Castiel was anything but an expert on the subtleties of emotion and the things that went unsaid between individuals, but even he could tell that something had changed between his brother and Sam. Where previously they had sniped and insulted and bickered until well after Castiel longed to shut them up by any means possible, now there was nothing but frosty silence in the car as Sam drove them far away from the town with the hunt in it. He'd wasted no time at all in getting them moving that morning, hurling bags into the car at the crack of dawn and rousing them awake with short tempered barks. Castiel knew he felt guilty for ignoring the presence of a ghost, but that he was at least equally eager to remove Gabriel from the temptation of danger. What surprised him – perhaps unfairly so – was that it had apparently been the latter instinct to win out.
In truth, Castiel wasn't certain how he felt about this turn of events. He did agree with his brother that Sam was behaving over-protectively, even to the point of being patronising, and such an attitude would hardly prove helpful to any of them in the long run. But it was also... nice, to see someone else concerned for Gabriel's welfare, since it was a phenomenon that occurred all too rarely. Gabriel, while he had undoubtedly loved their older brothers fiercely, and even a number of the younger angels like Castiel, had still forever seemed... alone. Different. He'd always been truly righteous in a way that even Michael couldn't manage; possessed a rebellious streak not unlike Lucifer's, though without the malice; and everything Castiel had said about his affinity with humanity wasn't entirely untrue just because it had been said in anger. In all honesty, his flight from Heaven hadn't really come as the shock and scandal it probably should have been. He was isolate in their family, made more so by an independence not common in angels. It must kill him, Castiel supposed with sudden understanding, to suddenly be so dependent on someone else. Perhaps that, then, was the cause of the brittle atmosphere currently permeating the car.
He glanced over his shoulder, spent a moment contemplating Gabriel where he was sprawled across the backseat, jabbing spitefully at the keys of the laptop as he played Spider Solitaire. Castiel frowned a little, then turned his attention to Sam, whose grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled and who kept viciously stamping the acceleration at the smallest provocation.
Castiel didn't have as deep an understanding of Sam, so it was harder to determine the exact nature of his anger – especially since humans in general continued to remain a mystery to him. He had to wonder why Sam's reaction to the thought of hunting with them had been so strongly negative, though. True, they were more vulnerable as humans than they'd ever been as angels – but surely Sam had spent most of his life hunting alongside other humans? He'd been raised as a soldier who'd simply had to accept the occasional casualty of war – they all had – so why such a visceral objection now?
Had Dean been with them, Castiel would have asked him to explain the inconsistency. And Dean, in all likelihood, would say something like, It's Samantha's time of the month, or perhaps, Sam's just being a bitch. Ignore him. Castiel would in turn allow his mouth to twitch with the slightest trace of reluctant amusement, and Dean would grin back at him; blinding, conspiratorial.
Sam suddenly jerked the car to the right in a fit of silent temper, and the image of Dean was jostled from his head.
Castiel read a lot, these days. He'd started out reading things from the internet, since it was the most readily available material, and had already found – and been bemused by – the incestuous stories surrounding the Winchester brothers. But apart from making him feel vaguely uncomfortable, they'd also depressed him a little, those fictional versions of Sam and Dean that could never do justice to the reality, so he'd quickly abandoned the literature of the internet in favour of paperback books from libraries and charity shops. Sam helped him pick out what he said were considered 'classics', and Castiel had already read through Hamlet, two Lord of the Rings books, and Wuthering Heights (which was thus far his favourite, because while it was certainly bleak and brutal storytelling, it was the only book he'd come across that so strongly advocated love transcending death). When Gabriel discovered his hobby he'd demanded only that he read something called The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and said nothing more on the subject. Castiel had promised solemnly that he would.
He was, as it happened, just returning from the local book store, having asked Sam to drive him. His brother had still been sulking all morning, so they'd left him to his own devices in the motel room while they were out. But now as they returned to the room, tossing down keys and coats and carrier bags, Castiel glanced curiously between the two empty beds, the blank TV screen, the open bathroom door and the abandoned laptop, frowning. Sam, next to him, perhaps having grown used to the awkward silences that had cropped up between himself and Gabriel of late, had not yet noticed anything amiss as he busied himself emptying the grocery bag he'd just brought in from the car.
Castiel cleared his throat hesitantly. "Sam? I don't wish to alarm you, but is it possible that this town also contains a hunt you were unaware of?"
The human looked up at him, slanted eyes squinting slightly in confusion. "I don't think so. I scoured all the papers the first day we got here. This place is clean, man. Why?"
"...Gabriel appears to be gone."
