Dean woke to the cradle of the passenger seat, his neck stiff and his mouth fuzzy. Outside, the midwest endured the hard frost, harvested fields bracing for winter. Without even the corn to discourage it, the wind cut across miles of flatland to gust over the interstate. Sam wrapped his hands over the wheel, flexing his forearms to steady the car, and hummed something tuneless and low. He tapped his thumbs to the beat of the wind and unheard music, drawn as a bow. Dean watched him, thinking blearily, As it was in the beginning, a shard of ritual caught in the liminality of waking. Thought, As it was, as it was until Sam turned, noticed Dean was awake, and said, "Man, you were down for the count."
"Where are we?"
"Indiana. I-80, headed west."
"Oh," said Dean. He yawned and rolled his shoulder, shaking the muscles loose.
"You hungry?" Sam asked.
Dean should have been starving, but his stomach recoiled at the thought of food. He wanted to say, I'm sorry, to say Some days, I don't know what came back. It came out as, "Sure."
Sam nodded at a sign along the highway: gas food lodging next exit. The symbols—child-simple gas pump, fork and knife, bed protected by a chevron roof—as familiar to Dean as his tattoo, as the handprint faded to white scar tissue. As the language that curled behind his ribs, making a wraith of him.
"Teach me," he told Castiel, laying the image of his etched body between them, and Cas took a harsh breath. Steadied himself.
"Dean," he said, his voice low. "You won't—"
"Understand? Try me."
Castiel scowled at him, and Dean held his gaze until the angel sighed and said, "We don't have time. Not now."
"What, you have a date?"
The silence held more impatience than another sigh could have. "These symbols," Castiel said, tracing a finger over the slide, "these words." He spoke distantly, as if fitting each phrase to a foreign grammar. "They predate biology, the trap of your neurons and language centers. They exist outside the world you can see and feel."
Dean waited, long enough for Cas to look up for a response.
"Bullshit," he said. "You carved them on my ribs. It hurt. Seems pretty earthly to me." He stabbed a finger at one of the squiggles. "That one. What does that one sound like?"
Castiel squinted at the slide. "It's similar to a C or a K. But unlike either. Your voice, it's not—"
"Now we're getting somewhere. That one?"
"An alveolar nasal."
Dean glared at him.
"An N. Or close to one." Castiel pointed to the next symbol. "You'd transliterate this, I believe, as an I, pronouncing it as a long or double E." He sat, beckoning, and Dean joined him.
"So which way does it go?" Dean asked, two hours later, having failed to convince Cas to sing the Enochian alphabet or tell stories about angelic preschool.
Castiel made a noise of disapproval. "What you see is a language constrained not to the fundamental, but to the superficial." He traced a finger along the curve of a rib, then raised his hand to Dean, his finger starting feather-light at his sternum, traveling the width of his chest. "Here, it reads blood." He withdrew his hand, and Dean found himself leaning with the motion. "But you can't know what it is to bleed as an angel. You only know what you can see."
"You see me," said Dean, forcing his voice to come out steady. Then, "What do you see?"
Castiel's eyes unfocused, his body straightened and stilled. "Now," he said, "I see nothing."
They stopped again after sunset, halfway through Illinois. Sam checked them into the StarLite Motel while Dean waited outside, leaning against the car. His hands tingled with the cold; his chest ached with it. He breathed carefully, around his creaking ribs.
"Hey," said Sam. "You okay?"
"Yeah. I'm fine." He laughed, and winced. "Getting too old for this. What's that guy in The Incredibles, just wanting the world to stay saved?"
"Mr. Incredible." Sam hauled their bags out of the trunk, touching Dean's elbow on the way towards the motel. Dean flinched at the contact, and Sam snatched his hand back. Opened his mouth, but didn't say anything, just kept walking to their room.
"At least he had Elastigirl to keep him company," said Dean, gratified when Sam smiled over his shoulder.
Dean flipped the light switch and shook his head at the illuminated room. Gold stars crawled across the wallpaper and blankets, whirled in shimmering spirals over the dresser. The overhead fixture was star-shaped, and Dean suspected the dull stars on the ceiling would glow when he turned it off again. "You outdid yourself," he said, and Sam barely hesitated before he said, "Bite me," and set the computer down.
By the time Dean returned with decent-looking pizza and beer, Sam had the table covered in his tight-scrawled notes and diagrams, a printed newspaper article on top. Dean set the pizza on the dresser and pulled a piece out. He took a bite, but the grease settled heavy on his tongue. He thought of the salt-iron taste of blood, and swallowed with difficulty.
The beer went down more easily.
"We got a job?" he asked Sam, settling across from him at the table.
"I think so. Harald, Iowa." Sam swiveled the computer so Dean could see the town highlighted at the end of a blue line marking their route.
"Lemme guess. They've got trouble with a capital T."
Sam looked at him blankly.
"You know. Which rhymes with P, and stands for—never mind. What's threatening the residents of our charming Iowa town?" He took another pull of his beer and tilted his chair back on two legs.
"Well," said Sam, "I'm not sure. But in the last three days? The local paper's gone on record saying some pretty crazy stuff." He turned the computer back to face him. "Two murders: apparently, a guy killed a stablehand for riding a particular horse. And another guy killed his neighbor in a pasture dispute. Then some other weird headlines: Eagle takes up residence in town square. Mare gives birth to eight-legged foal."
