Once in a blue moon I fall victim to the desire to write sappy romance. I can't be violent and cruel all of the time you know. grin

Dean would fail. Mary Campbell would make the deal to save John Winchester's life, never knowing her decision might lead to the destruction of mankind itself. The ripples created by that small moment in time would eventually become a tidal wave of misery and death effecting not just the Winchesters but all of creation. It was done. It could not be changed, not by Dean, not by anyone.

Castiel sighed. He'd known the odds of success were slim to none, and altering the future had not been his primary purpose, but if the events of November 2, 1983 could have been prevented...

He chiding himself for such thinking. The end result could have been just as devastating had Mary lived. Azazel would have just found someone else. In fact, he had, marking more than one family, covering all his bases - and covering all his tracks. He was as unpredictable as he was cruel; that was the heart of the issue. Just what had been the yellow-eyed demon's ultimate goal?

Castiel was afraid he knew the answer, and his fear was genuine.

Angels expressed no emotion, felt no emotion - common misconceptions. The emotions they felt were simply beyond the scope of human comprehension. They were pure, unadulterated by shades of gray, enormous in scale. Just as Castiel's true voice and true form would overwhelm a human being's physical senses, the emotions churning inside the angel's heart would drive a man insane. He could feel. He had known anger, grief...


He could be hurt. He'd been hurt.

Turning his vision away from the past, Castiel returned for a moment to the present. Dean's journey had ended. He had returned to the now, to the body that lay sleeping curled beneath a battered leather coat. Castiel's lip quirked in the faintest of smiles, recalling a small boy and a dog-eared blanket worn from the caress of small hands and multiple washings. While the past resisted change, the future was never fully set. Like a jigsaw puzzle, the future was built up of interlocking pieces that were gradually brought into cohesion by choices made in the present. No one could have predicted that small boy would one day become the key to saving the entire human race.

Not, Castiel amended to himself, that Dean Winchester was any sort of messiah. The halo was more than a little tarnished, and the lack of faith in both himself and God was a definite encumbrance.

Still, it was Dean who had the best chance of keeping Azazel's chosen son in check, and Dean who had the best chance of destroying him if all else failed. Getting Dean to do so would be the difficult part, given that his target was his one and only brother. Ah, another correction; Dean did have faith – in Sam.

Sam Winchester was the wild card within the current turmoil affecting creation, and it was vital he remain on the right path, make the right choices. His role in whatever Azazel had set in motion was as yet unknown and likewise Azazel's ties to Lilith. Castiel suspected the two demons were of a similar mindset, simply employing different methods to bring about their ultimate goal of freeing Lucifer. Lilith was most assuredly a threat, and Sam...

Sam had been proven to be more powerful than she.

The Liar's influence upon the denizens of Hell was widespread and insidiously pervasive, this despite his continued imprisonment. His seductive whispers could corrupt the most pure of hearts and Azazel had used this to great advantage. The blood he'd fed his "children" had been tainted by Satan himself. It thrived like a parasite within its host and it took its sustenance from sin. With every lie and half-truth he told, with every drop of blood he spilled, Sam unwittingly fed the monster inside him. The more he fed it, the more it grew and the more it hungered. It gifted its host with abilities no human had ever been meant to bear, to facilitate its own survival.

For exactly what purpose? That was the most frightening of all that remained unknown.

Castiel did not make idle threats. He respected Dean's faith in his brother but hoped it was not misplaced. If Dean could not, or would not, pull Sam back from the precarious position he had put himself in, Castiel and his kindred would take matters into their own hands. They could not risk a being as powerful as Azazel's chosen aligning himself with Lilith and her master. Sam would be difficult to take out, even for God's warriors, but angels were just as good at bargains and manipulations as demons. As long as they had Dean, they held the advantage.

As for Dean – he had only to keep Sam from using his demon-borne abilities, by any means possible. If he failed, it would be seen as a betrayal, and like Sam his life would be forfeit. Again, Castiel did not make idle threats. He had said it as clearly as he could: "I dragged you out of Hell, and I can throw you back."

