Author's Note: My first one-shot, though it's turned out to be sort of epically long LOL. This one's for hitchcock-starlet, without whom this piece would not have happened, period. And neither would the 15k word count I logged in November—all hail the whip-cracking, encouragement-wielding, word warrior princess! Also, a nod to H.T. Marie for reminding how much I loved the idea of the grace tree, and what a perfect place it would be for Dean to do some thinking and have a talk. The conversation about angels that Dean refers to took place in "Houses of the Holy" (2.13). Criticism or warm fuzzies, please let me know what this piece does to you.
He'd gone back to the tree after his little "talk" with Sam. It was dusk and clearly Sam was disinclined to let him go, although it wasn't said except with a look or two. He could tell Sam wanted to lock him in the car and drive him somewhere safe and happy (should such a place exist), but Dean wasn't ready for incarceration. He'd spilled his guts and it felt weird as all get out, and now he needed space.
They'd continued to sit on the Impala for a few minutes after the conversation had worn itself out, each fingering a mostly empty bottle and then Dean spoke.
"I'm gonna walk."
"What?" Sam asked, startled as he was too often these days, by the hoarse-ness of Dean's voice. It hadn't been the same since Hell. It was like Dean was still suffering from smoke and brimstone inhalation.
"Walk. I'm gonna go walk."
"Okay," Sam answered, automatically standing up and glancing around, evaluating the landscape. "Where do you want to go?"
Dean didn't answer, but looked away and as Sam focused on his older brother's face he realized he'd assumed too much. He'd been doing that pretty often lately too.
"Oh. That's fine. I'll just . . . hang out here," Sam rushed, trying to ease the awkwardness before it became full-blown.
"You sure?" Dean asked, evenly meeting Sam's eyes, careful not to ask him to come along, careful to make sure Sam would let him go.
"I just . . ." Dean didn't know how to explain it without it sounding all girly and he'd had enough girly in the last hour to last a long awhile.
"We're good—take a walk if you need to," Sam encouraged. "I'll, uh, get out the laptop . . . see if we get Wi-Fi here," he smiled, hoping Dean would believe the casual release was really casual and not the major effort on Sam's part that it was.
In truth, he wasn't used to his brother asking for time alone—asking for much of anything. Dean had spent his life keeping it together for the people around him; he took care of his family and any other stray that needed what he had to give.
It was only in the last year or so that Sam had begun to see Dean separately from himself and their father—that Dean as an individual had become real to Sam. That Sam could see beyond the macho bravado and the emotional façade and the stubborn-as-a-mule determination that Dean had worn as long as Sam could remember.
Dean had always been larger than life, stronger and faster and better than a super hero for Sam, and he still was. But now Sam knew what it cost Dean to give that much and he also knew what it was like to be without him and the two puzzle pieces, in Sam's mind, gave Dean a free pass to do just about anything he pleased. So if Dean wanted to go for a walk by himself, Sam could push down his baby-brother, puppy-dog instinct to follow Dean to Hell and back and just let the man walk.
Dean was sure that Sam's eyes were hot on his back as he headed across the field and he grumbled under his breath. At least Sam had given in quickly and he hadn't had to beg. Everything he'd told Sam was honest, and yet speaking it out loud had somehow left him feeling foolish for the depth of his pain. It made the agony feel cheaper . . . bought for less than he'd paid for it, and it left him exposed and trapped at the same time.
Coming up over the hillock he saw the grace tree against the backdrop of the clear black sky, the cold stars burning through the massive branches, and he stopped, hands in his pockets, just to gaze.
He paced around the trunk a couple times, deciding where his mood fit. Leaning offered no comfort, the ground below was damp, and as tired and sore as he was, up seemed to be the only real option if he intended to spend some time with this old broad tonight.
There was only one branch he could reach, and it wasn't low enough for him to get a real grip on. Muttering and grunting, he pulled himself a couple of feet up the trunk until he found a knot he could use as a foothold, and then he was there. The moss covering the foot-wide branch was unbelievably soft velvet on his palms, especially after the scarred and pitted bark of the trunk.
