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***

The entire upper story of Bobby's house holds its breath. Even approaching the stairs feels like walking into a sudden low-pressure system – a taste of ozone and lightning and a tightening of the lungs. Sam restlessly vacillates between hovering there at the wall of that storm and feeling as though he should press himself into the corners of the house to stay as far away as possible. Dean is the only one who goes up there, for the time being. He does it in silence, and they don't talk about it very much; instead they sit quietly under that dark pall, breathing carefully as though waiting for all oxygen to be whipped away in a hurricane wrath. The sounds that occasionally echo down from above make them jump, setting Sam's teeth on edge. He knows the true sound of an angel in anguish. It's not something he wants to remember.

Of course, he's not really sure that Castiel is an angel anymore. Of any of them, Dean would be in the best position to know that, and he's stone silent – weary and quiet with the particular rattled stillness of a visitor to the psych ward. Which is, Sam grants, what he is for all intents and purposes. Bobby has tried, in his brusque way, to get Dean to open up about it, but only the once, because Sam's pretty sure he doesn't really want to know. What happens to someone once they've been torn from Heaven, cast into the maelstrom of Purgatory, ripped away from a kind of divinity that no mortal could even imagine? Dean's answer to Bobby's "Well? How is he?" spoke volumes: a terse and dismissive shake of the head, a trembling hand clenched around his mug. Sam watches him sharply for signs of his usual decompensation, but Dean drinks gallons of coffee, reads books, and at regular intervals mounts the stairs in the heavy weight of silence, into the gloom and density of Castiel's rehabilitation ward.

The moments tick by as though they are under glass. Sam feels as though he has counted the hairs on the backs of his hands any number of times, sitting on the couch with a cold cup of coffee at his elbow, listening to the rustle of Bobby's vacant page-turning. It's the first time in a long time that none of them are planning anything, have no aim or course of action. None of them knows how long Castiel's recovery will take – weeks or years – or if he will recover at all. Sam stares into the dim, dusty air of Bobby's parlor and feels useless.

It's been three days since they left Missouri's house, almost a week since Dean's triumphant and terrifying return from Purgatory. They put Castiel in the only uncluttered spare bedroom in Bobby's house, and most days the dark room is filled with too much of everything – light and heat and pressure, the awesome alchemy of an angel returned to its earthly vessel. There's a mixture of terror and relief Sam feels looking into wide blue eyes and seeing Castiel looking out. It is sort of anticlimactic when he immediately falls back into unconsciousness, but now Sam knows it's really for the best. Dean and Sam have been to Hell and back, and Hell still plagues many of Sam's waking moments; he knows the same is true of Dean, even if Dean tries to hide it. Castiel has been torn to pieces by the whole of Purgatory, his very self the battlefield for millions of monstrous souls. It's not something he's going to bounce back from very easily, and no one knows how much damage has been done.

"It's like we're walking through a minefield on another planet." Bobby had said after they'd carried Cas from the Impala and into the upstairs guest room. His eyes seeking the ceiling as though they could pierce the stained surface to see where Castiel lies, Sam thinks that's an accurate assessment.

The first mine goes off later that afternoon.

Sam has finally given in to the silence and is reading one of Bobby's dusty Louis L'Amour novels, eyes straining a bit in the dim, wintry light. Bobby himself is in the kitchen, making what's got to be the fortieth pot of unconsumed coffee. Dean has just gone back upstairs, boots resounding heavily on the creaking steps. For a moment, all is quiet again, the storm clouds settling back into the corners, ominous and still. Then, as though an actual storm has broken out of nowhere, there's a resounding crash that shakes the walls and sends plaster floating down from the ceiling, a blast like a freight train or the roar of a tornado, cut short before the sound can really register, and the far more familiar racket of every window on the upper floor shattering at once.

An echoing crash and a shouted curse come from the kitchen as Bobby drops the coffee pot.

Both of them are on their feet at the bottom of the stairs before Sam is even aware of having moved.

"Sam!" Dean's voice echoes, strained, down the upstairs corridor. "A little help here?"

Sam takes the stairs three at a time, Bobby laboring in hot pursuit. At the end of the hall, the door to the guest room is flung open, hanging from one hinge, and a relentless, frantic crashing comes from within.

"I think he's trying to get out the window!" is all Dean says when Sam and Bobby cram themselves simultaneously through the door. The room is in shambles: dresser, mirror, bookshelves and books, their pages floating on the air like feathers, thrown around as though in a cyclone. The tattered curtains flail in the wind of Castiel's mad struggle. His wrists locked in Dean's desperate grasp, lean body thrashing under Dean's weight, he looks almost like some wild animal, frenzied and unreasoning. His blue eyes hold a terror and a rage that are a prelude to smiting if ever Sam saw one, but the rest of his face is remarkably still; only the brief baring of teeth in a warning snarl before some kind of stoic mask falls and he throws Dean bodily across the room as though Dean weighs nothing.

Castiel is on his feet in an instant, barefoot and shirtless amidst all that broken glass, head lowered belligerently and eyes aflame. He reminds Sam of the old Castiel, the one who would have flattened a town or killed a child in an instant for the greater good. From his left, stirring among the smashed bookshelves, Dean utters a gasp of breath. Sam launches himself at Castiel, heedless of the potential risk and Bobby's growled "Dammit!" from behind his shoulder. His arms close around Castiel's upper body; he feels an almost scalding heat and the startled jolt of wiry muscle, but the attempt at submission is short-lived. Castiel utters a shouted word, and Sam too flies back across the room, cracking his head painfully on the doorjamb.

"Cas!" Dean's on his knees, stumbling up from the mess, and Bobby steps forward, hand outstretched.

"Easy there, kid," Bobby's muttering, voice low like he's talking to a spooked dog. Through the stars that are still swimming in his eyes, Sam sees Castiel's nostrils flare sharply, his head raising warily. "You're okay. It's gonna be okay. It's just us. Me, Sam, Dean. You remember us, right?"

A furrow mars Castiel's brow, and then he gasps, a ragged breath dragged over shards of glass, fingers flying to his forehead as if he's in pain. He crumples to the ground, and Dean staggers to his side, boots crunching through the chaos of broken shelves and windows.

Dean's voice is rough and guttural when he speaks. "Help me get him onto the bed."

Sam peels himself away from the door, head pounding, and takes hold of Castiel's shoulders while Dean grips him under the knees. Together they hoist him up and maneuver him onto the bed, which, though knocked askew, is undamaged. Sam isn't sure that Castiel is unconscious, but he is limp and still, as though nothing has happened. Looking down at his unimposing body half-curled on the bed, Sam almost finds it hard to believe that he caused all this damage and flung them both across the room. Castiel's eyes are nearly closed, only a sliver of deadly blue gleaming out from behind dark lashes, and he trembles slightly.

Sam pulls away, watching Dean pull the discarded blankets back over Castiel's quiet form. Dean's hands are shaking, flecked with blood where the flying glass must have cut him, but his face is blank.

"Is he—" Sam begins, but trails off, not exactly sure what he was going to ask. Okay? Sane? Himself?

Dean looks up and for the first time Sam can see the shaken look in his brother's eyes, all the fear and hope, and stubborn love.

