Title: Burn so brightly
Rating: R (various reasons)
Genre: Angst, romance, kidfic
Pairing/Characters: Dean/Castiel, Sam, Bobby, and a few surprises.
Spoilers: S1 – S6. Goes AU post—S6.
Warnings: Some violence.
Chapter specific Summary: "What's my name, Castiel?" Dean asked, leaning forward on the chair. "You know it, come on."
"Dean," Castiel said, but in two voices at once, one human and child-like, the other vibrating on a discordant frequency.
Author's notes: The waiting for S7 was killing me, and fandom was weeping and fearing the worst. So I thought I'd make everything alright ... through fanfiction! :D
Beta reader: Corvus, who squee-d in all the right places, Aevylonya, whose loving beatings I depend upon as the masochist I am, and Nenja, who hangs upside-down from my ceiling.
I wish I had no reason to continue the story of Sam and Dean. When we left them last they were separated, wounded and grieving, but triumphant. Their little family had taken on Heaven and Hell and beaten the odds. Now the Impala lies crushed and upended on an abandoned road outside an empty meat factory. Their home and castle, their box of treasured memories, has been destroyed.
After a year lived in a sort of dream state, the days warm and muffled and the nights strangely empty, they have been reunited, brother with brother, body with soul, human with angel, only to be left once more wounded and grieving, and this time, defeated.
That's why I wish there were no more books, no more words, nothing more to tell, but I'm just the author, and as any author can tell you, the characters sometimes take on a will of their own.
Now Dean kneels by his beloved car, and every line of his body, from his hunched shoulders to his bowed head, speak of disappointment and loss. Sam sits next to him with his head in his hands, his lips bloodless, muscles straining, his long frame trembling. Bobby stands stern and silent beside them.
Castiel has betrayed them.
Let me take you back, and I'll try to explain.
"So you will bow down and profess your love unto me, your Lord, or I shall destroy you."
Sam chose that moment to fall to his knees, struggling to breathe and clutching his head, where fire danced and skin sizzled in vivid recollections.
Dean crossed to him quickly, barely able to look at Castiel as he passed him, but although he was terrified of the thing standing there so calmly while Sam was choking on the floor, he was also angry. "I'm not bowing down," Dean said through clenched teeth, kneeling by his brother and putting an arm around his shoulders. "I thought you were fighting for free will," he growled at Castiel. "What happened to that?"
Without waiting for a response, he turned his back and focused on his brother. "Hey, Sammy, you're okay," he mumbled, trying to make his little brother look at him. "I'm here." Sam glanced up at Dean, but only for his head to fall forward again as another wave of fire tore him from reality and into the waking nightmare of his head.
Castiel's expression softened as he watched them. "My road to victory was not without moments of regret. Come," he said and took a step closer to the boys. "I said I would save Sam and I will."
Dean rose quickly and barred the way. "You're not laying a finger on my brother."
Behind them, Bobby pulled a handgun from his belt and aimed it at Castiel. "I suggest you go be somebody else's new God," he said, barely contained fury in his voice and in his eyes. "Haven't you done enough damage?"
Castiel gave the gun a meaningful, condescending look. "And what damage to you intend to wreak with that, Bobby Singer?" He shifted his immeasurably heavy gaze from Bobby to Dean. "I understand. It's hard to admit when you've been wrong. I will ask no more of you now than that you don't hurt yourself by getting in my way. I will help Sam. I keep my word."
"You can take your word and shove it up –"
"Dean," Sam said faintly.
Dean knelt down again, all attentive love. "I'm right here." No one would be surprised to learn that he had reared Sam almost from infancy.
Sam grabbed his shoulder and struggled to rise. Dean helped him up. Sam faced Castiel, tottering, but on his feet, supported by Dean's grip on his arm and his own grip on his big brother's shoulder.
"Sam," Castiel said, as if he was a parent speaking to a reluctant child. "I can make it stop. The pain, the confusion. I can heal you."
"You can fuck off," Sam said hoarsely. "I don't want your help."
Castiel sighed, betraying his mounting impatience, and took a quick step forward, raising his hand. Dean moved in front of Sam just as Bobby pulled the trigger on the gun.
Castiel jerked as the first bullet hit him in the back. Another followed, and another, the sound of the shots echoing and joining until it rolled like thunder in the large room.
But no blood stained the back of Castiel's trench coat. When Bobby had emptied the gun, Castiel turned around slowly. "You're such children," he said, as if he was only now realising it. "You knew that wouldn't stop me." And he lifted his hand again. Bobby took an automatic step back, eyes widening.
"Cas, don't!" Dean shouted.
How did that shout halt the avalanche-like progress of a million souls? Why did Castiel stop? His hand remained outstretched but nothing happened. He looked over his shoulder at Dean, and perhaps there was, for a moment, a glimmer of Dean's gentle guardian angel in his eyes. Did something too powerful to be distorted even by the power of Purgatory still live deep inside him and respond to the desperation in Dean's voice?
But the glimmer, if it was ever there, was gone in a moment.
He let his hand fall. "I said I would be a better God, and I will be. I will give you time to come around. In one month I will find you, and then you can tell me if I have not been a good father to this unruly world. In the meantime, Sam, should you change your mind, pray to me."
Dean's face was stony, masking the agony he felt. Sam was horribly sick, and Castiel had become some jarring, terrifying Other that Dean hardly recognised. "You're not Cas. I don't know what you are, but you're not my friend. You're not welcome, not now, not in a month, not ever."
Castiel sighed. "Always so stubborn, Dean. I wanted so badly to prove to you that I was doing my part to fight for free will. Now I see how naive I was. You might have given me free will, but you never wanted me to use it."
