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[personal profile] daymarket
Title: Stairway From Zion
Rating: R
Warnings: Mentions of torture. Violence, war scenes, cursing, drug withdrawal, medical experimentation, species prejudice, sex.
Wordcount: 63k
Summary: Orwellian AU. During the same raid that had Castiel crashing through the windshield of Dean’s getaway car, Dean loses both Sam and Anna to the hands of the angels. Human and angel should hate each other as circumstances dictate, but life has a funny way of changing the preordained path.

~*~


5.1: Dean

Do you…do you think it’s okay to both grieve and want? Even for things that you can’t have?
 
Your brother’s out there in trouble and you’re screwing around with an angel? What kind of a man are you? You have one job, and that’s to take care of Sammy. I raised you better than that, boy.
 
Does it…does it make you happy?
 
Happy? We’re fighting a war here. The day we beat those sons of bitches in to the ground, then you can tell me about happy.
 
It’s not wrong to want something else. Even if you’re mourning.
 
He’s not dead. He can’t be dead, not my Sam. Why didn’t you protect him better? Aren’t you supposed to be a hunter?
 
Maybe it’s time to mourn. To let him go, once and for all.
 
Acceptance is the last stage of grief.
 
~*~
 
When he gets back to their room, Castiel is gone. Dean stares for longer than he should at the empty bed, and the realization takes longer to sink in than it really should. Okay, he thinks. Okay. So he’s not here, that’s not a big deal. The guy’s busy, and he can’t really expect Cas to hang around waiting for him.
 
He settles down heavily on the edge of the bed and scrubs his hair through his hands. Technically, he should be heading out to check the patrol rosters, see if he’s up for another shift. If not, he could always check up on Joe or Ryan. And if that wasn’t interesting enough, there were always supply runs to coordinate with Ellen. Being a rebel entailed a surprising amount of paperwork, and the demons were unexpectedly anal when it came to meticulous documentation.
 
He grimaces at the thought of the demons. Great. Fucked-up does not come close to describing the current situation. Never mind that Sam—damn, Sam—is dead or dying while Dean fucks around. Never mind that there are still refugees out there, kids who’ve clawed their way out of the hands of the Republic and are paying the price for it. Never mind that Anna’s dead (another angel he’s slept with, great), never mind the others who’ve died on the field. Because obviously, Dean-motherfucking-Winchester has got his priorities perfectly in line.
 
Dean thinks about visiting the kids in the infirmary: check up on how they’re doing, see if Dr. Robert has figured out what’s wrong. (While he doesn’t quite trust the old man because, c’mon, the Nest of Purity ranks right below the Nest of Love when measuring in terms of angel mind-fuckery, he’ll admit that Dr. Robert does know his stuff. The angels don’t accept anyone other than the best, after all.) But he doesn’t, because seeing those kids will remind him of Sam and Sam will remind him of just how much of an idiot he is.
 
The irony is that he’s not even entirely sure what he’s being an idiot about. Fact: Sam’s missing, probably dead. Probably never coming back. Fact: There’s nothing Dean can do that, not unless he plans to burn down the Republic inch by inch trying to claw Sam out of the ground. Fact: he’s a healthy, thirty-something guy who hasn’t touched Grace in years and therefore has everything in clear working order, thanks. Fact: Castiel, also a thirty-something guy, is finally reaching the last stage of detox and getting his pipes cleaned out in every single way. Fact: the last bit of the pipe-cleaning was done by yours truly, one Dean Winchester. Fact: and he’d kinda liked it.
 
Also, fact: it was completely, utterly wrong. Not just because Castiel was an angel, because Dean had slept with Anna when she’d discovered the sex urge as well. Hell, they’d been in a relationship, right up to the point when Hell intruded and screwed Dean up the ass in almost every way. And it wasn’t really that Castiel was a guy, either, because who cared about that shit except morons? It was just that it was wrong, wrong wrong wrong to put happiness next to the vault in his head where he kept Sam and Gwen and Victor and Anna, because in a way, it was like pissing on their graves and desecrating every last shred of dignity in their memory.
 
“Damn it,” Dean mumbles, burying his face in his hands. If only he were as sure about it all as Pamela was. If only there was a way to be sure…
 
~*~
 
Castiel turns out to be in the infirmary with Joe and Ryan. Dr. Robert’s with him, and while Castiel’s expression is as bland as ever, it’s clear that Dr. Robert is off his rocker with excitement. “Dean!” he booms as Dean enters the infirmary. “You’re early today.”
 
“Yeah, well. Surprise adds spice to life.” He coughs as Castiel looks at him with an expression of nothing but bland inquiry. It hurts, in a way, but Dean supposes that he does deserve it for running out on the guy after giving him his first orgasm ever. “So, uh,” Dean begins, but he falters in the face of Castiel’s unblinking gaze. “What’re you working on?” he asks in lieu of his original response.
 
“We’ve found it!” Dr. Robert announces proudly as he shoves a stack of papers under Dean’s nose. “I think we still need a good deal of trial testing, but it’s safe to say that the prognosis is optimistic!”
 
“Wait, Joe and Ryan are going to be okay?” Dean says, grinning. “That’s great. That’s really great!”
 
Dr. Robert pauses for a moment before shaking his head. “Oh, no,” he says. “Well, I don’t know about Ryan, but Joe should be out of the woods. That’s not what I was talking about, anyway. I meant the Croat withdrawal; I think we’ve found something that can neutralize it the same way Croat does for Grace withdrawal.”
 
Dean huffs. “Wait, you guys finally found it? How? I thought you were banging your heads against Grace because it caused brain damage or something.”
 
“So we’re not using Grace,” Dr. Robert tells him. “I’ve got some blood samples from our patients, and there appears to be an antibody within their bloodstream that neutralizes Croat. That would explain their abnormal reaction to it.”
 
