Title: Second Chances

Author: the-poette

Genre: Future fic! angst/slight fluff.

Characters: Cas, Dean, Sam, and Inias.

Summary: Takes place post season 8. The gates of Heaven and Hell have been closed, but it comes at a price. Dean's trying to do the best he can, but Cas has more bad days than good.

Word Count: 6540-ish

Rating: PG-13

A/N: A belated Christmas fic because of reasons. Cute little furry reasons that like to chew chargers and leave my laptop empty of life. Already kinda workin on a sequel.

Warning: Mental instability amnesia and PTSD found in... (fic spoiler)...continued at the end.

They have stolen faces; their eyes brim over with flakes of light, skin pulled taut. They make poor masks for waves of sound and energy. They sizzle out all that's human; these forces, but he doesn't know them by name.

Only that they are once Brothers and Sisters.

They rage out with light and burn with accountability. He can't answer the volley, a shockwave of fear and anger. He is already frayed by so much—what Heaven has done to make him obey, what Naomi poked and scraped raw and seared inside him—all he does is withstand what they tear out of him, as they ride into what's already a patchwork of fractures and easily rip him to uncountable pieces.

No thought occurs to him, but to take it and resist the urge to flee.

They've shattered him to fragments, but he finds strength to pull from when he falters. With blood and pain, he buys time for two brothers and a prophet. And when the door closes, it separates all that they are from him. They only pause in shock when Paradise is withdrawn and torn from all their grasps. And there is so little of him left.

They turn and flee before the way is closed completely, slipping under the cracks of the gates of Heaven like cockroaches, and they leave him in the dust.

In the back of his mind he might scream out. If he has voice to strain at all, it falls to one note. One name.

"D-Dean! DEAN!"

The light goes on. He shudders and burrows into the cushion and pillows. The light hurts his mind, makes him ache and pain in phantom ways. Someone holds him by the shoulders, large hands that steer him back to sanity. Some part of him knows they have always done this.

"Cas," the man sinks in to his side and shields his body with warmth. He answers each scream with reassurance. "Come on, buddy," the man calls against his spine, and draws him back, away from the aching pieces of himself he sees in his inner eye.

Cas doesn't speak anything. He remains tucked away, trying to gather air, the scattered makeup of his thoughts. He feels himself corroding, even as he grapples with awareness. The man waits him out, patting his shoulders gently. It's grounding. The touch, the cradling. He pulls away from strength and warmth and tries on his own.

"D-Dean," his voice is diluted, small. It stutters out like a dying flame in the half-lit walls of his bedroom. Yes, this strange space is his, though he recognizes nothing: the lamp at his bedside, the small teetering table that holds a glass half-empty, the walls are stark, but there is a desk at the far right near the window and that is covered with books and stacks of paper. The things themselves are unfamiliar, but the arrangement is his. He can recognize the pattern of his energy in these man-made, disparate elements. He has tried to explain this to Dean before, but the man is only…human.

What does that make him?

"Hey," Dean's voice is a low whisper. "It's ok." He has left his hand on Cas' arm, and Cas pushes all of his focus on the press of his fingertips, even as his mind wants to cloud over and convince him that it's been severed from his body along with the rest of him. There are daggers in his veins and he's shattered across the firmament.

"No," Cas returns and shakes his head bleakly, "it's not." There are thoughts still swimming in his head, sharp and irregular. Broken memories that shift and crack against each other and piece themselves at random. They ache. It aches all over. If he closes his eyes the faces of the dead poke under his eyelids, make his skin burn, and his throat close on knives. He feels confined, too small. The outer shell that surrounds him is suddenly too small.

He tears at his bedclothes. He's choking, strapped down. Trapped. He goes for the skin of his arms, feeling both empty and full.

"Hey hey—enough of that, Cas!" Dean's hands are large over his, grasping his fingers and weighing them down in meaty fists onto the cushion.

