Title: Chicken Soup for the Hunter's Soul

Prompt/Summary: Written for team_free_love's Secret Lovers challenge. My recipient was mizra, who wanted something to do with a cold and chicken soup, banter between the four characters, and "big brothers and their boyfriends." I managed two out of three, which I hope is enough. :)

Rating: PG-13

Characters: Dean, Sam, Castiel, Gabriel

Spoilers: Spoilers through 6.03, just to be on the safe side

Warnings: None.

Word Count: 7,024

Neurotic Author's Note #1: I owe eternal and undying thanks to my two betas, claudiapriscus and yasminke, who are rockstars. They not only beta'd this on ridiculously short notice, but they performed elaborate reconstructive surgery on it and made into a story that was one hundred percent better than the one I originally had. You guys rock my world! *blows kisses*

Neurotic Author's Note #2: I have to confess that I am not super proud of this story. It took forever to get going, didn't flow right, and despite the heroic efforts of my betas, it's really not the best thing I've ever written. I am annoyed with myself, because I would have liked to write something better for my recipient. As it is, this story is one of the reasons I'm backing away from fic exchanges for a while.

hr

Dean Winchester has never been a big believer in counting his blessings. For one thing, dwelling too long on the stuff that makes him happy pretty much guarantees that Fate or Destiny or maybe a really pissed-off demon is going to come and take it away from him. Mostly he spends his life ducking his head and hoping to stay off the radar of the really badass supernatural stuff out there —when he's not hunting it, anyway. And look how well that's worked out for him, for that matter. Just imagine what would happen if he actually drew attention to the few times he was content with his lot in life.

Right now, for instance. Sure, things aren't perfect, but they're a damn sight better than they were. He's got Sam back, even if it's not the same Sam who went into the pit. Being in Hell changes a guy, and no one knows that better than Dean. Except that, well, Sam is different. Like a really good copy of Sam, but missing some sort of crucial Sam-ingredient, or whatever. Dean has taken to calling him Stepford-Sam in his head, even if that's not exactly right. It's not exactly the picnic Dean imagined it would be, on those rare occasions when he allowed himself to hope that, someday, somehow, he'd get his brother out of there. And sure, he's not the one who got Sam out, but then there's no evidence out there to suggest that a human being could ever do that anyway. He himself was pulled out of Hell by an angel, after all.

Speaking of angels, having Cas back is a heck of a bonus, too. Sure, the angel still has the unnerving tendency to step waaaay too close into his personal space and stare intently in that weird, bird-like way he has, and is generally being really unsettling. Plus, he's kind of cranky these days, what with the civil war in Heaven and having to chase around after artifacts that make Dean feel like Tia Carrere might step out of the woodwork at any moment and do her lousiest Indiana Jones impression for them, whip and all. Not that he'd object to that, mind you: Tia Carrere is hot. But, yeah, he's glad to have his little nerdy angel back, when he stops to think about it at all.

In short, he's trying very hard not to count his blessings as Castiel and Sam argue back and forth about, of all things, the silver platter on which Herodias served the head of St. John the Baptist to his daughter. Cas is pretty sure that it's the cause of a recent spate of deaths by decapitation, and he's condescended to ride in the car with them because Dean is definitely not planning on revisiting the joys of bowel obstruction which are the direct result of flying Air Angel.

"No," Cas is saying, "it wasn't Salome at all. I'm not sure where you got that misconception, but the stories are apocryphal at best."

"Who the hell cares what the name of the dancing chick was, anyway?" Dean grumbles, squinting in the Nevada sun. They're on a deserted highway with the Fallon Naval Air Station about thirty miles to their backs, and about five hundred miles from anything approaching civilization. The desert here is brilliantly white, the sun reflecting of the ground with near-blinding intensity. "We'll just go find whoever has the tray—"

"Platter," Cas and Sam correct him simultaneously.

"Whatever! We go find it, take it back, and then we can get the hell out of this godfor— holy shit!"

He jams his foot against the brake pedal as a large object comes hurtling out of the sky at breakneck speed and slams into the ground practically right under Dean's bumper. Sam lets out a startled yell as the tires screech against the asphalt, and the Impala fishtails across the highway, coming to rest along the shoulder in a cloud of dust and the acrid smell of burnt rubber. For a moment there's nothing but silence and the sound of his own and Sam's laboured breathing. Dean relinquishes his death-grip on the steering wheel, throws the car into neutral, and staggers out on shaking legs to join Cas, who opted simply to zap out of the car as soon as it started spinning out of control.

