Disclaimer: I don't own the boys. Or Cas. Or Lucifer and Michael.

Author's Note: This is an early birthday present for Cheryl, who asked for Cas and the boys and a little truth and a load of intensity. So here it is… I did my best. Happy Early Birthday, and I hope you like this! ;-)

Rating: PG

Warnings: Nothing too serious. Some Hell-speculation. I don't think there's anything particularly offensive, but please use your discretion.

Summary: Cas wants to make up for everything he's done. There can't be atonement without truth. Two-shot.


Eternity in an Hour

Part I: Every Morn and Every Night

Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.
(William Blake)

Hell cannot be explained.

Castiel had already known that. Very few Angels descended to Perdition; those who did chose not to talk about it. The knowledge was shared in silence when it was shared at all.

It wasn't about the blood or the fire, the torture or the screaming. Physical pain was a mortal affliction. Angels didn't pretend to understand it or care about it.

What unnerved Angels who ventured into Hell, what terrified them, what made them leave as fast as their wings would carry them and swear that they would never return, was something much more and much less than mortification of the flesh.

It was human souls.

It was the moment when the soul of a good person who had been dragged down by a demon turned dark. It was that split-second, that instant of time when the soul still retained enough of itself to know and be appalled by what had happened to it.

The Cage was that instant stretched out to infinity.

Once, Castiel had felt pity for souls condemned to Hell.

Once, so long ago that it seemed, even to the Angel, like it had been in another lifetime, Castiel had felt pity for Sam Winchester. Pity, sorrow for a man destined to bring disaster upon the world, and perhaps a little smug satisfaction in the certain knowledge that Sam – tormented Sam, doubting Sam, dark Sam – was never going to earn Heaven, no matter how hard he fought what was meant to be.

Once, Castiel had been a fool.

He hadn't known Sam long when he'd begun questioning. That Sam was tormented, he knew; that Sam doubted, he was certain. That Sam was dark he couldn't quite believe. It had never seemed less likely than when a boy – the boy they had once reviled as the Antichrist – loved his brother so fiercely and passionately that he took on Lucifer, and won.

Angels did not know fierceness and passion. Their love for their Father was all-encompassing, but, like everything else about them, it was untroubled. It had none of the tumult and confusion and desperation of the bond Sam and Dean shared. Cas didn't fully understand that bond – didn't understand how creatures whose time was so brief could share something so profound – but he knew better than to underestimate its strength.

Castiel understood now.

Hell was deep and dark. Hell was torment.

Hell was doubt.

And it was a miracle the Angel wouldn't have believed possible that Sam, with his fragile human soul and his mortal weaknesses, had survived nearly two centuries of it without being twisted into something unrecognizable.

Sam was still Sam.

It made Cas believe that perhaps his Father hadn't completely abandoned them.

It had been eight and a half weeks since he'd taken upon himself the burden of Sam's memories.

He hadn't wiped them completely from Sam's mind – that would have been impossible – but he had pushed them away. Sam would always remember the Cage, he would always have moments when the glint of sunlight on snow seemed like the endless ice of the lowest circle of Hell, he would always have days when he woke up feeling like Lucifer was watching him from some dark corner of the room. But never again would those memories destroy Sam's mind.

It was the best Cas could do.

He hadn't known what to expect when he touched Sam's mind.

He'd known he would find out what the Cage was like. He'd known it would be terrible, far worse than the worst things he had seen in Hell. Far worse, even, than the brief glimpse of the Cage he'd had when he retrieved Sam's body.

But nothing could have prepared Cas for the reality of it.

In an instant, his mind had gone from silence to… a different silence. It had been an oppressive silence, full of whispers that felt like fingers of frost on his skin. Betrayer, the whispers had said. Traitor. Renegade. Despoiler of innocence. Destroyer of hope.

Castiel shuddered, trying to gain some semblance of control.

It had taken some time, but eventually he'd understood the nature of the Cage.

There was physical torture, of course, but that was physical torture devised by Lucifer and Michael to keep themselves amused and work off the frustration of being forced to spend eternity in each other's company. Sam's memories of being slowly disembowelled, of being torn to pieces by Hellhounds, of having his chest carved open and his still-beating heart removed before his horrified eyes, were just memories. Castiel's vessel had known physical pain – he felt a moment's fleeting pity for Jimmy Novak – but Castiel himself never had.

But the Cage had been built to contain an Archangel, not to torment a man.

The Cage was in the mind.

Cas had realized that in the first hour.

The Cage was the mind. How else would one contain Lucifer the Lightbringer?

Certainty – certainty of right, truth and justice, certainty of the goodness of their Father – those had been the gifts God gave the Angels. He hadn't given them free will or taught them independent thought. He'd given them Peace, and kept Freedom for Men.

The Cage tore away that certainty. It was a mirror that reflected your thoughts and your actions and your innermost being. It showed you the sum and substance of your life, and by its very nature it made you question the fundamental truths that had shaped your choices.

