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What Greater Gift

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Castiel was alone in the bunker.

He’d been sitting at the map table near the entrance for about an hour, unsure what he was supposed to do with himself. He hadn't moved since Dean and Sam left to go on a hunt. From newspaper reports, it looked like a restless spirit was wreaking havoc in a small town in Oklahoma. There was little any of them could do about Crowley or hell until Kevin translated the next part of the tablet, so the Winchesters decided to pass the time doing what they knew best – hunting.

Cas had offered to go with them, to help. He wanted to be useful. But Sam had looked uncomfortable when he offered, and Dean had very insistently told Cas that he still “looked rough” and that Dean wanted him to “rest up” before he joined them for any hunting activities.

Castiel wished Dean wouldn’t feel the need to spare Cas’s feelings, or whatever it was he was doing. True, Cas still wasn’t back at his full strength. Getting out of purgatory had drained a considerable amount of his grace, and if he used too much he felt weak and light-headed in a way he’d only previously experienced when he fell, back during the apocalypse. But if Dean thought he was a liability, that he wasn’t useful enough to bring along, Cas wished he’d just say it. At least then he’d be sure where he stood. He'd know if he could get comfortable staying here with the brothers, in their odd yet secure new bunker home.

Castiel sighed. He should have pushed, insisted he could be useful and gone along on the hunt. Then he’d have been able to show Dean and Sam that he was worth keeping around. He honestly didn’t know where he’d go if they told him to get out. Heaven…wasn’t really an option anymore. Cas didn’t even want to think about going back.

He glanced around the rather sterile entrance room to the bunker. This room wasn’t exactly helping him not think about certain things. But Sam and Dean hadn’t told him what he should do while they were gone. They’d only told him to rest and to not break anything – sitting quietly at the map table accomplished both of those tasks. A large part of him was afraid to take the initiative on anything. He was slightly ashamed to admit, even to himself, that his trust in his own judgment had been shattered almost beyond repair. After what he did to heaven…

Cas lurched to his feet, trying desperately to cut off that train of thought. It never went anywhere good. He moved almost without thinking, heading toward the doors to the outside. Neither Sam nor Dean had told him to stay in the bunker (he refused to admit it might have been implied) and he wouldn’t be able to break anything if he was outside.

Cas felt better when he burst out into the sunlight. His vessel was breathing strangely hard, like humans did when they physically exerted themselves. But angels didn’t get winded or feel anxiety, so it was absolutely not that. His vessel must just still be recovering.

Cas made sure to lock the door to the bunker, and placed the key in the pocket of his overcoat. If he showed Sam and Dean that he could be responsible with securing their home, then they would trust him to live with them.

Cas strolled around outside, watching the trees and grass around him rustle in a soft breeze. His breathing gradually slowed, and he felt better as his vessel warmed under the late-afternoon sun. He walked though the fields and scrubland around the bunker aimlessly, intent on not thinking and just enjoying his father’s creation. The sun had almost set, and Cas was steeling himself to go back inside the bunker for the night, when he heard a soft sound of distress not far from where he was standing.

Cas turned and looked intently at the nearby brush and bramble to try to see where the faint mew-ing sound was coming from. In the dusk, he almost missed the small, jet black cat caught in the thorny branches. She was yelling at him, surprisingly vocal for a cat and clearly upset and uncomfortable.

Cas approached slowly, trying not to startle her. She froze, letting him know she saw him. Cas nudged her with his grace, letting her know what he wanted to do as he stretched his hands out. The cat relaxed almost immediately at the touch of his grace and thoughts. She was smart – she knew he wasn’t the human he appeared to be, and that he would help her.

He used his vessel’s large hands to gently move the cat, plucking and untangling thorns from her fluffy fur until she was free. Her clutched her close to his chest and she immediately started purring.

Cas only then noticed that she was covered in mud. Her dark fur had hidden it when he first saw her. But it was hard to ignore the damp earth now all over his hands and the nice, soft T-Shirt Dean had given him when he moved in with them.

