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How (thanks to Gabriel) Dean and Castiel (accidentally) raised each other (and Sam).

Chapter Text

Castiel has no mother. If one is being precise, he does not truly have a father either. God is beyond gender and while God created Castiel, parenting would be inaccurate description of what followed. Mother and Father were human constructs.

It was of little concern. An angel needed only orders, not care or guidance. He is a good soldier. He has siblings unending, who think much as he does. The world forms slowly, but steadily under God’s attention and his life unspools in easy obedience.

Sometimes Castiel drifts along the shores of the seething oceans and watches. He does not think this unusual though no one walks beside him as they would in Heaven. On one of these walks, a larger presence arrives. It shivers through the thin beam of energy that marks Castiel’s existence.

“And what will you take?” Asks Gabriel.

“Take?” Castiel repeats, confused. He owns nothing, needs nothing. Angels did not ‘take’.

“We are to be guardians of all the world, little one. What would you look after?”

The question confounds him. The world is distant beneath him and unreal.

“What have you chosen?” He asks searching for the first time, but not the last, for guidance.

“What do you want?” Gabriel’s question shifts, but does not relent.

Castiel has never wanted anything. The thought is new and difficult. He looks over the ocean and knows he could not ask for that immense expanse of water. He is small and unremarkable. How could he guard the ocean? Or the thick spread of sand? Surely he is not worthy of the creatures that might someday rise onto the land. Already, his siblings spoke of the Days that had come before and the ones that would follow forever.

The sun rises over the ocean and it’s orange light warms Castiel’s insubstantial self. Gabriel waits quietly next to him, reflecting back the incredible light.

“I like this.” Castiel decides. “This dawn of the Fifth Day.”

“Just dawn?” Gabriel seems amused, a thin trill of laughter humming over the beach. “You are humble, little one. But let’s take a little more shall we? You can be the angel of all fifth days.”

“I do not know-”

“It’s still not very much.” Gabriel assures him. “Now come closer and I will mark you as such for all to know.”

Castiel comes closer. He does not often commune with other angels. For the first time, he wonders if that is a bad thing. A wrong thing. He has never yet been wrong. No one has yet been wrong. Everything is still too new for sin.

“Castiel, as I am a messenger of God,” Gabriel intoned and then the beach shook with a sonic boom the likes of which the world had not yet heard before.

They say you see your life flash before your eyes when you die. That’s humans. Mortals with their whisper-thin slice of vision, their tiny perception of the vast unknowable world. Gabriel had lived too long to revisit his past as he lay dying. Instead, his mind travelled forward, secrets like salt soaked knots in his head finally unraveled.

The Winchesters would win. Gabriel mourned as Lucifer and Michael tumbled headlong into the pit just as he rejoiced in Kali’s triumphant song as they went. She watched it all, silent and terrible, from a safe distance. The other gods, the ones remaining, spilled back over the world.

He went further still, following a line that burned most brightly for him. He saw the coming of the new king of hell and Castiel’s losing war. He saw the failure and the attempts at redemption. He saw the Winchesters, bleeding and dying by degrees from the inside out. He saw the ascension of Sam and the diminishment of Dean. He saw Castiel, always Castiel and his terrible, inhuman mind.

Gabriel saw and he bled onto the cold floor and he lingered in the edges of a DVD. Time, he thought, was such a malleable thing. And he had just enough grace left to play one last trick. One last attempt at justice. One last chance to not die on a hotel floor as pointless as a third thumb and not nearly as funny.

Time travel was never pleasant even at the best of times. And he had to go back, almost to the very beginning. He pushed his consciousness to the limits, the last fleeting tatters of his grace fueling his last mission.

There is a thing on the beach. A curious peach and red and gold and white thing.

“What is it?” Castiel asks, reaching out a tendril of curiosity towards it. It answers, in a painful tiny way, as an angel would.

“It is me.” Gabriel says and he sounds surprised. “From many many years from now. Why would you come here?”

“Let me bestow the blessing to Castiel.” The old Gabriel in his limited form gasps. “Please.”

Castiel cannot imagine why anyone would travel backwards through time for this, but he knows that Gabriel is wise and must only have become wiser as time continues. He does not wait for the current Gabriel to object. Time passes too quickly and this older Gabriel reeks of ending.

“I would be honored.” Castiel says and approaches.

“As I am a messenger of God,” the old Gabriel says and his voice is not like an angel’s voice, but a tired worn thread of a thing. Yet God still must speak through him because it feels no less powerful than it had the first time the words were spoken, “I decree that Castiel is to be the angel of all Thursdays and of Dean Winchester.”

Then what had once been a form of Gabriel toppled to the white sand and was inhabited no more.

“What is a Dean Winchester?” Castiel asks the Gabriel that remains.

“I have no idea.” Gabriel hovers uncertainly around the body, eventually gathering it up and then dispersing it into dust among the sand. “We should not speak of this yet. Let me make inquiries.”

Castiel agrees. He never hears from Gabriel again. Two fathomless and long days (eons) pass, one of great excitement for the birth of all mankind, then another of perfect rest. And on the eighth day, the brightest, most gracious and true angel took up his sword against the Host of Heaven and the war began. They all have more important things to do than wonder about a time traveler dead on a forgotten beach.

Chapter Text

Castiel liked Thursdays, when he could take the time to notice them. All too often his duties as a soldier preceded all others. Other angels didn’t seem to care much for the things they had chosen before the war. The few that showed active interest were generally thought of as ‘eccentric’ and therefore, suspicious. Lucifer had been different, after all, and look what had happened to him.

So Castiel didn’t talk about Thursdays. He counted out the days and on the fifth one, he tried to watch the sunrise and if that wasn’t possible, a sunset or two. No one prayed to him. Sometimes a cry would rise out for Thor (who had given his name to the day quite late in the game, but Casday would sound ridiculous, so he had made his peace with it). Castiel would hear a dim reflection of those bloody pleas. He ignored them. There were wars to wage and orders to follow. He had no time to answer a prayer not even directed at him.

It was in the middle of an ugly battle, demons rising up against the Host where they would reconsecrate a swath of holy ground. It had been a church once, but their battle had leveled it. That they had ruined the very thing they had set out to protect did not seem to trouble either side. Castiel liked the stain glass windows though they were shattered. As he sliced into the dark smoke of a demon, he admired the glint of the sun against a dark green sliver.

Oh angels, keep watch over my son!

The words reverberated through Castiel and he almost took a vicious bite in his distraction. A woman had called to him. Maybe she did not know his name, but her prayer was directed to him as surely as an arrow found it’s target.

For the first time in many years, he thought of a dying vessel on the beach. He had written off the words as senseless. Even when it became clear that words conflated to a Western naming system among humans, he didn’t trouble himself with discovering the exact dimensions of their meaning. He was a warrior first and already strange enough in his interest for his other charge.

“Careful!” His sister yelled and he rededicated himself to the fight.

The next time he heard the woman’s voice, it carried with it no words. Only one long helpless scream of the dying and an anguished, soundless plea. It twisted at him and he could not ignore it this time. There was no other business. The rest of his garrison waited in the silence of a temporary ceasefire for orders from on high.

He hesitated for only an instant, before taking flight. He followed the woman’s death knell across the oceans and over the land he knew to be called America. It took him only an instant, but in that flicker of time the scream had ceased. Below him a house raged in flames. A child emerged from the door smoke-smeared and weeping.

“It’s going to be ok, Sammy.” The child said in a daze, rocking the bundle in his arm. “We’re gonna go be, ok.”

Castiel watched for a long time. He could not look away. Not even when a man stumbled out of the fire and swept the child and his burden further away. In the distance sirens wailed, lights flashing.

“What’s your name, son?” A firefighter asked though as far as Castiel could tell the boy’s father was the one who had come from the house and was now in the back of an ambulance.

“Dean.” The boy said, eyes wary.

Castiel had no blood to run cold or skin to prickle or stomach to curdle. He could only vibrate on a different, higher wavelength, radiating unhappiness at the revelation. That was why the boy’s mother could reach him with her prayers. It had been a general call, but Castiel was marked for this child. And he had already failed him, very badly.

“And who’s that?” The fireman reached out, tugging at the bundle. A small face was tucked inside. A smaller child. A baby.

“My brother.” Dean took a step away.

“You got him out? What a brave kid!” The firefighter smiled at him. “You know the doctors just want to take a quick look at both of you. Make sure you didn’t get smoke in your lungs.”

“I’m ok.” Dean hunched over the bundle, making himself even smaller.

“It’ll only be a minute...”

There was little Castiel could do like this, but he could reach out and nudge a thought into the firefighter’s head. The man frowned, then shrugged and walked off to leave the boy to his grief. The boy’s father emerged from the ambulance eventually and he put his hand to the back of the boy’s neck and guided him into a black car.

Castiel fixed the the boy, his brother, his father and the car in his mind. He set his mark on them and watched the car pull away. He could find them all now, no matter where they went. There were a few things he had to think about.

“You look troubled.” Balthazar slid around Castiel hours later. It was a Thursday on top of this tall mountain with the world tucked into a white blanket of snow underneath.

“I am.” Castiel frowned. “What are you the angel of?”

“Nothing.” Balthazar didn’t seem upset about it. “They stopped handing out those titles before they got to me. Why?”

“We were told to be guardians before we became soldiers. Do you ever think that we weren’t supposed to give up one for the other? What if we were meant to do them at the same time?”

“Soldiers are a kind of guardian.”

“I cannot protect Thursday with a sword.”

“How do you protect a day anyway?” Balthazar chided him. “It’s a silly concept.”

“Humans think we’re meant to be guarding them.”

“And that’s why the crawl over the surface of the earth like worthless vermin and we aspire to better things.”

“God loves them. Better than us.” Castiel reminded him. “He doesn’t think they’re vermin.”

“Yeah? Well. Maybe He doesn’t know what He made.”

It was the most blasphemous thing an angel had ever said in Castiel’s hearing. There was some irony that it was defiance of such a blasphemy that set him all unknowing onto the path to rebellion.

“You’re wrong.” He told Balthazar. “Father does nothing without a reason.”

Which meant there was a reason why Gabriel had used his dying strength to make Castiel a guardian of one lone human among the legions of them and a reason that the boy’s mother had called for him in the end. It was all a part of God’s plan. Castiel was good at following plans.

“What brought all this up then?” Balthazar asked casually.

“I have had a conflict of interests. It is resolved now.”

A human lifespan was not very long. A flash compared to the long stretch of an angelic one. Castiel could carry out his guardianship for as long at the human lived. It would not be a great hardship though he would have to be careful about it.

Many angels took vessels now, using them as careless suits to compete with the demons who were slowly putting down stakes in human realm. It would not be unusual for him to take up such a body even if not expressly commanded to do so.

There was one in the bloodline of vessels, who even now called out for salvation. He was young, only a year or two older than Castiel’s charge. In a white hospital bed, the boy choked on a ventilator and his troubled heart seized.

“Jimmy?” The teenager in the next bed sat up, IV tugging at his arm. “You ok, man?”

The boy’s breathing stuttered and alarms went off. The sound went unheard, most of the staff already piled into another room with another code.

“Just hold on!” The teenager slipped from the blankets, tugging out his IV. “There’s more things coming for you, kid. You can’t go now.”

He got a doctor’s attention just in time. They stabilized Jimmy and the next day he had the operation that would ensure there would be no recurrences.

“You’re a hero.” Jimmy’s mother gushed over the gangly kid, pulling him into a rough hug. “What’s your name?”

“Chuck.” He grinned and ducked his head. “And it was nothing, m’am.”

The bed next to Jimmy was unoccupied when Castiel appeared before him. Alone, Jimmy saw the unfolding grace of the angel and was awed.

“I’m dying.” He told Castiel and reached out.

“If I take you then you will never die, but you will not truly be alive either.” Castiel took his small hands. “It is not small task, James Novak. You will sleep in the back of my mind and your dreams may be troubled.”

“I don’t wanna die.” Jimmy pleaded. “Please.”

“Then say yes.”

No one saw Jimmy walk out of the ward, clad only in a hospital gown and the still expression of an angel. His face was plastered over every newspaper in the tri-state area, but Castiel had already taken the fragile body far beyond such arbitrary lines. The boy that couldn’t run, now flew.

The first time Castiel appeared to Dean Winchester it was in his dreams. It seemed wise to approach with care. The boy dreamed of the fire that had taken his mother, fear saturating every inch of the ethereal house.

“Hello.” Castiel landed next to Dean.

“Who’re you?” Dean demanded, whirling around. “You’re not supposed to be here.”

“My name is Castiel and I’m an Angel of the Lord.” He declared.

“Yeah?” Dean snorted. “You don’t look like an angel.”

“If I appeared before you in my true form it would burn out your eyes.”

“Oh.” Dean considered this. “What you want?”

“To look after you.”

“Don’t need anybody to look after me. I got my Dad.”

“He isn’t here.” Castiel searched outside the dream. Dean was sleeping in a wide bed, curved around the blanket wrapped bundle of his brother. No one else was in the room and the black car wasn’t outside.

“He’ll be back.” Dean said firmly. “He had to talk to someone, but he’ll be back soon. Ok?”

“I will just stay until he returns then.” Castiel said firmly. “Outside of this house.”

“...ok.”

They walked into the backyard where it was day time. After some deliberation, Dean sat down in the middle of it.

“If you’re an angel, why do you look like a little kid?”

“This was the only body available to me.” He sat down next to Dean and shifted a little. The grass pricked at the back of his exposed legs, the sensation was new and fascinating. “What are you doing?”

Dean had plucked a blade of grass and brought it to his lips. He grinned at Castiel then pursed his lips and blew. A piercing whistling noise went through the sliver of green.

“Isn’t it cool?”

“It’s a dream. There is no temperature.” Castiel pointed out.

“No like cool. Awesome? Really neat?” Dean shrugged. “Want to learn how?”

Castiel didn’t really, but there was little else to do in the dream and he already felt as if he had started this the wrong way. Maybe he should not have revealed himself at all. Maybe he should not have undertaken this venture at all.

“Like this.” Dean plucked another piece of grass and put it into Castiel’s hand, then sliced a little divide in it with his fingernail. “Now blow.”

Castiel blew. The grass shivered in his hand and the noise split the air. The sound was too loud and not at all beautiful, but Dean was smiling and patting Castiel on the shoulder.

“Was that correct?”

“Yeah! Really loud.”

“Your father has returned.” Castiel told him. “I will go.”

“You gonna come back?” Dean clamored to his feet and looked over the field as if his father would appear there. In the outside world, the door to the room opened and closed. Already the dream landscape was fracturing with Dean’s slow return to wakefulness.

“Yes. I will check on you often. But if you require me, you need only to pray.”

“How about I just whistle?” Dean asked with a laugh and the meadow disappeared with the rise of his eyelid.

Chapter Text

The first time Castiel appeared before Dean outside of dreams, he hadn’t intended it. He had been walking the boundaries of Dean’s subconscious and claiming territory. It was a limited protection, but he was glad to offer it once he realized it was needed.

Walking into Dean’s dreams was like diving under water. Castiel always felt the shock of a world unlike his own. The colors tended toward the supersaturated and there were things hiding on the periphery of every joyful moment. Dean never referenced them or so much as glanced over his shoulder, but the tight hunch of his shoulders made it clear he was aware of them.

“What are they?” He finally asked, one quiet midnight dream that set them beside a river.

“What are what?” Dean glanced up from where he was building an elaborate fort of sticks and rocks that would have collapsed under the rules of physics.

“The things in the dark.”

“Oh.” Dean shrugged. “Monsters. Just ignore them.”

“Monsters.” Castiel looked out into the dark of the trees and thought he spied a flash of yellow eyes.

“Don’t be scared.” Dean half-reassured, half-scoffed. “You’re not alone or anything. And I know how to take care of them.”

Dean mimed shooting into the dark and the yellow eyes darted off. He turned to Castiel with a smile. Castiel nodded in return, but he was not reassured. Too frequently Dean was alone in the wilds of his mind. What came for him then?

After that Castiel made a point of appearing in Dean’s dreams on a more regular basis. Sometimes he did not have time to linger, but he could walk the edges and keep the things at bay. Dean’s sleeping mind gave into his persuasions. Monsters did not dare challenge what belonged to him. Not when Dean had such faith in him.

There was nothing significant that night. Dean was dreaming of running down a paved street. He wasn’t being chased just enjoying the raw animal joy of his body. Castiel was aware of him just as he might be aware of his own borrowed limbs. He tasted the goodness of the dream on his tongue.

When it dissolved around him, Castiel staggered and had to pull himself out of Dean’s mind rapidly. He spread his senses, trying to determine what might have woken Dean. The boy had been sleeping on a saggy queen size bed in a room that smelled of cigarette smoke. Sam slept beside him, too delicate and small to really safely be out of a crib.

“It’s ok, Sammy.” Dean was murmuring, awake now and clinging a little to his brother.

Sam let out a soft whimper, plagued by some small nightmare. This was what had jarred Dean from sleep. Castiel relaxed his guard, letting his hand drop from the hilt of his sword.

“It is only a dream.” He said.

“He’s scared.” Dean said stubbornly. Then the boy froze and turned to stare at him. “You.”

“Hello, Dean.” He could not remember choosing to manifest. The thought bothered him, tickled at the back of his brain.

“You’re a dream.” Dean said firmly, eyes narrowing.

“I am very real.”

“Are you gonna kill us?”

“No.” Castiel frowned as he had seen Dean frown, confusion the first emotion he had learned to mimic with human facial expressions. Dean was often confused though he did not like to show it. “I have told you before. I am here to guard you.”

“Because you’re an angel of the Lord.” Dean snorted, his body turned carefully until it was a barrier between Castiel and Sam.

“Yes.”

“You scare off the monsters.”

Castiel hadn’t thought Dean was aware of that. He wondered how the boy could tell.

“Yes.” He said again. “They will not bother you.”

“Can you make Sam’s nightmares stop too?” As if on queue, Sam whimpered again and Dean turned to stroke a hand over Sam’s forehead. “They make him cranky in the morning.”

“I cannot be in both your minds at once.”

“I don’t mind having nightmares.” Dean said immediately. “I can take ‘em. Sammy can’t.”

“There is something I can do.” Castiel decided. “Close your eyes.”

It wasn’t hard to draw them into the same dream. He let Dean’s more familiar mind serve as host and Sam’s went gently into it as if it already knew the way. The scenery resolved into some kind of frankenstiened treehouse, stretching through the broad branches of an impossibly large oak.

“Like this.” Dean was demonstrating how to put two Legos together for Sam, building a little wall from the generous pile beside him.

“Dis.” Sam repeated, taking a block from Dean’s fingers and staring hard at them.

“What will you build?” Castiel asked, hanging back.

“Whatever we want. It’s a dream, right?” Dean patted the wood boards next to him. “Sit.”

Castiel sat, bending his legs as Dean did and taking the handful of plastic blocks that Dean handed to him.

“Hello, Sam.” Castiel said gravely when bright eyes landed on his face.

“Cas.” Sam said decidedly, then whacked one block against the floor with a laugh.

“He knows me.” Castiel stared, taken by this small miracle.

“I told him about you.” Dean shrugged and started on a second wall, interlocking it with the first. “He likes stories and dreams are like stories, right?”

“Dean.” Sam said with sunny smile. “Daddy. Bobby. Cas.”

“Show off.” Dean laughed. “He’s smart, huh?”

“Yes.” Castiel interlocked two bricks and added them to Dean’s wall. “He has a good teacher.”

“Lego!” Sam crowed and threw a handful into the air.

As in the nature of dreams, the blocks didn’t descend right away. They hung in the air like butterflies.

“Can we do this every night?” Dean asked, plucking blocks from the air with a laugh. “Can we, Cas?”

It appeared that being the angel of Dean Winchester, meant that he must also be the angel of Samuel Winchester. Dean would not allow it any other way.

“Every night that I can.” He promised. After all, how much more trouble could a second charge be?

Chapter Text

“Um.” The sound echoed through Castiel’s mind. He was receiving orders, listening intently until the disruption. “Castiel, this is Dean. You said I should just pray if I needed you. Uh. So I’m praying, ok?”

“Castiel?” Uriel stared at him.

“I understand.” He said gravely. “All will be as He would wish.”

“Good.” The suspicion did not immediately clear from Uriel’s face. Castiel stood impassively under his gaze until at last it gave way to annoyance. “Fine. Go on then.”

He took wing. The orders were not time sensitive, but Dean’s prayer might be. Time management was a new skill for him, but Castiel thought he had picked up on it rather quickly. The Winchesters were currently in Colorado, the apartment building they currently resided in buried in snow.

“Dean.” Castiel said softly as he landed. The boys were both seated on the couch, tucked in one thick blanket.

“Cas!” Dean’s eyes widened. “You came.”

“I told you that I would.” He approached slowly. “Why did you call?”

“Here, Sammy.” Dean handed his brother a plastic phone and let him dial at it. When Sam was thoroughly distracted, Dean whispered, “It’s Dad. He was supposed to check in two days ago.”

“Ah.” Castiel closed his eyes and reached out. Of the three Winchesters, his sense of John was the weakest. After one or two close calls, Dean had ruled that Castiel shouldn’t make himself known to John. Without more prolonged contact, Castiel had had a hard time getting a fix on the man. “I can locate him.”

“Just make sure he’s ok?” Dean’s smile was weaker than usual, his eyes tight.

“I will return shortly.”

He located John in a cabin miles away from the apartment. He must have been attempting to root out some beast or another and been snowed in by the storm. Castiel stood at the foot of the bed where John sat, journal over his knees and a frown on his face.

Castiel did not show himself. He did not speak. But he did watch and tried to unravel this puzzle of a man. Rage curled like a serpent around John Winchester’s soul, a thick ugly glutton that bit into the remains of what made him moral and good. Castiel wondered if he could exorcise that anger like a demon. Probably not. And John would not thank him anyway, if he did. John required his rage to survive.

“He is trapped by the snowstorm.” Castiel stood before the sofa once more. “He is unharmed.”

“Thanks.” Dean breathed out slowly.

“You are welcome.”

“Hey, Cas?” Dean asked before he could leave.

“Yes?”

“Why do you wear those hospital clothes all the time?”

“They were what this vessel was wearing.” He didn’t think about Jimmy much anymore though the boy slumbered on in some form.

“What if you want to go to the store or something? Can’t do that in hospital clothes.”

“I have no need of any store.”

“Well, what if we need you while we’re in one?” Dean challenged. “Someone might think you’re sick or something.”

Apparently this mattered to Dean though Castiel could not determine why. He could choose to appear as he wished.

“What would be more appropriate?” He asked.

“I dunno. Jeans and a t-shirt or something.” Dean got to his feet and started rooting through a duffel bag. “Dad always saves my old stuff so Sammy can have it. Bet it’ll fit you.”

“I do not require clothing.” Castiel said firmly.

“So?” Dean shoved a pair of jeans, a long sleeved black shirt and a white t-shirt into Castiel’s hands. They smelled like Dean usually did: motor oil and grass. The jeans were torn on one knee, but they did fit around Jimmy’s waist and the shirts settled easily over his shoulders.

“Is this preferable?” He didn’t feel much different, but Dean seemed pleased.

“Dunno. You still look kind of cold.”

“I don’t feel the cold.”

“But other people don’t know that.” Dean reasoned. He went back into the bag, digging through until he found a zippered sweatshirt with a hood. It had probably been brown once, but time and too many washes had left it a faded tan. “There.”

Obligingly, Castiel put on the sweatshirt. Inexplicably, he did feel a little warmer. Dean pulled him down onto the sofa, scooting Sammy around until the toddler was balanced on Castiel’s lap and the blanket covered the three of them.

“I was gonna read something to him.” Dean gestured at Sam who was leaning quite contentedly against Castiel’s chest. Castiel was all too aware of how fragile Sam was, how close to the skin his veins and bones lay. How easy it was for all this to shatter. He put a tentative arm around Sam, dragging him closer and farther away from the edge of the sofa. “Maybe you could?”

“Could what?”

Dean shoved a battered picture book into Castiel’s hands.

“Read.” He demanded though he looked unsure if the command would be followed.

“Corduroy.” He looked at the cover. “I am not familiar with this work.”

“Figures.” Dean rolled his eyes. “You will be if you read it.”

“Bear.” Sam said definitively.

“Indeed.” Castiel opened the book and read, “Corduroy is a bear who once lived in a department store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for someone to come along and take him home. Dean. If he is a stuffed bear, he cannot have such thoughts.”

“It’s make believe.” Dean shook his head. “It’s just a story.”

Castiel frowned down at the book, but he obligingly turned the page though he had to hold the book higher out of Sam’s reach as the toddler kept grabbing for the fragile pages. He found himself absorbed in the simple story as the bear trekked through the dark department store looking for his lost button.

“The little girl was very wise.” He commented when he had finished reading.

But there was no one to listen to him. Both boys had fallen asleep, Sam’s head resting against Castiel’s chest and Dean’s pillowed on his thigh. There were things Castiel had to do, but they could wait a few more hours. He held his body still and thought about the little bear with his missing button.

Chapter Text

Dean was ill. He curled like comma around a pillow and Castiel stood uneasily at the foot of his bed. The house settled around him, creaking and groaning. Somewhere in its bowels John and Bobby were arguing. Castiel did not bother to pay them any mind.

“Is he gonna be ok?” Sam asked, touching Castiel’s hand lightly with his own.

“All will be well.” Castiel reached out to take Sam’s hand in his own as he had seen Dean do many times. Sam did not pull away. His hand fit neatly into Castiel’s.

“Bobby says Dad should take him to the doctor.”

The argument downstairs ceased as a door slammed shut, shaking the walls. The Impala roared to life outside. Sam leaned against Castiel’s leg, eyelids half-lowered.

“It is only a passing sickness.” Castiel could see the sluggish wrongness in Dean’s body, the virus extending itself where it was not wanted. He reached out and touched the exposed arch of Dean’s foot and drew out the worst of it. It was possible to heal it all at once, but surely that would raise some questions.

“I gotta sleep downstairs.” Sam said mournfully, oblivious to the tiny miracle. “Bobby says I might get sick too.”

“Bobby is correct.”

“But what if he needs me?”

“I will stay with him.”

“The whole night?” Sam only half-asked. The rest was demand.

“Yes. Now get to where you are meant to be before Bobby comes looking for you.”

Sam threw his arms around Castiel’s waist hugging him for a brief moment, then detached and ran down the stairs. Cautiously, Castiel kept an ear out for him, but Sam did as he had been told. He was sleeping on the couch within minutes.

Castiel stood at the edge of the bed, watching Dean’s fever break. The line of his body eased a little and he stopped shaking. Just as the sun came up, his eyes slit open.

“Cas?” He rasped.

“Dean.”

“Can I have some water?”

There was a half-filled glass on the bedside table. Castiel picked it up and pressed it into Dean’s hand. He sat up enough to take a few careful sips then gave it back.

“How long have you been ill?”

“Dunno.” Dean sank back down. “I just started getting sleepy in Des Moine. Slept the whole way here. Sammy, ok?”

“Yes. Bobby requested he sleep downstairs to prevent the spreading of the virus.”

“Good. Don’t want him to get sick.” Dean coughed once pitifully.

“Is there anything else I can get you?”

Dean went quiet and for a moment, Castiel wondered if he had fallen asleep again.

“Can you sit with me?” Dean finally asked, shame in his voice. “Just for a little while.”

“I can.” He sat down on the edge of the bed. After some consideration, he moved closer until Dean could set his head on Castiel’s thigh. It was a position they wound up in often.

“Mom used to stroke my hair.” Dean pulled the blanket further up.

“Like this?” Gingerly, Castiel ran his fingers over Dean’s scalp.

“Yeah.” Dean coughed again and scooted a little closer. Castiel could feel the still too high heat radiating off of Dean’s skin. “Cas?”

“Dean.”

“Do a lot of people have angels? Or is it just us?”

“I do not know.” Castiel liked the prickle of Dean’s hair against his palm. “We have our orders. We rarely speak of anything outside of them.”

“Sounds boring.”

“I do not become bored.”

“But it’s more fun being with me and Sammy, right?” Dean challenged.

“Not right now. You are very stationary at the moment.”

“Shut up.” Dean grumped, but Castiel could see the smile hiding there.

“Go back to sleep. You will feel better for it.”

The fever abated and Dean slept on. Bobby came in to check on him an hour or so later. Castiel manifested in the living room. Sam was already awake, a bowl of cereal in his lap.

“I must go.” Castiel informed him.

He used to just leave, but Dean had informed him that that was rude. Sam’s hair was mussed from sleep. Castiel reached forward and ran his fingers through it. It was softer than Dean’s and a little thicker. Sam submitted to the grooming with a wrinkled nose and a little squirming.

“You had knots.” He explained.

“Thanks.” Sam smiled. “See you later, Cas.”

“Goodbye.”

Zachariah was giving a speech when Castiel got back. It was about duty and loyalty and strategy.

It was very boring.

Afterwards, Rachel pulled him aside. She had a vessel these days, all trim lines and prim suit. It suited her and he said as much.

“Thank you.” The edges of her borrowed lips twitched, but it was hard to say if she was attempting a frown or a smile. “Are you aware that yours is changing?”

“Vessels do not change.”

“Yours has. It grows.”

There were mirrors in heaven if you knew where to look. He stood in front of an old oak framed glass in the bedroom of a middle aged woman. Her heaven was perpetually July and the croaks of insects filled the air. She was outside at the moment, weeding her garden by candlelight.

Jimmy Novak’s body reflected back at him. It was definitely taller, gangly almost. The clothes that Dean had given him had shifted to accommodate the growth, pants longer and the sweatshirt settled more firmly over his shoulders.

“Father.” Castiel said, pointlessly. He was unsure if it was a prayer or a question. Perhaps neither. Or both.

Chapter Text

Normally, Castiel stayed away on holidays. The boys never prayed to him then and John or Bobby or Pastor Jim were generally present. Angels didn’t celebrate holidays anyway as Dean had explained roughly to Sam that Thanksgiving.

“Not even Christmas?” Sam had frowned. “But we put angels on the tops of trees.”

“Not Cas.” Dean said, glancing over at him. “I don’t think he’d like that.”

“It’s hard to settle at the top of a pine, but I have been known to take watch creation from an oak or maple.” Cas confessed. “I’m not certain why a pine is used in any case. It should more rightly be an olive tree. I believe it was integrated into the day as the Church converted Germanic clans.”

“Oh.” This bit of speculation wrinkled up Sam’s brow. “So... no Christmas in Heaven?”

“For humans.” Castiel assured him. “But not the angels. We celebrate our Father’s creation every day.”

“But do you get presents?” Sam challenged.

“We require nothing.” He said gently.

That seemed to settle the theological debate. Castiel spent Christmas Eve in Israel with Balthazar. They were not celebrating. Something had attacked archaeologists at the Wailing Wall and left behind runes not seen in centuries. They traced down the lumbering hellbeast and slayed it on the banks of the Dead Sea.

“You can’t swim here.” Balthazar told him as they washed their blades in the oily water. “If you try you just bob up like a cork. All the minerals in the water.”

“Our Father made many wondrous things.”

“So he did.” Balthazar flicked the last of the water from his vessel’s hands. “Sometimes though, you have to wonder why?”

Castiel thought of Dean and Sam jumping into a hotel pool, splashing and happy as they ever were. He had sat on the edge,pants rolled up and legs dangling in. When Sam got tired, he swam up to him and wrapped himself monkey-like around Castiel’s calf. He stayed there watching Dean take dive after dive, a small blur of pink and black under the water.

“No.” Castiel sheathed his blade. “I think I understand.”

Christmas Day dawned crisply and with a flurry of undecided snowflakes in Tennessee. Castiel spread his awareness to the boys. They were alone, the Impala far enough away to be indistinct. Bemused, he manifested.

“Merry Christmas!” Sam greeted, but his usual energy wasn’t there.

“Cas.” Dean sat on one of the beds, legs folded up underneath him and a blinding power around his neck.

“Dean.” He greeted, crossing to his side immediately. “What is this?”

“Sammy gave it to me.” Dean reached up, wrapping a hand around the amulet. “Christmas present.”

“Dean got me girls toys.” Sam put in, joining Dean on the bed and leaning into him without even trying to bounce on the bed.

“Shut up.” Dean chided, but he put his arm around Sam’s shoulders.

“Where did you get such a thing?”

“Bobby gave it to me.” Sam shrugged.

Bobby could not have known the worth of it, but it had wound up in the securest place Castiel could think of. And perhaps one day it would glow before all of them. It was something to pray for.

“I like it.” Dean said defensively.

“So do I.” Hesitantly, Castiel sat on Dean’s otherside. “What grieves you?”

Dean looked at Sam and Sam looked at the floor.

“I read Dad’s journal.” Sam confessed, misery soaking every inch of him. “I know about the hunting and everything. The monsters.”

“It could not remain hidden forever.”

The loss of innocence had played out in front of him many times, but never had Castiel felt it so acutely. Dean and John had worked hard to keep Sam safe from the darkness even as it encroached upon them.

“You’re not one of them.” Sam said firmly, but there was a question in his eyes and that hurt too. Castiel didn’t know what to do with that kind of pain. It settled uneasily in the pit of his vessel’s stomach.

“No.” He said firmly and Dean echoed it. “I’m an angel of the Lord just as I’ve always told you.”

“Ok.” Sam stared at him as if seeing him afresh.

“I have been charged with your protection.” He said, wanting to be absolutely clear. “I watch over you as best I can.”

“See?” Dean nudged Sam. “Between me, Dad and the angel? We’ve got you covered.”

“I’m not afraid.” Sam rolled his eyes. “I was just checking.”

They spent the rest of Christmas outside in the scant snow, scraping together snowballs to throw at each other and building miniature snowmen. Castiel watched them rampaging while snow gathered in his hair.

“You look ridiculous.” Dean brushed the snow off the tan sweatshirt’s shoulders. The amulet shone at the hollow of Dean’s throat where his jacket gaped open. Castiel pressed his hand over it, one of the horns biting into his palm.

“Take good care of this.”

“Yeah, of course.” Dean said absently. He flicked the snow off his fingers just as Balthazar had cast away the drops of the oversalted ocean.

Dean’s birthday fell on Thursday that year. When the entirety of the household was asleep, Castiel manifested at Dean’s bedside. He slipped one black feather next to the knife that Dean kept sharp under his pillow. He knew that Dean kept it tucked in his duffel bag because all of Dean’s clothes smelled like Castiel. It pleased him.

“Can I have one for my birthday?” Sam asked when Dean was out of earshot.

“It is difficult for me to shed them.” Castiel set a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “I will give you something else suitable.”

After all, it had been Sam left without an actual Christmas present. Castiel had never given much thought to gifts. To needs. To wants. But he thought he could understand a little of what his two charges might crave. He took what he needed easily enough.

“Look, look!” Sam crawled all over Dean once he had wrested his prize from under the pillow.

“It’s a notebook.” Dean grumbled. “M’tryin’ to sleep.”

“It’s got stuff in it.” Sam corrected. “Look.”

He opened the page to reveal the runes that Castiel had inscribed along with their meanings.

“What is that?” Dean rubbed at his eyes. “Latin?”

“Enochian.” Castiel sat at the edge of the bed. Neither boy startled and he wondered if they could sense his presence. “The language of angels. You must not show this to anyone.”

“Not even Dad?” Sam hugged the book to his chest, still smiling.

“Not even your father. As long as you keep it hidden, I will teach you the meanings.”

“So I can speak angel?”

“Your vocal chords will not accommodate the language, but reading it is far more important.”

“You sure that’s a good idea?” Dean asked, he was eying the notebook as if it might explode.

“No.” Castiel smiled slightly. “But I am doing it anyway.”

Chapter Text

The shtriga came for Sam while Dean was out. Castiel laid hands on the beast and watched it explode in a shower of sparks.

“What was that?” Sam asked blurry.

“Go back to sleep.” Castiel touched his forehead.

“Layala tavcha.” Sam said. His attempts at spoken Enochian tended to sound a bit like Hebrew with the accent of a fifteenth century Portuguese sailor. No other angel in creation would have understood him.

“Good night.” Castiel responded and stayed at the foot of Sam’s bed until Dean returned.

“Cas.” Dean frowned. “What’s wrong?”

“The shtriga was here.” He toed the ashy remains. “I took care of it. Sam is fine.”

“Shit.” Dean ran to the bed, checked Sam over himself with ghosting hands so as not to wake him. “He’s really ok?”

“Yes.” Castiel put a hand on Dean’s arm. “All is well.”

“You’re the best damn babysitter in the world.” Dean decreed.

“I did not sit on him.” Castiel said, mostly because it made Dean smile.

“I’ll have to tell Dad it’s dead. He’s out hunting it now.”

“Consecrated metal generally kills them.” Castiel offered.

“Would my knife work?”

“Yes. Pastor Jim blessed it once. That would be sufficient.”

“Ok. Sorry to take credit for your kill.”

“It doesn’t matter. Did you enjoy the arcade?”

“Nah.” Dean rubbed a hand over his eyes. “Just needed to get out. Thanks for coming down. I know you’ve got more important things to do.”

Castiel ran the toe of his sneaker through the dust of the shtriga.

“No.” He said firmly. “I don’t.”

Chapter Text

“It’s not fair!” Sam lashed out at the garbage can, sending it skittering across the parking lot.

Dean stood motionless only a few feet away, his arms crossed over his chest and eyes hard.

“There’s no such thing as fair, ok?” He said calmly.

“I just want to be normal!”

Sam wasn’t very large, but for the past two years John had been training him just as he had Dean. Already, he was far stronger than an average ten year old. The next thing he kicked was a stone. It was clear he’d meant it to follow the garbage can, but it flew wild and would having clipped the side of Dean’s shoulder if Castiel hadn’t caught it and tossed it harmlessly to the ground.

“Cas, talk some sense into him.” Dean decreed then walked away in disgust.

“Yes, Dean.” Castiel shook his head and turned to Sam, head tilted in silent inquiry.

“We’re moving again.” Sam groused, shoving his hands into his pocket. The coat no longer fits him, riding up to expose slender wrists. “I hate it. I was just starting to make friends and then bam! Off again.”

“It is the nature of your father’s profession.”

“Yeah, exactly! Him and Dean! No one asks me what I want.”

“Dean does, quite frequently. It is not his fault that he cannot change your father.” Castiel met Sam’s furious stare with his own. “Perhaps we can find a compromise.”

“What kind of compromise?”

Castiel laid the idea out for Dean, watching the still expression on the boy’s face. He no longer truly looked like a child. The last of Dean’s baby fat had departed, leaving behind a strong jawline and broader shoulders. Like Sam, he had started to outgrow his clothes. Castiel’s vessel had stretched as well, though as always his clothing shifted with the change. The body seemed spindlier than Dean’s, all odd ends and angles instead of muscle and sinew.

“So it’s like...commuting.” Dean finally said.

“Yeah.” Sam said softly. “Just like that.”

“And you’re ok with being his taxi?” Dean frowned. “What about when you’re busy?”

“It’s the work of seconds.” Castiel shrugged. He’d tried Sam’s whole body shrug and then Dean’s barely there gesture, but ultimately found one that was something in between that suited him. “It will be more troublesome for you to keep up the charade with your father.”

“That’s easy.” Dean snorted. “He doesn’t check Sam’s homework or anything. I usually register us at new schools now. Dad just signs the paperwork...it’s doable.”

“So can I?” Sam was all large eyes and sincere mouth. Castiel filed the expression away.

“....yeah.” Dean sighed. “It’s a really shitty idea and you’re a huge nerd for wanting it, but...yeah.”

“You’re the best!” Sam threw himself at Dean, knocking them both to the floor in playful affection. They rolled over Castiel’s feet, then dragged him down into battle.

It took two weeks before everything was in place. Sam’s current school wouldn’t do as his withdrawal papers had already been turned in. After some discussion, it was determined (by Dean) that a city school would be best so Sam could disappear in the crowds. It was decided (by Sam) that it should be in a really good district that had a soccer team. In the end, they settled on a mid sized school in a large suburb of Chicago. Castiel showed up on crisp October morning to meet Sam with his backpack a block away from their current hotel.

“Ready.” Sam grinned at him.

“What do you do if you get in trouble?” Dean prompted, glowering. His own backpack hung precariously from one shoulder.

“Pray to Cas.” Sam said with an eyeroll. “I’m not going to get in trouble.”

“And you’ll be in the alley at 4 at the latest, right?

“I got it already! Geez.” Sam turned to Castiel, missing the stricken look on Dean’s face. “Can we go?”

Castiel stared at him.

Sam stared right back.

Castiel won. He always did as he didn’t have to blink.

Turning, Sam hugged Dean once, very quickly.

“I’ll be careful. See you at four, ok?”

“Whatever.” But Dean didn’t look suckerpunched anymore, so Castiel decided that was acceptable.

He reached out and put two fingers to Sam’s forehead. They landed neatly in the alley Castiel had located, then walked the three blocks to Maple Elementary School. There were other children running loose outside, shouting and laughing. Sam hesitated at the gate, looking back at Castiel,

“Just pray?” He asked shyly.

“I will come immediately.” He assured him.

He waited at the gate as Sam joined the other children. A girl with a high ponytail and neon socks ran up to him, making a fuss over the new kid. A teacher came out, gathering the children together and talking briefly with Sam. He gestured at Castiel, then waved at him.

Tentatively, he waved back. He could just make out Sam saying,

“-my brother, Cas.”

The system worked well. The Winchester kept moving, but Sam moved up from Maple Elementary to Conner Middle School with the rest of his class. He made friends, joined the soccer team and brought home glowing report cards. The only dark spot was being unable to bring his friends home, but Sam had a unique take on it,

“It’s exactly the same..” He decided. “I mean, I never could bring anyone back cause it was always motels or something and all the hunting gear everywhere. I just tell them that my Dad works weird hours and needs to sleep in the afternoons.”

“Going to be rough when you start dating.” Dean pointed out.

“You go out on dates.” Sam shrugged. “Anyway, I’m not ready yet.”

“I had a girlfriend when I was twelve.”

Her name had been Heather and she wore cherry chapstick that left smears on Dean’s cheeks when she pecked kisses there. Castiel had never taken to her. She shoplifted and was a little too impressed by Dean’s own ease of theft.

“Enchu navim.” Sam took his math textbook and flounced into his room, slamming the door behind him.

“Are you swearing at me in angel?” Dean’s nostrils flared. “Cas! Did you teach him to swear?”

“Not as such.” Castiel bit his lip to keep from smiling. “He called you a promiscuous horned toad. I believe he intended dog, but he can’t split his voice into fifths.”

“Horndog, Cas! I called him a horndog!” Sam shouted through the wood.

“You are such a goddamned brat!” Dean yelled back through the door.

Castiel sat down. This would probably carry on for some time and Sam’s history text had several inaccuracies that needed correcting.

After several loud, long minutes and a thorough scouring of the entire 15th century, Dean slumped down on the couch next to Castiel.

“Do you think I’m stupid?” Dean asked, staring down at his shoes.

“Only when you insist on eating three cheeseburgers after it has been thoroughly proven that two is all you can ingest without stomach pain.” Castiel frowned. “Did Sam call you stupid?”