"I dunno, Sam."

Sam can only nod, and after a moment, he and Bobby turn and make their way back down the stairs, back into the silence of uncertainty.


***

Voices pull at him from the darkness, insistent, whispering. The walls and ceiling lap like waves of the ocean. He is tethered and can't move.

He can't feel his wings.

"What have you done? What have you done? Whathaveyoudonewhathaveyoudonewhat—"

He thrashes helplessly. The voices seethe and slither, close to his head. He can't see their sources...why can't he see?

He opens his mouth, throat burning with cries. Only he mustn't. Mustn't. Can't disturb the great thing rolling in the dark. But he feels it. A sonorous blast, sub-sonic, immense, far below where even he dared go as a god...

There is a sharp tearing, and he bites down on a scream. The sound of it: flesh and bone ripping. The hissing voices laughing, close behind his back.

Please, no.

What have I done?


***

It's a weird thing to say, but Dean's almost relieved when the puking part starts.

It's a lot calmer, for one, than the thrashing bouts of panic that leave Dean bleeding in one way or another. It's easier to face than the few moments of stark lucidity that Castiel has had since they brought him to the relative comfort of the upstairs guest room.

One lucid moment came shortly after Castiel's first panic attack, actually. So soon after Dean's terror at seeing a blank hardness rather than recognition in those intent blue eyes: the lightning bolt of fear, Castiel finding himself trapped in his vessel, uncertain of his surroundings. In that moment, Dean thought of Sam after Hell, blank and terrifying. Did he leave something of Castiel there in Purgatory? He thought of the endless shore, the arduous mountains, the fallibility of his own actions. Did he miss something, cut something off, in his desperation to be out of there?

But when Castiel opened his eyes after his first panic attack, looking vulnerable and small in his room of broken windows, Dean saw what was worse: his recognition, his shame.

"Dean."

The voice like tires on gravel that Dean had thought he'd never hear again, the edges of it burnt dark with pain. He'd smiled at Castiel, reassuring, but stopped short of putting a hand on him because the look on Cas's face had stopped him. An agony too great for expression – the soft lips slack in bafflement, the eyes dazed as Castiel, Dean knew, looked upon the horror of what he'd done.

Dean wanted to say, "It's okay," or "I forgive you," all the things he'd rehearsed, all the things that pushed at his chest, needing to be said. But Castiel's mouth, working helplessly, maybe stumbling on the first syllable of some inchoate prayer, seemed to command the only words in the room. Nothing came out. Only, finally, a sharp little edge of breath, and then his eyes closed, dark lashes shimmering with something too painful to be shed.

And Dean had sat, battling the conflicting tides of relief, sorrow, and anger that boiled up inside. His hand lay limply on the bed, halfway to reaching for Castiel's shoulder, and stayed there until he got up to leave the room.

So yeah. The puking is way easier than that.

It starts in the godawful hours of the morning, and at first the relatively soft sound of someone retching their guts out is hard to hear over Sam's monumental snoring. When Dean finally rouses himself and pads upstairs, he finds Castiel crouched over the wastebasket in the guest room, swathed in shadows that seem darker than the night warrants.

"Cas?"

He can see the ribs heave beneath Castiel's skin all the way from where he's standing in the doorway, and he winces in sympathy as Castiel's whole body rocks forward with the force of expelling...whatever it is he's got to expel. Dean sighs, crosses the distance silently, and crouches down beside him.

Cas looks awful – face waxy, dewed with a moisture that seems too viscous to be sweat, eyes shut in deep hollows, bones pushing at his skin. A thick blackness coats his lips and dribbles down his chin. Dean's stomach turns a little, but he rises, tears off a strip of the ruined curtains, and leans forward to gently wipe Castiel's face. When Cas's eyes open they momentarily glow with a light of their own, and Dean's heart does a little panicked skip in his chest. But Cas just bows his head forward again with a very human-sounding moan.

Dean can actually hear the sound Castiel's stomach makes as it pushes more of that slop up his throat, and he has to suddenly choke down on his own wave of nausea. He looks away as Cas pukes miserably into the wastebasket.

"It's okay, man, get it all out." He puts a hand on Castiel's back, not really surprised when he feels it burning like a hot coal, a bit more surprised when he sees the faint outline of bones, lit by a flickering glow, beneath the skin. "You...you're not gonna come apart on me here, are ya? Cuz I'd like a little warning before you melt my eyes out, is all..." He tries a laugh, but swallows it down instead.

Remembering Purgatory, and the dazzling, coruscating brilliance of a white light upon a hill, Dean feels his breath catch.

Next to that, everything seems dark and small, and he only allows himself the briefest split second of wondering if that's what the entire world is like for Cas, before shifting around and rubbing his hand more firmly across the angel's bony back. "You're gonna be okay," he murmurs. His eyes sting a little. Castiel breathes raggedly, choppy because he's never quite gotten the hang of it, and Dean slips a hand under his arm to help him stand. "Let's get you cleaned up better."

In the glaring light of the upstairs bathroom, Castiel looks appallingly thin and worn out. He lolls against Dean as Dean quickly sponges down his face, then fills a glass of water for him to drink. His grip on Dean's shoulder, however, is like iron. He obediently and quietly drinks the water, and his insides make that horrible sound a couple more times, but nothing else comes up. Dean all but carries him back to the bed. It's so reminiscent of caring for Sammy when he was smaller that Dean instinctively brushes the wild mop of Castiel's hair back from his forehead. Cas's lips move faintly, but Dean can't tell what he's trying to say.


***

It's morning and the room upstairs is filled with a strange sort of peace, like a fall leaf trembling on a branch, or the fragile gleam of rain in the gutters after a storm. The winter sun infuses the pale tatters of curtains and glitters faintly on the sharp-toothed edges of the shattered windows. A plastic bag, carried on the wind across who knows what distance, flutters and snaps in the light breeze, caught on a shard.

The light seems calm too, although pale and lacking warmth. Coming through the cloudless sky, it is bright, suffusing the room, bringing edges into focus, even as it refines them to a point of brilliance beyond sight, like reflections on metal. It makes the individual flight feathers of Castiel's wings seem like blades.

Dean stands in the doorway and watches them shift with Castiel's breathing. The wings spread across the floor, the huge, arm-length pinions brushing up dustbunnies at Dean's feet. Castiel is asleep, or what passes for asleep, curled on his side with lax fingers just barely touching his lips. His wings look like they are made of light, and something in Dean trembles, like breath caught in his throat. The very air around Castiel glimmers, and Dean knows that somehow he's seeing echoes of what's truly there, what it is that lies on the bed so silently, like a picture-book angel, made of softness and innocence.

He tries not to think of the number of people Castiel has killed, but the thought lances through his mind of its own accord, dragging with it a split second's memory of the fire and fury of Castiel's true form, blazing across the underworld of Purgatory, more dangerous and powerful than anything he's ever seen.

It makes his stomach feel strange and tight, a permanent case of just-about-to-jump. He's not sure what Castiel is anymore. He doesn't know if he was ever sure; he feels stupid for ever acting like Cas was just another guy, albeit one with super powers. For assuming that Castiel could ever understand humanity. What the angel was, was absolute. As purpose-built as a star, or a black hole. What kind of cosmic force must it take to change something so fundamental? A shiver runs up Dean's spine.