This is what happens when he counts his blessings, even when he's trying not to, Dean thinks bitterly. One minute he's driving blissfully along a Nevada highway, and the next thing he knows a freaking archangel has almost totalled his car. Gabriel has always known how to make a dramatic entrance, but crash-landing buck-naked right in front of Dean's car has got to be his most memorable yet. Gabriel scrambles to his feet, then plants one fist on his hip and shakes the other one at the sky.

"Thanks for nothing, Dad!"

"Well, that was unexpected," Sam says dryly from behind him, making him jump. "Doesn't anyone stay dead anymore?"

"Shut up, Sam."

Castiel is staring at Gabriel as though he's a very unwelcome specimen of insect that has crawled up his pant leg, head tilted ever so slightly to the side. Dean can appreciate the sentiment.

"Gabriel, what are you doing here?"

The archangel (or maybe former archangel, it's not like Dean can tell just by looking, especially since he's still wearing the same dweeby-looking little vessel, in nothing but his birthday suit to boot) turns to face Cas, hands on his hips, and schools his features into a smirk.

"What, you aren't happy to see me?"

"Not especially."

"I thought you were dead," Sam says, before that particular conversation can go downhill. "Wing outlines and everything. Doesn't that generally mean you're properly dead? As angels go, I mean."

"Well, apparently the rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated."

"Oh, for the love of —do we have to do this while he's naked?" Dean protests.

"Now, Dean, the human form is a beautiful and natural thing. This is how my Father designed you, when he first populated the Garden," Gabriel folds his arms over his chest, and Dean covers his eyes with one hand with a groan.

"Am I the only one who thinks it's wrong that we're standing in the middle of Nevada listening to a naked angel quoting Mark Twain?" Dean definitely does not peek between his fingers.

"You read Twain?" Sam can't hide the surprise in his voice.

"Jesus, Sam, would you quit acting like it's a damned revelation every time the fact that I read comes up? You'd think I was an ignorant hick, the way you go on."

Sam raises his hands in mock-surrender. "Sorry, jeez. Touchy."

"Um, not to detract from the brotherly bonding moment, but could we maybe focus on what's important here?" Gabriel gestures toward his face, makes a pointed circular motion with his index finger.

"Gabriel is right. And so is Dean. We should discuss this elsewhere, preferably en route to our destination." Castiel strides back in the direction of the car.

"Yeah, I don't think so," Gabriel snorts, not moving from where he is. "You guys are entertaining and all, but I have better things to be doing. Wine to drink, wenches to woo, you know, the usual. I've been dead for months, so I have a lot of catching up to do, here. It's been a slice, but I'll be seeing you."

He raises a hand, snaps his fingers, and disappears —only to reappear a split-second later with a sound a little like a cross between a kettle drum and an exploding water bed, landing on his ass on the asphalt. "Well, shit." Dean doesn't bother trying not to laugh. "Oh, very funny! Go ahead and laugh!"

"Don't mind if I do," Dean keeps grinning, but in deference to Cas' scowl and Sam's brand-new bitch face, he does his best to keep the actual guffawing under control.

There's a bit of a kerfuffle after that while they get Gabriel outfitted in some borrowed clothes from Dean's duffel bag. At least Sam is on board with the whole plan of Gabriel not being naked anymore. There's no point in trying to use Sam's clothes: the archangel already looks like a little kid playing dress-up in his daddy's clothing as it is, with Dean's jeans rolled up at the ankles and a really old t-shirt hanging off of him like a tent. Gabriel spends most of the time bitching about how unfashionable the whole get-up is, until Castiel grimly points out that the alternative is to go naked, at which point he subsides, albeit grudgingly.

When they've all had more than a minute to catch their breath and figure out which way is up again, they stop at the first truck stop they spot, mercifully deserted at this hour of the day. A surly-looking waitress with too much lipstick and a cigarette dangling from the corner of her mouth takes their orders without so much as blinking at them, then waddles off without so much as a backward glance.

