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You're Safe With Me

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Sam slammed the lid of his laptop down and raced to the nearest bathroom, almost not making it to the toilet in time before he heaved the entire contents of his stomach into the bowl. The images he’d just seen, and the implications of the law that had just gone into effect, seemed more shocking than anything he’d ever seen before, and he’d seen a lot.

He kept vomiting until it was nothing but bile, trying to force the bloody pictures out of his mind. Finally, when he thought he was about to hork up his intestines, his stomach decided it’d had enough, and he weakly turned away, leaning against the side of the toilet and wiping his mouth with his sleeve.

After moments that could have been either minutes or days, he struggled to his feet, flushed the toilet, and went to the sink, washing his hands and rinsing out his mouth. He left the bathroom and checked the bedrooms in the bunker. The two he was most interested in were empty.

He found Dean in the room they’d set up as a TV/recreation room, laying on one of the two sofas and nursing a beer, the TV tuned to a football game with the volume barely registering. “Dean,” he said, his own voice sounding raspy. His brother didn’t seem to hear him, so he cleared his throat and tried again. “Dean. Hey.”

Dean looked up, his expression a mixture of irritation and confusion. “What is it, Sammy? Can’t you tell the game’s on?”

Sam raised his eyebrows. “Do you even know who’s playing?”

“Course I do.”

“Yeah? Who?”

Dean looked over at the TV and squinted.

“Dude, don’t even bother,” Sam said. “Where’s Cas?”

“He went for a walk. You know him. Likes to watch the birds and bees and all that nature crap.”

“Really, Dean? The birds and bees?”

Dean threw a bottle cap at Sam’s head, missing badly. “Shut up. You know what I mean.”

The memory of the news article and graphic photos forced its way to the front of Sam’s mind again, and he strode over to the TV in three paces and turned it off. He turned back to face his brother. “We gotta talk. It’s important, and it concerns Cas.”

Dean sat up, making room for Sam on the sofa. “He need to be here?”

“Not yet.”

Sam remained standing. He could almost see the gears turning in Dean’s head as his older brother scrutinized his face, his eyes.

“That all you in there, Sammy?” Dean asked. “’Cause I am not telling him he can’t stay here again.”

“Yeah, it’s all me. And no, I don’t want him to leave.” He sighed. They hadn’t talked about this much before, about the new laws, about how their part in saving the world from the latest apocalypse had somehow been twisted around and turned into national policy. It had always gone unspoken. This won’t last. It will never pass. They’d never bothered much with laws anyway. But this time…

“The new law went into effect today,” Sam finally said.

“Which new law?” Dean asked. “The one we won’t care about or the one we won’t follow?”

“The Visible Wing Act.”

Dean’s entire posture shifted as he seemed to shrink into himself. “Damn it.”

“That’s not all,” Sam said. “Punishment is now public execution without due process. And Dean…they’re not just killing them.”

“How they hell can they do worse?”

Sam swallowed down his nausea. “They cut off their wings first.”

Chapter Text

Dean nearly leaped off the sofa. “I gotta go find Cas.”

“Don’t you think we should talk about this?” Sam asked.

“Yeah, Sam. With Cas. I don’t want to have this conversation without him here. It’s his life we’re talking about.”

“I know, Dean. But…he’s not going to care about the government or the president’s politics. They’re not his laws. I just…I think we need a plan.”

“We’ll make a plan,” Dean assured him. “With Cas. I’m gonna go look for him. He usually doesn’t go far. If I don’t see him right away, I’ll call him. He’s still got his cell.”

“And if he doesn’t answer?” Sam couldn’t resist the temptation to needle his brother a little more and added, “If he’s too caught up learning about the birds and the bees?”

Dean pointed an accusatory finger at him. “You watch your mouth. If I have to, I’ll pray his ass back here. And then we’ll make a plan.”

 


 

Castiel looked out over the valley from the bluff he stood on, marveling at how completely perfectly everything worked together. From the scents carried on the crisp Kansas breeze to the animals he could sense but not see, there was balance, harmony, a gentle give-and-take to nature that mimicked the inhalation/exhalation of breathing. It was only when modern humanity moved in that it became all take and no give, as if humans forgot what was coded in their very DNA, that there is no receiving without giving, no way to inhale the abundance that filled this planet without first exhaling what they clung to so fiercely.

He heard crunching footsteps on the frozen ground behind him, recognizing the weight and pace of the walk. “Hello, Dean,” he said without turning around.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean said, coming up to stand next to him and pulling his parka closer around himself. “How can you be out here without a winter coat, man? It’s friggin’ cold out.”

“No, the cold does not bother me.”

“Yeah. Well, it bothers me, and we gotta talk. So can we move inside?”

Castiel tore his gaze away from the valley to meet Dean’s mossy green eyes, lingering there before he spoke. “You have a case?”

“No. Yes? Not really. It’s…complicated.”

“Apparently so, if you’re uncertain. What have you found?”

Dean stomped his feet several times and stuck his gloved hands in his armpits. “Dude, it’s below freezing out here. Can we talk about this inside?”

Castiel inhaled and took a quick measure of the temperature. “Actually, Dean, it’s thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit right now. Four degrees above freezing.”

“Yeah, yeah. Look, Sam found some stuff that we really need to talk with you about. And he said he was going to make some hot cocoa.”

Little about food was appetizing now that he had his grace back, but Castiel still enjoyed coffee. Recently, the brothers had goaded him into trying Sam’s hot cocoa, which Sam made with a bit of added cinnamon, and Castiel found he was unable to resist it.

“Why didn’t you say so?” he said, already walking back toward the bunker. He heard Dean start to say something, then sigh in frustration and follow him. Fortunately, Dean couldn’t see his face and the smile Castiel didn’t need to conceal.

 


 

They found Sam in the library, having just placed three steaming mugs of hot cocoa out on one of the tables. His laptop occupied a fourth spot, the lid mostly closed.

“Hey, Cas,” Sam said with a tight smile.

Castiel could tell Sam was forcing the smile. Anxiety washed off him in waves, along with something Castiel couldn’t quite place. The subtle nuances of human emotion were still difficult to sort through, and each person had their own unique spin on them. He could hear Sam’s heart rate increase as he neared, so he thought whatever it was might have to do with him, and he wondered for a moment if it was something he’d caused.

“Did I…do something wrong?” Castiel asked slowly.

“No! No, not at all,” Sam said quickly, sitting down next to his laptop.

Dean slid into the spot across from Sam, so Castiel took the chair opposite the laptop. He could smell the cinnamon in the hot cocoa and debated whether he wanted to drink it all now or delay his gratification for a little while. He decided to delay. The last time he drank a hot drink immediately after it was served, Dean became worried that Castiel had burned his mouth, as if he’d forgotten that was impossible.

Dean warmed his hands on the outside of the mug but neither of the brothers drank yet. “Cas,” Dean started, “how much do you know about the new government policies concerning angels?”

“Oh, not much, I’m afraid. I know that new orders were sent out from Heaven for angels to take vessels and find Lucifer, so I need to be careful in my own search. Things would not go well for me if they found me as well.”

“How many are here, do you know?” Sam asked.

“Several hundred in the United States, I would estimate,” Castiel said. “But I don’t have precise locations. I can’t do that without giving myself away.”

“Do you know about the ACAA? The American Council on Angel Affairs?” Sam pressed.

Castiel narrowed his eyes, combing through his knowledge for anything that matched. “There is a council?”

“I’ll take that as a ‘no,’” Dean said.

“I don’t understand,” Castiel said. “Why is there a council on angels?”

“Were you not paying attention any of the, oh, hundred or so times we’ve talked about this?” Dean asked, frustration coloring his voice.

Castiel met Dean’s eyes with a glare, irritated that his tone had been parental, as if Castiel was a child. “I am not—”

“It’s okay, Cas,” Sam interrupted. “I get it. They’re not your laws, not your government.”

“No. They’re not,” Castiel agreed.

“But…as long as you’re in a vessel, it’s going to affect you now. You need to know. For your own safety.”

Castiel glanced down at the body he occupied. Jimmy had been gone for years now, and he supposed he should start thinking of this not as a vessel he was borrowing, albeit with permission, but as his own body. The thought seemed as foreign to him as the wind considering clothing.

He looked at Sam, at the moment preferring the younger brother’s patience to Dean’s edginess. “Okay, then. Tell me.”

“Right.” Sam huffed out a short breath. “Back when all the angels fell, it didn’t go unnoticed.”

“It didn’t go unnoticed by me either,” Castiel muttered, remembering Metatron’s betrayal, having his grace stolen, becoming human. He also remembered finally talking to Sam about what had happened when Metatron stole his grace, that Sam had called it a twisted, angelic version of rape.

“I know.” Sam shot him another tight smile. “I’m sorry to bring this up again, but it’s important.”

Castiel nodded. “Go on.”

“The United States government got the space program involved,” Sam continued, “trying to understand why there was a sudden global meteor shower, and if the planet was in danger from space debris. Publicly, the government passed it off then as a freak occurrence and assured everyone that the planet was safe. But I learned that there was a quiet federal investigation that continued, and with anecdotal evidence and witness statements, they concluded that angels walked among us.”

Sam took a sip of his cooling hot cocoa and Castiel followed suit, savoring the cinnamon. He could tell Sam’s anxiety was still present, but there was a thread of excitement in being able to share knowledge he’d gained. Sam would have made a good teacher.

“The FBI formed a task force to find out as much about angels as possible,” Sam said. “I gather it was a combination of interviews and…enhanced interrogation.”

“So, torture,” Dean spat out.

“Yeah. Along with some sort of experimentation.” Sam met Castiel’s eyes and the communal guilt Sam had taken on was evident. “Trying to find out just what you guys can and can’t do.” He took another swallow. “They learned Enochian and apparently did a bunch of experimentation with spells and restraints and implants.”

“To try and control us?” Castiel asked, already knowing the answer.

Sam nodded. “They launched the American Council on Angel Affairs, which sounds neutral but was really a government-funded task force to find ways to control or manipulate angels for their own means. Then last year, in the presidential election, the current president ran on an anti-immigrant, anti-angel platform. He stirred up a lot of American anger over lost jobs and rising costs and he blamed it all on the angels.”

“But we had nothing to do with that,” Castiel objected.

“I know, Cas. Every educated person knows that. But a lot of Americans just wanted someone to blame, and that turned the tide in the election and he won. And then in his first year in office, he started pushing for laws and signing executive orders that made it illegal for angels to go anywhere without papers identifying them as angels, or to hold jobs that weren’t menial, or to own property.”

“In fact,” Sam added, “I came across a series of three exposés written by a White House intern who was digging into this. Years ago, he had written some ‘this is what the White House is really like’ articles published in a few Washington newspapers, mostly boring stuff, until he got ahold of information on this task force. He claimed to have some really damning evidence that what they were doing was illegal, but he disappeared before any of it was published. And since he had a Russian name—Dmitri something—I don’t know if it was the Americans or the Russians who wanted to silence him. I can’t find anything at all about him after the third exposé was published.”

“Why would the angels stay here?” Dean mused, looking at Castiel. “I mean, hell, all it takes is one uncomfortable conversation or one question you guys don’t want to answer and you’re out of here. Why stay and have to go through the whole identification process?”

Castiel nodded his understanding. “Orders. Their orders were to take vessels and seek Lucifer. Even if he’s made some peace with God, it’s still not safe for him to be walking around.”

“Yeah, but—”

“We’re soldiers, Dean,” Castiel said, having second thoughts about using the term we’re. “The orders were to capture Lucifer. Not quit when the mission became dangerous. Until the orders change, they have no choice. And…I don’t know how many of them can fly now. Even back in Heaven, it still takes time for our wings to heal. And especially with the damage done from the fall, they’d need to molt.”

“You molt ?” The surprised look on Dean’s face was endearing.

I haven’t. Not since the fall. I don’t have enough grace, enough power, to trigger the molting process.”

“So the angels have subjected themselves to this humiliation with identity papers because of orders from Heaven?” Dean asked incredulously.

“Yes.”

“But—”

“I already tried civil disobedience,” Castiel interrupted. “Look how well that turned out. I am a…lesson to all of them. They won’t disobey.”

Sam looked up from where he’d been looking at something on his laptop. “From what I can tell,” he said, “part of the process of registering for identification papers included an implant, supposedly with just a GPS tracker in it. But based on what I’ve read already about their ‘research,’” Sam made finger quotes around the word, “I wouldn’t be surprised if they had some sort of spellwork or Enochian sigils or something that would render registered angels less powerful.”

“Sounds like something the government would do,” Dean grumbled.

After a long silence, Castiel said, “I don’t have these papers. Why haven’t you had me registered?”

“Because it’s crap!” Dean nearly yelled.

Sam sighed. “Legally, we should have. But we’re not exactly legal either. So we didn’t worry about it.”

Castiel peered at Sam, tilting his head as he tried to see what lay under Sam’s anxiety. “Something changed,” he concluded.

“Yeah.” Sam let out a quick laugh and drank some more hot cocoa. “Congress passed what they’re calling the Visible Wing Act. It requires that every angel in the United States display his or her wings corporeally at all times in public. It went into effect today.”

Castiel found himself without words for a moment. “Do they know…?” he started to ask before his voice gave out. “Do they even know what that means?” he finally managed to whisper. “Do they know what they’re asking?”

Dean set his now-empty mug down heavily. “Yeah. They know exactly what they’re doing.”

“They know our wings are…intimate?”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Intimate? I know that they know they're, like, the only real part of an angel, not just their vessel.”

“No,” Castiel shook his head. “They're more than that.”

“What, like angels have wings instead of junk?” Dean countered.

“No, Dean. They’re not genitals. But they are personal. Private. And we can sense things with them. I am not…fully connected to this vessel. I can turn off neural input—temperature extremes, pain, injuries—from it. But my wings are fully me. I can size them to fit this vessel, but I can’t turn off any input.”

“So,” Dean twirled his mug around, looking thoughtful. “It’s more like being naked. Exposed.”

Castiel nodded. “Yes.” He considered what he’d been told so far. “But how would they know? I don’t have papers. How would they even know I’m an angel? Maybe others haven’t been identified either.”

“Well, that’s the other part of it,” Sam said, his tone definitely filled with fear. “They’re offering rewards to friends, family members, colleagues, neighbors, anyone who had any sort of relationship with the person who offered themselves to be a vessel and who noticed a change in their behavior.”

“A reward for what?” Castiel asked.

“For turning them in.”

Castiel licked his lips. “And what happens if they’re turned in?”

“It used to be imprisonment until they got registered,” Sam said. “But with the new law—”

“About our wings?”

Sam nodded. “If they’re not displaying their wings and following all other laws, it’s now public execution. But before they kill the angel, they, um…” He put his fist to his mouth and swallowed hard. “They cut off the angel’s wings first.”

Castiel had been to Hell and back—more than once—seen and experienced torture, killed numerous humans and fellow angels, even allowed Lucifer to use his vessel, but only now did he fully understand the word horror.

Chapter Text

It was unreal. Dean had lived outside the law so much of his life that to think about all the steps it would take to follow just this one was overwhelming. He wanted to hide out in the bunker forever, keep Cas sheltered and away from the public eye. They could certainly continue on as they had before, keep hunting and keep Cas’ angelic identity a secret, but the stakes were higher now. If somehow he was caught, if anyone happened to see Cas do any of the things he could still do: heal someone else or himself, any of his telekinetic stuff, or geez, even just talk to the guy, since he was still just off enough that he didn’t come across as human… No. Dean refused to think about the consequences.

This was one of those times he wished he could still call up Bobby. Bobby would have had some sage advice that would be obvious in its simplicity, and Dean would be ready to call himself an ‘idjit’ for not thinking of it first. But no sage advice popped into his brain, and he knew of no telephone that could reach Bobby in Heaven.

They’d finished their hot cocoa in uncomfortable silence after Cas said he would think about it and then retreated to his room, but it was pretty clear to Dean that the idea of showing his wings to anyone under any circumstances made Cas extremely uneasy. In fact, if he had to name the emotion he thought he saw flit across Cas’ face when they talked about it, it was fear.

Sam had said he was going to research both the GPS implant and what had led up to the capture of those angels who’d already been executed, though he looked a little green when he left with his laptop.

Dean got a beer out of the fridge and had downed a few swallows before he remembered he still had half a bottle in the rec room. He wandered back to the TV, turned it on, realized he hadn’t been paying attention to the game after all, and thumbed the remote’s off button before tossing the remote back on the sofa. Sitting down heavily, he drank some more, just focusing on the feeling of the cool liquid as it coated his throat. His mind wandered back to Bobby, to Ellen, even to John, anyone who could give him some direction on what to do next.

He leaned back against the sofa and closed his eyes, bottle resting comfortably in his hand, propped up between his thigh and the arm of the sofa. There was no question that most of the angels he’d ever met were heartless dicks who cared far more about the end goal than any civilian casualties along the way. Lives didn’t matter, families didn’t matter; only orders mattered. And most of the time, their orders screwed humanity over anyway.

If they were now having to parade around naked by showing their wings, maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. Bring ‘em down a peg or two. But when that included Cas, then no. Cas had already been dropped too far, human and homeless, and that wasn’t even the government’s fault. No, Dean could blame that all on himself and his failure to figure out how to keep Cas safe when Gadreel was threatening Sam’s life. He refused to fail Cas again.

Despite the churning in his mind, Dean felt himself floating off a bit, lazy waves rocking him gently into sleep. Moments later, or maybe hours—it was impossible to tell—he woke up on a sofa that gave him sudden pangs of homesickness.

“You gonna sleep all day, you lazy bum?” asked a rough voice that Dean would know anywhere.

He sat up, rubbing his eyes. “Bobby?”

Bobby curled his lip. “No, I’m the Avon lady.”

Dean jumped up and crushed the older man in a hug. “Man, it’s good to see you, Bobby.”

“Yeah, you too,” Bobby said, patting Dean’s back before extricating himself from the hug. “Now what’re you gonna do about your angel, huh?”

Dean threw his hands up in the air. “I don’t know what to do. It seems like we can hide him or we can out him, and I don’t like either option.”

“This ain’t the first time folks have been singled out ‘cause they’re different, you know. Even killed for it.”

“So what do I do, Bobby? There’s no good choice here.”

“You’re forgettin’ one thing.”

Dean looked at Bobby expectantly. “Yeah? What’s that?”

“It ain’t your decision, boy. That angel has saved your ass six ways from Sunday, and he’s a hell of a lot smarter than you give him credit for. Maybe he don’t know slang and pop culture, but give him the respect of makin’ his own choices. ‘Sides, then it’s one less thing you gotta blame yourself for later.”

“He’s also made some really stupid choices. Like end-of-the-world stupid.”

“Like you haven’t? Or Sam?” Bobby snorted. “You know he’s sorry. Hell, even I know he’s sorry. He’s learned from it. So have you.”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, Bobby, I’m not real good at just sitting around. What do I do?”

Bobby shot him a frustrated look. “You march yourself back there and tell him you’re gonna support whatever decision he makes. And then you do exactly that. Only thing you gotta hunt and kill, Dean, is your own ego. Now git!” Bobby pointed to the front door.

Dean had his hand on the doorknob before he remembered that he’d woken up on the sofa, and he didn’t remember driving to Bobby’s in the first place.

“Don’t make me repeat myself, boy,” Bobby growled.

Dean opened the door as he heard Bobby mutter, “Idjit,” and then he stepped through and woke up with a start on the sofa in the bunker. His beer bottle had tipped slightly but not spilled, and he took another mouthful before abandoning it next to the other half-full bottle.

 


 

Castiel sat on the foot of his bed, his eyes closed. He never used this room as a bedroom, per se, not needing to sleep, but it was a much-appreciated space to himself, a place to sit in silence and consider his choices. Within the rules and order of Heaven, choices were much like a game of chess. Make one wrong move, or the right move at the wrong time, and the game was lost. But he’d elected to play a different game. And that made everything so much easier and so much harder.

Instead of a chess game, his choices now were more like choosing tributaries on a river. Some choices led to white water and the possibility of being dashed against the rocks. Others led to serene pools before he had to choose again. There were few rules, only consequences.

He was not bound by the orders from Heaven he’d overheard. It made moving around a little more difficult, as he was still on Heaven’s most wanted list. But it also meant that he perhaps had some freedom to navigate around the human laws as well. Unlike most angels, he’d had the experience of being fully human. Maybe, finally, that experience could become something more than his worst nightmare.

He thought about Anna for a moment. She’d given up everything to be human, to completely experience emotion and all the physical sensations of the human body. And for almost twenty-three years, she’d experienced family, love, friendship. In contrast, his three months of humanity had left him with only memories of pain, fear, and being alone.

A knock on his door interrupted his reverie. He went to the door and opened it, already knowing who was on the other side. “Hello, Dean.”

“Hey, Cas. Can I come in?”

Castiel backed up a few steps, opening the door wider as Dean stepped in and glanced around, looking nervous. “Sit.” Castiel motioned to the nearest chair, rejecting his initial impulse to offer his bed for Dean to sit on so that he could sit next to him.

Dean pulled the chair out from the small table and turned it to face the bed, where Castiel had seated himself. “I, um…” He looked down at the floor and rubbed the back of his neck. “I just want you to know…on the whole law thing…”

“The Visible Wing Act?” Castiel tried to keep his disdain from bleeding into his voice.

“Yeah. Uh…whatever, um…whatever you decide to do about it, if anything…or nothing…you know, I’ll, um…I’ll support it.”

“What are you saying, Dean?”

“Damn it, Cas, I’m just trying to tell you the decision’s yours, okay? I’m not going to tell you what I think you should do. Hell, I don’t even know what I think you should do. Give me something to shoot, stab, or burn, and I’m on board. But this? You want me to hide you, I’ll protect you with my dying breath, okay?”

“I don’t think you need to be quite so melodramatic,” Castiel observed.

“Yeah, I think I do. I may not have Sam’s book smarts, but even I’ve heard of the Holocaust. The Spanish Inquisition. Ethnic cleansing.”

“Ethnic cleansing?” Castiel repeated, amused at the words coming out of Dean's mouth.

“I might have had to look that one up,” Dean admitted. “Look, the point is, I’m out of my depth here. I thought I was out of my depth with the apocalypse.”

Castiel couldn’t help but allow a wry smile. Hindsight was a blessing. “Which one?”

“Any of ‘em. And we made it through them all. We’ll make it through this too.”

Castiel nodded, contemplating. The truth was, he felt a heaviness descend on him when Sam was explaining what was happening to his brothers and sisters. Even though he considered Dean and Sam to be more brothers than his own siblings, even knowing most of the other angels still wanted his head on a platter, his heart ached for them, for what they would have to endure.

“You are more comfortable making the decisions,” Castiel said, willing Dean to meet his gaze. “It’s difficult for you to give that up now, with this.”

Dean shrugged. “Yeah, well, I got a push in the right direction. And, I mean, I’ve got no right to say what you can and can’t do with your wings.”

“It is…discomforting to think about showing them in public when I haven’t even shown them to those to whom I’m closest.”

“What do you mean?” Dean’s confusion was clearly sincere, and somehow that gave Castiel a warm feeling.

“You, Dean,” he said softly. “I’ve never shown them to you.”

Dean’s confusion deepened. “I thought…that time in the barn…”

Castiel shook his head. “Those were mere shadows. I created an opening between planes so that light could shine through, casting shadows.”

“Planes? Not airplanes, though, right?”

“No, not airplanes. There are seven planes of existence in this universe, some of which are subdivided. We’re currently in the physical plane, the lowest plane. Next to the physical plane is the etheric plane. It looks much like this one, but…vibrates at a different frequency. I can see into the etheric plane. You cannot.”

“What do you mean ‘next to’?” Dean asked.

Castiel chewed his bottom lip for a moment. “May I access your academic memories briefly? I promise I will not look anywhere else.”

“You want to dig around in my head? You know I don’t like that, Cas.”

“I have a…reference. But I’m uncertain if it will make sense to you. And rather than explain it ad nauseam, it will be immensely helpful if I can check quickly.”

Dean paused, then looked away. “Yeah, okay. But, like, schoolwork only. Stay out of anything that wasn’t in the classroom when the teacher was there.”

Castiel nodded and reached out to Dean with his grace, a specific image in mind. Within seconds, he found it and retreated completely. “Thank you.”

Giving him a surprised look, Dean said, “That was fast.”

“I wasn’t going on a treasure hunt, Dean.”

“Okay. Well, what did you find? What’s the reference?”

“In a school lesson on human anatomy, you used a book with transparent pages, each with a different human body system printed on it.”

Dean nodded slowly. “Yeah, I kind of remember that. One had all the organs and one had the circulatory system, another one had the skeleton.”

“Exactly. This is like the planes. The physical plane would be the skin, the outermost covering. What you’d see with your eyes. The etheric plane is the next page, the one you’d see when you peel the skin page away.”

“Ugh.” Dean made a face. “So, muscles.”

“Yes. The next page behind that is the astral plane.”

Dean’s eyes widened. “Where we go when we’re dream walking. Or that time we did astral projection.”

“Precisely.”

“And you can see into…all of the planes?” Dean asked.

“Yes.”

“Wow.” He paused. “So your wings are in a different plane? On a different page?”

“Yes. I keep them in the etheric plane, next to this one. No one else can see or feel them, other than those beings who can also see or move in the etheric plane, but they’re still there.”

“That’s…” Dean shook his head slowly, “crazy. And cool.” There was what looked like admiration in his eyes. “So…they’re there right now? Even if I can’t see them?”

“They always have been.”

“How do you, um, move them here?”

“How do I manifest them here?”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

Castiel looked at him from under raised brows. “Not so much, no.” He paused, considering how to explain this in human terms. “When you pray, you hold an intention. You seek that connection. If you were to just say the words without any meaning behind them, it wouldn’t be a prayer.”

“Okay. But what does that have to do with this?”

“When I manifest my wings, I do so with an intention. For lack of a better term, I will them into this plane.”

“Is that what causes the thunder and all?”

Castiel found himself distracted by a small wrinkle of curiosity that had appeared between Dean’s eyebrows.

“Cas?” Dean asked.

“My apologies,” Castiel replied, dragging himself back into the moment. “The light and sound you may experience are triggered by creating openings between the planes. If I manifest my wings quickly, it can have that effect. But I can also do it more gently, and that makes very little sound.”

“How come I never knew all this about you?”

Castiel gave him an amused look. “You never asked.”

Crossing his arms over his chest, Dean appraised him. Castiel could sense a growing curiosity in his energy. “So you’re saying if I ask, when it’s not, like, an emergency, you’d be receptive?”

“I suppose it depends on what you ask. But generally, yes.”

Dean shifted in his chair and let out a long breath. “Would you show them to me? For real this time?”

“Show you what, Dean?” Castiel couldn’t help himself. It was not often that he got to see Dean looking embarrassed, unable to cover it with his cockiness.

“Cas…” Dean scrubbed over his mouth with his hand. “Would you show me your wings?”

Chapter Text

Dean could feel his heart pounding in his chest, immediately regretting his question. “You know what, Cas, forget I asked. You were just telling me about how private they are, how it would make you feel exposed, and then I go asking to see them. So, can we forget that I—”

“Yes,” Castiel said softly.

“Yes, you’ll forget it?” Dean wanted to clarify, feeling regret, hope, and curiosity battling within him.

“Yes, I’ll show them to you.”

“Oh. You don’t have to, you know.”

“I know I don’t have to,” Castiel replied. “And if this law had never passed, I might have refused. But there is a possibility I will at some point need to comply with this, for your safety if not for my own, and…I’d rather you see them now than under less desirable circumstances.”

“Cas, I don’t want to push you into—”

“You’re not, Dean. This is my choice. But I will warn you: you may not want to see them. They’re…still damaged. They’re scarred and I…I haven’t molted in a few years. My feathers are worn and broken.” He sighed softly and looked at the floor, something like sadness on his face. “They’re ugly.”

“Hey,” Dean reached out to put his hand on Cas’ forearm. “I have never seen anything ugly about you.” He paused for a moment. “Except maybe when the Leviathans took over. Or Lucifer. Or when Naomi had you under her thumb. Or—”

“Dean?”

“Yeah?” Dean removed his hand.

“Not helping.” Castiel stood up from the bed and removed his trench coat and suit coat, laying them out neatly at the foot of the bed. He loosened and pulled his tie over his head, then began to unbutton his dress shirt, revealing a white t-shirt underneath.

“Um…Cas?” Dean asked uncomfortably, wondering if the multitude of layers was what kept Cas warm while outside.

“Yes, Dean?” The dress shirt was fully unbuttoned and Castiel began to slide it off his shoulders.

“Is this,” he motioned toward Cas, “all necessary? I mean, you were clothed when you showed me the shadows.”

Castiel shook out the dress shirt, lining up the sleeves and laying it with his other clothing. “Creating an opening between planes is very different from bringing my wings corporeally into this plane. Manifesting them here while dressed would both ruin the clothing and be extremely uncomfortable.”

“Oh.” Dean wasn’t sure if he should avert his eyes, yet curiosity wouldn’t let him look away. He watched while Castiel pulled his t-shirt off and was surprised that underneath all those layers was a well-toned, muscular torso. Jimmy hadn’t seemed like the type who spent a lot of time in the gym, and besides, hadn’t he been in sales or something? Could the muscle have been added since Cas had taken over?

After Castiel folded the t-shirt and set it on the foot of the bed, he turned to face Dean, his arms loose at his sides. He closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate. The air behind him, from above his shoulders, extending just past the sides of his arms and halfway down his legs, began to pulse, very quickly at first, like the flickering of a fluorescent light, then gradually slow to that of a strobe light, slowing even further and becoming more visible.

At first Dean thought he was still seeing shadows as something darker materialized within the flickering, but as the flickering continued to slow down, it became more solid. Not flickering, he suddenly realized. Vibrations. What had Cas said? The etheric plane vibrates at a different frequency. He was slowing down the vibrations of his wings.

Dean wondered if that explained Cas’ ability to teleport too. Did he simply speed up the vibration of his entire body? Could someone move faster in the etheric plane than on the physical one? The thoughts started to make his head hurt and he abandoned them for now, gasping softly as the edges of feathers became visible behind his friend.

Finally Castiel let out a soft sigh and opened his eyes, looking suddenly shy and anywhere but at Dean. He seemed to start to roll his shoulders and then slowly both wings extended out to the side, feathers rustling as he tried to navigate them around furniture.

Dean stood, knowing his mouth was probably hanging open, but not caring. As best he could tell, each of Cas’ wings was close to nine feet long, mostly covered in black feathers that looked iridescent in the light, reflecting subtle hues of the rainbow. In a few small places the feathers had been destroyed, leaving darkened, scarred skin stretching over muscle and bone. These things were not fluffy, Dean thought, entranced by the sight of them. They were solid, strong, and he imagined they could be deadly in a fight.

Unthinking, he raised his right hand toward the closest wing, feeling the heat it gave off before coming to his senses and jerking his hand back. “Sorry,” he said quickly. “I’m sorry.”

Castiel raised his eyes to meet Dean’s and without a word, brought his left wing forward slowly, bending it at the top arch and pointing the primary feathers back, stopping only inches from Dean’s face. A tiny winglet extended from the joint and brushed Dean’s cheek, the feathers feeling firm and silky. The wing dipped down and the joint nudged Dean’s hand.

Carefully, Dean stroked the joint, the winglet almost seeming to caress him back. “Cas,” he said, his voice rough, “I don’t know what to say. They’re…”

With a rustle of feathers, both wings quickly folded themselves tightly behind Castiel’s back. “I know,” Castiel said, looking away. “I told you they were ugly.”

“No, Cas,” Dean reached out his hand but was suddenly unsure where to put it. “That’s not what I meant. They’re amazing. They’re…I’ve never seen anything like them.” He looked them over, reached out farther and ran his hand down the outer primary feather. “They’re beautiful.”

“Don’t lie to me, Dean.”

“I’m not. I swear I’m not. I’m just…a little bit speechless, man. I mean, I know you’re an angel and all, but I’ve gotten used to you looking, you know, human. Seeing you with wings…it just…it reminds me you’re not.” Dean stepped forward and stroked the top joint again, watching in fascination as the winglet raised up immediately after his hand passed over it, moving to ghost along the base of his thumb. He lowered his hand a bit and ran his fingertips lightly along the upper coverts, jerking his hand away again as Castiel hissed.

“Sorry! Did I hurt you? I didn’t mean—”

“No, Dean,” Castiel stretched the wing out a little more, taking a shuddering breath. “They’re just…sensitive.”

Dean returned his hand to the upper joint, watching with fascination as the winglet moved. “What is that?”

“My alula,” Castiel said. When Dean gave him a confused look, he added, “It’s essentially a thumb. I have two on each wing.” With that, a second alula separated itself from the first and trapped Dean’s thumb between them.

“Are you declaring a thumb war with me, Cas?”

Half of Castiel’s mouth curved up in a smile. He released Dean’s thumb and extended both wings forward, then lightly ran the primary feathers down Dean’s arms.

Dean couldn’t resist the urge to touch the wings again. Somewhere deep in his brain, he was aware that this was part of Cas’ body he wanted to feel, to run his hands over, but the implications of that were confusing and frightening and he quickly locked it up and shoved it away. No, it was simply that his friend had wings, real wings, and who wouldn’t want to touch something so amazing?

He held his hands in front of him, palms out and fingers splayed but relaxed. “May I?” he asked, glancing at Cas’ face and then at the soft-looking covert feathers.

Castiel met his eyes for a moment, then looked away and nodded, biting his lower lip.

The feathers were even softer than they looked, and Dean knew that if he didn’t have so many callouses on his hands, they’d feel even silkier. At first he lightly ran his fingertips down along the feathers, noticing that Cas wasn’t flinching, though he was breathing more heavily. Dean took a chance and pressed in more deeply, feeling warm skin and muscle beneath the velvety feathers as he massaged his way down the wings.

“D—Dean…” Castiel said softly in a tone Dean had never heard before.

“I’m not hurting you, am I?”

“No…” Castiel closed his eyes, his breathing fast and shallow. “It’s…very pleasant.”

“You ever had a wing massage before?” Dean asked, the idea of it feeling both thrilling and somehow forbidden.

Castiel’s entire body shuddered, prompting Dean to double his efforts. He’d never seen Cas look so disoriented and it was kind of fun, actually, to not only watch his reactions but be the cause of them. Way more fun than being the cause of Cas’ irritation or anger.

Dean gradually felt more comfortable with what he was doing, working his fingertips into tight muscle and gently combing through the overlying feathers once the muscle relaxed. Cas’ eyes were closed, his breaths coming out in soft puffs, until he suddenly opened them wide, quickly drawing his wings back behind him again.

“Cas, what’s—”

Two quick knocks on the door were followed by the door opening. “Hey, Cas, I found something,” Sam said, cradling his laptop in one arm. “This might—” He stopped short, shooting a confused frown at Dean and then his eyes widening comically when he saw Castiel. “Your… you…”

“Yes, Sam,” Castiel said patiently, “I have wings.”

“But…” Sam took a deep breath and let it all out at once, regaining his composure. He gave a quick smile. “I never pictured them as black, but they’re you, you know? Strong and powerful. And,” Sam chuckled, “a little bit intimidating.”

Castiel tipped his head slightly. “Really?”

“Yeah, you know… Kinda fierce.”

Dean watched as Castiel stood a little bit taller. He rolled his eyes. Leave it to Sammy to have a way with words that built Cas up. “What did you find, Sammy?”

Sam wrinkled his nose. “You wanna hear it now, or should I wait? You two looked like you were in the middle of something.”

“Nah, we’re good,” Dean said, glancing at Castiel. “Right, Cas?”

Castiel nodded once. “Of course. Let me just…” He closed his eyes and Dean watched as his wings began to flicker—vibrate—again, faster until they disappeared completely. Castiel picked up his t-shirt and pulled it over his head. “Do you want to sit, Sam?”

“Yeah, thanks.” Sam moved over to the small table where Dean had been sitting and pulled out the other chair. He set his laptop down on the table and tapped a key.

Dean sat down in his chair as Castiel continued to dress, quirking an eyebrow when Castiel turned the tie over and over in his hands as if trying to figure out which way he should put it on. Sam was right, he admitted silently. With his wings, the angel did look kind of fierce. Without them, he just looked like Cas.

“So check this out,” Sam began, his finger moving on the touchpad. “The new law allows state government to hold their own executions, as laid out by the law. Some states have filed lawsuits because they don’t allow the death penalty, but opponents are arguing that this only applies to humans, not angels. There’ve been three states so far that have held executions: Texas, Oklahoma, and California, all of them today. And get this: there were signs of demonic activity just before every case where an angel was turned in under this law.”

