The soccer pitch is in a park surrounded by fields at the edge of a barely-there town in rural Illinois. Dean cruises slowly down the main drag--the only drag, populated by a few old houses, a clapboard general store, and a grain elevator--before pulling up to the grass-and-gravel curb alongside the park. The line of cars ahead of him breaks apart as parents with folded lawn chairs and kids in team uniforms pile in and drive off, fresh from the game just finished; as Dean turns off the engine and settles in to wait out the exodus, he hopes the timing of their arrival hasn't made them too obvious.
Beside him, Sam's attention is out the windshield. "I don't see their car, do you?"
Dean cranes his neck, peering up the street. "Nope." He turns his head, looks at the handful of people still lingering at the field. "But I think I see her."
It's hard to tell; the soccer pitch is on the far side of the park, close to the fence between it and some farmer's weedy field, and the few stragglers are mostly in uniform, and therefore mostly interchangeable. But they've been watching the remaining Novaks for almost a week now, and Dean's certain the gangly blonde in a red uniform who waves to the others as they turn away, then sits at the base of a gnarled old maple near the fenceline, is Jimmy's daughter.
"Looks like we might be lucky for a change," he says, watching the kids and parents cross the park to the final two cars, leaving Claire alone under the wide-open, sunset sky. "She's the last one to go." He refuses to think about how unlikely it is for their luck to be this good. All they have to do is wait for those other people to drive off, and hope Amelia takes just a little bit longer to pick up her kid...
"Hey, Dean?" The tone of Sam's voice has changed: it carries a particular note of distant, confused horror Dean's come to recognise. He braces himself. "You remember when Lucifer flayed us both and traded our skins?"
Dean closes his eyes. Of course his luck isn't that good, and Sam's got it worse: a lot of the time, he’s okay--more or less, as okay as either of them can be anymore--only to get knocked on his ass out of nowhere by some random, vicious, Hell-spawned bout of PTSD. Goddamn Cas. "That didn't really happen," he says evenly. He opens his eyes and looks at his brother; Sam's gaze is distant, his face pale and beaded with sweat. "You were in Hell. I wasn't there."
"Oh." Sam's brow furrows, his confusion deepening. He licks his lips. His eyes keep looking at something that isn't there. "Your skin was too tight," he says, as if he doesn't believe Dean, as if explaining the details might jog his memory, "but I wore it. 'Cause then it was like we were together."
Ahead of them, the last car pulls into the street and drives away. Dean swallows down the jagged feeling in his throat and gives silent thanks to whatever uninterested force of nature is responsible for giving him an out from this conversation. "Stay here, okay, Sammy?" he says, in a tone he hasn't used since Sam was small and cried to him after nightmares. He reaches up and clasps Sam's shoulder, careful and steady. "I'll be right back."
Sam nods, distracted by whatever memory of Hell has hijacked his brain. "Yeah. Okay."
Outside the car--away from Sam's brokenness--the air's easier to breathe. A little easier, anyway, as long as Dean doesn't think too much about what he's here to do. He strides across the park toward the tree, listening to crickets in the dry grass.
In the sunset, Claire's silhouetted against the trunk of the tree, her knees drawn up, her head bent down as she reads from a book in her lap. She doesn't seem to notice Dean's approach; if he's careful, he thinks, he could probably get right up behind her, grab her before she even knows he's there. But then he rethinks, sees himself the way any of those parents he made sure were gone before he stepped out of the car would've: a shady guy in his thirties sneaking up on a teenaged girl in the middle of nowhere. He curses under his breath. He's become a lot of things over the years--and god knows his reasons for approaching Claire at all aren't exactly pure--but he's not that.
He refuses to be that. He veers a little, changing his angle so he's coming at her side-on, rather than from behind.
When he gets close, she looks up, right at him. Her eyes are wide and blue and solemn, uncannily familiar; Dean doesn't remember thinking so three years ago, but now, her cheeks have lost some of their childhood roundness, and he can see her dad in the angles of her face. He stops a few steps away and tries to look non-threatening. "Hey, Claire. Remember me? Dean W--"
"Winchester." She closes her book, sets it down on the ground beside her. "I remember you."
The crickets chirp in the stillness. There's a grass stain streaking up the length of Claire's right leg, the green of it vivid enough on her skin that Dean's a little surprised she's not bruised or bleeding; he decides absently it's evidence she plays tough. She doesn't blink, or move, or seem to have any reaction to his presence at all. "You, uh, don't seem surprised to see me."
"I knew you were coming." She says it like it’s the most obvious explanation.
With a chill, Dean realises it probably is. "And how did you know that?"
"I had a dream. My dad told me."
His heart stops. When it starts again, it slams in his chest so hard he thinks he might bruise from the inside out. "Your dad--" He stops himself, runs his hand over his mouth and tries not to panic. As his brain screams at him about how screwed this makes them, Claire gets her feet under her, stands up with her weight on her toes as if she might take off running any second. That, more than anything else, makes him get hold of himself: it's been three months since Cas went nuclear, and they've been able to come up with one plan--one incredibly long-shot, Hail-Mary plan--to defuse him. One. And if Claire gets away, they won't even have that. He holds out his hand, helplessly apologetic. "Claire, I'm sorry--I am--but your dad's dead. Or everything but. Cas--Castiel--he’s been driving for years."
Her eyes flash, part teenaged contrariness that reminds him painfully of Ben, part righteousness straight out of one of Cas’s angrier glares. "You think I can't tell the difference between my dad and the angel?"
Put like that, he hopes to hell she can. If Cas were still Cas, there'd be no question--nobody could mistake him for Jimmy, his own daughter least of all--but he has a whole new bag of tricks these days, and zero shame about using them. And if Cas, in any guise, is talking to Claire--if Cas knew Dean was coming for her-- "What'd he say?"
"He told me to expect you. That I’m going to help you do something important, and he’s--" She breaks off, looking away; it's the first time Dean's seen her falter. After a second, she draws in a long breath and blinks back up at him, raising her chin. "And he’s proud of me," she finishes, and the slight waver under her firm tone is just enough to break his heart. "That I have to have faith."
Worse and worse. "And do you?"
Claire crosses her arms. "I told my mom I was going home with a friend after the game. She thinks I'm sleeping over; she won't know I'm missing 'til after school tomorrow." She sets her jaw. "So are we going, or what?"
Dean stares at her, trying to figure out how the hell this plan managed to get so far out of control already. "Just like that? You don't even know--"
"What you're going to do with me?" Reaching down, she picks up her book, half-turns to grab the strap of the knapsack leaning against the tree. She turns back as she straightens, pulling her bag onto her shoulder. Facing him fully, ready to go. "If I did, I wouldn't need to have faith, would I?"
Just outside Davenport they pass a wingspan, stretched stark and sooty across the pale brick wall of a house.
