A/N: Wow how embarrassing. Sorry for the long delay. This has been sitting in my computer for months, but I've been editing it down until it finally looked right. hope i didn't lose any of you guys. there's a lot of flashback sequences here, so just keep the timelines in your heads-hope it's not too confusing.

Sam draws a line with three fingers over a small worried brow. His hands are large in size; it's never more obvious than now as he caresses the dip that's etched itself almost permanently between Cas' eyebrows. He has spent his time smoothing it out, passing over the finer hairs there as if the skin beneath his hand is clay he can shape.

"S-s-sorr…I-I'mmm…" aspirated whispers slip througha small gap of space between small flushed lips. Cas squirms further, head tossing beneath Sam's hand, eyelids flickering but never opening.

His fingers run down Cas' left temple, with its small vein pulsating under skin. He passes along the little half-moon cuts scattered there and rubs soothingly, wincing for Cas' who can't feel a thing, as he lies sedated on the bed. Here he would dig out the mess working itself underneath. Gentle, but firm he would smooth over the cracks that are probably weakening the infrastructure. His index finger draws against an unpronounced cheekbone, buried still in baby fat. He would erase the tear tracks, making their fresh roadmaps. The face under his hand is small, and so Sam travels easily to the corner of that small unhappy mouth. Here he would put a smile.

On the nightstand on the other side of the bed, the water glass starts to ring, a slow vibration that hovers at the edge of sound. It sounds like Sam's running a finger along the edge of the cup, playing the glass harp. Of course, his hands are otherwise occupied, and the water in the glass is stirring on nothing, bubbling to the thrum in the air.

There's a broken hush in the room, of invisible molecules disrupted. Sam can only feel it, wedging itself under his sternum with enough force to counter the beat of his heart.

"…mmm…s-s-sorr…s-s-sr—y…" Every rustle and jerk of motion makes the cup overflow, spilling its ringlets of water into the wood grain of the nightstand. The light bulb Sam clicked on at dusk spikes on an unseen charge, even his arm hairs raise unconsciously.

Against tender flesh, Sam can feel the error of his finger pads, their sandpaper roughness even as he makes his touch light. He returns his hand to its post, guarding over the small fist clawed into the bed sheets. Under his palm, Sam can feel the twitch of small fingers, little nails somehow finding their way to his skin.

There's a damp towel in Sam's other hand. He's made use of the damn water glass, wiping the blood off Cas' fingers, and the blood on his face, discovering the lines and welts there. He doesn't feel better for it.

"S-s-sor-ry…I'm…s-sorry…" a hitch of breath, and another drop flows down Cas' face making his neckline go wet and sweaty, as he turns his head away from Sam.

Every sound digs its way in through the pores of Sam's body, like spears. They pierce the vital, and worry the sutures of past hurts. The kid's like a scratched record, doomed to repeating the same verse of the same song.

Despite how useless it's proven to be, Sam shushes the words. Heart and teeth clenching, all his being wanting to crunch in on itself, Sam reaches out and rubs down that ample little cheek lovingly, like he has always done.

"It's ok, Cas," Sam matches the kid's voice in volume, and because he has nothing left to say, and despite having no authority to say it, "You're forgiven—no more, alright, kiddo? You're forgiven already."

Sam is compelled to lean over, reining in his body's size as he balances parallel to that smaller unconscious form as if he could be a barrier between the little boy and the nightmares he can't wake him from. His hair curtains both their faces, and he leans them gently together forehead touching forehead. He presses a kiss, like a protective charm on that little cheek, tasting salt for all his troubles. And soon, Sam's face is wet and trailing tears along the same pathways of misery.

He stays in that position, willing Cas to come back to them, until his forearms shake into the mattress and all his strength has left him. And when he falls back into his chair, he knows it's possible to have his heart broken further—to have it turn over in the dust and mangle of his chest, and pound itself to nothing again and again.

There's always a new ten.

Hallucination or not, that's probably the truest thing the devil ever said.

Sam isn't strong—Never has been, probably never will be. And Dean, when it comes to the ones he loves—poor Dean is somehow worse.

The sounds creaking from the floor below, echoing his brother's movements in and out of the house for the past few hours, go by like footnotes in Sam's mind.

Sam doesn't know what-o-clock it is, or particularly care, save some threadbare worry for his brother's health as he catches his death outside. He hasn't bothered to look out the window since the sun passed what meager light it had over the sky. And knowing Dean, as well as he does, Sam knows dead sure he's gone back out there again; shouting at the cold, the ring of holy oil still unlit in a mix of sleet, and the dark.

It won't stop.

Dean's tried to block it out for hours. It only goes on.

He blasts the T.V to full volume before a pounding comes from the other side of the living room wall they share with the next apartment. He pounds right back in response, lowers the T.V and Cas doesn't stutter or break for breath as Dean shifts him in his arms.

Cas just cries.

