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Doubting Thomas

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Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here he gives too little, there too much:
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If man alone engross not Heav'n's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
Rejudge his justice, be the God of God.
In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against th' Eternal Cause.
-Alexander Pope

 

It smells like blood.

Not normal blood—something toxic, something… Dean can’t see. Can’t see past the light pouring in from the… Is that a window? He blinks up towards the roofline, at the light, at the iron bars blocking a concrete opening. Wetness touches his forehead, but he can’t see it. Can’t feel anything, because there’s nothing to feel but everything. Alight, like he could crawl out of his skin at a moment’s notice.

The sound of someone gagging forces him conscious just the slightest bit, followed by a shallow scream. Someone kicks metal, colliding with the wall. “Sam,” Dean rasps, blood in his mouth. Blood in his hair. Blood in…

 

There’s still light. Dimmer now. Maybe it’s mid-afternoon. Night is coming, Dean thinks. Night is coming, and he can’t move. His skin is on fire and he can’t move, and something is trying to rip out of his back. Weight bears down from between his shoulders, and he wants nothing more than to rip himself open, flay himself alive to make it stop. But he can’t. His arms are too heavy, his eyes won’t open, his legs are too limp.

Someone is screaming louder now, calling for… maybe help. Dean can’t see. “Sam,” he tries again, the only name on his tongue. Black swims in his vision, from shadows and his consciousness, slipping in and out. A broken strip of nitrate film, fraying and threatening to burn if it runs one more time. His life, playing out before his eyes, sightless. “Sa—”

 

They come for Dean next. Someone tugs his hair, jerking him up off the floor and out of his own blood. It caves when they turn him over, concrete splintering halfway across the room. Darkness swallows everything save for the windows. Light pours into his attacker’s face, but he can’t see their eyes, can’t recognize if he’s ever seen them before. Featureless, blank—he can’t see because he’s blind. “We’re almost done,” the faceless man—he thinks it’s a man—laughs, all veneers and malice. “Aren’t we?”

“We’re…”

 

“Dean,” someone calls—Sam. Sam, it’s Sam. Dean opens a blurred eye, looking past the blood and concrete, past the metal legs of a chair. An IV stand, he recognizes—ankles strapped in, hands bound behind his back. Sam is bad off—Sam is hurt. Sam is dying.

Dean opens his mouth, throat dry, and tries to scream. Tries to make some noise that won’t scare Sam. Someone is standing over him, adjusting the device on his head, and Sam screams again, rattling in Dean’s ears. The floor cracks, the foundation shifts; it’s not until Dean stands, that he realizes that he caused it.

Dean doesn’t speak so much as wail, and Sam’s attacker falls to his knees, hands over his bleeding ears. He can die—they can all die, whoever did this. Whoever put them there. Whoever did… whatever this is. “Sam,” he says, but his mouth doesn’t move in the right way. The syllables don’t match up with his brain. Sam understands, though, despite his wet, scarlet eyes, despite the blood pouring from his forehead.

Behind Dean, someone cocks a gun and fires. The pain is nothing—he’s not even bleeding. All he knows, is that Sam is out of the chair before he can process it, and they’re in the air, somewhere in a warp, surrounded by black and streaks of light, brighter than anything he’s ever seen.

A city, Dean thinks, just before he crashes into soft earth, leaving a crater in his wake. His heart races on the ground, his bones vibrate, and his back is searing where an incredible weight sits, threatening to rip his spine in two. “Cas,” he calls, another cry, and all falls silent.

-+-+-+-

Sam won’t stop touching it. No matter how many times Castiel pushes his hands away, no matter how much force he puts into his pleas, Sam won’t stop trying to rip the screws from his forehead, wincing with every twist of the bolts; he only stops when Castiel succeeds in pulling his fingers free. “They’re too deep,” Castiel says, voice filled with horrified amazement. It’s been years since he’s seen anyone wearing this headgear, and admittedly, the last he saw of it, Sam once again had been the bearer. He’d bled after they removed it, and Castiel knitted his skin together effortlessly under the street lamps, no scars, no evidence left behind.

This, though—this was intentional. The metal—warded, even, with sigils Castiel hasn’t seen in centuries—is wrapped too tight around Sam’s head, the two screws drilled in far enough to kill a human, dangerously close to his brain. Somehow, though, he’s alive and breathing, barely bleeding except for when he twists without Castiel’s permission. “Feel like they’re stuck in my skull,” Sam complains, eyes pinched shut. “Why does it—”

“Whoever did this drilled too deep,” Castiel hisses. Cautiously, he taps the leftmost screw, his stomach twisting when Sam almost shouts. “I need you to hold still.”

Sam complies with little objection and drops his hands to his lap, knuckles white where he fists them on his knees. Castiel can’t comfort him, not like this; the most he can do is attempt to alleviate the pain with words, directing Sam’s attention elsewhere. He pulls over a chair before he starts, the wood scraping dully against the library floor, creaking when he sits.

“Do you know what today’s date is?” Castiel asks, placing a hand atop Sam’s skull to keep him in place. Minutely, Sam shakes his head. “I need you to talk, Sam. Biting your tongue won’t make this hurt any less.”

“Kinda wish it did,” Sam huffs.

“You didn’t answer my question,” Castiel reiterates, softer now, more coaxing. Underneath his hand, he feels Sam loosen, only to once again tense when Castiel begins to unscrew the first bolt. “Do you know what today’s date is?”

“October sixth,” Sam answers, certainly a shock to himself. He jerks his head up, nearly undoing all of Castiel’s work. “…We’ve been gone for two months.” He swallows. “Two months—”

“You were hunting,” Castiel says, pushing Sam’s head down. “Do you remember where?”

That, Sam doesn’t answer immediately. He doesn’t fully speak again until Castiel removes the screw in full, all seven inches of it soaked red. Scarlet pours from the wound until, by some miracle, Castiel watches it heal underneath his fingertips, and not of his own Grace. No, Sam is doing this. Sam feels this, and Sam is healing himself in the aftermath, the hole knitting together and leaving nothing but a silvered, aged-worn scar.

Castiel blinks, his tongue dry in his mouth. “Sam,” Castiel mutters, his voice foreign to his ears, distant. He hasn’t seen this in years, hundreds upon thousands of years, when Angels still walked the earth. When the Nephilim reigned and threatened to destroy all of humanity with their presence. Sure, the Nephilim could regenerate themselves, but to watch a human do it…

He doesn’t know why he didn’t see it before. If Castiel looks close enough, if he places his hand over Sam’s breastbone, he can feel the subtle hum of foreign Grace underneath his fingertips, just faint enough to be present, almost answering his call. Whatever it is—and whoever’s it is—it’s terrified and fractured, not quite Grace in its final form, but more jagged, crying out for solace, to be pieced back together, made whole.

Sam isn’t human.

“…What’s wrong with me?” Sam asks, choked, and Castiel absolutely breaks for him.

“You have to understand,” Castiel starts, barely suppressing the ingrained instinct to destroy the creature in front of him. This is Sam. Sam, who he’s known for longer than he ever would have thought, who’s treated him with the utmost of respect, who would never put him in harm’s way if he could help it. Sam isn’t the enemy here—whoever did this to him is. “This is… well above my expertise.”

Sam nods along, just before Castiel holds him by the scalp once again, beginning to unscrew the last bolt. “I don’t remember what happened,” Sam admits through gritted teeth. “We were hunting. That’s what you said, we were hunting. This… place in Kentucky, we thought it was demons. Kept finding people with their eyes burned out after going on rampages.”

“But it wasn’t demons,” Castiel suggests.

If Castiel wasn’t holding him still, Sam would probably shake his head. “We tracked them down to this warehouse in the middle of nowhere and… That’s it.” He lifts his eyes, bloodshot from withheld tears; Castiel can barely look at him. “Was it really two months?”

Was it that long. Never would Castiel admit how long he spent searching for both of them, how many sleepless nights he spent tearing apart the library, looking for any sort of information on tracking spells or potential leads. Visiting the motel in Burkesville only confirmed their disappearance, and Castiel left with their belongings shoved into the trunk of the Impala. As long as Castiel never mentions it, Dean will never know that Castiel drove his car back to Kansas, nor will Dean ever know how many nights Castiel slept in the backseat in the garage, solely to remember that he was doing this for a reason.

But they’re alive—alive and whole, and Castiel would be able to breathe easier, if Sam wasn’t sitting in front of him. Disembodied screams echo from down the hall, ignored.

Sam grunts as Castiel pulls the last screw free, and afterwards, Castiel helps him to lift the headgear off and set it atop the library desk. Before Castiel can look back, the wound has already healed, and Sam is ruffling his hair, now three inches longer than when he first vanished. The beard is new, too. Dean isn’t faring much better, from the scant few moments Castiel spent with him.

“Never did thank you,” Sam says, combing his hair back with his fingers. “Just… whoever did this to me, you know…”

“They did it to Dean as well,” Castiel affirms, swallowing around the thickness in his throat. What they did to Dean was worse, indescribable. Sam escaped relatively unscathed aside from the turbulent Grace flooding his veins, but Dean… “You should clean up,” Castiel says. Sam nods and stands with Castiel’s help, unsteady on his feet, but recovering. “I’ll check on your brother.”

A hand to Castiel’s exposed bicep keeps him from turning; Sam holds him still with skepticism in his eyes, brow furrowed as he stares for what feels like minutes. “You’re… cracking.”

Oh. Right. “Don’t tell Dean,” Castiel croaks and pulls away in haste. If anything, Sam’s frown only deepens, words lingering on his tongue; Castiel cuts him off. “I’ll explain later.”

“Are you—?”

“I’m fine.” It’s a lie—and as long as Castiel can help it, it’ll remain a lie. “Really.”

-+-+-+-

The room is too bright, too loud. Outside the metal doors, Dean can hear voices, whispers in dark rooms, gasps and the abatement of pain. A leaf falls on the roof, the first hints of winter beginning to sweep over Kansas. Two squirrels fight in a tree over four hundred yards away. A car honks at an intersection in a town a few miles from Lebanon. Clouds are building in Dodge City. Rain is falling, bordering on torrential and threatening to drown the plains.

Everything—Dean can hear every sound, every word, can feel the chill in the air and the warmth of his own breath, and he can’t make it stop.

The only thing he can’t hear is his own screams, muffled by his own throat, voiceless in the dark room. The lone light bulb shattered at least an hour ago, glass shards lost in the mass of what has to be either feathers or bones growing out of his back. For all he knows, he could’ve sprouted wings in the last hour, or days, or…

How long has he been gone, anyway? How long has he been awake?

Somewhere in the room—maybe to his front, maybe at the side, he can’t tell—the doors open, soft yet grating on every oversensitive nerve. “Dean,” someone speaks; knees hit the floor by his head, fingers touch his nape in some gesture of solace. It feels like fire, like he’s being burned alive.

Before he can stop himself, Dean flings Castiel to the floor; Castiel slams down hard enough to splinter concrete in every direction. In the pitch darkness, though, Dean can see him—can see Castiel down to his very essence, all white light and swirling, blue wisps of something he can’t describe, tendrils reaching out to Dean at his core. “Cas,” Dean mutters, soundless, blinking away the wetness in his eyes when Castiel reaches up to palm his cheek.

As much as it burns, Dean can’t turn away, not when Castiel speaks him, lips moving in words Dean can’t hear but can understand. “Breathe,” Castiel mouths, thumb sweeping under Dean’s eye. “Follow my lead.”

Breathing—he can do breathing. As harrowing as it is, Dean inhales, his lungs expanding despite the aching notion that he doesn’t need it. He hasn’t needed to for a while, his body running solely off its own energy. It would be terrifying if he wasn’t trying to concentrate on Castiel and steady the writhing mass inside of him and the storms outside, threatening to blow more than bulbs. The electricity could be out in the tristate area, for all he knows.

Despite the terror and the overwhelming sensation of the world turning underneath him, all Dean can think of is Castiel. Each breath eases the tension tugging at his heart, and slowly, ever so minutely, he feels himself falling, Castiel’s Grace guiding the way. “Can you hear me?” Castiel asks, the first words Dean’s heard in hours other than his own. “Dean—”

“I… Yeah,” Dean attempts. All that comes out is a hoarse whisper, indistinguishable above the constant roaring in his ears and Castiel’s brightness, his Grace singing against Dean’s palms.

Grace. It only dawns on him that what Dean sees in front of him, what he sees down at Castiel’s core, the swirling discolored mass flowing through his veins and reaching out to him, is Castiel’s Grace. Unseen for years by human eyes, but now, Dean can pick Castiel apart at the seams, every minor crack, every imperfection in Castiel’s existence bared before Dean at his purest. If Castiel were otherworldly before, he’s even more so now, the proof within reach, available to touch.

“You’re…” Dean croaks; the back of his throat tastes like copper. “You’re really… you.”

 

 

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“You’re holding it too close,” Castiel says, concern knitting his brow. Cautiously, he slips his hand down to Dean’s chest, fisting his hand into the bloodstained fabric of Dean’s shirt. “I need you to let go.”

Of what? What could he be holding so close to make him lose control, to allow him to see… “Something’s wrong with me.” With those words, he watches Castiel nod, feels Castiel’s hand drop. “Cas—Why can I see you—”

“I’ll tell you. You just have to promise to let it go. Can you do that?”

“I don’t… What am I—”

“Dean.” It still amazes him how his own name spoken from Castiel lips always grounds him, cements his feet into the very dirt beneath him. On his hands and knees, Dean stares down into cobalt eyes, the floor buckling beneath his weight. “Close your eyes,” Castiel says, an order laced with a plea.

Dean can’t help but obey.

The welcome comfort of Castiel’s Grace isn’t a surprise, nor are the two fingers pressed to his forehead. What is shocking, though, is how he reacts to it, his body singing, his bones threatening to vibrate their way through his skin. Screaming doesn’t deter Castiel, nor does it scare him away. All Castiel does is hold on, one palm pressed to Dean’s forehead, the other gripping his shoulder tight over frayed fabric, helping to guide him down.

Minutes pass, maybe hours, but Dean can feel himself dwindling, the exhaustion in his blood creeping free and seizing his limbs. As every sound diminishes—the thunder roaring in Smith Center, the rain pounding on the roof, a child crying in the night—Castiel holds him, his Grace working to drawn Dean into his body, back within a manageable range.

“You’re safe,” he hears Castiel mutter, just as his vision begins to darken at the edges and his fingers tingle. It takes all of his effort to roll off of Castiel before he does something embarrassing like pass out, the weight of his body colliding with the stone floor. Tawny masses unfurl to either side of him, one spreading up the closest wall, the longest feathers reaching the roof.

Feathers. “Angel,” Dean slurs, turning his head to Castiel; Castiel sits up, wary, one of the masses pillowed in his lap, dirtied with blood and God knows what else. “I’m an…”

“It appears that way,” Castiel says, amazed.

Dean’s throat threatens to close. It’s too much, too close to the surface. Too… inhuman. “Sam,” he says, close to a whisper, looking to Castiel for guidance, for some light in the abyss.

Slowly, Castiel nods. “He’s alive,” he mentions. “He’s… different though.”

“But he’s alive,” Dean insinuates, waiting for Castiel’s confirmation. “I don’t care if he’s… Just as long as he’s okay.”

“He’s fine.” Castiel moves fluidly, working himself away from the wing—a wing, an actual, tangible wing—and kneeling beside Dean’s head, running his fingers through blood-matted hair, over the holes Dean knows were there at one point, scarred like stigmata across his forehead.

The worst thing, though, is that he can’t feel it. The former rush of adrenaline from Castiel’s touches, the way his skin would flush and redden with praise, the erratic beats of his heart just from Castiel standing too close—all of it falls flat, souring his stomach. Nothing happens. The longer he stares, waiting for the flood of admiration to come back, the more discouraged he grows, even as Castiel cleans the blood away with his fingers. I loved him, Dean thinks, tears forming in the corners of his eyes, spilling into the crease of his nose. I loved

“I can’t feel you,” Dean mutters in horror.

Another nod. Castiel’s face falls, eyes falling shut. “I’ll remind you,” he says, pulling his hand away. “I’ll teach you again.”

-+-+-+-

Reading doesn’t help Castiel; if anything, it only frustrates him, having to pore through tome upon tome, only to find nothing at the end of each search. As it is now, he has close to fifteen books spread across his bedroom floor, the dusted, age-worn pages marked with multicolored Post It notes and notecards.

The longer he sits there, the more his stomach sours under the moonlight pouring into the glass panes overhead, his only illumination save for a knockoff Tiffany lamp sitting on the desk. At least five books, old and fragile and leaking page fragments, are strewn across his bed. The others rest on a carpet he got from the Lowes in Salina, the newest thing in his growing collection of antique fixtures. A wrought iron bed frame is shoved against the back wall, brought to the rooftop conservatory, now his bedroom, with an abuse of his Grace.

This is his room now, though, decorated as he likes, his own space in the bunker away from human noise and pipes rattling in the walls. Some days, it’s the only place he has to escape and ruminate on his actions, on his own mortality and that of those around him. Flesh and blood is so fragile, prone to rips and tears with the gentlest of pressure. Hearts so susceptible to strain and abuse. Limbs weak with exhaustion. Stomach tearing at itself for food.

Why Castiel decided to fall for this, he can’t begin to fathom, especially now.

Four hours after both Dean and Sam retired for the night—or supposedly retired, based on how long Dean has been pacing downstairs, Grace tumultuous and frightened—Castiel can’t find anything aside from a text dating back to the first century, recalling mysterious encounters with men claiming they had ascended through the spheres. Probably the result of hallucinogens, but Castiel marked it anyway, the book now resting on his bedspread in a Ziploc bag.

“This is pointless,” Castiel tells himself and shuts a collection of fables, afterwards palming his eyes. Exhaustion is slowly creeping in, an ache his Grace can’t shake for much longer. He should’ve slept hours ago, but he’s been here, reading until his eyes verge on bloodshot.

Tomorrow, Castiel decides; tomorrow, and he’ll start anew, hopefully with fresh eyes and an answer to the unanswered, persistent memory in the back of his mind. Or, he would, if someone weren’t too busy climbing up the port in the far end of the room, wings clawing through the four-by-four hole and grappling for any sort of stable ground. Slowly, Dean pulls himself through the entryway and tucks his wings behind his back once his knees hit concrete, both terrified and awed at his discovery.

“Don’t touch the books,” Castiel says, more of a mumble, and begins to pick up his collection.

From his vantage point in the corner, Dean watches him silently. Castiel thankfully manages to stack his materials on his desk before Dean decides to speak, hoarse. “I thought you left,” he says, making his way to his feet without knocking any of the portraits off the brick-laid walls. His wings, massive and gold-hued, drag along the floor. “I told you, you had a room here.”

“I know,” Castiel says with a nod. Slumping onto his mattress, he places his hands on the bedspread and wrings the fabric absently. “You didn’t say where, though.”

Dean snorts, the barest hint of a smile overcoming his lips. “Shit. Thought you’d pick somewhere downstairs, not… What even is this place?”

“They used to store plants here.” Castiel shrugs. “They were all dead when I found it. I believe the Letters were attempting to grow their own spell ingredients.”

“Makes sense,” Dean says though a yawn. “Better than farming them out back.” He stops to swallow, his cheeks red in the dim light. “I think I…”

“I hadn’t planted yet,” Castiel offers in haste. He can retill the garden on his own time. Right now, Dean is more important, both him and Sam. “You didn’t destroy it.”

“Still left a crater. I just… wish I could remember what happened.”

“You don’t remember either?” Castiel asks, and Dean shakes his head. Faintly, Castiel can see his wings shaking, longing to expand, yet terrified. “Sam said you were hunting.”

A nod. “I remember that much.” It takes more maneuvering than necessary, but Dean seats himself on the bed, wings curled tight at his back; he bounces twice for emphasis, a behavior Castiel still finds endearing, no matter how many times he’s watched Dean over the years. “Demons. Shoulda been easy, y’know? Just walk in, a few exorcisms, knock out the nest before they killed anyone else. But…”

“It wasn’t that,” Castiel says, expectant.

Slowly, Dean lets out a breath, eyes slipping shut. “I don’t know what it was, man. Just… I woke up, and then everything just felt… hot. Like I was on fire, and then I saw Sam, and next thing, you’re dragging my ass into the dungeon.”

Castiel huffs. “To be fair, you fought me.”

“You could’ve been one of them,” Dean asserts, whipping his head over to face Castiel.

It only dawns on Castiel seconds later exactly what Dean said, more than enough time for Castiel to reach over and take his wrist, uncut nails digging into shower-warmed skin. “Who?”

A blink. Two, before Dean catches up to himself. His pulse beats wildly under Castiel’s fingers, the first hint of fear Castiel has felt off him in hours. “I don’t know,” Dean stammers. “I don’t… I assumed—”

“It’s okay.” Castiel reassures him with a hand to Dean’s shoulder, grip firm enough to calm Dean, as small of a gesture as it is. “You don’t have to remember now. But at some point…”

“Minute I figure it out.” Dean nods, exhaling deeply. “Minute I remember, you’ll be the first guy I run to.” Momentarily, he stops to glance over his shoulder, Castiel following him, to the masses taking up the entirety of the brick wall, clumps of feathers strewn about and pressed into glass panes. “They’re kinda…”

“Massive,” Castiel comments, temporarily awed.

Dean snorts. “I was gonna say in the way, but that works too.” He can’t turn like this, not much from what Castiel notices. Even when Dean is walking, his wings take up a good few feet to either side, threatening to knock over almost everything in his path if he isn’t careful. “They’re not gonna be out like this all the time, are they?”

Castiel offers, “I can teach you to hide them.”

Dean regards him, wary at first, but eventually slides onto the floor, only knocking over two books in the aftermath, both falling onto one of the longest pinions; he flicks them away with ease. Honestly, Castiel has seen more capable fledglings before; Dean will learn, though, and hopefully not destroy the rest of Kansas in the process. Smith Center is reeling as it is, a tornado having torn across the outermost edge and misplacing a herd of cattle, now roaming free in the plains. A small miracle for them, a nightmare for the farmhand. Dean would find it amusing, probably.

Castiel follows Dean onto the floor on fatigued legs, barely stifling a yawn as he watches Dean arrange himself in the middle of the rug. His wings are askew and twitching, no matter how Dean tries to stop them. “How do you want me?” Dean asks, the slightest bit humorous, deadpan in a way Castiel hates to hear him. This man, this formerly bright spot in his life, is afraid, reminiscent of a time Castiel refuses to remember.

The past is the past. Dean may be an Angel now, and his emotional processes may need to be relearned, but Dean is his future. Not a man who needs fixing, but a man willing to learn. “You’ll still feel them, but you can hide them to keep from destroying anything.”

To Castiel’s shock, Dean laughs, albeit hollowly. “You’re gonna hate what I did to the library.”

It can’t be any worse than what you did to the garden. “I’ll assess the damage in the morning,” Castiel says. He ushers Dean forward with his hand, fingers slipping around the frail inside of Dean’s wrist to find a pulse. More for Castiel’s benefit than Dean’s; if he can feel that simple rhythm, then maybe this isn’t a dream, and maybe Dean isn’t entirely what he’s become.

If only.

“You shouldn’t have to concentrate much,” Castiel begins, offering Dean his free hand; Dean slips his fingers between Castiel’s, clinging tight. “Your Grace will attune itself to hiding them, but you have to tell it.”

“I have to talk to my… Grace?” Dean asks, incredulous. Castiel would laugh if the situation were any different. “How’m I supposed to do that?”

“It’s probably simpler than you think.” To demonstrate, Castiel removes his shirt and straightens his spine. Lifting his head, he lets his eyes slip shut as black wings spill forth in their shared space, bones exposed in patches, several feathers beginning to molt and die, falling off onto the carpet. No matter how hard Castiel wishes, they won’t grow back, no matter if he reversed the process or not. He can’t—he made his choice, and now, he has to live with it until the day he finds himself watching his casket being lowered into the ground.

No use getting angry over it, Castiel tells himself, and lets his head drop. Dean watches him, wide eyed and awed. From the strain Castiel feels in Dean’s wrists, Dean wants to touch; for the first time, Castiel longs as well, to run his fingers through golden feathers, to feel the softness of fresh wings once again. It’s been too long since Castiel has touched another Angel so intimately, so reverently. Now isn’t the time. Probably never, either.

“You didn’t tell me they were…” Dean trails off, his arms going slack in Castiel’s hold.

The last Castiel ever saw of his wings—in person, at least—was years ago, when they were large enough to take up the entirety of a room; his power was dwindling even back then, but the wings still crackled, scorching everything they touched. The six of them could stir up storms in passing, could disrupt clouds, could bring sun to rain soaked towns. Now, the two wings Dean can perceive are tattered and worn, splintering even, their power fading fast. At the rate Castiel is falling, he has two months, maybe three, before he’s treading soil on his own two feet, bones set to shatter, his feathers useless.

His halo will be the last to go.

“They’re healing,” Castiel lies, his eyes betraying his smile. Whether Dean notices or not, Castiel doesn’t pay attention. “Your Grace is attuned to muscle memory in some cases. Wings are controlled by emotions and actions. Right now, you’re…”

“Freaked out?”

Amusing as it is, Castiel can’t bring himself to grin. “All you have to do is imagine hiding them.”

“What, control my breathing and clear my mind?” Dean blinks, scrutinizing. “That’s it? No secret rituals or cutting my arm open?”

