IN EXCELSIS

It strikes Dean as odd, sometimes, how Castiel inhabits the body of such a small man.

Dean Winchester feels implicitly that messengers of God should come in more impressive packages. He ponders this - rolls the thought around in his head like a piece of taffy, letting it stretch and bend. It's easier than listening to the lecture the angel is currently spouting at him.

He assumes it's a lecture, anyway. The fierce, dark penetrative qualities of Castiel's stare are dialed up to 11 (ludicrous speed, Dean thinks, incongruously, and it isn't even from the same movie. He's gone plaid.) There's the voice, too; icy and guttural like a glacier grinding over rocks, except that no glacier ever had that slow burning simmer at the centre.

Also there's the fact that the angel's face is about three inches away from his. No bad breath, he notices. The divine smells like dusty feathers; it is birds in some ancient library, though there seems to be scorched ozone lingering beneath. The air's off.

" - are you listening to me?"

Three inches gives way to six. The angel is pulling back, no less irritated.

"No," admits Dean. "You're a tiny guy, you know that?"

"Listen. To. Me."

"I've got like two inches on you."

"Dean."

He's going to have to give way on this at some point, Dean figures. "In the Winchester Bible," he notes, instead, "You're gonna be the Angel of Midgets. Seriously. I'm calling Chuck."

"I'm going to be the Angel of Throwing You Through A Wall in about five seconds."

Dean tastes salt copper in his mouth, warm and familiar, and touches his tongue to an upper left molar. He is not surprised to find it loose; he is a bit surprised that it's not chipped. "Um," he says. It occurs to him, then, to wonder why he's lying down. He assumes he is horizontal, at any rate - Castiel is looming over him. And there's something hard and uncomfortable digging into the small of his back.

"Ow," he adds, complaining, and feels the headache bloom and drive just behind his right ear.

"Dean."

Maybe he'd misread; it wasn't a lecture at all.

Maybe, thinks Dean, he should have been paying attention - because when he turns his head, then, and blinks slowly at the ruined circle of salt and blood, and the three desiccated bodies, and the play of really unpleasant-looking lightning-flickers creeping along the floor toward him - that is exactly the point at which Cas heaves him up, and hurls him backward.

Through the wall, as promised. Bricks are exploding.

Dean could almost admire the guy, except he's kind of pissed about the whole thing.

.

The third day after Sammy leaves, when Dean is almost getting tired of waiting for the Apocalypse to start - (or hasn't it started already? He jumps at every falling leaf) - the third day, he thumbs through the entries on his cell phone (not going to call Sam) and is startled to find one labeled CASTIEL. The number field is blank.

On a whim, he hits the button and sees the blank entry dial itself.

"Yes?"

The angel sounds even less impressed than usual. It's weird to hear those flat tones echo through what seems to be the world's lousiest connection.

"Huh," says Dean, phone to his ear. "It works."

"What do you need?" Cas doesn't bother asking who it is. Dean wonders if superior beings use caller ID - or maybe, he amends, rebel angels don't get that many calls. No more party invitations for Castiel. He wonders if angels really do go bowling.

He realizes he hasn't said anything when Cas follows up with a curt, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah," he says. "Sorry. Testing."

"I'm busy, Dean."

When the line goes dead, he thumbs back to the entry and shortens it to CAS. He resists the urge to tell the phone to suck it.

.

Walls are pretty painful, as it turns out, though Dean could have guessed that from past experience. It wasn't something he would've felt the need to test again, if asked. But he wasn't consulted, so instead he tucks his head against his shoulder and manages something approximating a roll when he hits the grass outside and the shards of brick and glass come spattering down around him. It's dark, he notices, and cold - nighttime in October, dumbass - and right around the time he makes that realization, he remembers why they're here.

He presses raw palms to the dirt and shoves himself up to his knees, just in time for the whole building to go up in a great, fiery burst of light.

.

