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aesc ([personal profile] aesc) wrote2010-08-23 10:45 am

.au/ar fic: The thing with feathers (Dean, Sam, Castiel) PG/PG13 | 22,170

The thing with feathers (Dean, Sam, Cas; AU/AR) PG | ~22,170
The at-long-last-completed SPN/My Neighbor Totoro fusion. I started this ages ago, but the second part refused to cooperate for me. Eventually [personal profile] bmouse came along and was awesome above and beyond the call, and in return she asked if I'd finish this. I agreed, and after wrestling it for months… I did! *hugs for Mouse* Hope you like it!

If you haven't seen My Neighbor Totoro, I really recommend that you do. It's my go-to movie when I need cheering up. That said, this isn't a particularly cheery take on the story – it's SPN after all – but it's pretty fluffy for me, and that's saying something.

The thing with feathers

Dean remembers a home that doesn’t involve words like "efficiency" and "weekly specials," but only vaguely. He'd learned addition and subtraction by figuring room rates, and by counting change for candy bars and those crappy plastic toys that Sammy liked to gnaw on when he was teething; they kept him quiet so Dean didn't have to worry about some hotel manager butting in about the crying baby and where's your dad, kid?

This place is different, though, because it's an actual house for one, and for two, Uncle Bobby's driven up to help Dad get things squared away, things like furniture and hooking up a generator and adult stuff Dean can't help with. "Keep an eye on your brother," Dad tells him, which sometimes exasperates Dean; this is one of those times, feeling like he's being shuttled off somewhere to the side. Other kids, he knows, get paid for watching their bratty little brothers.

He tells himself to quit being a pussy and shut up, and grabs Sam's hand.

"C'mon," he says to Sam, "let's go exploring."

"'Asploring," Sam repeats in his squeak of a five-year-old voice. He lurches into motion, sneakered feet clomping on the floor, raising dust clouds.

Most of Dean's memories of their house are connected to fire and terror. The flight of stairs, in his mind, stretches on endlessly, dark except where the fire lights the very top, and makes his shadow stretch long and desperate ahead of him. In his arms, Sammy is heavy and shrieking his head off, even above the fire roaring and Dad shouting for Mom. Other than the smoke, there isn't much. He tries, sometimes, and comes up with warm smells and notches carved into the post of a door, and the garage where the Impala would sit, and the yard with its soft grass.

This house doesn't feel the same, in a way Dean can't put his finger on. It's old and creaky, the kind of house that he guesses where ghosts like to hang out, or would, if it didn't belong to a hunter. The wallpaper is mostly stain, and as he and Sam shuffle along the dust bunnies rise up and skitter away, bouncing off the floorboards where the wallpaper's peeled away to reveal molding paint. Sam doesn't let go, and Dean can feel his hand getting sticky from the juice Sam had spilled over himself earlier.

"Izzt haunted?" Sammy asks, peering into a room that looks like a parlor, with furniture covered by yellowing sheets.

"Don't be stupid," Dean tells him. His heart goes all weird whenever Sammy comes out with questions like that, and his brain gets dizzy as he tries to think back and remember if he'd accidentally slipped and said something that would clue Sam in. It's the secret, the one other promise he'd made to Dad. Keep Sammy safe, and don’t tell him about any of this. Not, Dean thinks, that Sammy won't figure it out on his own one day anyway.

"I'm not stupid." The half-screech bounces off high ceilings.

"Maybe you're too stupid to know you're stupid." Only Sammy is kind of freakishly smart. He solves puzzles in the doctor's office in ten minutes and he can read like he was born knowing.

In protest, Sam wrenches his hand free and stomps down the hall. Dust clouds around his ankles and Sam's sneakers leave behind tiny prints. There are dark spots on the wallpaper from where pictures used to hang and where the sun couldn't reach; they look like ghosts, the ghosts of picture-frames. Wuss, Dean thinks to himself, and chases after Sammy, who's found the kitchen and is doing something with the chairs, dragging them back and forth to some private rhythm.

"Jeez, quit messing with things," Dean hisses as he grabs Sam under the armpits. Sam wriggles and protests and shrieks like a banshee right in Dean's ear.

"Boys!" Uncle Bobby's voice drifts down the hall. "Quit horsin' around."

"Tell him to stop!" Sam howls. He draws out stop into twenty syllables that end in a pathetic whimper.

"Oh, shut up." Depositing Sam in the middle of the kitchen floor isn't easy, because Sam clings like a vampire suddenly, wanting the exact opposite of what Dean wants, which is Sammy's sticky, wriggling body off him. Once he's on the floor, Sam glowers at him indignantly, and Dean sighs. They'd been in the car all day and the afternoon is dragging on, and Dean's back hurts from having to scrunch up in the passenger seat with some bags and boxes, and his head hurts from listening to Sam bellowing his favorite songs at the top of his lungs.

Dad appears in the kitchen doorway, leaning against the wall, and Dean knows enough to know that he's tired too.

"Why don't you go outside while Bobby and I get things squared away?" It's not really a suggestion. "Don't go far."

"We won't," Dean says, and tugs at the dead weight that is his little brother. "C'mon, Sammy." Sam doesn't budge; not only that, he makes himself weigh two hundred pounds, slithering obstinately down in Dean’s arms. "Sammy."

"Don't wanna," Sam whimpers, but when Dean glares at him, he clambers to his feet with a world-weary sigh. Dean clamps his mouth shut around a sigh of relief and turns to go. The linoleum, loosened from the floor, creaks and crackles underfoot, and the screen door doesn't move as Dean pulls on it. Then Sammy ducks through it where the screen has pulled away from the frame, and grumbling, Dean follows him into the sunlight.

Outside is mostly woods, woods in all directions interrupted only by the thin strip of asphalt that is the road. The way up had involved a lot of turning and a trip across a stream, which had interrupted Sam's concert long enough for him to ask about fish, and then up a hill, past a handful of houses. A girl a bit younger than Dean, with blonde hair and suspicious eyes, had huddled behind her mailbox and watched as they'd driven by, and she'd been the last person they've seen.

So, yeah, woods: green and green and green, looming around the house and its small expanse of overgrown yard. Even the grass is mazelike and all one color, and Dean keeps a tight grip on Sam's hand. Fortunately, Sam doesn't seem to mind, sticking close like he's a bit weirded out by it too. They wander slowly across the yard, downhill to where the stream runs – Dean can hear Dad's voice in his head, not too close, Dean followed with warnings about drowning and opening in Dean's head a huge chasm of guilt and failure if something should happen. Every few steps Dean looks down to make sure the small, sweaty hand clenched in his really is Sam's and not his imagination, and then he turns back to look and make sure the house is still there.

Next to the woods, everything else – the house, the faint sound of Uncle Bobby hollering at their dad about something, the shiny bulk of the Impala in the drive – doesn't quite seem real. Maybe it's a dream or a hallucination, like what some spirits can make you see. A sudden wind whips across the lawn, cool against the warm day, bending the grass over sharply and making Dean take a step forward. He shivers, but as soon as he does, the wind has passed and is gone, already rippling the grass across the street and the trees in the far distance.

"Dean? Dean!"

"What, dorkface?" Dean about-faces and looks back down at Sam's dirty, impatient scowl.

"Lookit," Sam orders, pointing. Dean does.

"Wow," Dean breathes.

The wow is for an oak that towers over all the other trees, the green of its leaves richer and darker, glossy against the sky. A few birds, dark arrows against the blue and the clouds, swoop and circle on the high currents before flying into the safety of its branches. The thing is huge, living, old and a lot of other things Dean's nine-year-old brain can't quite wrap around, like it's been there forever and the entire forest grew up around it. All the other trees crouch at its feet, the oak standing head and shoulders taller than the rest of them, the crown spreading out and the breeze tugging it this way and that.

"'S big," is Sammy's brilliant observation. He knuckles his hair out of his eyes for a better view.

"No duh," Dean says, trying to sound unimpressed.

"Maybe we could go climb in it," Sam says.

"Yeah, and maybe Dad could kick our asses." Mostly Dean wants to keep looking at it, even though it's a freaking stupid tree.

"Watch your mouth," Sam tells him. He sounds a lot like Dad when he does that, all flatly disapproving in a way that makes Dean instantly ashamed and makes him want to mutter the forbidden phrase under his breath just because. The impulse is usually squashed; the shame stays put.

"Watch your mouth," Dean says. He glowers down at Sam, who glowers back up at him, mouth thin with copycat severity. It's sort of a relief to be able to look away from the tree, and to stay looking away as he tells Sam no, they're not going down to the stupid stream to look for fish.

"There's a bridge." Sam's voice goes high, the pitch precisely calculated to rub on Dean's last, travel-stretched nerve.

"Yeah, and it's probably rotting." Dean spins on his heel and heads back to the house, still aware of the tree and the weird, totally whacked-out sense that they're being watched. "And there's probably bears or whatever in the woods."

"Liaaaaaaar," Sam moans, and offers half-hearted resistance to Dean's pulling him along. Dean gives him the chance to go and find out for himself, which makes Sam stick to him like glue, and once they're back inside among the dust and creaky floorboards, tell Dad Dean threatened to feed him to the bears.

"I did not," Dean protests.

"Maybe one of you should be asleep," Bobby says. That's not a suggestion either. "We've got your bedrooms set up."

"Bedrooms?" Dean repeats, to make sure he's heard the final -s properly. Bobby nods, and Dean's joy spikes unexpectedly.

And crashes at Sam's desolate face.

So Sam ends up sleeping with him anyway, in a bed that's small and narrow and too squishy, with blankets that smell like mothballs and second-hand stores. Even Dean, who's used to industrial detergent and hotel rooms that have marinaded in God only knows what, sneezes and rubs itchy eyes, and has to concentrate to ignore it. Sammy slithers up small and hot, a portable furnace, against Dean's side, and the breeze through the window doesn't make up for all the heat Sam's putting out. Sighing, Dean twists around so Sam's sweaty face presses against his back and looks out the window, to where the oak tree slowly tosses its head in breezes Dean otherwise can't see.

* * *

That night, the reason for them setting up house becomes clear. There's a handful of cases Dad and Bobby are working between them, some kind of ghost-plague – they've vaccinated the house, the ghost equivalent of a cootie shot, with the circle-circle, dot-dot and all – and that will need some time to sort out.

"School's starting soon, too," Dad says. "You'll need to go for a little while."


"Dean." Dad gives him the look, the one that closes off all argument. Dean scowls at the worn surface of the tabletop.

"Who's gonna look out for Sam?"

"He'll be starting kindergarten." Dad's hands move competently, quickly, over his gun. Dean knows the movements by heart, the disassembly, the cloth and oil, the reloading. They only do this after Sam's safe in bed, too conked out to be defiant and stay up. Times like this, it's just the two of them, Dad telling stories about his hunts and telling Dean how to kill any one of a dozen different things, and some nights, talking about football or his days with the Marines. In the face of this news, though, Dean struggles against helplessness and anger, even with the sawed-off in his hands, his head thick with betrayal.

"I won't be able to keep an eye on him." Worry jitters along his nerves, Sam too twerpy and dumb to get along with kids, and kindergarteners are little freaking monsters, Dean should know, and you can't shoot or stab them.

"You won't be able to, not all the time," Dad allows. "But you'll be in the same school, and Bobby's agreed to come up and check on you if I have to stay gone for a while."

"But you won't be gone too long." Dean glances anxiously out the window. He can barely see the oak, the tallest shadow in the wall of darkness ringing the house. Next to it, the night sky is the softest, deepest blue, and there are a few stars. After nights and days spent on the road, or in motels next to highways, the quiet almost overwhelms him.

"As long as I need to get the job done. It won't be too long, though, with Bobby working with me." A click as Dad re-engages the safety and tucks the pistol safely away. "You should be in bed."

"I can't sleep." He'd ended up drifting off that afternoon, watching the oak tree and the birds, his bones doing that weird humming thing they do when he's been in the car all day and the Impala's vibrations have worked its way into his body. It isn't really energizing, even though it feels like an adrenaline rush.

"You should try," Dad says. "I'll need you to keep an eye on Sam while Bobby and I go over some stuff. Make sure he doesn't interrupt us."

"Yeah," Dean sighs. That's Secret-related, and usually that would mean plopping Sam in front of the TV or playing hide-and-go-seek in Bobby's scrapyard, but all they have now is no TV and the woods they aren't allowed to go in.

"That's my boy," Dad says, and smiles, and in the glow of that, warmer than the lamps they've lit to save the generator, Dean is happy.

* * *

Sam's bored. Bored with a capital B.

Dean's reading one of his comic books, which he usually starts out reading out loud, and explaining the pictures and why Batman wears tights and Robin's eyes go all white when he has his mask on, and how it is no one recognizes Robin even though the mask doesn't hide very much. Somewhere around page ten, though, he'd forgotten and had stopped doing the sound effects and the explanations, and when Sam had reminded him, had told him to buzz off.

