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Live and Let Die

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Sam stood in the doorway of his brother's room, gazing sadly at Dean passed out on the bed. An empty liquor bottle sat on the nightstand. It wasn't the first of tonight's binge, just the one to top it off. Sam knew Dean was at his wits' end. The reason being the comatose angel lying in the room across the hall.

Amara and Lucifer were gone. The Darkness had gotten cocky or whatever, and decided to eat Lucifer's grace. Sam would never forget the archangel's terrified face as Amara cupped his head and leaned in, mouth stretching wide. Lucifer had bucked and choked, but he was powerless against her. Sam had figured their time was up, too, but then Amara had doubled over, clutching her chest. The Darkness wasn't meant to consume so much light, especially that of the Morningstar. And she'd exploded.

That'd been two weeks ago, and there hadn't been any sign that she might have survived. Sam was still holding his breath, just in case, but it seemed the two most evil beings in the world had actually destroyed each other without much fuss.

Then there was Cas. They knew Amara hadn't devoured him along with Lucifer, because there was a split moment after she'd consumed the archangel where Cas was left gasping, eyes wide in shock, before he went into a seizure and collapsed. But despite surviving everything, the angel hadn't woken up since.

Sam cast one last worried look at his brother, and then turned toward Cas's room. He'd been waiting for Dean to drink himself into oblivion before trying this. It wasn't that he wanted to keep his plan a secret from Dean; he just didn't want to give him false hope, because there was a good chance it wouldn't even work. Also, it was kinda risky entering the mind of someone in a coma. Sam had found a spell to tweak the African dream root potion in order to make it doable, but it wasn't a tried and true method.

Still, Sam was willing to try anything other than watch his brother slowly fall apart.

He entered Cas's room and shut the door, then moved to sit in the chair next to the bed where Dean spent most of his time when awake. Cas was completely still, chest barely rising and falling with shallow breaths. His pallor was pale, save for the dark circles under his eyes. He looked as bad as when he'd been under Rowena's curse. Worse, actually, because if not for the slight breathing, Cas looked…dead.

Sam took a deep breath, and downed the potion. Then he leaned back in the chair and waited for it to take effect.

He had no idea what he would find inside Cas's head, but the bunker's kitchen was the last thing he expected. For a moment, Sam wondered if he'd done something wrong, if the potion hadn't worked and he'd gone to make a new batch…even though he didn't remember getting up and walking down the hall.

But faint noises came from behind him, and Sam turned away from the pantry to find Cas sitting at the kitchen island, watching TV. Sam blinked in bewilderment, glancing around again for any sign that this was in fact Cas's head, and not his own.

"Uh, Cas?"

Cas looked up briefly from the television. "Oh. Hello, Sam."

Sam's brows rose as Cas went back to watching TV. "Cas, are you okay?"

"Fine." The angel reached over to adjust the antenna.

Sam stared. This was not at all what he'd anticipated… "Okay, well, it's just that you've been in a coma for a couple of weeks, and Dean and I are worried. Why aren't you waking up?"

Cas glanced over again, quirking a brow. "Why would I wake up?"

Sam sputtered. "Because Amara and Lucifer are gone. We won, Cas. We—you—saved the world."

A small smile crept onto Cas's face. "That's good. I thought as much, when I felt Amara rip Lucifer out, but I wasn't sure. Thank you for telling me." His gaze returned to the television.

Sam gaped at him. What the hell? He stormed over and roughly took Cas by the shoulder. "Cas, what's wrong with you? What did Lucifer do?"

"Nothing. You don't need to worry, Sam. The Darkness and Lucifer have been defeated. Everything's fine."

"Everything is not fine, Cas. Your vessel—" Sam bit his tongue. Dean had been right; Cas's body wasn't a vessel anymore, it was him. Had been him for years, probably ever since Jimmy Novak's soul left. "You are losing weight. Your body's deteriorating like…like you're human."

That had been a fear, too, that maybe when Amara consumed Lucifer, she'd taken part of Cas's grace with the archangel's. They just had no way of knowing if Cas didn't wake up and tell them.

Cas canted his head thoughtfully. "Well, that's not surprising. I'm not fully human, but I'm not fully an angel anymore. That's how Lucifer was able to possess me to begin with."

Sam's stomach tightened. "Okay, so what can Dean and I do to help?"

Cas waved a hand dismissively, and reached to fiddle with the television set again. "You don't need to do anything." He paused, brow furrowing as he angled his head up at Sam. "This has been taxing for you and Dean, hasn't it? I'm sorry. Maybe I can speed up the process. I'm frankly surprised it's taken this long for the body to expire."

Sam's heart jolted with terror. "Cas, I didn't come here to ask you to die quicker! I came to find out how to help you wake up!"

"I don't need to wake up," Cas replied blithely.

Sam's pulse throbbed wildly in his throat. What the hell was going on? Had Lucifer brainwashed Cas? Sam of all people knew how well the Devil could play mind games, but this…this lackadaisical Cas was downright frightening.

"Cas," he pressed. "You accomplished what you set out to do—Amara was defeated, and Lucifer isn't a threat anymore."

Again, Cas gave a small smile. "And now I'm waiting for the last piece. I knew when I said yes to Lucifer it would likely end in my death."

