So they packed up and left Iowa. And if both Sam and Gabriel were keeping somewhat obsessive watch over Castiel while they did so, no one mentioned it. South Dakota wasn't far, as if Sam had been subconsciously circling closer since they'd started travelling, and it was the morning of New Year's Eve by the time they passed through Sioux Falls and arrived at Bobby's place.
Sam parked the car at the very edges of the salvage yard, not wanting to set the dogs barking by driving any closer. Bobby would be shocked and sceptical to see them as it was; he didn't want to give the old hunter warning enough to shoot them before Sam had the chance to at least plead his case.
"Come on," he murmured as he got out and went to grab his bag from the trunk. "We'll walk the rest of the way."
They meandered their way through the maze of rusted out car heaps, Gabriel peering into some of them with never ending curiosity while Sam steeled himself to what he was about to do. He felt irrationally nervous, like he'd become acclimatized to their self-imposed isolation and now ending it was a much greater trial than it rightfully should have been.
But this wasn't about him, was it? Left to his own devices he wouldn't be here at all; he'd be off hunting, eager to lose himself in the fight and the chase. The only reason he was here doing this was for the sake of his angelic companions. He'd already dropped the ball once with Castiel; he owed it to his friend to do all he could in helping restore his Grace. Even if this didn't pan out, he had to try.
They weren't far from the house when Sam abruptly stopped walking. There across the yard he could see Bobby's heavy boots sticking out from underneath a car, tools scattered around him on the ground. Sam had almost forgotten that part; forgotten Crowley and his deals and Bobby being healed. It was a good thing – one of the only good things – worth remembering.
He ambled closer, Cas and Gabriel trailing behind him, and cleared his throat awkwardly into the quiet air, breath condensing in front of him. "...Hi."
The metallic clanking of tools cut off and Bobby dug his heels into the ground, dragging himself out from underneath the car body.
Only it wasn't Bobby.
It wasn't Bobby who rose to his feet right there in front of them, who froze midway through the motion, whose eyes were wide and green and achingly familiar, fixed unblinkingly on Sam.
Stunned, Sam all but flinched backwards from the unexpected sight of his brother, and for a prolonged moment they just stared at each other, not reacting.
Then out of nowhere a gun fucking materialised in Dean's hand, pointed at them with trademark unerring accuracy, and when he spoke his voice was guttural, furious. "What are you? What the fuck are you and what do you want?"
Sam immediately threw his arms out to the sides, both in a gesture of harmlessness and the automatic instinct to try and shield the vulnerable angels accompanying him. "Woah, Dean!"
But his brother just bore down on them, stalking forward with a murderous expression. The hand that held the gun outstretched before him was rock steady, even while his mouth twitched like he was something feral. "You sons of bitches got some nerve, showing up here looking like that." The gun flicked between Cas and Gabriel, like he couldn't decide which of them he wanted to shoot first, and Sam knew he had to do something quick before this ended in tragedy.
He held up his hands pleadingly. "Dean. It's us. Swear to god it's really us." Once again, however, he only found himself staring down the barrel of his brother's gun as it swung back towards him.
"They're dead," Dean managed to grind out from between gritted teeth, before clamping his mouth shut and breathing hard through his nose. His gaze flickered, almost unwillingly, towards Cas. "All of them. You're not them."
In the periphery of his vision, Sam saw Castiel tilt his head, and knew without having to look properly that he'd be wearing that puzzled, vaguely sympathetic expression he so often got. He closed his eyes, hoping fervently that Cas wasn't about to inadvertently provoke Dean into shooting one or all of them.
"Dean, you must believe in this. Our Father has seen fit to grant us second chances–"
"Don't you do that, you bastard, don't you try and sound like him." Dean seemed torn now, the gun wavering between Cas and Sam, his eyes wild and too bright. He hadn't pulled the trigger yet, probably due to that diehard aversion to harming anything that came in the guise of a loved one that Dean had always been prone to – but it was only a matter of time. A matter of seconds, possibly, and this was so not how he'd anticipated things playing out.
"Dude, it's us. I know this is weird, okay? I do, but if you just let me explain–"
"Shut up." Dean took a breath, steadying himself, and cast that same hard-eyed, cocksure grin in Sam's direction that he'd aimed at a thousand monsters over the years. "You – you might have fooled me. Maybe. You're pretty good, even sound like him. What are you, a shifter?" The smile dropped like a stone as he looked back at Cas. "But this one. It's not right. Got the outfit all wrong. Cas doesn't look like that."
