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Worlds Apart, But Still So Close

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Dean's a hunter from a long line of hunters, and he's been doing the job for long enough to know when something isn't right. His granddad always taught him to go with his gut, that a hunter's instincts are rarely wrong and always worth noting.

So when he wakes up one morning to find himself alone in his motel room, a cold ball of dread settles too quickly in his gut and he doesn't pause to wonder if Gabriel maybe just went out for coffee. He jumps out of bed, grabs for his gun with one hand and his phone with the other.

A quick search of the motel room reveals almost nothing, but he does find Gabriel's wallet and keys exactly where he left them on the nightstand by his bed. His purple duffle is still sitting in the corner of the room, and when Dean tries calling his partner's phone, it rings from where it was left last night, on the counter in the bathroom.

Gabriel is nowhere in sight when Dean pokes his head outside, and the bed where he should have been sleeping has long since gone cold.

Fuck.

~

It makes no sense for Gabriel's disappearance to be related to a hunt, because they haven't actually hunted anything for weeks now. Still, Dean backtracks. He searches the town they stopped to rest in last night, and when that doesn't pan out, he begins the long trek back through Oklahoma, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and straight back to where they started out at their shared apartment in Palo Alto. He calls every contact they have while Googling his way through each town he passes, tracking even the slightest whiff of anything that could possibly be related to their area of weird.

There's nothing.

Truth is, there hasn't been a solid lead on a job in weeks. The only reason they were back on the road at all is they were both going stir-crazy sitting around the apartment all day, and Sam had finally gotten fed up and ordered them out of the city. (He said it was so he could focus on his studies and not on all the new and inventive ways Dean and Gabriel kept plotting to get him out of the library, but Dean secretly thought it was so he could set his sights on the cute blond that had been flirting with him lately.)

The point is, there's nothing to indicate why Gabriel suddenly up and vanished, and Dean doesn't even know where to start. He gets back to Palo Alto, drops his stuff on the floor, and stares blankly at the wall for fifteen minutes while he tries to figure out his next move.

When he realizes there's nothing else he can do, he calls Sam.

"You lost Gabriel?" His brother's voice is full of all kinds of disbelief after Dean's thirty-second explanation for why he's calling.

Dean pulls the phone away from his ear for a moment so he can glare at it, like the look will magically reach Sam on the other end. "I didn't lose my damn partner, Sam, he disappeared. Big difference."

He can practically hear Sam's brow furrowing as he processes. "And you checked –"

"Every location we've been since we left California. I'm not new at this, you know."

"But things have been quiet lately, even Grandpa Campbell can't get a lead on anything new." Sam doesn't say how strange that is in and of itself. There's not usually a whole lot of downtime in the hunting world, and definitely not spanning weeks at a time.

"Tell me about it," Dean mutters, dropping to his mattress and rubbing the bridge of his nose. "I don't get it, man, we grabbed food at the diner, had a drink at the bar, crashed at the motel. Didn't talk to anybody, didn't run into anything. Hell, I never even woke up when he vanished."

There's a beat of silence, and then, "This isn't your fault, Dean. He's going to be okay, we'll figure this out."

Obviously Dean isn't doing all that good a job at hiding how worried – and how guilty – he feels. "Yeah," he says, trying to believe it.

"Look," Sam says, "I'll call Dad, have him get in touch with Missouri. If anyone knows anything…"

"Okay." Dean swipes a hand over his face, the past few days catching up with him all at once, and he realizes suddenly that it's almost one in the morning. "Shit. I'm gonna go crash. Pick this up again in the morning, I guess."

"Good idea." Sam voice takes on a determined note as he adds, "He's my friend too, Dean. We will find him."

Dean nods, even though Sam can't hear it, and hangs up without answering. Drops the phone on the table by his bed and falls backwards onto his pillow, already sliding into a restless, worried slumber.

~

The moment Castiel senses the shift, he's on alert. He searches the ebbs and flows of his grace and finds his connection to his closest brother severed, and that's when he begins to panic.

Gabriel has not been in Heaven for a long time, but Castiel has always been able to feel him, reassure himself that his brother is happy and unharmed.

He would have felt if Gabriel had somehow perished, would have known it instantly for what it was, but this…Castiel has no idea how to handle this. Gabriel is not in Heaven and not dead, which means wherever he is must either be on Earth or in Hell. He thinks he would have heard if Gabriel had stumbled or been taken into the abyss, which only leaves Earth.