“Wait, so the angels didn’t give them Grace? Or did Joe give Ryan something else besides Croat?”
 
Dr. Robert shakes his head. “No, they both definitely got Croat, and quite large doses as well. They definitely never got any Grace, though. I don’t know what they received, but it’s not Grace. Joe appears to be adapting wonderfully; his body’s already producing antibodies to wean him through that dose of Croat he took.” He beams. “And if we can collect more samples, perhaps we’ll have something usable for mass production soon!”
 
“It is great,” Dr. Robert agrees, “and I’m more than great, I’m a genius.” He takes the sheaves of paper back from Dean. “Well, I’d better get back to the lab. Castiel, are you coming?”
 
“Hey, Cas, can I talk to you for a second?” Dean asks quickly before Castiel can answer. “Real quick.”
 
Castiel hesitates and looks at Dr. Robert, who nods. “I’ll leave you two at it,” he tells them, and he leaves the infirmary in a flurry of movement. Castiel looks at the door long after he’s gone before finally turning his gaze onto Dean. Dean coughs, suddenly uncomfortable with the full focus of Castiel’s attention. (Then again, he’s never really been comfortable with it.”
 
“What is it?” Castiel says, and his voice is even. “I have work to do, Dean.”
 
“Yeah, so do I,” Dean says. “Good job, by the way. I noticed that Dr. Robert didn’t really credit you for your work.”
 
Castiel shrugs. “Angels don’t strive for fame.”
 
“Of course,” Dean mutters. “Everything’s about duty. Thought you said you weren’t going to be an angel anymore.”
 
“Would you prefer that I become a glory hound?” Castiel asks, his expression not changing one iota.
 
Dean sighs. “That’s not what I meant.”
 
Castiel doesn’t reply to such an inane statement, and Dean raises a hand to run it through his hair in frustration. “Look,” he says slowly. “About…about earlier. I shouldn’t have run off like that.”
 
Castiel blinks. “It’s understandable,” is all he says.
 
Dean laughs a little sourly. “You’ve never been in a situation like that before,” he points out. “Unless you’re having a raving sex life without telling me. How the hell would you know what’s understandable or not?”
 
“It was obvious that you were as uncertain of the situation as I was,” Castiel points out quietly. “And considering that you’re emotionally constipated, running away was a predictable reaction.”
 
Dean sputters. “Emotionally what? Hello, pot, meet kettle!”
 
A crease appears between Castiel’s eyebrows. “What?”
 
His tone is one he reserves for occasions when he’s especially confused, and Dean grins despite himself. “Never mind. But seriously, man, angel calling a human emotionally constipated?” He shakes his head. “Kind of hypocritical.”
 
Castiel doesn’t buy the distraction. “The choice of phrasing is trivial,” he says as a hint of impatience leaks into his voice. “Dean, I have work to do.”
 
He makes as if to turn away, and Dean reaches out and grabs his wrist. “Hey.” Castiel doesn’t turn to look at him, standing rigidly and staring off to one side like there’s something fascinating on the grubby wall. “Cas, look at me.”
 
There’s a moment in which Dean thinks that Castiel might pull away, and Dean’s heart seems to skip a beat in his chest. Then, slowly, almost unwillingly, Castiel turns his head to look at Dean. Dean takes a deep breath, pushes the warring thoughts out of his mind, and then kisses Castiel.
 
Castiel’s hands flutter uncertainly before coming to a rest on Dean’s shoulders. His mouth yields under Dean’s questing touch, and Castiel’s hands tighten around him. Dean inhales the scent of him and presses closer, something achingly fragile stirring inside his chest. Time seems to coalesce into a single perfect moment, in which all Dean needs to do is to savor the taste of Castiel. No guilt, no worry, just—Cas.
 
They eventually break apart for air. Dean finds himself sucking in deep breaths he’s just run a marathon, and even angel control can’t hide the fact that Castiel’s doing the same. Castiel looks at him dazedly for a moment or two, his lips slightly parted in surprise. Dean can’t help looking at Castiel’s groin, and he grins a little as he discovers that, yep, without Grace in his system, Castiel is fully functional and ready to go. “You’ve, uh,” he says with a gesture downwards. “Need help?”
 
Castiel gapes at him: he seriously just blinks and stares in a way that clearly indicates he’s not fully there. “Help?” he manages at last, swaying a little on his feet. More than little amused, Dean guides him to sit on the nearest bed. “I,” Castiel says, and that seems to be the extent of his vocabulary.
 
“Cas,” Dean says carefully. “Do you want this?”
 
Castiel sucks in a deep breath. He looks at Dean for a long moment, and Dean watches in fascination as the last of the angel mask falls away, leaving something incredibly helpless in its place. “This isn’t—” Castiel begins in a whisper. “I shouldn’t—”
 
“Neither should I,” Dean admits in an equally soft voice. “But I won’t tell anyone if you won’t.”
 
“Duty,” Castiel whispers, and Dean’s suddenly uncertain if Castiel’s still talking to him. “Work—grief—”
 
“And love,” Dean blurts out, uncaring if that means he’s totally the girl in this relationship, because fuck, the ache is almost physical now and if he doesn’t let it out he might fucking explode. Castiel looks at him uncomprehendingly, and Dean remembers the perverted way the angels have twisted the word, turned it into the opposite of what it’s supposed to be. “Not angels, something new,” Dean says, knowing that he’s not making any sense at all but needing Castiel to understand. “The human way.”
 
Castiel shakes his head, but it’s not a denial, exactly, more…confusion. “I don’t understand,” he says simply. His gaze is fixed on Dean’s in a silent plea for revelation, but the problem is that Dean’s never been good with words or emotions. Hell, maybe he really is emotionally constipated.
 