It isn't that he's not used to hunting on his own. He just hasn't really had to do it in a while, and after he's finished cleaning up the mess and burning his clothes and putting the crossbow back in its spot in the trunk, Dean finds that he really isn't sure what to do with himself. He rolls his shoulder, stretching out the soreness, and flips through his wallet until he finds a credit card he hasn't used yet. A motel room and a six-pack of beer later, he's sitting in a ratty yellow recliner watching an ant as it meanders past a crack in the smoke-stained wall.

Still not calling Sam. So he flips open the phone and dials the blank entry again.

"What is it, Dean?"

Angels totally have caller ID.

"Got a paper here," he answers. "Says Jesus showed up in a corn fritter in Texas."

There is silence on the phone. It manages to be an angry silence.

"Sorry," says Dean, and almost sounds like he means it. "Motel 63 on the turnpike outside Cranston."

The air in the room ripples by the time he's flipped the cellphone shut. Castiel looks somehow even more rumpled than usual, as though the trenchcoat has grown another size across his shoulders. There's a tuft of hair sticking up over his ear, and a trail of dried blood running down the perpetually unshaven jaw.

"Hey," says Dean. "You've got a... thing." He indicates the blood, pointing generally at his own face as he cranes his neck back.

The angel tilts his head and stares at Dean for a long moment, then raises a hand to scrub above the collar of the trench, not looking away. Blood comes off in little flakes, drifting down onto Cas's loose tie. He gets about half of it, then drops his hand and says, "What do you want?"

Still with the stare. Dean kind of misses those times when Cas seemed all quietly conflicted; since the Great Rebellion, the angel just looks fierce and desperate.

"Stop looking at me," he protests, mildly. "Seriously, man. It's fucking creepy."

Dean is tired, and half-buzzed, and Sammy's gone and Lucifer is risen and he's going to get himself smited - smote? - by an angel in the world's scuzziest motel.

Second scuzziest, he amends inwardly. There was that place in Delaware.

"Killed six demons today," he says, to Cas's continued, baffled glare. "Dog pack. Sit down and have a beer."

"Dean," says the angel, who despite his always-even tone is manifesting an aura of supremely irritated but deliberate patience, "I'm -"

I killed two angels this week, hears Dean in his head, an echo of memory. My brothers. I rebelled. I am hunted. And I did it - all of it - for you. "Busy," he interrupts Castiel. "Yeah, but if you'd been hip deep you wouldn't be here, so take a load off."

Cas looks, for a moment, as though he's just going to take off again. Dean can see the angel's shoulders tense, drawing in.

"Look," he says, rubbing a hand between his eyes, "I'm working my ass off, here. I'm guessing you are too. You can flap away now, or you can sit down for five minutes and we'll figure out what the hell to do next."

"I'm looking for -"

"Yeah, we covered that."

Dean leans his head back to take a pull from his bottle; as he does so, he hears the edge of the ratty mattress creak.

"Good," he says. Leaning over the side of the chair, he plucks up one of the remaining beers and holds it out in Castiel's direction.

"I don't require -"

"Non-negotiable."

The bottle is taken from his hand.

"It won't affect -"

"Drink the damn beer, Cas."

He probably could have chosen a better turn of phrase, realizes Dean belatedly, but what he thinks is the angel's sigh is actually the sound of the bottle hissing open.

He gazes at the wall, and tries to figure out where the ant has gone.

.

This was a stupid plan, reflects Dean, staring at the flickering mess of the charred building. Behind him, he hears a crackling that he is pretty sure represents trees that are now on fire.

He glances behind himself, to be safe.

Yup. Trees. On fire. One more strike against Mother Nature.

"Stupid plan," he mutters aloud, and remembers that it was his. With a grimace, he leans down to pick up a hot piece of brick; with the shattered stone pressing into his palm, he wades back into the fray.

Or the burning building, anyway. He hopes, at this point, that 'fray' is an exaggeration.

.

"He's a hot, mysterious loner from the wrong side of the tracks. He's a rebel angel and part-time sanctimonious prick. They fight crime."

Cas doesn't rise to the bait, probably because he's busy staring at the spot where he just iced another one of his angelic sisters. Dean sighs, and glances down to check his knife blade before re-sheathing it. Somewhere at the counter of the empty - and now messy - gas station, the till is making a persistent clicking sound that probably means they should get out soon.

