Disclaimer: Don't own Supernatural or any of the characters, which is really probably just as well.

ANs: This goes AU sometime after the Anna episodes, before The Rapture. As unviewed scenes, you can fit them in wherever you want of just assume it swerved right out of canon after the first scene.

Edit: now with 95% more page breaks. I hate this site so much right now.

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Another race lost, another task failed, another seal broken. Another case of two just not being enough. Another case of angelic assistance showing up far too late.

"We could've saved this one," shouts Dean, pointing furiously at the pair of corpses whose blood has filled the symbol carved into the floor, leaving it glinting dark red in the moonlight. "If you'd gotten your asses over here when things went sour –"

"Dean," hisses Sam, watching Uriel's huge fists tense and untense deliberately. Dean ignores both of them; this isn't about consequences, it's about injustice and failure and anger.

"And don't give me this crap about 'your numbers being finite.' Unless there's only two of you, there's no way you can't spare someone to show up for one fucking minute to save a goddamn seal."

"Don't presume to judge our actions," rumbles Uriel, shifting his bulk heavily, his voice echoing like thunder through the cramped church.

"Even if we are not actively engaged in protecting the seals, Dean, we do not have the forces to monitor you constantly." Castiel's tone, although less confrontational than his fellow angel's, is cold and sharp, and Dean can read it clear as a book. I have told you this before, do not make me tell you again.

"You're telling me seals are being broken, people are getting killed, because you don't carry a cell? Seriously? That's fucking weak, man." The immediate white-hot anger is slackening, but he won't forget it with two pairs of dead eyes boring holes into him.

Uriel takes a step forward towards Dean who doesn't move, still stiff with fury. Sam throws an arm across his brother's chest and pushes him back. "If that's the problem," he says gruffly, "why not just give us a way to contact you? A – uh – an angel cell phone, or something," he adds, glancing at Dean.

"That is out of the question," responds Uriel instantly, contemptuously. "We do not have time to run around after the two of you, cleaning up your messes."

"Then you're okay with seals breaking? With Lilith winning? With the Apocalypse? 'Cause that's what I'm hearing," throws back Dean.

Uriel grows and lunges forward, and Castiel steps after him, putting a restraining hand on his arm. There's a shift in the air, and both angels are gone.

"Fucking peachy," snaps Dean, pushing Sam's arm away.

"Seriously, man, you think you could hold off a bit on the antagonism? I know you're pissed, but getting your head ripped off by Uriel's not gonna do us a lot of good."

"It doesn't bother you that two people died to break this seal – that we could've died – because they were too busy putting up their feet to check up on us?" Dean turns on him, anger still not worn out and, like a mad dog, snapping at any hand available.

"Of course it does, but…"

There's another shift, like a breath of wind flowing through an empty room, and Castiel's back, alone.

"This is a matter of some contention," says the angel, calm tone not betraying the fact.

Dean begins to say something, and is elbowed in the gut by his brother. He spares an instant to glare at Sam, and then turns back to Castiel. "Why? What's the big deal with carrying a phone? A pager, even, if it's too many buttons for you. Can't decide which plan to go with?"

"We are not in the habit," says Castiel, ignoring him, "of giving such power to mortals."

Sam cuts in before Dean can continue. "It doesn't have to be anything that compels an answer. Just something that'll let you know we need your help." He says it quick and desperate, as if afraid he won't get the chance to finish.

Castiel doesn't seem swayed by the argument, blue eyes moving slowly from one to the other as he assesses them. They cut deep, sharp and frigid as a frozen blade. There is a gleam of intense power behind them, and it holds both men still without at word.

"Very well," he says at last, when they are both beginning to weave under the weight of his gaze, and releases them. "It will draw my attention to you, no more. It is very possible I will be unable to answer your requests, so do not count on them."

"Swell," mutters Dean, but quietly.

