"Okay," Dean said, straightening his back. Castiel stood in front of him in a drop-shouldered, lopsided parade rest, like he wasn't quite sure how to mimic his angelic form's regimental stance when his body came with limbs. Gabriel slouched back against the motel bed's headboard with a sucker in his mouth and his stubby little terrier snoozing in his lap. "So. Sandra Philips, thirty-eight. Local. Dad had a heart attack a few years back and he and her mom moved to Florida after he recovered. No family history of mental illness or any form of child abuse. Husband is in the army, currently stationed at a base down in Georgia. One son, age nineteen, started college this year. Husband and son both come with good recommendations. No credit card debt, no debt at all except the son's student loans. No criminal record, didn't go to college herself, known in high school as a good English tutor. No one in her main circle of high school friends has a criminal record except for a couple of speeding tickets. Her friends now are mostly army wives, all with clean records and clean pasts except one Michaela Harvey- she got taken down for smoking on school grounds in junior high. I'll be looking her up tomorrow. Sandra considers herself vaguely spiritual but non-religious, she bakes and reads G-rated romance novels in her spare time, and she's allergic to eucalyptus, so if everything goes downhill we can throw some Vick's Vapo-rub at her and run.

"Now for the other kids. From oldest to youngest-"

Gabriel groaned loudly. "Mmkay, Dean-o. This whole super-protective streak is cute and all, but I'm not gonna sit here and listen to you list every time twelve children bit their classmates and spit on their parents. You said this was an emergency."

Dean stared at him blankly and shook the thick sheaf of notes in his hands. "It is," he insisted. "Dude, I'm seriously worried about this Travis kid. He kicked a girl off the diving board at his sixth birthday party last summer."

Gabriel shook his head and glanced over at their brother. "All yours, Cassie. I have a banker who's about to get caught with a blow-up smurf." He popped out.

Dean sighed and slumped into one of the creaky chairs at the rickety round side table. "This wouldn't be a big deal if you two would just let me be there," he grumbled. "Then I could keep an eye on the Travis psycho by myself."

"You know that Sam needs time away from you," Cas pointed out, still standing awkwardly in the middle of the room. "He has attended day-care for two weeks and his vocabulary has already increased greatly, due to having found himself in a setting where he is required to use his words to communicate rather than thoughts or expressions."

"Told ya he was smart," Dean muttered sullenly. He set his sixty-odd pages of background checks on the table and pushed them aside for later, though.

"He is also regularly using your name," Castiel continued, finally choosing to perch on the very edge of the bed with his trench coat wrapped tightly around his legs. "John does not often notice, but Mrs. Philips is more attentive and will begin to wonder who Sam is attempting to engage in conversation."

"Whom," Dean whispered, just to be a dick. He knew Cas had a point, though. Sam's clearly-enunciated 'Deen's were already making John frown, and Dean wasn't looking forward to the day the hunter figured out that his boy wasn't actually slow at all. Dean didn't really have a plan for that yet.

"Alright," he drawled loudly. "Come on. If I'm not allowed to do anything for Sam, we'll work on you for today." He heaved himself up out of the chair and slung his jacket over one shoulder.

Castiel stared at him. A tiny furrow in his forehead radiated his very deep concern. "What is wrong with me?"

"Living, Cas," Dean said encouragingly, shooing the other angel towards the door. "People skills. Pool. Drinking. Women. Men. Whatever floats your boat. Let's go."

"I do not have a boat."

"Dad knows I know that. We're gonna find you one, okay?" When Castiel continued to stand still in confusion, Dean grabbed his sleeve and pulled him outside, letting go when they reached the sidewalk as he thought over his plans. Maybe he should take Cas to one of those hipster bookstore-slash-coffee-shop places instead of a dive bar this time. People there might think Cas was being aloof and arty instead of painfully, embarrassingly awkward. Mind made up, he slapped a palm on Cas' forehead and zapped them to New York City, keeping a narrow connection of consciousness and Grace fixed steady on Sam.

SPN SPN SPN

"-can't just do that, Jesus Christ, Cas, haven't I taught you anything?!"

"Please do not use our Lord's name in that way."

"All these months you've been doing just fine when I tell you what to do. Then the first time I turn you loose on your own, the first time, and you decide you're gonna go pick up chicks and dudes in frickin' Salt Lake City?!"