Dean wishes that he could kill the angels himself, and just leave the demons for Cas. When he suggested a change of weapons, though, Castiel's jaw got that much tenser, so he laid off.

"Come on," he says instead. "I dunno how the cops are around here." Or anywhere, these days.

Cas nods, tightly, and turns toward him; the ferocious blue stare rests on Dean, now. Again. Some more.

"Christ," says Dean, involuntarily, and then when Castiel's eyebrow twitches, "Sorry."

He wishes the angel wouldn't look at him like that - as though he were the only thing left in the world that Castiel had any faith in at all. Dean Winchester is a poor replacement for God.

"Hey, Cas," he blurts, on a sudden thought, "When you died - where did you go?"

The soft sound of wings; a breeze brushes cool over his throat, and then Dean is alone except for the bodies and the ticking.

He probably could have handled that better.

.

Do two immortal beings a fray make?

Dean isn't sure, but the whole thing is looking pretty intense to him, what with the fire and the flickering bright light and the sparks coming off the wall and the ceiling that looks like it's about to come down on top of the two figures struggling in the centre of what used to be a room.

Hard to make out who's who. He catches a blinding flash of wing, and immediately glances aside, shivering; it'd be nice to keep his eyeballs intact.

The headache is still there, and he's acquired a stabbing pain in his left arm, and something is grating in his ribs in a distinctly non-rib-like fashion.

Dean, irked, steps over half a corpse on his way back in. The brick is heavy in his hand.

.

He remembers the chains. He remembers the chains, and their weight on his wrists, and the sharp spikes that lined them. The chains and the spikes and the hooks that dug deep into his skin and the feel of his tendons snapping and most of all he remembers the blade in his hand and the smooth, firm flesh underneath and he remembers the screaming -

"Dean."

"FUCK."

Dean wakes breathless and sweating, reaching for the knife, but warm fingers brush his wrist and he freezes where he is. "Sammy?" His voice is rough to his own ears. A moment later, and the light comes on, illuminating the unkempt angel in the cruddy motel chair.

(Not the same motel as before - but they're all cruddy.)

Dean stares, wide-eyed, at Castiel's pale and emotionless visage, and waits for his pulse to stop hammering quite so hard.

"You," he accuses, after a moment, "do not have the fashion sense God gave Columbo."

There's that familiar angel head-tilt. He hasn't gotten it in a while.

"Dean," says Cas, and Dean waves a hand.

"Fuck it," he says. "Dude. What?"

"You seemed in distress." The angel hasn't entered Dean's dreams since carving that ancient mojo into his ribcage.

Dean thinks about this for a minute, rubbing a hand over his face. "How long were you sitting there?"

Castiel doesn't answer.

"Okay, look. That is really, truly messed -"

It occurs to Dean that Castiel probably doesn't have anywhere else to go.

With a sigh, he rolls over and pulls the blankets up, turning his back on the angel. "Just - go over there, at least. Watch TV. Read a book. Something."

"Go to sleep, Dean," says Cas, and Dean feels two fingertips touch his forehead, gently, before the world slides away.

.

"Nice," encourages Dean - he's pretty sure that Castiel got in a good hit, there. At least, he hopes that one is Cas. It's hard to tell, because Dean is dizzy and all that glowing seems to be just magnifying itself on the inside of his skull.

Must've nuked that rune on the bricks, he realizes through a flicker of coherent thought. Score one for the angel. The good angel, that is. Not the one who made the damn mess in the first - okay, this sucks. Dean presses his palm to his head, just behind his ear. He is not surprised at the sharp, hot stickiness.

Before his squinting gaze, the angels struggle. If he looks at the tableau just right - if he tilts his head, Cas-style - he can almost make out exactly who is where...

Castiel's form shudders and arches, dark wings flinging outward toward what once was wall.

Dean hefts his weapon.

.

