alwaysamy: (power of winchester)
[personal profile] alwaysamy
This is set in early S5 Supernatural, before Team Free Will knows who the Trickster really is, but after Castiel has decided to look for God. Pre-Changing Channels.

Gen fic with appearances by Sam, Dean, Cas, Gabriel, and Bobby. Long! (Like, more than 9,500 words.) And with a lot of unrepentant cute due to the plot. (But there's angst, too. It's Winchesters, after all.) Now with fantastic art by [livejournal.com profile] serenada_art ! 

When you've got eternity staring you in the face every morning, hobbies are a good thing. Gabriel's got a slew of them, but Winchester Watching is always a knee-slapper. Despite Sam's ginormous brain and Dean's basic street savvy, the boys are generally prettier than they are smart. 

They do stumble onto something important once in a while, though, which is why it pays to keep on eye on them, free entertainment aside.

That's how Gabriel finds them, one afternoon, talking to Castiel. 

He knows all about Castiel yanking Dean out of hell, of course. He's not stupid, and he does keep his ear to the ground when it comes to things like the apocalypse, for his own sake. It's still sort of a slap in the face to find them all so chummy, and to know that Castiel is playing for their team now. Appearances aside, Gabriel is, well, Gabriel, and certain dusty old skeletons really need to stay in the family closet. And he doesn't mean the closet belonging to the fucked-up, angst-ridden stragglers that remain of the Winchester family, either.

Plus -- he takes a Tootsie Pop out of his pocket and unwraps it with a little more force than necessary -- he did try to help the assholes once, not that either of them would believe him. Okay, so killing Dean creatively for more than a hundred days wasn't exactly a nice thing to do, much less killing him all permanent-like for a few months, but an archangel in hiding has to make his own fun. He was trying to prove a point to Sam the Official Big Dumb Lug about destiny and the immutability of fate and accepting the goddamn things you cannot goddamn change, for christ's sake. 

Not that he's bitter, of course.

He swirls the lollipop in his mouth as he edges a little closer to the car. He's actually a she at the moment, a soccer mom in khaki capris and Crocs, and he checks his pretty gold watch anxiously as he walks closer, pretending he's waiting for someone. Here in the parking lot of a minimart in southeastern Iowa. A little subterfuge doesn't hurt, even if it is half-assed, but not one of them even glances his way.

"...else up there can help?" Sam is saying when Gabriel gets close enough to hear them.

Castiel says, without missing a beat, "God. God can help."

Gabriel's mouth pinches around his Tootsie Pop. God, huh? Castiel doesn't know shit about Daddy, no matter what he thinks. Castiel -- obedient, faithful, loyal, prissy-ass Castiel -- is still a red-headed stepchild next to Gabriel, who is an archangel, for fuck's sake, and who knows exactly how absent his father has been for too long to even think about.

He takes a deep breath as the urge to smite rises. They're all deluded. Deluded. And when he catches Dean saying, in the midst of the conversation he hasn't been paying attention to what with all the rage, "No, Cas. Jesus, that's the last thing I need, worrying about you off in Godforsookizhan, dodging bullets. Just ... just stay put for a minute, okay?"

He marches off toward the minimart with Sam lumbering behind him, gloom etched into his fivehead, and Castiel gets into the backseat of the Impala with a hint of a pout on his lips.

The idea comes out of nowhere, and it's so perfect, such fitting punishment for one and all, he spits his lollipop out and tosses it behind him recklessly. He licks his lips as he turns toward the car, fingers poised to snap.

Damn, he's good.

***

There's no question who it is -- the kid is nearly drowning in khaki trench coat, the collar of a white dress shirt is bunched around his neck, his dark hair is sticking up in seventeen directions, and his blue eyes are huge and wet.

"He looks like a chibi," Sam says in awe, looming huge and thunderstruck beside Dean, and Dean doesn't know what that means but he's sure it can't be good. Castiel, angel of the lord, is confused, tiny, and currently in the process of bursting into tears.

"Aw, christ," Dean says faintly, and something in his chest squeezes tight. He remembers this, all too well thanks to the giant geek beside him, and if this is going to end in any way that could be categorized as not a complete disaster, he's got to get in there fast and pull the dead man's brake on four-year-old hysteria.

He takes a cautious step toward the car, then another, hands up, palms out, doing his best to look non-threatening. "Hey, buddy," he says, and crouches beside the open door of the car. Cas's shoes have fallen off and they're lying forgotten in the footwell. Dark socks dangle off feet far too small for them now. "It's okay. Take a deep breath, okay? I promise you, we're going to fix this."

"Dean," Sam hisses, and Dean glares over his shoulder. It's what you say to kids when they're freaking out, no matter how hopeless a situation looks, at least when they're this little. It sort of smarts that Sam doesn't remember how many times Dean said the exact same thing to him. The number is probably something like three million four hundred thousand fifty-six, plus one.

"I ... I ..." Cas is hiccuping the single word, his little chest heaving with sobs beneath all that clothing, and his face is streaked with tears.

"I know, bud," Dean tells him, and holds out his hand. "Come here?"

Those blue Bambi eyes hold his for a long time, wet lashes plastered together as he considers whether Dean is trustworthy. Dean's not prepared when he makes his move, and winds up flat on his ass with thirty pounds of pre-schooler clinging to his chest. For a little guy, Cas's arms are surprisingly strong wrapped around his neck, and Dean chokes out, "There you ... ooof ... go, buddy, it's ... glrrrgh ... okay," as he strokes Cas's back. 

He can hear Sam snickering, damn it.

He ignores it with what he's sure counts as nobility as he rearranges himself and Castiel, getting his hands up to loosen Cas's literal breakneck grasp, and nudges the damp head off his windpipe and onto his shoulder. "There you go," he murmurs, establishing a calm rhythm as he strokes, going from up and down to big circles, waiting as Cas's tiny heart starts to back off its jackrabbit pace and his chest starts to shudder out the last of his panic. "S'okay, buddy, s'okay. Promise, s'all going to be okay."

