Even as little as a week ago, if asked to put money on the matter, Gabriel would have bet that Dean would be the more entertaining Winchester to hang out with. Sure, he might be an insolent, boneheaded, smart-mouthed jackass for the most part, but he was a jackass after Gabriel's own heart. The kind of guy he could get a drink and ogle women with, both of them comfortable in the knowledge they were simultaneously plotting to screw the other over. (There was a small chance he and Dean were far too alike to ever truly get along.)
Sam, in comparison, was easy to think uptight. He was methodical where his brother was rash and reckless, angry where Dean would be quick to deflect with humour. In all the time he'd known him, Gabriel had counted at least twenty subtle variations on the bitchface (no exaggeration) and more ways than he'd ever thought possible to inject pure exasperation into one-word utterances. He was controlling, self-righteous, and Gabriel hadn't been being entirely theatrical when he'd said Sam was like Luci. Okay, fair enough, he wouldn't go quite so far as to say Sam was in danger of going down the same dark path his Fallen brother had (at least not anymore), but yeah. There was the odd similarity. It might even go a ways to explaining how Sam had always been so effortlessly able to put Gabriel's back up. Being brought back to life, for example, while great and all, had been slightly dampened by the realisation that he'd also been made powerless and placed into the care of the one human who'd always in equal parts fascinated and infuriated him.
It was only very recently in the scheme of things he'd fully come to understand the appeal of Sam Winchester.
Kid had an understated sense of humour that tickled Gabriel, once he'd learned to appreciate it. He was sarcastic and scathing and very occasionally immature. Furthermore, to Gabriel's delighted surprise, he wasn't at all above prank wars.
This discovery was made when Gabriel, in all genuine innocence, had accidentally spilt soda across the bed Sam was supposed to be sleeping in. Like some involuntary defensive reflex, Sam had promptly put salt in his cereal. After that, Gabriel really hadn't seen any other choice but to respond by systematically microwaving the crap out of Sam's stupid stash of health food and leaving it to smoulder. Sam, in turn, had spitefully cancelled his subscription to Casa Erotica, which was completely below the belt in all the wrong ways.
Castiel finally put a stop to the swiftly escalating war when he intercepted Gabriel trying to purchase laxatives online. Ever the voice of reason, he demanded to know how and why they'd regressed to such a hostile relationship.
Overhearing, Sam laughed like he couldn't help himself. "It's not... really hostility, Cas. Just pranks, yanno?"
"Signs of affection, you might say," Gabriel added, with an eyebrow wiggle that confused Castiel and made Sam glare.
His brother processed this for a second or two before asking, "You mean like the time Dean placed the... 'whoopee cushion' on my chair?" And oh, Gabriel would have paid good money to have played witness to that, or at least have the anecdote done justice.
But Sam only smiled and said, "Yeah, exactly. Just like that."
Castiel looked quietly pleased, like he'd at last found the answer to something that had been puzzling him for a while.
The small moment of nostalgia was broken when Gabriel leaned over and hissed to Sam, "Wow, your brother really needs to work on his courting techniques."
Sam just looked at him, but Gabriel didn't pick up on the irony.
There were other thing about Sam that he was starting to like, too, for all that even he could tell this was a bad idea.
Sam would bitch and bitch about Gabriel's unhealthy eating habits, and yet would invariably bring him something sweet for breakfast, toss him bags of M&Ms whenever he left a gas station, and do nothing more than frown in mild reprimand whenever Gabriel left all the vegetables on his plate untouched. Shocker: Sam was an enabler.
He was also a closeted bad-TV enthusiast, which Gabriel heartily approved of. Dean might have his little vice of Doctor Sexy MD, but Sam knew all the characters from Gilmore Girls, had watched Stonehenge Apocalypse at least three times, and could sit through a marathon of any procedural cop show you cared to name. Not that he'd admit to any of this, of course. Gabriel had only discovered it through a process of careful experimentation, goading, and gambling for TV privileges.
Now, as a general rule, Gabriel harboured an inordinate fondness for the human female form – but that wasn't to say he was blind to what was in front of him, and it wasn't like he was particularly hung up on the concept of gender (most angels weren't, technically genderless themselves). And any way you sliced it, Sam was pretty damn easy on the eyes even regardless of his unfortunate lack of boobs. He had 'tall, dark and brooding' off to a fine art, and Gabriel was even quite partial to the ludicrous height difference between them. Sam was powerful by human standards, and it was strangely thrilling to feel small and dominated in the presence of that power (he'd discovered as much during their sparring match when Sam had pinned him without having to try, leading to a somewhat inappropriate physical reaction on Gabriel's part that was sadly no longer under his conscious control).
Point was, he'd noticed. Crushing on Sam hadn't exactly been on his To Do list at any point, but it seemed it was a little too late to do anything about it now.