"I need not mention what will befall you if you abuse this privilege," says the angel, in a dark tone. Each word seems heavy as an anvil, cold and crushing, and he lets them hang for a long moment in the silence before continuing. "Close your eyes."

Dean glances at Sam, meets his brother's eyes. They find mutual wordless acquiescence, Sam shrugging while Dean raises his eyebrows. Dean closes his eyes, and a brief burst of light flashes through regardless, like a prison spotlight. "All right," says Castiel calmly, and Dean opens his eyes slowly, shoulders instinctively raised against what he might see.

It's just Castiel, rumpled and dusky as always. And in his hand, what looks like a thin black stone. He hands it to Dean, who holds it flat on his palm and raises it to his eyes to examine closer.

It looks like a flint knife, edges clipped unevenly and coming to a dull tapered point at both ends. It's about six inches long, an inch wide and less than an inch thick. And, resting on the calloused skin of his palm, it's just slightly warm. Dean flips it over, and then picks it up in two fingers to examine all sides. There are no switches or buttons, no moving parts at all. It's just a piece of stone.

"Uh," he says, looking from the thing to Castiel.

"Just hold it in your hand, and say my name. I will hear, wherever I am. I make no guarantees as to my response. Do not gamble your lives on it."

A shift in the air, and he is gone again.

"Well, that was cheery," says Dean, looking back at the thing.

"No wonder Uriel was so uptight about this," says Sam in a surprised tone, also staring at it.

"Whaddya mean?" Dean looks up, to find Sam watching him with his usual haven't you figured this out? look.

"It's one of his feathers, Dean. I can't imagine Uriel plucking out one and giving it to us."

Dean stares at his brother for a minute, and then back down at the object on his palm. Before, it just looked like a chipped rock, maybe an overly-ambitious Indian spear-head. But now that he looks at it with the word "feather" in his mind, somehow his perception changes. It fits perfectly, and like an optical illusion finally coming into focus once he's seen it that's all he sees in the stone. The ancient, heavy timelessness of an angel's feather.

"Dude," he says. And then, because he wouldn't be Dean Winchester if he weren't a smart-ass, "Wonder how much we could get for it?"

"Shut up," says Sam, in his usual Earth calling tone. Dean mugs, but slips the stone – feather – into his coat pocket.

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The first time Dean uses it, Castiel doesn't come.

He and Sam are fighting back to back in a factory full of running band-saws, drills, conveyor belts and other potentially lethal moving parts, surrounded by a ring of seriously pissed-off Fangs. Neither can duck blows without letting it land on the other, and blocking anything swung by a vampire is a recipe for shattered bones.

Dean's only got two rounds left in the gun, and no time to reload. He uses one to shoot the bastard swinging a rusty chain at head, and as he takes aim at the next contender fumbles in his pocket for the chipped stone. His fingers close around it, grasping the oblong shape with desperation's firm grip.

"Castiel." He snarls the name like a curse, and shoots a woman point-blank in the head. She reels away with a gargled scream, but she'll be back soon enough. "Castiel," he says again, barking out the word – it's not a prayer, it's not, Dean Winchester doesn't pray – wondering if maybe the angel can't hear him over the noise of the factory, over the sound of Sam's gun firing, over the taunts of the Fangs.

"Goddammit, Castiel," he shouts, and if he'd had the time he probably would have recognized this as not being the best way to go about requesting an angel's help, but there isn't time.

"Don't gamble your lives on it," the angel had said. Well, a fucking lot of good that is now. He drops the stone, pulls his machete from his belt, and charges the nearest snarling, fanged bastard.

In the end, they win. Somehow. No thanks to the lump of stone sitting heavy and useless in his pocket.

Castiel shows up that night in the motel room when Sam's stitching his brother's back up with one hand and holding a pack of frozen peas over the livid cut along his hair line with the other.

