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My Roots Take Flight

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Serve God, love me, and mend.
This is not the end.

- Sigh No More, Mumford and Sons


Dean is raising the whip for the four thousand, nine hundred and eighty-seventh time when somebody interrupts.

"Dean Winchester?" they ask, and he looks at them with wide and hungry eyes. It takes him a few seconds to realise that the name is his, that the words apply to him. Dean Winchester. Yes. It is easy to forget who you are down here.

"Come with me." The visitor holds out an arm and Dean looks at it. He looks at the whip in his hand and at the man slumped in chains in front of him- well, the remains of the man. Four thousand, nine hundred and eight-six strokes later, there is not much of him left.

"Dean?" the visitor says again. Dean. Yes. Alastair used to say that word all the time, but Dean hasn't seen Alastair or heard his own name in so long now. He rolls the word around his head, again and again. DeanDeanDeanDeanDean. He finds he likes the way it sounds- short, clipped, but somehow it feels right. It fits.

He looks back at the whip, and then at the man's outstretched arm. Dean still has fourteen strokes left, and he doesn't think Alastair would appreciate him leaving a job unfinished. Dean doesn't want to leave a job unfinished. But all the same, he can't deny that he's curious. Whoever stands before him is no demon- their features are human, with no hellish distortion beneath the surface- so what are they doing here?

The visitor looks at Dean with patience- and is that sympathy? "It's okay, you can leave him for now. Nothing bad will happen."

Dean snorts at that. This is Hell. Nothing happens here that isn't bad. But all the same, he drops the whip. He steps forward and slowly reaches out, feeling a dulled pang of surprise when he catches sight of his hand. It's emaciated, scarred, covered in dirt and blood and burns. He thinks that his little finger is broken, but he can't say for sure when that happened.

Dean doesn't know where they go or how they get there- in a place like Hell, space and distance are obsolete. The place they arrive in looks a lot like a cheap motel room. Dean wants to say that they've left the pit, but leaking out as angry black smoke is the only escape route he's ever heard of, and as far as he knows he's no demon yet.

"Sit down," the man implores him, and Dean gingerly lowers himself onto one of the beds.

"I'm going to need you in better shape than that," the man says, not unkindly, and presses two fingers to the side of Dean's head. When Dean looks down, he finds his body filled out, his cuts healed over, his bones mended. It's an unusual development- he's never been healed this completely before. He wonders when the pain will start again.

The man takes a seat on the other bed, resting his elbows on his knees and leaning forward intently. His hair is dark and neat and he's wearing an expensive-looking business suit. Dean doesn't recall ever meeting him before.

"Can you talk?" he man asks seriously, and Dean scowls.

"Of course I can talk," he snaps. His conversational skills might be rusty, but he's not a child.

"Okay," the man says, unruffled. "Good. That'll speed things up. My name is Inias."

Dean nods, distracted. He's determined not to run his hand over the duvet, but the fabric is so damn soft under his skin that he's nearly twitching with the effort of remaining composed.

"I'm here to make you an offer, Dean," Inias explains.

Dean doesn't reply. He's had about enough of offers, actually. He doesn't trust himself not to say 'yes' anymore, so he'd rather they just didn't ask.

"A way out," Inias elaborates.

Dean stares. "Out? Out of where?"

"Out of Hell," Inias confirms. "Completely."

"No torture?" Dean asks, not sure that he's understood. He can't remember the last time the pain was gone for this long, and he feels strange without it. Hollow, somehow.

"No torture. Not for you, or for anybody else."

Dean thinks back to the man he left chained up- thinks of the satisfaction he felt every time he struck him, of the sense of retribution- and suddenly, he doesn't want to be up here anymore. He doesn't want to be in the airy and clean motel room, doesn't deserve the beautiful fabric against his skin. Creatures like him belong back in that deep, dark pit.

"Why pull me out?" Dean asks, because none of this makes any sense.

"Because God has work for you," Inias answers.

For a very long time, Dean says nothing. He feels like he should have more questions or make some clever joke, but nothing comes to mind. With every second that passes he feels more like himself, but it's still been a long time since he had to handle anything other than 'in pain' or 'not in pain'. Actually thinking is like picking up a rusty bike and trying to remember where his feet go.

"You're insane," Dean gets out eventually. For some reason, Inias chuckles.

"That's closer to the Dean Winchester I was told to expect," he says.

"There's no God," Dean says, more sure of himself now. "There's Hell and there's Earth and sure, maybe there's a Heaven, but nobody's running the show. No way."

"Then I should enquire as to a promotion," Inias muses. "Because, if you're right, then my boss is dead."

"Wait- what?"

"Everything will be explained," Inias promises, "but not by me. I'm only the messenger- the delivery boy, I suppose. Taking you from A to B."

"And how long have I been at A?" Dean asks cautiously.

"Four months have passed on Earth," Inias tells him. "In Hell… it's closer to forty years."

Dean nods mutely; it was impossible to gauge the time. Inias could have told him four hours or four weeks or four millennia for all the difference it made.

"And this is B?" Dean questions. Inias nods. "What-"

"All in good time!" somebody says from the other side of the room, and Dean blinks because they definitely weren't there a second beforehand. The man strides forward. "You can go, Inias."

"I'll-" Inias starts to say as he stands, but the man clicks his fingers and Inias disappears.

"Where did you send him?" Dean asks. He has visions of Inias taking his place in the pit, and they make him feel sick.

"He'll be fine," the newcomer snorts impatiently. "He's just a little touchy-feely for my liking."

The man stands back and studies Dean for a minute. Dean repays the favour. The stranger is tall and broad, wearing a suit that means business and a smile that Dean doesn't trust. Dean's learned his lesson; he knows better than to trust. His eyes glaze over as memories grab hold and forty years of screams ring through his head.

She begged, she said 'please, no, please' as I pushed the knife in, and the blade burned as it cut, cauterised the wounds so they didn't even bleed- and I told myself 'I haven't spilled a drop of blood', like that made it better, like that made it okay-

There's a grip on his shoulder and Dean jerks like he's been shocked.

"Back with us?" the man smirks. Dean's thoughts clear, the flashback retreating and irritation taking its place. He's never liked being screwed around.

"Who are you?" he asks.

"My name is Zachariah. I've been waiting a very long time to meet you."

"What do you mean?" Dean asks, rising to stand. "What's going on?"

"What's going on is that I can get you out of your swish little placement in Hell. A 'Get Out Of Jail Free' card of sorts."

"But it won't be free, will it?" Dean says. "It never is."

"So cynical," Zachariah sighs.

"What, so you're telling me you don't want anything?" Dean challenges.

"… Okay, maybe I do, but the price really isn't that bad," Zachariah says. "It's certainly better than what you paid for Sammy."

Don't call him that. The thought is vicious in Dean's head, razor sharp, and though Dean doesn't say anything out loud, Zachariah chuckles under his breath before he carries on. "We need your help, Dean. We need you to do a job for us."

"We?"

"Angels," Zachariah says. For the second time in less than ten minutes, Dean is lost for words.

"Angels," he repeats.

"The very thing."

"There's no such thing."

"In that case, excuse me while I have an existential crisis."

"I've never seen an angel," Dean stresses. "I've never even heard of anyone seeing one."

"Doesn't that make you feel special?"

"Angels," Dean says yet again. His head is steadily clearing, but he's still not sure if he understands what's going on. He's still trying to ride that rusted bike, and whilst he's remembered what pedals are and how to push them down, that's all he's got. All he can do is keep on going.

"Look, I get that the whole 'fire and brimstone' thing wasn't great for your IQ, but if all you're going to do is repeat what I say, I might as well just buy a parrot- it'd be about as useful. Nicer to look at, too."

Dean scowls. "What would angels want with me?"

"We want to make you a deal," Zachariah says, back in business mode. "If you agree to work for us, you'll be lifted from Hell. Permanently."

"You'll take me back to Earth?" Dean says, suspicion temporarily forgotten. Sam.

"In a way," Zachariah says carefully. "You'd be going back, but as… Dean Winchester 2.0. What's known as a guardian angel."

"You'd make me an angel?" Dean asks. "Can you even do that?"

"Oh, heavens no," Zachariah says. "We're an entirely different species, infinitely more evolved and generally superior- but I suppose you'd be something vaguely similar. Some people view guardians as human-angel hybrids. I see them more as… humans borrowing a few of our powers."

"And I'd just float around taking care of people?"

"You'd be assigned a particular human as a ward. You'd spend the remainder of their life guarding them, looking after them, making sure they don't go running into traffic and so on."

"And what happens when the- uh, ward- dies?"

"You retire up here." Dean doesn't get it. "Heaven," Zachariah elaborates.

"This is Heaven?" Dean asks in disbelief.

"Your version. It takes on a different form for each person. Good memories, places where you were happiest- the things you want the most." Zachariah looks around in disdain. "Apparently you have a lot of sentiment and not much taste."

Dean thinks of how much he'd give to be back on a hunt with Sam, crashing in a crappy motel room like this one, and he has to admit that it makes sense. In fact, it's kind of reassuring. He is Dean Winchester, brother to Sam Winchester, and the numbed haze of Hell is dissipating.

"So I pump out seventy or eighty years guarding some sucker and then spend eternity up here?" Dean asks.

"More or less."

It doesn't make any sense. Dean still can't find a single way to rationalise this, let alone justify it.

"Out of all the people down there, out of every poor bastard in the Pit," he says, his voice low, "why pick me?"

"All will become clear," Zachariah says.

"No, you tell me now. Why me?"

"Are you complaining?"

"No, but-"

"Good," Zachariah cuts him off sharply. "So have I got a deal here, or what?"

"And if I say no?" Dean asks cautiously.

"Back down to Hell. Your loss," Zachariah shrugs. "Are you saying no?"

"No! I'm thinking, okay?" It's a lot to process. He doesn't trust Zachariah, doesn't trust the way his neat white teeth skip over the things he doesn't want to answer- but how could anything be worse than Hell? No matter what the reality is, it has to be preferable to this.

Dean wants to say yes. He wants to escape, but something's holding him back. Hasn't he cheated death enough already? Haven't enough people-

"Spare me the sob story," Zachariah snaps impatiently- and it finally hits Dean, properly, that Zachariah is reading his mind. That's… concerning. To say the least. "Just say yes, would you?"

"Yes," Dean says, before he can talk himself out of it.

Zachariah beams. "Finally. Inias!" he calls, and the man- no, angel- reappears.

"We've got ourselves a new guardian," Zachariah says.

Inias smiles, and it looks genuine. "Welcome on board, Dean. It's good to have you."

"Yeah, yeah," Dean says. "So how do I angel up?"

"That'd be me," Zachariah says. He looks at Inias expectantly, who pulls out a small silver dagger, pushes up his sleeve, and calmly slices his own wrist open. Zachariah scoops up some of the blood on the tips of his fingers and uses it to paint his other hand red, reciting something in a language Dean doesn't know. The cut on Inias' flesh closes almost instantly.

Zachariah steps towards Dean, who shrinks back instinctively.

"Hold still," Zachariah orders, and Dean makes himself do so. Zachariah pushes Dean's sleeve up to expose his shoulder, still chanting.

"You might want to cover your eyes," Zachariah breaks off in English. "Calm down, this is perfectly safe."

Zachariah finishes chanting and presses his bloodied hand to Dean's shoulder. For a moment, nothing happens, and then Dean's world explodes into light.

He closes his eyes as suggested, but it does nothing for the pain. It's like having fire stream down his throat, gushing into his ears, squirming its way in through his eyelids. The mark on his shoulder burns hotter and hotter until he honestly thinks he's dying all over again. His insides feel too big for his outsides, bulging against his skin like he's going to burst, and he thinks he's probably screaming but he doesn't think he can stop.

When the pain and light finally clear, he's curled up on the gritty carpet. Blinking, Dean slowly props himself up.

"Oh, but it hurts like hell," Zachariah says casually. "Did I not mention that?"

"How do you feel?" Inias asks, clearly used to mediating.

"Okay," Dean says, and he's shocked to find that he means it; suddenly, Hell feels a very long way away. A brush of pain dances across Dean's shoulder like electricity, and when he looks he sees the outline of a hand seared into his skin.

