"Dear Castiel," Sam began, squinting his eyes shut. It still felt strange to pray to a specific angel instead of to God but, unlike the Big Man Who Left, Castiel had actually earned the faith Sam had in him. If anyone was worthy to be prayed to, it was Cas.
"Um, are you busy? It's okay if you are; this isn't urgent. Or even important, really…"
There was a rustle of wings. "What is it, Sam?"
Sam opened his eyes and turned to see that the angel had appeared across the other side of the room. The distance amused him; Dean had yet to work out that Cas only seemed to have trouble understanding the concept of personal space when it came to Dean. Sam was still trying to figure out if it was evidence that the angel had a very subtle sense of humour, or if it was his inexperienced attempt at flirting, or if Castiel wasn't even aware of his apparent need to be close to Dean. However, that was a puzzle for another time.
"Hey, Cas. Ah – how are you?"
Castiel just looked at him, head tilted ever so slightly, and Sam flushed a little. Right. He was not really one for small talk.
"I guess I'll get straight to the point, then. I wanted to say thank you."
A faint flicker of surprise crossed over Castiel's features. "For what?"
"Are you kidding, man? Ever since you turned up in our lives you have saved Dean and I more times than I can count."
"Yes. However, you usually convey your gratitude shortly after each rescue, so I do not understand why you have called me here."
Having those intense blue eyes focused solely on him was disconcerting. Castiel usually looked primarily at Dean, and Sam was beginning to wonder how Dean never seemed uncomfortable under the angel's soul-searching gaze. He tried to focus on the matter at hand. "Yes, well, I realised that I never properly thanked you for saving Dean that first time."
"You mean when I raised him from perdition?"
Sam nodded. "You did what I couldn't. I tried, so damn hard, to get Dean out of hell, but there was nothing I could do."
He remembered the helplessness, the guilt, the grief, the fury. Every minute of every day in those four months that had felt like an eternity, all he could think about was how Dean had made the deal to save him and how he had utterly failed to save Dean in return. At first he had buried himself in research, and every new scrap of information he found made him sick to his stomach. The images in the books were all too graphic, and at night his dreams twisted them into scenes of his brother being tortured and ripped apart, over and over. Research gave way to frantic action, but nothing he tried yielded any results, and every day his hope faded a little more until all he had left was the drive to hunt, to kill, to try to rescue as many people as he could in atonement for his failure.
Sam shook himself out of his reverie. He had no desire to revisit that dark time in his life.
"I had the power of heaven at my disposal," Castiel said. "You did not."
It was his attempt at consolation, Sam realised. "I know. I'm just glad you succeeded."
"As am I," Castiel agreed quietly. "Dean is… a unique individual. The world needs him."
"Yeah," Sam sighed.
The deep, searching eyes of the angel were on him again. "You sound distressed by the idea."
"No. Well, maybe. It's just…" Sam didn't quite know how to explain. "Everyone is always depending on Dean. He has spent his entire life looking after other people, and he never spares a single thought for himself. It scares me sometimes."
"Dean is a guardian. It is in his nature."
"I suppose so. But I feel bad for him. He didn't ever even have a chance to be a proper kid, you know? When he was little, and our parents' marriage hit a few rough patches, he was the one taking care of Mom." Sam would never forget the memory he had witnessed in Dean's heaven, of Dean comforting their mother when Dad said he wasn't coming home. It had been such a huge responsibility for such a young child to bear.
"He held them together," Sam continued, "and then I came along and Mom was killed, and suddenly Dean had a baby brother to look after. Dad was gone most of the time, so Dean had to be my big brother, my mother and my father all rolled into one. He practically raised me all by himself.
"As if that wasn't enough, he had to look after Dad as well, keeping him healthy and sober and committed to the hunt so he wouldn't sink into depression. Dean literally stitched him back together more than once, and he made sure that Dad always came home. Dean looking out for him was the only reason Dad survived as long as he did, I'm sure of it.
"And then I grew up a little and developed an attitude, and suddenly Dean had to become a peacekeeper in his own home. Dad and I were at each other's throats all the time, and the only reason it never came to blows was because Dean was standing there right in the middle, protecting the both of us." Sam was ashamed by his actions back then. His points against his father had been valid, but all too often Sam had taken his frustrations out on his brother, seeing only the way Dean would obey like a perfect soldier and never noticing how hard Dean tried behind the scenes to persuade their father to see things from Sam's point of view. When Sam had left for college, he hadn't even spared Dean a glance, too caught up in the explosive argument that had pushed him too far to stop for a moment and think about what leaving would do to his brother. After everything Dean had done for him, he had left him behind and then ignored his very existence for two years. He was such an ungrateful bastard.
"It's what he does," Sam said sadly. "It's what he has always done. He takes care of his family and in return he gets treated like crap. It is the same with hunting. He saves innocent lives and risks his own to do it, and instead of thanks he gets to live a life on the run, sleeping in ratty motel rooms, surviving off diner food, being hunted by the police and monsters alike, never getting to settle down or have anything even remotely normal."
"Dean doesn't complain," Castiel ventured.
"No, I know he doesn't, but that's just my point. He is so damn protective and self-sacrificial, he doesn't even realise that it isn't fair that he has to bear such a heavy burden. He puts everyone ahead of himself and saves the whole damn world no matter what it costs him."
"He is a good man."
There was no arguing with that one. Sam had always been kind of self-righteous, but the truth was that Dean was a far better man than he ever had been or ever would be.
"Yeah. It's just hard for me to see him working so hard to take care of other people and know that no one has ever really been there to take care of him." Sam used to envy the four years Dean had lived as a normal kid in a normal family, with Mom and Dad and a real home, but he had come to realise that he was the lucky one. Those four years were the only ones Dean had spent as a child; the moment Mom died, Dean grew up. But Sam had been allowed to live in blissful ignorance for eight years, and even after he discovered the truth about monsters Dean had sheltered him from hunting for as long as he could. Dean had made sure that Sam had a childhood, dysfunctional as it may have been, and he looked after him in a way that he was never looked after himself. Dean helped Sam with his homework, cooked him dinner, tucked him in at night, soothed away his nightmares, stood up to bullies for him, gave him advice on girls, stayed home with him when he was sick, celebrated his victories, made his birthdays special, always told him how proud he was, supported him and gave him everything he needed. No one was there to do the same for Dean. He had to take care of himself.
"Until now, that is," Sam said.
And that was the true reason Sam had called Castiel down here.
"You saved my brother from Hell, Cas. And you keep saving him. You watch out for Dean, but you're not just keeping him alive, you're giving him hope, faith, purpose. More than that, you are helping him to see that he deserves to be saved. You are the guardian he never had, and you are also the friend he never had. I can't tell you how much that means to him-" mostly because he suspected Dean himself had not figured it out yet, though he hoped he would soon. He deserved to be happy. They both did. "-but it means a hell of a lot to me.
"So I wanted to say thank you."
Castiel stared at him for a long moment. Then, slowly, he inclined his head. "You are welcome."
With those words he was gone, leaving Sam alone in the hotel room once more.