It actually seemed strange, now, to be back in the bunker. He'd become to used to being on the road, or, even more of late, being in Lebanon or at the academy. The bunker was still home, of course. So long as Sam and Dean occupied it, Castiel supposed it always would be home. It was just that, now, it was a slightly distant feeling of home compared to the feeling of home he had when he was at the academy. Perhaps it could be likened to a house a human grew up in; it was home and always would be, even if it wasn't where he really felt he lived anymore. Well, as much as he ever really lived anywhere in the way humans did.
As had become habit, he sat at one of the tables in the library, both Winchesters sprawled comfortably in their customary seats across from him. The three were nursing beers and merely enjoying each others' company in one of the rare quiet moments in their lives. If anyone had ever thought to ask him, Cas would have admitted readily to enjoying these get-togethers. Especially since he rarely came to the bunker anymore, outside of the visits just to...well, visit. Sometimes, he almost regretted the changes in their lives that had distanced him from the brothers, the humans he'd fallen for so many years ago. Almost, but not quite. There were too many good things he was able to do now, that he never could have if he'd remained nothing more than the boys' companion and hunting partner.
Sam's gentle voice pulled Cas from his musings, and he glanced up to him from the brown glass bottle he'd been staring at absently. “So... How're things at the academy?” He discovered hazel eyes looking at him with concern. A quick glance told him they were joined with green eyes that, while not showing the emotion quite as obviously to most, he could read concern lurking within as well.
Ah, it was going to be another of those talks, he thought to himself with a touch of amusement that never quite showed in his expression as he regarded both brothers. “Things are good, Sam. Donna is...happy,” he said fondly. “But then, I suspect Donna is rarely anything but happy.” Sam laughed openly at this, and even Dean smiled a bit in obvious agreement with Cas' statement. “Jody seems stressed, but I suspect she's content. She feels she's making a difference. And she is. They both are.”
Sam's warm smile, the one that was somehow puppyish while also being soothing – the same smile he turned too often on those who were grieving or distressed during cases – was now turned on Castiel. It was enough for him to guess at what the younger Winchester was going to say before he even spoke. “You are, too. You know that, right?” The angel nodded slowly, wondering what they'd heard or seen to make them break out the impromptu therapy session he suspected was coming. And make no mistake, Sam may have started it out, but Castiel knew that Dean was in on it as well. Even if another glance at the hunter hadn't made it plain to Cas, he just knew how they worked. He should, he'd learned much of being human from this pair long ago.
He let a small grin touch his lips, which, to his satisfaction, caused the brothers to glance at each other. “I know what I'm doing.” He stopped to sip at his beer, enjoying the feeling of drawing the moment out, teasing the pair who'd spent years teasing him in their own ways. “I get to see those who are aided not just for a short time as you do hunting, but on a regular basis. It is,” Cas hesitated, searching for a word to describe the emotion, “fulfilling.” The angel sighed, letting himself grow serious. “Sam. Dean,” he said, looking at each in turn, “I'm doing well. This whole,” he gestured vaguely, “thing is unnecessary.”
“Damn it, Sammy, I told you,” Dean said gruffly, ignoring his brother's classic bitchface. Castiel, however, wasn't fooled for a minute, and actually smirked at the man. Dean just glared back, though there was no real heat to the look. “Someone's learning attitude from the teenagers, I think.”
Cas dropped the smirk that, being honest, still felt awkward and alien, though he did enjoy the results it often produced when he used it on those who knew him and were unused to such things from him. “They do provide interesting opportunities to observe humans quite unlike the two of you, I must admit.”
Sam and Dean traded a look, each of them with a look of relief and satisfaction, almost like mirror images despite their differences. “Okay, we get it, Cas. As long as you're doing okay, man. That's all we want,” Sam said sincerely, speaking, as he often did in matters of the heart, for both brothers. Dean merely nodded his agreement, though the angel could see the faint signs of restlessness that signaled the older Winchester coming to his limit of what he derisively referred to as a 'chick-flick' moment.
He chuckled, a soft sound despite the roughness of his voice. “I'm doing well, Sam. Don't worry. I have a purpose, I'm making a difference in a way that...makes me feel a little like an angel again. But in a way that doesn't force me to give up the things I enjoy about humanity. The...best of both angel and human, I suppose.”
He fell silent then, wiping at the condensation on his bottle with a thumb absently as he thought about the small box in his pocket, and the time he'd spent in the solitude of the woods surrounding the academy as night fell before he'd responded to Dean's call to meet the brothers at the bunker. He felt a desire to discuss both things that were running through his mind, but he was hesitant to do so with the hunters. The medallion he'd made as a gift to Claire they might understand, but it seemed like such a private, intimate thing to him that he wasn't even certain of bringing it up to them. And seeing his own wings, healing and nearly whole again for the first time in years... Well, that was something that had never even really been spoken of with the brothers. They understood he had them, of course, but it had always seemed to be something that they never quite grasped the importance of, or, at least, the importance of them to the angel.