"So basically Dad tells me I get to not be smote," Gabriel explains over pie, managing to look both mournful and petulant at the same time, "except that apparently I don't get to go back to wine, women and song, either. Nooo, I have to keep going along the road I started down, or whatever, and now it looks like I'm stuck within something like a one-mile radius of these chuckleheads. At least, if that last little demonstration is anything to go by."

"Well, that's going to be inconvenient," Dean carefully takes a bite of his apple pie. "I mean, what if Sam and me split up?"

"I don't know. Maybe you'll have two of me to deal with," Gabriel smirks. "I've always enjoyed having clones. Makes things exciting."

"Oh, fuck me," Dean mutters. The mere idea of multiple Gabriels has given him a headache.

"Maybe later, if you're good."

"Coffee?" the squat waitress has been reappearing at random and slightly jarring intervals to refill their coffee cups with probably a little more insouciance than is rightly called for (Dean has loved that word ever since he heard Cas use it, not that he is iever/i going to admit that out loud, especially since he had to look it up when he got back from the future).

Dean sputters, trying not to choke on his mouthful of pie, and much to his annoyance finds he's blushing bright red at the thought that she might have heard. The waitress is impassive, has clearly heard far stranger things in her life.

Castiel shifts in his seat and directs a glare at Gabriel. "There is no need to be crude, Gabriel."

The archangel claps him on the shoulder. "Nice to see they haven't yet perfected the surgery to remove that stick from your ass, little brother."

"Sam, you want to weigh in here, maybe?" Dean barks. Sam's been staring out the window at the deserted highway the entire time, as though the conversation has nothing to do with him at all.

Sam shrugs. "I don't know what you want me to say."

"It's not about what I iwant/i you to say," Dean is exasperated. "Don't you have an opinion of your own at all? A thought, maybe? Hell, at this point I'll settle for a dirty limerick."

Sam just shrugs again. "I don't know. If we're all stuck together, then I guess we're stuck together."

Dean just barely refrains from bashing his head repeatedly against the Formica tabletop. He settles for draining his third cup of coffee, and catches sight of Gabriel shooting a puzzled look at Castiel, who doesn't so much as bat an eyelid. Well, at least someone else has noticed Stepford-Sam in action, here, even if it's not the angel Dean would have bet on.

"That's a pretty sanguine take on it, coming from you," Gabriel remarks. "I would have thought you'd be kicking up a screaming fuss by now."

"Whatever." Sam lifts a shoulder, expression unreadable. Great, now they're down to half-shrugs. "The way I see it, it's out of our hands."

"And we all know how Zen you are about little things like that. It's not like you've iever/i had issues with being a giant control freak," Gabriel points out, and Dean grudgingly has to admit he's made a good point. This is vintage Stepford-Sam. The old Sam would not only have kicked up a fuss, but he would have been demanding explanations along with examples and possibly a flow chart in order to figure out what was going on. "What's with you, bucko? Someone spike your energy drink with Klonopin? Or is that just the lobotomy talking?"

"Hey," Dean glares, but no one at the table is paying attention to him now.

"People change," Sam says simply, and Dean wonders if he imagined that Gabriel shuddered at the words. "Anyway, if you have to stick around, then it stands to reason you have a vested interest in helping us. Something happens to us, well, you don't know what that will do to you. So, you know, it could be useful."

"Useful," Gabriel says flatly, and Dean can't help but agree.

"Come on, Sam. You can't be serious."

"Why not?" Sam addresses himself to Gabriel, staring at him in that oh-so-reasonable, creepy way he has about him now. It kind of makes Dean want to hit him. "Your powers are still there, even if they're limited, right? You can't zap to more than a mile away from us, but what about the rest?"

Gabriel purses his lips, then tilts his head in a what-the-hell manner and snaps his fingers. In the blink of an eye his borrowed clothes have been replaced with the attire in which Dean has become accustomed to seeing the guy dressed, leather pants that are way too tight and a poufy shirt in some sort of silky material that Dean wouldn't be able to recognize if you paid him, complete with gold chain around his neck. There's a second helping of pie on Gabriel's plate, too: blueberry, by the looks of it. Dean is vaguely put out that he doesn't have another slice of pie too, especially when Gabriel tucks into the new dessert with gusto.

"My clothes better be back in their bag," he grumbles.

"That's not really what's important," Castiel says.

"Hey, clothes don't come cheap, you know."

"You wouldn't think it to look at you," Gabriel remarks. "Good thing I have better taste than you."

