Title: Testing Grounds
By: nixa_jane
Pairing: gen
Rating: PG
Summary: It was never a question of if, only when.

"You planned it," Castiel says.

Dean's not even surprised at his appearance. He doesn't look up to meet his eyes. "Nope," he says. "Sorry to disappoint, but Sam's the brains of the outfit."

"Maybe, but you still told him about Uriel's ultimatum," Castiel says.

"He never said I wasn't allowed to tell," Dean says. "You should work that into the fine print next time you want to use my brother's life as a bargaining chip."

"I had nothing to do with that," Castiel says.

"No, you didn't," Dean agrees. "Because you weren't there at all."

"I had my orders," Castiel tells him.

"Look, if you don't mind, I'm not really up for another episode of Touched by an Angel, right now," Dean says. "I just--seeing Alistair, it was kind of like the reunion from Hell. Actually, it was literally the reunion from Hell, so if you don't mind--"

"I'm sorry about what he did. He wanted you," Castiel says. "Just not as much as we did."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Dean asks.

"We were watching when you sold your soul," Castiel says. "To be honest we hadn't paid you much attention until then. It was Sam that concerned us, and just when we thought that issue was closed you brought him back."

Dean flashes a crooked grin. "So sorry," he says.

"You're not," Castiel says. "We had to let them take you, but we could see your future by then, we knew you had potential."

"Alistair said the same thing," Dean says.

"Sometimes demons tell the truth," Castiel says. "But you were never destined for the fate he wished on you."

"You're forgetting," Dean snaps. "I signed up. I sold my soul and then I broke, I--"

"It was a test, Dean," Castiel tells him quietly. "It was a test and you passed it."

"I gave in," Dean whispers.

"Most of the souls that go to Hell, they deserve it," Castiel says. "Most souls go down to Hell, they don't last a day before they give in. Your friend Ruby held out the longest I knew about--she held out two years, Dean. There may have been others that held out longer than you, but if there are I don't know about them."

"It doesn't matter," Dean yells. "It doesn't matter if I'd lasted two years or thirty years, what matters is that I broke."

Castiel glances at the floor. "We were told not to save you until you did."

Dean finally turns and looks up at him. "What?" he asks.

"Five years, that was the cut off," Castiel says. "As long as you lasted five years, we were to save you once you broke. I kept watching. I kept hoping you would just tell him that you would do it. I had to watch you suffer, for thirty years, Dean. You have nothing to be ashamed of."

"I should have held out longer," Dean says, and closes his eyes.

"Your father was standing at the gates of Hell," Castiel whispers. "Did you ever wonder how he got there?"

"Don't--don't you bring him into this," Dean says.

"He lasted ten months," Castiel says. "Then he remembered that hunting demons was what he did, and he may as well carry on at it in Hell. You never hurt anyone innocent, Dean."

Dean shakes his head. "It doesn't make a difference if they were innocent or not," he says.

Castiel places a hand on his arm, over the print that rests on Dean's skin. "Maybe not," he says. "But you didn't want to do it, Dean. In Hell, that makes all the difference. You survived, and you somehow kept your soul. We never could have saved you otherwise."

Dean laughs. "What makes you think you did save me?" he asks.

"Because demons don't feel remorse," Castiel tells him.

"Yeah, well, neither do angels," Dean says.

"Then be grateful you're not either," Castiel says, and with a flutter of wings is gone.