The glistening wings shift as Castiel rolls one shoulder, but he doesn't wake. His face looks blank and statuesque in sleep, but there are still the dark, painful circles under his eyes and the hollows in his cheeks, the blinding grace still shot through with veins of darkness.

The tightness in Dean's chest doesn't go away, even as he half-closes his eyes and tips his face to the light surrounding Castiel's still form in a hazy, obscuring halo. It's like the tightness of love, that stubborn and expanding bubble of pressure in his chest that he gets when he thinks of Sam or Bobby, and his mom and dad. But this feeling, while similar, teeters on the edge of a bottomless abyss – the enormity of what Castiel is, has always been. The enormity of everything he's done.

Dean pushes himself away from the door and over to the bedside. His hand seems to glow as he reaches for Castiel's shoulder to nudge him gently awake, but his intent fizzles out halfway there. He closes his eyes and stills himself. When he opens them again, the hallucination of wings is gone, but something about Castiel's slight human frame, though curled in sleep, still looks bright, and fierce.


***

On the third night in a row that Castiel is up vomiting at all hours, Bobby corners Dean.

"Okay. I know this is all too...too huge to talk about or whatever, but what the hell's going on with him?"

Dean would normally feel angry and frustrated, but instead he just feels tired. He leans heavily against the kitchen counter. "Bobby, your guess is as good as mine. Just cuz I dragged him back from Purgatory doesn't mean I'm suddenly an angel doctor."

Bobby just grunts his agreement. "He gonna live? Cuz it don't sound good."

Dean grimaces. "Yeah, I think...I hope so. He's...he's pukin' up this weird black stuff, but it's like he's just gotta get it out of his system, ya know?"

"What, like...Purgatory leftovers?"

"Appetizing thought, thanks. But yeah. I'm assuming so. I'm keeping an eye on him."

Bobby scrutinizes the side of Dean's face for a long moment. "He's Cas, though, right? There's nothin' else hitchin' a ride in there?"

Bobby's concern is predictable, even logical. But Dean feels nothing but an absolute certainty, a still center to the maelstrom of his feelings. "Yeah. He's Cas."

Just what Cas is now, after everything, remains to be seen.


***

Sam taps his fingers on the desk, his gaze going straight through the screen of his laptop into the iron cage of Hell.

He knows it's a hallucination, knows that in reality, he's safe in Bobby's house and the flames that are slowly licking up the walls can't touch him.

"I'm replacing these thoughts with more accurate and less distressing concepts," he murmurs under his breath. "I don't have to be afraid of memories… they aren't real."

The figure, far off in the distance beyond where he knows the kitchen to be, can no longer control him, and he's not afraid, he tells himself, even as it turns, slowly, and begins coming closer. Not real, you're not real, he insists, over the staccato thump of his own heartbeat.

"Found anything?"

That's Bobby's voice, he knows. Somewhere behind him, echoing like he's speaking into a cave. Sam jerks his head in acknowledgement, and he tries to train his eyes on the computer screen, force them to see what's really there instead of this darkening at the edges of everything. It doesn't work; the dark figure is growing in the corners of his sight, striding across the vast smoking plain of the Cage, its wings spreading and spreading.

"No," Sam manages, a tight, choked syllable directed maybe at Bobby's question, or at the inexorable hallucination, or both. He grips his laptop like it's a life preserver, but the article he's reading, the memory of what it was he was trying to research, the sound of Bobby's voice, all disappear, swallowed by Hell.

Dammit. And he'd been doing so well.

Sam squeezes his eyes shut, but it makes no difference. Lucifer's smile splits his face like a gulf in burning earth. I'm sorry Sam, he murmurs, voice sounding more like that of his former vessel now, soft and casual. But you really didn't think you could forget all this, did you? A super-heated wave of air desiccates Sam's skin, and he bites his tongue with the effort of not screaming.

Some part of his mind tries to seize a kind of strength from his powerlessness, to make demands of the Devil, as long as he's here: What do you want? What have you done with Adam? Questions on the tip of his tongue to ask, but the blast of Lucifer's wingbeats steals his breath.

Who's going to save you, Sam? The wrath rises in the fallen angel's voice, thundering at the ceiling of Hell. No one is coming for you.

Sam's fingertips jam themselves into the steaming crevasses in the iron-hard ground, trying to brace him against the ferocious winds. If he can hold to something, anything...if he can only hold on...Dean will come for him.

A hurricane of fire is raging all around him, stealing his senses.

No one is coming for you.

But there is a blaze of light, like the sun.

Oh, yes...Lucifer sneers acidly. Your salvation.

Sam can't breathe. Giant wings beat away the flames. Burning hands clap onto his shoulders, and there's nothing he can do to prepare. Beyond the blinding nimbus of light, there are the sounds of a vicious battle. An archangel's scream of pain and murderous rage. The light contracts around Sam, and it's as though he were captive inside a tornado. The movement is nothing he can make sense of, but something smells like ozone, a thunderstorm, and he feels a relief that stops his heart with its magnitude.

And then the pain.


***

Sam's scream from the library and Castiel's scream from the guest room upstairs come at the same time, and the old timbers rattle like the house is caught in the grip of a cyclone.

Dean's caught in the middle of the sudden storm.


***

Sometimes Castiel is in hundreds of places at once. He can see what his human eyes see: the peeling, papered walls of Bobby's house, his vessel's fine-boned hand against the doorjamb. But these physical confinements are only incidental, small and meaningless. The plains and valleys of the world spread out from every starting point, each molecule of the earthly realm stepping aside like a curtain drawn to reveal the multitudes of the heavenly dimensions.

He watches beings of air and light flit back and forth, too quickly for any mortal to comprehend, tracing patterns like jet contrails between heaven and earth, and other, more mysterious places. Each trail contains the memory of a million more, something he sometimes squints his thousands of eyes to try to see, as blind now in comparison to what he could witness as a god as human eyes are to angelic vision.

Frustration races along the coils and filaments of him. He is tethered, chained by the throat to his human vessel, though sometimes he wakes to find himself outside of it, stretching battered wings and straining for the air. He passes through the walls, fills every corner of the house, forgetting sometimes the constraints of time and space as he watches. These are often the times when he will open human eyes to find Dean staring at him from the doorway of the room, a furrow in his brow and a worried frown twisting his lips.

His human stomach curls uncomfortably at the look, sour with something like regret and anger and guilt all rolled into one.

They have not repaired the broken windows, despite the winter cold. Castiel prefers them open to the sky, because when his vision suddenly slams down to a flat, three-dimensional point, his hearing deadened to that short range of frequency that humans can detect, the flow of air reminds him of the freedom of his true form. It could almost be joyful, those times when he can feel the air stirring his wings, but for the dark, jagged, brutal scars that mark him, burning like sulfurous fire through his limbs and his belly, sometimes so intensely that he shouts in pain and the walls shake.