For Dean these words came out of nowhere, but his failure to come up with a reply was covered by Castiel's departure. There was no sound of beating wings, no flickering lights. He was just gone, from one moment to the next.
Sam, Dean and Bobby dragged themselves outside on heavy legs only to rediscover the state of the Impala, and so we come once more to the place where we began. On that abandoned road, full of rage and sorrow, the little family didn't know whether to curse or grieve the one they had lost.
Somehow they found the strength to move, take one step and then another and another, until Bobby's porch loomed before them and the door opened to welcome them into the embrace of a second home.
The next month was spent in furious search of a weapon, a spell, a loophole in the natural order, anything that could take Castiel down. Bobby and Sam were fuelled by anger, and who can blame them? Who could say that Castiel had not gone too far? Dean on the other hand felt nothing. His grief, loss and rage had merged into a kind of tumultuous numbness. Only in the morning, in those first moments of waking, when the mind is still sorting dream from reality, did he fully feel the pain of all that had been lost. So he stopped sleeping. He ate little and spoke little, kept himself going through sheer determination and the inescapable, perhaps irrational feeling that he was somehow responsible for the powerhouse wreaking chaos on the world.
Castiel's last words to him rang in his ears.
If he had a spare moment he would work on the Impala, but even she caused him pain. She threatened to make him feel, because she is full of memories, and some of the more recent ones did not belong exclusively to Sam and Dean.
Sam struggled daily with his memories of Hell. He could never anticipate when a new recollection would surface and render him prostrate on the floor or screaming in terror in a corner. He couldn't focus his mind for long periods of time, and after the first few nights of horrible nightmares, he, like his brother, stopped sleeping. But he never even considered praying, and neither Dean nor Bobby ever suggested it.
Meanwhile, news stations all over the globe were busy keeping track of the social and ecological changes taking place day by day. Rivers and lakes were springing up in barren areas, the atmosphere was clearing of greenhouse gasses, great city slums were being cleaned up as if by invisible hands, and warring factions found themselves without weapons overnight. People were flocking to the churches, religion was popular like it hadn't been since the middle ages. But Heaven must be all but emptied of angels by now. The boys sometimes wondered fearfully whether any of them had been found worthy and left alive.
They tried to summon Balthazar once.
And around the world, people were going missing, disappearing without a trace. To most it was an unexplained and terrifying phenomenon, but to Sam, Dean and Bobby it just meant that they didn't have to worry about hunting on top of everything else. But could they be sure that every smote Tom, Dick and Harry had been a shifter, a vampire or a Jefferson Starship? And even if they were, had they deserved their fate, or were they like Lenore: victims of an absolutist viewpoint?
They laboured for a month, but there are precious few ways to take down a being of God-like powers, and most of them are known only to those who have God-like powers.
So as midnight struck and the clocks announced that the long-awaited day had arrived, Sam and Bobby closed their books with no weapon, no spell, no plan prepared. Dean sat outside on the porch, deep in thought. Exhausted in every way, they went to bed to wait for daylight and their own destruction.
The sun rose and cast its yellow light over Bobby Singer's porch. A few hours later, when the air had grown warm, the little family came outside and sat down. They did not speak, but waited in silence. Dean sometimes shifted uncomfortably, like he would have liked to get up and pace. Something was weighing heavily on his mind. Occasionally he would cast a quick glance at one or the other of his companions, but if they noticed, they did not think to wonder at it.
An hour passed. Two hours. Bobby went inside and came back with his little, old radio.
He turned it on and found a local station where a lady was in the middle of a newscast.
"– one month today since more than two hundred men and women from all over the world simultaneously came forward and declared that God's Archangels were dead and that a new God had replaced the old. At first dismissed as a freak phenomenon, these people were quickly given credit when radical ecological and social changes began to be seen around the globe. With us today we have Bible scholar James K–"
"Turn it off," Dean said irritably.
"No, leave it on. Let's see if they are happy with the work I have done."
The three on the porch shot to their feet.
Castiel stood some little distance away, watching them calmly, but his quiet confidence was undermined by how tired he looked. There were dark circles under his eyes, his hands twitched and trembled secretively in his long sleeves, and his body seemed thinner underneath his clothes, which hung more awkwardly on him than before.
Bobby turned the radio off. "We know you've been busy."
"So busy you forgot to comb your hair this morning," Dean said, leaning on one of the posts that framed the porch steps. "I know angels don't need sleep, but you should really look into it."
"Sam, how are you?" Castiel asked, ignoring Dean's jibe at his appearance.
Sam leaned on the fence that ran the length of the little porch, clutching the wood with white knuckles. "I'm peachy," he replied, and his eyes were dark and narrowed. "No thanks to you."
"I offered my help, and that offer has stood ever since."
"Kiss my ass."
Castiel shook his head sadly. "Still so proud." He looked up at Dean. "Even as we speak, hundreds of thousands of people are flocking to the church to renew their faith and give thanks for the miracles I have bestowed on them. Why do you three oppose me?"
Dean's eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why do you care?" He stepped slowly down from the porch. "What do you want with us, man?"
Castiel opened his mouth, but no words came. He seemed taken aback by the question. As Dean came mercilessly closer he took a small, involuntary step back, his eyes blinking rapidly as if he were struggling to keep them focused on Dean.
"Souls eating you up inside, wearing you down?" Dean asked. "Starting to wonder if getting on that bucking bull wasn't such a good idea after all? Starting to realise that you'll end up trampled underfoot?" He got all the way up in Castiel's face. "Monster souls are still monstrous, Cas. So what does that make you?" There was the most minute tremble in his voice.
Castiel might have noticed it if he had not been emotionally preoccupied.