His little dark head lays in the crook of Dean's right elbow now. That round little mouth with its unhappy little lines, produces noise that will make Dean go deaf in his right ear, just to even out the ringing that's accompanying his left. So in they go to the single bedroom in the back that looks out to the parking lot of the first floor of their apartment complex, all gated all the time—since that's the only kind of neighborhood that they can afford right now; the only kind of neighborhood that doesn't bat an eye or call child services if the crying goes on and on.

"Come on, Cas," Dean coaxes as he takes a seat at the edge of the bed, leans Cas over his thigh, and resumes the up and down bobbing motion he's been trying for the past couple hours. "Do you want us to get kicked outta here like the last place?"

It's their second week in. They've paid a month's rent already; warded the place so much, they're going to lose they're deposit. Sam's out looking for a second job, and Dean's stuck playing housewife. He's sleep deprived and he needs something to calm his nerves, take the edge off of Cas' crying. They'd been kicked out of the last place because of the noise. Child services had been called, and if it hadn't been for a quick escape, that might've ended badly.

There are no walls to share in this room, so Cas can go on screaming as much as he wants. There's a towel under the door as an added precaution, but Dean's considering using it to his benefit. He wants to add a few noises of his own to this mess.

"Cas, please," he tells the bundle in his arms for the hundredth time, "stop it, man."

It's been a month of this. The crying. Cas is an alarm clock, for which they have no control. His times are preset and unknown, and once he goes off, there's no accounting the seconds, or hours or anything in between until he stops. They don't know or understand his triggers. There's no earthly reason for a month-old to be crying as much as he does, or the way that he does.

Sitting down isn't working, so Dean stands and bounces his little friend in his arms shushing him. Cas has built immunity to the sound of their voices, no longer pacified by their presence or words. He scrunches up his face, eyes little angry slits leaving no room for stare downs, as if he means to block their attempts to get him to focus on them like he did before.

Dean decides to try pacing for a change, but nothing is working. He tries talking Cas down like he's talking a man off a ledge, no longer knowing which of them he's really addressing. It's worse either way, now that the distress and heaving little body is close to his ears and eyes; close enough to see the misery magnified and have no way of soothe it.

"Come on, Cas," his voice is getting louder just so he can hear himself above that terrible infinite loop of noise. He can feel his own eyes burning, the thing crawling in his gut with impotence and pent up rage. "Stop it, dammnit!" It isn't right, and Dean can't—he just can't.

An angel has put Cas back together, and this is what they're left with.

"Shut the hell up!" Because of the weight of that small body in Dean's calloused hands is suddenly tremendous and fear inspiring, he heads to the crib at the corner and dumps Cas in it.

Just then, Sam comes through the door, his face incensed disapproval. "What the hell, Dean!?"

But Dean doesn't have the strength to answer. He sits on the bed in their one bedroom apartment. He holds his face in his hands, palms cupping his ears just to drown out the noise. His cheeks feel hot, and his eyes are burning, before long he's just sobbing right along with Cas.

"I don't know what to do, Sam," he chokes out desperately, the man who has faced down demons, monsters, Armageddon and Death, sits defeated. His brother goes over to check on Cas, nods to himself when the baby seems physically fine, and sits beside him.

"He's crying all the time," it comes out in a confessional rush, " I think there's something wrong with him." And that's the thing that's been stirring in his gut with all the weight of lead. " I don't know if he's in pain or if there's something wrong in his head."

"Dean, it's been a month…"

"Exactly," Dean rises in a fury and rushes over to the small library in their room, just a threadbare wooden shelf they'd fished from the side of the road, "this crap says he should be smiling and laughing, and making little baby noises." He throws the books off to the floor. "Cas doesn't do any of that—there's something wrong with him, Sam." Dean takes to pacing in the small space between the edge of the bed and the door to the living room. He's ringing his hands and working himself up with disastrous possibilities shifting the stones laying into his heart.

"He needs help, like professional help," Dean points an aggravated finger at the screaming little life swathed in a knitted baby blanket. Little fists shaking desperately right back at Dean, Cas keeps crying, and his breaths go a little choked with the amount of screams he's delivering with the little amount of air he can carry in his lungs. "We need to take him somewhere. Somewhere they can look him over and make it stop…or something."

"Dean I know," Sam gets up to follow him, crowding into what little space they have. He places a large hand at Dean's elbow, fingers digging gently. "I'm worried too, but just take it easy, ok?"

It's the wrong thing to say.

"Take it easy," Dean dodges away, "Are you even listening to this? It doesn't stop—don't know why!" He shrugs his shoulders a little hysterically and leans over the side of the crib, shouting right back at the source of the noise. "Isn't that right, Cas? Cause you don't listen right. You never listen, when you should. Didn't I tell you, Cas? No more going behind our backs, right? And what did you do, huh?" He smacks the rails of the crib with a hand.