It takes a good five minutes, which always feel longer when you've got a terrified child made of Velcro, but Cas finally takes one last gasping breath and raises his head to look at Dean from under his lashes. He blinks, sniffles, and Dean bites back a smile at the snotty mess on his upper lip. Castiel is generally nothing but dignified, unless Dean has stuck a whoopie cushion under his ass, and he can't imagine how grownup Cas is going to feel about this when they get him back.

Which they will do, he tells himself with grim determination. They have to.

"Got a name, buddy?" Dean says, using his thumb to swipe at the snot and tears.

Cas swallows, nods. "Castiel," he says distinctly, and it's Dean's turn to blink. The reedy, wobbly voice is as small as the rest of Cas.

Get it together, Winchester. "That's good." He makes his tone warm and proud, and god, this is so familiar, he spent most of fifth grade doing just this, telling Sammy that Dad would be home soon, that kissing boo-boos made them hurt less, that dreams weren't real and blew away like smoke as soon as you were awake. "My name's Dean. You got lost, huh?"

Cas doesn't seem to know what to make of that, his pinched little face screwed up in confusion until he nods again.

"Well, me and Sam here"--he gestures broadly at Sam, still standing three feet away--"we're going to get you found, okay? We're going to take care of this, take care of you. That sound good?"

Cas is regarding Sam with sheer terror, and Dean can't blame him, since Sam must look like a mutant redwood, especially with the sun behind him making his features indistinct. He glares over Cas's shoulder until Sam drops into a crouch, bringing him at least a little closer to Cas's level.

"Hey, Cas," Sam says, holding up one hand in a sort of wave. "It's, um, really lucky you wound up here. We're ... little kid protectors, so it's our job to find kids like you and get them home safe." He nods in complete seriousness when Cas's eyes widen.

So, okay, Sam might have picked up a few of his tricks along the way, Dean thinks with a flush of warmth. Subconsciously, maybe, but that explanation is as good as "teddy bear doctor," if the relief on Castiel's face is anything to go by.

"Okay," Cas says, and the last of the stiff panic bleeds right out of him.

Cue sleeping kid, Dean thinks as he gets to his feet with Cas in his arms. Dean puts him back in the car and explains the basic plan, and not two minutes after he's pulled out of the parking lot, Cas is asleep in the back, his head on Sam's lap and his hands tucked beneath his chin.

Sam's expression of mortal terror is totally gravy.

***

Cas never questions Dean when he's explaining something humanity-related, and apparently he's not going to argue with Sam, either. Dean had opened the motel room door with four Walmart bags to find Cas awake and stripped down to his adult undershirt, which hangs to his ankles, and cross-legged on the end of one bed, watching TV. PBS, of course, because Sam's middle names are No and Fun.

Sam looks relieved, whether it's because Dean is finally back or because Cas has been agreeable, Dean doesn't know and doesn't care. Sam's panic at being left alone in the room with a preschooler was mortifying, pure and simple. He did it all the time when he was just a kid himself, a fact he was generous enough not to mention before he left for the store. He's giving himself all sort of points for his restraint.

"Hey, buddy," Dean says, giving Cas a friendly grin and waving the bags casually. "Got some clothes your size here. And one or two other things I think you might like. Come take a look."

Cas gets up obediently and hovers near Dean's thigh as he dumps out the bags on the second bed. "Underwear, sneakers, socks, jeans, shirts, and hey, look at that. What's that, huh?"

He waits as Cas looks up at him, silently making sure he's allowed before his small hand reaches out to the big plastic package of green army men. Beside it on the stained comforter are a coloring book and a box of sixty-four brand-new crayons, five Matchbox cars, and a black and white spotted stuffed dog with floppy ears. The array of stuff in the aisles was a little incredible, and Dean figures it's best to stick with the classics at this age, although the Iron Man action figures were awesome. "Toys." Cas is barely audible, but his eyes are shining.

"Yup," Dean agrees, and shakes out the remaining bag. "Plus munchies! You gotta be hungry, huh, buddy?"

Sam's soft huff is fond, something like a laugh, and Dean knows he's remembering this, too. The assembled food represents what was once Dean's minimart shopping special -- a loaf of bread, a jar of peanut butter and one of jelly, juice boxes, tiny orange Goldfish, Froot Loops, and Twinkies. The Twinkies and Goldfish were special treats when they had a few extra dollars -- Dean considers everything else required provisions when there's a kid under six around. 

"Can I open this?" Cas is staring with fascination at a Matchbox hot rod, still in its cardboard backing. It's metallic green with huge back wheels and yellow-orange flames licking at its doors.

"I'll make sandwiches while you do that," Sam says, unfolding himself from the chair at the wobbly table, where the laptop is open and humming. His smile is soft, all nostalgic and sticky already, and Dean rolls his eyes. It's all the thanks Dean needs, especially before Sam goes from zero to totally sappy, and he busies himself peeling the plastic shells off the car packaging while Sam gathers up the groceries. "You know, reduced-sugar jelly is really more nutritious, Dean."

Dean's reaction is so appropriately horrified, Cas laughs out loud.

***

Cas's all-around affability is great, of course, but by the time Dean gets him to sleep for the night, he's antsy to talk to Sam and figure this the fuck out. He couldn't be more grateful that Cas clearly trusts them -- although Dean's not banking on that or his shy obedience lasting forever -- but this babysitting gig needs an expiration date before he starts to freak out a little bit himself. He figures he's entitled, after all. Castiel may be exasperating and mostly inscrutable and generally annoying when it comes to his search for God, but he's an angel. He's an angel who's still got some really convenient powers, too, and he's the only otherworldly ally Dean and Sam have in this ridiculous war. Wiping jelly off his pointed little chin is pretty amusing, for what it's worth, but it has to end sometime, and Dean would rather that sometime is sooner. Like, now.

"So." Sam's brow is scrunched in contemplation as he leans over the laptop on the table. The screen's light casts strange shadows on his face in the dark room -- only the bathroom light is on, the door cracked to provide a reassuring stripe of light for Castiel. "I wish there were stars," he'd said around a yawn, letting Dean pull the covers over him. His Buzz Lightyear pajamas are ridiculously cute, even though Dean had to teach him to say, "To infinity ... and beyond!" He's still not sure Cas has any idea what it means, which is fairly ironic considering he's an angel who's probably a lot more familiar with infinity than Dean is.