"Okay, and how exactly is this our kind of problem?"
"Here's how it gets interesting. None of this has been picked up by other papers. Okay, freaktastic horse and homesteading eagle, I sort of get that. But two weird murders in a town where the murder rate is usually zero?"
Dean shrugged. "Seems like a slim lead to me."
"There's more. Not only are other papers not picking up these stories, they're not publishing anything about this place. I googled it, and literally nothing comes up except the stories it's writing about itself."
"So," said Dean, draining his beer before setting his chair back on four legs, "to recap. We're going off to a place so boring that people kill each other over horses and grass? And our lead is this...newspaper?"
"Dean, we once followed the instructions of the illustrious Ghost Facers."
Dean laughed, stretching, and popped open another beer. "They stay in the kitchen when the kitchen gets hot, man. Plus, we were angel-whammied. Not responsible for our actions." Speaking of. He retrieved his phone from his jacket and texted Castiel their location, trying to ward off the perennial feeling that texting an angel was a surer sign of the apocalypse than rivers of blood could ever be.
"Cas?" Sam asked, nodding at the phone.
"Yeah," Dean said. "I mean, he's looking for God. Might as well try a place they're popping out octohorses."
He woke to Hell, which had stopped surprising him months ago. This time, he stood on a bluff overlooking the labyrinth of souls, each one compelled to come upon dead end after dead end until a final door opened and they faced the smile of their tormentor. He had waited, at the end, rolling the scalpel between fingers and thumb, straightening his rows of tools. Neat, precise.
There's a beauty to form, to the physical. Alastair's hand settled on Dean's hip as he whispered over his shoulder, But just imagine the things you can do to a soul.
And then: smiling at his newest charge, Welcome to salvation.
This one wept and prayed, her words a litany please please I didn't know and now Our Father Who art in
"Heaven," Dean finished for her, and grinned razor-bright. It didn't matter; in the end, they always learned to pray to him, to the curve of a knife that slipped under skin and deeper.
Now he stood and watched, and felt a presence at his back. Close, this one, and impudent, to dare approach him here. When the presence touched his shoulder, he willed a blade into his hand and spun, stabbing upward with the force of his turn.
Sam laughed and stepped beyond his reach. "Wouldn't that be a waste of a soul," he said.
Dean thought, No, I saved you, you can't be here, the words pooling like a dammed river behind his lips. The brilliance of Sam's smile paralyzed him.
"Just think of what will happen when you return. Alastair dead, no one to challenge you."
Dean backed away in a panic, the heel of his boot finding no purchase as he balanced on the edge of the bluff. His heart slammed at the base of his throat.
"You'll reign here," Sam said, advancing, "and there's so much you can still teach me. We'll burn like roman candles, the two of us, like celebration. Dean."
Get away get away but there was nowhere to go, nowhere but down, into a labyrinth of claustrophobic passages and dead-end promises, and the edge of the bluff crumbled, sending pebbles over in skittering arcs, and
"Dean." A hand on his shoulder.
Castiel stared down at him, silhouetted by the glow from the parking lot. His hand lay firm and warm against Dean's nightmare until Dean shrugged him off and pulled himself out of bed, groping for his boots in the darkness. The dream coursed through him, overfilling his arteries and pouring out under his skin, his body a trembling bruise too small for the weight of memory.
Outside, the stars struggled past scattered clouds and light pollution, the brightest vague sparks in the vaulted sky. Dean walked away from the motel, crossed the highway to an abandoned field, his arms wrapped over his chest to still the tremor of his shoulders. He was unsurprised to find Castiel beside him when he stopped. The angel stood square-shouldered and silent, profile bleeding into the darkness.
Dean coughed, stuffed his hands into the cool pockets of his jacket. "So. How's the world's worst game of hot or cold treating you?"
"God hasn't spoken to anyone here in centuries. The leads are old." Castiel shifted, rustling, and Dean thought of parchment and palimpsests, layers of Heaven and angel and human inhabiting the same scoured page.
"No dice, then?"
"He is not in Italy. Or in India. I thought He might—there's a church, in Axum. Ethiopia. It's said to house the Arc of the Covenant. The amulet warmed there, but the heat was residual, like a desert stone after sunset." No emotion in his tone, and once that would have thrown him, but Dean could read him now, his fragments and metaphors. The hesitation, the loss. The dead stacked in the negative spaces, spilling out between his tight words.
"I'm sorry," Dean said. He added, after a moment, "Sam and I, we're headed west for a while, some town he thinks is worth checking out. Pretty sure God gave up on Iowa a while ago, but there's some weird shit going down there and I thought maybe. You can—if you want—you can come along."
"I don't have time," said Castiel, his voice torn along the edges.
"Cas," Dean said, and he didn't know where it came from, this gentleness, a forgotten wellspring.
"No." There was nothing but steel there now, reinforced and girded. A gusting like a book snapped closed, and Dean stood alone in the field, the winter air snaking under his cuffs, down the back of his neck. He folded his collar up and tilted his head back to find the constellations: Andromeda, Orion, Cygnus, Taurus, Pegasus. Shuffled in a slow circle, reciting, and stopped facing north, where Polaris beckoned. The chill crept closer, under his jacket, under his skin.
