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The Way Back

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Castiel calls Dean seven times while filling out paperwork. Dean is not well-versed in the intricacies of the I-9 Employment Eligibility form and it requires three additional calls to Bobby for assistance. He has difficulty writing with the pen, dislikes that it leaks, and is already wondering why his uniform smells vaguely like cigarette and marijuana smoke. Castiel wishes he had chosen to wear the new one that had not been worn by previous employees, but after having been walked in on four times while changing, he is unwilling to risk changing again.

He watches videos for an hour and a half after he has filled out the paperwork to his manager’s specifications. The quality is low, what Dean would no doubt refer to as “cheap porn quality”, but he does not witness any sexual acts on any of the training videos and is secretly relieved. He asks the manager – “Rita, baby, just call me Rita” – if he should take notes and, when she looks at him strangely, he chooses not to. He watches the videos carefully. Ergonomics, fire safety, service with a smile, service times, food safety, proper hand washing, and exciting career opportunities. He is then given a five minute break to “get your bearings” and “use the facilities.” Castiel knows exactly where he is, down to the latitude and longitude and the orbital position of the earth around the sun and does not feel the need to get his bearings. However his free iced tea has left him with a distressing need to urinate and he does so in the public restroom. He washes his hands carefully afterwards, per the training video’s instructions, and earns an exasperated look from the college student waiting for the sink.

Back behind the counter, he is paired with Joaquin who gives him a demonstration on how to use the touch screen cash register. Joaquin has honeyed eyes, a bored air, and what Dean would call “a pretty boy” face. He is an adequate teacher, however, and after fifteen minutes, Castiel feels confident enough to step up to the register with Joaquin at his side.

“Hello. Welcome to Taco Bell. My name is Castiel. May I interest you in a Mexican pizza today?”

“No. I’d…”

“Would you alternatively prefer to sample one of our meal deals that comes with a small variety of options?”

The girl in front of him blinks, but smiles at him in a knowing way that Castiel finds moderately confusing. He cannot think what it is that she thinks she knows, but he smiles, as the customer service video had instructed, and waits for her reply. She leans forward and shifts, providing an ample view of her barely contained cleavage. Castiel smiles at her again, uncertainly this time, while Joaquin angles from behind his shoulder to take advantage of the sight. He nudges Castiel in the back of his calf with his foot and when he turns to inquire what Joaquin needs, the boy inexplicably winks at him.

“So…Castiel,” his customer says as she twirls a lock of hair around her finger. “What would you recommend?”

Castiel pauses, momentarily uncertain because none of the videos contained instructions regarding the sharing of his personal preferences and he has thus far only consumed the iced tea. He knows that he should not recommend the iced tea, that he is required to up-sell such items at the end of an order, but he has no idea what would appeal to this young woman. He has only ever procured food from this establishment for Dean and is just learning about the varying combinations of tastes and textures of all food himself. Dean, he thinks. What would Dean recommend? It becomes easier after that and he smiles again as best as he can.

“Dean seems to enjoy the Chicken Burrito Supreme and as I am unable to convey my own personal recommendations at this time, I believe it is appropriate to suggest something that he has indicated meets his approval.”

Joaquin is striking when his bored disinterest and absent-minded ogling is replaced with frank curiosity. Though he looks at Castiel with the same expression Dean makes when he believes to have swallowed a bug, his pale honey eyes widen considerably and he looks, for the first time, mentally present.

“Dude…” Joaquin says and his tone is more one of awe than disapproval, so Castiel nods and turns back to his customer who seems to be either choking or stifling an alarming series of giggles.

“Dean also recommends the Nachos Bell Grande, though he prefers it with extra sour cream which costs fifty-cents plus tax.”

The customer beams at him, but leans in a little farther. “So…Dean your boyfriend?”

“No,” Castiel says firmly, having already fielded this question from the landlord of their new apartment and the employees of the gas, water, and electric companies. “Dean is my…” he pauses. Charge, he thinks. My friend. I think he may now be my teacher. He saved my life. I saved his soul. We both sit vigil on our back porch every evening and wait for he who will not, cannot, come. He cannot say any of this to the girl. The training videos had contained strict instructions about fraternizing with employees and customers alike and, overriding even that, Dean has schooled him sternly on conversational basics and what he can and cannot say to people.

“We live together,” Castiel says finally and finds that while it does not adequately describe their situation at all, it serves as a sufficient reply.

“Keepin’ it on the down-low, then. Gotcha,” the girl says. “Well, I’ll trust you and Dean and have both the chicken burrito and the nachos with a medium drink.”

Castiel finds the appropriate buttons on the cash register and taps them. “Would you care for an order of Cinnamon Twists with that today?”

“What’s Dean think of the twisties?” the girl asks him with an amused grin.

“Dean does not believe that they contain enough sugar and prefers that we get pie from the diner on Fourth street.”

Joaquin kicks him hard for that, though Castiel cannot think why. The boy’s look suggests that he swallowed a very unpleasant tasting bug this time and he looks as though he is going to reprimand him for inappropriate behavior. The customer, however, erupts into laughter and orders the Cinnamon Twists anyway. Joaquin seems moderately mollified by this, though he pulls him aside after the transaction and gives detailed instructions on how much marijuana can be safely smoked before attempting to perform job tasks adequately.

Castiel does not understand. But he smiles in response because that is the advice Rita the manager had imparted to him before sending him out to learn the use of the cash register: “just smile, Castiel!” He does. Even if he does not feel like it.

*

At two-thirty seven Castiel is mopping the dining room of the restaurant. He finds the work much more soothing than tending to the cash register and, though he is required to smile at people as they enter and exit, he is mostly ignored. This suits him and he enjoys the peace as he works the mop across the gray quarry stone tiles.

He hears a familiar rumble outside and leans on his mop for a moment, the first genuine smile of the day on his face, though he supposes that he will have to remind Dean once more that he should not drive until he no longer requires pain medication for his badly broken leg.

The Impala pulls up to the curb and, though there are four handicapped spots available and Dean has a blue permit that will allow him to park in one of them, he pulls up to a regular spot and spends a painful amount of time getting out of the car. It is instinct to help him and near agony to remain inside and “on the clock” while Dean slowly maneuvers his broken left leg, but he manages it. He has to cover his discomfort with an ineffectual swipe of the mop across the area in front of the trash can when Joaquin gives him a meaningful look.

Dean hobbles towards the door on his crutches and Castiel stands there, pretending to mop until Rita flies out from behind the counter, tossing a mortified glare at him, and races towards the doors. She holds them open for Dean and anything she might have had to say is predictably abandoned when Dean smiles at her, wide and big, and says “thank you, sweetheart!” She blushes. From her neck to the top of her ears and Castiel thinks this is a more than adequate example of a woman “melting” over Dean as Bobby had indicated to him on more than one occasion.

He does not understand this either. Dean is comely even in his wan state with his still-fading scars, that much is certain, but Castiel cannot fathom how anyone can look at him and miss the sadness in his eyes. Getting out of bed each morning seems to take something out of him, seems to diminish him, and he is concerned that one day there will be nothing left of the man he rescued from hell, nothing but a shell with remarkably sad green eyes.

It hurts too much to keep from going to him. Castiel secures his mop inside of the bucket and rolls it carefully out of the way and then does that very thing. He smiles at Dean and ponders at the effect it seems to have on Rita who goes sort of boneless as she holds the door and stares from him to Dean and back again.

“Welcome to Taco Bell, sir,” Castiel says carefully. “May I assist you to a seat?”

Dean gives him a fond, but perturbed look and undoes the middle finger of his right hand from his crutch in order to extend it meaningfully. Sam had once explained the many nuances of “fuck you” and “fuck off” and he knows that Dean is, in this instance, merely conveying his exasperation with him. The look in his eyes, however, as he takes in Castiel’s uniform and his turquoise ball cap is the closest thing to merriment that he has seen in Dean since long before Sam went away.

“Don’t you just look outstanding,” Dean drawls and then awkwardly hobbles forward on his crutches. He balances on them and reaches up to tug down on the bill of Castiel’s ball cap. “Teal might be your color, Cas.”

Castiel does not agree and vastly prefers the jeans and soft shirts that they have acquired along the way from Lawrence to Indiana and back to Marshall, Missouri where they have settled. None of his shirts are in this shade, though he has a pair of boxers that are approximate in color and which he wears on Sundays when they do laundry, but he does not find them more or less aesthetically pleasing than his other unmentionables.

“I’m glad it amuses you,” Castiel tells him and when Rita looks as though she’s close to coming out of her daze and perhaps reminding him about conducting personal business on company time, he looks to Dean sort of helplessly.

Dean fortunately has a grasp of the situation and of people in general, despite the number of times that Sam had lamented what he called his “social retardation.” He does not think Sam meant it entirely seriously and he recalls a sort of fondness in Sam’s tone and expression that is not too dissimilar from Dean’s own when he regards him before turning to Rita.

“Sweetheart, how’s the chicken burrito looking today?”

Rita beams at him. There is no other word for it. She puts a hand to him and guides him to the counter with a hand to the small of his back. She chatters to Dean about fresh chicken just coming up, though Castiel is not certain that this is the case, having heard no talk about chicken recently being put in or coming out of the rethermalizer where the precooked food is reheated in scalding water. Dean manages to look as though he is endlessly fascinated and grateful for all of the work Rita has put into instructing Joaquin to make his burrito “extra special” and heads back towards Castiel with an amused smirk that almost reaches his eyes after Rita simpers and bats her eyelashes at him.

“Rita says you can fill up my cup and bring me my burrito, Cas. Mountain Dew.”

“Your physician suggests…”

Dean glares at him. “He can bite me. Until you get paid, there’s no coffee in the house and I’m not desperate enough to attempt the Taco Bell brew. So, unless you want to enjoy the fruits of my caffeine withdrawal headache, I’d just get the Mountain Dew and shut up about it.”

Castiel sighs. “Yes, Dean.”

“And quit giving me the puppy-eyes and the bitch face. You’re as bad as…” Dean closes his eyes for a moment and wavers on his crutches as he physically blocks what he was going to say from his lips and his mind. If he could, Castiel thinks he would block it from his heart and maybe rip it out of his soul, it hurts him so much.

Castiel goes to him. Puts a hand on his shoulder and grips it gently. Dean hangs his head for a moment.

“You will get through this,” he tells Dean quietly.

“I don’t know how. I don’t know if I want to.”

He slides his hand to Dean’s back and guides him to a table that has light metal chairs that pull out completely. Dean is able to sit without too much trouble, though the heel of his cast slips as he slides down towards chair. Castiel is forced to lower him gently to it, despite Dean’s gruff, but quiet “get offa me, Cas” and the slight murmur of sound from the front counter behind them.

“Perhaps you don’t want to get through this. Perhaps you simply don’t know how to do anything else but continue on. But you are still here, Dean. And I am here and we will manage.”

Though he looks achingly sad, Dean is not crying when he looks up at him. Castiel thinks that he emptied himself of tears upon waking in the hospital in Lawrence after Sam locked himself, Michael, Lucifer, and a sleeping Adam away in the cage for all eternity. He had held him then, forcefully when Dean had told him to fuck off and meant it. Gently when the tears were gone and he asked him if he would stay with him for a while longer. He would do so again if required, but Dean was raised on lean amounts of affection, however deeply and truly given it had been. He rarely requires more than a touch and that is what Castiel gives him now – a slight brush of his hand across the back of his neck, a quick reminder that they are both still breathing and alive to remember and mourn Sam.

“How?” Dean asks him. “How are we ever supposed to come back from this?”

“We will start small,” Castiel says without hesitation. “For example, would you care for hot, medium, mild, or fire sauce with your burrito?”

Dean blinks, his dark eyelashes fluttering for a moment in a way that Castiel knows has a severe effect on women and not a few men. But, then he smiles as he says “Wow, small and random.” Then he laughs and shakes his head. Castiel thinks it is a more than adequate trade for the unsubtle sound Rita makes when she clears her throat behind the counter and gestures that he should follow her to the back.

*

Castiel and Dean develop a routine and, though Dean sometimes stares at the road leading out of town like a lover that’s walking away from him, they both seem to find comfort in it. Dean sleeps in at first while Castiel prepares himself for work five days of the week. He takes to reading in the late morning and is soon known by name at the small town library. Castiel does not find this unusual, despite having never seen him as involved with the printed word as his brother had been, but after the first small, tentative passes through the first book he checks out of the library – “The Da Vinci Code” which Dean declares to be a “giant piece of shit” – his appetite for reading is voracious. He reads everything from novels to history texts and goes through phases – Romans to Greeks to an impressive variety of religious texts which sometimes makes them both laugh a little too ruefully.

Dean’s over the knee cast is removed in early July and while the doctors are pleased with the rods, pins, and screws holding his leg together, they decide to reset his lower leg in a much shorter cast, promising that he can switch to a cam boot by August if all goes well. Dean spends much of the month, irritable and uncomfortable in the cast, and while it allows him more movement, he still has to wear a brace on his thigh and he complains about it endlessly.

Sometimes they both dream, a novelty to Castiel, though he rarely finds them to be pleasant. His dreams are too often of the moment when Dean came between him and Lucifer, moments before he was sure that the Devil was about to end him, and he sees again and again Dean beaten bloody by Sam’s fists while he stands, frozen and helpless with Bobby at his side. At times in his dream, he is unable to save Dean in the end, is powerless to access the last of his grace to put his broken body back together enough so that he might live and Castiel often awakes from those dreams in a cold sweat.

If his dreams are bad, Dean’s are surely worse.

True to the doctors’ promise, Dean’s second cast is gone in August and he is able to move around in a thick, clunky cam walker boot. They argue over his disgust with using the cane given to him by his physical therapist and do his therapy exercises on the old carpet floor of their living room to the background noise of the television.

Every day, between two and two-thirty, Dean drives to Taco Bell to meet him. He lingers in the lobby at first, nursing free refills of cold soda and absently eating whatever Castiel puts in front of him while he reads his books or sometimes scans the local papers with a critical eye and a red felt-tip pen. He is soon an anticipated guest and neither Rita, nor any of the other employees seem disturbed by his presence. Sometimes Castiel is able to talk with him briefly until he gets off work at three and sometimes he is on the line, preparing tacos and burritos and various other menu items when it is too busy for him to remain in the back, washing dishes and taking orders – which is where everyone seems to prefer him.

Dean leans on the counters on the days when Joaquin, newly promoted, is the manager and the air in the restaurant is more relaxed than when Rita or the store owner Carl is present. He teases Castiel for his careful diligence when preparing food, something which Joaquin is eager to join in on, and flirts easily with whomever might be running the drive through – seemingly unconcerned if it’s one of the frighteningly efficient girls or Joaquin himself.

Their days are quiet, but Castiel finds them full, finds the routine comforting because he always knows what he is to do and when it is time to do it. He and Dean end their day on the porch that they share with the neighboring apartment. Sometimes Dean drinks a beer, sometimes Castiel joins him, and they watch the night spread out over the small college town and drench it quiet darkness. No one ever steps out from beneath the streetlight to greet them and there is very little meaningful variation to their days, even when Dean gets what he calls a “wild hair” and they go for a drive across the Missouri countryside and enjoy the late summer sunshine.

Castiel does not realize much he has come to rely upon this routine until it is suddenly altered. He is making an order of twenty tacos – carefully and by holding them one at a time, despite Joaquin’s insistence that he really can hold two or three or “God damn, Cas, like five, really!” all at once and still manage to fill each shell according to specifications when a sudden itch works up his spine. He glances at the clock, knowing instinctively that time is somehow a factor in his unease, and is discomforted when he realizes that it is two-forty-two in the afternoon. He glances quickly in the direction of the lobby, thinking that the possibility exists that he has missed Dean’s arrival.

He hasn’t and he has to force himself to return to the task of stuffing the tacos with lettuce and cheese, half of an ounce and a quarter ounce respectively, because the prompter over the drive through has begun to blink and he knows that he has taken too long to fill the order.

At two-forty five, he finishes the order and walks to the front counter to look for Dean. When he does not find him, he scans the parking lot and checks the restrooms, both of them. He finds that he is close to panic and at Joaquin’s questioning look and his remark that he looks like he has to “puke or shit”, he cannot find a way to adequately convey the depth of his worry. Though Dean has not taken easily to domesticity, Castiel has found him remarkably considerate. He is never late and he seems as entrenched in their routine as he himself is. Even when the pain from his second casting kept him at home, he still called and offered to pick him up or explain that he couldn’t get off of the damned couch. It’s simply unlike him and he finds himself wondering, fearing that Dean’s terse “we’re sitting ducks staying in one place like this, Cas” was a prophetic statement.

He’s close to dry panic, close to asking to leave early though Rita has left several notes in the break room of late that all employees are expected to clock in and out on time in response to the lackadaisical work ethic of the new crop of high school students that has recently joined their crew. He ignores the customer coming in the door when the phone rings, despite the oncoming crewmember’s glare at him. She hasn’t put her hair back yet, has not washed her hands, and it’s clear that she intends to eat before clocking in for her shift.

Castiel follows Joaquin to the office and stands in the doorway, absently rubbing at the red sauce stain on his apron while the young man answers the phone.

“Dean,” Joaquin says and hands him the phone without question. Castiel tries not to read anything into the tight look he gives him.

“What’s wrong?” Castiel says into the phone, not bothering with any other preamble.

Dean sounds like he’s choking, sounds like the breath has been knocked out of him and Castiel fears for a moment that he’s fallen, that he’s gone down the questionably maintained stairs of their back porch badly and reinjured his leg.

“Sam,” Dean gets out finally. “Sam’s here.”

“I’ll leave now. Are you all right?” He doesn’t ask if Sam is well. Dean’s voice tells him all that he needs to know about that thought.

“Yeah… basically. Just hurry, okay? Fucking get here, man.”

Castiel hangs up the phone and turns to Joaquin. “I’m aware that I have three minutes of my shift remaining, but there is an emergency at home…”

“Dude,” Joaquin says and gives him a little shove out of the tiny office. “Go already. Nobody gives a shit about three minutes. Go see about your boy.”

Castiel forgoes the usual discussion about how Dean is not his boy, how they are not intimately or romantically involved and goes. He doesn’t pause to clock out, just collects his keys and cell phone from his locker and hurries out of the store.

It is not a long walk from the store to their apartment, twenty-five minutes at best, but Castiel finds that he cannot contain himself to a reasonable pace. His quick steps turn into a jog and then he is running. He likes running, usually enjoys taking easy runs around the park where Dean walks to improve the health and strength of his leg, but today he feels none of the quiet peace at the sound of his footfalls. Perhaps it is because the sound is too fast on the pavement, speeding and thumping like his heart in his chest. Perhaps it is because he cannot think of anything other than Sam and Dean and Sam again. Perhaps it is the fearful, hatefully human ache that spikes out from his belly and makes it hard to breathe as he runs through the small town towards home while passersby honk or shout things like “where’s the fire, man?” at him.

Cas can hear the keening wail as he reaches the block where he and Dean live. Their apartment is like most on the street, a strange conglomeration of rooms in old houses that have been blocked off to contain between two and four separate living spaces. Theirs is an old two story affair of which they are in possession of most of the downstairs. They share the building with Bud who works at the hardware shop and who has a distressing tendency to supply Castiel with the extent and severity of his ex-wife’s indiscretions. Bud is thankfully not home, a blessing given his sometimes intrusive and overly inquisitive nature, and Castiel finds that their front door, to the left of Bud’s, is wide open.

He bounds up the steps so fast that he will later not recall if he stepped on any of them and into their apartment where the cries are louder, sharper, and more painful. Castiel smells urine as he heads to the kitchen where he finds Dean and, miraculously, Sam.

Sam is on the floor, dirtied and muddied as if he has walked a hundred miles or more. He has lost his right shoe, his sock is a black mess, thick with both dried and fresh blood and his clothes are torn. Urine does indeed mark the crotch of his ripped jeans and he leans against Dean, sometimes clutching him, sometimes hitting him so violently the Castiel does not wonder at the fresh bruises darkening Dean’s cheeks and his arms.

Dean tries to hold him, tries to soothe and shush him, but he looks up at Cas when he hears him, tears and panic and blood on his face. “Went outside to have a smoke,” he says, failing to keep to his usual pretense of adhering to his promise to avoid engaging in the bad habit. “And he was there, just standing there by the front steps like he couldn’t remember how to walk up them. Got him inside and he wouldn’t talk, wouldn’t look at me or say anything, just stood there. He just fucking stood there and I tried to get him to sit down, tried to look at his fucking foot because it’s God damned bleeding and he lost it.”

