A/N- This is the final part! It's quite a lot shorter than the others, but it still has three attached songs like all the other parts. I've also uploaded a .rar file containing all of the playlist songs and the lyrics document, to make it easier to get everything in one go.
I haven't replied to individual reviews, but please know that I have read every single one, and every single one has made me smile like a four year old given a talking kitten that can spontaneously produce ice cream cones.
I am so, so grateful to everyone who read this, left a review, downloaded the playlist, looked at the fanart, or simply put up with my ranting and rambling. You are wonderful, fantastic people, and I can only hope that reading this fic has given you even a tenth of the enjoyment that reading your reviews has given me. Thank you.
In the morning light, let my roots take flight,
Watch me fall above, like a vicious dove
They don't see me come, who can blame them?
They never seemed to catch my eye, but I never wondered why.
- Tiptoe, Imagine Dragons
Angels, Dean thinks, really need to quit relying on this 'blinding light' shtick.
It's the first thought he has, the first thing that enters his mind as the terrible noise that had filled his ears (a sound like the sun swallowing itself, like a bolt of lightning catching flame, like screaming wind pouring into a bottomless ravine and somehow filling the space) leaks away. The backs of Dean's eyelids fade back into view and he thinks seriously, this is getting ridiculous.
The next thing he realises is that someone is gripping his hand. Dean opens his eyes to see who it is.
"Dean," Cas says, his voice cracking, and then Dean finds himself being pulled tight against Cas' chest and kissed. Dean feels drained and weak and more tired than he's ever been before, but he still moves his arms to hold Cas as close as his exhausted body will allow. Balthazar makes a noise of disgust, which Dean elects to ignore. He figures he's earned this.
When Cas pulls away, Dean lets his body slump. As his back hits the wall, he realises that there is nothing to shield it from the stone. His wings are gone. They don't feel amputated or frozen- they don't feel anything, because they are not there. The realisation fills Dean with a strange sensation of loss- of loneliness, even. RIP, you freaky bastard things. The moment passes when his eyes fall back on Cas' face. Dean's never seen a person look more awed than Cas, more thankful.
"Don't start praying on me," Dean mumbles, letting his eyelids slide shut. He hears a quiet flutter of wings and assumes that Balthazar's left.
"Am I too late?" a familiar voice says, and Dean opens his eyes again. Balthazar and Cas haven't left, but now Inias stands in the middle of the room too, his tie askew and blood soaking through his shirt. Anna's body is clasped to his chest, her long red hair smoothed back behind her ears. She's not moving. Dean tries to scrabble his way to sitting up, dread engulfing him.
"No," Balthazar says. "No, it worked perfectly."
Dean can't help but notice that Balthazar doesn't sound particularly happy about that. The angel is eyeing Cas with a mixture of confusion and revulsion- like he doesn't understand what Cas just did, but he knows that he doesn't like it.
"I'm sorry that I didn't come when you called," Inias says to Cas. "As I said, I was otherwise engaged."
"Will she be alright?" Cas asks in concern, looking at Anna.
"I think so," Inias says, "but she's hurt. It took me a long time to fight my way to her." Dean slumps in relief.
"You snatched her out of discipline?" Balthazar says. "Raphael is going to crucify you."
"Let him try," Inias says, his mouth setting in a grim line. He glances over at Zachariah. "Who did that?"
"Cas," Dean says, more than a little proud.
"Oh," Inias says mildly, and then turns back to Cas. "It's good to have you back with us," he says, and whilst his voice is tired, the warmth sounds genuine.
"I'm not really sure that 'back' is the right term," Balthazar sniffs. Dean leans forwards to snag Castiel's coat sleeve, and he turns his attention back to Dean.
"What did you do?" Dean asks. His memory of what happened is fuzzy, and he's not all that sure where reality started and hallucination stopped.
"A spell," Cas answers. Dean's grip on his sleeve loosens, and Cas drops his arm to lace their fingers together.
"Using grace," Balthazar says. "His, to be exact."
"The grace of the fallen is kept in Heaven," Inias frowns. "How could you have had access to it?"
"It was that vial, right?" Dean says. "Anna gave me it to keep."
"That would explain it," Inias says, a hint of laughter in his tone. "Anna is the guardian of the grace."
"When an angel chooses to fall- because some do choose, Dean- their grace is removed, condensed, and kept in the vaults of Heaven. Archangels and seraphs have access to those rooms, but very few angels do- as far as I know, Anna is the only one. Her role is to defend and protect those vaults- grace is considered a valuable commodity."
"So how come she gave me Cas'?"
"She must have trusted you to take care of it." Inias' eyes fall to the angel in his arms, and a soft smile tugs at his lips. "She never did like it being in Zachariah's hands."
"I don't understand you, Cas," Balthazar says from nowhere. He's still staring at Castiel, his face creased in disappointment. "You gave up your grace for a human."
"I am a human," Cas replies evenly.