"I have never seen the lake that the city is named for. It sounded interesting."

"Oh, it is interesting, Cas, it's an amazing piece of Dad's creation, but it's not the kind of place you go to pick up dudes! And you don't ask where the bars are!"

"I thought you would be pleased that I changed the plan and went to a book and coffee shop of my own volition."

"Not when you get yourself punched and thrown out! What the hell did you even say to that guy?"

"I told him that I was there to give an impression of being an 'aloof and soulful artist,' so would he like to engage in intercourse."

Dean gaped at him. Then he turned around and thudded his head repeatedly off the wall of the motel. "Fuckin' Jesus Christ."

"Please do not-"

"Yes, yes, I know."

Dean banged his head a few more times before he straightened up. "Okay," he sighed, and scrubbed his hands over his face and through his hair. "I guess it's back to square one for next time. You're not safe to be out on your own. Come on, you wanna come in and see Sam before you go back up? His dad's in there, though. Sam's feeling pretty unhappy right now, I'm guessing Daddy's tryin' for some bonding time again."

Castiel nodded so they left the dingy alley behind the motel that they'd flown into after Cas' disastrous first try at going out on his own and headed around to the front. It was only six-thirty or seven, but dusk came early to these Midwestern towns even in early October, so all the lights in the room were blazing through the thin curtains and Dean could see clearly when he peered into the car to make sure John hadn't forgotten anything important. Again. He hadn't, so Dean nodded to Castiel and they zapped into the room.

They both froze.

Sam was sitting on the floor in the middle of a series of chalk circles drawn on the carpet, filled in and ringed with symbols and runes. He was naked and black runes that looked like they'd been drawn in sharpie covered his chest. His legs and the patch of carpet he sat on were wet and from the smell, he'd wet himself since John placed him there. His wrists and ankles were tied with what looked like bandannas and a third piece of fabric tied the two together so that the toddler couldn't stand or crawl away. His eyes were red and filled with tears that ran down his flushed, chubby cheeks, his hair and shirt were soaked on one side, and there was salt stuck on his chin and in his lap like he'd been fed a mouthful of the stuff and spat it out.

John crouched in front of him, just outside the circle, a bowl of leaves and oils in one hand and his lighter in the other.

"Deeeen," Sam whimpered.

John didn't respond to his son but started chanting something Dean didn't even recognize over the bowl. He caught words about purity, evil, magic, and possession, though, and figured the intent couldn't be anything too good. Then John held his lighter to the bowl and set the whole thing on fire. He waved it close to Sam, chanting the whatever-it-was again and louder.

Sam started to scream as the flames were pushed in front of his face. "DEEN! I WANT DEEN! NOW NOW! DEEEEN!"

Dean, whatever shock had held him frozen wearing off the second he heard Sam's cry, lunged forward. Castiel grabbed his arms and wrenched him back.

"Wait," he ordered urgently. "If you appear now he may hurt Sam. Wait."

"Oh, you're gettin' whatever you're askin' for, Sammy," John snarled. He set the bowl down inside the circle between him and Sam. "Or whatever you are, pretending to be Sammy."

Sam finally caught sight of Dean and Castiel through the smoke and tears clogging his eyes, and he strained forward, almost rolling into the bowl of flames at his tied feet. "Deen!"

"Is that your master?" John demanded. "Some demon you're trying to summon on me? What the hell are you, and where's my son?"

"Deen!" Sam wailed. "Cass! Dee!"

Dean pulled at Castiel's grip, but the soldier held on tight. "Wait," he insisted, but his voice was a gravelly rasp through gritted teeth. "What do you think John will do if you take his son invisibly? He will hunt you and never believe that Sam has not been corrupted. He needs to know who and what you are. If you reveal yourself now he may think you to be a product of whatever demon he believes to be possessing his son and hurt Sam."

Dean knew Cas was right, but that didn't make it any easier to watch Sam- his kid- tied up and crying for him and being tortured by his own dad. He stepped back and shook off Cas' loosened hold. "I'll wait," he growled. "Go. I don't know how much smoke he's breathing in or what's in it, or how much salt Winchester made him eat. Go get me stuff to calm him down as soon as this shit is over so we can heal him while he's not already stressed out."

Cas nodded and turned away, about to leave.