"Hey, now that's enough, Dean!" His brother shoots out an arm and with his larger body, walls the crib from him.

But the deluge is pouring, broken mouthed and open.

"You got yourself into this mess, right? Why didn't you listen to me Cas? I just needed you to listen. I didn't want you to get hurt—didn't you get that? I just wanted you to be ok. Please, just listen for once, and be ok…I need you to be ok."

And that's it. The strength he'd gained from anger melts away into collapsing despair. He's on his knees at the foot of the crib, vision burning and pouring and it's painful to look at what's left of their friend. He'd never got the chance to mourn; for all that they'd escaped with when the gates of Heaven and Hell closed, their friend as they knew him is gone.

Sam's there at his shoulder, like a life-long canopy of friendly shade. When Dean stares up at his gargantuan little bother, he looks into hope; but that's just Sam, always more hopeful than he ever should've been—than life had ever given him a reason to be. Dean wonders what Sam sees when he stares at Cas, if he sees a waking memory that he needs to keep mourning, the way Dean does.

Dean isn't stupid. He knows he needs to make peace, somehow.

Sam stares at him a good long while, before he opens his mouth. "Dean," he starts off so gently, it has Dean going full alert. "Tell me the truth—are you up for this?" He encompasses their surroundings, and means the facsimile of normalcy they've amassed in a short month. And then, he plants his eyes on Cas, who's still bubbling with mournful sounds.

"When we took him with us, we were just flying by the seat of our pants and now that things are settling down, do you think maybe he belongs with—"

"—with who, Sam?" Dean bristles against the passivity he finds in his brother. That he would even suggest

"I don't know, like a real family and a real home…" in his ridiculous suit, he crouches next to Dean, tucking his bangs from his face, eyes growing wide and imploring just like when he was little and got anything he wanted out of Dean. "Cas might get a chance here that you and I never got. He can grow up normal. We have to ask ourselves if we can give him that."

It has a second of reality in his mind. He pictures giving up Cas…and that's it. That's as far as it goes, before he puts it down, because it feels too much like gutting himself.

"What do you mean family?" His little brother flinches at the tone Dean spits back at him. "He has family—we're his family." This is the only truth. The only thing that has any kind of weight and stability, and Dean grasps it fast and reinforces it from encircling doubt.

"I'm just saying we should have his best interest-"

"—What's in his best interest, is to be safe, Sam." Dean plows through, now that he has his mission statement, something to keep him going. "We don't know if there are things out there gunning for him. Say we leave him with Mr. and Mrs. Normal and the ugly crap starts coming."

"Or he stays with us and we make him a target." The look Sam throws him, says he's done playing nice.

"So we abandon him…just leave him when he can't even help himself, when he can't even be himself? And what if he's not normal, huh? He wasn't even born, Sam—not like Anna was. He's a fallen angel turned human, and we've got no answers. We've got no rules, who's to say he isn't better off with us, huh?"

And when Sam turns those eyes back to him they say what he won't bring himself to hear. But Dean hears it, in perfect surround.

Look at us, Dean, you think this is better off?

There's nothing to counter it. Sam should've been a lawyer.

Dean's suddenly struck with their settings: the apartment, the violent world outside ready to greet them. Is this fair? The question rises despite Dean's instinct to strangle it down. Cas' crying is steadily becoming a soundtrack to the hopelessness building to the foreground in Dean's purview. It's strange to acknowledge the hope that had ever been there before.

What have they been thinking dragging a kid around with them?

"Look," Sam's pitch is off when it reemerges, something apologetic as he hunches into Dean's space to gaze at his brother like the only steady thing in the world, "maybe you're right. It's only been a month, Dean. I think we should just wait him out."

Sam would've made a terrible lawyer.

Even Dean has to give a dark chuckle at his new suggestion, despite the fact that his softhearted little brother has bowed out for his sake.

"What do you mean wait him out?" Dean's desperate to play along, clears his throat of a closed off voice made so by desperation and tears.

"He's gonna learn to talk eventually, right?" Sam pats him on the shoulder; "In the meantime, we just keep treating him like Cas."

It's a plan. It's a bad plan, but it's like the next sure rung on a broken ladder, and Dean holds on for his life.

Of course, there's no net. The fall takes a year to come to a complete stop.

The lighter gives a muted clack, open—another for close.

Wait. Clack, open, clack close. Wait some more.

Dean's thumb is on autopilot now, ticking seconds off with sound and movement as the horizon grows harder and harder to understand in the distance. He's done this perhaps a million times or more throughout the day, ticking down to night and now it's overtaken completely.

The far ends of this barren spot where his feet rest on frosted earth disappear to darkness and nowhere. Dean rests at the epicenter of nowhere. His circumference is the house resting with a single shining window.

Cas' room, it looks like a hovering box of light because Dean didn't turn on the floodlights for the front porch, or the sensor for the garage so the edges of his home stand bare-boned in the coming night—no more meat to draw warmth from its faint skeleton.

