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Without a Map

Chapter Text

 

Sergei Cherlin has been in Antarctica for eight months.

They do one-year tours of duty, he and his fellow hieromonks. It may sound dreadful, but he’s actually enjoyed his time here. Despite the location, Bellingshausen Station’s Trinity Church is a typical church with typical worship services, more or less. They held a wedding a few years back, because even glaciologists fall in love. It is an anchor of normalcy in an environment of extremes, and it’s quiet here, which suits him. Calm. Cold, but King George Island is not as cold as the rest of the continent. Hovering at only a few degrees below freezing, the station is known as kurort - Russian for ‘resort’. Correspondence with the Americans in McMurdo Station usually involves at least one jibe about the weather. You guys sure you won’t run out of sunscreen?they’d ask. McMurdo Sound usually never gets above freezing point, poor bastards.

Nikolay once said that if you give the planet a good shake, all the detritus falls to the bottom, and that is how anyone ends up in Antarctica. “You’re either looking for something or running from something,” he said when the two monks first met. “So which is it for you?”

Sergei had replied, “I’m here for God.”

If God still feels inclined to perform miracles in this world, Sergei reckons Antarctica would be the only place vast enough to contain them. There is something about the landscape that cleanses his heart and calms its jittering. There is something about this land that seems to wait for a miracle without expecting or needing it, and Sergei thinks he can understand that.

What the land receives, however, is perhaps the opposite of a miracle. Lately it’s been colder here, the kind of cold that shakes you awake in the night. Sergei dons heavier jackets and wears extra socks, as if that could stop his bones frosting over or the wind blowing the snow around and whiting out the landscape. The scientists at the research station are baffled, channeling their concern into a flurry of investigation. What’s going on? Is it global warming? What’s going to happen to the penguins? It’s not just the island, but the whole continent, and then they learn that it’s not just the continent.

Sergei watches the news online about earthquakes, unpredictable weather patterns, inexplicable plagues. In Izhevsk, St. Elmo’s fire was seen hovering above the steeple of a cathedral, and pilgrims and cynics alike came to see it for themselves. In Warsaw, there was an earthquake far from any fault line. Not far from Bukhara, a village turned against each other in a bloody massacre that left its survivors babbling tearfully about black eyes and pillars of flame.

“The world is going insane,” he says to Nikolay.

Nikolay shrugs and says, “The world has always been insane.”

When a miracle does happen here, it takes Sergei completely by surprise. For some reason, he thought there would be some kind of a sign preceding it. A feeling when he woke up, perhaps. A flicker of lights. A whisper.

There was nothing.

That day, he says his prayers. Reads his daily Bible passages. Offers guidance to the staff of the station. Have faith. Be strong. Miracles do happen.

Nothing out of the ordinary.

It’s only later that evening when he’s on his way back to the church, cursing its small distance from the station proper, when a wave of heat and light blasts him out nowhere. The warmth is so unexpected that at first he doesn’t even recognize the sensation. It’s like a blizzard made of lightning and hymns, and Sergei closes his eyes and falls to his knees. He is filled with a familiar feeling that he nevertheless cannot put a name to. Waves of white light rain against his eyelids, and he bows his head and waits it out, prayer pouring from his lips.

It feels like days, but it’s only moments before Sergei feels the power begin to recede. He opens his eyes and sees nothing to suggest that something has just happened. The world is unsettlingly unchanged. He stumbles to his feet, blinking back afterimages. He brushes snow off of his knees, then finds himself walking in the direction of that strange wind, and is reminded of one of Nikolay’s books - a collection of short stories of which one was about an astronaut who went insane and jettisoned himself into space in an untethered spacesuit. The image of the doomed astronaut floating in the darkness haunted Sergei for days. Maybe this is it. Maybe Antarctica has finally cracked him and he is already lost, drifting through the void.

Something is pulling Sergei in. Something is telling him that this is why he came to the ends of the earth in the first place. This is what he has been waiting for but has been too heartsick to let himself expect.

When he makes his way over the hill, he sees two men clutching each other, huddled on the ground. One man appears to be unconscious, his head leaning against the other’s shoulder. To Sergei’s horror, the unconscious man is wearing only jeans and a light jacket, while the other appears to be wearing just a trenchcoat over a suit. Whoever they are, they’re clearly insane. Are they from Bellingshausen? From the other stations?

“Hey!” he shouts, and runs towards them.

Both men look exhausted. Snow collects on their hair, on their shoulders. The unconscious man’s lips are blue, face stark white, and the other guy doesn’t look much better. The man in the trenchcoat has his right hand behind the other’s neck, keeping him steady, while the left hand is firm against the other’s chest.

“Who are you?” Sergei demands. He’s not even sure they can speak Russian. There are other stations here manned by other countries. He repeats the question again in English, then tries to remember how to ask it in Spanish.

The dark-haired man looks up at him, and Sergei doesn’t expect the force of that gaze. It’s as if he’s drinking in everything that Sergei is and judging his merit. He is reminded of that blast of heat, that light. He resists the urge to fall to his knees.

“I’m an angel of the Lord,” he says, as if he’s daring Sergei to suggest otherwise, and somehow all Sergei can think is of course.

The man - the angel - speaks in perfect Russian, but Sergei is thrown off by the accent, or perhaps the tone. The diction is stiff and the cadence formal, but the angel’s voice is rough and edged with desperation.

“We need to get inside,” he says. “My - friend. He’s hurt.”

“Do you - do you need help carrying him?”

“No, I’ve got him.” The angel gets to his feet, lifting his friend with ease. Something about the action tugs at Sergei’s heart. The angel holds the man with the kind of strength whose gentleness only comes from a direct and concentrated channeling of force.

The angel meets Sergei’s eyes again. “Sergei,” he rasps. “We must hurry.”

If there is any lingering doubt as to whether this creature is what he claims, this dismissed it immediately. It wasn’t just that he knew his name. It wasn’t just the impossibility of being in the middle of this freeze in such light clothes. It’s the endlessness in the angel’s eyes, like the gray-flecked blue is just the tip of the iceberg. Like the abyss has been watching back before Sergei even deigned to look.

