Dean asked Castiel once if he could point to the last straw… the tipping point that pushed him off the edge. The final blasphemy that made him fall. Castiel looked up from cleaning a semiautomatic handgun and frowned. “Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?”
Castiel made a noise, half-dismissive and half-disappointment, and went back to cleaning his weapon.
Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…
Castiel wasn’t in Detroit to stop Sam from saying yes to Lucifer. He wasn’t even with Dean, though forever after he wished he had been. If not with him the moment it happened, then at least there when Dean found out his brother was gone. If ever Dean needed the presence of a guardian angel, it was at that crushing moment of truth.
But Castiel was barely an angel anymore, and he’d never been designated a guardian one. That title he gave himself, chained it to Dean’s name in yet another act of self-determination. From soldier to protector. Only one other time in history had an angel been something he had not been made to be.
Castiel preferred not to give much thought to how he was like the Morning Star.
Castiel was still angel enough to know the second Lucifer took possession of his true vessel. It rocked through Heaven, a quake that plucked the very strings of the universe. He didn’t go to Dean that very instant, and that was his failing, too. Too human to stop Sam from saying yes, too angel to be the friend Dean needed in his darkest hour.
Time, to an angel, was a river system… fast and roaring some places, slow and trickling in others. Castiel was in a waterfall of seconds, a cascade of years, when Dean called for him. It took that human prayer to drag Castiel’s essence into human-time… where it had been nearly a day since Sam was lost to them.
Castiel went to Dean, as he always did. He didn’t let himself examine how what began as a command from God transformed into free choice and then morphed back to instinctive again. Only that it did, and Dean’s prayers were impossible to ignore, but buoyed by a different name behind the power compelling him.
That should have been a warning, but Castiel made a choice he’d made several times already… he chose not to see.
So he went to Dean. He found the man inebriated in a poorly-maintained motel in Nebraska. Dean knew about Sam. Castiel never asked how he found out. Maybe Dean felt the jolt of losing his brother resonate in his very soul. Castiel had spent enough time around the Winchesters to believe in that.
The second Castiel appeared in front of Dean, the hunter hauled back and punched Castiel in the face.
The strike didn’t touch Castiel. He registered a touch against his vessel’s skin, contact with the physical world he’d grown far too comfortable navigating, but nothing painful. Nothing that came near his grace.
Three bones in Dean’s hand broke and the skin across his knuckles broke open and began to bleed.
Dean staggered and would have fallen if Castiel had not caught him and gently lowered him to the ground. Dean was staring down at his broken hand, sucking in deep breaths that sounded like flesh dragged over dull blades. Dean’s flesh over dull blades, because Castiel had been to Hell to save Dean – he remembered the sound.
“Why weren’t you there, Cas?” Dean growled thickly. “Why didn’t you stop him?”
Castiel flinched back. “I…” And he had no answer. He would wonder, later, if he’d been more angel if he could have. If this sink toward Dean had doomed Sam.
“Oh, God, Sam,” Dean choked, swallowing a knot of pain and sadness and anger so enormous it could have blotted out the sun. The agony engulfing Dean’s soul registered in Castiel’s grace, and it hit him where Dean’s fist had failed to.
Castiel felt far too human shame that he’d failed Sam. “Give me your hand,” he said softly. That, at least, he could fix. He had always been out of sync with Sam Winchester (to the younger brother’s demise, it turned out), but his orbit around Dean had always been tight and true. He couldn’t fix Sam, but he could fix Dean.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” Dean snarled, then his voice broke, “why weren’t we there to stop him?”
Castiel stared. The blame had shifted from Castiel alone to the pair of them, as if the natural order of the universe stated Dean and Castiel should be side-by-side. That, together, they were the guardians of Sam Winchester.
When Dean spoke it, Castiel became it. In that instant, he imagined no place other than at Dean Winchester’s side. The uncertainty about his purpose that had been plaguing him, the doubts about the reason for his existence, shifted and slotted into place. The fit wasn’t precise, but it was enough to stop the frantic slide over creation looking for belonging. The universal constant Dean named seemed right, and Castiel embraced it… his grip on Heaven’s role for him had been slipping for years. Suddenly, Dean gave him this, something ugly and base but tangible, and Castiel took hold of it with all his might.
Dean winced when Castiel held his broken hand too tight.
“I’m sorry,” Castiel muttered as he loosened his grip. He hoped Dean understood he apologized for more than just his hand.
Dean only sniffled while Castiel healed his flesh. If only the world would mend so easily.
The first outbreak of the Croatoan virus happened in a small town in Texas. Castiel would have expected Lucifer to start big, laying into a sprawling metropolis like New York City or Chicago. In time, he saw the brilliance in picking Rising Star (the irony in the name of the town he chose was not lost on Castiel). The medical facilities in Rising Star were quickly overwhelmed by the contagion. Infected escaped unchecked to spread the sickness, local law enforcement too little to stem the tide. The stricken town was so small that their strange medical trouble was not immediately reported on the national level. By the time humanity realized the severity of Croatoan, it was too late. Rising Star was merely the first, not the last.
Dean watched the news reports and said nothing. The rest of the world wasn’t calling it the Croatoan virus yet, but they would.