A few feet out Dean found a deep, hammock-sized dip in the branch that was a reasonably comfortable and secure perch and settled himself into its hollow. The foliage above him gave the impression of looking through a cracked windshield and here and there a glistening hint of light was framed and magnified.
The smell of the chill dusky air was familiar to Dean, and was as near to comforting as anything ever was for him. He'd spent most of his life hunting darkness in the dark and the scent of the earth at night caught his breath in his chest with a thrill as it always did.
Each foray into a black wood or a haunted house started with that first step out of the Impala, a lung full of pitch midnight and that instant flash of knowledge that this could be his last night of living. At first, as a kid, it had been pure terror. As an adult he'd learned to twist the fear into an intoxication more capable of steeling his nerves for battle than old, strong, whiskey.
Last night of living. He smiled at that, as he thought of Anna and her reasoning. Not that he'd ever needed much encouragement to spend an evening in the back seat of the Impala with a pretty girl . . .
Sighing, he closed his eyes to the universal display of glory around him and felt his mind drifting—which seemed to be happening more and more since Hell, no matter how much he tried to stop it. Dean had spent a lot of years using a couple of fall-back places in his mind as fox holes. They kept him from considering his soul or his heart too closely and it had been an effective strategy for staying sane and unencumbered.
It appeared, however, that his time in the underworld had taken that ability from him and now it was like the whole of his insides roiled up at the slightest chance of escape and it took every ounce of his considerable will not to bawl like a baby thirty times a day.
He snorted and shook his head and sat up on the limb in protest of the direction his thoughts were going, but it didn't really help. Sighing, Dean began to swing his feet aimlessly. At least if he had to go all broody and emo, he wasn't doing it in front of Sam. There was probably only so much the kid could handle before he tried to exorcise his big brother again. And that was never going to happen as far as Dean was concerned. He shuddered as he recalled Bobby tying him to a chair while Sam chanted murderously. That had been bad, and not in a good way.
The way he figured it, Anna choosing him last night had to do with proximity more than it did with her having any attraction to him. Especially since she knew all about his time in Hell and what he'd done. Of course, opposites usually attracted, but still. Even if she'd spent twenty years in human form, she was an angel at her core, and Dean Winchester saw himself as about as far from being an angel dream date as one could get.
Not that she was exactly the exotic type he generally picked out of a crowd either—at least not on the outside, he chuckled. "You can't get more exotic than a hometown somewhere out past Pluto," he thought to himself in amusement.
Dean wondered if he'd ever see her again, and even as the words formulated themselves in his head he tried to shrug them off. Finally, he'd met someone with as many reasons as he to avoid a long-distance relationship. That made goodbyes easy, right?
Besides, she had her grace back now. The humanity that had allowed her to overlook his oversized load of sin enough to spend the night with him was long gone. Anna was up there, perfect again. Even if she condescended to see him, she was now without a voice his scorched, earth-bound soul could hear or a body that his blood-stained hands could touch.
Why had he given in? His jaw tightened in frustration and he shifted position again, as if the movement would answer the question and leave him in peace. He'd said no to desperate women before; ones with something to prove or something to forget. Those were good enough reasons to lose himself, but he could recognize the look in a woman's eye which said they needed saving and Dean had always known he didn't have the grace to do that kind of job. He'd save you from a real-life monster, but he couldn't save you from real life—he couldn't even save himself—and he refused to have that sort of failure on his conscience or his head.
Women like that had a big old bright sign above their heads that flashed "Danger, Will Robinson!" and Dean heeded that warning. There was something distinctly dishonorable about taking advantage of that kind of desperation, and it was about the only thing that ever made him say no.
He knew how to walk away, and yet here came Anna the Angel, blinky "engine trouble" lights dancing in her hair and all, and he'd let her have her way and now look at him. Sitting in a tree, cold and half-sober, practically wishing on a star he wanted her back so bad.