Dean looks at him hard, desperate with hope and Castiel knows what’s coming before he asks it, before he has to hear the pain of it. “Please do something, Cas. Fucking Christ. Please.”

Dean knows the remoteness of what he asks, knows that the last of Castiel’s grace went into keeping his heart beating at Stull cemetery several months back, knows that he can no longer hear but faint whispers of his brothers and sisters and that every day he becomes ever less an angel, ever more a man. The bitterness is unexpected and unwelcome, sharp and painful as he looks down at Dean and thinks with shocking anger “what the fuck do you think that I can do for him in this state?” The thought is distressingly human and he almost turns away.

But Sam’s wailing is too much like that of a child and Dean holds him with his pleading gaze. Castiel goes to his knees next to them, unable to say no, unable to say that he’s as useless as thinks he is. He puts a hand to Sam’s head. His hair is long. Greasy and unkempt and the smell reminds Castiel of an unwashed dishrag. Sam jerks his head up and stares back at him as if he sees something more to him. He looks behind Castiel and he is unnerved to realize that Sam’s gaze traces what would have been, but cannot possibly still be, the path of his wings. Sam starts to shudder so hard that he seems on the verge of seizing. He looks at Castiel with eyes huge and stricken and so horribly empty, but his gaze is still that of one who expects to suffer.

“What they must have done to you,” Castiel murmurs, lowering his hand from Sam’s filthy head to his cheek.

Sam grows violent at the sound of his voice, acts as though he can hear the musical timbre of an angel’s true voice. He strikes out as Dean leans in to get a grip on him and Dean’s head snaps back from the blow. He acts as though he hasn’t been struck at all, acts as though he is not balanced poorly with his leg in a brace and a walking boot, and bodily leans in to hold Sam down, catching him by both arms. Sam reacts instantly to the force and fights back. He is weak and battered, but still a solidly built man. It takes both Castiel and Dean to keep him down and they find that they have to avoid the snap of Sam’s jaws as he tries to bite at them when he cannot get up.

Castiel reaches to him, puts a hand to Sam’s forehead, and thinks “please, Father, just once more for this poor soul who has done for you what all of the angels in Heaven could not.” Nothing comes and Sam does not calm, just thrashes beneath them, while Castiel tries and fails to feel whatever lingering shreds of grace he might possess.

“Oh, God,” Dean murmurs and Castiel thinks that he is simply expressing his misery at the situation until he follows his gaze down to Sam’s chest where his shirt has snapped open during the fray. Dean’s amulet rests against his skin and Dean looks at it as if it’s his own heart, freshly plucked from his breast.

Without reason or thought, Castiel reaches a hand out towards it, cradles it gently in his palm and thinks again “please, please, please.” It warms briefly in his hand and Castiel lets go of Sam’s arm, takes the punch that cracks something in his chest, a rib he thinks, and puts his free hand to Sam’s forehead. He lets go of everything around him. Refuses to hear Dean’s uneven breathing or the pitch of Sam’s screams. He unfurls the tattered, diminished remnants of what he used to be and soars Heavenward with it. He does not ask. He does not humble himself. He takes all that he can without explanation or fear of the consequences, though he can hear for the first time in months the full sound of his brothers and his sisters. There is mostly anger, mostly outrage, but a few kind words and praise. Castiel takes, he steals and he rips at the grace of others greedily, gratefully when it is offered, and he feeds all of these stolen scraps to the crying thing that used to be Sam Winchester.

When he’s done, when the amulet is just a cold thing in his hand and he finds that his chest hurts, that it’s hard to breathe around sharpness of his broken rib, the kitchen is silent.

Sam is slack against Dean, sleeping with closed eyes and an untroubled expression on his face. He seems more solid to Castiel, more of a physical presence and an actual human being than what had been fighting and screaming moments before. His foot no longer bleeds and his cuts have all vanished. Whatever his mental state will be upon waking, he is asleep now and peaceful enough. Dean, not as empty of tears as Castiel had once thought, hunches over him, crying but not sobbing, and murmuring something that sounds like the secret, private language of twins. Castiel gets up stiffly and with a wheeze that tells him he will need to tend to his broken ribs in some fashion. First he goes to find pillows and blankets. Sam is too big to move and he knows that Dean will not leave him, that he himself will not leave Dean. It will be a long night on the kitchen floor for them all.

*

Castiel is out sick from work for a week. He is made to provide documentation from a physician that he is too ill to carry out his duties – a doctor’s note, Dean tells him – and since he has not one, but two broken ribs, the doctor at the walk-in clinic is all too happy to provide him with it. Bobby is in town twenty-two hours after Sam’s return and between the three of them, they finally get Sam from the kitchen to Dean’s bedroom. He also ferries Cas’s excuse to work for him and returns with a bag of burritos and nachos – courtesy of Joaquin – which none of them mean to eat, but which Dean and Castiel tear into ravenously. Neither of them have eaten much since Sam’s return, Castiel did well to get Dean to drink water and take his pain medication and he himself has felt like nothing other than hot tea and a slice of toast. Bobby declares them near starved and it’s not until he and Dean look at each other from opposite ends of the worn, but functional plaid couch, the bag of food between them, that Castiel even knows that his stomach has been clamoring for food.

He has never much cared for the food he prepares at work, has never developed a taste for it, but Castiel finds it delicious now. Joaquin has prepared it to Dean’s tastes – stuffed with sour cream and cheese – and there is no dignified way to eat it. After the first bite, Castiel isn’t even certain that he cares. Red sauce dribbles from the too-full burrito and he can feel a little smear of it at the corner of his mouth. He takes no notice of it, does not stop to ponder how human this is, eating to stave off not just hunger, but stress and sorrow, he just eats. When Bobby hands him a tall plastic cup full of Pepsi, Castiel drinks from it greedily. It’s cold and sweet, compliments the food perfectly, and for several minutes, he can do nothing but eat and drink, chew and swallow, with red sauce on his chin and nacho cheese on his fingers. Dean is no more graceful and delicate than he is. He eats quickly, stuffs the tip of his third burrito into the near empty cup of nacho cheese to get to the remaining smears of cheese. Castiel follows suit, manages to get more burrito into the tiny cup than cheese out of it and ends up swirling his index finger down into it, licking the remains off.

Bobby sits on a chair from the kitchen, eats nothing, but drinks from his soda as he watches them. Castiel gets the feeling that he is prepared to chastise them if they leave anything behind. It makes him self-conscious as the meal draws to a close, as there’s nothing but balled up burrito wrappers on the middle cushion between him and Dean. He wipes at his mouth with his knuckles, as he has seen Dean do, and starts tucking the waste into the bag. There’s nothing left. He and Dean have eaten six burritos and four orders of nachos with extra cheese between them. He calculates the cost in his head, figures the tax, and wonders what the protocol for this generosity is. Will he be required to pay it back? Should he ‘owe’ Joaquin a favor? He does not know. He’s been human for months now and he still feels so ignorant, so lost.

Dean gets up when they’re done. Castiel does not ask why, does not ask what he means to do, or make mention of how badly he wavers on his feet. Two days on a hard floor has done neither of them any good, but Dean is so weary that he seems to have regressed to a previous level in his rehabilitation. Castiel thinks he should counsel Dean to put on his cam boot, to take more pain meds. He says nothing, just watches Dean get up and go to the back bedroom to check on Sam.

“Well?” Bobby says when he’s gone.

Castiel sighs and leans back against the couch, feeling overly full now that his brain has had time to process the signals from his belly. He closes his eyes, wishes that he hadn’t refused the pain prescription from the doctor at the walk-in clinic. It hurts every time he breathes. He’s told that it’s normal and that the pain will diminish as he heals.

“You wish to know what happened. You wish to know how Sam came to be here and how certain I am that it’s really Sam.”

“For starters,” Bobby tells him. “Thought the trip into Lucifer’s cage was one way, thought Sam was stuck in there for all eternity.”

“You would rather he was?”

“Of course I don’t. I love that boy like he’s my own, he and Dean both, but…”

Castiel nods. There’s a hundred unspoken fears in the word ‘but’ and he understands all of them. “I do not know,” he says finally, opening his eyes. “Dean said he went outside and that Sam was there. No warning. No signs. Every night we have sat on the porch and have waited for him, though it’s not what we called it. He never came. Then he did. I do not know how. I do not know by whose intervention or what he endured in the cage or once he was outside of it. He was… feral when I came home. At some moments he seemed to recognize Dean, at others he did not. He was wild and inconsolable. Afraid. I did what I could and he has slept since then. He has not woken to eat or drink. He has not responded to his body’s urges and it has been like it was when you arrived. I am concerned about caring for him in this state – have asked Dean about everything from hospitals to adult briefs. He will not have it. He just bathes Sam and washes the sheets as need be. I am worried, Bobby. For Sam and for him. And I feel…” he pauses, dislikes how emotion can hurt as much as a physical pain. It is still new to him to have to take a moment to get his bearings, to relearn how to breathe around an ache that has nothing to do with his blood or his bones or his muscles. Human pain is too diverse and Castiel wonders if he will ever acclimate to it.

“I feel responsible,” he says finally.

“Because you didn’t have enough angel mojo? Boy…”

“No,” Castiel interrupts, “because it may have been my ‘mojo’ as you put it that has done this to him. Sam may never wake up and it is very likely because I tried to do something that I am no longer capable of doing.”

Bobby’s brows draw together and a small, sad smile flashes across his mouth. “You’re gettin’ more human every day, Castiel.”

“I know and trying to act as an angel in this state was not…”

“No,” Bobby says as he holds up a hand, “that’s not what I mean. I meant self-doubt. Second guessing yourself and kicking your own ass for doing everything that you could and feelin’ like it weren’t enough. You did good, boy. You may not know it, you may not believe it, but you did. So stop beatin’ yourself up because you’re not an angel. Angels woulda left Dean after Michael and Lucifer went into the cage. Maybe you don’t think you’re crap for an angel anymore and, maybe you ain’t, but I can tell you this much – you’re a good man. That means something. Does to me anyway. Dean and Sam, too.”

Castiel feels momentarily awkward, awash in a conflicting swirl of emotions, guilt and heated warmth from the praise chief among them. He has a difficult time processing it and, when taking a moment does not allow him time to recover his equilibrium, he emulates Dean, as he seems to do more and more every day – he changes the subject.

“We tested him, of course. Holy water, incantations, silver, salt, Enochian sigils… nothing caused a reaction. For better or worse, it is Sam. That is not to say that he has not been irrevocably altered by his ordeal or that he has not been conditioned by Lucifer, Michael, or even whoever rescued him from the cage, however. And until Sam wakes up, if he wakes up, there is no way to know how much of his soul and his mind is still his own.”

“You’re saying he could be Lucifer’s agent,” Bobby says.

“Or Michael’s. Time moves differently outside of this terrestrial sphere and just as Dean spent forty years in hell versus the four months he was gone, so Sam may have been gone for much longer as well.”

“Another forty years?”

“It’s Lucifer’s cage,” Castiel says quietly. “It could have been four minutes or four hundred years. We are lead to believe that reality is his to command in his prison – a gift from a Father who still loves the child He punishes. There is no telling how time flows there or how the addition of Michael affected it. Regardless, I believe there was ample time for one or the both of them to condition Sam, or punish him, however they saw fit.”

“Well, that’s comforting.”

“It was not meant to be,” Castiel replies in all seriousness, though he understands the dark, dry sarcasm in Bobby’s statement for what it is.

*

Sam sits up of his own volition on the fourth day of his return. Their hope for a recovery is short lived and Dean tells of patients he has seen in various mental institutions that are like Sam – awake, pliable, able to follow simple commands, but painfully blank. Dean has to take him to the bathroom, sit him down on the toilet like a child and order him to go. Sometimes he has to wait. Sometimes he has to run water and Sam lacks the wherewithal to clean himself afterwards, simply holds the wad of tissue in his hand as he sits dumbly with his pants around his ankles. He eats when food is put into his hand and Castiel learns quickly that finger foods are easier for him. He must be fed soup and, even with a straw, the cup must be held in order for Sam to drink. He says nothing. He reacts to nothing. He simply goes where he is told to go, does what he is told to do if he is capable, and spends most of his time sitting or standing, staring at nothing with a blank, untroubled look upon his face. It pains Castiel terribly, causes him no end of guilt despite Bobby’s admonishments, but watching Dean interact with Sam is the most difficult.

Dean does not react as Castiel would expect. He does not yell or look as though his heart has been ripped out of his chest. He is endlessly patient, never expresses frustration when food dribbles down Sam’s chin or when he stands, slack-jawed and useless until someone sits him down. Castiel knows his heart must be breaking, knows he must want to hit something, perhaps even Sam at times, but he doesn’t. Never yells at him to wake up or snap out of it, just continues to care for him and remind everyone, Sam included, that this is temporary. Sam will come around, he will find his way back. They only have to wait for it.

Castiel contemplates years of this and wonders if it would have been better for Dean if Sam had never returned at all.

He returns to work on a Wednesday and though it is Rita’s day to open the store, making it less comfortable than Castiel would have preferred, he’s surprised to find that work is soothing. He worries about Dean and Sam endlessly, even though Bobby has agreed to stay on for a while, but the simple mindlessness of his morning chores affords him at least a partial return to the routine that had been so comforting. He starts up the rethermalizers, as he does every morning, and as they and fryer heat up the kitchen, he fills an extremely large stainless steel bowl with tomatoes and onions. Castiel gathers the packets of sickly green colored Pico De Gallo sauce and proceeds to chop up the cilantro – a task which was difficult at first given its leafy nature, but one which he is queerly proud to say that he now excels at, even if he finds the smell somewhat repulsive and reminiscent of the scent of cat that had lingered in their apartment the first month they’d lived in it.

He mixes the sauce and distributes it to smaller containers before returning to the smaller prep area where he fries taco salad shells and begins to heat the food for the day. He cooks and he washes dishes. When the store opens at ten, he dons the drive-thru headset for Rita and waits for orders while filling metal trays with nacho chips, fluffing packages of cold burrito flours and a dozen other small tasks that are somehow central to the working of the store. Castiel listens to the complaints of Linda, his coworker until the lunch crew arrives, but he does not fully understand her despair over the trivial nature of their work load. He enjoys the symmetry of it all, finds comfort in knowing that so many little chores are necessary to keep this big thing running smoothly in order to feed a busy population. Rita tells him that it’s a remarkably mature attitude, a comment which confuses him when she is roughly the same age as he is, well, the same age as his body appears to be anyway, but Joaquin just laughs when he calls him before lunch rush and reminds him that Rita isn’t exactly the most learned of conversationalists.

“I think she was trying to say that you have a refreshing, if not weird attitude about it all, Cas.”

“I do not think it is especially weird. It is simply how things must be. A battle cannot be run or won without the work of foot soldiers – they are the foundation.”

“Frying up shells and doing everything while Rita talks on the phone and pretends to run morning reports for five hours because she’s hung over isn’t exactly the work of a soldier, dude.”

Joaquin has no idea how right he is, but Castiel refuses to be budged from his calm acceptance that his endless list of small tasks benefits the larger whole. Life as a human, he has come to realize, is full of uncertainties and unpleasantries. Allowing himself despair over the meaninglessness of his job would in no way improve his situation. He helps keep the store running and is able to bring home food and money that keeps Dean, and now a catatonic Sam, sheltered and fed. He is sometimes shocked at how many of the people around him are immune to the comfort and security of such things.

Summer becomes fall and Castiel develops a new routine. He gets up at five, every morning, and discovers that the bitterness of coffee is lessened, almost made palatable, by the addition of flavored creamer. They cannot often afford the cinnamon vanilla, which is his favorite, but the generic hazelnut works well enough. He gets Sam up and bathes him, a chore which had been Dean’s in the beginning, but which Castiel finds is easier on him. Sam is difficult to maneuver into the bathtub and is so tall, so unable to assist in any way that trying to bend him beneath the too short shower head resulted in several falls, one of which cracked Sam’s head open and earned him seven stitches. The social worker at the hospital gave them a voucher for a shower chair and, since then, he’s found it much easier to strip Sam of his pajamas and sit him down. Castiel bathes him, washes his hair and his face, shaves him carefully, and dresses him again while the coffee is brewing. They sit together in the kitchen, Castiel drinking Best Choice brand coffee with Best Choice brand hazelnut creamer while Sam eats dry toast and bacon at Castiel’s prompting. He holds the juice cup to his lips, commands him to drink, and wonders why he feels more despair than satisfaction when Sam complies, when he clamps the straw between his lips and sucks down the juice, his eyes never focusing, his gaze, once so astute, never sharpening.

Dean gets up, stiff and awkward, and fumbles towards the coffee pot and his morning medications. He always greets Sam and touches him in passing, no matter how tired he is or how intently he’s focused on the coffee. Sometimes he rubs the back of Sam’s neck or nudges his shoulder. Other times, generally when the nights have been long and Dean has not slept, he’s more inclined to bend over to kiss the top of Sam’s freshly washed head or whisper to him in that strange Winchester mimicry of twin speak that pulls something in Castiel’s abdomen when he hears it.

Every day before Castiel leaves, Dean stands in the doorway, Sam left behind in the kitchen and staring and nothing, and cracks a small joke. “Have a good day at work, dear,” is his favorite, though Castiel does not understand why such well wishing should be comical. Before he’s out the door, Dean always says:

“Sam’ll come around today.” Castiel does not have the heart to refute that statement or to point out that it has not been true on any of the previous days that Dean’s made that proclamation.

He walks to work, the air cooler, fresher, and the world somehow bigger seeming with the gray skies and the brightly colored leaves. He encounters little traffic and enjoys the serenity and the quiet.

Castiel waits until the morning manager, generally Rita or Joaquin, sometimes an unpleasant night shift employee named Dave, arrives to unlock the doors. Once inside, he clings to pattern and routine, despite the shifting chaos of human moods and emotions.

He gets his first customer complaint in late September during a busy Friday lunch rush. Castiel is on the backup line that only runs during the busiest times of the day and his job is to keep the tray full of common items like tacos and bean burritos. Occasionally, he is to help out whichever of the other two lines are running behind by making an order. He does so for the drive-thru and tells Rita that he will make her two Burrito Supremes. Castiel takes the first large tortilla flour out of the steam cabinet and carefully follows the guide taped to the metal above him as he works. He smears the exact amount of beans and taco meat, adds a scoop of red sauce and repeats this on the second burrito flour before turning to cold section of his work area to add the required amount of onions, lettuce, cheese, tomatoes, and sour cream. He wraps both finished burritos carefully and is pleased that the shape is exactly like the diagram. He slides the burritos over to Rita who takes them without comment or thanks, and then he returns to refill the dwindling tray of tacos and soft tacos. He’s down at the far end, away from the front counter, and holding three of the hard shells in his hand as Joaquin had taught him after many, many days of lamenting his one shell at a time method when there’s a commotion up front.

“No, I want the little shit that made my food to see this.”

He registers the tone, recognizes a similarity to Zachariah in its imperiousness, but continues to stuff lettuce into his tacos until Rita starts talking to him over his headset. “Castiel – you’re wanted up front. Go see what that guy needs and take care of it.”

At the counter, a harried looking man who is dressed not too dissimilar from how Castiel used to adorn himself when he first took up residence in Jimmy Novak’s body is standing with a small plastic takeout bag. He looks at Castiel narrowly when he approaches the counter and slams the bag down. Inside, Castiel can see the Burrito Supremes he’d made earlier, one of them opened and then hastily wrapped back up. Red sauce and beans leak around the flimsy paper.

“How may I help you?” Castiel asks.

“I’d like my money back and I want these burritos made correctly,” the man in the suit and tie demands.

Castiel looks down into the bag and then back up at the man. “Could you please explain the nature of your complaint, sir?”

Suit and Tie, as Castiel can already hear Dean dub him in his head, turns a rather alarming shade of red and digs into the bag, slamming both burritos down on the counter before unwrapping one. The mashed contents looks as though it has been eaten and digested once already and Castiel wonders not for the first time how it is that he has begun to eat and enjoy such unpleasing fare.

“This is the nature of my complaint!”

“I fail to understand. Please elaborate.” Castiel is confused and does not rise to the scathing, dismissive tone in the man’s voice.

“Of course, you fail to understand. I don’t expect you to understand, but I expect even someone who does this for a living to be able to make a simple fucking burrito.” Suit and Tie sucks on his Pepsi as he says it and Castiel is not unfamiliar with the condescending tone in his voice. He had grown used to such things from those who had achieved greater status and power long before God had decided to put mankind upon the earth.

