A/N: This story was inspired, in a way, by the Season 7 finale, when Dean and Castiel are trapped in Purgatory and Sam is once more left all alone. Isolating Sam's character seems to be a favorite trick of the series, and it got on my nerves this time, probably in part because it seems like it is a rare thing when anyone (especially Dean) even tries to understand all the things Sam does out of desperation when he's lost and alone.

In any case, this and the conversation between Sam and Cas in 7x21 "Reading is Fundamental" made me think about the balance between all of the things Sam has done for the people in his life, Castiel in particular, and all of the things that have been done to him. This story is the result. It stems from my hope that someone like Castiel could understand how truly angelic Sam's infinite forgiveness is, and appreciate that. And do everything possible to repay it.

Note: Set in some mystical time after Season 7 where Castiel isn't crazy anymore, and everyone's reunited.

Pairing: Castiel + Sam, light.

.x.

Settling

Sam settles onto the couch next to Castiel with the TV remote and a bowl of pistachio ice cream in his hands. There's something about his movements—the way he pulls his knees up and sits cross-legged on the couch, or slumps back into it so that his head aligns with the crown of the cushions, or the way his toes dangle over the edge, twitching in his dark red socks—that brings the word to Castiel's mind: to settle, the gradual surrender of his muscles as he relaxes against the pillows and the angel and the steady hum of noise from the glowing screen, most of it still meaningless to Castiel. But it isn't just this. There's something about Sam in these moments that makes him feel too light to Castiel, like his bones are hollow or absent completely, like a bird or a dragonfly—something with wings, which perches somewhere but always holds something of itself raised, extended, wingtips poised to alight. Dean throws himself down; Castiel sits; Sam settles.

The more he has started to look at Sam, the more Castiel has noticed that this is something Sam does—settling. He settles back against the kitchen counter with his arms gently folded over his chest, his hands tucked in like feathers he is holding in reserve, holding himself down with both feet on the linoleum. He settles under Dean's arm when his brother throws it around his much taller shoulders, lets his greater height sink into the hold, the non-embrace, lets Dean pull him down. He settles onto the couch next to Castiel. It took Castiel a while to see the wings, but now he sees them all the time—when Sam raises his arms and stretches and then lets them settle against his back—when he settles in, settles down, settles his shoulders, just brushing Castiel's through the fabric of their shirts as they sit side by side on the couch, listening to the meaningless noise. From time to time his eyes settle over Castiel as he eats his ice cream, cleaning the spoon in his mouth between each bite—watching to see if Castiel is watching, if he's found something funny, if he's understood. Sam settles down next to him and then settles for explaining anything the angel cares to ask, settles for watching whatever Dean wants to watch, settles for pistachio ice cream because someone ate the last of the strawberry.

Castiel has begun to think that Sam settles far too often.

Castiel is not naïve. He knows what he is. He knows what Dean is. Sometimes he thinks they are two contours of the same rough stone, two sides of the same coin with a nail driven through both faces—both soldiers, both fools, both blinded by orders or pride at times when they should have been thinking for themselves, answering a higher rule. They both have blood all over their hands—the blood of strangers, and family, and selfishness. Sometimes Castiel thinks he and Dean deserve each other, deserve to tear each other to shreds, when that day inevitably comes. Sometimes he doesn't think that Sam deserves to deal with either of them. But it's something that Sam's never questioned, he knows; whether he deserves better than them. Sam is, if not happy, at least content with what he has. He is content to settle.

Castiel knows they are a mirage—Sam's wings. He can't help watching them all the same, the spectral feathers flickering over the top of the couch, shining in the television light.

There are moments when Castiel looks at the Winchester brothers and has the sense, more an intuition than anything, that Sam has been settling a long time. But he isn't one to speak to things he doesn't know. All he knows is what Sam has had to settle for from him. All he knows is that the things Sam holds against himself—releasing Lucifer, and his time without a soul, and all of the things that the devil in his own mind told him, in those long months that led to the white room where Castiel found him again for a second, the briefest of passings like two falling stars burning on the way down—none of them would have been possible without Castiel at his side, feeding Sam the rope to hang himself. All he knows is that there were times when he heard Sam calling and did not answer. Castiel knows that this is something Sam would never do. The things that Sam gets from Castiel, his friendship and sitting shoulder to shoulder over a bowl of ice cream—these aren't the things Sam deserves from him. These are the things he settles for.

Castiel thinks he knows what the wings are about. Sam's intent is pure, and he longs to do right, even when he stumbles. Sam reminds Castiel of what Sam wished angels could be, what angels should have been. Castiel is the closest to an angel Sam has ever known, and that is a tragedy. He knows how far short he falls.

When the ice cream bowl is empty and Sam rocks back in his seat and stretches his torso without unfolding his legs, rolling his shoulders, brushing up against him, Castiel watches his face and thinks about what a strange and beautiful thing he is, Sam—what a strange thing they are, the two of them. Sam—born into the world already shackled to a demon, Azazel's blood in his veins, Lucifer's vessel, drenched in broken dreams—believes tirelessly in his brother, in Castiel, in spite of his constant disappointments, the only creature who understood enough about love and sacrifice to take Lucifer back into the cage. And Castiel—an angel, a spark of pure faith, one of God's first creatures and forged in the fires of loyalty and justice—he is the liar, the betrayer, the false god, the one who despaired, and he has undone Sam three times with his own filthy hands. He does not know why Sam would settle for him.

Or maybe he does. Maybe it's because Sam is the one with the wings, trailing over the back of the couch they share, hovering in the air as the TV crackles and Sam slumps down into the pillows, setting his bowl aside. Maybe it's because Sam has gotten used to settling, and wouldn't know what to do with what he deserves even if he got it.

Castiel knows more than most people about forgiveness. The idea has always been linked in his mind with the concept of absolution. Sam has absolved him, he knows. But Castiel is beginning to think that forgiveness might not be about whether another person forgives you at all—it might be about understanding that you can never forgive yourself, but going forward with an acknowledgment of the debt, and doing what can be done to repay it, one day at a time.

So when Sam relaxes against him and throws his legs over the armrest of the couch, shifting into a comfortable curl, Castiel holds as still as he can and tries to be the perfect thing to lean against, and loves the way Sam's toes fidget inside his dark red socks, because they remind him of flight, the kind of flight that Sam might take if his wings weren't folded down along the top of the couch, if he hadn't chosen to be grounded like the rest of them. And he vows never to forget, as Sam's head falls back against his shoulder, and his eyes slip closed in sleep that is peaceful and dreamless, Castiel assures, his breathing evening out to the gentle rise and fall of his chest, his lips half-parted like a child's—never to forget that this is Sam, settling.

He does what he can to make it enough.

.x.

Thanks always for reading.