This was pretty much outside of Dean's experience. He loved them and he left them and there had only ever been one woman he'd missed for more than 24 hours. Anna was cute, but she kind of reminded him of Jo Harvelle with that long straight hair and big eyes that pushed back against everything you said. And Jo had not been his idea of female companionship material, not in a million years . . . although he'd wondered more than once whether she would have been good for Sam.
In his mind's eye he saw Jo and Ruby duking it out and the laugh came out before he could stifle it. There was no freakin' way little Jo could compete with Sammy's sultry Mistress of Darkness. Sam and Ruby as a couple seriously worried him, but that was a problem for another night in a different tree.
Truth be told—and as long as he was up here in the big 'ol tree of grace he might as well get it all out—his longing for Anna had nothing to do looks or even personality. The last weeks had proven Dean's worst nightmares could come true, but they'd also shed light on hopes he'd buried so deep he'd forgotten they existed.
He and Sam once had a conversation about angels, about whether there was a God, and Sam had admitted to daily prayers. Throughout all this wild angelic stuff Sam had been eager and willing to believe. The kid practically fell down on his knees in a quivering pile of spiritual ecstasy when he found out about Castiel. But Dean had learned to trust what he could see and Dean had spent twenty-five years with evil in his face and God . . . campaigning a lot less obviously.
Dean had told Sam what their mother had said when she tucked him in every night of his life: angels were watching over him. He'd also told Sam he didn't believe it. That was the truth . . . ninety-nine percent truth, anyway. He could remember the way he felt as she cuddled him to sleep and it was hard to deny, gut-deep, that the power of her love was tied to what it was she believed in. The denial was even weaker after Castiel had sent him to the past.
Before his trippy trip, he'd been able to keep his mother innocent and he'd been able to dismiss her prayers and angelic promises as sweet and naïve. After Lawrence, Kansas, circa 1973, it hadn't been that simple. She'd faced evil—stared it down with the courage of the hardest hunters he knew. She'd been raised in the family business, watched her parents die and dealt with one of the devils himself all before she'd hit twenty. If Mary Campbell Winchester could still believe in heavenly good . . . in God and angels and light . . . then that left his agnosticism sort of high and dry.
Dean stretched his neck from side to side, hearing the satisfying snick as his vertebrae adjusted themselves. Then he stood and walked along the limb towards the trunk, one hand out for balance and the other barely touching the branch above as he walked the eight feet. He made himself comfortable at the base of the limb, leaning against the trunk, letting his fingers trace and sketch in the thick moss he was sitting on.
And then there was the Angel Man himself. At this point there was no way Dean could reject who and what Castiel was. While he found the dude and his imperturbable pronouncements irritating beyond belief, Dean was also totally awed. It was hard not to be, and while he'd never admit it, the angel had pretty much had him at that first show of the wings.
To be faced with a being he'd believed was total fantasy was new, which was saying a lot for someone who had no problem with the reality of vampires, ghosts and trickster gods. The Winchesters had encountered (and eliminated) hundreds of fantastical creatures, but there had been a scant list of benevolent types in their realm of experience. The ones who feigned good humor couldn't keep up appearances long before their nasty natures reared their ugly heads.
He'd always trusted that the work he and his family did made a difference to the universe, but he'd tried not to think too much about whether there was a higher power with an interest. It was simpler for there to be evil, and those fighting evil, and the good folk who needed saving, and leave it at that.
Now, things were more complicated. Good had an actual side. Not just people trying to do the right thing, but an actual great big, battle-ready army of righteousness, and this snag in his world view left him torn between hallelujah and infuriation.
With God came the possibility of redemption, at least in theory, even for him. With God came the questions of how the heinousness and depravity of the devil could be allowed to do as much damage as it did. Now that he knew there was really Someone up there, Dean Winchester had some serious issues with the way things were being handled—a personal list of axes to grind and another list on behalf of the human race. A sound like a snarl came unwilled from his throat at that thought.
He brought his knees up toward his chest and rested his arms on them slackly and leaning his head back against the coarse bark, his eyes unfocused as he stared the stars through the airy black lattice above.