"No, you're not! You're an angel, Cas. Even bloody Zachariah was on board with bringing you back. You were supposed to come home. Instead, you went and wasted the key ingredient on… that," he says, flapping a hand in Dean's general direction.
"Thanks," Dean says. Balthazar glares.
"Balthazar, I know you don't understand-" Cas begins.
"That's for sure," Balthazar says in disgust, and then he's gone. Dean brushes a thumb over Cas' knuckles.
"What a dick," he mutters. Cas doesn't reply.
"I have to go," Inias says apologetically. "Anna needs healing."
Cas nods. "Of course."
"Balthazar will come around," Inias says. "You know how he is with humans."
Cas nods again. Inias' mouth curves in sympathy, and then he vanishes. Dean still doesn't really understand what's going on, but he takes advantage of the privacy to reach up to kiss Cas again- because they're both somehow still here, because they might get to stick around that bit longer, because he can.
"We should check on Sam," Cas says when they break apart. Dean stares wordlessly, his mouth suddenly dry. Sam. There are no wings on Dean's back and no voice in his mind- does that mean what Dean thinks it does? Does that mean Sam can...?
He eventually manages a nod, and Cas helps pull him to his feet.
Cas unlocks the door and Dean follows him out, his steps shaky. "Sam?" Cas calls. By the time Dean makes it into the hallway Cas is already halfway along it, holding open a door and looking in.
"She's dead," Dean hears Sam say, this voice thick. "I tried… I didn't know if maybe I could bring her back, but… she's gone."
"I'm sorry, Sam," Cas says, his words heartfelt.
"Yeah," Sam says wearily. "Me too."
Dean's vision floods with black as his body makes a sudden objection to remaining upright. Man up and deal, he tells himself impatiently. Dean clings to the wall and continues making his unsteady way towards Cas.
"What happened here, Cas?" Sam asks, at a loss. "One second I'm about to kill Lilith and the next there's this banging on the door, and all these voices, and then this light and I swear- I swear I saw a shape in it, Cas. There was this… outline, and it looked like- listen, I know this sounds ridiculous, but it looked like Dean- only it had wings, and then it was gone, and I…"
Sam's words die as Dean finally makes it to the doorway. He thuds to a rest against the doorframe, his breathing laboured. Their eyes meet and Sam's mouth falls open, his eyes doubling in size.
"D-Dean?" he whispers.
"Hey, Sammy," Dean says, and he manages a weak grin before he passes out.
Dean's vaguely aware, like looking through a window fogged with condensation, that somebody is sitting at the end of his bed. He thinks they're asleep; their head is slumped onto their chest, their dark shaggy hair hanging over their face. Their hand is outstretched to rest on the end of the bed, like they're afraid someone might snatch Dean away if they let go. Dean falls back into unconsciousness with no warning.
Dean sleeps and wakes. There's always someone sitting in the chair by his bed, but who that person is changes. Once, he come round to the sound of an argument somewhere nearby, but he can't make out any of the words. An unmeasurable period of time later, he finds someone holding a plastic cup to his mouth. Dean lets rivulets of water run down his throat, coughing as some goes down the wrong way, but he passes out before he can thank whoever's holding the cup.
When Dean wakes properly, it's Cas who's by his side. He's reading, chair pulled close to the end of Dean's bed. He's got his feet tucked under him like when they first met, but now he wears a hunter's jeans and layered shirts, clothes to keep you warm if you have to run and hide with no prior warning. Dean lies in place and scrutinises Cas, noting that one of his eyes is bruised and swollen, and both are underlined with dark shadows. Someone's been fighting when they should have been sleeping.
The bed is hard and uncomfortable, and the aching of Dean's body seems to start somewhere deep within his bones. He tries to push himself to sitting, and Cas looks up. "Dean?"
"The one and only," Dean croaks. The book drops from Cas' lap as he rushes forwards to kneel by Dean's side.
"How're you feeling?" Cas asks, brushing the hair from Dean's forehead as his eyes flicker over Dean's face.
"Been better," Dean says. His voice sounds rusty, like dragging nails down a washboard. "Been worse, though. How long was I out for?"
"It's been three days," Cas tells him. "You woke up several times, but never for very long."
"Sleeping," Cas says, mouth setting in a firm line. "We've been taking shifts. Of course, none of us wanted to leave you at all, but there were some… compatibility issues."
"Okay, hold on," Dean says, trying to sit up again and succeeding this time. "Who's 'us'?"
"Sam, Bobby and myself."
It's only then that Dean realises why his 'bed' is so damn uncomfortable. He's in the panic room, though he's not tied down; the whole 'returning from the dead' thing must have freaked Sam and Bobby out. Dean catches glimpse of a thin red cut on his arm, and assumes that they've carried out the standard tests. He also assumes that, since he's still alive, he passed.
"I can wake Sam," Cas offers.
"No, not yet," Dean says. If Sam looks anything like Cas does right now, then the kid needs his sleep- and if Dean's honest, he could really do with a few minutes to try and sort out his world before he has to face it. He's not used to talking to people that aren't Cas. "How much did you tell him?"
