Chapter 1: The Man Who Knew Too Much
Sam saw the Impala flipped over and resting on her back, headlights pointed blindly at the ground. The engine was still running with what might have been a death rattle.
My.. our ... car! home!
The driver's side door was open... no crushed or broken bodies inside.
They had to be alive. Had to be in that building.
Then flames were everywhere, searing flesh that wouldn't dissolve, eating into bone that had no merciful vaporization point. Blinded, Sam stumbled.
They're not real! Pull yourself together, idiot. This is absolutely the dumbest thing you've ever done in a lifetime of stupidity, but if you're determined to do it, don't fall apart now!
Acid, cold, derisive words in his own voice, cutting through the remembered agony like a knife made of ice.
Don't worry, I'm not taking over. You already won that one, gods know how. But save the steel in your spine for when we're inside. I can handle this....
Sam's back stiffened, his feet steadied, his grasp on the pearl grips of the Taurus Model 99 went from clutching to tight, but relaxed.
I'll take... try to take... the... Still his thoughts, but another voice. Stripped. Broken, yet always able to break again, and again.
The soul fire was gathered up inside, the act of it searing that part of Sam even more cruelly, but he could see. Could move.
Good. Thanks, Saint Joan, the cool voice wasn't derisive, just chillingly no-nonsense. Now, do it. Go!
As silently as a cat, Sam slipped past demon guards left by Crowley and into the building.
He made it almost to the dissection room, slipping down the lower floor hallway to the double doors of the round room's main entrance. Those doors were swung wide open now, the corridor in total shadow. The tiles of the room amplified voices wonderfully, though it also distorted them. Or maybe it was something else that distorted them. Power and the lust for it.
When it came, the sudden build of vibration that penetrated spine and skull as easily as cement and cinder-block was the only warning Sam had to flatten against the shuddering walls and turn his head as light flared to nova intensity for a moment and then dimmed back.
"You can't imagine what it's like. They're all inside me. Millions upon millions of souls..."
It was Castiel's voice... but the timbre of it triggered something from that part of Sam that crouched deep inside, waiting for the next round of agony. Memory engraved by the slicing of angelic voices, raw and unfiltered, into his naked soul.
The next voice from inside the room was deeper, accented. The King of Hell. "Sounds sexy. ...exit, stage Crowley."
A hot waft of sulfur seemed to pass Sam as he crouched against the corridor wall.
Sam crept closer, right to the edge of the open doorway, clinging to shadow but searching, urgently, for the presence of a couple of mere humans.
"Now what's the matter, Raphael? Somebody clip your wings?"
Another slight shudder ripped along Sam's back at Castiel's soft, calm tone. A calm that burned cold. If he didn't know... if Lucifer weren't locked in the Cage...
"Castiel, please! You let the demon go...but not your own brother?" Low timbre, feminine voice, angelic subharmonics. Sam recognized it from that one previous meeting outside the broken motel room window. The last archangel.
He peered around the edge of the doorway... saw beige canvas covering a back with familiar shape, immobile as a mountain, steady as a star. Sam' eyes raked the room beyond, searching.
Raphael's answer came quickly. "The demon I have plans for. You, on the other hand..."
Sam's eyes widened a second before the crisp finger snap and horrible, meaty explosion, echoing another nerve and soul deep memory - his own fingers snapping.
The ripple of power that could snuff out an angel as easily as a fly...
For a moment inside Sam everything went dark.
"So you see, I saved you."
"Yes you did, Cas. Thank you." Soft, careful... Maybe a handful of people had ever heard such a tone from Dean Winchester. It cracked Sam's void open with a sharp stab of simultaneous relief and terror.
Dean, at least, was alive.
But for how long?
"You doubted me, fought against me, but I was right all along."
Soft, calm certainty that ran along Sam's nerves causing all too familiar shudders. It always had to be you, Sam.
"Okay Cas, you were. We're sorry. Let's just defuse you, okay?" How could Dean sound so... gentle?
Sam counted forced, slow breaths.
"What do you mean?" For a moment, it was almost a question the old Castiel might have asked.
The soft persuasion in Dean's voice was stretched thin, but Sam almost believed that it might reach the being that stood between them, once guardian, ally, partner, friend. That Cas might find resonance in that so-called more profound bond. "You're full of nuke – it's not safe, so before the eclipse ends, let's get them souls back where they belong."
"Oh no, they belong with me."
You're mine, Sam. We were, quite literally, made for each other.
Flames. Blood. Numbing cold. Searing pain.
This is going to go south so fast and there will be nothing but red smears in place of everything human left in that room or out of it. The cool logical thought came out of nowhere, devoid of fear, devoid of sentiment. If you really plan to save your brother, you can't just hide out here sniveling in the hallway, hero. Look. On the ground. Angel sword.
"No, Cas, it's scrambling your brain."
It's still Castiel... I can't...
"I'm not finished yet. Raphael had many followers, and I must... punish them all severely."
Another hard shudder ran though Sam, as the words punish them echoed in a pure angelic voice that most humans couldn't have listened to without brains exploding. In the Cage, there had been no surcease, no escape from horrible, beautiful voices.
But Dean didn't give up.
Never gave up.
"Listen to me, listen, I know there's a lot of bad water under the bridge, but we were family once. I'd've died for you, I almost did a few times, so if that means anything to you, please... I've lost Lisa, I've lost Ben, now I've lost Sam. Don't make me lose you too. You don't need this kind of juice any more, Cas. Get rid of it, before it kills us all."
Broken bits of Sam crumbled and wept without tears for the real anguish suppressed under Dean's calm tones. Slowly he started sliding down the corridor wall, a prelude to collapsing.
So this is all it takes? You should have given up and let me have the meat suit. We'd be miles away by now and have a better chance of seeing another sunrise... this is all you've got? At least your brother's making a effort to go out on his feet... Are you a hunter?
Get. The freaking. Sword.
"You're just saying that because I won. Because you're afraid. You're not my family, Dean. I have no family."
It shouldn't have been possible for Castiel's tone, his words, to chill Sam any deeper.
There might only be one chance.
When Sam moved, he didn't stumble. Maybe Castiel knew he was there all along. Maybe he knew the angel sword couldn't harm him.
Sam still lunged in one fluid move and drove it home with all the strength he could muster. If nothing else, maybe he could buy Dean and Bobby an escape.
It was like trying to stab a planet.
The sword stuck hard like Excalibur in the stone. The vibration of a billion souls ran along Sam's arms. He stumbled backwards.
Watched Cas reach around and pull out the weapon.
"I'm glad you made it, Sam. But the angel blade won't work, because I'm not an angel anymore. I'm your new God. A better one. So you will bow down, and profess your love unto me, your Lord. Or I shall destroy you."
The shock of it rang around the room from human to human to human (and only then did Sam see Bobby also – for now – alive).
In the next breath, it might have happened. Forty years or a hundred in Hell, one of the first lessons two brothers named Winchester had learned was about pride and what it was worth when facing power.
The stench of sulfur was sudden and choking, the change of venue gut-wrenching as the three humans were whisked away.
The new 'God' was suddenly alone in an empty room.
Chapter 2: Hound to the Hunters
Three human hunters gasped and looked around an unfamiliar and derelict environment. The King of Hell gazed blandly back.
"We don't have long, boys," Crowley's drawl was cool but edged with the scrape of teeth against teeth.