After the first reports of infection started coming in from Miami, Dean turned off the television and turned to Castiel. The angel had been a near-constant companion since Dean called him that night. Castiel felt himself very much still bound to Heaven, and yet a tether of an entirely different nature tied him to this mortal plane. It was like staring so long into a painting that he willed himself into it. Castiel met Dean’s gaze and ignored the brushstrokes of the world around him.
“We need to get to Bobby… the shit has hit the fan.”
And again, Dean talked like it was an identity that was Castiel’s to own… a fighter to stand between the darkness and mankind. A hunter. Castiel had never thought he would fit the mold, but Dean had a place beside him already form-fitted to the identity. If Castiel could fold his immense angelic energy into the body of Jimmy Novak, he could stand in the Sam-shaped shadow beside Dean.
“The end is nigh,” Castiel concurred as he stood to go out to the car, climb inside its ponderous machinations and combustive innards, and accompany this human on a days-long journey over the land that would take Castiel the time it took to think it.
He did consider, for only a moment, taking Dean to Bobby’s by angel wing. But like a muscle unused for too long, Castiel found flight was becoming taxing. Not when he went alone, but when he took Dean with him. The last close call he’d had to snatch Dean from had left the angel winded and sore. He dared not drain himself without good reason; he never knew when he might need to call on his strength to rescue Dean.
Of course, Castiel could be at Bobby’s in less than a human heartbeat. But Castiel would rather stay with Dean, keep watch over him, and if that meant travel in a car over roads, he was amenable to that. Vehicular travel was not as odious to him as it used to be.
Castiel wouldn’t admit to himself he was becoming acculturated.
The only response to his words that Castiel received was a twisted, bitter smile on Dean’s lips. It was, strictly speaking, not much different from a real smile. The same muscles came into play, the same creases formed to frame his mouth. But Castiel knew the glory of Dean’s true smile… the curl of Dean’s lips now did not make him beautiful.
Dean had not been beautiful since Sam was lost.
The longer Castiel stayed away from Heaven, the harder it was to tap into his Heavenly gifts.
To save his energy for emergencies, Castiel learned to use human tools of supernatural warfare. Salt, iron, knives, guns… they were foreign to his hands at first, but then, so were his hands. When Dean set to teaching Castiel how to fight like a human, he was surprised at how quickly Castiel picked it up and, in short order, excelled at everything Dean could throw at him.
Dean looked equal parts amazed and suspicious… it was a hunter’s nature when faced with the incredible.
Castiel field-stripped a Beretta by feel and said simply, “I’ve been a warrior longer than humankind has existed, Dean.” Sleeping and eating might not be innate to him, but combat was.
And perhaps he could have done more as an angel. If he left Dean’s side and returned to what he truly was, embraced what he had always been, he could have saved a lot of people. But every mile closer to Heaven was a mile farther from Dean. Castiel quietly made the choice to stay. He never pretended it was the right decision, but it was the human decision.
He didn’t call it that, of course, for a long time. Denial was a talent he’d picked up as quickly as he had making salt rounds.
Dean never challenged Castiel staying. By the look in his eyes, Castiel could tell he wanted to sometimes. Dean knew Castiel was a greater weapon than rock salt and iron, but only when Castiel was closer to angel and much less human. Castiel was only truly powerful when he was gone.
So Dean never said anything to convince Castiel to leave. The angel took that to mean Dean needed him. Dean was human… he needed comfort that he could touch. Castiel had to be within arm’s reach to be a balm.
Castiel never really understood that his decision to stay was selfish, because it would require understanding he had a ‘self’ to serve. All he saw in his choice was Dean’s benefit. Castiel wasn’t created to want for himself… only to follow orders. Castiel told himself he acted on God’s decree that Dean be saved. It was willful ignorance that Castiel never acknowledged that what he’d really done was replace the figure who was giving him orders. It was cleaner and simpler not to question.
And Dean was a presence Castiel could actually reach out and touch. A growing human part of him valued that above any higher power that was forever out of reach.
Camp Chitaqua was an old rally point several of the older hunters had designated long ago. ‘Us old farts’, as Bobby had dubbed them. From what Castiel could discern, as with many things human, generational divides split the population into groups. Hunters, ever the pessimistic bunch, had imagined the end of the world decades before Dean was risen from Hell. When Bobby suggested they head that way, Dean took it on faith and went. So Castiel did, too.
They weren’t the first ones there… something Castiel didn’t realize until he walked through a tripwire set by an industrious hunter. The grenade that blew up inches from his shoulder, perched in a branch like some deadly sparrow, honestly surprised Castiel. He felt more startled than anything when the concussive wave slammed into him at deadly range.
“Cas!” Dean raced forward at the explosion… he’d been farther down the path manhandling Bobby’s wheelchair up the trail.
Castiel turned quickly and held out a hand to stop Dean from coming closer. “Stay back, there are traps…” but he didn’t get more out before he looked down at the hand he held up. It was covered in blood.
Dean saw it too. His eyes widened and his face went pale. “Fuck, Cas… what the hell?”
“I don’t…” Castiel began, then he lost his grip on the earth beneath his feet. At first, he blamed the earth. The planet must have shaken him loose. He didn’t understand he was falling until Dean leapt forward and caught him. A bright, burning sensation bit into Castiel with invisible jaws, and he yelped in surprise. Pain. He was in human pain.