"That pretty much sums it up," Dean says in response to Sam, keeping his voice low. He's seated on the edge of the bed, elbows propped on his knees as he leans toward his brother. He's never appreciated Sam's Google-fu more, even though he's not holding out a lot of hope he's going to magically find an answer to instant childhood. Sam has been tapping away for the last two hours, through a McDonald's dollar menu dinner and Cas's hasty bath, which was just weird, as well as a half hour of some Disney movie Dean found on TV before he started hinting at bedtime. "Whatcha got?"

"Um ... nothing." Sam shrugs and glances at Dean, sheepish. "There's just no lore on age regression out there. And this had to take some serious mojo, Dean." 

"Gee, Sam, you think?" He rolls his eyes, and looks over his shoulder. Cas is huddled in a tiny lump under the covers, clutching his dog, his head frighteningly small against the expanse of the pillow. Dean had agreed that Cas would barely take up a quarter of the bed when Sam balked at sharing with either of them. "He's your angel, man," were in fact his exact words, uttered in the stubborn tone Dean knows is unshakable.

"Hey, I'm trying here, man." Sam lowers his voice when Dean scowls. "It's either someone with a kind of power we've never seen before outside gods and angels, or a serious spell. And you know how impossible it is to research specific spells backwards."

"I know, I know." Dean's sigh is part grunt, part despair. He hates to call Bobby again, especially after last time, and man is he sick of people losing and gaining years at the drop of a fucking hat. But this needs fixing, and it needs it now. Taking kids on the road is always a bad idea, and he's got enough firsthand proof of that to fill a book. Plus, this particular kid is as innocent as they come, and about as self-reliant as a thumbtack.

"I can't figure it out." Sam turns and shakes his head at Dean with a frown. "He said is name is Castiel, so he's not Jimmy. But at four, Castiel would have been a really inexperienced angel, and the world would have been, what? Mostly vegetation? Dinosaurs? I mean, it doesn't make any sense."

"Let's be grateful for small blessings," Dean says fervently. He can't even imagine a tiny angel convinced he should be able to, like, smite things, and completely unfamiliar with everything from peeing and eating to actual human beings, much less the characters from Toy Story.

"True." Sam shoves his hair off his forehead restlessly.

Dean sighs. "Bobby?"

"Bobby," Sam agrees with a weary shrug.

Dean glances at Cas again, sound asleep with the very logically named Spot, calm and peaceful. Not looking for God, not vibrating with metaphysical angel pain over his growing distance from heaven.

And not a preschooler without a mother and desperately missing his daddy, stuffed into pajamas he's rapidly outgrowing and his belly far from full after a scant bowl of cereal for dinner.

"In the morning," Dean says, and pretends Sam doesn't hear the mournful husk to his voice.

***

Dean demands twenty minutes alone in the bathroom in the morning. Cas hadn't taken up too much room in the bed, like he figured -- especially since he spent the greater part of the night curled into Dean's side like a comma, his little hands twined in Dean's T-shirt whenever Dean tried to roll away. He's pretty sure he's going to have permanent tiny knee prints along the side of his right thigh, too.

"I think you can handle getting one four-year-old dressed while I take a shower," he hisses at Sam when the puppy eyes comes out. "I'm turning into the mama duck here already, so give me a break, huh?"

Cas looks up from whatever psychedelic cartoon is on Nickelodeon at the moment, a vague crease between his brows, and Dean flashes a smile at him. Sam makes patented Bitchface #47, but he nods and starts to paw through the clothes on the dresser. "Hey, Cas, how about a shirt with a truck on it today," he says as Dean disappears into the bathroom.

When Cas holds Sam's hand on the way out to the car, Dean has to bite back a grin. A Rocky and Squirrel joke will probably earn him a dead arm at the least, and for once he doesn't feel like spoiling the relative peace. They pull into the nearest diner, and Dean takes a few crayons out of his jacket pocket so Cas can draw on the back of the paper placemat. Sam looks impressed until Cas slides into the booth beside him, and then he just looks stunned and kind of panicky again. 

"Hey, Sam, I bet Cas here doesn't know how to play tic-tac-toe," he says as he hides behind his menu. Diner breakfasts are the same everywhere, but he's enjoying Sam's discomfort too much to help him out any more than that. It occurs to him that he doesn't even know if Sam is more freaked out because he's never spent this much one-on-one time with Castiel, or because Cas is now roughly a fifth of his size.  He doesn't care, either -- Sam wants to be equal partners? Fine. Let him babysit the pint-sized heavenly host for a little while. He's a lot less trouble than Sam used to be, that's for sure.

"Oh, isn't he darling?" the waitress says when she appears at the table, notepad poised to take their order. Cas is currently perched on one of Sam's thighs, tongue slipping out from between his lips as he concentrates on drawing something that looks vaguely like an octopus.

"He's a real little angel," Dean agrees, and winces when Sam kicks him under the table. "Pancakes and orange juice for him, three eggs over easy, bacon, white toast, and coffee for me, thanks."

"Oatmeal and coffee, please," Sam mutters, and shifts uncomfortably when he gets a small elbow in the ribs. "Laugh it up," he tells Dean, but he's almost smiling, too. "I'm still not sharing with him at bedtime."

Cas digs into his pancakes with sober determination, and even though he's smeared with syrup in a lot of improbable places by the end of the meal, it turns out to be a pleasant way to spend a half hour. Dean heads for the bathroom while Sam and Cas pay the bill, but when he comes out, wiping his still damp hands on the back of his jeans, Sam is reading a map and Cas is gone.

"Sam!"

His head snaps up in annoyance. "What?"

"Where's Cas?"

"Right ..." He trails off as he glances around, and swallows hard. "Shit."

"Two minutes," Dean growls as he slams outside past Sam, scanning the parking lot. "Two minutes I was gone. Sonofabitch."