"Anyway, I was right," Sam says, his attention already turning back to the window. "Could be useful."

Dean snorts. It's all too convenient, really. As if Gabriel, who's done nothing but screw with them from the start, is suddenly going to start performing tricks for them like a trained monkey. This is just asking for trouble, he can feel it in every single one of his bones.

"Useful," he mutters. "Right."

Gabriel makes a show of being insulted. "What, you doubt me?"

"Dean…" Castiel says under his breath, but it's too late.

"Yeah, seems to me like a cold virus would be more useful right about now."

Gabriel smirks. "That can be arranged."

"Gabriel."

"I don't recall asking for your opinion, Castiel."

Dean cringes, awaiting the worst, but there's no accompanying finger-snap, and Sam just rolls his eyes, so he thinks maybe he's dodged that particular bullet. "Can we maybe focus on the case? Cas? Now might be a good time to tell us what we're looking for. Multiple decapitations doesn't exactly narrow it down."

Gabriel apparently doesn't need all that much filling in on the whole relic-hunt quest thing, because he just nods as though it's the most natural thing in the world when Cas tells him what they've been looking for.

"We've been following a string of headless bodies," Sam supplies as an explanation. "Or, rather, the heads. The bodies are missing, but the heads have all appeared on plates and platters of various kinds. In people's kitchens sometimes, but mostly in restaurants."

"And allow me to add a resounding 'ew,' to that," Dean makes a face. He did not need them to go into the details of the case yet again, and definitely not while they're eating. He jumps about a foot when the waitress re-materializes at his elbow and sloshes more coffee into his cup.

"The silver platter would explain the decapitations, anyway," Sam drums his fingers on the table, thoughtful, and apparently oblivious to the waitress only a few feet away. "Wonder who's gaining by all the new corpses. I guess that means there's a little more grave digging than usual in our future. Supposing the bodies haven't just been dumped somewhere to rot, which would make our jobs a whole lot easier." Dean refrains from pointing out just how ghoulish his brother is being. And he knows from ghouls.

"All right, then. I guess we're hitting the first motel when we get into town, and we are definitely getting two rooms. I don't want to hear it," Dean raises a hand in pre-emptive protest. "If you two don't want a room, that's fine, but you aren't sharing with me and Sam. There's only so much creepy I can take at any given time, and right now there's about three times as much as my maximum prescribed dosage. Got it?"

Gabriel rolls his eyes, Castiel just looks impassive, and Sam stopped paying attention at 'all right.' Dean's headache gets worse. Outside the sun is shining in full force over the Nevada desert, and he lifts a hand to shield his eyes from the worst of the glare, squinting for a moment as the intensity catches him by surprise, then folds in half, catching an unexpected sneeze into his cupped hands.

"Gesundheit," Sam walks by him toward the car.

Dean wipes his hands on his jeans, and directs a glare at Gabriel. "You didn't," he points an accusing finger in his direction, for all the good it'll do.

Gabriel smirks. "You put too much faith in my omnipotence there, bucko. Not every misfortune in your life is the direct result of my interference, you know." Then he zaps himself directly into the Impala, where he drapes himself elegantly over the back seat. Dean sneezes again, curses fluently under his breath, and pretends he doesn't notice the look of mild amusement on Sam's face as he extends a hand toward him.

"You want me to drive?"

There are layers of meaning in the offer. Sam hasn't so much as touched the steering wheel of the Impala since he's been back from Hell. It took the destruction of his eco-friendly douchemobile to even get him to consider coming near her again, and Dean is still smarting from Sam's rejection of his offer, even though it was weeks ago now. He doesn't know what to make of this latest about-face in Sam's behaviour, and so he just shrugs and hands over the keys, lets himself drop ungracefully into the passenger seat, fumbling in the glove compartment for his stash of diner napkins to blow his nose. Sam switches on the ignition as though nothing at all is wrong, noses back onto the highway and takes off, face as impassive as usual.

It's as though Sam is mimicking being his old self, Dean thinks, dabbing gingerly at his nose with a yellowing napkin. He used to drive the Impala, so he's driving her again now, but only because he thinks he has to, or something. Dean's never really been good at this psychology shit, that was always more Sam's department, but apparently now he's got to do both their jobs, while Sam takes on the role of dispassionate third-party observer, or something. That's probably an unfair assessment, he corrects himself. If anything, Sam has become scarily good at the other aspects of the hunt: the research, which was always his strong suit, is now done in record time. Dean doesn't really want to think about how good Sam has become at killing supernatural things, either, but his baby brother has become as close to a machine as any hunter will ever get. Dean's pretty sure even their father was never this good, even though the thought itself feels like blasphemy.