“If you could go back, Cas,” he says at last. “Today, right now, if you could go back and be part of the Host again, sergeant in the Nest of Peace. Would you?”
 
Castiel hesitates. After an almost interminable pause, he says very quietly, “No.”
 
“Would you stay here?” Dean asks, tightening his fingers on Cas’ shoulders. “With humans, with emotion, with drugs and demons, and with—” he takes a deep breath— “me.”
 
Silence. Dean squeezes his eyes shut, and he can hear his heartbeat pulsing in his ears in the ominously long silence. His heart feels like it’s going to burst out of his chest any moment, and he has to forcibly shove the pressure away. Damn, damn, damn—
 
The light touch on his face makes him jump. Dean opens his eyes involuntarily, and it’s his turn to gape. In his case, it’s at the small, almost indiscernible smile on Castiel’s face. “Perhaps I was wrong calling you emotionally constipated,” Castiel says softly. The dry observation takes a moment to make its way through Dean’s beleaguered brain, and all of a sudden Dean finds the strength going out of his limbs. Castiel steadies him with a hand on his hip, easing Dean down onto the bed next to him.
 
“Was that a yes?” Dean manages.
 
Castiel looks at him. “Yes.”
 
“Oh.”
 
Dean waits for his head to stop spinning at the sudden burst of adrenaline. Castiel waits for him patiently—well, not so patiently, if the way he angles for another kiss is any indication. “They won’t be awake,” Castiel says, and it’s enough of a non sequitur to give Dean pause. “But perhaps it’s a moot concern, if no such taboo exists—”
 
Dean’s eyes focus on Joe and Ryan in the other beds. “Uh,” he says, which is rather heroic considering the way his brain is spinning. “Taboo? Um, are you talking about—now—oh—now? Cas?”
 
“Yes,” Castiel says. His voice is huskier than ever, and Dean shudders as that primal region of his brain responds instinctively to that tone. “Now.”
 
With that very angelic demand, Dean finds himself pressed flat against the bed. Castiel’s mouth, frantic and hungry, trails kisses down his neck. For a guy who had his first orgasm just that morning, Castiel learns very fast, and Dean does his best to keep up. It takes him two tries to grasp the hem of Castiel’s ridiculously flappy trenchcoat and peel it off, by which time Castiel has already pulled his jeans down.
 
Dean swallows hard as Castiel looks at him as only an angel can. This time, the look is even more examining than usual, considering that Dean’s pinned under him on the bed and half naked. “Like what you see?” Dean finally manages as the silence stretches on. He tries for glib and probably misses by a mile, but he can’t find himself to really care when he sees the responding spark in Castiel’s eyes.
 
Castiel leans forward, the heat of his body pressing against Dean’s as he pushes for another kiss. “Show me,” he murmurs as they part for breath. “Tell me what to do, Dean.”
 
“An angel taking orders from a human?” Dean laughs into his mouth. “Isn’t it usually the other way around?”
 
Castiel gives a low growl that has Dean’s cock jumping to attention, straining against its pinned position against Cas’ thigh. “Do as you’re told,” he says, and Dean gives a groan as Castiel deliberately rubs against Dean’s pinned cock, giving him just enough friction to make him crave more. Castiel’s still got his clothes on, the bastard, and Dean wants them off, now—
 
He reaches out for the hem of Castiel’s shirt, but Castiel knocks his hands aside with one swift movement. “Didn’t you want me to show you?” Dean gasps as Castiel works his way down Dean’s neck, nipping against his collarbone in little bites that are both pain and pleasure. “Wasn’t going to do anything else, Cas, I swear—”
 
His words are muffled as Castiel pushes up the hem of his shirt, bunches it up on his shoulders and pulls it off over his head. “I’ve decided to teach myself,” Castiel announces, and then he proceeds to demonstrate the efforts of his self-education. Castiel’s teeth trail down Dean’s collarbone, and Dean finds himself letting out a keening whine as Castiel latches around his nipple, licking in slow, deliberate circles. Dean squirms desperately for some more heat against his straining cock, but Castiel keeps him trapped firmly against the bed.
 
Cas raises his head and locks gazes with him, and that’s all the warning Dean gets before Castiel’s hand reaches down and gives a broad sweep up Dean’s cock. Dean jerks his hips upwards involuntarily, rutting into Castiel’s hand with helpless abandon. Castiel slips his other hand into Dean’s mouth, and Dean finds himself sobbing around Castiel’s fingers as Castiel trails his fingers over the soft skin of Dean’s balls in a surprisingly delicate dance.
 
“How does this feel?” Castiel murmurs. If Dean’s capable of forming a coherent sentence, he’d tell Cas to shut up and get on with the program, but as it is, he just presses up in a wordless request for more. Castiel pulls his fingers out of Dean’s mouth, cups his cheek, and leans in for another kiss. Dean gives another weak sob, and Castiel effortlessly brushes it away.
 
“Cas,” Dean finally manages. “Please, Cas, please—
 
“Dean,” Castiel breathes in reply. His hand wraps around Dean’s cock and tugs lightly, and Dean gasps as that extra heat sends him tumbling over the edge. The orgasm hits him with overwhelming force, and Castiel holds him still until he finally comes back to earth. Castiel’s hand moves in gentle rolling motions, milking every last drop of pleasure out of Dean.
 
Dean lies on the bed, sucking in air and finding himself hypersensitive to its smell and taste. Castiel falls onto the bed next to him, and Dean turns toward him, inhaling the peculiar tang of dust and smoke and steel that is all Castiel’s own. “Thought you were new to all this,” Dean finally says when he feels like he can string two words together. “Pretty fucking amazing for a novice.”
 
“Angels learn quickly,” Castiel tells him. There’s just a trace of smugness in his tone, one that anyone would easily miss if they didn’t know him. “And my instructor was adequate.”
 