Renegade. Despoiler of innocence.

For eight and a half weeks, Cas had seen his life, millions upon millions of years condensed to a few choices. Choices he'd never even known he'd had, leave alone been conscious of making; choices that had been offered and made long before two stubborn boys and a gruff old hunter had taught him about free will.

Eight and a half weeks, and Cas could finally think again. Eight and a half weeks was how long it had taken for all his Angelic power to break the hold that even the second-hand memories of the Cage had on his mind.

And Sam was only a mortal, and he had lived the Cage.

Cas was still an Angel in substance, but in spirit he'd drifted from the faith, obedience and belief that marked his brothers. He had rebelled against Heaven and felt the thrill of faith rewarded when the Cage closed over Lucifer and Michael. And Sam and Adam. Cas had tried to make Dean see that a world without the threat Lucifer hanging over it was a good world, but all Dean had seen was a world that no longer contained Sam.

In the past eight and a half weeks, Cas had been forced to question everything he knew. His Father's will. His brothers' intentions. Destiny. Fairness. Bobby Singer. Dean. Sam.

Somewhere in those weeks, with Lucifer's laughter ringing in his ears and his own life flashing inexorably through his mind, Cas had begun to see. He'd learnt to feel something so alien to his kind that it had taken him some time to identify it.

Castiel felt remorse.

Destroyer of hope.

And now, now that he had beaten back the sounds of the Cage with sheer force of Angelic will, now that he was himself again, he had another choice.

This time, he would make it in the full knowledge of what he was doing.


It was Dean he needed to speak to first.

That was the coward's way out. Cas was under no illusions about himself anymore. He didn't want the calm acceptance of his confession that he knew would come from Sam. He wanted – needed – to face fury, perhaps even violence, if only to make him feel like allowing himself to be punched in the jaw had helped him, in some small way, begin to atone.

That was the coward's way out, and Cas knew that he might never equal Sam's courage. Cas had died for what he believed in, secure in the unshakeable belief that he was doing his Father's will, even if in an unorthodox fashion. He'd risked his life to put the Leviathans back in Purgatory. It had failed, but he had tried. He'd risked his mind to restore Sam to a semblance of sanity.

But to face his own mistakes, to deal with the knowledge of his own frailty… That took a different sort of courage, the sort Angels had never needed. To die was easy; Castiel knew that now. What was difficult was to live and atone.

Sam and Dean already knew that Cas was… better. Meg had called him as soon as she'd realized. Cas had half-hoped that they would come see him, but he'd known they wouldn't. Their task was too urgent, the need to track down the Leviathans and send them back to Purgatory too burning. Once again the future of the world hung in the balance.

And Castiel, good friend though he was – or had been, before, in that moment of mad hubris, he had destroyed Sam's mind and placed himself above God – wasn't enough to distract the Winchesters from their mission. If they ever paused, it was only for each other.

Cas wished he could have that bond. He was close to the boys, especially Dean. They were his friends; they cared about him; they would willingly die for him. But, again, he was under no illusions. They didn't need him the way they needed each other; he didn't give meaning to Dean's life; Sam didn't secretly long for his approval.

He was just Cas.

Perhaps that was why Dean had been so… calm.

Cas called Dean.

"I need to speak to you," he said, without preamble, as soon as Dean picked up.

"Sure," Dean said easily. "Just let me get –"

"Not Sam. Just you."

Dean's next words were stiff. "Cas, I don't know if you have issues with Sam, but I have to tell you, after what happened, you've got no right to suggest –"

"No," Cas said quickly. He hadn't been suggesting that he didn't trust Sam. "No, that's not what I meant. It's not like that. I have to speak to Sam. You said I'm here to fix things. I can't heal Sam completely but there's one thing I can do. There's something I have to tell him. I'm just not sure how to do it. So I need to speak to you first."

"Oh." Dean seemed to be thinking. "So this isn't some crap about you not trusting Sam?"

"It's not, Dean, I promise."

"OK, then. Get over here."


They were outside the motel room; through the window, they could see Sam sleeping. It was as far as Dean had been willing to get from his brother.

"So, spill," Dean said. "What's this big secret that you need to tell Sam?"

"It might disturb you to hear it," Cas warned, a small part of him hoping that Dean would let him off, Dean would say he and Sam were better off not knowing and Cas could pretend it had never happened.

Dean crossed his arms. "You woke me in the middle of the night and dragged me out of a comfortable bed because you wanted me to help you figure out how to tell Sam something. I'm already disturbed, Cas. Just tell me whatever the Hell you need to."

It was a long moment before Cas could speak. "Sam was in the panic room."

"Which time?"

The Angel shivered and cast a glance at the young hunter just visible through the window, face smooth in sleep.

"When you went after Lilith. And you locked Sam in the panic room."

"Yeah. I remember. Go on."

"He got out and killed Lilith and set Lucifer free."