Dean exploded almost before he had a chance to take in what had happened. The spring was direct, knife materializing in his right hand. Crowley had done him a favor, perhaps unintentionally. Given him something to focus on besides the nauseating gut punch of Castiel's meglomaniacal proclamation, and the threat that followed.
Still gasping at the shock of being transported, Sam instinctively grabbed at his brother, arms wrapping around Dean like bands of steel. Whatever the King of Hell wanted, it was unlikely he'd suffer an attack without retribution.
Dean groaned in pain at the pressure on his left arm and shoulder.
The Demon King's smirk was thin. "Why, Moose, you actually can be sensible. I suppose remembering your stay in the Cage has tenderized some of the idiot out of you."
Dean's bellow shook his body. It shook Sam's as he clutched his brother. "WHATEVER YOU WANT, IT'S NO!"
Dean didn't employ any of the moves he could have to get free of Sam's restraining hold, but none of the tension left his muscles. The moment Sam relaxed, Dean would leap like a hungry cougar, dislocated shoulder and all.
Bobby tightened formation next to them, his revolver out and point blank at the demon king.
"Quit shouting," Crowley snapped. "I don't want anything... except what comes naturally." There was no urbane smile, only a tight baring of teeth. "No deals. You can thank me for saving you later. You don't have much time, none of us do, only however long it will take dear Cas to have playtime with the boys upstairs. This room is angel-proofed but no telling if that will slow him down at all. So stop frothing. Get it together, now!" It was both an order, and a snarl.
"Or WHAT, you maggot-riddled dickwad?" Bobby snarled right back, cutting Dean off before his mouth could open. As Bobby spoke, he took a couple of steps to the left. Circle and distract. Well worn tactics, which the older hunter knew both boys would recognize and coordinate with. "I'm betting this whole crazy mess is your fault..."
"Or more likely Dean's," Crowley shot back, "making a pet out of an angel in the first place. You should have guessed you couldn't housebreak one of those self righteous all knowing holy boys so easily..."
Dean heaved against Sam's hold. "I'm going to rip your throat out and piss down your neck..."
"...but like I said, we don't have time for bickering, and I don't have time to play Farmer in the Dell with you adorable cretins. I got you out of there for one thing only and it wasn't to exchange insults. Now pull yourselves together and go do...whatever it is you do." Crowley's glare was narrowed, and centered on the brothers Winchester. "Or am I wrong, were you planning to fall on your knees and start singing hymns of praise?"
The King of Hell didn't wait around to argue, answer questions, or persuade. With another waft of sulfur he was history.
Dean sagged against Sam the moment Crowley was gone, as Bobby glared around, gun following his urgent examination of the room they'd been transported to. It was empty, and not particularly clean, the lingering odors of sweat, blood and more sulfur suggesting recent use by demons. There were a few pieces of moldy, rat-eaten furniture and some boarded up windows, with one archway opening blankly to a vague shadowy hall.
Sam caught Dean and held him as best he could, locking his knees, which were none too steady either. Dean groaned and shifted, head coming up to peer into Sam's face.
"Sam.... Sammy?" The question was a lot of things rolled into one, like you made it!I knew you... and Sammy is it you? Are you all right? and Sammy... you stabbed Castiel with a frickin' angel sword?!!? and not that I blame you but, fuck, Sam, he might have snapped his fingers and exploded you like Raphael and I couldn't bear... and Sammy... Cas... Cas is... what the hell did I do? What was I supposed to do?
"Yeah, it's me," Sam murmured, his lips trying to curve into a reassuring smile and managing mostly to twitch at the corners and press together for a moment to stop an inadvertent tremble. I'm here, I'm alive, I'm all right... It wasn't really a lie when you desperately needed it to be true, was it? I know, I know....
For a moment Sam hung on, not restraining any more, just clinging. Giving support, and taking it. Too low for even Bobby's ears he murmured, "It's not your fault."
As if the words hadn't left his lips, he continued, "You're hurt..."
"I'll be fine once you pop my shoulder back," Dean's voice was a soft growl suppressing pain, sorrow, shock and guilt, now that the rage at Crowley was ebbing. He ignored Sam's other words, unable to believe them. Still, he'd heard.
"I'm bruised till my legs probably look like eggplants under my jeans, but I'll live, thanks for asking," Bobby interjected, with no malice whatsoever. He circled back to the two boys. "Sam... it's good to see you in one piece, boy..."
It was almost a question.
"Several pieces," Sam replied with brutal self-honesty, "But all under one roof at least. Help me... brace Dean..."
"I don't need bracing, you're not going to do this right now... OW! Ow ow... crap, Sammy!" After the pain spike, Dean slumped in slightly throbbing relief.
Bobby stepped back, and Dean moved to an overturned crate and lowered to sit.
"Don't get comfy," Bobby said quickly. "We can't stay in this demon's flophouse. I don't trust Crowley as far as I could spit a backhoe."
"That makes two of us," Dean said, not getting up, "but Bobby, where we gonna go? This time, friggin' God is after our asses..." There wasn't any humor and Sam could hear where his brother's voice almost cracked on the G word. It wasn't an acknowledgment of Castiel's claim. Just a painful reference to how fucked things were.
"I hate to say it," Sam cleared his throat, swallowing bile that kept trying to crawl back up his esophagus, "but Crowley's probably right. We're not... his... first priority right now. That gives us, maybe, time to try and regroup..."
The urgency under his voice wasn't solely for their predicament. There would be more hell flashes coming. Over a hundred years' worth.
Dean didn't want to regroup. Didn't want to run or fight, either. The change in Cas, in his angel, was trying to push Dean past the breaking point of his endurance. Dean knew the empty feeling of that black hole of nothing inside opening up to swallow everything he had left. It had happened before. Every time he thought there would never be another time, that he had nothing left to lose.
Sam's tone reached him, though. He'd thought Sam was gone, maybe for good this time. Again.
Dean focused his gaze on his brother and he looked hard. Looked deep.
Saw the struggle being held at bay by Sam's sheer willpower.
Saw, for the first time since Sam had been back, something akin to what Dean had carried inside him for nearly three years. Akin, but so much worse.
Dean got up.
"Where the hell are we, anyway?" The word was inescapable, he let it fall as if it meant nothing.
It was almost a rhetorical question, but Bobby moved for the open archway as soon as he saw Dean gather himself. His voice came back a moment or two later, as the boys moved to follow, shoulders barely inches apart, each one determined to catch the other should either kind of strength give out.
"You're not going to believe this, but not that far from where we were..."
The dark hall led to a front entrance, with boarded windows and a door with a broken lock, wide open now with Bobby standing silhouetted in it. It was dark outside but it would get lighter as the shadow of the Earth moved slowly across the face of the full moon. Unlike a solar eclipse, which lasts just a few minutes, most lunar eclipses spanned three to four hours in total, with one to two hours of that time the period of maximum darkness. At this point they were barely halfway through.
Out the doorway they could see a trash strewn, weed infested yard and then a driveway leading to a road off to the left. Beyond the road, quite a bit further but visible, was a big building, some kind of abandoned institution. They'd just been inside it mere moments ago.
On the road between them and the structure, a battered black car was somehow resting on her wheels again, roof and hood dented, but not crushed. They didn't make car frames out of that kind of heavy, dense steel any more. The weight resulted in crappy gas mileage.
Dean almost breathed a prayer of thanks before he realized who or what must have set the Impala rightside up. Crowley, or demons at his command. Now pull yourselves together and go do...whatever it is you do. The King of Hell was giving them the benefit of their tools, as if there was anything in the Impala's trunk that could stop a god...
