Sam had gone quiet. Well, he was always pretty quiet now, but this was a little different- child-like or not, he still managed to pull up that shifty look he'd perfected as a teenager, telling Dean he was going on a date with a girl from class when he was really going to an author's book reading or filling out financial aid forms on a library computer. Christ, Dean thought. What the hell had he done wrong raising this kid, that he pretended to go on dates so he could sneak off to the library?
It's not like he'd stopped when he'd grown up, either. Now there were things like open-late internet cafes and 24-hour diners with wifi, and Dean always had to go peer in the windows of every single one in town whenever Sam claimed he was leaving a bar with someone, because more likely than not he'd just wanted private time to check up on his favorite journalists' blogs.
How, how was Dean the older brother of a guy who thought 'private time' meant slouching down in a tiny booth with a ridiculously expensive cup of coffee to read an Aristotelian analysis of this week's debates in the Senate? Just the fact that he knew the word Aristotelian made Dean a little sick.
"Don't you fucking dare give me a definition, I already know as much as I need to," he'd snapped, dragging Sam out of the internet café by the collar of his jacket. "I can't believe you. You don't get enough time on that thing in between hunts, you have to sneak off and get more of it in secret? Lying to me about where you're going? You said you were going back to some brunette's place!"
"The barista's a brunette," Sam had muttered guiltily. But he was absently petting his laptop case at the same time, so Dean ruthlessly ignored any hint of an apology in those pathetic puppy eyes.
"You need help," he'd said flatly. "If we're at the point where you're sneaking around behind my back, going out and hiding in places like this to get your fix, I'm cutting you off. You're going cold turkey. I'll even quit with you, it wouldn't be fair if I used it in front of you. We'll do our research out of newspapers like the old days. And when you're not in the room, I want to see you at a bar, drinking and feeling up chicks. Got it?"
Sam just laughed like he'd been trying to hold it in. Dean never figured out why.
Sammy laughed now more than he had for years, but it wasn't really laughing, so Dean didn't know how he felt about that. He giggled over plenty of things, like the little kid he seemed to be now, but hearing him do it just reinforced the fact that Dean's brother wasn't really all there anymore. He still spent most of his time trying to get Sammy giggling, because it was good to see him happy no matter what, and it was a hell of a lot better than seeing him scream at the devil.
But Sammy hadn't been giggling much the last few weeks. He hadn't been doing much of anything, at least not where Dean could see him. He got up later and went to bed earlier, and resolutely shut his door whenever he went into his room instead of leaving it open so he could hear Dean walking around. Bobby wasn't too worried about it yet, figured Sam was just testing boundaries- he said it might even be a good sign, might show that Sam was getting stronger and more confident and a little bit closer to his grown-up self.
Dean figured the boundary-testing thing was probably closer, though, because Sammy also had a new habit- stealing extra helpings of dessert. Dean and Bobby didn't make dessert all that often, even though Dean was actually pretty good at doing his own pie crusts and Bobby made a mean layer cake, but they turned it into a nightly thing after they both noticed servings going missing every time there was something to take. Dean thought it was kinda cute, really, the way Sam would sneak downstairs at night like Dean couldn't hear a 200 pound man tiptoeing along creaky floors, and how every time Dean looked away from the dining table his brother would reach out and snatch another cookie and shove it in his overflowing pockets. Dean figured Sammy's sweet tooth was coming back with a vengeance after twenty years of resolute suppression.
One morning, Dean woke up a little earlier than usual. He wasn't sure why, until he crept up to Sam's room and put his ear to the door- Sam was up, walking around and whispering to himself. He didn't sound upset, and he'd definitely left the door shut, so Dean let him be and went down to make coffee.
Bobby lumbered in as Dean was draining his first cup, leaning against the counter. "Mornin'," he grunted, and poured himself a mug. "Where's Sam?"
"Still in his room," Dean muttered, wondering how likely he was to get away with telling Bobby that Sammy really, really wanted the older hunter's signature pancakes and bacon for breakfast.
Bobby hissed wordlessly, slamming his mug down on the counter and sloshing coffee everywhere. Dean jumped, startled.
"What? What's wrong?"
Bobby threw him an exasperated glare.
