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One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night

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I am still trying to rise up from the loveliness of dying objects
into the loveliness of whatever it is they point to. I'm trying
to get at just how things are, to adjust to that, but then I start
shaking. Isn't that how it is with you? It was so dark inside,
but that's not the whole story. They are leaving something out.
I can feel it in the sleepless night when I run my hands over
the openings in doorways. I can feel it when my own heart
delivers all my secrets to my enemies.

Frank X. Gaspar (It Was So Dark Inside the Wolf)

I.

When Castiel finally took the plunge and fell from grace, it was like nothing Dean would have ever imagined. It happened in a way that his mind would have shied away from even in his most vivid nightmares. Castiel didn’t walk away, didn’t jump or get shoved off of his cloud. No high up angelic bossman revoked his halo or stripped him of his wings. It happened in a dark, cold place and it was more like watching a tired man treading water, finally be dragged into the deep by a shark.

As Sam paced around him, watching Dean with his eyes shining black through the bars of his hanging cage, he reminded him of that; of a shark circling. Dean watched him back, tracking him with his own eyes, hating how much he still after everything couldn’t hate him or, failing that, stop loving him.

“Do you know… I do it all for you?” Sam asked him, pacing around him until he was at Dean’s back.

He was already going by as Dean struggled to turn in the tight confines of his cage to keep him in sight. “What bullshit,” he said. “You… what? You kill for me? Drink that bitch demon’s blood for me? Huh, Sammy? You take… You lock me up in here… Lock Cas up in here? All of that and you do it for me? Liar.”

Sam smirked at him and cocked his head. “But I’m not,” he said. He stopped pacing and leaned in to grasp two of the cage bars, looking in at Dean as his eyes cleared of smoke.

Staring into those eyes, those eyes, grey and gold all speckled and swirled together to look green like something conceived of by Seurat, Dean couldn’t even lie to himself and pretend that this wasn’t Sam. Sam, twisted and corrupted down to his very last fiber, but still Sam after all.

He closed his eyes on tears that welled up to sting under his lashes and dropped his head. “You didn’t do this for me,” he said softly.

“That’s what I’m telling you,” Sam said. “I did. All of it. Everything I do is for you.”

Dean laughed, humorless and full of tears, and lifted his head to regard his brother. “Then stop it for me,” he said. “Do you think for a… for a damn minute this is anything I wanted? Let us go.”

Sam frowned sadly and turned his face to rest his cheek against the bars, peering in at Dean. “I can’t,” he said. “Maybe someday I’ll tell you why, but I can’t. And Dean?”

“What?” Dean said.

“You need to stop trying to save me,” Sam said. He reached a hand through the bars and ran his fingers along Dean’s arm and trailed his fingertips over the back of his hand. “I’m not possessed. This is me now. You can’t fix it and I can’t take it back.”

“You could stop,” Dean insisted. He had tears sliding down his cheeks, hot and fevered feeling and they were humiliating, but that was nothing new. He was sick to death of mourning people, especially Sam, who was still alive.

“Sam, listen,” Dean said, suddenly unfolding himself and crawling across the little bit of space between him and where Sam was staring in at him through the bars. The cage shifted, swaying on its chain, but Dean grasped the bars and pressed his face to them close to Sam’s. “Listen,” he whispered, desperate to make himself heard. To make Sam fucking listen to him. “You used to listen to me, huh? Remember? Listen to me now and fucking stop it. You’re not evil. You’re not… this.”

Sam tilted his head, his lips curving in a slow smile only inches from Dean’s. “That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” he murmured. “I am. This is me, no possession, no coercion. Abandon hope, here there be monsters, blah, blah, blah.”

“No,” Dean said. He closed his eyes and gripped the bars of his swinging birdcage tight, tears sliding down his face to pat lightly on the concrete floor. “No.”

Sam’s fingers brushing through the tears on his chin made Dean flinch, but he didn’t pull away. He opened his eyes, begging Sam without words to take it back, to be lying. Or if not, to lie to him now and say it would be all right.

Sam pressed his mouth gently to Dean’s, brushed their lips together in the briefest kiss, and whispered, “Yes. Here, let me show you.”

“Show…” Dean got up on his knees in his cage as Sam turned away from him and crossed the dank room to the other cage just like his where Castiel sat huddled and naked, watching them with a confused kind of curiosity. His cage swung and Dean clutched at the bars to keep from being tossed around inside it, staring out at Sam, following him with his eyes like there was anything he could do. “Wait, Sam… What are you doing?”

Sam reached through the bars of Castiel’s cage and stroked a hand up the side of his neck, fingers sliding into his hair to pet. Castiel watched Sam with a soft frown and said nothing. Then Sam suddenly tightened his hand and yanked Castiel’s head back and the angel sucked a pained breath through his teeth.

Sam put his other hand out and the door of the cage unlocked and swung open. “If I make this angel of yours fall… will that be enough?”

Dean swallowed around fear that was making his heart thrash against the back of his throat. “What do you mean?”

Castiel’s eyes were wide and he looked more afraid than Dean had ever seen him. Even the impending end of the world, the way people had died by the millions and angels had become hunted, hadn’t brought that panicked animal look into Castiel’s eyes like Sam’s single little question. Dean locked gazes with Castiel for a moment, then Castiel was being forced out of his cage and thrown to the floor.

“Sam, don’t,” Dean said. He pulled at his bars, though he knew it was useless.

He’d tried to escape when they woke up in this place and found it impossible. Of course it would be, Sam knew so much. Everything that their father and Dean himself had taught him had made him look at his little prison through the eyes of a potential prisoner with Dean’s kind of skill at escaping. It was all custom-made to keep him, he wasn’t getting out.

“Sam, please don’t do… whatever you’re thinking of doing,” Dean said. He watched Sam walk over to where Castiel was kneeling on the floor and his heart beat a little faster still. He didn’t know for sure, but he knew that look on his brother’s face probably better than anyone. It was a more sinister version of it, but he knew it well. “Sam,” he said. “Please, man, don’t.”

“Oh no, I have to do something, don’t I?” Sam said. He reached down and grabbed Castiel’s chin, fingers lingering at the base of his throat where his pulse was pounding. “I have to make you believe me or you’re going to get yourself killed again trying to save me. Nothing else I do has worked, maybe this will.”

“Sam, don’t,” Dean said, his voice breaking with the fear reflected back at him in Castiel’s eyes. Shit, Castiel was shaking. Sam wasn’t even really touching him, just looking at him, and he was shaking. “You want me to believe you, I’ll… Do it to me. Hurt me. Make me believe you. Don’t hurt him, alright, please.”

“I’ve tried making you believe it, but I won’t hurt you,” Sam said. He sank down on his heels before Castiel and moved his hand to slide it down his neck to his chest. He could feel Castiel’s rapid heartbeat against his hand and it made him smile. “Besides… self-sacrifice is the Winchester condition. Moreover, it’s your condition. And mine. Yours and mine. You would endure whatever pain I inflicted on you just because it’s me and for some reason you think you deserve it.”

“So what then, Sammy?” Dean asked, and his voice was cracking all over the place because he could not look at the way Castiel was so scared and not feel his heart breaking. He was fucking terrified and Sam, his Sammy was doing it to him, which made it a thousand times more dreadful. “What are you gonna do to make me believe you’re the real deal? You’re the big shot movie monster in this reel, huh? So you’re going to hurt him to get to me? What makes you think he matters to me that much?”

Sam laughed softly and shook his head. “It wouldn’t matter if it were a stranger; you’d still care a little,” Sam said. “I know you. You may not give a shit when the host is looking at you with black eyes and wishing you dead, but when they start blubbering and asking for their mommies, you get all choked up inside. And this one… you know him. You even like him a bit.”

Dean threw his shoulder against the bars of his cage, upsetting it into spinning and swinging, tossing him around inside. He cursed and grabbed the bars again, trying to shake them, feeling on a deeply humiliating level just like one of that asshole Uriel’s disgusting little mud monkeys.

“Sam, goddamn it, look at him!” Dean shouted. His voice echoed back at him off the cold walls. “Look at him, he’s fucking terrified. Don’t you dare… do what you’re thinking. I don’t know what it is, but I think he does and goddamn it, don’t you dare! You don’t have to do this. You don’t have to be this thing. This… What you’re doing, it’s not you. It’s that blood and that fucking cunt Ruby and all--”

“No, Dean, it isn’t,” Sam said. He ran his hand, fingers spread, lightly down Castiel’s chest to his belly, then back up. He ran his thumb over one nipple, felt it go hard at his touch, and scraped it with his fingernail. Castiel’s eyes shot to him in surprised confusion and Sam grinned. “The blood’s always been in me, Dean. It’s not the blood. Ruby’s not that strong, she doesn’t hold me in her sway. Now shut up, alright?”

“No, I will not shut up!” Dean snarled, and it was so, so like him that Sam laughed.

Sam moved his hand over to Castiel’s other nipple and rolled his thumb over it, watching his face, studying his reactions. When all the angel did was frown at him and look down at his own body in consternation, Sam cupped the back of his neck in his other hand and pressed with his fingers until Castiel tilted his head back.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” Sam told him.

Castiel’s brow furrowed and he looked over Sam’s shoulder at Dean, peering at them through the bars of his cage. He looked back at Sam as Sam pushed his palm down his belly, fingers sliding along his navel. “No,” Castiel said. “Not physically, you’re not. That isn’t… what you’re after.”

“It’s quite contrary to what I’m after, actually,” Sam said.

Sam pressed against the back of Castiel’s neck and urged him closer so he could gently press his mouth to his. The angel had no idea what to do about that, so Sam just left it at a light kiss, no tongues or teeth involved.

“You’ll have to forgive me if I don’t find that very reassuring,” Castiel whispered, blinking at him.

“You’re forgiven,” Sam said. He grasped Castiel’s hips in his hands and yanked, sending the angel to the floor on his back hard enough to bruise his shoulders. “Now,” Sam said, unfastening his belt with a jerk as he leaned over Castiel. “Now… you’ll just have to return the favor and forgive me for not being nicer about this.”

It was on the tip of Castiel’s tongue to tell Sam that no one was beyond God’s forgiveness; all they had to do was ask and be sincere in their remorse. Then Sam was shoving his legs apart, pushing his knees up and before Castiel could wrap his mind around the reason why, Sam had pushed a finger inside him and it was burning.

Physical pain was something Castiel was very familiar with, but not anything like this… violation. The pain he had encountered throughout his long life had come from battle, and nothing even remotely resembling being flat on his back with a demon stroking its fingers in his ass had ever happened to him before. He would not have allowed it.

But here he had no power and he had never felt more helpless than he did in that moment.

“What do you think?” Sam whispered to him. He ran his tongue along Castiel’s throat to his ear and nipped. “Do you think if I tear you down off your heavenly cloud my brother will believe that I’m beyond saving?”

Castiel bit his lips and flinched from Sam’s touches and kisses like they burned him. “Is that what you… truly want?”

“More than anything,” Sam said.

He pushed a second finger into Castiel’s body and spread them both, watching him intently as he arched off the floor with a cry and reached out, fingers dragging down Sam’s arms as pain bloomed in his belly.

“You said this… wouldn’t hurt,” Castiel gasped, looking back at Sam, absurdly, as though betrayed.

“Well… I lied,” Sam said. He opened and closed his fingers and Castiel jerked under him, rocking his hips to get away from the intrusion and only succeeding in working Sam’s fingers deeper. “It’s going to hurt… a little.”

Beyond them, in his cage, Dean watched them and he cursed Sam. Grumbling, he pulled his knees up to his chest defensively and watched them. He didn’t want to, but it was like… like a natural disaster. Like he had courtside seats for Ground Zero at the Pentagon or was standing in the desert watching the first nuclear bomb explode over New Mexico. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from it and every second that passed, he became more and more convinced that he was going to be violently sick.

When Sam hooked an arm around Castiel’s waist and hefted his weight, Dean knew what was coming because he’d been there, right there where Castiel was, hundreds of times. He tried to steady himself against it, but there was no preparing for that and there was no word to describe the anguished wailing sound that tore from Castiel’s throat as Sam thrust into his body.

Dean dragged both hands through his hair, digging his nails into his scalp painfully as Sam started to move and Castiel’s voice broke into hitching gasps and cries that echoed off the concrete walls like screams in a cave. He tried to tell himself it wasn’t Sam’s fault, it wasn’t Sam, but he didn’t know if that mattered anymore. Didn’t know if he really believed it or if he only wanted to.

Castiel put his arms around Sam’s back, more to have something to hold onto because every thrust was dragging his back over the rough floor, than because he had any desire to touch him. He did not want to touch him. He didn’t want Sam’s smell on him, or his sweat to slide along his belly, or to like what Sam was doing to his body, but it was all happening anyway.

When the first shocks of pleasure jumped under his skin and tightened his stomach, Castiel stared up at Sam, stunned. Then he made a soft sound in his throat and it happened again, his mouth falling open with a short, surprised, “Oh.” Just that, like he’d been told something very interesting.

Sam smiled down at him and put both arms around his waist to hold him tighter, his hands against the small of Castiel’s back to support him as he threw his weight behind his thrusts. Castiel bucked beneath him, physical pleasure like nothing he’d ever felt or imagined rushing through him in tight, nearly painful beats. His fingers clawed at Sam’s back, at his arms, at his hair as he reached up to grab anything to ground or reassure himself. Something.

Sam tossed his head, hunched his shoulders and moved, fucking him hard and fast, without any mercy but with every care taken to make damn good and sure the angel enjoyed it whether he wanted to or not. “Do you know what happens to fallen angels when they die?” he whispered in Castiel’s ear.

Castiel moaned and shook his head, whether in answer to the question or in denial, it didn’t matter. “No,” he whimpered. “Stop, please. No.”

Sam pressed his face into the curve of Castiel’s shoulder and breathed him in. He smelled oddly human and for some reason this amused him. “They go to Hell,” Sam told him.

“Sam, you sadistic motherfucker, he’s begging you to stop!” Dean shouted.

He could hardly believe what Sam was doing, no matter where Castiel stood on matters of consent. He had never liked him, he damn well had never wanted him and Dean knew it. But Sam, the Sam he had known his whole life and loved more than anything would never rape anyone. If he hated them, he’d kill them, if he wanted them, it wouldn’t be rape or it just wouldn’t be.

“I hear him, Dean,” Sam said, panting. He licked his lips, tasting his own sweat, and his eyes burned to black as he stared down at Castiel’s flushed face.

Castiel opened his eyes and saw it, how Sam’s eyes shined like oil, and he turned his face away. He was gasping softly with each thrust, “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” He repeated it over and over under his breath as pleasure built inside him, his body contracting with it in strange, alien ways.

Dean heard it, quickly followed by Sam’s laughter, and he thought the angel might actually be praying. The idea was too much to bear and Dean put his hands over his ears and closed his eyes, shoving his face into the backs of his thighs to block it all out.

There was a rush of light, bursting bright and white behind his eyelids and Dean pressed his face harder against the backs of his legs and pushed his hands to his ears tight as everything started to ring. It was like the tuning fork screaming sound, that swelling white noise, glass breaking sound that Castiel had once told him was the sound of his true voice. That sound filled the room with light and made his teeth ache until Dean screamed from it.

When it stopped, it was like someone had flicked a switch and turned off all the sound in the world. He didn’t at first open his eyes and look up, but eventually he had to look, he had to know.

Castiel lay on the cold floor shuddering as Sam slowly rose to his feet, pulled his pants back up and fastened his belt. As Dean watched, heartsick and afraid, Castiel drew his legs up and huddled in on himself in a defensively fetal position. He wasn’t crying, though Dean thought that he might have if the angel had known how, but small whimpering sounds of distress slipped through his clenched teeth and that was somehow worse.

Dean looked up when Sam came to stand beside his cage and he wanted to spit in his face and curse him when Sam reached through the bars to touch him, but he didn’t. He let Sam cup his cheek in his hand and run his thumb into the hollow beneath his left eye and tried to see what Sam wanted him to see. He looked at him and, knowing what he had done and why, he wanted to hate him, but he couldn’t because he loved him too much.

“Stop trying to save me, Dean,” Sam told him. Then he took his hand back and left. Left Dean in his cage, left Castiel on the floor, and there was a heavy thud as the bolt on the door slid home.

Dean moved over to the bars of his cage and called softly to Castiel. Castiel rolled his eyes toward him, then just turned his face away from him and said nothing. He still made those awful whining noises, though, and Dean wanted him to stop it. They were making his skin crawl and his eyes tear up.

“Cas?” he hissed. “Castiel? Hey, man, talk to me. Are you… Just, say something, okay? Say something and stop crying. God, please, stop crying.”

“I’m not… crying,” Castiel told him. He didn’t look over and he didn’t open his eyes, but at least he was responding. He was breathing in short, frightened bursts and his body was trembling, but he was speaking. That had to be something.

“Okay, okay,” Dean said. He gripped the bars of his cage and wished desperately for a lock pick, even a wire or a bobby pin, something. He hadn’t known a lot of rape victims in his life, but he guessed Castiel might not take much comfort from physical touch at the moment, still that didn’t mean he couldn’t… do something. “Fuck, we need to get out of here,” he whispered, talking mostly to himself.

Castiel made a soft chuffing sound of laughter and Dean’s eyes shot to him, surprised by it and how natural it had sounded. Angel’s weren’t usually known for their cynicism and that had been far from a happy sound.

“Cas, come on,” Dean said. He jerked at his bars and wished he had something to throw at him to get his attention, but he was as naked as Castiel. “Hey, look I know you’re… I know you’re hurt and… but you’re out there and goddamn it, Cas, you can get me out of here. We can get out of here. Look around for a key or… Come on. Shit, please.”

“He’s screaming,” Castiel whispered.

Dean turned his head to press his ear between the bars, closer to Castiel like that would make it easier to hear him. He was speaking so low that his lips were barely moving to allow the words to pass. “What?” Dean said. “Talk to me, Cas. What did you say?”

“The man whose body I’m wearing,” Castiel said, just as softly. “His name’s Jimmy. He has a wife and daughter and he’s so… so faithful. He’s in here, screaming. He won’t stop and it… hurts.”

“Well, tell him to shut the fuck up,” Dean snapped. He felt bad about it, but they had been left alone and Castiel was loose, he could get them out of this horrible place. They needed to get out. “Tell him to strap on his helmet and get up here and let me out. Cas, goddamn it, get up!”

“Stop shouting,” Castiel said flatly. “I can hardly hear you anyway and you’ll just make him come back in here.”

“Cas, come on, you can--”

“Dean,” Castiel said. “Be quiet, please. I’m tired.”

He spoke very calmly, very patiently, though he was shaking and hunched in on himself like he was breaking. It sent a chill down Dean’s spine and he shut up.

He leaned back against the bars and curled up on his side in the cage, watching Castiel’s back through the bars. Eventually the shivering subsided and the tense draw of his shoulders relaxed and Dean wondered if he slept. He had never seen Castiel sleep before and had never thought to ask him if he did. In part, he was almost positive that whether angels slept or not, this sleep was only Castiel shutting down to escape the trauma of what had been done to him. Dean wanted to wake him up and keep demanding and pleading with him to open his door and let him out, but he didn’t quite have the heart to do it.

He fell asleep himself watching the even rise and fall of Castiel’s sides as he slept. It was all too much and he was just wrung out. He couldn’t do anything and Castiel was too fucked up to do anything, so he slept.

He woke with a start a few hours later and lay there looking out through the door of his cage at Castiel, who still hadn’t moved. Dean didn’t know if he was still sleeping or not, but he hadn’t even shifted. He still lay on the floor, curled in on himself for comfort, and it occurred to Dean with sudden, irrational dread that he was dead.

Dean sat up and the cage rocked, the open door squeaking as it swung with the motion. “Cas!” He hissed.

No answer.

“Hey, man, are you dead?” Dean called. “Don’t be dead, okay? Please, don’t be. Hey, answer me!”

“I am not dead,” Castiel told him. He rolled over and sat up carefully, wincing at the new painful, hollow sensations in his body.

“Good, that’s good,” Dean said. “Ah… how about you get me… Cas!”

Castiel had a hand over his eyes, rubbing at them with his forefinger and thumb. At Dean’s surprised cry of his name, he looked up at him through his fingers. “What?”

Dean crawled over to the open door of his cage and stuck his head out. He looked around, sure that it must be some kind of trick or trap, but when he found nothing, he crawled out of the cage and stood there, staring down at Castiel. He was grinning. “Free at last, free at last,” he said. Then he cut with the inappropriately timed humor and knelt down before Castiel. “Can you walk, do you think? We have to go.”

Castiel blinked at him, then looked from Dean to the cage behind him and back. His jaw clenched in a determined expression and he started to stand. “I will walk,” he said. His legs shook and he started to fall, but Dean was there and he caught him. Castiel tensed at the contact, but he didn’t jerk away, which would have only made him fall the rest of the way. He put a steadying hand on Dean’s arm and held on, then took a deep breath and let it out. “With your help, I will walk,” he amended.

“Sure thing,” Dean said. He cautiously put an arm around Castiel’s waist to help him along and prayed the door wouldn’t be bolted when they reached it.

The door was unlocked and the corridor beyond it was empty. There were no guards anywhere. There was no one. Dean instantly distrusted the situation, but as they made their slow way to the stairs and started up them, no one appeared to stop them.

“You tell me if you want me to carry you, alright?” Dean told Castiel the second time he almost went to his knees.

Castiel shook his head. “I do not need you to carry me,” he said stiffly.

“Whatever you say,” Dean told him as they reached the top of the last flight of stairs and he looked around. “Fuck, where’s my car?”

“I have no idea,” Castiel said, looking out over the desert where the sun had just begun to rise over the sage. “But that’s not so bothersome as the fact that we’re both naked. We may have to go back down there.”

Dean looked around at the landscape, flat and endless with no shade or water in sight and he hated to admit it, but Castiel was right. “Fuck,” he muttered.

“Indeed,” Castiel said.

“Fine, we’ll go back down and leave at nightfall,” Dean said. “We’ll just have to sleep or something, that’s all. Maybe we can find something to put on…”

“I do not want to go back down there,” Castiel said.

The look he gave Dean then was surprised and so completely lost that Dean put his hand out to touch him in comfort, only to have Castiel’s eyes widen further as he tensed. Dean let his hand drop and shrugged.

“I do not want,” Castiel whispered.

“I heard you, man,” Dean said. He took his arm from around Castiel’s waist and guided him over to the wall to lean against it if he needed to. “Here, just stay here and I’ll be right back, alright?”

“No, you don’t understand, Dean,” Castiel said. He stood with his hands braced on the concrete wall and turned a little to look at him. To Dean’s utter confusion and surprise, Castiel looked afraid.

“Hey, he’s gone, you know,” Dean said, trying to make Castiel stop looking at him that way. “They all are. We’re fine. I’m just gonna go back down there and look for some clothes, maybe some water, then I’ll be back.”

Castiel nodded and turned his head back to face the wall. Dropping his head between his shoulders, breathing slow and deep, he repeated, “I do not want,” and Dean finally got it.

“Wait, are you saying…?” Dean swallowed and looked away from him, his eyes sliding away from Castiel’s nude, shaking form to the sun-bleached desert, then back. “What are you saying?”

“I do not want to go back down there,” Castiel whispered without looking up. “I am here now, my host may die here from sun and heat and dehydration and… but I do not want to go back down there. I would rather die. I do not want.”

Castiel suddenly drew his hand back and punched the wall, the skin on his knuckles breaking open to leave little smears of blood on the grey cement. He looked at his hand dispassionately and opened and closed his fingers. “I am an angel of the Lord. We do not want… We do not die. But I want to never see that place again.” Castiel swallowed and shook his head miserably. “Something is wrong,” he whispered.

“Something’s been wrong since they fucking trapped us down there,” Dean said. He started to reach out his hand and rest it on Castiel’s tense shoulder, then he remembered the way he had flinched before and instead crossed his arms over his chest and frowned down at his toes. “Like why you couldn’t just whoosh us out of here when--”

Castiel laughed, the sound cracking and dry, humorless. “Some hunter,” he muttered. “Pay attention and look up sometimes. On the ceiling, there’s a symbol. Something like the one I taught you to banish us from your presence, only it works the opposite way. Like burning oil, I could not leave that way. Only through the door like a human.”

Dean scowled. It was a stupid oversight and a trick he and Sam had used themselves to trap demons with devil’s traps, but Castiel was right, he had never bothered to look up. Of course, he’d been a little distracted by things that were going on at his own level, but it was still careless. It still annoyed him to have Castiel pointing it out to him.

“What about now?” Dean said. “Fly us out of here now, Mighty Mouse. There’s no symbol and no door, but you look like you’re about to fall over.”

“I told you… Something is wrong,” Castiel said. He turned and put his back to the wall, then let himself slide down it to sit with his back against it. “Dean.”

Dean’s eyes shot to Castiel’s, then away. The broken, dead expression on the angel’s face made him feel queasy, reminded him of Castiel whispering to God while Sam raped him on the floor. “What?”

“Perhaps you should go look for our clothes now,” Castiel said.

Dean frowned without looking at him again and nodded. “Sure,” he said. “But hey, don’t disappear on me while I’m down there, alright?”

Castiel didn’t say anything for a while and Dean finally did look at him again just to see if he’d heard him. “I suspect… I suspect I may not be going anywhere that I do not walk for a long while,” he murmured.

Dean didn’t know why the sound of that bothered him, but it did. Still frowning, he left Castiel there to go back into the chamber underground. He didn’t want to either, there was an irrational feeling that he would be trapped back inside if he did, but he went anyway.

II.

Dean found their clothes neatly folded on a table in the underground chamber. That night, after the sun went down, they walked ten miles, most of it in complete silence listening to the strange yips of the coyotes, and Dean hotwired a truck that had been left overnight by a power line a long time ago by workers that intended to return the next day.

Dean left Castiel on a street corner in Reno as everything was crashing down around them, just pulled over when he said he wanted out, and left him there. For the first time, he didn’t like driving away like that, leaving the angel to his own dubious devices, but he told himself he was being stupid and pretended not to watch Castiel’s diminishing form in the rearview mirror.

A few weeks later, Dean opened Bobby’s front door and Castiel fairly fell into his arms, bringing in the cold wind and rain with him.

“Jesus Christ, Cas, what the hell happened to you?” Dean said, catching him against the doorframe with his own body long enough to slam the door shut again on the storm. “Better yet, how long have you been standing out there in the fucking rain?”

Castiel looked back at him with feverish eyes and put a hand on Dean’s shoulder to steady himself. “I was waiting for you to open the door,” he said. His voice was raw and rasping, like he’d either been using it too much or not at all.

“Then why didn’t you knock, Cas? Shit, you’re soaked through,” Dean said, standing back from him to look down at his own clothes, which were now wet along his front from contact with Castiel.

Castiel made a throaty sound of agreement and stood away from the doorway. “And I believe I might be… ill,” he said.

“Ill?” Dean repeated, like he’d never heard the word in his life.

Castiel nodded and suddenly stumbled. Dean caught him and led him over to Bobby’s ratty old sofa, then pushed him down on it. He stood back and looked down at Castiel with concerned confusion, taking in his thin, disheveled, sick look with a combination of pity and fear.

“Cas, what happened?” Dean asked.

Castiel chuffed laughter and dragged a hand through his wet hair to get it out of his eyes. “You were there, don’t you remember?” he said. He looked around the little house, eyes sliding over books, papers and ledgers like he didn’t even see them, before returning his gaze to Dean’s face, where it sharpened. “Where’s Bobby?”

Dean shrugged. “Out,” he said simply. Castiel was being strange. Well, strange for him which, when Dean thought about it, meant he was being pretty normal. And thinking in circles like that was starting to give him a headache so he stopped. “Since when do you need to ask me this stuff? Can’t you tell he’s not here with your angel mojo or something?”

Castiel shook his head, looking so tired and like his heart was broken. “No, I can’t,” he whispered. “I’m… Dean, I’m not an angel.”

“What?” Dean said. His eyebrows shot up and he stared. “Cas, if you’re about to tell me that you’re something else and you’ve been lying to me all this… Dammit, I don’t want to shoot you, man.”

Castiel’s lips quirked in wry amusement and he relaxed back against the back of the sofa. “I would also prefer it if you didn’t shoot me,” he said.

“Oh,” Dean said. He studied Castiel in silence for a few minutes, watching the tired way his eyes kept trying to close, taking in the hollow, hungry look of him and the feverishly bright cast to his eyes and cracked skin of his mouth with dawning realization. “Oh, fucking hell,” he whispered. “You mean not anymore. Don’t you? Not an angel anymore? Goddamn it, Cas, what did you do?”

Castiel closed his eyes on a soft laugh. “I made the mistake… Oh, terrible, terrible mistake… I was defiled,” he said. “Made impure with humanity’s original sin. Do you know why they call it that?”

“Ah… no,” Dean said, not really sure what the hell else to say. He was still trying to wrap his mind around Castiel’s fallen status and what that could mean for him and the fate of the world.

“Because the apple was never really an apple,” Castiel said. He laughed again and sat forward, elbows braced on his knees.

“But… you were forced,” Dean said, trying like hell to play catch-up with Castiel’s riddling confession.

“And if that were all it was,” he said, looking up at Dean through his lashes with eyes that were fever-bright with more than only physical illness. “If that were all, just sex forced upon the body of a vessel, then I would still have my wings and my grace. I didn’t fall for the sin of being penetrated, Dean. I fell because I liked it. I liked it.”

Legs suddenly weak, Dean sat down on a corner of the coffee table in front of Castiel and just stared at him, unable to form a coherent thought, let alone voice one. There was a book poking him in the hip and he shifted to push it aside, then suddenly stood again to pace.

“But you’re still an angel,” Dean said, pausing in front of Castiel, seeking confirmation and finding none. Castiel gave him a tired, bleak shake of his head and Dean’s eyes narrowed. “A fallen angel is still an angel, isn’t he? Aren’t you the one that told me all of the oldest demons started out jumping around on the clouds with the rest of you?”

Castiel put is hands out to his sides in a gesture of helplessness, then dropped them. “Yes, but…”

“But what?” Dean said. He stopped and rubbed the bridge of his nose with a sigh. “Look, I’m sorry, alright? I’m not trying to be an insensitive asshole here, but your angel stuff is kinda important to us and we need it. It can’t be gone.”

“But it is,” Castiel said. “And you are being an insensitive asshole,” he added, completely dead pan.

Dean gave him an incredulous look, then barked out a laugh and sat back down on the edge of the coffee table. “Why?” he said.

“Because I didn’t know at first,” Castiel said. “I… I went to them. To my brothers. They knew and they sealed me inside this body. So you see, even if I wanted to, I can never be a demon.”

“What do you mean, sealed?” Dean asked. He didn’t even know why he was asking it. If what Castiel said was true, there was nothing that could be done about it and there was no reason to believe Castiel would lie. Dean didn’t even know if he knew how yet.

Without a word, Castiel stood up, took his wet coat off and tossed it down on the arm of the couch. He fumbled with the buttons of his shirt and took that off too, then turned to show his back to Dean.

Dean looked up the length of his back, confused until he saw the marks. Scars burned ritualistically into Castiel’s skin, sticking out slightly from his back. “Jesus Christ, Cas,” he whispered, and stood to look at them better.

They were words in Sanskrit and Enochian curving in lines along the back of each of his shoulders. Set in the center, like the key to a lock, was a round brand with some kind of Enochian star symbol inside it. Dean couldn’t read any of it, but it was hard to misunderstand the meaning with Castiel standing there, shivering and sick, miserable and lost.

Dean touched the burn at the center between Castiel’s shoulders and Castiel tensed, sucking a breath through his teeth like the touch had hurt him. “Is it still sore?” Dean asked.

Castiel let his breath out and shook his head. “No,” he said. “A little sensitive, but it doesn’t hurt.”

Dean let his fingers move over the words, feeling them like brail along Castiel’s rain-cold shoulders. “You didn’t like it,” Dean murmured, not really even aware that he had spoken aloud until Castiel laughed. “I was there, you didn’t.”

“I was there too and I don’t think you fully get my meaning,” Castiel said.

Dean let his hand drop and stepped back, moving around the coffee table to pace away from him. There was a strange tingle to his fingertips like he’d put his hand on something electric and full of power. “Explain it to me then,” he said.

Castiel turned around and blinked at him. “Why?”

“Because I want to know what you’re really talking about when you say that you liked it when my brother raped you,” Dean said, almost snarling it at him.

Castiel flinched from him like Dean had reached out and smacked him. “I don’t know,” he said nervously. He sat back down on the couch and hung his head, staring down at his own hands clasped between his knees. “These… feelings and sensations are new to me. I don’t understand them. But I… I didn’t like that, no. You misunderstand and I don’t know how to explain.”

Feeling a little like a son of a bitch, Dean went back over to where he was sitting and crouched down on his heels, tilting his head to peer into Castiel’s face. “Try,” he said.

Castiel nodded. “I wanted him to stop,” he whispered. He swallowed and ran his tongue over his cracked lips, struggling to articulate himself. “I’ve never… I begged him to stop and I wanted to die and I’ve never wanted anything for myself. But… there was still this desire in my body for what he was doing to me. And… Does that make sense?”

He lifted his head, seeking some answer from Dean. He found Dean regarding him with horrified understanding and dropped his head again.

“The sex,” Dean said. “You liked the sex.”

“So it would seem,” Castiel said with a sigh.

“God, Cas, that is so fucked up,” Dean said.

Castiel snorted. “I know.”

“I didn’t mean… Shit, never mind. We could do this all night,” Dean said. “Let me get you something to eat. You look like you could use it. When was the last time you had a meal?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel said.

“Alright, well… I’ll make you some soup and uh, get you some clothes,” Dean said, standing. He paused in the doorway on his way to the kitchen and looked back at Castiel, who hadn’t moved. “Why did you come here?”

“Because you’re here,” Castiel said without looking up.

“Yeah, but Cas… everyone’s hunting me,” Dean said. “The angles want me because I won’t help them and because Sam would do anything and the demons want me because they think I make Sam weak, so everyone wants a piece of my ass. It’s not safe. So why here?”

Castiel shrugged and glanced up at him. “Because I can’t go home and I don’t have anywhere else to go,” he said.

“Shit,” Dean muttered. “God, this is fucked up,” he said again, walking out of the room to go get Castiel’s soup and change of clothes.

Dean lit the burner on the stove with a match and warmed some chicken noodle soup from a can, then went through his clothes for the smallest pair of jeans and tightest t-shirt he owned to loan Castiel until they could get him something of his own. When he took the food and clothes into the living room, Castiel was slumped down on the sofa with his eyes at a bleary half-mast. He sat up when Dean entered the room.

“Here,” Dean said, holding out the clothes.

Castiel looked at them and quirked a brow. “Thank you,” he said.

When he just sat there, Dean said, “Put them on. You’re sick already from the look of you, but you’re going to get pneumonia and die if you keep sitting around in those wet pants with no shirt on.”

“Alright,” Castiel said. He stood up and frowned down at his wet pants, looking confused.

“Oh for Christ’s sake,” Dean said. He set the bowl of soup he’d brought down on the table and took the clothes from him. “You’re like this baby that doesn’t even know how to get in out of the rain,” he muttered, shaking out the t-shirt. “Put your arms up.”

Castiel obeyed and Dean put the shirt over his arms and pulled it down. “I’m not in the rain,” Castiel pointed out.

“No, but you stood out on the doorstep for how long before I found your ass?” Dean said. He hooked his fingers in the front of Castiel’s pants and opened the button with a little jerk. “Now strip those off and put these on,” he said, giving the jeans to Castiel. “Come on, man. You can do it. You’re a big boy now.”

Watching Dean for signs of approval, Castiel unzipped his pants and started to take them off. Dean turned away and went over to the fireplace to stoke the fire, giving him a little privacy.

“I can’t believe you don’t even know how to dress yourself,” Dean muttered, putting another chunk of wood on the fire. “Except I can because I think you’ve been wearing that same shit for the last seven years. Are you decent?”

Dressed again and a little warmer because of it, Castiel sat back down on the sofa, then shifted to sit in a different spot because the cushion beneath him was wet where he’d been before. “I believe that would depend on whom you are asking,” he said. “But if you mean am I clothed, then yes.”

“Good,” Dean said, turning back. It was a shock to realize how much he associated Castiel’s personality with the ever present dust brown trench coat and the tie that was never knotted correctly, but it took him a moment to banish the weird, creeped-out feeling he got from seeing Castiel in his ripped jeans and faded t-shirt. “Wow, that’s… I don’t know what that is.”

“What what is?” Castiel asked, cocking his head.

“Never mind, there you are,” Dean said, recognition at that strange, yet completely Castiel mannerism, returning. “Here, eat your soup,” he said, pointing at the bowl.

Castiel sat forward to pick up the bowl and spoon and Dean sat down in a chair off to the side and watched him. “You have eaten before?” Dean asked.

Castiel stirred the spoon around and frowned. “I have, yes.”

When he still didn’t eat any of it, Dean huffed out an exasperated sigh and scooted forward on his seat, closer to Castiel, and took the spoon from him. “I thought you guys watched us up there,” he muttered, dipping the spoon into the broth.

“Some of us do,” Castiel said, watching him with interest.

“Yeah? Well you must not have been paying attention,” Dean said. He lifted the spoon toward Castiel and prodded his bottom lip lightly. “Open your mouth.”

“I have only ever eaten out of curiosity or--” Castiel broke off as Dean slipped the spoon into his mouth. He closed his lips and swallowed as Dean withdrew it.

“Now you have to eat, Cas,” Dean said patiently. “Or you die. It’s just one of them things. It’s not so bad, really, compared to other shit. I kind of like it.”

Castiel gave him a knowing look, thinking of all the sandwiches and burgers he’d seen Dean scarf down in the time he’d known him. “The taste of this is pleasant,” he allowed, eyeing the spoon again as Dean returned it to the soup and offered it again. “I believe I would like to try… feeding myself if you don’t mind.”

“Nope, I don’t,” Dean said, holding the spoon for him to take it himself. “Just don’t spill it.”

Castiel took the spoon from him awkwardly and tried it himself. Noodles slipped over the metal and most of the soup trickled back into the bowl. He licked the spoon and held it up to examine it. “This seems to be a rather superfluous tool for eating this… soup? Yes.”

“So don’t use it. Soup’s cool like that. You can drink it,” Dean said, sitting back to watch him.

Castiel put the spoon down and, watching Dean for signs of approval like he had when dressing himself, he lifted the bowl to his mouth and sipped. Dean grinned at him and he smiled back, which was something both startlingly pretty and highly unusual. Dean could probably count on one hand the number of times Castiel had smiled in all the years he’d known him. Which was sad, but also understandable given the circumstances under which they’d come to know one another. Dean knew he didn’t smile or laugh nearly as often as he once had either.

He watched Castiel drink his soup, relaxing more and more into the cushions of Bobby’s ratty sofa, until finally he sat there holding it in his lap, not eating any more. He was as exhausted as he was starved, that was obvious, and Dean watched his eyes closing and snapping back open as he fought it with a sick feeling of mingled amusement and pity. Unused to the physical requirements of the human body, Castiel had been neither eating or sleeping. Dean did a quick calculation of how long it had been since he’d seen Castiel last and he had a little better understanding of his current condition. Castiel needed to eat and he needed to sleep and Dean was torn between waking him so he could finish his food and just putting him to bed.

It was finally decided for him when Castiel’s eyelids fell closed and his head drooped toward his chest. Dean went over to him and started to help him up, but Castiel came awake and in his confusion, jerked and fell back on the couch again. His hand was fisted in the front of Dean’s shirt and when he sat back down, he pulled Dean with him.

Dean put out a hand to catch himself on the back of the sofa, but he was still eye to eye with Castiel when he looked up and Castiel looked scared. “Hey,” Dean said, reaching up to put his hand over Castiel’s fingers clutching his shirt. He didn’t make him let go, but Castiel’s hand gradually began to relax at the touch. “Hey, it’s okay, man, alright? Come on, I gotta put you to bed. This couch looks comfortable, but trust me, I know. You’ll have one mother of a crick in your neck come morning.”

Castiel licked his lips and swallowed, his eyes darting over Dean’s shoulder like he expected something to be standing there behind him. The way his gaze slid so naturally, Dean almost expected something to be standing there himself and tensed with the unease of the feeling.

“Cas, come on, let’s--” Dean started again, trying to ease back from him and stand up.

Castiel tightened his grip again and pulled himself up, closer to Dean where he could whisper into his ear and watch the room behind his back. “You must help me,” he said softly.

His breath on the side of Dean’s neck and in his ear made Dean twitch and jerk his head to the side. “Dude, I am trying to help you, but you’re kinda choking me,” he said.

He gently took Castiel’s hand away from the collar of his shirt and this time Castiel let him. “I need you to,” Castiel murmured, shifting his eyes away from the shadows and nothing back to Dean’s face. “It’s wrong,” he said. “I need you to fix it.”

“Man, I’m hiding out in Bobby’s panic room ninety percent of the damn time. Half of this shit going down right now? My fault,” Dean said. “I’m not exactly Mr. Fixit.”

Castiel gave him a puzzled look and frowned. “I do not understand you sometimes,” he said.

Dean snorted out an amused laugh and hooked an arm around Castiel’s waist to haul him to his feet. “That makes two of us,” he said. “Come on, this way.”

~~*~~

They were only asleep three hours when something woke Dean. It was a sound in the dark, settling old house that didn’t belong and couldn’t be attributed to branches scraping on the windows or the wind lowing in the eaves. Dean lay there still and quiet, tracking the sound as it moved closer and trying to distinguish what it might be. Bobby had dogs, but they were penned up out back or walking the fence line. Bobby himself wouldn’t be back to the house until at least noon the next day.

“Cas?” Dean whispered, coming to this conclusion by process of elimination.

There was no reply and Dean, following instinct bred from a lifetime of training, rolled over to snatch the small flashlight and gun off the nightstand and sat up. The flashlight caught Castiel directly in the eyes and the angel put his hands up to cover his face, jerking back from where he’d been starting to kneel beside Dean’s bed.

Dean cursed and immediately pointed the gun toward the ceiling. “Jesus fucking Christ, I could have goddamn shot your ass!”

Castiel made a distressed sound and moved back to where he’d been before the flashlight had blinded him.

Dean sighed and twisted around to put the gun back down. The flashlight, he skimmed over the bed to cast light on Castiel, who was watching him expectantly. “What?” Dean asked. “Are you alright?”

“I… don’t know,” Castiel said. His eyebrows scrunched up at that and Dean smiled briefly, thinking it was almost cute. “It’s strange,” Castiel whispered. “The things in my head that I don’t know. I don’t understand them. Sometimes I think they are not mine at all. But then sometimes, I know they are.”

“You were dreaming,” Dean guessed. “Come on up here, you’re gonna catch cold over there like that.” He patted the bed for Castiel to get up on it beside him.

Castiel climbed up on the bed, making it bounce lightly as he got comfortable, then pulled his knees up. He rested his cheek on them with his head turned to watch Dean. “I must have your help,” he said softly.

“Yeah, so you keep saying,” Dean said. “And for real, I gave you the shirt off my back and you’re sitting in my bed in the middle of the night, so I think I’m doing okay so far.”

“Thank you,” Castiel said.

“No problem,” Dean said. He reached over on the nightstand near where his gun lay and got a cigarette and his lighter. Lighting it, he sat back against the headboard.

“But this is not what I meant,” Castiel said.

“Uh huh, I figured,” Dean said. He exhaled smoke in a ring toward the devils’ trap fan in the ceiling, then blew through it. “But you’re not really being all that clear, so whatever it is, I don’t know what you expect me to do about it.”

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Castiel whispered. “I keep thinking that, but it’s a feeling too. That this… It’s not supposed to be this way.”

Dean glanced at him and frowned, then sighed and reached over to put out his unfinished cigarette in the ashtray. All of it lined up there neat and tidy; gun, cigarettes, lighter, ashtray, bottle of Jack Daniels with a splash of holy water and a silver bullet rolling around on the bottom. All a damned and hunted man like Dean Winchester could want in the thick of the Apocalypse.

“It’s not supposed to be like this,” Castiel repeated again, speaking more to himself this time.

“Everyone living south of Heaven thinks that, but you know what?” Dean said.

Castiel looked at him inquiringly and shook his head.

“I think this is exactly how it’s supposed to be,” Dean said. “’We all float down here,’ you know?”

“No,” Castiel said. He trailed his fingers out over the covers, watching as they creased the blankets. When his fingers brushed Dean’s thigh, Dean tensed automatically at the touch, but Castiel didn’t seem to notice as he ran his hand in the same growing arc motion right over his knee. “No, this is not the way it’s supposed to be and I need you to help me fix it,” he murmured.

And Dean finally got what he was talking about. He was a little slow on the uptake sometimes, but he wasn’t a fucking moron and even when it was an angel of the Lord feeling him up, it came down to the same thing in the end. Still, confusion was his first reaction. “What?” Dean said. He followed the tracing trail of Castiel’s hand along the outer seam of his sweats with his eyes and it still didn’t quite fall into place. Except it did, he just couldn’t believe it. “What? Wait, no,” he said, finally making himself move to push Castiel’s hands away.

Castiel’s frown deepened, but so did his look of intense concentration. He was trying very hard to figure things out and the poor thing didn’t have a road map or a light to see by.