The sun's long down and the house--what's left of it, masonry and timber slumped and crumbling where it wasn't knocked flat--is set back a little from the highway, but the burnt-in image is clear as day from far down the road: supplicants have rigged up halogen lights, white and harsh, to shine on the wings in the night. In their glow, Dean sees the dark shapes of at least a dozen people kneeling around the wall, their hands either clutched together at their chests or held, spread wide, over their heads.
"There's one of those in Pontiac," Claire says from the backseat. She hasn’t said much since they’ve been on the road; she read her book until the light gave out, then seemed content to stare out the window and watch the dark speed past. Dean finds her quiet self-containment a little creepy. He remembers Jimmy being the same way, once they'd resigned him to never seeing his family again; he'd sat there with all his guilt and misery folded in on himself, as if he didn't want to impose.
Castiel had been reserve cranked up to eleven. All that huge, heavy, angelic presence--strength, purpose, undeniable freakishness--held in one human body; sitting still and silent, he filled the whole car--could fill whole rooms--with this intensity of control that Dean could feel in his molars. That Dean could trust with his life.
Until the Purgatory souls turned him into a live wire. That crackling, ominous threat barely kept under a cult leader's fake serenity--that's not Cas. Definitely isn't Cas in control. That's the power, terrifying and evil.
It's not Cas, and Dean hates it.
Sam's staring at the wingspan and its congregation of angel cultists like he expects them to turn and rush the car any second. His breath's gone shallow; his hands clench reflexively in his lap, white-knuckled and straining, and Dean wonders what he's been reminded of. But after a second he swallows, shakes his head a little, and manages to respond to Claire in a voice that's only a little uneven. "Right in your backyard, huh? Did you see it?"
"Not up close. I saw pictures of it online, on one of those wingtracking sites." She pauses. When she speaks again, there's a note of caution in her voice, as if she's not sure she should be sharing as much as she is. "It showed up a couple months ago in the basement of our old house. The woman who died was a teacher in Spain; she'd been missing for weeks." Dean hears her fidget. "Do you guys know what the wingspans are?"
Dean and Sam exchange a look. Sam bites his lip, then asks carefully, "Don't you?"
In the long, heavy moment before she answers, Dean wonders if she does know, if she’s trying to decide whether answering truthfully’s her best option. "They're what happen when angels die," she says finally, soft and certain. "Aren't they."
Dean thinks about the one that appeared in Nebraska barely a week after Cas made them kneel. Bobby'd gotten a tip from a local hunter about what the cops were calling an apparent mass suicide in an alley behind a community centre. By the time they got there, the bodies had been removed and the worshippers had congregated; they knelt just outside the police tape with candles and Bibles and looks of painful devotion. And on the wall of the building, wing atop wing atop wing, charcoal afterimages laid so thick it was hard to tell where one pair ended and another began.
Sam and Dean stood outside the tape, far enough from the cultists that they couldn't hear their constant, fervent prayers. They stared for a long time before Dean dragged in a shaky breath and said, "Holy shit." His voice was hoarse, awe and despair caught on each other in his throat. "It was a firing squad."
The demolished house and its flock of believers flashes past Dean’s window, dark-bright-dark. His grip tightens on the steering wheel. To Claire, he says, "They're executions."
They reach Bobby's just before dawn. As Dean pulls the car up front, Sam twists himself around, reaches out to touch Claire's knee where her legs are drawn up on the seat. "Hey, Claire, we're here. Time to wake up."
Dean watches in the rearview as she stirs, raising her head groggily from the pillow of her knapsack. She doesn't know where she is at first; he sees it in the way she sits up too fast, in the flash of panic that widens her eyes before she's fully awake. But she collects herself quickly--maybe a little too quickly, Dean's paranoia thinks--and blinks distractedly out the window into the murky depths of the scrapyard while she stretches.
When she looks ahead again, her gaze lands on Dean's in the mirror. He squeezes his eyes shut a second too late, yawning and ducking his head, trying badly to sell the idea that she didn't catch him out.
As they climb the rickety steps onto the porch, Claire's eyes linger on the angelproofing painted thick on Bobby's grimy windows. Dean hangs back, holding his breath, but she follows Sam across the threshold without a pause.
When Dean gets inside, Bobby's standing behind his desk as Sam introduces him to Claire. He looks at her with the same expression Sam had at the soccer field when she'd tossed her bag onto the backseat of the Impala, casual as anything, and slid in after it without any fuss.
"It's nice to meet you," Claire says politely.
"You, too," Bobby replies, two beats late.
She follows Dean and Sam obediently down to the panic room. "You're gonna have to stay in here," Dean says as she hesitates at the door, wide-eyed, taking in the heavy locks, bare walls and stripped cot. "There’s...a ritual. This is the best place for it to happen."
She doesn't move; Dean steels himself for her argument, for her refusal to go in unless they tell her what's going on, why she's there, what they're going to do. This isn't a broad, sunny field at the start of an adventure, or an overnight road trip. This is a cell buried deep in a decrepit house guarded by rough-looking strangers; this is a scene from a horror movie--or the six o'clock news, which Dean knows can be so much worse. Her trust in whoever she thinks spoke to her in that dream might've gotten them this far without a fight, but it can't possibly stand up to what's staring her in the face in reality.
But just as Dean's glancing over at Sam to make sure he's ready to back his play to get her inside, Claire squares her shoulders and walks in on her own, calmly, all the way to the centre, where she drops her bag onto the cot and starts pulling out a change of clothes, casual as anything. She looks so out of place in there: just a normal teenaged girl, young and pretty as she shakes out a worn pair of jeans and a faded purple t-shirt, her fair hair gleaming in the pulses of light from above. In the bare circle of the room, against its dank, rusting walls, she looks alive.
And Dean's left staring again, thrown.
Upstairs, Bobby’s got a bottle on his desk and three glasses ready to go. Fixing Dean with a glare that's equal parts grumpiness and worry, he demands, "What the hell was that?"
Dean picks up his drink, needing it like water. "Not what you expected, huh?
"I didn't exactly expect her to come strolling in here under her own power, no."
The burn down his throat isn't nearly strong enough; he reaches for the bottle of bourbon before he's done swallowing. "Yeah, about that. We might have a problem."
He tells Bobby about Claire's dream; answers--as well as he can, which isn't very--the questions he knows Sam's been dying to ask through the whole car ride. When they know as much as he does, he sinks down onto the couch, third drink in hand, his nerves wiring him through his exhaustion. "Our one advantage in this whole crappy situation was that Cas dropped us when he hit the big time. What if he stopped returning our calls, but didn't actually stop paying attention? What if he knows about the spell?"
Bobby shakes his head. "We Frankensteined half of it, and the other half's obscure-as-hell Branch Enochian."
"Yeah, but if he's been watching us--unless--" He's been thinking it since Illinois, turning it over and over in his head, trying to find the reason why it can't be true. He says it out loud now because he's been able to talk himself around every reason that's come to mind; optimism's not his style, hasn't been for a long time, and he needs to stop himself before he gets too attached to the possibility. "What if some part of Cas finally woke up and realised he needs help getting out of the mess he made?"