"You still refuse to admit that I was right?" he said, drawing himself up to his full height, which was still not as tall as Dean. "I've made the world a better place! War, pollution, poverty, famine! I've tackled them all, in only a month! Think of what I could do in a year, in ten years! I can create paradise on earth, without having to murder or destroy! All I ask is that you have faith in me!"
"Have faith in you?" Sam laughed from the porch. "You want us to worship you!"
"God must be feared! He must be above his followers, or they would demand that he obey their flawed desires!"
Dean shook his head. "You're not God, Cas."
Sam came down to join them then, followed by Bobby. "You say you've tackled war, pollution, poverty, famine. How? You've destroyed weapons manufacturing plants, leaving people without jobs and countries with half their income. You've stopped traffic to stop pollution, keeping people from going to work or seeing their families! People wake up poor overnight because you decided their fortunes should belong to someone else! The world is in chaos because of you!"
"You humans have dug yourself into a hole so deep it's going to take some drastic changes to pull you out. You weren't willing to take those steps yourselves. In the end you'll see what I've done is for the better." Castiel looked from Sam to Bobby to Dean, frustration creeping into his tone. "There will be alternative methods of transportation, of distributing wealth and resources. This is temporary!"
Dean's reply was a brutal refusal. "You'll give us back our free will as soon as you're done deciding everything for us."
Castiel's eyes widened in confusion and surprise.
Bobby crossed his arms over his chest. "Let's see, we've got peace, but no reconciliation, nature falling apart because of all the sudden changes it's going through, and no more say over our own lives. Sounds more like Hell than Paradise to me."
Castiel shuddered as if to cast off the unpleasant accusations. "I was hoping you would understand, but it's clear that you're decided on being unreasonable." He stepped back. "I have been understanding long enough. You'll be safe in Heaven until I have finished my work here."
His hands began to glow.
"Don't do this, Cas," Dean said, and anyone might have said that he was strangely calm for the circumstances. He slid his hands into his back pockets, seemingly casually.
"I do what I must," Castiel replied, raising his hands.
"So do I."
Dean moved suddenly forward, pulling his hands from his pockets with such speed that Sam and Bobby hardly saw the weapon he had drawn from underneath his shirt. One hand grasped Castiel's wrist, and with the other he thrust the long, thin knife into the angel's chest.
The light flickered and died, but from around the intricately carved hilt of the knife, new light began to flow like blood. Castiel staggered on his feet and looked wide-eyed at Dean.
"Did you know I had this?" Dean whispered, showing emotion for the first time in the form of regret. Castiel's knees buckled, and Dean followed him down, keeping one hand clenched protectively around the handle of the weapon. Castiel's hands groped stiffly and uselessly at Dean's, but his eyes were glued to Dean's face. He breathed in shallow gasps.
Sam and Bobby looked on, frozen by surprise.
"Dean, what is that?" Sam asked breathlessly.
"It's silver," Dean replied, though he seemed to be speaking to Castiel more than to Sam.
Castiel jerked and shuddered, more light pouring from his chest. Something dimmed in his eyes, and he looked, for a moment, very small and afraid.
... I have to leave you here. I realise what an asshole move that is, but I have to go. You see, if I don't intervene now, my son will die, and probably take a substantial piece of the planet with him. He gave Sam, Dean and Bobby a month to come around. I gave him the same. And the month is up. But though you might never know all that happened next, don't worry; as Deus Ex Machina go, I'm a pretty solid one, and I don't intend to let it end here.
Thank you, all of you who have taken this journey with me. Despite everything, I will miss this life.
A hand closed around Dean's shoulder, and at once his limbs seemed to lose their strength, so that he could put up no resistance, but let go of the knife and fell back when he was gently pulled away from Castiel.
Surprised and confused, Dean looked up.
Something about Chuck Shurley was so profoundly changed that Dean wasn't sure at first who he was looking at.
"Ch-Chuck?" he said, testing the name, looking for a confirmation or a denial.
The being standing before them was almost luminous. Gone was the dirty bathrobe, the shifty, uncertain eyes and the hunched shoulders. He wore a blue shirt over clean jeans, his body was posed with calm confidence, and he was smiling gently.
Chuck knelt down next to Castiel. "Poor Castiel," he said in a tone that was deeper than Dean had ever heard him use. "Where did you stumble?"
The angel looked uncomprehendingly up at the prophet.
Chuck placed a gentle hand around the wound, the other on the knife, and in one smooth movement he pulled the weapon out and covered the wound with his ready hand. Beneath it the light seemed to hiss and boil as if angry at being contained. But it was contained.
"How are you –?" Dean's question died on his lips as Chuck turned unfathomable eyes on him. The whole sky seemed reflected in those eyes.
"Don't worry, Dean. I'll take it from here."
On the ground, Castiel was moving his bloodless lips, trying to speak. "Fa ... Father?"
Chuck's smile deepened a little. And then they were both gone.
"What?" Sam said. "Chuck ... What? Chuck–What?"
"So that was Chuck?" Bobby asked. "Nice to finally meet the guy. You never told me he was secretly the Almighty."
"Chuck is God?" Sam said disbelievingly.
"And when were you planning to tell us about the knife?" Bobby asked Dean sternly. "When did you come up with that as a weapon?"
But Dean was staring sightlessly at the place where Castiel had lain bleeding just a few moments ago.
Until Bobby grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. The old hunter dragged his two shell-shocked wards into the house, taking the radio with him. Perhaps, at his age, he simply wasn't as impressionable. He dumped Sam and Dean on the couch and turned on the TV. And in front of it they remained, as the hours ticked by, waiting for some kind of change. But none came. There were no more miracles, but neither did anything revert back to normal. Sam and Dean remained mute, as if they couldn't find the will to rouse themselves from their stupor. Eventually they fell asleep, Sam with his head on the armrest and Dean sprawled half on top of his big little brother. In the absence of their desperate mission they were back on normal fuel, and they had both run out of that weeks ago. Whether out of sheer exhaustion or by some benign influence, they slept deeply and without dreams.
