It’s a warm night, muggy, and his neck is clammy with sweat that trickles relentlessly down between his shoulder blades, so that he has to lean forward in the seat every few minutes and pluck at the fabric of his shirt to peel it off his skin.
He’s thinking about this, thinking as carefully as he ever thought about anything in his life, but he knows he’s kidding himself. He knows he doesn’t have to talk himself into it and he knows nothing will change his mind, that the germ of the idea he first thought up while he drifted off to sleep in a roach motel outside Pleasant Hope, Missouri, has divided, multiplied, grown exponentially, so it’s an infection raging through him and making him ill with need and near-crazy with want. It’s wrong, what he’s doing, but he tells himself Pleasant Hope was a good omen, that she might have been sending him a sign for him to have his lightbulb moment in Pleasant Hope when it could easily have happened in Peculiar, or Enough, or Frankenstein, surely bad omens all of them.
He knows in his heart he’d still do this even if he’d been in any of those places.
It’s time but he drags it out, eases out of the truck all leisurely, stretches so his neck pops at the back. It’s peaceful, just the crickets and the yip-howl of far-off coyotes breaking the blanket of silence. He looks up, and the stars are winking at him conspiratorially, like they know what he’s doing.
He roots it out of the glove box, a small baccy tin, flips the lid, checks the contents for the nth time: crushed yellow flower heads, the bones of a black cat that stared at him balefully as he snapped its neck, a fake FBI badge. He closes it all up, walks to the center where the four roads meet, squats and claws out dirt. He presses the tin down in the depression, covers it up, stands and makes a cursory effort to pat it all down flat with his boot. He stands motionless then, staring out into the dark.
“Okay,” comes the voice, drawling and insolent.
He heaves out a breath but he doesn’t know if it’s relief, or horror that he’s come this far and he knows he isn’t going back. He turns around slowly, hand poised at his pocket, ready to snatch for the bottle, holy water, his insurance policy.
She’s petite, dark-haired, pearl-skinned, underdressed. “You must want a diabolical favor,” she muses. “What is it, I wonder? Youth, knowledge, wealth, or power?”
He swallows dryly. “None of those,” he croaks. “I want—”
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary,” she sing-songs, and her eyes flash. “I got the memo, Samuel.” She chuckles at his surprised look. “Oh yeah. I know who you are.” She tsks, shakes her head ruefully. “And I can’t say I blame you. Poor Mary is being purified as we speak, and the methodology?” She executes an elaborate wince. “Not pretty. I’m afraid the Catholics were right.”
Samuel clenches and unfurls his hands. He’s done the research, knows what Purgatory is, knows it’s so much more than a transitional place, so much more than the third state between Heaven and Hell. He rails against the thought of her there, at the thought of her innocence sullied by the temporal effects of sin, at the thought of the deal that sealed her fate and ensured that she needed to be cleansed even if she wasn’t quite sinful enough for the Pit.
The demon is staring back at him, an assessing look. “She’s being purged,” she confirms, as if she can read his mind. “Purified by fire, having all the bad burned away.” She raises an eyebrow, makes her voice airy and unconcerned. “I believe your saints used to say the fires of cleansing are more painful than anything you can suffer in this life, and Dante, well. He pretty much nailed it.” She floats a finger to her chin, ponders coyly. “I wonder which level of Mount Purgatory Mary’s on? Let’s see… she’s bound to have done pride, who hasn’t? And I think seeing her poor sweetie pie lying there dead means we can tick despair off the list, wrath too.” She fixes him with obsidian eyes that glitter in the moonlight. “And then there’s lust. Rumor has it that she sure did kiss daddy back like she meant—”
“Shut-up,” he chokes. “That wasn’t me. It was the demon.”
She cocks her head, knowingly. “If you say so,” she leers. “But, anyhoo. Best not waste time with the evil monologue. Things to do, places to be. Let’s cut to the chase. You want to make a deal for your Mary. And now Crowley’s out of the picture, you don’t know where to turn.”
Samuel clears his throat, but his voice still comes out rough and jagged. “Do you know the way to Purgatory?”
She laughs, high-pitched and girlish even though she isn’t a girl at all. “I have a sudden urge to sing that along to Dionne Warwick,” she sneers, and her voice comes out breathy, sultry, sends shivers creeping up his spine so that if he had hair he thinks it might be standing on end. “Do you know the way to Purgatory, I’ve been away so long I may—”
“Do you know?” he dares to holler, cutting her off abruptly, his voice echoing across the deserted plains.
She tosses her hair, rolls her eyes. “No. I don’t. No one does, it’s like one of those elephant graveyards in the old Tarzan movies.” And then she smiles. “But you don’t have to know where it is to pull a soul out of there. You just have to know who can help you do it. And I do. Well, not help exactly… I mean – he won’t help us per se. Not willingly.”
Samuel breathes down his anger and rage. “Who?”
She shrugs. “The angel.”
He gapes at her for a second, parrots back, “The angel?”
“Yep. Castiel. He can raise your Mary. Well, what I mean is that his blood can.”
Samuel processes that for a moment. “His blood?”
She directs a matter-of-fact nod at him, flaps a dismissive hand. “Yeah, we’ll need to bleed him. For the ritual. It’s pretty specific, has to be performed under a lunar eclipse with the blood of a fallen angel who’s been to Hell and has ascended back to the Heavenly Host. Some crap like that, as far as I remember.” She huffs out in wonder. “That kind of angel is hard to come by. In fact, Castiel might be the only one of the God squad who fits the bill in this realm or the others, so I guess it must be your lucky day.” She smiles. “And there’s a lunar eclipse four nights from now.”
Samuel studies her, running it all through his mind. He’s weighing it all up, balancing it all, the costs and the benefits. “Will it kill him?”
Her features soften into a facsimile of sympathy. “Probably. Eventually.”
Samuel knows angels are messengers of God, God’s representatives on Earth, an extension of God. And even if he still clings stubbornly to his irreligion despite all he has learned and experienced since he woke up at midnight in a field in Lawrence, Kansas, nearly four decades after he died, he knows angels are real, stared into that angel’s crystal-blue eyes as it reached inside him and touched his soul. The memory makes him hesitant. “Uh… I don’t think—”
“It was him who sent Dean back, you know,” she says. “To nineteen-seventy-three. Dean flagged your precious Mary to Azazel. It wouldn’t have happened if the angel hadn’t sent him back to do it. It was all part of their grand Apocalypse plan. Castiel was in on it.”
It appalls Samuel, makes him reel, makes his jaw drop open as she waits patiently. He closes his eyes and thinks it all through. “But Dean wouldn’t—”
“Dean doesn’t care, he’s too busy fucking the pretty.” She nods confirmation as he goggles at her. “Oh yeah, Castiel fell in more ways than one. Right into your grandson’s wide-open arms. In fact, he’s been leading Deano around by his dick since day one.”
Samuel’s stomach does a slow barrel roll as he blinks stupidly at her, and he can hear his own breath wheezing and catching at the back of his throat. His voice scrapes out like he’s walking on glass. “That isn’t even… I don’t believe that.”
She smirks. “Come on, you must’ve suspected. All that macho posturing? Methinks Dean doth protest too much. Oh, and just so you know, word is Dean killed your nephew. Backstabbed him with a smile on his face and a song in his heart.”
Samuel is shaking now, feels his heart start racing and hears his blood crashing in his ears, feels lightheaded and like he’s suffocating at the same time. He rubs a hand across his scalp, forces himself to slow down and concentrate. When he answers her, he isn’t really sure if he ever made a decision, or if what comes out is what he meant to say. “He’s an angel. How the hell am I supposed to—”
“You can summon him,” she cuts in, and her voice goes tart at the scowl Samuel gives her in response. “Really, Samuel?” she taunts. “Do you seriously expect me to believe you worked with Crowley all that time and didn’t pick up some new tricks?”
Samuel snorts. “But he’s an angel,” he reiterates, with as much patience as he can muster. “Even if I can magic him up, there’s no way I can take him out…”
Her finger raises to silence him. “Just leave it to me, Gramps. I know how to take him out so hard he won’t know what hit him. All you have to do is get him where I want him.” She sidles closer. “Those are my terms,” she hisses. “You want your precious Mary out of Purgatory. I can help you. I’ll throw in your nephew as a goodwill gesture.”
“Christian’s soul is in Purgatory too?” he asks doubtfully.
She nods. “It wasn’t his fault he was possessed. But he’d still need to be sanitized.” She circles around behind him, stops right in front and stares up. “You can even keep your soul. I just get to play with Castiel while we bleed him. And I get to keep what’s left.” She smiles. “If there’s anything left.”
She licks her lips, puffs out breath that Samuel can taste like ash on the tip of his tongue, and her teeth are a vicious gleam in the half-light. She has her hand on his chest now, and she’s rising up on her toes, tilting her head.
“Deal, or no deal?” she teases.
Samuel looks at her, and for a split second he sees his daughter’s face.
He doesn’t hesitate, he fists his fingers at the back of the demon’s head and kisses her like he might never stop.
It’s curiously mesmerizing, what Castiel is doing to the cherry that rolled off Sam’s plate, and Dean can’t help but be captivated as the angel toys with it, rotating it around and around, picking idly at the stem as he stares into space, miles away like he always seems to be these days. His fingers are long and elegant, and they undulate in the air as he maneuvers the fruit deftly, his knuckles flexing, and—
Another set of fingers is snapping next to his ear, and he jumps.
Sam is staring at him from over the screen of his laptop. “You seem a tad distracted,” he suggests, flicking his eyes across to Castiel and back to Dean before smiling in an oddly knowing way. “I once hooked up with a girl who could tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue,” he continues slyly. “Fact, she could do all sorts of tricks with her tongue. She had a magic tongue, Dean.”
Dean goes dry in the throat, has to swallow hard, and he doesn’t know if it’s because of the sudden thought that Castiel might have a magic tongue to go along with his magic fingers, or the ever-present worry that his brother’s wall might be crumbling, because this is the first damn time Sam has ever mentioned cherry-stem chick. “What the fuck is a kappa doing in Pennsylvania anyway?” he sidetracks gruffly, as much to distract himself from his fantasies as to distract his brother from any memories that might be seeping through the cracks.
Sam scrunches his face up dubiously. “Bobby did say monsters seem to be acting really weird,” he muses. “Things that aren’t native showing up here. He said he was getting a shit ton of reports from other hunters, remember?”
Dean studies his brother, briefly wonders if Death’s wall means Sam has no recollection of the lamia that would not die, or of Bobby’s okami. “Weird my ass,” he grouses, and then he can’t help shuddering at the memory of the thing’s webbed hands slithering down the back of his jeans like it was trying to cop a feel of that precise body part. “Don’t say a fuckin’ word,” he barks, as he sees his brother’s eyes glint. “Next time someone’s butt cheeks get stuck together with kappa slime in a town called Blue Balls, you’re it.”
Sam tents his brows earnestly. “Could be worse, Dean,” he smirks. “We’re only eight miles east of Intercourse.”
Castiel clears his throat. “And it’s Blue Ball, Dean,” he says mildly. “Just the one. I believe it makes all the difference.”
Dean still has trouble figuring out when the angel is dicking with him, and he fixes him with a hard eye. “Damn pincer movement, you and him.”
Castiel stares back as intently as only he can, like they’re having a moment at five-thirty in the morning in this no-name diner in this one-horse town up the ass of nowhere, like he’s just waiting for Dean, waiting for him to say something or do something, only Dean isn’t sure what. “No one got hurt, Dean,” he offers finally.
And yeah, it’s true, Dean thinks. They bagged the fugly without anything bad happening except for Sam having to tread water for a tad longer than he might have hoped to lure the thing out, and even if they’ve been spitting up mouthfuls of lake mud for the best part of an hour, they’re alive and well, if damp and stinking. And now they can move on to more important things, like finding out what the hell a bunch of dragons might be doing with a spell to crack open Purgatory. And what the fuck, maybe he’ll stare back some more, because Castiel is so damned easy on the eyes, and maybe he’ll make his own gaze as transparently affectionate as the angel’s and hope Castiel might have gotten over whatever the hell has been making him mad as a cut snake since—
“So anyway, I googled kappa,” Sam cuts in then, closing his laptop with a brisk click. “It said they sometimes take their victims for the purpose of eating their livers. Or their shirikodama.”
Dean tears his attention away from Castiel and fixes it on his brother. Sam’s lips are curling up just slightly at the corners, in the way they always do when he’s trying not to throw his head back and laugh. And Dean knows he’s being reeled in, and what the hell, maybe they all need it and fuck knows he has missed these moments more than he’ll ever be able to acknowledge out loud. It means he’s more than happy to snap up the bait and play this game, so he does. “I know I’ll regret this, but – shiri-ko-dama?”
Sam’s eyes gleam. “It’s a mythical ball stored inside your anus.”
Dean sniffs. “Not the planet, I take it?”
And Sam does bray out that laugh, with something like real joy, so that Dean rolls his eyes theatrically. He downs his second cup of coffee quickly and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “I can still taste pond scum,” he hacks out.
Castiel glances up from where he’s contemplating the cherry again, held a couple of inches in front of his nose. He hooks a packet of Saltines off Sam’s plate and waves them in front of Dean’s face. “Perhaps these might help.”
Dean plucks the crackers from between Castiel’s fingers more to spite his brother than anything else. He tears into the cellophane and munches one of the snacks as loudly as he can, even spits a cloud of crumbs in Sam’s direction. It still doesn’t take the taste out of his mouth but it helps in lieu of something stronger, something he knows would cauterize the pungent taste away with the first swallow, but the sun is barely up and even if a small part of him craves the burn of whiskey, coffee and stolen crackers will do for now.
He can feel Castiel watching him closely, wide eyes studying Dean carefully, scrutinizing each swallow and flexion of his jaw. He’s gotten used to it over the past few years, chalks it up to the angel being socially inept. His people skills are rusty, after all. And deep down inside he likes it, being the center of Castiel’s attention, and somewhere along the way he might have started to feed into the angel’s single-minded intensity, might even think of it as a profound—”
He startles back to reality along to a kick in the shin and his brother bitchfacing him. “Ow,” he blurts out. “What the fuck?”
Sam groans and drops his head in his open palm. “Nothing. Just… nothing.”
Dean leans back and parks his arm along the back of the tattered, plastic-covered bench. “Eat your fruit, bitch.”
Sam rolls his eyes again and stabs his fork into a chunk of cantaloupe considerably harder than necessary. He tosses out the required jerk as an afterthought.
“Anyway did Bobby say anything more about this Purgatory mother-of-all crap?” Dean asks then. “Only I still think Crowley might have been up to a lot more than he let on. Cas, what do you think?”
Castiel is miles away again, his jaw moving slightly, like he’s chewing the cud, and Dean knocks his boot against the angel’s ankle under the table. “Cas,” he repeats. “Do you think Crowley was up to…”
His voice trails off as the angel produces the cherry from between his lips, holds it up between thumb and forefinger, the stem perfectly knotted.
Dean gapes. “You used mojo to do that.”
Castiel gives a careless half-shrug. “All I did was chew the stem to make it more malleable, use my tongue to bend it into a U shape, bite down on it to make it cross into a loop, and then use my teeth to maneuver the end of the stem through the loop. I tightened the knot by holding the stem between my teeth as I pulled the cherry out of my mouth. Simple, you see?” He cocks his head thoughtfully then, and his voice comes out lower than ever. “But then again, I could just have a magic tongue, Dean.”
And fuck, if Dean doesn’t feel a twitch in his crotch at that, at the way Castiel’s voice goes smoky rough, like burned toast, at his rock-steady gaze, at the way he sits there waiting for Dean’s response, at the glimmer of the possibility that the angel might not be dicking with him at all this time. He doesn’t really know what to do with that thought, or the way it makes his throat dry up and his heart give a nervous little stutter, the way it makes him suddenly aware of the sweat trickling down between his shoulder blades, makes him feel the air between them vibrate with his own tension. He goldfishes his mouth open-shut a few times, ever aware of his brother sitting there watching the proceedings with alert-eyed interest, before he fumbles out a weak response. “Come on, you expect—”
“Food’s up, boys.”
Plates clatter noisily onto the table, and hi-I’m-Tracey-what-can-I-get-you? sticks her chest out, eyes Castiel, and licks her lips suggestively. “You sure you don’t want anything, sugar?”
“No,” Castiel clips out brusquely.
Dean raises his eyebrows pointedly, mouths manners, taps a disciplinary finger on the tabletop.
Castiel blinks back at him confusedly for a second or two before he gets it. “Oh. Thank you,” he adds hastily. He glances up at the woman coyly, and Dean thinks he might even bat his eyelashes at her. “No thank you. I mean.”
The woman smiles again, her eyes never leaving Castiel’s face. “Well, if you change your mind, just holler for me and I’ll come running.” She winks at Castiel before turning and swinging her hips as she walks away.
“I bet you will,” Dean snarks, as he forks in a load of home fries, and maybe it’s a relief that the moment has snapped into the past. “So, how’s the war effort?” he deflects casually as he chews. “Any better now you have the nukes?” It’s on the tip of his tongue to make a smart-ass comment about Balthazar but something stops him, something he doesn’t want to admit to himself is the softness in Castiel’s eyes as he gazes back. “And don’t just beam out again without telling us what the fuck is going on,” he finishes off instead. “Because we’ve had it with the I-am-a-rock-I-am-an-island crap.”
He senses Sam flit his eyes over to the angel, sees his brother’s head tilt in interest because now he has his soul back, Sam is just as curious as Dean about the shit-storm going on upstairs.
For a second, Castiel looks frayed at the edges, his stare isn’t steady at all, and Dean sees exhaustion clouding his eyes. And then it’s gone, so that Dean wonders if he saw anything at all.
The angel eyes Dean’s plate critically. “That’s a heart attack waiting to happen,” he notes tersely.
Sam huffs out in disdain. “I’ve been telling him that for years. Hasn’t made a dent.” He makes a thoughtful sound and glances at Castiel. “Maybe he’ll listen to you.”
Dean narrows his eyes, crams a sausage link into his mouth, hums out his appreciation as he chews it. He tilts his head back slightly, closes his eyes and swallows, savoring the taste it leaves in his mouth. “Fuck heart attacks,” he declares. “Cas can just bring me back anyway.”
Sam rolls his eyes, blows steam off a spoonful of oatmeal. “You know you can tell us, right?” he says suddenly, and he elbows Castiel gently. “How it’s all going, I mean.”
Castiel exhales slowly, an alarmingly human gesture, as if he’s trying to gather his thoughts, and for a second Dean thinks this is it, this is where the rubber meets the road, where they’ll finally get some answers so Team Free Will can figure out what to do next. But the moment doesn’t come, because right out of nowhere he’s looking at thin air.
He slants his eyes across to meet his brother’s. “Avoidance, much?” he says ruefully. “I fuckin’ hate it when he does that.”
The house is long abandoned, condemned. It stinks of damp and the rank territorial pissing of foxes, and it’s cold, an icy wind whistling in through broken windows. Samuel stands dead center of the room, turns in a slow circle, covering every dark corner, his eyes darting about constantly and his ears tuned to the slightest creak, but he still startles when he sweeps his eyes around to see Castiel standing in the shadows.
The angel steps forward into a beam of faded moonlight, and he cocks his head skeptically. “Samuel Campbell,” he acknowledges, and his voice is a strange mix of boredom and suspicion as he continues. “Why would you summon me when you must surely know my first inclination is to destroy you. Slowly. With extreme prejudice.”
Samuel smiles mirthlessly. “He’s fine, isn’t he?” he retorts. “I wouldn’t have left him there if I didn’t think he could take out those bozos.”
Castiel doesn’t blink, and his gaze is flat and aloof. “Dean is exceptional,” he concedes thinly.
Samuel is already starting to reply but he pauses, considers it, buried in its trench coat so he can’t really see how it’s built under there, ruffled hair, big baby blues. It looks innocent, looks like some pen-pusher who works for the government at state level. Inside the veneer of respectability it’s approximately the size of the Chrysler Building, and it has wings. And Samuel finds his mind wandering to what it might use its borrowed carcass to do in bed with his grandson, and he feels his gorge rise. He swallows. “I need to get a message to him,” he says hoarsely.
“Then it’s a good thing the ghouls you threw him to missed, isn’t it?” comes the reply, and it’s the same frosty, distant tone as before. “And I’ve heard tell of a small communication device called the cell phone. Perhaps you should consider purchasing one.”
It raises an insolent eyebrow and Samuel purses his lips, feels his teeth grind away against each other at the back of his jaw, like they always do when he’s starting to build up a head of steam. “Sam told me you can use those things to track people,” he grates out. “I may have been born at night, but it wasn’t last night. Anyway, there’s no way Dean will take my calls now, and he needs to know this. Crowley—”
“What do you know about Crowley?”
Samuel puts the brakes on his sentence so fast he can feel the back half of it rear-end the demon’s name where it rests on the tip of his tongue, because the angel still looks utterly composed, hands hanging loose by his sides, shoulders slouched, but somehow he’s different, lethal, and the air is crackling tense with the change as he cuts Samuel off.
“What do you know about Crowley?” he repeats, and Samuel realizes it’s in his voice, a sharp contrast to before, impatient, serrated at the edges, and damned dangerous.
“You were working for him,” the angel persists. “Do you know who he was working with? Is that why you want to talk to Dean?”
And that takes Samuel aback, has him floundering for a minute until he recovers sufficiently to affect bemusement. “He wasn’t working with anyone. He said he was the king of Hell, why would he need a partner?”
Castiel is studying Samuel, analyzing him, his eyes unyielding and suddenly lit up a brilliant Pacific blue. Samuel can smell ozone, and he remembers that this thing can smite him to dust according to Sam Winchester. All at once it feels like this is going south, and he throws up his hands in self-defense. “Look, I don’t know what you’ve heard, but if Crowley was working with someone else, it’s news to me,” he insists. “That’s the truth.”
There’s a moment that stretches out so taut Samuel is sure it’s about to twang like a broken guitar string and flick him in the eye. “I summoned you because it’s important,” he says desperately, into the silence. “I’m taking a risk here. I know you could kill me in a heartbeat.” He’s already bracing himself for the angel’s wrath, because he can feel it building up around him and pressing in on him, stifling and claustrophobic, and so terrifying it makes his bowels cramp.
The angel contemplates him for a moment longer, an inhuman laser focus so intense it feels as if his eyes are boring a hole right through Samuel’s skin, and then, abruptly, the air is less heavy and the tingle in Samuel’s nerves shuts off.
“I won’t kill you,” Castiel decides smoothly, and it’s like a switch was flipped because he’s a study in serenity again, his eyes dark and drowsy, and his voice back to its low, neutral rumble. “Not without Dean’s permission.”
Samuel deep breathes his anxiety down to manageable levels. “That isn’t very comforting,” he croaks.
Castiel smirks faintly. “It wasn’t meant to be. What’s the message?”
Showtime, Samuel thinks, and he can maybe move this along now because he has the script committed to memory. “It isn’t a message as such,” he says. “It’s something Crowley left behind. A page torn out of an old book, some sort of incantation.”
And there it is again, a flare of interest. “Is it written on human skin?”
Samuel motions his head over to the corner, beyond the rickety staircase, to where his bedroll and pack are lying. “Could be… it’s in my pack. I can show you.” He makes his voice soft, convincing, recites his lines just like the demon told him to. “I think it might be spell work… to open a door, maybe. It’s some form of archaic Latin… it mentions a janua, that’s door isn’t it? And porta…”
“Porta?” Castiel echoes him. “A portal… to where?”
Samuel puts out his hand, beckoning, drawing Castiel along. “I don’t know,” he says. “You might be able to read the rest of it.”
It’s like coaxing some timid wild animal into taking a tidbit from his palm, he thinks, as he backs over there. The angel is following him, hesitant and wary, but he’s taking the bait and his eyebrows are tenting inquisitively, making him look oddly innocent and childlike as he peers curiously past Samuel, into the dark. Samuel falls back until they’re level, easing a hand around behind him and sliding his fingers into the pocket of his jeans, careful controlled movements, because he doesn’t want to spook it. He holds off until it’s a few inches ahead of him, craning its neck, and he can’t believe it’s so easy, that something that was ready to nuke him to kingdom come less than two minutes ago could be so naïve, be such an easy mark. It niggles at the back of his mind even while his arm forms a smooth arc into a split second of violence as he rams the syringe into the back of Castiel’s neck, depressing the plunger the second the needle sinks into the skin there.
The angel’s head swivels around, his eyes wide in surprise and shock, and he stumbles, flails one hand up to his nape. “What did you do?” he murmurs, with a vague sort of wonder, and his legs buckle, sinking him down in graceful slow motion, his leisurely collapse briefly averted when Samuel snakes out a hand to fist a handful of his shirt.
“You sent Dean back,” Samuel hisses. “You sent him back to show that yellow-eyed monster where my daughter was. It’s time you pay for your sins.”
He releases the angel so he falls onto his hands and knees, and out of nowhere Castiel is holding a short, deadly looking sword that gleams brightly in the dark. He points it up at Samuel, his face stunned, but the blade is wavering about harmlessly. His eyes close, and he lets out a long, low moan. “What did you do to me…?”
He flops down onto the ground, cries out as his body spasms in a seizure that locks his muscles tight for a few seconds before he curls in on himself, his face turned into the dirt and his body wracked with tremors.
Samuel whistles as the demon materializes from thin air, and he brandishes the syringe in her direction. “What is in this anyway? It’s damned potent. I barely hit him and he was down.”
She smiles as she swaggers up to the crumpled form, hooks her boot under the angel’s belly and rolls him over so he’s staring up, insensate, eyes glassy and unseeing. “Good old O-neg,” she sneers. “Demon blood… mine, actually. To these guys, it’s like – well, demon blood. Like with vampires and dead man’s blood. Their Kryptonite. That’s the theory, anyway. Never saw it in action till now.”
Samuel lets his irritation show. “So you had me stick him with that when you didn’t even know if it’d work?”
“Lucky guess.” She squats down and trails a bright red fingernail along Castiel’s cheek, and maybe the angel is more aware than Samuel thought, because he twitches and makes a small, hurt sound. She drags the pad of her thumb across his lips, where blood is bubbling thickly and trickling down from the corner of his mouth. “Poor baby,” she croons indulgently. “I think he bit clean through his tongue.”
“What’ll it do, fry his insides or something?” Samuel doesn’t honestly know why he asks, because he doesn’t give a damn, not really, and he shrugs when she rolls her eyes at him.
“No, it’ll just give him a really bad trip. Like PCP, I’ve heard. Hallucinations, his worst nightmares in glorious Technicolor inside that pretty head.” She leers down at the barely conscious angel. “Real Jacob’s Ladder stuff. I wish I had a camcorder, we could DVR it for his boyfriend.”
Samuel grimaces in distaste as she hauls Castiel up and holds him close, in a parody of a loving embrace, while she tugs the trench coat and jacket down off his shoulders. “But I don’t know how long it’ll last and I can’t keep dosing him,” she says. “We need his blood pure for the ritual. So maybe you’d better lay the wards before he comes round, because I’m thinking he’ll be pretty pissed.”
Samuel snorts, rummages in his pack for the can of spray paint, starts marking out the borders, zig-zags and whorls, side-eyeing the demon as she lets the body thud back down to the ground. He’s thinking, working through what just happened, the angel’s unlikely trust, its sudden, incongruous gullibility. “So it’s real then, the portal,” he observes, purely on a hunch, even though he knows he won’t get a straight answer from her.
She slants her eyes up and fixes him with a hard stare. “What makes you say that?”
Her tone is acidic, and it’s suddenly tense in there again, a re-run of the moment when Samuel was full sure Castiel was about to burn him from existence. It’s all the confirmation he needs, but he doesn’t break her stare, even if his reply comes out dry and parched. “I wasn’t just feeding him a line you thought up to distract him,” he dares. “He knew what I was talking about. And I got the impression it’s important.”
She reaches inside her jacket for something and he flinches. She dangles a pair of handcuffs, smiles. “Don’t panic, old man. You don’t worry me enough for me to kill you. And we do have a deal, after all.”
He catches the flash of a small blade glinting, a sudden welling of scarlet on her hand. She caresses the metal, smearing it till it glistens wetly before she snaps the cuffs around Castiel’s wrists, and now Samuel can smell burning, see smoke, and a raw whine of distress tears out through the angel’s lips.
“Anyway, it isn’t important,” the demon adds witheringly. “Do you seriously think I’d let you tell him about it if it was?” She pulls Castiel’s boots and socks off and throws them into the corner, uses her shiv to cut through the fabric of his tie and casts it aside, before reaching for the discarded sword and pushing up. “Looks smaller, doesn’t he?” she muses.
She’s right, Samuel thinks. In his shirt, pants and bare feet, his face lax and his eyes half-lidded and dazed, Castiel looks human and vulnerable. That’s the whole point of her stripping him, Samuel knows, and it makes his mouth taste sour for a moment.
“Hey,” the demon says sharply, and when he glances towards her, her eyes are beady and knowing. “Don’t forget what he did,” she continues coldly. “Eyes on the prize, Pappy.”
She leans down, grips the chain between the cuffs and heaves the angel’s body easily to the middle of the trap, where she drops it. “Here’s where the fun begins,” she hisses gleefully.
Dean doesn’t have time to wonder what the fuck a chupacabra is doing in South Dakota before the thing is on him like a cartoon Tasmanian devil, a frenzied, whirling cannonball of stinking hair that bowls him over, winding him as he slams down on his back. It lands on his belly, growling and shrieking, claws scrabbling, snaps voraciously at his neck, and he feels ropey strings of drool spatter his cheek. He brings his arm up reflexively, forces it into the thing’s mouth, back as far as it’ll go, while the other hand pats about frantically for his knife, lost somewhere in the undergrowth during the wild tumble.
It’s ripping through his shirt now, and that’s so far from good, because he knows how these mothers are built, knows that if it tears through his layers and its talons gain purchase on the soft skin of his belly, he’ll be looking like a hellhound’s chew-toy again and the thing will be wearing his intestines like a lei and feasting on his heart two minutes later. And in the absence of his brother that counts as a fuckin’ emergency, as DefCon fuckin’ One, as maximum damned readiness, no matter how many times Castiel has sighed resignedly and told them he’s at war.
“Cas,” he hollers out between pants. “Fuck. Cas.” He can feel its jaws closing even tighter now, pinching into his forearm, grinding down, and he’s just wearing denim, knows the fabric won’t withstand much more punishment. “Cas. Come on. Now, buddy, if you can.”
It’s hurting now, his guts on fire with the force of its hind legs digging into him, and he knows he’s on the point of tossing his cookies as waves of nausea roil uncomfortably inside him. “Cas, please…” he manages once more, but it’s weak, little more than a gasp, and still there’s nothing, no beat of wings or celestial lightshow deep-frying the thing to a crisp.
Its eyes are glowing red as it leers down at him, and now he can’t catch his breath with its weight on his chest, crushing his ribcage and sternum, and he thinks he can feel his forearm start to crack and split. As he drifts off into hazy gray, he can just about hear shouting, a gun blatting, but he’s too busy imagining Castiel’s fingers gentle on his arm to really care any more, Doctor fuckin’ Sexy, and he can almost see the angel studying the limb, shaking his head in sympathy, his eyes soft with that look he only ever gives Dean, his voice low and concerned, Dean, your radius is split right through just here, and there is significant pronation where it—
When he comes round, Sam has a hand planted in the dirt either side of him and he’s wearing a huge-eyed look of panic as he stares down. His hair is wild.
“You need a fuckin’ haircut,” Dean croaks up at him, apropos of nothing.
Sam beams, holds up his hand. “You okay? How many fingers?”
“Blue,” Dean grunts balefully in response, as he swivels his eyes to the right and down to the pile of moth-eaten fur a few feet away. “Nice shot.”
Sam huffs, bites his lip as he runs careful fingertips over Dean’s skull, pressing in gently, following the drill, looking for give, sponginess, blood, and Dean can’t help a moment of quiet joy at the concern. Sam’s brow furrows sympathetically. “Got a heck of a goose egg there,” he commiserates.
Dean props himself up on his elbows. “I’ll live. Isn’t the first time I’ve been dropped on my head.” His head is spinning, and he blinks hard. “I need a fuckin’ drink.”
His brother snorts. “Forget it.” He slides his arm behind Dean’s shoulders to ease his weight, and starts hauling him upright.
“Such a killjoy,” Dean mutters. He slowly gathers his legs under him, shifting and pushing himself to his feet, along to a soundtrack of words like easy and careful. He takes a couple of deep breaths, holding the gulps of oxygen deep in his lungs before exhaling slowly as he tries to control the pain, to force it deep down in his gut. He’s had worse. Much worse. It still hurts like a bitch.
Sam bites his lower lip and one hand falls away as he leans down to hoist up the duffel. He shoulders the bag easily, his other hand never leaving Dean’s arm. “It’s a long walk back to the car.”
Dean groans as he takes his first shaky step forward. “‘Course it is. Never the easy way with us.” He can feel Sam’s eyes tracking each aching footfall, can feel his brother wince in time with his own grunts of discomfort.
“We could, you know, call Cas and see if he’ll—”
“No.” It’s short and abrupt, and Dean hopes it might drown the conversation at birth.
Sam has never been good at leaving things alone. “We’ve called him for less and—”
Dean’s foot lands in a dip in the ground and he stumbles forward, groaning as his bruised and battered body protests the jarring movement. Sam’s arm is around him again like he’s trying to siphon off the pain, and they stay like that for nearly a full minute as Dean catches his breath. He focuses on the slow dribble of blood down his arm. It’s warm, and it’s wet, and it fuckin’ hurts.
He starts moving again, and Sam stays close to his side, fingers hovering lightly on his shoulder. “Tell me again why we can’t just—”
“Leave it, Sam,” Dean snaps, and if he wasn’t so afraid of poleaxing flat on his face and never getting up again, he thinks he’d be pulling away from his brother right now.
“Jesus, Dean. I don’t get you,” Sam bitches back. “You and Cas are practically—”
“He didn’t come, okay?” Dean growls. He keeps his voice pitched low and angry, and he hopes Sam doesn’t pick up on the hurt that shrouds his words. “I called him when the fuckin’ chalupa was trying to make me his late-night snack. I tried, Sam, and he didn’t come.”
Sam’s fingers ghost over his neck and settle on the tight muscles in his shoulder, squeezing once. “Oh. Uh… that’s…” He trails off awkwardly. “Sorry, Dean,” he says after a minute. “I’m sorry.”
Dean snorts, and the one good thing about the pain is that it distracts him from examining why the fuck he should feel hurt by the angel’s no-show, and why the fuck his brother should be using that tone and speaking to him exactly like he’s hurt by the angel’s no-show. He focuses instead on where he puts his feet, counts each step he takes, anything to take his mind off the pain and the gnawing in his gut, the sinking realization that Castiel didn’t come, didn’t save him this time. Not for the first time, he wonders if his dependency on the angel is such a good thing, wonders if he could stop if he tried.
“It’s not like him.”
Sam’s announcement is firm, startles Dean out of his reverie, and he points a huh? look at his brother.
“It’s not like Cas not to come when you need him,” Sam says, even more decisively.
Dean shrugs, then winces as the slashes on his arm send a white hot stab of pain rocketing up his neck to settle into a dull throb at the base of his skull. “I don’t know why we’re surprised,” he scathes out bitterly, because he figures being bitter is better than the alternative, better than acknowledging why, better than embracing his sheer disappointment. Fuck knows, he has enough to worry about, like not bleeding out in backwoods South Dakota. “He just palled up with his buddy Balthazar to use us as bait for Raphael’s mook, didn’t he? And he didn’t come to you after Stull.” He didn’t come to me after Stull either, he thinks.
Sam shakes his head and adjusts the bag higher on his shoulder. “He said he didn’t know what Balthazar was doing until afterwards, Dean,” he offers. “And – I’m not you. It’s not the same.”
Dean’s heart skips a beat in his chest and for a moment it feels like there’s a joke that everyone knows but him. “What’s that supposed to mean?” he demands sourly.
He can tell from the roll of Sam’s jaw that he’s choosing his words carefully, and just when Dean is about to tell him to spit it out already, Sam clarifies. “It’s just not like him not to come if you’re in trouble.” He shrugs. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Dean snorts, voices what he was just thinking. “He didn’t come to me after Stull either, Sam. So maybe I’m not as special as you think.”
Sam doesn’t reply for a minute, and when he does, his tone is subdued. “You called for him after Stull? While you were at—”
“Yeah, while I was at.” Dean doesn’t elaborate further, because he doesn’t want to think about his desperation and unhappiness, the feeling of abandonment and loneliness that didn’t just come from the loss of his brother, the weeks when his pleading went unanswered, so that he finally gave up hope even though he still felt the constant pull of Castiel as if the angel was standing right next to him. “Maybe he was busy,” he diverts shortly. It’s not a great defense, but Dean doesn’t expect Castiel to drop everything every time he calls. Even if it does make him feel like someone important, feel like he’s important to someone when Castiel answers his prayers.
Sam makes a noncommittal noise in his throat. “Yeah. Maybe.”
They trudge on in silence for a while then, and when the Impala appears in the distance, bright and shining under the gaze of the full moon, Dean thinks she might be a mirage. “Ever seen anything so beautiful?” he says appreciatively.
The tension punctured, Sam chuckles and slides his hand down to Dean’s bicep as they start down the incline. “Can’t say I have.”
“Why don’t you scream, Castiel?” the voice teases him, close to his ear.
No, he thinks, and he keeps his eyes squeezed tight shut against the horror.
“In Hell, no one can hear you scream,” it whispers. “They’re all too busy screaming themselves…” It has its hands on him now, fingers trailing carefully up his flank. “That’s right,” it croons. “You’re in the Pit. You never got out, and your honey did such bad, bad things to you once he got you on his rack…”
Castiel can taste iron in his mouth, and he turns his head to the side and spits, but he keeps his eyes closed. This isn’t real, he thinks, but he must have said it out loud, or maybe the thing that has him is reading his mind, because it cackles out its contempt and its voice is hazy now, falling and rising in his blurred confusion, sandpaper rough but soft at the same time, so familiar and so cherished.
“It is real, Cas… and no one’s gripping you tight and raising you from perdition.”
A fingernail scratches at the tender skin of his inner thigh, so his muscles lock rigid with terror and he tugs at the chains that tether him. The demon pokes at his penis where it nestles limp and shriveled. “Actually, there might be some gripping in your immediate future,” it decides. “After I peel you.”
It isn’t even really the worst thing that ever happened to Castiel, even when the demon presses gentle lips to his while it flays him, and whispers the words of love he sometimes dreams of down here in the Pit, in those first few seconds after his grace restores him and it all starts again. It rains kisses on his closed eyes, and its breath is sulfurous, and all the time its hands are working, using his own blade to pare strips and chunks off him. The pain is searing hot and exquisite, and he can see his grace flash behind his eyelids, hear it wail. It’s not of import, he thinks, he can bear this, and has every time.
Its voice is gentle now, and sorrowful. “Look at me,” it implores him, as it licks a corrupt stripe up his throat. “Look at what you did to me, Cas, because you fucked it up and left me here. Why did you leave me behind?”
And now Castiel feels himself start to fall apart under its touch, because underneath his bewilderment and disorientation he’s so sure he didn’t do that, that he never would have, that it wasn’t in him to have turned his back on this soul, when it still flickered so brightly in the dark and he loved it from the second he saw its glow. He opens his eyes finally, searches for proof, because he has a memory that’s so real, a memory of how it stole closer and reached out to him timidly when he showed himself and beckoned to it.
The demon’s face splits in a depraved, hideous smile. “You left me,” it repeats. “And look what I became.” Its lips pull back from fanged teeth as Castiel tries to reach for it, and waits for it to stretch out to touch its fingertips to his light, and hold on tight.
It doesn’t, and Castiel stares up at it and doesn’t understand. “I clasped you close,” he hears himself choke. “Dean… I soothed your terror and sheltered you within me as we fled… please don’t… I loved you from the first, and we—”
“That isn’t how it happened, Castiel,” the demon hisses. It falls on his neck and worries the raw flesh there, suckles at it, sinks its elongated incisors in and tears away the bloody meat of him. It rests its brow on his, and its face is scarlet with his blood and gobbed with flecks of shredded muscle. “You fucked up. We never left. You did this to me.”
And Castiel shakes his head, a frantic no, and he starts to scream, until his voice cracks and his throat bleeds, and his grace turns to ash, that never happened, never happened, neverhappenedneverhappenedneverhappened…
—The screaming is frenzied and gut-wrenching, rockets Sam out of the bed like he was shot from a cannon. He drops down low, scrabbles his way to his pack, and has his Taurus rock-steady and pointing ahead of him into the half-light a fraction of a second after his bare feet hit the floor. He’s running on pure instinct, but in the next instant he recognizes the voice and he throws himself onto all fours without a thought, skids across the floor and around the bed.
Dean is huddled, staring right at him, eyes horrified, but he doesn’t see Sam. He’s white-faced and stuttering, shaking his head, rocking and pushing at the air, and the screams are spine-chilling sounds of such dread that the déjà vu of it freezes Sam for a moment.
One night a long time ago, right after the disaster with Alastair, before he loosed the devil, before Hell, Sam asked Castiel what Dean dreamed of when he sobbed, and shrieked and writhed in the dark. He’d managed to wriggle himself around Dean and they were both crammed into a corner between the motel bed and the wall, because Dean had hidden there in his panic. Sam had his arms wrapped around Dean, trying to avoid his brother’s fists as he hit out at imaginary monsters, and Dean had yelled out for the angel, voice hoarse and shattered. And Castiel had been just there, in the second his name left Dean’s lips, reaching out, the barest touch to Dean’s brow, and Dean was finally gone and slumping, dead weight in Sam’s embrace.
“What does he dream of?” Sam had gasped out, because he had to know, right then. “He went there for me. Tell me what he dreams of. Please.”
Castiel had been staring at Dean as he lay there at peace, still cupping his face in a gentle hand. Now, years on, Sam still thinks that might be the moment when he clued into the fact Castiel loved his brother, because he’d been lost in that look, totally absorbed, his eyes liquid with compassion and his face hurt and sad. When Sam spoke the angel had jumped, startled, and flicked his eyes up, shocked as a deer in the headlights, as if he’d been caught out.
Maybe he wasn’t going to answer, but Sam had pressed him. “Please… Castiel. I know you saw him. Tell me, so I can maybe help him when you can’t.”
Castiel had cocked his head in that analytical way he had about him, studied Sam for a long, uncomfortable moment. “I can never tell you what he dreams of,” he’d said quietly. “I can never betray his trust. But I can tell you what he dreams in. He dreams in colors, and sounds, and sensations.”
Sam had been puzzled, can remember furrowing his brow into his stupid, help! face, can remember saying, “I’m sorry… I don’t get it.”
Castiel had slanted his eyes back to Dean’s face again. “When Dean dreams, he dreams in red, Sam,” he’d said. “Bright, scarlet, crimson, cerise, carmine red. There are so many different shades, and Dean knows them all… and pinks, and grays and blues. And ivory.” He’d looked back up to Sam and his eyes were steely. “He dreams in discordant, turbulent noise, a din, a clamor, an uproar. And he dreams in searing, scalding heat, and in freezing, numbing cold, in sharp and in blunt, in soft and in hard, in the burn of acid and the taste of iron, in the smell of fear, and distress, and cowardice, and revulsion.”
It was the most the angel had ever said to Sam, and he was gone in the next blink. Sam had hauled his unconscious brother back into his bed, and two weeks later Dean had pulled them over for a beer as they left Kentucky in their dust, and wept out his confession by the roadside as Sam sat there on the hood of the Impala. And it had all clicked, what Castiel had told him, all the colors of flesh, bone, blood, and entrails, the unforgettable fire of the inferno, and the bitter chill of the frozen lake, the instruments of torture, agony endured and inflicted, and the terrible screams of the damned.
That long ago conversation flits through Sam’s head in a flash because this is a bright red, discordant, scalding, torture dream, and Dean is a blur of hysteria, bucking aggressively as Sam tries to pin him in place. He wraps long arms around Dean as his brother chokes and sobs for Castiel, feels the crushing impact of Dean’s skull on his nose, so that he sees stars and pain flares. He buries his face in Dean’s shoulder, hunches down to avoid any more blows, watches blood leak through the bandage on his brother’s arm, and prays as fervently as he ever has for the angel as long minutes tick by and the hollered-out name sounds more and more desperate.
Sam isn’t aware of Bobby opening the door and thundering into the room but suddenly the old man’s face is right there, and just as Sam sees him start to pull his fist back it goes abruptly silent, and Dean is suddenly dead weight in his embrace. He can feel the clatter of Dean’s heart against his forearm where it lies wedged across his brother’s chest, and his skin is soaked with what he thinks must be tears and snot. He’s out of breath and has to swipe wild hair out of his eyes as he stares past Dean’s head at Bobby.
The old man is huge-eyed and anxious. “Where the hell did that come from?” he asks in a loud whisper, as he sits back on his heels. “He hasn’t had one like that in years.”
Sam is still catching his breath, has careful fingers patting the bridge of his nose, where he can feel blood welling, but he’s as certain as he has ever been of anything when he replies. “I think it’s Cas. I think something’s wrong.”
Castiel comes around to heavy-lidded, numb-limbed weakness, the feeling of a hard surface underneath him. For a moment he lies there, frozen in terror at the hazy, disorienting memory of Hell.