None of the three of them could help staring beyond the car at the building, lights out in those big windows now. It was dark and eerily quiet.
Dean shook it off first and moved. "If she starts, we're getting out of here," he half muttered.
Sam and Bobby both followed, less than a half step behind. It was Bobby who turned to Sam with a curious look, "How did you get here anyway, Sam? You couldn't have walked it..."
"There..." Sam pointed back up the road and sure enough, about twenty yards back you could see a car pulled off the road, an old Ford Torino, yellow body, white roof, showing her age. One of the half dozen cars at Singer Salvage that happened to be in running condition this week.
Sam didn't mention it had been a miracle he'd driven the car there without sideswiping other cars or objects and without picking up a police escort. He'd been veering most of the way like a drunken man coming home from a four night bender.
Bobby stopped short of the Impala, but Dean was already getting in, and cranking the ignition. She balked and choked a couple of times as Dean ordered and urgently begged her to come on and then the engine turned over.
Before Sam could climb in, Bobby grabbed his arm. "Keys?" he nodded to the Torino.
"I left them in it," Sam admitted, looking a question.
"Get in the car!" Dean ordered, low, as if volume mattered anyway.
Bobby gave Sam a push and it took no more for Sam to fold into the passenger seat of the battered black car. Bobby leaned over to make eye contact with Dean. "I'm taking the other ride..."
"...Where? Bobby we don't even know..."
"Never mind, just follow me," Bobby knew how to give orders every bit as good as Dean or even John Winchester when he wanted to. He took off at a trot – which hurt, by the way – managing to get into the other car by the time Dean had the Impala turned around.
The Torino started immediately and Bobby wasted no time in pulling out onto the road.
Dean might have chafed at not knowing where he was headed except that he had too much on his mind and too little energy. Part of him half expected Cas to just appear in the back seat, and either thunder that they were blasphemers and blast them to bits, or calmly announce he'd just been kidding with all that God stuff, and couldn't Dean take a joke any more?
If the latter had happened, Dean might just have wept.
Sam slumped in the passenger seat, holding himself together with all the scraps of willpower left to him.
After a while, he murmured, "He's not, you know... not God."
The car barely swerved as Dean's knuckles tightened on the wheel.
"I know that Sammy."
"And we have to stop him."
"And do what Crowley wants?" Dean's snarl was vicious. He swallowed hard. "I didn't... I mean, I know."
"I know you do." Sam's voice was quiet, and calm. Warm and exhausted beyond need for rest, scraped to the bone. So different from that icy cold inhuman calm of the one formerly known as the angel Castiel.
Dean glanced over, studying Sam in multiple looks as he drove, a technique long since perfected. He waited to see if Sam had anything else to say but the silence settled.
For a moment or two Dean had a sudden, strong sense of deja vu, like they were driving to some nameless job, and Sam was about to fall asleep, and the worst thing that might happen was he'd wake up from a nightmare about Jessica...
Sam's eyelids lowered but they never closed.
"Sammy, what happened? The wall..."
"Went down, yeah." Sam stared out of the window at the windswept dark, as memories of coldblooded acts and horrific torture swam and vied for his attention. He turned to look over at Dean instead.
"So...?" The prompt was careful, both curious and fearful, and perhaps a tiny bit needy. Needful of whatever reassurance the truth could provide to Dean at this moment when everything was turned inside out.
"So..." Sam took a breath, made it go slow. Let it out. "I shattered into pieces. For a while, I didn't know who I was. I had to face all the other pieces and... take them back." His eyes swerved back to the darkness outside, slowly lessening with hints of returning moonlight. "Yeah. I remember hell now." Sam would have given a lot if his voice remained steady. It didn't matter. There were more important battles to fight. "And all the things I did when I was soulless."
Dean licked his lips. It was both the best, and the worst thing he could have wished for.
He did his brother the justice of saying nothing for a long time.
"Where the hell is Bobby going?" Dean muttered for the second, or maybe third time. It was probably the third, since like a charm, the Torino ahead of them turned down a tiny dirt road Dean might not have seen even in broad daylight on this particular stretch of highway. Half a dozen turns on the rough track hardly wide enough for the Impala and Bobby pulled up in front of what looked like an abandoned horse barn, out in the middle of woods too thick to ride in.
It was shelter, so Dean kept his grousing silent, or maybe he was just too preoccupied, or still walking in dark places in his mind, to have more than minimal curiosity. He reached over and touched Sam's shoulder and Sam looked back under heavy looking lids. He hadn't been sleeping.
They'd made it this far without any appearance of the new pretender to God's throne. Perhaps Crowley had guessed right – punishing Raphael's followers in Heaven was a higher priority that forcing fealty from a few worn out and powerless humans, humans who weren't family, not any more.
Bracing for what he would find, Dean got out and moved stiffly around to the back of the car and checked to see if the trunk would even open.
It did, though of course the contents looked as if it had all been dumped into a giant shoebox and then shaken by a careless child.
Dean pawed through the jumble and pulled out a bag, stuffing it with some random weapons and supplies picked as quickly as possible from the disordered mess.
Sam joined him, making the task the work of a couple of minutes, instead of ten.
When they reached the door of the barn, Sam stopped and blinked, his eyes scaling up the wooden walls. For a moment those walls seemed to shimmer in the faint rays of starlight that made it over the trees. The shimmers traced shapes.
"It's... covered in warding runes," he answered Dean's inquiry. "You don't see them?"
Even as the words left his lips, the glimmers faded.
"No," Dean frowned. He gave Sam a little push to get him to move through the door.
The inside did not match the outside.
Bobby was already opening a cabinet, checking contents. Part of the barn was partitioned and outfitted inside as a living space for people rather than animals, and had furniture, hurricane lamps, a sink with water taps, cabinets and a couple of large trunks.
"Bobby?" The tone was half confusion, half awe. "You had a place like this..."
The older hunter cut Dean off. "No. It's not mine." His voice was tighter than Dean and Sam expected until he added a few more words that explained it. "This was one of Ellie's holes. I figure it was the one she was heading for when Our New Lord grabbed her. If she'd gotten inside, I'm betting he never would have found her."
Sam was looking around, moving carefully and almost as stiffly as Dean, but driven to explore by the desperation of the circumstances. Beyond the partition walls there actually was a barn, in shadow beyond the reach of the hurricane lamps Bobby had lit up.
Out the the dark Sam heard movement, a shuffling, and a soft snort or two.
Dean was next to him instantly, gun out, pointed towards the shadows.
Sam put an arm up. "It's okay," he said softly. "Horses. Two, I think." Standing there, facing the open space, the scent was unmistakable. Dean recognized it now that he stopped to pay attention. The stink of sulfur, blood and fear had all but numbed his senses.
Dean's arm dropped. He almost slid down to the floor right where he stood.
"Come back over here, idjit," Bobby muttered. Another scent joined the horse and hay smells and the lamp oil. Whiskey.
There were three glasses, appropriated from Eleanor Visyak's cabinets.
Dean grabbed at his glass as if he were angry with it, and tossed down half in two quick swallows.
Sam picked his glass up more slowly, looking at it and glancing at his brother, and then Bobby before he took a much more careful drink. His inner voices were silent for now but who knew what the lowering of inhibitions courtesy of alcohol might unleash.
Dean was watching more closely than Sam realized. A hand brushed Sam's back for a moment and was gone. Drink up, Sammy. It helps. Trust me, who would know better?