In the past few weeks Dean and realized that all those years of grim and grisly living (particularly the most recent forty he'd spent in Hell) had created a space in him that was desperate for the divine. He wanted to faith to be a possibility. He wanted light to be a reality. He wanted there to be a remedy for Hell.
Anna had turned those fleeting, fierce, wants concrete and it was her connection to the hallowed that drew him to her. He guessed that a lot of people wondered who they were in God's eyes, wondered why He would want them and why life was so harsh so much of the time. With Anna around, those questions had pulled themselves out of the depths of Dean's soul and sat heavy as ice on his shoulders.
It was that cold weight that made him follow her out to Bobby's yard, choking down his squeamishness at the aching curiosity in his gut. He'd tried not to sound as interested as he was, had tried to cover up the craving for answers with his practiced nonchalance. Then she'd started dropping bomb shells and he felt like he'd been bushwhacked.
Taking a deep swill of the cool, shadowy air he closed his eyes and rested his forehead on his arms. Just thinking about the conversation with Anna gave him psychological vertigo. She'd basically shredded his inherent (though deeply buried) ideals of God and angels, and he wasn't sure how to deal with all that. And part of him had his doubts about her version of heaven.
There was no way she deserved to die and he liked her smart mouth (for more than one reason) and she had some serious moxie going for her . . . but frankly, there are two sides to everything. He had been raised a hunter and he'd survived so long in part by the ingrained mistrust of other people's stories and motivations. She'd railed with enough indignation to make him wonder about the mechanics of life Upstairs she wasn't telling, and guessed some of it would make her look a little less radically wronged.
He wondered if Castiel would tell him if he asked. Dean guessed—seeing as how Cas stayed up there—that the Angel Man's perspective was more mainstream than Anna's. He had the distinct impression now that angels could lie and he figured there was as good a chance he'd end up with a fairytale spun solely for his benefit as not.
"I would tell you the truth, Dean."
Dean's head shot up and he automatically pressed his back into the tree, bracing his legs to move if he needed to, but even as he pinpointed the source of the sound he recognized the voice. Castiel was standing six feet down the heavy limb, his arms unusually akimbo.
"Oh you would?" Dean asked, his irritation at the surprise visit plain.
"Of course. Just because one is able to do something doesn't mean they choose to do it."
"Sure. That's good, 'cause if your lying is as good as your eavesdropping then you'd have me suckered."
The two watched each other through the swarthy night, steady and silent.
"Your uncertainty of Anna is warranted."
"You don't say?" snapped Dean, rubbing his raw palms against the thighs of his jeans, trying to figure out how he could avoid the heavenly head-shrinking tonight.
There was a pause as Dean defiantly refused to engage. Then Castiel spoke again.
"She has deeply shaken you," he said, appearing perplexed.
"Dude, get out of my head!"
The angel gave a low laugh, and Dean could swear he heard genuine amusement instead of the usual resonance of nothing more than appropriate response.
"I appreciate that you would prefer to speak the thoughts you wish to share instead of having me read them, but unfortunately I cannot turn my ears off." He smiled and paused to see if Dean would laugh at his humor. When Dean scowled instead, Castiel cleared his throat. "I could, however, let you choose your own words. Refrain from taking the initiative in our conversations."
He gestured graciously and was quiet, waiting for Dean to accept his peace offering. Dean finally broke the gaze and stared out among the grace tree's branches, shaking his head. Then he looked back at Castiel, waiting for him to pronounce his newest view into Dean's brain, but the angel didn't speak.
"What? Can't you tell me what's going on in my head?"
"I could, but you'd rather I didn't. Our relationship should be one of mutual respect."
"Mutual respect. So you threatening to check me back in to the Hotel Perdition was about respect?"
Castiel looked up, studiously examining the broken sky above him. When he spoke, it was with some of the sincerest humility Dean had ever heard.
"That was not my best moment."
"I apologize for the threat."
"So it was only a threat? Just trying to scare me into walking the straight and narrow?" He asked coldly, an eyebrow raised.