Bobby and Sam are silent for just a little too long. Dean puts his attention firmly on sipping his bourbon, determined not to see the look he can feel them exchanging over his head. When Bobby finally speaks, it's to say--with fatalistic certainty--exactly what Dean knows he needs to hear. "He's too far gone, boy. If Cas has any idea what we're doin'--and if he thinks it's got half a chance of working--he'll stop us, probably kill us all, and there won't be a damn thing any of us can do about it." He reaches across the desk to snag the bottle; out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees his hand tremble. "Until that happens, there's no point borrowing trouble."
"What if it really was Jimmy who talked to Claire?" They turn to Sam; he's leaning against the wall by the door to the kitchen, staring thoughtfully at the warded window over Dean's shoulder. "Cas has millions of souls inside him now--millions of angry monster souls." His gaze shifts, levels with Dean's. "That's gotta be a hell of a lot of noise."
Dean makes himself consider what Sam's saying. "You think his angel brain might not know what his human brain’s doing?"
"Maybe he's been so preoccupied playing God that Jimmy was able to, I don't know, commandeer the dreamwalking power for a few minutes one night." He shrugs, gesturing with the empty glass in his hand. "Bobby's right, Dean. Cas doesn't want to give up his Purgatory mojo. It doesn't make sense for him to have told Claire to help us."
"Okay, but how would Jimmy know what we're doing?" Dean lets his head fall, digs his fingers into the ache in his neck. "We're missing something here. We've gotta be."
"Dean. She seems pretty sure it was her dad." When Dean glances up, Sam musters something almost close to a smile. "Sometimes, vessels can take the wheel. Maybe instead of borrowing trouble, we could try borrowing some hope?"
Sam suggesting they have hope right now is like Sam sharing his memories in the throes of a Hell flashback: his mind's taken him somewhere Dean can't let himself begin to follow. He sighs hard. "I don't know about hope, but we gotta do something." Raising his glass, he swallows the last of his bourbon; then, feeling it not nearly enough, he pushes himself to his feet and turns to Bobby. "Everything ready?" Bobby nods. "Okay, then. Soon as we're down there, you break the angel wards wide open."
Whatever they're missing, he's sure Castiel will explain it to them when he gets there.
Claire's hands are bleeding.
The wounds are part of the ritual: per Enochian instruction, after the first incantation Dean cut Claire's right palm with a shard of jasper while Sam cut her left with flint. She laid on her back on the cot and stared up at the slow-circling fan while they did it, tears slipping down her face, her teeth dug into her lip.
That was hours ago. Hours ago, the difference between sunrise and late afternoon. And the cuts aren't deep--the ritual needed her skin to break, that was it, that was enough to open the vessel, so that's all they did--but they haven't even started to heal. Claire's blood still flows free, pooling in her palms before falling between her limp fingers to patter into the bowls on the floor beneath.
They've had to empty the bowls twice, now. Dean and Bobby take care of that; when Sam tried to do it, his whole body started shaking so hard his teeth chattered, and he walked right out of the panic room and crouched in a far corner of the basement with his back to the wall and his head in his hands for close to an hour.
Despite the blood loss, Claire hasn't passed out, not even during the rougher parts of the ritual--although when Dean sees the spells they cast warp the air around her, settle on her skin like oil slicks, seep through and make her jolt and pull choked, whimpering cries from her throat, he wishes she would. Whenever they move in close to perform the rites--one consecration, dedication or invocation after another--she watches them, and her familiar blue eyes are focused. Glassy with exhaustion or agony, but focused. As far as Dean can tell, she's not bleeding out, and he sure as hell likes that more than if she were. But she just...keeps bleeding, messy and unnerving.
Through it all, she hasn't once asked them to stop. She's been silent, or as good as; Dean mistook it for the same resolve she showed in the field, the same reserve she held in the car, until he finished the final incantation and heard her whisper the first words--actual words, not incoherent noises of pain--she'd spoken all day. As the magic ebbed from her body, leaving her boneless and panting, trembling and weeping, she turned her face away from him, squeezed her eyes shut and begged, "Daddy--Daddy, please--"
And Dean turned on his heel, stalked out, stumbled up the stairs through the storm door into the golden late-afternoon sunshine and spat bile onto the dirt.
Now, as he slumps in the doorway, staring at the stillness of Claire's body and the fresh red glistening on her hands, he wonders dully if any part of this plan is going to happen the way they expected it to.
It's so quiet in the basement; despite its weakness, Claire's voice carries out of the panic room, clear enough that Dean hears Sam shift behind him where he sits on the stairs. Pushing himself off the jamb, he goes to stand above her. "Yeah, Claire."
Her face is flushed and streaked with tears, but she speaks evenly. Politely. As if he hasn't spent all day torturing her for nothing she’s done. "I'm thirsty. May I have a drink?"
The weariness of the day lifts, replaced by an almost electric hum beneath his skin. He hears Sam at the door, knows he's been jarred by the question into the same alertness. "Sure," he answers. "I'll get you one."
Just outside the door, a battered metal pitcher stands on a workbench, where it's been since Bobby finished mixing its contents before they arrived. Sam's already pouring the wine into a clay cup when Dean steps out; it's smooth, thicker than wine should be, a purple-red much darker than blood. "This it, you think?" he asks, his voice taut, as he holds out the full cup to Dean.
Dean takes it. When he breathes in, he catches the scent of holy oil mingled with the wine, rich and musky. "God, I hope so." His lighter's already in his hand; a flick of his thumb and the wine/oil flames up, orange fading to near-invisible blue at the tip, reaching up from the surface in a slow, steady corona.
Sam follows him back into the panic room, closing the door behind them with a solid metal clank. Dean kneels down next to the cot, helps Claire sit up a little and holds the cup so she can drink. The fire doesn't bother her; she doesn't even seem to notice it licking at her skin as she drinks, swallowing down the wine in long draughts like it's the freshest water she's ever tasted.
She doesn't burn.
When the cup is empty, she collapses back on the mattress with a sigh. "That's enough," she murmurs, and her heavy-lidded eyes blink slowly from Dean to Sam before falling shut.
It starts as a vibration, low like the bass in somebody’s car cranked to deafening a block away, more a feeling deep in Dean’s gut than any actual sound. But it rises, and fast: from rumbling to piercing, hitting every unearthly tone in between, all at once. Coming from nowhere and everywhere and getting closer with every second, every second zeroing in. The noise starts to press, vise-like, both outside and inside Dean's head; it trembles the walls, solid iron humming like a tuning fork, shaking free ancient dust and flakes of rust to sieve down on them from the blades of the fan in the ceiling.
Dean pushes himself to his feet, unsteady on the quaking floor, fighting the urge to flatten his hands over his ears because it won't do any good and because goddammit, this is finally what they want. Turning to Sam, he rictus-grins at the feel of it, the awesome familiarity of this specific terror clutching in his chest. "Looks like we hooked something," he shouts, even though he knows Sam can’t hear him.