Castiel does not know what his true form looks like; he doesn't need to know. Angels have never had mirrors because God's grace and beauty was always mirrored for them, in each other. Castiel has known every molecule and impulse of himself since his creation; unlike a human, he sees, feels, hears, senses, with every particle. Angels are not made vain, merely truthful. Yet now, the shadows of his vessel's fingers splayed against the dirty bathroom mirror, Castiel wishes he could see what it is that others see when they look at him.


The darkness that twists him – strands of something like a negative light, thick and inflexible within the air and brightness of his grace – glares back at him. What are you? it seems to ask him. What have you done?

Despair is like a violent stab in his breast. He cries out, and the bathroom mirror shatters. A bright red sluices slowly down the back of his vessel's hand, and he stares numbly at it, all of his voices shifting over the others, descending the registers into one low, guttural moan that he doesn't recognize, baffled as he cradles his fragmented self upon the gritty bathroom floor, hearing it echo off the walls over and over.

The throat of his human body could never replicate that grief, and so he is silent when Dean – always Dean – ascends the stairs, finds him, kneels down beside him in the broken glass. Utters a soft syllable that Castiel has long since come to recognize as his name, sometimes even favoring it over the longer version: My cover is God. What is "God" to him now, anyway? He hurls sparks of anguish at the night sky, his grace pounding with a dark red hurt, and Dean shakes his human shoulder roughly, panicked a little at the blank gaze, the stillness.

He hasn't yet found a way to express his regret to Dean. Not in a way that he feels either of them can truly understand. For angels, there are no apologies. There is only redemption, or retribution, and here, Castiel can find neither. An eternity in Purgatory should have been his punishment, he thinks, beating the air above Bobby's roof into a maelstrom that threatens the ancient shingles, but of Purgatory he can only remember the desperate hope. The brutal, unrelenting desire to survive. The cool, bright salvation of that living connection, like a faint radio signal over immense distances, to the human soul to which he had so long ago surrendered.

"Dean." He forces the name through the stricture of human vocal chords. "I'm sorry."

A narrow burst of breath above his curled body. The floor creaks softly, the glass crinkles under boots and denim-clad knees. "Yeah, Cas, you said that already."

Castiel says nothing. The imperfection of language is not his fault. He could shatter Dean's skull with the force of his regret. He could drown deserts. He reaches a hand – not either of the ones splayed limp and bloody on the cold tiles – inside himself, to the sickly dark forces churning like thunderstorms, as though he could grasp them and tear them out.

"C'mon, man. You can't just stay up here sulking and throwing tantrums because you made a mistake." Dean's voice sounds less convinced than his words do. He sounds wary, gritty, full of the sand of sleeplessness. His fear for Sam is a bright, hard thing. Castiel wants to unfold inside him, brush against his mind as he has done so many times before, to carry Dean to safety, to sleep, but he's afraid that the blight of sin within himself would trouble that sleep.

He doesn't reply right away. He stays somewhere near the roof and watches a monsoon sweeping across the sea towards the Gulf of Khambhat, extinguishing the sharp, sparkling edges of the swells with its shadow.


***

The day after his hallucination of Hell, Sam climbs the stairs alone. His brain feels sluggish, but his body is jittery like he's had too much coffee, even though he's been laying off lately. There's a slight curl of acid disappointment in his gut; he's been working so hard on "reframing" or whatever it is the experts like to call it, and there's something horrifying and completely demoralizing in the thought that Lucifer is going to live in the back of his head forever.

The scent of ozone gets stronger as he nears the top of the stairs.

Sometimes he imagines Castiel up here, sans vessel, blazing away like a signal fire. It brings to mind flashes of memory – the spinning, surreal displacement of the archangels' true forms, scorching his eyes out again and again. Sam takes a deep, steadying breath.

Castiel is crouched on the windowsill.

Sam blinks. "You weren't thinking of jumping, were you?" He tries to make it a casual joke, but when Castiel's head turns to him, the knife-sharp look of his eyes seems to negate any humor. He's not a burning column of light, for sure, but Sam thinks he's rarely seen Castiel look less human.

He's still shirtless, the tattered button-down draped on the bedpost like a shed skin. The bones of his shoulder blades are sharp and shadowed, and they look larger than they should be, the tendons of his neck long and taut. Castiel's hair is ruffled, as usual, and against his pallor, the dark mess of it looks jet black, like a ragged crow's wing. His eyes are ringed in bruise-like hollows, but they're bright, glinting like blue stones.

He cocks his head at Sam, the endearingly familiar gesture now making him look like a clever, feral thing.

"I was merely...surveying." Castiel unfolds himself out of the window, smoothly, but slowly. "In any case, the rake of the roof would have prevented me falling very far."

Sam lifts his eyebrows in agreement. Castiel tilts his head again, his gaze boring into Sam's eyes until Sam wants to squint or rub them or look away. It's Castiel, however, who lowers his head first, gaze casting about on the floor, suddenly hesitant. "Dean tells me...." he trails off, and Sam watches a silent breath lift his protruding ribs.

"I just…I wanted to ask you something." Sam barrels ahead, stepping into the room and closing a hand around one of the bed's posts, trying not to shiver in the frigid breeze coming through the window. He takes another deep breath. "I want you to tell me the truth."

His oblique reference to the lies and omissions of the past two years raises Castiel's head, as Sam knew it would, and the angel looks into him again, this time with a human sorrow in his dark eyes. "I will, Sam."

"Why did you pull me out of Hell?"

Sam knows that time exists differently for angels and demons. Their realms have a more fluid relationship with it than the human plane does. In the still moments before Castiel answers, Sam wonders how many Heavenly aeons might have passed, the angel still as a statue, turned to stone save for the tiny, steady pulse of a vein in his throat.

"Because it was wrong for you to be there." There is a painful inflection on the word "wrong," as though it's an imbedded thorn that hurts when moved.

"What do you mean by that? Wrong, how?"

"You're a good man, Sam."

Sam snorts, tugging a hand through his hair, thinking of all the mistakes he's made. There is a pressure building in him, not quite anger, not quite despair. "How can you be so sure?"

Sam can't help the moment of self-pity, feeling lost in this great big cosmic orchestration of free will versus fate. He tries to do what's right. He believes that helping people is right; he believes in people's free will, in doing good in the world. He recycles. He cares about equal rights. But he's the kid with the demon blood. Lucifer's vessel. He ended up in Hell anyway.

"When I first met you," Castiel says suddenly, "I saw you as a doomed soul. Tainted. I did not expect you to be...good." He turns his head, looking directly at Sam again. "And despite your giving in to temptation, you were good. You were so much more...certain...in your morality than I ever was." His eyes go gentle as he moves forward, bare feet making scarcely a sound on the rough old wood. The air prickles with his nearness, and Sam wonders, for a split second, how it must feel to Dean to stand this close, considering Sam can feel the near electrical current that passes between Cas and his brother whenever they are near each other. His brother's handprint is a vivid splotch on Castiel's white chest, as though it were painted on.

"You became my friend, Sam. It pained me to think of you in Hell, no matter what the reason."

Sam nods. There's a tightness in his chest. He wants to smile at Cas, tell him that Cas is his friend, too, but it niggles: the memory of how easily Castiel lied to them before. How he broke his wall.

"What about Adam?" Sam's voice is scarcely above a whisper. "What about my soul?"