“Fuck,” Dean muttered, running a hand over the back of his neck. “No,” he said again, with more conviction this time. “No, Cas. I’m not gonna do that to you.”

Castiel cocked his head to the side and peered at him. “I can’t read you anymore, either,” he murmured. “This is so… bizarre, the way you are.”

“Dude… what?” Dean said. “Did you even hear what I said?”

“Yes,” Castiel said.

“Okay then,” Dean said. “Just so we’re clear. I’m not doing that to you, I swear to God.”

“You shouldn’t,” Castiel said. “Don’t you understand, Dean? I want you to.”

“Well I’m not going to,” Dean shot back, not even thinking about it. “Fuck, Cas, after what Sam… After what he did to you, you want me to fuck you? That is just… Okay, besides being the most screwed up thing ever, that’s just not the way to deal with something like this.”

“I am not trying to deal with it,” Castiel said. “I am trying to make it better. I don’t want… The only way I know this thing is by force, despite my rejection, and I still… But I want to know it differently. I sense there is more to this and I want to know it.”

“Yeah, like in a totally biblical sense,” Dean muttered.

“Dean, this is not a joke to me,” Castiel said.

“That’s because you’re not me right now,” Dean said.

Castiel sighed and turned his head away from him. “I’m sorry I asked you then,” he said tiredly.

Dean watched him, taking in his thinly wasted form under the folds of material that was his old shirt, the way Castiel seemed to be slumped and sagging. Castiel’s face was turned away, cast into shadow by the faint moonlight coming into the room from the fan overhead, and Castiel wasn’t unattractive even now. He’d never been unattractive, but he’d always been mostly asexual in Dean’s mind. Now he was trying to push that aside and it was taking a little work and making him feel like an asshole in the process.

“Goddamn it, Cas,” Dean said, dragging both hands through his hair to the back of his neck, where he held on. He looked at Castiel, who turned his head, then just shrugged. “I’m sorry, okay? It’s not really funny to me, either. It’s just… It’s…”

“It’s what you do when you don’t know what to do,” Castiel whispered. “I know.”

And he did know, that too was part of it. Castiel knew. He knew Dean and he knew all the things about Dean, bad and good, that had brought them to this bizarre point in time. Dean wasn’t even going to lie to himself about that, but it made him really fucking uncomfortable. The last person to know him anywhere close to as well as Castiel knew him was out there right now somewhere, out there in the world ripping down the fabric of time, betraying God into the hands of monsters and demons, breaking seals and taking down names. The last person to know Dean and want him the way Castiel did was Sam.

He’d given himself to Sam, belonged to Sam. In every way he’d belonged to him and not because Sam held him on a leash, but because Dean loved him so fiercely. But then Sam turned his face from God, though not just from God; from everything. He’d turned his back on his humanity and Dean still didn’t know why. The hell of it was, despite it all, he still loved him.

Now, sitting beside Castiel with the angel’s eyes on him like Dean was his world, he thought of that. He thought of Sam and what giving himself had come to in the end after all. Castiel was, despite his rape, innocent down to his heavenly core, but Sam had seemed innocent once, too. Sam had once been good. He’d been the best person that Dean had ever known.

“Don’t worry,” Castiel said, startling Dean by breaking the silence. He put out his hand and tentatively touched Dean’s arm. “Don’t worry,” he repeated when Dean didn‘t jerk away from him. “I don’t want your heart.”

Dean sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, rubbing his fingers out over his eyelids as he thought for sure this was going to give him a headache any second. He gently shrugged off Castiel’s hand.

“Dean--”

Dean made a tired huffing sound. “What?” he demanded.

“Did you hear what I said?” Castiel asked.

“Yeah, I heard you,” Dean said. He shifted down on the bed and lay on his back, then threw one arm over his eyes. “You don’t want my heart, whatever that means. But look, man, you can’t have my body right now because I’m fucking tired. So lay down and go to sleep.”

Castiel didn’t move for a few minutes, then he carefully shifted on the bed to lay down on his back beside Dean. “Thank you,” he said.

Dean lifted his arm a little to peer at Castiel around his elbow. “I haven’t agreed to anything,” he said.

Castiel’s lips curved very slightly in a little smile. “Good night, Dean.”

“Whatever,” Dean said, lowering his arm again. “Fucking angels.”

III.

“You put that down!”

Dean jerked awake and had to put out a hand on the nightstand to catch himself and not fall on the floor. Upstairs in the living room, something crashed and broke and Bobby started cussing and shouting about holy oil and flame-throwers.

“Bobby?!” he called.

“Do you know what that was you incompetent bag of feathers?” Bobby demanded. “Huh, do you?”

“I believe it was an idol of the Hindi religion,” came Castiel’s calm reply.

“It was four hundred years old and made from clay by--”

“You told me to put it down,” Castiel said. “I was merely trying to do as you asked.”

“I didn’t say let it go and drop it on the floor so it breaks into a million little ancient pieces, did I?” Bobby said, yelling the last part.

“Fuck me,” Dean muttered, rolling over to sit up on the side of the bed. “Bobby? What’s going on?!”

“Your little guardian angel boyfriend is in here breaking my shit!” Bobby called back. “Get your ass up here and collect him before he touches anything else!”

“I am not his… boyfriend,” Castiel said, stumbling over the strange word.

“I don’t really give a good goddamn what you are,” Bobby said. “A pain in my ass is what you’re being. I’m fixin’ to shoot your sorry ass just to make myself feel better. You better just go on.”

Dean groaned and rubbed his face with his hands, then got up and made his way up the stairs from the basement and into the living area. “I need coffee, please tell me you made some,” he said, heading right by them both toward the kitchen. He kept away from the broken crockery on his way by. “What the hell time is it? I thought you weren’t gonna be back ‘til noon.”

“Boy, it is past one o’clock in the afternoon,” Bobby said, frowning at his back. “Now tell me what in God’s name he is doing here. And what the fuck is he wearing?”

“I’m not here in God’s name,” Castiel said. He had picked up a book and opened it.

Bobby snatched it back from him and scowled.

“He’s wearing clothes,” Dean said, leaning back against the counter with a sigh as he took his first sip of really strong, bad coffee. “His tax collector outfit was soaked when he got in last night, so I made him change.”

“My coat has another hole in it,” Castiel told him. He sounded a little sad about it.

“Tell you truthfully, man, I don’t know how that coat isn’t in the big old yard sale in the sky already,” Dean said. “Weren’t you wearing that the first time I met you?”

“Yes,” Castiel said, frowning at him. “Why?”

“Well, I shot you in the chest with a sawed-off,” Dean said. He sipped his coffee and lifted a brow at Castiel. “Did you eat yet?”

“Why would I?” Castiel asked.

Dean sighed. “Because you’re not an angel anymore, dude, you’re a lowly mortal,” he said. “And us lowly mortal types have to eat. It’s something we do so we don’t die.”

“Oh,” Castiel said at the same time Bobby said, “What?” Bobby’s eyes were wide and he suddenly looked a little more pale than he had a few minutes ago. The angry flush in his cheeks was almost entirely gone and the look he sent Castiel was disbelieving and confused.

“Ah… Shit. That’s a long story,” Dean said.

“Then you better start talkin’,” Bobby said. “Now.”

Dean exchanged a look with Castiel, then shrugged and pointed for them to both sit at the table. “Fine, but I’m gonna fix something edible while I do it,” he said.

“I don’t care, just tell me what the hell you’re going on about,” Bobby said. He sat down though and he didn’t glare at Castiel when he took the chair across from him.

“I’m not completely sure, you’ll have to ask Cas for the specifics,” Dean said. Choosing quick preparation over hot and greasy, he got bowls out of the cupboard and poured cereal for himself and Castiel.

“I don’t need specifics right now, boy, I just need to know why our little magic man doesn’t have the spirit in him anymore,” Bobby said.

“He ah… Well, he fell,” Dean said. He poured milk over the cereal, set Castiel’s in front of him with a spoon in it, then sat down between him and Bobby with his own. “You remember I disappeared for a while about a month back?”

“Of course I remember,” Bobby snapped. “Looked all over hell and back for you and drove everyone crazy. Then you come drivin’ up that night in a stolen truck of all the dumb ass things and--”

“That’s when it happened,” Dean said.

“When what happened?” Bobby said. “You’re being cryptic and I gotta tell you, I don’t like it one damn bit, just tell me what’s going on here.”

Castiel poked at his cereal with the bowl of his spoon, then scooped some of it up and put it in his mouth. His eyes widened a little and he sent Dean a surprised look.

“Lucky Charms. It’s the food of the gods,” Dean said, grinning at him as he took a bite of his own.

“Dean,” Bobby said impatiently.

“I’m not trying to jerk you around Bobby, I’m just… Look, it was a bad situation. Real bad. It’s one of those things that, yanno, you just don’t talk about it,” Dean said.

“We were captured by Sam Winchester’s demons,” Castiel supplied. He ate some more of his cereal, his eyes downcast on his bowl, and spoke about it like it didn’t matter at all.

Which was utter and complete bullshit because Dean could see the way his fingers had tightened on his spoon until they were white and he was frowning in that way that made his eyebrows scrunch together.

“You were what” Bobby said, his eyes snapping to Castiel.

“We were captured by Sam Wi--”

“I heard you, dammit,” Bobby said. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me this before?” he asked Dean.

Dean shook his head a little. “I’m not really telling you now, but to be fair, you didn’t ask.”

Bobby pointed a finger at him sternly. “Don’t you do that,” he said. “You quit that smart-ass shit with me right now and tell me the truth. This ain’t no game, boy.”

Becoming annoyed himself, Dean put his spoon down in his bowl and scowled at the end of Bobby’s finger as he lowered it. “You think I don’t know that?” he said. “How many bodies--how many people--have I laid down since Sam…?” Dean took a deep breath, then let it out on a huff and seemed a calmer. He wasn’t, but he had it under control. “And you think I don’t know how serious this is?”

Bobby stared at him hard, then nodded. “Fine then,” he said.

He shifted his gaze to Castiel, who had his head down as he ate. Castiel felt him staring and rolled his eyes up to look at him. Bobby’s jaw clenched and he looked away.

“What happened?” Bobby said.

“Sam raped him,” Dean said flatly. Castiel glanced over at him uneasily, but he said nothing. “You want to go in the other room while I tell him this?” Dean asked him.

Castiel looked between Dean and Bobby, then shook his head and stirred his spoon around in the milk in his cereal bowl. “No,” he said.

“Okay then,” Dean said.

“Okay then?” Bobby repeated incredulously. “Sam raped him?”

“Yes,” Castiel said. “Although ‘rape’ might not be the correct word for it.”

What?” Dean said.

Castiel frowned and pushed his bowl aside as he stood. Pacing, he tilted his head back to stare up at the ceiling. “Rapere, meaning to seize or take by force--like robbery or theft. Originally viewed as a property crime against the man to whom the woman belonged.” Castiel dropped his gaze from the ceiling and locked eyes with Dean. “It just doesn’t feel like the right word for it.”

“Uh huh,” Dean said, rolling his tongue against the side of one of his teeth thoughtfully. “Well, since this is the twenty-first century, not ancient Rome, we’re going to call that fucked up shit he did to you rape. Because in modern times, rape isn’t like stealing, rape is like fucking you without your say-so.”

“Dean,” Bobby said, warning.

“I can’t believe you’re--what? Defending him?” Dean said.

Castiel wouldn’t look at him now, his eyes were fixed on a place on the floor between his bare feet.

“Or maybe just arguing the semantics of language, which is just so fucking st--”

Dean,” Bobby snapped.

Dean’s head jerked around and he glared at Bobby.

“Stop it,” Bobby said. “It’s not his fault.”

The way he said it, they both knew Bobby wasn’t just talking about Castiel’s taking issue with the use of the word ‘rape’. But Dean didn’t blame Castiel for that. He had been there and he’d seen what Sam had done, heard how Castiel begged him not to. He knew it wasn’t his fault that Sam had touched him. It had been rape, it was Sam’s fault, not Castiel’s.

But Bobby was right; irrational as it was, Dean was angry. He was angry about it and he wanted to hurt Castiel as much, if not more, than he wanted to help him. Why? Because it didn’t matter what he knew when what he felt was clawing at his insides with envy and betrayal. Because Sam had locked him up in a cage just like Castiel’s and he’d been so close. He’d touched him through the bars, but he wouldn’t touch him and Dean hated him so fucking much, but his flesh had ached with a deep hunger and yearning anyway because as much as he hated, he loved him still. A hundred times more and then some, he loved him.

That cage was the closest he’d been to Sam in years.

Disgusted with himself and ashamed, Dean cleared his throat and pushed back from the table to go to Castiel. The angel didn’t jerk away from him when Dean put his hand on his arm, but that wasn’t much reassurance since Dean wasn’t all that sure about what was wrong with Castiel now that he wasn’t an angel anymore. Plenty, was his guess. Some of his natural reactions were going to be off. Which basically just meant that he hadn’t learned how to be scared enough to flinch yet.

Dean felt like even more of a bastard at that thought and took his hand back. “I’m sorry,” he told Castiel.

Castiel looked at him through his lashes without raising his head and licked his lips. “I don’t understand what’s happening to me,” he whispered.

Puzzled, Dean cocked his head. “What do you mean?” he asked. “What is happening to you?”

Castiel shook his head and shot a look toward Bobby, his expression confused and almost pleading. “I feel… feel… pain,” he told them both. He rested the side of his fisted hand against his abdomen to show where, then raised his hand to his head to touch his temple. “It’s strange. It’s not… physical. It’s…”

“Shit,” Bobby said, getting it. “Give the kid a hanky before he starts to cry.”

What?” Dean said in surprise. He leaned down to look into Castiel’s averted face and blinked in mild shock when he saw his blue eyes tearing up. “Oh Jesus fucking Christ, you’ve got to be kidding me. Why are you crying? I did not make him cry,” Dean added, pointing at Bobby like Bobby was about to accuse him.

Bobby spread his hands apart in a little shrug and didn’t say anything.

He didn’t need to. Dean felt like a complete asshole without his input.

“My eyes are leaking,” Castiel said in wonder, wiping his hand under first one, then the other. “Is my body sick?”

Dean exchanged a look with Bobby, who made a shoo-ing motion at him toward Castiel. He got the message and put his hand back on Castiel’s arm. “Hey, man, I really didn’t mean to be… such a dick,” he said. “I’m just… this whole thing is fucking with me, too.”

“This whole…? Why do my eyes leak the more you keep talking?” Castiel said, a touch of alarm in his voice now.

Bobby cleared his throat and pushed away from the table. “I’m gonna just go out in the yard and leave you boys alone,” he said. “Dean can tell me about this whole mess later.”

Castiel nodded his head, but didn’t look up as Bobby left the room. Dean let his hand on Castiel’s arm slide up to the back of his neck, fingers working gently at the tense muscle. “Come on, don’t cry, alright?” Dean said.

Castiel just shook his head. “Is that what this is?” he asked.

“Yeah, I scared you I guess,” Dean said uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, okay?”

“Okay,” Castiel said. He brushed at his face with shaking fingers and Dean frowned.

“Do you need to lay down?” Dean asked him.

“I… I have no idea,” Castiel said. “What would that do?”

Dean blinked at him, then cocked his head to look into his face again. Castiel’s eyes were bloodshot and outlined with dark circles. “Did you sleep at all?”

Castiel shrugged. “I attempted it,” he said. “I… am not accustomed to it.”

Dean sighed and went over to one of the cupboards by the refrigerator. He dug around until he found what he was looking for, then shook out two pills and gave them to Castiel with a glass of water. “Take that,” he said. “You need to sleep. Accustomed or not accustomed, you’re gonna fall over if you don’t have a nap soon.”

“What is this?” Castiel asked.

“Well it’s not poison, so does it really matter?” Dean said. “It’s Vicodin, now put them in your mouth and swallow them with some water.”

“And this will make me sleep?” Castiel said.

“Yeah, it might also make you happy, give you hallucinations, and fuck with your sex-drive, now take it,” Dean said.

“Sex-drive?” Castiel said doubtfully.

“Dude, come on,” Dean said, losing his patience.

Castiel put the pills in his mouth and watched Dean for signs of approval while he swallowed them down with water. “I don’t feel any different,” he said immediately.

Dean rolled his eyes and took the water from Castiel to set the glass down by the sink. “Come on,” he said, taking Castiel’s hand and leading him back toward the basement stairs.

Castiel allowed himself to be led without protest down the stairs and back into the panic room where Dean lived. Dean sat down on the side of the bed and toed his shoes off, then gently tugged Castiel’s hand to get him to follow him up onto the bed. Castiel crawled over him and lay down in the same spot where he had laid all night, watching Dean as Dean stared up at the ceiling and tried to pretend he didn’t notice.

“Are you also in need of sleep?” Castiel asked him.

“I just woke up,” Dean said.

“Then what are we doing here?” Castiel said.

“I’m laying with you until you sleep,” Dean said. “It’s what parents do with their kids. It makes them relax.”

“You are not a parent,” Castiel pointed out.

“I did it for Sam,” Dean said. His jaw tightened as he gritted his teeth at the memory. Sam, smelling like freshly washed little boy skin and toothpaste, crawling up in bed with Dean and pestering him for a story. “When Sam was little, I would tell him stories,” he said softly. “I never got to finish one. He was always asleep by the time it got really good.”

Castiel was quiet for a long time and Dean turned his head to look at him, seeing if he had drifted off. He met Castiel’s eyes, which were a little glazed and more distant than usual, but aware. “I am sorry,” Castiel said.

That could mean a hundred different things, but Dean didn’t know which. “For what?”

“You loved… love him very much,” Castiel said.

Which didn’t explain anything, except that it did, in a strange way. “Yeah, I do,” Dean said.

“It’s doomed,” Castiel said, his voice dropping to a sleepy whisper.

Dean looked and found Castiel’s eyes closed, his breathing heavier and more even. “Don’t I know it,” he said, dropping his voice to a soft whisper. He brushed at a strand of Castiel’s hair that was caught in the corner of his mouth, then cautiously got up from the bed.

Castiel made a soft murmuring sound in his sleep and shifted toward the warm place where Dean had been laying.

Dean stood there for a few minutes, looking from Castiel to the door and back. He raked a hand through his hair, making it stand up all over, then grabbed the bottle of whiskey from his nightstand and went back up the stairs. He had to find Bobby and fill him in. He didn’t want to talk about it, but Bobby and the people they protected would need to know. Not everything, but enough. They would have to know that with Castiel fallen, they were all a little less safe in the world.

~~*~~

Three nights later, Castiel woke Dean and Bobby both up screaming from a nightmare.

Dean had given Castiel two more Vicodin before they laid down because the angel still couldn’t fall asleep on his own, so when Castiel woke from a dead sleep, his voice blasting against the walls of the room in wordless, terrified cries, Dean was so surprised that he nearly fell in his panicked haste to get away from the sound. He grabbed the edge of the nightstand as he was half-crawling, half-leaping to the floor to scramble to the other side of the room, but it didn’t do much to break his fall. He hit the concrete floor on one shoulder and grabbed a gun from the floor under the bed as he rolled to put his back to the wall. There was a vibrating ache in his arm, bone deep from his elbow to his shoulder, and he was already cursing with understanding as his gaze settled on Castiel in the bed.

“What the hell is goin’ on down there?!” Bobby shouted down into the basement. “Better be something damn serious because I was having a nice dream and I don’t care if he was an angel, ain’t nobody that much of a screamer!”

In the bed, huddled in on himself with his face tucked in against the back of his knees, Castiel started to rock. He wasn’t screaming anymore, but that wasn’t much of an improvement.

Dean muttered a string of curses under his breath and got up, favoring the arm he’d fallen on. He dropped the gun he’d grabbed from the floor onto his nightstand. There were a few bullets lined up on it with a new bottle of whiskey and when he dropped the gun, they fell over and rolled off the edge.

Castiel jerked at the sound of the gun hitting the wood table, then twitched as each bullet pinged on the floor. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, the words muffled against the back of his legs.

“Dean!” Bobby shouted down the stairs.

“It’s alright, Bobby!” Dean called back. Castiel flinched at his raised voice and Dean sighed. “He just had a bad dream!”

“Christ almighty,” Bobby grumbled.

Dean listened to the sound of the floorboards overhead creaking as Bobby went back to bed and cautiously crawled back into his own bed beside Castiel.

Castiel watched him from the corners of his eyes, his face still hidden, but he didn’t flinch away from Dean when he put out his hand and ran it soothingly down his back. “I’m sorry,” he said again. “I don’t understand any of this. I see things in my eyes when I sleep. This time…”

“They’re called dreams, I told you,” Dean said. He shifted closer to Castiel until he was sitting with his back to the headboard beside him, his thigh warm and reassuring against Castiel’s side. “They’re nothing. The discharge of your unconscious mind.”

“The… I don’t understand,” Castiel said. “I take the pills. They make me sleep. I like that. It’s peaceful. But this is… upsetting.”

“Well, no shit,” Dean said dryly. He lightly jostled Castiel’s leg with his own to show him that he was teasing. “You want to talk about it?”

“Why?” Castiel asked, finally lifting his head a little.

Dean shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said. “Sometimes it isn’t as scary when you tell someone about it.”

“Is this something else you used to do for Sam?” Castiel asked him.

Dean frowned and reached over on the nightstand for his bottle. He twisted off the cap and flicked it onto the table, then nodded before he took a long drink. “He didn’t wake up screaming the roof down most of the time, but sure,” Dean said.

“I don’t hate him,” Castiel said softly.

“What?” Dean said.

“Sam,” Castiel explained. “I’ve never hated him. Even…” He trailed off and rubbed at the side of his neck, his eyes darting away from Dean to watch the lines of the overhead fan go by in the shadows. “I never hated him,” he repeated. “I never wanted him dead. Stopped, but not… But I don’t… I don’t know what to do now. I feel… I feel lost. Wandering and alone, even when I sit very still and silent. Something has been taken from me… a deep hole where the wind blows cold and long is right here.” He put his hand on his sternum, fingers spread to show the dimensions of this hole, which was all of him.

“I’m sorry, man,” Dean said, feeling completely useless even as he spoke. He had never been raped before and hardly ever been badly hurt in a situation where he was helpless. He didn’t know what else to say, though. “It doesn’t fix things, but I am. If… No ones’ first time should be like that.”

“That’s not what was taken,” Castiel said wretchedly. “That’s not where the wind blows. He took me away from God. He… I have never seen the face of God myself, but always I had this warmth running through me like light and I knew. I knew He was there because that warm light held me and that was all I needed. I wanted nothing, I craved nothing, coveted nothing, desired nothing, was afraid of nothing. I could talk to God and I knew He heard me. There was a soft tug of comfort and love right here where this hole is now every time I prayed. Now it’s gone.”

Dean had no idea what to say to that either. He had never been a faithful man. Righteous, perhaps, but not religious. Even knowing there was a God out there, he had not prayed. Not since he was a child. But then maybe with humans, that was the difference between having faith and knowing.

“I’m alone now,” Castiel whispered, drawing Dean’s attention sharply to him. “That tie is gone. This place… This body is strange.”

Dean turned his head and leaned over, stretching out his neck to brush his mouth lightly along the curve of Castiel’s jaw. “It’s strange, sure,” he said. “You’re not alone, though, alright? I don’t have any warm magic fingers to slip into your chest and wiggle around to make you feel better, but there’s that. I’m not throwing you out and you know that.”

Castiel leaned into the light brush of Dean’s mouth, then turned his head to look him in the eyes, catching the last part of the kiss against his lips. “I feel soulless,” he whispered.

Dean smiled a little and put his hand up to cup Castiel’s cheek and pull him in. “How would you know?” he murmured, darting his tongue out to lick Castiel’s bottom lip. “Maybe that’s what it feels like to have one.”

Castiel tried to mimic him, licking out over Dean’s mouth, catching his tongue with it, licking over it, as he started to pull back. “Then maybe I don’t want it,” Castiel said.

“Maybe you don’t have a choice anymore,” Dean said. He dropped his hand to Castiel’s waist and pulled with his fingers to get him to turn. “Come here,” Dean said, speaking against Castiel’s mouth as he nipped and licked his way into a tentative kiss.

Castiel shifted against him, turning into the urging pull of Dean’s hand, and opened his mouth to Dean’s kiss in defense against his lightly scraping, biting teeth. “What are you doing?” Castiel said, gasping as he jerked a little away and put his hand on Dean’s chest to push him back.

Dean lifted his eyebrows at him and appeared to think about it. “I was trying to kiss you, but you keep trying to lick me, so it’s not going all that great,” he said bluntly.

Castiel scooted a little back from him and wrapped his arms around himself. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t know.”

Dean tried not to let his frustration with him show and reached for him again. “Now you know,” he said. “So come here and let me teach you how to kiss.”

Castiel looked at him like Dean was speaking a language he didn’t understand, but he carefully moved back toward him and let Dean lay his hand back on his hip. “Does this mean--?”

“Shh,” Dean hissed. He pressed his mouth to Castiel’s and smiled faintly when Castiel gasped and leaned in toward him more. “It doesn’t mean anything,” he murmured, just pressing his lips to Castiel’s, letting him get used to it. “But kissing is essential.”

“To… what?” Castiel asked, trying not to lose track of what Dean was saying even as the unfamiliar yearning sensation in the pit of his stomach had him swaying closer to him for more.

“Kissing is essential to that thing I haven’t said yes to yet,” Dean said. He let his thumb sweep lightly over the corner of Castiel’s mouth, then pressed his tongue there as he kissed him. “Open your mouth,” he said. “Not a lot. Just so I can…”

Castiel’s lips parted and he was breathing a little hard, his pulse beating like the wings of trapped insects under his skin right against Dean’s fingers as he slid his hand over Castiel’s jaw, into his hair. Dean made soft, throaty sounds to comfort him as he slipped his tongue into Castiel’s mouth and ran it over his teeth. He touched his tongue to Castiel’s lightly, then drew it back and did it again until Castiel tried to follow, pressing his own tongue to Dean’s. Dean smiled, pleased, and shifted closer to him, deepening the kiss a little to suck at Castiel’s bottom lip and the tip of his tongue.

Castiel suddenly grabbed Dean’s arms, his fingers digging a little into Dean’s biceps as he pressed toward him, drawn to the pulsing sense of want the kisses caused him. Dean let his hand slide back down Castiel’s neck, trying to pet him into calmness again, and felt his heartbeat jack-hammering under his palm. Castiel made a confused, almost distressed sound in his mouth and it was too much.

Dean broke the kiss and turned his head aside, panting as he brought the back of his hand up to his mouth. Castiel shrank back against the headboard of the bed, staring at him with wide, uncertain eyes as he gasped for breath.

“Hey,” Dean said, putting out a hand on Castiel’s knee.

Castiel tensed, but he didn’t jerk away and that was something at least. “I don’t understand anything,” Castiel told him, almost hissing it. “Once I knew so many things. I still do, but they don’t matter anymore. I don’t understand this.”

“Hey now, I’m sorry, Cas,” Dean said. “I didn’t want to scare you. I wasn’t… I’m not like that. I said I wouldn’t do that shit to you, right?”

Castiel blinked at him and frowned. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he muttered, lifting one hand to rub his temple.

“I’m saying I’m not going to do what… I would never force you, you know that, huh?” Dean said.

“Since it was my idea and I spent many minutes arguing my case only for you to not give me a definitive answer, I would think it uncommonly strange for you to try, yes,” Castiel said.

They stared at each other in silence for a long while, then Castiel shifted and looked away from him to the floor, watching the shadows creep. “I believe we’ve misunderstood one another again,” he said.

Dean let out a shaky laugh and some of the tension eased out of him. “Yeah, I’d say so,” he said. He tilted his head back and tipped his bottle up to drink again, then held it out to Castiel.

Castiel put his hand on the bottle and their fingers touched. Dean didn’t remove his hand right away, discovering that he actually liked it. It was an odd thing to realize because he had not expected to like touching Castiel that way. He hadn’t expected to like kissing him as much as he had either, come to that. More strangely still, he felt a little guilty about it, maybe like he was cheating. Which was just ridiculous as hell.

He nudged Castiel’s thigh with the bottle and Castiel finally took it. “Take a drink,” Dean said. “Just a little one,” he cautioned when Castiel started to lift it. He didn’t need Castiel drinking a whole lot of booze right on top of a narcotic like Vicodin. He’d be revisiting Heaven a lot sooner than expected if that were to happen and this time, they’d make him go through the back door.

Castiel made a face at the burning slide of the liquor in his throat and on his tongue, but he lifted the bottle to drink a second time. Dean stopped him and took the bottle back. He took a drink of his own, then recapped it and reached over on the nightstand to put it away. Watching Castiel, he lay back down on his side, then reached out and lightly plucked at the shirt Castiel was wearing, telling him to lay down too.

“I feel very warm,” Castiel whispered to him.

Dean smiled and let his hand stroke lightly down Castiel’s side, tracing his figure over his clothes. “It’s the alcohol,” he said. “And the drugs. Not a great mix, but it’s just one drink, you’ll be okay.”

“Okay,” Castiel said. He put out his own hand and touched the tips of his fingers to Dean’s mouth, feeling the way his breath was cool as he breathed in and warm when he breathed out. “My chest feels… small,” he said. “There’s a vibration…”

“Does it hurt?” Dean asked.

“It is alarming more than anything,” Castiel said.

“It’s only your heartbeat. Don’t be afraid. It just means you’re alive,” Dean said.

Castiel smiled sleepily and his eyes fell closed. “That is not very comforting,” he said.

Dean smiled back and shrugged a little. He took Castiel’s hand away from his face and put it on his waist. Castiel’s fingers tightened there on the fabric of his t-shirt and held on. “Go to sleep,” Dean said.

“I still want you to help me,” Castiel said, his eyes opening reluctantly so he could stare into Dean’s face. “I don’t know why, but it’s important. I feel… I need to know.”

“Know what?” Dean asked.

“The difference,” Castiel said simply.

“And then what?” Dean said.

Castiel’s eyebrows drew together and he shook his head very slightly. “Then… nothing. Then I will know.”

“It won’t make sense,” Dean said. “There’s a difference between sex and rape. You’re not going to understand rape by having sex.”

“I’m not trying to understand rape,” Castiel said, closing his eyes again. “I’m trying to understand sex. I knew we were misunderstanding each other.”

Dean chuffed out a soft laugh and slipped his hand under Castiel’s shirt to run his fingers up his side over his warm skin. “We’ll figure it out later,” he said.

“You will help me, then,” Castiel said, sounding relieved.

“I’m considering it,” Dean said. “Go back to sleep.”

“I’m sorry I woke you up,” Castiel said, snuggling into the covers close to Dean.

“Don’t worry about it,” Dean said. “Just try to think happy thoughts this time, alright?”

“Okay,” Castiel said.

“Like Lucky Charms,” Dean said, trying to think of something that might be a happy thought to Castiel right now.

Even close to sleep, that made Castiel smile. “Good night, Dean.”

IV.

Dean woke up to the smell of marijuana and thought for sure that he was still sleeping. He fought with wakefulness for a few minutes by shoving his face into his pillow, but it was too late. Like it or not, he was awake and he had to get up. He rolled over, expecting to find a warm, sleeping body beside him, and hissed through his teeth as his skin slid over the cold sheets.

It was strange how quickly a person could get accustomed to not being alone and how fast he had come to expect Castiel there in the bed beside him. It made him uncomfortable in a way he couldn’t quite explain. He didn’t like it and that was the truth… except he did and that was also the truth.

Grumbling to himself, Dean sat up on the side of the bed and shook his head, making his hair frizz out before he dragged his hands through it. He needed coffee immediately and something to wash the taste of pot smoke out of his mouth in the meantime. He grabbed the bottle off his nightstand and half staggered sleepily out of the room and up the stairs. If it was a hallucination, a shot and some strong coffee would make it go away, if it wasn’t, well then he was going to find the source of the stuff and kill it because it was giving him a headache.

He spotted Bobby first when he got to the top of the stairs, then followed Bobby’s irritated glare to the source of the marijuana. There on the floor with the braided rug between them sat Chuck and Castiel. As Dean watched, Chuck put a hand-rolled cigarette to his lips, inhaled deeply, and held it in while he passed it to Castiel.

Dean blinked and shook his head, not sure that he wasn’t hallucinating. Then he quickly decided that death might be too harsh, but they were both going to get strongly berated. After coffee.

“Are you seeing this shit?” Dean muttered to Bobby, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at Chuck and Castiel as he made his way by the table to the coffee maker. “He’s human less than a week and already he’s trying to get in my pants and conning Chuck out of his weed.”

“Sounds like he’s gonna fit in just fine,” Bobby said, lifting his chipped coffee cup to drink. “But he ain’t conning that boy out of a thing. Showed up here about an hour ago and Angel Face there was crying in his Lucky Charms.”

“He was doing that again, huh?” Dean said. He poured himself a cup of coffee, smiling as he stirred sugar into the stuff which was black as tar.

“Started babbling about God after that and I kinda lost track,” Bobby said.

“Or interest,” Dean said, smirking as he drank from his cup. Bobby’s coffee was strong like acid, it tasted horrible, but the straight up shot of caffeine was incredible.

“Track and interest then,” Bobby amended. “Don’t much matter. I ain’t the guy with a hash jungle growing out back my house. Chuck there don’t seem to know much about what he’s saying either, but he gave him that joint and he calmed right down. Even giggled a bit. That about scared the shit out of me, but it passed. Now he’s talking about God again.”

“He is?” Dean said, glancing toward where Chuck and Castiel were leaning toward each other conspiratorially, talking and taking turns with the joint.

“Appears the prophet’s got some opinions of his own on the matter,” Bobby said. “They’ve been waxing goddamn philosophical about it for the last few minutes now.”

“Huh,” Dean said. He shook his head and finished his coffee, then poured another one and went to get the Lucky Charms from the cupboard. “At least he stopped crying.”

“He’ll get back to it,” Bobby said.

“Aren’t you just a ray of golden sunshine,” Dean said. He carried his coffee and his bowl over to the table and sat down across from Bobby.

“Damn right I am,” Bobby said. “Shut up and eat your cereal or I’ll take away your fucking birthday.”

Dean snorted and dipped his spoon into his Lucky Charms as he turned his attention back to Chuck and Castiel. As he watched, Castiel laughed and swayed back from Chuck, grinning at him. Dean stared.

“That is fucking weird,” he said, chewing.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Bobby said. “Yeah, it’s weird. In case you haven’t noticed, this is the Apocalypse; weird’s kinda the new black.”

Bobby got up to get himself another cup of coffee, then just leaned against the counter and watched them all. On the floor, Chuck was trying to fashion a roach clip out of a paperclip he’d taken from one of Bobby’s books and not having much success.

“You gonna do it?” Bobby asked abruptly.

Dean tensed and slowly turned his head to look up at Bobby. He thought about trying to play dumb, but only entertained that idea, tempting as it was, for about a minute. “Probably,” he said, watching Bobby.

Bobby just nodded and brought his coffee cup up to drink, his gaze sliding past Dean to Chuck and Castiel. “I don’t know what fucked up reasons he’s giving you about that, but I know you enough, boy,” he said. “Whatever they are, that ain’t why. Not for you.”

“No,” Dean said. “I think fucking him to help him understand things is a really bad idea. That’s like molesting kids to teach them about the birds and bees.”

“Kinda,” Bobby agreed. “That’s my point. Well, part of it. He’s different and you gotta be careful about it if you do this, you know that.”

“Of course I know that,” Dean said. “I’m not going to do anything… I’m not. Look, if I thought it was going to mess him up worse, I wouldn’t even touch him. But so far… It’s helping him. A little bit, but it is, Bobby.”

“He just don’t want to be alone,” Bobby said. “He’s going to be feeling real lonely right now. Add to that, he ain’t human. I don’t care what his blood is now or how trapped in that meat suit he is, he’s not. I’m not around him a whole lot, but I see it. He’s like a little kid.”

“He is not like a little kid,” Dean said. He pointed his spoon at Bobby. “And if this is you trying to warn me off, I really don’t--”

“Shut your trap for a damn minute and listen,” Bobby said calmly. “I’m not talking about angel boy’s mentality. I’m talking about his mental state. His emotions. He’s new to them. He feels sad or happy or lonely or whatever other thing, he don’t know what it is. He’s like a kid that way. You ever had a little kid get good and pissed off at you?”

“Um…” Dean thought about it and he was sure he had, but he couldn’t think of a specific incident. “Sure.”

“No one loves more deeply or hates more completely than a little kid,” Bobby said. “They get good and pissed off at you, the only reason they don’t kill your ass is they’re too weak to pick up a big enough gun and too short to stab you in the eye. They’re the same way about love. They love obsessively. That’s what I’m talking about with your angel. You be careful, that’s all. He don’t know how to be human, and he’ll regret it later and probably cry like hell, but if you do this thing and you hurt him or do him wrong, there is going to be one godawful shitstorm to take care of.”

“I’m not going to do that, Bobby,” Dean said quietly. He felt bad already and he hadn’t even done anything yet. It really wasn’t fair.

“Yeah? You over Sam then, just like that?” Bobby said.

Dean swallowed and put his spoon down in his bowl, his appetite gone. “Don’t worry about me, Bobby. Or him,” Dean said.

“I ain’t worried about you,” Bobby said. “I’m worried about me. Fucking Apocalypse is already driving me crazy and now damn near everyone’s dead, where am I gonna find me a nice padded room?”

“There’s one downstairs, but it’s taken,” Dean said. He pushed back from the table and took his bowl and cup to the sink. “Not much of a view, but it’s cozy.”

Bobby rolled his eyes and pushed away from the counter. “You just be careful, that’s all I’m saying,” he said, and clapped Dean on the shoulder.

“Sure, Bobby,” Dean said, running water into his dishes.

“Oh,” Bobby said, pausing on his way out through the back of the house. “You going into town today, pick up some things. We’re running low on salt, yeast, sugar, that candy crap you call breakfast, and pain pills of all the damn things.”

“I wanted to get Cas some clothes so he can stop waddling around in mine,” Dean said. “I can’t get all that today. I’ll go again, though, alright?”

“Sure, just make sure you get the yeast,” Bobby said. “Chuck says we’re getting low on bread.”

“You sure he’s not making his own wine in the shed out back?” Dean said.

“Nah,” Bobby said. “Wrong season. Besides,” he said, heading down the hall toward the back door, “he started that last summer. Stuff’s been brewing all year.”

“Really?” Dean said, intrigued. “Cool.”

“Don’t get too excited. Can’t drink it for another three years,” Bobby said. He laughed as the screen door slammed against the frame behind him.

Dean got his bottle of whiskey off the counter by the coffee maker and wandered into the living room, drinking from it and scratching his side. Out of the corner of his eyes he saw Chuck pulling the collar of his t-shirt out from his chest so he could exhale smoke down his shirtfront. He paused, lowered the bottle, and cocked his head, looking down at him.

“Dude, what did you just do?” he demanded after a minute.

Castiel looked up at him with bleary eyes and smiled and Chuck tilted his head back, almost losing his balance, and peered up at Dean. “Huh?”

Dean gestured at him, trying to illustrate his point, then sat down on a stool by the sofa near them, holding his bottle loosely in his hand as he looked between them. “You’re a bad influence, I can see it already,” he mumbled and scrubbed at his face. “Why are you blowing down your shirt?”

Chuck grinned at him and shrugged. “I’m sharing.”

“You’re… um. Okay,” Dean said.

“There’s an animal in his shirt,” Castiel informed him.

Dean raised a brow at that. “You sure it’s not in his pants?”

“No, I am positive I saw it in his shirt,” Castiel said.

“Lame joke,” Dean said, lips quirking. “Forget it.”

“Becky’s momma cat had a litter last month,” Chuck said, feeling under his shirt. He made a little ah-ha sound when he found what he was looking for, then pulled a black and white spotted kitten out of his shirt and held it up by the back of its neck to show Dean. “This is Brutus.”

Great,” Dean said and rolled his eyes. “We’re going to have retarded cats now.”

“He’s not retarded,” Chuck said, looking offended. He put the kitten in his lap and petted it as though reassuring it that it was not retarded and Dean was just being a meany. “He’s cool. He likes to sleep in my shoe and he chases his tail like a puppy.”

“Because he’s retarded,” Dean said, smirking as he took a drink of his whiskey. “Good thing you guys decided against kids.”

“Hey,” Chuck said, tensing up and looking hurt.

“Sorry,” Dean said with a grimace. He shook his head and stood up to leave. “That was--”

“A low blow, man,” Chuck said as he also stood. He looked Dean right in the eyes and though Chuck had always been a pretty mellow and easy-going guy, Dean was the first one to look away. Sometimes Chuck was just like some regular dude, then he’d look at Dean like that and Dean would be forcefully reminded that Chuck was anything but ordinary.

“Sorry,” Dean said again. “I didn’t mean it like that.”

“I know that, man, and that’s why I’m not kicking your ass right now,” Chuck said, and it was a joke because no way could Chuck kick Dean’s or almost anyone else’s ass. But it meant they were okay, even if it wasn’t that funny.

Relieved, Dean gave him a faint smile and started to leave them alone again. He needed to get his shit together and head out or he wasn’t going to be able to go into town today. He made it to the doorway before Chuck put his hand on Dean’s arm and he stopped.

“You need to talk, huh?” Chuck said.

Dean didn’t turn around, but he shook his head no. He supposed it was a pretty foregone conclusion that Chuck would know why Castiel was there and what had happened to them both. Still, sometimes he liked it when Chuck let him pretend he still had some secrets. “Nothing to talk about,” he said.

Chuck took his hand away and stepped back. “Maybe don’t talk to me about it then, but this is some pretty heavy shit. You should talk to somebody, Dean,” Chuck said. “So should Cas.”

“Yeah,” Dean said, because he could totally get behind the fact that Castiel might benefit from a little therapy, even the crackerjack kind that was all the world as it stood now had to offer. “He seems a little better though,” he said, shifting his gaze to Castiel, who was wiggling his fingers in Brutus’s face. As he watched, the kitten swiped at his hand and promptly fell over.

Chuck turned his head to look over his shoulder at Castiel, then shrugged as he turned back to Dean. “He’s stoned,” he said simply.

“You already talked to him,” Dean said.

“He’s not really…” Chuck cleared his throat nervously. “I’m not really qualified for this kind of thing.”

Dean frowned thoughtfully and started walking again, Chuck following behind him toward the basement. “Something tells me you’ve got someone else in mind,” Dean said.

“I was thinking… Well, he could talk to Missouri,” Chuck said. He rubbed the back of his neck and shifted nervously, glancing back at Castiel.

“Heh, no,” Dean said.

“She could be good for him,” Chuck insisted. “She’s motherly and… stuff. And she’d understand.”

Dean sighed and shook his head, starting down the stairs. “It’s too fucked up. Even she wouldn’t understand,” Dean said. “But whatever, dude. If she’s around, maybe point him in her direction. If nothing else, she’ll coo over him and feed him.”

“Dean,” Chuck said urgently, leaning down to talk to him with his voice lowered as Dean started to go down the stairs. “About Cas…”

Dean paused and narrowed his eyes on Chuck’s face, studying him. “What about him?” he finally said.

“We talked and some of the stuff he’s saying…” Chuck hesitated, then sighed. “It might just be the drugs. I know you’ve been giving him something to sleep, but I don’t know… He keeps talking about God.”

Dean snorted and started down the stairs again. “He’s an angel. Of course he talks about God,” he said.

“I know, but Dean, he’s talking about trying to go back,” Chuck said.

Dean paused on the bottom landing. “He can’t go back,” he said.

“Yeah, well he sounds like he’s going to try anyway,” Chuck said. “He’s talking about trying to find God again, about how he feels lost and… Dude, he sounds suicidal.”

“Well, then he’s definitely not going to go back,” Dean said, stepping off the bottom landing to the basement floor. “Suicide’s an unforgivable sin. So is murder and that‘s not his body he‘s wearing, remember?”

“I don’t… He said something about finding a way to be close to God again,” Chuck said. “He said he’s been reading--”

Dean barked out a laugh. “Better not let Bobby catch him at it.”

“Uh… He’s reading Galápagos by Kurt Vonnegut right now. I don’t think that’s Bobby’s,” Chuck said.

“Nope, it’s Lenore’s,” Dean said, shrugging. “I borrowed it a few months ago. Relax, Chuck, it’s just a book.”

“No it isn’t,” Chuck said. “It’s this weird shit about the evolution of humanity. He’s impressionable, Dean. He could--”

“What? Try to grow himself a set of gills?” Dean said.

Chuck rolled his eyes and stood back up, shaking his head. “Fine, but it’s just a little weird, that’s all,” he said. “He’s doing drugs, he’s reading shit like that and talking about finding God. That’s not normal, that’s all I’m saying. Just… maybe watch him.”

Dean made a sound of assent in his throat and headed toward the panic room. “I’ll see you later, dude. I got to go shopping,” he called back to Chuck.

“You want some company?” Chuck called down, sounding a little hopeful.

“No,” Dean called back without hesitation.

Hell no, he needed to get away for a while or he was going to say or do something he’d probably feel bad about later. What he had said about Chuck and Becky not having kids had been a slip and a shitty thing to say, even if maybe it was true and this was no time for making babies. If Dean didn’t get some air and some time to clear his head, he was going to snap.