The light above the fan sparks and blows out, slamming them into darkness; a second later, Dean feels glass shards rain down. The sound stops just as abruptly, leaving violent silence in its wake—but only for a second. It's broken by a noise like a thunderclap in an echo chamber but worse; it feels like a physical thing, hard and sharp on Dean's eardrums even through the damage already done. It kills what's left of his balance and he topples to the ground, clawing at the bloody wrecks of his ears, his eyes screwed shut. The pain is almost enough to distract him from the light that blooms, sudden and red-gold-white-hot, on the other side of his eyelids; when he realises what it means--recognises the presence of it--he feels a rush of triumph and relief so overwhelming he has to fight to keep his eyes closed.
And then it stops. Noise silenced, light extinguished. Dean pries open his eyes and fights to get his bearings back; when he can think again, he finds himself huddled on his knees, his head throbbing with after-sound. Even with his eyes closed against it, the searing burst of light ruined his vision for the darkness of the room; it takes them a moment to adjust, but then he can make out the shape of Sam on his side a few feet away, uncurling. Another moment, and the round, white beam of a flashlight judders across the floor from behind him, signaling Bobby's arrival. With the light, Dean sees red smudges in and around Sam's ears, and imagines his own are no better. Hell, he didn't even hear Bobby open the door.
"What the hell--?"
Bobby's voice sounds muted to his blown ears, but Dean hears the fearful confusion well enough. Turning, he finds him standing in the doorway, his battered flashlight forgotten in his hand as he stares into the panic room, wide-eyed and slack-jawed. It takes Dean a second to realise what he's looking at; then, his eyes adjusting fully, he sees it.
Bobby hadn't opened the door. The eight-foot-tall, handspan-thick, solid slab of iron is ripped straight through. One side's still attached to the sausage-sized hinges; on the other, the bolt's still in place, slid fully home. And roughly in the middle, running top to bottom, there's a long, gaping gash, the metal's ragged edges curled over by the force of what had torn its way inside.
What had been pulled inside. Dragged in so relentlessly it had done that.
Bobby turns sideways to step carefully through the tear. "You boys okay?"
"We’re fine, we're good," Sam says, sounding winded. Dean hears him scrabble to his feet, and works on getting his own under him. "You?"
"I'm gonna have to replace every damn lightbulb in the place, and more than a few windows, but I’m standing." Gesturing with the flashlight, he adds, "So? He in there?"
Dean sucks in a sharp breath, his chest suddenly tight. Fresh adrenaline fizzing at his nerves, he turns to follow the beam as it plays over Claire's body: she lies motionless on the cot, eyes still closed. He didn't expect her to look so peaceful. "Cas," he says, and it comes out a little uncertain, and might as well have been completely silent, for all the response it gets. He clears his throat and tries again, aims for firm and ends up growling. "Cas." Still nothing. Uneasy sweat beads out cold on the small of his back; he glances up at Sam and Bobby, then hazards a guess. "She drank holy oil, man, you can't go anywhere. Open your damn eyes and talk to us." When that gets another total lack of reaction, impatience--and a small, sick flare of dread--makes him lean over, take Claire by her slender shoulders and shake. "Come on, you feathery dick. Cas!" Nothing. "Castiel!"
"Dean, stop. Stop." Sam's words run together, his voice rough. He sounds about three seconds from Hell. "I think--I don't think she's breathing."
Dean freezes. His hands tighten on Claire's shoulders--too hard, he'll leave bruises, but she's so still--and then release, travel up her throat to press his fingertips under her delicate jawbone. "There’s no pulse." He checks again, reaches one hand down her arm to try at her wrist and gets her blood smeared all over his palm. "I can't find--" And then he realises, with his fingers right on top of the cut, what he doesn't feel.
Her hands have stopped bleeding.
Abruptly, he scoops her up off the cot, lays her out on the floor. Her head rolls on the concrete as he sets her down; her hair clings in staticky wisps to the sleeve of his shirt. Kneeling over her, he flattens his bloody palm to her chest and starts pushing, counts in breathless grunts with each compression, focuses on the numbers to keep his mind from racing with all the things he doesn't want to think.
He's at twenty-six when Sam crouches down at her head, leans in and breathes for her.
He's at thirty-two when something crunches in her chest.
His hand leaves rusty smears on her purple shirt.
Her hands don't bleed.
Amelia Novak is on the ten o'clock news, tear-stained and desperate.
"Please," she says, sounding wrecked, like she's already given up on getting any answers but can't stop herself from begging, "please, if you know what happened to my daughter--if you can tell me anything--please--"
She's looking straight into the camera, straight out of the television, straight at Dean. He punches the power button and watches the picture on Bobby's ancient set shrink to a white dot in the centre of the screen before blipping out completely.
He thinks about calling her. He knows he should. Right now, she probably thinks Claire's out there somewhere being worn by some heavenly jackass, unable to tell her mom where she is but otherwise alive and well; she probably thinks there's still a chance Claire will take after her father, show up on the doorstep one day out of nowhere.
Right now, she's living in hope. She shouldn't have to.
He staggers to the sofa and nearly collapses onto it. Whisky sloshes inside the bottle dangling from his hand; he raises it to his lips and lets it spill into his mouth, swallows and swallows until he has to stop or it'll all come back up.
He's had maybe four hours of sleep out of the last thirty-eight, maybe half a bacon sandwich since yesterday. It lets the liquor hit him harder, so he doesn't care.
Sam's upstairs. When they'd finally given up on the CPR, the sight of Claire's body splayed out on the red-puddled cement with Dean's bloody handprint over her heart had catapulted him into a flashback; he'd sagged onto the floor like his strings were cut, and it took both Bobby and Dean to get his mostly-dead weight out of there. "Dean," he'd whispered urgently as they slung his arms across their shoulders and stumbled him between them, "think about it—if you reach in with both hands and crack both sides out then your hands'll be full and you'll have to use your teeth--"
Dean wonders what it means that he wasn't there for so many of the memories that make up Sam's Heaven, but was apparently right beside him--in Sam's head, at least--for so much of his Hell.
He hears the back door open, then Bobby's heavy tread on the floor. He stops at the edge of the study. Dean doesn't look up. "Pyre's ready," Bobby says eventually, noncommittal.
They shouldn't need a pyre. The damn ritual had done what it was supposed to, finally; they shouldn't. Dean shakes his head, and the shadowy room bulges and weaves in front of his bleary eyes. "He was there, Bobby," he rasps, sure of it, sure of his memory even through the booze and exhaustion. "The lights, the goddamn door--" He shuts his eyes, feels the memory of blinding heat on his face. "--his light..."
"Maybe it wasn't him. Maybe we got hold of the wrong angel, and Claire was just...the wrong vessel."
The blackness disorients him; Dean's stomach rolls. He opens his eyes. "It was him. I know it was him. And if it was him..." He sets the bottle on the floor, sucks in a breath as he scrubs his hands over his face. "Did we kill her? Or did he?"