His happiness.

Dean's hands burn cold hanging off the cuffs of his parka. They are dry and itchy and sore at the knuckles, swelling in the atmosphere they've been subjected to all day. Gloves forgotten in the house, he shivers absently trying to force his nails into his palm. He ends with a bloodless fist.

Pain is a direction to ride this out. Pain is looking back on the morning, on a little boy with blue wonderment in his eyes thinking that a fraction of the world's happiness could somehow belong to them. Pain is the blunted edge of disappointment poking at his shoulder saying can't believe you fell for that.

And Dean can't—he really can't believe that he…believed.

His stomach hollows itself on that thought alone, his body a barrel drum where his heartbeat gives a resounding thud of so stupid…so stupid…to believe… in the gloom of after dusk. He's been struck against, again and again his whole life, and now he echoes with curses and threats. He wants to be full, or at least half-full and hopeful like this morning. He wants to be full and burning on liquor and curtailed thoughts, living on the edge of fuzziness where nothing runs ragged even if it should and does.

Living like that is like stalling, a stutter-stop motion where he doesn't remember stopping or why, only that it dulls the pain. It makes him careless, he remembers, and numb.

He's five years sober, and tonight he's so very thirsty.

It's an itch he can't scratch.

Staring at newspaper racks and reading the stories for what they are; the second month is self-induced hell. Dean knows, giving his money to the cashier as he buys diapers and baby formula, and then dumping the morning paper on top, he's only succeeding in driving himself mad.

Old habits don't die—not Dean's anyway. They fester first, making all his gestures into something raging. Every word and every motion forward is a fight against the grain as they play at domesticity.

The end of that month comes to frustrated blows with Sam. And when the landlady threatens to call the cops, well-pocketed cash comes in handy to silence her.

Still, the newspapers don't stop, and the cases that they're filled with, itch like something long gone untreated.

Month three and four are a confessed blur, going through the motions until Dean felt seasick enough to abandon ship and take the Impala for a joyride. He is reckless and desperate enough to hunt a vamp nest on his own, but two weeks of avoiding phone calls from his brother with the baby screaming through the earpiece has him returning with shame following overhead like a cloud as he limped across the threshold of a new apartment.

He doesn't tell Sam about the vamp bites on his shoulder and ankles, how he'd taken the few days of the last week to recover because he'd almost killed himself. He just comes back to silence, greeted with silence.

Sam doesn't tell him about getting fired from his job while there'd been nobody to watch Cas on his work shift. Sam doesn't tell him how he couldn't make that month's rent because of that last missing paycheck, or how he'd spent the last few days of the week packing and unpacking for a new place on three days notice.

These are the things they don't say.

Cas watches his return quietly and warily, with wide knowing eyes.

Admittedly, this is the sight that Dean's been avoiding.

Cas is five months now, already bigger by the time Dean comes trudging back. His silence is the most telling as he plays on the blanket on the floor with his toys in his mouth, sometimes peeking up as Dean watches him right back from the couch.

He doesn't coo, or garble noise, or any of the other quantifiable noises babies his age should make. Daycare couldn't handle his tantrums, the hours he still cries without warning, and they raise too many questions about medical evaluations.

Dean had hoped it was a phase—too much overload for the little guy—too much overload for anybody really.

Sam has broached the topic of specialists for Cas, and Dean has given him the universal signal to back off it. Still, Dean's given a cursory glance at the pages Sam's got saved on his laptop. He knows specialists would do fuck-all for Cas. He wonders how the questionnaire they'd fill out would go.

Mother's name: none.

Father's name: God.

Date of birth: You mean Jimmy Novak's, or Cas'? Do resurrections count?

History of Mental Illness in the family: Oh, yeah. His whole family is a bunch of dicks hell-bent on human genocide. Sadists. Did we mention Lucifer's his brother?

Dean thinks all this and more in his sprawl on the couch. He watches his brother's brazen motion to and from the bedroom. New uniform shirt pressed neatly on his large shoulders; Sam gets ready for his new job at a delivery service.

"Managed to bullshit your boss with a story about you being sick on your ass for the past few weeks," Sam mutters as he grabs his keys, "With the way you look right now, I think he'll buy it. Be back in eight hours—don't fucking leave again." When he thinks Dean's not looking, his eyes go sad just before the door closes.

Dean stays on that couch for days afterward, nursing. There's a bottle of milk, and next to that, a bottle of beer. And Dean watches Cas watching him, and when he doesn't, he goes to work.

By month six, Dean has learned to switch the morning paper for a bottle of the good stuff, just to stop the fights with his brother.

It's another habit, of course. Another method of avoidance, or assuaging the guilt or some other dime store therapy bullshit Sam spouts on the days that are particularly bad.