Dean goes to reply, before realising he's not actually sure if that's good or bad. "How'd he take it?"
"He was very confused, and then very angry, and then he punched me several times which seemed to help."
Dean winces in sympathy. "Sorry," he says. Cas shakes his head.
"It's not your fault," Cas says, sitting on the end of the cot. "I explained what would have happened if either of us broke confidentiality, and he said he understood, but that doesn't mean… it's been a lot for him to take in."
"I'll say," Dean snorts. Cas smiles slightly, looking at Dean fondly, and something ghastly occurs to Dean. "Uh, when you say everything…"
Cas looks faintly guilty. "Bobby did point out afterwards that I could have chosen a better time," he says.
"You're telling me that Sam knows we're- uh- a thing?" Dean says in disbelief.
"If by that you mean that we're in a sexual relationship, than yes."
It's so incredibly, ridiculously surreal that Dean actually finds himself chuckling. Maybe it should bother him more, but he can't help but laugh at the idea of how that conversation must have gone. He imagines Cas solemnly explaining everything- telling Sam that Dean's been hanging around for months as an angel, that Cas himself was an angel once, that the things Sam thought were dreams weren't all that imaginary- and then calmly dropping the bombshell that one time, he and Dean totally got it on. Dean bets Sam's face was goddamn priceless.
"Was that why he hit you?" Dean asks, because the idea of Sam 'defending his honour' is too glorious to pass up. He takes Cas' awkward silence as a 'yes', and laughs so hard that his ribs start to hurt. Cas doesn't seem to get why it's funny, but that makes it even better.
"Other than that, how is he?" Dean asks, more sombre now. "I mean, I don't see him strapped down in here with me. You been giving him the demon blood through bendy straws?"
"No," Cas says, shaking his head. "He's fine. It's like he was never addicted. We can't explain it."
Okay, Dean doesn't like the sound of that. "You think Anna or Inias know anything?"
"Possibly, but we haven't heard from them," Cas says. "Things have been quiet, on all fronts."
"No post-averted-apocalypse house parties, huh?"
"No," Cas says. "I did get this, though." He pulls down the neck of his t-shirt to reveal the tips of a freshly healing tattoo, straight above his heart.
"Good man," Dean says. The memory of Asmodeus' rotting-flower breath ghosting against his lips comes to mind, and is immediately chased away again. Cas getting the anti-possession symbol is way overdue. "Did you scream?"
"Oh, sure," Dean says with a wink. Cas ignores him.
"How're you feeling?" he asks instead. "Heaven, Hell- what do you remember?"
"Same as ever," Dean grunts. "I remember everything; I just don't feel a damn thing." It's freaking him out, to be honest. Maybe he should be grateful, but he wants out of anything angel-related- one hundred percent out. "What're you thinking? Angel leftovers?"
"No," Cas says. "The grace was enough to stabilise you and stop your fall, but not enough to keep you as any form of angel. You're completely human."
Dean had guessed as much. His wings are gone, along with Cas' permanent residence in his mind, and there's a hollow ache in his gut that he's only just identified as being hunger. Messed-about memories aside, there's no way Dean can deny that he's one hundred percent human. It feels strange, but good- like coming home after a long time at sea.
"And you?" Dean asks.
"Human," Cas confirms. "For good this time."
Guilt tears at Dean, clambering into his body and informing him that it intends to stay. "Using up your grace," he says. "You shouldn't have done that."
"I shouldn't have had to," Cas agrees. "But as Zachariah took that choice away, it seems a moot point."
"I meant you should've let me die," Dean says, and it comes out louder than he meant it to. Cas narrows his eyes.
"You have spent," he says, "five months watching over me. You have guarded me, and you have protected me, and you have cared for me. Did it really never occur to you that that could be mutual?"
"And there's an additional factor to consider," Cas says. Dean regards him suspiciously.
"I love you," Cas says, matter-of-fact as ever, and Jesus Christ, Dean's glad he's back in a human body because he's going to need to consume vast quantities of alcohol very soon. That being said, Dean has to admit that this particular shock feels… pretty damn good, actually.
"I- same," Dean says, and whilst he means for it to come out gruffly, he can't seem to control the smile spreading over his face; apparently he's determined to continue his live-long habit of having badly timed heart-to-hearts during crises. Cas smiles back- a smaller thing, shy, but it still feels good to be the cause of it. Dean doesn't think he'll ever stop wanting to make Cas smile.
Something occurs to Dean. "We are so not telling Sam we said that."
"No. Let's try and limit how much of his world view we shatter at a time, huh?"
"Okay," Cas consents. Dean swings his legs over the side of the cot so that he's sitting next to Cas and arches his aching back, hearing his spine click.
"So nothing from Heaven, huh?" Dean asks.
"No," Cas says, sounding concerned. "I hope Anna is alright."