This time, Castiel snorts. “As I said, it’s simple. Watch.”

Over the years, Castiel has accustomed himself to the feeling of his Grace warping to accommodate the shift in planes, his wings folding against his back and slipping into a realm where only his siblings could trace them. Now, it stings, mangled bones creaking as they vanish, a few feathers left on the floor.

The pain on his face doesn’t go unnoticed; Dean watches him with caution, lips pulled into a frown. “Cas—”

“You try,” Castiel suggests, breathless.

As an afterthought, he releases Dean’s arms and rests his hands in his own lap, fighting the urge to wring them together. He aches to sleep, to rest in the dim twilight, but Dean is afraid. At least, Castiel selfishly hopes he is. For a man so ingrained in his humanity, so in tune with his emotions, Dean appears to be handling himself well; if Castiel dared to look past the façade though, the situation might be different. The only feeling they share in common now is fear, for each other more than anything.

Even after the demonstration, Dean wavers and looks to either side of himself, at the tawny, golden wings extending from his bare back. They’re speckled with dark spots across the top arch and down to the lower pinions, those almost snow white and soft. They’re painful to look at, Castiel thinks, heart twisting painfully in his chest, thoughts of Dean shouldn’t have to deal with this and I’ve lost him and I never thought about what they might look like if… plaguing his mind.

He doesn’t realize he’s crying until Dean thumbs underneath his eye, gathering his tears on his thumb. “You’re tired,” Dean says, more of a statement than a question; whatever the reason, Castiel nods and wipes his face with the back of his hand. It doesn’t work; the longer Dean sits there, shirtless and winged and everything he shouldn’t be, the more it tears at Castiel, an ache he can’t describe, pain he hasn’t felt before.

I’m scared for him, Castiel thinks, covering his face in both hands. I love him, and I’ve already lost him.

-+-+-+-

Sam, as Dean somewhat expected, is pacing the library the following morning. The last Dean saw of him months ago, he hadn’t looked so haggard. Now, his hazel eyes are exhausted, and his skin has gone sallow; his bangs cover his eyes, hair in a permanent state of disarray. He resembles nothing more than a man walking out of a homeless shelter in his best clothes, twitchy and wary of the world around him, like it could all be a dream if he just opened his eyes.

For months, Dean has wished it was a dream. That would make it easier, the weight on his back and the unsettled, anxious itch in his chest. No doubt from the muddied mass writhing within Sam, he feels the same, or at least close. He’s not as bright as Castiel, the gold in Sam’s soul fissured at the edges, twisting and fighting against itself, but he’s… unique, for a better use of words. Thriving yet warring, tearing itself apart just to gain advantage.

It would be fascinating if Dean weren’t too busy throwing Sam into a crushing embrace, hands fisted in the worn fabric of Sam’s nightshirt.

Sam exhales, his lungs struggling to inflate in Dean’s grip; even then, he clutches Dean in return, forehead pressed to Dean’s shoulder. “God, you don’t know how good it is to see you,” Dean whispers, eyes pinched shut.

“Could say the same to you,” Sam says, patting Dean’s shoulder. “Glad to see you without the…”

Right, the wings. The things Dean’s been dragging around since he was conscious enough to look at himself in the mirror. “Cas showed me how to… hide them.” Pulling away, Dean shrugs and rubs the back of his neck, unexpected guilt pooling in his gut. “Do you remember anything? Like, where we were or how I just… got wings?”

It takes him a moment, but Sam shakes his head, wrapping his arms around his middle. “Last thing I remember was that warehouse. Cas said it was two months ago.”

God—that number still floors Dean, that two months of his life are completely gone from his memory, a black hole he can’t pick at, no matter how hard he tries. Something in his Grace—that word again, foreign to his tongue and especially foreign in his body—keeps him from going further, from revealing what hell he endured just to escape.

“You don’t remember anything?” Sam asks, a brief reprieve from Dean’s thoughts.

Dean, with visible reluctance, shakes his head.

“This was my fault,” Sam blurts, before Dean can even gather his thoughts. Now, the mass inside Sam churns, riddled with colors, black blots melting into maroons and deeper reds. Terror, Dean realizes, but he can’t understand why. “I thought it was demons, I swear. If I’d’ve known—”

“Hey.” Dean stops him with a hand to Sam’s shoulder, digging his fingers in hard enough to hurt; Sam remains unresponsive, regardless. “This ain’t either of our faults, got it? Whoever…” Whatever, more likely. “Whoever did this, we’re gonna find them. We’ll get them to fix it, alright?”

“But what if they can’t?”

Dean narrows his eyes. Somewhere inside him, he knows he should be affronted. He should be jumping down Sam’s throat to get him to understand that this isn’t on them, it’s on whoever did it in the first place. But he can’t feel it, no matter how hard he tries. Gone are the memories of physical joy and sorrow, of the grief that once encompassed his entire body, of the anger that fueled him to commit atrocities in the name of the greater good. Now, all he wants to know is how and why, and when he can grasp his sanity again, when he can cut his wings off and watch his Grace burn.

“What if they… What if this is permanent? What if we’re stuck as Angels for the rest of eternity?” Sam holds himself tighter, beginning to rock. “I don’t… I think something’s wrong. With me.”

Dean’s stomach drops. “Sam—”

“I’m not like you, Dean,” Sam stops him. “You’re… You and Cas are bright and pure and I look at myself, and I don’t like what’s there.” He lowers his head, hair covering his eyes. “I don’t think I’m… really an Angel. Not entirely.”

“Of course you are,” Dean asserts, despite Sam shaking his head repeatedly. “You got wings, don’t you?”

“That’s the thing,” Sam sighs, shaky. “They’re not there. I don’t feel them, not like you do. Cas won’t tell me anything. Shit, this morning he looked at me like I was infected, and I looked at myself in the bathroom, and…” Sam’s hands tremble, knuckles beginning to blanche. Whatever empathy Dean might have for Sam is gone, thrown to the wayside, and all Dean can think is how much he hates himself for it, the weakness accompanied with nothing to go on but intuition. “I think whatever happened, it only half worked.”

Shifting his weight between feet, Dean weighs the implications. If whatever happened—whatever spell or ritual or God knows what that blood soaked thing on the library table is—had been stopped, if Sam had been left in the throes of physically changing, then whatever Dean did had to be the cause of it. Of course it would go back to that. Of course Dean had to be the reason for Sam’s inhumanity, unseen to world probably in all of existence. Dean ripped Sam away and hurled him through space, with the full expectation that Sam was fine. If he could save Sam, then all would be right.

Guilt, Dean knows well. Apathy for his transgressions, not so much.

“Look,” Dean says, voice wavering despite how steady he holds himself, his Grace faltering ever so briefly. “Look, we’re gonna fix this, alright? Cas is gonna help, and we’ll get whatever this is out of you.”

“You don’t see it, do you?” Sam’s laughter, hollow and mournful, falls flat on Dean’s ears. “You don’t… You can’t. This isn’t something we’re gonna fix. Whatever they did, it’s permanent.” Agitated, Sam lowers his hands, thumbs tucked into the pockets of his sweatpants. “You can exorcise demons, you can cure vampirism, but you can’t rip the Angel out of someone. I see it in my soul, Dean—this is inside me, and it’s in you too, and you can’t just tear into yourself and expect everything to be the same!”

His final words resonate, sparking something akin to anger to flow through Dean’s veins, yet not quite there. Not enough to act on it, or even to consider it, given the circumstances. Still, Dean’s mouth moves before his brain can catch up, spouting, “I’ll rip it out of you if I have to do it myself. I won’t let you become one of them,” before turning to storm off. He nearly throws himself into Castiel standing three feet away, Castiel carrying a roll of parchment and what looks to be the oldest Bible in existence.

Whatever it is, Dean doesn’t care. Doesn’t turn around, despite feeling both Sam and Castiel’s eyes on him, even after he’s turned the corner and locked himself in his room. I can fix this, he thinks, bordering on hysteric, and slumps against the door, hitting the floor with a hard thump. He’s gotten Sam out of worse situations—raising him from the dead, exorcisms and curses, more than he can even begin to name—and he’ll do it again, if it’s the last thing he does.

Chapter Text

A week to the day of what Castiel dubs ‘the incident,’ Sam has his first flashback.

Whether it’s the first Sam’s had in his life, Castiel doesn’t know. Admittedly, he hasn’t spent as much time around Sam over the years, save for stints that forced them together, universally to save them from whatever situation they got themselves in. Their bond may not be close despite their years together, but something in Sam resonates in Castiel: the will to survive despite adversity, the lack of belonging with the universe around him, his blood thickened with something sickening that could change him from the inside out.

As well, the crippling fear of the unknown, the untouchable.

Their research materials, the same books Castiel has been translating for days with Sam’s assistance, fall from Sam’s hands, the book he was holding now clattering against the concrete floor. Loose pages scatter across the floor in a rush of air. At first, it’s unnervingly quiet; Sam’s previous statement of, “What if you looked in Enoch?” abruptly halts, only to give away to shouting. Castiel bolts from the bed in time to catch Sam before he collapses entirely, Sam’s hands buried in his hair, pulling at the root.

“Sam,” Castiel says in haste; he moves both of his hands to Sam’s shoulders, then his wrists. Calling Sam’s name doesn’t work; neither does attempting to pull his hands away, fingers desperate to claw into something, preferably himself. “Sam, you have to talk to me,” Castiel pleads, verging on desperate. “Sam—”

“Don’t touch him,” Sam begs.

It’s only then that Castiel looks at him—really looks, at the black, solid, unmoving mass of his Grace. This is more Dean’s expertise. Dean would know what to do, if he weren’t too busy sulking like a child in the sub-basement, trying to figure out how to rid himself of the hideous blot he’s reduced himself—and inadvertently, Castiel—to.

“Dean’s alright,” Castiel tries, easing his hold from crushing to firm, enough pressure to keep Sam engaged. “Sam, he’s alright.”

“Don’t touch him,” Sam repeats between shouts, only stopping to breathe and gag.

All Castiel can do is hold him and pray for guidance, for a sign. Anything to keep Sam from clawing his face off. “Dean’s alright,” Castiel says, softer now, coaxing Sam to look at him. Despite this, Sam struggles to dig his nails in, his fingers white knuckled around the forehead, over the scarred remnants of the headgear. He’s in the chair, Castiel thinks, horror dawning on him. He thinks he’s in the chair. “Dean’s okay. Dean saved you.”

“You did this to him,” Sam yells, but moves when instructed, his hands falling away from his face to rest in Castiel’s grasp. He shakes and twists, teeth bared. “Don’t care why,” he wheezes. “Angels aren’t this sadistic.”

Angels. Castiel’s heart grows cold. “Did Angels do this?” Castiel asks with force, spurring Sam to look at him, harrowed. “Sam, did Angels do this?”

One word. Castiel drops his hands, falling back onto his haunches. “Three. Three Angels.”

It doesn’t make sense. This magic—this power—is unimaginable, unthinkable, and yet, the proof sits before him in the form of a hyperventilating man, terrified about what’s happening to him. Castiel hears Dean’s entrance more than sees him, and out of the corner of his eye, he knows Dean is watching, equally terrified, yet unwilling to let himself express it. Never once has Castiel missed the emotional void that Angels possess—now, even more so with Dean the spitting image of what Castiel had been all those years ago.

Protectively, Castiel pulls Sam into his arms and fists the back of his nightshirt. “No one will hurt you,” he whispers, and lets Sam come down.

-+-+-+-

“But this isn’t what I’m getting,” Dean says an hour later, shoveling maple-drenched waffles into his mouth, syrup dripping off his chin. It would be endearing if Castiel weren’t mortified. This is the human he’s falling for, Dean doing all but drinking syrup from the bottle. “We’re like this because of… Angels? I thought all of them were in Heaven.”

“Some of them are,” Castiel admits. He glances down to his half eaten plate of eggs and ham with disinterest, his stomach queasy. Partially from the discussion, but mostly from having to watch Dean eat like he hasn’t touched food in months. For all Castiel knows, this could be his first meal since his disappearance. “There’s a portal, in a playground. It’s the only entrance and exit, and it’s heavily guarded.”

“But some of them broke through,” Sam adds, both a question and statement. He looks healthier now, albeit nursing a headache and drinking coffee like water. “I saw it before, Cas. Do you really think some… rogue Angels could just take off and wreak havoc?”

It’s entirely possible, as much as Castiel hates to admit. All it would take is incapacitating the guard and rushing through the portal before someone found out and closed it on the other end. But normally, it’s only for civil trips, to check on siblings living amongst humans, or hunting down adversaries stranded without their wings. But this is different. This feels different, an itch he can’t scratch in the back of his mind. Somewhere, hidden within the expanse of his Grace is the answer. Finding it, though, is the challenge.

“I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t happened before.” Castiel shrugs. “But it’s been thousands of years. Until recently, Angels hadn’t visited Earth unless they had business there. But meddling in soul magic… It’s messy. Converting the soul to divine can’t be done, and even if it was possible…”

“We’d be dead,” Sam finishes.

Castiel nods, exhaling through his nose. Dean puts down his fork, too enrapt in his own thoughts to add anything else to the conversation. “You sure there’s not something you’re not telling us?” Dean asks, genuine worry veiled as an accusation.

Sam doesn’t jump in to defend Castiel. Castiel never expected him to; they’re both worried if this is even possible to reverse, or if they’ll be like this forever. If Heaven will murder them in their sleep for being abominations. “If I knew, you know I’d tell you.” Elbows on the table, Castiel holds his head in his hands. “I feel like there’s this… block, in my memories. I should know this, but it’s not there.”

“Maybe you forgot,” Dean suggests.

“Angels don’t forget,” Sam counters, to which Castiel nods.

Dean rolls it over on his tongue before he speaks. “Look, Heaven’s reamed you more times than I even wanna remember. Maybe if they wanted to hide something, they’d find it at the source.”

As much as it makes sense, Castiel doesn’t want to consider it. What happened in the past is the past—it doesn’t matter if he sometimes remembers it in his sleep, the feel of needles inside of him, flames burning him at his core, the utter violation of something so pure and holy. The way he’d pledge his life before God, lest it happened again.

But it always did—and so the cycle continues.

“I know you don’t like it, but it wouldn’t be the first time Heaven’s fucked you over,” Sam soothes. “But if they’re forcing you to forget something, maybe we can help.”

Castiel’s blood curdles, his body cold, heart beginning to pound as he speaks, “I can’t… You know I can’t—”

“Hey.” Dean is out of his chair before Castiel can spot him, almost zipping across the two footsteps around the table. Kneeling, he helps Castiel face him, placing both hands on Castiel’s knees and squeezing there, grounding. If only it helped to settle his nerves. “Not if you don’t wanna. But if you think it’d work, if you think there’s any way in that head of yours that we could dig out the answer, then it’s a shot.”

“It’s up to you,” Sam offers. “We have the library. If we focus on Angelic lore, then we may not have to.”

No part of Castiel wants to do this. The memories of that damn headgear and the pain he could feel down to his essence keep him awake on the best of days, nightmares lingering around the corner when he sleeps. But he’s subjected himself to worse in his life, burdened himself with the lives of others until it weighed him down, collapsed his body behind closed doors, with no one at his side to ease his pain. Here, the environment is familiar—he has a family here, willing to stop if he asks.

They won’t hurt you, Castiel thinks. Dean wouldn’t hurt you.

Steady. “If I tell you to stop—”

“We’ll call it off,” Sam assures.

“Scout’s honor.” Dean holds up three fingers. “You’re sure?”

No, Castiel wants to say. I want this to be a nightmare. I don’t want this for me, or for you, or for anyone else. “I’ll endure,” he admits instead, and out of sight of Sam’s wandering eyes, he places his hands over Dean’s just to feel his warmth and the security that comes with it. Dean may be an Angel, unfeeling and distant, but he’s still Dean, and Dean wouldn’t force him into anything he didn’t think was necessary.

At least, Castiel hopes.

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Castiel is practically shaking by the time Dean wills him into sitting down in one of the unused storage rooms. Here, Castiel suggested, because anywhere else and he would associate the room with the smell of his own blood. Willingly, Dean agreed, and spent the better half of the morning trying to locate a room that could be easily forgotten in its monotony. Near the gym is a nondescript storage closet, filled with nothing but broken furniture and twenty pound bags of road salt and concrete mix. Not that they’ve ever needed them in the past, but having them in their disposal might come in handy, if Kansas decides to freeze over one winter.

Sam keeps talking to Castiel while Dean sets up, tightening the cloth straps around Castiel’s ankles and wrists in one of the library chairs. Featureless, plain, easy to be lost in the shuffle in the room. Leather would only exacerbate the situation, because the last thing Castiel needs is to role play whatever happened to him in Heaven. Plus, the fabric can be broken easily, offering just enough give for Castiel to escape if necessary.

“You sure you’re fine?” Sam asks after Dean stands, Dean refusing to look at either of them. He can’t see Castiel terrified like this, his knee threatening to jerk out of his bonds. The headgear sitting atop the salt bags is more interesting, cleaned of Sam’s blood and what could’ve been his own, a process he couldn’t remember even if he tried. Part of him doesn’t want to, either; as long as Dean can keep it hidden, the longer he can plead ignorance and pray for forgiveness.

“Just get it over with,” Castiel says, steady as he can be. “You remember—”

“You give us the word, we’ll stop,” Sam affirms. “I can do it if you don’t want Dean—”

“No.” The force of Castiel’s words startles Dean, so much so that he almost drops the headgear in his hands. Jerking around, he watches Castiel turn his head, blue eyes terrified for reasons he shouldn’t be. They shouldn’t have to do this—none of them should be having to shove screws into their best friend’s brain, just to figure out what obviously was never meant to be remembered. “I trust you, Sam, but…”

Sam backs off and glances over to Dean, who attempts to not swallow his tongue. This is twisted, disturbed in a way Dean can’t even comprehend. The words I can’t linger on his lips, flowing through to his fingers, his Grace the only thing keeping him from vibrating out of his skin and running from the room. This is fear, he realizes, but shoves it down.

Dean has to keep calm, here. If he falters, Castiel will know, and the last thing he wants Castiel to think is that he’s weak, that even if Castiel’s life depended on it, Dean couldn’t do the one thing meant to save him.

“What’s the word?” Dean asks and, on unsteady feet, leaves the burlap sacks, planting himself before Castiel. Castiel looks up at him with wet eyes, begging with everything he has.

If only the situation were different—if only they could find an answer somewhere else, then Dean wouldn’t have to see him cry.

“Blue,” Castiel answers, and closes his eyes.

Together, with Sam’s firm hands and Dean’s guidance, they fit the device over Castiel’s scalp, bangs pressed into his forehead under the weight. “Read the instructions to Dean,” Castiel says as soon as Sam backs away. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean watches Sam go for the clipboard by the door, covered with Castiel’s haphazard handwriting on how exactly to use the thing. The deeper it goes, Castiel explained earlier, the further into the core they reach; varying depths produce different results, and alternating pressures can either increase the pain or ease aches.

What they’re looking for isn’t necessarily deep. “It shouldn’t take more than five minutes,” Castiel told them. “Just don’t take any longer than that.”

But any depth at all, no matter how minute, only furthers Dean’s reluctance. Thankfully, Castiel doesn’t look at him, just keeps his head straight and eyes shut, bracing himself. Dean could say something—just the slightest bit of sympathies or praises, words to ease Castiel’s fears. The words won’t come though, and the first hitch of Castiel’s breath with the first screw erases every thought in Dean’s mind that doesn’t consist of getting Castiel out of this alive.

For their size, both bolts slide in easy, gentle pressure easing them through the thin skin of Castiel’s forehead and piercing Grace within moments. Castiel’s eyes snap open, blue wide and terrified, unblinkingly still. A face Dean hasn’t seen him make in years, not since that stoic demeanor shattered.

“I think you’re in,” Sam states and walks to Dean’s side, glancing over the list in his hands. Dean jerks his head and sucks in a breath. This is it; they’re inside Castiel’s head, into what makes him tick, and God knows what’s in there.

“He say how to adjust it?” Dean asks, letting his grip on the clasps slacken, just enough to let Castiel’s head fall forward; Dean catches him, keeping him in place.

“Two inches on the right, one and a half on the left,” Sam says. Briefly, Dean reads off the sheet before turning his attention back to Castiel, Castiel beginning to mouth something intelligible. “…What do you think we’ll find?”

I hope nothing, Dean thinks. I hope there’s nothing there but the one thing we need. “Probably whatever Metatron shoved in his head. Think he can recite every episode of Star Trek?” he attempts to joke; Sam doesn’t laugh. Steady. Dean lets out a breath and takes the clamps in hand again. “Here goes.”

Castiel doesn’t start speaking until Dean is an inch in, the words initially jagged and harsh, indistinguishable until Dean really listens. This is what Enochian sounds like in full—rough and clipped, monosyllabic in a way that makes Dean’s eye twitch. Yet somewhere in there, it’s pure, and Dean can understand him down to every word, every nuance.

“What’s he saying?” Sam asks above the monologue, Castiel’s words stringing together like a frayed line. “Can you understand him?”

“Can you?” Dean looks over to Sam, only to see him shake his head. How much of an Angel did Sam actually become? “Something about a… trial. Angelic training. All Angels upon their creation have to complete awareness programming.”

“At least we’re in the right spot,” Sam shrugs. “Anything specific?”

The likeness of the trial is reminiscent to a never ending ladder, each rung made of tasks meant to further an Angel’s education in their servitude to God. Depending on the Angel, the trial may last a day. For others, they can serve their entire life without seeing the face of their Savior.’

“Depressing,” is Dean’s only remark.

The words don’t change the further they go. Castiel continues to spew nonsense about internal structures and the origins of creation, of the gods that challenged Jehovah, of plagues and fires and floods, all of which make Dean’s hair raise. Some spots, though, are empty; several times, Castiel jerks his head to the left, repeating one syllable over and over until Dean moves on. Sam looks more concerned than Dean feels, at one point saying, “You think the Angels were serious when they said he was broken?”

He’s not broken. Dean bites his tongue and twists, bypassing whatever chasm Castiel has inside of him.

Dean plays a game of precise skill, down to the millimeter. Here, Castiel becomes more sporadic, Enochian growing rougher, even more archaic, words even Dean can’t fully comprehend just how vast they are.

Despicable behavior is to be removed with force and replaced with submission. Angels are to remain loyal to the Word of the Lord and the Kingdom of Heaven, no matter the circumstances.

You are to obey, Castiel. You understand that, right?

You have to kill him.

I don’t care how many times it takes, you have to kill him. For us, Castiel. He was never meant to live, why do you think he’s worth saving?

You’d really throw away everything We gave you, everything that you’ve known, to grovel beneath his feet? Beg for mercy like a dog for everything you’ve done?

You’ve always been useless, but now… Look at you. Insignificant gnat. We’ll make a fine specimen of you yet.

Dean wants to vomit.

“Son of a bitch,” Dean grits, teeth grinding.

Sam looks him over warily, lowering the paper to his side. “You find something?”

A slow nod. “Something we probably weren’t supposed to know,” he says, but moves on. No use dwelling on it now, not when he feels they might be venturing close. “How many times do you think they’ve tortured him?”

“I don’t wanna know,” is all Sam can muster.

A centimeter further, and Castiel wails. The noise sounds like it’s coming from the room itself, and both Dean and Sam clap their hands over their ears. The overhead bulb shatters, along with half of the lamps upstairs and most likely the kitchen. Nails on thousands of chalkboards, the screaming of injured children, crashes, violent, violent, violent—“Keep going,” Sam shouts. Dean musters on and twists once more, the noise ceasing and leaving them in the dark.

Then, Castiel speaks. “Af,” he says, a name. “The first human Af assimilated was named Jason. Three two seven eight nine two five seven—”

And the numbers repeat, pattern after pattern of those same eight numbers. “Write these down,” Dean says in haste and recites them, refusing to take his eyes off Castiel while Sam scribbles them down with a pencil. As the seconds move, Castiel becomes more frantic, lips moving faster, the numbers beginning to slur together. “Cas,” Dean says, following with, “Castiel.”

Castiel stops, falls silent.

“Who are Af’s followers?” Sam tries, somehow managing to keep his composure in the situation. Again, Castiel doesn’t speak, his eyes locked on Dean’s, cold and distant. Lost in his thoughts, almost. Not even his Grace moves, fizzling on the surface, faintly popping beneath Castiel’s skin.

The question of what it’s doing to Castiel—how this is affecting him—crosses Dean’s mind in sickening fashion, and it takes all of his willpower not to let go. He can’t let go—not for him. “Castiel,” Dean says again.

Castiel doesn’t blink. Doesn’t speak. Doesn’t do anything, even as a red tear forms in the corner of his eye, spilling down his nose. Far enough, Dean tells himself, swallowing back bile. He’s not even here.

“Castiel,” Sam repeats. Placing a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, he lowers his head to whisper in his ear, “Who are Af’s followers?”

Whatever he does, however gently he says it, Sam draws a response out of him, Castiel’s voice wet with fear. “Nahaliel,” he mutters, following with, “Zebuleon. The first human Af assimilated was named Jason. Three two—”

Not again. “Castiel,” Dean barks, overshadowing the numbers once again pouring from his mouth. “Cas, you have to tell us. I know it’s in there, and I know you know it.” Castiel just keeps rattling, growing louder in his fervency, and Dean’s hands shake, the hairs on his neck standing on end. “Cas, look at me. You have to tell me—”

“Dean,” Sam shouts—actually shouts, both hands clasping Dean’s shoulders, jerking him away. His ears ring, Sam’s words—admonishments, most likely, based on how animated he speaks—falling on deaf ears. Whatever he’s saying, it can’t be worse than having to stare at Castiel now, red pouring from his eyes with the rightmost screw pushed in as far as it can go, all from Dean’s hand.