“Just adequate?” Dean asks, vaguely offended.
 
Castiel shrugs. “I’m certain there’s more to learn.” He shifts slightly, and Dean realizes that Castiel’s still hard. He looks up to see Castiel watching him calmly, his blue eyes somehow more open than Dean’s ever seen them before. He trails a lazy hand down Castiel’s cheek, and his heart lifts as the edges of Castiel’s mouth quirk upwards in what just might be a smile.
 
“Well,” Dean says slowly. “In a matter of speaking, yeah.”
 
“Such as?”
 
Dean has to force himself not to smile. He links his wrists behind Castiel’s head and returns the angel’s bland gaze with one of his own. “I don’t know if you’re ready,” he says, poker-faced. “I mean, I’m sure there’s a lot of other stuff you should be doing right now.”
 
“True,” Castiel agrees calmly. “Dr. Robert was planning to begin the first series of injections today,” he says. “No doubt he will want me to assist him.”
 
“Injections, huh?” Dean murmurs, freeing a hand to smooth over Castiel’s hair. “Sounds kinky.”
 
“Yes, recording autoimmune reactions is extremely stimulating,” Castiel says, dry as ever.
 
“I’ll pass,” Dean says, wrinkling his nose.
 
Castiel looks at him for a moment before leaning down to kiss Dean. “I really do have work to do,” he murmurs. “Our window of opportunity is short.”
 
“An angel’s work is never done, huh? Dr. Robert’s a fucking slavedriver.”
 
“Not really,” Castiel says slowly. “It’s more because we want to catch Ryan before the fever starts up again. An antipyretic could interfere with our results.”
 
“Ryan?” Dean asks with a frown. “What’s he got to do with it?”
 
“Variation A,” Castiel says. “The first of the binding agents we’ve devised with his antibodies. An experiment is required to observe adverse reactions.”
 
“Wait,” Dean says. He pushes Castiel back, holding him at arm’s length. “Experiment. What does that mean? You’re going to inject Ryan full of crap?”
 
“No,” Castiel says.
 
“Oh,” Dean says. He relaxes back onto the bed, relieved. “Because for one moment I thought—”
 
“Excrement has nothing to do with it,” Castiel continues. “It’s a cocktail, if you would phrase it, of two parts thiazide to—”
 
“You’re going to put that into Ryan?” Dean interrupts.
 
Castiel frowns. “Yes.”
 
Dean pushes Castiel out of the way, looking across the room to where the boys lie asleep. He hastily pulls on his boxers and jeans before walking over to Ryan’s bedside, looking down at the small frown on the younger boy’s face. His hair is damp against his face, and Dean forces himself to keep his hand steady as he brushes it away. “Did he say it was okay?” he says finally.
 
“He hasn’t woken up,” Castiel says.
 
Will he wake up?” Dean demands, something hard and sharp pounding at the edges of his temples.
 
“Unlikely,” Castiel tells him. There’s a hint of confusion in the angel’s voice, and when Dean turns to look at him, there’s a faint crease around his eyes. “Even if he would, it would only complicate matters.”
 
“You think?” Dean says incredulously. “Cas, you’re going to use him as a guinea pig for your experiments. You don’t see something wrong with this picture? What the hell is wrong with you?”
 
“He won’t be aware,” Castiel says with a small frown.
 
“Does Dr. Robert know about this plan?”
 
“Of course,” Castiel says. “We’re devising the compounds together.”
 
Dean grabs his shirt and pulls it on. He heads out of the infirmary, something peculiarly close to rage roiling through his insides. Rationally he knows that he’s being unfair, though he can’t really puzzle out why at the moment. The largest part of him, though, clamors that no matter how useful it is in the greater scheme of things, you don’t experiment on humans. Castiel, at least, is an angel, but Dr. Robert should know better.
 
(He knows that he’s angry for another reason, too, but it’s hard for him to spell it out over the clamoring mess of wrong wrong wrong in his head.)
 
~*~
 
5.2: Castiel
 
Humans are confusing, fickle creatures. Or, Castiel thinks with a small sigh, emotions are. It astounds him as to how he and Dean can be having a peaceful conversation one moment, and the next, Dean is in an uproar. Castiel studies the younger male for a moment with a small frown, trying to work out the problem in his head. As smaller mammals do not respond well to Croat (even the minutest dose is easily fatal), the only possible subject would be a human. With the baseline antibody already in his system, the male is an ideal subject. Finding a cure for Croat addiction would be a large step forward for the somewhat pathetic human resistance. Therefore, they should go forward with the testing.
 
No matter how he adds the facts up, they come out to the same conclusion.
 
Castiel picks up his trenchcoat from the floor and slides it on, a small part of him acknowledging the fact that the clothing does indeed give him a sense of security. He will need it, he thinks, if Dean continues to be so…strange. He involuntarily pulls in a deep breath before heading out of the infirmary, closing the door shut quietly behind him.
 
He hears Dean before he sees him. He can hear Dr. Robert’s gruff replies in between the shouting, though, and to Castiel’s poorly trained ear, he sounds more amused than anything else. Castiel leans against the door, listening to the heated argument within. “Son, you stick to the field,” Dr. Robert says, “and I’ll stick to the infirmary.”
 
“Does the council know about this?” Dean demands. “I’ll file a fucking complaint if I have to. Since when have we allowed human testing, ever?”
 
“We’ve never needed to before. Circumstances have changed, get with the program.”
 
“He’s a kid. Hell, he can’t be older than what, ten? You can’t just kill him!”
 
“Who said anything about killing him? He’s much more useful the way he is.”
 
“He could wake up!”
 