“Let’s get you cleaned up,” Cas told the cat, and headed back to the bunker. The cat just purred, and wiggled briefly to sit more securely in his arms.


 

Although she’d been happy with the idea of getting clean, the cat was not, as it turned out, in favor of Castiel’s methods. After a stern argument, and a few shallow scratches down Cas’s arms, he managed to convince her to get into the bath so Cas could wash the mud off of her. She hadn’t been happy about it, but she’d eventually realized Cas wasn’t lying that it was the best way he could make her feel better.

They’d left the bathroom a mess, and Cas had moved to the room with the map table to dry her off. Cas was still rubbing her fluffy fur with a soft towel, trying to sooth her lingering irritation over the bath, when the door at the top of the spiral stair opened.

Cas looked up in surprise, almost panicking at the thought of someone strange entering the bunker before he heard Sam’s familiar voice call out, “Hey, Cas, it’s just us!”

“Sam. Dean,” Cas stared blankly as they made their way down the stairs, frozen and caught in the act of drying off his new friend. The bathroom was still soaking. There was mud on the walls (he still wasn’t sure how it had gotten there). The cat was on the table, and he knew humans were very particular about that. Cas hadn’t expected Sam and Dean back for days. He’d thought he’d have time to put everything back in order.

For a moment, Dean, Sam, Cas, and the cat all starred at each other. Cas was scrambling for some sort of explanation, one that might convince the Winchesters to let him stay even though he made such a mess, and Sam and Dean looked like the sight of Cas with a towel-wrapped cat was the very last thing they’d expected to see.

“Um….” Cas said, feeling very much more like an errant child than a millennia-old angel. “You’re back early."

“Uh, yeah. We didn’t even get halfway there. I looked up the local news website using the wifi at a café when we stopped,” Sam explained. “Turns out it definitely wasn’t a real ghost, it was some asshat pretending to be one to cover up an accidental death.”

“Real Scooby-Doo bullshit,” Dean said, eyes stuck on the cat on the table.

Cas didn’t say anything in response, just kept a tight hold of the cat in her towel.

“That’s a…Cas where did that cat come from?” Sam asked. At least he didn’t sound angry. Dean still looked at a loss for words.

“I found her,” Cas explained. “She was trapped and hungry and dirty. She’d like to stay, if that’s alright. It’s warm here, and she liked that I fed her tuna. We should probably get cat food though.” Cas forced himself to stop talking. He shouldn’t act like he could make decisions about who lived in the bunker. It had been arrogant of him to assume he could offer the cat a warm, dry place to stay.

“Uh, Cas, normally that would be fine, I mean, if you want to take care of her,” Sam said. Cas sensed a ‘but’ coming. And sure enough, “But…” he glanced at Dean.

“Cas, uh,” Dean coughed, “That was nice of you to do, but I can’t have her in the bunker. I’m allergic to cats. If she stays her, I’m going to have, like, twenty-four/seven hay fever.”

“Oh,” Cas said softly, disappointed. They were clearly just trying to let him down easily. Cas had been right. He was a guest on sufferance, after all. Of course he wouldn’t be allowed to offer sanctuary to another creature.

Feeling reckless, and wanting to confirm his suspicions, Cas reached across the table and pressed his fingers to Dean’s forehead. He forced some of his weakened grace to target Dean’s immune system, and fixed the problem.

“There,” he said firmly. The room started to spin, and Cas had to sit down heavily at one of the chairs around the table. Pathetic. He couldn’t even cure allergies without overstretching himself.

“Whoa, whoa, hey man, you alright?” Dean rushed around the table and put his hands on Cas’s shoulders. “What did you just do?” he demanded.

“Your allergies are gone,” Cas answered. He looked Dean in the eye, wanting to force him to spell out the real reason he didn’t want Cas to care for the little cat. Dean probably thought he'd do a miserable job of it, that he might hurt her. The animal in question shook herself out of the towel and jumped into Cas’s lap. She batted a paw at Cas’s chest, and looked up at him with concern. “I’m alright,” he told her.