By the time they reach their destination, Dean's well and truly sick. His nose is streaming, despite being so congested he can barely breathe, and where exactly is the fairness in that? He calls Gabriel by every single foul word he can think of, until Gabriel finally gets fed up and threatens to infect him with something far more unpleasant, and he falls silent when Sam reminds him pointedly of the genital herpes incident. As revenge, he makes Sam handle reserving two rooms for them, two queens each, and flops miserably on the bed closest to the door, grateful at least that the motel room has real tissues, because he was beginning to feel like he'd been blowing his nose with sandpaper. Sam drops a bottle of Advil Cold & Sinus in his lap, and pulls open the laptop, sitting at the rickety table near the motel room window.

"Take four. Two never work enough for you anyway."

"Whatever," he rolls his eyes, but dry-swallows four of the gelcaps anyway, and makes a half-hearted attempt to blow his nose again. "This sucks. I was fine a few hours ago!"

"At least we can be reasonably sure it's not one of the biblical plagues. Drowning in your own snot is hardly an epic way to die. Doesn't make for good print."

"Funny," Dean manages before sneezing helplessly into a tissue. The conversation carries on without him as both angels materialize in the room. He'd object to the lack of knocking, but he's too busy sneezing, and Sam apparently hasn't noticed that they basically just barged in.

"So what exactly are we looking for? Another bartered soul, you think?"

"I am not sure," Castiel admits, coming to look over Sam's shoulder at the screen, while Gabriel, looking bored, sprawls on Sam's bed, fingers laced behind his head, ankles crossed. "But if we focus our search upon the weapon, then doubtless we shall find the answer along with the object."

"'Cause going in blind is always such a good plan," Dean mutters through a tissue. "And what about Chuckles over here? We going to drag him along in our wake like a really annoying mascot?"

Cas looks thoughtful. "I suppose Gabriel could help me with a locating ritual."

"Who says I want to?" Gabriel points out, voice honey-sweet and reasonable.

"Whether or not you want to is irrelevant," Cas glares at Gabriel as though he's the most perverse creature on the planet. Maybe, Dean thinks with a smirk, he's still thinking about that time Gabriel zapped him to parts unknown where he got the holy crap beaten out of him. "I suspect that aiding us would enable you to fulfil our father's orders, and that way you would be free of your current bindings. That seems pretty compelling to me, but I suppose I could be wrong."

"I think I'd rather test my boundaries first," Gabriel makes a thoughtful moue, head tilted the pose so theatrical Dean almost laughs. The laugh dies on his lips a moment later, when both Sam and Gabriel disappear.

"What the-?"

"Don't worry," Castiel hastens to assure him. "I'm certain Gabriel will return in a few moments. With Sam," he adds, but Dean could swear that he looks worried. Well, worried for Cas, who's is kind of difficult to read at the best of times.

He's proven right. When they get back, Sam is wearing quite possibly the most expressive bitch face Dean has seen on him in, well, years. It's pretty impressive, actually.

"What in the actual fuck, Gabriel?" Sam spits. "I am not a plaything to be tossed around the goddamned planet for your amusement!"

"Don't get your panties in a twist, Chachi. I'm just testing a theory." Gabriel turns a positively predatory look on Dean.

"Oh no you do-"

Dean barely has time to start voicing his objection when the motel room melts away around him. He's flown before with Cas, and this is at once similar and yet nothing like it. He's surrounded by blinding light, the quiet susurration of feathers, and the blending of a million different voices, and for a moment it feels as though every atom in his body has come free and is trying to return to the creator. It's glorious and terrifying, and a moment later there's a terrible jarring sensation, so sudden it's almost painful, tearing at him through what was harmonious song only a moment before. He and Gabriel land in a tangled heap back on the motel floor, with Dean mercifully on top, staring into a pair of very startled brown eyes, and Gabriel's knee digging painfully into his hip. Dean sneezes wetly right into Gabriel's face, pulls back abruptly, cuffing at his nose with his sleeve.

"Uh, sorry."