“I doubt that, and even if he does, he wouldn’t be lucid for long, trust me. Son, his cerebrum is cooked, but the hypothalamus and brain stem are in perfect shape, which are the parts we need. Even if he does wake up, he won’t be able to process anything, you understand?”
 
“You don’t know that!” Dean shouts.
 
“Who’s the doctor here?” Dr. Robert says, and there’s a note of irritation in his voice now. “When you get a degree from the Nest of Purity, come back and tell me—”
 
“I bet they cut up humans all the time in the Nest of Purity,” Dean says viciously. “Angels run the Nest of Purity, and you’re trying to learn from them now? We’re human; we don’t write off our own!”
 
“We do when they’re already written off,” Dr. Robert says sharply. He sighs. “Dean, I get where you’re coming from, I really do. But Ryan’s long gone. All we can do is to make use of what remains.”
 
“He’s not a toy you can throw out!” Dean says. “He’s got a brother, he’s got family. You haven’t even tried to help him, have you?”
 
There’s a brief pause to that, but it’s long enough to convey a thousand words. “Son of a bitch,” Dean breathes.
 
“We need him more than he needs us,” Dr. Robert says coldly.
 
“You fucking monster,” Dean snarls. “I will have your ass thrown out for this—”
 
“The rest of the council will look the other way,” Dr. Robert interrupts. “If you haven’t noticed, Dean, these are desperate times. We can’t all afford to be so high and mighty.”
 
“Ellen will back me. So will Bobby and Missouri.”
 
“Last time I checked, you needed a five-vote majority to throw anyone out,” Dr. Robert says coolly. “And three out of seven won’t cut it. In case you’re forgetting, I’ve got a council vote, too.”
 
“Rufus will take my side. He voted against selling to Bela.”
 
“True, but the collateral damage was relatively small. I’m the only angel-trained physician in this whole compound, Dean. Think before you accuse me before the council.”
 
The silence this time is longer. Castiel moves instinctively, some last remnant of angel training that still clings. He pushes himself away from the door and ducks around the corner right before the door swings open and Dean storms out. Castiel cranes his head and watches Dean vanish down the hall, feeling strangely hollow as he watches.
 
He counts slowly to ten inside his head before turning the corner and heading into the lab. It’s easy to pretend as if nothing has happened: Dr. Robert’s hunched over the lab table with his hands in a competent flurry of motion. When he greets Castiel, his voice is cheerful and excited as if his conversation with Dean never happened.
 
~*~
 
“They’re probably going to kill me, you know.”
 
“Don’t exaggerate,” Castiel says quietly. “They would hardly go to all this trouble if you were to be eliminated.”
 
Gabriel gives out a small snort as his eyes flick over the assorted IVs. “Right,” he says, sounding tired. “You just keep believing that, little brother. I didn’t know you had such faith in the humans.”
 
A part of Castiel wants to protest that—he doesn’t have faith in the humans, not really. “Things have changed,” is all he says, feeling that while it’s completely inadequate, it’s also the only explanation he can give.
 
“You don’t say,” Gabriel says, sounding tired. “The humans are letting you wander around now?”
 
“To an extent.”
 
“They trust you?”
 
No, of course they don’t, Castiel thinks. He’s useful here. He contributes, and in return, they tolerate him. Until he steps over the invisible line they draw, and then he reverts to being their enemy. The memory of the disgusted look on Dean’s face twists a little deeper, and Castiel hates that his pain shows in his face.
 
“Well,” Gabriel says, breaking the silence, “if it makes you feel better, they never trusted me, either.”
 
“It was supposed to be different,” Castiel says, the words spilling out before he can stop them. “With Dean.”
 
Gabriel raises an eyebrow. “Different? Different how?”
 
Castiel feels a strange, sudden burn of kinship to Gabriel, even though he’s never liked the archangel. He takes a deep breath, wondering just how much to give, how much they can share. “It’s not as simple as I thought it would be,” he says at last. “There are two aspects to…everything. Physical, and emotional.”
 
“I’d imagine that the emotional bit is giving you the greatest headache, huh?” Gabriel’s eyes are far too perceptive, and Castiel suddenly remembers that Gabriel’s been Fallen for more than ten years now, and more importantly, he’s been through all this already. “Damn, I knew it. Have you fallen for him?”
 
Castiel frowns. “I was already Fallen.”
 
“Not Fallen,” Gabriel sighs. “Not as in Fallen from the Host. I mean, you know. Fallen for Dean.”
 
Castiel hesitates. He’d like to say that he doesn’t understand what Gabriel’s talking about, but the truth is that he does, a little bit. “I’d stay with him,” he says.
 
Gabriel laughs, and winces as it clearly causes him pain. “Ow, fucking broken ribs,” he says, rubbing his side. “But damn! I knew it. I knew it was coming, little brother.” He laughs again. “Dean’s always got a thing for the angels. You should’ve seen him and Anna.”
 
“Anael?” Castiel says cautiously, and he dislikes how the mention of Anael seems to stir something ugly in the pit of his stomach. ‘What does she have to do with anything?”
 
“They were together for a while,” Gabriel says. “After Anna Fell, they hooked up. And once the Grace kicked out of her system, completely, they had some crazy fits of passion, let me tell you.” He leans forward, eyes bright. “Have you guys done the nasty yet?”
 
“Nasty?” Castiel echoes, feeling as if the words are coming from very far away. “What do you mean?”
 
“You know. Sex.” Gabriel gestures at Castiel’s groin, and Castiel feels his next breath come in a little sharper than usual. “Anna and Dean couldn’t get their hands off each other for a while.” He snorts. “Course, that blew to pieces after Dean left Hell, but hey, they had some good times together.”
 
“Oh,” Castiel says faintly.
 
“Yeah,” Gabriel says. Castiel watches him as if he’s a lifeline, and a small frown appears on Gabriel’s face. “You look kind of sick, Castiel. Like you’re about to hurl.”
 