"But you don't have to die!" Sam shook his head in mounting frustration. Something was definitely wrong with Cas, but Sam had no idea what. Or how to fix it. He didn't know whether to be glad he hadn't included Dean on this plan, because seeing Cas like this would probably devastate him, but at the same time, Sam wished his brother were here to get through to Cas.

Sam glanced around the kitchen again, grasping for anything to help him. "Why does your mind look like the bunker?" he asked.

"Hm?" Cas hummed distractedly, focused on the television. "It's peaceful here. A sanctuary, almost."

"But…why the kitchen? Why not the library, or even your room?"

Cas glanced up, forehead creased in confusion. "My room? Oh, the place you and Dean let me sleep when I was recovering. I didn't want to impose, even if all this is just in my head." He let out a small chuckle that sent chills down Sam's spine. "I can stay out of everyone's way in here," Cas continued. "Plus, it gets good reception."

Sam swallowed hard. What was he supposed to do? Just…leave? Go back and tell Dean that Cas didn't want to be saved—again? But…it was different this time. When Cas had chosen to say yes to Lucifer, even if it meant dying in the big battle, Sam had wanted to respect the angel's decision. He didn't want Cas's sacrifice to be meaningless by convincing him to eject Lucifer before the Darkness was defeated. Not like what Sam went through with the Trials. He'd been ready to die if it meant closing the gates of Hell. But then Dean had talked him out of it, and why had Sam listened? If he hadn't, if he'd just gone through with it…

Because Sam had almost died anyway. And he'd still been ready. But Dean couldn't accept that. And Sam swore he would never dishonor anyone by forcing life on them if they didn't want it, especially if the greater good was at stake.

But now that he was standing here in front of Cas, who was ready and willing to die…Sam found himself unable to just walk away and leave his friend here. And he was beginning to understand what his brother had been thinking and feeling when Dean had faced this with Sam. Cas didn't have to die. The greater good had been accomplished, and Cas could live. So, didn't that make turning down life the true act of dishonor here?

Sam's throat constricted. "What about me and Dean? If you die like this, it's gonna tear us apart."

"You'll get over it," Cas replied nonchalantly. "It's not like I haven't died before." He let out a heavy sigh. "I just hope this one sticks."

Sam felt as though he was gonna be sick. Was this what Dean felt when Sam said to let him go? This clawing fear and horror at watching someone he cared about just give up? Without regard for those left behind? Sam knew Dean would be devastated if he died, that it'd be hard for his brother to adjust. But Dean had done it before, after Sam had jumped into the Pit. And…Sam had started building a life with Amelia after he thought Dean had died.

If he was honest with himself, though, there had been nothing easy about it. He'd woken every morning feeling as though part of his soul had been gouged out. And time didn't make the pain and grief go away. Sam could bury it behind a 'normal' job, behind a relationship with Amelia, even pretend to grieve properly when she talked about her deceased husband and he talked about his deceased brother. But in that year, had Sam 'gotten over' Dean's death?

No. And finding out Dean was alive had been a resurrection for him, too. Then when Metatron had killed Dean, Sam had been determined to bring him back. Dean had sacrificed himself by taking on the Mark, and told Sam to let him go. Their roles had been reversed, and Sam hadn't respected his brother's wishes. He'd justified it because Dean was a demon and obviously wasn't thinking straight. It was a completely different situation.

Sam glanced at Cas, who was fixated on the TV with unnatural intensity, flickering light from the screen reflecting in glazed over eyes. Sam had seen him like this before, after Rowena's spell…

"Cas?" He cleared his throat. "Why did you say yes to Lucifer?"

Cas didn't even look away from the monitor. "We needed him to defeat the Darkness."

"Yeah, but why you? We could have let him out of the Cage another way."

"I was the best option," Cas replied, and held up a hand to tick off the reasons. "I wanted to be of service, and had nothing left to offer anyway. I'm expendable. And that way Lucifer wouldn't be after you as a vessel; you'd be safe and Dean wouldn't be worried."

A spiky lump settled in Sam's throat. Oh, he'd been such an idiot. Cas hadn't said yes out of some misguided, noble effort. He hadn't weighed the value of the world and decided it was worth it to make the sacrifice. No, he'd thrown himself at the first grenade he found out of desperation and feelings of worthlessness.

Sam had been right; Cas didn't want to be saved. But for very different reasons. And Sam realized he couldn't sit back and watch this happen.

But how was he gonna convince Cas to change his mind? Plus, something else was going on here. Cas wasn't acting like himself, and Sam needed to figure out why.

"Um, mind if I sit and watch with you a bit?" he asked, feeling awkward just standing in the kitchen.

"Sure," Cas replied. "But you shouldn't stay too long. I'm not sure what will happen if you're here when I start to go. And I hear the final decline can happen quickly."

Sam's stomach churned, and he gritted his teeth against a surge of bile. Instead of responding, he dragged a stool over and sat down next to Cas. Sam didn't pay attention to the television program, however; instead, he was trying to wrack his brain for a solution to this problem.

He found his gaze roving around Cas's mental construct of the bunker's kitchen. A shadow fluttered in the corner, and Sam instinctively tensed. But as he squinted at the counter, he noticed the shadows were small, almost like oval wisps of smoke.