“No.” Dean rubbed a hand over his hair. “You never offered to teach me Enochian or anything. I know Sammy is the brains of the family-”

“Stop.” Castiel said firmly. “I taught Sam because he was interested and has an aptitude for language. If I thought you would enjoy it, I would have taught you too.”

“Really?”

“You resist being taught by anyone, but your father. I have seen you struggle with your teachers and did not wish to be among their number.” Castiel closed the text. “You’re as smart as Sam.”

“He’s a nerd.” Dean said dismissively. “Totally different species. He’s always doing math in his head and reading for fun. Not my style.”

“No?” Castiel frowned. “Then why do you have the entire works of Vonnegut stuffed into your duffel bag?”

“...why are you looking in my bag?” Dean shifted uneasily.

“It was open. Why do you insist on dissembling in this matter if it makes you feel lesser?”

“I’m getting something to eat.” Dean stomped into the kitchen, but Castiel did not reopen his book.

He listened as Dean banged through cabinets and drawers, then slammed his hands on the counter in frustration before returning to the room.

“It doesn’t matter.” He said softly. “I’m going to be a hunter. So I don’t need the rest of it, do I? Just gotta be able to read some Latin, handle weapons and keep my wits sharp.”

“Being a hunter does not exclude being anything else. That is how your father has chosen to live. There are many hunters who do otherwise. Bobby could easily have a PH.d. in the Occult given how much time he spends involved with research. There is a small kibbutz of hunters in Israel, who maintain an excellent pottery business in addition to their other duties. A husband and wife team in Alagoas are also on the police force. Throughout Beijing there is a network of hunters with established territories, so that they may have jobs and work.”

“But not here.” Dean frowned. “The hunters in America aren’t organized like that. We’re all loners.”

“Even here. There are places where hunters gather and exchange information.”

“Not enough. I mean, we have to drive all over the place putting out fires because there aren’t enough of us.”

“Perhaps that could be changed.”

“I doubt it.” But Dean was already thinking about it. Castiel opened the book again. They were scandalously wrong about Canada and the invention of marmite. He made corrections for Sam in the margins.

Chapter Text

It was safe to say that Sam, Dean and Castiel were all equally scarred by the birds and the bees talk.

“So. Sammy, you’re....well, you’re not a man because you’re like three feet tall and listen to Britney Spears, but whatever, close enough.” Dean rubbed at the stubble that had begun to grow regularly on his jawline. “So. You’re a pintsize dude, sort of and that means that. Uh...”

“Um.” Sam looked at Dean and then at Castiel. “Is this going somewhere?”

“Your father has charged Dean with ensuring you do not accidentally impregnate a classmate.” Castiel said helpfully. “Or become infected with venereal disease.”

“What?” Sam’s voice cracked, squeaking back up to its former soprano glory.

“Look, you know what sex is right?” Dean barged on ahead.

“You explained it to me pretty graphically when I was like six.” Sam was turning a brilliant shade of scarlet and apparently trying to become one with couch cushion. “Man parts go in the lady parts, I’m good!”

“But you have to be safe.” Dean said gamely, fishing in his jacket to toss a box of condoms that hit Sam on the head and fell into his lap. All three of them stared at the box. “Pinch the tip, roll down.”

“Right.” Sam squeaked again. “Right, yeah.”

“Uh. And it’s normal to want to jerk it like every five minutes.” Dean looked at Castiel, flushed and dropped his gaze to the coffee table. “And grow hair in weird places. I think that covers it, right? Questions, comments?”

“Um.” Sam poked at the box as if it might bite him. “Sometimes, I think about guys. Is that normal?”

Dean made some kind of hurt, choked noise and for a moment, Castiel thought he might actually be in pain.

“It is.” Castiel confirmed when Dean didn’t answer. “Human sexuality is far more fluid than any of you cares to admit. As far as I am aware, my Father doesn’t have any opinions on it. Societal opinion may tell you otherwise.”

“What about angels?” Sam clearly did not want to look Castiel in the eye, but if he stared down into his lap as he generally preferred then he had to look at the condoms. If he looked straight ahead, he had to look at Dean’s still alarmed face. His gaze trained on ceiling.

“Angels are sexless.” Castiel said carefully. “We do not procreate.”

“But your body is male.” Sam blurted.

“Yes, it is. But I am not this body. My true form is...inconceivable to human minds.”

“But when you’re in that body you could-”

“Stop.” Dean said very firmly. “Just stop Sam.”

“I don’t mind.” Castiel looked up at the ceiling as well. It had a crack in it with the first suggestion of mold gathering around it. “Yes. I can have sex in this body if I so choose. No, I have not as of yet nor do I have any particular plans to do so.”

“Does this mean I have to give you The Talk too?” Dean asked, choked again.

“I have watched humanity since the dawn of time.” Castiel sunk his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt, rubbing a thumb over the fuzzy lining. “There is no mystery in sexuality for me.”

“Right.” Dean rubbed a hand over his face. “Except last week you almost stabbed yourself in the face trying to open a blister pack.”

“I do not understand why they would wrap scissors in something one needs scissors to open.” Castiel frowned. “I do not see what that has to do with discussing sex.”

Dean started to say something, then stopped. He pointed a finger at Castiel, opened his mouth then closed it again. He turned to Sam, who was still studying the ceiling,

“You know what?” He finally choked out. “Watch porn. That’ll just...take care of that. I’m going to go...not be here now.”

“I’m not gay.” Sam said quietly. “I was just...you know. Sometimes.”

“Nope.” Dean said firmly getting to his feet. “Let’s do that crisis some other time. Rain check on your sexual identity meltdown.”

“Dean.” Castiel stared at him until Dean groaned.

“Fine.” Dean looked at Sam and said very quickly, “I love you no matter what, it’s totally normal and I’m not judging you. Ok?”

“Ok.” Sam squeaked.

“Ok.” Dean said again and ran for the door as if they might pursue him.

“I don’t understand. Normally Dean is quite candid about sex.”

“Only in when he thinks he’s supposed to be.” Sam tossed the box on the coffee table. “Anyway, it’s weird with family or something. I don’t know. You should probably go make sure he isn’t going to explode with feelings.”

“What about you?”

“I need to be alone.” Sam declared, the scarlet shade returning.

“...as you wish.” Castiel didn’t bother flying. Dean was just outside laying out in a strip of sunny grass with sunglasses resting precariously over his closed eyes. He didn’t react as Castiel lay down beside him.

“God really doesn’t care?” Dean asked after a long time.

“I would not lie to you about Him.”

“My Dad cares.” Dean didn’t move.

“He loves you.” Castiel reached across the grass to grasp Dean’s hand.

“Don’t get mushy.” Dean grabbed back though, their hands locked together. “I just want him to be proud of me, you know?”

“If he isn’t proud of the man you are becoming, then he is a fool.” Castiel said firmly.

Dean turned his head to look at Castiel, the sunglasses sliding down his nose,

“Why do you hang out with us?”

Castiel traced back the conversation, attempting to understand where that question had come from.

“Do you wish I would not?” He asked tentatively.

“No! It’s not- just. What you said in there. You’re older than dirt and you’ve seen everything. You could guard us just easily from some fluffy cloud or whatever battle you’ve gotten mixed up in. So why are you down here all the time?”

“Because I want to be.”

Angels didn’t want things. They followed orders. But the answer came to Castiel without thought. He wanted to lay beside Dean, spread out on a small patch of grass next to a ratty hotel on the way from nowhere to nowhere. Later, he wanted to sit at the rickety kitchen table as Sam and Dean ate macaroni and cheese while debating the relative merits of soccer and baseball. He wanted to visit Dean’s dreams which had changed less over the years than Dean might believe. He wanted to take Sam to school in the morning and be waiting for him afterwards.

He wanted and he was afraid.

“Cas?” Dean had let go of his hand, turning up on an elbow to look at him.

“Angels do not want.” He turned his face from the sun to look into Dean’s wide eyes. “We do not desire. What if I fall?”

“Oh, man.” Dean’s expression melted from concern into a broad smile. “If you were going to fall for having petty human emotions it would have happened a long time ago. Anger alone. And don’t think I don’t know who steals my onion rings.”

“It is not theft if you have abandoned them.”

“Not the point. You’ve always felt stuff like that. As far back as I remember anyway.”

“Not when we first met.”

“Oh, totally when we first met. You just didn’t talk about it. But I can always read you.”

Dean dropped back into the grass, a little closer than he had been before. They watched the sun trip downward, the blue sky washed out into brilliant orange.

“If you fall,” the whisper tickled over Castiel’s ear and for a moment, he wasn’t sure if it was Dean or the breeze, “you come straight to us. We’ll take care of you.”

Chapter Text

John Winchester was not a fool. He was good at patterns and finding monsters where most people saw nothing at all. He knew long before he really knew that something was going on with his children. The evidence had been there, the sequences he’d trained himself hard to notice, but because all of the incidents had been positive, it had never occurred to him that something supernatural was at work.

It went on for years with a vague suspicion gnawing at him, tickling the back of his mind, before the evidence appeared before him with one hand in Dean’s hair.

He’d come back to the apartment, cold even in his sweatshirt and heavy jacket. The winter had been unkind this year and the werewolf he was hunting more wily than he’d counted on. Or perhaps it wasn’t a wolf at all. The books tucked under his arm promised some answers and his mind was more on that possibility then the door he unlocked or the hall he walked down.

The television was on low in the living room. The boys were both in, a rarity since Dean had turned sixteen and earned the right to drive the truck. The Impala was waiting for him at seventeen if he kept the truck intact for a year. When John got back now he often found his sons missing with a note on the kitchen table in Dean’s slanting handwriting. He liked that they were out there together, watching each other’s backs.

Today though they had taken up their usual places for a night in: Sam, a gangly awkward streak at thirteen, sat on the floor with his back against the couch and the hair he wouldn’t let anyone touch spread in a fan over the cushion while Dean was stretched out, legs thrown over the couch and a book open on his stomach.

And his head was cushioned on the thigh of another teenage boy. He looked average enough, dark hair, pale skin and an oversized tan sweatshirt swallowing his thin frame. Dean was saying something to him, hands moving in broad circles while Sam stared up at both of them with a grin tugging on the edges of his lips.

John stood frozen in the doorway. Dean had brought home friends on occasion, other knockabout boys who stayed only long enough for Dean to fetch whatever he had left behind or pretty girls that breezed in and out, leaving behind their candy perfume smells. No one settled into the couch and let their head fall against the back with one hand stroking through Dean’s hair.

This boy looked comfortable. Like he fit. As if the pose of Dean on couch and Sam on the floor had always been missing a piece and now it was slotted into place.

Dean and Sam hadn’t heard him come in, but the stranger looked up, locked eyes with John. He tilted his head at an odd, alien angle. John gripped the hilt of the knife at his waist. He blinked.

The boy was gone. Dean was laughing, head on the cushions. Sam’s nose was wrinkled up the exact same way it did when John slammed a door to loudly or Dean made a joke he didn’t approve of.

“John Winchester.” A low voice said from behind him.

John pivoted, knife drawn. The boy stood behind him, his hair a ruffled mess, but the rest of him preternaturally still.

“Who are you?” John growled.

“My name is Castiel.” The light in the hallways flickered and for a brief moment, John could have sworn the shadow of great wings painted the walls. “I’m an Angel of the Lord.”

“Angel.” John snorted. “Right. What do you want with my boys?”

“I want nothing from them. I watch over them.”

“Bullshit.” John buried the knife to the hilt in the boy’s chest.

Castiel reached out and pulled the knife back out, then handed it back to John hilt first. There was no wound, no blood, not even a rip in the thin black t-shirt with it’s faded band logo. John took it back numbly.

“I have no reason to lie to you.” Castiel tucked his hands into the pockets of his worn dark jeans, the motion looked odd on him. Stiff. Yet the result was that his shoulders hunched just as Dean’s would when he wanted something badly, but knew it was out of reach. “I could have chosen to leave before your arrival. I have done so many times before. But I thought it was time for you and I met.”

“How long?” He demanded. “How long have you been hanging around my boys?”

“Twelve years.”

And it all fell into place.

Sam at two had had terrible nightmares. John would pick up off the bed he shared with Dean, wrap him in a blanket and rock him back and forth for hours before he’d go back to sleep. He’d hummed, low soothing songs half-remembered from his childhood and prayed to Mary for guidance. He’d prayed to her a lot back then. To anyone who would listen. Both of his sons needed him so badly and he felt ill-equipped to help them.

One night, there was no cry in the dark, no whimpers. Sam’s nightmares just disappeared as if they had never been. It had taken John a few nights to realize that not long after they fell asleep, both boys would go into REM state at the same time. He stood over them for a week, watching them sleep and their eyes roving behind delicate eyelids. After a while he was forced to chalk it up to the strange intimacy between them.

When Dean was eight, he’d gotten pneumonia. At first John had assumed it was one of the fly by night fevers that both boys occasionally spiked and carried on driving towards the next hunt. When he’d stopped to gas up, Sam climbed out of the backseat without Dean hovering at his back.

“Your brother asleep?” John asked, one hand on the gas cap.

“Dunno.” Sam shrugged. “He’s talking and stuff.”

“Here, hold this.” He put the pump into Sam’s hand and showed him how to squeeze it. The backseat, normally a raucous playground, was ominously silent. “Dean?”

“Dontwanna.” Dean said with aggrieved sigh, curling further into the leather jacket John had draped over him hours ago.

“Come on now, son.” John put his hand to the boy’s forehead. “Shit!”

“Dad?” Dean eyes opened reluctantly, glassy with fever.

“Hey, kiddo.” He slid Dean into his lap, pressed his lips to his forehead. He could remember the ghost of his own mother’s lips, checking for fever. Dean didn’t feel any cooler that way. “Change of plans. We’re going to visit your Uncle Bobby.”

“Where’s Sammy?” Dean dropped his head against John’s chest like he hadn’t since he was a toddler.

“He’s fine.” John stroked the hard line of Dean’s spine and wrapped him up in a hard hug. “You should go back to sleep.”

“My turn to choose the music.” Dean mumbled, then seemed to slide back into sleep.

“Daddy!” Sam shouted, “The machine is clicking!”

Sliding Dean back into the seat, he’d collected Sam and a few bottles of water from the cooler in the trunk. Confused, but dutiful, Sam had held one of the bottles to Dean’s forehead as John watched in the rearview mirror.

By the time they reached Bobby’s, a full hour and a half less than it should have taken, Dean had thrown up twice and started shivering hard enough for his teeth to clack together. Sam had stopped asking worried questions a miles ago, exchanging his words for a tight fearful embrace around his brother’s shoulders.

“Bobby!” John scooped Dean up from the backseat. “You home?”

Sam ran up the steps, knocking as hard as he was able.

“What do you want?” The door banged open and Bobby looked as good as angel just then.

“It’s Dean. He’s burning up.”

“Give him here.” Bobby held out his arms and John transferred Dean there gently. “Goddamnit, John.”

John dropped to his knees to put an arm around Sam, shooting Bobby a look.

“Right. Let me get him settled. Sam, you remember where I keep the spare sheets?”

“Yeah.”

“Good, get me a set and a pillowcase. Bring ‘em upstairs to the green room.”

“Ok.” Sam wiggled loose from John’s hold and ran into the house.

“He’s burning up.” John stared up at Bobby.

“Jesus, John. I’m not a doctor, what do you want me to do?” Bobby was cupping the back of Dean’s head. “The boy should be in a hospital!”

“I can get him antibiotics without taking him into a place like that.” John stepped backwards. “Look, I just need you to watch him and Sam for a few hours. I can get what he needs.”

“You don’t need to con someone into giving a kid drugs when he’s sick.” Bobby turned back into the house, Sam’s reedy voice carrying down the stairs. “Jesus, what is wrong with you?”

John watched Bobby retreat inside, Dean’s peaked face resting on his shoulder. He wanted to chase after him, take his boy back. He didn’t come here to be judged. He knew what needed to be done. The last thing Dean needed was to be taken to a hospital where they might ask too many questions. John would never risk them taking his boys from him, not when they were the only meaningful thing he had left in his life.

He waited on the steps. When Bobby came back down, they fought loud and ugly.

“Get the hell out of here then.” Bobby finally said, worn down and looking older than usual. “Get your son whatever you think he needs and I’ll make sure he keeps breathing until you get back.”

John drove to the nearest hospital and spun the story that got him near enough to the pharmacy. After that it was light fingers and a pointed interview with a pediatrician, who thought they were talking about a hypothetical case.

“It’s the damnedest thing.” Bobby shook his head, taking the white bag from John’s hand. “Went in there at seven and the kid was sick as a dog. Checked him at midnight, no change. This morning? Fever broke and his lungs sound find. Still not feeling right, but it’s a goddamn miracle if you want my opinion. Which I reckon you don’t. As usual.”

John took the stairs two at a time before Bobby was quite done talking. The little guest room’s door was ajar and he slipped inside, heart thudding dully in his chest.

“Hey, Dad.” Dean’s eyes were open, no longer glassy though dark bags still hung under his eyes.

“Hey, son.” He crossed the floor and put his hand to Dean’s forehead. Warm, but nothing outlandish. “How you feelin’?”

“I’m fine.” He sat up, slow and clearly achey. “We can go. I can pack our stuff.”

“What? No. You gotta stay put right now, so you can heal up.”

“But those people in Jonesburg-”

“Don’t you worry about them.” John said firmly. “You have to rest now, get better. That’s your job, you got me?”

“Yes, sir.” The crease between Dean’s eyes deepened. “You should go. Bobby can look after me, but there’s no one else to help those people.”

John was too busy being proud to wonder any further how Dean had gotten better so quickly from such a bad turn.

The boys never really got sick after that. He choose to think it was a steady constitution.

When Sam was seven, he fell through rotted steps in the back of a rented house. John happened to be watching out the window, thinking nothing thoughts. Sam had been running from Dean, laughing about something and taking the steps with heedless disinterest. When they gave way, his face had been nearly comical with his eyebrows lifting upwards and face in an ‘o’.

“Sam!” John was on his feet before he could think, door slamming behind him. Dean was already crawling on the ground under the stairs, calling for his brother.

“I’m fine!” Sam called out.

“Sammy!” Dean pulled him out from under the stairs. John knelt down, checking him for broken bones or bad cuts. But the boy was only dirty.

“That was some lucky landing, kiddo.” John relaxed, ruffling Sam’s hair.

“Yeah.” Sam looked over John’s shoulder at Dean. “Really lucky.”

John looked between them, but their faces were blank. He wanted to shake them and ask them to explain. Dean and Sam came with their own language these days and more and more he felt as if he would never penetrate it. That he shouldn’t. They were growing up. Growing away.

“Be more careful.” John shook Sam a little.

“Yes, sir.” Sam’s eyes slid away from him.

It was Sam who saw through him. He knew that a small, sick part of John was grateful for their fierce independence and dependence on each other. The burden of raising them had grown heavy these last few years. They had needs that he couldn’t fill, wants that he could only guess at. That they could become more self-contained, care for each other where he failed so much the better. Sam knew and his resentment fell into fertile soul, growing into a choking weed that spread the cracks between father and son further and further.

Dean still looked at him with the same devotion though.

John searched his good soldier’s face, but Dean maintained his blank indifference. Nothing to see here. John turned back to the house. There was an open bottle of whiskey with his name on it.

When Dean turned eleven, he started doing the laundry on his own. Before that, it would wait until John had a free day and the three of them would go the laundromat together. Sam liked to sit on the dryers, reading as the vibrations rattled over his skin while Dean fell asleep watching the clothes spin in the washers.

“Here.” John handed him the roll of quarters not long after his birthday. “Take the bags down to the laundromat. You can use whatever is left to get a soda, ok?”

“Thanks!” Dean was off and running before John could get out another word as if the privilege might be revoked at any second.

After one or two false starts, Dean proved be a far better launderer than John. He folded everything neatly and used the right amount of soap so nothing felt itchy or stiff. He even purchased an actual plastic bottle of the stuff rather than use whatever came in the dispenser of the laundromat. If it weren’t for that consistent sharp smell, John probably never would have noticed the change.

As it was, it probably took him months. It wasn’t as if he went around sniffing the kid after all. It wasn’t until one late night when he arrived home and found Dean sleep in front of the television, one hand still wrapped around his knife that he got close enough to touch let alone smell.

“Dean?” John said quietly. Dean didn’t so much as stir.

It had been a long time since he lifted Dean up and he was significantly heavier, all his long limbs dangling awkwardly. John carried him to the bed, putting him down to rest next to Sam. Taking of the boy’s shoes, he got a whiff of something different. It was the smell of baking bread or sheets left to dry on a hot summer day. It was fresh and strong.

Dean smelled of it the next day too and the next as John made a point of getting close enough for the scent. Curious, John rooted through his own clothes. The most recently laundered smelled like detergent and the must of the bag. Same with Sam’s though he wasn’t sure if finding that out was worth the confused glare it earned him.

“You using something different on your clothes?” John asked Dean casually the next time he gathered up their clothes.

“No, sir.” Dean frowned. “Why would I do that?”

“No idea. Never mind.”

“Can I come?” Sam jumped to his feet.

Dean glanced to John, who nodded.

“Sure.” Dean threw his arm over Sam’s shoulders. “You can sort the dirty underwear for me.”

“Deeeean.” Sam complained, but he trailed after him anyway.

When they were both gone, John went straight for Dean’s bag. Everything in it carried that same sun bleached smell. He dug through carefully, leaving no evidence behind of his rummage. Something soft brushed over his fingers.

“What the-”

A feather nearly as long as John’s forearm, glossy and pitch black quivered in his fingers. Hesitantly, he sniffed it. Sunshine.

“Dad we need more-” Dean stopped dead in the doorway.

“What is this?” He demanded.

“Just a feather.” Dean stared straight at him just like John had taught him to do when you lied.

“Dean. If this is some kind of magical object, you need to tell me.”

“Its just a feather.” Dean frowned. “A friend gave it to me, ok?”

“A friend?”

“Yeah.”

“Right.” John turned it slowly, acutely aware of Dean’s discomfort. “You wouldn’t lie to me, would you?”

“Never.” Dean didn’t reach out for it, but it must be taking some effort. Every inch of him was straining toward it.

“Right then.” John tucked it back into his bag. “That comes back to bite me in the ass and we’ll know who’s fault it is, right?”

“Yes, sir.” Dean looked at his feet.

“You’re a good kid.” John said softly. Dean’s gaze returned to his face, surprise written large in his eyes. “What did you need?”

“Just a few more quarters.”

John dropped the coins into Dean’s outstretched hand. The hug took him off guard, fast and hard then gone as Dean ran out the door yelling for Sam to wait up. The smell of sun clung to John’s legs for the rest of the day.

When Sam was twelve, they moved three times in as many months. Each time, Sam turned more and more sullen. The crack between them became a chasm.

“They can’t teach you what you really need to know.” John told him, packing their weapons away. “We have people to protect.”

“I want to learn that stuff!” Sam had yelled back, his face (so like Mary’s) red with rage. “I want to stay in one place and pass my tests, finish a book for once!"

“Easy, Sammy.” Dean murmured in the background.

“No!” Sam growled. “Not anymore. I hate this! It’s unfair. I don’t want to be a hunter!”

“Sam!” John and Dean said with one voice.

“That’s right!” And Sam seemed to be relishing the moment. “You heard me. I. Don’t. Want. To Hunt.”

“Dean.” John said quietly. “Get him out of my sight right now.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dean didn’t so much as take Sam out of the room as drag him by the back of his jacket. John waited until they were out of sight to slide boneless to the floor.

“Mary.” He whispered into one fist. Her name was bitter on his tongue.

Sam stayed angry for days. He never apologized, never took back the words and they rotted the air.

Then just as it had begun, it was over.

“Let me take that, sir.” Sam picked up John’s duffel bag and hauled it into the motel, whistling as he went.

“Did you talk to him?” John asked Dean who was watching Sam with a self-satisfied smile. It faded as soon as John spoke.

“Yes, sir. It’s all fine now.” Dean picked up his own bag.

But John knew it wasn’t fine. Sam smiled at him, treated him with the same deference Dean did. Sam was like Mary, too much like her. If he was acting that way, it was only because he’d figured out some way around John. Sam could afford to treat John generously because he’d won the battle.

That had only been six months ago and Sam's attitude change had become a permanent fixture. Smug obedience barely an improvement over the outright rage and left John at an utter loss. And at lat he knew the reason. Before him stood his defeat, a creature of legend, a monster that John couldn't kill and it had been feasting on the loyalty of his children to their father for twelve goddamn years.

The angel waited for him to come back to himself. He hadn’t moved, hadn’t blinked or taken a breath. He was patient.

“You’re taking Sam from me.” John rubbed a hand over his jaw.

“I have never tried to remove him from you.” Castiel said firmly. “Nor Dean. They are your sons. I am not their father.”

“Right. You’re an angel.” John sneered. “A guardian. Where the fuck were they when their mother died?”

“You don’t have to answer that.”

It was Dean, arms folded tight over his chest. Sam lingered behind them, eyes bright and lips compressed in a thin line.

“It’s the question you have wanted to ask me for many years.” Castiel looked up at Dean. “It is a fair one. I was not watching for you then. I did not even know you existed until that night. I heard her scream and by the time I arrived, it was over.”

“Very convenient for you.” John snarled.

“No.” Castiel said softly. “It’s actually very inconvenient. Their pain is my pain, John Winchester. I mourn with all of you for her.”

“Cas.” Dean choked.

“I could not hide my presence from him forever. It will only become more complicated as the years pass.” Castiel’s heavy gaze returned to John’s face. “I would not take them from you. But you must fight for them a little if you wish to keep them.”

“I don’t know how.” John confessed and the words stuck in his throat. He wanted to tell the boys to cover their ears, to turn away. They shouldn’t see him weak or afraid.

“Then you should ask them. I find they often have answers that I lack.”

“Stop, Cas.” Dean pushed through the door, standing between them as he once stood between Sam and John. “Seriously. It’s fine.”

“As you wish.” Castiel’s eyes didn’t leave John’s. “I will not hide any longer. If I am here, you will know it.”

“Not like I can ask you to do otherwise apparently.”

“Sam.” Castiel said softly. “What can you do to get rid of an angel?”

“No.” Sam protested.

“Tell him.”

“Fine.” Sam tore a piece of paper from his notebook and sketched something quickly onto it. “You paint this in blood on a wall, then press your hand to the center. It throws them a pretty long distance.”

“What is this?” John studied the drawing.

“Enochian.” Sam ran a hand through his hair. “Language of the angels. Cas taught it to me.”

“He is the first human in four centuries to have learned it directly from a primary source.” And the damn angel sounded proud. “He mastered it quickly. With that spell, you can prevent me from entering your residence for a time.”

“I still don’t trust you.”

“We both have some way to go with each other there.” Castiel watched him carefully. “You walk a dangerous path, John Winchester and it threatens all that stand at your side. If I am to be one of them, then you will have to earn my trust as well.”

“But you’ll watch out for my boys?” He meant to sound stern, accusing, but it came out soft and a little pleading.

“Always.” Castiel clapped a hand onto Dean’s shoulders, pale fingers stark and possessive. Dean leaned into it, subtle enough that it was doubtful that even knew what he was doing it.

“He’s our friend.” Dean said hoarsely. “Best friend I’ve ever had. Like a brother.”

“Yeah.” Sam stepped to Dean’s side. “Like a brother.”

John took a step back, taking in their united force.

“That how it is then?”

“Yes, sir.” Dean choked. “That’s how it is.”

John fought it over the years that followed. Castiel was a strange influence and his ideas turned his children into men that he didn’t recognize. Sometimes he yelled, sometimes he sent Castiel bouncing to parts unknown with the easy slap of hand to sigil and sometimes he simply ignored him as if he would disappear.

But no matter what, it came down to Dean with his arms crossed and defiant for the first time in years. “That’s how it is.” He’d said and that was how it was.

“Is it a sin to hate an angel?” John asked Castiel once, late in the night when it was only the two of them left awake.

“No more than it is to love your children.” Castiel smiled faintly. “We’re not competing, you and I.”

“Dean chose you over me.”

“Did he?” Castiel frowned. “Or did you choose not to truly push to find out what he might choose? For what it is worth, it most likely would have been you.”

“I’m just his old man. You’re his...whatever.” John tried not to think too hard about what the two of them might be to each other.

“You are his Father. I understand how that comes before all else.”

“Where is your deadbeat dad anyway?”

“On a hunting trip.” Castiel said mildly.

“Hilarious.” John knocked back a shot of whiskey, poured another and slid it over to the angel. “It’ll put hair on your chest.”

“Thank you.” Castiel threw back the glass.

“Dean’s been teaching you to drink?”

“It may have come up.”

“That’s my boy.”

“Exactly.”

Chapter Text

The meeting that Zachariah had called was important. Monumentally important most likely. Just like every other meeting he’d called for the last six months.

Hey, Cas. Sam’s prayer reached him just as the speech was reaching it’s second climatic point. Balthazar filled in another square of his Sudoku puzzle and Rachel was reciting Leviticus under her breath. Her lips moved just enough to give her away. I need you to pick me up early, ok? I’m in the nurse’s office.

Castiel took an experimental step backward. No one so much as glanced over at him, all of them glazed over as Zachariah's hand gestures became broader. He moved slowly to the back of the crowd. When he was sure no one was paying him the slightest bit of attention, he took wing.

Their usual alleyway had gained the smell of urine. He took to the sidewalk quickly, crossing the few blocks to the high school. Sam had only started there a month ago and Castiel wasn’t yet familiar with the students that hung around outside. He nodded to them anyway, aware that they eyed him far more warily than the middle schoolers had. Jimmy’s body looked like a young man these days, but not quite yet adult enough for the automatic respect that came with age.

“My name is Castiel Winchester.” He told the security guard. “I’m here to pick up my brother Sam from the nurse’s office.”

The guard whistled.

“That kid has one mean punch. You teach him that?”

“No.” Castiel frowned. “Did he hurt someone?”

“No one that didn’t deserve it.” The guard pointed down the hall. “Everyone knows those jackasses have been gunning for him since day one.”

“Not everyone.” Castiel forced himself to keep to a measured human walk down the hall.

The nurse’s door was open, revealing Sam slumped in one small plastic chair with a coldpack over one eye. The nurse, a square jawed young man with a scar streaking over his forehead, got up from his desk as soon as Castiel walked in the door.

“You’re here for Sam?” He demanded.

“Yes. I’m Castiel Winchester.” Dean had told him several times that he did not need to include his last name in introductions. Yet Dean looked pleased every time he did, so Castiel persisted. Even when Dean wasn’t there. “Is he all right?”

“I’m fine.” Sam groused, sinking lower in his chair. “It’s just a black eye.”

“And a whole medley of ugly bruising and a good gash on his right arm. Oh and his knuckles are torn to hell.” The nurse glared at Sam, who subsided. “The principal should talk to you before you both go home. Is your father able to come in?”

“I told you he’s working.” Sam complained. “Big client.”

“I’m afraid he is out of the country.” Castiel shrugged. “I’m Sam’s guardian until he returns.”

“You can’t be much older than he is.” The nurse’s eyes soften a little. “Is it just the two of you?”

“No, Dean is also home.”

“Oh.” The nurse blinked. “Oh! Your partner?”

“My other brother.” Sam cut in, shooting Castiel an amused look.

“I see.” The nurse seemed disappointed. “Well, you can take that ice pack, Sam. The principal’s office is just down the hall. I’ll call her, she’ll be expecting you.”

Sam got to his feet, holding the pack over his eye. He’d grown over the summer and he was nearly the same height as Castiel now. It was disconcerting. Castiel had already watched Dean grow taller of course, but Dean had always had a slightly larger body than Jimmy’s more fragile one. Sam had been small as long as Castiel could remember. His sudden insistence on largeness was discomforting.

“What happened?” Castiel demanded as soon as the door closed firmly behind him.

“Nothing.” Sam said immediately, then wilted under Castiel’s gaze. “I dealt with it.”

“You turned to violence.”

“Please.” Now Sam was the one glaring, though with only one eye free of ice it lost some of it’s strength. “Don’t give me that whole ‘violence isn’t the answer’ bullshit. You, Dean, Dad, all you do is use violence. You’re soldiers.”

“That’s how I know that it doesn’t always solve a problem.” Castiel frowned. “But yes. Sometimes force is an effective stopgap. We will speak the principal and see what she has to say.”

“Fine.” Sam picked up speed as if getting their faster would put the whole ordeal behind him.

The principal, a tall sharply dressed woman, sat behind her desk and gave them a long evaluating look. She tapped the file under her fingers. Sam’s name was written on the label and it contained only a few sheets of paper.

“You broke Jeremy's nose.” Her voice was surprisingly soft.

“Yeah.” Sam rubbed his hands over his jeans. “I’m sorry about that.”

“So am I.” She sighed. “Sam, I’ve heard from all your teachers that you’re a good student, kind and generally quiet. Your records tell me that you’re bright. So how do you get to the point where punching Jeremy hard enough to break his nose was the only answer?”

“He threatened James.” Sam stopped rubbing at his jeans, sitting up a little straighter. “I didn’t care what he said to me or what the guys...I can take care of myself. But James was scared of them. And they wouldn’t leave him alone. I told them to back off, but that just made it worse.”

Sam hesitated, his hands balling into fists as if the memory alone made him want to start hitting again, “Today they called him a fag and tripped him in the hall. Everyone else just stood around and laughed. I thought James might cry, but he just stayed down on the floor and it was such...It sucked, ok? It all sucks. So I punched Jeremy and I held Tim’s arm behind his back until he was on the floor next to James and maybe that was wrong, but I don’t care. I’d do it again.”

“I see.” The principal sat back a little, taking Sam in. “What happened after that?”

“Jeremy punched me when I leaned down to help James off the floor. That was when the Mr. Brooks came by and broke it up.” Sam snorted. “You know what the worst thing was? Everyone else was still just standing there like it was a floorshow.”

“It takes a lot of courage to act.” She shook her head. “Why didn’t you tell anyone about James getting bullied? Or how they were treating you for that matter?”

“Because then they would know I was afraid.” Sam said simply. “And it would get worse.”

“Or we could have stopped it before it got to this point.”

“How?” Sam challenged.

“There are programs in place for these situations.”

“You mean detention and discussion with the school psychologists? Yeah, I can see Jeremy and Tim thanking me for that intervention.”

“Sam.” Castiel said quietly, a warning.

“You're Sam’s brother?” Her focus shifted to Castiel.

“Yes.”

“And did Sam tell you about what was going on?”

“No.” Castiel frowned. “This was the first I’ve heard of it. But Sam often prefers to work out his problems on his own.”

“And what advice would you have given him had you known?”

It was a test, but Castiel didn’t care if he passed or not. He wanted Sam to hear him.

“I would have told him to try diplomacy. Failing that, I would have told him to choose his time better. The fight was public. Jeremy and Tim will now feel they have lost face publicly and will most likely attempt further retaliation. Had you consulted Dean or I, we could have told you that a more private confrontation would have been more useful.” Castiel shrugged. “Also, I would have advised teaching James how to protect himself. They are dependent on him being too weak to fight back. They wouldn’t have expected that strike.”

“Good point.” Sam smiled thinly at him.

“Does your father condone such violent behavior?” The principal asked archly.

“My Dad taught me how to throw a punch.” Sam pushed the hair out of his face, eyes narrowed. “But he also taught me that you shouldn’t unless you have no other choice. He doesn’t hit me. Dean doesn’t him me. Castiel doesn’t hit me. I’m not from an abusive home.”

“I didn’t ask that.”

“No, but you were implying it.” He shrugged. “And yeah, we have issues, but I bet my home life is a lot more pleasant than Jeremy's.”

“Indeed.” She looked back to Castiel. “You know that in accordance with school rules any student engaging in violence receives a three day suspension.”

“Yes, it was in the handbook.” Castiel had read the parent handbook very carefully before passing it on to Dean, who had turned it into a series of increasingly aerodynamic paper airplanes. It was arguably more useful in it’s new form. “It also stated that you have a firm anti-bullying policy, along with ongoing awareness programs to prevent bullying. There was even a pledge that Sam had to sign on the first day of school promising to be kind to himself and others. It contained a grammatical error, but it was otherwise a nice sentiment.”

“Well. Yes.” The principal coughed. “In light of Sam’s particular situation, I think it would be fair to modulate that to an in-school suspension. The teachers would provide his work for him, so that he doesn’t fall behind.”

“I think that’s fair.” Castiel stood. “Thank you for your time.”

“I’m not really done, Mr. Winchester.” She put a hand on the file. “I want you to know that this will still go on Sam’s record. It could damage his chances of going to a good college.”

“I’m not go-” Sam began.

“On the contrary.” Castiel cut in. “Dealing with difficult moral issues is a part of growing up. I believe Sam could get a valuable entrance essay out of this experience. Perhaps a discussion on how certain systems encourage violence in a vicious cycle might appeal to admissions team made more conscious of the outcomes of bullying by recent news trends.”

“We do not encourage bullying in this school.” She said firmly.

“No. I’m sure you do not. Which is why I am equally sure that Jeremy and Tim will receive all the mandated sessions discussed in the handbook. I am also sure that they will not be allowed to continue their reign of terror because every adult in this building will be made aware of what they are capable of. And they will not depend on children to overcome fear of reprisal to tell them that there are predators among them.” Castiel tugged Sam gently up and out of his seat. “I’m going to take Sam home now before his eye swells entirely shut. Good afternoon, m’am.”

He herded Sam out of the office and down the hall before the woman could get out another word.

“Damn.” Now it was Sam who had to rush to keep up with Cas. “What was all that about?”

“I take you here because it is meant to be a safe place for you to learn.” Cas snapped. “If I had any idea that was I leaving you every morning some place where you were being harassed and your friends treated in such a shameful manner, I would never have done it.”

“It’s just a part of high school.” Sam shrugged.

“I refuse to believe that you must be treated so poorly as part of your education. It’s wrong. And I’m saddened that you could not tell me or Dean what was happening.”

“I had it.” Sam muttered.

“I am not questioning your judgement in this matter, Sam. Understand me. I only wish you had told me so that I could share the burden of it with you.” He ducked into the alleyway. “You do not have to suffer these things in silence. I am here to help you. So is Dean. Carrying the pain on your own is pointless.”

“Oh.” Sam stared at him. “But Dean probably would have just tried to come here and punch the guys for me. Then call me a pussy for not dealing with it myself.”

“Perhaps. You never gave him the chance to act, so how can you know?” Castiel reached up and placed two fingers against Sam’s forehead. “You should have more faith in him.”

They disappeared from the alley and landed gently on the concrete stoop of the hotel room that currently housed the Winchester family.

“You going to tell him?” Sam asked.

“I think he will notice your eye and I am not going to lie to him.” Castiel said firmly.

"Just...let me, ok?”

“If you wish.”

When they came in, Dean was sprawled over one of the queen beds, a car magazine spread over his lap and the left side of his hair sticking up in betrayal of the nap he must have been taking only minutes before.

“Jesus, Sammy.” He was on his feet and across the room in seconds, hand hovering over the already bruising flesh around Sam’s eye. “What the fuck?”

Sam told Dean the entire story in what seemed to be a single breath. The words ran together as Castiel watched Dean’s face change from incredulous to furious to resigned.

“But then Cas totally verbally bitchslapped her.” Sam said as he wound down. “You should have heard it! He used all their anti-bullying bullshit against her until she was jello.”

“Yeah?” Dean glanced at Cas, a half-smile making a brief appearance. “Wish I could have heard that.”

“It was awesome.” Sam gushed, ducking around Dean to take off his shoes and finally set down his backpack.

“Sam was unsure of how we would react if he told us about the incidents before he took care of it.” Castiel said quietly.

“Unsure?” Dean snorted. “Dude. I would have knocked those kids heads in.”

“And then called me a pussy, I know!” Sam rolled his eyes.

“Why would I call you anything?” Dean shook his head. “Not like you were asking to get smacked around by two guys probably twice the size of you.”

“But you would have just kicked the shit of them. You did when you were a freshman.”

“Yeah, because I didn’t give a shit.” Dean kicked at Sam’s shin, not hard enough to hurt, just an expression of annoyance. Castiel had learned to tell the difference. “I didn’t care about what my teachers thought of me or what I might miss if I got thrown out on my ear. It’s different for you.”

“Yeah.” Sam blinked at Dean. “Yeah, it kind of is.”

“You’re the stupidest genius that ever lived, I swear to God.” Dean ruffled Sam’s hair. “There’s an ice pack in the first aid kit in the trunk. Go get it before that shiner spreads halfway down your face.”

When the door closed behind Sam, Dean let out a shaky breath.

“Was that the right thing to say?” He asked, not turning to look at Castiel.

“You don’t have to ask me. You know it was.” Castiel headed toward the kitchenette. Doubtless both brothers would want something to put in their mouths to prevent further discussion. He couldn’t cook, but usually the mere implication that he might try motivated Dean to push him away from the heating elements and tackle dinner on his own.

“Sounds like you really put it to the principal.”

“She was working against her own stated mandate. In her heart of hearts, she wanted to applaud Sam, but could not due to the policy that ensnares her.” Castiel picked up a bag of microwaveable popcorn. “Bureaucracy makes men and angels weak.”

“Give me that.” Dean took the bag from Castiel’s hands.

“Dean.” Castiel watched him take too much care with what was after all, only a stopgap snack before the boys descended on some helpless pile of takeout.

“Cas.” He punched the numbers into the microwave and watched the light turn on.

“I have a gift for you. But I’m not sure you’ll like it.”

Castiel had actually been holding onto the package for weeks. He was unsure if Dean would appreciate what he was offering. But they had weathered one crisis together today, so perhaps Dean would be more amenable to suggestion.

“Uh, ok. What is it?”

Castiel pulled the packet out of his jacket and put it into Dean’s hands. Frowning, Dean opened the thick envelope and pulled out the contents. He read through the top page quickly, his scowl deepening. Behind him the popcorn raged, popping wildly in it’s thin paper sheath.

“This is an acceptance letter.” Dean said finally.

“Yes.”

“To college.” He clarified as if Castiel might contradict him.

“Yes.”

“Addressed to me. Why is it addressed to me?”

“I took the liberty of filling out the application for you. I skipped the required essay and instead provided your recent translation of the exorcism spell, along with several of your informal pieces on uncommon mythological beasts.”

“You used my hunting notes to apply for college?” Dean’s hands were shaking, the paper he held wavering with it. “And they accepted me?”

“Yes. It’s a good program and the only one in the country with a correspondence component. They will allow you to complete three-fourths of your degree through written work and internet attendance. The Classics department has offered you a complete scholarship. They were very impressed by your depth of understanding in regards to gorgons.”

“Cas. You can’t just-” Dean stopped, swallowed whatever he was going to say and started over. “I don’t want this.”

“Then you don’t have to take it.” Cas sank his hands into his pockets. “It’s only an alternative. It wouldn’t interfere with your life for the most part and I think you’d find it challenging without being impossible.”

“This is impossible!” Dean waved the papers at him. “I’ve got a GED and a trail of bad records two miles long following me. What’d you do to explain that away?”

“I didn’t. I let your work speak on it’s own merit. I have told you before that you have an excellent mind.”

“Yeah, you also said I was a pain in the ass to teach.”

“What’s burning?” Sam stuck his head around the door, ice pack over his eye.