Unnerved, Dean sits up properly. His eyes widen. "What the-?" He twists, but he can't see anything. Inias chuckles.

"You won't be able to see them," he explains. "But yes, you have wings."

Dean can feel the weight of the wings where they sprout from his back, but when he reaches up to touch them there's nothing there. It feels almost like he's sprouted a second pair of arms, except he's been lying on them all night and now they're numbed and cumbersome. There's a distinct sensation of 'otherness'- the wings aren't his, not really. Dean tries to move them, doesn't think much happens, and decides that the entire experience can be summed up with Pretty Fucking Weird.

"I've got six," Zach says smugly.

"Well, aren't you a special little snowflake?" Dean says irritably, pushing himself up to stand.

"It's complex," Inias says hurriedly, before Zachariah can open his mouth. "Angels have to take vessels to appear to humans- and to you, I'm afraid. You won't be able to see our true forms or hear our true voices without experiencing some incredibly unpleasant side effects."

"So do I have a true form?" Dean asks.

"Not quite," Inias says. "Guardians act as their own vessels. You don't have a true form as such, but taking the grace has some side-effects, one of which happens to be wings. Ours are completely hidden by our vessels, but yours are less concealed and more… stuck on."

"What's grace?"

"What makes an angel an angel," Zachariah says impatiently. "Power, mojo, whatever. Listen, kid, this really isn't in my job description. Inias, pack him off to Anna. She can explain the rest."


Anna turns out to be a pretty redhead- or an angel wearing one, at least. She stands, apparently waiting for them, in a loosely familiar field. The grass is short and yellowing, the sign of a dying summer, and Dean thinks that he might have once gone to a place like this with Bobby. He's fully expecting Inias to take off without another word, but instead he walks forwards with Dean.

"Inias," Anna greets warmly, but Dean barely notices; he's too busy looking at the sleek, black car she's leaning against.

"Anna," Inias returns. "Ready?"

"I've been ready for thirty years," Anna says. The idea of a hot angel waiting for Dean for that long is kinda cool, though it does bring a vaguely uncomfortable meaning to 'angels are watching over you'.

"Then I'll hand things over to your more-than-capable hands," Inias says.

"Thank you," Anna smiles. "See you soon, I hope." After lingering for a few more moments, Inias disappears, and Anna's attention is on Dean.

"Go on," she says, moving aside. He looks at her. "What? I know you want to."

Relenting, he runs a hand over the roof. It's not really her, but it's a damn good replica. Same licence plate, same army men crammed inside, same tapes sprawled across one of the seats. Dean pats the bonnet affectionately and is creeped out when his wings-that-aren't-there bounce with the motion. Angel. Right.

"So you're our newest recruit," Anna says cheerily. "It's good to meet you, Dean. I'm Anna."

"Yeah, Mr. Big said." Dean turns away from the car, suddenly self-conscious. "So uh, can all you oversized canaries read minds?"

"Careful," she chastises, but he can see the amusement glinting in her eyes. "You're one of those 'oversized canaries' now."

"Huh," he says. "I didn't think I was important enough for the 'A' word."

"You talked to Zachariah, huh?" she asks, and Dean's expression of distaste gives Anna her answer. "Don't take it personally. He's like that with everyone. And in answer to your question: yes, more or less. It varies depending on your level of power. If you give me five minutes, I can tell you everything you need to know. I usually deal with the newcomers."

"Definitely preferring you to Zachariah so far," Dean says. "So when do I get to go back to Earth?"

"Soon," she says. "I just need to explain some things."

"Sure, I get that- but can't it wait? I've spent forty-years being deep-fried. I want to see my brother."

Something flickers over Anna's face too quickly for Dean to pin down. Paranoia curls in his gut. "Well?" he says. "What aren't you telling me?"

"If you'd give me a chance to tell you anything, this would go a lot quicker," she retorts. Scowling, Dean sits down heavily on the hood of the car. Anna perches lightly next to him.

"Thank you," she says.

"Yeah, yeah. Get to the good part."

"There are different ranks of angel," Anna begins. "Right at the top you've got the archangels like Raphael, but you'll probably never run into any of them. Next, there are the seraphs like Zachariah."

"So he's pretty high up?" Dean asks dismally. Figures.

"Definitely," she nods. "He makes a lot of the calls around here. Then you get the 'standard' angels, who are the most common. There are still variations in power, though- I'm the leader of my garrison, so I'm a little stronger than some of the others."

"Where do I fit in?"

"You're the bottom tier," she says honestly. "Guardian angels, cupids, the angels with one sole purpose. Yours is, of course, to protect your ward."

Dean nods. That doesn't sound all that bad- after all, hasn't he already spent twenty-five or so years of his life doing pretty much that? "Do I get any say in who my ward is?"

"Sorry, but no," she says. "Guardians are only assigned to those judged in need of angelic protection. The decision is made by somebody very high up on the command chain- it may be God himself. I'm not sure."

Dean's still not buying this 'God' deal, and he's pretty bitter that he and Sam apparently never qualified as 'in need of angelic protection', but whatever. Bigger fish.

"You have some human qualities, and some angelic," Anna continues. "The wings are a good example- you're powerful enough to have them, but not powerful enough to actually see them."

"They're creepy," Dean complains. "Do they work?"

"Not really," she says. "It doesn't matter- you can teleport."

"Seriously?" Dean says before he can help himself. Teleporting sounds awesome.

"Seriously," she grins. "You'll be able to take your ward with you if you want, but not anybody else. The same thing goes for telepathy- you'll be able to read your ward's thoughts, but only theirs. You'll be very in tune to your ward's emotions, but-"

"-nobody else's," he finishes for her. "Yeah, I'm seeing the pattern here."

"You'll have increased strength and stamina," Anna continues. "If you get damaged or injured, you'll heal- faster than humans, slower than angels. You can heal your ward's injuries too, to a certain extent."

"How easy am I to kill?" Dean asks. "I'm not much use if a bullet can take me down."

"Some things are fatal," she says. "Other angels, higher-level demons, extreme damage to your vessel- sorry, body- but overall, you're pretty tough."

"But you're tougher?"

"And archangels are almost unkillable," she agrees. "We're less restricted in our powers too- I can read anyone's thoughts or emotions if I focus hard enough, and teleporting other people is easy."

"So basically, I suck," Dean grumbles.

"There is some silver lining," Anna offers. "You won't be affected in the same way by certain traps or spells, and nobody can exorcise you."

It still sounds like a crappy deal, but what can Dean do? "Will I age?" he asks.

"No, and you won't die of natural causes. You won't need to eat, drink or pass waste."

"I can't eat?" he stops her.

"Well, you can, but it won't serve any purpose."

"Oh, it'll serve a purpose alright. How about sleeping?"

"Again, it's not vital, but if you want… technically, it's more of a trance, but I've been told some do dream whilst in it. A lot of guardians use it to pass the time when their ward doesn't need them."

"Wow, that sounds responsible. What if baby wanders into danger while they're out?"

"Trust me, they'd know. You'll have a very deep bond to your ward, Dean."

When Anna speaks again, she sounds sad. "Your default state is undetectable," she tells him gently. "Invisible. You can only become corporeal when you're alone with your ward or other angels."

"Any chance of making a phone call?"

"No. Even when corporeal, the only human who can hear you is your ward."

"And when I'm not corporeal?"

"You'll be unseen and unheard. You can interact with the environment in that form, but it requires a lot of energy and effort, and it's not 100% accurate. Nobody but your ward is to know you're there."

"So you're saying I can't talk to Sam," he says wearily. He'd suspected as much, been sure of it by the time she said 'undetectable', but that doesn't mean it hurts any less.

"No," Anna says. "If you make contact with anybody but your ward- if you even try- the deal will be terminated immediately. Whoever you contact will be punished too."

"One-way ticket downstairs, group discount. Am I right?"

"I'm sorry, Dean," she says. Dean doesn't react. He wonders if it's too late to change his mind- but no, that's just being stupid. One day, when Dean's ward shuffles off the mortal coil, he'll get to see Sam again. That's good. That's enough.

"If I can't even pick up a pen when I've got company, how am I supposed to do any protecting?" he says instead.

"If your ward's life is threatened, your powers will amplify to the point where you'd be a match for Zachariah," Anna says. That cheers Dean up slightly.

"Seriously?"

"It's not always controllable- it's not even always conscious- but yes. I've known guardian angels do incredible things when their ward's safety was threatened."

"Being able to do that kinda thing all the time still seems more useful than randomly hulking out."

"I didn't make the rules, Dean," she says. "Don't forget, your job is to be there for this person- to protect them, yes, but also to care for them. It's not all guns and glory. Sometimes your role will be to give them advice, or even just to listen."

"And here I thought this couldn't get any creepier."

Anna snickers before composing herself. "Sorry about this," she says, then presses her hand onto his ribs.

"Ouch!" Dean shouts as a spurt of pain pierces through him. "What the hell?"

"Sigils," she explains. "They'll let us find you if we need to. Hold still."

Anna produces a pendant and fastens it around Dean's neck. There's what looks like a small, glass bottle dangling from the cord, which he prods at with interest. Anna slaps his hand away.

"Quit it," she frowns. "That's important."

"Really? How come?"

"It's to do with fixing the locus of your grace. I can explain, but…" Anna looks at him. "How advanced is your understanding of geometry?"

"The necklace is important," he says immediately. "Gotcha."

Anna keeps on talking, but Dean's mind is starting to wander. Okay, so he's banned from seeing Sam- but there are ways around everything, right? There's gotta be a way.

"- and you'll be able to see 'invisible' beings such as Reapers," Anna is saying when Dean tunes back in, "but the only things that can see or interact with you when you're incorporeal are angels and some higher ranking demons. You'll need to become corporeal to talk to your ward, though obviously you can still have telepathic conversions."

"Obviously," Dean echoes in disbelief. He's starting to feel like a gremlin. Do not get angel wet. Do not feed after midnight. "Who is my ward anyway?"

"Would you like to find out?" Anna offers. Dean thinks he would.


When they get there, Dean starts to wonder if this whole thing is actually just another layer of Hell.

"You're kidding me," he says, staring up at the sign.

"What?" Anna says. "Healthy and happy people don't need guardian angels."

They're standing on a square of grass outside the hospital and, incorporeal or not, a part of Dean still feels guilty when he spies the 'PLEASE KEEP OFF THE LAWN' sign. He watches a couple come out of the building's front door, the man's arm wrapped around his wife's shoulders as she sobs.

"So I'm supposed to spend the next sixty years guarding girl interrupted?" Dean asks, turning to Anna.

"He," she emphasises, "is thirty already, so I doubt it's going to be that long. Besides, he's being discharged later this week."

"Good," Dean says. Psychiatric hospitals make him uncomfortable. They always seem too happy, too fake, like they're trying to bury the crazies under piles of needlework and sunflower decals. "How long has he been in here in for?"

"Sixteen years," Anna says nonchalantly.

"Sixteen years?" Dean yelps.

"Near enough," she says placidly. "He was admitted at fourteen."

"You're asking me to watch over a guy who's spent half his life in an asylum?" Dean says in disbelief. "Seriously? What, I'm supposed to hold his hand and make sure he takes his meds?"

"Stop that," she snaps, and he hears something harsh in her voice- a reminder that she's more than the soft, pretty girl she appears to be. Dean remembers Sam's enthusiastic accounts of 'warriors of God' and thinks that really doesn't want to start a fight.

"This is your ward you're talking about," Anna continues. "He's going be the centre of your universe for the next several decades- and more than that, he's a person, and he's been through a lot. The least you could do is show him some respect."

"Sorry," Dean says grudgingly. He clears his throat. "What's his name?"

"Castiel Mallach," she says.

Dean whistles. "Poor bastard never stood a chance, did he?"

"Apparently he's from a very religious family," Anna explains. Dean imagines a mother rocking her baby at the back of a church, a proud father enrolling his kid in Sunday school, a family holding hands and praying around a table.

"How did he end up here?" Dean asks, and he doesn't know which one of them is more taken aback by how saddened he sounds. Anna hesitates before she replies.

"Don't worry about it," she says. "That's all in the past. Your job is to focus on the present and future- beginning now. Every guardian starts out by just watching their ward- it's a good idea to get a 'feel' for them before trying to make direct contact. I'd like you to spend some time observing Castiel."

