The Smell of Hope

Sam sat on the edge of his bed, grinding the palms of his hands into his eyes so hard he saw sparks.

"Going out."

That's what Dean had said. Not "going out to get burgers" not "pepperoni ok?" not "I'll be rackin' 'em up down at the bar down the block." Not "Too horny, man, see you in the morning."

Just "going out".

Sam didn't know why Dean was going out or when he was coming back or IF he was coming back.

That's the way it was these days.

You can't be accountable for what you do when you're possessed. Or under a spell. Or tortured in hell for thirty years. Or lost and drunk and lonely and crazed with guilt.

You'd think they would learn that over a lifetime of dealing with what they dealt with. But they hadn't.

We're okay. That was a useless mantra nowadays but they used it still.

You ok? Sure. You ok? Yes.

Ok didn't mean what it used to.

They were not okay. They probably would never be okay. With the kingpins of their existence yanked out from under them they were foundering uselessly in a pantomime of their previous lives. Hunting, but why? For what? Who cared? Like a car that had run out of gas they were coasting on what they knew...but they would sputter to a stop soon and then what?

Oh God. Sam thought. Oh God. He pressed the heels of his palms harder into his eyes.

He had never asked for demon blood. For powers. It wasn't his fault.

So he had always thought.

It was like flying, he had thought. In the old days some people said if God wanted men to fly He would have given them wings. But others said He gave men the brains to figure it out, it was good, it was fine, it was God's plan.

Sam's powers helped people. He could get rid of demons and not harm the host. He was doing good with what—

God did not give him the power. A demon gave him the power. It was not God's plan.

Damn Dean, Sam thought, not for the first time. If he had let Sam be dead like he was supposed to be, none of this would matter. Jake had killed him, he was dead--

Damn Dean and his infernal need to be needed.

Sam would be dead and he was pretty sure he would not be in hell and Dean could grieve and get over it and hunt and screw and die young in a blaze of glory and they would be re-united and drink long necks and reminisce in shiny black Impalas forever and forever.

Damn Dean.

Dean had understood Dad's drive to find the yellow-eyed Demon. To take it out no matter what the cost, to him or to Sam.

Yet, Sam's obsession with Lilith seemed a minor glitch in Dean's over-all scheme of things. Never mind the bitch had sent Dean to hell, mostly because of Sam's rising rep in the demon world—(and what was that all about? Sam wondered. A few headaches, some visions, and suddenly he was the Boy King of the underworld? Must be some pretty slim pickin's for that title.)

She had sent Dean to Hell.

Surely, Dean must know Sam's rant about being sick of hearing about hell was self-defense. Surely, he knew that if Sam let himself think for thirty seconds straight about what Dean had gone through, Sam would clutch his hair and run screaming down the street until someone shot him full of drugs and wrapped him in a straight jacket and put him somewhere where he could shriek until his vocal cords gave out and his mind finally went somewhere where it couldn't come back.

Sam was weak. There was no way Sam could take being tortured for thirty years, torturing others for another ten, come back and maintain a semblance of normalcy. Sam couldn't do it.

Sam was weak. Thirty seconds. Thirty seconds of letting himself really think about what Dean went through, because of him, and Sam would be crazy.

We'll both be crazy before this is over, Sam groaned to himself. Those few minutes possessed by the siren had destroyed all they had had before. Will we really, honestly, kill each other?

Will we really, honestly, kill ourselves?

Sam slowly became aware of a presence in the room. Not Dean, he was so attuned to Dean that he could almost tell when they were within a block of each other. He remembered a slight rustle of wings and looked up into the concerned gaze of an angel of the Lord.

"Uh, hey, Castiel" Sam hastily got to his feet. He tried to mind his manners in the presence of the angel, even if It had nothing but contempt for him. Sam dashed the back of his hand across both eyes.

He wasn't ashamed of crying, the angel had probably seen worse than that,-- It wasn't concerned with him anyway.

Unless....

Oh God, Sam thought wildly, is he here to cast me into the pit? No chance of forgiveness? For mercy?

"Dean's not here," Sam offered, as if he would take a message. "I don't know when he'll be back."

"I'm here for you, Sam" The angel announced in his grave voice.

Sam remembered Dean's first description of the angel, a rumpled, holy tax accountant, with a sweet face and a sincere manner; then both the Winchesters had a glimpse of the Powerful Being that inhabited that vessel, and that sight had stopped any joking about Its appearance.

"Me?" Sam looked around, wildly. Should I fall on my knees? Try to go over Its head to the Big Guy Himself? I don't want to go to Hell. I'm not Dean. Thirty years?

Thirty seconds. I couldn't last thirty seconds.

But they didn't let you die in Hell.

"We are allowed to respond to prayer when we walk the earth." Castiel said.

Sam stared at the angel, a slight, almost short (compared to the Winchesters, at least) unassuming presence, except for the piercing blue eyes. It took him a minute to understand.

"I was praying?" he said finally.

"A great, dark, groan of despair, Sam."

"Can you help me?" Sam's eyes welled. "Change things? Fix things?"

"No"

Sam sank back on the bed.

"Everything is so screwed even an angel of the Lord can't help."

He didn't realize he had said it out loud until Castiel answered:

"You have free will. All of you have one of God's greatest gifts, free will."

"I'll thank Him when and if I see Him." It sounded like Dean snark, not Sam, but he was beyond caring.

He wondered what Castiel would do if Sam just burst into tears. Laid down and cried for days.

Dean would come and go indifferently, Sam knew that, or he would have tried it weeks ago.

"So, what are you here for, if you can't help?"