“Son of a bitch,” Dean muttered. “So demons are using this law to take down angels.”

“It would appear so,” Castiel said, sitting down on the bed. “Does Kansas allow the death penalty?”

“Yeah,” Sam said. “But only by lethal injection. Any other method is unconstitutional. But if the ‘angels are exempt’ argument gets any validity, that might not matter. And I found out a little more about the implants. There was a message board that got shut down recently, but Google still had cached pages.”

“How do you cash a page?” Dean asked.

“They’re captured by Google’s bots.”

“English, Sammy.”

Sam raised his eyebrows in that infuriating way that made Dean feel stupid. “It doesn’t matter, Dean. All that matters is that I got to read some of the messages, which talked about how the implant not only had GPS, but also bound the angel to its vessel, caused excruciating pain if anyone tried to remove the implant, and pretty much rendered the angels human, except for being able to show their wings.”

“Do they realize that they’re not only killing the angels but also the vessel’s owner?” Castiel asked, anger clear in his voice.

“I don’t know, Cas,” Sam said. “No one’s brought that argument up yet, as far as I can tell. Or if they have, then, I don’t know…guilt by association? I mean, the vessels have to say yes, right? So maybe people think they should be punished for that.”

“With their lives,” Castiel spit out. He let out a frustrated sigh as he looked around the ceiling as if searching for something. Finally his gaze settled on Sam, then Dean. “And you humans call us heartless dicks.”

“Hey,” Dean held his hands up defensively, “I never said people were all rainbows and puppies. I’d take a demon over a crazy human any day.”

Castiel was silent for a few moments. “I can’t submit myself for this implant, if that’s part of the registration. I would rather take my chances of being caught. If this implant is as powerful as it seems, I would be unable to help either of you. That’s not acceptable.” He let out a long, measured sigh. “If we’re on a job where my presence might be noted, I will—if necessary—have my wings out so as not to raise suspicions, and otherwise act as if I have an implant.” With a hint of a wry smile, he added, “I have many memories of being human. I’m sure I can be appropriately…docile.”

Chapter Text

“Hey, keep it going through the credits,” Sam said, a little annoyed when Dean made a move for the remote to eject the Harry Potter DVD. After their discussion in Castiel's room, they'd opted to retreat from reality and enjoy some magic, Hogwarts style.

“Why? You just want to nerd out again?”

“It takes a lot of people to create something like this, Dean. It’s not just a bunch of actors and a camera.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a reason they’re behind the scenes,” Dean retorted. “Means I don’t need to know about ‘em.”

“Producers, directors, and writers are all behind the camera,” Castiel said, “yet have a considerable influence on how a character is portrayed. One could say that the actor is the body of the character but the writer is the soul.”

“I think on some projects, the actors have a say in the dialogue,” Sam said, eyes on the screen. “I’d like to think so. That one time we had to pretend to be actors, I’d never felt so awkward.”

“Dude, you were awkward.” Dean scoffed. “That whole thing was kind of stupid. I’ll stick with being a hunter, thank you very much.”

Castiel hummed thoughtfully. “Don’t you both act now? You portray law enforcement and other authority figures on a regular basis.”

“Nah,” Dean said. “That’s not acting. That’s just lying. Really, really well.” He grinned. “Anyone hungry?” He got up from his end on one sofa and tossed the remote to where Sam reclined on the other sofa.

“Yeah, a little,” Sam said, still watching the credits. “You guys go ahead. I’ll join you when this is done.”

“I’m gonna make stovetop burgers. Want one, Sam? Cas? I’m tellin’ you, they’re awesome.”

“Thanks, no,” Sam said. “I’ll make a salad in a bit.”

“I’ll accompany you, but I don’t think I’ll eat,” Castiel said, standing up from the other end of the sofa Dean had been on.

Sam continued watching as the names scrolled by, marveling at the magnitude of work it must have taken to create just a few hours of entertainment. When the movie ended, he put the DVD away and turned off the TV before joining the others in the kitchen. As he got out lettuce, vegetables, and a couple of hard-boiled eggs for a salad, he watched, amused, as Castiel seemed to follow Dean’s every action, winding up in Dean’s way far too often for coincidence.

He was cutting up some artichoke hearts for his salad when Dean looked over and made a disgusted noise. “What the hell is that, Sam?”

“Just artichoke hearts.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Maybe you should eat at another table.”

“Artichokes have exceptional health benefits, Dean,” Castiel said, “including dietary fiber, antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals. It’s also long been believed that they are aphrodisiacs. Have you ever tried one?”

Sam smirked as Dean shot Castiel an unreadable look. “Uh, no. Cas. I haven’t. And I won’t.”

“I know you believe that you will die young, on the job,” Castiel continued, “but there’s no need to assume this is a certainty. You should consider your own health more seriously so that your body can support you as you age. Especially should I be unable to heal you in the future.”

“Hey, don’t be getting on my case tonight, Angel Boy. This here is a healthy burger, with lots of protein for muscle-building.”

“If you say so, Dean.”

Sam chuckled to himself as he finished dressing his salad and took it over to the table. Within minutes the other two had joined him and conversation flowed easily, though they all seemed to abide by an unspoken agreement to avoid talking about politics, laws, or angels aside from present company.

After dinner, Dean surprised them all by offering to do the dishes. Castiel said he’d enjoyed their company and wanted to retire early to his room. At loose ends, Sam decided to avoid current politics by checking his email and looking for reports of bizarre deaths or disappearances.

Once he filtered out all the junk news asserting that non-Christians and anyone not of European descent were demonic non-humans who deserved to die, it was pretty quiet. He sent out a few emails to other hunter networks, just in case. He logged into his Facebook account, checked his privacy settings as he always did every time he logged in, making sure he wasn’t searchable or visible and that location was still disabled. Several paranormal investigation groups had a Facebook presence and sometimes Sam could pick out a real case among all the attention-whores. As he scrolled past the posts, one video post from a woman in Colorado caught his eye.

After reading the post, the comments, and watching the video, Sam sent out email inquiries to Grand Junction law enforcement and a Colorado paranormal investigation group, and shut down his computer. He wouldn’t hear back until morning at the earliest and fatigue was already setting in. A deep, preferably dreamless sleep was high on his agenda.

 

An irritating buzzing dragged Sam from a comfortable rest, sequestered in a dark bubble of safe nothingness. He reached for his phone and thumbed the home button, squinting at the bright display as he read over the text messages he’d received.

Received 3:14AM Kelly here from Colorado Ghost & Entity (COGENT). I got ur email. Wld love help w/this case. We investigated & was inconclusive. Can’t revisit til next month.

Received 3:17AM Mom has vid of kids getting scratched/cut. Ruled out anything normal. No $ for hotel, no fam support. Kids r getting hurt some but not all nites.

Received 3:21AM Let me know if u want more info.

Bleary-eyed, he typed a response back.

Sent 3:28AM yes pls give info we can lok into it tomorrow is ther police rept?

Received 3:29AM No police report, no crime. 550 Hwy 50 Grand Junct CO. Moms name Barb. Kids 2 & 4. I’ll tell them ur coming.

Sent 3:31AM ok well head out in am

Checking that his alarm was still set for six in the morning, Sam rolled over and went back to sleep.

 


 

Castiel lay on his bed, eyes closed, setting aside his thoughts and feelings about the brothers and what lay ahead of them, about the insatiable longing that would never be fulfilled, about that wing massage and how he could never share with Dean what it felt like, what it did to him. Dean didn’t have wings; he wouldn’t understand. And besides, Castiel was certain that Dean saw it as simply a muscle massage, would reject any possibility of it being something more, and might even insist that Castiel leave the bunker again.

He let that fear slide past, the way a cloud caresses a mountaintop with misty fingers and glides away. In its wake was a peaceful calm, and he allowed himself to settle into his familiar meditation, reaching into the center of himself while at the same time feeling a connection with the energy of the universe. It wasn’t the same connection he had in Heaven. That had been clear and strong, lines of connection that flared up and carried everything he needed in a pulse point of knowingness. This was subtle and dispersed, requiring a focus that he had to maintain, a practice that could languish with disuse, rather than an ability inherent in his creation.

In this meditative state, he was all at once everywhere and in a single point, watchful over the bunker, over the two precious souls that slept in its confines, and also an individual spark of being, unattached to emotion, thought, or physical sensation, a willing patron in a multi-sensory movie called Human Life on Earth, all the while knowing he was sitting in a seat, surrounded by the scent of buttered popcorn, and could leave the theater at any time.

He could stay like this for hours, days, as long as was necessary. Time meant nothing, simply a marker humans had created to work against their own intuition, to focus on doing rather than being. So it was with startled confusion when his meditation slipped into an image, a small café with hardwood floors and a large menu hanging above the cluttered front counter, a mounted electronic tablet sitting on a cash drawer next to a brightly lit bakery display.

A young woman wearing an apron over a red gingham top appeared from behind a large rack varied teas at the other end of the counter, smiled at him as she walked to the register, and tapped once on the tablet. “What can I get for you, sir?”

“I don’t understand,” Castiel replied, not wishing to be rude. “I don’t know why I’m here.” He looked around, yet there were no other customers. Sunlight streamed in through the front windows and glass door, revealing a wide tree-lined sidewalk adorned with empty bistro tables and chairs. A street edged with parked cars lay beyond the sidewalk, yet there were no people in sight. The clock next to the hanging menu announced that it was noon. Precisely. The second hand didn’t move.

“Do you want to hear our specials today?” the young woman asked, her eyes a bright cornflower blue against fair, freckled skin and blond hair.

“No, thank you,” Castiel said. “I don’t… I’m not hungry.”

“You should try the cake,” another voice sang out from behind the bakery display. “Angel food. I’ve been perfecting it for years.” A head popped up above the bakery display, high forehead, brown hair with blond highlights, and brown eyes that reflected golden in the light. “I think I might have outdone myself.” He waggled his eyebrows.

“Gabriel?” Castiel’s shock at seeing his brother felt so…human. “What is—? Am I dreaming? Are you dream walking with me?”

“Ah…yes and no. Seriously, little brother, try the cake.” With a dismissive wave of Gabriel’s hand, Castiel found himself seated at one of the small tables across from his brother, a slice of white sponge cake centered on a paper doily on a small plate. Gabriel held out a fork.

Castiel ignored the gesture. “Why are you feeding me cake in a dream?”

“Why not? This might be my best cake yet.” He cut off a small piece of Castiel’s cake with the fork and held it out toward Castiel’s mouth.

Grabbing the fork, Castiel narrowed his gaze. “I can feed myself.” Demonstrating his point, he ate the bite, eyes widening in surprise at the taste, which contained something he couldn’t place, something unearthly.

“I know, right?” Gabriel exclaimed. “It’s like it’s not even man-made. Except that it isn’t. Man-made, that is.”

“Gabriel…”

All of the humor and light drained from Gabriel’s face. “I need your help, Castiel.”

“How can you need my help? You’re dead.” Castiel remembered Metatron’s cruel trick at the Gas-n-Sip. Of course Metatron would have exploited his hope that Gabriel might still be alive.

“Oh, please, Captain Literal,” Gabriel rebuked. “The eyebrows weren’t enough?” He raised them twice quickly in reference.

“But that was Metatron…”

Gabriel rolled his eyes. “Okay, a little remedial lesson in Gabriel 101 for those who can’t keep up in class. One: Lucifer only thought he killed me, and I decided to keep it that way. Took me weeks of practice to get the charred wings to come out right. Two: I was helping Metatron, and as for why, my reasons are my own and no longer important. Three: I’ve been here, hiding—again—from everyone. Learned how to make all the desserts with a few not-man-made ingredients, which reminds me, when this is over and my sweet patootie is safe and sound, I’ll make an apple pie with some deliciously unearthly apples, if you know what I mean. And that’ll make your pet Dean-o gloriously happy, and I know how happy you are when he’s happy, am I right?”

“God said it was outside of his power to bring you back.”

“Because he couldn’t find me. What part of ‘hiding’ do you not understand?”

Castiel let his frustration bleed into his words. “If you want my help, it would behoove you not to insult me.”

“Getting testy now, are we?”

“Gabriel, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt and assume you’re alive. What help can I possibly offer you? My grace is limited and I’m far from full-power.”

Golden-brown eyes twinkled. “Tell me how the cake is. I want your honest opinion. I can take it if you don’t like it.”

“Gabriel…”

“Please. One bite. Then I’ll tell you everything.”

Castiel sighed and ate another piece. It tasted like sweet clouds and stardust, of joy and freedom and reverence. “It’s…very good. It doesn’t taste like cake. It tastes like…home.” With a pang, Castiel realized that home and Heaven were no longer synonymous and hadn’t been for quite some time.

“Ha!” Gabriel slapped his hand on the table. “I knew I nailed it this time. No asking about the secret ingredients, now. The FDA doesn’t need to know and it won’t hurt anyone.”

“What’s going on Gabriel?”

Again the sour look, this time with a flash of fear in those golden eyes. “I’m in trouble, baby bro. Big trouble. Here I was, supplying this lovely independent café with delicious desserts. I got time to experiment with new recipes, a damn fine looking manager who didn’t mind offering a few extra benefits after work in her bedroom, and all the anonymity I could want. Until the food critic showed up.

“It’s always the critics who piss all over the world, isn’t it? Unless, of course, it’s your Wonder Twins kicking off another apocalypse. Anyhoo, the café had been getting some good press locally, some custom cake orders, and in walks a national food critic who has more interest in the customer’s souls than what’s on the menu.”

“A demon,” Castiel said.

“Give the student a gold star! She sees me before I can duck into the back, calls up 1-800-GOT-ANGELS and next thing I know, I’m in an angel-proof jail and on the calendar to be drawn and quartered for good. I only got one trick up my sleeve this time.”

“What’s that?”

“You, Castiel. You’re my only way out of this.”

Castiel moved comfortably into battle mode, relegating anything nonproductive far into the background. “Where is your vessel?”

“Minnesota. Saint Paul. They Ramboed the county jail next to the Law Enforcement Center. I think they’re gonna keep me there until my big day, which will be at the Capitol mall. And come early; parking’s a bitch.”

“When, Gabriel? When is the execution set?”

“Aw, come on, let’s not use the e-word, shall we? They gotta make the PR folks earn their keep, you know, get a big audience, build up the buzz,” he added sarcastically. “They knew generally what I was until they forced my wings out. I guess size does matter. Got them all excited. Now they want to publicize the execution of an archangel. So…three days?”

“Three days for certain?”

Gabriel gave him a look he’d never seen on his brother before, but on Dean and Sam it felt like despair. “Three days tops.”

“If I call you, can you hear me?” Castiel asked, wondering what sort of containment they had around Gabriel’s power.

“I’ll try and keep the connection open as long as I can,” Gabriel said. “But please hurry.”

Chapter Text

Dean awoke to the smell of hot coffee and bacon, which was enough to get him out of bed and dressed in record time. He found Sam in the kitchen, three mugs and two place settings at the table. “Haven’t we talked about how you and cooking don’t play well together?” he asked, checking the kitchen for any signs of fire damage.

“Ha ha,” Sam replied, clearly with no appreciation for his brother’s early-morning humor. “Bacon’s almost done. I cracked eggs in that bowl,” he waved his hand toward a counter, “but I’m not sure how you’d like them. I was thinking maybe scrambled this morning?”

“Yeah, I can do that.” Dean went to the fridge and pulled out a tub of sour cream, noting a few items that they’d need to replenish on their next grocery run. He set to work on the eggs, using the skillet that Sam had already set on the stove.

“So I found us a case,” Sam said. “Probably nothing big, just a salt-and-burn, but there are kids involved. Ages two and four.”

“Oh, crap.” Dean ran his hand over his hair. “I hate it when there’s kids.”

“Yeah. Well, this single mom in western Colorado has video of her kids being cut and scratched. Local paranormal society was already out to investigate but didn’t come up with anything conclusive.”

“Jeez, don’t tell me it was—”

“No, not Ghostfacers. This was a legit investigation. I already talked to them. Texted last night and talked on the phone this morning. I ran down the history of the house, which didn’t turn up anything, ‘cause it was built in the 1980s. But get this: there was another house on the same site back in the early 1900s where a woman and infant died. House went from owner to owner, no one staying more than a year or two, until it finally was left vacant for a decade before it was razed and the new house built.”

Dean paused as he stirred the eggs in the skillet, checking on the status of the bacon. “You got identities on the woman and baby?”

“The woman, yeah.” Sam moved away from the stove and let Dean take over. He went to his laptop and tapped a couple keys. “Constance Harrison, twenty-three, widowed as of the 1920 census. Husband William is deceased. The baby was five months old when the census was recorded, six months old when he died.”

“Six months?” Dean asked, turning off the stove and transferring the bacon to a paper-towel-covered plate to drain. “Please tell me it wasn’t a nursery fire.”

“No,” Sam huffed. “Constance and the baby were found in a shallow grave on the property. Newspaper said it looked like the baby had been attacked by a wild animal. Constance had slit her wrists.”

Dean dished out eggs for himself and Sam, then brought over the plate of bacon. “You thinking something attacked the baby and mom offed herself?” He noted that Sam had already grabbed the coffee pot and was pouring for both of them.

“I thought so at first. But there was a boarder living with them, according to the census. Gwendolyn Vosser, twenty-five, unmarried, with an unnamed newborn baby. Newspapers don’t mention her at all, and I can’t find her in the 1930 census.”

“Maybe she died too,” Dean suggested taking a loving bite of one strip of bacon and savoring the taste.

“Yeah, but then what happened to her baby?” Sam shoveled a forkful of eggs into his mouth, sighed contentedly, then swallowed. “I mean, if it weren’t for the video and the investigation, I don’t know if it would be worth it to go out there. But…”

“Kids,” Dean said. He finished the bacon slice and grabbed another two off the plate. “So you’re thinking this Constance is going after kids because, what, something attacked hers? That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.”

“No, it doesn’t. I have an interview set up for tomorrow with a local historian there, whose grandparents used to live down the road from Constance. I figure if we leave right after breakfast, we can be there by evening, meet the mom, maybe do our own investigation tonight.”

“Yeah, that sounds like a good plan.” He started on his eggs, pleased with himself for how they turned out. “We gonna let Cas stay hidden here?”

As if on cue, Castiel stuck his head in through the doorway. “Sam. Dean. I need to go. Now.”

“Good morning to you too,” Dean greeted sarcastically, suddenly feeling grumpy. “What’s the emergency?”

“Are you okay?” Sam asked, sounding concerned.

If Dean was reading the angel’s body language correctly, Castiel seemed…agitated. “This something about that new law?”

Castiel gave a half nod. “Gabriel is alive. He’s imprisoned in St. Paul, Minnesota and scheduled to be executed in less than three days.”

Sam went from eager puppy dog to bitch face in half a second. “He can stay there as far as I’m concerned.”

“Sam,” Castiel said, “I know he can be impetuous and his sense of humor can be grating, but he is still my brother. You have done—would do again—as much for yours.”

“Wait, Cas. Back up. How did you find this out? I thought Lucifer killed him.” Dean asked, his earlier annoyance forgotten.

“Gabriel dream walked with me and explained…a lot of things. He faked his own death. Twice, apparently, that night.”

“Cas,” Sam said, “you mean a lot to me, man, but I have less than zero interest in helping Gabriel. And we have another case, one with kids being hurt.”

“There is no reason why you can’t pursue your own case while I go after Gabriel.”

“Okay, time out.” Dean made a T with his hands. “First,” he turned to Castiel, “I know you see all angels as your siblings, and these laws suck, man. They’ve got to be doing a number on your head. But why single out Gabriel for rescue? I mean, you can’t save them all. You gotta know that, right?”

Castiel stared at the floor for several long seconds before speaking. “Not only can I not save them all, but I still carry the guilt of killing so many myself. In the end, Gabriel helped us. He tried to take on Lucifer. His information on the rings was invaluable. And…he asked.” Squaring his shoulders, he met Sam’s eyes, then Dean’s. “I have to try.”

“That makes sense,” Dean said. “But how are you going to do it? What’s your plan? And how are you going to deal with all these new restrictions? How are you even going to get there? You can’t fly.”

“I don’t know, Dean. I don’t— But I have to go.”

Dean watched as Castiel turned away, not missing the determined look on his face. Stubborn angel. He cursed his guilty conscience and made a decision. “Cas, wait. I’ll go with you. Sam, why don’t you go to Colorado. You’ve got a handle on this, and you’re way better with kids than I am. If this is just a salt-and-burn, you’ll be done by tomorrow night and we can meet you back here.”

“Are you sure, Dean?” Sam seemed unconvinced. “I mean about trying to rescue Gabriel? He did kill you over a hundred times. And what are you going to do with him if you free him?”

“I don’t know what we’ll do with him,” Dean said, eyeing the remaining now-cold eggs on his plate. “We’ll figure that out later. And Cas is right: he did step up and help, finally. And he’s Cas’ brother. So maybe I’m doing this for Cas, not him.”

“Thank you, Dean,” Castiel said. “I am ready to leave now, if you wish.”

“Hang on there, Cas. It’s, what, a ten-hour road trip? Not bad, but we’re gonna need snacks. I’m gonna need snacks. And we better figure out quick how we’re going to break him out of an angel-proof jail.”

“You’re going to need these.” Sam handed him two documents and a laminated card. “For Cas.”

Dean took them and looked them over.

“Forged registration papers and an ID card.” Sam answered his unasked question. “We were going to need them anyway, so I printed them up this morning. You’ll need to carry them, Dean, and be with him at all times. There might be checkpoints soon. Your driver’s license, his ID card. He’ll need to have his wings out.”

“Checkpoints?” Dean echoed. “Why is no one protesting this?”

Sam’s face was set in a hardened glare that Dean knew wasn’t for him. “Before the president essentially revoked the First Amendment or after?” Sam picked up his empty plate and mug and put them in the sink, then retrieved his laptop. “Drop me off at the mall on your way out and I’ll pick up a ride from there.”

“Okay.” Dean nodded once as his brother left the room. He gave up on the remainder of his breakfast, tossing it in the garbage and turning on the faucet to wash the dishes.

“Dean,” Castiel said from right behind him.

“Jeez!” Dean spun around in surprise. “Do I need to put a bell on you? Seriously! Do not sneak up on me. Ever.”

“Apologies,” Castiel mumbled, not altering his gaze from Dean’s. “Thank you for your assistance.”

“Yeah. Well, thank me when Gabe’s safe. If we can actually pull this off.”

Chapter Text

“Thanks,” Sam said once they’d arrived at the far end of a shopping mall parking lot in Grand Island, Nebraska, just north of I-80. He extracted himself from the back seat of the Impala, taking two bags with him. “I’ll call when I know something more.”

Dean turned to check the back seat and called out for his brother when he saw another duffel. “Don’t forget this one.”

“Not mine,” Sam said. “Ask Cas.” He closed the door and loped toward an older 4-wheel-drive SUV that Dean agreed would do well driving across Colorado in the winter.

“You bringing a bag, Cas?” Dean asked, looking to the passenger seat.

“Yes. I needed some modifications of my attire if I am to have my wings visible.”

“You—” Dean shook his head. “What’s in the bag?” He reached behind him, feeling the edges of the soft-sided duffel bag, and pulling it closer until he could grab a hold of it. It was lightweight, certainly not heavy enough for a few days’ change of clothes. And how would Cas have gone shopping anyway? He didn’t have any money that Dean knew of.

“Dean, you don’t need to—”

Dean unzipped the duffel, reached in, and pulled out what looked like a handful of shredded towels. “Dude, what is this?”

“I told you.” Castiel sat looking straight ahead, his jaw set.

Shaking out what he held in his hands, Dean could see that the bag held exactly two of their old, ratty bath towels, set aside some time ago at Castiel’s insistence that an animal shelter could use them for bedding. The towels each had a circle cut in the center, two long slits cut into one of the short sides, and safety pins on the corners.

“What the hell, Cas? You’re actually thinking you’re going to wear these?”

“I was going to cut holes in my current clothes, but then I’d have nothing in which to pass as human.” Castiel’s voice was defensive, bordering on indignant.

Dean raised his eyebrows and looked out the windshield, running his hand over his mouth. “Okay. First, you are not wearing towels. Second, we’ll get you something we can adapt. How are the other angels dealing with this?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel said softly. “I was going to look online, but I didn’t want to see…”

“Yeah, I hear you.” Dean swore under his breath. “You know what? We’re at a mall. I’ve got a credit card that’s almost maxed out, so we can use it and I’ll cut it up before we leave. Let’s go find you some wing-friendly clothes. Deal?”

Castiel looked like he was going to say something, then let out a sigh. “Deal.”

 


 

The moment Castiel stepped inside the mall, every sense was assaulted. The sounds, colors, smells, and ceaseless frenetic activity were overwhelming, and the mall had only opened twenty minutes ago. Everywhere he looked, countless items for sale, each one vying for a second or two of a shopper’s attention. It made him feel dizzy. Humans came here for fun? It was like living inside a hundred unrelenting TV commercials.

He followed Dean to a pillar with a store directory and map on it, adorned with a bright red YOU ARE HERE sticker.

“You just need shirts, right? Maybe a jacket?” Dean asked.

“Yes. It will need to be something I can cut from the bottom hem.”

“We can’t just make wing holes?”

Castiel looked at him, disbelieving what he’d just heard. How could someone so brilliant in so many other ways not understand how wings worked? “You’ve seen them,” he said. “You really think I can just push them through ‘wing holes’?”

“Right. Good point. There’s a JCPenney down to the right. They’ve got to have something.”

 

In the men’s section, Castiel didn’t even know where to begin. Long sleeves, short sleeves, dress shirts, t-shirts, stripes, solids… He wandered rather aimlessly, fingers trailing along the hanging merchandise, until one texture caught his attention. It was softer than Dean’s flannel, warmer and thicker, feeling like it might withstand the necessary cuts. He unzipped the front of the garment and put his hand inside, immediately relishing the feeling. It felt…safe. And if he needed to have his wings out, this would perhaps soften the blow. This particular item was bright yellow, the color of bees, but maybe not the best for keeping a low profile.

He looked around for Dean, spotting him holding up a dark blue-and-green plaid flannel shirt that Castiel thought would bring out the green in Dean’s eyes. He noted a twinge of disappointment when Dean put the shirt back. Moments later, Dean was on his way over, a questioning expression on his face.

“You find something?” Dean asked.

“Perhaps.” Castiel indicated the item in front of him, not quite sure what to call it. “I enjoy the texture.”

“Polar fleece. Yeah, that would be good. You want a shirt under it? It’s cold outside.”

“This will be sufficient. The cold doesn’t bother me.”

“Yeah, you said that before. Okay, well, are you married to the yellow?” Dean’s tone was wary.

“I am not married at all, and I fail to see how one could marry clothing.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “No, I mean can we pick a less bright color? This one’s already giving me a headache. How about…” He began to walk around the rack, moving hangers aside as he searched. His eyes flicked up to Castiel and ran up and down his body, making Castiel feel not exactly uncomfortable, but still seen in a way that was reminiscent of when he manifested his wings for Dean. “I’d say you’re in a large, and…perfect!” Dean lifted up a black version with a dark azure blue lining and brought it over, holding it momentarily over Castiel’s chest before giving him a grin.

“So, we’re gonna cut two slits up from the bottom, right?” Dean asked as they made their way toward the checkout counter.

“Yes.”

“How are we gonna keep the flaps secured? Around your waist, I mean.”

Castiel wondered why Dean kept using the term we, but broke off the thought when he spied the solution at the end of an aisle. He pulled a black scarf off the top of the stack, happy to discover that it felt very similar to the other fleece. “I can tie this around my waist,” he said.

Dean took the scarf from him and opened it to its full length. “We do this right, you might be able to hide a knife under here too,” he said quietly. “Probably too short for your blade, though.”

“I can still manifest my blade if necessary,” Castiel assured him.

Dean paid for the items, destroyed the credit card, leaving parts of it in three different garbage cans both inside and outside the mall, and groaned as they approached the Impala. “I don’t know how we’re going to do this.”

“Do what?”

Dean motioned to the front bench seat of the Impala. “There’s no room for your wings in the front seat, and I’m not going to have you lying down in the back seat unless you have to. And we can’t have you changing clothes back and forth, every time you might need your wings out.” He slammed his fist down on Baby’s roof, then rested his forehead in the same spot. “This law is so fucking stupid!”

Castiel wasn’t entirely certain why Dean felt such frustration over a law that he had no control over and didn’t directly affect him. Gabriel still needed their help, and for now it seemed the only practical course of action was to accept their current reality. “There are very few times in human history where one group of people has not been oppressed or persecuted by others, based on meaningless categories such as skin color, religion, sexuality, or national origin.”

“Doesn’t make it right,” Dean grumbled.

“No.” Castiel considered several options, choosing the one that made the most sense. “I will change now, and manifest my wings if necessary. If it’s not necessary, I can wear my coat over this,” he held up the bag, “to cover the openings. I believe it’s big enough.”

After several moments, Dean raised his head and nodded, then opened his door. “Change in the car, though. We don’t need you making a spectacle of yourself in the parking lot.”

 


 

They drove for just over three hours with little conversation. Dean asked if Cas minded music and received little more than a tiny shrug in response. Unsure if he’d said or done something to piss the angel off—again—he started to ask what was wrong and then reconsidered. He was not interested in having a talk about anyone’s feelings, hurt or otherwise. If Cas was peeved, he’d have to speak up.

That didn’t stop Dean from glancing over whenever he thought he wouldn’t get caught. Numerous times, Castiel’s gaze seemed unfocused, lips moving slightly as if mumbling to himself. Dean determined pretty quickly that he wasn’t mouthing lyrics, though that would have been pretty awesome to discover. There was no way to tell what language it was either, so eventually Dean gave up and lost himself in CCR coming from the cassette player.

Traffic slowed to a crawl just outside of Sioux City, Iowa, and Dean tried to take a detour across the Missouri River, only to find that traffic was backed up here too, just this side of the river.

“I think this may be one of those checkpoints Sam warned us about,” Castiel said, breaking his silence.

Dean felt an instant panic flare up and tried to push it down with every swear word he could think of. Why couldn’t Sam have made up papers registering Castiel as human? Why couldn’t they just pass Castiel off as Jimmy?

His thoughts were interrupted when Castiel awkwardly climbed over the seatback and landed in a very unangelic heap in the footwell. After several grunts and some more thrashing around, Dean’s vision was suddenly blocked by enormous black feathers.

“Hey!” Dean shouted, stepping on the brakes and pushing the feathers away while ducking to try and see out the windshield.

“I am sorry,” Castiel said.

“You are a car accident just waiting to happen,” Dean said, hearing his tone harsher than he intended it.

“I’ll work on my technique.”

He looked in the rear view mirror to see how Castiel had positioned himself, but could only make out his face against a background of black. Glancing over his shoulder, the rest of the picture became clear. Castiel was sitting nearly sideways on the bench seat, one wing taking up most of the footwell, the other pressed to the back of the seat, the main joint flexed forward and the flight feathers extending all along the width of the car.

“That doesn’t look comfortable,” Dean said.

“It’s not.”

“Isn’t there a better—?”

“No. And thinking about it makes it worse.”

Dean tried to come up with some way to change the topic of conversation but failed. It wasn’t like they could start chatting about the weather or the latest in sports. Instead, he thought about what lay ahead, after whatever was slowing traffic. “Have you thought about how we’re going to get Gabe out?”

“I have,” Castiel said. “I think our best bet to minimize any collateral damage is to rescue him while he’s being transferred to the Capitol Mall. I have no idea how protected the jail is, but it’s fair to assume they have the entire building warded against angelic powers.”

Watching again in the rearview mirror, Dean asked, “Have you, uh, heard anything more from him?”

Castiel’s eyes met his in the mirror. “Yes, I have. I was able to talk with him while you were driving.”

“Is that what you were doing? I was wondering. Thought maybe you were praying.”

“No, I have given up on prayer. Perhaps I am not very good at it. On those rare occasions it does yield results, they’re never the ones I want. But I was created more for worship than prayer.”

“Hmm.” Dean watched the traffic inch forward, making out the flashing lights of several patrol cars ahead. “What’s that like? Worshipping, I mean. Like singing about God’s glory and all?”

“We’re all made for certain purposes; those are our strengths. Singing is…not one of mine. I sang for a baby once. I don’t think the baby liked it either.”

“So what does worship look like for you? And do you still? Like, after…everything.”

“I kill, Dean. I fight and I kill. Complete fulfillment of orders without question is what worship looks like to a soldier.”

“Oh.” Dean wondered how he had such a gift for sticking his foot in his mouth. He heard Castiel shift uncomfortably in the back seat and figured they had about five more cars to go before they reached whatever was up ahead. “What did you sing?”

“Pardon?”

“What did you sing? For the baby?”

“Oh, just a song from a TV show I found on Netflix. The symbol on the hero’s suit intrigued me at first. Then I learned he could fly. It wasn’t really all that memorable except for the song at the beginning.”

“What was the show?” Dean asked, watching Castiel roll his shoulder as if in pain.

“I believe it was Greatest American Hero. But he wasn’t. He certainly couldn’t fly very well. Wings would have been much better than a cape for aerodynamics.”

Dean laughed. “That’s an oddly fitting song, Cas.” He waited through another two cars before speaking again. “So what did Gabriel have to say? Anything that will help us?”

“Not much that is helpful. He has an implant that greatly weakens his grace, requiring him to eat and drink. The food is, according to him, moldy and rancid. I’m not clear if that’s literal or figurative. He thinks that the government created the implants based in part from binding handcuffs. It binds angels to their vessels, prohibits flight, and eliminates any communication from ‘angel radio.’”

“Well, how can he communicate with you, then?”

“It appears they designed the implants to render ordinary angels as close to human as possible. Gabriel is an archangel. He has abilities that they may not know about, or may not know how to subdue. Telepathy with one specific angel is currently unaffected. He’s trying to figure out what he can still do without alerting the guards, who, he says, are not even remotely following the Geneva Conventions.”

Dean took a deep breath while watching the occupants of the car in front of him. Uniformed police and National Guard scanned documents from everyone in the car, did a quick search of the trunk, and waved it through a traffic gate. “Heads up, Cas,” he said in a low whisper, digging out his wallet and rolling down his window. Sam’s forgery had better be spot on.

“Afternoon, sir,” one of the police officers greeted Dean. “ID please.” The officer looked in through the window, spotting Castiel. “And registration for the angel. He’ll need to get out of the car too.”

“Why?” Dean asked, trying to soften the demand in his voice. He handed over his driver’s license and Castiel’s registration card.

“Routine protocol now, sir.” The officer nodded to one of the National Guardsmen on the passenger side, who opened the back door.

“Cas, don’t—” Dean warned.

“It’s all right, Dean,” Castiel answered so quietly he could barely hear it. The angel started to climb out carefully until the guardsman got impatient and dragged him the rest of the way by his arm.

Another man in an unfamiliar uniform stepped forward with a plastic bag in one hand, scrutinized Castiel, then reached out and yanked a feather from Castiel’s wing, causing him to hiss in pain. The man placed the feather in the bag, took Castiel’s registration card from the officer, and wrote some information on the bag. He handed back the card to the officer, who handed both cards back to Dean.

“Open your trunk, please,” the police officer said, hand on his weapon as he stepped aside for Dean to unlock the trunk.

Dean waited as nonchalantly as possible, hoping the officer didn’t realize the visible area of the trunk was only half its normal size. After a few moments, the officer pushed the trunk lid closed and motioned for Dean to get back in.

Dean returned to the driver’s door, but watched as the uniformed man returned to Castiel, looking him up and down. He reached out, lifting one of Castiel’s long feathers with his hand, then clenching it in his fist and pulling upwards slowly until the feather snapped at the base. Castiel cried out but remained standing, head down, hands at his sides. The uniformed man nodded at the guardsman, then returned to his post as Dean climbed in the driver’s seat, gripping the steering wheel hard enough to hurt.

“All right. Back in,” the guardsman said to Castiel, shoving him roughly back into the car and slamming the door quickly, almost catching the long flight feathers in the Impala’s door jamb.

“Move along.” The police officer motioned Dean to pass through the traffic gate and Dean took the opportunity without hesitation.

Once on the bridge, he realized he’d been barely breathing and took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. “You okay, Cas?”

“I’m fine,” Castiel said, but his voice suggested otherwise.

“That was not ‘fine,’ what he did to you. That was not… I’m not going through another one of these. We’ll get you human ID, you can go as Jimmy Novak.”

