at him under the table. “We’re - wow. I’m your brother?”

Dean says, too harshly, “I already have a brother.”

So, sure, it’s only a case, until Adam nearly gets pulled under his truck by a ghoul. Then Dean finds himself forced to put one of his guns in the kid’s hand and teach him something about defending his life.

When Dean thinks about a normal life, not a house in the suburbs but one where his family is safe, he expects he’d see it in Adam’s life. When Adam tells him about the baseball games, Dean feels a rage at what he and Sam were given from their father and what came to be the only thing Dean expected the man could give: high expectations, tough love, denial of the basic delights and privileges of baseball games. With Sam and Dean, John spent any extra thirty bucks on ammo, not tickets to the game.

It’s out here, in the woods behind the Milligans’ house, that Dean finally doesn’t see some lucky punk who has no idea how screwed the world is. Adam shrinks out here, like everyone shrinks in the outdoors under weak overcast sun, but his eyes are squinting hard, sleepless and sunken. Dean sees a lonely kid who had only his mom to love and take care of in this world, and now no one.

Dean wants this kid to have a normal life, wishes like hell that Adam and his mom had been happy forever so Dean would’ve never had to meet them and know this part of their father. But that’s not the case, so here Dean is, looking at another Winchester kid with monsters on his tail. If anything can bring him to terms with Adam’s life it’s that this proves him right, there’s some fucking family curse.

Adam doesn’t know how to shoot a handgun. He’s only shot squirrels with BB guns when he was a kid, he says ruefully when Dean asks. Of course this kid doesn’t know about monsters. He’s never killed a man. Never tortured a demon.

“Yeah, hold it like that,” Dean says. Adam shuffling around at Dean’s directions, it’s like having a little brother again, and the thought is like sandpaper on a wound. There’s no similarity between Adam and Sam but sue Dean if he sees reminders of Sam everywhere. Takes ‘em where he can get ‘em.

“You going to college?” Dean asks.

“Yeah.”

“Whaddaya study?”

“Biology. Pre-med, I guess.” Adam shrugs between shots.

“Well, keep doing that. Hunting’s not the life.”

“Our dad was a hunter. Besides, the more people know, the better, right?”

“No, not right!” Dean scowls. “Listen, hunting’s a shit life, and Dad was a shit dad a lot of the time. Get a job, earn some money for you and your mom, don’t give all this up. You don’t know,” Dean says, wants to say you don’t know Dad but presses down on the rage that would boil up with it. “Don’t get in, because you can’t ever get out.”

“I don’t care about in or out,” Adam says, because he doesn’t get it, he’ll never fucking get it. “I just want my mom back.”

“That’s what... that’s what Sam said. When we were first looking for our dad, when he was in trouble, years back. Sam was going to go back to college, till... well.” Till Dad died and everything changed. He can’t explain this all to Adam, doesn’t know why the hell he started talking about it. It isn’t for Adam to know.

He can’t talk about Sam, the way he was back then, barely older than Adam and all bright-eyed. Still expecting so much from the world—order, domestic bliss, the things you make on your own from a career and a nest egg, raise a home and a family. Sam young and still thinking that once things change they can change for the better.

“Till Dad died?” Adam asks.

“Forget it.” Dad died and Sam was stuck with me. He doesn’t want to tell Adam this, that your parents die in nighttime disasters and they don’t come back. That disaster will chase you across highways your entire life. “You think you don’t have anything left to lose, but kid, you’re still human.”

Adam’s probably rolling his eyes or some shit. Dean doesn’t have time to be a warning to the youth of today. He discharges the cartridge from his own gun and spends the next ten minutes putting holes in pop cans and fence posts in silence.

+

Of course it was a trap. Dean will beat himself up about it later, getting played by a couple of ghouls, but it shakes him harder than he thought. He’d thought that one of their family could get out, emerge unscathed except for that first toll of death in the family. No, the moral of the story here is that everyone is a monster. The best among them is Sam, who at least tried to escape, who surrendered to a higher power thinking it could save him from the demon blood in his veins. Cas says Heaven will save them, but Cas has already succumbed to Sam’s baser instincts, and Hell has made Dean into a new animal.

The demon screams, and Dean lets it scream. When it runs out of breath, Dean says, in a calm and measured voice, "Tell me where Lilith is."

"I don't know," it wails, but demons lie.

Dean didn't come to this hunt meaning to tie a demon down and ask him questions. Any other time he would’ve exorcised it, or even called Cas down to smite it, but this time Dean tied the broken bloody demon in ropes soaked in holy water and threw it in a devil's trap. There is work to be done.

Alastair's voice echoes in his head as Dean slices under the soft skin of the demon's belly, telling him he is so proud. You were always my favorite. Dangling his family before him, all they gave to save him and keep him from this, how right Dean had always been that he’d prove unworthy of their love. My good boy.

Suddenly, behind him: "Dean, what are you doing?"

"Shut up, Sam."

Cas shoves him aside and lays his hand on the demon's forehead, and Dean shields his eyes as the demon screams its last. What is left is the mangled corpse of a man, something from a horror movie. Dean moves before he realizes he's moving. He whirls on Cas, fist aiming for the jaw, but the angel dodges easily and catches Dean's hand in a palm that is hard as rock.

"Dean-"

"Fuck you. You fucking—fuck—"

Dean tries again, and again, knowing he won't land any blows that'll hurt Cas more than they hurt him. He's not attacking with any kind of precision, and Cas dodges and deflects with a kind of stiff efficiency that looks alien on Sam, whose movements were always so fluid. Cas isn't really fighting back at all, staying just out of Dean's reach with a look on his face he can't quite decipher.

"Dean."

That the plea sounds so much like Sam only angers him more. He doesn't want to think about Sam. He doesn't want to see Cas, and he doesn't want to think about Sam. There is one thing on his mind, and the darkness it contains has been sustaining him ever since Lilith.

He twists and throws a right hook, and Cas grabs his wrist and uses Dean's momentum to swing him around and slam him back against the wall.

"Stop it," Cas hisses. "What are you doing?"

Dean just breathes for a few seconds, eyes closed. Cas is warm and steady against him, and the comfort he finds in the solidity outweighs his instinct to fight back. "Doing the job," Dean grates out. "What does it look like?"

"You don't-"

"Sorry I didn't keep this one fresh so you could eat it."

"You don't need to do this anymore. Dean, look at me."

"Oh, so now I don't need to be torturing anymore," Dean bursts out. "Now. Right."

"Look at me."

So Dean looks up. To his dismay, he finds himself facing a mirror expression of his own desperation and guilt. Cas looks as frightened as he is, and Dean wants to say serves you right, but instead he calms himself down enough to rasp, "You're supposed to be watching out for Sam. You're supposed to protect him from that shit, and then - and then you go and do this, Cas, jesus."

Cas has nothing to say to that, just a wounded expression. He relaxes the grip on Dean, so Dean relaxes too, but Cas doesn't let go and Dean doesn't move away.

"So they let you out of detox, huh?" Dean mutters.

"Anna doesn't know I'm here."

"Why did you do it?" He hates the way his voice sounds.

"To stop Lilith. To stop all this." Cas looks at Dean with a look of determination and resignation. "There have been enough people hurt."

"Including Sam, Cas." Dean swallows. "Including you."

"Including you," Cas says softly.

Free will, in the hands of those who are not used to it, becomes a dangerous weapon.

With surprising tenderness, Cas shifts one hand from Dean's shoulder to brush his fingers against his neck. Dean closes his eyes and leans his head back against the wall. He doesn't lean into the touch, doesn't move away. Cas slides his hand up to cup his cheek, and Dean trembles.

This human touch. Dean remembers Cas's true form and the encompassing love of an angel. Castiel had wrapped around him, and for that night the angel smoothed away his anxieties and blew away the darkness in his mind, kept him close, warm, safe, saved. Dean longs for that now. He wants the promise before it was broken, before his hands picked up the knife.

He wants the incandescence of an angel unsheathed from its human vessel.

He wants Sam.

The human body traps them all.

"Cas, why did you save me if all you were gonna do is turn me back into this?" Dean asks.

"I'm sorry," Cas says. "Dean, you don't know how sorry I am."

"You're not." Dean rubs his eyes with the heels of his hands, and then he looks at Cas blearily, suddenly twice as exhausted. Choose, he wants to say. Be Castiel, be Sam, don't be both. He wants to tell Cas to zap them back to his motel room so Dean can pull him down, kiss him, feel him, get as deep in him the only way he can think of. But none of that will change anything.

He doesn't realize he's still holding the knife in his hands until Cas gently takes it from him. Dean looks at his hands, remembers the way things fell into place when he sunk his knife into the writhing demon— how it felt like anger, but more than that, it felt like coming home.