Dean looks up with his good eye, and even through it the angel's figure is slightly blurred, edges slightly difficult to make out in the room's poor light. "I'd say better late than never," he says, voice gritty with pain," but you know what? Screw that."

"I told you it was unlikely I would answer, Dean," says the angel.

"Everyone says that! Don't call me unless you need me, don't count on me when the chips are down. But when the chips are down, they damn well come through anyway!"

"I believe you are mistaking my words for another's. I do not make false statements. I do not exaggerate out of politeness or modesty. When I told you it was unlikely I would answer, that was precisely what I meant."

"Then why'd you give us the damn thing?" says Dean, sitting up and pulling his stitches. The thread slips through his skin like a strip of burning metal. "Fuck," he snarls, as Sam shoves him back down and curses at him in turn.

Castiel waits patiently for them to settle. "It was not an unreasonable request," is his answer, when he apparently deems the situation ready to support it.

Dean's bled out most of his anger, along with his stamina and his energy, so he just glares.

"What were you doing?" asks Sam softly from behind, in a voice tempered by pain and not a little anger of his own.

Castiel shrugs, although his eyes don't leave theirs, marking the gesture as one he's picked up without entirely understanding. "We do not explain ourselves, nor are there any on this Earth in a position to demand explanations of us," says Castiel in an almost conversational tone. It's not a warning, merely a statement. At the moment. "Nevertheless," he adds, as if in an afterthought, "it may improve your moods to know a seal was saved this night."

"Well, yippididee," says Dean. But he pours less sarcasm into the words than he could have. And then, gesturing to his wounds, "Don't suppose you could do anything about this?"

But Castiel is already gone.

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It would be a mistake to say they had been relying on Castiel's aid in the first place, but after the initial let down Dean almost forgets about the extra ounces he's carrying around in his pocket. Almost forgets until they get themselves good and stuck between a rock and a hard place that'd put tempered steel to shame. This is because they're standing on a quickly crumbling outcropping a quarter of a way down a very steep cliff. There's a shallow river trickling in the rocky valley below, but it's nowhere deep enough to break what is going to be an extremely fatal fall. Sam's trying to find a purchase in the rock wall behind them, but the stuff is mostly soft clay, and his fists just sink in and then slip out again. The ledge they're standing on is made of the same, and their weight is slowly causing it to crumble.

Dean reaches into his pocket for a knife to stick into the uneven rock face in the hope that a thin blade will find a purchase where a hand can't, and comes out with the slice of flint.

"Huh," he says, staring at it. And then, as Sam turns to him, expression one step away from panic, "It's worth a try, right?"

A foot of clay gives away behind them, tumbles down the fifty feet to the river bed. Dean doesn't bother to wait for an answer. "Castiel," he rasps, stone clutched tight in a filthy palm.

There's a breath of wind from beside his ear, and then Castiel is standing there, directly beside his shoulder. "Gah!" says Dean, and instinctively recoils. It's only Castiel's firm grip on his shoulder which keeps him from fatally recoiling 50 feet. More dirt crumbles away.

"You think you could give us a hand?" says Dean, while his brother tries to burrow into soft clay as the ledge erodes behind him.

The angel gives them an unimpressed look, but as the earth falls out from beneath the heels of Sam's boots he reaches out and claps a hand on the second Winchester's shoulder.

And just like that, they're standing at the top of the cliff, a few feet back from where they were thrown off by a spirit with a serious lack of humour concerning salt and fire.

"Uh, thanks," says Sam, turning to look from the muddy streaks leading over the edge to the angel.

"You are welcome," says Castiel, and is gone. They stare after him.

"Was it just me," says Dean, after a minute, "or was he just almost nice?"

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Hanging from a rafter by one arm, chain slowly crushing his wrist, Dean grasps the stone and curses at the complete absence of Heavenly warriors.

"I take back anything good I ever said about that arrogant self-righteous prick!"