"How long for?" Dean wants to know.

"In Castiel's case, I think a few hours should suffice," Anna says. "I'll let you know when it's time for you to introduce yourself."

Great, something else to worry about. "Yeah, about that- how am I supposed to break the whole 'angel' thing to him?" Dean questions. "What if he freaks? I'm pretty sure I'm not meant to give my ward a psychotic break."

"That is… a concern," she admits. "But I have faith that he'll cope with it."

"What do I do if he starts screaming?"

"Handle it."

"What, by myself?"

"You're his guardian angel," Anna says. "He's your ward. It's kind of in the job description. He might even be able to sense that, to a certain degree; he might find himself inclined to trust you."

"You keep saying all this crap about our super-special bond, but I don't feel anything," he complains. "You said I'd be able to sense my ward, but I can't. I can't 'sense' a damn thing other than my freaky ghost wings."

"I haven't linked you to him yet," Anna explains. "I left it for last, sorry- I didn't want to distract you. The sensation can be… overwhelming, at first."

"Because that doesn't sound terrifying at all."

"It won't hurt," Anna promises. She begins to chant something in what sounds like the same language Zachariah used, touches a hand to her chest, and then lays the same hand neatly on the space where Dean's heart is. A few words later, she pulls away and looks up expectantly.

"I don't-" Dean begins, and then it hits him. It's the sharp snap of a fishing line being pulled down, suddenly laden with something, but it's happened to his mind. He stumbles under the force of it, a pull-like tension in an over-stretched spring.

"Careful," Anna says, placing her hands on his shoulders and helping him to steady. "I'm told it gets easier to cope with. Dean?" she says when he doesn't reply. "Dean, focus."

"Sorry," he says, voice foggy. The initial lurch has passed, but it's difficult to tear his mind away from the presence. It's blaring, shouting at him- or maybe it's shouting for him. He can't tell.

"I think you probably need to go," Anna laughs. "They say it's worse when you've been away from your ward for too long, and as you've technically been away for thirty or so years-"

"I get it," Dean says. "How do I get inside?"

"Teleport."

"You know, you make that sound so easy."

"It is. Reach out for Castiel, and you'll find him."

"I've never even been inside the building."

"Humour me. And remember, stay incorporeal until I tell you otherwise. I'll be watching."

Dean rolls his eyes before he closes them. This is ridiculous. If it can get rid of this incessant tugging at his mind, though, he'll try anything. Cue Castiel, he thinks, focusing on the presence lurking at the corner of his mind.

He opens his eyes, ready to tell Anna it didn't work, and finds himself facing a closed door. When Dean turns around he sees he's in a corridor, and a few curious steps down it bring him to an oversized lounge area. It's clearer now that this place isn't intended for short-term stays: the patients all wear their own clothes, and Dean can only pick out the staff by the identity cards strung around their necks.

An insistent yank at his mind sends Dean stumbling back to where he arrived. He knows he's standing outside the right room- he can feel the man's presence on the other side of the door like you can feel heat from a fire.

"I'll be damned," Dean mutters to himself, and then somebody walks through him. It reminds him of being not-quite-dead after the crash, and it sends a shiver down his spine. Dean closes his eyes and when he opens them again, he's stood in the centre of the bedroom. Castiel- and he knows it's Castiel, would recognise him anywhere- is sitting in a chair by the window reading, curled up like a cat.

Dean's initial reaction is that he doesn't look crazy. He knows you can hardly judge mental stability with a glance, but whatever Dean was expecting, this guy isn't it. He's wearing a trench coat, which is probably a bit eccentric, but it's hardly hurting anyone. Castiel has dark, ruffled hair, and he's not emaciated or obese, and when he looks up as a nurse passes by his eyes are a blue so bright Dean wants to call it ridiculous.

The tension in Dean's head is relaxing and whilst he can still sense Castiel, it's not overwhelming or even particularly unpleasant. Experimentally, Dean lowers himself into a chair on the other side of the room and is pleased to find he doesn't crash straight through; maybe it's down to the same whacked-out physics that means he doesn't fall through the floor.

It's a lot to take in in a very short space of time, and Dean has to admit that it's good to get the chance to just sit back and examine the person he's been tied to. I'm gonna be seeing that face a lot, Dean thinks as he settles down to watch and wait.


Watching is fucking boring.

In nearly three hours, Castiel doesn't move an inch. He sits and he reads, and he doesn't even fidget. He's perfected the art of utter, intense concentration, and it's kind of unnerving to watch.

It's also fucking boring.

By the time Anna finally reappears, Dean's taken to tracing out Tic-Tac-Toe games on the wall. She smiles in greeting; he does not smile back.

"Am I seriously supposed to spend the next fifty years watching him read?" Dean says irritably. "If that was 'getting a feel' for things, then things are going to suck."

"It was a little more than that," Anna admits. "Like I said, all guardians are meant to spend their first few hours back on Earth just observing their ward- and, well, not everybody does as they're asked. Some make a break for it as soon as they think we're gone. They try and contact family or friends, that kind of thing."

"What happens to them?"

"They don't get to be guardians," Anna says, and there's a tightness in her voice and a look in her eyes that sends a shiver down Dean's spine. Truth be told, he'd thought about running, but he's not that stupid yet. There's no point in trying to find Sam until the angels take Dean off celestial probation.

"So what, it was a test?" he asks.

"You passed," is Anna's only answer. Dean thinks this might be a good time to change the subject.

"Now what?" he asks.

"You're ready," Anna tells him. "Good luck, Dean. I'll be in touch."

"Wait, I don't-"

It's no use- Anna's already gone. Muttering under his breath, Dean turns to face Castiel. Somewhere down the corridor an alarm sounds, a desperate blare that means a nurse needs backup now, and Dean realises that he has literally no idea how to play this. What if him showing up shoves Castiel off the deep end? Turns him into a drooling wreck? Dean wonders if he'll end up having to smother the guy with a pillow.

It was so much simpler with Sam. Their relationship was laid out in clear terms from day one: Dean was to protect Sam, both parties knew, and neither party had wings. Simple. But the thought of Sam- of never seeing him again- makes Dean want to lie down and stop thinking for a while, so he buries it and focuses on the task in hand.

Dean tries to think himself into existence and immediately feels more 'solid'- heavier, somehow more conscious of his weight against the floor. He allows himself a moment of pride- I am rocking this 'angel' thing- before bracing himself. Here goes nothing.

"Castiel?" he says. The man jumps at the interruption- and again when looks up and sees Dean- but recovers quickly.

"Yes?" he asks, setting the book aside.

"I'm-" Castiel's looking at Dean with curiosity, but not fear. Dean supposes that after sixteen years in hospital, you quit questioning who the strangers coming into your room are. "Okay, listen, because this is gonna sound ridiculous, but-"

Eh, what the hell. There's no point in pussyfooting around, Dean decides. This can only go badly, so there's no point in worrying about how badly it goes.

"My name is Dean." He spreads his hands out. "I'm an, uh, angel of the Lord." He pauses. "Or something like that."

He waits for the meltdown.

"If that's a metaphor, I don't know the intended meaning," Castiel says. His voice is deep and his words sound sincere. Dean tries again.

"No, no metaphor." Dean grins broadly. "I'm your guardian angel." It sounds cheesy, sure, but there's something nice about it. He gets to give this guy a better life. That's got to be better than an eternity spent cutting people up.

A few seconds of silence pass. Castiel picks his book back up.

"Castiel?" Dean says once it becomes clear that the other man isn't going to reply.

"You aren't real," Castiel says, not looking up.

"Uh, yeah, I am."

Castiel's lips pull into a thin line, and he shakes his head. "No," he says.

"Sorry, man, but this is happening."

"This is in my head," Castiel says tightly, "and I've come too far to slip back now." He's still refusing to look up, like maybe Dean'll pull a Tinkerbell and disappear if nobody believes in him.

Dean tries again. "Listen," he says uneasily. "I get that this must be hard for you, I do- but trust me, I'm real. I think I'd know if I wasn't."

Castiel doesn't answer.

"Castiel? Hey!"

Nothing. Dean's starting to get annoyed.

"Jeez, have some faith, would you?" he snaps.

The words are offhand, plucked from nowhere, but they seem to hit Castiel hard.

"Faith," Castiel echoes. He lowers the book and sits in silence, clearly working through something. When Castiel finally looks up at him, Dean gives a small, sarcastic wave.

"I don't understand," Castiel says. It's hardly rapturous praising of the ground Dean walks on, but it's infinitely better than screeching for a nurse. Dean's going to call this one a success.

"I know it sounds crazy," Dean says, "but I'm not some weird-ass hallucination, I swear." And now you're making fun of a mental patient for his hallucinations. Smooth, Winchester. "Not that hallucinations are weird. I mean, they are- I've had them, they suck- but I didn't mean that you're weird because you have them. Or because you don't. Whatever." He gets the impression that, somewhere, Zachariah is laughing at him.

Castiel tilts his head slightly. "You don't seem particularly angelic," he comments. Dean's wings flutter in useless indignation.

"What, and you know what angels should be like?"

"I had pre-conceptions." Castiel rises from his chair and moves forwards, staring like he might find an explanation for all of this written behind Dean's eyes. "Guardian," he states.

"Yes."

"I don't need guarding."

"Excuse me?" Dean says, taken aback.

"I have no need of a guardian angel."

Dean doesn't think that Castiel means for that to be insulting, but it kind of is. "Right, because you're so well-adjusted," he snorts.

"I've been here for sixteen years," Castiel says, voice tinged with irritation. "Why now?"

"You think I know? All I got told was 'this is your ward, take care of him'," Dean says- and then, childishly, adds "they left out that you were such an ass." Castiel ignores the slur and hones in on a different word.

"They?"

"Senior management. Higher-level angels. God, apparently."

"God?" Castiel says, the anger in his tone replaced with hopeful curiosity. His eyes drop from Dean's and move over to the bedside table, coming to rest on a small, black Bible. Dean silences his own noise of disgust. So not the time.

"Okay," Castiel says eventually, with a slight nod and a step backwards.

"Okay?" Dean repeats incredulously.

"I don't claim to understand God's plan, but I trust it." Dean's face must say it all, because Castiel continues. "I believe you. It's odd, but I feel like… like I know that this right. What could that conviction be, if not a message from God?"

Dean might puke.

"So everything's fine as long as the spirit in the sky ordered it?" he says, unable to hold back. Anna did say that Dean's ward would be inclined to believe him, but hearing Castiel try and justify that belief as coming from God is vexing. It doesn't seem right that Castiel would rather trust an invisible, intangible presence than trust Dean.

"Why? Should I be… not fine?" Castiel asks uncertainly. Yeah, that's great, encourage your ward to freak out. C'mon, Dean!

"No, no, it's…. fine," Dean says. He's still feeling disgruntled, but he figures he owes Castiel the benefit of the doubt. After all, if anyone ever turns up and tells Dean it's their job to protect him, his response will be 'it's a little late for that, pal'. As far as first meetings go, it hasn't been great, but at least there hasn't been any stabbing.

"I don't know what to say," Castiel says, after too long has passed without anybody speaking.

"Yeah, I get that," Dean says. Great. Fifty years of awkward silence. He's almost grateful when a piercing scream rips through the air. Castiel's head snaps towards the noise and it's simply fucking bizarre that Dean can feel his panic, hear it like a siren.

"Don't worry," Dean says. "I'll go check it out." He focuses on the hallway and finds himself standing in it, only to change his mind and return a heartbeat later. Castiel stares, his mouth hanging slightly open.

"I should probably let you know I can do that," Dean says apologetically, and then he teleports away again. He wonders if that's going to make Castiel more or less likely to believe he's real.

Dean arrives by the side of a clearly distressed woman, her arms pinned down by nurses on both sides.

"It's all in your mind, Gemma," one nurse soothes. "It wasn't real."

"It was!" the woman- Gemma- sobs. "I know what I saw. I saw my sister, it was her, she was there!"

The nurses exchange a glance. "Your sister is dead, Gemma," the first nurse says. "You know that."

"Of course I fucking know that! But I saw her, she was here, she was-"

"Let's get you back to your rom," the other nurse says sympathetically. "Dr. Carr can give you something to help you calm down."