Maybe it's true. Maybe you can never really escape the worst of yourself. Monsters will be monsters, even if they didn't start out that way. Once you pick up the knife, it's hard to stop. What if there's no saving Sam? Just like there’s no saving Dean? Every attempt to save Dean Winchester just ends up with someone else getting fucked over.

He belongs in Hell. If he didn't before, he does now.

Dean asks, "Is Sam okay in there?"

"He's fine."

Dean is unconvinced.

"He's fine," Cas snaps, and suddenly sways unsteadily on his feet.

Dean starts forward. "What was that?"

"It's to be expected.” Cas rights himself, wobbles. “Demon blood has an adverse effect on angels."

Dean’s temper flares again. "Color me shocked."

Cas sways and almost falls over, and Dean reacts reflexively, catching him halfway. "Hey," he says, holding him up and leading him to sit on the floor. "Jesus, Cas." Dean holds Cas's face in his hands, checking his pupils. His skin is warm, his breathing quickened and shallow. Cas covers Dean's hand with his own and looks up at him.

Sam in danger, Sam hurt - it's always been Dean’s Achilles' heel and the sight is no different now, even if there is an angel behind that pained gaze. That makes it worse. He doesn't know how to get through Cas to get to Sam, doesn't know how to get through Sam to get to Cas. They’ll be the end of him.

"Shit, Cas," Dean murmurs. "What have you done?" He is tired. He is so tired and drained and empty and he wishes he could be angrier, but he keeps remembering forty years in Hell. No one escapes what they are.

Cas replies, "What was necessary."

+

They haven't talked since the demon in the warehouse, and Dean doesn't know whether to be relieved or pissed. He's stopped praying to him just in case Cas doesn't answer, but also in case he does. Whatever, it's a two-way street: there's been nothing but radio silence from Cas either.

When there is a simple salt and burn outside of Cincinnati, he ends up dragging Ruby along. She is acerbic and patronizing, but pretty good at lying to cops. She's a quick-thinker and a go-getter, and on hunts sometimes that's all you need.

"Dean, behind you!" Ruby yells, and Dean shoots it just in time.

He finds himself thinking, Maybe this is what Sam sees in her.

"Yeah, well, don't get used to it," Ruby says when they’re finished. She shrugs off her jacket to shake out the grave dirt, and that's when Dean sees it: the bruising cut at the base of her neck. It looks new.

Dean feels sick.

"Don't get yourself killed now," Ruby says, and disappears before he can ask questions.

That night, Dean dreams of a lake and a quickly darkening sky.

It doesn't surprise him to hear the beat of wings. What does surprise him is that when he turns around, it's not his brother's silhouette he sees.

"Nice job, Romeo." Anna glares at him and the sky cracks thunder, which is unfair because this is his dream and shouldn't the pathetic fallacy be centered on him and not on intruding angels with a bone to pick? What did he even do? He asks her this, and Anna replies, "My brother, apparently."

"What?"

"Come on, Dean!" she yells. "Bedford, Iowa? The siren? Or, after the siren?" She raises her eyebrows meaningfully.

Oh. Shit.

"The angels are already pissed at him for the Lilith thing, and now this and now everything's fucked. They dragged him back to Heaven and everything's fucked."

"Wait, how did they-? Were they -" Dean holds up his hand. "I can explain. It's not my fault."

Her fury wavers. For a second, Dean sees the terrified girl hiding out in her church, hunted by Heaven and Hell and on the verge of losing everything. In a voice full of trembling, Anna replies, "I know."

Dean swallows, rallies his thoughts. "Look. We'll get him back-"

"Dean, I don't know what they're going to do." Her voice cracks. "I should've known, we should've-"

"Anna, slow down." He grabs her shoulders and looks her in the eye. "Hey. We'll find him, okay?"

"You will," she says. "You'll find him. I'm public enemy number one right now, I can't go after him or they’ll come after me too, they’ll come after us both. Dean, please."

"Okay.” Dean takes a deep breath. “Okay, where was he the last time you guys talked?"

"On his way to see you.”

Dean's expression falters.

She raises a hand and touches two fingers to his forehead, and then he wakes up, the address burned into his mind.

+

The place looks like a bomb went off in it. Dean makes his way through the wreckage as quickly and quietly as he can, thinking shit shit shit, thinking now you've done it, Winchester. Of all the times to not keep it in his pants-

Where the hell is Cas?

There's a banishing sigil on the wall, still fresh.

Shit shit shit -

"Cas?" he calls out. "Hey! Ollie ollie oxen free!"

A shower of sparks fall from the remaining lightbulb, and there is movement at the corner of his eye.

There's something about the sight of Sam's body lying prone that triggers a violent reaction in him. It's terrifying. He rushes to Cas's side. "Cas? Hey, Cas." It weakens him with rage. "Wake up, man, come on." He checks to see if there are any broken bones, if he's breathing. Even if that shouldn't matter for a creature like Cas, this is Sam’s body he’s holding. He has to do something.

"Come on!" Dean says, louder than he means to. "Shit, I'll buy you dinner next time, okay? Cas-"

Cas startles awake with a gasp and Dean catches his flailing limbs. He notices the shortness of breath and he’s worried. Cas has never been short of breath before.

"Hey, you're okay," Dean pleads. "Cas, you're okay, hey."

"Dean-"

"The hell happened here?"

But Cas just keeps saying 'Dean, Dean', clutching blindly at the arms holding him up. He looks at Dean and then his whole body goes rigid. The expression on his face is one of utter shock.

"Dean," Cas says, voice crackling, and Dean holds his breath. "You're back, he brought you back."

Quietly, reverently, as if the moment might go away at any second, Dean says, "Sam?"

And Sam grins. "Hey." He chokes out a laugh, and then he says, "Hey," and holds on to Dean's shoulders so hard it hurts. "You're back."

More than half a year of treading water and suddenly Dean doesn't know if he's drowning or found dry land. "Sammy? Don't fuck with me now."

This is it, this is the moment he’s waited the better part of a year to have, and now that it’s here, he barely knows what to do with it. But Dean’s body moves of its own volition. The next thing he knows, he and his brother are clutching each other in the middle of a destroyed warehouse, mirror images of relieved disbelief, saying the same things: "you're back", "I'm here", each other's names.

+

It's so strange.

It's so strange to be back in the world again, and he didn't realize the parts of it he took for granted before. Small things, like the smell of leather and the color of Dean's hair. His brother herds him out of the warehouse and Sam tries to keep up on wobbly legs, but outside he has to stop. He resists Dean's pull and he looks up at the sky, at the stars, with his own human eyes.

The world is made anew. His own body astonishes him. In the car, Sam asks Dean if they could get some food and then spends the whole drive inspecting his hands, the way they open and close when he wants them to. His own body. He looks at Dean, then reaches out and touches his arm, just because he can. Solid and warm. Sam wants him so much closer. He wants to be somewhere where he can pull Dean close and touch and have and know, affirm: yes, this is my brother, he has returned to me.

Be cool, Winchester.

"What's up?" Dean asks.

"Everything," Sam says. He rolls down the window and lets the wind throw road dust in his face. "Look at this. It's a beautiful world."

"Okay, Ken Kesey," Dean says, but Sam can hear the smile in his voice. "Guess Cas kept you under lock and key pretty tight, huh?"

"Cas?"

"Castiel. The angel. You know, the one you sicced on me in hell."

Sam's mouth quirks. "Oh, so he's Cas now?"

"Sometimes he's 'asshole'. Hey, uh." Dean meets Sam's eyes in the rearview mirror. "Speaking of which, you wouldn't happen to know where he went, wouldja?"

Sam had assumed Castiel had gone back to heaven, or wherever it is angels go when they're done with their deals. He thought this ordeal was over and that things could go back to the way they were. One look at Dean's face tells him otherwise; he knows that attempt to keep a neutral expression. His stomach drops.

"What happened?" Sam asks.

Dean shakes his head.

"Tell me."

"You don't remember anything?" Dean asks. "From your possession, anything? Like, did he tell you stuff? Could you hear things?"

"No, nothing," Sam says, but he says it hesitantly because there is something niggling at the corner of his mind - a house, stairs that go forever, someone else's hands turning the pages of a book. It is an odd image, and he can attach nothing else to it, so he lets it go. He remembers, almost, a red-hot panic and the desperate need to get to Dean, but he figures this has been his default state anyway. So he says, "Nada. Zilch."

Dean swallows, readjusts his grip on the wheel, and sits back in his seat. "Yeah?"

"Dean, where's Castiel?"

Dean just gives him a long considering look in the rearview mirror. "I'll tell you later."

"Dean-"

"I said later. Look, we're here."

The diner, for all that it is your garden-variety shitty highway dinner, is lit up in rainbows and hallelujah choruses as far as Sam is concerned. He looks at Dean and says, "You're lucky I'm hungry," but can't seem to retain a disapproving tone.