Castiel hasn't been down to Earth in millennia, not since the birth of the Christ child. He carries his vessel with him always, allowed even in Heaven because there's no soul tied to it, a parting gift from Gabriel so long ago. But he has never used it to visit his Father's world, and the idea of doing so now terrifies him, something he can only admit in the deepest corner of his mind. A soldier should not be afraid.

There are times when Castiel does not feel much like a soldier.

He tries his best to search for his brother from the heavenly plane. Through the cosmos, beyond the veils connecting his home to that world, he searches in the between-places for any clues he can find, but wherever Gabriel has gone, it is without a trace.

There's nothing else for it, then.

Castiel doesn't ask for permission. His standing with Gabriel, even with the archangel no longer residing in Heaven, grants him a level of freedom beyond that. A freedom few of his brothers and sisters possess. Normally he would never use it to his advantage, preferring to go through the line of command as is proper. But this is not a normal circumstance, and he's wasted too much time already.

He centers himself, locks onto the feeling of his brother's grace. He senses a spark, a shadow, a lingering sense of Gabriel that hovers close to one of the bright souls of his Father's favored. Wherever his search will lead him, it must first start there.

He spreads his wings and dives.

He is not prepared for how fast the currents of space and time take him, and diving soon turns to falling, falling to tumbling. Limb over limb, crying out as wind and then rain batter at his wings.

Within moments, what little control he had is lost, and all he can do is keep focused on that single small spark of Gabriel, and pray.

~

Dean sleeps like the dead. No one in his family gets it, but once he's out, he's out. An earthquake couldn't shake Dean out of a good slumber.

On the other hand, try having someone pick the lock of the room he's sleeping in, and he'll be out of bed, gun drawn, back to the wall before they even get halfway through.

Some things are just good instincts.

The point, though, is Dean tends to be a heavy sleeper, even when he's got something on his mind. Even when his partner is missing and he's worried as all fuck, he can make himself sleep when he needs to, because that's the best way to guarantee he's at the top of his game when he gets going.

So it's not entirely surprising that he's sleeping the sleep of the almost-comatose when the sound of shattering glass permeates his brain and his eyes fly open in shock. Pulling on the training he's had nearly a lifetime to perfect, he grabs his gun from under the pillow and rolls out of the bed as the window right next to him crashes in and something – something big – comes plummeting across his room.

"The fuck – " is all he manages before he simply stops and stares.

It's a guy, more or less. An average-looking guy with dark, messy hair and light skin and a suit that would be appropriate for a tax accountant. Which is exactly what Dean might think he was.

If the dude didn't have a fifteen-foot wingspan.

Wings. Fucking wings, covered in black feathers that are sleek with rainwater from the storm outside and are dripping all over Dean's carpet.

Dean's still holding his gun, still has the pistol cocked and aimed and ready to shoot the thing's brains out, but then it – he – whatever – makes a sound, the same kind of sound Sammy used to make when he was hurt, and Dean's heart trembles in his chest, and he can't. He just…

Can't.

He clicks the safety back on and lowers the weapon, but he doesn't put it down as he gets to his feet. He's not an idiot, after all. He keeps close to the wall, giving the thing a wide berth as he makes his way around so he can face it.

Whatever it is, it doesn't seem to notice him, pressing a hand to its head and wincing. Yeah, Dean thinks, crashing through a window headfirst at mach ten will do that.

It's eyes open after a long minute, and even as the gun comes back up by reflex, Dean is instantly transfixed by the intensity of all that blue.

"What in the fucking hell are you?" he demands, voice raspy with sleep and surprise and something else he sure as fuck isn't going to acknowledge.

He gets one steady blink, then two. If the thing is scared of his weapon, it ain't showing it, which should probably worry Dean.

"Answer me," he growls.

Dark wings fold against the thing's back, and slowly it pushes itself to its feet. There's still pain written all over its face, but it tilts its head as it watches him. Finally speaks with a voice like whiskey over gravel that fucking does things to Dean as he says, "Your weapon can't hurt me."

"Yeah, well, we'll see, won't we?" Dean thumbs the safety off again, his heart pounding. "You're not lookin' so hot as it is, so."