"Do you remember her?" Dean asks curiously. "From before, I mean."
"Yes," Cas says. "I remember everything about Heaven. Frankly, I'm glad to no longer be a part of it."
"Dude, human life sucks," Dean warns. "You of all people should know that."
"Yes, but from here on out, it sucks on my own terms," Cas says stubbornly, and Dean doesn't really have any choice but to grab at his shirt and drag him down, pleased to discover that kissing Cas is no less intense with the guardian link gone. He doesn't know why he gets to have this, how he got to keep this; all he knows is that he has no plans of letting it go.
After a few minutes, Dean makes himself push Cas away and sit up again.
"What's Sam gonna do if he comes down in couple hours' time and finds out I woke up and nobody told him?" he says by way of explanation. He doesn't like it that Sam and Cas are fighting, and he's got no interest in making Sam any madder. God forbid I screw up the one healthy relationship that kid has.
"There may be blood," Cas acknowledges. "Do you want me to go and fetch him?"
"Am I allowed out of here?"
"Then no, I'll go to him. Some help'd be nice, though."
Cas wraps an arm around Dean's shoulders to steady him. He guides Dean from the room and up the stairs, tiptoeing past a sleeping Bobby (that can definitely wait until later). Cas gestures at a door. Dean reaches for the handle, but stops, his fingers brushing over the metal.
"What is it?" Cas asks.
"You saw how Sam was after I got yanked down below," Dean says, keeping his voice low. "He was near crazy, Cas. All this time away from me… he did some healing, you know? That whole 'unhealthily co-dependent' thing we had going on, it got better. He got better. What if I'm doing the wrong thing, walking back into his life? Don't look at me like that," Dean defends, because Cas' expression- one Dean's sure he learned straight from Sam- screams 'are you really that stupid?'
"I'm not making this up," Dean insists. "The kid was convinced he couldn't live without me, Cas."
"Sam could live without you in his life, Dean," Cas says, emphasising each word, "but he would prefer you to be in it."
"Go and talk to your brother," Cas orders him, and Dean gives in- to be honest, he didn't really need much persuading. He's still convinced that Sam's going to punch him in the face or have a breakdown or both, but Dean'll take that over nothing at all. He wants to see Sam. He wants it so badly that it hurts.
"Should I stay?" Cas asks. Dean considers this and shakes his head.
"Best not," he says. "I'll shout if he gets me in a choke hold."
Cas' lip quirks up, and then he gestures towards the next door over- the room they had shared during Sam's detox. "I'll be in there," he says, and leaves Dean standing in the hallway.
Dean closes his hand on the handle, but hesitates again. C'mon, Winchester, you've been tortured in every realm there is. You can handle your pain-in-the-ass brother. Taking none of his own crap, Dean pushes the door open before he can change his mind.
Sam's awake, sitting on the edge of his bed in a t-shirt and sweatpants. He raises his eyes to meet Dean's, and for a second, Dean almost forgets this isn't a dream. But no- his body is solid against the ground, there aren't any feathers plugged into his shoulders, and Sam is definitely looking right at him.
"Thought you were sleeping," Dean says weakly. His earlier hypothesis is proved right- Sam does, in fact, look like shit.
Sam shakes his head. "Tried. Couldn't."
They remain in place, looking at each other in silence brought around by having far too much to say and no idea how to say it. All of a sudden, Sam rises on shaking legs and starts to stride towards Dean. Dean closes his eyes, bracing himself for a punch that never comes.
Sam throws his arms around Dean, clutching onto him as tightly as he can, and Dean responds as soon as he's realised what's going on. He presses his face into Sam's shoulder and smells the same stupidly floral washing powder Sam always buys ("we're men, Sam, not old women"), wraps his arms as tight around Sam's back as they'll go and thinks that, for once, he won't begrudge Sam the hug.
"Wow," Dean says once they've separated, with the kind of laugh designed to hide tears, "would you believe that I actually missed you?"
"At least you knew I was there," Sam says sharply, and Dean's hurt must be evident because Sam deflates. "I didn't mean it like that. I- Cas explained why you had to keep quiet. It… must have been tough for you."
Dean doesn't know how to say 'it was one of the worst things I've ever had to do' without risking one of them actually bursting into tears, so he doesn't try. "You're not mad?" he says instead.
"Mad? Dean, I'm furious. I'm pissed at you, and I'm pissed at Cas, and I'm upset and confused and I feel like the biggest idiot in the whole damn country." Sam pauses. "I hit Cas," he says, sounding ashamed.
"It was stupid."
Sam punches Dean on the arm. "You know, for an ex-angel, you're still a dick."
"You wouldn't have me any other way," he grins back, and the look on Sam's face says Dean might just be right.
Readjusting is harder than Dean had envisioned. He used to love eating- he still loves eating- but he has to do it so damn often that it feels like a nuisance. There's so much to get used to- eating, drinking, sleeping, talking rather than thinking, showering, using the bathroom, even getting dressed (pulling on a new set of clothes feels like pulling on a new skin).