It was, unfortunately, entirely possible that Gabriel had grown a little too distracted in noticing Sam. It was even possible that Sam, as well, had grown distracted in his determined effort not to acknowledge Gabriel noticing him. So it took a while – far longer than it should have – for either of them to become aware of the change in Castiel's demeanour.
Only gradually did it dawn on them that he'd once again grown quiet, backsliding into the same despondent silence he'd first exhibited immediately after their resurrection. He read less, and resumed being distant and standoffish, withdrawing more often to the privacy of the car and taking so much longer in the shower that for the first time Sam started considering getting them more than one room. Neither he nor Gabriel, however, really took the time they probably should have to consider the implications of such behaviour.
In fact, it took the discovery that his entire supply of painkillers was missing for Sam to realise exactly how bad things had gotten while he'd been looking the other way.
He was busy, at the time, trying to ignore Gabriel's pestering.
"Sam. Saaaam. Hey Sammy. I'm bored. We should do something tomorrow. There's gotta be some tourist traps around here somewhere. Oh, hey, let's go see the future birthplace of James T. Kirk..."
It was late evening and Sam was tired, more concerned with finding some loose change in his bag so he could go get a coke than listening to whatever the archangel was talking about this time. He unzipped the side pocket where he kept smaller possessions that were valuable or useful to have on hand, mentally cataloguing his wallet, the car keys, the room key, his phone, the roll of quarters he'd been looking for, and a handful of pens. The little bottle of pain pills that he'd stashed there only the day before, however, was conspicuously absent.
"...and you saw that last movie, right? Chris Pine was–"
Gabriel jumped in surprise as Sam surged to his feet. "What? What's wrong?"
"They're gone. Fuck, fuck, where's Cas?"
"He's where he always is: out in the car. And what exactly is gone?"
Sam was already darting out of the room, snapping behind him, "The pills are gone, Gabriel, and let's just say your brother has a history."
"Who, Castiel?" Disbelieving and incredulous (and not the least bit alarmed, not at all) he followed the human out of the motel, jogging after him when Sam broke into a run across the parking lot. A distance away, he could see the car lit up from the inside, Castiel in the front seat with his head bowed, and Gabriel's newly human heart stuttered uncomfortably against his ribs.
Sam reached the car and immediately threw the door open, braced for anything – only to find Castiel apparently waiting for him, the bottle of painkillers held out expectantly between two steady fingers. "I didn't take any," the angel said quietly, without looking up.
Sam snatched them, checking them over and finding the bottle was indeed still full. He sagged in relief, smacking a hand hard against the roof of the car as all his adrenaline abruptly lost its focus. "Jesus Christ, Cas, what the hell?"
Gabriel caught up, bemused and faintly panicked. "Okay, someone wanna explain the deal with the intervention?"
"He has a substance abuse problem, to put it mildly," Sam shot back caustically. "Not a massive issue back when he was an angel, sure – but you're human right now, Cas! You could have fucking overdosed on this shit!"
"I realised that," Castiel answered calmly, finally raising his gaze to meet theirs. "That's why I refrained from consuming any, as I said. I wasn't intentionally trying to harm myself, if that's your concern."
Sam hadn't been thinking that. Not really. Not consciously. What he had been thinking was that Castiel had always been oddly prone to addiction and excess (the alcohol, the pills, even the goddamn burgers) and Sam knew first-hand how hard those types of things were to quit once started. He couldn't handle it – wouldn't have the first clue how to handle it – if Cas messed himself up like that while Sam was supposed to be looking out for him.
"Jeez, bro, way to scare the crap out of us..." Gabriel sounded more pissed off than anything, absently rubbing the heel of his hand against his chest.
Castiel did look contrite at that, fingers twisting in the cuffs of his jacket sleeves. "I apologise. I didn't–"
"What were you going to do? Why did you even need–?" Sam furiously cut himself off. He knew better than to expect any kind of rational answer to a question like that, remembering all too well exactly how he'd felt back then in the wake of Dean's death: the tempting, temporary relief Ruby's blood had offered him, his own grief and desperation so crushing he hadn't cared how obscene a habit it was, so long as it took the edge off.
He just hadn't realised Castiel was in a place like that; miserably wondered how he could have missed it.
Castiel got out of the car, slipping past Sam without meeting his eyes. "It won't happen again," was all he said by way of reassurance, and then he was walking away, back towards the motel.
Sam was left standing there at a loss, unsure what to do with all the angry exhilaration still pumping through him. He half wanted to go after Cas and physically shake some sense into him, at the same time knowing it wouldn't help in the least. This must be what it was like to have teenagers, he imagined with vague hysteria. Only these were teenagers who really did know infinitely more about the universe than he ever would – none of it practical.
Eventually, he sank down onto the seat Castiel had vacated, feet planted in the gravel outside the car, elbows resting heavily on his knees. "...Shit."
Gabriel hovered nearby uncertainly, hands hidden in his pockets. "You okay, kiddo?"