"I thought he was right there!" Sam lumbers off in the other direction, calling Cas's name, sounding more hysterical each time, and that's just perfect. Like Dean needs any more hysteria than what's currently clawing at his chest. Castiel -- this Castiel -- is tiny, with twiggy little bones and huge trusting eyes, and he can't even pronounce Impala correctly, much less Winchester. Where the hell did the little shit go? Unless someone took him, and there's an idea Dean's brain really could have skipped over.

It's almost ten, and the street is busy with morning traffic -- much too busy for little kids to be anywhere near without an adult's restraining hand. And Dean can't see anything in either direction that looks remotely interesting to a four-year-old -- no traveling circus, no clown handing out balloons, no free kittens or hosed-down fire trucks. Just a bank, a dry cleaner's, a used bookstore, a deli, a realty office, and ... a church.

With a great big statue of an angel, wings unfurled and stained cement face turned up to God, just visible over the parked cars. And very probably noticeable from the doorway of the diner. "Sam!"

He's running before he waits to see if Sam is following, holding out a hand to stop oncoming cars. When he hits the other side of the street and rounds the red Bronco parked in front, he nearly drops to his knees in relief.

Cas is sitting on the grass in front of the angel, cross-legged, staring up at the smooth, motionless face with rapt attention.

No yelling, he tells himself as Sam skids to a halt beside him a moment later. Yelling would be bad. There will be no yelling.

"Castiel!" Sam barks, and the kid nearly tumbles over in surprise, turning terrified eyes on Sam and Dean. A moment later his face crumples and the tears start, and Dean whacks Sam on the chest before crouching down.

"Hey, buddy," he croons, holding out his arms. Castiel climbs into them easily enough, hiding his wet face in Dean's jacket and hanging on as Dean stands up with him. "Saw something you liked, huh? That's cool, but you can't ever, ever leave me or Sam without asking first, okay? And you can't ever cross the street by yourself. Real important rules there, buddy. Can you do that?"

Castiel nods and snuffles. Dean can only imagine the snot smeared on the front of his jacket, but he keeps rubbing the kid's back gently, glaring at Sam all the while.

Sam, of course, looks outraged, and Dean doesn't know what the hell he's thinking, but a lesson in child-rearing is definitely in his immediate future as far as Dean is concerned.

Child-rearing. Sonofabitch, it's going to be a long day.

***

Sam and Cas's brief stint as BFFs effectively over, Cas elects to sit in the backseat on his own, Spot clutched on his lap and his coloring book and crayons strewn on the seat beside him.

"He needs a car seat, you know," Sam says, arms crossed, mouth pursed, and Dean is really ready to stop playing happy families and kick the shit out of something until it's good and dead.

"Yeah, well, I'm holding off on his college fund, too, at least until we get to Bobby's," he grunts, and turns up the music.

Sam turns it down. "I don't think Black Sabbath is really appropriate."

"Oh my god, I'm going to drive you straight to Lucifer myself if you don't shut up," Dean snarls, and glances in the rearview mirror. Cas is watching and listening with undisguised apprehension, and his little face looks so pinched, Dean's heart thumps in pity. But Sam notices at the same time, and he opens his mouth before Dean can hiss a warning at him.

"Hey, buddy," Sam says, giving the kid his best friendly smile. "Tell me about that angel? You liked her, huh?"

Cas shrugs, and picks at Spot's ear.

Sam looks thoughtful, the kind of thoughtful that usually leads to bad news, unfortunately, and Dean tenses. "She was real pretty, I thought. Wings are cool." Sam's voice is still conversational, light.

Cas's eyes open wider at that, and Dean catches him looking up at the rearview before he turns his head to stare out the window. Dean raises his eyebrows at Sam, curious, and Sam holds up a finger just as Cas looks up from his under his lashes, sideways. "I have wings."

Sam nods wisely, as if he's suspected this all along, but all Dean can think is, Oh, shit. "You do?"

Cas considers this, chewing his bottom lip carefully. His teeth look like tiny white Chiclets. "They're secret wings. But I can feel them." He can't quite get the "th" sound right, so it sounds a little more like "dey're" and "dem."

Sam raises his eyebrows meaningfully, although the meaning of this is beyond Dean aside from it equaling certain disaster. "Well, you're too young to fly," he says firmly, and Cas's lower lip juts in a pout. "I mean it," Dean adds. If he does have wings, which Dean very much wants to doubt, the last thing they need is a four-year-old who can race with the local sparrows or whatever.

This time Cas blanches and nods. "Yes sir." All unquestioning obedience, and for a minute Dean is torn between curiosity about the faithful angel Cas once was, and an uncomfortable flash of recognition for the child he was himself, when Daddy's word was law.

They're not so different, he and Cas. Right now, though, as Cas lowers his head to his stuffed dog and rubs his cheek against its soft ear, it's cold comfort.

***

They swiped a pillow from the motel when they packed up, and Cas is still asleep with his arms around it when they pull in at Bobby's. "He's so ... cute," Sam says, his brow twisted as if this is a bad thing.

"He's four, Sam." Dean leans into the backseat and scoops him out, lowering his voice once Cas's head is on his shoulder. "They have to be cute or people would kill them every time there's marker on the wall or peanut butter and jelly in the VCR."

Sam winces, and Dean shrugs, already starting across the yard to the front steps. "Well, they are sort of the right shape. You didn't know."

"What do you -- Hey!"

Dean chuckles and raps on the door. enjoying the distant rumble of Sam's muttering as he pulls the bags from the trunk. Bobby opens the door a minute later, and Dean doesn't know whether to give him credit or make with the outrage. He shows up with a four-year-old plastered to his chest and all Bobby can say is, "Shoulda figured you idjits were in trouble again." 

"He's not mine," Dean says quickly, but as Sam pushes past him with their gear, he says, "Sure he is. He's just fun-sized now."

"One of you care to stop beating around the goddamn bush and tell me what the hell is going on anytime soon?" Even Bobby's chair sounds irritated, squeaking as he rolls out of the way, and Dean lays Cas down on the sofa. He wrinkles his face and opens his eyes, bright blue if still a little sleepy, and Bobby actually does a double-take.