They're not always bad. He still thinks of Cas as a miracle of sorts. He's six and half months when he starts to crawl toward Dean; limbs shaking as he had inched his way across the carpet. By the end of that first successful day, Dean has several cameras full of undeveloped film. He waits for his brother's shift to end, like a kid eager to open his Christmas gifts.

Sam's face at the end of it is priceless enough.

And Dean recognizes these moments as gifts; Cas' discovery of things, of flavors and scents, and his expressions when they go joyful with the simple things like watching the birds take flight in the park, or how the seasons mark the world in warm colors. He crinkles dried leaves in his little fingers, and simply marvels at everything. New and human, as he is—a marvel himself.

Dean holds these things fiercely when everything goes sour. Because Dean can't help but remember how his friend could break the threshold of time with a thought as he wakes for those late night feedings. And when Cas learns to walk around ten months into his "new" life, Dean remembers how he once could fly.

Cas is a year old now. According to the local children's clinic, he's growing steadily. He sits on his own, has learned to shift his little arms and legs, walking only who-knows-where, hands trying to grab and hold things—baby proofing their apartment is an ever-evolving affair against Cas' developing cleverness.

In the times that Cas manages to stand, Dean's heart turns mercurial, half-cheering him on, half-dreading the ways he'll get himself in trouble or hurt.

He's smart, too smart for a one-year-old. He's managed to escape several hallway gates, and open the lower cupboards despite the plastic swivel lock—a typical hindrance to one-year-olds.

There's no telling how much he knows, about himself, about the past, about Sam and Dean. All they know is the way he struggles, the way he reaches for them, the way his face goes stoic and still as he contemplates them both in turn like miraculous oddities.

But that's always been Cas.

The only thing Dean fears is the silence.

At one, Cas makes no attempt to talk. He just goes quiet, somber eyes still wide and blue and staring, following them or sometimes staring at nothing—nothing at all.

Somehow that's just as worse as the noise. There's a sense of knowing in the silence, something building in the back of Cas' eyes when he stares too long in a singular place, be at them or nowhere.

Right now, he's drawing.

Dean finds him with the crayons they'd locked away. He shrugs his shoulders and hands him blank paper, better than letting him get to the walls. They're stocked up anyway—perks that come with his job stacking and un-stacking boxes for the office supply store Dean works.

Cas is serious, utterly engrossed in his coffee table project. Dean feels amusement, wondering at the air of concentration that surrounds his…friend. He kneels at Cas-level watches what he's scrawling down. A curl of black here, a scribble of red there. Little fingers press down the paper, but Cas can't really stop the slide it makes across the polished wood. His fingers are chubby, baby-clumsy as he holds the crayon, trying to keep it all steady as he makes different marks. His movements are sloppy, fine motor skills still in development.

He's dressed in a light blue tee with the picture of a sock monkey on his tummy. Matching socks hide his little feet. He shifts his weight unhappily on them.

Dean had gone through aisles and aisles of clothes before he found the right thing, something that might fit him right—not in the sense of size. Physically speaking, Cas is perfectly average for his age.

He'd gone nitpicking everything Sam had brought him, thinking: Nope, that doesn't look like something Cas would wear. It's hard looking at the colors and styles the children's department had to offer, something that's not too silly, or mocking all that Cas had been.

Cas had been into monkey's right? Before.

Dean's starting to suspect he hates the outfit.

On his knees eye level with Cas, Dean sees that lower lip quivering with a breath of complete agitation, round cheeks puffing out on it. Those little hands try again, as Cas tilts himself bodily toward his work, trying to get the right angle. A few squirmy gestures as the crayon drags across the paper in jerky lines, and Cas stares down, little brow scowling as severe as he'd ever been. Dean smiles at the mini smite-face. Until those little hands catch the edges of the paper, and those little unhappy huffs of breath deepen. Less than a minute transpires. Cas crumples the paper, with uncoordinated hands.

"Hey, that was pretty good—" Dean slides his arm through the gap in those childish arms. Dean's been saving every picture, every finger painting. "No need to Hulk-out on it…" He stops speaking at the tearing noises Cas makes.

No salvaging it now.

A neat little row of pearling teeth peek with a grimace of his small, lower jaw. Cas makes a whine of distress. There's something in his eyes, something imploring and desperate as he finally turns to Dean.

"Come on, buddy…" Dean wraps his arms around him, kneeling as he palms the little head covered in dark hair, "don't start that…"

A year, and theses tantrums still happen at least once a day.

Little fingers dig in and scratch his forearms as Cas clutches him back. It stings but Dean bears it, not quite stoicism in the breath that quivers out from his own lips.

The rolling metal thing pounding his gut drops lower. It's raw guilt hardened over with feeling useless, playing babysitter to this…always crying, never settled in his own skin—the unhappiest kid in the world.

The image of driving in his car snaps into his head; the white-hot desire to uproot and hunt something down and make it die bloody. Instead, he's trapped.