For the next five days they simply waited, but only one change presented itself; cars ran again. The invisible force that had been keeping them stationary had, apparently, let go. But normal traffic did not resume at once, partly due to lingering chaos, partly due to some seeming unwillingness in people to turn the key and startle someone by the roar of the engine. The world was at a standstill, holding its breath while it waited for the outcome of a struggle it had no knowledge of other than an instinctual chill.
Sam and Bobby spent hours discussing Chuck. If he really was God, how could he have been involved all this time and not done more to help them? How could Dean's necklace not have picked up on his presence? But if he wasn't God, where had he come from so suddenly, and how had he stopped Castiel's "bleeding" with only a touch? What was going on in Heaven now? Dean didn't join in these discussions. From sunrise to sunset he hid away among the wrecks in Bobby's yard, taking them apart for salvaging or fixing them up for selling, burying himself in mindless work and falling exhausted into bed every night. The Impala stood untouched, but he did sometimes go and lie down in the back seat, like a child seeking a loving embrace. She could make him feel safe, for short periods of time.
The boys being used to life on the road, and having nothing concrete to keep them at Bobby's anymore, it didn't take long before they both began to climb the walls, and Bobby, being used to living alone, found himself increasingly short of patience with them. On the fifth day, he dragged Dean in from the yard by the scruff of his neck and pushed him down in a chair by the kitchen table where Sam was eating his breakfast.
"Here," Bobby said and slammed three newspapers down in front of Dean. "Get the hell out of my house and do something useful before you annoy me to death."
Dean picked up the first paper reluctantly. "A case?" he asked.
"Yep. Have fun."
They packed and were on the road within the hour, in one of Bobby's cars.
There was something comforting about putting on the suit and tie and rattling off the familiar lies again, badges in their pockets and guns hidden in their belts. Something comforting even in examining the bloody remains of victim number three. They were back, they were needed again, and if he didn't allow himself to think too much, Dean could pretend that the Apocalypse had never nearly happened. It was just him and his little brother against the supernatural.
On the third day of their investigation they split up to go after separate leads. Dean was the first to return to the motel room, and he spent some time cleaning his weapons while he waited for Sam. Outside, the sun was sinking towards green hills, and the motel's parking lot was empty in the waning light.
Then there was a knock on the door. This was unexpected enough to make Dean take his handgun when he went to answer. He put the gun in his belt, and leaned in close to look through the peephole. What he saw alarmed him enough to make him immediately yank the door open.
"Dean-o! Didja miss me?"
Despite being prepared, it took Dean a second to process that the man standing in the doorway was the Archangel Gabriel. With a small, anxious, be-winged child in his arms. A head of unruly dark hair was buried in the crook of Gabriel's neck and two pale, chubby arms were clinging to him. The rest of the creature was bundled up in what looked like a white sheet, which had been given a long, crooked cut in the back to release two black wings, no bigger than a raven's.
"How are you back?" Dean demanded roughly, even while his eyes strayed back to the child. He was a little too disturbed to express the joy he, surprisingly enough, actually felt at seeing Gabriel again.
The angel waggled his eyebrows suggestively. "Through the power of magic. The messenger is back, baby, and he has a message and a parcel to deliver." He hefted the child in his arms for emphasis.
"What is it?" Dean asked, although "who" might have been a more polite question.
Gabriel turned his head to nuzzle the child's curls affectionately. "You're gonna have to come out sometime, little bro. Dean wants to say hello."
"A baby angel?" Dean said incredulously, although he really should have guessed that already.
At last, the child peaked out from its hiding place, turning two remarkably blue eyes on Dean.
The face immediately disappeared back into Gabriel's neck, and Castiel's wings fluttered in agitation.
Dean backed away from the doorway. Gabriel's expression softened, his impish grin disappearing. "You're just a master of deduction, aren't you?" he said, but his tone took the fun out of the line.
"WHY IS CAS A BABY?" Dean yelled, disbelief turning up the volume of his voice.
Gabriel put a protective hand on Castiel's back. "Calm down," he said irritably. "He's not a baby; he's a toddler." He gave his little brother a quick, measuring look. "Two, almost three years old, I think."
"WHY IS CAS A BABY?"
"Yes, Dean, because if you ram your head against that wall enough times, it will eventually break." Gabriel dropped his head in exasperation. "Look, I'll explain everything, just –" He followed Dean into the room and managed to separate himself from a clinging, unwilling Castiel, holding the child out to Dean. "Hold him for a sec, will ya?"
He all but dumped the child in Dean's arms, and Dean had to scramble not to drop him. He managed to get one arm underneath him and the other around him. Castiel weighed surprisingly little. Like a bird, Dean thought. All hollow bones and feathers. But he was kicking and squirming to get back to Gabriel, and he might be light, but he was also strong.
"Thank you," Gabriel said and stretched his arms out luxuriously, completely ignoring how Castiel was trying to escape from Dean. "I haven't flown in a long time, so I'm a little stiff." He rubbed his neck and sighed. "Anyway! We're really grateful to you guys. It's so kind of you to help us out."
"What?" Dean managed to ask, leaning back to avoid Castiel's now furiously beating wings.
"I mean we're gonna be absolutely swamped with work, and we've been given so little time, we need all the hands we can get, so it's really good of you to take this for us."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Dean said loudly just as one of Castiel's wings slapped the side of his head hard.
Gabriel laughed. "Why, you and Sam volunteering to babysit Cas, of course!"