Sam made a cynical noise in his throat. "Not me you should be asking." He hung his head and ran fingers through his hair, pulling. "I thought he was doing okay. I mean, god knows things aren't ideal, but..."
"You're overreacting," Gabriel tried half-heartedly. "You heard him, he wasn't purposely trying–"
"But he will," Sam interrupted with quiet certainty. "He'll end up doing something stupid, even if he doesn't mean to. Trust me."
They considered this in grim silence.
At length, Gabriel sighed and said, "Listen. When I... When I Fell, it was willingly. I made a choice; got to be exactly what I wanted to be, even if no one else liked it." Sam looked up at him, grudgingly curious, so he went on. "Castiel didn't get the same choice. He Fell only because he got kicked out of Heaven by our dickwad brothers. He Fell because he was being the little angel that could, doing the right thing when no one else would step up."
"...What's your point?"
"My point is, none of that meant he ever wanted to end up human. Don't get me wrong, he loves you guys – some, admittedly, quite a bit more than others – but he's an angel, Sam, and he's not meant to be anything else. Me – well. In all honesty, there are worse things I could imagine than getting stuck like this – but like I said, at least I chose to Fall. He didn't." He let this sink in, then went for the clincher. "And let's face it: not to put too fine a point on things, but you sort of took away the one thing that could have made it better when you said he couldn't go see your stupid brother."
Sam looked stricken. "You think this is my fault?"
Gabriel shrugged reluctantly. "Just saying it like I see it, kiddo. Sorry."
"I can't take him back to Dean. I just can't. You don't get it. Giving Dean this normal life, this normal family he loves... It's the only thing I've ever been able to do for him that's really meant something. That... wasn't selfish. I can't take that back now."
The archangel scuffed a sneaker through the gravel. "Your call, I guess. You know my opinion on the matter."
Sam shook his head, although it looked like it pained him to do so. "I can't take him to Dean," he repeated, convincing himself. "But you're right. He needs to be an angel again, and we're not making any progress getting you guys back to normal like this. We need help."
"We'll... I suppose we gotta go see Bobby. He's the only person I can think of that knows anything remotely accurate about angels." Sam bit his lip, laced his fingers together between his knees. "And clearly I'm not cut out to do this on my own, so..."
Gabriel's first instinctive reaction was satisfaction. This was a victory he'd been working towards; another step towards restoring his Grace. He'd met Robert Singer only once before, and most of that interaction had consisted of Gabriel aiming a chainsaw-wielding maniac in the old hunter's direction – but by reputation alone, he knew Bobby was probably the closest that humans would ever come to having an expert on his kind. If any human was going to figure out how to put him right – well. Sam and Bobby were his two best bets.
But he also knew Sam hadn't wanted to go back. Still didn't, judging by the look of him.
For whatever misguided reasons, Sam was convinced it'd all be for the best if he left that old life behind, went his own way and didn't impose on the people who were no doubt still grieving for him. Fucked up kid – but then he was a Winchester.
Gabriel sighed and stepped closer, coming to stand right in front of where Sam was hunched in the car. Without thinking about it, he reached out and brushed his hand over the human's bowed head, fingers immediately tangling themselves in the unruly mop of hair. Sam went tense, broad shoulders bunching in protest, but Gabriel ignored him. He smoothed out some of the knotted strands between his fingers and nothing more.
It could have been a come-on; a follow up to the fine groundwork he'd been busy laying for the past few days. He could have made it inappropriate very easily.
But it wasn't and he didn't. Instead, with effort, he summoned up whatever last dregs of Grace still remained in him (it was an action that might even have been entirely in his imagination; he wasn't sure) and tried to remember how to communicate it through the small gesture. Wordlessly, he offered the only comfort he could think of: the benediction of a Fallen archangel – for whatever it was worth.
Sam let out a breath, tension and protest seeping away in defeat. He turned his head as though pressing into the contact without wanting to, and Gabriel smiled slightly as he combed the longest strands back behind his ears and then withdrew, stepping away and resuming his slouched posture as if nothing had happened. Might as well let the kid ignore it if he wanted to.
They were quiet for a long time after that before the other spoke.
"If we do go back... I don't want him to tell Dean," Sam lied quietly, eyes down.
"I'll put all my considerable charms to work convincing him not to," Gabriel promised, knowing full well he'd do no such thing. Sam knew it too, though he voiced no objection. Truth was, no matter what he said on the matter, kid wanted more than anything for Dean to know he was back, even if it meant the demise of his brother's precious Apple Pie life. Sam just didn't want to be the one to strike the killing blow, and would be more than happy for Bobby to take on that responsibility behind his back. He'd never admit as much, but in that moment they both knew it.
And there was a certain cowardice there, Gabriel thought to himself; a certain selfishness. But they were the type of flaws Sam would never be without, no matter how good his intentions, and Gabriel figured he could live with that well enough, since he had them too.