Dean's value, however, had many facets, a fact which could definitely keep him breathing. Castiel not only had to make sure the elder brother understood his role as it pertained to the younger, but he also had get inside the man's head. Angels were able to pull human souls from the pit, but were not privy to Hell's secrets. Information vital to their cause was locked up in Dean's subconscious, knowledge woven in and around his soul, difficult to extract. Castiel did what he could to chip away at the seals keeping those memories repressed and inaccessible but he'd grossly underestimated human tenacity.

Humans possessed an inherent will to survive, to instinctively protect themselves from both physical and emotional distress. Dean had buried Hell deep inside himself. Extracting selective memories was a tricky operation, much like a game of pick-up-sticks, and if the dam broke Castiel would have a mess on his hands. Gleaning information from a man suffering a complete mental breakdown would be next to impossible.

For now Dean slept easy, dreamless, and Castiel let him be. The knowledge Dean had gained from his journey into the past, and the revelation that would follow upon waking and finding Sam gone, would be a heavy burden. He needed rest. He'd earned a respite from having his dreams tinkered with, and would not dream of Hell for the rest of the night.

With another sigh, Castiel sat down on the edge of the bed. Angels were not without sin, he reflected. He had told Dean he had been rescued from Hell by God's command, and that was only partially true. God had not issued a command, he had granted a favor, a favor asked of him by one of his most humble servants - Castiel himself.

Said servant had been granted the chance to prove that a promise he had made, but had been forbidden to keep, was worth revisiting. He should have known that his master would up the ante. If Castiel's faith in Mary Winchester's children had been misplaced, the consequences could be devastating for both Heaven and Earth. Salvation lay squarely upon the shoulders of a non-believer and a demonic changeling, and the blame, if it all fell apart, would be the burden of one foolish angel to bear.

Had the decision been his alone, Castiel would have never sent Dean back in time, but the past dictated the future, and the present required certain truths to be revealed.

Castiel closed his eyes. While Dean slept, he let himself return to the past, continuing his observation a few years down the road from where Dean had exited.

24 December, 1978

The chapel was dark, illuminated by a few wall sconces along each side of the nave, all of them turned down low, and a stand of flickering votives. It was cold and deserted too, for a new, larger church had been built in town and it was there that Father Jacob would hold midnight mass this Christmas Eve. The old church, which sat alone among a copse of trees at the edge of a bean field, had been all but abandoned.

Mary had been here many times before, always alone, and always with a prayer in her heart. Her parents were not necessarily religious people, her father in particular. Samuel Campbell kept an open mind about all things – because in his profession it was best to believe anything was possible – but he was not a church goer. He did not believe in prayer. There might be a higher power, he granted, but who or whatever it was did not sit around listening to humans whine about their problems and certainly didn't grant their wishes like some sort of genie in a bottle.

In contrast Mary's mother had a gentler opinion. Deanna had been raised Catholic, by a devout Irish family. It was all about faith, she said. There was power in positive thinking, no matter where it originated. As long as you believed in something it could give you strength. Likewise if you let negativity cloud your thoughts, it only gave the opposition more power over you. Demons, she informed her daughter, preyed on weaknesses of the heart. Fear, sadness, and doubt drew them to a person like a beacon in the night.

It had been fear that led Mary to make a deal with a demon five years earlier, and fear that had led her to the chapel to pray nearly every day since. Like her father, she didn't know if anyone was listening, or if they would respond, but like her mother she felt it gave her strength. In her heart, she wanted it to be true. She needed it to be true. Someone had to hear her prayer, before it was too late.

She came in shaking a light dusting of snow from her coat, but did not take it off. It was cold in the chapel, nearly as cold as it was outside. The Kansas wind drove through every little chink in the building's exterior, creating drafts that flowed throughout the nave and up over the altar. Mary paused to warm her hands over the votives and to light one herself before she took a seat in one of the pews.