"So we have a hidey hole," Dean rasped, after a moment, and the rest of his glassful of liquor. "Which might or might not hide us from demons, angels or wannabe Gods. What now? Keep our heads down and hope he doesn't explode and toast the planet?"
"No, sunshine, we catch our damn breath. Then we try and figure out what we have to do." Bobby's growl was exasperated, but lacked much of any edge. He knew Dean knew.
Sam's long legs bent and lowered him onto the leather sofa. He nursed his drink but it still disappeared rather quickly.
"All right, so how do we get all those Purgatory souls out of Cas and back where they belong?"
"Great question," Dean's retort was automatic sarcasm without any real bite. "I'm sorry, but I'm still stuck on..."
He swallowed the last part of that sentence.
It figured that Sam would finish it for him. "...why?" Low, quiet, almost monotone and completely understanding.
"Shut up, Sammy."
Bobby rubbed the bridge of his nose. He was tired, scared, bruised and aching, and once again overmatched beyond the scope of what he'd ever expected to have to face. His heart bled for the pain he saw in Dean, and shuddered for what might be going on in Sam's noggin.
And they didn't have time to just be human.
Chapter 3: The Harrowing of Heaven
The new God confronts his minions...
The only outward sign that Castiel noticed the sudden emptiness of the room he occupied came in a brief widening of borrowed eyes. He didn't perceive Crowley's interference as a waft of sulfur. The afterimage of that corrupt presence was marked by senses for which a human shell had no correlation, but those senses were vibrating on levels that Castiel had never experienced before nor even imagined could be, filled beyond any known ethereal limitations by the souls of Purgatory. They sang in him, through him... sang, howled, screamed, thrummed, millions of frequencies jamming out a chord that had no comparison.
This had to be what it was to be God.
Castiel, when merely an angel of the Lord, had once stated to Samuel Campbell that his true form was the size of the Chrysler Building. Now, his inflated true form would have crushed the Earth to its molten core had he made any attempt to manifest it. He could hear the harmonies of the planets, so much louder than ever before, as if they turned around his head like a halo of unimaginable gems.
He did not notice, however, the dissonance that had already crept into their music.
The Moon was passing out of Earth's shadow, a thing he could feel in the pull and stretch of gravity. For the tiny creatures, humans and beasts alike, crawling over this blue marble, it was a time perceived in mere hours.
There was a tug that he felt along with the transit. It was the suck of an unsealed portal, still left a sliver ajar. He was certain that the end of the eclipse would finalize that closure. Then the souls would be his to keep, his to, perhaps, consume, rather than simply to use.
How could Dean Winchester expect him to relinquish this?
Fear. Of course it was. Limited, mud monkey... no, human, fear. But he would show them. Show Dean. He could be a worthy God. A better God. If the original had run away, abandoning His creation, Castiel would accept the burden of that guardianship. They were so weak... they needed saving. He would save them.
In gratitude, they would love him. All of them.
Dean would love him.
The suction of the vacuum on the other side of that cracked portal pulled at threads of souls teaming inside him. Later he would have the leisure to rest, in, he supposed, fewer than seven days. For now, there were things to attend to.
Crowley... did he imagine he could use the three men as bargaining chips, to deal his way out of the desserts he would so justly be reaping? The demon king wouldn't dare harm them. He knew that would only multiply his retribution cosmically.
For now, there was something more urgent. Raphael's followers... they would need to learn the mistake they had made. After suitable punishment, they would be loyal, obedient. It was the way things worked, for angels. It was how they were constructed. The error Castiel had made, he saw it clearly now, was expecting them to understand and embrace free will. They couldn't. They were inferior to the angel he... had been. Made to be soldiers. If that was all they could embrace, he would allow them to be that and nothing more. As long as they were obedient.
God had no need of wings. Castiel glowed with the power of his appropriated souls, and willed himself to enter Heaven's Gates.
Only to find himself outside them.
Borrowed human features might have frowned, had any watcher been able to endure the brilliance long enough to see them.
It shouldn't be possible. There was nothing in Heaven that should be able to resist, nothing that could keep out the power of a million, billion souls.
Yet, Castiel could not enter.
Flaring even brighter, he thundered against the Gates.
A tremor, and then a shudder rippled through the ethereal Spheres of Existence.
From beyond the Gates, thoughts, voices, of angels, and others, cried out.
Stop! Please stop, you are breaking Heaven!
Sliding between the cacophonating particles, a shadow deeper than blind nights, as shapeless as the Void, watched the conflict.
Thought sharp enough to shear hadrons from their binding forces: Trying to become me, in the same breath as you've tried to become God? Stop rushing the timetable. It's too early for me to take you... all.
Ceasing his attack on the Gates, Castiel returned to Earth, to the dirty, tiled room.
His order, however, rang through Heaven.
Appear before me!
Instead of multitudes, one angel appeared.
The angel's vessel resembled a face that two human souls had confronted, not so very long before as eons were counted. There was a reason for that. The angel had borrowed the visage of one presently on Earth who had the right bloodline. He hadn't planned to ever disturb the man's quiet life by taking possession, but these were times outside the bounds of prophecy. A quiet request, an awed, but cognizant yes, and he stood before the new God.
Calmly, he waited to be recognized.
Castiel peered at, and through the human form, sending an unpleasant sensation of being transparently x-rayed through the waiting angel.
The new God seemed... puzzled.
"Castiel." The Gardener of Heaven inclined his head with respect, but not submission.
The new God tilted his head. "I don't require you to leave the Garden, but your compliance will be remembered." Beneath the intense swelling of the chord played by millions of Purgatory souls, Castiel felt almost... taken aback.
But the chord was too powerful, too euphoric. He strained to keep it contained with most of his concentration. There was room for nothing but the purest and tightest of focus.
"What is the meaning of this? Why are you the only one to obey my summons?"
Joshua watched the burning of power wreathed around and through what had once been just an angel, one of God's soldiers.
"It's simple, Castiel," he answered softly. "I was the only one who wasn't afraid."
The new God frowned.
"Only the followers of Raphael have anything to fear," he said sternly. "And their punishment is just. But I won't destroy them. Go back, and tell them to open Heaven."
Joshua bowed his head slightly.
"I will tell them," he agreed, and then added, "but they can't open Heaven. Castiel.... you can't enter Heaven while you contain all the souls of Purgatory."
I can do anything I want!
The building shook and cracks formed in the stained tile walls. Castiel's lips had not moved. Joshua stayed very still.
The shaking stopped.
"Who are you to decide this? Angel? Gardener?" Castiel's borrowed eyes narrowed. "I remember..." but only now? "...you... supposedly... talk to God." The next words were edged with dark challenge. "Did He tell you not to let me in?" The disbelief was all but dripping.
Joshua watched the new God calmly. "No."
"Joshua... admit to me that you've never talked to Him. Admit you only told the Winchesters... what you thought they should hear. I won't punish you, if you tell me the truth."
There was no change at all in the Gardener of Heaven's demeanor. Only, perhaps, a bit of sadness, deep in dark, human eyes.
"I always tell the truth, Castiel. As I told those burdened boys, I rarely talk. Mostly, He talks to me."
The room started to shake again, before Castiel tightened his already intensive control.
"Has He mentioned me?"
"Only once," Joshua murmured, and there was regret. It was the regret of someone who would rather have kept a private exchange private. "He said, a little while ago, that he felt sorry for the trials you were about to encounter."