Sam's already gone through a burger and a fried chicken dinner, and now the waitress is bringing him a slice of pecan pie the size of his head. It's incredible, this pie. Everything is incredible. He tells Dean to have a taste, but Dean declines, sitting back and watching him eat.

"What?" Sam had asked when he was halfway through the fried chicken. "What are you laughing at?"

"I can't smile now?"

"You can do whatever," Sam said, and returned to chicken.

If Sam weren't busy with the business of stuffing food into his mouth, he thinks he would have the same goofy grin on his face.

"I'm gonna end up heimliching something out of you, I can see it already," Dean says when Sam starts in on the pie. "So how do you feel?"

"I feel great," he replies around a mouthful of pecan.

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Why wouldn't I be?"

"No, like… headaches? Or anything? Visions?"

Sam frowns. "What, because of Castiel?"

Dean's mouth tightens into a line. "Yeah, maybe. How does the whole… y'know. Powers thing work if Cas isn't there?"

"I don't know. I don't intend to find out." He waves his fork at Dean. "So you're like. On a Cas-name basis with my angel now?"

"Oh, he's your angel?"

"He was the one riding me for like - how long has it been?"

"It's April now," says Dean.

"April," Sam says contemplatively. Wow.

Dean clears his throat. "Sam, listen. Um. Is Cas… I mean, what's the last thing you remember before waking up?"

"I'm gonna go with getting possessed."

Dean rubs his mouth and looks out the window.

Sam looks at him, taking in the stress lines at his. Then he says, "So tell me about him. The angel."

Dean seems surprised at the request. He frowns at Sam as if he might have a hidden agenda, but Sam just eats his pie and waits for his brother to acquiesce. After a few seconds of Dean making whatever calculations in his head, he tells Sam his stories.

At first Dean is reticent; it's like pulling teeth. They did some hunts together, apparently - a chupacabra here, an ifrit there. Sam asks questions and prods insistently, hungry for what he's missed, and with each answer, Dean begins to unwind. His responses become more ponderous, and soon Sam doesn’t need to ask as many questions. The ominous silence that clouded over Dean the whole car ride began to dissipate as he loses himself in tall tales, the telling of them, the remembering of them.

"You'd like Anna," Dean says after telling him about that whole debacle. "She’s good people. Pretty hot, too."

Sam rolls his eyes.

But he sits back, enjoys the show. Dean has a way about him when he's telling stories. When Sam was a kid, he used to think Dean was really shitty at it, but that's because Dean was always telling half-forgotten bedtime stories or reciting a chronology of facts to help Sam study for school tests. When Dean gets into telling real stories, ones that matter to him, his entire demeanor changes.

"The Wagon Wheel?" Sam echoes. "The one with the salt pork?"

"Yeah," Dean grins. "And angels don’t eat, right, I mean they usually don’t, but I told him I wouldn’t let him leave the joint until he’s tried some."

It's so strange, listening to Dean talk about his adventures, his past many months hanging out with Castiel. Sam knows the angel in terms of burning wheels and thousands of eyes, but Dean's talking about sitting in diners with the fucking thing. The angel, Sam's angel, eating salt pork with his brother.

And then Dean tells a story about a siren out in Iowa, the hot doctor who brushed off all his advances, and the FBI agent who wasn’t what he seemed. And then he goes suddenly quiet.

Sam raises his eyebrows. "So? Did you gank it?"

"Yeah." Dean clears his throat. "Yeah, Cas smote the crap out of it. It's dead."

"Sounds like he could put us out of a job, man."

"That's what I said!"

Dean’s smile is genuine again, and Sam can't help but feel a creeping jealousy - not of Castiel, but of Dean. Sam's the one who let the angel into his body, but Dean's the one who gives it a nickname. Sam’s the one who said yes, but Dean’s the one who drinks beer with it after hunts.

If anyone would, Dean would.

Sam began to believe in prayer because something brought Dad home at the end of every hunt, something kept him and Dean safe while he was gone. Dean insisted it was all Dad keeping them safe, but Sam knew that bad things can happen to anyone, and even strong smart people can die in fires, especially people like John who chase the fires down. So maybe Castiel was right, that Sam has a lot of faith, but he just keeps remembering how hungering for Dean last summer translated so easily into hungering after the thing that could save him, and how relieved Sam felt to be consumed by the light, whom he thought had long rejected him.

"You know what?" Dean says, tapping his fingers on the table. "You should give Bobby a call."

Sam's eyes widen. "Bobby! Bobby, right, god, how is he?"

"Chuggin' it and thuggin' it. He leads a hard-knock life, dontcha know." Dean pats his pockets. "Ah, shit. Left my phone in the car. Be right back."

"'Kay," Sam says as Dean slides out of the booth.

"Don't get possessed," Dean orders, pointing accusatorily at him as if it's the first thing on Sam's to-do list.

"Kay," Sam says, and orders another coffee.

At the door of the diner, Dean pauses and looks over his shoulder. Sam pulls a goofy grin and gives him a thumbs-up. His brother sometimes, Sam swears to god. But then Dean smiles, and it's that sincere broken-open smile that makes Sam's stomach twist and his heart hurt. It hits him again: he's back, Dean's back, they're back. Sam smiles too. Nothing's going to tear them apart again, not if he can help it.

Dean pushes open the diner door and disappears into the night.

+

Dean's cellphone is in his pocket. Bobby can wait.

There's no one in the parking lot, but he goes around the side of the building anyway, where the Impala's parked. His stomach feels queasy, and the familiar sight of his baby is somehow a comfort. He unlocks the door and gets in the driver's seat. Then he says, "Cas."

A car with a bad engine drives on the main road, revving and rattling along.

"Cas, are you there? Uh." He licks his lips. "Our father who art in heaven, shit, I don't know this crap, man. Cas, quit screwing around. Castiel."

It occurs to Dean that this is how most people pray. They talk and talk to someone who may or may not be listening, and who knows when you're going to get an answer or if you ever will? When Dean prays, he doesn't fall back on faith. These past few months, he didn't need to. He spoke to the world trusting that his words will find Cas, wherever he is, and they usually did. Sooner or later, there the angel would be, six foot four of muscle and celestial power who looks and feels like home.

Cas doesn’t answer back this time.

"Listen," says Dean. "Your sister's real worried about you. We're both, uh… But Sam's okay. It's been… he's great. We're great. Doesn’t seem like you fucked him up too bad, so uh. Take care of yourself. Drop us a line when you can." He hesitates. "Hey, about Bedford…" What can he possibly say? "Just… y'know. Take care."

As an afterthought, he adds, "Amen."

He sits there in silence for a while.

Dean takes a deep breath and gets out the car. He takes his phone out of his pocket, flips it open and scrolls down to Bobby's number.

It's two in the morning, so Bobby answers with a growly sleep-fuzzed, "What?"

"Bobby," Dean says, walking back to the diner. He sees Sam through the window, sipping coffee, and inexorably, miraculously here. "Bobby, you'll never guess what."

Chapter Text

One thing at a time, Dean tells himself as they get back in the car. One thing at a time.

And maybe that's a weird thing to tell himself, because for once, it really is just one thing here, just Sam, no heaven or hell inside him. Just Sam, and Dean soaks him up - the way he moves, the quick humor in his face, and Dean keeps remembering oh yes, that is how Sam smiles, that is how Sam laughs, and that is how he eats a second slice of pecan pie in like twenty seconds, jesus, where is the kid putting it all?

It's Sam, really Sam, and meanwhile Cas is god knows where, getting court martialed for things Dean isn't sure he ever can or ever should tell his brother.

There's a part of him that just wants to keep driving and never stop, take him and Sam far away from all this, never give whatever’s behind them a chance to catch up. He just wants things to be uncomplicated again. Dean just keeps reaching for that touchstone: his little brother, knees splayed in the car as he looks out the window at everything they pass. Sam absently touches back, hand over his hand. Dean's elated and heartsick and suddenly back at home all at once, and all he wants is one safe place to breathe. Being with Sam again makes him realize how hard he's been running himself into the ground.

There's another part of Dean that keeps thinking about the look on Anna's face when she asked him to help. He doesn’t know if he has the heart to leave her hanging, having been in her shoes too many times before.

Most parts of Dean are thinking about how he knows how it feels to be inside his brother. Just one more thing he can't forgive himself for.

Dean knows he won't be able to sleep, and he suspects Sam won't either. They don't even talk about going to a bar, getting drinks, playing darts. Sam says he wants a shower, so Dean drives them back to the motel.

"…What?" Dean says, resurfacing from his thoughts and realizing Sam is waiting for a reply to a question he asked.

Sam looks at him strangely. "You okay, man?"

"I'm fine," he says, and he doesn't mean to sound so sharp.

Sam hesitates like he doesn't believe Dean, but in the end he doesn't pursue it. He leans his head back against the headrest and closes his eyes, and Dean takes in the line of his throat with his eyes, remembering how it tastes, the way Cas went pliable under him and breathed his name.