He can hear water dripping, a steady metronome plink-plink. He can smell mold and decay, the loamy scent of earth, the acrid tang of urine, the sharp copper of blood. He blinks open crusty, cautious eyes, squints up at the ceiling overhead, sees that it’s decorated with swirling patterns and symbols that look vaguely familiar. It doesn’t look like the Pit at all, and it dawns on him that the rack was nothing more than a nightmare even as he ponders why he should dream at all, because he hasn’t dreamed since before Stull, since he was briefly human and hoped he could have the thing he still wants so much but keeps at arms’ length for fear his base lust might destroy whatever closeness they have.
He finds himself speculating whether his hundred years of existence since then was a dream too, and he concentrates hard, because he’s so sure time has passed since Stull. He remembers his hangover from the black lagoon, as Dean called it, and wonders if he might have been drinking. “Dean,” he whispers, and his tongue feels swollen, his mouth clogged and dust-dry. “Dean, please,” he breathes out again, because he can almost feel that presence, Dean strumming across his senses, but instead of tempting him and soothing him it’s somehow worrying, unsettling. Even to his own ears he sounds like he’s begging, but he doesn’t know why.
He swallows, and there’s a sharp, agonizing pain in his throat. He reaches up with a hand, no, with both hands, because his wrists are manacled together. He hears himself whimper at the touch of his own clumsy fingertips to his neck, lacerated so he can feel shredded flesh that makes him think of the pictures in his head as he slept, the feeling of teeth ripping into him, the smell of burning meat. He’s cold, can feel damp trickling on his face that might be sweat or might be tears. He feels unwell, hollow at his center, and there’s a fiery sensation coursing through the veins he thinks of as his even if this shell he wears isn’t his natural state.
The heat flashes him back to the thump of the needle and acid flooding through him, sending tendrils of agony screaming through every atom of his being. He remembers, and clarity hits him hard. It isn’t really a shock, but at the same time it makes his stomach lurch with anxiety. And then he sighs out, lets the all-too-human emotion fade as he remembers that it was just him, that he was pulled here alone, that the dream was just that, a fever-phantasm, hallucinations from whatever he was drugged with. Dean did reach out to him in the Pit, and Dean is safe and far away from Hell and from this, whatever, wherever, this is. The knowledge calms him to some semblance of lucidity. It’s sufficient to recall Samuel Campbell’s apparent and seemingly genuine incomprehension at the mention of Crowley and who might be working with him, and for a brief moment Castiel allows himself to take comfort in Campbell’s ignorance.
The silence is broken by the scrape of a boot across concrete, and he jerks his head in the direction of the sound. The reaction sends his thoughts into violent, spinning chaos that blurs his vision and takes a full minute of rapid blinking and mental reorganization to overcome. When he can finally focus enough to squint at the source of the noise, he sees a dark-haired woman sitting on an upturned bucket. Her hands are poised in mid-air, one holding a metal piece he recognizes as the barrel of a Glock, the other holding a cleaning rod like Dean uses, a fabric patch fixed to the end of it. She’s staring at him, unfazed, as if she’s sizing him up, and her eyes are alight with curiosity.
“Who are you?” he croaks. “Why am I here? Where is Samuel Campbell?”
The woman doesn’t answer him, just holds his gaze for a bare moment before she purses her lips and returns to sliding the patch and rod down inside the bore.
Castiel steels himself against the pain, rolls himself over onto his belly and studies the floor underneath him, a criss-crossed, intricate design of looped sigils that hold him here, interspersed with wards that will wipe him clean off his brothers’ radar. He casts his eyes up to the walls, ahead, left, right, where the same symbols are doodled all over peeling paintwork, and he knows the marks are on the wall behind him too. He looks back to his hands, immobile, cuffed and bloody, the joints puffy and blistered, the fingers stiff and useless. He isn’t healing, and he can’t hold in the small sound of suffering that creeps out through his lips at the sting of damage to his grace.
He smells sulfur a split second before the demon speaks, and even if he knows he’s up shit creek, as Dean would say, the sour air eases his dread with a surge of sheer relief that it isn’t Raphael who has him.
“Have you learned anything new from the pizza man?”
Castiel tracks his eyes from the tips of her boots up her body, hissing at the discomfort as he cranes his neck. “Meg,” he acknowledges resignedly.
“The one and only.” She clucks in faked sympathy. “Poor hands. Looks like you won’t be using your magic fingers to get yourself out of this fix, huh?”
He swallows past the clag lining his mouth. “Looks that way,” he says hoarsely. He flops about to get his knees under him, deep-breathes through the white flare of agony that results from his efforts. He manages to push up onto his elbows before the demon bends and hooks a hand under his shoulder to manhandle him up and over, leaning him on a wooden crate dead center of the trap. He doesn’t suppress his annoyed glare, and her sharp features are smug, glowing with her satisfaction at his predicament as she regards him.
“What’s the matter, Clarence?” she crows. “You don’t seem too happy to see me.”
“On the contrary,” he retorts. “For a few moments there, I thought I was in real trouble.” He pauses, turns it over in his mind again, how he got here. “I see Samuel has worked his way down to the lowest common denominator,” he says.
She snorts. “Funny, that’s just what I thought when I heard Dean Winchester had hooked up with you again,” she raps out smartly.
“Touché,” he counters dryly. “Although I should remind you that underestimating me has been your undoing in the past.”
She inclines her head slightly, quirks her mouth and accedes, “I’ll give you that one.”
Castiel glances down at himself, and his shirt is rent into ribbons, streaked and patched with blood. He can see red, slashed-in marks crisscrossing the pale skin of his belly, oozing blood and serum, the skin surrounding them inflamed, and he knows what the dream meant now, what the feeling of sluggishness and the gnawing ache of emptiness signals. He frowns up at her, ponders briefly and distractedly on why she should be standing there whole when his molten grace should have turned her to ash, before he reins in his fuzzy, wandering mind to deal with the reality of his situation. “Now the formalities are over, to what do I owe the pleasure?” he inquires.
She’s almost fond when she replies. “Oh, you know…” She puckers up glossy lips, mimes a kiss. “Old times’ sake.” She sits on the floor opposite him, crosses her legs neatly, and considers him.
“I assume I’m here to bait a trap for Dean?” he asks, and just like it always does, the name brings the man to mind, and the vision clamps Castiel’s heart vise-tight. The prospect that he might simply be the lure sparks his worry again, so that tension spikes behind his eyes. “He won’t come,” he insists, maybe for his own sake.
“Yeah, whatever,” she says, and she waves a dismissive hand. “Anyway, that isn’t why you’re here.” She pauses thoughtfully then. “Though if Deano does saddle up to rescue you, it’ll be a bonus. Especially since he’ll have little Sammy in tow, and that’d be real handy.” She narrows her eyes critically before she seems to come to some sort of decision about how to continue, and then she lowers her voice confidentially. “What would you say if I told you the rumors of Crowley’s demise have been greatly exaggerated?”
Castiel doesn’t blink, even if her question is totally unexpected and leaves him feeling bemused and unsure of what to say. He stares back at her for a moment without replying at all, and her gaze is engrossed and avid as she waits for his answer. His presence of mind crashes back abruptly, bringing with it the certainty that she’s leading him, that she knows nothing. “I’d say you had a vivid imagination,” he evades carefully. “In fact, I’d say that you were greatly exaggerating.”
She smiles widely, and a deceptive dimple puckers her cheek. “He’s still in the land of the living,” she says. “I’ve seen him.” She parks her elbows on her knees, laces her fingers together and rests her chin there. “As you can imagine, it was a shock. Since I could have sworn you burned him to a crisp in his own lair.”
Castiel makes his voice a low growl, the kind of tone that brooks no argument, the tone Dean calls his smiting voice. “You were there. I destroyed his bones. He can’t be alive.”
“Well, he is,” she responds icily.
“Perhaps he had a twin,” Castiel parries.
Meg raises a meaningful eyebrow. “Or friends in high places.”
That hits home, sends a prickle of irritation and guilt through him. But he’s still watching her intently as she speaks, and despite the confidence in her voice there’s something unsure in her eyes now, something different from the impatience of before, something like speculation. Castiel remembers that her particular brand of guile is dull and prosaic, that it lacks perception and insight. And he cocks his head, schools his features into a dubious frown, injects what he hopes is just the right note of confusion into his voice. “Are you suggesting that Crowley had some kind of arrangement with Raphael?”
Surprise skates across Meg’s face so quickly Castiel barely has time to register it before it’s gone, and she mirrors his own head tilt. “Are you suggesting that?” she fishes.
She’s good, he acknowledges inwardly. I’m better, he thinks. He stares at her, knows the hook is taken, and he plays out the line. “It’s possible,” he says, with contrived reluctance. “We’re fighting a war, and I have weapons Raphael doesn’t have.” He sees her eyes calculate it all as he speaks, sees the pieces start to slot together. “He might have looked to other means to gain an advantage. I don’t see what Crowley could bring to the table, but… misery often acquaints us with strange bedfellows.” He sighs out regretfully as he starts to reel her in. “Raphael has the power to bring Crowley back. Assuming you aren’t lying.”
She huffs out in something like triumph, and he knows he just landed the fish. Her eyes gleam at him, and her face twists into something devious and cunning. “What do you know about Purgatory?” she sidetracks abruptly.
Castiel maintains a stony, noncommittal composure despite the fact her tangent sparks a new wave of unease. “I’ve heard it’s even worse than Detroit,” he deadpans. “Didn’t they teach you that in demon Sunday School?”
She chuckles before her face turns serious, meditative even. “I’ve heard it’s like a nuclear reactor,” she marvels. “A suppository of stored up—”
“Repository,” Castiel diverts. “I think you’ll find a suppository is entirely different.” He curves his lips into a tight smile, can’t resist the temptation. “I suggest you google it.” She scowls at him for a moment, and he shrugs insolently, can almost hear Dean’s exasperated commentary in his head, Jesus, Cas, what the fuck? Calm the demon down, not up. “It is unfortunate when bad things happen to good sentences,” he adds blandly.
She pushes up swiftly, leans in and cuffs him hard. “Watch your mouth,” she barks. “This can be hard for you, or it can be really fucking hard.”
The blow makes his head spin, makes his guts twist again, proof positive that his grace is damaged, weak, and his despair slips out before he can help himself. “Why am I even here?” he snaps. “I know what you’ve done to me, how you’ve done it, I can feel your corruption inside me… but how is it that you can still—”
She cuts him off with the flat of her hand again, and his face stings so hard with the blow that his eyes water. She squats, grips a handful of hair at the top of his head. “There’s this thing they did to this two-bit porn star I’m wearing,” she hisses. “They do it when you have a food allergy. They call it desensitizing. You eat or drink the tiniest mouthfuls of what makes you sick, and you get used to it so it doesn’t bother you any more.” She moves in closer, so he can feel her spittle fleck his skin. “Let’s just say I’m desensitizing myself to you, Clarence. Your grace can’t burn me out of this vessel now. And soon I’ll be able to drink as much of you as I need to.”
The dream, he thinks wildly, as her face floats there in front of his, and he flinches as she angles his face upwards and runs her tongue along his lips, down his chin to the raw flesh at the base of his throat, where his neck joins his shoulder. He pushes his cuffed hands against her, gasps at the pain that streaks up his arms as he does, forces her back with all of his weakened strength as he starts saying the words rapid-fire, “Vade, Satana, inventor et magister omnis fallaciae, hostis humanae salutis, humiliare sub potenti…”
And then he trails off, because instead of belching out black smoke she’s sitting there, hands thrown out to break her fall, relaxed and grinning slyly.
“I knew you’d try doing it the old-fashioned way if the finger failed.” She reaches up to the neck of her shirt, pulls it down so he can see the symbol etched on her skin. “Binding sigil,” she confirms amiably. “It’s amazing how handy they can be. Just ask Sam, if you ever see him again.” She reaches into her jacket, pulls out the blade he knows so well. “Now, you’ve worn out my patience,” she says. “So say hello to my little friend.”
Castiel smiles. “I’ve been tortured by the best,” he replies coldly. “I’ve been tortured by my own kind.”
Meg smirks. “I studied under Alastair. And I was an apt pupil. Aced the course, just like Deano.”
Castiel starts to reply and pauses, his attention suddenly caught by the woman, who is watching them, her task forgotten. She’s wearing an expression that seems part fascination and part distaste, her top lip curling up slightly, and Castiel can read her loathing, her revulsion for the demon, as if the words were written on her skin.
“You need to leave,” he tells her calmly, when her gaze meets his. She cocks her head, frowns slightly. “My grace,” he clarifies. “It could harm you if you look at it while she works. I don’t want you to be hurt. Wait outside. Please.”
Her eyes slant down and away again. She stands, starts walking towards the door.
Castiel flicks his eyes back to Meg’s, and her stare is greedy with anticipation. Dread clenches his stomach. “Give it your best shot,” he says.
“If you think something’s wrong, maybe we should wake him up.”
Bobby’s voice startles Sam out of his trance, and when he glances across at the old man where he’s standing in the doorway, Bobby motions his head up towards the clock. “It’s almost noon,” he says. “If you think something’s wrong, your brother might not appreciate being left to sleep the day away.”
Sam scrubs a hand through his hair. “He’ll be real tired, Bobby,” he offers. “And if something has happened, he’ll need to be firing on all his cylinders.”
“Do you really think Cas is in trouble?” Bobby’s voice is carefully neutral, but his eyes are skeptical. “He’s fighting a war isn’t he? He could just be busy.”
Sam shakes his head doubtfully. “I’ve never heard Dean scream like that, Bobby. And honest, there’s just no way Cas wouldn’t come… hell, even I hollered for him, and nothing. And I’ve been sitting here since you left this morning, praying for him.” He glances at his wristwatch while he stifles a yawn. “That’s three hours, pretty much non-stop calling him. I just have a really bad feeling about it.”
Bobby grimaces. “I just don’t see what you and Dean can do. Cas might not even be on this plane of existence. Raphael could have him. And short of pulling the same trick he did to get your soul back, well. Like I said – I don’t see what Dean can do about it.” He grunts decisively. “And I sure as hell ain’t letting him pull that kind of crap again.”
Sam is just opening his mouth to reply when a din erupts, a series of frightened shouts, Castiel’s name. He bolts, hearing the chair crash to the floor behind him, careers up the stairs three at a time and slides to a halt at the open door. Dean is sitting there in a chaotic pile of sheets and blankets, gray-faced, his thousand-yard stare bruised underneath, his tee patched with sweat. He doesn’t say anything, and his expression is so blank Sam thinks he might not really be conscious at all. He flops back down and pulls the covers over his head so just a tuft of hair pokes out, and Sam hovers anxiously for a few minutes before he heads back downstairs.
Dean hauls himself out of the bed an hour or so later, frowsy-haired and moody, an unsettling reminder of how he was right after Hell.
Bobby pours coffee for him, sets the steaming mug down on the table. “How’s the arm?” the old man asks. He gets an ambiguous grunt in reply, and he raises an eyebrow at Sam as he crosses to the stove and cracks an egg into the skillet.
“That was some pretty serious shit last night, Dean,” Sam broaches quietly. “Three times. I’m assuming you remember it? And just now, before you woke.”
Dean doesn’t answer, reaches past him to the bottle of Jim Beam Bobby left on the table the night before, and Sam can see his brother’s hand is shaking. He sloshes a couple of fingers of the liquor into the cup before he pushes to his feet and shuffles out to the porch.
Bobby leans over once the screen door slams, picks up the bottle. “I don’t think he should be drinking right now,” he tells Sam, and he uncaps the bottle again, pours the rest of the whiskey into the sink. “And we need to find out if all that hollering meant something.” He retrieves the egg from the pan, slaps it down on a hunk of bread, douses it liberally with ketchup and flattens another slice on top before offering it to Sam. “Now’s good a time as any. Give him this, while you do that.”
Sam takes the sandwich, steels himself. He pauses at the door, not knowing quite how to phrase what he wants to ask because even though he knows the old man has an eagle eye when it comes to his brother he doesn’t know if Bobby suspects anything. “Bobby, if something has happened to Cas, do you think Dean will handle it?” he says hesitantly. “I mean – they have this, uh, this… connection.” He’s sure he can feel his cheeks heat as he dances around the topic, and he shifts from foot to foot a few times, awkward.
The old man’s gaze is shrewd and penetrating. “Like I said, I think we need to find out if it meant something,” he repeats. “And if it did, I think we need to be there for Dean.” His voice goes quieter, meaningful, and a worry line creases the bridge of his nose. “Because I think he could take it real hard.”
Sam doesn’t know if it is any kind of veiled acknowledgment. He doesn’t even really know what’s there to be acknowledged bar the fact the angel stares at his brother like he can see right into his soul, and that Dean gives as good as he gets, and that sometimes when they’re falling into each other’s eyes they look like they’re poised on the cusp of reaching out to each other, and Sam has to look away because something that intense should be private. But he nods anyway, pushes through the screen door and contemplates Dean as he huddles on the porch swing, brooding.
“If you’re going to start drinking, you should eat something,” Sam says pointedly, as he holds out the food. “And we need to talk about this.”
Dean throws him a baleful glare. “I’m not going to start drinking.” He takes the sandwich, bites off a ragged chunk. “It’s a pick-me-up,” he mumbles out through the mouthful. “It doesn’t even count as hair of the dog, since I wasn’t drunk to begin with. You wouldn’t let me drink. And what happened to your nose?”
“You happened to my nose, Dean.” Sam touches careful fingertips to the cut between his eyes, but he ignores the deflection and doesn’t beat around the bush now the ice is broken. “Jesus, where did any of that even come from? You haven’t had nightmares that bad since right after…” He pulls up. “In a couple of years,” he finishes off lamely.
Dean snorts halfheartedly. “How would you know?” he asks, but there’s no edge to it. He crams in another mouthful, chews laboriously for a few minutes, then makes a disgusted noise, slaps the food down on the seat beside him. “You’re right,” he throws out randomly.
“I am?” Sam frowns. “About what?”
His brother slants haunted, distant eyes at him. “I haven’t had nightmares like that in a long time,” he says distractedly, like he’s only half in the conversation. “Fact, I’ve never had nightmares like that. Ever. Not even when I first started remembering.”
Sam nods slowly. “Okay. Can you tell me what you dreamed?” He says it cautiously, diplomatically, because his brother hasn’t really opened up to him about his nightmares, about Hell, since the siren. “If you want to,” he qualifies. “If you think it means something… the fact it was different.” He braces himself for a blunt refusal the moment the words leave his mouth, and he sees his brother’s jaw tense, sees his shoulders go rigid. “Dean, come on,” he persists, because he needs this, needs to be there for his brother, be with him in this after all the robo-Sam shit that Castiel laid out for him in Portland after he got his soul back. “That was category five. And you were screaming his name… hell, it got so bad even I was screaming his name. But he didn’t come, and—”
“Fuck, Sam, I think something’s wrong,” his brother blurts out. “I feel really – off. Nerves. Jesus… it’s like there’s something bugging at me, in the back of my mind, and I can’t figure it out.”
He’s breathing fast, and it’s a sudden burst of something more than anxiety, something resembling genuine distress, and it has Sam sitting down beside Dean, pressing a hand to his brother’s back between his shoulders. “Okay, we need to—”
“And I’m – fuck. Praying.” Dean shoots bolt upright, lurches forward a few steps, looks up at the gauzy clouds. “Castiel,” he shouts. “Stop fuckin’ around. It isn’t funny any more. I’m telling you to cut the crap and get your feathery ass down here, now. Please. Please.” He barely waits five seconds before he’s spinning around and fixing Sam with wide, distraught eyes. “I’ve been calling him, Sam. I’ve been lying up there calling him to come show me that he’s okay. And nada. Zip. And in my head… fuck.”
Sam is aware of Bobby sliding out through the door behind him as he holds up his hands, placating, talks his brother down calmly. “Dean, you’re not making sense. Come on. What’s in your head? What’s different?”
Dean presses his palm to his face, covers his eyes for a minute. “Alastair used to make me see things that weren’t there, people that weren’t there,” he chokes out, and his voice is raw. “You know what I did there. And the dream… in the dream, I was doing it to him, to Castiel. And he was reaching up to me, and he didn’t understand. He was asking me to stop, begging me, and he was telling me, telling me he—and it never fuckin’ happened that way…” He trails off to a strained gasp. “Sam, it never fuckin’ happened that way, that never happened, and I would never. Never.”
It takes a moment for the words to sink in, and then Sam turns them over in his mind, sifts through them, and the hollow, apprehensive feeling he’s had in his gut since his brother finally lapsed into restless sleep at the butt-crack of dawn blossoms into a wave of nausea. “Dean,” he says hoarsely. “Did Alastair ever make you see me?”
There’s a long, heavy silence and Dean stays half-turned away, until he lets out a shuddering, resigned sigh. “Only for the first thirty years.”
It feels like a punch to the gut, and Sam feels his mouth go slack, feels suddenly old and worn out. His stomach gives a dismayed lurch, and he brings a hand up to his mouth, tastes acid bile as he swallows. “Dean,” he says dazedly. “Why didn’t you—”
“Don’t.” Dean still isn’t looking at him, but he’s suddenly calm. “Please. Because I can’t do this sober.” He turns then, steps back to sit beside Sam, and it’s an odd reversal of a few moments before as Sam leans forward, deep breathes against the griping in his guts, and he feels his brother’s hand light on his shoulder, feels Dean’s fingers squeeze and knead the muscle there.
“What are we going to do?” Dean asks quietly. “Fuck, Sam, what if Raphael has him? What if it wasn’t just a dream, what if Raphael has him and he’s torturing him? How will we get him back?” He shifts restlessly. “How will I get him back?” he mutters again, absentmindedly now, as if he’s daydreaming.
It focuses Sam, and he takes a steadying breath, stares down at the lumber underneath his boots, at the grain of the wood as it swirls and whorls, a knot just there, a nail sticking up to the right of his boot, and he concentrates on it, thinks, dissects the problem. “What about summoning him?” he says slowly. “It’d force him here wouldn’t it? And at least we’d know he was okay. He might be pissed off about it, but at least we’d know.”
Dean’s hand tightens on him, and his voice goes urgent, hopeful. “Bobby, how about that? We summoned him before didn’t we? In Pontiac.”
Bobby huffs out. “Dean, son, we drew hundreds of sigils in that barn. I got no clue which one of them worked. Heck, none of them might have worked—”
“I don’t give a shit, Bobby, I’ll draw the damn things myself if—”
“He was shadowing you before he took his vessel, wasn’t he? He might just have showed up because he felt like it, or maybe it only happened because he could do it once he took Novak. Has he ever said if the summoning worked?”
Sam can hear their voices cutting out and then a crescendo, ebbing and flowing in waves, there might not even be an angel summoning spell, and somehow he knows Bobby is wrong, because there’s some thing there in his crowded mind, and it’s jumping up and down and waving energetically, and shouting pick me, pick me!
“I know an angel summoning spell,” he says, and he reaches out to the thing, and the world rips open so he tumbles into smoke and flames, and ash chokes him as he falls.
Samuel can see Gwen darting glances at the door from over the top of his reading glasses, can see a muscle in her cheek spasm just barely as she blinks at each flare of light that shards brightly through the cracks in the wood. She’s drumming her fingers on the formica tabletop, and he can hear the rhythmic tap-tap of her nails. He studies her for a silent moment, her sturdiness that should be willowy, her dark hair that should be blonde, her brown eyes that should be green. Her wrongness grates on his nerves in a way it never did when the others were there.
“Don’t look at it,” he snaps, and she jumps, her hand going still. “It could burn out your eyes,” he says then, quieter. “Remember what Sam said?”
Gwen’s unease is so palpable her words are almost redundant. “I don’t like this, Samuel,” she says steadily. “I don’t like working with another demon. You sprung Crowley on me, and he put one of his fucking drones in my brother. And now you’ve sprung this on me. I don’t like what’s she’s doing in there. You said she just needed a sample of his blood for the spell, you didn’t say anything about her drinking him dry.”
Samuel fists and unfists his hands. “She said she has to do it for the ritual,” he growls. “And he’s tougher than he looks. Don’t forget what Sam said. He may look like he does taxes for a living, but he fought his way through Hell for forty years to get to Dean. This is like a paper cut to him.”
She chews her lip. “I don’t think it is,” she counters. “Not when she uses that sword on him. That’s what they use to kill each other, isn’t it? He looks pretty rough, and I think she bit a chunk out of his neck while I was in there just now. If Dean—”
“If Dean what?” Samuel cuts her off sharply. “Don’t worry about Dean. I can handle Dean.”
Gwen’s lips form a thin, flat line, but she stares him out and there’s a second when it doesn’t matter that her eyes are brown, a second when her unrelenting gaze and the square, belligerent set of her shoulders are so perfectly right and familiar that it makes Samuel lose a breath.
She takes advantage of the pause. “I’m sure I heard her tell him Crowley’s alive.”
Samuel rubs a hand across his head. “She’s feeding him a line,” he insists. “We’ve exorcised five demons since Crowley bought it. If he was alive, one of them would have spilled.”
Her eyes go narrow and skeptical, and she’s typically blunt in her response. “Are you sure about that? You said he was king of Hell, would they really risk…” Her voice trails off and she turns at the sound of another muffled cry, a desperate rising-falling description of intense pain that fades as the seam around the door glows incandescent.
Samuel leans forward. “What that is,” he says harshly. “It isn’t natural. It’s an aberration. It isn’t meant to walk the earth. It’s like one of the alphas Crowley had us hunting.”
When she looks back towards him, her expression is pinched and tight around the eyes. “Is that how you rationalize this?” she says quietly. “Is it working for you? Because it doesn’t change the fact he’s an angel.”
Samuel swallows thickly. “I know what I’m doing,” he replies. “Mary was never meant to go there. He’s the reason it happened. And don’t forget, this could get you your brother back. He’s there too. That’s what she said.”
Gwen’s expression flickers into something softer. “Do you trust her to keep her end of the deal?” she asks.
“I have to,” he says wearily.
Dean watches Sam like a hawk as his brother busies himself chalking archaic symbols within the sigil he daubed on the parquet floor, Castiel’s name in Enochian, a mix of fluid loops and curves, and jagged asymmetrical lines. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he nags again. “Only it was like before. And you weren’t breathing.”
Sam doesn’t look up. “Just – head pounding. Like last time… like I got a cold coming on or something.”
He’s composed, serene even, as he works, but although his brother is outwardly calm, Dean has a jackhammer thudding in his chest and he has to shove his hands down inside his pockets to stop the tremor from giving him away. “But are you really—”
Sam does glance up then, and his eyes are tired and bloodshot, shadowed underneath. “I’m okay, Dean,” he insists quietly. He tents his brows in emphasis. “It’ll be okay. All of it.”
Dean nods, but his stomach is a stagnant pool of steaming, sickly nausea and dread, and he paces, six steps left, six steps right, tries to walk it off as he frets, his mind wandering unbidden to Castiel’s eyes, huge, and sad, and shocked, staring up from a bruised, blood-spattered face. He’s exhausted, wants to sleep, but he’s jittery, never wants to sleep again and see that in his nightmares. He turns away, pulls a furtive hand out of its pocket and grabs at his brow, rubbing his thumb and fingers into his temples, trying to scour away the picture. “Jesus, Cas,” he says softly, so Sam can’t hear him, and his voice comes out weak and teary, undercut by a hopelessness he despises. And fuck, he needs to get past it, needs to start figuring out a solution instead of thinking about the liquor-haze comfort of a fifth of Jack.
He pockets his hand again, swings back around and manages to dredge up a collection of words that makes sense. “So it was like a big nothing? In the flashback? But there were things there with you?” He forces the words out roughly, past a throat so dry he thinks it might be about to crumble to pieces, like rotten wood, like the barrier holding back his brother’s memories. Another brick in the wall, he thinks, and conversation isn’t working as a distraction at all because in his head Castiel is reaching up, imploring for mercy, before blurring and dissolving into his brother reaching out as he keeled over.
Sam slides his eyes up again. “Yeah, it was just – dark,” he says haltingly. “But there were things there, things moving. Things that were blacker than the darkness and they’d sneak up so they were right here.” He holds a hand up in front of his face for emphasis. “You know when you hold your hand right there with your eyes closed, and it’s like you can sense there’s something there even though you can’t see it or feel it?” He huffs, pulls his face into a sudden, crooked smile. “As close as Cas always gets to you when he’s trying to work you out.”
The image, all tilted head and childlike fascination, knitted brows over puzzled eyes, blindsides Dean with an aftershock of complicated despair entwined with a longing he can’t quite categorize, and his heart staggers, his breath catching in his throat.
Sam sets a bowl of brightly colored herbs from Bobby’s pantry down in the center of the sigil, frowns a little as he continues, and his voice is earnest. “And then they’d just dart away. Shapes, wraiths, and I could see their eyes, like silver. Glowing. And their mouths, like holes in their faces. I could smell them… ozone. I don’t even honestly know if they were bad things. And they never touched me. Maybe it was – them. Lucifer. Michael.”
“And they never touched you.” Dean echoes it low and hoarse, drums it into himself. “They never touched you.” He clings to it even though he remembers that’s how it was sometimes for him, how the horror was in thinking they were going to eventually, in knowing they were going to eventually, in thinking about what they might do and in being absolutely certain of what they would do once they were bored of watching. He wonders if it’s like that for Castiel, wherever he is.
“Yeah, but it got so I wanted them to touch me,” Sam interrupts. “And I didn’t care what they might do, because at least it meant I would feel something.” He starts positioning candle stubs around the sigil. “Okay, it’s set up, and we have his name,” he sidetracks. “Once Bobby gets back with the frankincense, we’re good to go.” He sits back on his heels to examine his efforts, blows out a sharp exhale. “You thought any more about what the dreams might have meant?”
The question is unexpectedly blunt, and Dean suddenly finds his hands aren’t safely stowed away where their shaking can’t telegraph his panic any more, that a fist is pressed to his mouth and he’s gnawing at it, while his other hand is reaching up again, the heel of it pressing into his eyes, one after the other, to rub away the salt-sting that lurks. “I think he’s reaching out to me,” he mutters out around his knuckle. “Trying to, anyway. I think it’s like that dreamwalking stunt they can pull. But it’s like it got mixed up with a Hell nightmare.”
He shivers at the memory, feels the hair at his nape stand tall. His head is aching from the tight band of anxiety squeezing it above his eyebrows, the visual of the angel reaching up to him seared into his brain as surely as Castiel’s mark is seared into his skin, and his soul. His heart too, if he’s honest, and the acknowledgement makes his chest constrict again because even if he might be coming around to the fact Castiel has become integral to him, he can’t help feeling their connection is more tenuous than it has ever been. “Are you sure this’ll work?” he asks, and his voice sounds thin and desperate.
“We’ll get him back, Dean,” his brother says softly, from right next to him, because Sam is standing there, hip to hip and shoulder to shoulder. “He has nine lives, remember?”
Dean can’t help leaning into his solid warmth for a second. “When we get him back, we’re taking him to the nearest vet and getting one of those microchips put in him,” he mutters. “Better yet, one of those fuckin’ GPS collars they use to track wolves in Yellowstone.”
Sam huffs out amusement, before they lapse into a brief silence. “I wonder if I’ll ever have dreams like that,” he says then. “I can’t help wondering,” he adds, ahead of the usual rejoinder.
“You won’t,” Dean grinds out harshly. “Since you never did what I did. Now put it out of your head.” He says it even though he knows it’s crap, remembers how those first snapshots of his vacation in the Pit nagged at him like a bad tooth he wanted to keep poking with his tongue, remembers how the sounds of Hell were there in his ears all the time, but muffled, like he was listening to a spousal assault and battery going on in the motel room next door, remembers how the visuals flitted about hazily, like he was peering through muslin drapes at somebody committing bloody murder. From day one it was all right there, just waiting for him to open his mind to it, and then—
“He told me not to scratch,” Sam concedes, oddly wistful. “Death, I mean. But it’s hard not to.”
Dean clears the grit out of his throat. “Curiosity killed the cat,” he says. He thinks about what Castiel said, right up into his face, his eyes dark and angry, that his brother’s soul was in shreds, thinks of what Crowley said, the sloppy bits. “First Bristol, and now this,” he says quietly. “I need you not to scratch.”
There’s a moment when Sam doesn’t respond, and when Dean slides his eyes sideways his brother is miles away. He jabs out an elbow. “Stop it,” he snaps. “Right now, or so help me I will stop it for you.”
Sam swivels his head around, and his brow is furrowed and quizzical, like he didn’t even hear Dean. “I’m pretty sure it was Samuel who showed me the summoning spell,” he observes randomly.
Dean stares back at him, interested despite himself. “How would Samuel know an angel summoning spell?”
His brother shrugs. “I don’t honestly remember… it’s really just a gut feeling. But he was an experienced hunter wasn’t he? Back in the day?”
Dean considers it, remembers Samuel’s words as he stood there, risen from the grave and looking healthier than any long-dead man walking has a right to, I’ll show you tricks your daddy never even dreamed of. “Yeah,” he concedes doubtfully. “But Cas said his kind hadn’t been here for two thousand years, and Bobby didn’t know how to summon him, so I don’t see why—”
Bobby is brusque as he clatters in through the door, waving a flat package. He tosses it to Sam, who tears it open with his teeth, kneels and snaps one of the sticks into pieces in the bowl at the center of the sigil.
“Here goes nothing,” he announces, as he lights up the match and lets it fall.
Meg stops as she stalks past Gwen, fixes her with a navy-blue leer. “What are you looking at?” she goads, in the same sing-song, lilting voice she’s been using to taunt the angel for the last few hours.
The demon’s eyes are glittering, and her face is mottled gory red, like the bloodstained maw of hyena that just finished snacking on carrion, but Gwen doesn’t blink as she stares back. “Nothing,” she says pointedly. “Absolutely nothing.”
Meg’s nostrils twitch and flare energetically for a few seconds. “Don’t be fooled because he’s a pretty boy,” she says finally. “That’s just a disguise, some poor schmuck who was the right bloodline. Talking of which…” She raises her hand, and her skin is still shining slick and wet. She trails her tongue along her index finger, seals her lips around the tip and sucks at the crimson fluid.
Gwen feels her stomach lurch. “Why are you doing that?” she blurts out. “Shouldn’t it burn you like yours burned him?”
The demon lifts the jar she’s holding in her other hand up to the dim sunlight seeping in through the windows, swirls the ruby-colored liquid around like wine. “It’s in his blood,” she murmurs, almost lovingly. “Everything we want is in the blood.” She slides her gaze back to Gwen, grimaces. “And you’re right, it burns like fire. It’s foul. But it’s necessary. It’ll make me worthy.”
Gwen can’t help her eyes wandering beyond Meg and down, to the ungainly, grisly sprawl of ragged, scarlet-streaked limbs lying in the middle of the trap, and the tableau gives her an uncomfortable knot in her stomach. “Make you worthy of what?” she asks. “And how much more of it are you going to take from him?” This time she keeps her voice a non-judgmental monotone.
“I’m going to take my fill,” the demon sneers. “Use once and destroy, that’s my motto. You want your brother back, don’t you?” She bares her teeth in a mean smile. “Samuel wants his Mary. We all have things we love, things we want back. This way, we all get them.”
Gwen knows surprise shows on her face, and that doubt overtakes it almost instantly, doubt that must be obvious because Meg’s eyes go empty, like doll eyes.
“What, you think I can’t love?” the demon whispers softly. “You think I never had family? The Winchesters took my father from me.” She half-turns to walk away then swings back suddenly, and her face is twisted into a spiteful mask. “And you know, the angels aren’t any better than Legion,” she snaps. “His kind have razed cities, destroyed civilizations, exterminated species, turned day into night, moved the damn planets.” She points a finger upwards. “All in the interests of handing down His rough justice. They’re a heavenly fucking lynch mob. His stormtroopers.”
Gwen swallows thickly. “Stormtroopers?” she echoes, and she can’t help the derision that creeps into her tone. “What does that make your kind? Jedi knights?”
Perhaps she forgot what she was dealing with because it takes her by surprise, the sudden pain and tightness in her chest as Meg raises her clenched fist. As she starts to suffocate, she’s vaguely aware of how small the demon’s hand is. It’s like a child’s hand, incongruously delicate looking, the wrist skinny and frail, the fingers slender as they grind into her own palm with inhuman strength, drawing the oxygen from Gwen’s lungs so that they collapse in on themselves and spots float across her pupils.
She shakes her head to try to clear her vision, feels herself start to sway, hears a hoarse rattle coming from far back in her throat. She knows she’s spacing out, wonders if she might be imagining that the figure on the floor just behind the demon is moving, hauling itself the few inches that separate it from where Meg’s foot is planted just inside the trap that imprisons it. But she’s fairly sure she doesn’t imagine the yelp that results when the angel sinks his teeth into the demon’s ankle, and as the squeezing sensation abruptly stops and she lurches away, she knows she doesn’t imagine the agonized cry of pain she hears from behind her.
And then, suddenly, Meg is heaving her upright from where she’s bent double, her hand pressed to her chest. The demon’s eyes go oily-black, and Gwen feels her skin crawl. She leans in closer, so Gwen can feel fetid sulfur air across her cheek.
“Me and Clarence there, we’re two sides of the same coin,” Meg hisses venomously. “And I’ll lay short odds he’s done worse things than me. Way worse.” She jerks her head back over her shoulder then. “Now, make yourself useful and clean him up. He’s too far-gone to fix himself, and I don’t want flies in here. The buzzing pisses me off.”
She spins, strides away, slams out of the room, and Gwen lets out a breath she wasn’t even aware she was holding. “Christo to you, you little bitch,” she pants painfully.
After a moment when she sucks huge gulps of air into her newly freed-up airways, she crosses to the corner of the room, roots around in her pack for her first aid kit. She makes her way back to the trap, cranes her head to check if the angel is conscious. It, Samuel had said, a deviation, something that shouldn’t be. It – he – looks like a man, and he – it – was made by God. “He spoke, and they were made,” she murmurs, and in her head she can hear her mother reading Psalms, her finger moving along the dense print, her eyes shining with absolute, unshakeable faith. “He commanded, and they were created.” She chews her lip reflectively. “I don’t even fucking believe,” she scoffs down at the motionless body. “Not really.”
His answer is unexpected and shaky with suffering. “Sometimes I don’t either.”
Gwen contemplates him for a moment. “Why did you do that?” she asks. “You must have known she’d take it out of your hide.”
The angel twists his head to look at her. “I evaluated my circumstances,” he acknowledges frankly, “and realized I need all the friends I can get.”
“There is that.” Gwen squats down, stays far enough away so she can take evasive action if she has to, but close enough that she can feel heat emanating from his body and see that he’s shivering. “She told me to clean you up,” she warns. “Is that going to ruin our friendship?”
His eyes are heavy-lidded and dull with pain. “I won’t hurt you,” he scratches out. “I’m an angel of the Lord.” He must notice her narrow her eyes skeptically, because he furrows his brow at her as if he’s concentrating. “Like… like…” His eyes wander confusedly for a few seconds, and he bites his lip before he focuses back on her face. “Like Michael Landon.”
Gwen chuckles mirthlessly. “Yeah, right.”
He blinks at her blearily. “It would be pointless to hurt you,” he reiterates faintly. “Even if I could get out of the trap and through the wards, I wouldn’t get far like this.”
She studies him for another moment. “I guess not,” she says, and for some reason she believes him. She puts out a wary hand, then stops, dubious. “What about your flashing lights trick?” she thinks to ask. “You said it wasn’t safe to look.”
He gives a small huff. “No flashing lights,” he slurs, almost inaudible now. “My grace… is depleted.”
Gwen holds her hand in mid-air still, sees that it’s trembling slightly. She swallows thickly, comes to a decision. “She left your magic sword right over there,” she lies. “And if you try anything, I will nail you to the floor with it. Can you turn over?”
He rolls, groans out deeply as he does. His shirt is shredded, and his throat, chest and belly are a mess of bloody rips, tears and puncture wounds that glow luminous, bluish-violet light seeping out, ethereal, like St Elmo’s fire is dancing across his skin. It’s beautiful, even against the crosshatched background pattern of torture, and Gwen can’t help but stare, entranced.
“It won’t burn you,” he whispers. “It’s too weak. You can put your hand right through it.”
It shakes her alert and she makes herself businesslike, fishes out gauze and moistens it with antiseptic. “I don’t suppose you even need this,” she remarks with forced detachment, as she slides the pads tentatively through the radiance and across his skin, wiping a pale trail through tacky, leaking blood. His muscles twitch and contract underneath her touch, and he feels human. “Do I need to bandage these?” she asks. He doesn’t respond, and when she darts a look at his face, his eyes are tracking her hand, more alert than they were before. Their shine is suddenly electric and unearthly, at once thrilling and deeply unsettling. He isn’t human at all, she reminds herself.
“No,” he confirms. He returns his focus to her face, and his gaze is dim again, the flash of otherworldliness gone. “You don’t need to. I will heal, eventually. Assuming I ever get out of here. In any case she probably hasn’t finished, so it would be a waste of your time.”
It’s quietly philosophical, acquiescent in a way that jars Gwen further with the knowledge that she’s aiding and abetting, that she’s an accessory in this. Her guilt has her hand go heavy, and she scrubs hard at the wounds even as she diverts herself from her own culpability by attacking the victim. “You know she has a short fuse. You’re just making it worse for yourself with the backchat.”
The angel sucks in sharply, winces under her touch, and his damaged fingers tremble and fan out a few millimeters. “It hurts,” he blurts out, higher-pitched and breathless. “I’m unaccustomed to pain.”
It’s helpless, disarming, and his eyes are wide and bewildered as he stares up. Gwen feels a wave of confusion that ends up as contrition, and she gentles her hand, makes her point again. “Why are you pushing her like that?”
His features relax and soften into weary, disconcerting amusement. “Why are you?”
She ignores the question, reaches for another pad, but she can feel his eyes fixed on her, like he’s reading her mind. Can he? she wonders.
“Samuel… I think he wishes to redeem his daughter from Purgatory,” he says. “And she spoke of Purgatory… has she said anything about opening a portal? A doorway to Purgatory?”
Gwen throws up a hand. “Why do you think she would tell me anything?” she replies tersely.
He ignores her deflection. “Do you have a deal with her?” he presses.
Even the thought of it makes her grimace, and she barks her answer out loud and indignant, like she’s hollering down at him from the moral high ground. “No, I damn well—”
“And yet here you are,” he cuts in reproachfully. “Assisting her. Even though it makes you uncomfortable.” He arches his eyebrows and his eyes are eloquent and accusing, like x-ray vision that can see through to her conscience.
The best defense is a good offense, she knows. “I’m not in this with her, I’m in this with Samuel,” she snips out. “I’ve been helping him hunt down Crowley’s alphas for more than a year now, and I’ve heard that speech from every one of those monsters. So if you’re trying to psych me because I’m the girl, you can save it. And no, she isn’t opening a doorway to Purgatory. She told Samuel she doesn’t have to. She doesn’t even know where it is.”
He frowns at her. “I can assure you that your gender is immaterial to me,” he responds tartly. “However, your integrity isn’t. And demons lie. You should know that by now.” His gaze goes shuttered again in the space after he speaks, and he stares at her like he’s seeing right through her instead of inside her head. “If Samuel made a deal with her, she won’t kill him,” he says randomly, and his voice is weak and strained again. “But you need to be careful. Don’t push her too far. As for me…” He curls his lips into a wry, tired smile. “I’m softening her up. Lulling her… into a false sense of security. It’s part of my escape plan. Do you think she… suspects?”
She shakes her head. “You’re a piece of work.”
“I’m an acquired taste,” he murmurs distantly. “Dean says… he… Dean…” He trails off, and then his breath abruptly hitches. “No, don’t,” he wheezes, and a sudden yelp punches out of him violently. His eyes spin in their sockets and glaze over, and he flips onto his side as Gwen flops onto her butt and scores the heels of her boots on the concrete to scoot herself backwards, cursing herself as an idiot for trusting him as she goes.
But the angel isn’t trying anything at all, because now he’s jack-knifing, bringing his cuffed hands up to his head, burying his face in the swollen, bruised digits. “No, don’t,” he chokes out again. “Dean. No… not now, I can’t… I can’t…”
Gwen swivels her head as the door crashes open and Samuel skids to a halt beside her as the angel’s moans turn into whimpering, sobbing, and it’s frantic, desperate, and then he starts crying out incoherently, over and over, until his voice goes hoarse and fractures, and he slumps, limp.
“That’s eight times, Dean,” Sam says carefully, as he watches the flame fizzle and die. He feels damned despondent about it himself as he glances up, apologetic, sympathetic.
His brother is looking at him with an expression that flits between hurt, confused, and enraged, like he can’t or won’t believe Castiel hasn’t materialized out of thin air to stare at him like he hung the moon, like he wants to sink his fist into the nearest face within reach and pound it to a pulp, maybe Sam’s face, and Sam has to blink because of an odd feeling of déjà vu at the thought.
There’s a long, dragged-out moment before Dean replies, and when he does his voice is low-pitched and dangerous. “Godfuckindammit. Are you sure you’re remembering it right?”
Sam frowns up at him, because the sigil is clear in his mind, sort of, but it’s like ripples on water and smoke on the air, oscillating and billowing across his memory. It fluctuates, surges and wafts back and forth in there, and it makes his head throb. “Yes,” he says. “Well – no, I’m not. I mean… I’m as sure as I can be. But that isn’t very sure. What I remember is pretty hazy.”