~~*~~

If he was in a hurry, Dean could walk to the nearest town in a little under two hours. If it was an emergency, he could run it in half that, but he had never had to do that. Dean was a lot more fit than most of the survivors, but back when the fighting was hot and heavy and every day there were more battles, there had still been enough gas reserved in gas stations along the highways to fuel cars. After a while though, too many dead and too many cars without drivers to move them clogged the streets and made driving instead of walking a stupid waste of time. By the time that happened, it was too late to really classify the little skirmishes that still broke out as emergencies. Sometimes a few demons would still corner a survivor or a small group of survivors and kill them. They liked to play with them first--they were like cats that way--but after so much devastation and loss, one or two more dead didn’t count as an emergency anymore. Unless they belonged to someone--daughter, husband, lover, wife, child--but then it was only an emergency in the eyes of that someone.

There was still gas in some of the service station tanks, kept there in storage to be used in the generators come winter when it got too cold. They knew that wouldn’t last forever, if for no other reason than the gas would evaporate if left alone too long, but nobody really believed when it came right down to it that anything had to last them very long. Sometimes in the distance they would see a burst of light and smoke where one of the tanks had caught a spark somehow and a gas station had exploded. It didn’t happen very often anymore, but every once in a while it did and Bobby or someone else would inevitably remark upon how lucky they were Dean had thought to get those solar panels way back when.

Dean would inevitably grunt in agreement while thinking that sometimes in the middle of winter in South Dakota, it got more than twenty below zero and the sun didn’t show its face for days. He never said it though because people needed hope. Even when there wasn’t any, people needed to pretend there was hope.

Maybe there was hope, a strange, depressing, bastardized brand of hope rekindled in the ashes of a million dead loved ones like a phoenix. People would survive because they would do anything to survive, so for that reason if for no other, perhaps there was hope after all.

The summer after everything started to quiet down (the summer Chuck put corks in the first five gallon bottles of fruity swill that would, God willing, one day be wine) there had been a plague of rats. The rats had filled the streets, covered the sidewalks, crawled on each others’ backs until they were four and five deep, and consumed every bit of rotting fruit, rancid meat, and mealy grain in their path. They chewed through everything in their wide path, devouring everything left on the shelves or in bins in supermarkets, anything left out on tables in homes, anything and everything that was not locked up tight and safe, and if there had been bodies still in the streets, they would have eaten those too.

It was hard to remember that and the time of hunger and starvation that had followed it and still believe that the dying world deserved to hope, but those who survived that had come out stronger, more clever, and more ruthless. They drew together into groups, like the few rag-tags that lived around the salvage yard, and they grew things and raised things, making their own food. They learned how to survive without Nabisco, Kraft, Del Monte and a can opener and they started packing guns. They lived in closed little communities with a strange tribal form of government, focused on survival more than victory. Hell, most of the survivors had never even laid eyes on Sam Winchester and they would curse an angel as soon as a demon because they couldn’t tell the difference. Even Dean’s own group, which had the advantage of consisting mostly of hunters and other slightly more than human individuals, didn’t expect to win the war or to last. They all expected to die in the end and for that end to not be so far away, but they still couldn’t help planning ahead and stocking up for the next winter. That was just human nature.

Now that they had a place to go, a home of sorts where they felt safe, most of those survivors, tempered as steel though they might be, wouldn’t venture out into the cities and towns anymore. Their safety was a false safety, like the lock on a door that keeps out an honest person, but it made them feel better. It made them feel normal. Consequentially, Dean had no trouble at all getting away from the yard without company. The few people he met as he left saw the shotgun in the holster over his back and the duffel over his shoulder and just nodded to him in greeting. Chuck would have gone with him, but Dean had shot him down when he asked and he didn’t ask again. When Dean was leaving, Chuck had been trying to reclaim Brutus from Castiel, who was looking suspiciously teary eyed.

It was good to be alone, though. Even when he was by himself in the panic room and the house was empty, Dean was acutely aware of not being alone. Someone always needed something, some help, some advice, to borrow a knife, another cup of salt because the rain had washed away the circle around their trailer. If they didn’t want anything, they wanted to talk and even the most innocent, genuine questions about some things made Dean’s hackles rise at the best of times. So it was good, walking alone on the road, even if the charred skeletons of the dead staring up at him from the ditch made him simultaneously feel like screaming, crying, and laughing. Even if every step he took it felt like he was being dogged by a marching army of angry spirits.

And perhaps he was, he reasoned. Dean and Bobby had figured it up once and the estimated survivors in places they knew of only made up a little over ten percent of the human population and the human population had been up to 6.7 billion when everything hit critical mass. Drop the 6 and keep the .7 and you had your number of apocalyptic world survivors, close to the same number of humans that would have survived a worldwide nuclear holocaust, which meant over 6 billion people the world over who had died of violent and unnatural causes. That meant over 6 billion possible wandering, angry spirits with a bone to pick with Dean Winchester.

Of course, they had burned the dead early on. There had been little choice when the stench became overwhelming and the gasses released by the rotting corpses threatened to catch flame every time someone lit a match, but even before that they had dragged the dead into piles and burned them in the ditches. Not so many spare meat suits laying around for demons to slip into and walk around in that way, and everyone had agreed to help after the first time one of women came back to camp carrying her dead daughter, who was grinning and looking around at them all with oil spill black eyes.

But burning the bodies only got rid of a small percentage of the unnaturally dead. They couldn’t go from town to town burning everyone, there were just too many, so they cleared the few towns around the yard where they were most likely to venture, but left the rest. There was just no way. People hid, lived reclusively, or crawled away to die in unknown places, and with such a small group of people searching them out, they couldn’t find and destroy every body. So it was very likely there were wandering spirits, and some of them were probably even wandering along in Dean’s own path, reaching out to grasp him, shrieking at his back. He didn’t like to think so, but he knew that, logically, it was true.

Whether or not they were with him now as he walked along the highway, that was another matter. He seriously doubted it, thinking the chill along his spine and the unease making the hair at the back of his neck rise was just a combination of the wind blowing through the alleyways and the eerie way his boot heals made a sharply echoing clack, clack sound on the pavement.

It didn’t matter how long things had been this way, he doubted like hell he would ever get used to it. These streets where people had walked, dragging puppies on leashes and pushing babies in strollers, laughing and talking into cell phones while they fed coins into parking meters, they were barren now. Empty, flat and unnatural, haunted, though not by ghosts, by the memory of movement, of life, of organized chaos. The only movement there now was a wretched cat with its bones stabbing at its pelt digging in a rain gutter for the rotted remains of some faceless dead creature to eat and the yellowed, weathered skin-like remains of an old newspaper flapping to pieces in the tumbling wind.

Dean found a clothing store called Gabriel’s Fashions and the name amused him so much that he broke into it to have a look around. He thought about throwing a brick through the display window, then decided against it and picked the lock on the door instead. Who knew, maybe the world wouldn’t be completely obliterated after all. Someone else might need a new pair of pants in the future.

Gabriel’s Fashions sold bad suits and business attire. They also sold jeans with the little creases down the legs for when the guy that felt most comfortable in those bad suits wanted to look like he was kicking back. Dean shook his head in disgust at the whole mess and just because he felt like it, he knocked over a mannequin. The saddest thing was, he could absolutely see Castiel wearing this shit.

Except Castiel was not going to be wearing this shit because Dean was not packing home ten pounds of pinstriped polyester with accessories.

On his way back out of the store, Dean kicked over another mannequin, then paused. On a coat hanger by the door, where some now long dead prospective customer had hung it up, there was a navy blue trench coat. He lifted a brow thoughtfully, then smirked and took the coat down. It was about the same size as the ugly taupe trench coat that Castiel had been wearing for as long as Dean had known him. It was slightly longer, but it was new or nearly so and it didn’t have a single hole in it anywhere.

Dean rolled the coat up and stuffed it into his duffel, then left the store, not bothering to even close the door behind him when he left.

A little farther down the street, he found a place that sold jeans and t-shirts and grabbed the rest of Castiel’s clothes from there. He thought about getting him a pair of boots too because he would need them, then realized he didn’t know what size and decided to do that later when he came back for Bobby’s sugar and salt.

Two blocks over from the clothing store, Dean broke into a small grocery and got the yeast Bobby had asked for as well as three Hershey bars and a carton of cigarettes. He smoked a cigarette as he walked back along the sidewalk the way he had come and was pleased to find they weren’t as stale as he’d thought they would be. It had been a long time since he had smoked anything he didn’t have to roll himself.

Reading the progress of the sun, Dean estimated the time somewhere around a quarter after three, which gave him enough time, if he walked fast, to get back to the yard before full dark. Which didn’t honestly make one damn bit of difference except, hunter or not, armed or not, everything was way more creepy at night. All the empty buildings seemed to open their eyes and stare with malevolent longing and the shortest, straightest roads twisted and turned, going on forever. Unlike some, Dean knew things were out there, but he knew that what was out there at night was also out there during the day. Didn’t matter, it still gave him the creeps, so he walked a little faster.

To calm himself somewhat and to fill the unsettling silence, Dean started to hum. Then he started to sing “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It” to himself until he got tongue-tied somewhere around “vitriolic” and “patriotic” and just went on singing the chorus over and over.

He was doing that, thinking about taking out one of his chocolate bars to eat it before he got back to the yard and would be wheedled into sharing, thinking about Castiel wearing the new coat he’d found, or maybe protesting that he still liked the old one better, trying like hell not to see Sam’s fingerprints in every burned-out skeleton of a car or blood smear on the asphalt, and then he just stopped. He had broken out into a cold sweat and as he stood there, cocking his head slightly to listen, he felt a breath on the back of his neck that smelled like sulphur and fingertips like icicles skate down his spine. Suddenly the world was stark and bright, vivid with the widening scope of his awareness, and Sam was everywhere he was not. His hand had crushed the flesh that bled there in the road, his eyes had watched the pavement crack, his laughter had rang out like a shot as the fire that consumed that city block there painted the sky black.

It wasn’t Sam, Dean knew that with certainty, but Sam’s was the only face he had to give the demon that had picked up his scent. He could have put one of Meg’s many faces on it or one of Ruby‘s, but Ruby was dead because Sam had killed her and Meg had worn Sam once like a nice set of dancing shoes. With demons, it would always relentlessly, inescapably come back to Sam.

“I am the alpha and the omega. The beginning and the end,” Dean murmured, and it would have been a joke except it wasn’t funny.

He started walking again, keeping his eyes straight ahead, trying to be as casual as he could manage without losing his focus. He didn’t glance to the sides because watching for it wouldn‘t make any difference, whatever it was, it wasn‘t human. Something was watching him and this time it wasn’t just his mind playing tricks on him by conjuring up a long train of hypothetical vengeful spirits following in his twisted wake. This time it was the real deal. Dean had hunted the real deal for too damn long not to know it when it fairly crawled up in his lap and purred.

“Fuck this,” he muttered and pulled the shotgun from the holster across his back. He held the sawed-off one handed as he looked down between the barrels, doing a quick scan as he turned.

Of course there was nothing. Even the starving cat had wandered off somewhere to bed down or die. The newspaper that had been twisting in the wind when Dean came this way before was caught up against a chicken wire fence near a playground on his right. Either there was nothing there and his mind was fucking with him, or there was something there and it was fucking with him. Both were very real possibilities.

Dean sighed and lifted his other hand to cradle the shotgun in both as he started to lower it. A sudden, wet, almost vomiting sound on his left had him swinging around with his gun up again. The sound had come from a car beside him stopped at an angle to the curb with one door hanging open and the battery long dead. It was a rusting Volvo with a little green air freshener shaped like a foot hanging from the rearview mirror, which any other time Dean might have found mildly amusing or even ironic, but now he only found gruesome. There in the passenger seat, slumped and half hanging out of the window like they were car sick and the driver had refused to pull over, was the rotting corpse of some sexless, disintegrating person.

Dean frowned at the body and lowered his gun again, lifting one hand to cover his mouth and nose as he drew closer. No way was this body overlooked from when they had burned the dead, it was too fresh. Which wasn’t to say that it was In any way fresh because it was at the very least three months dead. Three months of decomposition after bloating and cooking in the enclosed car under the heat of the sun had left the body completely unrecognizable except for its basic human form. For all he knew, he was staring into the oozing eye sockets of Joan Baez or Angus Young or just Bill the mailman. Looking into what was left of that face, all were equally likely.

Whoever it was, they had been a survivor. At least for a little while.

“Not anymore,” Dean said. He started to back away, making a mental note to bring lighter fluid with him when he came back for the other supplies.

Then it moved.

Before he could check himself or allow one of the many rational reasons why a rotting dead body could be moving to take hold, Dean screamed and backpedaled so quickly he caught his heel on the curb and nearly fell into the gutter. He kicked his feet against the sidewalk, scooting backward until his back pressed up against the chicken wire fence and he couldn’t go any farther without standing up first, and he was shaking so bad with the first shock of fear that he wasn’t positive his legs would support him.

He stayed right where he was, thinking demons, thinking ghouls, thinking gastrointestinal gasses and maggots, and trying like nobody’s business not to think zombies. Sure, it was the Apocalypse, the Apocalypse with a capital fucking “A”, but there weren’t any zombies. He had not heard of or seen any zombies and if there was ever a time for zombies, this was it.

But then when it came to things that were not, the rules had never really applied to the Winchesters. Lenore owned a stretch of land to the north of Bobby’s yard where she raised cattle and horses and kept her little clan of vampires from feasting on the last of humanity. Dean could still remember how surprised (and amused) he’d been to find out that vampires were real. It would be just his luck now to up and find himself on the wrong end of a Zombie Apocalypse. Capital “Z”, capital “A” fucking Apocalypse.

Then the corpse made another of those burping noises and vomited up a white rat. Out of its throat.

Dean blinked at the creature as it crawled out of the hole it had chewed in the corpse’s neck, settled itself calmly on its slimy chest, and began to wash itself. When it was finished, it sniffed the air, pausing to look at Dean with its shiny little garnet eyes, then disappeared down into the foot well of the Volvo.

Dean shuddered, inexplicably twice as disgusted by what he had just seen because the animal was white, likely the offspring of pet shop escapees. Rats that had once run in wheels that took them nowhere now hollowing out the intestines of Bill the mailman. But everyone had to eat, Dean guessed. It was a rat’s life.

With an amused snort of laughter, he got up and started walking again. Dean held the shotgun instead of returning it to the holster, strangely comforted by its familiar weight in his hands. That creeping sense of being watched was gone now, but he was spooked anyway and he still walked a little faster until he got out of the city limits.

V.

The next few days passed without event and Dean let them pass, glad for it. Venturing outside the yard didn’t usually put such a strain on him, but this last time had really messed with his head. To compensate for the whacky stuff bouncing around in his brain, Dean got drunk to self-medicate and passed out on the couch in front of the fire. He spent the next day nursing his hangover while Castiel sat with him and read to himself from a book about Buddhism.

Castiel was stoned a lot of the time now, which Dean sometimes felt a little bad about, but it seemed to calm him down when nothing else would, made sleeping almost come naturally, and if Chuck blew a little pot the angel’s way, he even ate without being prodded about it. When Dean came home from his little adventure, he found Castiel passed out in his bed with his face buried in Dean’s pillow, snoring courtesy of four Vicodin and a belly full of Becky’s venison stew. He was even less depressed now than he had been when he’d first found Dean, so drugs apparently worked for him. Hell, being stoned didn’t even slow down his reading and Castiel could read fast.

Really fast. There were three stacks of books ranging from Aldous Huxley to Mark Twain and any number of authors in between currently blocking any walking space on the far side of Dean’s bed in testimony of this fact. Not that Dean intended to walk there, but that wasn’t the point. The point was, Castiel went through on average three thick books a day and still managed to do more than sit around on his ass all the time.

The day Dean caught Castiel reading Lady Chatterley's Lover was the first time he honestly started to worry about it. Not that it wasn’t a classic novel in many respects, just… he couldn’t help thinking about what Castiel had asked him to do, or remembering that Castiel hadn’t so much as mentioned it again in over a week. Maybe Lady Chatterley was teaching him what he wanted to know in the meantime and Dean really didn’t like that. Not because he was jealous, because that would just be stupid, more because he didn’t like the idea of what kinds of insanely dated notions about sex Lady Chatterley might be giving the angel who, as Chuck had pointed out, was impressionable.

So impressionable was he that one day Dean saw him reading Animal Farm and the next morning he stumbled out onto the porch with his coffee to find Castiel attempting to teach one of Bobby’s chickens how to play hopscotch. Thankfully, it had been one of the normal chickens, not one of the mutant chickens, which would have either looked twice as pitiful with only one fully formed leg or would have had an unfair advantage over Castiel because of the third. Sadly, the poor creature had been traumatized and they’d had to eat it anyway. Any possible plans of organizing a chicken rebellion were thereby thoroughly quashed. Bobby had bitched about that one at great length because normal chickens were becoming more rare in the newer chicks.

Dean had never told Bobby that the reason most of the chickens were mutants was because some of the kids liked to sneak into his chicken coops and shake the eggs before putting them back under the hens. He would probably find it out himself one day, but Bobby would have yelled and made the kids cry and Dean kind of liked the mutant chickens. They were funny.

Dean was glad Castiel had decided to try the chickens first, though. He could only imagine the chaos that would have arose if Castiel had knelt down in the dirt and tried to get one of the dogs to “speak” with him. They didn’t usually bite, but Castiel was new, he smelled like angels, and that close to their faces was just inviting them to snap.

It was after the Animal Farm incident that Dean found Castiel reading Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and after that his taste in fictional romance took a decidedly steep nosedive that bordered on Harlequin. Dean actually stumbled over a stack of dog-eared paperbacks one night on his way to bed and crawled up onto the mattress cursing Daniel Steele and Nora Roberts for all he was worth. Castiel was so fucked up on pills, he didn’t even twitch at the noise and Dean went on to include Chuck’s wife in his cursing because no way in hell had Castiel borrowed all that trash from Lenore and Becky had notoriously bad taste in books.

“If you’re done with those, you have got to give them back,” Dean told him the next morning.

“Back?” Castiel said. “To whom?”

“To whom the fuck ever,” Dean said, and walked out of the house, pulling on his coat as he went.

“They have not been very informative,” Castiel told him, following him out the door in just his sweatpants and socks. “I am not sure why, but the authors of these novels employ very elaborate and confusing metaphors and similes for what appears to be--when you take out the excess prose--to be a simple function of a biological imperative. I can only assume this was intended for titillation of some kind but I found it at best ridiculous and at worst, deeply disturbing.”

Dean felt his eyes wanting to cross and blinked at him. “Are you fucking kidding me?” he said. He noticed Castiel’s bare feet and shirtless chest and scowled. Castiel wasn’t shivering yet and he didn’t seem to notice that it was late autumn and 32o outside this early in the morning, but his skin had prickled with goosebumps already. “Get back inside and put some damn clothes on,” he snapped, pointing over Castiel’s shoulder. “You’re going to get sick and I really don’t need you dying of the flu right now or freezing your toes off. We don’t exactly have a nice sterile hospital around here if you get sick.”

Castiel frowned at him. “I will not get sick,” he said, like it was the stupidest idea in the world that he even could get sick.

“Oh yeah? Well I seem to recall a certain half-starved angel showing up on my doorstep in the middle of the night with a cold and a fever not so long ago so I’m calling bullshit. Go,” Dean insisted, gently pushing Castiel’s shoulder to get him moving back into the house. “I got shit to do. You want to talk to me about what a bad writer Kathleen Woodiwiss is, fine, but you put some clothes on first, Tonto. I’ll be out back with the dogs.”

“You are missing the point,” Castiel said with a sigh.

“No, I am deliberately avoiding the point you’re trying to make,” Dean said. “Come on, Cas, go back inside. Don’t make me hit you over the head like a caveman and carry you, dude.”

“They explain nothing,” Castiel insisted. “It’s extremely frustrating.”

“Is it? Extremely?” Dean said, crowding him backward toward the door.

Yes,” Castiel said.

“Then maybe you should find a guy around here that’s into porn and borrow that instead,” Dean said. He leaned into Castiel, reaching over his shoulder to grab the doorknob. Castiel caught his breath and tensed against him, taking another step back from him and bumping right into the wall. Dean lifted a brow at him and opened the door, then stepped back and made a grand sweeping gesture. “After you.”

“I… I think perhaps you should explain it to me,” Castiel said. He was watching Dean with that familiar curious expression of his, but his cheeks were a little flushed. “I am only confusing myself.”

Dean’s lips curved in a slow grin and he intentionally leaned back in toward Castiel. “I thought what you wanted was more like a live performance,” he said, lowering his voice to a murmur.

“Well I… Yes, but you haven’t said or done anything to make me believe that might actually occur, so I was… doing research of my own,” Castiel said, staring at Dean with his eyes wide. He moved his hands a little nervously as though to touch Dean’s shoulders or his face, then drew them back without contact, unsure. He suddenly started shivering and looked down at his bare arms with a perplexed frown. “It seems I am cold after all,” he remarked.

Dean rolled his eyes and leaned back, grabbing Castiel around the waist as he went back into the house with him. “Come on, the dogs can wait. I’ll fix you some coffee and something to eat. You can tell me all about Lady Chatterley while I do that.”

“Coffee is very interesting,” Castiel said, allowing himself to be walked back through the house to the kitchen. “I quite like the smell but it doesn’t taste very nice.”

“Yeah, that’s what sugar’s for,” Dean said. “And one of Lenore’s ladies brought over fresh milk and cream yesterday.”

Castiel made an appreciative sound in his throat and sat down at the table when Dean nudged him toward it. “Lenore is a very different kind of vampire, isn’t she? I enjoy her company a great deal,” he said.

“Yeah, she is that,” Dean said. He put coffee in the pot on the stove and put it on to boil, then got out a few eggs, some cheese, and a couple strips of bacon. “So here’s the thing, I’m gonna load you up with calories and you’re going to put some clothes on,” Dean said. “I don’t really care what you do after that, but you can’t do it naked or you’ll get sick and die, which I would rather didn’t happen. And maybe lay off the romance novels, huh?”

“If you want,” Castiel said. “I’m finding them tedious and repetitive anyway. And illogical. It is absolutely impossible that so many people were descended from nobility. The entire population of Europe… or the world, perhaps, would be comprised of dukes, barons, duchesses and… Well, I suppose that doesn’t matter anymore, the population of the world being what it is now, but even at it’s height, it--”

“Cas, I don’t care,” Dean said. He flipped the bacon in the pan and stirred the eggs around a little before sprinkling crumbled cheese on them. “Just stop reading them and give the ones on the floor back to whoever you got them from.”

“Becky,” Castiel informed him.

“Figured,” Dean said. Only Becky would feel the need to save trashy romance novels from the hellfire of Armageddon. He picked up the pan and slid the bacon and eggs onto a plate, which he set down in front of Castiel. “Food’s on,” he said, and put a fork by his hand.

Castiel pointed over Dean’s shoulder. “Your coffee is boiling over.”

“Shit,” Dean hissed, and snatched it up from the burner without a cloth, scalding his hand a little on the hot metal. “Dammit, fuck,” he muttered, waving his injured hand to try cooling it.

Castiel watched him and picked up his fork to try some of the eggs. “Are you badly hurt?” he asked, watching Dean finish pouring them both coffee, now favoring his hand.

“I’ll live,” Dean said. He put a cup of coffee down in front of Castiel, got the milk and sugar and sat down.

“That isn’t what I asked,” Castiel said.

Dean sighed and sipped his coffee, letting the bitter black stuff fill his mouth as he shook his head. “I’m fine,” he said. “How are your eggs?”

“They’re good,” Castiel said, eating some more. He had lost weight in the last few weeks and though Dean made him eat whenever he remembered because he knew Castiel forgot, it didn’t always occur to him either and sometimes Castiel missed a day. “You’re changing the subject,” Castiel said.

“The subject of my not badly hurt hand?” Dean said. He shrugged. “Sure.”

“You always do that,” Castiel said. He picked up a piece of bacon between his fingers and turned it, looking doubtful. “Whenever you’re hurt, you always do that.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean said.

Castiel shifted his eyes from the bacon to Dean. “Yeah,” he said, and took a bite. He was surprised to find it a lot more tasty than it appeared. “When you’re afraid, it’s usually humor you use. When you’re hurt, you dismiss it.”

Dean didn’t say anything for a while and Castiel continued eating his breakfast in the silence, unconcerned. After a while, Dean picked up his coffee cup just to keep his hands warm and said, “So, you still want me to fuck you?”

He was going for shock, what Castiel would likely have said was Dean’s habit of deflecting, but he didn’t get it. Castiel’s eyebrows went up but he finished chewing the food in his mouth before he nodded. “Yes. If you are consenting to it, I have not changed my mind,” he said.

“Man, why me, though?” Dean asked. “There are like five or six unattached girls around here and just as many guys if that’s your thing, so why me? Don’t you think that’s weird?”

Castiel frowned. “No, I don’t think that’s weird,” he said. “It’s not about that.”

“What the hell does that mean?” Dean demanded. “You don’t like girls? There are other guys.”

“It’s not about that,” Castiel repeated. “It’s not about what. It’s about who.”

“Who?” Dean said.

“You,” Castiel clarified.

“Oh,” Dean said. He thought about that for a little bit and put his coffee down. “Well that’s awkward.”

“No it isn’t,” Castiel said. He took another bite of eggs, his attention returning to his food.

“It isn’t?” Dean said.

Castiel put his fork back down, giving up on eating, and looked at Dean over the table. “I’m afraid,” he said honestly. “I trust you. I… feel these human things for you. I know you and understand you. You… you’re my friend,” Castiel said, a tone of wonder sneaking into the last word like he had only just realized it.

Dean stared at him, oddly touched and suddenly a little more afraid himself. “You don’t want me to do this, Cas,” he said.

“We’ve been over this,” Castiel said patiently. He narrowed his eyes on Dean and cocked his head. “You should not be allowed to be more afraid of this than I am. There should be a rule.”

“A sex rule?” Dean said.

“Not exactly,” Castiel said, his lips quirking in amusement.

Dean rubbed his fingers over his eyes, then sat back in his chair. “I’m going to fuck it up,” he said. “I’m going to… freak you out or something and I just… I don’t want to scare you or hurt you, alright?”

“I’ve already been hurt and I’m already scared, so your concerns are redundant,” Castiel said.

“Great,” Dean said. “Well, I’ll just put it right out of my mind then. How about we do it right now? I’ll throw you down on the table, I think there’s a stick of butter around here we can use for lube--we’ll get it over with and you’ll have your answers.”

“Your sarcasm is also unnecessary,” Castiel said dryly. “You will not embarrass me into changing my mind. You can only tell me no.”

“You don’t take no for an answer, though, man,” Dean said.

“That’s because, in this case, no is not an answer,” Castiel said. He got up from the table and took his plate and cup to the sink, then left Dean there to go gather up the offensive romance novels to return them to their owner.

“It’s a date then!” Dean called to him as he heard Castiel descending the stairs into the basement.

He heard Castiel pause on the staircase, then a minute later, his steps resumed until he was gone.

“Hey! I’m serious this time!” Dean called, getting up to walk over to the stairs. He looked down them, but Castiel wasn’t at the bottom. He listened and heard Castiel moving around in the panic room. “Fine then, don’t believe me,” Dean muttered, resisting the urge to pout and the desire to go after him and force the issue.

He went back into the kitchen and washed their dishes, then went outside like he had initially planned to do and fed the dogs. They had to be well fed this morning because a couple of the guys had been talking around the fire the night before about going out hunting. It was getting close to winter and it would be nice to have some meat dried and stored if they could managed it. Hunting in the dead of winter could be a pain in the ass and twice as dangerous, and if something happened, there wasn’t anyone to call that gave much of a damn anymore.

Dean stayed with the dogs a little longer than he needed to, trying not to dwell on Castiel. Which was absurd because the more he tried not to, the more he did, and an hour later when Castiel came out of the house packing a big box of paperback books toward Chuck and Becky’s place, he caught himself watching him, following him with his eyes as he crossed the yard. The want was the most surprising thing to him about the whole situation, but he was scared too and he wasn’t sure Castiel truly understood all of his reasons. Sometimes he almost seemed to get it, though, and that alone was worth whatever they were doing now. Dean’s reasons weren’t all about Castiel and maybe Castiel knew that if he knew enough to promise he wasn’t out for Dean’s heart. Dean’s fucked up and destroyed heart, tied to a soul that was withered; he couldn’t even imagine an angel wanting that.

Castiel hadn’t been the only one of them that Sam ruined.

~~*~~

They lost a dog to the hunt that day. One of the young dogs, only a little over a year old, stumbled upon and wild pig and her babies and didn’t know well enough to run from it. The pig had gored the dog and it was dying before the men even knew what was happening. They shot the pigs and brought them home for supper, then buried the dog under a pine tree. It felt like a waste, but things weren’t yet so desperate that they had turned to eating the dogs and hopefully it would never come to that.

The children went out later with one of Lenore’s people to guard them and held a little funeral for the dog, who was named Roscoe and had always been loyal and playful. They made a headstone out of a shingle that they wrote on with a Sharpie marker and hoped the wolves and wild dogs wouldn’t dig him up and eat him. They could have piled rocks over the grave if they had been terribly concerned about that, but everything did have to eat, even wolves. Better an already dead dog than a live one, or a cow, a horse, or a child.

Despite the death of the dog, dinner that night was as close as they got these days to a good time. They roasted the mother pig and all four of her little sucklings in the fire pit out in the yard and everyone gathered around with their blankets and plates of food to listen to Chuck tell stories. He told them stories from Sam and Dean’s monster hunting days, back when a ghost was a rare thing and the job was their life, but it was about saving people one at a time, not saving the world. There were enough stories out there about the things that had led to the collapse of the world as they knew it, and with demons not just a fairytale anymore but a real day-to-day danger, Chuck wisely chose to stay away from those. He also changed the names to protect the not-so-innocent, for which Dean was grateful.

This time, Chuck told them about the wendigo, letting his voice become an ominous rasp as he described how wendigo had once been humans who had become consumed by evil hunger by eating the flesh of their own kind. Then he jerked forward and tickled the ribs of a little girl in braided pigtails until she squealed and her friends jumped back with startled shrieks of their own.

Dean stood back from it, quietly eating, thinking that Chuck’s story telling skills had improved quite a bit over the last few years. Thinking it was a shame he didn’t have kids of his own because he was great with them, but it really was for the best.

“Boy, you have got a face on you right now that could make me just weep,” Missouri said, coming to stand beside him.

Dean glanced over at her and shrugged. “I guess,” he said.

“And that’s if I didn’t know what you were thinking,” Missouri said.

“But you do, so what? It makes you want to laugh?” Dean said.

“No,” she said. “Makes me want to whack you upside your stubborn head for being so hard on yourself all the time.”

Dean snorted and popped a last piece of roasted pork into his mouth, then wiped his hands on his thighs. “I’m fine,” he said.

“Don’t talk with your mouth full,” Missouri said. “And you’re not fine. You’re a far cry from any definition of fine, Dean Winchester, when you start blaming yourself for the choices of other people.”

“I don’t know what fuck you’re talking about,” Dean said, annoyed. People poking around in his head made him uncomfortable as hell and here he had two of them living practically right on top of him.

“Don’t you cuss at me or I’ll whack you in the head for an entirely different reason,” Missouri said, eying him with disapproval. “I’m talking about you watching your little friend there with those kids and blaming yourself because he’s not a father.”

“I don’t blame myself for that,” Dean said, shifting his weight to turn his head and look around for an escape route.

“You do,” Missouri said. “You were thinking it just a little while ago when I came over. Thinking that if this wasn’t happening, then Chuck and his wife would be okay to have babies. Thinking all of this is your fault is one of your favorite things to think about, so that’s just a variation on the theme.”

“Oh, shut up,” Dean said tiredly.

Missouri swatted him smartly on the back of the head with her hand. “You hush,” she said.

Dean cringed and rubbed his head. “Goddamn it, woman!”

“Boy, what did I just get done saying about you cussing at me?” Missouri demanded, sticking her finger in his face and shaking it. “I swear, you have got some of the worst manners. Your daddy deserves a fine licking for the way he let you grow up. Disrespectful, I’ve rarely seen the like.”

Dean rolled his eyes and huffed out an exasperated breath. “I’m sorry,” he said.

“Well, alright then,” Missouri said. She smiled at him fondly and patted his cheek. “Now what was I saying?”

Dean almost told her he didn’t remember so maybe this conversation could be over with, then thought better of it because Missouri might just read his mind and hit him again. “I like to think the end of the world is my fault, apparently,” Dean said. “’Like’ isn’t really the word I’d use for it, though.”

“You use whatever word makes you feel better then, honey,” Missouri said. “But a lot of things ain’t your fault and this is one of them. Chuck and Becky made a choice not to bring any more children into this wretched world, and that’s their choice. You disrespect that by making it up to you. And this thing here,” she said, gesturing around to the yard and the fields, indicating the world. “This isn’t your fault either. This was going to happen, with or without you.”

Dean shook his head and didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to, she read his disbelief loud and clear.

“Let me tell you another thing before you go off to mope,” she said. “What you’re doing here for these people? It’s a good thing. You’re helping them because you know what’s out there. They owe their lives to you and Bobby Singer.”

Dean raised his head and looked at her then, quietly hopeful.

“I know you’re tired, sugar,” Missouri said, her voice gentling. She reached up and put her hand on his back, rubbing a little between his shoulders to soothe. “He’s done terrible things, such extraordinary things. God willing, you’ll never have to know why.”

“Wait, don’t tell me,” Dean said, his voice taking on a sarcastic edge, “everything he does is for me, right?”

Missouri’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open in surprise. “Dean,” she said softly, kindly. “Dean, I know it’s hard--”

“No,” Dean said. He shrugged her hand off his back and moved away from her. “No, it’s impossible to understand. It’s bullshit, is what it is. More of Sam’s lies and manipulations and I just… Don’t try to explain it to me, Missouri, I can’t do this.”

Dean started to walk away, then stopped when Missouri called his name. He took a deep breath, let it out and tried to steady himself. “What?” he said.

“If you’re going in the house, take that angel child some of this pig,” Missouri said. “There’s plenty still and he’s not had a thing to eat since that mess you fed him this morning.”

Dean turned and looked around, only now realizing that Castiel wasn’t there. He didn’t usually get right into the thick of the gathering, preferring to observe cautiously from a slight distance, but he was there most of the time. Dinner was one of the meals Castiel rarely missed for that very reason.

Dean went over to the fire and walked around it, studying each face to be sure, but he knew already that Castiel wasn’t there. “Where is he?” he asked Missouri.

Missouri walked over calmly and sat down with a woman and her young son. The boy was bundled up in a thick blanket and had a bad cough, but when Missouri sat down, he clambered up into her lap. “Don’t fret, he hasn’t wandered off. I told you already, he’s inside,” she said. “There, there, child,” she said to the boy. “You’ll be all better soon.”

Dean watched her with the boy for a little while, noting how pale the child was, how he shivered even though the fire reflected off the sweat on his skin and his hair was wet with it. He recognized the boy, though he couldn’t think of his name. The last two years, his mother had asked Dean to bring her antibiotics and cold medicine when he went into the city, every fall and every winter just before spring. Her child was sickly and he’d caught pneumonia, then every time he caught a cold it turned into pneumonia, which from the look of things was what he had now.

Dean remembered the first time he and Sam had met Missouri, how she had been assuring a worried man that his wife adored him unconditionally, because people didn’t really come to her for the truth.

He fixed a plate of food for Castiel and started back into the house, then paused by Missouri’s side and ducked down to whisper in her ear. “You’re such a liar, Missouri. I don’t have to read minds to know that, either.”

“You hold your tongue, Dean Winchester,” she hissed at him. “No good can come of what you think you know.”

“I know,” Dean said. He smiled sadly. “What you do for them is a good thing, too. That’s all I’m saying.”

He stood back up and continued on to the house, not looking back, though he felt eyes watching him like pins between his shoulders the whole way.

~~*~~

In the house, there was no fire burning and not a single lamp lit to light his way. Dean stumbled over a stool, cursed and nearly tripped over the coffee table as he righted himself. Muttering a string of blistering curses, he steadied himself with one hand on the table and set the food he’d brought in for Castiel down so he could find a lamp or a candle.

There was a lamp on the far end of the table and Dean fumbled around trying to light it with a match. He got it lit and used a lighting stick to go around lighting a few others so he could see.

“Cas?” he called. He went back and got the food plate and started toward the basement stairs when he got no response. “Cas? Hey, man, I brought you some dinner. Where are you?”

Still nothing and Dean was starting to wonder if Missouri had got it wrong for once. Maybe Castiel had joined the doggy funeral procession and got lost in the woods. Which, if that was the case, might be cause for panic because even in the house, Dean could see his breath puffing out in front of his face.

Castiel?” Dean said, yelling it down into the basement.

He didn’t get an answer exactly, but he did hear movement from below. The scrape of cloth or skin on the cement floor of the foundation. It was slight, almost quiet enough that he could have told himself it was nothing and believed it, but there was nothing wrong with Dean’s hearing and he knew better.

He found Castiel at the base of the stairs, in the center of the basement floor with his back to the door of the panic room. He had drawn a large circle in chalk and he was kneeling there in it naked and violently shivering, bent forward over his own knees with his hands clasped in front of his face. Dean almost dropped the plate he was carrying in his haste to get to him and cover him up. Castiel was shaking, his skin pebbled with gooseflesh from the cold, but still he knelt there and as Dean drew closer to him, he could hear him whispering into his hands.

Dean dropped the plate on the floor outside the circle and snatched up Castiel’s coat, which was tossed aside with the rest of his clothes. He tried to cover him, to get him warm, but Castiel tensed and jerked his shoulder away from him at the first touch.

“Cas, come on, you’re cold. You can’t… God, you’re going to get sick, if you’re not already,” Dean said, reaching for him again. “How long have you been down here like this?”

Castiel said nothing, just squeezed his eyes closed tighter than before and whispered more fervently. Dean stepped into the circle with him and nothing happened, so it was a ritual, not a spell, so he knelt down in front of Castiel and gently touched his clenched fingers. When Castiel didn’t withdraw from him, only continued his whispering, his strangely entreating, unintelligible whispering, Dean closed his warm hands around Castiel’s cold ones.

“Look at me,” Dean said softly. He lightly shook Castiel’s clasped hands in his own to get his attention and finally the whispering stopped. “Open your eyes, man. Come back to earth.”

Castiel shook his head and made a sorrowful sound in his throat, then he opened his eyes and blinked at Dean. “I don’t know what to do,” he told him.

“Then don’t do anything until you figure it out,” Dean said, though he had no idea what he was talking about.

Castiel’s eyes suddenly flooded with tears and he opened his hands under Dean’s fingers, grasping Dean’s forearms as he reached out for him. “I’ve tried everything,” he said, his voice small, confused and lost. “Where is God?”

Dean let his own hands slide up Castiel’s arms, alarmed by how cold his skin was to the touch. “I wish I knew,” he said.

“I’ve prayed, I’ve prayed so much… I’ve done all there is,” Castiel said, his voice breaking involuntarily under his tears. “I’m so alone here with you. I’m so tired.”

Dean knew that feeling only too well. No matter how many people stood with him around the campfire, he was always apart. Always alone. Ironically, tired as he was down to the roots of his soul, those people were what kept him there. The problem was now that he didn’t know what to do for Castiel. Castiel had no purpose and he sensed that acutely now that he was human. There wasn’t much Dean could do about that.

But maybe he could distract him from it for a little while.

“Hey, come on, get up,” Dean said. He gently tugged at Castiel’s arms as he stood, coaxing him to stand. “God’s not getting service these days, I think he can wait a little longer.”

“I do not understand you,” Castiel said, but he stood with Dean and let Dean wrap his long blue coat around him.

“You can put the prayer on hold for a little while,” Dean said. “You’re fucking freezing, I can’t believe you don’t feel that.”

“I do,” Castiel said. He cocked his head and peered at Dean’s face. “You look upset. Is it important?”

“Yeah, it’s important,” Dean said. “You get really sick the way things are now, there’s not a lot to be done about it.”

“Okay,” Castiel said.

“You could die, Cas,” Dean said.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Castiel said.

Frustrated, Dean took his hands from Castiel’s arms and grabbed his face, holding him like that carefully so that he couldn’t look away. “You can die now,” he said. “Have I ever told you a lie?”

“I don’t recall,” Castiel said, frowning at him.

“Yes you do,” Dean said. “You have a mind like a fucking bear trap. Don‘t try to play me.”

Castiel‘s brow furrowed in confusion at the reference, but he didn‘t ask for an explanation. “No, I don’t think you have,” he said.

“Why would I tell you one now?” Dean said.

Castiel’s frown deepened. “I don’t… You wouldn’t. There is no logical reason to make me believe that I can die if I can’t.”

“Exactly,” Dean said. He smiled at Castiel and pulled him forward, pressing a quick kiss to his mouth that startled him. “Now come on,” he said, taking Castiel’s hands to tug him along to the panic room.

“We are going to bed?” Castiel asked, following Dean.

“Yeah. Have to get you warm,” Dean said.

“But… didn’t you come down here to bring me food?” Castiel said, turning his head to look back toward the chalk circle.

“Yeah, but it can wait. I’ll get you something else if you want it, but man you’re seriously like ice cold,” Dean said.

“I am not hungry anyway,” Castiel told him as he crawled into the bed with his coat.

Dean doubted that was really true since Castiel still didn’t seem to recognize most of the physical needs and desires of his own body yet, but he didn’t say that. He got Castiel into the bed under the covers and stood there for a minute, undecided. He should go back upstairs and start a fire, get Castiel dressed again and put him on the couch to get warm, but that would take time and he really was cold enough that it was worrying Dean.

Castiel started to shiver more violently under the covers as his body began to warm and that decided him. Dean paced a little away from the bed and stripped off his clothes, then crawled under the blankets with Castiel. Being naked with him in the bed made him nervous and uncomfortable, but it was a distraction because Castiel was watching, clearly distracted, and it was also the quickest and surest way to warm Castiel’s body back up.

All sound and logical arguments for it, but that didn’t make Dean any less uncomfortable with it. Probably because, despite those logical reasons, they were both very much aware of each others proximity and nudity for completely different reasons. Things that they had been inevitably working toward now lay there pressed between them like a shining weight.

“Better?” Dean asked. He cleared his throat and shifted onto his side to look at Castiel.

Castiel shivered and nodded his head. “Yes,” he said. “I have a question.”

Dean raised a brow at him. “Hmm?”

“Why are you also naked?” he said.

Dean blinked at him, then grinned. “Why? Does it bother you?”

“No,” Castiel said. He stared up at the devils’ trap over their heads and frowned.

“Sharing body heat,” Dean explained. “It works better if I’m not wearing clothes, that’s all.”

“Oh,” Castiel said.

“Which doesn’t make this any less awkward,” Dean said.

Castiel slanted his eyes to the side to look at him, then turned over on his own side, facing Dean. “I make you uncomfortable,” he observed.

Dean ran his tongue over his bottom lip and looked away from him. “Yeah, you do sometimes,” he said.

“I apologize,” Castiel said. He put out one of his cold, shaking hands and touched Dean’s arm.

Dean tensed at the chill slide of his fingers, but the touch drew his attention back to Castiel’s face. “Not your fault,” he said. “I’m just… I’m a little fucked up. That’s got nothing to do with you, man. Not really.”

“Sam,” Castiel guessed.

“Yeah,” Dean said.

“I am not Sam,” Castiel said. He let his hand move down Dean’s arm and back up, the caress warming his fingers.

“No kidding,” Dean said. He shifted a little closer to Castiel, trying not to twitch with every touch, and slipped his arm around Castiel’s waist to pull his body against him. “Jesus, you’re cold,” he whispered.

Castiel moved closer to him, letting Dean pull him close until he could feel Dean’s warmth seeping through the material of his coat. “You are not,” he said redundantly. He smiled faintly and put out his other hand to rest it on Dean’s chest.

“Shit,” Dean breathed, tensing at the icy touch.

“It does not appear to be working,” Castiel said, shivering so that his voice hitched. “The sharing of body heat.”

“Here,” Dean said, pushing the coat off of Castiel, then pulling him back until his shaking body was against Dean, cold skin to warm. “Told you, it works better without clothes.”

Castiel relaxed into his arms and ducked his head to rest it on Dean’s shoulder. “And this does not bother you?”

Dean ran his hands gently up and down Castiel’s back, working warmth back into his skin. “No,” he said. “Why would it? I’m not modest.”

Castiel said nothing for a while, just lay like that with his arms curled in between his chest and Dean’s as Dean stroked his back. He was so relaxed against him that Dean started to think he had fallen asleep. Then he lifted his head and met Dean’s eyes. “But if I touched you now, you would make me stop,” he said.

Dean’s hands stilled on Castiel’s back. Every argument against what Castiel wanted from him rose up in his mind, but he had spoken them all already and had every one of them shot down. It wasn’t complicated for Castiel like it was for Dean, at least not yet, but when Dean thought about it, he had no actual reason for saying no to him.

Dean let out a deep breath and shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t,” he said. He ducked his head to nudge Castiel’s nose with his own, urging his mouth up to lightly kiss him. “I did say we had a date, didn’t I?”

“Ah… yes?” Castiel said, licking his lips. “I seem to recall you shouting something at me about that this morning. Is this what you meant?”

“Not exactly, but sure,” Dean said.