“I assure you that both of your menu items were made according to specifications,” Castiel replies, still unruffled and more curious than anything else. “However, if you do not find them to your liking, policy dictates that I can have another item prepared for you.”

“Specifications?” Suit and tie has gone from alarming red to the sort of color that Castiel fears signals a dire medical condition. He wonders if the man is suffering from untreated hypertension.

“Specifications,” Castiel repeats. “As in that which is required with absolute lack of variation in order to achieve the desired product. In this case, the exact order and quantity of the ingredients layered upon the correct size tortilla. I assure you, I did not deviate from those specifications and that your order was, therefore, filled correctly. However, if your order was input incorrectly…”

“You arrogant little shit,” Suit and Tie says. “There’s hardly any cheese on these things. So, don’t try to tell me that you made them perfectly. I want what I paid for and I want my money back!”

“You received what you paid for and are now asking for additional amounts of cheese on correctly prepared items. And asking to have them given to you for free. I fail to see how this is equitable. If you would like to purchase extra cheese, I would be happy to comply.”

“I don’t want extra cheese, I want what’s meant to be in the fucking things!”

Castiel means to tell him that one quarter ounce of cheese, the same as the amount for a regular taco is exactly what’s meant to go on each burrito and is prepared to provide the schematics to reassure Suit and Tie of this when Rita appears at his elbow, smiling widely.

“Hello, sir,” she says with a brightness Castiel knows to be feigned. “I’m the store manager, what seems to be the problem?”

“Smart ass here,” Suit and Tie seethes, “just gyped me. There’s hardly any cheese on these things and now he’s mouthing off to me, telling me that I should have ordered extra cheese. Is this the sort of customer service you people provide?”

“Of course not, sir. I’ll be happy to make you some fresh burritos myself and get you a coupon for a free meal your next visit.” She smiles widely and, when Suit and Tie does not seem to be appeased, she adds “and how about some of our empanadas thrown in for the hassle?”

The aggrieved customer deflates a little bit and nods. “Can I get a refill, too?”

“Why, sure!” Rita says, beaming at him. “You just fill up your pop in the lobby and I’ll get your order right out to you, okay?”

Castiel is flummoxed and, for the first time, irritated. He takes the man’s bag from the counter, scowls a bit at the smear of red sauce across the formerly clean faux-granite countertop and retreats to the space in front of the main and backup lines. There he finds the scale that Rita keeps handy when she feels like weighing product in order to chastise those who have made items “too heavy” or “too light” and weighs the one burrito that has not been unwrapped. It’s exactly the required weight and he turns to Rita and to the customer who has yet to go and refill his beverage, pointing to the scale.

“The item is correct.”

Rita cringes and Suit and Tie looks as though he’s on the verge of a massive cerebral aneurysm. “I want him fired! I want him fired and I want the number to Taco Bell headquarters so that I can call and tell them how I’ve been treated! I work at Lloyd, Gibbs, and Baker, a very prestigious law firm, I’ve wasted twenty minutes of my lunch break, and I don’t have to put up with this shit!”

“As a member of the legal community, you should be more than well versed in the obvious lack of ethics of demanding more than what you have paid for,” Castiel chastises lightly. He unthinkingly steps in front of Rita when Suit and Tie slams his hand down on the counter and is somewhat taken aback when she gives him a shove towards the back of the store.

“You just go, Castiel. Go… pull trash or something. Just get out of this man’s face and let me handle this. I’ll deal with you later.”

“You should deal with him by filling out a fucking pink slip!” Suit and Tie yells.

**

Castiel stops at a small market on the way home to buy more chicken fingers and apples for Sam. He counts out the money from his wallet carefully and considers how much he knows to remain at home –both what Dean knows about and the two hundred dollars that Bobby slipped him when Dean had insisted, for the fifth time, that they didn’t need to take his money. Bobby and Castiel had both disagreed and he’s grateful for it now. It will not cover the loss of his paycheck for the two weeks he has been suspended – and he fidgets when he remembers that it was two weeks pending review, that Rita may yet fire him, leaving them all in dire straits – but it will keep them warm and fed, at the very least. How they will afford rent and necessary items like laundry detergent and soap if he is not allowed to work, he doesn’t know.

He finds that he’s hesitant to return home, to share the incident with Dean who he is sure will overreact to Castiel’s encounter with Suit and Tie and under react to their serious financial concerns and, though he laments the human foolishness of it, he takes the long way around the park, only hurrying along towards home when he grows concerned about the chicken thawing and spoiling.

Castiel can hear the television as he climbs the steps to the apartment. It’s not unusual, but generally indicative of one of Dean’s bad days where he has tried to do too much with a body that is not fit enough to comply. On such days, the pain from Dean’s slowly healing leg is crippling and he can do little more than settle on the couch with pills he doesn’t like to “waste” and ice packs. Castiel generally finds him asleep, leg propped up, and their small television tuned to talk shows or a seemingly endless series of programs about the American judicial system, “Judge Alex” being Dean’s favorite. Sam, as Castiel expects and finds to be true on this day, sits next to Dean on the couch, eternally passive and blank.

Sam is what Castiel sees first, what he inspects the moment he walks in because Sam’s state is always a true indicator of Dean’s. He sees no new injuries, nothing that indicates Sam has fallen down the stairs or banged his head against the wall, as he sometimes is wont to do. It is, then, not one of their very bad days, but when he turns to Dean, there is something in his expression that tells him all is not well.

“So, how was your day, dear?” Dean’s bent over his propped up leg and digging at the fabric of his jeans with his long, pale fingers.

Castiel hears the tone and sighs. Dean knows. He does not ponder how or why, doesn’t have to. He’s long since discovered that information travels with alarming speed through their strange network of associates and it doesn’t take much to realize that one of his coworkers no doubt called Joaquin to gossip after his altercation earlier in the afternoon.

“Like you would expect,” he replies and gestures to the kitchen with the small grocery sack. He finds two boxes of Hamburger Helper sitting meaningfully on the counter and tries not to sigh again at the realization that he will be expected to prepare and consume the meal later. He feels like a child for thinking it, but Dean knows he dislikes the gloppy consistency and only chokes it down to keep himself fed and from wasting their precious grocery dollars. Sam and Dean both, Castiel reminds himself firmly, tend to eat it like they’re starving. Sam chews the stuff more quickly than the healthier, more palatable fare Castiel prefers, and as it’s as close to an emotional response or a preference as they’ve ever gotten from him since his return, Dean tends to find a way to eat Hamburger Helper at least once a week.

He still feels churlish and disagreeable about it, however, and unhappily views his journey to humanity one step further along when he silently laments that Sam used to eat endless amounts of salad. Salads, Castiel thinks, are nice.

“Trying to cool off the kitchen there, Cas?”

He’s been standing at the refrigerator for several moments, the freezer open and his hand resting on the bag of apples he’s just put inside. Cas frowns at them and takes them out, places them on the counter and exchanges them for the chicken fingers.

“Sorry,” he tells Dean as he closes the freezer and then leans back against the refrigerator. He can feel the hum of it along his spine and finds it not entirely unpleasant. “I was suspended at work.”

Dean’s leaning heavily on his cane, ice pack left back on the couch and Castiel feels ashamed that he interrupted his much needed convalescence. “Yeah, Joaquin called. Sucks.”

His words are clipped, causing Castiel to wince inwardly. He wonders if Dean has done the math on how much money they have for the next two weeks and how much they have to pay for. Their lives seem to be regulated by dollars and cents. It controls what they eat, how often they can wash their clothes, how often Dean will be in pain. His refusal to attend any more physical therapy was only in part due to hating it. They simply couldn’t afford it. It’s a very real possibility that they will not be able to afford Dean’s prescriptions and Castiel can already play out the argument that they’ll have about calling Bobby for help.

“I’m sorry,” he says again. “I know how serious our financial concerns are, but Bobby left us a small sum that might help.”

“Oh, fuck the money, Cas. I don’t care about the money.”

“You should,” Castiel reminds him. “Even with what I have earned this week, the two hundred dollars Bobby gave me, and the contents of your change jar, I don’t know if we will be able to cover our expenses. And if my review does not end favorably and I’m relieved of my job,” and he’s more than a little amazed to discover how much the notion both frightens and saddens him, “we might not be able to pay rent.”

Dean smacks the tip of his cane down forcibly on the worn linoleum in a gesture remarkably similar to that of an aged, disagreeable old man and scowls at him. “I told you, you and Bobby both, that we don’t need his money.”

“But… we do,” Castiel tells him helplessly.

“Fuck that. I’m not an invalid, Cas. I can take care of things. I will take care of things.”

He’s tempted to swipe the cane from Dean’s grasp, to watch Dean waver on his feet because it would drive the point home admirably, but he can’t bring himself to do it, doesn’t think he could stand the look Dean would give him if he did. “You can barely stand for more than twenty minutes without needing to sit down,” he tells him as gently as he can manage.

“Screw you,” Dean says quietly. “I’m not helpless and you can call Bobby up and freaking remind him of that, too. We’ll get by, Cas. Winchesters always do.”

It’s on the tip of Castiel’s tongue to remind him that he’s not a Winchester, that he’s floundering more often than either of them would like to admit, but he says nothing. Just stares at Dean who stares back at him more than a little pissed and petulant.

“I’m not worried about the money,” Dean tells him again.

“Then what are you worried about?” Castiel asks him in frustration.

“You.”

Castiel stops and stares at him blankly.

“Jesus, Cas. You’re a God damned angel! You dragged me out of hell for cryin’ out loud, been dragging me around ever since, keeping me upright, and you’re working a fast food job so Sammy and me stay fed. You’re getting more human by the day, which I know makes you freaking miserable, and some jackass gets in your face and you get laid off for doing what every fast food worker in the world dreams of. Then you, what, just wander the aisles of the IGA for a couple of hours?”

He should feel ashamed, he supposes, but Castiel is surprised by another surge of human emotion – embarrassment. He turns away from Dean, starts to pull a frying pan out from the cupboard so that he can make dinner –can keep the Winchesters fed, as Dean had said.

“Just… Jesus, Cas. You didn’t even call. I had to hear it from Joaquin and I’ve been going out of my mind wondering if you were going to throw yourself off a bridge or something.”

“Stop,” Castiel tells him and bangs the frying pan down on the stove.

“Stop what? Worrying? Man, don’t think I haven’t been trying.”

“Stop acting like a… like a…” Castiel flaps his hand at Dean helplessly.

“Like what?”

Castiel scowls. “Like a spouse.”

He waits for Dean to lash out, waits for him to make a rude gesture or yell at him. He gets laughter instead. It’s not bitter, not angry. True to his often mercurial nature, the storm of Dean’s mood has been broken and he laughs, leaning on his cane heavily in a way which makes Castiel a little bit sad.

“Oh, man. I cannot believe that you just called me the wife in this messed up family.”

**

An hour and a half later, Castiel leads Sam to the kitchen and sits him down at their small dining table. He pours iced tea into Sam’s glass, sticks a straw in it, and dishes a helping of the off colored pasta onto his plate. He’s slicing a slightly too mushy avocado and dividing it between his plate and Sam’s, knowing that “if it ain’t in guacamole form, I’m not touching it” and that they’ll be the only two to eat it, when Dean hobbles into the kitchen. He’s dressed, jeans and his heavier denim jacket. His cane is noticeably absent.

“You’re on Sam duty tonight,” Dean tells him as he bends down to Sam and whispers fae sounding nonsense in his ear, ending with “so don’t go giving Cas a heart attack by falling down the stairs or anything, kiddo. I’ll be back later.”

“You’re going somewhere?” Castiel asks him and feels an unhappy sort of certainty creep up from his belly.

“Yep. Someone’s got to put food on the table and keep the lights on.” Dean doesn’t sound accusatory and seems to be almost chipper when he glances up from Sam. Castiel takes note of the fact that while his hands are steady, his pupils are small, constricted. Pain medication, he thinks.

“But…”

“Make sure Sam spits after you brush his teeth or it’s a funky mess in the morning.”

“Of course. I know that,” Cas replies. “But…”

“And I know it’s freaking weird, but if you lay down with him for like an hour, he actually sleeps some.”

Castiel startles a little at the thought, but doesn’t let himself be distracted by instructions he knows are given partially to ensure that Sam is taken care of, but primarily to keep him too off balance to protest Dean’s sudden departure. A tactic that he knows indicates Dean is likely about to do something foolish or stupid. Probably both. He doesn’t bother to mince words.

“You’re going to do something stupid and foolish,” Castiel tells him.

“Pool.” Dean waves a hand at him. “Just a little pool, Cas, and I’ve been doing it since I was twelve. Town like this? Shit, I can probably make rent without even trying.”

“You mean hustling pool.”

“I mean hustling pool,” Dean agrees with a grin.

“But…”

“I’ll be back late.” With that Dean quits the kitchen, hobbling a little less with each step as he heads to the front door.

“But you didn’t even eat dinner,” Castiel calls after him.

“Now who’s the wife?” Dean says over his shoulder before he opens the front door. He’s whistling as he lets it slam shut.

Castiel drops into the chair next to Sam and stares at the ugly blob of dinner on both of their plates. “Sometimes,” he says to Sam as he picks up a soft slice of avocado with his fingers, “your brother sorely tests the limits of my patience.”

Sam says nothing, does nothing but sit in blank, motionless readiness. Castiel stares at him for a moment, wills for him to blink, move a muscle, or launch into a detailed history of the number and the ways that Dean’s tested his patience over the years. He does nothing of the sort. Just sits, eyes fixed on nothing or perhaps, Castiel thinks unhappily, on something very, very far away, something so unpleasant that he has to disconnect from everything and everyone in order to bear it. Castiel himself can’t bear the notion of just what things those might be, so, he holds the avocado slice out to Sam, orders him to take it and chew.

Sam obeys and the course of their evening is set. He drinks when Castiel puts the straw to his lips, eats from the spoon Castiel holds for him because he can’t or won’t handle it himself, though he manages finger foods well enough. He chews the pasta as quickly as he can, swallows mechanically, and Castiel wonders if he eats so quickly because somewhere down inside, where some part of him is still awake, Sam hates the stuff as much as he does. He finds that a better explanation for his rapid intake and meanly thinks he might just tell Dean so when he comes home.

When they’re finished, when Castiel’s dutifully choked down all that he can make himself eat, he leaves Sam sitting at the table while he packs the leftovers away in plastic containers. He’s started to clean up, started washing dishes and is up to his elbows in lemony dish soap when he hears Sam’s chair scoot back. He turns, wishes for some change to have overcome him. It hasn’t. Sam stands, as he sometimes does, and then slowly shuffles towards him. He does this from time to time, gets up and moves to stand closer to Dean, closer to the old gas stove that heats the living room. Sometimes, unnervingly, he goes and stands in a corner, eyes staring at nothing as he thumps his head against the wall. Dean does not tolerate those times well, claims that it’s “creepy as fuck in a Blair Witch kind of way,” but it’s also likely to send him into a quiet depression for hours, sometimes days. Those are the moments when Castiel thinks Dean suspects that he’s never getting Sam back.

Sam does not head for the wall or the back door, where he’s been known to stand for hours unless someone fetches him and redirects him. He stops at the sink and stands there so that their elbows and shoulders just barely touch. It’s the first time that Sam’s done this. Dean he seemed to gravitate towards from the moment he sat up, but he’s never sought Castiel out and he’s half wondered if some part of Sam still remembered or saw the last lingering traces of the angelic in him and shied away.

Castiel feels a little thrill of hope and, though he’s privately thought that it meant nothing when Sam’s moved to be closer to Dean, he understands now how and why it had excited Dean, why he had insisted that it was meaningful and a sign.

“Sam,” Castiel whispers, “are you in there?”

Sam says nothing. Of course he doesn’t, Castiel thinks, and then smiles at Sam reassuringly and turns back to the dishes. He washes their glasses, rinses them in cold water to save on the gas bill even though it chills and chaps his hands, and then starts in on the plates.

He’s working at a dried on fleck of food leftover from the last time Dean did the dishes when he senses that something’s changed. Castiel turns, the plate still in hand and running tiny rivulets of soap bubbles into the dishwater.

Sam’s staring at him. His eyes are not focused at some point beyond or through him, Sam is staring right at him, pupils wide and huge. They constrict suddenly and Castiel cannot think of what might have caused it. He reaches towards Sam, holding the wet plate with one hand, and means to do, what he doesn’t know.

Sam opens his mouth and screams. There’s no preamble, no working of his lips or his jaws, his mouth just opens wide and the sound of hell comes out while he continues to stare at Castiel through the beam of light that only he can see.

Castiel barks out a wordless cry of his own, drops the plate and feels it shatter at their feet while Sam screams without pause or breath.

It’s different. It’s new and it’s maybe a good thing, but it’s so loud, so awful and terrifying that Castiel wants him to stop. He grabs Sam by the wrists, feels his wet soapy fingers slip over flesh and bone, and calls to him. “Sam! Sam!”

Sam does not react, does not stop screaming even though Castiel cannot figure how he still has the breath to go on. He tells him to stop, orders him, cajoles, and finally just begs. He wonders in a panic if Bud is home upstairs. Wonders if he’d help him or simply call the police to take Sam away. He can’t imagine what he’d say to Bud if he went next door to fetch him, but he almost does it, the urge to get away from Sam and find someone else to take charge overwhelming because Castiel doesn’t know what to do.

When Sam finally draws a breath to power another scream, Castiel reaches for him in desperation. He pulls the much taller man to him and pulls his head down against his shoulder as he’s seen Dean do several times.

“It’s all right, Sam. It’s all right. No one can hurt you. I promise. I swear, just… please, Sam. Please stop.”

He doesn’t. His screaming is muffled now against Castiel’s body, but he doesn’t stop while Castiel rubs his back and strokes his hair. Castiel’s eyes are wet, he realizes, he’s very nearly crying because he’s so unsettled, so unsure of what he could or should do, and because it yanks hard at something in his gut to imagine Sam still suffering under Lucifer and Michael’s ministrations.

He’s soon clutching Sam, weeping into his neck, and whispering “Dean will back soon. Dean will back soon. It will be all right, Sam, because he’ll be back soon and he’ll tell us what to do.”

And that shuts Sam off like a switch. He stops screaming, twists his head just a little, the bridge of his nose rubbing against Castiel’s shoulder, and he utters one tiny and forlorn mewl. He’s silent and still after that and when Castiel pulls back from him, he finds him staring far off into the distance once more, eyes red with tears and focused on nothing.

Castiel wipes Sam’s tears with both hands, pads of his fingers rubbing gently under his eyes, before he smoothes the too long hair back from his temples. “It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay. He’s coming back, Sam. I promise.”

Tonight, he realizes as he continues to shush reassuringly at Sam, is the first time that Dean’s left him since he came back.

**

As soon as he gets Sam settled, after he’s washed his red face with a cool rag and dragged it a couple of times over his own burning eyes, Castiel calls Dean. It goes to voice mail, which he supposes is about what he should have expected if Dean’s busy working bars and pool halls for cash, but it frustrates him. He leaves a terse message, tells himself that it doesn’t sound as panicked as he thinks it does and, when Dean doesn’t call him back within the half hour, Cas calls again. After the fifth voicemail, he gives up. Sits next to Sam on the couch and dials Bobby’s number.

Bobby’s line rings without answer and Castiel tries two of his other numbers before setting his cell phone down carefully on the coffee table to keep from throwing it. He can’t afford to replace it after all. He sits on the couch next to Sam, absently running his thumb over Sam’s wrist. He’s not sure if he does it to keep Sam calm or himself. He suspects the latter because Sam is so quiet and blank, it’s like the outburst in the kitchen never happened.

It strikes him as no small irony that six months ago, he’s the one that would have been called about this. Dean or Bobby would have called him to check Sam out, to determine if something was wrong, if he was getting better or worse. Six months ago, even with his grace flickering like dying candle on a windy night, he could have felt Sam, could have seen into his heart and his soul, could have listened inside of his head and found out where it was that he spent all of his time.

Now, more human by the day, Castiel feels blind. He feels deaf, without the ability to feel or taste or smell. He has only the limitations of human perception and feeling – too much feeling – and he honestly doesn’t know how the race copes at all. He doesn’t know how they get up every morning, how they can divine things through intuition. It’s so limiting and he feels handicapped.