It bugs Dean on some niggling level when Castiel appears in the Impala. Even when he knows it's coming - even when he gave his own location five seconds earlier. It shouldn't be Cas riding shotgun, but it's an uncharitable thought and Dean shoves it somewhere he hopes the angel won't hear.

Cas looks more worn than before, as though he hasn't been bothering to repair Jimmy Novak's clothing - as though he's been sleeping in bus stations, although Dean knows that can't really be the case. But the angel is acquiring the particular blend of restless and shabby detachment that marks the homeless, so maybe the impression is accurate enough.

Shoving his cellphone back in his pocket, Dean picks up his half-finished burger and chows down again, muttering around a mouthful, "Okay?"

"Hm," says Castiel, noncommittally, and turns his head to watch the American midwest pass the car by. There are splatters of rain just starting to hit the window.

"You check on Sam?"

"Your brother is unharmed," replies the angel, gravely, and Dean recognizes that this means 'not harmed any further, considering the Apocalypse and precisely how fucked up Sam is,' and he also recognizes that he's supposed to give Sammy his space right now. So he shuts up and gestures toward the spare can of offbrand cola sitting by the dash, but Castiel keeps looking out at the rolling cornfields.

"Cas?" says Dean, and he keeps his eyes on the road and his hands on his steering-wheel-burger combo, but when he feels the glacier dark eyes shiver over his skin, he offers, "If I haven't said - I'm, uh, glad you're still alive. Well. Or - again, or.. uh - whatever."

Another hour rolls by, the silence punctuated only by rain and the intermittent static of the radio, before wind whuffs in the car and Dean glances to the side to find the angel isn't there.

.

"A brick."

"Yeah."

"A brick."

"Look, it worked, so maybe you could shut up about it already."

"Of all the weapons you have ready to hand -"

"You know, m'pretty sure I have a concussion. So maybe - and let me know if I'm out of line here - you could shut. The hell. Up." As Dean is half-dragging the angel to the car, he's dazedly sure he can feel fire burning beneath Jimmy Novak's skin. "Heaven shouldn't burn," he comments, propping Cas against the Impala's hood. "How much angel can Jimmy hold, anyway?"

"What?" Castiel stays where he's put, but reaches to wrap those thin, powerful fingers around Dean's chin, pulling Dean downward to where he can check the man's eyes. "The distraction was useful," he concedes, "but in future -"

"In future I will do the same damn thing." Dean has a hard time glaring at Cas when the angel has gone all close and fuzzy. Castiel lets him go.

"You are not in any condition to drive."

"You are driving over my dead body. I mean that. Dead and cold."

"Dean."

"Just lean there, okay? Wait. Blanket goes on seats. Blood does not go on seats. Or it's your corpse we're talking about."

The trees are still ablaze. Dean would like to do something about that, but he settles for saving his upholstery. "Shit," he mutters, pulling blankets from the trunk. And a tarp - maybe the tarp's a good idea. "Hot time in the old town tonight."

"Dean."

"Just... c'mere. Keep shutting up."

He gets Cas into the car, because Dean isn't the one with the knee that's speared by someone else's bone. "Kudos," he notes, "on the ick factor."

"Hm." The response might be slightly strained.

Slumping into the driver's seat, Dean shuts the door and takes a minute to stare at the pretty colours. He's not sure which ones are the trees. "Seriously, Cas, you okay?"

"I'm okay, Dean." The angel is pale, intermittently orange in reflected light.

"Okay." Dean looks for a trail of thought. "You get the .. thing you needed?"

"Yes." They watch a flaming branch fall crackling onto the ruins of the shattered building.

"Right." Dean feels he should muster himself. "This's how it works. Find motel. Patch up. Have beer."

"Is that the best -"

"This is how it works," says Dean, firmly.

Castiel is silent, which Dean takes for acquiescence. He fumbles his key into the ignition and turns it, the Impala's engine coming to life with a familiar rumble. He hits a button on the stereo and AC/DC, resurrected mid-play, begins vibrating instantly through the car's speakers.

"That was a stupid plan," adds Castiel.

"Yeah, well." Dean closes his eyes for a beat, then throws the car into reverse. "Next one's yours."