Bobby shifts, the floor creaking under him. "Get your head down a while, son," he says gruffly. "I'll take care of the cleanup."
Dean doesn't move. After a moment, Bobby sighs and trudges away to the basement. When Dean hears the dull thud of his feet on the stairs, he picks up the bottle again and takes another burning mouthful, breathes out the fumes when they hit the back of his throat, welcomes the slow-spreading numbness in his head, the sickening spin of the room around him--
Bobby shouts. His words are muffled by the floorboards, but his shocked tone is clear. By the time Dean's struggled off the couch, he can hear feet thumping back up the stairs; he's halfway to the basement door when it bursts open and Bobby's there, glaring. The look on his face does more to sober Dean up than a whole pot of coffee. "Did you go down there while I was out back?"
Dean would've thought the answer to that question was obvious. "No. Why?"
"What about Sam?"
"Still upstairs reliving playtime with Lucifer. What is it? What happened?"
Bobby looks him up and down, his eyes narrowing. Dean sees fear behind his angry front. "She's gone, that's what happened."
It hits him like ice water. "What?"
"Claire's body is gone!"
"How can it--" It's a stupid question. He hopes it's a stupid question, hopes he already knows the answer; he cuts himself off and starts for the stairs, needing to see for himself. Bobby moves to give him space, but before he sets foot on the top step, there's a clatter from the second floor--a door slamming open--that turns him around, heart jumping.
Sam's bellowing joins the noise he makes thundering down the stairs. "Dean! Bobby! Dean!"
They meet him, pale and jittery, in the hallway. Dean's stomach lurches; he prepares himself for whatever nightmare Sam's going to babble out now. "Sammy, you okay?"
"I'm fine, I'm fine," he says quickly, waving off their concern, and to Dean's surprise, he seems to be. And then, eagerly, he adds, "Is he down here?"
Dean goes still. Doesn't dare assume. "Who?"
"Cas." Dean and Bobby trade a glance. Sam's face falls. "He's not down here."
"You saying you saw him?" Bobby demands. Sam nods. "Wearing Claire?"
Another nod. "The ritual worked. He's in there."
Dean's knees shake. He plants a hand on the wall beside him for balance. "What'd he say?"
"Not much. I was--" The corner of Sam's mouth quirks, humourless. "--kind of out of it, and then Claire just appeared out of nowhere. I thought she was part of the hallucination at first, but then she did the--you know, the fingers to the forehead move, and it was like all of a sudden I could control it. What was happening in my head--the Lucifer leftovers, my memories of Hell--I could just put that stuff away. Live with it."
He meets Dean's eyes; for the first time since Stull Cemetery, Dean sees all of his brother looking back at him, safe, mended and whole. It makes something lift in him, something hard and heavy and so old he'd forgotten he was carrying it. "Cas fixed you?" he says, and if he sounds more than a little husky, he doesn't care.
"Yeah." Sam smiles: part understanding, part relief, part promise that Dean will be teased at every opportunity for that bullfrog in his throat. Dean still doesn't care. "He did."
"And then he just took off again?" Bobby frowns. "Did he say anything?"
"Just that he was sorry for what he did to me. Then he took off." He turns to Dean. "I thought he was going to see you."
"That's where I'd've expected him to go." Bobby's frown deepens into a scowl. "Something about this ain't right."
Dean shuffles his feet, uncomfortable with the way they're looking at him, with the assumption and expectation behind it--even though, yeah, he knows it's damn weird for Cas to drop in on Sam and ignore him. The edgy disquiet that's been gnawing at him since they picked up Claire chews up his relief over Sam, and he fights the urge to turn and go back into the study, pick up his bottle again and drown it down.
Instead, he asks sullenly, "What the hell part of this whole damn thing hasn't gone wrong?"
The panic room stinks of sweat and smoke and curdling blood.
Dean finishes sweeping up the broken glass from the blown light, chucks it all into a trashcan and trades in his broom for a stained mop and a jug of bleach.
He'd slept, a little. With Sammy okay, Cas still AWOL and no heavenly wrath coming immediately down on their heads, he'd put the rest of the whisky back in Bobby's desk and followed Sam upstairs to their room. As Sam slept easy in the bed beside his for the first time since he got his soul back, Dean dozed fitfully, managing two hours before his body'd worked through enough of the alcohol in his system to clear his head. He lay awake for another hour listening to Sam's slow, even breathing before giving up and sneaking out, avoiding the creaky floorboards on his way downstairs for coffee.
Two bitter, steaming cups later, the cracked-open basement door caught his attention and wouldn't let go. Halfway down the stairs, the stench hit him; the air in the pitch-dark pit of the basement smelled too much like things he's been trying to forget for years, things Sam shouldn't have to be reminded of even if he can handle them now. Dean had found himself a project.
He was about up to cleaning a floor; he didn't really feel like putting in the effort needed to replace the light above the fan. He works in the dim glow of two fading, battery-powered hurricane lamps, one with a cracked plastic shield that fractures its light into a disjointed, rainbow-edged flare. He's searching for a bucket in the cluttered-up gloom by the sink in the far corner of the basement when there's a small, sudden splintering noise behind him, and the shape of the light from the busted lantern crazes all over the wall before blinking out completely, leaving him in shadow.
He spins around, his heart in his throat, words falling out of his mouth before he can think to wait. "Jesus, Cas, it took you long enough--"
But when he sees the person at the door of the panic room, silhouetted by the low yellow glow of the lamp still burning inside, standing with her weight on her toes as if she's just counterbalancing a sudden stop, he knows he’s not talking to Castiel. "Claire."
She half-raises one hand in a fluttering, aborted wave. "Hi, Dean."
He looks her over as he comes closer, the same instinctive glance that checks Sam over after a fight, that used to catalogue Ben every time he came through the door later than expected. She stands with her back straight, the suggestion of a nervous smile on her face; her hands are clean, and there's no stain on her shirt. "You okay?"
She nods. "Castiel healed me. My hands, my ribs, all the--" He’s close enough now that he sees the tinge of colour rise to her cheeks, as if talking to him about the hell he put her through is some horrible breach of Miss Manners-level etiquette. "--everything else," she finishes lamely.
Standing right outside the room where it all happened can't be particularly comfortable for her, either, Dean thinks, and jerks his thumb over his shoulder. "Hey, come on upstairs. You hungry? Thirsty? I think Bobby's got soda--"
But she shakes her head. "I'm fine. I don't want anything."
"Okay, but we don't have to stay down here--"
"I'm fine." As if to prove it, she turns and faces into the room, looking right at it through the rip in the door. Dean watches her warily, waiting for something--tears, a panic attack, collapse--but after a long moment, all she does is reach out one hand and touch the bent-in edge of the torn iron, lightly, like she thinks she might bend it more.
Then she turns back to him, and if her eyes are a bit damp they're also ice-hard as they look right into his. "It worked, Dean. You pulled him out of my dad's body and made him take mine."