“I’m fine,” Castiel says.
 
“Right.” Gabriel’s silent for a moment, and then something seems to click in his eyes. “Ah.”
 
“Where were you, Gabriel?” Castiel asks. It’s the coward’s way out, changing the topic, but Castiel has absolutely no interest in pursuing this topic further. “How did you escape with the humans?”
 
“Not very subtle, brother,” Gabriel chides. He pauses, and then adds, “You’re jealous, aren’t you? Of what they had together?”
 
“Anael is gone,” Castiel says as calmly as possible. “I won’t speak ill of the dead.”
 
“Right,” Gabriel drawls. “Am I to guess that happy times with Dean are in fact, not so happy after all?” Castiel tries to keep his face blank, but Gabriel’s far more practiced than any human at discerning angelic expressions. “Oh,” Gabriel says after a moment. “I see.”
 
“There’s nothing to see,” Castiel says through numb lips.
 
When Gabriel speaks again, his voice is softer, losing some its caustic, mocking edge. “Dean’s a lot of things, Castiel,” he says. “Quick to anger, quick to hurt. Although he’s trying. Or he was trying, last time I saw him.” He laughs, a little self-deprecatingly. “Hell screwed him up pretty bad, and that’s why he lost what he had with Anna. I think he was trying not to hurt her, but you know, good intentions and everything.”
 
“And so I am expendable, then,” Castiel says, and he winces as he hears the amount of venom in his voice. Castiel takes in a slow breath, trying to control himself. He doesn’t like feeling this way, feeling like he’s a replacement for everything that Dean wants but cannot have—Sam, Anna. “The convenient target so long as I keep to his rules.”
 
Gabriel’s quiet, and Castiel gets up, pacing back and forth. That’s another thing that’s new; restlessness, the need to work frustration from his system. In fact, he thinks moodily, there’s very little about his post-Grace existence that’s pleasant.
 
“So,” Gabriel says after a moment. “Trouble in paradise, I’m guessing.”
 
“This is hardly paradise,” Castiel snaps before he can stop the words.
 
“Yeah, there’s a marked lack of chocolate,” Gabriel says. He sighs. “Castiel. Cas. What’s wrong?”
 
“Nothing,” Castiel says. He glances at Gabriel—the only other angel here, the only one who can even vaguely understand. He forces himself to speak as calmly as possible, reminding himself that it’s Dean he’s upset with, not his brother. “I think there are more pressing matters at hand here.”
 
Gabriel sighs. “Yeah,” he says at last, accepting the diversion. “There are.” He smiles thinly. “And it’s off to interrogation as soon as I’m patched up, trying to weasel every last scrap of information I have.” He rolls his eyes. “It’s not like I owe them anything.”
 
Castiel hesitates. “I’ll do what I can,” he says slowly. He’s not got much to back the promise up with, seeing as he’s just barely tolerated here. But this is his brother, and if Dean has taught him nothing, it’s that kinship isn’t something to be thrown away lightly.
 
Gabriel must know what Castiel’s thinking, but he doesn’t call him out on it. “I’d appreciate that,” he says at last. “Try to keep my skin in one piece and everything.”
 
Castiel looks down at him. “Excuse me,” he says finally. “I’ll come later.”
 
“I’m not going anywhere,” Gabriel sighs, and then Castiel leaves the room.
 
~*~
 
Castiel doesn’t wander around much, but there are a few rooms in the compound that he finds soothing. He sits in one of them now; it’s an old storage room that’s stocked with dusty books. Castiel finds the archaic idea of information transmission to be oddly charming, and the scent of them is reassuring.
 
He picks up one of them now, running his hands down the cracked leather spine. He doesn’t recognize the names inscribed on the cover, not that he expects to—human literature from the Dark Ages are not a topic oft-covered in the Nest of Peace. He looks around at the stacks around him, musing a little on the proclivity of humans. For a species that seemingly can’t stop fighting, they produce astonishing volumes of text.
 
Someone clears their throat from the open doorway. Castiel doesn’t bother to look up, knowing from the change in scent and sound that it’s Dean. “Thought I’d find you here,” Dean grumbles. Keeping his head down, Castiel tries to analyze the sound. Dean sounds tired, but the rage is gone from his voice.
 
Castiel doesn’t say anything, waiting. He opens the book and runs his fingers down the worn pages without turning to look at Dean. And Dean breaks first, as humans are wont to do. “Do you know what Dr. Robert is doing?” Dean demands. Castiel remains silent, and Dean continues, “He didn’t even try to save Ryan, did he? He just wanted a guinea pig for his experiments, and voila, mission accomplished. Since when did we stoop to killing kids?”
 
“You forget,” Castiel answers quietly, “that you are speaking to an angel.”
 
“You’ve never cared about a kid, Cas?”
 
“The Nest of Joy takes care of its own,” Castiel says. He focuses on the crisp print on the page, taking some comfort in the solidity of words. They don’t change, not like the people from which they came.
 
“Yeah, I figured,” Dean mutters. He’s quiet for a moment, and then he says, “They’re not machines to be programmed. You can’t just stick orders in us and make us dance to your tune, Cas. And they’re not expendable, either.” He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly. “I took care of Sam,” he says finally. “After we left. For years and years.” He snorts. “And I guess I’ve never stopped.”
 
“You see Ryan as Sam,” Castiel says. It’s a fairly easy conclusion to draw, and he can tell by Dean’s hitch in breathing that Castiel’s hit a nerve. “And you think that neither can be saved.”
 
Dean laughs, and it’s an ugly, harsh sound. “Stop psychoanalyzing me. Angel.”
 
“Emotionally constipated human,” Castiel returns. “Am I wrong?”
 