"What…?" Dean's stomach could boil gunmetal under that stare. "I don't know what you want unless you tell me!"

Cas goes quiet, holding a breath.

They're at the cusp of some revelation, some knowledge. Dean can hear it the seconds of space between them. They stare, like always, between the bars of their skin. For a moment, the image of a hardened jawline, and stubble with the frown of ages, superimposes over the smaller, baby face before him. Dean thinks, with a strange sense of conviction: Talk to me, Cas. I know you're in there.

Say something. Come on—say something!

That small face crumples before him, tears rolling down his cheeks with finality. Any depth that might have suggested the foundation of something infinite and divine-willed drifts away. A baby cries, nothing more.

Faces inches away, Dean cups that small cheek. Cas' mind goes somewhere he can't understand or follow.

"I don't know what to do," it might be a prayer since he's on his knees speaking to Cas asking him for one more miracle, "you need to tell me…and I'll do it. Whatever it is, I'll do it…you just need to get better, ok? Because I need you."

Cas has never answered a prayer for himself. Dean knows this because he's asked before.

Dean sits for half an hour with a baby in his arms, and in that time Cas goes quiet in small bursts but that's only because he's exhausting himself, going dry of tears. His hands and legs jerking uselessly, like he wants the strength in them to escape.

But he can't get away. He's trapped. Like Sam is trapped. And Dean, stuck in a limbo, watching Cas like a time bomb, aches for purpose.

Is it helping? Is him being here helping Cas at all? A year has come and gone in maddening inaction. This isn't normalcy, not even close.

Dean stands, and heads for the dinette and the liquor cabinet near the kitchen. He returns only to sit Cas down in the play-pen in the living room. He goes back to sitting at the doorframe of the bedroom staring into the living room, half in half out, and opens his mouth to breathe and drink.

And when the noise dies off abruptly without warning, like it usually does, Dean is finally too wasted to care.

"Inias!"

Dean screams himself to a searing rasp, the channel of his throat feeling like he'd swallowed sandpaper or gravel. The skin of his face and neck, and all other parts exposed to the air, biting back with its breath stealing cold, feels about the same. Dean has overcome the sensation for a good long while, but with night breaking out in earnest, he won't stand it.

The wind is picking up, the stars go bright and watchful overhead, and Dean mistakes their light for what is quiet snowfall freckling the night sky. He grunts and heads for the house before the clear path back disappears completely.

Sam startles with the clap of the door shutting on Dean's sudden entrance downstairs. His eyes flash to Cas for any signs of alarm, but the only distress displayed is the same jerky-limbed battle the boy is having within himself.

Settling the sheets under his hand for the umpteenth time, Sam enters the twilight of his guardianship with a weary heart.

Dean is there to join him, his shadow darker in the doorjamb where he stands looking in. They don't greet or speak the obvious condolences of both their failed vigils. They simply pass the grief between them, trading the burden of the other without realizing the same weight of it. Their gestures are fruitless but ultimately part of their makeup.

"Why don't you get some rest?" Dean's voice is haggard without the open space of nothing to echo it back. In this small room, the pain of it is more than obvious. Sam frowns without comment.

Instead, Sam clasps the small hand embedded in his palm from hours. He creaks as bad as the floor and chair when he finally decides to rise. Dean winces, but also without comment. Sam shifts aside for his brother to pass through and take up his position, even down to the way he'd held Cas' hand.

Dean hasn't bothered to remove the boots; they slush quietly to a puddle on the floor. He has no thought to care, and no care to remember. He cradles his son with his eyes and doesn't let go. His only distraction is the flurry of movement building along the boy's brow, and finally the soft sound that escapes his small open mouth.

"…I'm…s-sorry…"

This is the sound that crumples him. The steel frame determination that kept his shoulders straight and stubborn as he made his summons outside bends almost to breaking. His eyes burn on the wound in his heart, hours of dry wind exposure don't compare. Tears break free and he weeps shamefully and fearfully at the bedside.

"Don't…please," there's no distance as Dean leans over, his lips pressing dry kisses on a small forehead, "don't say that, Cas…it's my fault remember. " The tears slide and burn tracks down his wind burned cheeks. "I'm the one who's sorry, Cas. I'm so sorry…"

It's not the first time.

Hell, it's not the second time either.

That gone-sour taste that makes his tongue curl in his mouth is proof enough of the whisky bath he took.

He's aware of his body in a secondary way, gathering second-hand information through post-inebriation senses. Clue one: he's belly down. Clue two…

It's silent.

Awe-inducing, knee-shaking silence.

There's a pang in his chest, even as basks in it gratefully.

The strange flip-side to the hours spent trying to get Cas to this state, is the complete lack of noise he makes afterward.

He raises his head, cheek sore from the strange stamp of leather left behind on his face. That's what he gets for sleeping in the…

He takes a moment to open one bleak eye, distracted by the ache fisting itself between his ears and punching into the bridge of his nose. His right arm dangles off the side of black leather. His hand rests a foot or two below his body.