It took Sam less than ten minutes to thoroughly destroy their motel room in his effort to determine Gabriel was not, in fact, playing an elaborate and poorly conceived game of hide and go seek. Castiel stood by and watched, at first trying to inject a voice of reason every now and then, but soon concluding that it was perhaps better to let Sam take out his frustrations tearing apart decor than tearing apart an ex-archangel when they eventually found him.
By the time Sam stalked from the bathroom (having finished trashing the main living area several minutes ago), Castiel was perched waiting for him on the wooden chair by the door, absently clutching his new copy of Dorian Gray as though fearful of losing it to the other's whirlwind search.
Sam stood for a moment in the middle of the room, looking somewhat at a loss. His hair was in disarray, appearing even more ridiculous than usual, and if Castiel wasn't entirely mistaken, a small muscle had begun to twitch periodically in his jaw.
"I am a recovering addict," Sam hissed furiously under his breath, rolling his shoulders in a familiar mannerism that made Castiel wince slightly. "Who does this to a recovering addict?"
Ignoring the question, which he assumed was rhetorical, Castiel rose to his feet. "I took the time to study the newspaper while you were... busy. I couldn't find any reference to anything suspicious or supernatural in the area, so perhaps the situation is not as bad as it appears."
"Not bad? I've lost your brother, Cas!"
"You are not his babysitter." The reply emerged more snappish than he'd intended, and he took a calming breath before continuing. "Gabriel is an adult. Relatively. And while his actions are often... petulant, he has always been quite self-sufficient. In all likelihood he has simply walked into town to entertain himself and will return when he grows bored. It really shouldn't take all that long–"
"Oh, so – what? You think we should just sit around here and wait?"
"Yeah, not happening, Cas. Even if he's not stupid enough – please God – to go hunting on his own, anything could happen. He could... I don't even know, get hit by a fucking car or something!" He flinched involuntarily as he experienced a vivid and unnerving flash of memory: Dean being hurled through the air back at Mystery Spot, the squeal of tires, his brother's bodily fluids staining the road.
In all honesty, there'd probably be some kind of karmic justice in Gabriel meeting his end the same way, though it didn't stop Sam from violently recoiling at the mere thought.
Shaking the image from his head, he was met instead by Castiel's unimpressed blue stare. "I think you're being irrational," the angel informed him flatly.
Annoyed, Sam grabbed for his keys and jacket. "Think what you like. I'm going to go look for him."
"Don't, Cas. Just don't." He checked his pockets. "Look, stay here, okay? If he comes back before I do, call me."
Castiel sighed in defeat as the youngest Winchester stormed out of the room without another word. A moment or two later he heard their car screech from its place in the parking lot outside and rumble away back towards town.
Alone, he gazed around at his ruined surroundings, resenting, for a second, his brother's thoughtlessness and Sam's reckless, overbearing protection.
Dean would say, Family, right? What're you gonna do?
Repeating this advice to himself, he carefully resumed his seat in the rickety wooden chair and opened his book.
As it turned out, Sam apparently knew next to nothing about where Gabriel would choose to go for fun. Hardly surprising, he thought bitterly to himself as he left yet another bar with no sign of the archangel. Not like he knew a whole lot about Gabriel in any respects, really. He wondered if anyone did.
It had been hours since they'd found the motel room empty, and Sam was seriously starting to freak the hell out. He'd checked every bar, diner, cafe and goddamn sweet shop he'd driven past, to no avail. Even doubled back and checked a few of them twice. He'd resorted to stalking frantically through supermarket aisles, library stacks, rows of arcade games for Christ's sake (he'd seriously thought he'd been onto something with that last one). As the day drew on and he grew ever more anxious, having called Cas twice just to double-check Gabriel hadn't already returned to the motel of his own volition and twice receiving the same negative answer, he'd even driven to the bus terminal a few miles further along the highway, incredulously wondering if the archangel was indeed street-smart enough to hitch himself a ride out of here. He didn't see Gabriel there, however, and at last could think of nothing else to do but admit defeat.
He sat in the car at the edge of the road as it began to get dark, feeling weirdly stunned. His brief stint of responsibility had gone up in flames even sooner than he would have anticipated. How the hell had Dean survived this shit?
Once, when Sam was twelve, after an argument with Dad, he'd packed a bag with one change of clothes, a book to read, a bag of M&Ms and a knife, and then he'd slipped out of whatever motel they'd been staying in and started walking. He'd gotten a decent head start, too. Dad hadn't noticed his absence until Dean got home, at least two or three hours later, and only then had the two pretty much exploded into frantic action looking for him.
Sam winced now at the memory, wondering if this was what they'd felt like; wondering if, like him, they'd suddenly been unable to stop thinking of every monster they'd ever heard of looming out of the darkness while they weren't there to fight it off.
Alright, fine, so Gabriel wasn't a twelve year old runaway – the point was still valid.