Sam's still mourning Ruby, but every time Dean tries to bring her up he gets a dark look and "don't". Cas says that at first, Sam had tried arguing that Ruby had no idea what Lilith's real plan was, but Dean guesses denial can only be pushed so far. Ruby's knowledge of the Seals, her relentless driving of Sam to kill Lilith, her habit of disappearing for days on end… there's too much evidence for Ruby to be an innocent party here, and Dean can't begin to imagine how much that betrayal must hurt. He decides to quit pushing Sam about it- if he wants to talk, he'll talk. Until then, Dean's more than happy to pretend Ruby never existed.
Sam, true to his word, is angry. He tries to hide it for the most part, but Dean and Cas both have their fair share of biting remarks thrown their way, followed by shamefaced apologies a few hours later. Talking to Sam is... difficult. There's an awkwardness there that was never there before, a strangeness, and unfortunately, Dean's pretty sure that the only way out is through. Things are easier when Cas or Bobby are around, and Sam spends a lot of time with the latter; Dean's guessing that's his way of reassuring himself that he's not the only person who didn't know Dean was hanging around.
Bobby, for his part, is as unflappable as ever. He's obviously grateful to have Dean back- ever since Sam and Cas quit tripping out and Dean fell back to Earth, that bottle of whiskey has stayed locked in the cupboard- but he doesn't make a big deal of it. He make sure that Dean really is okay, spends a few hours questioning him extensively about angels and Heaven, and proceeds to mock the ever-loving crapout of him from that point on.
"It's a door handle, boy," he says one day, when Dean falters after getting up from a chair. "You remember them, right?"
"Were you trying to teleport?" Cas says, raising an eyebrow.
"No!" Dean says defensively. Under Bobby's scrutinising gaze, he wilts. "Maybe. It's been a long time since I had to use a door, okay?"
"Idjit," Bobby mutters good-naturedly, returning to the paper. The universe is slowly returning to how it should be.
Three days later, Sam walks in on Cas and Dean, which is equally traumatising for everyone involved. Sam appears three hours later wearing his 'Dean Winchester We Are Going To Talk About Your Feelings' expression. Sam's only breached the topic of 'discipline' once, and he didn't get very far with it, but Dean would rather write a freakin' dissertation on blade length than have this particular conversation.
"Dean-" Sam begins.
"I get it," Dean says, raising his hands in surrender. "My bad. Next time, we'll lock the door."
"Dean, I want to talk about you and Cas."
"No, you don't."
"Okay, no, I don't, but I feel like I have to."
"You really don't," Dean says helpfully, but Sam ignores him. He stares down at his hands instead, fiddling with his fingers, until he blurts something out.
"Cas is a good guy," he says. Dean looks at him oddly.
"Uh, yeah. I know."
"He's saved my ass more times than I can count, he had my back when I needed him… he's a friend, you know? And like, you two being a thing is kinda weird- okay, it's really freaking weird- but he honestly seems to mean it. I've never seen him talk about anyone the way he talked about you."
"Okay, where is this going?" Dean demands.
"A couple months back, Cas told me- probably told you too, I guess- that he'd never been in a relationship. He hasn't got any experience with any of that crap. So don't, you know… be you."
"You know what I mean," Sam says in frustration. "I know you, Dean. You're not exactly the 'settling down' type. I don't know what your plans are- I really want you to stay, but it's your decision- but Cas sticking around is kind of one of mine, so… yeah."
"Are you telling me not to fuck and run?" Dean says in disbelief. "You do know the 'break his heart and I'll break your legs' talk is meant for the person dating your family member, not the other way around, right?"
"Dating?" Sam pounces. Dean groans.
"I'm not ditching Cas, okay?" Dean sighs. "And as the last person you were in love with turned out to be Lucifer's number one fan, you're not allowed to run a Cosmo column just yet."
The Ruby card is a low blow, and Dean knows it, but Sam latches onto an entirely different part of the sentence.
"The person I was in love with?" he says, raising an eyebrow.
"This conversation is over," Dean declares, leaving as quickly as he can. Sam just smiles. Dean has to admit that, despite how different their lives are these days, some things never really change.
Their break from the real world is shattered five days later. Sam's scrolling through news updates on his laptop when, suddenly, he sits up a little straighter.
"What is it?" Cas asks. Sam looks abashed.
"Nothing," he says.
"Bull," Dean says. "That was your 'I found a case' face."
"It was," Cas agrees.
"It's nothing," Sam protests.
"If it's nothing, tell us what it is," Dean challenges. Sam tries to stare him down, fails, and sighs.
"This guy's post-mortem suggested he died in a head-on collision," Sam says. "In a parked car."
"I'd say that's worth checking out," Dean nods.
"Is now really a good time?" Sam says doubtfully. "I mean, you pretty much died last week."
"Again," Cas adds.
