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may the shackles be undone

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In the morning, after a restless night spent simmering in the bunker, Castiel joined Dean on the drive back to Harlan to check on the townspeople. The trip was as inconvenient as it was necessary. Though Castiel disliked the duration of the turnaround, he deeply appreciated dismissing Belphegor from his presence by leaving him in the bunker’s devil’s trap.

Castiel hadn’t wanted to drive with Dean either, but Sam and Rowena, who had arrived the night before, were needed for research. By process of elimination he was the only one left to go.

They drove to the Harlan county office in uncomfortable silence, and when Castiel made to follow Dean inside, Dean banished him back to the Impala with a snide, “We don’t need to screw this up.” He chose to speak alone to the current acting sheriff, a young man presumably promoted now that his predecessor had been found with a hole in his chest.

Castiel fidgeted in the front passenger seat, holding on to the drive’s tense air as if it were the only sensation left he could feel. Dean had become an unpredictable creature since his mother’s death. Castiel was never sure whether an extended his hand would be answered with a touch or a bite.

“Was there news?” Castiel asked, once Dean had returned, pulling them out from the parking lot, the Impala rumbling toward the high school under Dean’s command. The car still made Dean happy. Hopefully happy enough to tolerate Castiel’s presence for the duration of the drive.

Predictably, Dean did not bother answering Castiel. He instead drove with half his attention out ahead of him, the other half fixated on keying open his phone’s voicemail. Rowena’s voice poured out from the inbox, briefly muffled when Dean chose to toss his cell belligerently onto the bench seat.

“—worried about that wound of his, but at least I seemed to have slowed its growth down—”

The message went on for a little less than a minute. Dean tapped his phone closed when it was done. “How come you haven’t healed him yet?”

Castiel frowned at the implication. “I’ve tried. It hasn’t worked.”

Dean scoffed, muttering, “Of freaking course.”

The accusation stung. Of course Castiel was assumed useless until proven otherwise. How idiotic of him to have believed his relationship with Dean had evolved beyond that.

 


 

The halls of Harlan’s high school thrummed like the tunnels of a kicked anthill, a day out from the onset of evacuations. The town’s excised occupants seemingly busied themselves by walking a circuit from one end of the building to the next, carrying the same supplies of food and blankets from end to beginning to end.

Castiel had never seen anything quite like the hive mentality that came when a group of humans met at the crossroads of fear and preparation. The people here didn’t seem to mind that they weren’t at home in their beds, so long as they had something to keep their minds from idling on the thought that they weren’t. If their bodies were moving, the purpose was enough to keep them from wondering what came next.

Down the hall, at the entrance to a classroom, Dean stood as the lone calm stone within the current, the waves of helpful civilians breaking around where he and a deputy were discussing the situation at hand. Castiel had attempted to stand by and listen to their conversation, gathering insight into the state of the town, but Dean had again sent him away with a brusque demand for Castiel to Make himself useful, an order Dean was wont to give him lately.

Lately, Castiel either drowned within Dean’s wrath or starved without it. He hadn’t yet determined which version of Dean was worse — the one who hated him, or the one who couldn’t care less.

Castiel set a second flat of water bottles atop his first, hefted up both, and then joined the tide of people receding into the depths of the building. As Castiel passed, Dean did not bother looking at him. He seldom looked at Castiel, these days.

Castiel distracted himself attempting to recall when he was last in a school for any manner of time. The sights of one — locker-lined walls and cork boards pinned with paper postings — he learned from film and television, but it wasn’t the familiar landmarks that struck him with any interest today.

Instead, in small ways Castiel enjoyed the way the crowd hummed, their voices cresting between trepidation and excitement. Heels clacked and shoes squeaked on the waxy floors. Young children, unburdened with their parents’ worries regarding the evacuation, ran laughing through the halls. The smell of gymnasium mats overwhelmed every other scent in the room.

Castiel thought of how Sam and Dean were raised in buildings such as this one, their education stitched in fits across the country. A dozen formative years built for them a patchy quiltwork of information, one where Sam stepped into his intelligence and where Dean skirted away from his own.

The brothers had learned who they were in halls such as this one. It struck Castiel, then, that Jack never got to experience anything like it for himself.

Maybe it was a blessing. Maybe Castiel had been right to entrust Jack’s education to the Winchesters. It wasn’t like public schools were at all equipped to handle the needs of a nephilim, no matter how well Jack would have hidden the fact he was different. Jack, as innocent and trusting as he was, needed to be kept safe from the harsher truths around him. He needed to be trained to defend himself. He needed to be surrounded by people who were willing to die to protect him too.

Castiel had blindly counted Sam and Dean among those ranks. It felt foolish, now that the end had played out, and both Sam and Dean were currently obliging a demon that wore their dead son’s face.

Maybe it had been a mistake. Maybe if Castiel had trusted Jack’s upbringing to only himself — if he had kept his vow to Kelly and devoted his entire being to Jack and Jack alone — then Jack would still be alive. He wouldn’t have gotten caught up in the threat of Michael. Wouldn’t have burned away his soul. If Castiel had properly devoted himself to his true purpose, then Mary would be beside the brothers instead of himself.

But Castiel had been weak. He had wanted to protect Jack, but he had wanted his life with the Winchesters too. Castiel had believed he could meld the two halves of himself into a whole. And so he had fought for it, and he had forged it.

Castiel had wanted a family, and so he had gotten one.

He had made his family, and he had broken it too.

Worst of all, Castiel had given up proper care of Jack’s life so that he could remain a part of the Winchester’s, and in the end neither Winchester seemed keen to tolerate Castiel’s presence any longer, least of all Dean.

Castiel had gambled with Jack’s life so that he could keep Dean in his, and in the end Castiel had lost him too.