He did that. Without thinking, Dean did the one thing Castiel trusted him not to do, pushed it too far.

“You’ll kill them,” he hears Castiel say, over Sam’s sudden shouts and the rumble of the ground beneath their feet. The earth moves, the air burns against his flesh. “You’ll… they didn’t do anything.”

“Cas,” Dean breathes. Sam grips his shoulders tighter, nails digging in. “What—”

Castiel’s head lolls to the side. “They’ll die. They didn’t do anything… They don’t deserve it.”

What. “You went too far,” Sam scolds; all Dean can do is nod. Despite how horrifying the sight—Castiel bleeding from his eyes, gone wide and glassy, Grace beginning to curdle—Dean can’t look away. Can’t ignore the mess he’s made, not now. “What do you think he’s…”

“I broke him,” Dean rasps. I finally broke him.

“They’re innocent,” Castiel continues, words slurred. Too far, too far—“They’ll die.” A pause. “…You won’t kill me with them.”

Too far. “Get it off him,” is all Dean can manage; Sam is moving before Dean even finishes, removing the screws with little finesse. The faster, the better, probably. Regardless, Dean can’t watch, not knowing if Castiel will come back to himself, but knowing exactly how far he went to get nothing but three names, all of Angels he doesn’t know, and doesn’t care to meet.

All Dean can do is fly.

-+-+-+-

Consciousness slowly returns throughout the day, and not once does Castiel ever see Dean. “He thinks he hurt you,” Sam tells him over dinner, tea mugs and sandwiches from the deli in Smith Center between them.

An hour ago, all he could think about was food; now, Castiel wants to sleep until the headache goes away, preferably somewhere dark and quiet where he can’t hear his own thoughts. Benefits of having a bedroom on the roof—at night, all he can see is the stars. “I didn’t expect him to hold it together,” Castiel says, somewhat disparagingly. Whether Sam believes him or not, he can’t bring himself to care. He feels… cold. Aching in ways he hasn’t been before, deeply embedded into his bones, a pain no amount of comfort can shake. “Did I say anything out of line?”

Sam pokes at his sandwich, half eaten, more tomato than bread. “How much do you remember?”

Castiel shakes his head. “It’s… spotty, mostly,” he shrugs. “Things I can’t remember, but I was there. There was a plague several years after the flood.”

“What kind?” Sam asks, curiosity piqued.

No matter how long Castiel looks at the cracked ceiling, it offers no answers. “I think… we were eradicating monsters. Not the Nephilim. They perished as soon as the water reached the mountaintops.” He tilts his head, idly regarding his stomach and the hunger pangs, the will to eat though long deceased. Maybe he’ll finish the sandwich later; he can always leave it in the refrigerator. “You have to understand. If Word comes from God himself, we’re not meant to disobey.”

“It sounds like you did, though,” Sam says. “Did you not side with them?”

“I didn’t see the point of the slaughter,” Castiel sighs. “But… all I remember is Michael’s face, and the scorn there, like I was committing a sin by not agreeing to murder innocents.” He stops to laugh, palming his eyes. “I’m old, Sam. I’m old, and I’ve been told since the dawning of the universe to follow the orders of a man I hadn’t met until just recently. He wanted us to murder to show our faith, to make the humans fall in line. And the creatures… They wanted nothing to do with His word. They wanted to exist as their own beings, govern themselves.”

“But that wasn’t enough.”

Castiel shakes his head. “They had to fall in line. ‘Worship or perish,’ was how Michael put it.” Weakly, Castiel drops his hands and lets them rest in his lap. “After that though… It’s a blur.”

For a while, Castiel ruminates in the silence, idly watching Sam pick at the last of his meal, only to stand and dump the scraps in the trash. At least he tried. “It doesn’t make sense though,” Sam starts, metal chair scraping against the concrete floor as he sits. “We’ve known you for years, Cas. Almost a decade, if we’re counting. And you’ve changed, and you’ve gone through hell to keep everyone breathing. Is it really that forbidden for an Angel to care?”

Yes, Castiel yearns to say. Sympathizing with humanity remains an offense, no matter the parties involved. And fraternizing with hunters, no less. Angels have killed scores of their own for less. “It’s not that simple,” Castiel admits, glancing back up to the ceiling. “It’s assumed. God wanted us to sing the praises of Man, but He wasn’t one of us. Though He created us, He didn’t understand the complexity, the hierarchy. And those who didn’t fall in line with the Spheres, those who were outliers were…”

He stops, willing down the urge to kick the floor. “Death for an Angel is finite. Once our Grace is extinguished, our atoms cease to exist in every universe. Humans die and decompose, but their elements are in the soil, they thrive in the air. We’re all atoms created from one another. And Angels… We’re nothing.

“Yet we’re forced to assimilate, to become the automaton and bend to the will of God, to submit and do His bidding. I survived by blending in, but others… I watched them die, Sam.” Across the table, Sam stares at him, horrified. “There were others before me, who rebelled for the sake of humanity. And they suffered my fate countless times, before the Angels put an end to them.” He swallows, looks to his hands. “And I fear, if they see me now, I’ll suffer the same.”

Sam doesn’t speak, probably too terrified—or, from what Castiel thinks, heartbroken—to say much other than condolences. Though, Castiel doesn’t expect to feel Sam force him to his feet and his arms around Castiel’s neck, his hug crushing. His all too human lungs struggle and spasm, the very air he needs replaced with Sam, the odd mixture of his soul and Grace reaching out in some semblance of comfort. However corrupted it is, no matter how small the gesture, Castiel will accept it with gratitude.

“We’re not gonna let them hurt you,” Sam says, firm, patting Castiel’s back and gripping the fabric of Castiel’s sweatshirt between his fingers. “Me and Dean aren’t gonna let anyone touch you, you hear me?”

Slowly, Castiel nods, swallowing down apprehension and the irrational desire to hide under the table. Here, in the arms of one of his best friends, he feels alone, skinned alive and raw, his emotions on display in a way he’s never felt. Is this what it feels like, he thinks, to hand your life over to another being, and a human, no less?

Asking Sam won’t garner the answer he wants. Rather, he tries for, “Where is Dean?” and pulls away once Sam relents, falling weak-kneed into his chair. Long day, Castiel thinks, rubbing his eyes; too long.

“Do you remember anything we did?” Sam asks first, resting his hip on the table’s edge. After Castiel shakes his head, Sam continues, “Dean pushed too hard. He got caught up and there were… You started recounting something.”

“The plague,” Castiel confirms, and Sam nods. “How much did you hear?”

Sam shrugs, splaying his fingers out on the table. “You were talking to someone, trying to get them to stop.”

That, Castiel remembers. Vaguely, but as far as he knows, it happened. The events afterwards, though, are a blur, jumping from seeing the malice on Michael’s face and waking up on top of Uluru. Whatever it was, Castiel never wants to recall. “Did you find anything? Did Dean—”

“We have some names,” Sam offers. “Cas, you know Dean didn’t mean…”

Castiel waves him off, eyes to the table. Dean wouldn’t have done it if it weren’t for a reason. This is a learning curve. This is something Castiel will have to reteach him, along with not hiding himself away. “I’ll talk to him,” Castiel assures. “Who were they?”

“Oh.” Sam shuffles and pulls a sheet of yellow notepaper from his pocket, handing it over to Castiel. “Do you recognize any of them?”

Zebuleon, he knows; Nahaliel as well, an old friend long since fallen out of contact. So long in fact, that Castiel figures they must have died in the Fall. Though, Af—Af is the one that stops his heart, that triggers something in his brain that sends him to the floor, cradling the back of his head with Sam kneeling beside him, shouting something he can’t hear.

Your job isn’t to bend to them. Your job is murder every last one of those maggots, sacrifice them to whoever you want. But don’t leave them alive. Fuck what God says, fuck Michael, fuck all of them—you obey me, and you slit their throats. Their souls are meaningless, Castiel. They’re nothing but vessels, and you’re wise to follow orders.

Bleed them. Manipulate them, but do not let them live. After this, they’ll never be human again.

“Castiel.” Sam breaks through, hands on Castiel’s shoulders; if not for whatever Grace is inside Sam, Castiel would have thrown him into the wall. “Cas, what is it?”

“Af is creating an army.” Digging his fingers into his scalp, Castiel curls in on himself, wishing the earth would destroy him and swallow his ashes into the wind. “He’s planning to destroy us… He’s going to finish what he started.”

Chapter Text

By the day, the Kansas nights grow colder, frost beginning to bathe the plains as October begins its creep into November. It may not be the most comfortable, but if Castiel had to pick a time to stargaze, it would be shortly before midnight on those nights, perched on the roof. Tonight, he can’t. Maybe another night, when things have calmed down, and memories of his past aren’t fresh in his mind.

He especially can’t when Dean is standing near the roof’s edge instead, naked save for a pair of sweatpants. His wings form a massive heap at his back, his shoulders hunched from both the weight and his despair. Of all the places Castiel figured Dean would be, he never expected on the roof at sunset, wallowing in the black that taints his Grace, emotions permeating the very air separating them.

He doesn’t move when Castiel opens the glass door to the rooftop, and barely acknowledges when Castiel sits at his side, out of the way of the mass of feathers strewn about. To guests, it would be a beautiful sight: the last vestiges of sunlight gleaming off Dean’s golden wings, the wind blowing dirt across the fields and ruffling his feathers. Lebanon’s residents begin to head home for the night, half a dozen cars filling the empty streets and even emptier homes.

All Castiel can look at, though, is Dean and the ring he keeps twirling between his fingers, a silver band etched with something he can’t read, not from this angle. “I kept thinking, when I was awake,” Dean says, eyes slipping shut. Castiel aches to thumb the lines forming at the corners of his eyes, tension deepening the creases. “Out of all the things I remember, it’s this damn thing.”

art by me

Dean hands over the ring, almost before Castiel realizes he’s moving. Simple silver plating, wide enough to fit his ring finger, but with a strip of cord wound through it as a necklace. Inside, he finds the numbers 9.18.08, and nothing more. “Dean, what is…”

“I wanted to give it to you,” Dean shrugs, nonchalant about his present, about whatever significance it once held. “God.” He looks to the sky, lips upturned in an almost painful smile. “It’s stupid. But that damn thing kept me going, because I told myself, if I ever woke up long enough to get out of here, I’d come back and I’d tell you I loved you, and I’d eat my pride with a shovel and get you to say it back. But I can’t even feel it, Cas.” Dean swallows, his wings slinking even lower, pinions spread out far enough to touch Castiel’s back, almost seeking comfort.

Even if Castiel knew what to say—and how—he doesn’t know if he could, not when Dean is talking, saying words Castiel has always longed to hear, granted under different circumstances. A time where Dean could be himself, where a confession didn’t feel like Castiel’s heart was being ripped out of his chest and sliced apart. Dean loves him—Dean actually loves him, somewhere in that twisted, mangled soul of his. Everything Castiel ever wanted, but not here.

Never here.

“I love you,” Dean says, somber and tear-choked. “I love you, and I don’t even know what love is anymore. All these years, I’ve been shoving it down, wishing I couldn’t feel because it’s easier to not than to have to worry about you dying, or running off, or… whatever it is you get yourself into. And now that I can’t…”

“Dean.”

Dean turns to him, eyes red-rimmed and wet, tears spilling over when Castiel reaches out to touch him, splaying his palm over Dean’s cheek. All Castiel wants—all he needs, desperately—is to hold Dean close, pull him into bed and sleep there until the sun rises and the world doesn’t seem like it’s falling down around them. It wouldn’t mean the same now; Dean wouldn’t be able to reciprocate, and Castiel would beg for him to feel something, anything, tell him those words with meaning. Praise, affection, love all drip from Castiel’s tongue, longing to be fulfilled; instead, they’re thrown to the side and eviscerated, abandoned until Dean can look him in the eye and touch him without fear, without it feeling like fire.

Love is suffocating, and Castiel doesn’t want it anymore.

“I think I’m scared,” Dean admits. He reaches up to cover Castiel’s hand, threading their fingers together, two sets joined by tears. “God, I was worried I’d never see you again, and I…”

“You have me,” Castiel assures. Dean blinks, half lidded, and nods. A new rush of tears spills over, gathering on Castiel’s thumb. “Until you don’t want me, I’m here. And believe me when I say, I won’t let anyone touch you. Dean.” But Dean doesn’t looks at him, simply lowers his head and curls himself beneath Castiel’s chin, wings forming a cocoon around them both. Warmth envelops Castiel, both from the setting sun and the heat radiating off of Dean, comforting in the early evening chill. “Dean…”

“Don’t run off this time,” Dean grunts, the last of his resolve wearing thin in his voice. “Please, just…”

This time, when Castiel embraces him, it’s sure, fingertips pressing promises into Dean’s back, skating over the bare skin between Dean’s shoulder blades. Dean pulls him as close as he can, Castiel warming to the feel of Dean’s hands on his hips, their bodies closer than he ever thought. If only, Castiel mourns. If only Dean could

“I’m yours,” Castiel soothes; Dean slackens against him, his wings the only thing keeping Castiel from collapsing. “What do you want me to do with…”

“Wear it,” Dean suggests. “Throw it out, I don’t care.”

Anger curls through Castiel’s Grace, quickly extinguished by Dean moving even closer, practically straddling Castiel’s waist. “You don’t want me to throw it out,” he deadpans.

Dean nods, eyelashes fluttering against Castiel’s throat. “What does love feel like?”

Like I’m dying. Like if you leave, I’ll drown. Like your touch is the only salvation I’ll ever need. Like you’re all I’ve ever wanted. “Warm,” Castiel says, tugging Dean close. “Like home.”

-+-+-+-

They don’t reconvene until the following morning, long after the sun has risen and Dean awakes in an unfamiliar bed, mouth full of cotton and bleary with sleep he didn’t know he needed. Sun blazing overhead, he outstretches his hand atop white sheets, bunching up cooled fabric between his fingers, releasing it just as softly. Not his bed, then—judging by the fact he can feel actual sunlight on his back and midmorning air wafting in through the open door, it must be Castiel’s. Where Castiel is, he doesn’t bother to ask, and instead, he pulls the covers over his head and blocks out the world.

It smells like him, Dean muses, curling in closer and shutting his eyes.

The silence only lasts another few minutes, to his chagrin. Outside, voices resonate across the rooftop, quietly at first, but increasing in volume the closer they tread. Great, both Castiel and Sam are awake, and apparently chatting about… theism, or plants, or whatever they’re going on about. The words blur together after a while, indistinguishable until they venture inside and a weight presses down on the mattress by his feet.

From the dip, it’s probably Sam. “Noisy,” Dean grumbles and kicks his foot, colliding with an immovable hip. “You have nothing better to do than hang out on the roof at dawn?”

“We were waiting for you to wake up,” Castiel says, distant off in the corner of the room.

So Sam is on the bed, and Castiel is wandering out of reach, and Dean is in Castiel’s bed with no recollection of what exactly happened after they headed inside from the cold. If he leaves his sanctuary, he’ll have to face them and the inevitable reality he’s currently suffering through, and the distant realization that he confessed last night. Yet despite everything, he doesn’t regret it.

Give it time, he tells himself. Give it time, and you’ll regret ever meeting him.

“Cas thinks he knows who did it,” Sam says, jerking Dean from his thoughts.

Abruptly, Dean sits up, throwing the sheets off of him in the rush. It worked? What they did actually worked? “Cas?” he manages, struggling not to trip over his own tongue. “I’m—”

“You don’t need to apologize,” Castiel assures him.

From the table, Castiel brings over two mugs and hands one over to Dean, coffee no doubt cold from the wait; Dean accepts it either way and offers a short nod. No matter how hard Dean tries not to stare, he can’t help but notice Castiel’s stride, how sure he is in this space. His pajama pants hang loose around his hips, and his shirt is sliding off to one side, exposing more skin than Dean has ever seen on him—he might as well be naked. How long has he been this comfortable?

“He thinks it’s Af,” Sam says from the foot of the bed, all the kind of serious Dean doesn’t want to deal with just after waking up. “Angel of destruction.”

“He’s done it before,” Castiel continues. His desk chair creaks under his weight, mug held between his hands, knuckles almost white. “Af was… persuasive. A master manipulator. He could convince you to murder your kin with a single touch. For a long time, he kept watch over the Angels he felt weren’t following the Word as closely as they should’ve been.” He stops, chest inflating. “The first human he attempted to Elevate was a man named Jacob. He had no family to his name, and little money, and Af took him under his wing.”

Sam swallows, venturing, “Did he reset you?”

Castiel shrugs, reluctantly relinquishing his hold on his mug by setting it atop his desk, nearly toppling the contents onto a stack of photocopies. “I don’t remember who, or how many times, but… I have suspicions that he may be involved.”

“But what’s the point?” Both Sam and Castiel look to Dean, Sam with more scrutiny than necessary, Castiel more imploring. “He wasn’t doing this for kicks, right? Yank a human up to Heaven and decide they need to grow wings?”

“We were at war,” Castiel offers. Four words that always manage to tug at Dean’s heart, no matter the context. “Raphael and myself had motives behind our actions, and resistance groups weren’t out of the norm. Word spread for a while about drastic measures some were taking, but no one ever provided evidence of what they were doing.” A breath. “If Af was attempting to convert humans to begin an uprising, I wouldn’t put it past him.”

“But what’d be the point now?” Sam chimes in. “Heaven’s pretty much… stable, right?”

“For the most part,” Castiel shrugs. “Aside from the few who’ve expressed ulterior motives. But even then, they’ve never attempted to convert humans, not until now.”

Dean downs half of his coffee, purely for something to do. “So what’s the motive? Ramp up numbers and use the army to what, kickstart apocalypse part deux?”

“It’d make sense.” Sam crosses an ankle over his knee, eyes to the ceiling. “If a faction is struggling for power, maybe they’re using whatever tactics they can, including—”

“Angelic magic,” Castiel finishes.

The thought sits heavy in Dean’s gut; he and Sam are guinea pigs, basically, survivors of an incident he can’t even remember. Probably for the best, but still, even if Af was able to change them, would they have necessarily listened? Could they have been brainwashed into believing everything he said, killing innocents in his name, even Castiel if asked?

Even worse, could Dean?

Castiel fidgets in his lap, wringing his hands until they blanche. “The magic exists, but there’s a reason we can’t remember it. We weren’t allowed to create life, only to destroy. And ascending humans was punishable by death. The minute a new being came into creation, either by natural or unnatural means, those beings were to be destroyed, along with their creator.”

“But if Af did it before, why hasn’t anyone gone after him?” Sam questions.

Castiel’s pinched brow catches Dean’s attention, furrowed deep. “God was missing,” he says. “Until recently, He hasn’t been seen, and the Seraphim guarding His throne have never moved, or spoken of His whereabouts. What the Angels did was self-policed.”

“Can’t be in the wrong if no one saw you,” Dean muses, to which Castiel nods. “But what about the other two, Nahal… and who?”

“Nahaliel and Zebuelon,” Castiel corrects. “Zebuleon has always followed Af, long before the Angels ever considered descending to Earth of their own will. But Nahaliel…” It must be a touchy subject; Castiel stops to rub the back of his neck, eyes directed to the floor. “They were a friend. I thought they died in the Fall, but if what we’re thinking is true…”

“Then anyone could be involved.” Castiel nods at Sam, afterwards palming both eyes. “Cas, do you… Could any of this be true? We’re talking old magic, Book of the Damned level, and if they’re walking around creating Angels, is there even a way to stop them?”

Dean turns his attention to Castiel, Castiel now rubbing the bridge of his nose, eyes pinched shut. “There is,” he says, “but we can’t do it here.”

Sam cocks his head at an angle. “Why not here?”

“Where, then?” Dean adds.

A pause, followed by a rough, harrowed sigh. “On the road. It appears I’ll have to teach you both how to be Angels.”

Oh. Oh.

-+-+-+-

The worst part about this, Dean thinks as they’re carrying their duffels into a motel outside of Green River, is that they have no idea where they’re headed. Castiel’s only instruction had been to drive, but where, not even he knew. No unusual murders across the country, no suspicious incidents involving wildlife attacks, not even cult activity—if anything, the entire lower forty-eight is silent, for the first time that Dean can ever remember. Quiet, a terrifying void in perception.

The hotel, for the most part, is habitable. For once, it isn’t drenched in the scent of mold in the walls or a broken sewer pipe in the building. It features two full-sized beds and a pullout couch, a shower with just the barest hints of mildew in the corners, and a television with rabbit ears bought within the last three decades; it’ll do, at least until they could head out in the morning. Where, Dean doesn’t know, but somewhere in the desert, away from prying eyes and passersby watching three Angels spar in the dirt.

Dean has a list of things he’d rather be doing, and driving out into the middle of nowhere isn’t one of them. “Can’t believe we’re driving,” Dean complains, flopping onto the mattress closest to the door. The coils creak under his weight. “Can’t we fly? Seems a hell of a lot easier than pulling twelve hour shifts.”

“You’ll attract attention,” Sam answers for Castiel. Across the room, he pulls out the sofa bed and sits along the edge, blankets musty even at a distance.

“And Sam can’t fly,” Castiel adds, which… Dean hadn’t considered. Sam is an Angel, yes, but not in the conventional sense; Dean can see his Grace and the remnants of his soul, and the internal war they’re waging against each other, oil and water. But Dean hadn’t considered that without wings, if Sam could still fly if need be. He doesn’t know what’s worse—an Angel that lost its wings, or one that never learned how to fly.

And if Sam cares or not, Dean isn’t sure by the utterly indifferent expression he gives. In fact, if Dean had to guess, Sam looks outright thrilled just to be out of the car and on a bed. They haven’t driven that hard in a long, long while.

As trashy as it might be—the three of them in a motel for the umpteenth time in their lives, alive and whole with a shower and a microwave and basic cable—it feels like home. Dean wouldn’t trade it for the world.

“It’s not so bad,” Sam says after a while, sitting up long enough to reach over and dig through his duffel for his laptop. “When was the last time we went camping, anyway?”

God. Right, they’re going camping in the desert, with the coyotes and the snakes and whatever else lives out there in early November. Probably hippies or Mormons searching for the second coming. Whatever it is, Dean isn’t prepared for the sunburn and oppressive heat and frigid nights. It’s only for a few nights; it does little to settle his nerves, though, or to ease the twitch settling in below his eye. Maybe Castiel can teach him that too, how to get rid of nervous ticks and the persistent ache in his heart.

The latter will never fade, no matter what monster he turns into next.

“Wherever we’re going,” Dean says, pointing a finger at both of them, “I better not end up on a watch list.”

-+-+-+-

Where they end up, much to Dean’s horror and Sam’s delight, is a barren stretch of land overlooking the Green River in Utah, well out of the way for any sensible person to come looking for them. By sheer Angelic might, the three of them hike miles through the wasteland, until all traces of civilization are lost. They left the Impala parked alongside the river, as far as Dean could steer her until Hastings Road ended and the sand began.

At least it’s a decent day, Dean figures; though the sun threatens to bake them alive and dust permeates everything it touches, there’s a slight breeze cooling the sweat only slightly. By the time they reach the campsite along the cliffside, Dean is spitting dirt and Sam is shaking out his hair; Castiel looks unfazed though, the barest hints of a smile on the corners of his lips. From the scenery or going on a pseudo-adventure, Dean doesn’t know. A question for later, perhaps, when Sam is asleep.

Setting up the tent takes little effort with their combined strengths and pure perseverance. Sam found it in one of the storage rooms last year, no doubt left over from the Army surplus days; each of the sides measures at least seven or eight feet across, and if Sam kneels, his head can hit the roof. Tight quarters, but Dean has slept in worse, with even more terrible company.

At least it’s not summer.

“You’ll need to test your strength,” Castiel considers aloud after Sam pulls himself through the tent flaps. “Perhaps sparring with one another would prove beneficial.”

Dean blinks. Blinks again, when it finally clicks that Castiel just asked him to fight his brother. His own brother, without malice or resentment, just for fun. When was the last time he even considered throwing a punch at Sam just to match wits? “You,” Dean shutters, tumbling over himself, “You want me to fight Sam?”

“He’s not wrong,” Sam pipes up, brushing dirt off his jeans.

“I can’t fight you,” Castiel shrugs. Of course he can—he just doesn’t want to hurt either one of them. Especially like this, with their souls replaced with whatever flows through them, squishy humanness swallowed by Grace. “It’d be taking advantage. And I would leave you to work it out yourself, but I’d also prefer if you didn’t maim yourself in the process. Grace can only do so much.”

“So you’d be our babysitter?” Dean scoffs, only to see both Castiel and Sam nod.

Above his head, Sam raises his arms and arches his back. “Might as well,” he says through a groan, afterwards cracking his neck from side to side. “Cas knows what he’s doing. If either of us tries to take the other’s head off, he can call foul.”

I don’t like it, though, Dean thinks. Ultimately, he concedes and rubs the back of his neck, a small comfort to his unconscious nerves that his Grace can’t even touch. Feet away, Castiel nods at him, surety on his face, but the essence inside of him in turmoil. His Grace is blackening and fading at the edges; has Castiel always looked like that?