Dean looked back and forth between Cas and the cat in confusion for a few seconds, and then sighed. “Well, uh, thanks man,” he finally said. “Guess that solves that problem. But you need to stop working yourself too hard while you’re still healing! No using your mojo on the cat, alright? Or me or Sam. Unless it’s, uh, a major emergency.”

Cas was confused. He looked down at the fluffy black cat. She was gazing up at him with her big yellow eyes. She could stay? She could stay and he could stay too, even though he’d added to the brother’s troubles by bringing her here? He gathered the cat up in his arms and nodded to Dean, not wanting to turn down his offer. “Alright,” he said. “Traditional cat care only.”


 

Sam drove Cas to a pet store to pick up supplies to care for their new guest. Cas had asked the cat about her preferences for litter and bedding before he left, so it was a fairly short trip. He didn’t have to compare different brands or varieties of cat care items and toys, and soon they were exiting the shop with arms full of everything needed to best house a cat.

Cas offered to pay Sam back for everything (he wasn’t sure how he’d get the money, but he knew Sam had been overly generous in providing for a being who was at this point more Cas’s friend than his own) but Sam had been adamant that Cas didn’t have to do that. Instead, he asked, “So, what are you going to name her?”

Cas pondered the strange question. “She already has a name,” he replied.

It was quiet in the car for a moment. Sam glanced at Cas out of the corner of his eye. “Um, ok,” he said, sounding strangely uncertain. “What is it?”

“It’s not something humans can pronounce,” Cas said, truthfully. When she’d told him, Cas had had to explain that his vessel wouldn’t be able to say her name out loud. After a little sulking, she had accepted he was telling the truth and largely let it go.

“Uh, ok, makes sense,” Sam replied, although he didn’t sound convinced. “Could we give her a…a nickname though? Just so we can call her something?”

There was an idea. Sam and Dean had given Castiel a nickname after all, and he often preferred it to his full name. Certainly fewer of his angel siblings called him by the shortened version of his name. But he didn’t want to think about them. The cat. A nickname for her. Yes.

“I believe we could suggest something to her,” Cas replied to Sam. “What did you have in mind?”

Sam pondered the question for a moment, then said, “What about Lola? Dean’d probably like that too.”

“Lola,” Cas said, nodding. “I will ask her if that is acceptable.”


 

When Cas brought it up upon their return, Lola was very enthusiastic about her new nickname. She liked the way it sounded when they said it, so Cas told Sam and Dean that she would answer to Lola if they’d like to call her that. The Winchesters seemed strangely unconcerned about Lola after that, leaving Cas to set up her bed and litter box area in his own room while Dean made dinner and Sam read in the library. Lola was very happy with her new catnip mouse toy and soft bed, and curled her fluffy body around Cas’s ankles a few times while purring. He sat down and she leapt into his lap, demanding head scratches. Cas dutifully scratched lightly behind her ears four times, and then took his hand away. She snuggled closer in contentment, very pleased that he had known the precise number of scritches she’d desired.

Cas felt something warm build in his chest at the idea that he could give this little creature everything it needed. He wouldn’t let her down. He’d failed at protecting Sam and Dean countless times, and the sorry state of his grace right now proved he couldn’t even look after himself enough to remain useful to them. But he could take care of Lola. She wasn’t disappointed in him. She was grateful.

When Cas wandered into the kitchen for dinner, Lola at his heels, Dean was putting the finishing touches on a plate of burgers.

“Hey man,” Dean said brightly, not seeming irritated by or even glancing at the cat sniffing around the kitchen. Good. Cas would be able to keep caring for her as long as the Winchesters weren’t annoyed with her. Or him. “Burgers for dinner tonight, thought we’d have them in front of the TV, do a movie night. You in?”

“Um, if that’s what would be best,” Cas answered, not entirely comfortable, but not wanting to go against Dean’s wishes. He knew ‘movie night’ was something Sam and Dean did for fun, and it involved as much yelling at the TV as actually watching movies. He wouldn’t want to intrude on that. Perhaps he could leave after he finished eating, and not be in the way.