“Shit!” Dean set down the papers and pulled the smoldering bag out of the microwave, swearing again as it burnt his fingers. By the time he’d sorted it out, Sam was reading through the thick packet. “Hey!”

“Wow, Dean this is amazing!” Sam flipped through the pages. “I read about this program.”

“When?” Dean plucked the papers from Sam’s loose grip.

“Just. You know. Around.” Sam slumped down. “I mean, I’m pretty good at languages now and I thought...doesn’t matter.”

“You thought you might go to college.” Dean looked between Sam and Castiel. “Is this some conspiracy or something? Get me in so I don’t freak when Sam applies?”

“No.” Castiel rescued the already slightly crumpled packet. “I was unaware Sam was thinking about college, but I’m not surprised. Just as I wasn’t surprised when you discarded the idea. I do think it would be best if you both went, but that’s not my decision to make.”

“I’m not college material.” Dean said firmly. “I get it. It’s nice and all, but I’m a hunter. Born and bred.”

“No one is only one thing.” Castiel replied, equally solid. “As Sam has pointed out today, I am a soldier. But I am also a brother and a friend. I would not trade one role of another. You can be a hunter and a college student.”

“Dad won’t see it that way.” Dean folded his arms over his chest.

“Nor would my Father see my life with you as complementary to the one I live in Heaven, yet it is true. And if my Father can be wrong Dean, so can yours.”

“....I’ll think about it.” Dean muttered, tossing the now cool bag of burnt popcorn into the garbage.

“I could help you study!” Sam chimed in, looking far too cheerful whose eye was turning into a watercolor collage of bruising. “Pay you back for all those times you helped me with math and stuff.”

“Egghead.” Dean accused, but it came out fond. “Maybe, I said. Give me some time, ok?”

“Yeah, ok.” Sam grinned up at him. There was a fleck of dried blood on his teeth. “Still. Awesome that you got accepted with a full ride. Even if you don’t go.”

“Yeah.” Dean aimed a faint smile at Castiel. It warmed Castiel in a way he could not explain. “Awesome.”

Chapter Text

“Stop!” Dean yelled, covering his face with his hands.

“I’m going like three miles an hour!” Sam protested, jamming his foot down on the ancient Honda’s breaks. “Seriously, if you’re going to keep freaking out like this I’m just going to ask Bobby to teach me.”

“I’m not freaking out! You’re in love with accelerating and you haven’t learned to break yet. It’s a reasonable fucking concern!”

“I could-” Cas began.

“No!” Sam and Dean said in tandem.

“Just, no.” Dean let out a shuddering breath. “You don’t belong behind the wheel of a car, man. You made my baby cry. Look, Sammy, just put her back into gear and this time remember you’re not Mario Andretti, ok?”

“Yeah, whatever.” Sam did something to the gearbox, but Dean didn’t start cringing, so it couldn’t have been too egregious.

Outside, the tall grasses surrounding Singer’s Salvage baked in the heat. Bobby and John were inside the house, huddled in front of the house’s only air conditioning unit with a dozen books spread in front of them and a half-dead bottle of whiskey shared between them. Sam, fake learner’s permanent burning in his pocket, had cajoled Dean outside with the promise of ice cream and a relief from tedium if he gave him a lesson.

“All right, put her in reverse.” Dean demanded, then modeled the correct way to look over one’s shoulder. As he turned, he winked at Castiel. “Always go slow in reverse, ok?”

“What if I’m being chased by a monster?” Sam joked, slinging his arm easily around the back of Dean’s seat as if he’d been practicing the maneuver. He eased the Honda back and the gravel crunched under the tires.

“If you’re driving on a hunt, its only because I’m bleeding out.” Dean growled. “And then you better haul all kinds of ass, you got it?”

“Got it.” Sam’s smile didn’t dim, even as Dean made him practice parallel parking over and over.

The sun started to sink downward when John tapped on the passenger window with a raised eyebrow.

“There’s a salt and burn bout three hours due West.” He said when Dean had rolled down the window. “Think you boys can take care of it?”

“On our own?” Dean sat up straight.

“Well, I think you should take Featherbrain with you, but yeah. On your own.”

“What do you think, Sammy?” Dean turned to his brother with a broad grin.

“Yeah, ok.” Sam shrugged indifferently, but his smile from earlier still hadn’t quite faded. “Let’s do it.”

It was Dean behind the wheel, of course. The Impala was not to be given over to Sam’s tender new skills or Castiel’s dubious abilities. Sam sat in passenger seat, a book open in his lap and Castiel in the backseat where Dean had pointed him hours ago. The car hurtled through the night, the pinpoint of Sam’s flashlight the only illumination.

“What are you reading?” Castiel asked after two hours of Aerosmith and dark corn fields.

“Lord of the Flies.” Sam showed him the cover. “It’s kind of fucked up. Like the worst season of Survivor ever.”

“I hated the murder scene.” Dean reached over and actually turned down the volume of the music. Sam and Castiel stared at him in shock, but he seemed not to notice. “I mean, they’re just little kids and they’re killing one of their own. I don’t think people go that bad that quick.”

“Well, yeah, they do.” Sam recovered first. “I mean the more people you get in a room, the stupider they get. We get all herd instinct. Throw violence in and you get a riot. Happens all the time.”

“Fear.” Castiel agreed. “Fear turns to anger and a desire to be instructed by someone stronger. It’s a universal principle.”

“But not all of them give into it, right?” Dean looked in the rearview mirror and Castiel tries to find the question under the question. Not for the first time, he wished Dean was more forthcoming with what he wanted.

“Simon and Piggy both fight back.” Sam said before Castiel could answer. “I mean, Piggy doesn’t really have a fair shot anyway, but Simon, even when he starts going crazy, he gets what’s really going on.”

“There is always the possibility of overcoming.” Castiel adds. Dean nods once sharply.

“Yeah that’s what I meant. Mind over matter. Brains over brainwashing.” Then he leaned over and turned the music back up.

“What just happened?” Sam mouthed at Castiel. The angel could only shrug in return.

Miles later, Sam’s little light flickered out and his head lolled against the glass, eyes slipping closed. When his breath evened out, Dean reached forward and snapped the music off entirely.

“Oft him anhaga,” Dean’s voice was soft, private, “are gebideð, metudes miltse.”

“Often the solitary one finds grace for himself in the Mercy of the Lord.” Castiel translated.

“Often the lonely one experiences compassion, the Creator’s kindness,” Dean caught Castiel’s eyes in the rearview mirror again. “I like that translation better.”

“Why were you reading it at all?”

“Because Old English sounds cooler than Shakespeare.” Dean shrugged. “And I need the credit.”

“Credit for what?” Castiel leaned forward, scant inches between his mouth and the leather curving over Dean’s shoulder.

“My associates.” Dean watched the thin yellow line streaking by them. “I know it’s not what you might have...well. It’s a compromise, ok? Sam talked me into it. I think I can get a lousy two year degree.”

“Compromise is acceptable. You’ve already begun?”

“A few months ago. When we got the laptop and you gave Sam endless internet for his birthday. It was kind of hard to keep protesting when it was easy enough to get online and just do it.” Dean’s lips were a thin line. “So. Happy?”

“Thrilled.” Castiel said dryly. “Recite me more poetry.”

“No.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Could you make it sound more gay?”

“Reciting poetry from memory was once considered an impressive feat.”

“Yeah, because no one had television.” Dean snorted, then began again. “..ne sceal næfre his torn to rycene, beorn of his breostum acyþan, nemþe he ær þa bote cunne, eorl mid elne gefremman.”

“You’ve skipped to the end.”

“Yeah, well I’m a cheater like that.”

“Nor ought a man ever make known the grief from out of his breast too quickly, unless he, the man, should know beforehand how to bring about a remedy with fortitude.” Castiel translated obligingly.

“Yeah, except no.” Dean rubbed a hand over his stubble. “How about: A warrior never talks about his grief unless he already knows that the only cure is courage.”

“That’s a very loose poetic interpretation.”

“So? Makes damn good sense to me. You gotta give credit to those guys, they knew how to say ‘man up’.”

“Perhaps you could write your thesis on that.”

“I’m not writing a thesis about anything.” Dean rolled his eyes. “Get a grip. It’s just an A.A.”

“Yes. I see that.” Castiel rolled his eyes right back.

“Shut up.” Sam slurred, pressing the back of his hand over his lips. “If you guys are gonna flirt, do it where I can’t hear you.”

“You’re not even awake.” Dean challenged.

“Yes’m.” Sam denied, then let out a thready breath and his hand went lax against his thigh.

“Are you flirting with me?” Castiel asked.

“No.” Dean pressed down harder on the accelerator. “I memorize poetry for everyone I know.”

“You memorized it to distract me from the fact you did as I wanted without telling me.”

“Ok, well. Maybe a little. But you’re not mad, so it worked.”

“I would not have been angry with you.” Castiel sighed. “You’re an adult. You can make choices without informing me.”

“Yeah, but you give me the sad eyes.”

“I do no such thing.”

“You’re doing it right now.”

“You can’t even see my eyes. It’s dark and you’re watching the road.”

“I hate you both.” Sam groaned and rolled further towards the door, pulling the hood of his sweatshirt up.

“Even if I was flirting with you,” Dean said long minutes later, “its not like you’d be interested. So. Whatever.”

Castiel let his eyes slide half-closed, the vibration of the car, Sam’s snoring and the faint whistle of Dean’s breathing surrounding him. He was greater than the vessel he wore, a being of light and energy folded so very small into an envelope of skin and nerve endings. Watching humans from the fortifications of his garrison was so very different from living inside one.

Dean had grown before him from child to man. He had watched with interest as the gangly lines of his body spread and grew firm. He had observed the lovers that Dean took and discarded as easily as the undershirts he wore. But he had done so much more than stood aside and take notes. He had sat beside Dean the first time he drove the Impala, run with him through wild tangled forest on his first hunt, healed him when he was sick, and guarded his dreams.

And in return, Dean had listened to him as he described the politics of his garrison, gave him terrible advice, taught him how to swear, how to laugh, how to have fun and how to enjoy the simple pleasures of the flesh like eating, singing and running.

“Angels love God. It is our primary purpose.” Castiel confessed into the small space between his mouth and Dean’s ear. “All that we do springs from the devotion. Yet, I think we do not understand it. We love only our Father and that we do because it was what we were created to do. We do not fall in love, our faith does not waver nor does it deepen. It’s as unchanging as the seasons.”

“You got a point with this?” Dean rasped, fingers tight around the steering wheel.

“Yes. My point is that I once feared falling because I discovered I could want.” He sighed. “I do not fear it any more because I discovered that I could love. If I fall because I have loved you and Sam too well, then it is a fate I accept. I was created to love. Perhaps it is not what my Father saw me becoming when He did so, but I can only think that I’m fulfilling His desires anyway.”

“I was talking about flirting.” Dean said softly. “It was just a joke.”

“I love you, Dean.” Castiel leaned forward another fraction of an inch, his lips just brushing the soft skin of Dean’s neck. “I do not expect you to return my affections, but I am creature of faith and patience. If ever you decide that you wish to be with me in that way, I will accept you. But please, be sure its what you want. In the meantime, flirtation is acceptable.”

Dean’s breath had gone ragged as Castiel talked and the car had slowed from its usual breakneck speed to a crawl.

“You can’t just say shit like that.” Dean sounded pained. “Especially not when I’m driving.”

“On the contrary, this is ideal. You do not have to look me in the eye and you have something else to preoccupy yourself with. You would not have let me finish anywhere else.”

“You and Sam, jerking me around by my chain all the time.” Dean shifted uncomfortably.

“You are only led as far as you allow us to take you.” Castiel pointed out. “This does not change anything, Dean. We are still as we always were.”

“Yeah?” Dean snorted. “That’s not how it works. You don’t tell someone you love them and then say nothing is gonna change. It has to change.”

“Why?” Castiel frowned.

“Because...just because, ok? You’ve changed the rules and I didn’t even know we were playing the game.”

“There’s no game. There’s no rules. Just you and me.” Castiel shrugged. “And the car.”

“And Sam.” Said Sam.

“Jesus!” Dean jumped in his seat, shoulder knocking into Castiel’s cheek.

“Can you pull over soon?” Sam rubbed a hand over his face. “I have to piss.”

The Impala skidded to a halt on the side of the road, the parking brake jammed upwards with uncustomary ferocity. As soon as it had stopped moving, Dean was out the door and tromping into the field by the side of the road.

“Well, that was a spectacular fuck up of a come on.” Sam turned around to shake his head at Castiel.

“It wasn’t a come on.”

“Ok, declaration of abiding, unselfish love.” Sam reached back and thwapped Castiel gently on the back of the head.

“He started it.” Castiel contended then wrinkled his nose at his own complaint.

“Mature.” Sam rolled his eyes. “But ok, sort of accurate. And I was trying to help man.”

“You are very convincing at feigning sleep.” Castiel narrowed his eyes. “Why have you perfected that?”

“Oh no, you’re not getting out of this by making it about me.” Sam pointed a finger at him. “You knew he’d get weird if you pushed it.”

“I wanted him to know the truth.”

“Well, he does now. There’s no help for that, I guess.” Sam popped open his own door. “But you better keep your promise and make sure everything is just like it was before. He’ll be watching for a slip up now.”

“It will be the same.” Castiel promised Sam’s retreating back.

It wasn’t the same ever again after that night. In the end though, it had nothing at all to do with what Castiel had said to Dean.

They arrived at the graveyard at one in the morning, all three of them keenly on edge as they gathered up weapons and lighter fluid. Dean flicked his lighter over and over, testing the flame until Sam snatched it from him and shoved it in his own pocket.

“Dad said it’d be the one by itself under the willow tree.” Sam muttered, trudging between the orderly rows towards the outlying graves.

It happened very quickly. Castiel probably would have reacted faster if it weren’t for his concentration on the shovel over Dean’s shoulder. He had been watching to see if it shook, if the muscles there were knotted with the weight of what Castiel had laid over their already heavy burden.

Sam’s outraged shout drew his attention sharply to where it needed to be. He had reached the willow tree and sunk the tip of his shovel into the dirt. It remained there as he was thrown several feet, the angry soul flickering in and out around him.

“Sammy!” Dean shouted, dropping his shovel in favor of his rock salt loaded rifle. His first shot went wide and the ghost came for him. Castiel started in on an exorcism.

The ground shook underneath them.

“There are more!” Castiel warned, pausing his flow of Latin. “This must be a mass burial site of some kind!”

“Thanks for the update!” Dean was surrounded firing wildly, trying to get to Sam. “We need to get back to the car and get the hell out of here!”

“I’ll get Sam!” Castiel crossed the distance in a quick flight. The situation was more dire than it had originally appeared. The ghost had flung it’s gravestone after Sam, pinning him to the trunk of the tree. “Don’t struggle. I’ve got you.”

Before the ‘you’ left his lips, phantom hands were on him and dragging him back. A ghost would generally be only a nuisance to him, but this was a veritable army of them. Furious they dragged at his clothes and the particulars of his flesh. Infuriated, he lashed out banishing them in small handfuls, but there were always more to take their place. In the distance, Dean let out a short shout of pain and then fell silent.

Castiel redoubled his efforts, but the ghosts poured endlessly over him, pushing into the earth and clouding his vision. He was seriously considering leaving his vessel behind if he could be sure that Sam and Dean were shielding their vision when Sam’s peculiarly accented Enochian pierced the air.

Every spectral limb on Castiel faltered and fell away under the assault. The spell was unfamiliar, a seemingly ragtag collection of phrases and half-formed thoughts. Castiel had heard of extemporaneous spellwork, but never seen it in action. Sam’s words were potent. The spirits melted into the ground. Castiel could still feel them under the soil, restive and fierce, but silenced.

“Wow, so that worked.” Sam offered Castiel a hand up.

“It should not have, but I am grateful that it did.” Castiel took Sam’s offer, then snatched his hand back as something electric and wrong sizzled between them.

“What?” Sam blinked at him.

“Sam? Cas?” Dean was stumbling towards them.

“How did you get out from under that stone?” Castiel asked, more harshly than he intended.

“I...” Sam faltered, then turned to the willow tree. The stone lay smashed in three pieces as if a giant had toppled it. “I don’t know. I was pushing and I heard Dean yell and I just...it just fell away.”

“You all right, Sammy?” Dean’s hands fluttered over Sam’s skin, patting him down for cuts and breaks. A thin streak of blood leaked over Dean’s forehead and down the side of his nose. “Cas?”

“I’m fine.” Castiel walked over to the broken stone, squatting down to run his hands over them. They were charged with the same dark electric feel as Sam’s hands.

“Sam saved our asses, huh?” Battered boots appeared in Castiel’s peripheral vision. “Guess it’s a good thing you shoved all that angel stuff into him.”

“Dean. I need you not to panic over what I’m about to tell you.”

“Uh...you kind of already threw me a curveball tonight. Can’t it wait?”

“No.” Rising, Castiel glanced to where Sam was standing, gnawing at his bottom lip. “Sam has demonic abilities.”

“Demonic.” Dean repeated, incredulously. “As in demons.”

“Yes.”

“My baby brother has demon powers. Suddenly.”

“No.” Castiel shoved his hands into his pockets. It was one of Dean’s embarrassed gestures, but Castiel had made it his own without conscious intent many years ago. “I suspect it has been slumbering within him for many years. I never looked deeply enough to see it.”

That he had not looked because he did not want to see seemed unfathomable. Angels could not deny. Such psychological trickery was not required when one had the Lord’s truth embedded in their very being. In this, as in so many things of late, Castiel had become distinctly unangelic.

“He’s my brother.” Dean repeated like talisman.

“And mine.” Castiel said firmly. “I’ll discover the cause of this, I promise.”

“I’m not a demon.” Sam approached them, eyes wide with worry. “Am I?”

“No. That I could not have missed.”

“But I’m...tainted. Wrong.”

“No!” Dean clapped a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “We’ll figure this out. Ok? Probably just some stupid paranormal mixup.”

“Whatever this is, it is none of your doing.” Castiel looked back down at the gravestone. “I will return with answers.”

Whatever Dean and Sam said to each other that night in reassurance or fear, Castiel would never know. What he did know was that when he returned, a new peaceful accord had settled between the brothers. He came back late at night, stealing under the darkness like a thief. He arrived silently in Dean’s small bedroom in Bobby’s house. The brothers were sharing a bed as they hadn’t in years, Sam curled into Dean’s side as if he could minimize the too large sprawl of his body in a space he had once easily fit into. They both woke when Castiel stood at the foot of the bed.

“You look like shit.” Dean pronounced, propping himself up on one elbow.

“Thank you.” Castiel sat down heavily at their tangled feet. “I feel far worse.”

“Not good news then?” Sam asked wryly, scrambling to sit up without knocking Dean off the bed or kicking Castiel in the back.

“I have been willfully blind.”

“Really fucking bad news then.” Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. “Well, no time like the present to ruin our lives. Lay it on us.”

“You are both fated to start and end the Apocalypse.”

“Ok.” Dean blinked. “What?”

“The end of the world. It’s what Zachariah has been telling us for years. The great battle is coming, the fight to end all fights. We had all stopped listening because it seemed so distant.” He fisted his hands together in his lap. “He spoke of two men. How could I know that he meant you both? That you had been bred to that purpose.”

“Bred?” Sam choked. “Like livestock?”

“Like vessels.” Castiel sighed, soft and fragile. “Listen. I will tell you everything.”

Though only days had passed for the Winchesters, months had gone by for him. He had traveled through time more than was advisable and fatigue laced his every word. For the first time, he understood why Dean’s eyes would droop and how Sam’s tongue stumbled after too many sleepless hours. He gave them, in heavy painful snatches, the story of their lives.

“It’s too much.” Dean said into silence left behind by Castiel’s story. “We’re...we’re not like that. Sammy’s still a kid for fuck’s sake!”

“So are you.” Castiel reached for Dean’s wrist, cradling the fragile bones in his grip. “None of this is meant to unfold yet. The war isn’t meant to be fought now. The sides are still forming, gathering their armies together. Sam wasn’t meant to come into his powers until his early twenties.”

“There’s time then.” Sam had gathered his knees to his chest, afraid, but not beaten down. “We can change all of it. Dean just never has to make a deal that sends him to Hell. That’s simple enough.”

“It’s Fate.” Castiel insisted. “This has already been laid it stone.”

“Bullshit.” Dean lifted his chin. “You want us to just follow along like this is some script we got handed early? No way.”

“God created humans with free will.” Said Sam, eyes narrowing as they did when he attacked any thorny problem. “Maybe the angels and demons have their parts to play, but we’re the random chance, right?”

“I...do not know.” Castiel closed his eyes against their earnestness. “I do not know what role I am intended to play here. There has been no command from on high.”

“But there was, right? I mean you’re Dean’s angel.” Sam pointed out. “Someone thought that you should be here with us. Giving us the scoop. A built in loop hole from God.”

“It wasn’t God.” Castiel sat up again, eyes flying open. “God did not give me to you.”

“Uh..thought was how that whole guardian angel thing worked?” Dean stared at him.

“God has never spoken me to me directly.” Castiel tightened his grip on Dean’s wrist, not to the point of pain, but enough for emphasis. “It was Gabriel.”

“Isn't he an archangel?” Sam wrinkled his nose. “Why would he care?”

“Because he was not of this timeline. He came to me in a vessel, a badly damaged one. It was he who gave me charge of Dean and by extension, you, Sam.” He tried to make sense of it. “He wanted to stop this. Whatever it was. He must have.”

“So you go ask him. Figure out this whole mess.” Dean turned his arm and at first Castiel thought he was pulling away and clung harder. Instead Dean’s fingers thread through his until they were holding hands. “Easy.”

“Gabriel disappeared from Heaven before Lucifer’s fall and none have seen him since. Most assume he’s dead.” Castiel rubbed his thumb over the back of Dean’s hand, barely aware of what he was doing. “But an archangel is a powerful being. It’s possible that he survived.”

“Ok, so step One in the Don’t Start the End of the World Plan is find Gabriel.” Sam leaned over their joined hands to fish a notebook and pen off the floor. “Step two: Find the Yellow Eyed Demon and kill him.”

“Dad’ll want to do that part.” Dean rolled his eyes as Sam drew up a table and started scribbling.

“He’ll need a powerful weapon.”

“What Sam can’t just cook up an impromptu demon spell?”

“I had not considered that.” Castiel blinked. “Can you?”

“Uh, I can try?” Sam frowned. “I mean the ghost one was kind of a pressured situation. I’d have to read over some standard exorcism stuff and go from there.”

“Add that as a step then.”

The sun tipped over the horizon as Sam wrote in the last few notes on his chart. Castiel had begun to yawn an hour before, startling all three of them with the crack of sound. Now he could barely keep his eyes open.

“You ok, Cas?” Dean put his hand to his forehead as if gauging his temperature.

“No.” He yawned again.

“Lie down.” Sam put his hand on Castiel’s elbow and tugged. “You should sleep.”

“I don’t sleep.” He grumbled, head landing on the pillow. It was softer than it looked and it smelled like the cheap shampoo they both used.

“Just rest your eyes then.” Drawing up a blanket, Dean cocooned them all on the too small bed. “Sammy and I’ll keep watch this time around.”

“That isn’t necessary.” He tried to sit back up, but the blanket felt impossibly heavy. “I’m supposed to guard you.”

“We watch out for each other.” Dean insisted, arm going around Castiel’s waist. The animal warmth of him was irresistible, Castiel burrowed in closer. “That’s how this is going to work, ok? We’re a team. We stick together, don’t let panic get to us and keep our heads clear.”

“Brains over brainwashing.” Muttered Castiel.

Dean didn’t reply, only set his hand on Castiel’s waist. Sam stayed folded up at Castiel’s back, pen scratching over the marble notebook that now contained the plans for the Apocalypse, some notes for his Spanish class and a list of his American History homework assignments.

Bracketed by the boys intended to end all of existence, Castiel fell asleep for the very first time. He dreamed of Jimmy, in his hospital bed, drawing crayon pictures of a garden in full bloom.

Chapter Text

“Scrambled eggs.”

At five, Sam had already taken to the stubbornness that would be an integral part of his personality for the rest of his life. The difference was that at five, the stuck out chin and wrinkled up forehead were endearing, rather than frustrating. Castiel, unaware of the poor precedence it would set, had made a bad habit of catering to that expression.

“I’m not sure I can make eggs.” He equivocated even as he removed the carton from the fridge. Dean was still asleep in the next room, catching up on sleep lost to a late night horror movie. The offer to fix Sam breakfast had been made on the assumption that Sam would ask for his usual bowl of cereal.

“I can help!” Sam dragged a chair to the counter and climbed on top of it. He wrestled the skillet out from a high shelf though Castiel had to catch it when it proved too heavy for Sam’s grip.

“Careful.” Castiel murmured. He opened the carton of eggs and drifted fingertips over the thin shells. He could see the tight pressed coop where the mothers had sat, the calloused hands that had packed the eggs into their foam container.

“Gotta crack ‘em.” Sam instructed.

Obligingly, Castiel wrapped the egg against the edge of the skillet as he had seen Dean do many times. The egg did indeed crack. Shattered would probably be a better word though. The innards splattered up, catching on the tip of Castiel’s nose and liberally spraying the countertop.

“Too hard.” Sam commented, picking bits of shell out of the skillet.

“So it would seem.” Castiel took out another egg and attempted a more gentle hit. The egg split with less violence and more or less made it into the pan. “How many?”

“Two for me and two for Dean.” Sam handed him the next egg solemnly.

By the fourth egg, Castiel thought he had the hang of opening them. The last one spilled it’s contents beautifully.

“Now what?”

“We scramble ‘em.” Sam opened a drawer and pulled out a fork. “You stick it in and waggle it around until it’s all one color.”

Five minutes later, they were both wearing substantially more egg than what remained in the skillet.

“I’m an angel of the Lord.” Castiel said, a little mournfully.

“There’s still enough to eat.” Sam pat him on the arm. “Just put the burner on.”

Neither of them thought to clean off the stove top first. They had also forgotten to grease the pan. Which was how Dean woke up to the smell of burnt eggs.

“What happened?” He asked drowsily.

“Eggs!” Sam offered him a charred plate and a glass of orange juice.

“What did you do to these?” Dean wrinkled his nose.

“Cas made them!” Sam’s puppy dogs eyes went rounder.

“Cas?” Dean looked from the plate to Castiel. “Are you...is there egg in your hair?”

“I do not wish to discuss it.”

)*(

That Sam’s eleventh birthday went by mostly unnoticed was only to be expected. John’s stay in Our Lady of Perpetual Mercy had stretched on for four days and he was only just beginning to show signs of recovery. Dean had spent every minute of visitor’s hours sitting at his father’s bedside, usually with Sam close by doing the homework a kind teacher brought at the end of each day.

“Happy birthday, Sammy.” Dean said once, early on the day and presented Sam with a bag of new underwear, socks and undershirts.

That had been the end of it. Castiel, present but invisible at Dean’s request, decided that Sam deserved some kind of reward for taking the meager offering with gratitude and quiet understanding of Dean’s current position.

It was to Castiel’s understanding that cake was appropriate for birthdays. Aware of his own limitations, he decided to make his attempt with one of the boxed mixes. He found a grocery store where the boxes were prominently displayed, read the back of each box until he found what appeared to be the simplest. It merely require the addition of water and some oil.

“A young man that bakes?” An elderly woman stopped her cart beside him, beaming at him. “You so rarely see that.”

“It will be my first attempt.” He admitted.

“Oh! Well, make sure you get a can of frosting then. Frosting can hide a lot of mistakes!”

“Thank you.” He picked up one of the cans of frosting, a gleeful fat sprite on the cover adjusting its chef’s hat. It looked mildly demonic, but so did the leprechaun on the boys’ favorite cereal and Dean had already assured him that it was just advertising.

The fact that baking would require an oven stymied him once he had everything in a plastic bag. The Winchesters weren’t currently staying somewhere with a kitchen. He stretched out his perception. There. A failed restaurant only a few blocks away. They had not yet turned off the gas, but no one would be present.

It was fortunate that the restaurant was surrounded by blacktop. He had mixed, poured and preheated appropriately, but became preoccupied when Rachel started speaking to the rest of the garrison about an unusual fish she had discovered. The usually quiet connection between himself and the others rattled to life with curiosity and amusement.

The cry of the fire alarm warned him that the cake had become slightly overdone. When he manifested outside of the mess, pan in hand, it was little more than a charcoal briquette. He frowned down at it. The cake shuddered under his gaze. It took more manipulation than he usually bothered with, but he was able to return it to a still burnt, but edible state.

He used all of the frosting. It looked almost normal. The roof of the restaurant caved in. From down the road, sirens cut through the air. He manifested outside of John’s hospital room.

“Hey, Cas.” Sam sat next to the door, folded up small and out of the way. He had been reading, but the book was quickly set aside. “Dad’s awake. They think he’s going to be fine. Dean and him are already talking about an early break out.”

“I think he would heal faster here.”

“You and me both.” Sam shrugged. “What do you have?”

Castiel settled down next to him on the floor. A nurse passing by gave them a small smile and Castiel caught the edge of her thoughts, a muddled mix of appreciation for two quiet boys and a thread of melancholy thinking of her own children, grown now and out of her reach.

“Cas?” Sam prompted.

“It’s a cake.” Castiel handed Sam the pan. “For your birthday.”

“You made me cake?” Sam stared down at the thick white smear of vanilla frosting pepper with colored sprinkles.

“Yes. It is...slightly burnt.”

“Burnt is ok.” Sam knocked his shoulder against Castiel’s. “Thanks.”

After some scrounging, Sam produced two plastic sporks and speared one chunk out of the pan. He bit into it, made a face, but chewed and swallowed it.

“The box said it was vanilla.” Castiel said. They looked into pan at the dark brown color of the inside of the cake.

“The frosting is really good.” Sam decreed and used his spork to scrap it off.

“Oh hey, cake.” Dean emerged from John’s room and pried out a chunk before Sam could say a word. “Shit. Where did you get this?”

“Cas made it.” Sam said mildly. “Isn’t it good?”

Dean froze, clearly stuck between spitting it out or attempting to swallow it.

“I am aware that I have failed in this endeavor.” Castiel sighed. “You can spit it out.”

“Oh thank God.” Dean spat the blackened mass into his hand, then dumped it into the biological waste bin inside John’s room.

“Thanks anyway, Cas.” Sam scraped up the last of the frosting. “It was a good thought.”

“Why didn’t you just angel one up or buy one?” Dean asked, leaning heavily in the doorway. His eyes were heavy lidded and dark circles marked the delicate skin underneath.

“Because it would not have been as meaningful.” Castiel said gently, but the truth was that it hadn’t even occurred to him.

He wasn’t sure what that meant.

)*(

“You left him alone with your health textbook?” Dean turned on Sam with a growl. “What have I told you about allowing him access to that kind of thing?”

“I’m still here.” Castiel said mildly, paging through the text.

“He’s like a million years old, Dean.” Sam rolled his eyes. “A tenth grade textbook isn’t going to blow his mind.”

“According to this pyramid, neither of you consume a very healthy diet.” The pyramid was quite clear, listing most of the things the Winchesters consumed as ‘junk food’ to be eaten ‘sparingly’.

“I save people’s lives! I can live on Ho-Hos and pizza if I want!” Dean took the textbook from Castiel’s unprotesting hands.

“I wouldn’t mind a vegetable or two.” Sam confessed after Dean had left the room, intending to hide the book as if Castiel hadn’t already memorized the contents. “But it is harder to come by the way we travel.”

The most reasonable solution seemed to be the microwave. Castiel had studied the device and found it simple enough. The next time the Winchesters were settled in a rented house, he waited to be left alone, then approached the microwave with a bag of frozen peas. They had been the easiest to obtain as John occasionally bought them as an alternative to ice packs.

“Three to five minutes.” He read off the back of the bag as he sliced it open and poured the contents into an old chinese takeout container that served as Winchester tupperware. With a few experimental pokes, he managed to get the microwave to agree to his plan.

When he hit the start button, there was an arch of bright lightning followed by the smell of burnt peas. Bewildered, he removed the smoking container. The peas around the edges were still frozen, but several in the middle were scalded black.

“What the hell is that smell?” Dean asked seconds later, coming in far sooner than Castiel had expected him.

“There was an electrical storm in the microwave.” Castiel stared into the depths of the container.

“Dude.” Dean wrapped his hand in a dishtowel then carefully removed the spoon that Castiel had used to scoop peas from the bag into the container. “No metal in the microwave.”

“I see.”

“Why were you making peas anyway?”

“For you and Sam.” Castiel sighed. “You’re eating habits are substantially shortening your already small lifespans.”

“Oh.” Dean took the container from Castiel and dumped it wholesale into the garbage. “Well. It ain’t gonna happen. Besides, I’m way more likely to get killed on a hunt, you know? Might as well enjoy the time I got eating cheeseburgers and pie.”

“I wish you would not say those things.” He shoved his hands into his jeans.

“It’s just how it is.” Dean turned away. “Come on, let’s go get another microwave before Dad gets home and we have to explain how you murdered this one.”

When Dean told the story of Castiel’s mishap, it was with a laugh. Sam laughed too, head tossed back and chest heaving. Castiel didn’t mind. It was hardly the first time they had seen him make errors nor would it be the last. If it could provide amusement, so be it. He imagined that would be the end of it and accepted Dean’s firm ban on him approaching any kind of cooking device.

What surprised him was that much later that night when he sat at the kitchen table, Sam padded in, poured himself a glass of water and then sat across from Castiel at the table.

“You should be sleeping.” Castiel scolded. “You have an exam tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry we aren’t immortal.” Sam said as if that reply made any sense whatsoever. “I mean, I don’t really want to live forever? But I know you’re going to be lonely one day. Maybe sooner rather than later and that sucks.”

“I’ll have my brothers and sisters.” It sounded weak and pained.

“I know.” Sam reached across the table and took one of Castiel’s hands in his. “I’m sorry anyway.”

“As am I.”

“Seriously?” Walking blearily into the room, Dean slapped Sam on the side of the head as he made his way to the coffeemaker. “Whenever you two girls are done having your periods, you want to play poker?”

Though they were both yawning hugely, neither Sam nor Dean made any effort to go back to bed that night. They played cards until the sun shook itself awake and hefted itself above the skyline.

)*(

It was an otherwise beautiful day in a beautiful place. The hollow where an archangel had once sheltered for the long days it had taken to unmake itself was filled with unusually large flowers and the bright smell of freshly baked bread. In this small space, it had unraveled all the things that made an angel identifiable to its brethren. It had wept and the ground remembered those tears with bountiful growth.

Castiel closed his eyes against the riotous beauty of the flowers and tried, one last hopeless time, to fly.

It was no use. The power he had felt waning from him day after day as he rushed to find this place had finally left him. He was dirty, tired and hungry. He had fallen.

“If you fall,” the whisper tickled over Castiel’s ear and for a moment, he wasn’t sure if it was Dean or the breeze, “you come straight to us. We’ll take care of you.”

But Castiel was far away, across an ocean and over impassable mountains. He turned his eyes up to the silent heavens and prayed.

“Balthazar, angel of the deepest archives, hear my prayer. I require a last service from you, brother.” He pressed a hand to his lips. They were bleeding and the taste of copper overwhelmed him.

“Castiel, what have they done to you?” Balthazer appeared at his side, an arm already around his shoulders. “What have you done to yourself?”

“Its all right.” He rasped, sagging a little as he tried to stand. “I was waiting for it.”

“Is this why no one’s seen you in months?” Balthazar’s hands were butterflies, alighting on Castiel’s body then fluttering away again in horror. “Your grace...it’s waned to almost nothing.”

“I’m aware.” He said tightly. “I need one last thing from you, before you turn your back on me.”

“I’m not turning my back on you. How could you even-”

“They will make you. I have fallen. You cannot associate with me any longer.”

“How is that possible?”

“I did as I was told.” Castiel smiled grimly. “I followed one order at the detriment to another, but I do not regret it. Can you bring me to America? Preferably somewhere in Illinois, but anywhere would do.”

“And you want me to just leave you there?” Balthazar shook him. “Have you gone mad?”

“I am sane.” He grasped Balthazar's forearms, all too aware that he was no longer strong enough to push him away. “I have a plan in place. You would not be abandoning me to the wolves.”

“Why have you done this?” Balthazar asked again, horror in his voice, but also something like hope. Castiel wasn’t sure what to make of that.

“Love.” Castiel told him, closing his eyes against his reaction. “And faith. And to save the world.”

“It doesn’t need saving.”

“It will.” He held on tight, the smooth alabaster of Balthazar’s skin might very well be the last angelic thing he touched. “Please. Take me home.”

They touch down in the outskirts of Chicago. Castiel felt the sickening jar that Dean often complained of when traveling by angel. He did not fall to his knees, but it was a near thing. In an uncharacteristic moment of warmth, Balthazar pulled him tight and kissed his temple.

“I bless you, Castiel.” He said when he released him.

“Renounce me.” Castiel told him. “Tell all the others to do the same. I would not have you punished for my wrongdoings.”

“I may do so with my lips, but never with my heart.” Balthazar smile was wicked, but his eyes were sad. “Goodbye, brother.”

“Goodbye.”

Castiel stood alone on the side of two lane road. He pulled the cellphone Dean had given him from his pocket and dialed the first programmed number.

“Cas?” Dean answered immediately, the rumble of other conversation in the background.

“I require a ride.” Castiel watched the traffic slide by him.

“Fuck. Where are you?”

“The corner of Duane and Mamet. I’m uncertain of the town, but I can see the Chicago skyline.” He pulled up the zipper on his sweatshirt, huddling further into it. “It’s cold.”

“Right. Ok. Sam can come get you, school is almost out. Just...can you get inside somewhere?”

“I believe this is a suburban area.” He started to walk anyway, heading towards the outline of tall buildings against the steel grey sky. “But perhaps there is a gas station nearby.”

“Cas...” Dean swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

“Nothing about this is your fault.”

“I know. Still. It fucking blows.”

A car skidded by, tossing a few muddy droplets of rain water over Castiel.

“Yes. It does.” He wiped the water from his cheek. “I have information.”

“Did you find Gabriel?”

“No, but I know why I have not been able to locate him.” He crossed the street, looking both ways first as Dean had once so often admonished a young Sam to do. “He did something much like the sigils I carved onto our ribs.”

“He hid himself from the other angels?”

“Yes. Rather than tear out his grace, he found a different way to channel it. It would have taken a great deal of power and rendered him invisible. He’s disguised himself completely for many years.”

“Ok, so how do we figure out who he disguised himself as?”

“Something powerful. I cannot imagine an archangel playing at being a mortal for long.” He pulled up the hood of his sweatshirt, sacrificing peripheral vision for the slight warmth it provided. “He must have left evidence behind. I have a better idea of what to look for now.”

“That’s good.” But Dean didn’t sound pleased. “Was it worth it?”

“It has always been worth it.” He clenched his hand down around the phone, the plastic seams biting into his skin. “Humanity is worth saving.”

It took him forty-five more minutes to find a Dunkin’ Donuts where he could wait for Sam to come get him. Dean stayed on the phone with him until it began to beep ominously and they decided it was better for him to preserve the battery just in case. The span of time between the end of that call and the beaten up Honda Sam must have stolen appearing in front of the store was the worst of Castiel’s very long life.

“Cas!” Sam called to him breathlessly. Castiel walked outside and slid into the passenger side with infinite relief. “You ok?”

“No.” He let his head fall against the glass of the window. It was cool under his skin.

“So it’s over? You’re...just like us now?”

“I will always be an angel.” He could feel the diminished spark of his grace buried deep and slumbering alongside Jimmy’s nascent consciousness. “But yes, in all the way that would matter to you, I’m human.”

“You must be hungry.” Sam said instead of the dozen other things that must have clattered up his throat. “Come on, let’s get back to the apartment.”

It had been with some ugly disagreement that the Winchesters had settled on the apartment. Sam had only a few months left of high school and apocalypse or not, he had wanted to finish. Castiel had been unable to provide the means of transport, using his waning abilities to track down Gabriel. John, powered by a refreshed sense of vengeance with a side order of world-saving, wanted to take to the road. In the end, Sam and Dean had stayed behind, letting their father work through his anger on every demon he could locate. In some token effort at peace, Sam texted his father spell after spell in his broken Enochian looking for the magic bullet that would kill a demon. So far none of them had worked. Though several made for quick and effective exorcisms.

“Come on.” Sam parked the car in an abandoned lot a few blocks from the apartment building. “Let’s get you inside.”

Castiel followed along in Sam’s wake. His feet hurt, he discovered, and it was even colder now with the sun starting to set. The three story walkup challenged his muscles and by the end of it, he wanted to curl up on the couch and sleep. His stomach gurgled.

“Food.” Sam determined. “I’ll make something while you shower. No offense, but you kind of reek.”

“None taken.” He rubbed at his face which itched with the beginnings of stubble.

The bathroom greeted him with a porcelain chill. He stripped off his clothes and turned the shower on as hot as it would go. While he waited for it to warm, he regarded himself in the mirror. The frustration of the afternoon showed in the rumpled mess of his hair and the set line of his jaw. Jimmy had grown into a passably attractive man though his shoulders were a little rounded and his stomach softer than a hunter’s might be. It wasn’t the body of a warrior and Castiel felt the loss of that part of himself keenly.

Steam clouded the mirror by the time he stepped under the showers ferocious heat. He was familiar enough with the ritual of cleaning to perform it on himself. Soap. Shampoo. Conditioner. He used Dean’s practical cheap bottles, spreading familiar scents into the crevices of his skin and scalp.

When his skin was pink and raw, he retreated from under the spray. Sam had left a pile of clothing just inside the door. Reluctantly, Castiel picked them up. He had worn nothing but the outfit Dean had first given to him. Yet these clothes were also familiar. The over knotted drawstring of the grey pajama pants and the faded logo of ‘The Who’ picked across the chest of the black t-shirt were comforting in their own right. There was a pair of clean boxers as well, festooned with red hearts gone pink with too many washing. He pulled it all on, warm again in the steam, before venturing out.

“You look beat.” Sam evaluated, turning from the stove. “Sit down.”

Castiel sat the table, happy for the simplicity of orders. The plate eventually sat in front of him was filled with fluffy eggs and two golden pieces of toast. He looked up at Sam, who offered him a wry half-smile.

“Well, you never got to taste them last time around.”

“Thank you.” He picked up the slice toast first, taking an evaluating bite. Dean often pressed bites of food on him, so it was hardly the first time he had tasted something. This was different though, the butter bursting over his tongue and his body yearning for him to shove it all down.

“Go slow.” Sam advised, pouring him a glass of orange juice. “You don’t want to throw up or anything.”

The first forkful of eggs tasted nothing like calloused hands or the soft clucking of hens all stacked in a row. It tasted like salt and savory herbs and the margarine that coated the pan. It sent warmth spreading down his throat and through his belly. It was base and animal and good.

“This was well made.” He told Sam, who smiled and gave him another piece of toast.

Just as he finished the last of it, Dean arrived. He made a beeline for Castiel, wrapping him up in the kind of embrace usually reserved for Sam after a near death experience. Castiel held him back after a stiff tentative moment. As it went on, he let his forehead drop to Dean’s shoulder. His nose and eyes burned as he clung on. Grief was a terrible thing to feel as a mortal, he decided.