“Cas! Shit, you’re bleeding everywhere,” Dean hissed. Castiel blinked up at him in wonder. There was panic in his voice. Honest, naked panic. Dean had not been so moved to anything besides anger since Sam.
“Can’t you heal this?!” Dean snapped.
Castiel finally looked down at himself. His legs were sprawled on the forest floor, and he could see them, but he couldn’t feel them. He wondered if that’s how Bobby felt. It was Castiel’s torso that was really uncomfortable. The trench coat was blown to hell on the left side, as were the jacket and clean white shirt underneath. Blanketing it all, coating his side in wet warmth, was blood. His blood. He hadn’t given himself leave to bleed, yet there it was. He watched it leak out of him, fascinated.
“Cas!” Dean barked.
“I… just a minute,” Castiel replied. Then he concentrated. He reached out for his grace… how had it gotten so far away? He dragged a piece of it down and smoothed it over his vessel’s body from the inside-out. As the grace touched rent flesh, it healed. Tears closed, veins mended, bones knitted back together. It took longer than it should have. It took more out of him than it should have. But soon enough, he was whole again. Except his clothes had not been repaired with his vessel. He frowned at that, puzzled and annoyed.
In the next instant, Dean’s hand dove into the holes in Castiel’s clothes, palm sliding over unbroken skin. “Oh, thank god…”
Castiel found that amusing. He wanted to tell Dean so, because so rarely did Dean say something that wasn’t just as much perplexing as it was entertaining, but Castiel felt odd. Like when his grace retreated to its safe distance from earth, something human in Castiel got dragged back with it. He felt disconnected, far away from his vessel but not one with his grace, either. He felt distressingly stuck in some place between the two, neither human nor angel. Powerless.
In the next second, they were staring up at the hunter who had set the booby trap. He stared back at them down the barrel of a rifle.
Then Castiel lost contact with the world. His grace wouldn’t have him and he couldn’t find his human vessel.
Oddly, it was the first true peace he’d known in his entire existence.
When Castiel woke, he found himself in a small log cabin, laid out on a bed that smelled of mothballs. He stared up at the ceiling for a long time, just sensing. He could feel his grace, always at the end of that ethereal rope. He could feel his body, restored after it was damaged by the grenade, but the outer layers didn’t feel right. He lifted his head to look down at himself and realized why… he wasn’t wearing Jimmy’s clothes. By the looks of them, they were Dean’s. Jeans far too loose around his narrow hips and a green shirt that felt wrong yet right covering his skin (the essence of Dean felt embedded in the fabric, a ghost of his soul left behind like a scent).
Castiel sat up, clutching the bed when the world threatened to dump him again, then looked around the room. It looked anonymous… unclaimed and expectant. Or dead. The only furniture was the bunk-like bed, a card-table, and two folding metal chairs (folded up and leaning against the far wall). It was no one’s home.
What troubled Castiel, however, was that he didn’t see Dean. The last thing he remembered was a man pointing a gun at the both of them.
Castiel pushed himself to his feet and looked down quickly when a rough feeling met the bottom of his feet. He was barefoot. Castiel had never seen his feet before. He wiggled his toes experimentally. It was no doubt blasphemous how the cold wood floor on the soles of his feet reminded him of the wind against his wings. Naked and stark and somehow exhilarating.
Castiel moved around the cabin, but there weren’t many places to hide, and Dean remained nowhere in sight. Determined to track him down, Castiel went to the door and opened it.
It was night outside, and Castiel could see that his cabin was one of several in the camp. He didn’t get to examine much beyond that because movement on the steps caught Castiel’s eye. It was Dean, sitting silent and brooding sentry in front of Castiel’s door. When he heard it open, Dean turned instantly to look toward Castiel. His eyes were shadowed and feral… angry. Castiel didn’t know why.
Dean was up and moving toward him in a second. “Back inside,” he growled.
Castiel had questions, but they could be answered indoors just as well as out. He complied, retreating back into the room with Dean close behind. Dean closed the door, threw the bolt to lock it, and rounded on Castiel. Castiel stepped back, startled by the fire in Dean’s eyes.
“You scared the shit out of me,” Dean said lowly. He was furious.
“How did I do that?”
Dean advanced on Castiel, and it should have made Castiel ask questions of himself that he backed away in tandem. “Are you fucking kidding me? You don’t remember getting your side blown to hell out there?”
“And you blame me for that?” Castiel asked incredulously. “I’m not the one who set the trap that injured me.”
Dean took a step forward. Castiel took a step back and his back hit a wall. Dean crowded into his personal space, that space that Dean had always chided Castiel for invading time and again. Apparently it was okay if Dean was the one doing it. “You’re not supposed to get injured! I’ve seen you take bullets like god damn Superman without them even raising a welt. This isn’t supposed to happen to you. You’re not supposed to bleed!” Dean loomed even closer. Castiel pressed back against the wall, stunned. His brothers and sisters always called humans animals, but Castiel had never really seen that. Now he did. There was something bestial in Dean, and it was threatening to devour Castiel.