“Where do you want us?” Sam asks.

Later, Dean will think on the state of Castiel’s Grace and, if he can gather the courage, ask. Castiel leads them momentarily to two spots on the desert floor, approximately fifty feet from the other, close to the canyon wall but far from the tent. They only have one, and if that gets destroyed, then it’s a fight against the elements for however long Castiel plans to keep them out there. “You got rules, boss?” Dean teases before Castiel leaves his side, priding himself on how Castiel nearly trips over his own feet. A small sense of joy, but joy nonetheless, lighting the dark blot inside of his chest.

Said joy evaporates when Castiel looks back at him, as placid as ever, eyes and hands firm. “Don’t kill him,” is all he says, and he walks away to stand with his arms folded.

So that’s how it’s gonna be. Before Dean can even retort—or look away, for that matter—Sam moves, steady gait turning to a brisk jog, and Dean just barely manages to fall out of the way of the first punch. Laying in the dirt doesn’t help, especially when it begins to move beneath him, liquefying and threatening to swallow him whole. “Sam,” Dean shouts before Sam grabs him, rolling out of the way to a dryer patch of land, away from whatever quicksand Sam was threatening to drown him in.

Alongside the pool, Sam grins, all teeth and bright eyes, like nearly drowning his brother is something to be proud of. “So what,” Sam shouts over to Castiel, “Think of it and it happens?”

“Along those lines,” Castiel replies back, audible just over the wind.

Great, now he has to consider Sam’s moves three steps ahead; maybe he really never gave Castiel the credit he deserved, after all. Sam gives Dean enough time to stand and brush himself off, hair dusted with sand and jeans looking worse for wear.

Imagine it, Dean tells himself, swallowing around a mouthful of dirt. Sam mirrors him, sidestepping slowly, on the approach as Dean plans his escape. Minutely, Dean shakes out his hands and lets out a guttural breath, the skin of his palm cool around the blade that slips from beneath his flannel sleeve. Hard metal gleams in the sun, catching Sam’s attention; Sam can barely blink before Dean breaks into a sprint, now-corporeal wings bared and readied for flight. Hopefully, he won’t need them. If anything, he can intimidate Sam into backing down.

That plan backfires, just as Dean expected. Sam’s blade is thinner than his own, but longer, bearing two smaller blades jutting from the hilt. Steel clangs against steel in a rush, Sam’s grin meeting Dean’s scowl. “You know we’ll never win in a knife fight,” Sam says, shoving Dean back two steps. Unfortunately, he’s right. Proficient as Dean is in firearms, Sam owns the floor in hand to hand combat. “This isn’t exactly Angelic training, anyway.”

Right. Castiel wants them to test their strength through other means, not a sparring match. They could do that at home in their gym, but Castiel brought them here for a reason, and the most Dean has done is conjure a sword and ruin his shirt, based on the weight bearing down between his shoulder blades. He just bought this one, too. “Then come at me,” Dean jeers and backs away, dropping his blade into the sand. Palms bared, he grins, wings giving a generous flap. “You know where to hit me.”

The only saving grace here is that Sam can’t fly. A thought he never thought he’d have to consider, but for once, he’s grateful; it’s an unfair tip to the playing field, but Sam can manage on his own. With one wingbeat, the pale blue of the sky swallows Dean whole and the earth diminishes the further he ascends, until both Sam and Castiel are figures on the horizon, Castiel waving and Sam scrambling. Beautiful is a word to describe it, Dean’s body at the height of the lowest clouds and passing through, wings effortlessly carrying him higher into the abyss. A view beyond compare, only traversed by aircraft and birds, and the occasional Angel that dares to attempt to return home.

Years ago, Castiel saw the earth from this distance; now, he’s standing on his own two feet and Dean is the one taking to the skies.

A bullet rips through his shoulder, interrupting his flight and leaving him with more questions than answers. In his stupor, Dean falls with the weight of his realization that Sam shot him—or at him—to get his attention. “Son of a,” Dean manages to yell before he crashes wings-first into a cloud of dust, Sam’s laughter audible over the commotion.

Thankfully, Castiel finds Dean and drags him out of the hole he created, depositing him and his dirt-clad self onto the ground. Curious, Castiel blinks at him, kneeling at his side far enough to scuff his knees. “You got overzealous,” Castiel says, just the hint of a smile on his lips. At least he’s not worried, not entirely; Dean, on the other hand, feels like he just saw Castiel for the first time, in a different light.

In a body all his own.

“Sam shot me,” Dean blurts. “Did you give him a gun?” If Castiel notices him staring, he doesn’t let on, just helps Dean to his feet and brushes the dirt off the arch of Dean’s wings, feathers softening under his hands. There, clear as day, is a hole in his flannel and through his undershirt, soaked red but no trace of a wound to be seen. Huh—perks of being holy.

Castiel smirks, just barely, and thumbs over the ruined stitching. “He’s more resourceful in this instance,” he whispers above the wind. “You may be able to fly, but he’ll always bring you back down.”

So do you, burns on Dean’s tongue. You do too.

“Think I got a shot against him?” Dean asks, earning a short laugh from Castiel. “C’mon, really.”

“I’m not placing any bets,” Castiel quips. “But maybe you can change my mind.”

If Dean looked hard enough, he could’ve sworn Castiel was flirting. Sam cuts him off before he can prod any further, both Dean and Castiel looking over to Sam flailing his arms across the desert. “Are you guys done over there?”

“He still wants to fight,” Dean complains to Castiel, who just laughs.  

“Then go fight him. We can’t leave until I know what your capabilities are.” Castiel pats him on the shoulder and urges him two steps ahead, a hand in his feathers. “The sun will be going down soon.”

With reluctance, Dean leaves Castiel’s side to join Sam once again. This time, their rhythm comes easier; Dean relies more on speed to match Sam, while Sam comes at him with brute force. From the looks of it, Sam can control the elements at his disposal, mostly the ground and the air, the wind easily manipulatable under his fingertips. The lack of wings leaves Sam earthbound, but in a pinch, Dean takes to the sky and lands paces away, until the chase resumes and Dean takes off.

A few times, Sam gets in a few close hits, mostly barrages of rocks thrown Dean’s way, and the occasional gust that catches in his feathers and sends him flying backwards. Defensive doesn’t work, in Dean’s case; his wings are too much of a liability, more space to hit and more ground to knock him off balance. Though, when used effectively, Dean succeeds in throwing Sam at least fifteen feet with a direct strike. If anything, they’re blunt.

“Cheating,” Sam snorts after he steadies himself on his feet.

Dean laughs and giddily flaps his wings, kicking up dust. “Gotta try it sometime,” he shrugs. “Might as well do it now when you’re tryin’ to throw sand in my eyes.”

“It worked, didn’t it?” Briefly, Sam looks between his hands and raises one, fingers curled in Dean’s direction. “How do you think Cas does it?” Sam asks to Dean’s confused head tilt. “Y’know, the…”

Dean’s blood runs cold within seconds, every trace of oxygen ripped from his lungs. Not that he needs it, but his body caves nonetheless, knees hitting sand and cracking solid chunks of earth. “Sam,” he attempts, but Sam’s not listening; if anything, he’s enamored at the fact that he just figured out how to suffocate his own brother with just his mind and a flick of the wrist. Futilely, Dean’s lungs attempt to expand, each aborted breath sending spasms through his ribcage, all the way to his toes. Black dots his vision, far enough to obscure Castiel running towards them, Castiel grabbing Sam by the wrist and yanking his hand away.

All at once, Dean can breathe again, but not without choking on his own bile. “We’re done,” Castiel announces, both hands to Dean’s shoulders, helping him upright. Over Castiel’s shoulder, Dean watches Sam’s expression morph from fascination to mortified, sheer realization dawning on him in the worst manner possible. At least Sam hadn’t killed him. “Sam, we’ll meet you at the tent.”

Sam doesn’t answer as he leaves; honestly, Dean doesn’t blame him. Whatever Sam just did, whatever he just remembered how to do, it leaves a sour taste in his mouth. “He didn’t mean it,” Castiel says in a rush, patting Dean’s face.

In accidental retaliation, Dean pushes him with the wing that isn’t trapped underneath him, only to have Castiel brush it away. “He remembered,” Dean chokes. He doesn’t trust his limbs to help him sit up, no matter how hard his Grace attempts to soothe him. “Cas, he—”

“We’ll talk about it,” Castiel hushes. “For now, we’ll rest.”

Rest. If only Dean could sit still without wanting to claw his skin off.

-+-+-+-

The sun rapidly descends beyond the horizon line as night falls, bringing with it a brisk chill and the all-encompassing darkness of evening. The absence leaves Castiel shivering with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders while Sam pokes at coals in their portable fire pit, the flames their only source of illumination beyond the moon and the stars. The dark sky above them seems endless here, stretching out in every direction, red sands merging into black night, the only border that of stars or pale light streaking through the abyss.

The beauty of it brings a smile to Castiel’s lips, only to be disappear again when Dean sighs, his arms wrapped around his middle, wings still bared yet trembling. He hasn't spoken since the fight, nor let anyone touch him; for the rest of the afternoon, he occupied himself by the tent or by the cliffside, and then the fire pit after night fell. The flames are only so warm, and no matter how close Dean gets or how tight he pulls his wings in, he never fully relaxes.

Castiel knows his fear, in the farthest depths of his soul, to experience memories long repressed and to feel the effect of them firsthand. Dean is stronger than this; if anything, Dean shouldn’t know what betrayal feels like, or anger, or sadness. For a while, Castiel watches Dean’s Grace reorganize itself, running through the possibilities and explanations and eventually knitting the new rift together. Whatever Dean may have felt, it’s gone now, replaced with apathy and indifference.

Gripping his blanket tighter, Castiel resists the urge to reach out and touch.

“I didn’t… I forgot about that,” Sam says in the silence, relinquishing the metal poker in his hand and setting it on the small rack underneath the pit. “I mean, sometimes I remember, and I was actually… happy that I couldn’t do that anymore. For years, it just made me feel like I was tainted, like there was something wrong with my blood, with me.” Scraping his shoes in the dirt, Sam crosses his legs and looks to the stars. “I was doing good. I felt like I could do something useful, and now…”

“It’s not your fault,” Dean rasps in reply, his wings giving a feeble twitch. Castiel notes the rustle of feathers in the stale air; if he can’t find Dean’s emotion through expression, maybe he can tell with his wings. “Shit, Sam, who ever thought it’d come up again?”

“But it did,” Sam admits in a whisper. “Just… I thought I wouldn’t hurt anyone again. I finally could forget the people I hurt, but now, I just watched myself… strangle you.” He turns to Dean with wet eyes, wringing his hands in his lap. “And I remembered everything, and I don’t want this anymore. I never wanted to be an Angel, or… whatever I am. I’m not even… What am I?” Shivers wrack him by the time he looks to Castiel, neither from the cold nor anguish—he’s scared. “I was never human to begin with, was I? I’ve always been—”

“Don’t.” Before Dean can speak or even move, Castiel casts his blanket off and takes Sam’s shoulders in hand. Inwardly, he knows Dean is watching; Dean can’t speak for himself, though, not in the way that Sam needs. “Don’t you ever, ever say you’re a monster, and don’t you ever think you’re not worth the world. Do you understand me?” Sam doesn’t answer, his tears enough of a reply. “What you did today wasn’t your fault. We’ll get to the bottom of it, but if anything, I told you to. I told you to attack Dean, and I wasn’t even considering the possibility that there might be some latent abilities within you.”

Sam shakes his head. “We never should’ve come out here.”

“No, we had to,” Dean speaks up. Castiel glances over to him, at his folded hands, wings slumped and dejected. “It’s better we found out here rather than it happening down the road. Cas can help you control it. Hell, we both can, now. We’ve got time.” He stops to laugh, his smile just as hollow as his eyes. “If anyone’s looking for us, they sure as shit aren’t gonna be tailing us in the middle of nowhere.”

Castiel nods. “I couldn’t ward the entire premises, but we’re untraceable as far as land mass. We’re safe here.”

Under his hands, Sam softens and rubs his eyes. Castiel pulls away slowly and lets Sam settle into himself, his sadness no longer dirtying his face. “I’m sorry I have to put you through this.”

“It’s not your fault,” Dean says, Castiel following with, “You have nothing to apologize for.”

Still, with their affirmations, Sam shakes his head and sighs. “I wish I felt the same.”

-+-+-+-

Pressing the backlight to his watch, Dean holds his wrist above his head, squinting at the digital readout of 2:13 in the morning. Too early to wake up, but too late to consider falling back to sleep, especially given Sam’s snores and the dead silence elsewhere. Not even crickets roam here, so far away from civilization, their only company the coyotes and lizards and whatever else roams in the dead of night. Normally, it wouldn’t bother him; he’s slept in worse places, even in the woods and back alleys and the bed of broken down trucks.

This, though, is out of his element. Worse, across the tent, is that he can’t find Castiel. That startles him, the single driving factor that forces him to unzip the tent flaps without waking Sam and sneak outside, afterwards sealing the door behind him.

Castiel, as it turns out, is standing at least a dozen yards away by the cliff’s edge, dressed in pajamas and socks, his coat lazily hanging off his shoulders, head tilted up to the stars. Dean heaves a sigh of relief and lets his shoulders slump, holding his shirt tighter around him. In his haste, he forgot his coat underneath his pillow; hopefully, he can drag Castiel out of the cold so neither of them freeze.

“I couldn’t sleep,” Dean hears Castiel say the closer he ventures, Castiel eventually looking over his shoulder. “At home, I have a small fan I run, just to drown out the silence, but here…”

“Sammy snoring?” Dean asks, chuckling with Castiel’s nod.

“Among other things.” Castiel tilts his head high again, eyes closed to the moon. “You were moving. You didn’t sound comfortable.”

Dean snorts. “We’re using sleeping bags in a paper thin tent on hard ground. It’s almost impossible.” Castiel nods solemnly. Aimlessly, Dean presses his bare heel into the dirt, creating a shallow line. “When did you start falling?”

Castiel chokes on his tongue.

Ever since he fell out of the sky, that question has persisted in Dean’s head, a constant ache in his temples he can’t quite shake, no matter how many times he attempted to rationalize it. Grace is pure; even as an abnormally old fledgling, Dean knows this. All blues and whites, swirling in concentric, perfect circles, only reacting when threatened. Castiel’s, though, is broken and fading, curdling at the edges, both from fear and doubt.

That, and the utter brightness of what looks to be a soul forming along a corner, the chasm taking up a little less than a quarter of the mass. He’s been falling for a while, all without notice.

Dean should have noticed all along, from the moment they met.

“I didn’t want to burden you,” Castiel says. He seats himself and crosses his legs, coat pulled tight around him, at least until he looks over to Dean and shrugs it off. “You didn’t bring your coat.” He gathers the fabric in his hands and offers it, concern in his eyes. The gesture means something, but even as Dean takes it in hand and shrugs it over his shoulders, he can’t discern what it could be. Without it, Castiel looks smaller, his shoulders still as broad as ever, but the absence leaving him vulnerable, more…

Human.

“Picked a hell of a time,” Dean mutters, pulling the coat over his knees and covering his toes. Castiel doesn’t answer, or do much other than stare at the canyon with something dead in his eyes. “Cas, you didn’t…”

“I thought things were slowing down,” Castiel sighs, breath coming out as warm mist. “It’s been a year since God left, and we weren’t hunting as often, I had my own bedroom, you were teaching me to shoot, I went running with Sam… I was planning to start a vegetable garden.” That Dean promptly destroyed in a fireball. “I thought, if I could relinquish my Grace gradually, maybe it would be better in the long run.”

“Not as much of a shock to the system,” Dean adds, distant.

Castiel nods. “It was my choice this time. I wanted to sleep, I wanted to eat, I wanted… I wanted to die as one of you, preferably when I’m old and not at the hand of my own blade.”

Dean holds himself tighter, this time, not entirely from the cold. “I’m sorry I fucked that over for you.”

“You didn’t,” Castiel amends, a flat out lie. “No one could’ve predicted this. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine someone would turn you or your brother. I can’t tell the future—These days, I can barely tell the time without a watch. Believe me when I—”

“I know, I know.” Considering, Dean lets out a breath through his nose, mulling over Castiel’s admission long enough to steady what could be anger, or abject horror at the idea of Castiel willingly allowing this. This is what Castiel wanted—and still, Dean can’t imagine him as anything other than an Angel. “Cas, just because you wanted this doesn’t mean you can go it alone. You should’ve told us, we’ve could’ve—”

“Like I said,” Castiel shakes his head, “I didn’t want to burden you. You would’ve never agreed, and Sam would’ve acquiesced only after a long discussion. You need me as an Angel, but I need to do something on my own, without either of you telling me what you think I should do.”

As much as it stings, it’s the truth, thrown back in his face. Yes, Castiel’s usefulness has always proved helpful in the long run, but Dean doesn’t need him solely for his power, nor does he need him to save their asses every Tuesday. No, Dean needs him as a friend, and only that—but Castiel has always seen himself as a tool to justify the means, and Dean has never told him otherwise.

Just considering it hurts. “I wish I could tell you I’m sorry,” Dean whispers into his bent knees, over one of the tanned buttons of Castiel’s coat. “For all the times I’ve used you or thrown you under the bus, or when I haven’t been there when you needed me, but you…”

“I’d believe you now more than I would’ve in the past.” A cold hand touches Dean’s, Castiel joining their fingers over Dean’s shin. “I wanted this. I wanted to fall. I wanted to be with you, but now…”

Dean lets out a choked breath, haggard with age and exhaustion. “You can’t stop it.”

“The minute started to let it go, I couldn’t ever return.” With his free hand, Castiel touches the space over his right pec, over the pure, blinding white in his chest, bright against sky blue. “I have a soul now.”

Dean swallows, blinking out at the canyon. “How long do you have, before…”

“A month,” Castiel shrugs. “Two, at the most.” His sigh rattles in his chest. Castiel looks at Dean with reverence and sadness, cobalt eyes dark in the night. “Once a soul is merged with Grace, the two can’t be separated. The result could mean annihilation of you and everything around you. It’s a bond that even the most ancient of magic can’t touch, and…” The corners of his eyes begin to well, and Dean’s heart aches for him. “This is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone, let alone you.”

Dean draws Castiel into his arms before Castiel can complain, or do much else other than fall into it, forehead pressed to Dean’s neck, Castiel’s coat swallowing them both. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but we’ll make it work,” Dean says into the frail skin of Castiel’s throat, so warm. “Me ’n Sammy’ll watch over you for a change, how’s that sound?”

“You flatter me,” Castiel huffs. With frigid fingers, he pulls away and reaches up to touch Dean’s face, thumbs tracing over burning cheeks, the tips of his fingers tickling Dean’s hairline. Dean, instead, keeps his hands low, resting his palms on Castiel’s thighs, just barely resisting the impulse to run them up to his hips. “What do you feel?”

Dean’s Grace curls in close, and a short whimper escapes his lips. A few months ago, and he would’ve been crying, or at least terrified out of his skull over Castiel touching him so intimately, skin touching skin, lips so close. Now, there’s a gaping hole where his affection should be, the love formerly flowing from his fingertips gone cold, frigid. “I don’t know,” Dean answers, trembling.

Dean’s heart doesn’t race when Castiel caresses his chest; his skin doesn’t flush when Castiel presses their foreheads together. All he does is hold on, breathless and quiet, Castiel’s lips sliding slow against his own, closed-mouthed and everything Dean ever wanted. A tear spills through closed eyelids the second Castiel pulls back, Castiel thumbing it away and bringing the wetness to his own lips, drawing it in. “You said you loved me before,” Castiel starts, serious and sure, his breath mingling with Dean’s. “Do you still?”

art by me

Dean nods, the only thing he can do. “Yes,” he says, voice broken, thick with the emotion he can’t even begin to understand. “I just… Cas—”

“I know,” Castiel shushes, drawing him in again. This time, Dean goes willingly and cups Castiel’s cheeks, his lips sweet and full, soft against each other, wet and every bit tempting. “It’ll fade,” Castiel says between breaths. “You’ll remember in time.”

But I want it now, Dean scolds himself. Barely—just barely—he stops and pushes back, just far enough for their foreheads to touch, for Castiel to cling to his shoulders, panting. “Wanted it to be special,” Dean laughs, Castiel smiling with red lips. “Wine and roses, blanket under the stars. Wanted to woo you.”

“You still can,” Castiel assures. He finishes with a lasting kiss to the corner of Dean’s mouth, lapping away another tear. “You’ll get used to it. It’ll just take time.”

We don’t have time, Dean thinks. His head drops onto Castiel’s shoulder, the scent of him intoxicating, the only thing he needs. You’re dying, and I’ll never die again. And I can’t live with that.

Chapter Text

Tucumcari, New Mexico

 

Castiel blinks himself awake the minute the engine to the Impala shuts off, his face firmly glued to the passenger window and hair matted to his head. This is different than where they were last, possibly five hours ago when they were just exiting the reservation and Sam began to insist on finding a gas station. Whether or not Dean found it, Castiel has no clue, nor about where exactly they are. The sign through the holes in the brick wall to his right reads Motel Safari, featuring a man riding a camel. Something about Route 66’s oldest hotel, something about cable television.

“We’re checking in,” Dean announces after Sam frees himself from the backseat, letting out the most obnoxiously satisfied groan as he stretches. Through narrowed eyes, Castiel watches Dean pull the key from the ignition and pop the door lock, only to stumble out of the driver’s seat and nearly collide with that same holed wall.

It’s been a long ten hours, Castiel thinks, thumping his head against the window once again.

One of Dean’s credit cards works, or else Dean fished out cash and a plausible ID; either way, he and Sam are in and out of the office in five minutes, and out of the rearview window, Castiel watches the owner—a nice woman, maybe in her mid-fifties—walk them across the parking lot and take them into a room. Grand tour, probably. Part of Castiel wishes they would’ve told him exactly where they were going, or at least woke him up instead of letting him sleep in the front seat of a car not made for comfort.

The other half, though, is grateful when Sam returns to pull the car around and park it in outside of rooms 33 and 34. “Your pick what room you’re in,” Sam offers, shutting the Impala off. “Two doubles or a single.”

“Single,” Castiel rasps, swallowing around his dry tongue. On his own, he can think everything through and maybe sit in the bathtub for the rest of the night. Dean has a bag of Epsom salt labeled ‘emergencies’ shoved in the trunk next to the rock salt. Everything hurts; Dean and Sam probably feel the same, only with decades added on.

Dean doesn’t say much once they retrieve their bags, only mentioning that their rooms have an adjoining door, if Castiel needed anything for the rest of their stay. All Castiel needs is a bath and a nap; the rest, he can think about later.

The room is quaint, compared to the other hotels they’ve stayed in lately. Intentionally dated, but with a comfortable king mattress and a television, and an air conditioning unit embedded in the wall behind the partition. Everything is painted blue with white bedspreads and three pillows of varying firmnesses, and a coffee machine on the table nearest the door. From the looks of it, he’ll need all the caffeine he can get.

Compared to the bathtub at home, it’s not the worst thing Castiel has ever decided to soak in. Porcelain, yes, but aged, coating chipping off in some areas. But the water runs warm, and once he’s seated with everything except his head and knees above the water, he finally lets out the breath he’s been holding since Utah.

His momentary peace—the peace he’s been seeking for ages—is shattered by three distinct knocks on the bathroom door, accompanied by Sam asking, “You got a minute?”

Castiel sighs, water parting beneath his nose. “I was planning to nap,” he complains petulantly, but concedes. He has no choice in the matter, not when Sam strolls in and shuts the door behind him, seating himself on the closed toilet lid. At some point between unpacking the car and Castiel hiding out in the tub, he put on pajamas, green and white plaid bottoms with a ratty shirt bearing no logo. “Is something wrong?” Castiel asks, leaning his head against the lip of the tub. “You wouldn’t be in here if it were casual.”

“Nothing’s wrong,” Sam defends, arms over his stomach. “Just wanted to…” The longer his pause stagnates the room, the harder Castiel looks at him, both annoyed and curious as to what could be so important to walk in on a naked man taking a bath. “Do you think we’re doing the right thing, training? Going after Af?”

Just barely, Castiel resists the urge to submerge himself and drown. Ever since he suggested it this morning and Dean committed to it with righteous fury, Castiel has dreaded this conversation. Unsure, he answered, “I don’t know,” and sat up, pulling his knees up far enough to keep himself covered, for Sam’s modesty. “Af has never listened to reason, and even if we found him…”

“He wouldn’t even consider us,” Sam suggests.

Castiel nods and perches his chin atop his knees. “Nahaliel might, but they could never convince Zebuleon or Af right from wrong. Af and Zebuleon are old Angels, they’ve never been exposed to humanity. Or left Heaven, for that matter. He doesn’t understand what humans are capable of or how much of a tinderbox souls are when they’re tampered with.”

“Or he does.”

Castiel glances at Sam out of the corner of his eye, squinting. “What are you suggesting?”

“Just, look.” Sam hunches over, both elbows resting atop his knees, hands gesticulating at the wall. “None of the other Angels have ever done this, right? The only way they’d know is if they had personal experience. And that kind of magic… Maybe he’s been experimenting, and maybe he found out how to work it.”

