Castiel watched Dean Winchester’s life like a movie. He’d been told, “You must see how he was, to understand how he is now.” So Zachariah had sent Castiel back in time to watch all thirty years of Dean’s life.
And Castiel watched.
And he decided after year four he didn’t want to anymore. He watched the fire that destroyed Dean’s only home. He watched the man who was supposed to save the world carry the man who was supposed to end it in his arms out the door. He watched any happiness Dean Winchester would ever experience die in that fire right alongside Mary Winchester.
The next few years went by quickly, for both Dean and Cas. Dean was forced to grow up. Dean was forced to be Sam’s parent. Dean was forced to tuck Sam in at night and feed Sam and comfort Sam when he had nightmares and be selfless at the age of seven.
Castiel watched seven-year-old Dean learn how to load a gun but not how to ride a bike. He watched seven-year-old Dean learn the words to an exorcism but not how to throw a football. He watched seven-year-old Dean get sideways glances from his teachers for coming into class without a lunch because his parent didn’t make one for him.
Castiel found it hard to spot the day when Dean went hard. When Dean stopped really being a kid and started being something that was not entirely human. That was not right.
Castiel watched thirteen-year-old Dean get his first girlfriend. And his second. And his third. He watched thirteen-year-old Dean cling for contact and for affection. He watched thirteen-year-old Dean take Sam’s temperature and sit worriedly beside Sam’s bed because he had the flu. He watched thirteen-year-old Dean answer, “Yes sir,” when John told him that Sammy would just have to fight it off because their money was tight and they needed more ammo.
Castiel watched Dean miss birthday presents and Christmas presents but watched as Sam every year got something. A comic book. A chocolate bar. A pack of gum that Dean bought with pocket change while they were at a gas station because they were nowhere near an outlet mall and there was no way John was going to drive to one.
Castiel watched fifteen-year-old Dean in tears because Sam had gone missing and it was his responsibility to look after Sam. He watched Dean race around Flagstaff. He watched Dean wave a picture of his little brother in the local’s faces. He watched Dean sit down on the couch of the motel and break down sobbing because he thought Sam was dead. There was a stillness, as Dean sat sobbing, when suddenly Castiel realize he wasn’t alone.
"Zachariah." He murmured. The angel stood, looking down at Dean.
"The righteous man." Zachariah shook his head. "God has a sense of humour." He turned to Cas, his eyes narrowing. "I am here to remind you, Castiel, that you are not able to intervene."
Castiel frowned. “I know.”
"Keep it in mind." Zachariah says, vanishing just as the motel door opens.
John Winchester enters, looking tired and surly, as usual. He doesn’t say anything as he rests his shotgun on the table, he doesn’t say hello to his son, who is staring at him horrified, not-quite-dried tears still on his cheeks, his face red and puffy from bawling.
"Dad," Dean’s voice cracks. John Winchester looks over at his son.
"What did you do, Dean?" His voice is stony, suspicious.
"Dad, I’m- I’m sorry-" Dean pushes himself up to stand. "I- Sam- I was just getting groceries-" John suddenly moves forward and grabs Dean by the arm. Dean yelps as John’s fingers dig into his bicep.
”What happened?" John demands in a low, dangerous voice.
"When I got back he was gone." Dean’s voice is far too high. He’s fighting tears again. "I looked everywhere- I can’t-"
Castiel flinched when John Winchester’s hand made contact with his son’s face. He wanted to go deaf to the sounds of “Please dad” and “Dad no” and “Oh jesus”. He wanted to tear his eyes away from John hauling his fifteen-year-old boy up against the wall and throttle him there. He wanted to wrench John’s arm back so he couldn’t strike his son ever again. He wanted it to stop. But he couldn’t.
So Castiel stood and watched John Winchester beat his son.
Castiel watched as Dean Winchester threw away what was left of his self esteem for a girl with blonde hair who didn’t like him, but wanted to make her ex-boyfriend jealous. He watched as seventeen-year-old Dean had more sex and cared less about school. He watched Dean Winchester spiral into a deep depression. He watched Dean only care about Sam and what happened to Sammy. He watched John Winchester warn his son in a low voice every time he felt Dean “getting out of line”.
He watched the happiest moment of Dean Winchester’s life, which was lighting fireworks with his little brother in the middle of a field on the fourth of July.
He watched Dean fall asleep in the back of the Impala with his brother curled up at his side, under his coat.
He watched eighteen-year-old Dean nearly be killed during a witch hunt, and wind up with a busted ulna. He watched John Winchester tell him that he needed to be more aware.
He watched the night where Sam told them he was going to Stamford. He watched Sam and John scream at one another in the middle of a two-lane road, while Dean tried desperately to mediate. He watched Sam’s face crumple when John shouted, “If you go then don’t come back.” He watched Dean’s eyes widen and his voice crack as he cried, “Dad-“. Castiel felt his heart hiccup when John turned on a dime to face Dean, and Dean flinched.
"Know your place, Dean." John snapped.
"That’s why I’m leaving." Sam thundered. "Families don’t order one another around, Dad. We aren’t your grunts and you aren’t our drill sergeant.”
Castiel watched Dean go quiet and watch with tears he wouldn’t let fall as Sam walked away down the road. And then he got yanked by his arm into the Impala beside John, who told him that they didn’t need Sam. And that he’d better not go looking for Sam. That Sam had made his choice.
And Dean stayed quiet.
Cas watched the rest of the pitfalls and the events in silence. He watched Sam Winchester weep over his brother’s mangled corpse as the clock struck midnight and Dean Winchester’s soul was cast into hell.
And then he was finished.
"That is all you need to see." Zachariah said stiffly.
Castiel didn’t say anything.
"Like I said, our Father has a sense of humour. Righteous man indeed."
Castiel stared at Zachariah with venomous hatred. His superior took no notice, but simply vanished to go receive revelation.
Castiel went to find Dean.
He was cleaning the engine. His arms were coated in grease and his hands were dirty and he looked somewhat content doing what he was doing. And Castiel felt his heart thudding in his throat, though he had no heart to speak of. And he remembered all that he had seen. And he wanted to turn Dean around and tell him he was sorry that Dean’s life had been the way it had. He wanted to take Dean in his arms and force him not to hate himself. He wanted to kiss Dean and mean it, unlike anyone else had ever meant it. He wanted to put things right.
But he didn’t do that. He couldn’t do that.
So Castiel just watched.