"…No," Dean snapped. "No. Don't you fucking dare tell me he's not in his room. He was up there, like, fifteen minutes ago. He couldn't have come down the stairs, I've been right here the whole damn time and I would've seen him. He couldn't have opened the window without us hearing it because that one squeaks like a bitch."
"He's not in his room, Dean," Bobby sighed.
Dean felt an angry growl building up in his chest. "CAS!" he bellowed. "Get the fuck down here!"
Castiel had been busy, and Sammy had been scared of him the first few times he came by– scared to the point of cowering at Castiel's feet, both of them looking helpless and distressed. Cas explained with the most regretful expression Dean had ever seen on him that Sam's skinned and battered soul was highly receptive to angel Grace after his time in the Cage, and right now he could feel Cas' Grace but not distinguish it from any other angel's- so every time Cas came near, he was thrust back into memories of Lucifer and Michael's combined Grace filling up the Cage and burning him from the inside out. When Sam was more himself again Cas' Grace would be soothing to him, because his soul's heightened sensitivity meant he would feel the soft enveloping of his wings and the gentle love (Cas' words, not Dean's, thank you very much) Cas could Gracefully project only to other angels– and Sam, now. But until then, Castiel felt it was better he stay away, and Dean had to agree when it took him an hour just to get Sammy off the floor.
"Cas! Get down here right the fuck now, man, Sammy's gone, something's taken him."
"Goddamn angels," Bobby muttered. "Gonna have to make more coffee."
Cas beamed in, all ruffled and intense. "What-" he started. Then his eyes went wide, and he sat abruptly down in a chair. "What have you done since I was last here?"
Dean frowned and set his coffee very carefully down on the table. Sam acting weird then disappearing, then Cas turning up asking what he'd done- based on a whole hell of a lot of past experience, that kind of thing didn't bode well for anybody. "I haven't done anything, Cas," he growled. "I've been taking care of Sammy and feeding him Lucky Charms and watching a whole lot of soap operas. Why don't you tell me what's goin' on and what we're gonna kill to get Sam back?"
Castiel blinked slowly and swiveled his head from side to side like an owl, taking in things Dean obviously couldn't see. "Gabriel has been here."
"Gabriel," Dean said. "Like, Trickster Gabriel, the one we saw die? Douche with a sugar problem and a lame girly dog? That Gabriel?"
"The Archangel Gabriel, Messenger of the Lord," Castiel told him reproachfully. "I don't know how, but traces of his Grace linger here- both weak and strong. He came here some time ago, weakened, and he recovered here."
Despite what his bookworm nerd of a little brother liked to tell people with a smug little grin, Dean could think. So he thought. Sam had gone quiet, like he was keeping a secret. Sam had been spending more time in his room. Sam had been hoarding sugary things. Sam was so gonna get that leash on his neck. "Son of a bitch," Dean swore. "Where's the holy oil and my lighter? I'm gonna make sure that dick says dead this time."
Naturally, Castiel impressed upon him the grave mistake he'd be making in going after a resurrected Archangel unprepared- or rather, he gave him that don't be a fucking idiot look he somehow managed to do without actually moving any of the muscles in his face. Bobby passed around coffee that was more bourbon than coffee, and they sat around the kitchen table to regroup.
"What the hell would Gabriel want with Sam, anyway?" Dean asked Cas.
"Shouldn't we be wondering who or what brought him back from the dead?" Bobby interrupted, forgoing his coffee and swigging straight from the bottle instead.
Dean flapped a hand. "Eh. Die, come back, we've all done it a few times. Old news. But Sam's not worth anything to him, is he? Satan's back in the box and his brain's too scrambled to be any use."
Castiel sniffed at his coffee cup, but didn't touch it. "I don't know. Perhaps he required a vessel and wanted one that he was familiar with, or one that wouldn't put up a fight."
"What d'you mean, not put up a fight? Sammy would totally fight him off!" Dean snapped.
"You think?" Bobby asked. "If some worn-out back-from-the-dead angel turned up, one who died tryin' to help you two in the end, you really think your brother would turn him away?"
Dean gritted his teeth. Because no, of course Sam wouldn't turn him away, this was Sam. The guy who honest-to-god climbed a tree once to get a stuck cat down for some little old lady in middle America. "He's not in his right mind," Dean argued. "He's not even really talking. He couldn't say 'yes' and mean it."