"You're ok, Cas," Dean says, but it sounds more like a plea. "I promise…just don't do that anymore."

There are red welts now along his wrists, along his forearms. They cover older scabs, rubbing up his sleeves. He doesn't know where he got them.

"They're dead. They're all d-dead," Cas insists as he gives a half-hearted struggle and finally submits. "I-I've done something terrible, Dean."

"I know, buddy," there's a heaviness to his tone, but it doesn't condemn or absolve him. It just acknowledges all that he is.

"I-I did something to them. I think I..." he goes no further on the dark thought that seeds along his memory. "Father, forgive me."

He's filled to the brim, so it pours. It pours warm and wet from his face. It blurs the silent nighttime world to something soft and manageable. He doesn't ask for comfort, but Dean's arms circle easy over him. He sinks so far and deep, buried away from grief and regrets that are too wide and full to handle. He is small, too small so it starts to slip from his fingers.

"What did I do, Dean?" he asks shakily.

"Shh," his friend soothes, but doesn't let him cling too long. He moves away at the right time. The light slips into the space between their faces, makes Dean's form seem so large. It must be a trick of light. There are lines along his eyes that Cas doesn't remember. His hands are heavy set and rough, and there are dents and ridges that he wasn't there to witness made. Cas looks long and hard at him, but his eyes only go surface deep. They can't follow the paths to read souls anymore. He's half-blind, aching to see Dean as he has always seen him.

Still, he can tell that something's different.

"You've aged," Cas remarks in that blunted way that he can't help.

At that, Dean laughs bittersweet and thoughtful as he stares down at Cas. The sadness lingers on his face longer than the smile, but that has always been the case with Dean.

"You've changed too, buddy," he reaches out and grasps Cas' much smaller hand in his. There's a tenderness and affection in his gestures that has never come so easily to him before. He radiates warmth as his thicker fingers rub circles along Cas' smaller fingers. Calm seeps into his hand from where they are grasped together. The loneliness is subdued, the fear tramped down. Dean has always done this; given him family and solidarity, where he once thought he stood alone.

Nothing seems right, but he'll follow Dean's mood, trusting it more than his fear and guilt. How much grief would've been saved if he'd only done this from the start?

"This vessel has always been too small," Cas remarks offhandedly. Still, that little grain of doubt chafes away inside him demanding that he should be more aware. Something's changed. You're missing something, it says.

But if Dean is at ease, why shouldn't he share it?

"Yeah, yeah, Chrysler building," Dean smirks and rolls his eyes, but there's nothing disparaging about it. Again his gaze goes heavy as he regards Cas. His voice is rough as he squeezes Cas' hand in comfort. "Guess it's not a vessel anymore, buddy."

Cas has noticed this. In the way his eyes have stared at nothing but objects. There are no more particles shifting in the air, only echoes of the things he used to know but can barely hear. He is human, at last, or as human as he can be.

"It hasn't been for a long time, Dean."

And this is true too.

Dean nods more to himself, reconciling some quiet discussion going on in his head. His mind is now silent to Cas. And though, he mourns its loss, he has also noticed the peace that seems to have settled into Dean's bones. The man moves, and not because the world might crumble under him. Dean doesn't just survive in the space he occupies, in alcohol or the bitterness that drives him on with anger and vengeance. He lives, as Cas has wanted him to.

The happiness of this thought makes him suddenly light. Again, his mind is slipping, and he holds onto the tethers of misery just because he fears the unknown more.

"I don't understand anything," Cas says the only thing that comes to mind, out of the clutter and jumble of half-remembered things.

"It's ok, buddy."

"You keep saying that," annoyance makes him shrug from Dean's grasp.

"I know," the man doesn't lose his patience as his fingers tap along the comforter, near Cas' fingers. "But do you trust me?"

"Always," he answers reproachfully. Dean should know this by now.