“No, Dean. You can’t.”

“Hey, my forgery skills are nearly as good as Sam’s. We’ll find a copy and print place, have you humanized by nightfall.”

“No, Dean. I mean you can’t. The one who pulled my feathers wasn’t human. He was a demon. He’ll spot every angel who comes through that checkpoint. Human ID will do me no good.”

Castiel shifted around in the seat noisily, though Dean wasn’t sure if it was from pain or something else. A few minutes later, he leaned his arms against the top of the front seat. A glance in the rearview mirror confirmed his wings had been tucked away into their own plane again. “Based on that experience, I think it’s highly likely that every checkpoint has at least one demon assisting inspections. No angel could be smuggled through.”

“You’re telling me you have to go through that every time we hit a checkpoint? Hell no, Cas.”

“I don’t think we have a choice, Dean. I’m certain that the feather-breaking was to see if I’d react. An angel without an implant would be more likely to retaliate. We can count ourselves lucky that they aren’t yet scanning every angel for implants.”

“What, like a microchip in a pet?”

“Exactly like that. I’m sure they’re working on it. All the more reason to rescue Gabriel and get back as soon as possible.”

“Hey, Cas? What’s the likelihood that this goes all the way to the top? Demons in the highest government levels and all throughout the friggin’ angel council?”

Castiel sighed. “I don’t think it’s likely, Dean. I think it’s guaranteed.”

Chapter Text

The checkpoint at the Iowa-Minnesota state line just outside the barely-there town of Bigelow was little more than a small-town cop accompanied by another one of those strangely-uniformed demons, and Dean gave himself a silent pat on the back for sticking to back roads. The cop only asked for ID this time, not requiring Cas to exit the car or be subjected to any more pain or humiliation.

They stopped for fuel and to stretch their legs in Worthington, and Dean found himself feeling anxious when he started for the restrooms. Abruptly he stopped and came back to where Cas was sitting patiently in the passenger seat. “Uh, I gotta go…”

“You don’t need my permission, Dean.”

Dean rolled his eyes and ground his teeth in frustration. “I’m not asking for permission, Cas. I just…um…” He looked around the surrounding area, worrying that at any moment someone might recognize Castiel for what he was, wings hidden from human view. “I don’t want someone spotting you, is all. If they’ve got demons at every checkpoint…”

“Would you prefer I accompany you to the bathroom?” Castiel asked.

“No!” Dean could feel his cheeks coloring. “No, I just…” He scrambled for words that wouldn’t sound cheesy.

“We knew this was risky when we began,” Castiel said. “Go relieve yourself. The risk here is small. I’m an angel, Dean, not a child. I am fully capable of taking care of myself.”

Dean started to argue. The very fact that Gabriel was in jail, mostly helpless—the whole reason they were on this trip in the first place—was due to forces beyond their control, forces that could overpower Cas if they didn’t stay vigilant.

A pointed glare from Castiel motivated him back into action, which in turn reminded him just how much pressure there was in his bladder. Cas was right, he grudgingly admitted. He was being overprotective, which meant that he was going to be compromised in a fight. He needed to get over that right now, before it became a liability.

 

Back at the car, Dean studied the map on his phone. “It’s about three more hours to St. Paul and I think I found a decent motel about ten minutes away from where they’ve got Gabe. I say we head straight to the motel and get a room, then grab something to eat while you let Gabe know we’re in town. We can do some recon later tonight and tomorrow morning.”

Castiel nodded. “I will want to see the possible routes they’ll take from the jail to the Capitol Mall.”

Dean tapped a few times on the phone’s screen. “Looks like it’s only about a mile between the two. We’ll have to work fast when it’s time.”

“We’ve prevailed against worse,” Castiel replied, though his voice didn’t have the confidence Dean wanted to hear.

 


 

It was seven-thirty in the evening when Sam found the address in Grand Junction, Colorado, and as luck would have it, there was a motel across the highway. He’d made good time, the interstate plowed and thankfully free of black ice. Going through the mountains was a little stressful, but the SUV had four-wheel-drive and an owner who’d taken good care of it. He almost felt guilty about stealing it, but when he thought about the two kids probably getting ready for bed, the feeling abated. Greater good and all that.

After getting a room, taking a quick shower, and putting on a fresh change of clothes, Sam crossed the four-lane highway, nearly deserted at this time of night, and rang the doorbell. After a few minutes, the door opened a crack, a swing bar lock preventing it from opening further. The sliver of face he could make out was young and exhausted.

“Hi,” Sam said, giving her what he hoped was his most comforting smile. “Sam Winchester. Kelly from COGENT said she’d let you know I was coming?”

The face nodded once and the door shut for a moment, then opened fully to reveal a young woman who couldn’t have been older than twenty-five but fear and exhaustion made her look like she was approaching middle age. Her dirty blond hair was pulled back in a messy ponytail and she wore charcoal sweatpants and a light gray hoodie with stains on the front. “I’m Barb. Barbara Elston. Come in. I’m sorry the house is a mess.”

“I’m not here to judge your housekeeping skills, Ms. Elston.”

The young woman smiled grimly and led him to a small living area. “Barb, please.” She cleared an armful of toys off a worn, lumpy sofa and gestured hesitantly. “Sit. Can I get you anything to drink? Eat?”

“No, thank you. Where are your kids?”

“A coworker offered to take them for the night.” Barb ducked her head, looking embarrassed. “I told her about what was going on after she found me falling asleep on break. I work at the Walmart about three miles from here. I can’t take this anymore: the crying, the nightmares, feeling helpless. I don’t trust people easily.”

“Thank you for trusting me,” Sam said. “Can you show me where the activity is happening?”

“Well, that’s just it,” Barb said, wringing her hands in her lap. “It’s everywhere. At first it was just their bedroom—they share a room—but then after COGENT was here, I tried having them sleep in my room and they’d still get hurt. We slept in here, same thing. One night we went to the motel across the street. I was dead on my feet and I had to work the next morning. No problem there. It’s just here. But I can’t afford to keep doing that.”

Sam stood and pulled his EMF detector out of his pocket, turning it on and starting to trace the perimeter of the room. “Can you show me to their bedroom please?”

“Sure. There are only two bedrooms here. It’s a small house, even for one built in 1980.”

He followed her down a short, darkened hallway where it ended in three doors. Directly in front was a small bathroom, and he figured the doorways on either side belonged to the bedrooms. “Anything ever happen to them in the bathroom?” he asked.

“Mmm, no. But they’re never in there without me. The oldest was potty-trained, but then after all this started happening, he regressed. He doesn’t like to be alone anywhere.”

Sam nodded, understanding. He’d hated it when he was left alone in a motel room as a kid, Dad off on a hunt for weeks at a time, Dean taking off ‘to get some fresh air’ or whatever he actually did. There were nights that Sam wondered if he’d wake up to find that he’d been completely abandoned. Those were the worst, even worse than holidays with just his brother or pitying looks from other motel guests on the rare times he’d venture outside by himself.

Barb opened the door to the right and flipped on a light switch. The room was small and cramped with a crib, toddler bed, changing table, toy bin, short bookcase full of picture books, and an upholstered rocker that looked like it had seen better days. The closet didn’t have a door, but was empty, save a small chest of drawers. A room-darkening shade was pulled over the window. The curtains appeared to be dark sheets hung from a thin curtain rod. The overall feeling was oppressive.

Sam went around the room, checking out not only the space itself but also the furniture and scant items. “Do you have any antiques? Maybe family heirlooms you keep in the house? Something old you bought at a thrift shop?”

“No, nothing like that,” Barb said. “My ex took anything of value when he left, then sold it all for drugs. He’s supposed to be paying child support, but…” She cleared her throat and looked away. “Most of what we have here is from garage sales, clearances at work. Some from charity.”

“Do you mind if I check your bedroom too?”

“Yeah, of course.” Barb quickly went across the hall and opened the door, gesturing him inside while looking at the floor.

He made quick work of the bedroom, stepping carefully around the twin-sized mattress on the floor, the shoebox doubling as a nightstand, a small pile of laundry, and a closet holding a dozen items at the most. All the readings were negative. Turning off the EMF detector, he left the bedroom and closed the door behind him. He avoided looking at Barb until they were back in the living area.

“Tell me more about the video you took,” he prompted.

“Well, I’d told my coworker about what was going on. You know, the scratches and cuts on both the kids. She thought maybe they were scratching themselves, said her baby used to get sharp fingernails and would sometimes scratch herself in her sleep. So she loaned me her video camera and I set it up overnight in the kids’ room. No one went in or out and you can clearly see that the kids were sleeping soundly, until all of a sudden the camera goes kind of nuts and there’s static and some sort of interference and then the kids start screaming. I ran in and that’s when I found the marks on them.”

“And you didn’t see or hear anything else?” Sam asked.

“No. But it was freezing cold when I went in there. I thought maybe the furnace had broken, because that would have been just the icing on the cake this year.”

“Did you smell anything?”

“Nothing memorable,” Barb said. “Dirty diaper, maybe. But that’s not unusual.”

“Okay. Do you mind if I stay here tonight? I want to do more of an investigation, kind of like what COGENT did. Can you stay with your kids?”

“Yeah, Kelly said you’d probably want to do that, so I’ve already made arrangements. I’ll leave you the house key. What else can I do?”

Sam smiled gently. “Show me where your coffee maker is?”

 


 

Dean and Castiel were sitting in the Impala, parked on Grove Street, five hundred feet from the jail where Gabriel was being held, when Dean’s phone rang. He knew it was Sam by the ringtone—Long Tall Texan, something Sam had programmed as a joke and Dean had never figured out how to change.

“What’s up, Sammy? I’m putting you on speaker.” He tapped the speakerphone icon.

“I met with the mom. No EMF anywhere. This family doesn’t have a lot, but the mom definitely cares for her kids. I’m gonna see if I can provoke tonight, maybe get some EVPs and figure out whose grave I get to dig up. I’m meeting with the historian in the morning. How’s things on your end?”

“Quiet so far. We’re checking out the area around the jail now. Oh, we did hit a couple checkpoints, both at state lines. Each of the checkpoints we saw had a demon working there, dressed in some uniform, plus cops and some military, so camouflage isn’t going to work. But your ID card held up good.”

“That’s something, I guess,” Sam said. “How are you going to get Gabriel back if there’s a demon at every checkpoint?”

Dean cut his eyes to Cas before answering. “We haven’t gotten that far yet. We’re still trying to figure out how to get to him in the first place.”

“Well, you better figure it out soon, Dean.”

“Yeah, yeah. You just nail down that ghost. Us adults will take care of the hard stuff.”

“Jerk.” Sam scoffed. “Hey, I almost forgot. The president is naming a new Secretary of Angel Affairs to the cabinet, and get this: the new guy used to be into civil rights in college. Protests and arrests and everything. He was working as a journalist, going into dicey situations and writing stories about human rights violations. Then, like, a few months ago, he just disappears from the news, stops writing. He started showing up at benefits for the president and he’s been quoted a few times as saying he supports genocide of angels—for the protection of humans, of course. My first question is, how does a journalist get the money to attend presidential benefits? My second question: why the turnaround from civil rights to genocide?”

“Inheritance and a mid-life crisis? I don’t know, Sammy. What makes anyone hate? We don’t even know if he’s human.”

“Well, that’s just it, Dean. What if he’s not? And we’re still chasing Lucifer. Can you imagine Lucifer as the president’s advisor on angels?

“Shit, Sam, that’s not even funny.”

“Sam has a point,” Castiel said, breaking into the conversation for the first time. “It would actually be quite the strategic move. It’s something I will need to look into when Gabriel is safe.”

Dean shook his head. “For all we know, the president himself isn’t human.”

“It would make sense for demons to be involved at all levels,” Castiel continued. “Most humans have never knowingly met an angel, but I suspect the most religious would have protested anti-angel legislation before now.”

“There were protests at first, Cas,” Sam said. “But then the president effectively made the rights to free speech, freedom of the press, and free assembly illegal. Especially if it was critical of anything he did or said.”

“So maybe the president isn’t a demon,” Dean added. “Just a narcissist.”

“Who relies on demons,” Sam said. “And maybe appointed the devil to his cabinet.”

“Happy happy joy joy,” Dean said. “You got anything positive to share?”

“It’s currently warmer here in Grand Junction than it is in St. Paul.”

“Bitch. Okay, call me tomorrow when you’ve got something.” Dean tapped on the phone to end the call and turned to Castiel. “Anything new from Gabe?”

“Nothing of importance. Please drive the routes to the Capitol Mall a couple more times. I’m working out some ideas.”

Dean raised his eyebrows. “Anything you want to share with the class?”

“Not yet. Drive, please.”

Sighing, Dean shifted out of park and headed west, the Impala’s tires spinning in the icy slush on the street before the treads caught on pavement and propelled them forward.

Chapter Text

“No matter which route they take, I’m certain they will need to cross under this bridge here,” Castiel said, indicating a point on the detailed paper map of downtown St. Paul and the surrounding area that they had spread out over the bed.

“I think you’re right,” Dean agreed. “University Avenue, going under the freeway. Area looked pretty sparse too. Business district. Nothing residential. If we grab him at the overpass, we can get back on the freeway just west of the bridge. Get out of downtown as quickly as possible and back out into farmland. I’m going to change Baby’s plates temporarily, just in case.”

Dean sat back against the strip of wood that passed for a headboard and grabbed his beer off the single nightstand, taking a few swallows before setting it down again and closing his eyes. “It freezing in here to you?” He opened one eye to appraise Castiel before huffing out a breath and shaking his head. “Why am I even asking? You don’t feel the cold.”

“I may not, but you do,” Castiel replied. He glanced around the small, sparsely-furnished room before going over to a small baseboard heater and studying it. Crouching, he waved his hand in front of the vent. “This is working, but only minimally. And it's mounted underneath the window, which is not properly sealed against the elements.”

“Well, for thirty bucks a night in a downtown capital city, you get what you pay for. I’ll survive.”

Castiel returned from the window and looked over the single queen-sized bed. “I would be happy to share body warmth if you get too cold.”

“Uh…Yeah…I don’t…I don’t think that will be necessary, Cas.” Dean shifted uncomfortably against the headboard, because that image was just…awkward. “Any more from Gabe? I mean, do we have a date? I don’t mean to sound callous…”

Castiel pulled out the only chair in the room from in front of a miniscule desk and sat down. “I understand. And no, nothing further. Except he complains a lot. It’s annoying. And distracting.”

“Okay. Well, I think we got the plans for springing him as worked out as we can without actually being there. You got enough juice to do what you suggested?”

“I am sure, Dean. I wouldn’t have offered otherwise.”

Dean nodded. “So what are we gonna do about this implant he’s got? Sam said they’ve got GPS in them, and the last thing we want is to broadcast our location.”

“I’ve done some research on that,” Castiel said. “Initially, when we first get him, I think we can make due with a piece of brass mesh over the implant. I’ve already calculated the density we’ll need.”

“Like a Faraday cage,” Dean said, feeling hopeful.

“Precisely. For longer term, there are GPS jammers available for sale outside of the United States. They are illegal here,” Castiel added, “though not much of what we’re doing is legal now.”

“All right. I’m sure we can get brass mesh at a local home improvement store. We can look online to make sure. Maybe pick that up right after breakfast tomorrow.”

“Obviously,” Castiel continued, “it would be best to remove the implant entirely. Perhaps Sam and I can try to understand better what all it is capable of so we can find a way to render them all useless.”

“What am I, chopped liver?” Dean argued, a little hurt that he’d been left out.

Castiel cocked his head, giving Dean his confused-puppy look. “In what way do you even remotely resemble a severed organ?”

“No, it’s—” Dean shook his head. “It’s just a saying. Not important. I just…I built my own EMF meter out of an old Walkman. I think I could be useful in the whole figuring out the implant thing. And why are we trying to understand it better anyway? Wouldn’t it be best to destroy it as soon as we can?”

“Dean… I would not ask you to assist me in rescuing all of the angels who have been…subjected to this. It’s impractical even for me to attempt it. But if we can find a way, perhaps a spell, to render the implants useless, and Gabriel and I can communicate this method to them, then we could free all of them.”

“And why would we want to free any of them?” Dean demanded. “You’re on their most wanted list. They think Gabe is dead. And they’re all dicks. We’ve already established that.”

“They’re still my family, Dean.”

“No!” Dean was only barely aware of standing up, his hands clenched in fists at his sides. “We’re your family, Cas. You’ve got to know that by now.”

“I’m—” Castiel sighed and stood, moving back to the window and staring out at the parking lot for a few moments before turning around and facing Dean. “With your mother back, you have the family you’ve always wanted. The family you deserve. I know we are friends, Dean, but I don’t know that I fit in there.”

“You do, Cas,” Dean said, hating the way his voice sounded like he was pleading. “You do. You might fit in more than Mom does. She doesn’t know me. Not really. Not like you do. She doesn’t know the shit I’ve done, how fucked up my life is. And I don’t know that I’ll ever tell her. I—” He sat down on the bed again, hugging his arms over his chest. “If she knew, she’d be disappointed, maybe leave again. I can’t take that. Not again.”

Castiel walked over and sat down on the edge of the bed near Dean. “Everything you’ve done, Dean, you’ve done either to survive or to save someone else, to save the world. You speak of yourself as if you’ve committed selfish, evil acts. But that’s not the way I see you, nor, I suspect, the way your mother sees you. You are selfless and compassionate.”

Dean huffed his disagreement. “What I did in Hell…or with the mark…”

“Was what you had to do in an impossible situation,” Castiel finished, his tone resolute. “Your mother made a deal with Azazel because of an impossible situation. She doomed Sam to crave demon blood in order to save your father. And don’t get me started on all that I’ve done.”

Dean shrugged, feeling uncomfortable, a mix of unidentifiable emotions battling in his body.

“You don’t see the goodness in yourself, Dean. But I see it in you. I believe your mother sees it in you. Please take my word for it until you can see it for yourself.”

“How come we started out talking about saving your brother and you turned it all around and are trying to save me? Again.” Dean stood without waiting for Castiel to answer and ran his hand over his face. “I’m beat. I gotta get some sleep.”

“Of course.” Castiel returned to the chair and pulled out his phone, tapping away.

Ten minutes later, after brushing his teeth, changing into a t-shirt and sleep pants, and turning out the light, Dean crawled under the sheet and thin bedspread. He moved around, trying to find a comfortable—or less uncomfortable—position, finally rolling onto his right side. He could see Castiel at the desk, the light from his phone casting an eerie glow on his face. From time to time, the angel would look up as if searching for Dean in the dark, watch for a few minutes, then return to his phone.

Dean closed his eyes to the sight and took some deep breaths, willing his body to relax and fall asleep. The longer he lay there, the more aware he became to his surroundings: the occasional tap of Cas’ fingernails on the phone screen, a slight squeak of the chair as Cas shifted, the sound of the interstate just beyond the motel. He opened his eyes again, only to be met with Castiel’s stare.

“Dude, that’s creepier than I can deal with right now,” Dean grumbled. “I know you don’t need sleep, but come lie down on the bed and pretend.”

“Are you certain? You’ve never offered to share a bed with me before.”

“I’m not saying I want to spoon with you. I’m just saying I can’t sleep when you’re going all Blair Witch Project on me.”

“Dean, you know that I am not, and have never been, a witch.”

“Cas, get on the bed.”

 


 

Silently congratulating himself for remembering to plug his phone into the charger—and the charger into the wall outlet—Castiel made his way over to the far side of the bed. He carefully lay down on the edge, on top of the covers, trying to give Dean as much space as he might need.

Dean let out a long breath once Castiel stopped moving, and muttered, “Better,” under his breath.

It took nine minutes and fifty one seconds for Dean to fall asleep, and another twenty-three minutes and six seconds before Dean curled into a tighter ball, clutching the thin covers closer to him, shivering. Castiel reached out with just the tiniest bit of his grace, making sure Dean was asleep and nudging him into a deeper rest. He carefully climbed off of the bed, shed all of his clothing from the waist up, and folded it neatly on top of Dean’s duffel.

Silently, he brought his wings into the physical plane, lay back down on the bed so that he was facing Dean, his right wing comfortably behind him and resting on the bed. Slowly, he reached out his left wing, angled it so that it would cover all but Dean’s head, and rested it lightly over Dean’s body. He smiled at the profound sense of Dean beneath his wing and closed his eyes.

Chapter Text

“Why are you hurting kids?” Sam demanded as he stood in the middle of the kids’ dark bedroom. “Too afraid to pick on an adult? Why don’t you try scratching me?”

Sam held a digital voice recorder in one hand, his EMF meter with its backlit screen in the other. He’d spent the past two hours roaming the small house in the dark, focusing mostly on the bedrooms, and unless the voice recorder caught something, he’d come up empty. He was about to speak again when a noticeable chill moved past his right arm, causing the EMF meter to spike.

“What’s your name?” he asked gruffly. He could see his breath in front of him and for a moment felt icy fingers on his jaw. Then it all suddenly disappeared. “Oh come on!” Sam called out. “Are you afraid of me?”

He continued to taunt the spirit, hoping it would reveal itself out of anger, but after another half-hour, he’d had enough. His interview with the local historian was in six hours, and he wanted to go through the voice recording before he met with her, just in case it caught something.

After gathering up his belongings and equipment, he jogged back across Highway 50 to his motel room. From the nearly empty parking lot, he figured he was likely the only guest. He tossed his gear on the bed and started a cup of instant coffee, then plugged the recorder into his laptop and launched an app. The coffee finished brewing while the app initialized, and he imported the recording, allowing him to see a visual representation of any sound captured, which would save him from having to listen to long periods of silence.

There wasn’t much other than his own questions, he noted as he sipped the coffee and tried to avoid yawning. But when he got to where he’d felt the chill, there was something extra in the background. He adjusted the playback and tried again. This time he could hear a raspy voice speaking right around the time those icy fingers touched his face.

“You have no children.”

He replayed it several times, working to get the EVP as clear as possible. Finally he sat back and drank the last of the bitter coffee. Two things he’d become certain of: the spirit hadn’t harmed him because he didn’t have children, and the spirit was most definitely female.

 


 

Dean woke feeling unusually rested, ready to face the day, and delightfully warm. There was no reason he had to be up early, and likely no one would notice if he stayed and basked in this comfort for a little while longer. He shifted and moved to pull the covers up over his shoulder when his hand skimmed a thick, warm, incredibly soft blanket. It was so silky and warm that he ran his hand across it several times, realizing that there seemed to be narrow, stiff ribs embedded in the softness. He continued stroking it, enjoying the feeling under his fingers and wondering where he’d acquired such a blanket, when he felt the softness fluff under his hand. Sighing, he pressed it closer to him and definitely felt the felt the softness shift, fluffing more, almost as if…

Dean suddenly opened his eyes and raised his head to see a very large, black wing spread out over him, its covert feathers raised and causing the fluffiness. “Cas?” he asked, sitting up. “What the hell?” The wing immediately retracted, leaving Dean feeling a coolness in its absence.

“You were shivering,” Castiel said, backing off the bed and reaching for his modified fleece jacket to put it on.

“Oh.” All of Dean’s confusion and annoyance vanished. He watched as Castiel struggled to tuck the back flap between his wings. “Here, let me help,” he said, climbing out of bed and easing the two wings into their slots in the jacket.

Castiel picked up the black scarf, threaded it under his wings and around his waist, and tied it securely. “Thank you.”

“Keeping ‘em out?” Dean asked on his way to the bathroom for a quick shower.

“I believe we talked about purchasing some brass mesh at a home improvement store after breakfast.”

Dean paused in the bathroom doorway. “Yeah, but you’re not gonna fit in a diner booth like that.”

“We can sit at a table. I’ll manage, Dean. You, yourself, said that you’d prefer I not break any of these new laws while I’m in public. Your exact words, if I remember correctly, were, ‘Last thing I need is to break your ass out of jail too.’”

Dean raised his eyebrows and sighed. Friggin’ angel and his friggin’ perfect memory. “Fine. Well, I won’t be long. In the shower. Where I’m going…” he pointed into the bathroom, “now.”

 


 

A quick search on Google Maps showed that there was a diner and no fewer than three home improvement stores all along the same main street due south across the Mississippi River from downtown Saint Paul, and since Dean didn’t want to be driving around with a winged angel more than he had to, this seemed the most efficient use of their time.

The first stop was a Perkins, where the hostess smiled at Dean, turned her nose up at Castiel, and led them to an empty table in the back corner of a mostly deserted banquet room, far away from other customers. Far away also, it seemed, from the attention of any of the servers. It took ten minutes before a server came by to ask for their drink order (two coffees and some honey) and another fifteen before she returned.

Trying to hide his frustration, Dean pulled out Charming Smile #5 and leaned toward the server. “You got any honey, honey? My friend here likes honey with his coffee.”

The server rolled her eyes and nodded toward the condiment holder. “In there.”

“It’s all packets of jam,” Castiel said softly.

Huffing out a breath, the server dumped all of the jam containers onto the table, found one partially crushed packet of honey, and slammed it down in front of Castiel. “You gonna eat?” she asked Dean.

“Yeah,” Dean said, no longer trying to keep the smile on his face. “I’ll take this, bacon, eggs scrambled, hash browns.” He pointed to a photo of so much breakfast food, it required two plates. “Cas, you want—?”

“I don’t need to eat, Dean,” Castiel said, watching where the server had already strode into the kitchen.

“She could have been a lot more polite.”

Castiel’s shoulders and wings shrugged in unison. He picked up the sad-looking honey packet, grimaced, and set it back down again, then reached for his napkin and wiped off his fingers. “Remember,” he said softly, “angels are hated now, and your government has given the public free rein to express that however they wish.”

“Assault is still against the law, I’m pretty sure. And it’s still rude to be…rude.” He let out a long sigh. “Never thought I’d say this, but I’m looking forward to being back at the bunker.”

“Dean…are you…ashamed to be seen with me?”

“What? No!” Dean took a few swallows of his coffee. “Where’d you get that idea?”

“My presence is causing you discomfort.”

“No, Cas. It’s not that. It’s not you. It’s…I don’t like seeing people I care about hurt, okay?”

“But I am not hurt.”

“She was rude to you,” Dean explained. “And…I guess I’m hurt on your behalf. You’re worth more than how people are treating you. How these laws treat you.”

“You don’t know that, Dean. You know what I’ve done. Maybe these laws are exactly for angels like me. Maybe it is what I deserve.”

“No. Don’t say that, Cas. It’s not true. Yes, I know what you’ve done. I know what I’ve done. And Sammy. But you know what else? We’ve also saved the world a few times. And Sammy and I couldn’t have done it without you. So stop with the martyr complex. These laws are just about hate. They’re about making angels scapegoats. Nothing more. Just hate.”

Dean stopped as the server approached their table with a tray of food. She set down two plates in front of him and refilled his coffee, ignoring Castiel’s cup, then marched back to the kitchen.

Castiel began organizing the jam packets in front of him by type. “You know, Dean,” he said, his tone taking on what Dean liked to think of as his ‘Professor Castiel’ role, “in Moses’ time, Aaron, the high priest, would cast lots onto two goats on the annual day of atonement—one for God and one as a scapegoat. That’s where the term comes from, actually. The goat chosen by lot for God was sacrificed on the altar that the Israelites built while wandering through the desert. Aaron lay his hands upon the other one, transferring all the sins of the people onto the goat, and then sent it away into the wilderness. In fact, the goat was sent l’azazel.”

Castiel pronounced it  l’ah-zah-ZELL, but Dean heard the connection as he forked hash browns into his mouth. “They sent it to a demon? To Yellow Eyes?”

“Well, technically, yes. But originally that was all he was supposed to get.”

“What do you mean?” Dean wondered which would end first: Cas’ explanation or his breakfast.

Replacing the jam packets in the condiment container, Castiel explained, “Back then, there were only a few demons and they were only allowed to feed on the energy of human sins. It was a sort of cosmic cleansing system. Humans began each year with a clean conscience and demons purged their sins from the world. But the demons got greedy.”

Dean made a face and bit off a piece of bacon. “Greed. Demons. Makes sense.”

“They were never supposed to go after human souls. But when Jesus came along and much of the Western world became Christian, the sins were no longer sent to l’azazel. Without that cleansing, it was up to humans to repent and pray for forgiveness. Many didn’t. Really, that’s when Hell was born.”

“Wait-wait-wait…” Dean pointed his strip of bacon at Castiel. “You’re telling me that Hell didn’t exist before Christianity?”

“Not as you experienced it, no. There was a short-term cleansing of the soul back then, when it was necessary. But then the soul could proceed to Heaven.”

“But Lucifer…”

Castiel sighed. “He was cast out of Heaven, yes. But he didn’t have any power then. Not until Christianity. Not until the church built up the idea of the devil.”

“Are you telling me,” Dean said around a mouthful of pancakes, “that…that…the devil is sort of like a tulpa?”

“Oh no, Lucifer is an angel. A fallen angel, a fallen archangel, in fact. But yes, you could say that the devil is really kind of a tulpa built up around Lucifer. Religiously speaking.”

“And where do you stand on religion, Cas?”

“I don’t,” Castiel said. “Religion is a human construct. Sometimes it’s the only way you humans can understand certain truths, and even then your religious institutions warp it into something it was never intended to be for their own political power. With the combined energy around prayer and intention… It’s out of my hands, really.”

“I know I’m gonna regret saying this,” Dean said, attacking his pancakes with gusto, “but you just kind of blew my mind. Again.”

Castiel gave him a half-smile. “I’m glad I can be of service.”

 


 

The first two home improvement stores were a bust, but they found brass mesh at the third stop, a Home Depot.

Castiel was examining several different types of brass mesh when Dean overheard harsh voices. Always wanting to know what was going on in his environment, he whispered to Castiel, “Stay here. I want to see what’s going on. Make sure it’s nothing that will affect us.”

“Of course, Dean.” Castiel nodded distractedly, holding two different products in his hands.

Stay here. I’ll be right back. Okay Cas?”

Castiel looked up at him, clearly annoyed. “Yes, Dean. I will stay right here like a good little angel.”

Dean started to speak, ran a hand over his mouth, shook his head, and walked to the front of the store, where the voices had become angrier. At the contractor’s checkout lane, a tall, stocky man was yelling at two shirtless male companions and the checkout clerk. Dean watched for a moment, chalked it up to an unsatisfied customer or maybe the clerk enforcing a no-shirt-no-service policy, and was about to return to Castiel when the stocky man’s companions turned to pick up several dozen long, heavy wooden boards, and Dean saw their wings.

They were nothing like Cas’ wings. They were short and kind of scrawny, even though the male vessels themselves were well-built and muscular. Dean walked closer, pretending to examine the array of ladders on display near the front. One angel’s wings were a muddy brown, and Dean could see now that a lot of the feathers were broken or damaged. Far more even than Cas’. The other’s might have been an off-white, but were streaked with gray and what looked like dried blood. When the stocky man pushed the angel with the off-white wings, the angel flared his wings slightly, and Dean felt sick when he saw bloody whip marks on the angel’s back.

A Home Depot employee—a manager, Dean guessed, by his attire—walked quickly toward the checkout lane and helped the stocky man, and what could only now be described as his angel slaves, haul his purchases out of the store.

Dean spun back around to return to where he’d left Castiel, only to find Cas at the end of the aisle in full-on smite mode, staring at the exit. He walked as quickly and cautiously as possible back to his friend. “Cas, you gotta let it go, man.”

“Dean. You saw them.”

“Yes. I did. And I’m sorry.”

“He was abusing them!” Castiel hissed.

“Cas, buddy, we’re here to save Gabe. I don’t like what I saw either. But we gotta keep our eye on the prize. We can’t save ’em all. Not yet.”

Castiel let out a long breath, his face relaxing a fraction. “You’re right, of course.” His blue eyes looked like pools of sorrow. “With that implant, they have no choice but to allow him to mistreat them.”

“I know, Cas.” Dean put his hand on Castiel’s shoulder, feeling the tension fade under his touch. “Let’s finish up here and head back to the room. See if Gabe has any more info on when they’re going to transfer him.”

At that, the tension was back, and Castiel pinned him with a steely look. “You mean when they take him to be executed.”

Dean nodded, but didn’t trust himself to say anything more without putting his foot deeper into his mouth. The tension he saw and felt in Castiel’s body gave him an idea, though. Cas had spent all night keeping him warm with a wing. Maybe he could repay that kindness with a full wing massage, easing Cas’ tension and getting his mind off of all this ugliness.

And it had absolutely nothing with wanting to drag his fingers through those feathers again.

Chapter Text

Sam woke with the sun at nearly half past seven in the morning. In lieu of his regular run, he jogged southeast on Highway 50, away from downtown, avoiding dirty mounds of snow left by the plows and looking for a good place to switch out the license plates of the SUV he’d commandeered back in Nebraska. He’d already checked the location of the coffee shop where he was meeting the historian, and decided it wasn’t the brightest of ideas to park a stolen vehicle with its original plates only a block away from the Grand Junction Police Department.

He passed a Dairy Queen, a Subway, and a diner with a grand total of six parking spaces before a familiar sight came into view. Just off the highway was what looked like a salvage yard, not too dissimilar from Bobby’s. Seeing it brought back memory pangs of simpler times, even though they were just as painful. After checking the yard for any sort of surveillance and finding none, he kept his eyes open for a set of plates that would be easily accessible. He skirted past the back half of a pickup truck and the shell of a motorboat before he came to a mid-80’s Chevy G20 van with two flat tires, a busted rear axle, and plates just asking to be taken.

The newly acquired plates under his jacket, Sam jogged casually back to the motel, then around to the back where he’d parked the SUV. A few minutes with the Leatherman tool that he would absolutely, under no condition—except possibly threat of death—let Dean use, and he was set. Then it was a quick shower, inconspicuous clothing, and he was sitting at the coffee shop fifteen minutes before his appointment with the historian.

Idly fidgeting with a sugar packet while he sat in a booth facing the door, Sam played a game with himself to see if he could identify the historian before she entered through the glass door. He realized he’d been a victim of his own prejudices when she walked in looking nothing like he expected, glanced around once, and strode purposefully over to his booth.

“Sam?” she asked.

“Uh, yeah.” Sam reached out to shake her hand, then indicated the empty seat across from him. “Thanks for meeting me.”

“It’s my pleasure. I’m Isobel Roth, but you can call me Izzy.” She smiled, revealing matching dimples on her cheeks and laugh lines around her brown eyes. Her dark brown hair was past her shoulders and hung in tight curls that miraculously didn’t frizz in the dry winter air. Sam nearly asked what she used for hair product when she pulled a portfolio out from her large tote bag and set it down in front of her, then asked, “Would you like to get something to eat or drink before I give you the lowdown?”

“Yeah, I would.” Sam gave her a small smile. “Can I get you something? My treat.”

Izzy shook her head. “My wife wouldn’t like that very much.” She pulled a five-dollar bill out of her wallet and handed it over. “Chai tea. Large. I’ve already eaten, but feel free to eat in front of me.”

“Okay.” Sam took the bill and went up to the counter, ordering Izzy’s chai tea, and an Americano coffee and an egg and spinach wrap breakfast sandwich for himself. He paid and received a number to take back to the table.

“So what is it you want to know?” Izzy asked when he was seated again.

Sam let out a long exhale. “The house at 550 Highway 50. It was built in the 1980s but there was another house there before. Back in the 1920’s a widow named Constance Harrison and her baby lived there. And according to the census, there was also a boarder. Gwendolyn Vosser. What can you tell me about them?”

“Well, Constance and my great-grandmother were friends,” Izzy said with a wistful smile. “My grandma was born right around the same time as Constance’s baby, and her mama would tell her that she thought my grandma and that baby were going to grow up to be best friends. And then the baby died, and for years, my grandma talked about having an imaginary friend she was sure was that baby.”

“But then Constance died?”

“She did. The whole town was up in arms about it.” The papers said she’d committed suicide, slit her wrists, but I don’t believe it. The way my grandma talked about her childhood, her mama said Constance was all about giving. Before she had that baby, she marched for women’s suffrage, took in babies and kids for women who had to go to work during the war, organized meals for women who lost their husbands in the war. She needed to be needed.”

“Her baby,” Sam said as gently as he could, “was all she had left of her husband. Maybe that was too much for her.”

“We’d think that today, but people lived differently back then. Neighbors helped each other. Women were very social. That’s how the boarder—Gwendolyn—came to live with her.”

“Say more about that,” Sam prompted.

“Well, a lot of the menfolk died in World War I. It was hard on the women, especially those with children. Women didn’t work then; there was no income. Many who had houses—” Izzy paused as a server brought two steaming cups and Sam’s wrap to the table, then thanked the server with a nod. She breathed in the scent from her chai tea and motioned Sam to eat.