"I didn't say that. I said I couldn't change things."

"So, what can you do?"

"I can offer comfort."

And just what comfort was there in this fury? Where were the silver linings to the Winchester storm clouds that were battering both brothers to death and pursuing them into the afterlife?

"God will always offer comfort, Sam. All you have to do is ask."

Sam sighed, looking up at the Angel, and saw what It was offering. Peace. Oh, God, how long had it been since Sam had found peace?

Maybe I could go on...if I just had a little break...rest...he almost sobbed at the thought of rest.

Sam shakily got to his feet again. He couldn't remember the last he had eaten anything, standing up made him dizzy.

"Okay. I'm asking."

"May I embrace you?"

"Yeah, I guess. "Sam said awkwardly.

"Close your eyes."

"You're not going to go full-out angel mode and melt my eyes, are you?"

There was something like a soft chuckle and Castiel said "Please"

They were standing near each, just a little leaning would allow them to touch, and Sam closed his eyes.

He could feel the presence of the angel growing, not frighteningly, but

comfortingly, as if Sam was turning into a child again. Protected. The angel's arms went around him and Sam found his cheek on the angel's shoulder. Safe. He felt safe. Safe as he had when he was a child and very small and his dad would hold him against his shoulder and say "It's okay, Sammy, I'm here."

He wrapped his own arms around the angel's waist. There was nothing flimsy there, nothing delicate or ethereal, just solid strength, a rock Sam could lean against. If a rock could be soft, comforting, this would be what it felt like.

It was okay that Sam was weak. He had something, someone to lean on.

Protected. He heard the wings rustle again and was enveloped with a soft warmth as they wrapped around him into an embrace all-knowing, all-forgiving, all-understanding.

He buried his face into the receiving shoulder and sighed.

The angel smelled of celestial music and a soft bright light and some other, forgotten essence and peace flowed through Sam. It filled him and soothed him and left nothing but comfort and the knowledge that this was his for the asking.

He felt the angel's cheek brush the top of his head, and his large arms were steady and warm, holding Sam effortlessly.

"Rest" Castiel whispered the command gently.

And Sam rested.

He awoke to the sounds of boots stomping in, keys tossed harshly onto a dresser.

Sam opened his eyes to sunlight and a clock that read 10:30am. Dean was peeling out of his jacket, moving as if his head hurt, reeking of whiskey and cheap perfume. He didn't glance at Sam as he sat on his bed and pulled his boots off.

Sam studied Dean, noting the new lines around his eyes and mouth, the harsh line of his lips, the weariness of body that was so—not Dean. He was so much older now.

Castiel may have removed Dean's outward scars, leaving only the reminding handprint, but no power could remove the scars from those eyes.

Suddenly he remembered a day almost ten years ago—Sam was seventeen and walking out of school with a couple of friends, and there was Dean, leaning against the Impala, waiting for him, face tipped up toward the sunshine, enjoying the little pleasure as he did every little pleasure, taking joy where ever it was offered.

He had turned his head and grinned at the sound of Sam's voice.

Dean at twenty-one had been amazingly beautiful, not just his face and his body, but almost blinding with his presence and his energy and his self-confidence that expressed itself with that inoffensive arrogance and when one of Sam's friends had said "Wow, is that your brother?" Sam had been so full of pride, so happy to say "Yes"...

"So what are you looking at?" Dean said now, not quite a snarl, but not quite not one, either.

I love you Dean, Sam thought, not daring to say it aloud--even when they had been at their best together, it was not the way they expressed themselves.

I love you dearly. I will always love you dearly.

"Castiel came by."

"Oh yeah? Catch you doin' the dark deed with Mz Demonpussy?"

"No"

"That's good. But I won't bore you again with all the details of your future abode."

Dean lay back, then sat up again.

"So, what did he want?"

"He came to see me. He gave me a hug."

"What the fuck, man?" Dean was sitting straight up now, socking feet on the floor, blood-shot eyes actually seeing Sam for the first time that day.

Sam sat up, too, eagerness spilling over in spite of himself.

"I'm not kidding, Dean." He stopped. "It was the best hug ever" just sounded too lame to describe what had happened, so he just stopped.

"Castiel came by and just gave you a hug? No keys to a new SUV? No tickets to Rio? Not a brand new autographed copy of "Hugged By An Angel?" He needs a new PR agent."

Sam laughed.

"You sure he didn't give you more than a hug?" Dean asked suspiciously.

"What do you mean?"

"You are kind of glowing or something."

"Dean!"

"Well, he better not try hugging me. I'll clip his wings so fast—"

"He asked permission, dude"

Dean lay back down on his bed, still eyeing Sam with distrust.

"I don't know why he'd want to hug you." Dean muttered. And almost inaudibly "he's my angel."

Sam stood up. He was rested. Well rested, maybe for the first time in months. Nothing was solved, maybe nothing would ever be solved, but they could go on.

"So what was it like?" Dean asked suddenly.

"The peace that passeth understanding."

"So you took a religion course at Stanford, big whoop."

"No, Dean, it's from the Bible. A lot of times it was the only Book in the room when we were growing up, remember?"

The look on Dean's face said he did remember, but wouldn't admit it.

"I mean, was it a girly hug? A pat on the shoulder? A 'hey, man, great touchdown hug'?"

All ready it was fading like the most wonderful dream ever, but Sam remembered now what it was the angel had smelled like, besides the music and the light, the thing he almost couldn't remember.

He should have known when Castiel spoke of the greatest gift.

"He smelled like hope." Sam said. "He was warm and he smelled like hope."