Dean's eyebrows shot up on his forehead. "What?"
"Don't feed him after midnight," Gabriel said with a grin. And then he disappeared. Castiel froze in Dean's arms and looked around frantically.
"Hey!" Dean looked around. He let a few seconds pass. "HEY! You asshole, get back here!"
And suddenly Gabriel was standing in front of him again. "Good luck," he said, winking, and disappeared a second time, accompanied by the sound of feather's fluttering.
Gabriel's final disappearance made Castiel wail in misery and pitch his weight forward as if he could follow his brother somehow.
"Woah!" Dean struggled not to drop the squirming angel, fingers digging harshly into his soft body through the thin shirt. "Cas, stop it!" He pulled a still howling Castiel back against his chest and managed to splay one hand protectively over his torso to keep him from throwing himself forward again. Castiel beat at his hands and arms with tiny fists, and one free wing flapped frantically against Dean's face while the other fought to escape from where it was trapped between their bodies.
"Will you calm down?" Dean yelled, and Castiel froze in shock and fear, curling around Dean's hand and breathing in harsh little pants. Dean could feel the angel's heart beating hard against his fingertips.
"Hey," he murmured, feeling shocked and strung out. "Hey, I'm sorry. I'm sorry."
He stood there helplessly, in the middle of the room, at a loss for what to do. Eventually, he put Castiel down on the nearest bed, but let go of him only reluctantly. Castiel sat paralyzed for a moment before crawling stiffly up to the head of the bed where he wrapped his arms around a pillow and huddled, hiding his face.
"What the hell were they thinking?" Dean mumbled. He dragged up a chair and fell down on it. Then he felt the gun still stuck in his belt. He pulled it out, unloaded it and stretched back to put it on the table.
What Dean had initially taken for a sheet covering Castiel was actually a shirt, presumably Jimmy's. It looked more like a tent on Cas now. The sleeves were rolled up to release his hands, which were currently buried in the pillow. His hair was a mess and his cheeks and neck were red from exertion.
He made his voice soft, but nonetheless the angel immediately made an attempt at crawling deeper into the pillow.
"Do you remember me?"
After a long moment, Castiel stole a glance at Dean over his shoulder, and his eyes were more alive with emotion than Dean had ever seen them, even in that painful time before the souls had corrupted him.
"What's my name, Castiel?" Dean asked, leaning forward on the chair. "You know it, come on."
"Dean," Castiel said, but in two voices at once, one human and child-like, the other vibrating on a discordant frequency.
"Is your daddy in Heaven?"
"And your brothers and sisters?"
So Gabriel was not the only angel who had been brought back. Had Chuck resurrected them? How many of them? Surely not Zachariah. Dean really hoped God had not resurrected Zachariah.
Castiel's wings were folded around him as if he was trying to comfort himself. They were sleek and of a glossy black. Despite all the monsters and creatures Dean had seen in his life, his eyes could not seem to get used to the sight of a pair of wings behaving so naturally on the back of a human.
"Did your daddy want you to be here with me?" Dean asked further. Gabriel had given him a big fat load of nothing as far as information went, so he'd have to hunt for it where he could find it.
Castiel didn't reply, but bit his bottom lip and blinked fast as if the question upset him.
Dean cleared his throat and came up with a new one quickly. "Gabriel brought you here. Will he come back?"
Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry.
Dean exhaled in a rush. He got up from the chair, went to his bag and pulled out a can of beer. He imagined this was what plucking your eyebrows felt like: painfully slow-going with minimal rewards and tears waiting to sprout with the first wrong move.
He went back to the chair with his liquid courage. "Cas?" he began, watching his fingers opening the can with a too-practiced move. "Do you remember Crowley?"
When no sound came, he looked up. Castiel was watching him fearfully, like he dreaded where this was going.
"You do remember," Dean concluded, his eyes widening a little. "All of it?"
Castiel looked away.
"Purgatory, Raphael, Sam's soul, all of it?"
Castiel flushed red and buried his face in the pillow, his wings shuddering. He reached behind him and gripped the nearest wing, pulling at it as if to punish himself.
Dean stood up slowly. He felt like he should go over there, but to comfort or confront? Castiel remembered, but did he understand? In what way had he been reduced to a child; merely the body or also the mind?
"Cas, how old are you?"
"Two!" Castiel yelled into the pillow, as if he was honour bound to answer all these stupid questions, but refused to like it.
Dean eased back on his heels. No confrontation then. The memories of an adult life in the mind of a child. All his mistakes and crimes and all the shame, but not the faculties to fully comprehend it all or to defend himself. What the hell were they thinking?
Just then, Sam came home. "Find anything?" he asked as he closed the door behind him. He hadn't looked around the room as he entered.
"Sort of," Dean replied and inclined his head towards the beds.
Sam's eyes widened as he caught sight of Castiel.
The angel, on his side, whimpered in panic and crawled under the duvet to hide.
Dean scratched the back of his head. "Gabriel's back. He ... left Cas here."
Sam looked from the shivering bump on the bed to Dean and back again. There was a moment of tense silence. Then he walked over to the other bed, grabbed his bag off the floor and marched out without looking back.
"What—? Sam!" Dean put the can down and ran after him, stopped himself in the doorway and looked back indecisively, but Castiel didn't look like he planned to go anywhere, so Dean risked following his brother outside, carefully closing the door behind him. If the angel could teleport away, he already would have.
Sam was walking with determined strides towards the car. Dean caught up with him and put a hand on his shoulder, pulling him around.
"Hey! Where the hell are you going?"
Sam's expression was so cold that for a moment Dean had an uncomfortable flashback to the soulless days. "I get it, Dean. Gabriel came, saw, conquered and left before you could get a word in. I don't blame you for that. But he doesn't win this time. No way."