"I wasn't hallucinating," the woman objects angrily, but she lets herself be lead back to her room. Shaking his head, Dean turns away. What did you expect? This is a psych ward. Assume whackjob until proven otherwise. But when he overhears somebody saying "That's the third person in a week", he freezes in place. He doesn't need his freaky angel ESP for that to set off alarm bells.

"It's not right, Lucy," the nurse continues.

"You know how these things can spread," the doctor replies. "The patients are vulnerable at the best of times, and mass hysteria is hardly unheard of- especially considering what happened to Ingrid."

"Who started this whole thing off!" the nurse says heatedly. "She claims she saw her son, and where is she now? With a nurse at her side, every second of the day, because she tried cutting her own throat open."

"I still don't understand how she did it," the doctor says, with a frustrated air that suggests this isn't the first time she's raised the point. "There wasn't a knife with her- we checked everywhere."

"Who knows? What matters is that she saw something, she tried to kill herself, and now two more patients have reported seeing the exact same kind of thing. What if that's not where the similarities end?"

"The other patients aren't suicidal," the doctor says.

"Neither was Ingrid," the nurse reminds her. The doctor bites her lip. "Maybe we should talk to the patients as a group," the nurse suggests.

"That might be a good idea," the doctor agrees, and their conversation turns to other things.

Dean looks over at the woman's door and wonders if he can walk through walls. He tests the theory. The answer is no, but he can still feel pain. I got the crappy end of the angel stick. Grumbling, Dean teleports into her room instead. Something is wrong here, and old habits die hard.

"It wasn't a hallucination," the woman named Gemma is claiming, her voice still shaking but more under control now. "I know my condition, I know I'm not well, but I also know what's real- and this was real. It was my sister, and she was trying to kill me."

"But why would your sister want to kill you?" the nurse asks gently.

"Because she's angry. Because I let her down," the woman says, and lets out a sudden sob. "It's my fault, it's my fault she's dead!" She breaks down into tears then, clutching her head in her hands.

Even if this is a hunt, I don't wanna see this. Dean returns to Castiel's room and flickers back into visibility. Shock spikes from Castiel when Dean appears out of nowhere, but there's not much Dean can do about it.

"Nothing to worry about," he reports. "Someone freaked out, but they're good now."

"Who?"

"Uh, some lady named Gemma. She thought she saw her sister or something. Don't worry about it."

Castiel doesn't press it any further. "So," he says instead. "Teleportation?"

"Yeah," Dean says, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms. "I guess I'd better tell you some more, huh?"

"Please."

"I've been… assigned to you. To protect you."

"From what?"

Dean shrugs. "Anything that might bother you. Like I said: 'guardian angel'."

"For how long?"

"Forever."

"Oh."

"Yeah, that sums it up," Dean agrees. "So, y'know, if you ever need anything- actually, forget it. I'll know."

"How?"

"I can kind of… sense your emotions. It's less creepy than it sounds, I swear. Don't panic."

"I wasn't going to."

"You aren't afraid?"

"You aren't very frightening," Castiel says simply, meeting Dean's eyes as he does so.

Dean thinks of when he stood in a tangle of metal and rock, slowly pouring goblet after goblet of boiling acid into a man's mouth; hearing his wet, gurgling screams, over and over and over until there was nothing left to scream with. It feels like a thousand years ago. It feels like a few hours ago. He makes the firm decision to never, ever tell Castiel.

"Yeah, well," Dean says gruffly. "Moving on."

Castiel's still looking at him, and Dean's starting to wonder if he's gotten into a staring competition without realising it. Maybe the guy's been locked away for too long, because he doesn't seem to understand how long it's normal to hold eye contact for.

"Who was there before me?"

"No one. You're-" Dean says, but stops because Castiel's interest has suddenly sky-rocketed. "What?"

"I didn't say anything," Castiel says.

"You did," Dean insists. "You asked who my last ward was."

Castiel shakes his head, slowly- and now Dean thinks about it, did he actually see Castiel's lips move? Didn't Anna say…?

"Awesome," he breathes approvingly. "I should have remembered but, man, you would not believe the day I'm having."

"You can read thoughts?" Castiel queries.

"Only yours, and that's the first time I've heard anything." Somebody knocks on the door a couple of rooms over. Distracted, Dean glances over at the noise.

Hello, he hears. Now that he's paying attention, he can tell that Castiel didn't say anything out loud. The words are too clear, too immediate.

"Hey there," Dean grins.

I thought that directly at you. I don't know if that makes any difference.

"Okay, test," Dean says; if they're going to start sharing headspace, he needs to know where the boundaries lie. "Think of a number. Don't think it 'at' me, just think it."

Castiel nods, and Dean waits. Silence, both out loud and in his head.

"Didn't hear anything," he tells Castiel. "Okay, think of another number."

"Why?"

"I got a theory. Humour me."

"Okay."

Dean narrows his eyes and focuses on Castiel, as hard as he can. At first, he doesn't think it's going to work, but then the ghost of a '7' drifts into his head.

"Seven?"

"Yes," Castiel says, astonished, and Dean allows himself a moment of pride. Nailed it.

"So what do you think?" Dean says. "I have to concentrate to read your normal thoughts, but anything aimed at me is fair game?"

"That sounds…. plausible."

"Well, I won't go probing for the stuff you aren't sending my way," Dean decides. "I promise."

"Thank you," Castiel says.

"No problem, man. You gotta have some privacy." Besides, what was it his dad always said? Eavesdroppers might hear things they don't like.

"Will others be able to see you?" Castiel questions.

"Nope. I turn invisible if anyone else shows up." Dean starts to chuckle. "Man, I am going to be so tempted to misuse that."

"What do you mean?"

"Never mind," he says, smile fading. This guy's your ward, not your friend. Keep quiet and do your damn job. "Apparently I can still do some basic human stuff- you know, moving things, opening doors- when I go all sixth sense, but I haven't tried that yet."

"You should," Castiel urges. Dean has to admit he's curious, so he lets himself drift out of his solid state. It's surprisingly easy. He turns to the book Castiel was reading and tries to pick it up, but finds his hand sails straight through it. Great.

"Are you still there?" Castiel asks unsurely.

"Yeah," Dean calls, but Castiel doesn't react. Obviously. He turns his attention to Castiel.

Yeah, he thinks. Castiel jumps, but then a small smile twitches at his lips. Dean guesses that this 'thought aiming' thing works both ways.

Impressive, Castiel says.

Thanks. Gimme a second here.

Dean turns his attention back to the book. You've taken out demons- you can move a freakin' book. Dean focuses as hard as he can and, eventually, his fingers close around the thing. It's heavy and he has to concentrate, but he manages to lift it a few inches. The look of wonder on Castiel's face makes Dean want to lift more things, just to prove that he can.

There's a knock at the door, and Dean has the sense of mind to drop the novel. Floating books can unnerve some people.

"Come in," Castiel says, sitting back down. Dean shifts in place, feeling uncomfortably voyeuristic. If anyone lies down on a couch and starts talking about their feelings, I am so out of here.

The door opens and a man in a white coat steps in. Dean's heart hits his shoes.

"Castiel Mallach?" Castiel nods. "My name is Dr. Smith."

Dean has actually experienced the unique sensation of having his heart ripped from his chest, so he can honestly say that nothing emotional could ever match it- but this about as close as it gets. His chest aches, his stomach churns, and as he looks at the familiar face he thinks that he'd rather be back in Hell than here, sitting in this room, looking at his little brother and knowing he can't say a single word that Sam will hear.

"I'm from a nearby institution- I've been drafted in to help out with some of the things going on here. Is it okay if I ask you some questions?" Sam- 'Dr. Smith'- asks.

"Of course," Castiel says. Sam flashes a tight smile and shuts the door behind him. He takes a seat opposite Castiel, and Dean drifts over, holding his breath even though he knows Sam can't see him.

Sam's… toughened. Maybe it's the phony smile, maybe it's how heavily he sits down, or maybe it's just the blank look in his eyes. Whatever it is, he's different. Dean doesn't like it.

"How have you been feeling?" Sam asks, but there's no compassion in it. Judging by what the staff were saying, Sam's here on a hunt, and whilst the whole 'doctor' thing might be an act, that never mattered before. Every time they pulled this routine- whether they were flashing badges or shrugging on lab coats- Sam's concern was the only thing that wasn't faked. The change unnerves Dean for reasons he can't quite place.

"As ever," Castiel replies. "Though I'm looking forward to Thursday."

"Thursday being…?"

"My discharge."

"Sorry, of course it is," Sam says. "Good to hear. So, Castiel- have you seen anything strange lately?"

"Real or hallucinatory?"

"You tell me."

"Neither."

"No? No visions of… I don't know, family members? Or friends?" Sam presses.

"No," Castiel says. "The hallucinations are still in remission."

In remission? The phrase snags Dean's attention, but his interest is fleeting. He wonders what Sam's spent the last four months doing. He's obviously still hunting- but is he doing it alone? Dean doesn't like the idea of Sam working cases with no back up.

"Sulphur? No," Castiel's saying, so that must have been a question at some point. Demons? Nah, this doesn't sound like demons. Think ghosts, Sammy.

"Cold spots?" Sam asks. That's more like it.

"Uh, no," Castiel replies.

"Anything else you can think of that's been strange? Even if it seems unrelated."

Do you count? Castiel asks. Dean's answer comes unbidden.

Don't you fucking dare.

Castiel visibly flinches at that, and drops his eyes back to the carpet. Dean feels like a dick, but he can't let Sam know. Either Sam will think that Castiel's joking and get upset, or he'll think that Castiel's serious and get upset, and either way they'll all be in Hell by nightfall.

"No," Castiel answers, and Sam's out of his seat before Castiel's even finished the word.

"Well, let me know if anything changes." Sam gives a curt nod as his goodbye, and leaves. Dean follows him through the open door without thinking twice.

Sam repeats the routine on a further six patients, all of whom report the same thing- no hallucinations, no ghosts, no sulphur, no cold spots. There are some interesting variations on 'anything abnormal', but none of it's supernatural.

When Sam closes the door on the sixth patient, he leans back against the wood and closes his eyes, exhaling. He looks so tired and old and so damn sad that Dean would give anything to be able to hand him a beer or tell him some dumb joke. But then Sam straightens up, all signs of weakness gone, and when he moves on Dean follows.

Dodging through doors before they close isn't fun, but Dean's frustration vanishes when they reach the car park and the most beautiful sight Dean's ever seen. He rushes over to the Impala and gently strokes the bonnet, stubbornly ignoring the way his hand dips into the metal.

"I missed you," he croons.

Sam passes him and yanks the door open. Dean hesitates. I should go back and find Castiel, he thinks. After all, that's his job now, and Sam can't even see Dean- he's hardly going to miss him.

But twenty-six years is a long time to form a habit, and just 'letting Sam go' is unthinkable. Besides, Castiel is in a hospital, with staff ready to burst in if he so much as sneezes. He doesn't need Dean right now. I can spare five more minutes.

Out of the corner of Dean's eye, he sees somebody yank open the passenger side door and gets in. Dean appears in the backseat almost by instinct: a stranger is in his car, and that's not something he's going to let slide. The mystery passenger is a woman with long hair and even longer legs. Dean wonders if Sam's finally found another Jess: someone sensible, someone caring, someone good for him. The idea is a comforting one.

And then two things happen simultaneously: the woman reaches up and pulls the passenger-side mirror down, and Sam glances over and says 'hey, Ruby'.

Dean's seen a demon's true face before- hell, he's seen Ruby's true face before- but it's not something that gets prettier with time. It's a vile, distorted thing that hurts to look at for too long, and even once Dean's gotten over his initial shock, the feeling of unease is hard to shake. Any conflict about where he's going next has well and truly dissipated.

They pull out of the parking lot, and Dean can't help but scowl when he notices that Sam's actually installed an iPod in the car. If I could, I would so be kicking your ass right now. Dean's distracted from his irritation by the realisation that there is not enough space for his wings in the back of car, but they are very definitely still there. He elects not to think too hard about it.

"So what did the crazies say?" Ruby asks.