"It's going to be ok, Cas," Dean starts out slowly, carefully, "or as ok as it ever gets with us," he amends. "But that's fine, alright? You don't have to worry 'cause I'm here and Sam's here. And we've got you…and even when things were going bad for us, that's all we ever needed to kick its ass, right?"

This is also true, and the only times it ever failed was when he denied it. Is that what happened, then?

"I've done something, Dean. I know I have," he can't leave it alone. It simmers beneath his awareness this painful thing that bubbles and seethes like it's fresh and open. "Th-They're hurt. They're angry at what I've done. I-I need to pay, but I can't be forgiven. I can't ever be forgiven, do you understand?"

He looks to nothing, just the comforter on his lap. Trapped. He dives inward, prods at the wound that's there in place of his grace. A ring of holy fire, heartbroken faces stare out at him from the flames. You should have come to us for help.

"I—I did something to Sam, didn't I?"

"You think I'm still pissed at you for that?" Though Dean doesn't raise his voice, Cas flinches anyway. "Hey, Cas? Look at me, buddy."

It's gentle, the fingers at his cheek trailing until a palm fits warm along his face. He feels so small. Dean doesn't force him to meet his gaze, despite his greater strength now. He waits for Cas and supports him when the time comes.

And there he is, eyes bright despite the muted glow of the lamp; the same man he has followed all these years, despite his indoctrination, despite Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. Everything.

"Believe me, you've done nothing that hasn't already been forgiven," Dean doesn't treat redemption lightly, not his or anyone else's. "And you've never done anything so bad that I can't forgive you. I know you, better than anyone."

Dean won't lie about that, Cas knows that too, better than anyone.

He nods into the hand holding his face, into the lines of his palm, the lifeline that connects them. He yawns; his body unclenching that turbulent thing that writhes always inside him, surrounded by humanity now scarring over the wound where his Grace once lived.

"Whoa," there's a smirk in the warmth of Dean's voice, "Guess it's past bedtime huh, kiddo?"

Cas' mind is so muddied now, all the dark put away inside him like a sealed box, and it'll open and rage out again, of that he's sure, but for now, he follows Dean and nods again with the weight of heavy eyes. Still, that stubborn streak that defines him and kept him living for so long can't help but voice his concerns.

"I don't…remember," he admits softly, his voice light now that he takes the time to hear himself.

"I know, buddy," Dean helps him slide further into the cushions, his hands familiar in Cas' half asleep awareness. "That happens a lot."

Cas rests his head on the pillows, feels Dean's larger hand cupping his face as he follows him down. The man hovers over him, like a great warm blanket, and kisses his forehead. It's strange to be handled this way, and Cas is weary enough to find it pleasant.

"It's all slipping away," he whispers as the man stands and takes all his warmth with him.

"Let it," He pushes the covers up to Cas chest, the way he knows won't fall away if he moves at night, and strokes his face. "I'll be here if it does."

The lamp is the last thing that goes out, and shrouds the space of his bedroom until his thoughts grow unfamiliar. His eyes close and there's nothing to bother him behind them, his mind a clean blank slate.

He jerks awake when he hears careful footsteps. There's a shadow at the door, always familiar.

"D-d-d…" He rubs his face tiredly and stirs from his bedclothes barely awake. A name stutters on his tongue, before it settles itself back into the recesses. There's a fog in his brain that he doesn't understand so he calls out like he always has.

"D-dad?"

"It's nothing, buddy," his father calls out to him in the dark, "you just had a nightmare. Go back to sleep."

So he does, turning his back as his father closes the door. With eyes half-lid he stares at his familiar bedroom: the lamp he picked out with it's dark blue base, the table at his bedside with it's cup half-full, the naked walls that he plans to cover with the drawings he made. They are scattered on his desk, half ideas that he intends to realize tomorrow.

With these thoughts he goes to sleep.

There isn't much left. Inias stands with the tattered thing writhing between his arms, and a hollow look in his eyes. It's no more man than it had been angel.

"How's he doing?"