God, he thought, but the prayer stopped there, withered by the cold, the stars too far to reach. He retraced his steps, back to Sam.
I saved him, he thought, looking at his sleeping brother, and felt no warmth.
In Iowa, they slipped into old stories, smoothing their rough edges into journalists Rodgers and Kirke from Birdwatching Today, here about that eagle hanging out downtown.
"They call this downtown?" Dean muttered as he and Sam peered into the branches of the tree spreading up from the center of the square. Sam coughed and turned to the small woman who had agreed to talk to them. Someone named Jane from the mayor's office; Dean hadn't been listening when she introduced herself.
"They're saying it's a new species?" Sam was asking when Dean tuned back in.
Jane nodded vigorously, her curled hair defying the laws of physics. "Like nothing they've ever seen before."
Dean squinted up through the tangle of branches and leaves, hoping for a glimpse of the bird. As he watched, a squirrel appeared from the roots of the tree and scurried up the trunk, disappearing into the foliage. A moment later, the branches heaved as if storm-blown, and a tremendous caw sounded from somewhere above them.
The squirrel reappeared miraculously whole, and paused mid-scamper to inspect Dean, who raised an eyebrow in return. He opened his mouth to say something—he wasn't sure what—before the animal leapt the final feet to the ground and vanished once more into the gnarled roots below.
Jane grinned. "You see? It's up there. It almost never leaves, just does that thing, where it makes that noise. They got up a helicopter the other day to take a look at the thing, figure its wingspan is like thirty feet." She bounced on the balls of her feet.
"So they have no idea what it is?"
Snorting, Jane said, "One of a kind, at any rate. You have any idea what we'd have to do if there were a lot of those things? I mean, think about it. That thing could kill a cow, easy, not to mention a person. The mayor's called the National Guard about it, but apparently they need a couple of days to get back to us."
"Did you notice anything else strange?" Sam asked, his hands huge around his reporter's notebook, his body language open and focused. Dean took the opportunity of his brother's distraction to edge away from the tree and the flying menace atop it.
"You know, strange visitors, smells, anything in the sky?"
Jane frowned. "No. And I mean, town this size, when strange happens, news is pretty quick to spread."
"No meteors? Odd storms?"
"Any cattle mutilations? You know, like—"
"Excuse my partner." Dean stepped in before Sam managed to convince the now-skeptical woman that they had no business poking around anywhere outside straightjackets. "I'm sure he's just wondering what something that size eats. Right, Sam?"
"Right," Sam said sullenly, backing down.
"Oh!" Jane brightened. "Well, we think it might drink out of the pond over there." She pointed at a swan fountain, the water flowing at an algae-clogged trickle. "Usually there are a lot of birds there, you know, pigeons, starlings. Then, the morning someone noticed the big one, the basin was empty. It refilled again, of course. But all the birds were gone."
"No one saw this?" Sam scribbled something in his notebook as Dean rolled his eyes.
"No," said Jane. "Most of us were at the funeral, you know. The second one. And then at Logan's, since that's the only place to get a drink around here."
"Thanks for your help," said Dean. "We'll let you know if we need anything else."
They opened their FBI badges in the police station just long enough for the one officer on duty to blanch and point them towards the holding cell. "You want coffee?" he said. "I mean. I could brew some? Or doughnuts?" He twisted his hands and straightened his belt.
"We're fine, thank you," Dean said, and hustled Sam past the desk.
"This one is the one who killed his neighbor," Sam whispered as they looked in on a balding man. "Gave a full confession to the police. Walter, um. Thorbjorn?"
The man glanced up from where he sat, thick arms bent and resting on short, muscled legs. His neck tanned sharply where it met his shoulders, and his hands had the rough-hewn markers of someone used to working outdoors: age spots and scars, long, scabbed cuts. Skin rough as birchbark, a bruise blossoming beneath one fingernail.
When the man leaned forward and linked his fingers, Dean noticed a raised burn on his wrist, like an unpracticed F, crossbars at an acute angle to the stem. Branded there, looked like, but fresh, still healing. Dean looked at the hands and thought of his father, thought of Bobby and the way his hands felt older now, his palms thickened by the rims of his wheelchair. Thought of the handprint on his shoulder, how he'd wanted it to mean salvation and grace, and how it had turned out to be nothing but a reminder that for all he'd burned, there were flames hotter still.
"That's me," said Walter.
"Would you just tell us again what happened?" Sam asked.
"Sure. Land next to mine, the Stein place. Husband dies, leaves the wife and kid, and they hire a hand to help out. Little guy, fast, name of Bardi. Tom Bardi. So there's not a real clear fence between the two places, and sometimes the stock grazes a little out of pasture, you know? Tom, he takes to whaling on my cattle, chasing 'em back off the widow's land, and when I go down there to talk to him about it, he says it's not like that. He says he just keeps 'em to my side, doesn't lay a hand on 'em." Walter examined his own hands then, turning them over, rubbing them together. He took a deep breath, let it out in one explosive sound that echoed against the concrete of the cell. His next words came out as a whisper; Dean leaned forward to hear him. "And I just wanted him to stop, you know? And he kept saying he didn't touch the cattle, he'd never touch the cattle, and I. I just raised my hands and— I killed him."