Castiel looked at Dean again, and Dean could feel the intensity all the way to his bones.
"While others may use falsehoods as intimidation, I do not." The angel sighed and looked up again.
It suddenly struck Dean as funny that while humans tended to stare at the ground while they considered their sins, Cas always looked up when he was ready to admit less-than-angel-worthy behavior. He snickered and Castiel's head snapped down to look at him.
"At the moment I spoke those words, I meant them," the angel said stiffly. "There had been a number of . . . casualties recently . . . I lost several that I was close to. I was frustrated by your resistance." He stopped abruptly and turned his gaze once more toward the skies. "I forgot myself." He met Dean's eyes and gasped.
"You were terrif—" Castiel stopped and clasped his hands in front of himself. "I apologize." For a moment he seemed to be deciding whether or not to say something more, and Dean just waited, the back of his neck prickling at Cas' half-finished sentence.
"May I ask questions? Or make statements of sympathy?" the angel finally said, his tone subdued.
"I am asking for clarification of your boundaries."
"No hugging," Dean deadpanned, and rolled his eyes as Castiel nodded in somber acquiescence. "Seriously?" Another nod from the angel.
Dean let out a long breath and stretched his legs, crossing them at the ankle as he shifted into a more comfortable position and considered the question.
"Asking is better than not asking. And sympathy's okay if it's about something I already told you about, not something you just sucked out of my brainwaves."
Castiel nodded once more and opened his mouth. "How did you feel when I told you I would send you back?"
Dean's jaw clenched hard and he shook his head in disbelief. "What, were you out sick during sensitivity training?" Castiel cocked his head, puzzled, so Dean continued. "Whatever, dude. I take it back. Just say what you want to say—it's disturbing, but ultimately less annoying than Twenty Questions."
"It does seem a more efficient method of communication."
"Yeah. Efficient like a machete for a splinter," Dean snorted.
"I'd like to express my regret for terrorizing you."
"It was my intent to pressure you into doing as I requested, or to punish you for refusing."
"Gee, that's a cheery confession. Did you bring me make-up flowers too?"
"It was not an honorable tactic or a generous action. In my fury I did not consider how terrifying that particular ultimatum would be to you. I have repented, and I hope you will grant your forgiveness."
Dean groaned at the utter sincerity of Cas' request and then he felt a spark of anger kindle in the pit of his stomach. "Like that really matters to you? To God? What I think? What anybody thinks?"
"Yes, it matters."
"Someone should try telling that to Anna," he spat, getting to his feet and shoving his hands deep in his pockets.
"Sure. But God just keeps up the old 'talk to the hand' bit, eh?"
"Anna's perception of God's mysteries is not the same as mine."
"Whatever," Dean snapped, fighting the urge to close the space between them and slug the angel.
Castiel didn't respond for a full minute, just stood stock still, staring steadily at Dean.
"Do you want your questions answered?"
"She answered them."
"Another point of view, then."
Dean felt his rage ripple and glisten like an apparition in the sun, even as the tug of promised revelation made him made him push it down. He could always be mad again later, after he heard what Cas had to say. Never turn down intel, his dad had taught.
"Sure," he said, his face impassive and his voice as disinterested as he could manage. "Lay it on me."
"God wants you for this work because you have an honest and compassionate soul."
Dean gave a deep, humorless laugh. "Honest?"
"Yes." The angel said, unmoved in his conviction. "There is more to honesty than telling the truth at every opportunity, Dean." Castiel almost smiled. "He is proud of your determination and your loyalty, your willingness to sacrifice, and your ability to see the righteous path in any situation."
Dean was momentarily speechless, but recovered at Winchester speed. "Um, I don't know if you guys are watching all that close, but me and the path of righteousness aren't really on the same page most days," he grinned.
"You don't always choose it, I will give you that," Castiel murmured wryly, "But you know what it is—your internal compass is true."
"So I'm special."
"Yes. He trusts you."
"Me. God trusts me."
"What is it I'm supposed to do with all my . . . specialness, Huh?"