Dean looks back at the road.

They reach the motel in the middle of the night and Sam takes his shower with the bathroom door as Dean lies on his back on one of the beds consumed by every thought he's been trying to suppress since Iowa.

“Do I have any clean clothes?” Sam calls out.

“Depends on what you mean by clean,” Dean calls back.

“God, Dean, you didn’t -”

“No, calm down, I didn’t put them away dirty and I didn’t throw them away. They’ve just been in the trunk for a while.” He digs out one of his bigger t-shirts, longer jeans, lets Sam deal with his own musty underwear, and tosses them into the steamy bathroom. Then, restless but not willing to let Sam out of his sight yet, he sits down on the bed closest to the door to clean guns that don’t need cleaning.

Sam steps out soon, hair toweled as dry as it’ll get. He clicks the door shut behind him and suddenly the room feels very quiet. Sam pads forward on bare feet, ankles showing in Dean’s still-too-short jeans. He stops at the end of the bed, kicks a duffle bag. Dean stands to set his gun down on the table and then pauses there with his back to the door.

He is barely a couple of strides away. Dean's gut knows this, and knows the amount of movement it would take for him to walk over there and grab Sam by the shoulders, hold his face, lower it and press their bodies together. How close Dean would like to be. Dean stays standing there with his back to the door, lost in thinking it’s Sam, it’s Sam, having to remind himself of something that he’s never been so incredulous about before.

Sam asks "What now," like he's already agreed to whatever it is Dean has planned. Dean doesn’t have anything planned for them.

When he finally looks at Sam, he doesn't expect his brother to look as raw as Dean feels. It's that same barely restrained energy from the year before, but with none of the fear, just a patience on the verge of admitting its own desire. Dean is shocked to see it, then pretends he doesn’t in case his eyes are playing tricks, in case his heart is playing tricks. There have been too many crossed wires.

If no one says anything, Dean thinks, nothing's actually happening.

When Dean takes a step towards him, Sam just watches, defusing nothing. Waiting. In Sam's eyes is the brittleness clear in someone trying to appear otherwise.

If no one admits anything, Dean thinks.

Affirmation through inaction? Or just Dean’s overactive imagination, fueled by want?

In a voice trying to keep steady, Sam says, "It's okay."

Dean wants to say it isn't, it really isn't, don't okay things you don't know about, things I'll never let you understand, but instead he closes the distance between them and closes his eyes because Sam is right there and Dean is exhausted and finally able to rest. He sags against the door, gripping the knob for support, grabs the corner of Sam's shirt as Sam crowds him against it, keeping him standing with a hand on his neck, a hand on his side, knees knocking against knees. Sam's got his leg nearly pressed between Dean's, so close, and Dean doesn't know why Sam is still flirting around it. His nose is pressed to Dean's forehead and his mouth right on Dean’s skin, slow and careful like he's hoarding a precious resource, like this is a moment he has to make last of his own power, because who knows when ever again.

His stomach still feels strung-out, sick and nervous, not for how strange this is, but for how familiar. He and Sam's body have a secret between them that they're keeping from Sam. No matter what Sam knows, he wasn’t there, he hasn’t run it over in his mind the thousand times Dean tried not to. Dean knows Sam's body better now, because Cas has touched him with those hands and pressed him to that chest. He can't shake the feeling that he has an unfair advantage, or a disadvantage, since he is suddenly shy and thrown by the inevitability of this first intentional encounter, the idea that yes they are going to do this.

Sam says in his ear, “I would have, I would’ve, and now I can Dean, please.”

“Sam.” Dean feels warm inside, like he’s had a few beers, but he’s not remotely drunk. “Sam, please-"

"- stupid, I can do anything now, Dean – we can do anything. If you."

Dean can barely process it; he barely has enough presence to stand. Dean grabs Sam's shirt which is technically Dean’s shirt, not soft and worn yet, too thick between their skins. He feels at Sam's waist and his neck, shoves his face under Sam’s jaw and bumps his nose against Sam’s clean-shaven throat, smells the soap and sweat there.

He wants to listen to Sam talk soft and fervent like calming something spooked, like coaxing him out with yearning. He want the cadence and the rise and fall of his voice, he wants to listen to Sam all night long, he wouldn't even mind breathing Sam's breath over and over again, feeling that one shirt of his on Sam that Sam always coveted. He wants to stay here in this moment and pretend to have no secrets except the one they are about to make.

If Cas comes back, Dean will lose this. Lose Sam. He’s never thought twice before in his life about what he’d give to have Sam back, so now, the idea of arbitrating it, Cas or Sam, he’s just not fucking equipped. It’s never really been his choice, though, and this much was made clear to him that night in the barn. It made him angry. Now it just makes him scared.

There are so few things that are Dean’s. Maybe this can be one of them.

Sam takes Dean’s hips and moves him, turns him towards the bed, backs him up towards the mattress and presses him down steadily with the careful weight of his body. They watch for every shift in expression, neither of them wanting to look away. Dean tilts his hips up and Sam slots a leg between Dean’s and they pause, taking it all in.

“You better make your move, or I swear...” Dean rasps.

Sam sneaks the edge of his hand down the front of Dean’s jeans, sliding his long fingers down into the hollow beside Dean’s hip. "Last chance to turn back.”

Dean tugs at him and Sam pitches forward into Dean’s neck. Dean can feel his mouth against his skin, and then Sam is coming back up to kiss him and yes, this, god, this.

+

Sam’s phone ringing wakes him up. He wants really badly to turn it off and roll over, nudge his arm up next to Dean’s and fall back asleep to that comfort. He wants to shut the world out. He deserves this respite.

The glowing screen blinks ‘Ruby’. Sam squints at it, then turns it off. He gets up and pulls on jeans, zips on a coat, and steps outside as quietly as he can to call her back.

He hasn’t lost that worried feeling.

“Ruby?” He rounds the corner and leans against the soda machine. “What’re you-”

“Sam? That really you?”

“Yeah. Yeah, it’s me.” He rubs his eyes. “Ruby, what-”

“Hey, buddy, good to hear you again and all, but no time to chat. You better get out of there now.”

“What?”

“There are demons after you.”

Sam scoffs. “Yeah, what else is new.”

“Did you not hear me?” she snaps, and Sam is too familiar with that tone. He may have spent the better part of a year with an angel in his head, but he still knows how to tell when Ruby means business. “You need to get out. Where’s Dean?”

“In the...” Sam’s stomach drops, and runs back to the door, shoving his key wildly at the lock till he can wrench the door open.

But Dean is already gone, bed empty, covers flat.

“Ruby, what the hell?” Sam can hear the panic in his own voice, the tired and angry grit coming out.

She makes an irritated sound. “I tried to warn you!”

“Did you? Because the way I see it, if I hadn’t picked up, Dean and I would be just fine fighting a couple demons right now.” Sam’s already throwing stuff in a duffel bag as he talks.

“No, you’d both be caught with your pants down. That’s why I woke you up. You’re the one who walked away.”

“Fuck you.” Sam pushes his hair back and pinches the bridge of his nose. “Whose side are you on, Ruby? Because it looks like -”

“I don’t care what it looks like. Ask Dean whose side I’m on when you go walk into that trap they’re setting for you. There’s a nice price on your head, Sam, and you’ll thank me when they -”

His phone rings, cutting her off.

“I’ll thank you if we survive,” Sam says, and hangs up on her to catch the incoming call. It’s Dean’s number. “Dean, where are you?”

“Wouldn’t you like to know?” It’s a woman’s voice, not Dean’s, of course it’s not Dean’s, fuck, motherfucking shit, fuck.

Sam resists the urge to punch something. “Where the hell is my brother?”

“Ooh, now I don’t even know if I want to tell you.” She tuts at him. “Manners, Sam.”

“Listen.” He balls his hand into a fist until his fingernails cut into his palm. “I know what you want, it’s me. Let him go. He’s got nothing to do with this.”

This can’t be happening. Not now, not after all this, never again.

“You’d be surprised,” the demon says. “Come on, Sam, you know how this goes. Your brother’s with us in a warehouse on Summer and State, Hammond, Indiana. You’re gonna come get him or we’ll start chopping pieces off. Come alone. Or don’t, it doesn’t matter.”

Sam has everything in the car within minutes. He didn’t check out but left the keys in the room and money out of Dean’s wallet sitting on the table, then he peels out of the parking lot with a screech of tires. Sam calls Ruby multiple times to no avail. He calls Bobby, who urges him not to do anything stu - and then Sam hangs up in frustration. Think, come on, calm down and think, but Sam has no plan. He has nothing. He is back to having nothing, exactly as he was before an angel appeared to him and promised him everything.

“Come on, Castiel, where are you?”