Dean waited, but Walter seemed unwilling to elaborate.
"Was that the only reason?" Sam asked, in a tone that suggested simultaneous disbelief and disgust.
Walter paused his inspection, wiped his hands on his worn jeans. "I killed him," he said again.
"And you don't have any memory gaps, like someone else might have been at the controls?"
"Christo," Dean added, helpfully.
Walter shook his head, bowed low. "No," he said. "I keep praying to wake up, you know. Praying to God for this to be— But there's nothing there. No. It was me."
The interview with Nick Hallfred concluded on a similar note. Nick stared at the ground, or at the wall, refusing to speak directly to the brothers. He had wrapped the sleeves of his sweatshirt over his hands like a frightened child. When they pressed him for reasons, for motives, for an explanation, he responded with the same, defeated, "I killed him." His shoulders curled in shame, until Dean could see his long back, corded and weathered, not meant to slump.
Dean followed Sam back out to the car, looped around to the driver's side. They stood outside, facing each other over the roof.
"So," said Dean. "What now? We talk to the mutant horse?"
Sam shrugged. "You got other ideas?"
"Honestly, Sam? I'm not sure there's a case here."
They opened their respective doors, folding themselves into the car. "You don't think there's anything weird going on?"
Dean twisted the key in the ignition, checked his mirrors, and pulled away from the curb, considering his response. "There's something weird going on. I'm just not sure it's, y'know, weird weird."
Sam sulked until Dean compromised, "We'll stay here a couple days, okay? Make sure nothing else goes too far south?"
Sam nodded, and Dean almost said something but didn't, the words catching at the back of his throat until he coughed and shook his head and drove.
Not only was Logan's the only place to drink in town, it was also the only place to eat that wasn't a McDonald's or closed. Miraculously, it featured free Wi-Fi. Sam made a face at the beer-stained menu, ruffled at the edges and splotched with ketchup. He wiped the table with his napkin before setting the laptop on the pitted lacquer. Dean scanned the offerings and frowned, deciding, finally, on a mushroom and swiss burger, medium rare, with onion rings. Sam muttered something about cholesterol and calcification before ordering the house salad with grilled chicken. After taking a look at the state of the bar, Dean ordered a bottle rather than a draft, and Sam followed suit.
"So," said Dean, leaning back in his seat. The booth boasted a clever patina of grease and condiments, accented with crumbs and grains of salt. Across from him, Sam balanced on an elderly wooden chair with missing caster; it rocked whenever Sam shifted his weight. Four other tables—three two-tops, and one four—lined the walls, and a torn pool table took up much of the remaining floorspace.
"So," Sam agreed, tipping his PBR to his lips and taking a long swallow. He'd ordered water as well, but Dean noticed that he left the cloudy, lipsticked glass untouched, probably to the disappointment of whatever pathogens lurked inside. "You okay?"
Dean still ached from his brush with fame, from something deeper. He tried to remember the last time he'd felt whole, felt healthy, and couldn't place a moment. Before Sam went Sammy the Demon Slayer. Certainly before Hell. Before Stanford, maybe, when life was hunting, when the education they shared was knowing when to draw iron, when silver, what you could kill with a bullet, what took a blade. Drawing salt-circles as if they could keep his brother in like they kept the demons out. Memorizing prayer after useless prayer like the man upstairs kept an ear trained to truck stops.
"Hey," Sam said, leaning forward and to the side to keep his chair from tipping. He opened the laptop, which whirred and blinked to life. "I just wanted to, you know—"
"'m fine," said Dean, and waved the waitress over for shots to prove it. "Whiskey," he told her. When she asked, tiredly, "Powers?" he nodded his okay and tracked her route back to the bar, his gaze stopping dead on the woman sitting there. Even in the dim light, her hair shone gold, flowing long and straight from a complicated knot at the nape of her neck. She bent over a book, one hand wrapped through the handle of a mug, the other holding the pages open as she scanned the text.
Sam looked up from the laptop and asked, "What?" before turning around to see what had caught Dean's attention. Shook his head, huffed a laugh, and returned to his work, scooting the laptop to the side as the waitress arrived with their shots and food.
They ate in silence, Dean sneaking glances at the woman at the bar, Sam frowning at the computer.
"You got anything?" Dean asked, having finished what he could of the burger and picked at the onion rings.
"No." Sam made typing noises, clicked on something, shook his head. "I'm not sure. I don't think so."
"Which is it?"
"I'm not sure." He took a breath. "It's just, these men. They seem like they're acting something out, somehow. Like someone's writing the lines for them."
"How does that make sense?"
Sam rubbed a hand over his face and back through his hair. "It doesn't. Never mind."
"Okay," said Dean, because Sam looked like he might start talking, start explaining or apologizing. He dropped a twenty on the table and rose. "Gonna stretch my legs."
Sam's eyes darted to the woman, but he said nothing.
The first time John brought Dean to a bar was their sixth traverse of Wisconsin. Dean had been fourteen and big for his size, his body honed from child to weapon. He had walked straight up to the rail and ordered, because his father had taught him that half of what people see is what you don't give them time not to.
