Dean is three the first time he folds his hands together, covers pulled over his head, without his mommy's supervision and prays. It's not his normal nighttime prayers that his mommy taught him, but a small, tiny thing formed by him and him alone. The blankets make the air trapped under them stuffy and hot but he ignores it, screws his eyes shut so that he can't even tell that his nightlight is glowing in the corner and prays.

"Let Mommy and the baby be okay, please. Mommy and Daddy are really nice and I think the baby will be really nice too so please let Mommy not feel sick any more. And please let me have a friend so I can play with them even when Mommy is too tired. Amen."

Dean frees himself from the cocoon as soon as he finishes, and lays down, ready to go to bed. He's sure that this will help, because Mommy has been feeling tired more and more and Daddy says she's not sick but Dean isn't so sure. But the angels and God listen to everyone's prayers, so now Mommy will feel better, and Dean will get a friend so that he doesn't bother her as much. The toddler is glad that he can do something to help all on his own.

Something crashes against his window and Dean sits up ramrod-straight in his bed. His eyes, wide, stare until the air makes them feel scratchy and dry and he still hesitates a few more seconds before he blinks. He's on the verge of shouting, of calling his parents in to check if they were wrong and there actually are monsters, but then something small and somehow fluffy shows up on the end of his bed.

Dean scoots away from the dark shape, wrapping his blankets around himself as tightly as he possibly can. He breathes fast and shallowly as it moves.

It's another kid. Dean frowns. He can't be much older than Dean, and his hair is messy, like he was playing outside and no one brushed his hair back down. His eyes are hard to make out in the dark but Dean thinks they might be blue.

"Hi, Dean." Something along the other kid's back moves and Dean glances there. They're dark and about the same size as the kid. When the toddler looks closer, they look like they have feathers, like bird wings-

"You got wings!" Dean squeaks, pointing one stubby finger at the limbs. The other boy looks confused, brow furrowing before he clutches at a few feathers from his left wing.

"Yeah," he says. "I'm an angel, 'course I have wings."

Dean doesn't respond for a few minutes, too caught up in the fact that he prayed and an angel with real actual wings is now in his room. "Are you gonna be my friend?" he asks.

The other boy – the angel – nods. "My Daddy says I'm your guardi'n angel."

It's probably supposed to mean something important, but Dean isn't quite old enough to understand that yet, so he just smiles. "Cool! What's your name?" Because if this angel is supposed to be his friend, he's gotta have a name.

"Castiel."

"That's a weird name," Dean says, nose wrinkling. His face clears into another smile seconds later. "But s'okay, Cas, 'cause we're gonna be real good friends anyway."

Dean yawns a few minutes later and Castiel disappears in a soft flurry of feathers as he falls asleep, breaths evening out into the regularity of sleep.

The next day, when Dean tells his mother what happened, she tells him it was a nice dream and assumes Cas is an imaginary friend when Dean brings him up again.

Dean is perplexed. For months, no one else seems able to see Cas. They either come in just after Cas has gone away, or they turn away when Cas peeks his head out from behind a couch or chair to grin at Dean.

Cas seems to grow as Dean grows, and he shows up whenever Dean prays for him. Mommy and Daddy praise him for being so good at keeping himself entertained without bothering Sammy, and all of his babysitters say he's very calm, even if he likes to sit on his own in his room and play make-believe.

The night before he has to start kindergarten, Dean calls Cas down and they sit and talk together, and Cas promises that it will be alright. At school the next day Dean meets Ash and Gordon and they're both really nice and he shares his fruit snacks with them and they share their pretzels and potato chips. Dean thinks they could be friends.

Life goes on.

Dean prays to Cas a little less often than he did before, but the angel always comes. They spend longer together when he does stop by because Dean isn't watched so constantly any more now that Mommy and Daddy have Sammy to focus on. Dean and Cas learn how to climb trees and jump across creeks and catch frogs in the open spaces near Dean's house. Dean has more friends now, but Cas is still his best friend.

For years things go on like this. There's still no one else who sees Cas, but Dean starts to suspect it's more because Cas doesn't let them than that they can't. When he asks Cas about it, the angel shrugs and says he doesn't know, but Dean thinks that maybe it's because Cas wants Dean to have something that's just his. The thought makes him smile a little bit wider.

In sixth grade, discussing the outcome of a Superman versus Batman fight, they break out laughing because Cas' voice goes more than a little wonky, and who knew that angels went through puberty too? Cas growls and shoves Dean into a hill of snow, but he's still laughing, blue eyes dancing when Dean resurfaces with a sputter. It starts a war of sorts, with Dean shoving snow down Cas' tan sweater and into his feathers and Cas rubbing it into his hair.