Before he could mount a protest, Dean grabbed the hem of Castiel’s shirt and yanked it up over his head. Castiel didn’t resist. Dean’s hands were suddenly on his body, warm and pressing solid against his ribs. The touch ignited an echo of the pain from before, and he hissed.
Dean’s gaze flared. “You’re not suppose to die,” Dean growled, like it was Castiel’s intent to do just that just to inconvenience Dean Winchester. He looked down at where Dean was touching him and saw bruises, dark and ugly against the color of Dean’s hands. And he saw his chest for the first time; he’d never really thought about the skin beneath the suit and trench coat. It had always seemed too wholly Jimmy’s… before.
Dean ran his hands over Castiel’s battered body, pushing at him too hard. Castiel winced again. “You’re hurting me.”
Without warning, Dean’s mouth covered Castiel’s. Shocked, Castiel opened his mouth to speak… instead, Dean’s tongue forced its way inside. The hunter moved in closer, until Castiel could feel the fabric of his clothes pressing against his bare skin. Dean was everywhere, engulfing the universe and consuming Castiel’s senses… the angel had never felt so subservient to a power greater than himself.
Dean was kissing him hard, just as much teeth as tongue, and Castiel struggled. Or he thought he did. It wasn’t really fighting the way his hands ended up fisting in Dean’s hair. It wasn’t exactly resistance that made him yank Dean in closer while his body arched up into Dean’s as if of its own free will.
Dean’s grip on his waist took on a punishing severity, and Castiel whimpered into Dean’s mouth from the pain. He started to push at Dean’s shoulders, but all he accomplished was ridding Dean of his top shirt. An insanity took him where he needed to feel Dean’s skin with his, chest to chest. He clawed at Dean’s shirt, insistent and urgent but not even coherent enough to tell Dean what he wanted. Dean finally let go of Castiel’s sides to strip the shirt off and throw it to the floor.
Castiel seized the moment free from assault to swoop in and taste. He tried the skin of Dean’s shoulder with lips, then tongue, then teeth. Each offered a new layer of texture. Castiel had thought he knew Dean inside and out, but he’d never known this. Understanding the stitching of Dean’s soul was so remarkably different from knowing the taste of his sweat.
He could have sampled Dean’s skin all night, but Dean blew that plan to hell when he pushed into Castiel, rocked his body against the angel’s, and Castiel was blind-sided by the jolt that shot through his human frame. It was like holy fire licking up his nervous system. His grace felt so very, very far away as he threw an arm around Dean’s shoulders to hold himself up while he took stock of what had happened. Dean was grinding against him, his pelvis thrusting into Castiel’s, and Castiel could feel the hardness of Dean inside his jeans. That was unexpected but not unknown… Castiel had observed humanity for millennia. He understood the mechanics of sex. What shocked the breath out of him was the tight straining inside his own pants that reacted to touch like a live wire. He shouldn’t be able to experience this… it was so human.
Dean rocked their hips together again, hungry and primitive, and Castiel trembled and his hips bucked against Dean without his consent. He panted in Dean’s ear, still clinging to him with one arm, and whispered raggedly, “Dean… Dean…” This was more than he could handle. Angels weren’t meant to do this. He was afraid he might fly apart.
Dean pulled back just enough to look at Castiel, and Castiel hated how desperate and panicked and lost he knew he had to look. Dean just looked vindictive and smug. Then he was unzipping Castiel’s jeans. Castiel was already shaking when Dean reached inside and wrapped his calloused fingers around Castiel’s dick.
Castiel cried out and threw himself at Dean, into his fist and against his chest and hung from his shoulders, and he desperately needed Dean to stop… but he needed him to not just as badly.
While Dean rutted against Castiel, his hand stroked the angel hard and fast. Castiel thrust into his hand in broken rhythm, novice and needy and out of his mind. He didn’t even… he couldn’t even… he was going to…
It felt like the moment before his grace blew out a vessel was building hot and fast at the base of his spinal cord. He choked on a mangled protest and tried to push Dean away… he couldn’t be here when that happened. The hunter would be hurt.
Dean refused to leave. He pinned Castiel to the wall with his body, more sturdy and solid than the hunter had ever before seemed capable of being. His free hand snaked between their rocking bodies, made practiced work of his fly, and Dean pulled himself out and started to jack himself off in time with the hand he had on Castiel.
The explosion was building, pressing at the limits of Castiel’s skin. He was on the jagged edge of critical mass. And Dean was still jerking him hard, pushing him closer to detonation with the slide of skin on skin.
Castiel couldn’t stop the piston of his hips into Dean’s hand, that was beyond his control, but he threw his head back against the wall and gripped Dean’s shoulders so tight he was sure to leave bruises. He tried to shove Dean out of the way, out of danger, but his angelic strength was failing him.
“Dean, I… I’m… I’m going to…” Castiel tried to warn him, tried to save him.
Dean grunted and leaned in to bite his throat. “That’s it… come, Cas.”
That really wasn’t what was about to happen. Except that’s exactly what did. The bomb went off, Castiel let out a hoarse cry, but instead of burning Dean to ashes he was coming all over his hand. The slick spurts of white made a mess of the nonexistent space between their bodies, but Dean was safe. The relief that Castiel hadn’t hurt Dean was so overwhelming that he almost collapsed. He needed something better to hold on to than slippery sweat-shiny skin, so he dropped his hands to Dean’s jeans, fisted his hands in the denim, and held Dean tight to him.