Dean crosses the threshold closing the door quietly behind him. Sam is already up and waiting for him in the hall.

"Just one of those nights," Dean's comfortable enough to raise his voice a little as he moves away from the door. The walls are sturdy and thick enough, sound and safety aren't an issue—he should know, he practically built them himself.

Sam shadows him down stairs. Like practiced guards, they go through their routine nightshift. A couple of minutes and the coffee's brewing as they sit at a thrift store table in the kitchen.

The place is coming along nicely. From the bare bones of Bobby's torched home, they've got a nice two-story. It's familiar enough to keep them settled down, and different enough that they don't get pangs remembering what they've lost to get here.

"He remember anything more?" Sam is always making a note of that, Dean's glad his brother's around to think for him when he doesn't have the energy.

"Pieces," Dean lets the warmth of the coffee slide down his throat, "it's always the bad pieces." He pinches the bridge of his nose, letting the memories of the past six years surface.

"You fix him!" He yells at Inias' devastated face. "You fix him now!"

Dean rails at the angel when he returns, because he was in on Cas' plan. Inias tells him that he'd salvaged all he could. He looks at the thing writhing and screaming in his arms.

And if Dean had known that stupid Cas was going to use himself as bait, he would've pinned his wings down and trapped him in holy fire. He's been too eager to play the martyr these days. Sam half-jokes he's developed a complex more severe than Dean's. It happens too many damn times for it to be a joke, whatever Sam says. He should've known…

Sam holds him back, even as his hands are is slick with blood because they had to fight their way to the focal point. They are near the Earth's equator, zapped in by angel-airways. They stand on holy ground, what was once the location of the Garden on Earth. Dean couldn't really say what country they're in, other than the thick humidity of the air has him gasping.

He barely glances at the thing in the angel's arms, because that can't be…It can't be Cas.

His vessel is practically destroyed, molecules sublimating in an effort to keep itself together. His grace is in equal condition. A fusion of high-pitched frequencies, and ruptured blood cells and flesh, the noises he makes are horrifying and desperate. He stares at them from one bloody eye, the other along with most of his face is blown apart.

He's eviscerated—and God help them—aware.

"Do something!" Dean begs or threatens. Desperation has ignited his veins; that same eroding desperation that dragged him to a crossroad and told him his soul was worth making the pain of it go away.

"I have," Inias' fingers tremble as he holds what's left of his brother, "he won't heal more than this."

There's an angel blade already in Dean's hand, Naomi's blood still drying along its length. He's thinking of it, thinking of making the blade wet again. It'll be quick and Cas will pop back in like he always does. His hand shakes so bad as he grips the hilt, but it's too heavy to lift against Cas even to help him.

Sam only has to look at him to know where his thoughts are running. His hands are already latched onto Dean's arms hard enough to bruise. He lets go enough to slide his hand over Dean's and takes the burden from him with three words.

"I'll do it," Sam looks at his older brother with surety and regret. "I'll do it, Dean."

Even as Dean's fingers go slack with relief, the fear clogs his throat.

What if he doesn't come back? Will he go to Purgatory? Worse, will he be stuck in Heaven where they hate him, where it might as well be Hell they're sending him to? This always comes with a price. Cas came back to them reprogrammed on kill setting. Could he come back worse off? Or not at all?

Dean can only hear Cas screaming, a mix of angel voice not strong enough to make his ears bleed, and human vocal chords choking on blood. Dean thinks to himself, anything is better than this.

Sam raises his arm, the knife is blinding in his hand; the light of it is cold and hard, the thing meant to kill angels. This is what he does to the fragments left of Cas. Dean's brother cries out because Cas is family, and because they must be cursed in who chooses to follow them. They must be damned.

"I'm sorry…I'm sorry…" Sam breaks down even as his hand goes bloodless and tight around the blade. "I'm so…sorry, Cas…"

Because this is his family, Dean wraps his own hand around Sam's and they bring it down together.