They both end up sprawled in the snow with cheeks that are red with cold and breathless lungs. That day, they stay out until Dean can't feel his fingers and it's getting dark out. Cas grabs his hand as they walk back and warmth floods over Dean. He smiles at his angel and says goodbye and Cas flies away one more time on wings that are less fluffy now than they were when they first met. They're starting to become sleek, the dappled grey feathers smoothing down into something majestic and otherworldly.

When Dean answers his mother's inquiries as to where he was all afternoon with a quick shout of, "I was hanging out with Cas!" as he scrounges in the pantry for some Pop-Tarts he knows he saw earlier, she sighs at him.

"Dean, how much longer are you going to keep playing with these imaginary friends? You're getting a bit old for them." Dean looks at her over his shoulder as he shoves two Pop-Tarts in the toaster. She's leaning against the fridge, arms crossed with a weary expression on her face.

"He's not imaginary, Mom, he's real!" Dean insists, turning to watch the toaster. He doesn't jump when his mom starts to run her fingers through his snow-chilled hair, totally isn't startled.

"Dean, honey, I'm just worried. Why don't you play with your school friends-"

"I do!" Dean exclaims, grabbing one of his pastries as the toaster releases them. "I went over to Victor's house like three times last week and I'm gonna go to the movies with the guys tomorrow." Dean grabs his second Pop-Tart and rushes from the room. "And Cas is real!" he shouts as he stomps up the stairs.

He doesn't tell his parents much about Cas after that, and when he does, he makes sure he recalls him as 'that one imaginary friend I had growing up.' It makes his parents happier and they don't worry about him not growing up correctly or whatever after that.

Dean keeps seeing the angel, and by the time he's a senior in Lawrence's biggest high school, Castiel's wings have finished their shift from downy youth into adulthood. They're a dark gray at the tips, fading into a near silvery color for the bulk of them. Dark black speckles cover most of his wings, almost like the freckles that cover Dean's own skin. The undersides are nearly pure white, like all the fake angel's wings that dean sees on Christmas decorations and in paintings. They're sleek and smooth and, Dean knows from experience, strong enough to carry Cas through the air and kick up a mighty wind.

They're deceptively soft and warm and Dean's favorite thing is when he and Cas drive out to the middle of nowhere in the Impala (the Impala, because his dad is that awesome and gave it to Dean when he got his license) and sit on the hood to just talk. Cas tends to wrap one of those wings around Dean to keep the teen warm, because it's winter again and while Dean's leather jacket is comfortable it isn't exactly well insulated. Dean leans himself into the curve of Cas' wing without hesitation and sometimes he'll absently run his fingers through the feathers. Cas never seems to mind either way, just smiles and nods quietly as Dean jabbers on and on about nothing and everything.

They don't shove snow in each other's clothes anymore, mostly because Cas will shoot into the air and hover where Dean can't reach him as the human fumes, and he'll laugh harder at Dean's frustration until Dean realizes that he can still throw snowballs. The result of those battles is a bit more watery than the Impala's seats agree with, but Dean doesn't mind some of the stains because it's Cas, and how could he ever mind?

They agreed a few years back that Cas seems to be a handful of years older than Dean, twenty-something to Dean's eighteen. It means Cas is just more mature enough for his body to be the perfect place to lean against, his arms and shoulders holding just enough muscle to be comfortable pillows. He's not taller than Dean but Cas has this presence about him that makes Dean feel just a bit small and it's good, somehow, to know that he doesn't have to be the strong one with Cas. When Dean's around Sam, he has to be the big brother, has to protect him and look out for him. Among his friends, Dean's the tough guy, the one who isn't afraid to get into a fight here and there to stand up for what he thinks is right.

With Cas he can give someone else that responsibility for a little while and relax. If he falls asleep once or twice with his fingers curled into snow-white feathers and his head pressed into Cas' light brown army jacket they choose not to mention it.

Dean's made a habit of not calling Cas to his room anymore over the years, because it runs the risk of his parents wondering who the hell he's talking to in his room. The night before he's to go off to college, however, his whole life packed into a few boxes and suitcases, Dean makes an exception.

Castiel appears after only a small delay and sits on the edge of Dean's bed. He looks worried, brows drawn together and a hand pressed to Dean's forehead. Dean swats it away with one of his own before he grabs it and threads their fingers together. "I'm scared," he whispers, one more secret to add to the collection he's told to no one but Castiel over the years. He shuffles over as Cas lies down beside him, expression calm and grounding as his thumb rubs Dean's knuckles.

"Why?"

There are a thousand reasons, a thousand explanations Dean could give. What if he can't handle the workload? What if he can't handle being away from home? What if there are no opportunities for Dean to call Cas down so they can see each other? (If he's honest, this one scares him the most, but he doesn't say it.) Instead, he whispers back, "What if no one likes me?"