"What, so we're just going to leave Cas here? They turned him into a child, Sam; he's helpless!"
Sam rolled his eyes and smiled condescendingly. "Don't be naive, Dean. They're watching him and us right now, waiting to see what we'll do. If we leave, they'll pick him up again."
Frustration wormed itself through Dean, and he didn't even know why. Who was he fighting, really?
"Yeah, they will, and then they'll dump him on whatever doorstep we pay to own tonight. Gabriel's a stubborn son of a bitch, Sam; he won't give up."
Sam's lips pulled back from his clenched teeth. He looked around for an outlet before growling in defeat. "Agh! Doesn't it bother you that they're manipulating us again? Again!"
Pity and understanding softened Dean's frustration. "Sure. I'm pissed, Sam, same as you! But this isn't ..." His eyes strayed back to their motel room door. Had Castiel come out from his hiding place yet? Was he wondering where they had gone? Was he scared to be alone?
"I don't care," Sam said darkly. "I'm done, with Heaven, with the angels, with Castiel. I'm done." And he resumed walking towards the car.
"He reminds me of you," Dean said at his back.
Sam stopped. He turned around with a long sigh.
Dean pushed the words out around an uncooperative tongue. "You weren't much older than that when Dad left us alone for the first time. I sat up all night because I didn't dare take my eyes off you for a moment. My life revolved around looking after you, but you don't need me anymore."
"And now there's another big-eyed kid crying out for your love and protection," Sam said brutally. "Your life has purpose again, whoop-de-doo. This is exactly the reaction the angels were hoping you would have! They tailored this situation for you, Dean!"
Dean opened his mouth to protest, realised that it was probably true, and changed what he had meant to say. "Okay, but that's not why I'm sharing. Remember what Cas said to me a month ago? He said I gave him free will. I feel like ... like I was already raising a kid all over again, and because I didn't teach him right, he went and fucked up the world. I'm responsible, Sam! But I don't want to be responsible alone."
Sam let his head fall back with another furious, suffering sigh. Then he looked at the ground for a moment, clearly thinking it over. "No," he said finally. "I'm done being Hell's bitch, I won't be Heaven's. They've got God now; and if he was any kind of true God he would stop fucking with us and leave us alone." He glanced up at the sky as if he hoped that Chuck had heard him.
Dean closed the space between them and placed himself between his little brother and the car. He held his hands up in a placating gesture.
"We've still got a case. We can't leave that or more people will die. How about you be stake-out-guy at the golf course tonight? I'll stay here and be research-guy for once."
"And babysitter-guy," Sam added, crossing his arms over his chest. "This is pathetic, Dean. When are you going to stop bending over for Heaven?"
Dean looked his brother in the eyes and saw that Sam was angry and tired. And it was awesome, because negative emotions were so much better than no emotions at all.
Sam's expression softened, either because he found it in him to understand where Dean was coming from, or because he was too tired to keep fighting. "Fine. Let's eat first, though."
"Oh yeah, I'm starving. Go get us something." He clapped Sam on the shoulder and walked quickly back to the motel room.
In the time Dean had been gone, Castiel had migrated underneath the bed. He was mainly visible because his wings were quivering, drawing the eyes to the dark space between the hanging covers and the floor.
Dean was fully prepared to simply sit down and wait until the little guy felt like emerging, but that idea was quickly abandoned when he had closed the door behind him and the click of the lock died away, revealing another sound to his ears.
Castiel was crying.
Dean crossed the room slowly so as not to startle him, and knelt down next to the bed. "Hey, you okay?" He gave it a moment, but Cas seemed to be crying with that unabashed wholeheartedness that children do, and was so either unable or unwilling to respond.
Fully aware that this might end badly, Dean reached under the bed, past a whole lot of fluttery feathers, before finding a heaving body. He curled a hand around it and pulled until he could reach out with both hands and lift Castiel out of his cave.
Castiel reacted by blindly lashing out. His foot caught Dean in the stomach, and if Dean hadn't been so used to taking a beating while trying to stay with a target, he would have dropped him. He was going to have so many bruises tomorrow. He rose, still awkwardly clutching Castiel, and deposited both himself and the angel on the bed, immediately rearranging his hold on Cas so that he could lift him up again and hold him properly against his chest. Cas squirmed a bit but the convulsive sobs kept him too busy to do any more violence.
"It's okay, it's okay," Dean soothed, rubbing circles on Castiel's lower back and between his wings. With one hand he fumbled behind him until he could raise a pillow against the headboard and settle back against it.
Castiel wept into Dean's shoulder, his hands clutching at Dean's shirt and his wings trembling. Dean continued to soothe him as best he could, watching the agitated feathers with an abstract eye. Eventually he tried, partly out of curiosity and a little bit out of annoyance, to lift a hand and let one wing brush his fingers.
Castiel made a sound somewhere between a gasp and a hiccup, and both wings were quickly flattened against his back. It had the added effect of making the sobs less frequent, as curiosity and another emotion Dean couldn't identify seemed to take over for the desperate fear.
In this way they remained for some time, Castiel a warm, jarringly light weight against Dean's chest, Dean humming tunelessly to help the angel calm down.
By the time Sam came back, Cas had fallen asleep. Dean couldn't tell exactly when it had happened, but from one moment to the next he seemed to have drifted off. His emotions had spent themselves, and probably left him more than a little tired.
Sam was smart enough to knock softly, and Dean was obliged to put Cas down to go open the door, but the angel didn't wake, or move at all in fact, but lay sprawled on his back on the duvet where Dean placed him, his eyes puffy from crying, but his expression calm, his lips parted slightly on quiet breaths. He looked, for lack of a less obvious description, angelic.