Dean's mind refuses to picture further than that, or it can't. The light still sparks up behind his eyes even after all these years, blistering even in his memories. He can still feel the haze of energy wrapping him up in the air.

Something cracks loose under his ribs, and fires out through his arm. It's that arm. The same arm that's holding the angel-killing blade along with his brother, the same arm where he was gripped tight and pulled out of Hell, the same arm that used to bear a scar.

It's not until that moment, he remembers his escape from the rack; cocooned in a hurricane much the same as then. But last time, he felt himself rising from the depths of Hell, his painful rise to life so excruciating he'd apparently blocked it out. He can only recall it now because the agony of it is the same. But instead of rising, of being absolved of sin and remade, he feels like he could sink and wither down to nothing.

This is probably what Jimmy Novak meant about being chained to a comet. But the words are ill fitting. He's helped detonate this supernova. He's killed a star, let it touch him and get tainted by his weakness and frailty. The comeuppance is a price too high to bear. They scream in tandem, him, his brother and the friend they've plunged the blade into.

They scream and pay in full.

Dean pours another cup of coffee, misses the whiskey he would've spiked it with five years ago when that's all he could do to guard against those nights. He knows better now, knows that he's worth more sober and aware because there's someone counting on him.

Sam has stayed more times than he's gone off in the past six years. It's his home as much as Dean's or Cas'. Bobby has left the charred carcass of Singer Salvage, and the property that surrounds it, to him and Dean both when he died.

Dean has needed him in this. In the house, in his life helping because beginning again is harder sometimes than ending. He looks out the little circle of light from the hanging bulb they're sitting under. It's quiet in South Dakota, the sun's a few hours away, but probably won't get any brighter than the morning light filtering in from the windows. It's winter, after all.

The fireplace in the den is made from the ruble. Dean worked the grout and arranged the stones himself. He'll get the fire going in a few minutes, but he takes the time to appreciate the quiet because sometimes it doesn't last long.

He looks to Sam, to the stupid hair always in his face when he's emo-thinking again. Dean only has to look at him to know what's swimming up his brain. He's thinking of Amelia…again. They've taken it very slow since she left her husband three years back, and realized that Sam was always going to be hers.

It's been hard for Sam, dividing his heart between her and South Dakota. But Dean has needed him here. And Cas has too, and Sam would do about anything for Cas. Can't separate those two nowadays, because Sam's so grateful his hand isn't covered in Cas' blood.

It's here in the after silence.

As the light made from Cas' final death fades away, Inias grasps the thing that's left behind before a reaper can take it away from them.

It's a soul, Inias whispers with awe because it should be impossible. Angel's don't have souls, except it's not quite human or angel.

It's just Cas.

It's here Dean finally understands, that little shard that was tucked away inside him since he dug himself out of a pine box all those years ago. It's small and torn because unlike human souls which can't be broken, Cas' has been ripped down to several basic components. He's always been made of different stuff than his brothers.

Profound bond, right? Why didn't you tell me, Cas?

Dean can imagine Cas' voice, gravel worn and repentant; "I didn't want to make you uncomfortable."

Severed from Heaven, Inias isn't strong enough to make Cas what he was. What the Garrison did, doesn't allow for it anyway.

The small spark of light doesn't flash like the souls Dean has seen outside of bodies. It's wounded in Inias' hands, frail like it could go out any minute. Cas' brother holds to him, helps the light build and grow.

The sun is rising, finally. The fire is making the house warm enough for Cas to wake up to, Dean's made sure. He goes to the pantry, gets the flour while Sam warms the skillet over the stovetop. Dean's thinking pancakes. Sweet tooth must run in the family, cause Cas loves drowning them in syrup.

Dean can already hear him upstairs. He's an early riser, would be the first up if Dean and Sam hadn't beaten him to the punch. They can hear him padding to the bathroom, the plumbing groans throughout the house. Dean smiles to himself as he whisks. There are light footsteps in the den. They stop for a moment before heading for the kitchen.