Dean groaned and threw himself into getting off. He put his weight against Castiel, became more hip motion than hand motion, and it wasn’t long before he was muffling a choked sound against Castiel’s neck and new pulses of wet heat smeared across Castiel’s stomach. Castiel held on like the world depended on it.
It ended almost as suddenly as it began. As they sagged against each other, panting and sweaty and spent, Castiel tried to fathom that only minutes ago, they’d been out on the front steps. Was being human like this? Flashpoints of experience and sensation so overpowering that the universe seemed inadequate to contain it? How did human beings function like that?
Deep inside him, Castiel felt the link connecting him to Heaven shaking with the strain of bridging such vast distances.
When Dean slowly collected himself and stepped back, untangling the sticky mess of his hands from both their pants, Castiel tried to catch his eye to get a reading of his thoughts. He had no measure for a situation like this… he needed guidance.
When Castiel did finally catch a glimpse of Dean’s expression, he could swear the hunter looked sort of disappointed that Castiel hadn’t destroyed him.
Who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name…
The next time Castiel saw Dean, he was doing an inventory of food supplies at the camp. He looked up when Castiel approached, and if there was any sign of the intimacy they’d shared, Castiel couldn’t find it. He was confused by that. He was also hurt. And angry. Angels had no way to deal with the complications Dean had thrust on him, and now he would leave Castiel to figure it out on his own. When it was his fault. Dean had no right to make him feel like that.
But he did, and Castiel let him.
Dean gave a grumpy noise in reply but didn’t stop finger-counting cans of baked beans.
Castiel looked around the seemingly empty campgrounds. “Where’s Bobby?”
“Setting up a communication center… old HAM radio stuff. I thought maybe we could get in touch with Chuck. He might have some idea what we can do.”
Castiel wondered if Dean actually expected the prophet to be helpful… lately, it was hard to know with Dean how much he really cared about the fight and how much he was just going through the motions. A human part of Dean died with his brother.
Castiel remembered something. “Where is the man?”
“When I was injured… the last thing I remember was a man with a gun.”
Dean froze. He turned his eyes up to Castiel slowly. The look behind them was cold. “He was a hunter, and he saw you take a grenade blast without any permanent scratches. He knew you weren’t human. He would have killed you.”
Chilling understanding sank in. He stared openly at Dean, equal parts horrified and saddened. “You could have explained what I am…”
“You don’t know if he even could have killed me.”
Dean’s jaw clenched. “You were bleeding out for a second there… I wasn’t willing to take the chance.”
Castiel felt his grace ringing in the vast cosmos, crying for his closeness. Castiel wanted to take the rope and climb to it, buffer himself from this world and the harsh reality of Dean Winchester with its power. He wanted to escape the gritty, dirty, raw emotion that filled every living breath on earth.
But he couldn’t abandon Dean. Dean, who had killed a man to protect an angel.
“Dean… that man was innocent. Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Castiel felt terror… fear for the fate of Dean’s eternal soul. The soul Castiel had carried up from the pits, the soul he’d patched together with infinite care. The soul he’d branded and by all rights treasured.
The look in Dean’s eyes when he met Castiel’s gaze was easy to read. ‘I don’t care.’
Castiel was speechless. Doubts and fears and questions and rage filled him to the brim, so much so fast he felt his hands shaking. He wanted to lash out. It was a disturbing feeling, like so many that had been assailing him lately. He wished there was a way he could hide away from everything without actually having to leave Dean. Because that he would not do.
Others started to find their way to Camp Chitaqua. Because they were the first, Dean and Castiel were assumed to be the leaders. No one was ever told any different. Castiel was not a leader, he was a soldier. He had no compunction to take up the mantle of fearless leader of the vagabond group of hunters and survivors that trickled into camp. Dean was the one who took that burden upon himself, because he couldn’t help looking out for others. That wouldn’t end until Dean did.
He was dutiful, vigilant, but he wasn’t passionate. It was nothing like how he took care of Sam. That had ended when Sam did.
Castiel watched after Dean as best he could, but Dean was hard to tend. He didn’t want anyone taking care of him… not even Castiel. The more they learned about Lucifer’s actions beyond the campgrounds, the more remote he became. Castiel thought Dean felt responsible somehow because the Devil was wearing his brother. It was nonsensical, but he accepted that maybe it was human.
Castiel was adapting to life at the camp. So well, in fact, that newcomers never suspected he was an angel.
Castiel came upon Dean once in the woods just outside the campgrounds, eyes lifted skyward. It looked like prayer, which made Castiel stop and watch in wonder.
It wasn’t an appeal to God that fell from Dean’s lips.
“Do you hear me, Michael? Yes.”
Castiel’s heart missed a beat and he held his breath.
Michael never came. Castiel wasn’t sorry.
For some time, Castiel suspected there was something wrong with the other angels. His link to them felt fragile… like it might break if he handled it wrong. Fearing that, he hadn’t tried to reach out for it. Like a glass figurine perched on the edge of a wobbly table, he didn’t go near it lest it shatter at the slightest touch. But even when he didn’t try to contact his brothers and sisters, an unsettled feeling took up permanent residence in his gut. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know how to fix it. He took to pacing the campgrounds tirelessly, night and day. He felt like a caged tiger, agitated and testy.