"Is that ...?"

"It sure is," Sam says, and rakes his hair off his forehead. "Meet Castiel, age four."

It takes a minute of blank disbelief before Bobby reacts. Dean can still him hear laughing -- howling really, probably swiping tears off his cheeks -- as he stomps upstairs to the bedroom he always takes when they stay. "Bucket list, Bobby! I mean it this time!"

***

Bobby's house, it turns out, is fascinating for the preschool set, if not exactly child-proofed. Sam finds him with a hunting knife nearly as long as one of his little legs the next morning after breakfast, and has him disarmed and out in the salvage yard to look at the cars before Dean can stop choking on the coffee he swallowed wrong.

"So we know he's not present-day Castiel in a smaller package." Bobby's voice is dry as he pages through the first of a half dozen musty tomes on his desk. "And he's not Jimmy Novak, either."

"Yahtzee," Dean says. "You've now reached the sum total of what we know about this, except for the bonus facts that Cas believes he has secret wings, and bolted out of a diner to worship the statue of an angel."

"Huh."

"Yeah." Dean stares glumly out the window. "We've got the apocalypse brewing and one of our only allies is now qualified to make a finger painting about it. Awesome."

"Oh, stop whining." Bobby picks up another book and adjusts his glasses. "Did you and Sam retrace your steps?"

"Sure, ours," Dean says with more than a little heat. "We're not completely new, you know. But Cas only showed up about ten minutes before he changed, and the actual 'honey, I shrunk the angel' routine happened when Sam and I left him in the car to go into the minimart. We hadn't seen him in days."

"Huh."

"Seriously?" Dean growls. "That's all you can come up with?"

"Well, excuse me if I skipped angel-shrinking in school." Bobby is growling back now, glaring out from under the brim of his cap at Dean. "I had more important classes that day, like killing things that go bump in the frigging night!"

"All right, all right." Dean stands up and rubs the back of his head. "We just need to ... I have no fucking idea."

"Yeah, well, you and me both." Bobby glances out the window, where Sam is chugging around the yard with Cas on his shoulders, both of them laughing. His expression is nearly fond for a minute, but then he turns and points at Dean. "But you are not taking another case until we figure this out, and you are not leaving him here with me."

"Aw, Bobby, I ..." Dean trails off in the face of Bobby's resolve, which he drives home by picking up his favorite pistol. "You do get Nickelodeon, right?"

***

Sam claims he earned a little downtime when he brings Cas in an hour later, even though he's flushed and clearly proud of himself. Cas is agitating for lunch, which is how Dean winds up wheeling him around the local Food King, his tiny sneakered feet coming way too close to Dean's groin from his position in the seat.

"Buddy," Dean says, grabbing both of them with one hand. "Chill, huh?"

"I'm not cold," Cas says. The ways in which this Cas is exactly like the adult version is getting funnier by the moment.

"No kicking," Dean explains, and turns down the dairy aisle. He's trying to remember what Sam liked at this age, when they had money for a decent shopping. String cheese, and sometimes yogurt if it was sweet enough, and granola bars and mac and cheese and spaghettios. Hot dogs are a good bet, and chicken nuggets ...

"Dean." Cas is tugging on his sleeve as he tosses things into the cart, and he looks up with a can of spaghettios in each hand, one with meatballs and one without.

"What's up, kiddo?" He's going to have to hide most of this stuff from Sam, since the sodium content is actually a little frightening. Then again, Sam grew up into the jolly green fucking giant, so ...

"Dean."

He's not paying attention, and he throws both cans into the cart before giving Cas a sheepish smile. "Sorry, bud. What's up?"

"When? Soon?" Cas's giant blue eyes are so soulful and lost they make Dean's heart hurt. 

"When ... what?"

"When is he coming? My daddy."

Dean swallows and covers one of Cas's little hands on the cart handle. "Homesick, huh?"

Cas just nods as he studies a spot on the dirty linoleum left of Dean's feet. Christ, this isn't fair. He's just a kid, a really little kid, and he doesn't even really understand what it is he's missing. All he's got is what Dean imagines is an aching emptiness, and a big unfamiliar world with two big unfamiliar guys steering him through it. Fuck.

"We're working on it, Cas. So hard, I promise. That's what Sam and Bobby are doing right now, I bet. Trying to find your daddy."

Cas tilts his head, and for a second big Cas and tiny Cas blur into one. "Promise?"

Dean nods. "Promise." Hope flickers in Cas's eyes, and he leans forward to bump his forehead against Dean's arm, pure trust.

On the way up to the checkout lanes, Dean snags two bargain Scooby Doo DVDs, a huge bottle of bubbles with a magic wand, a cheap toy cell phone, and a clearance bucket of Mega Bloks. He doesn't feel guilty about the cost for even a minute.

***

Dean is funny. Dean is funny and smells good and tucks Cas into bed at night. Dean bought him a night light like a star and doesn't make him eat green beans even when Sam makes the mad face. Dean races Matchbox cars with him and lets him watch when he's working on the car. Sometimes Dean sings to him at night, but Castiel isn't allowed to tell Sam that, or Bobby.

Sam makes a mad face a lot. Sam is really big, big like a tree, and sometimes he laughs, but mostly he reads books and tells Cas to go play. He doesn't smell good sometimes, like when his shirt is all wet under his arms. But Sam gives good airplane rides, when he lies on the floor and balances Cas on his feet so Cas can fly until he's shaking and giggling at being so high and so wobbly.

Bobby is funny and smells like old things and beer. Bobby is also grumpy sometimes and Bobby doesn't like it when people take his hat away. Castiel doesn't do that anymore.

Bobby's house is old and dusty and dark, but Dean and Sam show him the cars outside sometimes, and Dean lets him watch TV a lot. He likes the TV. And he likes Dean.

He thinks he's not supposed to lie. It feels wrong inside, rough and hurty like the rusted parts on Bobby's cars. But Castiel can't tell Dean the truth about his daddy because little boys are supposed to know who their daddies are, and Castiel doesn't. He knows he has one, and that he's not here, and Castiel knows he wants him, but he can't say what he looks like or what his name is or where he lives, and he thinks he's supposed to know that, too. He could tell a policeman all those things about Dean and Sam and Bobby, if he got lost.