So Sam buzzes off, through the broken screen door, down the slope to the woods. Dad and Bobby are holed up in the study, the door shut, and Dad had said something about absolutely no disturbances unless it's life or death, and Dean had pulled Sam almost to the opposite corner of the house. And it's not like Dad specifically said the woods are off-limits, just that there's stuff in it, and anyways he's bored and Dean had been all sorts of stupid about the bridge and not doing anything fun and getting back to the house.

After yesterday the bridge is easy to find, even in the tall grass and all, a matter of listening for the stream. The bridge looks almost new, not rotting and gross like Dean had claimed, and the wood doesn't even creak underfoot as Sam crosses it. Beneath the bridge, water flows in long, clear streamers, over rocks that Dean says used to be rough but the water has smoothed them out over millions and millions of years. Which, Sam supposes, is a long time.

Under the trees the air cools down, and is dark and heavy and also old, like it hasn't gone anywhere in a long time either, as long as those rocks have been under the stream. Sam wanders along a track, a narrow strip worn smooth that leads him into a tunnel of undergrowth and soft green grass. Despite the overgrowth the sun trickles down, in rays and spots and odd patterns that shift and move as Sam crawls forward. In the back of his head, Sam can hear the Dean-voice that tells him this is a seriously bad idea, and he'll catch heck for it, but the forest is quiet and calm, and the sun gives him plenty of light.

And anyway, he's not a wuss.

He keeps going, gradually realizing that he's going uphill and the grassy path has given way to gnarled roots and vines that catch his sneakers. Grunting, he tugs his foot free, and it comes loose from his shoe. Stopping is annoying, but he'll definitely catch heck for losing his shoes – which, the Dean-voice says, are expensive and cost money so God, Sam, take care of your stuff, geez – and at least the shoes are Velcro and not lace-up, which are still difficult for him.

Shoe restored, he continues on. After a few more minutes the tunnel ends, and Sam finds himself, out of breath, at the foot of the oak tree.

It's of course a lot bigger up close, so big Sam can't see the top, with the tree's thick tangle of branches. He remembers Dean showing him pictures of the big trees in California, the red ones, and Dean had said that Sam's seen them, only Sam can't remember that at all, and he's pretty sure he'd remember trees that big, even if he was (according to Dean) a stupid baby and had no idea what was going on.

"You cried most of the time, and you still had diapers," Dean had told him.

"I did not," Sam had said.

According to Dean, trees, like bratty little brothers, get bigger the older they are. It has to do with the rings, Dean had said, only Sam can't see any on the oak tree, what with the bark. Still, he's pretty sure this tree is old, millions of years, maybe, Dean's favorite number for anything so incomprehensibly huge even a nine-year-old can't describe it. Which, Sam supposes, has to be seriously huge. Some of the branches hang low, low enough, in fact, for Sam to climb onto them, with some work, and to walk along them without them bending under his weight.

He does this, imagining Dean freaking out if he even knew. Part of him feels bad, but not bad enough to keep him from slithering over one limb and heading for the next. It's like being Tarzan in one of Dean's comic books, except without the washcloth around his waist, and Sam doesn't have an animal friend, and there aren't vines, only leaves and leaves and leaves.

The bark scrapes at his palms and knees, and it stings, and he's covered in dirt. There's a couple places where he's itching, bug bites already swelling up. Absently, Sam scratches at them and heads around the tree, stepping up onto a gigantic root to reach for the next low branch.

Before he knows it he loses his footing, and he can't even scream or think before he finds himself aching, breathless and bewildered and very far downhill from where he'd started.

A long way; the oak, he realizes, is on top of a hill, and its roots twine down the hillside in a big circle so they form a hollow, surrounded by smaller trees. Quiet presses down on him, and in the quiet his breaths seem very loud. This far under the oak tree, surrounded by the gigantic twisting roots, Sam feels incredibly tiny, the way he feels standing next to his dad.

The hollow hides low on the side of the hill, sheltered from the breeze. Despite being so low down, with the oak and the other trees towering up all over, the sun makes its way through so the grass is a vibrant green and the light is hazy and rich, and there are even small flowers, white ones, growing where the roots of the oak hold soil, like cupped palms holding water.

"Wow," Sam breathes. He forgets the aches and the scrapes, and the bug bite behind one knee. Dean's favorite word comes to mind, the only word that seems capable of grasping all of this.


He squints up into the light, turning in a slow circle to inspect the hollow. Dean might like it, he might like it enough not to get angry when he inevitably finds out what Sam's been up to. Sam has no idea how long he's been out here, but it's probably been hours, or maybe even most of the day.

His calculations break off when, in the course of his circle, he sees the wings on a low branch.

Wings, two huge black wings wrapped up around something, like the alien pod in Dean's comics, but Sam can see the feathers, glossy black, edged here and there with grey. They move slowly, in time with the breathing of the whatever-it-is-concealed beneath them, and their owner rests against the tree trunk, maybe for balance.

"Far out." It's another Dean phrase, almost as all-encompassing as awesome. Sam moves closer, as quietly as he can.

This is, however, not very quietly. Not five feet away, he steps on an unseen stick, and the breaking wood snaps and breaks the silence. In reply, the wings heave and twitch, fanning out and flapping hard once, twice, ruffling Sam's hair and clothes. All around them, the leaves shiver, and a bird squawks and flies away.

Wow. Sam doesn't know if he's said it, or just thought it, but wow just the same.

It's an angel, an actual angel.

Maybe. Sam stares at the thing, the man, with feathers, and the man stares straight back with eyes that are very, very blue.

Sam's seen pictures of angels, and one time he'd gone into a church and seen the stained glass, and one time he'd looked one of Bobby's old books, the ones made out of parchment. (Dad had protested, he didn't want Sammy learning about "that crap," and Uncle Bobby had told him to shut the goddamn hell up.) Those angels had all worn robes and haloes, and some of them had white wings and some of them had wings colored blue and red and green, and even gold.

None of them, so far as Sam can remember, had black wings, and most of them had golden, curly hair, not dark. And none of them wore a jacket and tie, or a trench coat that's wrinkled and battered. They also all wore sandals, not black shoes tied, to Sam's expert eye, very inexpertly. Clearly not an angel, then, maybe something else, something from Dean's comics.

"Hi," says Sam. "Are you a birdman?"

The guy with wings, the angel, or the birdman, because there's no better word for him, regards him calmly and silently.

"Hi," Sam repeats, with emphasis.

One wing moves slowly back and forth, shuffing softly against the bark. The angel-birdman-thing inclines his head, and Sam feels very studied, by something far, far older than the tree and older, maybe, than the entire world. He tries to think about that, to grasp how old that is, but it doesn't work so well.

"Hello," the maybe-birdman says after a moment. The word is quiet and calm.

"Are you a birdman?"

The deep blue eyes blink, and silence stretches on again. Sam wonders if maybe he's slow, or not used to talking (if he lives in the woods), or if maybe he's like one of the old made-up spirits Bobby talks about sometimes. Those ones live for years and years and go weeks without breathing, so maybe they can talk as slow as they want.

"I'm not," the creature says. "I'm an angel."

"Wow." Sam mulls this over. An actual angel then. "What's your name?"

"Castiel," the angel says.

"I'm Sam," Sam informs him.

"Hello, Sam." The angel, Castiel, almost smiles – Sam can see it, just there, at the corner of his mouth, but mostly Castiel just seems puzzled by him. Maybe, to him, a little kid out in the forest is weirder than an angel who lives in a tree. He also seems briefly confused by the hand Sam offers him, but he leans down, canting his wings for balance, and shakes Sam's hand in turn, closing one hand over their clasped ones. His hand feels like a normal human hand, warm and soft.

"So what do you do out here?" Castiel doesn't answer that, or Sam's question about if he has anything to eat, except to say that angels don’t need to eat anything, which Sam guesses is a no on Castiel having any food. Castiel twists so his back is to the tree and stretches, both wings extending and flapping hard enough for Sam to feel the wind, and close enough for the feathers to almost brush his face.

"Can you fly with those?" he asks.

Castiel looks at him sideways, weighing the question and looking kind of like Dean looks when he's just about to lose his patience with Sam demanding to know things. At last, Castiel tells him that he does fly with them, what else would he fly with, and Sam says he supposes a plane, or a parachute.

"I don't fly in planes, or with parachutes," Castiel says, sounding vaguely irritated, how Dean gets when he's tired of Sam's very reasonable questions. He stretches once more, but doesn't flap his wings this time; instead, he leans back against the tree trunk, wings curved around his body again. They remain slightly open, like curtains, the long flight feathers trailing to the ground. Unable to resist, Sam touches one, and Castiel twitches it away with a soft sound before Sam can do much more than register how smooth it is.

"Were you sleeping?" Sam asks, and Castiel regards him levelly, of course I was sleeping written clear as day, and Sam thinks of some animal picture books with sleeping birds, with their heads tucked under their wings.

"I'll be quiet," Sam assures him. He sits down in the grass, tired suddenly, worn-out with climbing and wonder, the edges of bruised elbows and knees smoothed out by sleepiness. By Castiel, maybe; angels are supposed to be healers, he remembers Bobby saying, even though Bobby had been doubtful about that bit. With Castiel's wings shadowing him in warmth, Sam can believe it, and he wishes Bobby were here, so he could tell him.

It's the last thing he knows, other than drifting half-awake peace and, from somewhere far away, Dean's voice calling for him. He thinks about answering, but before he can really consider it, two fingers press against his forehead – Castiel, he thinks hazily – and suddenly he's awake and Dean is shaking him and hollering and pissed.

(Pissed is not a word he should know, but he listens.)

"How'd you get here?" he asks, yawning.

"I crossed the bridge, you moron." Dean smacks the back of his head and Sam yowls indignantly at the sting. "Were you asleep?"

"I was with Castiel." Sam sits up and blinks in surprise. He's not in the forest anymore, he's at the edge, just beyond where the trees stop. The stream and the bridge aren't far away. And Dean is here, right here, looming over him and really mad. Sam looks around for Castiel, but the angel has long vanished, back to his tree, maybe.

"Who's Castle?" Dean says it wrong, probably on purpose. "Did someone come by? Jeez, Sammy, what did I tell you about talking to strangers?" Dean smacks him again, and the blow brings with it a sudden awareness of his raw knees and bug bites.

"He's not a stranger," Sam says crossly, "his name is Castiel, and he's the angel who lives in the oak tree."

"Oh, yeah." Dean rolls his eyes. "Duh, the angel who lives in the oak tree. Why didn't I think of that?"

"Shut up," Sam says, "or I'm gonna – "

"What? Tell Dad?" Dean snorts. "He'll end you if he finds you snuck off. They aren't even gonna find pieces of you, twerp."

Sam has to admit that's true, and he's not mad enough at Dean to get Dean in trouble, and anyway, Dean was just worried and hovery like Dean usually is, like Sam's still a baby and can't dress himself. Dad doesn't help.

"Come on," Dean sighs. He hoists Sam to his feet. "You need Band-Aids and stuff for your bites. God, you're dumb."

"I'm not dumb," Sam mumbles. "And I don't care if you don't believe me, I saw an actual angel."

"Yeah, well," Dean remarks, "I'll believe it when I see it. Now c'mon, Dad and Bobby are almost finished, and if they ask what you got up to, keep your trap shut."

"Okay, Dean." Sam pauses, then, unable to resist, adds, "He has wings."

"Sure he does," Dean says, not even bothering to disguise the eye-roll. Sam frowns."Let's go; Dad's going to have a fit if we're not back."

And Dean kind of drives him nuts, being the big brother and always being right even if Sam suspects he's wrong, but in Dad-related stuff he's usually right. Sam keeps his mouth shut as they head back inside and creep up to the bathroom, and Dean cleans his cuts and sticks on the big Band-Aids meant for scraped knees. Sam bites his lip when Dean glares him into silence, even though the soap stings and Dean presses the adhesive extra-hard to make sure it stays. He even puts on jeans without complaining, despite the warm day and how he feels sticky from sap and sweat.

"Tomorrow I can take you and you can go meet Castiel," he offers, very softly, softly enough that he's pretty sure Dad and Uncle Bobby can't hear.

"Yeah," Dean says without enthusiasm. "Whatever."

"We can," Sam insists.

Dean doesn't say anything to that, just helps Sam down off the toilet and crams the bandage wrappers into his back pocket. He stares at Sam hard, like maybe suspects Sam is lying or crazy or both.

"Don't mention any of this to Dad, okay? Not where you were, and not your imaginary angel buddy. Swear it."

"I swear," Sam agrees, suppressing the demand for Dean to believe him, and offers his pinky.

Dean sighs and accepts it. It's a sacred trust, Sam's old enough to know that, and it means he keeps his mouth shut when Dean says they just read comic books and played in the yard, and yeah, Sammy had lunch, PB&J and milk. Dad nods and smiles, which makes guilt twist its mean, sharp twist in Sam's gut, but he remembers Dean's words and how Dean hadn't believed in Castiel, and keeps his mouth shut tight.

* * *

The only thing worse than school is starting at a new school when it's almost the end of the year. Dean fumbles along through the history and literature as best he can and doesn't bother with the books; he knows how to read, and Bobby's taught him Latin, which is all he needs. The math he can do mostly in his head, thanks to Dad, with the decimals and everything. Lunch, for the most part, is torture.