"Can learn a lot about a man at a bar," John had said, nodding at Dean's choice of liquor. The whiskey swirled amber and smelled like apples and bacon, like smoldering leaves, fresh-dug clay.
"Watch how they're drinking." John jutted his chin at a group of men sitting together at a booth. "They work together. Not trying for women, too formal for it to be the boys. The one sitting there, sipping? He ain't looking to get drunk; he's got something to lose, he lets himself go. Next to him, with the beer, he ordered the micro but he doesn't like it, see how he grimaces a little? Wanted to order something fancy, look like this is old hat, but he's new."
Dean had ducked his head and listened and brought his glass to his lips, forgetting what it held until he'd tipped it down his throat and spent the next minute coughing, blinking back tears.
Now, he folded the memory away and leaned on the bar next to the woman, reading her. A book, worn, library label on the spine; no jewelry, no makeup, long-sleeved shirt, simple black pants. A tattoo started at her wrist, a line running the dip between radius and ulna, something angled off of it as it disappeared under her sleeve. Her drink wafted cloves and lemon and honey, and steamed from the mug in front of her.
He took the in. "What're you drinking?"
She looked up at him, pursed her lips, and said, "I'm fine, thanks."
Dean smiled, the calculated gesture that shadowed his face with laugh lines. "Just curious."
After a pause, she said, "Mead," and drew the mug away from him with long, white fingers.
Catching the bartender's attention, Dean nodded for another beer and sat with one bar stool separating them, giving her space. "You from here?"
"No." Her voice was low and clear, the kind that spoke over Discovery channel specials or public transportation, but she tucked a finger in her book and took a sip of mead.
She smiled into her drink, swirling it in the mug. "Across a cold ocean."
The smile remained as she drank, as she turned to Dean and he saw her eyes for the first time, storm-sky grey. "It's past," she said, shrugging. "And you?"
He thought, briefly, of spinning a tale for her, each signature of his life bound onto the spine of the interstates, running straight and hard. He could claim another name, another place of birth. Another job, another dream. Instead, he admitted, "Kansas. Born there. Been traveling since."
"Another traveler," she said. "Another story."
Dean laughed softly, the beer bottle like melting ice at his fingertips. "It's always another story."
Somewhere, the script had faltered, his drafted and revised persona losing its connection. He conceded with grace. "I hope that's a good one," he said, pointing at her book as he rose.
Sam looked up as Dean returned, and then slid his eyes back to the laptop and leaned towards his brother.
The horse had eight legs. Dean gaped at it, head tilted to one side, distantly aware of his open mouth. "Really?"
Sam said, "Really," and pulled his eyebrows down as if the horse might lose a couple pairs if he squinted hard enough.
"Really," said Castiel, just over Dean's shoulder.
Dean jumped—what had he said about appearing like that—and started in on a series of reminders about humans and heart attacks, but Cas swept past him to lay a hand on the horse's nose.
"This is a sign," Castiel said. His coat had acquired a layer of wrinkles, as had his shirt. He looked at Dean, then down at himself, and smoothed a hand over his chest, uncrumpling the fabric. Still, Dean imagined he could see the threads, worn thin as a note folded in a wallet, a keepsake carried as insurance against forgetting.
"A sign of what?" Sam asked.
Castiel peered at the horse as if about to ask it something, and Dean thought, Of course we get the Dr. Dolittle angel. "I'm not sure," Cas said finally. "But this town is the site of a...disturbance."
Dean snorted. "In what, the Force?" He ignored Castiel's puzzled expression. "Look, we know some weird crap is going on. That's why we're here. It's what we do."
"You spoke to the men in jail?"
"And they're in jail because they killed people. Both of them had basic motive. They weren't possessed, either of them."
"Hmm," said Cas, forthcoming as always.
"Nothing here, anyway," said Sam, his boots kicking up the gold dust scent of hay as he walked to the barn door. Dean followed, Castiel keeping pace at his side. Outside, the sun yielded only a grudging warmth, so Dean pulled his jacket closed and crossed his arms, tucking his hands under to shield them from the wind. Castiel seemed not to notice, and Dean wondered, not for the first time, whether angels were even aware of inconvenient earthly things like temperature.
In silence, they walked towards the car. Dean let his mind wander, his focus on the uneven clods of earth beneath his feet. He thought about coffee and the way waffles smelled better on winter mornings, about his nearly-tapped credit card, about the worn leather at the front edge of the driver's seat and how he'd have to replace it soon or resort to duct tape. Thought about Sam, who walked strangely, who was bigger than Dean remembered, a kid finally grown into his height and breadth. Sam could beat him now, if it came to it. Had the reach and the height and the weight, and had earned, somewhere in the last years—months—the focus to follow through.
He wondered if Sam still prayed, the words he used, whether he heard an answer. He tried, Hail Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, but the words tasted like long-cooled ash.
One of Sam's huge arms stopped Dean in his tracks. Startled, Dean shifted his weight onto the balls of his feet, unlocking his knees, half a question formed before he tracked Sam's line of sight and saw the birds.
A swan perched at the peak of the stable, its long neck extended in greeting or challenge to an eagle just landing further along the roof. The birds sat in perfect stillness, stretched towards each other. Dean had almost managed to compose a comment about feathered beings guaranteed to provoke a stern glance from Castiel when his thought process dissolved into holy shit, cut off by a screech and the razored whisper of talons inches from his head.