Sitting took effort when one was eight months pregnant, almost as much effort as walking, sleeping or driving. Mary had barely been able to squeeze in behind the steering wheel of the car, and practically held her breath the whole journey. If John knew she'd gone out he would have been upset, but he had volunteered to serve meals at the VA hospital in town this night, and Mary had said she would go to bed early. He didn't doubt her word, just like he hadn't doubted her word when they were having trouble conceiving.

Back then she added a prayer for forgiveness to her usual requests. She had lied to her husband, hinting that she was not becoming pregnant because of some underlying health issue. He had not questioned her further, accepting the possibility that they would never have a child of their own, while hiding his extreme disappointment. He had recommended adoption, and never thought to look inside the box of tampons beneath the bathroom sink. It was the last place he would have looked for anything even if he had suspected Mary of hiding something from him. As a result he never found her birth control pills.

She'd been horrified when she missed her period, and rushed to the doctor who confirmed her greatest fear. Antibiotics, the doctor told her, could decrease the effectiveness of birth control. Mary had been sick with a sinus infection near the estimated time of conception.

Every day for the first trimester she had contemplated having an abortion.

The thought now made her place her hands protectively over her broad belly. The desire to have a family, to make John happy, had overwhelmed her fear of losing her child to the demon. When she eventually broke down and told John the news, his utter elation at the prospect of becoming a father renewed Mary's confidence. With newfound enthusiasm she began setting up a nursery and baby-proofing the house. Admittedly she still did not know what the demon would want when it came, but she vowed it would not have her child. Some how, some way, she would prevent it, even if she had to pay for it with her life.

Or her soul.

Mary bowed her head and listened to the stillness surrounding her. There was something special about Christmas Eve, even if you weren't a Christian. The night had a magical quality to it, and in truth the date had more to do with pagan beliefs than Christianity. It was the time of the winter solstice, the changing of the seasons. Throughout the ages some sort of celebration, rite, or ritual had been conducted during this time in nearly every corner of the globe. Some of them had carried on into modern times. Mary knew of more than a few pagans who still practiced the old religions.

And that, Mary mused, was the Hunter in her. Like most of her kind she soaked up such information like a sponge. She had been years away from "the job" but she still did her reading. Now, however, it centered primarily around the search for a way out of her deal and if that was not forthcoming, a way to protect herself, her husband and her child when the demon came to call. Regrettably she had found nothing but dead ends so far. The fear and self doubt were returning, growing stronger the closer she came to her due date. Mary found she was no longer confident in her ability to keep her child safe. What would she do five years hence if the demon took her baby?

"Please," she whispered desperately. "Help me. I don't know what to do! Please, show me what to do!"

There was no answer save an echoing sigh from the breezes drifting through the old building and the hiss of the votives when wax touched flame. Mary shivered and pulled her coat more tightly around herself, and her hat down further upon her head. Only her eyes remained visible above the brightly colored knit scarf she had wrapped about her neck. Sitting thus, with her gloved hands tucked inside her sleeves, she resembled a little bird sitting on a branch, its feathers puffed up to protect it from the cold.

The church was safe and quiet, and gradually Mary began to grow warm and cozy inside her wraps. As comfortable as she could be in her advanced state of pregnancy, and utterly exhausted, it wasn't long before she drifted off to sleep.

After some time a soft voice woke her, and although at first she felt surprise, she did not flinch and wake suddenly. It was just Father Jacob, she thought, returning from mass, and nothing to fear. Slowly she opened her eyes upon the altar, and blinked in the bright light that seemed to have engulfed the entire front of the church. There was something within the light. Mary raised her head and squinted in an effort to see it better.

At first she wasn't sure what she saw. It was like nothing she'd ever seen before, and being raised a Hunter, she had seen many unusual things. She got the general impression of something man shaped, but it was no man, and the voice she heard was like a thousand bells ringing out in chorus. The sight and sound didn't frighten her at all, but instead comforted her and made her feel safe. It had been a long time since Mary had felt so much at peace – if she ever had.