Castiel's lashes lower against his cheekbones for only a moment, but Sam knows him well enough to know that were he human, his whole body would be sagging in pain and regret.

"The truth is, I did not think of Adam. I thought of your pain, and your brother's pain at losing you. I knew that you both needed each other. I wished to reunite you." The angel's voice is steady, but rough. "And I never intended to leave you sundered, Sam. It wasn't easy, bringing your body out of Hell. I bear the wounds of it still." His hand hovers, briefly, over his human vessel's stomach. "I was nearly unconscious by the time we reached the world, yet I had to return to Heaven before anyone could realize I had gone to Hell again. And then in Easter, after Veritas, when I realized what must have happened..." He looks away, and Sam can see a muscle in his jaw twitch. "I had to admit that raising you from the Pit was a failure. I didn't think I could go back without releasing Lucifer and Michael as well, and so I tried to put it from my mind. It was the first of many...regrettable things that I did, in that time." Castiel lowers his eyes again, and the air seems frozen around him, like a held breath.

Sam knows he means the breaking of the wall, and for a moment, his chest feels too tight.

There are a million more questions he wants to ask, a million more details that he wants to know. He could obsess about it forever if he really thought about it; he could spend a lifetime, mired in his own bitterness and regret. Instead, he closes his eyes and inhales slowly, imagining that the breath pushes out cobwebs and darkness, dragging in with it a clean, open scent, like the air in the Rockies, or the sea on a clear day. "Okay," he says, mostly to himself. "Okay."


***

Castiel cannot help when he sleeps, though he resists it with every ounce of strength he has. In sleep, he is dragged to the depths of the ocean, down where no light has ever penetrated. Slippery fingers grasp his wings, pulling him closer and closer to that inexorable darkness, as a subliminal thunder races outward and upward, aiming for the minds of every human on the planet, seeking them deep in their slumber. He struggles and screams, but his light is drowned by the darkness.

What have you done? cry the voices, some laughing and some weeping. They hiss in through his stained grace, twist around his throat and in his hair like tendrils. What have you done?

Miles above him on the shoreline, a withered and wasted figure stands, skinny arms outstretched, mouth open like a hole in its face, screaming over and over again in a language that stirs something within the angel's brain, some dread dark memory that rolls over and doesn't quite wake.


***

Bobby leans decisively back in his chair, arms crossed over his chest. "Well, I don't like it."

Sam and Dean look up at him, sitting silent in their respective corners of the study. They've both been damn quiet lately, though in Sam's case, Bobby can understand better. Kid hasn't been all there since the Devil moonwalked in his head last week. Dean, on the other hand; why he's not back up there making good with the angel he walked into Purgatory for, Bobby can't figure out. Maybe he's waiting until Cas stops having flashbacks to 'Nam or something. Or maybe they're both just damn stubborn idjits.

Anyway, Dean at least gives Bobby's proclamation a cursory eyebrow. Sam's still looking a little out of it, fidgeting with that damn ever-present computer.

Bobby continues anyway. "Two weeks and nothing? And that's from all quarters, too – I've been puttin' out calls. Not so much as a werewolf's whisker!"

Sam furrows his brow at the computer screen; Bobby knows he's been thinking the same thing.

"Maybe Cas's little power-trip put the fear of God into 'em," Dean offers, not without a smirk of acknowledgement at the choice of words. Bobby glowers at him.

"Yeah, or maybe somethin' worse is just lyin' in wait."

Dean huffs. "Real optimistic."

"Hey, you don't get very far as a hunter bein' optimistic," Bobby snaps. Two weeks of a full house is starting to get to him. Not that he doesn't love these boys, but it wouldn't kill Dean or Sam to make the damn coffee once in a while. And he'd really like to be able to replace his windows in peace.

Dean's face falls a little and Bobby sighs inwardly; he knows Dean was really thinking the same thing, but dammit, he has less patience every year for the seemingly random times when Dean decides to play dumb.

For instance.

"How about you ask Cas?" Bobby says pointedly, trying not to roll his eyes when Dean's expression turns evasive and he suddenly finds the grime under his fingernails enthralling. "Or were you just gonna pretend that none of that shit ever happened? And you two just dance around each other for the rest of your lives?"

Dean flushes at that, Bobby notes, with a flare of satisfaction. Over in his corner, Sam furrows his brow but doesn't look up from his computer screen. Dean lets out a huff of breath. "It's..." He runs a hand over his face suddenly, and Bobby can see the tremor in it, as Dean struggles with the demon of emotional honesty. "It's hard, Bobby." His voice is subdued, and Bobby relents a little.

"I can't imagine it bein' easy, son..."

"It's like, he's the same Cas, but he's not. He's done all these things...I know it was the souls and everything, but he was there. He let them in. He let it happen. He remembers everything. And that's...even I don't remember everything. From Hell."

Sam looks up at that, and Bobby can see painful questions in the kid's open face. Maybe, someday, somehow, he'll be able to get these two to have the same conversation at the same time, with each other. And if so, he'd damn well better be canonized for it. He'll have to ask Cas about that one.

"Cas wasn't in Hell, Dean," he prods reasonably.

"Yeah, well maybe this was worse. Hell is something that happens to you. What this was – Cas made it happen. Beginning to end." Dean's tone is flattened, but there's still something different in it than the bolted-and-locked dismissal he used to dish out right before he dove into a bottle of whiskey and didn't come out for a few days.

Bobby raises an eyebrow and slowly nods. "Yeah," he drawls. "It sure can be tough lovin' someone with that kind of PTSD. But what else can you do?"

Dean continues to study the wallpaper rather than look him in the eye, but Bobby sees the small, hopeful flicker of a smile that crosses his face.

There is a long silence, then Sam speaks up from the couch. "Hey, there's a lady in Colorado Springs who says she's receiving angelic messages through the patterns of menstrual blood on her underwear." His voice is full of false enthusiasm.

Bobby groans. "Is that before or after she takes the magic mushrooms?"

"Ooh, and for a mere $299.99, you can buy them from her Etsy shop."

Dean bangs his head on the wall. "Shoot me now."


***

He wishes that Cas would put on some damn clothes. It's not that Dean's a prude, or at least he's sure never thought of himself that way. But there's something so frighteningly raw about Castiel right now, and it's written in the lines of his half-clad body, sparks of unrestrained power and emotion that Dean can feel on his skin, that he can taste in the air of the whole house. Even when Castiel is sitting still and silent, in one of his intense, conscious-statue periods, Dean can see suffering in his bones.

If Castiel were human, Dean would at least have some idea of what to do. Force-feed him a cheeseburger or three, for starters; Dean's not sure just how Cas's true form and his vessel are physically related, but there's no way that someone that thin isn't hungry as hell. It makes him uncomfortable to look at Cas, a disturbing cocktail of frustration, sympathy, and some kind of strange fascination, watching the slide of flesh over bone, the subtle shadows of his ribs, the fluttering cavern at the base of his throat. Just being in the same room with him makes Dean's skin feel over-sensitive, like the toughest top layer has been removed.