Dean braces himself before he turns, preparing for whatever scenario's going to meet him. Cas has always been volatile, Dean knows better than anyone. Whatever iteration his friend has made for himself—confidante, betrayer, martyr, God—Dean is practiced enough in Cas to know how to meet it out. This is what he does now, and he's gotten better in the last six years, since he's had a hand in guiding Cas. Along with Sam, there's no one in creation that can read him as well as his family.

"Hey kiddo!" Sam's never as careful as he should be. As soon as Cas clears the threshold, he's up in Sam's large arms, socked feet dangling near Sam's waistline. He fits tiny pressed up against Sam, little hands digging into his brother's shoulders as Sam sways side to side.

Over Cas' shoulder, Sam can see his brother fretting; Dean's biting his tongue on the warnings he wants to dish out. Not too fast, Sam. You're gonna give him whiplash. You're gonna drop him. A mother hen getting worked up—he's worse now than when Sam was little. It's understandable. Cas is so easily triggered. It's more than that, though.

Sam is Dean's brother. Cas is…Cas.

Sam's arms tighten around the weight of warm soft flesh. It's hard to let Cas go, and Dean can see Sam's face, grateful, and pinched as his chin is tucked over the top of a dark little head.

"Hello, Sam," Cas' small serious voice is muffled at the base of Sam's throat. Sam chuckles.

Cas doesn't call him Uncle Sam. It's always just…Sam. He says it with a smile in his pronunciation, with complete adoration; the kind of affection that comes with always wanting to be in Sam's company, always following him around. For all his existence, Cas has only ever had brothers. And Sam is everything he's always wanted in his brothers.

Sam finally lets him down, planting him softly on the tiles because for all Sam gets carried away, he's a great older brother. Dean gives himself a pat on the back for that, as he puts the spatula aside to appreciate his family.

Dean crosses his arms, leaning against the counter as he keeps an ear out for the sizzle of the skillet once it hits the right temperature. He looks down at Cas, sees his whole world focused and clear. It used to frighten him, the force of the feeling that just upsurges when he looks at Cas now. Blue eyes meet his, wonderfully clear of the confusion and guilt that rises from time to time. Bright instead of dark.

"Hello, Dad," says Cas, little face earnest and severe for six years old.

A cry pierces them in the midday humidity near the Earth's equator. It's not the same kind of cry as last. It's small and wailing but caries much of the same misery. It doesn't stop as Inias holds it uncertainly in his arms, naked and frail and newborn.

He says there isn't much he could have done, but this.

He says Cas is wounded inside, with the small tattered soul he carries this is the only thing his vessel can do to house him. He can't speak. Can't walk. There's no telling what he is feeling, what he is thinking…if he can do either. He cries and cries.

So much.

Dean fears so much. Is he in pain? All the warnings he's received about stuffing tattered things into vessels flash and sear through Dean's brain. How can this be better? How can they condemn Cas to this, stuck inside a tiny meatsuit while his soul suffers.

"What did you do?!"

Dean steps over the cooling corpses of Naomi and Crowely's vessels; the heads of Heaven and Hell respectively. Their armies are off retreating under the cracks of closing doors, hoping not to get left behind, or defecting like Inias.

Dean savored the surprise on their faces when they were summoned against their will. That's the perk of being in the Garden. It's a strong conduit, at least with the right mumbo jumbo. But as of now, he would bring them both back to life just to have something to tear into. But the ritual already did its job. Heaven's head bitch and the King of Hell are the doors. And Dean shut them both up but good.

There's no satisfaction in that anymore

Dean grabs Inias by his ridiculous suit. The angel flinches, eyes full and wide of fear, even as he turns inward to protect his brother. He scares easy ever since Cas rescued him from Heaven. Cas has never told them what Naomi did or how he was able to shake her off, only that he saved his brother from a similar fate. Since then, Inias has followed Cas anywhere.