"Well, vic number three was sedated by the time I got there, but the stories from the first two matched up," Sam says. "They were minding their own business when bam, ghost. Ingrid saw her son, Holly saw her husband."

"And they're still saying the ghosts attacked them?"

"Yeah, and victim number one has the gash marks to prove it." Sam grimaces. "The staff said that she tried to kill herself- she argues that the guy had a knife. I'm telling you, Ruby, she's damn lucky that her necklace had an iron crucifix on it. If she hadn't had it to hand…"

"Mmm," Ruby says. Sam carries on.

"Ingrid's son died in a car accident- but it turns out she was driving, and she was way over the speed limit. And Holly, her husband died in a house fire- which started when she fell asleep halfway through cooking dinner."

"So what, vengeful ghosts?"

"Sounds like it."

"Then is this really the best use of your time?" Ruby says irritably. Sam sighs, like he knew this conversation was coming.

"We can't just leave these people, Ruby. We have to help them."

"No, Sam, what we have to do is stop Lilith- or don't you care about that anymore?"

"Of course I do," he snaps back instantly. Clearly, it's a sore spot.

"Then why are you wasting your time on this stupid hunt? If it was demons, I'd understand, but…" Ruby turns her head towards Sam fully then, and lowers her voice slightly. "Do you really think that this is what Dean would want you to do? Take on ghost-hunting cases when the bitch that killed him is still out there somewhere?"

Anger pulses through Dean like fire. "Don't go there, sister," he says softly, and he doesn't care that she can't hear because a part of him would just love the excuse. He might not be able to wield a knife anymore, but there are other ways to kill demons. He's got no problem with experimenting until they work something out.

Besides- if nothing else, she's wrong. Dean doesn't want Sam working this case, but he doesn't want him hunting Lilith either. Hell, he doesn't know what he wants.

A big part of Dean wants Sam to just give this up and go back to school. He wants Sam to go to lectures and throw parties and learn to cook on a crappy campus stove, to get a job and meet a girl and have kids of his own, to go to their school plays and parent-teacher conferences and whatever else it is regular families do. Dean was prepared to go to Hell in exchange for Sam's life, and that's what he wants him to have: a life. Not some vengeance-driven existence, overseen and manipulated by the black-eyed bitch sitting in front of him.

"I…" Sam falters, but then his face sets hard. "Dean would want me to help people. That's all."

Ruby glares, but Sam keeps his eyes fixed on the road. "There was something else weird," he says eventually. "Ingrid said her son had a strange mark on his arm."

"Like a cut?"

"More like a tattoo."

"How old was the kid?"

"Seven. Hardly the Miami Ink type."

"So what, you think it means something?"

"I think it could do," he says. "Holly said her husband was wearing a coat, so if there was a mark on him she wouldn't have seen it. Once Gemma wakes up-"

"You're going back?" Ruby whines.

"In a couple hours, yeah," Sam replies. "Come on, it's hardly a long journey."

"Why did you even bother leaving?" Ruby says, slumping down in her seat like a petulant child.

"You know why." Sam turns his head and whilst the look he gives Ruby is definitely meaningful, Dean's damned if he knows what the meaning is.

"What's the point if we're only working a dumb ghost case?" Ruby complains.

"We're nearly done with it now- and besides, you're the one always saying it's a good idea," Sam says. Dean doesn't like the sound of that. Anything a demon is pushing as a good choice is bound to be the opposite.

"Yeah, because it is, but I don't-"

Ruby's words disappear as something digs hooks into Dean's mind and wrenches. He gasps and doubles over, raising a shaking hand to his head. He doesn't need help deciphering the meaning: go to your ward.

"… stronger… need to…" Words are filtering through- Dean thinks they're Sam's- but he has to fight to hear them, let alone work out their meaning.

Just another second, he thinks, gritting his teeth. Picking out Castiel's presence is like finding a bonfire in the darkness, but Sam and Ruby are nothing but needles in a haystack of seven billion people. If Dean leaves before he finds out where they're crashing, it could take him a long time to find them again- by which time, it'll be too late to try and stop whatever terrible thing they have planned. Sam had said they were staying nearby- and if Castiel can just hang on a little while longer-

But there are explosions in Dean's mind, made up of alarms he can't hear and lights he can't see, and he's about to give in and teleport when the feeling suddenly begins to subside. Within seconds the pull is transformed into a faint, trailing thing; 'come when you can' rather than 'go now'.

What if he's hurt? Dean thinks unsurely. It faded so suddenly… what if he's dying? No, surely Dean would feel something like that. Wouldn't I? He closes his eyes and focuses.

Castiel? Dean attempts to transmit. You there?

I'm fine, the answer comes, as clear as if Castiel was sitting next to him. It's not the answer to the question Dean asked, but he's too relieved to care.

You sure? Dean checks.

Yes.

Want me to come back?

Are you busy?

"It's only because I care about you." Ruby's words reach Dean as she raises a hand to caress Sam's cheek. Sam looks at her with huge, pained eyes, and she sighs. "Fine. We'll do it."

Well…

Then no, Castiel answers. It's not urgent.

Thanks, man, Dean thinks, and he shuts off from the conversation. He's feeling guilty, but family comes first, and it's not like Dean didn't offer to go back. If the danger was that bad, Dean reasons, then Castiel would have said yes. As it stands, the guy's coped without Dean for thirty years; he can hang on for another thirty minutes.


It's just as well Dean stayed, because Sam drives past every motel to pull into a driveway. It's a full-on gravelled, tree-lined affair, winding its up to a majestic-looking building. The nearest neighbouring house must be a good half-mile away. Dean has to admit that if it was privacy Sam and Ruby were after, they pretty much nailed it.

Sam and Ruby go around the back of the house and Dean follows, passing through a garden that actually has a goddamn fountain. He lingers too long, and Ruby shuts the back door before he can pass through it. Dean mutters insults at the oak before teleporting inside, where he finds Sam and Ruby in the kitchen.

Ruby reaches into the fridge and pulls out a beer.

"Ruby!" Sam scolds.

"What?" she says, biting off the cap and spitting it into the sink. "It's one measly beer, Sam."

"What if they notice it's missing?"

"It's their own fault for leaving it here." She takes a swig, looks at him and sighs. "If it bothers you that much, we can always replace it."

"We should have stayed in a motel," Sam says guiltily.

"Why? Sam, this place is empty. The owners are currently somewhere in the Bahamas, bathing in money. Don't you like staying somewhere nice for a change?"

"We're squatting."

"In a nice place!" she insists. "And with any luck, all this ghost crap will be over soon, and we can move on."

"Hey, did you want me to show you that symbol?" he says, brightening a little. "Ingrid drew it out for me, and I'm pretty sure I remember it."

"If you want." Sam pulls an old receipt out of his pocket and hunts around for a pen. Dean watches Sam sketch out the symbol, but he doesn't recognise it.

"There," Sam says when he's done, pushing the drawing over to Ruby. "It might be nothing- she might have hallucinated it, but-"

"It's not nothing," Ruby answers, staring at the page. "I've seen this mark before."

"Yeah?" Sam says hungrily, leaning forwards. "Where? What does it mean?"

"It's the mark of the Witness," she says in what Dean thinks might be awe. His wings pull in closer to his sides. There's a deep kind of sadness lurking in his chest that he supposes must be from seeing Sam. He pushes it aside, annoyed.

"Witness?" Sam repeats. "Witness to what?"

"The supernatural. These ghosts must have died in pretty freaky ways."

"Ingrid and Holly said car crash and house fire," Sam frowns.

"And during their several years in a psychiatric care home, they've probably been told that pretty damn often. These ghosts wouldn't have risen of their own accord- somebody rose them on purpose, Sam."

"Who?"

"Lilith. It has to be." Ruby pauses to let it sink in. "This is big. I mean, we knew she had plans, but this…?" Ruby turns away towards the sink. Dean thinks he sees a fleeting smile cross her face, but when Sam places a concerned hand on her shoulder and she turns back to him, her expression is troubled.

"What? What does it mean?" Sam asks.

"The apocalypse," Ruby whispers, and it takes a moment to sink in. The sadness that's bugging Dean is difficult to ignore, and it's making it hard to focus. Man up and deal, he tells himself in annoyance.

"What?" Sam says in shock.

"The Rising of Witnesses is a Seal," Ruby says. "There are over six hundred, and they're like locks on a door. Break sixty-six and the door falls open."

"What's behind the door?"

"Lucifer."

Sam and Dean both stare at her. "As in the Devil?" Sam asks.

"That's the one," Ruby says grimly. "If Lilith's trying to free Lucifer, she's trying to end the world. And if she's breaking Seals, she might just do it."

"Then we have to stop her!" Sam says. "How do we stop her?"

"You know how," Ruby says. Sam nods and, without any warning, Dean finds himself facing a blank wall. He spins around, but Sam and Ruby are gone, replaced with a grungy motel room and an unsmiling angel.

"Inias?" Dean says, stepping forwards. "What the hell-"

"Aren't you forgetting something?" Inias asks severely. Dean should be furious, but the inexplicable gloom plaguing him dampens it down. He is hit with sudden understanding- the sensation, real though it may be, is not his.

"I swear, this 'psychic link' stuff is more trouble than it's worth," he mutters. "So it's Castiel?"

Inias just looks at him, and Dean thinks there's disappointment in his eyes. Screw you, pal. You don't know a damned thing.

"Look-" Dean begins, but Inias cuts him off.

"You should get back to Earth," he says. "Your ward needs you."

Dean grits his teeth and refrains from answering. Inias touches his shoulder and takes him back to Earth, leaving him in the hallway outside Castiel's room without another word. Dean has a nasty feeling that this is going on his permanent record.

Dean appears inside the room, but Castiel isn't sitting in the chair or on the bed or standing by the window. Dean scans the room and very nearly misses the small, tan bundle in the corner. When realisation twigs, Dean literally hits the ground running, smashing into visibility as he rushes to Castiel's side.

"Castiel?" he asks, skidding to crouch by the man's side. "Cas?"

Castiel's head snaps up, gaze unfocused and uncomprehending. "Cas?" Dean repeats. Castiel shakes his head slightly, as if dispelling fog, and his eyes are clear when they meet Dean's.

"Dean," Castiel says.

"What happened?" Dean demands. Castiel doesn't seem hurt, but the sadness Dean misplaced earlier hangs heavily around him, so thick that Dean can almost taste it. He remembers the shrieks of alarm in his head earlier and feels sick.

"Nothing," Castiel answers stiffly.

"What, so you're hiding the corner of your room for fun?" Dean says in disbelief.

"I wasn't hiding," Castiel says.

"Castiel-"

"I'm sorry if I worried you."

Dean stands up. Castiel is an awful liar, especially when he's huddled against the wall with his knees pressed to his chest and that stupid oversized trench coat swamping him. Dean changes his approach. He looks at Castiel and focuses, and the image of a woman floats into his head. He pushes deeper, and Castiel's eyes widen as he realises what Dean is doing.

"Get out," Castiel says. He tries to scramble away, but he's backed up against the corner as it is. "You said you wouldn't!"

"If you're gonna lie to me, you don't leave me much choice," Dean growls. Castiel is fighting him, trying to pull the memory away, but Dean's got a firm grip on it.

"You said you wouldn't," Castiel repeats. "Dean, you promised."

Dean hesitates. "Dammit," he mutters, and lets go.

"Thank you," Castiel says, sounding pretty shaken up. Dean's new to this; presumably his attempt wasn't the discreet reading of the higher-level 's been at this job for about an hour and he's already screwing stuff up. It shouldn't really come as a shock.

Dean sighs. "I'm probably going about this the wrong way," he acknowledges, looking down at Castiel. He holds out a hand, but Castiel just looks at it.

"I don't bite," Dean snorts. Castiel slowly puts his hand in Dean's and lets himself be pulled up.

"You hurt?" Dean asks. Castiel shakes his head.

"No."

"Good. Sit down."

Castiel takes a seat obediently on the bed. After a moment of deliberation, Dean sits down too, in the chair Sam had used. Probably best if we're on the same level. Dean thinks that his wings have draped themselves over the back of the chair, but he can't be sure; the damned things have a life of their own.

"Sorry I didn't come earlier," Dean says.

"It's okay."

"No, it isn't. So, sorry." Castiel doesn't respond. "What happened?"