“You ok?” Dean asked at last, pulling back to run worried eyes over Castiel’s face.

“I’m tired.”

“Yeah, of course, you are.”

“I put clean sheets on your bed.” Sam picked up the plates and took them to the sink. “I used gloves to take off the old ones. You really need to do laundry more often.”

“Bitch.” Dean walked Castiel to his bedroom, Sam’s faint reply of ‘Jerk’ following them inside. “Go ahead and get under the blankets.”

“You’ll stay with me?” He asked, dropping his gaze to the floor. As his grace had waned, he slept with increasing regularity and each time, Dean or more infrequently Sam, had stayed beside him. It had tore at him that the minds he had once guarded so fiercely in dreams now watched over him as he took his rest.

“Yeah, let me get something to read first, ok?”

Castiel got into the bed, pressing his face to the clean pillowcase and drawing the blankets up around his shoulders. After a few drowsy moments, the mattress sunk and Dean got into the bed. He carried a thin paperback and his reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. The fight to put those there had ended in cold silence between the brothers for days. Castiel had taken Sam’s side in the battle, but Dean kept speaking to him anyway. Such was the way between them.

“Sleep goes easier if you close your eyes, moron.” Dean dropped one hand into Castiel’s neck, rubbing his thumb over the tense muscles. Castiel obediently closed his eyes and fell asleep to the soft press of Dean’s fingers.

In the morning, Sam made waffles soaked in syrup and Castiel discovered his sweet tooth.

“Do you remember what you said about hunters in other places?” Dean asked when the food was only a sticky memory on their plates. “How they sometimes have bases of operation?”

“Yes. I remember every conversation we have ever had.” He ignored Sam’s eye roll. “Why?”

“Just an idea I had.” Dean smiled faintly. “About a job for you, the end of the world and Sammy going to college.”

Chapter Text

“I already have clothes.” Castiel protested as Sam once more tried to cajole him into the Target.

“You can’t just wear Dean’s stuff, man.” Sam rubbed his forehead as if he had a headache oncoming. “You’re your own person. Got to have stuff you like.”

“I like my clothes.” He muttered, but got out. Wearing Dean’s clothes indefinitely was apparently not an option according to both Sam and Dean, so he should give into the inevitable.

“We can get you similar stuff, if you want.” Sam put a companionable arm around his shoulders. Cynically, Castiel wondered if it was to keep him from running off. “But you might like other things too.”

The Target aisles offered a boggling amount of choice. Sam had claimed a cart, leaning his large frame over the top as they pushed through children’s and women’s to reach the men’s clothing. Castiel looked at the rows, hunching his shoulders further over.

“Ok.” Sam glanced at him. “Well. What colors do you like?”

“I don’t-” He started then stopped. Of course he had preferences. What was the point of hiding them now? “Dark green. Blues. Browns.”

“Natural tones, cool. That’s easy.”

“I would prefer things that are warm.” He pushed into the racks with more confidence than he felt. “And soft.”

“Warm, soft, natural colors.” Sam grinned. “You really are a Winchester.”

“That is what it says on my driver’s license.”

Dean had produced the license (with an admonition that he wasn’t to use it to actually drive), along with a number of fake ids and credit cards that morning. He’d instructed Sam to ‘get the angel some of his own damn clothes, then come to that address I gave you’. Apparently Dean’s grand plan would be revealed that afternoon. He’d been cagey about the whole thing, responding to questions with only a tight smile and assurances that all would make sense in the end.

“Here.” Sam put a sweater into Castiel’s hands. It a dusky blue and soft as the inside of a new sweatshirt. “Try it on. You can just pull it on over your t-shirt, no one will care.”

Reluctantly, Castiel pulled the sweater on. It had a v-neck and settled over his skin with a promising cling. The sleeves were a little long on him, enough that he could pull the fabric easily over his knuckles.

“I like this.” He decided and Sam piled two more into the cart in different colors. T-shirts were simple, more v-necks in a variety of colors without graphics of any kind. He liked the simplicity of them. With a laugh, Sam had offered up some plaid and while Castiel obligingly tried it on, he found it too busy for his taste.

“Ok. Pants.” Sam turned on the racks of jeans and slacks. “I have no idea what size you are. So let’s grab a few and see what fits, ok?”

“If we must.”

The dressing room was a horrendous experience. The small room with it’s easily jarred door and distorted mirror sent Castiel’s heart racing. He was grateful to escape to show Sam one fit or another until one finally won out as his actual size.

“You’re thinner than both of us.” Sam commented absently through the thin door. “I always think of you as being so huge, you know?”

“No.” Castiel tugged Dean’s jeans back on. Now that he had tried on a pair that fit, he could see how poorly Dean’s clothing actually sat on him. The jeans were too generous at the waist and worn in places where the fabric barely pulled on him.

“Yeah, never mind then. We can get you a few pairs of jeans.”

“I would like some khaki’s as well.”

“Sure. Not like you can really break the bank here.”

Picking underwear resulted in some discussion that clearly made Sam uncomfortable. Boxer briefs won the day, several packs thrown in along with plain white socks and a new pair of sneakers. That should have been the end of it, but on the way toward the cash register something caught his eye.

“Cas?” Sam followed him, bemused.

The watches weren’t particularly fine craftsmanship, but the soft tick of the mechanism was fascinating. He felt the loss of his time sense keenly. The steady red digits of Dean’s alarm clock reassured him vastly when he woke, but he could hardly drag it with him all day.

“You want one?” Sam asked quietly. “We can swing it if you do.”

“Yes.” His hands clenched into hard fists. “Please.”

“Sure. Whatever you want.”

His choice seemed to surprise Sam. The thick leather cuff with its silver buckles swallowed his wrist, reassuringly present. The second hand traveled the dial with easy clicks. If he brought it close to his ear, the beat reminded him of the regular thuds of Dean’s heart in his sleep. As soon as they were out of the store, he strapped it to his wrist.

“Want to drop this stuff off at the apartment first?” Sam shoved the bags into the trunk. “You can change.”

“I’m sufficiently clothed at the moment.”

“Bet your new stuff would be more comfortable.”

“I’m not a child.” He buckled his seatbelt, aware that failure to do so was not longer just attracting attention, but a very real precaution.

“You kind of are, actually.” Sam slid into the driver’s seat, starting the Impala with an easy twist of the key. “I mean, you’re older than dirt, but this stuff is all new at the same time. You can hit me if I’m getting too condescending or whatever.”

After a thoughtful pause, Castiel leaned over and smacked Sam in the center of his forehead with his open palm. It made a satisfying sound.

“For the last few minutes.” He explained.

“Cold, man, real cold.” But Sam laughed. “Anyway, don’t you want Dean to see your new duds?”

“I do not care one way or another.” The words had hardly left his mouth before he realized they were a lie. A horrible sensation came over him, his cheeks heating and a tightening of the skin.

“Um.” Sam blinked. “Are you blushing?”

“No.” Castiel sank into his seat. “You should watch the road.”

“Yep, eyes on the road, you got it.” Sam cleared his throat. “So. Apartment?”

“Yes.”

“You should go with the blue sweater. Brings out your eyes.”

“Sam?”

“Yes?”

Castiel swatted him on the arm.

“Ow!”

Back at the apartment, Castiel diligently folded his clothes into the bottom dresser drawer. It had been empty when he arrived, so Dean had dubbed it his. Castiel touched the tan sweatshirt that had been as much a part of him as Jimmy’s flesh for the last two decades. He pushed it the back of the drawer reluctantly. He did take Sam’s advice, changing into the blue sweater pulled over a grey t-shirt. The khakis still had a crisp line to them and he thought he looked average in the mirror. He could be any twenty something male. After some consideration, he ran his hand through his hair until it was disheveled the way he saw many men wear it.

His reflection frowned at him, the lines of his forehead deepening.

“Some time in the next century!” Sam called through the door.

When he emerged, Sam hustled him back down the car without so much as a cursory glance. Though he did take the time to shove a bottle of water into Castiel’s hand. He had a hard time telling the difference between hunger and thirst, so the boys had taken to watering him at regular intervals as if he were an exotic houseplant.

“Read these to me.” Sam shoved two pages of printed directions into Castiel’s hands. Together they navigated through a maze of streets.

When they arrived at the address, they both stared in stunned silence at the building. It was an elderly storefront, leaning a little on it’s next store neighbor (a dry cleaner). The sign had once been gilt, but had been sun bleached to a garish yellow that read ‘Cleansing Breath: Magic Shop for All Needs’. There was another sign in the window drawn in bold sharpie ‘Tarot Readings $10, Palm Readings $11, Astrological Chart $30’.

The car behind them blared its horn. Sam jumped and put the car back into gear, sliding into the first open space he could find. Together, they walked down the broken pavement. The front door of the shop boasted a few more signs including one that said ‘Closed’ and another that read ‘Shoplifting is Terrible for Your Karma’’.

Sam tried the handle. It opened easily and as the door slid wide, a cacophony of windchimes signaled their entrance. The smell of dust, incense, spilled wine and sage wafted out onto the street. Reluctantly, Sam went in with Castiel at his heels. The store was one small open room with a series of waist high bookshelves, all crammed with texts in varying states of decay. On top of the shelves were a variety of wicker baskets filled to the brim with crystals, bundles of herbs, voodoo and hoodoo charms, runes and plastic wrapped tarot decks. At the back a long counter ran the width of the store, a glass case displaying larger and finer crystals along with actual jewelry and a few shrunken heads. An ancient cash register was settled on top and behind it sat Dean, a wide grin on his face.

“What the hell, man?” Sam ran a finger along the top of one bookcase, bringing it back covered in dust. “What is this place?”

“Ours!” Dean lifted up a wooden slat to walk through the main space. “What do you think?”

“Uh..it’s a dusty dump filled with fakes?”

“No! Well. Yes, but it’s also our new HQ.” Dean patted the countertop fondly as if it were the Impala’s hood. “Ground zero for apocalypse prevention!”

“Ground zero isn’t a good thing.” Sam scolded absently, his attention straying to the shelves. “Hold on, that’s a real copy of the Tahini Spell Compendium. There’s only like five of those in existence!”

“And this is an apocryphal text of Mary Magdalene. I’ve never seen it in this format.” Castiel tugged the volume from where it was jammed between a book wondering if cats had auras and one about reincarnation. “This addition appears to have commentary in Mandarin.”

“Cool, right?” Dean slid in behind Castiel, one hand on Castiel’s elbow. “Nice watch.”

“Thank you.” He kept his attention on the book in his hands. Dean was rubbing his fingertips over the fabric of the sweater. “What is this place?”

“Ok, hear me out first. It belonged to this psychic I met a few months ago when we moved here.”

“By yourself?” Sam crossed his arms of his chest. “You went after a witch on your own?”

“And then stole her property?” Castiel set down the book hastily.

“Woah! I said hear me out!” Dean laughed. “She wasn’t a witch! She was the genuine article, mind reader and everything! She knew I was coming, had tea and cookies out already. Which I didn’t eat, so stop looking at me like that Sam. Got to talking with her and she said she’d noticed some weird stuff in the neighborhood too, but it had nothing to do with her. I looked into it, found a poltergeist, salt and burned the motherfucker and I thought that was the end of it. But this psychic, she was pretty grateful.”

“So...she gave you her store?” Sam asked, incredulously.

“Well, she said a lot of stuff about destiny and changing your fate. Mostly though she wanted to retire to Florida to be with her sister and there wasn’t anyone left to leave the business with that would understand how to handle everything she sold.” Reaching for back pocket, Dean drew out a thick wad of paper. “I even got a lawyer to read over the papers, Sammy, so don’t get twitchy. It was a straightforward deal, nothing hinky or soul selling in the fine print.”

Taking the papers from Dean, Sam retired behind the counter to read them over with a frown.

“I don’t understand how this is a plan.” Castiel ventured.

“It’s more the start of a plan.” Looking at Castiel speculatively from under his eyelashes,Dean went on, “You’re gonna need something to do all day and we need some place for people to meet up, call in to as we expand our resources. Bobby can do some of it, but this is our gig, right? Can’t depend on him do everything. I can’t think of anyone better to organize all that information and manpower than you. And running the store,of course, but Sam and I can help with that. Meanwhile, Sammy can go to college locally and still come out hunting on the weekends or have you to teach him all that funky extracurricular stuff while he mans the cash register..”

“I can’t-”

“I’ve never bought you a gift.” Dean cut him off before he could go on. “Not once. You’re always giving us stuff, but you don’t really celebrate holidays or have a birthday. So. You know. This is kind of the big one.”

Not the store, Castiel realized almost immediately. The gift was Dean finally paying some kind of attention to what Castiel had been telling him for years. This could be the place that Dean came home to, where Sam was living the life he wanted without leaving his brother behind. A place where Castiel would be waiting for him, keeping the home fires burning.

“Dean.” He said softly.

“Shut up, Cas.” Dean finally dropped his hand from Castiel’s elbow.

Placing his hands on the worn wood of the shelves, Castiel spotted an intricate carving. It was a deep weave of protective runes dating back thousands of years. He ran the pad of thumb over them. Whatever kind of psychic the owner had been, she knew how to work deep magic. Enough that a poltergeist would have given her no trouble.

“What was the owner’s name?” He asked, following the trail of runes as they twisted and turned over the shelves, trailing down the sides and spilling onto the floor.

“Brigit.”

“Brigit.” Castiel tasted the name in his mouth. “The saint or the goddess, I wonder.”

“What?” Leaning in to follow Castiel’s eyes to the runes. “What are those?”

“Protection spells. Old and worn.” Deep in the weave, Castiel spotted a curious bend to one of the characters as if it had to be twisted to accommodate its modern meaning. The cut was far fresher, a recent addition. “Here. She’s added something new to the defenses. Winchester men, she writes, with the strength of iron do stand between us and the oncoming darkness.”

“Great.” Castiel could feel Dean’s rising tension. “You mean I just got us deeper into this shit?”

“Caught something the lawyer missed. ”Sam set the stack of papers down in front of them.

“I should get my goddamn money back.” Dean grumbled.

“He wouldn’t have thought to check for this.” With care, Sam held up the last sheet of paper where Dean’s signature stood beside Brigit’s name, the two of them messy tangles. The light poured through the dirty windows and faint watermarks became clear. “It’s Enochian.”

“So what, do we owe her our souls?”

“No.” The smile was foreign on Castiel’s lips, but he tried it on and found it just as comfortable as his sweater. “You’ve done well, Dean.”

“Oh,” Dean blinked, then smiled, “awesome. What does it say?”

“Grieve not, Thursday’s child,” he translated, the words tight in his throat, “there are those still in Heaven and on Earth that stand aligned with you. Be patient and take care of my books. My blessings upon you all.”

“Who’s Thursday’s child?” Sam put the sheet back down, holding the rest of the papers up to the light to ensure there were no other messages.

“It’s that old nursery rhyme.” Taking up one of the sheets, Dean glanced over it. “ Mom taught it to me. Monday’s child is fair of face, that’s you Sam. Too bad they got that wrong, huh?”

“Fuck you.” Sam said without venom.

“Could be worse. Wednesday’s child is full of woe. That’s me.” Dean glanced over at Castiel. “Thursday’s child has far to go.”

“She meant me, Sam.” Castiel went back to studying the defensive runes. “I was the angel of Thursdays.”

“Oh, right, I remember now. We looked you up one of those angelology books once.” Sam snapped his fingers. “I always thought having a day of the week to look over was weird.”

“I believe she meant the phrase ironically. Once I watched over Thursdays, but now in this form I am made a child again and they must watch over me.”

“Ok, now that’s fucking weird. How does a day watch over someone?” Dean’s eyebrows ascended upward.

“It’s a metaphor.” Sam snorted. “Those he once protected have to protect him. She means us, I think.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Castiel said, shifting uneasily under the weight of their combined stare. “It’s the rest of the message that means something. That there are allies to be found here, I did not doubt, but there may yet be those in Heaven who do not wish for the Apocalypse to come to pass....that is good news.”

They all thought that over in silence, then Dean smirked,

“You know Thursday’s child would be an awesome band name. But since we don’t have a band...”

They never got around to hanging a real sign up. Instead they had a cheaply printed banner strung up over the faded ‘Cleansing Breath’, thick black lettering declaring ‘Thursday’s Child: Books, Bells and Candles’. They took down the fortune telling prices sign, but left up the shoplifting one with an added cartoon courtesy of Dean depicting a violent end to a stick figure attempting to smuggle out a book.

“You know, we’re only missing Tuesday.” Sam remarked months later,

He and Castiel were in the backroom of the shop. Once fortunes had been told there, but now it was grand central. There was a phone on the wall with speed dial to Bobby, the Roadhouse, a rundown hotel in Arizona called Mab’s, an anthropology professor with a taste for the unusual that they mostly called Doc and John Winchester. There were piles of books, threatening to overwhelm the large table that dominated the room. The table itself was littered with scrolls and notebooks filled with Sam’s slanting handwriting and Castiel’s tightly ornate script. Dean’s notes were scrawled here and there haphazardly, mostly in the form of notes he’d taken on napkins or the backs of receipts.

“Tuesday?” Castiel asked blearily, searching for his cup of coffee then making a soft disappointed noise when he located it half-empty and cold.

“Sure. I’m Monday, Dean’s Wednesday and you’re Thursday. Dad’s a Friday I think. So we have all the days of the week, but Tuesday.”

“Is there a point to this?” He rubbed absently at the bridge of his nose.

“Nah. Just thought of it. Guess I’m too tired to be making much sense. Just I was looking at the rhyme and you know...Tuesday’s child is full of grace. Maybe that’s our heavenly assistance, you know?”

Sam’s cell rang and they both stared at it apprehensively.

“Hello?” He answered, “Woah...ok. Slow down...where are you? Yeah...yeah, ok. We can be there- Dean. Dean! It’s not like I can stop him...fine. Yes. Ok. Don’t do anything stupid. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

“What is it?” Castiel demanded as soon as Sam hung up.

“Something went weird on the case. He said everyone in town is singing show tunes or something. He wasn’t very clear, but he definitely needs back up.” Picking up his worn coat, Sam shrugged it on and headed for the door.

“I’m coming with you.”

“No. Stop.” Sam told him with a grin. “You are not allowed to come. Dean said so.”

“Fuck him.” Castiel said, savoring the words and making Sam laugh.

Castiel flipped the sign to ‘Closed’ on the way out, lingering a little on the edges. He locked the door up tight and activated Brigit’s wards. Then he turned his back on it and followed Sam down the sidewalk.

Chapter Text

Patience, Missouri was a wide spot on the road. A few stores huddled around each other, small dots of human civilization against the vast grey sky. Sam pulled into the dirt parking lot of the Dew Drop Inn, sending a dust cloud up behind them. Dean was waiting, leaning against the Impala’s trunk.

“Took long enough.” He said in lieu of hello when Sam got out of the car.

“Hit an accident on the interstate. Tried to call you.”

“Reception out here sucks.” Dean rubbed the heel of his hand over his forehead. “I don’t know what to make of this one. Called Dad and Bobby and they said they’d think on it, but nothing rang a bell for them straight off the bat.”

“You said there was singing.” Cas prompted as he stretched out of the car. Muscle cramps were a plague. He never could get used to the idea that his body needed to move once in awhile. Human fidgeting made much more sense to him now. “Is it spontaneous?”

“What the fuck, Sam?” Dean turned on his brother. “I told you not to bring him!”

“He’s not luggage, Dean! If he wants to come, he comes!” Sam shouted back. “He’s got rights!”

“I’ll bring the bags in.” Castiel hefted Sam’s duffel and his own out of the trunk, taking the room key from Dean’s jacket pocket while the two of them carried on.

He could hear their argument rising and falling even with the door between them. The room was on the far end of awful, even for the Winchesters. Both beds had ancient sagging mattresses, the carpet smelled moldy and there was barely room for the table someone had jammed into one corner along with a dubious chair. Dean’s bed hadn’t been remade. Castiel set Sam’s bag down on the other bed and tucked his own under the table. Pulling out a book, he decided that Dean’s bed looked slightly sounder than the chair.

The sheets were clean at least as he tucked his knees up to balance the book on them. It was a collection of Celtic myths, straddling the line between research and reading for pleasure. He’d become fond of Brigit as he dug his roots deeper into her old home and he had begun trying to trace her transformation from goddess to saint, curious about her easy adaptability from divine to mortal and back again.

He became involved in the dissection of a quirk in Arthurian myth that suggested Avalon was Brigit’s true home when the mattress sagged further with added weight. He went on reading.

“Cas.” Dean sat at Castiel’s feet, staring down at the mouldering carpet with the look of a disciplined child. “I’m sorry that I...look. I just worry about you.”

“I can defend myself.”

“I don’t- but you’re not-” Dean growled in frustration. “This could get ugly and you don’t have the kind of training you need to fight off something like this. What if you get hurt?”

“Then I will eventually heal. I’m not made of glass.” He gave in, setting aside his book. “I know I am diminished. Certainly I am weaker than you and Sam. Perhaps I always will be. I cannot control that, but nor can I sit and wait for you like Penelope forever weaving.”

“I come home more often than every forty years.” Dean protested, but the rounding of his shoulders telegraphed his understanding. “And you’re hardly my wife.”

“Hardly.” Castiel agreed dryly, wrapping an arm around his knees to draw himself in tighter. “Tell me about the case.”

“I-”

“The case.” Castiel snapped. “Unless you want to have an argument. I had assumed you’d already had your fill of that today.”

“Shit, ok.” Dean flinched back as if he’d been struck, but Castiel wasn’t sorry. Something about this place left him raw-nerved and edgy. “So, it started with a two deaths. One last year, a young woman named Dana Wilson was found stabbed to death right at the edge of town. She was a fighter, seventeen stab wounds and a dozen defensive wounds to take her down. Here’s where it gets weird, coroner puts her time of death at about sunset on a Saturday night. There should have been witnesses, at the very least people must have heard her. Yet not a single person stepped forward. Population seventeen hundred and no suspects.”

“Unfortunate, but not unbelievable.”

“Right, but then the second death happens. There’s a paper mill that keeps this town going. Practically everyone works there. Guy that owns it, Trent Finch was real piece of work. He liked to strut around town threatening everyone that one day he’ll pull out and go overseas. So no surprise someone decided to take care of him.” Dean reached for a folder that had gotten lost amid the tossed bedclothes. “But this takes the cake.”

Crime scene photos, lurid and blood soaked emerged from the folder. The victim had been a tall man, broad in the shoulders and well-muscled. Yet someone had managed to stuff him in a tiny ballerina costume and pose the body en pointe in front of the statue that stood at the center of town. Blood had soaked through the pink ballet slippers onto the marble base and the pavement below. His face was twisted into a scream.

“That is...unusual.”

“Want to hear the punchline?” Dean tapped Trent’s frozen face. “Coroner said he danced himself to death. It was a Saturday night, just like with Dana and he comes in at the top of the street spinning and spinning around. Witnesses said he was yelling for help, but no one could get close enough. Apparently the force of the spins was like the worst Gravitron ride ever. Liquefied him from the inside.”

“Vengeful spirit?” Castiel stared down at the picture. “How did it manage to keep him on his toes after he died?”

“No idea. Took three guys to pull him down and get him into the ambulance.”

“Tell him about the singing.” Sam came in through the front door carrying a peace offering in the form of three tall coffees.

“That’s where this goes from salt and burn to research hell.” Dean accepted his cup gratefully. “So I get here, find the only restaurant in town and settle in to eat, maybe ask a few questions. I’d only been there ten minutes when the waitress starts belting out “Gotta Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair” with the entire kitchen staff doing back up. When they finished, no one said a word about it. They just went back to eating dinner, all red faced.

“I figured it was just some kind of local tradition, but it’s happened a few more times since. People in the middle of their days, doing normal shit and then suddenly its all choreographed dance moves and singing soccer moms.” Hauling out his phone, Dean thumbed through it and called up a few blurry photos of a chorus line. “No one talks about it afterwards.”

“So we have spontaneous manifestations of musical numbers.” Castiel took the phone from Dean, flipping through the photos. “Do any of the incidents have common traits?”

“Well, no one’s singing about getting the laundry or anything. It’s always emotional stuff. I think one of them might have been a wife confessing an affair? No one will talk to me about it, so I’m left playing Name that Tune.”

“Could still be a spirit.” Sam handed Castiel prepackaged apple slices. They tasted more like the plastic that contained them than fruit, but he ate them all anyway. “A poltergeist?”

“On this scale? Come on.” Dean scoffed.

“I’m just saying we should keep an open mind.”

“We should go into town.” Castiel got up. “Get lunch.”

“I can’t guarantee one of these dance numbers are going to break out.” Dean scrubbed at his face. “And no one’s talking. There's not really a good reas-”

“I’m hungry.” Castiel shoved upwards, sending the already uneven mattress into an undulating disaster. Dean had to scramble upwards in self-defense.

Ben’s Bar and Grill had seen better days. The counters and booths had a distinctly 70s look about them and the wall mounted taxidermy that served as decoration had become moth eaten. Despite being a busy lunch hour, a disturbing hush thickened the air.

The three of them slid into a booth indicated by a bored, worn out waitress. Castiel wondered if she was the one who had led the number Dean had seen that first day. He couldn’t imagine her animating herself enough to sing a frothy number from a dated musical. The menus she slapped down were sticky. He gazed unseeing down at the options, listening to the textured quiet of the restaurant. Next to him, Dean’s knee seesawed up and down, up and down until Castiel had to grit his teeth against an acidic command to stop.

He couldn’t say why he was so irritated with Dean. Their usual tightly synchronized orbit that kept just enough space between them to breath and think hadn’t been unbalanced. Since his declaration, years ago now, Castiel had taken care never to push or even bring up the subject again. They shared space, food, sentences with the same easy camaraderie as always.

Perhaps it was Castiel who was at fault, the very shape of his desires changing: the human need for touch and assurance rising in place of the steady implacability of an angel. Yet all of that was slow and building, not something he blamed Dean for or wanted to hold him accountable to. So why did he feel rubbed wrong and furious, achey and filled with the buzz of a hundred vicious bees?

“Cas.” Dean jostled him from his thoughts, an elbow glancing off Castiel’s ribs. “What do you want?”

“Hm?” He blinked, the waitress watching him with ill concealed impatience.

“What do you want?” Dean asked him again.

The first angry jangling buzzing chord of an electric guitar sounded through the restaurant. As one the customers all looked up, dread on their faces and twisting their lips.

I want,” Castiel’s voice took on a curious echo, reverberating through the thin walls, “you to want me.

The rush of the music blinded him to everything else. He got up out of the booth, standing on the table. Billowing waves of fog covered the restaurant floor, the lights dimming and a spotlight picked him out. A guitar manifested in Sam’s hands and he started playing though Castiel had never known him to touch an instrument before.

I need you to need me,” he sang directly to Dean, who was watching him as if Castiel might ignite and kill them both, “I’d love you to love me. I’m begging you to beg me. I’ll shine up the old brown shoes, put on a brand new shirt and get home early from work if you say that you love me.

The song wasn’t complicated, a repetition of the chorus and the only verse. Sam’s guitar flourishes got more and more wild. The customers had gotten to their feet and were cheering wildly. Someone threw a pair of panties at his feet that he kicked neatly away as he went down his knees for the finale.

I want you to want me....” He finished, spiking down the microphone that had cropped up during the second chorus.

Just as quickly as it had begun, it was over. The fog, the cheering crowd, the guitar and the spotlight disappeared as if they had never been there. Castiel was kneeling on the table, the waitress looking at him with resigned discomfort.

“Pancakes.” He said softly, then slipped back into the booth next to Dean, who had turned a shade of red not normally found in nature. “With chocolate chips.”

“Wow.” Sam laughed, the noise disruptive in the silence that had followed Castiel’s performance. “That was just....wow. I wasn’t expecting the fog machines.”

Castiel seriously considered slumping low enough to hide under the table. Dean would probably let him get away with it, all things considered. Embarrassment had entered his lexicon early in his human experience and it was so far, his least favorite in a new array of emotions.

“Is that typical?” Castiel asked Dean without making eye contact. The case. They could talk about the case. “All the...special effects?”

“Yeah, basically.” Dean coughed, shifting minutely.

“So it alters the environment for each event.” Castiel shook his head. “You can rule out a spirit, Sam. There’s no ghost powerful enough to generate that kind of energy.”

“What did it feel like?” Sam glanced at Castiel under his eyelashes as if the indirect assessment would feel less brutal. “Was it a compulsion?”

“In the moment it was natural.” He dipped his head lower. “Certainly it followed the train of thought I had been having at the time. Whatever it was played on emotions and thoughts that were pre-existing. In the aftermath...it’s exposing. Vulnerable.”

“That would explain why no one can look anyone in the eye around here.” Sam frowned. “So it killed two people and then resorted to...what? Humiliation? That seems kind of like a step down.”

“Death ends. Shame lingers.” Castiel tapped a finger restlessly along the edge of his paper placemat.

Conversation firmly back on the case, they ate quickly and sketched out theories in one of Sam’s ever present notebooks. Gradually even Dean participated even if only to shoot down some of the more outlandish theories. By the time they had paid and slipped outside, Castiel could almost forget that he’d spilled his private desires across the lunch table.

Until Dean caught a hold of his wrist as they walked toward the car.

“Cas, you know I...” Dean’s throat worked, “its not that I...”

“You don’t have to say anything.” He didn’t bother wrenching his arm away. Instead he went limp and still which he knew bothered Dean far more. “It wasn’t something I would have said under my own power, so it’s best if we don’t discuss it.”

“That’s not...that’s not fair to you though. I mean, we never talked about it and I thought when you fell that you...I mean you needed time and you were dealing with all this new stuff.” Dean shuffled his feet and Castiel watched him impassively. “You’re like a kid, I guess and-”

“I am not a child.” Now Castiel did wrench his hand free, the snarl a new expression for him, but coming with surprising ease . “And I do not want your pity. Not from any one, but you least of all.”

“Cas!” Dean reached out for him again, but Castiel was ahead of him now. He wasn’t even sure where was going as he passed by Sam waiting in the Impala and headed down the street building up steam.

You’re the best friend I’ve ever had!” Dean yelled out and Cas stopped dead in his tracks. By the time he’d turned around, it was too late. There wasn’t anyone else out on the street, but there were crowd noises nonetheless. Dean had a hand pressed tightly to his heart.

“Try to fight it!” Castiel shouted, rushing back towards Dean, but it was too late.

I’ve been with you such a long time,” Dean crooned, “you’re my sunshine and I want you to know that my feelings are true...

“Don’t!” Castiel pressed his hands to his ears, but whatever magic was at work scoffed at that barrier. Dean’s song pierced through him.

I really love you.” Dean confessed in a sugar sweet voice that made Castiel’s heart break into a thousand pieces. “Oooh, I’ve been wandering round but I still come back to you. Rain or shine, you’ve stood by me boy and I’m happy at home.

You make me live.” Castiel sang back and he fought it this time, fought it hard and dirty, but it pulled him out of himself. For a brief warm minute, they were honest with each other. “Whenever this world is cruel to me, I’ve got you to help me forgive!

Oooooh, ooooh oooh!” Sam sang out from the car, feet up on the dashboard and lazy smile on his face.

You’re the first one when things turn out bad,” Dean crossed the space between them, setting a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, “you know I’ll never be lonely. You’re the only one and I love things, really love, the things that you do! You’re my best friend.

You make live.” Castiel told him, the push of sincerity an ugly wrench out of the golden moment. “I’m happy at home.

You make me live.” Dean repeated back to him, bridging the last critical inches. “You. You’re my best friend.

It wasn’t what Castiel had ever imagined his first kiss would be like. Dean’s hand was still cupping his jaw and it was surprisingly tender. Dean kissed him like he was precious. Like he was beloved. The bitterness that seeped through Castiel as the magic snapped off and left them staring at each other was shocking in its intensity.

“Fuck.” Dean took an unsteady step backwards.

“You guys ok?” Sam was out of the car, concern writ large on this oversized features.

“I’m going to walk back to the motel.” Castiel announced, stuck his hands deep into his pockets and ignored anything called at his back.

The walk wasn’t nearly long enough. The Impala had beaten him back, so he took refuge in her backseat. Her familiar embrace, all leather and well worn affection, lulled him into a slightly more relaxed state. The buzzing still sounded under his skin though, annoyed and rattling. It was unnatural to him, an aggravation of sore spots and tender places that he normally stepped gingerly around.

“Oh.” He sat up straighter, mulling the sensation over and over before deciding he was right.

When he knocked to be let back into the hotel room, he wasn’t surprised to find Dean and Sam squabbling again. Sam was clutching his laptop to his chest and hurling accusations while Dean defended himself in broad gestures.

“Stop.” Castiel told them, pressing imperative into the word. They both stopped midword and he took a brief second to be pleased that he still held some authority with them. “Whatever is at work here doesn’t leave when the singing ends.”

“How do you figure?” Sam gingerly set his computer back down.

“Don’t you feel it?” He rubbed his fingers together. “A buzzing, a pressing under the skin.”

“No?” Sam glanced at Dean, who shook his head.

“Magic. Something old. It started as soon as we arrived.” He shivered. “It’s pushing at us, warping reality.”

“Ok, reasonable candidates?” Sam asked.

“A god.” Castiel pressed himself back against the closed door.

“Well, shit. What do we do with that?” Sam ran a hand through his hair. “How do you kill a god?”

“It’s possible, but difficult.” Castiel frowned “We should attempt to speak it first.”

“Right, we’ll just summon it up and ask it twenty questions.” Dean snorted. “What would stop it from squashing us flat?”

“Nothing, but if we approach with the intent of murder than we can guarantee grave injury if not death. The entity already has complete control of this town, along with some level of awareness of all conversations in order to trigger the songs when they become relevant. Do you truly think we can sneak up behind it and stab it in the back?”

“Awesome.”

“I’m calling Bobby.” Dean pried his cellphone out of his pocket and went outside, head hanging low. He brushed Castiel’s side as he went and Castiel desperately wanted to fist a hand into his shirt to pull Dean close.

“So.” Sam started, then failed to continue.

“I don’t wish to discuss it.”

“I just don’t get it.” Running roughshod over Castiel’s denial, Sam pressed on, “I know you want him, so why does this make you so damn angry?”

“Because consent matters.” His jaw clenched. “Love is patient. I could have waited years for him to work this through on his own. It would have been worth every minute to have him come to me willingly. But like this? This is broken and unkind. Torn from both of us before we were ready.”

“It doesn’t mean it isn’t real though.” Sam frowned. “You know that Dean loves you, right?”

“What do you take me for?” Castiel growled. “I have walked in his dreams, been at his side since before you could form sentences. I know the shape of his heart. Never have I questioned his love, only his willingness to accept it.”

“I’m just trying to help.”

“I don’t require your help.” He wrenched the door open and slammed it behind him. Dean was sitting on the hood of the Impala, phone clenched in one hand and a gutted expression on his face. Castiel couldn’t bear to be near either of them.

Dana Wilson’s murder hadn’t taken place far from there. Deciding it was better to at least pretend to be useful, Castiel followed the road back towards town. The spot where Dana had breathed her last was wreathed in fresh cut roses. He touched a velvety petal, hissing when his wrist caught against a wicked thorn. Instinctively, he pressed the cut to his mouth. That’s when he saw it: a flash of silver in the grass. A candy wrapper. Once he caught a glance of the first one, the others became obvious. Dozens of bits of plastic, wafting in the slight breeze. If Castiel inhaled deeply, he caught the faintest whiff of sugar.

The Impala’s engine purred down the road, coming to a halt only a few feet from where he crouched. He doesn’t turn around even as Dean’s boots crunch through the dirt.

“Trickster.” He offered before Dean could say a word.

“Yeah, that’s what Bobby thought too. Also said we should get the hell out of Dodge.”

“And then?”

“And then said we’d need a specialized stake and metric fuckton of good luck.”

“Maybe we should leave.” Castiel picked up one of the drifting wrappers. “Maybe this town is getting only what it deserves. That’s what Trickster's mete out. Justice.”

“How can you say that?” Dean’s hand wrapped around Castiel’s bicep drawing him up.

“Don’t you get it?” Castiel still wouldn’t look at him, too bent up inside to do more than explain. “They watched her die. Its happened before.”

“What has? Who did?” Dean shook him a little. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“Kitty Genovese.” He swallowed hard. “She was stabbed several times and her neighbors did nothing. In her case, it’s possible their negligence was overemphasized. Not so for Dana though. She went right down main street, Trent running after her. He killed her by degrees and not one of them said a word. Terrified of him. He could kill their town, their livelihood. Why risk that for a girl none of them knew very well?

“Sometimes, I hate you all.” He dropped the wrapper into the grass. “Humanity at it’s worst. Why shouldn’t the Trickster torture them? Every last one of them is guilty of murder.”

“You don’t mean that.” Dean rasped. “Cas, come on. I agree their shitheads, but come on. You know that’s not all of us.”

“I know that right now that entire town could burn and I wouldn’t shed a tear.” Castiel finally met Dean’s eyes, saw the panic and worry there. “Why would they do that? Why would the just stand back and let her die?”

“I don’t know.” Dean’s fingers were tight around his arm. “If you want to leave, we can. I...I won’t like it, but this case has been rotten from the beginning.”

“I wouldn’t ask that of you.”

“Oh gag me.”

Castiel whipped around. Standing just to the left of the roses was a small man, his hands in his pockets and a smirk on his lips. The body was familiar to him. Castiel had to reach far back in his memory to a pale figure on a beach, all shaking hands and fear.

“Ga-”

“None of that.” Gabriel snapped his fingers and a glass box materialized around Castiel. He beat his fists against the barrier to little avail. He yelled a name, but Dean didn’t hear him.

“Trickster.” Dean reached for the knife in his boot. So sound still came into the box, even if let none escape. A taunt. It was something Castiel would expect from many of his brothers. That Gabriel should have followed the same path of casual cruelty seemed unthinkable. Yet here they all stood.

“Dean-o.” Gabriel shook his head. “Not the infamous killing machine I would expect. Running around the town for three days without even a suspicion of the real culprit? Shameful.”

“Let him go.” Dean demanded. “He wanted to leave, let you go on your little killing spree.”

“Please. Spare me the bullshit. Soon as I let him out of the box, you all will be after me like white on rice. Speaking of things that stick too hard together.” Gabriel snapped his fingers again. The grass around them flattened, exposing Sam lying on his belly with stake in hand. “The Winchester brothers. One dumber than the other.”

“We just want you to leave these people alone.” Sam got to his feet, circling wearily to come to Dean’s side.

Castiel threw himself against the glass walls. The space was extremely tight, barely enough to for him to stand upright or build up enough force to break through. But they were in danger, in over their heads and unaware of how much. He threw himself again, vaguely aware that his lungs were starting to burn.

“Why should I?” Gabriel crossed his arm over his chest. “Why shouldn't I scrape them as raw and vulnerable as Dana was that day? They should count themselves lucky that I didn’t kill every last one of them.”

“An eye for an eye isn’t an answer.” Sam surreptitiously passed the stake to Dean. Castiel caught the subtle movement and redoubled his efforts.

“Says the hunter to the hunted.” Gabriel sniffed. “We kill one of yours, you kill one of us. Eye for an eye is the way you play the game.”

“We only kill when they start taking lives.”

“Trent murdered her. I killed him. I’m not seeing the difference here, kid.” Gabriel manifested a wad of caramel, popping it into his mouth to chew with wet smacking sounds. “ Or is your mission more righteous than mine because you kill beasts who don’t know any other way of life? At least I go after sentient beings capable of knowing what they’ve done wrong.”

“Demons know they’re evil.” Sam countered. “They choose it.”

"Way to be a hypocrite.” The caramel went down in one swallow.

“Why?” Sam sneered right back. “Because I’ve got demon blood in me? I know what I am and I fight it every day.”

“Oh you have no fucking clue who you are.”

Dean charged then, stake held high. Gabriel had a hand around his neck before Dean was within striking range. He plucked the stake from Dean’s grip as if he was as weak as a kitten, tossing it to one side."

“Let him go!” Sam demanded.

“Sure thing.” Gabriel dropped Dean to the ground, then aimed a kick at his ribs that sent him rolling into the wreath of roses. “Now stay, cur. Your brother is about to have a lesson in self-discovery. Sing for your brother, kid.”

Drums sounded. Sam’s eyes went wide and then his expression went curiously blank.

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste.” The words spilled silky smooth out of Sam’s mouth. “I’ve been around for a long long year, stole many a man’s soul and faith.

Castiel’s hands were bruised and his vision was starting to swim. He beat his fists against the glass, sinking to knees.

Pleased to meet you,” Sam’s hips circled in a vicious parody of sex, “won’t you guess my name? But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game...

Dean got up onto his elbows and started dragging himself towards Castiel’s box. Gabriel, distracted by Sam’s show, didn’t seem to notice. Castiel watched him with dimming hope. His lungs were on fire and the glass felt blissfully cool against his forehead. The weight of his eyelids became too much to hold up.

“Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints,” Sam howled, “all heads is tails. Just call me-”

“Cas!” Dean smacked a hand to the glass. “Cas, don’t go to sleep!”

“How’d you do that?” Gabriel’s attention was back on Dean. “You shouldn’t be able to break free of that.”

“You’re killing him!” Dean hit the glass again. “There’s not enough air in there.”

“He’s an angel, you moron.” Gabriel was at Dean’s side, one hand on the collar of his jacket as if ready to throw him off again.

“Not anymore!” Dean tried to hit the glass again. “Castiel, you bastard, don’t you fucking dare to go to sleep.”

“But I’m so tired.” He complained.

“Castiel?” Gabriel did toss Dean aside then, but less in anger and more in forgetfulness. He snapped his fingers, the box disappearing. He caught Castiel before he could slump to the ground. “What did they do to you?”

“Technically speaking?” Castiel heaved in a great breath of fresh clean air, slumping unceremoniously against Gabriel’s chest. “You did this.”

“I don’t mean the box.” Gabriel snapped. “I meant your grace.”

“So did I.” Castiel still couldn’t feel Gabriel’s grace. How well hidden it must be under so many layers of deception or perhaps his own fluttering remnant wasn't enough to find it. “You came to me when the Earth was new and you gave Dean Winchester to me. Everything else followed.”

“Why would I do that?”

“I don’t know. I had hoped that you could tell me.” Castiel took in another long breath. “But never has a day gone by that I don’t thank you for it. Dean. Put the stake down.”

“What stake?” Dean put his hands behind his back, going wide eyed when Gabriel turned to glare at him. “Seriously, Cas?”

“It won’t work.” He coughed. “Dean, meet my brother, the archangel Gabriel. Gabriel, this is Dean Winchester and the one waiting to politely slit your throat is Sam.”

“Yeah. We’ve met.” Gabriel helped Castiel sit up. “You boys are just full of surprises.”

“By the way, I know I’m Lucifer’s vessel.” Sam got to his knees, one hand at the small of Castiel’s back. “But thanks for the bitchy reminder.”

“Someone’s been telling tales out of school.” Gabriel clucked. “Naughty Castiel.”

“I have no regrets.” Castiel waved off both their assistance, getting to his feet with minimal stumbling. “Gabriel, I’ve been looking for you for a long time. I have many questions.”