There's no remorse in Dean, as he yells into the angel's space, mindless with rage.

Sam is too devastated to pull him back. He looks sick, his skin gray and flat of healthy color. Sam would know just the tip of what Cas might be going through.

"The o-only thing th-th-that could be done," for all his shaking and stuttering, Inias says this with complete certainty.

"A child, Dean," Inias holds the baby in arms with more care, learning his wriggling movements. He doesn't drop his brother. "the soul of a child can heal…grow. Given time, he might have a life—not one similar to the life before, but he might have a second chance."

Dean lets go, heart and mind racing with the implications.

It's hard to think while Cas screams and screams. Dean is familiar enough with the basics, knew every one of Sam's cries. But the sentiment of this is unfamiliar. Not hunger, or discomfort. It's worse. So much misery contained in such small thing. But it's Cas, who's family as much as Sam. And it's almost instinctual the way he thrusts out his arms and takes his friend's small body from Inias.

He needs to see for himself, as much as Inias has been in their corner so far, outside of Sam and Cas there's no one he truly trusts. He searches for wounds, bruises, anything. But there's only the small, warm weight, molding into his hands. There's nothing on the little curves of flesh he supports, little arms, little legs making jerky movements. Scrunched little face screaming away in surly rage. Unsatisfied, Dean counts fingers and toes.

Relieved for he most part, he holds Cas to his chest gently, trying to put as much of his small ear to the space above Dean's heart; Sammy used to go to sleep on Dean's chest on those nights where nothing would get him quiet. He covers as much of that naked soft skin from the sun.

Sam takes off his light over shirt, and always in perfect sync, they work to swaddle their screaming little friend in it like they'd been doing it for years.

Once settled back in his arms, Cas just keeps screaming and it makes Dean's heart sink down as if there's nothing to the world but gravity.

It's Sam, brilliant former Stanford-man, who suggests it.

"Talk to him, Dean."

Of course. It's just Cas in his arms. Probably scared and confused. Probably crazy or in pain. Probably never going to get any better than this. But this is their second chance, so Dean doesn't voice his fears. He talks from his heart, to the only other being on Earth who is family.

"Hey, Cas," Dean starts and stops enough to swallow the desperate thing latched at his throat, swallowing his hope down with burning terror because—what if? What if Cas can't understand? What if he's just started to scream for the rest of his life? What if?

Second chances, he thinks to himself and starts again.

"Hey, Cas," Dean's finally able to swallow the grief down, "it's me, buddy. It's Dean. I'm here. Sam's here. You're ok, buddy."

That small red inconsolable face finally relents like it might be listening, so Dean continues. Nonsense just spills from his lips, every reassurance he's ever heard his whole life just for his friend…for his family. There's not much of it, old Winchester luck kicked that in long ago. But it might be enough for Cas.

"That's right. It's me, buddy. I've got you," he doesn't remember when he starts swaying side to side and patting little circles against Cas' small back, "I've got you."

It works. Cas is quiet, so quiet and still, not like normal babies. But alive and listening. And comforted.

"I've got you," Dean says and doesn't let go or stop.

Finally eyes as blue as he'd last remembered them, open and zero in on him like they've always done. A startled laugh escapes him as they stare at each other, into each other, like always. Sam's laughter follows his with utter relief.

"That's right, buddy," Dean babbles gratefully. Tears are streaming into Sam's over shirt as Dean looks down at the baby in his arms. Sam's large hand pats him hard on the back as they stand in the middle of a wide, open grass field. All flatland, nothing larger than a shrub grows here, can't anymore. Dean doesn't know why; he'd sat through Sam's lectures systematically nodding in agreement where he needed to.

"I've got you, Cas," Dean says it and goes over all of them like a promise.

Dean stands in the kitchen of his home with his family, regarding the six year old staring at him with the same intensity he'd always had.

Dad.