“Many who had houses opened them to those who didn’t. They’d work part-time jobs and take care of each other’s children. Constance came from some money, so she didn’t have to work right away. Gwendolyn…well, no one really knew much about Gwendolyn. She showed up, very pregnant, looking for a place to stay. According to my grandma, she never talked about a husband, dead or alive. But Constance took pity on her and gave her a room. With both of them expecting, it just made sense.”

“What happened?” Sam took a bite of his wrap, noticing with appreciation that the spinach was steamed fresh and plentiful.

“Constance’s baby died one night. Well, was killed, really. The police said it was a wild animal attack, but that old house was a two-story Victorian and the nursery was in a central room upstairs. No pets. You can’t tell me a wild animal got in there.” Izzy drank more of her tea. “When Constance found out, she was sick with grief. The doctor gave her some medicine to calm her down and my grandma said Gwendolyn offered to care for her until she was feeling better.”

“Let me guess,” Sam said just before swallowing a mouthful. “Constance died shortly after.”

“You’d be right. It was only a few days later. I mean, the timing makes sense with a suicide; I can’t imagine her grief. But it just wasn’t who she was. And there’s something else too.”

Sam washed another mouthful down with his coffee. “What’s that?”

“Gwendolyn? Nobody ever saw her baby. She was pregnant and then she wasn’t, and right after Constance died, she disappeared. And she was farther along than Constance. My great-grandmother saw Constance nearly every day. She would have seen Gwendolyn’s baby, but she didn’t.”

“That ever strike anyone as odd?”

Izzy shook her head. “Infant mortality wasn’t great. Lots of babies died in childbirth.”

“Do you have any idea where Gwendolyn went after Constance died?” Sam asked.

“I dug into the town records yesterday,” Izzy said, opening the portfolio in front of her. “This has always been a small town. Seems everybody knew everybody. But nobody really knew Gwendolyn. She just…vanished. But years later, when that old Victorian was torn down, they dug up the old limestone basement, and found old bones in a corner.” Izzy pulled out several printouts of old newspaper stories. “A woman and a newborn. I’ll bet money that was Gwendolyn and her baby.”

 


 

Dean could tell that Cas was still tense when they returned to the motel late morning. He hadn’t said anything since they'd left the Home Depot; he’d just sat stiffly in the car and stared, unfocused, out the passenger window.

“You know we couldn’t have done anything for them,” Dean said softly. “I mean, if we weren’t here for Gabe—”

“Just stop, Dean.” Castiel sat heavily on the foot of the bed and looked at the floor, his wings already back in their own plane. “I know. I don’t like it, but I know.”

“Hey, uh…” Dean was suddenly unsure how to say what he was thinking. Let me rub your wings just sounded wrong on every level. “You, uh… You kind of took care of me last night. Kept me, uh, warm, and all. Maybe I can return the favor.”

“I’m not cold, Dean.”

“No, I don’t mean it like that. I mean, um… Well, you’re kind of tense. And you said back in the bunker when I gave you that wing massage that it was pleasant. And maybe it’d help you relax.”

“I don’t think that would be a very good idea.” Castiel didn’t look up as he spoke.

“Oh. Cause, um…I know that them being out is uncomfortable, right? People seeing ‘em and making judgments about you. And I want you to know I don’t see them—you—that way at all. Maybe I can help them be a source of, I don’t know, happiness or something. Instead of pain.”

Dean watched as Cas slowly raised his eyes, the look on the angel’s face one of puzzlement. “You want to massage my wings to make me happier?” he asked, sounding like Dean had made the stupidest offer of all time.

“Um, well, not if you don’t want me to.” Dean raised his hands in a gesture of submission. “I mean, it was just an offer. I don’t… This is all new to me. I don’t know the protocol. It’s just… You say you don’t like your wings the way they are now, and all these people who hate angels, who’ve never even met you, who don’t know how awesome you are, they hate you just from seeing your wings. And… I mean, they’re pretty badass, Cas. They’re strong and they’re soft and they’re friggin’ gorgeous. My best friend is a real, live angel, with actual wings. That makes me one hell of a lucky man. But I don’t want to—”

“Yes.”

“Uh… Yes, what?”

“I accept your offer.”

Dean watched, mesmerized, as Castiel stood and removed the scarf and fleece jacket, setting them aside over the back of the desk chair, then slowed the vibrations down again until they were visible. The wings lifted and spread slightly, then shook, the feathers rustling loudly, and folded neatly back into place.

“Were they…uh…uncomfortable?” Dean asked hesitantly.

Castiel shook his head and offered a tiny smile. “Stress relief.”

“That’s cool. I wouldn’t mind being able to get rid of stress like that.”

“You already can, Dean.”

“Uh, Cas…” Dean spread his hands out. “No wings here.”

“You don’t need wings. Shake your hands out, like you’re shaking water off them.”

Dean did as instructed, feeling silly.

“Loosen your arms,” Castiel coached him. “Shake from the shoulder down.”

Dean did and noticed that his hands felt much heavier. It was like he could actually feel the blood flowing through them. “They’re tingly,” he said. “That’s it? That’s what you did?”

“Essentially.” Castiel took a step closer and averted his gaze. “No one has ever given me a wing massage before you. If there is a protocol, I don’t know it.” He met Dean’s eyes again. “What would make it easiest on you?”

“Oh no,” Dean said with a laugh, feeling more confident now. “This is about you getting to relax. Not about it being easy on me. What would have you most relaxed?”

After a few moments of consideration, Castiel said, “I suppose lying down on the bed.” He crawled up onto the bed and lay on his stomach, then relaxed his wings, letting them rest on either side of him.

Dean kicked off his boots and approached Cas’ right side. “Is it okay if I move them around?”

“Yes. If you want me to move somehow, tell me and I will.”

Reaching out to stroke along the upper joint and the alulas, Dean hummed. “You just relax and let me take care of you for once.”

“You take care of me enough, Dean,” Cas mumbled. “You gave me a place to stay. You’re here for me when you could be hunting.”

Dean retrieved the desk chair and wheeled it over to the side of the bed after moving Cas’ clothes. “I’m realizing,” he said, combing his fingers through the soft covert feathers, “that’s not enough. A place to stay? That’s pretty basic.” He pressed deeper into the wing, feeling the warmth from the skin and moving his fingers in tiny circles between the feather shafts until he found tight muscle. He alternated pressing and rubbing on the muscles, finding a few knots and kneading them out before moving on to the next.

“You’re always doing stuff for us,” Dean said softly, working at another knot. “Even the big stuff. The war in Heaven. I didn’t see it at the time, but I get it now. It was still for us. And the little things. You think of us before you think of yourself.”

“I vowed to keep you safe,” Cas said, barely above a whisper. “To protect you. But I can’t even do that anymore.”

Dean could feel the muscles tightening up again and he renewed his efforts. “You do, Cas. Maybe not with your angel mojo, but you’ve saved us—you’ve saved me—more times than I can count. And that’s not even what I’m talking about.” He gently tugged at the wing and stretched it out so it lay over his lap, then dug his fingers in to the muscles along the lower joint, closer to Cas’ back. He could feel where several muscles wove over each other and connected, and there seemed to be dozens of tiny knots that rubbed out quickly as he massaged them.

“You bring me coffee in the morning,” Dean continued. “You know all my favorite foods.” He chuckled. “You never forget the pie. And because you rarely eat or drink or sleep, I don’t think about the things you like. And I should. Maybe it’s not food, but maybe there’s something else. Maybe like this.” He lightly combed his fingers through the feathers along the entire wing, straightening and smoothing them, then watching in fascination as they puffed up under his hands.

After he’d covered the back of the right wing, he carefully lay the wing back down so it was supported by the bed. Then he wheeled the chair over to the other side and went to work on the left wing.

“It wasn’t all for you and Sam.” Castiel’s voice was soft and a little slurred.

“Oh?”

“No. A lot of it was just for you.”

Dean’s hands stilled, knuckle-deep in feathers. He caught himself, not knowing how to answer that, then resumed the massage. “I—” He broke off, words failing him again.

“It’s okay, Dean. I just wanted you to know. Not that I don’t care deeply for Sam. But you’re the one I vowed to protect.”

“Oh.” Dean scrambled for anything to say, anything to offset the discomfort that seemed to have permeated the room. “Hey, uh, Cas? Can I ask you something?”

“Of course, Dean.”

Finding more knots at the same lower joint, he pressed and rubbed until they released. “If your wings are the only part that’s really you, not just your vessel, then how come I can see them and touch them without getting my eyes burned out? Isn’t that what your true form would do?”

“Mm,” Castiel shook his head as much as he was able to against the mattress. “They’re not my true form.”

Dean stilled again. “They’re not?”

“No. They’re a physical representation of my true form. You wouldn’t be able to see my true form; it’s all light and energy, and too much for your human eyes. When I bring my wings into the physical plane, they’re represented by what you see and feel.”

“But you can’t ‘turn off any neural input’ like you said earlier?”

“They’re still me, even if they’re a physical representation.”

“Oh.” Dean focused back on the muscle tension, mapping out places that appeared to be where Cas held his stress in his wings. “If I could see your true form, would your wings be this color?”

The muscles tightened again, feathers laying flat. “I know black is not an ideal color for an angel’s wings,” Castiel said in a small voice.

“No, Cas…” Dean combed his fingers through the feathers, willing them to puff up again. Puffing up seemed to be a good thing. Or at least a relaxed thing. “I love the color. I love how when the light hits it just right, it’s like a rainbow or an oil slick. I mean,” he added quickly, “maybe an oil slick isn’t the best comparison. But in certain light, there’s all this blue and green and violet. It’s pretty spectacular. I bet your true form is even more so. I kind of wish I could see it.”

“Maybe someday you can see it with your soul,” Castiel murmured.

Dean felt his mouth twisting into a sort of smile. He knew full well that meant after he was dead. “Maybe,” he agreed. He finished working on the left wing until he couldn’t find any more knots or tension, then folded the left wing in like its mate. “Okay, Cas. Time to turn over.”

Blue eyes suddenly snapped open. “Turn over?”

“Yeah. I got the back of your wings. Time to do the front.”

Castiel hesitated, his mouth working silently. “Very well,” he said finally.

 


 

Castiel tucked his wings in tightly and rolled over, then shifted around so the feathers at his back weren’t pinched or twisted. He relaxed his wings and allowed them to spread out slightly. Already he could feel his vessel’s—his—heart pounding in anticipation.

The backs of his wings were not nearly as sensitive, and the massage had felt very good. Relaxing, even. But the front was a different story, and he didn’t know how to tell Dean without making him uncomfortable. It was clear that Dean was uncomfortable knowing some of the things he had shared while feeling so relaxed. There was a benefit to staying tightly controlled; words didn’t slip out that may be better off left unsaid.

“It’s okay, Cas,” Dean said, perhaps misinterpreting his anticipation for fear. “I’m just going to do the same thing I did on the backs.”

“Dean… You should know, my wings are more sensitive on this side.”

“Okay. I’ll be gentle. I don’t want to do anything that’s gonna hurt you. If something hurts, let me know and I’ll stop, okay?”

Castiel found himself swallowing hard, even with nothing in his mouth. “Okay.”

As Dean pressed in with his fingers, an electric jolt of pleasure shot through his wing, firing nerves up his arm, down his leg, and into his abdomen, and he caught his breath.

“Whoa…did that hurt?” Dean asked, his hands frozen just above the wing.

“No,” Castiel managed to say. “I…wasn’t expecting it.”

Dean returned to rubbing and pressing, his fingers creating the most intense waves of sensation that carried through to his vessel, causing unfamiliar reactions. At one point, Castiel became aware of small noises, almost like a mewling kitten, and just before he could raise his head and look around for the source, he realized they were coming from him. He focused on his vocal chords, to stifle them, but then when Dean moved his hands to another spot, he heard himself groan and was powerless to silence it.

His breaths were growing more ragged, no matter how much effort he placed on keeping his vessel calm and unreactive. And if that wasn’t bad enough, as Dean worked his way closer to the base of the wing, both wings began to quiver uncontrollably, the feathers fluffed high and rustling with every shake.

He wanted to close his eyes, pretend this wasn’t happening, pretend Dean couldn’t see how out of control he’d become, pretend he wasn’t disappointing Dean with his weakness, or worse, frightening him. But not knowing had its own form of anxiety, and it was always better to face fear head-on.

When he finally met those familiar green eyes, Dean raised his eyebrows and grinned. “Enjoying that, huh?”

Castiel managed to nod, not understanding why this was amusing to Dean. Did he not understand that loss of control was tantamount to failure? That angels did not lose control? “It’s…very…pleasant,” he choked out, trying to resist another full-body shudder. “But I should not lose control of my vessel like this.”

“Oh, buddy,” Dean shook his head and chuckled. “I think you should lose control like this more often.” He drove his fingers deeper into one spot and Castiel could feel his wings trembling again. “Like that,” Dean said triumphantly.

The waves of pleasure didn’t let up, and if anything, every time Dean moved to another spot, they seemed to intensify, layer upon layer. He couldn’t tell if the involuntary shaking was putting more stress on his muscles or relaxing them further. It was all just pure sensation and lightning bolts of bliss skittering along his nerves. Some of them gathered in his vessel’s groin, building pressure and heat, and Castiel remembered, in the locked box of his unwanted memories as a human, that this sensation would lead to something he was utterly certain would either disgust or frighten Dean.

He tried to block the sensations from that area of his vessel, but his focus was scattered, too caught up in the feelings Dean was eliciting from his wings. He then tried to divert the blood flow, but a burst of pain had him abandoning that idea. All he could do was convince Dean to stop.

The sensations ceased abruptly when Dean folded his wing back in. “This one’s all good to go,” Dean announced, dragging the chair back over to the other side of the bed before he started in on the other wing.

Castiel took the opportunity to shift his hips, trying to adjust the pressure within his pants, but the movement had the opposite effect and the moment Dean sank his fingers into a particularly sensitive area of his wing, Castiel couldn’t help but thrust his hips up into the air, letting out a loud moan.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” Dean said, sounding very pleased with himself. He worked through some more tightness, combing through the feathers as he went. “Hey, Cas, this fluffing is a good thing, right? I mean, it’s not ‘cause you’re cold or anything?”

“Not…cold.” Castiel struggled to get the words out. “Can’t…control…that.”

“But it’s good?”

“Yes,” Castiel groaned out as Dean hit another spot.

Dean gave a short laugh. “Man, if you were human, I’d say this was turning you on.”

“Would that…be…a bad…thing?”

“It’d be weird. Like…angel foreplay or something. Wait a second…” Dean’s hands stilled again. “Is this, um…is this what angels do for foreplay?”

Castiel managed to slow his breathing. “Angels don’t have foreplay. Neither do they mate. Not in our true form. It’s both attractive and repulsive for angels to take a vessel, to consider experiencing human sexuality. We are not to even try. The vessels are not ours, simply on loan, and even if the soul gave their permission, it’s a gray area.”

“But Jimmy’s gone, right? So you could try. If you wanted.”

“Yes, Jimmy has been gone for some time.”

“So…” Dean left the word hanging as if he was expecting Castiel to finish the sentence.

“So nothing, Dean. My experience with human sexuality has not been stellar. I have come to understand that April—the reaper possessing April—raped me. Despite what I wanted everyone else to think.”

“Oh, shit, man.” Dean folded the wing in his lap so it was resting again on the bed. “I wish you’d said something then.”

“I didn’t even understand it myself, Dean. Don’t blame yourself.”

“Well, you gotta know, sex with the right person, it’s awesome. We just gotta find you the right person, teach ‘em how to massage your wings—”

Whatever else Dean said was suddenly drowned out by a shifting air pressure in his ears. Dean’s words, which had now become something sounding concerned, were muted underneath the hollow rushing of the air pressure change.

“Castiel?” a familiar voice called out faintly. “Baby bro, I hope you can hear me. It’s time. I wish I could have given you some more warning, but I just found out. They’re getting me ready to go. Curtain’s up at three o’clock. Please be early. This is one part I don’t want to play.”

Chapter Text

Sam carefully read the newspaper clippings Izzy had given him, noting that Gwendolyn Vosser had been buried in the local potter’s field, but no location had been given. He figured it was possible that Constance was the ghost, but something tugged at his instincts and kept him focused on the boarder. Her unknown history, the fact that no one ever saw her baby, and the discovery of the bones in the basement were all red flags as far as he was concerned.

Some poking around on the internet netted him a few eyebrow-raising discoveries. The potter’s field was half a mile from the motel where he was staying, and therefore also the house where the bones were found. Further, there had been numerous reports of paranormal activity at that same cemetery, enough that the Colorado Coalition of Paranormal Investigators—a similar group to COGENT—had adopted the cemetery. Reading between the lines, he was pretty sure they conducted the occasional investigation there too.

Checking out a map of the area, the potter’s field was right across the street from the US Energy Department campus and just north of the Grand Junction Police Department’s outdoor shooting range. A leisurely, completely innocent drive around the cemetery grounds during daylight was on the day’s agenda. With supplies for gravestone rubbing and a bouquet of flowers, he’d fit right in, wandering the rows of headstones. Tonight he could come back with an entirely different set of supplies. And then he could head home.

 


 

“Cas? Cas, you hear me? Cas!” Dean had watched Cas’ eyes go unfocused for a few moments and nothing seemed to get his attention. He was about to shake the angel’s shoulder when Cas launched himself off the bed, his wings flapping, knocking pictures off the walls and sending the lamp and clock-radio sliding off the edge of the nightstand.

“Dude, what the hell?” Dean complained from the floor where he’d thrown himself, trying to avoid getting smacked in the head with a wing.

“It’s time, Dean. They’re moving Gabriel now.”

“Okay, okay,” Dean grumbled, pushing himself up. “Let me just grab my stuff.” He threw his few toiletries into his duffel as Castiel redressed himself in the fleece jacket and scarf. Grabbing both duffels, Dean tossed the hotel key onto the desk, checked to make sure Cas was ready, and nodded his head toward the door. Showtime.

Dean was still going through his preflight checklist as they walked toward the Impala in the back parking lot, behind the motel. A road-weary family with three young kids bundled in bright-colored parkas were coming the other way, presumably from the SUV towing a trailer of snowmobiles that was parked ten feet from Baby. Although he wasn’t fond of the cold, Dean allowed himself a moment to imagine racing across snowdrifts on one of those machines, the roar of the engine beneath his legs. In his mind’s eye, he could see himself laughing, looking briefly over his shoulder as Cas tried to catch up, the angel’s wings catching the wind and launching his snowmobile into the air every time it crested a drift.

The sound of giggling brought him back to the present and he looked over his shoulder to see Castiel surrounded by the three children, caught somewhere between a polite smile and a frustrated glare.

One of the kids reached out and pet Cas’ wing uninvited, then declared loudly, “He’s soft, Mom.”

“You leave that filthy animal alone!” the mother reprimanded. “Get over here. You stay far away from them. They’re not nice.”

The one child gave an exaggerated sigh and ambled over to the mom, while one of the other kids darted in, grabbed a handful of feathers, and yanked them out, causing Cas to gasp in pain.

Dean wanted to yell, to haul off and smack the kid, to tell the adults that this angel was not like the others, and certainly not an animal, but he found himself frozen in place, shocked at what he was seeing.

“Stephen!” the mom said sharply. “Drop those right now. Those are disgusting.”

“But Dad says it’s okay to hurt angels,” Stephen said, dropping half a dozen black feathers onto the pavement. “They don’t really feel anything anyway.”

“Kids, over here!” the mom ordered. “Honey?” she said in a softer tone as she looked at her husband, “At least teach the kids to do it without touching them.” She shuddered visibly, made sure all three kids were with her, and continued toward the motel without a backward glance.

“Cas!” Dean said, finally coming out of his shock. “You okay, buddy?” He hurried back toward the angel, half-expecting to see blood on his wing where the feathers had been ripped out.

“I’m fine, Dean,” Castiel grumbled, stalking past him toward the car. “Gabriel is not.”

“I’m sorry, man. I don’t know what came over me. I—I should’ve protected you.”

“I can take care of myself. We need to go.”

Dean opened the door and slid into the driver’s seat. “I know you can. But those were friggin’ kids. Who the hell expects kids to do that kind of shit?”

“Do you understand, Dean,” Castiel said as he climbed into the passenger seat, his wings no longer in the physical plane, “that this is an everyday occurrence for my kind? That they have no one to protect them? That they wouldn’t even be in this predicament if it weren’t for me?”

“Oh, hell no,” Dean said, starting the Impala and guiding her out of the slushy lot, back toward the interstate. “You don’t get to blame yourself for this, Cas. You said yourself, they have orders. A little free will might actually help them now.”

“No,” Castiel sighed. “It’s too late for that now. Even if they did…” He shook his head. “Our original mission was to love humanity. Yet your government embraces demons and despises us. We have to stay. We’re the ones who are going to have to pick up the pieces when this is all over.”

Dean didn’t know how to answer as they sped back into downtown Saint Paul, tracing the route they’d already planned. It only took ten minutes until they were hidden under the I-35E overpass, certain Gabriel would be passing through this way.

“You heard anything else from him?” Dean asked.

“No. But I can tell he’s in pain.”

“Do you know what from?”

Cas shrugged. “Something more than the implant.” He rooted around in the plastic shopping bag at his feet, pulling out the horseshoe-shaped brass mesh he’d created before the wing massage and a pair of tin snips they’d bought at the Home Depot. Setting both on the dashboard, he held his hand out to Dean. “Give me your phone.”

Dean dug into his jacket pocket and retrieved the device, handing it over. “These still going to work after?”

“Yes.” Castiel turned the phone off and placed it in the glove box, then pulled his own phone out of his pocket and did the same.

“And Baby? She’s—”

“Your car will be fine, Dean. Stop worrying.”

“So how are you going to stop them? We said we’d figure that out when we got there. We’re here.”

Castiel surveyed the road, the ruts from tire tracks in between the lines of slush and snow, the piles of dirty snow along the roadsides from when it was last plowed. He nodded. “I know what to do.” Without saying anything more, he got out and walked eastward back in the direction of the jail, then stopped just beyond the overpass.

Dean watched through the rear view mirror as Cas crouched down and put both hands on the road, stayed still for a few moments, then carefully picked his way back to the car. “What was that?” Dean asked as Cas wiped his hands on his pants.

A corner of Cas’ mouth twitched up in a smile. “Making sure they stop. You might want to pull ahead about two and a half feet.”

“About?” Dean asked as he raised his eyebrows.

“Make it three.”

Dean put the car in gear and moved forward a good three feet, but he didn’t want to go farther. Sometimes when Cas gave a measurement, he also meant but not more than. “Anything else?”

“Now we wait,” Cas said calmly.

“You can’t get in touch with him? Get an ETA?”

The glare from Cas was enough to end that line of thinking. The questions he really had, the ones that had him feeling more nervous than he did before a hunt, were What if they take a route we didn’t plan for? What if we miss him? What if we’re too late?

He let out a long breath and tried to take his cues from Cas. If the angel wasn’t worried, he wouldn’t worry either. Much.

 

About fifteen minutes later, he saw a black SUV flanked by two squad cars with their lights flashing turn the corner onto University, where they waited. Dean felt himself tense as they approached, until a warm hand squeezed his thigh just above his knee.

“Wait,” Cas instructed him. “I’ll get out and retrieve Gabriel. You be ready to drive as soon as I get him in the car.”

Dean nodded, still watching the trio of vehicles as they grew larger in the mirror. Just before the front car came under the overpass, the tires spun uselessly on what appeared to be a patch of ice. The back end slid around to the side and the SUV hit the Saint Paul police squad broadside, pushing it forward under the overpass. The squad in back, a state trooper, veered around the SUV, hit another patch of ice, and crashed into the side of the overpass, only a few feet behind the Impala. Dean saw the airbag inflate as the front end of the squad folded itself accordion-style under the windshield.

The SUV and crushed police car came to a stop in the middle of the short tunnel created by the overpass, and it only took two steps for Castiel to walk up to the front side of the SUV and hold one hand out. Dean could see it glow briefly, but didn’t feel anything as Cas executed an electromagnetic pulse. The squad car lights went dark, the computer-controlled engines around them silenced, and Dean could hear the groan of metal as Castiel ripped the rear door of the SUV off its hinges.

Castiel reached inside and pulled someone out, though all Dean could see was a flurry of orange and brown. Then a black-uniformed man tried to come out the door, only to be met with Castiel’s two fingers and a long nap. Cas was half-tugging, half-pushing the orange/brown person that Dean could only assume was Gabriel toward the Impala when two black-uniformed arms pointed a wicked-looking gun out of the destroyed door frame and shot. Both angels went down.

CAS!” Dean yelled, as he shoved his door open and started to get out. He could only stare at the two lumps on the ground, reaching for his own gun.

The orange/brown lump moved, then, staggering to his feet and scooping Cas up with both hands in front of him as he stumbled toward the Impala’s rear door. Dean was about to get out and open the rear door when he heard Gabriel’s voice, half in his head and half in his ear.

“Deano—get ready to drive in three…two…” Gabriel somehow opened the door while still holding Cas and they both collapsed on the rear seat as Dean slammed his own door shut. “one…GO!”

The Impala took off with a roar and a small fishtail, the tires kicking up a wake of snow and slush, and the momentum closing the rear door most of the way. The tin snips slid across the dashboard and fell down by the front passenger door.

“What the hell happened?” Dean demanded.

Gabriel managed to shift Castiel over to the far side of the seat, then closed the rear door completely. “You tell me, bucko. It was your plan.”

“No, I mean, what happened to Cas?”

“And I’m doing quite well after being incarcerated and mistreated; thank you for caring.”

“Gabe,” Dean growled, watching for any sign of law enforcement as he drove down the longest frontage road in existence.

“He got shot with a tranq, okay? But it was meant for me, so he got quite a dose.”

“He’s going to be okay, though, right?” Finally, the onramp to I-35E southbound was in view. If he could get them out of the city before the cops could scramble helicopters and get other departments involved, they had a chance.

“I don’t know.”

“What do you mean, you don’t know?”

Gabriel was silent for a few moments. “His grace was pretty weak before you guys enacted that hare-brained scheme. The EMP took a lot out of him. Then with the tranq—one meant for my powers—I don’t know. He’s a fighter though.”

Dean felt dread pool low in his gut. “No, Gabe. That’s not a good enough answer. You don’t get to sound like a doctor telling me all you can do is make him comfortable. He saved your fucking life! Now save his!”

“In case you hadn’t noticed, lover boy, my hands are literally tied.” He held up said hands, his wrists encircled with thick handcuffs marked in Enochian. “So are my wings, which hurt like hell, and I mean that literally. So thank you for the rescue and I’m sorry things didn’t work out.”

“Gabe…I’m…I’m sorry, okay?” Dean tried to get his breathing under control. “There’s got to be something you can do. Even just check on him. Please?” He pointed his chin at the dashboard. “And there’s a mesh collar thing there that Cas made for you. To interfere with the GPS in your chip. Can you reach it?”

“Can I reach it?” Gabriel shot back. “You don’t remember who you’re talking to.”

One moment, the brass mesh was still sitting precariously on the dashboard. The next, Gabriel had it in his hands, examining it briefly, before settling it around the back of his neck.

“Where…um…where is the chip?” Dean asked.

“Back of my neck. Just below my skull. It’s designed to explode if anyone tries to remove it.”

Dean snorted. “You’re kidding. You are kidding, right?”

“No trick this time, kiddo. Now, you make sure this bucket of bolts gets us off anyone’s radar, and I’ll check in with your boyfriend, see what I can do.”

Looking in the rear view mirror again, Dean could see worry around Gabe’s eyes and the set of his mouth. He was dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, his wings dirty and many of the feathers broken and tangled. From what `Dean could tell, Gabe’s wings were nearly twice as long as Cas’, but in much poorer shape.

“Hey, Gabe, are you able to, you know, vibrate your wings back into the etheric plane?”

Gabriel hummed and twitched his eyebrows. “Someone’s been a good student. Yes, ordinarily I would, considering that these monstrosities are always getting in my way. But my generous hosts felt that if my hands deserved cuffs, my wings did too. So, no. I can’t. Not until these cuffs are removed, which is going to be a bitch. But first things first. I’m going to look like I’m asleep, but I’m not. Don’t even think about yelling at me to wake me up, unless you want poor Cassie here to suffer. Got it?”

“I got it,” Dean mumbled, not enjoying being told what to do.

“What was that, pretty boy?”

Dean rolled his eyes. “I got it,” he forced the words out. “Pleasant dreams, Gabe.”

Chapter Text

It was dark. Quiet. Peaceful. And Castiel felt so very, very tired. He tried to open his eyes and look around, but his eyelids refused to move, not even a flutter. The last thing he remembered was pulling Gabriel from the SUV and running for the Impala. Where was Gabriel now? Had the rescue mission failed? Had he failed? Again?

Paging Doctor Roféh. Paging Doctor Roféh. Please report to the ICU nurses’ station.

 The overhead announcement was puzzling, and Castiel scraped together every last bit of energy to wake up. Finally he was able to open his eyes and start to make sense of his surroundings. He was surrounded on three sides by vertically-striped curtains and the drop ceiling housed harsh fluorescent lights. Looking around, he realized he was lying in a bed; an array of machines with screens and knobs stood on either side of his head.

Why would Dean have taken him to a hospital? He shifted his shoulders and confirmed that his wings weren’t out. That didn’t make sense either. Dean was so careful about making sure he didn’t break these new laws. Castiel examined his hands and arms for any needles or other human-life-sustaining fittings when one of the curtains slid open.

“The patient’s awake,” observed a man in a white lab coat over black scrubs, a stethoscope hanging loosely around his neck. “How are we feeling this afternoon?”

Castiel’s gaze went from the man’s attire to his face and he sighed heavily. “Gabriel,” his voice came out in a rasp. “What are you doing here? And where am I?”

“That’s Doctor Gabriel to you, and you are currently my patient.”

“Where are we? Are you safe?”

“Safer than you are right now. Here.” Gabriel held out a cup of water and a bendy straw. “This will help.”

Castiel opened his mouth to object and Gabriel took advantage of the motion to position the straw.

“Drink, kiddo.”

Weakly, Castiel sucked in some water, the cool liquid easing his throat. The more he swallowed, the thirstier he felt, until he’d drunk the entire cupful. “Thank you.”

“Now,” Gabriel said, producing a metal clipboard with papers attached, “we have you scheduled for a colonoscopy this evening. Would you prefer coffee or lemon juice for your enema?”

“Gabriel,” Castiel warned.

“Personally, I think you should go with the coffee. Maybe even a triple espresso.”

Gabriel.”

“What? Can’t I have a little fun?”

Castiel struggled to sit up in the bed. “Where are we? And where’s Dean?”

“Your boyfriend’s fine.”

An odd mixture of emotions hit Castiel but he was too exhausted to identify them. “He’s not my boyfriend.”

“Well, that’s interesting. Because I referred to you the same way and he didn’t deny it.”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “He probably knows better than to argue with you when you might be useful.”

“If that’s the way you want to play it,” Gabriel said with a shrug. He consulted the papers on his clipboard again, pulled out a gold pen from his breast pocket, and began writing. “Patient is lucid but argumentative. Sedation may be required.”

“Am I correct in assuming that my vessel’s unconscious?” When Gabriel only raised his eyebrows in response, Castiel continued, “And yours?”

“A pleasant, comfortable nap, rocked gently in the back seat of a car hopefully speeding away from law enforcement and the idiocy taking hold in this country. But,” Gabriel pocketed the pen and hung the clipboard at the foot of the bed, “we’re not here to talk about me. And you,” he produced a large slice of white cake nearly identical to the one from the bakery, complete with plate and doily, “haven’t tried hospital food yet.”

“Gabriel…”

“No, Castiel. No arguing this time.” Gabriel set the plate down on the over-bed table and rolled it so the tray hovered over Castiel’s lap. “You need to eat all of this.” He sat down on the edge of the bed and held out a fork.

The unusual gravity of Gabriel’s tone caused chills to erupt all over Castiel’s skin. “How is this going to help?”

“Just eat it, little bro. And sooner rather than later.”

Castiel lifted his hand to take the fork and discovered that his arm was much heavier than he expected. The fatigue was wearing him down and he wanted to sleep far more than he wanted to indulge Gabriel in his bizarre scenarios. He tried again to take the fork but failed, and looked at Gabriel in concern. “How bad is it?”

Gabriel gave him a sad smile, cut off a piece of the cake, and held it out. “Open up.”

Feeling dizzy and like he might nod off at any moment, Castiel relented and allowed Gabriel to feed him a bite. Once again, the taste was familiar yet not quite identifiable. He remembered what he’d told Gabriel before, how it tasted like home, of joy and freedom and reverence. For several bites, he felt childish, incompetent, and something about allowing himself to be fed this way—about allowing Gabriel to see him this way—strengthened the inner voice that reminded him he was all but useless. Far better to get Dean and Gabriel to safety so they could go on without him.

“Now, Cassie,” Gabriel said, pausing before serving him another piece. “That’s not going to do anyone any good.” He raised his eyebrows. “You think you aren’t projecting every single insecurity? You think I can’t see it?”

“I didn’t think you cared,” grumbled Castiel.

“Yeah, well…” Gabriel shrugged. “I’m nothing if not unpredictable. Come on now, another bite.”

Halfway through the slice of cake, Castiel felt more clear-headed, less tired, and when he tried to raise his hand to take control of the fork, it wasn’t nearly as leaden as before. Gabriel gave up the fork easily, and after a few more bites, Castiel found himself hungrier, finishing off the cake slice with a gusto that might have rivaled Dean’s pie-eating enthusiasm.

He set the fork down on the plate and lay back against the bed, feeling almost normal again. “What did you put in that cake?”

“Nope. If I told you, they wouldn’t be secret ingredients anymore, would they?”

Castiel could feel a familiar warm tingling running through him now, a growing hum filling the empty spaces he’d learned to ignore. He zeroed in on Gabriel’s eyes, looking for some sign of deception, a cruel prank for Gabriel’s amusement. But if anything, he saw concern and compassion, attributes he didn’t think Gabriel was even capable of. “You,” he started, putting the pieces together, “you put some of your grace in the cake.”

Flashing a single raised brow, Gabriel said, “I told you it had some not-man-made ingredients.”

“How long will this last?”

“Well, I didn’t exactly give you mine. I gave you a little somethin’-somethin’ that strengthened yours.”

“How can you do that?” Castiel argued. “Grace can’t be healed. And anything not mine will burn out.”

“Eh.” Gabriel stood and wheeled the table away. “Perks of being an archangel. I wasn’t certain it would work until you tried it in the bakery. You didn’t get very much that time. Maybe if you’d eaten the entire slice then, you wouldn’t have drained yourself dry with that reckless rescue plan.”

“It was in the cup of water too, wasn’t it?”

“What?” Gabriel made a face that didn’t come close to concealing his lie. “No. That was just water.”

“Of course.”

“Now. You rest for a bit. I think you can be discharged soon, so I’ll go draw up the paperwork. Are you sure I can’t interest you in a triple espresso enema?”

Castiel rolled his eyes.

Smirking, Gabriel gave him another quick eyebrow wiggle. “See you soon, Cas.”

 


 

Dean kept glancing in the rearview mirror for any change in the backseat. He kept the Impala at two miles below the speed limit, wary of speed traps and patrolling law enforcement that might have received a call about an angel jail break and a vintage, road-grime-crusted, black, four-door sedan.

Cas had assured him that the electromagnetic pulse would disable all the law enforcement vehicles’ computer-controlled engines, their radios, cell phones, and any other electronic equipment long enough for them to get away. By the time the cops’ radios or cell phones could connect again, and they could call for backup, the Impala would be out of traffic camera range, lost somewhere in a hundred thousand acres of farmland.

He took 35E southbound into the suburb of Eagan, followed a confusing series of turns, and took Pilot Knob Road south. Based on their research of the area’s traffic cameras, they were now invisible. A little over a mile later, he swung east, following a four-lane highway that quickly became a rural two-lane road curving through some regional park. Another turn south onto Highway 3 and they were officially in the middle of nowhere.

In his rearview mirror glances, he watched as Cas’ face paled even further, looking ashen for a while. Then Gabriel seemed to join in the near-death club for a minute or two before his features settled and went back to normal. In the next glance, color was coming back into Cas’ cheeks and Dean breathed a sigh of relief.