His reluctance to speak of these things despite the desire to share them with someone, well.. It made him begin to understand just how far their worlds were drifting apart, and a jolt of sorrow overwhelmed the angel momentarily. These two men would always be his human-brothers, but...his world here on Earth had widened and changed so much over the past year that things would never quite be the same again.
Castiel's eyes drifted back up to take in his human-brothers, only now realizing they'd remained silent during his contemplation. He found that they were watching him, even studying him, as though he were something other, something new and strange and different. Their expressions, in fact, brought to mind how each of them had looked at him the first time they'd seen him. Well, Dean's was missing that edge of fear, and Sam's was missing that almost worshipful awe. But, they were otherwise identical. He found that it both amused and disturbed him, given the thoughts he'd just been musing over.
Sam cleared his throat, the strange expression dropping from his face, and leaving only a gentle awkwardness. “You, uh, you looked...” He glanced to Dean, as though he could find whatever words he'd been searching for written on his brother's face. Then again, Cas mused, he just might, given their ability to have entire conversations without a word spoken, at times.
“You looked like an angel there for a few minutes, Cas,” Dean finished for Sam after whatever communication between them was done. Still, it was said with a slight smile, softening the strangeness of the statement.
Cas answered Dean's smile with one of his own easily, chuckling. “I am an angel. Had you somehow forgotten?”
Dean merely shrugged, though something in his eyes told Castiel that, perhaps, in a way the hunter had forgotten. Or, rather, that he'd forgotten some of what that truly meant. Sam, however, struggled to put into words what both men had seemed to realize at the same time. “No, no, of course not. It was just that you... I dunno, you haven't looked like that in a long time.” Sam ran a hand through his long hair, then sighed and took a long pull from his beer.
“I saw your wings,” Dean said suddenly into the brief silence. The angel's eyes darted to him, and he stared, meeting Dean's steady gaze. The elder hunter shrugged. “It's what came to mind, anyway. Those huge black shadows back in that barn. Something about the look on your face while you were sitting there...thinking, I guess. It just...came to mind,” he finished uncomfortably.
Castiel considered them both, then relaxed – only just then realizing how much he'd tensed up, and when did he do that in the comfortable, homey feeling bunker when it was only the three of them? – with a sigh. “I was thinking of my wings. I suppose it could have shown, somehow...to those who know me well enough.”
Sam shifted in his seat, leaning forward. Cas smiled again, fondly, knowing the younger man's interested look meant questions would be coming. When Sam latched onto something, there was no peace until he satisfied his curiosity, a trait that sometimes exasperated the angel, but that he'd come to treasure about this particular human-brother of is. “What were they like, Cas?”
A simple enough question, though the past tense of it dropped the smile right from his lips. He regarded both men, noting that Dean's posture was a match for Sam's now, as he was leaned forward now as well. Dean's expression might have remained more casual, but Cas could tell he was just as interested in any answer the angel might give as Sam was.
Castiel pushed his chair away from the table and rose to stand over them. “I still have them, you know,” he said softly, even though he understood then that they must not have known. The matching looks of surprise made that quite clear. “They were damaged in the Fall, even though I no longer had my grace, but they were never really gone.” He squinted at them, a look of consideration as he decided what more to tell them, if anything.
Turning away from the table, he found himself engaging in the very human habit of pacing, but his thoughts were too consumed by putting what he wanted to say into terms his human-brothers might have a chance of understanding to feel more than a passing amusement at it. “I thought they were damaged irreparably, between my loss of grace and Metatron's spell. But after...” He hesitated, then decided to change what he'd been about to say. He still didn't, even now, want to talk about the terrible year following Rowena's curse that had tipped him over an emotional edge that he'd once feared he'd never return from. “Recently, the past year or so, I could feel them healing.”
He saw the look that passed between the brothers as he spoke, surprise from Dean, and a tempered excitement from Sam. He came to a stop, standing across the table from them, waiting patiently now for the questions he knew Sam was nearly bursting with. Yet, none came immediately. His head tilted to the side as he watched the pair, trying to puzzle out what they were thinking. Finally, it came to him that they were waiting for him; be it to continue on his own, or to give some form of permission for them to ask, they were, the both of them, waiting on him. Perhaps they were gaining a sense of just how deeply intimate it was for an angel to discuss his wings in such a manner, especially with humans. Then again, this pair weren't just any humans; these were his human-brothers, his family in ways all of the Host of Heaven never had been, and Castiel trusted them.
Coming to a decision, Cas turned and strode away from the brothers without a word. Though he couldn't see them behind him, he could easily picture Sam's eyebrows rising with surprise and concern, likely worried that they'd committed some faux pas when it came to angel wings and etiquette. Dean, he imagined, would probably have taken a swig from his beer to hide a similar reaction. These thoughts stirred a faint, amused smile from him. Yes, no matter that their lives had drifted apart somewhat, he still knew these two humans, probably better than anyone alive did.