“Yes,” Sergei breathes. “Yes, of course. Yes. This way.”

For the first time since his arrival here, he's warm.

Chapter Text

- previously -

It’s been a few weeks since Raphael, but storms still make Dean think of wings.

Lightning flashes, followed by a clap of thunder, and still the rain pours down. The windshield wipers barely do a thing. Dean just wants to get back to the motel, scarf down his leftover pizza, and pass the hell out. A whole day of chasing down witnesses and the only scrap of information gained from their babble is that this case may be a bunch of hooey after all. He can’t even bring himself to feel irritated. Okay, so maybe this time it really was a bunch of college kids tripping balls in the woods. The world is also ending. There are bigger things at stake.

"This fucking -" Dean says, then looks at the empty passenger seat. He looks back at the road and goes a little faster. "This fucking rain," he murmurs to no one in particular.

He wonders if it’s raining in Oklahoma.

Back at the motel, he gets only a little soaked running from his car to his room.

"Cas," Dean says - prays? - as he locks the door behind him. "Paging Castiel. Come in, over."

This method is not foolproof, but it works from time to time. The sigils on his ribs may shield Dean from angels, but apparently his prayers are neon signs. The first time he tried it since Sam left, Cas was out of cellphone range. Dean yelled something frustrated and inane at the heavens until Cas showed up and told him to stop praying so loud.

"I wasn’t praying," Dean grumbled.

Cas replied, "I didn’t say it was a particularly good prayer."

But Cas showed up and that was the important thing.

"Castiel smells like a toilet and no one likes his emo poetry, come in, over," Dean tries again.

Still nothing.

He sends Cas a quick text - Kansas City, MO . Cellphone doesn’t always work either, but sometimes you have to make do. They do manage to call each other every few days or so, keep each other updated on how there are no updates to be had. Found God? Nope. Found a way to beat the devil? Nope. Heaven still out to get them? Yup.

Awesome.

Dean sighs and drops his duffel on a chair, then goes through the same routine – which takes longer now, twice as long – salt salt salt. Guns. Knives. Hex bags? Check.

Hex bags Sam made. That Sam left behind.

I’m sorry.

Take care of yourself.

Hex bags he doesn’t need anymore, now that that his ribs are nice and carved – and isn’t that a familiar thought? Dean definitely prefers Cas’s method over Alastair’s, he can say that much.

Dean salts the windows and doors, then eyes the pizza box on the bedside table. He decides he isn’t hungry anymore, but then Sam’s voice is automatic in his head: you gotta eat, Dean, you haven’t eaten all day.

He eats one slice.

Dean contemplates calling Sam again, but he just called this afternoon. I’m okay. Are you okay? It was mostly small talk punctuated by awkward silences, but they were patient with each other because this is all they have now. Hey, my break’s almost over, I gotta go.

Take care, man and Yeah, you too.

Dean plops down on the bed. He stares at the ceiling, taking in the questionable stains that pattern it - ew, by the way - but grotty motel rooms are just another thing he is used to. He turns on the TV and closes his eyes, letting himself be comforted by the existence of other worlds outside his own, other lives that know nothing of burning for the ones you love.

Must be nice.

+

When Dean falls into a certain mood, his dreams take on a certain shape. Sleep coalesces into the shack they holed up in after getting Dad out of Jefferson City. Azazel has Dean pinned against the wall, slicing him open as the demon grins and grins. It’s that perfect combination of memory and self-loathing. They don’t need you, Dean, not like you need them. It’s his father’s voice in his ears, but it’s hell’s own daggers on his skin. It’s the eyes of a particularly malicious and vengeful dragon, seeking to know him from the inside out.

Please, Dean begs. Please -

Somewhere beyond the horizon of his consciousness, Sam is calling him and Dean can’t see.

Azazel says, I’m going to tear you apart. I’m going to taste the iron in your blood.

The demon changes, its eyes no longer yellow, but white, and they’ve always been white. Alastair, wearing his father’s body, says, Heya, kiddo.

Dean gurgles, No. He calls out, Sam. He calls out, Dad -

Alastair says, You do me proud, boy, but it’s his father’s voice Dean hears.

The white eyes burn away the image of the shack along with Dad and Sam, erasing the world around them. Suddenly Dean is back on the rack, of course, of course he’s back, of course he’s here, because he never left. The past year, for all its heartache, has been an illusion to shock him into complacency, and now they’re going to take it away from him and bring back the fire and the blade. Of course. Of course. This is hell at its finest and most cruel. Of course.

Alastair asks, What’s the matter?

But it’s another voice that answers for Dean. A shower of sparks like stars and a wind that blows him open. A vast and terrible voice that burns as much as hellfire does, except that it is a cleansing fire, a familiar fire. Dean knows its name. He calls out for it.

Alastair snarls at it to stay back, but not even Alastair can stop this. Something is coming for him, for Dean, reaching out and getting closer, and it looks like -

Something crashes in the motel room and Dean’s eyes snap open, zero to sixty. He didn’t bother turning off the lights when he drifted off and now they are too bright. There’s still a split second when he expects to see Alastair next to him, humming a lullaby that sounds like a chorus of cicadas. Habit has him looking around and checking for Dad, for Sam, for -

"Cas?" Dean croaks.

Cas is crumpled against the opposite wall by an overturned chair. There’s a dent on the wall above him that wasn’t there before, and he is breathing shallowly and fast, clutching his side and not doing a very good job at sitting up. He looks like he’s about to go into shock.

Dean is out of bed like a shot.

"Hey, easy, easy," Dean murmurs, but the admonition is unnecessary. Cas sags in Dean’s grip and heaves a gasping breath, and that is what worries Dean. He has never seen angels do anything so human as gasp for breath, and the sight of it triggers cognitive dissonance. Cas may have told them that he’s cut off from much of heaven’s power, but here is evidence of it, bleeding all over Dean’s hands.