"Please," the tax-accountant wannabe says. "I don't mean you any harm. I only want to find my brother."

In spite of himself, Dean's eyes narrow, and the gun lowers a couple inches. "Your brother?"

It – he, Dean thinks it's safe to assume at this point – nods slowly. "My brother Gabriel is missing. I have reason to believe that you were the last person to see him."

Well.

Fuck.

~

Castiel can't seem to stop his eyes from drifting, drinking in the sight of the man before him. Dean, he remembers, because after the distrust and the doubt, after the arguments and the anger, there had finally been grudging acceptance, and with that, Castiel had been granted a name.

I'm Dean. Dean Winchester.

And he'd responded in kind.

My name is Castiel.

And now they stare at each other, three feet separating them, but it could be the span of an ocean. The air buzzes as their eyes catch and hold, and it's Dean, with his blazing green gaze that never backs down from a challenge, who looks away first and clears his throat.

"Look," he says, "this is…this is nuts, you get that, right? Gabriel isn't…he's not a fucking angel." Dean's eyes dart up to Castiel's, then quickly slide away again as he turns to pace away.

"No," Castiel agrees. Dean's shoulders slump in relief, and then Castiel says, "He's an archangel. They are far more powerful," and Dean tenses right back up.

The hunter spins around, fists clenched, and strides back, pushing himself right into Castiel's space this time. Electricity snaps in the air between them, as swift and powerful as the lightning outside, and for a moment it's like Castiel can't breathe. Dean's voice washes over him, barely audible over the sound of his vessel's pounding heart. "Listen here, you winged douchebag. You can take your holier-than-though attitude and shove it. Gabriel's my friend. He's not an archangel, he's not a fucking dick, and you…you have no fucking idea…"

His words stutter to a halt, and the buzzing in Castiel's ears gets louder. Dean's eyes are searching his, and Castiel's hand moves, almost of its own accord. He touches Dean's wrist, little more than a gentle press of fingers, and slides up. Dean's skin is smooth and warm beneath his fingertips, and they've both stopped breathing now as Castiel takes a step closer, as his hand slows its ascent just below Dean's shoulder and slots into place…

For a fraction of a second, there is light bursting behind Castiel's eyes and heat pouring through his grace, and then Dean sucks in a fast breath, shoving away and all but tripping over himself to put space between them. "What the fuck was that?" he demands, breathing hard.

"I…" Castiel doesn't know. He's as lost as the man before him, and just as terrified about it. "Why do I know you?" he whispers, and doesn't even know where the words come from.

There's a beat of silence. "Cas?" Dean says, voice tremulous in a way it should never be.

And that name. It resonates, though Castiel has never heard it before. It sings to something so deep inside him, something he doesn't – can't even begin to – understand.

It feels like his grace is buzzing, and for the first time since Gabriel created this vessel for him, Castiel's skin feels too tight, like it's choking him. He needs to escape, needs to sort his thoughts away from this feeling of connection and bond. He needs to find Gabriel, because Gabriel will understand. Gabriel will know how to fix this.

"I must go," Castiel says, spreading his wings. Dean's mouth opens, but before the protest can escape, Castiel flies.

It's possibly the most cowardly thing he's ever done, and he doesn't even care.

~

Dean stares gobsmacked at the empty space in front of him for a long time.

There was an angel here. An angel. Of the fucking Lord. Ten seconds ago, an angel with wings as dark as pitch and eyes that carved pieces out of his soul was here, and Dean doesn't even know what to say to that, because what the hell?

Castiel. He plays the name out in his head, then repeats it out loud, caressing each syllable as it trips over his tongue. "Castiel." And then, just because he can, "Cas."

The name of an angel shouldn't be so intimately familiar to him.

He stumbles dazedly through the next few hours, as late night turns to daybreak and daybreak slowly becomes morning. He sweeps up the glass from his broken window and rights the furniture that was knocked over. He puts a large sheet of plastic over the window and decides he'll fix it himself, landlord be damned.

The bed gets moved across the room for now, and Dean has to change the sheets because they're damp with rainwater and there are probably a zillion fragments of glass stuck in the fibers.

All Dean wants to do when he's done is crawl in and toss the blanket over his eyes and pretend this whole night never happened, but daylight is already wasting, and more than that, he's Dean fucking Winchester, and he's never hidden from a problem before in his life. He's sure as hell not gonna start now.