He's in the Impala, half sprawled in the backseat.

He teeters, bracing his weight against the hand in the foot well. He shoots upright, confused in the dark as nighttime sky peeks through the windows.

Thankfully, she's still in the parking lot. At least he wasn't stupid enough to go driving off.

He ignores the protest of his brain, jarring inside his skull as he finds the door handle and pulls it screeching open.

He finds Sam leaning just outside, face burning from the cold he's stayed too long in, one hand dug into a pocket, right knee jutted out. Like any good lawyer, Sam has probably prepared his opening argument in the time it takes Dean to step from the car's threshold. He knows a battle stance when he sees one.

"You just left him?!" Sam doesn't give him a chance to take the first hit.

Dean slides his gaze, head tilting badly as he gets used to gravity. Or shame. His tongue burns with worry, the first question escapes the moment Sam gives pause.

"Is he okay?" the words are shuttered and quiet. They stand on breaking splints in the night air, and Sam barrels through them with branding anger.

"I know you can be a dumbass about a lot of things, ok. Of being careful enough—taking it easy on yourself, on me, on-on Cas. I know you need to go off to blow off some steam—I get it, Dean. I knowevery god-awful thing you've got dragging behind you because it's behind me too. And I know the uglier it is, you have the emotional maturity of a gnat when it comes to dealing with it…" by this point he's pacing, rankled fingers threading through his long hair and pinning it behind his ears, "But how could you—how do you just get shit wasted and leave him?!"

Sam—all six plus feet of him—stops toe-to-toe in front of his brother. Dean has seen him in all states of anger. He has been the cause of it in more than one occasion. The look turned in his direction, is relatively new.

Sam has only stared down the bottom-feeders of what they hunt like this. For all Dean's stunts in the past, he's never quite earned this look until this last year.

Dean doesn't say a word. He tilts his head back, slumping against the Impala, the disrupted acids of his stomach churning as he lays all of his guilty weight against metal. The move is fortifying him, not building him. He puts a cap on his indignation, done for the night.

"Just needed some…air," he grunts and sways a little in place, backside rocking the car a bit.

"Oh, you just needed some air?" Sam gesticulates to space or locked-down Heaven or the God that doesn't give a crap.

"Sam…" it's got the warning notes Sam used to look for when there was a distance of you-don't-mess-with-older-brother between them. It means crap now, or has ever since Sam turned into a momma bear.

"He depends on us now, Dean!" Sam points at the apartment and the curious kid within, "on us and you can't just bail anytime you want. It doesn't work like that." He turns, gravity and responsibility and love pulling him back to their apartment. He still has his work clothes on, heavy boots, sweat-stained shirt from packing and lifting at the warehouse.

"Sam…I-I.." and this note stops Sam in his tracks, because—Dean will admit—it's inches away from breaking, "I just couldn'tI just couldn't take it any more. I came out here to—fuck, I don't know—ask for help. I just…I just couldn't stay there."

Sam looks over his shoulder, something depreciating in his gaze, but he doesn't turn all around to face his brother.

"You know, it's taking a lot out of me too, sticking with this. Staying put." He sounds like its costs him, every ounce of fire burning out as he's exposed to suburban life, like Dean chaffing under restraint. "You don't think I want to be out there, taking answers out with blood, even if they're not there? You don't think I want to pack up and leave every time I hear him cry? You're not the only one who's afraid, Dean. You're not the only one who misses their best friend and wishes he'd come back with answers."

Dean sees the wound Sam has carried silently in deference to his brother's loss. His shoulders slump as he heads for the door with urgent footsteps. Sam doesn't stay away from Cas for very long, if he can help it.

Dean follows with a harsh slam to the Impala's door. He follows, and picks up the trail of the argument that's going to meet him as soon as he heads back to their rotten apple pie of a life.

He closes the mesh gate before the front door, the metal grate sealing him into this life as surely as a cage. The impala lies under a streetlamp, glistening free and unhampered

He hears his brother in the bedroom, cooing and shushing. There's no more noise, and time has turned unaccountable since he left Cas by himself. The taste of that thought is as bitter as the after-flavor of sleep-logged spit and alcohol in his mouth.

"Cas…?" Sam shifts from the bedroom door back to the living room. He's running his hands through his hair as Dean plants himself more firmly in reality with the worry in his brother's voice. "Cas!"

"Don't tell me you lost him…"

"Shut-up," Sam points an accusing finger, and slips back the way he came; his voice hollering, "Cas!"

That's all the permission Dean needs to freak-the-fuck-out. He's following his brother, tacking Cas' name as he goes to his knees and searches under the bed. The closet.

"Fuck, Sam—you saw him when you came out to get me, right?"

"He was sitting on the couch when I got home," Sam's voice comes bouncing off the other end of the room. "I left him in his play pen."