"Wait, wait," Cas gasps, then lifts one blood-stained hand to the wall and draws a shaky sigil. It looks like a fingerpainting of a turkey, but it satisfies Cas, who turns his attention back to the business of losing as much blood as possible. "Now - now they can’t see us."

"Lean back, lemme see this," Dean orders. "The hell happened?"

Cas squeezes his eyes shut and doesn’t answer.

"Raphael?"

"One of his soldiers," Cas manages.

Dean untucks Cas’s shirt and pushes it up, revealing the wound. "It’s just a small cut," Dean lies. "We’ll get you patched up in no time. Lemme guess - I should’ve seen the other guy?" Cas grunts when Dean loosens his grip to reach for his duffel and the first aid kit. "How long do you think he was waiting in the holy fire before someone let him out?"

"One hour and twenty-four minutes," Cas says. "According to him."

"Hold still."

"You don’t need to," Cas protests when he sees Dean wet a cloth with disinfectant. "I just need rest. Just let me -"

Cas’s wound begins to close by itself. It looks like time going backwards, flesh made whole. "Are you doing that?" Dean asks. "Stop that."

"I just need to -"

"Stop that," Dean snaps. "Look, save your energy. Tell you the truth, you don’t look like you got much. We’re gonna fix this with good ol’ fashioned human ingenuity, so lie down." He grabs the fifth of whiskey from his bag and shoves it at Cas. "Drink this."

"No, thank you."

"Drink it."

Cas mutters something indecipherable, then unscrews the top and takes an obliging swallow. Winces. Dean rolls his eyes.

A couple of stitches don’t take long. Dean keeps his hands steady, keeps Cas distracted with conversation. Turns out Cas was following up on a lead off the coast of Zanzibar when heaven caught up with him. Five angels plus Raphael, and what can a weakening angel do against that kind of ambush but flee? But he couldn’t flee fast enough.

Dean is used to Sam’s skin under his needle, and this is no different. Not really. This is what Dean tells himself. It’s just weird how after a year of thinking 'Cas = angel', he can see the human details that Cas inhabits - the outline of ribs, the rapid-beating heart.

"All set," Dean says, and leans back on his haunches. "Don’t touch that," he says when Cas pokes gingerly at his bandage. "How do you feel?"

"Bad."

"Can you get to the bed?"

"I’m not powerless."

"Uh-huh. Don't make me drag your ass."

Dean has never had to play nurse to an angel, and he suspects Cas never needed this kind of first aid before either. Dean gives him a hand-up and keeps a steadying hand on his shoulder as Cas hobbles to the bed and collapses, and he still had to be told to lie back, keep pressure off, stop wriggling around so much, and for God’s sake stop picking at the bandage. Drink more of this and Cas’ll thank him for it later. Dean thinks of the pills in the front pocket of his duffel. Wonders - nah. Doesn't look like an emergency yet.

"And dude, take your shoes off," he adds. "I gotta sleep there later."

Cas leans back on the pillows, posture tense and awkward. He looks silly, fully dressed on the bed with his coat rumpled around him. Like Dad used to after a particularly brutal hunt and he was all banged up and bruised: too drained to do anything except collapse first thing, and if Dean tried to take his shoes off he was risking a kick to the face.

Cas toes off his shoes and lets them fall over the side of the bed, then hesitates for a moment. "I’ll stay here. Until it’s better."

Dean recognizes the question and is amused that Cas still feels the need to be tread carefully. "Of course, man."

There is precedent, after all. Sometimes Cas actually shows up when it isn’t a life or death situation. When Dean’s brushing his teeth, for one. Pulling in for gas. Going through a drive-thru. Ordering some waffles, Cas suddenly appeared across from him at his booth as soon as the waitress turned her back. ("You owe me another coffee," Dean muttered as he mopped up the spill with a handful of napkins.) But Cas hasn’t shown up these past few days, and Dean is selfishly glad he’s here now. The patching up of wounds is a mundane routine with which to soak up the silence. This he knows. This he can do.

Dean washes his hands in the bathroom and when he comes back he lifts the lid of the pizza box sitting on the bedside table. "Got a few pieces left," he says. "You want one?" and expects Cas to say no.

Cas says yes.

Dean rights the fallen chair and slumps back in it, crossing his feet at the ankles. He starts telling Cas about the case: these kids disappearing in the woods only to come back a couple of days later with stories of fantastic creatures. But it turned out to be nothing, nothing at all. Just kids being kids, getting their giggle on possibly alongside their psychedelics. "Fucking waste of time," he says, and doesn’t tell Cas that he really should’ve known better anyway, should’ve checked his facts before bothering. Dean feels off-balance since Sam left, launching himself into the dark at the slightest provocation. There’s no one to tell him to stop and think for a sec, sit down, take a breath. Dean’s hunts during Sam’s time at Stanford possessed a similar momentum - simple cases that required minimal detective work and a satisfying amount of carnage. A trail of destruction and strange stories that led to straightforward monsters - poltergeists, werewolves, rawheads, shapeshifters. Dean is trying to go back to that, but the world has changed.

Instead of telling Cas all this, he just says, "It’s a fucking shit show, going at it alone."

He doesn’t expect to hear the soft agreement in Cas’s voice. "What choice do we have?"

Cas isn’t looking at him when he says it. Dean’s seen that distance in Cas’s eyes before, like he’s keeping one foot in another world. Cas doesn’t have that world anymore, and the blood on Dean’s hands earlier is proof enough of that. Still, Dean knows what it’s like to try to maintain isolation as a habit. Fatalism is a terrifyingly effective defense mechanism.

"This is it," Dean replies. "This is the choice."

Just two soldiers without commanders. Two people who have said no to their family when the very act goes against the central tenets of their beings. There are a hundred things Dean can say, none of which he has the energy to disagree on, so he just says, "Hand over that whiskey."

They turn on the television, because prime-time crime shows are easy. They lose a couple of hours to the boob tube, Dean monologuing about what a shame it is about Ziva, and Cas not having much of an opinion about any of it at all. After extended pestering, he manages to get Cas to admit that yes, Abby seems amiable.

Amiable.