"Hello?" she whispered hoarsely, and blinked her eyes again.

When she opened them, whatever she had seen had become only a young man, blond haired and blue eyed, standing before her at the altar rail. He wore faded jeans and sturdy boots, and a plain checked shirt beneath a dark navy pea-coat. Young, and handsome, he seemed incongruous there in the solemnity of a small country church, especially since Mary was more used to seeing the elderly Father Jacob where he now stood. She might have been terribly afraid but for one thing, and that was the look the young man wore. His wide-eyed, boyish face was filled with wonder, as if he'd just witnessed a Christmas miracle.

"Mary," he said softly, and that was all.

Mary sat very still in her seat. If she'd been able to run she might have, but just getting up would take time, time in which he could easily stop her. "Do I know you?"

"Yes, and no," he said. There was a note of awe in his voice as he asked, "Just now, what did you see?"

She frowned. "I...I'm not sure. Light, and...something..." There was only one word to describe it. "Wonderful." Mary worried her lip, torn between the Hunter instincts telling her to be wary, and the strange feeling of comfort he seemed to have brought with him. "Are you a spirit?"

"As in ghost? No. I'm not one of Dickens' holiday spirits." He tipped his head to the side, and his hair fell softly over one eye. It was long, just brushing his shoulders, and caught the light like spun gold. "You could see me? You could hear me?"

"I'm looking at you now, and we're having a conversation, so I'd say yeah."

With a smile he pushed himself off the rail and moved toward the aisle. He took a seat next to her, but left some distance between them. Mary was grateful for that, as her heart was beating fast and her mind was reeling. If he made any move to grab her she would have to react as quickly as she could, which would not be very quick at all considering she was lugging a baby around inside her.

"This," he said, gesturing with one hand toward his own chest. "Is of my own making, an illusion to make you more comfortable. If you were anyone else I would have to acquire a vessel in order to appear before you." The look of wonder returned. "You don't realize how special you truly are, do you?" Glancing around the chapel, he smiled slightly. "This is the night they celebrate Christ's Mass, and pay homage to the Mary who bore him." He turned his attention back to her, his blue eyes bright. "And here you are, another Mary, bearing another child, seeking shelter from the storm."

Mary fidgeted. She was beginning to form a hypothesis regarding her visitor, and found it somewhat disconcerting. "There's no storm," she whispered.

"By what definition? There was no storm in Bethlehem that night either."

"And you know this?"

"I was there," he said, quite matter-of-factly. After a moment, a moment in which Mary sat shocked and silent, he elaborated. "Gabriel got all the press. Everyone else was delegated to the choir."

Finding her own voice, Mary edged away from him slightly. "You...you're an angel?" she breathed, and then shook her head, laughing at herself. "No. I don't believe it."

"You don't? Then why are you here? To whom have you been praying?" He stared at her unblinking. "Would you prefer to believe me a spirit you might Hunt?" At her look of surprise he nodded. "We're well familiar with your kind, Mary."

Her expression hardened. With effort she pushed herself to her feet, noting the fact he did not rise to help her as another man might have done. "My kind? I stopped Hunting years ago."

"Five in fact."

"And how do you know that?"

There was a lengthy pause before he answered the question. "I've been watching you," he admitted, and Mary wondered if she had not heard a note of embarrassment in his tone.

"You've been watching me?" she echoed. "So you're my guardian angel?" Her eyes narrowed. "If that's the case you need to be canned."

He laughed, startling her, but again she heard the chorus of bells ringing beneath the human voice. "No. I'm no guardian angel. By your understanding there are no such things."

"Then why have you been watching me?" Mary demanded somewhat hotly. "And guardian angel or not, where were you when that demon murdered my parents!"

"I was there, in some fashion, or so I believe," he replied cryptically, and continued before she could question him. "Five years ago I felt something, a wrinkle in the fabric of time. Only a God or an angel has the power to do such a thing. When I came to investigate I..." His voice softened. "I found you." He studied her carefully, his beautiful, expressive face full of sorrow. "I could not stop what occurred. I am sorry, Mary."