The second eagle spread its wings just before reaching the building, banking talons-first and drawing blood Dean could see even at a distance. The first bird staggered, choking a scream that vibrated at a frequency with Dean's spine and catalyzed a shiver running deep in him. Black and white against the sky, the swan hissed at the fighting eagles, beating its wings.
And in a moment carved in blood and feathers, the pop of hollow bone, the eagles fell, tumbling to opposite sides of the building. Broken shingles chased them like hailstones.
"What the hell—" Sam started, but Castiel was three steps ahead of him, crouching beside one of the fallen birds. He dug his fingers into the stark feathers on its chest.
"Don't," Dean said, taking quick strides to reach the scene. "You don't know if it's still—"
"It's not," said Castiel. He looked up, face dark in the shadow of the building. "Give me your knife."
Dean freed the knife from his boot and handed it over before it occurred to him to ask why—and yes, Castiel, Angel of the Lord, was indeed gutting a bird in some farmer's backyard. Cringing, Dean shuffled to the side until he blocked the view from the house. "Cas, you'd better have a damn good reason that couldn't wait. Or not happen."
"I know this story," Cas muttered, ignoring him. His hands spread the bird's chest cavity with a squelch. In seconds, he found what he was looking for and stood, wiping blood in rusty streaks on the grass and then on his jacket. "Here," he said, pointing at the bird and gesturing for Sam and Dean to join him.
"We're reading entrails now?" Dean asked. "Isn't that a little black magic for you?"
"No," said Sam, who had taken a knee beside the bird and poked it open with the eraser end of a pencil. He sounded excited enough that Dean swallowed hard and knelt beside him, peering into the cooling mess Castiel had made. There, the fused wishbone of its clavicle, the long keel of its sternum. The spill of its blood and flesh, the copper scent of death.
"What am I looking at, other than a dead bird?"
Sam fished a napkin out of his pocket and wiped the bones clean. Or almost clean; blood clung to them now in intricate lines and scrolls, half-obscured symbols that Dean struggled to make out. He looked up at Cas, who waited as uncomfortably as always, his bloodied hands at his sides. "These mean something to you, I take it?"
"They're runes, arranged to—" He cut off, his attention diverted to the rooftop. Dean followed the look and watched, bemused, as the swan flew off in the company of another large bird, this one dark brown, like the hawks that had nested one summer in the bluffs near their cabin. "I know this story," Cas said again.
"You wanna share with the class?" Dean asked, his eyes back on the death scene. That carving—the rune—at the center of the wishbone. Like an F. He'd seen it somewhere. He let the thought percolate, confident it would find its origin, given time.
"I don't know. I'm not...the memory is fluid."
"Figures, you being as old as creation."
Castiel shifted his glare from the bird to Dean, which wasn't difficult, considering their proximity. Sam sighed and shot his own glare in Dean's direction, one which said, do not bait the angel.
When Castiel blinked and took a step back, his fingers spread as if to catch his balance, Dean felt the absence of his stare like a hand lifted. "Oh," said Cas. He pinched the bridge of his nose and Dean reached for him without thinking, his fingers closing over Cas's wrist. "Oh," he said again, his voice bleached. "It's her."
"Cas can take care of himself," Sam said as Dean drove a reinterpreted speed limit back to the motel.
"I know that." Dean pushed and held four on his phone again, waited for it to connect, listened to five rings and then the solemn notification that the number he had reached did not have voicemail enabled. Sonofa. Fucking angel, can't even trust him to operate a phone, would've been just as useful to give him a Dixie cup and a ball of twine.
"He'll be fine." Sam had his rational voice out, the one he used to calm witnesses and talk to girls.
"I know that," Dean growled. His mind flipped through possibilities: not all of us believe in the power of positive thinking, Sammy, some of us believe in angelic badassery; he knows what he's doing.
If you had to pray now, what would you say? You listening up there?
He couldn't shake the flicker of burning holy oil, the sweet film of incense and absinthe, the way Castiel had looked his last hours in the eye both times and waited for them to burn him out.
Cas hadn't returned to the motel. Hadn't left them a note or a message, hadn't been spotted by anyone in the vicinity. On a hunch, Dean checked the town square, but no one had seen Castiel there, either.
Five rings. The number you have dialed does not have voicemail enabled. Please try again later.
He was winding up to throw the phone into the nearest wall when Sam grabbed his arm, dragged him towards the fountain. "You remember that rune, on the bird?" Sam pointed at the fountain, the swan arched to spill water into the pool below. "There."
Another rune, another F-shaped—damn, Dean knew he'd seen it before. "What is that thing?" he asked, to Sam's shrug.
Bobby, at least, answered his phone. "Tell us what this means," Dean said without a hello as Sam took a picture and emailed it. Behind him, the tree tossed, buffeted by wingbeats. Dean tensed—he wasn't much in the mood to be carried off by a predator bird with a thirty-foot wingspan, thanks anyway—and stepped away from the fountain.
On the other end of the line, Bobby made a shuffling sound and set the phone down, his wheelchair squeaking as he moved. In moments, he returned, picked the phone back up, and said, "Dean? It's a rune."
"We know it's a rune. What does it mean?"