The marathon ends and a quick flip through the other channels reveals only crap, crap, and more crap. He turns the television off. Dean isn’t drunk, but he is a little buzzed and pleasantly warm. Thusly buoyed, he says, "So, God isn’t in Zanzibar?"

"If he was, he isn’t there anymore."

"Maybe you got some bad intel, man. Can’t just be you that’s looking for the big guy. I bet there are some folk who don’t want him found at all."

"My brothers and sisters don’t believe we need to look for him," Cas says, and Dean can’t tell if that’s judgment or resignation in his voice. "Only four angels in all creation have seen his true face. We’re used to the silence of a distant god."

"So, no news is good news?"

"No news is part of the divine plan," Cas sighs. "We love him, but his love for us is both larger and quieter than our love for him."

It sounds like a bunch of excuses to Dean, but excuses or not, they strike an unexpected sore spot. He thought this particular corner of his soul had scarred over, but being in Cas’s company recently dredges up the same agitation he felt as a kid, all the times he tried to stay up all night watching the motel room door in case Dad came home early. For all that Cas calls his little goose chase "strategy", Dean recognizes the desperation in his eyes. This is personal as much as it is a battle plan. Family’s always personal, and it sucks to be alone.

Cas lifts his shirt and looks at his wound.

"Hey, what are you doing?" Dean asks when Cas starts to pick at it. "Hey, stop that -"

But when Cas peels off the bandage, there is no wound.

"...son of a bitch."

"Thanks for your help," Cas says. "I was able to finish the rest on my own."

"You know that’s called cheating, right?"

"I call it expedient." Then, in a tone much too casual, he asks, "What about Sam?"

"What about him?"

"How is he?"

"Good, I guess."

"You don’t know?"

"Been distracted lately."

"But you chose to be distracted."

"Spare me the lecture, all right?"

"I wasn’t lecturing," Cas says, and Dean realizes he’s right.

"Dean, are you all right?"

No. "Yeah." Dean leans back, rubs his face. "Fucking peachy."

Cas seems to wait for Dean to say more, but Dean has fucking nothing more to say on the subject, at all.

"Thank you for the pizza," Cas says and stands up.

Dean raises his eyebrows. "You’re leaving already?"

"Yes."

Dean holds up his hands in concession and looks away.

Cas doesn’t leave.

"You do realize," Dean says eventually, "that leaving means you have to, like, fuck off from the premises?"

It’s not so much a stare now as it is a study, and Dean is beginning to wish Cas is smart enough to be shy. Castiel has displayed shame, yes, but not shyness, and the frank curiosity in Cas’s eyes when he studies Dean is unnerving. He is unused to being anyone’s puzzle. Dean tends to slot into the role of being someone’s assumption - reliable, problematic, simply defined. It’s a comfortable role, and one he has learned to tweak to suit his purposes. Cas, on the other hand, has little choice but to try and know him from first principles, and it makes Dean feel exposed.

Dean swallows, steeling his gaze, and refuses to be the first to look away.

The last thing he expects is for Cas to ask, "Do you want to come?"

"...what?"

Cas repeats the question, but more hesitantly this time, as if ready to withdraw the offer. Was it an offer? Was it pity? Dean doesn’t need pity.

"Come... help you find God?"

"Yes."

"What, using me as a bullet shield for Raphael wasn’t enough?" More vitriol got through than Dean intends, but that’s okay because Cas never seems to notice that kind of thing.

"This isn’t about being a bullet shield."

The "no" is already on Dean’s tongue, but then he hesitates.

Maybe it’s the booze still swilling around inside him. That could be why. It could also be because he’s bored. Sam's off doing Normalcy 3: The Reckoning, Dean's officially between hunts, and the apocalypse is a lot of hurry-up-and-wait. The world’s going to hell in a handbasket and they’re running out of leads.

The reason Dean settles on is that friends don’t let friends get shanked on wild goose chases.

"Someone’s gotta keep you from getting deep-fried," Dean shrugs, and the knots he didn’t realize were in his chest begin to loosen.

He can’t tell if that’s a smile on Cas’s face or just less of a frown. Dean lifts a corner of his mouth in amusement. Although the days have felt too much like the four years Sam was at Stanford - same kind of drought, same struggle for solid ground - he isn’t alone this time, and the partner-in-crime he’s picked up is as wounded as him and twice as far away from home. For all of his sympathies and newfound rebellious spirit, Cas has always belonged elsewhere, and yet he stays. You have been chosen, he once said. Over time, it became: I have chosen you.

"You’re not gonna do the whole -" Dean mimes touching something with two fingers, "- teleportation thing, are you?"

"It’s either that or a plane."

Well, shit.

+

When Dean feels solid ground beneath his feet, he opens his eyes and immediately shuts them again. The sudden daylight is disorienting. It’s hot here, and humid. Already his jacket feels too heavy on him.

"We’re here," says Captain Obvious.

"Here" seems to be a cramped narrow street with cars parked on both sides. There are some decal-covered bikes with roofed sidecars, some of which have the drivers sleeping peacefully inside. PRAY THE ROSARY, commands one decal of a cross with a bleeding heart. Another says LUZVIMINDA in green block lettering. Yet another says, inexplicably, ICE ICE BABY under a picture of Donald Duck on a surfboard. The air has a muggy after-the-rain feel to it and it clings to him uncomfortably, unless that’s just the sweat.

Jesus, he’s sweating already.

"Where’s here?" Dean asks.

Somewhere nearby, someone is listening to the radio, some old love song crackling with static.

Cas replies, "Manila."

Cas goes to the nearest building, squeezing between two cars, and it takes a second for Dean to realize why it looks odd. Cas usually holds himself so stiffly, almost as if he were just a projection in this world. Those couple of months last year before the Samhain seal broke, Dean almost convinced himself that Cas wasn’t real, that he was a hallucination, some vision that followed him out of the pit, or a projection of frustrations he thought he discarded long ago. Then Sam’s face lit up in wonder as he lowered the gun, and a weight lifted off Dean’s chest. If Sam could be moved, then it must be true: Castiel must be real, even if he remained remote to them. He moved through this world but was not of this world, like the light of faraway stars. To see the angel awkwardly shuffle sideways between two parked cars like any other shmoe anchors him to this world in a very real and very shmoe way.