Tears welled up in her eyes. She sought to sit down again, and this time he did rise to help her, taking her hand in his and guiding her down to the pew. His hand lingered in hers for a moment and she felt how soft and warm it was, unlike John's hands which were hardened and rough from many years doing manual labor. When he resumed his seat, she noted he did so quite a bit closer to her.

"Some things will come to pass no matter how much we try to stop them," the angel reiterated softly. "What I discovered was an attempt to alter the future, your future, but it was unsuccessful. The death of your parents, and your deal with...the demon, could not be prevented." He turned his gaze toward the front of the church, staring intently at the large statue of the Virgin Mary standing behind the altar. "My kind exist outside of time, but still remain bound to many of its rules."

Mary understood what he was trying to say. "The demon will come to my home in five years."

"At this point, yes."

Hope. Mary reached out to grab it . "At this point? So despite the one failed attempt, my future can be changed?"

He turned his startlingly blue eyes back toward her. "Sometimes, sometimes not. Think of time as a piece of cloth, a woven rug perhaps. The size, shape and color of the rug depends on how the individual threads are woven together upon the loom. By blending blue and yellow threads the finished tapestry may appear green. Blend red threads with blue and the color will be violet. Add more warp threads to the loom and the rug becomes wider, add more weft threads and it will lengthen." Lowering his eyes, he concluded the analogy. "The basic structure of the future is set, dictated by the past and the present, but by adding different elements to what is already there, the original pattern may indeed be altered." He paused, still avoiding her eye. "Ultimately, though, a rug is still a rug."

Quietly, Mary placed a hand upon her belly, and smiled to herself as she felt the baby push one tiny foot up against the walls of its prison. She traced its outline, wondering if it could feel her touch. Beneath her fingers she could count each little toe and that simple fact filled her with joy. One future she knew she would one day witness – John tickling those toes, a broad and happy smile upon his face.

"This little piggy went to market..."

"Five years ago you came because you felt something – not right." Mary raised her chin and clenched her jaw, illustrating the strong-willed defiance that had frequently led her to lock horns with her father. "The Hunter, Dean, was that you then?"

"No," he said quietly. "But...I was the one who sent him. He bore my mark."

"What?" Mary blinked, startled. "You?" She frowned. "But you said you came to investigate some disruption in time, not that you caused it."

"I did both, because at the time I was unaware of the disruption's source. It originated from a distant future, but yes, it was me. "

"But...why? Why send someone back to change my future?" Mary curled her hand into fists, suddenly frightened. "Why am I so important?"

"I wish I had all the answers, Mary, but I'm only God's servant and cannot see what he sees. I don't know who it was that came to you, nor why I sent him." His eyes pleaded with her to understand. "I won't know my own mind until the future becomes the present."

Mary grew quiet, reflecting upon the stranger who had come from out of nowhere, and oddly, had been accepted quite readily into her parents' confidence. She herself had felt comfortable with him almost immediately, letting down her guard and telling him things she had told no one else before. He'd been handsome and kind, and he had done his best to stop the inevitable, only to fail in the end. The demon had prevailed, and Mary's mysterious Hunter friend had disappeared without a trace.

Why the angel had sent this man back in time to pursue a futile mission, would remain a mystery. It was obvious, however, that he had done so at least partially out of concern for her. She had at least one good reason for this belief.

"What ever you might hear, whatever you might see, don't get out of bed. Please, just...don't get out of bed."

She would never forget the tears Dean had shed, nor the desperation in his voice when he asked for that promise. Had it meant what she'd thought it meant? Had he been sent back to change her future so that she would actually have a future? It was a line of thought she did not care to pursue.

"So," Mary said roughly. "Five years ago you did not show yourself to me, and sometime in the future you send someone else back in time. Why appear to me now, why are you here tonight of all nights?"