“I’m not big on interrogations.”

“How about friendly chats?” Dean’s smile was all shark teeth.

“I could kill you with my brain, Winchester.”

“Firefly?” Sam snorted. “Really?”

“I will have you singing Celine Dion until big brother comes to ride your ass off into the sunset, princess.” Gabriel stepped into Sam’s space. It should have looked ridiculous, but power radiated off of Gabriel in waves. Sam took a step back.

“Perhaps it would be best if you and I spoke alone.” Castiel offered.

“Not going to happen. I’ve spent a lot of years staying off the grid. I’m not going to expose myself because you’ve gone and fallen ass over wings for one of them.”

“You gave him to me. This was your plan, your idea.”

“Yeah, maybe. Some version of me that undid himself as soon as he opened his trap. So I don’t have the answers you’re looking for.” Gabriel shrugged. “You all weren’t even supposed to be here. It’s too early for all this.”

“Yet here we stand. The plan is breaking down. Whatever our Father intended, it is no longer coming to pass.” Castiel offered up his hand. “You should join us, help us.”

“Why?” Gabriel looked at his open palm, then up to meet Castiel’s eyes. “It’ll happen anyway. These boys that you love so well, Lucifer and Michael are going to wear them like rented tuxes and then it’ll be over. All of it will be gloriously, perfectly over.”

“You can’t want the world to end.”

“If it means an end to all the fighting? Then fuck yes I do.” Gabriel tilted his head as if listening for the buzz of other angels. “I’m sick of it. All of it. I ran to get away from those assholes knocking the stuffing out of each other. Our Father made us to exist in perfect love, right? Biggest sham going. Lucy and Mike want to tear each other limb from limb and make me watch? Fine. Let them. At least that’ll be an end of it.”

“Oh.” Castiel sucked in a breath, then let it out slowly. “I had not thought you a coward.”

“King of ‘em.” Gabriel’s eyes slid away though, into the grass.

“You gave me this life and I have to believe it was for a reason.”

“I’m not Dad.”

“No, but for a brief moment when the world was new, you were more loving and kinder than He ever was.” Castiel put his back to brother. “If you change your mind, give me a call.”

He drew one of the store’s business cards out of his wallet and let it drop into the grass. Then he started walking. After a beat, he heard Dean and Sam fall in behind him. By the time they reached the Impala, Gabriel had disappeared.

“You are one brave motherfucker.” Dean crowded Castiel up against the car, hands flat against her hood.

“I didn’t feel brave. I was furious.” He watched Dean’s face, waiting for his expression to slide back into discomfort when he processed their proximity.

“You know how you keep saying you’re not a kid and we shouldn’t protect you?” Dean asked, breath warm on Castiel’s face.

“Yes.”

“That goes two ways, ok?” Dean’s smile was small, soft, but very much there. “You don’t need to protect me. Well. Maybe from archangels, but not from you.”

“Sam told you.”

“I heard you. I didn’t call Bobby right away. Just stayed by the door.” Dean shook his head minutely. “So love is patient. But way I remember it, it also rejoices in truth. So be pretty stupid if I got upset over a little confessional singing.”

“Dean.” He reached out, tentatively resting his hand on Dean’s chest.

“Shut up, Cas.”

Dean’s smile tasted just as Castiel imagined.

“Hey guys?” Sam cleared his throat. “Guys?”

Castiel slid his hand down enough to push under Dean’s layers. The skin was soft under his fingers.

“I hate you both.” Sam declared loudly and Dean laughed against Castiel’s lips.

A month later with Spaceballs playing on the tv, Gabriel popped into existence right in the middle of the Dark Helmet and Lonestar fight scene. He looked over them, Sam settled on the floor with his back against the couch and a textbook forgotten in his lap, Castiel at one end of the couch with one leg against Sam’s side and Dean’s head in his lap. Castiel could feel Dean tense, but he didn’t stir.

“You’re blocking the tv.” He said instead.

“Isn’t this cozy?” Gabriel sneered.

“Either kill us or sit down.” Sam turned a page of his book. “This is my favorite part.”

“Well aren’t we blase in the face of certain annihilation?”

But Gabriel moved away from the television and after the briefest of pauses joined Sam on the floor. He didn’t relax, watching all three of them warily. Castiel lifted an eyebrow at him. Gabriel frowned and looked back at the movie.

“You see Lonestar,” Dark Helmet mocked on screen, “evil will prevail because good is dumb.”

Gabriel barked out a laugh at the same time Sam chuckled. Dean’s hand dropped away from his gun.

It was a start.

Chapter Text

May

Knees in the mud, arms locked tight around Dean’s midsection, forehead pressed to Dean’s. The body pressed to his shook violently, vibrating at the same frequency as his own.

“Why?” He pleaded in the small space between them. “Why, when you knew what it would mean?”

“For Sammy.” Dean choked out, fingers digging into Castiel’s thighs to leave muddy trails on his jeans.

“Sam would tell you that he wasn’t worth the price.” Castiel wanted to press Dean close enough to swallow him whole, to protect him from his own terrible choice.

“The world or Sam?” Dean held on tighter. “Not even a decision.”

“It won’t come to that.”

They’d had six weeks. Six good weeks working towards each other and ironing out the layers of emotion between them. Dean had been taking his time, both for himself and for Castiel. The anticipation had been sweet.

Then John had called, the story of the Colt tumbling out in a terrible confusion. Dean and Sam had hared out, leaving Castiel to keep the homefires burning. What followed would never be clear to him and he regretted every day that he hadn’t fought harder to go with them.

All he knew was that Sam had been taken, survived only to be stabbed in the back and Dean had made the deal. As if scenting the demon in the very air, Castiel had gone to the crossroads at first on foot and then hitchhiking to find the spot. Too late. He arrived to see obscene lips pressed to the ones that had so recently kissed Castiel so sweetly.

Castiel clung on to Dean, unwilling to stand just yet and face the enormity of what was to come.

 

June

“You’re a damn fool.” Said Bobby, cuffing Dean upside the head then pulling him into a hard hug.

“You looked after your brother, can’t really ask much more of you than that.” Said John and Castiel bit into the cuticle hanging off his thumb, peeling it away until it bled. “I would have done the same.”

“Don’t look at me.” Said Gabriel, rifling through a counter display of pocket astrology books. “You got yourself into it, you get yourself out of it.

“Ok.” Said Sam, looking Dean over with weary resignation. “Ok. Let’s fix this.”

July

Castiel and Sam lost July to research. It piled up around them in teetering fortresses, books, scrolls and tense fruitless notes. All too often they fell asleep at the table in the back of the store, unwilling to give a spare moment to anything else.

“Here’s the thing,” Gabriel popped into existence, sitting on the edge of the table his feet swinging a little in the air. Castiel’s pen went flying as he started in surprise.

“Don’t do that.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. Sam had gone to get them something to eat though Castiel couldn’t say for sure what meal it was intended for. Dinner, he supposed though he couldn’t recall lunch or breakfast. Or dinner the day before.

“Maybe if you didn’t drink two pots of coffee a day, you wouldn’t be so twitchy.” Gabriel advised, picking up a few books and thumbing through the first one.

“What’s the thing?” Castiel asked impatiently.

“What thing?”

“You said: ‘here’s the thing’.”

“Oh, that thing.” With a snort, Gabriel tore out a page and let it burn to ash in the palm of his hand. “So. Don’t take this as a sign of me giving a shit, but no one else is going to bring this to your attention and frankly, it’s starting to bum me out.”

“So you don’t care about something, but it’s depressing you.”

“No one likes a smartass little brother.”

“You’re someone’s smartass little brother.” Castiel pointed out as reasonably as he could.

“And I think we can safely say that Mike and Lucy aren’t my biggest fans at the moment, so there you go proving my point.”

“If you’re just here to torment me, please continue while I go into the ‘ignoring you’ phase.”

“You couldn’t even if you wanted to.” Gabriel smiled thinly. “My natural magnetism.”

Castiel pointedly took a note and turned a page.

“Fine. Look. Human life? It’s a temporary situation.”

“I’m aware of that.” Castiel didn’t bother looking up. Gabriel would get to his point or not, either way it was best to maintain only cursory signs of interest.

“So even if you save him, this is going to happen again. Except with less notice and drama. One day he’ll be and the next day not. That’s how it goes.”

“Do you expect me to stop trying to save him because his death is inevitable?” Castiel forgot his resolve, anger soaking in to fill the void sorrow had left behind. “How can you even suggest that?”

“Ok, first? Not what I said. Second? Check yourself before you wreck yourself.” A faint whiff of ozone filtered through the air, an indication of barely restrained power.

“If you were going to incinerate someone for being impertinent, Sam and Dean would fit in the glove compartment and this conversation would be moot.”

“Whatever.” Flicking his fingers impatiently, Gabriel pulled long gossamer strings from the air. It was a fidget, but a showy one. “The whole point of this stupid conversation is that the guy you’re making yourself crazy over is walking around with a ticking timebomb which sucks, but still more warning than most people get. It’s his last year and you’re spending it buried under a pile of books.”

“Books that will give him more than a year. “

“Maybe.” Gabriel shrugged, eyeing the stack dubiously. “Maybe not. Maybe you save him, but you’ll know that it’s going to happen again. You’ll never get the chance to spend his last year with him again, knowing it’ll be his last year. I’d exploit that if I were you.”

For a long moment, Castiel wasn’t sure what to say. He watched Gabriel’s face as the archangel pulled ribbons from nothing.

“Who was she?” Castiel asked eventually.

“Who was who?” Gabriel was all innocence and ignorance.

“You’re speaking from experience. Like there was a human you loved once.”

The ribbons wavered, then melted from existence as quickly as they’d been born into it.

“Do you know how long I’ve lived here?” Gabriel’s hands fell unnaturally still, resting on the table. He could have been carved from stone if his lips weren’t moving. “Any real idea?”

“Since just after the creation of man.”

“I walked beside Adam.” Gabriel agreed. “I came in a little bit later in the story as a god though. That’s still a thousand generations of mayfly lives. I live among them, eat their food, sing their songs and laugh at their games. I never get bored of it, never tire of their comings and goings. When you ask me who she is? She was Sigyn. She was Janna. She was Tali, Yosef, Alexander, Ezekiel, George, Kristina, Amal, Win, Dominique, James, Maria and Dana. And those are only the ones who I stayed with until their deaths.”

“Dana Wilson?” Castiel blinked. “That’s why you were so focused on that town.”

“She was barely out of childhood.” Shaking his head until his hair fell about his face, Gabriel sighed. “I came to her door a stranger and she took me in. Those old sacred rules of hospitality still matter. She was gorgeous and funny and she loved music. And then she was gone.”

“I’m sorry for your loss.” Castiel said quietly.

“I’m not looking for sympathy.” And he didn’t sound like a man in mourning, but rather like he’s offering condolences. “Only pointing out that it goes very quickly. Don’t waste it sitting here.”

“How can it be a waste if it gives me more time with him?”

“Like I said, it’s got to happen someday.” Gabriel leaned in close and to Castiel’s shock, pressed a kiss to the Castiel’s forehead. “Little brother, spare yourself the agony of regret.”

And then he was gone. The spot he had kissed tingled a little and Castiel brushed his fingers over it. One of the gossamer ribbons tangled into his hand, catching the overhead light.

“Hey, Cas, brought you a hamburger.” Sam set down the bag of takeout.

“Where’s Dean?” He asked.

“Manning the cash register or reading a Playboy for the articles. Maybe both.”

“Eat. I’ll be back later.” As the ribbon fell from his hands it fizzled out of existance. Sam, pulling out a plastic dome encased salad, appeared not to notice.

Dean was sitting at the register with his boots propped up on the counter and a magazine open on his lap, but his gaze was focused elsewhere, staring into the null space of thought.

“What are you reading?” Castiel slid his arm around Dean’s shoulders, moving in close enough to catch Dean’s motor oil and grass scent. The knot between his shoulders loosened and Castiel found he could breath a little easier.

“Hm? Oh, just this thing on gorgons. Medusa got kind of a raw deal.” He tipped his head back. “What are you doing out of your cave?”

“I wanted to clear my head. Take me for a drive?”

“Where?”

“I don’t care. Somewhere you can speed with the windows down.”

“You’re talking my kind of language. Get your food though. Sam says you haven’t been eating.” Dean got to his feet, a smile already barging in where the thin line of his lips had been.

They drove out of the city limits, Castiel’s fingers riding the wind outside the passenger window. Dean looked wildly, incautiously happy in a way he hadn’t in far too long. It was too loud to talk, but Castiel’s other hand was interlocked firmly with Dean’s and that said enough for the both of them.

August

“Let me get this straight,” Sam plucked a pen from the cup, drawing a thick black line across the page in the beginning of an idle sketch, “you personally met Mary Magdalene.”

“Yep.” Gabriel flicked an origami football through the goalposts of Dean’s fingers. “Liked her too. Had a great laugh.”

“Weren’t you supposed to be undercover?”

Sam’s line split and curved, becoming something a little like a profile. Castiel watched the progress from where he stood behind Dean’s chair. He had been sticking pins in the map of North America to mark leylines. They made a disturbing pattern that looked a little like a drunk kitten or possibly a squirrel. The paper football tournament had drawn him back to the group when one of the balls had gone awry and landed in his hair.

“I was passing through on my way to Egypt. Had a bet with Bast about the outcome of the flood and thought it was time to collect. Angel radio was blaring the Savior Channel twenty-four seven back then, so I figured I’d stop in along the way and see what all the fuss was about. The main star was out in the desert, but Mary M was kicking around and happy to talk to someone.”

“And she had a good laugh.” Sam’s pen skittered along without his full attention.

“Sure. You had to have a sense of humor about being in the middle of that kind of thing.” His shot went wide, but Dean caught it. “I mean, here she was just another woman trying to get by without a husband and suddenly she’s a follower of the messiah. She really liked him too. Not just for who he was or what he preached. They were friends.”

“It’s hard to think of the savior of all mankind as having friends.” Sam started adding details to what was now clearly Gabriel’s face caught in a wry smile. “I mean, it’s all a little otherwordly.”

“Said the vessel of Lucifer to the archangel Gabriel.” Setting his fingers up as a goal, Gabriel grinned at Dean. “Give it your best shot.”

“Blow on this for good luck.” Dean held up the paper triangle and Castiel obligingly huffed a breath across it.

“Luck has nothing to do with it.” Gabriel taunted.

Dean aimed carefully before flicking the paper up and over Gabriel’s fingers. The football pinged off of Gabriel’s forehead and landed in his lap.

“And the crowd goes wild!” Dean cheered. “Five points for mortals, zip for the pagan god.”

“I don’t know.” Gabriel glanced sidelong at Sam, who was staring down at his pen as if it had betrayed him. “Depends on what we’re scoring.”

Dean was too busy celebrating his win to notice the speculative look or the comment, but Castiel filed them both away.

September

Everything narrowed down to this thin muffled space. They had shared a bed for nearly a year, Dean settling on the right side sprawled out on his stomach while Castiel curled up catlike on the left. When their relationship took on a new shape, neither of them could quite reason out why they should stop. Castiel liked nodding off to the slight whistle of Dean’s exhalations.

But this. Oh. How different this was. Dean arched above him, the blankets cascading down around him in a thick tent with nothing between them except humid puffs of breath. Castiel had taken to shared nudity readily. He loved the sensual pleasure of skin on soft sheets and the promise of Dean’s fingers on his exposed hip. They had explored each other thoroughly over the last two weeks to learn the lay of a strange new land.

“We don’t have to.” Dean whispered, the silence a fragile needful thing around them.

“I want it.” Castiel eased one leg up and over Dean’s waist. “Don’t deny me.”

Dean buried whatever he would have said next in a series of long, through kisses. With care, he turned Castiel over, then lavished attention on the knobs of his spine and the thin line where the fine hairs on his neck began.

“You tell me if it hurts.” Dean ordered with a nip to the shoulder.

“Yes.” Castiel said vaguely, a promise he planned to forget as soon as it was made. He knew it would hurt. Careful research had told him that some pain was a part of it. The way he saw it, this pain was of his choosing and therefore, acceptable.

“This might be cold.”

The lubricant was chilled, but the finger that chased it in was warm enough. This Castiel had done to himself, awkwardly and alone. It was different from this angle, better and worse. He rode it out, hands clenching in the blankets.

“Do you remember when you told me I could have this?”

“You mean twenty minutes ago?” Castiel asked wryly, squirming as Dean slotted in a second finger. “Senility has not yet set in. Yes, I remember.”

“I’m limiting your television time, it’s making you sarcastic.”

“You make me sarcastic.” Castiel rejoined. “Are we having a conversation or sex?”

“Why not both?” The fingers inside him twisted experimentally and he had to bite back a yelp. “I didn’t mean tonight. I mean the first time, the night we found out about Sam. Before everything changed.”

“Oh. Yes. I remember. I can take another.”

“Really? Ok.” Dean pushed in a third finger that did hurt, a burning stretch that sent Castiel’s eyes squeezing shut. “Do you know what I was thinking? Were you listening in?”

Castiel shook his head, mute and tortured.

“I was thinking that all I wanted was to say yes.” Dean crooked his fingers upward. Beneath the shaking pain, pleasure raced up Castiel’s spine lighting up his nerves and freeing a soft whimper from his throat. “I thought about this, having you under me, writhing and begging for it. But then I thought ‘Well, that’s insane because Castiel wouldn’t do that, wouldn’t be like that and neither am I.’”

“Do that again.” He pleaded and Dean obliged until Castiel was a shaking mess of groans and encouragements.

“When you came into my dreams, did you see this?” Dean leaned forward, his whisper a caress in the shell of Castiel’s ear. “Did you do that calmly observer thing while I fucked you in my head?”

“There was nothing calm about it.” Castiel bit out. “Now stop talking, for the love of all things holy, and get on with it.”

Dean got on with it. Afterwards laying quiet and sweaty with his ear to Dean’s chest, he wondered how anyone ever did anything else.

“Good?” Dean asked, concern leaking in where he probably thought he was hiding it.

“When I offered myself to you, I didn’t think it would be like this.” He settled his hand over Dean’s stomach, amazed afresh at the delicacy of it, only skin and a little muscle protecting the soft instrumentation of organs from the world. “I watched humanity from a distance. I thought sex was like eating or breathing. It served a purpose. I assumed if I engaged in it, it would have about as much meaning as consuming a hamburger. Maybe it would have.. Maybe I would have experienced it filtered through too many years and not enough human sensation. I saw it as something I could give to you. A bridge between us.”

“That’s...weird. But ok.”

“It wasn’t like that.”

“What was it like?”

“You took me apart and then put me back together again.” He kissed the solid line of a rib. “I know how the Impala feels now, when you get your hands into her.”

“I’m never going to be able to do an oil change the same way again.” Dean laughed.

“What was it like for you?”

“It was sex. Really awesome sex, don’t get me wrong. You’re hot as hell and I’ve never really...well. There’s not way to end that sentence in a way that doesn’t make me sound like a complete asshole.” Stroking a hand through Castiel’s hair, Dean tried again, “I never cared before. Not like that. It made a difference.”

“Can we do it again?” Castiel asked through a broken yawn.

“If I were capable of it we would be doing it again right now.”

They didn’t leave the bed the next day, except to eat when Sam refused to deliver food to their ‘den of depravity’.

September

With the changing of the leaves, Dean could be found outside more often chasing the last of the summer’s warmth, loathe to admit that a chill had crept into the air. He could reliably be found sitting on the stoop of Thursday’s Child, face turned up to the sun like a hungry flower.

“Here.” Castiel sat down next to him on a brisk afternoon when the first treacherous leaves departed the trees to begin their lazy spiral into decay.

“Ice cream?” Dean lit up, taking the cone of chocolate and vanilla.

“I brought napkins for the inevitable fallout.” Castiel rested against Dean’s side, watching him bite into the yielding dairy. He felt tired all the time now, stretched thin from days of research and nights spent memorizing the sounds Dean made when he came. It was a good tired. He was learning to tell the difference.

“Next year,” Dean licked a long stripe upwards, mixing the brown and the white together, “I want you to sit out here on a cold day and eat an ice cream cone.”

“With you.” Castiel amended.

“Or alone.” Dean didn’t turn, didn’t give an iota less attention to the ice cream. “Just promise me, ok?”

“Ok.” Castiel closed his eyes against the fading sunlight. “I can do that.”

It was such a little thing to promise. He wasn’t sure why it felt as though he’d been broken open and left to bleed out onto the sidewalk.

October

“I hate this holiday.” Gabriel threw a mini Snickers bar across the room to nail Sam in the back of the head. The shop was full of giggling teenagers, pouring over books on the occult as Sam carefully guided them towards the patently fake ones and Castiel rung up sale after sale.

“Go visit Guam or somewhere.” Dean rifled through the bag for a Butterfinger, carefully nibbled off the chocolate before sending it the way of Gabriel’s Snickers. Sam’s frown was reaching epic proportions. “Who’s making you stay here and celebrate it?”

“I like it here.”

Dean paused midway through peeling the wrapper back from a Kit-Kat, “Seriously?”

“Its always interesting. And watching you and the Great White Samark there is better than television. Drama! Comedy! Horror! I could pitch you a network.”

“I’m two seconds away from pitching you into the street.” Dean grumbled.

“Ok, which one of you assholes is pegging me with ten cent candy?” Sam loomed over them which he was generally good at anyway, but was made slightly more intimidating by the fact that they were sitting on the floor behind one of the low bookcases.

“Be fair.” Gabriel grinned up at him. “It’s fifteen cent candy at least. The markup is ridiculous.”

“No one’s throwing anything at you. You’re so fucking paranoid.” Dean rummaged in the bag, waiting for Sam to get disgusted and turn around. Then he pegged him with a bag of Skittles.

“I will have you know,” Sam said without turning back around, “that this means war.”

“I’m so terribly afraid.”

“No war during store hours!” Castiel called out from behind the counter.

Which was why he really shouldn’t have been surprised to find Dean duct taped to their bedroom door when he got home that night. Sam was sitting on the couch looking eminently pleased with himself and Gabriel was...quiet. Quiet and glaring at Sam like he was the cause of all the ills in the world.

“How did...no. I do not wish to know.” Castiel backed up into the kitchen to get a pair of scissors.

“You missed it.” Dean was grinning despite his predicament. “Sam got him so good.”

“Looks like he got you better.”

“This is child’s play.” Dean wiggled his one free finger, the left pinky. “After he got me stuck up here, Gabriel started back in on that bag of candy. Sam doctored one of them with something, stuck Gabriel’s tongue right to the roof of his mouth.”

“That could hardly stop him-”

“That’s not the best part. Sam covered the bag with the same shit. Stuck our resident’s Trickter’s fingers together. No juice!” Dean cackled and Gabriel’s murderous glare turned on him.

“But-” Castiel started then stopped. If Gabriel wanted Sam to think he’d won, there must be a reason. He gave Gabriel a questioning look and was surprised for the second time that night by a slight softening at the edges of his brother’s eyes.

Gotta throw them a bone sometimes. Gabriel’s voice was strong in his mind, a brief recollection of a shared connection that once extended to thousands of their brethren. Makes the next time I win that much sweeter.

You’re out of practice, brother. Castiel let affection leech through his thoughts, leaving them clear for Gabriel to pluck out. It’s so much harder to lie this way.

No idea what you mean. But Gabriel disappeared not long after that, slipping away all unnoticed while Dean tangled himself further into Sam’s silver adhesive trap.

November

Sam sang softly along with the radio,

In a tree by the brook, there's a songbird who sings, sometimes all of our thoughts are misgiven...

The sound floated in and out of Castiel’s dreams as he dozed on the Impala’s backseat. The windows were frosted over and the world outside had gone chilled.

“Sammy.” Dean said very softly as if he could keep it a secret from the world and not just Castiel.

“Yeah?” The radio whispered on here's a feeling I get when I look to the west, and my spirit is crying for leaving .

“You’ll keep him safe, right?”

“As much as he’ll let me.”

“You got to make sure he’s ok. I don’t think I could- I can’t be down there and know he’s ripped to shreds up here.”

“He loves you, man. But he’s strong where it matters. Hell, I think I’ll be worse off.”

“Then let him take care of you.”

“I can do that.”

Castiel turned under the blanket of Dean’s coat and wished he’d heard nothing at all. The radio crooned on and he sank under again humming along,

In my thoughts I have seen rings of smoke through the trees and the voices of those who stand looking. Ooooh, it makes me wonder.

December

“There is a tree in my store.” Castiel spoke before he could quite wrap his head around the ludicrously large conifer planted next to the front counter. The sharp scent of pine sap filled the air.

“Your quick observations never fail to impress.” Gabriel oozed sarcasm from his perch at the tree’s apex.

“Why is there a tree in my store? Why are you on top of it?” Castiel frowned. “Why do I even bother to ask?”

“It’s Christmas.” Dean put a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, a tense smile at the corners of his mouth. “Therefore, ye old Christmas tree as stolen from our Germanic pagan ancestors, but purchased very legally from the lot down the road. I figured typical angel tree topper would be best. He didn’t want to wear the white sparkly toga for some reason.”

Gabriel casually flipped Dean the bird from his frankly impossible seat.

“Why is there a tree in the store?” Sam asked, stumbling in behind them eyes still red rimmed with his week long divorce from sleep in honor of finals.

“Apparently it’s Christmas.”

“Oh.” Sam blinked slowly. “Good thing we have an angel topper all set then. Wait. We’re celebrating Christmas now?”

“Yes.” Dean said firmly. “This year. Dad’s even going to try to come home.”

Sam and Castiel’s eyes met and they both silently agreed to hogtie the Winchester paterfamilias if required. This was one holiday the man could not be allowed to miss.

“So how are we decorating this thing?” Sam asked gamely.

“Glad you asked.” Gabriel leapt down and landed light as a feather. Then he started pulling things out of his pockets. Long strings of lights, bags of tinsel and ornaments of varying taste levels. They piled up on the floor around him.

“Pockets that are bigger on the inside?” Dean asked as he bent to rescue a fragile glass bulb from meeting it’s end with porcelain zombie Santa Claus. “I’m not sure if this is awesome or horrifying.”

“Why can’t it be both?” Gabriel pulled a slim bone tipped with silver from his pocket, studied it with brief confusion then stuffed it back in. “All the tree stuff is Norse tradition and that is a good deal bloodier than a bit of holly hung over the door. Hell, I killed a god with a sprig of mistletoe once. Course, he came back. Miserable ass.”

“You actually murdered Balder?” Sam had developed a new smile, a hybrid between his ‘curiosity killed the cat, but I have nine lives’ grin and ‘I don’t believe anything you’re telling me, big brother’ smirk. It seemed to be tailor made for Gabriel.

“He had it coming. He was standing around daring people to kill him. Idiot.” Gabriel reached into his pockets again, producing a candy cane almost the exact shape of the bone that had gone in only a minute before. “Thor was never any great brain trust either, but at least he could take a joke. The tree is his or was. Until Saint Boniface came along and chopped it down to build a church. Saw the writing on the wall then. Tried to tell Thor and Frigga to bail, but they were stuck on the old ways. I haven’t seen them in years.”

Sam played out a line of lights, untangling them as he listened. Dean was already hanging ornaments with a seriousness normally reserved for cleaning guns.

Castiel, unfamiliar with seduction, would not have guessed that the odd tidbits shared seemingly at Gabriel’s whim were flirtations if it weren’t for the way Gabriel sometimes added light touches to his stories. Just now he was handing Sam some fragile thing, cupping both his hands around Sam’s much larger one.

It wasn’t Castiel’s place to comment. Instead he gathered up handfuls of tinsel, tossing them in a glittering shower over the branches.

“All right, let’s turn this sucker on.” Dean announced what seemed like hours later.

Sam reached for the light switch, tumbling them all into temporary darkness. Then the tree flickered to life, all the pinpoint bulbs burning as bright and cold as distant stars.

“What do you think, Sammy?”

“Not bad.” Sam threw an arm around Dean’s shoulders. “Freakishly normal actually.”

Over the next few days, a few poorly wrapped gifts cropped up in the middle of the night under the pine’s lower branches. Castiel watched the pile grow with trepidation, sneaking in his own purchases.

“Who pissed in your Cheerios?” Gabriel manifested in the middle of the runes and tea leaves section where Castiel had been adding a few new titles.

“I had toast for breakfast.”

“You know the whole ‘I’m just a simple angel who does not understand your mortal idioms’ schtick lost believability when you started quoting Princess Bride.”

Castiel calmly slid Earl Grey and the Meaning of Life by Flora Gringott next to A Pleasant Drink or the End of the World? by I.C. Dydmen.

“I miss Heaven.” He admitted when the book sat as straight as it was going to on the shelf and he could still feel the weight of Gabriel’s gaze on him.

“Oh.” Gabriel let out a soft, unnecessary breath. “That...might actually be out of my paygrade. I was hoping it was something simpler.”

“I have found that the appropriate human response to these things is ‘I’m sorry. Can I help?’ They generally say no, then you offer a hug.”

“I’m not sorry though. I didn’t make you fall. I’m actually a little bit proud of you”

“They aren’t either. When they say it. It’s something to say that expresses empathy.” Castiel paused. “You’re proud of me?”

“Sure. Takes a lot of balls to deny an order.” Gabriel rocked a little on his heels. “I’m not offering you a hug.”

“No. Of course not. Will you be there tomorrow night?”

“For the Winchester Christmas Meltdown? No thanks.”

“Fine. You should come Christmas morning.”

“To relish the epic hangovers?”

“To open the gifts with your name on them.”

Gabriel’s eyebrows shot upwards and in an eyeblink, he was kneeling by the tree and shuffling through the packages. There were three with his name on them.

“I’m not a good person.” Gabriel said quietly and to someone else it might sound confessional, but Castiel knew it for a bald factual statement.

“You’re not a person. You’re a seraphim, who wears a god’s face.” Castiel shrugged. “Sam has rage that boils, Dean covets and steals, I feel envy and lust. None of us are without sin.”

“I almost killed them both that day. I might have.”

“Dean might have started the apocalypse saving his brother’s life. The entire world may end because he couldn’t let go.” Warily, he let his hand land on Gabriel’s shoulder. “And I love him with everything I have.”

“Yes, but you’re an idiot.” Gabriel covered Castiel’s hand with his own.

“A certain loss of intelligence may be necessary to be a Winchester. Particularly from the section of the brain that contains self-preservation.” He smiled at the tree, the top of Gabriel’s head where the hair threatens to thin, but never will. “It’s worth it.”

“You’re smiling sappily.” Gabriel complained. “I can hear it.”

“My face. I can smile as I like. Leave if it’s bothering you.”

But Gabriel stayed. And come Christmas morning, he was there.

John had already left, stumbling out early with the predicted hangover and Bobby in tow. They had driven twelve hours to be there for Christmas Eve. Whatever was terrorizing Missing Mile, Louisiana was still out there though and they were gone soon after Castiel pressed travel cups of Alka-Seltzer into their hands.

It was nearly eleven before Sam and Dean stumbled into the living room. They looked very much like brothers that morning, dressed in identical grey pajama pants and white undershirts, both bleary eyed, but smiling.

“Did visions of sugarplums dance in your heads?” Gabriel asked wryly. He had moved the entire tree and it’s plethora of gifts from the store to the apartment upon his arrival. It loomed even larger in the small living room.

“Sort of.” Sam yawned, then spilled into an easy cross legged pose at the foot of the tree. “Rum is made from sugar cane. That count?”

“I am never drinking Bobby’s moonshine again.” Dean ran his tongue over his teeth.

“Here.” Two more glasses of Alka Seltzer found good homes in upset stomachs followed by black coffee and only slightly stale donuts.

“Come ‘ere.” Dean tugged Castiel down for a thorough kiss that tasted more of burnt coffee beans then anything else. “You’re awesome.”

“Thank you.” Castiel resettled himself on the couch. “I do my best.”

“Gross.” Gabriel weighed in and Sam muffled a laugh into the palm of his hand before reaching under the tree for a newspaper wrapped gift, tossing it at Castiel.

“I used the Sunday Funnies for you.” Dean winked. “Only the best.”

“I’m touched.” Castiel said dryly, ripping neatly through Garfield’s puzzled face. “Bubble wrap?”

“Present is in the bubble wrap. I swear, sometimes it’s a good thing you’re pretty.” Dean pried the plastic wrap from its newspaper home and peeled the tape up before handing it back. “Saw you ogling it, so I figured I couldn’t go wrong.”

It turned out to be a ceremonial dagger they’d spotted on a job that went bust back in the six sweet weeks between meeting Gabriel and Dean making the deal. The dagger wouldn’t be useful in any fight, but it was beautiful in it’s own right. And Dean had bought it for him, kept it all this time.

“Thank you.” He wrapped his hand around the hilt.

“Yeah, well. You’re welcome.” Dean kissed Castiel’s temple then held his hands out to Sam. “Gimmie one of mine.”

“Nope, my turn.” Sam took out his own newspaper wrapped gift and made a pleased huff when he discovered the six pack and tube socks. “How traditional of you.”

“Hey, I saw the holes you wore in the last few pairs. You should think about trimming your toenails once and awhile.”

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.”

“Children.” Gabriel rolled his eyes and reached under the tree, tossing a gold and green mess of paper at Dean. “From your loving brother.”

“Aw, Samantha! Look at the pretty paper.”

“I know where you sleep.”

The paper disgorged toothpaste, deodorant, a package of razors and a DVD of the Bladerunner Director’s Cut with the price tag still stuck on it. Apparently Sam had fished it out of a dollar bin.

“We’re so watching this after we’re done opening everything.” Dean was already ripping into the plastic with glee.

“Hey, someone actually managed to wrap stuff nicely.” Sam pulled out a box. “Wow, Cas. I’m impressed.”

“Many people requested wrapping at the store. The first few attempts didn’t look quite as good.”

For Sam, he’d found a few books which were happily accepted and leafed through. And of course, Sam had bought him books in return. That was a tradition that Castiel could live with.

“First one for you.” Sam extended Castiel’s box to Gabriel, who opened it as if he had all the time in the world.

“This is a pen. A novelty pen.” Gabriel drew it out of the box. “Of a woman. Seriously?”

“If you turn it upside down, her clothes disappear.” Castiel pointed out. “I thought you would find it humorous.”

Gabriel turned the pen upside down, grinning maniacally.

“That makes mine seem kind of lame.” Dean complained, but Gabriel seemed equally pleased with the pile of Sandman comics Dean had gotten him. “Loki’s in there somewhere. I know you like to collect yourself.”

“This has to be yours from Cas.” Sam tossed the last box to Dean, who caught it with interest.

“It isn’t much.” Castiel warned.

“Shut up.” Dean advised, ripping through the packaging.

It was just a photo album. There weren’t many pictures of the Winchesters in existence, but Castiel had managed to scrounge them together. Bobby had sent him a few more negatives and John had reluctantly produced a faded photo of Mary for copying. After a false start or two, Castiel had even managed to get a few decent candid shots of Sam and Dean, together and apart.

“Cas.” Dean gripped him close. “This is...hey. When was this taken?”

A photo Castiel didn’t remember had been stuck on one of the middle pages. He and Dean were sprawled out over the grass, looking about sixteen. Castiel’s old beige sweatshirt opened behind him like wings. Dean’s face was turned towards him, nose almost brushing his cheek.

“I don’t know.” He touched the edges and swore he could smell the sun in the grass.

“Or this one.” Dean pointed again. The shot was taken from farther away, the focus a little softer. Sam, no more than six or seven, stood outside a hotel room door. He held something in his hands up to Castiel stern gaze.

“I found a sparrow.” Sam leaned over to examine the picture. “It’s wing was broken. Cas healed it.”

“I tried convince you that it was the natural order of things. But you pointed out that the window it had flown into wasn’t natural and the bird shouldn’t be punished because someone kept the glass too clean.”

“So I took this?” Dean frowned. “I don’t remember having a camera.”

“You weren’t there.” Castiel turned the pages of the album, this time braced for the added shots. “These weren’t here when I put this together.”

“Gab-”Sam started to say, but Gabriel was already gone. “Ass. He didn’t even open his present from me.”

“You sure about that?” Dean nodded at the new addition to the pile of paper drifted against the tree. “What’d you get him anyway?”

“What do you get for the guy who can conjure anything?” Sam smiled that new Gabriel smile. “Bought him a plaid shirt and a few Henleys.”

“I don’t-” Dean started then stopped. “Tell me you didn’t give Gabriel the Winchester version of a Weasley sweater.”

“Who wants bacon?” Sam got to his feet, making a beeline for the kitchen.

“This isn’t over!” Dean yelled at his retreating back.

“It’s over.” Castiel flipped the album page again, pausing to run a finger over a photo of Sam and Dean bent over the trunk of the Impala while he stood to one side and watched them. Before he fell, he had imagined that his face often read as a blank to humans. How foolish he had been. How blind.

“Well. It was a pretty good gift.” Dean allowed, closing the album and placing it gently on the coffee table. “But I still don’t trust him.”

“Waffles or pancakes?” Sam called out.

“Both!” They called back.

January

They spent Dean’s birthday rooting out a nest of vampires. The lair was an ancient house that creaked alarmingly with every step. When Dean held up a can of gasoline no one objected. The fire roared to life as if the house had just been waiting for the opportunity.

“Better than a cake.” Dean declared as they tromped back to the car.

“Harder to blow out.” Sam’s face was marked with soot.

“Not much around here anyway. Shouldn’t spread far.”

In the rearview mirror the blaze cast the world in orange. Dean glanced up to catch Castiel’s eyes and the effect stole the breath from Castiel’s lungs. In the mirror, Dean burned.

“Ok there?”

“Yes.” Castiel dug his fingernails into the meat of his palm. “Fine.”

February

The blizzard plunged the world into silence. Cars stayed parked, children were kept inside and the barks of local dogs were swallowed up in the muffling snow. The apartment was almost too warm, the radiators burning any exposed bit of skin foolish enough to come close. Sprawled over the couch, Dean and Sam watched a marathon of Macgyver episodes while Castiel bundled himself in the armchair and read his way through Dean’s Vonnegut collection.

For the first time in months, there was no urgency. The store was unreachable, sealing away most of their research. No case could be solved. And nowhere Dean could go, high on his limited time, trying to jam in every last possible sensation.

“S’nice.” Sam commented late in the afternoon, when the shadows started to grow long. “Good day.”

“Yeah.” Dean kicked at him idly, fighting halfheartedly for more space to spread out.

“There was a woman whose Heaven was an everlasting snowstorm.” The words on the page had gone a little blurry in the fading light. Castiel closed the book. “She had a little cave with a fire.”

“Sounds lonely.” Sam’s eyes glittered in the growing dark.

“Does it?” Castiel turned the sentiment over in his mind. “It can be, I suppose. No one seemed lonely. It’s reliving the best parts of your life.”

“So the eternal reward is an infinite clip show?” Dean scrubbed a hand over his face.

“I used to think it was a reward.” Castiel could smell the book in his hands, dusty and faintly yeasty from all the years tucked in the same duffel with his feather.

“And now?” Sam prodded.

“There are worse fates. But reward is the wrong word. It’s a rest. A break.”

“Between life and...what? Life after the afterlife?”

“I don’t know.” The dreamlike quality of the day stole over him, making his eyelids heavy. “Maybe nothing. Maybe I’m wrong. But I’d rather believe there’s more than what I know.”

“That’s being human.” Sam kicked at Dean’s legs, reclaiming the lost inches.

Macgyver melted into NCIS. The remote was lost in the ensuing shuffle.

March

The scratch of Sam’s pencil as he translated Urdu matched Castiel’s staccato pen marks as he worked through possible alchemical equations that could melt spirituous animals.

“See, this is why they need me.” Gabriel flickered into being right next to Castiel. “Leave them to their own devices and it’s all work, work, work.”

A young woman twisted in the archangel’s hands, shouting obscenities at him.

“Have you lost your mind?” Sam was on his feet. “Let her go.”

“Oh, so you want a demon running roughshod all through your precious store?” Gabriel pushed the struggling woman until she staggered into one of the Devil Trap’s Dean had painted onto the floor. She stuck fast, eyes going dark as obsidian. “She’s been lingering around for weeks.”

“Please! I can help you!” She protested. “I have information.”

“Why didn’t you just kill her?” Sam eyed her warily.

“How’s your demon killing spell going?” Gabriel asked, reaching through the trap to relieve the demon of the knife tucked at her belt, despite her best efforts to keep him from it. “Working for you?”

“You know that it isn’t.”

“Check this out then.” Gabriel hefted the knife and the demon backed as far away as she could in the circle.

“You don’t understand!” She protested, holding her arms up. “My name is Ruby and I have infor-”

Gabriel stabbed the knife into her. Her body shuddered, the black smog of the demon spilling from her, but instead of arching up and away, it disintegrated leaving the faint smell of rotten eggs behind. The corpse it had been inhabiting fell to the ground with a meaty thud.

“Happy St. Patrick’s Day.” Gabriel beamed, slapping the knife into Sam’s unresisting hand. “You can slay dragons now. Well. Not really. But you can murder the shit out of a demon.”

Sam turned the blade over his hands, staring at it as if it held the secrets of the universe,

“Do you think it would work against Lilith?” Castiel asked around the knot in his throat.

“Doubtful.” Gabriel shrugged. “She’s a lot older and tougher. Even if it did, reaching her with it would be tricky. But at least her minions should give you less trouble. Maybe you two can unravel whatever makes the mojo in it work, make a few spares.”

“Thank you anyway. I doubt she had good intentions set for us.” Castiel knelt down to the body, checking it for identification. Nothing.

“I’ll take out the trash.” Gabriel shoved him out of the way. “Wouldn’t want to interrupt your study session.”

A snap. Gabriel and the corpse vanished as quickly as they’d come.

“Demon killing knife.” Sam mused. “That could come in handy.”

“I don’t recognize the symbols.”

“Something new to work on. Give me a break from combing through myth fragments anyway.”

“You should clean the blade before you do anything else. Demon blood is a nasty contaminant.”

“Tell me about it.” Sam took it to the sink, washing the blood off with antibacterial soap.

“I didn’t mean-”

“It’s ok. I was a baby without consent. Be a different story if I drank it willingly or something.” He wiped down the blade and then washed his fingers until there wasn’t a trace of red left.

“True.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“You just did.”

“Hilarious.”

“You know you can always ask me anything.” Castiel gave him a tight smile. “What is it?”

“What if...what if we don’t figure this out in time?” Sam turned the knife over and over in his hand. “Could we get him back do you think? Pull an Orpheus?”

Castiel stared at him, then looked blankly down at the chalk outline of the devil’s trap.

“Sorry.” Sam murmured.

“How foolish we’ve been.” Castiel shut one heavy book with a satisfying slam. “You...you’re right. We haven’t explored that avenue at all.”

“But it’s crazy, isn’t it? I mean who marches into hell?”

“The angels will. When Dean is taken, they will battle their way in with the intention of saving him before the First Seal can be broken.” Castiel bit his lip. “But they are many and loud and they don’t care for the state they find him in as long as he has not given in. One man though is small, quiet. There are other ways into Hell. Deals that have existed long before the First Coming.”

“Pay the ferryman kind of thing?”