At night, before Dean comes to crawl into bed beside him, Castiel closes his eyes and thinks hard. Inside his head it's very light, and it's warm, and it's very, very big, and he can hear his father's voice from far away, but he can't see him, and he can't hear what he's saying, and that's when he gets scared and opens his eyes.

Sometimes, even though he can never ever tell anyone this, he wishes Dean was his daddy, because then he would be home already.

***

After four days at Bobby's, Sam is willing to buy Cas a Nintendo DS, a pony, or a freaking NASA robot, if it'll keep Cas out of his hair for two minutes at a time.

"Will you take a pill, Sam?" Dean hisses when Sam grabs up the books and notes he had spread out very neatly on the table before he turned his head for ten seconds and found Cas reorganizing them, according to shape and size.

Goddamn Sesame Street

He opens his mouth to tell Dean he's trying, but it's not even close to the truth and they both know it. He straightens up instead and takes a deep, calming breath, in through his nose and out through his mouth. "I'm sorry, okay? I just ... this is ..."

Dean waves a hand at him irritably. "Yeah, I know, I know. But he's ... " He glances at Castiel, who is curled on Bobby's lap, face hidden in Bobby's stale flannel shirt. Sam watches as Dean's face softens, tension bleeding away into fondness and the sort of fierce protectiveness Sam knows all too well. "You gotta go easy on him is all I'm saying."

And okay, Sam is a big boy. A big boy who is actually an educated, responsible, mostly sensible adult, and one who is staring down the barrel of the fucking apocalypse, which Lucifer plans to kick off using Sam's body as the magic bullet.

He could use a little bit of that protectiveness himself at the moment, thank you very much. Not that he doesn't deserve Dean's mistrust and anger and resentment and all the rest of it. He does, he knows that. Setting Lucifer free is not spilled milk, not by a long shot.

But he is trying. To fix it or stop it or whatever he has to do to prevent it, and if he's a little more focused on that than on babysitting a restless, frightened preschooler, he's not going to apologize.

Even if he knows he's also, deep down, shamefully and ridiculously, a little bit jealous of Cas, because he's the one who's getting the full force of Dean's best big brothering.

He rakes his hand through his hair. God, he's taking pathetic to a whole new low. And what's worse, he thinks Dean knows it, too.

"How about if I take him ... to the playground in town for a while?" he offers, mentally girding himself for two hours of boredom peppered with Cas's requests to be pushed on the swing and watched on the slide and why they're called monkey bars and and and ... "Maybe you and Bobby can come up with something new. Fresh eyes, you know?"

"Our eyes haven't been fresh in about seventy-two hours and you know it," Dean huffs, but he shrugs, too. "Hey, if you can persuade him, go for it. But you might have to sweeten the deal."

Ice cream, Sam thinks, looking at Cas, who has finally lifted his head from Bobby's chest. Or maybe a Happy Meal. He loves the Chicken McNuggets, even though when Sam thinks about what's in them he feels vaguely ill and not a little guilty about allowing them.

He crosses the room slowly, hands in his pockets, and crouches at the foot of Bobby's chair. Cas doesn't look cowed anymore, just mildly peeved ... which is sort of the way he looks most of the time as as adult, and that's strangely reassuring.

"So." He shrugs sheepishly. "I shouted. I'm sorry about that, buddy. How about some playground time and ice cream to make up for it?"

Bobby looks suspiciously misty when he strokes Cas's head and says, "That's a pretty good deal, kid. I'd take it if I were you." 

Cas is staring at something just past Sam's left shoulder, and Sam turns his head to see Dean nodding and offering a thumbs-up. "Okay." Cas's voice wobbles, but he slides off Bobby's lap and stands beside Sam, slipping his tiny hand into Sam's when Sam stands up. "Now, please."

Dean laughs. "That's my boy."

If Sam pretends Dean's speaking to him, well, no one ever has to know.

***

Castiel is supposed to be in bed. He was in bed for a long time, sleeping, but he woke up. And Dean isn't here, which he doesn't like when it's dark, and now he's thirsty. So he rubs his eyes and shimmies across the mattress and off the bed, padding barefoot to the bedroom door. His night light is burning in the hall, and he can hear voices when he creeps out to the top of the stairs.

Dean, he thinks, and the cold, shuddery, empty feeling in his chest goes away. Dean will get him water, and maybe if he's good Dean will tuck him in again and stay until he falls asleep.

Castiel is halfway down the stairs when he hears Sam say, "I swear, there's nothing else. And he's not exactly changing back on his own."

"Gee, Sam, really? I hadn't noticed!" Bobby barks, and Castiel shrinks back against the railing.

"Shut up, both of you." That's Dean's voice, and it's followed by the sound of chair legs scraping across bare wood. "We have to ... I don't know, think outside the box or what the fuck ever. Maybe Anna could help?"

"And you intend to find her how?" Bobby asks. Castiel closes his eyes -- in his mind, he can see the look on Bobby's face perfectly, brows raised under the lid of his cap.

"I don't know, okay?" Dean sounds mad now, too, and Castiel sits down on the step abruptly, pulling his knees up and wrapping his arms around them. "I mean, first he explodes and then comes back, then we get the stoned sex god hippie, then Castiel the Action Figure, and now ..."

Castiel lifts his head off his knees, his ears burning. His cheeks feel hot, too, prickly and itchy. Castiel the Action Figure? What does that mean?

And if Dean is talking about him, why does he sound so mad?

"We just have to keep at it," Sam says, and then there's a heavy thunk. A book, Castiel thinks. Sam loves his books. Castiel is Never Ever Allowed to Touch Them, Do You Understand Me?, which he only had to hear once to remember. "Cas is one of the only allies -- weapons -- we have if we're going to win this."

"I know." Dean's voice is heavy now, a low rumble, but Castiel doesn't wait to hear any more.

He scrambles up the steps and runs down the hall, hauling himself back onto the bed. His chest hurts again, tight and hot and noisy inside, he can hear it in his ears, rush rush, rush rush. He burrows under the covers, making himself small, smaller, pulling the dark around him.