He told himself he was going to find his partner today one way or another, and that's exactly what he's going to do. Human or archangel, friend or foe, Dean is getting some fucking answers.

~

Castiel flies with no sense of direction, nothing to guide him but the urgent and powerful need to keep moving, because every time he stops, every time he pauses for even a moment to catch his breath, his thoughts are filled with the impression of green eyes and warm skin, and Castiel feels like he's drowning.

Who is this man, this Dean Winchester, who can worm his way into and around and through Castiel's grace so rapidly? Who is he, that he can look into Castiel's eyes and seem to know him better than any of Castiel's family ever have?

It's only when his wings begin to feel dragged down by the weight of his exhaustion that Castiel is forced to stop and rest. He's pushed himself hard and fast, and for what purpose? He has no leads on where his brother is except for the human. As much as it pains Castiel to face Dean again, he's not going to have a choice. Not if he wants to find Gabriel.

He gives himself a slow, painful hour to recharge, and then he's up and flying again.

When he finally makes his way back towards Dean's home, the sun is just beginning to set over the town of Palo Alto.

Castiel finds Dean in his apartment, but he keeps himself hidden when he realizes the hunter is not alone. The man with him is tall and broad-shouldered, with a shaggy mane of dark brown hair and a contemplative look on his face as he pages through what appears to be an ancient tome of angel lore. His hazel eyes are bright with worry as he pauses every few moments to regard Dean.

Upon closer inspection, Castiel realizes this must be Dean's brother. The bonds shining between them are forged solid with years of shared history and mutual affection, and for a fraction of a moment, Castiel feels something he thinks might be envy at the strength of those bonds.

That is the moment Gabriel appears.

"Well, well, look what the storm blew in," Gabriel says, looking Castiel over from head to toe and grace-deep. As though he hasn't been missing for days while Castiel called for him, searching frantically through a world with which he is pathetically unfamiliar.

Castiel stares at him, utterly speechless.

Gabriel raises an eyebrow. "Ookay then, awkward brotherly reunion: check. Now if you don't mind, I have a small bit of business before we can chat." With that, he spins on his heel and saunters into main room of the apartment before Castiel has a chance to stop him, revealing himself to the Winchesters' sight as he goes.

Castiel curses his brother in five different languages and follows.

~

Dean would never believe it if he didn't see it with his own eyes. But one second there's nothing at all between him and the door to the apartment, and the next, there's Gabriel, with his cocky grin and his too-bright eyes and a big bunch of…

"Are those flowers?" Dean squawks. Forgetting, for the moment, that his friend just appeared out of fucking thin air. Ignoring the…Christ, the angel that pops in inches behind him just seconds later. Focused only on the fact that Gabriel is here, that Dean's been worried sick, and that there are bright pink somethings being held out to him.

"They're apology flowers!" Gabriel says, beaming.

Dean can see the fear lurking behind his eyes, no matter how much Gabriel's trying to hide it. Rather than step forward and start strangling his friend, he takes a breath, counts to ten, and releases it. Sam taught him that trick, but he's not sure yet if it's actually working or not. "Can the flowers," he says tightly. "And then we'll talk."

Gabriel pouts, but the gaudy bouquet vanishes like mist, and Dean swallows hard. Behind him, he hears Sam pushing back from the table and coming to stand at his side. He's grateful, because he has no clue how he'd handle this without his brother.

Dean's gaze flicks very briefly to Castiel, whose big blue eyes are filled with anxiety and confusion. Dean is entirely bewildered by the strong urge he has to go over and offer comfort. It's bad enough he hasn't been able to get Castiel out of his head all day, the way he'd touched Dean's arm, the intensity in those ridiculously bright eyes. Why he's so drawn to him is beyond Dean's ability to understand, and because of that, he sets his jaw tight and scowls. If Castiel is at all bothered by the expression, he doesn't show it.

"So, angels, huh?" Dean is still looking at Castiel, but it's Gabriel the question is meant for, and he knows that Gabriel knows it.

"Yeah, about that," Gabriel says, shuffling his foot. "Um. Surprise?"

At Dean's side, Sam tenses, which is enough to finally draw Dean's gaze away from Castiel. "It's true?" Sam says quietly, like he couldn't possibly believe it until Gabriel confirmed. "You've been lying to us this whole time?"