“So to speak.” Castiel’s mind raced, he left behind the workroom. The books he wanted weren’t on the bookstore's shelves, but he rustled through them anyway. “A cut in the fabric between this mortal earth and the undying flames. A tiny sliver.”

“We’ll both have to go.” Sam pointed the tip of the blade at Castiel. “If one of us goes alone, the other one will just spend the entire time freaking out. And we fail...”
[
Castiel wanted to protest. It was his role as the lover to go down into the Pit. That was tradition. That was the way it was done. And if anything happened to Sam, it wouldn’t matter if they succeeded. Dean would just turn around to fetch him back.

“Together or not at all.” Sam demanded. “I’m not asking you to let me go in your place. I wouldn’t. But don’t leave me behind. It never works out when one of us goes in alone.”

Castiel held out a hand. Sam shook it solemnly.

“We’ll need an entirely different set of books."

“Write me up a list, I’ll head out to the university library.” Sam offered, already hefting up his battered backpack.

As soon as the door closed, Gabriel manifested on the counter. He clapped slowly.

“You’re going to bring Lucifer’s vessel right down in the heart of darkness? Brilliant. What’s your next trick? Oh! I know. Why don’t you cover yourself in honey and take a nap with some fire ants?”

“He won’t be left behind. Either I let him come with me intentionally or he’ll do something we’ll all regret.” Castiel rubbed a hand over his hair. “Do you have any better suggestions?”

“Don’t walk into the mouth of hell?”

“Let Dean burn.”

“You know that Mikey won’t let that happen.”

“And what if he's tired the way you got tired? Fed up?” The thought had been gnawing away at Castiel, a terminal rot of an idea. “What if you aren’t the only archangel that wants this to be over?”

“That’s the new conspiracy theory? Heaven bringing about the end times?” Gabriel snorted. “Michael is way too much of a Daddy’s boy for that.”

“You haven’t seen him in millennium. How would you know?”

Gabriel’s heel struck the glass of the counter. It shattered into a thousand pieces, raining down over the floor.

“I know my own brother.” His fury seethed like a living thing through the air.

“Would you bet the world on that?” Castiel crossed his arms over his chest, willing to stare Gabriel down until the very end of Creation.

There was no need. Gabriel blinked. First with his eyes and then his entire body winking out from existence. The glass stayed shattered on the floor. Castiel let out a long, unsteady breath then went to go find the dustpan.

April

The grass was damp, wicking up through the cotton of Castiel’s sweater, but he didn’t complain.

“Moose.” Dean pointed upwards, one fat cloud rolling by them.

“I don’t see it.” Castiel squinted. “Perhaps a water buffalo.”

“Totally a moose.” Dean pulled Castiel closer in, tangling their legs together.

They could be in Kansas or maybe Texas. Castiel had fallen asleep during the drive, waking to Dean pulling him from the car to eat lunch in a freshly mowed field. Sam had stayed in the car, stretched out in the backseat with passenger door open to accommodate his legs. A whistling snore issued from the car at irregular intervals.

Nothing was truly peaceful anymore. They all carried around a deep tension that hummed a discordant note, sending their teeth on edge. Even now Dean held on to Castiel a shade too tightly and drank down two cold beers far too quickly.

“Tell me a story.” Dean demanded, a child again mired in anxiety and loss.

“Which one?” Castiel wished he had the luxury of playing the same game, but his steel trap mind wouldn’t let him forget the heavy press of reality for a second. Not for the span of a breath.

“Don’t care. Something with a happy ending.”

“The happiest story I know is the first one.” The book still lived in Sam’s room, tucked out of sight and soft with age. Not a word of it had escaped Castiel’s memory. “Corduroy is a bear who once lived in a department store. Day after day he waited with all the other animals and dolls for someone to come along and take him home.”

Castiel had never been so aware of Dean listening to him. There was a quality of restlessness to Dean that often came off as inattentiveness. Time and time again though, Dean proved that he caught nearly everything, including details that slipped by Sam or Castiel’s notice. Yet never before had Castiel actually felt Dean’s focus as clearly as the grip of Dean’s hand around his wrist.

He nearly faltered in his recital when he figured it out.

Dean was memorizing him.

When the story ended, girl and bear united, Castiel had to swallow hard to clear away the remains of too much feeling. He rolled over, straddling Dean’s lap to drink in his fill of green eyes, long lashes and the strong lines of a determined jaw. They could memorize together, setting each other so deep in memory that they could never be dislodged.

“What are you guys doing?” Sam stumbled out of the car. “You know this is technically a public place, right?”

“Way to ruin the moment, Sammy.” Dean scoffed, but he didn’t release Castiel right away. If anything, he held on a little tighter.

May

The baying of the hounds came ever closer. They must be just down the street now, preternatural noses firmly to the ground and zeroing on Dean’s scent. The basement was a terrible place to hide, but none of them were trying to get away. Sam stood vigil over an empty hospital bed, ready and waiting for the moment they’d have a body to lay there. To preserve.

Dean wanted to meet his fate alone and with something close to dignity, so this was their last moment grabbed in a doorway that led to the alleyway next to the dumpster. There wasn’t much left to say, Castiel realized. They had been saying goodbye for a year now.

“I love you.” Castiel confided, unsure if he’d ever configured the words in just that way before. He must have.

“Love you too.” Dean kissed him, a hard desperate thing.

“You have to remember,” Castiel gasped when Dean pulled away, “to hold out. Have faith that I’m coming.”

“About that.” Dean rummaged in his pocket, then took Castiel’s hand and opened it, pressed a hard object into the palm then closed Castiel’s fingers around it. “When I come back, I’ll ask the question that goes with this, ok?”

“What-”

The baying became howls of triumph, a hardscrabble of nails on concrete.

“I’ll see you soon.” Dean kissed him again.

Then he let go and all Castiel could do was wait for Lilith's triumphant shout and the collection of the bloody shell that once housed his beloved.

Chapter Text

Castiel dusted off the geodes, then wiped down the shelf with almond scented oil. The store had never looked so clean. He had spent the last two days preparing it for his absence. Each of Brigit’s runes still held, folding layers of protection over the small space. He prayed to her often these days, preferring her more direct intervention to his Father’s proverbial mysterious ways.

“Are you ready?” Sam asked gently.

“Yes.” Castiel set down the rag, turned the sign on the door from Open to Closed.

They descended into the basement. The body lay on the hospital bed, the machines palpating it properly. Castiel had to think of it as just another corpse or he’d have long ago gone mad. As it was, he spent too many hours tending to the abandoned shell.

“Look right to you?”

“He looks-” Castiel began then realized Sam was gesturing to the gateway drawn in chalk across the wall. “Sorry.”

“It’s ok. Just double check me.”

The gateway looked as sound as a door to Hell could.

“Let’s begin.” Castiel picked up the book from the floor where Sam had left it to use as reference. They had both memorized the spell a month ago, but Castiel was taking no chances.

“You guys cannot still be serious about this.” Gabriel lifted the book from Castiel’s hands. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you Hell is a one way trip?”

“You have. Several times.” Sam snatched the book back. “Man up or shut up already.”

“The legions of Heaven are fighting to get him as we speak.” The book gained a pair of wings, pushing itself out of Sam’s hands towards the ceiling. “There’s only loss here for you two.”

“That’s our gamble to take.”

“There is no gamble! House owns the whole table.” Gabriel spat.

“Forty years.” Castiel said quietly. They both turned to him. “That is how long he has been tortured now. Longer than he’s been alive. Forty years of suffering. Of pain. How much longer does he have to hold out to satisfy you that Heaven will not save him?”

“Castiel-”

“Man up or shut up.” Castiel turned his back on his brother’s broken expression. “In vitri, in vitos, in-”

“You’ve got too much baggage.” Gabriel blurted. “You’re gonna lug a meat suit all the way into the Pit? Someone’s bound to notice.”

“You have a counter suggestion?” Sam lifted an eyebrow.

“Always.” Gabriel grinned though it was a pale shadow of it’s usual smarmy glory. “Lie back and think of England, kiddo.”

Gabriel reached out and pressed two fingers to Sam’s forehead. The strong frame folded down towards the floor, gathered loosely by Gabriel before his head cracked against the cement.

“What have you done?” Castiel demanded.

“Given you a fighting chance. Well. Part of one.” Gabriel frowned, then stepped close to Castiel. Close enough that Castiel could smell his caramel and copper breath. “Hold on. I haven’t done this in a very long time. Could be rusty.”

Gabriel closed the distance between them, initiating a kiss. Castiel tried to pull away, but Gabriel’s hands came up quickly and held him still. With an impatient sound, Gabriel pushed in harder and then Castiel felt it. It didn’t taste like caramel or copper. It was blazingly hot, full of milk and honey. It was paradise and molten gold. It was a home left bitterly behind with the sudden promise of return all sins forgiven. Castiel made an involuntary noise though he couldn’t say if it was of pain or pleasure.

It quickly spread from his lips to his throat to melt down his spine and finally to bypass flesh altogether. The tiny seed of his remaining grace burst open, singing at a note beyond human hearing. He was all angel again. He knew that if he wanted to he could cross the boundaries of worlds, leaving behind Jimmy’s flesh to fly again.

And still Gabriel did not pull away.

The milk and honey spilled over, growing until Castiel had new brighter senses that he could not name. Perhaps they didn’t have names, didn’t need them with so few entities possessing them.

“That’s the best I can do.” Gabriel had stopped kissing him, stopped touching him entirely. Behind him, Sam’s spirit stood over his prone body still blinking in disorientation. It had only been seconds and the entire world had changed.

“You’re glowing.” Sam sounded more than a little awed, distracted from his own disembodied state. “Like a million watt light bulb.”

“Gabriel has lent me his grace.” Even Castiel’s voice sounded different, split somehow, deeper and sonorous.

“Most of it anyway.” Gabriel knelt down to Sam’s prone body, seemingly unconcerned with consequences of his momentous gift. “And only temporarily. It’s going to want to come back to me, can’t help that, but it should get you through.”

“And me?”

Sam turned a little and Castiel’s breath stuttered in his chest. He could see the infection of demon blood in Sam’s soul, a sludgy cloud that lingered in his chest, sending occasional questing tendrils outwards then lazily contracting them. It was in stark contrast to the rest of Sam’s spirit which hummed and shone with the curiosity and stubbornness that defined him.

The malignant cloud was a keyhole. Castiel could see exactly where Lucifer could slot himself in and take up residence, expanding that darkness until there was nothing of Sam left.

“You’re fine. Still alive even.” Gabriel picked up one of Sam’s wrists, fingers wrapped to the pulse. “I’ll tuck you into bed for now and then tuck your soul back into your body when you get back. Easy-peasey.”

“And that’ll be safer?”

Gabriel was staring at the cloud now, glancing back at Castiel in warning. Gabriel must see that indolent beast every time he looked at Sam, saw the soul infected beneath the healthy flesh.

“No one should go walking into Hell all mortal and tasty, you idiot, but you in particular scream ‘come and get me then deliver me up to your Dark Lord like a Christmas Ham’. Even going in spirit is a shitty idea, but at least they won’t have the grand prize vessel.” Gabriel lifted Sam’s body from the floor as if it weighed nothing at all, long limbs dangling precariously near the floor. “Go if you’re going.”

“Thank you.” Sam said quietly.

“Don’t.” With more tenderness than Castiel would have credited him with, Gabriel widened the hospital bed and lay Sam down on it. “Now your deaths are on my hands.”

“Great pep talk!” Sam drifted to Castiel’s side. “Ready?”

“Yes.”

The chalked gate no longer looked like a collection of lines. To Castiel’s altered vision it was a fine network of veins, pulsing with the beat of Creation. He could see where the mortal world thinned and left room to maneuver. For the first time in years, he reached for his sword and it came to his hand as if it had never resisted his call.

“The spell is not required. Stand behind me.”

He waited until Sam had obeyed, then put the tip of his blade to the top of the gate. The metal met not drywall, but the buttery give of flesh. His blade sank in and ripping downward tore through meat, muscle and skin. The gate wept blood as he tore downward. Reality screamed in protest, the air itself turning thick and resistant.

When his blade cut through the last of the gate, the wall shuddered and gave. The ragged wound gaped open and the thick cloying scent of sickness poured from it. Castiel sheathed his blade.

“Ready?” He held his hand out.

“No.” Sam slid his spectral fingers through Castiel’s. “But fuck it. Let’s go.”

“Don’t let go of me until we’re through.”

As Castiel set his foot into the wound he’d made in the world, he could hear Gabriel behind them. His voice was diminished without the full weight of his grace, his prayer soft and despairing,

“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil for thou art with me.”

“Your rod and your staff comfort me.” Sam picked up the words as they moved into darkness and left Gabriel behind. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You have anointed my head with oil. My cup overflows.”

They walked through the tight tunnel, a restless thud of some distant heartbeat expanding and contracting as they went. The floor squelched beneath their feet and the fetid smell grew stronger. The first cries of the damned reached them and it was Castiel who took up the abandoned psalm,

“Surely goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life and I will dwell in the house of my Father forever.”

“Do you think its helping?” Sam squeezed Castiel’s hand, walked a little faster.

“No. We’re working against my Father’s will. Or so my brethren would claim. I cannot imagine that our pleas fall well on His ears.” The tunnel spasmed and they braced themselves on the slick walls. “But you should do anything that may comfort you.”

“I think I’m beyond comfort.”

The tunnel ended abruptly, with a last thunderous spasm that heaved them out at the shores of a river. Ragged stone arched up over them, but there wasn’t a ferryman to be seen. On the other side, a great door stood open in ready welcome.

“Do we swim?”

“No.” Castiel watched the treacherous tides of the river. “If it is the Lethe than we will lose our memory to it.”

A scream rent the air and they both tensed, scanning the area for threat. A crow soared above them, swooping down to land on the shore.

“You burn too brightly, angel.” The crow cawed.

“A gift.” Castiel put himself between the bird and Sam. “Who are you?”

“When the beloved comes to take his heart back from the underworld, does he not have a guide?” With a mighty push of wings the crow shifted, melting from bird to woman with fine features and long black hair. “Sister-child Brigit sent me hence.”

“Morrígan.” He guessed and was rewarded with a sly smile.

“Ai.” She was old, young, a child all at once in a flicker. “Thursday’s child, it serves you well that you know me.”

“You can take us to Dean?” Sam had crept forward, nearly level with Castiel again.

“I can take you as far as I can.” She looked over Sam, eyes catching on the darkness. “You break tradition bringing another with you.”

“He wouldn’t stay home.”

“Dean is my brother.”

“So he is.” The Morrígan raised an eyebrow. “Come then. There is no time to waste, already your borrowed power seeps from you and the devils smell you on the air.”

“How do we get across?” Asked Sam.

“Across?” She shook her head. “It was from that door that you came. We go not back over, but follow the river of sorrow to the end.”

“Sorrow?”

She took flight, calling back,

“It is the tears of all who mourn, gathered here to tumble into the abyss.”

“So not the Lethe.” Sam guessed.

“Perhaps it is both.” Castiel eyed the shore warily and wondered if his own, few and private, tears mingled there.

The river grew broader as they traveled, widening until they had only inches of dry land between it and the curving stone walls. As it swelled, distant echoes of sobbing rose up, mixing together into a litany of loss. They clung to each other, wordless and bereft. The crow circled backwards, chivvying them on with her own unnerving cries.

“Here!” She said at last. “Here it ends.”

The river dropped straight off a cliff, a thunderous waterfall that sent up riotous clouds of salted mist.

And before them lay Hell.

It looked like an ancient forest in the heart of winter. In every direction trees, dead and twisted, reached their skeletal fingers up to storm blackened sky. Fires dotted the spread, tiny clusters that sent up smoke to join the restless clouds above. Everything was covered in thick frost and had Sam still worn flesh, he would have frozen to the spot. As it was, his spirit shook with the cold.

“See there.” The crow was woman again, pointing outward nearly beyond the range of vision. “There the war is waged.”

The borrowed grace shivered through Castiel, shrinking back from the thin golden line tearing through the thunderous sky that may have been a thousand thousand of his brethren battling the tide of demons. They were fighting, winning perhaps, but quite far from having the victory in hand.

“There.” The Morrígan pointed again. “There lies the soul you seek.”

If Hell could be measured as Earth, then fire that she picked out would have been two or three miles from the line of angels.

“They’re so close.” Sam murmured.

“So far.” Castiel said in the same moment.

“I can take you on the safest path, but there I must leave you to make your own way.” She was crow again. “And you must find your own way out.”

They had no choice, but to follow her. The path down the rockface looked as though it had been trod by many feet downward. Along the way, they passed skeletons and bodies, failures on this same mad quest.

The forest sighed when they finally came to its roots, leaving behind the relative safety of rock. Where Castiel stepped, the frost melted and green sprigs of hopeful plants pushed through the ground. Another step forward and the plants behind him withered, reclaimed by ice.

“You will need to move quickly.” Morrígan landed on Castiel’s shoulder, nipping at his ear in affection and warning. “Brigit favors you, Thursday’s Child. Do not add her tears to the river.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“You are welcome.” She launched herself upwards. “Keep to the path. Kill whatever approaches.”

“This isn’t what I imagined.” Sam looked out into the trees, along the frozen dirt path that would lead them where they needed to be. “Shouldn’t it be all fire and brimstone?”

“It isn’t frost and trees.” Castiel started, walking quickly. “Nothing here is real, it’s the best interpretation our minds can manage without shattering.”

“Is that what Heaven is like?”

“Yes. Though it would be more pleasant.”

The trees all had faces if Castiel looked too closely.

“They’re souls, aren’t they?” Sam whispered. “They look like they’re screaming.”

“Yes. Be glad you cannot hear them.”

They spoke no more. Occasionally the path took them close to one of the fires and they would hear the screams of the tortured damned or worse, the music and laughter of demons. It wore at their nerves, bringing everything into sharp focus. Once they came too close and a flood of demons came for them, hooting and hysterical. Gabriel’s borrowed grace made quick work of many of them and Ruby’s knife proved to work even as a spirit of itself in Sam’s spectral hand. Here the demons wore no pretty human faces, they died in their true twisted forms.

“They still look sort of human.” Sam toed one body with a frown. “Burnt, mangled and fucked up, but human.”

“They were once.” Castiel turned away. “If you agree to torture others, if you never feel repentant, this is what you become.”

The path took them away. Wind tore through the trees, blistering the wounded bark and ripping down branches.

Sam. The ground itself spoke, shivering under their feet.

“Did you hear that?” Sam frowned.

“Do not listen to it.”

Hello, Sam. The voice poured warm over Castiel. Gabriel’s grace fidgeted within him. What a tease you are, coming for a visit naked like this.

“What is it?”

Oh, my dear, my one and only, Gabriel’s grace reached and Castiel reigned it back, struggling against its desire to seek out it’s brother. don’t you know me?

“Luc-”

“Names have power.” Castiel grated out. “Don’t say it. Don’t think it. Just walk, Sam. Deny him and keep moving.”

Sam took a breath he didn't need, then began walking again.

When you free me, you will know something new. The ground vibrated under them, nearly soothing and almost warm. I will fill the emptiness you always feel.

“Hey, Cas, after we rescue Dean, we should take him to that burger place in Maryland he’s always going on about.”

“What?” Castiel frowned. “Why would we-”

“And then head to one of those state fairs. Get him deep fried everything like he likes.”

We will waltz together, you and I, to the drums you always here. I know that beat. I am that singing note in your dreams.

“Road trip.” Castiel choked out, Gabriel’s grace keening inside of him. “We should go somewhere new.”

“We’ve never gone to Canada.” Sam gritted out. “There’s this highway called the Sea to Sky, its supposed to be one of the most beautiful drives in the world.”

“We should take a camera. Do we have a camera?”

They planned their trip, talking over the sweet seductive voice that promised Sam everything he could want and made Gabriel’s grace writhe. The ground shuddered and bucked beneath them.

“You could get married there.” Sam said finally. “I think it’s legal in some parts of Canada.”

The ring (Dean’s thick silver ring that had sat broad and defining on his hand since John had pulled it from his own and left it behind when he went to a bar. Discarded, Dean had rescued the wedding band and thrust it down on his own too slim finger. He’d been fourteen. John saw it, but never asked for it back) hung from a chain around Castiel’s neck. The metal stayed warm pressed to his skin, a promise. He had asked Dean to keep faith, but it was Castiel who held that ring tight at night when the empty side of the bed yawned too wide.

Castiel hadn’t told Sam about it. Not a word, but the ring was an obvious bulk under his t-shirts, a glaring presence missing from Dean’s body.

“It doesn’t matter.” Castiel jumped over a break in the ground, reaching behind him to aid Sam’s leap. “I don't legally exist.”

“Look!” Sam pointed upwards.

The golden seam in the sky had widened.

“They’re redoubling their efforts.” Castiel grabbed hold of Sam’s wrist. “We must move faster.”

They ran and even Lucifer’s voice wasn’t fast enough to keep pace with them. The trees whipped by them and the fires went ignored. Intent on a single goal, they moved as one. When at last they reached the grove where the fire the Morrígan had shown them glowed hot, a line of hungry demons awaited them.

“Look here,” growled one, “come a single angel and a human soul to do what the armies of Heaven have tried for years.”

“What does angel taste like?” Asked another. “Should we grill it upon a spit?”

“Or tear the meat from it’s bones while it weeps?” Said a third.

The fourth did not get a witty reply. Castiel’s sword swept it’s head from it’s shoulders.

“Go on!” Sam pushed at him, taking out Ruby’s knife. “I’ll get this crowd, you get Dean.”

“We will not allow him within a dog’s breath of Alistair!” The first demon leaped at Castiel, but his descent was arrested with Ruby’s knife in his chest.

“Go!” Sam shouted again and Castiel needed no further encouragement. He left Sam to dispatch the guards and went into the clearing.

It was almost a stage. The platform drew up from the ground, an unnatural growth in the soil that supported an iron monstrosity of a table. Tilted, the table was a snarled thorny mess that creaked, growled and twined around it’s captive. A demon stood near the mechanism, more spine than body with a head like a plague mask, a long slender fly’s tongue uncoiling as it spoke.

“Good afternoon, my son.” The thing that must be Alistair cooed. “Now, where did I leave off this morning? I apologize for taking a break, but you really cannot expect my full attention all the time. I do have other work to do, other interests.”

Caught in the cruel machine was a piece of well-chewed meat. Skin hung loose and forgotten around exposed muscle and bone. Blood soaked through the table to drip onto the frosted ground where it sizzled and steamed. Only the face remained though the teeth were half-gone and one eye a distant memory.

Without a word, Castiel began to climb up the biting metal, ignoring the grasping, slicing parts with the ease. He knew the second Dean caught sight of him as his belligerent silence turned to a laugh. It wasn’t his usual joyful rich tones, but a laugh razor sharp and spiraling deliriously up.

“What’s got you in a mood?” The demon pulled a razor off of a work table wet with bile.

“My boyfriend’s back.” Dean’s smile was bloodstained, “And holy shit are you in trouble.”

“Have you gone mad?” Alistair sighed. “Again?”

“No.” Castiel stood on the platform, burning with his borrowed grace. “He kept the faith. Hello, Dean.”

“Cas.” Dean rolled his head to one side to smile at him. “You look good, babe.”

“Thank you.” Mounting the platform, Castiel pressed a kiss to the place where Dean’s cheek looked the least bruised.

“I’ve always wanted to play with an angel.” The demon turned again to the tray, returning with a wicked sword.

“After you waste this asshole, can we blow this popsicle stand? The customer service sucks.” Dean groaned.

“This is what you held out for?” Alistair made a moist sound of disgust. “Your savoir is a fallen angel with rented power. I can tear through him like tissue paper.”

“Will you, child?” Castiel stepped around the mechanism, sword upraised. “Try me.”

Their blades met and the dance began. Gabriel’s grace wasn’t made for fighting, but Castiel had been a warrior for years out of memory. He fought hard and quick, using the grace to keep light on his feet, appearing and reappearing as he stabbed. Alistair wasn’t fast, but he was graceful, twisting and bending to keep Castiel’s blade from touching him.

“Little angel.” The demon mocked. “All flight and fury. Did you think true love would save the man? This isn’t a fairy tale.”

“The family I come from doesn’t hold with tradition.” Castiel growled. “We write our own stories.”

The tip of Ruby’s knife emerged from the center of Alistair’s chest, Sam’s mouth near where it’s ear might have been.

“And this one ends with the power of brotherly love.” Sam pulled the blade back out, watching as the demon fell. “Happily ever after, fucker.”

“Nice one.” Dean coughed. Sam caught sight of him and almost dropped the knife.

The forest shivered and the slit of light in the sky expanded.

“We have no time.” Castiel reached for Dean, pulling him down in a rush while Dean let out muffled sob at the agony. “I’m sorry, so sorry.”

“It’s ok. You came.” Dean fell against him, still managing a terrible parody of a smile.

“I can hear wings.” Sam stepped in close to them. “What was our exit route again?”

“No time to retrace our steps.” Castiel looked up, watched the angels descending. “But there. I can take us that route.”

“What route?” Sam followed his gaze. “Can you? Isn’t that Heaven?”

“It is a gate and we’re out of options.” Castiel gripped Dean’s arm then reached for Sam. He grabbed the front of the shirt that his soul had manifested.

His hand slid through. Castiel frowned and grabbed at Sam’s arm. His hand went through again. The black smoke in Sam’s chest twitched, waving a tendril at him.

“Demon!” A mighty voice shook the trees. “Give forth onto us the man you would corrupt!”

“No time.”

There was no time to think. He tapped every ounce of Gabriel’s power and thrust his hand into Sam’s chest. The smoke evaded him, but he had no patience left. Castiel seized it and drew the entire mess out.

“Ow! What the fuck?” Sam tried to get away, but Castiel had him fast.

“Cas.” Dean mumbled, then slumped against him.

“Enough!” Castiel grasped the darkness and yanked. It fell glossy and gelatinous to the ground.

“What the fuck is that?” Sam stared at it.

“Later.” Castiel grasped Sam’s shirt again and this time it held fast.

With a last surge, he raised his family from Perdition.

Chapter Text

The third thing Sam did when he came back from Hell was pray.

The first thing he did was roll over and watch Dean wake up. It was easily one of the top five greatest moments of his life, even though he’d watched Dean wake up nearly every morning from time out of memory. Sam had always been the early riser of the two and had spent many an impatient hour waiting for Dean to start stirring enough that he wouldn’t feel guilty shaking him awake.

This was different. This was Dean’s limp body animated at last, green eyes rocketing open and a deep natural breath ending in annoyed coughs until Castiel fumbled the ventilator out.

“Hey, Sammy.” Dean rasped.

“Hey, yourself.” Sam hugged him, ignoring all protests against what was essentially snuggling.

The second thing Sam did was retreat to the staff bathroom upstairs to give Castiel and Dean some much needed privacy. Also, he had to throw up. It had been easy to stomach Hell when he was for all intents and purposes without a stomach. Reembodied it was as if he had to catch up with the nausea.

When he had finished, he washed his face and stared at himself in the mirror until he could stop shaking. When he was ready, Sam went out into the shop. The sun was setting outside, painting the wood floors a mellow orange. He settled himself in the worn chair behind the counter, closed his eyes and prayed,

Gabriel, who art most likely in a paradise of your own making trying to forget the name Winchester, I just want to say thank you. By the way, we’ve made it back safely. Though you probably know that since I doubt you would’ve left our pathetic human shells unattended. Guess that means you ran off as soon as we came back, huh? Well, we wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for you. You should have seen Cas with all your mojo humming through him. He was awesome in the original sense of the word. And Dean-

“Your prayers are worse than those farm weather radio stations.” Gabriel popped into existence right beside Sam. “Couldn’t you write in your diary or something?”

“Hey.” Sam smiled at him.

“Hello.” Gabriel said slowly.

“How was your day?” Sam asked brightly.

“...what?”

“No, no.” Sam corrected. “You’re supposed to say ‘fine’ and then say ‘how was yours?’ and then I can tell you all about stabbing a stick insect demon to death. And then you ask if I’m hungry, I say sort of and you take me out to dinner.”

“Why would I do any of that?” Gabriel asked, frowning.

“To be fair that presupposes that I did this when you showed up.” Sam stood up and took a step toward Gabriel, who took a step backward. “Stand still.”

Sam reached for Gabriel’s shoulders, sliding his hands over them. Gabriel ran warm, heat tingling through Sam’s palms. He leaned down and brushed his lips over Gabriel’s in the faintest of kisses,

“Hey.” He repeated, all intimacy and heat.

“What do you want from me?” Gabriel stared up at him, eyes narrowing. “What did they do to you down there?”

“Nothing and...nothing? I don’t think. Castiel did something.” Sam smiled faintly. “But I’ve wanted to kiss you for months. You’re not exactly approachable though or you know, consistently interested. But hey, I just pulled my brother’s soul out from under the combined armies of Heaven and Hell. I figured I might as well use all the extra hubris for something just for me.”

“You are a very strange man.” Gabriel said in a choked laugh.

“I live a strange life.” Sam shrugged, still holding Gabriel close. “Maybe I could have been a normal person if Mom didn’t make deals with devils.”

“You know what I am.” Gabriel didn’t retreat, but he didn’t exactly melt into Sam’s waiting arms either. “Don’t fool yourself into thinking you can change me with true love. I am soaked in blood. I’m used to being worshiped. Much better suited to being a master than a lover and I don’t think that’s going to work for you.”

“I think you’re about fifty percent bullshit, twenty percent ridiculous powers and thirty percent actually scary.” Sam brought one hand up to Gabriel’s chin, letting his fingers linger over the softly curved line of his jaw. “I think you take what you want when you want it, except when it comes to things that might actually want you back.”

“Now see, there you go proving how little you know.” Gabriel stepped away out of Sam’s reach, but not gone. Not vanishing. “You’re not unique in all the world or a special snowflake. I know how to love, so don’t think you’ll cure me with it.”

“You’ve been on earth how fucking long?” Sam rolled his eyes. “I figured you’d gotten around to a few relationships. Some more infamous than others. Sigyn comes to mind.”

“So that’s what you want? Catching acid in a bowl?” Gabriel sneered, stepped back again. “Be a martyr to me?”

“Oh my God, why are you such a drama queen?” Sam stopped giving chase, leaning one hip against the counter and crossing his arms. “I thought I was pretty clear. Little bit of small talk. Dinner. Give Dean and Castiel some space while they sort out if their parts still fit together.”

“I’m not going to date you.” Gabriel watched him warily as if Sam might spring domesticity on him like a holy fire circle. “There’s no letter jacket in this for you or pretty ring to show off to your girlfriends.”

“Gee. Thanks for the clarification, Dean. You want to call me Samantha while you’re at it?” Sam rolled his eyes. “I’m waiting for: ‘but I’m not attracted to you’, ‘you’re my brother’s meat suit and I find that unacceptable’ or maybe ‘thanks, kid, but you’re so much younger than me that they’d need to invent a new word because pedophilia doesn’t cover it’. Got anything like that up your sleeve?”

“This isn’t a game.”

“Isn’t it?” Sam tilted his head, an affectation picked up from years of living with Castiel. “That’s how this works. Flirting. It’s the best game going. I thought you might know that since you seem to try it once in awhile. I wasn’t sure before if was intentional or if you were just being...you.”

“It was-” Gabriel stared at Sam, the sentence lost.

“What?”

“Don’t move.”

“What? Is there something on me?” Sam brushed a hand over the front of his shirt.

“Stop.” Gabriel swatted Sam’s hands away irritably, then went back to examining his chest. “Take off your shirt.”

“That’s skipping a few steps.”

“Just do it.” Gabriel snapped and Sam complied, pulling the t-shirt up and over his head. Nearly reverently, Gabriel lay his hands flat on Sam’s chest right where his heart beat quick and ready. “When you said Castiel did something, what was it?”

“He pulled something out of me.” Sam swallowed. “A black mass, twitching and bleeding.”

“That’s not actually possible.”

“I was there. He reached inside me and pulled it out like he was picking a piece of lint out of my hair. Except it hurt. A lot actually.” Sam looked down at where Gabriel’s hands rested deceptively fine boned on his skin. “Felt like he was trying tear out my spine.”

“There’s a place in your soul, Sam,” Gabriel said quietly, “the place where Lucifer can slide in. And when I look at you, I see that dark stain and it reminds me of him. Malignant and horrid, but still the brother who taught me everything worth knowing. And Castiel tore it out of you. That isn’t possible. You are Lucifer’s vessel. That is fate. It can’t be changed.”

“Cas...took the demon blood out of me?”

“I can’t see it.” The words were at once joyous and infinitely sad. “Not even a trace.”

“That’s good news isn’t it?” Something terrible occurred to him. “Was that why you were interested? Why you were flirting? Because I carried a piece of him with me?”

Gabriel’s hands fell away. “Only at first.”

“That’s...disturbingly incestuous.”

“Says the man who still falls asleep in his brother’s bed on a bad day.”

“You were flirting then.” Sam grasped upon the important point. It wasn’t as if he crawled in with Dean every night or anything. Just this past year knowing how quickly their time was slipping away, Sam might have shared a hotel bed or two after too many bottles of beer. “Because of me. Because you like me.”

“Would you focus!” Gabriel snapped. “You can’t be Lucifer’s vessel like this.”

“That’s a good thing. That’s...pretty fucking amazing actually. Dean didn’t break the first seal and I’m not fit to be last. Apocalypse averted.” Sam frowned. “So why do you look like its the end of the world?”

“They’ll wait.” Horror filled Gabriel’s expression. “Hundreds...thousands of years. They’ll wait until the conditions are right again. Michael and Lucifer, you don’t know what they’re like. I thought it was over. One way or another it would just fucking end already.”

The sun had retreated across the floor, leaving them both in darkness.

“What did you think would happen? That they would fight, ruin the world and then...what? They would welcome you back?” Sam could too easily imagine it. If Dean and Castiel were cast in the same parts... “No matter who won, you’d have something. Someone.”

“They’re my family.” Gabriel sagged against the counter, a strange mirror to Sam’s relaxed posture. “My brothers. My life. I left to escape the fighting, but I always meant to go back. And now...I don’t think I can take another thousand years waiting to have a family again.”

“So don’t.” It was Sam’s turn to snap. “Go to Heaven or travel to Hell. Make peace with one of them on your own. Don’t tell me you can’t slip into Lucifer's box or whatever heavenly cage Michael put himself in.”

“I can’t.” Gabriel crossed his arms tight over his chest. “If I go before they fight it out, then I’m just another pawn. To you, I’m a god. To them-”

“Little brother.” Sam sighed. “Yeah, I get that. But you know what? You’ve got a family waiting for you right here. And you’d even get to be the eldest.”

“You want me as a brother and a lover?” Mercurial Gabriel was nearly laughing again though the lines around his mouth were tight. “Incestuous much?”

“Ok. On a scale of one to demonically possessed goat, how fucking stubborn are you going to be about this?” Sam shoved a hand through his hair. “I’m only asking because I’m getting hungry, so if it’s more than an hour or two then I’m going to need a snack break.”

“I think I’m being a reasonable amount of stubborn considering I’m not even sure which argument we’re having anymore!”

“I take it I’m interrupting something.” Castiel stood in the doorway. He was smiling. A large, disconcerting rainbows and sunshine smile. “Dean requested hamburgers. I was wondering if you wouldn’t mind getting them?”

“Sure.” Sam eased around the counter, snagging Gabriel by the wrist as he went. “Should I get those from the shop down the street or you know, the ones he really likes from that place by the apartment?”

“Why would go back to the apartment? The burgers from the corner are perfectly-”

“No one wants to hear you guys have reunion sex.” Gabriel broke in. He snapped up a meat laden platter and passed it to Castiel. “Here. Nice job on de-vesseling Sam, by the way.”

“What?” The smile ebbed.

“Nothing!” Sam chimed, tugging at Gabriel’s wrist again. “We’ll talk about it tomorrow morning. Or afternoon. Or whatever. You know what? Call me when you guys are ready. I’ll get the apartment cleaned up.”

“Thank you.” Castiel watched them both, attempting to look suspicious, but his smile kept betraying him.

“Yeah, I’m all done here.” With a wink, Gabriel snapped and the shop disappeared.

The cove looked like something out of a travelogue. A crescent beach with sand as fine and white as sugar sifted between Sam’s now bare toes. The ocean was obscenely blue, heavy waves cracking against the shore and turning briefly turquoise before retreating.

Two beach chairs had been shoved haphazardly under the shade of fat palm tree. Gabriel had already taken up residence in one, round mirrored sunglasses shielding his eyes from the sun and Sam. He wore a hideous Hawaiian shirt and board shorts. Sam glanced down at himself, preparing for a similar horror, but found only white undershirt and a battered pair of shorts that he liked to wear in the summer. They were worn a little at the waist and there was the faint blue stain at the pocket from an unfortunate pen explosion.

He tried to figure out if it was more or less disturbing to be wearing his own clothes that Gabirel knew well enough to instantly reproduce then it would be to be wearing a costume.

“While I appreciate the extra shade, you can sit down if you want.” Gabriel crossed his legs.

“Where are we?” Sam settled down in the other chair. It took his weight easily, settling a little deeper in the sand.

“Nowhere. Little fold in reality. I have a few of them.” Gabriel’s hand trailed downward, drawing nonsense patterns in the sand. “Think of it as a safe house.”

“Were we in danger?”

“No. But your apartment depresses me. If we’re going to keep fighting, we might as well do it with nice scenery.”

“I don’t want to fight with you.” Sam tilted his head back to study the cloudless sky.

“What do you want then?”

The question sounded serious, so Sam took his time composing his answer.

“I want to hear all of your stories.”

“That would take way longer than your mayfly lifespan.”

“I want to hear as many of them as you can tell me.” Sam allowed. “I want to go to sleep at night listening to your voice.”

“It’s a terrible idea.”

“Why?” The waves crashed once, twice, three times against the shore and Gabriel offered no answer. “Maybe it won’t work out. Maybe you’ll break my heart or I’ll break yours. Maybe you’ll get bored of me. Maybe I won’t be able to take those hard Loki parts of you. But you know what?”

“What?” Gabriel asked.

“I don’t care.” In one smooth motion, Sam was out of his chair and straddling Gabriel in his. He reached down and pulled the sunglasses off. “So let’s try this one last time. Hey. How was your day?”

“Fucked up.” Gabriel’s lips twitched. His sandy hands found purchase on Sam’s waist. “Sat around watching nearly dead bodies. Helped end the Apocalypse. How about yours?”

“Total shitstorm. Went to Hell, killed a half dozen demons including this hideous stick monster thing that was torturing Dean. Watched Cas get to be an angel again then lose it, but get Dean back.” He leaned down very close. “Told this guy that I liked him and wound up fighting with him. Starting to look up though. Think he might, secretly, like me back.”

“We’re not eighth graders.” Gabriel was smiling now, his snake oil salesman grin. “Samantha isn’t a half bad nickname for you. Do you want me to get you a unicorn Trapper Keeper?”

“I want you to shut up and fuck me.”

Sam had to relish the moment. For the first time in their acquaintance and for what might very well be the last, he had managed to render Gabriel utterly speechless. His grin had even gone soft, lips parting in shock. It lasted only a few precious seconds.

“You say it, you better mean it.” The growl was unexpected and it made Sam’s throat go dry. “Thought you’d want a few dates before getting down and dirty.”

“We’ve done nothing, but talk this last year. You conjure up food for me often enough. We’ve watched a ton of movies together and exchanged meaningful presents.” Sam shrugged. “If you add in the parts that I know now were flirting? We’ve been dating for months.”

“That’s some creative accounting.”

“I can rig the numbers if it gets me what I want.” Sam deliberately licked his lips. “Want me to beg for it?”

“Another time.”

Gabriel surged upwards, knocking them both out of the chair and into the sand. Sprawled and knocked breathless, Sam grinned feral and wide.

“Please.” He added for good measure.

“You’re a menace.” Gabriel pressed Sam deeper into the sand until it went supple under them, a bed with silken sheets. Sam arched up, canting his hips to rub against Gabriel’s groin. “A gorgeous terror.”

“Kiss me.” Sam demanded.

Gabriel obliged with all the heat and hunger that Sam had imagined on quiet nights in his own bed. Their fingers turned to claws, ripping at clothing until Gabriel drew away with an irritated hiss to banish all the cloth between them.

“Oh for the love of Dad.” Gabriel left out a soft disbelieving laugh. “I can’t believe I missed that. Shows how much you turn my head around.”

“What?” Sam followed Gabriel’s gaze to his own chest. Burned into the skin was a perfect red handprint.

“Castiel.” Rubbing a hand over his face, Gabriel sat back on his haunches. “He marked you. Branded you when he ripped Lucifer's keyhole from you.”

“Huh.” Sam touched the mark gingerly. It didn’t hurt exactly, but it did feel a little raw. Tender.

“How many people already own you?”

“No one owns me. Or if they do, I own them right back.” Sam sighed. “Can we get back to the good stuff?”

“That was a bit of a mood ruiner. Little brother might as well have signed his initials on you.”

Sam dropped his hands to Gabriel’s thighs, digging his thumbs into the meat of them, fanning the rest of his fingers wide. The thick head of Gabriel’s cock stirred in interest. With all the flexibility that years of training could bring to bear, Sam folded himself up and sucked Gabriel’s cock into his mouth.

“Fuck!” Gabriel half-moaned, half-laughed. “What the hell, kid? Where have you been hiding all this?”

“Oh,” Sam pulled off with an obscenely wet noise, “picked things up here and there. College is good for it. Pamphlets. Libraries. Dorm Rooms. I’ll tell you all about it with a lot of detail. Another time.”

“That sounds like my kind of story.” With easy strength, Gabriel pushed Sam back down. Then, with a salacious grin, he tucked his hands under Sam’s thighs and rolled his hips upwards, holding him easily at the awkward angle. “Anyone ever do this to you before?”

That Gabriel’s tongue was clever came as no surprise to Sam. It flicked over Sam’s hole, in warm exploratory licks before diving inside to rip moan after moan from Sam’s throat. He thrashed over the sheets, unable to escape the relentless sensation. By the time Gabriel pulled away, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand, Sam had gone half-mad with it.

“Need you.” He murmured. “Please, Gabriel. I want you.”

“You can have me.” Gabriel soothed. “I’m going to do such things to you.“

“Yes. Anything.”

With a messier than usual snap, Gabriel pulled lubricant out of the air. He ripped the top off with his teeth, then poured it liberally over his cock until it gleamed.

“Anything?” Gabriel repositioned Sam’s hips, settling them so close together that Sam could feel the tip of Gabriel’s cock rubbing against his still twitching hole. “That’s a dangerous offer.”

“I don’t care.” Sam groaned. “I was made to be possessed by an archangel. The perfect fit. And it’s you that I want. So take me already.”

Gabriel’s response was a hard thrust of his hips that sent his cock deep into Sam’s body. It hurt, a thick burn that raced up Sam’s spine and liquefied his mind. He keened, scrambling for purchase against the bed.

“Tell me again.” Gabriel demanded.

“It’s you.” Sam managed to get his eyes back on line, refocusing them on Gabriel. They stared at each other, the pulsing ache in Sam’s ass subsiding. “I want you.”

Gabriel slid slowly out, taking what felt like everything Sam had ever tried to repress with him. Then he snapped forward again, driven and hard. It still hurt, but pleasure sparked under the pain.