Sam hasn’t driven the Impala by himself since before Castiel, when he had for months, Dean in hell instead of the shotgun seat. He hasn’t been this alone since then either, and hey, so much for Ruby their ally, because she won’t answer her damn phone. Sam trembles with how much he hates this, hates how much this feels like another end. He and his brother have more endings in their story than they do beginnings, and it isn’t fair, it isn’t right. It’s like those months without Dean, with Dean dead, but Dean isn’t dead, Dean can’t be dead. Heaven will save him, except that’s supposed to be Castiel, and Castiel is gone now.

“You said you would keep him safe,” he seethes. “I didn’t ask for anything for me. Not - not Heaven, not anything. And now you’re just going to turn us both over? Tell me, Castiel, am I talking to the answering machine?” Sam doesn’t mean to press down on the gas, but he does anyway. “Damn it, is anybody listening?

He braces himself for a response that sings and shatters glass, for an incandescence that swallows him whole, but there’s nothing. The rumble of the engine and the thrum of tires on pavement are not enough to cover the frantic sounds of his breathing.

+

Sam tries to get the jump on them, but finds himself escorted by two demons to the soccer mom who called him from Dean’s phone.

She smiles sweetly. “Nice job sneaking into the trap, Sam.”

Sam sneers, not even looking at her, trying to crane his head to get a glimpse of Dean. His brother’s head is bowed as he sits tied to a chair at the far end of the room, but Sam can see him move, or thinks he can, wills himself to believe he can.

“Dean’s fine, by the way.”

“So let him go,” he demands.

“And throw away this lucky catch?” If there was no demon in her, she could be pretty. Neat hair, prim clothes, smooth skin - she looks like she should be chaperoning a school dance. Instead she’s holding Dean hostage, and Sam is going to make sure it isn’t going to end well for her.

Sam grits his teeth and reaches inside himself to where he thinks he can feel his blood thrumming through his veins. His head starts to ache and his nose starts to bleed, and the demon before him hiccups a puff of black smoke, and then she tips her head back and laughs.

“Precocious!” Her eyes are gleam obsidian in the dim light. “But you never did finish your training, did you, Sammy?” Soccer mom produces Ruby’s knife from behind her back, and comes up close to hold it to Sam’s heaving and bobbing throat. She smiles, and traces the tip down, leaving a stinging trail that Sam can feel. “That’s enough play. We don’t want to keep Lilith waiting. Now, Sam, I’m not going to kill you,” the knife trailing down his chest now, and Sam feels chills with the sweat he’s broken. “Not quickly. I’m going to make you watch Dean die first.” She whistles and a fourth demon crosses the room towards Dean, still slumped in his chair.

“No!” Sam shouts, and soccer mom digs an inch of the knife into his stomach.

Suddenly there’s a burst of bright light from the corner as a demon lights up from the inside and falls. The ropes holding Dean to his chair burst into flames, and through the pain Sam manages to think, Can’t be, no, couldn’t be.

Dean stands, and Sam tries to wrench away from his captors but soccer mom only shoves the knife in further, twists, and Sam screams, shocked with agony. The demons holding him up let him go and he’s left there with a fucking hole in his gut, blood gushing out between his fingers, oh fuck, he doesn’t want to look. He presses his hand over it as hard as he can to staunch it, and tries not to pass out from pain.

He watches his brother. He watches Castiel.

Demon by demon he sees his brother’s body drop them all with a hand to the forehead. It’s terrifying. It’s not Dean. Is this what his brother lived with, watching Castiel banish demons in Sam’s body? Did Dean ever get used to this?

And then Castiel turns his eyes on him.

Dean’s eyes, green and bright, but with the birth of stars behind them, with the weight of several millennia. Castiel makes Dean remote to Sam, but at the same time, his brother makes Castiel familiar. An angel in units of Dean. Castiel walks to Sam with unhurried measured steps that look strange on his brother, through this world but not of this world. Dean makes Castiel knowable to him, and Sam is torn between lashing out angrily and weeping in his arms.

The angel that isn’t his brother drops to a knee next to him and puts his hand on Sam’s crown. “Sam,” he says.

“Castiel,” he gasps through the pain.

“Yes.” It’s Dean’s voice but stranger, far richer. It’s Dean’s hand on his head, but it’s cold. “I came as soon as I could.”

“What are you going to do to him? Castiel,” and Sam coughs and nearly goes under. “Let him go. I said yes. I’m the one who said yes.”

“Your brother said yes too,” Castiel says. “He has freed you.”

“No,” Sam whimpers.

“You’ve served Heaven well, Sam. Rest now in the fields of the Lord.”

No. Not Dean.” He shakes all over. “You said he’d be safe!”

“And Heaven has saved him. Dean is with me now.” Dean’s voice is gravelly in Castiel’s register, and he sounds like their father.

“I don’t want to rest now,” Sam says through gritted teeth. “I don’t want that for him. I promised. I swore.” He’s babbling, desperate, tears streaming down his face. “I know what it’s like, I know the cost, Castiel, let Dean go, you let Dean go. I’m the one who said yes so you have to take me!”

Castiel tangles his fingers in Sam’s hair, pulling it taut, pulling Sam’s head up to meet his eyes. Sam shivers under Dean’s hands and this isn’t how he wanted it to end, he wanted more time, time for him and Dean. But he decided a long time ago that it wasn’t going to be about what he wanted. Dean’s, Castiel’s eyes are green and intense, and Sam feels them pierce down to his bones.

“Is that what you really want?” Castiel asks.

“You know me,” Sam says, shaking with the pain and profundity of that knowledge. “You know I can’t leave my brother alone out here.”

Castiel blinks, slow, and says “As you wish.”

Everything goes white.

+

Cas leaves his body and reality assaults Dean on all sides. For a few seconds he can do nothing but remember how to breathe. Remember how to see without divine fire burning him from the inside. He has no idea how Sam lived with that for months. For a few seconds, all he can do is kneel there, staring at where Sam lay bleeding. But Sam’s eyes are cool and far away. And then Cas, Castiel, stands and brushes past him, walking over to examine the demons’ hosts. Possessed too long and battered by use, they are already gone.

Sam’s shirt has a bloody patch torn through on the front, but Castiel has made his body whole. Dean doesn’t know whether to thank god or curse him. He can’t play this either/or game much longer.

“Cas.” Dean's shaking and his voice is raw. “Cas, what the hell. What the hell just happened?”

Cas reaches up to rub his jaw, feeling Sam’s face again. He tilts his head, stretches the muscles in his neck, as if reacclimating himself to Sam’s body. Cas looks at his hands, then turns to look back at Dean and says, “It doesn’t matter.”

“I'm sorry, what?” Dean sputters. “That warzone I found Sam in looked like something mattered. You getting dragged back up to Heaven because we -”

Something dangerous flashes through Cas’s eyes and Dean stops himself.

“I learned my lesson when I was away, Dean,” Cas growls. “You led me astray. But I know the truth now. I know what’s right.”

Dean’s heart sinks. Sure, of course, why should the world work any other way? Why wouldn't it dangle the things he loves in front of him, only to take them away again?

“Cas -”

"Angels shouldn’t get too close to humans,” Cas says. “That way lies ruin.”

“Don’t -” But Cas might as well have not heard him.

“We don't consort with men or demons.” He spits out the words, as if they offend him. He looks at Dean as if he offends him. “Sam is my charge. You are the Righteous Man. You both belong to Heaven, which I serve. I certainly don’t serve you.”

+

Dean takes it out on a routine haunting.

He gets bruised up by an angry ghost and nearly lights himself on fire trying to salt and burn the bones. He hasn't heard from Ruby for days. It wouldn't normally worry him, but normally, he would have Cas. He would have some word on the apocalypse front. But for days, nothing, and the last he heard, there were less than ten seals left.

Fine, Dean thinks, digging his shovel in viciously. Guess Cas really is keeping his distance now. If they don't want to drag him in, then they don't want to drag him in. Fine. Dean didn't want any part of this anyway.

But they have Sam, and so instead of taking a load off and flipping the world the bird, Dean is here, working blisters into his hands and blinding himself with mist and sweat.

"Dean!"

He turns in the freshly dug up grave he’s standing in, shovelful of dirt paused in mid-heave. Ruby's standing a couple headstones away.

"Where the hell have you been?" Dean asks.

"I've been digging out Lilith, what do you think?” She comes closer and squats by the edge of the grave. “Listen, I found the place. The sixty-sixth seal – it's a special one, like the first. Only one thing'll do it."

"And why're you talking to me?” he says. He keeps shoveling. “I don’t have any powers, you only have your knife. Try Cas. Maybe he’ll pick up when you call.”