The thought throbbed in Castiel’s chest, aching like a heartbeat.

This was what Castiel deserved for being greedy. He had no home now.

A team of volunteers milled around the entrance to the gymnasium. Castiel handed over the flats of water bottles with a smile that felt more like a grimace. He busied himself following the orders of the people around him, unfolding temporary cots and passing out blankets, all the while repeating to himself his past mistakes.

A rough tap hit his shoulder about an hour into this ritual. Dean stood behind him with a frown drawn on his face. Though his gaze, as ever, refused to touch Castiel, its absence still felt like a blow.

“Don’t you have your phone? I’ve been texting you to get out of here.” Dean brushed away Castiel’s apologies, gesturing instead at the gymnasium exit, as if Castiel was unclear on what he was expected to do.

Castiel shut his mouth, bowed his head, and followed Dean through the halls, dodging the thrum of people on their way out the door.

 


 

Standing outside the Impala, hand cupping the door handle, Castiel somehow could not force himself to open the passenger door. He couldn’t do this again. Couldn’t make the drive with Dean. Could not force himself to stomach the intolerable tension that was Dean’s every waking breath.

Dean slid his gaze over the Impala’s roof, tapped Castiel with it before sliding back. “You coming or what?”

He had meant it as a rude question, a jab at Castiel’s dawdling, but the thought made Castiel’s fingers tremble on the handle. Another extended drive was suddenly insufferable. He let his hand slip away. “No. I’m not.”

Dean paused his routine of climbing into the driver’s seat. His frown sharpened. “Excuse me?” His elbows thumped down onto the roof, arms braced for what was to come.

Castiel stepped away from the Impala. The slightest distance from Dean gave him more room to breathe. “I’ll find another car. Or I’ll stay here, and you can return to Sam. We don’t need to go together.”

The frown Dean gave deepened, cutting through granite. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“You don’t want me here,” Castiel said, “so I won’t be. I’ll leave you to your peace.”

Impossibly, Dean seemed baffled by the suggestion. His jaw hung open, and his hands tightened upon themselves before unclasping again. He shook his head, staring down at his reflection in the dark paint with unseeing eyes. Then one fist banged, harsh, before Dean was coming for Castiel once again.

Dean rounded the hood quickly, so much so that Castiel had made only a couple steps deeper into the parking lot before Dean had fisted a sleeve of his trench coat and swung him around. Castiel landed with a thump against the side of the vehicle. His anger, previously untapped, now foamed up inside of him.

“What makes you think you can walk away?” Dean growled out, pinning Castiel back. “With all this shit that’s going on, what makes you think we don’t need your help?” His hands were bundled in Castiel’s lapels, forcing them up around Castiel’s neck.

“My duty was to Jack,” Castiel retorted. “Since he’s dead, I’ll go.”

That cut Dean deeper than Castiel expected it would. His brows parted like he’d been sliced between them. “You don’t want to be here anymore?”

“You don’t want me to be,” Castiel corrected. He brushed at Dean’s hands, pushing harder when Dean refused to release him without a fight. “I want the hellmouth closed, same as you. But you can find someone else to be your punching bag, because it’s not going to be me.”

That… Dean’s hold weakened, just a little. Just for the duration of the moment dawning upon his face, like he was only just remembering that Castiel was more than his family’s shield. That just because Castiel could take the hits did not mean that he should.

Then Dean’s fists were tightening, and Castiel’s trench coat was tugging, and with a clash Dean brought their mouths together.

It was messy and graceless, entirely devoid of the heat Castiel would have brought to it on any other day. But as it stood, Castiel still found his hands reaching out toward Dean. Still found his instincts were to pull Dean close, not to push him away.

Dean rested his brow against Castiel’s, after, breath coming out humid and shaky. Now that the kiss was over, he didn’t seem clear what to do with his hands. “Don’t you fucking leave me.”

He still wasn’t looking at Castiel, though their proximity perhaps offered up an easy excuse why. Castiel dipped his chin, mashing his mouth somewhere between Dean’s ear and cheek. Stubble rasped against Castiel’s lips, warm and pleasant. “Stop trying to make me.”

Dean squeezed wherever his hands had landed, on hip and shoulder and somehow everywhere in between. His chin fell to rest on Castiel’s rumpled shoulder, a shuddering breath passing through him like an electric current.

Castiel couldn’t stand to see him like this, angry or not. He drew Dean in slowly, wary of the anticipated bite. When it did not come, he closed the gap between them like he always wished he could, draping heavy arms around Dean’s back, holding him close.

“I was gonna kill him,” Dean mumbled, wet against Castiel’s ear.

“But you didn’t,” Castiel replied. Hugging fiercely, he added, “God tried to make you, but you still dropped your hand.”

“Doesn’t matter.” Dean stepped back, eyes suspiciously bright. “I was gonna kill him, but Chuck just did it instead.”

“It matters, Dean.” Castiel touched Dean’s cheek, at the spot where his lips had been just moments before. “It matters.”

Inhaling on a shudder, Dean nodded. His gaze shunted away. Now that the fire had burned low within him, it was clear that Dean was uncomfortable standing so close, exposed as they were in a busy parking lot. Blessedly, instead of leaving, Dean just moved to lean against the Impala next to Castiel.

Clearing his throat, Dean asked, “What are we gonna do about Belphegor?”

Red flashed in Castiel’s vision, overwhelming. “Jack deserves a hunter’s funeral.”

“I know,” Dean said, looking distant. “We’re just sitting kinda short on allies right now.”

“And Sam?” Castiel glanced at Dean from the corner of his eye.

“About that.” Sighing, Dean fished out his cell phone. “Seems Rowena dug deeper into his god-wound, found herself a solution.”

“Oh?”

Dean hummed, nodding. “She shot him herself instead.”