“You.” Sam groaned. “I consent.”

There was no more talking after that. Gabriel reached out to settle a hand over Sam’s chest as if he could replace the mark that Castiel had left behind with sheer force of will. Then he set a ruthless pace with his hips, fucking into Sam with long, punishing strokes. Each one nailed Sam’s prostate and sent him gasping. When Gabriel finally trailed his hand away from Sam’s chest to wrap around his aching cock, he almost sobbed in relief.

“Come on, kid. Give it to me.” Demanded Gabriel.

Sam came with a silent scream, head thrown back and the world reduced to white noise. Before he had come all the way down from the high, a hand sticky with lubricant slapped down over his eyes. Even through that thick blindfold, a flash of bright light seared his eyelids. The thick taste of honey saturated his tongue and every inch of his skin came alive, buzzing with pleasure. This time he did scream, coming an impossible second time before crashing back down on the bed shaking.

“Tell me that doesn’t happen every time.” He choked out.

“I think it would kill us both if it did.” Gabriel took his hand away. With great care, he slid free of Sam, then fell gracelessly on top of him. “It’s the safe house. I’m always a little closer to myself here.”

“I’m going to feel that for days.” Sam slid his hands down Gabriel’s back.

“Could heal you.”

“No. I like it.”

“Good.” Gabriel kissed him, breath already minty fresh. “Though you realize you’ll have to explain to your brother why you’re walking more bowlegged than him.”

“So?” The dip of Gabriel’s back right before the gentle curve of his ass was Sam’s new favorite place to rest his hands. “I’m a grownup. I can have a relationship with whoever I want.”

“He’ll huff and puff and blow your house of cards down.”

“Let him try. I'm using crazy glue to keep this one together.” Sam closed his eyes against the bright sky. “Mmph. Turn off the lights.”

“Demanding.” But the sun vanished and the sky went dark. A thousand stars sprang into being, configured in strange constellations. “Sleepy?”

“Mhm.”

“Did I ever tell you about the time I played canasta with Coyote, Anansi and Willy Nelson?” Gabriel folded his arms over Sam’s chest, resting his chin on them. He should have been too heavy, but he must have been playing with physics again. He felt just right.

“Canasta? No, that one I haven’t heard.” Sam grinning up at the stars. “Tell me.”

“It started on a night like this, but with much more alcohol and an upscale karaoke bar outside Tokyo. None of us started the night in Japan, but Susanoo had a proposition for us.”

Sam fell asleep to the rise and fall of Gabriel’s voice, the smile still on his face.

Chapter Text

When Dean and Sam were still young enough to solve their issues with wrestling matches and liberal use of the phrases ‘you suck’, ‘drop dead’ and ‘I’m going to tell Dad’, Castiel had developed a certain philosophy regarding their arguments. Mainly that philosophy consisted of staying out of it until someone drew blood. It continued to work as their fights grew more complicated, burdened with hormones, history and the wholesale consumption of several dictionaries.

Some people might call his wary separation cowardly, but Castiel liked to think of it as prudent. If he stepped in, inevitably his objectivity was called into question and someone wound up sulking. It should be much worse when Dean decided to sulk as it effected Castiel in a much clearer way. A sulking Dean was uninterested in affection of any sort and likely to hold the grudge for several days. The fact was though that Sam’s sulking took on epic proportions that shattered any attempts at peaceful contemplation for days. Sam in full on pouting mode tended to sigh loudly at odd intervals, stare morosely into space and generally manage to take up too much space with his long legs until Castiel wanted to kick him outside to walk it off.

The unfortunate side effect of Castiel’s insistence on quiet neutrality was that it inevitably dawned on one of them that winning him to their side would have a much greater impact.

“Look, just tell him I’m entitled to have my own life.” Sam wheedled. “I mean, it’s not up to him who I want to have relationships with.”

“Tell him yourself.” Castiel turned the page of the romance novel he’d found under the counter. The Wanton Cowgirl Meets her Match had been the first thing on hand when Sam approached with a determined wrinkle in his brow. The shop was devoid of customer’s on a rainy Monday morning, which took away that outlet.

“I did! He says I don’t know what’s best for me.”

“Mmm.” Castiel turned the page, then frowned. “Wouldn’t the straw be uncomfortable?”

“What? Cas? Are you even listening to me?”

“Yes.” There was something unappealing about the word ‘turgid’, he decided.

“Just look, you know I was in your corner when you guys hooked up. Can’t you talk some sense into him?”

“What makes you think he’d be any more receptive to me than you?”

“He always listens to you!” Sam whined. “Come on, man, I finally have someone in my life that I really care about and he’s freaking out, making ultimatums.”

“He came back from Hell a week ago.” He shut the book with a quiet ‘thunk’. “You’ve only just begun with Gabriel. There will be plenty of time to coax Dean into accepting it.”

“Well. Yeah.” Sam slumped over the counter, looking terribly dejected. “Guess that’s true. I...how’s he doing? I ask him, but he won’t say anything.”

“Sleeping is difficult.” Dean tended to wake up several times a night, searching the darkness for invisible enemies. “He remembers it all.”

“He’s quieter. Sometimes I catch him staring at nothing.”

“It will take a long time to heal.” That Dean would always be fundamentally different hung unspoken between them. No one could go through what he had and return unchanged. “But he has always been strong.”

“Yeah.” Sam pushed his hair back with one hand. “Um. So there’s something else I wanted to talk to you about.”

“If you wanted the last Oreo, don’t leave them on the table.”

“That was you?” Sam sputtered. “You know I- wait. No, that’s not what I wanted to talk about. I wanted to ask you about Heaven.”

“What about it?”

“We were there, weren’t we? At the end?” Sam picked at an old bit of tape wrapped around the counter’s edge. “I didn’t remember when we got back. But I’ve been having these dreams....”

“It was brief.”

Castiel closed his eyes against the memory. The lightning flash through the hole ripped in Hell’s eternal storm. They had passed through Heaven for a single breath before Castiel manifested them back to the shop. Yet that was long enough for Castiel to see his old home spread before him and the host of Heaven to see their prize snatched from under their noses.

“It was beautiful.” Sam pried the last bit of tape from the glass. “You don’t talk about it much anymore. Not that you ever said much about it before.”

“There’s not much to say.” Castiel watched dust descend through sunbeams.

“Do you miss it?” Sam asked at last.

“Every day.”

Sam reached across the counter, took up Castiel’s hand and squeezed it gently.

That night, Castiel waited for Dean to take up his side of the argument with him. Instead, Dean pushed in tight against him on the couch and flipped through channels until he found a Western. They watched as a gunslinger came to town and horses drifted in and out of scenes without rhyme or reason.

By the first commercial break, Dean had pressed in so hard that Castiel could hear the blood rushing too fast under his skin. He tugged at Dean’s shirt until he got the message. It was a little awkward, Dean was bigger than him after all and not exactly light, but also inexplicably good to have Dean settled on his lap, his head on Castiel’s shoulder.

“I’m so tired.” Dean confessed into the crook of Castiel’s neck.

“Sleep.” Castiel wrapped his arms around him. “I have you.”

Dean did fall asleep, heavy and lax. Both of Castiel’s legs soon followed suit. He managed to reach the remote, turning away from the movie to a vapid sitcom with the laugh track crackling every few minutes. He watched Dean’s face carefully and woke him at the first sign of an incoming nightmare.

“M’okay.” Dean muttered, still half-asleep. “Remember when you used to stab my nightmares?”

“I wish I still could.”

“You do.” Dean yawned.

“Let’s go to bed.” Castiel urged, the pressing need to use the bathroom overcoming his desire to keep Dean there the rest of the night. “I do my stabbing better horizontally.”

“Dirty.” Dean mumbled, stumbling to his feet and weaving a little as he made a beeline for their bed.

When Castiel emerged from the bathroom, Dean was already asleep again. Sprawled on his stomach, one hand under his pillow as if the last year had never happened. Castiel settled beside him, rested a hand on the small of Dean’s back and closed his eyes. Sleep didn’t come easily for him and he fell into his own restless dreams.

They woke together hours later, still too much time until sunrise. Dean’s whimper had pulled Castiel from his own uneasy slumber. They watched each other in the dark.

“Is it actually over?” Dean asked, hushed and gravelly in the dark.

“I don’t know.”

“I keep thinking,” Dean reached out, palming Castiel’s hip and running his fingers absently over the point of bone, “that Sam is free, but me... What makes me a vessel anyway? Sam, they had to breed up and poison. Do I have angel blood rattling around in my veins?”

“No.” Castiel kissed the lines that form when Dean frowns. “It doesn’t work that way. You descend from a line that had nephilim in it. Half-angel children from before we learned the dangers of it.”

“Half-angel kids? Really?” Dean snorted. “Ok, so Sam is from that line too, right? And Dad. Why me? Why am I the Michael Sword or whatever? Just like symbolic bullshit? Sam is the scorned little brother and I’m the righteous older one?”

“I met Michael once.” Castiel tangled their legs together. “He was a great general. A leader like you can be when you’re given the chance. He was also charming. I remember he was kind to me and I was just a foot soldier then. If it’s symbolic, it’s hardly an insult.”

“Except that he’s been locked up in his room brooding over his brother being the king of douchebags for the last umpteen centuries.”

“Except for that.” Castiel touched his forehead to Dean’s. “I don’t know why it was you. I don’t even know why it had to be Sam.”

“I scared that I’m still up for grabs.” It was so quiet that Castiel would have missed it if they hadn’t been so close together.

“You’re not of any use now to them. The first seal never broke.”

“But there’s other righteous men.” Dean choked out. “Other people that don’t have an angel coming to save them. I was so tempted, Cas. So close. I don’t know what would have happened if you came a few days later.”

“You didn’t.” Castiel kissed him. “You held strong. If someone else begins it, it’s likely we’ll never even know.”

“I’d be good with the Apocalypse being someone else’s problem.”

“Would you really?”

“Fuck no. Have we met?” Dean laughed, a little bitterly. “Be worse, really. Like I just pawned it off on some poor guy.”

The ring caught between them as the embrace tightened, a hard certainty against Castiel’s breastbone. Dean made an annoyed sound, reaching down to pry it free. He stared at it the moonlight for a long time.

“I told you when I came back, I’d ask you the question that went with this.”

“You did.” Castiel agreed. “But I can wait.”

“Love is patient, right?” Dean smiled, small, but very real. “You know what I think about that.”

“It also rejoices in truth.” Castiel recited diligently, then hesitantly added, “It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”

“Sounds like us. Even in the face of some truly fucked up shit.” Dean reached behind Castiel’s neck and undid the clasp to slide the ring free. “What do you think, Cas? Keep the faith with me until one of us dies?”

“Beyond that.” Castiel promised. “Into whatever afterlife will have us.”

“Yeah.” Dean’s smile became a wide grin and slid the ring onto Castiel’s finger. “Sounds good.”

Later, Castiel would wonder if the trip to Hell had given them some manner of conversational psychic powers or if truly, the Winchesters were cursed. In that moment though, he only knew that he wanted to kiss Dean again and again. Because he could. Because he had missed four months of being next to this stupidly good man and Dean deserved a thousand kisses for every minute he’d spent in Hell waiting for Castiel. Because they both deserved to rejoice in this moment.

They got nearly two whole months of peace this time around. Sam and Dean came to a detente about Gabriel (“Guess I can’t tell you who to screw, but I’m not drying any tears when it’s over. Save it for your diary, bitch.” “Damn right, you can’t tell me. And it’s a journal, jerk.” ), who appeared with the same lackadaisical randomness. Castiel suspected he visited Sam at night, taking him elsewhere to return him sleep deprived and dazed in the morning.

“Thursday’s Child, how many I help you?” Dean asked, all mock cheerfulness and a wink for Castiel. “Oh, hey Dad. Why didn’t you call the backline? Another one? Ok, I can cook you up a new phone when you get back.”

“Good boy.” Sam mocked, quiet enough that only Castiel could hear. Castiel shot him a quelling look.

“Yeah...yeah, hold on.” Fishing around for an old receipt, Dean nodded as if John could see him. “Yes, sir, I got it.”

“A hunt?” Sam mouthed at Dean, who shook his head.

“What?” Dean swallowed hard. “No, sir, I heard you. Just...really? When? How old?”

Castiel watched with increasing concern as Dean’s face went pale and the pencil he’d scrounged up fell out of his fingers.

“I understand.” Dean snapped. “I just don’t get why you didn’t fucking tell us. No, I will not be quiet, Dad. What the ever loving fuck were you thinking?”

Sam’s eyes went wide. Dean pressed the end button hard. Apparently not satisfied, he threw the phone across the room where it broke into two.

Sam spoke first with all the awe he’d had years ago when Dean had blown a bubble the size of his head with three wads of Bubbleyum, “Did you just hang up on Dad?”

“Dean?” Castiel set a hand light as a falling leaf against Dean’s shaking shoulders.

“We have a brother. Half-brother.” Dean sounded thick and pained. “His name was Adam.”

“Are you serious?” Sam stared at him. “How old is he?”

“He was fourteen. A goddamn child.”

“What happened to him?” A horrid certainty crept over Castiel and he knew before the words left Dean’s lips.

“Demons tricked him. Poor kid wasn’t raised in the life, didn’t know the first thing about anything. Dad said...fuck. Said he’d only just found out about him a year or two ago. ‘Need to know basis, Dean. You didn’t need to know.’ Damnit!” Dean slapped his hands against the counter. “They didn’t even have to work hard to get him to make a deal. Took his mom, made him a few cheap promises and they didn’t even give him a year.”

“Fourteen.” Sam swallowed hard. “He won’t last a week.”

“He did a month.”

“See you all heard the news then.” Gabriel manifested by the broken phone. He knelt down and picked up the pieces, returning it healed to the cradle.

“You knew?” Dean looked murderous.

“No. Just found out. I’ve been keeping an ear tuned to angel radio. Not easy to do when trying to keep my own emissions off.” He pursed his lips. “Way they’re talking...I hate to say it, but you were right, Castiel. Heaven is aching for this fight. They could’ve waited. Adam isn’t ideal, no demon blood and no fate written in stone. But they never even bothered to leave Hell, left a garrison there and just settled in until they broke the kid open.”

“He didn’t stand a chance.” Sam said softly. “And now...what? He’s the new Michael Sword?”

“They’re casting him as Lucifer. Dean here is still the preferred outfit for archangels of discerning taste apparently.” Gabriel looked almost apologetic. “Sorry kids, the Apocalypse is still on.”

“It was all for nothing.” Dean growled. “All of it.”

“You saved Sam.” Castiel reminded him, rubbing a hand over his back. “You didn’t even care about the world. You did what you could.”

“But I sacrificed this kid to do it.”

“You aren’t God, Dean. You cannot be expected to know all the invisible consequences. What you did, what you always do, is the best anyone can expect.” He kissed Dean’s temple. Benediction, the best he could give, graceless as he was.

“We can still fight.” Sam rubbed at his forehead. “The seals, we have almost a complete list.”

“How did you manage that?” Gabriel looked incredulous.

“We’ve been researching this for four years.” Sam shrugged. “I can rattle off a most likely list in a few minutes. Some of them we’re probably boned on because they’re too general, but a lot of them we could actively thwart. Steal a relic here, save a life there. Not too different from hunting.”

“There’s also the final seal.” Castiel pointed out. “ It’s location has been well hidden and we don’t know exactly what triggers it. That’s eluded us, but if we knew that we might be able to make inaccessible. Or render it impossible.”

“We’d need someone in Heaven to feed us that.” Gabriel had come around the counter, leaning into Sam. “It won’t be conveniently listed in a book. And I think we’re running short on rebellious angels.”

“There’s one.” Castiel straightened. “But I should speak to him alone. And far from here. The sigils have kept us off Heaven’s radar. I don’t want them showing up on our doorstep now.”

“I’ll drive.” Dean pushed off the counter, dragging his keys from his pocket and trudging out the back door.

“Shit.” Sam groaned, then heaved himself up to his feet. “I can’t believe Dad.”

“Sounds totally in character to me.” Gabriel shrugged. “You kids have fun calling on the host of Heaven.”

“Thanks for keeping your ear to the ground.” Sam leaned over to brush his lips over Gabriel’s cheek.

“Whatever.” Gabriel muttered, but he kissed Sam back with a lot more tongue and a lot less tenderness.

“See you later.” Sam pulled away and followed in Dean’s path.

“There’s one for you too, Cassie.” Gabriel waggled his eyebrows at him.

“No, thank you.”

“Don’t get your virtue in a twist.” Then Gabriel was just there, a breath away from him. “You’ll need a little for the road. Escape hatch.”

The milk and honey kiss left Castiel’s skin vibrating and his mind buzzing. A taste of grace.

“Gabriel-”

“Those idiots are bound to get you in trouble. You get out if it’s going bad and drag them with you. Got it?”

“Yes.” Castiel licked his lips, expecting sweetness and finding only the dry familiarity of his own skin.

The Impala carried them to a wheat field a hundred miles away. The harvest had come and gone, neat lines of chopped and flattened plants stretching out in all directions. Castiel waded in, mud sucking at the heels of his sneakers. Behind him, Dean and Sam followed, their wary tension a familiar comfort to him.

“How do you summon an angel?” Sam asked, when Castiel finally stopped.

“There are rituals and ways. But I hope he will come because I asked.”

Castiel took a deep breath and prayed.

“Hello, brother.” Balthazar looked ridiculously out of place, his vessel’s deep v-neck t-shirt and softly draped sweater better fitted for a cafe on some narrow cobblestone street.

“You look well.” Castiel said, hands clenching into fists. He wanted to embrace Balthazar, tell him too many things all at once.

“As do you.” Balthazar closed the distance between them and pulled Castiel into a brief, but all encompassing hug before holding him at arm’s length to study. “You’re not so solemn now.”

“I have new reasons to rejoice.” He allowed. “Dean, Sam, this is Balthazar. Balthazar, this is Sam Winchester and Dean Winchester. “

“Nice to meet you.” Dean put a possessive hand on the small of Castiel’s back.

“Oh, we’ve met. Though you were unconscious at the time, I believe.” Balthazar smiled. “Won’t soon forget that day anytime soon. The entire garrison watching as a supposedly fallen angel went shooting through our ranks like a comet.”

“You have questions.” Castiel leaned into Dean’s touch. “So do we. I would like to offer an exchange of information.”

“Would this exchange include facts that our dear leader, Zachariah would most likely flay me for sharing?”

“Yes.” Castiel watched him steadily. “It could mean complete rebellion from the host. It depends on what you think of the world and it’s continued existence.”

“You have my attention. Perhaps your....friends might prefer to have a conversation of that length sitting down?”

They wound up at a Waffle House, not far from the field. The floor was tacky and a family of five squeezed into a booth across from them was making the kind racket usually reserved for amusement parks. A waiter with a dead look in his eyes produced four cups of coffee before disappearing into the lunchtime crowd.

“I rescued Dean from Hell.” Castiel sat across from Balthazar, two chipped mugs and two years of silence between them.

“I noticed.” Balthazar picked up his coffee. “Uriel was peeved to say the least. Why did you do it?”

“Because I love him more than I love Heaven.” Castiel said steadily, smiling a little in gratification at the hitch in Dean’s breathing. “And I’ve come to care for this world more than I thought possible. I’m not ready to see it end.”

“I can see that.” Balthazar leaned back, eyeing the three of them with something a little like awe. “How did you do it?”

“We made friends with a goddess.” Sam smiled tightly. “She gave us what we needed.”

“What goddess is it that can restore grace to a fallen angel?”

“Not my secret to give.” Castiel held his mug tightly, the heat perfect against his palms. “If I can attain permission then it will be yours.”

“Fair.”

“We need to know about the final seal.”

“Why?”

“Because the world doesn’t deserve to end like this.”

“I see a righteous man who didn’t give in right in front of me.” Balthazar gestured loosely at Dean then Sam, “and a vessel turned from his purpose.”

“They’ve taken another for Lucifer and broken him upon the racks.” Castiel frowned. “Haven’t you heard?”

“Not a word.” Balthazar looked stunned. “They told us to pack up our things and go home, end of the world put on indefinite hold. The whole garrison went back.”

“But ours wasn’t the only one stationed in Hell.”

“Well, no...” Balthazar cocked his head to one side, listening. “Hester’s garrison remained...and Ezekiel's. Why would they keep that from us?”

“Because some angels are dicks?” Dean suggested.

“Well, yes,” Balthazar looked into his coffee cup, “but secrecy about something of this scale...”

“There are some that would see earth fall.” The smell of rich sweet food was starting to make Castiel’s stomach turn. “I do not believe this is the will of God.”

“And what would a fallen angel know about the will of our Father?” The question was more curious than accusatory, but Castiel flinched anyway.

“I know that He has lavished time and attention on this world. He may not always be kind to it’s inhabitants, but He has always loved them. It has always been angels that resented them. I have never had a chance to speak with Him. So few have. How do we know that this is His will?”

“What you’re proposing is the worst kind of blasphemy.” Balthazar’s eyes were on Sam’s face now, looking for what? A trace of Lucifer there that may have corrupted Castiel. But there was nothing to find. Sam returned his gaze mildly.

“Perhaps.” He swallowed hard. “But I also believe it to be correct. If you have any doubt in your heart, follow it. Take it where it may lead.”

“And wind up like you? Stuck here with them?” Disgust dripped from Balthazar’s voice.

“There are worse fates. Or do you think the end of all things will be kinder?” Castiel turned to Dean. “I’d like to leave now.”

“Ok, Cas.” Dean got up out of the booth and offered him a hand up. Sam dropped a few bills onto the table, more than enough to cover their coffee.

“Cas?” Balthazar repeated.

“To my friends.” He fished in his pockets for a pen and an old receipt. He scribbled his cellphone number on the back, before sliding it to Balthazar. “If you change your mind, we require information about the final seal.”

“Cas.” Balthazar rolled it over his tongue. “You remind me of an angel I once knew.”

“Goodbye, Balthazar.”

He sat quietly in the back seat the entire drive home, refusing a share of the fast food purchased along the way. When they pulled into the dark space behind the shop, Sam got out with an easy stretch. Dean popped open his door, only to open Castiel’s and climb in beside him. They sat propped together in the backseat.

“You’re still an angel to me.” Dean said eventually. “Way I see it, no one can take that away from you unless you let them.”

Winter came in. Castiel’s old leyline map had been repurposed to chart possible seal locations. His, Sam and eventually Gabriel’s handwriting warred over the small squares of post-its as they tracked down more and more information.

“I thought you wanted the end to come.” Castiel had said quietly, the first time he caught Gabriel pinning information up near Baghdad.

“Yeah.” Gabriel rocked back on his heels, studying the placement. “I still do. Trouble is there are other things I want more. Need the world to be around to get them.”

“The Candlestick of Bethesda?” He examined the note more closely. “Are you sure?”

“Yep. I could hide it on the moon, but last I checked that was demon territory.”

“Under the ocean.” Castiel suggested. “Waterproof box. Far away from shipwrecks sites or it will get dug up again.”

“Clever.”

Gabriel didn’t become exponentially more helpful after that, but his notes found their way into Sam’s journal and Castiel’s haphazard piles.

“Here.” Dean bustled into the shop with a tray bristling with cups. “Damn, it’s cold out.”

“Thank you.” Castiel plucked his large americano from the cardboard holder, then tilted his head up for a kiss. Dean obliged, his nose a chilled point against Castiel’s cheek. “Did you prevent the rise of Abaddon?”

“Sure thing. One seal taken care of, five hundred and sixty to go.” He shoved a mochachino into Sam’s waiting hand.

“Five hundred and fifty-nine.” Sam reported grimly. “Ten young girls disappeared in Belize last week. The way they were found...busted seal.”

“Five hundred and fifty-eight.” Gabriel blinked into existence. “The real Shroud of Turin is safely stashed in unit forty-five of Bob’s Reliable Storage Facility in Salt Lake.”

“Awesome.” Dean handed Gabriel a steaming cup. Warily, Gabriel opened it, sniffed then took a tentative sniff. “Hot chocolate, not poison.”

They all stared at him.

“What?” Dean turned his back on Sam and Gabriel, but Castiel caught the curve of his smile. “Update your map, Cas. Got to take our wins where we can.”

One of the cell phones rang. Sam dug through the pile, unearthing it and flipping it open.

“Winchester.” His eyebrows went up. “Hold on, let me get you on speakerphone.”

The phone settled open on top of an open copy of the Necronomicon.

“Hello?” Balthazar's voice came out, muddled and faded.

“We’re here.” Castiel said, instantly on high alert.

“Castiel.” It sounded like a grateful prayer. “You bastard. You have no idea....everything has gone to shit up here. Uriel is a traitor, the higher ups are...you were right. About all of it. You just had to make me all curious, so I started asking around, you know? If anyone had heard from Himself lately. No one. Can’t get anyone beyond middle management to really talk to me, but it’s a pretty clear picture. There’s no plan here, no greater picture.”

“Fuck.” Dean breathed out, eyes wide. “We really are off the reservation.”

“When was the last time you heard the voice of God?” Sam asked Gabriel, too quietly for the phone to pick up.

“Before I left the host.” Gabriel frowned. “Way before. Not since Lucy took the plunge. But I figured it was because He knew what I was going to do before I did it.”

“Balthazar,” Castiel leaned in close, “what do you require?”

“I don’t know.” The voice cut out then back in again. “How did you stand this? This uncertainty?”

“I had the Winchesters to aid me. Humans are quite good at working without a plan.”

“Free will.” Sam shot him a half-grin. “Makes you flexible like that.

“I can tell you about the final seal.” Balthazar said slowly. “Can I come there?”

Castiel glanced up, seeking Dean first.

“Can we trust him?” Dean asked bluntly.

“One of my safe houses.” Gabriel decided for them. “Nothing he can get up to there. Just don’t expect me to play host.”

When they manifested in a generous living room covered in dark wood paneling, Sam went to the wood pile and threw a few logs onto an already blazing fire.

“Come here often?” Deann asked as Sam nudged the logs with a poker.

“I like it more than some of the others.” Sam didn’t make eye contact, watching the flames dance. “Problem?”

“I never notice you going.”

“Yeah, well.” Sam shrugged. “I don’t give you time to miss me.”

“Like I’d miss your ugly mug.” But Dean sat down on the rug, not quite touching his brother.

Balthazar appeared to the left of the coffee table, visibly shaken. The Winchesters turned as one to look him over and Castiel was struck by their bookended beauty in the firelight. It seemed an inappropriate thought, considering, but one of the first things he’d learned about human hormones was that they manifested whenever they wanted with little regard for propriety.

“Have a seat.” Castiel didn’t get up from the armchair he’d claimed, watching closely at Balthazar sank into the generously cushioned couch.

“It’s all fucked.” He announced as soon as he was settled. “It was never supposed to be like this.”

“Maybe it was.” Castiel shrugged. “I think His will has proven itself to be more inscrutable than we ever imagined.”

“You understand that this is...chaos. Conspiracy. It may go all the way up to Michael himself.”

“Yes.” Castiel agreed. “That seems likely.”

“For a thousand years we’ve been following our orders blindly. Loving an absent Father.” Balthazar shook his head. “And you just...don’t care?”

“I care.” He sighed. “I care very much. Enough to want to change it. What about you?”

“Yes.” Balthazar exhaled the word. “Yes, I can’t...I like this stupid world with it’s impulsive mad creatures.”

“Thanks.” Sam said wryly.

“You’re welcome.” Balthazar winked saucily.

“Seriously?” Dean turned to his brother. “Is is a pheromone or something? Only jerks with superpowers need apply?”

“Shut up.” Sam rolled his eyes.

“The final seal.” Castiel prompted.

“It wasn’t easy to find out. St. Mary’s Convent. “

“Mary.” Dean said quietly, mostly to Sam or maybe just to himself. “Guess it ends how it started.”

“Was a nice place until Azazel massacred a few nuns there. The chapel is the important part.” Spreading his hands wide as if he could conjure the place between them, Balthazar went on. “There the vessel of Lucifer must kill Lilith upon the altar. She was his first, you know. And definitely his most beloved. Her blood is the key which...is bloody stupid if you ask me. Why would you make the key to Lucifer’s cage one of his most devoted followers?”

“Sam was Lucifer’s vessel. Will Adam truly suffice?”

“He’s been passed back and forth between the host and the rabble of Hell so many times, I would be surprised if he had a drop of mortal blood left in his veins.” Balthazar grimaced. “I think he’ll do. It’s the spirit of the thing. He’s Winchester blood, demon fed now and breaker of the first seal. Lucifer will accept him as a second best deal.”

“So we find him and persuade him our way.” Dean broke in. “He’s blood like you said. Maybe he’ll listen to us.”

“Not going to happen.” Balthazar snorted. “Heard the saying ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me’? He’s in Heaven’s hold now, locked down tight. Supposedly so Lucifer can’t get a crack at him.”

“But really so they can release him when the time comes, unharmed.” Castiel guessed. “Being trapped by the angels, held prisoner. He’ll learn to loathe angels as much as demons. Accepting Lucifer would not be a difficult step after that.”

“Devious mind you’ve got these days.”

“Ok. So, we find Lilith and kill her as far away from the altar as possible.” Dean floated.

“Which we tried to do before and failed royally at.” Sam pointed out bitterly. “She’s slippery.”

“We could lay a trap at the convent itself.” Castiel picked at a cuticle. “Devil’s traps, runes, spellwork. We could catch her on the night of the breaking if we can’t otherwise prevent it.”

“Leaves a lot of room for failure.” Said Sam.

“Why can’t we just blow the place to smithereens?” Dean asked.

“It’s protected. Much like this place.” Balthazar pat the coffee table. “Explosives wouldn’t get a chance to detonate. Another gift from your mysterious goddess.”

“Something like that.” A smile twitched on the edges of Dean’s mouth. “Right, Sammy? Pretty little thing that girl.”

“You pick the worst times to refind your godawful sense of humor.” Sam groused.

“Thank you, Balthazar.” Castiel reached across the distance that separated them to lay a hand lightly over his brother’s wrist. “I’m told you’re welcome to stay here as long as you require. You have my phone number.”

“Don’t trust me to come home with you?”

“I don’t trust that you haven’t already been suspected and followed.” He squeezed the wrist, deceptively fragile under his fingers. “You set me on this path. We spoke once of purpose and guardianship and it was you that blasphemed then. Do you remember?”

“Yes.” Because angels forgot nothing.

“I wanted very badly to prove you wrong.” Castiel laughed hoarsely. “How prideful I was, but it has led me here and I cannot regret that. Now I lead you astray from the flock. Life is a funny thing.”

“Hilarious.” Balthazar covered Castiel’s hand with own. “Go on now, Castiel. I’ll be in touch.”

“Cas.” He told him. “Call me Cas.”

Gabriel’s invisible touch whisked them away, a deep lurch that drew them back across the continent. Dean and Sam were talking before they’d even fully manifested, exchanging ideas and arguing a million miles a minute.

“I don’t like the options.” Gabriel stood just to the left of Castiel, the map arrayed behind him, a halo made of post-it notes. “Lilith...she’s old. They draw a trap, she breaks the stone. They imprison her, her minions break her out before the hour is out.”

“We can’t live without hope.” Castiel watched Sam ball up a piece of paper and toss it at Dean’s head. “Perhaps we can thwart enough of the seals in time.”

“Maybe.” Gabriel said darkly. “Maybe not.”

They spent December running after the seals. Christmas passed by forgotten, the New Year rung in with a few depressing sips of beer and Dean’s voice over a cell spelling out disaster as two seals broke simultaneously.

“The convent is our only option.” Sam finally admitted, just two days shy of Dean’s birthday. Fifty-two seals had fallen, they had managed to save seventy-three. It wasn’t enough. They couldn’t fight the tide.

“We’ll go tomorrow.” Dean agreed, haggard and distant over the speakerphone. He and Castiel hadn’t spent more than three nights together since Balthazar’s whistleblowing. Castiel missed him like he missed his grace: constantly reached for, found wanting and the pain of the reminder followed by the ache of memory. “You guys take Gabriel express, I’m going to drive straight there tonight. Crash at a hotel.”

“Be safe.” Castiel pleaded.

“Yeah. You too.” Dean sighed. “Happy fucking birthday to me, huh?”

“Next year, we’ll eat ice cream outside.” Castiel promised him. “Freeze our fingers and our tongues.”

“Yeah?” He could hear Dean’s weary smile. “You’re on.”

The convent was lovely. Castiel gazed up at it’s many tiered roof and the gentle steps. The forest had overtaken some of the abandoned gardens, but for the most part the building stood gracefully untouched.

“We would need a lot of fucking dynamite to blow this place to oblivion.” Dean kicked at a pinecone, sending it skittering across the steps. “Guess that wouldn’t have worked out anyway.”

“Could have gotten my hands on some C-4.” John mused. He looked more haggard than Dean if that was possible. He had gone up to Canada, taking on the northernmost seals then rocketed down to Mexico on a rumor of a saint sighting that turned ugly. Another failed seal.

“Moot point.” Sam forged ahead, having settled on frosty indifference towards his father since he turned up outside their hotel room. “Blowing up is a no go.”

“I’ll take the Devil’s traps in the chapel.” John pushed passed Sam to take point. “You boys get the entrances.”

“Yes, sir.” Dean said stiffly. He had talked to John more than Sam the last few months, trading information and occasionally meeting up to take on seals that required two sets of hands. A fragile peace had settled between them, but the cracks were showing.

“I’ll work on the runes.” Castiel hefted his hammer and chisel.

“Runes?” John lifted an eyebrow. “What good will those do?”

“Perhaps none at all.” The stone was cold to his touch, marble of some sort. Susceptible to the hard point. “Or it might make it harder for Lilith to enter and buy us time. Brigit’s protections have prevented the host and the rabble from finding us this long.”

“You really like her, huh?” Dean grinned at him. “Bet you’d fangirl if you ever met her.”

“Her work is impressive.” He said primly.

“Yeah, yeah.” Dean leaned in to kiss him once, soft and promising. “I’ll start just in here. Shout if you run into trouble.”

“I’ll shoot then shout.” Castiel tapped the butt of the gun tucked into it’s holster.

“Something you want to tell me?” John cleared his throat, eyebrows buried up in his hairline.

Dean flushed, but faced his father with a tight smile.

“Yeah. Cas and me are getting hitched after the apocalypse is over.”

“Is that even legal?” John asked mildly.

“Somewhere.” Dean walked up the steps to join his father. “We’ll figure it out.”

“You going to let me walk you down the aisle?”

“I’m not a goddamn woman just because I’m with a guy.” Dean snaps, instantly defensive and then regretful, waiting for the return blow.

“Been to a wedding or two. Parents get to walk with grooms once in awhile.” John replied mildly. “Figured it’d be the only time I’d get the privilege.”

“Oh.” Dean’s smile returned, a steady warm thing. “Uh, yeah then. I’d like that. Thanks, Dad.”

“You’re my kid.” John said roughly, shooting Castiel a challenging look. “Figure you’ve survived all this shit, you deserve whatever stupid thing you want.”

“Don’t say that to Sam.” Dean headed inside. “He’ll start asking for a Barbie Dream House or something.”

Castiel worked on the runes for most of the afternoon. He whistled hymns while he worked, engraving ancient signs on doors and windows. The Winchesters covered every square inch in spray painted devil’s traps, anti-possession marks, angel banishing sigils and Sam’s warped Enochian spells.

It wouldn’t be enough. Castiel knew that, assumed that Dean and Sam knew it too. Every other hour or so, Sam cracked open his laptop and searched for signs. Grimly, they marked down the failure of the last dozen seals. The world itself seemed to hold it’s breath, the air gone still, the birds and insects falling into silence.

They gathered together on the front stairs to eat Chinese takeout gone cold.

“How long do we have?” John picked through the beef and broccoli.

“Dunno. Few hours.” Sam broke an egg roll between his fingers, nibbling half-heartedly at the innards. “Maybe midnight if she’s inclined to be dramatic.”

“No matter what happens,” John cleared his throat and stabbed his chopsticks into the rice, “I’m proud of you boys.”

“Thanks.” Sam said roughly, glancing at Dean who hid a smile in his cashew chicken.

Far down the road, a car engine revved. Sam dropped his chopsticks, gun and knife replacing them.

“Or you know. Now.” He choked.

“Fall back to the chapel.” John ordered.

They ran there even as the sound of a beast of engine grew closer. The noise bit at their heels. The doors to the chapel were heavy wooden things and easily barred with the broken remnants of pews.

Dean held onto to his gun as if it’s blessed rounds might do him an ounce of good. He stood between Castiel and the door, a flimsy shield that Castiel could not bring himself to begrudge. For his part, he tried to summon up the wherewithal to pray.

One of the windows shattered, letting Lilith in as if none of the protections meant a damn thing. She landed serenely in her small body, smiling broadly at them.

“Please, boys. Tricks and scratches?” She held out her hands and the paint of the devil’s traps melted away to nothing. “The infamous Winchesters, hardly able to put up a resistance in the end.”

“Resist this.” Dean shot both her kneecaps. She laughed even as she sank to the floor.

“Go ahead and spill my blood if you would.”

“Oh no, sister, you aren’t going out that easily.” Dean spat, circling her at a distance. “No glorious sacrifice to Voldemort for you.”

“She seems like more of a Joker kind of girl.” Sam put in.

“How do you intend to stop it?” She gloated. “It will always come down to this. Me and Lucifer’s vessel. We tango here and my lord goes free at last. That’s fate.”

“Fuck, fate.” Dean snarled.

“Where is she?” The door to the chapel rocketed open, brushing aside the heavy pews as if they were nothing at all.

An bald superfluous man in a suit with a smile that could curdle butter stepped neatly into the room. Behind him, a teenager followed. He wasn’t a large boy, lanky and shaggy haired. He looked a little like Sam had at that age.

“Adam!” John crossed the room to him, but the man in the suit swept him aside with a wave of a hand.

“There.” The man in the suit pointed to Lilith collapsed upon the ground. “That is the architect of your misery. The murderer of your mother, your torturer in hell. Here is the woman that would rip you to shreds.”

“Zachariah.” Castiel would recognized that tone in any flesh. “Have you gone mad?”

“I’m not taking input from pathetic traitors today.”

“I’m going to carve you like a Christmas ham.” Adam snarled, advancing towards Lilith.

“Adam, you don’t have to do this.” Sam put himself between Adam and Lilith. “You’ve been manipulated. This isn’t-”

“They warned me about the lies you’d tell.” Adam’s eyes were crazed, his face twisted into a rictus snarl. “Winchesters lie. Like my father lied to my mother. Like demons lie.”

“We’re not lying.” Dean kept his gun trained on Lilith, but his eyes were all for Adam. “They want you to end the world.”

“Yeah, so?” Adam spat at Sam’s feet. “What the fuck is the world good for anyway? Burn it.”

“There’s-” Dean’s voice cut off abruptly. His gun clattered to the floor.

Castiel lunged forward, but Zachariah’s power closed down around him like a fist. Only Adam was free, moving easily around the barrier of Sam’s frozen body. Lilith smiled up at him beatifically, arms spread wide in welcome.

“We’ll stop her at the convent, they said. No problem, they said!” Gabriel strolled in the doors, putting a chummy arm around Zachariah’s shoulders. “Idiots, am I right?”

“Who-” Zachariah whirled on him. “My...you can’t be.”

“Why not?” Gabriel reached out and Adam stumbled backward as if someone had a hold on the back of his shirt. “I think I can be whoever I want. Free will is sexy that way. Tell ‘em Sam.”

Zachariah’s hold crumbled under Gabriel’s greater power.

“Thought you wanted nothing to do with this?” Sam choked out.

“Forced my hand.” Gabriel shrugged, dragging Adam back until he had the teenager hanging from his grasp, kicking and snarling. “You insist on martyring yourself just when things were getting good. Can’t have that.”

“Let go of me!” Adam bit down on Gabriel’s wrist, practically foaming at the mouth.

“You broke him.” Gabriel turned mildly to look over Zachariah. “You broke a fourteen year old boy, innocent of all wrongdoing because it suited you.”

“It was the will of God.”

“Bullshit.” Gabriel rolled his eyes. “I may not be on speaking terms with Dad anymore, I may not have received revelation, but I know the difference between a heavenly order and a personal vendetta.”

“There was nothing-”

“I may not be your boss anymore, not directly, but you know what?” Gabriel’s smile was all teeth. “You’re fired.”

Zachariah exploded.

“Fuck!” Dean dodged a flying piece of angel skull.

“And you?” Gabriel turned his gaze on Lilith.

“Go ahead.” She gazed upon him. “Kill me.”

“Do I look like an idiot?” He snorted. “Take a nap, bitch.”

Her eyelids fell slowly shut, a battle against Gabriel’s command, but eventually her body gave in. With her head pillowed on her arms and her knees bleeding onto the floor, she looked more like a fallen saint than a demon.

“Who the hell are you?” John asked warily.

“Oh. Uh. Dad? This is the archangel Gabriel.” Sam waved vaguely in Gabriel’s direction. “Gabriel, this is my Dad.”

“A pleasure.” Gabriel walked by John without another look. Adam hung from his hand like an angry kitten. Standing in front of the altar, Gabriel drew forth his sword. “Castiel, a word.”

“Yes?” He came to Gabriel’s side, the one not occupied with a pissed off vessel.

“Stop him from following me.” The whisper barely carried over Adam’s carrying on.

“Stop who?” Castiel frowned. “Where are you going?”

“Don’t play stupid. Dean is already filling the ‘pretty, but dumb’ role in your relationship.”

“Gabriel-”

“I don’t do goodbyes.” Drawing his sword, Gabriel elbowed Castiel lightly. “Just...watch out for him for me, ok?”

The sword came down hard on the altar. Instead of the sound of metal on stone, there was only the soft rip of flesh and reality screamed. The cut dripped thick clots of blood to the floor, congealing around their feet.

“No!” Sam burst forward.

Obeying one last angelic order, Castiel stopped him. Tackling Sam’s legs was enough to buy Gabriel the critical seconds it required to step into the wound in the world, taking Adam with him.

“No!” Sam scrambled upward, too late. The rip had already healed over, leaving behind only blood and the rank smell of rotting flesh.

“Sammy.” Dean caught up to his brother, folding him tightly to him. “Sammy, it’s over.”

“It’s never over.” Sam banged a fist uselessly down on the stone, splitting his knuckles. “He’s down there, alone. I told him once if he missed home so badly, he should get inside Lucifer’s cage, but I didn’t mean it! I never meant it.”

Castiel couldn't help, but remember how Gabriel’s grace had struggled within him when they heard Lucifer’s seductive voice in the bowels of the underworld. He had never told anyone about that fluttering longing and now he was glad he had refrained. Perhaps Gabriel intended to reunite with his brother and keep him company in that eternal prison. The thought did not soothe.

Dean pulled Sam in closer. Slowly, Castiel dropped to his knees and put a hand to Sam’s back. He was aware of John, tying Lilith up and drawing rings of devil’s traps around her. They would have to find a way to imprison her and then get out of this place as soon as possible. The host would soon find out about Zachariah’s death and doubtless come looking for the killer.

“I’m sorry.” Castiel said softly. “It’s possible he will return. We cannot know what he means to do there.”