That seemed like a good plan until Sam and Dean arranged it so that he was in the middle of the couch, and would have to bother them both if he stood up. It was further complicated when Dean started the movie while they were eating, plates and burgers held in their laps. Cas didn’t really need to eat, but Dean had been strangely insistent on it since Cas had returned from purgatory. He seemed to think it would help Cas regain his strength sooner. Cas wasn’t so sure about that, but he wanted Dean to be able to count on him, so he dutifully ate his burger.

Cas set his plate aside when he’d cleaned it, still intent on getting up and leaving the Winchesters to their brotherly bonding for the rest of the evening. Lola thwarted that plan when she leapt into his lap before he could stand up. She settled in firmly, paws and tail tucked under her, and clearly not planning on moving any time soon.

Cas glared down at her, and then looked apologetically at both the Winchesters. To his surprise, Sam was grinning. “Hey, she’s a huge fan of you already Cas! You’re her hero.”

“Hmmm,” Cas responded noncommittally. He looked down at Lola again, glaring at her sternly. He tried in vain to tell her to move so he could stand up. She just blinked her eyes slowly at him, smugly assuring him that she had no intention of moving and that everything would be ok. It wouldn’t though. He wasn’t really welcome and she should be able to sense that. She dug her claws into him a little in irritation at that thought, and then started licking one paw disdainfully. She clearly very strongly disagreed. She’d only just met Sam and Dean though. What did she know.

Cas sighed, bracing himself for an evening of being in the way, all because of a stubborn cat. But soon he started to relax into the couch, resigning himself to watching the fanciful movie about princesses and pirates. He almost jumped when Sam put his arm around Cas’s shoulders. Cas glanced sideways at Sam, but he was staring at the movie. Cas waited for Sam to tap Dean, trying to get his attention, or do whatever it was he’d needed to do that had made him reach around Cas. He didn’t do anything though. And he kept his arm around Cas, a warm and comforting weight. As Cas relaxed into it, Sam even tugged Cas toward him a little and squished him against his side, like a mirror of how Cas held Lola close to him in his lap. Cas was struck with the strange thought that maybe Lola was right. Maybe he wasn’t in the way.

Relaxed against Sam, the warm lines of their bodies pressed together, Cas started to watch and enjoy the movie more. He even laughed a little at the one character who kept mis-using the word ‘inconceivable.’ While he was laughing, he looked over and saw Dean grinning at him in turn.


 

Castiel rushed to his room when he, Sam, and Dean returned from the first hunt Cas had been allowed on after Dean pronounced him “recovered enough.” He was breathing hard, his vessel having trouble regulating itself, just like it had on the day he’d found Lola. He shut the door behind himself quickly, feeling shame and guilt that he hadn’t joined Dean in helping Sam down the stairs.

Sam.

Sam had been hurt by the ghoul they were hunting. Tossed into a ditch and twisted his ankle. Dean and Cas had been able to defeat the ghoul alone but then. But then…

Cas hadn’t been able to heal Sam. His grace had sputtered and he’d nearly collapsed when he tried, drained from locating the monster and then smiting it to keep it from hurting Dean. Cas reeled, his breathing stuttering again as he remembered the look of disappointment on Dean’s face when Sam’s ankle had remained firmly and stubbornly swollen.

Cas sat on his bed, and placed his hands palms-down beside himself, trying to calm down. The ride back to the bunker had been tense and quiet, and Cas hadn’t been able to look either Winchester in the eye. He’d rushed to his room as soon as they returned, hoping he’d be able to at least pack his things before they told him to leave. But now that he was here, he couldn’t bring himself to move from the bed. He was…comfortable here. Lola was here. And he’d made a good home for her here.

As if on cue, Lola jumped up onto the bed next to him. Cas jumped a little. He’d been so lost in thought he hadn’t even noticed that she was in the room. She rubbed up against him, and projected very clearly and strongly Calm down.

Cas tried, but she could tell he was still tense. She flopped over onto her side next to him, her yellow eyes pointedly turned toward him in a way that told him she thought he was being an idiot. She was certain Very Tall One and Loud One wanted him here. She thought it was silly he couldn’t see that.