"Do I look dead to you?" Dean defends himself. "I'm fine- I'm antsy. I'm sick of sitting around doing nothing."
"The case does sound interesting," Cas admits.
"Whose side are you on?" Sam says despairingly.
"C'mon, Sam, we'll go slow," Dean says. "It'll be a training wheels kinda thing."
"We'll ask Bobby," Sam says. Bobby's response is along the lines of 'if you squirts don't get out from under my feet soon, I'll kill you myself', and so two hours later they find themselves loading up the Impala.
"We're running low on salt," Cas notes as they take stock.
"No problem," Dean says. "We'll borrow some of Bobby's."
"Like hell you will," Bobby grunts. "Go on, get going. Phone me if you need help not dying."
Dean slams the boot lid, and Cas turns to Bobby.
"Thank you for all your help," he says sincerely. Bobby's face softens, almost imperceptibly.
"I should be thanking you for putting up with both of these idjits," he says. "God knows one is bad enough."
"It was good to see you, Bobby," Sam says, but his smile is strained; nobody's forgotten the original reason Bobby 'invited' Sam around. That being said, when Bobby replies "and you," the ferocity of Sam's hug suggests that there are no hard feelings.
"Same to you," Bobby says, releasing Sam to glare at Dean. "Take care now, you hear?"
"Yes sir," Dean says, and finds himself being pulled into a rough hug.
"Good," Bobby says. "Now would y- what the hell is that?"
It's not hard to spot the cause of Bobby's surprise; the old, mud-sprayed cab parked a short distance away from the Impala was definitely not there a minute ago. They glance at each other and move forwards as one, hands closing on various weapons.
The cab is facing away from them, so Dean can only see the back of the driver's head. The cab's bumper is plastered with peeling stickers, most of which Dean ignores, but one catches his eye: a greying angel wing decal, stuck firmly across the middle.
"Would you look at that?" Dean murmurs. "A cab with wings."
"Dean?" Cas frowns.
"Be right back," Dean says, breaking off and jogging to the cab. He pulls open the back door and clambers in before anyone can stop him, ignoring the incredulous shouts coming from behind him.
"Where to?" the driver asks, keeping their face turned away.
"This is A, right?" Dean says. "I'll let you pick B."
The driver chuckles, and when Dean looks out the window he finds that Singer's Salvage Yard has magically melted away. They're on a generic-looking road, nothing but tarmac and sand.
"How's Anna?" Dean asks, leaning on the seat in front of him.
"Ask her yourself," Inias says, a smile in his voice, and a moment later there's a familiar redhead sitting in the passenger seat.
"Dean!" Anna says enthusiastically, hair whipping around as she turns to smile at him. "It's so good to see you."
"You two have been keeping a pretty low profile," Dean accuses. "Am I off of Heaven's Christmas Card list or something?"
"You did rebel against one of the most powerful seraphs known to Heaven," Inias says dryly.
"And he did die," Anna says. "And it was kind of your fault."
Dean shrugs, in a 'what can you do?' style gesture. There's a corner coming up, and the car swings around it without Inias touching the wheel.
"So who runs the joint now?" Dean asks.
"A question we'd all like an answer to," Inias muses. "Ever since the truth about the Seals came out, there's been something of a civil war going on."
"Well, on one side you've got the pro-apocalypse," Anna says. "Some angels, lots of seraphs, all spearheaded by Raphael."
Figures. "And on the other side?"
"That would be us," Inias says.
"We're leading the resistance," Anna says, "we're the underdogs, granted, but we've got some damn good angels fighting for us."
"I don't get it," Dean frowns. "Why weren't your asses shoved straight to discipline the instant you thought about rebelling?"
"The discipline system has fallen apart," Anna says. "Ever since a certain somebody proved that the forces are penetrable, it's kinda lost its repute."
"I'm on what I believe you would call 'the shit list'," Inias says mildly, as the car takes a right turn.
"So what's next?" Dean asks. "Take out Raphael?"
"Ideally, yes," Anna says. "But he's an archangel. We're nowhere near strong enough."
"We need more help," Inias agrees.
"How much do you know about archangels?" Anna asks, firmly back in 'teacher' role. Dean flounders.
"They're dicks?" he offers. "Powerful dicks. Uh, Raphael is one."
"He is," Anna says. "Lucifer is another, but strangely enough, we're not banking on his support. The third is named Michael."
"I think Zachariah mentioned him," Dean says, trying to remember. They're on a long straight section of road now, and Inias rests his hands behind his head.
"Yes, very probably," Inias says. "Michael is arguably the most powerful of all the archangels. He's not actively fighting for Raphael, but he certainly won't help us. He wants the Seals broken."
"So bad news all around, huh?"
"Not quite," Anna says, a conspiratory grin on her face. "There's a fourth archangel. His name is Gabriel. He walked out on Heaven millennia ago, but we think we've found signs of his presence on Earth. If we can track down Gabriel, talk him into siding with us? We might just stand a chance."