It had been Dean who'd found him. Naturally. Sam had been slouching his way along a road not unlike this one, hungry and tired and with no real destination in mind, when the Impala had skidded to a halt beside him and his brother had dragged him inside by the hair. He hadn't spoken a word to Sam the entire drive back, hadn't even said anything after Dad had yelled himself hoarse and grounded Sam into the distant future. Dean hadn't forgiven him for days, in fact, which at the time had felt like an unprecedented eternity.
Man, he hoped Ben didn't like pulling the same kind of stupid stunts that Sam had while growing up. Dean deserved the chance to raise at least one normal kid.
Quite suddenly, his brother's absence was a visceral loss, a keen slice through his gut.
Smacking a hand against the steering wheel, he shook the moment off angrily. God, he really was a whiney little bitch sometimes. There were far more immediate matters to deal with.
Okay. So. Gabriel was gone. It had probably only been a matter of time, all things considered. He couldn't exactly have forced an archangel into staying with him for much longer if Gabriel had really wanted to leave. And hey, maybe his powers had finally regenerated themselves, and things were back to normal. That was... That was good. Great, even. Couldn't exactly begrudge him testing out his wings after so long grounded, right? And yeah, a fucking goodbye note wouldn't have gone amiss, but Gabriel probably had higher priorities if he was back to full angel power. Responsibilities he should be getting back to. Other people he'd abandoned at one point or another. Jackass.
Sam snorted with vague self-disgust and started the engine. Christ but he was pathetic. If he wasn't busy obsessing over Gabriel – who was perfectly free to leave whenever he damn well liked, actually, especially after Sam had all but told him to the last time they'd spoken – then he was moping in a truly spectacular fashion over his brother's well-deserved happiness. It was stupid, and selfish, and childish, and hadn't he wasted enough of his life on those kind of vices? He was going to stop. Right now. He was going to go back to the motel with Cas (who'd probably get his angel powers back soon, too, and be gone in the next few days) and he wasn't going to spare another thought for what Dean was doing or where Gabriel was. Not one.
His promise lasted the fifteen minutes it took to drive halfway back to the motel.
He'd passed through town and back out again, and the road was mostly empty between here and his destination. There was, however, one gaudy little building to one side of the road. He'd passed by it earlier thinking it closed, but now a flickering neon sign was lit up over the doorway. He slowed the car to a crawl as he approached, dawning suspicion turning his expression thunderous.
It was a bar, of sorts; rougher looking than the usual type he'd frequented with the angels. It sort of reminded him of the Roadhouse, only... nastier. Sam, when he ducked inside, was for once utterly grateful for his own considerable height and stature, because the entire place looked to be full of thugs and bikers who watched him balefully as he edged his way towards the bar. This was a stupid idea. If Gabriel ever had set foot in here, they'd have kicked his pintsized ass out two minutes later. Still, he supposed, no harm in asking. Hopefully.
The bartender was a dark haired woman with scarlet lipstick and cleavage that left little to the imagination. She gave him an amused once-over when he waved awkwardly, trying to get her attention.
"What's up, handsome?"
"Uhm, hey. I'm, uh, looking for a guy..."
One pencilled eyebrow quirked upwards. "Wrong kinda place, honey."
"No! No, not..." He sighed at her exasperatedly when he realised she was laughing at him, then held a hand to about mid-chest level on himself. "He's about this tall, long hair, loud and really annoying?"
To his astonishment, recognition immediately lit up her face. "You mean the little guy, Gabe, right?"
He gaped at her. "...You've seen him?"
She pointed over his shoulder. "Right over there. He's a real hit."
Sam was no longer listening. He spun on his heel, scouring the crowd, and sure enough there was Gabriel at one of the back tables. Relief swept through him – and promptly came to a screeching halt when he looked a little closer. There was Gabriel, alright, at a table surrounded by men who made Sam look slight in comparison, and the archangel positively breakable. Playing poker.
"You've gotta be kidding me..."
He could hear Gabriel telling the tail end of a joke as he drew nearer, one that made his fellow players erupt into gruff, raucous laughter. Sam rolled his eyes. He didn't have the patience for introductions or niceties as he came to a stop behind the archangel's chair, instead leaning down so he could start straight in by hissing directly into Gabriel's ear, "What the hell are you doing?"
Startled, Gabriel spun around and stared up at him for long seconds, before exclaiming, "Sammy!" He had the nerve to sound genuinely delighted. "What are you doing here?"
"Looking for you," Sam growled quietly, barely resisting the urge to physically haul the other up out of his seat and out to the car like an errant child. "I've been looking for you all day."
"Oh?" It was a distracted mutter of acknowledgement as Gabriel busied himself studying the hand he'd just been dealt. "Why, what's up?"