The others learned to stay away from him. Castiel was still an angel… his wrath was something fearsome to behold, and lately it was dangerously close to the surface. The only person brave enough to tempt it was Dean.
Castiel saw Dean every day, watchful to the last, but he went days without talking to him. It wasn’t by Castiel’s choice. Dean did that. He’d see Castiel coming and turn the other way. Castiel hated that. He was hurt by that. It was so fucking telling of how far he’d fallen that he felt either way about it.
So Castiel didn’t expect Dean to ambush him in the middle of the night when he was out pacing the perimeter… since he was up and restless, he might as well patrol.
He was stalking along the fence line when Dean appeared out of the shadows, as if out of nowhere, blocking his path. Castiel drew up short and narrowed his eyes at Dean. The hunter’s entire presence had hardened since their arrival at Chitaqua, so much so that he seemed part stone statue as he stood in Castiel’s way, arms crossed and feet braced apart. His eyes were penetrating in the moonlight.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked gruffly.
Castiel bristled. Dean couldn’t expect openness and honesty after the way he’d been acting around Castiel. “Nothing… leave me alone.” He tried to move past Dean.
“Bullshit.” Dean caught his arm.
Castiel snapped, shoving Dean away harder than he meant to. Sometimes, he felt so near to human that he forgot he had the strength of an angel. “Let go of me!” Dean was knocked off his feet when Castiel pushed him, landing on the ground with a grunt. Castiel stood frozen to the spot. He hadn’t meant to do that.
Dean rose to one knee and looked up at Castiel. That coldness was in his eyes, but beneath that a spark of heat… be it anger or something else that Castiel dare not hope for, he didn’t know.
“Cut the crap, Cas… I know you. Something’s wrong.” Dean got to his feet and stepped closer. “If you know something, you need to tell me. End of the fucking world… not the time to keep secrets.”
Dean really, really didn’t know what kind of sleeping giant he was poking. Castiel had felt like he wanted to beat the living pulp out of something for days, and now here was Dean Winchester… spoiling for a fight. “What do you want from me, Dean? I do everything you ask me to, I’m here doing all I can to help you, and what do I get in return?” Castiel closed his hands into fists. “I’m sorry, is that what you want to hear? I’m sorry I couldn’t save your brother.”
Rage filled Dean’s eyes. They didn’t talk about Sam. It became one of Camp Chitaqua’s commandments. Castiel was tired of living by commandments… God’s and Dean’s.
“Fuck you,” Dean growled darkly. Castiel could feel his anger, vibrating like a chord in the air between them. It clashed midair with the anger pouring off Castiel. “I didn’t ask you to be here. You don’t want to be? Fine. Go. Go back to your angel buddies, I’m sure they miss you.”
Castiel could feel the molten core of the planet beneath his feet, as volatile at the center as he was.
Dean moved to storm past Castiel. Castiel grabbed him by the shoulder, spun him around, grabbed Dean’s face in his hands, and kissed him. Hard.
Dean made a startled, angry noise. He tried to get away for a second, but only at first… in the next second he was grabbing at Castiel with bruising force. Castiel slid his arms around Dean’s back and dug his fingers against muscle, clawing hard enough to make Dean bark in protest. Then Dean was biting down on Castiel’s bottom lip in retaliation. Castiel was surprised to taste blood.
In no time, they were both pulling and yanking at clothes, trying to peel away the layers of one another and fighting their own reveal at the other’s hands at the same time. A surge of adrenaline raced through Castiel, put him in touch vividly for an instant with his grace, and he leapt at the chance to use it. It had been so far for so long that sinking his essence into it again sent a heady rush of power and infinity through him. For a second, he took up the entire sky.
He pressed two fingers to Dean’s forehead and suddenly they were standing in Dean’s cabin.
Dean staggered, looking around in surprise. It had been a long time since Castiel had ‘zapped’ them anywhere.
Then Dean was wrestling Castiel to the bed.
Castiel knew that humans, after sex as rough and vigorous as the kind he’d just had with Dean, normally slept deep and hard. He wished he could sleep. While a savage have to had been cooled within him by lying with Dean (“fucking, Cas,” Dean had snarled into his skin, “this is straight-up fucking”), he was still hanging on that sense of his brothers and sisters on the brink of lost to him. He wanted to go after them. He feared they were going somewhere from where there was no return. He had to pick to go with them or stay with Dean.
He couldn’t imagine his existence without either.
A finger traced a red bite mark on Castiel’s shoulder. “Are you falling?”
Dean whispered it like he’d been thinking it for a while now, but was afraid to speak it aloud… like saying it would make it happen.
Castiel, lying on his side in Dean’s bed, blissfully, humanly naked with the hunter, looked over his shoulder at Dean. Dean was sitting with his back to the wall, legs bent and knees pressing into Castiel’s back. Not that Castiel minded. Dean had his own impressive array of scratches, bites, and bruises… but he was expected to have them. Castiel wasn’t. He was an angel.