"I saw someone," Castiel says. "Someone who couldn't have been here."

"Someone who's dead?"

"Yes." Dean's stomach twists. It was a ghost, and you left him. He could have died, you ass. But Castiel didn't die, and now Dean knows where Ruby and Sam are, and what Lilith's planning. That's gotta be worth something, right? Even if it is, Dean can't shake the feeling of guilt.

"Who did you see?" Dean asks. Castiel doesn't answer, and Dean snorts. "Right, like I'm gonna tell anyone. C'mon, who?"

"My mother," Castiel replies. "She killed herself when I was sixteen." His voice is even and the lack of emotion in it means the revelation catches Dean by surprise.

"Crap. I'm sorry," he says, feeling like the world's biggest asshole.

"It was a long time ago," Castiel says. "Was what I saw real?"

"Define 'real'."

"Was it her?"

"I… think so," Dean says. Castiel digests this, his face flickering only briefly from its stony composure.

"Ghosts are real," Castiel says slowly.

"Afraid so," Dean confirms.

"Angels and ghosts are both real."

"Sure seems that way."

"What else?"

"Huh?"

"Vampires? Zombies? What else is there I should know about?"

A lot, but I'm not gonna tell any of it to someone on that much medication. "It doesn't matter. The gho- your mother. What did she do?"

"What do you mean?"

"Did she try and attack you?"

"I'm not sure," Castiel says. "She came towards me and reached out, but she vanished before she could do anything." That's not really any reassurance; ghosts rarely stay gone for long.

Castiel lifts a trembling hand like he's only just realised that it's attached to him. "I'm shaking," he states, puzzled.

"Not surprised," Dean says. He's seen less crazy stuff bring down less crazy people- he's kind of amazed that the guy's still standing. "What you saw must've come as one hell of a shock."

"It's been that kind of day," Castiel replies, and Dean laughs in surprise. Maybe a bit of crazy helps with this kind of thing. It'd certainly explain how he and Sam keep on going.

"Did you notice anything weird about her?" Dean presses.

"Other than the fact that she's been dead for fourteen years?" Strangely, Dean doesn't think Castiel is being sarcastic.

"Yeah, other than that."

Castiel thinks. "I don't think so, but I can't be sure. The experience was… distressing."

"Uh, understatement. Why didn't you tell me to come?"

"You said you were busy," Castiel says, and Dean feels guiltier than ever. Great.

"Anything else happens, you call me," Dean says. "Understand?"

"Yes. Thank you, Dean," Castiel says, more sincerely than Dean expected. The gratitude is misplaced, but Dean can't deny that it's kind of nice all the same. It makes him feel good- and the pure kind of good, not the kind that comes from taking out your pain on whoever's chained up in front of you.

"Any time, Cas," Dean grins.

"Cas," Castiel says the word carefully, like it could shatter in his mouth. "You keep calling me that."

"What, should I not?"

"No, it's… fine," Castiel says.

"Cool," Dean says. "Listen, if everything's okay now, then I'm gonna go. If anything happens-"

"- I'll let you know," Castiel finishes. Dean will know anyway- he knew anyway- but he's too spineless to admit it. Besides, he has other things to worry about than a near-stranger in a hospital room.


By the time Dean gets there, it's too late; Sam and Ruby have already done whatever it was they were planning. Sam actually seems better, though, more upbeat. He says something and Ruby sniggers, then links her arms around his neck and kisses him deeply. Dean stares blankly, not quite processing what he's seeing. Apparently not satisfied with boning werewolves, Sam's moved onto demons. Well, ain't that fantastic.

Still, if sex is all they were referring to, that's gotta be a good thing. Disgusting and downright wrong, but certainly safer than some other possibilities. Dean's suddenly very glad that he didn't stick around to watch.

They get on with research- Ruby flicking through books, Sam on his laptop. Sam closes a window and Dean sees that his computer background is a blurry cellphone shot of him and Dean, taken a couple of years back in a diner Dean barely remembers going to. There's a sharp yank of sadness in Dean's gut that's definitely his own.

A few hours of Sam-watching later, they've figured out a spell. They're discussing who's going to do what- Sam wants someone to head back to the hospital and look out for the patients- when a wave of confusion spreads through Dean. It takes him a little longer than it should do to work out that it's coming from Castiel, and that it's gotta be pretty severe if Dean can sense it from this far away. Sam and Ruby are still arguing, so Dean thinks he's okay to make a quick trip back to the hospital.

Castiel is sitting on the edge of his bed, staring at his feet, when Dean materialises.

"What's going on?" Dean asks. Castiel jolts at the voice and then raises his head. He looks troubled.

"They've discharged me," he says, sounding utterly bewildered.

"Early? How come?"

"I don't know. All Dr. Carr said is that I'm being discharged early, and that I'm to leave within the hour."

Dean doesn't see the problem. "Isn't that good news?"

"Well, yes," Castiel says. "But my flat… I had a space in a supported living apartment, but it's not available until Thursday."

"Can't they take you earlier?"

"Possibly," Castiel says, "but it seems unlikely. They're fairly oversubscribed; this booking was made in January."

It's September now, Dean realises. It was May when he died; an entire season rolled by while he wasn't breathing. He wonders if he missed any good movies.

He pushes his own crap away to focus on Castiel. "Maybe if you tell the doctor that, he'll let you stay," Dean says, but Castiel shakes his head.

"He's aware of the situation." Dean thinks that sounds like one hell of a dick move, but he doesn't know what he's supposed to do about it. Hell, even if Dean found a flat, would Castiel know what to do with it? The guy's never had a job, never paid a bill, never even slept in a house by himself. What's Dean supposed to do with somebody like that?

Find something, Dean thinks bluntly. "Don't worry about it," he says, clapping a hand on Castiel's shoulder. "You got a suitcase?"

"Yes."

"Good. We'll work out some place for you to stay after you get packed."

Dean lends a hand- not that he needs to. In sixteen years Castiel has somehow amassed the grand total of two books; apparently, he gives them away once he's read them. He has a single framed picture of his family from twenty years ago, plain clothes, a few basics like shampoo and deodorant, and not that much else.

"That's it?" Dean says when they're finished. The suitcase isn't even half full. Okay, so Dean's been living out the back of a Chevrolet Impala since he was old enough to know what a Chevrolet Impala was, but that's his life. It's a hunter's life. It doesn't seem right for someone with a fixed address.

"Yes."

"You haven't got a phone? A laptop?"

"I didn't see a point in either."

There's a knock at the door, and Dean disappears. "Yes?" Castiel says, and it opens to reveal a nurse. Dean doesn't recognise her, which comes as something of a relief after 'Dr. Smith', but Castiel clearly does.

"Jane," he greets her. The nurse beams at him.

"Ready to go, Castiel?" she asks.

"Now?" Castiel says, his anxiety palpable.

"No time like the present," the nurse says bouncily. "I'll show you out. Can you carry your case okay?"

"Yes," he says. He zips it up and pauses, and Dean looks away out of respect. Castiel deserves a chance to say goodbye. This is his home- he's lived in it for sixteen years, four times as long as Dean's ever lived in one place.

That freaks Dean out, to be honest. As stable as Castiel seems, there's got to be something seriously wrong with a person for them to be locked up for that long. Dean's not crazy about the idea that he's going to be on wacko-care for the entirety of his angelic career.

Castiel reluctantly follows Jane out, Dean drifting after them. He follows the pair down the long corridor, and they both wait patiently as Jane punches in a four digit code to unlock the door. A few twists and turns later, and they're standing on the front doorstep of the hospital. A fresh wave of apprehension punches Dean in the stomach.

It's okay, he tells his ward. Just breathe, yeah?

Castiel takes a deep and obedient breath, and Dean thinks that it helps. "Goodbye, Castiel," Jane says. "Take care of yourself, okay?"

"I will," Castiel replies, and then Jane goes back inside and leaves him standing on the steps, alone.

Dean?

Still here. Dean has no idea what they do now. Maybe he can book Castiel into a hotel or something- he could steal one of Sam's credit cards, get a room for a few nights. Sam wouldn't mind- hell, if he knew what was going on, he'd probably volunteer to take Castiel in himself.

Speak of the devil. Sam looks up as he turns the corner, and whilst he clearly recognises Castiel, he looks straight through Dean. Dean is distracted from his somewhat irrational hurt by the nondescript bag gripped in Sam's right hand. It's the right size and shape to conceal a gun.

"Hey!" Sam says, closing the gap in a few long-legged strides. "Cassiel, right?"

"Castiel," he corrects. "Hello again, Dr. Smith."

"Call me Sam. You going somewhere?" Sam asks, nodding towards the case.

"Early discharge," Castiel replies.

"Released early on good behaviour, huh?" Castiel tilts his head, not comprehending, and Sam moves on.

"Listen," Sam begins, laying a hand on Castiel's arm. Dean suppresses a chuckle at how bewildered Castiel looks, and after an awkward second Sam lets go. "I'm gonna ask you something, and I need you to tell me the truth. Whatever your answer is, I'm not gonna send you back to the hospital- I just need you to be honest with me. Can you do that?"

"I think so," Castiel says uncertainly. "How can I help?"

"Have you seen anything strange? And by anything, I mean anyone. Somebody who was close to you, who you lost- somebody whose death you might blame on yourself." Dean does a double-take. Castiel looks uncertain of how to proceed, his eyes flickering around like they're trying to meet Dean's.

Tell him the truth, Dean advises. He doesn't know what's going on, but it looks like Sam does.

"Yes," Castiel confesses. "My mother."

Sam grimaces. "Did you notice anything different about her? A mark or tattoo, maybe?"

"I don't think so, but I can't be sure."

Sam nods. "And did she try and attack you?"

These questions are probably sounding awfully familiar to Castiel. Dean senses an unpleasant conversation approaching on the horizon.

"She approached me, but then she vanished," Castiel answers.

"How long ago was this?"

"A few hours."

"Right," Sam says, lips drawing into a tight line. "I know you don't want to hear this, Castiel, but I really don't think you should be alone right now. What you saw wasn't a hallucination- it was a ghost, and not a friendly one. You were lucky this time but, by the look of it, once you've seen one you can pretty much guarantee it's going to come back. I'm sorry, I know this must be a lot to take in- but it'd be a load off my mind if you'd agree to stick with me for a little while."

"Why?"

"Because I think you might be in danger," Sam says, laying the puppy eyes on thick.

You can trust him, Dean tells Castiel, though he doesn't like this one bit. Then again, he also doesn't like the idea of trying to fend off murderous ghosts when he has a nasty habit of fading into uselessness as soon as someone pops their head around the door. If Sam can get Castiel somewhere safe, make a salt ring and sit him down quietly in the middle, then Dean can drop his babysitting job for a few minutes and do what he does best: help his brother.

"If you think it's for the best," Castiel says. Sam looks taken aback; he probably didn't expect Castiel to agree that easily.

"Okay," Sam says. "Great! We're going to have to go back into the hospital, and things might get messy- but just stay close to me, okay? If you see anything, don't try and take it on, just shout. I'll look after you, don't worry."

"Can't I help?" Castiel says, and a strange look takes over Sam's face. Dean flicks through his personal catalogue of 'Sam', but it's not easy to place the expression. It's like some strange mix of guilt and hope, and Sam takes a while to reply.

"No," Sam says. "It's too dangerous."

"If people are in danger, I want to help," Castiel presses. "Please."

Dean doesn't know what to make of that. It's a difficult job to take on alone and he hates the idea of sending Sam in with no backup, but any 'help' Castiel has to offer can only be a hindrance.

Sam's still got that look on his face, and Dean finally places it; he looks like a kid weighing up whether or not to do something he knows he really, really shouldn't. Sam looks at Castiel, and Castiel looks back without baulking.

"You sure?" Sam asks.

"Yes," Castiel says firmly.

Sam sighs, resigned. "Okay," he says. "Come with me. You can bring your stuff."

Castiel picks up his bag and follows Sam all the way to the Impala.

They find Ruby slumped in the passenger seat, her feet propped up on the dashboard and- for the love of all that's holy, please don't let that be a bag of chips. Castiel hangs back as Sam bangs on the window and Ruby looks up in irritation. When Sam gestures at her, she winds the window down.