Castiel sleeps erratically. In the very beginning, he'd be almost comatose for days. Now, sleeping and waking are like two sides of a coin, randomly flipped, like the catatonic silences and the attacks of anger or panic, vented in languages Dean doesn't understand. Like the destroyed windows, and the rose bushes along that west-facing side of the house that are in full bloom even in the dead of a South Dakota winter. But even in the midst of Castiel's wildest rages, the house has never fallen down around them, never – aside from the upstairs windows – even been touched with harm. Dean knows that Castiel could flatten not only Bobby's house, but probably the whole state if he wanted to, or if he really couldn't control himself at all. Something in him knows restraint; something in him is still protecting them.

The hopeful plates of food that Dean leaves just over the threshold of Castiel's door go untouched. At first, Dean just collects them methodically, ferrying the plates downstairs to scrape and wash, because at least it's something to do. There is even a superficial satisfaction in keeping his hands occupied like that, and at first he doesn't question it, doesn't notice the anger and hurt building underneath this calm, capable surface. But dammit, Dean gets it – he does. Castiel's denying himself; he's letting himself give in to all that fear and self-doubt, because he doesn't think he deserves anything else. It's a tactic Dean knows by heart, having done it all his life.

But Castiel's despair is immovable, like hitting a brick wall with your fist, and finally, standing there one morning in the doorway with another abandoned plate, watching the angel sitting, motionless, staring at nothing like there's nothing better to stare at, Dean snaps.

"You know," he says, too loudly, "if hotdogs and toaster waffles aren't cutting it for you, you could just tell me." The barely-hidden snarl in his voice surprises even him a little, but once it's out, he can't call it back in. His heart rate is starting to quicken. "I mean, we're not exactly five stars around here, but I'm sure we could find something that's more to your liking."

The sound of his voice manages to rouse Castiel from his ponderous reverie, and he looks at Dean with an initial expression of mild confusion, as though Dean's gone off-script. Then his gaze falls to the plate, and he turns his head dismissively. Dean grinds his teeth, feels his face heating up. He wonders for a second why he's so angry about this, but the tremor in his hand tells him that this has been building for a long time, maybe even since before Castiel went Dark Side, and looking at the bruised hollows under Cas's eyes, the careless tilt of his head, as though he's content to sit up here wasting away forever, Dean wants to haul off and hit him.

"I don't need to eat, Dean," comes the peevish reply.

"Oh. Of course. Silly me." Dean half-turns from the doorway and tosses the plate casually into the hallway, letting it crash to the floor and shatter. Castiel's head jerks slightly at the noise, and he looks at Dean again, the opiate expression gone from his eyes, at least for the moment. The angel's lips part questioningly, but Dean stalks forward into the room. "See, I couldn't tell, by the way you're apparently letting your vessel starve to death, so do you mind telling me, then, why you're not healing?" He flings his hand, palm up, outward in the general direction of Castiel, and Cas gets up abruptly, moving away, the set of his shoulders tense and rigid.

"The state of my vessel is the least of my concerns right now."

"Well, it's not the least of my concerns!"

Castiel doesn't look at him, but frowns a little, as though the concept that Dean has concerns is one he finds only slightly bothersome.

"Look, Cas...I can't see into you," Dean continues. "I wish I could, but I'm not freakin' psychic, okay? I don't know what's goin' on in there unless you tell me. I don't know if you're gonna be okay, or not. Cuz from where I'm standing, you look like shit, man!"

"You shouldn't worry about me." Castiel's voice is rough but monotone, and he still doesn't raise his eyes. Another wave of fervent anger surges through Dean's bloodstream, and he has to restrain himself from walking over and grabbing Cas's chin in his hand.

"Are you fucking serious?" Dean says, voice loud in the quiet of the room. "Not worry about you? Cas, I died and went to Purgatory to drag your ass out, remember? Of course I'm worried! Or are you saying you've changed your mind and I shouldn't have fucking bothered?"

Dean can see Castiel clench his teeth, and his eyes burn brighter in their sockets.

"If you think I'm not grateful..." the angel starts, then stops again, glaring sorrowfully at something Dean can't see. "You're wrong."

"Then what now, Cas?" Something feels like a fist in Dean's chest, throbbing angrily at the memory of all that terror he'd felt, listening to his dreams for glimpses of the true Cas among the legion, crossing Death's door into the depths of Purgatory. All that damn hope. "Cuz don't tell me that now you don't think you deserve to be saved."

"Dean, the things I've done—"

And there it is, the crack in Castiel's dark voice, the bright gash of pain in his stony vision, the gulf that Dean can't cross over, no matter how much he tries to relate it to his own experience of shame and guilt. They will always be in separate Hells, just like he and Sam will be. Dean looks down at his hands out of instinct, and finds them ice-white, bloodless, clamped on the footboard of the bed. He's startled to hear the tears in his voice when he replies. "We've all done fucked-up things. For God's sake, me and Sam started the goddamn Apocalypse. I tortured people in Hell..."

"Only after thirty years of being tortured yourself, Dean. What I did was of my own free will. I made my choices, I aspired to godhood..." Castiel sounds ragged now, the clenching of his muscles too hard and strange, and Dean watches the air for those glimpses of Castiel's other self, the mechanism driving his human body to try and express its pain, but he can't see anything. Just Cas, his body shaking, fists clenched, eyes burning.

Dean shakes his head. "No, you know what? We're not gonna go there, not gonna argue about who's done worse. Okay? We both fucked up real bad and almost destroyed the world. The end."

Castiel, still shaking, stares down at the floor, brow furrowed. Dean's gripping the footboard so hard he can feel his fingers creak, but he doesn't let up, because it all comes so clear to him now, like the damn defrost finally kicked in: what Cas is or isn't, angel or ex-god, goddamn hammer of Heaven, it doesn't matter. Castiel is that baffling, terrifying, powerful thing, yes, and that thing, in all its ineffable suffering, is Dean's friend, his family, and Dean doesn't give a shit what you are, if you're family, you don't get to just give up. He should know.

"There is no one in this house who hasn't done something monumentally stupid, something fucked-up and wrong, at some point in their life." Dean's almost shouting now, eyes boring into the side of Castiel's head. "There's no one here who doesn't know what it feels like to feel guilty and shitty about something you can never undo. We don't get to undo those things, Cas. That's the fuckin' flip side of free will. We also don't get to ever stop feeling guilty about them. Maybe this is just shit we're gonna have to carry for the rest of our lives, but at some point...we gotta just trust that the stupid bastards who are there to save us from ourselves are doing it because there's something there worth saving. Shit, you taught me that."

Dean pauses for a breath, and suddenly, the anger just fizzles out, leaving behind a heavier feeling in his chest. "Look, Cas, I'm trying here, man. Trying to forgive and forget and move on. I wouldn't have gone to get you if I thought we couldn't get past this."

Castiel has stopped shaking, and his face is a mask again. Dean wonders where he really is right now, if anything has sunk into that thick angel skull of his. He relinquishes his death grip on the bed frame and stands there watching Castiel's profile for a moment before he turns on his heel, leaving before the silence can make him feel like an idiot.