“Aww, I’m sorry, did I interrupt your pity party?" Ruby looks around at the vacant rural cemetery, dewed over and chilly. "Dean, the whole damn world is waiting on you. We don’t have time for your boo-hoo crap. The whole thing is gonna end in one -”

“Then let it end!” He swings the shovel down on the pile of gravedirt, swears when the reverberations jar his wrists, aggravate his sore hands. "Find someone else to do it. I'm not your man."

She glares at him. Even when she was possessing that blonde last year, Ruby has a way of looking at you that cuts you down to size with a single derisive scowl. It’s her default state of being. "You're the only man. The righteous man who begins it will be the one who ends it."

It sounds like mocking to Dean, even though her face is dead serious. Dean's shoulders hunch up.

"Don't worry,” Ruby says. “I have a plan."

+

Dean's heading east on I-70 towards Maryland with Ruby riding shotgun, no music, just silence.

"I'm gonna need to see this plan of yours," he says, an embarrassingly delayed request for someone who purports to be so skeptical about this whole thing.

Ruby pulls a gun out of her coat and hands it to Dean.

It's the Colt.

"How did you...?"

"You don't want to know the things I had to do to get my hands on that."

And so Dean doesn't ask, because he knows Bela was the last to have it, right before the hellhounds dragged her to Hell, and they both know the sort of things that are necessary in Hell. He may not ask, but he lets his imagination wonder.

They get to St. Mary’s in the dead of night. Luckily, Lilith isn’t hard to find - at the altar stone, of course, smiling her blinding dental hygienist smile like she’s been expecting them. Maybe she has. Destiny, right? She sits against the white stone, ready for anything, waiting for fate.

"This is some hoedown you got going," Dean says, looking at the bodies strewn through the cloisters, nuns draped over the the pews and on the altar. "Real homey touch."

"I hoped you'd think so," Lilith says.

"I'm not here to talk."

Dean draws the Colt and fires.

The bullet hits her body like it’d hit a side of meat. She hardly even flinches. Dean fires, and fires again – nothing, no spark, no gush of light or blood or smoke. Nothing.

No.

"I'm sorry," Lilith laughs. "But that's adorable."

Behind him, Ruby says, "You should really check the serial number on that thing," and Dean hears the heavy doors swing shut.

"You fucking lying-" Dean spits out, and Lilith curls her elegant fingers. An invisible force closes around Dean's throat and slams him against the wall.

Dean tries to speak, tries to struggle loose, but he can't, every struggle only chokes him more, and all he can do is watch helplessly as Lilith holds her hand out to Ruby, horrified as Ruby bends on one knee to kiss that hand, then rises to her feet to kiss Lilith on both cheeks.

"Thank you, sister," Lilith says. "You've done well." She smiles at Dean. "The time is, as they say, nigh."

+

Sixty-five seals have been broken. Zachariah doesn't seem at all perturbed, which only perturbs Castiel more. He keeps thinking about Ruby's accusations at that diner and Tessa's warning during Pamela's funeral, but Castiel has learned his lesson now. He keeps his questions to himself, and if he feels the worse for it, he keeps that to himself too.

After all the other angels left the ravaged field, Castiel stays, securing the perimeter. There was once a lush meadow here, but now it is ash and dust and steeped in blood, and they are one seal away from the apocalypse. Castiel tries to focus, tries not to let the demon blood still sloshing in his system cloud his thinking. It still seizes him in waves of nausea, and he tells himself focus, focus. Don't think about Dean.

Castiel has had a lifetime of seeing those he cares about realize that he's betrayed them.

The rush of wings is the first and last sound he wants to hear.

"Castiel," says Anna.

"You shouldn't be here," Castiel grates out, and refuses to even look at her. "I don't want to have to turn you in again."

"You keep saying that, but where's the follow-through?" Anna says, and Cas crouches down to inspect ash that doesn't need inspecting. His sister has been incredibly bull-headed, visiting him time and time again when he's made it clear to her that their alliance is over, she should leave, but she ignores his threats and warnings.

The first time Anna tried to find him, it was a few days after Heaven released him, and he was out on reconnaissance by himself in the middle of the Sahara, where it is said some high-ranking demons are in hiding. They hide in mirages. Demonic trickery blends in seamlessly with fata morgana, and when Castiel saw the flash of red hair crest the next dune, he initially thought that he had found them.

"You don't get to leave me again," Anna had said, which is everything Castiel feared and hoped she would say.

She should take her devotion elsewhere; he doesn't deserve it. He left her there in the desert before she could say another word, before he could betray another cause.

"Listen," Anna says, and her voice cracks, "if you're going to betray me again, then at least listen to what I have to say before you do it."

She sounds very human, and still very much like his sister. Castiel considers just leaving, spreading his wings and vanishing, because what is one more abandonment? Isn’t this what heaven taught him? Leave people behind if they get in the way?

Castiel turns around to face her.

The expression on Anna's face makes him expect a culmination of anger and disappointment, a rebuke, some declaration that they are finished forever, and that's exactly what he deserves.

Instead she says, "Lilith is the final seal.”

+

"And now all we need to do is wait for your angel friend to get here," Lilith says, "and the show can really begin."

"Hate to break it to you, but Cas and I are on the outs right now," Dean spits out. He tries to move his arms, his legs. Lilith holds him in place with a thought, and Dean thinks this is it, he’s gonna die for real and this time no angel is going to save him. "He's not gonna come running."

Lilith rolls her eyes. "Oh please. He doesn't need to like you to do his job." She snaps her fingers and Dean crashes from the wall to the altar, wind knocked out of him. "Ruby."

Ruby takes out her knife.

The pain is excruciating. All through it, Lilith tells him her plans for a brave new world, hell on earth, their plans for Dean and his brother and the angel riding him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, Dean knows that something's off, this is all wrong, because why would Lilith want an angel to come now that she’s got the final seal? But then Ruby twists the knife and his mind goes empty of thought. She knows her way around a knife. Everyone who has spent time in Hell does, eventually.

"Do you want to kill me or you want to stop the summoning of Lucifer?" Lilith asks as Ruby slides the blade under his skin with careful concentration. "This is an important question. Think before you answer."

His throat is hoarse from screaming. I'm sorry, Sam. He goes to that instinctual place, the last refuge he had even in hell when Alastair tried to carve it out of him. Sam, Sam, please, I'm sorry. And then, Cas-

+

“Cas, are you listening to me?" Anna demands, interrupting herself in the middle of explanation.

He is. He swears he is and this is too much to process all at once, relieved that Heaven is in the wrong, terrified at what comes after. And there was something, just now, something flashing at the periphery of awareness, stirring not just his grace but the heart of his vessel. Castiel lifts his head and strains to hear.

"Something's happening," he says.

+

"What's that?" Lilith asks sweetly. "What did you say?"

Cas, if you're out there, please, Castiel, Cas, I need-

Ruby sinks the knife in deeper.

"Cas," Dean chokes out, prayer finally spilling over into words. "Please-"

+

“Cas, we don’t have a lot of time here,” Anna says in frustration.

"Dean,” Castiel whispers, quiet realization. “It’s Dean. Lilith has him." And realization breaks over him with a horrifying clarity.

Anna sees the look on his face and blurts out, "Castiel, no."

Sometimes you make a choice out of choicelessness.

"I'm going to help him," Castiel says, as if the words are coming from someone else, as if intent precedes a person. Maybe sometimes it does. "I'm going to stop Lilith and help him."

Maybe sometimes you just have promises to keep.

Anna grabs his arm. "This is the world we’re talking about. You’re walking into a trap! Cas, this is what you're fighting against!"

"Let me go," Castiel says, shaking her off. He hears Dean cry out again, feels the desperation in it down to his core.

"Have you been listening to anything I said?" she demands.

The question stuns him. Of course he's been listening. He wouldn't be here if it weren't for her. He wouldn't be making this choice if she hadn't shown him it was possible. Sometimes you have to do the right thing even with the whole story is at stake. Because it's their story. Not Achilles and Patroclus, or Socrates and Plato, or Prometheus. It's them, and they have never been doomed to repeat history. They've just been waiting for the right chapter.

And Castiel wants to tell her all this, tell her he loves her, tell her he's sorry, for everything. But there's no time.

"Make your own choice!" Anna cries out.

Castiel spreads his wings. “I am.”

+

Lilith gasps in exaggerated delight. "Castiel! How lovely. We've been waiting for you."

She flicks her hand, and Castiel is picked up off the floor and flung against the far wall of the convent. He’s pinned there for a second, and it’s like being crushed by a boulder. He can barely keep the strain from his vessel, and he crumples to the floor as the pressure lets up.

"Hopefully this meeting will go better than the last," she sighs as he staggers to his feet. "Now that we're all here, we can complete the final step. Kill me, angel. Kill me and raise Lucifer."

Across the room, Dean's face crackles from pain to horror, realizing what he's done.

"Cas, get out of here!" Dean yells hoarsely. "Cas, forget what I-"

Ruby strikes him across the face, and Dean spits out blood.