Dean considers him for a moment, unblinking, his mouth a grim line, before his gaze suddenly goes harder, and calculating. “Okay,” he says flatly, but even though his voice is unnaturally calm now, his fingers claw at the air for a few seconds before he curls his hands into tight fists. “Okay. You said Samuel showed you the spell. So cast your mind back to when—”
“Dean.” Bobby’s voice is sudden and sharp, and decisive, and Sam slants his eyes up, sees the old man is fixing his brother with a look that’s worried but annoyed too, one that sends an eyeball message to back off.
They stare it out endlessly, and then Dean’s face turns stony and he stomps away, kicking out at a pile of books and sending them tumbling before pulling up with his back to Sam. His frame is locked taut, his fingers interlaced across the back of his head. “Fuck,” he grates out, and his voice is anguished. “Cas. Fuck.”
Sam scrubs a hand through his hair, flounders for a moment, because if he ever needed proof positive that Dean’s affection for the angel ran deeper than he let on, there it was, in his willingness to chip at the wall, and he feels helpless in the face of his brother’s desolation. “Look,” he starts. “Maybe I can try to take myself back there in my mind, maybe it won’t count as scratching if I’ve already remembered—”
“Wait a minute.” Dean whirls, his hand raised and his eyes bright and hopeful. “Just – the summoning ritual, it works for any angel, right? We just need their name in Enochian?” He stabs a finger through the air at Sam, and his voice is triumphant. “Balthazar.” He strides past Sam, starts flicking through the book on Bobby’s desk. “We try it on Balthazar, and if he shows up at least we know we did it right. And if it works, he might know something, might be able to pick Cas up on angel radar.”
Sam can’t help gaping. “Balthazar? After he used us as bait for Raphael’s pitbull?”
Dean waves a dismissive hand. “Fuck that. Cas said they were friends once, and he helped Cas get the weapons back didn’t he? He might know something, might know if Cas is still on terra firma or if…” He pauses a beat, and his voice goes strained and hoarse again. “Or if he isn’t. It’s got to be worth a shot.”
It makes sense, even if there’s something about Balthazar that raises Sam’s hackles, something he can’t quite put his finger on, something outside of the stunt the angel pulled on them. He sighs, shoves his misgivings to the back of his mind, leans forward and uses the cuff of his shirtsleeve to rub away the chalked symbols, starts transcribing new letters in their place. “What if he comes but he—”
“How did you know that?” Bobby is squatting down opposite him, his face quizzical. He nods down at the letters. “His name, I mean.”
“Uh…” Sam flounders briefly, then nods to where his brother is still leaning over the desk. “The Big Book of Enochian…?”
Bobby’s eyes narrow. “But you didn’t look at it,” he says pointedly. I mean, you asked me for it so you could check for spelling Castiel. But you didn’t check for Balthazar.”
Sam churns it over in his head for a second longer, thinks he might even squirm, because the old man is right and he doesn’t actually have an answer, can’t actually remember, only maybe it’s that he doesn’t want to remember but he can’t tell the difference any more. His eyes are drawn to his brother, still leafing through the book, his lips moving as he mutters under his breath, his free hand rubbing his brow, back and forth. Sam looks back to Bobby, leans closer. “Can we just figure it out later?” he says quietly. “Because he is not handling it, and I think we both know that.”
He doesn’t wait for the old man to respond, he’s already lighting the match and letting it fall, and the draught tickles the back of his neck the second the flames leap to life.
“What the fu…” Balthazar is aghast, his brows tenting. “Seriously?”
Sam pushes up in tandem with Bobby, and he doesn’t know whether to feel relieved they might be getting somewhere, or even more anxious at the fact it’s clearer than ever that something is wrong if the summoning ritual worked this time.
“The ego has landed.” Dean is already stepping forward, his composure regained, his voice terse and authoritative. “Houston, we have a problem. Cas has dropped off the radar and he isn’t answering when we call him.”
The angel doesn’t miss a beat. “Oh don’t tell me,” he scathes back. “Some infinitely minor in the scheme of things crisis has come up, and you expect my brother to stop playing World of Warcraft with Raphael and mop up after you?”
Dean bristles. “Cut the crap. Just do your little Borg hive-mind collective trick, and tell us where he is.”
Balthazar rolls his eyes dramatically. “I’m sorry, I simply cannot be arsed with this. I don’t work on days that end in day.” His body tenses with the almost imperceptible flex of muscles Sam has come to know heralds the flap of unseen wings, and Sam moves closer himself, reaches out to grip his brother’s arm.
“Dean, just—” He puts his other hand out, palm up, speaks sincerely. “Balthazar. Look. Please stick around and hear us out.”
Balthazar looks at him almost curiously, before he curls his lips in a wintry smile. “Well. Since I have a soft spot for you, Sam,” he mocks, “do tell.” His eyes bore into Sam, and it’s unsettling, but before Sam can continue Dean is shaking his hand off and crowding closer.
“I’ve been calling him, all day and all last night,” Dean races out. “Yesterday too. And he hasn’t—”
“Good.” Balthazar fixes him with a cynical stare. “He’s weaning himself off the breast. It’s about bloody time.”
Sam persists. “Something’s wrong. We think he’s in trouble.”
He gets a snort in response. “I’d know if something was wrong. I’d sense a disturbance in the Force.”
Dean cuts in again, a decisive rasp. “Well, I know. Because I dreamed it.”
The angel’s eyes dart from Sam’s face to Dean’s, and his expression dissolves into an inquisitive leer. “You’re dreaming about Castiel?” He barks out an amused laugh. “Was it a sex dream?”
Sam can see his brother’s fingers tapping at thin air, can sense the build up to the explosion of rage that Dean has been keeping corked since Sam lit the first match and nothing happened.
“He was dreamwalking me,” Dean growls back. “And no, it wasn’t a sex dream. So rev up your proximity detector and find out where he is. Now.”
The request is surprisingly calm, and purposeful. It’s an order, and suddenly Sam is looking at nothing. He sighs out ruefully, glances across at Bobby.
The old man scowls. “Well that could have gone bett—”
He doesn’t get to finish the thought, because the angel is back, hands in his pockets, contemplative as he gazes at them all in turn.
“Don’t tell me,” Dean says acidly. “You looked everywhere.”
Balthazar shrugs extravagantly. “He’s gone.”
Sam sees his brother flinch. “Gone?” Dean parrots, and his voice is abruptly higher, frustrated, with a wobble in it that suggests he might even be on the verge of panic. “Can you elaborate? Gone as in Raphael has him upstairs?”
The angel cocks his head in the same birdlike way Castiel sometimes does, and his face falls serious. “No… this isn’t Raphael, I’d have heard,” he muses. “And Castiel is in this dimension if he managed to get in your dream. But he’s hidden from me. Warded. It’s the only explanation.”
“Dammit.” Dean’s voice cracks on the word and he spins, leans his head into his hand. “Something has him. It’s hurting him, like in the dream.”
Bobby steps over, rests a hand on his shoulder, and Balthazar watches them for a moment. Sam studies him, notes how his gaze flicks away from Dean to the middle distance, how he purses his lips before scrunching them up thoughtfully, as if he’s mulling something, working it out in his head.
“You know something,” Sam challenges. “Tell us. Please. We need something to go on.”
Pale blue eyes swivel up to fix on Sam’s. “Have you tried asking Crowley?” the angel says simply.
Dean whirls back around, incredulous and impatient. “Crowley? Newsflash. Cas burned his bones. Crowley has ceased to be. He’s an ex-demon.”
Balthazar huffs out contemptuously, speaks with an exaggerated patience that’s in direct contrast to Dean’s edgy snap but still manages to sound annoyed. “Newsflash. Crowley isn’t as flammable as you think.”
Sam croaks, “What?” He’s amazed he manages to get the word out at all, because his throat has dried up so fast and so thoroughly he wonders abstractly if he might have to dust it before he can say anything more. He twists his head around to gauge Dean’s reaction, sees that his brother’s eyes are like emerald chips and a muscle is jumping in his cheek.
“We were there,” Dean snarls. “Cas spontaneous-angel-combustioned him right in front of us.”
Balthazar flaps a patronizing hand. “Just – summon him. Give it a try, see what happens.” He backs away, leans his butt on Bobby’s desk, and crosses his arms. “What have you got to lose?”
Dean stares it out with him through a long, weighty silence. “We saw Crowley burn,” he insists sourly, before he glances over to Sam and then Bobby. “He’s bullshitting us,” he says faintly. “Isn’t he?”
Bobby heaves out a sigh. “Come on. Place is demon-proofed, we’ll need to do it outside.”
This time re-entry isn’t as painful, even though the failed summoning spells are still drilling through his head like a thousand needles. Castiel takes a moment, fancies that when he opens his eyes he might be staring into green, and he imagines what that might be like, to be fallen, to sleep, and to wake to those eyes gazing promises down at him, to a rough, callused palm gentle against his cheek, and bare, muscular legs tangled with his own. It’s like sanctuary, and he drifts on its warmth and softness, secure in his private place.
He can sense them outside his bubble, feel them watching him, smell their anxiety and irritation acrid on the air. He cracks his eyelids and the woman is alert, squatting at a safe distance and poised to jump back further if necessary.
Samuel is next to her, his stare as dark and intense as Sam Winchester’s. “What the fuck was all that?” the man demands. “Is someone in your head? I saw you at the compound, how you were getting telepathic messages or something. Are you doing some kind of secret Vulcan mind meld with Dean?”
Castiel rolls his eyes. “I’d hardly tell you if I was, would I?” he says, coldly rational. “Then it wouldn’t be secret.”
Campbell’s jaw sets and he pushes up so he looms over Castiel. He steps close, closer, close enough, pulls his leg back and sinks his boot into the small of Castiel’s back. The impact of the blow spreads up Castiel’s spine and down his back in waves of pain that have him bite into the meat of his own upper arm to stop his cry, but the throb is dull and faraway, a sign his grace is stronger and shielding him from the worst of his wounds for now, even if it’s still damaged and fragile.
He’s recovering, he knows, but he doesn’t have the luxury of time and he reasons that the demon is nowhere in sight. When he heaves himself up and swings his cuffed arms into the back of Campbell’s legs with all the force he can muster, he’s utterly composed, but he’s working with the one-hundred-sixty pound, slightly-built human body of an ad salesman built for speed and not endurance, and he knows he won’t last long. He flops down on top of the man, bites back a cry at the impact on his torso, and there’s a frozen moment when Campbell gazes up with stupefied eyes, too stunned to react. Castiel takes full advantage of it. “Your deal,” he grates out. “I know what’s in it for you. What’s in it for her?”
Campbell’s eyes go slitty and cold. “You,” he snarls contemptuously, and he’s already starting to pitch and yaw under Castiel. “That’s all she wanted.”
Castiel feels a numb lack of surprise at the man’s sheer obtuseness. “And you believed her?” he hisses. “Do you even know who she is? Azazel spawned her.” He sees the man’s eyes widen at that, and he rams it home relentlessly. “You’re dealing with the issue of the demon who possessed you. I’m beginning to suspect you were born last night after all.”
The big man starts pummeling him immediately, brings a rock hard knee up between Castiel’s legs and smashes it into that tender spot, and Castiel groans as he struggles to maneuver his fists up between them so he can push in and seek that source of power that might restore him. Campbell grunts out unintelligible curses as Castiel finds the spot he’s seeking, and Castiel can see the flash of realization, of memory, pass through the man’s eyes, can see the first flare of pain spark there.
He’s vaguely aware of shouting in the background, and then he feels a fist gather a handful of his hair, and he’s hauled off the yelling man and swung around violently. Sharp knuckles connect with his jaw so hard he hears his teeth rattle, and he slams down onto the ground, his head spinning. He feels himself being flipped over, and the demon’s black eyes are delighted as she straddles his crotch. He sees the flash of silver as the blade rises and begins its swift arc down, and in this moment of his destruction he thinks of Dean.
He turns his head and stares into Gwen Campbell’s stricken face. “Shut your eyes,” he screams, as the metal meets his flesh.
Dean gets a sense of foreboding right before Bobby slices the Bowie across his palm and squeezes the blood down into the bowl, and somehow the sense that he isn’t going to be remotely surprised to see the demon means the shock of seeing the dapper figure materialize out of thin air on the hood of the beat-up old Cutlass to his left hits even harder and leaves him winded, panting for oxygen as surely as if Crowley had just sunk a fist into his gut.
He blinks hard, feels his jaw go slack and his skin pull tight and hot all over. He lurches back a step, and his feet feel like lead. He comes to rest against the back of a wrecked Tacoma, and slides down the tailgate so he’s sitting on the fender. A sideways flick of his eyes shows him his brother, mouth agape in an appalled O, Bobby pulling off his cap and swiping a hand through his hair, Balthazar standing slightly away from them, his face impassive.
“Dean. How goes your percentage of life?” Crowley nods and smiles as he jumps nimbly down. “Sam. Bad hair day I see. Bobby, sit down before you fall down.” He squints at Balthazar, tracks his eyes up and down him in an appreciative manner. “I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure…” he leers. “Though I must say, I hope to.”
The angel raises one elegant eyebrow, and his reply is thin-lipped and glacial. “Balthazar.”
Crowley cackles. “There’s no need to swear, mate, I’m just being friendly.”
Sam is looking over at Dean now, huge-eyed and dumbstruck. Dean finds his voice from somewhere, and feels like he’s speaking through sludge, his throat is so thick with disbelief. “This – can’t be. You can’t be. We saw you burn.”
Crowley rolls his shoulders, insolently confident. “Oh, that.” His eyes are twinkling in the half-light of dusk. “It’s amazing what they can do with flame-retardant fabric these days,” he continues smoothly. “Either that, or your boyfriend is shooting blanks. Or maybe,” he pauses, raises a finger to his chin, coquettish, “I was resurrected behind your back.”
Balthazar clears his throat, shrugs slightly when Dean swivels his head around. “According to the grapevine, he was touched by an angel,” he confirms somberly. “Make of that what you will.”
The sense of betrayal hits so hard Dean’s stomach cramps and roils. He finds his hands have wandered up without him noticing, to press against his face, shielding it, and his eyes are scrunched closed against the truth of it. “But – what…” he starts, and his voice fractures as he continues. “Why… why would Cas… I don’t – get it.” He cants his head, looks to Balthazar again. “What is this?”
The angel’s face is still blank, his tone neutral. “I’m not party to all the details,” he says quietly. “But from what I’ve heard, my brothers didn’t exactly throw a ticker tape parade for Castiel when he rode into town. In fact, Raphael kicked the proverbial shit out of him and threatened to smite anyone who stood with him.”
A memory flashes clear in Dean’s mind, and it’s so real the road to Cicero is stretching out ahead, and the steering wheel is right there under his hands, and he catches sight of Castiel sitting next to him in the Impala, his hands politely clasped in his lap, his demeanor an odd, nervous mix of hope and sorrow. “He was going to be the Sheriff,” Dean breathes out so faintly he knows only he can hear the words. “Jesus, Cas,” he says, louder, and he hears his voice come out raw and disappointed. “Why didn’t you come to me?”
“Oh he did, he did,” Crowley supplies cheerfully. “He did. Poor Cas, so hopelessly devoted, so determined to keep his sweetheart safe from harm, safe from Raphael and Michael, as he stood there with the weight of the world on his fragile shoulders and watched you rake leaves in your new white-picket-fence life with the insta-family. It was a real Hallmark moment.” He shakes his head then, sighs dramatically. “You had what you wanted, and he lost everything.”
It’s jarring, the total recall back to that day and the feeling of Castiel close by, tugging at some invisible thread even though Dean couldn’t see him, the sense that he was being watched. Dean’s heart stutters in his chest and he looks over at his brother, stares at him without really seeing him. “But why didn’t he come to me?” he repeats listlessly, and he’s only vaguely aware of Sam lowering his eyes, shaking his head helplessly.
Crowley claps his hands together in glee as he holds court, and it echoes around the yard like a pistol shot. “He was as close to you as I am now, and his heart was breaking right in front of me. But he just could not bring himself to screw it up for you. I was moved. Genuinely moved.” He chuckles then. “It was like picking low-hanging fruit.”
There’s a brief silence Bobby breaks, his voice strong and firm, like they might have a hope in hell of getting a handle on this mess. “What the fuck does that mean?”
Crowley’s face splits in a wide, satisfied smile, and his eyes gleam. “Castiel may be as cute as a button, but sadly he isn’t as smart.”
He doesn’t have to say any more, because Dean suddenly knows, and it’s a dark, lonely, broken moment. “He made a deal,” he husks out roughly. “Cas made a deal…” He laughs a small, hurt laugh, presses his hand to his belly, tries to rub the hollow, butterflies sensation into submission. “Fuck. Cas… I don’t believe this. I need a drink.”
“I know what you’re thinking,” the demon picks up. “He’s a little bit country, I’m a little bit rock and roll, and never the twain shall meet. What can I say? I had something he needed.” He glances around them all in turn, lowers his voice conspiratorially. “Power. Souls.”
“Like you said.”
Dean looks up from his daze of desolation and thinking he might be about to puke, and sees his brother is addressing Balthazar. Sam’s eyes are vacant and his voice is odd and faraway, almost mechanical, like he’s reciting a poem he learned by rote. “Like you said,” he repeats. “Do you have any idea what souls are worth? What power they hold?”
The angel nods, and fuck, flashback alert, Dean thinks dully, on top of all this crap, because his brother shouldn’t remember that, it should be bricked up behind the wall. He thinks he should maybe get up and walk over there so he can reach out to catch Sam when he falls, hold him together when he starts to break, but his legs are useless and he doesn’t have the strength of will to make them work. “Sam,” he says instead, and his voice sounds reedy and uncertain.
Sam glances obediently in his direction, and he seems to snap out of it because his eyes focus again, and narrow at Crowley, who’s sidling closer. Dean catches the flash of the demon-killing knife in the moonlight, sees his brother suddenly tense and rise up onto the balls of his feet, poised and ready, back in the now. Bobby shuffles closer to flank him, the old man’s eyes beady and alert, his fingers busily unscrewing the cap of his holy water flask.
But Crowley rests a hip against the hood of the truck, continues amiably, as if he hasn’t even noticed the precautions. “It’s like sticking your jimmy in the plug socket. I’m talking turbocharger, all the extra juice Cas needed to give Raphael a hiding before Raph sat him on the naughty chair and flew down to visit you, Dean.” He grins slyly, waves a dismissive hand. “Throw the moose here into the bargain as a sweetener, and Cas couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line. Of course, I had a little sub-clause buried in the small print.”
Dean doesn’t get it for a moment, but he sees his brother’s eyebrows meet in the middle as Sam furrows his brow, sees Sam cock his head fractionally. “You left my soul there on purpose,” he chokes out. “You could have gone back for it any time.”
“Oh get over it, it was nothing personal,” Crowley raps out smartly. “Insurance policy, if you like. You boys of all people know how crafty the good guys can be.”
“You devious bastard,” Dean mutters, and his jaw clenches so tight he can feel the nerves in his teeth protest. “That was—”
“Inhuman?” the demon crows. “Well, duh. Though, that’s not to say I don’t have regrets.”
The word sparks a memory, regrettable things, and in the moment that follows Dean realizes abstractly that Castiel knew his brother was out of the Pit and didn’t tell him. It sets off a distant, tepid anger that flares and heats steadily alongside a philosophical detachment born of the fact he’s well aware that angels lie too. Even if this dishonesty by omission stabs him in his heart, it’s not really incompatible with the Castiel he knows, the Castiel who bends the truth and breaks the rules, the Castiel who evades, fabricates and misrepresents, the Castiel who has deceived him and manipulated him since day one, even if the angel wasn’t always aware of it, or was following orders.
He can feel his pulse throbbing chaotically above his right eye, and he pinches the bridge of his nose. He’s almost afraid to ask but he has to know, so he takes a breath and centers himself before he puts it out there, apprehensively. “Did Cas know you left Sam’s soul down there?”
There’s a curiously tranquil interlude then, when the world stops and Dean can hear a calm, circumspect voice inside his head telling him this could very well be a defining moment in his life, something that might change his course as significantly, as bitterly, as Hell did. He gazes into his brother’s eyes, and he knows Sam feels it too.
The demon’s reply is crisp and decisive, punctures the tension so completely Dean thinks he hears the hiss of deflating pressure, although it might be the gasp he blows out on the word.
“It was the ace up my sleeve,” Crowley continues. “Plan B, in case your boyfriend welshed on the deal. But I never had to twist his arm. As long as he was getting a jumpstart whenever he needed it, he kept his eyes on the prize. The Purgatory souls.”
Bobby’s response is succinct and brutal. “For all we know you could be lying. And it don’t explain Cas bringing you back.”
Crowley huffs indignantly. “I’ve got no reason to lie about it now, have I? Not now the big friendly giant is fully restored. And as for my resurrection, well. Raphael is still a threat to Castiel’s sweetheart. And Castiel is still losing his war.” He winks. “He’s a lover, not a fighter.”
Balthazar blows out a grave, rueful sigh in response. “My brother’s leadership skills leave something to be desired, and he still needs the power from the souls,” he concedes, almost apologetically.
Filled with the bodies and souls of all things hungry, sharp, and nasty, Bobby had said, and it chills Dean to his core. “But the Purgatory souls,” he manages. “Why would Cas want them? They’re…”
“Rotten,” Balthazar confirms grimly. “Depraved, perverse and venal. Absorbing them would turn my brother into – something monstrous.” He casts his eyes down. “Castiel used to be among the most honorable of us, but now he pursues the twin ideals of incompetence and corruption with indecent fervor.”
Crowley tsks mockingly. “Now, now. Try to see it from Cas’s side. Bogstandard Hell souls…” He raises a finger, shakes his head. “Not quite full-metal-jacket enough for the kill shot ahead of Raph opening the cage and letting the toxic twins out to wreak havoc on Dean and Sam Winchester. But monster souls…” He waggles his eyebrows, nods in emphasis. “We’re talking three Weetabix for breakfast, boys. The Six Million Dollar Castiel, better, stronger, faster. I’m thinking short-tempered psychopath too… hence the plan to share the souls.” He directs a hard stare Bobby’s way. “Which is why he brought me back.”
It’s all too plausible, what the demon and the angel are telling him, but despite the vague, low-level fury that still simmers inside him, the knot of tension in Dean’s stomach pulls even tighter as he thinks through to the end of what Crowley said. It sends an awful, shattering, primal horror streaking through him, the thought of Castiel ending up on Hell’s rack like in the dream, because that’s how deals go down. “What did he trade?” he sidetracks hoarsely.
“Himself,” the demon confirms bluntly. “Or rather, his bl—”
“You don’t get to have him down there,” Dean cuts him off savagely. “And if you touch him, you will regret it. Loudly. Over several days.”
The demon snorts. “Keep up, Dean,” he says briskly. “Purgatory is the only game in town for me. And as I was about to say, it just so happens that your boy can open the door for me. This is dark magic, magic with a k at the end, a blood ritual. He has the right kind and all I need is a pint of it… that’s what, an armful? His blood, the right spell, and Bob’s your uncle.” He grins down at Dean, cocksure and confident. “Well, Bobby’s your uncle in your case, I suppose.”
“And now I have my soul back, your sub-clause is moot,” Sam interjects stiffly. “But you still need his blood, so you took him in case he tried anything again.”
“Now, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” Crowley replies. “Because I haven’t got him.” He looks at Dean expectantly, like he’s waiting for some great revelation to hit, and then he gives an exasperated eye-roll. “Come on, think about it. Who else really wants to find Purgatory?”
The question hangs between them for a minute of quiet before it dawns on Dean, and when it does he finds he’s unnaturally calm and resigned to it, even if the realization makes his heart sink. “Samuel.”
Crowley nods vigorously. “And it just so happens he’s got a new partner. Someone my sources inform me had a very interesting chat a couple of weeks back with one of those dragons you were chasing all over Portland after your boyfriend barbecued me. Someone who has a real soft spot for young Castiel.”
And that gives Dean a few seconds when he forgets how to breathe, when his eyes burn and his head spins, when he feels cold sweat break out and trickle down his back. He looks over at his brother and Sam’s mouth is a tight, angry line but his gaze is full, sympathetic, compassionate, because he figured it out too.
“Fuck,” Dean says harshly, helplessly, around the lump in his throat. “Meg.”
“I’m afraid so,” Crowley confirms. “She has the spell. And just imagine what she could do with all those monster souls at her disposal. She’d be the new queen of Hell.” Crowley pushes up off the truck where he’s leaning, strolls forward as he continues. “Just imagine what she could do with Castiel at her disposal,” he taunts, as he turns and stares right at Dean. “Fortunately, that doesn’t have to happen. I’ve got a lead on a couple of her mooks, and she’s probably close by…” He trails off, lets the unspoken but hang in the air between them all until Sam voices it.
“But she’s warded, and they’ll smell me coming.” The demon folds his arms, cocks his head as he glances from Sam back to Dean. “You want your honeybunny back. None of us wants Meg powering up.” He smirks, rocks on his heels. “In all honesty, boys, I think this is a case of better the devil you know. So. We back in business together, or what?”
Dean stares at him. “At the end of all this, you’re a dead man,” he pledges, lethally quiet.
Crowley is unimpressed. “Pillock. I was a dead man at the start of all this.”
Castiel doesn’t recall ever consciously weeping, even if he suspects reflexive tears might have leaked from his eyes as the demon worked him before, but this pain, the pain of his grace sizzling out around the blade, makes his eyes sting and burn, makes him whimper and cry out Dean’s name as she twists the blade in his upper chest.
“Dean isn’t coming,” she taunts, and she leans down so he can feel her breath ghost across his lips, nips at his mouth with her teeth. “Let’s play pizza man,” she purrs, and she grinds her crotch on his, as her free hand roams up and down his belly, fingers rubbing at his barely-healed wounds so that he gasps and writhes under her. “I like that,” she says, and she licks a wet stripe across the seam of his lips, trails her tongue down to worry the laceration at the base of his neck again.
“Why are you doing that?” he groans, as he tries to push her away, and he shudders, because he can feel the tip of her tongue slithering into the gash, teasing the broken flesh.
“It’ll make me stronger,” she hisses. “And it’ll make me worthy.”
It’s what he heard her tell the woman, and he doesn’t understand. “Worthy of what?” he croaks out dazedly. “And what’s in this for you? You don’t want me, not really… why are you doing this?”
She laughs throatily, sits up straight again. She trails her fingers through the blood streaming down his torso from the sword that impales him, and her tongue flicks out to lick at the digits. She cups his face like a lover might. “Because my heart belongs to daddy,” she simpers.
Dean rests his hip against the edge of the table, holds the mug in his right hand, casual, like it’s his breakfast caffeine, fresh-brewed and sugary sweet. He swirls the liquid and watches as a couple of drops splash against his fingers. “Sure you’re not thirsty?” he teases.
The demon lifts its head, eyes narrow. “I told you, I don’t know anything.”
Dean pushes off the table and steps closer. “And I said I don’t believe you.”
The demon struggles against the ropes, and Dean lifts an eyebrow and waits for his struggles to cease. Each pull of the rope only causes the knots to grow tighter, and Dean’s lips twist into a smirk. The demon huffs from the exertion, sweat beading down his forehead. It mixes with the blood from the cut above his eye, and the clear liquid tinges red as it slides down his cheek.
“The angel,” Dean says, his voice flat. “Where is he?”
The demon shakes his head. “You hard of hearing or just stupid? I told you I don’t—” With a flick of Dean’s wrist, the demon’s sentence is swallowed by the hiss of holy water burning flesh, and he strains out a guttural groan of agony.
“Tell me,” Dean says. “Where is he?”
The demon shakes his head as skin and liquid ooze down his face. “I don’t—no, wait…” The words are jumbled as the tender skin from his lips peels off in the wake of the holy water, and he splutters and spits violently.
“Tell me,” Dean repeats. “Tell me what I want to hear.” He’s dogged, uncompromising. He’s good at slicing throats. He’s a killer, just like Veritas said. He ignores his real voice, in his head, doesn’t hear the pleas for answers, doesn’t hear himself begging for something, anything, whether it’s the truth or not.
“If I knew, I still wouldn’t tell you,” the demon whispers.
Dean can even bring himself to admire its bravado. But it doesn’t stop him from yanking the demon’s head back, and pouring holy water over its face and down its throat.
Gwen wakes up with a moist cloth over her eyes, and she can still feel the flash burn of fiery grace searing her corneas. She floats up a hand, puts her fingertips to the edge of the fabric, and wonders if she can still see, if she might pull it aside and be gazing at a black nothing. She takes a steadying breath, thinks now or never, peels up one corner. It’s dim in the room, but she blinks up at the ceiling and its daubed-on sigils, and her vision stings and blurs but it’s still working.
She lets the cloth fall away from her face as she pushes up onto her elbows, glances to where Samuel is leaning up against the wall. He’s cradling a bottle of whiskey in between his legs, and holding a faded snapshot in his hand. He looks over as she sits the rest of the way up, and his eyes are half-lidded and shadowy.
She remembers what the angel said. “Did you know who she was?” she asks carefully.
Samuel’s voice is a heavy slur. “She’s the demon who’s giving Mary back to me. And giving your brother back to you. That’s all she is.”
He pats for the bottle with his free hand and raises it to his lips, takes a long pull. Gwen knows where this is headed, knows that there’s no point in dissuasion or protest. Waiting out his periodic binges is second nature to her now. She scans the room, can just about make out the hunched form of the angel, curled up in a fetal position and covered by something dark that must be a blanket. She remembers how the blade smashed into his shoulder, and his desperate cries as the room exploded like a fourth of July fireworks display. She looks back to the old man. “Is he still alive?” she asks tentatively.
Samuel sniffs noisily, yawns and slides himself down the wall to pillow his head on his pack. “It’ll be over soon,” he mutters indifferently. “Eclipse is tonight, totality’s at four-thirty in the morning.”
She nods slowly, chews her lip as she darts her eyes around again. “Where is she?”
The reply is faint, irritable. “Old church back up the road, getting things ready. Don’t worry about it, we’ve got a few hours yet. She’ll wake us. Get some rest.”
Dean can feel Sam’s gaze following him as he sets out his tools, the instruments of the dark trade, with precision and ease. He straightens them on the tray, lining them up just so, as if he’s a board-certified surgeon, a leader in his field. He supposes idly that he is. He picks up Ruby’s knife, checks the blade out of habit, and pointedly ignores his reflection in the glint of the steel.
The stink of burned flesh and blood hangs heavy in the air, so thick Dean can taste it with each breath, so familiar it’s reassuring, comfortable, like coming home, so vile he can hear his brother gag behind him. He glances over his shoulder, snaps, “What?”
“You’ve been awake for hours,” Sam says quietly, and he looks at his wristwatch. “It’s past midnight, Dean. You need to sleep.”
Dean snorts. “Fuck that. You think I need to sleep, and see him reaching out to me in my dreams? Hear him screaming for me to stop?” He has to pause at the thought, catch his breath for a second before he continues. “You think I need to sleep while Meg turns herself into something we have no hope in hell of fighting? While Samuel raises some fuckin’ zombie version of our mother?”
Sam visibly slumps, looks down and away from him, and his eyes are shadowed as they travel over to the discarded bodies lying forgotten around the room. “But this isn’t working,” he sidetracks.
Dean turns back to select a syringe, flicks the needle and watches as the holy water bounces around in the tube. “Got a better idea?” he grates out. “Since we can’t summon Meg here and gank her if she’s warded?” He hears his brother sigh, and he turns around fully. “This is what I do,” he says. “And it isn’t working yet.”
Sam raises an eyebrow as he wipes his hands on his jeans, and directs a pointed look past Dean to the corner where he just dragged the last one. The demon was huge, built like a linebacker, with a mouth that would put some of the oldest hunters to shame. What’s left of him is ragged and brutalized, his face locked in frozen shock and his mouth gaping open in a silent scream.
“You cut out that demon’s tongue,” Sam says softly. “You choked him with it. Jesus, Dean. Look at you.” He holds his hands out palm up, conciliatory. “This isn’t what you do.”
Dean doesn’t have to look. He knows he’s spattered with gore and entrails, can taste copper on his lips, and his hands and arms are coated with tacky, scarlet blood. “Someone knows something,” he says neutrally. He stares at Sam and he knows his brother can tell he’s daring him to disagree. “And I won’t stop, I can’t stop until I find… answers.” Until I find Cas, he thinks.
He puts the syringe down, picks up Ruby’s knife again, approaches the unconscious demon hanging from the ceiling. Her arms are tied securely over her head, her shoulders are dislocated, and her legs are trailing messily on the floor. He studies her clinically, wonders where to start. He knows she’ll wake up screaming when she feels her skin being torn off in strips, knows she’ll beg like the others did, and he swivels his head around to look at his brother again. “Leave,” he rasps out.
Sam lifts his head. “What? Why?”
Sam doesn’t need to see this, doesn’t need to see him like this, and maybe some tiny part of Dean thinks that having Sam watch might cramp his style, make him hold back when he wants to rip into it. “Just leave,” he repeats.
Sam shakes his head, rubbing his forehead as if he’s trying to think of a suitable argument that won’t send Dean careening over the edge he’s currently perched on. “I don’t think that’s such a good—”
Dean turns on him, eyes flashing. “This is the last one, Sam. I’m not taking prisoners with it. So get the fuck out.”
Sam nods, his expression crestfallen and his shoulders slumped. “Yeah. Okay.” He shuffles away and the door to the warehouse slams closed seconds later.
“Always pushing everyone away. So predictable.”
Dean turns back around on her soft, feminine chuckle, and she stops laughing when the knife is plunged brutally into her thigh. He leaves the blade embedded there, watches her face as she screams. Each time he twists the knife, her cries echo across the space, sharp and high-pitched.
“Where is he?” Dean asks, his voice low.
“Aren’t—” Her eyes are closed, and she briefly struggles for words. “Aren’t you supposed to work up to that?” She pants and whistles out her pain for a moment. “So what brings Dean Winchester back to Portland?” she deflects then.
Dean smirks and pulls the knife out of her leg with one vicious tug that has her yelp shrilly. He lifts her chin using the tip of the blade. “I’m looking for someone.”
“The angel,” she says witheringly. “I know. We all know. I’m just jerking your chain. We know you’re working for Crowley again… he sicced you on us.”
“Working with Crowley,” Dean hisses. “Not for Crowley. There’s a big difference.”
She snorts. “Whatever you say, big boy.”
He leans in, intimate. “That demon tramp you slut for stole him from me. Where is she hiding him?”
Her eyes go slitty. “Stole him from you? He doesn’t belong to you, Winchester. He belongs to her now. And I’ve heard he’s real pretty when he’s hurting. When he’s begging for mercy. When she’s riding him hard and fast.” She cocks her head. “There isn’t much time,” she sneers.
It’s just words, he thinks, and he pushes the pictures that go with them out of his head. He slides the blade across her chin and over her neck, on down her chest, slicing buttons open as it goes. “Tell me, and I’ll make it quick,” he murmurs. He doesn’t promise to let her go.
She frowns, purses quivering lips together, blinks her eyes hard closed. And then she cracks one lid open, sees his avid stare and bated breath, and she throws back her head, peals out laughter, fixes him with a black, bottomless stare. “If I did know, I’d never tell you. Meg has plans, and when she’s finished… what she’d do to me is far worse than whatever your pathetic little mind can think up.”
Dean tilts his head, licks his lips, and he can feel himself tense with anticipation. “That sounds like a challenge.”
She smirks. “It’s the truth.”
“The angel,” Dean prompts.
The demon doesn’t move, doesn’t flinch when she says, “Is not yours.”
Dean spends the next fifteen minutes carving an impressive set of wings in the soft flesh of her back.
Gwen jolts awake again suddenly, to hitching, snuffling exhales and stifled moans from the other side of the room. “Are you alright?” she says out into the darkness.
The sounds stop abruptly and there’s a moment of utter quiet before Castiel answers, his voice low and cautious. “I’ve had worse. Samuel…?”
“He’s sleeping it off. He won’t wake for a while.”
There’s another pause. “Your eyes?” he asks then.
She brings an experimental hand up to swipe across her line of vision again. “They’re fine. Just – medium rare.” She squints at her wristwatch, swallows thickly. Four more hours, give or take, she thinks.
The angel clears his throat, and maybe he reads her mind. “This – what she’s doing,” he says faintly. “You know it isn’t right… she’s—”
“I can’t help you,” Gwen blurts out then. “I’m sorry. I don’t like this, but – she’ll kill me. Even you said I need to be careful.” It comes out louder than she intended, and she shoots a look over her shoulder to where Samuel still slumbers. She listens, and she can still hear his breathing, deep and even.
There’s a rustle, like limbs moving under sheets, and Castiel bites off a groan. Gwen squints through the darkness to the huddled shape, and fancies she can feel his eyes fixed on her, assessing her like she thinks they always have been since the moment he asked her who she was. Even the mental image of his gaze is searching and uncomfortable, and she changes the subject. “Tell me what happens to souls who are possessed,” she says. “I mean, after the demon is exorcised. What about the person? If they die, what about their soul?”
“You want to know about your brother,” his disembodied voice murmurs.
Gwen swallows thickly. “Meg told Samuel that Dean killed him with that demon knife.”
“He wasn’t your brother any more,” Castiel says. “Not when Dean killed him. Dean destroyed a demon.”
She isn’t naïve, she knew that, but it still sends grief and sadness surging through her. Her throat is dry as she asks, “But what about – him? Christian? His soul?”
Castiel’s breath whistles in and out. “Souls who are possessed against their will… they are essentially innocent.” His tone goes kinder, even if it’s still undercut with pain. “They pass in a state of grace… assuming they haven’t committed mortal sin on this plane.”
An infinite number of memories pass through Gwen’s mind in an instant. “Christian could be a real dick,” she ventures. “But he did a lot of good, saved a lot of people. I don’t remember any mortal sins in the mix. So maybe he isn’t even in Purgatory. Maybe he passed go.” The angel doesn’t confirm it, and she thinks that maybe it was too much to hope for. But she supposes his words are some kind of comfort, and were meant to be that.
“After this is over, will you do something for me?” he says suddenly. “Pass a message on? If you’re able?”
She thinks he must mean if she’s still alive at the end of all this, knows he’s acknowledging that he won’t be. “If I’m able,” she says, and then, on a hunch, “the message is for Dean, isn’t it?”
She hears him sigh. “Tell him that I…” He hesitates before he continues, his voice sandy-rough. “Tell him I’d do it all again. Rebel, fall, die for him. All of it, for him. Tell him… tell him he deserved to be saved.”
The words, simple as they are, make Gwen feel oddly self-conscious, but she thinks back to the angel crying out for her cousin as he seized, thinks about what Samuel told her, and she can’t deny the frisson of fascination. “I don’t really know Dean,” she starts, then stops, thinks how best to frame it. “Sam didn’t really talk about him that much, and I only had that one hunt with him. He was living with that woman and her kid when we hooked up with him. But Samuel said… she said – the demon, I mean – told Samuel that you and Dean were… uh… that you were—”
“Dean…” he interrupts, and it’s so fond he makes the name sound like an endearment. “Dean is crass, rude, and immature, expects me to show up on his whim and do his will without question…” He trails off briefly, and then his voice goes softer, almost tender. “And he’s caring, generous, faithful. He’s more courageous and noble than you could ever know. He has destroyed all my assumptions and beliefs, made me question every truth I held dear, left me with little to shore myself up with. And he has shown me the value of conscience over blind obedience, even if it ends in pain and sorrow.” He stops, because his voice has gone gritty and broken, and he clears his throat, gives a tiny grunt of discomfort, and sounds breathless and exhausted as he continues. “Every time I look at him, I can see his soul blazing from his eyes and hear its call. He is the best man I know, and everything I am now is him. He is everything to me. Everything. And he will always come first.”
In the silence after he speaks, Castiel’s devotion and loyalty, confided so sincerely and with such dignity, are nothing if not clarity and fuel for her guilt. Gwen chews her lip, glances over to where Samuel is sprawled out, snoring and wheezing. This isn’t right, she thinks. Fuck you for dragging me into this, Samuel. “You know, Sam told us you were a coldhearted sonofabitch,” she begins, “but—”
The angel’s sudden gasp of pain intrudes on her train of thought, and she hears him gulp a feeble, incoherent word that might be Dean’s name before he chokes out a ragged sob that turns into an agonized, subdued keening. She sits up, puts her hands out to steady herself through the head rush. “Castiel?” she says. “Are you okay? Castiel?”
The sound fades as she pushes up, picks her way carefully across to where Castiel is lying. She stops a few feet away from him, her eyes going wide despite their smarting, and she sighs out a breath of wonder.
What she thought was a blanket isn’t any scrap of fabric Samuel rustled up and threw over whatever is left of the angel. The wing he has curved over himself for comfort, or protection, or privacy, or all of those things, is bronzed, flecked darker in places, glossy in the shaft of moonlight that falls across it. She cranes her head, can see where it seems to erupt out of his pale, naked shoulder blade, through his torn shirt, a protuberance of bone and muscle tapering into what must be lighter, more flexible cartilage. It curls at the tips, soft, silken plumage tucked in around a body folded up tight so that all she can see of him is his face, eyes tight closed.
“Oh my God,” she murmurs, and in that instant she believes, and she sinks down there, sits and hugs her knees and stares, because he’s the most beautiful thing she ever saw.
After a few seconds his lashes flutter apart and he looks at her for a long moment. His eyes are glassy and sad. “Please help me,” he says, and his voice is frail and shocked. His eyelids fall closed again and he shifts, curls himself up tighter, buries his face deeper in the feathers, until all Gwen can see is a tuft of black hair.
She isn’t really aware of reaching into her jacket and pulling out her cellphone, but somehow it’s there in her hand and she’s scrolling down through names.
“Are you sure that’s what it said? That Meg is doing this to get her father back?” Sam thinks on it for a minute. “How does that even work? We shot Yellow Eyes with the colt.”
Dean grunts morosely. “Damned if I know.” His hand is cradling a bottle of Jack that’s resting on his thigh, and he lifts it to his mouth for a gulp. “Should’ve ganked that bitch when I had the chance,” he rasps out after he swallows, and his mouth forms a tight line, while a muscle in his cheek twitches.
Sam considers him. “When was that?” he ventures. “Meg, I mean – when did…” He trails off at the glower Dean sends his way. “No scratching,” he concedes, and he blows out resignedly, smacks a mosquito into pulp on the side of his neck.
He doesn’t mention the fact that the eight-odd hours his brother has spent torturing every demon on Crowley’s list hasn’t worked, hasn’t told them where Castiel is. He doesn’t mention how he nearly busted his head open against the concrete when he slipped on blood and innards and whatever bodily fluid is turning the floor into a slick, slippery skating rink. He doesn’t say how his older brother is scaring the hell out of him or into him, both figuratively and literally. “Bobby’s hitting the books,” he offers finally. “He might find a way to summon that dragon, assuming Meg didn’t gank it to get the spell.” He chews his lip. “Crowley didn’t say. But we could maybe go back to—”
“We keep going.”
Sam stops, eyes his brother warily. “Going where?”
Dean flings his arm out, gesturing to anything and everything and nothing. “We keep looking for answers.” Like so many other things, the by any means necessary goes unsaid.
Sam shakes his head. “Dean, it’s not—”
“Sam, you don’t remember how she looked at him,” Dean whispers, his voice so low Sam has to struggle to hear. “She could be doing anything to him.” Dean lifts his head, meeting Sam’s gaze for the first time since he stumbled outside, blood and bile and God only knows what else clinging to his shirt and worn jeans. “You don’t know what I saw. In the dream. And I won’t stop. I can’t stop until I find him. But you don’t have to come.”
Even if he’s backed down on a lot since they arrived in Portland, this is one thing Sam isn’t going to waver on. “Yeah, I do,” he answers. “He got me out of there, Dean.”
His brother’s gaze goes from anxious through grateful to opaque. “Can you handle it?”
“I can try,” Sam responds. He can feel the tension Dean exudes, see from the rigid set of his shoulders that his brother is coiled tight as a spring, see his knuckles flaring white around the bottle as he raises it to his lips. “You care about him,” he adds carefully. “Cas. You care about him, Dean. Really care. Don’t bother denying it. And I think he really cares about you. I think maybe he loves you.” He elbows his brother gently. “Profound bond, remember?”
Dean glances back at him, shrugs sort of, and Sam silently marvels at the fact his brother is even heading into this conversation instead of telling him he’s talking crap and stomping away. “I asked him to take care of you after Stull,” he says. “I don’t know – I guess I hoped he’d stick around.”
“Well, he got his wings back,” Dean replies morosely. “And I didn’t ask him to stay. Maybe he would have, who knows?” He fixes his eyes front again, stares out across the lot. “But I was dead set on doing what you asked me to do. Mark of respect, whatever.” He goes quiet, wondering, and it’s like he’s thinking aloud. “Man I don’t even know any more, what that was.”
A mistake maybe, Sam thinks, especially now Castiel is back and still staring at his brother like Dean hung the moon when Dean isn’t watching, and sometimes when Dean is watching. And it’s on the tip of Sam’s tongue, the blunt admission that maybe he fucked up, and that maybe if he hadn’t Castiel might not have gone, because what the angel feels is written all over his face every time he shows up. “Sometimes I think maybe I shouldn’t have told you to go there,” he mutters. “I think if you hadn’t, Cas would have stayed.” Would have stayed because he wasn’t faced with the prospect of watching Dean follow a dream that was Sam’s dream, he thinks, a dream that didn’t have room for an angel with personal space issues.