Gabriel made a despairing sound low in his throat. "I can't believe we got brought back and survived this long only for your brother to kill us because he doesn't like Castiel's new fashion sense...!"
Dean darted a narrow glance at him, hesitating, like he was vaguely surprised anything could imitate that exact whining pitch Gabriel could hit when he wanted to. Sam snorted, privately thinking Dean should know damn well it was one of a kind, and quietly tried to shuffle the archangel a few more inches behind him.
But Castiel – he actually looked amused, plucking idly at the front of his T-shirt. "My coat is in the car, if that's what you're referring to."
Dean smiled blankly. "Yeah, sure it is. Well look, if you really are Cas, guess you're not too worried bout the bullet I'm about to put in you, right?"
Panicked, Sam started forward. "No, don't –!"
His brother snarled, shoved him back.
And Cas said quietly, "I'm human, Dean."
They were quiet, tension like static in the air as Dean visibly fought with himself. "What?" he snapped eventually.
"I was brought back human. So was Gabriel. And Sam no longer serves as a vessel." He moved closer, apparently oblivious to the way Dean tensed up even more, only stopping when the barrel of the gun was pressed against his chest and a muscle in Dean's jaw was twitching violently. "So shoot me, if you wish, but you should know I don't have the Grace to heal myself. I will die, in front of you, again."
Dean let out a breath like someone had gut-punched him, but he didn't move, one way or another.
"Castiel, don't be so stupid," Gabriel hissed, leaning around Sam to glare.
Sam had to agree with the sentiment.
"Human," Dean repeated tonelessly. "You're human. You seriously expect me to believe–"
Bizarrely, Castiel looked all out triumphant at that. "This is your problem, Dean. You have no faith."
And to Sam's complete bemusement, Dean went white at the seemingly innocuous statement. Cas took the opportunity to step relentlessly closer, his mouth tilted upwards in what might have been a smile. It was the most light in his eyes Sam had seen in weeks. "What's the matter? You don't believe we deserved to be saved?"
Dean reeled backwards, expression gone slack. "What the hell? ...Cas?"
Sam shared an incredulous look with Gabriel, uncomprehending. The archangel just shrugged and rolled his eyes off to the side, scathingly muttering something that contained the words disgusting epic love affair.
Sam held his hands up helplessly. "Dude, I don't even know."
The gun lowered like Dean forgot he was holding it. He looked between them as if half frightened by the sight. Spasmodically, one hand shot out to thunk against Sam's chest, the gesture clumsy and desperate, groping. "...Sam. Sammy."
Sam grabbed his brother's wrist, his shoulder. It was almost as if Deanwere the one newly back to life, and he had to make sure he was real; solid flesh and blood. He grinned shakily, said on a breath, "Yeah. S'me Dean."
And suddenly he had an armful of brother, Dean slamming against his chest so hard he lost his breath, the gun clattering to the ground at their feet. It occurred to him distantly that it was true: Winchesters didn't hug except for instances of death or resurrection. So possibly it said something awful about them that, by now, it was comfortingly familiar to drop his face against Dean's shoulder and feel his brother's hand clamped across the nape of his neck, Dean muttering disbelief into his ear. Moments exactly like this one had come to punctuate Sam's whole life. In fact, only one little detail made this any different to all the other times.
Dean's other hand was clenched in Castiel's T-shirt.
Emotional reunion done with, hard practicality reasserted itself as soon as Bobby came outside, took stock of the situation and proceeded to call Dean nine kinds of stupid for hugging first and asking questions later. He'd had them back at gunpoint within moments, marched swiftly into the house and promptly subjected to every supernatural test the pair could think up.
"Now this – this is hospitality!" Gabriel enthused sarcastically, from where he was sitting in a dining room chair with his wrists bound to the arms of it.
Sam, in a similar position, gave him a warning look. Wasn't like the caution was unwarranted.
They all had a number of shallow cuts across their arms where they'd been nicked with blades of silver and iron and varying other materials. They'd been chanted over, examined through mirrors, and asked every personal question Dean and Bobby could think up. Sam, at this point, looked like he had dandruff with so much salt caught in his hair, and now finally they were arriving at the last trial by holy water.
Dean held a shot glass out to Sam, and when he tossed it back without problem, his brother closed his eyes in what might have been profound relief. While Bobby unceremoniously did the same for Gabriel, Dean moved on to stand in front of Castiel. The angel – despite the fact that he was tied down, exhausted and powerless; had been probed and interrogated and almost shot – looked utterly content for the first time in... in months. Dean carefully raised the holy water to his mouth, and Castiel's blue gaze remained unwavering and trusting and fixed with Dean's as he drank.