He sucked in a sharp gasp. No, they were feathers. The harder he stared, the more the air wobbled as though a mirage was fading, and Sam started noticing piles of feathers strewn around the kitchen. Not only that, but there were cracks in the walls. Small ones, and Sam wouldn't have been able to tell if they were authentic from the actual bunker if it weren't for the fact that they ran in congruent lines down the counters and across the floor. This mental construct in Cas's mind had hundreds of micro fractures running through it.

"Hey, Cas," he said, swallowing around a dry mouth. The angel didn't even look away from his program. Sam fought to keep his voice steady. "What was it like, when Lucifer was possessing you?"

"Why do you ask?" Cas replied, eyes trained on the screen.

"Because I've been there, remember? It…can be intense."

Cas hummed in apparent agreement. "It was uncomfortable at first. An archangel's power is tremendous. I remember being shoved down into a deep, dark recess, unable to see or hear what was happening." Cas cocked his head. "Until I felt your pain when Lucifer attacked you. I managed to fight my way up to regain some control then."

Sam unconsciously lifted a hand to his chest, almost feeling the phantom pain of having a fist shoved into his soul. He remembered the disbelief—and sense of betrayal—when he'd found out Cas had willingly released Lucifer. Was Sam's insistence that Cas ride it out some kind of passive punishment in return for letting the Devil loose on the world, after Sam had fought so hard to keep Lucifer in his Cage?

He didn't want that to be true, but there was an ugly twisting in his gut that whispered maybe a small part of him had thought, 'Screw you, Cas. You made your bed and now you have to lie in it.' The idea made Sam sick.

"Thank you for that," he said in a low voice, hoping his shame didn't bleed through.

Cas seemed oblivious to Sam's emotions and gratitude as he simply continued, "I thought Lucifer would punish me after that." Cas shook his head with a small smile. "But instead of causing pain, he took it all away."

Sam straightened. "What do you mean he took it all away?" Was this when the brainwashing happened? Some kind of Stockholm Syndrome because Lucifer needed to ensure Cas wouldn't pull another coup on him?

"Lucifer took all the things that made me weak, that made me more human than angel," Cas explained. "Messy emotions, you know. He locked them up somewhere so they couldn't hurt me anymore, which meant I was stronger to help Lucifer in the fight."

Sam's jaw tightened. That definitely sounded like some kind of brainwashing, and must be the reason Cas was behaving like this blasé, stoned out persona. Lucifer had locked up the angel's emotions—but what did that mean, and how did Sam reverse it? Because he'd never be able to convince Cas to fight to live if he couldn't get his friend thinking straight again.

So how would it work? Sam gazed around the kitchen. If Cas's mind found refuge in the bunker, then there must be more to the construct than just this one room. Sam stood in a rush.

"Cas, how about we go for a walk?"

"No thanks."

Sam clenched his fists, fighting the urge to throw the stupid TV against the wall. But he wasn't sure if that would shatter the growing chinks branching out like crackled glass across Cas's mind.

"Cas—" Sam forced down an exasperated tone. "I'm not gonna be able to stay much longer. Please? I'd rather…rather spend the time with you, not the TV."

Cas glanced up, brow creased in thought. His shoulders finally sagged. "Alright, I guess a short one would be fine."

Sam watched as Cas reluctantly pried himself away from the television monitor and started shuffling toward the hallway. The air bent in Castiel's wake, shedding another feather to land on the floor and crumble into ash.

Sam's pulse ratcheted up, and he hurried to get away from the kitchen. He followed Cas into the library, and watched the angel's gaze drift fondly over the bookshelves and study tables.

Sam didn't know what to make of the fact that Cas felt at home in the bunker, and yet didn't actually consider it his home. Cas had said he thought he was imposing? That his room was just where Sam and Dean 'let him sleep'? Guess that went with not thinking the Winchesters would care if he died, or thinking he was 'expendable' in the first place, and what the hell was up with that? Was that also some twisted lie Lucifer had brainwashed him with? But, if Cas believed that before he'd said yes, then it couldn't have come from Lucifer. So where had it come from?

Cas had said the emotions Lucifer took from him had been painful. What had Cas been going through that Sam and Dean hadn't noticed? Hadn't bothered to notice.

"Cas," Sam started. "When did you start thinking you were expendable?"

Cas lifted a hand to run his finger along the spines of some ancient tomes. "I only recently figured it out, just before Lucifer. But I was broken—used up—long before that."

Sam's heart twisted at the casual way Cas said it, like there was nothing wrong with thinking of himself as worthless and expendable. "Rowena's spell?" Sam hazarded.

"That certainly made things worse," Cas admitted. "But even before that." He turned to give Sam a contemplative look. "You know, I was never made right. I was a terrible angel, and screwed up everything, no matter my good intentions. Actually, when you think about it, it's a miracle my role with Lucifer didn't jinx the whole thing."

Cas shrugged then. "You and Dean are better off without me."

Sam surged forward. "Cas, that is not true. You're family!"

Cas smiled, and patted him on the shoulder. "That's nice of you to say, Sam."

Sam could only stand there, fumbling for words as Cas went back to perusing the bookshelves. Was all this really how Cas felt? Was it the reason he'd said yes to Lucifer? To get away from…all of it?

And Sam had blindly said, 'Cas chose this. Let's respect his wishes.' Cas hadn't chosen it, not really. He'd been drowning right in front of them, and the Winchesters hadn't realized it. Hadn't done anything to help him. Sam couldn't let him go, not like this.