"I'm not able to tell you that."
Dean rolled his eyes. "Alrighty then. Somehow I pictured Heaven as a place with a lot less cloak and dagger going on—a little more sharing, you know?"
"It is, but you aren't in Heaven, Dean."
An owl hooted in the silence and Dean leaned back against the tree again. He closed his eyes, Cas' words ringing in his head. Finally, he decided to start at the beginning.
"Why did Anna fall?"
"She lost patience with the Father's plan."
Dean opened his eyes and gave a short laugh. "Didn't seem like patience was really her thing."
"So, she wanted out of the angel gig?"
"She tired of her assignment. She desired to be earth-bound."
"I don't get that totally," Dean said, half to himself. "I still say feelings are overrated. I mean, I know there's some good stuff, but it doesn't outweigh the bad a lot of the time. Why would you guys want something that most humans spend our whole lives trying to ignore, repress, or shrink into oblivion?"
"Angels do experience emotions. They are usually less complicated than yours because we can see more of eternity than you can."
"But Anna said it was like being a marble statue . . . she made it sound like it was against the rules to feel anything."
"Emotion is part of existence—an existence created by God. Of itself it is not evil. What we choose to do with emotion introduces the possibility of sin. Some focus their emotions inward and instead of seeing themselves and their feelings in the context of eternity, choose to make their reality small. When this happens, they begin to walk a line that can lead them away from the Father."
"So you're telling me that angels are people too, huh?"
"We can in fact feel an expanded gamut of emotion. It is part of the virtue we hold. Each must learn to understand and control it."
"Yeah, well your buddy Uriel could use some angelic anger management classes if you ask me."
"You indicated that you thought of us as perfect, and yet consider Uriel." Castiel actually smiled big this time—less than a grin, but more than just a twitch of the lip. "And myself," he added seriously.
"Every family has its black sheep," Dean said with a smirk.
"Perfection is not a place of arrival, Dean. It is a state of progression. It is understanding who God envisions us to be and the action that accompanies that knowledge. Perfection is being true to yourself as a brilliant being, one created with the potential for immortality, power and pure love."
Castiel's words seemed to drift tangibly along Dean's skin like soft cool snow and yet the blaze of the angel's authority rang in each syllable. Time stood unmoving and moonlight glinted in Castiel's eyes, making them bright in the shadows cast by the grace tree.
"Do you doubt?" Dean whispered.
"Does it . . . is it . . ."
"It is more painful and more frightening than it is for you."
"Your woo-woo emotional magnifier."
"Anna said the penalty for not saying 'how high' when The Man Upstairs says jump, is death—believe or die."
"A convenient description," Castiel mused.
"What does that mean?" Dean frowned.
"There are always choices. There are also consequences. Say you were going to fight a demon."
"Would you have a choice to take a weapon or not to take a weapon?"
"Only if you wanted to die," Dean growled, unsure where the questions were going.
"I didn't ask about the consequence, just the choice. Would there be a choice to take a weapon or not to take a weapon? Could you physically leave your motel room, leave your car, without a weapon."
"Could you make the choice without the consequence following?"
"Like I said, um, death wish much?" Dean spat sarcastically.
"There are those who want the action they choose to be devoid of reaction."
"So, you say no and God strikes you dead—"
"We understand the penalty and we choose our lot."
"But God chooses the punishment, right? He chooses to destroy you? I seriously don't see all the shiny happy love everybody's trying to sell me on here."
Castiel sighed deeply, his expression pained. Then he sat down on the limb, easily draping his legs over the side and bracing his hands on the mossy surface. He glanced at the sky and then at Dean.
"The universe operates on laws—like scientific principles. Some, like gravity, are part of the natural world. Others, such as right and wrong, are part of the spiritual world. Both resemble God in that they have . . . always existed. With no end and no beginning, they just are. As He is."
Dean's skepticism was plain and the angel continued. "The Father isn't sitting up there playing a mercurial game of chance, Dean," Castiel said, shaking his head. The angel leaned out into the air, elbows on knees, hands loosely clasped. "He is God because he understands how things work. Because of His ability to preside over and follow those laws in wisdom and divine love."