HAVE I MADE A MISTAKE?
The new God's lips never moved.
For a stretched moment, nothing did.
"Why do you say I can't enter Heaven?" The demand was cold.
"If you enter Heaven while you contain all of Purgatory's souls, you will split it apart. Castiel," The pleading was quiet, "Heaven takes in souls by ones, tens, sometimes hundreds. Rarely thousands. You will break it apart." When Castiel did not immediately answer, Joshua added, "Release the souls back to Purgatory. You know the portal you opened isn't entirely closed. Let them go and you will be welcomed in Heaven."
The new God's head had bowed slightly, his gaze sliding away from the Gardner.
"As a savior?"
"As a brother."
The new God's bent head lifted.
"Where were my brothers when I needed them to resist Raphael? Where were my brothers when I offered them the news of free will? Where were my brothers when I stood alone to stop the senseless, destructive Apocalypse?"
The room rattled once and stilled.
"You weren't alone, Castiel," Joshua answered softly. "You gave your life for those two human boys, more than once. That was a worthy choice."
Castiel's eyes flashed and thunder rolled over the building for miles.
"Go, Joshua. Tell the inhabitants of Heaven that when I finish assimilating Purgatory's souls, I will enter Heaven, and I will not destroy... it. Until then, they can cower behind the Gates if they choose to. Any of Raphael's followers who wish to survive the Harrow of Heaven will obey and come to me here, and accept their punishment. That is all."
When Joshua bowed his head, it was less in obedience and more in sadness.
Chapter 4: Hypnos and Hubris
The hunters try and come up with a plan, and get some help from an unexpected ally.
Sam! SAMMY! Dammit don't you bail on me now... I swear Sammy I'll shake you till your teeth rattle out of your damn skull...
Jesus, Dean, like that's gonna help him unscramble...
Sam hadn't even been able to gasp – first the flames that blinded and burned, terrible voices, agony unbounded and unending... This time, though, there had been something else. It had been so long ago, a century? But now it came irresistibly to the surface.
The day? Night? Something cracked open a passage into the Cage and tried to take him out.
Gripped by the will of a thwarted and vengeful archangel, it was impossible to resist or surrender to a conflict of forces that tore him into shredded pieces like dogs fighting over a juicy steak.
Sam was seized with fierce and righteous determination by his would-be rescuer, fighting to tear Sam loose, pull him free.
The struggle was agony, the soldier angel outmatched, but he fought free with what he believed was his prize, leaving the most vulnerable aspect of Sam behind in the Cage. Pressed past his limits by the battle, the soldier never noticed Satan's whispers slithering into beating celestial pinions, burrowing like invisible mites, each a corroding burr of self doubt, a slow rust of corruption able to nourish seeds of pride, nurture poor judgment, encourage edema of ego. Lucifer gave up nothing – not even an incomplete shred of his plaything - without a cost.
Sammy, I mean it... SAMMY DON'T YOU DARE LEAVE...
It wasn't the urgency, but Dean's fear that leaked through the searing wrap of hellflame, and somehow finally made Sam give up his deathgrip on the memory, and its torment.
Now, Sam made himself fight for clean breaths of real air and wrestle his eyelids up to allow Dean's tense and desperately worried face to materialize over him.
"Huh... here... m' oh... kay..."
The agony continued to sing in nerve memory, but it was ignored as best Sam could manage. His hand wrapped around Dean's arm, returning grip for grip.
"M here... 'm not leaving, promise..."
A glass was pressed to his lips firmly offering something other than water. Sam choked down a swallow of whiskey and his face crumpled in an involuntary, hoarse half laugh as the spirit burned along his throat. Such a different burn, that would in time offer numbness, if only for a short while.
Working to lever himself up, Sam let Dean help him to a sitting position. With every forced, deliberately controlled breath, his eyes cleared a bit more, though there were still flames dancing in the far back of them.
"What the hell, Sammy...?" It was part demand, part hopeless exclamation.
Sam's headshake was careful. "Nothing... just a hell memory." Minimize. Admit, no lies, but minimize. Sam frowned, gaze sliding inward because there was something about that slice of suffering that was important... relevant...
"Hey," Dean didn't like that inward look, and refused to give it any respect.
"Take it easy," Bobby's voice was soft, his hand gave Dean's shoulder a squeeze from where he stood, a little behind the older Winchester brother.
Sam waved a hand vaguely. "Sorry... sorry, both of you... I'm okay. I swear."
The subtext was a given. As okay as is possible under the circumstances – randomly surfacing memories of a century in the Cage and stuff.
"And I'm a chick contestant on American Idol," Dean growled. "Dammit, Sam." Dean dropped down beside Sam on the low sofa and finished the rest of the glass he'd held to Sam's lips.
"How long?" Sam asked softly, ignoring the rasp in his throat from alcohol and remembered screams.
"Four and a half minutes, about," Bobby corrected, without looking at Dean. "We were all attempting to come up with some kind of plan, and you just... "
"...yeah, attempting, and failing miserably," Dean finished with a glare. He rubbed his forehead. "Let's face it, we don't even know where to start."
Sam straightened a little more and wiped a hand over his face, which felt sticky. His nerves were still screaming. "Start with the portal. We need to get it back open... or open another one."
"How are we gonna manage that little magic trick?" Dean wanted to give in to defeatism out of sheer exhaustion, fear and anger but they were tipping into the rhythm of back and forth argument that marked Winchester brainstorming.
"I dunno," Sam answered, but he didn't stop there. "I saw the runes. I'm pretty sure we could reconstruct the incantation between the three of us..." In fact, as he asked for it, the entire short quatrain rolled through his mind smoothly.
"Do you happen to have a virgin handy that doesn't mind donating hemoglobin?" Bobby's tone was skeptical. Dean shot him a quick, haunted look. Cas condoning the sacrifice of a virgin – just another item on his list of Millennium's Most Disturbing, which unfortunately had to fall somewhere below So you will bow down, and profess your love unto me, your Lord.
"And blood of a denizen of Purgatory... Face it, we don't have any chance, much less a snowball's," Bobby continued, tone darkening as he thought about Ellie Visyak.
"We do know a few virgins... who might be willing, if we explained how important it was," Sam said reluctantly.
"What are you talking about, Sam, you..." Dean's eyes widened. "The virgins? The dragon virgins? No, Sam..."
"I'm not talking about sacrificing anyone," Sam snapped, as flashes of a nurse's pleading voice muffled by a closed trunk battered through his mind. He grit his teeth. "I know it sucks to even ask, but we don't have a lot of options."
"I'll bet you every one of our rescuees went out and got laid the first chance they got. Look, I know what Doc Visyak said," Dean changed the subject, his head shaking briefly in regret, for Bobby's sake, "but there's something that doesn't track. Where did H.P. Lovecraft get the blood of a Purgatory native? I mean...?"
Sam glanced back at his brother. "Yeah, I probably would have wondered about that if my head hadn't exploded." He looked over at Bobby. That investigation had been all his as the brothers tried to save Lisa and Ben.
Bobby got up and paced over to pour a drink.
"Okay the answer to that is... I don't know!" Bobby glared briefly at the boys, before downing his shot. He glanced around the room. "And whatever Ellie knew... well I'm fairly certain she wouldn't have left any useful information on the subject just lying around, here or anywhere."