A thud, the creak of leather. Dean bounced back on his heels and set his jaw, his heartbeat adrenaline-quick behind his ribs. He thought: Cas is okay. Cas is always okay. He didn't look at Sam.
"It's Ansuz," Bobby said after a minute. "Associated with truth, wisdom...wait. You said a giant eagle? And an eight-legged horse?"
Dean frowned. "Yeah. Those mean something to you?"
"They don't to you? Or to your brother?" That last loud enough for Sam to hear. Dean shrugged at him, and Sam raised his eyebrows and twisted his mouth in response.
"They're Norse. Give me the names of your killers again."
Dean repeated the names and waited as Bobby grunted curses at whatever book he had open in front of him. Norse, he mouthed at Sam, who grimaced into the middle distance for a second before his face lit with the glow of incredible geekery about to come to fruition. Dean, not about to ask his brother why he was grinning like gold stars were going out of fashion, scowled up at the tree.
"What I thought," Bobby said at last. "They're from the sagas. Icelandic. My guess is you're looking for someone from the pantheon. Old stock, to be working that kind of mojo."
"Thanks," said Dean, and hung up over Bobby's, "Be careful."
"All right," he said to Sam. "What?"
"It's the sagas," said Sam.
Oh for the love of, "What sagas? Am I the only person in the world who doesn't know this story?"
"They're sort of historical fiction about Iceland. Really old, written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, mostly." Sam scrolled down on his phone, then pointed at the screen. "The men, their names, and the birds. They're acting them out. And the eight-legged horse: Sleipnir. Fuck. I can't believe I missed this."
Dean took a deep breath and reminded himself that Sam's brain was not his fault. "Slow down, myth boy," he began, and then it clicked, stop-motion: the burn on Walter's wrist, the bird, the fountain. The woman, her wrist tattooed like Walter's, her ancient eyes.
"What is it?" asked Sam.
"The woman from the bar," Dean said. "She had the rune."
Sam nodded. "And his wrist."
"The other one wearing long sleeves so we couldn't see."
"You wanna cut Big Bird open too?" Sam pointed up at the tree, and Dean laughed despite himself.
"She had a library book, last night."
"I saw it on the way in," Sam said, and it flooded over Dean like a summer morning, Sam telling him: Okay, telling him, Okay, I trust you, let's go.
The library was an old building, two short flights of stairs leading to a set of white doors. Tall Palladian windows arched to either side of the stairs, panes of glass glinting in the afternoon sun. Depression project, Dean thought, like half the stuff still standing out here. Brick and mortar, stacked by needful hands, made to stand the winds of winter.
Sam pointed at the closed sign, double-checking that Dean understood the need for silence before opening his lock pick set.
Maybe here. Jolly Saint Nick, Dean thought. Saint of thieves and the condemned. Might be a good time to watch over our sorry asses.
Inside, the library smelled like dust and glue and paint, a suggestion of mildew. The light made a checkerboard of the floor, beams like ribbons traced back to the windows. Dean drew his gun and held it in front of him as if it might lead, given a chance. He tried not to think about the sound of a shot in here, chasing through the open entrance, folded into the muffling stacks. Even at a tiptoe, his steps echoed.
They walked together, avoiding the bare wood in favor of the carpet, peering down row after row of books. At the back, Dean waited while Sam ducked into the children's room. Nothing.
Back to the center of the building then, where Dean inclined his head towards a stairwell marked Basement and a drinking fountain reassuring the public that its water was in fact lead-free. Beyond, a set of unlit stone steps met the foundation. Dean had just enough time to think Of course before he followed his brother down.
The voices reached them first, Cas's gravel and hers like blue glass. The peculiar acoustics of the basement sifted the meanings from their sounds. Dean strained to hear the exchange over the white noise of his breath. He stepped closer, light on his toes, thinking relax at the muscles bunched between his shoulder blades. He wondered if a prayer here would bounce back, off the bomb-shelter reinforced ceiling, back down to God's miserable warring humans.
"You have to leave here," said Castiel. "Your time is gone, and this isn't your place."
"I've done nothing wrong."
"Inciting humans to kill?"
She laughed, the sound ringing against concrete and glass, the metal fire doors. "And you've done so much better? Your followers have killed millions, raped and tortured, burned whole cities to ash. You have the audacity now to bring an apocalypse, and clothe it in brothers."
"It's not my doing," said Cas, but his voice was quiet and unsteady, too much a question.
The woman sighed, and Dean heard the scuff of feet, the weight of someone sitting. "I know," she said. "I'm sorry. I forget how young you are."
Out of the corner of his eye, Dean saw Sam's expression of wonder, followed by another of determination. Come on.
The woman looked at them without surprise when they entered the room, slightly out of sync, far enough apart that she couldn't take both of them at once. Beside her, Castiel stood, head bowed, his hands folded in front of him. Dean wondered if he was praying, if he still knew the words.
"Cas?" Sam said, "You all right?"
"I'm fine. What's been happening here, it's over."
Dean moved sideways, his gun up, until he stood closer to Castiel, between him and the woman. "Mind explaining?"