He whirled and started frantically scanning the room in search of a clue, anything to suggest how Lucifer might have locked away Cas's emotions. The Devil liked games, even poetic imagery, so Sam just had to think like Lucifer. Which, given that Sam had also been in the archangel's head at one time, shouldn't be impossible.

"Oops," Cas said, drawing Sam's attention just as a book disintegrated in the angel's hands and rained dust down at his feet. Cas pursed his mouth. "Hm, you should probably go now, Sam."

No, he needed more time! They were in Cas's head, which meant there had to be a way to access everything Lucifer had disconnected and locked away. So where would Lucifer put it, knowing Cas would never go?

Sam considered the dormitory wing, but no, Cas had spent a lot of time watching Netflix in there back in the real world; it was just as good as the kitchen, even if he was trying to 'stay out of the way'. The dungeon? Cas had no reason not to wander in there, though.

Come on, think. Was there any place in the bunker Cas would never go? Sam couldn't think of any… Wait, maybe that was it. He spun sharply and sprinted out through the war room and up the stairs toward the front door.

"Sam, where are you going?" Cas's voice called out behind him. "That's not the way out for you."

Sam came to a stop in front of the heavy iron slab, which was barred with several chains and Enochian scratches in the metal. Of course. Cas was waiting in his sanctuary to die; he'd never leave the comforting safety of the bunker.

Sam tugged at one of the chains. There was no lock that he could see, not that he had a key for it anyway. He moved down the catwalk to get the axe from next to the fire extinguisher.

"Sam, you shouldn't do that."

Sam ignored Cas, and swung with all his might at the chains. Sparks flew as metal clashed. He attacked both the chain links and the door itself, gouging through the sigils carved into the seal.

"Sam!" Cas shouted from the bottom of the stairs.

He paused long enough to glance over his shoulder at the angel, who seemed too nervous to climb the steps himself.

"Please don't," Cas said.

"Cas, you have to face these things; you have to be whole again. Don't you get that you're dying?"

Cas just gave him a resigned look. "That was always the most likely possibility."

"But it doesn't have to be that way!" Sam nearly yelled. "Dammit, Cas, you can come back from this!"

"I don't want to."

Sam recoiled as though the words had been a physical blow. He'd said the same thing to Dean once. And his brother had ignored him, tricked him into becoming an angel condom.

But for all of Sam's talk about letting Cas go, of respecting the angel's wishes the way Dean never did…it was a whole other matter to stand in front of his friend and hear it to his face.

Sam turned back toward the locked door and swung the axe again. Metal collided with a resounding clang. "I'm sorry, Cas, but I can't let you die." He hacked at the door, finally breaking one of the chains.

"Why are you doing this?" Cas asked, a hint of strained emotion finally leaking into his voice.

Sam's heart clenched, and he let the axe thud on the floor as he looked back to meet Cas's gaze. "Because you deserve to be saved. Because Dean and I care enough about you to dive into this black hole and bring you back."

Sam smiled sadly. He'd been so angry with Dean for doing that to him, but he now realized he was also grateful to have a brother willing to go to the ends of the earth for him, to defy death for him. Cas thought the Winchesters would just 'get over' him dying; he didn't believe Sam and Dean would fight tooth and nail for him.

It'd been true, too, to Sam's utter shame. He hadn't fought for Cas like Dean had. In fact, if Dean had been the one to say yes, Sam would've stopped at nothing to get him back. How could he not have done the same for Cas? How could he have let it get this far? He called Cas family, but didn't treat him that way. And it was something Sam needed to rectify.

So he turned his back on Cas's pleading expression, and heaved the axe up in one mighty swing. Steel cracked, and the chains broke apart. The sigils glowed red before fizzling out. Taking a deep breath, Sam gripped the door handle and wrenched it open.

Chapter Text

 

An array of pulsing auras spilled out through the door, and a split second later, all of it came crashing down in a deluge on Castiel. He dropped to his knees, gasping for breath as emotion after emotion coursed through him, filling in the spaces left vacant and hollow when Lucifer had systematically detached them. They had been overwhelming before—fear, regret, helplessness, despair—but now it was too much, too overpowering.

"Cas. Cas!"

Hands gripped his arms and braced him as his body shuddered under the violent assault. Castiel clapped the sides of his head, afraid he would explode from the pressure.

But as the pieces gradually settled back into their proper places, the torrential flood eased, leaving the dull throb of everything Castiel carried constricting his chest like a vice.

"Cas? Talk to me!"

He pried his eyelids open and blinked to find Sam's worried face inches from his own. They were both on the floor at the bottom of the stairs leading out of the bunker, Sam holding him up as his body tried to list sideways.

"Oh god," the Winchester choked. "I'm sorry, Cas. I thought I was helping. Are you okay?" He kept glancing around worriedly, and Castiel remembered they were in his mind, not the real bunker. Though, he suspected that was where his body was being kept.

"I'm fine," Castiel managed to get out. He slowly lowered his arms to brace his palms on the concrete. Sam didn't let go of him, though, for which he was grateful because he was still feeling rather woozy.

"Are you…" Sam hesitated. "You know, you again?"

"Whole, yes." A hard lump lodged in his throat. He vaguely remembered his actions while under Lucifer's spell, of doing nothing but sitting in front of that TV. It sickened him to have been so docile. Yet, at the same time, part of him missed the way it had been painless.