“But other Angels would’ve known,” Castiel mentions, his hands beginning to tremble under the water. “The Angels—”

“The Angels have been busy,” Sam adds. As much as Castiel hates to admit it, Sam is right; with the war being raged and the constant shifts in power, Heaven and the Angels are unstable, and if any humans were praying or suffering, no one heard their calls. Not even God. “Maybe they’re using the blind spot to their advantage.”

Shaky, Castiel draws his hands around his legs, digging his fingers into his forearms. “It’s my fault,” he says, in spite of Sam’s rebuttal. “It’s true, Sam. No matter how much you or your brother think it isn’t. If I would’ve restored power, then Af would’ve never thought to leave Heaven, and you and Dean…”

“It’s not your fault,” Sam asserts; in a rush, he drops to his knees next to the tub and fists Castiel’s shoulders, Castiel’s blood running cold. He could kill me flutters through Castiel’s mind, heart racing in his chest, pounding in his throat. Sam almost murdered Dean last night, and now, trapped in a room barely large enough to fit a mattress, he could scatter Castiel’s atoms into nothing with a touch. But the way Sam holds him, firm and reassuring, gives him pause. “What you did, you can’t blame yourself. You didn’t know, and we never would’ve thought. Like you said, this magic is ancient, so old Angels don’t even know it.”

“Except one,” Castiel says, low. “How can you not blame me? I’ve…”

“We’ve all done things we regret.”  Sam shakes Castiel enough to send ripples through the water. “But you can’t let it get you like this. We’ll fix it, Cas. You and me and Dean, we’ll fix it, like we always do. You just gotta believe that.”

Castiel swallows, turns his head away. “There’s no way to reverse this. There’s no fixing this, Sam. Not even God could turn you back, and not even God could stop me from falling. Not this time.” Not ever.

Still, Sam doesn’t back down; Castiel wishes he had his resolve. “We’ll figure it out. Just trust me, alright?”

Around him, the water has run cold; so much for relaxing. “I wish I could believe you.”

-+-+-+-

Television, Dean finds, doesn’t help to calm the constant static ringing in his ears; the drone of the local stations and sitcom episodes he’s seen at least a dozen times only amps him up. Flipping through the thirty channels for a fourth time, he finds nothing of interest, just a different set of commercials and an entirely new topic on the national news networks.

Maybe he should sleep, rather than sitting in bed and mindlessly clicking purposeless buttons. As tired as his bones are, as exhausted as his limbs and head feel, Dean can’t bring himself to lie down. An endless string of thoughts, all pointless but still nerve wracking, races. Watching Castiel sleep in the car for the majority of their drive sparked whatever this is, the crippling reality of his humanity—of Castiel falling—weighing heavy in his chest. If Castiel is sleeping now, then it won’t be long until he’s wanting to eat and asking to stop at gas stations to piss. It won’t be long until he’s popping painkillers for whatever ache he has, and having nightmares that wake the entire bunker.

Castiel doesn’t deserve this. After all he’s gone through, Castiel doesn’t deserve the pain, the grief, the loneliness of inhabiting a body, only to have it betray him in the end. He was never human—he never should be, either.

“Cas is heading to bed,” Sam announces in a whisper, closing their adjoining door behind him. Dean looks up from his hands, only then realizing that he’s been staring at them and the remote for the last five minutes, too lost in his own head. Thankfully, Sam doesn’t say anything and throws himself onto his mattress, the bed frame creaking with his weight.

“Take it you two had a good talk?” Dean asks, nonchalant, setting the remote on the shared dresser between them. Through the small window near the roof, the moon begins to peek through, and a streetlamp turns on.

Quiet, silent nights like this terrify Dean, with the fear of not knowing which direction to go, of not knowing who to turn to.

In the other bed, Sam sighs through his nose, an arm thrown over his eyes. “He’s worried that he’s the reason this happened,” Sam says. Dean’s shoulders slump, heart stuttering just the slightest. “I told him that maybe during the war in Heaven, that some of the Angels started plotting for their own run, and—”

“You scared him?” Dean jabs; Sam doesn’t move, nor make a noise. “You can’t just… He already hates himself for everything he’s ever done, and adding that on’s just gonna make it worse.”

“You don’t think he knows that?” Sam uncovers one eye. “You’re just as bad. At least he admits it, though.”

“Hey.” Dean points a finger at him, the wear from the drive finally setting in; he hadn’t realized how jittery he is. He needs to sleep, not… fight, or whatever it is they’re doing. “I know how to deal with my problems.”

“And I don’t think drinking himself to sleep is gonna help Cas any,” Sam shoots back. It’s a fair enough point. “Look. He’s just as scared as we are. Like he said, this has never happened before, and we don’t really know where to go from here. I mean, what are we supposed to look for? I doubt Af and the rest of them are going around performing miracles wherever they go.”

Dean shrugs, leaning back against the headboard. Whatever Af and the other Angels are doing, it can’t be anything remotely good. “No miracles,” Dean mutters, closing his eyes. “What about mass disappearances? Body dumps, plague signs, the works.”

It may be a reach, but it could work. At least, Dean thinks so. Sam thankfully agrees and takes to researching while Dean toes his socks off and sprawls out on the mattress, covering his head with a pillow. Even while Sam types and looks over their Rand McNally, Dean can’t sleep, or remotely rest. The air fizzles against his skin and the space between his shoulder blades aches with hidden weight. He’ll get used to his wings, Castiel told him days ago. But when?

Sleep is fleeting; even the air conditioning unit doesn’t help quell the static. Dean aches for something—touch, affection, consolation, he doesn’t know. Whatever it is, he won’t find it here.

“Here’s something,” Sam announces, shattering the stillness.

Dean uncovers his head in increments, eyeing the clock radio, the time reading 10:49. “Worth getting up for?”

“I think so.” Sam turns his laptop screen towards Dean, several news articles listed on the screen, one on top of the other. “Waycross, Alexandria, Bangor, Cincinnati and Madison, ten or more people found near river beds, all with signs of prolonged torture and stigmata. So far, the consensus is that it’s a cult, but they can’t pin it to any astrological events.”

Of course they would think cults; Dean would do the same, given the nature of the wounds. Each autopsy report lists off the injuries: holes through hands and feet and foreheads, chests ripped open from the inside, odd parallel wounds extending from the shoulders, burned and blackened eyes, and ribs protruding through the skin. Whatever it was the Angels were testing, it was backfiring spectacularly, and instead of ridding the earth of their bodies, they dumped them in the woods, hoping they wouldn’t be found. Like hunters don’t go in the woods or anything.

“So see if there’s a pattern and track them to the next city?” Dean suggests; Sam nods in reply.

If they could actually follow them across the map, then they could hopefully intercept them somewhere and shut down the whole operation. Get them to reverse the Grace, if possible. Castiel has been wrong before, Dean thinks with hope; maybe he’s wrong about this, too.

Sam pulls himself from his bed to retrieve another map from his duffel, this one new and unmarked. Together, he and Dean compile a list of thirteen cities spanning from the Keys up to Wisconsin, the path seemingly leading to the Dakotas and across to Washington. “He could go southwest, though,” Sam says, circling both Chicago and Sioux Falls. “I hate to say it, but we may need to wait it out, see where they head.”

Dean’s stomach twists with the thought. “So what, it took them a week to get there and set up shop, right?”

“And then another few days for them to drive. The last discovery was,” Sam stops to glance over at his laptop, flipping between windows, “six days ago. So far, there hasn’t been any missing persons reports, but that could change by morning.”

“God, I hope so,” Dean sighs. Worst case, the could catch them before they start the process—worst case, they wander in on a pile of corpses and have to start over. People are dying just so the Angels can reignite a stagnant war and lay waste to the world. With everything he has, Dean won’t let that happen.

-+-+-+-

Castiel wakes to a tractor trailer backfiring on Interstate 40, startling him from a restless sleep into a pitch dark room. Blinking away sleep, Castiel initially reaches up to rub his face, stopping only when he hears someone speaking at his back. It takes him another few seconds to really feel the dip on the other side of the bed and the faint tremors that accompany it.

Dean. Castiel swallows. Dean was supposed to have gone to bed hours ago, after Sam left. The last he saw Dean, Dean had peaked his head through the doorway to wish him goodnight, only to disappear afterwards. Whatever Dean is saying now, Castiel can’t quite understand, his words barely a whisper above the air unit. Incoherency morphs to fervency, and Castiel feels Dean lean over to rest his elbows on his knees, hands possibly folded in prayer, possibly propped under his chin. What Dean says next, though, sends a chill through him.

“I hate you,” Dean mumbles, haggard and brittle, everything he isn’t in the daylight. Inwardly, Castiel’s Grace struggles to keep from reaching out, from soothing the turmoil roiling in Dean. He can’t, though; as much as Castiel doesn’t want to hear this, Dean is confessing something personal, and however vitriol it may sound, Castiel listens.

“I hate…” Dean inhales, voice utterly wrecked in his despair; Castiel buries his head in his pillow, blinking at the wall. “I hate that out of everyone to fuck up my life, it had to be you. If it weren’t for you… I’d still be in Hell. And sometimes, I don’t think I’ve ever belonged anywhere else. And you waltz in with your promises, like that means anything anymore.”

Dean swallows a sob, bare foot tapping on the carpet. “I got so… caught up in you. I believe whatever you say because you said it, I care about you to the point I make myself sick sometimes worrying, and every time I get too close, you bite me in the ass. You leave and you lie and you… You can’t touch me like you do and then fuck me over, man.” Another pause, this one accompanied by a painful, ragged inhale. “Sam thinks we can fix this, but… I don’t think we can. We’re like this because of you, because of something you did years ago, and you didn’t… You didn’t know. You didn’t stop them.”

I couldn’t, Castiel thinks, pinching his eyes shut. I never thought they would

“Do you know what it feels like, to watch you leave, watch you die, over and over again, never knowing if you’re gonna come back?” A laugh, distraught. “God, you’ve put me through the wringer, and you do it over and over, and yet… I can’t stop.” The bed shifts then, Castiel nearly rolling into the center of the mattress with Dean’s sudden weight at his side, hovering over him. Hot breath tickles his forehead, soft lips pressing there, trembling. “I should hate you, for everything you’ve ever done, but… I love you too much to do that.”

Castiel’s heart races, throat suddenly dry.

“And the worst thing is… I know I’m mad. And I’m pissed that you’re falling, because you don’t deserve to be human. You’re… You’re so much better than us. Better than me, and you… I don’t want you to die. Because now, I don’t know how to bring you back. And I don’t think I can go on without you, not now. Not after everything we’ve been through.

“And there’s nothing here, and everything’s here,” Dean laughs, shaking the bed; his entire body vibrates. “One second, it’s like I’m dead, and I couldn’t give a shit that we’re all gonna die, and the next, I wanna puke because I can feel again, except all at once. Right now…” He stops, sniffling; under the blankets, Castiel’s hand twitches. “I don’t know what’s going on. But you’re not awake, you can’t even…”

Dean moves with all the grace of a broken ballerina, his knees straddling Castiel’s waist, hands pressing down on his shoulders to turn him over onto his back. Willingly, Castiel goes, eyes unblinking even when Dean’s fingers trace the fragile skin of his throat. Thumbs press to his windpipe ever so softly, his palms flat and caressing around the entire width of his neck. The first thought Castiel’s mind supplies is danger, followed by Dean could kill me, four words that send his heart into his throat. If Dean thought he was asleep before, there’s no way he can convince himself otherwise now.

“I’m stronger than you,” Dean says, his voice cracking, just as terrified as the tremors running through him, the fragile shake in his tone shifting to downright despair. “I could… I could do it, Cas.” Gently, he tips Castiel’s throat up, pressing down enough to just barely cut off his air supply; still, Castiel feigns sleep, tears behind his eyes. This isn’t his Dean—or maybe it is, the Dean he’s never seen before, flayed bare down to the very fear that ingrains itself into his being, every atom. Fear for himself, for his family, loved ones, those he doesn’t even know, all because his heart is too big, because he cares too much.

One thing they have in common, their hearts are on their sleeves.

“You’d let me,” Dean whispers. Castiel swallows under the pressure, fighting back the urge to gasp. Not until Dean lets go, not until he needs to fight back. “You stupid son of a bitch, you’d let me.”

You know I wouldn’t, Castiel thinks. Just as I wouldn’t you, not anymore.

“You…” That’s all it takes for Dean to start sobbing, uncontrollably. Only then does he let Castiel go, and only then does Castiel open his eyes, dragging Dean down on top of him before Dean can even think to escape. “I hate you,” Dean gasps through tears, head tucked into the crook of Castiel’s throat. “Hate you, hate you—”

“You don’t,” Castiel shushes, running his fingers through Dean’s sweat soaked hair, his other hand smoothing down his back. “You don’t, Dean,” he soothes.

Dean whines in reply. “How can you,” Dean chokes, fighting off a gag, “how can you…”

Put up with me, follow me, love me, all words Castiel feels through the thrum of Dean’s Grace. Scared as he is, Castiel answers Dean and cradles him the best he can, until Dean’s sobs have reduced to occasional sniffles and his eyes have run dry. “I always will,” Castiel whispers, lips pressed to the top of Dean’s head. “I don’t care how broken you are, I’ll never stop.”

-+-+-+-

Dodge City, Kansas
Noon

 

Denny’s, uncharacteristically and thankfully, is empty during the lunch rush, and by some miracle, their waitress only visits when the coffee runs low and Dean needs something more to chew on rather than his straw or a too-tough piece of sausage. Castiel, seated across from him, pokes at the remainder of his pancakes with waning enthusiasm. Dark circles mar the skin beneath his eyes, deep blue muted with sleeplessness.

Sam, however, has enough optimism for the three of them, caught up in reading both the local paper and an article on his Kindle, occasionally scribbling notes on a napkin. Whatever he’s looking into, it must be fascinating; Dean could care less.

Talk to me,’ Castiel’s voice flutters across Dean’s mind, jerking his attention forward, to where Castiel is glaring at his food, eventually deciding to abandon it for his coffee. ‘You’re not hallucinating.

Oh thank god.’ Dean sighs. Softly, he leans back and looks the window, straw still in his mouth. Dark clouds gather outside, a few scattered raindrops falling on the glass pane. ‘Got something you wanna hide from him?’

I’d rather your brother not know about how you threatened to strangle me last night,’ Castiel mentions, glancing up under his eyelashes. Dean’s face immediately reddens. ‘Are you alright?’

Was he alright—what a loaded question. What about all of this constituted alright? Last night was a mistake fueled by insomnia and exhaustion, and the sudden resurgence of what he thought was his emotional capacity, all merging at once. Come morning, and he’s dead again, only now with Castiel speaking to him through some sort of telepathic link that Sam isn’t privy too. Speaking of, ‘How are you doing this?’

All Angels are linked via specific channels. I just tapped into yours.’

That makes about as much sense as anything that’s going on; Dean takes it at face value, regardless. ‘I’m fine, Cas,’ he concedes, rubbing the bridge of his nose. The last of his eggs look entirely unappetizing now, hunger replaced with unease. ‘Just… kinda lost it. You know I didn’t mean what I said, right?’

You did,’ Castiel says, matter of fact and everything Dean has ever feared. Dean only admitted it in a fit of passion, high on fluctuations in his Grace, but he meant every word. Any sane person would’ve run the minute Dean got their hands around them; but, nobody ever said Castiel was entirely there. ‘After everything we’ve been through, you hating me is the least I’m worried about.’

I don’t, though.’ Gently, Dean toes Castiel’s ankle with his boot.

Don’t lie.’ Castiel just barely resists rolling his eyes behind his mug.

Castiel has him there. ‘Look, just… It’s not personal, okay? We’ve both pulled the rug out from under each other time and time over, and that shit wears on you.’ Dean swirls the straw in his coffee, pointedly ignoring Sam grinning at his Kindle. ‘You did what you thought was right, and I get that. Trust me, I do, and I’ve done the same, but that don’t make it the right thing to do.’

None of the outcomes are ever ideal.’ Castiel stops, and Dean looks up long enough to see Castiel looking at him, sorrow in his eyes. ‘Can you really blame me?’

Dean leans back into the bench seat, sighing through his nose. ‘So I confessed. What’ve you got up your sleeve?’ Dangerous territory, Dean knows, but ever since he woke up with a pounding headache and the awful memory of attempting to strangle his best friend, how Castiel feels has been weighing on him. ‘Really, what do you—’

You’re ignorant,’ Castiel cuts him off, Dead reeling in shock. ‘Self-centered, you won’t speak what’s on your mind, you think you’re worth less than the dirt you walk on—’

Jesus, say what’s on your mind—’

You’re afraid to admit your feelings towards people because you’re terrified you’ll end up killing them, you believe you’ve never accomplished anything in life, you’re caught up in the fear that you’re becoming your father—’

“Oh can it,” Dean hisses aloud, startling both Castiel and Sam, Sam nearly ripping his napkin collection apart with a pen. The waitress, now seating a couple and their young daughter, looks across the room at them in confused scrutiny. Everyone is staring, and all Dean wants to do is hide in the bathroom until it’s time to leave. If only his entire blood supply wasn’t in his feet.

Sam cocks a brow and gathers his notes, all stacked into a pile at least two inches high. Where did he get so many? “Are you two having a problem?” he asks, more curious than concerned.

Castiel shakes his head, Dean following up with, “Mind your business.”

All Sam can do is snort. “If you’re done, I think I tracked where they’re heading to next.”

Said hideout is located outside of Waseca, Minnesota, where five people have vanished within the last two days. No bodies recovered so far, and no suspicious people in the area possibly scoping for victims. They still have time—two days at the least. If they can catch Af in the act, even better. “Tomorrow morning, then,” Dean announces, finally taking the napkin off his lap and fishing his wallet from his back pocket just as the waitress brings their check. “Right now, I’m gonna get back home and crash.”

From the expression on both Sam and Castiel’s faces, he can only assume that there’s a ‘thank God’ shoved somewhere in there.

-+-+-+-

Dreams burn, and this is no exception. At least, Dean thinks it’s a dream—for all he knows, it could be reality set to high, every sense alight. Pain, white hot and searing, burns through his veins, exiting somewhere between his eyes and his spine. Spine, maybe; something wet trickles from between his shoulder blades, spilling down his back and into the waistband of his jeans, already soaked through with red.

Black, muddied objects slump at the floor to either side of his back, one crushed under his weight, the other strewn at an odd angle, not quite rigid. Limp, maybe, or not yet corporeal. A wing, perhaps. A wing doesn’t make sense, though; how did a wing get there?

“You’re doing well,” a voice calls to him, just as a hand fists his hair by the root. Red hair and gleaming teeth greet him, along with the lightest eyes he’s seen outside of demons. Sharp, jagged cheekbones, with a massive burn covering the left half of his face, gnarly, maybe a few months old. He knows this man, has known him for the last few weeks. Until now, though, he couldn’t see his face, couldn’t understand his words. “Your brother’s almost there. Soon as we can get rid of these nasty memories in your head, then we can start the real game.”

Dean laughs through the red spilling between his teeth. “And what’s that?”

A grin, pale lips sickening. The hair color is wrong, but other than that, he looks familiar, from the shape of his face to age-worn eyes, pale lips curled. He looks…

“You’ll lay waste to the world,” the man answers, tugging Dean’s hair tighter to jerk him upright. “You’ll be reborn, like you should’ve been, Michael.”

Dean awakes from the sound of disembodied, howling laughter, and proceeds to vomit in the trash can beside his bed. Dream, Dean tells himself, still half hanging over the edge of the bed, too terrified to move. Just a dream. You’re not there anymore, and Cas didn’t hurt you. Just a dream.

“Dean?” Sam calls from the doorway, not even bothering to knock; for once, Dean appreciates the urgency. “Dude, what’re—”

“Don’t… touch,” Dean manages, spitting bile from between his teeth. “Don’t touch me.”

“I’m not gonna,” Sam says, his hands raised. “I heard you yelling and I thought…”

“I saw Af,” Dean hisses. Somehow, he musters the courage to sit up, shaking limbs pushing him upright. How he manages to not hurl again is a miracle. “This isn’t just making Angels, Sam.”

Sam sits cautiously at the corner of the bed, hands in his lap while Dean blows his nose into a tissue. Gross. “How much do you remember?”

“Enough,” Dean says, covering his eyes. In the dark, he can at least pretend he’s safe. “He called me Michael. He wants to recreate the archangels. He wants—”

“The apocalypse,” Sam finishes. Bless Sam, really. “So if he was trying to create Michael—”

“Then we were targeted.” That’s the worst of it all—not the fact that whatever Af did to them stuck, but that if they hadn’t been captured initially, Af would’ve kidnapped them in their own beds. “And there’s another thing.”

Sam blinks. “What?”

His stomach twists again, rising. “In the dream… He looked like Cas.”

Chapter Text

Waseca, Minnesota

 

Waseca, including lunch and at least two stops for gas along the way, is almost nine hours from Lebanon, cradled by two lakes and too much snow. Given his way, Dean would’ve made it there sooner. And Castiel would’ve let him, if Dean were in the right mind. Dragging Dean out of the bathroom this morning had been a feat, Dean more content to sit in the shower with his wings exposed than to dress himself and eat something. Even Sam, always their voice of reason, could barely make a dent, even after they packed the car and Dean slipped behind the wheel. “Not taking away my one joy in life,” Dean complained.

Castiel hadn’t trusted him, Sam even more so. Even now, sitting in their room at the American Motel on the upper end of town, Castiel doesn’t trust Dean to stand, let alone hold the gun he tucks into his waistband. “You haven’t talked about it,” Castiel mentions after Sam disappears into the bathroom, door shut behind him. “What you—”

“It wasn’t you, was it?” Dean spurts; Castiel’s stomach drops. “I saw… Maybe it’s just everything that’s been going on, but Af… He had your face—”

“It wasn’t me.” In haste, Castiel treads the age-matted carpet and drops to his knees, taking Dean’s face into his hands. Dean shivers with the memory, and Castiel longs to erase it, to ease his burden. “I was in Albuquerque. I was trying to find you, remember? I thought, if someone took you, you could be anywhere.” In his grasp, Dean nods, eyes pinched shut. “Dean, you have to trust me. Believe me, I would never, ever do this to you, or Sam.”

“I know,” Dean exhales, shaky. “I know, but… The last time you saw Af…”

Castiel shakes his head. That was thousands of years ago, before Af was promoted to guard the Throne. Then, he was faceless, vessel-less, a molten core surrounded by ever-burning emerald flames, almost too bright for even the Angels to bear witness to. One of God’s first favorites, before the Seraphim fell out of favor with nothing to protect. Whatever form Af has taken, Castiel can’t begin to fathom.

“Af is old,” Castiel begins, thumbing over the ridges of Dean’s cheekbones. Sam reenters the room with his socks in hand, blissfully quiet to their conversation, solely observing. “He’s been in Heaven until now, he’s never taken a vessel. And even if he did, there’s no manner in which he could possess me.”

“Cas’ body is his,” Sam adds, sitting at Dean’s side. Dean doesn’t look at either of them, can’t even look at his hands; Castiel takes them in his stead, bringing Dean’s knuckles to his lips. If Sam has any questions or concerns, or if this is the first he’s ever laid witness to this intimacy between him and Dean, Castiel will answer later, if he’s able. “Angels can’t possess Angels, right?” Sam asks, voice unnaturally steady.

Castiel nods, swallowing; only his Grace keeps him upright, sudden lightheadedness sneaking up behind his eyes. “The only one in my body is me,” Castiel breathes against Dean’s fingers. “Say it.”

“The only one in your body is you,” Dean repeats, for once not tacking on an innuendo or crude joke. “You’re the only one…”

For a few minutes, they sit there, Castiel leaning on his knees whispering Enochian into Dean’s hands, Sam rubbing Dean’s shoulder, all until Dean begins to soften into his skin. “You should’ve let me drive,” Sam says, relinquishing his hold. “You’ve been keyed up all day.”

“You need to talk to us,” Castiel adds. On weak knees, he stands, only to brace himself on Sam’s shoulder. You’re tired, Castiel tells himself. You can’t fall now. “We need to know what happened, your dreams, no matter how traumatic it is.”

“We can use it,” Sam nods. “If it means we’ll find them faster, maybe we just need to let it happen.”

Slowly, Dean’s eyes open, green irises dark under fanned lashes. Castiel breaks for the sadness on his face, the last of Dean’s innocence gone; if any progress had been made before, it’s now disappeared, unreachable in the depths of his Grace, the last of Dean’s soul gone. Castiel has never mourned the loss of something he still holds close, at least not until today—he never wants to again.

“I wanna go home,” is all Dean says before falling forward, burying his face in Castiel’s t-shirt, arms wrapped tight around Castiel’s waist. He can’t even bring himself to cry; hands to Dean’s shoulder and an arm clasped around his nape, Castiel does it for him.

-+-+-+-

The doors to the warehouse give way with less force than expected; Dean suffers a minor bruise to his shoulder, while Castiel and Sam tackle the remaining weight. Despite years of dry rot and weathering, the doors stood until now, splintered into mildewed, termite-ridden pieces on the concrete warehouse floor. Rusted hinges fly across the room, scraping until they collide with a large stack of collapsed pallets, stained with what Dean hopes is water.

“Clear it,” Dean orders, pistol raised. Castiel and Sam scatter without a word, Dean taking the forwardmost path onto the factory floor. Steel contraptions—nefarious and probably used at one point to render cattle—line the floor in rows, belts rotted through, plates and hooks rusty and tetanus-riddled. When was the last time he got vaccinated? Dean considers in all seriousness. Probably back in Tulsa when he fell through a wrought iron fence in the middle of the woods. That was three years ago—if he falls here, maybe he won’t die.