"You rang?" she says.

"Has she showed up again?" Sam asks. She?

"Didn't I say I'd call if she did?"

"Is that a no?" Sam presses. Ruby rolls her eyes.

"Yes, it's a no. I told you, I don't think- oh," she breathes as her eyes fall on Castiel. "Yep, that'll do."

"Something you'd like to share with the group?" Dean says testily.

Sam looks distinctly uncomfortable. "You're sure about this?" he asks Ruby.

"Don't you dare," she says instantly. "I'm not making this decision for you. You were the one who insisted I couldn't do the spell alone, you were the one who wanted to draft in help, and you're the one who's apparently found it. It's your choice to make, so make it."

Sam puffs out air. "Okay. Right." He gathers himself. "Castiel?" he asks, turning around. Ruby smirks and winds the window back up.

"Yes?" Castiel says, moving forwards.

"Okay," Sam begins. "You're not the only person seeing ghosts. A lot of people at the hospital are, and they're all in danger. That's why I came back, to try and protect them. There's a spell that can banish the ghosts, but the problem they don't much like you doing it. My friend-" Sam breaks off to nod at Ruby in the car- "tried to do it, but a ghost started attacking her. When she called and told me, I asked her to come here so I could keep an eye on her."

Well, at least that explains who Ruby's mysterious 'she' is. Castiel doesn't question why Ruby's waiting in the car rather than going in with Sam, which is slightly disappointing; Dean was looking forward to hearing Sam explain that away without admitting that his latest sweetheart doesn't mix well with salt and iron.

"The spell has a pretty complex set-up- there's no way we could move it here now. If I leave Ruby- my friend- to do the spell alone, she'll be killed. If I leave the people here alone, they'll be killed. I can't be in two places at once," Sam says helplessly. "It's totally fine if you say no- but if you did still want to help…"

"You want me to guard her while she completes the spell?" Castiel says.

"No!" Dean objects. Castiel is vulnerable, an innocent, and the Sam that Dean said goodbye to four months ago would never have used somebody like this.

"Yes," Sam confirms.

"I'll do it," Castiel says.

No! Dean repeats, this time to somebody who can hear him. Castiel's calm expression flickers, but he remains silent.

"Thank you," Sam says sincerely. It's probably good thing Dean's not all that solid right now, because he doesn't want to hurt his car but he really wants to hit something. What's the point in being a guardian angel if your ward doesn't listen to your damn advice?

"Ghosts have certain vulnerabilities," Sam explains to Castiel. "One is iron, another is salt- both will hold them off for a little while. You can actually pack the salt into bullets, and I've got a few guns loaded up like that- pretty harmless if it hits a person, but enough to buy you a few minutes of peace from a pissed-off ghost. Have you fired a gun before?"

"No," Castiel replies, "but I'm prepared to learn."

Sam's mouth twists; clearly, he disagrees. "If you really think you can handle it, then okay, but you don't have to. If you see something that shouldn't be there, just whack it with something made of iron- it'll have the same effect."

"I understand," Castiel says, internalising the orders without question.

Sam seems unsure of how to phrase what comes next. "I mean anything that shouldn't be there, Castiel. That includes-"

"- my mother," Castiel says. "I know. I can do it."

"Good," Sam says. He offers Castiel a brief but heartfelt smile. "Thanks for this."

Dean is pissed. Dean is pissed beyond belief, for so many reasons that it's hard to pin them all down. He doesn't like that Castiel isn't listening to him, doesn't like that Sam can't listen to him, doesn't like that his dewy-eyed little brother puts so much trust in a creature from Hell itself. He doesn't like that his ward is endangering himself- doesn't like that his ward is endangering himself for Ruby- and mostly, he doesn't like that he can't pick up a salt gun and take care of this mess himself.

"What about you?" Castiel asks Sam. "Have you seen the ghost of a loved one?"

Way to be subtle, Dean thinks as Sam flinches.

"Me? Uh, no. Not yet, at least." Sam sounds uncomfortable. Castiel either doesn't notice or doesn't care.

"Do you think that you will?"

"Knowing my luck? No doubt," he says bitterly. "It's gonna be fun."

"I'm afraid you're wrong, it's not at all enjoyable."

"What? Dude, no. Sarcasm."

"Oh," Castiel says. "That does make more sense."

Sam looks at him oddly, but doesn't comment. "I keep waiting for someone to turn up," he admits, "but I don't even know who it'd be."

"Do you know anybody who has died from… supernatural causes?"

"I don't know anyone who's died from natural ones," Sam says brusquely. "Trust me, there's a whole line-up for them to pick from."

"They?" Castiel frowns.

"Someone's doing this," Sam says. "Somebody's forcing these people to rise. A demon."

"A demon?"

"I know, I know," Sam says. "Stay with me here. Her name is Lilith."

"You know her?"

"You could say that," Sam says evenly. "But right now, we need to focus on the ghosts. Ruby can drive you back to the house."

On any other occasion, Dean thinks he'd throw a fully blown bitch-fit over that filthy bag of sulphur groping his car, but there are so many other things bothering him right now that he can only watch numbly as Ruby moves into the driver's seat.

"Good luck," Sam says, and Ruby starts the car.

Dean takes up what's quickly becoming 'his' seat. He doesn't like having to sit in the back of the Impala; it's a sign that something is very wrong with the universe.

"My name is Castiel," Castiel volunteers as they drive. Ruby turns the wheel with a careless yank that makes Dean fight off an urge to slap her hands away.

"Good for you," she says, and the remainder of the journey passes in silence. When they arrive, Ruby gets out without looking back and stomps around to the trunk of the car. By the time Castiel's at her side, she's holding a shotgun. Dean's suddenly very grateful that the house is so secluded.

"Take this," she tells him, and before Castiel can object she's pushed the gun into his arms. "You know how to use it?"

"No," he says, and Ruby takes all of sixty seconds to explain. Dean notices that she's pulled on a pair of black leather gloves, but Castiel doesn't comment.

"Get it?" Ruby asks once she's covered how to point and shoot.

"I think so," Castiel says.

"Confidence-inspiring," she mutters, turning back to the car and rummaging through the Winchester artillery. "If something weird shows up, you shoot it; if I tell you to get something, you get it. Don't ask stupid questions if you want to make it out alive. Clear?"

"Yes," Castiel says confidently. Ruby looks up and closes her eyes for a moment. She reaches forwards and silently turns Castiel's gun the right way up.

"Thank you," he says stiffly. Ruby pulls out a heavy-looking chain of iron links from the trunk, then slams the lid down.

"Showtime," she announces. She starts walking, the chain trailing behind her and crushing flowers as she goes. So much for not being noticed. Alone in the driveway, Castiel looks more than a little lost.

"Dean?" he asks out loud.

Still here, Dean tells him.

Castiel nods. "Then I suppose I had better go inside."

Cas, no. Listen to me- you don't have to do anything. It's not too late to change your mind.

Castiel wrinkles his brow. "Why would I do that?"

Because you can't handle this! If your mom turns up-

"She may not."

Give me a break. Ghosts don't just give up.

"I-"

And quit talking to yourself like that. People are gonna think-

Dean is cut off by a sudden scream from inside the house.

"I'm sorry," Castiel says, sounding torn, and then he turns and follows Ruby's path. Swearing as loudly as he can, Dean follows.

They find Ruby in the lounge, gripping a tattered book in one hand and the chain in the other. What must be the set-up from earlier is still in place, various reagents scattered throughout the room.

"Game's started," Ruby says, and though she sounds as cocky as ever, she looks strangely pale. Whichever ghost is bugging her must have made a reappearance.

Ruby drops her eyes to the stone bowl in front of her, sprinkling a handful of some unknown powder in. "Try and keep up," she tells Castiel. "Ten points if you get them in the head."

"I wasn't aware there was a scoring system."

Ruby looks at him strangely. "What were you doing at Brightwood again?" she asks cautiously, crumbling a sage leaf into the bowl.

"I was a patient there for sixteen years," Castiel answers. Ruby's hand stills briefly.

"Of course you were," she says tiredly, and resumes her work. Dean takes that as his cue to return to Sam's side.


The ability to be in two places at once would be useful, and as a result, Dean does not possess it. One second he's at the hospital with Sam, watching him argue with a nurse about their 'no weapons' policy; the next, he's watching Ruby crush herbs together, Castiel standing nearby with the gun clasped protectively to his chest. Back with Sam, watching him throw a handful of salt into the face of a screeching ghost as he breaks into a run; back with Castiel when the pull in his head tells him he's needed.

The woman bursts into nothingness as Dean appears. Breathing heavily, Castiel lowers his gun.

That your mom? Castiel jumps so hard that he fires a round into the wall. Dean cringes.

No, Castiel replies. Whoever she is, she was here for Ruby.

Dean glances over at the demon in question, who's crouching over the absent family's marble fireplace. He's pretty sure that she's using their photos as kindling. Dean still can't get over how creepy her true face is. It's like an optical illusion where he's seeing the duck and the rabbit at the same time, except the duck is an attractive young woman, and the rabbit is a nightmare-inducing mess that even friggin' Dante couldn't have thought up.

Dean's never been great with analogies.

A woman flashes into sight, dark hair tumbling in ringlets past her shoulders. Her eyes are blue and her gaze is cold, and Castiel's face flickers from shock to pain before setting into an unfeeling hardness. Castiel raises the gun and the bullet explodes through the figure's chest, dissipating it instantly. Bone-deep sadness spreads through Dean and he runs from it, swapping back to Sam.

The hospital is barely-controlled bedlam, and Dean watches Sam half-drag a sobbing woman behind a line of salt. She reaches out a hand for Sam, but he shrugs her touch away and sweeps from the room, already moving onto the next person.

Back to Castiel and Ruby at the house, and the ghosts are coming faster than ever. Ruby's playmate goes down in one shot, Castiel's mother in the next. Dean notices that Castiel doesn't meet her eyes when he pulls the trigger.

Back to Sam, and Dean's stomach sinks when he sees Agent Henriksen standing in Sam's path.

"- to me," he's saying to Sam, who seems frozen in place. "It was your fault."

"I'm sorry," Sam croaks. "I- we didn't-"

"Didn't what? It was you, Sam. You, and your selfish, asshole broth-"

Henriksen explodes into nothingness. Sam lowers the gun and says, quietly, "You don't get to talk about Dean."

Back at the house, Ruby shouts 'Castiel!' as a ghost yanks an arm around her throat, bending to hiss something into her ear. Dean glimpses the much-discussed black mark on the ghost's arm a split second before Castiel fires. Ruby ducks, and the rock salt bullet goes straight through the apparition's head.

"Ten to you," Ruby says, sounding nearly impressed as she turns back to the fire.

At the hospital, Sam's moving down the hallway, flattering himself against the wall, when suddenly his gun goes spilling out of his hand.

"Sam!" Dean shouts, without thinking, as Henriksen pushes at the air and Sam hits the ground hard.

"Please," Sam says, low and urgent, as Henriksen stalks toward him. "We didn't kill you, Victor. If we knew that Lilith was coming for you then we never would have left, we-"

"What, so you think you left and she turned up and we all died in a beautiful blast of white light?" Henriksen laughs bitterly. "If only. Forty-five minutes."

Dean gapes. So does Sam. "What?" they whisper as one.

"You heard me- over forty-five minutes. Lilith said she wanted to have some fun. The secretary was first. Remember her? Nancy, the virgin." Henriksen pauses to smile a horrible, horrible smile. Sam's slowly edging his hand towards the gun, but Dean doesn't think that Henriksen has noticed yet.

"Lilith filleted Nancy's skin off piece by piece," Henriksen says, enunciating every word, making sure Sam doesn't miss a thing. "Right in front of us. Made us watch. Nancy never stopped screaming."

Dean gasps suddenly. It's the same pull as before, the same warning bells beginning to screech in his head- Castiel is in danger.

"You really pick your moments," Dean says through gritted teeth as Sam inches his fingers towards the gun. He's nearly there, nearly safe-

"Dammit, Cas, just shoot the fucking thing!" Dean begs as the pull gets stronger, building and building until it's all he can see, hear, can taste it behind his teeth. Dean can't leave. Not when his little brother is inches away from dying because there's no one there to save him, because Dean screwed up and let Sam get hurt- because Dean always, always screws up.