Again, Dean felt the words twining and weaving themselves through him—it was hard to describe the effect of angel language, but there was no denying the strength of it.
"You have another question."
Dean didn't respond, just kept watching the profile of the man who was sharing space with Cas, his thoughts first wrestling with what he'd been told, then wandering to the more mundane.
"Now you have two."
"Mutual respect?" Dean growled.
Dean glared at him, but Cas continued to look out through the cover of gnarled, barren branches, so Dean finally spoke.
"What do you really look like?"
Castiel full-out laughed, and the sound was like Santa Claus and a six-year-old rolled into one; child-like and weathered. It made the hair on the back of Dean's neck stand up. His jaw dropped a little and Cas turned to meet his gaze.
"Did you hear that?" he asked mildly. Dean nodded and Castiel sat up, a smile still playing around the corners of his mouth. "That was my own laugh. Part of it."
"So, like when Uriel tells a joke, that's what he hears?"
"More or less. If it's not a dirty joke," Castiel said with a straight face.
Dean shook his head and took a few steps down the limb, planting himself three feet from the angel and sitting, mirroring his position.
"How come I could hear it? And like, my ears didn't fall off?"
"I filtered it through this man's vocal chords."
Castiel shrugged. "I would have preferred Pamela Barnes listen when I told her she shouldn't keep looking for me."
"Yeah, I'll be she does too, hindsight being what it is—no pun intended."
"I look somewhat like the man whose body I reside in now, except that the substance I'm created of gives off intense light and heat. Too much for a mortal to withstand proximity to."
"What is it?" Dean asked, openly interested.
"The simple answer is that it's a finer grade of matter than was used to create this world."
"Crazy. But you look like us?"
As Dean pondered that, he noticed Cas look up and cock his head as if listening.
"You listening to the Angel Network?"
"No," Castiel said slowly, not moving.
"Got a crick in your neck?"
"No," he said again and lowered his eyes to Dean's, "It's a private line."
"Seriously?" Dean's eyes widened in surprise.
"Just another angel—dispatch you might call it."
Dean visibly relaxed and stayed quiet, watching Cas intently, listening hard, just in case—even though he was pretty sure eavesdropping wasn't kosher—or physically safe—in this situation.
Three minutes later, Castiel shifted and stood lithely. "I have another assignment. Ask your last question, Dean."
Getting to his feet, Dean turned to face the angel and then looked up, fighting the blow to his equilibrium that the starry patchwork above delivered.
"Are you one of the four?"
"There are more than four."
Dean's head snapped up, "Anna said . . ."
"Each sees God in his own way, and sometimes that means they cannot see Him at all."
"What does that mean?" he questioned, his voice taut and quiet, the yearning not quite hidden.
"Not many have seen Him as He is—throne and robes and glory," Castiel said, his expression thoughtful and faraway, "but more than four." His attention returned to Dean as he continued speaking.
"The Father comes to us as we need Him to, teaching or comforting, in ways we will understand. He is the ultimate parable, Dean, and how we see Him is part of His gift of grace. It is something He gives to everyone both on Earth and in Heaven."
The night was surreally hushed as Castiel's words echoed into it.
"So if Anna couldn't see God—if she didn't know Him . . ." the words tumbled and rushed in Dean's mind and got caught in his throat.
"She chose to look away."
"But I . . ."
"No. You haven't," the angel said gently. "You did not know where to look, you were not ready to see, but you have not looked away."
Dean's spine pulsed and he hated that he could not control the powerful welling that raced through his body and pooled at the corners of his eyes. Dean stared hard at his feet, his arms tucked tightly against his chest.
"Ask, Dean," Castiel whispered kindly. "It's alright."
Shaking his head Dean spoke, his voice rough and brittle. "Just tell me." He glanced up at Cas, pleading, and then looked down again. "Don't make me say it."
Dean's head shot up so fast he almost lost his balance and Castiel closed the gap between them in an impossible instant, steadying him with a hand on each shoulder.