"Damn," Dean whistles. "Is Balthazar-"
"Fighting for us," Inias confirms. "Though it must be said that he's still fairly derogatory towards you."
"Super," Dean mutters. "Well, let me know if I can help with anything."
"Thank you, but we're planning on keeping you as out of Heaven's business as much as we can," Inias says. "You've earned that much."
"Thanks," Dean says gratefully. "But, uh, while we're on the topic- that emotion block stuff Zach put in place is still there. What's with that?"
Anna and Inias exchange a look.
"We don't know," Anna admits. "All we know is that, when Lilith was exorcised to Hell, a lot of things happened that we can't explain."
"Like Sam's demon blood addiction disappearing overnight," she points out, and Dean's honestly not shocked to hear they know about that. Friggin' angels. "Like seven angels spontaneously dying, and it turning out they were all pro-Lucifer."
"Gone," she confirms, and Dean just about resists the urge to fist-pump. "The reports only get stranger- we're talking things that no angel has the power to do. Just look at your memories. It takes a lot to block out that level of trauma. Breaking a wall is easy, but making one? It's a very specialised skill. Zachariah could, but with him gone, the only angel left that I know can do it is Raphael. Do you really see him doing that out of the goodness of his heart?"
"Point taken," Dean admits. "So you really haven't got any idea?"
"There is one explanation," Anna says.
"He has returned," Inias says warmly. It takes a few seconds before Dean gets what he's talking about.
"Wait, you mean God?" Dean says in disbelief. "You're telling me God put up the barriers in my mind?"
"Is that really so hard to believe?"
"Uh, yeah!" Dean says. "Why would God care about fixing me up like that?"
"As compensation? A reward?" Anna suggests. "Good things do happen, Dean."
For once in his life, Dean decides to make a sensible decision and not debate religion with two angels. "You said breaking walls is easier than making them?" he says.
"Oh, yes," Anna confirms. "Any angel can do that."
"Cool," he says- then, "break it."
"What?" Anna gasps.
"Dean, is your self-loathing really that severe?" Inias echoes in disbelief.
"I don't like it," Dean says, folding his arms. "Thinking of what I did, and not feeling anything? It's not right."
"You'd rather be reduced to a gibbering wreck?" Inias challenges. "You'd rather be wracked by hallucinations and flashbacks?"
"Fair point- but tell me this," Dean says. "When Zachariah used to disable my wall or whatever, did he play fair? Was that really how things would be if I never had anything blocked?"
"Yes," Inias says.
"No," Anna says.
"Anna!" Inias objects.
"I'm not going to lie to him," Anna defends. "No, Dean. It's like putting up a dam- the water that hits you when you take it down is stronger than the river would have been. Repressing a guardian's emotions isn't always done for their wellbeing- it's done to give the Host something to hold over them, to scare them with."
"System's fucked," Dean says helpfully.
"You don't know the half of it," Anna sighs. "When an angel chooses to fall, they give their grace over to Heaven. That's what we use to create guardians. The problem is that grace can be manipulated- the way your powers were limited? Trust me, that wasn't accidental. There are angels that pretty much hand-pick the powers guardians get to have."
"And let me guess," Dean says, "it's way easier to keep a guardian away from their old life if the people they used to care about can't even see them anymore."
"Exactly," Anna says. "And that's before you even get on to how guardians are assigned. There are so many people who need our help, but we ignore them all. These days, guardians are only really assigned to people who Heaven consider dangerous- they basically act as glorified spies. When I helped set up the system, it was a good thing. A pure thing. Now, getting a guardian is more of a curse than a blessing."
"Alastair knew," Dean says. "He tried telling me."
"I don't advise you make a habit of listening to demons," Inias says, which ends that line of conversation pretty efficiently.
"But if you took the wall in my head down, and it stayed down…" Dean says.
"In theory, you could learn to cope," Anna confirms. "It might take some time, but you could be okay again."
"You'd still be looking at a huge amount of trauma," Inias argues. "Nightmares. Depression. Flashbacks in stressful situations."
"I'll take it."
"Why?" Inias says despairingly.
"Because that's part of being human," Dean says. "You gotta have the bad parts, or the good parts don't mean a damn thing. I don't like Heaven hitting 'clear history' on my brain. I did things that I regret, but I gotta learn to live with that- so tell the guy upstairs thanks, but no thanks. I want you to take it down."
"Are you sure?" Anna asks gently.
"Yes," Dean says.
"At least let us suppress the discipline memories," Inias tries. "After all you've done for us, it's the least we can do for you."
"What you can do for me is find Gabriel, kick ass, and give me my damn mind back," Dean says. "Capiche?"
Inias looks at Anna unhappily, who shrugs. "It's what he wants," she says.
Inias sighs heavily, but then gives a slight nod. Anna reaches forwards and gently brushes her fingers across Dean's forehead.