When she stood, the room dimmed, the light focusing on her face as if she held a lantern. "I've been wandering a long time," she said. "My stories are almost gone; it's been so long since anyone lived them." Dean found himself stilled, and thought again of storms and sleet, of the world always half-dark. "I hoped...." She paused, and the light faded. For a moment, Dean saw an old woman, bent and broken, hair dulled from yellow to grey.
"I hoped that here, finally, I could free them."
Sam stepped closer, lowering his gun. "You're—"
"Saga, yes. And yes, a little far from home." She tapped her fingers on the back of the chair. "I'm sorry. I didn't know this would—" When she looked at Dean, her body telegraphed an appeal, hands spread and head bowed. "Stories aren't meant to be caged, you know. They're wild creatures, drawn at campfires and mead halls, late at night between friends. They're meant for freedom, but mine— They twist in translation." That last to Castiel, who stiffened, his eyes huge. He stumbled back, as if pushed, and Dean tensed, adrenaline rushing through him.
Cas waved him off with a twitch of his fingers as he regained his balance. "This is not your place," he said. "These aren't your people."
"I know," Saga whispered. Her voice sounded wrong at that volume, bound. "I just wanted someone to carry the memory. Just for a moment."
Cas closed the space between them to set a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I could—"
"No." She spoke kindly, her smile a lit window in a miles-distant house. She reached up to him, her palm to the line of his jaw. "You are your own story. I should know."
She tilted her head to one side, staring at Castiel. He met her gaze, face impassive, and Dean wondered whether they could talk like this, whether Cas was written in languages she could read.
"They sent you a long way, didn't they?" she said at last.
The darkness relaxed into fluorescent lighting, humming above them. The thunk of the boiler, the wash of water through the pipes over their heads.
Castiel stood, his hand still outstretched, over emptiness.
Dean hadn't been surprised at Castiel's disappearance, hot on the heels of Saga's. He was surprised, later, to find Cas outside the motel room, leaning against the side of the building.
"You wanna go for a walk?" Dean said, waving his half-empty beer in Cas's direction, "Or are you too busy holding that wall up?"
Cas said nothing, but levered himself forward and walked with Dean, reprising their steps from before. Across the highway, away from people.
"I'm sorry I didn't realize who it was sooner," said Castiel. "She had no intention—she doesn't understand. Humans don't talk the way they used to."
Dean shrugged, draining the rest of the bottle. "It's over. Not much consolation to the ones who didn't make it, but this time next year, it won't matter anyway."
"Don't say that," Cas said, bristling, and Dean heard an echo of thunder, the spread of terrible wings.
"Heaven on Earth, Hell on Earth." Didn't really matter, as far as he could tell. "And at the end, I'm going to the second one anyway," Dean said. He sat in the field, his legs bent, and hooked his arms around his knees. The empty beer bottle dangled from his fingers, then dropped. "You know that, Cas. There's no way, with who I—with what I am. Ain't looking at any kind of pearly gates."
Castiel sat beside him, in stages, like his joints needed instruction. The rigid lines of his shoulders, his back, his arms folded like origami, ready to straighten at a tug.
Quiet, then, except for the wind and the distant swish of the road, the flutter of bats skimming low. Dean glanced at Cas, who had his face tilted up, his eyes wide, his mouth loose. As he watched, Cas blinked, once, slowly, and took a long breath. His exhalation fogged white and dissipated. When he spoke, the words broke a silence so deep that Dean started.
"We didn't lay siege to Hell to see you returned there. But this place is broken. I don't know—" He paused, his shoulders losing their set, his hands palm-up in his lap. Dean wondered whether angels had hands in their true forms, or whether the limitations of lifelines and heartlines smoothed into unreadable perfection.
"So I fight," Cas said. Softly, "And I pray."
Dean felt the words like a hand in his chest, twisting air from his lungs. He said, "How?"
The act of prayer is not useful, Cas said. Prayer is communion, understanding. It's thanks, for the things and the people you find rare. It's why you pray for Sam and for your mother, why you pray for Bobby and Ellen and Jo, why you pray for your father. You pray for those who weaken you, and call it love.
Dean thought, And when I pray for you?
In Ohio, they stopped at a tiny white church tucked away from the interstate, its gabled roof torn by time and cold. Inside, people had written prayers on scraps of colored paper. Sam read them, one by one, each left by fingers variable as souls. Sam looked back once, his eyes shining, and Dean watched his little brother and reached for the right prayer and heard only the wind.
"So is this love?" Dean asked Cas, who had appeared beside him in a gust, fluttering the pinned prayers. "Or is this weakness?"
Castiel took a step closer, their sleeves brushing, and watched Sam with him. "This," he said, "is salvation."
Dean closed his eyes and felt the bite of winter, the new scent of it. The rot of fall past, the ground dusted with snow clean as a new page. He half-expected Castiel to be gone when he opened his eyes, but instead the angel had walked to the door and out over the snow, pressing footprints into the grass.
When he and Sam followed, Castiel paused and said, "Now you understand."
"What?" Sam asked, but Dean saw something else standing there, written in Cas's eyes, over his chest and into the shadows between his coat and thin hips. He nodded, and knew that Castiel's lips would turn up, that he would take a step back, that his body would flex once and disappear as he took flight, the falling snow closing into the space of his absence.
"Not much for explanations, is he?" Sam said.
Dean said nothing, walking his own story, entangled with Sam's as they turned together back to the road.