“They helped me,” Dean breaks into his thoughts, and he pauses for a long moment of silence. “Lisa was pretty amazing,” he says then. “She put up with some shit from me, I can tell you. So did Ben.” He shrugs. “All-nighters. Research.” His voice goes flat, desolate. “I tried so fuckin’ hard, Sammy, so hard to find a way to get you back.” He takes a gulp of his whiskey, wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “And all the time, life just went on. From day one, it went on. I fell off the couch the next morning and she made me pancakes. And I sat and looked at them, and I thought, here I am all set to eat a plate of pancakes and my brother went to Hell yesterday. But I dolloped syrup on the damn things and ate them, and I drank coffee, and I had a shower. I read the newspaper, watched the TV, went to meet the school bus. You died, it was Tuesday. On Saturday I was raking up leaves. Life just – went on.”
Sam knocks his boot gently against Dean’s. “That’s what life does,” he says softly.
Dean huffs out like he’s amused. “It was sort of unreal though,” he murmurs. “Fake. Like one of those guys you read about who has a whole ’nother wife and kid in the next town over? Like dad and Adam’s mom, I guess. Don’t get me wrong, I cared about her.” He pauses. “I still do. But the life just wasn’t me. Like I said, it was unreal. Like the real me was stuck in some other dimension Twilight Zone deal. I wasn’t supposed to be there, I just let myself get sucked into it.” He barks out a harsh, desolate laugh. “And it turns out he was there, watching while I raked those fuckin’ leaves. And maybe he was there at night when I was… when I needed to talk to him so badly. Fuck it, Sammy, I’d have walked away from it if I’d known. If he’d shown himself and asked me to, I’d have gone with him.”
“Maybe that was why he didn’t,” Sam suggests. “Remember what Crowley said? That Cas couldn’t bring himself to screw it up for you?”
Dean gives him a sideways glance. “Well, he did screw up, big time,” he snipes. “Don’t forget, you were soulless for more than a year.”
Sam exhales deeply. “It’s not his fault Crowley left my soul behind, Dean,” he says somberly. “And I wouldn’t have been topside to resoul in the first place if he hadn’t dealt. I don’t know… the glass is looking half-full to me.”
His brother’s lips twist into an irritated scowl. “He should have told me what he did, and told me where you were. I knew from day one something wasn’t right with you, and maybe I could have figured out a solution. Maybe he could have helped, instead of leaving you out there doing God knows what to God knows who.”
Dean’s voice rises slightly, bitter and angry, but Sam can detect the hurt and bewilderment simmering underneath. “He sat back and let us work for the sonofabitch who left your soul down there… he even brought Crowley back, for Christ’s sake. Because he wanted the souls. And when I get a hold of him, Jesus…” He looks down at his boots. “You know, it’s fuckin’ ironic,” he says, more quiet now, but still dismayed. “If she hadn’t taken him, we wouldn’t even know about any of this.” He shakes his head in rueful frustration. “I don’t care if she’s cut him up six ways to Sunday, Sam. He’s getting the back of my hand, even if I break it on him.”
Sam can’t help raising an eyebrow. “Are you sure it’s the back of your hand you want to give him?” He smirks as his brother’s face flushes pink. “Face it, Dean, you got it bad, and so does he. And—” He stops as his phone beeps, roots it out of his jacket, gapes at the number on the screen. “Fuck, why didn’t I think of that?” he breathes.
Dean is already nudging him as he raises the phone to his ear. “Gwen,” he tells his brother tersely. “It’s Gwen Campbell.”
Castiel regains some degree of awareness as cool air hits his face, and he can suddenly hear the sounds of night, of crickets chirping, trees rustling in the breeze, the rumble of distant traffic. The woman, Gwen, is half-hauling him along, doubled over so she can bear his weight because his legs are barely supporting him. She’s short, fits just under the crook of his arm, and she’s hanging onto his wrist with a death grip that hurts the raw flesh there.
She stops, grunts, and then she’s maneuvering herself out from under him, leaning him up against cold metal. The creak of a car door sounds, and she folds him inside so he flops across the seat, bends to lift his feet up carefully and place them in the footwell. She flicks her eyes up, apologetic. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t find your boots.”
He stares out ahead of him after the door clunks shut, stares up at the sky, where the stars he has touched so many times are pinpricks of twinkling light scattered around a moon already dulled by the earth’s shadow. He wonders if he will ever feel their heat again, or be dazzled by their glow.
Gwen is clambering in next to him now, starting up the engine and easing them along the muddy track, slowly, quietly, and he sees that she’s alert, darting her eyes to the front, sides and back, sweeping them around.
“Where is she?” he manages, and Gwen motions with her head.
“There’s a condemned church about a mile back up the road… that’s where she’s doing the ritual. It has to be hallowed ground or something.” Her tone shifts to rueful. “You were right. Sam said she means to crack it all wide open.” She smiles tightly. “But she won’t be getting her thank-you gift.”
It’s over then, Castiel thinks dully, as he leans his cheek on the cool glass of the window. His deal, the souls, the power he needs siphoned elsewhere, and Sam Winchester’s sacrifice wasted because it’s only a matter of time before Raphael succeeds in breaking the right combination of seals again and loosing the devil, loosing Michael. And then Dean will be gone and his loss will be complete, with every compromise, every deceit, every lie, every regrettable thing carried out in vain.
All for nothing, he thinks, but underneath his sorrow is a strange kind of relief that he has been delivered from what he intended doing, and joy that he’s still Castiel. His grace is damaged, he knows, perhaps irreparably, and he feels as near to human as he did during his long, slow tumble to earth in the months before Stull. He wonders if it’s this near-humanity that makes him want to fall to his knees and confess, to beg forgiveness, to weep out his devotion, to be held close and comforted, and to be absolved of his sins. “Dean,” he whispers. “I’m sorry.”
His borrowed heart judders erratically behind his ribs, and he closes his eyes. “Dean,” he says again, and his voice fractures, because the longing inside him is so keen, the need so intense in this moment of mortal weakness, that it hurts. “I would rather be here,” he mumbles, and it’s as true now as it was before, and it almost comforts him to acknowledge it even if he knows it means he will stand in the flaming ruins of this world looking at Dean and seeing Michael one day in the near future.
Dean grips the wheel so tight his hands ache and his knuckles are bleached white. “Which way?” he barks, as he eyes the traffic light ahead, and he thinks how fuckin’ ironic it is that they’re heading for Detroit, even if it’s the one in Oregon. “And how long till she does the spell?”
In his peripheral vision he can see Sam adjusting the phone against his shoulder as he holds the map against the dash and peers at it, his penlight in hand. “Uh... take the next left,” he says, and it sounds way too much like a guess for Dean’s liking. Sam examines his wristwatch, cranes his neck to look up at where the first shadows are starting to gray out the moon hanging above them. “And we have just under three hours.”
The tires screech as Dean makes the sharp left turn, and the Impala takes the bend on two wheels, Sam lurching violently into him and cursing as she fishtails wildly. Dean shoves him off, keeps his foot pressed pedal-to-metal so the car streaks down the deserted highway, vacuuming up the white lines like she’s snorting cocaine. “Where to now?” he snaps sharply. “Come on.”
“Okay, Gwen. We’re on state road – Gwen? You there?” Sam pulls the phone away from his ear, glances down at the black screen, back up to Dean, and he’s apologetic. “Fuck. We lost the connection.” Time suspends itself for an endless second as he thumbs the call button, and presses the phone back to his ear. He scoots his eyebrows up in triumph and mouths got her. “Okay, we’re on state road twenty-two… straight on and we’ll see the church? How much further is the house?”
Dean grinds his teeth as he listens to Sam’s one-sided conversation. Finally, he thinks, and the anticipation is dancing across his skin, buzzing through his veins, tingling along his nerves, fluttering in his stomach, making his left leg jitter with the building tension. Finally, because this was too close, and the relief he’s feeling is so intense he thinks this might be it, he might say something or do something there’s no coming back from even while he knocks some sense into the fuckin’ idjit.
Sam is nodding beside him. “Okay… yeah.” He points forward. “She says the church is about five miles now we’ve made the turn, and the house is about a mile after that, but it’s off the road so we’ll need to slow down or we’ll overshoot it.” He turns his attention back to the phone, frowns. “What? Say again, you’re breaking up. You’re moving him? Yeah, not safe, I get that. Can he…”
Sam’s eyes drift over to Dean, and Dean can see his brother’s teeth are worrying his lower lip. “How bad? But he should be able to heal himself… okay, if you’ve stopped most of the bleeding, then—what?”
Dean’s jaw is clenched so tight now that he feels like he’s been chewing on gravel. “I want to talk to him,” he scrapes out tersely. “Is he conscious?”
Sam is shaking his head, grimacing. “Yeah… okay,” he says. “Call me back when you can.”
Dean knows his eyes are flashing dangerously when he fixes them on his brother. “Dammit, Sam, I said I wanted to—”
“Calm down and watch the road,” Sam says evenly, and he lifts a placating hand. “She was trying to get him into the car. She couldn’t talk and move him, okay? He’s on his feet, but he’s pretty out of it. She’ll call back when she’s on the move, and we’ll meet them on the road.” He clears his throat, sounds uneasy now. “Dean, she says he isn’t healing.”
Dean tries to process the words over the sound of his blood rushing in his ears and his heart slamming against his chest. “I want him back, and I want someone to pay,” he says flatly.
Sam takes a deep breath, releasing it slowly through his nose. Whatever he’s about to say, Dean knows he’s not going to like it. “And she said Samuel—”
“Is a dead man,” Dean interrupts, and he makes it detached, and final, not a threat but a promise. “I meant it before, Sam, and I mean it even meaner now.”
“But he’s family,” Sam ventures cautiously.
“No he isn’t. Not anymore.” Dean stares resolutely ahead. “But Cas is. And no one touches my family and lives.”
Sam shifts so he’s looking out the window. Dean can sense his brother’s disquiet, knows the conversation isn’t over by a long shot, just postponed, because Sam knows him, and knows that he’d have better luck conversing with a brick wall when Dean is like this.
A brief, weighted silence falls over them, the roar of the engine filling the void. “Where the fuck are they?” Dean snaps into the tense hush when he can’t contain his anxiety any longer. “We passed the church. Shouldn’t we have met them by—”
“I think that’s it,” Sam cuts him off, his head swiveling around sharply. “Back up. There on the right, hidden driveway. Got to be it.”
The car shunts smoothly backwards, and Dean sees a mud track, unmarked, no mailbox or street sign labeling it. “We should have passed them,” he insists, and he lets the car leap forward, barely decelerating as she makes the turn. “Fuck, something’s wrong.”
Sam doesn’t answer him as he peers out into the night. The driveway is shadowed by overgrown trees, and there’s a rundown old house ahead with no lights on. Sam leans forward, scrunches his face up. “I can’t see anything… no, wait – there, see?” He tilts his head, one hand gripping the door handle and the other moving to rest on his Taurus. “Is that…?”
There’s a man stumbling about on the porch, and Dean twists his mouth into a smirk. “Samuel,” he murmurs icily. He presses the gas pedal to the floorboard, and the car pounces throatily. For a second, his eyes meet his grandfather’s, before weathered wood gives way and the porch explodes around them to the sound of his brother hollering a helpless protest as he braces himself against the dash.
Dean slinks the Impala back swiftly, broken wood scratching her skin like a cat sliding down a chalkboard. He squints ahead through the windshield. “Did I get him?”
Sam directs a bitchface at him. “Was that really necessary?” he huffs. “Why not alert the media while you’re at it?” He throws open the car door, gun lifted and ready as he steps out.
Dean slides out himself, cautious and watchful, eyeing the rubble and splintered lumber for signs of life. There’s a cough then, right in front of him, and Samuel emerges from the wreckage on his hands and knees, struggling to get to his feet. “Pity I missed,” Dean sneers. “But then, they say the devil looks after his own.”
Samuel leans back on his knees, swaying as he focuses on Dean standing above him. Dean can smell the alcohol on him, the sickly sweet aftermath of a category five binge. He presses the gun against Samuel’s sweaty temple almost casually, watches impassively as the man’s neck bends to the side. “You’re a piece of shit,” he growls. “And this is over. Do you hear me? It’s so fuckin’ over.”
Samuel lifts his face up, and his eyes are dark and haunted. “For a man who talks about family all the time, you really don’t get it, do you?” he says, and he’s suddenly vulnerable, human, and pathetic. “She has the blood, Dean. It’s not over. Not even close. As soon as she does the ritual—”
He stops as a sound starts to emanate from beyond the house, a dull, far-off hissing that starts to swell to a screeching and whining, underpinned by roaring white noise. The air is suddenly snapping and alive around them, and the smell of sulfur prickles Dean’s nostrils.
“Dean, we have to go,” Sam says urgently, and he grabs a hold of Dean’s henley and tugs.
Dean ignores him, ignores the sound, keeps staring down at his grandfather. “Is this what you want?” he scathes out. “You were a hunter, one of the best, and now you’re this. You talk about bringing Mary back, but do you know what that demon bitch wants to bring back? The monster that killed her, you stupid bastard.”
Samuel’s hands fist and unfist. “You know what the really funny thing is?” he jeers. “That you think this is the worst thing I ever did, when it doesn’t even come close. Don’t forget, I was in the Pit too, Dean. And you know what that does to a man…” His teeth glint in the moonlight as he smiles. “Your angel is going to die. You can’t stop it.”
Dean’s eyes narrow dangerously. “Watch me.” He knows that with a squeeze of the trigger he could end it, knows he could do it and not feel a shred of remorse later. And abruptly Sam is crowding up close to him, speaking right into his ear, and his voice is deadly serious.
“Dean. We have to go, or we’ll be no use to Cas.”
Sam tugs on his arm again, starts hauling him back towards the car. Dean stabs a finger at Samuel as they go, stares right into his eyes. “Sleep with the lights on,” he warns. “Your time is coming, old man.”
He turns on his heel and runs for the Impala, flings himself in the driver’s seat and throws the car in reverse as his brother dives in beside him. Sam twists around to look over his shoulder. “Drive faster,” he barks.
Tires screech as they pull onto the highway backwards, gravel spattering tinnily on the undercarriage as Dean jerks the wheel to the right to recover and throws it into gear. The engine groans a complaint and Dean mutters an apology as his eyes flick up to the rearview mirror. He swallows thickly, mutters, “Jesus fuckin’ Christ,” and shoots a quick glance at Sam.
His brother is still half-turned in his seat, transfixed by the sight, the dim-lit sky a mushroom cloud of streaking, acrobatic smoke tendrils whizzing and zooming, cavorting gracefully. “That’s a lot of demons, Dean,” he says thinly. “What if they got to Cas first?”
Dean ignores him, keeps driving. “Try Gwen again,” he grates out past the awful, paralyzing terror that it might be too late.
Castiel snaps back from his reverie to the distant sound of Gwen’s voice. The car isn’t moving, and he can see trees around them. He realizes that he’s freezing cold, shivering violently, and he wraps his good arm around himself as much as he can.
Gwen reaches behind her and pulls a blanket off the back seat, arranges it over him fussily before she eases the car out onto the road. “Your wings just sort of vanished into thin air,” she tells him. “That’ll keep you warm. I bandaged your shoulder… you were glowing out of there still, didn’t want to alert the bad guys.” She gestures out at the woods that conceal them. “I had to pull off the road. Lot of demon activity. I guess she knows you slipped the leash.” She swivels, ducks to look out the back. “Anyway, we’re warded. I Sharpied it on you, hope that’s okay. And Sam and Dean were heading this way, they got a lead on you so they were already in the neighborhood.” She makes a face, and her voice goes somber. “I hope they got off the road.”
She turns back in the seat, flicks her cellphone open, huffs out thoughtfully. “Sam said they hazed a demon who told them Meg is doing it to raise Yellow Eyes. Something about the souls in Purgatory being corrupt… it makes them more powerful.” She taps her thumb on the keypad. “So she absorbs them, goes totally dark side of the force, and brings Yellow Eyes back.” She blows out a sharp exhale, shakes her head. “Does that make sense to you?”
Castiel’s mind is sluggish as he watches her lips move, tries to comprehend what she’s saying, and maybe she can tell that he isn’t absorbing what she’s telling him because she rolls her eyes at him and slows her voice down.
“What I mean is, Dean shot Yellow Eyes with a magic bullet from the magic gun didn’t he? That’s what Sam told us when we hooked up with him. And that’s like the knife, it kills the demon, right? So she can’t bring her father back, because there isn’t anything to bring back—Sam… yeah, we had to pull off the road.”
Her words cut through Castiel’s gluey daze like his own sword. “Her father?” he gasps.
Gwen ignores him, holds up a finger, speaks rapidly into the phone. And a dreary, numbing horror swells inside Castiel as it dawns on him just why the demon would need to be worthy. He can see her grinning manically down at him, see her lips forming the words, my heart belongs to daddy, and the image blurs and dissipates into a memory of her standing outside the holy fire in Carthage so long ago, her eyes gleaming with malicious triumph, her lips curled in a sneer.
Lucifer is the father of our race.
When his cellphone beeps again, Sam slams it to his ear with impressive speed. “Where are you now?” he snaps, and he bats Dean’s hand away. “Yeah, we noticed them.” He furrows his brow. “Can you give me a landmark?” He listens for a moment, nods and hums in his throat.
Dean can barely resist the urge to rip the phone from his brother’s hand. “I want to talk to him,” he repeats. After all this, even with the muted rage that still simmers in the wake of finding out about the angel’s deal and what he’s been doing, he needs to hear Castiel’s voice, needs to verify he’s still breathing or doing whatever it is that angels do to stay alive. “Sam, I need to…” He hears his voice crack, and he covers it with a cough, wiping his hand roughly across his mouth as he glares at the road. “Dammit, Sam,” he snaps. “I will fuckin’ lose it if you don’t—”
“Here,” Sam says, nudging his shoulder with the phone, before he turns back to watch the sky. “Keep your foot down,” he adds curtly.
Dean snatches up the cell, hears several sharp intakes of breath, followed by a wheeze, and he’s struck dumb for a few seconds before he forces himself to drop his voice, makes it soft and warm, reassuring. “Cas?”
It’s faint and as weak as it sounded in nineteen-seventy-eight before the angel spat blood and passed out across his knee, and it makes Dean’s heart flop feebly in his chest. “Yeah. Hey, Cas. It’s me.”
“It’s…” Another breathy groan, a hiss of pain. “Good to hear your voice… and I’m sorry… please know… that I’m sorry…”
The lies and corruption suddenly don’t matter, and Dean allows his eyes to close for a split second, blinks back the blurriness. “Jesus, Cas, just – are you okay? We’re coming, you hear me? I’d have come sooner. I tried to find you. I tried—” He’s rambling now, words pouring out of him like water, because he needs the angel to know he tried to find him, needs him to know that he—
There’s an abrupt scream that echoes up and out of the receiver, and the phone cuts out, the screen going black. “Fuck…” he murmurs, disbelieving, and when he looks at his brother he knows Sam heard it too, because Sam’s eyes are even more wide and worried.
“Cas?” Dean says desperately. “Cas?” And there’s only silence, and dismay and horror bubble up and overflow inside him. “Sonofabitch!” he gasps, tossing the phone back on Sam’s lap, and he slams his hand against the steering wheel. It’s not enough. He does it again, three times in rapid succession. “Fuck,” he yells. “Fuck, fuck, fuckin’ fuck.”
Castiel lets the phone fall as he looks steadily at the woman. “I’m sorry,” he says, as he starts to move closer.
She scrunches her face up, confused. “Sorry for what?”
He’s already reaching out his hand. “This will hurt. Severely. And I’m sorry… but he will always come first.”
Her eyes flare wide in panic, and she starts to twist in her seat, reach for the door handle, but he has her by the arm and swings her back around.
“You devious bastard,” she seethes. “You played me, didn’t you? All along you were playing me.”
He doesn’t let her fear and anger deter him. He smiles, just barely. “Not all the time,” he whispers, and he touches his hand to the center of her ribcage and closes his ears to her screams.
“There – in the trees there… a car.” Dean narrows his eyes as he cranes his head, sweeps the Impala onto the verge and kills the engine, coasting silently into the dense forest lining the road. The vehicle is barely visible, its dark color camouflaging it, headlamps off. “Is it hers?” he asks, unthinking.
“I don’t really remember,” his brother mutters back, and when Dean glances over at him Sam is putting his fingertips up to his temple, rubbing at it a little.
Dean curses to himself, elbows Sam hard. “No scratching,” he hisses. “Grab the shotgun from the trunk, I’ll scout ahead with holy water.”
He leaves the keys in the ignition, steps out into thick undergrowth. He spares a quick look up, and the sky is clear for now, but he can still feel static coursing through the air. He fishes his flask out of his pocket and unscrews the cap, ducks down, picks his way stealthily alongside the car to the shotgun side, where the door is wide open. He bites his lip, takes a deep breath, steels himself for what he might see before he leans to peek into the cabin. And he falls back against the side of the car, slides down onto his butt and shields his face with his hands, overcome by the wave of distress that swells inside him. “Dammit, Cas,” he chokes out quietly.
“Gwen?” Sam is moving past him, his knee going up to balance on the seat as he crams himself into the car.
Dean regains his senses, pushes up fast and decisive. “Wait a minute Sam, she might have picked up a passenger, we should—”
“She has a tattoo,” Sam’s voice floats back. “Samuel and Mark got them too, after they saw mine… I remember that much.” He snorts ironically. “Christian was afraid of needles.”
Gwen is slumped across the two front seats, and Dean can see her head loll lifelessly as Sam grabs her under the arms and hauls her out onto the ground, across the slick of blood patching the upholstery. Cas’s blood, he thinks dully. He drags his eyes away, looks down to where his brother is hunched over the woman, checking for a pulse.
Sam slants his eyes up, jerks his head behind them. “Dean, I’ve got her,” he says shortly. “You get Cas.”
Dean huffs out in misery. “But he isn’t—”
He’d know that rumble anywhere, and Dean’s head snaps around and up so fast he thinks he might have whiplashed it. “Cas,” he says breathlessly. “Castiel.”
The angel is half-hidden behind a tree ten yards away, leaning up against it as if he might fall over without support. Dean jogs over, suddenly nervous, and as he gets closer, his eyes start picking out the details. Castiel’s torso is a mess of slashes that make him look like a walking tic-tac-toe game, his face is stippled purple and black with bruises that form the shape of knuckles applied forcefully, his lip is split, and one eye is puffy. The white bandage strapping his shoulder and the demon ward drawn over his heart in black ink are incongruously neat against his ruined flesh. Out of his trenchcoat, shirt and tie, he looks smaller, slighter, vulnerable, as if he’s been stripped of his armor.
Dean stops in front of him, remembers abstractly that he was going to slam his fist into Castiel’s jaw the next time he saw him, and all the while Castiel stares at him, that soft, unguarded look he saves for Dean and Dean alone, the look that always makes Dean feel like the angel is drawing some essential part of him out through his eyes and absorbing it into his own being.
When Dean touches his palm gently to Castiel’s face, he sighs and leans into it for a second. “Shit, Cas,” Dean murmurs past the lump in his throat. “You’re not looking your best, buddy. And where the fuck are your boots?”
Castiel makes a snuffling sound, rolls his shoulder, winces as he does. He looks up, at the moon, looks back at Dean. “We don’t have much time, Dean,” he whispers. “But I couldn’t leave without—”
The screech of brakes slices through the air and Castiel’s whole frame tenses as he focuses past Dean, over his shoulder. “Get out of the way,” he grates out harshly, and Dean damn well does as he’s told, stepping adroitly to the right and spinning around as he does.
“That was some rescue attempt,” the voice mocks, as the demon appears. “You didn’t make it very far, did you?”
The rear doors are opening to disgorge two more, eyes black and menacing, and Castiel turns his head to look at Dean at the exact moment Dean looks at him. He nods slightly, and Dean swallows. “Sam,” he calls over. “Close your eyes.”
Even with his lids pressed shut Dean can see the lightshow, glowing red behind the thin sliver of skin that shields his vision, but as the guttural howl that forms the soundtrack to the demons’ destruction dies away and the glow fades, he can hear the distant crackling, sibilant whisper of reinforcements. And then there is pressure falling against him, heavy and clumsy so he almost overbalances, and he opens his eyes to find he has an armful of collapsing angel.
Castiel gazes owlishly up at him. “We need to get to the demon,” he slurs, and he waves a limp hand over at where Sam is still crouching over Gwen’s prone form, holding the woman’s face into his body to shield her from the devastating blast of power. “I had to. Please understand. I didn’t take much from her.”
His legs buckle then, and Dean heaves him up, slings one of his arms across his shoulder and wraps his own arm around the angel’s back. “We’ve got some time,” he reassures, but his voice trips in his throat because he’s suddenly, almost unbearably, aware of Castiel’s proximity, his face resting right there, his stubble chafing Dean’s neck, his exhausted eyes still blinding blue, the heat Dean can feel even through the dual layers of his henley and tee. It’s almost too much, but Dean takes a steadying breath, gets with the program, looks up to see the first whorls of demon smoke billowing and pirouetting above the treetops. “Sam, pick her up,” he rasps out urgently. “We need to find cover.”
His brother nods, hoists the unconscious woman up and over his shoulder, lurches upright, and it takes him a couple of seconds to find his footing and adjust to her weight once he stands. He’s just starting to stagger for the Impala ahead of Dean when the bright, dazzling beam of headlamps spotlights them from the road, and an engine revs aggressively.
Dean knows that whatever mojo Castiel might have been packing before he blew the first wave to kingdom come is spent, can hear the angel stuttering out quiet noises of suffering where his head flops on his shoulder. “Fuck it, Sammy,” he barks. “Into the woods. Now.”
He turns, Castiel lurching around with him, keeps his arm securely around the angel as he leads him through the thick foliage. The sounds of heavy footfalls and the shouts of pursuit are all around them. “Jesus… we have to get away,” he hollers back his brother, and over and over in his head he repeats it like a mantra, getawaygetaway.
It’s dark at foot level, the dense treetops blocking what little light the remaining moon offers, and they’re flying blind, each step ankle-breakingly precarious as Dean tries to weave their way to safety, all the while conscious of Castiel leaning on him, stumbling along as Dean drags him, his stifled noises of effort and discomfort, his heaving breath synchronized with Dean’s.
Bushes and undergrowth reach out for them, plucking and ripping at Dean’s shirt, and he can feel Castiel flinching, remembers the angel is bare from the waist up, barefoot too, and the same low branches and thorned shrubs are tearing at his skin. He puts the damage out of his mind, focuses on forward motion, listens to the crunch of branches and leaves as they run, and tells himself that it’s progress, that it’s escape, that they’ll see the other side of this pursuit in one piece.
One misstep and Castiel slips beside him, nearly going down to his knees. “Dammit, Cas,” Dean growls, as he tries to get the angel back on both feet, and he barely waits a second before he’s forcing Castiel to run again.
“Sam?” Castiel hacks out, between labored pants.
Dean slows, jerks his head around. It’s suddenly eerily quiet, and he can’t see Sam or Gwen, can’t even see any disturbance of vegetation that might signal their presence. “He can take care of himself,” he mutters, and deep down he knows it’s true. “He’ll probably move faster without us, or maybe he’s hunkered down somewhere.” He lurches them on again. “Come on. We need to keep moving.”
Castiel hisses out painfully, but there’s no time to be gentle even if Dean knows the angel is fighting to control the moans of discomfort as he urges them faster. “I’m sorry,” he snaps, as he makes a sharp right turn in the approximate direction of the old church and pulls Castiel along behind him.
“It’s alright,” Castiel grates through clenched teeth.
It’s not though, Dean thinks. It hasn’t been alright for such a long time that he can’t remember a time when it was alright, when things were okay. Each step is clumsier than the last, and Castiel is leaning heavily against his side now. There’s no way they can keep up this pace, and even if Castiel isn’t complaining, the idea of causing the angel more pain tears at Dean’s heart. It shouldn’t always have to be this fuckin’ hard, he curses inwardly, and there’s a second when he thinks of them both rocking on Bobby’s porch swing and sharing a beer as they watch the sun go down. A shrill voice shocks him back to cold, hard reality then, as it taunts them in the darkness.
“You can run, but you can’t hide…”
Dean rolls his eyes and adjusts his hold on Castiel’s waist, drawing the angel even closer. “Do they have to be so cliché about it?” he bitches. He blinks into the darkness, sees that the trees are thinning out, can make out a clearing just ahead. He avoids it, opting for the thicker foliage. It slows their pace, and Castiel starts dragging his feet again. “Come on, Cas,” Dean urges breathlessly. “Just a little further and we’ll take five, see if they give up.”
The angel tries, every step dogged, but he’s groaning faintly, each sound clearly a suppressed cry of pain. When he finally wheezes, “Dean, I can’t,” Dean swallows the ache in his throat and looks for a place to stop.
There’s a large tree ahead, an aged oak that spans nearly five feet across, its lowest boughs distorted, skimming the tops of the woody thicket that surrounds it. “There,” Dean points, and he tucks Castiel in behind him, forces his way through the shrub, holding his forearm up to shelter his face from whipcrack branches, until he reaches out and touches the gnarled bark of its trunk. He hauls Castiel around, presses him against the tree. “Keep quiet, okay?” he whispers. He shifts his body, so the angel is behind him. “Sam has the knife. Maybe your ward will hide both of us. Hang on to me and try to stay upright.”
Castiel’s hand slips limply to Dean’s waist and he presses his face against the back of Dean’s neck, so that Dean is propping up most of his weight as he fights to control his breathing in the darkness. Dean can hear swishing noises in the distance and they grow louder, increasing in volume until they become an angry din. Twigs and branches bend and snap dryly, and loud jeers that promise grave bodily harm echo through the forest.
“Which way?” a demon calls, and Dean swallows and holds his breath, tension and fear clawing through his chest.
“Must have taken a left, towards the church. Forest ain’t as thick that way.”
They run off, bodies crashing through the dense brush as the horde make their way past, and Dean waits, his body stock still, his breath bated, as he listens to the demons moving away. His eyes drift closed as he strains to hear them long after they’ve gone. Castiel’s breath is heated vapor against his neck, soft puffs and gulps of exertion. Dean opens his mouth to apologize, to beg forgiveness for causing the angel more pain, and then he feels it, something pressing against his upper thigh, something that can’t be mistaken for anything other than arousal.
For a second Dean is paralyzed and immobile, and for the second after that he thinks of moving away. He drops his gaze to Castiel’s hand then, sees for the first time that the angel’s fingers are swollen and grazed, his palm blistered, his wrist rubbed raw. He thinks of how the hand reached for him in the dream, thinks of it fitting itself to the scar on his shoulder, Castiel’s brand. And he realizes that here, on the brink of destruction, he might want to reach back, that there might be something for them both to hold onto, that he wants it and that this might be the only chance to know what it feels like. He glances at his wristwatch. An hour and twenty minutes until the moon goes dark and the demon works the spell, and the church isn’t far.
He’s damn well taking this moment.
He turns around slowly, keeps his movements careful and deliberate as he continues to bear most of Castiel’s weight. He opens his mouth to speak, to say something, anything, to give a name to this need, and he hopes to God he isn’t about to make the second-biggest mistake of his life.
His words are swallowed in a sloppy, open-mouthed kiss. It’s frenzied and desperate, sucks the oxygen right out of Dean’s lungs so thoroughly that somewhere behind his worry and disorientation, some lucid part of him quirks its lips in a crooked, shit-eating grin and nods in approval at the fact Castiel must be feeling better than he looks. It feels right in all the wrong ways or wrong in all the right ways, Dean can’t decide, can’t focus his thoughts on anything other than the angel grinding his erection against his thigh, begging for some sort of release.
Dean’s dick is already half-hard and twitching, and his hand moves almost unconsciously to cup Castiel’s straining length through his trousers, as he tilts his head into the kiss instinctively, muffling the angel’s quiet moans. Castiel’s lips are soft, questing but inexpert, and Dean teases and sucks at them with his own, gentle because he can taste blood where Castiel’s bottom lip is split. A fumbling hand reaches for his jeans, working clumsily at the snap and zip, and Castiel is muttering incoherently, sounds lost inside his own head, sounds almost like he’s talking to himself. And it’s suddenly too fast, too intense, Castiel’s mantra like pleading, like he’s begging. It’s suddenly reminiscent of the dream, and the images Dean saw flash through his mind in gruesome detail.
He pulls up, pulls back, forces himself to ignore the way Castiel says his name in a broken voice. “Wait,” he whispers, and he clasps the angel’s hand carefully, mindful of the damaged fingers, while Castiel mouths the line of his jaw and licks at his neck. “Wait, Cas… the dream. Just – wait.” He reaches with his other hand, fists a handful of messy hair and pulls Castiel up to stare into lust-fogged eyes. “I dreamed you,” he says bluntly. “You dreamwalked me.”
Castiel’s expression goes bewildered for a moment, before Dean sees it dawn on him. “I didn’t mean that to happen,” he murmurs. “I must have… I was confused, I thought I was hallucinating.”
Dean swallows, leans in and rests his brow on Castiel’s. “What I saw,” he says haltingly. “Was it my dream, a Hell dream, or was it real? Because if it was real, I don’t know if we should do this.” He blinks hard, puts it out there. “Tell me she never touched you, never let any of her mooks touch—”
“They never touched me,” Castiel tells him, and his breath is warm on Dean’s skin. “And I need this, Dean. Please.”
The relief is like a weight off Dean’s shoulders, and he lifts Castiel’s hand to his lips and kisses the knuckles. “Cas,” he says, and as the angel’s eyes go wide in reply, Dean smiles. “Castiel,” he breathes out, low and soft, and he rests the hand on his shoulder, patting it lightly. “I got you, okay? I got you.”
His movements are swift as he tugs Castiel’s zipper down, slides his hand into where the angel’s cock is peeking inquisitively out through his boxers, eager and ready. Dean frees it up, along to a choked gasp, gripping the smooth length with a sure hand. He rubs his thumb through the slick fluid oozing at the tip, jacks it twice, and Castiel nuzzles and hisses desperately against his throat, fingers clawing weakly at his brand through the fabric of Dean’s clothing.
“Ssshhhh,” Dean cautions. “They might hear.” He leans in, presses his own sloppy kisses to Castiel’s neck as he makes fast work of his jeans and shorts, rucking them messily down his hips, pulling out his own leaking hard-on. He knows damn well this isn’t the time or the place, but the adrenaline is flowing and he aches, and wants and needs. And it’s clear Castiel does too, and each touch isn’t enough, not nearly enough, as Dean wraps his hand around their cocks and grinds them together, feels the satin smoothness of Castiel against him. He doesn’t think beyond the release they both so desperately need, just braces against the tree and takes Castiel with him as he holds the angel close, their bodies slotting together as if they were made for this.
He palms both their lengths, squeezing tightly as Castiel trembles and sobs out breath against him, and he stares down to where the dim moonlight barely reveals the heads, nestled together in his grasp. He imagines them shifting and rubbing against each other in their own intimate kiss, their pre-come glistening as it seeps out and mingles wetly. The mental image gets him to the brink and it doesn’t take much, stripping the tender skin with one, two, three tugs, until he feels his balls draw up and tingle, and lust zings through his arms and legs like sparks of heat.
Castiel’s head falls back against the bark and his eyes open, unnerving in their intensity, the wonder in them so clear that Dean pauses for a second until the blue disappears, revealing nothing but white as the angel’s eyes roll back in his head. Dean stifles a groan and blindly leans forward to capture Castiel’s mouth, swallowing his cry as their orgasms rip through their bodies.
Dean feels Castiel panting open mouthed against his throat as he comes back to himself. He leans even more heavily on the arm still bracing against the tree, forces himself to calm his shaking legs. He wipes his hand on his jeans, the evidence of their shared arousal still damp and sticky on his palm. For a second he considers licking his hand to see how it tastes, how Castiel tastes. He doesn’t. Not now, he thinks. Not yet. Somewhere, deep down, he hopes they’ll have time for that later.
He’s still wedged up against Castiel, and the angel is still leaning his head back against the tree trunk. He’s tall enough so the moonlight falls on his face and his lashes are thick black crescents, his expression beatific despite the bruises on his cheekbone. He cracks his eyes lethargically as Dean tucks his penis back inside his boxers and zips him up, and his smile is a small, secret curl of lips that Dean has never seen before. And Dean is suddenly nervous, thinks that it’s years since he’s done this and really wanted to, years since it mattered to him, knows that he wants it to mean something and go somewhere. “Was that okay?” he whispers tentatively.
Castiel’s eyebrows arch almost comically, and he gives a tired half-chuckle half-snort before he starts shivering and his legs give way and fold him down. He’s halfway to the ground before Dean can react, and he manages to catch the pliant body, lowers the angel into a haphazard sitting position on the soft loam at the base of the tree. He hitches up his shorts and jeans, pulls his henley off, kneels and slots it over Castiel’s head, maneuvering his arms awkwardly through the sleeves. “I wore you out,” he observes softly, as he shuffles into place next to the angel. “It was a stupid thing to do.”
Castiel huffs tiredly. “Stupid isn’t the word I would choose,” he murmurs. His head falls down onto Dean’s shoulder. “Just – a rest. A few minutes. Before we go to the church. Stop her. How much time?”
Dean squints at the dial of his wristwatch. “We got just over an hour. We should lay low anyway, be sure they’ve gone.” He clings to this moment of relative peace as he stares up at the moon, a third of its pearly iridescence gone dark now, and tries to wrap his mind around what they just did, and all the while the fact he’s Castiel’s first gives him a sleazy-content feeling of pride.
“We need to stop her.”
Castiel’s voice is unsteady, wrecked, the voice of someone who isn’t going anywhere, Dean knows. “You rest,” he reassures, and he knows he doesn’t sound very convincing. “Get your strength back. It isn’t far, we just drove by it. I’ll head out in ten, track Sam down on the way if I can. We’ll deal with her, swing back and pick you up.”
“No.” The sudden switch to low and deep, with far more authority than someone who just had the handjob of their life should have, is a sharp contrast to before, but when Castiel looks up Dean can see the angel has no more left to give. “I have to be there,” he insists. “You said Sam has the knife. She has a binding sigil, you can’t exorcise her.” His head lolls back onto Dean’s shoulder again. “I have to be there,” he whispers again. “You don’t understand. She’s doing this to raise—”
“You’ll be a liability,” Dean cuts in bluntly, but he’s thinking it through in his head, thinking that he doesn’t really want to let Castiel out of his sight right now, thinking that a powered-up angel of the Lord could be the lethal weapon they need.
The solution comes out of leftfield, and for a second after it occurs to him, he debates whether he should just hit Castiel with what he knows. But he finds he can’t do it, and he chooses the scenic route instead. “Back there,” he broaches. “Gwen, I mean. You said you did something to her.” He feels Castiel tense almost imperceptibly beside him, and he takes a chance and hopes he’s guessing right. “I know what you did,” he lies. “She came round, said you reached inside her, took energy from her – like light. It was her soul wasn’t it? Almost like what you did with that kid in Pennsylvania. With Sam, and Samuel too.”
There’s a moment of silence before Castiel speaks softly, cautiously, and Dean knows it’s because the angel is at the end of himself but even so he can’t help feeling disappointed at the fact Castiel sounds like he’s trying not to give too much away, that deliberately evasive has been his modus operandi since he first showed up in Easter.
“Souls…” the angel says. “They’re – vital breath, the engine of life. They have power. Energy that can be… harnessed.”
Dean swallows. “So. You don’t want to stay here and I don’t want to leave you here. But you can’t walk that far, and I can’t carry—”
“It will cause you pain.” Castiel’s voice is dark, panicked, raw with emotion, and when Dean looks at him his eyes are wide and horrified.
“Can’t be any worse than thirty years on the rack,” Dean retorts, and he looks up at the moon and down at his watch again. “We don’t really have time to debate this.” He shrugs, quietly points out the obvious. “We need to stop her and you’ll be more use if you’re packing some volts. You know it, I know it.”
It falls silent around them then, and all he can hear is Castiel’s breath, unhurried, until a sharp exhale announces the angel’s decision. His voice is just as quiet and strained as Dean’s was when he replies.
“You should bite down on something.”
Dean doesn’t know exactly how Castiel does it, or when or how it really starts. He does know sudden, icy, pristine agony that dazzles and blinds him with cold bluish-white fire, shreds him into pieces with myriad diamond-sharp blades. I love you, he hears. I don’t want to lose you. The pain fades then, to a shimmering, euphoric glow of devotion that radiates out and suffuses him with comfort, and he knows this, has felt it before. I will always be with you, Castiel tells him. I am for you.
And Dean reaches out like he did before, in the Pit, and he falls into Castiel, warm and real, soft, patient, redeeming him and offering him salvation.
The air is heavy with the acrid odor of something familiar, something ashy and volcanic. It makes Sam think of visiting Yellowstone Park with Jessica, of Old Faithful, and how Jessica scrunched up her face at the stench of hydrogen sulfide as the geyser erupted.
It makes him think of Hellfire and brimstone.
He stumbles to a halt, because he can feel something shift in his head, something epic, deep down inside there, something viscous that undulates and stretches, before it turns brittle, snaps and shatters as it presses against the shell that contains it. Plate tectonics, he thinks idiotically, because it feels like different parts of him are rubbing up against one another, abrading and chafing as they overlap, before slipping back, leaving trenches and cracks in something that used to be solid. And then he can’t breathe, smoke is pouring and swirling around him like icy liquid, and he can hear a chittering, impatient nonsense in his ears. But it isn’t him it’s looking for, and it streaks away, leaving him confused and reeling for a moment, until Gwen starts shifting lethargically over his shoulder.
She graduates to kicking silently but wildly as she comes to, and he heaves her off and down to the ground. “It’s me… Jesus, Gwen!” he hisses.
She’s ripping at her shirt, pulling it up and open so he can see a glimpse of pale flesh, running frantic hands across her belly. She huffs out in what sounds like amazement or relief, he can’t tell, and she lurches gracelessly, sits down heavily on the ground. Her eyes gaze up hugely at him in the moonlight then, and she grimaces. “Well I knew you had a big ego, but now you’re the son of God?”
Sam smiles tightly at the dim memory of her acerbic tongue. “What the hell happened?” he cuts to the chase, squatting down next to her. “We heard you screaming over the phone, found you passed out in the car and Cas wandering around—”
“That sonofabitch played me like a fiddle,” she jumps in, and her mouth pulls tight and angry. “Batting his eyelashes, laying there all hurt and bloody, spinning me all this crap about how much he loves your brother. Wearing me down, so I’d help get him out of there, and he did something to me that hurt like a mother…” She glances around her. “Where is he anyway?” she snaps, and then she presses a hand up to her eyes. “Oy. I feel wiped.”
Sam goggles at her for a few seconds, recovers enough to fish out his flask. “Here. It’s holy water, but it’s better than nothing. He’s with Dean, we split up. And what do you mean, what did he do?”
She gulps down a mouthful, wipes her mouth. “I have no idea… he just touched me and it was like he was pulling my insides out or something… burning pain right here.” She taps a clenched fist to her middle. “It was like he was reaching inside me, draining all my energy…”
Sam thinks of Crowley’s plug socket analogy and then he blinks, because it hits him like a thunderclap to the ears, this will be unpleasant, and a streak of lighting to the eye, if there’s someplace you find soothing, you should go there.
He dips his face down into his hand, rubs his fingers on his temple, tries to shake it out of his head, tries to stop his fingernails from clawing through his skin and his skull, from worming their way into his gray matter to pick and scrape at the sandy mortar holding the bricks together. But maybe he doesn’t even have to scratch because there’s a nook there, a cranny next to it, and maybe if he were to put his cheek there he’d feel foul air seeping through, and if he were to press his eye to that fissure and peer in past the barrier he might see luminous eyes, and maybe if he squeezed his hand into that crevice he might be able to touch, and grasp, and pull—
“Jesus. I don’t know how he did it. He was a mess, I mean, she cut him up really badly.”
Sam jumps, swivels his gaze back up. Gwen’s eyes are closed and she’s chewing her lip. “Fuck it, Samuel.” She looks right at Sam. “I didn’t know he was planning this. She told him she could get your mother for him, Christian too. I’m sorry.” She tilts her head then, frowns. “Are you okay, Sam? Only you don’t look so good.”
“Just – running on fumes,” he says hoarsely. He ignores the ache in his head, pushes to stand, extends a hand to pull her up. “Dean drew them off. Stick close… we need to get to the church, figure out a way to stop her if we can.”
She lets herself be pulled up, stops there. “Wait a minute,” she says. She eases out a sigh. “I know you’ll think I’m crazy,” she says quietly. “But – Samuel.”
Sam isn’t really surprised. “You’re going back for him.”
“I’m all he has now,” she says softly. “And so help me, I love the old bastard.”
“Well, be warned,” Sam tells her. “The porch sort of fell on him.” He scrubs a hand through his hair. “Dean tried to run him down.” He puts a reassuring hand up when she blanches. “He’s in one piece, don’t worry. But…” He gropes for words, decides to be blunt. “Honest Gwen? I don’t think you can really help him.”
She gives a messy half-shrug, nods, and she sounds defeated when she answers. “Well, I can stick by him for as long as he won’t be helped. And then I guess I’ll take it from there.”
“Well, look us up when that happens,” Sam says awkwardly. “You got my cell number. Any problems, try Singer Salvage, out of Sioux Falls.” He smiles. “Take care of yourself, Gwen. You know where we are if you need anything.”
She says his name as he starts walking, and he turns back.
“You’re different,” she notes thoughtfully.
Sam laughs, sort of. “Yeah, I guess I am,” he says.
The voice drifts slowly into Dean’s consciousness, and Castiel is a long, hot weight on him, kissing his neck and crooning under his breath. He has his hand cupping Dean’s cheek, and his thumb is dragging restlessly back and forth under Dean’s eye.