"Gabriel has never been entirely agreeable to following all of the rules," Castiel pointed out. "But if he did utilize Sam as a vessel, it won't be for very long- Sam's body wouldn't last, and Gabriel can create one of his own as he did before. His time as a pagan god has given him that much, at least."
"Goddamnit," Dean muttered, and stole the bottle of bourbon from Bobby. "So, what, we just sit here and wait for your dickhead of a brother to stop riding around in mine and give him back?"
"You know, it sounds pretty icky when you say it that way."
Dean almost fell off his chair.
"I prefer 'seeing through his eyes,' that's much more romantic," Gabriel offered, his words a little garbled through the sucker in his mouth. His chin was propped on one arm, which rested on the knee he had raised up with his foot planted on the chair he sprawled in across from Dean.
"You look the same," Dean said.
Gabriel winked. "Why mess with perfection, eh Dean-o?"
"I was gonna say you're still short," Dean said flatly. "You don't look like Sam. Where the hell is Sam?"
"Cool your jets, big guy, baby bro's just fine." Gabriel held his hands out in surrender and rolled his eyes. "Honestly, you boys. Your Heaven is gonna be one big long moment of you two clutching each other tight and promising never to let go, isn't it?"
Dean spluttered in disgust and protest, but Bobby beat him to it. "So, you wanna explain why you've been hiding out in my house without asking? 'Cos this ain't an angel sanctuary, and anybody who's a guest here brings beer."
Castiel turned sharply to him with a few tiny twitches of his eyebrows that seemed to suggest he was shocked and horrified at his oversight and why on earth hadn't anyone told him how appallingly awful a guest he'd been and where was this list of 'guest rules' anyway?
"Not you, Cas," Dean told him.
Gabriel grinned and saluted Dean with his sucker. "I see your Big Ga-"
"SAM," Dean barked.
"Is just fine, honestly," Gabriel huffed. "He spent a whole hour sleeping it off. Post-bevesselment headache, y'know? Now, the bigger question is-"
Gabriel leaned forward, and Dean couldn't help mimicking him because oh, God. He was gonna say there was a new ugly on the block, or maybe Lucifer wasn't as squared away as they'd thought, or it was gonna be some kind of stupid quest to get Sammy back, or Heaven's most annoying angel had been resurrected for the sole purpose of driving him insane for the rest of his life-
"I dunno why everyone seems to think Sam's the girl when you're the one shrieking away like a high school cheerleader," Gabriel said uncomfortably, rubbing the side of his head, and Dean remembered very suddenly that this angel could read minds. He very loudly and deliberately started thinking every insult and swearword he knew. Gabriel rolled his eyes. "Cute. Anyway, the big question- can you make some more sugar cream pie? Because that was awesome. I made Sam go back, like, four times to steal me slices of that."
"Where were you, exactly?" Bobby asked. "How much of my house am I gonna have to disinfect and ward against any more angels?"
Gabriel shrugged. "I wasn't actually here, most of the time," he said. "Not in an expressible third-dimension presence, anyway. Cassie can explain all the science-y stuff to you later. All I know is I was dead, I woke up, my vessel was gone, and my Grace was down to almost nothing, way too drained to make a new one. But I could feel Gigantor's soul screaming out louder than pretty much anything else in the world, so I went to him." Gabriel shivered, and met Dean's eyes with the first sober look he'd worn yet. "I don't ever want to feel anything like that again," he told Dean seriously. "Your brother- man, I didn't know a soul could go through that much torture and still try to keep going. His brain couldn't keep up with it all and tried to pretend he was back before he even knew monsters were even real, but his soul was a million torn and bleeding little pieces held together by flayed fragments of burnt skin, all screaming out for his brother."
Dean squeezed his eyes shut and his hands clenched into fists. He'd known it was bad, obviously it was bad- Cas said it was bad, like his soul had been skinned alive- but hearing it like this, hearing that Sammy had just been trapped in pain and crying out for him all this time….