He looked directly into Dean's eyes. "The answer is yes. Even with everything. Even with Hell."
And he was gone, and Dean shivered at the wind that was suddenly kicking up and at something else he couldn't name. Then a single word appeared in his mind's eye, glimmering like sunrise. Grace.
"Dean?" a voice called from below his arboreal perch.
Carefully, he walked back to the trunk, wrapping an arm around it before he responded. "Here. I'm coming down."
"You don't have to, man—I just, it had been a few hours . . ." Sam's voice trailed off and Dean could hear the discomfort in his little brother's voice. "The Weather Channel's website said we're supposed to get rain in the next hour or so . . ."
Dean grinned, and found one foothold and then another in the craggy bark. "Aw, Sammy. You missed me."
Sam hollered back, searching the branches overhead for the source of Dean's voice, "I just didn't want you to get caught in the—"
"Get off me, Dean."
"You missed me so much you decided to cushion my landing."
"I said get off me!" Sam roared, scrambling out from under his big brother.
The Winchester brothers stood and Sam seethed silently as he turned on his heel and headed for the Impala. Dean watched him walk a couple yards in the moonlight and then, taking a last long look at the grace tree, jogged to catch up with him. They walked in silence for a minute before Dean broke it.
Sam sighed. "Yeah. Next time, don't land on the messenger."
Dean chuckled. "Sure."
They reached the car and Sam automatically stopped at the drivers' side, reaching into his pocket.
Dean turned his keys in the ignition as Sam opened the passenger door and folded himself in and Dean pulled onto the road before he spoke to his brother again.
"Really, Sam. Thanks—for everything."
"Sure," Sam replied slowly, unsure exactly what Dean was referring to.
Sam smiled earnestly. "Anytime, Dean. I'm here. Whenev . . ."
"That's enough, Sam," Dean cut him off briskly. "There's such a thing as too much of a good thing—and that applies to Dr. Phil moments."
"Whatever you say, man," Sam smirked, shaking his head. "As long as you know that I love you," he said, reaching over to pat Dean's knee.
"Get your hand off my leg, dude, or I'll show you some love."
It was dark and Sam slept curled against the door as he had a million times before, and Dean figured it probably felt like a security blanket to him. Glancing at his little brother, he wondered if Sam had missed the passenger side when he'd had no one else to drive, when Dean had been in the Pit.
With a sigh, he rubbed his jaw and focused on the pitch black asphalt the Impala was eating, the middle line an eerie ghost in his peripheral vision. He missed the days when there was nothing else to do but drive and nothing else to consider but the next gig. This whole Armageddon thing was pretty mind-blowing. And that was before you even got to the Winchesters Saving the World part.
Suddenly a crack of lightening shot through the sky in front of him and the drum of thunder shook the car. Sam didn't stir, but Dean felt it in his bones and his stomach flipped uncomfortably. Strange how he now felt like anything coming down from the sky held a potential for a heavenly message—and not necessarily a good one.
He sighed again. The last few days had been long and what he needed was a break from feeling and thinking and preferably from consciousness. He'd stop at the next motel and sleep until Sam got nervous, he decided. The end of the world might be on its way, but for now he wanted freedom from both Heaven and Hell for a night and he seriously wanted to quit pondering the welfare of his eternal soul. Time to shut the box up and stick it in the trunk.
As thunder boomed again he took another long look at Sam, his heart jumping to match the beat of the now pounding rain, and he smiled. The talk with Sam had been like opening a vein—it had hurt like a Hell hound and the rush had been sickening—but it had also opened a door that he knew he wouldn't be able to close again completely, and part of him was relieved. The list of those who cared whether Dean Winchester was alive or dead had gotten longer in the past couple months (it now included God) but there was one thing, one person, that made the insanity of it all . . . handleable. Sam had his back, still.
Sometimes Thou may'st walk in Groves,
which being full of Majestie will much advance the Soul.
- Thomas Vaughan, Anima Magica Abscondita