He's used to being alone in a crowd, a good thing because all the other kids have their groups and watch the new kid suspiciously and talk behind his back. The only person who doesn't do this is the blonde girl from down the way, who introduces herself as Jo, Joanna Beth Harvelle, and is that baloney? Wordlessly, Dean hands over his sandwich, and is sort of glad for peanut butter and grape jelly in return, even though it comes with the price of having to sit next to her and listen to the fifth-graders singing about Jo the freak and the new kid sittin' in a tree.

"Go to hell," Jo advises them, which makes Dean blink and the other kids gasp in horror. She's on the shrimpy side, all skinny bones and second-hand clothes, and she's a grade behind him. Also, a girl. "Morons," she mutters, and takes a bite of Dean's baloney sandwich.

Dean endures the stares and all of it, and wishes escaping back to class and Ms. Appleton's civics lesson didn't sound so wonderful. It's freaking pathetic.

It also gets worse in civics class, when Ms. Appleton is droning on about how bills become laws, and the door opens. Thirty heads, including Dean's, swivel around, and to his unending mortification, Dean sees Ms. Conley, the assistant principal, standing there, with a tearstreaked and rebellious Sam next to her. Ms. Conley asks Ms. Appleton over, and they hold a whispered conference with a lot of meaningful looks in Dean's direction. Sammy sniffles, loudly.

"Well, there's nothing else for it, then," Ms. Appleton sighs. She kneels down and smiles at Sam, who determinedly looks away from her. "Sweetie, you want to go sit next to your brother?"

Sam doesn't answer, just marches over to the empty desk next to Dean and clambers into it. Dean, on fire with humiliation, tries to melt into the plastic and plywood, but it doesn't work; he stays whole, with every other kid in the third grade staring at him, and Sammy rubbing tears and snot off his face.

"I told you to behave yourself," he hisses.

"I knowwwww," Sammy whimpers, so despondent that Dean almost, almost feels bad enough to stop being embarrassed by his little brother turning up in class.

"Sammy," Ms. Appleton tells the class as she deposits some paper and crayons on Sam's desk, "will be spending some time with us today. Now, while I talk to Dean, why don’t you all answer the first three study questions in the back of your chapter?"

Everyone else pretends to answer the study questions while Ms. Appleton kneels by Dean, and explains that they tried to call his father, and then Mr. Singer, but couldn't reach either number, and is there another number they could try? Dean registers the question through the haze of this is the worst day of my life and I'm gonna strangle you, Sammy, and a fierce yearning to go home. He shakes his head.

Ms. Appleton makes noises about parent-teacher conferences and sighs before walking away.

"Why couldn't you just suck it up?" he growls at Sammy, who's wiped away his tears and is drawing happily. "And what the hell is that?"

"Castiel," Sammy says. He points to two large black scribbles. "These are his wings."

"You have got to let that go," Dean says to his civics book.

"I do not." Defiantly, Sammy adds another black flourish to Castiel's wing.

Dean bites his tongue. Probably Ms. Appleton's already annoyed with him, and he's been in two fights already in two weeks; he maybe has one more chance before she writes him off. Anyway, starting the Castiel argument up again isn't going to achieve much for Dean; it hasn't done much yet except annoy him and make him angry enough to storm off to his room – their room – and slam the door and barricade it with a chair. He'd buried his head under a pillow to drown out Sammy's howling and furious banging.

"Why won't you believe in him?" Sammy had asked later as he'd plowed through macaroni and cheese. "He's an angel."

"Just shut up about it, okay? Jeez." There's no way, no way he can talk about Castiel without talking about that night when Mom had died, and the last words she'd said to him, because if angels were real and actually watching she wouldn't have died. Castiel, or one of his equally-imaginary friends, would have heard Dean praying and swooped down to save Mom, and killed whatever it was that had put her on the ceiling.

He thinks all of this again, stewing in anger and just wanting to grab Sammy and shake reality into his stupid five-year-old head. Dad's the only thing that's real, he wants to say, only he has no idea how to say it that doesn't sound crazy, so he has to shut up, and that just makes him madder. The anger lasts him through the last period of the day, almost sharp enough for him to try to get a seat by someone else on the bus, but Sammy, oblivious to the fact that Dean is seriously, seriously pissed, clings to his side, one hand knotted in Dean’s shirt, the other clutching his sheaf of Castiel doodles.

Dean glares at the brown and black and blue scribbles, the dull, waxy gleam of what Sam says are supposed to be Castiel’s wings. What kind of angel has black wings? Dean thinks about asking, but he keeps his mouth shut; Sam doesn’t need any encouragement to ramble on about Castiel, and Dean doesn’t want to hear any more about the angel than he has to.

But, really, what the hell kind of an angel wears a trench coat anyway? A Castiel angel had been Sam's answer that one time when Dean had been dumb enough to open his mouth and ask.

The bus rumbles up and down hills, through the dying light of afternoon, and Dean hears a rumble that isn't the bus's engine, but thunder. The bus is too big to fit on the road up to their house; it's almost a mile of bad, narrow asphalt, a walk Dean likes less and less every day, and especially dislikes when it rains.

"Freaking awesome," he mutters. "Come on, Sammy, we're gonna have to make a run for it."

Sam protests about the drawings, the rain, it'll smudge Castiel, and Dean sighs, stuffs them in his backpack as they climb out, along with Jo, into a humid breeze and a darkening sky.

"You kids hurry home," the bus driver tells them.

"Duh," Jo says.

The rain starts up the second the bus leaves. Sammy shrieks and Dean mutters curses under his breath. Jo produces an umbrella and hands it to him.


"It's an umbrella, idiot." Jo shakes it meaningfully, and water sprays on Dean's shirt. "I don't mind getting wet, and I bet you'll catch it if your little brother gets sick."

"Thanks," Dean mutters gracelessly, taking the umbrella and handing it to Sammy, who clutches it happily in both hands. "Say thanks, freakazoid."

"'M not a freakazoid," Sam says instead.

Jo takes off without waiting, all skinny legs and small feet dodging the puddles. Dean can't run that fast, not with Sammy stumbling along and stepping in every puddle on the way, but he manages to move faster when the sky suddenly goes really dark and the wind whips up and the trees hiss and rustle angrily. The rain comes down in sheets, and the road twists on and on, Dean soaking because even though he's stolen the umbrella from Sam the umbrella isn't very big and Sam needs to stay dry.

At long, long last the house looms up out of the forest, almost swallowed by the trees and the rain, and all of it dwarfed by the oak. Dean hustles Sam in through the front door, and they track rainwater and mud all the way upstairs to the bathroom. Sam doesn't protest much when Dean pulls his clothes off and dumps him in the tub, although there's some whining at the hot water.

"I'll put clothes out for you," Dean tells him, and squelches his way to the bedroom.

Eventually they both go downstairs, the house echoing silently around them, only the sound of the rain and the hum-tick of the generator. Technically they're not supposed to be here, Dean knows; the place is owned by a hunter who lets other hunters use it in exchange for information and weapons, cash sometimes. Dean's not really supposed to know that, but he figures it could be useful.

Just like it would have been useful to know that Bobby'd gotten called away on something related to the current case. Their dad, though, Bobby's note informs him, will be back tonight. When he learns this, Sam is euphoric. Mostly, Dean is relieved.

The afternoon drags on, Sammy pestering Dean to come look at his drawings some more, which are mostly huge black scribbles of wings bracketing brown and white and tan scribbles, and a ragged blue line that Sam says is Castiel's tie. Dean pretends to be interested, gets Sam's snack, goes back to pretending to be interested until he thinks his eyes are going to explode in their sockets.

"It's getting dark," Sam moans from the epicenter of a disaster of drawing paper.

"So turn on a light, baby." Dean makes a point of sitting in the easy chair and staring at the mostly-invisible page of his math book. Not like he was paying attention to it anyway. With an aggrieved sigh, Sam rolls to his feet and goes to turn on the lights, and when Dean looks out the rain-streaked window, the darkness outside is approaching absolute.

"When's Dad getting home?" Sam asks as he restores himself to the center of the paper storm.

"When he gets home. Quit whining."

"When's that?" Already Sam's pretty good at pretending to be doing something else while pestering Dean to the point of murder.

"When it is. Shut up."

"I wanna go wait for him."

"Yeah, well, I want Holly Hunter and pizza for dinner, but it ain't happening. Shut up."

"Who's Holly Hunter?" Sam's back on his feet again, roaming around the room. He makes a circle around the coffee table, the one other chair, brushes deliberately close against Dean's feet, so Dean jerks back with an exasperated noise.

"A girl at school."

"I wanna go down and wait for Dad." Sam's voice is definitely shading toward whiny, and Dean has to suppress the urge to strangle him. Instead, he points out that they need to stay put and Dad will skin him alive if anything happens to Sam and Dean's in charge, and all Sam has to say to that is, "I wanna go down and wait for Dad."

Which is how Dean ends up at the rainy, half-flooded turnoff to their road, huddled under one umbrella while Sam, in his raincoat and boots, moaning about how he's too tired to hold up his umbrella but nonononono he doesn't want to go back up to the house, leans wetly against him. The water slicking off his coat seeps through Dean's jacket and jeans.

"It's a good thing you're my little brother," Dean tells the top of Sam's head. Sam nods, either in agreement or because he's sleepy and has totally violated naptime by insisting on coming down here in the rain and getting Dean all soaked. Sighing, Dean props Sam's umbrella – Jo's umbrella, really – against his leg and tries to keep it from falling over.

At least Sam's quiet, Dean tells himself. Everything's quiet, except for the soft machine-gun patter of rain on the leaves and the ground and Dean's umbrella, and the rushing water in the culvert nearby, all muddy from the gravel and dirt on the roadside. Just that, just the water, no birds, no wind, the air heavy and still, and nothing to look at except long dark green stretches of woods, and the shiny road, the dirt, the two dress shoes that have appeared, visible under the margin of Dean's umbrella.

The two shoes, Dean realizes, and the black feathers that trail in the water.

He tries to edge away and look up, and do both these things at the same time without being obvious about it. The feet and the feathers don't move, even as Dean shifts enough to see the long tan coat, the scrap of blue tie, rain-damp dark hair and a serene and unconcerned face, like just appearing out of nowhere on a rainy and deserted road, is normal. Dean thinks about the knife hidden in his pocket, and the guns back at the house, and reminds himself he's an idiot.

"Sammy," he breathes, shaking Sam firmly. Sam huffs and leans against Dean more emphatically.

Okay, not natural. With some effort, Dean worms his hand between himself and Sam, and gropes for the knife. The spirit, person, Castiel – there can't be more than one guy with wings and a trench coat running around Vermont – doesn't move, only stands there and lets himself get soaked and stares calmly off into the forest across the street.

"You're Castiel," Dean says, once he's sure his voice is going to work, and once he has a hold on the knife.

One blue eye slants in his direction, and Dean receives the faintest nod in return. Other than that, Castiel doesn't move.

"You're real."

This earns him a tilt of the dark head, more of the creature's attention. Castiel, the angel – the thing, Dean reminds himself, tightening his grip on the hilt – regards him silently, something huge and inhuman behind two blue, blue eyes. Behind him, the huge black wings shift, stretching a little as though to remind Dean they're there. He stands with his arms loose at his sides, but not relaxed, more like he's not entirely sure what to do with his body when he's just standing.

"You should have more faith, Dean." The angel's voice is rough, like he doesn't use it very often. Maybe, Dean supposes, he doesn't, hanging out in a forest all day. He ignores the comment about his faith, and points out that Sammy's barely in kindergarten, he makes up crap all the time.

Castiel briefly glances at Sam, who's still leaning his tiny, heavy self against Dean's side. Sighing, Dean adjusts Sam so he's standing more under the umbrella, acutely aware that the angel's watching everything he does.

"You shouldn't be down here alone," Castiel says once Dean has Sam resituated.

"Tell me something I don't know." Dean peers down the murky road. It's growing darker by the second, the rain more determined, and one side of him is getting soaked. He can feel the chill of the water through his boots, even though they're new and shouldn't leak. Tired of being stared at, he tilts his umbrella and glares up at Castiel, who gazes calmly back. "You shouldn't be out here without an umbrella."

Like everything else, Castiel is well on his way to being soaked, his dark hair matted and long, darker wet streaks running down the shoulders of his coat. What faint light is left the rain gathers to itself, and glistens in long, racing drops and lines on Castiel's wings. Dean imagines the heavy, hot smell of wet feathers.

Sighing, he offers Castiel Jo's umbrella. Castiel takes it hesitantly, long fingers curling around the handle, close to brushing Dean's, and holding it the way Dean's seen his dad hold machetes. After a moment of fiddling and intense staring on the angel's part, the umbrella pops open with a snap – without, Dean realizes, Castiel's hands doing anything. Castiel starts, wings flapping and splashing muddy water against Dean's back. Dean winces as more cold and wet starts to work its way through his jacket and then his jeans, insinuating itself against his skin.