Castiel gave himself a sharp mental shake in disgust. What if Lucifer had attacked the Winchesters again and Castiel would have been unable—unwilling—to help them? Wait, hadn't Crowley… Images of the demon getting the crap beat out of him by Lucifer flitted through Castiel's memory. And he'd just sat there and let it happen.

"Shit," Sam muttered. "You're shaking. Can you wake up now? Or, what do I need to do to help you heal?"

Castiel blinked owlishly at him. "What?"

A muscle in the Winchester's jaw ticked. "You're dying, remember?" His gaze flicked around guardedly again.

Castiel craned his neck back to look up at the ceiling as some dust trickled loose. Oh, yes, he was dying. A combination of how hard the grace of an archangel had ridden him, and the trauma from when Amara had violently ripped Lucifer out.

"I remember," he said, then frowned at Sam. "What are you doing here? It's dangerous to enter a mind in this state."

Sam's expression hardened. "Yeah, but I had no other way to find out what was wrong and how to help you. So…now that you're not under Lucifer's spell anymore, can you heal?"

Castiel didn't immediately answer, and it took a moment for him to realize why—he didn't want to heal. He supposed he could, but it would take time and energy, and he just couldn't seem to muster the strength to even consider it. He'd been fighting for so long…

Sam's eyes narrowed. "Cas? Your grace can heal you, right?"

Castiel hesitated. "Perhaps…"

Sam's hold on his arms tightened painfully. "Then tell me what Dean and I need to do to help. A spell, potion, something?"

Castiel felt his shoulders sagging. "You don't need to do anything. Just…just let things run their course." He winced as Sam's fingernails dug into his biceps.

"What…no!" Sam gave him a rough shake. "Cas, you can fight this!"

"I don't want to," he gritted out.

Sam's face slackened in horror and he reeled back, finally releasing his grip. Castiel slumped against the banister, still unable to fully hold himself up. He slid his gaze away from the pain on the Winchester's face.

"Please, Sam," he found himself begging. "I'm…I'm tired. Please don't ask for more. I have nothing left to give you and Dean."

Silence throbbed between them like a palpable, raw wound. Castiel briefly considered just pushing Sam out of his mind and back to the waking world, but the truth was he didn't have the strength for even that.

Strong arms wrapped around him suddenly, pulling him into a crushing embrace. Castiel stiffened, but Sam didn't say anything, and after a moment, Castiel was frankly just too exhausted to resist. He sagged, soaking in the waves of care and concern wafting off the younger Winchester. Castiel knew he should be wary of Sam using it to convince him to come back, but there was a freedom in knowing it probably wouldn't work this time. And…it was selfish, but part of him didn't want to die alone.

So when Sam finally pulled back, Castiel felt the loss like the void where pieces of his wings were falling apart. But it was for the best, he knew that.

However, Sam grabbed his arms and helped shift Castiel so they were both sitting on the concrete with their backs braced against the side of the banister. A few more minutes of silence ticked by, in which Castiel was growing uncomfortable. He had expected more yelling, more manipulation. Not…simple companionship.

"Dean and I have never thanked you for everything you've done for us, have we?" Sam finally spoke up.

Castiel blinked. What?

Sam angled a rueful look his way. "For rebelling against Heaven to help us, for stopping Raphael from kicking off Apocalypse 2.0, taking my Cage scars—"

Castiel looked away. "I gave those to you in the first place."

Sam let out a heavy sigh. "No, you didn't, Cas. I got those when I chose to jump into the Pit with Lucifer. Which you got me out of. Another thing I never properly thanked you for. And who's to say the wall wouldn't have come down eventually?"

Castiel clenched his jaw. "That does not excuse my actions. Nor my gross oversight in not retrieving your soul to begin with, thereby sparing you those extra years of torture."

"Do you think I haven't forgiven you for that? For all of it?"

Castiel considered it for a moment. "No, I know you have. You're a remarkable human being, Sam, with a great capacity for love and forgiveness, despite everything you've been through."

Sam was quiet, and Castiel wondered if he'd made the Winchester uncomfortable.

"Then you helped us gank Dick," Sam continued, as though the conversation hadn't detoured. "Helped us out on hunts after you got back from Purgatory."

Castiel almost interrupted to say that he was actually spying on the Winchesters for Naomi at the time, which equalled not helping, but Sam was still talking.

"It was your plan that finally brought down Metatron. You worked yourself into the ground trying to help me find Dean when he was a demon, and then you helped us find a cure for the Mark."

"In each of those instances," Castiel began, voice strained, "I made things worse."

Sam shook his head. "None of us knew what the consequences would be, for any of it. You were trying to do the right thing, the best way you knew how. And just because it didn't work out the way we hoped doesn't mean we never should have shown our appreciation for what you sacrificed all those times." Sam paused, and when he spoke again, his voice was much lower. "We never should have treated you as just a resource or weapon."

Castiel's gaze dropped to his lap where lax hands rested. Hands that had fought for good and yet wrought so much destruction. Hands he had stolen from Jimmy Novak, and later somehow absorbed into his own being. His hands.

"I was made to be a soldier," he said quietly.

"Dean and I were made to be vessels," Sam replied. "We ripped out that ending a long time ago. So did you." He glanced over. "We wrote something new, the three of us. And…Dean and I dropped the ball with you."

Castiel frowned, and Sam just gazed at him with sadness and regret.