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They almost fall over the seal while tracking down a possible zombie in Michigan. And then, when it becomes terribly clear that saving the seal means murdering a child to keep the demons from using her bones to raise her dead father, they wish they'd never heard of angels or demons or the fucking Apocalypse.

It's only afterwards, when Sam is cleaning up outside and the girl is lying dead on the floor with a bullet from Dean's gun in her heart – he was aiming at the thing behind her, he knows that, but he can't help but think how convenient, and hate himself a little more than before – that the older Winchester pulls out the stone, the flint, the goddamn angel feather, and says the name expecting absolutely nothing.

The air behind him stirs as if fanned, and he hears the soft rustle of fabric. Castiel's clothes are the only thing about the angel which makes a noise, other than his voice. A voice which can shatter glass and stone, which can deafen and madden and kill.

What the fuck kind of messed up war is this, is what he wants to say. Explain this to me, maybe. Or even, How is this just? Instead, he just gestures wordlessly to the corpse with the piece of black rock in his hand.

To his surprise, the angel walks past him without a word. Strides over to where the girl is lying, just another hapless victim of a war she didn't even know existed. He kneels facing away from Dean, blocking his actions, but his back is bent and his head is lowered. Dean hears a quiet whispering which sound somehow like paper rustling and water running at the same time. Something smooth and sweet and beautiful but sharp-edged, like shards of a stained-glass window. When it stops, the room seems much quieter than before, smaller and emptier. Castiel stands and walks back to him, expression just slightly more closed than usual.

"The seals are necessary, Dean," is what he says. "The power they hold in check must in a small way be reflected in their nature. In love, or sorrow, or bravery, or horror. Or, sacrifice."

"That wasn't a fucking sacrifice, that was murder. That kid didn't decide to die, she didn't make a choice, and she sure as hell shouldn't have had to! And if she had, what? 'You can either die for Heaven or die for Hell, sorry, no third option.'"

"The Earth may be saved because of it. Billions may live thanks to her death."

"Oh, well, that's okay then," says Dean, staring at her. And then, eyes flitting to the angel sharp as a knife, "Will you go and tell that to her mother? 'Sorry ma'am, we had to kill your only daughter to stop some demons raising your dead husband, but hey, at least you get to live.'"

"It is unfortunate, but I cannot change the seals. Even if I could, I would not. You have seen Hell, Dean. Would you wish that on every inhabitant of this planet?"

Dean recoils as if struck, and then comes out with his own fists raised. "Don't pull that on me. Don't you fucking dare pull that on me. This isn't about Hell, this is about the fact that angels, who are supposed to be good and kind and holy are murdering children. Have set up a whole system that requires the murdering of children.

"What is is as must be."

"And this is what must be?" says Dean, indicating the girl.

"Yes," says Castiel simply.

"Well fuck you. Fuck the whole goddamn Heavenly choir. If this is what you call goodness, it's no wonder Hell's so screwed up." He turns and slams out of the church, without waiting to see Castiel's reaction.

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Dean half swears to himself he won't call the angel again, almost throws the damn stone into a lake or a field or a garbage dump. It's only the tiny worry about what would happen if some demon got its hands on the thing that keeps him from going through with it.

He wouldn't have called, except that Sam made him, and it's Bobby, and Bobby's family, dammit. Family which is currently lying on the couch, unmoving, hardly breathing. They have no clue what's wrong with him, came to check up on him when he didn't get back to their messages and found him on the floor in a half-scratched out circle. He's been out for at least 72 hours as far as they know, maybe longer, and that's not good. A hospital can keep him alive, but nothing other than they can get him back, and they're stuck.

"Just call him already, Dean!" shouts Sam, in the middle of Bobby's dirty living room. "He's an angel, he doesn't care that you called him names! What's the worst that can happen, he shows up and calls you some back?"

"Try he shows up and smites my ass," returns Dean, but he knows he's going to lose, this is just trying to get a few blows in before the knock-out comes.