“So I can touch you?” Castiel asked, moving his arms to put his hands on Dean’s chest.

“If you want to,” Dean said, watching him. Castiel pinched his left nipple and Dean winced. “I said you could touch, not rip off a chunk for later,” he said, putting his hand over Castiel’s fingers to still them.

“That hurt you?” Castiel said. He frowned and rubbed his fingers carefully over the spot. “I’m sorry. I’ve read so many things about--”

Dean coughed out a laugh. “You read,” he said, grinning. “Alright, well first thing you should know about sex; romance novels lie.”

“Yes, it would seem so,” Castiel said, his frown deepening. “I believe I am warm now if you would like to stop touching me,” he told Dean.

Dean’s smile slipped away and he tilted his head, studying Castiel thoughtfully. “You’re embarrassed,” he said, surprised by the realization.

“I am not sure what I am,” Castiel said uncomfortably. “I’m unfamiliar with the feeling.”

“Embarrassment,” Dean assured him. “Okay, look, do you want me to stop touching you?”

Castiel shook his head and shifted against Dean, drawing his arms back against his chest in a sadly defensive gesture. “I don’t know,” he said. “No.”

“Okay then,” Dean said. He took one of Castiel’s hands and put it back on his chest, then he put his own hand on Castiel’s chest. “Forget about what you read, alright? I’m going to touch you--just a little, it’s not going to hurt--and I want you to do what I do.”

Castiel nodded, moving his fingers restlessly on Dean’s chest before making himself be still to wait. When Dean moved his hand, he pressed down on Castiel’s nipple with his thumb and rolled it lightly. Castiel mirrored the action and Dean smiled, settling in closer. He carefully caught the nipple between his finger and thumb and rubbed, his smile widening when Castiel huffed out a soft breath and closed his eyes.

“See? That’s better, huh?” Dean murmured, brushing his mouth over Castiel’s.

Castiel nodded again and did what Dean had done, rolling his nipple between his fingers. Dean made a soft sound of encouragement and moved his brushing kisses along Castiel’s jaw. He stopped at the hollow below his ear, pressing his tongue just there to feel the thump, thump vibration of his heartbeat.

“Do you want me to do as you’re doing with your mouth?” Castiel asked, turning his head until his breath puffed against the side of Dean’s neck, the question a whisper along the shell of his ear that made Dean shiver. Intrigued by this reaction, Castiel blew lightly behind his ear again.

Dean licked over Castiel’s pulse and shook his head. “I think Simon Says is over,” he said. “You seem to be catching on fine all by yourself. Just… if you don’t like something, tell me, alright?”

“Yes,” Castiel said, speaking against the side of his neck. “Dean, will you…?”

“I’m working on it,” Dean said, smiling into the kisses he trailed back over Castiel’s face to his mouth. His innocence was humbling and at the same time deeply frightening. Dean didn’t think fucking Castiel was going to fix anything, but he really didn’t want to mess this up. “Slow and steady,” Dean muttered, and pressed his mouth to Castiel’s.

Castiel jerked his head back and blinked at him. “What?”

“Nothing,” Dean said with an exasperated sigh. “Just let me kiss you. You remember?”

Castiel’s lips quirked. “Yes,” he said. “I remember.”

“Good,” Dean said, putting his mouth back over Castiel’s and kissing him softly. “That’s good.”

When Dean pressed his tongue over Castiel’s lips, Castiel opened his mouth and let Dean lick inside over his teeth and tongue, before he responded. He tentatively flicked his own tongue out and touched Dean’s, then when Dean only encouraged him by deepening the kiss and pulling him closer, Castiel tried mimicking him again, stroking his tongue along Dean’s teeth, then over Dean‘s tongue. Dean sucked at his tongue and Castiel opened his mouth more, pulling his tongue back, causing a light dragging sensation as Dean let him go. It was a pleasant feeling, though strange, and he pushed his mouth back to Dean’s to try it himself.

Dean moaned softly, stunned by his own reaction to Castiel’s innocence and lack of skill, his trust in Dean that Dean didn’t believe he deserved at all. It was humbling, yes, but it was also deeply erotic, tied up in a strong sense of possessiveness. He pulled Castiel tight against him, both arms going around his waist to hold him, and growled softly into the kiss. He nipped lightly at Castiel’s mouth, then licked over his swollen lips, drawing soft sounds of confused desire from Castiel’s throat.

Castiel gasped into his mouth and gently pushed at Dean’s shoulder to break the kiss. “I’m sorry, I can’t breathe,” he whispered, panting.

Dean lifted a hand to stroke up the side of his neck, into his hair, and Castiel leaned into the touch with a low murmur of pleasure. “Try breathing through your nose,” Dean said, kissing along Castiel’s cheek to his mouth again. “Okay?”

Castiel swallowed, a nervous click in the back of his throat, and nodded. “Yes,” he said.

Dean kissed him again, slow and soft, drawing Castiel into responding to it on his own. As he kissed him, he let his hands moved over his body, down his back where his skin was soft and scarred, over his hips to feel where they dipped too sharply because Castiel was too thin now. Castiel responded with clumsy, fumbling touches of his own and kissed him back, but not deeper.

Dean shifted to move over him, dropped his head to kiss along the side of Castiel’s neck to his ear. He flicked the lobe of Castiel’s ear with his tongue, then caught it in his teeth and gently tugged, and with a nearly painful sound of protest Castiel pushed him back and jerked away.

“No,” Castiel said, and he suddenly sounded scared. He pushed Dean again and scrambled back from him to get out from under him. “No, Dean, don’t.”

“What?” Dean said, sitting back with a startled look on his face. “What happened?”

“Nothing,” Castiel whispered, suddenly embarrassed again, but still afraid. He stared back at Dean and for the first time really understood one of the reasons why Dean had insisted this was such a bad idea. He had known, but now he understood. Sam was Dean’s brother and Sam had been fucking Dean for years before Castiel came along. It stood to reason that they were the same in many ways and even similar in this one.

“Shit, I did something,” Dean said. He sat back on his heels and dragged both hands through his hair, looking down at Castiel laying there on the bed, ready to curl in on himself and completely withdraw.

There was a big part of him that wanted to just call the whole thing off and let Castiel go his own way. The part that had been telling him forever that this was a shit idea and he was going to fuck it up anyway. But there was a bigger part of him that wanted to do whatever it would take to fix this because Dean really did want him. He hadn’t at first, but things had changed and so had that. He wanted him now, but not if that meant damaging him more.

“Tell me,” Dean said, dropping his hands to his thighs.

Castiel followed Dean’s hands with his eyes cautiously, but when Dean didn’t reach for him again or grab him, he relaxed a little. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I didn’t understand. You were right. This is… It’s a bad idea to do this. For us to do this.”

Dean opened his mouth to speak, realized he didn’t know what he was going to say, and shut it. “Okay, wait a minute,” he said. He shifted to the side and sat down on the bed more comfortably. “We were doing fine--you were doing fine--then something happened. I don’t know what I did though, man. I’m not a mind reader like some of these people around here, I’m just a guy. You’ve got to tell me these things.”

Castiel shook his head. “It’s not your fault,” he whispered. “It’s me. It’s my fault.”

Dean narrowed his eyes on him, not believing that for a minute. All things considered, Castiel was one infinitesimal step down from a virgin and ten times more innocent than a lot of virgins Dean had met. He wasn’t about to believe that it was Castiel’s fault, whatever it was.

“Assuming it is your fault--something I think is complete bullshit, by the way--there still had to be a trigger,” Dean said. Then he thought of something and paused. “Sam,” he said.

“What?” Castiel said, his eyes going wide.

“I reminded you of Sam, didn’t I?” Dean said. He could see it, too, how that could happen. Even though he had been careful, Sam hadn’t really been that rough with Castiel the one time either, and he and Dean did like a lot of the same things, so maybe… “What was it?”

“Please, it was nothing important,” Castiel said. “Can we just… not do that?”

“Hey,” Dean said gently, putting out his hand on Castiel’s leg. Castiel tensed at the touch, then relaxed when Dean didn’t grab, just lay it there. “I’m not Sam,” Dean said. “You’ve been sleeping right there next to me for a while now, so you’ve got to know I’m not like that. I’m… Look, I’m not going to make you. I’d never make you, okay?”

“Yes,” Castiel said. He shivered and sat up a little, wrapping his arms around himself.

“But I want to and you wanted to until I fucked things up,” Dean said. “That’s why I said you got to tell me if I do something you don’t like. If you tell me, maybe I can fix it, huh? Figure something out?”

Castiel nodded and scratched his left arm with his right hand, quietly watching Dean.

“Okay,” Dean said. He moved to lay back down on the bed next to Castiel and Castiel tensed again. “I’m gonna lay back down, that’s all. That okay?”

“Okay,” Castiel said.

“And maybe, if you feel like it, you can lay down with me and tell me what just happened,” Dean said.

Castiel chewed on his bottom lip and looked away from Dean, across the room where the fan blade shadows from overhead slowly whisked by. “Maybe,” he said.

Dean didn’t push him about it, sensing that Castiel really did want to do what he asked, he had just been scared and now he had to come down from it. Castiel pulled one of the blankets up to cover himself, though Dean didn’t think it was out of modesty. His skin had prickled with goosebumps in the cold without Dean’s body to keep him warm and this time Castiel had noticed it. He caught Dean watching him and slowly slid down on the bed beside him, but he didn’t speak for a while, just stared up at the dark ceiling.

“You were on top of me,” Castiel finally said. He glanced at Dean, then away again as he spoke. “You bit my…” He reached up and swatted a little at his own ear to show. “You bit my ear,” he said, feeling a little ridiculous even as he said it. “But you were on top of me. It did, it reminded me of that and I’m sorry.”

Dean ran his tongue over the back of his teeth and thought about that. “Alright, then we’ll do it another way,” he said.

Castiel turned his head and gave him a doubtful look. “What other way?”

Dean grinned. “What, you think there’s just one way?”

Castiel frowned at him, but he seemed to relax a little. Dean hadn’t argued with him or tried to persuade him, he had said they would not do it like that, and that was it. “Another way,” Castiel repeated.

“Yes,” Dean said, watching Castiel shift cautiously back toward him.

“Okay then,” Castiel said.

“Yeah?” Dean asked.

Castiel smiled uncertainly back at him. “Yes,” he said.

Dean took one of Castiel’s hands and laced his fingers through Castiel’s, gently squeezed once, then brought his arm around his waist. “Put your hand on my back,” he said, leaning in to nudge Castiel’s mouth up for him to kiss. “I’m not going to hurt you,” Dean murmured.

Castiel made a soft distressed sound, but he still moved closer to him, into the kiss, his hand clinging tight to Dean’s back. “Don’t say that,” he said. “It’s alright if it hurts, just… don’t say that.”

“Alright, I won’t,” Dean said. He put his arm around Castiel and pulled him against him, glad that Castiel didn’t push him away or tense up when he did it. “I’m going to try not to hurt you,” Dean amended. He kissed the corner of Castiel’s mouth and lightly sucked at his bottom lip, his hand pressing down on the small of Castiel’s back to get him to rock against him a little. “It might hurt at first,” he whispered.

“I know,” Castiel whispered back. He licked out over Dean’s mouth, pressing his tongue against his lips to make him stop nipping and sucking at his mouth. Dean broke away only to come right back and slip his tongue inside Castiel’s mouth. Castiel moaned into the kiss, the gentle rocking motions Dean had coaxed him into sending soft pulses of pleasure and desire through his belly. “I know it will.”

“It won’t hurt the whole time, I promise,” Dean said. He stroked his hand over Castiel’s hip and ran his palm up his stomach and back down, smiling against Castiel’s mouth when he kept moving without Dean to urge him into it, his soft belly moving under Dean’s hand. “Tell me what you like.”

Castiel shook his head and pulled himself closer to Dean, trapping Dean’s hand between them. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t… It’s very strange. Very overwhelming.”

“Sure,” Dean said, pushing his hand back down Castiel’s stomach to his inner thigh, fingers pressing and stroking there. “But do you like it?”

“It is… Yes,” Castiel said. He gasped as Dean moved his hand over the sensitive flesh of his thigh, teasingly light strokes. “Yes, I like it.”

Dean wrapped his fingers around Castiel’s aroused cock and squeezed once, holding him when he cried out and bucked in his arms. “And that?” Dean said.

Castiel pressed his forehead to Dean’s chest, breathing heavily, soft sounds of pleasure in his throat. “Yes,” he said, gasping.

“Alright,” Dean said. He started to move his hand, gently pulling, jerking Castiel off slowly so he could watch him move into it, see his reactions in every flash of emotion across his features.

Castiel jerked against him, then instinctively began to move with Dean’s hand, rocking his hips into each pull on his dick the way he had been guided to move against Dean before. He moaned and pushed his face into Dean’s shoulder, muffling the sound but kissing him there, pressing his mouth along Dean’s skin without any encouragement. Dean turned his face to the side and nuzzled into Castiel’s hair, tasting his sweat on his lips. Castiel dropped his head back and Dean put his mouth to his throat, licking and kissing along his neck, murmuring soft nonsense words of encouragement. When he let his arm slip from around Castiel’s waist and stroked his hand over the curve of his ass, Castiel tensed and opened his eyes, but he bit his lips and didn’t say anything.

Dean saw the way he reacted anyway. “Hey, tell me,” he said. “You don’t want me touching your ass?”

“No, it’s fine,” Castiel said.

“You sure?” Dean said. He moved his hand again, running his first two fingers down the base of Castiel’s spine, into the crack of his ass. When Castiel shivered, Dean stilled his hand and watched his face, waiting. “We don’t have to do this part, Cas,” he said.

Castiel shook his head and took a deep breath, slowly letting it out. “Yes, I want to,” he said. “Just…”

“Slow and steady,” Dean said, giving him a reassuring smile. “Yeah, I gotcha.”

“Yes,” Castiel said, relaxing against him again. “Yes, like that.”

“Okay,” Dean said, but he took his hand away and petted up Castiel’s back, over his shoulders and back down to his waist. “Roll over,” he said, pushing at Castiel’s hip to get him to obey.

Castiel turned over on his side with his back to Dean and turned his head to watch Dean over his shoulder as Dean moved up against him. Dean ran his hand down Castiel’s leg, then back to his hip to hold him there, shifting against his back until they were pressed together, Dean’s stomach and chest along Castiel’s back. Castiel watched him, shivering as the cold air of the room slid over his front where Dean’s heat had been moments before, then just lay his head down and concentrated on breathing.

“Relax,” Dean told him. He pressed his mouth along Castiel‘s shoulders, over the Enochian scars set into his skin. “I’m going to put my fingers inside you. To open you. You remember what I said?”

“You…” Castiel swallowed and put his arm back to grab for Dean, something to reassure him and ground him, and caught his hip. “You’re going to try not to hurt me. I remember.”

“Yeah,” Dean said. He licked his index finger, slicking it with saliva, and shifted his hips away from Castiel a little so he could get his hand between them. “It’ll feel… uncomfortable. For a little bit, anyway. It’ll go away.”

Castiel didn’t say anything, just lay there, drawing deep, calming breaths and letting them out slowly. His heart was beating like a drum in his throat and his skin was flushed with it, but Dean was being gentle and patient with him and Castiel was a little afraid, but he was also excited by the unusual sensations and desire stirred up by what they were doing. If he hadn’t believed Dean or trusted him, even that wouldn’t have mattered, though.

“Okay?” Dean asked, speaking into the hair behind his ear.

Castiel nodded and shifted back against him restlessly, shivering at the feeling of Dean‘s hand on his ass. When Dean first pushed his finger inside him, Castiel tensed, but he remembered that Dean had cautioned him to relax and Dean didn’t force it deeper. He nuzzled the back of Castiel’s neck, making him tremble at the warm slide of his breath over his back, on those scars, and murmured soft words to shush him, though Castiel hadn’t made a sound.

When Dean felt Castiel relax around his finger, he stroked it in, then hooked it away from himself and rubbed his finger in and out until Castiel made a low sound like a whine. Dean smiled against the back of his neck, pleased with his reaction, and began to thrust his hand in slow, deep strokes against his ass, sliding his finger over Castiel’s prostate to draw those little helpless sounds from him. As he fingered him, Dean traced the marks on Castiel’s back with his tongue, pausing to kiss the little vertebra pressing against the skin at the back of his neck.

Dean added his middle finger and rocked gently against the back of his hand as he pushed it in and out of Castiel’s body. Castiel caught on to what he was doing and rocked back, moaning and gasping as Dean stroked over his prostate, sending pleasurable waves of sensation through his body until he was shaking with it and digging his fingers into Dean’s hip. He pulled at him, trying to get Dean closer still, though Dean was right up against him, and turned his head to find him over his shoulder. Dean moved up a little and stretched his neck out to lick Castiel’s mouth, then gently kiss him, and that seemed to be better.

“I’m going to spread my fingers,” Dean warned him. “It might hurt a little.”

“That’s alright,” Castiel said.

“Alright,” Dean said.

He opened his fingers, pushing against the resisting muscle as it tried to tighten back down on his fingers, and Castiel gasped and clutched at him tighter, his other hand twisting in the bed sheets, but he didn’t ask Dean to stop. Dean was really glad Castiel didn’t ask him to stop. He was being as gentle and patient as he could--both things that didn’t always come so easily to him--but he was so aroused that little tremors ran through his body and so hard for so long that it was bordering on painful.

Dean added a third finger and quickly stroked them, then opened them inside Castiel, the pain of that finally making him cry out. Dean whispered soft apologies and shushing sounds against Castiel’s shoulders and did it again, then again until he was sure it was enough. He started to ask Castiel again if he was okay, then he didn’t. Repeating the question again and again was pointless and Castiel had proved that if he wasn’t okay, he would stop it.

Dean withdrew his fingers from Castiel’s body and reached around him to grab his thigh and pull his leg back so that he could move between them. Castiel was panting and shaking, but he let Dean spread his legs and even moved back against him when Dean put his arm around his waist and pulled him back.

“Dean?” Castiel said, watching him over his shoulder.

“Shh, it’s okay,” Dean said. He rolled his hips against Castiel, pushing against his ass, and Castiel’s eyes widened a little, which made Dean smile. “Relax, remember?” he said.

“Yes,” Castiel said. “Are you going to--?”

“Yes,” Dean said, and pushed the head of his cock inside him on the next roll of his hips.

Castiel jerked at the penetration and Dean held him tightly, keeping him in place as he slowly sank into him. When he was fully inside, Dean let out a shaking sigh of breath and pressed his mouth to Castiel’s shivering shoulder. He stayed like that for a little while, waiting for Castiel to stop shaking, but then he realized that probably wasn’t going to happen and started to move, to distract him from it and take away his fear. Hopefully with pleasure because more than anything, he didn’t want to hurt him.

Relaxing helped, especially with saliva as their only lubricant, and Castiel did relax, but he just held onto Dean and ducked his head down on the bed, closing his eyes. Dean reached up and ran his hand along his neck, then leaned up to follow it with soft, sucking kisses to his shoulder. He was beginning to think that the best thing for him to do would be to finish for himself as quickly as he could and leave Castiel alone, it was stupid of them both to think that they could do this or that Castiel was even close to ready for it. The best Dean could hope to give him from it was not to hurt him, and that was sad and a little depressing to him, but Castiel didn’t respond much beyond the fingers flexing and relaxing against Dean’s hip.

Then Castiel arched against him with a sharp cry and Dean tightened his arm around his waist to hold onto him and keep him close, feeling the muscles in his stomach twitch beneath his fingers. Dean thrust into him again, angling for the same place, and Castiel threw his head back on his shoulder, mouth falling open as he moaned. Dean was relieved, but also so turned on by Castiel’s unrestrained response, he started to move faster, thrusting a little harder, his own pleasure building every time he forced a cry, a whimper, or a moan from Castiel.

Dean ran his hand up Castiel’s throat, feeling the way it worked as he swallowed and moaned against his palm, and cupped his chin, coaxing his face around to kiss him. “What is that?” he asked, snapping his hips once against Castiel’s ass, a cry breaking from his throat, echoing in the dark room. “Pain or pleasure? I have to know.”

“You do know,” Castiel whispered back, gasping out the words. “Pain… could be endured… in silence.”

Dean smiled, slow and knowing, pleased even as he worked his hips against Castiel’s ass, drawing more sounds of pleasure from him. Castiel’s tight body contracted around him, squeezing his dick, driving him quickly toward an orgasm he wanted to prolong but couldn’t, and every sound that fell from his mouth only increased the growing pleasure.

“Tell me,” Dean insisted, wanting to hear it even if he knew.

Castiel moaned and rocked back into Dean’s thrusts, his body alive with pleasure that was both familiar and entirely foreign to him, and nodded quickly. “Pleasure,” he said, breath catching on the word. “It’s pleasure.”

“Yeah,” Dean agreed, and moved his hand back down Castiel’s body to close his fingers around his cock. Castiel cried out and bucked against him, and Dean thrust into him, using the pushes of his own body to force Castiel to thrust into his hand.

This time when Castiel came, there was no flash of light, no roar of teeth-shattering noise, there was only a shout that cracked off the walls, his shuddering human body tensing and writhing in Dean’s arms, his come sliding between Dean’s fingers. Dean felt it all as it happened, Castiel’s body tensing and trembling as he fucked him through it, wringing every burst of pleasure from him until he was moaning and weak. He would never say it because there was no point in saying such things, but Dean liked this way better. It was less earth-shattering, but with Castiel pliant and gasping against him, sweaty and shaking with it, it wasn‘t as frightening. It was good.

Dean shifted a little against Castiel’s back, careful not to loom over him, and quickened his pace, his own orgasm rushing to tumble over him even as the exhausted whimpering sounds and soft tired grunts coming from Castiel sent shocks of awareness and pleasure through him. He liked those sounds sure, but more than that, he liked that he had caused them, had caused all of that in Castiel. Castiel who didn’t lie because he didn’t yet know how. Castiel who could take a punch like a marble statue and not feel a thing--or had once. Now he was slumped and exhausted, shivering and still softly moaning in Dean’s bed, with Dean’s come inside him and their sweat cooling together on their skin.

It shouldn’t have surprised Dean as much as it did to find that he liked it all as much as he did.

Castiel reached back and pushed at him, too wrung out for there to be any strength in it, but Dean understood and pulled out of him, running his hands over Castiel’s sides soothingly when he gasped at the withdrawal. Dean stretched out on the bed along Castiel’s back and threw one arm over him, smiling into the back of his neck with lazy, sated contentment when Castiel tensed up at the contact. Castiel squirmed against him a little, settling himself back against Dean, and tried to relax.

“It‘s done then?” he finally asked, trying to twist around to peer at Dean over his shoulder.

“Mhmm, ‘cept for the part where I get up in a little bit and go wash my hand and you go wash your… the rest of you because I know that’s not comfortable. Feels pretty weird first couple times, at least I thought so,” Dean mumbled, talking into Castiel’s hair. He was pretty beat himself because he was slurring a little. “Probably still felt weird later, I just stopped noticing it after a while. Why? You want me to stop touching you now? That’s kinda barn horse like… I mean door. Barn door like.”

“Barn door?” Castiel said, frowning. “I don’t understand that reference.”

“Like closing the barn door after the horse already ran off… Something like that,” Dean said. He moved his head a little away from Castiel’s hair because it was tickling his nose. “Means when you try to fix something after it’s already happened instead of making sure it doesn’t happen. I guess. ‘Least I always figured it meant that.”

“I still don’t understand why you’re mentioning it,” Castiel said.

“Fuck if I know, dude,” Dean said. He snorted laughter into the back of Castiel’s shoulder and closed his eyes. “Thought you wanted me to get lost, that’s all. I don’t know, but yeah, we’re done. ‘Cept I had this weird as shit idea I might try to convince you to do it all over again in a few hours. Yanno… assuming you’re amendable to that and all.”

Castiel said nothing for a while, thinking about it. He decided he kind of liked the aching way his body felt and he really liked the way Dean felt laying there with him. He could smell them and they smelled like the sex smell of mating creatures, which he didn’t find to be unpleasant. Right up against him, he could smell Dean, like sweat, tobacco, and even though he hadn’t had a drink in a few hours, he smelled like whiskey. Dean was a strong, warm line running down his back, each indrawn breath pressing him against Castiel’s back, every exhaled one rushing down his spine like a caress. It was familiar and comforting, and he realized that Dean also smelled like him, though he couldn’t name any of the things that he smelled like. This too was intensely satisfying.

“I’m about to take your really long silence as a no, which might just hurt my feelings and shit,” Dean muttered, making Castiel jump a little. “Heh, you thought I was sleeping, but nuh-uh, you ain’t getting off that easy, my friend.”

Castiel opened his mouth to reply before he realized he had no idea what to say to that. “What?”

“Nothing,” Dean said, grinning. “I’m just being a dumbass. Oh, and I’m gonna wake you up in a few hours and fuck you again. That too.”

“If I’m amendable, yes I heard you,” Castiel said, smiling faintly himself.

“Mhmm, but sleep first,” Dean said.

“Wouldn’t washing also be a barn door like thing if you intend to do this with me again?” Castiel said.

“Hmm, maybe,” Dean said. “Which does not mean you never get to wash again. I’m just saying.”

“Good night, Dean,” Castiel said.

“Alright, see you in a few,” Dean murmured.

“We’ll see,” Castiel said, smiling as he heard Dean’s breathing even out in sleep a few minutes later.

VI.

In the morning when Dean got up, for the first time since Castiel had found them and started sleeping beside him, Dean woke up first. Contrary to his promise the night before, Dean had slept straight through until morning without waking Castiel or so much as shifting around in his sleep, something his joints attested to by cracking and popping loudly when he stretched. Castiel hadn’t moved much in his sleep either, except to turn over to face Dean and squirm up against him.

Dean tried to remember if he had given Castiel anything to help him sleep the night before and he was pretty sure he hadn’t. Which would also make the night before the first natural sleep the angel had had since his fall.

“You two alive down there or what?!” Bobby suddenly shouted down the stairs.

Dean jumped and looked around frantically at Castiel, for a panicked, irrational moment thinking of covering his head to keep Bobby’s loud voice from waking him, then he got hold of himself and saw Castiel hadn’t even stirred. Dean got up quickly, careful not to jostle the bed and wake him, and snatched up his clothes from the floor to get dressed.

“Dean! Are you going out to--”

“Bobby, shut up,” Dean hissed, pulling on his shirt as he hurried up the stairs.

Bobby backed up as Dean came up to the main floor and studied him under speculatively lifted brows. “You mind your goddamn manners with me, boy, or I’ll get Missouri in here to box your ears,” he said.

“Whatever, man, just be quiet,” Dean said, buttoning his long-sleeved shirt as he went by Bobby into the kitchen.

“What the hell for?” Bobby said, following right behind him. “It’s damn near one in the afternoon. Am I depriving Sleeping Beauty of his rest?”

“Yeah, you are,” Dean said. He grumbled about the lack of coffee on the stove and went about making some for himself. “I don’t think taking pills every time he has to sleep is good for him, do you?”

“Don’t know if it’s good for him or not, but he’s about to have no choice in the matter unless you’re planning on going into the city again today because he’s out,” Bobby said. “But what the fuck’s that got to do with you telling me to shut up in my own damn house?”

“He didn’t take any last night,” Dean said.

“Uh huh, sex can do that to a man,” Bobby said dryly. At the startled look Dean gave him, he smirked. “What? You think I don’t have ears? These floors ain’t so thick I can’t hear what’s going on down there.” He stomped on the floor once for emphasis.

“Christ’s sake,” Dean muttered. He shook his head and put the coffee on to boil. “Just… don’t say anything to him, alright? About… you know.”

“I’m not fucking stupid, boy,” Bobby said. He sat down at the table and watched him as Dean came and sat across from him. “That kid of Jane’s is sick in a bad way. Pneumonia again, I’d imagine. You are going into the city again, ain’t you?”

“Hadn’t thought about it, but I guess we need salt if nothing else,” Dean said.

“That we do, yes indeed,” Bobby said.

Running out of salt was one of their greatest fears now. Without it, they couldn’t keep away demons or defend themselves against them, and it was one of the few things they couldn’t replenish on their own. At least not without traveling hundreds of miles to the sea.

“But that ain’t why I ask,” Bobby said. “Poor girl’s been bawling for hours now. That boy of hers took a fever last night and it just won’t break. She begged me to ask you to go for medicine.”

Dean sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and finger. “I feel bad for that kid, you know I do, but Bobby this is what? The fourth or fifth time now? He keeps getting sick and I can bring him antibiotics twice a year for the rest of eternity, but that shit won’t work forever.”

“I know that,” Bobby said. “Just make it work this time.”

“He needs a doctor,” Dean said, dropping his hand from his face to the table. “Or a priest.”

“Both of which are in scarce supply these days,” Bobby said. “Check your coffee.”

Dean turned off the burner and poured them both a cup of coffee, then sat back down, pushing Bobby’s across the table to him. “Probably wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference anyway,” Dean muttered, sipping his coffee. “A doctor would just confirm what we already know. With a shot immune system like he’s got now, his days are more numbered than ours.”

Bobby pushed his chair back with a loud scrape of the wood legs, and took his coffee with him. “You just keep that glass half full philosophy you got there and hurry back,” he said. He left Dean alone and went out on the porch.

Dean sat in the kitchen alone for a long time, watching the sun come up in the way the light slanted through the window over the floor and up onto the table. He picked at a hangnail on his thumb and listened to the younger dogs playing in the yard. The older ones were already up and around, probably walking the parameter, following their humans around, or begging for scraps at the fire if anyone was using it to cook. Not that far away, maybe a mile or two at the most, other dogs howled and yipped. Wild dogs, the offspring of pets abandoned and left behind, traveling in packs but keeping a wary distance from the long, wide stretch of land that smelled like gunpowder, vampires, and loyal, well-fed dogs.

A song flitted through his head and Dean tapped his fingers on the tabletop, humming the dismal tune of “The End” by the Doors. He suddenly wanted to turn on the radio and listen to the real thing. Music of any kind would have suited, but every station played nothing but static. He had tapes out in the Impala still, but he hadn’t been inside the car in over a year, so he had no way of knowing if they would still play or not. He would have to find batteries, but what he thought was really depressing about the whole thing was that one day, there wouldn’t be any batteries or generators and then no one in the world would ever listen to that music again. He tried to imagine being the last person on the planet to have ever heard “Light My Fire” or “Thunderstruck” the way it was meant to be heard. For some reason, he found that a lot more frightening and depressing than the prospect of being the last man alive on earth.

On the corner of the table by his left hand there was a book and Dean picked it up. It was a book about the culture and rituals of Native Americans, specifically the plains Indians. Undoubtedly another one from Lenore’s great library of rescued and commandeered things. Lenore had even told him once that she had the Gutenberg Bible laying around somewhere. Dean hadn’t disbelieved her, but he had asked her why she would want it.

“You gonna wool-gather all damn day, or are you gonna get a move on?” Bobby called back into the house. Without waiting for an answer, he let the screen door close with a sharp bang.

That little boy of Jane’s was going to die, Dean knew that, Bobby knew it, hell, even Jane herself probably knew it. There wasn’t any way around it, but Dean had that feeling like he sometimes got, a sense of trepidation that walked along the line of irrationality which assured him that if he didn’t make any sudden movements, nothing would happen. Sam had once told him he had a reverse God complex, the way he let his guilt eat him up inside, and he’d laughed when he said it but he hadn’t been joking. Dean could sit there asking for forgiveness until the end of the end of the end of the world, but the truth was, it didn’t matter and all he would get was more silence. As far as he was concerned, that didn’t make him very godlike.

Dean dropped the history book back down on the table and got up. He took his coffee which had gone cold to the sink and tipped water from a bowl on the counter into it so the cup wouldn’t stain. He went through the motions and got all his gear, then left the house, walking right by Bobby without a word.

As he started down the road, one of the dogs decided to follow him and Dean threw pebbles at it and scolded it until it tucked its tail and went back to hide under the porch steps. Some of the time, he was glad for the company, but he couldn’t have the dog coming with him this time. He was going to have to go over to Lenore’s and borrow a pack horse and the yard dogs smelled just like the wild dogs to them, or close enough that the horses might still panic. Bobby would have his ass if Dean got one of his dogs kicked in the head by a big old Morgan.

~~*~~

The horse Lenore gave him was a two year old bay gelding called Burrow that Dean had used to pack supplies with before and found that he liked. He was smart and eager to please, but best of all, he was patient with a guy like Dean that didn’t know jack shit about any kind of horse that didn’t come from under the hood of a car. Dean rode Burrow into Sioux Falls to cut some time off his travel, intending to load him up with supplies and lead him back home. The horse’s shoed feet made sharp clacking sounds on the cracked pavement, adding a measured rhythm to the pulsing rise and fall of cricket song and the whisper of long dry grass all along the road.

In the ditch, a skull watched him pass, crabgrass growing between its teeth and through the hole of one empty eye. Dean lifted a hand as he passed it, waving good-bye.

Dean could remember before everything collapsed, how the city had moved and lived. He and Sam had spent more time in Sioux Falls than almost any other one place throughout their lives. Aside from Sam’s time at Stanford, the days and weeks that they stayed at Bobby’s crashing in his guest room or on the sofa added up to something that was almost like home. It meant something to them, especially back then when nothing they had was permanent, not even each other, to have one place to come back to. A true north.

Back then, perhaps the person that the skull in the ditch had once been would have waved back.

Dean rode the horse down the main street to the drugstore before he dismounted. He stumbled a little when his foot went into a pothole instead of flat on the ground, but he caught himself with the horse’s mane and managed not to fall. It had taken Lenore about a week to teach him what little he knew about horseback riding and now he was sufficiently confident enough that he could mount, dismount, point the animal in the right direction, tell it when to go and when to stop, but that was about it, and even he would admit that he didn’t look very dashing while doing it.

He patted Burrow on the neck and called him a good boy. The horse snorted and shook his head, his skin twitching from the cold.

“Go on, yuck it up, buddy,” Dean said to the horse, smiling to himself as he left the animal and went inside.

By the registers at the front of the store, he found batteries and the sight renewed his desire to listen to his music. He thought about putting the new batteries in the little radio in the basement and cranking it up until the floor rattled and Bobby started shouting at him because the dogs were howling. The image in his mind amused him and he took three packs of AA batteries before continuing on to the back.

The pharmacy counter was a damn mess with bottles, both empty and full, scattered and piled on the floor. Loose pills crunched under Dean’s boots as he walked and he didn’t even try to kick them out of the way. For a little while, right between the shit hitting the fan Armageddon style and the destruction and devastation of both civilization and the human race that would come to be the Apocalypse, people went a little crazy. It was understandable, but it had been like the New York City blackout of 1977 on a world-wide scale. Most hospitals and drug stores, including this one, had been looted and ransacked ages ago, which didn’t mean that there were no useful drugs left in the places, only that there was a very limited supply of anything that was worth a damn.

Thankfully, to junkies at least, antibiotics weren’t really worth a damn, so there were plenty of them. The shelf where he found them hadn’t even been overturned. Dean stuffed several bottles of antibiotics into his bag, then he went in search of Castiel’s Vicodin. He didn’t think too hard about why he didn’t just grab him a few boxes of Sominex, which would have done him fine for sleeping. It was just one of those things and maybe Dean didn’t do that because of how Castiel was and how Sominex was great if all you wanted to do was catch some Z’s, but Vicodin was better for that and a bowl full of cherries.

He found a bottle on the floor under one of the shelves, then two more under the counter. He took all three bottles and didn’t bother to keep looking. He didn’t like it inside the store and he wanted the fuck out of there. It was creepy with the floors of shiny white spackled tile under a layer of dust and everything laying on the floor, right down to the overturned shopping carts, like when the world ended it had curled up to rest.

As he left, Dean kept expecting to see bodies, but there weren’t any. There wasn’t a single dead shopper or rotting stock boy anywhere and though he was glad after the body he’d found in the car last time scared the shit out of him, it was still the most surreal thing about the place. There should have been something; blood spatter, rotting flesh, the skeleton of a cashier spreading a puddle of goo for insects to breed in the length of aisle five. There was nothing in the place to testify to the fact that there had ever been life within those walls at all.

Deeply unsettled and feeling just a little bit claustrophobic, Dean left the drug store and went outside to breathe in the fresh air. He stood by the curb with the horse a few feet off pawing at a crack in the pavement where some weeds were fighting their way through and just breathed. The air was fresh and cold with a taste of October frost and he immediately began to feel better.

Burrow lifted his head suddenly and his nostrils flared in alarm.

“What is it, boy?” Dean asked, following the horse’s gaze.

He shaded his eyes with one hand and squinted, but at first he didn’t see anything but blue sky and the sun shining off the rusted and burned out rooftops of the cars along the street. He smelled it an instant before he saw it, and for another second his eyes almost tricked him into believing the smoke curling up into the sky was clouds.

“Must be another gas tank,” Dean muttered. He grabbed the horse’s halter and started walking that way.

It was mostly curiosity that pulled him, but there was always the possibility, though very small, that it wasn’t a gas tank. If that were the case, the most likely scenario was demons. Sometimes they cornered a lone traveler and Dean was still too much of a hunter to turn his back and mind his own business when demons were involved. Unless it was an angel they had cornered, but that wasn’t very likely at all. Dean hadn’t seen an angel other than Castiel in over a year. They weren’t exactly on speaking terms anymore.

As they got closer to where the fire was, Burrow whickered and tried to stop. Strange fire in a strange place made the animal skittish and Dean couldn’t really blame him. He patted the animal’s neck and let him go, continuing on his own. The horse wouldn’t go very far and he would stick close to Dean because Dean was familiar and trusted and he was in a strange, scary place.

Half crouched by the curb, keeping himself hidden the best he could behind the abandoned shells of cars, Dean finally got close enough to see what it was and he froze. Not demons or angles at all, but humans. Not victimized by demons or even, as far as he could tell, possessed. There were five of them, three men, a woman, and a girl no older than ten. Dean didn’t recognize any of them, but it shouldn’t have surprised him more to come upon human refugees than demons.

Not many strangers came through the area, though. Hell, not many humans traveled anymore at all. It just wasn’t safe. Every once in a while, a stranger would come through and spend the night at the yard, bringing with them stories of things they had seen and heard in other places they had been, but most people were drawn to the little tribal communities that had developed after the fall of civilization, so lone wanderers were a rare breed. It was a wanderer that had first told them about Ruby’s death. There were some groups of people that had turned subservient, even worshipful of Sam and his demons but news like that was frightening even to them, so the story had spread like fire under a strong wind.

These were not wandering people, Dean saw that right away. There were too many of them and wandering people did tend to travel alone or, if they had a woman, as a pair, but never in such a group as this. Dean stayed back and watched them, wary of approaching them because they were strangers and they could be desperate. Desperate people did stupid things and he didn’t have any particular desire to kill them. A lot of people hadn’t taken Armageddon in quite the same stride as Dean and Bobby had either. Besides those that had turned in fear to worshipping demons, there were others that had just gone crazy or turned violent. Like aboriginal people in the deep jungles, they were warlike and oddly primitive. It made Dean think of The Lord of the Flies the way humanity had so easily reverted back to its basic animal core. There were even stories of groups farther south, near the Gulf of Mexico and the down into the Florida Everglades, that hunted other people and ate them. Dean didn’t know how much of that he honestly believed, but he had seen people at their worst often enough that it wasn’t out of the question.

These people didn’t seem like that kind. They were gathered around a fire they had made with broken pieces of two-by-fours in the center of an old truck tire. They looked like all they were doing was trying to warm up some canned food they had found in one of the abandoned stores, but appearances were deceiving and if it turned out that they weren‘t so innocent, three men and one woman could probably take him out in the open alone. Even armed, it wasn’t something Dean wanted to risk.

Dean started to back away in the direction he had come. He would go around them, load up the horse with rock salt from the hardware store and get out of town without them ever knowing he was there. Maybe when he got back to the yard, he could send a few men back to check things out.

Then he smelled it, and just like smoke had a way of almost being clouds, sulphur smelled enough like scorched rubber that Dean didn’t recognize it right away. Not that it would have mattered. When a demon got close enough that you could smell Hell on their skin and feel the fire of their breath on your neck, you were fucked already.

~~*~~

Dean came to half-consciousness in the dark, constrained so that he couldn’t move, and he panicked. He screamed and twisted, but whatever he was trapped in was like a cocoon, or like a giant Chinese finger trap. It seemed like the more he struggled, the tighter it got and within seconds he was hyperventilating and on the verge of a full-blown panic attack.

The blow to his head that knocked him back out came almost as a mercy.

When Dean woke up again, he was less groggy and forced himself to be still and relax as he took in his situation. He couldn’t tell much about his surroundings other than he was confined in some kind of rolled up cloth and the way it swayed under his weight, he knew he was being carried. From the way the soft woven material rubbed at his skin, he also knew he was naked, though he couldn’t remember being undressed.

He supposed if they were going to eat him, that might make things a bit easier, but that didn’t sound much like demons, and he definitely remembered smelling sulphur before he‘d been knocked out. Demons did some fucked up shit, but eating people usually wasn’t on the list. They left that to other people. Which left the question: what were they doing with him? If they were going to kill him, then what was the point of going to all this trouble?

Unless they weren’t going to kill him. But again; then what?

He listened to doors opening and closing and feet tapping on stairs as he was carried up them. He counted the flights by the number of times his captors paused before they began ascending again and there were four. Four flights of stairs and a long, straight corridor or walkway of some kind before they turned and came to a stop. There was the sharp sound of knuckles rapping on wood and Dean felt himself tense up, his muscles shivering with tension as he both tried to remain still so as not to alert the monsters and readied himself to move once they set him down. They had stripped him and wrapped him up in something that he couldn’t presently get out of, but they had also made the mistake of not binding his hands and feet.

He had no idea why they hadn’t killed him on sight because the last he had heard about it, half of Sam’s demons were out for his blood and the other half didn’t like him very much. It didn’t really matter why, though. It only mattered that they hadn’t. Unlike a lot of people, Dean could still hold his own in a fight when he was naked.

When he was put down, Dean had to restrain himself again from struggling against the overwhelming claustrophobia of the way he was bound and stayed still. Distantly, he heard the low murmur of voices, but they were muffled and easily ignored. He didn’t care what they had to say, only that he somehow got out of this alive.

Then he was flipped over and everything Dean had intended to do went to hell as he was rolled out on the floor and went sprawling. He hit his elbow on the carved leg of a chair and had time to register that it was carved like the claws of a lion holding a crystal ball. He’d cracked his elbow off a gaudy crystal ball. Then someone touched him, just a hand on his shoulder, but Dean snapped back from it like the touch had electrocuted him and scrambled back a couple of feet to get away. He was caught completely unarmed and off guard, with no idea where he was or what was happening, and his one feeble attempt at a plan had gone to ruins when he was unrolled out onto the cold floor in a… a fucking Persian rug.

His eyes locked on the intricate pattern of the rug laid out on the stone floor and Dean stared, his chest heaving as his breath pushed at his lungs, but still failed to give him oxygen.

“Dean.”

Dean shook his head at the sound of that low, familiar, beloved and cursed voice. A single word and he was already undone, it was ridiculous.

“Dean, calm down. You’re going to pass out.”

“That actually might not be such a bad idea, Sammy,” Dean said, finally lifting his head to look. He stared at Sam and it was like a punch to the stomach. “I can’t believe you… you fucking kidnapped me.”

Dean looked away from him, staring down into the palms of his own cupped hands, and he started to laugh. It was low at first, his shoulders shaking the only real indication of it at all, but it bubbled up in his throat and in a few seconds, he was laughing with his hands pressed over his mouth, trying to keep it in. “You… Oh God… You wanted to drive me away. You… Everything you do… And so I stayed away, didn’t I? Didn’t I?!” His voice broke at the end, his laughter cutting off in a burst of rage as he lifted his head again and locked eyes with Sam.

“Yes,” Sam said softly. He watched Dean with his eyes intent, piercing and unsettling in their hunger.

Dean got slowly to his feet, watching Sam back, wanting desperately to hide himself because every look was like an invisible touch on his skin. It was making him shake. “Give me back my fucking clothes,” Dean said.

Sam’s gaze flicked over Dean’s shoulder briefly, then back. “I don’t have them.”

“You… I stayed away from you!“ Dean hissed, jabbing a finger at Sam. His other arm he kept wrapped protectively around himself as he moved to put his back to the nearest wall. In his peripheral vision, he recognized the shapes of other men and they were not important, but he didn’t want them behind him either. “You said stop trying to save you and I… I did. It killed me inside, but I did it. You fucking hypocrite.”

“No,” Sam said. “I didn’t bring you here.”

“You had your lackeys do it, what’s the difference?” Dean snapped.

Sam’s lips quirked in a little smile amusement, but he shook his head. “No, I didn’t,” he said. “You’re more like… a surprise gift.”

Dean blinked at him in alarm, then glanced again at the Persian rug rolled out on the floor at Sam’s feet, and it all clicked into place. He barked out a laugh and closed his eyes, rubbing his forehead with one hand. “Great,” he said. “That’s just great. So I’m what? The new diamond in your harem?”

That surprised a laugh out of Sam and Dean jerked his head up to look at him. It was a real laugh, an honest one and not malicious. It made Dean’s chest hurt to hear it.

“Damn, I’ve missed you,” Sam said on a sigh as his laughter faded.