Cas started to get his breath back, and his hands stopped shaking. Maybe she was right. She’d been right about movie night. He glanced down at her.

With a look that on a human would have been rolled eyes, Lola rolled over and showed him her belly, paws curled up under her chin. Of course I’m right she thought toward him, clear as a bell.

Cas sighed. Convinced she was right, and she wanted belly rubs. He softly stroked her fluffy tummy, listening intently for when she’d had enough. It took him by surprise when she batted at his hand with her paw, and agilely rolled back onto her side with a look of indignation.

“But you wanted belly rubs,” he said sternly. Her unimpressed look told him she’d changed her mind.

Cas was going to get up, maybe start packing just in case, but Lola wasn’t having it. She nudged him to lie down, assuring him that a nap always fixed things. Cas wasn’t sure that was entirely true, but he went along with it this time. He didn’t sleep, couldn’t, really, but he drifted, content and finally calm with the warm and fuzzy weight of Lola curled up against his chest. No one bothered them and no one barged in to tell him to get out. And when Cas emerged from his room a few hours later to find Sam sitting in the library with his ankle propped up on a pillow, the first thing both he and Dean did was ask if Cas was ok.


 

Something shifted. Maybe it was just within Cas himself, but it was like Lola had helped him lift a veil. The Winchesters didn’t seem angry he hadn’t healed Sam. They were concerned about Cas and for the first time Cas entertained the idea that maybe they didn’t just care about what he could do, but also if he was ok for his own sake. They didn’t seem irritated about laying off hunting for a while. They all puttered around the bunker, watching movies, making food, and calling Kevin occasionally for updates. Dean told Cas several times, on no uncertain terms, that he needed to “lay off the mojo,” for a few days. Cas was happy to oblige, because agreeing made Dean smile and wrap his arm around Cas’s shoulder, and squeeze him in close for a hug. Like what Sam had done on movie night, but sadly a much shorter encounter.

Cas tried to talk to Lola about what he wanted. He figured it was harmless to let her know that he liked being closer to Sam and Dean, because they couldn’t communicate with her. It was night, Dean and Sam were both asleep in their beds, and Cas lay on his stomach on his own bed, watching Lola clean her front paws and face before she went to sleep herself.

After Cas explained about how much he enjoyed being close on the couch when they watched movies, and how he wished he could have more of that with Sam and Dean, Lola gave him one of her most unimpressed looks. She sent him a very strong feeling then, a completely baffled cat-thought of Why don’t you just do what you want? That’s what I do. Cas had to agree with that. Lola didn’t seem hesitant about doing anything she’d set her mind to. Cas had barely started trying to explain to her how nervous he was he might be rejected, before she cut him off with a soft meow that felt like a scoff.

Lola jumped down from Cas’s bed, tail held high in the air, and trotted out into the hall. She meowed at him to follow, and Cas was glad he listened to her when he saw her nudge Dean’s unlatched door open and slip into his room.

That was not good. Dean tolerated Lola, but he wasn’t friendly to her like Sam was. Probably left-over cat aversion from when he’d been allergic.

Cas padded across the hall and entered Dean’s room. It was dark, and Dean was snoring softly on his bed in the center of the room.

“Lola,” Cas called softly, using her nickname and calling out loud because he couldn’t see her to send his thoughts. “This isn’t funny. You shouldn’t be in here.”

Cas thought he was being quiet, but Dean was unfortunately a very light sleeper. He snorted awake at the sound of Cas’s voice. Cas felt movement in the darkness as Dean sat up.

“Cas?” he called softly. A soft click and a flood of light followed as Dean turned on his bedside lamp. “What are you doing in here man?”

“My apologies,” Cas mumbled, trying to scan the room for Lola now that the light was on. He couldn’t see her. Perhaps she was under the bed. “Lola decided to go for a late night stroll, and I thought you wouldn’t want her in your room.”

Dean was quiet for a moment. “I don’t mind,” he said. “What do you do at night anyway, man?”