Once he has the umbrella in position – even with his wings drawn all the way in, Dean can see they don't quite fit underneath – the angel looks up at the thin metal skeleton and the plastic stretched across it. The pink plastic, decorated with pastel ducks and other girly things. Rain patters and thuds, rolls and drips off the edges.

Castiel's wings flap once again, hard, and he shudders, a full-body, full-wing shudder. A fine mist drifts down on Dean, some of it deflected by his umbrella, some not.

Like he's gotten something out of his system, Castiel folds back in on himself again, ramrod straight and at attention, his wings pulled up tight, although the tips still trail in the puddle. Dean wonders if it's normal, to feel like he's in the presence of something more weird than terrifyingly supernatural. Probably it isn't, although Dean's more preoccupied with the depressing knowledge that he's going to have to admit that Sammy was right about the damn angel all along.

For a while, the world is only gray and the endless patter-and-splash of the rain off the umbrellas. Sam snuffles but doesn’t wake up, his hand sticky and hot in Dean's. Castiel doesn’t seem inclined to say anything.

"So where's your halo?" Dean shuffles at the wet grit underfoot.

"I don't have one." Castiel's looking down at him again, and Dean looks up, and he almost sees a glint of amusement in those serious eyes.

"I guess that means you don't have a white bathrobe either. You look like an accountant or something, or the detective on TV." They get crap shows in most of the motels they stay at, and it's just ten channels here, so his TV diet is mostly reruns.

Castiel still doesn't say anything. Sam breathes noisily through his open mouth, which seems to intrigue Castiel a bit. With a sigh, Dean resituates Sam, who just oozes bonelessly against him.

"If my dad were here," Dean ventures, "he'd shoot you. Probably anyone would."

"They would," Castiel agrees serenely, "although it would be a bad idea if they tried."

Dean shivers, and it doesn't have much to do with the rain. The angel stands quietly next to him, hands loose at his sides, apparently content to stand there until the end of the rain or the end of the world, whichever comes first. He seems impervious to the rain still soaking into the shoulders his coat and his wings and hair, and Dean wonders if that extends to things like knives and bullets. And Castiel, who'd been gazing with some interest up at the umbrella over his head, glances down at him, barely-there smile to say that, yes, it does extend to guns and knives.

"You should have more faith than you do," the angel says.

"Sorry," Dean grunts, unable to figure out if the angel's judging him or just making an observation and hating it either way. "But maybe if you guys had shown up at my house five years ago, I would."

He really wants to hate Castiel, because if he really is an angel, his kind did fuck all to help his mom, and they were supposed to help people. That was what angels did, Mom always said: watched over people, watched over him. He wonders if maybe that night the angels had been watching over him, just him, and had forgotten Mom, because his memory of everything after Dad had thrust Sammy into his arms and told him to run is a blur of light and heat and his thundering heart, so anything could have happened.

"It isn't our fault we aren't what you believed we were," the angel says coolly. The huge wings arc out, collecting raindrops, a reminder that Castiel isn't the fluffy white-winged type, like the angel figurine Dean hazily remembers from his old bedroom.

"You're a jerk," Dean tells the angel. The word he wants to use is bastard, except the angel's a grownup, way grown-up if he's thousands of years old like angels are supposed to be.

That actually seems to surprise Castiel, who needs a moment before saying, low and menacing so the chills down Dean's spine deepen and throb, "You should show me some respect," and there's power in the words, raw and grating, ancient and with brimstone in it. The entire world – or at least Dean's corner of it – tightens in anticipation, the rain pausing in its endless fall, the trees listening. Sammy stirs to life, sucks in a startled breath, but then he goes quiet too.

Headlights appear from around the bend, still far in the distance but bright in the gloom, and almost the second Dean sees the lights cutting across the dark bank of the forest and the rain, he hears the grumble and thrum of the Impala's engine. In the corner of his eye he sees the angel tense

Castiel vanishes in a gust of wind and a swirl of wet feathers. Dean winces as the backs of his legs are comprehensively drenched.

A moment later the Impala rumbles up, going too fast. Dean pushes a reluctant Sam back a bit further as the car skids briefly, brakes fighting the water for traction, and slows to a stop. Through the window, Dean can see the vague shadows of his father's face.

The window rolls down and Dad looks out, forehead creased.

"What the..?" Dad stops and coughs. "Boys, what's going on?"

"Sammy," Dean offers feebly. He nudges Sam in the back. "He wanted to come down and wait for you."

"Okay…" Dad gives Dean a look that says they're going to talk about this later, him putting Sammy in unnecessary danger, going against orders. Dean clamps down on the resentment and reminds himself he's earned the lecture he's going to get after he's put Sam safely to bed.

At least for now, Dad drops it. "Why don't you boys climb in?" Dad reaches behind him and the back door swings open. Sam squeals and clambers in, tracking water and mud all over the upholstery.

* * *

The next day, Dean itches and fidgets his way through school. With their dad back, Sammy stays put in his class, and Dean almost misses the distraction of having to look after him. Civics goes back to being boring, and the kids go back to being assholes – worse now that they know Dean has a whiny brat of a little brother hanging off him. As it is, he doesn't see Sammy again until the bus, when Sammy greets him with a crumpled fistful of Castiel drawings. When he shows them to Dean, Dean finds he can't be annoyed. In one of them, Castiel stands under a triangle that, according to Sammy, is an umbrella.

Dad's there when they get home, and after the hell of yesterday, Dean can't quite believe it. He's home and not working, which means the case is going well – not that he's going to ask with Sam right there, scarfing down cheese and crackers.

"I'll put Sam down for his nap, then get a bit of work done," Dad says, and it's something he almost never does, and Sam's happy enough to have him home that he slurps up the rest of his juice and lets himself collapse into Dad's arms when he's picked up. "C'mon, big guy."

"Ooooof," says Sam, resting his Ritz-covered face on Dad's shoulder.

And Dean's already halfway out the door, barely remembering to grab a comic book for cover. He gives himself a couple minutes for Dad to get upstairs and begin the complicated process of getting Sam out of his sneakers and socks, and a few more seconds to steel his courage and work up a decent lie in case Dad calls him. After that, he races down the hill and over the bridge, feet landing thump-thump-thump on the wood and quiet again on the soft dirt path leading into the forest.

Almost immediately the woods close around him, silent, close with greenness and life. Dean heads downhill, following the faint fork in the path. A few moments later the oak tree, Castiel's home, according to Sam, looms up in front of him, ancient and silent, all its branches heavy with leaves. Even Sam's crazy, rambling story about his adventure, told with all a little kid's hyperbole, doesn't quite prepare Dean for the tree, the utter size of it, its bark rough under his palm and pulsing with something like what had come off the angel.

Dean edges his way up along a solid limb that's almost encased in earth, trying to remember Sammy's half-incoherent stories. The roots are massive, steps he can climb like a staircase. Sam had mentioned that, and had the skinned knee to prove it.

So I walked up onna branch, and then I fell down this tunnel thing and I saw the angel.

Dean's not doing any falling if he can possibly help it, so he lowers himself as carefully as he can. It's awkward, and despite his best efforts he slides on his butt part of the way before he can catch himself,

"Damn." The soft grass at the bottom catches him, and he's rolling to his feet cat-quick. Already the air is different, not as heavy, but still and quiet, and improbably there's light even this far under the shade.

And there, on the branch (just like in Sam's story), Castiel's sitting, legs drawn up to his chest and his wings wrapped around him, the tips trailing over the grass.

"Hello, Dean." Castiel regards him attentively from over the shelf of his wings. Slowly, like curtains, they draw away, stretching full-length and closing up again, resettled along the length of the angel’s spine. Dean thinks of the origami Bobby showed him once, and feathers folding back together. Castiel shrugs once, as if to shift something into place, and goes still once more.

"Hey." He scuffs at the grass, nervous and at a loss and not liking it at all. Castiel doesn't say anything, only stares; it doesn't help. "Listen…" Crap. "Do you just, like, hang out here all day?"


The single word hangs in the air. Dean glances around quickly, taking the measure of the hillside, the curious, grassy bowl that cups them, the light radiant on the angel's black wings.

"Is there anything else to that?" The angel says even less than Dad does, which is some kind of record.

"No, I don't hang out here all day," Castiel says. "But I knew you were coming. You have questions." He says it right out; it's not a question.

"Stay out of my mind," Dean says crossly. Not like the angel couldn't have guessed. Why the hell else would a kid come down here? What else would Dean have after standing next to a silent, mysterious angel in the pouring rain? "You wouldn’t believe Sam," Cas says, almost off-handedly, "but then you saw me down by the road," and Dean rolls his eyes, knowing what's coming, "and I knew you would come."

The amount of knowledge implied, like Castiel knew the future or had somehow figured out what Dean was like despite never once seeing him before yesterday, pulls at Dean's hackles. Castiel looks at him, no expression – no human expression, anyway. Dean thinks uncomfortably of a large bird of prey, looking at you with feral intelligence and curiosity, either wondering what you are or wondering the best way to get his talons in you.

Dean turns around, deliberately craning his head to look up into the fluttering, rustling canopy of leaves far overhead. Looking away from Castiel doesn't work; he can still feel the angel's gaze, flat and hot and heavy, on the back of his neck. "So," Dean says, swallowing around the word, "so what, you like the view here?"

"There is a crossing place near here, in the crater of an old volcano." Castiel says it almost indifferently, but the peculiar stress on crossing catches Dean's attention. He turns back, in time to catch Castiel staring off into the distance, the fierce attention directed somewhere distant. "Witches, if they're powerful enough, can stand in the center of it and call up spirits." Dean shudders, "Witches?" and Castiel nods. "Not many of them know of that place, but they still come every now and then."

"And you're guarding it?"

Castiel sighs, a soft, impatient sound. "Yes," and the word is a warning not to push.

"Okay." Part of him, the part that wants to ask Dad or what? when Dad tells him to do stuff, wants to push the matter, but a larger part is way too aware of the angel's thin, annoyed mouth and how you don't ever, ever piss off the supernatural.

It occurs to him, in the weirdest, dimmest way, that he's been spending the past ten minutes or so talking to something not of this world, complete with wings and thousand-yard stare, and the thing – the angel, Castiel, it has an actual name – hasn't tried to kill him. Instead, he gets the impression Castiel's bored and unimpressed and definitely irritated at having Dean intrude on whatever he was doing.

"Sorry I crashed your totally rocking party," Dean says, as sarcastically as he possibly can.

The angel stares at him, definite puzzlement there, Dean's ten-year-old sarcasm knocking something ancient off its stride.

"I don't have many visitors," the angel tells him. He doesn't sound particularly upset about it, or particularly anything.

Dean hesitates, remembers the small flat package stowed in his jeans and pulls it out, hands it to the angel, who inspects it curiously. It's just cards; Dean plays a mean game of solitaire already, necessary when killing time waiting for Sammy to really fall asleep.

"Want to play?"

* * *

In the end, they play two games before Dean registers the deepening shadows and, like the evening, fear rushes up on him: what the hell his dad will say, Sam probably opening his big mouth and blabbing their secret, all kinds of trouble ending with Castiel incinerating their house. So, along with the stakes from the first game, he extracts a promise from Castiel not to burn anything down. Castiel gives the promise unwillingly, and isn't mollified by the dollar-fifty Dean had fished out of his pocket to serve as the pot for the second round.

He steals through the undergrowth, stumbling his way through impossible roots and shadows until he reaches the road. As he walks, he concocts his story: went down the road to see a friend about some notes he'd missed when Sam had had his meltdown the other day, got hung up because Jimmy had a new game system and his mom baked cookies and he'd lost track of time. Dean almost wants to believe the lie actually happened, he can see it that clear. Never mind he can't stand Jimmy and for all he knows Jimmy's mom can't bake for crap.

At least his dad buys it, so score one for the second rule of lying (believe in your lie, right behind Number One: Make sure the lie has a bit of truth in it), and lets Dean off with a muttered reminder to call next time, and not to wander off.

"This is a safe spot," he tells Dean for the zillionth time, and Dean can almost taste the words, they're that familiar, "as safe as any we've been to, but when you're safe, you get careless. Sloppy. We can't afford that, Dean."

"Where's Sam?" Dean asks instead of saying 'yes, sir.'

"Just getting up." Dad's attention swivels back to his work, his journal and a stack of maps and newspaper reports about some mysterious deaths up in Amity. Dean holds back a sigh and instead of asking the question with the inevitable answer ("You got a case?" "Yeah.") shuffles upstairs to Sammy.

Sam greets him with a plaintive moan and underprivileged expression that digs in under Dean's ribs. Where werrrrrrre youuuuu? Sam wants to know, the words drawn out on a whine as he stretches and kicks back his covers. Dean flops down on the edge of the bed, close enough to feel Sammy's little-kid heat as Sam squirms into position against his side.

"You were out," Sam accuses, "you went out without me."

"I can't be draggin' you everywhere, twerp," Dean mumbles.

Greedy fingers are already in Dean's right coat pocket, where Sam would have felt the small bulge. In a heartbeat, Sam – who can usually be counted on to drop things he's got a good hold of, and still hasn't figured out how to hold crayons – has the small leather bag out and unknotted.