“Don’t say that,” Dean whispered, his heart giving another of those painful leaps in his chest. “Don’t you say that to me, Sam. Just… do whatever you’re going to do, but don’t you fuck with me like that anymore, man.”

Sam moved then, crossed the space between them and stopped right in front of Dean. “It’s true,” he said. “I don’t have to lie to you to hurt you, remember?” He put out his hand and rested his fingers against the side of Dean’s jaw. “I have missed you, aggravating son of a bitch that you are.”

Dean smacked Sam’s hand away, his skin already warm and aching from the brief touch, and tried to back away from him more, pressing back into the wall. “Don’t touch me,” he said roughly, breath coming a little shorter because of Sam’s proximity. He felt like a bug run through the center and held in place with a pin and it was making him start to panic.

Sam held his hands up in a show of harmlessness and backed a little away from him. He paced and Dean watched him, uncomfortably reminded of a cat in the wild on the prowl. “I don’t have a harem, just so you know,” he said.

“I can see where it might be hard to find new recruits for something like that after what you did to Ruby,” Dean said.

Sam smiled at that and made a vague shrugging gesture with one hand as he circled back in his own footsteps to walk around Dean. “How would you know about that? Aren’t you hiding away in that little bunker under Bobby’s house?”

Dean knew about it because one warm night right after he and Castiel got away from Sam in the desert, Dean had stretched out to sleep on the hood of his old car, and the next thing he knew, Chuck was waking him up screaming. His screams carried all the way from the trailer where he and Becky lived to where the Impala was parked out by the woodpile and Dean had rushed over there, gun drawn, thinking they were both dying and demons had somehow broken through their defenses. Chuck said it was nothing but a nightmare, but about a week later a stranger showed up with a story that made Chuck’s face go ash white with terrible recognition. Ruby was torn to pieces, he said, and her remains were thrown out to wild dogs to fight over and devour, a morbidly ironic biblical parallel that Dean was sure Sam appreciated. The thing was, by all accounts, Ruby had been Sam’s queen demon right up to the moment he killed her.

“We hear things,” Dean said.

“I’m sure you do,” Sam said. “But you know how rumors are.”

“You saying it’s not true?” Dean said.

Sam grinned. “Does it sound like that’s what I’m saying?” Sam stopped pacing and stood facing Dean, his hands behind his back in a position that Dean recognized as oddly military. “Ruby was very loyal and devoted, but you see, her true devotion as it turns out was not to me at all. She had this outrageous idea about raising the devil from Hell. She was a little fanatical about it and I’m sure you can understand why I couldn’t allow something like that.”

Dean swallowed thickly and shook his head. “You’re insane, how should I know?”

“Well yeah, I am a little, but that’s got nothing to do with it,” Sam said.

He turned his attention suddenly on the other demons in the room watching them. There were two of them and when Sam’s eyes settled on them, they straightened a little. “Leave us,” Sam said.

Both demons nodded and started to go. One of them hesitated and looked between Dean and Sam, considering. “Do you want us to leave a guard outside?” he asked.

Sam smirked and shook his head. “I don’t think that’s necessary, no,” he said.

Both demons inclined their heads in a show of respectful acknowledgement, then left without another word.

And just like that, Dean was alone with Sam. He was naked and alone in a huge, lamp-lit room with Sam, who he had spent the last half a year trying to pretend didn’t exist anymore. Sam who he had been privately mourning for years, even when he was still trying to save him from himself. Sam, who had betrayed him and everything they were, who had destroyed the world and was still trying to rip Heaven down from its celestial rafters.

The air he breathed was suddenly thick like scalding hot liquid with how much he physically ached with his own ambivalence, both despising Sam for the things he had done and yet loving him in spite of it. The two emotions glanced blows off of each other like flint and steel, leaving Dean immobile and suffering.

“I don’t like to talk about this in front of them,” Sam said, continuing just like he didn’t see the faraway look in Dean’s eyes or the way he leaned back against the wall shaking. “Some of them think that raising Satan from Hell is one of my priorities. They think I’m working on the problem and that one day very soon I’m going to find the answer and Lucifer will rise up and lead them to glory. Whatever the hell that means.”

Dean looked at him and raised a questioning brow, but he said nothing.

“Oh,” Sam said, just as though Dean had spoken aloud. “No, I have no intention of raising Lucifer from Hell. I like him right where he is; locked up safe and sound, not competing with me.”

“Well, that’s a relief,” Dean said dryly.

“It should be,” Sam said. “How many human survivors are there now?”

“I don’t know,” Dean said. “What’s ten percent of six point seven billion?”

“Six hundred and seventy million,” Sam said after a moment to think.

“There you go,” Dean said. “Tell me how that should be reassuring.”

“I suppose it’s not very reassuring, no,” Sam said. “But if you were to look on the bright side, if you had Satan to deal with instead of me, that number would be a lot smaller. And you would probably be dead.”

“Oh my God, you’re right,” Dean said. “Why didn’t I think of that? All this time I was thinking you were such an evil, vicious motherfucker, I should have been looking around for a thank you gift. Do you like flowers? What about chocolates? There’s this--”

Sam rolled his eyes. “Shut up, Dean,” he said. “My point is, I killed Ruby because she was a security risk. Other demons respected her and looked up to her and she was causing unrest.”

“So you fed her to dogs,” Dean said. “That makes perfect sense.”

“Sure it does. It was also a warning,” Sam said. “And don’t you stand there and pretend to be pissed at me about it. You hated her guts.”

“I’d rather not be standing here discussing it with you at all, Sammy, honest to God,” Dean said. “So maybe get me something to wear and I’ll just be on my way.”

Sam walked back over to him, put his hand on the wall over Dean’s shoulder, and leaned over him. “Even that, I did for you,” Sam said. “I’m evil, I admit it. Curse me if you want to, I don’t care. But I’m the evil you know, the better evil, and so you’re still alive.”

“Maybe I’d rather be dead,” Dean said, putting a hand up to push at Sam’s chest and get him to back up. Sam didn’t budge at all.

“Six hundred and seventy million other people on the planet are also still alive,” Sam said, lowering his head to breathe close to the side of Dean’s neck, his breath puffing warm on Dean’s ear.

“You destroyed the world and ruined civilization, let’s try to keep this thing in perspective, Sam,” Dean said. He turned his face away from Sam as Sam put his head down and pressed his mouth to the hollow of Dean’s jaw, right over his pulse where it was beating like a war drum under his skin. “Don’t,” Dean whispered. “Don’t do this to me now. Just let me go.”

“You’re not my prisoner,” Sam assured him.

“You had me knocked out, wrapped up in a rug, and kidnapped,” Dean said, trying unsuccessfully to squirm away from Sam’s touch and fade through the stone wall. “Sorry if I’m not feeling a lot like a welcomed guest at the moment.”

“I apologize for that, but seriously, that was not my idea,” Sam said. He lifted his hand and stroked the side of Dean’s neck where he’d pressed his mouth moments before. “You think I couldn’t have taken you whenever I wanted? You think I haven‘t always known where you are?”

“I don’t know, but I’ve been hiding out. Seems to be working on the Heavenly Host just fine,” Dean said. He sucked his bottom lip between his teeth and shivered, then reached up and grabbed Sam’s wrist where his hand was petting him. “Sam…”

“That’s because they’re gone,” Sam said. “Flew the coop, so to speak, when they realized I wasn’t going to drag their brother up out of the pit.” Sam leaned into Dean and brushed his mouth over Dean’s, lips curved in a wicked smile. “But they’re still probably watching, even now.”

Dean stared back at Sam and felt the hollow place inside him where he had believed he’d cut out his own heart for this shudder and swell at Sam’s nearness. He wanted to be able to push Sam away, to reach into the back of his own mind and resurrect all of the horrors he had seen in the last years, to look into Sam’s familiar face and see the face of the monster he was, but just wanting it didn’t make it so. There was a great empty, beveled, secretly waiting place in his heart where Sam lived on, even Sam as he was now, and Dean wanted and that secret part of his heart didn’t care about anything else.

Sam watched him back and Dean knew that, secret or not, Sam knew that empty place, perhaps even had one of his own, and recognized it in Dean. Sam cupped Dean’s jaw in his hand and ran the pad of his thumb over Dean’s mouth, coaxing his lips to part. Dean exhaled a shuddering breath and let Sam slide his thumb into his mouth, over his bottom teeth. His fingers tightened against the bones of Sam’s wrist and he put his other hand out and grabbed onto Sam’s shirt.

“You’re not my prisoner,” Sam said again, breathing it against Dean’s mouth as he withdrew his thumb, pulling gently at Dean’s lip. “You can leave right now if that’s what you want to do.”

Dean closed his eyes again, tried to reach down inside himself past every part of him that had always cleaved to Sam in the most shameful ways, to find a scrap of steel in his own spine. He didn’t need much, just enough to push Sam away and run, but it wasn’t there. There was no strength in him where Sam was concerned, there never had been.

“God damn you,” Dean whispered. He ran his tongue over his lip that tingled with the lost warmth of Sam’s touch, then opened his eyes. “God damn you,” he hissed again, and tightened his hand in Sam’s shirt, pulling him against him.

Sam’s eyes flashed with triumph and he hauled Dean against him, his arms going around his waist to pull him away from the wall and against his body. “I’m sure if God were here he would,” he whispered, then he kissed Dean with a growl that rolled over their tongues.

Dean answered the kiss and the growl, his hands already under Sam’s shirt to work it up his chest. They reluctantly broke the kiss long enough for Sam to get the shirt over his head and off, then went right back to it, nearly violent with it, nipping and licking as Sam crowded Dean back through the room to a hallway where no lamps burned. Dean bumped into the wall as they started down the hall and Sam followed him, pressing up against him, his teeth grazing along a tendon in Dean’s neck right down to the muscle of his shoulder, where he bit lightly, then licked over the spot, making Dean shiver.

Dean let his head fall back against the wall, staring blindly up at the dark ceiling, as Sam left a trail of biting kisses over his shoulder. His skin was flushed, he could feel it like it was glowing, and the smell of Sam was all around him, unchanged and familiar. The taste of his kiss was in Dean’s mouth and he ran his tongue over the poisoned apple flavor of it on the roof of his mouth before shoving Sam back to move away from the wall. Sam hesitated when Dean pushed him, but when Dean came right back to him, wrapping his arms around Sam’s neck, sliding his fingers up into his hair, Sam seized his hips in his hands and walked him backward down the hall until Dean’s back hit a door.

Dean panted out a soft curse and fumbled around with his hand on the wood of the door until he found the knob. He twisted it and it wasn’t locked, the door opened and he would have fallen through it if Sam didn’t have his hands on him, holding him up as he pushed Dean through it, into a large, lamp-lit bedroom.

The oil in the lamps glowed red on walls the color of old ivory in a room that was mostly bare, that was all Dean saw before the backs of his knees hit the side of a bed and he fell with Sam already crawling over him, fumbling his belt open as he moved up the bed. Sam grabbed Dean’s thighs and pushed him up the bed, sheets and covers bunching under them until Dean’s head fell back on the pillows.

“I don’t have anything to make this easier,” Sam said, hands moving restlessly on the insides of Dean’s thighs, over his hips and belly and back down. “I’m sorry, I just don’t… I don’t do this anymore.”

Dean arched up into Sam’s touches, shaking when his fingers ghosted down his stomach, the sensation of warm, rough skin on his own cooler flesh raising goosebumps. “I don’t care,” Dean said. He dug his fingers into Sam’s side, pulling him down onto him, and raised up to feel Sam’s stomach slide against his own. “It doesn’t matter. We’ve done it before.”

“Yeah,” Sam said. He swayed down against Dean, his back arching into the insistent pulling of Dean’s hands until he was pushing him down into the mattress under his weight. “We haven’t for a long time, though. It’ll hurt. Unless you have been?”

“No,” Dean said immediately. “No, I haven’t let anyone.”

Sam’s lips twitched in a soft smile and he rocked against Dean, making him moan. “Then it’ll hurt.”

“Maybe a little,” Dean said. He pulled again at Sam, raising his spread legs a little against his side so he could reach down and grab Sam’s hips, urge him on and drag him still closer. “God, I don’t even care if all it does is hurt, I need you.”

Sam laughed softly and rolled his hips, grinding against Dean as he lowered his head to lick and nip at his ear. “And I need you,” he murmured. “Just like this. Even if all it does is hurt.”

And Dean wasn’t so distracted that he misunderstood that. He knew they weren’t just talking about sex anymore. That was okay, though, and it was enough that he knew.

“Yes,” Dean said, turning his head to nuzzle at Sam’s neck. “Yes, me too. Come on, Sam. Come on, please.”

“Yes,” Sam said. He shifted to lift off of Dean some, taking his face in his hands to fix Dean’s eyes on him, and began to rock against him. The gentle sway of his body rubbed his cock along the crease of Dean’s thigh and hip, against Dean’s cock. “Missed you, love you,” he whispered.

“Yeah,” Dean said. He ran his hand down Sam’s chest, reached to slide his fingers over his belly and grasp his cock. “Yeah, me too. Tried to stop. Tried to forget. I couldn’t do it, though. I couldn’t.”

“No,” Sam agreed.

Sam took Dean’s hand away from his dick and held Dean’s hips, lifting him a little so that his legs sprawled open over Sam’s thighs, and pushed inside of him. Dean gasped and Sam stopped, only the head of his cock penetrating him as Dean’s instinctive tensing made him tighten around it. Making his breath slow and even, Sam stared down at him, holding Dean’s gaze with his own as he waited, teeth gritted against the pleasure of it and the desire to slam into him. He put one hand on Dean’s stomach and gently stroked him, pressing his fingers in a little to massage the tensing muscles there, urging Dean to relax more.

Sam started to slowly push deeper as Dean relaxed, but Dean grabbed the back of his shoulder and dug in, gasping in pain and writhing away from him. “Fingers,” he panted. “I know you want it now, but have some fucking mercy, Sammy.”

“Shh, okay,” Sam whispered. “Got a little ahead of ourselves, huh?”

Sam moved his hand from Dean’s belly between his legs and pressed a finger inside him, not withdrawing from his body to make room for it, but curving his finger inside Dean’s ass with the head of his cock still inside him. The stretch like that burned and Dean arched off the bed against him, mouth open and panting, fingers dragging at Sam’s back. When Dean slumped back, shivering but trying to stay relaxed for it, Sam bent his finger against his prostate and stroked. Dean cried out and lifted his hips, moving into the motion of Sam’s curling finger.

Sam leaned over him and ran his tongue up Dean‘s neck to lightly bite his earlobe. “Tell me you’re ready now,” he whispered urgently. He thrust his finger deep inside, pressing it up as he dragged it slowly back out of Dean, pulling it over his prostate as he withdrew it.

Dean moaned, his breath hitching into little pleasured whimpers, and nodded. Sam’s smile flashed quick in the dark and for a moment everything was good. There was nothing outside of that bed or that room, no world dying, no people needing, no lines in the sand or paths to choose. There was them and they were as they had always been. Dean tried to hold onto that feeling as Sam thrust inside him at last, but a trick of the lamplight made Sam’s eyes look black and it was gone.

Sam took Dean’s hips in his hands again and held him in place, tight against Sam’s body as he thrust inside him, slow, deep strokes that dragged and ached all the way. Dean’s breath hitched on moans and cries, pain and pleasure mingled up in the sounds, and he still responded, rising up against Sam to match each thrust. He hooked one arm around Sam’s neck and pulled him down to him and Sam hunched his shoulders to lower his head and kiss him without breaking his rhythm. As Sam fucked him, it became easier and less painful. Dean’s body didn’t tighten down on his dick as much and the friction of moving inside him drew precome from Sam’s cock until his thrusts were almost smooth.

Sam was rough but still controlled, every thrust sending pangs of pleasure like the pounding of a drum into Dean’s stomach and up his spine. Sam knew his body better than anyone, and he knew what gave Dean pleasure, what he liked and what was too much. This time, he pushed it but didn’t quite cross the line, moving within him like he meant to beat Dean’s orgasm out of him by force, but still careful not to hurt him. Dean responded to Sam’s demanding pace by wrapping himself around him, pulling Sam against him as he yielded up his body to whatever he wanted.

There was a big part of them both that wanted to punish the other. Ultimately Sam had driven Dean away, but his roughness now was tempered with gentle touches, How dare you leave me? in the silence of every violent stroke. Without a word, Dean answered him, moaning his pleasured despair into their kisses, How dare you drive me away? shuddering in his body like the sweat sliding over their skin.

When Dean came, he bucked against Sam, pulling at him as his orgasm slipped through him like the touch of a match to gasoline, and Sam held him through it, arms tight around his waist and mouth leaving kisses along his jaw and cheek. Dean’s cries hit the walls and echoed back, and Sam laughed low in his throat as he finally kissed Dean’s mouth and fucked him through it.

He went slower then, his thrusts long and deep, but not as fierce or demanding, and Dean moaned for him, worn out and oversensitive to every touch, as he kissed Sam’s shoulders until he was shivering. Dean licked the salt taste of Sam’s sweat from his mouth and turned his head to kiss him, his breath hitching in soft puffs on Sam’s skin. Sam was licking over Dean’s tongue when his own orgasm rushed through him and he cried out into Dean’s mouth, breaking the kiss. He tossed his head back to throw his hair out of his face and stare down at Dean as pleasure streaked through him and he came with his hips pushing Dean down into the mattress. Braced above him, Sam panted as he watched Dean jerk beneath him, his come slicking up inside of him, and was overwhelmed by a deep sense of possession.

When he finally allowed himself to relax down on Dean, Sam nuzzled into his damp hair and knew he couldn’t let him go again. Even as he realized that, he was murmuring, “Stay the night. I won’t make you stay, but stay the night,” into Dean’s hair.

A million reasons why he couldn’t do that ran through Dean’s head. Jane’s little boy needed him, the people in their little community needed him, Sam was still just as evil has he had been before, the world was still collapsing on its foundation because of the things he had done, and nothing was over. Maybe the angels were gone and the demons were on leashes, but nothing had changed. Dean petted his hands down Sam’s back and breathed him in, and for the first time in hours he allowed himself to think of Castiel. Who was he betraying more in this moment? Him or Sam? Maybe it was a toss up.

“You have to let me go in the morning,” Dean said, pressing his mouth to Sam’s cheek in a soft kiss. “Keep your promise and let me go.”

Sam lifted his head and looked down at him, a smile creeping up at the corners of his mouth. He hadn’t expected Dean to agree. He had expected Dean to come to his senses and demand to be set free, and if he had done that, Sam wasn’t absolutely sure that he could have kept his promise and not made Dean his prisoner then. But Dean’s agreement was a step toward acceptance and Sam knew he could work with that.

“Yeah?” Sam said.

Dean smiled back at him, lazy and tired. “Yeah,” he said.

Sam rolled off of him and pulled Dean with him to lay beside him, fingers kneading gently along his hips and waist. “I’m so sorry,” he whispered, and there was true regret in his voice. “I never wanted to make you leave, you know.”

“Then why did you?” Dean said. “I would have stayed, you know. Even though… Even. I would have still stayed with you.”

“And you would have been in danger,” Sam said. “Running around trying to change me, you were already in danger.” He moved his hand from Dean’s waist to touch his face, running his fingers along the curve of his eyebrow. “If you had to watch it all, would you have still stayed?” he asked. “Or would have put that knife of yours between my ribs? Kill the monster… save the world? I think you would. I couldn’t… I can’t bear that.”

Dean shook his head, his eyes stinging with tears that flooded his vision. “I won’t do that to you,” he said, his voice cracking. “I… no.”

“No, I don’t think you will now,” Sam said. He brushed his fingers beneath Dean’s eyes, wiping his tears away. “I think you might have then. But now… what’s done is done.”

“Yeah,” Dean said. He closed his eyes and the tears that had been hanging onto his lashes dropped and slid over the back of Sam’s hands. “Yeah, it is, huh? It’s over?”

“Yes, I think so,” Sam said. “And you’re tired.”

“Yes,” Dean said, tilting his head to put his face into Sam’s hands as he opened his eyes again and looked back at him. Sam’s eyes swirled black like ink in water and all Dean felt was bone-deep weariness at the sight. “Yes, I am. I’m so tired.”

Sam took his hands away from Dean’s face, pulled him close to his body again, and nuzzled his face into the curve of Dean’s shoulder with a sigh. “Then go to sleep,” he said.

~~*~~

In the morning, Dean woke to the sun slanting through the great round bay window across the room. The light hit his eyes and glowed red on his eyelids until he opened them and rolled over to get away from it.

“You should get up,” Sam said beside him.

Dean jerked his head up and blinked at him, shocked awake by the memory of where he was. “Sam,” he said.

Sam’s expression turned cautious and he propped himself up on his elbow, watching him. “Yeah,” he said. “You alright?”

Dean looked away from him, across the room to the window. Beyond it he could see the towers of abandoned buildings and the sky painted with salmon pink clouds as the sun came up. On the floor, the window had left a long bright line of light all the way to the bed.

“Hey,” Sam said, and put his hand on Dean’s back. “You should go.”

“You trying to get rid of me now, Sam?” Dean said. He sat up and Sam’s hand slid down his back to fall away. “Again,” he added.

Sam rolled his eyes and got off the bed. “Don’t be stupid,” he said. He went to a large armoire across the room at the foot of the bed and dug through it until he found a pair of jeans and a shirt for Dean. “Here,” he said and threw them to him. “You might have to tighten the belt and roll up the legs on the pants, but you can wear those home.”

Dean picked up the shirt and put it to his face, inhaling Sam’s lingering scent on the worn fabric. “Is there… Do you have running water in this place?”

“If you want it,” Sam said, turning back to him. He leaned back against the closed doors of the armoire with his own clothes in his hands and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m not throwing you out,” he said. “You can stay if you want to.”

“No,” Dean said quickly. He snatched up the pants and belt with the shirt Sam had tossed to him and got up. “Ah… I can’t. But about that water…”

Sam chuffed out a soft laugh and unfolded his arms to point to a door on his left. “Bathroom’s there. The shower works,” he said. “I’ll go see about getting you some shoes, then maybe we can get you on your way… home.”

“Okay, thanks,” Dean said, walking around the bed to go into the bathroom. He watched Sam as he went by him, but Sam just raised an eyebrow at him and watched him pass. Dean wanted to ask him why he wasn’t pushing the issue more, but he didn’t. He was getting what he wanted, what would be the point of that? “I’ll… I’ll see you in a few minutes.”

“Maybe,” Sam said, finally standing away from the armoire to go back to the bed. He dropped his clothes down on the bed and started pulling his jeans on. “I might be out. If I’m not here, someone will take care of you.”

“Wh--Wait, why won’t you be here?” Dean said, pausing in the door.

Sam pulled his shirt over his head, then looked at Dean, a smirk touching the corner of his mouth. “I’ve got a world to run,” he said, voice gently chiding. “You don’t think I’m going to just sit around here all day?”

“No, I…” Dean cut himself off and frowned at Sam.

“You didn’t think this changed anything, did you?” Sam asked. He sat on the side of the bed and pulled his boots on.

“I guess not,” Dean said, his expression going remote and cold.

“Good,” Sam said lightly. He finished lacing his boots and stood. “Wait about a minute for the water to warm up,” he said, and walked out of the room, closing the door quietly behind him.

Dean stared at the closed door for a minute, then growled under his breath and went into the bathroom. “Fucking liar,” he muttered, dropping his clothes to reach into the shower and turn on the water. The cold spray hit his arm before he could get it out and he hissed through his teeth. “You’re such a fucking liar, Sammy,” he whispered, raking his hands through his hair.

Everything was changed now and they both knew it. Sam was so completely full of shit, even more so if he thought Dean didn‘t know it.

VII.

Sam’s great big house was over the state line in what had once been Luverne, Minnesota. If Dean had the Impala instead of a buckskin quarter horse, he could have made the drive to Sioux Falls in half an hour, an hour at the most to be back through the city and in the yard where he belonged. As it was, it took him most of the day, stopping along the way when he could to water the animal and rub him down.

Sam had been good to his word, though. One of his demons had given Dean a coat and the horse, then pointed him in the right direction, even packed some supplies in a saddlebag for him. Sam hadn’t been there when Dean left, but when he stopped outside the Sioux Falls city limits to eat he found a note in Sam’s sharp, precise handwriting: I can’t do this anymore. Next week. Don’t make me send someone.

Dean crushed the note in his hand and rested his head on the horse’s flank, the overwhelming wash of relief that flooded through him taking him by surprise. And he knew better. He knew, because maybe when Sam was with him he was just Sam like always, or close enough to it that Dean could forget the rest, but he still knew that when he wasn’t around and it wasn’t just them, Sam was still out there. Like Hitler or Stalin, only a thousand times worse. He had dragged the population of the world down from billions to mere millions, soaked the earth in blood and filled the oceans with it, and it hadn’t mattered who they were. Death didn’t care, it took them all. Somewhere in all of that, Sam had been watching over him as he slaughtered the rest, of that Dean had no doubt at all. He was alive now because Sam had made it happen when he hadn’t made it happen for so many others.

But Dean didn’t care anymore. He was tired and Sam had said it himself the night before; what was done was done. He had done his best and tried to save those people, but they were dead now. You can’t unring a bell.

As he stood there, the horse paying no attention to Dean’s inner turmoil as it grazed, a wild dog ran out of the ditch by the road. It stared at Dean with its strange, unafraid eyes, and scented the air. Dean watched the animal, noting the way it moved and behaved. It wasn’t afraid of him yet because he hadn’t threatened it or drawn a gun on it and its parents had probably been someone’s beloved pets once upon a time. Wild dogs were already taking on similar features, natural selection weeding out the weak and less capable breeds, leaving behind a race of animal that was similar in its creation to the dingoes of Australia. In a few more years, toy poodles and Chihuahuas would have gone the way of the dodo. In packs they were dangerous, but Dean watched the creature and it watched him, then started to move on, and he saw no sign of a pack.

The buckskin horse raised its head as it smelled the dog, but he didn’t spook either, just calmly chewed his mouthful of grass and followed the animal with his eyes until it disappeared in the ditch on the other side of the highway. Dean patted the horse and folded Sam’s crumpled note up and slipped it into his pocket.

Somewhere a few miles farther into the city, a car alarm went off and the horse snorted and shied at the abrupt sound, his ears laying flat to his head. Dean caught his bridle and held him, murmuring soothing nonsense to the animal until he calmed. Sometimes in extreme heat and cold, the car alarms still went off like that. It was more rare the longer the cars sat because the batteries died, but every once in a while it still happened and Dean had been startled by them himself a time or two.

Loud noises weren’t natural anymore, just like Chihuahuas and running water.

~~*~~

Dean got back to the yard before nightfall, the sun had gone down but there was still light and the temperature was just starting to drop. People were gathered around the fire pit when he rode in and they all went still and silent when they saw him, staring. Dean did his best to ignore it, not sure what reaction he had expected from them when he had been gone two days instead of only the few hours that were usually as long as he stayed away. If anyone else had stayed gone that long, they would have been presumed dead. Dean had thought these people would know him better than to think that, but he understood it.

Bobby met him on the porch as Dean walked up to the house and he just stared at him. He didn’t look surprised to see him or even glad, he looked pissed off and Dean suddenly felt ashamed.

“Hey, Bobby,” Dean said. “I didn’t mean to be gone this long, but I got ambushed by--”

“Save it, boy,” Bobby said. “Chuck come running to me not an hour after you left here screaming about demons and carpets, of all things, so I know.”

“Oh,” Dean said. Except that didn’t really clue him in to what Bobby knew and what Chuck had maybe had the sense to keep to himself. “Is… Ah… The little boy, is he--?”

“Died this morning,” Bobby said, and Dean flinched like Bobby had hit him. Taking pity on him, Bobby put a hand on Dean’s arm. “Your horse came back with the medicine in the saddlebags, so don’t you blame yourself for that. We both said it would happen. That ain’t your fault.”

That didn’t ease the feeling of guilt he felt by much, but it was enough. It had been beyond his control, Dean reminded himself, and that was true to an extent. He still couldn’t help thinking that he should have tried harder to get back or at least once thought of that dying little boy while he lay in bed with Sam.

“We’ll be laying him down tomorrow. His mother‘s having a hard time right now, but Missouri‘s with her,” Bobby said. He scratched his jaw, fingers rasping in his beard, and stared hard at Dean. Dean looked away from him, uncomfortable with the intense scrutiny, and Bobby made a dismissive, “Bah,” sound and shook his head. “Your angel boy’s been driving me up the wall since you left,” he said, jerking a thumb over his shoulder back toward the house. “Get your ass inside and do something about it before I wring his neck.”

“Yes, sir,” Dean said, and hurried by him.

“I’ll take care of your horse,” Bobby called. “I’m guessing I shouldn’t send him over Lenore’s way, huh? Smell might bother him.”

Dean almost told Bobby it probably wouldn’t matter, but bit his tongue. The buckskin smelled demons on a regular basis so the smell of vampires probably wasn’t going to spook him, but Dean couldn’t tell Bobby that. Even if the knowing way Bobby watched him as he went into the house said he already knew it all, Dean didn’t think he really did. If Bobby knew it all, he would have met Dean on the porch with a shotgun and run him off. Or put him down.

Dean pushed that guilt down with the rest and went into the house to find Castiel. He was sitting on the floor with his back to one of Bobby’s bookcases and Dean was going toward the kitchen when he tripped over his legs and almost went sprawling.

“Fuck!” he snapped, catching himself on the bookshelf. He looked down at Castiel, who blinked up at him with dazed, glassy eyes and smiled. “Oh for Christ’s sake, you’re stoned,” Dean said. He sighed and sat down on the floor beside him.

“Hello,” Castiel said. “You were gone a long time. People kept telling me you were dead.”

“Yeah, well people are assholes,” Dean said.

“They insisted,” Castiel said, lifting one hand to gesture with it. He was wearing the navy blue trench coat Dean had gotten for him and as Dean watched, one of the pockets moved. “You were only to be gone until sundown,” Castiel went on. “But the sun went down and your horse came back without you. Then Chuck and that black woman came here to visit with Bobby. They stayed up all night talking. Such… things about… Hmmm, so I went to visit Becky.”

“Oh yeah?” Dean said, wondering just exactly what kinds of things Missouri and Chuck had been talking with Bobby about. Nothing Castiel wanted to discuss, it seemed. “How did that go?”

“Very well,” Castiel said, smiling a little. He dropped his hand back into his lap, then moved it to the pocket that had been moving a moment before. “She gave me marijuana and when I told her I’m lonely, she gave me two of the furry cat babies. I’m still lonely, but they’re nice. They keep my hands warm.”

Dean grinned at him and reached over to put his hand in Castiel’s pocket with his own. He felt around, then caught the little kitten hiding in his pocket by the back of the neck and pulled it out. The creature lay on its back in Castiel’s lap, its paws defensively in front of its face, and stared up at them both with wide, baby blue eyes. Dean looked at Castiel, who was watching the kitten with a fond smile on his face, and laughed.

“Dude, you’re like a mommy now,” Dean said.

“I’m a what?” Castiel said, frowning. “I have given birth to nothing. In this vessel, I am fairly positive that I am not even capable of such a thing.”

“Nah, but you’ve got babies now, man,” Dean said. He poked the kitten’s pink nose and the baby animal hissed at him. “That’s like responsibility. Are you sure you can handle it?”

Castiel scowled at him and picked the kitten back up to put it safely back in his pocket. “I commanded armies in Heaven for thousands of years before you were born,” he said. “They are only baby animals.”

“Yeah, you know, parents always think that,” Dean said, not impressed. “Then they start sneaking out at night, getting pregnant and knocking up their girlfriends…”

“Cats are supposed to behave that way,” Castiel said.

Dean laughed softly and leaned over to kiss him, smiling against his mouth as he did. Castiel responded at first, opening his mouth to let Dean’s tongue slide over his, leaning into him slightly to feel Dean’s body against his own, then he suddenly pushed Dean back.

“No,” Castiel said, shaking his head.

Dean gave him a puzzled look, but he sat back. “What were Missouri and Chuck in here talking about last night?” he asked suspiciously.

Castiel didn’t say anything, just shook his head again and put his hands in his pockets to pet the kittens. “I don’t know,” he said. “I left.”

“You’re a shitty liar,” Dean said.

Castiel blinked at him in surprise. “I don’t… I can’t lie.”

“Yeah, well you just did,” Dean said. “One of the perks of being human. Don’t worry, you’ll get better at it.”

“Like you, perhaps,” Castiel said bitterly. “No, I don’t think I want to get better at it.”

Dean sighed and sat back against the bookshelf beside him. There was guilt and then there was guilt because Castiel was right, even if he did have the wrong idea. Not once when he was with Sam did he think of Castiel and he should have. Castiel had every reason to believe that something important was happening between them, and it was. Even now Dean couldn’t honestly say that it wasn’t because when he thought about giving up Sam again, his soul rebelled, but when he thought of giving up Castiel, his heart slammed against his ribs in panic.

“I didn’t lie to you,” Dean said quietly.

Beside him, Castiel turned his head and looked at him with narrowed eyes. He was still drugged up on something, probably his pills, but his blue eyes were sharp and cautious. “I don’t believe you,” he said. “In words, perhaps not, but in deed… yes. Yes, I think you have.”

“No,” Dean said. “You knew how… You knew about me and Sam. You always knew. I never said… I still love him like… This is a stupid conversation,” Dean said abruptly, and started to get up.

Castiel’s hand shot out and grabbed his wrist, stopping him. “I want to hear it anyway,” he said. “You left me asleep in your bed and went to him. I want to know why, even if it’s a stupid reason.”

Dean jerked his arm away from him and got up to pace. “I didn’t,” he said. “I was kidnapped, okay? That sounds really lame, I know, but I was. There were these people with a kid and they had a fire and I saw it, so I went to see--these fucking demons grabbed me.”

That had to be the worst excuse for infidelity ever invented and Castiel looked like he was thinking the very same thing as he watched Dean pace in front of him. “You were kidnapped?” he said. “Then explain to me how you got away.”

Dean glared at him. “I didn’t do that,” he said. At Castiel’s look of patient disbelief, he amended, “I mean yes, I did do that, but not so he would let me go.”

“Of course not. Why give what your brother has already proven himself more than willing to take?” Castiel said, eyes snapping with anger. “That leaves you in a rather worthless bargaining position.”

“I wanted to, okay?” Dean said, turning to him, his heart racing in fear because he could clearly see Castiel leaving him over this. He would be completely justified in it and Castiel might not know much about human customs, but he looked like he knew it too. “I miss him,” Dean said miserably. “He touched me and I couldn’t say no. I didn’t want to. I’m sorry.”

Castiel studied him thoughtfully for a minute, then carefully got up from the floor. “For what?” he asked.

“What?” Dean said, surprised.

“Don’t misunderstand me,” Castiel said. “I don’t mean you have nothing to be sorry for, only that I’m not sure which part you’re apologizing for.”

“For… you know, for cheating on you, I guess,” Dean said. That sounded so stupid and inadequate the moment the words were out of his mouth that he immediately wanted to take them back. “It wasn’t about you, though. That… doesn’t make it better I guess.”

“You left me sleeping and went to him, I think I’m allowed to be angry with you,” Castiel said. “But you left me to go to him. I thought you were in danger.”

“So… Wait. You were worried?” Dean said. He was feeling more ridiculous by the moment and completely out of his depth. He got the weird impression that they weren’t really talking about the same thing at all.

“I’m worried now,” Castiel said. “You’ll go back to him now because that’s where your heart is. And maybe you won’t come back.” Castiel walked over to him and cocked his head, looking into Dean’s eyes, trying to make him understand. “You’ll leave me here with these strangers.”

“No, I…” Dean stopped and chewed at the corner of his mouth, not sure what to say to that.

“Don’t lie again and tell me you won’t,” Castiel said tiredly, walking by him.

Dean stood there staring down at the floor between his feet for a minute, then made up his mind and went after him. It had crossed his mind that Castiel might leave him because that seemed like the most obvious reaction to have over something like this, but Castiel wasn’t a human and Dean hadn’t calculated that in. It hadn’t occurred to him that what Castiel was really afraid of was Dean leaving him, and not necessarily in a sexual capacity either, just leaving. But now Castiel was scared he was going to do just that and reacting too much like a human by withdrawing from him as much as he dared.

Except Dean wasn’t about to let him do that if he could help it.

“Cas, hey, come on, wait,” Dean said, following him to the stairs into the basement. “Let me get this straight--will you hold on?”

“Why?” Castiel said, turning to face him at the top of the stairs. “Are you going to tell me you won’t do that? Out of pity? Please don’t, if that’s all it is, because it’s worse than a lie. It’s false hope.”

“The greatest of all evils,” Dean said, remembering that from somewhere, though he couldn’t place it. “Whatever. Look, no. But I’m here, aren’t I? I came back. You can’t leave me just so you get to do it first.”

Castiel laughed, the sound sad and without any humor. “I’m not leaving you,” he said. “I was going to bed. You’re the one who has somewhere else to go, not me.”

“You don’t want my heart, you remember saying that to me?” Dean said. He put out his hand to touch Castiel’s face and Castiel let him for a second, then turned his head and started down the stairs.

“No, I don’t. I know my limitations,” Castiel said. “But that doesn’t mean I have to give you mine and let you pinch it to death before you go, either.”

Dean braced his arms on the handrails and dropped his head with a sigh. “I’m not leaving. That was never what I meant to do. Not forever,” Dean said.

“Maybe not,” Castiel said, but not like he believed him. “Good night, Dean,” he called up from the bottom of the stairs. “I am glad you’re back.”

Dean pushed away from the handrails and paced in front of the stairs a little bit more, then gave up and went down into the basement himself. He wasn’t following Castiel with the intention of continuing the conversation, but he did need to change out of Sam’s clothes so the dogs didn’t smell demon on him and attack him. When he got to the panic room that had become his--their--bedroom, Castiel was curled up under the covers with his back to him, still wearing his coat, the kittens mewling from inside the pockets.

Dean stopped in the doorway, undecided for a second, then sighed and went to the bed, leaning over it toward Castiel. Castiel felt the bed give under Dean’s knee on the mattress and turned his head to look at him questioningly.

“I’m sorry, okay?” Dean said. “But goddamn it, Cas, I told you how it was. I never lied. You were the one that asked me in the first place, remember?”

“I have a remarkably accurate memory,” Castiel said. “I remember everything.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?” Dean demanded.

Castiel turned away from him and lay his head back on his pillow. “You’re right,” he said. “My feelings are entirely my own fault. I asked you to do it and you said no… until you didn’t. It was an act of sex, nothing else.”

Just like that, easy as pie, Castiel was letting him off the hook, taking the wind out of his offensive/defensive sails, so why did Dean feel even more like a bastard? “That’s not what I meant,” he muttered.

Castiel sat up suddenly, disturbing the kittens in his pockets until they meowed in distress. One of the little furry things poked its head and one foot out of his pocket, ready to make a break for it, and Castiel pushed it gently back. “I do not wish to discuss it further,” he snapped, and stoned or not, he was pissed.

Dean could have let it go then if that was all it was--Castiel angry with him for stepping out on him--but that wasn’t it. That didn’t even look like that was most of it. As Castiel was getting up from the bed to leave again, Dean grabbed his arm and stopped him. “You’re scared,” he said softly.

Castiel tensed but he didn’t break Dean’s grip and take his arm back. “I’ve told you that before, it’s no secret,” he said, staring over Dean’s shoulder. “Let me go.”

“No, I mean… now you’re scared of me,” Dean said. “Why?”

Castiel laughed softly and finally looked into Dean’s face, his own glassy, half mad gaze surprising Dean a little with its intensity. “Many reasons,” he said. “I’m figuring out what it means to be human more and more every day. It’s a horrible, wretched condition. My brothers could not have devised a more cruel punishment.”

Castiel twisted his wrist and snatched his arm out of Dean’s grasp, then walked by him out the door. A few seconds later, Dean heard his footsteps on the stairs and finally allowed himself to slump down on the side of the bed. He sat there with his head down in his hands and tried to think. After a few minutes of that, he still didn’t know what to do, so he got up and went to change his clothes.

~~*~~

That night, without a word, Castiel took a bed alone in a guest room down the hall from Bobby. Dean tried not to feel rejected by that, but just like trying not to feel guilty, it didn’t work very well and he ended up spending a sleepless night of his own on the sofa getting drunk by the fire. He didn’t think Castiel slept much either, in spite of the Vicodin, because sometimes the floor creaked overhead where he walked.

This was different than fights with Sam in a way he couldn’t quite put his finger on. They had both had sex with other people even when they were still together, back before Sam stopped being a boy scout and started going darkside, but it was always understood between them that anything else was just casual fucking, and they’d pull out of town together in the end because that shit didn’t mean a thing. He and Sam had fought even before, but no matter how mad or hurt they were, it would get fixed because they couldn’t leave each other. But this was different than any of that in almost every respect. Castiel wasn’t a casual one night fuck he could pack up and drive away from, he had been his friend first, the rest came after that and Dean had never wanted to hurt him. He hadn’t been lying when he said that. But Castiel wasn’t Sam, either, and no matter what he had said, he could leave Dean and leaving didn’t have mean just walking away. What he was doing now, leaving the room where he’d been sleeping beside Dean for weeks, locking himself away and even refusing his company, it was a big step in that direction.

Dean figured it was something to do with all of his new, confusing and overwhelming human emotions, stronger than those of a normal adult just like Bobby had warned him, so maybe Castiel thought he could stop some of the shit in his head by cutting them off. That would make Dean the first piece he had to sever and Dean really did not approve of that message.

Dean raised his bottle to check the level of liquid still in it by the glow of the fire, then tipped it back and drank. The silver bullet in the bottom rolled out of the neck and into his mouth and Dean stopped drinking to spit it back. Behind him, the stairs creaked and Dean twisted around to see Castiel walking down them with the two kittens he’d had in his pockets earlier held out in front of him in his hands, dangling there limply like they were being carried by their mother.

He swallowed the whiskey in his mouth and cleared his throat. Castiel didn’t jump, just looked up at him and sighed. “They won’t stop crying and I believe one of them urinated under the bed,” he said, looking harassed.

“Told you,” Dean said. “Parenting’s a shit job.” He turned and got up on his knees on the couch too face Castiel over the back of it. “They just need a litter box and someone to teach them how to use it. We can figure something out,” he said.

Castiel looked relieved and some of the tension seemed to drain out of him. He looked at the kittens, frowning, then back at Dean. “Perhaps I should return them to Becky,” he said.

“Or you could get her to show you what to do,” Dean said. “I kinda like ‘em. Like Cheech and Chong, the perfect little pair of screw ups. Bet they even stink like pot.”

“Cheech and Chong?” Castiel said. He shook his head, dismissing it, and said, “But what do I do with them now?”

“Put them down,” Dean said.

“But… they will urinate and Bobby will be angry with me,” Castiel said.

“Maybe,” Dean said. “But he’s had all kinds of funky shit happen to this place, I’m sure it’ll survive a little cat pee.”

Castiel gave the kittens a severe look and knelt to put them down. “It’s a good thing they did not defecate beneath the bed,” he said, wrinkling his nose.

Dean grinned and leaned out over the back of the sofa to put his hand out to Castiel. “Come here,” he said.

Castiel looked up at him from where he was kneeling, petting one of the little spotted kittens, which was purring and arching against his hand. He studied Dean for a minute, considering him, then stood and went to him. “Yes?”

Dean rubbed the side of his neck with his hand, then dropped it and took Castiel’s hand, gently pulling him closer. “I’m sorry about Sam,” he said.

“No, you’re not, and I’ve told you,” Castiel said,” I don’t care about Sam.” He sighed and laced his fingers through Dean’s. “We misunderstand each other much of the time,” he said. “Still, we understand one another more than the rest, I think.”

“Yeah,” Dean said.

“I don’t want to be alone,” Castiel told him. “When… Before, I was never alone. I was never… I answered to someone else, and they to someone else, and so on. Presumably we all answered to God in the end. Here… This is different. I’m alone and I don’t know what to do. No one can tell me but you, because you understand.”

“What happens if I don’t know what to do either?” Dean said.

Castiel thought about that, then shook his head. “I don’t know,” he said.

Dean nodded and sat back on his heels, still holding Castiel’s hand so when he shifted back, Castiel had to step up to the sofa. Dean took a long drink of his whiskey, rolling the bullet over his tongue to keep it in the bottle this time, and tugged gently at Castiel’s hand. “Sit with me,” he said. He offered the bottle to him, but Castiel pushed it back to him. “Probably not good to mix it with pills anyway,” Dean said.

“I’m still angry with you,” Castiel informed him, but he went around and sat on the couch with him. “

“Because you think I’m going to ride off into the sunset with Sammy, I know,” Dean said. He turned around on the couch and sat down heavily, making them both bounce. “’S okay, I’m drunk. It evens out, see?”

“No, I do not see,” Castiel said.

“Well… don’t worry about it,” Dean said. He leaned against Castiel’s shoulder and watched the fire, the patterns leaving writhing streaks of afterimages behind as his eyes lost focus. “Did you eat?” he said abruptly.

“I ate Lucky Charms this morning. Bobby says we are now out,” Castiel said. He put his hand on Dean’s head where it rested by his arm and stroked his hair. “I would have eaten again, but I am not comfortable with all of the people here.”