***

The house divides even further, into three realms. Downstairs, in the living room and study, the three hunters orbit aimlessly around each other, idle and uncomfortable. Sam's taken to playing some annoying computer game while he pretends to look for hunts, and Bobby's started to sarcastically announce that this must be the perfect time to take up that model-train hobby he's always wanted to start in the basement. Dean and Sam have mutually decided that he's only half-joking.

Upstairs in Castiel's strange, cold demesne, it's been mostly silent, occasionally torn with the snarls and cries of one of his attacks of frustrated trauma, creaking timbers trying to hold all the tension of the angel's remorse. Bobby and Sam shoot each other knowing, helpless looks whenever Dean twitches subconsciously at the sounds, then goes back to furiously cleaning his guns or reading a book, though he never seems to turn the pages.

Then there is the kitchen, a sort of neutral territory, a peace tent, where the threads of their strange tapestry can be picked at over cups of coffee or plates of burnt bacon. Dean and Bobby sat at the table while Sam confessed the details of his Hell vision to them, and no one knew what to say, but Bobby reached out and patted Sam's arm, and Sam gave them both a little half-smile as though to say, Lucifer, am I right? What're you gonna do?

Dean is there, leaning against the counter and shoving forkfuls of toaster waffle into his mouth when Castiel descends the stairs for the first time. It's such an ordinary arrival; no tightening of the air, no rush of wings or that trembling feeling in his gut. He looks up, and Castiel is leaning in the doorway, eyes downcast, hair wilder than ever, his once-white dress shirt hanging lopsidedly on his shoulders, buttons undone.

Dean swallows his forkful carefully. "You're up."

Kind of a stupid thing to say – it's obvious, for one, and for two, Dean has been studiously leaving him alone, so he really has no idea what Cas has been up to.

Slowly, Castiel's eyes lift to Dean's face, none of that avoidance from earlier, and god, he's missed the intensity, the gut-punch of that look, even tired and somewhat anguished as it is now.

"Yes." Castiel takes a stumbling step forward, and Dean puts down his plate.

"Whoa...hey, careful there."

"I am..." Castiel wrinkles his nose slightly, looking down at himself as though just now discovering the perimeters of his vessel. "Weakened. I can't—" he cuts himself off with a low noise of frustration.

"It's okay," Dean says, shifting his weight uncomfortably. "You've uh...been through a lot." We've been through a lot, is what he wants to add, but the look of irritated concentration on Cas's face makes him hold it, a little bitter.

It lasts only a moment, for Castiel raises his eyes to Dean's again, making all bitterness dissolve into something more tremulous and more saturated. The vibrant blue of the angel's irises burns into Dean's gaze with a passion that closes Dean's throat and makes his heart rate speed up.

"Dean..." Castiel's voice dips into a lower register, his traditional enunciation of Dean's name, that scrape of rough, soft sound that makes Dean shiver. Castiel's fingers clutch the kitchen doorjamb bloodlessly. "I...cannot...I cannot ask you for forgiveness—"

Something in Dean clenches like a fist at that, clutching together fragile bits of feeling he can't fully express, and he steps forward hastily to put his hand out, to touch Cas, his palm landing on Castiel's chest, right where his print is burned into pale flesh. Castiel drags in a breath that sounds physically painful.

"Cas," Dean breathes. "It's...it's okay." The angel's eyes are riveted to his own like gunsights, and Dean can't look away, can't move his hand from the hot skin that holds a fluttering pulse and a power he feels like a mild electric shock. Something pushes itself up the back of his throat, burning to be said, but it's as though his brain can't translate it into language. He presses his palm once, twice, against Castiel's chest. "It's okay."


***

Neither of them are expecting it. They're just at the country store buying food, for crap's sake, not out hunting hellbeasts in the dark corners of the country. But it's not long after Dean and Sam have piled the groceries in the backseat of the Bobby's rusted Ford truck, and Dean's just closing up the door to head around to the driver's side when they hear it: an unmistakable snarling that sounds high and frantic, and at the same time resounding as though coming from all directions.

Sam's head whips around, catching Dean's eye with a startled expression, mouth hanging slightly open. Dean, too, pauses, because there's just no fucking way. Then there's a scraping noise, and Dean sees the ground churning under invisible claws.

"Sam!"

They run.

It's really not the smartest idea.

The country store sits in a small gathering of buildings, hunkered in the middle of nowhere off of the two-lane highway. They're lit by ancient street lights, dim and flickering, all crowded along the narrow alley that runs between the two sides of the so-called shopping center, grocery and video store on one side, gas station and a collection of boarded-up little warehouses on the other. Only the grocery store is open, and Dean can only think that they'd better lead the thing away from other people. Beyond that, the only thing going through his head is a ceaseless litany of fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck. He fights off flashbacks of the final moments before he fell into the Pit, the pain of his chest being torn open, ripped apart.

"In here!" Sam's voice jolts out of him, breathless, as he rams open the rusty door of one of the warehouse buildings with a shoulder. They slam the door behind them just as the hellhound smashes against it with a horrifying clang that dents the metal.

"Now what?" Dean barks, raking fingers through his hair. They're completely unarmed. Fuck, fuck, fuck. "And why the hell is that thing here, anyway?"

He can barely make out Sam's profile in the dark, eyes wide, shaking his head. The creature outside snarls again, and it sounds strangely high-pitched, almost panicked. Then, with another rough scrape of claws, it's gone. Dean and Sam turn to stare at each other.

"Shit."

Having a hellhound after them is one thing; having it go after innocent civilians is another thing entirely.

"I'll tail it," Dean shouts, flinging himself through the warehouse door into the silent alley. "You break into the gas station and find salt and anything iron!"

They split up, and Dean angles back toward the store, his pulse rocketing in his throat. A low snarl sounds off to his right as he sprints, and he barely has time to turn toward the sound when something slams into him like a sack of bricks.

Pure panic floods Dean's body at the familiar weight and smell, the hot breath gusting out of some infernal throat, the stink of sulfur and rotting flesh. He crosses his arms over his throat, drawing his knees up toward his chest as much as he can. The hellhound's weight is immense, and its claws tear at his sides.

"Sam!" He screams, and he thrashes his body desperately, trying to unpin himself from that awful pressure, certain that the fangs will find his vitals any second.

Instead, the hellhound's body is lifted off of him in a sudden gust of cool night air. Dean sucks in a clear breath, the bite of it stinging his nose, and stares upward at the sight of Castiel, arm outstretched, hand gripping something Dean's eyes can't see. The snarling and whining reaches a fever pitch, and Dean can see the angel's body shaking as the hound struggles in his grasp.

Cas shouts a guttural foreign word and flings the hellhound from him. Dean rolls over onto his feet just as Sam comes tearing across the alley towards them with a sack of something in his hand. He lobs it through the air, and Dean reaches to catch it, hearing the shift of salt and the jingle of nails. At the same time, the hellhound regains its feet and charges.

Quick as a bird in flight, Castiel steps to the side to impose his body between the hound and the brothers, and Dean sees the night air shift, a glimmering like the aftertrails of a blow on the head. Two massive outlines stretch from Cas's shoulders, and Dean can feel the backdraft of air from their spread. "Get back," the angel snaps, and Dean stumbles as Cas half-crouches, meeting the charge of the hound with a strange hunching movement of his right shoulder. The air swirls and churns; Dean stares as the angel's extended wing slashes out and there is a sound not unlike a small thunderclap as it connects with the hound's body. Dean throws the sack at it, an explosion of salt and nails causing the hound to shriek in rage.