Hearing it like that--plain, simple, it worked, you did it--and from Claire, who's alive and breathing and in no pain--and whatever you fucked up in the process got fixed--Dean goes lightheaded. "Son of a bitch," he murmurs, then gestures sharply, uselessly. "Did he have to wait so long to let us know that?"
"He was...overwhelmed, at first. The summoning basically knocked him out for a while. That spell hasn't been used successfully on an angel in millennia." She shrugs. "It wouldn't have worked this time if I hadn't said yes to him three years ago."
They'd wondered about that, when they'd dug up the first rumours of the ritual and were trying to figure out how it worked. "I guess there hasn't been any need for other angels to take another vessel while the first one’s still alive." He eyes her, wanting to know but unsure how to ask. "Speaking of..."
"My dad's dead." She says it flat out, a fact, nothing new; Dean realises she's probably had a lot of practise saying it since Cas took Jimmy for good. But then the look in her eyes softens, her hands find each other and start fidgeting, and when she continues, her voice is a little quieter, a little thicker. Dean recognises the difference between repeating a lie and explaining how it became the truth. "Once Castiel was gone, the things from Purgatory--he was just a human in a human body, and there were millions of them in there with him--"
Dean’s mouth goes dry. He hadn't even thought. "Shit."
Her gaze turns distant, her attention distracted by the memory of something he can only imagine. "When Castiel woke up in me and realised what had happened, he knew he had to put the souls back where they belonged. He had to kill them. He had to kill the body they were living in." She looks away from him then, down at her fingers as they twist and worry at each other. "It wasn't even hard. That many monsters in one human...they couldn't function. Dad was where Castiel had left him, just lying on the grass of some guy's Heaven; he was--the monsters were fighting over him, I think? He kept changing: part vampire, part werewolf, part whatever. Or maybe that's just what Castiel saw when he looked at him." She takes in a deep breath, lets it out in a gust. Lets her hands fall to her sides and looks back up at him, straight and steady. "Anyway. Then Castiel killed him, and it was over."
Dean can think of worse final moments, but not many. "Jesus. Claire, I'm sorry," he says, meaning it, wishing Jimmy could hear it, too.
"He went to Heaven. I got to see him there. It was..." She looks away again, down and to the side; Dean thinks she's trying not to cry until he sees her smile, a small, delighted curve of her mouth. A child's smile. "I got to see him." When she blinks back up at him, the smile lingers in her eyes. "In my dream, Daddy told me that if you managed to separate him and Castiel, he would probably have to die. But he didn't want the Purgatory things--he only ever said yes to Castiel, not to them--and there wasn't any other way to get rid of them. So he wanted me to help you. So I did."
She says it calmly, plain and proud; Dean looks at her and hears the reedy, broken echo of Daddy, please, sees a kid who gambled with her life because her dad asked her to, and understands a little too well. He turns away from her, goes to the stairs and lowers himself wearily onto the steps. "We didn't know. I didn't know you'd have to--I'm sorry you had to do that."
She looks puzzled for a second; then her eyes widen, and she comes and sits beside him. "No, it wasn't like that. I don't really remember much of what Castiel did while he--while I was possessed." Dean remembers Jimmy saying the same thing after Cas had been dragged out of him the first time, but the way Claire'd looked as she described her dad's death, he's not sure how much he believes either of them. "He told me about it after, when it was me and him and Dad in Dad's Heaven. He wanted me to know what had happened so I could tell you."
What she said takes a second to sink in. "So you could--? Why can't he tell me himself?"
Under his stare, she draws her knees up, her elbows in. Starts fidgeting her fingers again. "He...thinks he shouldn't see you anymore."
He’s standing again before she finishes speaking. "Bullshit. Tell him to get his ass down here and--Cas!"
"Get your ass down here and talk to me, dammit!"
"Dean, he won't. He's too ashamed."
"No, he's too afraid, and that's too damn bad." He shakes his head, anger and frustration and an acid taste of fear boiling up from his gut. "After everything he put us through--after what he did to Sam--"
"What do you think he's ashamed of?" He huffs out a disgusted laugh; Claire spreads her hands on her knees and looks up at him intently. "The Purgatory souls were the only weapon he had against Raphael. He just needed their power; he thought he could handle it without letting them influence him. He didn't mean for things to get so out of control."
"Yeah?" It's not her he's mad at--of course it's not her--but her stare is steady and blue and too familiar and not familiar enough and looking at it makes him want to hit something until his hand breaks. "So after Raphael was blown to pieces, it wasn't Cas in there refusing to give up the power? It wasn't him calling himself God and demanding we all kiss his holy ass? It wasn't him purging Heaven and slaughtering the vessels of all the angels who tried to hide from him on Earth?"
"It wasn't just him."
"Oh, right, the monster souls." Dean cuts one hand through the air, viciously dismissive. "Yeah, let's blame it all on them, sure, no harm no foul."
"You can't blame it all on them. They helped you with your plan."
He opens his mouth on automatic, ready to dismiss that, too--but then he realises what she said, and stops. "What?"
She smiles, apparently amused by his derailment. "The Purgatory souls might have corrupted Castiel," she explains patiently, "but he controlled them. They'd been released from limbo, they were in a body and in the world again, but they weren't free: he used their power, and he ignored their will. Millions of monsters on an angel's leash--they hated that."
Dean remembers vampirism conscripting every cell in his body, controlling every thought in his head, bending him relentlessly to its urges. He'd had to fight filthy to keep it from taking him over completely, and every minor battle he'd won, the monster had screamed. "They wanted him gone."
She nods. "When you started putting together the pieces of the ritual, the souls saw their chance to get rid of him. They managed to keep him from noticing what you were doing. They talked to my dad, and sent him into my dream to ask me to help you." Arching a satisfied eyebrow, she adds, "He realised what they didn't: when Castiel was gone, there'd be no common enemy stopping them from tearing each other to pieces."
She looks pleased, pride shining bright enough to gleam in the basement's dim light. She's right to be proud. The risks Jimmy'd taken had been huge: betraying Cas by agreeing to help the Purgatory souls; betraying the souls by getting Claire to do exactly what they wanted; even betraying Claire by sending her off to a day of torture and forced possession in the service of Dean, Sam and Bobby's ritual--all without knowing for sure whether any of their plans would actually work. But he'd done it. Jimmy the mook had sacrificed himself--had convinced his daughter to offer herself up, too--to turn the ambitions of millions of monsters into their own destruction and the end of a false god.
Dean feels a flash of awe, the euphoria of a win for the good guys damn near alien because Christ, it's been so long--
--and yet. Underneath it, settling inside him like a hollow pit, there's a core of stark, cold, bitter disappointment. Because apparently, there'd been a whole list of people--hell, of things--who saw what Cas had become and knew it was wrong, who knew he needed disarming, who'd done something, somehow, to help make it happen. A whole list.
And Cas's name was the only one not on it.