“Bastard.” Sam buried his face in his hands. “Stupid fucking world saving bastard.”

Chapter Text

With little fanfare, Spring arrived to turn the remaining snow to gray slush and send intrepid blades of grass pushing up through cracks in the sidewalk outside the shop. Inside, Thursday’s Child started to shake off its winter lethargy. The windows, clean for once, let in the sun and the smell of musky incense gave way to something sharper and fresher.

“I’m telling you,” Dean held the book open flat on the counter with the palm of his hand as if it might otherwise try to escape, “the monster got a raw deal.”

“What do you mean?” Castiel asked as he totaled up the day’s sales.

“Well, Frankenstein makes him, right? Then he freaks out when the guy is fugly and abandons the poor bastard. Does he quit? No. Monster heaves himself up and tries to learn how to be a person. But he scares people just by existing and gets run off.” Dean flipped a few pages, coming up with an illustration of the monster cowering away from fire. “In the movies, he’s a dumb beast, but in the book he’s smarter than Frankenstein. I feel for him.”

“I believe that was Shelley’s intention.” The numbers were entered into his ledger with some small satisfaction. “Ultimately it is Frankenstein who is monstrous. The monster becomes so only in the face of the treatment of his creator.”

“I think I’m over relating.” Dean frowned down at the text. “Do you think that’s what she meant? That God left us like an unwanted kid and that’s why everything is so fucked up?”

“Maybe it’s what she meant, but I don’t think that it’s true.” Castiel set aside his pen and ledger to drift to Dean’s side. “Free will is a difficult gift, but it isn’t the curse of abandonment. In God’s absence, we discover who we really are.”

“One way of looking at it.” Dean closed the book and shoved it aside.

“Hey.” Sam came in the front door, carrying a take out bag. “Dinner.”

“Awesome.” Dean rifled under the counter to find the sheet they spread out to spare the glass. “What’d you get?”

“Thai.” Sam pulled fragrant boxes from the depths of the bag. “The place near campus that you like Cas.”

“Thank you.” Opening a container of spring rolls, Castiel made a soft sound of pleasure. “I was thinking of these yesterday.”

“No problem. Anything on the monitors?”

Sam didn’t even glance over at the two small screens that now resided below the store’s security feeds. One came from the downstairs, focused on Lilith’s slumbering face. The command Gabriel had issued still held strong. A little like an evil Snow White, she slumbered on in the confines of an old freezer locked and chained shut. The second feed traveled a substantially farther distance, bringing back the unchanging image of St. Mary’s Convent’s chapel. They had waited a week there before even Sam had to admit defeat, installing the camera on the last vestige of hope.

“No change.” Dean shoveled rice onto his plate. “Did you meet with your adviser?”

“I told you I was going to.” Sam grumbled. “He said if I take summer classes then I’m still on track to graduate next year.”

“Good news.”

“And then I’m going to get my doctorate.” Sam stabbed at his box of noodles as if they had offended him.

“In what?” Castiel dipped the spring roll into sweet sauce, before biting into it. The lovely sour tang of it burst over his tongue.

“Theology. I mean, I could practically do it in my sleep anyway and maybe I could figure out something new.”

“You going to give up hunting?” Dean asked casually as if the answer meant nothing to him one way or another.

“Why would I do that?” Sam swirled the noodles endlessly around his plastic fork. “I’ll keep doing it part time like now.”

“And after that?”

“I don’t know. It’ll take me years probably.” Sam shrugged. “Maybe I can teach somewhere, hunt on the weekends.”

“But-” Dean protested, then took one of Castiel’s sharp elbows to the ribs. “Yeah, sounds good.”

Sam eyed them both suspiciously, then returned to not eating his noodles. Since St. Mary's, Sam had been not quite mourning, but not wholly himself either. He spoke less and carried himself differently, folded in and contemplative. It was as if that night had aged him into adulthood all at once.

“There was a stage play version of Frankenstein done recently.” Castiel returned to safer ground. “The roles of Frankenstein and the monster were switched every night between two actors.”

“So the monster and the man were kind of the same person?” Dean picked a peanut out of Sam’s noodles, narrowly avoiding being stabbed by Sam’s fork. “I don’t think you can swap them around like that.”

“Makes sense to me.” Sam pulled his dinner closer though he made no move to actually eat it. “The monster has the moral high ground in the beginning, but once he’s rejected a few times, he’s willing to kill to get what he wants. That makes him not much better than Frankenstein.”

“Yeah, but the monster never gets a chance to know any better. He has to figure it all out himself.”

“That’s what Gabriel said about the things we kill.” Sam hunched his shoulders further. “Maybe not werewolves, vampires or ghosts, but stuff that wasn’t human ever. What does a siren know? She’s just following instinct.”

“Not human.”

“So what? Neither was Castiel and we expected him to figure out human morality. Sorry, Cas.”

Castiel shrugged, finishing off his spring roll, “It’s true enough.”

“You think we should stop killing things that eat innocent people because they don’t know any better?”

“I didn’t say that.” Sam shrugged. “I don’t know. We have to protect innocent people and the things we fight, a lot of them are straight up evil so that helps. Some of them aren’t though. Bet you that we’re the scary story mother monsters tell their children to keep them in line.”

“Eat all your entrails or the Winchester will get you?” Dean smiled. “I like it.”

“You would.” Sam smiled back faintly.

A flicker of motion caught Castiel’s attention. He glanced over at the monitors, expecting another false alarm like last week’s fly or the pissed off squirrel from last month. What he saw momentarily confused him. He stepped forward, bending to take a closer look.

“What is it?” Dean was at his back in an instant, one hand on his waist ready to draw him back as if the monitors themselves might vomit forth some evil thing.

“A tree just grew in the middle of the chapel.” Castiel stared at it, trying to make sense of the image. “A giant tree.”

“A tree?” Sam pushed in beside him. “What the hell would cause that?”

“I’ve got movement.” Dean tapped the screen just to the side of the massive trunk that dominated most of the picture. Something small and pale twitched.

“A hand.” Castiel decided.

“We’re going.” Sam glared at both of them. “We’re going now.”

“Yeah, of course.” Dean fished in his pocket for the keys. “Like I’d suggest anything else. Do a weapon’s check in case it’s something nasty. I’ll take care of the food, if you lock up the shop Cas.”

They were on the road within five minutes. Sam sat tense and electrified in the passenger seat, oblivious to all external stimuli. Castiel ignored his seatbelt in favor of leaning forward until he could cross his arms behind Dean’s head rest and rest his chin close to Dean’s face.

“Tree seems kind of good, right?” Dean asked, the low thrum of his voice just for Castiel. “Haven’t fought any evil trees yet.”

“I’ve never seen a tree appear from nowhere. It seems...ominous.”

“I keep thinking that one day it has to be over.” Dean rubbed his thumb over the steering wheel, a caress maybe or a plea. “Not the whole world or hunting or anything, just...this stupid endless fucking apocalypse.”

“And what then?”

“What do you mean?”

“What would you do if it was gone? It’s been looming over you for years. It’s all you and Sam have worked towards eradicating. What do you want to do when it’s over?”

“Uh...go to Disneyland?” Dean scoffed. “What kind of question is that?”

“A very real one.” Castiel said as gently as he knew how. “What will you do when the world is safe?”

“Same thing I always meant to do. Hunt, have really creative sex with you, eat cheeseburgers and pie.” Dean tilted his head back until Castiel’s nose could brush his cheek. “Maybe work on that shelving unit for the shop. Get together my notes like you’re always hounding me about and put them in with Dad’s journal. Self-published guide for other hunters.”

“I want a dog.” Castiel confided. “I like them. And I want to go somewhere warm in the winter, a beach somewhere and drink overpriced cocktails with fruit in them.”

“Really? Umbrella drinks are your big dream?” Dean teased.

“One of them.” Castiel shrugged. “More practically, I’d like to hire some part-time help so that I could travel with you more often. I want to find a more permanent home, a house maybe. Something with space so that if Sam does continue to live with us, he doesn’t have to share a bedroom wall.”

“A house. A dog. Vacations in the Caribbean?” Dean shook his head, stubble abrading the skin of Castiel’s nose. “Picket fence dreams...I can’t do that, Cas. Never could. Not who I am.”

“You are Dean Winchester.” Castiel said firmly. “You are vast, you contain multitudes.”

“What if I suck at it?”

“Then we’ll figure something else out. But I don’t think you will. You’ll still be a hunter, you’ll still have the Impala, Sam, your father and me.”

“You never gave yourself a chance to find anyone else.” Dean was staring blankly out at the road now, almost dangerously distracted. “I was given to you, assigned to you and you decided on me. What if-”

“If the next words out of your mouth are something like ‘you change your mind’ then I will make you pull this car over so that I can beat you to a pulp.” Castiel said with remarkable calm, all things considered.

“That’s fair.” Dean hit the accelerator, eyes focused again. “Not sure what wings they’d have to staple on a pig for the day when you can take me, but still. Fair.”

“Do not test me.” Castiel growled.

“No testing, sorry.” Dean held up one hand with a laugh. “You’re still a scary motherfucker, I know.”

“I may not have the power of God behind me, but I know where your soft places lie.” He threatened idly, pleased when Dean’s smile deepened and turned into something darker, hotter.

“Do you now?”

“I swear I will kill you both.” Sam snapped. “Seriously. I. Am. Right. Here.”

“Just talking, Sammy, no need to get your panties in a twist.” Dean flicked on the radio, guitar flowing out of it and keeping them company all the way there.

They saw the top of the tree as they pulled into St. Mary’s driveway. It must have broken through the roof and continued upward another twenty feet. Towering over every other tree in the vicinity and the steeple, its branches extended outward like a giant’s limbs.

“It’s a redwood.” Sam declared, opening his car door before Dean had brought the car to a complete stop. “But they shouldn’t be growing here.”

“I think we can all agree that the giant fucking tree may be slightly displaced.” Dean came alongside Sam, staring upwards. “Considering that yesterday it didn’t exist.”

The door to the chapel were still padlocked shut as they’d left them months ago. It took a few minutes to get the keys in order, Sam growing visibly more agitated the longer it took. When the chains finally fell away, he burst into the room gun out and Dean still stumbling in his wake.

“Be careful.” Dean barked at him as he moved more cautiously inside.

Most of the chapel was now dominated by the massive trunk of the tree. Roots spread out from the base, breaking up the thick marble flooring as it were loose soil. The altar was gone, obliterated by the tree. Sam circled the trunk, then cried out,

“Gabriel!”

“Careful!” Dean barked again, but Sam had already reholstered his gun and disappeared around the trunk. “Sammy?”

“He’s alive!” Sam shouted back.

Castiel surged forward. A hope he had not allowed himself to feel swelled within him. Sam was on his knees, cradling Gabriel’s head in his lap. Castiel crouched down next to them, picking up one of Gabriel’s limp wrists in his hand. Not that a pulse would tell them much. Distantly, Castiel wondered about Gabriel’s vessel. The man would be millennium out of his time if the angel left him now.

Water splashed down over Sam’s head and onto Gabriel’s face.

“Holy water.” Dean explained even as he tucked the flask back in his pocket. “Looks like he’s not a demon.”

Gabriel’s eyes cracked open, droplets of holy water beading down his eyelashes and over his cheeks in a mimicry of tears.

“Gabriel?” Sam asked hoarsely.

“Hey, kid.” Gabriel croaked, voice cracked and wavering. His expression was impossibly tender, a smile soft as butter. “Missed your stupid face.”

“Yeah?” Sam smiled at him.

“M’tired.” Turning weakly, Gabriel buried his face in Sam’s thigh. “Take me home.”

“Sure, whatever you want.” Sam bent over, laying a kiss on Gabriel’s forehead. “Whatever you need.”

“Guys?” Dean called out. Castiel hadn’t even noticed him move, but now he was further to the back of the chapel, bending down. “I’ve got another body! Looks like Adam.”

“Oh, yeah.” Gabriel muttered. “Baggage. Gotta take him too.”

“Baggage?” Sam shook him a little. “Gabriel?”

But Gabriel was fast asleep. He didn’t rouse as Sam lifted him off the floor or as Dean cut him and Adam with silver knives as a precaution. Adam was equally unconscious, hanging limp from Dean’s hold.

“We don’t have space for two bodies in the car.” Dean pointed out, even as they left the chapel behind.

“We can make do until we get to the hotel.” Sam decided, laying Gabriel in the back gently. “It was only a few minutes down the highway, right?”

It was actually a logistical nightmare, but they figured it out. They had to give up on the motel they stayed in the last time with its exposed parking lot. Maybe smuggling in one sleeping body wouldn’t be noticed, but two was probably pushing it. Another five miles down they found a more discreet pay by the hour situation and managed to get both angel and human squared away.

“What now?” Dean asked, staring at the sleeping bodies taking up both beds. “Research?”

“Nothing to go on.” Sam sat down beside Gabriel, staring at him like he might melt if Sam looked away.

“So, what? We wait until one of them wakes up? What if it’s Adam first? Last time we saw him, he was ready to knife us to get to Lilith.” Dean paced restlessly. “You want us just to sit on our hands?”

“We don’t have many options.” Castiel said, returning Dean’s glare with his own. “Waiting seems the most prudent solution.”

They didn’t have to wait long. A few tense hours spent playing half-assed rounds of poker (Dean and Castiel) and keeping vigil (Sam), came to an end as the sun dropped off behind the horizon.

“Unf.” Said Gabriel just as Dean was about to deal Castiel another hand.

“Hey.” Sam touched his wrist nervously. “You with us?”

“Depends. Who’s us?” Gabriel opened his eyes slowly. “Never mind. It’s you. Who else would stay in a place where the ceiling is more mold than plaster?”

“I’m only not punching you because I’m not entirely sure you don’t have a head injury.” Sam gritted out. “What were you thinking? Why would you-”

“Kept you alive, didn’t it?” Gabriel propped himself up on his elbows, wincing. “Ugh. This pain thing is overrated. Humans should demand a refund.”

“Are you...did you fall?” Castiel asked, mouth suddenly dry.

“Nah. Crawling out of Hell just took a lot out of me. Hey,” Gabriel looked around blurrily. “Where’s the littlest Winchester?”

“Knocked out on the other bed.” Dean crossed to Adam’s side, picking up his wrist to check his pulse. “Alive, but really out of it.”

“Good. Losing him would be a big problem.”

“What happened?” Sam pressed.

“Oh, you know. Family reunions. Lots of awkward small talk, a few rounds of ‘kick the shit out of little brother’, more small talk. Then about fifteen years of ethical debate. Then pranks. Lucifer thought he had me good.” Gabriel laughed weakly. “Tried to get in my mind and blow it inside out. Trouble is, once you get in good and deep with me...well my head is where the strong shit brews.”

“You...pulled a prank?” Sam blinked. “On Lucifer?”

“Missed your confused obvious summations.” Gabriel pat Sam’s arm vaguely. “But yeah. Sort of. Prank. Act of war. Whatever. I pulled out his grace. Could have pushed me over with a feather that he had some left, but I guess once an angel, right Cas?”

“Yes, I suppose.” Castiel frowned. “That would explain the tree. Lucifer’s grace, even diminished, would be massive.”

“The tree is Lucifer’s grace?” Sam mulled that over. “How far down do those roots go?”

“Straight to the bottom of the cage, probably through most of Hell itself.” Gabriel licked his lips. “Bet they’re going to have to do some rebuilding.”

“So...what? You sealed him in to the cage that way? Giant grace tree stopper, like a wine cork?”

“No.” Gabriel got himself all the way up, propped on the headboard. “When you take away an angel’s grace, you take away their memories. Their understanding of who they really are. Do it too quickly or jaggedly and it won’t stick, they’ll remember later and have bleed through, but I had time. I did it right. He’ll never remember.”

“He....fuck.” Dean looked down at Adam. “You stuffed Lucifer into our brother?”

“There wasn’t anything left in there anyway.” Gabriel’s eyes were all for Sam, a clear plea for understanding. “He would have spent the rest of his life in institutions, dangerous to anyone that got close. I had a vacant vessel and an angel without a memory. Seemed like a fit.”

“You’ve let Lucifer free to walk the earth.” Castiel wasn’t sure if he sounded awed or anger, he felt both. “The greatest enemy of mankind and he walks among them?”

“He answers to Adam.” Gabriel said quietly. “I would suggest you call him that. He won’t remember. He’ll live and die, a mortal life. He was good, once. Better than the rest of us. You must remember how he rivaled the sun.”

“The Morningstar was glorious.” The memories were no longer crisp, softened by his years of mortality, but Castiel recalled a being made all of light and endless, bountiful love. He remembered the Morningstar singing praises that made angels weep. “But he fell so long ago.”

“He was what he was made to be.” Gabriel sighed. “It’s done, anyway. No way to turn it back another way. There won’t be an apocalypse, there’s no devil to set free.”

Lightning rattled overhead, the ground shaking with thunder. They all looked to the window, but the sky outside remained clear.

“Shit.” Dean pushed up, reaching for a knife. “Does this night never end with the fun?”

“It’s an angel.” Sam moved to block Gabriel from whatever might come through the door. “Right?”

“Got it in one, kid.” Gabriel let his head fall back against the pillows. “And whoever it is, they’re seriously pissed. Don’t let them get Adam, ok? He’s just a child.”

“He’s Satan!” Dean hissed, but he was already standing in front of Adam’s bed, holding his knife as if that would ward off the power coming towards them.

Someone knocked on the door to the room. Castiel, over Dean’s protests, opened it.

“Hello, Castiel.” John Winchester’s body greeted him. “Do you know me?”

“Michael.” Castiel stepped back, allowing him into the room.

Dean dropped the point of his knife. “You son of a bitch.”

“Glad to finally meet you, Dean.” Michael smiled at him, a kind, loving smile. Castiel shuddered. “We should have talked a long time ago.”

“Sorry, couldn’t fit you into my schedule. Too busy making sure the world didn’t get stomped by your family.”

“Gabriel,” and Michael turned, his voice full of sorrow and pity, “brother what have you done?”

“Gave him a second chance.” Gabriel sighed. “Gave us all a way to try something besides trying to kill each other.”

“Always the peacemaker.” Michael shook his head. “Why couldn’t you leave well enough alone? I let you run off and play, have your little vices. Wasn’t that enough?”

“You knew?” There was nothing of the arrogant Trickster to Gabriel now, he was all little boy. “How long?”

“From the beginning.” Michael sighed and it was a thousand waves breaking on the beach. “You were never very subtle. When you ran, I followed and I kept an eye out for you. Saved you, once or twice. Did you think it was chance that you survived a blow of Thor’s hammer?”

“You saw it. All of it.” Gabriel stared at him in naked horror. “And you let me...all those years thinking I was cut off and forgotten. And you were watching?”

“Our Father put you and the others under my care. Of course, I watched.” Michael turned to Adam’s prone form. Dean slid in front of him, knife again raised.

“Leave him alone. If you’ve been paying so much attention then you know there’s nothing left of your brother in there. We called off your apocalypse.”

“You think you can override my Father’s will?”

“I think we already did. Twice.” Dean smiled, thin and hard. “Sam’s no one’s vessel now and Lucifer is just another human. The Last Seal can’t be broken.”

“You misunderstand.” Michael lifted a finger and shoved Dean halfway across the room with it. He reached down to run a hand over Adam’s cheek, cupping his face. “If God has willed that the world is to remain that it will be soon. I can only guess at His design, but I believe that this has been a test.”

“Did we pass?” Gabriel asked, one hand resting tentatively at the small of Michael’s back.

“The test was for humanity, not us. As with the flood and the destruction of Sodom.” Michael hesitated. “Why would you think otherwise?”

“Because the Winchesters are decent men and they did what all decent men with too much courage and not enough brains do when things get tough.” Gabriel ignored Dean’s protest. “They survived. They fought back and they protected the innocent. That’s not passing a test, not really. But us....you, me, Lucifer, even Castiel....we have to make new decisions. There’s no plan, Michael. No map. Dad set us loose.”

“Is that what you told him?” Michel’s hand rested on Adam’s chest now, broad on the skinny adolescent chest. “Was that how you seduced the greatest of all seducers?”

“No. That’s what I told myself when I walked into Hell.” Gabriel looked over his shoulder at Sam, smiled at him then turned back. “He was too angry to listen.”

“Always.” Michael lifted his hand reluctantly from Adam. “Always he was too stubborn to hear.”

“You’re no better.” Gabriel shook his head. “Watching me for years, but saying nothing. Wasting millennia for a fistfight with the only being you loved more than our Father. What was the point, Michael? What was it all for?”

“I’m a good son.” Michael protested.

“Bully for you.” Gabriel took a step back, studying him. “Where has it got you? When was the last time He spoke to you?”

“I-”

“He left us. All of us. And you got the short straw, raising up Lucifer, Raphael and me. Then a nation of others. Principalities, seraphs and cherubs, waiting for your wisdom. Looking for you to be father to them all. No guidance, but a handful of commandments scattered over time before time. And how did you use that power? You wanted to let the world just die. His greatest creation, crumbled to nothing for a vendetta.”

“It was His will.” Michael sat down on the edge of the bed, Adam’s sleep loose limbs tumbling toward him. “I was doing as I was told.”

“In the history of humankind, ‘I was just following orders’ has led to the ugliest of events.” Someone said and Castiel was surprised to find it was his own voice, his words.

“You would compare our Father to men with rotten souls?” Michael spat. “How far have you fallen?”

“Fallen would imply that I have been diminished.” Castiel stood straighter. “I have not been. I only say that blindly following any order, even the orders of our Father, is wrong. He gave us reason. He gave us choice.”

“Free will is an illusion.” Michael growled and outside the lightning sparked again.

“Then why did He let me go back and change it all?” Gabriel asked.

“What?” Michael whirled on him. “Explain.”

“It’s a long story.” Gabriel sat down on the empty bed and began.

It took all of them to tell it. Castiel remembered that first Thursday, Gabriel the long and terrible span that followed as Heaven shook apart with war, Dean the way the world had changed when Castiel came into his life and Sam how he learned of his abilities too early when he tried to save Castiel and Dean in the graveyard. As they talked, Michael looked more and more lost. At some point, he picked up Adam’s hand and cradled it between his own.

When they finished, Michael sat quietly for a long time. Gabriel’s eyes were half-closed again, leaning into Sam like he might otherwise fall over.

“It doesn’t matter.” Michael rose, placing Adam’s hand gently on his chest. “If it is God’s will or man made destiny. The outcome is the same. What I must do now is protect the world from him.”

“You can’t take him.” Gabriel said firmly. “I remade him, I bear the responsibility.”

“Gabriel,” Michael leaned down to kiss him once on the forehead, “you will never stop being my responsibility. Nor will he. You’re my brothers and I love you. I have communed with my host in this vessel and we have struck a deal. Adam Winchester was once his child, he will keep him and watch after. Make him a hunter for which he is better suited than an ordinary life. In return, I will be guardian to them both as they travel.”

“Dad wants to take Lucifer on the road?” Dean scoffed. “Come on.”

“Some part of him believes that Adam lives on. You know he would not allow any of his sons to come to harm.” Michael straightened. “How do you think he came to consent in the first place? I only told him that one of you may be hurt and he agreed.”

“Baby brother Satan. Awesome.” Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. “And you’ll just what? Hover over him?”

“I will be present. John cannot host me permanently even if he consented. But I will drop in for visits.” He glanced at Gabriel. “We have catching up to do.”

“Do-” Gabriel began, but it was too late. Michael left, leaving John blinking wildly as if a bright light had been shone in his eyes.

“You adopted Satan.” Sam said, less accusatory and more amused. “And I wasn’t allowed to have a dog?”

“You’re a grown man, who’s stopping you from going down to the shelter your own damn self?” John cuffed him gently on the back of the head. “And he’s not Satan. He’s your brother. Sort of.”

“This is fucked up.” Dean turned to Castiel. “Right? I mean, this isn’t normal even for us?”

“Lucifer is a fourteen year old child, Dean. That’s not normal for anyone.” Castiel shrugged. “But I suppose we’ll make do with what we have been handed. That is normal for us.”

“I hate our normal.”

“No, you don’t.” Castiel grinned.

“Some parts of it are all right.” Dean allowed. “Might keep you.”

"Keep me where?"

“Oh god,” Adam groaned, wakening and rolling over on his side, “are you people flirting over my death bed? Gabe?”

“You’re not dying.” Gabriel laughed, rusty into Sam’s shoulder. “They'd take it outside if you were. Meet your family, Dean and Castiel are the gross ones, my sofa here is called Sam and that’s John, your Dad.”

“Uh, hi.” Adam scooted up the bed a little.

“Welcome back, son.” John clapped him on the shoulder.

“Thanks.” Adam smiled weakly at him. “I...don’t recognize any of you.”

“I told you that you wouldn’t.” Gabriel reminded him. “You didn’t grow up with them, anyway. There was your Mom.”

“She died.” Adam said vaguely, a fact he had been taught and not one he felt. “She died and I lost my memory in the accident. I went to a terrible place. And you were there.”

“Yeah.” Gabriel closed his eyes. “But we made it back like I said. Like I promised. We’re home now.”

Chapter Text

Dean pounded on the door. Fear had chased him up the stairs, away from the warm bedroom tucked up in the back of the house. He felt ridiculous, running to his little brother, but Sam was the only person who might understand.

“Dean?” Sam answered the door with a yawn.

“Sammy.”

“What’s going on?” Gabriel emerged from the direction of the bedroom wearing way less than Dean ever wanted to see him in.

“The Snorks?” Dean lifted an eyebrow at the too small t-shirt. “Seriously? Total Smurf ripoff.”

Gabriel gave him the finger which Dean accepted as his right.

“Dean. What?”

“Can we talk alone?” He glanced over at Gabriel who was still surveying him with annoyance. “Family business.”

“What? Is it Dad?” Sam asked, apparently picking up on Dean’s nerves. “Is he still lost?”

“Huh? Oh. No. Turns out that the road was haunted. Killed the ghost. They should get here right on time tomorrow.” Dean rubbed the back of his head. “It’s just....”

“Just what?” Sam’s eyes were widening. “A hunt?”

“Sam.” Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Cold feet. Which means you owe me twenty bucks.”

“You don’t even need money!” Sam protested. “Go back to bed.”

“Then I’ll take it out in trade!” Gabriel decreed, but he did, thankfully, vanish back into their room. Or into another dimension. One never knew with Gabriel.

“Are you really freaking out about tomorrow?” Sam flopped down onto one side of the battered sofa that once lived in their shared apartment.

The downstairs living room was equipped with an actual never before used, firsthand couch. Dean had gone to a store, sat on a hundred couches until he found one he liked, bought it and brought it home. The entire experience had an aura of surreality. In fact, the entire house with its new decent furniture, matching dollar store dish towels and sheets that had only ever known his and Castiel’s bodies was surreal. Sometimes he went out into the driveway and climbed behind the wheel of the Impala to assert some normalcy back into his life.

“I’m not freaking out.” He sat down on the other side of the couch, burying his face in his hands.

“Really?” Sam poked him in the ribs with his stupidly long monkey toes.

“I’ve got totally legitimate concerns.”

“That you had to express to me in the middle of the night, a few short hours before you get married?”

“Yes!” Dean bit off.

“I just want you to know that if you leave Cas at the altar? No one is ever going to talk to you again. Including me.”

“That’s cold.” Dean rubbed the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t do that to him. And there’s no altar.”

“Stair. Whatever. Not the point.” Sam poked him again. “What are your big concerns?”

“Quit it.” Dean smacked at Sam’s foot. “What if this doesn’t work out? What if we start hating each other?”

“Why would that happen?” Sam snorted. “You guys have been inseparable for this long. Not like you’re going to wake up in a year and find a different person or something. You know him. He knows you.”

Dean bit his lip. His gut churned. It was too cold in Sam’s apartment. Castiel always kept the heat cranked high downstairs, wrapping himself in ridiculous cardigans and blankets when Dean protested the sauna conditions. Usually that was enough for Dean to start feeling like shit. He’d sneak off and push the thermostat up again until he was sweating.

“Hello? Earth to Dean?” Sam waved a hand in front of his face.

“Mom and Dad fought a lot.” The words welled out of him and he wished as soon as they were spoken that he could shove them back down.

“What?” Sam’s hand dropped away.

“I was supposed to be asleep.” He swallowed against the hard lump in his chest. “Their bedroom was down the hall and they kept the door shut. But I heard them. And then Dad would go away. Not long. A day or two. He stopped doing that when you were born, I think. It’s blurry now.”

“I thought Mom was....” Sam trailed off. Because Mom was perfect. That’s how Dean and Dad remembered her. That’s how they talked about her. They gave Sam a perfect mother, even if she was gone. “I thought Dad was crazy about her.”

“Guess he was.” Dean shrugged. “That’s...I mean. You can love someone and still fuck it up. There’s no guarantee. If Dad could do it-”

“You’re not Dad.” Sam said firmly, no room for argument. “Not when it comes to stuff like this.”

“I could be though. It’s all there. I can feel it under my skin.” He rubbed his fingers together. “It’s Cas. I can’t make a mess of that.”

“Then don’t.” Sam put his arm around Dean’s shoulders, knocking his head against Dean’s like they were still three feet tall and scrapping in the backseat. “I’ve watched you guys be stupidly, stomach turningly in love forever. Even at your sleaziest worst, Cas still thinks you’re a hero. And even when he’s being a pretentious bossy little shit, you look at him like he’s the messiah. “

“I’m telling him you called him that.”

“Go ahead.” Sam rolled his eyes.

“What about Gabriel?”

“What about him?”

“He going to make an honest man out of you one of these days?” Dean asked. “Cause I was hoping you’d be able to wear a white dress, but I’m guessing he’s already put his Snorkle in your virtue.”

“Fuck you.” Sam pushed him off the couch, but he laughed along with Dean and wound up on the floor beside him. “Hey. You want to sleep up here tonight? Not see the bride. Heard that’s tradition.”

“Nah. Tradition sucks and the couch is lumpy.” Dean glanced at Sam’s flushed face. “Seriously though. You and him...you’re ok?”

“Yeah.” Sam shrugged. “We’re not the getting married kind, I think. But we’re good.”

“Good.”

“If you’re not staying, you should go.” Sam cracked a yawn. “Got to look all pretty tomorrow for the photos.”

“Shut your face.” But Dean rolled over enough to give Sam a one armed hug, then pushed off the floor.

The walk back down the stairs was far calmer than his tense flight upwards. The refrigerator hummed as he entered the kitchen. Castiel sat at the table with a full glass of water in front of him. He hadn’t bothered to turn on the light.

“Hey.” Dean stood behind him, settled his hands over Castiel’s rounded shoulders. “Sorry, did I wake you getting up?”

“No.” Castiel sighed, leaning his head back to pillow on Dean’s stomach. “Couldn’t sleep.”

“Cold feet?” Dean asked, the lump in his chest reforming.

“Not the way you mean. I’m nervous, but that doesn’t make me less certain.”

Even in the dark, Dean could make out pale irises and the sincere straight line of Castiel’s lips. If all the world were to plummet into darkness, Dean thought he’d still know Castiel’s body under his, each square inch familiar to his fingertips, nose and mouth.

“I love you.” Dean told him. He had said it before, but never like this. Never in the quiet of their own home, without danger or fear pushing it out of him. Without sex making everything easier and unclouded. Just the words settled between them, certain and unremarkable.

“Love you too.” Castiel’s lips broke their steady line to curl into the smile that Dean had grown used to seeing there since Castiel fell.

They didn’t go back to bed right away. Dean sat down beside him at the table, sharing the glass of water between them. The square of light from the window slid away before they finally rose and went down the hall.

The morning was pure chaos. Dean woke to an empty bed, a knotted stomach and the commotion of too many voices in their house.

“Boy, what are you still doing asleep?” John barked from the doorway and every well trained fiber in Dean’s body jumped. He was on his feet, knife in hand before he could register that there was no emergency and no early morning drills to be run.

“Shit.” He coughed and rubbed the grit from his eyes.

“Heh.” John shook his head, a grin lurking at the corner of his mouth. “Still got it.”

“Fire!” Sam shouted from the kitchen. “Cas, where the hell is the fire extinguisher?”

“Under the sink!” Dean yelled back.

“Nice boxers.” Adam smirked, looking over John’s shoulder. “What are those things?”

Dean looked down at himself and groaned.

“Snorks. Son of a bitch. GABRIEL!”

By the time Bobby, Ellen, Ash and Jo showed up, the entire house had taken on the tone of a barely controlled riot.

“You, shower.” Ellen ordered, pointing to Dean. “The rest of you, kitchen. This is a wedding, not an exorcism!”

“Yes, m’am.” Sam said sullenly, something that might have been cake batter dripping off his nose.

Dean slunk off to the shower. He found Castiel already in the steam filled bathroom, a towel slung loosely around his waist.

“Hey.” Dean dropped a kiss onto Castiel’s shoulder. “You ok?”

“Mmhm.” Castiel studied himself in the mirror.

“Getting vain on me, princess?” Dean jerked on the hot water.

“Should I shave?” Castiel asked, instead of rising to the jibe.

“If you want.” Dean glanced over his shoulder, taking in the fine stubble over Castiel’s jaw and the mussed state of your hair. “I like you scruffy. Reminds me of when we were kids.”

“I didn’t have stubble then.” Castiel scratched idly at his chin.

“Nah, but you always looked a little messy.”

The shower was warm enough now, so Dean ducked under the spray. Castiel clicked on the radio as he left, filling the small room with the exuberant shouts of the oldies station,

Do you love me? Are you in the mood?
Do you love me? Are you in the groove?
Do you love me? Now that I can dance...

“Aw, c’mon! Don’t I deserve some Led today?” Dean bitched, but wound up singing along. He brushed his teeth, ran a comb over his head and shaved.

They’d debated wearing suits, but the idea of dressing in his FBI special for his own wedding turned Dean’s stomach. In the end, they’d agreed to wear new, but comfortable everyday stuff thus ending the longest conversation Dean had ever had about an outfit.

“You can’t just wear jeans and a t-shirt.” Sam had protested when he’d heard the outcome.

“Watch me, bitch.”

“...fine. But at least they should be decent.”

So Sam had dragged him out of Walmart and to a local mall. The jeans were a dark wash and Sam managed to argue him into a dark green button down shirt. Dean put it on now with a frown, then rolled up the sleeves over his forearms.

“You ready?” Bobby ducked his head around the door. “Everyone’s just waiting on you, boy.”

“Yeah, guess I am.” Dean toed into his boots, tying them up.

“Good, cause I saw your boy heading behind the woodshed with Ash. Sooner we roust them out of there the better.”

The house had a generous back porch with a few steps leading down into a small, but serviceable backyard. The handful of remaining Winchesters, Balthazar, Gabriel, Ellen, Jo and Ash stood a few feet back from the steps. Some enterprising soul had wound white ribbon around the banisters as the sole decoration for the day.

There was no aisle to walk down. Castiel was already standing on the bottom stair. He wore a ridiculous loose baby blue shirt that could have hung proudly in any hippie’s wardrobe and a new pair of khakis that he’d already managed to wrinkle. When Dean emerged from inside, Castiel looked up with a relaxed grin. Dean joined him, aware that he was smiling back like a loon. Then he caught a whiff of something pungent.

“Are you high?” He whispered urgently.

“No.” Castiel blinked once slowly. “Just one toke. Enough to calm down.”

“I can’t believe you got stoned for our wedding.” He groaned.

“Your breath smells like whiskey.” Castiel’s grin didn’t dim. “Shot from Bobby’s flask?”

“Totally different. That’s medicinal.”

“You boys ready to get this started?’ Bobby had taken his hat off for the occasion, tucking it in his back pocket.

“Sure thing.” Dean stood a little straighter.

“If I might interrupt.” A woman spoke, soft and infinitely kind.

She emerged through the kitchen, coming to stand next to Bobby on the step above them. Her hair was long, mostly a deep red with thick streaks of silver twining through. The lines in her face were many and her lips little more than pale lines. Yet her eyes were youthful, wide blue things that rivaled Castiel’s for luminosity. She wore a thin sundress in faded purple tie dye and her feet were bare.

“Brigit.” Dean breathed out ragged. When they’d last met he’d thought she was just an odd psychic, but he knew Castiel put stock in her being far more. “Hi.”

“Hello, Dean.” Her smile was a brilliant wide thing, all her teeth neat even pearls in the crumpled fabric of her face.

“Everyone,” Dean waved at the crowd behind him, unable to take his eyes from her hers, “this is Brigit. Brigit, this is...everyone. Especially Castiel.”

“Hello.” Castiel stared at her as well. “I...thank you.”

“What for?” She reached out and stroked a hand through Castiel’s hair, sending it into dishevelment. “Child, you did it all yourself.”

“Nice to meet you, m’am.” Bobby inclined his head. “But we were just about to be getting on with something.”

“I know it.” She turned her smile on Bobby, who flushed and shuffled his feet. “Robert Singer, I ask only for a momentary indulgence. Would you allow me to bless this couple?”

“Sure. Yeah.” He took a step backwards, ceding her the stage such as it was.

“Children,” She lay her hands on their heads and something cool poured over Dean’s scalp, fresh water without a trace of moisture, “There are many roads left for you to travel, but as long as you walk them together no evil can truly touch you. If you are seperated, may you always find your way back to each other with ready words of forgiveness on your lips. ”

Dean’s eyelids had slid shut without his permission. The water poured over his whole body, leached into his skin, beat through his veins and settled into his bones. When he opened his eyes again, Brigit was gone and Castiel stared back at him with wide-eyed bemusement.

“What just happened?” It was John who asked, rough into the silence that had fallen over the crowd.

“You can throw out Shakespeare's 130.” Gabriel looked a little dazed himself. “Because you just saw a goddess go.”

“Right.” Bobby rolled his shoulders forward. “We going to do this or not?”

After Brigit’s blessing, the rest of the affair should have been only a blur, but Dean remembered every second of it with bright clarity for the rest of his life. The ceremony was a mess of traditions, mostly cooked up by Bobby and sounding more like a safehouse built of words than a wedding. He reached the end before long then and then got to the important part,

“Do you take this man to spend the rest of your life with, angel?” Boddy asked at last, shutting the book he held with a soft thump. “I’d advise you to give it a moment’s thought.”

“I do.” Castiel took Dean’s hand. The ring wasn’t special or engraved, just a band of plain white gold plucked from a row of them in some forgotten chain store. It sat on his finger where his father’s ring once did.

“And do you Dean want to spend the rest of your life with this angel?”

Dean’s face hurt from smiling,

“I do.”

“Right. I pronounce you married then.” Bobby clapped them both on the back. “Kiss if you gotta.”

“Oh, I definitely fucking gotta.” Dean drew Castiel in and kissed him hard, dipping him backwards a little. When he pulled away, Castiel was smiling that old, angelic smile. The one that suggested he had secrets older than time and would give them all to Dean if he asked.

“Dean.” Castiel said once, deep and sure.

“Cas.” Dean leaned forward and kissed him again because he just had to. Then the world erupted in confetti, brilliant silver and blue gathering in their hair and piling up over their shoulders.

“Little applause for the horribly happy couple?” Gabriel suggested and a ragged cheer went up.

A cold beer was pressed into Dean’s hand and Sam’s arms went around him, then Ellen’s then Jo’s. He took sips from the can as he moved between them all and when he was finished, standing next to Cas again, another can replaced it.

They drank until the sunset and Ellen, weaving only a little, got up to boss Ash around the grill. Thick steaks, baked potatoes and hot slices of apple pie on flimsy paper plates were consumed sitting amid the confetti. No one danced, but there was a lot of laughter. One by one the guests trickled away, taking cars to hotels or taking wing to Heaven.

“You gonna clean any of this up?” Dean asked, pointing the neck of his bottle at Gabriel.

“Why would I do that?”

Sam leaned down and whispered something in Gabriel’s ear. The smirk that crossed those lips raised Dean’s hackles.

“As you wish.” Gabriel said with a laugh and a snap. The yard turned from disaster area to pristine green under the carpet of stars. “C’mon, kid. Let’s give the happy couple some space to honeymoon.”

They both disappeared in a burst of confetti.

“Son of a bitch.” Dean jumped up to brush the renewed dosing of silver dots off his shirt.

“Sit down.” Castiel commanded.

“You’re not the boss of me.” Dean told him, even as he sat down beside Castiel on the steps. “Can I ask you something?”

“You’ve never asked permission before. Should I be worried?”

“Nah. I just...you said last night you were nervous. Then today with the weed, I have to figure you were pretty fucked up to do that....why?”

Castiel took a long sip of beer then set the bottle aside. He leaned back on his elbows and looked up at the stars for a long time. Dean understood that kind of silence. He had been practicing it his whole life. He waited, following Castiel’s gaze and watching the stars emerge from the darkness, one by one.

“I don’t have a father or a mother.” Was what Castiel said when the quiet between them had matured into anticipation. “God created me, but what followed wasn’t what anyone would call parenting. Angels don’t need guidance. They take orders.”

“Which worked out swimmingly well for everyone.” Dean snorted.

“Not the point.” Castiel took Dean’s hand in his, pressing their palms together until their rings clicked dully against each other. “The point is that you changed all of it. Not Gabriel though he threw me in your path. It was you. You were my son, my brother, my father, my best friend. You shared what little you had with me. You trusted me with Sam.

“I was nervous because sometimes, I wonder,how I can ask more of you.” Castiel shrugged. “I was nervous because I’m not always I’m worthy of it.”

“Funny.” Dean used their joined hands to bring Castiel closer. He kissed the firm line of his jaw and the arch of his cheekbone. “I was kind of thinking the same thing. Different details.”

“We’ll just have to prove each other wrong then.” Castiel decided, turning his face in for another kiss.

“Hold on.” Dean said with a laugh. “Something in your hair.”

“Just leave the confetti-”

“Not paper.” It was a long blade of grass, wide and a little sticky. He had to tug at it a bit to free it from Castiel’s mussed hair. “That’s what you get for trying to arm wrestle Bobby for the last piece of pie.”

“He’s an unexpectedly tough foe.” Castiel plucked the grass from Dean’s hand. “Want to see something cool?”

“Yeah,” Dean had a feeling he knew what was coming, “show me.”

Castiel brought the grass to his lips and blew. The whistle pierced the air.

“Awesome.” Dean laughed. “Guess that means you need me, right?”

“Only a little.” Castiel agreed, standing up with a back cracking stretch. “You edge out air and food by the barest margin.”

“C’mon, Cas.” The blood and liquor rushed to Dean’s head as he stood. He staggered as he headed in towards the house, dizzy and a little delirious. “Let’s get this consummation thing started.”

“Yes, Dean.” Castiel put a hand to the small of Dean’s back and propelled them both inside.

Outside, far and away in the night, there were monsters, angels and demons. The innocent suffered, the meek ran out of patience waiting for their inheritance and children told each other stories about the things in their closets. Sammy was alone with a capricious god that could murder him on a whim. Dad was traveling with something that was his son or Satan or both. Somewhere someone was thinking of a way to make the world burn.

For once, Dean didn’t spare any of them a thought. Their bedroom was warm and dark. Their bed smelled of grass, motor oil and freshly baked bread. Castiel spread out beneath him as vast and wild as a winding highway through undiscovered country.

The world could wait until tomorrow. Tonight was for them.