Cas thought for a moment, then decided to echo a very old conversation of theirs. “Mostly I just sit quietly.”

Dean was quiet again, and Cas almost decided that was his cue to leave when Dean finally said, “Come here dude.”

Cas obligingly moved closer to the bed. Dean moved over and threw back is covers. “If you’re not really doing anything, might as well do nothing here,” he said gruffly.

Cas stared at the obvious but unexpected invitation. He lay down on the bed next to Dean, feeling odd when Dean pulled the blanket back over him. He was fully clothed, which he understood wasn’t standard procedure for this sort of thing.

“There,” Dean said with finality. “Now you can lie here quietly, and I’ll know you’re ok.”

Cas felt something warm and comforting well up in his chest, behind his ribcage, and he smiled when Dean turned out the light.


 

The next night, Dean guided Cas to his room when he went to bed. Cas stood confused while Dean got ready for bed, but went willingly when Dean maneuvered him to lie down under the covers again. Cas lay stiffly on his back as Dean curled up next to him and threw an arm around his stomach.

“Dean,” Cas began, speaking slowly, “are you…this is ok?”

Dean shifted next to him, and tightened his hold around Cas. “You don’t sleep, right? But you have a better night this way?”

Cas swallowed back a well of emotions he wasn’t ready to examine at the accuracy of Dean’s words.

“I don’t want to be a bother,” he settled on saying.

“Opposite of a bother, Cas,” Dean said firmly. Cas relaxed into the bed, and Dean was asleep in minutes.


 

It became a routine. Dean curled up to Cas every night, and held him close, mingling their body heat. Cas hadn’t watched Dean sleep too much before (he’d tried to be respectful of Dean’s opinion that it was “creepy”) but he seemed to sleep much better with Cas in the bed. Cas turned this fact over and over in his mind and consulted with Lola about it. She seemed annoyed he couldn’t tell that it was because Dean cared about him, and finally just spelled out that fact for him. Cas wasn’t sure what to do with this new information. He felt lighter, more whole, now that he knew he’d been wrong about Sam and Dean only caring about having his “angel mojo” around. His grace was still weakened, and Dean was happy to curl up next to him in bed, arms around Cas and face nuzzled in the crook of his neck so soft puffs of his breath fell on Cas’s chest as he slept.

About five days into this arrangement, Cas and Dean were already lying down together when the door opened unexpectedly. Dean was nearly asleep, but he lifted his head off of Cas’s chest to look at the tall silhouette framed in the doorway by the light from the hall.

“Are you alright Sam?” Cas asked. Sam’s ankle was mostly healed. He was barely even limping anymore. Cas couldn’t think of any other possible problem.

“Lola’s acting weird, Cas,” Sam said, rubbing at his eyes. “She won’t leave me alone, won’t shut up. I didn’t even know what her meow sounded like, and now I never want to hear it again. Then when I tried to chase her out of my room she basically herded me in here.”

On cue, Lola leapt lightly onto the bed and padded up onto Cas’s chest. She turned around three times and then curled up there, and stared up toward Sam expectedly.

Cas smiled. “She thinks you’re being left out, Sam,” Cas explained. Lola purred as he relayed her message. “Would you like to join us?” Cas cocked his head to indicate the free side of the bed next to him, trying not to dislodge either Lola or Dean from on top of him.

Sam smiled softly. “Well, if Lola insists,” he said.

Sam lay down on the bed on the other side of Cas, mirroring Dean. He put his arm around Cas too, and snuggled his head under Cas’s chin, just like Dean had. His feet were sticking out from under the blankets and hanging off the bed, but he didn’t seem to mind.

“Night Cas. Night Dean. Night Lola,” he said softly and sleepily. Dean was already snoring again on Cas’s other side.

Cas drifted, nearly touching the thing humans called sleep. He felt safe in the middle of the bed with Sam and Dean cuddled up to him on either side. Lola was still curled up on his chest, vibrating with a soft purr. Maybe this was what they meant, humans, when they spoke of family.