Shit!

"He's figured out how to jimmy it open, Sam I left him in there—" he doesn't say when he got irresponsibly drunk. He's rushing to the living room, screaming out Cas' name. "Has the door been open this whole time…?"

Nothing compares to the fear slipping through his being now. What comes close is watching Sam dying in front of him. That finality and raw upending grief slamming into him as his mind goes screaming…

"Cas…!" He's out the door screaming into the parking lot like a madman, earning the stares allocated to madmen. He doesn't give a fuck for the neighbors, or for Sam who's practically doing the same beside him as they run into the parking lot.

Something must've taken him…

Something must've…

He's crying and breathing at the same time. His heart is rupturing on a guilty beat, because it's all on him. It was his job….he had one job…

He's leaning over his legs, red fury pumping out, threatening to fold his drunk ass to the ground as he heads back to the front door, retracing his steps, looking for clues…anything.

He's ducked down on the ground searching for the place he threw his keys. What is he thinking…? A one-year-old couldn't have gotten far…unless he was taken by some evil sonovabitch…damnit, Dean…you had one job…just one—

There are little fingers touching his arm, as he's kneeling, his face turned under the couch. His entire body shudders then locks down as he breathes all the horrors running through him out.

He looks up into wide baby blue eyes, staring at him with a hint of recoiling fear. Nothing has prepared him for the look on that small round face. The tears are still there, looks like Cas hadn't stopped after all. He's actually trying to keep himself silent, holding the hand that's not wrapped at Dean's shoulder against his little mouth. Heartbreaking sounds slipping through those little fingers anyway.

"Where were you, huh?" Dean just grabs him, sweeps him up into his arms, tucking that little face against his shoulder and holding on for dear life. "Don't ever. Ever. Do that to me again, Cas…" he calls over his shoulder to Sam. He hears his brother's footsteps like a calling card. He leans back to look into those startled little eyes. "I was so worried—I thought…"

"Dean…?"

"…thought I lost you—don't know what I would've done, Cas—"

"Dean…!"

"What, Sam?!"

He turns, watches his brother's face. Gauging how it looks both puzzled and astonished, he turns to see just what's so puzzling and astoni—

—Shit.

The apartment's basically one open space, the living room looks into the kitchen, and the kitchen…well, that's something.

Dean is slow to stand, with Cas' soft little weight in his arms. He walks along that open floor plan; counter space on the left with its sink, the fridge tucked into the corner beyond that, the ancient oven, and beside that the pantry door which is now open. There's space enough on the bottom, space enough to duck and hide. Sure enough that's where Cas has been, but that doesn't gather his throat in a strangling necktie all of a sudden. On the floor there are crayons—the one's Dean had let him use on the coffee table. But what's on the inside of the door is steadily becoming the most important detail in their lives.

There's a sigil drawn on it.

Not perfect, done in that child-scrawl that makes it hard to identify for someone who hadn't been in their line of work. It must've taken him a long time, just to get that little bit of warding done.

"Sh-sh-ar-ee..."

It's his first attempt. His first set of identifiable double consonant and vowel sounds. He's looking at Dean, everything in him is suddenly screaming out meaning as he weeps with his big rolling tears and fists the lapels of Dean's shirt.

"Sss-arr-ee…"

Sorry.

It's his first word. An apology.

Not 'mama' or 'dada' or anything children his age or younger are saying already.

Sam looks at him like they've dropped it all. Intelligent guy that he is, he's already figured out how much worse their lives have gone. It takes some time for Dean. The shock is wearing out and now the heart beats on track for Shitsville population Winchester.

Sorry. It's not the first thing children say. You learn the word later, as you grow older and make mistakes. Mistakes are for bigger things, for older people. And the way that Cas says it, ages him in Dean's arms—it ages him terribly.

And Dean knows, with that slow kind of horror that starts filling in all the vacant spaces in the year that has passed them by. All those missing pieces, have filled in suddenly. Every time Cas has looked up at them, something burning and responsible in his gaze despite the cool blue of his eyes. Every time he has cried—or has lost himself…all of it because he still remembered.

And Dean starts to imagine it. A year trapped inside a body that's too small, too weak to care for itself. Arms and legs all but useless, unable to speak, unable to write words, unable to walk, or do anything else but cry and scream at the two idiots who have complete charge over you.

And then one day your body starts to catch up to your mind, and you practice and practice the right thing to say and it's—it's…

Sorry

Pillow and blanket in hand, Sam enters to this, a moment divided from him. Its contents are shadows, and the depths are insurmountable. Sam feels his brother's grief in the atmosphere, a layer of ash dying over his skin.

Dean takes that small boy in his arms and tucks his face into his neck, like he has so many times before, still murmuring against his son's cheek, wetting both their faces with the mist of his breath and the fall of tears. Sam wants to fall where he stands, let the universe take him.

They can't come back from this.

tbc….