Until that moment he had appeared cool, confident, as serene as angels were often described. Now that confidence faltered. Her question had unnerved him, made him fidget and pull one corner of his bottom lip between his teeth in a manner not unlike a human fighting embarrassment. Mary could have sworn she also heard the faintest ruffling of feathers, but that could have just been her imagination.

"For reasons I'm finding hard to understand," he replied after a long moment of silent contemplation. "My kind have not walked this earth for centuries, Mary, and unless commanded to do so, we do not interfere with human destiny. Why did I tamper with the time stream?" He shook his head slightly. "I can only guess that it was due to a dire circumstance."

"A frightening thought," Mary breathed.

Don't get out of bed...

"More than you know." With a sigh, he continued. "I might not have been able to change your future, but I may have altered my own. I should not have come here five years ago, I should not have taken it upon myself to look in on you repeatedly as those years passed, and I should not have come here tonight, but I did."

With a gentle smile, the look of wonder he'd affected upon his arrival briefly returned, only to be replaced by an expression with which Mary was very familiar – she often saw it upon her husbands face. On the angel's it was nothing short of pure reverence.

"I revealed myself," the angel said softly. "Because I realized you are one of a very few blessed individuals who have the ability to interact with me in my true form, but that is only part of why I came here tonight." He bowed his head demurely. "I came, Mary, because I have grown...fond...of you."

Mary wasn't sure how to take such a confession, but her first instinct was to laugh. "Me?" she chuckled. "You've got to be kidding."

"I don't kid."

This blunt declaration sobered her instantly. Tipping her head, Mary studied his face , seeing the truth in his eyes. He couldn't hide it, she thought, all his emotions were there on his sleeve. They were not just surface deep either, but went straight to the core of him. Their depth was almost painful. Here was the answer to her question spelled out in black and white because such a deep emotional tie could not have been denied any longer.

Tentative, Mary reached out a hand to touch his cheek and just brushing her fingers across his silken skin sent a shiver down her spine. If any question remained as to what he claimed to be, it fled in that instant. She knew what he was, beyond any doubt.

"I see," she whispered. "Do all angels fall so easily?"

"Some," he returned, barely audible. "Humans embrace their emotions. We don't have such luxury, our passions can be deadly." With a deep breath and a note of sadness he added, "Anger and jealousy condemned Lucifer to Hell."

"And love?"

Without answering he took her hand in his, and drawing it to his lips, graced her knuckles with a kiss that was just barely a kiss. When he was finished he placed her hand upon her belly, covering it with his own. His eyes were so very, very blue...

"Don't be afraid, Mary," he murmured.

"I am," she returned. "But not for myself..."

"For the baby. I know. I've heard your prayers."

Mary felt herself drawn in and captured in his eyes. She could not have looked away if she'd tried. How easy, she thought, it would be for him to seduce her. He undoubtedly had the ability to make her forget her love for her husband, and could quite possibly protect her from the demon.

But at what cost?

"I would be exiled, denied the Kingdom of Heaven. God's law doesn't distinguish between love and hate."

"You know my thoughts?" Mary asked, startled.

"I can guess." He sat back, freeing her from whatever spell he'd cast over her. "So now you know what happens to angels who meddle in the affairs of men."

Mary bit her lip. "God is cruel..."

"God has his reasons for doing what he does and it is not our place to question them."

Her mouth quirked in a wry smile. "The whole 'mysterious ways' thing? Am I allowed to think that's a load of bull?"

"Think whatever you like, Mary."

His eyes brightened for a moment with humor, then sobriety returned. Looking down at their hands, he moved his away, tracing the curve of her belly from one side to the other, following the movement of the baby as it rolled. For an instant his brows creased, as if he'd felt something disturbing, but the look , quickly replaced by a gentle smile, was so fleeting Mary wasn't sure she'd even seen it.

"It would be foolish of me to answer your prayers," the angel admitted.

"Then don't."

"I want to, I need to. It's the only thing I have to give. I could never have you, I know that. I understand that this...what I feel for you...is wrong of me, but..." His voice was almost plaintive, his expression almost pleading, as if he were asking her forgiveness – or perhaps God's. "I can't let you go."