He stayed clear of small towns, taking barely-paved roads to avoid Northfield on one side and Cannon Falls on the other. After bypassing Kenyon, he continued south, looking for a good spot to pull over. South of Claremont, he found it. It was no more than a run-down shack, really, just off the gravel road, a copse of trees beside it and further surrounded by empty snow-covered farmland.

After hiding the Impala behind the trees as best he could, he turned off the engine and wondered how long he needed to wait until either angel woke up. It turned out not to be long. The sudden silence seemed to rouse Gabe first, who sat up and stretched, then cursed loudly as his wings pulled against their cuffs.

“Where are we?”

Dean turned sideways so he could see the backseat. “Southern Minnesota. I’m gonna take back roads as much as I can to get back to the bunker. But we’re gonna have to cross state lines, and we need a plan if we come across another checkpoint. Every one we hit on the way here had a demon on site.”

“Right.” Gabriel scratched his chin thoughtfully. “So, tell me whatever ideas you have, and I’ll tell you how I can make them a thousand percent better.”

Chapter Text

Just after dusk, Sam drove along 26⅞ Road, half-wondering if Grand Junction also had a 9¾ Road, and if it wasn’t visible to everyone. Maybe that’s why they called it ‘Potter’s field.’ He imagined the look Dean would give him and smiled to himself.

The potter’s field was a meager two-hundred and fifty feet from the Grand Junction Police Department’s outdoor shooting range, and there was no place to park that didn’t look suspicious, so Sam decided to hide in plain sight. Earlier in the day, he’d stopped in at Walmart and, after consulting with Barb for a few minutes, left with a stick-on antenna that would pass in the dark and a five-foot-long, chiseled, steel pry bar. He parked in front of the shooting range, where he’d seen a few cars parked during his afternoon reconnaissance, and pulled a large duffel bag out of the cargo area.

A relatively small parallelogram, the field was set off by a barbed wire fence with a single break at the front. A few locations were dotted with headstones, flags, decorations, and frozen flowers in the snow, but most areas were bare, save for small mounds of brush. Izzy had done some more research about where and when burials took place at the potter’s field over time, and had a good idea of where Gwendolyn was likely buried.

The biggest problem was that the ground was frozen. Sam dug out the pickaxe and pry bar, along with a butane torch, just in case. He’d prefer not to use the torch to thaw the ground. He still hadn’t gotten over his nightmares from the last time he was around one. He hefted the pickaxe first and eyed the ground. The biggest problem was about to become the most recent accomplishment.

After a few hours, Sam had cleared the frost line, approximately a foot deep, in the area he and Izzy suspected they’d find Gwendolyn. She’d told him that those buried in the potter’s field were in plain coffins, each marked on the tops and sides with an identification number, and a call to the county records office confirmed that Gwendolyn and her baby—assuming the bones were indeed theirs—were buried together in coffin number 71982.

He’d uncovered portions of two coffins next to each with the wrong numbers, adjusted where he was digging, and hit pay dirt on the next coffin. Knowing he was close, he doubled his efforts, and in less than an hour, he had the coffin mostly uncovered. Taking up the pickaxe again, he cut through the rotted coffin lid, opening it wide enough to cover the bones with salt and gasoline. But just in case GJPD came around on patrol, or should security over at the Department of Energy complex see the fire, he packed up his tools first, getting ready to run for the SUV as soon as he lit up the grave.

Duffel packed and zipped, he emptied a large canister of salt on the jumble of bones, tossed the cardboard container in the hole, and began pouring gasoline around, trying not to get it on himself. He’d just emptied the plastic can and was fishing in his jacket pocket for a matchbook when he felt a sudden blast of cold. There were barely any trees in the area, but the tall grasses nearby didn’t seem to be moving as he looked around for signs of wind.

The blast hit him again, and this time he felt the same icy fingers on his face as before. Hands shoved against his chest with inhuman strength, throwing him into a pile of shoveled dirt and snow and knocking the breath out of him. He staggered to his feet and went for the iron bar in his duffel, still wary of police or security overhearing shotgun shells, when something frigid closed around his neck, cutting off his air. He scrambled for the matches, trying to light one with shaking, freezing fingers as his peripheral vision faded. Again, he was shoved, this time throwing him several feet away and onto one of the grave markers. A sudden piercing pain shot through his back and chest and he couldn’t inhale except for a tiny gasping breath. Unable to sit up, he tried rolling over, the pain in his back tearing and digging into muscle.

He could feel liquid warmth quickly soaking the back of his clothes, and with one final wrench that felt like someone digging around in his back with oversized pliers, he pulled free. Blood pooled in his throat and he spat it out, still wheezing as he tried to take small breaths. Rather than trying to stand, he army-crawled toward the grave, trying to stay as close to the ground as possible. He could feel his heart racing, not sure if it was adrenaline or pain. At the edge of the grave, he crawled toward the pile of dirt, bracing himself against it so he wouldn’t topple in if pushed. He went straight for a lighter in another pocket, ignited a flame on the first click, lit the paper he had with the coffin number on it, and tossed it into the open grave.

There was a sudden whoomf! and a ball of heat from the grave. Sam stayed by the dirt pile, the snow around the grave edge melting, and tried to get his breath back. He still couldn’t manage more than a shallow wheezing, but maybe getting out of the cold and a night of rest would help.

Using the pile for leverage, he managed to get to his feet and stand without falling. He had some movement with his right arm, but his left arm was severely weakened, the pain in his back centered more on the left side than the right. Grabbing the duffel and half-carrying, half-dragging it, he made it back to the SUV, pushed the duffel into the backseat, and fell into the front seat. It took a few more precious minutes to start the SUV, then he pulled out of the shooting range’s lot, drove around while looking for anyone who might have spotted him, doubled back a few times, and finally parked in the back of the motel lot.

He nearly collapsed trying to get into his room, then tore his jacket and shirts off in the bathroom. It was hard to see with all the blood, but he had a number of deep cuts and a large puncture wound near the lower point of his left shoulder blade. He showered as best as he could, trying to avoid getting water into the puncture wound, but it was still bleeding by the time he stumbled out, and he still was having problems breathing.

It was time to ask for help. He started with Barb, since she was right across the road. He hated to wake her so early, but figured that with young children, middle-of-the-night wakings weren’t completely foreign.

“Hello?” Her voice sounded tired, but not as groggy as he would have expected.

“Hey, Barb. It’s Sam. I, um, I could really use some help. I think I got the spirit, but I got a little banged up. I was hoping you could run over with a first aid kit, if you’ve got one.”

“Oh my God! Do you need an ambulance?”

“No, nothing like that. Just a couple of cuts on my back. But I can’t reach them.”

“Okay. Yeah. The kids are still asleep but I’ll be right over.”

“Thanks.” He gave her his room number, slipped on a pair of sweatpants, and slowly made his way to the door to let her in.

 

Ten minutes later, she had her phone in her hand and he was trying to convince her not to use it.

“That is not a couple of cuts!” Barb insisted, using what Sam had to assume was her mom voice.

“Barb, it’s okay. Really. I’ve had much worse.”

“Then you should know enough to be in the hospital right now.”

“I…can’t. Okay? The line of work I’m in… Just trust me. All I need are a few bandages.”

“All right. If you won’t go to the hospital, then let me call one of my coworkers. Her roommate’s a nurse. I don’t know what I’m doing here and I don’t want to make it worse.”

Sam nodded, the effort of the conversation not helping with his breathing. He watched while Barb searched through her contacts and then tapped on one entry.

“Hey, it’s Barb… Yeah, sorry it’s so early. Is Kaye there? I’ve got a medical question.” She ran a hand through her hair. “No, the kids are fine. Yeah, I’ll wait.” Turning to Sam, she said, “Let me see your back again.”

Sam zoned out as Barb exchanged pleasantries with the woman on the other end of the phone, only overhearing a few details about his condition.

“I’d say it’s about a quarter-inch wide,” Barb said at one point. “Yeah, it’s oozing. It looks really deep… Okay, I’ll give him some.” She rummaged through the first aid kit she’d brought and found bottles of acetaminophen and aspirin. “Have you taken anything yet?”

Sam jolted to attention when Barb shook his right shoulder. “What?”

“Have you taken any pain meds yet?”

“Uh, no.” He took the pills she offered and went to take them with a glass of water from the bathroom. When he returned, she was eyeing him suspiciously.

“You’re having a hard time breathing?” she asked.

“A little,” Sam admitted. “Hurts on the left side.”

He listened as she described his shallow breaths and wheezing over the phone, adding what he’d said about the pain.

“Kaye says you probably have a collapsed lung. You should go to the emergency room.”

Sam shook his head, ignoring the pain as best he could. “No.”

After a few more minutes of conversation on the phone, Barb slid the device into her purse. “Is there somewhere you can go for medical treatment when you get home?” she asked Sam.

“Yeah…yeah, there’s a couple people who could help.”

“Okay. I’m going to bandage these like Kaye told me. If the hole that caused your lung to collapse is really small, it’ll heal on its own with rest. But if it’s too big for that, you are going to need medical intervention. Otherwise, Kaye said you could get fluid buildup and die. You do get how serious this is, yes?”

“Yeah, I get it. I do, really. I’ll make sure I see someone as soon as I get home. But not here.”

“All right.” She let out a long breath and pulled on a pair of surgical gloves before she began arranging a tube of antibiotic cream, gauze, and surgical tape. “You said you think you got the spirit. But you’re not sure?”

“I’m pretty sure. She’s the one who did this to me.”

She did—” Barb froze for a few moments. “She could have done this to my kids!”

“I think she was protecting her baby, who was buried with her. But she should be gone now. I think your kids are safe to be in their room again.” He winced as Barb began coating his wounds with antibiotic cream.

“What do you think happened? Why she was hurting my kids?”

“We’ll never know for sure,” Sam said, trying to breathe through the pain. “But my theory is something happened to Gwendolyn’s baby. Maybe it got sick really soon after birth or died of SIDS. And she got jealous of Constance for having a baby when her own had died. I think it made her a little crazy.”

“You think she killed Constance’s baby and then Constance killed herself?”

“Or she killed Constance. And then took her own life, down in the basement.”

Barb sucked in a gasp. “I knew I hated that basement.” She continued to dress Sam’s wounds carefully. “I guess I kind of feel sorry for Gwendolyn, if she lost her baby and then had to watch her landlady have one. But it doesn’t excuse murder.”

Nodding, Sam said, “People do all sorts of crazy things when faced with the death of a loved one.” Make deals with demons, agree to be possessed.

Within a few minutes, Barb had finished. Sam thanked her, saw her out, then gingerly lay down on the bed, hoping to get a few hours of sleep in before it was time to head back over the Rockies toward Kansas. Driving one-handed through the snowy mountains, struggling to breathe on top of the challenge from the high elevation, was going to require focus and determination, neither of which he had in sufficient supply right now.

Before closing his eyes, he set the alarm on his phone, then sent a text to Dean.

Sent 4:57AM Done in grnd junct. heading back in a few hours after sleep. minor injuries. any word on gabe?

When he hadn’t received an answer within ten minutes, he drifted off and let sleep take over.

Chapter Text

“Can you do that?” Dean asked, pointing his flashlight at the paper map spread out over the hood of his rapidly-cooling Impala. It was eerily quiet, the stars bright across the broad expanse of the night sky.

“Sight or sound, Deano,” Gabriel said. “Can’t do both until I get freed from all this.” He raised his bound wrists as if an example.

Dean examined the route they’d planned south across Minnesota and into Iowa. “Sound,” he said finally. “If we go lights-out tonight, with Baby already black, we’ll be hard to see. But she’s not exactly quiet. I can’t guarantee no checkpoints or demons though.”

“I can help with that,” Castiel said as he exited from the car.

“Hey, Cas,” Dean said, feeling tension drain from his shoulders. “How are you doing?”

“Better,” Castiel said, glancing at Gabriel with a grateful look. He studied the map, looked up at the stars, then back to the map. “Where are you planning to cross?”

Dean pointed to a three-way intersection right on the state line. “It’s about ten miles from the nearest town. And Gabe’s going to mute Baby while we drive. Speaking of, how can you do that, what with…” He motioned to Gabriel’s cuffs.

“Oh these old things? Pshh… Just some old costume jewelry, really.” Gabriel rolled his eyes. “They’re good, but not good enough,” he said more seriously. “Made for your standard angel. So I’ve got limits, but I can still do a few things they don’t know about. If Cas were at full power, they wouldn’t fully neutralize him either.”

“If I had the proper ingredients, I could make us completely invisible, even to demons,” Castiel said. “But we have no way to get them.”

“We’ll make this work,” Dean said. “You said you could help with checkpoints, Cas?”

“Yes. I can make it so that humans will see Gabriel and me as human. It won’t hold up under close scrutiny by a demon, though.”

“Why didn’t you do that on the way up here?”

“I’m…” Cas looked away for a moment, “a little stronger now. And there were demons there, remember.”

“Okay.” Dean yawned. “Well, I think we can do this tonight. See how far we get.”

“We should cross the border and then find lodging. You need sleep, Dean. And Gabriel is a little conspicuous right now. We can plan our next border crossing for tomorrow night.”

Dean nodded, stifling another yawn. “Yeah. Sounds good. I could use a shower too.”

“All right, let’s blow this popsicle stand!” Gabriel went to the rear door and opened it. “I call the whole back seat.”

“Great,” Dean said. “Cas, you’re with me up front. Let’s get our phones back on. I want to know if Sam’s checked in.”

 

There were no messages from Sam and the drive south was anticlimactic. Dean kept only the parking lights on as much as he could, the minimal light reflecting off the snow and ice enough to keep them on the road. The last thing he wanted—well, second-to-last after being caught—was getting stuck in a ditch. At the state line, they encountered only what appeared to be a dairy farm and a line of wind turbines.

Dean headed south and then west, bypassing cities and towns for an hour until he could feel his eyelids getting heavier. The town of Northwood was ahead, and Dean spotted a sign for a motel just south of town. “We’ll stop here,” he announced. “I’ll gas Baby up tomorrow, restock our food supply. We should be able to make it back to the bunker tomorrow, maybe nine hours on the road or so. The only trick is going to be getting across the Missouri River without hitting a checkpoint, but we can plan that out tomorrow.”

He parked in the motel’s tiny parking lot and turned around to face Gabe. “Stay in the car and don’t draw attention to yourself, okay?”

Gabriel raised his cuffed wrists and gave Dean a two-handed salute. “As you wish, captain.”

Dean let out an exasperated sigh and got out of the car. A young woman with long curly hair and a Packers ball cap greeted him. “Welcome to the King’s Motel. Would you like a room for tonight?”

“Yes, ma’am. Two beds if you’ve got it. My brother’s asleep in the car. Long drive.”

“We’ve got a room with two queens. Refrigerator and microwave included. Where are you from?”

“Headin’ up from Texas to see family in Wisconsin,” Dean said, adding a grin. “Go Packers.” He filled out the registration form, then pulled out his wallet and gave her his credit card.

She swiped it, printed a receipt, and gave him a key. “You’re in room nine, down at the end. It’s quieter down there.” Handing back his card, she smiled. “You have a nice stay, Mr. Gibbons.”

Dean tipped his head. “Will do, ma’am. Thank you much.”

He pulled the car around to the far end, checked for any sort of video cameras, and finding none, turned off the ignition and let out a long sigh. “I got us two beds. I figured you guys don’t sleep anyway, right?”

“I don’t require sleep, no,” Castiel said.

“Ah, I’ve been known to indulge in a snooze now and then,” Gabriel added thoughtfully.

“Well, I don’t need both of you staring at me while I sleep. Okay? That’s not on the table.”

“My guardian days are long over,” Gabriel said, looking at the cooler. “You got any Twizzlers in there?”

“No. And even if I did, it’s still no.”

Gabriel scoffed. “Brat.”

“Dick,” Dean returned.

Gabriel paused for a moment and shrugged. “Okay, you got me there.” He climbed out of the car and sauntered over to door.

Hurrying over to unlock the door before anyone saw Gabe’s wings, Dean noticed then just how much of Gabe’s wings were dragging on the ground. All of the primary feathers were broken, as were many of the tertiaries. “Dude, maybe you should’ve picked a taller vessel if you knew how long your wings were.”

Gabriel strode into the room, pulled out the desk chair and straddled it, letting his wings relax behind him. “I’ll have you know that five-foot-eight was tall back in the day. You and your brother are the aberrations.”

“Dean, you should eat,” Castiel said, setting the cooler down on the stool next to the small refrigerator and their duffels on one of the beds. “Gabriel, stop antagonizing him.”

“Shower first, then food, then sleep. And no staring,” Dean said. “During any of those.” He grabbed some clean clothes out of his duffel and locked himself in the bathroom. Sure, either Cas or Gabe could get past the lock, but maybe it would be a deterrent to Gabe throwing squares of toilet paper on him while he showered.

 


 

Castiel waited until he heard the lock click and then turned to Gabriel. “Let me see where they cuffed your wings.”

“I can handle it. Besides, I’m getting used to it.”

“I don’t believe I asked for your cooperation.” Castiel switched on the nearest lamp. “Stand up and turn around.”

Gabriel gave an exaggerated sigh. “Fine.”

“Dean and I did rescue you. Just today. I think that entitles us to some respect.”

Glaring, Gabriel stood and turned around. Castiel carefully moved a few feathers aside and examined his wings. There were two pairs of cuffs, inscribed in Enochian and similar to the ones around Gabriel’s wrists. Each cuff had pierced a wing, the wounds ragged and partially scabbed. The top pair was larger and encircled the radius and ulna, just before the top arch, of each wing, holding the wings unnaturally close together. The other pair was farther down on the wing, again piercing the wing itself, circling the metacarpus. It was not unlike having one’s elbows and wrists both cuffed…if the cuffs punctured the arms.

“I’m going to look at the inscriptions,” Castiel said. “It will probably hurt.”

“Do what you need to.”

The inscription was crudely drawn, but effective, the locks powered by the grace of the angel they constrained. It appeared that the cuffs were designed to automatically disengage when no grace remained, or when the angel died. But there had to be a way for humans to engage and disengage the locks. He moved one of the cuffs slightly, noticing a design that made no sense within the Enochian word for open. There were six small dots and one larger dot that appeared to be deeper than the others.

Castiel thought for a moment. If the lock was controlled by the existence or flow of grace from the restrained angel, then perhaps it could be opened by an interruption of that grace.

“I’ll be back in a moment,” he told Gabriel. “I’m going to try something.”

“What are you going to try? Castiel?”

Without answering, Castiel went out to the Impala, retrieved the excess brass mesh and the tin snips, and returned. “This might not work,” he warned. “But I’m trying to think like a human.”

“Well, don’t hurt yourself,” Gabriel said.

Castiel trimmed and rolled the brass mesh to create a long wire that would just fit into the larger of the holes. “Ready?” he asked.

“I guess. Just don’t— AH!” Gabriel recoiled as the cuffs sparked and smoked.

“That didn’t work,” Castiel observed.

“No shit, Captain Obvious. I’m done.”

“I am sorry, Gabriel, but we’re only getting started. I’m certain this is the key to opening them, but I’m not certain what the guards would insert in order to release the lock.”

“Who’s inserting what?” Dean asked from the bathroom doorway, toweling off his hair. He was dressed in sweatpants and a faded t-shirt.

“There’s a small hole here that doesn’t belong.” Castiel pointed to the tiny hole as Dean came over to look at it.

“Sure. Paper clip hack,” Dean said.

“I already tried with the brass mesh.” Castiel held up the scorched metal. “I think perhaps it might need to be something that would interfere with the flow of grace.”

Dean frowned. “Angel blade doesn’t have a point that small.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Castiel agreed. “I could make one, back at the bunker.”

“Holy oil?” Dean suggested. “Pour some in the hole, light it up?”

Gabriel narrowed his eyes at Castiel. “Is he serious?” He turned to Dean. “Are you serious? No! I will not be your guinea pig.”

“I don’t believe either of us suggested you were a guinea pig,” Castiel said, confused.

“No.” Gabriel held his hands up. “No, I— You know what? It’s late. I’m tired of being poked and prodded at. Dean needs food and sleep. I need a break. Cas needs…” He pointed at Castiel. “You need to stay away from me.” He retreated to the bed without the duffels. “Don’t wake me until tomorrow afternoon.” Gabriel curled up on his side on top of the bed, his back to the rest of the room.

“I will…” Castiel looked around, suddenly uncomfortable, then sat stiffly in the desk chair. “I will wait here.”

“No, Cas…” Dean reached out to touch his shoulder when his phone beeped from the pile of clothes he’d brought out of the bathroom, He dug it out, swiped the screen, and nodded once. “Sam’s done. Gonna rest and head back. Looks like we’ll all get back to the bunker around the same time.” He grinned. “Come lay down okay? I’m not gonna be able to sleep if you’re sitting there. Last night wasn’t so bad, right? I don’t even need your wing tonight. Heater works fine.”

Castiel hesitated, torn between feeling wanted and unnecessary. “Of course, Dean.”

Chapter Text

Sam woke to pain. A lot of pain. He managed to gently roll out of bed and make his way to the bathroom where he gingerly pulled up his t-shirt and scowled at the black and purple bruising that covered the left side of his back, wrapping around onto his side, and contrasting with the white surgical tape over his blood-stained bandages. A careful inhalation confirmed the worst: likely cracked or broken ribs in addition to a still-collapsed lung. He’d had rib injuries before; it was a risk of the job, especially when those they hunted had a perverse delight in throwing him and Dean into walls.

The bunker was a good ten hours away, and Sam was not interested in tempting law enforcement by driving above the speed limit. Nearly four hours of the trip would be through the Rockies and he’d be happy just to make it to the other side without passing out. A quick search online revealed that the altitude difference he’d traverse was going to be more than twenty-five hundred feet, a definite tax on his breathing.

For a moment he considered drinking something like Red Bull to help his body pull in as much oxygen as it could. He smiled grimly to himself. What he wouldn’t give for wings right now. In the end, he decided against it. Thinking that he needed to ingest a substance in order to overcome a challenge led to too many dark places, and he never again wanted to feel that sort of craving.

He sent a quick text to Barb, telling her he was going to head out unless the spirit had returned. A few minutes later, she replied, saying the kids had slept in their room and all was well. She thanked him again and urged him to get medical help when he got home.

Satisfied, Sam grabbed his duffel with his good arm and headed out to the SUV. One last challenge stood between him and home.

 


 

Dean woke up to the smell of coffee. “Cas?” he called, sitting up and wiping sleep from his eyes. Late afternoon sunshine seeped from behind the motel’s blackout drapes and cast the room in a gauzy light. “You got coffee?”

“Yes, Dean. And donuts. I figured Gabriel would want one too.”

“Someone say donuts?” Gabriel called from the far bed.

“How’d you do that?” Dean asked. “We’re a good half-mile from town.” Frowning, he took in Cas’ attire, his trench coat on over his polar fleece. “Did you go without your wings?”

Cas rolled his eyes. “First, I’m never without my wings. Second, yes, I did, and everything was fine. You can stop worrying. I’ve been around you long enough to know how to purchase coffee and donuts without arousing suspicion.” He offered Dean a cup.

“Thanks,” Dean said, taking the hot cup gratefully and sipping. “Wow, that’s still really hot. Did you mojo this to keep it hot on the walk back?”

Cas looked away in a gesture Dean immediately knew meant he was hiding something.

“Cas? What’d you do?”

Gabriel got out of bed and made his way over to the table where Cas was standing, taking the other cup with both hands. “Aaaand this just got interesting.” He drank a few swallows and smacked his lips. “This show really calls for popcorn, but I suppose donuts will suffice.” He set down his cup and reached for the box.

Slapping his hands away, Cas glared at him. “You may have one. The rest are for Dean.”

Gabriel grabbed a glazed donut and sat down on the corner of the bed, his wings hanging off the edge, watching the other two expectantly.

“Cas? How’d you get there and back?” Dean asked, mostly certain he wasn’t growling.

Cas shrugged off his trench coat, avoiding Dean’s gaze.

“Cas…” There was maybe some growling that time.

Finally Cas looked at him level, maybe a little defiant, and Dean wasn’t sure whether to be scared of the answer or scared of the angel. “I drove your car,” Cas said.

“You drove my—?” No, he was definitely scared of the answer. “You drove Baby? What the hell, Cas?”

Cas took a step closer, narrowing his eyes. “I know how to drive, Dean. Your car is fine. I managed to drive an entire mile without wrecking it. You’re welcome for the coffee and donuts.” He sat down in the desk chair and turned away.

Guilt and anger began a brief battle before guilt won. “Yeah…uh…sorry, Cas. I know you know how to drive. Thanks for the breakfast.” He grabbed a cake donut with rainbow sprinkles. What? It looks happy. Shut up.

“Aw, that’s it?” Gabriel complained. “No dramatic arguments? Throwing coffee on each other? A few punches?”

“No,” Dean and Cas said in unison. Dean glanced over at Cas with raised eyebrows.

“At least tell me you’ll kiss and make up. I know make-up sex might be out of the question for now—”

“Gabriel!” Cas’ sharp tone made even Dean flinch.

“We’re not…” Dean said, feeling sudden adrenaline course through his body, “I don’t know what you’re thinking, but Cas and I are not… We’re just friends. Okay?”

Gabriel held his hands up. “If that’s what you want to tell yourself, mea culpa.”

“It’s not what I want to tell myself. It’s just what is.”

“Uh huh.” Gabriel nodded sagely.

“Stop antagonizing him,” Cas said to his brother with a bitchface that would rival Sam’s. “We need to plan the trip back to the bunker. There’s still a state line to cross and we need to be prepared.”

“Cas is right,” Dean said, grateful for the change of subject. He snatched another donut and fished out the map, laying it out on the bed while he held the donut in his teeth. After taking a bite, he held it with one hand while smoothing out the paper with the other. “Let’s figure out how to get home.”

 


 

Sam made it out of Grand Junction without much of a problem, and as he followed along the winding Colorado River, he practiced slow, rhythmic breathing, imagining, as Cas had taught him, matching his breathing to the gentle rocking of small waves on a lake. It made the pain in his chest not quite so bad. He drove through some small towns, businesses clearly dependent on traffic along Interstate 70. The river made a steady companion for miles, crisscrossing under the interstate, leading him home.

But by the time he entered the White River National Forest, he could feel the air thinning out, each inhalation desperate for more oxygen. And then there was road construction, the bane of any road trip. A couple of times, he started to feel dizzy, the anxiety about following single-lane construction detours adding to his stress. A semi-truck blocked his view of what was immediately ahead, and then it occurred to him that his solution was right in front of him.

The semi had the word Navajo in large, bright orange letters, and he fell in behind the truck, matching its pace, and simply followed. It was almost calming, simply following the truck. As long as he didn’t get too close, there was little chance of him speeding, and an even smaller chance that anyone would want to hang out behind him for long. Nobody wanted to tail the trucks. As an added benefit, the icy road spray kicked up by the trucks wheels regularly wetted his windshield, allowing him to use the wipers without needing much wiper fluid.

He made a mental note to tell Dean about this when he got home. Of course Dean would never hear of following a truck. Dean was always a leader, not a follower. Except when it came to Dad. Sam shook his head out of the memory, careful of his wounds. That was better saved for when he wasn’t driving through the mountains on a single lung. In the meantime, he followed the Navajo and the river, parsing out his shallow breaths in time with imagined waves.

 


 

“I’m gonna pack up,” Dean informed them as he hefted the cooler. “We can stop by the gas station and refuel Baby and the snack stash.”

Castiel nodded his acknowledgment when Gabriel spoke up. “I’d like Castiel to help me for a moment.”

“What is it?” Castiel asked after Dean left the room. “Do you need help with your wings?”

“No! No, you can stay away from my wings for now, Einstein.”

“Then how can I help?”

“When are you gonna tell him?” Gabriel asked in a hushed tone, his eyes on the door.

“Tell him what?”

Gabriel stood straighter, an innocent look masking his face. “Just be a few, Deano. Angel business. You understand, right?”

“Fuck you, Gabe,” Dean’s voice came from the doorway. “I’ve got the bags, Cas. I’ll be in the car.”

Castiel rolled his eyes. “Tell him what, Gabriel?”

“Oh, come on. Like you don’t know? When are you going to tell the idiot you’re in love with him?”

“He’s not an idiot,” Castiel warned. “And I can’t. He doesn’t feel the same way. In fact, I’m reasonably certain he’d be disgusted or scared away. I don’t want to risk what we have now.”

“Then you’re as much of an idiot as he is. I see the way he mother-hens you. That whole thing with you driving his precious car? That was about him being scared for you. You do get that, don’t you?”

Frustrated, Castiel looked away from his brother’s piercing gaze. “He loves that car.”

“And whether he admits it or not, he loves you too, baby bro.” Gabriel held out his cuffed hands. “Case in point: he made this rescue possible for you, not me. I know I’m not on his favorite-angel list. In fact, I’m pretty sure that’s a damn short list. One name. You catchin’ my drift?”

“Dean accompanied me because of the current political climate. He was concerned I would be taking undue risks.”

“Exactamundo. He doesn’t want to lose you or see you get hurt. You were out of it right after the exciting getaway in Saint Paul, but he damn near chewed my head off wanting to make sure you were okay. Didn’t care much how I was doing, but he was plenty concerned about you.”

Castiel shook his head. “He still thinks I’m useful to him. I’d rather not disabuse him of that thought, else I’ll have nowhere to go.”

“Oh, little fledgling, you’re in as much denial as he is, aren’t you?”

“I am not a fledgling.”

Gabriel quirked his eyebrows. “At least you didn’t argue about being in denial. Come on, our chariot awaits.”

Chapter Text

Dean watched as Cas slid into the front seat and Gabe climbed into the back, maneuvering his wings in the available space. “This isn’t gonna work,” he said. “Gabe, you still look like an escaped convict.”

“Well, excuse me for existing.” Gabe narrowed his eyes at Cas. “If Wonder Boy here had actually managed to take the cuffs off instead of electrocuting me, I’d be happy to don something more to your liking.”

After taking a slow, calming breath, Dean worked on keeping his voice composed. “What I mean is that between the orange jumpsuit and the giant-ass wings, you’re going to attract attention, which is the last thing we need right now. I know you can’t hide your wings, but can you do something about the bright orange?”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Gabe looked around the Impala’s interior, nodded once, then looked down at his attire. In the blink of an eye, it turned the perfect shade of black to match the seat. The brass mesh hugging the back of his neck now looked almost like an intentional accessory.

“What are the limits on what you can do?” Dean asked, holding the car keys in his hand. “Clearly you can move objects—at least small ones—and change the color of your clothes. And you helped Cas. Is it like when Cas is only a little juiced up?”

“Dean,” Cas protested.

“No offense, Cas. I’m just trying to figure out what we’ve got to work with here.”

“I don’t know what Castiel is like when he’s only at half-mast,” Gabe said. “He does like to go off half-cocked though, doesn’t he?”

Gabriel.” Cas gave him a death glare.

“Peace, bro.” Gabriel held his hands up, then turned to Dean. “I think I told you these implants were designed for, you know, standard angels. So it has a dampening effect on a bunch of things. The cuffs prohibit even more. No flying, no teleporting, no one-handed buffing the banana.”

“TMI, Gabe,” Dean warned.

“I can do small things. Bigger things either just don’t happen or take a lot more out of me than they usually would.”

“Can you, like, shield yourself so no one can see you?”

Gabe shook his head. “Already tried that. Don’t know if it’s the cuffs or the implant.”

“I can shield him from human view,” Cas offered. “But not from demons. If we had the ingredients for a spell, I could do that, but it would be more dangerous to seek what we’d need than to return to the bunker.”

“So, you probably can’t look like someone else either?” Dean asked Gabe.

“Nope. And no creating thought-forms.”

“Thought-forms?”

“You know, when I make you think you’re seeing another person but it’s just a—”

“Like a hologram,” Dean finished.

“No…not like a hologram,” Gabe corrected. “A hologram is a three-dimensional image formed by the interference pattern of at least two light beams from a light source. A thought-form, on the other hand, is a three-dimensional, interactive image created for a specific purpose from a source of energy, such as me.”

“That sounds like a tulpa.”

“No, it’s not a…okay, it’s sort of like a tulpa.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “‘Sort of,’ huh?”

“Dean. Gabriel. Can we simply acknowledge that this is not an option for us at this time?” Cas let out a frustrated sigh. “I will shield Gabriel’s wings and cuffs so that he’ll appear human to other humans. But we are likely to encounter another checkpoint along our planned route, which means more demons.”

“Yeah, I still think our plan is good,” Dean said.

“You should also know,” Cas continued, “that Gabriel and our abrupt departure from Saint Paul has now made national news. I saw a news story on the TV at the gas station where I purchased breakfast.”

“You couldn’t have mentioned that earlier?”

“It wouldn’t have changed our plan for how to get back to the bunker. But it may impact how we deal with anyone who might see us.”

Dean tapped the steering wheel as he thought. “Well, it’s nearly dusk now. We should reach the Iowa-Missouri border in about five and a half hours. Like I said earlier, the checkpoints seem to only be near towns or on highways. So I think we can make it into Missouri, but getting across the Missouri River into Kansas is the critical part. It’ll take us about another hour to where I expect they’ll set up a checkpoint.” He looked at his watch. “That puts us at the checkpoint at maybe one in the morning.”

“The moon won’t rise until about five in the morning,” Gabe added. “And I can still cloak either sight or sound of the car.”

“How do you know when the moon rises?” Dean stared at Gabe in the rearview mirror. “Never mind,” he added, shaking his head. “I’m gonna stop asking how any of you know anything. So are we ready? I still need to stop for gas and food.”

“And a few treats, right, fearless leader?” Gabe asked. “I’ve got a craving for Twizzlers and suckers, but a couple of Snickers wouldn’t hurt either.”

“Right. Sure.” Dean started the car and pulled out of the space. “Just, don’t get the seat sticky. I’ve cleaned enough dried-on substances off that vinyl, and it’s a bitch to get clean.”

 


 

As dusk settled onto the eastern plains of Kansas, Sam exited Interstate 70 into the college town of Hays. While the lower elevation was making breathing more comfortable than it had been going through the Rockies, it was by no means easy. In addition, he’d not been able to eat much, feeling queasy even with his go-to snacks. He studied a Super 8 motel across the road while he gassed up the SUV and considered another night of rest. The bunker was another two hours away, but the thought of spending the night on a mattress that was likely either too firm or too soft was unacceptable. Besides, Dean and Cas might be back soon.

With Gabriel. That thought soured his stomach even more, and he reconsidered the motel, if only to delay the inevitable. Carefully, he pulled his phone out of his jacket pocket and texted one-handed to his brother.

Sent 6:33PM in hays ks. 2 hrs to home. where r u?

Received 6:34PM iowa. Have a plan 2

Sent 6:36PM plan to what?

Received 6:40PM Hello, Sam, this is Castiel. Your brother is driving and should not be texting. We are fine and expect to return to the bunker by morning.

Received 6:40PM Your previous text indicated injuries. Are you hurt? Please do not minimize for my benefit.

Sent 6:44PM have a deep puncture wound a collapsed lung and some cracked/broken ribs. DO NOT TELL DEAN. r u up to healing?

Received 6:45PM Of course, Sam. I will do everything I can. Dean is already suspecting something due to our numerous texts. Are you certain I cannot tell him?

Sent 6:46PM I’m positive. will be in my room when u get back. hunt went well. 1 less ghost. u can tell dean that much.

Received 6:49PM Very well, Sam. Take care of yourself until we get there. Gabriel says hi and he will stay out of your way.

Sam grimaced and tucked the phone back in his pocket. He paid for the gas at the pump, maneuvered the SUV onto Highway 183, and headed north.

Chapter Text

The drive from Northwood, zigzagging southwest toward the Iowa/Missouri/Nebraska borders, was peaceful…outside the car. Flat, fallow farmland covered in snow, and straight roads not well-plowed gave the impression of driving on a landscape devoid of anything but white as the headlights skimmed over it. Deciding to go with the theme, Dean plugged the Beatles’ White Album into the cassette player. The bluesy, folksy guitar of Revolution No. 1 had him tapping on the steering wheel until Gabriel starting singing along. Making up his own words.

“You say you want ejaculation, well you know,” Gabe sang, “we all want to fool around.”

Dean rolled his eyes and glanced at Cas, who shrugged.

“You tell me that it's a frustration, well you know, don't let it get you down.” Gabe sang, slapping the seat back in front of him with his cuffed hands as if it was a conga drum. “But when you talk about abstention, don't you know that you can count me out. Don't you know I'm gonna come? All night! I’m gonna come! All night! I’m gonna come! All night!”

“Gabe!” Dean shouted above his singing, which was at least in tune.

“What?”