Castiel's smile is fond and just a hair exasperated when he says back, "Dean. There isn't any way that people couldn't like you." When Dean tries to object Castiel just talks over him and continues, "You're a good man, Dean. Others can see that, and they're drawn to you. You'll find friends wherever you go, Dean. And I promise I'll always be just a call away."

"Really?" Dean has to ask, because it seems like it's another one of those things that's too good for it to be true, even if it's held steady the past eighteen years.

"You were given to me," Castiel says seriously, "And I to you. I am your guardian, Dean. There is not a place I would not go, not a thing I would not do to keep you safe. Finding a way onto a college campus is well within my abilities."

Dean doesn't respond, just tugs Cas' hand far enough upwards that he can see their hands between their chests. Cas' hands are somehow rough, even though Dean's never seen him do any hard manual labor. There are callouses that run across the top of his palm, just where his fingers attach. They're warm too, something that Dean has noticed before. He stops running the tips of his fingers across Cas' hand enough to look up at Cas, and he pauses.

Cas watches their hands with what Dean would call detached interest if he didn't know Cas better, if he didn't know that the times Cas pulled into himself and got quiet were the times he was feeling the most. He can make out the warmth of Cas' affection for him in the angel's eyes, the spark of amusement at seemingly everything Dean does.

Dean swallows hard and turns his eyes away from Cas' face. "Will you stay? Just for tonight, I mean?" he asks, eyes already closed because he doesn't want Cas to see his disappointment if the angel says no.

"Of course, Dean."

He doesn't sleep under the covers that night because Cas' wing drapes over them both, drawing Dean in close and keeping him at the perfect temperature. He doesn't understand the airy feeling in his gut, or why his heart chooses to stutter for a few seconds this time that Cas wraps him in feathers. It's not like Cas hasn't done it before, so Dean shouldn't feel this way. He tries not to think about the way Cas haunts his dreams that night, wrapped in the angel's clean scent and comforting presence.

He's gone when Dean wakes up, but Dean wakes up to his mom bringing in pancakes and bacon so he knows it's because Cas never lets anyone but Dean spot him.

Dean feels better when he leaves home than he has in a long time.

College is fun, but it's also a drain on his energy. While Dean and Cas can still meet up, it's so much harder than before. Dean's roommate, Andy, is cool, but he's around a lot and it means Dean can't meet with Cas in his dorm room the first two years. There aren't a whole lot of other places they can meet around campus – there's always someone somewhere that prevents it a lot of the time – so Dean ends up going off on his own to the zoo as often as he can afford. He and Cas meet by the camels, because apparently kids aren't too fascinated by them or something and it's usually pretty secluded. He misses their old chats on the Impala like it's a physical ache in his chest.

Dean's gut continues to do those strange flip-flops that at times overtake him in Cas' presence. The only other time such a thing has happened was in the eighth grade when he asked Lisa Braeden to go to the Spring Dance with him and she kissed him, a quick peck, when his mom dropped her off at home.

They'd dated for exactly seventeen days before she declared that she was in love with Brad Pitt and they broke up. He had been upset for a bit before Cas cheered him up with some ice cream and a short, tumultuous flight that ended up with both of them covered in mud but laughing.

Dean keeps it locked under every lock and key he has mental access to, because surely this can't be right. Cas is an angel, sent by God to be Dean's guardian and protector. He's known Cas since he was three years old, and shouldn't that be enough to discourage him? Apparently not.

It doesn't stop Dean from spending time with Cas, and summers are even better than before his time at college because he doesn't have to search out clandestine hiding places any more. He and Cas can run into the woods and meet up and hang out and just talk.

Dean is happy like this, running amuck with his best friend who he might just be kind of sort of in love with.

He doesn't understand why Cas suddenly stop showing up halfway through the summer. At first Dean is upset, because hadn't Castiel promised that he'd always come when Dean called? Hadn't he promised to always be there?

When Cas still doesn't show up after Dean praying for an entire day, he starts to worry. When he waits another few days and Cas remains AWOL, he starts to think. He wonders what he could have done, could have said to drive the angel off.

It comes to him in the middle of dinner one day, his mother watching him with concern and his father seemingly unfazed by his son's sudden stress the past week or so. They'd been lying out in a field, like they did so much of the time, Castiel's wing a pillow beneath them. Dean had been drowsy, already half-asleep from the warm sun and good food he'd eaten not long before. Cas had laughed at his sleepy attempts to get himself comfortably situated on the angel's shoulder.

Dean was half asleep when Cas' wing curled a bit tighter around his shoulders, and it slipped out without him realizing. "I love you."