"That was rude, Dean," Lilith says, gliding behind Ruby. She closes her hand over Ruby's and guides the knife. "It always had to be him, you know. Your brother. Things went awry when your brother decided to summon an angel," and here Lilith twists, and Dean screams, "but Hell is nothing if not creative. If we don't get to fill Sam with the doctor's recommended amount of demon blood, then we'll make heaven's grace work for us." She looks up at Castiel, and smiles. "So, now that we're all here…"

The demon blood weakens Castiel. Now, with so much of it swilling through Sam and so close to the mouth of the underworld, Hell rises in him, clashing with his grace. Everything is fuzzy around the edges. Anna's voice echoes in his ear, and it's the thing around which all his doubts coalesce. He wishes she were here with him, and is at the same time glad that she isn't. It's just that Castiel has made his decision. The confluence of influences have been exactly that - influences: Anna's courage, Sam's love… and Dean. Dean, who prays to Castiel sometimes just to get coffee together.

This is his second chance to fall. The choice is his own. He was afraid before, and he's afraid now, but this time he isn't going to let fear stop him. Maybe he has already fallen, but didn't notice it because it felt like an ascent.

And after all that has brought him here, he knows he can't do it alone.

Castiel balls his hands into fists and closes his eyes. Sam. Sam, wake up.

The fuzzy presence at the back of his head rolls over, and brightens with curiosity. As Cas pushes back the waves of his presence, Sam slowly uncoils and rouses himself. His vital energy floods back into his body, and Castiel shakes with it, the warmth filling him.

Where are we? What's going on? Castiel feels Sam moving his arms, moving his legs. He pushes himself up to his feet, carrying Castiel with him. And then he feels Sam's vision focus on Dean.

Sam, I need your help, Castiel says.

The panic roils around in him, and Castiel feels Sam try to quell it, feels it consolidate into the sharpened blade of his determination. Castiel feels it too and in equal measure. In this moment, who can say who is the sword and who is the one that wields it? The question is irrelevant. Their will is one.

Sam says, Yes. Okay. Yes.

+

Imagine a constant yes, the yea-sayer committed fully, his body a body of obeisance. For freeing him from fear, Sam gives Castiel the most profound gratitude, the truest fullest form of a life debt repaid. Sam's body yields every minute, no resistance of will, only the limitations of muscles, the physical brain and its impulses. Angels are pure intent, divine will, and yet so was this human flesh, and this flesh is set in its ways. Is Castiel a transplanted consciousness or is he an addition? Is he a replacement, a substitution, an indefinite wave? Sam’s will is not absent or overwhelmed but willing, infinitely willing. This is his yes.

Is this how angels see the world? There is a halo over everything, golden ring of light, or perhaps, of love. If Sam were seeing this with just his human eyes, he would be overwhelmed,but he is seeing with an angel's eyes and so he sees everything. He feels a curious weight behind him and looks over his shoulders, and sees arcs of light swooping from his shoulder, larger than he would imagine, unfurling beyond the room, through the walls.

Sam, says Castiel's voice in his head. Focus.

The world exudes an ethereal glow, and Lilith and Ruby are the black holes that suck everything in. He can see their faces, their true faces, the twisted darkness of them. If Sam tries, he can almost see what they were before they were twisted into demons, but that was long ago, too distant, and there is no time for such empathy. Dean, held down by Lilith’s power, shines like a beacon between them.

Lilith closes her fist and Dean cries out, and Sam and Castiel surge forward as one. They fling Ruby across the room with a flick of the wrist, and she hits the stone with a bone-crunching crash.

"Well, this is an interesting development," Lilith murmurs. "Sam, is that you?"

"It's not just me," Sam says. "Let Dean go. I'm only going to ask you once."

Lilith smiles, beatific and almost angelic. "I know."

With a flick of her hand, Dean screams and blood streams from his mouth. Sam gestures with an arm and Lilith flies back against the wall. She chokes, pinned like a bug, but Sam sees her hands still twitching, still sees Dean twitching, and he knows she won't stop until either she or Dean is dead.

"Lilith!" Ruby yells.

"No!" Lilith commands, and Ruby stops so suddenly that Sam wonders if Lilith has used her powers on her, or if Ruby is that devoted to her infernal saint. It's hard to tell. There is a look of unconcealed distress on Ruby’s face, and Lilith smiles at her, gentle and loving. "Your part is done."

Castiel, what do I do? Sam asks in a panic. How do I do this?

The angel feels his fear and Sam feels the heat of grace flow into him, unstable but fortifying. It approaches the edge of his comprehension, even now too much to process - the songs sung at the beginning of the world, the death of stars, the rise of kingdoms, the wars on unseen planes, and then more recently, fear and loss and love, and a figure whose form keeps shifting between a red-haired girl and an incomprehensible nebula in colors that don't exist on this world. The fire of her forgiveness, fierceness of her love. And then Dean.

Sam, focus.

"What's taking so long?" Lilith demands.

It's too easy, too easy to be manipulated into this. But it's not really, because Sam and Castiel know what will happen. After all their traveling, they know why they are here: to choose family, and to choose love.

Angelic power is intoxicating, almost as intoxicating as demon blood but twice as volatile. It's not meant to be wielded by a human, but Sam knows how to do this. He has spent not mere months but unquantifiable time remembering himself, recalling all his pieces into an endless twisting home built by his own logic, and so suddenly he knows where to find this part of himself. It’s as easy as Castiel shining a light on it. Sam may reach into himself to find that power of his own, and reach into the deepest part of Lilith. He wraps Castiel's grace around the blackened pit of her, pulls down Heaven's wrath through him, and directs it towards Lucifer’s oldest. Lilith smiles as the light fills her.

"Lilith!" Ruby yells, sudden as a reflex. There are tears streaming down her face.

Control it, Castiel says. If you go too fast, you’ll be burned away too.

But Sam can already feel the heat, the fire fraying him at the edges, and he wants to let go, but then he looks at Dean, struggling to breathe. He hears Castiel's voice in his head, still and deep as lakes like the first time he talked to Sam: Be calm. Be watchful. Have faith.

In what?

In this.

He looks at Dean, who is looking back, a bewildered look on his face, question in his eyes. He mouths, "Sam?"

Castiel says, Now.

Sam, Hell-cursed mortal that he is, calls on Heaven, and Heaven answers. Dean and Ruby close their eyes, turning away from the light that consumes Lilith. Only Sam and Castiel keep their eyes open.

Let there be light.

+

The earth shakes.

Lucifer is coming, Castiel says.

Sam says, "We should go."

"What, you guys aren't gonna stick around and watch the finale?" Ruby leans against the wall, panting and in pain, delirious with pyrrhic victory.

A resonant whine cuts through the air and makes Dean clutch his ears, but Sam, protected by angelic presence, is unaffected. In this moment, what Castiel is Sam also is. When Sam touches Dean so does Castiel because together they move. Sam wraps his arms around his brother as Castiel spreads his wings, and Dean sinks into Sam's embrace and Castiel's grace.

The room fills with light. There is a sound like a great rush of wings, and then they are gone.

+

"Did we…" Dean licks his lips. "Did we just end the world?"

"We just saved ourselves," Castiel murmurs.

They are sitting on the hill where they've crash-landed, somewhere in the middle of nowhere. Or, Dean is sitting, and Cas is sprawled on the grass, propped up on Dean's lap as Dean tries to keep him conscious. As far as middles of nowhere go, this one is beautiful. Dean doesn't know if they're even in the United States anymore. From the gold of the sun and the vibrant green of the hills, he thinks they must be somewhere far south, somewhere the winter never touches. It's peaceful here. He can hear birdsong. It seems entirely unlikely that this place exists in the same world marked for destruction by the apocalypse.

"Cold comfort," Dean mutters. "This always happens."

"What always happens?"

"Karma."

"I wouldn't know. I'm not very close with that pantheon."

"It's like," Dean says, "every time one of us gets saved, me and Sam, there's always… I don't know, something else gets screwed over. Maybe it's a sign."

Cas's breaths are very slow and very shallow. "A sign of what?"

"That we should stop being saved."

There's a rustle of leaves, and a sweet-smelling wind tells Dean it's Anna before he even turns around. She rushes to her brother's side, and Cas's smile is small but bright, with a warmth Dean hasn't seen before, not even on Sam's face. This smile is all Cas's own. Or rather, it is Anna's.

"Cas," Anna breathes, laying a hand on his cheek.

"I'm fine, thanks," Dean says.

"Hi, Dean," she says softly, smoothing away the hair from Cas's forehead.

"I thought you'd probably never want to see me again," Cas murmurs, and Anna barks out a sharp laugh that sounds like a sob.

"Then you really have learned nothing," she says.

Cas says, "I had to do it."

"I know."

"Anna, I had to. I wanted to."