Gabriel maybe threw up a little bit in his mouth.
Bobby cleared his throat gruffly when it was done. "Well. That's that, then. All human, far as I can tell."
"Yeah..." Dean agreed faintly, still obviously stunned.
There was ringing silence between them for long moments as most occupants of the room tried to absorb the massive revelations that had so suddenly been thrown at them.
It was broken, predictably, by Gabriel wiggling vigorously in his chair as he tugged futilely at his restraints. "Awesome. So glad you've at last managed to establish exactly what we told you over an hour ago. Now, anyone wanna do the honours and untie us?"
Dean scowled at him as though taken aback. "Okay – Sam and Cas I get. But you... Dude, you're just random. What the hell are you doing here?"
"Me? Oh, that's very nice, that is! Not like I got caught up in the Winchester whirlwind of destruction or anything – or, I don't know, wasted my last dying breaths telling you how to stop the apocalypse!"
"Oh please, your 'last dying breaths' were lost in some chick's–"
"Dean!" Sam glared pointedly at his brother, rubbing his newly freed wrist as he rose to his feet and Bobby moved to release Castiel. "Let's just... take a minute here, okay?"
Dean grunted, cooperative as ever.
"Right." Sam took a breath, then frowned. "Wait, first of all, what are you doing here? Where's Lisa? And Ben? And the whole normal life? Ringing any bells here?"
His brother did a passable impression of a deer in headlights. "...Lisa?"
"Yeah, Dean, Lisa."
Dean might have continued to flounder, but Bobby saved him the trouble, giving a dismissive snort of derision. "Idjit got himself kicked out three weeks in. Been mooching round here ever since – and lemme tell you. He's a delight."
"Yeah..." Dean reminisced wryly. "She wasn't real big on trying to wash blood out of laundry every night. Or having weapons around the house. Or the identity fraud... the drinking... the nightmares... the teaching Ben to swear– Actually, that swearing thing was probably the deal-breaker, now that I think about it."
Gabriel began to laugh obnoxiously.
"Dean!" Completely incredulous, Sam stuttered uselessly for a second or two. "I thought you were... off being happy! And normal. And retired."
"I tried! Was all set to be Mister Suburbia, man. ...Then Crowley gave me a lead on a couple of demons. And there was this haunting across town. And the freaky-ass shadow thing. There were kids in that neighbourhood, Sammy, what was I supposed to do?"
Sam sat down again, head in his hands. All that time keeping himself away, all that time trying to handle everything on his own so Dean could remain happily oblivious – and Dean had been here all along, as entrenched in danger and the supernatural as ever.
"Your turn, Samantha. You wanna explain the Lazarus routine and the angelic entourage?"
Sam shrugged as he looked up. "I honestly have no–"
"It was our Father," Castiel insisted. He'd already gravitated to Dean's side, resuming the invasion into his personal space as if he'd never left. "No other force could possibly have lifted Sam from Lucifer's cage and returned myself and Gabriel to life."
Dean nodded. "Okay, I can buy that. God finally pulled his head out of his ass. Terrific. But what's with the..." He gestured vaguely at the angels, apparently trying to encompass their humanness.
Gabriel, now stretched out in his chair with his legs crossed in front of him, snapped his fingers and pointed at Dean. "That is the othersixty-four dollar question, Deano. And we were rather hoping the knowledgeable Mister Singer over here could help answer it for us."
Dean frowned. "Hey, I just realised. If you didn't know I was here... You were coming to see Bobby before you came and got me?"
All eyes fell upon Sam, who looked off to one side and stayed silent.
Gabriel huffed in exasperation. "What he's so subtly trying not to say is that–"
"–left up to him, we wouldn't have come got you at all."
Dean looked between the three of them sharply, quickly finding confirmation of the fact in Gabriel's blasé nonchalance, Castiel's downturned eyes and Sam's tortured, guilty expression. Suspicion rose in him. "Wait. How long... How long have you all been back...?"
"Going on a month now, isn't it?"
"Gabriel, I swear to god–"
"Okay, okay! I'm shutting up. Jeez..."
Dean gaped at them, wounded. "A month? You've been back a month and you didn't at any point think I'd wanna know?"
"What the hell have you been doing for a whole month?"
Sam opened his mouth and then closed it, at a loss. He exchanged glances with Cas and Gabriel, thinking back on the number of little incidents that had transpired in the last few weeks, and realising how suddenly difficult they were to condense into words.
Behind him, Bobby sighed heavily. "I'll go get a bottle of the good stuff, then. Might as well do this thing properly..."