"I helped him, of course," Gabriel added, perking up into something more like his usual irritatingly smarmy self. "I mean, I wasn't just going to leech off him and bail. And let me tell you, that was hard work. So, you know. Gratitude pies wouldn't go amiss here." He waited, but didn't get a response. "No? You really are ungrateful, y'know? Anyway, I basically sunk my claws into Sammy-boy's back and rode along for a few weeks, soaking up the little bit of Grace he had left over in him from Lucifer and smoothing out some of the rough edges in his soul. He figured out after a few days what was going on, and he agreed to let me stick around, so." Gabriel waved a hand at himself. "I jumpstarted my Grace off what was left of Lucifer's, and some strength off Sammy's own soul, then built him back up again. Possessed him so I could do the ritual to make myself a vessel, which was exhausting by the way, popped in here expecting to be showered in pies and thanks, but nooo," he sneered.
"You may utilize my Grace however you need in order to return to full strength," Castiel offered.
"No, he can't," Dean snapped, at the same time as Gabriel beamed and said, "Thanks, Cassie!"
"No Grace-stealing," Dean insisted. "Just tell me where you stashed my brother and go away." From the corner of his eye he could've sworn he saw Castiel mouth 'later' at the archangel.
"I keep telling you, he's fine," Gabriel groaned. "He wanted to do some shopping so I left him in town."
"You what?" Dean didn't yelp. He said it in a loud noise, but it definitely wasn't a yelp. Or a shriek. He'd swear to it.
"Balls," Bobby added in a suitably manly gruff curse.
"He's-" Gabriel started, but Dean cut him off.
"Don't you dare say 'fine,'" he snapped. "Sam is so, so not fine. I can't believe you left him on his own! Last time he wandered into town by himself he got picked up by crazy psychos who wanted to rape him!"
Gabriel nodded thoughtfully. "He does have that surprising 'molest me' vibe, doesn't he?" he agreed. "Maybe I shouldn't have let him go shopping alone after all…."
"No!" Dean squawked. He looked to Bobby and Cas for help, or maybe a declaration that anyone who so much as thought about molesting Sam would have to go through the three of them first, but Bobby was apparently determined to drain the bottle of bourbon in one gulp, and Cas just looked confused.
Dean's cell phone rang.
He frowned and pulled it out of his pocket. The only person who had his number and wasn't sitting next to him was Sam, but Sam wasn't talking, and Dean was pretty sure he didn't remember how to use a phone. The number was local, but he didn't recognize it, and when he angled the phone to show Bobby, the older hunter just shrugged. He clicked a key to answer and put the phone to his ear. "Hello?"
"Hey, is this Dean? I'm calling about Sam."
Dean knew his mouth was open wide enough to catch flies. A strangled noise wrenched from his throat. "Sam?"
Sam's voice was a little rough, but he hadn't really talked in a while, and it was warm and normal and happy. Gabriel quirked a smile at him.
"Told you," the archangel said. "Seriously, he's fine. Archangel juice is strong stuff, even on the kind of damage his soul had. My Grace growing around him when I was leeching helped scar everything over and smooth it all down. Taking him as a vessel for a little while just pieced it all together. He's not totally good, but he's fine."
"I know the collar says you gotta kill me now," Sam continued with suppressed laughter in his voice, "but he wanted me to pass a message on first. See, Sam figures the collar thing's a nice idea, and all, but red's not really his color. He sees himself more as a heathered lavender kinda guy."
"Always knew you were a girl," Dean choked out.
"Yeah, well, then, your little sis wants to know if the two of you can meet up at that pet store over on the east side of town. The one next to the coffee shop. You know, so you can order her a girly drink with whipped cream and sprinkles after you get that new collar."
"I'll meet you there," Dean said automatically. The line clicked and Sam was gone.
"You two good again?" Bobby asked gruffly, but his eyes were soft and Dean knew their friend was just as shocked and disbelievingly relieved as he was.
"Yeah," he said slowly. "Yeah, we're good. Gonna go get him a new collar, though- bitch wants a different color and I'm not lettin' him take it off so long as he lives." A grin spread unchecked across his face as he stood and grabbed his coat, clapping Castiel on the shoulder. "You comin' or you wanna wait here, Cas?"
"I should leave," Cas said, that near-invisible crinkle at the corner of his eyes saying I am just so fucking happy right now. "But I will try to be back this evening to see Sam."
Dean patted his back, nodded at Bobby and swung his coat over his shoulders. "We'll be back soon."
"Hey!" Gabriel's voice followed him as he strode out the door, car keys in hand and feeling light on his feet for the first time in forever. "Where's my pie?"