"So the bottom line is, we don't know how to get the door back open without components we don't have and can't get, and as soon as Cas wraps up his housekeeping upstairs, we're probably going to be chained to the foot of his holy throne wearing metal bikinis," Dean's bitter humor was of the graveyard variety.
"Of course," a voice neither Dean's, Sam's or Bobby's interjected, accented vowels a study in habitual nonchalance, "that would be true, if you actually needed to re-open the portal in the first place, but you don't. You see, it hasn't quite closed yet, which changes the requirements significantly."
Bobby spun as both Winchesters leaped to their feet.
"Where the hell have you been, Balthazar? I should have figured you'd run off to hide under a velvet-covered rock somewhere," Dean's hands almost curled into fists. The tension level in the room had just soared way past ten. "Or maybe you changed your mind and you're doing a little clean up job for your new Heavenly Boss?"
Leaning his hips casually against the wooden cabinet behind him, the decadent angel's eyes were more intense than these three had ever seen them.
"In point of fact, I was dead. Cas killed me." He reached out and picked up Bobby's bottle, sniffed at the open top and winced, putting it back.
"Oh he guessed that it was me who put you on his trail," this was aimed right at Dean. The angel turned to look at Sam curiously. "Good to see you up and about... surprising, even shocking, though. Did you get another hell partition somewhere?"
"No," Sam answered simply. Flatly. There was a quality to the single syllable that prevented even a cynic like Balthazar from disbelieving. "And if Cas killed you, how is it you're here talking to us?"
"Oh..." it was casual enough, but only on the very surface. "...he definitely killed me. But sometimes, apparently, we come back."
Dean broke the silence that those words elicited. "Are you... are you saying God brought you back? Or did Cas have a change of heart and exercise his new godlike powers?"
"It's confusing, isn't it?" Balthazar rolled his eyes. "The only thing I am certain of is that dear Castiel did not bring me back. As for what or who did..." His eyes involuntarily flickered upward for a moment. "I am absolutely the last candidate for true believer in the entire Host, but... I know I was dead. I know I am back. That's only happened two other times... both to the same angel, who is currently acidtripping on Purgatory souls." His eyes narrowed and he raked the two Winchesters with a look that was somehow both incredibly shrewd, and oddly awed. "Said angel was, both times, trying to assist a certain two cosmically entangled naked apes. I may be a dilettante but I'm not insanely stupid. What was clearly the worst decision of my existence apparently was also the right one. So I'm still in the game, and while I'm not really happy about it, still on your side. And that's a good thing, since you all seem to be entirely clueless."
Dean, Sam and Bobby exchanged looks that had to cover a lot of territory.
Balthazar was either lying, or telling the truth as he knew it. Lying might seem the most likely on the surface but all of them figured that Castiel was well past subterfuge and firmly in Mad God territory. They were scraping the bottom of a deep empty barrel for options.
"What do you mean," Dean spoke for the hunter consensus, "the portal to Purgatory isn't closed yet? The eclipse has to be over by now..."
"You'd think so, wouldn't you?" Balthazar's answer was edged with both sarcasm and a hint of impatience. The angel looked around suddenly, a few fractions of a second before an unexpected, but very real and moderately powerful tremor rumbled through the ground under them.
Back in the shadows of the barn, the sound of hooves growing restless had been unnoticed by the understandably preoccupied humans. Now fearful whinnies echoed back against the wooden structure's walls.
"What in the name of..." the exclamation could have come from any of them, it just happened to be Bobby. Objects on and in the cabinets rattled and the half empty bottle fell over.
As they looked around, the tremor tapered off but the horses back in the dark barn didn't quiet as quickly, kicking against the stalls.
"That's going to get worse," Balthazar predicted.
"Why?" Dean snapped, not in the mood for twenty questions.
It was Sam who answered, his eyes vague for a moment as if listening. "Something's jammed the door..."
Balthazar turned to look very sharply at Sam Winchester. "I'm not going to ask how you know that," he said, "because we don't have time for it. You happen to be correct. As were you, Deanie boy. The eclipse ought to be over, but the portal is resisting, which means the astral bodies aren't moving. If the conflict isn't resolved, it will rip the Earth and the Moon into spinning chunks of pretty gravel."
"What's causing the conflict?" Sam asked, picking up his gun from the table.
"Purgatory is like a vacuum right now, it's trying to suck the souls back, and of course dear Castiel isn't inclined to release them. Cas will try and muscle the portal closed. If he doesn't succeed, maybe even if he does, something is going to break – this planet, Castiel, or, most likely, both."
"We have to get him to let go," Dean said grimly. He'd already tried once. Tried and failed.
"Even if he does, which is beyond unlikely, the recoil could snap and turn the Earth to rubble anyway," Balthazar's stretch of lips was not a smile.
"There has to be something we can do besides kiss our asses good bye," Bobby wasn't entirely convinced of his own assertion, though. "I do not want to go out sitting on my thumbs dammit."
It was the worst possible time for a hell flash. Sam grabbed his head. Flames erupted in his mind and soul, blinding him. Through them, though, there were agonizing and disorienting fragments of things, fractured bits of vision, sound, awareness.
Use it, stupid! Don't you see what you have there? Sam's soulless alter ego had been very quiet but his mental voice was as cool as ever.
Biting down hard on the corner of his lower lip, Sam's white teeth drew blood that welled from the cut. He licked it away.
"If we..." the effort was incredible but he'd fought his way from South Dakota, he fought through this. "..do a spell to hold the portal open a few more seconds, somehow make it a controlled release..."
How the hell are we going to do that, Sammy? Dean wanted to scream. "Sam we don't know how..."
"I think... no, not think... I can do it. Pretty sure I can do it," Sam wrestled with the agony of decades, ferreting fragments from it of angel knowledge, not just any angel's knowledge. Lucifer had been Heaven's best and brightest, once. It was like sifting razorblades dipped in acid with bare hands.
Gritting his teeth, Dean wanted to grab Sam, shake him hard, shake that look of knowledge and suffering off his face until he was just little brother Sammy again, and not this shattered combination of the brother Dean loved, and everything that had been done to him.
Instead, he turned from his suffering brother to Balthazar. "Get us there."
Chapter 5: Homeostasis
The hunters try to save the planet. The new God confronts his limitations.
The room was at the opposite end of the mansion from Crowley's personal 'kitchen' as he'd sometimes liked to call it. In some ways it was almost a mirror image of that room – ground level, similar fired brick walls, metal staircase to the next floor, wide, double-door entrance. This room lacked some of the paraphernalia of the other, though it did have a few stacked crates, a metal folding chair on its side, and some crumpled papers on the floor against the walls.
It should have been dark, since every bulb in the hanging fixtures had exploded recently, leaving sharp, whitish shards on the floor. It wasn't, because the symbol drawn on one wall originally in a mixture of human virgin and Purgatory native's blood was glowing.
What ought to have been dormant, dull, nothing but etched, blackened runes, or possibly a broken and shattered wall had displayed first a thin, radiant thread, like the tiniest of cracks. Now, the entire symbol throbbed dully with a weird, purple light.
Castiel stood in the open double doorway, as far from the symbol, and the portal, as one could manage and still be in the room. Unmoving, he stared at it, feeling the pull against the millions upon millions of souls inside him. The tails of his trench-coat stirred occasionally, in sync with the pulsing glow.
Beneath and surrounding the room, a deep shudder vibrated through the house, the ground, even the air, but right here, around Castiel, movement was held at bay.
It was a battle of will, and power, against all the forces of natural order.