Reality snaps back, unwelcome. “How long have I been out?” Dean says hoarsely, as he peers at his watch again.
“Just a few minutes…” Castiel is shaking, from the sheer high of what just happened, or from nerves, Dean can’t tell. “Dean,” he says uncertainly. “Are you alright?”
Dean grunts noncommittally, pats himself down mentally, checking for injuries. His chest still tingles and smarts, like a mild electrical current is passing through it, but at his core he can feel a warmth, an odd, out-of-place, misty fog of wellbeing and serenity that eases his heart and soul. He snorts soft hair away from where it’s tickling his nose, pushes a hand up under the henley to the bare skin of Castiel’s back, rubs it up and down the bony ridge of the angel’s spine. The gesture feels right, and natural, and he doesn’t give a fuck if the clock is ticking, he’s taking this moment too. “Did you whammy me?” he mutters. “While you were recharging?”
Castiel’s lips are soft on his jawline. “Call it a parting gift,” he confirms simply. “My grace is drawn to your soul, Dean… it knows your soul because of Hell, and craves it. So touching it again…” He shivers. “It was – intense. It was hard to let go, and as I tore myself away from you, some of me remained.” Dean can feel the angel’s throat move as he swallows, and his voice goes oddly sorrowful. “And so there will always be a part of me that clings to you. A part of me that lingers.”
Dean feels a sort of awkward, dazed joy at that, and he blurts out words before he can stop himself. “What we did – I wanted it. For a long time. And all that time, Jesus… I missed you, Cas, so damn much. You have no fuckin’ idea.” He fists his hand in Castiel’s hair, tugs it so the angel lifts his head, and stares into his eyes. He doesn’t want to break this moment but somehow he needs to, needs to start this, whatever it is and whatever it turns into if they’re alive on the other side of the eclipse, honestly. “But why didn’t you come to me?”
He sees a flicker of worry pass through Castiel’s eyes, sees the minute clench of his jaw. “I couldn’t come to you, Dean,” he says warily. “My grace was weakened, Meg—”
Dean closes his eyes, feels his own tension start to steal in again. “Not her,” he says with forced patience. “Crowley.” He opens his eyes to a hunted expression, and as soon as he meets Castiel’s gaze the angel’s eyes dart away. “We know what you did,” Dean says quietly. “We know about the deal you made, what you’ve been doing.”
Castiel rolls off him, sits up with his back to Dean. He pulls his knees into his body and hugs them, and Dean can almost feel him thinking, so much so that he wonders for a few seconds if it’s the residual effect of whatever grace Castiel left behind inside him. “You’re thinking up some story,” he says flatly. “An alibi. Don’t bother, because I know the truth. I’ve seen Crowley. He told—”
“Crowley’s alive?” Castiel’s head whips around as he speaks, and his eyes are huge. “Then Meg spoke the truth…”
Dean takes a deep breath, knows this for the guile that it is. “Come on, Cas, don’t play games with me,” he says wearily. “Not now, please. Not after what we just did. Show me some fuckin’ respect. It was you that brought him back.”
Castiel huffs out a bemused, nervous almost-laugh, but as he watches Dean his face turns perplexed, and then appalled. “But Dean, I didn’t,” he defends. “Why would I… Please. Tell me you don’t believe that.”
Dean knows the angel’s sincerity is faked. “Crowley told us,” he says flatly. “He told us everything.”
Castiel blinks at him. “And you believe him?” he says weakly. “You believe Crowley over me?”
Dean purses his lips, brings his hand up to palm his eyes, because this is even harder than he thought it would be, he’s beginning to regret he ever went there, and fuck honesty sideways and dry. “Balthazar said that’s how it went down too,” he mutters. “Jesus, Cas… I know you had your reasons, but you should have come to me.”
The angel’s expression goes odd, almost curious. “Balthazar?” he backtracks faintly. “Balthazar believes this too?” He sucks his upper lip in, swallows, looks down and away for a moment of utter stillness. “I tried to do the best I could, Dean, tried to give you peace as well as freedom, tried to keep you safe,” he whispers then. He looks back up and his eyes are naked and yearning. “Don’t forget me,” he says, and then he’s gone.
Dean slams his hand into the soil. “Dammit, Cas,” he snaps out into the dark as he pushes up. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?” And then he hears it in his head, Castiel’s voice as it drifted in though his euphoria as he came around.
It turns his stomach, sends acid creeping up his gullet so his throat burns.
He starts running.
Sam has always had a good sense of direction and he puts it to good use, picking his way swiftly through the trees, ducking down at every rustle of leaves, every snap of twigs. But other than him the woods are deserted and he tells himself it means his brother found shelter, or that he’s at the church already, waiting for Sam to show up.
He can see the outline of the tumbledown building ahead of him, can see soft light glowing out the windows. He hunkers down behind a gravestone, comforts himself with a hand to his back, where the hilt of Ruby’s knife protrudes from his pocket. When he smells ozone and hears wings buffet the air behind him, he smiles. “You two took your time,” he starts, as he glances over his shoulder, and he feels his face fall when he sees who it is.
Balthazar squats down on his knees, motions his head sharply towards the church. “Is that where she’s doing it?” he snaps tersely.
Sam frowns. “We think so, but—” He exhales sharply as he stares back at nothing. “Fucking dick angels,” he murmurs.
Castiel watches and waits.
The demon isn’t aware of his presence yet, and he trails grateful fingertips over the ward that Gwen Campbell inscribed on his chest.
He doesn’t think about what he’s about to do, doesn’t think about the steps he took to get here, doesn’t think about betrayal. He thinks about Dean, thinks about what Lucifer used Sam Winchester’s body to do to Dean, thinks about the many and varied ways Lucifer will use Sam Winchester’s body to torture Dean again if the demon succeeds.
He knows this is right, knows he would give anything, even himself, like he has before.
The demon has candles ranged all around in there, so that shadows dance across the walls. She’s standing in the middle of an elaborate blood sigil, the portal, and its circles and angles glisten oily with his blood in the dim light. Her eyes are closed, and she’s swaying slightly as she chants gutturally. She has the glass jar she bled him into clasped to her breasts, and she raises it up to her lips, swallows the remaining contents down in greedy gulps, steam rising from her skin as she does. She spasms uncontrollably, and her fingers stab and claw at the air. She sinks down onto her knees, strains out a whine of discomfort though locked jaws. Her hands are planted on the floor, and the first flames are sparking from the lines she painted.
It’s time, Castiel thinks dispassionately. The others must sense it too, because the air snaps with the static that signals their presence, and he sees the demon’s head swing around swiftly at their arrival.
It’s the vital second of distraction he needs and he swoops, pushes her violently aside, and takes her place.
The fire swallows him.
His arms windmill branches out of his face, his tired legs barely hurdle fallen logs, he loses his balance as he swerves around tree stumps, he trips, rolls, scrambles to his feet, and his breath heaves and sobs out of him. He doesn’t give a fuck about the demons who might be out there, doesn’t give a fuck about the stench of sulfur prickling his nostrils again, doesn’t give a fuck that he catches sight of their smoke hovering above him.
He runs because he knows, and his terror is sending up distress flares and sounding alarm bells and klaxons in his head and his heart. He doesn’t give a fuck that he’s worn out and weak, or that a stitch is doubling him over and turning his headlong sprint into a clumsy lurch. He doesn’t even know if he really gives a fuck when he’s tackled by someone bulky, who explodes out from behind a gravestone as he zigs and zags through the cemetery. He struggles frenziedly, keeps yomping forward on his elbows, rolls over and kicks back at whoever is pinning him down, and finally he hears his brother next to his ear.
“Dean. It’s me… where’s Cas?”
Sam releases him and rises into a kneel as Dean jerks his head towards the church. “In there, I think.”
He looks up at the moon, barely any of it visible now. “Tell me you have the knife,” he says desperately, but he already knows it’s too late, because the ground is shaking and juddering underneath them and when he looks up blinding sapphire light is flooding out of the windows. “Fuck,” he yells frantically, as he rockets bolt upright and pounds in through the door. “Cas.”
Castiel can see them gaping at him, see Crowley’s disbelief, see his brothers’ slow-motion shouts of protest. He sees movement, over by the door, green eyes brilliant with the soul he loves, lips forming his name, but no sound penetrates the inhuman wailing that deafens him.
Fire streaks up through him, a pure white conflagration that crackles hungrily, scorching and charring his very essence so that he can smell himself burning. In its wake he can hear them coming, a raucous, strident cacophony of shrill animal squeals and harsh grunts that jar his senses, and now he can feel them nibbling and tearing into him with sharp, cruel fangs, squirming and writhing their way through the ripped-open spaces, sinking wicked, serrated claws into him to gain purchase. They swarm and teem in every direction, skittering along every fiber of his being with their many insect legs, wrapping prehensile tails around every atom, overrunning him, ingraining themselves in him so that their separate edges are blurred and absorbed.
The heat starts to dissipate then, and he starts to feel cold, starts to feel frost steal its way out from his center, freezing him as it spreads. He isn’t sure where he ends and they begin anymore, in seconds they have burrowed into him like fertilized eggs into the womb, these parasitic organisms that already feast and grow fat on his grace. Their collective consciousness seeps into his, even though they are anomalous to all he has ever been, and done, and thought, and wanted. Their needs and desires are clamorous and confusing, and he cries out his disorientation, and shock, and terror as he fights their debasement and malign influence, tries to ignore their derision and abuse. But they are strong and energetic, and they have spent too long locked away in the dark to sit still and do his bidding.
I made a mistake, he thinks, and he screams Dean’s name, but no one can hear him.
Castiel retreats, curls up inside himself, closes his eyes and presses his hands to his ears to block them out. He grips tight to the small piece of Dean’s soul that he couldn’t bring himself to let go of, cradles it close, treasures its soft glow, and keeps it safe inside him.
Dean barely registers Crowley and Raphael, Balthazar standing opposite them, Meg sprawling on the floor, her mouth trailing bloody drool and her face frozen in rage. He skids to halt, and he goes numb with the awful, sublime horror of it.
The light is blinding and grotesque, but it’s stunning, beautiful even, myriad sparks and bolts of electricity streaming up from the floor, making Castiel blaze incandescent as it snakes through his body. He trembles and jerks almost gracefully even though his arms are rigid by his sides, his joints locked stiff. His mouth is open in a soundless scream, and his eyes are wide and unseeing, tears streaming from them. His wings are unfurled, ten feet on each side of him, and power twists and wreathes along them to their tips, the feathers bursting into an inferno of methane-blue flames that lick and curl outwards.
“Castiel!” Dean yells it at the top of his lungs, and he sees the angel’s eyes flicker slightly, so that Castiel is staring at him.
There’s recognition there, regret, grief, and something more that pours out of the angel’s gaze. His lips move, and he stutters out breathlessly, “Dean… run.”
His eyes start to fade then, the color bleaching out of them, leaving them shining metallic, alien quicksilver orbs. He glances over to where the angels and the demons are rooted to the spot, reaches out a casual hand, like the casual hand he used to ignite Crowley’s bones. Dean thinks he might see Crowley roll his eyes ruefully, before the four spectators are sent crashing towards the walls.
Then Castiel tilts his head back to look at Dean, and he smiles.
Dean is already backing away, already grabbing Sam’s arm. “We need to leave,” he chokes out, and he starts dragging his brother back to the doorway.
Sam gapes at him, throws out his hand. “But Cas—”
Dean shakes his head, and he can barely get the words out, because they feel like treachery. “That isn’t Cas anymore. Now run.”
They’re just reaching the treeline when the world explodes behind them.
Somehow they make it back to Bobby’s, although Sam’s not entirely sure on the details. It’s broken and hazy, and he’s got more questions than answers. It’s disjointed when he mulls it. What he thinks he feels is just out of reach, floating in the foggy area between reality and what had been, before the wall, before all this shit came crashing down around them.
It should feel like victory, he keeps telling himself. They made it, didn’t they? Only they didn’t, not really. Not all of them. He broods on it, concludes that it doesn’t matter to him that Castiel didn’t tell them about his deal with Crowley even if it does mean Sam drifted rudderless and soulless for a year, because if Castiel hadn’t dealt he’d still be in the cage longing for the wraiths to do something, anything, to make him feel less alone.
Dean doesn’t talk. The only time he opens his mouth is to guzzle more whiskey, and when he finally does address Sam, it’s blunt to the point of vicious, all baleful glare and a tirade that ends in him ordering Sam to leave the fuckin’ wall alone, because I can’t handle another… The thought is swallowed down with a mouthful of liquor.
When the sun doesn’t come out after three days, Sam comes to the slow realization that it’s not over. This time the world has to stand up and take notice. It should feel like poetic justice, the world finally suffering along with the Winchesters, but it just makes Sam ache more.
With the National Weather Service reporting thick, forbidding cloud banking up into the stratosphere, the weather turns cold as surface temperatures drop sharply. After three weeks, with agriculture severely threatened, the government announces a state of emergency. Bobby mutters under his breath and tallies their food supply down to the last can of beans, doing the math and seeing how long they can last, just in case, before heading out in a truck full of empty gasoline cans to stock up on fuel for the generators. They watch the news, listen to the radio reports concocting a thousand plausible explanations of what this might be, and Dean stalks out of the room, cursing under his breath.
All the while, scenarios flash through Sam’s head, the smallest kernels of seemingly innocuous thought suddenly bursting, exploding, like the stop-motion film of seeds germinating and sprouting, twisting and unfolding into vivid images he can’t make sense of. He knows it’s the wall crumbling, can feel it happening, hear it too, as it slowly erodes and disintegrates. He imagines his neurons scaling the brick, tapping in crampons as they climb higher and higher, imagines them dislodging loose rocks that cut deep crevasses into the surface as they tumble. He sees silver eyes, and echoes of memories flit through his mind like broken movies, the same scenes on a constant loop. He can feel their pain, their hurt, and after a while it becomes his agony, his own personal hell.
One night Dean’s voice cuts through the darkness, and Sam realizes he’s wandered outside.
“I thought I told you to leave it alone.”
Dean is slumped and defeated in the murk, and his voice is worn out. Sam shakes his head, buries the thoughts deep inside. He knows they won’t stay there, can’t now that nothing’s holding them back. “I was,” he says helplessly. “I am, I mean.” He glances at his wristwatch and it isn’t nighttime at all. It’s two in the afternoon, and the sun should be shining overhead.
“You’re full of shit,” Dean accuses.
Something snaps inside Sam, breaks just a little bit more, as he looks at his brother’s shadowed face. “I’m trying, okay? It’s not like I want this to happen. I just don’t know how to stop it.” He covers his face with his hands, only to find more darkness. It’s everywhere, and it’s consuming him from the inside out.
He feels a warm hand on his shoulder, fingers massaging the tight muscles where his neck meets his shoulder.
“It’s going to be okay,” Dean says mechanically.
Sam can tell his brother doesn’t really believe it, but he nods anyway. Dean is lending him the last bit of strength he possesses, and Sam takes it for what it is and allows himself to feel comforted even if it’s only for a little while. And he wants to offer what comfort he can in return, even though he knows he’ll probably get shot down in flames. “Do you think Cas—”
Dean’s answer is abrupt and hard. “No.”
“We didn’t see him die, Dean.” It’s possible, Sam is thinking. It’s always possible.
“He’s gone,” Dean says, and his voice is cold as ice now. His hand falls away, and the loss Sam feels is palpable.
“But what if—”
“It’s over, Sam. Got me? It’s fuckin’ over.”
It’s the same thing Dean said to Samuel, only shrouded in even more bitterness and barely concealed pain. He returns to the nearly empty bottle of whiskey he’d left on the porch railing, sucks the remaining liquid down in three long swallows. Anyone who doesn’t know Dean as well as Sam does might mistake this for coping, but Sam knows better, has seen it before. Dean isn’t coping. He’s grieving the loss of someone he loved.
“You come out here by yourself in the dark all the time, Dean,” he says haltingly. “Why don’t you stay inside with us? It’s freezing.”
Dean sniffs, throws his hand up towards the sky. “I like to watch the North Star,” he says simply, and suddenly he’s conciliatory, his voice gone quiet and gentle. “It just – makes me feel something, I don’t even know what. Weird how it still shines through all that crap up there.”
Sam frowns as he looks up. The North Star isn’t there, Dean is on the tip of his tongue, but his eyes fall back to his brother staring above him, his expression part dreamy, part devastated, and he doesn’t say the words.
When Dean stumbles down the steps and wanders into the lot, still gazing heavenwards, Sam lets him go. He watches him disappear into tranquil nothingness and tries to focus on anything other than the cracks widening and the darkness peeking through, and silver eyes staring at him.
He finds his gaze drifting up again, and he tries to see the North Star.
Two weeks after Oregon, they stand out at the back of Bobby’s lot in a metal graveyard of junked automobiles, scattered wheel hubs, radiators, stacked seats, doors and body panels, and stare up at the aurora borealis. It paints the black sky with pastel green, blue, red, the colors forming a diffuse glow of parallel lines, striations and diverging rays that evolve and change constantly.
“Some shit is happening up there, Dean,” Bobby insists darkly. “We ain’t at a high enough latitude to see that. On KSFY News, they’re talking about storms way up in the atmosphere, up in the interplanetary medium, for Christ’s sake. This is no damn coincidence, and—”
“It’s nothing,” Dean replies absently. He tries to pick out the North Star up there as he continues, but it’s lost in the sparks and flares. “It’s geomagnetic. Solar winds colliding with the Earth’s magnetic field. It’s why we’re seeing the Northern Lights. Geomagnetic storms make the auroral zone expand to lower latitudes.”
The old man goldfishes his mouth in frank amazement for a few seconds, doesn’t seem to know whether he should be startled or impressed.
“I was a teenage weather boy,” Dean says, and he shrugs carelessly. “The Cree used to call it the Dance of the Spirits,” he adds as an afterthought, and then he snorts. “Back in the day, people used to think it was a sign from God.”
Bobby tents his brows meaningfully. “And you don’t think it’s a sign of something?” he parries. “Given it’s never happened over South Dakota before? And we’ve been caught up in this nuclear fuckin’ winter ever since Cas—”
“No,” Dean cuts in roughly. “It isn’t a sign. It’s nothing, just freak weather. Like I said.”
Bobby’s eyes go soft, and right then Dean thinks he might blurt out that he sees Castiel in his dreams, huddled in the corner of a dark room and screaming his name, and that sometimes it’s like Castiel sees him too, and he gazes up at Dean with huge, confused eyes and asks him if it’s over. But he swallows back the words, gazes up at the light show without really seeing it anymore, because he doesn’t ever want to think that what’s unreal and impossible could be real and possible. It makes him feel restless, hollow and burned-out inside, when all he wants to feel is scientific detachment.
The North Star is gone, and he has a gut feeling it isn’t coming back. He remembers he has a couple of sleeping pills left, and he turns and walks back to the house.
The next day, Mount St. Helens pops its cap in spectacular fashion at eight-thirty in the morning. It causes what turns out to be the largest landslide in history, as a wave of earth and ice crash down the mountain right into Spirit Lake, entombing thirty square miles of forest. Without its cap, the mountain explodes out of its own north side, spewing and belching out ash, magma, rocks and sand in a cloud of debris that spreads ten miles wide.
Almost simultaneously, three weather patterns converge to form one hundred forty tornadoes that weave and pirouette across the central and lower states for close on fifteen hours straight. Twisters rage as far south as Mississippi, as far north as Detroit, and all the way east to Virginia. Sixteen of them hit F5 on the Fujita scale, with winds reaching three hundred miles-per-hour. Collectively, they travel two thousand miles, and the longest, a half-mile wide maelstrom so colossal it looks like a solid wall of dust instead of a funnel, cuts its swathe of destruction for more than one hundred miles.
The following afternoon, a storm system forms a category five-plus hurricane that barrels its way from Cape Hatteras to Long Island in just six hours. A sixteen-foot storm surge envelops shore towns all the way up to Gloucester, Massachusetts, leaving standing water six feet deep. After devastating the New York coastline, the hurricane heads for Connecticut, Rhode Island and inland Massachusetts, where one hundred seventy mile-per-hour winds batter each with equal fury before swinging back towards the east, rampaging through New Hampshire and Maine, and heading for Canada.
In week three, the weather takes a different turn, the polar night giving way to a dishwater-gray sky that bathes the land in a surreal, extended twilight. By the end of the week, they see the suggestion of brightness on the distant horizon, and two days later Dean wakes to sickly day seeping in through the curtains. He falls out of bed, pulls the drapes and peers up to see an anemic-looking sun staining the heavens a grimy mustard color.
He pads into Bobby’s room, shakes the old man awake. “Sun’s up,” he says, and he barks out a deranged chuckle, boffs the old man gently on the shoulder as he points to the window.
Bobby squints up at him, bleary eyed. “But I feel like I only just lay down,” he grumbles. He fishes under his pillow for his wristwatch, scowls. “It’s one-thirty in the morning.”
Dean doesn’t give a shit. He stumbles downstairs barefoot, liberates a six-pack from the refrigerator, parks himself on the porch swing and gulps down the bitter liquid. He can feel sweat start running down his spine as the mercury rises for the first time in a month, and he sheds his many layers and works on his tan under the midnight sun.
At some point he remembers thinking that one day, when all of this was over, he might sit knee-to-knee with Castiel and share a beer as the long day closed. It makes him think of the woods, of how Castiel’s mouth felt on his, of the feel of them sliding together hot and needy, and the look of blissed-out astonishment and wonder in Castiel’s eyes. The memories pierce through his vague, foggy melancholy like a blade, and he gasps at the way they constrict his heart. He remembers the angel’s words, I will never leave you, and of how he thought it might be a new beginning. “Fuckin’ liar,” he hears himself whisper. “You left me. You fuckin’ liar.”
His grief swells until its weight is oppressive and too heavy to bear. CasCasCasCas, he screams helplessly inside himself, and he begs, pleads, bargains with God, and finally he clasps his hands together and he prays. His eyes start to sting, and he chews on his knuckles and weeps silently and desperately, until his face aches and his discarded tee is soaked with tears and crusted with drying snot.
He dozes off eventually, comes around again to the screen door creaking, and opens salt-glued eyes to a nudge on his bare shoulder. He glances down to where his chest is burned pink and already tingling. His sinuses throb painfully and he knows his eyes must be red-trimmed and puffy, but if Bobby notices he doesn’t comment.
The old man is toting his open laptop, and he circles around Dean’s stretched-out legs and sits down beside him, tilts the computer so Dean can see the screen. “Rufus just emailed me these,” he says. “Remember Walt and Roy?”
Dean sniffs as he studies the small screen. The men – or what’s left of them – are frozen, kneeling in supplication, arms stretched up like they were begging when they were roasted to charcoal. In the close-ups, their teeth are incongruously white and their tongues bright pink against the carbon of their skin, and their eye sockets are empty and gaping. One of them has lost half his arm, and the stump is splintered and jagged, like dry wood snapped in half. Dean finds himself wondering idly if it all happened before the men burned, and hopes it did. He skirts around the fact it’s like looking at Crowley as the demon writhed and burned, because it makes him think about things he never wants to think about again.
“Couldn’t have happened to two nicer guys,” he observes dully, as he reaches for his half-finished beer and swills a mouthful of the now-flat, tepid liquid around his mouth. “Here’s to spontaneous human combustion.”
Bobby huffs out and side-eyes him. “You don’t think it looks a tad – biblical?” he suggests pointedly. “Your brother says they look like Crowley did after Castiel smited him.”
“I’m not doing this with you again, Bobby,” Dean says softly. “Please.”
The old man exhales wearily. “But Dean, this, all of this…” He gestures up at the foul sky. “Even Al Gore reckons something fishy is going on that ain’t global warming. Are you absolutely sure—”
“I’m sure.” Dean swallows thickly, cants his face slightly because he doesn’t want the old man to see how hard he’s blinking. “I’m absolutely sure. We’re talking a crater thirty feet wide and ten feet deep. There was nothing left. And this conversation is over.”
Bobby rassum-frassums under his breath for a few minutes before he lapses into a thoughtful silence. “You loved him,” he says gruffly, after some time has passed. “I hear you call out his name when you sleep.”
“Please. Just – don’t…” Dean feels it surge up again, compelling, urgent sadness that concusses him with its blow, overwhelming, smothering misery that threatens to asphyxiate him. “I can’t talk to you about this,” he chokes out.
“Yes, you can.” The old man puffs out a sigh. “And it gets easier. Your mind – it’ll reorganize itself… rewire itself so you think differently in time, reorient yourself to him not being here. And you’ll heal and move on.” He clears his throat. “I’ve been there, son. So if you do want to talk…”
It hangs there expectantly, and Dean wants to say he doesn’t comprehend what Bobby means by moving on, can’t wrap his mind around the concepts of healing, and renewal, and closure, when he faces millions of fractions of seconds of days that are half-full in a life that will always be half-lived because nothing, not even the gossamer breath of grace Castiel left behind him, will ever fill the gaping, aching hole in his existence. He wants to scream that rightness, reason, fairness, decency, hell, even fuckin’ karma, all decree that Castiel should be here and that every moment he isn’t is a moment when Dean longs to be hit so hard it amnesiacs the angel out of his brain for good, so that Castiel’s memory won’t keep haunting his dreams and stirring and rustling in his heart like leaves whispering in a gentle breeze.
He opens his mouth, and maybe he’s going to voice some of that, but the hinges behind him squeak and Sam shuffles out. His eyes are wide, and his face is astonished. “Gwen just called me,” he says faintly, like he’s in shock. “She says Samuel is dead. Same as Roy and Walt… she has pictures on her cellphone, she’s emailing them.”
Dean purses his lips, nods. His throat is dry. “Well, it couldn’t have happened to—”
“She was standing right there when it happened, Dean,” Sam continues hoarsely. “And she says Castiel did it.”
And that’s it, Dean officially needs something stronger than beer, and he shoots bolt upright, shoves his brother aside.
He has his hand on the door handle when he hears the sound, feels the air on the back of his neck. His whole body locks taut with anticipation, with the blossoming thrill of joy and hope, as he starts to turn.
Balthazar is standing next to him. He looks tense, hunted, alert, and there’s a deep frown line between his eyebrows that Dean was never aware of before. He directs a hard, stark look at Dean, and then he glances to his left, makes the barest nodding motion with his head. “It’s true,” he repeats. “Look.”
In his side vision, Dean can see that Bobby is already pushing up and pointing towards the gate of the lot, and Sam’s jaw has gone slack and loose. And he becomes aware of a buzz on the air, a whining sound, the distant moan of a rising wind that makes Bobby’s hanging chimes jangle musically. “Look at what?” he gasps, and no one answers him but he doesn’t want to turn around.
“Look,” Balthazar says again, relentless.
Dean finds his neck has rusted solid, doesn’t want to swivel, that he has to twist it hard to rupture the frozen vertebrae pliable again. “No…” he breathes. “No. No, no, no…”
There’s a figure standing under the Singer Salvage sign that arches over the entrance to the lot, and as soon as Dean turns his head to look at it, it moves. It’s ragged, unkempt. It doesn’t cover the ground with the purposeful stride and controlled grace it always used to. It lurches its way towards them, limping badly, swaying off a true line, its hands splayed out to balance it. It moves like the walking dead, like a seventies horror flick zombie come to unlife, and even at a distance Dean can see its silver eyes glowing eerily.
“The house, is it warded?” Balthazar snaps.
“Against demons, yeah,” Bobby responds confusedly.
The angel is already striding in through the door. “We’ll have to hope it’s sufficient,” his voice floats back.
Bobby crowds up close to Dean, maneuvers him backwards, and Dean is stiff-limbed and immobile, can’t even speak over the lump in his throat. He cranes his head to keep looking, his eyes fixed to the awful, changed thing that was once his friend and maybe could have been more.
“Breathe,” Bobby barks at Dean, as he shepherds him to the couch. He sits him down, strides back to the door to slam deadbolts home, while Dean gapes at the angel for a long, speechless moment.
“How are you even alive?” he finally stutters. “That place went up like an A-bomb.”
Balthazar is twitching the curtain aside and peering out into the gloom. “Luckily for me, it gave Raphael its full attention,” he replies smoothly. He looks back and across to where Bobby is cutting into his hand and scrawling a banishing sigil on the wall, and he chuckles mirthlessly. “That won’t stop it. Those are for angels. Castiel isn’t an angel any more, not really.”
“What is he?” Sam’s voice is high-pitched and thin, and his hand is plucking nervously at the seam of his jeans. Dean pushes up, moves to stand next to him, and his eyes drift to the door. His heart is thrumming a tattoo and he feels lightheaded and confused, thinks he might be hyperventilating.
Balthazar snorts. “You mean what isn’t he.” He throws up his hands. “The nearest name I can come up with is Azathoth. The blind god—”
“He’s blind?” Dean cuts in weakly, and fuck, it hurts him to even think it.
“…Who gnaws hungrily in inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond time and space,” the angel finishes.
“Amid the muffled, maddening beating of vile drums…” Bobby says.
“Yes, if I remember my Lovecraft correctly.” Balthazar shudders theatrically. “So, the Primal Chaos, the Haunter of the Dark, the Lurker on the Threshold, the Messenger of the Old Ones.” He fixes Dean with bleak eyes. “He’s here for your brother, by the way.”
Dean feels Sam tense beside him, and his brother raises both hands, cards his fingers through his hair and slants his eyes to Dean, white-faced. “Why is he after me?” he asks, and his voice is faded and desperate. “Dean. Why is he after me?” He’s reaching out to tug on Dean’s sleeve now, shaking his head, and his eyes are darting around wildly. “It’s like the flashback, what I saw. His eyes. Silver. He’s one of them, Dean, he was there. He’s here to drag me back…”
Dean shakes his head, realizes that he’s crowding up in front of his brother and gripping Sam’s biceps, pushing him steadily back to sit him where he just had his own butt planted. Even if he wants to sit down and talk his brother around, he can’t, he has to get with this program, and he tries to keep his voice clipped and businesslike as he turns back. “Why does it want him?”
Balthazar shrugs. “He’s the vessel isn’t he? Lucifer’s vessel, and as such he’s a threat to you.” He stops, shakes his head and seems almost bemused as he looks Dean up and down. “Yes, some small part of my brother is still in there… sense memory, perhaps. And his guiding principle is protecting you, it always has been. The filth inside him is feeding off that, feeding off Castiel’s grace too. It had its clocktower moment up in Heaven… it’s a wasteland up there, a new ice age. It wiped Raphael’s followers out of existence.” He grimaces and then smiles unpleasantly. “It loves the smell of napalm in the morning.”
His head swivels as footfalls sound on the porch steps, and the lumber creaks as the thing makes its way up to the door. “It’s mopping up down here now,” he continues as he looks back. “And I’m afraid little Sammy’s on the list. And once it’s finished here, it’ll be traveling downstairs to blow Hell wide open, so don’t expect the peace and quiet to last.”
“What do we do?” Dean whispers, and he drives his fingernails into the palms of his clenched hands, grinds his teeth into his bottom lip, because he somehow knows what the answer will be.
“We don’t do anything.” Balthazar stabs a finger towards Dean. “You do,” he confirms succinctly. “You kill it. You’re the only one who can. The Righteous Man. Michael’s vessel. So you take this, and you sink it into his heart.”
Dean hears the metallic clink of the sword appearing, and Balthazar Zorros it gracefully in the air ahead of him. Dean swallows, finds his voice is gone suddenly. He can hear soft scraping on the wood of the door now, and his eyes track down to the doorknob. It starts moving, slowly, almost hesitantly, like whatever the thing is has forgotten what it’s there for and is testing it out for the first time. He startles to a hand on his shoulder, glances into Bobby’s face, and the old man’s eyes are gentle.
“No,” he manages, as he looks back at the angel. “There has to be another way, something…”
Balthazar’s eyes narrow. “You’d be putting him out of his misery. The souls inside him – they’re insane. They’ve been down there for millennia.” He steps closer to Dean, and his own voice sounds strained for the first time. “They’re closing in on him. Castiel is in there, screaming for help, screaming your name.” He taps a finger up to his ear. “I can hear him. He’s screaming it right now.”
There’s a low whine sounding on the other side of the door now, a malevolent keening sound. A hand slams against the wood, hard, followed by a pause and then a fusillade of blows. Dean hears his brother yelp, and when he turns, Sam is bolt upright and swaying rhythmically from foot to foot. He’s staring at the door with blank eyes, wringing his hands, and his lips are moving soundlessly.
“Castiel’s grace is fighting them, but they’re feeding off it,” Balthazar plows on relentlessly. “And he’s getting weaker. And if they consume what’s left of him, then there won’t be any angel left in there to kill. And then that thing will be immortal, and—”
“Can’t you help him?” Bobby interrupts harshly. “Share your grace with him, or something? Make him strong enough to fight it?”
The angel blanches visibly. “And risk all of those souls jumping ship so they can snack on me? Turning me into something like that, doomed to wander in perpetuity? You must be joking.”
Bobby scowls, shakes his head. “You’re a fuckin’ piece of work. How about beaming us out of here, then?”
Balthazar steps closer and his response is acidic. “That thing has to be stopped. It’s here, and so is the person who can stop it.”
Dean shakes his head vehemently. “I can’t do that to him,” he mutters. “Not to him. You can’t ask me to—”
He’s cut off by a shrieking noise that rises in pitch until it’s earsplitting, and the house is suddenly rocked by a gusting wind. Thunder rumbles overhead, and the hazy sunlight pouring in from outside turns gray. The door flies open, the windows explode, and the lightbulb pops in a shower of glass shards. A shockwave pulses through Dean, knocks him off his feet, and pain explodes in his temple as he collides with the corner of Bobby’s desk. He flops down, and he can feel a wet trickle meandering down from his right eyebrow. There’s a commotion, shouting, and Dean squints into the gloom as he scrabbles onto all fours, shakes his head to try to clear his vision. He can see shadowy figures darting about, thinks he can see a scuffle going on over in the corner of the room. He hears Bobby curse, hears a dull, heavy thud, hears his brother making animal noises of panic from the corner.
“Sam,” he hollers frantically, and then Balthazar is right there next to him, the sword held out.
“Here,” the angel hisses. “Remember. In the heart.”
Dean doesn’t hesitate, closes his hand around the hilt. He pushes up, holds the blade out ahead of him. He wipes the blood out of his eye. He empties his mind. “Castiel,” he says.
The figure has its back to Dean. It’s looming over Sam, and Sam has his hands up covering his head. It’s reaching down to touch him but when Dean speaks, the hand stops in mid-air and Dean sees it cock an ear in his direction.
“Please,” Dean says desperately. “Cas. Please… if you’re still in there. If you ever cared about me… don’t hurt my brother. Please.”
The thing shifts itself around clumsily and Dean freezes, feels his eyes sting and blur, because it’s Castiel, but it isn’t, and the memory of his friend and savior aches inside him as he takes in the battered, filthy body, the blood-smeared rags it wears. There’s no elegant fluidity in its movements, no fond tolerance in its gaze, and it will never look at him like he’s the only thing that matters. It seems to study him with its bright, empty, insect eyes, for a moment of absolute stillness and quiet, and then it lets out a sigh that sounds regretful. And it snakes out its hand, jerky but precise, lays it on Sam’s head.
Sam makes a hoarse rattling sound and goes limp, and Dean hears a low, broken moan come from somewhere far back in his throat, feels himself start to shake.
It’s faint, murmured, persistent. Balthazar, from where he’s crouching on the floor on the other side of the couch.
The thing takes a step towards Dean, then another, jarring and mechanical, like a wind-up toy. It cocks its head again, so familiar but so alien. Dean lifts his hand, the weapon held tight, and the thing doesn’t seem to notice. It’s just a few feet away now, lifting its hand, a finger extended, and all the time its eyes glow lustrous at Dean, and even now, after it took his brother from him, Dean finds he’s searching for something in its stare, searching for some blue.
“Cas,” he chokes out, and he feels his heart start to splinter inside his chest. “I’m so sorry. Please know that I’m so sorry. Fuck. Cas.”
He rolls his shoulder, starts pulling his arm back, slowly, surreptitiously, folding his fingers tighter around the hilt.
It’s a low whisper again, and he tries to ignore it, tries to focus, measure the distance and trajectory, calculate the force necessary.
It’s even more urgent this time, distracts him for just a second.
It’s his brother, and it hits him like a ton of bricks. Sam is staring up at him, gesturing frantically, his eyes wider and more alert than they’ve been since before Oregon. Dean gapes down at him, sees Sam’s eyes flare in alarm, and he flicks his gaze back too late, because the thing is floating its finger up to his face, touching them to his skin. He flinches as he feels a warm tingle in his brow, familiar, soothing. Healing.
The thing backs away from him then, the same ungainly shamble as before, and it doesn’t seem to notice that Sam crabs around from behind it and scoots out of range. It keeps moving backwards until it gets to the wall and then it slides down into a tattered huddle, shivering and rocking slightly. It stares up at Dean, and it never blinks.
He leans across to his brother. “Are you all right?” he rasps dryly.
Sam’s voice is awestruck. “I’m okay, Dean. Jesus. I’m okay. He took it all away. What the fuck is this?”
And Dean has no clue, couldn’t even begin to guess. But as he watches the thing sit there hugging its knees, a recreation of what he has been dreaming for weeks, hope suddenly blooms in his chest. “You said Gwen told you she was right there when he took Samuel out, but he didn’t hurt her,” he recalls. “Because she helped him.” In the corner of his eye, he notices Bobby pushing up from the floor, frowning and rubbing at his head. “Check on Bobby,” he urges, and he turns to Balthazar as Sam skirts around him, takes a deep breath. “I won’t do it,” he says quietly, resolutely. “He’s fighting this, and I’m not giving up on him. I’ll find another way.”
Balthazar glances skeptically from him over to the crouching figure in the corner, lifts his hand up to his mouth and chews on his thumbnail as he considers it. Then he exhales sharply. “We could try asking Crowley if he can retrieve the souls.” He smiles coldly at Dean’s look. “Oh yes, Crowley hit the ground running.”
“Ouch. He’s not looking too sharp is he? What happened to his boots?” Crowley pulls a disgusted face, flares his nostrils. “He stinks. I wouldn’t stand downwind of him if I were you.”
Dean’s tone is low and steady, and Sam can see that he’s loose-limbed and outwardly composed as he eyeballs the demon. “I am not in the fuckin’ mood, Crowley. Can you get the souls out of him?”
Sam realizes his brother is still holding the sword, and he finds himself wondering if Dean will use it if he has to. He glances over to Bobby and the old man catches his eye, shakes his head slowly. He has his gun trained on the thing, and it jolts Sam back into the reality that this not-really-an-angel-anymore hybrid has spent the last month laying Heaven to waste, and has been operating a scorched earth policy since it touched down. He wonders if rock salt would stop it, doubts that it will, and shivers at the prospect.
Crowley smiles. “Yes. I can.”
Dean cants his head, licks his lips deliberately. “And will you?”
The demon chuckles sardonically. “What a dilemma,” he tangents. “All that evil at your mercy… and you can vaporize it out of existence for good, or turn the souls over to me and watch me hulk out on them instead of him.”
Dean steps in closer then, and Sam sees him switch it on, the dark, savage glint in his eye. “And will you?” he repeats, and now it’s deadly fierce.
Crowley’s humor snaps off as swiftly as Dean’s lethal ferocity ramps up. “Please and thank you are the magic words,” he says acidly.
Dean watches him for a long moment, his gaze unblinking. “Will he be okay afterwards?”
The demon stares back just as hard before he spins around and examines the skulking figure again, and his voice is back to affable when he replies. “No idea, mate. But as long as he has hot and cold running Dean on tap to help him make it through the night, I imagine he’s in with a chance.”
Dean glances over to Balthazar. “Will he still have his grace?” he asks. “Will he even know who we are? Can you fix him, heal him?”
The angel throws up his hands, helpless. “I don’t honestly know. And I doubt there’s much of his grace left.”
Sam sees his brother swallow as he looks back towards the demon. “Please,” Dean says clearly. “Please help him.”
Crowley whirls back around as quickly as he spun away, and his eyebrows are tenting in surprise. “Well, alright,” he crows. “We’ve got ourselves a deal. Pucker up.”
Bobby clears his throat. “Dean…” he starts uneasily. “Son. Making deals with demons is what started this whole mess for you boys.” He motions his head towards Castiel. “Do you think Cas would want you to do this? Maybe Balthazar is right. Maybe it’d be kinder to put him out of his misery.”
Sam watches his brother as Dean chews on his lip and stares at whatever Castiel is now, where it cowers in its corner. Dean’s eyes are soft with compassion and Sam follows his gaze, studies Castiel, tries to see what Dean is seeing.
Even though the creature is snarling and feral, it’s trembling, and Sam wonders if it is blind, like Balthazar said, because its eyes are wandering as it twitches its head in the direction of whoever is speaking. He can’t really tell if it’s focusing on them visually, he thinks it could just as easily be sensing them on its skin, or maybe aurally. It’s hugging its knees, and its fingers are scratching restlessly at its forearms. Its pants have holes in the knees, and its skin gleams pale through the rips. Its feet are cut to ribbons, suppurating and caked in grime, and it has one tucked underneath the other, the toes scrunched up tight and rubbing together frenziedly, like it might be anxious.
Sam notices abstractly that it’s wearing the tattered remnants of one of Dean’s henleys, and he feels a sudden wave of pity well up inside him, pity for it and for his brother, because they never really got a chance. He imagines Castiel in there screaming for help, like Balthazar said, imagines him clinging onto the malignancy infecting him, so it won’t unleash its spite and poison. For a second it waylays him with the memory of Lucifer using his hands to beat his brother half to death, while he screamed and sobbed inside his head, and tried to wrest back control of his body.
Crowley disturbs his train of thought with an irritated huff. He’s examining his wristwatch and glowering. “I don’t have all day, gents.” He holds out his hands, nods down towards the left one first and then the right. “Rock. Hard place.” He chuckles ironically. “In fact, you’re exactly where poor Castiel was when he made his deal. It’s perfect symmetry.”
Sam knows there really isn’t a choice for his brother, knows this is the perfect symmetry to Dean driving the Impala into Stull, knows what his brother’s answer will be. He doesn’t try to talk Dean out of it when his brother shifts his eyes to him.
“He saved me,” Dean says quietly. “Now I get to save him. Because he deserves to be saved.” He reaches up to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand. “Come on then,” he challenges the demon.
“Dean,” Bobby persists. “For God’s—”
“He gave it all up for me, for us,” Dean cuts him off. “All of it. And if you think I could leave him like that, or kill him, and live with myself afterwards then you don’t know me at all.” He flicks his gaze back to Crowley again. “Come on,” he repeats.
Crowley stands and looks at him for a few seconds before he throws his head back and guffaws. “You really would, wouldn’t you?” he splutters, and he shudders. “Me, kiss the Righteous Man? No thank you very much.”
Dean’s face falls, and Sam sees him swallow. “So all this was just a—”
“Oh, stop clutching your pearls, Dean,” Crowley smirks. “I’ll do it. I’ll do it because deep down inside, I like you. I even like Cas here, though I knew the devious little skell would backstab me first chance he got. But you have to get up early in the morning to put one over on me.”
There’s a pointedness to the comment, Sam thinks, an implication. And Dean frowns, so that Sam knows his brother is picking up on it too. His eyes narrow, and Sam watches him process the subtext.
“You had a plan C didn’t you?” Dean murmurs slowly. “All along, just in case. Raphael… that’s why he was there with you at the church. He brought you back, didn’t he? Because you already offered him the same deal to share the souls.”
Crowley winks. “Got to cover all the bases, boys,” he says smoothly. “That’s how you end up with exactly what you wanted in the first place at the end of a snafu like this. When Cas got his hands on the nukes, it made his brother even more desperate to shaft him. And what do you know? Suddenly there I was, back in the game.”
Sam finds himself glancing over at Balthazar, leaning his butt on the edge of Bobby’s desk like he did all those weeks ago, and there’s still something about the angel that raises his hackles.
Balthazar grimaces regretfully. “Sorry. The rumors were never specific. Just that an angel brought him back.”
The demon nods mockingly. “Like I said before… Castiel isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. He sets the lowest possible goals, and consistently fails to achieve them. In fact, sometimes I think he fell out of the stupid tree and hit every branch on the way down.”
Sam sees his brother visibly bristle, sees Bobby wince and suck in an expectant breath at the sight.
“Don’t talk about him like that,” Dean says icily.
Crowley snorts derisively. “It must be love. Anyhoo…” He threads his fingers together, reaches his arms out ahead of him and stretches, before clenching his fists so his knuckles pop. “I’m going to need the knife.”
Dean pales, and he swallows. “The knife?”
“Yep. Ruby’s knife. Problem?” Crowley leans on the desk next to Balthazar, and the angel throws him a look of distaste the demon ignores as he waves a hand towards them. “And you lot can’t be here for the extraction. It’ll blow your minds. Literally. Bobby, you have some sort of panic room, am I right? Cast iron?”
The old man nods slowly and Crowley claps his hands together. “That’s settled then. Off you trot.”
Sam sees his brother’s jaw set firm. “I’m not leaving him with you,” Dean growls belligerently.
The demon sniffs. “Well, if you want to be chunky soup, who am I to argue with that?” He pushes back up. “So. Knife?”
Sam sighs long and low. “Dean.”
Dean swivels his head, and his eyes are wild and angry. “I’m not leaving him—”
“I’ll stay,” Balthazar jumps in. “It won’t harm me.” He looks at Crowley and Sam can see doubt on his face. “Will it?”