She squeezes his hand, and looks up at Dean, smiling through her tears. "I know."

Cas asks, "What now?"

"I don't know what you guys do up in Heaven," Dean says, "but this is usually the part where we kick ass and take names."

Anna snorts. "I guess we have no choice."

"We do," Cas says. "That's the point."

+

Anna sets up protective wards around them, then goes to check the perimeter when Dean asks Cas, "Is Sam okay in there?"

Cas has regained enough strength to be on his feet again, but he isn't much good for anything except leaning against a tree in the shade, which is exactly what he's doing. Looks like Sam, idling away the hours. Looks like Sam on long summer days when they don't have anywhere to be. "He's drained," Cas replies. "He's a human, tainted from infancy by demon blood. Wielding an angel's grace wouldn't be a natural forte."

Dean looks down, nods. "Right. Of course."

"I've been meaning to talk to you about that," Cas says. "When I was… recovering, Anna and I talked."

"Uh-huh," Dean says. "Lots of talking, huh?"

"When Anna got her grace back, her human body was destroyed, but she knew someone who could fashion her one."

Dean quashes his anticipation in case it amounts to nothing. "And?"

"I'm leaving Sam," Cas says."Now there is no more reason to possess him. I shouldn't have in the first place. I just…" He looks at Dean. "I'm sorry."

Dean nods, then, in a quiet voice, he says, "So, uh. Sam's gonna have his body back?"

"I did promise to return you to each other," Cas says, smiling, and Dean can’t help smiling back. "Anna and I don't know how long we'll be gone, but-"

"Did you do it?" Anna asks, suddenly alighting beside them. Dean jumps.

"You guys gotta stop doing that," he snaps. "Do what? Tell me about you guys going off to make Cas a real boy?"

Anna laughs. "No. This." She puts her hands on their chests, and Dean feels a momentary searing force like being slammed into a tree. Even Cas looks irritated. "These Enochian sigils will keep you off the radar. No angel will be able to trace you. Not even us."

"These what?" Dean lifts his shirt and checks his body, which seems pretty unsigiled.

"Enochian sigils," Cas says, rubbing his torso gingerly. "She carved them onto your ribs."

"It'll be more durable that way," Anna explains.

"Okay, so, uh," Dean says. "Okay.” He looks up at them. “So this is really it, huh?"

Cas asks, "What's it?"

Dean gestures vaguely at him. "This."

"Yes," Cas nods. "Anna and I will return as fast as we can.”

“You and Sam stay out of trouble in the meantime," Anna adds.

Dean snorts. "Trouble finds us, man."

"And Dean," says Cas.

Cas looks at him with Sam's soft eyes and his wounded smile, an air of tentativeness about him as if he is unsure how to proceed. Carefully, he cups the side of Dean's neck, and then bends to kiss his forehead.

"You don't think you deserve to be saved," he says, their foreheads almost touching. "But you do. You and Sam both."

Dean takes a shaky breath, something hot and complicated unknotting in his chest. He looks at Cas and doesn't know what to say. There are hundred things he wants to say, but he doesn't say any of them, because then Cas is saying, "Close your eyes."

Dean steps away, shielding his face. The heat is electric. When the roar in his ears is gone, when a cool breeze ruffles through his hair, when the air feels empty of Heaven, he opens his eyes.

Sam does too.

Chapter Text

It's still a fragile thing they have between them, a thing they still dance around. Sam can't predict it; he just lets it happen. He waits for the exhale. Sometimes they're drunk, sometimes they're high on adrenaline after a hunt. Sometimes an idle conversation in their motel room fades to silence, and the silence coalesces, and when Sam moves towards him, Dean moves back.

"This is crazy," Dean says, laughing nervously, when Sam's hand rests tentatively against his chest, right over his wildly beating heart.

"Yeah, I know," Sam murmurs. "I know."

Then Dean kisses him, and the world fades away for a while.

The world doesn't seem to have noticed that the devil walks the earth. The headlines announce disaster after disaster, and no one notices anything different. All people do is shake their heads at the state of the world, jaded and complacent as the apocalypse creeps closer to their door. It’s another news segment. It’s another topical one-liner on late night comedy shows.

Sam still holds his breath at sudden bright lights. Dean still finds himself turning expectantly to the sound of rustling leaves.

"Think they're okay?" Sam asks.

"Yeah. Sure. They got each other."

"How long does it take an angel to get their own body?"

"Well, gee, Sam, lemme look it up on Wikipedia."

Sam chuckles at that, but when Dean thinks he isn't looking, Sam sees Dean sneak another look over his shoulder, a fragile kind of hope on his face. Bit by bit, Dean tells him more stories about what happened when Sam was under - the seals, Ruby, Alastair, it just comes tumbling out. On a long dark night, Dean comes clean to him about Hell, what he did there, and Sam kisses him again and again while Dean says, "No, you don't understand," but Sam doesn't need to. Loving his brother is a domain removed from the balancing of moral checkbooks.

"It's not just that, it's not just Hell," Dean insists. "There's things I've done, to, to… and I, Sam, I'm sorry, I'm so sorry-"

And Sam keeps saying there's nothing to be sorry for, it's okay, but this just makes Dean angry, and Sam doesn't know what to do.

And then there are the nightmares.

Dean startles awake, breathing in huge gulps and eyes wild and Sam has to remind him of where he is, of who he is, what they are.

"There's this thing Cas used to do," Dean says over a whiskey after one of these dreams. He's sitting on the edge of the bed and Sam in the chair opposite. "He, um… I don't know. He kept the dreams out somehow." Dean laughs self-consciously. "Sounds stupid, I know."

"It's not stupid," Sam says, but Dean just grunts and drains the glass.

Dean goes back to sleep eventually, and Sam's still sitting in his chair, watching his brother's silhouette. It's a familiar act that brings him back to last year, their last year, but at least this time neither of them are going anywhere.

Sam himself is still sorting through his feelings about Castiel. He no longer harbors any child-like wonder, having seen up close the angel's weaknesses. It seems anyone is prone to bad decisions where Dean is concerned, and if Sam no longer trusts in angels because of his desperate faith, he at least trusts in Castiel because of what Sam could sense with every fiber of his being when Castiel woke him up to save Dean from Lilith: the steady golden thrum of love.

It's not that Sam wants Castiel back inside him, but there’s nothing that can come close to that sublime proximity. Sometimes he feels his body yearning for it. He remembers strange melodies no human ear should hear and no human throat can sing. Sometimes he remembers tasting the light of stars.

Sam closes his eyes and prays.

Castiel, if you're still out there… I know you don't need me anymore, but if you can hear me, we need... Look, just come back soon, okay? Please.

He doesn't dream that night.

Angels want their bodies, demons want them dead, and Sam supposes it's only a matter of time before one or the other catches up despite the sigils carved into their bones. A single miscalculation finds them walking into a trap, and Zachariah is gleefully ready to exact Heaven’s wrath. Sam knew it would be horrible, but there is something so absurdly terrible about dying from sudden-onset stomach cancer. Zachariah doesn't just carry orders; he delights in spite, and the next thing Sam knows, his chest contracts and heaves, and he's left gaping like a fish for air.

"Now Dean," Zachariah says, "I'm going to ask you a third time, or Sam's not going to get those lungs back."

Sam sees spots, he sees the world go dark, and he thinks he sees his life flash before his eyes, but it's just Dean. It's just the darkness come to claim Sam again, and in his final throes, he struggles to get to his brother, not knowing what he can do to stop any of this, but god fucking damn it, he's not going to let his brother die alone.

The world goes blinding and white, and Sam feels a surge of déjà vu.

He hears shouts.

Suddenly he's gasping, really gasping, sucking in real air, and then someone grabs his shoulders and is asking him if he's all right. Sam looks up at his savior, blinks back the afterimages, and at first sees only the hint of a silhouette, the shadow of wings and a lion's mane and a thousand spinning wheels. This must be what he saw, Sam thinks in a haze. This must be what Dean saw when Castiel came to him in hell.

When his vision clears, he's in the grip of a woman he's never seen before in his life - mid-thirties, black hair, with the tanned skin of someone who would rather be outside - but there's no mistaking her for human, not when Sam has been attuned to her return for a long time now.

Sam whirls his head around and sees Dean standing beside someone who must no doubt be Anna. She looks so young but holds herself regally, and is as beautiful as Dean's stories make her sound. As for Dean, the awestruck way he's looking at the woman holding Sam in her arms, Sam knows Dean knows too.

"Thanks," Sam breathes, as she helps him up.

She has a small, warm smile, not along her mouth but in her eyes. She holds out her hand. "Hello, Sam."

Sam takes her hand. "It's good to see you, Castiel."

Castiel covers Sam's hand with hers. "It's good to see you, too."

+

“The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you’re looking for the secret but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet, because making something disappear isn’t enough. You have to bring it back.”


- The Prestige