Dean follows, shrugging off his jacket and hanging it over one arm. MARISOL’S SARI-SARI STORE, says the sign over the entrance. There’s a bench in front where two men sit and smoke, conversing in Tagalog. One guy’s gesticulating with his cigarette, making some vehement point, but they pause when they see Cas approaching. Cas pays them no mind and goes inside.

Dean smiles at them. "How you doing?"

The gesticulating guy acknowledges him with a raise of his eyebrows and a nod of his head. His friend continues to watch Dean silently.

Dean goes inside.

"Oh, you again, ha?" says a woman’s voice.

"Hello, Marisol," says Cas.

"Ay naku," Marisol sighs in recognition, and launches into a barrage of irritated Tagalog even before she turns around. Cas doesn’t look particularly moved and just watches her with a detached frown that Dean recognizes all too well.

They are in a convenience store half the size of Bobby’s kitchen, and Dean is suddenly made aware of his bulk. There’s not a lot of room for him in here. All around him are precarious stacks of cup noodles, rows of soap, colorful bottles of powdered ice tea - none of them in brands he recognizes. Single-serving packets of coffee and shampoo. A sign says "Ice Candy 5 pesos". There are clusters of bags of chips hanging from the ceiling like pinatas. He pokes one and watches it swing around. The place smells a little musty, a little dusty. Perhaps a little salty, like someone had been eating in here not shortly before. Dean sees a bowl of soup on the counter next to a half-eaten bowl of rice. His stomach rumbles.

Marisol turns to face them, and startles. "Ay! Sino ‘to?"

In the pause that follows, Dean looks up, sensing attention on him.

Marisol is a small woman in her thirties, hair pulled back in a messy bun and a face expressing that she’s had just about enough of this bullshit. She reminds Dean of Ellen in one of her more weary moods. Those times in the past when he and Sam stumbled into the roadhouse bleeding and broken, some fanged horror on their tail, and all she did was grab her shotgun and yell at Jo to get the first aid. Marisol looked like that kind of woman at the end of those kinds of nights.

"This is Dean Winchester," Cas says.

Marisol’s face lights up. "Ah, si Righteous Man ba ‘to?"

Dean raises his eyebrows at ‘righteous man’ because damn, does everyone know his story?

"He’s here to help," Cas explains. "Dean, this is Marisol Gallardo. She’s a prophet."

"Prophet?"

Never just some dude on the mount. Never just some lady handing out commandments. God’s mouthpieces are scattered all around God’s green earth, and Dean wonders now how many he might’ve missed because he didn’t know what to look for. Marisol, who comes up to Dean’s shoulders, fixes him with a look of open concern that makes him feel like he’s a child. Even in her flip-flops and denim shorts, she has a gravity about her that Chuck never had. What visions does this woman see when she goes to sleep at night? Did she know when hellhounds tore Dean apart and dragged him to hell?

Dean puts on his most winning grin and pulls the drawl into his voice. He holds out his hand. "Pleased to meet you, ma’am."

Marisol takes his hand, reflecting back Dean’s "be nice to strangers" demeanor, but her smile doesn’t quite reach her eyes. She clears her throat, and Dean sees her conscious decision to switch to English. "I don’t know what else. I don’t know. Your friend, si Castiel, he asked many times before." She collapses his name to two syllables: Cas-chell.

"Ask? Ask what? What did he ask?"

"About God," Marisol replies. "It’s very hard. I don’t know about God. I pray to Him, that’s what I know about God."

Oh. Well, great. Trust Cas to land them in an awkward situation. "She doesn’t know about God, Cas," Dean says, keeping his voice light.

"You must know," Cas insists, pushing past Dean. "You knew. You were one of our most beloved, Marisol, and if you have ever loved our God -"

That hits a nerve. Dean can tell from the split-second of devastation that crosses her face. She snaps at Cas in Tagalog and slips into another tirade, and Dean finds himself taking an involuntary step back. Marisol and Cas wear identical stubborn expressions, and Cas keeps trying to cut in, but she just smacks the countertop with her palm and rolls right over him. There’s movement at the corner of Dean’s vision, and when Dean looks up, he sees the two guys outside peering in through the window. They look away again.

"I’m sorry, sorry," she says to Dean, pointedly turning away from Cas. "Okay. English. Sorry, ha, my English -"

"Don’t worry about it," he assures her. "You know, I know a little Tagalog myself. One time in Daly City, I met this girl -"

"Dean," Cas warns.

"My point being," Dean quickly amends, "ma’am, that we’re not gonna take too much of your time." He lets his eyes soften and his smile look more worn in. "We know you got other things to worry about. We just have a couple of questions, that’s all, and we’d sure appreciate your help. We don’t know where else to go."

Marisol gives him a stern look, more in curiosity than disapproval. She looks at Cas, who raises his chin with a challenging stare. Marisol rolls her eyes.

"You cannot find God," she says. "If he does not want you to, you cannot. So you stop na. You stop, you just forget it."

"Marisol, please," Cas says, and that’s the same look, the one that asked Dean to help trap an archangel. "You have to try."

"Oh, you think I don’t try? You think don’t I try to talk to him?" Marisol bursts out.

The silence that falls is heavy, fraught with a history that Dean is grateful to be ignorant of. Marisol and Cas glare at each other and Dean sees her jaw clenching, sees the muscle in her neck twitch as she tries to keep her ground. It’s familiar to him. Impossible requests and answers that cannot humor them. Castiel and Marisol have had this conversation before.

"God doesn’t talk back," Marisol says, and there is a restrained sorrow in her voice that makes her seem oddly young.

"You know I pray to him," she says, maybe more to herself than to them. "You know I pray, you know I ask. He does not answer, Castiel. I do not see about him. I don’t hear. It’s the same. I have no answers. He doesn’t give me answers." She averts her eyes, shrugs with one shoulder. "He has forgotten me."