It drives home the thing he hasn’t let himself think too much about, what he’ll do for two weeks while he’s not working. They need the money, desperately, but for Castiel, working provides him with structure and routine. He desperately needs to know what to do, the obvious consequence of an eternity following orders and fulfilling tasks, he supposes. He does not do well with the world before him and too much time to fill. Even near the end, when he followed no one’s orders but his own, when he searched for his Father and stayed near the Winchesters as the apocalypse came to a head and there was no one else to stand with them but him and Bobby, Castiel felt that he has tasks. He had purpose.

His purpose of late has been providing and he understands now as he sits uselessly on the couch with nothing to do but watch Sam, how and why it’s frustrated Dean so badly. He should be doing something. He has to be doing something.

Castiel calls Dean again, gets no answer, and then gets up, starts to pace the living room. He stops when he wonders if his agitation will upset Sam, if it will convince him that Dean really isn’t coming back and that he should just start screaming again.

He sits back down. Takes Sam’s hand in his and waits. He knows waiting. Being an angel is an endless exercise in waiting. This is no different and he wills himself to calm down, to sit easily, and to simply wait. Like, he supposes, Sam is waiting in his quiet and extreme fashion.

He manages close to twenty minutes before he’s up again. To the kitchen and back. Through the bedrooms, in and out of the bathroom. He even opens their closets, though he can’t fathom why, and it occurs to him that he’s demonstrating some substantially obsessive behavior.

Castiel decides that tea is in order. They have an assortment of loose and bagged tea from a small Chinese market near the campus where they often find little things at greatly discounted prices. Dean maintains that it’s because it’s all old, but he goes through the instant noodles and strangely flavored crackers happily enough and Castiel picks out tea for himself and for Sam who, once long ago, used to appreciate a hot cup on a gloomy day. It’s not easy to get him to drink – he either has to wait for it to cool enough to take a straw or hold the cup to his lips. With Sam’s height, he has to stand to get the best grip on the teacup and Dean calls it overbearing and depressing, but Castiel sometimes does it anyway because Sam once liked tea and he supposes that he one day might like it again.

He chooses a loose green tea, one with rose petals, rosebuds, laurel, and lemon myrtle. Flakes drift through the tea ball and swirl through the cups of pale tea he pours for them both. Castiel can well imagine what Dean’s reaction would be to the concoction, but it smells good, soothing, and he carefully walks back to the living room with both cups in hand.

Sam is where he left him, blank and untroubled, rubbing his hands together as if something has gotten on him and, though it pains him slightly to think it, Castiel thinks perhaps Sam is trying to rub away the memory of his touch on his hands moments ago. This, too, is new and he’s beset with the urge to call Dean again and shout into the phone that he needs to get the fuck home now because something’s happening, something’s changing.

Castiel is afraid to do anything, afraid to say anything that might set Sam to screaming or cause him stop this new behavior and so he sits on the coffee table and he watches. He waits. He sits vigil because this is something that he knows, something that he can do. He drinks his tea, Sam’s too even though it’s cold and he has to wipe tiny flakes of rose petals from his lips.

Sam does nothing else, looks at nothing at all, but he rubs his hands together for hours. Castiel watches each movement, watches Sam’s face for some change. There is none, but it feels momentous nonetheless.

His watch beeps at him some time later, tells him that midnight’s arrived and is being left behind when he finally hears the tell-tale rumble of the Impala outside. Sam’s hands stop like a clock that’s run dry of battery power and Castiel is up and at the door before Dean even has the car door open.

Dean’s moving slowly, Castiel notes instantly, and he wonders if it’s just the stiffness and pain of his leg or if he’s done some further damage to himself. He notes that it’s the latter when Dean finally gets out of the car and works his way awkwardly up the walk. He’s illuminated by the orange and amber glow of the sodium vapor streetlamp and it casts the blood over his eye and on his lip in a queer, otherworldly light.

It looks even worse when he’s made it up the stairs and onto the porch. He has a black eye, a split lip, and Castiel feels like shaking him because he’s already fragile and scarred enough, feels like doing it a couple of times when Dean grins at him, revealing bloody gums.

“That went well.”

“So I see,” Castiel replies and opens the door. He holds his arm out for Dean to lean on and is unsurprised when he doesn’t take it.

He closes the door and follows Dean in, opens his mouth to tell him what’s happened and to chastise him for not answering his phone or checking his voicemail, but Dean pushes a crumpled wad of cash into his hands and ignores him in favor of going to Sam.

Castiel watches Sam closely as Dean settles next to him, when he elbows him gently and greets him with an achingly sad “hey, little brother.” He has no idea that anything’s changed. If Castiel were to remain quiet, Dean would not know that anything had happened with Sam at all

He looks down at the money in his hand and tries to think of a way to tell Dean without giving him too much hope. He’s holding almost five hundred dollars. It’s very nearly the amount of one of his paychecks after deductions and Castiel stares at it dumbly for a long moment, mind whirling with the shock of it, the magnitude of what’s happened with Sam, how bad Dean’s eye looks, and how small and useless he feels when two weeks of labor earns him what Dean can bring home in a night. He’s right. He’s not an invalid, not to the extent that Castiel has been treating him, but he’s not well either. He’s not strong and though the presence of the money indicates that he can still win a fight, the toll weighs more heavily on him. That much is evident in the way his fingers tremble beneath bloody knuckles and how he leans on Sam heavily.

“Dean…”

“Don’t start,” Dean tells him. “It’s fine and, hey, told you I’d make rent.”

“It’s not fine and I was going to say that something happened with Sam while you were gone.”

Dean sits up at this, looks from Sam to him expectantly. “What happened? He all right? Did he hurt himself? Jesus, Cas, one night. I just asked for you to watch him for one night.”

Castiel sets the money down on the coffee table and tries not to yell at Dean. He fails. “You have an ill brother at home, did it not occur to you to keep your cell phone turned on or to check your messages? What if I’d been calling you from the emergency room?”

“Clearly you didn’t… shit. You didn’t, did you?”

“No, of course not, but…”

“What happened? Is he all right? Did he say something? Sammy? Hey, man, you okay?”

It’s on the tip of his tongue to reprimand Dean for expecting Sam to answer him, but it feels too mean spirited. He goes instead to the bathroom, leaves Dean frantically trying to coax a response out of Sam and calling after him every few seconds for “some God damned details, Cas!” Their medicine cabinet is one of the few things that is and remains fully stocked, financial concerns be damned. With Dean’s slow recovery and Sam’s tendency to fall if they aren’t watching him very carefully, it’s made sense to keep the Winchester infirmary relatively well stocked. The supply of medications, both those legally obtained and those stashed in old aspirin bottles with Sam’s tidy script labeling them as “Percocet”, “Ambien”, “Amoxicillin”, and “Imitrex” and even one old dropper bottle labeled “Roxanol,” is dwindling Castiel is displeased to see, though he isn’t sure if it’s wise to dose Dean with more medication after what he’s already taken that day and with the clear damage to his head. He wonders what they’ll do when it’s gone, wonders if Dean will object if Castiel calls Bobby and asks for him to replenish their supply before it’s all gone and there’s nothing to do but watch Dean sit in pain every day.

There’s nothing he can do about it now, so he takes down the bottle of hydrogen peroxide and fetches gauze pads and Steri Strips left over from Sam’s last bad fall from the drawer beneath the sink. He doesn’t have Sam or Dean’s skill with stitching, not yet, but he doesn’t think that the cut over Dean’s eye will really require them. The Steri Strips should hold the flesh together well enough until it heals.

“What the hell happened?” Dean asks him as soon as he’s back in the living room.

Castiel retakes his perch on the coffee table and reaches for Dean’s jaw so that he might get a better look at the cut above his eye before cleaning it. Dean slaps his hand away and jerks his head towards Sam. “Forget that, tell me what happened!”

“I will, just let me look at your eye for a moment.”

“My God damned eye is fine, Cas. I’m more worried about…”

“Be still!” Castiel shouts at him in frustration. “I have flown the highest heights in Heaven and traversed the pits of hell – for you, I might add – I believe I can manage to see to your injuries while speaking. But if you don’t sit still, I will make you sit still and then you will have to wait until we are done arguing before you hear one word about Sam!”

“Fussy, feathered, nagging…”

Castiel glares at him and Dean clamps his mouth shut with an audible clack of his teeth. It sets his split lip to bleeding once more and he knows that it must have stung, must have caused Dean’s surely aching head to pound a bit harder, but Winchesters are stubborn to a fault and he makes no indication having suffered unduly for his childish reaction.

“Thank you,” Cas tells him, though what he really wants to say is “even though you are my closest companion, you really do excel at irritating me” and maybe just tell him that he’s something of a brat when he doesn’t get his way.

He takes Dean’s jaw in his hand, successfully this time, and turns his head towards the light so that he might inspect the wound. It’s not as bad or as deep as he feared, though he can see where someone’s fist, perhaps even a fist with a heavy ring, pounded him. He thinks Dean’s lucky that the blow caught him the temple and the brow, thinks that he’d surely have suffered visual damage, perhaps blindness if it had connected with his eye.

Castiel unwraps one of the packets of sterile gauze and dabs at the blood gently. Dean’s silently behaving, but he’s twitching beneath his hand like a too tightly coiled spring that’s going to snap. He takes pity on him. He wets another four by four square of gauze with the hydrogen peroxide and when Dean hisses when it connects with his flesh, Castiel starts speaking.

“I think Sam noticed that you were gone. I think he objected. I think… I know that he missed you.”

Dean grows still, holds his breath until Castiel chastises him for it, and listens quietly to everything he has to say, his eyes growing wide and dark and green with nothing other than naked hope.

“Do you think?” Dean asks him.

“I wish that I knew,” Castiel replies honestly. “But, maybe?”

*

There is not enough to do to fill the days of what Castiel thinks of as his exile. Though he has the luxury of sleeping in, he still wakes at five a.m. every morning and without work to prepare for, he spends as much time as he can busying himself with caring for Sam before Dean wakes and takes over completely. He tries his hand at pancakes and, when they’re somewhat of a success, he gets creative with them, adds whatever berries and nuts they have on hand, makes them with peanut butter or chocolate chips. Anything to make the time stretch out.

By the second day the bathroom and the kitchen are both spotless, probably gleaming more than they have in the last twenty years of their sad little apartment’s history, and Castiel still does not have enough to do. He organizes the books on the shelf in the living room and, when Dean complains that there’s a reason why Stephen King isn’t next to Jackie Solomon’s book of ancient spells and Wiccan lore, he organizes them again, separating fiction from useful hunting tomes and categorizing each according to subject and then by author. It takes him an hour, it’s too early for lunch and Castiel is desperate enough to scour their cupboards for an old Betty Crocker cookbook with one long dead, ancient roach corpse smashed between the pages on how to properly slice a roast. He flips through it until he finds the coffee cake recipes and sighs in relief because he knows they have all of the ingredients to make one.

Dean laughs at him, flicks the flat, crunchy roach body to the floor, and Castiel’s so glad of a reason to scrub the kitchen floor again that he doesn’t bother to yell at him for the infraction.

He makes the coffee cake, taking his time to carefully measure out each ingredient and stir and beat and blend for the exact amount of time that the recipe commands. He busies himself with lunch afterwards, makes grilled cheese with paper thin slices of packaged stuff so far from any one meat source that it’s just called “Al’s Tasty Luncheon Loaf” and tomatoes. He cuts an apple for Sam, makes him chocolate milk from the powdered box of “Quik-E Choco Milk!”, and cuts his sandwich into six small pieces that he can pick up when directed to do so.

Dean cuts Sam’s hair after lunch and Castiel thinks that he knows exactly what he’s doing when he causes more work for him by letting the hair fall to the immaculate, but worn floor of the kitchen. He watches him intently, wonders how he learned to do it and when Dean turns to him and offers to take care of the “Sam worthy shag you’ve got going on,” he readily agrees.

He supposes that it’s awkward, even if it’s an effective way to save them all a little bit of money, and Castiel knows that he should feel something, anything other than grateful to Dean for finding a way to take up time.

It’s still a little strange when Dean runs his fingers over Castiel’s scalp. They’ve been through much, have tended to each other’s wounds enough times to be familiar with one another, but with the absence of pain, of stitches, antiseptic, and bandages, it feels weirdly intimate. Castiel has not had the time to explore his own sexual predilections, is not even sure that he’ll ever grow to posses them, but he does know that Dean is too much his ward and his charge, his friend, his teacher, and so many things that he isn’t sure there are words enough in the human language to do him justice. He cannot ever imagine falling into the sort of relationship that too many people assume that they have. He wouldn’t know how and isn’t sure he’d ever want to, even if he supposes that he feels closer to him and to Sam than to anyone else on Earth or in Heaven.

Still, the touch is soothing, is welcome, and he supposes again that Dean knows exactly what he’s doing when he runs his fingers over his scalp longer than is surely necessary to evaluate the length and the style of his cut. He relaxes, feels the tightness in his shoulders ease, and lets go of how much time there is left to fill that day.

He sighs appreciatively and earns himself a light clap to the back of his head from Dean, though he can hear the fondness in his voice when he says “don’t be a freak, Cas, we’re not picking out China patterns later or anything.”

“I think the appropriate phrase in this instance is… you’re a dick?” Castiel says mildly.

“You can’t say it like it’s a question,” Dean instructs as he pulls a section of his hair between his fingers and starts to snip. “It has to be a definite statement. Like, you’re a dick!” he shouts. “If you’re angry. If you’re pissy, it’s still a statement, just sort of frustrated. You’re a dick. Or kind of whiny when you’re being a total girl about things. You’re a di-ick,” he whines.

“You’re a dick,” Castiel tries again.

“Too flat. It shouldn’t sound like you could switch it with “I am a robot.” Inflection, Cas. Feeling.”

“You’re a dick.”

“Better.”

“You’re a dick!”

“Awesome if you’re going for the pissy teenage girl thing.”

“You’re such a dick!”

“There you go! Now you’re ready for the next local douche bag that goes off on you at work. ‘There’s not enough cheese and my life’s ruined. Blah blah blah.’ And you say?”

“You’re a dick,” Castiel replies, even though he knows that he’ll never utter those words in his place of employment and, if he’s lucky enough to go back, will be as meek and pliable as a lamb. He leans back against Dean’s torso and promptly gets pushed forward and told to keep his head up. He feels strangely relaxed and wonders if he’ll be lucky enough to hold to this feeling for the rest of the day.

“He really was a dick,” he tells Dean.

“Lawyer. Of course he was,” Dean tells him. “And this is why we’re all secretly glad that Sam never finished law school.”

“You no longer regret that he left?” Castiel asks him, looking up. Dean pushes his head firmly back into position and shrugs.

“Yeah. Yeah, I regret it. But… it would have come for him anyway, Cas. That Yellow-Eyed son of a bitch would have gotten to him whether I hijacked Sam or not, whether or not Jess… even if she’d lived. At least he had a chance this way. Guess it didn’t turn out like any of us wanted, but at least he had a fucking chance.”

“He may still have a chance,” Castiel tells him gently.

Later he sweeps and mops the kitchen floor for the third time that day.

**

By the fifth day, Castiel is certain that he’s going mad. He cannot sit still, is edgy and snappish, even with Sam when he sits in the shower and dumbly holds the washrag that’s been handed to him. He feels badly for taking out his frustration on someone he counts as a friend, someone who’s so helpless, and he washes Sam carefully afterwards, quietly apologizing to him for the names he called him and the cruel things he’d said when Sam had been unable to bathe himself.

He’s glad that Dean slept through that unforgivable act, but still feels so guilty and so tense that he inadvertently wounds Dean’s feelings by jumping to Sam’s defense and orders him to stop talking to Sam like an overeager pet owner trying to get their dog to perform some new trick. Even if he thinks it’s exactly what he sounds like, Castiel still knows it was a hurtful, mean thing to say. Dean’s tried everything to get some reaction out of Sam and Cas knows that he’s frustrated and more than a little sad that Sam gives him nothing. Castiel, he freaked out on. Castiel, he reacted to, and even if it was in direct response to Dean’s absence, he knows it still wounds him terribly that Sam shows his own brother no sign of improvement or hope.

Dean doesn’t talk to him for most of the morning and though Castiel thinks it’s a little childish, he doesn’t really blame him for it either. Unfortunately, it does nothing to help him get through the day. He winds up going outside and picking through the backyard they share with Bud, collecting small sticks and raking up the piles of leaves that have now all fallen from the trees, leaving the branches bare. He finds a push mower in Bud’s shed, one so old that it has no motor, and after gaining permission from its owner – who looks at him like he’s maybe lost his mind, though it’s obvious that the grass needs to be clipped one more time before winter sets in – he attacks the yard with it. The mower is half rusted and doesn’t turn easily, though the blades are sharp enough. Castiel has to work to get it moving and he soon finds that he’s sweating in the chill of the fall morning, but is so glad to have something to do that he doesn’t complain.

He only stops when Dean calls to him from the porch, tells him that lunch is ready if he feels like eating it and is he trying to make himself sick by sweating in the cold air or what?

Castiel still takes his time raking up the grass clippings and adding them to the leaf and brush pile that he supposes Dean will want to burn later. He finds it strange that Dean finds fire comforting after his time in Hell, but supposes that it’s a primal human response in the end and vows to make no mention of it if Dean stares off into the flames and thinks of God only knows what.

The soup Dean’s made is canned, some kind of orange colored bean soup, but it’s warm and tastes surprisingly good. He eats it greedily and accepts the plate of hot dogs that Dean pushes towards him.

“I’m sorry,” he tells Dean, his mouth half-full of hot dog and white bread. “I have not been behaving well. This time off does not seem to agree with me and I’m acting…”

“Like an asshole,” Dean finishes for him. Castiel flinches, but nods and waits for Dean to go on. “I get it, Cas. And I’m sorry too, but you have to chill out, okay? This? This waiting that you’re doing every day? It’s not going to help anything. It’s just life, man. Stop waiting for it to get busy again. Trust me, life’s got plenty of ways to kick your ass and, crap I’m sorry to have to say it, but you’re human now or close enough. You’re not going to do yourself any favors by trying to fill every second with busywork.”

Cas can’t keep from raising an eyebrow at him and Dean shrugs with a half-smile on his face. “Yeah, I know. I’m not exactly the poster boy for kicking back and enjoying life and if I had my way, Sammy and me we’d be out there kicking the crap out of every unnatural thing we could find. But, it doesn’t mean I’m right, you know. It doesn’t mean that it’s what’s best for me or for Sam. Or you.”

“How do you know what’s best for me?” Castiel asks. “I don’t even know. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do as a human, Dean. It’s tolerable… bearable when I have work to guide me, but like this? I feel useless.” He ducks his head when Dean glances down at his leg, when he rubs at it self-consciously and perhaps contemplates all of things that he cannot do.

“Yeah, I know,” Dean replies finally. He says nothing else for a long moment, just rubs at his leg until it seems to depress him, then he switches, moves his hand so that he can rub slow circles on Sam's back. Sam doesn’t move, but his eyelids flutter briefly, causing Dean to smile sadly.

“You asked me the other day if I regretted taking Sam away from his safe, normal little life and, yeah. I do. I missed him every day he was gone, but this? This isn’t what I ever wanted for him. He was supposed to have a home, Cas. Supposed to shack up with some sweet girl and have eight or nine kids, a dog, and a fucking Volvo, not spend the last five years getting his ass kicked. I can’t take back what’s happened to him, I can’t give him back his old life or even fix him, but this? This I can do. I can give him a home and, yeah okay, it’s kind of a shitty home, but it’s start. And I can look after him. That’s what we have to do now, Cas. Heal. Look after each other. Figure out what we want. But it takes time. You have to give it time.”

“I will try,” Castiel promises him quietly. “And I am sorry.”

“You should be because you’ve been a complete penis all day.” He’s smiling again and Castiel knows he’s been forgiven.

He vows to do better by Dean, by Sam, and when Dean says that he’s beat half to hell and wants to take a nap, Castiel shoos him off, resists the urge to insist that he take pain meds and stay off of his leg for several hours. He knows Dean will only complain and so he lets him go without comment and forces himself to sit quietly next to Sam for the next hour, playing solitaire with an old deck of cards from the glove box of the Impala. Sam, as he recalls, had a knack for solitaire and used to win at least twice as much as Castiel’s does. He tells him so, starts talking to him quietly while Dean sleeps and though Sam doesn’t budge or turn his way, it still makes Castiel feel calmer and more grounded.

Despite his newfound calm, Castiel’s still so glad when Joaquin knocks on the door later that he very nearly hugs him. He’s thankfully prevented from doing so by the large box the boy is carrying, but he can’t quite keep from smiling at him and ushering him inside.