Crowley grins. “Maybe. Maybe not. But your superpowers might come in useful, in case he doesn’t behave himself.”
The angel considers it, shrugs. “I’ll stay,” he repeats quietly. “It’s the least I can do for him.”
Dean gazes at the angel for a long moment before he turns and looks at Sam. “Give him the knife,” he says roughly.
Sam slides the weapon out of his back pocket, lays it on the desk. He watches as his brother takes a few steps closer to Castiel and squats down. Sam notices that Dean stays out of range, and he keeps the sword poised and ready.
“Cas,” Dean says softly, and Castiel’s head jerks slightly in response but still the silver eyes look beyond Dean, into the middle distance. “It’ll be okay, Cas,” Dean chokes out. “It’ll be okay.”
He stands and Sam falls into step with him as they leave the room.
Dean can’t stop staring at the closed door, and his mind churns. He doesn’t want to hope and he doesn’t want to fear either, doesn’t want to think this impossible dream might turn into another nightmare. He wonders what will be left behind when Crowley has done his work, wonders if Castiel will even remember him.
He can feel Sam and Bobby watching him cautiously, feel their eyes boring into his back as the long minutes tick by. Finally he wheels around, gives his brother the hard eye in return. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
Sam quirks his face. “Yeah. It’s – weird. I mean, it’s all in there, he didn’t put the wall back up. But it’s like it’s – manageable. Like a distant memory, something that happened years ago.” He shrugs. “It feels like I’ve worked through it already and moved on. I don’t know how else to describe it. I’m just – dealing with it.”
Bobby tugs at his beard. “That’s…” He blows out a puzzled exhale. “I don’t know what that is.” He looks up at Dean, and his eyes are skeptical. “Dean… you need to be prepared, boy. There might not be much—”
Dean tears his eyes away and looks up as a keening wail rises above them, harsh and raw, desperate, falling into a series of garbled, distressed cries. Cas, he thinks, and on its heels comes a commotion, a din of animal squeals and grunts, yelps and howls that have Dean slamming his hands to his ears and sinking to his knees as his legs buckle. “Fuck,” he hears himself gasp, because the sounds are so familiar, the sounds of forty years of horror and suffering, the sounds of what he became down there.
He feels a hand on his back, a soothing rub. “Tell me you never heard them,” he chokes out as he looks into his brother’s face. “Tell me it wasn’t like that for you.”
Sam casts his eyes down and away for a moment before looking back up. “It wasn’t like that for me, Dean,” he says softly.
Maybe he’s telling the truth, Dean can’t really tell. He opens his mouth to ask, but he’s cut off by an agonized shout from above them, a harsh yell that stops as abruptly as it started. “Fuck, I think that was Balthazar,” he says, and they shoot bolt upright in unison, and head for the stairs.
Bobby’s study is quiet, tranquil, when they sneak a look around the doorjamb. Crowley and Balthazar are nowhere to be seen. Dean can see the blood smearing the floor, and when he sniffs, he can pick out the scent of copper on the air. He pads forward on stealthy feet, as far as the couch, holding the sword out ahead of him. He glances across at his brother, steels himself before he cranes his head to peer around it, and his breath catches.
Castiel is still curled up fetally, exactly where he was before, and his face is buried in his knees. His hands are bloody, and Dean can hear his breath whistling in and out, rapid and shallow. He looks like he did when they left the room, and Dean slants his eyes back to where Bobby is padding up behind his brother. “Where the fuck is Balthazar?” he hisses. “It doesn’t look like he healed him at all.”
Bobby’s face is grim. “Maybe something went wrong… if that was him yelling out.” He clears his throat. “I don’t see the knife anywhere.”
It figures, but Dean puts it out of his mind, scrubs a hand through his hair, chews his lip as he looks back towards the figure huddled in the corner. “Cas,” he says uncertainly. “Castiel…”
The figure flinches when he speaks, and goes utterly still.
“Cas…” he tries again cautiously. “Come on, buddy. Please tell me you’re in there.”
The head shifts slightly and Dean barely hears the response, because it’s so weak and halting.
“Is it over? Is it over?”
The sheer déjà vu of it has Dean making a small, broken sound at the very back of his throat, and he forgets his caution, takes three swift steps forward and drops to his knees. He swallows thickly, reaches out his hand and lays it on Castiel’s hair. “It’s over,” he whispers. “It really is. Cas… look at me, Cas.”
At last Castiel raises his head, and Dean stares into blue, blue eyes that are dazed and confused like they were when he dreamed this, shadowed with shock, open-grave eyes with pinprick pupils. Castiel is ghost-white, and his ears and his nose are bleeding, thick red trickles that meander down over his cheeks and lips, but he doesn’t seem to notice.
“Jesus, Cas,” Dean chokes out, and he can barely form the words for the relief that surges inside him. “It’s so damn good to see you. I’m here now… I’ll take care of you, okay? It’s over. You hear me? It’s over.”
Castiel puts out an uncertain, shaky hand then, and Dean grasps it, finds that it’s icy cold, and he can feel the tremors emanating from it. “I’ll help you up,” he says gently. “Can we do that, get up? Get you to the couch?”
He looks back to his brother, offers him the sword so he can wedge his other hand under Castiel as he pushes up. Castiel looks at him blankly as they stand, like he might not know who Dean is, or might not even really be seeing him at all. It makes Dean think of what Balthazar said, and panic flares. “Can you see?” he demands. “Are you blind?”
Castiel doesn’t answer him, still gazes vacantly through him, and then his eyes roll back in his head and his legs buckle. Dean reaches out to grab him, braces as the other man crumples. He bends at the knees and eases down again, and he finds he doesn’t give a damn about the audience, he folds Castiel into a tight embrace and rocks him gently in his arms. “You fuckin’ idiot,” he mutters into Castiel’s hair, and he feels an odd, painful mix of joy, distress and fury. “Look what you did to yourself. You should have told me, you fuckin’ idiot.”
It takes nearly twenty minutes to painstakingly remove the tattered clothing from Castiel’s broken body, and underneath the fabric he’s a mess, his shoulder a gaping wound and the top of his chest streaming fresh, bright-red blood from what Dean guesses is Crowley’s extraction sigil. Dean has a strong stomach, has stitched himself and even glued himself together before now, has broken bullets apart and used the gunpowder to cauterize himself. But something about this, about peeling the stinking, stained material carefully away from where it’s sticking to what looks like the same seeping wounds he last saw weeks ago, in the dark woods of Oregon, makes his guts clench.
He takes five, scrubs his hands, and then he pauses by the bed, because he still can’t quite believe it. Castiel’s face is young, unguarded and human in repose, his mouth slightly open. The blood from his nose has dried across his lips and cheek, forming a tacky scarlet mess there. He looks more vulnerable than Dean ever imagined he could, fragile and damaged beyond repair as he sprawls there naked but for his boxers. His body is all slopes and angles, scrawny and wasted, not an ounce of fat left on his frame. He’s terminally still, only the slight rise and fall of his chest proving he’s even alive. Dean doesn’t know if he’s asleep, passed out from pain, exhaustion or just plain overload, or if he’s comatose, but he’s thankful for small miracles because cleaning and stitching the wounds isn’t going to be pleasant.
He hears a shuffling noise behind him, glances back to see his brother toeing the door open, a bowl of steaming water in his hands, and the room fills with the bitter tang of antiseptic.
“Just in case,” Sam offers, as he sets it down on the chair. “Bobby’s setting the wards again.” He grimaces at the mess of slashes and bruises, nods towards Castiel’s shoulder. “That’ll need stitches.” He doesn’t wait to be asked, reaches past Dean for the first aid kit, and starts pulling out supplies. “Here’s the Bactine. You sure you don’t want some help? It’s going to take a while to—”
Dean cuts across him. “I said I got this. I’ll call you if I need anything.” It comes out sharper than he intends, and he doesn’t even really know why. He softens his tone. “There’s something you can do. Balthazar. Get that sonofabitch back here to help fix him, like he said he…” He trails off as he sees his brother’s expression darken. “What?”
Sam shrugs apologetically. “I already tried,” he says. “Upwards of ten times, while you were dealing with Cas. So I guess maybe that shout we heard was him.”
Dean places his hands on the bed beside Castiel’s bare leg then, bunches up fistfuls of the blanket, dips his head, closes his eyes and deep-breathes. “I want to hurt something,” he gravels out, low and vicious. “I want to rip something’s head off and piss down its neck.”
It falls quiet, and all Dean can hear for a moment is his own rage pounding and crashing in his head. But then underneath it he can hear rapid, shallow, wheezing breath, Castiel, anchoring him. He swallows, eases it back. “Try Balthazar once more,” he says, and he keeps his voice calm. “And then ward this place against other angels.” He slants his eyes at his brother, sees Sam’s puzzled look. “They’ll be looking for him, the ones that are left. Because of what he did, what Balthazar said he did.”
Sam nods, walks over to the door and hovers there for a moment. “Do you think he’s still an angel?” he broaches.
Dean stares down at Castiel, eyes scanning each injury. “I guess we’ll see how he heals, take it from there,” he mutters. “But you heard what Balthazar said.”
He hears the door creak closed, as his brother leaves, keeps his eyes focused on Castiel’s torso, and he doesn’t know where to start, each injury his gaze tracks seems worse than the last. He shields his face with his palms for a moment. “Dammit, Cas,” he breathes. “How the fuck could you do this to yourself?”
He steels himself then, reaches for the bottle of antiseptic solution and squirts it liberally on his hands before he takes a gauze pad and dips it in the bowl. He dabs gently at his friend’s face, cleaning away dirt and blood, and still Castiel’s features hang slack and defenseless. He works the pad down Castiel’s jaw and neck, wipes away old blood from a wound at the base of his throat. The flesh is raw and ravaged underneath the congealed blackish clots, and now Dean can examine it in the light, he sees that it looks like the angel was bitten and chewed by teeth that tore into his skin. He feels a sudden spike of new fury, a surge of fresh hatred for Meg, and it grips his chest so tightly he can barely breathe. “If you’re still alive, I will take my time with you when I find you,” he whispers.
He remembers the dream of torture he and Castiel shared, Castiel’s confusion, his cries and pleas to him, Dean. He shakes his head vigorously, forcing the image out of his mind, but then all he can see is the angel juiced up on stolen souls, teeming with a terrible power that should never have been and staring at him with empty eyes. He feels his stomach heave, has to put his forearm up to his mouth and bite down on his sleeve because he can feel himself starting to gag and retch at the memory of his utter horror at knowing Castiel was lost to him.
He jolts back to reality as Castiel shifts uneasily and moans. It’s a low, hurt, timid sound, and Dean gently rubs his fingers over the other man’s forehead. “Hey, I’m here,” he soothes, steadying his voice as best he can. “It’s—” He stops, can’t bring himself to say it’s okay, because it’s not. “It’s over,” he reassures instead. “Shhhhh… Cas. It’s over.”
The worry lines in Castiel’s brow smooth out, and Dean knows he’s gone again, slipping back into unconsciousness, if he was ever really awake to begin with. “No bad dreams, okay?” he says. “Just rest. I’ll take care of everything else.”
Working at cleaning off the blood and dirt is oddly relaxing, as he dabs and swabs and wipes at Castiel’s skin, and he’s barely aware of the door squeaking open behind him again as his brother comes in and wordlessly sets down a fresh bowl of water. But even if Dean knows about clinical distance, about removing himself from the situation and finishing the task at hand, when he washes away the blood from Castiel’s shoulder he sinks his teeth into his lower lip, because the wound is deep and jagged.
“You really need a fuckin’ hospital,” he mutters, gingerly touching the puffy, torn skin around the gash. Blood is still oozing around the edges, spilling out to coat Dean’s fingers. “How’d you think we’d explain this? With all the crazy shit that’s happened, I bet bloodthirsty demons and soul-powered angels probably wouldn’t seem that out there.” He feels it again, deep in his chest, the anger and confusion and how terrified he was. It’s circling around in his gut to the point of nausea, like before, and he pushes up abruptly, lurches into the bathroom and grips the sink, staring down at the stained ceramic, forcing himself to take deep breaths.
He has done this countless times, for himself and his brother. And Castiel is here now. He’s broken, but he’ll heal, physically at least, and Dean finds himself shivering as he wonders what Castiel might see if he is human enough to dream. He raises his eyes to the mirror and stares at his face. He knows he hasn’t been taking care of himself since Oregon, hasn’t really bothered looking at himself too closely since they pitched up here at Bobby’s. He’s gaunt, his jaw too sharp, patched with scrubby beard growth, his hair hectic. His eyes are wild and anxious, as bruised underneath as Castiel’s are. “Get a grip,” he growls at his reflection. He looks down again, and his fingers are red. He snatches up the soap, washes his hands almost frantically, scrubbing off the blood.
He emerges to stillness, Castiel still prone and out cold. He settles on the edge of the bed, sees the water is fresh and the needle and sutures are laid out on a towel. Sam again, he guesses. “This’ll hurt like a bitch, Cas, so stay asleep, okay?” he says. “I don’t want you to feel this, and I don’t want to risk knocking you out.”
He works quickly and efficiently, wincing each time he punctures the skin to pull a suture through. He carefully ties each stitch, making a point to spread the tension along the wound edge. After he ties the last one, he eyes the wound critically. “That’s actually some of my best work. It’ll scar, but at least you won’t bleed out.”
He uncaps a tube of antibiotic cream, smears it liberally across the inflamed lips of the wound, places a gauze pad over it and tapes it in place. He dots the cream over the slashes that mark the sigil, and the myriad smaller cuts and punctures scattered across Castiel’s chest and belly, and tapes more gauze over some of the deeper ones, before pulling the sheet and blankets up over Castiel’s body and moving onto his shredded wrists and hands.
The angel’s fingers are still grazed and swollen, and Dean remembers how he stared down at his hand in the dark as they hid from the demons chasing them, how he kissed the knuckles, and what happened next. “Please,” he chokes out before he can stop himself, and once he starts he can’t keep the words in. “Cas. Please. Please come back. Wake up. Please. Don’t do this.”
He fixes his eyes on Castiel’s face, watches intently for any sign that his friend might be aware. He can scarcely breathe for the anticipation he feels, but there’s nothing, just slack-jawed oblivion. He sighs, rests the hand tenderly on his thigh as he cleans and wraps it methodically. He rubs a comforting thumb over the bandage before setting it aside and moving around the bed to do it all over again on the other hand.
Almost done, he thinks, as he makes his way down to the end of the bed and pulls the covers up so he can tackle Castiel’s feet. The soles are badly infected, inflamed, shredded with deep cuts that ooze pus. He sponges away the filth and blood and gunk, sees that the wounds are embedded with road dirt and debris, and he winces, hopes to God they aren’t looking at sepsis in the making. It takes him a full forty-five minutes to tweeze out grit, gravel, splinters, thorns and shards of glass, and he can see the ivory gleam of bone as he works. He glances up to Castiel’s face for any signs of consciousness, but the other man’s expression stays neutral as he closes up the deepest cuts with steri-strips, and finishes off the tube of antibiotic cream, dolloping it on copiously before he bandages Castiel’s feet.
And finally it’s done, and he gazes down at what’s left of his friend for a moment before shuffling across the room to fetch the chair. He sets it next to the bed, collapses on the seat. He knows it could be a while before Castiel wakes up from this.
His eyes close and he rubs callused fingers hard across his brow. “It’s over,” he whispers. “It’s finally over.”
This time, he’s the one who needs to hear it.
In this dream, the souls scritch-scratch at the wall he constructed to separate himself from them, and Castiel cowers and wonders absently if this is how it felt to be Sam Winchester, with his subconscious tap-tap-tapping at the wall, tantalized by the prospect of exploding out into the now to remind Sam of then. Let us in, the souls purr sibilantly, and when he tells them no, they cackle spitefully. You are lost and lonely, and we are all you have now, they say. We have nothing but time, and we are patient.
In this dream he remembers the then, remembers how he stared out through their eyes as he stumbled along, and how they used his hands to mutilate and subvert creation, to maim and destroy Uncreation into existence in the myriad Heavens of his Father’s kingdom.
On day one, they impelled him to merge the light back into darkness, so that day two of Uncreation was an endless, misty in-between. On day three, they made him click his fingers to whip the oceans up into a maelstrom, and turn the seas into sand, and they curled his lips up into a malevolent smile as they crumbled the mountains with his willpower. He found himself standing with one foot in Paradise and the other in its ruins, his new Hell, one side glory and the other flames, and inside himself he wept out his despair as he vaporized the trees and plants, and turned his garden into a wasteland of cinders and ash.
On day four, they used him to blot out the sun and start extinguishing the stars, one by one, plunging the murk of the in-between into terrifying, endless black. On day five, they had him still the hearts of every living creature of the seas and every bird of the air, filling the waters and skies of the Heavens with death so that their bleached bones formed a skeleton coast and rained ivory down from above. On day six, they thrilled to him destroying the animals that filled the Heavens, and screeched frenzied delight as he rampaged among the souls, raining their hellfire down on them until he found the devout one, the one who had served him so well, and shredded him. And then they had him hunt down his errant brothers and sisters, and froze them in place with his gaze as they knelt before him with heads bowed, before he used their grace to paint luminous murals across the sky.
Their work of Uncreation completed, they rested on the seventh day, cursing it and making it unholy, cherishing Castiel’s grief and misery. And then they set out to ruin the world, and they told him they would use his hands to hurt the Righteous Man, and turn him to dust, and Castiel screamed, and screamed, and—
“Jesus Christ. Cas. Just – fuck. Stop…”
Castiel is only vaguely aware of the voice above the sound of his own harsh, inarticulate cries, as he struggles wildly in the cage of someone’s arms. He isn’t strong enough to fight but he kicks out, snarls and snaps his teeth, can feel his human heart judder violently in his panic, hear it thumping in his ears. Light floods in from somewhere, and he can hear shouting, and feel hands on him. He’s sure he will die here, is in utter fear for his life, but pain is exploding from every part of him and making its shrill way along his nerve endings, and he can feel it sap his energy as he tries to defend himself.
“Cas, please,” the voice is saying in his ear, as he feels himself flag and weaken until he has nothing left. He slumps limply, shuts his eyes and waits for them.
“Cas,” the voice says again, uncertainly. “You in there?”
Castiel keeps his eyes tight closed. It goes dark and peaceful again, the arms stay wrapped around him, and the voice keeps speaking gently to him. “I got you,” it murmurs. “I’m here. I got you…”
Just before Castiel drifts away, he realizes he feels safe, and he feels loved. Don’t leave me, he thinks.
“I won’t. Cas, I won’t leave you,” the voice tells him.
Castiel knows he’s awake; he’s aware of his body, can feel the steady throb in his feet, the sharp pain in his wrists when he tries to move his arms. He tries to inhale through his nose, to catch the human scent that he associates with Dean. What he gets for his effort is a sharp jab of agonizing pain in his shoulder that shoots down his side. He opens his mouth and a groan pushes past his lips, but it’s so feeble that it’s nothing more than a dazed puff of air in an empty room. He swallows, and his throat burns.
“Easy,” Dean says. A chair scrapes against wood, and suddenly Dean is standing over the bed, staring down at him. “Can you see me?” he asks. “Cas? Can you see?”
He reaches down to Castiel, and Castiel widens his eyes involuntarily, tucks his head away, shying from Dean’s outstretched hand.
Dean heaves out a sigh, pulls his hand back and up, to rub at the bridge of his nose for a few seconds. “You can see,” he mutters huskily. “You’ve been staring at nothing every time you’ve come round, and I wasn’t sure. Thank fuckin’ God.”
Castiel stares up and the lack of Dean thrumming through his being like static, like he has ever since Castiel first touched his soul, confuses him momentarily, because his whole world revolved around Dean but now he can’t track him when he’s standing just three or four feet away. And then he remembers why he can’t feel Dean, can’t sense him like he used to, and it aches worse than all the injuries Meg inflicted on his body.
“Think you might start talking again any time soon?” Dean asks curiously. “I know you can. You’ve been talking in your sleep. Talking in your dreams.” Something passes across his face, sadness, a memory maybe. “I know about those kinds of dreams.” His features go tense then, and his tone switches to tight and annoyed. “Cas, why didn’t you just – dammit. I don’t think I can…” He runs his fingers up to the top of his head, rubs at it hard.
A thousand words form on Castiel’s tongue at that, broken apologies in languages long since dead and forgotten. He wants to tell Dean that his grace has been ripped away and that he misses it and grieves its loss, that he feels like he has a cavernous void inside him where it once was, feels like he’s drifting barren and bereft without it because he has no soul of his own. He wants to cry out that Dean can never know what he has done, can never grasp what he has destroyed, can never comprehend the magnitude of his sins. He wants to sob out his nightmares, of how he totters through visions and memories that confuse, shame and terrify him each time he sleeps. He wants to weep out the agonizing pain of his injured grace tearing and splitting inside him as the souls fed on it, of how he tried to raise his voice to be heard above their inchoate clamor as they grew stronger, but was drowned out by their noise. He wants to choke out how he tried to resist their cajolery and incitement even while their persuasion was so alluring that he did everything they asked, and loved them for asking. He wants to prostrate himself before Dean and gasp out the worse thing of all – that he has regrets, and that he suspects he wouldn’t do it again, that he would bow to Raphael and leave Dean to his mercy, Dean, whom he loves above all.
Instead he gazes back mutely.
“No talking today, then,” Dean concludes. He cocks his head suspiciously. “Do you even know who I am?” When he gets no response he sighs, picks up a glass of water from the nightstand. He offers it to Castiel, and his voice goes quiet and knowing. “Your throat must be pretty sore.”
Castiel tries to lift his hand to take the glass but his shoulder protests, white-hot pain shooting down his arm, and he gasps, his hand falling lifelessly back to the bed. He narrows his eyes and pushes the pain to the recesses of his byzantine mind. He lifts his other hand instead, and Dean maneuvers the glass into it. Castiel manages to grip it, but the bandages make him clumsy and his fingers tremble, too weak to support its weight. The liquid sloshes out onto the sheets as the glass starts to slip and tip over.
“Jesus, Cas,” Dean mutters, pulling the glass away and setting it back down. “Let me, okay?”
He leans over Castiel, threading his hands underneath his armpits, and heaves him higher on the pillows. Castiel’s eyes drift closed as he listens to the short, wheezed exhales slipping past his parched lips. Dean’s hand slips to the back of his neck, warm and solid, and he tilts his head when Dean nudges the glass to his mouth. The water is cold as it slides over his tongue, and he swallows several times, trying not to wince at how the liquid feels like acid as it goes down.
“You’re not what you were,” Dean says. “We assume, since you aren’t healing. So now you’re awake, you drink, you eat.” He sets the glass aside. “Good?”
Castiel doesn’t answer, and he knows Dean doesn’t really expect him to, but Dean sounds disappointed when he continues.
“Let’s take a look at your shoulder.”
It’s been going on like this for three days, as far as Castiel can ascertain. He normally drifts through it in a daze bracketed by pain and fuzzy noise, and an emptiness at his core that feels like weakness, like fallibility, like humanity. He recalls Sam and Bobby speaking softly in the corner of the room, offering their assistance, Dean sending them away. He recalls Dean sponging his body down, Dean cleaning and dressing the slashed wounds on his skin, the tip of his tongue playing along his top lip as he concentrated. He recalls Dean spoon-feeding him something he called tomato rice soup, Dean’s voice a concerned drone of comforting nonsense in his ears every time he sobbed and screamed himself awake from panic-stricken dreams of raining hellfire and ice storms down on Heaven.
Dean’s hands are firm on his skin, not overwhelming or harsh, just confident, like he’s done this a hundred times. Castiel knows that he has. It’s not until he hears the sharp intake of breath and feels Dean’s fingers ghosting more tentatively over the wound that he knows how much this is affecting Dean. He should apologize, tell him not to bother, to let this human body rot away from injury and infection because it’s no less than he deserves, but when Dean presses a fresh gauze pad to his shoulder, and wraps the bandage around the joint, he swallows those words along with everything else.
“That feel okay?” Dean asks. “Not too tight?” His hand lingers over the bandage, and the warmth seeps through and calms the ache. “I’ll get the other stuff later.”
Castiel can feel the sting of it, the other stuff, the sigil the demon cut into him and used to coax out the taint inside him. He knows he’ll always have it, a mark of his pride, of his foolishness in thinking the power was something he could control.
Dean is sitting on the edge of the bed, his hip pressed against Castiel’s thigh, and for a second they’re sharing the same air. Like so much between them, it’s too much and not nearly enough. “Yeah, your feet,” Dean says lamely, as he pushes away and retrieves a tube of ointment from the nightstand. “I should really do those now. I’ll just…” He drops the tube on the bed next to Castiel’s ankle, holds a helpless hand out, palm up. “If it’s too much, kick me or something, huh?”
He unwraps the dressings with a delicate touch, sucks in sympathetic breath as the gauze sticks to the oozing wounds, so he has to peel it off a millimeter at a time. “I’m sorry,” he says faintly. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Castiel muses silently how ironic it is that hurting each other has come naturally to their relationship since the beginning. Lies, deception, and half-truths have mingled and molded with respect, sacrifice, and something far greater than love. It’s something Castiel knows they should talk about, but he doesn’t have the words, and Dean’s hands slowly rubbing the cool cream into his smarting skin feels too good. He looks away, wonders if the memory of Dean’s hand on him in the woods, Dean’s teeth grazing his lips and throat, will have to be enough after everything he has done.
He winces when Dean’s fingers brush against a tender spot on his heel. “S’okay,” Dean murmurs. “It’ll help. Fuck, Cas, your feet… they’re ripped open, right down to the bone. You’re damn lucky they aren’t infected.”
He crossed the sky and then walked for so long, traveling the Earth from west to east as his grace fought the impurity and depravity inside him and the world crumbled and died underneath his power just like the Heavens did. And now Castiel feels himself falling apart underneath the soft ministrations of Dean’s fingers. He feels cared for, and he shouldn’t feel like this, doesn’t deserve to feel like this. He makes a halfhearted attempt to pull his foot away, out of Dean’s grasp, and his body seizes with pain, his mouth falling open in a silent cry that could so easily swell into a scream that never ends.
“Hey, stop,” Dean objects. It’s said without heat, but with concern etched in his voice. “Don’t fight me, Cas. Just… don’t. Please.”
Castiel is aware that Dean knows he didn’t pull away because Dean is causing him pain. They both know better than that, because they’ve walked a mile in the same shoes, and Dean’s eyes are soft and understanding. “I said I’d be here, that I’d take care of you. So please… just let me, okay?”
Even now, like this, Castiel can refuse Dean nothing.
Dean squints as he tapes gauze to the sole of Castiel’s foot and carefully bandages it. With a final, gentle squeeze, he sets the foot aside and slides warm fingers around the other one, settling it on his thigh. Castiel closes his eyes and drifts, the sharp, stinging pain receding to a dull ache as Dean traces patterns on his skin. Everything is reduced to the sensation of soothing touch, Dean’s heat sinking into Castiel’s pores and stealing slowly through him, and Castiel wonders if Dean can feel it, the intimacy, the closeness, in the peace and quiet of the room.
Dean repeats the drill, sets the newly bandaged foot down, and Castiel misses the closeness immediately, but he can’t bring himself to ask for it back. “There you go,” Dean tells him, as he pulls the sheet over Castiel’s legs. “Think that’s it for now.”
Castiel keeps his eyes at half-mast and listens as Dean putters around the room moving things about, opening and closing drawers. Then Dean’s shadow falls over him as he hovers by the bed again, and Castiel tilts his head away, squeezing his lids tight closed and feeling his heart skip faster.
“Yeah. Okay, Cas,” Dean says quietly. “You need to be alone. I get that.”
He moves away, but Castiel never hears the door open. Dean is giving him space, but he won’t leave him alone. Since Castiel can’t sense him shining like a beacon in the darkness, it just hurts that much more.
“He’s recovering, Dean,” Sam says from the kitchen. He turns off the faucet and ambles back to the study. “It’s going to be a slow…”
The words die on his lips as his gaze drops to his brother Dean has finally succumbed to his exhaustion and he’s passed out on the couch, his head tipped back and his mouth open. He looks tense and annoyed even in his sleep. For a second Sam thinks about waking him and trying to get him to stumble to bed, but then he recalls that when he tried doing that yesterday, Dean insisted on checking on Castiel and never made it to sleep again.
Sam closes his eyes and breathes out a sigh of relief in the quiet room. Rest isn’t the only thing Dean needs, not by far, but it’s a start. Sam knows from experience that Dean takes the role of caretaker seriously, but even with all of Sam’s past injuries, the single-minded devotion and attention his brother has paid to Castiel since they found their friend still cowering and totally bewildered, a broken shell of what he was, have only underlined the fact this is far more than just friendship. If Dean will let it be, he thinks wryly.
He doesn’t make a sound as he pads out of the room and goes to check on Castiel. He knocks softly on the door, not expecting an answer, and opens it slowly. “Hey, Cas… I brought you some—” Sam nearly drops the glass on the floor when he finds the bed disheveled and empty. He scans the room, fear gripping his chest because the other man couldn’t have gone far, not in his condition, and if someone, something took him, Dean is going to—
His head whips around to the groan that drifts through the open bathroom door, and he offers up a silent thank you before walking around the bed, even if he doubts God is listening anymore. “Cas, you okay?” he ventures. “What are you doing out of bed?”
He pauses at the doorjamb and wonders how Castiel managed to make it to the bathroom at all. He’s fallen between the toilet and the vanity unit, wedged in the tiny space in a contorted position that wouldn’t be comfortable for a healthy, uninjured person. He’s pale and shaking, a thin sheen of sweat covering his skin, but he focuses on Sam, blue eyes sharp and keen, and Sam knows he’s lucid.
“Cas,” Sam chides mildly, setting the glass on the counter and dropping to his knees as he contemplates getting his friend back to bed in the least painful way. “What the hell are you doing?”
Castiel takes a couple of deep breaths, as if he’s struggling to get the air into his lungs, and gestures to the toilet. “I had to—” He opens and closes his mouth several times before he wheezes, “you know.”
Sam shakes his head and tsks sympathetically as he gingerly prods at the bandages on Castiel’s right foot. “Jesus, Cas, there’s blood soaking through here. You should have yelled, someone would have helped you.”
Castiel nods, rests his head against the cabinet and swallows like it hurts him to do it. His voice is still scratchy and rough from screaming himself awake most nights. “As you know, I’m not very good at asking for help.”
It’s the understatement of the century, Sam thinks, but he lets it slide. He’s been living in a glass house for long enough himself, and now isn’t the time to be throwing stones. “We’ll work on it,” he says quietly, a grin playing at the corners of his mouth. He glances around the tiny room before resting his hand on Castiel’s arm. “Think we can try getting you back to the bed?”
Castiel tilts his head to the side, as if he’s contemplating Sam’s request. “I think I’d like to stay here,” he says faintly.
Considering the amount of pain he’s probably in, Sam doesn’t blame the other man, but he knows leaving him on the bathroom floor isn’t an option. And as much as he hates the idea of waking his exhausted brother, it suddenly occurs to him that Castiel is actually talking again, and he knows Dean has been waiting on that for days. “Hey, I can get Dean for you,” he says lightly. “He’ll be stoked that you’re—”
Castiel cuts across him, his voice suddenly firmer. “No, let him rest.”
Sam lifts an eyebrow. “How did you know he’s asleep?”
Castiel shrugs his good shoulder wearily. “It was inevitable. Sooner or later, even Dean needs to sleep.”
You know because he’s not here with you, Sam thinks, but what the fuck, he’ll let Castiel think he won that exchange. “Alright,” he says. “But you can’t stay there. Let’s get you standing and we’ll go from there, okay? Lean on me… we need to keep the weight off your feet.”
He threads his hands under Castiel’s arms, feels his ribs pressing against his palms, and makes a mental note to start bringing him more food, or at least dropping a few hints to his brother, because as soon as Dean hears it he’ll start shoveling food down Castiel’s throat whether he wants it or not. “Count of three. One. Two. Three.”
He pushes up hard, taking Castiel with him. The other man doesn’t make a sound, the only sign of pain is a muscle jumping in his clenched jaw. “Okay?” Sam asks, his voice quiet.
Castiel is ashen, his breathing uneven, and his eyes closed. “It’s unpleasant,” he concedes hoarsely.
It’s about the nicest way someone has ever told Sam he just hurt them like a fucking bitch. “Yeah, I know,” he commiserates. “I’m sorry, Cas.” He looks over his shoulder, and the bed seems a thousand miles away. He can only imagine how far it must look to Castiel. “So… let me back up, and then we’ll—”
“I can do it,” Castiel interjects, his voice raw with pain and discomfort.
Sam tries for reason where Dean would normally just bullhead his way through it. “But you don’t have to. That’s the whole point.” He throws out his free hand. “Come on Cas, your feet are a mess. You shouldn’t be walking on them, period.”
“I need to,” Castiel insists. “I have to learn to do things for myself.”
It sounds logical, permanent, and Sam’s not really sure how he feels about that.
Castiel places his hand on his shoulder, fingers pressing through his tee and into his skin, as he pushes past Sam and through the doorway. It takes him a full five minutes to cross the room to the bed, and Sam oscillates between being annoyed at his stubbornness and impressed by his sheer guts. Several times he reaches out to help, but a glare and a sharp shake of his head have his hands falling back to his sides, and he marvels that Castiel is so much like his brother sometimes it’s almost scary. “Boy, you two really do deserve each other,” he breathes out, soft so Castiel can’t hear him.
When Castiel finally reaches the bed, he collapses gracelessly in a shivering, boneless heap.
“Congratulations,” Sam admonishes flatly, deciding that he’s more irritated than impressed. A feeble smirk plays at the corner of Castiel’s mouth, and Sam rolls his eyes. “Next time yell, okay? If you fall and break your neck, Dean’s never going to forgive you.”
The smirk disappears immediately, and Castiel twists onto his side, tucking his good shoulder underneath himself. “Do you think he ever could?”
“Ever could what?” Sam asks, and he fakes the cluelessness because he knows Castiel is talking about something far more important than Dean getting crabby because he tried to take a leak on his own.
Castiel’s eyes are closed, his skin still pale against the sheets. “Forgive me.”
Sam bites his lower lip. He knows this isn’t a question for him to answer, but he’s not going to leave Castiel waiting, not when he looks like he’s hanging all his hope on Dean. He sits down heavily on the bed, his elbows on his knees, and his chin in his hands. “When Dean loves…” He pauses, because it’s not his place to pour out his brother’s innermost feelings, and he tries to think of another way to voice what he knows is the truth. “When he cares about you, he always comes round. It might take him some time, but he always does.” He sighs, because he of all people knows it and can relate. “It might fester for a while… he’s pretty pissed off about it all. But just – hang on in there. And keep trying to talk to him.”
“I can do that,” Castiel murmurs, nodding to himself like he’s just agreed to an important mission from God.
“Yeah, you can,” Sam replies, and he wonders how he can get his brother on board with the plan. “Get some sleep, okay? I’ll bring you some food later.”
He starts to rise, and nearly jumps out of his skin when Castiel’s hand flies out unexpectedly fast to grab his wrist. The muscles and tendons in his throat are working as if he has something important he wants to tell Sam but can’t quite get the words out.
Sam stares down at him, blinking. He doesn’t know what Castiel is going to say, and he’s not sure he’s the one that should be hearing it. But whatever it is, Sam gives him the time to work through it, to form the broken thoughts into spoken words.
“I want to tell you that I’m so sor—”
“It’s alright,” Sam cuts in swiftly. “I know what it’s like, to want to do right and end up – not. I’ve been where you were. And I know we aren’t as close as you and Dean are, but if you ever need to talk…”
Castiel’s hand falls away. Thank you, he mouths, and his eyes drift closed.
There’s been more than enough blame these last few weeks, Sam thinks. He leaves the room quietly, shutting the door behind him.
Sam is true to his word, and returns several hours after the bathroom fiasco with something he tells Castiel Bobby made just for him. It’s stew, or a close approximation thereof, not that Castiel has a lot of experience to draw from. He eats most of it, mostly because Sam is sitting next to him looking earnest and troubled. When he can’t stomach anymore, Sam sets the bowl aside and gives him a bottle of water. He drifts off to sleep again quickly, his full stomach drawing him back under.
When he rouses from his slumber it’s slowly, reality bleeding in around him and coaxing him to consciousness. The pain is still sharp and jarring, but he feels like he has some semblance of control, that his discomfort is no longer controlling him completely. He acknowledges that the human body is a beautiful machine, but it’s fraught with limitations, with needs. He pushes himself up higher on the pillows and tries to wiggle his toes, ignoring the sting of his wounds, watching the blanket as it moves, the soft material sliding over his skin. Just as he’s comparing the sensations he has now with the ones humanity robbed him of, and the things he doesn’t know, he realizes there’s one thing he does know – Dean is in the room with him. He can’t sense him per se, he just knows he’s there, and he allows himself to take comfort in that.
“Hello, Dean,” he says hoarsely.
The chair scrapes across the floor as Dean pushes to his feet, and a second later he’s standing right by the bed. Castiel tilts his head so he can see him, and he decides that Dean looks better, the dark circles under his eyes have faded somewhat, even if his face still looks drawn and tired.
Dean smiles nervously. “It’s, uh, nice to hear you talking again,” he says. “Sam told me when I woke up a few minutes ago. Gave him hell for not waking me sooner.”
Castiel rubs his finger across the inflamed skin on his wrist, has to fight the urge to scratch the itch as it heals. “Sam assisted me earlier. He was – kind.”
Dean snorts. “Yeah, I heard about your trip to the bathroom. You should have said something.”
“I didn’t expect it,” Castiel responds frankly. “I thought he might be angry about what I did.”
Dean quirks his mouth a little. “Oh, you know,” he says. “He can relate to demon manipulation and shitty choices.” He turns and makes his way over to the dresser, pulls open the top drawer and starts ferreting through the contents, pulling out what looks like rolled-up bandages.
Perhaps it’s an opening, Castiel thinks. There are so many things that need to be said, so many it feels like an insurmountable feat, but they have to start somewhere if there’s any prospect of… Castiel isn’t sure how to finish the thought. He’s more than willing to settle for Dean’s friendship, and he dares the smallest amount of hope for possibly more.
“Dean,” he says, before he loses his nerve. It carries weight, and he knows it. There’s a certain way he says Dean’s name, when it’s important, when it matters, and he knows Dean registers it now because he pauses with his back to Castiel, his hand still in the drawer. Castiel sees the lines of tension in his back, muscles bunching underneath his tee, hears Dean’s breath quicken for several seconds before he swallows and turns around slowly.
“It’s time to change your dressings.”
“Dean, we need to—”
“Later, Cas,” Dean mumbles, as he drops the supplies on the bed. He doesn’t meet Castiel’s eyes as he unwraps the old bandage and pulls away the gauze, and his mouth is set firm. Despite his closed-off posture, his touch is gentle and efficient, but his fingers don’t linger after he finishes taping the fresh dressing into place and wrapping the fabric around it.
Castiel lets him go through the motions and silently wills his body to heal faster even though he knows it won’t help. He swallows as Dean starts to push up. “Are you—”
“Done. Yes, I am.”
Castiel gingerly touches the dressing. It feels tight, but not uncomfortably so. The ache is still there in the joint, but it no longer tears the breath out of his lungs when he moves it. “Thank you, Dean,” he murmurs.
“Sure,” Dean says, dropping the discarded dressings into a plastic bag. “Need anything else?”
Castiel stares at him for a second, and Dean rubs his neck as if he’s trying to think of an excuse to stay. Or perhaps he’s searching for an excuse to leave. It’s difficult to tell, and Castiel finds it strangely unnerving. “Will you tell me when it’s later?” he says finally.
Dean swallows and stares at a spot on the wall across the room. “Yeah. I will.”
He doesn’t, and later becomes an indefinable time that never comes. After several more failed attempts at conversing about anything beyond his healing injuries and dietary habits, Castiel gives up on later. He can feel it, all the things Dean should say, needs to say, but won’t.
He sees the hurt sparking in Dean’s eyes when he finally refuses his help, tells him he can care for own injuries now. For a second Dean opens his mouth to speak, and Castiel thinks this is it, but Dean closes down again, shuttering his emotions behind an impenetrable wall.
“Fine,” he mutters, and he slams the door to Castiel’s room as firmly as he slammed the door to his heart. Quiet voices drift down the hall, and Dean’s voice rises above them, loud and angry, accusing.
Castiel thinks he would give anything for Dean to return and say those things to him.
They get back from an afternoon supply run into town to find several empty beer bottles strewn across the table, along with a mostly empty bottle of Bourbon that Dean doesn’t remember ever seeing before.
Bobby scowls at him. “That wasn’t there when we left. It was on the top shelf of the pantry where you couldn’t find it.”
There’s only one reasonable explanation for it, and it seems so illogical, so wrong, that Dean can’t wrap his mind around it. But then the kitchen door opens and Castiel limps painfully in. He’s dressed in a pair of shabby, torn jeans Dean recognizes as the ones he wore to repaint Bobby’s study the summer before, and an old faded tee of Sam’s that’s way too loose around his narrow shoulders. He’s pale and tired looking, glassy-eyed, and he doesn’t even look at them, just grabs the liquor bottle from the table and stumbles past, out onto the porch.
“Great, he’s drunk,” Dean growls, rubbing his hand tiredly over his face. “Fuckin’ awesome. That’s just what we need.”
Sam snorts. “Are you really going there?” he points out flatly. “You’re not exactly a poster child for sobriety.”
Dean narrows his eyes at his brother. “Don’t defend him.”
Sam tosses his hands up. “Get your head out of your ass, Dean,” he snaps. “I’m not defending him. I’m just trying to get you to stop making a bigger mess out of this than it already is.”
Dean shakes his head and points to the scattered bottles strewn across the kitchen. “Don’t you see what this is?” He swivels his eyes to Bobby. “Well?”
The old man shrugs and clearly doesn’t see. “So he had a few drinks, it’s not the end of the world,” he says obliviously, and then he reconsiders. “As long as he leaves my whiskey alone from now on.”
Dean knows his brother and the old man don’t have the soul-deep, heart-deep connection to Castiel that he has, knows that the idea of Castiel spaced out on booze and pills is never going to loom as large for them as it does for him, because they were never there in that possible future Zachariah showed him, never saw what he and Castiel became. What Castiel is maybe becoming right before their eyes.
Somewhere along the way, he thinks he might have failed the other man, suspects that even with the aborted Apocalypse, they could still lose Castiel to a life he was never supposed to have. He doesn’t want to go down that road, but the anger he’s been suppressing is a far easier substitute for the gnawing pain in his heart. “He’s a fuckin’ mess,” he grouches, rubbing the heels of his hands against his eyelids. It’s too much, too big, and far too complex, and Dean doesn’t have any idea how to put it right. “If he would have told us instead of lying to our faces, all this could have been avoided.” He’s bitter and angry, and he knows it shows in his words. “But what does he do instead? He sucks up a bunch of monster souls and takes it out on the world. Fuckin’ idiot.”
Castiel stands on the porch by the open window, takes a long pull at the bottle, and stares at the sun as it hovers lazily behind the trees.
Dean’s words echo in his head. He doesn’t blame Dean, because Dean isn’t wrong. He knows Dean will care for him until every injury is nothing but a vivid scar and a painful memory. He knows Dean will never ask him to leave, his sense of duty is too great to ever tell Castiel to go. But maybe it’s something Castiel can do for him, leave without putting Dean in a position where he has to ask. And then perhaps the bad memories will fade, and Dean will be able to remember him as something more than what he became when he took the souls inside himself.
He doesn’t take anything with him, because nothing belongs to him. He places the whiskey bottle on the windowsill, limps down off the porch, sets his jaw and heads for the gate.
Despite the evening hour, it’s still warm and sweat drips down Castiel’s brow and neck. Before he would have unfurled his wings, beat them once, and soared on the wind, but now it’s slow going as he lurches along, hands out and fingers spread to balance himself. Every step sends bolts of pain from his feet up to his hips, and his shoulder aches dully, but when he’s past the gate and on the road it doesn’t matter. He’s in no rush and doesn’t expect he’ll be missed or sought after. He has no place to be, just away. Away from Dean, even though Dean is all he needs, so that Dean can finally have peace, and he can maybe find some for himself, in the waking hours outside of his nightmares.
He drifts off into a daze, but he knows he’s slowing down, that his feet are dragging. The road stretches on, and it’s quiet as dusk falls like a blanket and crickets start to sing. He isn’t aware of the car until tires screech, and flurries of dust kick up and billow around him. He turns to decline the offer of a ride and recognizes the vehicle instantly. His mouth snaps closed as Dean throws open the door and stalks towards him, leaving the car running, the engine rumbling as the dust circles in the air around them.
“No,” Dean growls, fingers closing tightly around Castiel’s bicep. “You don’t get to run.”
Castiel drops his gaze from Dean’s narrowed eyes to the fingers pressing into the flesh on his arm. “I wasn’t,” he says wearily. “I can’t run, actually.” He tugs on his arm. “And there’s no point in me staying, because this isn’t working.”
Dean shakes him like a dog with a bone, fingers pressing tighter into the muscle. “So you run?” he hisses. “That’s your answer? Just press the easy button? No. Not this time. You don’t get to pop out whenever you feel like it. It doesn’t work like that anymore.”
Castiel rubs some of the dust out of the corners of his eyes, tries to blink away the dirt, and sweat. “Dean, what is the easy button?” he asks. “I don’t understand that reference… and why should I stay? You won’t talk to me.” He knows it sounds childish and petulant, and sure enough he sees anger flare even hotter in Dean’s eyes.