"Do you really not believe that you're family to us?"

Castiel tensed. "What makes you say that?"

Sam nodded knowingly, as though he could see past Castiel's carefully guarded exterior. "You said Dean and I would get over you dying, that you were expendable and that's why you were the best person to say yes to Lucifer."

Castiel fidgeted. "I…wasn't myself."

"But it's how you really felt. Feel." Sam's throat bobbed. "Dean and I haven't done the best job showing you otherwise, have we?"

Castiel quickly shook his head in protest. He did not want Sam to feel guilty about any of this. Castiel had made poor decisions, and he was reaping the consequences. The fact that the Winchesters gave him numerous second chances at all was more than he deserved.

"I…know you and Dean care about me," he started. "In the only way you can."

Sam shot his hand up. "Wait, what does that mean? The only way we can?"

Castiel rolled his shoulder. He did not want to get into this.

Sam shifted to face him. "Cas, talk to me, please."

His throat constricted, trying to cut off the words suddenly rising up in an effort to pour out. "I…will never be what you and Dean are to each other. Which is fine, I accept that. Your friendship is more than I could ask for. You're…more family to me than my angelic brethren. At least you and Dean give me a chance to redeem myself after each mistake."

Sam leaned back, closing his eyes in apparent grief.

"Please don't feel bad, Sam. I'm grateful for what I have, really. And I'm touched that you came here. I…I've never gotten a chance to say goodbye before." He just regretted that Dean wasn't here as well. But at least Sam would be able to convey a final message.

When Sam opened his eyes, they were glistening. "I don't know how to fix this," he whispered.

Castiel frowned. "There's nothing to fix, Sam."

The Winchester let out a bitter snort. "Yeah, there is. So much." He ran a hand down his face and slumped back against the banister. The movement knocked loose a few granules of dust that sprinkled down onto his shoulder.

Castiel felt a pang of regret. "You should leave soon. I don't want you to get hurt."

"No," Sam said with staunch firmness, looking up to meet Castiel's gaze with steely determination. "I am not leaving you to die."

Castiel couldn't hold back a sigh. "Why can't you just let me go?"

"Because you're family, and that's not what we do."

"Sam, I can't—"

Sam surged upright to yank him into another embrace. "You're right, I thought I could get over your death," he rushed out. "I thought I could respect your wishes after I learned you'd said yes to Lucifer. But I can't do it, Cas. You do mean as much to me as Dean does, and I will not stand by and let you drown like this. I've already let it go on too long. I'm sorry. God, I am so sorry."

Sam was shaking now, jarring Castiel's weakened body. The angel reached his arms up to hug back. He wished he had the grace to take Sam's pain away, ease some of the guilt. It wasn't the young Winchester's fault, none of it was.

"Dean's falling apart," Sam said. "Watching you die is killing him, too."

Castiel's shoulders slumped wearily. Here it was, the emotional manipulation to convince him to come back. Because he would always come back to help the Winchesters.

"Sam…"

Sam pulled back and gripped the sides of Castiel's head to lock gazes. "You think it's penance, right? Or that we need you to come back so you can be useful? It's not, Cas. You're not in the way in the bunker; you being there helps make it home! For us and you. You don't have to do anything to earn it."

"It doesn't matter," Castiel bit out.

Sam stared at him helplessly, letting go and leaning back. "Why not?"

"Because it's too hard!" Castiel reached up to pinch the bridge of his nose. "These feelings…Sam, it's too much. Ever since my time as human, everything has been amplified. You say I've been forgiven for my mistakes, but the memory of them still hurts. The memory of lots of things hurt." A brief glimpse of Dean's fists raining down on him flashed through his mind, quickly followed by Castiel doing the same to him, vision coated in a red haze.

"I'm…I'm broken. What kind of angel am I like this?" He let out a derisive snort. "Not one, that's what. Lucifer was able to possess me, Amara barely gave me a second glance because I was all used up and no threat to her, and even Metatron could see…" He choked off.

Sam rocked back on his heels. Then he shook his head and ran a hand through his hair. "I knew it," he muttered. "I knew things weren't okay. But the Darkness was on the loose and that's what we were focusing on. That's what we always focus on—the next big threat to the world, at the expense of everything else."

Castiel sighed wearily. "Those things are more important."

"No." Sam skewered him with a resolute glare. "You know how we manage to come out on top? By rallying together." He let out a humorless laugh. "Imagine the force we could be if we just did that from the start."

"Except I'm not strong enough to help you anymore," Castiel pointed out.

Sam reached over to squeeze his forearm. "It was never about you being a powered-up angel. Yeah, that's handy, but even without your grace, you're family. And I know we haven't proven it with actions, but give us a chance, Cas. I promise I will do everything I can to make it right. Dean will too. I'm pretty sure he's already figured out how we screwed up."

Castiel closed his eyes in grief. "You're asking me to fight again."

"Yes. Fight to hold on, to come back to us."

He lolled his head toward Sam. "I'm so tired…I don't know if I can."

Sam tightened his grip. "I'll help you. I know what it's like to be dead-tired down to your very soul. After the Trials, when I was dying, I was ready to give up because it was easier."

Castiel canted a wry look at the young man. "You were angry with Dean for forcing you to live."

Sam inhaled a sharp breath. "Yeah, I was. But I understand now why he did, and I was more upset with his methods. So I'm not gonna trick you into living, Cas."