"Ew." Gabriel disappears with a snap of fingers only to reappear on the bed, in new clothes and looking completely clean. Dean faceplants into the carpet.

"Aw, come on!" he struggles upright, wondering just when his life got so damned complicated. He suspects it was longer ago than he originally thought.

"Well, that answers that question. It's not all of you I'm bound to," Gabriel wrinkles his nose. "It's Gigantor over there."

Sam blinks, and the bitch face comes back in full force. "I'm sorry, what?"

Gabriel shrugs. "Think about it. I took you to Beijing, and nothing happened except that you pitched a fit at me. I try zapping the two of us," he gestures at Dean, "to Dubai, and we get snapped back here like a cheap rubber band."

Sam drops his head into his hands. "Oh, fuck me," he mutters, then glances up, and glares. "Don't even think about saying it," he snaps, and Gabriel subsides with a grin that would make the Cheshire cat proud.

Dean sneezes again, and flops back on his bed with a groan. "You done experimenting, or are you going to try screwing off with Cas now?"

"We have more important matters to attend to," Castiel says dismissively, before Gabriel can so much as open his mouth. "I would appreciate some assistance with the ritual. I can, of course, perform it on my own, but it would go faster if you helped."

"Why don't we blow this joint and head to Vegas, instead?" Gabriel counters. "It's not like we care about a couple of severed heads, is it? Come on, Dean, I know you'll be with me on this."

Normally Dean would be right on board with Vegas. He's been meaning to go there for years, but right now he feels like crap and Cas wants to retrieve this platter, and Dean isn't exactly Gabriel's number one fan. He's spared having to answer by a coughing fit.

"Gabriel, this is important," Cas insists.

"Oh, fine," Gabriel heaves a long-suffering sigh. "But for the record, you guys are boring. Come on, Cas, let's leave your boyfriend to nurse his headcold. The sooner we find this piece of silverware, the sooner I can take us to Vegas. Or Sam, anyway."

"He's not my—" Dean starts, just as Sam sputters indignantly from where he's sitting, "Gabriel, I am inot/i going—"

"Enough!" Cas holds up a hand. "Gabriel, please come with me. I suppose you still need to sleep?" he asks Dean, with an air of vague disapproval, as though the human need for sleep is a major inconvenience for him. It well might be, Dean supposes. "We will reconvene in the morning."

Sam just shrugs, but Dean is all on board with that particular plan. He kicks off his boots, doesn't even bother shedding his clothes before burying his face in his pillow. He doesn't hear when Castiel and Gabriel leave with a silent gust of wind, and he can't bring himself to worry whether or not Sam bothers to get any sleep at all.

It's hard, sleeping with a cold, what with the whole not-breathing-through-his-nose thing, but he mostly manages, although his dreams get tangled and disturbed in the small hours. He burrows deeper under his sheets, dreams of fire and watching his brother fall interminably, of Lisa screaming at him and calling him a monster, shielding Ben behind her. He wakes up once, his throat on fire, manages to stumble into the bathroom for some water before collapsing back onto his bed and sinking back into darkness. It's bright outside when he awakens. He cracks open an eye, and immediately wishes he hadn't when it feels like someone has stabbed a needle into both his eyes. His throat still burns, every part of his body aches, and it feels like someone has poured a bagful of wet cement into his head. Yeah, definitely sick. He's going to kill Gabriel, as soon as he can sit up.

Someone is moving quietly about the room, but it's not who he expected. "Cas?" he croaks.

Immediately Castiel is by his side. "You are awake."

"Perceptive."

"How do you feel?"

"Like shit," he manages to prop himself up on an elbow, and realizes then that he's not in the clothes in which he fell asleep, which means someone must have undressed him while he slept. He really hopes it was Sam. "I hate your brother, for the record. In fact, I hate all of 'em except you."

"Gabriel assures me that this is entirely coincidental," Cas neatly dodges the point of his statement.

Dean makes a hasty grab for the box of tissues and barely manages not to whimper as the sneeze threatens to make his head explode. "Where is he, anyway? And Sam?"

"They have gone to retrieve the artifact."

"What?"

"Gabriel and I located it during the night. It was clear you were too ill to go with us, and since Gabriel cannot be separated from Sam, it seemed a logical choice for them to go together."

"And you're here why?" he clears his throat. "Uh, not that I mind."