“You want me to talk?” Dean threatens dangerously. “Fine, I’ll talk. What do you want to talk about? About how you made your deal, and you knew Sam was out of the Pit, and you never fuckin’ told me?”
Castiel keeps his face blank. “I didn’t have much time,” he says. “I had to do something… I couldn’t bear to think of your brother down there, I couldn’t bear to think of you knowing he was there, so—”
“But as far as I knew, Sam was there,” Dean jumps in. “Because you never told me he wasn’t, remember? Damn you for that, and damn you for ignoring him when he called you for help after he got out.”
Castiel forces himself not to wince as Dean’s grip becomes painful, and even through the discomfort he’s hyperaware of Dean’s closeness, and craves it. He fumbles for words while Dean’s touch corrodes right through to the marrow in his bones. “I thought he’d make his way to you. And I didn’t ignore him, Dean… I couldn’t go to him because Raphael—”
“You left my brother’s soul down there for a year,” Dean snaps. He drops Castiel’s arm, wheels and walks a few feet away, scrubs agitatedly at the back of his neck before he turns around again. He paddles the air with his hands, his fury making his cheeks flush. “I knew something wasn’t right with him. If you had told me he was back, I might have been able to get his soul out of the Pit sooner, instead of leaving it down there to get shredded. That’s on you. Jesus… you didn’t even want me to get it back.”
Dean’s glare is ice-cold emerald as he spits out the words, and he’s raging like the tornadoes Castiel sent spinning across the country, dangerous and untamed. Castiel searches for the reassuring glimmer of Dean’s soul in his friend’s eyes, and he’s suddenly, unexpectedly overcome and desperate as he remembers that he can’t see it anymore now he’s human. He reaches up to rub at his brow helplessly. “You had – a version of him I thought you could live with,” he protests faintly. “I didn’t want you to have to kill him if re-souling him went wrong. I didn’t want to have to kill him.”
Dean snorts derisively. “Well, what about your new best friend Crowley?” he sidetracks menacingly. “There’s so many demon deals going on, should I be checking behind me for a knife in my back? Can I take anything you tell me at face value?”
That cuts right through to the quick, and Castiel flusters for a few seconds more, looks down at the ground. “I couldn’t stand by and watch Raphael start it all again, after you and Sam had sacrificed so much,” he defends. “And I was fighting a war, Dean, please try to understand. I had to do many regrettable things…” He rues the words as soon as he speaks, because he can almost see Dean’s hackles rise even higher. He wants to tell Dean to calm down, but it’s gone beyond that so swiftly he’s at a loss, and he knows this is heading out of control.
“Fuck that noise,” Dean shouts. “Fuck your regrettable things, and fuck your war. It’s just more lies and excuses, a bunch of crap you fed us so you could get high on souls—”
“How dare you!” Castiel hears himself thunder back, purely on impulse, uncalculated rage and indignation spontaneously whipcracking into existence out of nowhere. He can feel his vocal cords wince as he roars, and he suddenly sounds like himself, sounds powerful and imperious, sounds as if he’s pouring out angelic wrath, like this might be the last dying flicker of his grace before its flame burns out forever.
He sees Dean blink owlishly in reaction, sees him recoil, barely perceptible, sees his fear. He remembers sinking his fists into Dean so long ago, remembers hurting Dean even while he wanted to choke out his love and beg forgiveness, remembers his sheer terror at the thought of losing Dean and the joy with which he sacrificed himself for Dean. “I have died for you without hesitation or regret, and I would gladly do it again,” he scathes out coldly. “How dare you dismiss my fear for you, and how dare you dismiss what I was fighting for. How dare you suggest my decisions were made lightly, when they were born of despair, and misery.” He pauses a beat. “And you’ve dealt, Dean,” he adds pointedly. “So has Bobby. You worked with Crowley to stop the Apocalypse. Do you hold me to a higher standard?”
Dean recovers, barrels back in enthusiastically, and his response is raw, and laced with sharp contempt. “Don’t you get it? I never asked you to die for me, and I never wanted you to either. Never. So how about you stop dying for me, and start living for me?” His lips press into a thin, ferocious line. “And yes, I do hold you to a higher standard – you’re a fuckin’ angel of the Lord, for Christ’s sake.”
Castiel laughs, and it’s bitter and resentful. “I’m not an angel anymore, Dean,” he retorts, and the words taste sour on his tongue. “Unless you think I can just strap my wings back on for you?” He rolls his damaged shoulder stiffly at the thought, and for a second he can smell them burning and feel himself dying inside. He waits for Dean’s response and sees that Dean’s face is suddenly gray and drawn, a crease appearing between his eyes, and his teeth are worrying at his lower lip. “What?” Castiel asks, thrown off-kilter and alarmed. “Dean. What?”
Dean frowns at him, his gaze oddly puzzled, the torrent of bile unexpectedly switched off. “What you said,” he mutters distractedly. “Just – it reminded me of someone…” He puts a hand up to his mouth for a second, blinks hard before his eyes go flat and grim again. “What about how it felt to see you like that?” he fumes, and he reaches out to grip Castiel’s arm again. “Powered up and dying from it? How could you do that to yourself? You weren’t you, Cas. You were… fuck, I don’t even know what you were.”
Dean releases him then, and Castiel stumbles back a step, losing his balance and flinching at the agony in his feet before Dean’s hands are on him again, reflexively, steadying this time instead of punishing, helping him regain his footing. Dean’s breath is on his face, warm and damp as he huffs from the exertion of his tirade. “I didn’t think I was going to get you back,” he chides, and his voice is earnest and confusingly gentle. “I thought you were gone, and that it was over.”
Dean is looking at him expectantly, and Castiel opens his mouth to apologize, to start on the list of things he knows he needs to say to Dean. But as he does, his building wave of tiredness, discomfort and exasperation crests and he finds any patience he had left is abruptly shot. “But it is, isn’t it?” he scratches out instead, and churlishly too. “Over, I mean. I don’t even know why you’re still here. You remind me of everything I’ve lost.”
Dean’s grip tightens again. “Really? Why don’t you enlighten me?” His eyes are sharp and open, and for a second Castiel thinks he was wrong before, and that he can still see Dean’s soul, burning as bright and as righteous as it was when he first saw it glowing in the depravity of the Pit. But if it is there, it’s gone almost instantaneously as Dean’s stare dims. He reaches out and brushes his fingers against Castiel’s shoulder, looks down at his fingers as he rubs them together, and Castiel follows his gaze to see that tacky red liquid blots the tips.
He stares at it for a couple of seconds, his lifeblood, the proof of his new mortality, along with the pain, the exhaustion and the hopelessness, and he despises it all. “You can never understand what I have lost, Dean,” he says harshly. “You can never even imagine it. My existence was infinite, but now I have an end, and this body is a prison. I am more… I was more. But now I’m this… useless. Helpless. It isn’t what I’m meant to be. And I want to fly. Away.” He feels dizzy and overwhelmed, feels the sting of tears he can’t hold onto making his eyes water. “I can’t remember how the weight of my wings felt,” he whispers. “I can’t remember how it felt to fly, the glory of it, the glory of my grace. I have lost everything that I was. I have lost myself. And if I could go back…” He trails off as he sees something flicker in Dean’s eyes, and he leaves the thought unspoken. He swallows, feels his throat burn. “My throat hurts,” he gasps.
Dean sucks in his bottom lip and considers him somberly for a moment before he reaches out to take his elbow. “Come on,” he says carefully, as he guides him to the car. “You should be in bed.”
The drive back is short and decidedly unimpressive. Castiel only managed to make it a half-mile, even though he feels like he walked the planet three times over. Bobby and Sam are out on the front porch when they pull back in, and Dean strides around and supports Castiel as he pushes up and out of the car, oddly solicitous.
“Everything okay?” Sam asks cautiously, as Castiel limps up the porch steps with Dean’s arm around him.
“It will be,” Dean replies shortly.
Once they’re in the privacy of the bedroom, Dean lowers Castiel carefully onto the edge of the bed. “Guess you’ll need a shower,” he says matter-of-factly. “You probably feel pretty rank after your hike.”
The idea of standing up for any length of time is too much, Castiel thinks, and he feels hollow and ill. He allows himself to fall back onto the pillows. “Later,” he mutters, as his eyes drift closed. He can vaguely hear Dean puttering about, hear the whoosh of water from the bathroom. A moment later, there’s a cool cloth pressing against his forehead.
His eyes open to slits, and Dean is standing above him, dabbing the cloth to his face, wiping away the dirt and grime of the road. “I don’t want you doing that again,” Dean says, and his voice is a tightly controlled neutral that doesn’t completely disguise his tension. “I don’t want you drinking either. And you need to stay in the house, inside the wards.”
“Or my brothers will find me?” Castiel challenges. “Maybe they should. Maybe I deserve to be found.”
Dean doesn’t meet his eyes, and he ignores the comment. “What you said,” he broaches. “I don’t think me being here is helping you if it’s just reminding you of all that.” He hesitates. “There’s a hunt,” he tacks on, after an awkward silence. “It’s not far from here.”
It hangs there like a question. “You should go,” Castiel answers dispassionately, because it’s what he should say, what Dean needs to hear.
“Yeah,” Dean says, but he sounds unsure and undecided, a far cry from the anger he displayed on the side of the road. “You need to rest anyway.” He meets Castiel’s gaze then, seems nervous and expectant as he stands there, juggling the damp washcloth from hand to hand.
Castiel closes his eyes again, makes a noncommittal noise in his throat, and sinks further into the mattress.
“So, I’ll see you,” Dean says quietly. “I guess. And I don’t want you leaving here again. I mean it. I don’t want you hurt… or worse.”
Fingers ghost across Castiel’s cheek, but the door is opening and closing before he can decide if he imagined them or not, and he’s exhausted.
He wakes in the morning to the sound of the Impala’s engine rumbling to life and fading into the distance.
They drive up to Battle Lake, Minnesota, to deal with a kelpie, and being dunked in freezing water and half-drowned makes Dean remember the kappa hunt, the diner, and the moment when he thought Castiel might tell them about his war. He finds himself wondering if things might have gone differently if his friend had, wonders if Castiel might still have his grace. He thinks of what Castiel said to him on the road out of Bobby’s, his face gray and his eyes dull, hurt, and hopeless, the horrifying, cracked mirror image of what he was in Zachariah’s future.
“I don’t like to think of him doing that all by himself,” he mutters out of leftfield to his brother, while they squelch back to the Impala. “His war. All that pressure. He was just a grunt. He just wanted to be the sheriff… and maybe he didn’t even want to be that.”
Sam sniffs. “A lover, not a fighter?” he offers, and he smiles when Dean throws him a hard look. “We asked him to tell us what was going down, Dean,” he adds. “He didn’t.” He blows out thoughtfully. “On the flipside, we expected him to show up at a second’s notice when we needed him, and that could have made things worse for him upstairs. So I’d say it was an all-round failure to communicate.”
And it’s true, Dean thinks, and maybe that’s the worst of it. He thinks of his half-assed offer of assistance, and Castiel’s weary, frayed response, and the cold, hard reality is that no matter what was happening up there, maybe there wasn’t anything he and his brother could have done anyway.
They stumble along for hundred yards or so before Sam breaks the silence again. “So, I’ve been remembering some things. And something came up.”
He needs the distraction but Dean still can’t help a little knot of tension popping up in between his eyes. “Uh-huh,” he responds doubtfully, even though he knows it’s as okay as it’ll ever be now.
His brother hurries out words. “It’s fine, Dean, everything’s fine. But I can remember not wanting my soul back, and—”
“You had your reasons,” Dean cuts in. He snorts as he recalls them. “I mean – they were crap reasons. But you had them.”
Sam nods. “That whole business with Bobby… the spell to stop you resouling me came from Balthazar. I needed Bobby’s blood. All of it.”
Dean stops, takes a few deep breaths to calm the sudden, flaring anger. “Then Balthazar is lucky he’s dead,” he grinds out, as he starts walking again.
After a few minutes, Sam clears his throat. “I think that’s why I knew Balthazar’s name to use with the summoning ritual before we tracked Cas down. Only Bobby asked me why I didn’t need to look up the Enochian, but I must’ve looked it up the first time I used it.” He shrugs. “It’s been preying on my mind, I guess.”
Dean realizes he hadn’t even wondered about that at the time, hadn’t even noticed, because he was too tied up in finding out something, anything that would lead him to Castiel. “It’s details,” he says tiredly. “Minutiae.” He focuses on putting one foot after the other, even though his brother’s recollection is an uncomfortable reminder that he was willing to push the wall himself, an uncomfortable reminder of just how far he might go for Castiel, and a damned uncomfortable reminder of how it all fell apart.
He can almost hear the gears shifting and clanking in Sam’s brain as they plod along, and sure enough, his brother picks it up again after a few more minutes have passed.
“I guess Samuel got the angel sigil from Crowley. Seems to fit if Crowley was working with Cas.”
Dean’s ire is immediate and sharp. “Fuckin’ Crowley,” he grouses, because it still makes no sense to him, not that he’s given it much thought, since it’s over. “I don’t get it. Why would he offer that deal to Raphael in the first place? Raphael wanted to open the cage… Crowley didn’t want that, he didn’t want Lucifer destroying the planet.”
Sam hefts his duffel higher on his shoulder. “Well, knowing Crowley, he was planning to doublecross Raphael too,” he says. “Maybe he planned to take all the souls himself, like Cas did.” He pauses a beat. “Uh. Assuming Cas actually planned to do that.”
The lance of betrayal still stings. “He didn’t bring Crowley back, did he?” Dean grates out bitterly. “If he didn’t bring Crowley back and he still went ahead with it all, then it looks to me like Cas was planning a sting of his own.”
“Have you asked him?” Sam ventures promptly.
Dean tries to be cool, casual and offhand. “Not in so many words.”
It comes out self-conscious and sheepish.
Humanity is primitive and poorly designed. Humanity is stifling, and its weight suffocates Castiel. Humanity is a trap that snares him, paralyzes him, roots him to the ground. Humanity narrows his vision, his scope and his perception, and terrifies him with its confinement and its uncertainty. Humanity is a death sentence, and the years he has left circle him like vultures waiting to pick at his bones.
Castiel detests humanity, mourns his grace, and all the while his lack of connection to Dean nags at him like an itch he can’t scratch. When he was separated from Dean before, he constantly felt the tug of Dean on the invisible thread that linked them, and he was aware of Dean’s presence wherever he was because Dean soothed his senses like balm. But if he ever told himself the connection he felt with Dean was grounded in the random chance that meant he survived to reach Dean in the Pit, and saw the Righteous Man’s soul still shining brightly like a beacon in the darkness while his brothers perished in the search, he knows now that it’s grounded in need and want.
Dean was Castiel’s determinant, his incentive and his inspiration, but now he has no motive or reason, no direction and no goal. Without Dean he feels nothing except his sense of loss, and his resilience crumbles in the face of it. He drifts, purposeless, but there is something peaceful to be found in the monotonous rhythm of wandering, trudging aimlessly along the driveway and out onto the road, like he did on the day he looked at the gate and suddenly thought to leave it all behind him. He wonders if it might be some trace element of the thing he became and its compulsion to roam, or if it might be a substitute for taking to the air, earthbound soaring even if it’s really shambling, because sometimes his feet go dead and he can’t feel them. Those are the times when the terrain is treacherous and trips him because he can’t feel what he’s walking on. And then other times his feet catch fire and sizzle like he’s treading on hot coals, and he sinks to the ground and weeps at the burning intensity of it, sobbing out his grief and remorse for what he did, and pleading for absolution, for a sign that never comes.
Bobby looks for him at dusk one day and finds him crawling blindly about on all-fours in the middle of the highway just outside the gate, crying out at the electricity streaking from his toes right up his calves. The old man hauls him to the grass verge and jogs away cursing, reappears pushing his old wheelchair and toting plastic bags filled with ice cubes. He rips off the sneakers and tube socks Dean gave Castiel, pulls the bags up over his feet, and secures them around Castiel’s ankles with rubber bands. The freezing shock of the ice renders Castiel speechless for a moment.
“You’ll have to help me,” Bobby barks, as he pushes the chair up close. “I can’t lift you by myself.”
Castiel reaches up, heaves his way onto the seat and hugs himself. “My feet are killing me,” he observes dully. “James Novak was only thirty-four when I took him, so to all intents and purposes, I am only thirty-four. I didn’t think my feet would kill me for at least another three decades, and then only if I wore shoes with heels and pointed toes.” He thinks about what he said as Bobby trundles them back towards the house, thinks about that devout man who prayed for him and to him, who trusted him, and a memory sizzles like lit fusewire inside him. “I told him he would rest forever in the fields of the Lord,” he whispers. “Jimmy. But I found him. And I smiled as I destroyed him.”
Bobby sighs heavily. “Why didn’t you say they were hurting this bad, boy?” he chastises, his hands oddly gentle and considerate as he helps Castiel clamber into the truck. He fusses about to get Castiel’s feet comfortably situated in the footwell, and it reminds Castiel of Gwen Campbell and how he used her.
“Penance,” Castiel tells him faintly. “It’s my penance.”
Bobby takes Castiel to the hospital, where nurses in scrubs weigh him, take his blood pressure and do what they call a CBC. A harassed looking doctor checks his shoulder and lectures him about keeping it mobile, examines his feet, winces, and mutters darkly about non-diabetic peripheral neuropathy. He injects something he calls cortisone, and tells Castiel to rest them.
“There is no rest for me,” Castiel announces grandly. “There is no rest for the wicked. Hadn’t you heard?”
The doctor gives him a blank stare.
“I’m paraphrasing,” Castiel qualifies helpfully. “It’s in the book of Isaiah, verse fifty-seven. There is no peace, sayeth my God, to the wicked.” He gives what he knows is a deranged-sounding cackle. “He said that before he left the building and started manifesting on tortillas.”
Bobby hustles him out of there right after the doctor starts muttering about something called a psych consult, but Castiel can’t rest. He still walks, up to Bobby’s gate and sometimes out onto the highway again, to walk some more. Sometimes his feet still burn and tingle, and sometimes they still go numb.
One day he wanders off barefoot, and when he feels the deadness start to set in he grinds his soles down into the grit and gravel, so that Bobby tears him a new one for opening up some of the healed cuts, and threatens to superglue the sneakers in place. Another time he sneaks Bobby’s whiskey from the pantry again and guzzles it all down as he sways dreamily along the asphalt. Bobby finds him two hours later, sitting with the sneakers knotted together and hanging around his neck, and watching, fascinated, while ants swarm over his feet and bite him so that blisters he can’t feel pop up on his skin.
“What do you suppose Dean would think of you drinking yourself to death?” the old man prods balefully, as he stares down.
“I suppose he’d think he had one less thing to worry about,” Castiel slurs back spitefully. “And it’s not as if Dean hasn’t tried it himself.”
Bobby’s eyes go slitty and mean. “Why don’t you do something productive instead?” he snaps. “As opposed to all this self-flagellation?”
“Such as?” Castiel fields, equally abrasive. “I have no skill set. Apart from my talent for making poor choices, and my appetite for destruction.”
Bobby scowls. “And your diploma in being a mean drunk. Jesus Christ.” He growls out an indeterminate noise of frustration and stomps away for a few minutes. He stands with his back to Castiel, and appears to be having a heated conversation with himself. Then he turns and stomps back, reaches down his hand. “Come on. I have a job for you.”
Castiel allows himself to be pulled upright, and he limps haphazardly behind Bobby, back up the dusty driveway. “I’m not drinking myself to death,” he snarls grimly as he tags along. “I’m damned for what I’ve done. Why would I want to go to Hell sooner than I have to?”
Bobby doesn’t look back. “What about repentance?” he says. “What about making amends? The bible says God forgives the returning sinner.”
“He’d have to be there to do that,” Castiel counters. “And in any case, what I’ve done is unforgivable, even if I had a soul.” He remembers what Dean hollered at him out on the road. “I can’t just press the easy button,” he adds.
Bobby pulls up then, curious. “You don’t have a soul?”
Castiel shrugs. “I’m an angel of…” He sees Bobby’s eyes widen slightly and he stops, starts again. “I was. An angel of the Lord. Our grace is our soul… our spiritual principle, the divinity that infuses us. God’s loving kindness and mercy. And mine is gone.”
“You got that right,” the old man grunts. He ponders it for a few seconds. “That said, you don’t seem like Sam was when he was soulless,” he muses. “It’s eating at you, what you did. You’re feeling guilty.” He gives Castiel an assessing look. “So maybe you ain’t a lost cause. Maybe you might even grow a soul.”
Castiel is briefly dumbstruck, and for some reason he thinks of that tiny, bright spark inside him, that piece of Dean that he guarded so jealously in his prison of souls, and that he still guards, even if he has tamped it down because it reminds him too keenly of his loss. “Do you think that’s possible?” he asks dubiously.
Bobby shakes his head. “Who knows, boy,” he remarks. “But it’s an interesting philosophical question.”
Castiel chuckles bitterly at the memory of saying much the same to Dean about his brother, but Bobby has already started walking again. He leads Castiel around the back of the property, past the autoshop, along a rough path and through a decrepit wooden gate, where he stops and points.
“Look at that.”
The patch of ground they’re standing before is barren, the grass crisp and brown, the shrubs sad and wilted. Bobby sniffs. “This was my wife’s garden. I let it run to ruin after she – died. And then when she…” he pauses, shudders, air-quotes, “came back, she tended it some when she wasn’t baking pies. Fuckin’ weird that a zombie could give life to anything, but whatever, she did. She worked hard at it, and she had it looking nice, like it always used to. It stayed looking nice after she passed. Again.” His voice goes pissy and annoyed then. “Until you did this. When you switched off the sun and turned the ground into permafrost during your little tantrum topside.”
Castiel knows he’s sullen when he responds. “And your point is?”
Bobby rolls his eyes. “My point is that you might have used your superpowers to screw it all up, but you don’t need superpowers to fix what you destroyed.” He takes off his cap and runs a hand through his hair, and his voice goes softer. “Look, son. An awful, awful thing happened to you. I’ll never really know how bad it was, or how sick it makes you feel. But if you run from it, it’ll just chase you. You have to stand your ground… face up to what happened, and what you’ve done. You have to find some way to make amends, so you can live with yourself.” He nudges Castiel with his elbow. “Come on.”
Castiel follows mutely as Bobby leads him to a wooden shed off to the side of the garden and pulls open the door. “Hard work,” the old man says, as he gestures inside the dark space. “Sometimes when things are broken real bad, it takes hard work. But there ain’t many things that are beyond repair. You just have to start small, and mend them a piece at a time.”
Castiel gazes at the rusty tools lined up in the shed, and he swallows. He presses the heels of his hands up to his eyes. “Each soul has its own Heaven,” he hears himself choke out. “There was one that was a garden. I would sit there and watch the soul whose Heaven it was fly his kite. It cleared my mind of everything that worried me. It was peaceful… it was my sanctuary from everything. I scorched it from existence.”
There’s a long silence before Bobby replies. “So bring it back,” he says quietly. “Like I said. Fix what you broke, instead of punishing yourself. That’s what making amends is all about.” He puts a firm hand on Castiel’s shoulder. “It don’t always take mojo to do it. If a walking dead woman can make it all grow back, so can you. And maybe you still deserve a sanctuary.”
Castiel stays hidden behind his palms. “I miss Dean,” he whispers.
Bobby’s fingers tighten, and squeeze sympathetically. “I know you do, son.”
Ten miles outside of Wichita Falls, they track something that’s been taking cattle and Dean narrowly misses being bitten in half by a ten-foot long blood-red worm that erupts out of the ground with no warning.
“If it looked like a cow’s intestine, then it sounds like an orghoi,” Bobby tells them via speakerphone, after Dean spends a half-hour in the motel shower scrubbing its sticky insides out of his hair, ears and nose.
“A Mongolian death worm?” Dean responds. “Shouldn’t it be in Mongolia?” He catches his brother’s puzzled look in his peripheral vision. “Like in Tremors,” he whispers. “Those graboid motherfuckers.”
The old man grunts in agreement. “Lore says they don’t stray outside the Gobi desert.”
Dean shakes his head, grimaces over at where Sam is already tapping it all into his laptop. “Monsters acting queird. Still.” He sniffs. “Could it be anything to do with the other shit? The Purgatory shit, Crowley? Meg maybe? She might have got out of there too.”
The old man’s sigh crackles out of the phone like white noise. “It’s possible. Or even from before that, if those dragons used the ritual themselves and let something nasty out.”
Dean swallows then, clears his throat, tries to ignore the fact that his brother is sitting three feet away. “So. I was just wondering. Uh—”
“He’s doing okay,” Bobby cuts in gruffly. “He’s been helping me out in the shop. He’s a fast study, and he’s good with his hands.”
Dean goes dry in his mouth at that, gets a memory of Castiel’s long fingers playing with the cherry, and he has to shake it out of his brain as the old man continues.
“The drinking could be a problem, but I’m keeping an eye on it. I cleared out the hard liquor.” Bobby snorts. “I feel better for it myself. Maybe you should try it. Other than that, bad dreams, check, bad attitude, check, bad manners, check. He eats like a damn horse and when I took him by the hospital to get his feet looked at, the nurses were all over him. So all in all, it’s like having you here.” There’s a pause. “He told me he misses you,” Bobby says then, and he lets it hang there.
Dean bypasses the hint, because suddenly all he can see in his head is pinprick pupils and his friend’s stoned daze three, four years ahead, and it makes him feel hollow in the pit of his stomach for a second. “The hospital, did they give him any meds? Hard-core stuff?” he asks sharply.
“They prescribed him antidepressants and some other stuff, painkillers for when—”
“Check the label,” Dean orders. “Anything with codeine, ditch it, it’s addictive. And no happy pills. Don’t leave anything like that where he can find it, and don’t give him anything stronger than aspirin. I mean it, Bobby.”
The old man huffs irritably at him down the line, mutters something noncommittal, and tries again. “He keeps saying he doesn’t have a soul, and that he’s damned. He screams your name in his nightmares, boy. And I can only do so much.”
It’s forthright and accusing, and Dean is equally blunt in response. “At least he isn’t wandering around outside buck naked and talking to the fuckin’ squirrels.” He hears Sam tap a finger on the tabletop, glances up to see his brother raising a judgmental eyebrow. “Maybe I’ll call him or something,” he adds awkwardly, before he snaps the phone shut.
“Cas meant well,” Sam says quietly after a minute or two. “You know that.”
Dean knows damn well his brother is projecting. “Yeah, whatever,” he counters stubbornly, because he can’t find the words to say how deep it cuts him to think that all Castiel can see when he looks at him is what he has lost. “Good intentions, road to Hell, blah-blah. He should damn well know that after hanging out with us for two years.”
Castiel tags along with Bobby on a supply run one day, and as they drive along the quiet, suburban streets, something brightly colored catches his eye.
“Stop!” he almost-shouts, and he cranes his neck to see properly as the brakes screech.
“What the fuck?” the old man spits irritably.
Castiel points. “That. What is it?”
Bobby leans across, squints out into the sun. “How the hell should I know?” he offers, but Castiel is already out of the truck cabin and limping up the path.
He raps smartly on the door, and when it opens a middle-aged woman peers up at him suspiciously. He half turns and raises his finger again, in the direction of the object as it wafts in the breeze. “That. What is it?” he asks brusquely.
The woman pulls a face, takes a step back behind the door.
Manners, Castiel hears Dean hiss at him inside his head. “I’m sorry,” he says hurriedly. “I mean – please. What’s that?” He curls his lips into what he hopes is a disarming smile, bats his eyelashes shyly.
The woman’s face brightens.
Fifteen minutes later, he’s clambering back in the truck, with a piece of paper and a bag of cookies. He ignores Bobby’s glare, hands the paper to the old man. “I want one of those,” he says. “Please. She wrote it down… where I could get one.”
Bobby scans the paper and his expression softens as he looks back up.
Castiel shrugs diffidently. “And thank you,” he mutters.
Near Rock Valley, Iowa, they hunt a bogle on a working vacation from Scotland. It pauses long enough from driving an entire apartment building insane with its eerie, disembodied singing, to push Dean out of a third-floor window. He bounces off a handy tree but he still hits the ground hard. He comes round to the headache from hell and his frantic brother slapping at his face, and the shambling walk back to the car, his arm slung around Sam’s shoulder and his boots dragging in the dirt, is like déjà vu.
In the car, Sam’s cellphone buzzes and Dean is aware of a distant, muffled conversation as he sinks into the daze that comes with a good, hard knock to the skull. He jolts back to a sharp nudge in the ribs.
“Don’t go to sleep,” Sam orders. “And that was Gwen.”
Dean slants his eyes sideways. “Oh yeah?”
Sam nods. “She was tracking a skinwalker in Elk Point, got in some trouble. I said we’d pitch up, she’s in the hospital there. It isn’t serious.” He sighs then, taps his thumbs on the steering wheel. “Dean, look. This is the third time in the past two months you’ve nearly been iced by some fugly.”
“Meaning?” Dean grouches back.
“Meaning your mind isn’t on the job,” Sam supplies carefully. “I think we both know why. And I think you should go see him. We’ll be in South Dakota. You can drop me at Elk Point and I’ll make my own way back up to Bobby’s, maybe hitch a ride with Gwen once she’s back on her feet.”
Dean frowns. “Why don’t you—”
“I know you’re pissed at Cas for not telling you I was topside, but…” his brother cuts in, and then he shifts uncomfortably, furrows his brow. “Even if he had told you, you wouldn’t have found me, and neither would Cas. I was warded.” He shrugs. “Hexbag. The extra-crunchy kind. I didn’t want to be found, Dean. And if the djinn hadn’t jumped you in Cicero, you never would have seen me.”
It’s not anything Dean doesn’t know already, but it still hurts. “You were soulless,” he mutters. “You weren’t thinking right.”
Sam clears his throat. “Bobby didn’t tell you either, and he knew exactly where I was.”
Fuck, that still hurts. “Bobby had his reasons,” Dean deflects weakly.
Sam isn’t put off. “Cas did too… I think you know that.” He exhales sharply, continues more firmly. “Look… three times you’ve nearly been killed. Cas can’t bring you back now. What do you think it’d do to him if something really bad happens?” His gaze turns knowing. “And what about you? What is this really, Dean, why won’t you let yourself have this?”
Dean closes his eyes so he won’t have to look at his brother. “It’s hard for me to see him like that,” he mutters self-consciously. “He did it for me, and he told me he’d do it again if he had to. I’m sick of people dying for me.”
Sam huffs out, frustrated. “Are you saying you wouldn’t do just that for him?”
It sounds easy put like that, Dean supposes, but the elephant is still there in the corner of the room. “Me and him didn’t exactly part on the best of terms,” he admits morosely.
There’s a pause. “Then fix things,” Sam says simply. “We can’t change anything that went down, so maybe we just need to put it behind us and move onto the new place. And he deserves some peace of mind too.”
The house is quiet and deserted when Dean arrives, and he strolls around to the autoshop, finds it empty too. He roots out his cell, leaves a message on Bobby’s voicemail, and as he pockets the phone afterwards he becomes aware of a dog barking in the near distance, the deep bark that comes with those damn Omen dogs the old man keeps.
He follows his ears, yawning as he picks his way around the back. He hasn’t been here in years, but he remembers the way. He stands at the gate, frowns at the guy who’s in there pottering about over at the other side of a lush green lawn. It’s already a hot day, and lawnguy is shirtless in the bright sunshine, a straw hat hanging down his back. He’s wearing ragged jeans and battered sneakers. He bends over and hefts a chainsaw, pulling deftly at the starter cord. The engine revs into life and Dean finds himself drifting off, admiring the play of muscles in the man’s arms and shoulders as he reaches to cut back a couple of overhanging branches. It sends a warm, satisfying curl of lust slithering though his groin and he thinks fuck, what is it with him, because the only time he ever looked at another man since the Pit and actually wanted what he saw, it was Castiel.
He knows there’s no point in hollering over the noise, so he pushes the gate open, starts making his way across the grass. The dog gambols over, barks at him half-heartedly and races back to stand a few feet across from the man, baying at him until the engine cuts out.
“What now, Palin?” the man says, exasperated.
And Dean hears himself gasp because he’d know that low rumble anywhere, and now as he stares at the man’s wiry frame, he knows exactly who he’s looking at. “Cas,” he bleats stupidly.
The man freezes for a split second before he bends over and places the chainsaw on the ground. He turns around slowly, and Dean hopes he doesn’t gasp again. “You look good,” he croaks.
His friend is sweaty, grimy, and there are dirty fingermarks where he scratched at his belly, and a couple of raised red bumps where he’s been bitten by something. He’s wearing sunglasses, and his hair is a tousled mess, longer than Dean has ever seen it. He has a tan Dean already suspects is all-over, and his throat goes even drier at the thought as his gaze tracks from the vicious scar at Castiel’s shoulder along the lighter streaks that mark the extraction sigil Crowley cut into his chest, and down a lean torso to where the jeans are sitting low on his hips.
Castiel has an anti-possession tattoo over his heart, another smaller, looped design next to it, and Dean stares at them for a long moment, suddenly imagines the other man sweating and groaning, gritting his teeth and clenching his fists as Bobby abraded and inked the wards into his flesh. He can feel his dick stir at the thought. “You look good,” he says again, when he can get more words out, even though Castiel looks better than good, better than Dean ever hoped. “Uh. Healthy. So. How are you?”
There’s a long pause before Castiel pushes the shades up to his brow and fixes Dean with a reserved stare, and Dean sees then that there are dark shadows under his eyes, and that he looks tired. “Oh, I’m alright, Dean,” he says distantly. “But – this is unexpected. Bobby isn’t here. He’s on a hunt with Rufus.”
Dean feels an uncomfortable niggle inside at the thought he might not be entirely welcome, that Castiel might think he’s only here to see Bobby. “I’m not here to see Bobby,” he blurts out, almost without meaning to. “I’m here to see you. To talk.”
Castiel cocks his head, curious, and it’s such a keen reminder of his friend that was that Dean has to blink hard. “What do you want to talk about, Dean?” he asks, and his tone is apprehensive.
Dean flounders for a moment, thinks back to how they left it between them. “I don’t really know,” he says awkwardly. “Maybe we could see what comes up?”
Castiel bites his lower lip, bends and heaves up the chainsaw. “I’ll lock this down,” he says. “If I forget it and leave it out overnight, the dew messes up the mechanism.”
“So it gets all stiff,” Dean cuts in nervously and way too loud, and he grimaces, feels his cheeks start to heat up. “I’m making a mess of this,” he concedes, and he throws up his hands, lays his cards on the table in an effort to dissipate the tension. “I’ve missed you.”
His friend studies him, and maybe a trace of the old fondness overtakes the trepidation in his eyes for a second or two, and maybe he even looks faintly amused. “Come on,” he says. “There’s beer in the house.”
Dean falls into step just behind Castiel, notices that he still walks with a slight limp, but he doesn’t draw attention to it. “The booze,” he broaches cautiously. “You’re being careful with that, aren’t you?”
Castiel glances back at him. “I am. Well… now I am. It isn’t the same this time. Humanity, I mean. It took me a while but I’ve come to realize that this time it’s a gift, at least compared to what I was just before it happened.” He gives a half-shrug. “I’m good with it, Dean. It might even open up new possibilities for me. I hope so, anyway.”
It seems genuine and heartfelt, and it makes Dean’s chest go tight. “I’m really glad for you,” he says softly. “Fuck, Cas, you look great. And I’m just… I’m really glad for you.”
The other man smiles then, shows a flash of white teeth, which never happened before, ever, and his eyes crinkle at the corners. It takes even more of Dean’s breath away, so he has to chide himself for behaving like a teenager out on his first date. He wonders where this is going, as Castiel walks up the porch steps and in through the door, has to stop himself goggling at his friend’s ass when he leans into the refrigerator. Get a fuckin’ grip, he thinks. “So how are you getting along with Bobby?” he says, as much to stop himself from thinking about Castiel’s butt as anything else.
Castiel straightens, turns and throws him a can, pops a soda for himself. “I’m his nephew now,” he announces matter-of-factly, and he nods confirmation at Dean’s look. “He procured documents that prove this, a driver’s license for me. Castiel Singer.” He stops for a second, like he’s as surprised as Dean is. “He says he’d rather I didn’t call him uncle Bobby, but he tells me we’re at the point where he would willingly piss on me if I were on fire,” he reflects placidly. “I assume that means he wouldn’t have considered it before. So I think it’s a step in the right direction.”
He tips his head back to take a swig, and even the mental image of Bobby whipping it out to take a leak all over his friend isn’t enough to stop Dean finding himself transfixed by the flex of Castiel’s throat as he swallows, the way foamy trickles of the fizz run down from the corner of his mouth to his jaw.
Castiel swipes the back of his hand across his mouth as he finishes his mouthful, and he eyeballs Dean for a few seconds before he blows out what sounds like a decisive breath. “We need to talk, Dean,” he says.
His switch to assured and authoritative is so abrupt that Dean balances on his back foot for a moment, because he thought this was his show. “Uh. We do?” he says, and he feels butterflies start to flit around in his stomach. “That sounds ominous,” he quips, and he shuffles backwards to the table, pulls out a chair.
Castiel nods slowly. “We do. So we can move on.”
That’s even more ominous and not what Dean was hoping for at all, but he tamps down the sudden wave of disappointment and fixes a grin on his face. “Move on,” he echoes. “Moving on. Right. Oh-kay.”
Castiel sighs, takes another mouthful of his soda before he places the can on the countertop and visibly steels himself, so that Dean can see his knuckles go white as he clenches his fists. “It really pissed me off that you thought I brought Crowley back, that you didn’t believe me when I told you I didn’t,” he races out. He holds up a finger as Dean starts to respond. “Wait,” he says. “Let me finish. I was going to say I know why you thought that. I did lie, and I did keep things from you. And it was a mistake that cost us all dearly.”
He stops, looks down at the floor, clears his throat. “I’m as responsible as Crowley is for Sam’s soul being left behind. You were right, I should have told you he was back. And maybe if I had, we could have found out what was wrong sooner and worked together to retrieve his soul.” He breathes out long and deep, continues earnestly. “I have no excuses, Dean. I knew it was wrong, what I was doing. I don’t expect you to forgive me. I don’t expect you to apologize for what you said before you left, neither do I want you to… I deserved it. But I need to know that you understand why I did what I did, even if you don’t agree with it. So that we can move on.”
In the silence that follows, Castiel looks up and stares at Dean with trapped-animal eyes, shifting warily from foot to foot, as Dean thinks about where to go with it all because he wasn’t expecting it and he doesn’t want a repeat of the blazing row that went down by the side of the highway.
He clears his throat. “Yeah, you should have told me, for all the reasons I gave you already,” he starts, and then he tempers his ruthless honesty. “But I know you were desperate. I know you were trying to keep Raphael off my back. And Bobby didn’t tell me Sam was back either, and you were right, I’ve dealt, Bobby’s dealt, and we’ve all worked with Crowley. You got my brother out, and I’m…” He has to close his eyes for a second at the memory of how his days and nights were filled with despair, at how he pored over books and spells, the dark magic with k that Crowley spoke of. “I’m so fuckin’ grateful, Cas,” he goes on quietly. “I never told you that, and I should have. And God knows, I tried a lot of dicey shit myself after Stull. So who’s to say I wouldn’t have screwed it up too if I’d gotten him out.” He rubs his jaw, and he can’t help the disillusion that permeates his voice when he continues. “But you kept working with Crowley even after we found out about Sam. You lied to us.”
A flush rises on Castiel’s cheeks, and he hugs himself. “After I realized what Crowley had done, I thought it was the only way to get your brother’s soul back,” he mutters. “I thought so right up until I gave him my ultimatum. And when he said he couldn’t do it, I burned him.”
Dean stares back, and the hollow sense of betrayal he’s had burning inside him like a low-grade fever since this shitstorm started flares again, alongside a world-weary despair he wonders if he’ll ever be able to shake off, because this deception is somehow even worse than his brother’s duplicity with Ruby. “Is that the only reason you kept working with him?” he challenges. “Only you didn’t bring him back. And he said something about how he guessed you might backstab him.” He pauses a beat, and even thinking about it still makes him feel incredulous, and hurt. “Was that the plan all along?” he says tightly. “Take it as far as you had to with Crowley and then grab the souls for yourself, hulk out, and screw the consequences? How could you do that to yourself? What about the weapons?”
Castiel blinks rapidly at him for a few seconds, like he’s bewildered by the question, like the notion of using the weapons has never occurred to him. “But I couldn’t use them, Dean,” he says, as if Dean should already know that.
“Why?” Dean narrows his eyes skeptically.
Castiel’s tone is a familiar mix of serene and slightly irritated. “Well… think of it as being like your nuclear stalemate. Neither side wants to be the one to press the button. Securing the weapons meant Raphael couldn’t use them, but it didn’t mean that I could. Not without laying Heaven to waste.”
“Which you did anyway,” Dean retorts flatly.
“Touché,” Castiel murmurs, and after another heavy silence, he sighs resignedly. “I did keep looking for a way to get the souls… I couldn’t see any realistic alternative. But when I realized Meg meant to take them it was a relief, even if it meant I might lose everything I cared about in the end.” He looks steadily at Dean, and his eyes are a plea. “And so I think I had made up my mind not to do it, to find another way to fight Raphael. That’s the truth, Dean. Please believe me.”
The admission somehow makes it worse, and Dean shakes his head, aghast. “Then why did you do it? Dammit, Cas, why? You must have known what those souls would do to you, so why take that risk?”
Castiel furrows his brow like he doesn’t quite understand the question. “Because of Meg,” he says, throwing up his hands. “I had to stop her.”
Dean huffs out, frustrated. “Fuck Meg and her daddy issues, Cas. We already took Yellow Eyes out before, and we could have—”
“She wasn’t going to raise Yellow Eyes,” Castel interrupts. “She was going to raise Lucifer.”
Dean balks. “No, her father, she was going to raise her father. Yellow Eyes.”
Castiel is suddenly his old, patient self. “No, Dean. Lucifer. He created her. He created all of them. He’s the father of their race.”
And fuck, Dean can remember Carthage, remember her cocking her hip at him, brazen, my father wants to see you. He gazes dumbly at the other man, and Castiel shrugs.
“I had to stop her. And so I did.” He pushes off the countertop where he’s leaning, steps forward to pull out a chair, and sits opposite Dean. His eyes are gray and bleak. “There wasn’t time to find another way,” he says forlornly. “I did the best I could, Dean, to try to protect you. I thought I would be strong enough to control them. But I made a terrible mistake, and I’m damned for it.”
The sheer, depressing futility of it all reminds Dean unpleasantly of how his brother’s quest to stop Lilith loosed the devil, and it has him leaning into his hand. “Jesus, Cas,” he murmurs, and he can’t help his frustration bleeding through into his words. “Balthazar said you were headed downstairs to blow it all open anyway. You might have set him free yourself.”
The other man’s voice is hoarse and strained when he replies. “I know, and I’ve done such awful things, Dean. Things, crimes, sins that you can’t—”
“That I can.” Dean bangs his hand down on the table so his friend jumps. “Look at me, Cas, and listen,” he says roughly. “We’re the same, you and me. We always were, really. Soldiers, with absentee fathers and families that screwed us over. The things you’ve done… I’ve done them too. You never judged me for them. You saw me, not some monster. And I’m telling you that I see you.” He softens his tone. “I don’t need you to be up on some pedestal—”
“Are you sure about that, Dean?” Castiel asks him quietly. “Higher standard, remember?”
It’s blunt, for all that Castiel’s voice is low and unassuming, and it puts Dean on the spot, makes him pause to think about it. He fumbles through his mind, through thoughts and impressions he hasn’t really examined properly or categorized because they terrify him and make him vulnerable to disappointment and betrayal, searches for words that can explain how he feels without making him sound foolish. “You were… good,” he says finally. “Even if you dicked me around and lied to me, and kept me in the dark, you were good. An angel of the Lord. And it meant a lot that someone good, someone – pure… could think I was worthy after what I did, could think that I deserved to be saved, could – you know. Care for me.”
Castiel fakes a wan smile, runs a hand through his hair, leaving it chaotic and rumpled. “I don’t know if I’ve ever really been pure, Dean.”
Dean laughs, sort of. “Whatever, but seeing you like that, seeing you lost like that…” He falls somber again. “It doesn’t matter what you did, all that crap with Crowley, none of it. It was never that, not really. It was seeing you changed into something you’re not, something corrupt and diseased, and knowing you did it for me. That was the worse thing, and I just, I don’t – I never want to…” He has to stop, has to force the visual of shambling, silver-eyed depravity out of his mind’s eye. “And now here we are, and maybe it’s a second chance. And maybe you don’t think you deserve to be saved, but you do.”
It turns quiet again then, and Dean sees Castiel blink hard, sees his jaw clench. “Sometimes…” he starts raggedly. “Sometimes I think I wouldn’t do it again, Dean. I think I would leave you to Raphael.” He turns away slightly as he speaks, as if he’s trying to hide his expression from Dean.
“That doesn’t matter to me,” Dean says softly. “Do you think I’ll hate you for that? I don’t, and I don’t want you feeling guilty for it. I meant what I said that day, Cas. I don’t want you dying for me, ever again. I want you living for me.”
Castiel’s hand is shaking where it rests on the tabletop, the long fingers that twirled the cherry so deftly what seems like a lifetime ago scraping feverishly at the wood. His anxiety is crystal clear. Dean leaves it there, and changes the subject. “So anyhoo… yard work, huh?” he offers, awkwardly and unconvincingly casual, and he takes a long, nerve-steadying swig of his beer.