He could hear that word in a loop for all eternity. Six years ago, Dean wouldn't have called himself anyone's father. Yet here is his slice of life, and the little boy that tilts his head at him after a while, is the center of his world.

His hair is messy and dark, that hasn't changed—Cas always suffered from bedhead. Small fingers peek out from his sleeves. He stands in his black socks like a small soldier, millennia of watching the Earth like a sentry hasn't erased the stiffness from his shoulders.

Cas wears his favorite pajamas, gray sweatpants and thermal long-sleeved shirt. Over these he wears his dark blue robe, because he gets cold easily. He doesn't like prints, or those that have cartoon characters, to Dean's utter disappointment (He's tried to get him awesome Batman pj's, it didn't take). He prefers solid colors and monochrome in his wardrobe. He doesn't wear anything bright or flashy, and it's hilarious when he refuses to match.

"Isn't hello a customary greeting?" It's a running gag between them after Purgatory, in motel rooms hunting down Crowley's half of the tablet. Cas' smile is made soft in the apples of his cheek as he says it, in the light that reflects off his eyes. He never shows teeth, and his mouth barely moves, but that's always been the case.

It's Sam who fidgets first, uncomfortably. Behind Cas, he shoots a warning look at his brother. They've learned to listen to Cas closely through the years; when phrases get painfully familiar, they've learned to be ready.

"Every other day, I'd say yes, kiddo," Dean ducks down to Cas' eyelevel, smiles to offset the tension riding off Sam. "But today is Christmas. So whatcha say?"

"Merry Christmas, Dad," Dean can tell Cas is practically fighting the grin off his face.

Sam doesn't have that depth of maturity. He beams behind them, like cheerful headlights.

"Merry Christmas, buddy," Dean presses a kiss against the kid's temple, smudges some flour on Cas' face just for good measure. "Now I heard someone in the den stopping in front of our big ole Christmas tree?"

"That was me," Cas confesses without a hint of sarcasm. All these years in their company, and being raised by them hasn't really put a dent in his ability to commit to poker-face; no telling if he gets the joke in Dean's voice, or playing a gag of his own at their expense. Dean loves it.

But then, he loves everything about his kid.

"Why don't you go count how many you got, huh?" Dean gives him a mock order.

"Ok, Dad."

Yup, definitely could hear that forever. Cas goes off practically at a run, as Dean stands in front of the stove. He whisks the pancake mix, stirring up what got settled.

"Yeah, nice save…Dad," Sam pats him on the shoulder, only half-kidding as he watches Cas' retreating form.

The nightmare last night, and now this. They've got to keep wary, but not let the kid get wind of it; the rhythm of Dean's whisking goes slow and thoughtful.

"Why don't you—"

"—keep an eye?" Sam's always meeting him halfway, Dean's grateful, "I know," says Sam ruefully as he follows after Cas.

Plopping down the first spoonful of batter on the skillet, Dean remembers.

He's standing in the former Garden where Paradise on Earth once stood. The shadow his brother casts over his shoulder, and the embrace that Sam follows with after, is a cool weight against his back. His brother's hulking form is trying to be light and gentle, aware of the new weight in Dean's arms.

Sam looks at Cas like a miracle, big hands hovering and then landing oh so careful. His fingers are ridiculous against Cas', who's so small. He touches a round cheek, fingers looking rough and weatherworn. His skin is practically leather beside Cas' pale pink baby fat, but Sam is careful and his fingers are feather-light. His voice joins Dean's and sure enough as Cas turns those baby blues his way, Sam's face glows with a watery smile.

There's a breeze near the Earth's Equator, the heat is getting bearable with the setting sun, and their laughter, and the tears of their relief are the only things that occupy the wide spaced field. Inias stands guard beside their strange little family, a gentle look on his face directed at his small brother.

Dean stands with a second chance in his arms, and he's taking it with all he's got.

fin…?

Warning: Mental instability depicted in a child, amnesia and slight PTSD