“Don’t make me turn this car around.”

“Party pooper.”

When Dean glanced in his rearview mirror, Gabriel had managed to look like a pouting four-year-old. “You know,” Dean said, “the more I see of you, the harder it is to believe that you’re an archangel.” He turned down the music. Better avoid any more temptation for Gabriel’s version of karaoke.

“Get these cuffs off me and this implant out, and I’d be happy to show you where you’re wrong.” Gabe scooted closer and rested his arms awkwardly on the seat back. “You know where my name comes from?”

“Again?” Cas asked, clearly having heard this many times before.

“We’ll talk about your name some other time, Cassie. Dean hasn’t heard this.” He looked intently at Dean. “So, lover boy, you know the origin of the name Gabriel?”

“Other than the bible, no,” Dean admitted. “I know it’s Hebrew.”

“Ten points to the emotionally constipated boyfriend! Yes, it’s Hebrew. And it has three parts. We’ll work backwards. The last two letters—in English or Hebrew, as it turns out—make up one of Dad’s old names, before humans got creative and pretentious: El. The letter before it is a suffix meaning ‘my.’ Quick Hebrew grammar lesson: the ‘my’ modifies the part that comes before it, not the part after. What we’re left with is gever. Three guesses what that means.”

“Gabe, I’m not in the mood for—”

“Oh, come on!” Gabe pleaded. “What else is there to do? I’m bored. Humor me.”

Dean let out a carefully controlled breath. “Fine. I don’t know. Giver?”

“Aw, Dean, you’re not even trying! You figured out how to speak Japanese. I’m sure you can handle a little Hebrew.”

“Pain in the ass?”

“Eh…true, but not correct. Last one.”

“I don’t know, Gabe. Maybe something to do with justice?”

“Ooh, now that was a really good guess. I like that one. Still not correct, but you actually tried that time.”

“It means strength, Dean,” Cas said, exasperated.

“Strength?” Dean raised his eyebrows as he glanced at Gabe again. “Strength? Really?”

“Really. But not how you think. You think of strength as…oh, I don’t know…manly and forceful. Right? Yeah, any third-rate angel can do that. Gever is about strength to resist one’s desires. Self-restraint.”

Dean couldn’t help but break up laughing. “Self-restraint? You—” He laughed harder, fighting to keep his eyes on the road. “You are named after self-restraint? Strength to resist desires?”

“Not named after. Angel of. There’s a difference.”

“Gabe, I gotta tell you, restraint is probably the last thing I’d associate with you.”

“What can I say? I gave it all away.”

“So you’re the angel of the strength to resist desires, and you do exactly the opposite?”

“By choice, Deano.”

“Because angels are all about choice,” Dean said.

“Angels are all about strategy,” Gabriel corrected. “It’s the end game that counts. Choice was never a problem. Picking a different end game is another story. Do you know how much it sucks to have an end game picked out for you and no other game options?”

“Are you kidding me?” Dean said, irritated that Gabe would even consider asking such a question. “I think I know a lot about that. Righteous Man? ‘Play your roles?’ This ringing any bells?”

“Sorry. At least your game is over in eighty years. Or less. Try bucking ‘play your role’ for a dozen billion years.”

“Gabriel, stop being melodramatic,” Cas said with a sigh. “It’s been a few million at the most.”

“Feels longer.”

A surly Cas, Dean could deal with, but a petulant Gabe was above his pay grade, and they had a while to go before the state border. “Tell me more about this strength thing. You’re the angel of self-restraint—” Dean bit his lips together until the urge to laugh passed. “Yet you choose indulgence. Why?”

“Because I can.”

“That’s not an answer.” Dean guided the Impala onto another highway headed west.

“Why did you resist saying yes to Michael?”

“Because I’m not a damn puppet,” Dean shot back. “And it would have cost a lot of lives.”

“So you value life and independence,” Gabe said.

“Who doesn’t? Oh, right. Angels.”

“End game, pal. Remember?” Gabe chided. “I have values too. I value peace and cooperation.”

Dean barked out a laugh. “That’s good, Gabe. You almost had me there.”

In the space of a microsecond, Gabriel’s fingers were pressed hard against a spot on the side of Dean’s neck that had him seeing spots before his eyes and feeling lightheaded. Dean tightened his grip on the wheel, holding it steady.

“Do you want an answer or don’t you?” Gabriel said low in his ear.

“Easy, Gabe.” Dean was careful to stay still as shadows crept in from his peripheral vision. “Gabriel. No offense intended.” The fingers disappeared from his neck and Dean took a few deep breaths, blinking his vision back to normal.

“As I was saying,” Gabe continued as if nothing had happened, “I value peace and cooperation. You'll kindly remember that everything, everything I did was to promote an end to the fighting. All of it.”

“Yeah, ‘cause killing me a hundred times in front of Sam is peaceful.” Dean winced as the words came out of his mouth. It was maybe not the brightest thing to snark at an angel who moments earlier had almost rendered him unconscious. But the snark came naturally. Carefully-thought-out words, not so much.

“Oh, please. You don’t remember even a moment of that.”

“Sam does.”

“Well…” Gabe shifted amidst a bunch of feather-rustling. “I’ll deal with Sam. My intentions were good. My method was maybe flawed.”

Dean swallowed instead of saying what first came to mind. He’d hoped not to have a sulking Gabe in the back seat, but a pissed off archangel wasn’t high on his list either. “So what do peace and cooperation have to do with indulgence? And for that matter, how do the ‘just desserts’ figure in?”

“That last one’s easy. Someone starts creating chaos and pain? I put an end to it. Peace prevails once again. And I wouldn’t call it indulgence. I don’t go around eating entire candy stores like some angels drink liquor stores.”

“That was one time, Gabriel,” Castiel said, breaking his silence. “And I had a very good reason. It wasn’t an indulgence so much as a very poor attempt at escape.”

“Hey, don’t knock inebriation as an escape method,” Dean added, looking at Gabe in the mirror. “Cas just had some tolerance issues. So what would you call it?”

Gabe made a thoughtful face, then seemed to have decided something. “This is graduate level angelology, okay? One thing we’re all really good at? Symbolism. And it takes all forms, all the senses in this world. Chaos, fighting, disorder? They taste bitter. They are sharp and fragmented. Peace, cooperation, synergism? They’re like the finest, smoothest salt water taffy. They’re sweet.”

“You crave sweets in the midst of chaos and disorder? To escape the bitterness?” Dean asked.

Gabe’s shoulders and wings shrugged. “And I like the taste.”

“What other symbolism have I missed?” Dean looked over to the passenger side. “Cas? You do the whole symbolism thing too?”

“You need to understand, Dean, that it’s not a conscious choice. It just is.”

“What’s this?” Gabe said from the footwell. He sat up again, holding Cas’ duffel in his hands. After maneuvering the zipper open, he pulled something out and tossed it on the front seat. “You wanted symbolism, have your boyfriend explain this.”

“He’s not my—” Dean glanced down at the seat. “Your tie, Cas? What’s symbolic about your tie?”

“It’s nothing, Dean.”

“Gabe wouldn’t have thrown it up here if it was nothing. What, does it symbolize your ties to Heaven? Is that why you didn’t wear one when you were human?”

“Not quite.”

“Oh, tell him, Castiel,” Gabe said. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

“It’s representative of every one of my failures,” Cas retorted. “It is everything to be ashamed of.”

His concern growing, Dean nudged Cas with his hand while he steered with the other. “Cas? We’ve seen each other at our worst. Whatever it is, I’m not gonna hate you. Or kick you out.”

Cas was silent for a few minutes. “I can’t, Dean.”

“Then maybe it’s not necessary for me to know,” Dean said, despite his curiosity. As far as he knew, Jimmy chose the old blue tie, and then it got lost somewhere along the way, and Claire gave Cas the new one.

“Psst,” Gabe stage-whispered. “What color is angel grace?”

“Kind of bluish,” Dean answered. “But…wait…” He glanced at Cas again before returning his attention to the road. “It was solid blue when you were at full power. Now it’s striped with white. Are you telling me that your tie symbolizes how much grace you have?”

Cas nodded, not saying anything.

“We can’t just buy you a solid blue tie?” Dean asked.

“We could,” Cas said in a soft voice. “But it would become striped once it was mine.”

“And your—” Dean stopped, a dozen thoughts buzzing in his head. “Your old trench coat was long and it flowed. The one I saved for you. But the newer one is short. Is it…your wings? You could fly when you had the old coat.” He huffed out a breath, wondering why he hadn’t seen this before. “The newer coat…it’s like your wings are clipped.”

Cas lowered his head with a sigh and nodded again.

“And we can’t just get you a new coat.”

“No, Dean. Not any more than you could get me new wings.”

“Man…” Dean watched the white landscape roll by. There was a sense of otherness this conversation had brought out, something beyond fighting monsters and casting spells and making up hex bags. Perhaps more than ever before, he was aware that he wasn’t on a road trip with his best friend and his friend’s brother. He was on a road trip with two beings who had experienced the birth of the universe, who wielded unimaginable power, and who were—despite their personality quirks and outward appearances—very definitely not human.

It was hard not to feel small. And with Gabe in cuffs and Cas running low on grace, the news reporting Gabe’s escape and a checkpoint coming up in just a couple hours, it was hard not to feel afraid.

Chapter Text

Crossing the Iowa/Missouri state line was as easy as it was crossing from Minnesota into Iowa. Checkpoints may stop most of the traffic, but smuggling an angel across state lines was going to remain ridiculously easy unless all the states built walls along their borders. Dean drove with headlights where he knew there was no likelihood of being stopped, running lights or completely dark where there was.

A river, though…a river was another issue. Because a river needed a bridge. And the bridge ahead of them was their best chance at getting home. US 136 was a two-lane highway that paralleled the southern border of Nebraska. Crossing the Missouri River was the Brownville Bridge, a metal truss bridge with two narrow lanes and no shoulders. In the darkness from his location, about half a mile away from the bridge entrance, Dean couldn’t see if there was a checkpoint or not.

“Guys. We ready to do this thing?” he asked.

“’Course we are,” Gabe said. “We were born ready, right Cassie?”

Cas rolled his eyes. “I think the question is, Dean, are you ready?”

“I’ve been ready to John McClane these fuckers for days now. Gabe, let’s go with masking sound again. Cas, you be my extra eyes in the dark?”

“Of course.”

Dean switched off all the lights and slowed down as they approached the bridge.

“Course correction three degrees to the right,” Cas said.

“Three degrees?” Dean asked. “You realize I don’t have a compass?”

“Just…” Cas reached over and adjusted the steering wheel. “There.”

“Thanks, man,” Dean said, glancing briefly at him. “Wait…you don’t have your wings out.”

“There isn’t room here,” Cas said, as if that should have been obvious to everyone. “It won’t matter.”

“Cas, we had a plan.”

“Which I have altered only slightly. In the long run, it won’t matter.”

Dean sighed. The bridge was, at best, sixteen feet from edge to edge. Not wide enough for the nearly-eighteen-foot-long Impala to make a U-turn. “You better be right.”

“I am right, Dean. Stop worrying.”

 Dean bit back a retort. What Cas didn’t seem to grasp was that if this didn’t work, both Gabe and Cas would likely be heading to a public execution. And Dean didn’t think he could live with that. Then again, it wasn’t like they hadn’t played with high stakes before.

More than halfway across the bridge, he saw the checkpoint. They’d set it up on the bridge itself, close to the entrance from Brownville. Any traffic would be stopped in both directions. With Baby running in the dark, the moon not due to rise for several more hours and no lights on the bridge itself, and Gabe muting Baby’s growl, Dean figured they could be almost on top of the checkpoint before anyone realized they were there.

He sped up.

“Ready in three…” Dean counted down as he estimated the distance and their speed, “two…” he knew exactly where he was going to hit the brakes, “one…” he counted two local cops and two in government uniform, “go!”

Cas leapt out of the passenger side, and barely touched the National Guardsman before the man crumpled to the bridge deck. Dean shoved the driver’s door open, his gun drawn on the police officer closest to him, and demanded the cop throw his weapon in the river. When another cop behind the first reached for his own firearm, Dean shouted at him, “You too. And your backup pieces. Now!”

Both complied. The cop in front held his hands out, palms up. “This is simply a checkpoint, sir. There’s no need to—” and then he dropped to the roadway as Cas touched his forehead.

“It’s him! The escaped angel!” yelled another man—a demon, probably—wearing the unfamiliar uniform. The demon wasn’t looking at Cas, though, he was looking behind Dean.

Dean glanced behind him to see Gabe half out of the car, his huge wings pale against the Impala. “Shit!” he muttered before yelling, “Get back in the car!” as he ran toward the second cop and the demon.

Cas got to the second cop first, then stopped cold as the demon leveled one of those wicked-looking guns at him.

The demon laughed, adding in a singsong voice, “I’m gonna get a promotion.”

“You’re gonna get dead,” Dean said, moving forward slowly and pocketing his gun as he pulled out Ruby’s knife. He wanted to try and get between Cas and the demon, but Cas was taking little side steps, blocking his way.

“Olly olly oxen free!” Gabe called cheerfully. From the sounds, Dean could tell Gabe had left the car and was coming closer.

“Stay back, Gabe!” Dean ordered.

“Oh please, come closer,” the demon said as he glanced over Dean’s shoulder to where Gabe must be.

Cas took that moment to move, lunging forward and slapping his hand onto the demon’s forehead. The demon convulsed twice, the movements causing the gun to point slightly off to the side and fire with each tremor before he sparked out.

“Cas, you okay?” Dean said, rushing to his side. He looked Cas over, not seeing any evidence that the shots hit him.

“Dean…” Cas lowered his head, wincing, and clenched his fists as he slowed the vibrations of his wings and brought them fully into the physical plane.

His left wing didn’t look right, as if it wouldn’t fold correctly, and without thinking, Dean put his hand to the feathers, feeling something warm and sticky as well as cool and nebulous. Withdrawing his hand, he saw blood and thin tendrils of grace.

“I’m sorry, Dean,” Cas said slowly as he sank to the ground.

“Gabe!” Dean shouted.

“Right here, right here,” Gabe said from close behind him. “Why does he always seem to have a death wish around you, huh? Did you forget to give him a cake for his birthday?”

“Stop joking around and fix him.”

“Ooh.” Gabe held his hands up. “No can do. Sorry.”

“What do you mean?”

“Grab that gun and anything else important,” Gabe directed. “I’ll get Cas to the car. I can stop the bleeding manually, but those bullets are doing some damage.”

Doing?” Dean demanded.

“Yeah. Doing. They’re still in him. Get moving. The sooner we can get him someplace stable, the sooner we can get them out of him.” Gabe crouched down and managed to scoop Cas up, black wings dragging on the ground.

Dean grabbed the gun, the demon’s cell phone, and some sort of identification badge. Nothing else looked interesting. No keys, no wallet. He ran back to the car, seeing Gabe and Cas in the back amidst a tangle of wings, got the car in gear, and sped into Brownville before the cops woke up.

“How’s he doing, Gabe?” Dean asked, not able to see much in the mirror. Cas appeared to be unconscious.

“How long until we get where we’re going?”

“About three hours.”

“Make it closer to two and he’ll be okay.”

“You better not be telling me he doesn’t have three hours,” Dean warned.

“I’m telling you that I don’t have three hours. Between the cuffs and the implant and everything else you’ve had me doing, I’m running a little low myself.”

“Was it another tranq? Why can’t you heal him like you did before?” Dean took Highway 136 west as fast as he dared in the darkness.

“Not a tranq. Those were bullets.” Gabe reached awkwardly over the seat back for the unfamiliar gun next to Dean. “No wonder,” he added after a few moments. “They made ‘em out of angel blades.”

“Shit. And they’re still in him?”

“One went through muscle, might have hit bone. I can feel it scraping against something every time his wing moves. I can’t tell what happened to the other one. My senses are too dulled for that.”

“Is he… Is he awake? Is he in pain?” Dean wanted to see for himself but he couldn’t take his eyes of the road. “He told me he couldn’t turn off neural input from his wings.”

“You’ve learned quickly, Grasshopper. I put him out. He won’t feel anything until I wake him up. But even that’s costing me. So…”

“Hey. I’m doing ninety,” Dean said, glancing at the speedometer. “It’s going to be even longer if I get pulled over, not to mention the whole two-angels-in-the-backseat problem.”

“Yeah, yeah.”

“How the hell could they hit his wings when they were in the etheric plane anyway? Wouldn’t they be vibrating too fast to be affected by bullets on the physical plane? Or something?”

“Normal bullets, yes,” Gabe explained with a tired sigh. “But angel blades cross all the planes. That’s how we can bring them into the physical plane and back out again. So used against us, it doesn’t matter what plane we’re in. We needed to be able to go after things that could traverse planes as well.”

“And the bullets still being in him? What does that mean?”

“It means he can’t heal until they’re out.”

“So he could bleed out,” Dean said around the lump in his throat. “Or lose the rest of his grace.”

“He could,” Gabe corrected, “but he won’t. At least not for the next hour and fifty-three minutes. Give or take a few seconds.”

“Great. Fan-friggin-tastic.” Dean chewed on his lip as he drove, nudging the speed up to ninety-three. “So, you got both a clock and a whole astronomical chart in your head, huh? Anything else you want to share?”

“As a matter of fact… In approximately thirty-four minutes, if you continue at this speed, we’ll reach a gas station that has a speedy-mart. I’d like more snacks.”

“What happened to all the other crap I bought you?”

Gabe shrugged, the movement visible in the rearview mirror. “High metabolism. It didn’t last long.”

“Thought we were trying to get Cas home as quickly as possible.”

“Stay at this speed after you stop for snacks—and you’re going to need to refuel the car as well—and we’ll make it there in ninety minutes.”

Dean peeked at the fuel gauge and swore softly. Baby was going to need a tune-up when they got home. Home. And then they were going to need to figure out what to do next.

Chapter Text

“Turn off here,” Gabe instructed, pointing to an exit.

“Here?” Dean asked. “We haven’t been driving thirty-five minutes yet. Not even half an hour.”

“Doesn’t matter. This market has Twizzlers.”

“What, you can smell them at this distance?” Dean caught Gabe’s smirk in the rearview mirror. “Whatever, dude. As long as Cas is going to be okay.”

“Twizzlers will help greatly. And some chocolate. Maybe a bag of gummy bears.”

Dean took the exit and pulled into an empty gas station, an oasis of light in an otherwise dark night. The light from the overhead awning cast a slightly blue glow on the snow-covered landscape. He swiped another card in the gas pump, inserted the nozzle, and hurried into the small market in search of anything that Gabe might like. Grabbing the craved Twizzlers, a bag of Snickers, gummy bears, and a package of Tootsie Pops, he threw down some cash at the counter, not bothering to wait for change, and hurried back out to the car.

“Here,” he said, thrusting the various candies at Gabe. “I trust these will help?”

“Mmm, yes,” Gabe replied. “Definitely helps.”

Dean checked to make sure fueling had finished, replaced the pump nozzle, and got back out onto the highway, easing the speed back up and heading for the bunker. He glanced in the rearview mirror again. “How’s he doing?”

“Still out.”

“Yeah, but I mean… Is he still bleeding, losing grace?”

“He’ll be fine until we get there, as long as you can make it there in the next hundred minutes or so.”

Dean kept his eyes on the road, scanning for any signs of speed traps, his hands tight on the wheel. It wasn’t an appropriate time for music; his nerves were too shot. Instead, he focused on the mile markers, each one counting down the time until they were home.

 


 

It felt like several tense hours had passed before Dean pulled into the bunker’s garage, though a glance at his watch said he’d made it in seventy-nine minutes since their fuel stop. Gabe seemed to be fine carrying Cas, albeit awkwardly, so Dean held doors open and directed him to the map table—the only raised horizontal surface that he thought was big enough to hold Cas with his wings out.

“Sammy?” he called, as Gabe set Cas down. “Sam!”

There was no answer, but he didn’t have time to figure out what was going on with Sam. He’d seen the SUV in the garage, so he knew Sam was in the bunker somewhere. Right now, Cas came first.

“We need to do surgery or what?” Dean asked. “How do we fix this?”

“Old school, Deano. And you’re going to have to be the hands.” He wiggled his fingers. “These cuffs make things difficult.”

“I know how to remove a bullet,” Dean said. “Done it enough on Sam. But I’ve never worked on a wing before.”

“I’ll guide you,” Gabe said. “Go get your medical supplies.”

When Dean returned, he brought with him several blankets. “In case he gets cold,” he said by way of explanation. “I know he says the cold doesn’t bother him, but maybe it does if he’s hurt.”

“Aww, look at you,” Gabe said as Dean spread the blankets over Cas, keeping his injured wing uncovered. “You can give him a sponge bath while he’s recovering.”

Dean ignored the jibe, though his traitorous body seemed to like the idea.

Refreshingly, Gabe offered step-by-step instructions on how to remove some of the feathers around the wounds without damaging the roots, clean the surrounding skin and feathers, then where to angle the forceps to find the bullets. With his hands on Cas’ wing, Gabe found the second bullet embedded in a joint, and Dean was exceedingly careful removing it.

“Surprised these didn’t go all the way through his wing,” Dean said. “An angel blade would’ve. Why didn’t the bullets?”

“Force of the gun, probably,” Gabe said. “These were meant to hurt, disable, even maim, but not kill. They probably wanted to reserve the killing for the executions.”

“Sadistic bastards,” Dean grumbled.

Gabe gave him a puzzled look but didn’t say anything.

After packing the wounds with sterile gauze and then wrapping them as tightly as he dared with ace bandages woven through the flight feathers, Dean took a deep breath and tried to release some of the tension in his body. He even thought about shaking his hands out the way Cas had shown him, but he wanted to wait until Cas actually woke up before he considered relaxing.

“When’s he gonna wake up?” Dean asked.

Gabe shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“Oh, come on. You still have him under? Should I give him pain meds?”

“Now that the bullets are out, he’ll start healing on his own.”

“Does he have enough grace to do that? Did he lose too much when he was leaking it all over?”

“I’ll keep an eye on him,” Gabe volunteered. “If he needs a boost, I can help him.”

“Okay. How about we get him somewhere more comfortable. We’ll put him on my bed. There’s a couch there you can sit on.”

Gabe nodded and picked Cas up again, careful of his wing, and Dean led them to his room. “Where will you be?” Gabe asked.

“I’m gonna go check on Sam.”

“Even better if I stay out of the way, then,” Gabe said, making himself comfortable on the couch.

 

 

“Sam? You in there?” Dean called through Sam’s door. He knocked a few times and called out again. “You awake?” When there was still no answer, he tried the door, grateful that Sam hadn’t locked it. The old mortise locks were easy enough to jimmy open, but it was still a pain.

Sam lay on his side on the bed, his breath coming in short gasps, a sheen of perspiration covering his face.

“Sam, what the hell?” Dean was at his side in seconds. “What happened?”

“You… weren’t… s’posed… to know,” Sam managed to say.

“Well, now I do. What’s wrong?”

“Cas… said he… could… heal me.”

“Yeah, well Cas managed to get himself shot in the wing with angel-blade bullets. But you got me. And maybe Gabe can help.”

“No!” Sam hissed. “Just you. Hole… in my back. Collapsed lung. Broken ribs.”

“Dammit Sam, why aren’t you in a hospital?” Dean ran a hand over his face. “Don’t answer that; I know. Okay. I can’t do this on my own. Broken ribs, sure, I can wrap you up. Collapsed lung is outta my league, man. You have a hole in your back?”

Sam nodded. “Impaled…cemetery. Ghost threw me.”

“Fuck. And you drove home like this?”

Sam nodded again.

“You in a competition or something? ‘Cause I already know you’re stronger than me, Sam. You don’t have to prove it.”

“Wasn’t trying,” Sam said.

“All right. Let me see this hole.”

Carefully, Sam rolled over onto his stomach. Dean lifted Sam’s t-shirt and gingerly peeled back the bandages, staring at the gaping wound. “I can’t do this, Sam. We need more help than what I can do.” He replaced the bandages and covered them up again. “Stay there.”

Returning to his own room, Dean found Gabe looking like he was asleep on the couch, curled up facing the back with his wings hanging over the edge. “Gabe? You able to do any healing?”

“Mmph,” Gabe grumbled. “I’m retired from playing doctor.”

“I need you to heal Sam. Obviously Cas can’t do it. That leaves you.”

“Why should I?”

“Why? How about you owe him? How about you put him through hell and this might—just might—start to make up for that? How about we saved your ass?”

“How about you get these cuffs off me?” Gabe retorted.

“Soon as we can, we will. But Sam comes first.”

“Fine,” Gabe said, taking his time getting up from the couch.

“He’s got a collapsed lung, broken ribs, and a hole in his back.”

“No can do. I don’t have that kind of power right now.”

“Well, what can you do?” Dean demanded. “Can you at least fix the collapsed lung?”

“Depends how big the hole is. He consent to this?”

Dean looked away.

“No?” Gabe rolled his eyes. “I’m probably the last person he wants to see right now. I’m not going in there unless he says it’s okay.”

“He’s stubborn,” Dean said.

“Not like that’s a Winchester trait,” Gabe observed. “But I’m sticking to this. You get him to say yes, I’ll see what I can do. Otherwise, hands off.”

Dean swore and stalked out of the room and back to Sam’s. He didn’t bother knocking this time. “Gabe says he can maybe heal your lung, but not unless you give your consent. Friggin’ angels.”

Sam coughed a wet noise that sounded anything but healthy. “So… I have to… say yes… again.”

“Yeah, but only for him to heal you. Not possess you.”

“No.”

“No what?” Dean asked, hearing the irritation in his own voice.

“No Gabriel.”

“You say no to him, I’m gonna have to take you to the hospital.”

“No hospital. Cas.”

“Cas isn’t healing anyone other than himself right now.”

“I’ll wait.”

“No, Sam, you won’t. Who knows what kind of damage you did, driving back in this condition? Gabriel or hospital. Choose now or I’ll choose for you.”

Sam shook his head.

“What if I get Gabe to promise not to turn you into an actual moose or anything?”

“Or… a car…”

“He’s been on good behavior. I think he can help, Sam.”

Finally, Sam nodded. “Okay.”

Dean was out the door before Sam could change his mind.

 


 

Hospitals were relatively easy to break out of, but between drugs and surgery, Sam had zero interest in spending the next several days in a hospital bed. He could man up and face Gabriel once more. Couldn’t he?

He was not expecting what walked into his room, however. Gabriel looked worse than Sam felt. With large Enochian cuffs on his wrists, and his bedraggled wings pulled back at what looked like a painful angle and dragging on the floor, Gabriel’s appearance almost—almost—made Sam feel sorry for him.

“Hey, kiddo,” Gabriel said, a sad smile on his face. “Dean says you’re not doing so well.”

“I’m fine,” Sam said, narrowly avoiding another cough. He swallowed several times and cleared his throat to get the impulse to go away.

“Right. Dean also says you agreed to let me do what I can to help.”

Sam managed to shrug his good shoulder. “No tricks.”

“I give you my word, Sam. Between the cuffs and the implant, there’s not a lot I can do, but I’ll do whatever I can to help.”

“Why?”

“Why help?” Gabriel asked. At Sam’s nod, he continued, “Because even though you’re not going to believe me, I really do like you. I don’t want you in pain. Moderately embarrassed, sure, but pain? No. You don’t deserve that.”

“Didn’t… deserve… you killing… my brother… either.”

“You’re right. I wanted you to see something and I went about it the wrong way. So… You going to let me help now?”

Sam swallowed several times, trying to dislodge a sudden lump in his throat. “Okay.”

“I need to touch you. Just a couple fingers. Need to see what’s going on in those giant lungs of yours.”

Nodding, Sam watched as Gabriel came closer and reached out his cuffed hands, extending two fingers to brush against Sam’s temple.

“Oh, Sam…” Gabriel lowered his hands. “I can heal the hole, but it’s going to take a few sessions. It’ll become smaller each time. I think maybe once an hour ought to work.”

“Why can’t you heal him all at once?” Dean asked.

“Because it’s a pretty big hole,” Gabriel said. “And he’s already building up some fluid in the one lung, which is going to make it harder to reinflate. It’s the best I can do right now.”

“Do it,” Sam bit out, unable to stop another cough.

Gabriel reached out his hands again and Sam felt the touch of his fingers, cool skin on his forehead. Then there was a feather-light touch in his chest, a slight easing of the pressure and heaviness he’d grown used to in the past two days. Gabriel dropped his hands. “I’ll come back in an hour.”

Sam nodded, hating what he was about to say next. “Thank you.”

Chapter Text

Gabriel returned an hour later, without Dean. Sam had been watching the clock, trying to determine if he was able to sleep, even for a few minutes. He heard the soft knock on his door and managed to croak out a “Come in.”

“You don't need to use your voice,” Gabriel said as he came over to the bed. “I can still hear you if you direct your thoughts to me.”

Sam eyed him warily and decided to test it. Doesn’t the implant interfere with prayer?

“Over longer distances, or with half-hearted intention, yes. But you’re a natural at this, Sam, and being right here, I can almost hear you better this way.” He raised his hands. “Ready for round two?”

I suppose.

Again, Gabriel’s fingers brushed softly against Sam’s forehead and Sam could feel that gentle healing presence in his chest. It was nothing at all like Lucifer’s dominant takeover, and unlike even Cas’ healing, which felt more like a cool stream targeting whatever hurt. This was…modest, even timid, and Sam wondered—without directing the thought toward Gabriel—if it was genuine or yet another deceptive setup.

“Another hour?” Gabriel asked.

Sam nodded once and took as deep a breath as he dared. It was still painful, but maybe a little improved. Are you resting in between?

“Yeah. And eating. Dean’s sleeping, by the way. Thought you might want to know.”

Cas?

“Still healing. Rest now. Your body needs it.”

I have questions. A lot of questions.

“Of course you do,” Gabriel said. “We can talk more after another round or two.”

Sam nodded again and felt his eyes drift shut.

 


 

“Sam.”

The voice was gentle but not immediately recognizable.

“Samsquatch.”

That time it was familiar. Sam opened his eyes to see a pair of golden irises only inches from his own.

“There you are.” Gabriel gave him a half-smile and leaned back on his heels. “You slept some. That’s good.”

Sam nodded warily.

“You still don’t trust me.” There was no question in Gabriel’s tone.

Can you blame me?  Sam thought in response.

“No. I really can’t. But I’ll keep trying to convince you.” He paused. “It’s funny…”

What?

“You’re the only person that I care knows there’s more to me than the Trickster.”

Sam rolled his eyes. I’m honored.

“That’s never happened before. And never is a long time, kiddo.” Gabriel shrugged. “Anyway. We’ve got some more healing to do. I think I can take care of the pneumonia this time.” He raised his hands toward Sam’s face and waited.

Nodding, Sam thought, Go ahead.

Another gentle brush of fingers and Sam felt a definite ease of the tension in his chest and a warmth in his back where he knew the hole was. A slight tingling spread out from his chest into his arms, slowly dissipating into what felt like small bubbles popping against the skin of his arms and hands.

He looked sharply at Gabriel. What is that?

Gabriel smiled sadly. “An apology.”

That doesn’t make sense.

“It will, Sam. Try and sleep some more. I’ll be back in another hour.”

Sam nodded once, feeling his eyelids already too heavy to keep open. His bed felt softer and more comfortable than he ever remembered it being, and he relaxed into it as he sank into sleep.

 


 

The nightmare started the way it frequently did: searing heat and pain and an inability to move beyond seeing what was coming at him and screaming. Razor-sharp talons reached for him again, intent on slicing raw skin that had been torn and healed countless times over before the attack turned far more intimate. He braced himself for the pain, knowing even as he did that there was no preparing, no way to get out of feeling every gut-roiling sensation. But moments before the talons made contact, they dissolved, while silky, translucent hands tenderly caressed his skin, healing all his wounds. He looked around for the owner of the hands, but they were simply hands, almost shyly touching him as they released his bonds.

“Who are you?” he asked, momentarily concerned that this was another of Lucifer’s lies, making him think he was free for a few glorious moments, only to harshly remind him he was trapped for all eternity.

The hands paused in midair and a disembodied voice whispered, “Shhh… You’re safe.” Then the hands faded away, leaving Sam alone in a dark room.

“Wait!” Sam called. Silence. “Hello?” He took an experimental step, then another, feeling physically better than he had since getting his soul back. As his eyes slowly adjusted to the lack of light, he could make out bookshelves lining the walls around him. He moved closer to the nearest one, running his fingers over spines that were easily over a century old. On a few shelves were scrolls and even a few tablets. Whatever this was, it wasn’t the bunker’s library.

He pulled one random volume off the shelf and opened it, squinting at the page to which it opened, and saw דּוֹדִי לִי וַאֲנִי לוֹ, הָרֹעֶה בַּשּׁוֹשַׁנִּים. He blinked a few times. Latin, he could do in a heartbeat now, and he’d even learned some Enochian. But Hebrew? No one used Hebrew anymore. They’d run across a few spells in Aramaic, Hebrew’s close cousin, but not Hebrew itself.

Touching the words with his finger, he had a sudden knowing of what it said, without any idea how he knew. But it was a certainty he felt with his entire being, however strange that was to explain. “My beloved is mine, and I am his,” Sam read in a near-whisper. He looked around the room. “What is this place? Where am I?”

Without an answer to his questions, Sam tucked the book under his arm and looked around for a door, finding one on the adjoining wall. Dean needed to know about this room. And Cas too. The door opened easily, and Sam suddenly blinked against the bright light, holding his free arm up to shield his eyes as he stepped out of the room.

And woke up in his own.

 


 

The clock said he’d slept for just over an hour. Which would mean Gabriel should be coming in again shortly. He kind of wanted to ask Gabriel about the nightmare-turned-dream, about the unfamiliar library, but he didn’t trust whatever Gabriel might tell him. Ordinarily, he’d chalk it up to one lucky time that he was able to turn the nightmare into something interesting, but he’d never been able to do that before, not even with the numerous self-hypnosis recordings for lucid dreaming that he’d tried. Once he was in the nightmare, he was stuck until he woke up.

And honestly, he didn’t want to admit to anyone that he still had nightmares about what happened in Lucifer’s cage. Or that he somehow understood Hebrew in his dream. Unless maybe that was all made up by his brain. Maybe it was all gibberish and only made sense within the dream. That was more likely.

Decision made, he waited patiently for the knock on his door. When it came, he sent his thought toward Gabriel. If that’s you at my door, come in.

Gabriel opened the door and poked his head in. “You’re awake. I thought maybe you’d sleep longer. How do you feel?”

A little better.

“Good. That’s good.” Gabriel came closer and sat awkwardly, one hip on the edge of Sam’s bed. He watched quietly for a few moments. “What’s going on? You’ve got a bunch of questions you’re not letting yourself ask.”

I’d prefer if you didn’t read my mind.

Gabriel held his cuffed hands up. “No mind reading here. It’s written all over your face. Besides, you said you had questions earlier.”

Scowling, Sam narrowed his eyes. I can’t very well ask them if I can’t trust the answers.

“Okay. Fair point. When you’re ready, then. Meanwhile, how about we take care of those war wounds?”

Sam shrugged, noticing as he did that it didn’t hurt nearly as much as it had before.

One side of Gabriel’s mouth quirked up as if he already knew. “Ready?”

Yeah.

He was beginning to recognize Gabriel’s healing: respectful and reserved, as if he was holding back a tremendous amount of power. Or maybe that was just the cuffs and the implant. But it was so at odds with Gabriel’s carefree attitude and penchant for anything other than the truth that much as he wanted to, he simply couldn’t trust it. Finding out it wasn’t real would hurt too much.

While Gabriel’s fingers were still on his forehead, Sam felt a sudden urge to yawn, an impulse that took all his focus to fight, knowing how much pain it would cause in his lung and ribs.

“It’s okay, Sam. Your lung’s ready to be fully reinflated.”

Ribs are gonna hurt like a bitch.

Gabriel held his hands up again. “May I?”

Sam nodded, still fighting the yawn. He felt Gabriel's hands touch his side gently and while he was sure his ribs were still broken, they just…went numb.

“Breathe for me, Sammy. Deep breath.”

Giving in finally to the impulse to yawn, Sam felt an uncomfortable tightness in his chest and then a sudden release. He had to yawn again, this time feeling air filling both his lungs completely. It felt surprisingly good, and he found himself breathing hard for a few moments until he could get his breath fully under control again.