"Seeds?" Sam blinks as they scatter on his pajama'ed stomach, some of them small, smooth and light brown, the others larger, like sunflower seeds, others white with a reddish film. Carefully Sam picks one up and studies it. "Why you got seeds, Dean?"

"Cas gave 'em to me," Dean admits.

After Dean had won the first game, Castiel had pushed the small leather bag – his contribution to the pot – at him. Dean had stared at it until the angel made an impatient noise and took his hand. He almost jumped, the angel's had that human and alien, smooth skin and under it a rolling heat right on the edge of burning. The small package almost fell from his grip and he started to say no, he really really didn't want this whatever-the-hell it is, but the angel told him, to take it, in no uncertain terms.

Sam's big, dumb brain only needs a second to jump from Cas to Castiel, and he shoots upright, the seeds spilling to his lap. Dean reaches up and slaps a hand over Sam's mouth a heartbeat before the shrill accusation brings Dad and holy wrath down on their heads.

"Not a word," Dean advises him, "or your life won't be worth living."

"Mmmkay," Sam says to the flat of Dean's palm, even though his eyes are truculent. When Dean cautiously lowers his hand, Sam hisses, "You went and saw him?"

Dean rolls his eyes. "Is he your boyfriend?" Sam snorts. "I just had a couple questions for him, like what he's doing hanging around here like some kind of freak."

"He's bein' a guardian angel." The duh is all but spoken. "It's what angels do."

The assurance Sam says it with, all five-year-old confidence that can't ever be wrong, makes Dean's heart hurt, and makes him want to punch something. And he wants to tell Sam the truth, that no, angels really aren't watching over you, and the big black-winged headcase down in the woods has his eye on some crossroads and not on them.

He blinks back to reality when he feels Sam plucking at his coat; thinking it's a demand for attention, he almost snaps back what?, but then realizes Sam's picking up the seeds and placing them back in the bag. "So why've you got seeds?" Sam directs the question mostly to the bedspread and the few seeds scattered there.

"I dunno." Dean shrugs. Maybe they were all Cas had, until he won Dean's lunch money from him. "But he told me to plant 'em the next time the full moon comes around."

* * *

One of the many parts of Dean's not-formal education is in basic astronomy and meteorology, learning how to read star charts for astrological stuff (some ceremonies can only be performed under certain constellations, or with planets in alignments Dean's pretty sure he'll never remember in a million zillion years) and to pay attention to the phases of the moon. Full moon is a bad, bad time to be a hunter wandering through werewolf territory.

They have a week until the full moon comes around, and Cas had been specific, plant them on the first night of the full moon, and despite himself Dean's curious about the stupid things. And like he senses Dean's curious and has questions – or maybe that Sam's curious and has more questions than can fit in his head – Castiel's gone all that week, except one day when Dean slips out of the house again during Sam's naptime and Dad's working on that top-secret project of his, about Mom, and Dean can't be in the same space sometimes, when Dad's doing that.

Like before he grabs his cards, and as an afterthought, a sheaf of Sam's most recent drawings, and spirits down to the forest.

"This does not look like me," is Cas's verdict when he sees the drawings, his wings represented by wild black scribbles or else by the five spokes of Sam's fingers and thumb, like the tail of a Thanksgiving turkey. "Look, he ain't da Vinci," Dean points out, even though the pictures are pretty damn good for being done by a five-year-old (in Dean's opinion, anyway). Cas makes a confused noise.

"See? He got your hair." Dean points to the dark brown-black hybrid scribble, which actually isn't too far removed from Castiel's actual hair, crazy and windblown as it is. When he grins up at Castiel, he gets only more confusion, and possibly a hint of puzzled offense.

Despite the screwed-up tie and the puzzlement, Dean's willing to bet Castiel's a mean son of a bitch if he wants to be; it's there in the military sharpness of his shoulders and the way he talks, a lot like Dad when he's in full-on Marine mode, the precise way he takes a card when Dean hands it to him. Scary smart, too; Dean can't cheat even when Cas solemnly swears not to read his mind, and he learns the rules for seven-card stud and Texas Hold 'Em as fast Dean can explain them. Once he figures out a large part of poker is lying about what you have, he takes to it like a huge, black-feathered duck to water.

"Strategy and bluffing," Castiel says ruminatively as he studies his cards, and he sounds way too familiar with those concepts. "Deceiving your opponent into believing your advantage is greater than it is, or lesser, depending on the resources you have." Dean screws up his courage and asks about it.

"I'm what you would call a specialist." Cas studies the five cards spread on the grass between them. His wings are half-unfurled behind him, stretched so the faint light plays across the long flight feathers the way it plays across old steel. "You would think of it as intelligence and espionage," and geez, maybe Cas and Dad would get on like a house on fire.

"So why they got you watching this place?" Dean studies his cards and tosses a nickel into the pot.

Cas doesn't answer, and they don't speak again until Dean realizes the hours've slipped by almost to evening. He stands up and pockets the twenty-five cents he hadn't sacrificed to Cas's sneaky gameplay, says an awkward "so long" that Cas answers with his own "Good night, Dean," soft and oddly formal. Like before Dean leaves him in the growing dimness, the straight shoulders in their trench coat and the dark wings, as he clambers back up the hill to the path. There's a soft rustle of wings and wind, and Dean knows if he turns back around, Cas'll be gone.

By the time he gets back, Sam's clamoring for his dinner and their dad's in the last stages of assembling it, hamburgers and broccoli, something about how they'll eat vegetables while they actually have a place to cook them. Sam gulps his milk and asks, the moron, where Dean's been.

"Out at Jimmy's," Dean breathes, which is code for with Cas by now. Sam nods, wide-eyed and clearly about to ask something else. Dean gives him the most ferocious look he can manage. Sam shuts his trap just in time for Dad to plunk their plates down in front of them and refill Sammy's cup.

"We gotta plant the thingies tonight," Sam whispers. It's the loud, totally-obvious kind of whisper Dean's pretty sure they can hear down by the road.

"What thingies?" Dad asks from his station by the stove, where he's fixing his own plate. "And why at night?"

"Science project for school." Dean doesn't look too closely at how he's lied to Dad more often in the past couple of weeks than his entire life. "We're learning about plants. And it's not tonight, it's just Sam being dumb." At least Sam is smart enough not to say anything about how Cas did too tell them to plant these at night. Dean figures he's going to have all sorts of hell figuring out how to get outside and not having Dad on their cases.

"Let me know if you need any help," Dad tells him as he sits down with his dinner. Dean says something noncommittal and stares at his burger. Sam munches his broccoli and, with uncharacteristic delicacy, separates his hamburger into parts (bun, pickles, burger, other part of bun) before eating them. It's a phase, some weird five-year-old thing Dean's pretty sure he never went through.

Another phase is trying to get the toothpaste to squirt onto the toothbrush with that perfect, smooth curl at the end, like in the commercials, and Dean has to breathe a soft reminder that toothpaste costs money, and he's not going to be late because his dumb little brother needed an hour to brush his teeth. Sam races through brushing, flossing, and face-washing, and is scrubbed and in bed in record time.

* * *

Sam can't wait until he's old enough to not have to take naps, and go outside whenever he feels like it and not when Dad decides it's "safe" enough. In general, he can't wait for most things, like Dad saying good night and going off downstairs to do Work, the important kind of work he never lets Sam in on, but that Sam's getting suspicions about. In bed next to him, Dean idly flips through a comic book, like he isn't every bit as excited as Sam is about this.

"Why d'you think he wants us to do this?" Sam asks.

"Maybe he doesn't like getting his hands dirty," Dean says, and turns a page. "I dunno, Sammy. Geez."

"He lives in a tree," Sam points out, although it's something he's wondered, why Castiel, or Cas like Dean calls him, lives in their woods instead of Heaven, where Pastor Jim says all the angels live.

"Maybe he's just really bad at gardening." Dean snaps the page as he turns it, which means he's not in the mood for more questions and Sam'll be told to shut up or else if he opens his mouth again. Sighing, Sam curls down into the covers and tries to close his eyes and stay awake at the same time, outwaiting Dad who's probably Working in the office by now.

The next thing he knows, he's standing outside, the night-damp grass cool against his toes, the earth soft. Dean's standing next to him, the small leather bag making a bulge in his pocket. He's the only really warm thing about the night, which is right on the edge of spring and still coolish. Above them, the moon swings high and full, bleaching out the sky so they can't see all the stars. Still, it's worth looking up at, all that endless dark and the bright dots of the stars like curious eyes peering down.

"They're just large balls of plasma," a familiar, rough voice says, and just in time Sam clamps down on the squeal of delight. The glare Dean gives him, the shut up or I’ll glue your mouth shut glare, helps, even though it melts a bit into something like welcome when he says hello to Cas. "Hello, Dean. Sam," the angel says, sounding vastly unaffected.

"We were gonna plant your seeds," Sam tells him, as Dean fishes the bag out of his pocket. "You gonna help?"

The great wings twitch and shift, stretching so the night breeze catches some of the feathers and ruffles them. With a gesture Dean understands as being right on the edge of patience, Cas points to the ground, where Sam had already cleared a little strip of grass down to dirt. Dean figures, if anything, he and Sam can tell Dad it's for some science project, something Sam wants to help out with. Sam makes a soft, shrill noise and grabs the small package of seeds from Dean's hand, flopping into the dirt like an earthworm.

"Don't like getting your hands dirty?" Dean asks, as he takes one of the seeds. He digs a hole with one finger, drops the seed in, and covers it up.

"It's better if you plant them," Cas says, and the huge wings shift and flex against the wind, a reminder that no, Cas probably doesn't mind getting his wings dirty at all. He's standing at alert, sparing only the briefest glances for Dean and Sam, his attention somewhere else. "Okay, fine, whatever," Dean mumbles, and starts to work. The soil is damp with the night dew, soft and squishing between his fingers, and cool.

He thinks about making a remark about planting weed, or something for Cas's secret stash, but the stillness is heavy, too heavy for words to break it. Overhead the light is unreal, the stars turning slowly in their course as heaven wheels them up over the towering trees of the forest. Methodically he works his way down the line: dig out a hole, drop a seed in, cover it back up, step to the right, dig out a hole, drop a seed in, cover it back up, step. Sam lags behind, kneeling down and very deliberate in his pace. For once, Cas doesn't seem to mind them being slow, intent on other things, and with the quiet settling around them, Dean can hear him saying something.

It's a chant, he thinks, words he doesn't recognize. The words have Cas's usual rumble and something more, deeper, an earthquake working its way up through the ground. Dean's bones start to thrum, his spine tingling, and still Cas's voice gains strength, ananael i caosyi, laiad I caosyi, kathanim ante ananel a laiad so adonan, and more that Dean starts to lose track of as the words come faster. Cas's wings unfurl, starlight edging them so the long flight feathers look like blades, black steel tipped with silver.

Sammy's quiet next to him, and closer now that Dean's realizes he's stopped, almost clinging to Dean's legs. It doesn't help his balance, and he needs it, because the earth is shaking under him, Cas's rough, flawless voice woven through the vibrations. It's like the words are pulling something up through the dirt, a power in them Dean's never once heard from Dad or Bobby's chants. In the middle of it all, Cas stands unmoved, the words rolling on and on. Transfixed, Dean forgets to watch the ground, despite Sam's sudden huff of surprise, Dean, lookit, because Cas is… Cas is something he's never seen before.

There's no choice but to look away, because Cas isn't Cas anymore, is huge and brilliant like the sun just come up all of a sudden. Or a comet, maybe, just landed right there in their corner of the world, obliterating all the shadows and so hot and bright Dean feels like maybe he's dissolving too. Sam's hand clasped in his is the only solid thing that's left, and there's nothing to look at anymore because Cas is gone, and his eyes hurt, the blood thin and violent and pounding in his head so he has to look away and try to find some darkness. Only there's nothing, nothing except the endless, fierce roll of Cas's voice that wants to break apart Dean's skull.

And then, like that, it's over.

The world snaps back around him, the air cold against the memory of searing heat. The night rushes in again like a wave, and Dean's blind all over again. Under his feet, the earth goes still again, leaving a weird echo throbbing up and down his spine, and he almost loses his balance, it's that startling. All that's left, other than the dark he tries to blink away, is the faint, remembered hum of Cas's voice in his ears, and the faint awareness of the angel standing next to him.

"Lookit, Dean," Sam whispers, tugging at Dean's hand.

Dean opens his eyes, blinks twice against the afterglows that swim across his pupils. Sam tugs again and obediently he looks.


Their small garden isn't a garden anymore, but towering trees and undergrowth growing up in front of him, sweet grass and the flowers nodding heavy with dew. The stars don't shine under the trees' spreading branches, but the night wind sighs through them. Around one giant trunk, Dean can see the house, a rectangular silhouette against the velvet black and the stars, still and silent.

Cas sighs, a sigh that blends in with the breeze and the stillness, unexpectedly human. Dean hears the soft, living sound of his wings folding back together.