Dean tiptoed to the door and opened it, putting a finger to his lips to indicate silence before letting Sam come inside.
Sam put the food on the table, and Dean dived in, as quietly as the plastic bags allowed, because he was really starving. Having discovered his burger, he wasted no time in unwrapping it and taking a bite, chewing with relish. Then he looked up and noticed Sam standing next to the bed, looking down at Castiel with a thoughtful expression.
Dean's first impulse was an irrational urge to go get between them, to protect Castiel. He took another bite of the burger instead and chewed stubbornly. His gut feeling was beginning to really agree with Sam that Heaven had designed this situation to allow Cas to get under his skin again.
"You gonna eat or what?" he said, pathetically trying to draw Sam away from the bed.
Sam seemed to drag his eyes away from the sleeping angel with some difficulty.
Dean grimaced. Was he, Dean Winchester, really going to roll over for those sanctimonious bastards now? He had refused Michael while his arm was being twisted out of its socket in so many proverbial ways, and now when the world wasn't even hanging in the balance, he was going to let them use him?
Sam came over to the table and pulled out his chicken salad.
Dean forced himself to keep his eyes away from the bed, away from the trap seemingly set to snare him specifically.
"Dean?" Sam said questioningly.
Dean made a hasty decision and looked up at Sam. "Can we talk?"
Sam's expression was full of significance that Dean couldn't decipher. Usually, this meant that Sam knew something about Dean that Dean didn't know about himself. This was never a good thing.
But in the end Sam nodded, and led the way outside.
The sun had gone down by now, and the stars were coming out. Dean breathed deeply of the warm summer air and didn't feel at all fortified. With every step he felt, more than ever, that Castiel was his responsibility, but Sam had been right; it was time Castiel was reconciled with his family. They should be the ones to put him back on his feet.
No one was dying, it was just a question of the road to take to a certain goal. The only thing Dean should be considering was what he wanted and what Sam wanted. Okay then.
"We can summon an angel," Dean said.
Sam lifted an eyebrow, probably at the abrupt beginning, but waited for Dean to continue.
"Gabriel didn't stick around long enough to do more than be fucking annoying, but from what he said and what I got out of Cas, I think Chuck has brought back at least some of the angels," Dean babbled on. "So we can summon someone, hand over Cas and hightail. I still say they'll just dump him right back in our laps, but it's worth a shot."
Sam looked at him doubtfully. "I agree," he said slowly, though his expression remained sharply questioning. "And I say that they won't dump him back in our laps because it would be cruel to make Cas feel that unwanted."
Dean's heart stumbled. Unwanted? The word caused a dull sort of pain to strike his ribcage from the inside like a hammer.
"But is this what you want?" Sam asked. "Have you changed your mind?"
Dean looked incredulously at his brother. "It's what you want!" he said loudly. "Have you changed your mind?"
He wished Sam wouldn't look at him so ... intently. Jesus!
"I still think it's the best solution," Sam said diplomatically. "For everyone."
"Great! And I agree that right now, Cas is better off with his family," Dean said while thinking of Castiel's brothers and sisters and how they really neither understood nor seemed to care about him.
Sam crossed his arms over his chest, his forehead creased thoughtfully. "Yeah." He breathed in slowly and released the air again as if putting down a weight. "Then ... Once we've wrapped up the case we can go get the materials for the spell."
Dean nodded once, decisively. "Awesome. Can we eat now?"
Over dinner, Dean gave Sam the details of Gabriel's visit, and relayed the information he had gotten from Cas.
"If he was only a two-year-old physically," he said in a low voice, "he wouldn't have answered "two" when I asked him how old he is. He would have said older."
Sam was chewing his salad like a big, sceptical rabbit. "But if he's a child with a child's mind, how does he remember everything? How does he process and interpret the memories?"
Dean shrugged. "How does he weigh less than a bag of rock salt yet pack a punch like a grown man? He's an angel. Angels are weird."
Sam was looking at the bed again, where Cas lay on his back still, mercifully dead to the world. Mercifully dead to the hideous wallpaper and horrendous bedcovers of this crappy motel room.
"He's ashamed," Sam said, stating a fact and by doing so returning to an earlier point in their quiet conversation.
Dean picked at his fries, suddenly not so hungry anymore. "That's what it seemed like to me. The wings give him away, but the rest of him is pretty damn expressive too now."
"Kids are more honest with their feelings than adults," Sam said, unnecessarily.
"Um, yeah. Because they have no concept of social embarrassment."
Sam turned back to Dean with the sudden shadow of a grin. "This coming from you?"
"Shut up and eat your salad."
Sam left again as soon as they were done eating. They had intended to keep a vigil together at the local golf course that night. All three murders had taken place there, and they wanted to be on site in case the perpetrator returned, but now Dean would have to stay behind with Cas. Dean made Sam promise not to engage the thing without him, and watched his little brother go with an uncomfortable knot in his stomach. He had said earlier that Sam didn't need him anymore, and he meant it, but only as far as hunting went. Since The Great Wall of Sam had come down, Sam had been unstable to say the least, sleeping little because of constant nightmares, and carrying the painful memories with him through the day. It had been easier when they were living at Bobby's, but now that they were on the road again, Dean had been careful to watch his little brother for any signs of fatigue or lingering horror.
But that was the strange thing; there had been no nightmares, no sudden headaches or horrific memories triggered by a sound or a smell, nothing at all, in fact, since their final confrontation with Cas. Sam had slept like a baby every since. Dean suspected and hoped that Chuck had done something to help Sam, but until he could be absolutely sure, he didn't dare let Sam too far out of his sight.
So not going with him tonight was a difficult decision for Dean.