“Twice more, I think, and we’ll be done,” Gabriel said. “Keep your questions for next time. I will tell you this: I’ve played with space and time, illusions and metaphors—you’ll learn about the whole angel symbolism thing soon enough—and I’ve accumulated far more tricks than treats. But I have never once broken a promise. Never in my entire existence. And I promise you—and only you—that if you ask for an honest answer, I will give you an honest answer. So… Try and sleep some more, huh? You need it.” He got up and started for the door.

This is hard for you, isn’t it? Sam thought toward him.

Gabriel stopped and turned around. “Not hard so much as unfamiliar. What can I say, Sam? Something about you makes me want to be better.”

Sam watched him leave and wondered about Gabriel’s parting words.

Chapter Text

The sound of his door opening woke Sam from a restful sleep with no hint of nightmares. He didn’t bother to open his eyes as he directed his thoughts toward Gabriel. I like it better when you knock.

Gabriel’s answering voice came from somewhere deep in his head. I’m in the kitchen.

What?

“Hey, Sammy.”

Dean’s voice was so close, it startled Sam, and he winced as the sudden movement jostled his ribs and the part of his back that wasn’t yet healed. “You couldn’t knock?”

“Yeah, the whole reason your voice sounds like that is why I didn’t knock. Didn’t wanna make you have to say anything. How are you doing?”

Sam nodded. “Lung’s better.”

“Good. That’s good.” Dean let out a long breath. “You had me worried this time. Gabe doing what he’s supposed to and nothing else?”

“Yeah. How are you?”

Dean shrugged. “Oh, you know me.”

“Yeah, I do, Dean. Taking care of everyone else before yourself. How’s Cas?”

“Still out. I keep asking Gabe to check on him, but he says Cas is fine. It’s just takin’ a long-ass time. Hey, when you’re better, I need you to do your research magic and figure out how to open those cuffs Gabe’s got. And Cas wants to figure out how to disengage the implant, somehow get word to all the angels.”

“I need…” Sam shook his head. “I’m going to need a couple days. And I need to talk to Gabriel before we look into the cuffs.”

“Yeah, of course. You gotta get better first.”

“I don’t want—” Sam coughed suddenly and wrapped his arms around his sides, willing the pain to go away. “Don’t want him…running around…unchecked.”

Dean raised his eyebrows and nodded once with a been there, done that expression. “You let me know when.”

“Yeah, I—”

“So this is where the party is!” Gabriel called out, somehow managing to saunter into the room. “Ready to play doctor again, Sammy?”

Sam watched as Dean’s face looked shocked, then pissed, then turned red. And Gabriel clearly noticed it too.

“Oh,” Gabriel said with a laugh, “that didn’t come out quite the way I intended it, Deano. Don’t worry.” He patted Dean on the cheek with his hands. “I’ll only touch your bro where he needs it.” Snickering again, he added, “Whoops! Did it again.”

Gabriel, Sam thought toward him. Stop.

“I can and will throw you into the dungeon,” Dean growled. “No more snacks.”

“Aw, come on,” Gabriel said in a mock pleading voice. “We did some bonding during that ride back from the frozen northland.” He stepped closer to Dean and waggled his eyebrows. “Wasn’t it good for you too?”

Gabriel, Sam warned.

“Should’ve left you in Minnesota,” Dean grumbled, stepping away. “I need to supervise this?”

“No,” Sam and Gabriel answered in unison.

“I’m fine, Dean,” Sam said, torn between wanting to laugh and wanting to yell at Gabriel. “Go check on Cas.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean muttered, leaving the room.

You’re feeling better, Sam observed.

“Your brother’s so tightly strung, it doesn’t take much to get a reaction out of him. Now, if only my brother would get his head out of his ass and talk to your brother, I think the entire universe would breathe a sigh of relief.”

What do they need to talk about?

“Really, Sam? Have you not seen the epic eye sex between them?”

Oh, that. That’s been going on for years.

“Well, one of them is going to need to grow a pair and use their big boy words. There’s more tooth-rotting sugar between them than in all the candy I could possibly conjure up. Anyhoo. You ready for another round?” Gabriel came over to the bed.

I don’t know that teasing Dean is going to motivate him to be honest with Cas. He’s not even honest with me half the time.

“Yeah, my money’s not on your brother making the first move. What I can do is stir the waters a bit, so when he jumps in, it doesn’t hurt so much.” He held out his hands. “Speaking of not hurting so much, let me have a crack at those ribs.”

Sam tightened his hold around himself and moved away from him on the bed. Words, Gabriel. Words matter.

“It’s a joke!” Gabriel said with a laugh. “Remember, I keep my promises.”

Sam slowly released his hold. Okay.

Another brush of fingers, more of that gentle, warm touch, and the pain in his ribs subsided to a bruising ache. For the first time since arriving back at the bunker, Sam thought he might be able to sit up. Maybe he could even shower. And these bed sheets were going to need to be changed soon. He wrinkled his nose at the thought. But first…

Are you up for some questions? Sam directed the thought toward Gabriel.

“I think the question is more whether you’re up to asking them,” Gabriel replied.

If you don’t mind me thinking them, then yeah. And maybe a nap after.

“All right. Shoot.”

Honest answers?

“Honest answers. Promise.”

Sam balked. The enormity of the situation hit him and now he had no idea what to ask. Gabriel had been around nearly forever. Sam wanted to ask about the creation of the universe, about how things worked in Heaven, about why the angels looked down on humans when God—Chuck—told them to love humans.

Why do angels hate us so much? I mean, not just me and Dean, but all of us. Humans.

Gabriel gave him a soft look. “Is that really what you want to ask, Sam? I’ll answer it if you want. But I don’t think that’s the question you really want to ask.”

Swallowing hard, Sam looked away. Back at the…at the Mystery Spot. Why? Why did you choose to hurt Dean? To kill him? You had to have known how much that would hurt me. It just made me hate you all the more. It certainly didn’t make me want to change how I felt. Sam huffed out a breath and turned back to look at Gabriel. If anything, it made me feel even more protective of Dean.

“Yeah, I got that.” Gabriel pulled out a chair from a small table next to Sam’s bed and straddled it, letting his wings drag on the floor behind him. “Well, there was no way I could just tell you and have you understand. I mean, come on. You two had been throwing yourselves into the fire for each other for so many years. And even if you understood it intellectually, I mean, there’s knowing, and then there’s knowing. I really thought you had to know it with your whole being. And that meant experiencing it. I figured I could tell you later, ‘No humans were harmed in the making of this experience.’”

But you did harm me.

“That was the part I didn’t count on,” Gabriel admitted. “From where I stand, death for you is just a transition. You move to a new place. It’s not like you’re gone or anything. I forget that to humans, it seems more final. It’s hard to restrict my perspective to such a small box.”

Sam narrowed his eyes. Rub it in, why don’t you?

“I don’t mean that as an insult. Honest. It’s just… Cas and I see a bigger picture. Or at least he did. Now I’m not so sure anymore. Humans are so concerned with paying rent and getting jobs and finding reliable transportation, and in the big picture, none of that matters.”

It matters to us, Sam shot back. And what’s more? Relationships matter. Trust matters. Honesty matters. And love, Gabriel. Love matters.

“Yeah, I gotcha. And the other side knows that just as well. But that’s their thing. They’re gonna take what really matters and twist it into something else, something that will break you far more than anything I did to you.”

I got a firsthand look at that, Sam thought angrily.

“I know you did.” Gabriel’s voice was soft. “And that—that’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Look…” Gabriel glanced away and sighed. “In the interests of being honest, I set up a kind of warning system for when you’d have those nightmares. So I could help.”

Sam did sit up then, anger and betrayal rushing through his body and overriding the pain. “Those unattached hands were yours?” he rasped.

“In a manner of speaking.”

“What the hell, Gabriel? You said you’d restrict what you did to healing me.”

“And I did,” Gabriel retorted. “Those nightmares are just as damaging. What I did is part of healing you.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Sam said, shaking his head angrily.

“I do, Sam. I know what he did. And I’m sorry. I am so sorry. Maybe I was seeing too much of the big picture and not enough of the details. I don’t condone a single thing Lucifer did, and he’s still my brother. I know you get that.”

Sam didn’t want to stay on this subject any longer. “So what’s going to happen once we get those cuffs off you? You going to disappear again? Go back into hiding?”

“Isn’t that the best thing?” Gabriel asked quietly.

“You know… If you’d spent less time playing games with us and more time helping us, we could have stopped Lucifer without…” Sam closed his eyes briefly. “Without everything that happened after.”

“Yeah. You’re probably right about that.”

“And now Lucifer’s on the loose and there’s a possibility he’s possessing the guy who’s just been named to the president’s cabinet as the Secretary of Angel Affairs. Meaning he’s the one who determines national policy about angels.”

“Aw, Sammy, it’s nice to know you care about me. I’ll be careful.”

“No, feather-brain. You’re missing my point.”

Gabriel raised his eyebrows. “Feather-brain?”

“Have you not learned anything?” Sam ran a hand over his face, feeling dried sweat and several days’ worth of stubble. “Stay. Help us with this.”

“I—” Gabriel stopped, his mouth open, eyes locked on Sam. “You want me to stay?”

“You could be a big help.”

“As a tool. That’s Cas’ gig, not mine.”

“You’d be safe here,” Sam offered.

“Or a prisoner. Might have better luck on my own.”

“What if I want you to stay?”

“And why would you want that, Sam? You said it yourself. You don’t trust me. I hurt you.”

“Yeah, that’s true. But… The way you’ve been today? If you could do more of that. This. I could…I think I could grow to like it.”

“Wow.” Gabriel chuckled. “And I thought Dean was all about the chick-flick moments.” He caught Sam’s gaze and looked like he was searching for something. “You really want me to stay?”

Sam sighed and examined his own conflicting feelings. There was so much more to process, so much about Gabriel he wanted to understand. “Yeah, Gabe. I want you to stay.”

Gabriel gave him a half-smile. “I got the nickname now! You must really like me.”

“Shut up.”

“You made my day, Sammich.” He stood and replaced the chair. “Doctor Gabe recommends a nap. I’ll be back in another hour, and then we’ll be done.” He waved with his fingers as he left through the door.

Sam sighed and eased himself back under the covers. He did want Gabriel to stay. But what in the world had he signed himself up for?

Chapter Text

Cas hadn’t moved at all on the bed when Dean returned to his room. He checked the bandages on Cas’ wing, seeing no evidence of additional bleeding, then settled himself as comfortably as he could on the green couch and closed his eyes, arms crossed, and chin tucked into his chest. His mind drifted, thinking about their next steps when everyone had recovered. What were other hunters doing—if anything—regarding the angels on earth? And all those demons at the checkpoints? Maybe Crowley knew something. It was worth asking, anyway.

He must have dozed off, because the next thing he knew, he heard a groan and some rustling.

“Dean?”

“Cas, you okay, man?” Dean was immediately at the side of the bed, careful not to jostle the injured wing.

“Am I in your room?” Cas looked around, confused.

“Yeah. Gabriel helped me, um, get the bullets out and stitch you up. He said you could start healing yourself once they were out.”

“Wonders never cease.” Cas sat up carefully, a slight shifting in his shoulder translating into gentle movement of his bandaged wing. He tried reaching for it and frowned.

“You need some help?” Dean asked.

“Could…would you remove the bandages? They’re no longer necessary.”

“You sure?”

“Yes. I am sure, Dean. Though I won’t be able to…” He shook his head.

“Vibrate them back into the etheric plane?” Dean finished.

“Yes. That.”

“Gabe was a little surprised I knew about that.” Dean couldn’t help but smirk at getting one over on the archangel. He began unraveling the bandages.

“Gabriel thinks humans are toys, here only for his amusement. He’s a child with a lot of power.”

Dean chuckled. “I thought Lucifer was the whiny child, throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way.”

“Him too.”

“Hey,” Dean said, setting the ACE bandages aside. “Having met your siblings, and your…uh…Chuck… I’m sorry for calling you a baby in a trench coat. You’re probably one of the most grown up of all of them.”

“Thank you, Dean.”

Dean removed the last of the gauze and tossed it in the wastebasket. Then he started rolling up the ACE bandages. “How is it? Your wing? And, uh… your grace?”

“My wing will heal. You did a good job with it.”

“Nah, I wasn’t fishing for compliments.”

“I know. My grace is… Well, it’s been worse.” Cas suddenly looked up as if in shock. “Sam. I need to see Sam.”

“Sam’s doing okay. Gabe’s been healing him.”

“Gabriel has what?”

“I know, right?” Dean finished rolling the bandages and sat back on the couch.

“And Sam let him?”

Dean considered that. “I might’ve suggested it was Gabe or a hospital. It was pretty bad, man. Freaking hole in his back.”

“I am so sorry, Dean. I promised to heal him when we returned, and then…”

“Hey, it’s okay, Cas. It’s all working out.”

“No, it isn’t. I have let you down again.”

“Look… you’re around someone long enough, you’re gonna let ’em down. Can’t tell you how many times I’ve let Sammy down. He’s let me down. It happens, okay? Just don’t do it all the time. And talk to me. Half the idiotic stuff you’ve done was you thinking you were doing the right thing and if you’d just told me, we coulda worked it out with better consequences.”

“I will try.” Cas stood and stretched his back and wings, careful not to knock anything over. He closed his eyes, concentrating, then winced and opened them again. “The higher vibrations are irritating the wounds. I’ll try again later. I should still see Sam. Apologize to him. And where is Gabriel?”

“Hell if I know. Try Sam’s room first.”

 


 

Castiel made his way to Sam’s room and knocked on the door.

“Yeah,” Sam called.

He pushed the door open and took a hesitant step into the room. No Gabriel. “Hello, Sam. I wanted to—”

“Cas!” Sam was sitting in bed, his hair looking unusually tangled and oily. “You’re up! Dean said you got shot?”

“Yes, um… It wasn’t intentional. I apologize I wasn’t able to help you.”

“It’s okay. Really. Gabriel actually…” Sam shrugged, his face wincing a bit as he did. “He really helped. And we talked a bit. There’s, you know…there’s more to him than I thought.”

“We’re talking about the same Gabriel?” Castiel wasn’t sure what Gabriel was up to this time, but he was not going to allow him to drag Sam into it.

“Yeah. Your…brother or whatever. Are you actually brothers? Or is that an angel thing?”

“Sibling is the closest English equivalent. Neither he nor I are technically male, though our vessels are. We come from the same creator, the same…father, if you will.”

“Yeah, but, I mean, if God created humanity, Adam and Eve and all that, then aren’t we all from the same creator?”

Castiel nodded. “I suppose when you put it that way, then yes. You and I would be brothers in that sense as well, along with every swarming thing in the waters and every crawling thing upon land.”

“Okay, um…” Sam shook his head and let out a short laugh. “Forget that, then. I’m glad you’re doing better. I’m going to take a shower, I think, and then a nap.” He stood slowly, wavering in place. “Or maybe a nap first and then a shower.”

“Rest would be wise,” Castiel said. “Healing takes a lot of energy. Do you want me to—?” He held out two fingers.

“You know, I think I’m good, Cas. But thanks.”

Castiel nodded once and left Sam’s room, closing the door softly behind him. The next most likely place for Gabriel would be the kitchen.

 

“What are your intentions with Sam?” Castiel asked the moment he saw Gabriel reclining on one of the seats at the kitchen table.

“My—” Gabriel scoffed. “Don’t you think you’re getting a little ahead of yourself there, Cassie? I’m not dating him and even if I was, I don’t need your permission.”

“Do not call me that. And I’m not asking about… Why would you think I’m asking about you dating him? I’m asking what you have planned, why you’re being uncharacteristically pleasant to him.” A thought occurred to him and he allowed his suspicions to show on his face. “Are you trying to gain his trust so you can destroy it? I won’t let you do that. I won’t let—”

“Whoa, hang on, Castiel! You know, I do have some good points.”

“Really. Like what?”

“Like…I did what I could to heal you.”

“Yes, of course. After threatening me with an enema.”

“Well, that was just for fun,” Gabriel said.

“My point exactly. Your idea of fun and Sam’s idea of fun are two very different things.”

“Maybe he needs to be introduced to more fun.” Gabriel held his hands up. “Before you say anything else, I’m not baiting him, okay? But I do want to get to know him better. I don’t know why. Is that a crime?”

“What are your plans when we get the cuffs off you?” Castiel asked.

Gabriel shrugged and winced as the cuffs pulled on his wings. “I don’t know. Sam asked me to stay for a while. And I can’t really go out looking like this. Fashion disaster, you know. They’d roast me in the tabloids.”

“There is the possibility—maybe even the probability—that Lucifer has found his way into the government and some sort of council on angels. I plan to find a way to remove him, as well as a way to render all the implants powerless. Will you help?”

“You know… The whole saving the world thing isn’t really my style.”

“What if Sam asked you?”

“What if Sam asked who what?” Dean said, coming into the kitchen. He opened the refrigerator door and grabbed a beer, then looked over at the table. “Either of you want a beer?”

“No,” both Castiel and Gabriel said in unison.

“Suit yourself.” Dean grabbed a second beer and set it in front of Castiel before sitting next to him at the table.

“What am I, chopped liver?” Gabriel asked.

“What do you mean?” Dean took a long swallow.

“Dark and brooding over here says no and you give him a beer anyway. I say no and you don’t.”

“Yeah, well, Cas doesn’t like anyone to go to any trouble for him, to his own detriment. You don’t have any problem taking what you want.”

“Fine.” Gabriel sighed and failed to look dejected.

“So what’s this about Sam asking something?” Dean asked again.

“I asked Gabriel if he would stay and help us neutralize both the implants and Lucifer,” Castiel said, sipping his beer.

“Yeah, we could use the help,” Dean agreed.

“He declined. Ergo why I asked if he’d help if Sam asked him.” Castiel added.

“Ah. Why would Sam asking make a difference?” Dean looked over at Gabriel and took another swallow.

“Look, I don’t know that it would,” Gabriel said. “I don’t know what you think I can do to help.”

“You know what?” Dean said. “I think Sam needs to hear this. Stay put.” He directed a glare at Gabriel and left the room.

Gabriel sighed. “This is why I never volunteer for anything. You spill the beans to one pregnant mother about her kid and the next thing you know, everyone thinks you can walk on water.”

“Gabriel. You can walk on water.”

“Well yeah, but that’s not the point.”

“No, the point is that you think of yourself first, and everyone else later, if ever,” Castiel said.

“And you think of everyone else—or at least Dean—before you think of yourself. How’s that workin’ out for you?”

“At least I’m still fighting on the side of good,” Castiel shot back. “You’re fighting on the side of Gabriel.”

“I never said I wasn’t. Don’t mistake me for a martyr, Castiel.”

“If it hadn’t been for Dean and me, you’d be dead right now. So a little gratitude in the form of help would go a long way.”

“Dean already asked for my help healing Sam, implying that was the price of my rescue. How much more do you expect from me before the debt is paid?”

Castiel narrowed his eyes. “How much is your life worth?”

“What’s going on?” Sam asked, slowly making his way into the kitchen, dressed in a clean t-shirt and sweats, his hair wet and dripping onto his shoulders. Dean hovered behind him.

“Sam, you should be resting,” Castiel said.

“No, I think I need to be here. I can hear your voices from the bathroom.” He eyed the table. “But maybe we move this to the library. Chairs are more comfortable.”

Dean let Sam lead the way and grabbed a second beer from the fridge before he left the kitchen. Castiel waited for Gabriel to shuffle out before he picked up the rear.

Sam had chosen an upholstered chair to the side, no doubt because of his remaining injuries, and Gabriel had hopped onto one of the tables. Castiel quickly figured out why: all the chairs had armrests, making it difficult to accommodate wings. He opted to stand next to the chair Dean claimed.

“Okay, what are you all arguing about?” Sam asked.

“Gabriel doesn’t think he can be useful,” Dean said at the same time Castiel said, “Gabriel is leaving.”

“Wait, what?” Sam said, looking to Gabriel. “I thought you said you’d stay.”

“I did say I’d stay,” Gabriel said defensively. “And I will. For a while. But taking on the US government? And Lucifer? Again? Not really on my bucket list.”

“What do you mean, again?” Dean asked. “You bailed on us!”

“We thought you were dead,” Sam added. “Which, you know, is generally an acceptable excuse. But to find out that you faked your death a second time, and then just…what? What were you doing when we were trying to stop the apocalypse? What were you doing when I had to say yes to Lucifer? When I had to—” Sam shook his head.

“I agree, it wasn’t my finest moment,” Gabriel said softly. “I honestly thought that Casa Erotica DVD was enough information to put him away for good. Incidentally, how did he get out again? Because that sure wasn’t me.”

“No. It was me,” Castiel said, unable to stop thinking about every misstep he’d taken. “He said he could stop Amara. The world was ending, and it was our only hope. So I said yes to him.”

“Hmm,” Gabriel said. “Interesting choice of bunkmate.”

“We were not—” Castiel looked away, annoyed. “He mostly left me alone.”

“Mostly,” Gabriel repeated.

“I’d rather not talk about it,” Castiel said. “The question is what do we do now? What will you do when we get the cuffs off?”

“When I asked you to stay,” Sam began, “I didn’t mean for a day or two. I was kind of thinking longer term. At least until these laws are overturned. And I don’t think we can do that without your help.”

“Okay,” Gabriel said, “I don’t really, in the parlance of our times, play well with others. Kind of a solo act, you know? I’ve been doing this a long time and answering to others would… Well, no offense, but it would cramp my style.”

“So you’re gonna bail again.” Dean said.

Gabriel held his hands up. “I did tell Samshine here I’d stay. And I do recognize a good thing when I see it. This is as good a hiding place as any. You already know my meal preferences.”

“But?” Sam asked. “It sounds like there’s a but.”

“You’re not going to like it,” Gabriel warned.

“I don’t like any of this,” Dean broke in. “I don’t like that we had to bust your ass out in the first place, and Sam got hurt because we weren’t there. I don’t like that you thought it was more fun or whatever to play hide and seek than to help us stop the apocalypse and Sam paid for that too.”

“Dean,” Sam said.

“No, Sam. You’re the one he keeps hurting in the end, every time he runs away.” Dean looked back at Gabriel. “You wanna be a coward, that’s your choice, but you do not get to hurt my brother in the process.”

“Dean, I’m not a kid anymore,” Sam said. “I made choices too. This isn’t all on Gabriel.” He sighed and turned to Gabriel. “What’s the but that I’m not going to like?”

“You two numbskulls—and I say that in the fondest of ways—like to run the show. Be the heroes. But you also make some really boneheaded moves. If you want my help on this, and it’s clear you do, I need top billing.”

“No,” Castiel said. “I don’t trust you any farther than I can throw you, which, despite your size, isn’t far right now. You just said you don’t play well with others. How would any of us trust you?”

“I did say you wouldn’t like it.”

“We work as a team,” Castiel insisted, an odd feeling of confidence filling his chest. “Equals. Each of us. No one is a tool. No one is valued only for what they can do. The four of us—we bring a lot of experience, both good and bad—to the table. We talk about it. Honestly. No lies or omissions of truth.” He glanced at Dean, who had what appeared to be a look of awe on his face. “We discuss it like adults. We leave our egos out of it.”

“And what if we can’t agree?” Gabriel argued.

“Then we keep discussing it until we do,” Sam answered. “Cas is right. We need to treat each other like equals. Not angel versus human.” He let out a quick breath and his mouth twitched into a smile. “Besides, we’ve got something on our side.”

“Yeah? What’s that?” Dean asked.

“I think I can speak for all of us when I say we care about each other.”

Gabriel snorted and examined the ceiling. “Don’t go assigning me too many emotions, Sam.”

“Well, I care, Gabriel. About you. Never thought I’d say that, but… And I think you do too. I think that’s why you tried to get me to see that I could survive something happening to Dean. Because you care.”

Gabriel chewed his lip for a few moments and then looked at each of them in turn. “Okay. Equals.”

“That promise you made to me?” Sam asked Gabriel. “Will you extend it to Dean and Cas too?”

“You’re pushing your luck, Sam,” Gabriel said.

“If we’re going to treat each other as equals, I need to know that you’re going to be honest with all of us. Not just me. And not just when I ask a question.”

“Fine. I’ll be honest on one condition.”

“You’re in no position to be making conditions,” Castiel said.

“I am this time, baby bro. You need my help. I’ll help. I’ll work with you, talk it out, the whole enchilada, but… I get to keep my creativity. My fun. If there’s no fun, there’s no point.”

“Gabe, listen,” Dean began.

“I can accept that,” Sam said quickly. “All work and no play makes Gabe a dull angel, right?”

“This isn’t really a time to be talking about play,” Castiel said. “When angels are no longer being abused and killed, when Lucifer is back where he belongs, I would very much like to learn more about play. But for now—”

“Nope!” Gabriel hopped off the table. “Play is the ante for this game. You all are drowning in so much trauma, this is one thing I can do for you. We’re gonna save the world. And we’re gonna have fun doing it. Who’s in?”

Chapter Text

After Gabriel’s quasi-pep-talk, it seemed to Dean like they should have done some sort of team cheer and run out onto the field to vanquish their enemy. It was a bit anticlimactic to nod, shrug, and dig into the research.

First up: how to get the cuffs off Gabriel. Cas actually suggested that, saying that if they could figure out how to disable the cuffs and implant, they could free the other angels, which would potentially give them allies when it came to…whatever they were going to have to do to dismantle the ACAA. Fight the humans? Especially if Lucifer was involved.

Dean wasn’t sure about freeing the angels first, thinking they might prove to be more hindrance than allies. He didn’t care about earning brownie points in Heaven. And he definitely didn’t believe in reciprocal altruism. But Cas was insistent. And the more passionate he got in his argument for freeing Gabriel and the angels first, the more his wings flared out, seemingly unconsciously. And Dean simply couldn’t say no to that.

Apparently, he had a weakness for angel wings. Or Cas’ wings, specifically, since Gabriel’s wings did nothing for him. Except make him want to tell the archangel to take a long shower, because those feathers reminded him of overripe bananas.

Sam was hunched over his laptop while Gabriel looked on over his shoulder—something that apparently was fine for Gabe to do, but Dean always got his head bitten off when he tried it. Dean had said he’d pursue ‘other avenues of investigation,’ not really wanting to clue Sam in to what he was thinking. And yeah, that already went against the honest communication that they’d agreed to, but if he told Sam he was going to summon Crowley, it would take ten times longer and he’d wind up doing it anyway, because it was good intel. Probably.

“What other avenues of investigation are you pursuing?” Cas asked as Dean made his way toward the dungeon.

“I’m gonna summon Crowley. And don’t tell Sam until we find out if he knows anything.”

“Dean, we talked about this. About being open.”

Dean stopped in the hallway. “Look, if I told Sam, he’d give me thirty reasons why I shouldn’t, all of which would sound good, but bottom line? We need to know what he knows.” He resumed walking. “So I’m gonna summon his ass and keep him in the dungeon until he gives it up.” Not hearing a second set of footsteps, Dean stopped again and looked behind him. “Cas, what’re you—?”

Cas held one finger up, the other pressing his phone to his ear. “Crowley,” he said when the line connected. “It’s time to collect one of those favors.” Without waiting for a response, Cas disconnected the call and slid the phone into his pocket.

“Hello, boys.”

Dean turned around and found Crowley leaning against one of the walls, inspecting the fingernails on one hand. He quickly moved to where he could see them both. “Cas, I don’t like the idea of him running loose in the bunker.”

“Relax, Squirrel,” Crowley said, looking up with a bored expression. “I’ll neither eat all your gummi bears nor drink all your liquor.”

“Good, because we don’t really have anything worth drinking.”

“Your loss,” Crowley said. “We could’ve shared a bottle.” He pushed himself off the wall and walked over to Cas. “Thank you for using a phone this time. Less stress on…” He brushed imaginary wrinkles out of his suit. “Well, everything. What do you need?”

“Angels who are held for execution are restrained in Enochian cuffs I’ve never seen before,” Cas said. “Do you know how to open them?”

“That’s all? Yes, I do. Nice chat.” Crowley raised his hand as if to zap back to wherever he’d been.

In the blink of an eye, Cas had his angel blade out and at Crowley’s throat. “You know that’s not what I meant,” he growled. “Answers or I let Dean do as he wishes with you.”

“Ooh…” Crowley raised his eyebrows. “Is that a promise?”

“Let’s just take him to the dungeon,” Dean said, fed up with Crowley’s games. “Lock him up until he’s a little more compliant.”

“Need I remind you that I’m here at your request?” Crowley said. “Clearly you need me, not the other way around.”

“How do we unlock the cuffs?” Dean demanded.

Crowley studied him for a moment. “What’s in it for me?”

“You’ll owe me one less favor,” Cas said. “Two, if you prove to be helpful beyond that.”

“Releasing a bunch of angels doesn’t sound like it would be conducive to my wellbeing,” Crowley said.

“Just one for now,” Cas replied. “And we’ll keep your name out of it.”

“But you need to tell us everything you know about the demons at all the state border crossing checkpoints,” Dean added. “Or I will lock you up. No recliner. No TV.”

“Be still, my cold, dead heart.” Crowley reached into his coat’s inside pocket and produced what looked like a large needle. “You’re going to need this.”

Dean made a grab for it, but Crowley was faster. “I owe the favor to Feathers, not you.” He held it out to Cas, who took it and widened his eyes the moment it touched his skin.

“What?” Dean asked, concerned that a little piece of metal would have this effect on Cas.

“It’s…a shield of some sort,” Cas said, examining the needle closely. “It doesn’t conduct any energy at all. Like some kind of armor?”

“You could call it that,” Crowley said. “Unbreakable, unbendable, and is thoroughly and completely impenetrable to an angel’s grace.”

Cas looked up, his eyes narrowing. “It’s not made from an angel blade. Where did you get this?”

“Oh, just had it lying around.”

Cas appeared even less amused. “Where, Crowley?” he spat out.

Crowley rolled his eyes. “Fine. It’s a piece of the cage.”

“Lucifer’s cage?” Dean asked, not quite believing the answer.

“One of many slivers taken from the bars,” Crowley confirmed. “The cuffs were originally designed to hold him. I’ve been working on them for a while. But my work was stolen. And when I find out who stole it, they will pay. Profusely.”

Dean put the pieces together. “They stole it and sold it to the US government.”

“I deserve a patent, at least,” Crowley said. “Not to mention royalties.”

“Let’s go find out if this works,” Cas said, abruptly turning and walking quickly back toward the library.

“Great. Cheers, then,” Crowley said, raising a hand.

“No, you’re coming with us.” Dean twisted Crowley’s arm behind him and marched him behind Cas.

“Easy there,” Crowley complained. “No need to wrinkle the suit.”

 

By the time Dean had wrestled Crowley into a chair in the library, Cas was trying to convince Gabriel to let him try the tool Crowley had provided.

“A demon gives you a pointy tool, tells you it’s part of the cage that kept our brother locked up for centuries, and now you want to go sticking it near me?” Gabriel argued, pulling his hands away from Cas again. “In what universe is that okay?”

“He didn’t have to provide this,” Cas argued back.

“It could be a trick, Castiel. Blow my hands clean off. No thank you.”

“Then let me try the cuffs on your wings.”

“No!”

“Do you want these off or not?”

Gabriel stared at him silently for several long seconds. “Give it to me,” he finally said.

Cas handed it over and Dean watched as Gabriel’s face went through the same expression of surprise. “Huh,” Gabriel said. “This might work.” He stared at Crowley. “How much do you know about the implants?”

“That wasn’t my work,” Crowley said.

“I don’t care. How much do you know about them?”

Crowley glanced at Cas, then sighed. “Enough. What do you want to know?”

“Does the implant sense whether or not the cuffs are on?” Gabriel asked. “If I take these off, will it affect the implant?”

“Like a biofeedback loop? No. They’re not that advanced yet.”

Gabriel tried manipulating the tool into the hole in the cuffs and nearly dropped it before Cas grabbed it out of his hands, and deftly inserted it into the lock. With a loud click, the cuffs opened and clanged to the floor. Exhaling loudly, Gabriel rubbed his wrists where they were raw and abraded, then turned his back to Cas with an air of impatience. “Get ‘em off, Castiel. Please.”

Carefully, Cas removed the wing cuffs, setting them on the library table. With pain obvious on his face, Gabriel slowly stretched out his wings a little. The holes where the cuffs had pierced his wings were ugly and oozing; one had started to bleed.

“How…” Sam started to say. “How do we…heal those? Can you heal with the implant?”

“Eventually. Those cuffs—”

“Also impervious to angel grace,” Crowley supplied. “Quite proud of that.”

“I can still throw you in the dungeon,” Dean warned.

“As if you aren’t proud of your demon-fighting weapons,” Crowley muttered.

“Do you know how to remove an implant safely?” Gabriel asked him, still adjusting his wings with clear discomfort.

“Sorry, no. Think I’ve done enough here, so I’ll be off.”

“Not so fast.” Dean stopped him. “Tell us about the demons at the border.”

Crowley scowled. “They’re not mine. All right? Traitorous bastards. Whoever’s pulling the strings at that angel council stole them away from me. From me! I am the king! I get to say who does what!”

“How can they steal demons away?” Sam asked.

“I’ll tell you how,” Crowley sneered. “They’re after my throne is what. Must’ve offered them a better deal. But once I find them, I’ll show them who they’re dealing with.”

“So you got no way of calling ‘em off?” Dean added.

“If I did, they’d be enjoying my considerable hospitality. Now, if you don’t mind…” Crowley raised his hand, fingers poised to snap.

“Make sure you’re available,” Dean said, keeping his tone threatening, “or you’ll answer to me.”

“Promises, promises,” Crowley said before disappearing.

“What now?” Sam asked. “What can we do to help?”

“Nothing, really,” Gabriel said. “I need to, uh…take care of my wings.”

“You’re not going to be able to reach, Gabriel,” Cas said. “I can help.”

“Thanks, Castiel, but no. I think I just need a little time alone.” He looked at Sam. “Everything you can find out about the implant…”

“I’m on it, Gabe,” Sam said. “As soon as I know how to get it out, we will.”

Chapter Text

Sam felt torn. He’d spent several hours going back over the research he’d found about the implants, and searched in vain for anything new. Some of the sites he’d bookmarked earlier had been taken down, and he couldn’t rule out government interference. He was grateful he’d taken screenshots of everything useful, just in case he didn’t have internet access. He just didn’t know enough about them, and thought, now that Gabriel had some time alone, maybe he could test a few things out, see what he could now do without the cuffs binding him.

And maybe Sam could do something to treat those ragged holes in his wings.

“Hey, Dean?” he called.

“Kitchen,” Dean called back.

Sam closed his laptop and made his way into the kitchen, surprised to see Cas sitting at the table, seemingly entranced with his fingers. “Hey, Cas.”

“Hello, Sam.”

“What’s up, Sammy?” Dean asked. “Making lasagna here. Be ready in an hour.”

“I’m coming up empty-handed on the implant. Not only am I not finding anything new, but some of the old stuff is being taken down. I thought maybe I’d go see if Gabriel can tell me anything more about it.”

“It’s basically biotech, right?”

“It’s more than that,” Cas said. “It’s programmed with Enochian spellwork. A very advanced level, and extremely old magic.”

“Well, we’ve got books on old Enochian magic,” Sam said, half-turning to go back to the library.

“Not this kind,” Cas warned. “This is magic that angels would die to keep from sharing.”

“Unless they were tortured,” Dean spat out.

“Even so…”

“Cas, would Lucifer know this kind of magic?” Sam asked.

“He would not only know it…” Cas fell silent for a moment. “He designed some of it. Before he was cast out.”

Sam heard Dean call out, “Sam, where are you—?” but lost the rest as he quickly made his way to find Gabriel.

 


 

“Dean.” Castiel waited for Dean to put the lasagna pan in the oven and check the dials.

“What’s on your mind, Cas? You want a beer?” Dean motioned toward the refrigerator.

“No. Thank you. I…wanted to ask you a question.”

Dean gave a half-shrug and came over to sit across from him at the table. “Yeah? How’s your wing?”

“Oh…” Castiel partially extended the healing wing, feeling a dull ache where Dean had excised the bullets. “It’s continuing to heal. I’ll be able to hide them again soon.”

“Well, that’s a shame.”

“Yes, I’m—” Castiel stopped, certain he’d heard incorrectly. “What?”

“Said it’s a shame for you to hide ’em.”

“Why? They’re…”

“Badass, Cas,” Dean finished. “Just like you. And I, uh… I kinda like seeing you with ’em.”

“Oh.”

“You really think I’m gonna judge you based on what your wings look like? After everything we’ve been through together?”

“It…did occur to me that you might see me differently.”