Then Castiel attacks.

The wind of it throws Dean onto his back. He's seen Castiel fight, of course, and the angel's economy of movement, his speed, has always impressed him. This is something else. The ferocity and violence of the fight sizzle and shriek through the air as Castiel flings himself at the beast with a brutality and a speed that confuse Dean's eyes. The echoes of the angel's true form, like bright smoke, twist and swirl in the darkness, and there is an ominous vibration all around, a battle growl that has Dean's stomach in knots. Castiel fights with all of himself; the great wings slashing and punching, limbs grappling and striking; he wrestles the hound eventually to the ground and with a shining arc that is blinding in the dusky alleyway, his sword slams down into what can only be the beast's throat. Its death-scream gurgles hot upon the air, and Dean feels vaguely ill.

When the echoes fade, Castiel stands, wreathed in heat that rises around him in a vapor. His tattered shirt is speckled with dark blood, and Dean steps towards him immediately, breath punching in and out of his lungs as though it were he who'd been fighting.

"Jesus Christ, Cas!" He's still shaking, and his voice is none too steady. He can feel Sam behind him and knows that his brother is gaping, wide-eyed, at their rescuer.

"I sensed that you were in danger." The angel's voice is a low growl, still rumbling in the walls of the surrounding buildings.

"Yeah. What the hell was a hellhound doing here, on its own?" Sam sounds a little breathless himself.

"Are we sure it was on its own?"

Castiel nods. "Its packmates had already been killed."

"By what?"

Castiel's dark look betrays what he's going to say before he even says it. "I don't know."

Cas stumbles, and Dean is beside him in two strides, one arm going around his waist, glancing momentarily at the angel's back as though expecting to still see huge wings expanding into space. But Castiel's body feels hot and light. "Dammit, Cas," he says, more softly now, tugging the angel nearer so that he can lean on Dean's body. Castiel is like a furnace, though he's not sweating or even appearing to breathe hard. He tilts his head up to look at Dean, and the shifting of his muscles in Dean's arms sends a not entirely unpleasant shiver up his spine.


***

Bobby is furious when they get back, the mutually understood code for worried sick. He wordlessly slaps a beer into everyone's hand – including Castiel's – and immediately starts pulling books from his bookshelves, seemingly at random, determined to research his bizarre little family into safety.

There is a long scrape on Castiel's belly. Dean cautiously wipes at it with rubbing alcohol, kneeling in front of the couch where the angel sits, his beer untouched on the floor. "It will heal, Dean," Cas rumbles at him, but Dean just shakes his head and squints at the deep red blood slowly seeping. Cas is physically drained, Dean can tell. The angel's shaking slightly, his body weakened by the fight in ways it never would have been before Purgatory.

At least the cut's not deep enough to need stitches, so Dean wraps gauze around Cas's middle instead, one hand planted on his chest to keep him steady. He can feel the warm gust of the angel's breath on his wrist. His skin is surprisingly soft, Dean thinks, his fingertips brushing as he brings the gauze around and tapes it in place. His eyes flick sideways to see Castiel looking directly at him, unblinking as usual, and he feels a slight flush creep up his neck.

"Thanks for saving our asses, Cas," Dean whispers.

"It was the least I could do."

Dean snorts softly and sits back on his heels, toying with his beer bottle. His face suddenly feels hot, and he stares at the carpet. "Are you...gonna be okay?"

Castiel seems to know that Dean doesn't mean the gash on his stomach or the exhaustion, and he is very still for what seems like minutes. Just about the time that Dean glances up to see if he's gone all faraway again, Castiel looks back at him and the corner of his mouth twitches in one of his secretive, fleeting smiles. His eyes bore into Dean's, and he tilts his head, as though reading information there.

"I don't know."

Dean nods. It's not great, but it's better than "no," and it's definitely better than no answer at all. In fact, it sparks something awkward and warm inside Dean's chest that has him staring at the floor again, squirmy as a teenager.

"I think...I might be hungry, though."

Dean grins and looks up at Cas, whose eyelashes flicker against his cheekbones in a little dance of embarrassment.

"Well, good thing we just got back from a grocery run, then," Dean says, standing up, feeling that warmth settle in his belly at the thought of feeding Cas. "We got enough hotdogs to choke a horse!"

Castiel gives that smile again and shakes his head. "I'm not sure if my vessel is quite ready for these hotdogs. Maybe something lighter? Bobby suggested soup to me earlier."

Dean doesn't know why but Castiel's comment makes that warm feeling spread out even further, through his whole body. It's the smallest flicker of hope, but it's a sign – Castiel is trying to start over, to put things right. Dean puts a hand on Cas's shoulder, and the angel slowly leans his head against Dean's arm, just for a warm, heart-fluttering second.

"Hey, no problem, Cas. You just sit right there, and Sam and I'll figure something out."

Dean knows he shouldn't really feel like he's floating as he goes to the kitchen; there are hellhounds coming after them, Sam's still catching glimpses of Lucifer, and whatever's got the supernatural on lockdown, like Bobby suspects, cannot in any way be good. But for the moment, Dean's got a stupid grin on his face and all he cares about is settling Cas down on that couch and stuffing him with enough Campbell's chicken-noodle soup to feed an army.


***

The house is still, but it's the stillness of a storm that is waning, not one waiting to break. Sam stares into the fire, slowly sipping his beer. He supposes he's the only one left awake; Bobby's in his room, Dean herded Cas up the stairs an hour ago, and the angel quietly, willingly went, the fearsome energy more subdued than usual, mostly due to the hellhound fight, but also not entirely undue to all of the food Dean had practically forced him to put in his stomach. Sam has to smirk a little at the memory of that.

The flames make the walls shift and distort, and Sam's struggling not to imagine Hell again, now that the adrenaline of the evening's fight is gone, and he's alone. He can feel it, like a wound under a scab, always threatening in the far reaches of his mind. He has to wonder whether the fact that there was a hellhound of all things, running loose in Sioux Falls, is at all related. He's just waiting for Lucifer to appear and make some ominous taunt.

But nothing changes. Sam can feel some kind of awareness, as though the walls themselves have eyes, as though something immense and powerful were settled on the roof, gazing watchfully into the darkness. The fire snaps and gutters, getting small and sleepy, and if Sam still feels a wary unease, he knows it's one that will still allow him to sleep tonight.

He finishes his beer and sighs. The light on his laptop blinks steadily, but this newest mystery is one that can wait till morning. For the first time in a few days, Sam's looking forward to some rest. He crosses the dark room to the kitchen to put the beer bottle in the sink, and he pauses on his way back to the couch. Through the window he can see that the roses on the west side of the house are in full bloom, bright as moons in the wintry night. Sam's mouth twitches in a little smile, and out of habit, he checks the wards on all the windows and doors as he goes by. They glow faintly with new strength, the lines bold and strong.

"Thanks, Cas," he whispers into the stillness, and as he settles himself on the couch, he swears he can hear the satisfied rustle of giant feathers, shielding them all inside.


***