He opens his mouth to ask a question, How'd you do that? Are you looking out for us and our dad?, but Cas's face is shadowed and strange now, and utterly inhuman, and you don't – Dean knows this, the knowledge coming to him as though from a long way away – you don't ask questions of beings like this. The night goes still, and Dean can feel it in a way he hasn't quite ever felt it before, aware of the cool air along every inch of exposed skin, the warmth of his t-shirt, the damp and breathing quiet of the world. He stands silent, long enough for two of Cas's long, slender fingers to press against his forehead, and the next thing he knows it's morning, and there's birdsong in the window, Sam stirring to life beside him.

* * *

He doesn't know if it's relief or disappointment he feels, when he checks out their garden and it's just a couple of small sprouts. What the hell would he have done if it had been that wild growth, all flowers and branching leaves? No possible way to explain that, not something either Dad or Bobby would buy. There isn't much to separate their work from the rest of the lawn, except the strip of dirt and a crayon sign Sam had printed, telling people to Keep Away. Dean has the feeling whatever protections Cas had laid down are going to be responsible for the garden surviving, if it survives at all.

Sam's getting good – way too good – at keeping the Cas situation to themselves. He doesn't moan over breakfast about what had happened to their garden, or ask Dean impossible questions about what had happened. More than not cluing Dad in, Dean's grateful for that; he has no idea what had happened either, except for the vague itch that it was a really clear dream, or maybe some of what Cas had had them plant was some kind of angelic secret stash, and he'd ended up getting high.

"When're we gonna see Cas?" Sam whispers when Dad's a bare handful of rooms away. It's a totally obvious, deafening five-year-old whisper, and Dean's breath catches, waiting for Dad to come out of his study and ask who Cas is and what's going on. It doesn't happen; what does happen is Dean shoving Sam in the head and giving him a meaningful look that sends Sam into a pout. "Well, when?"

When is a question Dean can't answer for a few more days. He suffers through half a week of school, and three lunches with Jo, who swings her sneakered feet and stares significantly at him. "Take a picture, it'll last longer," Dean suggests around his baloney sandwich, when he's finally gotten tired of it.

"You're John Winchester's kid," Jo says as she steals a potato chip. Cold jitters through Dean's stomach, and he wonders briefly, irrationally, if she knows about Cas and all of it.

If she doesn't, she doesn't say anything, only steals another potato chip and asks if Dean's ever planning on giving her back her umbrella.

He does, and that's the excuse he needs to see Cas again, after Sam's safely down for his nap. Jo lives with her mom at the house just down the way, and that's about the extent of Dean's knowledge of them. Ellen Harvelle is maybe his dad's age (old), gruff and practical in her flannel shirt and jeans and boots. She could almost be a hunter too, clothes like that and a house that's stripped down to the basics. The only bits of color against the old wood and plaid are Jo's few toys, a fire-engine red plastic gun and some army men scattered around.

"You're John Winchester's boy," Ellen says, an older, rougher version of Jo. The way she says it leaves whether or not she thinks being John Winchester's boy is a good thing open. She takes the umbrella when Dean holds it out, inspecting it thoughtfully, and offers, along with a curt thank you, a snack. "Jo's out with friends," she explains briefly, "but she might be along."

"No thank you, ma'am," Dean mumbles, ears uncomfortably warm and red at her words. It's not like he likes Jo or anything, and jeez, she'd just lent him her umbrella. "I need to get going."

"You ever need anything, you ask, okay?" Ellen asks, instead of letting him go. It's a half-command, as close to a request as Ellen probably ever gets. Dean shrugs. "We're okay," he mumbles, and tries not to see Ellen's impatient headshake.

"It doesn't matter if you're okay or not," she tells him, even as he turns to go. "Just let me know if you need anything. You can tell your dad that, too."

Dean decides he might have to die before doing that and makes his escape down to the forest. Unsettled and hating it, he's not entirely sure it's a good idea to go down and see Cas, not with what Ellen's just said and all those questions from the other night chewing at him. But, he figures, it's now or never, and he knows it's only a matter of time before he slips and Dad finds out something. He goes still and cold just thinking of it, then shakes himself back to the real world and hustles down the hill, skating the last bit until he fetches up in Cas's hollow.

The angel looks much as he always does, calm and self-contained, young face and still older than Dean can hope to get his head around. The Hello, Dean, is familiar too, like Cas hadn't just turned into something alien and terrifying the other night.

"Hey," he says, like he always does. Cas settles back into himself again, and it's just… it's weird. Cas is silent enough for the school library, and quiet always makes Dean want to talk, an empty space he needs to fill. Only with Cas he can't quite figure out what to say, because chances are Cas is going to be confused by it, or not react to it at all, and Dean has no idea which is worse.

"The other night," he begins, and pushes the words out before he can think about them much more: "Did you, like, mind-whammy us or something? Was I dreaming?"

Cas seems to hesitate over the 'mind-whammy' reference, brows drawing down as though he's working it out. "Even with my grace," he says, "the seeds you planted will need a few years to mature fully. You probably won't be here then." He says it like it's self-explanatory, all of it, grace, whatever that is, why these plants are so damn important. And as for why he wanted Dean and Sam to see what they were like… "You were doing something nice?"

The angel looks away, chin rising stiffly. Dean lets himself be a little bit floored, that he's on the receiving end of a supernatural creature's friendly gesture.

"Don't let it get around," Cas says at last, looking severely at him.

Dean crosses his heart. "I won't tell another soul."

"I'll hold you to that." Cas invests the words with utter seriousness, hellfire to pay if Dean goes back on his word.

More questions crowd at him, that one out of the way; if Cas is actually going to talk, Dean thinks, trying to nerve himself up, he might as well ask the rest. He scuffs at the grass, wishing they were back five days ago, when he could still almost beat Cas at cards. "I, um… I wanted to know a fewother things," he starts, and winces against the hesitation. Man up, Winchester.

"They're for summoning and banishing certain spirits," is all he gets out of Cas once he gets up the courage, and wouldn't that just figure? Dean finds himself looking out the side of his eye at the angel, waiting for that radiance to blind him. Back in the daylight Cas is his old self, and not his old self, not the weirdly clueless guy who plays poker with him, but not quite that ancient, powerful creature either.

"So what, why us?" Dean keeps on with it, not entirely sure if it's the smart thing or incredibly stupid, pushing Cas like this. The silence is a warning, but when he makes himself look at Cas, the angel says, "Because there are very few people in the world who would help me."

It sounds unexpectedly forlorn, next to the sad, liquid blue eyes and crooked tie. Dean tries not to feel bad about that, because it's not like Cas is the only angel in the world or anything.

"Very few hunters, much less humans, know of us anymore," Cas says, snapping back to his irritable self. "You were rather slow to believe in me at first."

"You're not exactly angelic," Dean mutters. In the corner of his eye he sees Cas's wings ruffle and has to grin. "It's not like you're walking around in a white robe with a halo and a harp and everything."

"You shouldn't believe anything you read," Cas says with the tiniest hint of testiness. His wings settle back into their usual position, tucked neatly behind the disheveled folds of his trench coat. Dean thinks again of that coruscating brightness, and how it felt like his bones were going to vibrate apart. "Certainly," Cas continues with more than a bit of disdain, "not what you read about in books that aren't scripture." He pauses. "And even then."

That reminds him, a sudden sharp snap back to one of the things he wants to know, and one of the things he almost can't bring himself to ask. It's tempting, really, really tempting, to reach for the deck of cards in his jeans pocket, even though he knows Cas is going to beat him again unless he comes up with a new game. Facing that, though, is a hell of a lot easier than the question he wants to ask.

"My mom," and he doesn't know if he's dragging out the words, or if they're dragging him, "she used to say that angels were watching over me." He takes breath. "Is that true?"

He knows the answer before Castiel says anything. What a freaking mistake to come here today.

"I hate you," he says, small and without conviction. "She believed in you guys. I thought that was supposed to be enough."

Cas doesn't say anything, leaving Dean to fill the silence with everything he's kept back since that night. I was asleep and then I heard screaming, and everything was on fire. And I know Dad didn't want me to see, but I saw her – I saw Mom on the ceiling, and I know she was dead. Then Dad gave me Sammy and pushed us out the door, and the house exploded. And where were you guys? She said you were looking out for us.

He's crying, but it really doesn't matter. His body's drawn up, tense, and his head hurts, and the space behind his ribs swells with a pain that closes tight around his heart. And next to him, the entire time, he can see Cas sitting quietly, undisturbed, like Dean's words, what happened to his mom, is just more breeze brushing over him.

"Screw you," he chokes out, the words weaker than he wants them to be. "Screw you, if this is how you treat people who pray to you."

That gets something of a reaction. The huge wings stretch out, shadowing Dean's head, and Cas lifts up a little. Dean squares his shoulders – if Cas is going to smite him or whatever, he's not going to go down sniveling like a brat – and stares back at those alien eyes, right into the face of power, and doesn't blink.

"She asked us," Cas says slowly, "to watch over you. And she'd long since given up our protection."

"What?" Dean's mind goes blank except for that question.

Cas looks away. In one smooth motion he's off the branch and almost halfway across the hollow. Dean says the angel's name, but it doesn't get him a look back; he has the sense that Cas has said more than he'd meant to say. His wings flex and unfurl, then pull back together, and Dean wonders if the angel's actually upset. Not angry, not divinely wrathful, but… the human sort of upset, where you don't know what to do and feel bad about what you've done.

"Cas?" he asks.

"I need to go on patrol," Castiel says shortly, and the great wings spread again, and in a whirl of feathers Dean's alone again.

* * *

Sam's life has gone all weird, what Dean likes to call sideways, and it's gone all of a sudden. He's used to their dad's work taking him to new places without much notice, and it's one of the things that bugs him but that he has to put up with because Dean won't tell him anything. He's used to Dad being gone all hours, and sometimes for days, but Dean keeps him in Lucky Charms and drawing paper, so that's okay too. At times, he has the dim sense that, as long as Dean's okay, he'll be okay, and Dad could be home, or the next state over, or Canada, or wherever.

But Dean… Dean has to be okay, and right now, he isn't.

"Why?" Sam asks for the millionth time. "Come on, Dean."

"Buzz off," Dean says curtly, and elbows Sam in the ribs without looking up from his comic book. "I'm busy."

"You're reading," Sam accuses. "And you've read that one already, I can tell." He gives it a minute and tries again. "We haven't been to see Cas in a week."

Dean scowls. "I told you, we can't go down there. Now buzz off."

Sam buzzes off, down to the empty kitchen. He drags the refrigerator open in search of food, but all there is is ravioli and stuff only Dean knows how to make. The rest of the house is still, Dad and Uncle Bobby off somewhere for the day, and it's a weekend, so there's nothing for them to do except hang around the house and be bored.

He could, Sam supposes, go and see Cas by himself. The glass door, locked as it is, is temptation, even knowing Dean will kill him if he goes outside without asking. Cautiously glancing up at Dean's room, invisible through the ceiling, Sam goes over to the door. Through it he can see the garden, the buds on the small flowers starting to come out, their leaves unfurling to catch the sun. They aren't terribly pretty, which disappoints him, but Dean says according to Cas they aren't supposed to be pretty.

"They're for protection," Dean had said, "and they'll just be ground up anyway. God, you're a girl."

"I'm going outside," Sam hollers.

"I'll freaking end you," Dean hollers back. "Damn it, Sammy."

There's something weird going on, Sam decides as he stomps into the living room. He can't put his finger on it, but it's definitely Dean, and the more he thinks about it, the more it worries him. The world is okay if Dean is, and if Dean isn't…

Cas. If whatever's wrong has to do with Cas, and Sam's pretty sure it is, the answer's plain as day: go get Cas, and convince him to apologize, since Dean seems determined not to go into the forest again if he can help it.

Dean's ominous voice drifts down from upstairs. "You had better not be going out."

"I'm not," Sam says, and has to wipe at some tears, swallow back some more. He's not going to be a girl. Carefully, he picks up his backpack, a battered thing they'd gotten at the Salvation Army, with some other kid's name written in marker on the inside. In it go some of his crayons and paper, a couple of granola bars he'd filched from the pantry earlier. Upstairs, all is silent, Dean lost in annoyance and his stupid comic book. Holding his breath – sometimes Dean can hear him thinking, Sam swears – Sam unlocks the back door, pushes the screen open, and slips out.

He knows the way down to the hollow by heart, a quick skip over the bridge and hustling into the cover of the forest. The house is quiet behind him, no Dean yelling for him to hold up and he was going to wish he was dead when Dean got a hold of him. The forest is quiet ahead of him, too, oddly so for a spring afternoon when all the birds should be out, and darker than Sam remembers it being. Still, the path is the same and he follows it closely, an eye out for where it dips sharply down under the roots of the great oak.

When he recovers from his slide down the hill, he looks up to find that Cas isn't there.

The hollow is empty, no Cas anywhere. Sam peers around, paying close attention to the shadows, but unless he's invisible, Cas isn't anywhere. He tries out the angel's name, first Dean's nickname and then his proper name, Castiel?, but the angel doesn't come.