“Cas, I’m not gonna pretend to know how this whole vessel thing works, or what’s a representation versus your true form, or real versus angel symbolism, okay? But to me, wings are something you have, not who you are. I’m not gonna judge someone based on the color of their skin or what they believe or who they love. That’d be like someone writing me off because I’ve got freckles. Or for not graduating high school. I mean, don’t get me wrong, some people do, but that’s not me.”

Castiel was shocked. “People judge you because you have freckles?”

“Yeah, when I started getting facial hair, a lot of it came in kinda reddish. Between that and the freckles, I got called a ginger and told I didn’t have a soul.”

“You most definitely have a soul, Dean.”

“They were idiots. That’s what I’m saying. It’s stupid to judge someone on something they have, not who they are.”

“I see.” Castiel nodded, unable to resist teasing Dean a bit. “So we should not judge Sam by the length of his hair.”

“Oh, no, we can definitely judge him for that.”

Castiel allowed himself a smile. “Thank you, Dean.”

“Yeah, of course.” Dean tapped the table twice with his open hand as he stood. “What are friends for?”

Feeling a sudden ache just below his sternum, Castiel closed his eyes to subdue it. What Dean had just said hurt. More than he wanted to admit. Yet if friendship was all Dean was willing to offer, he would have to be content with it. Maybe he should confirm his conclusion.

“Dean,” Castiel began.

“Yeah, bud? Oh that's right, you wanted to ask a question. Ask away.”

Sighing, Castiel shook his head. “It’s nothing.” He got up to leave, taking his pain with him.

 


 

“Hey,” Sam said, poking his head into the spare bedroom where he found Gabriel. “You, uh, mind if I come in?”

Gabriel didn’t respond from where he sat cross-legged at the foot of the bed, hands folded in his lap, his wings hanging limply to either side.

Sam grabbed a chair from the small table to the side of the room and sat down a few feet away. He exhaled sharply before trying again. “I’m glad we got the cuffs off of you. That’s gotta feel better.”

“Marginally.”

“What can I do? I mean, we’ve got pain medicine. I can clean those wounds. Put a couple of stitches in to help them heal faster.”

“I’ve already tried,” Gabriel said.

“What happened?”

No response.

“Gabriel?”

“I tried healing myself and I got nothing,” Gabriel retorted. “Bupkis. Nada. Zilch. Diddly-squat.”

“You think it’s maybe…the implant?”

Gabriel looked up and met his eyes, and for the first time, Sam could truly see beneath Gabriel’s flamboyant façade. “I don’t know, Sam. I’m running low on grace. It’s been a hell of a few days.”

“Don’t give up, Gabriel. Look, rest helps, right? And food?”

“Some.”

“Then we’ll…I don’t know…take it easy for a few days. I could probably use the rest too. I’ve pretty much exhausted the research angle. That’s why I originally came in here. I thought maybe you could see what you were capable of now that the cuffs are off. But that can wait a bit. Maybe we can just…talk.”

“Talk?”

“Kind of like when you were healing me.” Sam shrugged. “Just talk.”

“Talk,” Gabriel repeated.

“Look, I know there are probably things you don’t want to talk about. I get it. I mean, I’ve been there too. We don’t have to talk about those.”

“And what would we talk about, Sam, that isn’t mired in pain and sacrifice?”

“Um…” Sam thought about all those usual getting-to-know-you questions. “Well, do you like listening to music?”

Gabriel gave a half-smile and his eyes seemed to lighten. “You ever been to Nashville?”

 


 

Dean got out a loaf of French bread, butter, and two larger cloves of garlic, and set about making garlic bread. He wasn’t sure what had sent Cas running off after they’d seemed to really connect. Guy might have still been self-conscious about his wings, but Dean tried hard to make it clear that didn’t matter. Scarred or not, the guy had wings. And it made him feel humbled and honored and grateful and insignificant all at once. Cas had seen him in even worse shape than Sam had, and hadn’t judged him.

He melted butter in a pot and began pressing the peeled garlic into it. There was no question he and Sam were close, but with Cas it was just different. He wanted Cas to feel better about himself. Hell, he wanted Cas to be happy, whatever that looked like. And he thought maybe if he doubled-down on the closeness of their friendship, it would help. But Cas seemed…pained when he left. Deep down, Dean was afraid that there was one divide they’d never be able to cross: that it was presumptuous and selfish and maybe even arrogant for him to truly have a close relationship with an angel.

Maybe that’s what Cas was going to tell him, that they could be colleagues of a sort. Hunter and angel. But nothing more. Maybe that’s why Cas never seemed to feel like the bunker was his home, never really accepted the Winchesters as his family. Maybe he couldn’t. And, yeah, that would be just like Cas to not say that, to spare Dean’s feelings. And to feel hurt that he was going to have to hurt Dean eventually.

Dean slid the French bread into the oven to warm alongside the lasagna, then stirred the melted garlic butter in the pot. Maybe for both their sakes, he needed to stop pressuring Cas into accepting a relationship, a home, a family. And, damn, that would hurt. But better he be hurt than Cas.

Chapter Text

“Nashville?” Sam asked, surprised. “I thought you’d prefer classical, or choirs, or Gregorian chants or something.”

“Really?” Gabriel shot him a withering look. “Have you met me?”

“Yeah, but c’mon, Gabe. Country?”

Instead of answering, Gabriel began a moderate rhythm, slapping his hands on his knees in a clear four-four time. “Some men look for diamonds,” he began singing, adding a hint of a twang to his voice. “Some men look for gold. I’m just trying to find myself before I get too old. Different people have their ways of measuring success. Maybe it’s not the right way, but wrong’s what I do best.”

Sam snorted. “I wouldn’t call it wrong, exactly.”

Abandoning the song, Gabriel shrugged. “You ever feel like you’re doing the wrong thing for the right reasons?”

“All the time. Gabe, we all know that feeling. Me, Dean, Cas.”

“That’s the thing I appreciate about country music. It’s honest. It’s about capturing a feeling.”

“I’m sure Dean would argue that his music is about emotions too.”

“Really? You think he’d go there? I don’t. Maybe rock music is covertly expressing emotions for those allergic to feelings.”

Huffing a laugh, Sam nodded. “Maybe. So, is country it for you? Or do you like other music?”

“No, I like a lot of things. What I don’t like is discordance. Screaming for no reason. The romanticization of violence. It’s…jagged. Bitter.”

“Bitter?”

Gabriel pulled his wings up and back a bit, and sat forward, looking excited for the first time since he’d arrived at the bunker. “That’s right, I haven’t shared this with you yet. Dean, yes, but… Well, I’ll give you the better version than I gave him. So, this is advanced level angelology. We’ll start with symbolism.”

 


 

“Sammy! Dinner!” Dean ducked back into the kitchen after shouting down the hallway, grabbed the basket of garlic bread and a bowl of salad for Sam, and brought them out onto the map table where the lasagna was still bubbling in its pan.

Cas had offered to help set the table, but Dean felt weird about it, given their previous conversation. It was probably just courtesy on Cas’ part, but if Cas really was trying to figure out how to tell Dean to ixnay all the friendship overtures because that couldn’t happen, it would just be awkward to do the whole domestic thing. And it’s not like a few place settings were difficult.

“You gonna eat, Cas?” Dean asked Cas’ silhouette in the library, where he’d been still and quiet for a while now.

“Oh,” Cas said slowly. “I don’t think so.”

“Hey, we got plenty. And maybe it’d help your wing recover faster. Boost your grace and all?”

“Time will do that too, Dean.”

“Okay. Suit yourself.” Dean sat down alone at the table, wondering where Sam was. He dished up a steaming square of lasagna and grabbed a couple slices of garlic bread before he finally heard footsteps coming closer.

Two sets.

Gabriel appeared first, Sam behind him, looking oddly nurturing. It was true that Sam would care for any and all injured animals, especially if they were of the fluffy, canine variety, but Dean was surprised to see that extended to Gabriel. “You guys going to eat?” he asked.

“Sam, you go ahead,” Gabriel said, stopping short of the table.

“Come eat with us,” Sam urged as he sat and reached for the food. “You can heal faster. Dean makes a mean lasagna, and his garlic bread melts in your mouth.”

“I don’t want to infringe on your bro time.”

“Gabriel,” Dean said, eyeing an empty chair while he got his frustration under control, “sit your ass down.”

After grabbing a stool from in front of an old control panel, Gabriel dragged it to the map table and sat down, looking petulant.

“I suppose I will also join you, then.” Cas made his way to the map table, looked doubtfully at the wheeled armchairs, and found a second stool tucked under a table doubling as a desk.

“Looks like we’re gonna need some chairs without arms,” Dean observed. “We can make a supply run tomorrow. Gonna need more groceries too.”

“I don’t need to eat, if it’s dwindling your rations,” Cas offered before he sat down.

“No, Cas,” Sam said. “You should eat. Gabriel too. You should both eat. We’ve got food covered. You just focus on healing.”

Dean slid the lasagna pan over to Cas. “Dig in.”

“So, uh,” Sam said between bites, “Gabriel was teaching me about country music.”

“Sure was, rockstar.” Gabriel glanced at Dean, then grabbed the lasagna pan and scooped out a square from the very center. “Early Taylor Swift, Billy Ray Cyrus, Dixie Chicks.”

Dean dropped his fork onto his plate. “Oh, hell, no.” He pointed at Gabriel. “That’s not music. That’s the sound of cats in heat.” He bit off a chunk of bread.

“Hate to break it to you, kid, but your choice of music grew out of country,” Gabriel said. “You wouldn’t be playing CCR in that boat you call a car if it weren’t for country music.”

“Hey, you leave Baby out of this.”

“All music is derivative of what came before,” Cas commented.

Dean made a face at Cas. “Not you too.”

“I think,” Sam said, “the real question, Dean, is: does classic rock make you feel something?”

“Does it—?” Dean spluttered. “I’m gonna make you feel something, Sam. You wait.”

“Ah, the good old days,” Gabriel added with a sigh. “When brotherly affection was shown with threats of violence.”

“Need I remind you of the time you dropped me in an active volcano?” Cas asked, looking like this was still a sore point.

“Eh. You got out fine.”

“Not the point.”

“It’s entirely the point, Cassie. I’d never do anything that would actually harm you.”

“But you’ll kill me,” Dean said.

“Dean,” Sam warned. “Gabe and I dealt with this. We’re okay now.”

After appraising his brother for a moment, Dean added, “You sure that’s not just you being overly forgiving?”

“I’m sure, Dean. He knows how I feel about it.”

Dean nodded, chewing and swallowing a bite. “So, what’s the plan, then? We know what we’re doing next?”

“Yeah,” Sam said on a quick exhale. “We need to take a few days. I’m mostly healed, but not a hundred percent. Cas’ wing needs to finish healing. Gabe just got the cuffs off.”

“Okay, well, maybe we can spend a little time figuring out how to disable the implant,” Dean suggested.

“Tomorrow,” Sam said. “Right now, I want nothing more than to crawl into bed.”

“I will help you clean up from dinner,” Cas said.

Dean shrugged. “You don’t have to.”

“No, Dean. I will help you clean up from dinner.”

“Whatever floats your boat, man.”

“I…” Cas paused, looking confused. “I don’t have a boat.”

Dean caught Gabriel watching the exchange thoughtfully, but let it go. It wasn’t any of Gabriel’s business. Instead, he took another slice of bread and lost himself in the taste of butter and garlic.

 


 

Whatever was going on with Dean, Castiel did not like it. Ever since their conversation before dinner, Dean seemed closed off. He wasn’t giving off any waves of anger, but he’d shut himself off from everyone, it seemed. Once everyone had finished eating, Castiel brought the dirty dishes over to the sink, where Dean was filling the basin with soapy water.

“Dean,” he began.

“You don’t have to help if you’ve got other things to do,” Dean said, taking the dishes and setting them in the dishwater.

“I want to stay.” Castiel sighed. “Are we friends, Dean?”

“Yeah. I mean, if you want to be.”

“You’ve said before that we are family,” Castiel continued.

“Yeah.” Dean stopped scrubbing a plate. “Where are you going with this?”

“You frequently use terms like pal and buddy in reference to me.”

Dean immediately focused intently on the sink as he resumed scrubbing the already-clean plate. “Yeah, sorry. Won’t happen again.”

It was clear now that Dean was emanating waves of hurt, no matter how much he was trying to hide it. “Why are you apologizing for it?” Castiel asked.

“Look, I get that I probably overstepped my bounds somewhere. With everything we’ve been through—”

Castiel put his hand on Dean’s arm, stilling it. “What are you talking about?”

“I thought we had, you know…” Dean’s gaze dropped to Castiel’s lips before coming back to his eyes. “A profound bond or whatever.”

Removing his hand, Castiel waited for Dean to rinse the dish and hand it over. “You’re using past tense. Do you think we no longer do?”

“I dunno, man. I mean, if you don’t want to…or can’t have that sort of…you know, because I’m human.”

The pieces clicked into place. “You think I don’t want a friendship with you because I’m an angel and you’re human?”

“I mean, I’d get it if you couldn’t…”

“Dean. Look at me.” Castiel waited until Dean looked at him again. “You are my friend. At times, you have been my only friend. I gave up everything I had, and everything I thought I was, for you. I don’t regret giving any of that up. Even if I never fly again, if my grace eventually withers and dies, I don’t regret it.”

“Oh.” Dean stared for a few more moments, then grabbed another plate and began scrubbing.

“That question I was going to ask earlier?”

“Yeah?” Dean rinsed the plate and held it out, avoiding Castiel’s gaze again.

“I understand what it means to love someone. My father’s commandment to us was to love humanity. I understand sacrifice and conviction. But…” Castiel steeled himself, knowing this could make things worse. “How do you know when you are in love with someone?”

“Well, I guess it still involves sacrifice and conviction.” Dean handed him two more clean plates and started on the pan. “You, uh, want to be with that person all the time. Qualities in that other person that other people think are annoying are endearing to you. You can’t help but forgive them for stupid shit they do.” Dean shrugged. “Why, you meet some hot chick?”

“No.” Castiel paused. “How is this different from familial or platonic love, then?”

“Oh, well, when it’s, you know, romantic love, usually you want to do, you know, physical stuff with them.”

“Physical stuff?”

“Yeah, um…” Dean sighed and looked at him. “Sex, Cas. I’m talking about sex.”

“Oh. Have you ever wanted to have sex with a friend?”

Dean snorted and handed him the clean pan. “In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have a lot of friends.”

“Well, that is completely inaccurate.

“Not that are still living. Why are you asking all this? Did something happen?”

“Angels are asexual,” Castiel said. There was a spike of something like disappointment coming from Dean, and Castiel took some confidence from it. “But when we take vessels, we can be…influenced by human desires. This is one reason why we’re not encouraged to spend much time in a vessel. It can be very distracting from our mission, and has, on occasion, resulted in the birth of nephilim.”

“Yeah, I can see where that would be a problem. But you’ve been in your vessel for years now, and you’re okay, right?”

Castiel allowed himself a small smile as Dean drained the sink and wiped around it. “I’m not in danger of birthing any nephilim, no.”

“That’s a relief,” Dean deadpanned. “But, uh, the rest of it? You have any…desires?”

Weighing his options, Castiel decided on honesty. Sort of. “Would that be a problem?”

Dean leaned against the sink. “I dunno, Cas. You gonna start bringing home random chicks?”

“Not even close, Dean. I am only interested in one person, and he is male.”

“Oh? Who’s the lucky guy? Are you asking me to set you up with—” Dean made a face. “Don’t tell me it’s Sam. I’m not setting you up with Sam, okay? Just, no.”

“It’s not Sam. And it’s not Gabriel either. In any dimension, that would be wrong on every level.”

“Then…”

“I believe I have feelings for you, Dean.”

“You—” Dean stood there with his mouth open.

“And unless I am reading everything wrong, in which case I apologize, you may have some of those feelings too.”

“Cas, you’re a dude.”

“My vessel is male, yes. I am not. And in any event, it doesn’t matter. My father placed no gender restrictions on love.”

“I don’t…” Dean took a deep breath. “I’m gonna have to think about this, okay?”

“I understand, Dean. You don’t have to do anything about it. We don’t have to do anything about it. But I wanted you to know.”

“Cas, this could change…everything.”

“It doesn’t have to. I have managed all these years to not act on these feelings. I can manage forever, if necessary.”

Dean began to speak, then stopped. He nodded once, then said, “I’m…gonna need a little time. Can we pretend at least until tomorrow that this conversation didn’t happen?”

“Of course, Dean.”

Chapter Text

After brushing his teeth, Sam took a detour on the way back to his room. The room he’d found Gabriel in earlier wasn’t made up for sleeping; it was a bare mattress in a dusty, unused room. It didn’t sit right with him to leave Gabe with such paltry accommodations.

As expected, Gabriel was sitting on the mattress the way Sam had found him earlier, his wings looking just as droopy as before.

“Hey. Gabriel,” Sam said. “You doing okay?”

“Yeah, sure. I thought you were going to bed.”

“Well, I was. I thought I’d check in on you.”

A corner of Gabriel’s mouth quirked up. “Thanks, Mom.”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Can I get you a blanket or something? It’s not exactly warm in here.”

“Nah.” Gabriel shrugged both shoulders and wings, then winced.

“Still hurting?”

“Nothing you need to worry about, Sammich. You go get your beauty sleep.”

“I’m not going to leave you in pain if I can help it.” Sam moved closer and gestured to Gabe’s wings. “Lemme see. Maybe there’s something I can do.”

Gabriel stared back for several long moments before shifting his position, one wing hanging over the side of the bed, and the other spread out across it.

“Um…” Sam paused, his hand in midair. “Can I touch you?”

Nodding once, Gabriel let out a short breath. “Yeah.”

Sam initially had his concerns set on the ragged holes in Gabe’s wings, but he was distracted by the angry red abrasions circling his wrists. Reaching down, rather than out, he gently took Gabriel’s hands in his, noting for the first time how delicate those wrists were. “Let me start with these,” he said. “I’ll grab our kit.”

“Sam, you really don’t need—”

“I do, Gabe. Let me help.” Invigorated, Sam retrieved the first-aid kit, reminding himself that this was not that much different that dressing any of Dean’s wounds. It was still flesh and bone. And feathers. He returned to Gabriel's room and dragged a chair to sit right in front of the angel.

“Pick a wrist,” he said, opening the kit and unpacking a pair of sterile, nitrile gloves. The largest size available was still a little small, and when the rubber accidentally snapped as he struggled with getting it on his right hand, he saw Gabriel flinch. “Is this… Am I triggering you?”

“No. You’re okay. Just…keep going.”

“Did someone…?”

“I don’t want to talk about it, Sam. Just…do your thing. Okay?”

Sam swallowed back the sudden lump in his throat. “I’m sorry, Gabe. I really am.”

“Yeah.”

Working carefully, Sam cleaned the abraded wounds, a little impressed that Gabriel didn’t even wince. Which meant that his wings must hurt a whole lot more. He covered the abrasions with a liberal amount of triple-antibiotic cream, then wrapped them in sterile gauze, finishing them off with a bit of surgical tape.

Gabriel’s wings were another matter. The wounds had opened numerous times, bleeding and scabbing and then torn open again. The skin around the wounds was inflamed but didn’t appear to be infected. They were dirty, though. Grit and dust and some sort of sticky, oily substance seemed to coat the feathers, causing the vanes to tear and clump together.

“How do you usually clean your wings?” Sam asked.

Gabriel raised an eyebrow. “I don’t. I rarely manifest them. In the etheric plane, they’re not even solid. Not like here.”

“These aren’t your true form,” Sam said, nodding. “Of course. I wouldn’t be able to see them otherwise. But these are going to need to be cleaned before I can treat the wounds.”

“What’s that going to involve?”

Sam huffed a short laugh. “Well, that’s what I was going to ask you. What’s the best way to clean these things? They’ve got some sort of sticky stuff on them.”

“Oleoresin capsicum,” Gabriel said.

“What?”

“Pepper spray, Sam. In a gel, so it sticks. Sprayed at us to keep us compliant.”

“Fucking hell.”

“Yeah. More or less.”

“All right. Water’s not going to get it off. We don’t have enough milk.” Sam dug out his phone and began a quick internet search. “Baby shampoo. I’m pretty sure we still have some.” Stuffing his phone back in his pocket, Sam added, “Good thing we’ve got a communal shower in the bunker. We can get these washed up, dried, and treated.”

“This is a lot of work,” Gabriel said. “And you’re tired.”

“And you’re important,” Sam retorted. “You’re not going to change my mind.”

“Okay. But tell me, why do you have baby shampoo?”

“Oh. Well, when Cas was more human than angel, he had to, you know, shower. And he kept getting shampoo in his eyes, so I bought a bunch of baby shampoo. I certainly wasn’t going to try and teach him how to wash his hair.”

Gabriel grinned. “No, that would be Dean’s job.”

“I don’t want to know. Whatever happened, we still have a few bottles. Works wonders on some of the nastier monster fluids too, actually.” He dragged the chair back to where it belonged. “Okay, why don’t you meet me in the shower room. I’ll get the baby shampoo ready. And…” Sam felt his face flush. “What are we going to do about the jumpsuit, so it doesn’t get wet? We’ve got a shower chair at least, so you can sit, and I can wash your wings.”

“If it’s all the same to you, Sam, I’d rather not continue to wear it.”

“Yeah, I get that. I’ll grab a pair of my shorts for you. They’ll be a little long, but until we can get you your own clothes…”

“Sure you don’t want me giving you the full monty instead?”

“I’m…uh…” Sam felt like he’d momentarily lost his entire working vocabulary. “Yeah. I’m sure.”

“Some other time then,” Gabriel suggested.

“Uh… Okay. I’ll just…yeah.” Backing out of the room, Sam stopped by his room to grab two pairs of black sweat shorts, then headed for a closet where he knew they kept bathroom supplies, trying desperately not to think about Gabriel naked in the shower.

 

 

“You decent in there?” Sam called, before he entered the communal shower area.

Gabriel snorted. “Me? Never. But I won’t offend your delicate eyesight.”

Sam peeked around the corner and saw Gabriel with his back to the doorway, his wings covering more skin than his clothes did. Sam handed him the shorts without a word and turned away, giving Gabriel the chance to put them on. He felt a tap on his shoulder and spun back around. The shorts hung down to Gabriel’s knees, and rested low on his hip bones. Gabriel’s bare torso revealed a lot more muscle than Sam was expecting, especially considering the angel’s penchant for candy. The brass mesh covering the implant looked like some sort of tribal jewelry against his skin.

“Sorry,” Sam said, realizing he was staring.

“No need to apologize, Samshine. Look all you want.”

Sam managed an embarrassed smile. “I brought the shampoo. And another pair of shorts, because I’m sure that one will get wet.” He retrieved the shower chair, setting it so it faced away from one of the shower heads. “Have a seat.”

As Gabriel sat down, Sam turned on the water and adjusted the temperature. “If it’s too cold or too hot, let me know. I’m starting with the temperature I usually use.”

“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“And…um…I’m going to have to move your wings around. Extend them. Rotate them a bit, to get them clean. You okay with that?”

“Long as I get my happy ending, you do what you need to do.”

Sam laughed in spite of himself. “This isn’t that kind of shower, Gabe.” He adjusted the angle of the shower head and extended one wing behind Gabriel, getting the outer feathers wet. Almost immediately, the water ran gray down the drain, taking some small debris with it.

“Was worth a try,” Gabriel said.

Sam chuckled and poured a generous amount of baby shampoo into his hands, then rubbed them to create a lather. He started at the top outside of the wing, working his fingers into the base of the feathers, feeling sandy grit and the sticky remnants of the pepper gel loosen as he rubbed. One feather was particularly askew, then detached when Sam rubbed his soapy fingers along the vanes.

“Shit. I’m sorry. One of your feathers came off.”

“Nah, don’t worry about it. Happens when they’re manifested in the physical plane. That one was actually bothering me, so getting it out of there feels better.”

“Do you want me to be more careful?” Sam asked.

“Hell, no. In fact, I like it a little harder.”

Sam rolled his eyes but pressed more firmly with his fingers. The baby shampoo seemed to be doing a good job, and while cleaning the pepper gel was causing his eyes to water if he got his face too close to the feathers, it also neutralized any residual contact stinging. He banished any thought of pepper gel getting into those wing wounds.

“How does this manifesting thing work?” Sam continued, trying to keep the topic fairly light. “If you were to hide your wings again, would they still be covered with all this stuff?”

“No. Moving my wings to the etheric plane means speeding up the vibrations that make all matter seem solid. Once they’re no longer solid, they’re not really even wings anymore. Not like these.” Gabriel twitched the wing that Sam was cleaning, and just that movement was enough to almost knock Sam off balance.

“So, you don’t have feathers in the etheric plane?”

Gabriel shook his head. “Feathers are a physical attribute that assist in flight in the physical world. The farther you get from the physical world, higher the vibration, the more matter becomes light, then energy.

“But…” Sam thought about how to say this. “Cas’ wings… He can’t move them to the etheric plane or farther away from the physical plane in order to heal them? If they’re not really physical wings with feathers?”

“Ah.” Gabriel sighed. “No, he can’t. It might be better explained that Castiel has some damage done to his energy. If I had full access to Heaven’s power, I could heal him. But from here? No. It’s too much damage.”

“Because he fell?” Sam poured more baby shampoo into his hands and selected another section of wing to clean.

“That’s the simple explanation, but it’s not entirely accurate. He rebelled against orders, yes. But that’s not what caused the damage. It was mostly done to him. Punishment. Vengeance. Metatron.”

“I thought that when all the angels fell, their, um…wings were…” Sam cursed at himself for failing to keep the conversation from getting into painful territory.

“Burned to a crisp? Yeah. Because Metadouche’s spell had them all manifest in the physical before dropping them through the atmosphere. An army of angels can’t come after you if they’re permanently grounded.”

“So, when their wings have to remain in the physical plane, with this law, what happens with the physical feathers? Do they molt? Is that even a thing?” Sam slid a few feathers through his fingers, stripping the gel reside and more grime away. Underneath, the color began to look like metallic gold, as if actual gold threads were woven through the feathers. Must be a trick of the light.

“I don’t know,” Gabriel said. “It’s never happened before. But it would make sense. With enough grace, the feathers could be kept pristine indefinitely, but without grace, or with these implants,” Gabriel motioned to the brass mesh, “our vessels will age, cells will go through their birth/death cycle, and somewhere along the line, we’re probably going to have the mother of all PMS episodes.”

“Sorry for all my questions,” Sam said. “I’ve never really had anyone to ask before.”

“Really? You haven’t asked Castiel?”

“He gets grumpy when anything angel-related gets brought up.”

Gabriel laughed. “Yeah, I can see that.”

Examining the wounds a little more closely, Sam winced on Gabriel’s behalf. “I’m going to need to clean the upper wound on this wing now. It’s probably going to hurt.”

“I know. Go ahead.”

Being as careful as possible, Sam gently worked baby shampoo around the edges of the wound, trying not to get too much in it. He moved slowly, registering each of Gabriel’s breath hitches and the one hiss he let out when Sam dislodged a particularly large blood clot that had formed around a couple of feathers. When at last the wound looked clean enough to satisfy Sam, he moved down the wing, repeating the process at the lower wound.

The flight feathers, although broken and in poor shape, were easily longer than Sam’s arm, and the word glorious kept coming unbidden to mind. Before long, the entire outer wing was clean and gleaming, catching the light and reflecting it out in countless hues like a prism.

“I need to do the inner part of your wing now,” Sam said, “but it doesn’t look as bad. You kept it pretty well protected.”

Gabriel tipped his head. “Yeah, well…”

“I’m sorry if the wounds hurt again. They’re looking better already though.”

“They’re already feeling better.”

Sam stepped over to Gabriel’s side and began lathering more baby shampoo before digging his fingers into the feathers to scrub out whatever detritus might be lodged in there.

Immediately, Gabriel gasped, his wing flapping once, shoving Sam back several steps.

“I’m sorry!” Sam said. “Did I hurt you?”

“Uh…” Gabriel took a deep breath, as if willing any pain away. “No. No, you’re okay. It…uh…didn’t hurt.”

“Bullshit.”

“Really, Sam. It was just unexpected. The undersides of my wings are a little more…sensitive.”

“Oh. Should I go easier then?”

“No, you’re fine.”

“Okay.” Sam tried to work his way quickly but thoroughly through the wing’s underside, taking note of Gabriel’s accelerated breathing and a flush coming to his face. Sam was almost about to declare the wing done so he wouldn’t hurt Gabriel anymore, when the angel let out a loud moan that was anything but pained.

“Right there, Sam. Please.”

Without thinking too much about what he might be doing, Sam pressed harder, continuing the scrubbing motions with his fingertips, feeling the wing start to tremble beneath his hands. The feathers all fluffed up, making the wing feel twice as dense and three times as soft, and then with a shout from Gabriel, all the lights went out.

Chapter Text

“What the hell just happened?” Sam said as the emergency generator-powered lights came on.

Gabriel was doubled over, breathing heavily and looking a little shocked. The brass mesh was laying on the ground, with what looked like singe marks on it.

“Hey. You okay? Gabriel?”

“I’m okay,” Gabriel said in a small voice Sam had never heard from him before. “Just need a minute.”

Sam picked up the brass mesh and confirmed that it was, in fact, singed. It felt normal to the touch, not hot at all, so he placed it back where it had been. There were no marks on Gabriel’s skin where the mesh had covered it.

“Something sent an electrical short through this mesh,” Sam said. “Enough to leave marks. Was it the implant? Do you know what happened?”

“I’m not sure,” Gabriel answered, sitting back up. His face was relaxed, and he looked maybe a little drunk. “But I think you’re good to go on the other wing.”

Sure enough, the wing Sam had been working on looked completely clean, at least in the dimmer light cast by the generator. “Huh. Okay.” Sam picked up the bottle of baby shampoo and moved to Gabriel’s other side, extending the other wing and beginning the process again on the outside of the wing. At least he knew what he was doing this time.

He was about to clean the upper wound in the second wing when the lights all came back on, followed a few minutes later by a loud knocking at the bathroom entrance.

“Sammy? You in there?” Dean called.

“Yeah, Dean. What’s up?”

“Breakers tripped. Like all of them. I’m gonna do a perimeter check, but I don’t think it came from outside. No alarms were set off. Just the breakers.”

“Okay. You want some help when I’m done here?”

“Nah, I got it. Just wanted to let you know.” Dean paused. “Hey, I thought you were going to bed after dinner.”

“Yeah.” Sam nodded, even though Dean couldn’t see him. “Energy rush. Figured a shower would help.”

“Okay. Well, if you don’t hear from me ‘til morning, everything’s fine.”

“’Kay. Night, Dean.”

Sam waited, holding his breath, until he was sure Dean had left, then let it out in a long exhale.

“Didn’t want to let Deano know you’re in here with me?” Gabriel asked in a teasing tone.

“I didn’t know if you wanted him to know you were in here with me.”

“Maybe it’ll give him some ideas. Maybe Cassie will let him wash his wings.” Gabriel waggled his eyebrows suggestively.

“I don’t need that image in my head, Gabe,” Sam warned.

“All right, all right.” Gabriel bumped Sam with the not-yet-washed wing. “I’m ready for you anytime.”

 

 

Sam worked quickly, feeling confident about what he was doing. He didn’t worry so much about cleaning around the wounds, but when it was time to move to the underside of the wing, he became a little more cautious about whatever sensitivity caused Gabriel’s earlier reaction.

His fingers scrubbed, almost kneading with a mind of their own, finding particles of dirt and loose feathers, removing the sticky residue and revealing the golden shine beneath. It was becoming more and more clear that he was tired and needed sleep soon, but it was also pleasant, doing this for Gabriel.

“Has anyone ever cleaned your wings before?” Sam asked without thinking.

Gabriel shook his head, his breathing accelerating again. “No. Just you.”

“You okay? It’s the sensitivity, isn’t it?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You want me to—”

“No!” Gabriel shook his head vehemently. “Don’t. Stop.”

“Okay.” Sam kept scrubbing and kneading, feeling muscles shifting beneath the skin, the feathers fluffing like they did on the other wing. Then the trembling again.

“Sam,” Gabriel gasped. “Say my name. Please.”

“What? Gabe?”

“My full name. Please.”

Sam let out a quick exhale. “Gabriel.”

Gabriel moaned again, only this time he threw his head back, the look on his face pure ecstasy.

Oh.

Sam’s eyes widened as he realized what was actually happening, then shielded his eyes as the lights went out again and he heard the brass mesh fall to the shower floor.

 

 

When the lights came back on, Sam picked up the brass mesh. It was not only singed, but had nearly melted from whatever happened. From Gabriel. He felt a little used. If he’d known that cleaning Gabriel’s wings was going to result in a literal orgasmic experience—or two—he might have taken different precautions. Sam thought about the look on Gabriel’s face. Or maybe he’d have been fully on board.

“Wish you would have told me,” Sam muttered.

Gabriel hung his head. “I’m sorry. I really didn’t expect that to happen the first time. It took me as much by surprise.”

“And the second?”

Closing his eyes, Gabriel sighed. “Once you knew, I was sure that would be the end of it. I was being selfish. I just wanted to experience it once more before it was gone for good.”

“Gabe.” Sam purposely avoided using his full name. “If you’d asked for my consent, I’d have given it.”

“I know. I’m sor—” His gaze snapped up to meet Sam’s. “What?”

Sam tried to shrug nonchalantly. “Your wings needed to be cleaned anyway. And after the hell you’ve been through… Why not get a little enjoyment out of it? I’d just like to know beforehand. You know, for the next time.”

“Next—?”

“Also, you can’t keep tripping the breakers. And this?” Sam held up what had once been the brass mesh. “What’s up with this?”

Gabriel took the mesh and examined it closely. Then he closed his eyes and seemed to concentrate.

“You’re not going for a third, are you?” Sam asked, a little concerned.

“Shh…” Gabriel took a deep breath and let it out slowly, then smiled. His wings shifted a bit, and Sam watched as the wounds began to heal until there was no trace of the ragged holes. The feathers remained broken, but were clean and dry and still looked like actual gold woven throughout them.

“Gabriel, you…you healed yourself!”

Opening his eyes, Gabriel grinned. “You gave me a happy ending in more ways than one, Sammoose. The implant’s toast.”

“Toast? Like…”

“Like dead. Shorted out. Burned up. Nonfunctional.”

“From an…orgasm?” Sam wasn’t sure he was understanding correctly.

“Well, two, technically. But yes. It, uh, caused a surge in my grace. Burned out the implant before it could trigger its defense or lockdown or whatever failsafe they programmed into it. I might know how to short out all the others, too.”

Sam glared at him. “I am not giving them all wing orgasms.”

“No!” Gabriel laughed. “No, nothing like that. If a surge of my grace can short it out, I might be able to deliver it to them. No orgasms in sight.” He paused, then added hopefully, “Or not for them, anyway.”

“You’re insatiable,” Sam said, rolling his eyes.

“You’re just now noticing that?” Gabriel stood, and with a wave of his hand, he was clad in jeans, the now-dry sweat shorts folded neatly in his hand. “As much as I like wearing your clothes, wet isn’t my favorite texture. And Sam, I really am sorry about not saying something after the first time. I was…kind of embarrassed, and I didn’t think about how you’d feel about it.”

“It is the first time I’ve ever accidentally given someone an orgasm.” Sam nodded and looked Gabriel over. “You gonna hide your wings now?”

“I should. But I kinda like the way you’re looking at them.”

Sam could feel his face flush. “We need to tell Dean and Cas about the implant too.”

“Tomorrow. It can wait a few hours. You need sleep.”

“I am tired.”

Gabriel paused, looking bashful for a moment. “Remember that promise I made you?”

“Being honest? You made it to all of us now.”

“Yeah.” He chewed his lip. “I kind of like the idea of you having something the others don’t. So…if you want to see them, I’ll bring them out.”

“Your wings?”

“That okay?”

“More than okay, Gabe. I just…I don’t have anything to offer in return.”

Gabriel put his hand on Sam’s shoulder, the touch somehow both steadying and comforting. “You already have, Sam. More than you know.”

 

Sam made his way back to his bedroom, already feeling a kind of loss after leaving Gabriel in the bedroom he’d sort of claimed. Although he’d said he’d probably still rest, if not sleep, Gabe waved away any offers of bedclothes, and said anything he needed, he could manifest as needed. Sam was glad for the guy, his wings and wrists healed, the implant disabled. But he felt like he was now at loose ends himself. Yes, there was still the ACAA to take down. And then Gabriel would leave, because why would he stick around?

Sleep overtook Sam easily, and he dreamed of elusive golden wings, just out of reach.