"I doubt you'd find an angel to possess me in that manner, anyway," Castiel interrupted.

Sam rolled his eyes. "Probably not. But I'd rather you chose to hang on. We'll do this together."

Castiel tipped his head back against the banister and gazed at the crackled ceiling. What would it take this time, to hold on? What was waiting for him on the other side? Sam's promise of family, of a home? Castiel had never wanted anything as much as that, and yes, Sam had been correct that he'd spent years trying to do enough penance to earn those things.

"I…I'm not sure how."

Sam's expression softened with understanding and compassion. "You're pretty beat up, right? From Lucifer and Amara? That's gonna take time to heal."

Castiel nodded. He required a lot of time to mend lately.

"Okay." Sam settled back against the banister and crossed his arms. "Then we'll just hang here for a bit."

Castiel frowned. "I'm not sure it's a good idea for you to stay. I can't tell how much time is passing in the waking world. Your body will need nutrition, and Dean will be worried."

Sam shrugged. "Yeah, Dean's gonna be pissed when he finds our bodies." He grimaced, perhaps already imagining the reaming he would get in the future. "And unfortunately, I didn't leave the spell out so he could make his own potion and come join us."

Ah, that explained why the older Winchester wasn't here as well. Castiel cocked his head. "Why didn't you tell Dean you were attempting this?"

"I was afraid it wouldn't work," Sam said. "And I didn't want to get his hopes up. Like I said, he's been a mess."

Castiel did feel bad for causing Dean that kind of pain. Part of him still believed the Winchesters would get past it, with time. But the longer Sam stayed, the less certain Castiel was of that. Still, Dean was going to be very upset…

"You should wake up," Castiel said. "And assure Dean you're alright. He needs you."

Sam shook his head. "You need me more right now. And I'm hoping we've gotten to the point where Dean trusts me. Yeah, it won't stop him from worrying, but he should have enough faith in me to trust what I'm doing."

Castiel's gaze drifted to the floor. Why was Sam doing this? Why was he putting himself at risk? Why was he putting Castiel above Dean?

"I thought you would be mad about me letting Lucifer out," he said quietly.

"I was, at first," Sam admitted. "But we've all made shitty deals we thought were right at the time. Remember it was me drinking demon blood and killing Lilith that let Lucifer out the first time."

"You didn't know better. I…" Castiel swallowed hard. "I did."

Sam sighed audibly. "Amara was a pretty big threat. Yeah, Lucifer was bad, but in the end it was him that defeated her."

Castiel scoffed. "By accident."

Sam gave him a wry smirk. "Still, it worked. You helped save the world again."

"If Lucifer had survived, I also would have endangered it."

Sam glanced away for a moment. "When we were trying to get the Mark off Dean…I knew there would be consequences. I didn't know what, but we'd been warned that using magic from the Book of the Damned came at a high price. And I did it anyway. That's how the Darkness was released in the first place. So, you shouldn't feel like you have a monopoly on bad decisions." Sam's face cracked into a grin then. "We actually have a lot in common. Remember telling me that the only person who's consistently screwed up just as much was you?"

Castiel furrowed his brow. He vaguely remembered that…when Sam was feeling guilty because Gadreel had killed Kevin while possessing the Winchester. "I believe I said I screwed up more."

"Nah," Sam said. "I think we're tied."

Castiel fell into a contemplative silence for a moment before speaking again, hesitantly—"I think Dean's catching up."

Sam laughed. "We're quite the dysfunctional family."

Castiel felt the corner of his mouth start to tug upward. Yes, they were.

"Hey," Sam said eagerly. "Do you feel up to taking a little walk?"

Castiel quirked a confused brow. "We're in my head. Where is there to walk to?"

Sam climbed to his feet. "The dormitory. This is an exact replica of the bunker, right? We should pick out a bedroom for you. Not just a place for you to sleep or stay out of the way, but your room."

"Oh, that's…"

Sam held a hand out. "Can you stand?"

Castiel found himself pushing off the ground without thinking. Sam gripped his arm and helped haul him to his feet. Castiel stumbled, but the initial dizziness faded rather quickly.

Sam beamed at him, and with a supportive touch on his elbow, started leading him to the corridor and down to the dormitory wing. They reached the room Castiel had spent a great deal of time in while he'd been healing from Rowena's spell, and entered.

Sam's gaze roved around the bare walls, plain bed, and empty shelves. "Do you like this one? I didn't realize how close it was to the radiator. If you want to move away from the sounds, we can pick another one."

"No, that's okay," Castiel hurried to reply.

"I mean it, Cas," Sam pressed. "This is your home, too. It should be comfortable."

"I…appreciate that. But…I find the background noise comforting. It's very quiet without angel radio."

Sam gave him a questioning look. "Did you turn it off again?"

He nodded. "It was becoming…disheartening. All the chatter being about how the angels wanted to hunt me down and destroy me."

Sam's jaw tightened. "Right," he said in a low voice, then more cheerfully, "We can get you a sound machine. One of those that play noise from the beach, or rain."

Castiel was somewhat taken aback. "That sounds nice, actually."

Sam grinned, then gestured at the shelves. "You should personalize the space, too." His expression fell a fraction at that. "You've never really had any possessions to call your own, have you?"

"Well, as an angel, I never had use for anything."