Castiel’s eyes flit back towards him. “I like it. It helps me, it’s a way of…” He flushes pink.
“A way of what?” Dean prods.
“Setting things right,” Castiel mutters, and he sucks his bottom lip in. “Giving life back to the things I destroyed. Watching them grow again. It’s atonement… as much as I can atone for it all.”
Dean nods slowly. “That wasn’t really you, Cas. And you aren’t damned.” He thinks on it for a second. “Am I damned?” he asks. “For what I did in Hell?”
Castiel blanches. “No. That wasn’t your fault…”
He trails off, and Dean quirks his lips as he sees his point register. “So, I hear you’ve been helping Bobby in the autoshop too,” he sidetracks again.
Castiel nods, just barely. “He says I’m good with my hands.” He rolls his shoulder, puts a hand up to rub at the scar thoughtfully. “It seems I still have magic fingers.” He drifts his hand further up, scratches said digits across his stubble, contemplates Dean for a few seconds. “Though I don’t know if I still have a magic tongue.”
Dean gags, splutters, sprays out the booze everywhere, spends a half-minute trying to gulp in oxygen while his eyes stream. ”Does that hurt?” he manages finally, motioning his head at Castiel’s shoulder as he gets up to snag the towel from the sink. When he turns back, Castiel is right there behind him, his eyes suddenly wide and anxious.
“Sometimes… the joint aches when it rains. But my feet hurt more. They burn like fire, and sometimes they freeze. I think it’s divine justice for all the scorching and freezing up in Heaven.” He’s babbling, and his voice is higher pitched than Dean has ever heard it. His fingers dance nervously in the air. “It’s like my feet absorbed the land I walked on as I wreaked destruction. But we need to move on, Dean.”
“Yeah, okay,” Dean says confusedly. “That’s what we’re doing, right? Clearing the air, so you can move on and I can move on.”
Castiel shakes his head vehemently. “No… we. We need to move on, Dean. We. Us. You and me. Together.”
He’s crowding up closer now, so close Dean can feel body heat blazing from his bare chest, and see that he’s shaking. And then it dawns on him, and he flinches back, gapes. “Wait, you mean – us us?”
Castiel must see his astonishment, because his face falls into a crushed expression. “I know I said it was over,” he says haltingly, and a little desperately. “But…” He frowns, fumbles for words. “I feel so lonely for you, Dean, all the time. And you said this was maybe a second chance, so I’m wondering if we might—”
It’s a revelation and Dean doesn’t even pause for breath, he clamps his hands to the other man’s face, pulls him in, angles his head, and kisses him damned hard and thoroughly. He hears Castiel making a muffled mmppphh sound, as he crashes their mouths together, and Castiel opens up so that Dean’s tongue can plunge in and curl against his, his teeth clicking against Dean’s as he bites and sucks eagerly at Dean’s lower lip.
It’s frenzied, intense, no finesse, just pent-up desire and a raging case of blue balls. Castiel’s lips are soft, and wet, and willing, and he tastes of soda pop. He surrenders to Dean, his breath coming fast and hitching, and Dean can already feel dizzy as his blood streaks south and arousal seeps out from where his jeans are getting tight. He drops a hand down to Castiel’s ass, tugs him in closer, and grinds his swelling hard-on against his friend’s crotch. “Fuck, yes,” he mumbles into Castiel’s open mouth, and he can hear his heart hammering out a crescendo inside his chest, because he craves like he never has in his whole life, so much he feels almost frantic with it.
Castiel pulls away then, sinking to his knees in front of Dean. He looks up, and his eyes are dark and enigmatic as he tugs at Dean’s zipper. It sends a thrill skipping excitedly from Dean’s dick to his brain. “Do you know what you’re doing?” he says breathlessly, and there’s a slight edge of hysteria to his voice.
“Well, just how difficult can it be, Dean?” Castiel gravels out calmly, because he seems to have regained his poise even if Dean’s just headed out the door at breakneck pace. He raises an eyebrow, and then he smirks. “Don’t panic, I’ve been doing some research,” he adds. “I googled it, like Sam always does.”
Dean stutters, “Please tell me you didn’t bookmark anything for Bobby to f-f-f-fuck…” His knees buckle and he slumps down onto his elbows as Castiel scoops him out and swallows him down in one long, drawn-out moan of appreciation, so he can feel the head of his dick butt up against the other man’s palate. Dean freezes for a split second of utter disbelief before his jaw drops open in a soundless cry. He sinks into the feeling, and Castiel’s mouth is a sauna, hot and steamy, and it’s suction, and it’s a prehensile tongue swirling rapidly around and up Dean’s shaft, slippery and sure.
“Dean,” Castiel murmurs in lazy, seductive awe, around the head where it rests heavy on his bottom lip. “Your skin, right here at the top… it’s so sleek…”
His eyes are all pupil as he gazes up, intense and hungry, and the tip of his tongue probes Dean’s slit curiously. It’s on the cusp of painful, but Dean hears himself gasp out his approval at the pinprick sensations it sends tingling right down to the root and beyond. He tangles the fingers of one hand in Castiel’s hair, gives a shallow, deliberate thrust, so Castiel’s cheek bulges around him, and Castiel’s lips are a plush, pink seal halfway down his cock.
Castiel closes his eyes as he glides back up. “Dean…” he sighs again, blissfully, like this is all he has ever dreamed of doing, and he pushes his tongue up hard against the glans and strums it energetically across the ridge of skin underneath. He hums his enjoyment low in his throat, and the vibration tickles across the head, and fuck, Dean thinks, it’s debauched and wanton, and there never was anything hotter than a really enthusiastic, dedicated, sloppy blowjob from someone who wants to touch, and taste, and tease every single millimeter of flesh down there.
Castiel pulls off with a wet pop, and Dean grunts in disappointment, but the other man is working his way down now, spreading the flat of his tongue across Dean’s balls, swiping it across them, lapping and pulling at the loose skin, making soft noises of gratification as he does. Dean can feel saliva pooling there, and it’s filthy as hell, and he groans out his own pleasure. “Jesus, Cas… your fuckin’ mouth…”
There’s a huff of acknowledgement as Castiel grips Dean’s shaft in his hand and strips his fingers up and down it, and Dean can feel himself ache and throb against the other man’s palm. He sees pre-come start to leak out of him, and Castiel drags the pad of his thumb gently over it, spreading the fluid as it oozes. He starts nibbling his way back towards the tip, reaches his other hand up to start rubbing it rhythmically around Dean’s crotch, long fingers warm on Dean’s lower belly, playing in the coarse hair. His lips fasten around the head again, and he slides his mouth down and back up, tortuously slow, his teeth scraping the spine of Dean’s cock. He bites lightly at it, and the pressure of each tiny nip is perfect. He wraps his fingers around the base, grips it tight as he stares up at Dean. His eyes glint knowingly and Dean feels cool breath on his skin as Castiel rasps out words like sandpaper.
“I’m chewing the stem, Dean… to make it more malleable…”
Dean sobs out a strangled whine, and he sees the corners of Castiel’s lips curl up in satisfaction before his talented tongue snakes out, glistening pink and erotic, to lick at him again. Castiel’s eyelids flutter closed then, and his expression is perfectly rapt and tranquil as he rubs Dean’s cock against his stubble, pressing slow, devoted kisses to it while he croons Dean’s name as if he’s praying. And Dean realizes suddenly that this isn’t just a really enthusiastic, dedicated sloppy blowjob, this is adoration and worship. This is Castiel making love to him, and as he looks down, his hard, carnal hunger and lust dissolve into need, and yearning, and something tender that overwhelms him, swelling his heart and constricting his throat.
He lays his hand on Castiel’s cheek, runs his thumb along the line of his cheekbone. “Cas,” he whispers. “Castiel…” He can feel the familiar warmth starting deep inside him, a buzz like a mild electrical current that ripples through his pelvis. It’s more of a high than it ever was before, but some small part of him doesn’t even want it, wants to stay in this moment and this feeling for a while longer, wants to tell Castiel all of those things he never thought he’d ever say, the unspeakable things.
Castiel smiles around him like he can read Dean’s mind, and then he’s gulping Dean down again, greedy, like he’s a starving man looking for sustenance. Dean can feel the back of Castiel’s throat undulate around him, enticing him to the brink, and he can’t hold on any more, feels the telltale tightening as his balls draw up and his cock pulses and surges ecstatically. His head falls back and he scrabbles his fingers through Castiel’s hair, chokes out feebly as it starts to thunder up inside him. “Cas… I’m… Cas…”
Dean starts to ease back, hears Castiel growl, and feels hands sliding around to his ass, clamping tight and pulling him in possessively, so his cock is enveloped in a perfect vacuum that squishes and suckles and milks him. It sends him right off the charts into base instinct, and he pushes in convulsively, feels his orgasm ignite and blast its way out of him like liquid fire, as if all the come he’s had backlogged since he last cleaned the pipes is being shot out of a flame thrower.
He hears Castiel gasping his name as he pants out sobbing breath, and his hips jerk helplessly as he spasms through the aftershocks. He floats on them for as long as he can, and as they fade he focuses hazily down to where Castiel is still holding onto him. The other man’s tongue is soothing the tip of his cock with delicate, conscientious sweeps, licking him clean. “Cas,” he chokes out. “That was…” He slumps there bonelessly, his jeans and shorts around his knees. “You still have a magic tongue,” he marvels exhaustedly.
Castiel maneuvers Dean’s boxers and jeans back into place, sits back on his heels and gazes up. “I love you, Dean,” he says, randomly and sincerely. “I think I always have. Moreover, I’m in love with you. I understand there’s a difference.” He frowns slightly. “I feel both. I thought you should know.”
There’s a stray bead of pearly white semen at the corner of Castiel’s mouth, and his hair is wild where Dean’s fingers mussed it. His eyes are shining, and honest, and his cheeks are flushed. And Dean wants.
He swallows, reaches down and hooks a hand under Castiel’s shoulder, heaves him up. He steps forward, swings them around so Castiel is pressed up against the countertop, and he grinds his hip against the rock hard bulge in Castiel’s jeans. He feels sheer exhilaration threaded all through with a sort of wildness and terror, as he leans in and sucks hard at Castiel’s throat, so the other man yelps. “Bed,” he commands. “Now.”
In a motel room in Elk Point, Sam drinks a beer as he goes through his grandfather’s personal possessions, all packed neatly into a leather duffel. The old man’s wallet has a handful of faded photographs, pictures of Mary Winchester. She smiles at Sam innocently, and her green eyes and full lips are the uncanny match for his brother’s that he remembers, both she and Dean baby-faced killers.
At the bottom of the modest clutch of memorabilia, there’s a picture of him and Samuel that he remembers Mark Campbell taking, and it pulls Sam up, because he didn’t know the old bastard had it printed out. He remembers Mark snapping away and comparing himself to Eddie Adams recording ’Nam for the masses. He never thought to wonder what happened to the camera after Mark died.
In the picture, Sam is staring suspiciously at the lens, eyes watchful and empty. Sam pushes up from the bed, shuffles into the bathroom and snaps on the light, stares at himself in the mirror and looks for that Sam in his eyes. He doesn’t know if he can see him or not, hopes he can’t. He sniffs, looks at the picture again. Samuel has his thumbs hooked in his belt loops and he isn’t looking at the camera, he’s looking at Sam. His features are soft in that moment, and he’s smiling. It looks like pride, like a grandfather admiring the adult his grandson became, and for a second it has Sam blinking back tears for a man who was a piece on a chessboard just like himself and his brother. They were good times, some of them, he recalls. But it wasn’t even him, not really.
He wonders briefly if his father ever looked at him that way when his attention was elsewhere. He doesn’t know, and doesn’t want to assume. He sighs, pads back to the bed and lifts Samuel’s journal, starts flicking through it. The angel summoning sigil is drawn neatly towards the back of the book, but he skips over it to read the notes underneath, a bullet-pointed list of the ingredients for the ritual laid out for posterity in a tight, blocky print that’s oddly reminiscent of his father’s handwriting.
This is where he saw it, Sam recalls, and the memory is so strong it’s like he’s sitting outside himself, watching that other version of Sam Winchester rifle stealthily through Samuel’s pack, fish out this very book and scan through the pages while his grandfather slept off a binge. He shakes his head and huffs ironically as he remembers Samuel’s faked ignorance back at the compound, when he stared up at Castiel for what they thought was the first time. “No wonder you wanted to share a beer with him,” he murmurs out loud. “You knew damn well Crowley was in cahoots with him.”
He flicks his eyes up to the sigil, looks at it properly for the first time, its curves and loops and points, the Enochian letter symbols arranged within its lower border. And there’s a moment when he has to blink hard because he thinks he might be losing it, seeing things that aren’t there.
He isn’t. The sigil is precisely how he remembered it, right down to the name of the angel it was used to summon.
It’s academic now, but it’s still a shock. “Jesus,” he breathes out softly, as the puzzle pieces all fall into place, and he shakes his head. “That goddamn sonofabitch.”
He reaches for his cell, clicks it open, and then he remembers his brother’s scowl and his surly comment before he pulled away from the curb. Cockblock me at your peril.
It can wait.
“Fuck, are we really doing this?” Dean is saying against Castiel’s cheek.
“I think we are,” Castiel murmurs back, and all the time Dean is leading him towards the bed, tiny steps, hesitant, like he thinks Castiel might not be sure, like he doesn’t realize he’s lighting sparks and heat inside Castiel and has done since the second Castiel reached out to him before soaring triumphantly back up to the world with Dean cradled safe inside his grace, Dean’s rise the start of Castiel’s long, slow fall.
Dean’s breath is damp and hot, and Castiel can taste sweat on his skin, and the slightest hint of beer on his lips as Dean tilts to capture his mouth. Dean’s tongue dips lazily in and out of there, slow-dances with his own and curves around his palate, and each touch is sweet, tantalizing, has Castiel’s heart skipping crazily inside his ribs so he thinks it might explode from love.
“We need lube,” Dean mumbles thickly around Castiel’s tongue. “I haven’t done this in years, not counting Hell, and every time I did I was drunk as fuck. But I remember enough to know we need lube.”
The reference to that place of pain and suffering pierces at Castiel. “We don’t have to,” he soothes, and he reaches up his hands from where they rest on Dean’s hips, slides them up under Dean’s tee and splays them out on Dean’s skin. It’s warm and alive under his palms, and his fingertips tremble as he fits them to the indentations at the small of Dean’s back. “We don’t have to.”
Dean’s eyes are closed, his lashes curling thick on his cheeks, and he makes soft noises as his hands map the ridges of Castiel’s spine. “That wasn’t real,” he whispers, as he worries at Castiel’s lower lip with his teeth. “This is real. And I want to. Fuck, I want to. I want you.”
He pushes his hips forward so Castiel can feel the solid line of his arousal, and Castiel groans, shoves back, darts his own tongue into Dean’s mouth and mimics Dean’s sweeping passes. “In the nightstand,” he gasps out. “Lube.”
“Please tell me you didn’t ask your uncle Bobby to buy that for you,” Dean snipes, even as he huffs approvingly.
Castiel hears the creak of the drawer being tugged open, the sound of rummaging, but Dean doesn’t break the kiss. He walks his free hand up to card his fingers through Castiel’s hair and pull him even closer, so their tongues lunge and fence urgently, and the kiss becomes something forceful that streaks through Castiel’s entire body before it settles in his groin and shimmies around in there so his own erection throbs. He can hear his blood pound in his ears as it churns through his veins, racing to swell him even harder.
“Dean… God,” he stutters out, as he cants his head and meets each twist and curl of Dean’s tongue with his. “I… uh. Bought it. He pays… Dean… he pays me…” He has to thrust against Dean’s thigh for the relief of friction, and Dean pulls back for a moment, smiles at the sound of frustration Castiel bleats out.
“I guess that makes this one of those new possibilities you were hoping for?” Dean mocks, and he hauls his tee over his head and then snags a finger in one of Castiel’s belt loops, coaxing him along as he backs away.
Castiel fumbles at the buttons on his jeans wordlessly, licks his lips as he ranges his eyes up and down Dean. He knows what Dean looks like inside and out, is utterly familiar with the architecture of this fragile human body he loves, used his lost grace to spin the torn shreds of Dean back together. But this is different, this is a show put on for him and he’s hungry for it. Dean is beautiful, might even be his to keep and cherish now, the first thing that ever was really his in all his long existence. And Castiel is astonished by it, doesn’t know if he can bring himself to believe it might be true, wonders for a terrible moment if it could all be a dream. “Dean,” he repeats, and it’s little more than a flimsy, incredulous breath.
Dean’s mouth curls in an affectionate leer at his stare. “Have you been thinking about this?” he purrs suggestively, as he pops the snap on his own jeans and eases down the zip. “You’re hard now when you wake, aren’t you, Cas? Now you’re a real boy? Do you put your hand on that morning wood and think about me when you come?” He toes off his boots, eases the jeans down his legs and steps out of them.
Castiel pauses, tries to find his equilibrium again, his own jeans and shorts pulled just past his hips and his eyes drawn inexorably to the bulge in Dean’s boxers. “I’ll have to give that a try, Dean,” he says softly. “It never occurred to me. Not once.”
Dean smirks. “Well, I already know what a damn liar you are,” he retorts, but it’s fond. He reaches for Castiel’s arm and swings him around against the bed, so he sprawls back on the mattress, and his line of sight is suddenly filled with Dean, on all-fours above and around him, eyes shining wicked, a smile splitting his face.
“Matching tattoos, that is such a fuckin’ turn on,” Dean growls, and he caresses the skin there with a fingertip, so that Castiel’s pectoral muscle jumps under his touch. He taps the Enochian symbol lightly. “What is this one?”
“It hides me from my br—” Castiel stops himself, reconsiders. “It hides me from the angels,” he says. “They’ll come for me eventually. Those that are left.”
“Well, they aren’t getting you,” Dean tells him vehemently, his lewdness abruptly draining away and his face falling serious. “They’ll have to come through me first.”
His eyes go liquid and full then, the way they went when his stare told Castiel what he was feeling as Castiel worshiped him with his tongue and lips. He tips his head, tracks his vision across Castiel’s chest and abdomen, and the atmosphere turns fraught and alive as they teeter on the edge of this steep drop into more. “I don’t really know what I’m doing,” he muses, almost wistfully. “But I know this is where I’m supposed to be, and I don’t think I ever wanted anything so much. Fuck, Cas, I want to make it good for you.” He lays his hand between Castiel’s nipples, rubs it up towards Castiel’s collarbone. “I never thought that I would ever have this,” he says hoarsely. “I never thought that I would ever…”
Castiel sees him swallow as his gaze goes curious and tracks south, down to Castiel’s unbuttoned fly, and Castiel doesn’t have to look to know the rigid, painful line of his penis is tenting up where the denim gapes open. He reaches up to his mark, fits his hand to where he burned his love into Dean. “I would set myself as a seal on your heart,” he whispers impulsively. “As well as a seal on your hide…”
Dean slants his eyes back, and his look is intense. Castiel can hardly breathe, can hardly hear anything beyond the sound of his own heartbeat thudding painfully, finds he can hardly voice his need, because he is flooded all through with it, and faint with his love. “I want your skin on mine,” he says. “I want to be with you. I want you inside me, Dean. I want you.”
Dean leans down slowly to brush his lips across Castiel’s again, and Castiel feels him sigh there as he feels the first touch on his crotch, the heel of Dean’s wrist kneading at him through the fabric. The same longing he felt when he had Dean in his mouth inflames him, feels as alien and mysterious as it did then but as right and familiar as it did too. A low, needy grunt slips out of him, a sound unlike any he has ever made, and he pushes up into Dean’s hand where it cups and squeezes him, closes his eyes as Dean’s lips play across his and down to his jawline, the blunt edge of his teeth the gentlest scrape along the bone.
Dean sucks gently at Castiel’s throat, harder then, nips at it possessively, wickedly, so that it smarts. He chuckles quietly at Castiel’s wince. “You marked me, I get to mark you,” he says. “It’s only fair. I’m putting my mark all over you, buddy.”
He bites at the notch of Castiel’s collarbone, rains kisses on the scar at his shoulder. He licks stripes and figure-eights across and around Castiel’s tattoos down to his nipple, teases the nub of flesh until it stiffens, and Castiel makes an incoherent noise and shifts restlessly as delicious sensations skitter hectically across his skin. He hears Dean hiss out sympathetically as the tip of his tongue traces the silvery lines Crowley’s sigil left behind, before his lips continue on, soft, inquisitive touches that mouth Castiel’s ribs, and explore his abdomen. Dean’s finger slides under the waistband of Castiel’s shorts, and Castiel can’t help the low aaaah that spills out of him as he feels it pass lightly across the tip of his penis, where it rears up onto his lower belly.
“Jesus, Cas,” Dean murmurs, heavy with desire, and he’s pressing his face into Castiel’s erection through the material now, testing the hard line of Castiel’s cock with his teeth. “You’re fuckin’ wet for me.”
Castiel hitches out brokenly, “Dean,” and he flails a hand down, cards his fingers through Dean’s hair. He pulls Dean in closer as he pushes his hips up, but Dean shakes off the hand, straightens up onto his knees and crabs backwards, hauling Castiel’s jeans and boxers down his legs, hooking off his sneakers as he goes.
He stands at the bottom of the bed, tracks his eyes up and down Castiel’s nakedness, and Castiel sees them go hazy with desire. “What did you do to me, Cas?” Dean asks him faintly. “Did you put a spell on me or something? Bewitch me?”
Castiel smiles. “I know you,” he whispers. “I know all your sins, and I have touched your soul. And you know me. You know all my sins, and you have touched the fire and the ashes of my grace. We’re the same, Dean. Like you said.”
Dean studies him for a long moment, and then he hooks his thumbs into the waistband of his shorts and shucks them off. His cock curves up at half-mast, blushing at the head, and he closes his fist around it as Castiel watches, runs his thumb over the bulb, and Castiel thinks he might see it swell even riper. Dean swallows before he puts a knee on the bed and crawls back up between Castiel’s legs. “So we fit each other…” he whispers.
Castiel nods, parts his thighs in welcome, wraps his calves around Dean and opens his mouth to let Dean in as they slot together, loses himself in Dean’s perfect, wet heat as Dean covers his body. He can feel Dean’s heart beating against him, its tempo erratic, feel his cock pressed into Dean’s belly, feel Dean’s nestling rigid next to it. He strokes his fingers down Dean’s spine and further, cups the curve of Dean’s ass and journeys on into the dark, playing his fingertips down into the cleft.
Dean yelps, grinds his cock against Castiel’s. He groans out into Castiel’s neck, and his breath goes harsh. He kisses his way back up to Castiel’s mouth, feverish kisses now, his tongue predatory and rapier sharp as it duels briefly with Castiel’s, before he pulls away and down again, to assault Castiel’s earlobe with his teeth. “I’ll make you scream for me,” he mutters, and he sounds delirious with lust. “Make you scream my name—”
And Castiel sucks in air and freezes at that, and a fraction of a second afterwards he feels Dean lock up tight with tension. “Was that not alright?” Dean asks cautiously, his words muffled by the crook of Castiel’s shoulder. “Only you’re shaking, and you weren’t before.”
Castiel can’t speak for a moment, but he wraps his arms tight around Dean and holds him prisoner when Dean starts to fidget anxiously, doesn’t want Dean to see the horror of memories in his eyes. “Why don’t you make me whisper your name instead?” he chokes out.
And Dean understands, and goes stock still in his arms, and Castiel feels a long exhale warm on his skin. “Cas,” Dean whispers. “Jesus… I’m so—”
Castiel steadies his voice. “Dean, just – don’t stop. Make me whisper your name. I’m sure about this. It’s real… I want it too.”
Castiel feels Dean relax again gradually, feels his lips moist against his neck again. Dean presses himself against Castiel, and his body is hard, and sharp, and muscular, but it’s satin-smooth too, and soft, and tender. This is the sanctuary Castiel dreamed of made real, this tangled braid of legs, Dean’s callused palm on his cheek, and the promises in Dean’s eyes when he emerges from the crook of Castiel’s shoulder, his cheeks flushed pink. “You saved me, Dean,” he murmurs, as he gazes up. “I screamed your name, and you heard me. And you raised me from perdition.”
Dean shakes his head, grins at him lopsided and fond. “So that means when I suck your dick, we’ll finally be even,” he rumbles throatily.
Castiel feels his penis twitch excitedly against Dean’s hip. “I suppose we will be,” he husks out.
With that Dean is gone, slithering down Castiel’s torso to lavish torrid, moist heat on him, and each stroke of Dean’s tongue is like velvet fire that sears through Castiel’s whole body so he has to press his fist into his mouth and bite down on his knuckles. He writhes and thrashes, feels Dean’s hand firm on the jut of his hipbone, holding him in place, and he can hear incoherent, rapturous noises he suddenly realizes are coming from him. He cranes his neck, meets Dean’s eyes as they pin him, and Dean’s lips are pursed around him, glistening with spit that trickles down to bathe Castiel’s shaft.
Dean breathes out so his cheeks distend slightly as he lowers himself, devours Castiel almost to the root, and he winks as he glides back up to suckle greedily at the tip before he slides back down. Castiel gasps as his whole body – muscles, sinews, tendons, skin, blood, cells, molecules, every separate part that forms him now he’s real – is saturated with sensation that vibrates through his neurons and strobes across his synapses in tune to the slick, languorous movement of Dean’s mouth on him. It’s intoxicating, and it sings through Castiel. “Dean,” he whispers raggedly. “Dean…”
He knows he won’t last long against this onslaught and almost at the second he thinks it he can feel his breath quicken, feel his thighs quiver, feel a shriveling sensation as his balls constrict and he comes undone. The abrupt force of his body’s response has him groaning hoarsely, and his hips buck uncontrollably as he feels himself pulsate and explode in a torrent of scalding heat. He sees white fluid seep out from the corners of Dean’s mouth as he feeds, and then Dean pulls off, licks his lips and smirks.
“Thirty seconds. New record.”
Before Castiel can reply or even recover, Dean is pushing one of his thighs up, licking back past his scrotum and along the smooth skin behind it into the cut of his ass, lapping eagerly at the ring of muscle there. Castiel whimpers desperately and tries to push himself onto Dean’s tongue as it presses against the indent and starts to dab, and prod into him, sizzling slick and obscene along his nerve endings and turning his entire body into a livewire all over again. Castiel can hear the sound of Dean’s breath, feel the hot puff of each exhale on his skin there, and Dean’s tongue is like a blade that spears him open with its point. “Dean, please,” he pants, and he’s dizzy with pure, bright, shining passion. “Please…”
Dean’s lips are a tickle against Castiel’s skin as he mutters a response that Castiel doesn’t even register. But then there it is, the push of a blunt fingertip, slippery-cold with lubricant, twisting and insistent as it invades him, and still Dean’s tongue works him there, skipping around the rim with measured precision, jabbing in beside his finger, hot, demanding and skillful.
Castiel sobs out breath and strains to drive himself further onto Dean’s hand, his body seizing with waves of pleasure as Dean explores him thoroughly inside, withdrawing and then plunging in again, thicker, two digits this time. He jams them in to the knuckle, swivels and slides them back and forth, and Castiel can feel the slow, aching drag of them inside him, tunneling him open, before something ignites in there, a blinding white-out of sheer euphoria that locks him in a tight spasm, stealing all the air from his lungs and forcing high, tiny cries of delight from his lips. Dean snickers contentedly, and again and again it sparks and flashes, and Castiel feels his cock start to fill, a greedy throb setting in as it jerks erect.
He feels a sudden, gaping emptiness, and then Dean is draped over him again, kissing his eyelids, his cheeks. “Cas, need to be in you, need you,” he’s mumbling against Castiel’s mouth, his tongue whipping in and out, and Castiel finds himself nodding, dazed, knotting his arms and legs up in Dean’s as Dean ruts against his hip and moves to bite frantic bruises into his shoulder.
Dean pushes up, his face set and intense as he reaches for the tube of lubricant, and he squirts a generous glob of the clear gel out onto his palm. He strips his length, and Castiel can see how swollen livid it is, pre-come oozing out in thick pearls.
Dean stares down at him, and suddenly he seems young and less assured. “Cas, I don’t want to hurt you,” he says softly. “I’ll go slow. You need to tell me to stop if it hurts you.”
Castiel nods, reaches up to grip the top of Dean’s bicep, and Dean swallows, focuses down between Castiel’s legs. Castiel sees his eyes widen at the same moment he feels the weight of Dean’s cock stroke across the crease of his thigh and nudge at his entrance. He holds his breath, shivers with his need for this, his need to be split apart by Dean, to feel Dean at his core, and Dean’s hands clasp his cheeks, his thumbs spreading Castiel wide as he starts to breach him.
The thick bulk of Dean feels like too much and not enough as it sinks into Castiel a millimeter at a time, and he claws at his mark and whines while his other hand scrunches up handfuls of the sheet. He feels a deep, radiating ache inside as he opens up fully to Dean, and he chokes out what might be a curse at the pain and the pleasure of it, sees Dean’s brilliant-eyed look of triumph switch to alarm. “God, Dean, don’t stop,” he gasps out, and he cants up his hips, forms a cradle for Dean to rest in. His lust and want are overwhelming, impossible to bear, and he snakes his hand up to grip himself, finds his cock stiff and burning hot. He hears himself making raw, inarticulate animal sounds, and all the time Dean drives slowly in, so that Castiel feels impaled on rock-hard steel.
Dean’s eyes are awestruck and devastated, his face flushed, and he trembles as he sheathes himself hilt-deep. His crotch finally meets Castiel’s, and he sinks forward. “Oh God,” he says, and his voice cracks. “Cas, you feel so fuckin’ good, it’s… fuck. Cas…”
Castiel closes Dean inside a cocoon formed of his own arms and legs, and his love wells up and out of him. “You are everything to me,” he whispers. “I have always been yours. And I have longed for you.”
He slides his hand up to Dean’s nape, pulls him down into a lazy, gentle spar of tongues, and Dean relaxes into him, his body gone pliant and heavy, his stubble grazing Castiel’s chin and his fingers scratching restlessly at Castiel’s hair. Castiel drowns in Dean, melts into him as they kiss for endless moments, Dean’s mouth brushing back and forth on his obsessively, hypnotically, and beyond the careful, reverent burn of Dean’s lips, Castiel is conscious of a jerking, fluctuating sensation inside as he adjusts and molds himself to Dean.
Castiel starts it, a sensuous roll of his ass that has Dean hissing out and burying his face in Castiel’s neck, and then Dean moves himself, launching into a slow, rocking motion, circling his hips. His breathing goes uneven and he chokes out formless noises into Castiel’s skin, sucking and licking at the pulse of Castiel’s throat as he makes leisurely, experimental thrusts, pumping in deliberately. He grinds his pelvic bone against Castiel’s as he rides him, and the chafe inside Castiel is insistent and perfect as Dean ebbs and flows.
It goes on, and on, and on, so that Castiel thinks it might last forever, time easing to a slow-motion crawl as the solid cap of Dean’s cock finds its goal and butts up against that place that detonates gloriously inside him. Castiel groans out his pleasure, and he wants, needs this more than he could ever have thought possible. He runs his hands down the shifting slope of Dean’s back to grip Dean’s cheeks and pull him in deeper, welding them together and savoring the fullness and the ache of Dean’s hardness inside him. Dean speeds up in response, snapping his hips and pounding in more aggressively, his torso and chest still pressed tight to Castiel, and his moans become ecstatic and urgent.
It turns primal, lust spinning and dancing through Castiel’s brain, and he can feel all of his muscles tighten, feel bolts of fire start to flash in his pelvis as he spreads his thighs and arches up in synchrony to meet each thrust. He slides his hand in between their bodies, frantic, as his climax swells. “Dean,” he gasps hoarsely. “I need to…”
Dean pushes up to brace himself on one hand, closes his fist around Castiel and starts stripping him efficiently, over and over. Castiel laces his fingers in between Dean’s where they grip him, stares up, and Dean’s gaze is all warm tenderness and black-eyed lust as he takes Castiel apart as expertly as Castiel put him back together. Waves of bliss erupt and surge up in Castiel again, and he slams his head mindlessly against the pillow and sobs as he contracts and semen spurts out of him, striping his skin in skeins of white.
Dean drives in once, twice, curls his shoulders in and drops his head as he cries out Castiel’s name, his voice low and wrecked. Castiel feels him go off like a shotgun inside him, feels slippery heat spill out and fill him to brimming as Dean marks his territory, and he clenches instinctively, clutches Dean tightly and squeezes him greedily, milking every last drop.
Dean jerks erratically a few more times before he collapses onto Castiel so they form a sated, sticky, sweat-soaked pile of entwined limbs, and Castiel presses kisses to the top of his head and breathes him in as they shudder out the aftermath of their exertions.
“I’m still mad at you,” Dean croaks into his neck after a few minutes.
Castiel feels a dull, satisfying throb deep inside himself, mixed with a languid, blurry, exhausted, human happiness. He smiles dazedly as he stares up to where dust motes pirouette in a beam of mid-afternoon sunlight. “I can tell,” he murmurs drowsily, as he traces patterns on Dean’s back with a gentle fingertip. “But I still love you, Dean. So much I have no adequate words for it.”
Dean grunts, yawns, stretches lithely and tucks his body into Castiel’s, so that Castiel can feel the turbulent beat of his heart slow down gradually. “Cas,” he breathes out. “Cas.”
Castiel folds a possessive leg over Dean’s to hold him in this place of contentment and comfort for a while longer. In the peace and stillness, Dean seeps into Castiel’s pores, pulses through Castiel’s veins, fills all of Castiel’s empty spaces and hollows, and makes Castiel feel whole, and cherished, and safe. “Perhaps some things are worth the fall,” he whispers tentatively into Dean’s hair, as he floats on the high of this dream he never thought would come true. “Are you mine, Dean?”
Dean’s tongue wanders wearily across Castiel’s jaw down to his throat, a warm, wet slide that searches out and soothes the marks he left there, lingering tenderly on the delicate, bruised skin. His hand reaches up and his thumb drags gently across Castiel’s cheek. I love you, Castiel hears. I don’t want to lose you. Dean’s lips mouth the hinge of Castiel’s jaw, and they feel like velvet at the shell of Castiel’s ear. I will always be with you, Dean tells him. I am for you.
And Castiel reaches out like he did before, in the Pit, and he falls into Dean, warm and real, soft, patient, redeeming him and offering him salvation.
Castiel clings like a limpet, octopus limbs wrapped sweatily around Dean, and presses his mouth feverishly to his brand as he drifts off.
Dean curls around him to spoon him from behind when he wriggles away, nuzzles the knob of bone at the nape of his neck and hushes his nightmares when he thrashes, and whimpers, and cries out Dean’s name in his sleep.
When the heat and the closeness have him rock hard and wanting, Dean slings a leg over Castiel and thrusts slowly against him, his fingers rubbing insistently across the crest of Castiel’s hipbone. He wakes Castiel with his lips, tongue and teeth, and they shower in a soap-slippery slide and glide of cocks and raw, needy kisses punctuated with murmured filth and whispered secrets, endearments they say with their eyes closed.
There’s an old wooden bench in Castiel’s garden, and they sit there and drink soda together as the sun goes down. Dean smirks as he eyes the cushion Castiel has his butt resting on, and at some point he sets his can on the grass, lifts Castiel’s feet up onto his thigh and tugs off the other man’s sneakers and socks. He rubs the palm of his hand along the soles, grips them loosely and kneads them lightly, a gentle press of fingers on scarred skin that has Castiel closing his eyes and hissing in appreciation.
“Will they ever get better?” Dean asks. “I mean really better?”
Castiel cracks his eyelids. “The nerves are damaged. My grace couldn’t heal them while it fought the souls.” His voice is resigned. “It’s my punishment, I think, along with losing my grace. It isn’t even a fraction of what I deserve.”
Dean grimaces. “I told Bobby to hide your meds,” he mutters apologetically. “I was worried you might go overboard on them.” He doesn’t elaborate on why. “You could probably have that stuff back, I guess. Maybe Bobby can be in charge of them or something.” He side-eyes the other man. “Assuming you plan on staying here long-term?” he fishes.
“I think I will. This place has its perks, after all.” Castiel shifts his other foot, so his heel is pressing against Dean’s crotch, flexes it slightly, and Dean feels his dick twitch, leers his approval as he thrusts up into the pressure. “And I’m a good shot,” Castiel ventures then. “I’ve been practicing. Bobby says I could maybe hunt with him.”
Dean knows the surge of protectiveness he feels is idiotic and patronizing, but he can’t help it. “I don’t like it,” he clips out brusquely. “Can you even run? You’ll be a target, because of what you were. And because of what you did.” He feels the wince run up through Castiel’s leg to the foot he’s still stroking with his fingers as he speaks.
“I need to make amends,” Castiel replies simply. “I rained Hell down on Heaven, and I preyed upon the world. I’ve destroyed so many of my brothers and sisters, and so many innocent souls. I showed them no mercy.” His voice trips and goes bleak. “I see it every time I sleep.” He rubs at his temple with his fingers, glances at Dean furtively. “What I said before, Dean, about being alright… it wasn’t exactly true. I’m not alright, not really.” He waits a beat as he settles on the right words, and then he continues wistfully and hesitantly. “Sometimes I don’t know what I really am, or who I am. I can’t remember how it felt to be as I was. To be more. I can’t remember that, and it means I have no past.” He shrugs slightly. “I know this is part of my penance.”
It makes Dean feel wrung out and hurt inside, hits him with the reality that he can’t run from it this time, can’t hit that easy button himself, that he has to face up to this and keep that future Castiel at bay. “I remember what you said that day,” he offers. “Before I left. You said I didn’t understand, but I do. I know what it’s like to lose myself and become something I’m not.” He tries to disguise his desperation by keeping his tone decisive, feigning confidence. “But you’re still more to me. Forget the past, it’s the future that matters. You will be alright. And that’s an order.”
Castiel huffs out a soft laugh before he falls serious again. “I sought him whom my soul loves,” he rumbles throatily. “I sought him, and I found him.”
Dean rolls his eyes. “Call that adequate words?” he mocks, but fuck if it doesn’t make him feel valued.
“It’s from the Song of Songs,” Castiel tells him. “I’m paraphrasing.” He smiles. “When I found him whom my soul loves, I held him, and would not let him go. And he kissed me with the kisses of his mouth… and his love was better than wine.” He runs the tip of his tongue suggestively along the seam of his lips, and his voice goes smoky again. “You make me think impure thoughts, Dean.”
Dean lifts Castiel’s foot higher, leans down and brushes his lips along the arch, mouths the skin so that Castiel’s toes clench and he lets out a low hum of pleasure. “Well, you keep thinking them,” he teases.
He places the foot back on his thigh then, stretches luxuriantly, lays an arm out along the back of the bench and tips his head back against the wood. Above them, the North Star is shining brightly, right in his line of vision, and his mind wanders for a moment, back to the long, lonely nights when he wondered if it might be a sign, before something in his friend’s words gets him to thinking and he frowns. “Bobby said you told him you didn’t have a soul.”
Castiel stares down at some indeterminate spot on the ground and fidgets. “Would you believe that I grew one?” he mutters, before he swallows, and flicks his eyes back up to Dean’s face. “In the woods, I took a part of your soul with me, Dean,” he says out of leftfield. “And all the time I was trapped with – them – it shone like it did when I saw it for the first time. I think it lit the way back to you, and helped me see you and hear you through their din. I think it helped to heal the wound inside me where my grace once was, and filled the space it left.”
The speech is at once simple and profound, and it makes something surge up inside Dean, a combination of affection, contentment and good old-fashioned happiness he thinks he might never have felt in this precise combination before. “My soul is yours,” he says, before he can talk himself out of it. “And your future is with me.” The admission makes his cheeks heat self-consciously, but it feels right. He thinks that maybe his soul has been Castiel’s since Hell, and the acknowledgment brings on a tightness in his chest.
He holds Castiel’s wide-open gaze, and he’s looking at a guy in his thirties, with new possibilities there to reach for even while the sorrow, and the guilt, and the wisdom of ages still haunt his eyes. He’s looking at a reflection of himself, at his own past and his own future, and maybe everything since Hell has been leading to this and this is where they were always supposed to end up, he and Castiel, together. And he might have denied it and ignored it but some part of him has always wanted it, because even if he doesn’t have a conscious memory of the angel that was reaching out to him in the Pit, he thinks he sometimes sees that moment in his dreams, and when that happens Castiel sparks and flares through his subconscious like electricity.
Nothing else matters but this, he thinks.
He shifts his focus up to the North Star again, where it winks in the sky, and he points to it. “After it all went down, I used to look up at that star and wonder,” he confides. “And I didn’t really want to hope, but maybe there were times when I did. I used to dream about you. Maybe it was the grace you left behind.” He hears his voice fracture, finds he’s blinking hard even though he feels happier than he has in so much longer than he cares to acknowledge.
Castiel rubs his foot against him, and this time it’s comfort more than arousal. Dean looks up at the star again for long moment, until the screech of an owl jolts him back to reality and has his head craning up and around. His attention is caught by fabric dancing in the air, and he points to it. “What is that?”
“A windspinner,” Castiel tells him. “I like to sit here and watch it. It calms me.”
Dean studies it for a moment as it leaps and flutters in the breeze. “It looks like a kite,” he observes, as he glances back to the other man.
Castiel smiles, and his nose scrunches up. “Yes, it does,” he says.
“So, this demon and this angel walk into a bar…”
The angel bristles and hikes a supercilious eyebrow up as the demon pulls out the stool next to him.
The demon fakes goggle eyes at him. “What? Why the look?”
The angel’s tone is angry and vicious. “This nearly went tits-up, you moron. If the bluff hadn’t worked and Winchester had used the sword, all of this would have been for nothing.”
The demon snorts theatrically. “Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist. I knew Dean wouldn’t do it, he’s too soft. And it all went to plan in the end, didn’t it? Raphael’s a crispy critter, I’m still the king of Hell and you’re the new king of Heaven. You didn’t even have to do the dirty and bleed your brother to open the portal, it was all done for you.” He leans across to a bowl of bar snacks, helps himself to a small handful. “Some sixth sense told me Meg would come in useful one day, even if she did do it by accident,” he muses.
The angel pulls a pack of cigarettes out of his inside pocket, lights one up, and blue smoke wreathes around him. “She could have released Lucifer,” he snaps. “She was a loose cannon, and still is. And we were lucky. We winged it. I don’t like relying on luck, Crowley, and I don’t like winging it. Castiel is a lot smarter than you think. He could still figure out it was me who brought you back.”
The demon shakes his head. “Even if he does, what can he do?” he replies witheringly. “Anyway, he’s happy. He wasn’t right for the job, you saw how cranky he was all the damn time. Now he’s tucked up snug in his burrow with his boyfriend, he’ll be a lot better off. They’ll get to grow old together.” His tone goes playful, but it’s undercut with malevolence. “Assuming something doesn’t show up there looking for him, of course.”
The angel’s body tenses. “Castiel is still significant. He still has some grace, even if it’s dormant, and he has a chunk of the Righteous Man’s soul inside him too. Which means he could have his uses.” His voice drops a couple of octaves, to dangerously low. “Harm him, and this deal is null and void.”
The demon cackles. “Whatever you say, partner. Of course, I can’t speak for young Meg.” He pauses to reflect for a moment, shakes his head. “My sources tell me she’s hooked up with the Mother of All. That could get interesting for the boys.” He tsks at the scowl he gets in response, leans in and jabs the angel with his elbow. “Come on, we should be celebrating,” he encourages jovially. “It’s a great day, Hell and Heaven finally united in—”
“You mean Heaven and Hell,” the angel cuts in icily. “I get top billing, Crowley.”
Crowley rolls his eyes. “Anyway, how do they feel?” he asks. “I know they’re secondhand and all, but they still pack a punch, don’t they?”
The angel looks down his nose at the demon. “They feel – strong,” he concedes grudgingly. He looks at his hand, clenches it into a fist and uncurls it again, allows the dynamic, corrupt energy that flows through him to light up his palm and flare greedily out to the tips of his fingers. “It’s something of a high. The power.”
The demon nods in agreement. “Any mood swings?” he inquires blithely. “Only I find I’m like a bear with a sore head if I don’t get my nine hours.”
The angel’s nostrils flare. “There have been few instances where I’ve been a tad bipolar.” He glowers at Crowley. “Leaving that summoning sigil where Campbell could find it was bloody careless. Even if Castiel doesn’t join the dots, Sam Winchester might. He summoned me twice with the damn thing.”
“And it was lucky he did,” the demon counters. “We wouldn’t have known Meg had Castiel in the first place if the moose hadn’t summoned you. And him and his brother led us right to her before she could take the souls herself.” Crowley slaps a hand on the angel’s back. “Look, Balt. Lighten up. The plan worked out in the end. You’re the new God, just like you wanted. You’re not really an angel anymore, the sigil won’t work now. You’re out of reach, untouchable. Even by the Winchesters.”
The angel winces, gives an affronted hiss. “It’s Balthazar.” He rolls his shoulders, takes a few deep breaths. “I suppose you’re right,” he concedes.
The demon winks. “Of course I’m right. And we make a great team.” He snaps his fingers for the barkeep. “Now what are you drinking?”
Balthazar smiles thinly. “How about a long, slow comfortable screw up against a cold, hard wall with a kiss?” he says.
Crowley chuckles. “I thought you’d never ask.”
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