"Seriously? Seriously!" Sam gave into temptation and grasped the shoulder of his jacket, dragging him around to meet his glare. "You can't just disappear–!"
"Hey, hey!" Gabriel batted at him ineffectively, while around the table the other card players leered and chuckled. "Hands off the merchandise!"
Sam wanted to hit him. Throttle him. If he hadn't just spent hours enduring his own increasingly wild speculations of Gabriel already being dead – again – he'd have wanted to murder him. As it was, he considered it a remarkable feat of self-control that he spat only, "Come on. We're going."
The archangel twitched an amused eyebrow in a manner strongly reminiscent of the bartender, before turning dismissively away from Sam and back to his game. "'Fraid not, kiddo. Kind of in the middle of something here."
"It wasn't a question–"
"Anyway. How about you quit bitching and show a little gratitude?" Gabriel glanced back at him and grinned wickedly. "I'm earning us a living."
"You're..." At last, Sam's eyes fell upon the stack of cash, coins and one expensive wristwatch near Gabriel's elbow. "You're winning?"
And alright, maybe that was a stupid question. This was, after all, the Trickster. He won every game he ever decided to try his hand at, one way or another.
Gabriel just winked. "Course I am."
Oh, this was so not good.
"Seriously. Just... take what you've got and let's go." He was trying for calm and diplomatic, but wasn't entirely certain he succeeded.
The archangel waved him off anyway. "And deprive these gentlemen of the chance to make up their losses? Sam. Really. I'm shocked." The men around the table made approving noises, clinking glasses together and shuffling cards. Sam pinched the bridge of his nose tiredly.
"Oh, look at that!" Gabriel suddenly crowed, slapping his cards down with a flourish. "Aces full."
There was a collective groan of annoyance as Gabriel reached happily for his stack of winnings, leaning forward over the table. To Sam, the next moment seemed to transpire in slow-motion. The archangel's jacket opened slightly with the movement, and out onto the table tumbled two or three playing cards. Gabriel froze, his hands still outstretched towards the money, as every gaze in the vicinity snapped straight towards them and darkened ominously.
"...Huh," Gabriel stage-whispered nervously in Sam's direction. "Cheating was a whole lot easier when I could actually make the cards disappear, yanno?"
Sam didn't get the chance to reply. The guy closest to Gabriel abruptly rose to his feet with a snarl of anger, massive hands clamping down on the archangel's shoulders and yanking him out of his chair. Gabriel yelped, struggling ineffectively and looking every inch the helpless, stupidly fragile human he was. Sam, later, wouldn't remember making his next decision. He simply reacted to the sight, an entire day of imaging Gabriel in danger determining his actions before he'd ever had a hope of imposing reason on them.
His fist shot out with unerring accuracy, connecting with the guy's nose. There was a sickening crunch, a bellow of outrage, and Gabriel was dropped and momentarily forgotten.
Sam shook his hand out and braced himself as everyone else at the table surged furiously to their feet and the rest of the bar let out a deafening roar of encouragement at the prospect of a fight. He had a split second to register Gabriel's golden eyes, wide and astonished, and then he had to duck as the first swing came at him.
As established, Castiel was not particularly well versed with emotion – especially feeling it himself. He had, in the past, known... shades of emotion, he supposed. Usually, they'd been elicited most strongly when dealing with the human (or human-like) individuals with whom he'd surrounded himself at the time; Sam, Dean, Anna and Gabriel had all, at one point or another, succeeded in making him feel something, making him act as he would not normally.
But that was while he himself had been an angel. While he would not dismiss his first encounters with emotion, they had been far different experiences to what things were like right now.
For humans, he'd come to discover in the past few hours, there was something almost physical about emotions; a biological phenomena. Castiel had been blissfully unaware that he was missing out on the jackrabbit heartbeat of panic, the tension headache of stress, the restlessness that gradually overtook him as the whole day passed and still he was alone. He had just called Sam's cell phone three times in rapid succession with no answer, and now 'panic' was beginning to ease its way insistently into 'fear'.
There was, at that moment, another number typed out on the small screen of his own phone; a number known by heart and one he had promised Sam and himself he would never use again. He hadn't dialled yet, but he braced himself to do just that.
Dean would know what to do if their brothers really were in trouble.
The phone abruptly lit up in his hand, vibrating loudly and managing to startle him badly enough that he almost dropped it. An unfamiliar number was displayed across the screen. Warily, Castiel accepted it and raised the phone to his ear, listening.
"Cas? Cas. You there?"
"Hey! Good. Okay, listen. I found Gabriel."
Castiel took a moment to process the sudden sting of sharp relief. "That's... I'm glad. Will you both be back soon?" He remembered, unbidden, the unknown number that had flashed up on the screen. "Where are you calling from?"
"Sam, is Gabriel–?"
"We've been arrested, okay?"