"This is Bobby, we're talking about! Or is he not worth eating some humble pie for?" And there it is, right there. This is Bobby. This is family. You do anything for family. Including eating humble pie to angels.

So he digs out the stone, crosses his arms, and says, "Castiel," like the word's going to bite him.

Nothing.

There's no reason for Castiel to show, not after last time, and even without that he's "busy." But, despite it… Dean had been expecting him to show. Expecting him to pop up and rub his, Dean's, nose in his mistake.

The silence hurts worse than ten years of nose-rubbing. Dean unfolds his arms and looks at the rock. "Castiel," he says again, and then, "Castiel!" He's angry now, angry with the angel, angry with Sam, angry with himself. "Castiel!" he bellows right at the stone, hoping like hell the angel's wincing wherever he is.

There's no answer. Dean hurls the thing at the wall. It hits with an anticlimactic thump and drops to the floor, landing on a pile of 16th century Italian books on witchcraft. "Yeah, fuck you," says Dean and storms out of the house, gets into the Impala, and takes off.

--

He comes back when it's dark and finds the front windows bright, hurries up the steps in case there's been a change, in case Sam's found something, in case Bobby's okay now.

It's just Sam reading, a half-eaten frozen lasagne next to his book. He looks up when Dean comes in, expression disapproving. "Finished fingering Heaven?" he asks.

Dean considers fingering him, but shrugs instead. "Never got me anywhere," he says, and turns to Bobby. "How is he?"

"The same. We're going to have to take him into hospital tomorrow, Dean. We should have had to already, only he's not deteriorating as fast as he should be."

"Don't knock it."

"Yeah, well, I wish I knew why. I can't even figure out what the damn circle was for." He waves a hand at the circle, still half-etched on the wooden floor.

"Great," says Dean.

"Yeah. Here," he hands his brother a book. "Get reading."

--

Sam falls asleep face-first in a book around 2 am, probably drooling on some priceless manuscript. Dean doesn't wake him. Instead drops his own book quietly to the floor, which he's been sitting on, and stands. Winces as his back complains, and then his knees join in.

"Getting old," he mutters, and walks over to the wall where the Italian texts are sitting. Fishes the black flint out from among them, and walks out of the house.

It's a cool night outside, but it feels refreshing after the close warmth of the house, and the air clean after the smell of must and paper. Dean sits down on the front steps and turns the flint over in his hands. Wonders whether some museum somewhere has some more of them, angel feathers shed over the centuries, fossilising instantly to stone. Probably not, someone wiser with the Craft would have stolen them a long time ago.

Could be he's holding the only angel feather on the planet. One of a kind, priceless.

And still, less valuable than Bobby's life. He closes his hand around the stone, and says very quietly, "Castiel."

The wind brushes over the exposed nape of his neck, just slightly warm, like a southern breeze.

"Didn't think you'd come," he says.

"Yes, you did," answers Castiel, stating a simple fact.

"Okay, maybe a little." Dean pauses, wondering if he should look around. Wondering if this sort of thing should be done face to face. But that would mean looking up at the angel, and he's never looked up to anyone who wasn't his Dad or Bobby. "Look, about before. I, uh… I'm sorry."

"You are not," says Castiel.

It's true. He's not. But he's sorry enough he pissed off the angel he'd hoped it would be enough.

"You merely think you have offended me, and seek to rectify it so I will help your friend."

There's not really a lot to be said to that. "Yeah. I mean… I am sorry if I offended you. Kinda. Compared to the other angels, well, compared to Uriel, you're not…" not a complete ass is probably not a good conclusion to that thought, and struggling to find something more complimentary he fades out into silence.

Castiel is apparently disinclined to help him.

Damn humility.

"Look, you're not… I… you're kind of okay. For an angel." Maybe goes unsaid.

He doesn't actually hear Castiel sigh, but for some reason he imagines it.

"This is something you might consider practicing," advises Castiel.