Which meant that when everyone gathered around the fire, Castiel had stayed inside and dosed himself instead. He had done it before when Dean wasn’t right there to drag him outside anyway. “You should eat something,” he said.

“So should you,” Castiel said. Because the best defense was a good offence and Castiel was learning.

“Nah, I’m good,” Dean said, holding up his bottle to show him why.

“So am I,” Castiel said, not impressed.

Dean was quiet for a few minutes, thinking and letting himself drift, then felt something pressing at his calf and he took a deep breath like he’d been revived and gently nudged Castiel with his elbow. “You playing footsies with me, man?”

Castiel’s eyebrows shot up and he leaned over to look at Dean’s feet. “No, it would seem the baby cats--Cheech and Chong?--like you.”

Dean smiled drunkenly at him. “Awesome. Foot warmers.”

Castiel smiled at him tiredly and relaxed back on the couch. “Yes. And hand warmers.”

“Hey, Cas?” Dean said.

“What?” Castiel said.

“You have to stop being mad at me now, okay?” Dean said.

“I have to do no such thing,” Castiel said, still petting Dean’s hair.

“Uh huh, ‘cause like you said, I know, right? So I’m telling you. Because fighting with you sucks balls, man,” Dean said, raising his bottle in the air to emphasize his point. “You don’t even yell, you just get all cold and pissy. What the fuck am I supposed to do with that? So… yeah. You’re not allowed to be no more.”

“You are just making that up,” Castiel said. “Just because I’m confused and do not know what to do about some things does not mean I am stupid. I know you.”

“Yeah, but come on,” Dean said, almost whining it, which he would have been deeply ashamed of if he hadn’t finished off over two thirds of the bottle in his hand already. “You gotta admit, it sucks. You don’t like being mad at me either. And also? What’s the point? ‘Cause you said you’re not even mad about Sam, and if that’s true, what you’re really pissed about is that maybe I’m going to leave and never come back, but look, I’m still here, so that’s like being mad at me for shit I haven’t done yet, which is so not fucking fair.”

“I have a difficult time understanding the concept of fairness,” Castiel confessed. “It seems to be very subjective.”

Dean snorted. “Yeah, I guess.”

“I feel endangered by this… whatever you are doing now,” Castiel said. “I want to protect myself.”

“And being pissed at me does that?” Dean said. “That’s like… shooting yourself in the foot. Something. I don’t know.”

“A very apt analogy, yes,” Castiel said.

“Right, which is why you can’t keep being mad at me about this,” Dean said.

“No, it is why I have to forgive you,” Castiel said.

Dean twisted around to turn his head and look up at Castiel. “For what?”

“For what you are going to do,” Castiel said.

“Dude, I already said, I haven’t done it yet, you don’t even know if I’m going to, so you can’t be mad at me for it. That’s… fucked up,” Dean said.

“I am not mad at you for it,” Castiel said calmly. “I’m forgiving you for it.”

Dean growled in frustration and turned back around, half laying in Castiel’s lap with his arms crossed, tapping his whiskey bottle against his side. “You make my eyes cross,” he muttered.

“Yes,” Castiel agreed. “You would rather I yelled at you.”

“At least I’d know what to do about that,” Dean said.

“It would solve nothing,” Castiel said. “I also find such loud noises upset me now. Would you still like for me to yell at you?”

“No,” Dean said, scowling down at one of Castiel’s kittens as it decided to try chewing through the toe of his shoe to get to his feet. He wiggled his foot and the kitten toppled over, mewing pitifully.

“Good,” Castiel said.

“I remember last time. You broke all the fucking windows and almost ruptured my brain,” Dean said. “No thanks.”

“That was not yelling,” Castiel said. “I merely introduced myself.”

“Yeah, well you make one hell of a first impression,” Dean said. He took a drink from his bottle, but this time it wasn’t as deep. He was already drunk and edging toward sleepy. “Scared the fuck out of me.”

Castiel’s lips quirked in amusement. “I remember.”

“Hardy-har-har,” Dean said dryly. He put his hand up and traced his fingers over Castiel’s softly smiling mouth. “Seriously, don’t be mad at me anymore, okay?”

“Okay,” Castiel said. And it really was just that easy.

“’Kay, I’m gonna pass out now,” Dean announced.

“Yes,” Castiel said. The kitten that had been gnawing at Dean’s shoe gave up and climbed up Castiel’s pant leg into his lap.

Dean rolled his bleary eyes up to squint at it. “That one’s totally Cheech,” he said.

“That’s an absurd name,” Castiel said. He stroked the kitten, who purred, then bit at the ball of his thumb with his needle sharp milk teeth.

“Maybe, but it fits. Little stoner freak kitty,” Dean said. “Careful, he’ll bite your fingers off, man.”

Dean closed his eyes then and the kitten curled up next to his head in Castiel’s lap. Castiel rested one hand on Dean’s head and the other on the cottony soft little animal and closed his own eyes, willing himself to sleep.

~~*~~

In the morning, Dean woke up on the couch alone with a horrible hangover and vivid memories of exactly just how much of an ass he had made of himself over Castiel in spite of it. He groaned and gave serious thought to just curling up in a ball right there to die so he didn’t have to deal with either of them, and he might have been more successful if the camp didn’t erupt into hysterics at that very moment.

A woman screamed, high and shrill, and Dean flipped over and had to grab hold of the arm of the sofa to keep from face-planting in the floor. The first scream was followed by more, but the initial shock was now off and Dean stood up, rubbing his temple with one hand, the other out in front of him to brace himself if he stumbled, and went to the door to see what the hell was going on. The front door was already open so Dean just smacked the screen out of the way and half stumbled outside, catching himself against a post as his stomach heaved.

Dean saw people gathered around one of the horse troughs out by the fence, but that was all he had time for before his stomach lurched again and he had to bend down and vomit over the side of the porch. He retched until there was nothing to bring up but bile, then he dry heaved painfully until he was exhausted and slumped against the railing.

Bobby came crashing through the screen door a minute later with a shotgun, saw Dean leaning there rubbing sweat from his brow and stopped. If it were any kind of immediate danger they were screaming about, Dean wouldn’t be standing there unarmed like that, not even looking toward the fence line.

“What the goddamn hell’s all the racket about?” Bobby demanded.

Dean stuffed his hands in his pockets looking for his lighter and his cigarettes. “Fuck if I know, Bobby,” he muttered. He found his crushed pack of stale Marlboros and lit one, then shielded his eyes from the rising sun with the flat of his hand and looked off toward the trough. “Looks like a bunch of hysterical women. Maybe another dog died.”

But then his eyes focused and his heart seemed to drop right into the pit of his stomach. As he watched, one of the men, a tall, burly guy called Mark, reached into the trough and lifted something out. Mark brought his hands out of the water tangled up in honey blonde hair like kelp, then a face broke the surface of the water and Dean felt like he might vomit again.

“Shit,” he whispered.

It the was the woman, Jane, the mother of the little boy who had died while Dean was gone. Her face was pale and bloated from the icy water, but he remembered her. She had been sitting by the fire the night before he left and her sick little boy had crawled up in Missouri’s lap, content to let her lie to him.

“Who the fuck was supposed to be watching her?” Dean demanded of Bobby, his voice rising toward a shout.

Bobby looked like someone had smacked him across the face. He just shook his head.

Dean pushed down another wave of nausea and hopped down from the porch. As he crossed the yard, the people gathering around the trough to see moved out of his way.

“Who was supposed to be watching her?” Dean said again, raising his voice to carry over the sounds of sobbing and dismayed murmuring.

Mark and another, smaller man carefully hauled Jane’s water-logged body out of the trough and lay her down on the ground. Dean refused to look at it, instead scanning the faces of the people around him with his sharp eyes. There was nothing he could do for her now, she was dead.

Someone was supposed to,” Dean said. He flicked his forgotten cigarette aside when he felt the ember burn his thumb and caught the sad doe eyes of a blonde woman on his right. “Yes?”

“I’m sorry,” the woman whispered, her voice cracking as her eyes overflowed with tears. “She’s… She was… my sister. I… But she was sleeping.”

Castiel moved up behind Dean’s shoulder and observed them all with a sad, pitying expression. “Like Ophelia,” he said lightly.

A few people close to him heard him and stared.

“Hush, Cas,” Dean said.

“Who’s Ophelia?” Jane’s sister asked.

“No one,” Dean said.

“She went mad and flung herself into the water and drowned,” Castiel said.

“Cas,” Dean warned. “Not now.”

He had to be stoned again. Not even Castiel was that deliberately insensitive.

Jane’s sister looked between Dean, who stood scowling down at the body, and Castiel, who had lost interest and was watching the sunrise, then burst into tears. As she cried, her voice rose until she was wailing and nearly screaming with it, and soon she was kneeling in the frosted grass in a shivering, wretched heap.

No one touched her or went to her. Jane, it seemed, had been the last of her people.

Dean finally looked at her and he tried to feel sympathy or empathy for her, but the best he could do was a vague, tired sense of pity. “Help her with the body, huh, guys?” Dean said to Mark and his friend.

“Yeah, we will,” Mark said. He nodded to his friend and they knelt to lift Jane’s body again and carry her to someplace where her sister could prepare the body for the pyre.

Dean turned away from it and nudged Castiel to follow him away. Once they were leaving, some of the women rushed to the crying woman’s side to console her and help her up from the ground.

Every death was like that now. Every single death was a great tragedy because it was a blow to their survival as a species. At the same time, the death of this woman and her child weren’t the same kind of tragedy that they might have been a few years earlier. People weren’t shocked by death anymore, they had seen it. What had shocked them about this was that it had taken them by surprise in the night, without violence or malice. It was just a woman run to the end of her rope at last. Some of them probably even saw their own desperation and grief when they looked at her.

Dean hoped like hell no one got any ideas from it, though.

“Damn waste,” Bobby said when Dean walked back up the stairs with Castiel. He stood leaning on his shotgun and watching as the crowd dispersed.

“Darwinism,” Dean corrected him.

Bobby blinked at him in surprise and shook his head. “That’s cold, son, even for you,” he said.

“It’s also the truth,” Dean said. He went back inside, wondering if he should try the coffee or the hair of the dog currently chewing on his stomach lining.

VIII.

Dean waited six days before he went back to Sam again. He counted them, adding up sunsets because he was usually not awake for the sunrise, and after Jane’s suicide everything went back to being relatively quiet. He didn’t get drunk again, though the temptation was there like an irritating bug biting at his brainstem, but he did avoid the fireside at night just like Castiel and spent more of his days than ever before thinking about Sam.

A week, he had said, and Dean believed he would come after him if he didn’t go, but that wouldn’t have mattered. Six days in and he was restless, every stray thought going to Sam, dwelling on Sam. He caught Castiel watching him with his sad eyes and even that didn’t matter. Bobby watched him like he could read Dean’s mind, though he was one of the few people left that Dean knew who couldn’t. It occurred to him that what he was doing was betrayal, the likes of which would have gotten anyone else in the camp banished, but that didn’t matter either. He almost wished they would, then he’d be free to go, but they couldn’t afford to do that. Dean knew that and so did every single person that lived in the yard.

The sixth day was the hardest. Dean paced the parameter of the salvage yard with two of the dogs and caught himself walking to the end of the driveway, looking down the highway toward Sioux Falls. To get to Sam, he would follow that road south through the city, then go east on Interstate 90 to Luverne. If he had a car, he could get there in a little over an hour, but by horseback, it would take him a lot longer. He knew exactly how many hours it would take, how hard he could push the horse if he expected the animal to get there without collapsing, and he ran all of the numbers through his mind over and over, hoping the pattern would sooth him.

There was a deep ache in his chest, a magnetic drawing sensation in his belly that seemed to reach through the miles. He sat with Castiel on the porch steps that night to eat, beyond the circle of the fire, and every time he raised his head, his eyes were drawn to the road. It was a little like when they had still been on the road with the Impala, hunting down ghosts and swamp monsters and things that were not angels, demons or each other. Back then, the urge to move, to go, always keep going to the next town, the next county, the next state was like the bite of a thousand insects beneath his skin. It was the way he had lived most of his life and if he sat still too long, it started to eat at him. This was very similar to that, but the itch felt like it was drawing him home.

“You are leaving again,” Castiel said without looking up from his plate. He had eaten his biscuit because Missouri made the best biscuits in the world, no question, but he had only picked at his chicken.

Dean didn’t press him about it because the chicken was pretty tough. He gave Castiel the uneaten half of his own biscuit and nodded. “I have to,” he said. “Sam said he’d come after me if I didn’t.”

“You want to,” Castiel said. He smiled a little at the extra biscuit half and ate some of it.

“Alright, yes, I want to,” Dean admitted, a little defensive. “You wanna fight about it again?”

Castiel chuffed soft laughter and shook his head. “No,” he said.

“Good,” Dean said, relaxing.

“Dean?” Castiel said.

“What?” Dean said.

“Promise you’ll come back,” Castiel said.

Dean took a deep breath and let it out in a huff. He knew that was what was bothering Castiel anyway, the request didn’t surprise him. “I promise,” he said.

“Good,” Castiel said. He ate the rest of his biscuit and brushed crumbs from his fingers off on his thighs, then stood up. “I’m going to bed, then. I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Probably in the afternoon,” Dean said. He didn’t want Castiel to wake up to him gone and think Dean had broken his promise when he didn’t find him.

“I will look for you in the afternoon, then,” Castiel said. He leaned down and pressed a quick kiss to Dean’s mouth, startling him, then went inside the house. “Good night.”

Dean lifted his hand to his lips, the kiss still lingering there, and smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “Good night.”

Dean watched the fire from a distance until everyone had wandered off to their beds. When he was alone, the went over to the fire pit and stirred water into the hot coals to put them out, then went around the back of the house where Bobby had set up a small lean-to stall for the buckskin horse Dean had rode home on the week before.

The horse was sleeping with his head down and one back leg slightly bent, foot limply raised against the floor. When Dean reached over into the stall and petted him, he came awake and snorted in greeting.

“Hey, boy,” Dean said. “You wanna go home?”

The horse stomped its foot and nuzzled his velvety nose into Dean’s hand. “Alright, but you’re gonna have to take me with you,” Dean said.

He took the bridle and bit hanging off a nail by the door and went inside the stall to put it on the horse. The horse saw it and tossed its head a little, but it didn’t fight him when he put it over its head. “I know, right? Shit sucks, but them’s the breaks,” Dean said. He threw a blanket over the horse’s back, then got the saddle and started fastening it in place, stroking the animal’s side and talking to him to keep him calm. “We gotta get you a name, you know? I mean, I’m alright with Horse if you are, but you have to admit, it’s lacking something, huh? Like how many noble steeds out there were called Horse? That’s not very dignified, is it? ‘Course, neither is Seabiscuit and I saw that movie. That horse was the shit.”

The horse whickered lowly and he sounded to Dean like he was laughing. Amused himself, he tightened the saddle girth and stood up. “Sorry, I’d have brought you an apple or something, but it’s late in the season and I didn’t think Missouri would like me breaking into her stash this late for those candied things she makes. Sucks too, that shit’s good,” Dean said, carrying on his one-sided conversation with the horse as he stroked his neck.

Someone cleared their throat behind him and Dean whipped around, his hand already going around to his back for his pistol. He recognized Chuck and froze.

Chuck stared at him with his wide, scared eyes, his hands up palm out to show his obvious harmlessness, one shoulder raised to flinch away, and Dean barked out a laugh. He led the horse out of the stall and Chuck relaxed as he went by, realizing Dean wasn’t going to shoot him after all.

“Dean?” Chuck said.

Dean grunted in acknowledgement.

“Ah… Where are you going?” Chuck asked.

The way he asked it, it sounded like an idle question he already knew the answer to. Dean looked over the horse’s back and raised a brow at him.

“Right… Stupid question,” Chuck said. He cleared his throat again nervously and finally blurted, “We need to talk.”

Dean rolled his eyes. “Oh God,” he muttered.

The horse snorted in agreement and lowered his head to graze.

“Look, you can’t… you can’t do this,” Chuck said. He had his hands closed together and was wringing them and despite the cold, late autumn night air, he was sweating. “Man… Oh man, this is Sam, you know? I can’t believe you… I just… Dean, we need you here, man. And Sam… that’s worse than sleeping with the enemy, dude. That’s like whoring yourself to Satan.”

Dean coughed, trying not to laugh at that because yes, he did understand where Chuck was coming from, and yes it was serious, but really? “It’s not like that, Chuck,” Dean said.

“It’s not like what?” Chuck demanded, taking a step toward him. “Because if you tell me it’s not like your brother went ‘splody and murdered over five billion people, wiping out modern civilization like it was a big annoying ant hill, then you’re a fucking liar. You were there, man. I can’t believe you.”

“I don’t know how to explain it,” Dean said. “I’m not saying he didn’t do that shit, I know, okay? But I can’t… I can’t do this anymore, alright, man?”

“Do what?” Chuck said. “It’s not great, but we’ve all got an okay life here. It’s what we rescued from Sam and you can’t do this anymore? What the hell does that even mean?”

“Fuck’s sake,” Dean muttered. He dragged a hand through his hair, then shook his head and hauled himself up on the horse into the saddle. “You sound just like Cas. I’m not running off, okay? I’ll be back tomorrow night.”

“Dude, that is so not the point,” Chuck said, following at a distance as the horse paced a few feet. “And what about Cas, anyway? He’s not good enough for you now? And wow, what the fuck does he think about this shit? That guy raped him, remember?”

Dean bared his teeth at Chuck and had the satisfaction of seeing him flinch away. “I was there, I fucking remember, yeah,” he said. “Cas and me… that’s none of your business. You fucking psychics, you think you know everything because you can see it all. Lookit that, you don’t know shit. Go home to your wife, Chuck. I’ll see you later.”

Chuck tried to follow him as Dean started to ride away, but Dean dug his heels into the horse’s flanks and got it into a trot. He slowed again when he got to the driveway because the horse’s hooves were a little loud on the hard-packed dirt and he didn’t want to wake anyone.

“What about Bobby?” Chuck called after him, stopping as he reached the driveway.

“What about him?” Dean called back.

“He’s gonna be pissed, man,” Chuck said.

“Figure he’s already pissed,” Dean called back. “Also figure he’ll get over it. Later, Chuck.”

“Dean, come on, you know this is wrong,” Chuck called to him. “People are gonna ask where you went. What the fuck are we supposed to say?”

Dean ignored him and once he reached the highway, he urged the horse into a canter, riding at a pace that wouldn’t tire the animal out and would still get him where he wanted to go before morning. He hummed under his breath for a while, then just because he felt pretty good and there was no one around to hear him, he started to sing. “I've been through the desert on a horse with no name… it felt good to be out of the rain…

~~*~~

Sam’s bed was like the ocean, Dean thought distantly. The thought was both ridiculous and strangely fitting, though it was not (thank God) a waterbed, just vast enough for him to spread his arms and legs out and still not touch the sides of the mattress and so soft that he sank into it. So maybe it was more like a really big kiddy pool. This thought made him smile and Dean realized that the restlessness that had been plaguing him for days was finally gone.

Sam licked his shoulder and Dean twitched, grumbling wordlessly into his pillow.

“Stay with me,” Sam murmured, lightly nipping his sweaty skin.

“I can’t,” Dean said, turning his head to rest his cheek on the pillow to speak. “You know that. Stop asking me, Sammy.”

“I can’t,” Sam said, giving Dean’s words back to him a little mockingly. He rolled the tip of his tongue along the point of Dean’s shoulder blade and over to his spine. “Do you remember laying in those sleazy motel rooms and I would lick words into your back for you to guess them? Sometimes the air conditioner was broken, but when it wasn’t, the cold air made it stand out like a florescent light, do you remember?”

“Yeah,” Dean said. He shivered at both the memory and the way Sam’s tongue dipped into the crease of his spine. “That’s the only time I could ever guess. You were always such a girl, too. Shit like ‘I love you’ and ‘pretty’.”

“You are pretty and I do love you,” Sam said simply. He ran his tongue into the slight hollow of one of Dean’s ribs at his side. “Tell me why you can’t stay.”

Dean hesitated, then rolled over on his back to look up at Sam. This was the kind of shit that had to be said to a person’s face; that was the only honorable way. “I promised someone I wouldn’t,” he said.

Sam’s eyes narrowed to dark slits and he frowned at Dean, studying him intently for a minute before he forced himself to relax. “Alright, we’ll put that on hold for a bit, though, because that’s not the only reason why. You still don’t trust me?”

“Hell no, I don’t trust you,” Dean said without hesitation. He moved to his side to prop himself up on his elbow facing Sam. “Dude, come on. If you were me, would you trust you?”

“In another time and place that would have made my eyes cross,” Sam remarked. “But no, I don’t suppose I would.”

“There you go then,” Dean said.

“And that’s not why either,” Sam said. “You didn’t trust me for a long time, not all the way down, but you stayed with me anyway. Even when I tried to make you go, you wouldn’t leave. Now I’m… I’ve got it under control. I want you back with me and you won’t do it. Do those people mean so much to you?”

“I don’t even know them,” Dean said. He pushed himself up and sat there, legs folded Indian fashion, hunched in on himself. “I brought most of them here, but I look at them and I don’t care. I’ve seen too many others die; at this point, what do they matter?”

“You’re responsible for them,” Sam said. “You saved them, you brought them here as you said, and you taught them how to keep going. I understand.”

I don’t,” Dean said. “I know that’s what I should feel, but I don’t. I’m… too tired. This woman died last week. She drowned herself in a horse trough after her kid caught pneumonia and died. They’re pulling her out of the water, her skin all blue with frost stuck in her hair and all I can think is, not another one. I try to feel those things and all I feel is pity, and not much of it. You did this to me.”

“Some of it,” Sam said. He put his hand out and touched Dean’s face, his thumb sliding over the crows foot wrinkles at the corner of his eye.

Dean resisted the urge to smack Sam’s hand away. “Then how can you say that everything you do is for me, Sam?” he asked.

Sam let his hand drop and got up from the bed. He pulled his jeans on and left them unbuttoned as he paced away. “Because I do,” he said. He was carefully not looking at Dean as he spoke, rubbing at his temple with the fingers of his left hand. “It’s all broken up like pieces of a puzzle, but they fit together if you look hard enough.”

Dean scooted to the edge of the bed. “What the hell does that even mean, Sam?” he said. “Look, I’ve asked before. I asked you in… When you had us in that bunker in Nevada, I asked you then, but all you ever do is give me this cryptic bullshit, man.”

“I told you what it’s like in here,” Sam snapped, tapping his temple with his index finger. His eyes darted to Dean, then quickly away before he could read his expression. “That’s what it’s like now. But in the beginning… In the beginning, it was like a river of fire running through my skull,” Sam said, his voice trailing off into a dreamy whisper.

“But why?” Dean said. “Why do it at all? You didn’t have to be this way, Sammy. You were… fighting it.”

“No,” Sam said with a little laugh. “No, I wasn’t. But I needed you to think so or it would never work. You would have stopped me.”

“You’re goddamn right I would have,” Dean said.

“I couldn’t let you,” Sam said. “I had to save you.”

“You… what?” Dean said. He was thrown off because he suddenly had no idea what Sam was talking about. The only danger he had been in for years, Sam had put him through. He wasn’t making any sense.

“Every day was Tuesday, and every day you died,” Sam said. “I told you about it, but you couldn’t really know what it was like, Dean. I tried… but that broke me. Then it was Wednesday and still you died, but this time… this time it was different. Even when I got you back, I couldn’t forget that, and the clock was still counting down to the hour when it would happen all over again, this time for good. What was I supposed to do?”

“Oh, my God,” Dean whispered, the realization of what Sam was saying sinking into him like a bullet.

He remembered that Wednesday, the way Sam had changed in ways that had seemed strange as hell, but ultimately harmless. Sam had clung to him more, touching him all the time, and he had watched him with a hunger that bordered on ravenous, but wasn’t necessarily sexual. It had been a little creepy, but it hadn’t lasted. The next day, Sam was back to his sullen, studious self. A little more watchful, maybe. And maybe he had asked Dean where he was going a lot more when Dean was just going out to get a Coke from the vending machine, but it wasn’t anything to worry about, so he hadn’t. Things had gone back to normal, except sometime when Dean thought everything was back to being relatively normal, Sam had started to change. Sam had started counting down Dean’s last days and hours with a plan.

“What did you do, Sam?” Dean asked, his eyes already tearing up because he knew his brother and he could see it. He could see how it had happened in his mind, how Sam had taken that Tuesday and built his world around making sure that never happened again. “Sam? Tell me.”

“I let it happen,” Sam said simply, spreading his hands apart in a light shrug. “It was always inside me, I fought it for you. But you kept dying and always, fucking always I’m going to someone else to save you. I’m begging them or I’m making a deal--just like you did--and I couldn’t fucking do that anymore. I was pissed off and tired of begging for our lives from the monsters we were supposed to be killing.”

“So the better alternative is to turn into one of those fucking monsters yourself?” Dean said, standing up from the bed. He started toward Sam, then stopped to wipe at his eyes because he was crying.

“Better than making deals with demons on their terms, yeah,” Sam said. He reached out and gently pushed Dean back. “Sit down.”

“You died in my arms, Sammy,” Dean said, voice cracking as he swiped angrily at his tears. “I sat by your body for days. But I never…”

“You never had the option,” Sam said. “I did and I started to… work with it. Ruby helped, but she always had her own agenda. I knew that, but it didn’t matter. She thought she was using me, but I used her instead. And I was powerful. You can’t even imagine the power. Like fire inside me when it finally… bloomed. It bloomed. It was so, so beautiful.”

“You destroyed the world,” Dean said. “How the fuck is that beautiful? And I still went to Hell, so what was the point?”

“That… I ran out of time,” Sam said. “Your contract came due, but I wasn’t ready yet. I wasn’t. But then it grew inside me, the more I used it, the more it grew. I could have walked right into Hell and taken you back, but… your angel got to you first.”

“Yeah, okay, so then what happened, man?” Dean said. “You didn’t… I was out. Wasn’t that what you wanted?”

“Yes,” Sam said. “Yes, it was, but I couldn’t get the power inside me to lay down and be still. It had to get out.”

“Shit,” Dean said. “You telling me you did all of this by accident?”

Sam grinned, amused, and walked over to the bed where Dean was. “Some of it,” he said. “Then it felt too good to stop.”

Dean threw his hand out suddenly and hit Sam, his fist glancing off Sam’s jaw, making his hand sting and Sam rock back from the blow. “You want me to thank you?” he said, his voice rising to a shout. “This shit is as much my fault as it is yours. Do you think I wanted to know that? You fucking asshole, Sam, I can’t believe you--”

“I kept you alive,” Sam growled, shoving Dean back on the bed when he started to rise. “I took special care that you… that all of you would live. You especially, but Bobby, Chuck, Missouri, Becky, even Lenore and Eli. Ten percent of any species will survive a nuclear holocaust, yeah? I read that too. Speculation, man, that’s all it is. They all owe me their lives for sparing them and so do you.”

Dean shoved himself back up on the bed, then reached over the side of the mattress for his pants. He lay back on the bed, pulled them on, and started to get up to fasten them, but Sam caught him around the waist hand held him still. “Maybe you should collect on that debt then, you dick,” Dean said, twisting to get away from him.

Sam tightened his arm across the small of Dean’s back and held him. “What would you have done?” Sam asked him. When Dean tried to get away again, Sam reached his other hand up and caught the back of his neck, holding him still. “If it had been reversed,” he said. “If I had died and gone to Hell where every day was like ten years, all of them spent being slowly eviscerated until I didn’t remember anymore what it felt like to be human, to laugh, to be touched, to smile… If it were me and not you down there in the pit, what would you have done differently than me?”

“I don’t know,” Dean said, the fight going out of him. Memories of Hell were strange and distant to him now, but they were there, and so were the things he had never hoped to learn there. If it had been Sam, he would have done anything. “I don’t know. Let me go, Sam.”

Instead of releasing him, Sam bent his head down and brushed his mouth over Dean’s softly. “What would you give?” he murmured. “If you could save me from that, what would you give?”

“My life,” Dean said immediately, tears choking him. “I’d give my life.”

Sam smiled slowly against his lips and lightly nipped the corner of Dean’s mouth. “And what if that were not enough?” he asked.

His soul. Then it would be his soul, which was what Sam had given. The power had been too much, it had taken him over and brought down the world with it, and this was what was left. This was still Sam, but Dean couldn’t lie to himself about that either; he wasn’t the same. That river of fire in his mind had changed him just like it had changed Dean, changed the world, changed everything until this was all that was left. This empty shadow of a world, these people consumed by the light of Sam’s powerful fire until every direction they turned led back to the end of the same sidewalk.

“You should have let me stay dead,” Sam said. “But now do you understand?”

Yes!” Dean screamed in Sam’s face, and this time when he fought against him, Sam let him go. Dean collapsed on the floor at his feet, gasping like all the air had been knocked out of him. The desire to crawl away and die rose up inside him and he laughed through the tears sliding down his cheeks. “Yes, I understand,” he said. He crawled a little away from Sam, then got to his feet and backed away from him, toward the bed. “Now do you understand? I can’t stay here.”

“Because you promised,” Sam said, watching him back away but not following him. He put his hands in his pockets to show that he wasn’t going to touch and followed Dean with his eyes as he got his things and sat on the side of the bed to put his shoes back on. “Who did you promise? Who would make you promise something like that, but not make you promise not to come here at all?”

Dean didn’t say anything, he just tied the laces on his shoes, pulled his shirt back on, and started to leave. The restlessness was back with a vengeance and Sam wasn’t making it better anymore, he was too close, too insistent, too real and alive, his presence demanding too much of Dean’s attention. He wanted to get away from him because Sam was making his skin crawl and Dean wanted to hit something, but he was afraid that something would be Sam and this time he wouldn’t be able to stop with just one punch.

“Is it Castiel?” Sam said.

Dean stopped, drawn up short by how quickly Sam had guessed it and the lack of anger in his voice. He didn’t understand how both of them, Castiel and Sam, could be that way. Both of them cared so much and yet when it came to this, it was like they didn’t care at all. He didn’t understand that because if it were Sam and some demon of his rolling around in the sheets together when he wasn’t there, Dean would have saw red, that’s how pissed off he would have been.

“It is,” Sam said.

“I have to go,” Dean said with his back to Sam. “I promised I wouldn’t stay.”

“If you hadn’t promised, would you stay?” Sam asked.

Dean looked at him over his shoulder. “I don’t know,” he said.

He walked the rest of the way to the door, waiting the whole time for Sam to stop him, but then he was out of the room and descending the stairs and still Sam didn’t come after him. He realized that there was a tiny, needy part of himself that had been waiting for him to do that and it made him even more angry with himself for still, after everything and all this time, being that pathetic.

~~*~~

The sky was just starting to turn grey when Dean rode out of Luverne, taking the same nameless buckskin horse he had rode in on, his mind in too much chaos because of Sam for him to notice how bone tired he was. He hadn’t slept since the night before and because of his restlessness it had been fitful and full of dreams. Now he was back on his horse headed back home with a burden of crystallized memories and a million ‘what if’s’ riding along on his shoulders. He didn’t want to know the things that he knew now and wished like hell he just hadn’t kept asking, but at the time, he had needed to know why. He tried to convince himself that if he had known, he wouldn’t have asked, but that just wasn’t true. He hated knowing almost as much as he had hated not knowing, but not quite. Knowing sucked, but not knowing had been eating him alive for years.

Thus the burden of this new understanding was a double-edged sword and it didn’t matter how he held it, Dean still got cut to shit by it in the end. As the weight of wondering and speculating was at last lifted, this new understanding was rending him to shreds.

Dean dozed a little as he passed through the city of Sioux Falls. The horse knew his way and Dean was content to let him go at his own slow pace long enough to catch a short, broken nap. The smell of sulphur jerked him awake and Dean had to grab the horse’s mane to keep himself in the saddle as instinctive panic washed over him.

He twisted around in the saddle, looking for the demon that had to be there. Watching him because Sam had sent him a guard or laying in wait to kill him; get rid of the one thing that made their master weak.

The clatter of something the horse was stepping over drew Dean’s eyes down to the pavement. The stench was coming from the charred and smoky remains of a burned truck tire. Dean frowned at it, then looked around at where they were and suddenly he remembered. This was where he had seen that strange family of three men, one woman, and a child right before he got demon-napped the week before. He had mentioned it to Bobby in passing, but Bobby hadn’t responded to it so either he didn’t know what had happened to them or he had seen them and whatever had happened to them had been bad enough to keep mum about.

Bobby still did that for him, protecting him in his own gruff, not so subtle way, and though it was sometimes annoying, Dean appreciated it. Sometimes he really didn’t want to know, but most of the time it was just nice that Bobby still gave a shit enough to do that for him, even if he was all grown up now. Even if he could take it, bad as it might be. Even if. It was still really nice to know Bobby had his back.

Dean didn’t think Bobby had done anything like that this time, though. The yard was a few miles out of the city and there was nothing to tell strangers passing through that there were people in that direction. From what Dean could recall, those people hadn’t seemed familiar with the place, so they had probably just taken a different road to somewhere else.

He wondered where they were, then he dismissed it. Hopefully they would be alright, but it wasn’t his concern. They weren’t even his people, so they weren’t his responsibility.

“You’re a liar, Dean Winchester,” he muttered to himself.

The horse’s ears flicked back at the sound of his voice and Dean patted him. “Not you, buddy,” Dean said. “I bet you never lie.”

The horse made a low rumbling sound of affirmation and Dean smiled wanly. “Even Cas is learning,” Dean told the horse. He slumped over the horse’s neck to rest against his shoulders, talking in a sleepy half-mumble as the motion of the animal’s gait lulled him. “He sucks at it now, like a little kid caught red-handed. It’s kinda cute, but you’d have to be one slow brain cell to believe a word of it. His only real… advantage is you’d never take the dude for a liar in a million years, so you’ve almost got to believe him. ‘Cept I don’t. Nuh-uh.”

As they got out of the city, the horse veered off the highway to walk on the shoulder of the road beside the ditch where the ground was softer. Dean cracked his eyes open and peered over the horse’s head toward home. He knew exactly where they were. Not far now.

“Sam’s a good liar,” he told the horse. “I can’t believe it how good at that shit he is. And strangers just eat up that fake earnestness like gumdrops. It’s disgusting. Thought I knew him better, though. Better than to fall for that shit for… longer than I thought I was falling for it. I’m even more of a dumbass than I thought, you know? My god, I need a drink.”

He was babbling, but the horse didn’t seem to mind it. The sound of Dean’s chatter seemed to comfort him just like the sway of the horse’s walk was putting Dean to sleep again.

When Dean woke up again, it was because he was being smacked. Or, not exactly smacked, but Missouri was patting his face none too gently.

Dean sat up, waving his arms at her to make her get away. “Stop it,” he muttered.

“Oh, no you don’t, child,” Missouri said. “Cussing me is one thing, but don’t you dare hit me. I’ll knock you right off that horse.”

“You started it,” Dean said, pushing himself up in the saddle. He was sore from riding so much, but sore all over from the way he’d been sleeping most of the journey back and he groaned as he stretched. “Fuck,” he mumbled when his back popped like firecrackers.

“Boy, I can’t even believe what you’re doing, though I see it with my own eyes,” Missouri said, shaking her head.

She stepped back to let Dean dismount, which he did, getting his left foot momentarily caught in the stirrup. He caught the saddle horn to steady himself and pulled his foot free, then just stood there because Missouri was blocking his way. “That’s what you get for spying,” he said., rubbing at his eyes. He still felt tired as hell, maybe more tired than when he first fell asleep on the horse.

“Take my word, I’d turn it off if I could sometimes,” Missouri said. “The saddest part of it all is that you all--your Sam, too--mean well. It breaks my heart.”

“Yeah? Mine too,” Dean said. He started walking, not avoiding her so much as taking the horse to rub him down and put him away so he could find a real bed to sleep in. “You know what he did, huh?”

“Yes, I know,” Missouri said, walking beside him to the lean-to around the back of the house. “I also knew that it wouldn’t do you no good to know it yourself. I was right, too. It’s taken what fight you had left clean out of you.”

“Didn’t have any left in there anyway,” Dean said. He opened the stall door and led the horse inside, then started to unsaddle him. “Feel like a dog that just wants to crawl away and die. Maybe with some dignity, but it’s not necessary. Not a new feeling, though. Nope, that‘s old news.”

Missouri stepped inside the stall and before Dean knew what was happening, she had pulled him into a crushing hug. Dean jerked in her arms before he could help himself, the reaction instinctive, then he slowly relaxed when all she did was hold him and pat his back. He wasn’t used to any physical contact from Missouri that didn’t involve him getting hit, but still he had a deep affection for the woman because she meant well. That seemed to be a running theme around him.

Dean patted Missouri awkwardly back, then squirmed to get away until she finally just let him go. “Now you hurry up and get inside,” Missouri said, stepping back out of the stall. “Your Castiel needs to sleep almost as much as you do.”

“Um… okay,” Dean said. He lifted the saddle off the horse and walked it over to its stand. After dropping the heavy weight of the thing, he paused. “What does that have to do with me?”

“Idiot boy,” Missouri said, her tone almost fond despite it. “He hasn’t rested either. He’s been… meditating since you rode off last night.”

What?” Dean said, staring at her in surprise. “Why? He… He was going to bed. Why would he…?”

“Dean Winchester, you have got to be one of the most oblivious creatures God ever breathed life into,” Missouri said, shaking her head. “Get that blanket and halter off that poor beast and go see to him. Oh, and I nearly forgot,” she added, turning back to him with a pouch of something she had palmed from the pocket of her coat. “This is for you.”

Dean took the pouch and untied the thong holding it closed to peek in and see. The smell of honey and fruit tickled his nose and Dean grinned, plucking one of the candied things out of the little sack and popping into his mouth. In the spring and summer, when the bugs were at their worst and the trees were so heavy with fruit it was dropping to rot on the ground, Missouri sent out the children to gather it up. She kept bee hives all year long and the fruit was delicious when it was fresh, with honeyed tea, fighting off the yellow jackets and sometimes getting stung for it, but these candied slices of peaches and apples were one of Dean’s favorite things.

“I’m not sharing with you,” Dean told the horse when he went back to take his halter and blanket off. “Sorry, pal. You got oats, though. They’re better for you.”

Missouri smiled at him fondly and left him then. Dean watched her go and smiled a little to himself, too. Funny how something so silly could make him feel so much better. “Thanks, Missouri,” he called.

“Don’t you mention it,” she called back. “You just go see to that other boy before he passes clean out right there and Bobby has himself a fit about it.”

Dean rolled his eyes at that, but he hurried around the house and went inside to find Castiel. It was only just after noon so Bobby wasn’t even in from checking the parameter and feeding the animals yet, but Dean didn’t see why Castiel’s meditation would be such a cause for irritation anyway. If he was meditating, he wasn’t touching Bobby’s books or accidentally breaking anything. Then again, Bobby wasn’t completely selfish either and Dean remembered the last time he had interrupted Castiel in meditation. The poor guy had absolutely no instinct for self-preservation.

“Cas?” Dean called as he walked through the door.

He didn’t get an answer, but he hadn’t really expected one. Dean hadn’t known a lot of people that got into meditation in his life, but from what he understood of it, sometimes when they achieved high points of concentration, things like time and concept of space disappeared and they could sit for days in a trance. If anyone could manage to find a higher state of being this way, Dean would bet it was Castiel.

“Cas? Hey, Castiel? Earth to Cas!” Dean called, walking through the house. He started to go down into the basement because that was where he found him the last time, then he heard something and paused. “Cas?”

The sound came again and this time Dean recognized it. It was the mewing sound of a very young cat trying to sound like a very big cat. He found Castiel’s two kittens playing under the kitchen table with a half-dead mouse, but more importantly, he found Castiel and he understood why Bobby would be so upset with him. He was sitting in the middle of the kitchen table.

“Dude, what the fuck are you doing?” Dean said. He walked into the kitchen and waved his hand in front of Castiel’s face. His pupils were contracted like he was in bright sunlight and he didn’t even twitch in response.

One of the kittens gave up on the mouse, relinquishing the struggling creature to the other one, and dived out from under the table after Dean’s shoelaces. Dean bent down and picked the kitten up, holding the purring little animal in the crook of his arm. He petted the cat while he studied Castiel, not sure what to do, but sure that he could not leave him like that. He might not feel it, but Castiel had to be as exhausted as he was himself.

“Cas?” Dean said, leaning over the table toward him. “Hey, man, wake up… or whatever. You gotta go rest. You know, take a nap. Come on, blink or something.”

Castiel blinked when Dean’s fingertips brushed his eyelashes, but it was obviously a physical reaction to the irritation of that touch, not a voluntary response to his words. Dean put the kitten back on the floor and grabbed Castiel’s shoulders to gently shake him. Castiel was limp and unresponsive in his hands and Dean started to really panic then. For weeks Castiel had been skating on the edge of madness and sure, maybe he was just meditating like the devout little ex-angel trying to reach God that he was, or maybe he had finally broken and fallen into a catatonic state. It would be easy for the other people around him to mistake it for Castiel just being his weird, batshit self, getting a little too caught up in his experimentation with the practice of Zen. If it was something else, something worse, they might not even know it.

“Cas? Come on, look at me, Cas,” Dean said, his hands moving from Castiel’s shoulders up his neck to hold his face, lightly patting. “Castiel, hey, come on. Don’t do this to me, man, not now. Come on. Look, I came back, didn’t I? I kept my promise, I’m right here, man, but don’t you do this. Blink at me, okay? Say something.”

Castiel’s hands came up out of his lap and closed around Dean’s wrists gently. “Dean, please stop hitting my face,” he said softly.

Dean froze, not quite believing Castiel had spoken, the panic already convincing him that what he was afraid of had happened and Castiel was just gone. He gasped, letting out the breath he had been holding, and rested his forehead on Castiel’s shoulder. “Fuck you, man,” he mumbled. “Don’t you do that shit to me. Don’t you scare me like that again, you hear me?”

Castiel put one of his hands on the back of Dean’s neck and stroked, taking a deep breath as his eyes teared up, the tears sliding down his cheeks as he closed his eyes with a heavy, sinking sense of relief. “I hear you,” he whispered.

~~*~~

Dean spent the rest of the day wrapped up in bed asleep with Castiel. Castiel had let him lead him downstairs without any complaints and had fallen asleep almost the moment he was in the bed, proving to Dean that he was just as exhausted as he was and Missouri hadn’t been exaggerating. He woke once to Castiel kissing him. Dean kissed him back and pulled him close, but when he started to undress him, Castiel had gently pushed him away and gone back to sleep. Smiling to himself, Dean had done the same, thinking he could easily love Castiel, that if Sam weren’t already there curled up inside his heart, if he didn’t have that love to hold it up to, he could love Castiel just a little bit more and that would be enough.

It was a little after midnight when Dean woke again and crawled out of bed with that muzzy, thick feeling of having slept for too long, and went outside for some air. He grabbed his bottle of whiskey off the nightstand on his way out, threw his coat on, and tried not to step on any of the squeaky boards in the floor on his way back through the house. He wasn’t very successful with this last, but the house was old and he figured it was the thought that counted.

He walked around the side of the house where the Impala was parked in her final resting place by the woodpile. Dean didn’t visit it often, usually only when he was extremely drunk and feeling sorry for himself, because it hurt him to see his car like that. The paint was dull, the undercarriage was starting to rust, the tanks were all empty and pitted, and the battery was dead and the last time he checked, it had been oozing acid. The Impala was like an eighty year old ex-beauty queen in a nursing home and it hurt him just to look at her now. She didn’t deserve this.

“Hey, baby,” Dean said, running his hand over the hood of the car.

He leaned there against the car and looked up at the sky, a million stars swirling overhead brighter now without the city lights to compete with than they had been in a thousand years or more. He tipped the bottle of whiskey back and drank, the liquor sloshing against his lips and trickling down his throat.

“Traded you in for a shiny yellow horse,” Dean said. He gasped around his laughter and wiped the back of his hand over his mouth. “And here you sit with grass growing through your motor--like the skulls in the ditches. Just like that.”

“Talking to yourself is rumored to be one of the first signs of madness,” Lenore said, walking toward him through the tall grass. She had a calf with her on a short lead and it stumbled over a block of wood, but caught itself and didn’t fall.

Dean turned his head and looked at her, but he shrugged. “Figure me being nuts would be like a foregone conclusion by now,” he said. He held out his bottle, offering her a drink.

Lenore took the bottle and sipped, then passed it back. “There are different kinds of madness,” she said.

“Yeah,” Dean said. “So what’s with the cow? You got yourself a new pet?”

Lenore smiled faintly and tugged on the calf’s lead, drawing him closer, out of the shadows and into the moonlight. When the calf looked up, it lifted two heads and looked at Dean with two sets of strange eyes and Dean grimaced in revulsion.

“Not exactly,” Lenore said, her smile widening at his reaction. “It happens sometimes. We feed on a cow and don’t know that she’s pregnant, that’s usually why. It deprives the fetus of nutrients.”

“Great, so now we’re going to have a bunch of freaky two-headed cows walking around. Maybe we can get them together with the mutant chickens and charge admission,” Dean said, lifting his bottle in a silent toast to evolution and the wonders of Murphy’s Law.

“No, they die,” Lenore said. She leaned against the Impala beside Dean and watched the calf try to graze. “Sometimes they live a few days to a week, but it’s a slow, unpleasant death.”