He sits down to wait, thinking maybe Cas is busy, off doing angel things, occasionally calling softly for him. Long after Sam's lost count of how many times he's said the angel's name, Cas still hasn't come, and the shadows have deepened, the sun pulling them out along the length of the afternoon. Sam picks himself up and calls for Cas more insistently, but still Cas stays gone.

Sam knows he should get back to the house because Dean will be, and probably is, furious. Except Dean's back there, still hurting and wrong, angry at Cas for some reason Sam can't figure out. And, Sam supposes, maybe Cas senses it with that weird angel sense of his, and is staying away, pulling two familiar, reliable things out from under Sam in the process, and who knows? Next Dean could be gone too, and that thought scares Sam so much, he's on his feet, backpack in hand before he knows it.

That means one thing: finding Dad.

He clambers back up the hill, sneakers slipping on the smoothed-out grass. Walking turns into a crawl, worming under the roots and having to dig into the dirt with his fingers when the path upward turns steep and slick, looking for toeholds where some rocks have worn through the face of the hill. Eventually he's up and out, and going back up the path is faster, as is skirting around the edge of the forest and heading down the road.

They live on the long crest of a hill, so the first part of the walk is down. The hill pulls his legs faster and faster, from a walk to a trot to a run that feels almost out of control. He has to hold out his arms for balance, like a plane about to take off, and despite worrying about Dean and Cas, and how to explain everything to Dad, it's kind of fun. The hill runs down to its finish where their little gravel path intersects with the main road, and it's here, Sam remembers that Dean had finally first seen Castiel and started believing in him.

It's also here that Dean had taken him out a couple days ago to wave goodbye to Dad and Bobby. They'd gone right at the turn, up the highway in the opposite direction from where the schoolbus came.

Sam readjusts the straps of his backpack and heads off.

* * *

Groggily, Dean comes to, making a face for the stale taste in his mouth and the sudden rumble of hunger deep in his gut. He hears another, more distant rumble downstairs, and a glance at the light, angled sharply through his window, tells him it's late afternoon and Sam probably wants his snack.

"Crap," he mutters, pushing himself up. The comic book plops to the floor.

When he stumbles downstairs, he doesn't see Sam. It's Bobby, back from wherever, rooting around in the fridge, putting groceries away. Dean's stomach grumbles again.

"Hey, kid," Bobby says over his shoulder. A carton of milk goes in, more of the never-ending baloney. "Thought you were too old for naptime." Dean ignores that and steps closer to the counter to inspect the haul.

"Your brother still asleep?" Bobby asks from the depths of the vegetable crisper.

"I thought he was down here." Jolt of adrenaline, and he feels his chest go tight. "Isn't he in the living room?"

The study's locked tight when Bobby and Dad aren't here; so is the basement. Already knowing what he's going to find, Dean rushes upstairs to check the bedrooms. Dad's is shut, so is Bobby's. The bedroom set aside for Sam is as bare as the day they moved in, not even a cot to hide under.

Back downstairs, and Dean's heart is trying to claw out of his chest. It's the rule, the only rule Dad's ever given him other than shoot first, ask questions later, and somewhere between reading about Batman outsmarting the Joker and him waking up, he'd gone and broken it. He's so wrapped up in it he almost misses Bobby pulling his baseball cap on, the purposeful jingle of keys.

"I'm gonna head out and look for him." A firm hand on Dean's shoulder is steering him to the door. "You head over to Ellen's, explain what's going on." He pauses. "And I don't want you going off to look for him, understood? I don't need two of you missing; that's something I don't plan on tryin' to explain to your dad. Got it?"

"Got it." He doesn't, not really. He tries to calculate the odds of escaping out from under Ellen's watchful stare and decides they're not very good.

Ellen's already on her porch, reading something formidable-looking and dusty, and very nearly familiar. She sets it to the side under a newspaper when she sees them walking up, and jumps to her feet when she catches Bobby's expression. The pity and worry on her face prickles uncomfortably under Dean's skin; it's the same look the teachers and counselors at school give him when they learn how he's been to ten schools by fourth grade. It's worse, seeing it on Ellen's face somehow.

Bobby explains the situation, and Ellen's quick to catch on. Too quick; she wants to call the police and "the hell with it being a secret," she continues when Bobby tries to contradict her. She knows, Dean thinks, looking at her. She knows what Bobby and Dad are, what they do. "Believe me, Singer," Ellen's hand is on Bobby's arm now, propelling him to the car, "if we don't get that boy found, an investigation is the least of your worries."

"I want to go too," Dean says, his voice small and drowned under the adult-speak. Ellen just gives him a look.

"I'll be back in an hour," Bobby tells him, manly clap on the back that makes Dean want to cry or curse or something. "Stay put."

Only, staying put isn't in the cards. Jo's turned up, which only makes everything worse, her dark eyes huge and anxious with worry. I don't need this, Dean thinks at her, just go away, go away, go away, and when she doesn't, he has to escape back out to the porch. And that's the first step, the easiest; Ellen's on the phone now, speaking in a low voice. For the ten seconds he needs to decide to disobey, he hears her explaining the situation, a boy, Sam Winchester, about five years old, dark hair and eyes… A few hours now, and it's either get sick or get going.

"Dean!" Jo hisses behind him. He twists away from her anxious, grasping fingers and vaults off the porch. The ground comes up hard; he meets it easily, catches his footing again, and takes off.

The first place to look is Cas's place. That he's pissed at the angel doesn't really enter into it now. He glances over his shoulder once as he plunges into the woods, in time to catch Ellen's angry-confused shouting, and Jo's shriller voice piping in. The second he's into the trees, the voices cut off, dimmed by the crowding-close of the trees and undergrowth, and maybe whatever magic Cas has put up around the place.

Roots reach up to trip him and the brush clogs the path beneath his feet. It's an alien space and he has to fight his way through it, brushing past spider webs and across old deer tracks, his lungs crying for breath and panic hovering right over his shoulder. By the time he makes it to the path he's sweat and dirt all over, and scrapes on his hands, torn jeans, heedless as he flings himself down the last, steep skid to the hollow where the angel lives.

Cas isn't there. No Cas, no Sam, just the heavy, expectant air and the silence. In the shadow of the giant oak, the light is distant and half-hearted, faint by the time it makes its way through the canopy of leaves to dapple around Dean's feet.

"Cas?" Dean says Castiel's name again more loudly, Castiel, come on, and when that doesn't work, Hey, I'm talking to you, Come on, you bastard.

Come on, come on, come on, he thinks it at first, as hard as he can, and then shouts it with all the force of his fear behind the words. It tears at his throat, and it stings – the words, the dryness where he can't swallow, the tightness in his throat.

"Please, Cas," he whispers, "where the hell are you?" And where the hell is Sam, because if he's not with Cas he could be anywhere, and no way are a bunch of policemen going to find him. "I need your help," he continues, now somewhere between desperate and embarrassed, talking to empty air like this. "Please," he adds, and as an afterthought, "Amen."

Silence and more silence, and Dean's heart thuds hard to punctuate the seconds. The air sighs suddenly and stirs out of its sleep, and then he hears it, the soft, living sound of Cas's wings.

"Hello, Dean."

"Oh god, Cas." The story spills out of him, incoherent, wanting to come faster than he can speak. Cas listens, impassive as always, and Dean has no idea if he's getting through.

"I'm sorry, okay?" Dean tries to swallow the tears, and they burn salty at the back of his throat. "I'm sorry I got angry at you, but I really really need your help finding him."

The angel's eyes are liquid and old and sad. "Don't say no," Dean chokes out. "Please, Cas."

"I can't leave my post without orders," Castiel says, and right then Dean's mad enough to hit him and the hell if Cas smites him into charcoal or Dean breaks his hand to splinters. He's tangled up in Cas's coat before he knows it, kicking blindly, and the pain is distant, sharp and throbbing like kicking a boulder with his bare foot, but he doesn't care. Castiel stays put and lets him until Dean stumbles away, and when Dean can see him through the fear and panic that blur his vision, the angel looks like he's in pain, from something other than Dean's fists and feet.

There's nothing to say, except wouldn't it just figure that you can't count on anything supernatural. Cas had screwed them in the end, like every ghost and goblin and witch Dean's dad has told him about… he'd just gone about it more slowly, and now Dean feels eviscerated.

He turns to begin the last long climb out of the hollow. And that's when he feels it, the rush of air, sudden and powerful, and the twin sweeps of shadow that are Cas's wings folding around him. Sight dissolves in a spin of feathers and darkness and then the earth drops out from underneath him as the world spins out of control. There's no time for terror, or anything except catching the barest glimpse of the forest spiraling down into toy trees and the pencil-lines of the river and highway, and then there's nothing.

* * *

The road is a lot longer than Sam had figured at first; it always seems so short when they're in the bus or the Impala. He's been walking for what feels like years, wandering in the general direction of what he supposes is the grocery store. Sighing, he stares at the slow procession of gravel, grass, and weeds under his sneakers, hitches at his backpack. It's hard, thinking how much of the road is still in front of him, and also ignoring the little voice – the voice that sounds a lot like Dean at his bossiest – telling him to turn around and go home.

"Why hello, there," a voice says.

He jumps and looks up. A car, not the Impala, is idling on the edge of the road, just on the edge. It's a narrow back road – he'd turned off the highway at some point, remembering their dad had made a left-hand turn toward the little village where the store is – and he hasn't seen anyone for a while. The new anyone is a lady in a skirt and blouse and kind smile, vaguely like Miss Weber the reading teacher. Only she's not Miss Weber, she's a stranger.

"Do you need help?" the lady asks. "Are you lost?"

"No," Sam says. He doesn't need help, he's fine, and he's not lost. Reflexively, he adds, "Thank you."

"Why don't you come with me into town?" the lady pursues. The car creaks as she puts it in park and climbs out, advancing toward him.

"No!" Sam hollers. He makes a break for the woods.

Probably it's not the best idea, but she's a stranger and those had been among the first words he can remember learning from Dean: don't ever ever go anywhere with strangers, ever. After that he'd added or I'll destroy you, and that had sounded pretty dire. Sam claws his way through the bushes lining the side of the road and oomphs into the undergrowth. When he looks back a few minutes later, through the trees he sees the lady heading back to her car.

There's a path almost right under his feet, running roughly parallel to the road. Sam sets out on it, pushing the Dean-voice back and reaching for the crumbs of cracker in his pocket to snack on. Adventure, he tells himself again, and marches on.

* * *

Cas drops him back into the world on the side of a road Dean doesn't recognize. It's pitched steeply, and he takes a couple inadvertent steps downhill before the strong net of Cas's wing catches him. He looks up at the angel to say thank you, but Cas is busy looking around.

"This is the last place I can sense him," Cas says tensely. He kneels, wings canting over his back, the huge joints hooked like a vulture's. He runs fingers across the asphalt, peers at the thin skim of dust and tar. "He was here not long ago."

Visions of kidnappers run riot through Dean's head. "What… what does that mean?"

"I don't know. Stay there." Cas spares him a frown when Dean ignores him and follows him into the woods. "Humans just don't vanish," Cas says tetchily, pulling Dean closer to him, "although to other humans I suppose that's what it seems like. But he passed something here, or something took him, and I need to figure out what."

Cold fear drops hard into Dean's stomach, so fierce he's almost sick with it. Something took him, and he's willing to bet Cas doesn't mean ordinary creepers and kidnappers. He stays close, almost tucked under the great curve of one wing; it's not much, but Cas is all the reassurance he has now. A supernatural bloodhound, Dean tells himself, Cas'll find him, and he's almost too scared to realize he actually believes that.

"Here," the angel says roughly. Dean looks where he's pointing.

It's an old stone wall, a relic from when this place was farmland and not forest. Part of it had long since broken down, tumbledown stones in piles around the gap that's formed. And on them, Dean has to squint to see them, but they're there, are symbols carved into two stones still set firmly into the wall. Circles, stars, signs that look like letters, and smeared across them is the dull rust-red patina of old blood. Castiel scowls as he looks at them.

"What are they?"

"Sigils to turn aside the eyes of Heaven." Castiel sounds more irritated than anything. His wings twitch, a gesture Dean imagines is the angel equivalent of a frustrated, hand-wringing curse.

He waits for Cas to smite the rock wall into oblivion, but instead, Cas only stands there and watches him. "The blood is human mixed with demon, and is bespelled" Cas says with the slowness of impatience, "I can't touch it."

It doesn't take much to work out the rest of that. Dean grips one of the topmost stones and pushes. The walls are made to last, he thinks, even though there's no sign of mortar or cement binding the stones together; it's effort, a good several seconds of determined pressure, before the stone moves, rusty, rocky sound as it scrapes against its neighbors, and thumps heavily to the mossy bed beneath it.

Over and over he does this. The sigils are painted lower down, a few layers at least. His heart pounds with the work and the fear, each beat knocking Sam Sam Sam against his ribs. Finally he reaches the sigil, shoulders aching and his fingers already battered to hell and bruised around the knuckles.