Dean does turn now, to see Castiel lounging against the porch banister above him, staring up at the deep velvety sky. "So you'll help Bobby? Can you fix him?"

Castiel's eyes drop down onto him like falling stars, and Dean freezes. Then the angel blinks, and the moment is gone. "You hunt a hannya," says Castiel, simply. He's gone before Dean has the chance to even consider thanking him. Which is probably just as well.

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A seal minutes from breaking, Dean pulls the stone out and says it even while sprinting with everything he's got towards the clearing up ahead. There is no answer. The seal breaks.

When he next sees Castiel, the angel is looking at least if not worn, more rumpled than usual. He doesn't say anything about it.

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Dean's tired of death. He's tired of seeing people he knows die, tired of hearing about it. And he's tired of innocent people dying because they stepped in the way of something they didn't even know existed.

Dean doesn't know if this one, #3 this month, was a good guy. Doesn't know if he was a religious church-goer or a murdering paedophile, or anything in between, and right now he really doesn't give a shit. All he knows is that the poor son of a bitch is dying in front of him because his wife was possessed, and he wasn't quick enough following Dean's order to duck. His wife is lying next to him, unconscious but alive. She'll recover, to know she killed her husband – it's not the truth but it's what she'll think, and that's another tragedy.

"Castiel," says Dean, bloody hands pressed against the man's stomach. Sam's outside waiting to flag down the ambulance, but it's not going to get here in time. The wind brushes against his back, soft as silk.

"Heal him," says Dean gruffly. "Fix him, take him to a hospital, wind back fucking time. Do something."

"That is not a power I possess, Dean."

Dean swivels so fast he's surprised he doesn't get whiplash. "You're a goddamn angel," he snarls. "How can you not be able to heal one man? You heal yourself all the fucking time!"

"It is not a power I possess for him," reiterates the angel.

"And what does that mean?"

"We are given the power to save souls, Dean. The power to save lives, except by our strength, is one we are not permitted to use by our choice alone."

"So what, you can't save him because someone else hasn't signed off on it? Then go get the signature!"

"It would not be granted. Each overturning of fate weakens this world."

"So he's just not important enough to save? Goddammit, Cas, what makes me better than this poor bastard?" he growls. And then, deeper, throatier, as anger begins to lose to guilt, "What made me worth saving?"

Castiel, to his surprise, kneels beside him. It's the first time in a long time the angel has been so close to him. The air around him is just slightly cool, fresh and clean like mountain air. His eyes are deep and bright and blue as light filtering through ice. "I know you do not value yourself highly, Dean. But that blinds you to the fact that others may." The angel turns to the man under his hands, whose breathing is sharpening, coming in short gasps. Castiel reaches out to press two fingers against his forehead, and he stills. "Be at peace," says the angel, while underneath there is that papery echo which Dean has come to think of angel whisper.

Outside, there is the faint but growing sound of ambulance sirens. Dean knows without knowing how that Castiel is about to go.

"Cas," he says sharply, and blinks as the angel turns to look at him. "If it was Sam – if Sam – would you save him?"

The angel doesn't have to say anything; Dean can read the answer on his face plain enough.

No. Heaven's not about to go giving a hand to Hell's little mascot, even if he's refused to play the part.

"And if it were me?" he says, gruffly.

"One is generally one more chance than most are afforded," says Castiel in a warning tone, not of the topic but to take care of himself.

"So you have the power, but you can't use it? Won't? Even to do what you think is right? What's the point, Cas?"

"We are defined by our devotion, Dean, by our faith. I have served my father for millennia, and never seen his face. That is what it is to be an angel." His tone is flat, but Dean can hear – thinks he can hear – the emotion behind it. So similar to Anna, who just couldn't obey on blind faith any longer.

"How can you be so sure?" he asks. Outside, gravel crunches, and he turns to look. When he glances back, Castiel is gone.