Footsteps echo across the warehouse, some from Dean, others from Castiel running, sword in hand, up one of the aisles, only to stop and turn left. Sam takes a more casual route and scopes from the air, treading the overhead walkways on scaffolding more than ready to cave in. Somehow, it supports his weight, Sam’s Grace more than likely keeping it stable. Cheater.

“Dean,” Castiel calls from ahead, past a machine filled with sharpened teeth on every end, a chewed-through noose hanging through the middle of it. As best he can, Dean ignores it and sprints for Castiel, Sam following behind, launching from the scaffolding and landing on his feet, the concrete cracked around his shoes.

What stops Dean at Castiel’s side is nothing short of a tragedy, from the dried red dying the floor to the putrid, rotted scent he’s never gotten used to, no matter how many bodies he’s burnt over the years. They got there too late: four people line a conveyor belt, flesh singed and eyes burnt from their skulls. One even sports a half-formed wing of pure bone ripping out of their back. Three young men, barely twenty, and a woman Sam’s age, still fresh enough for the flies to start taking interest.

“They’re innocents,” Castiel mourns, shoulders slumped, his hand barely able to keep a grip on his blade anymore. “And they just… left them.”

“We still don’t know if they’re done,” Sam warns, glancing over his shoulder. “They could still be here.”

“Do you sense anything?” Dean asks. He turns his back, just so he doesn’t have to see their petrified faces.

It’s probably a stupid question, in hindsight; if an Angel were there, Dean could sense it himself, but nothing registers. Sam shakes his head and covers his face with both hands. Castiel, however, looks up at the ceiling, eyes slipping shut for a brief second. “One,” he says, and turns.

A woman stands one row from them, hands in the pockets of her slacks, her suit jacket fitting every curve to precise angles, almost a part of her body. Blue dress shirt, a white tie, hair cut short enough to grab—from the distance, she could be a man. She—they—might be a creature attempting to look inconspicuous, but they chose the most striking vessel possible.

“Castiel,” they say with a smile, too chipper about being discovered in a derelict manufacturing plant. It really doesn’t help that their shirt is dyed red with blood all the way up to their collar. “My brother—”

“Nahaliel,” Castiel rumbles; through the broken windows near the roof, a streetlamp flickers outside. Dean grips his pistol tighter in anticipation; Sam readies his blade. “Why are you here?”

Nahaliel sways on their feet, face pointed to the cracked ceiling. “Collateral damage,” they say, oddly relaxed about it. “Af said I was ‘dead weight’ and I needed to stay behind. That he’d call me if he needed me. Which, ain’t that a bitch?”

Castiel makes a noise Dean can only identify as a snarl. Even a hand to Castiel’s elbow barely holds him back, Castiel too enrapt in whatever’s processing in his brain to see much else other than red. “You’re lying,” he growls, knuckles white around his blade. “Af doesn’t leave survivors.”

“Oh.” Nahaliel looks to Castiel, then to Dean, to Sam, back to Castiel with suddenly waning intensity, their smile growing dim. A façade, maybe—Dean doesn’t trust them either way, no matter how much they play coy. “Maybe I’m special?” Nahaliel suggests, the slightest bit humorous. Any other situation, and Dean would’ve believed them, if not for Castiel attempting to tear across the room to smite them. “You don’t think you’re the only one, do you, brother? That God took favor with.”

“You’re lying—”

Dean cuts Castiel off with a rough pull, yanking him back by the shoulder. “You gotta let ‘em talk,” Dean hisses. “Killing them’s not gonna get us anywhere.”

“Are you suggesting we bargain?” Castiel shoots back. He physically jerks when Sam takes his elbow, nails digging in over the thin flannel he wears. “What—”

“They’re our link,” Sam whispers. “Maybe if we can get them to explain the situation—”

“There’s no explaining here,” Castiel scolds, pulling away from the both of them. All Dean can do is watch him leave, his footsteps echoing heavy across the room. “Where is Af?” Castiel questions. By some miracle, he stops short of strangling Nahaliel, settling instead on taking them by the throat, much to Nahaliel’s amusement.

“I told you,” Nahaliel singsongs. “Af is gone. Though, Dean,” they say, glancing over Castiel’s shoulder, “you look good. Your brother, though, we didn’t finish with him.”

Sam practically sprints halfway across the room by the time Dean manages to catch up to him, and only then does he drop his gun and pull both Sam and Castiel back. Castiel just barely keeps himself from ripping Nahaliel’s throat out. “Back off,” Dean shouts, a hand to Castiel’s chest. Sam, though, he can’t wrangle right away; by the time Dean turns, Sam already has his hands around Nahaliel’s pale throat, his fingers no doubt encompassing it fully.

Still, Nahaliel keeps their composure, their grin only widening. “Oh, you were fun,” they laugh, one hand reaching up to palm Sam’s forehead. Red light flows through his fingers, and Sam backs away, head in his hands, beginning to scream; Dean’s blood runs cold at the sight of Sam, on his knees, cowering and shrieking. “See, we were almost done,” Nahaliel shouts above it all, eyes locked on Castiel, whose breathing is verging on breakneck. “But then this one,” they point to Dean, “ruined it. Killed five of our men when he escaped, including Zebuleon.” Blue eyes flash yellow, possibly a trick of the light, or from whatever Nahaliel is. An Angel, yes, but what kind, is the question. “Oh, Castiel. You should’ve seen it.”

This time, Dean lets Castiel run. Sam takes top priority, at least for now; Castiel can defend himself in a fight, and if Castiel needs to, he can kill Nahaliel for all he cares. As long as they can get information out of them, then the wounds won’t be in vain. “Sam,” Dean calls, dropping to his knees and gathering Sam in his arms. Loud—Sam is so loud, screaming and choking on his own spit, attempting to claw his own skin off. With more strength than necessary, Dean holds his wrists tight and shoves Sam’s face into his chest, muffling him enough to where he can hear Castiel shouting, drowning out Sam’s Enochian mumblings.

“We were siblings once,” Castiel growls over the clash of steel, Nahaliel shoving their blade at Castiel’s own, Castiel knocking it—and them—to the floor. “But this, this is… You could’ve sided with anyone else.”

“That’s not true,” Nahaliel chimes, giddy. Castiel stomps down their attempt to stand, combat boot digging into Nahaliel’s shoulder. “You know, Castiel, you know me. Your regime wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted power, I wanted—”

“You swore your allegiance.” Castiel kneels to straddle Nahaliel’s waist, one hand fisted in their hair, the other holding a blade to their throat. “You told me you’d fight for me, and then you left.”

“Another bidder came along,” Nahaliel laughs. Dean holds Sam tighter, lips to Sam’s hair. “You were losing, Castiel. All of Heaven could see that. You may have had the numbers, but you were facing the Archangels, the Seraphim. Raphael had them all on his side, and all you had was yourself and whatever poor souls that wanted to follow you to their deaths.”

“Liar,” Castiel growls, pressing down. “You’re not that stupid.”

“I’m not. But what can I say, you never turned my crank.”

Nahaliel’s scream, not unlike a wood chipper, grates on Dean’s nerves, shivers running down Dean’s spine the louder it gets. No doubt Castiel is cutting into them in retaliation, or severing their head; Castiel could rip it off and throw it into the renderer for all Dean cares. “You tell me where he is,” Castiel demands, Nahaliel’s laughter their answer. “You tell me where Af is, do you understand me?”

“I understand you,” Nahaliel chuckles, kicking their feet underneath Castiel. “But that doesn’t mean I’ll comply.”

Castiel doesn’t respond to that immediately. In fact, he doesn’t move for a long while, only deciding to stand when Nahaliel grows restless. Castiel takes Nahaliel with him by the hair, pulling them to their feet. “You tell me what you did,” Castiel orders, turning Nahaliel and their bloody, slashed neck to Dean; Dean nearly swallows his tongue. “And you fix them.”

Nahaliel howls in what has to be excitement. “I can’t fix them! Even Af can’t, and Af is the only one who knows anything. Me and Zeb, we just strapped ‘em in. I watched the door while they did the dirty work.”

This time, Dean bears witness to Castiel’s torture, Castiel sliding the tip of his blade down Nahaliel’s arm, white Grace spilling free and splattering on the floor. Out of both fear and a perverse sense of admiration, Dean doesn’t bother to stop him, either. “I told you not to lie to me,” Castiel growls, sword placed to Nahaliel’s throat. “Where is Af?”

“I have no reason to tell you,” Nahaliel says with mirth. “Af left me behind, didn’t he?”

“I think,” Castiel assumes, “you got caught in the act, and Af abandoned you. That’s what he’s always done best, Nahaliel, Af runs. He won’t come back for you, either.”

Nahaliel chuckles. Dean knows their façade is beginning to crumble. “Now who’s lying?”

“I have no reason to lie.” Rougher, Castiel pushes his blade against Nahaliel’s throat, now looking to Dean with hard eyes, empathy replaced with the determination of a madman. “Everything I say, everything I’ve ever meant, has been for the greater good. Unfortunately, you can’t see that. You’ve never been able to see that.”

“Damn skippy,” Nahaliel smirks. “What makes you think I’d tell you?”

Castiel hides a grin behind Nahaliel’s shoulder; Dean holds Sam tighter, Sam’s cries now dwindled to occasional jerks and huffs. “I have in my possession two fledglings, both of your creation, and neither have control of their Grace. I can only imagine what they’re capable of doing, especially now.”

This time, Nahaliel grows pale. Dean would laugh if it weren’t such a bald faced lie; the most Dean can do is fly, and despite Sam being capable of strangling someone with his mind, neither of them have much of a shot against an actual Angel, especially one so old. “You wouldn’t, brother,” Nahaliel murmurs, to which Castiel only tugs their hair tighter, close to ripping it from the roots. “You—”

“Tell me, and I’ll let you go,” Castiel says.

“I’d listen to him,” Dean amends, stern. Hopefully, his expression puts his intentions in place; if asked, he probably couldn’t stand, not with the way his legs are shaking.

Another shove, and Nahaliel cracks. Spills everything, from the plan to where Af is heading next. “He wanted to take over Heaven,” they explain. “He roped me and a few others into it, saying he’d promote us without God’s permission. He told us about this spell, binding foreign Grace to a human soul and programming them both to work together, and since neither belonged to the other, we could control it.” They laugh, pained. “But we can’t find vessels, and the ones we do, they die before the Grace can take hold.”

“Where are you getting the Grace?” Sam asks, catching both Dean and Castiel’s attention. Dean pats his back; Sam refuses to move. “That you’re putting in them.”

Nahaliel huffs, looking to Castiel. “Angels sacrifice themselves for you, Castiel. Af convinces them they’re joining the cause, and they throw themselves on the knife. For you.” A laugh. “Castiel, the Warrior, the Seraphim, God’s favorite. They’ll bend over backwards if it means they get to see your face.”

“Where is Af?” Castiel growls in Enochian, jagged, misshapen words Dean understands deep in his Grace.

“He’s going to Mankato. We have another warehouse there,” is all Nahaliel gets out before bright, blinding light fills the warehouse, diminishing when their body falls, Castiel’s blade coming away bloody. Black wings scorch the floor, spreading across the renderers and conveyor belts, broken shadows of bone and stray feathers marking everything they touch.

Both Dean and Sam look up to Castiel, Castiel just as terrified as they are; Sam’s fear permeates the air, while Dean swallows his down and prays it doesn’t come out through his fingers. “We have to go,” Castiel says, visibly swallowing; Dean hopes he doesn’t get sick in the car. “If we hurry, we can catch up.”

Not one of his better ideas, but Dean nods and helps Sam stand, one arm around Sam’s shoulder, Castiel holding him up by the waist. “I’ll sit in the back,” is all Sam says. “I… remembered.”

-+-+-+-

The warehouse Nahaliel led them to is a dud, empty, deserted and abandoned long ago. No trace of Af, no evidence that any human has even stepped foot there in the last few years. Nothing but dust and decay and detritus. Castiel’s bones feel weak with it, and with the knowledge that he killed the only angel who could’ve led them in Af’s direction. A migraine sparks behind his eyes, head beginning to throb.

For the first time, with humanity at his heels and blood on his hands, Castiel aches.

“You’re saying they tried to program us?” Dean says from the front seat after they pile back into the Impala, immediately picking up a conversation that has nothing to do with the fact they just went on an hour long journey out of the way for nothing. Castiel doesn’t blame him.

“That’s just it,” Sam says, throat rough; occasionally he sniffles, tears he can’t quite control still spilling down his face. Too much emotion, too much realization all at once. A single touch, and he knows. “I don’t know why they didn’t finish it. I just heard them talking sometimes, about how they were having trouble finishing whatever they were doing because the spells weren’t working.”

“Backfiring?” Dean asks.

Sam shrugs. “I don’t think Af exactly knew how to complete it. Sure, he knew how to implant the Grace, but he hadn’t factored in how to control it.”

Dean taps the steering wheel in the moonlight; Castiel’s vision sways with the road, stomach in his throat. “So great, we’re both luck of the draw and all those other people’ve died because some holier-than-thou Angel forgot to consider—”

“I need to vomit,” Castiel says, just in time for Dean to jerk the Impala onto the side of the road.

Castiel makes it as far as the grass before he collapses to his knees, puking what has to be this morning’s coffee and bile. For weeks, he’s run solely on adrenaline and anger: anger at himself, at the world, at the Angels for committing this atrocity in the first place. But never once did he expect to end up crying on the roadside, dry heaving until his throat burns and chest begins to hurt. He doesn’t fully register that he’s sobbing incoherently until he feels Dean’s hand touch the bare skin above his hip, palm sliding up and down his spine in familiar patterns.

“Breathe,” Dean soothes; if only Castiel could.

Another agonizing, painful minute passes before Castiel sits up, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. Blood tasted better than this. “I killed my sibling,” Castiel says, rough, spitting into the grass. “In cold blood. I didn’t… I couldn’t care, Dean.”

“I know,” Dean hushes. “I’ve been there, trust me. If anyone ever hurt you, hurt Sam, I’d be just as pissed, but you can’t… It was you or them, man.”

Castiel swallows, his stomach flipping again. Stress, most likely. Such a human feeling. “Nahaliel was… my friend. For the longest time, and they…”

Dean presses a kiss behind his ear, disguised as a whisper. “It’s not your fault,” he breathes, warm breath tickling Castiel’s neck, cold with sweat. “We were supposed to talk, but they hit first.”

“They hurt you,” Castiel mutters, wrist pressed to his mouth. Don’t do it, don’t do it. “If I weren’t there—”

“We would’ve done the same,” Dean affirms. “Look, you were protecting us. You were protecting yourself, and if you didn’t, they would’ve killed you. We’d all be skid marks on the ground and no one’d be able to stop Af.”

“You don’t really see the gravity of this, do you?” Castiel looks up to Dean and the confusion on his face. Thankfully, Castiel turns away in time to vomit again, bile burning everything it touches. Dean continues to stroke down his back. “I killed our only link. I killed my family, and you don’t care.”

This time, Dean doesn’t answer, not right away. His touch softens considerably, though, hands gently helping Castiel to his feet, easing him to sit on the lip of the front bench, feet hanging over onto the curb. “Sam,” Dean starts; Castiel doesn’t bother to look at either of them, the cold night air too much to bear.

“I know,” Sam sighs. “Hit the books once we get back. We’ll figure out where to go from here.”

Like it’s that easy, Castiel wants to say. Sam didn’t just murder someone in a fit of rage. Sam didn’t stab someone in the back solely for being an accomplice. Sam didn’t…

I’m no better than them.

Chapter Text

“He hasn’t come downstairs in a week, Sam,” Dean grouses over coffee and a Pop Tart, bare foot thumping under the kitchen table. Sam squints at a book definitely not allowed outside of the library, too enrapt in marking passages with multicolored tape to care about Dean’s complaints. “I mean, I know he’s been down here, because I keep finding leftovers of whatever monstrosity he’s cooked, but I haven’t…”

“He’s taking time for himself,” Sam mumbles, eyes never leaving the book. He flips a page and scrolls down with a cloth gloved finger, every bit the librarian Dean suspected. “He just killed an Angel.”

“He’s killed a bunch of Angels,” Dean retorts, halfheartedly finishing off the last of his breakfast. Not what he wanted, but enough to get him by until he leaves for Smith Center in an hour. Another supply run with the last of their money, unless one of them can hustle enough cash to get into Costco soon. A week stuck indoors to recuperate, as Sam called it, and to lay low until they could find out exactly where Af was headed without risking any more lives in the process. All they’ve found in the last six days is another body dump on the exact opposite side of the country a day after they left Mankato, and an odd assortment of rock glyphs in Montana, all in the shape of wings.

Af’s killing ground, probably. No one would think to search the prairies and the hills, not unless they were in a plane. The government has been swarming the site for the better half of the weekend, from what Sam last read; none of them need to bear witness to it in person to know exactly what happened there. There may be no bodies, but the feathers left behind are enough of an answer.

“What makes this one any different?” Dean considers aloud, eyeing his lukewarm coffee.

Sam shrugs, his finger finally finding a stopping point atop an icon depicting an Angel thrusting its sword through someone’s forehead. Whoever wrote this book had a very wild imagination. “Conspirator, probably. A lot of things went down that night, and if what Nahaliel said was true… I doubt Cas really wanted to know he’s the reason why at least fifty Angels died for nothing.”

It may be true, but it doesn’t make it hurt any less. Ever since they let Minnesota, Castiel has refused to speak a word, only leaving his room to apparently destroy the kitchen and take increasingly long baths in the one non-communal bathroom in the entire bunker. Sam may be right. Maybe Castiel is getting his bearings, trying to set his mind straight instead of launching himself off the roof into a bloody puddle. But the longer he stays up there, the more Dean frets.

Jesus. Has it really been a month, since he got turned into this?

Sam slaps the table with enough strength to force a dent in the aluminum, Dean’s coffee almost sloshing over the sides. Whatever he found in that massive volume sends Sam to his feet with a shout, knocking his chair out from under him, crashing to the floor in a clang; Dean grabs his mug before he decides to throw the table. “Please tell me you’re not hulking out on me.”

“I found it,” Sam exclaims, gloved hand smacking the book. “We were looking in the wrong place the whole time. It wasn’t in any books about lore or magic, it was in an fiction anthology.”

Dean squints. “Biblical fiction?”

“Apparently,” Sam chuckles, running a hand through his hair. Rounding the table, Dean stands at his side and looks down at the cryptic scrawl, written in both French—fucking French, out of every other language in the world—and Enochian. Sam went through the trouble of translating everything, based on the equally gnarly script written on every Post It note in view. “I wasn’t even considering it. I mean, I never would’ve thought the Letters would’ve been reading fourth century fantasy.”

Huh. “So what’s it all mean, then?”

“That’s the thing.” Sam points at the icon again, and at the Enochian scratched underneath it. “Most of the stories were oral tradition, all by these guys who thought they could communicate with Angels by getting high on mushrooms and chanting in a circle.”

“Sounds like fun,” Dean snorts.

Sam shakes his head. “Problem is, even though their stories make no sense, all the spells are legit. There’s a record log in the library where the Letters did experiments, only they had to stop after their third guy started bleeding from the skin and his internal organs imploded.”

Gross. “Take it they got something wrong?”

“The spell has a loophole.” Sam flips to the previous page, to at least half a page of some complex mix of what looks to be Mandarin and Enochian. “Blood of Angels willingly sacrificed, combined with… various other fluids from their vessels.”

Just barely, Dean holds back a gag. “Please don’t say what I think it is.”

“I’m trying not to read it,” Sam whines. “Pine sap, dirt from sacred ground in the desert, powdered ice…” He stops to read, eventually flipping and turning back to the icon, all while Dean fidgets, shifting his weight from side to side, picking a stray thread loose in his robe. “There’s a clause. Look.”

“I can’t read this,” Dean complains, but does anyway, eyes tracing the letters within the red-lined box at the top right of the page, this one in Latin. This one, he can at least somewhat comprehend. “Persons already in the possession of Grace are considered suitable hosts. Unpossessed humans will perish, no matter the viability of their flesh.”

“The only reason we lucked out,” Sam says, slow, defeated, “is because we’ve both been possessed.”

But Dean hasn’t. Two Angels have had the audacity to take Sam for a joyride, but the closest Dean has ever been to unfiltered, raw Grace was when one gripped him tight and yanked his sorry ass out of Hell in a flurry of wings and eyes. Sam may still have Grace inside of him, but the only evidence Dean has is the silvered scar on his shoulder, only visible during the sunrise or when fluorescent light hits it just right. If anything, Sam should’ve taken to Grace better, not Dean.

If anything, Dean should’ve died, just like everyone else.

“It doesn’t make sense, though,” Dean says, rubbing between his eyes. “Did Af stop reading after ‘pour some poor dude’s jizz into a bowl’?”

“God,” Sam chokes. “As far as I know, this is the only copy of this book. At most, maybe he just got the guide on how to enact it.” Sluggishly, Sam reaches down to pick up his chair and sits, head in his hands. “Everyone’s dying because he can’t bother to cross-check his sources.”

For an Angel so bent on destroying the world, Af sure didn’t bother to think this through, Dean wants to say. The words, though, slip down his throat at the utter bereftness suddenly seizing his chest, his heart wildly beating against his ribs. Cas, is his first thought. I can’t feel Cas, followed by, I need to get out of here. He leaves before Sam can protest, and if he noticed at all, Dean doesn’t care to find out.

As soon as he makes it past the doorway and turns right, Dean runs through the hall, initially trying the door to the observatory. Locked again; the feeling isn’t coming from there, though. Outside—God, please don’t let him be dead.

Slinging the back door open in haste, Dean finds Castiel in the garden, on his knees in dirty jeans, both hands in his lap, looking up at the sky; Dean’s his heart rips at the seams. “Oh,” Castiel says just as Dean steps into the grass as quietly as he can. “So that’s what it feels like.”

This isn’t happening. He didn’t just witness this, he didn’t just feel Castiel’s fall resound down to the very fabric of his Grace, the complete loss of the connection Dean barely even knew they had. Castiel sits alone, drawing his arms around himself to shelter him from the cold. His broken wings slowly dissolve from his back, until there’s nothing but a collection of blackened, dead feathers in the dirt.

If this is what pain is like, Dean never wants to feel it again.

“Hey,” Dean says after what feels like an eternity, his legs moving on their own. His mind might as well be in another state, despite his body’s insistence on walking and the overwhelming need to comfort and hold Castiel as tight as he possibly can. Nothing can grow now, not with this weather and the light snow beginning to fall, but that doesn’t stop Dean from asking as he kneels onto the earth, “Do you want me to help?”

Castiel looks over at him with cold, wet eyes, cheeks flushed in his despair, flannel pulled tight around his frame. Tremors wrack him: from the cold, from loneliness, from the crippling sadness Dean knows he bears. “I’m sorry,” is all Castiel says, eyes slipping shut.

He falls easily, the last of his wings vanishing in Dean’s arms; Dean pulls Castiel close to his chest. “It’s not your fault,” Dean says, just as mourning as Castiel’s tone. He tucks his head into the crook of Castiel’s neck, awash in just how warm Castiel is, the utter humanness of him terrifyingly beautiful. “This is you.”

“It doesn’t feel like me,” Castiel says, but there’s humor in his pain, melancholy reigning free. “I’ve never felt this… alone.”

“You’re not.” With heat, Dean kisses Castiel’s shoulder, the shadow of his wings wrapping around them tightly as Dean weeps with him, unashamed. “You’ve never been alone. I’m right here.”

“I know,” Castiel whispers, drawing his arms around Dean’s neck, fisting cold fingers in his robe, and all Dean can do is shiver. “I know.”

-+-+-+-

No matter what Castiel does, it doesn’t exactly taste right, like he imagined chocolate would taste. Too bitter, despite cream and the last of the milk in the fridge. Though, whiskey seems to help—maybe a little too much. Two in the morning probably isn’t the right time to delve into the alcohol stash in the library, but it helps to numb the insomnia, now just vaguely tired enough to consider sleep.

Though, with whiskey comes hunger, and with hunger comes walking to the only market in town at midnight looking for bags of dark chocolate and an entire assortment of fruit. A party, he told the cashier, like she cared that he walked there tipsy and was planning to gorge himself until he fell asleep with his head in the bowl. More fun than he’s had by himself in a long time, though.

“It’ll cool if you take it off the burner,” Sam says at his back, Castiel mid-swallow from the decanter in his hand. Sheet marks cover Sam’s entire face, red lines bright under fluorescent bulbs. At least someone is sleeping, Castiel thinks, setting down the bottle with a yawn. “Is this what you’ve been doing for the last week?”

“It’s soothing,” Castiel says, swaying on his feet. Maybe too much for the night; but on the bright side, he could probably pass out now if he tried. “I wasn’t aware drinking made you crave food.”

Sam shrugs, pulling out a chair as quietly as he can; Dean is still asleep, probably, or pretending to be. “It affects people differently.” Elbows on the table, Sam leans over, considering. “I thought it didn’t bother you?”

“Oh.” This may be awkward. Castiel brings over a pot holder and the pot from the stove, afterwards turning off the burner. Maybe next time when he can think straight without the world at an angle, he’ll think this through and get help. Preferably during daylight, as well. “I fell yesterday morning.”