Dean might have talked himself out of actively hoping that some part of Cas had seen reason, but deep down, he'd still believed it was at least possible. After everything else Cas had done for him--because he'd asked, because it was important to him, because somehow, in some inevitable way Dean never really looked at too closely, the things Dean needed had simply become the things Cas did--why not that?
But Bobby'd been right. Cas really had been too far gone.
Claire's watching him from her perch on the steps, a little wary now, the humour drained from her face. He wonders if Cas knew how pissed he'd be--if he understood why he'd be pissed--or if she figured this part out on her own. "I want to talk to him," he says flatly, not really knowing why he should bother. Just knowing that he wants to. Has to. "He owes me that much."
She shakes her head. "He owes you a lot more than that, and he knows it. He still won't come."
"Why not? He went to Sam."
"He'd promised to fix Sam. That's all that was."
"I don't--" His brain throws out possible explanations, worst-case scenarios firing his nerves. He sits down next to Claire, urgent and searching. "Is it that he can't? Do the angels have him locked up somewhere?"
"He's not locked up," she says quickly, then answers his next question before he even lets himself realise what it should be. "And he's not dead. The angels that are left—they’re all pretty minor ones, and it's taking a lot for them to sort things out for themselves. Mostly, they just want him out of Heaven." She pauses a beat, watching him closely. "He's offered to exile himself."
Dean spreads his hands. "Well, then, he has to come back here. Where the hell else is he gonna go? We're the only friends he's got!"
She shakes her head again, slowly. "He's punishing himself, Dean," she says, something thoughtful in her voice and the fix of her gaze. "He won't come back to you."
"But--" He cuts himself off with a harsh exhale, knowing he should be arguing with Cas, not Claire, spoiling for a fight and frustrated, dammit. He's so preoccupied with it all that he doesn't notice Claire moving until her hand is under his chin and their noses bump and her lips press, warm and soft and determined, on his.
He jolts back, his shoulders hitting the railing behind him hard enough to shake the stairs. "Whoa. Claire. What--?"
Her pale cheeks bloom pink. Her lips twitch in a nervous smile. He wonders wildly if that was her first kiss. "You have no idea how much he wants to do that."
Ice washes through him, prickling under his skin, raising gooseflesh in the basement's close, damp air. "He wants--" His brain kneejerks a denial, sends memories reeling through his head as proof that this thing between him and Cas, this friendship like family, it's not like that, it was never like that. But in every memory, every alliance or argument, hurt or help, there's an undercurrent: a look, a comment, the fact of Cas just being there, with him, at all; silences and sacrifices, heavy with unquestioned meaning, years of them. And Dean realises he might not have known, but that doesn't mean he wasn't aware. And now Claire's looking at him with her father's eyes--Castiel's eyes--and Cas might not be wearing them right now but Dean can see it in them. And he can feel it in the echo of Claire's dry lips pushing inexpertly on his. And yeah, he knows.
How much Cas wants.
He buries his head in his hands so he doesn't have to see Claire, rubs his dry eyes viciously with his fingertips. Asks, hoarse and lost, "Did Cas tell you to kiss me?"
"No." She says it firmly, honestly. He looks up and finds her focused on the empty space in front of her, on trying to explain something he can't imagine finding words for. "He didn't even--he knew I wouldn't remember a lot of what he did, but I don't think he knew how much--how much of him I could feel." She blushes again, ducks her head. Darts him a sideways glance. "I thought it'd be easier if I just...showed you. He never would've. He thinks--he doesn't think you--" She breaks off, words and glance, her hair slipping down to hide her face as she stares at her hands folded loosely in her lap.
Dean remembers his knees bending under a will not his own, hitting the glass-and-gore-strewn concrete floor of Crowley's lab so hard they stayed bruised for weeks. He remembers Castiel standing over him, glowing with corrupted righteousness and smiling so happily.
Cas wants. And he thought Dean wouldn't give, so he went out and turned himself into the only thing he thought had the right to take.
I'm your new God. Because as God the Father, love is just what he's due.
A better one. Because Cas loves back.
He's been so epically, stupidly wrong, Dean thinks. They both have.
To Claire, he says quietly, "I killed you today. For him."
She tilts her head to peer at him through the fall of her hair. One corner of her mouth tips wryly up. "Sorry, but--haven't you've killed a lot of people?"
"Not like this." As her almost-smile freezes and dies, he looks past her, through the tear in the panic room door to the metal cot gleaming dully in the lamp's yellow light, the spilt blood pooled dark and tacky on the floor. "I've killed people who were possessed by demons; I was killing demons. I tortured people in Hell--I was in Hell. I let the apocalypse happen because I was so damn against the idea of angels riding people, and today, I crammed an angel down your throat. For him." What he's trying to say feels familiar--a memory, unbidden and incomplete: talking to Sam, years ago, in the middle of something big and wrong and messy, the things I'm willing to do-- "I don't know if that means anything like what he wants, but it means something. And if he's worried I won't forgive him..." After everything Cas has done for him, everything Cas has forgiven him-- "After everything else, that seems like a pretty stupid place for me to draw the line."
Three days later, Claire's back in Pontiac with her mom, the panic room's put back together and cleaner, Bobby says, than it was when he first installed it, and Cas still hasn't made an appearance.
After supper, Dean helps with the dishes, helps himself to a beer, then stands in the door to the study, watching Sam arrange himself on the sofa with the laptop and a stack of books. Ladling annoyance all over his tone, he says, "Again, Sam?"
The bitchface Sam shoots him is vintage and perfect. "Hey, you'll thank me when we need this stuff to actually be accurate someday."
"Whatever," he scoffs, and takes a pull on his beer to hide his smile at the same second Sam reaches for a pen from the desk to hide his.
Yesterday morning, Dean came down the stairs to find Sammy at the kitchen table with a forgotten cup of coffee, a chewed-up pencil, and one of Bobby's best tomes of angel lore, crossing things out and scribbling in the margins and damn near giggling. "You would not believe how wrong some of this stuff is," he explained when he saw the look on Dean's face, which is how Dean learned that Sam's self-imposed summer reading project apparently involves going through all their Lucifer-focused research materials and correcting the mistakes.
Dean leaves Sam to it. Stepping out onto the porch, he takes a breath of still, dusty, nighttime air; now the sun's down, he can feel the day's heat, soaked up by the scrap heaps, radiating back out. He stands there a minute, listening to the flutter of bats under the eaves, the hum of floodlights in the yard, then ambles down the steps, around the side of the house to where there's less scrap, the yard turns patchy with grass, and the lights are far enough away that they don't drown out the stars.
The Impala's parked back here, clean lines of black and chrome gleaming in the moonlight. "Hey, sweetheart," he greets her, and perches himself on the hood, one foot dangling, the other braced on the ground. He rests his beer bottle on his knee; its cool condensation seeps into his jeans.
It's quiet. He looks up at the stars, stealing peaceful minutes.
When he looks down again, Cas is there.