"That’s a blasphemy," Cas says immediately, but he doesn’t sound sure.

"Ay, you don’t talk to me about blasphemy," she mutters. "You know, when I dream, I don’t see God. It’s, ano. Yung Righteous Man mo."

"Wait, what?" Dean cuts in.

Marisol smiles wearily. "Oh, you only say something if it’s about you, ha?"

"You dream about me?" he presses.

She shrugs. "Yes."

"What do you see?"

Marisol shakes her head. "No, no, it’s bad."

"How bad?"

Instead of answering, Marisol chooses the moment to awkwardly straighten some candy jars on the shelves.

"Do we die?" Dean asks. "What about my brother, do you see my brother? His name’s Sam. Do you dream about him? Does he die?"

"Death is not your problem," Marisol says stiffly, as if quoting a movie.

"What the hell does that mean?" Dean demands.

Marisol pauses, then concedes to face them, leaning on the counter. "Maybe you know. Maybe you know what I see, what they mean. Sige." There’s a glint in her eyes that Dean sometimes sees hunters get when they’re about to regale you with an account of their latest kill. A hunger tempered by a habit of secrecy. "I see fire," she says. "I see death. I see things from hell on earth, kunyare halimaw, multo... Demons. So many die. Maybe I see your brother, I don’t know." She sighs. "Parang there is always dark shadows. It makes it hard."

"Is he okay?" Dean asks, and thinks of their last phone call, of demon blood, of Lucifer. I need to step back. I’m dangerous. Maybe it’s best . But what if it’s not?

Marisol shakes her head. "It does not say. There’s too much death. I cannot... I always hear this thing."

"What? What do you hear?" Cas asks.

"Just one word."

Dean leans forward. "What word?"

Marisol lifts her gaze to meet his. "‘Yes’."

+

Couldn’t be. Can’t be. There’s no such thing as destiny, and the past few months have only proved this to be true. People have visions all the time. Doesn’t mean they come to pass.

Still, Marisol’s words niggled.

Sitting on a rock on a mist-blanketed slope of the Huangshan mountains, Dean munches on Nagaraya nuts ("I don’t have any pesos." "On the house na.") and thinks about the end. Death is not something he’s afraid of anymore, and he is aware that this is the kind of arrogance that precipitates every mythic shmuck’s downfall. Suddenly the wax melts off your back. Suddenly you find yourself in the darkest pit of hell. You find yourself trapped in another world in another form, and who knows if you’re ever going back?

A little ways off to Dean’s right, Cas’s silhouette balances on an outcropping: he is the smoky shape of a man blurring with the curling mist. Both his hands are cupped around the amulet, and he gazes out into some corner of the world that Dean can’t see.

This high up, the only sound he can hear is the wind.

Dean watches as Cas zaps from one ledge to another. One second, Cas is close enough to reach for, then Dean blinks and Cas is on the ledge above him. A minute passes then Dean sees him across the ravine, waiting for a sign. Part of him still wants to give Cas a good shake. You have to rise above this, man, believe me . But then Dean remembers the green room, a blood-red sigil on the wall, and a hand on his forehead as Chuck’s apartment filled with the wrath of angels. That terrifying declaration in Bobby’s hospital room - everything for you .

Cas doesn’t do things halfway. Maybe in any universe, this is where they will always end up, him and the angel who met him halfway - waiting on opposite sides of a gorge and obscured by mist, daring to hope.

Dean must really break himself of the habit of befriending stubborn bastards.

"Hey!" Dean yells. (He vehemently does not think of avalanches.) "We done here?"

Cas looks at him, and one heartbeat later, he is standing next to Dean.

"I thought I sensed something," Cas murmurs, inspecting the amulet. "It warmed. I thought that this time, it really was..."

"Maybe you’re not using it right. Hey, try these nuts, they’re fucking delicious."

"I’m using it right," Cas huffs, "and no thanks."

"Aww, come on. Have a seat. Take a break. ‘Hot and spicy flavor’, dude, you’re missing out. I would eat these nuts by the pound."

But Cas is agitated, and has been since Marisol. Dean is loathe to admit that he understands. Sure, destiny is bullshit and prophets are downers, but he can’t bring himself to dismiss the foretold ‘yes’. Is it Dean’s yes? If so, how do the angels get it from him? Where will they apply pressure? (Sam, bloodied and broken. Bobby, lifeless and still. Cas -)

Dean licks the crumbs off his fingers and pushes himself to his feet. The mist has only become thicker. When they first landed on this peak, Dean could see across the gorge, but now the only thing he can see are Cas and the ghostly outlines of the mountainside. It gives the impression of existing in a world unfinished. In the beginning there were two travelers, and the world bloomed in their wake, waiting to be colored in.

Cas slips the amulet back in his pocket.

God isn’t here.

"So what’s her deal?" Dean asks. "Marisol, I mean."

"What do you mean?"

"Just seems like you guys gotta take better care of your prophets, that’s all."

"She’s fine."

"Yeah, fine like Chuck’s fine?" he scoffs. "Fine like we’re fine?"

Cas gives him an impatient look, but Dean refuses to be deflected.

"When her family found out she was a prophet," Cas says, "they told everyone. Their neighbors, their friends, the church. She was just a girl. They began calling her the child saint of Quiapo. There were at least a few pilgrimages."

"Pilgrimages?"

"A few."

"What happened?"

"Nothing too unpredictable," he shrugs. "She didn’t bring commandments or heal the sick. She didn’t bring luck. That’s not what prophets are. Marisol had visions. She saw the truth, but not the kind anyone around her could understand."

Dean remembers Sam a couple of years ago and just says, "Yeah."

"They denounced her as a fake."

"What, so you guys gave her the game but no instructions?" he accuses. "Call her ‘chosen’ then leave her alone?"

"Yes," Cas snaps. "Look -"

"What the hell are the chosen of God chosen for, then?"

"She asked that same thing and then she washed her hands of us," Cas says bitterly. "Or tried to."