After a minute, the door swings open, a bar of light like a stripe on the wall. "Cas? You okay?" It's Dean, his normal voice, too, low and gentle, but Castiel squeezes his eyes shut and doesn't answer.

After a minute, he can hear Dean's footsteps in the hall, and he shudders out a breath.

He's not a weapon. He's not. Weapons are bad and dangerous and something else is he Never Ever Allowed to Touch, Ever.

"Daddy," he whispers, and thinks of the big place and the voice without a face, and mashes his wet cheek against the pillow.

***

Thirteen days, Dean thinks as he stares out the kitchen window. Thirteen days and -- he looks at his watch -- six hours. He's not desperate enough to start counting minutes. Yet.

Cas is coloring at the kitchen table, hair standing up in rough spikes. He's on his knees on the chair, and the bottoms of his socks are dark gray since no one actually cleans more than the dishes and an occasional swipe at the toilet and tub. His little shoulders are hunched beneath his green sweatshirt and peanut butter is smeared on one of his back pockets. Dean would happily murder something to see him in that stupid trench coat and tie again, just for a minute.

It's bright and clear and chilly outside, and he's going to lose his mind if he's cooped up in this house one more minute.

"Hey, buddy," he says, and Cas startles, his crayon zigzagging across the page. "Whoa. Sorry, kiddo." He crosses the room to look over Cas's shoulder. He's drawn a sky, with lots of white blobs that look sort of like pregnant clouds on a robin's egg background. That's all. "Not done?"

Cas tilts his head thoughtfully, lower lip between his teeth. He picks up the blue crayon again and fills in one corner a little more, then looks up at Dean. "Now I'm done."

Okay. Um. Dean musters up a smile and pats Cas's shoulder. "That's ... great, bud. Is it ...?"

"It feels like home," Cas says, and then his face closes up suddenly. "Can I have juice?"

Home. Sonofabitch. It's the one thing Dean hasn't really asked him. Who, exactly, Cas's missing daddy is, and where he might be, because this was supposed to be over twelve fucking days ago. When he said he would find Cas's daddy, he seemed satisfied, and who is Dean to mess with that? If it ain't broke, blah blah blah, but christ, no pun intended, he can't even imagine what it is Cas thinks he's missing. Cas has said himself he's never seen God.

He tousles Cas's hair gently. "Hey. You want to get out of here for a while? Go into town?"

Cas's eyes are huge, blue and trusting and even more naive than his adult counterpart. He hops off his chair and runs for his sneakers, calling, "Okay!"

Sam's bent over his laptop, as usual, and Bobby's asleep at his desk. "Sammy," Dean says, tapping his shoulder. "Come on. I have an idea."

***

St. Ignatius is the first Catholic church Dean finds in town. He's not sure denomination matters, but he figures the Catholics have been around the longest anyway.

"That's not true, Dean," Sam says, hunching into his jacket as the walk up the steps. "Judaism predates Christianity, then there are pagan religions like the Druids and--"

"Sam." Dean tries not to snarl, since Cas is holding his hand and staring up at them both. "Save the Churchyard Rock for later, huh?"

Sam rolls his eyes but doesn't argue, and holds a finger to his lips as he holds open the heavy carved door. "You have to be quiet inside, kiddo."

Cas nods, and it's Dean's turn to roll his eyes. Like Cas is ever anything but. Dean lets go of his hand once they're through the vestibule, and Cas doesn't even seem to notice. He starts down the center aisle slowly, head tilted so far back to look at the ceiling that Dean's a little worried he's going to tip over. It's a big church, with a soaring arched ceiling supported by broad wooden beams, and beneath it Cas looks even tinier than usual.

Every day, it gets a little harder to remember the guy who pinned him up against the kitchen counter with nothing more than the intensity in his stare and a few whispered words. The guy who sent him back in time and helped banish Uriel and Alistair, the guy who convinced him to torture Alistair and sat by his bedside later, the guy who risked everything to help him stop Sam and followed him into the bleak-ass future of Croatoans and no toilet paper.

For a moment, as Cas inches up the aisle, pointed at the crucifix mounted on the altar like a magnet's needle finding north, his heart aches for that Castiel, any of them, all of them. For his friend, goddammit.

"What is this?" Cas whispers, eyes huge in the dim light when he turns around, halfway down the aisle.

"It's a church," Sam says softly, and joins him, crouching. "People come here to worship God."

"It's big," Cas says somberly, and glances back at the crucifix. His face is pinched when he turns again. "It's empty."

"Well, there aren't any other people here," Dean explains, walking toward him. "But is it really empty, do you think? Do you ... feel anything here?" The words themselves feel empty on his tongue. There's no god here, and he knows it. This was supposed to be comforting, familiar, and instead he's proving just how lost Cas really is, how little he can count on the being he calls his father.

He would have been better off taking the kid to TJ and looking on a goddamn tortilla.

Sam is staring at his feet, bangs hanging over his forehead, and Cas is ... shit. Cas is, very suddenly, sitting down right there in the aisle, trembling, his bottom lip quivering. "Dean. Do you ... " He's crying hard now, tears streaming down his cheeks, and he fights to get the words out. "Do you ... know who ... my daddy is? Because ... I don't! And I ... I'm not a ... weapon! Not!"

Sam is frozen, eyes almost as big as Cas's were a minute ago. Dean pushes past him, nearly toppling him on his ass, and squats down to grab Cas up and crush him to his chest. "It's okay, Cas. Shhh, it's okay, buddy. We're going to fix this, I promise you, I do. Shhhh."

Cas winds his arms around Dean's neck and his legs around Dean's ribs, little sneakered feet banging against his kidneys. There's nothing to do but hold on.

***

Okay, so, the whole thing stopped being fun days ago. It's a problem, Gabriel can admit that much -- he needs to think long-term when he's doing this stuff, because sometimes the jollies wear off like cheap silver plate, and that's just no fun for anyone. 