Dean's breath catches. Cas is there, and the uncontrollable current of wrong that had seemed to burn the air around him when he'd had the souls isn't. He's there, standing a few feet away like he won't dare get any closer, watching Dean with that old, familiar intensity, and the only thought in Dean's head is Finally. He feels it, satisfied hope and slow-winding tension, deep in every bone in his body.
He looks like himself. Like Jimmy Novak, wearing Jimmy's suit and tie and coat and shoes and skin. Dean gestures at him with his bottle. "Didn't expect to see you like that again."
Cas glances down at himself like he'd forgotten, lifts his hands to pluck at his trenchcoat the way he did the first day they met. "For the purposes of my exile, it was decided that I should be confined to this body." He looks up again, his hands swaying to rest at his sides. "It's...me, now."
Dean nods. Swallows a mouthful of beer, then says evenly, "Didn't expect to see you at all, actually. Claire seemed pretty sure you weren't coming back."
Cas is facing away from the lights in the yard; his eyes are in shadow, but Dean can feel it when he looks away, the force of his attention sliding off. "I'm not staying," he mutters.
Like hell he isn't. Dean stands, puts down his bottle and wipes his damp palms together, mixing condensation and sweat. "Then why're you here?"
"I gave Claire a large amount of information to pass along to you." Cas still isn't looking at him. "In her telling of it, she...forgot...the most important part of my message."
Dean notes the hesitation around 'forgot'. Novaks, he decides, are natural--if, occasionally, incredibly passive-aggressive--meddlers.
Of course, if Cas knows what Claire didn't say to him, chances are good he also knows what she did. Dean's pulse trips; reflexively, the tip of his tongue swipes out across his bottom lip, and he knows Cas is watching him now because Cas moves suddenly toward him. Just two steps, taut and intent--then his hands curl tight at his sides and he stops abruptly, like he's slammed up against some kind of personal wall.
But he recovers. Drawing himself up, he raises his chin, meets Dean’s eyes with a look of abject remorse, and says like it comes from the depths of his grace, "I am sorry, Dean. For everything."
It's like the night opens up around him. Two states over, Claire's home with her mom, explaining that Castiel has a permanent vessel now and won't steal her away again--no one will. In town, Bobby's sitting at Sheriff Mills's kitchen table with a cup of coffee and a thin stack of unopened files, with hunting the farthest thing from his mind. In the house, Sammy's buried in research and loving it, unthreatened and whole. And right in front of him, finally, Cas is here, and he's sorry, and it's like the final tumbler clicking over in some ridiculously complicated lock that Dean's been wrecking his fingers trying to pick for years. Dean's little piece of the world--what he's managed to hold onto, what he wants to keep--opens up for the first time in a long, long time, wide and waiting.
Except--well, maybe it's not the last tumbler. Because Cas is standing there all caught up in his shame and misery and freshly re-learned humility, and while Cas sucks at lying to everyone else in the universe, he's always been damn good at lying to himself, and he's still convinced this apology is his big goodbye. He can't--or won't--see it the way Dean does: the simple fact that he's here at all is huge and hopeful and, Christ, maybe even enough.
Enough for now, at least. Dean's sure as hell not going to let it be all.
Cas is waiting for his response--expects it to be loud and angry and probably violent, based on the slight hunch in his shoulders, the dejected tilt of his head--but Dean can't see any fear in him at all. Just acceptance, regretful and resigned. Dean would laugh if it weren't so goddamn sad. "You sent Claire to apologise for you, and you're here because she didn't."
"So now you've done it yourself, you're just gonna take off again?"
"Yes." He squares up under the invisible weight of his self-imposed martyrdom. "I have to."
Dean's mouth twists. "You cowardly bastard. You were never God, Cas, but right now you're doing a damn good impression of his abandonment trick." Cas startles at that, and Dean presses his advantage: "What if I don't want you to go?" he says, and watches Cas's expression turn confused and wary and--yeah, now there's fear. It's a good sign, Dean thinks; fear's what you feel when you know you've got something to lose. He moves slowly closer. "Jesus Christ," he says, and Cas is transfixed. "Did you think I didn't mean that part about forgiving you?"
"But--" Cas's eyes are wide and clear and, God, so afraid. He holds up a hand, puts it between them, and Dean stops just a step away. "But I chose it, Dean. Working with Crowley, going after Purgatory--" He looks away again, down. "--defying you--I didn't want to be stopped."
Dean shakes his head. He's decided, in the three days he's had almost nothing to do but think about it, that it's more like Cas hadn't known he needed saving--and that what he needed saving from most, even before the Purgatory souls, was himself. Himself, and Dean's own stupid, blind, stubborn self-absorption. His denial. Because if he'd only let himself know, maybe he could've been what Cas had wanted sooner.
Maybe Cas wouldn't have felt like he had to turn himself into something unrecognisable for Dean to love him.
But Cas, in his guilt, is relentless. "Once I had the souls--you can't understand how it felt. It was everything, inside me. I was God."
"No. It was just power." Dean tries for kindness. Ducks his head, catches Cas's reluctant gaze and draws it back up. "But, Cas. That kind of power--it messes with people. Guys like us, we don't get to have it. We're not supposed to."
"Then what, Dean?" Cas's hand falls back to his side. He sounds wrecked, gravelly and made of despair. "What do we get to have?"
Dean kisses him. Closes the last bit of space left between them and just--I'm not gonna logic you--does it. Cas is shock-still against him at first, the cords of his neck tensed hard under his hand; then a needy little sound hitches out from deep in his throat and he surges forward, lips parting on a gasp, and kisses back like he's starving for it. Puts his hands on Dean like he's afraid he's not real, clutches at him, pulls him in until they're pressed so close Dean can feel the line of buttons on Cas's shirt through his worn-cotton t-shirt.
It's so good, the careless rasp of stubble on his skin, the open heat of Cas's mouth as Dean licks inside, the push of his body, lean and hard. The feel of Cas, and how very much he wants; the slow, hot promise that curls through him as Dean realises just how much he's willing to give.
When they part, they're both panting. Dean keeps his hand buried in Cas's hair, the other curved on the jut of his hip; Cas leans into him, his breath bursting warm on Dean's skin, his hands fisted in his t-shirt. When Dean opens his eyes, Cas is already watching him, his eyes eaten up dark inside slivers of blue. "Dean," he says, breathing it low.
It sounds like some kind of obscene prayer. Dean shudders, feels it run through Cas a second later. "I don't have a God, Cas," he says, his voice rough, "and I wouldn't kneel for him if I did." He pulls back, just a little, just enough so he can pin Cas with a look. "Don't you ever make a deal with a demon for me again."
Cas stills. His returning gaze is caught, electric, a little desperate. Devout--but Dean can work on that. "I promise."
Dean kisses him again, softly this time. Breathes against the corner of his mouth when it's over, his lips catching on stubble and fevered skin. "You weren't God, Cas," he says quietly, and Cas trembles again under his hands. Dean tightens his grip. "You never needed to be."