"I don’t blame her, man. Your family chews them up and spits them out. They screwed over my family and who knows who else?" Dean is aware he’s shouting; he doesn’t care. "What good is any of it?"

Cas glares at him, and for one crazy moment, Dean thinks this is it, this is when Cas loses it and finally smites the crap out of me, this is it. But instead Cas just says, "If you don’t believe in heaven or the angels, then at least believe in God."

Dean almost pities him then. What is this habit of loyalty struggling through the void? Was this what Sam saw in Dean, all those years ago when they were looking their dad?

Cas says, "We have to go."

"Wait -"

But then there are two fingers to Dean’s forehead and the world collapses around them.

+

He manages to remain upright, but only just. Cas is already moving, threatening to disappear into the crowd. Dean mutters a curse and tries to keep up, grumbling something about the forced removal of sticks from backsides.

They’re in an open courtyard: a plaza. Dean smells leather and his eyes drift over to a store in front of which a few people admire themselves in their obviously new leather jackets. They speak quickly all around him, and he catches bits and pieces of – Spanish? No. Italian. At the head of the plaza, a set of steps lead up to a towering basilica, gleaming white in the sun, beautiful in its symmetry. The clear-cut designs, the intricate carvings. Dean nearly falls over some pigeons as he walks, and a little girl glares at him from where she’s crouched on the ground. Dean smiles sheepishly at her, but she just turns her attention back to the birds, holding out a handful of bread crumbs. A pigeon alights on her forearm, cooing curiously at the food, and she smiles.

A few yards away, a woman carries a cardboard box in front of her, an attached strap circling her neck. She smiles at Dean and he simply stares at her for a few moments, a memory poking at the back of his mind -

- of Sam, maybe ten years old, maybe eleven, babbling about someone else’s vacation, and Dean doesn’t know whether he should be amused or irritated. They’re never going to go to Italy. They’re never going to eat gelato in a plaza in Florence and no one’s going to buy them jackets made of real Italian leather.

"Tyler said Italian leather is the best," Sam says, like he’s saying something memorized.

"Tyler sounds like a dumbass."

"He got me something, too."

Sam pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket. Dean can see Sam’s name in crude design; half-heartedly drawn stars and planets around the edges. "He said someone was drawing these around the plaza. He gave her my name, see?"

"Yippee."

"He said she carried around a cardboard box. What do you think was in it?"

"I dunno, maybe all of her arts and crafts. And candy. And annoying little brats."

"You’re an annoying little brat," Sam says, an automatic response he barely means. "Hey, maybe one day we’ll go there."

"To a cardboard box?"

"No, stupid. To Italy."

Dean shudders at the thought, of the sound of loud engines, of a speeding plane eating up distance on a runway, of sky, nothing but sky and clouds and -

"Doubt it."

"Well, we should go," Sam decides. "Just us. Dad would probably too busy, anyway."

Dean sighs. "Sam -"

"And we’ll find the drawing lady and she can draw a picture of us, or maybe just of me, in case she doesn’t draw ugly people."

"You smartass -"

"One day we’ll go and find out."

Dean opens his mouth to spit out a smart ass retort, but then Sam continues, "One day we’ll take a vacation just me and you, okay? No hunting. No Dad. Just me and you."

"Sure," Dean says after an overlong pause. He forces a smile. "Sure, okay. Sounds good. Now hurry up, you’re making us late."

Dean takes a few steps, past the little girl, past a leather shop - the leather shop. He looks around for the gelato guy but he’s a no-show today. The woman watches him with a wary glance, but she doesn’t back away.

"Hey, uh," Dean stutters. High school Spanish is all he’s got. He makes a scribbling motion in the air. "Do you draw? Dibujas?" he asks. She gives him a perplexed look.

"Perdono?" she asks, mimicking his drawing motion in confusion. It’s a graceful motion, and makes Dean notice the delicate beauty of her hand. Small, tanned, jangling with thin gold bangles. An artist’s hand? There are wrinkles on her face, but her eyes are bright and curious, friendly. He imagines her a decade and a half ago with smooth skin and the very same bangles drawing things for rich American tourists and their snotty son named Tyler.

"Draw," Dean repeats. Her eyes follow his movements, but she simply shakes her head. He’s not sure if it’s in negation or just plain bewilderment, but either way, he’s being stupid. There has to be a million street artists out there. "Uh. Sorry. Siento. Lo siento."

She gives him a half-grin and shakes her head in amusement, her next words lost in the chatter of the crowd. She picks up her box again, moving through the mass of people. He’s not sure why he’s disappointed. No big deal, it just means there’s no souvenir from here, is all.

When Dean turns back around to find Cas, he bumps into someone. "Vaya con Dios," he says.

"Zitto," she spits.

All right, then.

Then, because apparently it is his newfound habit, Cas appears at his elbow. "What are you doing?"

Dean congratulates himself on not jumping out of his skin. "You tell me, man. What are we doing? Where are we?"

"Firenze."

"Shouldn’t we be in Vatican City?" Dean grins. "Why don’t we go ask the Pope, huh? He’s got to have an in with your dad."

Cas looks around them, distracted. "We’re not going to the Pope."

"No, you’re right, you’re right. Bet the red tape’s a pain in the ass anyway. Hey, tell me something, Cas. At any point during this merry little jaunt of ours, will we get to hit the beach?"

Cas simply pushes past him, and Dean notices the amulet dangling from his hand.

"How’s the radar?" he asks.

Cas’s brow furrows in confusion, and Dean leans over and feels the amulet for himself.

It’s cold.

"Bad sign, right?"

"I don’t understand," Cas says to himself. "I thought -"

He walks around, holding the amulet like a metal detector. Dean doesn’t bother following this time; he just crosses his arms and watches, the way he humored all those times Sam wanted to stay up and wait for Santa.

"I’m telling you, Cas," he says after a while. "Beach. Maybe God’s taking a vacation. ‘Sides, you’ve been choosing all the places to go. Now it’s my turn."

"That’s not how this works," Cas says irritably.

"It can be."

"It can’t be!"

"Come on," Dean grins. "We’re partners, huh? I can’t work under these conditions."