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"This is a really bad plan," says Dean, staring at the stone in his palm. Sam's standing in the corridor next to him, dressed in his one suit.

"Yeah, well, if we go back in there she's gonna start screaming again. You want that?"

"No. But there's no way this is going to work."

"Isn't it you who keeps saying it can't hurt to try?" shoots back Sam, crossing his arms. "So try already."

Dean rolls his eyes, but says it all the same. "Castiel."

He's not sure whether he's expecting an answer or not. He's a bit surprised to find that he's hoping for one, though. Not that it doesn't make sense, saving seals, stopping the Apocalypse, it's important work. But not something he generally gets hope involved in.

The end of his tie flicks up in the breeze.

"Hi," says Sam, Small Talk Master. "We, uh, need your help."

"I assumed as much," says Castiel. He looks down the long white hall, and then at the metal door with the tempered glass window in it. "A sanatorium," he adds.

"Yeah. Uh, there's a girl. Who knows about one of the seals. I mean, she knows where the thing guarding it is."

Castiel watches without moving, waiting calmly.

"There's just this one problem…" continues Sam, trailing off.

"She's ten kinds of crazy," says Dean. "We're talking scream down the walls, tear out your eyes kind of crazy."

Castiel waits.

"But, uh, she's got a thing. About angels," puts in Sam, glancing at Castiel and then away again. "The thing, whatever it was, messed her up good, but she held on to her faith in them."

"You want me to talk to her," says Castiel.

"Yes!" says Sam, gladly relieved of the burden of explanation.

Castiel's expression seems to indicate he doesn't believe this to be a good use of his time, but he reaches for the doorknob regardless. Dean's hand shoots out before he's completely aware of what he's doing, and grabs Castiel's.

They all freeze for an instant, and then Dean lets go and steps back as if burned. The angel's coat felt no different than any other coat, but there was strength beneath it, so much strength it set his bones humming in him. He makes a fist of his hand, and then loosens it again. Castiel turns to regard him carefully.

"Uh, one more thing," says Dean, suddenly uncomfortable. "The angels we're talking about here… they're not like you."

A patient stare.

"I mean, obviously, they kind of are, but… we're mostly talking about the other kind. The white dresses and fluffy wings kind."

"Halos and blond hair," puts in Sam, in case Castiel has missed out on humanity's conception of angels. "You know. Lots of golden light and choirs."

"I see," says Castiel.

"So, you think you could look like that? Cast an illusion, or something?"

"It can be arranged."

"Great," says Dean, and settles to wait. Castiel reaches for the doorknob. "Hey, hey, hey, wait, that's just you."

"She will see what she wants to see," says Castiel. "She will see what she believes an angel of the Lord to be." His blue eyes flash as he turns to them. "As do you."

He turns the knob, and walks in.

"Tell me you're not just a little disappointed you didn't get to see Cas all done up in white and feathers," says Sam as the door closed.

"Shuddup."

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They can't stop it. The seals break one by one, shattering across the world as Lilith and her followers swarm them. It will come down to a fight in the end, a full angels-on-demons battle, holy swords and evil sickles clashing with the few mortals who are aware of it fighting on the side they choose.

They're Seattle when the 65th seal breaks, and renders the spirit they're exorcising nearly completely irrelevant. They finish the job by cutting corners they never would have cut a year ago, and take off south on the rain-slicked highways.

The highways in Oregon are boring as fuck, trees, trees and more trees, with rain to vary the diet. It's getting late, sun beginning to set (behind the trees) and rain lightening to a dull mist. Sam's catching what sleep he can in the passenger seat, Dean having thoughtfully turned the knob on Metallica down from 20 to 5.

They're heading around a broad curve, Dean humming along to Nothing Else Matters and just contemplating turning on the high beams, when it happens.