The angel turned down one of the aisles that the many shelves of books made up throughout the bunker's library, looking for a book he'd seen here back when they'd had to re-sort and replace all the books the Styne family had piled up in preparation to burn or steal. When he'd stumbled on the book helping Sam with the daunting task, he'd quietly tucked it away without ever saying a word. At the time, he simply hadn't wanted to field any questions it might raise with the younger Winchester, and he'd been quite certain it would have done exactly that. Sam's curiosity was endless.
Castiel came to the shelf where he'd...well, not exactly hidden the book, but just put it aside for safe-keeping. It took him only a moment to spot the binding, black leather nothing on the spine but a single feather in gold. He pulled the book from the shelf, noting absently now that the sound of two chairs sliding along the floor had sounded out in unison. They'd already lost patience and were coming to look for him. The smile dropped from his lips, though he'd had to force it away. He found it amused him to let them think just a bit longer that they may have done something inappropriate, as a joke. Heaven knew – possibly literally – how many times they, especially Dean, had done the same to him.
The footsteps from two pair of boots sounded out in the otherwise silent library, and Castiel turned to face them as they approached, the book clutched against his chest. Sam looked on the verge of apologizing without even knowing that he had something to apologize for. Dean merely looked confused, though he was actually the first to speak. “Cas? Man, you okay?”
Instead of answering the question, the angel held the book out to them. Though the spine had been devoid of any title for the book, the rich black leather of the cover bore the title and author in gold in an elegant typeface - <i>The Physiology of Angels (With Notes on Behavior and Additional Observations) by Knut Schmidt-Nielsen</i>. As Sam reached out for the book hesitantly, Cas let the faint smile return. “I'm fine, Dean,” he reassured the hunter, “I simply felt this might answer your questions in terms you might understand better than what I might tell you. If you have questions beyond the contents, I would be...honored to answer them to the best of my abilities.”
Sam was already leafing through the book, his eye growing wide as he took in the vast wealth of knowledge it contained on angels covering subjects he'd never in his wildest dreams imagined that someone could have ever been able to put on paper, let alone with the details this particular book seemed to contain. However, it was the end of the book that seemed to draw Sam's attention more than any other part, even the lovely and detailed colour illustrated plates carefully positioned in the middle of the book, with each protected by a thin piece of paper.
“Dean,” he said, then looked up when he got no response. He found Dean just staring at Castiel, and Cas staring solemnly back. So, typical day, then, Sam thought. “Dean, get a look at this,” Sam tried again, nudging his brother with his elbow. Dean blinked, then sighed and tilted his head to look down at the section at the end of the book that Sam's finger was pointing to. Out of the corner of his eye, Dean could see the look of awe on his brother's face, and decided he should actually pay attention to what Sam was trying to show him. There, on the page, was a short passage that, as he read it, made his eyes go wide.
First and foremost, our especial gratitude to the seraph Castiel, who, almost alone of all seraphs contacted, appeared well-disposed toward humans and willing to converse with us, and perhaps was almost as curious about humans as we were about seraphs. In several illuminating conversations, this seraph Castiel explained many aspects of seraph physiology and behavior that otherwise would have remained utterly opaque. Further, it is Castiel's wings and feathers that are illustrated in Plates 4-9. We are deeply grateful that he was willing to let us see the wings of a real angel, and though he was clearly bemused and perhaps baffled by the request, he agreed, too, to let us illustrate them. We thank him humbly for his patience.</i>
Castiel watched them silently, amused. He suspected he knew exactly what they were reading, and found that the faintest blush was warming his cheek. Slowly, both men's eyes turn up to look at the angel. It was Dean who found his voice first, the words filled with a wonderment that sounded somehow out of place in his gruff voice. “Castiel. Cas. You...didn't just find this book, you helped write this book? I mean, basically?”
Cas' deep chuckle rumbled in the silence that followed Dean's question. “The human, Knut, wrote the book, Dean. But, yes, I provided much of the information he compiled within it.” The angel looked between the two brothers, then nodded as though deciding something. “Read the book. Both of you,” he added, staring briefly at Dean. “If you have questions when you're done, I'll answer them. You've researched every other being you've come in contact with, know all their strengths and weaknesses, most of their habits.” He paused to give each of them a long, searching look. “Yet you've lived with an angel off-and-on for years, called that angel family, and you still know less about us than most of the creatures you've merely hunted. Never have you even asked beyond what to do to stop my brethren, for the most part.”
The brothers traded a long look, both of them having the grace to look faintly embarrassed. When they turned their attention back to him, he softened his admittedly harsh words with a smile. “It's alright. For a long time, I wouldn't have answered your questions, had you asked. Knut was...a rare individual, and I gave him my trust. Now, you two have a much deeper trust from me, and bonds of family that I wouldn't give up. Read the book, Sam. See that Dean reads it, if he wants to know. I think...we will have much to discuss afterward.”
And then, he did what he'd been hesitant to do for weeks, though he'd felt he was ready...that his wings were ready. He unfurled his wings within the aetheric plane and, with a soft, delighted laugh, vanished from the brothers' sight as he flew back to the tiny clearing in the woods near the academy that he'd begun, on some level, to think of as <i>his</i> place within the woods.