"What about when you were briefly human?"

Castiel looked away. "I, uh, had a toothbrush." He reluctantly glanced back at Sam, wincing when he found the Winchester gaping at him incredulously.

"Nothing else?"

He rolled his shoulder in discomfort. "I didn't have anywhere to keep things."

"Because Dean kicked you out," Sam said in a hushed tone.

"He had his reasons," Castiel immediately jumped to defend.

Sam just shook his head sadly. "And that's part of the reason we're here now, isn't it?"

Castiel frowned. "It was your idea to come down here…"

"No, I mean…" Sam shook his head in what seemed like fond exasperation. "Here in your head after Lucifer put you through the wringer."

"Oh."

Was that part of the reason? Castiel had been hurt by Dean's rejection. Confused at first, but then realizing it was because he had screwed up yet again. Plus, being human meant he was useless…ah, he now saw Sam's point. Had Castiel been wrong all this time? And, had the Winchesters not meant to suggest that was how they felt?

Sam cleared his throat. "Uh, we could hook up a TV in here, but…um, I'm not sure that would be very healthy, considering…"

Right, considering Castiel had hidden himself away for days after Rowena's spell, binge watching and barely able to leave the bunker. And then when Lucifer had sunk his claws into him, he'd distracted Castiel with the analog box again.

"You're probably right."

Sam looked at him sympathetically. "We can still watch things together in the study room."

Castiel nodded slowly. "I think I'd like that."

Sam seemed pleased by that, though Castiel didn't understand why. They talked more about decorating options for Castiel's room, books that he might like to read that he could keep on the desk, or perhaps a journal, and other things he might simply want, not need, because he didn't need much. Castiel hesitantly mentioned acquiring a sketchbook, which Sam had eagerly supported.

When the Winchester moved to run his hand down the wall, Castiel was afraid paint colors would be the next topic, which seemed a little overboard because not even the brothers had repainted their bedrooms. But Sam merely turned around with a barely contained smile, and suggested they head to the library where there were more comfortable chairs.

Once settled, Sam asked him about food, and whether it still tasted like molecules, or if his ever-changing state meant he could enjoy eating again. Castiel wasn't sure, given he'd been possessed by the Devil the past few months and hadn't had occasion to test it. Sam said they would later. Dean liked to cook, and it made him feel better to take care of people that way.

"Even if he sometimes makes the most disgusting concoctions," Sam said, and jabbed a finger at Castiel. "Don't feel obligated to eat everything he puts in front of you."

"…Alright."

Castiel was quite perplexed by Sam's behavior. Never in all the years he'd known the man had Sam spent this much time conversing with him. At least, not about things unrelated to a case or helping Dean. But Castiel had to admit it was kind of nice. And relaxing.

He didn't realize he'd nearly forgotten about where they were or why until Sam suddenly leaned forward in his chair and gripped Castiel's forearm.

"I think you're healing well, Cas. The cracks are fully gone." Sam thrust his chin toward the walls and ceiling, and it took a moment for Castiel to realize that the spiderweb fissures and crumbling dust were no longer present. Everything felt…sturdy.

"Want to try waking up now?" Sam asked cautiously.

Castiel instinctively tensed, and his expression must have revealed his fear, because Sam squeezed his arm reassuringly.

"It'll be okay, Cas."

He craned his head around nervously. "How long have you been here? Sam, what if your body—"

"Dean's not gonna let me shrivel up and die," he interrupted calmly. "I bet he'd like to see you, though. Do you feel strong enough? If not, we'll just stay here a little while longer."

Castiel gave Sam a half-frustrated, half-anguished look. He didn't want to risk Sam like this. Castiel should wake up now, if only to make sure the Winchester's physical body wasn't declining. But…he was also afraid. Afraid that he wouldn't be able to handle returning to the world, wouldn't be able to handle the cruel disappointment of realizing that nothing he did would change anything.

Sam tugged at his arm, drawing his gaze to the Winchester's. Sam's eyes swam with emotion and promises, and Castiel wanted to believe.

He let out a shaky breath. "Alright."

Sam nodded in encouragement, waiting for Castiel to make the first step. He closed his eyes, reaching for the thread of this mental bubble, this shield that had protected him, kept him safe. But Sam was still clasping his arm, guiding him out with the promise that he would still be safe, as long as he was with the Winchesters.

Castiel took hold of the thread, and with a single yank, unraveled it all.

His vision was blurry when he blinked his eyes open to a concrete ceiling. The bunker. Turning his head slowly, his gaze took in gray walls and a familiar arrangement of furniture. His room. And slumped in a chair by his bed was Sam, pallor pale with dark circles under his eyes. He looked sickly. There was a blanket draped across his lap and an IV port taped to the inside of his elbow. Castiel realized there was a tightness in his arm where a slow-drip line had been put in as well.

Sam's eyelids fluttered before he focused on Castiel. Then he smiled.

A shadow filled the doorway, and both turned to take in Dean, who looked about as bad as they did, his jaw dropped open in stunned stupor.

"Hello, Dean," Castiel rasped.

Dean's mouth made several movements, though no sounds came out. He finally crossed his arms and glared at both of them sternly. "I don't know whether to punch or hug you idiots first."

Sam grinned at his brother, then back at Castiel. "Welcome home, Cas."

Castiel felt his lips turn up in a return smile. Yes, he was home.