"Going with them would have been, as Sam put it, overkill. So I stayed to make sure you were all right."

"It's just a cold, Cas. Okay, maybe a sinus infection," he coughs and makes a face, "but not exactly life-threatening."

Cas ignores him. "Sam suggested that you should have soup, once you were awake."

The thought makes his stomach twist. "Uh, maybe later. You sure you can't fix this?" he looks up hopefully. "What with your souped-up angel powers?"

He gets a scowl. "Dean, are you seriously suggesting that I use my heavenly-bestowed powers to cure you of a cold?"

"Um."

"I will make you soup."

Dean just sighs and resigns himself to being really, really uncomfortable for the next few days. It was a little much, he supposes, asking Cas to become his personal cure for the common cold, even if his head does feel like it's about to explode. Anyway, it's not like he hasn't been through worse. He makes a half-hearted attempt to blow his nose, winces as his brain tries to make a quick getaway through his sinuses, then rolls over and prays for a quick death. Preferably one that doesn't involve Heaven or Hell. When he bothers to think about it, he hopes for oblivion.

He manages to doze for most of the afternoon, doesn't even rouse when Cas offers soup again. He mutters something ungracious and pulls his pillow over his head, and refuses to feel guilty about being nasty to Cas even though the guy is clearly trying to help, angelic healing powers aside. When he does wake again, it's to the sound of voices at the foot of his bed.

"You guys having a party without me?" it comes out as a congested-sounding croak.

"You're invited as soon as you're not drowning in your own bodily fluids," Gabriel is the first to speak, once they're over their surprise. "You sleep like a rock."

"Didn't use to be the case," Sam says dryly. "Time was, one of us would have a knife buried in our ribs by now. Luckily for you two, it would only be fatal to me, so I guess we should count our blessings."

"Counting your blessings is overrated. Can't you guys have your pow-wow in Cas and Gabriel's room?" Dean is more than a little cranky by now, between feeling like his head is going to come off his shoulders and figuring out that the whole case has been solved and the loose ends tied up without his having so much as lifted a finger. It's a little hard to take.

"Well, I figured baby brother here would want to check on you," Gabriel glances up at Sam with an expression that Dean can't quite decipher. "Maybe play Florence Nightingale for a while."

"Dean's a lousy patient." Sam says impassively, glances down as his cell phone rings. "I have to take this. It's Samuel." Without waiting for them to say anything, he flips open the phone, stepping outside to take the call.

"Okay, seriously, what is up with him?" Gabriel demands. "He's been acting like Robocop ever since I got here."

Dean sneezes repeatedly into a tissue and stifles a groan as his skull threatens to split open. "I dunno. He's been like that for weeks." He crumples the now-sodden tissue into a ball and tosses it into the trash can by the bed, which is rapidly filling up. He looks up at Cas. "Can't you tell what's wrong with him? Now you're all up and in charge of Heaven?"

"I couldn't say."

"It's creepy," is Gabriel's opinion. "I liked him better when he was all emo and whiny. And I can't quite bring myself to believe you, little brother. You never were as good at lying as the rest of us."

Dean succumbs to another sneezing fit, and so doesn't hear whatever else Castiel has to say on the matter, but when he looks up, head throbbing, wiping his streaming eyes on his sleeve, Gabriel has a dark look on his face. Dean doesn't find that particularly reassuring.

"Well, I don't like it. And unlike you, Cas, I don't intend to sit back and let destiny take its course. I've never had a policy of non-interference. You and I are going to go have a little chat, and Sam is going to park his oversized ass where it belongs. Let's go," he all but barks at Castiel, who looks positively alarmed for the first time since he's come back down from Heaven.

"Gabriel, what the hell—?" Dean barely manages to start his question when, in a gesture that's reminiscent of Castiel, Gabriel reaches out to brush his forehead with two fingers, and everything goes dark.

A moment later, someone is shaking his shoulder. "Dean, wake up."

He coughs, groans, and tries to disappear further under the blanket someone's thoughtfully tucked around him. "G'way."

"Dean, come on. You've been out for hours, you need to eat something." Sam sounds a little exasperated, and after a second Dean feels an arm wrap itself around his shoulders and haul him upright. He blinks, noting that the room is dark except for the bedside lamp.

"Time 's it?"