* * *

There are voices coming from just ahead – or, Sam thinks, maybe off to the right somewhere. It's hard to tell; the forest turns all the sounds around, and he finds he can't take a straight path. There's always trees to avoid, whether they're standing or fallen over, and his head is spinning a bit with thirst and hunger. So, he figures, it's a good thing there's people around. He could be coming to a park, or a road, or maybe to a place where someone would know where Dad is.

He stumbles over his tiredness, a knobby root sticking up from the leaves, a shoelace he realizes is untied. Dean's constant reminder not to be a crybaby keeps the tears back, and he swallows them down in a way he thinks Dean would be proud of. It hurts thinking about Dean, and how much he wishes his brother were here, even though Dean would probably yell at him for up and leaving like he did, and use words that Sam would tell on him for using if it weren't for the fact that Dean had saved his butt again.

"Dean." His brother's name comes out very small and tattered. The voices go quiet.

"Dean?" Sam turns it into a question. "Hello?"

"Oh, isn't this something now?" The voice is a human voice, male and not at all friendly-sounding. Instead of fixing his shoelace, Sam kicks his shoe off and tries to shuffle back away from that speculative hostility. It sounds like Robby Taylor at school, right before trying to shake Sam's lunch money out of him. "What have we got here?"

"Not very fat." It's a woman's voice, and closer. Before Sam can turn to run, he sees her, a gaunt figure in old-fashioned robes. The man, the other voice, is right next to her, his robes like camouflage, brown and brown. "Still, I suppose we should take what we can get."

"We've been lucky as it is," the man says. He's close enough that Sam can see him smile. That isn't very friendly, either. "Hey, kid," and that's the same tone Robby uses to try and lure Sam closer, "you lost?"

"You should come with us," the woman adds. She's really skinny, her cheeks hollowed, the skin stretched tight over the bones. Her teeth are huge, and stained.

"I gotta go," Sam tells them. He commands his legs to run. Fear revs his heart like the Impala's engine, but he can't go anywhere, his knees locked up and his breath too short. "My dad's right back there," he says as bravely as he can, "and my brother, too. They'll pound your asses."

"There's more of you? Good to know." From behind a fold in his robe, the man produces a knife, long and slim and glittering wickedly.

"Make it fast, Josh," the woman says. She's moving around to his side, Sam sees, trying to cut him off. "Those sigils are only going to hold for so long, and when they break, we're screwed."

"We've got time, Aurelina." The man actually snickers. It sounds evil. The thin, late afternoon light slithers off the knife. "Kid," the man says, attention firmly back on Sam again, "I'm sorry, but this is gonna hurt you more than it's gonna hurt me."

Finally, Sam finds his legs, and his voice, and both are more powerful than he thought. He twists and springs up, a terrible shriek breaking from his throat, HELP HELP HELP! and the trees throw the echoes back at him, and by the time they die he's running pell-mell back down the slope. Behind him, the man and the woman curse, and the woman, Aurelina, says something in a language Sam doesn't know.

He freezes, and it's like the fear before, only worse. He can't move.

"I hope," Josh says dangerously, "no one heard that."

"If his family's around, we'll take care of them." Aurelina holds her robes up daintily as she steps closer. Sam's heart wants to leap right out of his chest; he almost can't breathe around it. His eyes can't move from the knife in Josh's hand, and he knows knows knows what Josh is going to do with it. "More blood for him, at any rate. And maybe a useful vessel."

Sam tries to scream, but nothing comes. His mouth is open, and he knows he can scream to shake down the walls (according to Dean), but it's like Aurelina stole his voice along with movement, because there's nothing.

"Too bad we can't do this here," Josh says. The knife doesn't go away, although he does lower it. Sam doesn't breathe much easier. "You mind unbinding him so we can get him back to the altar?"

Aurelina says something in that strange language, and Sam, like someone's pressed the play button on a video tape, hits the dirt.

Before he can move, two sets of hands reaching, long, bony, claw-fingers grasping and sinking into him, through his shirt, his skin, and he can scream now.

* * *

Dean doesn't even feel it. It's more like hearing, or hearing with his entire body, when wind comes whipping over the top of the hill; it hits him, a roar in his ears, and sudden, dizzying blackness that is the sweep of Cas's wings, like the wind picking him up and pitching him, weightless, up into the air.

He doesn't see anything more than split-second blurs he registers as trees, the angel whipping in and out of them like doing the slalom. And then the sound starts, a terrible bone-shaking sound that threatens to split him apart at the joints. One hand crushes Dean's face into the angel's unyielding chest, and there's the abrupt skim of something bright, a spear of cold fire in Castiel's other hand. The sound builds, inhuman and ferocious and furious, and Dean can hear it in every fracturing corner of his body, and they're going faster and faster, the angel's wings working like massive, untiring pistons.

Splash of something wet and hot across his face, and then the world lurches to a stop. Dean drops like a rock onto the leafy forest floor, and waits for his body to come back to him.

The wetness and heat, he realizes distantly, is blood, splashed across one ear and one arm, and soaking into his t-shirt. And it's from two jumbled piles of cloth nearby, which Castiel moves to block from his sight; Dean catches a glimpse of dark stains, and a head rolled all the way to the other side of the clearing they're in. Blood that matches those stains coats Cas's right hand, and the short sword he holds like it's no big deal, and his wings even drip with it, but even as Dean watches, it dries and flakes off, and blows away to nothing.

A rustling brings him back to the real world, and he looks.

It's Sam, and the relief burns away everything else, the day, the fear, the knowledge that he's moving and has got Sam by the jacket, and is yanking him close. Fear loosens, finally, when Sam's hot, trembling arms slip around his neck, and Sam's tears drip down his neck and soak the collar of his shirt, and Sam mutters incoherent, desperate apologies.

"Just… don't do it again," is all Dean can manage. "Jesus, Sammy." Sam sniffles pathetically.

Cas's voice is cool and remote against the overwhelming relief, and God, Sam's alive, and scratched and a bit battered, but okay, and Dean doesn't mind it when he hears Cas saying they need to get back quickly, or when Cas's fingers close on his shoulder and the world spins away again.

* * *

Cas drops them back at the edge of the forest, just inside the wall of the trees and under the perpetual shadow of the oak. He touches his fingers to Dean's forehead, gentle against the memory of that inexorable, terrible pressure of the angel's body, and what Dean realizes now had been Cas taking advantage of the element of surprise.

"What were they doing?" Sam asks, recovered enough to ask questions. It didn't take long. "They were saying something about blood."

"It doesn't matter what they were doing," Dean says, before Cas can explain. "We just need to get back before even more people get pissed off."

* * *

He gets his explanation a week later, after his imprisonment ends. "Grounded for a week," he tells Cas as he sits in the small patch of sunshine. The angel's wings flex, as if in sympathy, when Dean says grounded. "It was worth it, though," he continues, picking at the grass. It's smooth, squeaky when he presses a blade between his fingers and pulls. "And, uh, thanks."

Cas dips his head in acknowledgment.

"You…" Dean draws a breath. "You didn't get in trouble, did you? You know, for leaving?" The angel seems okay, but Dean has no idea what angel discipline is like. Probably nowhere near as harsh as his dad's.

"There was talk of it," Cas says. When he shifts, the sun slides like oil down the long plaits of his feathers. "But when I told them about the altar and what those witches had planned, my commanders agreed I should be spared."

It's hard imagining that anyone's the boss of Cas, let alone multiple someones, but Cas has a garrison and at least two angels who are his direct superiors, and a few more above him whom Cas says he's never really met. Cas tells him briefly about what he reported to Anaael and Zachariah: that the altar had been built slowly, over at least twenty years, and the blinding sigils had been new, added only when the altar was almost completed.

"They required only a human sacrifice to light the torches," Cas said calmly, like he was discussing someone's home-improvement project. "A child's fat and blood would have been ideal for the sort of altar they were constructing."

Dean determinedly doesn't think about that, pushes it away to the part of himself that stores the anger his dad says he needs to learn to control. Don't let your temper tell you what to do. Save your anger, sit on it. You'll need it some day. They'd wanted to kill Sam, use him for some ritual to summon a demon like the one who'd killed Mom and changed his life. The anger bubbles and threatened to boil over, and he swallows it back. It's bitter on the tongue, suddenly sweet when he thinks about Cas taking those witches out.

"Of course, I will now have to keep an eye on the town," Cas tells him. He sounds resigned. "There's likely a coven responsible for this, and a demon presiding over it. They'll need to be found and dealt with." Cas says dealt with with a chilling, bloody finality.

"My dad should know," Dean says abruptly.

The angel's attention sharpens. It's not as unsettling as it once was.

"I will try to get a message to him," Cas says eventually, "but I don't think it would be wise for you to tell him what almost happened to Sam."

Definitely not wise, and Dean doesn't need that said twice. He says this to Cas, who says, "I had no intention of repeating it," suddenly and effortlessly clueless so Dean has to laugh. Cas bristles a little, wings fluffing like the hackles on an angry cat.

"Here," Dean says, "peace offering," and pulls the deck of cards from his pocket. Cas takes them avidly – or, as avidly as Cas does anything – and deals, long fingers expertly flicking the cards into their piles, and the stash he's won from Dean over the past several weeks – $5.26 and some gum – materializing between them.

* * *

He finds out later that Cas has planted some witchy evidence for Dad to find: some summoning herbs in a garden, a sign carved on the mailbox of the coven leader, and the two bodies found near the altar in the woods. Dad, posing as a journalist from a paper a few towns over, gets access to everything.

Killing the witches means they need to clear out sooner rather than later. It's a messy job, Dean's dad says, three people killed and a lot of media attention. Dean sees it on the news, Group suicide suspected in Satanic cult deaths, Father of three showed signs of instability, a lot of hoopla that has Dean and Sam sneaking away to the woods while Dad's over talking with Ellen.

Cas doesn't look surprised when Sam says they're leaving, but he does look surprised when Sam rushes forward and plasters himself against Cas's legs, face buried in the folds of his trench coat. His wings raise, half-defensively, then drop and bow sharply, the long flight feathers brushing against Sam's shoulders, like someone uncertainly hugging another person. Sam makes liquid, protesting noises, don't wanna go and come with us, Caaaaaas all drawn-out and shaky, and Dean knows he's going to have a blubbery wreck of a Sam on his hands at the motel tonight.

"I can't come," Cas says with his usual detachment. "I've received no orders to change my station."

"But," Sam says, and hiccups.

"Unlike you," Cas says, and he almost sounds fond, "I can't disobey without grave consequences." When this doesn't work, he pauses, and adds, "But perhaps we'll meet again some day." Sam hiccups again, but nods.

Dean feels the sadness and reluctance creeping up, and Jesus, he's not going to cry like his little brother. But that's the truth, he doesn't want to go, and he kind of wants to kick and scream a little, and it would just figure that he'd finally make a friend and it would turn out to be a supernatural weirdo with wings and a trench coat, and he has to go and leave now.

"I don't need to tell you to look out for your brother," Cas says mildly, "so I'll just say that you should look after yourself as well." He presses something into Dean's palm, something soft, with give in it, small, hard things inside. When Dean glances down, he sees it's a bag like the one Cas had given him before, for the seeds in the garden they have to leave now.

"It will continue to grow," Cas tells him, "and I'll need some of the plants in it, as will the hunters who come here."

"You can keep the cards," Dean tells him gruffly. He doesn't want to think about other people here, and Cas hiding out in his oak tree.

"Thank you."

Dean hears his dad calling, the commanding tone that means he has ten seconds to reappear with Sam before he gets in trouble.

"We'll meet again, Dean Winchester," Cas says, and his eyes are old and sad again, even though he's offering Dean his usual slight Cas-smile, and then his fingers are on Dean's forehead.

In his next breath, Dean and Sam are standing out by the edge of the forest, squinting into the light. The sun makes hard, deep shadows on the dark side of the house, and gleams along the slow, rolling curves of the Impala. Dad has his eyes shaded as he looks up into it, but he sees them anyways and waves. Come on, boys, we haven't got all day.

The Impala rumbles to life as Dean gets Sam situated in his seat, and the tires crunch when they back down the drive and out onto the road. Jo is standing sentry by her mailbox, clinging anxiously to the post as if to her mother. Dean can't see Ellen anywhere. Bobby's long gone, cleared out this morning for his place in North Dakota. They're following him, a long way on the map, by what Dean can tell, and this time – unlike every other time – it's hard to leave. The Impala winds her slow way down the hill, Dad's foot careful on the brake, through the striping of sun and shade, under the canopy where the ancient oaks and ashes twine their branches together.

He can't see Cas. That doesn't surprise him, but it still hurts. He slips a hand in his jacket pocket to check the package. It's still there, the seeds resting in the folds of soft cloth, and the other gift Cas had given him, the small black feather that won't stay mussed or bent no matter how Sam had fussed with it. Dean doesn't dare bring it out now, although it feels weird keeping this from Dad, the gift and the knowledge that you don't take stuff from the supernatural.

Except he had taken from Cas, and Cas had something of his, $6.10 after their last game, some gum, and Dean's Pete Rose rookie card, and Dean hopes one day, after he's gotten a lot better at poker, he'll get them back.