Sam’s drifted from the kitchen to the door of Dean’s bedroom and Castiel is reminded again of a dog, this time of one that’s shut out of its master’s room and is half a step from scratching on the door. Joaquin looks at Sam a little uneasily, no doubt still unsure of what to make of his blank silence coupled with his height and build and Castiel spares him the awkwardness by gesturing to the couch as he goes to Sam.

“Uh… is he?”

“He’s fine,” Castiel assures him and opens Dean’s door.

Dean’s stripped down to shorts and a t-shirt, his misshapen leg free of its Cam walker. He’s sound asleep on his belly when Castiel opens the door, a slivery hint of drool shining by his lips, but he wakes instantly, rubs his face for a second in his pillow unhappily before looking up. “Whats’it?”

“Sam wants in,” Cas tells him. “And Joaquin’s here. Sleep. I will entertain him.”

“God help us all, he’s entertaining now,” Dean mumbles and sits up. “S’all right, Sammy. You can come in.”

Castiel waits for Sam to pass through the door before he shuts it gently. He turns back towards the living room and reminds himself that he’s calm now. He’s accepting and he’s most certainly not exceedingly happy that Joaquin’s showed up to pass the time.

“I’m sorry,” he tells Joaquin. “Sam has difficulty with people sometimes. Dean had to take him outside last time the landlord visited because…” he pauses, uncertain suddenly if it’s proper to tell Joaquin, who is a friend, but certainly not family, that Sam had gone to a corner and thumped his head against the wall until Dean had taken him outside. “Just because,” Castiel finishes awkwardly.

“Yeah,” Joaquin replied, looking at Dean’s bedroom door for a moment, “Dean said he’d had a hard time of things. Something happen to him?”

Castiel nods. “Something did, yes.”

“So, you’re really not going to tell me much more than that, are you?”

He shakes his head and Joaquin frowns at him, but there’s no ill feeling in it, just unfed curiosity. “So, I come with news and gifts. First,”

Castiel finds that he’s holding his breath, but doesn’t do anything other than sit in expectant dread as Joaquin grins at him. “You get to keep working,” he tells him and laughs when Castiel lets out his breath noisily. “God, man, only you would be so happy to stay on at that shithole. You have to finish out your suspension and Rita’s being kind of a bitch about it and putting you on a thirty day probation, which means you have to behave like a fucking angel.”

Castiel snorts in wry, bitter amusement at that and reminds himself to share that statement with Dean later, who he knows will find it as darkly amusing. “I am familiar with the ways of angels,” he says and is hysterically tempted for a moment to repeat the sentiment in Enochian, just because it strikes him as pathetically funny.

“Yeah, I hope so,” Joaquin says, “because you’re on my shifts from now on, which means you get to work from noon to eight every night and my ass has to fill out an evaluation on you every stinking shift we work together.”

“I am very sorry, for you and your ass,” Castiel tells him humbly and he means it, but is still a little gratified when Joaquin chortles happily.

“Jackass. Part two of my wondrous visit? I brought your sad paycheck… they really only paying you seven twenty-five an hour? I peeked,” he says as he hands the open envelope over to him.” Shitty, I know, but God damn, man. I can’t believe you didn’t tell someone to fuck off sooner if that’s what you’re getting paid. Even Joey the crackhead gets paid eight fifty.”

“I had no experience.”

“Dude. Crackhead. Eight fifty. You’re practically slave labor.”

“I suppose this would be an inappropriate time to ask for a raise?”

“Unless Rita’s liver craps out and she croaks? Probably, but don’t be sad. Carl the stingy prick has decided that we all get to eat for free when we work. Woo-hoo.”

“But, you already allow us to eat for free,” Castiel tells him, then gestures to the box inquiringly.

“Yeah, well, that’s because I don’t give a fuck and let everyone do what they want. We’re not supposed to, you know. Well, we weren’t. Now, thanks to his highness’s generosity, we get a five dollar meal allowance per shift. I know, I know. It’s too much. Try to contain yourself. So, I see you’re eyeing my package here.”

Castiel’s sure that there’s a double entendre in there somewhere, but he’s too curious to really pursue it and scoots a little closer to Joaquin to inspect the box. He can tell nothing of its contents. The box is plain, smells vaguely like their basement, and Castiel can spy nothing through the narrow gap at the top.

“I admit to being curious.”

“You and everyone else,” Joaquin quips and then grins, opening the box. “Ta-da! It’s a shit VCR. Actually, it’s really not that old, but Dean said you were bored. So I brought you my Mom’s VCR and a box of movies to keep you busy. There’s a ton of chick movies in there, but there’s some cool old shit like James Bond and “Independence Day” and “Star Wars” and stuff, too. Oughta keep you busy for a while anyway.”

Castiel blinks and finds he doesn’t quite know what to say to this unexpected generosity. Joaquin has worked his way into their small circle, passed all of Dean’s tests silver, holy water, and salt – though tequila shots had been required for that one – and he knows that the boy is practically in awe of Dean, can’t decide if he simply idolizes him or has romantic inclinations because, as Dean has said Joaquin shows no particular preference where he “spreads his love.” But, though he’s friendly enough with the boy and thanks to work spends a great deal of time with him, soon to be more, he’s still ill prepared for Joaquin’s easy, unquestioning friendship to extend to him. He’s unduly touched to realize that he now has four people he counts as friends.

“Holy crap, man, are you… are you going to cry?”

Cas gives him a look he knows isn’t as irritated as it probably should be and shakes his head. “I do not know what to say, Joaquin. This is very generous of you, but I do not wish to deprive your mother.”

The boy laughs at him and gets up. He sets the box down on the floor in front of the television and plops on his butt next to it as he opens it up, pulling out first two black cables and then spilling video tapes all over the floor. “Don’t worry. I bought Mom a DVD player last Christmas and she thinks I’m like the best son ever for it. Let’s just hope she doesn’t figure out that I got it so cheap because everyone’s buying Blu Ray, you know? It’s been collecting dust in her basement and she thinks I’m a very sweet boy for giving it to someone needy.”

“Am I needy?”

“You’re so needy. So, c’mon, needy man, let me show you how to hook this thing up so you’ll know in case you want to move shit around or something.”

“Huh-uh.”

Both Castiel and Joaquin look up, Castiel half-paused in the act of sitting down on the faded shag carpet and Joaquin beaming like the sun just came out after days of rain because Dean’s in the hallway, mostly dressed and hair mashed down from sleep.

“Dude! You look like shit!” Joaquin says far too happy for one gesturing to the healing cuts and bruises on Dean’s face.

“Thanks, punk. And let Cas figure out how to set that thing up. Fucking around with it will keep him busy.”

Castiel shoots him a look and takes the black cables from Joaquin defiantly. “I know the secrets of time and space, Dean Winchester. I can manage basic human electronics.”

“Woah,” Joaquin says, letting go of the cables. “Knock yourself out, spaceman.”

Despite his claim, it still takes Castiel forty-five minutes to figure out how to get the VCR working. He only figures it out when, confused as to what else he could possibly do, he changes channels on the television. The screen turns instantly blue and a message blinks in the top right hand corner, prompting him to set the date and time.

That takes him another thirty minutes of fumbling with the VCR’s remote control while Dean and Joaquin pass a joint between them and alternate between laughing at him and talking about Joaquin’s ailing car which Dean insists is a classic, despite the number of times the boy calls it an aging piece of shit. Dean gets up periodically to check on Sam, who is by some miracle sleeping easily, and he and Cas share a hopeful look that Joaquin claims is a little gay.

Castiel sits between them in triumph when he’s done and watches happily as the first movie “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” starts to play. Dean and Joaquin both roll their eyes, but allow it on the basis that they find Audrey Hepburn comely. Or, as Dean puts it, “smoking hot.”

Castiel finds it hard to follow, thinks that Holly Golightly speaks too rapidly, too frenetically, but finds a certain charm to it and is content to watch while Dean and Joaquin fill the apartment with the smell of marijuana.

He startles a bit when Joaquin passes the joint to him and looks at it a little uncertainly before Dean plucks it from his fingers. “Oh, no. No, no, and no. No joints for you, my friend. It all leads to hippy Cas, pill popping, and orgies. We’re having none of that.”

“What’s wrong with orgies?” Joaquin says pulling at the bottom of his shirt and revealing golden skin.

“Oh, Christ, man whore, put it away,” Dean groans, but he’s smiling easily and, though Castiel isn’t entirely certain how sampling marijuana would lead him towards the sort of activities that Dean’s indicated, he leans back against the couch and smiles too.

**

Sam makes progress over the next few days. It’s minimal and slow, but Castiel finally agrees with Dean, finally believes that Sam’s not entirely gone, that one day he might come back. Might talk and regain something of his previous self.

He manages to take the rag when Castiel puts him the shower and though he doesn’t hit every spot and is as of yet incapable of washing his hair, it still seems like a major step forward. Sam also starts to find his way to the kitchen when it’s time to eat and, if the chair is pulled out already, sits at the table of his own accord, prompting them to always leave his chair pulled back. He begins to spit out food that they assume he doesn’t like, most notably the Hamburger Helper which causes Castiel to gloat a little, even if he knows it’s childish of him. Dean’s too happy to do more than wave him off and doesn’t even fuss at having to clean Sam’s shirt or jeans as they figure out what he does and does not like. He makes no expression, still stares off into space and occasionally gets up, stands in a corner and thumps his head softly, which Castiel finds as heartbreaking as Dean does, but he also takes to curling up next to Dean when they sit to watch television or when they go to bed.

It makes his silence and his endless hours of staring into space harder to bear than it was before and Castiel begins to wonder if Dean might crack under the strain. He takes to smoking again, quick cigarette breaks on the back porch, and though Castiel thinks it too cold, thinks that Dean’s had enough problems with his leg to go begging for cigarette related health issues, he says nothing and lets it be.

It’s no easier on him, watching Sam do nothing for hours or trying to fill the last days of his suspension from work. He watches the video tapes Joaquin brought him, mostly movies and old recordings of shows like ‘The X-Files’ and ‘Law and Order.’

On the tenth day of his exile from work, he’s sitting alone on the couch while Dean and Sam nap, watching his third movie of the day and very quietly crying his eyes out. He doesn’t mean to do it, is more than a little mortified to find that a movie could move him to tears, but he can’t control himself and sniffles his way through it, unable to hide the fact that he’s a sobbing wreck clutching a quarter roll of toilet tissue when Dean emerges from his bedroom, Sam in tow.

He looks from Castiel to the television set and then rolls his eyes in horrendous despair. “‘The Blue Lagoon,’ Cas?”

“They’re so innocent,” Castiel tells him, mortified that Dean’s caught him being so emotional over something so small.

“The Blue fucking Lagoon?”

Castiel blows his nose noisily and shuts the television off as the end credits start to roll. “I did not expect to have such a reaction. I,” he sniffles and is forced to blow his nose again, “don’t know how you do it so constantly. How any of you manage this unending barrage of emotion.”

“Dude,” Dean tells him and limps towards him, watching to see if Sam will follow. He does and stands silently by while Dean settles himself down on the coffee table. “The only thing that made me cry about ‘The Blue Lagoon’ was finding out that Brooke Shields had a body double.”

Castiel glares at him, is tempted to throw his used tissue at him, but raises an eyebrow instead when Dean motions at him to get up.

“C’mon. You have been watching way, way too much TV and I think we all need to get out of the house for a little while.”

Castiel glances at Sam and sees Dean nod out of the corner of his eye.

“Yeah,” Dean tells him, “I think it’s time and I think, I hope, it might be good for him. So go get yourself cleaned up, Nancy. I’m going to go start the car and let her warm up for a second. The Blue fucking Lagoon. Joaquin’s a dead man,” he mutters in despair before getting up and heading to the door.

Sam follows him and Castiel gets up, takes him gently by the arm, and leads him back inside. “Let Dean get the car warmed up and then we’ll go for a ride. Would you like that, Sam?”

Sam says and does nothing in response, allows himself to be led back inside and Castiel cannot decide if he’s grateful that there’s no reaction to his question, which again put Sam in the role of a small child or a puppy, or if he’s sad. He decides that it’s latter, decides that he’d vastly prefer it if Sam were to screw up his face in annoyance and prove to him that there’s something behind his vacant expression.

“Forgive me, Sam,” Cas tells him and leads Sam to the back bedroom. Sam stands absently in the doorway while Castiel changes, swaying slightly now and again as if he’s a reed being blown by a gentle wind.

Cas changes from his sweatpants, keeps the warm undershirt and socks, dons a pair of second hand jeans and pulls a black sweater on over his head. He finds his boots, sits on the bed while he laces them up, and glances at Sam now and again as he tightens the laces. Sam stands and he sways, but he does nothing else. Just waits. Cas pauses after finishing with his boots, waits to see if Sam will grow impatient, if he’ll wander from the doorway back to the front room or perhaps outside. He doesn’t and Castiel wants to believe that it’s because Sam’s waiting for him. There’s no reason to believe such is the case and Cas gets up and goes to him, takes him gently by the shoulder and turns him around.

“Let’s go.”

Sam follows.

Castiel grabs his house keys from the chipped ceramic dish by the front door, stuffs them and his cell phone in his front pocket as Dean is wont to do, and finds his wallet. That he puts in his back pocket before guiding Sam to the door. Sam is already down the walk by the time Castiel has the door locked. He doesn’t hurry, but he heads to the Impala like it’s the only destination possible. Dean has the passenger door open and Sam gets in without any urging or handling by either of them, though he doesn’t shut the door. Just folds his long legs up in the car and sits. After a moment, he closes his eyes and tilts his head slightly as if listening. Cas stops, hand frozen to the door handle. He and Dean exchange a look and hold their breath. Nothing happens. Sam has no expression, makes no other movements. Dean waits it out for another minute before nodding finally at Cas.

“Shut his door and come on.” Castiel doesn’t think that he hides his disappointment well.

He gathers Dean’s destination when he gets in, spies the library books on the back seat, and silently approves. Libraries are not heavily populated, they’re quiet, and there’s a similarity between them all, the smell of books, the hushed whispers, and an environment that Sam Winchester, even as he is now, must surely still find comfortable, perhaps welcoming.

Dean glances at him in the rearview mirror as he pulls the car out far more sedately than Castiel is used to. “Yeah?” he says, jerking his head slightly as if to indicate the books in the backseat.

“Yes,” Castiel replies.

“Yeah,” Dean says again, more certain, less questioning. “I thought so, too.”

Castiel wonders when it was that they grew able to communicate with so few words.

Marshall is a small town and there’s never a great deal of traffic. They have little trouble navigating the streets towards the library downtown. Castiel watches Dean glance at Sam out of the corner of his eye every few seconds, watches how he drives the car without his usual verve and comes to gentle stops at each light and sign. He understands Dean’s reasoning, but feels like he should just drive, normally, maybe for miles, maybe as far and as fast as he can because that’s the ride Sam-of-old was used to, that’s what Sam would expect and what Castiel thinks bring him a little closer to the surface.

Dean continues to drive sedately and they reach the library in ten minutes. They can’t park. There’s a city work crew in front of the building, jackhammers attacking the pavement so loudly that Castiel flinches. He leans forward to glance at Sam, same as Dean does. Sam opens his eyes and drops his head, chin down to his chest, but makes no sound, no expression. Dean breathes carefully, as if he’s afraid that the added noise of his respirations might set Sam to banging his head against the glass and drives further down the street, parking three blocks from the library.

“The noise,” Castiel tells Dean. “We’ll have to walk by it.”

“Not much choice here, Cas.”

“We could wait… come back another day?”

He sees Dean consider it, sees him pause with his hand over the ignition, poised over the keys. He shakes his head and turns the car off. “Nope. We’re doing this today. There’s a side door if we have to use it and I think it’ll do him good to be out. We have to start somewhere and the library’s still as good a place as any, maybe better.”

“But, maybe…”

“Grab the books, will you?” Dean’s out of the car after that, is around the front of the Impala, awkwardly stepping up over the curb and back down again to reach Sam’s side before Castiel can protest further. He collects Dean’s library books, two Raymond Chandler novels, a text on the Alaskan Gold Rush and westward expansion, and four books on the history and practices of Santeria.

The rapid, violent stuttering sound of the jackhammer is louder once Castiel is out of the car, but Sam shows no sign of distress. He follows Dean placidly, sticking to his side no more closely than usual as they walk beneath the awnings of the small shops, Dean’s cane taping rhythmically with each step.

They’re both watchful of Sam, poised for some reaction from him as they draw closer to work crew tearing up the street and Castiel is not surprised when Sam slows to a stop. Dean’s hand is on him and Castiel thinks that he’s about to suggest that they head back to the car. Sam draws closer to the glass window of the shop to their right and he shifts the library books to one hand, ready to grab hold of Sam if he starts to bang his head against the glass. He doesn’t. He stops in front of the window and stands for several moments in front of it, eyes seeming to take in the assortment of musical instruments on display.

Dean’s breath catches as Sam puts out a hand and places it against the glass. “I think he wants to go in.”

“Why?” Castiel asks. “There are not many people inside. It should not upset him, but why?”

“Beats me,” Dean replies, but there’s something bright in his eyes as he moves around Sam and pulls open the door. A triangle has been fixed to the door with a wire and a metal piece in its center. It tinkles harmoniously as Dean holds the door open. Sam walks through slowly. Dean follows, letting the door swing shut behind him. Cas gets his foot in it before it closes and is too intrigued to find fault with the elder Winchester for essentially letting it close in his face.

Sam wanders from one collection of instruments to another before coming to a halt before a shining blonde guitar sitting upright next to a suggestively placed stool.

“Hi, folks!”

Castiel flinches at the bright voice and is prepared, as Dean seems to be, to intervene if Sam reacts to the presence of the shopkeeper that heads towards them in a swirl brightly colored skirts. She has an easy air to her, warm eyes, genuine smile, and mane of shining silvery hair that frames a face too young for such a color. Castiel supposes that it’s an affectation, a dye job as Dean would call it, though he supposes that it’s just as likely that the woman has gone gray prematurely.

She regards Sam for a moment, watches him stare at the guitar silently before coming to some conclusion. She picks it up and holds it out to Sam, her expression calm and gentle as if she knows just exactly what’s wrong with him or has interacted with someone in his condition before. It’s a small town and Castiel does not think it likely.

“It’s okay,” she says to Sam. “you can touch it if you want to. You won’t hurt it any.”

Given his size, Castiel doesn’t necessarily agree with the woman’s assessment, thinks that Sam could probably crush the wood with his hands alone, but he says nothing. Just watches, as Dean does, as Sam responds, actually responds as if he’s heard and understood, and reaches out his long fingers slowly, carefully stroking the light wood of the guitar. His fingers trail lightly over the strings and they quiver, giving off the faintest thrum of sound. Outside the jackhammers stutter as if in response.

He does nothing for several moments, stands with his hand over the wood as if the sound has struck something within him and the shopkeeper holds the guitar patiently, saying and doing nothing to encourage him further. Castiel finds this curious, finds himself wondering at the woman’s intuition, but is not given the chance to remark on it.

Sam turns to Dean. It’s the first time that he’s looked at him, really seemed to focus on his face and Castiel isn’t surprised when Dean’s eyes grow substantially brighter. “Sammy?”

Are you there? It’s unspoken, but plain enough, perhaps even to the shopkeeper who hands the guitar to Dean. “I think he wants you to give it a try.”

Castiel thinks that’s a leap, especially for someone who doesn’t know the Winchesters, but Dean’s cheeks color and a strange, almost shy smile graces his features. “Aw, man. Shit, Sam, it’s been years.”

“You play?” Cas asks him. “I was not aware you had any familiarity with musical instruments.”

“Familiarity, yeah. Play? Not so much. Not really.” Dean sets his cane down, leans it against the display, and takes the guitar gingerly as if he thinks the wood might be poisoned. He sits down awkwardly on the stool, bad leg stretched out in the cam boot and bends over the guitar. His cheeks are a bright red and he glances up from beneath his brows at Sam.

“Only for you, Sasquatch, would I subject myself to this.”

The shopkeeper reaches into her skirts and pulls out a small bit of plastic, handing it to Dean. “Pick?”

“Yeah, yeah. I think so. God, this is humiliating.” Dean takes the pick and strums the guitar once. The instrument is in tune and the sound isn’t unpleasant.

Sam shifts closer and Dean nods in response, placing fingers along the neck of the instrument. Castiel has heard the music of humans for centuries and he knows the sound of fumbling when he hears it. Dean moves his fingers slowly, awkwardly, and the strum of the guitar is unwieldy, meaningless. He seems to try to play something, a broken ill-tuned melody until he stops, blows out a sigh and shakes his head.