"Because you love me?" Mary asked, even though the answer was plain to see. For some reason it was important that she hear it.

His lips parted, but for a moment nothing came out, as if it were a monumental struggle to admit the truth. "Yes," he said finally. "Because I'm a fool, and you are..." His smile was touching in its innocence, illustrating just how new his feelings were to him. "You are one of a kind, Mary Campbell."

"You're willing to give up everything you are for me? Me?"

"Did you not do the same for John?"

"I didn't run the risk of being cast out of Heaven."

As soon as she said it, Mary realized her error. The demon could have easily demanded her soul. He still could.

The angel's jaw clenched. "Mary," he said, aggrieved. "I don't know what is going to happen to you."

Mary shuddered and quickly looked away. His hand was soft and gentle beneath her chin as he turned her head back toward him. His blue eyes burned with a fierce, white light as he made his vow, answering her prayer at the risk of incurring God's wrath.

"But I swear, the demon will not have your child, or your husband, and I do not ask a thing from you in return."

She could have denied him, rejected his offer, but she didn't. This being was capable of making his own choices, understood the consequences of his actions, and Mary had nothing to lose. Tears burned her eyes, and she began to cry in earnest.

"They'll be safe? You promise?"

He drew her into his arms, baby belly and all. Mary buried her face against his shoulder, clutching the sleeve of his coat in one fist. All the fear, frustration, and grief she'd been feeling for the past five years came pouring out of her in the form of raw, heaving sobs. At the back of her mind she marveled at how solid he felt, how strong and warm. His scent was a potpourri of the seasons: spring rain, summer sun, autumn frost and winter snow.

His arms tightened around her. She felt his gentle kiss upon the top of her head.

"I promise," he said. "Mary, I promise."

Warmth surrounded her. She felt as if she were being wrapped up within a fluffy down comforter. The last thing she remembered was a feeling of complete euphoria and the sound of rustling feathers. In the next instant she was waking to the voice of Father Jacob, who had gently touched her shoulder. Mary sat alone in the church. The angel was gone.

Father Jacob urged her to go home, concerned for her safety and that of the baby.

"I'll call Johnny," he insisted. "It's snowing. You shouldn't be driving."

Mary assured him she was fine, and quite able to get herself home on her own.

"Everything will be okay, don't worry Father." She gave the elderly priest a quick peck on the cheek before once again stuffing herself in behind the wheel of John's old Chevy. "I've got an angel watching over me," she added, and pulled the car door shut with a creak and a bang.

Castiel fled from the past before he witnessed Father Jacob's gentle brown eyes turn a pale, baleful yellow, the result of which had Castiel dragged before God and forced to admit he'd been where no angel had been permitted to go since the time of Christ.

Of course Azazel had been keeping watch over his favorite victim, and it was no surprise that word of Castiel's indiscretion was quickly spread all over creation. A wrathful God had little tolerance for those who broke his law, especially archangels who had been charged with enforcing it. Betrayal of that sort mete out a swift punishment, and as Castiel had not only interacted with a human without permission, but also threatened to undermine a demon's binding contract with said human, Azazel was permitted to name the terms.

Sitting in a dark motel room, many years after his trial, Castiel bowed his head and gritted his teeth as he forced back the pain and the tears. His sentence had been considered merciful, lenient. He had remained an angel of God and was not cast out of Heaven as Lucifer had been. Castiel did not question God's decisions and accepted his punishment, but time and time again he found himself thinking Hell would have been so much better.

Azazel had laid claim to the lives of Mary, John, and their unborn child, and therein Castiel realized just how stupid he'd been. It wasn't the first born Azazel wanted, but the second. Castiel had vowed to protect the wrong boy, and now Sam wouldn't even enter into the equation. There was no question regarding his fate. He was, and would always be, Azazel's.