Castiel looked down at an impression of Dean’s teeth on his forearm. “Not exactly.”
“Then what?” Dean had never asked before… maybe he’d been scared of looking like he cared. But now, in the dark, without even clothes between them, he was asking.
“Affectation does not negate the nature of my creation.”
Dean’s finger stopped. “What the hell does that mean?”
“It means…” Castiel sighed. “It means even when I bleed like you, and bruise like you, that doesn’t change the fact that I was created of energy and light by God thousands of years ago. Much like you moving to another continent and learning to live like a native wouldn’t change your genes, where you came from, angelhood isn’t cultural.”
“Meaning… I can adopt your customs, but that alone won’t change what I am. It takes something different to make an angel fall.” What that ‘something’ was he didn’t like to think about… it was too terrifying to entertain. Castiel couldn’t comprehend existing as anything other than what he was… what he’d always been. Dean was human and Castiel cherished him, but he didn’t want to be him. “My grace is bound to me, but it is very far away… the tether is stretched thin, but it’s still there.”
Dean drew his hand away. Castiel immediately missed the feeling of connection with another energy. Because souls weren’t so different from grace, discounting intensity and size, and he was filled with aching loneliness for his brothers and sisters.
“Then why is this happening to you?” Dean asked hoarsely. “Why do you bleed now? Why do you fuck? Why do you get moody and knock me around?”
Castiel didn’t know how to answer that.
The bleeding was a matter of distance… he’d gotten so far from his grace, leaving his vessel to revert to human defaults. Those defaults were to bruise, to bleed, to break.
The sex… he’d only ever done it, twice now, with Dean. But he thought he’d like to do it more. When he climaxed, for just a moment it felt like being himself again, full-blown angel and strong enough to twist time and space around his finger. It was a way to be Castiel, angel of the Lord, without leaving Dean behind unguarded. He would like to have sex more often. With Dean, preferably, but if Dean denied him… there were others in camp who’d expressed interest.
As to the moodiness…
“Talk to me, Cas,” Dean ordered, emphasizing the command by shaking Castiel’s shoulder. Not gently… Dean didn’t have gentle in him anymore. Not since Detroit.
Castiel didn’t want to talk. Why was it Dean could refuse to talk but Castiel was ordered to?
He rallied himself to get out of bed and leave. He wished he could go sleep – the ragged survivors in Camp Chitaqua seemed to find such solace and respite in it, like it actually let them forget for a while – but he knew he’d just go back to his endless pacing. Castiel imagined that, if he tried, he could walk the circumference of the Earth.
Dean anticipated him trying to escape and pushed him down to the bed. “Castiel.”
Castiel went still. He couldn’t remember the last time Dean had called him that.
“It’s the angels,” Castiel confided.
Dean’s face darkened. “Are they up to something?”
“They’re getting hard for me to hear. I fea… I think they might be going away.”
For a moment, there was just silence. Then Dean was frowning. “What does that mean?”
“I don’t know!” Castiel said in frustration. “I don’t know what it means, and I don’t know what to do. I just want it to stop for a while. I just want to sleep.”
The confession left them both dumbstruck… Castiel hadn’t meant to admit he longed for that uniquely human experience. But he’d had sex and pain, why not sleep? It offered momentary respite. That’s all Castiel wanted. But he was angel enough that he never could.
He couldn’t imagine what Dean would think of an angel that wanted to sleep. Maybe he saw it as weakness. Dean did think so much in terms of survival these days.
After a tense silence, Dean climbed out of bed. He padded, buck naked and barefoot, over to one of the cabinets in his cabin and dug through the contents. Castiel lay in bed watching him.
Dean came back and handed Castiel a bottle of pills.
“What are these?”
“Tranquilizers,” Dean answered. “Chuck had them on him when he came in, that and then some, but I didn’t trust the moron not to OD and kill himself.” Because of course Dean would even tell others when they could live or die. Castiel snorted condescendingly.
“They should let you sleep,” Dean said at length.
Castiel looked up at Dean, maybe hoping for compassion or some hint of the friendship they’d built over the years. Instead he got the fearless leader, calculating how to take care of his people.
How did the guardian angel become one of Dean’s charges?
Castiel clutched the bottle tighter. If he’d known then what he was about to set in motion, he wasn’t sure it would have stopped him popping his first pill.
Worse, he didn’t know if Dean would have decided not to give them to him if he’d known.
It happened on a Thursday evening, and Castiel would laugh bitterly about that for a long time afterward. Several of them from Camp Chitaqua were a couple of towns over looking for supplies. The Croats in the area were getting pretty thick. So bad, in fact, that Bobby had gone back to Sioux Falls to dig through his massive library for even the vaguest reference to safety in the end of days. Christianity hadn’t availed them (though Castiel had gotten into a heated argument on the matter with a priest who’d ended up at Chitaqua – the priest insisted an Eden on earth existed where they’d be safe, having no idea that he was arguing with a fucking angel), so they were looking beyond Christ and his ilk. Dean felt like it was good riddance to bad rubbish. Castiel didn’t know how to feel about that.
Of course, they’d never see Bobby again. He was about to be killed in his own home… not that Castiel could have done anything to stop it if he knew.