Suddenly, Sam springs for the gun. Henriksen moves with him but Sam's faster, and as the ghost splinters into the ether, Dean appears at Castiel's side. Ruby's gone, the gun's on the other side of the room, and the ghost of Castiel's mother- mark burned black on her arm- has her hands locked tight around her son's throat. She is smiling.

"No!" Dean shouts, wings flaring behind him. He flicks a hand and Ruby's heavy iron chain, curled like a snake on the floor, flings itself across the room. It slams into the ghost, tearing her out of reality with a scream. The chain falls harmlessly into Castiel's lap, momentum instantly lost. Castiel falls over, choking for air, and after a few seconds he shakily begins to crawl towards the gun. Dean can hear Ruby's heels clacking down the hallway, and he returns to Sam's side.

Dean stays and watches Sam take out the same four ghosts, over and over again. He's quick, ruthless, and he's learned his lesson about letting them talk. There's a kind of efficiency about him that Dean's never seen before. After another few minutes, in which Castiel just about manages to keep himself out of trouble, the ghosts stop showing up. Sam counts to sixty, his lips moving silently, and does the same thing again. He pulls his phone out and dials.

"Ruby?" he says. He listens and breathes a sigh of relief.

"Great. See you in ten." Sam pockets the mobile and picks up the gun. Dean follows him to a room where two nurses are standing behind a salt line, both trying to pull a man's hands back from where he's clawing at his wrists.

"All sorted now," Sam tells them, his cheeriness forced. "See you around." He leaves before anybody can ask him any questions, and he doesn't look back.


Ruby has to drive back to the hospital to pick Sam up. It's clear that they arrived separately and yet somehow only have one car between them, but if Castiel thinks that's strange, he doesn't mention it. Ruby leaves him sitting in the kitchen, staring down a glass of water.

I'm still around, Dean tells him, and Castiel acknowledges the words with a slight, silent nod. Dean thinks he might be in shock. He can't really blame him.

Ten minutes pass, during which Dean stares at Castiel staring at the glass of water. Dean could become corporeal, but he doesn't see much point. He can't help but feel like there's somebody else who needs him more right now.

Dean knows that he shouldn't leave Castiel, but he's hardly doing much good sticking around. If Dean went to find Sam and Ruby, it would help him to understand the situation, which in turn would help him know how to better help Castiel. Surely, in the long run, that's a better plan?

That's how Dean justifies it to himself, at least. He doesn't let Castiel know that he's leaving- his ward can still reach Dean if he needs him, so there's no point in causing the poor guy more stress.

Dean reaches Sam at about the same time Ruby does. Sam picks up his canvas bag and walks over to the driver's side of the car, and Ruby opens her door with a sigh.

"You never let me drive," she grumbles, climbing over the seats rather than getting out and going around. Dean scowls as the heels of her boots dig into the leather, but at least it leaves the Impala in slighter safer hands.

"So?" Sam says once they're both in the car. Ruby's face presumably tells him all he needs to know, because he groans. "Wow, something went wrong," he deadpans. "What a shocking twist of events."

"Quit it," Ruby snaps. "We're alive, aren't we?"

"The Seal?"

"Broken," Ruby says grimly. "The spirits still rose. Getting rid of them once they were up, that was nothing but damage control."

"So Lilith is one step closer to raising Lucifer," Sam says, hatred clear in his voice. "We have to stop her, Ruby."

"Thanks, Sherlock."

"That's not-" Sam's frustration chokes him up and cuts him off. Ruby leans over and turns him by the shoulders to face her.

"I know," she soothes, raising her hand to caress his neck. "You're going to do it, Sam. You are."

"You think?" he says, searching her face desperately.

"I know," she corrects gently. "No doubt about it." She smiles at him and gets an answering flicker.

"Come on, we need to deal with the waif you drafted in," Ruby says, letting him go. "And by the way, hiring a lunatic to do our work? Great idea."

"Hey, come on!" Sam defends, laughing, as he starts the engine. "He seems okay."

"He's from an asylum," Ruby points out. "For all you knew, he was going to snap my neck and make me into origami."

"Did you see the guy? He couldn't snap a twig." Sam pauses. "Besides, he's been discharged. He can't be that bad."

"Oh, he's a free bird? You'd better find out where his nest is so you can take him back," Ruby says. "Anyway, I've got stuff to take care of. I'll see you around."

When Sam twists to look at Ruby, she's already gone. He sighs in irritation and turns back to the road. Dean leaves too, returning to Castiel's side.

Castiel hasn't moved an inch. It feels like a century before Sam walks into the kitchen.

"Hey," Sam says, sitting down with a cautious smile, like Castiel is a rescue dog and nobody knows how likely he is to bite.

"Hello," Castiel replies. At least he's talking.

"Ruby says you did good today," Sam says encouragingly. Ruby, of course, said no such thing.

"Thank you," Castiel says. "I did what I could."

"What did you use? Iron?"

"No, the gun."

"Seriously?" Sam says. "How'd you find it?"

"Relatively straightforward. Aiming is surprisingly easy."

"It is so not," Sam disagrees.

"Just because it took you two years to hit a damn target," Dean snorts. Sam might not be a bad shot now, but he definitely had to work to get there. It didn't help that he was always so reluctant to practice.

"It seemed simple enough," Castiel says. Dean's pretty sure that he's just making conversation, but Sam takes it as a challenge.

"Okay," Sam says, plucking Ruby's empty bottle of beer from behind the sink and standing it on the counter. He retreats to stand behind Castiel, placing his hands on the man's chair. "Hit that."

Castiel considers this. He raises the gun, concentrates, and the bullet takes the bottle straight through the middle. Sam's mouth drops open as shards fly everywhere.

"Dude," Sam says. Even Dean's impressed. Bobby could make a shot like that blindfolded, but for a first timer it's pretty incredible.

Bobby, Dean remembers, yet another punch to his gut on a day determined to remind him that Earth can suck too. Great, another person I can't talk to.

"The ghosts are gone now?" Castiel asks. "For good?"

"Sure are," Sam says.

"Where to?" Castiel questions. "Heaven? Hell?"

Sam hesitates. "I'm… not all that sure, to be honest. Some place that isn't here."

"I suppose that's what matters," Castiel agrees. "Did you see anybody?"

"Yeah, this guy I once knew. I was kinda surprised, actually."

"Why?"

"There were… more obvious choices," Sam says, determinedly not meeting Castiel's eyes.

"I don't follow."

"My brother. I lost him a couple months back, and I thought-" Sam breaks off. "Never mind," he says.

"I'm sorry," Castiel says sincerely. Dean feels like a kid hovering at the top of the stairs to eavesdrop on his parents talking about him. "That must have been difficult."

"Still is," Sam says, in a tone that suggests he'll say no more on the matter. He gets up and moves over to the counter, starting to clear away the broken glass.

"It sounds like this is a regular occurrence for you," Castiel comments. "Dealing with ghosts."

"Yeah, it's sort of my job. Used to be my brother's too, but now it's just me. I mean, there's Ruby- but it's not the same, you know?"

"Yes," Castiel says, and Dean's fairly sure he mentally flipped a coin to decide which answer to go with.

"How about you?" Sam asks. "What're you gonna do now you're out of the hospital?"

"I don't know," Castiel says. He looks embarrassed. "At present, I'm not even sure where I'm staying."

"What?" Sam turns back around, his voice spiking with alarm, and Dean finds that reassuring. That bitch hasn't poisoned you to the core after all.

"My discharge was… somewhat unexpected," Castiel confesses. "I don't have a place to live."

"So where are you going now?"

Tell him you're gonna be staying in a motel for a few days, Dean instructs.

"I'm gonna be staying in a motel for a few days," Castiel recites.

"Crap," Sam says. "How long were you in hospital for? It was a while, right?"

"Sixteen years," Castiel agrees.

"Crap," Sam says again. He turns away from Castiel, drums his hands on the counter. "You really don't have anywhere to go?"

"I don't understand why you keep asking that," Castiel says frankly.

"Sorry, I was only- I was thinking…"

"Yes?" Castiel says when Sam hesitates.

"You could come with me."

Dean looks at Sam sharply.

"What do you mean?" Castiel frowns, not understanding. "Where are you going?"

"Don't know yet, to be honest. I travel around working cases like this- it's called 'hunting'," Sam says. "But if you did come along, you wouldn't have to get involved with any of that. Not if you didn't want. It's up to you."

Castiel? Dean says. He can tell that Castiel's heard him, but he doesn't get a reply.

"I don't want to leave you with nowhere to go," Sam continues, "and you've proven that you can handle being around this stuff. Usually, I wouldn't even consider asking- but I don't know, this feels different. Sounds crazy, I know, but this… seems right."

What the fuck?

Cas? Dean tries again.

"It wouldn't be for long- just until you could get a place sorted out," Sam says, turning back around to face Castiel. "Plans, money, whatever."

Castiel, can I have a fucking word with you?

"I need a minute," Castiel says abruptly. Sam blinks and then nods.

"Yeah, sure thing," he says.

Dean. Castiel is infuriatingly calm- like he hasn't just seen (and shot) his mother's ghost, like he's not seriously considering hunting, like there's nothing unusual going on at all. Dean's never thought of himself as overly emotional, but next to Castiel… well, even a sparkler looks like a volcano when you hold it up to the silent and unmoving sky.

Don't do it, he tells his ward.

Why not?

Dean can hardly believe what he's hearing. What you saw today, Cas, that's nothing. Sure, it was horrible, and frightening, and dangerous, but for us that's just another day of the week. Another meaningless date on the calendar, another nameless son of a bitch ganked. And it's all gonna be like that, all the time, and it only ever gets worse.

You said 'us'.

Are you even listening?

Yes, and you said 'for us' . You sound as though you're speaking from experience.

Dean's previous line of thought trails off and dies. His wings, which had been growing and spreading behind him as he spoke, fall limply to his sides. Whatever. It doesn't matter.

Dean, how do you know Sam?

I said it doesn't matter! Dean snaps. He grimaces and tries to regain control of the situation. Castiel, nobody should choose this life. Not if they can avoid it.

My future is not overflowing with alternates.

Don't give me that bull. You can wait a couple of days and get this apartment or whatever-

And then what? I've never worked. I don't have any qualifications. I don't know what to do with my life, or how to even begin deciding. Yet today, I met Sam, got discharged and was assigned a guardian angel. There's no way that can be coincidence.

So? It's weird, I'll give you that, but it doesn't mean a damn thing.

It must do. Why would I require a guardian angel if I wasn't meant to hunt?

I don't- you're not cut out for this, okay? Dean hasn't said the words out loud, but they still sound like he shouted them.

"Castiel?" Sam asks. Castiel glances over at him, and then closes his eyes.

If you truly believe it's the wrong thing to do, then I will say no. I will do whatever you tell me to. But Dean, give me a chance. I can do this.

"No, you can't," Dean says- but out loud, to himself, where nobody can hear. He pushes a hand through his hair, gritting his teeth.

Whatever, he says. Do what you want.

Dean?

I said, it's your choice.

But I don't… Castiel's eyes open. He looks so torn that grudgingly, against everything in him, Dean yields.

Say yes. Dean thinks his tone makes it pretty clear that he doesn't mean that yes, but that's not the kind of thing Castiel picks up on.

"Yes," Castiel says immediately. "My answer is yes."

"Okay," Sam says, a smile stretching across his face. "Great! In that case, give me some time to clean up here and we'll go. Your stuff's still in the car, right?"

"I think so, yes."

"Awesome. Hang onto the gun."

"Of course." Castiel bends down and begins to collect up the shards of broken glass.

"It's okay, I can-"

"It's no worry," Castiel says. "There's a lot of work to do." That's true. Ruby's dribbled liquid on the floorboards, sprinkled powder across rugs, left remnants of salt dusting everything like a snow globe. In a place as beautiful as this, cleaning up isn't going to be easy.

"Good point," Sam says. "I'll do the fireplace."

Right before Sam leaves the kitchen, Castiel stops him. "Sam?"

"Yep?"

"What was your brother's name?"

Sam visibly stiffens, but then slumps and replies. "Dean," he says softly. "His name was Dean."