“So why bring it here?” Dean said.

“It’s a gift,” Lenore said. At the odd look Dean gave her, she smiled and playfully bumped his shoulder when he went to drink again, making him slosh it against his nose.

“Hey, watch it,” Dean said, spluttering. “You’re not so… yunno… um… I can still stake you.”

“Indeed,” Lenore said dryly.

They both knew that he would do no such thing, even if she were to calmly stand there and allow it. Lenore and her vampires had been some of the first people to seek out shelter with him and Bobby at the yard and over the years they had all developed a strange, deep friendship. The vampires were not human or demon and certainly not angels, but the destruction of the world had touched them too. With others, those that still fed on human blood, Armageddon had deprived them of their food source. Just like rumors of cannibals, there were rumors of clans of vampires that bred humans like Lenore and her people bred cattle. Dean didn’t like to believe these stories, but he did. It was weird as hell to find himself more familiar and akin to these vampires, these monsters like those he had once hunted than most other humans, but Lenore was his friend.

Lenore had first brought her people to him because they were starving and losing their way, some of them were already leaving her to seek out and feed on the blood of survivors. Dean looked down at the mutated calf now and he recognized a bizarre parallel. He had a good idea of exactly why Lenore hadn’t killed the creature yet and why she was bringing it to him.

“Why don’t you just kill it yourself?” he asked. “You kill cows for us to butcher out all the time.”

“I don’t know,” Lenore said. She rested her hand on one of the calf’s two heads and the animal bleated at her and stumbled. “I suppose I just don’t have the heart for it. It’s going to die anyway, it feels wrong to cut its life that much shorter.”

“So you want me to do it,” Dean said.

“It would be a mercy,” Lenore said.

And Dean could do it because he had been doing things for years that other people didn’t have the stomach to do themselves. He could take up the axe, kill this unfortunate animal, and spare Lenore the heartache of it because he didn’t care. Because even if he did care, it was his job and he would do it anyway.

“A mercy to it or to you?” Dean asked.

“Both,” Lenore said. “Look at him. His face.”

“Which one?” Dean said, lips quirking in weary amusement.

Lenore gave him an impatient look and Dean sighed. He looked at the calf, which looked back at him, one eye in the head on its right walling off to the side.

“Can you imagine what the world must look like to a creature like that?” Lenore said.

“No,” Dean admitted, and felt the first pang of pity for the animal.

“He’s a gift,” Lenore said. “You can butcher it and feed your people.”

“Some of them,” Dean agreed. Lenore frowned at him and Dean put out a hand on her arm to reassure her. “Hey, I’ll take care of it,” he said. “They’ll be glad for the meat, they don’t need to know where it came from or why.”

“I feel like a fool,” Lenore confessed. “After everything that has happened, all of the lives lost, but I am… affected by a cow, of all things. This shouldn’t bother me the way it does.”

“Strange times,” Dean said. “You didn’t really think you made it out in one piece, did you?”

“I think I did,” Lenore said. “Now I think perhaps I was wrong.”

“You’ll be alright,” Dean said. He handed her the whiskey again and again she sipped it and passed it back.

“Yes, I think we will be,” Lenore said. “And you… you’ve finally found grey after all this time.”

Dean smirked at that. He knew exactly what she was talking about and she was right. Angels and maybe Sam a little bit had taught him that at long last; there were no absolutes. Black and white walked a line of grey that sometimes bled out into the center of things. Not all angels were good, not all demons were through and through evil. Good most certainly did not always win in the end and bad men didn‘t always wear black.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” Dean said. “Might be too late, though.”

“That angel, he loves you, you know,” Lenore said.

Dean looked at her sharply, his posture becoming instinctively defensive. She watched him do it, pull in on himself and away from her, and sighed.

“I did not mean to scare you,” she said. “It was merely an observation.”

“Whatever,” Dean said. He drank his whiskey and passed it to her. “It’s complicated.”

“I’m aware of that,” Lenore said. She took the bottle, sipped from it and didn’t give it back right away. “I have two horses dropping foals. They are due tomorrow. What will you be doing?”

Dean snorted and shook his head, then held his hand out for his whiskey. Lenore took a drink and gave it back to him. “I have no idea,” he said. He knew what she was doing and it didn’t matter. She could have just asked him straight up, but that wasn’t her way. “You want me to come over and help?”

“I would appreciate it,” Lenore said, smiling at him.

“You could just ask where I’m going all the time if you want to know, you know that, right?” Dean said.

“Yes, but it’s not nearly as much fun as tricking it out of you and you see, this way I get free labor,” she said.

“Dude, I’ll help you with the ponies and you don’t have to trick me,” Dean said. He was getting a little tipsy he realized when he went to hand her the bottle and his vision went double for a second. “Shit. Here.”

Lenore took the bottle but didn’t drink. “Sometimes it makes it easier to talk about something you don’t think you should speak of… that way.”

“Yeah, maybe so,” Dean said. He waved one of his hands in a feeble gesture expressive of nothing, then slumped back against the car. “And maybe you’re right and I shouldn’t talk about that here. Bobby’s gonna be so pissed at me, I know this.”

“I believe Bobby already knows about it,” Lenore said.

“And he’s pissed, that’s what I’m saying,” Dean said. “Practically giving me the fucking silent treatment for like a week now.”

“Perhaps he just doesn’t know what to say,” Lenore suggested.

“Uh huh, and perhaps he kinda wants to shoot me in the balls or something because… I don’t know. Because. Because it’s Sam and that’s like spreading for the devil,” Dean said. “That’s what Chuck said,” he added, rubbing his temple.

“That sounds like he’s exaggerating a little,” Lenore said. The calf bumped against her knee and she put her hand down to scratch between the ears of one of its heads. “He is a very… high-stung sort of person.”

“Chuck?” Dean said, looking up at her with raised brows. He laughed and bumped against her like she had him earlier and Lenore staggered a little before she braced herself and shoved him back. “Chuck’s the most high-strung dude out there. And he’s always smoking pot. You’d think he’d mellow the fuck out, but no.”

“It could be that his visions won’t allow for it,” Lenore said. She gave Dean back his bottle to distract him and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “Stop it or we’re going to end up rolling around in the grass.”

“Ow,” Dean said, glaring at her as he rubbed his arm. “You saying you don’t even care about… you know… about me and Sam? I mean, it’s Sam and he kinda… blew up the world.”

“Except the world did not blow up,” Lenore said. “The world is still right here.”

“So that’s a no,” Dean guessed.

“Of course I care,” Lenore said. “But I don’t despise your brother the way many do--the way he probably deserves.”

“Why not?” Dean said. It was a legitimate question since the guy was practically the fucking antichrist.

“I have always looked at what he’s done… what he became, as more like…” she paused to consider, then shrugged and said simply, “a magnificent act of nature.”

“You’re fucking kidding me,” Dean said, gaping at her.

“No,” Lenore said. “He has changed the world significantly, but it hasn’t ended. Look around you.”

Dude… okay, wait, I’m drunk-ish I’m thinking, but still,” Dean said, gesturing with his bottle. “And… yanno, I’m the one fucking the… well, and I love him, but whoa. Even I am not that forgiving. Holy shit.”

“I am not forgiving him,” Lenore said calmly. “I am trying in my own way, like everyone, to understand.”

“Good luck with that,” Dean said. He tipped his head back and drank deep until his throat burned, then stopped to gasp for breath. He was quickly surpassing drunk-ish and going straight for drunk. “I think about it, you know? I do. I don’t get it either. Even after everything. And he tried to tell me, but I don’t really get it. Sure, I’d give everything for him, even now I would. But, man, look. I don’t think I could do this. At least I hope not.”

“I do not pretend to understand your brother or his reasons, but I think I understand some other things,” Lenore said. “Change happens. Throughout the history of the world, times of great prosperity are interrupted by times of great disaster. The Roman Empire, the Great Flood, a thousand different wars, the city of Atlantis. And you have to ask yourself, don’t you? If there are demons, if there are angels, if there really is a devil, then where is God? Why didn’t he stop this from happening?”

“I don’t know, why?” Dean said, asking it like he was sure whatever answer she had would be just stupid.

There couldn’t be an answer to this question that made sense. Every way he looked at it, it made no sense. Sam had ripped through the world like an arrow through a dove and that was it. There had been reasons, but they had been his own, and the world had not stopped turning in the end because of them. They had been the reasons of a man, who in the scheme of things great and small was a bug. If Dean believed there was a God mixed up in all of this, then he had to forgive Sam, didn’t he? If there was a God out there watching it all and doing nothing, then Dean would have to let Sam say he was sorry and believe it because free will only went so far.

“I don’t have that answer,” Lenore said. “I think you know that.”

“Yeah,” Dean said.

“But I remember what it was like before and I look around at the world now and I wonder,” Lenore said. “The world will always survive, you see. It always has. Before Armageddon cleansed it of the great mass of humanity, the world was overpopulated. People were starving and living in poverty. There was not water enough, shelter enough, food enough, land enough, there was not room enough for all of them. They were destroying the world themselves, it was just taking longer. Then I look around at what we have now and it’s not perfect. Not at all. But we--we few--we are not starving or cold. There is water and food and shelter. There is enough for us all. So then why, if there must be a God watching over us, didn’t he stop this from happening? Why doesn’t he fix this? I think the question answers itself.”

And that made a dreadful kind of sense when Dean thought about it. It really did. Maybe God was out there not fixing what Sam had done because it was supposed to happen. Because every little thing that had happened to make sure Sam and he were born, that they grew up to become what they became, was part of that great, unknowable master plan. Maybe everything had happened the way it was supposed to happen, even Armageddon, and there was never anything he could have done to stop it.

“So you see, if I believe this, then I can’t hate Sam Winchester the way I should,” Lenore said. “And if I care for you at all, I have to be glad when something makes you happy.”

“I am so not happy,” Dean said. “Right now I feel like I got beat in the head with a crowbar. Thanks for that, by the way.”

“It is only what I believe,” Lenore said. “It makes things easier for me to believe it. You don’t have to believe it yourself.”

“But it would make things easier if I did,” Dean said, and he could already feel himself starting to believe it. “Fuck God, man. Seriously. That’s… I don’t know. He couldn’t have done something else?”

“Maybe he could have,” Lenore said. “But he didn’t.”

“And you and me… we’re like the survivors of this planet-wide Passover?” Dean said. “That’s even more fucked up. I mean… it’s us.”

“Good people are alive and well because of us,” Lenore said.

Dean rubbed the back of his neck and frowned down at the two-headed calf, which blinked up at him stupidly. “God,” he finally said.

“Yes,” Lenore agreed, reaching over for him to give her the bottle of whiskey.

Dean passed it to her and shook his head, feeling a little numb and overwhelmed. “I’m gonna have to kill your cow in the morning I think,” he said. He tilted his head back to stare up at the stars, thinking about God and the patterns of things. “I’m too fucked up to swing an axe.”

“It’ll wait until morning,” Lenore said. She drank from the bottle and gave it back to him. “I’ll tie him up in the back of the house so you don’t have to pack the body back down here later.”

“Good, that’s good,” Dean said. He grinned suddenly and lowered his head to look at her. “Bet Bobby fucking wets himself when he goes back there to feed the dogs tomorrow.”

Lenore laughed softly and leaned back against the hood of the car, both of them turning their eyes up to the sky now. It wasn’t so bad, Dean thought. Maybe he wasn’t quite ready to forgive and forget, but this wasn’t so bad at all. The stars were brighter, Lenore was a cool, calm, friendly presence beside him, and in another life where the world didn’t end, none of it would have ever happened this way.

IX.

Dean crawled back into bed close to sunrise to sleep it off. He wasn’t tired anymore, but he was drunk and if he didn’t pass out for a few hours, he was going to be completely useless for the rest of the day. Which, admittedly, he might be regardless, but he did intend to get up and walk off his hangover enough to butcher that weird calf of Lenore’s like he’d said he would do, assuming the freakish thing didn’t die all on its own before he managed to sober up enough to swing the axe. Putting that out of his mind, Dean snuggled up to Castiel’s warmth under the blankets and passed out.

When he woke up a few hours later, he was still a little woozy, but he was pleased as hell to find that he wasn’t all that hung-over. He was also alone in the bed, but that was to be expected since Castiel had slept more than the normal average and way more than his own normal average the day before. Dean lay on his back staring up at the ceiling for a few minutes, then he rolled out of bed and got dressed.

He hoped like hell the cow hadn’t died yet so he could still fulfill his promise to Lenore--which was probably a pretty morbid thing to be hoping for, but he’d said he would do it and he liked to keep his word. The beef would also be full of blood and probably ruined if he didn’t butcher the animal so it could bleed out, but that wasn’t as important to Dean as his word.

He also hoped to God Castiel wasn’t off somewhere meditating again because sure, it was healthy and good for the mind and soul or what the fuck ever, but he had scared the shit out of Dean the morning before. That unresponsive, limp, dilated pupils way Castiel had just sat there had given Dean the creeps and he really didn’t want to go through that again any time soon. Maybe if Dean was here instead of off somewhere Castiel wouldn’t get that bad, but it didn’t matter. The fact was, Castiel had probably ruined the whole peaceful concept of meditation for Dean for good this last time. The first time when he found him freezing cold on the floor of the basement had been bad, but this time had really, truly scared Dean. He remembered the way panic had lurched up inside him when he thought Castiel might have just gone away in his mind for good, the way it had tasted bitter and heavy in his mouth, and he didn’t like it at all. Not the meditation, not Castiel’s futile search for God; none of it.

And maybe there wasn’t a lot he could do about that because this wasn‘t the pioneer days and Castiel wasn‘t his squaw; he couldn’t forbid him to do it, but dammit, he didn’t have to like it.

Dean stumbled on the stairs and had to catch himself on the railing and when he finally pulled himself up, Bobby was waiting for him in the kitchen. He wasn’t just sitting there having his coffee and Dean happened to be up and about at the same time, either. No, he was laying in wait for him and Dean spotted it the minute he walked into the kitchen.

Dean paused in the entryway and didn’t even pretend not to know what Bobby wanted to talk about. “You sure you don’t feel like you need a gun for this, Bobby?” he said, and walked by the table to get himself a cup of coffee.

“Believe me, boy, if I thought I needed it, you’d be staring down the barrel of one right now. Count on that,” Bobby said.

“Well, that’s a comfort to know,” Dean said. He took his coffee to the table and sat down across from Bobby, watching him carefully as he took his first sip. It tasted like acid. It was wonderful. “Go on, spill, man. Tell me what a piece of shit I am and let’s get this over with.”

Bobby narrowed his eyes at Dean in an annoyed scowl, but he didn’t say anything for a minute. The staring unnerved Dean, but he didn’t look away. He wasn’t entirely sure what this was about, but rule of thumb was not to do that because if you did that, you were dead. When Bobby finally spoke, Dean just stared at him like he’d lost his mind.

“You need to do something about that angel boy of yours, son,” Bobby said.

Dean blinked at him. “What?” he said. This was not what he had expected this to be about at all.

“Christ’s sake, am I speakin’ in tongues? I said you need to do something about Castiel,” Bobby said impatiently.

“What?” Dean said again. This time when Bobby glared at him, he shook his head and held up a hand to forestall what was sure to be a nicely vitriolic description of his lack of intelligence and explained himself. “I mean what did you have in mind?”

“You gotta get him off those pills for one,” Bobby said. “Can’t do it cold turkey, not unless you feel like being a real son of a bitch about it--and since you’re fucking him, I don’t figure that’s the way to go. Unless you want to be not fucking him when it’s done, that is.”

“Smooth, Bobby,” Dean said dryly.

“You want me to bullshit you, son?” Bobby demanded. “I ain’t in the habit of bullshit. Now he’s probably got enough of that shit around here to wean him off slow and nice. It ain’t gonna be pretty either way, but he won’t hate you or nearly fucking die from it if you take him off slow, you understand?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Dean said. “What I don’t get is why the fuck it matters. So he takes pills to go to sleep, so what? I drink. You gonna try weaning me off my shit slow and easy next? Might lose an eye, man, I’m just warning you.”

“Booze we got, booze we can get. Fuck, boy, Chuck’s got booze of his own brewing out in the shed--always assuming something don’t go wrong and we end up with five gallon bottles of vinegar instead of wine,” Bobby said. “Point being, if he had an addiction we could go on feeding, I wouldn’t give a shit if he stayed stoned out of his halo all the livelong day. But he don’t.”

“He’s not addicted, he can’t sleep,” Dean said. “For fuck’s sake, he’s not used to it. I’d know if he was addicted.”

“Maybe you do know. That’s the charm of denial,” Bobby said. “And I ain’t talking about the fucking river.”

Dean bit his tongue on the annoyed things that tickled at his tongue because when he thought about it he knew Bobby was right. Castiel didn’t just take his pills when he was laying down to sleep because Dean found him stoned all times of the day. It started that way, but like all addictions, it grew. Now it was something else and even if they could theoretically keep him supplied with Vicodin forever, it had to stop.

“You ever ask yourself why he forgets to eat but he never forgets to take those pills?” Bobby said. “I think you know, Dean. And he can’t keep on like this because he’s gonna run out pretty soon and then it’s really gonna get bad.”

Dean rubbed his eyes with his fingers, sensing a headache brewing that was going to just murder all his optimistic thoughts of making it through the day hangover free. “Where is he?”

“Do I look your angel’s keeper?” Bobby said. He got up from the table and put his cup in the sink. “Took care of that cow out back for you,” he said as he sloshed water into the cup.

“Dammit, Bobby, I told her I would do that,” Dean said.

“You go ahead and tell her you did it if it makes a difference, but the animal was suffering,” Bobby said. He grabbed his coat off the back of his chair and pulled it on on his way out of the house. “Hurry up, now. I know you got other shit to do than sit around in here all day.”

Dean muttered a soft curse under his breath and finished his coffee. He put the cup in the sink, then followed Bobby out of the house. Bobby was already going around the back of the house to see to his dogs and check for eggs in the chicken coop, so Dean went the other way, intending to cross through the cow field to Lenore’s barn.

He saw Castiel coming down the stairs from the little step porch in front of Chuck’s door and stopped. “Hey,” he called.

Castiel looked up from watching his own feet and hesitated a moment before he smiled at him. “Hello,” he said. He made his way carefully down the rest of the stairs, moving in a way that made Dean wonder if he might have fallen down them a time or two, and walked over to him. “Were you looking for me?”

“No--I mean yeah, but I’ve got this thing I have to do over at Lenore’s first,” Dean said. He waited a beat for Castiel to ask him what, but he just stood there watching Dean, waiting for him to get to the point. “Look, we have to talk.”

“We’re talking right now,” Castiel said.

“Yeah, but I mean… About something. You know… important,” Dean said. He rubbed the back of his neck and sighed, annoyed with himself. How exactly did one stage an intervention over this kind of thing with someone that knew next to nothing about what you were talking about? “Cas… um.”

“Yes?” Castiel said, watching Dean a little anxiously. “Is there something the matter?”

“Look, have you eaten today?” Dean said, giving up. He’d have the real serious sit down talk about drug abuse and how it was bad when he got back. Maybe by then he would have thought up a way to handle the situation like a grown-up.

“I… Well, yes, actually I just ate,” Castiel said. He frowned at Dean and chewed uncertainly at his bottom lip, then put out his hand and touched Dean’s arm. When Dean didn’t shrug him off, he left it there. “Why is this so very important?” he asked.

“What?” Dean said. “Oh, no, not that. I mean yeah, you do gotta eat, that’s important, but that’s not what we got to talk about.”

“It isn’t?” Castiel said. He studied Dean thoughtfully for a moment, then took his hand back and put both hands in the pockets of his coat. “Do you wish to talk about it later?” he guessed.

“Yeah, I gotta go help Lenore with the horses,” Dean said. He reached out and took Castiel’s face in his hands, surprising him, and pressed a quick kiss to his mouth. There was a strange tangy flavor on his tongue and Dean licked over it curiously, then let him go. “I’ll catch you later,” he said. “Don’t piss Bobby off too much, alright?”

“I… um… alright,” Castiel said, watching him leave with a perplexed look. He watched Dean bend down to slip through the rungs of the fence and ran his tongue over his lips, a pleased little smile forming on his mouth. “Alright,” he repeated softly to himself.

~~*~~

Only one horse dropped a foal that day, but Lenore was still glad for Dean’s help. She slept in the house with the rest of her little clan until the sun started to go down, then she came out to check on the mares. By then, Dean was about as exhausted as the horse giving birth herself because he’d been there all day. The foal’s legs had just started to show when Lenore joined him and Dean could have hugged her, he was so happy to see her.

“Fuck, this is like… I don’t know what this is like,” Dean said.

“The miracle of birth?” Lenore suggested.

Dean snorted. “Yeah, okay. I’m here all fucking day and this horse is making sounds like she’s dying, but nothing happens.”

“Something is happening,” Lenore said, watching from the doorway of the stall as the infant horse’s head finally started to show.

The mare grunted and pawed at the straw floor and Dean didn’t know whether he was more annoyed or disgusted with the situation. He had been talking to the animal for hours, petting her, trying to keep her calm. Whatever it was he was supposed to be doing while the vampires had nap time and the horse was having labor pains, he was trying to do.

Dean knew even less about this aspect of horses than he did about riding them and in his opinion, cars definitely had horses beat in this area.

“I don’t ever want kids. This shit has officially scarred me for life,” Dean said.

“I don’t think you’re in any danger of that,” Lenore said dryly. “But just wait until she finishes. You can watch her eat the placenta.”

“You know what? No thanks,” Dean said, backing closer to the door of the stall.

“Don’t be such a wuss. She’s almost finished,” Lenore said, lightly shoving his arm. “Don’t you want to meet the product of your labor?”

“Not my labor,” Dean said, making a face.

“Poor choice of words, perhaps,” Lenore said, amused. “But wait. One of my girls said something about cooking for you before I came down. If you would like to join me for dinner.”

“Aw, that’s sweet. You asking me on a date?” Dean said. He winked at her as he gently shoved her back.

Lenore chuffed out a soft laugh and shook her head. “I wouldn’t dream of it. There are two very… unique men that would take issue with that were I to even consider such a thing,” she said. “And just no.”

“Don’t think it counts as a date unless we’re both eating anyway,” Dean said. He thought about that and added, “And if you’re planning to lead a cow in to the table while I eat, I’m gonna have to pass.”

Lenore rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. They had had this conversation before. It would start with Dean remarking upon how disgusting her eating habits were or what she ate was, and would escalate when she in turn pointed out that she thought the same thing about his habits and what he ate.

The mare whinnied and her shoulders bunched as she shifted like she was trying to get up. Lenore went to her and murmured soothing words in a low voice, stroking the horse’s head and talking to her until she lay back. “We might have to help her,” she said to Dean.

Dean looked between her and where the horse was pushing out her foal and grimaced. “I’ve been helping her all day,” he said. “I get the feeling you’re talking about helping her though. Man, I gotta tell you, I’m not all that into body fluids and body functions and um… birthing and babies and slime.”

Lenore sighed and stood up, waving a hand toward the horse’s head for Dean to take her place. “You are such a child sometimes,” she muttered. She crouched down behind the horse and patted her rump lightly to let her know that she was there so the animal wouldn’t spook and kick her.

“Yeah, I get my way,” Dean agreed, grinning at her over the mare’s body.

“Hold her head,” Lenore said. “I’m going to help pull it out. This birth is taking entirely too long.”

“Are you supposed to do that?” Dean said, grossed out by the idea, but also a little worried.

“You’ve been here how long?” Lenore said.

“About four hours,” Dean said. “So? Isn’t this supposed to take a long time?”

“Yes, but she’s been in labor since late last night,” Lenore said. “The foal could be dead. There could be something wrong with it. I don’t know and I won’t know until it’s out.”

“Shit,” Dean said. He didn’t enjoy the whole birthing process very much, but he hated the idea of losing the foal. After all of his work, all the hours spent with the horse, then all the horse’s own pain and misery. It couldn’t be for nothing. “Shit,” he said again. “What about the other mare? Hasn’t she been in labor just as long?”

“She was showing signs of it last night, but no. She only went into labor early this morning,” Lenore said. “Now hold her.”

“Wait… whoa, I think I remember seeing this on City Slickers. Dude, you are not sticking your hand up that horse’s ass. Tell me you’re not,” Dean said.

Lenore gave him an exasperated look and shook her head, then slipped her hand over the little foal’s legs sticking out of the mother’s body and inside the mare. “This? Is not her ass. Sometimes I really do wonder about your father, Dean Winchester,” she said. “The stories he must have told you about where you came from…”

“Hey,” Dean said.

“Hold her,” Lenore said. She pulled, waiting for the mare’s next contraction, then pulled the foal with it. “Come on, darling girl, you can do it,” she said to the horse. “One more time, Josephine, push.”

Whether the horse heard her or not or paid any attention, Dean didn’t know, but on her next contraction, Lenore pulled the foal free and fell back with the slimy, gangly-legged creature flailing on top of her. She popped her fingers through the birthing sac near the baby animal’s face so it could breathe, then struggled with it until she could get up.

The mare heaved herself up and Dean had to scramble to his feet to get out of her way. She wasn’t paying any attention to him, she wanted her baby and Dean was in the way, he definitely didn’t want to get stomped on.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck this, I need to get back to the yard,” Dean said, edging around the horse as she started to clean her foal. He looked away when she did indeed start to eat the afterbirth and felt his stomach lurch. “Are you okay?” he asked Lenore.

She had brushed herself off and was wiping her hands on a rag, but she still had straw in her hair and her clothes were spotted with fluid and blood. “I’m fine,” she said. “And there is nothing wrong with the colt. A very nice little bay stallion. Well… not yet, but he will be. Just let me check on the other mare and we’ll go up to the house for supper.”

Dean followed her out of the stall and closed and latched it behind him. He was relieved that the mare and her colt were going to be alright but, though he liked hanging out with Lenore and her people a lot more than most of his own kind these days, he was also trying to think of an excuse to get out of dinner without being rude. He’d had about as much of the world in general as he wanted to deal with for the day. He wanted a long drink and yeah, maybe something to eat, but he didn’t particularly feel like eating it with people that weren’t also eating. People that would watch him eating like it was this weird… thing. This interesting and disgusting thing that they had once, long ago, done themselves before moving on to better ways.

He was saved from having come up with an excuse when a young girl, a little red-head named Chianne, came through the main door into the barn at a skidding stop. Dean looked up, recognized her, and instantly went on guard. Chianne was only fifteen, but she was their fastest runner and had been their messenger during times of crisis for the last two or three years. When he saw her, Dean’s first thought was that they had been raided, that demons had attacked the yard while he was away, somehow got through their defenses and captured the camp. A moment after he thought it, he quashed the fear down because it couldn’t be true.

It could only be true if Sam really was the heartless, conniving, murderous, cold son of a bitch that Dean had made himself believe he was through all the years of destruction. It could only be true if every moment since he was unrolled before him on that carpet were a lie and Dean had searched inside himself many times since then and did not believe that.

What he believed or what he didn’t still didn’t explain the fearful way Chianne’s eyes showed white at the edges in near panic when she saw him. “Sir… Sir--Dean--something’s happened. You have to come, sir. Bobby sent me. He was shouting and so upset. He sounded scared, sir, and Bobby’s never scared like that, he--”

Dean grabbed her and gently shook her. “Take a breath, girl,” he said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“I can’t. I don’t know,” Chianne said. Her eyes strayed over Dean‘s shoulder and Dean heard Lenore‘s boots on the floor behind him. Chianne lowered her voice, though it wasn‘t necessary and Lenore would have heard it even had she not been looking right at the girl. “But he said… He said to bring the vampire.”

“Did he indeed?” Lenore said. “It must be very dire.”

Chianne nodded, looking at Lenore nervously, then back to Dean. “And he said bolt cutters.”

“Bolt cutters?” Dean repeated.

“It’s what he said, sir,” Chianne said. “He was yelling and I may have heard him wrong, but that’s what I think he said.”

Dean let her go and stood, exchanging a look with Lenore over his shoulder. “You have bolt cutters?”

“I’ll get them and meet you,” Lenore said, turning on her heel and disappearing deeper into the barn where she kept tools and tack.

Dean hesitated, but he trusted Lenore and she wasn’t a coward. Whatever was wrong, she would meet him there. “Come on,” he said to Chianne, and ran by her out of the barn.

A few minutes later, they were across the field and climbing the fence when Chuck rushed over to them, his own look of panic turning to one of relief when he spotted Dean. “Dean! Oh thank God. I’m so sorry, man. I didn’t mean for anything to happen. I mean, they’re just mushrooms, right? But fuck, he ate nearly all of them and now he’s tripping balls--”

“Chuck!” Dean said, cutting him off. “What the fuck’s going on?”

Chuck took a deep breath, let out, and blurted. “It’s Cas.”

“No,” Dean said, all of his fears from earlier rushing through him until he felt nauseated with them. “What happened? Is he--”

“I don’t even know, man,” Chuck said helplessly. “He was at my place earlier and I left him alone for maybe five minutes and he was fine when I came back, but I had this vision, you see, and then Bobby starts screaming up at the house for someone to go find you and I just know. God, it’s bad, Dean. It’s so bad. He’s--”

Where?” Dean demanded, grabbing his arm. “Where is he?”

“Ow! Okay, okay, take it easy,” Chuck said, stiffening up. “He’s in the house, in the basement.”

Dean let him go and started running, Chianne catching up and following right behind him. “Tell Lenore,” Dean called back to Chuck.

Chuck stared after them. “Dean, he’s--”

Tell Lenore,” Dean repeated, and kept running, slipping out of hearing range as he passed a line of trailers and small, thrown-together cottage dwellings. They ducked around some of the rusted out old cars still stacked up in the center of the yard and were soon at the house.

Dean took the stairs two at a time and almost hit Bobby with the door as he burst through it. “Bobby,” he said. “Bobby, what’s going on? Where’s Cas?”

“Downstairs, come on,” Bobby said, pulling Dean that way. “I don’t know how the fuck this happened.”

Dean slipped around him and went down the stairs first, his heart pounding in his chest, mind racing. He didn’t know what was going on, but Chuck had said it was bad and it couldn’t just be that Castiel had gone a little too deep into his meditation and slipped away or there wouldn’t be this kind of urgency. They wouldn’t have sent Chianne running, she could have walked. On the positive side, it meant there was something he might be able to do to fix it, but it also meant whatever it was, Castiel was probably hurt.

“Did he fall down the stairs and crack his head or break--Oh, fuck me,” Dean said, stopping in the doorway to the panic room like he’d been sucker punched with an iron fist.

It took a few moments for his brain to fully process what he was seeing and get beyond the shock. Dean had seen a lot of things in battle, he’d seen things even before the Apocalypse that would make most people sick, some of which he had done himself, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing anything quite like this. Castiel hung suspended from the ceiling beneath the devils’ trap fan by chains thick enough to haul a truck with. On the ends of these chains were wickedly sharp hooks like were used in meat packing to hang carcasses before they were butchered out and these hooks pierced Castiel’s skin. They sank through the muscle of his chest and shoulders like talons, bearing his weight. He was mercifully unconscious, hanging suspended there like a moth in a web, and Dean made himself breathe and tried not to let himself pray that he wasn’t dead.

He walked into the room toward where Castiel hung, stunned and staring, trying to comprehend it. Trying like hell to make it make sense in his mind so he could fix it. Staring up through the dust motes swirling down from the fan and the light cutting through the grating, casting a gruesome halo around Castiel’s body, Dean realized he was crying. There was a heavy weight on his chest and his eyes burned with it.

He slipped and went to his knees in the spreading pool of blood beneath Castiel and choked on a sob as his hand hit the concrete floor and it slipped over his fingers like cold sap. “How long has he…?”

“I don’t know,” Bobby said. “I found him only a minute before I sent the girl after you. He’s… Shit, boy, I don’t even know if he’s alive.”

“He’s alive,” Dean said. He pushed himself to his feet and paced to the wall, looking for a way to get up to where Castiel was, to get him down. “He has to be alive. How the fuck did he even get up there by himself?”

“Dunno,” Bobby said, entering the room to pace around it with Dean. “There wasn’t a ladder.”

“How the fuck are we going to get him down?” Dean demanded, and smacked the wall, frustrated and feeling helpless.

“Dunno,” Bobby said again. He shook his head, then spotted Chianne standing in the doorway, shocked and pale. “Girl? You alright?”

“I…” Chianne swallowed and forced herself to look away and nod. “Yes, sir.”

“Go get some of the men. Tell them to bring ladders,” Bobby said.

Chianne nodded again, but stood there in stunned silence without moving.

Go,” Dean barked. That broke her paralysis and she disappeared, her feet thudding on the stairs as she ran.

Dean wiped his bloody hand on his equally bloody pants and shook his head, casting off the tears that were still in his eyes and hadn’t dried up yet. “I thought suicide was an unforgivable sin,” he whispered.

“I doubt suicide was what he was really goin’ for,” Bobby said. He went over to the bed where a book was laid open and picked it up. “Seems like more of his trying to find God bullshit to me. Look at this.”

Dean took the book from him and immediately recognized it as the book on Native American rituals that he had been looking at when he sat at the table that morning before he went into the city to find medicine for Jane’s dying son. At the time he had thought the history books and books on religion were a good change from the shitty romance novels Castiel had been getting from Becky.

“I saw this book on--” Dean shoved it back into Bobby’s hands. “Indians didn’t do this kinda shit.”

“No, but look at this,” Bobby said, holding the book back out to him to show him some pictures.

One was a painting and another one was a drawing on aged paper. In the first one, a man was attached to a long pole by a thong with a hook at the end going through the flesh of his chest, all around him other men and women looked on, some banging on drums and chanting. It wasn’t anything even close to what Castiel had done, but the painting was what caught Dean’s eye and made him growl in rage. In the painting, a young Indian warrior hung suspended from the ceiling of a lodge by cords on the end of hooks. He had an expression of far away ecstasy on his face and the sun shining from the smoke holes in the roof of the lodge bathed him in light like the fingers of God.

“Sun dancing,” Dean whispered, reading the description beneath the copy of the painting. He looked at Bobby, then up at Castiel, who did not look ecstatic, who did not look like God was touching him now or ever had, and he snatched the book from Bobby and threw it. It hit the wall over by his nightstand and knocked his gun off the table as it hit the floor. “Sun dancing, Cas?!” he called up to Castiel.

Castiel was completely unresponsive. He was pale to the point of looking grey and it made Dean sick with dread and fury just to look at him. “We have to get him down,” he said, walking around him again, looking for a way. “Bobby, we have to. Please,” he said, looking across the room at Bobby, pleading with him like he could do anything that he wasn’t already doing. “Please, we have to.”

A cautious step on the floor behind him made Dean whirl around, his hand at his back where his gun was not. He saw Lenore and for a moment, he didn’t really see her at all through his panic. Then he recognized her and relaxed, his hand falling away from his waistband.

“Perhaps I can help you,” Lenore said, entering the room. She had an expression of awe on her face that Dean had never seen before when she looked at Castiel.

“Okay,” Dean said.

Lenore held the bolt cutters in her hand out to him, still looking up at Castiel, and Dean took them. “There were men coming with ladders when I got here,” Lenore said. “The camp is in an uproar. They’re all very… confused.”

“Yes,” Dean said. He was confused himself, but more than that, he was fucking scared to death.

He jumped when the first two men arrived with a ladder, cursing and banging as they maneuvered to get it down the stairs into the basement. At a loss what to do, feeling completely useless and not used to the feeling at all, Dean just got out of the way.

“Be careful,” he whispered.

Lenore took his arm and guided him out of the way, over to the wall. “Stay here,” she said. When Dean shook his head and tried to go over and help the men with the ladders, she pushed him back with a shake of her head. “Stay. Let them do for you this time.”

“Do for me,” he muttered. Dean nodded but when Lenore started to move away, he grabbed her hand. “Do for him,” he said softly. “Please.”

Lenore smiled gently and nodded, then left him there to go over to where they were putting the ladders up against the rounded walls.

Dean watched in silence as Lenore took charge of the situation and the men let her, following her orders. They set up ladders against the walls, then one of the men placed a shorter ladder beneath Castiel and climbed up, standing with one foot hooked around the top rung and his arms up, hands holding Castiel’s legs to steady him. Lenore leaned out from her ladder, grasping the chain to steady herself, and cut the first link with the bolt cutters, severing the chain close to the hook in Castiel’s shoulder. There were three more, one more on her side, which she cut, then two more on the other and she tossed the cutters to a guy on the other ladder to cut those while she helped hold Castiel up to keep him from falling, which would have ripped the other hooks out.

When the last chain was cut, Lenore and the man on the short ladder beneath him held Castiel up, carefully easing him back down until they could get down from the ladders themselves and lay him on the bed. Dean edged around the men as they were taking the ladders back out and went to stand over the bed.

“He’s alive,” Lenore told him.

Dean nodded, still in a daze. “Okay.”

“Dean,” Bobby said, walking up to him, shaking him a little. “You snap out of this shit right now, boy, you hear me? It’s not that bad. It’s not.”

Dean laughed softly and shook him off. “Look at him!” he shouted, the numbness breaking into anger and fear again as he looked at Castiel himself. “It’s not that bad? It’s not?”

Lenore reached out and caught Dean’s hand, pulled him toward the bed where she sat with Castiel. Dean resisted as she forced his hand down, but Lenore was stronger than him and it didn’t take much for her to drag his hand down and press it to Castiel’s neck. “Feel that?” Lenore said, keeping her voice light and soothing.

Dean felt Castiel’s heartbeat thump against his fingertips and sank to the bed on his knees.

“You feel it,” Lenore murmured. “He’s not dead. Proof of life… It’s not that bad.”

“Yes,” Dean said, the word leaving him on an exhaled breath. He leaned over Castiel and rested his head on the mattress by his shoulder. “Yes, I feel it,” he murmured, hunched over him.

“Fucking God,” Bobby muttered, looking around at the room. “This place smells like a damn slaughter house.”

“Yes it does,” Lenore said, looking around at the room, the pooled blood on the floor and more of it on her hands and clothes, on the bed.

She stood up and moved toward the door, wanting to leave Dean and Castiel alone, perhaps send Missouri or one of the other women in to help stitch him up and bandage him. Bobby beat her to the door and there was a moment when they stood there awkwardly, both on their way through. Lenore caught his eye and grinned at him, then stepped back to let him pass.

“I’ll get the mop,” Bobby grumbled.

Dean closed his eyes and tuned them out, breathing in the familiar smell of Castiel’s body, his hand still under the curve of his jaw to feel his heartbeat like if he took it away his heart would stop. Though he was alive and his wounds, though deep were not mortal in themselves, the metallic scent of blood on his body was not reassuring. Castiel was unconscious and weak, he looked dead and even if he wasn’t, such deep cuts in the world they lived in now were open breeding grounds for infection.

Then suppose he did heal and everything was fine? What was to stop him from opening another book, maybe one on Romans this time, and crucifying himself on the rafters of Lenore’s barn? Or poisoning himself with something intended to help him reach a higher state of mind and touch God? Or… any number of a hundred different things that the angel himself didn’t believe could kill him. Or maybe even that didn’t matter anymore. Maybe if reaching God could be achieved through death, Castiel would try that too.

Dean sniffed and wiped his face on the sheet. He reached down to get one of the blankets from the foot of the bed where they had kicked it in the night and pulled it over Castiel up to his chest, mindful of the wounds. Lenore had worked the hooks out of his flesh, leaving gaping sores made up of torn, mutilated muscle. They still bled but only in a slow seeping way and he didn’t know whether that was a good thing or a bad one, he just didn’t want the blanket to dry to the wounds.

“Cas? Can you hear me?” Dean whispered, putting his mouth down close to Castiel’s ear. “I don’t get why you’re doing this shit. I don’t. It’s stupid, man. It really is.”

There was no response from Castiel and Dean ran his hand back up his neck to feel for his pulse. It was there and steady as before but it didn’t make him feel much better. “You’re not allowed to watch the fucking History Channel anymore,” Dean said, his voice cracking with emotion. “I’m serious. This is bullshit.”

~~*~~

When everyone calmed down, including Dean, they found out why Castiel had done what he did, or at least part of it, but even Castiel himself couldn’t tell them how. He mumbled something to Dean about flying that Dean instantly dismissed as another hallucination. A hallucination that had apparently been caused by the dried mushrooms he found in Chuck’s trailer and, reasonably mistaking them to be food, ate. From what Dean could understand of his nonsensical descriptions of the event, Castiel had returned to the basement and sat in the bed after Dean left him outside Chuck’s house. He was reading the book about Native Americans when he started to hallucinate and the sun dance began to seem like a good idea. As Castiel had phrased it, it had “opened a direct link with the Creator,” which was basically what Dean found when he went through the section on sun dancing in the book, but Castiel, because he was Castiel, and yes because he was also tripping balls, took it way too far. Although, if his later reaction once he woke up was any indication, he viewed it as a success. It was the closest to God he had been since he fell, or so he said.

Dean just figured he’d had himself a really awesome trip because if God was a no-show for everything else right down to the Apocalypse, the idea he was going to reach out and touch Castiel or even give a flying fuck about the guy was ludicrous. Castiel was walking along the edge of crazy already so Dean might not have believed him even if he weren’t stoned out of his mind, but he was stoned out of his mind and on psychedelics no less, so he wasn’t buying a bit of what Castiel was trying to sell him. The problem was, Castiel believed everything he was saying and that both broke Dean’s heart and scared the ungodly hell out of him that he was going to get right up from his sick bed and attempt it again.

Dean stayed with him, brought him food and water and even changed his bandages himself a few times. While Castiel was healing, Dean also started to bring him down off the Vicodin. This was more out of necessity because they were running out than because he wanted to do it. He had agreed with Bobby that Castiel was addicted and needed to be taken off of the pills, but he wasn’t cruel enough that he would have chosen a time when Castiel was already badly hurt to do it.

Castiel took it all in a strange kind of disaffected stride that Dean found both amusing and irritating. After being told about his addiction and informed that he wouldn’t be allowed to have the pills as often or as much as he was used to, Castiel stopped asking for them completely, as though asking for it were some sign of agreement or concession. Once he figured out that Dean didn’t believe him about the sun dance, he stopped talking about it and wouldn’t even try to answer his questions anymore. Dean called him a brat and Castiel didn’t agree or disagree, but Dean thought that was probably more because he had no reference for the word than out of some petulant desire to keep his opinion on the matter to himself.

“Cas, you’re going to make me a promise,” Dean said to him.

It was four days after they found him hanging from the ceiling and Castiel was still bedridden while they watched out for infection. So far, he didn’t show any signs, but he looked like hell anyway and there was a slight flinching around Dean’s eyes whenever he looked at him that Castiel had noticed, but that Dean couldn’t stop.

“Cas?” Dean repeated when Castiel didn’t respond.

Castiel turned his head on the pillow and regarded him with tired, dazed eyes. He was enduring most of his opiate withdrawal in admirable, stubborn silence, but he was still experiencing it, right down to the sweating shakes and the hallucinations. Dean pulled his chair closer to the side of the bed and studied him closely, but despite the fever glaze of his eyes, this appeared to be one of Castiel’s more lucid moments.

“You’re gonna promise me something, okay?” Dean said. He leaned on the edge of the mattress on his elbows and pushed the hair out of Castiel’s eyes gently. “Okay?”

“I would like to hear the terms of this promise before I agree to make it,” Castiel said. He licked his lips and tried to sit up, but Dean put his hand on his arm, careful always of his injuries, and made him stay. “And I would like a drink of water,” Castiel said, narrowing his eyes on Dean in annoyance.

Dean sat up and reached over for the cup and pitcher on the nightstand. He poured a few inches of water in the cup and held it out for him, helping Castiel sit up enough to drink.

“You know you’re being ridiculous,” Castiel muttered after he drank. It wasn’t a question and the way it came out of his mouth, it sounded like more of an insult than the words themselves qualified as.

“I do that sometimes,” Dean said, unoffended.

“I know,” Castiel said, laying back down.

Dean smiled a little and returned his elbows to the side of the bed. “So, about that promise,” he said. When Castiel didn’t offer to make the promise without knowing what he wanted, Dean sighed and said, “I want you to promise me that you’re not going to do anything like this again.”

Castiel pushed himself up on one elbow, swatting Dean’s hand away when he started to force him to lay back down, and stared at him for a long minute. “You’re going to have to be more specific,” he said at last.

Dean huffed out an exasperated breath and put his head down for a moment. “Oh, my God, why can’t you just promise me you won’t do it like any other person on the planet would, then worry about breaking it or not later?” Dean said, losing his patience.

Castiel frowned at him and cocked his head to one side curiously. “Because I am not any other person on the planet and because I am unclear about what ‘it’ is,” he said.

“Of course you are,” Dean said. He chuffed out a soft laugh and lifted his head. “I want you to promise me you’re never going to try sun dancing again,” he said.

“Oh,” Castiel said. “Is that all?”

Dean narrowed his eyes and shook his head no. “I also want you to promise me you’re going to stop doing this weird, suicidal shit,” he said. He lifted a finger and poked it toward Castiel’s nose, making his eyes go a little cross. “Any path to God that might kill you is out, you got me?”

“I was not trying to kill myself,” Castiel said, scowling at him. “That was never my intention.”