"Don't," Gabriel says, a little desperately. "Just…no. Don't." He stares hard at the ground. "Look, it wasn't like that, okay? I left home a long time ago. I made my own way, but mostly it didn't go so well. So when I had a second chance, I decided I'd do things better. Maybe…stick around people I trusted." His eyes rise slowly to find Dean's, then shift to Sam, then back to Dean. "People I knew would watch my back while I did the same for them. I...okay, yeah, so I got wings. Big deal. I'm still the same guy, okay? I promise. That was never a lie."

Angel or not, Dean's had a solid few years to learn the ins and outs of Gabriel's tells, and he's not bullshitting Dean now. But… "An archangel, Gabe? Really?" If his voice is a little weak when he says it, he doesn't think he can really be blamed for that, all things considered.

Gabriel's shrug is awkward, his sheepish grin only halfhearted at best. But it's Gabriel, Dean's closest friend and the best partner he's ever had besides Sammy, and no matter what he is, Dean just can't find it within himself to see him as the bad guy.

He takes a breath. "Okay," he says after a long moment. He looks at Sam, whose eyes are wide and bright with so many things, but who gives him a tiny nod, telling Dean that he trusts him, that he agrees with him, that he's down with this. "Okay, fine, archangel. Cool, whatever." Gabriel's expression morphs from shamefaced to disbelieving faster than Dean can blink. Behind him, even Castiel is raising an eyebrow in surprise. "But I wanna know what the fuck the last few days were about, and I wanna know now."

"Ah." Gabriel's expression goes shifty, and Dean's eyes narrow. "Look, Dean-o, I want to tell you, I do. But I need to go have a chat with my baby bro first." Behind him, Castiel the Stoically Silent blinks a few times. "Since that's what this was really all about…think you can let me off the hook for just an itty bitty amount of time?"

Again, Dean's eyes go to Sam, but this time, it's not about wondering what Sam is thinking. It's about wondering what it would be like to be away from home for so long, no idea how your family is or whether or not they hate you for leaving. It's about wondering what lengths he would go to to get his little brother back after something like that. Sam watches him back with all the calm Dean never inherited, and then he nods again. Give them this, he tells Dean without words. We'll get answers soon.

He turns back to the angels – and nope, still not used to that word being part of his regular vocab – and sees Castiel watching him steadily. Swallows hard again and forces his gaze back to Gabriel. He very pointedly doesn’t let himself wonder about the amusement he can see dancing in his partner's eyes when he says, "Fine. Get out of here, you bastard. Hurry the fuck up."

Gabriel salutes, backs up a few steps so he can herd Castiel around and back toward the door while Dean doesn't watch the way those ebony wings catch the light of the fading sun from the window – the unbroken window – on the other side of the room. Then Gabriel pauses. "Hey, Dean?" When Dean's eyes shift back to Gabriel, he finds the archangel watching him with a fond, soppy grin that makes Dean think he's going to start vomiting rainbows any second now. Luckily the word, "Thanks," is what comes out instead.

And then both angels are gone.

In the aftermath of the sound of wingbeats, Dean turns to Sam. Sam blinks back at him. When they finally speak, it's simultaneous.

"I need a drink."

~

"You're drawn to him."

It's the first thing Gabriel says when they land on the beach of an uncharted island in the South Pacific, and it's designed to throw Castiel completely off-balance. So like his brother to use that tactic, and Castiel deeply resents the fact that it works.

"It's okay, Castiel. That was the whole point." Gabriel snaps his fingers and idly takes a bite out of the confectionary treat that appears in his hand.

"Speak plainly, brother," Castiel finally pleads, trying to understand. "If you wanted me here, why not just tell me so? If you wanted me to meet Dean Winchester, why the subterfuge?"

Gabriel sighs. "Thing is, kid, everything comes down to choice. Free will. Even ours. You had to make the choice to come here, on your own. The reasoning didn't matter, only the decision. And as for Dean…" He pauses, looking out at the ocean. Castiel can see the way his grace swirls with uncertainty. "Castiel, tell me what you remember of Hell."

And that's a ridiculous question, of course, because Castiel knows almost nothing of the pit except the things every soldier knows, mostly just stories about its history and purpose. He certainly has no memory of a place he's never seen before.