If Sam almost choking on his tongue doesn’t wake Dean, nothing will. “You,” he stammers, eyes wide and awestruck. “When did—Why—?”

“If it’s any consolation, I’d rather it happen here than on the road.” Sam continues to stare when Castiel sits, Castiel too occupied opening a box of strawberries to care. “Eat, before it gets cold.”

“But you’re…”

More whiskey, Castiel considers with the first bite, afterwards thumbing chocolate from his bottom lip and sucking it into his mouth. “I chose this,” Castiel reminds Sam, ripping the leaves from the strawberry before finishing it off. “I had time to think it over while you both were gone. I’ve been considering it for… longer than I’d care to remember.”

Chest deflating, Sam reaches for an orange and begins to peel the rind. “It doesn’t scare you? The last time you were human, it didn’t exactly end well.”

“That wasn’t my choice last time,” Castiel sighs. “I thought, if I were to do it again, I’d want it on my own terms. And if death comes with that, then at least I know I won’t disappear into the ether.”

For a long few moments, Sam doesn’t reply, concentrating more on separating orange slices on a napkin. “You’re just gonna make us worry more,” he says; Castiel smiles around a strawberry. “Dean’s gonna—”

“What’m I gonna?” Dean slurs from the doorway, hands fisted into his eyes. For a brief second, Castiel mourns the loss of Dean’s soul and the Grace previously visible to him, now replaced by flesh and a gray robe with monogrammed slippers, once worn by a man long since dead. Not that Dean seems to care, though. Wiping his eyes, Dean blinks over at the table. “You made chocolate?”

“I was hungry,” Castiel says with a pout.

“And drunk,” Sam joshes, earning a scowl from Castiel. “Did you know he fell?”

Dean lets out a breath through his nose. “Yeah,” he concedes, eventually seating himself by Sam. “Can I see that?”

Castiel hands over a knife handle-first while Sam stares, exasperated. “And you guys weren’t gonna tell me?”

“It just happened,” Dean garbles through a mouthful of chocolate-covered apple, enthusiastic after the first bite. “Needs more whiskey.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” Castiel says, smiling. He turns to Sam and dips his finger into the pot, sucking it off in thought. “It’s barely been eighteen hours,” Castiel explains, “and I spent most of that asleep. No matter how often I slept recently, it never really did much other than pass time.”

“So you passed out?” Sam asks.

Both Dean and Castiel nod, Dean continuing with, “I carried his ass up those damn stairs. You know how hard it is to get dead weight up a spiral staircase?”

Castiel just rolls his eyes. “There were available bedrooms downstairs. I would’ve been fine to sleep there.”

At that, Dean flushes, suddenly enrapt in eating. “If you’re gonna sleep all day, you’re gonna do it in your bed. ‘Sides, I haven’t gotten to cleaning most of them out yet.”

You’ve had an entire week, Castiel wants to say, opting to bite his tongue instead. For the last week, Castiel has done nothing but stare at the ceiling and feel his Grace wane in his chest, exhaustion his only company while Dean and Sam wandered the halls and carried about their lives. All the while, Dean ached for him to return, for him to speak to them. For him to not do something drastic while locked behind closed doors. The only reason Castiel left was to make sure nothing exploded when his fall finally happened, even if the end result was anticlimactic at best.

Dean felt it though. Castiel knows that Dean felt the loss, and Dean carried his limp body upstairs; whether or not he stayed, Castiel doesn’t bother to ask. Dean will tell him whenever he feels comfortable again.

“Can I tell you guys something?” Sam asks, in a tone Castiel has familiarity with, a tone that always served to unsettle his Grace before, but now curdles his all-too-human stomach. A confession, maybe, or apprehension.

 “You know you can,” Dean says, Castiel adding, “What is it?”

Thunder cracks outside, barely audible through blast proof doors and solid concrete walls. Dean’s hunger slows incrementally, until his second apple goes abandoned, only partially eaten. The two of them, meanwhile, wait.

“I was awake, when they were testing you,” Sam says to Dean, eyes half lidded and downcast. “They had me in this fugue, and I thought it was just a nightmare, or sleep paralysis, but… I couldn’t move. And I just watched them do spell after spell, and most of them didn’t work.” He chuckles somewhat, rubbing the bridge of his nose. “I’m pretty sure dad didn’t teach you how to talk like that, Dean.

“One of them caught, though. Af had this book, and whenever he’d come in after… hours, maybe days, he’d try something else, and again, and again, and every time, they’d fail and it’d only piss you off. And every time he left, you’d talk to me, and you’d tell me how once you got out of those chains they had you in, that you’d kill every last one of them.”

“Sounds like me,” Dean shakes his head. Castiel toes his bare foot underneath the table.

“It must’ve been a month in, because when I was awake, I’d watch the sun. And one morning, you were on the floor, and Af was standing over you, and…” He stops and swallows, now covering his eyes. His words come out haggard, shaking with every breath. “He carved something into your back, and I watched these… things just… rip out of you. And you screamed for an hour, maybe, and the sky went dark. I don’t think it stopped raining for days, because water started coming in through the window.”

All through the story, Dean looks down at his hands; Castiel toes his instep, the only skin he can reach. “I can’t remember any of that.”

Sam shakes his head. “What you went through once they finished the spell… I felt only half of that. Just pain, like someone set my veins on fire, like something was… growing inside me. Every day, they’d come in, and they’d do something different, the same things they did to you. Except, now they knew what they were doing.”

Sam’s hollow laughter fails to stop the heat burning through Castiel’s chest, his heart beating erratically against his ribs. Comfort won’t stop Sam from hurting; nothing can relieve that ache but time and acceptance, a pain his Grace can’t heal. Nothing can help him.

“Sometimes, I prayed,” Sam admits, smiling despite himself. “It felt like it reverbed, though. Can Angels pray to other Angels?”

Castiel shakes his head. “Prayer works one way. We—They can’t send prayers to one another, nor can they hear them.”

A nod. “I thought, if I prayed to you, that you’d come find us, or at least know to where to go.”

Guilt plagues Castiel, just from the thought of not being able to hear their cries for help. He should’ve gone with them—at least then, he could’ve died at their sides. “I’m—”

“Don’t,” Dean says, soft, discouraged. “Don’t, it wasn’t your fault. This was… our stupid mistake, and we got ourselves into it. We didn’t read into it, we weren’t careful.”

“That’s no excuse,” Castiel rumbles. “I should’ve gone with you. I could’ve protected you—”

“No offense, Cas, but Af was… different,” Sam interjects. Castiel cocks his head. “He didn’t feel like other Angels. Lucifer and Michael and Gabriel, the Archangels looked at you and you just knew what they could do, but… Looking at Af, he felt old. Like, Creation old.”

Castiel blinks and holds himself tighter, even when Dean strokes along his foot. “Cas, was Af even close to an Archangel?” Dean asks.

It takes all of Castiel’s strength to not collapse right there. Alcohol can’t numb this, nor can food; only breathing and Dean’s faint touch get him through. “Heaven is organized into the nine Spheres, each ruled by respective Angels from all Hierarchies. Angels, Principalities, Archangels, Powers, Virtues, Dominations, Thrones, Cherubim… The last I knew of Af, he was seated at God’s throne.”

“Af is a Seraphim?” Sam asks, and Castiel nods. Dean’s head lolls back, eyes closed. “Like… burning wheels of fire Seraphim?”

Defensively, Castiel covers his head and lets out a breath, the cool metal of the kitchen table dulling the headache forming behind his eyes. Sleep—he needs sleep, now that he’s full and the alcohol has worn off. Not discussions that take too much effort. “He was a Power before his promotion,” he says, muffled underneath his arms. “Whether or not the Fall affected him, I’m not sure. But if he has any Grace left, it’s nowhere near where it was. At most, he’s a Principality.”

“Killable, though,” Dean says; Castiel hums an affirmative. “What was Nahaliel?”

“Just an Angel,” Castiel shrugs. “Angel of rivers, was his designation. Zebuleon was to preside over the apocalypse should the time come.”

“Fitting,” Sam mumbles.

Castiel sits up after a long minute, palming his eyes until he sees stars. “I don’t know where to go from here,” he admits, finally, the weight on his shoulders extinguishing only minutely. “I think we jumped into this too fast.”

 At least here at the table, he knows Sam and Dean both agree with him. Concern knits Dean’s brow, more emotions than he’s shown in weeks. Sam, on the other hand, is on the verge of tears. Sam falls into Dean’s arms easily, Dean resting his chin atop Sam’s head. “You’ll be fine,” Dean soothes, earning Sam’s pained silence and occasional sniffle.

Castiel, on heavy feet, joins them, drawing his arms around both Sam and Dean, their warmth incredible; he holds them close, revels in their touch, and Dean’s hand resting on his hip. “Even if Af comes for you, he won’t lay a hand on you,” Castiel hushes, pressing a kiss into Sam’s hair. “We won’t allow it.”

I won’t.

“It’s gonna hit me at some point,” Sam says, pulling away enough to wipe his eyes dry. Castiel keeps close, smoothing his hand over Sam’s shoulder while Dean holds his wrists, unsure of what to do. “If we ever lose our Grace, I’ll remember, and… I don’t think I can go through that again.”

“You’ll have us,” Dean assures. From his expression, Castiel knows he doesn’t believe it, at least wholly. Sam may know every last detail, but at some point, Dean will remember as well, the pain they must have endured, the hopelessness, having to watch the other fall into despair while they waited for a savior that could never come. And this time, Castiel can do nothing but watch and hold them until the shivers subside and they sleep easy, for the scant few moments they can.

Maybe this is hopeless—but if this is the end, then he’ll hold onto it as long as he can, until he sees Heaven through new eyes. “We’ll be here,” Castiel mutters, and this time, he starts to believe it.

-+-+-+-

It takes Dean the better part of the week to gather up the courage to break the bubble he and Castiel have built around themselves. For the most part, he’s left Castiel to his own devices, let him feel around the bunker and start his own routine, which apparently includes hour long showers and evenings spent falling asleep in front of the TV in the living room. After the third night, Dean stopped bothering to carry him to bed; Angelic strength or not, Castiel is a ragdoll when he’s unconscious, especially when hauled upstairs.

Even then, Dean can feel something wafting off of him, something too human and too real in his Grace to fully understand. Then Castiel touched him in the war room last night, heated fingers pressed to the back of his neck after Sam headed to bed, and Dean understood, face flushed as Castiel left and disappeared behind his door.

Castiel wanted him, in every manner possible, unspoken words dripping from his fingers.

Nervous anxiety leads to jitters, and jitters turn to cold feet; by sheer will, Dean pads up the spiral staircase in nothing but his robe, inwardly cursing the lack of footwear—or at least socks. The higher he climbs, the colder the chill bites, the hairs on the back of his neck rising; Castiel must have left a window open, or he’s out on the roof again, a hobby he’s taken to ever since he found a telescope in one of the storage rooms earlier that week. December is no time for stargazing, but neither Dean nor Sam’s scolding stopped him.

From underneath the cloth laid over the porthole, he finds Castiel in bed reading in candlelight, one of the roof windows cracked open enough to keep air circulating. Once summer comes, they might need to install central air to the roof or cover the entire space with blackout curtains. A project, if Castiel is willing. For now, the cold is comforting, enveloping and every bit intense. 

Castiel doesn’t notice Dean climbing through the porthole at first, too enrapt in whatever he’s reading to care that anyone is there. For once, Dean has the upper hand. Castiel dog ears his page and sets the book next to a candle before he looks up, hair in every direction, the shadows beneath his eyes more pronounced in the scant illumination. “Dean,” he says, raspy; Dean’s hands twitch at his sides. “What is it?”

Dean doesn’t wait. It’s been a long time coming, anyways, and though they’ve kissed before, this feels different. Castiel’s sigh, his flushed cheeks beneath Dean’s hands, his parted lips—it all feels like home, like this is where he’s always belonged.

-+-+-+-

Castiel wakes just before sunrise the following morning, shivering in the open air. At some point, he lost the sheets, and so did Dean, who’s now sprawled across half the mattress with a leg hanging over the edge. Maybe he should invest in a queen, Castiel thinks. Cautiously, he extricates himself from Dean’s warmth and sits up, scrubbing both hands over his face, stubble prickling under his palms. A shave, a shower, and breakfast sound excellent.

Briefly, he looks down at himself, and his face turns bright red. Clothing might be good, too.

By the time Castiel throws the covers back on top of Dean and sneaks downstairs, Sam has already left for his morning run. Half a pot of coffee sits on the counter, warm at best. For now, Castiel ignores it and rummages through the refrigerator, pulling out a half-empty carton of eggs and prepackaged sausage. Breakfast, at least, he knows how to cook, perfected after sleepless nights and even more wired days.

“You left,” Dean says from the doorway the minute Castiel throws bread in the toaster; Castiel turns to him with a soft smile, taking Dean in, gray robe and all. He looks better, less exhausted than he has been, the circles under his eyes bright under fluorescent lights. Though, his robe does nothing to cover the assortment of bruises on his neck or the red spots lining the column of his throat up to his ear. Maybe they really should’ve stopped after round three.

“Sit,” Castiel instructs, glancing over at the coffee machine. “I’ll be done in a minute or two.”

“Really need to get you a hobby,” Dean mumbles, no heat to it. The metal chair scrapes against the floor, loud in the scant square footage, but equally… homey. A strange thought, how a chair reminds Castiel of how tangible his new reality is. “Do you regret it?”

Castiel pauses mid-scramble, looking over his shoulders, heart in his throat. Specificity would be nice, if the sun weren’t just beginning to rise. Too early. “Regret what?”

“The whole… you know.” Dean waves a hand, cheek propped up in his palm. “Last time you fell, you got sucker punched by humanity, and now… It looks good on you.” He yawns, blinking himself awake. “How long were you thinking about it?”

What a question. “Years,” Castiel says. He pulls two plates from a stainless-steel cabinet, placing them on the counter. “I haven’t decided if I regret it yet, honestly. It’s only been a week, but it’s… nice, being here with you and Sam. With you, in particular.” Dean chuckles and stretches his arms above his head. “You really enjoyed it that much, last night?”

“You kidding?” Dean laughs. If Castiel didn’t know any better, he would call that joy. “Don’t think I’ve had that much fun in… a long time.”

Castiel doesn’t bother to hide his grin. “You’re flattering.”

“I’m serious.” Dean stands in a rush and surrounds Castiel, arms around Castiel’s waist. With his free hand, Castiel covers one of Dean’s, twining their fingers. “I missed you,” Dean whispers, “and I’m scared for you, and I don’t wanna let you go because… What if something happens? You’re human now, and the last time…”

“It won’t be like the last time, I assure you.” Castiel turns in his grip, just as Dean crowds him against the counter, hips pushed against ceramic tile. “Dean…”

“I think it’s growing back,” Dean says, and Castiel’s heart skips, eyes wide. “My soul. I’m scared, Cas. I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared in my life.”

You have been, Castiel thinks, reaching up to fist Dean’s robe. This fear is different though, and Castiel shares his concerns. Terrifying as death may be, at least here, Castiel can say he did something in his life that no other Angel ever dared—he fell, and survived, and lived. “Do you love me?” Castiel asks, throat tight, constricting.

“I love you,” Dean says. His breathing quickens, and faintly, Castiel can feel Dean’s heart beat against his chest, staccato and real. “Cas, I feel it—”

Castiel shushes him and kisses his cheek, drinking in the warmth there, the tears that flow willingly to his chin. Love—this is love, in the middle of a kitchen on a Thursday morning, eggs burning in the pan, coffee going cold in his mug. And if love feels like salvation, Castiel never wants it to end, not as long as he lives.

Chapter Text

Three people go missing in Esbon approximately a week later, only coming to Dean’s attention when Castiel slaps a newspaper on the kitchen table. He gasps like he just ran a marathon, and judging from the stains on his shirt, Dean thinks he might have. “How far’d you make it today?” Dean asks and warily takes the newspaper, scanning over the headline, ‘GARRET FAMILY MISSING.’

“To Esbon,” Castiel says between gulps, downing most likely his third water bottle of the morning.

Dean sputters, nearly ripping the newspaper in half. “You ran fifteen miles?”

“To be fair, I asked Sam to come get me.” Castiel tosses his bottle in the blue bin by the door, afterwards stripping his shirt over his head; he might reek, but he looks like every single one of Dean’s fantasies while doing so. “I ran the last mile home.”

“You smell like it,” Dean says, offhand; Castiel ignores him and wipes himself down with a dish towel. “Why’d you bring this home?”

“This is last week’s paper,” Castiel says, pointing to the date. “Jason Garret was found this morning in a grain silo, while his siblings are still unaccounted for.”

Dean swallows. “Cause of death?”

“Crows ate his eyes,” is all Castiel tells him. It’s all the confirmation Dean needs; the person they’ve been scouring the country for through newspaper after newspaper, article after article, is right under their nose, less than twenty minutes down dirt farm roads in a town equally desolate as Lebanon. “You can understand why I didn’t want to walk home.”

That’s an image Dean didn’t want to have at eight in the morning, Cas kidnapped and dragged into a white panel van—or whatever Af is driving, probably something as atrocious as his preferred method of murder—and carted off God knows where in the state. Good thing he already finished his cereal. “What’s your game plan, then?”

Thankfully, Castiel waits until he’s taken a shower before he calls both Dean and Sam into the war room, looking considerably less disheveled than he was, but now smelling of strawberries. “The grain silo they found one of the Garrets in is the central silo of Esbon, and lucky for the residents, it was under renovation.”

Easier to clean him out of there, Dean thinks, scratching behind his ear.

“Do you think he’s still in the city?” Sam asks from one of the bookshelves, an index card in hand. He pulls what looks to be an atlas from a low shelf and sets it on the illuminated tabletop, flipping through to a map of north central Kansas, circa 1936. “I doubt he’s got a lot of hiding places, but if he’s still experimenting, he can’t’ve gone far.”

Esbon barely has its own page in the book, its population shoved into the top corner of one page. At the time, a little over three hundred people lived there. Dean sincerely doubts anyone is there now that doesn’t work the land. “What about here?” Dean stabs his finger at what looks like a warehouse; if it’s even there anymore, he has no clue.

Castiel leans over to look, hands on the table, brows furrowed. “It’s too exposed,” he considers, glancing over to Sam. “Af isn’t one for publicity.”

“Tell that to the bodies,” Dean mutters; Sam just shakes his head. “House, then?”

“I’d have to look through listings,” Sam comments. “Esbon’s remote enough, he may be holed up in someone’s barn.”

That settles it, then. It’s not exactly the way Dean planned to spend his Saturday, but it beats going outside to battle the elements. According to the local stations, it’s supposed to snow in the afternoon. Christmas is tomorrow. Sam commandeers the war room and begins searching through home listings on his laptop, while Castiel occupies himself by writing down spell after spell that could potentially immobilize Af.

Dean gathers whatever weapons he can from the armory that might, just might, make a dent in a Seraphim. If Af is even a Seraphim, in the first place. It’s not the first time they’ve gone up against something they knew nothing about, though.

Beneath the false bottom of a cabinet along the armory wall, Dean pulls out a collection of Angel blades, some with different finishes, others with unique embellishments. One is even solid gold; Castiel has no idea of its owner, or that it even existed in the first place. “There’s nothing special about it,” Castiel had said. “Its owner must’ve thought a lot about themselves.”

It looks nice, regardless. Setting the assortment atop a table, Dean tucks a few in the loops on his belt, blades turned down; if he wears a coat, he can hide them from any homeowners watching them walk down the street. If only they knew what was hiding just across the road.

Castiel wanders in in a rush just as Dean is lighting a fire in the gun range, heating a medium sized cauldron pilfered from one of the storage rooms. It would be perfect for smelting, if Dean could get the fire hot enough. Instead of scolding him like Dean figured, or telling him that he’s jumping to conclusions, Castiel says, “The spell you’re attempting requires blood.”

Spell? “There’s a spell?” Dean asks, standing, hands braced on his knees. All he was trying to do was melt them, not cut a vein.

“It’s possible to smelt them like normal weapons, but blood works faster.” Castiel shrugs. “I never understood it, but Zaphkiel once said it was a gift to mankind, that if they slew an Angel, they could use their weaponry if they knew how to possess it.” Castiel pulls a pocketknife from his jeans, handing it over to Dean. “Human blood works the fastest.”

“Whoa.” Dean waves off the knife. “What do you think you’re doing?”

“You’re making bullets, correct?”

“Yeah, but I was gonna—”

“Sam is insisting you hurry,” Castiel says, almost nagging. “You can heal me after. Do you have everything else?”

What everything else? What was he talking about? “Cas, there’s not a spell—”

“There is.” Standing here before him, only now can Dean see how twitchy Castiel is, antsy on his feet, never quite standing still. He’s nervous, trapped in his body for the first time, and incapable of fully controlling himself; Dean can empathize. “We have the ingredients upstairs, I’ll—”

Dean grabs hold of his bicep before Castiel can run, bare feet smacking against concrete. “Cas, look at me for two seconds.”

Castiel doesn’t, his attention towards the door. “I can—”

“Cas.” Castiel stills. His skin is cold under Dean’s fingers, and not from the near-frigid temperatures in the basement. The fire beneath the cauldron crackles, and inside, something pops. The blades, hopefully; he doesn’t have another pot large or stable enough to melt each one down individually. “Just breathe, alright?”

“What does a panic attack feel like?” Castiel asks, shivering faintly.

Against his own knowledge—the last thing he ever wanted mid-panic was to be talked to, let alone touched—Dean pulls Castiel close, holding him long enough for the jitters to fade and his erratic heartbeat to slow to a somewhat normal pace. “You should’ve talked to us,” Dean says into his hair. One handed, he takes the pocketknife from Castiel’s hand, holding it in his own. “Nothing’s gonna happen, alright?”

“I had a dream last night,” Castiel admits. He pulls away after a short while, walking to stand by the cauldron, staring inside at the wooden planks and half-scorched weaponry. “How often have you had a premonition in your sleep?”

Dean folds his arms over his chest. “You know those never come true,” he says, even if it’s a lie. Over the years, he’s lost count of how many times he’s dreamt of something before it happened. He attended funerals in his sleep and lost people weeks, even days later. The last thing either of them need now is for Castiel to realize he can see the future.

“I saw myself,” Castiel admits, hushed, mingling with the fire. “I watched myself die, but I don’t know where, or when, or… but I was alone.”

Castiel shakes his head, and Dean walks closer. Castiel hums with his touch, Grace seeping through skin and into muscles and tendons, concentrating itself at Castiel’s core, where it aches the most—his soul. Dean is touching Castiel’s soul, apparently without even trying. And Castiel lets him, blue eyes glowing faintly. A trick of the light, surely, but for a split second, Dean thinks that his humanity might just be a ploy.

Castiel’s soul feels like Dean is touching a lit firework with his bare hand. Untamed, pure, clean—and Dean remembers, all at once, how it felt before, surrounded by wings and fire and the unescapable warmth that’s never quite left, not as long as Castiel is near. It may be different now, Dean harboring Grace he never wanted and Castiel human of his own free will, but Dean can’t shake how familiar it feels.

It really has come full circle, hasn’t it? Dean thinks, removing his hand. Castiel sways into the absence, blinking himself awake. “Whoa,” is all Castiel says, accompanied by a laugh, joy that warms Dean to his very Grace. “I didn’t think I’d feel that again.”

“You’re telling me,” Dean says with a grin.

Castiel’s smile, however, falters. “For what it’s worth… If this is the end, I don’t have any regrets.” He looks to Dean, just as Dean’s stomach lurches. This isn’t the end—this is far from it. A beginning, once they survive. Not an if, but when. “I want my ashes spread in the open.”

“No.” Dean shakes his head. “No. You’re not giving me that speech, because you’re not dying.” He clasps Castiel’s shoulders, and Castiel takes his wrists in hand. Not pushing, no denial. Castiel believes him, however fleeting that optimism is. “Me and Sammy, we’re gonna protect you, alright? We’re not gonna let him touch you.”

“You’ll try,” Castiel says, mournful. “But what if you can’t?”

Dean sighs and lets his head drop onto Castiel’s shoulder. “Then I’ll drag your ass back here myself.”

-+-+-+-

Around three that afternoon, the police find another body in the grain silos outside of Esbon, this one half covered in corn, his corpse ruining twenty-five percent of the city’s yield. Burnt out eyes, half a malformed wing, and broken and mangled ribs ripping through his chest. Definitely one of Af’s victims, albeit one treated even more violently than the others. “He’s desperate,” Castiel says from the backseat of their Chevelle, a leftover from the motor pool that hasn’t been seen outside of Lebanon before. Dean’s Impala will give them away the minute they leave town, and he last thing they need is wandering eyes. “He’s getting antsy. If he hasn’t killed Emilia Garret already—”

“He won’t,” Sam says, handing Castiel a pistol from over the bench seat, loaded with the bullets Dean smelted earlier in the morning; hopefully, with the additional wardings Castiel carved into the casings, they’ll be enough. “He just disposed of the body what, five hours ago? Once the cops clear out, he’ll come back.”

“Hopefully without Emilia,” Dean says, hands fisted into the steering wheel.

Twenty minutes on dirt roads feels like forever, even with Dean speeding, dust kicking up behind the taillights. Night has never felt so alone before, not as long as Castiel can remember.

Dean parks underneath an empty awning on the silo grounds, lights shut off well before they ever reach the property. The only ones who know they’re there are the crows and the moon, and the snow clouds gathering on the horizon.