There’s silence for a moment, and then Dean says roughly, “They’re not pawns to be used. We’re not. We’re human, not…”
 
“Angel?”
 
“I was going to say dead. You know, as opposed to alive.”
 
“Very tactful.” Castiel snaps the book shut, suddenly tired of the game. “What do you want, Dean?” He turns to look at Dean, and Dean winces slightly.
 
“I want you to stop him,” Dean says finally. “Say no. Dr. Robert wouldn’t get half as far as he would without your help.”
 
Castiel raises an eyebrow. “Why would I do that?”
 
Dean gapes at him for a moment before spluttering, “Because it’s wrong, Cas! Castiel, please. You need to trust me on this one.”
 
“You’re asking me to sacrifice a potential cure for thousands of addicts by saving one brain-dead human,” Castiel answers. He feels oddly detached from the expression on Dean’s face, and the barely-hidden anger and confusion in his eyes. “You can see where I might be a little confused.”
 
“When does it stop, then?” Dean snaps. “It’s just one brain-dead human now. You’re telling me that Dr. Robert’s going to stop at that? He’ll be moving onto Joe next if Ryan doesn’t work out, and then, hell, maybe he’ll decide to start putting others under his knife. It’s a hell of a slippery slope, Cas.”
 
“A hypothetical slope,” Castiel says. “And even if it were true, a few humans are an acceptable price for the majority.”
 
“Very angel,” Dean says bitterly. “Do you even know what it’s like to be human, Cas? I’m not just talking about emotion, but about all the other stuff. Connections, family, children, life.”
 
“Of course not,” Castiel snaps, suddenly impatient. “I’m an angel. I do what I must, I obey as I’m commanded. And as soon as I can’t fulfill these functions, them I’m useless.”
 
Dean flinches, and Castiel wonders why. Finally, Dean says in a low voice, “That’s not true, Cas.”
 
“Isn’t it?” Castiel challenges. “Angels function by logic. At least it doesn’t allow us to hide from what’s patently obvious.” He turns away and closes his eyes, fighting to keep the sudden flare of anger under tight control. Finally he says quietly, “I’m fully aware of your opinion of what I am.”
 
“Well,” Dean mumbles, “At least you’re trying.”
 
“I’m an angel,” Castiel says tightly. “I can’t be anything else. And have you ever considered, Dean, that the angels might have the upper hand precisely because of what we do?” Dean’s head snaps up, giving him a wild, almost accusatory look. “It seems that you constantly try to walk a line between ruthlessness and compassion, never quite succeeding to be either.”
 
“Way to hit a guy where it hurts,” Dean says testily. “Have you ever considered, Cas, that it’s not just the victory that counts, but how you get there?”
 
Castiel shrugs. “And I repeat—that’s not the angel way.”
 
Dean jams his hands into his pockets, and Castiel gives a small inward sigh. He returns his gaze to the book, his eyes skipping aimlessly over the text. He’s aware that Dean’s walking closer, but it still takes all his training not to flinch as Dean puts a hand on his shoulder. Dean’s silent for a moment before his hand squeezes Castiel’s shoulder. “Come with me, Cas,” he says quietly.
 
“I’ve already given you what I can,” Castiel says dully, the anger leeching out him just as suddenly as it came. “What more do you want from me?”
 
I’m trying too, Cas. I swear. But just—please. Come with me.”
 
Castiel hesitates for just a fraction of a second before obediently laying the book down. He stands up and meets Dean’s gaze squarely for a long moment before inclining his head in a silent command for Dean to lead. Dean’s fingers thread briefly through his before letting go to push the door open. Neither of them speak as Dean leads him through a series of corridors Castiel’s never been in before. “We’re going up,” Castiel murmurs finally as the current of moving air brings new scents to his nose.
 
“The compound’s a lot bigger than you think,” Dean says almost absently. “These are the family quarters. For those who don’t or can’t fight.” Castiel finds that both of them are moving quicker now, almost at a run. “There are still a few places in Oldtown where life still goes on,” Dean continues. “They’re hidden, obviously. But that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.”
 
Castiel’s breath catches in his throat as Dean turns to give him a wide, almost infectious smile. Before he can fully digest what it means, Dean reaches out and tugs on his arm, leading him for the last couple of steps necessary before they step out of the compound and into the open air. Leaves crunch under Castiel’s feet as they walk out onto a grass-covered yard, the boughs of trees arching over the sky in an attempt to grab every last bit of sunlight they can. Castiel looks up into the greenery and feels something clench inside of him at the sight. The sunlight through the leaves is nothing but chaos, but at the same time it’s infinitely more beautiful than the carefully controlled greenery that line the streets of Zion.
 
“C’mon, old man,” Dean murmurs into his ear. “Let’s find a place to sit.”
 
Dean guides him to a wooden bench and eases him down into it. Castiel follows unresistingly, somewhat at a loss for words. He takes a deep breath as he studies the sight around him, trying to soak up as much detail as possible. His memory is no longer as sharp as it once was due to the loss of Grace, and he suddenly misses it with a renewed intensity.
 
“This shouldn’t exist,” he says finally. “And I should definitely not know that it exists.”
 
“Now that you know, we’ll have to kill you,” Dean says easily. Castiel frowns slightly and turns to look at Dean. Dean looks lighter than Castiel’s ever seen him before, and Castiel’s never noticed just how much weight Dean carries until the burden falls away.
 
“Why did you bring me here, Dean?” Castiel asks finally.
 
Dean hesitates. “I wanted you to see who we are,” he answers after a long pause. “Humans. Not just the way we appear on the battlefield, but as something less…something more.”
 
“These are our Father’s creations,” Castiel says slowly, trying to understand.
 