Dean's brows drew together. "Are you here to give Sam more grief about that? Because I have to tell you, he's paid for it about a hundred times over and if you're going to upset him –"

"Dean, no," Cas protested, not letting himself feel hurt that Dean really thought he would do that to Sam. Dean didn't listen to reason where Sam's safety was involved. "That's not what I want. Just hear me out." He waited for Dean's nod before he went on. "You blamed Sam for setting Lucifer free. So did the Angels. But it wasn't entirely Sam's fault."

"I know that," Dean said coolly. "There were sixty-five other seals that Sam didn't break. Hell, I was the one who broke the first one and started it all."

"That's not what I mean. Killing Lilith… It wasn't entirely Sam's fault."

Dean frowned. "Keep talking."

"Didn't you ever wonder how he got out of the panic room?"

"I assumed he used his mojo to get himself out – not like Bobby and I knew exactly what to do to keep him contained; there's no manual on humans who are high on demon blood. But I'm guessing that that's not true."

"No. I knew you thought that, and I let you think it… But it's not true." Cas waited. When no remark was forthcoming from Dean, he added, "I let him out."

The silence stretched unbearably.

Finally Dean repeated, face unreadable, voice expressionless, "You let him out."

"Yes."

"You – let me get this straight – you knew that demon bitch had been messing with his head, you knew killing Lilith would bring on the Apocalypse, you knew he wasn't thinking clearly. And you let him out of the panic room."

"Yes."

"Because you wanted him to kill Lilith."

"It was necessary."

"Yeah? And how about the part where you treated Sam like an abomination, where you let me stay pissed at him for months for doing something that you pushed him into doing? Was that necessary too?"

"You're angry," Cas said.

"You think?" Dean growled. "And now… What? You want me to figure out a way to tell Sam this that'll result in him not thinking you're as bad as the rest of those lying, two-timing sons of bitches? At least they had the decency to be honest about what they wanted."

"Dean, I understand."

"Do you? Really? Do you have any idea how much grief I gave Sam about trusting Ruby? And now I find out that it was worse trusting you."

"That's not fair. I'm not a demon, Dean."

"Maybe not, but you…" Dean trailed off, took several deep breaths, and started again. "You let Sam out. And not only did you let me believe that that whole last seal thing was entirely his fault, you encouraged me to believe it. And you let Sam believe it. You have any idea of the kind of things I said to him then?"

"But you're on good terms now. Sam hasn't held it against you."

"That doesn't make it right." Dean scrubbed a hand over his face. "Even when I really did think he'd Swayzed his own way out of the panic room, it wasn't right, and now… Screw you, Cas." Dean turned away.

"Dean, I'm sorry."

"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to."

"I want to talk to Sam, I just… I don't know how."

"Yeah?" Dean turned back for a moment, his face a mask of fury. "You think Sam knew how he was going to take Lucifer down? You think he knew how he was going to endure being tortured in the Cage forever? You think I knew how I was supposed to live without my little brother?"

"But it turned out well!" Cas protested desperately. "Sam's back now, as whole as he can be. I was wrong to do it, Dean. I know that, and I can't tell you how deeply I regret it. But don't you realize that if I hadn't done it, if Sam hadn't been the one to let him out, Lucifer might not have been that insistent on Sam as a vessel?"

"I'm sorry, is this supposed to be making me not want to fry you?"

"Sam had to be Lucifer's vessel. That was what my Father wanted. It was more important than you realized even at the time. You thought it was about brothers, and it was, a little, but that wasn't all. Sam had to be Lucifer's vessel because nobody else could have defeated him and pushed him back in the Cage."

"Cas, I'm about this far from burning you in holy oil, so –"

"Dean, you have him back fully now –"

"No thanks to you."

"Where are you going?" Cas asked as Dean strode towards the motel room door.

"I'm going to talk to my brother."

"Dean!" The Angel followed the hunter into the room. "Dean, I'm sorry. I know you're angry –"

"Shut up." Inside the room, Dean stood still for a moment. Even in the darkness, Cas could see tears glinting in his eyes. "Just don't, OK?"

After a very brief hesitation, Dean walked around to Sam's bed. As though Sam had sensed his brother's approach, he stirred and opened his eyes. He didn't notice Castiel.

"Dean? What is it?"

Dean didn't respond. Sam sat up, stretching, dropping his feet to the floor, reaching for his cell phone to check his voicemail. It was easy, and normal, and Castiel wondered if this was the truest Hell.

"Dean?" Sam had looked up into his brother's face and seen the too-bright eyes, and now he sounded concerned. Maybe even frightened. "Dean, please. What's wrong?"

Dean dropped to his knees in front of Sam, leaning forward to press his forehead to Sam's chest, relaxing a little when Sam's arms came up and curled around his shoulders.

"Cas?" Dean said, his voice muffled by Sam's shirt. "Give us a minute."


TBC


You already know what the next chapter's going to be, don't you? *g*

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