He lost track of the whole Three Men and a Baby scene for a few days, but there was a hot witch in southern Italy who was ripe for a little roleplay, and, well, priorities. But this is just ... fuck, it's awful. Gabriel followed them into the church just for kicks, but hell. Castiel can't even tie his own shoes, and he's dealing with industrial-sized abandonment and a whole world of shit he can't understand. And Dean, the sentimental bastard, is hurting like a real parent -- or a real friend. 

Even Gabriel, despite evidence to the contrary, is not cruel enough to walk away now.

He snaps his fingers, and Dean jumps at his sudden appearance in a pew a few rows back. He shrugs and waggles his fingers, bracing himself as Sam gets up, stalking toward him with nothing less than Intent to Maim and Possibly Destroy.

"I come in peace," he says hastily, holding up a hand. "Hold off your Great Dane there, Dean. I'm gonna fix it. Sheesh, no one can take a joke anymore."

"A joke?" Dean growls, coming up the aisle with Castiel still in his arms. "You call this a joke?"

Gabriel shrugs again. "I didn't say it was a good one. Wow. Lighten up, Francis."

"I swear to--" Sam starts, looking like the mighty ox he is, and Gabriel snorts.

"God? Good luck with that." He stands up, brushing off his pants languidly. "Put the kid down, Dean. Unless you want a hundred and fifty pounds of ... whatever this guy is on a good day in your arms."

Castiel struggles like a little wild-eyed monkey, but Dean manages to deposit him in a pew, even if Castiel won't let go of his hand. And, okay, ashamed of himself, never doing it again, yadda yadda. Spoilsports. He snaps his fingers and says, "Later, taters," before he fades out.

He should really see if Odin is up for some fun. Messing with humanity some days is for the birds.

***

Dean frowns at the echo of cackling laughter, and stumbles backward when Cas bolts up out of the pew, full size again, and looking a little like the Incredible Hulk in torn preschool jeans and sweatshirt. His sneakers have sort of exploded.

"Dean." It's less word than croak, and he clears his throat as he stares down at himself. "I ... I ..."

"Yeah, I'd say that about sums it up, buddy." Dean shrugs off his jacket and drapes it over Cas's shoulders. "Let's take this back to Bobby's, though, huh?"

Sam flanks Cas's other side as they steer him out to the car, and so far his words still seem to be gone, which Dean is taking as a small mercy for the time being. When he catches up, they're going to get an earful.

***

Cas disappears upstairs without a word as soon as they're in the house, and Dean follows him up to show him the pile of his folded clothes. Sam hangs back, explaining what he knows to Bobby, but he keeps one ear cocked toward the stairs.

Nothing. Dean comes back a minute later, too, and spreads his hands helplessly. "He's not talking, dude. Not that I blame him."

Bobby, however, can't shut up. "The Trickster. Jesus Mary and Joseph, he is a goddamn pest. I'll give him a joke. Right in his frigging ..."

Sam tunes the rest out, wandering into the kitchen for a beer. He's exhausted without a lot of good reason to be aside from the adrenaline dump, and he slumps into a chair at the table. One of Cas's crayons rolls to the floor, a stubby red, and when Sam leans to pick it up he notices Cas's drawing, which slid to the floor, too, at some point.

It's a sky. Just a simple expanse, sweetly blue and studded with clouds, but it looks ... empty. Cold. There's no sun wedged into one corner, no birds, no earth. Just ... nothing.

Sam swallows hard and balls it up. He makes the trash can on the first shot.

***

Dean is not going to stand outside the bedroom door. He's not. Absolutely not. Because he's not Cas's dad, and Cas is not an orphaned four-year-old anymore, and if he needs space, well, Dean knows enough about that to write a book.

But it's hard not to hover near the bottom of the stairs, so he grabs a cold beer from the fridge and goes outside to lean on the porch rail. The air bites at his cheeks, colder now that the sun's down, and it feels good. Like a smack, a wake-up call. Which is good, really. Two weeks playing surrogate dad is long enough. He had that gig long-term, and it's not easy.

Not when every mistake you made, everything you failed to provide, every way you didn't measure up (keep him safe, keep him happy, keep him here) is staring at you over the breakfast table every morning.

Not when you love someone so much just the thought of losing him is like suffocating, a stone in your chest, heavier than anything you've ever carried.

He can't do that again. He won't. Cas is a friend. A friend and an ally, sometimes -- okay, a lot of the time -- a pain in his ass, sometimes something he's not ready to think about, not yet.

Fucking Trickster. Like any of them needed this with Lucifer lurking up around the bend, twirling his mustache and waiting for them all to fuck up somehow.

The soft beat of wings startles him, and he nearly loses his grip on the sweating bottle. "Cas."

Cas nods. In the dark, with the light from the living room casting him in deep blue shadows, he looks tired, and truly sad for the first time Dean can remember. "I'm sorry, Dean," Cas says.

"Sorry? What the hell for, Cas? You didn't ask the bastard to turn you into a rugrat."

"Of course not." Ah, there's the peevish angel he knows so well, Dean thinks, and bites back a low laugh. "But I ... I remember everything that happened. I'm sorry you had to ... go through that. And I thank you, for taking care of me. For ... for caring."

Dean hears the rest, all unspoken. And for once, he thinks he really understands. He feels the same way sometimes, knowing what Cas must have seen when he put Dean back together, when he saw what he had become in hell.

Fury flares up hot and sick inside him then. It's obscene, what heaven and hell and apparently every other being on the planet decides to put them through. They're not pawns, and this isn't a game, not to him, and not to Cas. Cas, who's suddenly a lot closer to a Winchester than ever before, living hand to mouth, on the road, looking for a dad who comes and goes on his own insane schedule.

He glances toward the window, where Sam is sitting on the edge of Bobby's desk, long legs sprawled in front of him, bangs shaggy and needing a trim. Sam looks up, right then, as if he can see Dean out here in the dark, and tilts his head just a little, questioning, wondering.

Just like Cas.

He scrubs at the back of his neck restlessly, shakes his head. Cas opens his mouth to speak, and Dean stops him, slinging an arm around his shoulders. "Come on, Cas. We've got work to do."
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