The beat of Castiel's wings stirs the leaves as he arrives in a clearing among thick, old trees, far from any lights. The darkness is heavier than any usual night, and if he were human, this would matter, but he isn't, and it doesn't. He has no trouble seeing, but thinks of the time a few years past when his vision was hampered, his body weak, a useless soldier in a war he couldn't walk away from. (How was it Dean still expected of him then, as if he weren't a broken hammer?)
The glass jar of blood gripped in one hand and the paper with the incantation on it in the other, Castiel stands listening to the wind muttering in the trees and to his own heart beating. It is his own heart now, has been for some time, but he's still at moments too hollow, misses the human soul that used to reside with him. It made it easier, the jolts and shocks of being in a container of bone, muscle, sinew, blood, cartilage.
He wonders what he's waiting for -- he should get down to it. This was the only way to ensure humanity could go on with its existence unhindered, messy, sweaty, self-loathing, painful, laughing, teary-eyed. Their voices raised to shout or humming under their breaths, hands curled into a fist or brushing tenderly over skin. What is he waiting for? He always takes too long to think, to question, poised on the edge, the strategist hesitating to take action (until there's Dean, bleeding and battered on a warehouse floor, and there's Sam, going through an opened iron door to self-destruct). What is he waiting for? Once it's done they'll understand why.
The knot of hurt in his chest tightens. They never listen, why did they never listen?
It sounds petulant even in his own mind. He draws in a deep, slow breath against the unsettled twist of his gut. What if he's wrong, what if, what if he said, all right, Dean, help me find another way? But he can't. There isn't. There isn't another way, and Dean is just a man, strong-willed but mortal and vulnerable.
Castiel's seen the dawn of the universe, he's watched (always watching) humanity struggle and evolve and try to destroy itself and it's his job to look after them. Someone has to, since they stubbornly refuse to see what's best for themselves. He'll see it for them, he'll do this for them.
The jar's heavy in his hand, blood darkened by the night. Castiel holds the paper with the incantation on it between two fingers and touches the others to his chest. The sting and the burn sears along the bones of his ribs, forming the sigils. In an instant, it's done. He uncaps the jar, catching the thick, metallic, too-sweet scent of blood. The method he's using is ill-advised, but he needs to do this quickly.
What he's doing, it's no different than anything the Winchesters have done, yet they judge him. Why should Castiel believe anything Dean says, when he refuses to trust? Never mind that Dean can meet his stare and accepts what he sees. Never mind Dean's hand on his shoulder, Dean laughing. Never mind the raw, frantic hurt and need in Dean's prayers and the relief in his eyes when Castiel appears. Never mind the small ache of envy that sometimes, not often, hits Castiel unexpectedly when he looks at the way Sam and Dean fit together, notched into place, the instinctive gestures that link them. The way they don't ever break apart no matter how much the cracks form between them.
This idea of brotherhood is different than what he's used to, where every decision gets weighed and calculated, no room for doubt or hurt or personal preference -- Lucifer showed what happens to those who let that in. All of this for the glory of a Father who left them, abandoned his children to squabble amongst themselves after he gave the order to banish his favorite to the pit.
Lucifer is akin to the stories humans make up to keep children in line, only none of it is made up, there are boogeymen, monsters, demons and archangels, with rough, tattered champions to fight against them. Heaven has no champions. Michael, Castiel would've thought once, but Castiel eventually learned not to look to Michael, and Raphael is lost, determined to destroy their Father's creation as surely as Lucifer ever was. Balthazar, who may have truly been a brother and turned into a Judas. Castiel almost drops the jar, surprised at how much the thought of him hurts.
What if. What if he stepped forward and said to Dean, help me find another way? Dean, who offers him brotherhood Castiel would joyfully accept (while Castiel would take far more than that from him).
But friendship, brotherhood, anything else Dean is willing to give, none of it is for Castiel after all. This is the only possible path, why does no one else but Crowley see that? How is it they are so blind that Castiel has to turn to the ruler of Hell?
He lifts the jar to his mouth, swallows the blood, the warmth of it spreading into his chest. He nearly chokes before he's done drinking.
Memories flicker to him: Dean on a park bench, a warrior in torn denim showing no wariness even though he should, brittle yet warm until Castiel confesses to doubts he's startled to realize he has, ready to perch on Dean's shoulder, keep him safe. Sam's big hand grasping Castiel's, Sam stumbling over himself with his eagerness and his faith, adult and child all at once, nothing like what they taught Castiel to expect, warned him about, with kindness behind his eyes.
He shivers -- he isn't supposed to shiver, he doesn't shiver.
Castiel holds the empty jar and reads the incantation, his own rough voice the only sounds except for the wind.
It's the only way. (He'll fix Sam, he promised, it had to be done, if only they listened). It has to be the only way, it has to be --
When the portal opens he staggers, almost dropping the jar. The paper with the incantation on it flutters away into the dark while the wind grows in strength, stinging his eyes with grit.
The first souls stream into him, lighting him from within, heat filling his arteries and veins, sparking to the marrow of his bones. More of them and more, too hot and too bright until they settle within him, absorbed into his vessel. The portal widens and Castiel grunts in pain, falling to his knees. They're flowing in too quickly, thousands, ten thousands, hundreds of thousands, burning, every one of them: shapeshifters and vampires, werewolves and wraiths, things even Bobby Singer couldn't identify, many carrying the rage and longing from memories of once having been human.
They swarm over his grace, slither in and out of it, all happening too quickly, he can't, he can't, he can't, he squeezes his eyes shut against the pain, pushes back hard with his grace to wrench some of it free but more move in. This must be what it's like for humans when they can't breathe, he can't, he can't, his own grace -- he reaches for it, clinging on to it as they curl over and under and through, vine-like and relentless. A low hum fills his ears.
If there was any other way --
He fights them, tendrils of his grace snapping free. This is not what he meant, they can't cover all of it. They're in his blood and bones and muscles, they're seizing territory over his grace as if it's land to conquer. This is not what he meant. What are you, Castiel? This is not what he meant. He grows dizzy. Castiel wonders if this is what it was like for Jimmy Novak, having angelic grace pour down into him, into every corner of his body, too hot and too bright, drowning him alive.
Castiel's barely aware of the damp earth against his knees, soaking through the fabric of his slacks. His hand gripping the jar is numb, seems like someone else's hand. Too many voices sound in his head.
He reaches for one, a memory: just 'cause. I am asking you not to. Just 'cause. Just 'cause. Just 'cause.
Castiel tugs a piece of his grace free, slams it to the back of his mind, carrying that voice with it. Just 'cause.
He's drowning he can't breathe he's drowning as they rise to his neck, his mouth, while his breath grows ragged and he tilts his head back, one word breaking from him, frantic, "Dean --"
-- before his struggles cease and calm settles over his body while something continues to thrash anxiously at the back of his senses.
Castiel rises smoothly to his feet.
Maybe now, they'll understand.