Dean and Castiel had paired up and gone to explore a dilapidated elementary school. Pharmacies were hit or miss – everyone raided them for drugs – but sometimes school nurse stations had basic antibiotics. Every once in a while, some good stuff turned up from schools that had been overseeing the medication of kids with more severe medical or psychological problems. It felt ghoulish to hope for kids with grave conditions, but it was the end of the world… something had to give.
What they didn’t expect to stumble across was children. Two of them, brothers, nine and seven years old. They were backed in a corner of a wrecked classroom. The nine-year-old was standing in front of his little brother, holding a baseball bat at the ready when Dean and Castiel came around the doorway. His eyes were wild, like an animal, but he was going to face down grown Croats to protect his brother.
Dean went rigid beside Castiel. The boys looked nothing like Dean and Sam Winchester, but for a fleeting moment that’s exactly who they were.
Then Dean and Castiel were coaxing the two boys out from their hiding place, promising them they’d be taken somewhere they’d be safe. The older brother seemed leery, but behind that wariness was an aching desire to believe them. He needed his little brother to be safe.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. They were jumped by a couple of Croats on the way back to the exit, roaming the halls like rabid faculty. Dean and Castiel looked at one another, each holding the hand of a child.
Then Dean was pushing his kid toward Castiel. “Get them out of here.”
Castiel hadn’t ‘zapped’ himself anywhere in a long time, much less done it while taking someone else with him. He didn’t even know if he could reach his grace quickly enough. But he looked down at the boys, the older one wrapping his brother in his arms, both of them crying and certain they were about to die, and he knew he had to try.
Castiel knelt, put his arms around the pair of children, and strained for his grace.
He found his wings stiff from disuse. They snapped open at his command, but they felt so weak. Atrophied. He prayed they could carry him and the boys to safety. He prayed he could return to get Dean to safety, too. Once, it would have been so easy… now it felt like he was asking for so much.
“Go, Cas!” Dean yelled as the Croats started to charge. Dean drew his gun from its thigh holster.
Castiel rallied himself, flexed his wings, and thought himself somewhere else. The universe side-slipped, his consciousness displaced out of the human shape he’d come to inhabit so naturally, then he was flying. His wings burned with the strain. The rope that tethered Castiel to his grace stretched taut and quivered, threatening to fray and unravel as Castiel hauled two humans with him. He wondered how flight had become so taxing when it used to be effortless.
He wondered if he’d get the children clear.
When Castiel landed, both boys in his arms, he was only feet away from the Chitaqua convoy of trucks and jeeps. Several of their teammates were already back from their own salvage operations and waiting for the others. When Castiel appeared out of nowhere with two children in his arms, they startled and openly stared. Even these, survivors of the end of the world and jaded to the unexpected, were briefly dumbstruck by one of their own materializing out of thin air.
Castiel staggered, very nearly toppled, and pushed the boys toward the cars. “Take them!” The boys, freaked out by their supernatural ride, ran from Castiel… straight into the waiting cab of Risa’s truck. She barely seemed to see the boys… her wide eyes were locked on Castiel.
Castiel didn’t bother trying to explain… he was heralding his strength to hurry back to Dean.
The instant he was airborne, he knew he was in trouble. His strength and speed flagged. He stuttered and weaved midcourse. The line between earth and Heaven screamed with the effort to keep Castiel together.
He kept going. He had to save Dean. That was all that mattered.
Castiel made it as far as the school parking lot before he crashed. He slammed into asphalt with a yelp of surprise and all-too-human pain. Then he scrambled to his feet and began to run toward the building.
He met Dean running out of the school. His eyes landed on Castiel and he picked up speed. They reached one another and stopped, both breathing hard.
“Are there more coming?” Castiel asked in a rush.
“No… I got them all, but we shouldn’t stick around and see who the gunshots draw. Are the kids okay?”
Castiel nodded. “They’re with Risa.”
Dean closed his eyes in utter relief and let out a breath.
It struck Castiel like a bolt of lightning. He stood in an empty parking lot, watching Dean sag in relief that the children were safe. Children he didn’t even know. All his life, this man had been saving people… starting with his baby brother when he was only four years old. Even now, at the end when all was lost, he was risking his life to save others. He’d give his life to save the world, if he thought he could.
Dean opened his eyes and urged Castiel back in the direction of the convoy. “Let’s get the hell out of here.”
Castiel took up alongside Dean, but he couldn’t tear his eyes from the last remaining Winchester. For a bright, shining moment, he saw Dean with all the power of an angel’s sight. He saw a luminous soul, a warrior as much as any archangel. An amazing creature named Dean.
The pain was immediate and blinding.
Castiel screamed and dropped to his knees on the pavement.
“Cas?! Cas!” Dean grabbed hold of Castiel to keep him from falling.
Castiel did anyway.
Hallowed be thy name…
Dean asked Castiel once if he could point to the last straw… the tipping point that pushed him off the edge. The final blasphemy that made him fall. Castiel looked up from cleaning a semiautomatic handgun and frowned. “Do you know the Lord’s Prayer?”
Castiel made a noise, half-dismissive and half-disappointment, and went back to cleaning his weapon.
Maybe someday he’d tell Dean that he fell for a thought.
Dean, who art beside me, hallowed be thy name…