Dean shakes his head. “It’s more than that, Cas. The ‘Father’ doesn’t get to have a say on who they are. They’ll be free to choose who or what they want to be, not forced to by the bastards at the Nest of Joy.”
 
“The Nest of Joy promotes harmony,” Castiel says, the memorized words springing easily to his lips. “It prevents conflict from arising during the most important stage of development, and discourages discord from arising in the future.”
 
“Another word for saying that they turn them into little duplicates of each other,” Dean says. He doesn’t sound angry, though. “Kill one, another one will take its place, isn’t that right? Even in the Nest of Peace it’s the same; you said so yourself, Cas.”
 
“So you want anarchy,” Castiel says softly. “Where human and angel are free to be whatever, whoever they wish to be. With no regard for restraint or control, to let human emotion dictate the whims of the day—”
 
“That’s who we are,” Dean says. “That’s who you are.”
 
“Human nature contains the seeds of its own destruction, Dean. The Republic was what brought us out the Dark Ages.”
 
“It’s turned life into a parody of what it’s supposed to be,” Dean says quietly. “Maybe the system worked at the time, but it’s turned us into static copies of each other, and we can’t change the way we’re meant to. Emotion, passion, bits of chaos thrown in here and there—they’re what keeps us alive, makes us different.”
 
“And you treasure your individuality, even if it brings you pain.”
 
Dean gives a small, painful smile. “Yeah, you could put it that way. With great pain comes great joy and all that.” He sighs. “This place—this park—it’s a place where a lot of us grew up. It’s been here for a long, long time—a bit more than a generation, I think.” He reaches out, pushes Castiel lightly on the shoulder. “And long enough for three angels, too.”
 
“How open-minded.”
 
“Yep,” Dean agrees. He tilts his face back, and Castiel watches in quiet fascination as the patterns of sunlight gild the line of his throat. “That’s us, always open to new ideas. And new people.” He turns to give Castiel a small smile. “We kept you alive, anyway.”
 
“Because Anna asked you to,” Castiel points out, the old ache returning. “Otherwise you would’ve willingly shot me on the spot.”
 
“To be fair, you were asking for it,” Dean tells him. “Landing on our roof like that. Scared the fucking shit out of me, you stupid angel.” He snorts, rubbing a hand across his eyes in a tired gesture. “Getting Sam and Anna captured.”
 
Castiel tenses slightly at the mention of Sam and Anna. “You miss them.”
 
“Always have, always will,” Dean says quietly. Castiel glances at him, but Dean doesn’t appear to be angry or enraged. Instead, Dean trails off into silence, his palm smoothing back and forth over Castiel’s shoulder in an absentminded gesture. Castiel closes his eyes, uncertain of what to say or do next.
 
“I spoke with Gabriel,” he says at last. He’s not sure why he says it, but he can feel Dean tense next to him. ‘They’re going to interrogate him soon.”
 
“What?” Dean asks, sitting upright. “Gabriel’s here?”
 
“He came in with Joe and Ryan,” Castiel says.
 
“A man,” Dean mutters as if reciting something from memory. “Well, fuck. He’s here?”
 
“He’s here,” Castiel confirms quietly. “He’s in bad shape, but he’s here.”
 
Dean looks poised to jump up and run for the infirmary, but after an interminable moment, he finally relaxes back into the bench. “Huh,” he says at last. “I guess if he didn’t know anything the first ten times we asked him about Sam and Anna, he couldn’t possible know anything now.”
 
That’s right, Castiel thinks distantly. Gabriel doesn’t know where the Nest of Love is. He couldn’t possibly know.
 
Castiel tries to push away the sharp clarity of his next thought, but it insistently pushes at him, refusing to let go. He’s kept his silence for this long, he tells it; so why should anything change now? Castiel takes a deep breath, trying to swallow down the ugly jealousy that rises. He has Dean only because Dean doesn’t have Sam. And if Dean gets Sam back…
 
Castiel doesn’t want to be just a replacement for the rest of his life. Enough of this wavering, he thinks. If it’s an either-or case, he’d much rather know sooner than later.
 
He shakes his head as if trying to physically dislodge the thought from his brain. “Some things aren’t meant to be said.”
 
“Sorry?” Dean asks, looking over at him. Castiel glances at him, something lurching inside of him as he realizes that he spoke the last sentence out loud. Dean gives him a small, self-deprecating smile. “You’re right, I guess. We can’t all live in denial forever.”
 
Castiel bows his head. “No,” he says. “Of course not.”
 
He feels Dean’s hand brush his cheek lightly before moving up to card through his hair. The weight of his hand is reassuring, but it’s also somehow a condemnation, as if he’s taking something that he doesn’t deserve.
 
“Dean,” Castiel says, and he treasures the way that Dean turns toward him. He hesitates and chooses the coward’s path, putting it off for one moment longer. “It seems that I am a bit unattached at the moment,” he says. “An angel is created to serve, after all.”
 
“So be your own master,” Dean suggests. “It worked for Gabriel, at least.”
 
Castiel shakes his head, drawing upon the formality of words to give him the courage he needs. “No,” he says softly. “I don’t think that’s the way it works.” He looks at Dean. “You would be the logical choice.”
 
Dean laughs. “I don’t need a butler, man, if that’s what you’re saying. Cas, it’s fine. I’m totally self-sufficient, you know. And I don’t—” he hesitates, and then says, “You don’t owe me anything.”
 
“I do,” Castiel says. “For Sam, at least.” The words have a strange finality to them, as if they were carved upon a cremation stone.
 
Dean’s mouth twists slightly to one side. “Cas, it’s…there’s nothing we can do about it.”
 
Yes, there is. Don’t hide from it, angel.
 
“I know where the Nest of Love is,” Castiel says, feeling preternaturally calm as the words finally come out. “And I know how you can save Sam.”

Epilogue
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