“Fuck it.”

He stops trying as he starts to play again. Castiel thinks he’s given up trying to play any particular tune, thinks he’s moving his hands along the strings of the guitar by instinct and he’s surprised by the pleasantness of it. A new melody, a simple one starts to emerge and Dean begins to hum along, voice too soft, cracking a bit until he lets go and opens up slightly. It’s surer then. Simple and unskilled, nothing masterful, but it’s warm, comforting.

“You do play,” the shopkeeper say approvingly.

“Kind of?” Dean replies.

“Kind of,” she agrees. “High school band kid?”

“A little bit,” Dean says. “Back when we all thought it was a possibility that I’d actually finish high school, I needed a fine art credit. Art history was full, no way in hell was I joining the drama class, and there was room in band. Figured I’d hang back and play the bongos or some shit. Dude stuck a guitar in my hands and told me to figure it out. Don’t know if I ever did, but the old man and Sam liked it when I’d play. Hated me practicing for school, but liked it when I’d just mess around with it. Guess… Guess Sam remembered.”

The shopkeeper considers Sam for a moment. “Something happen to him?”

“Something, yeah,” Dean replies, not elaborating.

“Something happened to my mom,” she tells him. “She just… went away. I don’t know why. She was a lot like this.”

“Ever get her back?” Dean asks, fingers stilling momentarily on the strings. Castiel thinks he knows the answer, thinks it’s obvious from the soft, sad expression on the woman’s face. He thinks Dean knows too and Castiel wishes he hadn’t asked.

“No. No, but people do, you know. People come back.”

“Freaking hope so,” Dean says, bending over the strings again.

“I’ll say an extra prayer,” she says, making Dean snort and glance up at Castiel who can only shrug. They know better than most that God’s not listening and if the angels remaining in Heaven are, neither of them expect much turnout on Sam’s behalf.

Dean starts to play again, his notes and rambling, organic melody sounding more sure by the moment. Sam stays next to him, looking down at him, as Castiel and the shopkeeper look on.

“I’m Minerva,” she tells him, whispering as if Dean is the middle of a concert.

“Castiel,” he replies. “That’s Dean and Sam. We are roommates.”

He waits for Minerva to ask for more details, waits for the inevitable question of who sleeps where, though why everyone they run into in this small town seems to find their bedding arrangements and non-existent sexual practices of import, he cannot fathom. She doesn’t, just nods and gestures to the second woman in the shop who stands behind the counter, flipping through a magazine.

“That’s my roommate, Jolene. We’re a little more than roommates, but this is a small town, you know?”

“I appreciate your predicament. I do not share it. We are just roommates. Dean and Sam are my friends.”

She smiles, seemingly not offended or concerned and gestures to Sam. “Sam… he’s Dean’s brother? I think he’s smiling.”

Castiel nods, yes, yes he’s Dean’s brother, but says nothing, just glances over at Sam who stands with his eyes trained on Dean, the faintest of smiles on his upturned lips. He forgets how to breathe again, forgets how to do much of anything as he reaches over to Dean and grips his shoulder. “Don’t stop playing.”

He doesn’t, though when he looks at Sam his fingers spasm across the strings, causing a discordant, unlovely sound to wash through the small shop. Dean manages to find himself and for the first time since he started to play, he keeps his head up, keeps watching Sam. Castiel thinks they are both of them too much like new parents shocked to breathless wonder with each new accomplishment made by an infant, knows that this comparison is only slightly less insulting to Sam than his constant concern that they treat him like a puppy, but he cannot make himself act in any other fashion. Cannot do anything that might break the spell of something so simple, so marvelous as Sam smiling.

Dean starts to hum again, his voice richer, more melodic than before and Minerva sighs. “That’s nice,” she breathes and joins in, her voice high and pure, but soft. They are all of them caught in the moment as if the simple sharing of music and Sam’s smile has some power over them and Castiel wishes that he could join in, wishes that he could sing in a voice that wouldn’t shatter glass, that he knew how to make this body, now his own, respond in a way that would allow him to. He can’t, so he watches as he supposes he was always meant to as the song takes shape and somehow conforms itself, lends itself to the gentle, pleased expression on Sam’s face.

It ends with the tinkling chime of the triangle at the door. A flood of young people, most of them girls teams into the shop. Castiel supposes that there’s only ten, but there’s so much noise, so much laughter and chatter that it sounds to him like an army of children. Sam flinches instantly as if caught and all expression is wiped from his face. He doesn’t look startled, he doesn’t look afraid, but Castiel knows what’s coming as the much taller man moves away from them, away from Dean and Minerva, away from the chattering horde that’s poured through the door.

“Cas.”

“I’ve got him,” Castiel tells Dean and he does, he has Sam with his free hand, but Sam pulls away, something that should feel like an accomplishment, but doesn’t when Sam heads towards the nearest wall, the nearest corner.

“God, no,” Dean says and he’s up on his bad leg, cane forgotten. He pushes the guitar into Minerva’s hands and hitches towards them as Sam starts to thump his head against the wall. Castiel takes him by the elbow, gently this time, and tries to pull him away. It’s like trying to move granite with a feather.

“Sammy. C’mon, Sammy,” Dean says, his voice gentle and calm as if he’s talking to a spooked animal. He manages to get himself between Sam and the wall, takes a knock to his skull as Sam continues to thump his head, even when he contacts with Dean’s.

“I need to take him somewhere away from all of that,” Dean tells them, his voice so calm that only his eyes convey how frantic he is.

“The back,” Minerva tells him and points the way.

Castiel has already seen it and he leads the way, walking backwards with Dean’s library books clutched to his chest as he watches the slow progress of the brothers towards him. He reaches behind him as his back connects with a door and he fumbles with the doorknob, twisting it awkwardly until it turns and the door gives way. He pushes it open with his hip, holds it open as Dean gets Sam into the office crowded with two desks, stacks of books, receipts, and a panoply of musical instruments in various states of repair. Castiel knocks into a clarinet that’s been stripped naked of its silver bars and keys. It thumps to the floor and rolls, hitting Sam in the foot. He steps, foot slipping and Castiel thinks he’s going to fall. He doesn’t, Dean catches him, but his leg cannot bear the weight and he crumples beneath Sam’s weight and goes down.

Castiel drops the books on the table that the clarinet had so recently occupied and reaches down to haul Dean up as Sam continues by them until he reaches the wall covered with pictures frames. “Get him!” Dean tells Castiel.

Cas lets go of Dean, hopes that he can remain upright and reaches Sam just a moment too late. Sam draws back and drives his head forward, connecting with a glass covered photo of Minerva and Jolene standing beneath the bright lights of someplace called Apollo. He puts himself between Sam and the wall as Dean had done and catches Sam, one hand on each of his cheeks, holding him as forcefully as he dares to keep him from bashing his head against the wall and the glass that he’s just broken.

His forehead is cut and, as with most head wounds, it’s already begun to bleed heavily. He continues to rock against Castiel’s weight as if trying to reach the wall with his skull and it’s only when Dean gets to his feet and takes Sam by the arm that he turns away and seems to give up the notion.

“Just a bunch of kids, Sammy. Just kids. They can’t hurt you. They wouldn’t even know how to try. C’mon, Sam. C’mon.”

Sam shakes for a moment as if palsied and then thumps his head again, softly this time against Dean’s and leaving a smear of his blood between them. The same low keening sound he’d made days ago in the kitchen rises up from his throat and Castiel shudders.

“God.” Dean’s arms rise and drop uselessly for a moment as if he’s forgotten how to use them, but he gets them up finally until he can put them around Sam, until he can pull his head down against his shoulder. “God, he’s just so close, Cas. He’s so fucking close.”

“I know,” Castiel whispers. For the first time in months, he prays to his Father. It’s only one word, perhaps all that he’s capable of or all that he can bear, but he thinks it conveys everything he can wish for at the moment. Please.

From the doorway, Minerva sobs as if her heart has just been broken.

*

It’s Saturday when Castiel returns to work. Dean offers to pack Sam up in the car and drive him, but he declines the offer. It’s not so cold, the autumn air is chilly and brisk, but pleasant enough and he thinks the walk will do him good. It gives him time to try to sort through his chaotic thoughts, the greatest of which being his absolute trepidation over leaving the brothers. Dean hadn’t been wrong, Sam is close to the surface, closer every day and Castiel finds himself hovering over the larger man, worried that he will not come back whole or sane or even human. And if he is concerned about Sam, he absolutely frets over Dean who seems equal parts solid and strong, fragile and resolute. Dean seems prepared for Sam’s return to be a painful thing, but the hope in his face, the longing for his brother to look outward and finally see him, finally speak to him is almost blazing. Castiel knows Dean will weather the change as best as he can, better than most, but fears the realization that some part of Sam won’t come back, that he’s been too broken by Michael and Lucifer to ever wholly return to the man that he used to be will wear on Dean heavily, that, despite his love an faith, it might actually break him.

When he leaves, Dean stands in the doorway, feet shoved into heavy socks and wrapped in an oversized sweater, perhaps even one of Sam’s, for warmth. He says “Sam will come around soon” and Castiel does not refute him, just nods and worries. He’s halfway down the walk when Dean calls after him “and have a nice day at work, dear!” That makes him smile at least and he loosens up, finds himself somewhat able to enjoy the walk to work.

The colors of autumn have vanished and the world has been leached of color. Gray skies brood over the naked limbs of the trees. The houses he passes have been shuttered up against the cold that hasn’t truly come and the people Castiel passes are dressed in coats and scarves as if they expect the temperature to plummet and the snow to start up at any moment. A few lingering Halloween decorations dot the more unkempt lawns of the houses where owners had enough energy to put them out, but not take them back down again and, here and there, he sees signs in storefronts and even gas stations proclaiming that winter is coming, Christmas is around the corner, and that now is the time to winterize your house and your car, the time, Castiel supposes, to steel yourself against the long cold of the coming winter.

Work is much the same as he had left it. The advertising and giant window clings have all been changed, there are new products, new pricing, and when he goes inside, new employees. Some at the registers, one mopping the floor with the dull, resentful glare of someone who feels like life is punishment, and a dark-eyed slip of a boy whose ass seems to have caught Joaquin’s full attention.

“I want to touch it,” Joaquin tells Cas as he clocks in. “He’s eighteen and I’m a dirty-old man at twenty-one, but I want to touch that ass and sing songs to it and write really bad fucking poetry about how very fine it is. Tell me I’m not going to hell.”

“I believe I am qualified to say that it requires substantially more than simple lust to warrant condemnation in hell.”

“So… it’s okay to touch the new kid’s ass?”

“It most certainly is not.”

“Killjoy,” Joaquin tells him and then elbows him when he sees Rita approaching from the office. “’Kay, here’s the deal. Rita’s still pissed at you, but she knows we need you since half of the mouth breathing new hires have quit. So, you’re in the kitchen all day or until she leaves. I think Crackhead comes in at three. There’s no way she’ll put him on the line. She can’t possibly be that stupid. Then you can come play on the line and ogle the new kid with me.”

Castiel has no time to reply, though what he would have said he isn’t entirely certain. Rita comes to a stop before them, gives Joaquin a little nod in the direction of the lobby as if to explain that he has customers waiting. Castiel, she invites into the office and he’s unsurprised when she sits down in her chair like it’s a seat of power and doesn’t bother telling him to pull in a chair from the break room so that he can join her. He stands, looming over her, while she looks up at him and proceeds to lecture him with all of the condescending loftiness that she can muster. He’s unmoved by it. He’s been talked down to before by those that have flown higher and further than one such as Rita could dream.

He listens, nods in the right places and when she looks at him to ask if he understands the gravity of his situation, if he truly grasps that his next offense might be the last, Castiel simply nods. “I will give you no trouble,” he tells her. “I require a job and am thus far satisfied with the work. I will do as you say and be happy to do so.”

“I don’t get you,” Rita replies. “Not at all. But, you’re a good worker and when you understand how important customer service is, why, there’s no limit to how far you can go. Someday, you might make manager.”

Castiel thinks about the difference in pay, contemplates the ability to move Sam and Dean to a more comfortable home, and doesn’t discount the notion, even though he knows that Rita has zero faith in his ability to achieve anything of the sort.

True to Joaquin’s prediction, he spends much of the first part of the day in the kitchen up to his elbows in near scalding dishwater. He does not mind and he finds that he’s able to stop worrying so constantly about Sam and Dean by staying busy. The lunch crowd starts to thin out, employees start to leave after the rush, and after a break spent watching the same videos on customer service that he’d viewed on his first day at work, Castiel does indeed end up on the line with Joaquin, filling orders, and listening contentedly enough as the boy chatters about everything that crosses his mind, most of it consisting of sex, marijuana, American politics, and the merits of the new kid, Josh, who Joaquin continues to admire with a great deal of amusement and a decided lack of subtlety. Castiel does not join him in the ogling.

He finds worry waiting for him when he clocks out and very nearly runs home, expecting to find that something has happened, the Sam has returned to a feral state, that something has befallen Dean, that lightening has struck, monsters have attacked, and that their tiny home is nothing but ruin and flame.

Castiel finds nothing of the sort. Dean’s on the floor, cam boot discarded and stretched out over his healing leg as he does a modified version of his physical therapy regimen. Though he has a headache and is tetchy as hell over the lack of both coffee and beer in the house, he seems untroubled. Sam sits on the couch, staring at nothing, calm and freshly bathed without any indication that he has progressed or suffered during Castiel’s shift at work.

All is well in their small family and the pattern of their days is set as the world grows ever more lean and winter sets in early.

Dean and Minerva take to one another in the way people with similar tragedies often do. He and Sam have a standing invitation to the music store and Castiel finds that he’s pleased when Dean accepts it. He goes to the shop two and three times a week at first while Castiel is at work, plays several of Minerva’s guitars and grows a new set of calluses on the pads of his fingers. Jolene and Minerva give Dean one of the guitars dropped off for repair by someone that never returned to claim it and by mid-November, their small apartment is constantly filled with music.

Dean plays, growing more confident and skilled, while Sam sits somewhere nearby, smiling and dreamy and so close to awake and present that his absence is somehow more acute, more keenly felt. Still, the days are peaceful and though Castiel has to keep a tight watch on their finances as it grows colder, depriving them of some of the luxuries they all enjoy, he’s a little amazed to find that he is for the most part content, almost happy.

The loss of beer and Castiel’s strict rationing of their coffee and food does not sit well with Dean, however, and he goes out again at night to hustle pool and bring home extra money. He does not return with large sums of cash, sometimes barely more than one hundred dollars, sometimes far less, but he doesn’t come home bloodied, doesn’t play for stakes big enough that he’s forced to fight for what he’s won and so Castiel doesn’t complain. He and Sam watch movies while Dean is gone, or Castiel does at least, and though Sam does nothing so shocking or frightening as scream when Dean’s gone, he doesn’t show any signs of regression either.

Joaquin takes to driving Cas home from work when the nights grow too cold for walking to be truly pleasant. He discovers that Joaquin’s lustful admiration of Josh is not unrequited and by the time Thanksgiving draws near, the pair of them are practically in each other’s pockets. He has to endure a great deal of watching the young men kiss and touch and try to act like they’re not head over heels in love with one another and though he would easily and gladly forego the amateur porn show he’s treated to more often than not, Castiel finds that he watches the pair of young lovers with the indulgence and fondness of an older aunt.

Still, Joaquin is loyal to a fault and though he still looks at Dean with barely concealed adoration and awe, he seems to have abandoned whatever former fantasies he had about bedding Castiel’s charge. He and Dean continue to smoke pot on the couch and have lengthy discussions that aren’t quite as meaningful and profound as they like to think and, though Joaquin would probably take a bullet for Josh – or at the very least wind up in a heated fistfight with the 7-11 attendant who had besmirched Josh’s honor and manliness in a way Joaquin found highly unsatisfactory – he is not the sort to abandon old friends for new. He drives Castiel home from work, visits them frequently on the days he’s off like he’d grow ill if he didn’t see them so often, and still manages to find time to work and woo Josh into moving in with him when he graduates high school. Castiel finds himself wondering how the boy devotes any time at all to his schooling or sleep. Somehow, Joaquin manages it.

He and Castiel take to playing chess on the nights that Dean’s out hustling pool. Cas is shocked to discover that Joaquin is a skilled player. He’s patient, couches secretive moves in bold sacrifices of key pieces, and though Castiel never once loses a game to him, he concludes that the boy might just be a well concealed genius. Sometimes they play alone with Sam lost and unmoving on the periphery, sometimes Josh is there and busily trying to coax Sam out of his shell. An act which almost gets him banned from the apartment altogether, though when Joaquin hesitantly explains that Josh meant no harm, that he only responded to Sam in the same way that one might responded to a wounded animal, Castiel relents. They wisely choose to not tell Dean anything about the matter.

Thanksgiving arrives with a blast of arctic chill and minute flecks of moisture that Dean glares at and declares to be snow. The ground is too warm for the snow to stick, but neither of them relish the cold or the thought of bundling Sam up in coats and long underwear just so they might enjoy something more substantial than grilled cheese sandwiches and soup. They don’t get far enough into the day to decide what they will eat, however, because bounty comes to them.

It starts with Bud who brings over a dubious looking corn casserole shortly before ten. He explains that he made two, thinking that his brother’s family would be present for the family gathering but after learning that “the bastard took his kids to Maui for Thanksgiving… who does that?” he had more food than he really needed. Castiel accepts the offer of food solemnly, for he knows the tradition to be an ancient one among humans, though he senses that Dean is rolling his eyes behind his back. They poke at the casserole for a while, debating who is going to brave sampling it. Dean loses the game of chance that decides the matter and Castiel does not tell him that Sam had long ago told him “Dean’s pathologically incapable of ever choosing anything but scissors, trust me.”

Dean eyes the casserole with the same wary caution that he might show a demon, but after dipping his finger into the dish and sampling it with hesitation, he smiles and declares it to be cheesy corn with cornbread and green peppers, though it doesn’t really clear things with Castiel as to just what exactly the dish is meant to be.

After Bud, they endure nearly an hour and a half of endless visitors, all of them bearing containers, wrapped platters, and Ziploc bags of food. Turkey, pie, yams, green bean casserole, potatoes, endless trays of homemade candies and baked goods. Joaquin and Josh, Minerva and Jolene, Dana the librarian, a smattering of people Castiel knows from work and a dozen or more that he doesn’t know at all, all of whom Dean only claims that he’s met at the music store and the library. So many people stop by that they are forced to take Sam to Castiel’s bedroom where the noise isn’t so constant and where he’s able sit somewhat more at ease though he still stays close to the wall as if he needs it nearby in case he’s stricken with the urge to bash his head against it. Castiel can see that Dean hates it, hates “putting Sam up like he’s some kind of twitchy God damned dog,” but he doesn’t complain about the heaps of food given to them and seems genuinely at a loss for words in the face of so much generosity.

When the tide of visitors trickles to a halt, they have enough food to last several days. Their refrigerator is bursting and Dean repackages several of the items in saran wrap and tin foil to freeze before they ever sit down to eat.

They spend the day eating. Castiel feels lazy, full and so unexpectedly sleepy that he voices his concern that he might be growing ill until Dean laughs at him and calls it normal. For his part, Dean declares himself to be the fattest man in the county and sits back on the couch with his third piece of pie and pops open the button of his jeans. Castiel wonders if it makes him more comfortable and, after a moment’s hesitation, he does the same himself. He and Dean sit back on the couch, jeans partially undone and watch endless hours of football with Sam between them. They all fall asleep at various times, dropping off into unannounced, unceremonious naps with the cheers from the football game tinny and comforting from their old television.

They wake, have slices of cold turkey with cranberry sauce and several cookies with peanut butter cups jammed into the middle of them. Sam surprises them by getting up from the table and going to bed of his own accord, though he does so in his clothes and Castiel is not certain if it’s because he’s incapable of remembering to undress or because Sam-of-old often went to bed fully clothed and prepared to wake up at a moment’s notice. Dean still declares it to be an improvement and Castiel can find no reason to disagree.

They watch and they wait and December comes with snow.

On the day that Castiel receives a fifty-cent raise and a beaming compliment from Rita that he’s “really come a long way,” Dean surprises him by showing up with Sam in tow, large and silent as ever. He settles Sam into one of the booths near the front of the restaurant and gets him a platter of simple nachos and cheese which Sam is able to eat without prompting. Castiel joins them after he clocks out and he and Dean eat burritos and regard Sam speculatively while he picks up his drink and takes a slow slip from the straw. Joaquin joins them later, surprises them by flopping down in the booth across from Sam and Dean and tossing his ball cap down on an empty spot on the table in apparent disgust.