"You can't seriously expect me to do nothing but watch," Bobby hissed, trying to steady himself as the ground bucked, the direction of the earth wave heading down the hallway, away from the room and the open door at the far end.
"Look, Bobby, I'm not telling you what to do," Dean growled, checking his gun and then tucking it away in the back of his jeans. "I'm going in because I have to talk to him. Sam's... gonna do what ever it is he thinks he can do to stabilize the portal so the souls can get back through without trashing the planet." Dean made no secret that he was not crystal clear on what Sam had in mind, but he was taking Sam at his word that he had an idea, and prepared to trust that as fully as he'd have trusted Bobby, or trusted himself to follow a hunch.
"Don't fret," Balthazar murmured. "It's not a glory job but someone has to drag out the bodies, don't they?"
The glare Bobby threw towards the resurrected angel was as good as a snarl. In his own mind, though, he conceded that the greatest likelihood was that no would would be around to drag out any of their bodies.
"Fine," he didn't sound at all happy, but there wasn't time to bicker and he didn't have anything better to offer as a plan. "I'll friggin' cover you both!"
"Thanks, Bobby," Sam murmured, his tone as heartfelt as the hug he had demanded when he'd first woken up with his soul back.
Dean just met Bobby's eyes and nodded. All the crap we've been through together.... yadda yadda, see you on the other side...
Squaring his shoulders, he started to head down the corridor, Sam falling into step next to him.
The hallway around them shook harder at first but, as they pushed forward, everything abruptly became as calm and steady as the eye of a hurricane. Only a few yards ahead they could see a familiar trench-coat covered back, the hem moving without any wind. Castiel was now inside the room, still on the far side from the glowing symbol, but several feet forward of the threshold.
Dean took a hard, deep breath and braced himself, but Sam grabbed Dean's left wrist, stopping his advance. "Need something of yours," Sam murmured, the pulse of a muscle in his jaw the only indication of any struggle going on inside him.
Startled, Dean glanced over just as Sam turned Dean's left hand up and shallowly sliced Dean's palm. Another quick slash across Sam's own left hand, and then he pressed the two welling wounds against each other, eyes holding Dean's, asking him not to jerk away.
"What the hell Sammy..." the mutter was sub-audible but there wasn't any time for explanations. As Sam pulled his own hand back, curling fingers into a tight fist to contain as much of the mingled blood as possible, a voice from in front of them called back, the quality of it making gooseflesh form on the listeners with its impression of contained power.
"What are you doing here, Dean? I don't have time to accept your fealty right now."
Separating, the two brothers entered the room, Dean circling around to where he could see Castiel's face.
"I came to talk to you, Cas," Dean said, after licking dry lips. "I'm not going to kneel and bow at your feet because my friend Cas would never ask me to do that."
The new God's eyes were focused on the portal, he did not turn to look at Dean.
"Your God will give you one more chance to do what is correct, but it will have to wait. I am occupied. Do not attempt to hinder me now, or I will be forced to destroy you."
Dean held out his undamaged hand in a sign of pacification – the cut one was fisted, and shoved into a pocket. "I'm not going to hinder you. I just want to talk. Cas, please... you said before I was only trying to get you to give up the souls because I was afraid. I am afraid. Something's not right here, and you know it. Otherwise I'm guessing that symbol on the wall wouldn't be glowing like that... Cas, you did what you said you were going to do, you stopped Raphael. It's over, don't you see that?"
"Nothing is over," Castiel said, still staring at the gateway to Purgatory. "As long as there is a void of authority in Heaven, someone will try to fill it. A... friend... a... brother told me that once. He told me the fighting would never stop. I didn't believe him at that time. Now I understand. Heaven needs a God. Someone must impose order on this chaos."
"It's nice to know you still think of me as your brother," Balthazar said, appearing next to Dean. "Nice that you'd give such weight to my words of advice, but I don't think I ever suggested you become God yourself..."
The room shuddered as Castiel's eyes widened, his gaze finally leaving the portal to fix in shock on the angel standing beside Dean. "...Baltha ..zar... this is impossible...."
"You know it's not, Cas," Dean said urgently. "Who would know better?" He didn't have room or time to feel sick inside as Balthazar's assertion that he'd been killed by Cas was confirmed just by the would-be God's reaction.
Castiel frowned in confusion, shaking his head once. "No... it can't be... He... no..." Megalomania fractured and fought with what had once been the former angel's very being.
As his concentration slipped, the invisible pull of the portal dragged him forward.
Castiel's voice thundered, making Dean wince and duck.
Now in the center of the room, Castiel focused again on the glowing runes. "You will both stop talking and leave, now. If you do not obey, my wrath will be fearsome."
Balthazar flickered, and then returned when Dean didn't move a step.
"Cas," Dean said, and his voice was both determined, and pleading. "I'm not leaving. If you have to smite me, then go ahead."
He was lucky, perhaps, that the would-be God did not have any concentration to spare.
The souls inside Castiel were pulling forward, the portal was sucking at them, and him. But he still had possession of them and all that power. With renewed effort, Castiel put all his will towards slamming the gateway shut for once and for all.
Even so, the new God's perceptions were so much more than mere angellic senses.
"Sam, stop what you are doing. The angel banishing sigil will not work on your God any more than the angel blade did."
And with that, Castiel dismissed the brothers, and even the miraculously revived Balthazar from his thoughts. Once the door was closed, he would deal with all of them.
The throbbing glow edging the Purgatory symbol pulsed, then the lines of light started to thin and disappear slowly as the portal began to shudder closed.
An instant before the light died completely, another low voice in the room began murmuring a chant, from the left side near the wall.
"Purgatorio ostium magnum
Terribilis faucibus creatura
Accipe quod tuum
Close leniter mordent non conteret
Quamquam in dapes
De animae repossessed
Close paulatim nos
Quod vestrum tradite
Súpplices te rogámus!"
The voice was Sam's, and Dean's left hand suddenly burned across the palm where it was thrust into his pocket.
As the original gate closed under the enormous effort of the new God's will, at that exact moment another portal opened, mere feet to the left in the same wall, giving the unmeasurable pressure of that vacuum another outlet.
The runes Sam had drawn in his and Dean's mingled blood were not identical to the original, there were slight changes, in particular, Enochian touches, but the cracks of light spider-webbed out from the symbol, widening quickly.
The pull inside Castiel which had ceased for mere nanoseconds was suddenly renewed, much more intensely, in the direction of the new gate.
"HOW DARE YOU! SAM WINCHESTER, WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!"
"He's trying to save you, Cas," Dean yelled, hand reaching instinctively for the would-be God's sleeve. Balthazar's eyes widened and he called a wordless warning.
"Let them go, Cas!" Sam cried, one hand bloody from drawing the new portal, the other clutching the side of his head. "Let them go home! You brought me home, or tried to... you remember that? Let the souls go back to where they belong now! You've done what you had to do... please!"
"Come on, Cas!" Bobby yelled from the doorway. He had a shotgun in his hand but it was lax and aimed at the floor. "You're one of the good guys... don't become this..."
"Castiel!" Balthazar called, "This isn't you... listen to these ridiculous humans..."
"Cas, you saved me from the pit, and I'd do anything to try and save you... just.. Cas, just trust us! Trust me!."
Dean's hand touched Castiel's arm.
At the contact, there was a concussion wave that exploded out from Castiel, knocking Dean flying and against the opposite wall. Balthazar vanished and Bobby was knocked back down the wildly buckling corridor.