“I don’t care,” Dean said. “You’re not a dumb guy, Cas. You’re actually freakishly fucking smart. So use your brain. If it’s dangerous, if you might die or get really hurt, don’t do it. Oh,” he added, “and don’t eat shit if you don’t know where it came from. They would have covered that one around the time you were two with Common Sense 101, but lucky you, you got to skip that.”

“Is this also a condition of my promise?” Castiel said, eyebrows raised as he considered it.

Dean almost said yes without thinking, then stopped himself. Castiel took things in a very literal way. If he promised Dean that he would never again eat anything he did not know the origins of, he might well starve. “Ah… no. Just, you know, be more careful,” Dean said.

Castiel didn’t say anything for a while, just watched Dean until Dean had to look away because it was making him uncomfortable. “I have good reasons for doing what I do, though I know you don’t understand them,” Castiel said.

“I don’t think they’re ever going to work,” Dean said. “I understand fine. But I also know you’re not the first guy to ever try using drugs to ride the Milky Way. Look, the closest thing you’re going to ever get is maybe some peace. Not a lot either, just a little bit.”

Castiel’s gaze went out of focus and distant. “It’s an impossible promise to keep,” he said.

Dean fisted his hands in the front of Castiel’s shirt, jerking him back to attention. “I don’t care,” he said. “You remember the promise you asked me to make? I made it, didn’t I? And I kept my word.”

Castiel smiled tiredly and lay his hands over Dean’s clenched fingers. “For now,” he said. “Two impossible promises made to people who don’t believe in them. What are they worth?”

Dean let him go with a sound of disgust and started to stand. Castiel caught his wrist and stopped him. “I have to vomit,” he said, choking on the words.

Dean shook him off and pushed the bucket he’d brought down for just such an eventuality up to the bed. Castiel rolled onto his stomach on the edge of the mattress, put his head over the side of the bed and puked. While he was sick, he had mostly refused food so his stomach was almost empty, but he heaved up bile until there was absolutely nothing left, then lay back with a nauseated groan.

“You want me to keep my word, you promise me this,” Dean said.

Castiel cracked his eyes open and studied Dean with bloodshot, brooding eyes. “Your promise is a condition of my promise?” he said roughly.

“Yeah, it is,” Dean said.

“Then you understand what it means if I agree to this and you break your word,” Castiel said.

“All bets are off, I got it,” Dean said. “So?”

“I accept,” Castiel said. “I promise.”

“Good,” Dean said, standing. “Get some sleep.”

“Perhaps,” Castiel said indifferently.

Dean rolled his eyes and started to leave. “Good night, Cas.”

“It is not night,” Castiel said.

“Good night, Cas,” Dean said again and left him alone.

X.

Dean stayed away from Sam while Castiel was healing, refusing to leave him before he knew for certain that he was going to be alright. Castiel healed remarkably well and fast, but Dean still missed two meetings and waited in anxious dread for the day Sam would send his demons or walk into the yard himself to take him. When the days passed and it didn’t happen he should have relaxed and stopped being so nervous, but the opposite was true. He constantly waited for that proverbial shoe to drop, for Sam to come waltzing into the camp, murder everyone in his path, and carry Dean off over his shoulder like an angry caveman.

It was when he started thinking like that that he had to admit how unlikely that was, especially given all of the things Sam had tried to tell him last time they were together. Still, the caveman part he could still kinda see happening, even if Sam probably wouldn’t even have to murder anyone to accomplish it. The way Bobby was around him lately, he might gladly turn Dean over to Sam just to be rid of him.

A few days after Castiel, while under what he claimed was ‘extreme duress’, made his promise to him, Dean walked outside to find Bobby shouting at a group of wide-eyed little kids. Bobby had finally caught the little bastards at their egg shaking and just like Dean thought, he was royally pissed off about it, but even under the circumstances he was overreacting.

“Hey, Bobby, lay off, you’re scaring the kids,” Dean said, coming down from the porch.

“You keep your nose out of this, boy,” Bobby said without turning toward him.

“We’re sorry, Mr. Singer,” one of the braver little boys said. He was standing protectively in front of a few of the others and Dean instantly felt his heart go out to him.

“You hear that, Bobby? They’re sorry,” Dean said. “Come on, man, it’s just a bunch of chickens.”

He put his hand out, intending to lay it on Bobby’s shoulder, but Bobby turned on him and hit him. Dean fell to the ground on his back, his cheek where Bobby’s fist had connected throbbing like it had been caved in. Bobby stood over him, looking down at him with his hands clenched into fists and his eyes a riot of emotion, then he made a dismissive snorting sound and walked away.

“Are you alright, Mr. Winchester?” one of the boys asked. It was the little one that had stood in front of his friends. Now he crouched down beside Dean and peered at him in curious awe.

“I’m fine, kid. Don’t call me that,” Dean said. He rolled over and got up, marveling at how a jab to the face could make so much more of him throb in sympathy. The fact was, he was getting too fucking old for this and Bobby still packed a hell of a punch.

“Okay,” the boy said. He stood up himself as Dean got up and stood staring up at him.

Dean shifted uncomfortably under that unblinking gaze and wiped his hands on his thighs. “And don’t shake the eggs anymore,” he said. “It’s mean.”

“Okay,” the boy said again, still staring.

“Ah… tell your friends,” Dean said.

“Okay,” the boy said.

“Look, kid, go play. You’re giving me the creeps,” Dean said, waving his hands at him to shoo him off.

The boy suddenly grinned at him, all joy and mischief, and ran off, the other children following after. Dean let out a sigh of relief and rubbed his aching cheek as he went back into the house to nurse his injured face along with his injured pride with a bottle of whatever he had handy.

They didn’t speak of it but both he and Bobby knew that little incident hadn’t been about the chickens, not really. It was Sam, the great big elephant in the room. After that, Dean and Bobby walked in wider circles around each other, going out of their way to stay out of each others’ way. Though he hated it, Dean respected Bobby’s need to be left alone. He knew that if he were anyone else, Bobby would have put a bullet in his head weeks earlier. It was funny to think of it that way, but that punch was more like a love-tap of a warning shot.

Dean was out in the corral feeding the buckskin horse when he found the batteries he’d packed into the saddlebags the day he was demon-napped. He woke Castiel up playing “Thunderstruck” at top volume, shouting along with the words as he plopped down on the bed beside him.

Castiel held his hands over his ears and stared at Dean like one or the other of them had finally lost their mind and he wasn’t completely sure it wasn’t him. “What are you doing?!”

“Come on, Cas, you gotta know the words to this one!” Dean shouted back. His mouth was right next to Castiel’s right ear and even with his hand over it Castiel winced and shifted away from him. “Okay maybe not, so just scream thunder over and over!”

“I absolutely will not!” Castiel said. “Will you please go do… whatever it is you‘re doing somewhere else?!”

Castiel managed to push himself up into a sitting position with his hands still over his ears, but he took one of them away to reach out for the radio. He couldn’t reach and smacked his hand back over his ear to block out the painful noise just as Dean rolled over on top of him and reached out to twist the volume down himself.

Still astride him, Dean sat back on Castiel’s thighs and grinned down at him, then bounced lightly, making the bed shake. “You’re almost better, you’ve been in this bed for weeks, you sissy,” he said.

“Two weeks, three days and… six hours, yes,” Castiel said. He cautiously took his hands away from his ears, then immediately tried to get Dean off of him.

Dean tightened his legs against Castiel’s sides and made a tsking sound on the back of his teeth. “What about minutes, Einstein?”

“Fifty-three… four. Why must you sit on me?” he said, finally giving up on trying to unseat Dean.

“I don’t know,” Dean said. He leaned down and nuzzled along the curve of Castiel’s jaw, the prickles of his unshaved skin rasping over his nose and mouth. “You’re better, but I don’t think you’re up to sitting on me yet, huh?” Castiel turned his face toward Dean’s mouth, but Dean moved away. “Dude, you have got to get out of this bed. At least to wash, you smell. You’ve been sweating and sick in this bed for ages and just… Okay. Up, now, come on.”

Castiel shoved at him as Dean pulled. He tried to brace himself on the mattress, but Dean just took him by the wrists and dragged him over the bed. “I am not well enough for this,” Castiel protested. “I want to stay in the bed.”

“Well too bad,” Dean said, gently pulling him toward the door. “I want to crash there in a few hours myself, and maybe take some kind of advantage of you if you’re not going to crack open and bleed, but man, I am telling you it is starting to get ripe in there.”

Castiel scowled at him, but he stopped fighting him once he was out the door. He didn’t have anything against bathing, he just didn’t want to move and the bed was the perfect place to stay. “You mean like fruit?”

“No, I mean like ass, which you only move from that bed lately when you have to piss,” Dean said. He stepped aside so Castiel went before him up the stairs. “I’m sure that’s putting some huge kinda cramp in your emoing over God thing you’re doing too. Wait, is this one of those forty days and forty nights things?”

Castiel stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back at him over his shoulder. “What?”

“You know, like Noah and the flood,” Dean said. He put his hand in the small of Castiel’s back and shoved him along toward the kitchen. “Or like… Passover. Wait, not Passover… Lent. Yeah. That.”

“I am nothing like Noah,” Castiel muttered. He stood by the kitchen table while Dean put water on the stove to boil. “Noah was a drunk. You’re more like Noah than I am.”

“Fine, then you’re like Saint John the Divine because man, that guy was tripping on something when he had his revelation,” Dean said.

“Saint John the… Heaven does not recognize the saints of man and there are many Johns in the history of--”

“Oh Christ, fucking relax and sit down. I don’t even care,” Dean said.

Castiel sat down and stopped talking, staring down at the scuffed tabletop as though it were fascinating.

Dean considered him for a minute, then sighed. “You’re pissed at me and you’re being a total chick about it because I have no idea why,” he said.

Castiel frowned down at the tabletop like it had offended him. “I am not… pissed at you,” he said.

“See? That is such a chick thing to say,” Dean said.

“I only understand some of what you say to me most of the time,” Castiel said, bringing his gaze up from the table.

“I know that,” Dean said. He got up and took the boiling water off the burner, poured some into a large bowl they used to wash in and got a wash cloth from a drawer. “You’re pissed at me because you don’t understand me?”

“I told you I’m not,” Castiel said. He got up from the table and took the offered cloth from Dean. There was a bar of soap, made with lye, glycerin and some of Missouri’s bees’ wax, on the counter by the sink and Castiel picked that up too, working a lather into the cloth in the water. “I have understood less than half of what you have said to me since waking me up. I’m also more irritable than is normal, I think.”

“Ya think?” Dean said. “It’s fine, whatever. A lot of it’s the drugs. It’ll pass. Here, let me help you.”

He helped Castiel remove his bandages and checked them while he washed. They were healing into sunken red spots that in time would become raised scar tissue, but they weren’t infected. When Castiel was finished, Dean helped him wash his hair, then re-bandaged his shoulders and chest.

“Alright, there. You still look like crap, but you don’t smell bad anymore,” Dean said. He tossed Castiel his shirt, then reached out and snatched it back from him. “Maybe a change of clothes, too.”

“If you want,” Castiel said indifferently.

“I do, so let’s go, Clarence,” Dean said. He caught Castiel around the waist and started to steer him out of the kitchen, then just continued the motion and pulled him against him. “In a second.”

“Who is Clarence?” Castiel asked. He started to pull away from Dean until he realized what he was doing and relaxed against him. “I am not called--”

“Cas, shut up,” Dean said. He kissed him, cutting off an indignant retort that melted into a low moan and made Dean smile. He slid his hand up Castiel’s back, meaning to stroke his fingers through the back of his still damp hair, but he still had the shirt in his hand. He fumbled with it and tossed it blindly toward the living room. When it was gone and his hand was free, he threaded his fingers into Castiel’s hair and gently pulled his head back as he broke the kiss.

Castiel tensed up instantly and put a hand out to grab Dean‘s shoulder and ground himself. “Dean, what--?”

“Shh, calm down,” Dean murmured, brushing his mouth along Castiel’s jaw to his neck where he kissed over to his ear. “I’m just… I’m not going to hurt you. Am I hurting you?”

Castiel took several deep breaths and tried to calm down, but his heart beat faster and he could taste adrenaline in his mouth. It was a small thing, a very small thing, but it had startled him enough to put him in mind of predators. Or prey. He was doing a very bad job of calming down. “Dean, let go,” he said, trying to lift his head. “Dean, please.”

Dean opened his hand instantly and started to let go of him completely, the note of fear in Castiel’s voice setting off alarm bells of his own. “I’m sorry,” he said, and let his other arm drop from around Castiel’s waist. “I didn’t mean to scare you either. I didn’t. I just… I wasn’t thinking.”

“No, stop that,” Castiel said, reaching back to grab Dean’s arm as he let it fall from around him. “There are things… and I can’t do them. Yet. I am trying, I… It’s getting better. It is.”

“Hey, I know that,” Dean said. He returned his arm where Castiel wanted it around him and held him loosely. “I know, okay? We’re both kinda feeling around each other in the dark with pokers. It’s alright. Let’s just change your clothes, change the sheets on the bed and go to sleep, alright?”

Castiel frowned at him like he wasn’t sure he believed him, but he nodded and went with Dean.

It was true, though. Dean did know and Castiel was getting better a little at a time. If he weren’t, Dean wouldn’t have even been able to help him wash without making him nervous and twitchy. If it weren’t for Castiel’s amazing self-control, things would have been much, much worse, Dean knew that too. Without that, whatever triggers Dean unknowingly hit would have had Castiel in a blind, screaming panic in a minute and there wouldn’t have been anything he could do about it. Intimacy, like just the touch of his arm around Castiel’s waist, would have been an impossibility. It was still going to take time, though. Maybe less than if he were someone else, maybe not, but eventually there would be enough association to Dean and pleasure to maybe, maybe make Castiel forget about Sam when he touched him.

Castiel stood by the door while Dean stripped the bed and replaced the sheets. Dean took the mess of sheets and Castiel’s dirty sweats to the door and tossed them to the bottom of the staircase to be taken up and laundered later. He was tired and Castiel probably wasn’t tired because he had been doing very little but sleep for days, but he looked like he wanted to climb back in the bed and hide, so it could be dealt with later.

Dean got into the bed first so Castiel could make up his own mind about where he wanted to lay, how close, to touch or not touch. Dean knew those kinds of decisions were important to rape victims, especially when it came to trust. He figured Castiel trusted him right down to the ground, but he was allowed to have his moments of uncertainty and unease when it came to this kind of thing.

He relaxed a little when Castiel crawled under the covers right beside him and lay on his side, facing him. “Hey,” Dean said, for lack of anything else.

“Hello,” Castiel said. He smiled faintly and closed his eyes. “Dean?”

Dean licked his lips and slanted his eyes to him, then just rolled onto his side facing Castiel. “Yeah?”

“Who is Clarence?” Castiel asked.

Dean smiled. “Still on that, huh?”

“You never answered the question and you’ve called me that before,” Castiel said. “Is it someone you know? Do I… remind you of them?”

Dean chuffed out a soft laugh and shook his head. “No. I don’t think I’ve ever met a real guy named Clarence,” he said. He shifted closer to Castiel and when he didn’t cringe back, he leaned in and pressed soft kisses to his mouth. Castiel opened his own mouth, trying in a lazy way to chase those kisses and give them back. “Clarence was this character in a movie. A Christmas story about this guy that gets to see what the world is like without him. ‘Every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings’.”

“That’s not true,” Castiel said, but he was smiling at the idea.

“Well no, of course it isn’t,” Dean said. “That would only be true for kick-ass angels like Clarence. Most of your brothers would never qualify.”

“We’ve always had wings, we don’t get them,” Castiel said. “They are there and they are not there all the time. But they are.”

“Um. Sure,” Dean said. Whatever.

“But Clarence is a good angel, not like my brothers?” Castiel asked. He was murmuring sleepily, like his voice was winding down. Dean thought it was cute and smiled, watching him fall closer and closer to sleep as he talked.

“Clarence was a guardian angel. He saved what‘s-his-name’s life,” Dean said. He put his hand on Castiel’s hip and Castiel shifted closer to him, his hands pulled against his chest between them. Dean gently moved his fingers in little kneading circles, to sooth, not arouse. “Too bad we don’t get TV anymore. You might have liked it.”

“Probably not,” Castiel said. He yawned and threw an arm around Dean’s waist.

Dean snorted and closed his eyes. “No, probably not,” he said.

~~*~~

That familiar restless yearning had been building in Dean for what felt like ages. It grew as he sat through Castiel’s sickness and kept on growing. He would catch himself at times whispering under his breath as though to an impatient pet that he couldn’t, that he had to stay, that he couldn’t just leave Castiel like that to climb into bed with Sam. There was something deeply wrong and dishonorable to Dean about the idea of doing that. But, dishonorable or not, he still wanted him and when Dean’s defenses were down, like just before sleep or when he was dreaming, it didn’t matter. Nothing but that need mattered.

It wasn’t all sexual either. In fact, most of it wasn’t. He just missed Sam, missed his brother and his friend. He hated having to wait to see him, always waiting, then only getting stolen hours and minutes before he had to leave again and come back to the yard where he was needed. It was a half-life, perhaps not even that much, and every second was rationed. Most of those rationed out seconds went to passion because with Sam inside him, his mouth on him, whispering his love to him while his hands traced apologies into his skin, they were never closer. But that meant simple, relaxed, common moments of shared conversation and company were sacrificed on the alter of this passion. Dean was hungry for that. He had fairly run from Sam the last time they had talked but now that was all he wanted. He just wanted to sit still and talk to his brother, listen to his voice, maybe lose a few hands of cards to him and share a drink.

After a couple of weeks without anything at all, Dean was feeling the strain of his very irritating and complicated circumstances and it was beginning to show. He wasn’t sleeping much, he was drinking more and more often and he snapped at people over nothing. He snarled some vicious curse at Castiel one morning when he found one of his kittens curled up and sleeping in one of his ratty t-shirts. He shouted at a little girl and made her cry when he almost tripped over her sitting on the porch steps. He grunted distractedly in response to Bobby telling him to feed his horse. But his favorite person to take his irritation out on was still Castiel, possibly because he blamed him on some level for the trapped way he was feeling, but more likely it was because Castiel didn’t understand his anger or wasn’t phased by it and either way, he didn’t react the way Dean wanted.

“Why do you just sit there?” Dean finally said in frustration when Castiel had just listened with his head cocked slightly to one side in that way he had, to him ranting about cat fur and piss on his clothes, and how without an electric washing machine and dryer there was no way it was coming out, how it was all Castiel’s fault because cats belonged outside. “Say something.”

Castiel stroked the offending kitten’s back and smiled at the rumble of his purring. “What would you like me to say, Dean?” he asked.

Dean made claws of his fingers and bared them at Castiel with a little, “Grrr,” sound of exasperation.

Castiel lifted a brow at him. “I’m going to assume I have said the wrong thing,” he said.

“Your cat ruined my shirt,” Dean said, pointing a finger at the obliviously sleeping kitten.

“So you’ve said,” Castiel said. “What would you like me to say or do about it? Should I scold the cat? Do you think that would help? Or perhaps that’s not extreme enough to suit you. Maybe I should make him suffer as punishment. How would you like me to do that?”

Dean’s shoulders slumped as he belatedly realized what an ass he was being over a stupid shirt. “Shit,” he muttered.

“Indeed,” Castiel said dryly. “Are you finished?”

“Yes,” Dean said petulantly.

“Are you sure?” Castiel said.

Yes,” Dean said. “Where did you learn to be such a dick, anyway?”

Castiel gave him a flat look. “I wonder,” he said. “Now, do you feel better?”

“Not really,” Dean said. He still had the soiled shirt in one hand and he tossed it aside.

Castiel frowned at him. “You need to go do something,” he said.

“Like what? I mean seriously, everything is fucking closed, man,” Dean said.

“I don’t care, but go away from me,” Castiel said. “Your mood-swings are upsetting.”

“You want me to leave?” Dean said, oddly hurt.

“Yes. Yes, leave. Please,” Castiel said. “I appreciate your concern over my well-being but you know that I’m fine. I would like to read a little without your strange anger and fear all over me. I want to read a book and not have you trying to take it from me.”

Dean glared at him indignantly. “I never tried to--”

“You did. You took The Bell Jar away from me and I found it very interesting,” Castiel said. “I also want it back before you leave me alone.”

“I don’t have it,” Dean said immediately. Considering recent events, he really didn’t think that was a book Castiel should be reading.

“You are a much better liar than I am, aren’t you?” Castiel said, eyeing him with disbelief. “Fine then, you may keep it. You only prove my point that you do not believe my promise.”

“I told you, I don’t have it,” Dean said. He had returned it to Lenore.

“I told you, I don’t believe you,” Castiel said. “It doesn’t matter, I still want you to leave me for some time alone, please.”

Dean threw up his hands and started for the door. “Fine, fine, I’ll go… do something,” Dean said. “Put the cat outside!” he called back as he let the screen slam behind him.

Bobby was on the porch in an old rocking chair cleaning a rifle. He didn’t look up when Dean came out. “Maybe you better just go,” he said.

Dean sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose. There was a headache forming behind his eyes. “Okay, Bobby, I get that you’re pissed at me, man. I even get why, alright?” Dean said.

Bobby stopped what he was doing and looked up then, his eyes sharp and angry. “Trust me, son, that ain’t somewhere you want to be goin’ with me right now,” he said.

Fine. Shit, man, I’m trying to talk it out or something. What do you want from me?” Dean said.

“I want you to think with your head about what you’re doing,” Bobby snapped, pointing at him with an oiled rag. “You can’t--” He broke off and lowered his voice, realizing that others in the yard might hear him if he started shouting about Sam. “You can’t trust him, Dean, you have to know that. After everything he’s done? Lying ain’t no thing. They’re some sweet, sweet lies, too, aren’t they?”

Dean crossed his arms defensively over his chest and glared back at Bobby. “You know what? No, they pretty much suck,” he said. “If that’s what Sam’s trying to do, get me all stupid and twitterpated with his pretty lies, then wow have we all fucked up there because he fails at it. This ain’t no serpent in the garden whispering sweet nothings, Bobby. This isn’t what you think.”

“You’ve got no idea what I think,” Bobby said.

Dean smirked. “Yeah, I do,” he said. “Sammy may have been the college boy, but you know I’m not stupid. Come on.”

“I know that, huh?” Bobby said. “I’ll tell you what I know, son. I know demons can twist the truth into all kinds of knots to get what they want and you’re brother isn’t a man anymore. He’s a demon. A monster. Wasn’t all that long ago, you knew that too. So maybe you ain’t stupid, but for a smart guy, you’re doing some pretty stupid shit these days.”

“I haven’t left the camp in weeks, how do you figure?” Dean demanded. “I’m going fucking stir-crazy out of my mind, but I’m still here.”

“For that angel of yours, I know,” Bobby said. He went back to cleaning his gun. “Maybe he’ll keep you here, too. Who knows. But I wouldn’t lay money on it. You care for him, but it’s not enough. You always were hungry like that, and maybe you don’t like some things you’re brother’s been saying, but what’s he put on the table? He tell you he’s changed? He tell you he’s not like that anymore?”

“No,” Dean lied, staring down at the dry grey wood between his feet.

“Yep, and I know how you think, too, boy,” Bobby said just like Dean hadn’t spoken. “Maybe deep down you don’t really believe him, but you want like hell to believe him. You want to forgive him, but I’m telling you, there ain’t no forgiving what he’s done.”

“Maybe it…” Dean hesitated, then licked his lips and blurted, “Maybe it wasn’t all his fault.”

“Then who?” Bobby said, looking up from his gun again with a frown.

“Maybe nobody,” Dean mumbled. “Maybe me.”

“Right, and maybe me, too,” Bobby said, shaking his head. “You think I don’t blame myself for not seeing it comin’? Oh, I do. Every fucking day, I do.”

“No, he…” Dean stopped. He didn’t know exactly why, but he couldn’t make Sam’s excuses to Bobby for him. He couldn’t tell him his reasons why. It felt too much like betrayal. “Cas is okay now. I think I’m gonna go into town today,” he said instead.

Bobby studied him in silence for a minute, then nodded and returned his attention to his gun. “Maybe that’s the thing you should do,” he said. “You’re getting awful irritating the last few days anyway.”

Dean smiled a little. “Yeah, I know I am.”

He started down the stairs, but paused when Bobby called to him. “You come back, you bring some fucking salt home,” he said. “You keep forgetting that. Don’t you know there’s demons out there, kid?”

Dean grinned and continued on around the house to saddle his horse.

~~*~~

Dean stretched under Sam, arching his back into it and jostling him out of his light dozing. “I thought you were going to come after me if I stayed away,” he murmured, petting his hand through Sam’s damp hair.

Sam made a soft grumbling sound in his throat at being woke up and turned his head on Dean’s shoulder to lazily lick and bite at his ear and along his neck. “I thought about it,” he said. “But you left here pissed off. It seemed like a bad idea. Better to let you come back to me.”

“I wasn’t… I mean, I’ll get over it,” Dean said.

“Obviously,” Sam said, smiling into Dean’s skin.

“I still can’t stay, Sam,” Dean said. He shifted on the bed to prop himself up on his elbows, forcing Sam to roll to the side and let him up. “Don’t ask me to.”

Sam sighed and lay back on the bed, watching him. “I haven’t asked,” he said.

“Okay, well… don’t,” Dean said. He watched Sam back, not sure if he believed him. “I mean it.”

“Dean,” Sam said. “I won’t. This time. But if you think I like playing the other woman to your band of refugees, you’re crazier than I am. I don’t care if you ride Castiel’s ass from one side of the content to the next and back again, but I won’t wait for you forever.”

Dean blinked at him in surprise. “What?” he said. “After everything you’ve done, you’re going to just trade me in for a more obedient model if I don’t come to heel?”

It was Sam’s turn to be surprised and confused. He sat up to look at Dean and see if he was kidding. When he saw that he wasn’t, he laughed. “No, idiot,” he said. “I won’t wait forever, I will come get you. I don’t like the idea of locking you up, but if you’re going to be a stubborn dick about it for the rest of our lives, I’ve got to do something, don’t I?”

“You are not locking me up,” Dean said. He shoved Sam and sat up. He didn’t want to leave yet, but he didn’t like where this was going either. “I am not some pet you can take out and fuck once a day to keep it happy.”

Sam laughed at that and shoved Dean back. “Nope, sex has never quite had that effect on you anyway. We have some of our worst fights after sex,” Sam said.

Dean thought about that and had to agree. He relaxed back on his elbows with a sigh. “I miss you,” he said softly, hardly daring to admit it aloud. “All the time.”

Sam lay with his head on the pillow and watched him calmly. Dean’s profile was cast into soft lines by the fading sunlight through the great round window across the room and he looked weary and a little sad, but he was beautiful. “I miss you, too,” Sam said.

Dean turned his head and looked down at Sam, the sunlight glancing off the green in his eyes, making them glitter like bottle glass. “I don’t mean… you know, sex,” he said. “Not really. I mean sex is great and maybe I’m getting old but I don’t think I’ve maxed out in that area just yet, but you know… I miss you.” Dean chuffed out a humorless little laugh and looked away again. “I don’t even really know how much of you is left in there. I just… I want to sit here. Maybe talk, maybe not. It doesn’t matter.”

Sam sat up and put out a hand to cup the side of Dean’s face and turn his head back. “Look at me,” he said. “First, you are not old. You’re like… forty or something. That’s not old.”

Dean smiled ruefully and shook his head. “Old for me. I didn’t expect to live past my thirties,” he said. “What’s second?”

“Second, I am me,” Sam said. He leaned in to press his cheek to Dean’s face, speak right into his ear. “All of me is in here. So sit with me, talk to me, be with me.”

“Stay with you?” Dean asked, laying his cheek against Sam’s. “It’s not that easy for us anymore, Sammy.”

“It’s never been that easy for us, Dean,” Sam said.

“No,” Dean agreed. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes, a tear caught in his lashes for a moment, then slid between their pressed cheeks. “I can’t do this. It’s killing me.”

“What is?” Sam asked, rubbing his cheek against Dean‘s.

“Being with you--not being with you,” Dean said, everything spilling out of him like a confession. “I sneak away for a few hours, for a day. It takes me more time to get to you than we ever get to have and it’s always sex. The sex is great. It’s always been great, that’s never the problem. But… it feels like stealing. Like I’m stealing even that and that’s all I fucking get. It’s not a life, Sam. And Cas… Cas is great and I’m such a bastard, but he doesn’t see it that way. He doesn’t even hate you and God, if you had done that to me and I was him, I would. I would and you’d deserve it. But this… what we’re doing now, it’s not enough, it just isn’t, but I can’t stay. I don’t… I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to be doing this forever, you know? I don’t want to get all my normal, boring, nothing much happening days from Cas and nothing but great sex once a week from you. I can’t do this.”

“Then don’t,” Sam said, keeping his voice low and comforting. “I don’t want that either. I did… everything so that you would live. Even if I couldn’t have you, even if someone else might, I did it all for you. I can live with you and I know I can live without you, but I don’t want to live like this either. But it’s your decision, stay or go, I can’t make you stay. I could keep you here for a little while by force, you couldn’t leave me if I did, but I don’t want a prisoner and I love you too much to do that to you.”

“I don’t know what to do,” Dean said, his voice cracking.

He was weeping again and he started to brush at his face, but Sam took his hands and held them, opened his arms out to the sides. Dean mirrored him that way and stretched his fingers out as far as they would go before closing his hands in Sam’s. Sam closed his own hands, their fingers laced together, and licked at the tears gathering in the hollows of Dean’s eyes, slipping down his jaw.

“Sam, just lay down with me,” Dean asked, blinking his eyes open. The sunset had faded from the sky, leaving it a deep lavender. Dean gazed through the window at the sky over Sam’s shoulder, his vision wavy with his tears, then he put his head down on Sam’s shoulder. “Just lay with me. Be with me, nothing happening, just…”

“Stay,” Sam finished for him, easing Dean down on the bed. “I will. Tell me why you didn’t come last week or the week before.”

“I don’t want to talk about that,” Dean said.

“Alright,” Sam said, giving in to him on that for now. “Tell me about something else.”

“Okay,” Dean said. He told him about Lenore making him midwife for a horse and Sam laughed when he told him how nasty it was and that the horse’s name was Josephine. Lenore had once told him it was from a song, but Dean didn’t know any songs about a girl called Josephine so he couldn’t say which. He told Sam about the mutant chickens and how the children made a game out of sneaking into the chicken coop to steal the eggs from under the hens and shake them before putting them back. He told him about Castiel and his kittens, about naming them Cheech and Chong, even though they were probably the least brain damaged and stoned kittens of that whole litter. Sam laughed about that, too, and Dean smiled because it felt good to hear it and it felt good to just lay there like that and talk. Even if it had to end, it felt good.

~~*~~

They stayed up most of the night, talking about anything and nothing until they had talked each other to sleep. In the morning, Sam woke Dean up and rolled him over on his stomach. He kissed his scarred back and shoulders while he fucked him and Dean held tightly to the edge of the mattress, red light swimming over the backs of his eyelids as he moaned and gasped Sam’s name. There was hot running water in the shower in Sam’s bathroom and Dean pointed out the unfairness of this, but he still stayed in there for nearly half an hour.

They were sitting on the floor in the bedroom by the window eating when someone banged on the door. Dean tensed at the sound and scrambled to his feet, eyes already darting around the room for a place to hide, which was ridiculous because Sam was the most evil motherfucker in the place. Years of instinct took a moment to overcome though.

“Will you relax?” Sam said, going to the door. There was a boy there and Sam leaned down for him to talk into his ear. “No, I do not want you to kill him. Don’t hurt him, I’ll be right there,” Sam said. He closed the door on the boy and turned to Dean. “You’re not going to like this.”

Dean lifted a brow at him. “Okay,” he said. “Care to tell me what it is exactly I’m not gonna like?”

“Castiel,” Sam said. When Dean didn’t say anything, just waited for him to explain that, Sam said, “I guess he followed you.”

“He what?” Dean said. He started toward the door, intending to go around Sam so he could go after Castiel, but Sam pushed him back. It was a strange and uncomfortable way to be reminded that he was in a big house full of demons, some of whom wanted to kill him. “Let me out of here right now, Sam.”

“Not until you calm down,” Sam snapped. “He’s fine. For now. His horse spooked and threw him, but he’s fine. I’ll go get him for you if--”

“You can’t,” Dean said quickly. Castiel was probably already freaking out in the custody of a bunch of angry demons that apparently wanted to kill him, but then Sam… He didn’t like to imagine Castiel’s reaction to being alone with Sam. “You’ve got to let me come with you. You can’t, Sammy, he’ll flip out.”

“He’ll be fine,” Sam said, giving Dean another push back into the room. “Go sit down.”

“Dude, no way, I am coming with you,” Dean said. He grabbed onto Sam’s shirt. “You’ll scare him.”

Sam muttered curses under his breath and pried Dean’s fingers away from his shirt. “I’m not going to scare him,” he said. “Look, I’ll go get him and bring him right back here to you, okay? He’s just in the other room.”

“You raped him, remember?” Dean said, finally getting a little angry with him. He let go of Sam, but he was ready to grab him again if he tried to leave without him. “You might not mean to scare him, but Sam, you scare him. I’m going in there with you to bring him back here.”

Sam sighed and made a ‘come on, come on’ gesture with his hand as he started for the door again. “I can’t believe how complicated you make my life sometimes,” he said.

“Yeah, well believe it,” Dean said, following him out into the hall.

The great room at the end of the hall was open and bare but for a few lamps set on the walls and on the beams. Out in the open floor there were four demons, three adults--two female and one male--and the boy demon that had brought Sam the news. The two female’s held Castiel in the center of the room on his knees. He was wearing his coat and it was open and spread out around him like wings. One wall of the room was taken up by a huge stained glass window and the morning light slanted across the floor and colored the faces of the demons in garish colors like gruesome clowns and left turtle shell patterns of color on Castiel’s back.

“Cas?” Dean said as he and Sam stepped from beneath the low, overhanging ceiling, out of the shadows.

Castiel’s eyes darted to him, then to Sam, then away.

“Are you alright?” Dean asked him. When he didn’t respond, he turned to one of the female demons. “Is he alright?”

“I do not serve you. I do not answer your questions,” the demon said.

“You serve me. You answer my questions,” Sam said, fairly snarling it at her.

The demon cringed from him a little, but she nodded. “My lord,” she mumbled. “He is unharmed.”

“I injured my wrist when the horse threw me off,” Castiel offered.

Both demons holding him jerked his arms sharply to signal him to silence and the male demon had a staff that he looked like he would dearly love to hit Castiel with. Castiel winced in pain but he fell silent.

Dean opened his mouth to demand they let him go, but Sam held up a hand for him to be quiet.

“My lord, we found… we found cats on him,” the male demon said.

“Cats?” Sam said.

“Yes, sir,” the demon said.

Both of the women holding Castiel lifted one arm to show him a spotted kitten hanging limply in their hands. “What would you like us to do with them, my lord?” one of them asked, curling her lip in distaste.

“Put them down,” Sam said.

They dropped them and the kittens landed on their feet, but they lost their balance and tumbled.

Dean took an angry step forward, but Sam put a restraining hand on his arm. His other hand he put out and cupped one of the females’ cheeks gently. She smiled at him and leaned into the touch like a favored pet, then opened her mouth in gasping agony as the veins in her face turned purple and pulled, as though drawn by a magnet, through her pale skin to Sam’s hand. The closer veins to the surface started to pull at her skin until the skin broke and they came free like bloated worms. The veins that were deeper ripped and popped trying to reach that magnetic force and the woman fell to her knees silently screaming as her eyes turned red and ruptured, then bled and her skin cracked all over like old marble.

The other woman holding Castiel let him go and she and the man backed away from it all with wide, terrified expressions. The boy looked on with a strange little smile playing around his mouth. Dean knelt and caught the kittens up in his arms before they got demon blood in their white fur and tried not to watch. Which of course was impossible because as horrible as what Sam was doing was, it was still amazing.

Sam finally let her go, just flicked his splayed fingers and her face shattered and fell apart like it was made of ashes. Sam looked down at the mess of what he’d done and considered it for a moment, then he sniffed once and wiped his hand on his shirt. “Clean this up,” he told the other two demons. “And let it be a lesson for you. Don’t be mean to little animals.”

Castiel had kept his head down through all of this and hadn’t moved from where he was kneeling on the floor. When Dean crouched down beside him, he could see him shaking and when he touched him, Castiel jumped.

“Hey, you’re okay,” Dean whispered. He showed Castiel the kittens safe in his arms and Castiel smiled a little. “So are they, see?”

“My lord, do you want us to leave the angel with you?” the male demon asked Sam, hesitating to leave.

Yes,” Sam snarled. “Now get out.”

When Sam raised his voice, Castiel grabbed the collar of Dean‘s shirt and peeked at Sam and the demons over his shoulder. “Should not have come here,” he whispered in a low, frantic voice. “I should not. I thought I could. Thought I should because maybe coming back is not for you. Maybe if you don’t come back I still don’t have to be alone this way. Then it’s fair.”

“Dude, what the fuck are you babbling about?” Dean said. He passed one of the kittens into Castiel’s hands so he could help him up, which was harder than it had to be since Castiel stuck to him in a very barnacle-like fashion.

Castiel went up on his toes to whisper in Dean’s ear like it was a secret, watching Sam over his shoulder. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” he said. “The poetic heart, of course.”

“Uh huh, whatever you say, man. Come on,” Dean said as he started leading him toward the hallway that would take them back into Sam’s bedroom.

Sam didn’t say a word, but he fell into step behind them and Castiel noticed, twisting around to watch him over Dean’s shoulder so that Dean was half-carrying him down the hall. “I don’t know if I can do it, though,” he whispered to Dean.

“Do what?” Dean said. He shoved the door open and walked Castiel backward into the room. “No one’s asking you to do anything. Sam, will you say something to him and stop hovering over me like a creeper?”

Sam cleared his throat and opened his mouth to speak, then closed it again because he didn’t know what to say. “Ah… This is a pretty awkward situation, isn’t it?” he said. When Castiel just stared at him, his blue eyes wide and frightened, Sam looked to Dean for some kind of sign. “Um. Okay, hello?”

“Hello,” Castiel said, holding the kitten in his arms tighter. It mewed and squirmed, trying to climb its way to freedom over his shoulder.

“Here, give me that, you’re gonna squeeze poor Chong there until his little eyes pop out,” Dean said, carefully taking the kitten from Castiel. He put it on the floor with the other one and they went to hide under the bed.

Castiel immediately put his hands in his coat pockets and shifted closer to Dean. “I think I should leave,” he whispered. “This was a bad idea.”

“Yeah, kinda,” Dean said. “Look, I was coming back.”

This time he had been, that wasn’t a lie, but talking with Sam the night before had made him start to think. He had meant it, he didn’t like this half-life they were living, this sneaking away, stolen time life. He had been thinking of ways to make staying work and still keep his promise to Castiel. Castiel had just unknowingly acted upon one of the most logical and likely to work ways that he had thought of.

“Maybe you were,” Castiel said. “Maybe so. But maybe you should stay. I hear… because no one pays attention to me, I hear what they say. I’m not the only one that thinks so. But for you, not them. You wouldn’t hurt them, I tell them, but they don’t listen to me either. What do I know?”

Dean got his arms free of Castiel’s clinging and took his face in his hands. “A lot,” he said. “You know a lot and they’re fucking idiots for not listening. But what are you doing here?”

“He just told you, Dean. You’re not listening either,” Sam said.

Castiel’s eyes shot to Sam and sharpened. “Right,” he said.

“Well excuse me, I don’t speak crazy babble,” Dean said. “Why don’t you talk to him?”

“Because he’s scared to death of me, look at him,” Sam said.

“No,” Castiel said, shaking his head. He cautiously stepped away from Dean, closer to Sam. “No, but… don’t touch me.”

Sam held his hands up and shook his head. “Swear to… ah, scouts’ honor,” Sam said. “You know, about that--”

No,” Castiel said. “Not about that. Not yet. I can’t.”

“Alright, hey, that’s alright. But look, you don’t have to believe me or even give a shit, but I’m sorry about that,” Sam said.

Castiel frowned at him and cocked his head to the side. “I know,” he said.

Dean stood back and watched them together with a strange sense of ambivalence. Part of him wanted to take Castiel out of there right now, but the other part desperately wanted for them to somehow, some way, outside of all reason, get along. He loved these two people and he didn’t want to leave either one of them, but he didn’t want to spend the rest of his life journeying between them either.

Still watching Sam cautiously, Castiel sat on the edge of the bed. “Do you know what grace is?” he asked Sam.

“You mean that light you angels carry around?” Sam said. “Not really.”

“No, not that kind,” Castiel said. He put his hand out to Sam. “Come here, please.”

Sam exchanged a puzzled look with Dean, who just shrugged. He didn’t know what it was about either. “Sure,” he said, and crossed the short space to the bed where Castiel was.

Castiel stood as he approached and Dean only knew he was afraid because of how well he knew Castiel by now. His hands were shaking a little and that was all. “I want to tell you… I want to give you grace,” Castiel said.

Sam leaned his head down a little to hear him better and Castiel brought one of his hands up to rest it on Sam’s head. Sam didn’t flinch from the touch, merely watched Castiel back with calm, fathomless eyes. “Tell me, then,” he said.

Castiel’s fingers twitched a little in Sam’s hair, but he leaned in close to him until his head was almost resting on Sam’s shoulder. “Grace is forgiveness. Unasked for forgiveness that you don’t deserve,” Castiel murmured.

Sam’s eyes fell closed and he took a deep breath. Castiel stroked his shaking hand through Sam’s hair and Sam let it out and seemed calmer still.

“I forgive you,” Castiel said softly.

Sam made a soft, almost animalistic whining sound in his throat and startled them all by wrapping his arms around Castiel. Dean started forward to pry him away when Castiel tensed up, but Castiel looked at him over Sam’s shoulder, shook his head and he stopped. As Dean watched, Castiel stroked his hand down the back of Sam’s neck and Sam shuddered, his teeth gritted against the sounds tearing at his throat as he started to weep.

“No one prays for the devil,” Castiel murmured, voice low and soothing. “It’s a shame they don’t because he could use it. I pray for you sometimes. Did you know that?”

Sam shook his head and sniffed, his tears, which smelled oddly like perfume, spotting the shoulder of Castiel’s coat. “Has it worked, do you think?”

“In what way?” Castiel asked. He moved his hand from Sam’s neck to rub his back between his shoulders.

Castiel’s eyes when they met Dean’s over Sam’s back were sad now instead of scared and Dean felt a stomach-dropping sense of relief.

“In whatever way,” Sam said. He swayed a little against Castiel, but Castiel just held him.

“That is not the point,” Castiel said, “or why I do it.”

“Why, then?” Sam asked.

Castiel smiled faintly and eased back a little from Sam to look into his face. “Don’t you think you can use all the prayers you can get, Sam Winchester?”

Sam chuffed out a soft, teary laugh and nodded. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess so.”

Dean moved to a chair by the big window and sat down. He just watched them and eventually Castiel sat down on the bed again and Sam went with him, curled up beside him with his head in Castiel’s lap like a cat. Under the bed, the kittens played, their little white paws darting out from beneath the sheets to swipe at Castiel’s shoelaces. Castiel petted his fingers through Sam’s hair until he fell into a light sleep, exhausted from crying.

“I think perhaps this will work after all,” Castiel said to Dean.

Dean followed the path of Castiel’s slim fingers in his brother’s hair to Sam’s weary, sleeping face and he nodded. He thought of the look on Sam’s face when he turned that woman in the outer room into a pile of veins and ashes with nothing but a touch for the crime of dropping a kitten from too high. Sam might have his river of fire under control, but he still wasn’t human, and Dean thought maybe he knew that. He needed people around him that were to give him a point of reference, to put him in check and give him a reason to stop if he went too far. Sam was tired, too and they could both see it. He needed them both, though he might not believe that even now. He needed Castiel’s mercy and forgiveness as much as he needed Dean’s acceptance. He was a monster now, but he hadn’t always been and Dean would remember that for him when no one else would and Castiel, without his wings or his glowing bright grace, was still the best angel either of them had ever known, and he would understand Sam where no one in the world could. Maybe Sam would also understand Castiel. Over time, maybe that would be enough to make everything else alright.

“You know what you’re saying, right?” Dean asked Castiel.

“I am saying that you should stay,” Castiel said. “I am saying that we should stay.”

“We?” Dean said.

Castiel frowned at him. “Are you confused by the meaning of the word ‘we’?”

Dean snorted. “No. Just making sure,” he said. “Are you sure? I mean… it is Sam.”

“I am aware of that,” Castiel said. “I am sure. I am not sure if I can allow him to… touch me. Like that.”

“We’ll deal with that later,” Dean said. “He won’t if you can’t, you know.”

“I do know,” Castiel said.

He put his head down on Sam’s briefly, the gesture sweetly affectionate, then gently shifted to move him off his lap. “I must wash,” he told Dean. “I got lost on my way to find you. I believe I fell asleep on the horse.”

Dean laughed and got up to go over to Castiel and hug him. “You are amazing,” he muttered and kissed him. “And aggravating, and unbelievably… strange. And yes, you do need to bathe. Hey, we’ve got running water here.”

“Like rainfall?” Castiel said, going with Dean toward the bathroom.

“Like hot showers, but sure, turn it on cold and it’s like rainfall,” Dean said.

XXX