“Well, that’s it, I’m screwed.”

“You got Josh pregnant?” Dean asks with wholly feigned guilelessness.

“Dick,” Joaquin replies. “Worse. I let Crackhead work the line while I was finishing up paperwork and he completely screwed up an order.”

“I believe if you express your sincere apologies and offer to remake the order with unnecessary amounts of free items to accompany it, that the customer will be appeased,” Castiel offers, thinking of Suit and Tie who had very nearly gotten him fired some weeks back.

“I can’t,” Joaquin whines. “Chick’s the secret shopper that Rita’s been going on and on about for days. This is going to cost me the crap ass raise that I was hoping on to help float Josh until he’s done with high school and can work full time.”

Castiel winces in genuine dismay while Dean starts shaking his head. “Oookay, there’s so much wrong with what you just said that I don’t know where to start. I should probably start by pointing out the multiple ways that corrupting a high school kid is probably icky and wrong, but since you really would get him pregnant if God decided that men should have ass babies, I think it’s too late for that. So, secret shopper. This sort of comes with the concept of secrecy. How do you know she came in?”

Joaquin shoots him a disparaging look and Castiel takes pity on him. “Rita has indicated that the secret shopper will always order a specific combination from the menu. She further speculated that the shopper is female, under thirty, with brown hair, and that she’ll arrive either in the mid afternoon or after the dinner rush.”

“How in the hell would she even know any of that?”

“The store in Sedalia was nailed last week,” Joaquin told him. “And the chick at the counter remembered the customer that ordered. Simple as that and now, like I said, I’m screwed.”

“She still here?” Dean asks, curiously peering over his shoulder at the other customers in the lobby.

“Yeah, over by the door,” Joaquin tells him.

“The chick with the kid?”

“No, girl with the laptop. She’s probably writing up the report that will spell my fucking doom right now.”

Dean glances at her, subtle and cool, and Castiel knows what’s going to happen before a sly grin breaks out on his face. “Hmm, curvy. I can work with that.”

“Work with it?” Joaquin asks while Cas puts a hand to his eyes and shakes his head.

“Oh, yeah. Work with it as in solve all of your problems, Joaquin.”

“Wha… dude. Are you seriously suggesting that you’re going to put the moves on the secret shopper? Can you even do that?” He turns to Castiel. “Can he even do that?”

Castiel has no choice but to nod. “He is more than capable, yes.”

“I am the fucking master is what he means to say,” Dean says with a wicked grin. He studies the young woman for several moments and pays what seems like special attention to either her boots or the tattoo that’s just visible over the tops of them before vanishing beneath her skirt. “Think that tattoo goes all the way up her leg? I bet it does. Sammy, stay with Cas and Joaquin. I’ll be back. Cas?”

Castiel waves at him, sure that he should be more disgusted than amused. “I will watch him.”

Dean gives Sam’s arm a squeeze then slides out of the booth. He isn’t wearing his cam boot, has started going more days with it off than on, but his limp isn’t too pronounced when he gets up and walks across the lobby towards the young woman bent over her laptop.

Joaquin turns half out of the booth to watch, quietly whispering “there’s no way in hell” to Cas.

They watch as Dean stops in front of the girl and gestures to the chair opposite her. She looks up with an expression that suggests she doesn’t welcome the interruption, but flushes scarlet when she takes in Dean and his slow, easy smile. She nods at him and Dean sits down across from her. They have no idea what he’s saying. Though the lobby isn’t terribly full of customers, the never ending Christmas music muddies the sound, making it difficult to pick up more than snatches of conversation. Castiel gathers that Dean must ask something about her tattoo because she blushes again terribly and then leans back, pulling her skirt up a fraction of an inch. Dean leans to the right to take a look at what she’s showing him and asks another question. She laughs, terribly nervous and uncertain, but nods. She slides the neck of her sweater back, reveals what Castiel assumes to be more inked flesh and they can hear Dean’s low whistle despite the raucous chorus of “Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer” blaring from the Muzak speakers overhead.

They sit back after that, exchanging pleasantries or what Castiel supposes is probably more likely an escalating flirtatious tête-à-tête and he starts to plan for various ways to get himself and Sam home before Dean even inclines his head towards the front doors of the lobby and the girl nods in agreement with all of the ecstatic joy of someone that’s just been told they’ve won the lottery. He helps her up, hand solicitously at her back, for Dean is a gentlemen in his own decidedly queer and licentious way, and then bends low to whisper in her ear. She shudders, no doubt from the excitement of his breath in her ear, and then nods again.

Dean turns back to them, expression sly and dirty and strangely joyful. Castiel sees that he’s fishing his car keys from his pocket and tries not to let his jaw drop. Though he had no illusions about Dean’s ability to woo the secret shopper, in record time no less, he is shocked to realize that he’s about to be given the task of taking Sam home in the Impala which is something of a combined sacred task.

He and Joaquin end up asking the same question simultaneously, though they are saying two entirely different things.

“You’re not serious,” they say in unison.

“Oh, ye of little faith,” Dean replies and then holds the keys out to Castiel. “Think you can mange?”

“My license is not exactly legal,” Cas points out. “And you have expressed concern over the speed at which I choose to drive. Are you not worried that I might get pulled over for, how did you put it, driving like someone’s grandmother?”

“Nyah. Snow’s starting outside and everyone will be driving slow. But…” He turns to Joaquin. “You’ll follow him home?”

“Sure, I can,” Joaquin answers, “but, Dean, I don’t know. What about…”

“What about Sam?” Castiel finishes for him, though he doesn’t think that Joaquin was at all concerned about him. He watches Dean flinch, watches him glance at Sam with concern, worry, and no small amount of guilt and he instantly feels badly for saying anything. Dean might have approached the idea of seducing the young woman with the intent of saving Joaquin and the rest of the crew from a damning report, but now that the prospect is before him, little remains of his original deception. Castiel thinks Dean wants nothing more than the company of a woman. It’s been a while since he’s enjoyed a woman’s touch and though he’s needed the time to heal, to work on bringing his brother back, Castiel suspects that Dean simply can’t go overly long without affection and, yes, sex. He needs this, he realizes, and he feels a strange mix of jealous justification and guilt over using Sam as a means to dissuade him.

He reaches for the keys before Dean can change his mind about accompanying the young woman to whatever destination that she’d had in mind. “We’ll be fine,” he tells Dean. “I didn’t mean to suggest that we wouldn’t.”

“No, maybe you’re right.” Dean puts a hand to the back of Sam’s neck and smiles down at him, his earlier lust going out like a candle to be traded for worry and sadness. Castiel wants to kick himself.

“We’ll be fine,” he says again. “Please, go enjoy yourself.”

“Well…”

“Please?” And when begging doesn’t work, Castiel draws himself up in his seat and stares at Dean with the last tattered dregs of the power he used to command. “I am telling you to go, Dean. I will watch over Sam.”

Joaquin’s gone wide-eyed and a little pale as if he’s just been witness to something strange and momentous, but Dean’s response tells him that there’s not so much of the angelic and the mysterious left in Castiel to inspire that much awe – he rolls his eyes.

“Pimp,” Dean tells him and then bends over Sam for a moment. Joaquin has been witness to the strange, private speech he sometimes uses with his brother and doesn’t react, though he still looks as though he finds the entire night to have ventured in a direction that he did not expect. Dean whispers at Sam for a moment and cards his hand once through his hair before standing.

“You take care of him,” he tells Cas sternly, “and if you wreck my car…”

“Then I will find out sooner rather than later if it’s Heaven that awaits me in the afterlife,” Castiel finishes.

“Damn straight. Now, if you’ll excuse me, Tammy wants to show me her ink and I have a mind to take a good long look. Maybe with my tongue.” He grins at them, wicked and joyful, then gives Sam one last squeeze on the arm before limping over to where the secret shopper, Tammy, waits with her laptop case slung over her shoulder. She looks at Dean with nothing but lust and happiness and Castiel supposes, no matter what the nature of her report, this turn of events is a good one.

Dean holds the door open for her and, with one last wink over his shoulder, leaves the restaurant with her.

“How does he even do that?” Joaquin whines. “I want lessons. I want to be his freaking apprentice. I want…”

“You are in a relationship,” Castiel reminds him.

“All knowledge is worth having,” Joaquin replies loftily and, when Castiel cocks an eyebrow at him, he ducks his head and starts to laugh. “Okay, yeah, I’d never pull off being that cool anyway.”

“Trust me, you do not wish to know what it takes to even try.”

Castiel watches Sam after that, takes in the slump in his shoulders and his bowed head and he braces himself for a reaction, prepares to reach out to Sam or shove Joaquin out of the booth in case he has to intervene. He’s certain that something’s coming, certain that Sam is about to object to Dean leaving him in a public place peppered with strangers and when Sam reaches out with his long fingers, Cas tenses. But, he’s only reaching for his drink. Though he does it slowly, as if this new adopted action takes a great deal of thought and concentration, Sam takes a drink from the straw and then sets the cup down carefully on the table before returning to his nachos which are surely cold by now.

Cas breathes out a small sigh of relief and nudges Joaquin. “Do you mind waiting to leave until Sam finishes?”

“Yeah, no problem,” Joaquin replies with a shrug. “Josh is at his grandma’s, so I’ve got nothing but time.”

“You do not having studying to do?”

“I do in fact have studying to do,” Joaquin says in fond mimicry of Castiel’s speech patterns, “but if I can’t ace that last stupid poly-sci final, then I’m going to shoot myself on principle alone.”

They wait while Sam slowly eats and Joaquin chatters about Dean, Josh, the holidays, school, Dean, Dean, and Dean and Castiel wonders not for the first time how it is that his friend can have such an effect on people. Perhaps he is too aware of Dean’s many flaws, perhaps he has seen him at his worst – his most hateful, violent and vengeful when he dragged him kicking and screaming out of hell – but it never stops to amaze him how easily Dean wins people over. It should not be so easy for him, but, Castiel muses with a wry shake of his head, he had been won over by the Winchesters in what’s considered to be remarkably short order as far as angels are concerned. He takes the time to wonder if the same would have happened if there had been no apocalypse, if he had come upon the brothers in much less dire circumstances and concludes that it would be so as Sam finishes his nachos and sits up, blank and vague as if he no longer has a purpose now that no task, even one so simple as eating, lies before him.

Castiel is relieved, watching Sam eat can be a slow and torturous affair and he’s more than ready to go home and scrub the red sauce from beneath his fingernails as it is. He gestures for Joaquin to scoot out of the booth so that he might collect Sam and go the car, but halts as the night shift manager, Heather, comes to their table.

The open seat available is next to Sam and, as he has no idea how he would react to having a stranger pressed up against him, despite his many improvements of late, Castiel opens his mouth to suggest that Heather not sit down. She looks down at Sam with a fond sort of compassion that he finds puzzling and then pulls up one of the chairs from the table across from them.

“Am I nuts,” she says as she takes off her ball cap in order to straighten her ponytail, “or did your boy just leave with the secret shopper?”

Joaquin launches into a rapid account of Dean’s seduction of the young woman and Heather listens avidly before leaning back in her chair with sigh. “You know what? That’s horrible. It’s deceitful, it’s kinda sexist and misogynistic that he and every last one of you creeps thinks it’s okay to screw some girl and hope that the orgasm is so mind blowing that she’ll suddenly forget to do her job, and I know that I should object on behalf of my entire gender, but he’s just so damned hot and, oh God, I wish it was me.”

When Castiel cannot help but roll his eyes at her and Joaquin snorts, Heather kicks at the young man half-heartedly. “Like you, of all people, haven’t noticed how smoking hot Dean is. I see you drool every time he’s on stage and, hey, it’s not like he isn’t pure sex when he’s playing. Oh that reminds me, are you guys coming to the show at Katie’s tomorrow night? It’ll be huge and Katie said Dean and the girls will be playing for two hours this time. I’m so jazzed that I bought a slutty push-up bra just for the occasion!”

“Heather!” Joaquin hisses and looks at her like she’s just made a terrible faux pas and, given that Castiel has no idea what she’s referring to and that he has no knowledge of Dean having ever been on stage, indicating to him that something’s been kept from him, he suspects that she probably did.

Heather claps both hands over her mouth in alarm and looks at Joaquin wide-eyed. “I forgot,” she mumbles behind her palms.

“Forgot what?” Castiel asks and when Sam shifts at the tone in his voice, he forces himself to relax. He reaches out to pat the other man’s hand and takes a napkin to it when he finds nacho cheese on his fingers.

“He’ll kill me,” Heather tells him.

“He’ll kill me because I was stupid enough to tell you,” Joaquin corrects. “Man…”

“Someone, and I don’t care who,” Castiel says with forced pleasantness and calm, “had better tell me just exactly what it is that I don’t know. I made a promise long ago to look after the brothers, to protect them, even if it’s just from themselves, and I cannot do that if I’m left in the dark about Dean’s activities.”

Heather’s eyes grow ever more wide and start to shine and the way that she looks at Castiel suddenly makes him wholly uncomfortable. “You’re the angel,” she breathes. She doesn’t say it like she believes him to truly be a mythical creature, but more in the fashion that one might refer to a celebrity. “Oh, God, this is so cool. I think I have to go squeal about it on Twitter or something. I won’t!” she says when Joaquin glares at her. “Well, not directly. Maybe in the teeniest, tiniest vaguest kind of way.”

“Heather!” Joaquin exclaims and she jumps out of her chair with a wicked grin.

“By the way, dipshit, I just pulled the drive through drawer and it’s ten bucks short. I got it last time, so go recount it and then cough it up.” She gives Joaquin a light smack to the back of his head and then hurries through the lobby, her cell phone already in hand.

“Man…”

“Joaquin,” Castiel warns, “I cannot tell you how important it is that you tell me what’s going on. If something happens and I can’t find Dean,” he gestures to Sam, “it will not be good. You have no idea what life was like for us before. Things could get bad, Joaquin. I cannot impress upon you just how bad.”

Joaquin groans and puts his head down on his hands. “You have to swear, swear that when Dean gets pissed that you’ll tell him it wasn’t my fault.”

*

Dean acts no differently the next morning. He rises no later than usual, though his hair is unreasonably mussed and he’s smiling in the way that Castiel likens to a cat that’s eaten the canary, all of its feathers, and then found its way to the cream. The evening with Tammy Dean reports to have gone well and, if the spring in his limping stride is any indication, Joaquin should have nothing to worry about other than being the butt of some lewd commentary from Heather.

“Oh, God, she was awesome,” Dean tells Castiel and an ever silent Sam over breakfast. “And smart. She had me figured out about the secret shopper thing before we even left. Thought it was tasteless as hell and, wow, girl likes a little tastelessness, thank God. I may not walk right for a month.”

“You don’t walk right now,” Castiel tells him idly. He ignores the finger that Dean shoots at him and toys with his coffee, stirring the creamer into it though it’s been thoroughly mixed for a minute or two. “You’ll be seeing her again? Tonight, perhaps?”

“Tonight?” Dean asks and nothing in his tone indicates that he has other plans, that he does in fact have a performance at an establishment downtown where, if Joaquin is to be believed, he has been playing off and on with Minerva and Jolene for the last several weeks. “She’s got a boyfriend at school in Nashville. Thinks he’s going to pop the question this Christmas. Pretty sure it was just a one night kind of thing, Cas.”

“Pity,” Castiel says.

“Damn shame.”

The day progresses no differently than any of the ones before it, save Castiel is off from work and spends the majority of it debating on whether or not he should confront Dean and then… he’s not sure. Praise him. Berate him. Shake him around a little bit and ask why he hadn’t simply told him that he’s been playing his guitar for money and from all accounts, not doing too badly at it. He can think of no way to bring it up without sabotaging the plans for the evening, both Dean’s and his own, so he says nothing. Sits and sulks. Watches Dean stretch out his leg. Folds the laundry he brings up from the alarmingly old dryer in the basement. Tries not to feel a terrible ache in his chest when he goes to see if Sam is awake from his afternoon nap and finds Dean sitting next to him, softly strumming his guitar and looking down at his brother as if his heart is breaking right before Castiel’s eyes.

They are all of them trying to find their way back from what’s befallen them. Sam, perhaps more drastically so, but as Castiel stands in the doorway, a pile of the brothers’ freshly washed clothes clutched tight to his chest as he watches them, he knows that he and Dean have both been struggling to make sense of it all as well. Castiel has needed to fill his time with work, has needed a way to protect and watch over them as he’d promised he’d do. Dean needed an outlet, for his pain, confusion, and his longing for everything that was taken from him – Sam not the least of it.

He finds he no longer begrudges Dean his secrets, though he cannot help but feel a tiny pang of sorrow that they were kept, that Dean had spun a simple, but easily believable tale about playing pool for money for no other reason than he was embarrassed. He is not a man given to sharing his feelings, not about what really matters, and as Castiel watches him, he grows to understand that singing to strangers was easier than singing to him. Whatever his songs are, and Joaquin’s indicated that they are a hell of a lot deeper than he’d have ever expected, they serve as a means of therapy for him. And so Castiel tries not to feel so irritated or queerly jilted that Dean couldn’t tell him about something so small.

He just puts the clothes on the dresser and leaves the room quietly.

At seven-thirty Dean comes out of the bathroom freshly scrubbed and tidy in a long-sleeved t-shirt and jeans that Castiel suspects he knows fit him like a glove. He shrugs into his heavy denim jacket and pats Sam on the shoulder.

“Pool tournament at the Lucky Seven tonight,” Dean tells Cas. There is no deceit in his voice and Castiel almost marvels at just how good he is at lying. “Thought it might be a good chance to earn some extra cash without getting my ass kicked by a bunch of guys that think getting hustled is irritating. You and Sam be all right for the evening?”

Castiel wonders what Dean would do if he said no, if he said that it’s a bad idea for him to leave Sam. He doesn’t, but he doesn’t make it any easier than he has to. “We will be fine, but I don’t think we are hurting for money, Dean. Why go out in the cold if we don’t really need it?”

Dean waves a hand at him, but shifts slightly. Castiel wants to believe that he’s feeling some modicum of guilt over his continued deception. “Christmas is coming, Cas. Thought we could get something for Bobby or pay him back some of the money he loaned us. Thought it might be nice to have a proper sit down dinner when he gets into town without having to rely on our friends to feed us. I just, you know, figured it was a good thing?”

“I see,” he replies and when Dean starts to look somewhat tormented, Castiel slumps feeling, he suspects, far more guilty than he’d hoped he would make Dean feel. “Drive carefully.”

Dean beams and reminds Cas of a teenager that’s just been given permission to stay out an hour past his usual curfew. He bends down to kiss Sam’s head and when Cas raises an eyebrow at him, Dean grabs him as well and gives him a sloppy kiss on the cheek.

“Get out,” Cas tells him wiping his cheek. “Ugh.”

“Don’t wait up, mom,” Dean laughs at him and then saunters through the front door, whistling.

After the rumble from the Impala has faded, Castiel gets up and checks in Dean’s bedroom. Sure enough, the guitar is gone from its usual place next to the bed and, perhaps more frustrating, he cannot fathom when or how Dean got it out of the house without him noticing.

“Winchesters,” he mutters as he returns to the living room and gets Sam up so that he might get him ready to go out. “Far too crafty and sneaky, the lot of you,” he tells Sam.

An hour later Joaquin knocks at the front door and when Castiel opens it, he finds the young man regarding him with a combination of excitement and pure dread. He looks as though he expects to go into battle and the thought makes Castiel laugh.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Joaquin asks him.

“No, but we’re doing it anyway. Come on, Sam.”

Joaquin’s car is an old rusted Plymouth that Castiel thinks is worth every disparaging comment the boy has ever made about it, despite Dean’s claims that it’s a classic in need of a little love. It is at least a very sizeable vehicle and he has no trouble putting Sam in the backseat and getting in next to him.

The drive downtown does not take long, though the snow has begun to fall heavily, forcing them to drive slowly. The huge, lumbering vehicle has no trouble on the slick roads and they arrive without incident. Castiel gets out of the car, reaching a hand inside to Sam while he stares at the establishment in front of him through the cloud of his breath on the cold winter air.

“Dean plays at a coffee bar?” he asks, taking in the cheerful sign that reads “Katie’s Koffee” between two steaming mugs of espresso. “It seems large for a coffee house,” he says after Joaquin nods.