To keep himself busy, he pulled out Sam's laptop and did some digging in the web-based local newspaper archive. Every now and then his eyes would stray to Castiel's sleeping form on the bed. In the white light from the ceiling lamp, the angel looked pale and ethereal, but the huge, white shirt made the image human. It seemed strange to Dean. Before, the vessel had made Cas seem human, while the otherworldly part of him had shone through in his gestures and in his heavy gaze. Just like his emotions were expressed more clearly now, so, seemingly, his angelic nature had risen closer to the surface.
Sam checked in by phone every hour, but had nothing to report. Unable to focus on his research, Dean turned on the TV, keeping it on mute, but somehow he found himself abandoning Dr. Sexy to simply watch Castiel some more. Was it the flickering light from the television creating shadows out of the angel's lashes, or did he still have dark circles under his eyes?
In the end, Dean gave up, turned off the TV again and lay down next to Castiel, careful not to touch his wings. The angel was so small now, so terribly fragile. And really adorable. Dean was glad Sam wasn't there right then, because he was feeling decidedly unmanly.
But how did this make anything right? The tiny thing breathing peacefully next to Dean was also the man who had torn down Sam's mental wall, subjecting him to all the horrors of his stay in Hell and almost killing him. Nothing could possibly justify that action to Dean. This tiny thing with the wounded, blue eyes had struck up a partnership with the King of Hell, denounced Dean, declared himself a god and thrown the world into chaos.
So what the hell was God thinking? The Winchesters had hoped against hope that he would take some responsibility, and it seemed he had, but this? Did he really expect them to forgive Castiel just because he was cute now? But the answer appeared hot on the heels of the question. He had, and he was right to; the furious and possibly violent conversation Dean had planned to have with Castiel once the angel was restored wasn't going to happen now.
"How could you betray us, Cas? What were you thinking?" he whispered.
Castiel's brows contracted minutely, and he sighed restlessly as if his mood were affected by Dean's, or even as if he had heard him.
Dean was torn between a need to smooth that tiny, troubled brow on the one hand, and shake Cas awake and demand answers from him on the other. He compromised by getting up from the bed and going back to the computer. He could do some more digging, make absolutely sure that there hadn't been any violent deaths in the area around the golf course. When the case came to Bobby's attention there had been three victims already, all young, all beaten to a pulp with some blunt instrument by something of more than human strength.
Half an hour later, Dean struck gold. He called Sam up immediately. "I've found our man, Sammy! Edgar Nielsen, bludgeoned to death with his own golf clubs by a gang of teenagers. The anniversary of his death is two days from now."
"It fits," Sam agreed from the other end of the line.
"He's in the local cemetery."
"I'll drop by and say hello."
Dean hung up, grinning and shaking his head.
Castiel was awake.
The angel was sitting up in bed, looking at Dean with a painfully familiar, steady, but unreadable expression.
"Sleep well?" Dean asked tiredly.
Castiel just tilted his head to the side curiously, and Dean had to turn his face away, shutting his eyes tight. It was too much. He was so angry with those impossibly blue eyes, but it hurt so much to maintain that anger.
"You're not my family, Dean. I have no family."
Hearing that, and seeing the absolute conviction in those cold eyes and that empty smile, had hurt Dean. He had not been aware then that Castiel had the power to hurt him so deeply.
And when he now dared to look back at Castiel, who was so small on Dean's big bed, the very thing, the recognizable thing, the thing that was Castiel, the thing that Dean was angry at, was also such a blessed relief to see, because at least it meant he was himself again.
Dean shut the lid of the laptop, rose from his chair and stretched. He noticed that the motion brought only some small signs of apprehension to the angel's expression.
"So ... Sam's out digging up bones. What are we going to do?"
Castiel had his hands clasped in his lap, his toes were sticking out from under the shirt and his hair was messier than ever. He looked idly around the room until he noticed the TV. He pointed at it.
"Yeah." Dean pressed his lips together and nodded. "About the only damn thing you can get up to around here."
He was surprised when Castiel frowned at him, his cheeks puffing up angrily.
"What? What did I do?" He thought back. "Oh!" He put his hands on his hips. "You know I can get a lot more blasphemous than that. Just because your daddy's back and everything's sunshine and rainbows in Heaven doesn't mean you get to go all preachy on me."
Castiel turned his face away from Dean.
"I see. That's how it is." Dean hid a smile by going over to turn the TV on. Then he grabbed the remote control and came over to the bed.
"Well? Do I get to sit next to you?" he asked. "That's my bed, you know."
Castiel looked around like that hadn't occurred to him. Then he looked up at Dean with slow consideration, but Dean hadn't planned to actually wait for his answer, so he quickly lifted the toddler up, sitting down against the headboard and placing Cas back down next to him.
"Ha, you're tiny. I can do whatever I want," Dean said smugly. "I think I prefer you this way."
Dean had never seen a two-year-old look so outraged before. Grinning more widely now, he made himself comfortable against the headboard and started flipping through the channels. Next to him, Castiel was climbing to his feet, grabbing on to Dean's t-shirt for balance. Dean looked up at him. "What, you got something to say, pipsqueak?"
Castiel placed a hand on Dean's forehead, there was a familiar jolt low in his stomach and then he was hovering in empty air in the space between the two beds. He landed on his ass on the floor and looked up to see Castiel looking down at him with a small, smug smile.
"Oh, it is on!" Dean declared and launched himself after the angel, who squealed in terror and then howled with laughter as Dean began to tickle him mercilessly.
When Sam returned to the motel room, hours later, tired and sweaty but satisfied with the closure of the case, he found the TV still on. Dean lay on the bed, fully clothed, with Castiel tucked against his side. They were both asleep.