Castiel was not what he'd been before he interacted with Mary, but he defended himself and those he had promised to protect as best he possibly could and found a modicum of success. After a lengthy battle, the angel managed to plead successfully for John and Dean's lives, but not Mary's. She would be condemned to death. Furthermore, Castiel's promise of protection would be henceforth rendered null and void – he could look, but not touch, no matter what the circumstance. If Dean's life were to continue, he'd have to see to it himself; his survival was in his own hands. There would be no divine intervention on his behalf, God had forbidden it.

But that had all taken place long before they realized the potential scope of Azazel's plans, before Lilith hatched her scheme to free Lucifer from captivity, and Sam proved to be a bigger threat than anyone could have imagined. When Dean sold his soul, unwittingly tipping the scales in Hell's favor, Castiel could not stand the restrictions his sentence imposed on him any longer. He could not sit back and let Mary's son suffer in eternal torment.

Risking all, he had made an appeal to God for another chance, pointing out Dean's worth as both a Hunter and Sam's Achilles heel. He had sworn he could save both brothers, and use them to stop Lilith from unleashing Armageddon. The price for the granting of this boon was steep. If he failed at either task Castiel would accompany Dean back to the pit, and no doubt Sam would be condemned to keep Lucifer company - in a prison that made the rest of Hell seem like a day-spa.

Castiel raised his head and cast his gaze over the young man still lying asleep in the bed. "Failure," he whispered fiercely. "Is not an option." He raised his hand, and with a fluid gesture, released Dean from slumber.

He came around as one might have predicted; full of self incrimination for his inability to save his mother's life. Such sentiment cut Castiel to the bone, knowing as he did that it was by no means Dean's fault. There was no way anyone could ever save Mary's life, not when it had been taken to punish Castiel for falling in love with her. Dean's feelings of guilt could not compare to the angel's. Castiel's self-directed lashes cut deep and drew blood.

He had taken away any chance of Mary surviving, and every chance her children had of escaping the life she so desperately wanted to spare them. He had done this, and for what? Puppy love? A silly crush as if he were a human boy? Castiel was no boy. He had been present when Eve committed the first sin and was cast out of Eden. He should have known better than to allow himself to be taken in by his own naivety regarding humans and affairs of the heart. It should not be Dean being tormented by visions of Hell, but Castiel himself.

His mood was dark, as dark as his final proclamation - a threat that was not really a threat. He spoke the truth, but his intent was only to make Dean realize the importance of the task that had been laid out for him.

"If you don't stop it, we will."

Castiel caught Dean's expression out of the corner of his eye and realized his point had been taken. The elder brother had gone to Hell to save his brother's soul, would he be willing to sacrifice it to save the world?

Dean left the room, slamming the door shut behind him. The angel could hear him cursing all the way down the hall to the elevator, and raised an eyebrow at the colorful vitriol he spewed. Some of it was directed at Sam, but most was laid upon Castiel. God, he noted, did not escape damnation either. If Dean were more of a believer he might have curbed his tongue.

In an all-too-human gesture, Castiel rubbed at his eyes with thumb and forefinger as if attempting to massage away a headache. Only time would tell if Dean had the strength to see both himself and his brother through their darkest hour, but a lot also depended on whether or not Castiel could keep himself from losing his patience and strangling the smart ass. The only reason he didn't was because he knew what lay upon Dean's surface, did not always reflect his heart.

Still, that did not make him any easier to deal with.

Was a brief sojourn into love worth all this?

Castiel cast a quick glance back to the past, flipping through time as one might flip through the pages of a photo album. He followed Mary's life from its beginning through to its tragic end. He watched her boys grow into men. He admired Dean's dedication, and Sam's strength. They had prevailed against formidable odds without any help from a guardian angel. Hardship had tempered them into the weapons they had become, weapons which could very well turn the tide of battle and keep Hell's master in his proper place.

The last page brought Castiel back to the present and he realized it wasn't his faith in Dean or himself that had been lacking of late, but his faith in the creator. All he had to do was trust in God, for God was calling all the shots.

"And God," he reminded himself with a sigh and a smile. "Works in mysterious ways indeed."