There was an indescribable roar from the center of the room for only an instant before those present were physically deafened into silence. Castiel's arms flung back, his eyes and mouth opened wide, and blinding soul energy poured out of him, striking the new portal and blasting through it, on and on seemingly forever...
When Dean came to, the room was quiet and still.
Head (and hand) throbbing, he crawled towards the middle of the room where he'd last seen Castiel. The floor was dented down in a bit of a crater but there was no sign of the former angel, and almost, new God.
"Bobby?" Dean called, his own voice muffled and distant to still deafened eardrums. "...SAMMY!"
Tottering to his feet, Dean stumbled towards the other side of the room where he'd last seen Sam, beside the new Purgatory gate. Now, that gate was nothing but a fused, glassy mass of melted brick and stone, without a spark of life.
Curled on the floor a few feet away, Dean found his brother's still body.
Heart in his throat, Dean pressed fingers to the side of Sam's neck. He held his breath until he felt the steady beat of a pulse.
At the touch, Sam moaned and then stirred, eyes opening to look around blearily, but urgently, stopping when he saw Dean beside him.
With effort, Sam shifted to a sitting position.
Dean glanced to the empty crater and shrugged.
A faint groan was heard out in the hallway.
"I think... uhn... I might finally... be getting too old for this shit..."
Chapter 6: The Hereafter
Picking up the pieces.
The strike of a ballpean hammer hitting a block of wood and the occasional ping of metal popping out were the only sounds heard around Singer Salvage yard most afternoons lately, along with the drone of cicadas singing in the afternoon heat, punctuated by a groan now and then.
Dean was working on the Impala, of course. His movements were methodical, neither rushed nor laced with tension. When he got to something he needed an extra set of hands for, he'd call, "Sammy!" or sometimes just throw a rag in the direction of where the long form of Sam Winchester was often sprawled, across the metal hood of a nearby vehicle or sometimes, just on the ground.
Sam was the very picture of a lazy loafer and Dean poked him about it, but only sparingly, and never with the slightest hint of seriousness. Truth was, it was comforting to Dean to have his younger brother stretched out like a huge cat in the sun, skin getting browner.
Sam wasn't always as relaxed as he looked, but it was as much a balm to him as his presence was to Dean, to be able to simply rest in earshot, and in easy view of where Dean was working. It hadn't been that many days since they'd made it back from Kansas, limping back in a beat-up Impala that definitely need some loving attention to recover her looks, and her paces. Not that many days since the wall Death put up to protect him from his hell memories had been removed by Castiel as if it never was.
Sam had accepted the shattered parts of himself, the cold soulless person who had walked around topside for a year, and the broken beaten part of himself that had been Lucifer's chewtoy in the Cage down below. Accepted... but the reintegration of Sam was not easy, not smooth, and far from complete. It might take years. It might take forever.
Bobby hadn't come straight back with them. After returning to the horse barn, he'd shooed them off, intending to spend some time going through the trunks in Eleanor Visyak's safehouse, but within a day or so, someone identifying themselves as the executor of her estate had contacted him, and announced that she had left certain messages for Robert Singer, and made some very particular provisions to be sorted out. Bobby winced and growled and swore but found he wasn't as surprised as he should have been.
In the meanwhile, the brothers Winchester were house-sitting the salvage yard, and making use of its facilities, or, mostly Dean was doing the latter.
They didn't talk much about what had happened. Dean was still trying to decide what he wanted to ask his brother about a number of things, like Hell, the Cage, and even that portal Sam had opened to Purgatory. Trying to decide what he wanted to know, and what he really didn't.
"This'd be a lot easier," he said on the fourth afternoon back at Bobby's, "if I didn't have a damn cut with a dozen stitches in it across my palm."
The cicadas droned for a few minutes uninterrupted before Sam called back, "Don't be a baby, you didn't need stitches, we just put on a couple of butterfly sutures because you won't let anything heal before you start mangling it." Sam thought about the fact that Dean almost was his hands. Everything he excelled at, he did with his hands, from pleasing a girl, to fighting, to torture. It didn't feel like a betrayal any more to include that in Dean's list of skills. It wasn't something to be happy about, but it wasn't something that would ever go away. Sam knew that now. He had something to compare it to.
Sentimental, and melodramatic. The cold thought was a good as rolled eyes. Sam ignored it. Also deliberately ignored the way another part of him flinched and shivered.
"Yeah yeah." Dean was silent as he ran a gloved hand over the dent in the Impala's fender that he had just pounded out. It would need filler, and sanding, then painting last. She was going to look patchy till he was done. Couldn't be helped.
"So what was that all about, anyway? The blood brother thing..."
Casual tone, casual question, but Dean had thought a long time before asking it.
Sam was aware.
He thought a bit about answering it.
"You won't like it."
"Shut up, Sammy, just answer the damn question."
Sam sighed and sat up, stretching his arms and back and then climbing to his feet. "We didn't have the blood of a Purgatory native," he reminded Dean, "but you were related to one, for a short while." He didn't smile when he said it, there was no humor in the bare facts. Dean's vampiric conversion had happened because of a very cold bit of decision-making from that part of Sam which had walked around without a soul for a year.
Oh get over it. I knew there was an antidote. Calculated risk.
Unpleasant, when one's own thoughts could make a person feel sick.
"Oh come on, you're kidding... and that doesn't explain..."
"Well, I needed something that could connect to Purgatory," Sam interrupted, his voice low and quiet. "and something with another kind of power to jumpstart the spell. No virgin blood, right? But blood carries power. All kinds of power." He leaned on the wooden table that doubled as a workbench. More than that, he didn't plan to spell out, such as what his own blood had brought into the mix.
There was silence from Dean for a minute or two and then the older Winchester just said, "Oh that's just gross."
It wasn't the words that carried the meaning, though, but the tone. Disgust, and acceptance. One was for the pure visceral aspect, the other was for his brother.
"No argument here," Sam said mildly.
He folded arms over his chest.
"So. When are you going to call him?"
Dean dropped a wrench which conveniently hit his toe. This saved him from having to answer and gave him an excuse to cuss a blue streak instead.
Sam contented himself with pulling a couple of beers out of the cooler and opening them, before handing Dean one.
Standing under a tree at the edge of the Singer property, an angel could still see two men drinking beer next to a black car, quite perfectly.
A second angel joined the first, rolling his eyes a bit. It wasn't that Balthazar lacked empathy, but coddling a damaged friend was just not his style even after what had happened.
"When are you going to talk to your soulmate? Cas, get it over with!"
Castiel's trench-coat seemed a bit frayed lately. Balthazar knew of course that it wasn't, that was simply a manifestation of the angel who wore it.
Borrowed blue eyes were pulled away from the junk yard. "We're not soulmates," he said, voice flat, and somehow both fragile, and sad as well as determined. "I'm an angel, and as you know, we do not have souls."
"Yes, I know," Balthazar said, and his expression suggested that even things that were known could sometimes be otherwise.
"I don't have the right to ask their forgiveness," Cas muttered, a little grating because he really didn't want to say anything at all. He also owed Balthazar, however.
"Oh Cas," Balthazar replied, "I'm not an expert but even I know that rights and forgiveness really have very little to do with each other."
"It's too soon," said that angel who had once almost been the new God.
"For you, maybe," Balthazar answered with a soft snort. "All right, as you will. Don't just stalk, though, if you don't mean to do anything. It's rather creepy."
There wasn't any answer save the sound of wings.