He hardly notices the small connecting side road. Sure as hell doesn't notice the beaten Chevy roaring up to the highway until the lights flash in his eyes and he turns to catch a glimpse of a horrified face through the passenger window. Then there is only the thunderous crash of metal crushing metal and the scream of tires skidding on slick asphalt. His world is noise and fire and pain, crushing tearing pain in his legs, in his back, in his neck. It echoes in his head, sound playing over and over in his shocked ear drums until his brain finally filters in the fact that it's silent.

Dean opens his eyes. They're off the road, trees ahead of him, trees behind. Fire blazes through his neck when he tries to turn it but he does anyway, to find that yep, trees on the side too. He turns to tell Sam, and stares.

Sam's not there. The passenger seat's not there. All there is is a twisted heap of metal, scrunched and crushed like tinfoil. It's dripping red, deep, deep red, dripping to pool in crevasses and dips in the metal.

His throat makes a noise which has nothing to do with him. His hand, operating likewise without thought, reaches to open his door, which is somehow completely undamaged. It swings open, and he realises he must have been leaning on it because now he's lying on the damp dirt staring up at a canopy of trees. The world smells of earth and pine. And, now, hot metal. Dean looks back into the car and notices his legs haven't come with him, are hanging from the car.

What's left of them is hanging from the car.

That should hurt a hell of a lot more than it does, he thinks curiously, and like a light being switched on pain floods in. He screams. Screams and screams, and then screams some more, until his throat is slick with blood and he collapses back into the dirt. Christ it hurts, hurts so much, and he needs help, needs someone, needs someone to make it stop. Needs Sammy to make it stop.

Dean's mind flashes to the passenger seat, a twisted mess of bloody metal, and he screams again. Screams until he's sobbing, tears mixing with the mist settling on his hot skin.

He can't move, back stiffening, legs useless, neck spasming, right arm numb and limp. He scrabbles in the dirt with his left, draws long furrows with his fingers, driving his fist thoughtlessly into the ground in his anguish. His thoughts are muddy, and they're getting muddier, getting thick and heavy and empty. Even the pain begins to fade, his thrashing ceasing as his strength slowly drains out of him.

It's hard to link ideas together now, and he doesn't want to anyway. There is nothing worth thinking. Nothing left for him. You failed; Sam's dead; you're dying. He lets the thoughts slip away into the darkness.

His scrabbling arm knocks into his side, and strikes something hard there. A tiny light sparks. The ghost of an idea. He hooks a thumb into his pocket, more by accident than intent, and something tumbles out onto the ground as if eager to get out. He lays his palm over it, finds it is long and thin and just slightly warm.

Warm, and soft, and comforting.

There are angels watching over you, Dean. Always.

"Castiel," he whispers, words hardly slipping from his raw throat.

A warm breeze blows over him, gentle and sweet, and the rain stops. Above him, his haze vision can just make out a figure standing with wide wings spread, bright and fierce as a fiery blaze. All light and strength and certainty.

He has no voice left to ask for what he wants. No breath left to speak his prayer – here and now, it is nothing but a prayer.

Before he passes out, he thinks he feels a cool touch against his forehead.

--

The highways in Oregon are boring as fuck, trees, trees and more trees, with rain to vary the diet. It's getting late, sun beginning to set (behind the trees) and rain lightening to a dull mist. Sam's catching what sleep he can in the passenger seat, Dean having thoughtfully turned the knob on Metallica down from 20 to 5.

They're heading around a broad curve, Nothing Else Matters just beginning to really pick up.

Dean blinks, and slams on the breaks so hard Sam is jerked forward, and wakes up to rub his eyes and then stare at his brother. "What the hell?" he says gruffly.

Up ahead, from a barely noticeable connecting road, a beaten Chevy swerves madly onto the highway doing 60 at least.

"Dean? You okay?"

Dean blinks again, then shakes his head. "Yeah. Yeah. Fine. Let's go." He doesn't, at the moment, notice his empty pocket.

In the dark sky above, a star falls.