Then John pulled out a knife.

Sam, his teary gaze still fixed on his angels, realized that Cas was about to leave him, and he let out a loud wordless shriek.

John grinned cruelly. "Oh, so that's it, is it? Scared by a little bit of silver, huh?" He leaned over the chalk marks and grabbed one of Sam's bound arms, dragging the kid right to the edge of the inner circle and making him cry out again. "Let's see what this does to you, huh?" He brought the tip of the knife to Sam's forearm.

"Enough!" Dean exploded. A split second later he knelt before John, fully visible, wings flared out, Sam clutched to his chest. The boy wailed his name again and tried to throw his arms around Dean, but was held back by the bandannas around his wrists. Cas appeared next to him and quickly tore through the bindings. Dead immediately hoisted Sam up higher so the toddler could push his face into Dean's neck and swept his wings forward and around him to hide Sam from view. Cas kept his wings held high and threatening overhead.

John stared at them, mouth open. Then he scrambled for the knife he'd dropped when Dean crashed in.

"No." Castiel snatched the knife, his grip much too strong for the human to fight him off, and threw it across the room. He seized John's wrists in one hand, wrapped his other hand around John's throat to still him, and held him in place.

"What the hell are you?" John choked out.

"We are angels of the Lord," Dean barked. "Castiel is a soldier of Heaven-"

"There are no angels," John growled. "You're just demons, lying-"

"What, you want me to manifest a halo or something?" Dean snapped. "You know there are demons and Hell. Why wouldn't there be angels and Heaven?"

John gurgled a little but didn't answer, obviously struck by something he'd never bothered to think about. "If he's a soldier, what are you? What do you want with Sam?"

"I am your son's Guardian angel, appointed by God. My name is Hesedinel. Your son calls me Dean." Dean took vicious pleasure in the way John's eyes widened in alarm. "And you have seriously pissed me off."

He held Sam tightly to him and disappeared.

SPN SPN SPN

The ritual John had attempted to perform on Sam was one that he'd cobbled together himself from bits and pieces of other rituals, summonings, and exorcisms he'd found. It didn't work the way he intended, mostly because Sam wasn't possessed or any kind of monster or demon, but partly because John didn't know quite what he'd created. The ritual didn't purify Sam's body or banish anything from him. It did something else instead.

The smoke from the ritual bowl wafted up into the room, through cracks around the windows and door, and out into the open air. Having no demonic or ghostly presence to bind itself to, the smoke attached to a whisper of Sam's soul instead. And since Sam's soul was already where it was supposed to be, the smoke drifted to the only other place Sam's soul could be intended to go.

It drifted down to the Cage.

Lucifer had felt the very moment that his vessel had been born. A slender thread of grace connected the archangel to his vessel- just enough to know that the child was alive, healthy, and happy. Or unhappy, as the case may be, but those times were blessedly infrequent, as they gave Lucifer a headache. Fragments of childish wonder and delight filtered down occasionally too, but Lucifer ignored those. The vessel was a shell;

When the boy was especially joyful and his innocent love blazed down into the Cage, Lucifer usually felt the echo of another angel's grace, and assumed he'd been given a Guardian. He half expected himself to begrudge this, but found that he could only be pleased. Lucifer was the child's true Guardian, of course, but at least someone was keeping him safe until Lucifer could get there himself.

And he would get there. Lucifer's vessel walked the earth; Lucifer's time to rise was finally near.

Lucifer had felt Sam's terror and pain as John tied him up, poured holy water on him, forced salt into his mouth, and bellowed exorcisms at him. He'd thrown himself furiously at the walls of the Cage, trying harder to escape than he had since he'd first been cast down by Michael. Someone was hurting his vessel, and that someone would pay.

Then the fear was overtaken by relief and love, and Lucifer assumed the Guardian angel had rescued the boy. He settled back to the ground, wishing he knew what- and who- had upset the child so terribly.

Then, for the first time since its creation around Lucifer as he was cast from Heaven, something entered the Cage.

The smoke drifted in, briefly repelled by the laws of Hell that tried to prevent an innocent soul from entering but drawn indelibly along the thread that connected Sam's soul to the archangel imprisoned, and wreathed the bound form of his Grace.

Lucifer absorbed the smoke and the hint of Sam's innocent, fated soul.

He smiled.