Dean almost drops his cheeseburger when he realizes it but saves himself at the last minute, and covers his slip-up with a short coughing fit. He excuses himself as soon as dinner is done and curls his legs under himself on his bed as soon as the door is shut and locked. "Please," he prays, eyes screwed shut. He reminded of the first time he prayed so, so long ago. He's not little anymore and the covers aren't pulled over his head but what he has to say is just as important now. "Please come back. I can pretend like I never said it, we both can. We can forget it. Just please come back, Cas. Please, you're…"

He has to stop because he's not sure what Cas even is to him now. He's his best friend, sure, but he's so much more. Cas knows him inside and out, better than anyone else. Dean will just have to settle for a description that is inferior to what Cas actually is because he lacks the words to give it meaning.

"You're my best friend, Cas. I- I don't want to do this without you."

For the first time that Dean can remember, his prayers go unanswered.

It's a sobering feeling.

After another week, Sam asks him what's wrong. Dean shrugs it off and tells the kid not to worry, that it's none of his business and to just leave him the hell alone. Sam shoots him a glare that can probably curdle milk, it's that sour, but he goes away.

Another week goes by and Dean's just sad. He's lost friends before, but not friends like Cas. It's impossible, because Cas is one of a kind, Dean's never let anyone else so close, and it scares him that somebody he cares about can slip out of his life so quickly and easily. He didn't even have a warning and then Cas was gone.

He somehow manages not to react when, out of nowhere, Cas is back.

Dean's out in the damn field again, because it's the place no one follows him to so he isn't bothered. Everyone keeps asking him how he's feeling, if there's anything they can do to help, what's wrong, and Dean hates it. There's nothing they can do to help, so why do they keep asking? He tells them to stop but they don't, and his only solace is found where he least wants to be, where memories of Cas are strong and plentiful and painful.

And Cas is there. His hair is as wild as that first night and his feathers look ruffled and out of place. "Dean."

"I prayed to you," Dean says almost robotically. "I prayed, and you didn't come, Cas."

"I know." Cas sounds so broken but his admission makes Dean's chest clench painfully. Cas knew, and yet he still stayed away? What was changed now? "I wanted to. So badly, Dean, you must understand. But my Father…" Castiel takes a hesitant step forward. "Dean, it is so rare to be granted an audience with Him at all even for the archangels but for me, I… They told me He would see me soon. Others have waited centuries, millennia, Dean, I came back as soon as I could."

Dean doesn't react much, but the tension from his shoulders loosens a bit. Castiel was…was seeing God? Why?

"There's no precedent, Dean," Castiel whispers. "I have nothing I can look back on for such information. I needed to know-" Castiel pauses again, takes another step. "I needed to know that I am not in the wrong. That this is allowed. That I am allowed."

Dean hardly dares ask it, hardly dares to get his hope up, but somehow he does. All the anger leaves him in a breathless, excited rush. "Allowed what?"

The grin that cracks Castiel's face in two gives away that he didn't mask his hopefulness as much as he probably should have. Castiel steps into his space, wings lifting to curl around them both and block out the rest of the world. Castiel's eyes are nervous and so, so blue as Dean stares into them and Cas' hands are rough on his and his chin looks stubbly but Dean doesn't care, because Cas murmurs, "This," and leans towards him.

Dean's brain goes haywire for a second, circuits firing every which way, until he gets control of it enough to close his eyes and lean in too. Cas' lips are dry but soft and Dean feels like losing himself in this. Cas' wings press tight against his back, drawing him closer, and Dean sighs.

They separate after what feels like hours but was probably only minutes, foreheads pressed together, noses touching. Cas has a tiny, satisfied smile tugging at the corners of his lips and Dean knows his is probably worse, like some mushy chick flick got hold of him.

As Cas tugs on his hand, back towards the house, Dean decides he doesn't care, because Cas is worth it. Dean decides to trust the angel as he walks right up to Dean's front door and pulls Dean inside, hands still twined together.

He's probably more surprised than Mary when his mom stops at the door to the kitchen to watch Cas drag him upstairs, and when Dean glances back at the angel, his wings are nowhere in sight. He looks back down just in time to see Mary shake her head fondly and go back into the kitchen, humming Beatles songs.

He ignores Sam's questioning almost-glare when his little brother sees him pass in the hallway, and Dean decides not to wonder where John is just yet.

Castiel shuts the door to Dean's bedroom behind him and he folds his legs pretzel-style to sit on the bed. Dean joins him and runs his fingertips down Cas' wings when they reappear again.

"My brother, Balthazar, taught me," Castiel explains. "So that we can…hang out. With others. In public. If you'd like that." Dean almost laughs because how is Cas still nervous? Why wouldn't Dean want to be able to hang out with Cas around other people, show off his best friend?

Dean leans forward and presses his mouth against Castiel's again, still thrilled and in awe that he can do that much. He'll keep this to himself. The kisses and hand-holding are for him and Cas, not some display for the world.

But being able to see Cas every day? Not needing to sneak off and hide themselves away any time they want to talk to each other?

Dean grins and presses their foreheads together. He can't imagine anything better.