There's no sudden attack of emotion. It's more of a gradual seeping, a feeling of general unease in Dean's stomach that gradually differentiates. It takes time, and Dean remains silent while the guilt, pain, sadness, fear, rage and regret all find their individual memories and bind to them. He feels worse with each second that passes, and he almost wishes everything would snap into place at once like when Zachariah used to handle things.
"How do you feel?" Inias says after several minutes have passed.
"Crappy," Dean says, truthfully. "Human. Alive."
Dean stares out the window, trying to adjust to the bloated sensation of all the life in his head- he's got forty-two years of bonus content that no longer has any interest in lying low and being forgotten. After a while, he finds that he recognises his surroundings. They road they're on is heading straight for Singer's Salvage Yard.
"Taking me back?" he asks.
"I think Cas and Sam would complain if we stole you away for too long," Anna says. "Take care of them, okay? Cas especially. I've missed him a lot these past thirty years."
"Hey, I didn't ask him to waste his grace like that," Dean says, stomach twisting. He never meant to make Cas give his family up- hell, until very recently, Dean didn't think Cas had any family left. Suddenly, Balthazar's visits make a lot more sense.
"Waste?" Anna says blankly.
"You don't care that he dropped out of Heaven?" Dean says sceptically.
"He's hardly the first angel to fall. Even I considered it for a while," Anna admits, and Inias' grip tightens fractionally on the wheel. "Inias tried his best to change my mind, and he got most of the way there- and when Castiel was thrown, that did the rest. I was banned from contacting him- we all were- but I knew the pain he was in." There's a bitterness in her voice, and when she speaks again, it flourishes into righteousness. "Now, I'm not going anywhere. Raphael's not getting rid of me that easily."
"Okay, so maybe you don't care that he fell, but..." Dean doesn't know how to word it, so he just looks at Anna hopefully.
"He did it for you," Anna says gently. "That's what bothering you, isn't it?"
Dean doesn't say yes, but he doesn't say no either. Sometimes, this mind-reading bullshit has its uses.
"Castiel made his choice, and we respect that," Inias says. "Not everybody shares Balthazar's views."
"He's happy," Anna says, and she sounds happy too. "That's all we want for him, Dean."
Dean nods slowly, and Anna smiles. "Anything else?" she asks teasingly.
"Yeah, actually," he says, and both angels look at him questioningly. "Thank you. You two did a lot for me, and I wasn't always easy to do things for."
"No, Dean," Anna says, shaking her head. "Thank you."
"I don't think I can ever explain you've done for us," Inias says.
"What, killed your boss? Brought you to war?" Dean snorts. "Yeah, you might not want my help next time."
"You showed us choice," Anna argues. "You showed us that it wasn't hopeless. That it's worth fighting if you really care about something."
"Or someone," Inias adds, almost inaudibly, and Dean absolutely does not miss the way Anna rests her hand on top of his. The car pulls into Singer's Salvage Yard, and Dean winces as Bobby comes into view.
"How pissed are they going to be?" he questions.
"Raphael will seem like a kitten by comparison," Anna teases. Dean glowers and opens the cab door.
"Where are they?" he calls to Bobby, noticing that the Impala's disappeared.
"Trying to chase down a winged cab," Bobby scowls. He fixes his glare on Anna. "You'd better get Dean back to them in one piece, or I will try every damn weapon in my artillery until I find one that leaves holes."
To Bobby's surprise, Anna laughs. "I love people," she says happily. "Take care, Dean."
"And you," Dean says, and with a slight jolt he finds himself in the backseat of the Impala. Sam swears and stamps on the brake, slamming everybody forwards.
"Hey," Dean says, somewhat redundantly, as Sam splutters and pulls the car over.
"What happened?" Cas asks.
"Just catching up with our good pal Inias, that's all," Dean says. "Anna too. Hey, I think they're a thing now."
Dean leans forward, resting his elbows on the back of Sam and Cas' seats. Cas has twisted around and is gazing at him with a strange mixture of frustration and relief, his world temporarily full of Dean and nothing else. Dean is speared with sudden guilt. The things I watched happen to you…
But no, it wasn't Cas. The thing that Dean remembers was nothing more than a creature of cloud and clay, and Raphael didn't even get the eyes right.
As the real Cas silently slips his hand backwards to take Dean's, the guilt mellows ever so slightly and, against his intentions, Dean starts to hope. It's early days, granted, but he can actually see things working out. He's going to have a lot of issues for a very long time- but Hell, he's a hunter. He's a human. It kind of goes with the territory.
"Oh my God, Dean," Sam says, twisting around in the seat. "You have so much to explain that it's not even funny."
Dean's eyes drift down to where Cas' fingers are clasped in his. He looks down at his own body- still very much corporeal despite Sam being there- and then at Sam, who he's having an actual, waking conversation with. Dean looks at the wheel as Sam changes course for the site of the mysterious parked-car-collision (and swears an oath to get rid of the iPod as soon as possible), and he looks out the window, where the sun is setting like it fully intends to rise in the morning.
"Not right now," Dean says. "After all, we got time."