“Used to be a dance studio,” Joaquin tells him, blowing on his hands. “Katie inherited the building after her aunt died and drove down here from California with her husband to sell it. Story goes she spent the whole time bitching about how there wasn’t any good coffee in town and never anything to do. She and her husband Mark got a buyer lined up, some guy that was going to open the place up as some kind of art shop where people could have painting classes and crap. Day of the sale, she and Mark walked out and a month later, this place opened. It’s done pretty well, better since she started having bands play. Mostly it’s quiet stuff. Chicks with cellos, couple guys trying to play moody country, but it’s kind of taken off since she started signing up folk acts. Uh… well, Dean and the girls have been doing pretty well. I mean, it’s not like you’re going to find them on iTunes or hear them on the radio or anything, but they’re getting a little popular on campus. Tonight’s kind of sold out and stuff.”

Castiel looks out at the crowd of people in front of the door, takes in the large blackboard on an easel that declares “Christmas Show Tonight – DMJ!” and “Gingerbread Lattes 50% off to everyone who sings us a Christmas tune!”

“DMJ?” Castiel asks. Sam is out of the car and Castiel shuts the car door carefully before reaching up to wrap Sam’s scarf more tightly around his bare throat.

“Dean, Minerva, and…”

“Jolene,” Castiel finishes for him. “I see.”

“Yeah, they weren’t having much luck coming up with a name, were kind of fighting about it because Dean kept coming up with dorky names from like Metallica and Zeppelin songs, which didn’t exactly fit the band’s style. So, they compromised on something simple.”

“I see,” he says again and has difficulty imaging Dean in musical trio, isn’t sure that it fits with everything he thought he knew about him, despite the way he’s seen him take to the guitar from the moment he picked up the expensive piece in Minerva’s shop.

He shakes his head, reminds himself that he’s here for a reason and that he’s doing his best to make sense of this strange thing that his charge has taken to doing. He gestures to the crowd outside of the front doors. “That’s going to be a problem. I think it’s too many people for Sam to deal with.”

“No sweat,” Joaquin tells him. “I called and begged Katie to score some extra tickets for me and when she said she didn’t have any… well, I, uh, kind of hinted that you and Sam were coming. She freaked and told me that I could use the side door, that she’d have Mark waiting for us.”

“They know about me? About Sam?”

“Indirectly? Yeah,” Joaquin replies with a little flush to his cheeks. “Everyone does. It’s kinda what Dean sings about and stuff.”

Castiel pinches his brow and waves Joaquin onward when the boy hesitates. “Go, go. It’s fine. We’re coming. We both may die of mortification before the night’s over with, but we are coming.”

They make their way around the outer edge of the crowd, Castiel with his hand tight on Sam’s arm who sticks close to him, but makes no overt signs of having an attack. Joaquin leads them to a little alleyway between the coffee bar and the craft shop next door and there’s a warm sliver of light near the end that signals their destination.

A tall man with a beard and very little hair waits for them by the doorway and he takes Castiel’s hand, shakes it happily before smiling at Sam. “Nice to meet you, I’m Mark!” he says slowly as if Sam were merely suffering from deafness. The younger Winchester does not respond, but Mark doesn’t seem to find anything untoward about it and leads them inside.

The place is full of people, too full and Castiel glances up worriedly at Sam as Mark leads them to a small table set away from everyone else. They wait until he unclips the rope that separates it from the exit and Castiel thinks that it’s good, it gives him an easy way to get Sam out if the need arises.

Mark asks them if they want anything to drink as the lights go down and the crowd starts clapping. He smiles again and shouts over the din: “better go find the wife and see if she bribed the fire marshal or if we’re in for it if he shows up and sees how over capacity we are!”

Castiel pays him no mind and divides his attention instead between Sam, the crowd, and the small stage that’s empty save for three stools, three microphones, and a pair of tinsel bedecked Christmas trees. He spies some people that he knows and prays that they won’t see him, that they’ll know enough about Sam or will simply be too focused on the show to come over. Sam, he sees, is doing well enough, he sits with his head down and his hands folded tightly on the table. He isn’t shaking, seems to be doing nothing more than waiting, as he always seems to be waiting, and Castiel finds he himself feels better when he scoots his chair closer so that they’re sitting thigh to thigh.

The clapping escalates as Dean, Minerva, and Jolene take the stage, all three of them with guitars slung over their shoulders as if they did nothing but travel around all day playing. Dean, Castiel is amused and a little shocked to see, is wearing a Santa Claus hat on his head, though the first thing he does when he takes his seat is pull it off his head and glare at it in disgust that Castiel does not think to be wholly feigned.

“So, it’s Christmastime and Katie begged me to wear this stupid hat, but it’s not exactly my style. So…” he throws the hat out to the crowd and a quartet of young girls, college students Castiel guesses, cheer when one of their number snatches it out of the air and promptly sets it down on her head.

“Sorry, Katie,” Dean says into the microphone

“It’s all right, I love you anyway!” a woman calls back and when Cas looks through the crowd, he sees a woman in her forties standing next to Mark and grinning at Dean like she’s not entirely lying.

“Is Katie’s husband in the crowd? Oops, yeah, there he is.” Dean makes a face and hunches his shoulders slightly. “Awkward.”

The crowd laughs and Dean settles down on his stool, so calm and in his element that Castiel finds he can’t look away. It shouldn’t surprise him how easily Dean can work a crowd, he has experience at it in his own decidedly strange way and a natural affinity and charm that he knows firsthand makes people want to listen to him when he’s not being what Sam once termed “an insufferable little shit.” Still, it unsettles him to see Dean at the center of attention when he’s so used to watching him try to stay beyond notice.

“I’ve got some announcements I’m supposed to read you guys,” Dean says, shuffling a piece of paper in front of him. “Let’s see, Christmas choir, Christmas play, Christmas blah blah blah. Crap, crap, crap, oh, here’s a good one,” he says looking up, the crowd utterly in the palm of his hand. “As some of you may have heard, the downtown library has been having some problems funding repairs after a water main broke last October. All of the proceeds from tonight’s show, and by proceeds, I mean everything we’re not getting paid,” he says with a tug at the collar of his T-Shirt, “go to help them out. But, if you have any cash left over after all of your Christmas shopping, there’s a donation jar at the library’s front desk that could use a little love.”

He lets the paper flutter to the stage floor and puts his hands to his guitar, Minerva and Jolene following suit. “Libraries are kind of cool,” Dean says. “A couple of you might have heard me sing once or twice about traveling around a lot when I was kid. Different towns, different places, and it was hard to ever find anything that was ever constant. It wasn’t so bad for me, but my little brother didn’t have it so easy. For him, libraries were safe places, constant places that he could find in almost any town. The answers to everything he needed to know he could find in them and they became his church, his haven. So, uh, we have a little song about that.” He counts it out while the crowd claps. Taps his foot and breathes “one, two, three” into the microphone as he, Jolene, and Minerva begin to play.

Minerva is the one to sing at first, her voice high and sweet as she weaves a tale about a young boy sitting behind a pile of books while his older brother looks on. Dean accompanies her, humming low and sad and sweet and Castiel finds himself struck still and silent.

“Do you think he’s seen us?” Joaquin asks.

“No,” Castiel answers, glancing up that the lights that shine on the stage, rendering the crowd in near darkness. “But he will.”

Though Minerva and Jolene do all of the technically complex playing, Dean’s organic accompaniment and the sultry tone of his voice merges perfectly and Castiel has to own that he’s mesmerizing. The crowd is near silent except for applause after each song, and countless cups and saucers of coffee and tea remain largely ignored as they watch and listen to Dean sing.

He sings about everything, cutting no corners, leaving nothing out and though Castiel suspects that the crowd must find his lyrics about life, death, angels, and hell to be largely an allegory for more mundane aspects of life, he knows that everything Dean’s singing is absolutely true. He find that it stings, not in a way that makes him angry or resentful, but it leaves him aching and pained nonetheless as Dean sings and Castiel relives with him many of the memories he shares in and several that he doesn’t. He’s in near tears as Dean sings of the open road and family with a longing that’s so sincere he wonders how it is that he can even sing about it without stopping in agony himself.

Castiel keeps a light grip on Sam’s arm and glances at him from time to time to make sure he’s weathering the darkness, the singing, and the feel of so many people around them. He doesn’t move, just keeps his head down, lips sometimes trembling as if he’s on the cusp of finally speaking. He doesn’t and so Castiel keeps hold of him and continues to watch Dean because there’s nothing else that he can make himself do.

Dean’s voice breaks twice, once during a song about his father and once when he sings about the day his brother went away, but neither moment detracts from the song and instead adds a raw emotion that the crowd seems to react to. When Castiel can tear his eyes away from the stage to check the crowd, he finds several people with arms around their loved ones and friends as if Dean’s song has reminded them how easy it is to lose the ones that they love. Not a few of the younger girls are wiping shining tears from their eyes and Castiel thinks for the first time that John Winchester did his eldest son a great disservice. Though he knows logically that neither Sam nor Dean would have emerged alive or sane from what would have always come for them if they hadn’t been as raised as they had, he can’t help but think that this was what Dean should have spent his life doing. He sees everything that Dean could have been, all that was left out of Heaven’s pages on the young man who helped save the world from the Devil through nothing but love and courage.

He remembers Dean standing before Lucifer in the guise of his own brother, remembers him coming between himself and the Devil when he moved to kill him. Remembers him broken and bleeding on the hood of his car, telling Sam that he wouldn’t leave him. And Castiel remembers the look on Sam’s face when he wrenched control from Lucifer and told Dean that it was okay, that it was all going to be okay.

Until this moment, Castiel isn’t sure that he ever really believed Sam, even as he pulled himself, Michael, Adam, and Lucifer far down into the pit, saving the world and damning himself. He thinks he believes it now, believes that were it not for God, Lucifer, and the wretched machinations of bitter angels and cunning demons that these two brothers could have led such drastically different, remarkable lives.

But, as he watches Dean, he thinks it’s over. It’s done and the road Dean sang about so lovingly still spins out before them all. The apocalypse doesn’t have to be their ending and, as he thought earlier, they could all still find their way back. To what they had before, to what could lie ahead of them.

It fills Castiel with a remarkable peace such as he hasn’t felt in years, perhaps even centuries. He breathes out, lets out the breath that it feels like he’s been holding since raising Dean from the fires of hell, and leans slightly against Sam, finding his warmth and his bulk comforting, even though the larger man does nothing but sit and stare down at his hands.

Dean, Minerva, and Jolene have been playing for just over two hours when Dean finally spots the three of them at their table. He’s had the lights on the stage dimmed so he can have a look at his audience and after flirting with the entire room he glances in their direction near the side door.

Dean half rises from his stool, his expression so suddenly shocked, concerned, and angry that the crowd falls silent. “Cas,” he breathes into the microphone and, still feeling amazingly at peace, Cas holds up a hand in surrender. He motions to Sam who remains calm at his side and nods at him, hoping to indicate that all is well.

Dean glares at him in a way that lets him know that there will be arguing, possibly brawling when they all get home later, but he also flushes in a way that causes not a few girls to sigh as if he’s the prettiest thing that they’ve ever beheld. He sits down on his stool, somewhat mollified, and after a moment’s consideration, he puts his hand over his microphone and holds a quiet conversation with the women on stage with him. Both of them nod, Minerva looking over at Castiel and Sam and smiling broadly.

“Okay, kids,” Dean says after he takes his hand off of the microphone. “Last song of the night. We were going to sing some crappy Christmas song that I can’t really even play at all, but the girls here decided it was okay if we skipped it. Instead, we’re going to sing something that we’ve been working on. It’s called ‘The Way Back’ and I wrote it for my brother and for my best friend who’ll probably get his ass kicked later on tonight.”

Castiel is too shocked by the title of Dean’s song to acknowledge what he knows isn’t an idle threat. He knows that they’ve talked about this very subject more than once, generally in reference to Sam finding his way back from the memories that keep him a prisoner in his own mind, but it never occurred to him that Dean would sing about their quiet conversations, that he would hear so many of his own words, his own hopes and prayers being sung in Dean’s clear, aching voice.

The song weaves the story of their lives, Castiel’s included. Dean sings about his mother’s death, Jessica’s death, their father’s death, Sam’s death, his own, and it shouldn’t be a hopeful song at all, but each chorus plays on the notion of Dean, Sam, Castiel and all of them finding their way forward, finding their way back from each terrible thing that befalls them and something in Dean’s voice is so hopeful, so sure and uplifting that Castiel thinks God himself must have stopped whatever’s He’s doing that’s kept Him so long from earth just to listen.

Castiel is unabashedly weeping when Dean sings of his slow fall from Heaven, how such an act was anything but a fall from grace, and Dean’s gearing up for the lilting chorus, strumming his guitar fiercely and beautifully as Jolene and Minerva echo him. Castiel’s so moved that he it takes him a moment to realize that Sam is shaking next to him. He turns, deaf for the first time to Dean who sings ‘but even when God didn’t answer, he picked himself up and found the way back.’

“Sam?” Castiel says in alarm, taking hold of Sam and putting an arm around him.

To his amazement, Sam raises his head and looks at him, sees him, despite the tears that run down his cheeks. Sam wipes at his eyes and sniffles instead of letting the snot drip from his nose as he’s done for months. “Cas.”

“Oh, God,” Castiel says and can do nothing but grip Sam tightly and stare at him, afraid that the spell will be broken and Sam will retreat far back into himself.

“It’s-it’s-it’s hard,” Sam tells him. “It’s hard.”

“I know,” Castiel tells him, though he feels like it’s probably the worst thing to say, feels like he can’t possibly have any idea of how hard the road has been that Sam’s been traveling for so long. “Do you need to leave?”

“Yes,” Sam replies. “Yes, please.” He sounds shell-shocked and broken, but Castiel finds more joy in hearing him speak than he did in Dean’s singing, which he figures says a great deal.

Castiel tightens his arm around Sam and stands, prepared to pull the large man up if need be. He stands on his own and though he leans into Cas as if the contact is vital, he makes his own way to the velvet rope that separates them from the side exit.

Joaquin looks up at them as they stand and when Sam offers him a wavering, tremulous smile, the boy’s mouth drops. “Holy crap. Sam.”

“Get Dean,” Castiel orders him as they pass.

The shock of seeing Sam awake and aware seems to have rendered the normally bright boy suddenly stupid and he waves in the direction of the stage and then the crowd as if it could possibly matter at this moment. “But… he’s singing.”

“I don’t care if he’s performing life saving surgery,” Castiel tells him. “Just get Dean, Joaquin. Get him now.”

He unclips the rope for Sam, lets it drop to the floor, and leads him towards the exit. Sam seems to have remembered the length of his stride and Castiel is forced to hurry to keep up with him. He slaps his hand against the bar of the door and holds it open. Sam rushes through it and nearly runs to the wall on the opposite side of the alleyway.

He drops into a crouch next to the brick wall of the craft shop and for one horrible moment, Castiel is certain that Sam’s about to start banging his head against it. He doesn’t. He turns somewhat and slides down the wall, sitting on the snow dusted concrete, his breath coming out in harsh, rapid little clouds of steam.

Castiel kneels next to him and uncertain of what else he should do, he fusses with Sam’s scarf, pulls it more securely around him and finds the knit hat from his own pocket to put on his head. When that’s done, he reaches out to wipe the tears from Sam’s cheeks, half in wonder, half in sorrow.

“H-hen,” Sam tells him. Castiel utters his own choked sob and finds that the only thing he wants to do, the only thing he can do is put his arms around Sam and hold him very tightly. Sam clutches him back, puts his forehead down on his shoulder as Castiel had done for him so long ago and mumbles against his collarbone. “Thank you. Thank you f-for taking care of me.”

“Oh, Sam.”

Castiel is barely aware of the change in sound from the coffee bar. He holds Sam, marveling in the fact that Sam is awake, that he can talk and think and react without harming himself, and registers that the music has stopped that there’s a thunder of applause from the crowd inside and what sounds like Jolene and Minerva talking to them over the din. He doesn’t hear Dean and assumes that he must be on his way to them, a fact that’s confirmed with the side door slams open and Dean strides through it. Joaquin follows, clutching Dean’s guitar carefully and looking for the first time like he might be afraid of him.

“You!” Dean says, pointing at Cas. “Are one dead mother fucking angel. What in God’s name were you even thinking bringing him here?”

Sam’s grip on him tightens and though he would die for Dean, probably had more than once if he really stopped to think about it, for one heated, irrational moment, Castiel finds that he’s furious with him. All of the yelling and the noise might upset Sam, might destroy the fragile hold he has on reality and Castiel thinks that were he not on his knees holding Sam in the snow that he might get up and punch Dean in the head for being so stupid even though he knows there’s no way that he knows, no way that Joaquin could have really made him understand what was happening.

Sam breaks the brewing cloud by pulling away from Cas, raising his head, and looking up at his brother. “Dean.”

Dean skids to a halt in the snow and stops, so much naked hope on his face that all of the anger drains out of Castiel in an instant and he very nearly has to look away. “Sammy?”

“Yeah,” Sam replies and for a second Dean raises his head, looks up at the cloudy skies as if he can see God somewhere in the murky heavens. Snowflakes melt on his cheeks, stick to his thick eyelashes, and Dean makes a noise that might be a laugh or maybe a sob. “Thank you. You’re still a son of a bitch, but thank you.”

He reaches them in two steps and though it cannot be comfortable on his barely healed leg, Dean drops down in the snow next to them and puts a hand on each of Sam’s cheeks. “Sammy,” he says more certainly and smiles.

Sam offers his own faltering smile in reply. “Hey.”

“Oh, Christ,” Dean utters. He wraps his arms around Sam, holds him so tight that the fists he makes behind Sam’s back are nearly white, but neither of them notice. Dean wavers on his knees, from the cold, the pain, or just in way that perhaps is meant to soothe Sam, Castiel cannot guess. “I knew you’d make it back. I just knew it.”

“I’m-I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

“You saved the world,” Dean tells him. “You saved me and Cas and the whole fucking world, Sammy. You don’t have to be sorry about anything.”

Castiel sees Joaquin waver on his feet, awkward, uncertain, and probably more than a little bit unnerved by so much talk of saving the world now that Dean’s not singing it and he holds out a hand to placate the young man, thinking that he’s probably going to have a lot of explaining to do, thinking that he doesn’t really care what kind of lies or half-truths he’ll have to concoct to tell him because Sam is awake and that makes up for any future difficulties that Castiel thinks that they’ll ever have.

“I’m sorry it took me so long,” Sam tells him. “It was-it was hard to shut out the noise and I’m sorry.”

“Quit that,” Dean says with no force. “I mean it, you don’t have a thing to be sorry about, Sam. I’m just sorry that I couldn’t help more and sorry that I kept feeding you hamburger helper for so long.”

Sam laughs against him, chin on Dean’s shoulder, head next to his, and when he smiles it’s no faltering thing, but a genuine smile the likes of which Castiel hasn’t dared to hope ever see again. Though it’s brief and Sam’s face grows worried as if he’s terrified or in pain, for a small moment, Castiel thinks it so bright that he wonders if this is what it’s like when people claim that something has turned night into day.

“You helped,” Sam says. His smile is gone, his eyes shadowed and haunted, but he clutches his brother and he stays. He remains awake and doesn’t retreat into the prison in his mind. “Both of you helped. I was so… so far down and it was so loud. The screams, their shouting. It was-it was-it was so hard to think, but I knew you were there. I knew it and-and-and…”

“It’s okay, Sammy,” Dean croons to him. “It’s okay now.”

“And it helped,” Sam finishes. “It did. Can we – Dean, can we go now?”

“Sure,” Dean says sitting back on his heels like the action isn’t one that he’s going to pay for later. He wipes surreptitiously at his eyes and grips Sam’s shoulder. “Sure, we can go, Sammy. Anywhere you want.”

“I want to go home,” Sam tells him.

Castiel shifts and looks at Dean, feels a pang as he remembers Dean telling him that the most important thing he could do was look after Sam and make a home for him.

“Home?” Dean asks as if it’s a foreign word.

Sam nods. “Yeah. To the apartment? You and me and Cas… can we go home?”

Dean presses his forehead against Sam’s for a moment, whispers for a second in the secret language that no longer seems strange to Castiel, though he still cannot fathom what it is that he’s saying. Sam’s lips turn upward slightly as if Dean’s doing nothing more than humming him a lullaby and some of the tension drains out of him.

“Of course we can go home,” Dean tells him after a moment. “That’s what it’s there for.”