Fear wracks Castiel before he leaves the car, the sudden urge to vomit almost overwhelming; Sam helps him stand once his feet hit the dirt. “You’re gonna be fine,” Sam affirms, hands on Castiel’s shoulders while Castiel shivers. “Cas, you’re gonna be alright, okay? We’re not gonna let anything happen to you.”

“I should’ve given you my sword before I fell,” is all Castiel can muster, gripping his pistol tight in his hand.

Sam gives him a curious glance but doesn’t question it. That’s too much to explain, the weaponry each Angel has given their rank in the Hierarchy. Tomorrow, when they get home, he’ll tell them both the entire history while he still remembers it. While he still remembers their faces and how their souls looked when they were pure.

How the world looked, before he fell.

Dean storms in with Sam at his back, Castiel following not far behind, gun raised. The central warehouse looks no different than any other warehouse they’ve been in, but this one is actually functioning, with working lights and an intact roof and a door that locks. Sincerely, Castiel hopes everyone is asleep in Esbon, readying themselves for Christmas or whatever they’re planning to celebrate in the morning.

Sincerely, Castiel hopes he’ll live to celebrate, as well.

“No one’s here,” Dean announces under a moonbeam, gun in one hand and a blade in the other. He glances around the warehouse as Castiel approaches, Sam circling the pallets and dirt piles and container boxes, on the hunt. Despite Castiel’s erratic heart, everything seems at peace, just quiet enough to unsettle him, and the rest of his party. This is how people die, Castiel thinks; he never quite lowers his weapon, even after Dean does. “I think it’s a—”

Castiel not so much as sees Af as he hears him, his approach a roar echoing off the walls, wind rushing through wings with enough force to knock pallets from their stacks, collapsing and shattering against concrete. Pure fire erupts the second his feet collide with the ground, fissures spreading through the floor; Dean and Sam narrowly dodge the flames, and Castiel practically launches himself away just to evade.

Af has never taken a vessel, or at least Castiel thought. After the smoke and ash clears, Castiel watches Af rise in a flurry of lava-red feathers, all six wings stretched wide, smoldering at the tips. Af himself has burnt through his vessel’s face, skin scarred over the left half of his head, left eye gone and replaced by nothing but silvered edges and a hollow where once he could see. Only the right half of him moves, lips curled into a devious grin, pointed teeth visible even at a distance.

Castiel was wrong about him. Even after the purge, Af never fell—he willingly descended, and this is the proof, six feet tall and mirthful, dressed to his shoes in red. He’s missing half of his fingers, but that doesn’t stop him from drawing his blade in one hand, four feet of forged Grace, patinated and discolored, but pure.

Enough to kill.

“Castiel,” Af announces with glee, raising a hand to the roof.

Castiel convulses just from the sound, his voice the only thing about him familiar, even after thousands of years of separation. Castiel can’t fight like this, heart in his throat and all the blood in his body rushing to his feet. This is a flight response—he’s supposed to run and never look back, even if it means leaving Dean and Sam to fend for themselves. Over Af’s shoulders, they both advance, creeping with blades at the ready.

That won’t work—they can’t kill him like this. Even with their combined strength, Af won’t be taken down easily. Nothing can kill a Seraphim short of another Seraphim, or God himself. Even in Dean’s wildest dreams, he wouldn’t be a match.

“Don’t touch them,” Castiel blurts and takes a step back, both hands on his pistol. Bullets won’t dent him, but they may slow him down long enough for Dean and Sam to escape.

Af looks over either shoulder with a skeptical eye, a brow raised; Sam stops out of fear, but if anything, Dean moves faster, knuckles white around his blade. “Oh, you’re cute,” he laughs, and flings Dean across the room with just a look; Dean crashes back-first into a support column, denting the metal and collapsing a small section of roof.

Castiel nearly hurls on his shoes.

“You shouldn’t’ve followed me,” Af says, slurred but discernible. “You’re much too smart for that, Castiel, getting yourself into trouble. Look at you,” he points with three stubs and a thumb, one finger crooked into a hook, “you’re not even an Angel. You gave up your Grace, for what?”

“That’s none of your business,” Castiel grits. He slides his finger against the trigger, breath shuddering but steady. “You’re killing innocents.”

On the other side of the room, Dean pulls himself to his feet, limping but alive. Af draws Castiel’s attention back, three feet closer to Castiel in the short second he looked away; he presses the tip of his blade to Castiel’s throat, and Castiel swallows, hands beginning to tremble. Hopeless, utterly hopeless—he never had a chance.

“I’m only following orders,” Af singsongs—Castiel fires once, the bullet ripping through Af’s shoulder, but he doesn’t spark. Af’s eye doesn’t burn, his wings don’t erupt into flame. The second and third don’t do much other than make him bleed. Number four and five tear through his skull. Nothing. “You know,” Af says, wiping blood from his face and slinging it to the floor, “there was a time where I would call you naïve. But you know what you’re doing.” Af pushes his sword in, drawing blood. If Castiel is to die here, he hopes it’ll be quick. “You thought ambushing me would work. But guess what?”

Castiel doesn’t answer—he can’t, not when all he hears is Dean screaming and his own heart in his ears, his own breath wet. He can’t breathe—can’t see past the blood and Af’s grin, can’t feel beyond the blade in his chest, ripping up. “I always win,” Af says, just as Castiel sees white.

-+-+-+-

He can’t breathe—Dean actually can’t breathe, heart still. His vision moves in slow motion: Af ramming his sword through Castiel, Castiel slumping onto the ground in a bloodied puddle, Af wiping it clean on his pants. It might make more sense in hindsight, that he just watched Castiel die, but his mind can’t process it. Can’t process much else other than Sam charging and slashing at Af’s wings, only managing to cleave off an upper arch before Af slings him backwards, crashing into pallets and sending splinters into the air.

Dean follows with less precision but greater strength, propelled by wings and sheer will; Af meets him blade for blade, his functioning hand always managing to cut Dean off, more than once clipping Dean’s feathers and ribs, cutting deep. If it means killing Af, Dean can ignore the pain, so long as he doesn’t have to admit to himself that Castiel isn’t lying there, gutted with wide blue eyes, growing cold.

For Castiel’s sake, Dean hopes he didn’t feel it.

“You’re useless,” Af shouts. He lands a foot to Dean’s sternum and shatters his breastbone; Dean recovers the second he hits the floor and rights himself on unsteady feet. Blood soaks his shirt, dripping down to his pants. “You trusted in Castiel, The Great Mistake, and you fight your Creator?” he laughs, and Dean cringes. “I formed you of my own will, and you think you’re free to roam?”

“You forgot who we are,” Sam growls, brushing wood chips from his hair. Af looks away for a split second, enough time for Dean to charge and jam his blade through Castiel’s bullet wounds and yank out, severing through muscle and bone.

Af’s arm comes off clean, sword clattering against concrete. The stupid bastard can probably reattach it at will, but it’s startling enough to stop Af cold. If Dean weren’t so shocked that he just cut an Angel’s arm off, he might even finish the job. Sam, ever helpful, extends a hand and drops Af to the floor, blood welling from his one eye, deformed hand grabbing for his throat. “You fucked with archangels,” Dean grits, wings extended. “Didn’t read up on that, did you?”

“Archangels are nothing,” Af gasps, just as red begins to spill from his lips. “You think Michael and Lucifer were the strongest of us? You’re a speck.” He looks to Sam, half-grinning. “You’re vile, grotesque creatures, and you couldn’t even scratch me if you really wanted to.”

“Dean just cut your arm off,” Sam scoffs; they swap weapons, Dean taking the golden Angel blade in hand. “I think he dented you.”

“I’ll grow back,” Af laughs, wet. “Minute you let go of me, and you’re dead.”

“See, here’s the thing.” Dean squats and places the tip of his blade to Af’s throat. “If I cut your head off, you won’t come back.”

“Please.” If he had another eye, Af would probably roll it. “I told you. You can’t kill me.”

Just as Dean makes to rebut him, Sam shouts, “Dean,” and lowers his hand in sudden exhaustion. After that is a scuffle, and Dean ends up on his back, disarmed and pinned down by massive, fiery wings, Af’s hand around his throat, digging in. Even with one arm, Dean can’t fight him, can’t force him away or even speak, not while Af attempts to crush his windpipe.

“I created you,” Af growls, all teeth, “and I’ll take you back. I can fix you. We can be great, Michael. We can—”

Golden light bursts from Af’s eye and mouth and sparks through his body, visible through his clothes; his wings erupt into flame, broken bones slumping to the floor, each individual feather deteriorating just as quickly as his vessel. Luckily, Dean pulls himself free just before Af catches fire, the golden Angel blade lodged between his wings. Killshot—God bless Sam.

All that remains of Af in the aftermath is a pile of ash and scorched feathers, wing prints blazed into the concrete, and nothing more. The minute he’s gone—permanently, this time—Dean rushes across the warehouse and collapses to his knees at Castiel’s side, heart racing, eyes no doubt wet.

Castiel is dead—touching him is Dean’s only confirmation, skin clammy and cold under his fingers, eyes glassy and not really looking at anything. This whole time, he’s been dead, and Dean hadn’t been able to save him, hadn’t been able to stop Af until Sam found the failsafe, most likely by happenstance. Good shot, but it doesn’t matter now, not with Castiel gone, cold and alone in the middle of nowhere.

“Cas,” Dean says, that one syllable cracking at the edges; his eyes spill over the moment he takes Castiel into his arms, Dean’s body shaking uncontrollably, suddenly a live wire trapped in too-tight skin. This isn’t real—they were supposed to go home tomorrow, Castiel was supposed to celebrate Christmas and their victory after a hard-fought battle. Not this—Dean isn’t supposed to hold him, isn’t supposed to feel the warmth of his blood in his hands or how cold Castiel is.

He can’t stop himself—Dean wails, loud and long, shattering every light in the vicinity and cutting power to all of Esbon. Sam can’t calm him, can’t even get him to let go, and together they kneel over Castiel’s body, until Dean can’t do much else but weep, clutching Castiel to his chest like just holding him will bring him back. Dean doesn’t trust himself to try his hand at resurrection; he might irreparably damage Castiel’s soul, if it’s even still there, or worse, destroy his body. Sam probably can’t either.

He’s really gone, Dean mourns, and cries.

Dean doesn’t notice it at first, the overwhelming despair that permeates the very air, always accompanying creatures he never hopes to meet, even for a friendly rendezvous. Billie—always fucking Billie. Dressed in worn leather and smelling of olives, she stands before them, the toe of her boot tapping the floor, her arms crossed, a smug grin plastered over maroon lips. Beautiful as she is, the last person Dean wants to see now is her, or any other reaper, for that matter.

“You’re here for him,” Sam accuses, words harsh and watery in his throat. Billie considers him, probably wanting nothing more than to stop him into the floor. “That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”

“The last time I saw you two, we made a promise.” She shrugs, her lips curled at the edges. “Death is permanent, boys. You should know that by now.”

“Thanks, but you can’t have him,” Dean growls. Holding Castiel doesn’t help their predicament, but if Dean can hold him for long enough, maybe Billie will change her mind.

Billie blinks at him and takes a step; Dean tugs Castiel closer, wings slapping the air in a disjointed display. “You must not’ve heard me,” she coos, harsher now, eyes glowing faintly. “Castiel is coming with me. You see, out of the three of you, the price on Castiel’s head is enough for several promotions. And a promise is a promise.” She smiles, her grin full of teeth. “Don’t make me have to fight you for him.”

“We never agreed to this,” Sam shouts. Shuddering, Dean hides in his wings, cradling the back of Castiel’s head, hair wet against his palm. Come back to me, please. “You made that promise, not us! You can’t just walk in here—”

“But I did, and I don’t see you stopping me.” Billie kneels at Castiel’s feet, her curls bouncing on her shoulders. “Unless you have something of greater value, you can’t stop me.”

Lightning may as well have struck Dean; the realization sure feels like it, his Grace curdling, scalding hot in his body. Out of every bad idea he’s ever had, this is probably the dumbest, most ill-conceived thought beside selling his soul and carrying a literal bomb in his chest.

This is stupid—and it’s all he has. The only thing worth more than a fallen Angel, and the only thing Billie would have to accept. “Take mine,” Dean rasps, glaring up at Billie with red, wet eyes; his face burns with shame. Billie’s eyebrows lift, considering. “It’s what you’ve wanted, isn’t it? May not be a soul, but it’s Grace, and it’s new. Think of it.” His stomach roils in agony, reality creeping in and cementing itself—Castiel is dead, and he just offered up his life for him. But Castiel is worth more than himself; Castiel fell to embrace his life, and Dean won’t take that away from him. Out of the three of them, Castiel and Sam deserve to live the most.

“It’s new,” Dean swallows, shivering. “We’re abominations, and if the Angels knew we existed, they’d come running to take it back.”

“Either you take it or they will,” Sam joins in, stone-faced and rough. “And the last thing you want is an Angel gunning for you.”

Billie mulls it over, glancing briefly between Castiel and Dean, then to Sam, then back to Dean. The silence she creates only irritates Dean’s remaining nerves, his heart threatening to flatline. “Oh my god, say something,” he yells, startling both Sam and Billie and scaring a crow on the roof.

“No dice,” Billie decides. She stands and brushes off her pants, afterwards reaching for a watch in her pocket. “You should know better, Dean. It’s both, or none.”

Sam doesn’t hesitate. “Then mine too.” That gets Billie’s attention, her eyes narrowing in a moonbeam. “You take our Grace, and bring Cas back.”

“Only one of you has a soul,” Billie admits, mildly astonished. Dean just lowers his head, tears spilling free to land on Castiel’s shoulder. “You’ll survive,” she says to Sam, “But Dean—”

“I don’t care,” Dean hisses. “Bring him back, or you won’t win whatever bet you and your buddies have.”

“You’re even more moronic than I thought,” Billie huffs. “You’d be willing to throw away your life for one man? Does this… thing,” she waves her hand at Castiel, “mean that much to you?”

Always, Dean thinks, his grip on Castiel tightening. I love him too much to let him go.

He lack of answer is enough for her. “Billie,” Sam says, his voice distant, but suddenly terrified. Dean’s heart stops before he hears anything else, though. The rest of the warehouse falls silent, Sam shouting wordlessly at Billie while Billie dangles a pocket watch from her fingers, the lid snapping open. A black hole, filled with nothing but night.

All Dean feels, looking at it, is cold, and black, and then nothing. All memory ceases, all touch dies, and the very world around him collapses into a void. Emotionless. Empty. Dead.

This is death, he thinks, just before his vision blackens, and for a split second, he relishes in it, lets it drag him down into his basics, into nothing. Never once has death felt so warm.

-+-+-+-

Castiel awakes to his own screams and a distinct wetness between his fingers, and snow beginning to fall through the corrugated ceiling, tickling his nose. A voice—Sam, probably, from what he can tell—calls his name and shakes his shoulders, the rest of his words muffled, indistinguishable. Snow falls intermittently, dusting Castiel’s shoes with the breeze and freezing his ears.

Cold—he’s cold, and not in the way he was before, surrounded by nothing but time and space and existence itself. Now, it’s snowing, and his fingers tremble in a puddle. Chills: from exhaustion, from the aftermath, he can’t tell. Regardless, Sam drags himself across the floor—warehouse, yes, that’s where he is—and tugs Castiel upright, out of the red and into the air.

Red—blood. His heart seizes as he looks down at himself, at the blood-soaked hole in his shirt and the unmarred skin beneath, chest no longer gaping. “I died,” Castiel says, bewildered, turning to Sam.

Sam shakes him involuntarily, laughing hysterically to himself. “Not anymore,” he says, throat scorched. He looks… different, though. Livelier eyes, more color to his skin, his smile sincere. “Cas—”

“Human,” Castiel suggests. Sam nods, swallowing. “You’re human, but how—”

His answer comes from the body strewn at his side, unmoving and barely breathing, soaked in blood not his own. Dean. “Cas, you gotta understand,” Sam says as his back, but all Castiel can hear is his own heart in his ears. “He did it for you—”

“Who did he make a deal with?” Castiel growls.

“Deal?” Sam balks. “No, no, Cas.” Castiel recoils under his hand, but turns with a scowl. Out of all the stupid, idiotic things Dean has ever done, never once did Castiel suspect him to make a deal with someone. “Billie came to reap you, and we both… She made us an offer. It was either we give up our Grace or you stay dead. And both of us…” He hangs his head, and Castiel almost feels sorry for him. “We couldn’t leave you there. We wouldn’t let you die again.”

Dean wouldn’t, lingers in the air.

Castiel lets out a long, slow breath through his nose. “Was it Dean’s idea?” he asks. Sam nods, wary, releasing Castiel’s shoulders and placing his hands in his lap. “And you let him die?”

Sam shakes his head. “He’s not dead. Trust me, I tried to wake him up. He’s breathing, but he’s just not…”

“There,” Castiel finishes. So it is possible—after all of that, after watching Dean grow back into himself, he really did have a soul, after all. “I could kill him,” Castiel huffs, resting a hand over Dean’s heart; it beats terrifyingly slow against his palm, almost nonexistent. Alive, but not quite.

“You can tell him how stupid he is when he wakes up,” Sam sighs, defeated. He stands with a grunt, like the weight of his bones are suddenly too much for him. “I’m fine too, by the way.”

Castiel doesn’t laugh, just lowers his eyes. As much Dean matters to him, Sam does too, and Sam is alive and talking. How selfish. “I’m sorry—”

“It’s fine.” Sam waves him off, but he still smiles, softer now, forgiving. All Castiel wants is his acceptance.

Across the warehouse, Castiel spots the outline of Af’s wings imprinted into the floor, the golden Angel blade lying in the middle of a mess of ash and feathers. So they did kill him—the two of them killed a Seraphim, and escaped unharmed. Through the horror, Castiel can’t help but feel proud of them.

“What about the girl?” Castiel asks, looking up.

Sam chuckles, toeing the floor. “Were you listening when we parked?”

Admittedly, Castiel hadn’t been. Concentrating on his apparently imminent demise seemed more preferable at the time. “Did she escape?”

“Police blotter said they found her running home just before we showed up,” Sam says. “Most likely, Af was heading out to find her.”

Smart girl. Castiel looks over to Dean’s body and clenches his fist atop his shirt, fabric bunching between his fingers. “Your brother is the stupidest man I’ve ever met,” Castiel admits, jaw tightening. But I love him, and all his faults.

“Better him be stupid than dead,” Sam admits. “Help me?”

It’s not the first time Castiel has carried Dean in his arms—but hopefully, amidst the falling snow, this will be his last.

Chapter Text

Ten days,’ Castiel writes atop a notepad, Lawrence Memorial Hospital stamped at the top. Ten days since Dean fell asleep, and ten days since Sam dragged Castiel to the front seat of the Chevelle, half-alive but thriving, unexplainably guilty. Not the best look. Beside the bed, the heart monitor hums, green lines pulsing on the screen, unfamiliar numbers displayed alongside graphs and charts.

Everything looks normal, Castiel thinks from his chair, a pajama-clad leg crossed over the other, toes wiggling in the air. In fact, if Dean weren’t connected to an IV or dressed in a hospital robe, Castiel would think he’s okay, just resting. But he’s not, nowhere close. What Dean is experiencing is as close as someone can get to regrowing a limb, or even half of a body.

Billie, Sam had explained in the car, ripped Dean’s Grace from his body, and irreparably damaged whatever soul he had. Dean may be alive, but he may never wake up again—and if he does, he won’t be the same.

“No one has ever survived this,” Castiel told Sam three days after Dean’s admission to the hospital, head in his hands, stomach queasy. “I don’t know what to…”

“He’ll be fine,” Sam assured, a brittle promise Castiel wishes were even remotely true. “He’s been through worse. It’ll take a while, but he’ll be fine.”

But Castiel just shook his head and wrapped his arms tight around himself, fighting the urge to vomit, or faint. Neither sounded pleasant. “I don’t want his life if it means he can’t share it with me.”

The doctors can’t find anything wrong Dean, no matter how many tests they run or machines they put him through. “His brain function is normal,” Dr. Leary told both he and Sam the day after. Even the doctor sounded despondent, not at all a pleasant sign. “All of his vitals show that he’s perfectly fine, but he—”

“Just won’t wake up,” Sam finished for him, just as distraught.

Dr. Leary nodded with a sigh. “The most we can do is wait. He’ll wake up when he’s strong enough, but for now, let him rest.”

But that was last week, when Castiel still had hope that Dean would pull through. Sam left for Lebanon earlier in the morning to pick up fresh clothes and a boombox, with the hopes that music might draw Dean out of his stupor. Castiel offered to stay; someone needs to watch him, just in case he does wake up. At least then, he’d have someone there.

Ten days, and I’ve tried everything,’ Castiel writes, slow, methodical. This, he can concentrate on. Not Dean’s rhythmic, slow breaths, not the heart monitors and the cars driving past outside the window, not the air conditioning units buzzing on the roof. This, writing, moving. ‘I talked to him when Sam was sleeping. I held his hand when Sam was here. I prayed in the chapel, I prayed with his hand in mine.’

He swallows, closes his eyes. ‘I kissed him. Every morning, every evening, every chance I could, I kissed him, just to see if he would wake, but nothing. I’m starting to think when Billie took his Grace, she took the rest of him with it.’

It would make sense; without a soul, Dean lacks motivation. With a demonic soul, he at least could function, despite destroying everything he touched. “You think you’re broken,” Castiel breathes, setting his notepad and pen on the lone table in the corner. Dean doesn’t answer, just breathes. “That this is your curse, the weight you bear…” Standing, Castiel pushes up off his knees. “You think you’re so damaged, that you’re worth less than the soil, than the air you breathe.

“And you might very well be.” With quiet steps, Castiel crosses the hospital room to stand at Dean’s bedside, looking over Dean’s sleeping face. Gently, he brushes his fingers over Dean’s cheek, resting them against his temple. “You’re broken, and you always have been. You’re not wrong. But it’s not of your own doing. You were… pressured. By your father, your family, by creatures and Angels and Demons… You took it personally, because you care. And your own heart broke you, in the end.

“But that doesn’t mean it has to.” Castiel clutches Dean’s fingers within his own, bringing them to his lips. “For all your faults, you’re strong. You may not think you are, but you’re worth your weight in gold. You’re worth your heart. You’re worth your brother’s.” A kiss; Castiel closes his eyes. “You’re worth mine, no matter how little you think of it.”

Quiet. The heart monitor blips, another air conditioner roars to life. “You told me you loved me,” Castiel rumbles, swallowing around the lump in his throat. “And even if you never wake up, I never see your eyes, hear your voice… I’ll love you, and when you die, I’ll follow, however long it takes. I’ll wear your ring until the day I no longer breathe, when I’m laid into the earth.

“The Angels could come back for me,” Castiel whispers, teary. “They could offer me salvation, they could give me my wings back, but I wouldn’t take them. I gave myself for this life, and if it means I have to suffer, if I have to take you home and watch you waste away, if I have to bury you with my own hands, then I’ll take it. Because this last decade with you has been the most memorable, because you were there.” He kisses Dean’s fingertips and weeps, clutching him tight. “I just want you here. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”

“You’re suicidal,” Dean moans; Castiel chokes on a whine. There, rubbing sleep from his eyes, Dean lays, his body suddenly warm, fingers coming to life.

“I’m dreaming,” Castiel sobs, and Dean shakes his head. “I could punch you.”

“Good place to do it,” Dean says, a faint grin forming at the corner of his lips. “You talk a lot.”

Intentionally, Castiel digs his fingers into Dean’s hand. “You listened to me, this whole time?”

“I was… somewhere,” Dean says, like it’s a suitable answer to why Castiel has cried himself to sleep at Dean’s side for the last two weeks. “I tried to come back, but I had to figure some things out first. Least, that’s what the loudspeaker said.”

Castiel groans; with his foot, he drags over a rolling chair, seating himself and propping his elbows on the side of the bed. “You were in Limbo?” Dean nods. “But you heard me.”

Another nod. “I love you,” Dean says, words rough from disuse, but real. Castiel’s heart swells. “I’ve loved you for—”

Castiel kisses him before he can go on, his body fueled by those three words, and those alone. Dean doesn’t fight back and just holds on, clutching Castiel’s face between kisses, panting obscenities between their lips. At least, until he hisses. “Stop, stop,” Dean grunts, shoving him with one arm. “Cas, stop—”

Castiel balks. “You can’t be serious—”

“You’re kneeing my IV, dude.”

That, out of everything that has happened over the last few weeks, months, years—that alone is what makes Castiel laugh, too absurd. He almost ripped out Dean’s IV in a hospital bed, in the middle of Lawrence, Kansas, and he can’t stop laughing, not even when Dean pets through his hair or kisses his nose. “Cas…”

“I love you too,” Castiel repeats, joyous.

This kiss, unlike all of the others, is gentle, tainted with a promise that Castiel intends to keep. A promise he’ll carry to his grave. They still have a few dozen years left in them, even more if they retire, They could leave Lebanon, live in a suburb for God’s sakes. Sam can find someone to love, and they can live next door to each other, spend holidays in each other’s backyards, live in solitude and not worry about the world at their backs. There are other hunters. They can take the workload, bring about a new generation to raise hell.

It’s a fantasy, but with every fiber of his being—his humanity—Castiel wants it to come to fruition. And as long as Dean is there, maybe, just maybe, it can be a reality.

This kiss is to a new beginning—this kiss is coming home, for the last time.