"It's late," Sam's movements are brisk, efficient as he coaxes a thermometer under Dean's tongue, but then he smooths the back of his fingers against Dean's forehead, and the gesture is so familiar that Dean lets himself lean into the touch, ever so briefly. Sam removes the thermometer, tilts his head as he considers the result. "Well, I guess it's not news that you're sick. When's the last time you took anything?"

"Dunno." Dean's been in and out for what feels like forever, and he can't even remember whether he took the pills Sam gave him that first time.

Sam sighs. It's actually kind of reassuring, in a weird way, to see him betraying any kind of emotion, but Dean isn't about to start counting on it. It's a little too close to counting his blessings.

"Stay put." Sam gets up, leaving Dean feeling a little bereft and shivering —Sam's always been like a walking furnace— and returns a moment later with a glass of water and the bottle of Advil. He tilts two into Dean's palm, then sits back on the bed next to him, and steadies Dean's hand on the glass when it shakes too hard. "You're getting soft," he teases, and while it's wooden, at least Sam is trying, Dean reasons. "I haven't seen a cold put you on your ass like this in years."

"'s a sinus infection," Dean grumbles, but he can't manage to really resent Sam for it. He manages not to choke on the pills and water, coughs painfully into his shoulder. "Where's Cas and Gabriel?"

"Cas is returning the platter to wherever these things go when they're not being used to kill people, and I have no idea where Gabriel is. Somewhere within a one-mile radius. He told me he doesn't play nursemaid to anyone, then ordered me over here," Sam says with a smirk. "Actually, it looked to me like he was about to rip Cas a new one. Or try to, anyway. At this point, whoever would win the cage match between them is anyone's guess."

"Nursemaid?" Dean tries to sound indignant, and just ends up coughing pathetically instead. Great. He ignores the comment about the cage match, because he's not really sure he can talk about that rationally with his brother.

"Oh," Sam starts, as though remembering something. "There's soup. Here," he reaches over to the bedside table and picks up a mug. "It's probably closer to tepid than hot by now. Hope you don't mind."

"'s fine."

It's more than fine. It's just chicken noodle soup, made from a packet and hot water in the coffee maker, but it doesn't make his throat feel like it's being peeled away from the inside-out, and that's more than Dean could have asked for at this point. Dean's earliest memories of being sick are of his mother making him tomato-rice soup, but instant chicken-noodle has its place there, too. Dad holding the mug for him and blowing on the soup when it was too hot, and Sammy, all of six years old and looking earnest about the very serious task that had been placed on his skinny shoulders coming into their room with a bowl balanced precariously on a tray, placing one foot carefully in front of the other so as not to spill a single drop.

The taste brings back memories of dingy motel rooms and afternoon soap operas, the smell of children's cough syrup and Dad's aftershave mingling with dust, and all of them curled up together on Dad's bed, too tired to even watch the TV. It's good for the soul, he remembers. Maybe he should try to get Sam to take some, he thinks muzzily. It might bring back the brother he remembers.

Sam puts the mostly-empty mug aside when it's obvious Dean won't finish it, but he doesn't move away, doesn't so much as flinch when Dean allows himself to list against his shoulder. "Still feeling shitty, huh?" The words are right, even if the tone is off, and Dean figures that might come with time. Sam is trying, and that has to count for something, even if Gabriel made him do it. Or maybe he did have some of that soup after all, he thinks muzzily.

"Yeah. 'm worried about you, mostly."

Sam strokes his head once, fingers carding through his hair a little roughly, absently, as though he's not used to making the gesture anymore. "Yeah? You shouldn't be. You can trust me, you know. I'm your brother. That hasn't changed."

"I am, though. Worried, I mean. You're different." In spite of himself, Dean finds his eyes slipping shut.

Sam huffs a laugh. "I suppose so. But it's still me. At least I'm here, right?"

"You telling me I should count my blessings?"

"God no," Sam snorts. "No sense borrowing trouble. But I'm not wrong."

"I guess not," Sam is warm and solid, and Dean feels like he could sleep for another week. He thinks he might be okay with never counting a single other blessing in his life ever again, so long as he gets all of Sam back. As if reading his mind, Sam puts and arm around his shoulders and tugs him closer. It's awkward, and not-quite-right, but Dean still feels better than he has in well over a year.

"You don't have to worry, Dean," Sam murmurs in his ear, breath hot against his skin. "Everything's going to be just fine."