And yet…

Somehow…

Chains. The sound of them, even over desperate screams. The feel of them dragging over his wings, of clawed hands reaching for him, trying to trap him. The scent of sulfur and the ache of homesickness. The heady rush of victory when finally, finally, there is light…

And that light, soul-bright and righteous and he's seen it before, he knows it, it's…

There's a snap, loud as a thunderclap in Castiel's mind, and Castiel comes back to himself violently, even as his ears ring with the half-remembered sound of his own true voice. Dean Winchester is saved… He's trembling all over as his eyes refocus on his brother, standing three feet away and looking remorseful.

"I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked you to remember that place," Gabriel says. "But it's the only thing I knew for sure would be powerful enough for you to reclaim."

"That…that never happened," Castiel breathes. "Gabriel, what was that?"

"It never happened to you, little brother," Gabriel says. "Not here, not in this timeline. But…"

"Timeline. Another timeline?" Castiel's eyes are wide, his breathing erratic as he gapes at Gabriel, as understanding filters in. "You altered destiny. You changed the course of…" He trails off, unable to even contemplate the idea.

"Of everything," Gabriel finishes when it becomes obvious that Castiel can't. "Yeah. I did. And you can bet your ass I'd do it again." His eyes are hard in the dying light, his voice a low growl Castiel can't remember ever hearing before. "I don't know what you'll remember or what you won't, but take my word for it, things were bad, Castiel. Really bad. Bad enough I was able to convince Atropos to take my side against her sisters, and she's a stubborn bitch, let me tell you. But as bad as it got, at the center of it…"

Castiel waits for him to continue, prods him with a none-too-gentle wingtip when it seems like Gabriel won't. "Tell me," he demands, his voice harsh.

"Pushy, pushy," Gabriel grumbles, smiling just a little before he sighs again. "At the center of all the crap, there was one bright spot, and that was you and Dean. You bound yourself to him, Castiel. Grace to soul, for eternity. The stuff of legends, y'know? Powerful enough to survive a complete rewrite, which should've been impossible. Taking that away from you both, especially when he still carries your mark…I couldn't bear it, not for you. So I had to fix it."

Castiel thinks he's experiencing dizziness for the first time, and he doesn't like it. "Fix it?" he murmurs over the thunder of his heartbeat.

"The bond was accessible, but you needed to want it. That was the key. You had to want to be here, on Earth. With Dean. It was the only way to unlock those memories you shouldn't have and uncover the bond." Gabriel shrugs a little. "That fraction of a second, when you were jealous of his ties to Sam? That was enough. It was what I was waiting for." He huffs, something that sounds suspiciously like laughter. "Happened way faster than I expected, too. Should've known, with you two."

There are so many things in the back of Castiel's mind, all fighting to get to the forefront now. So many fragments of thought, images and words that he knows he's never experienced but can suddenly recall with a terrifying sort of clarity. Distant but real in a way he knows they're not.

"My mark," he says, closing his eyes to try and block the memories. "You said he carries my mark still, but I saw –"

"Backwards or forwards, one reality or another, that mark is there to stay," Gabriel assures him. "I just used some, ah…heavenly concealer to hide it until he was ready. Until you both were. Been watching over that kid and his brother since the day they were born, y'know."

Castiel takes that in, lets it bleed into his conscious mind, and when it does, he's suddenly filled with the urgent need to fly. He needs to get to Dean. Everything inside him is clamoring for it, because now that it's been unlocked, now that he can remember some of the pieces, he needs to know if Dean feels it, too. If there's even a chance…

Gabriel's watching him with a knowing sort of gaze. "Let's get you home, little brother."

Home.

Dean.

~

Dean's been stubbornly ignoring Sam's looks for at least two hours, but he knows the gig is up when he catches himself idly tracing the outline of wings on the tabletop with his finger, and looks up to find Sam smirking at him.

"Guess I should stop trying to set you up with girls from Stanford," the bastard says.

"Fuck you," Dean mutters back, no real heat in it.

Sam watches him for another moment, then shrugs like it doesn't matter. "Just saying."

"I hate you." Dean leans back in his chair, closing his eyes and trying so damn hard not to think about

black wings and blue eyes and deep voices and trenchcoats and

anything to do with angels.

He gives it up for a lost cause at the sound of fluttering. He opens his eyes to find Castiel standing very close to where he's seated, something aching in his gaze as he stares at Dean. "Dude," Dean says, unwilling to focus harder on what that look means than he has to. "Personal space."

Not that he really minds as much as he thinks he should. But Castiel – and Sam, and Gabriel – don't need to know that.

Castiel takes a barely-noticeable step back, and Dean turns his gaze to the other newcomer. Gabriel is standing on the opposite side of the room with a curious little grin fixed on him that Dean thinks he should probably find worrying. "Pow-wow all finished?" Dean asks. "You finally gonna clue us in here?"

"Actually," Gabriel says, "I was thinking I should take Sammy-boy out for some ice-cream and girl talk. Let him tell me all about his new girlfriend, since he's been dying to gab and you're…well, you."

Dean shoots an incredulous look at Sam, who flushes and looks away. "Damn it, Gabe," he mutters.

Gabriel cackles a little. "And meanwhile, Dean, you and Cas here have some stuff you should talk about."

"Uh…" Dean doesn't know what he intends to say to that, but he doesn't get a chance because Gabriel walks over to him and touches two fingers to his forehead and Dean suddenly feels something inside him…shimmer. "What the –"

"Sorry," Gabriel says, stepping back and shoving his hands in his pockets. "Just had to get rid of a little…we'll call it camouflage."

Dean has pretty good peripheral vision. He can see that there's something on his left arm, peeking out from under the short sleeve of his t-shirt. Something that definitely wasn't there this morning. His gut clenches as he turns his head to look fully, swallows and shoves the sleeve up the same way he'd rip a band-aid off his skin.

Doing it faster doesn't help, inevitably, and he still feels the shock like ice water at the sight of the handprint scar, raised and red and…and familiar, in all the ways it can't possibly be.

"What the hell is that?" Sam breathes, asking the question that Dean can't seem to choke out.

"That is one of the things that Dean and Castiel need to talk about," Gabriel says, and Dean can't miss the way his eyes go soft and concerned when he looks over to Castiel. Dean wants to turn and look at the guy, see what expression he's wearing to cause Gabriel to look that way, but he can't. He just…can't.

Sam is still staring even as he lets himself be pulled out of his seat by Gabriel, even as he asks Dean if he should go, if Dean is all right.

"Yeah, Sam," Dean says, wonders if the words come out as muffled as they sound in his head over the ringing. "Go. I'll fill you in."

"You better," Sam mutters, but he follows Gabriel out the door, and Dean's pretty sure he can hear him firing questions at the archangel all the way down to the first floor and out to the parking lot.

Very slowly, he turns to face Castiel.

~

The more Castiel remembers – and each memory is dim, but so very present – the more he thinks he can feel the bond he and Dean share fluttering just beneath the surface of his grace. A tickle, a tremor, perhaps. There, but so impossibly weak. A photograph so faded the picture barely exists anymore.

But now he's staring at his mark. Irrefutable proof that it did happen, that he did raise this man from the darkest depths of Hell, imprinting his soul with Castiel's own grace.

Another lifetime, another reality. It never happened, but it happened enough. He is bound to this man, through events that no longer exist. Gabriel was correct; it shouldn't be possible, and yet it's so perfectly right. It makes no sense, but it also makes all the sense in the world.

Castiel doesn't understand, and when it comes down to it, he really doesn't care.

Hesitantly, with Dean's eyes tracking his every movement, he takes a seat in the chair Sam abandoned. His wings trail the floor on either side, and he distantly wonders if Gabriel can teach him to hide them. Wonders if he even wants to, when Dean's gaze goes to them and something longing appears in his bottle-green eyes.

It takes a long moment for Dean to remember himself. He blinks, refocuses on Castiel's face, and reaches up with his right hand until the tips of his fingers brush along the edges of the mark on his shoulder. "Cas, what is this?" he finally asks.

"Dean, I…" Castiel pauses, gathering himself. Starts over. "Let me tell you a story."

"Okay…" Dean eyes him warily. "What's this story of yours about?"

Castiel's eyes close for just a moment, memories that don't feel like memories rising up from the dredges of his subconscious mind. "Friendship," he finally says. It's almost an unconscious act, the way he reaches over and takes Dean's hand, but when Dean doesn't fight his hold, something inside him goes bright as a supernova. "Brotherhood. Love. The end of the world."

And he tells Dean their story.