"What conditions?"

"These non-beach conditions."

Cas narrows his eyes at him. Then he lifts his hand.

Next thing he knows (after the world stops twisting), Dean smells the sea.

Cas leans against a fence, and Dean moves next to him and is greeted by the sight of the sheer drop below them. He takes an involuntary step back. To the right of them, blue, blue water stretches towards the horizon. Rocks jut out of the water by the shore, and the waves burble whitely around them. The shore curves up into a hill dotted by the bright mosaic of houses, and more houses are spread out below them. Dean briefly wonders how much it would cost to actually come here via regular transport, just him and Sam, no hunting, no dads.

"Capri," Cas provides before Dean even asks.

Dean manages an "I didn’t -" think you’d take me seriously. He decides not to finish that sentence, and watches the sea instead.

People mill all around them, their mundane noises mingling with the sound of the waves washing in and out. People taking pictures. People looking at maps. People laughing, calling out to each other, rustling through their backpacks. A couple poses for a photo, arms wrapped around each other. An old woman checks her cellphone. Another woman with a fanny pack fumbles with a water bottle, cursing under her breath in English. She smiles when a tall man reaches out and makes a motion to help her. He pops off the lid with ease and hands it back.

Dean leans against the fence next to Cas and takes in the horizon. When was the last time he saw the sea?

Dean looks down at the water, bluer than anywhere else he’s ever seen. He closes his eyes and lets the air sift through his hair, and he inhales the smell of salt from the sea. A memory comes unbidden: Sam giggling as he tries to bury Dad’s feet in the sand. Where were they, North Carolina? It was the summer after he turned thirteen. He remembers the wicked sunburn he got, the way his scalp had peeled away. Dad was gruff but he kept giving Dean glasses of water and a bottle of aloe, covering guilt with admonishments to stay out of the sun and poking fun the amulet-shaped sunburn around his neck.

Cas strokes the amulet with his thumb, staring off into the distance, distracted by something that Dean isn’t privy to.

"So," Dean says. "How does it work? My amulet, I mean."

He wonders about that from time to time, but most times, the amulet is not something he ponders, but something he takes for granted. Something kept close right over his heart. It’s only now that he has begun to think of the amulet as something apart from himself, now that it’s dragging him along on strange adventures, as if exacting revenge.

"It burns in God’s presence," Cas recites.

"You sure about that, buddy?" Dean asks, and Cas just glares at him. "Did I ever tell you how I got that thing?"

"No."

"I was what, twelve? We were in this shitstain in Nebraska. Dad was on a hunt, didn't make it back in time for Christmas. Pissed Sammy off, so I got Dad's present instead. Sam got it from Bobby, so I dunno. It's always been passed around." Dean thinks. "I don't know where it really came from, actually."

"This was meant for your father?"

"Yep."

Cas turns the amulet over in his palm. "I'm glad he didn't get back. It suits you. Perhaps you were meant to have it."

"Uh. Thanks." Dean shifts his weight. "I guess."

"This is all I have now."

"That’s not true," Dean says.

Cas frowns at him and it’s that same wondering look that Dean doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to. It carries too much. He is too familiar with the landscape of the question, if not its intent.

"On the other side of the island," Cas says abruptly. "is the Blue Grotto. Grotta Azzurra. It’s difficult to see at this time of day, with the angle of the sun, but sunlight reflects off the water in a way you’ve never seen."

Dean blinks at the shift in topic. "Okay?"

"A long time ago," Cas continues, "long before they ever named the grotto, or even before humans settled on the island, Anna used to frequent it. It was one of her favorite hideaways."

"Anna? As in redhead angel radio Anna?"

"As in my sister, yes. She loved this world, she always has. She would go there sometimes in a vessel." For a moment, Cas slips into a memory. "She loved to swim."

"So, she’s the fun one, huh? Somehow I’m not surprised."

"Uriel thought it was disgusting."

"Yeah, well, Uriel was kind of a killjoy."

"Anna had a way about her," Cas continues. "A way of making people listen, at least. It was what made her a great commander. But no one listened to her when it counted. Before she fell -" He looks down at the amulet, turning it over in his hands. "Before she fell, she said -"

Dean waits for him to finish. Somewhere behind them, someone yells something in a language he doesn’t recognize and someone else bursts into laughter. In the distance, a gull calls.

"She told me she wasn’t afraid to be alone," Cas says softly, "and that I shouldn’t be either."

"What happened to her anyway?" Dean asks. "She used to drop by from time to time, grab a burger with me and Sam. Haven’t seen her in weeks."

"I don’t know," Cas says, then clears his throat and puts the amulet back in his pocket. "She has always possessed her own mind. We can’t always protect those we want to."

"Tell me about it," Dean mutters. "So. How do you get in this grotto, anyway?"

"By boat, these days," Cas says, taking on the change of topic in stride. "You would have to lean back in the boat in order to get in. The entrance is very small."

"Not on the Angel Express, though."

"No."

"Maybe next time, huh?"

Cas nods, a slight smile on his lips. "Yes."

It’s no pinky swear, but Dean smiles back anyway.

"We should get some pizza while we’re here," he says.

Cas frowns. "We just had pizza."

"Yeah, American pizza. Not Italian pizza. The real deal, man."

"Next time," Cas says, sounding as if he wants to actually keep that promise. "Next time."

Chapter Text

Cas drops them in the middle of a cool and quiet night under a quarter moon. Dean gets the impression of open space. The place is deserted except for the one guy who yells Spanish at them before Cas dispatches him with two fingers to the head.

"Convenient," Dean comments, watching the guy slump at their feet. "Where are we?"

"Teotihuacán," Cas answers. "Take his flashlight."

Dean looks around, but he sees only shadows against darker shadows. He makes out mountains in the distance only because of its absence of stars. Around them, the pyramids curve up from the ground as if shrugged up by the earth. He is standing, Cas will tell him later, on the Avenue of the Dead, lined on either side by temples for gods whose names he doesn’t know. Dean tries to recall them now, but instead remembers Sam babbling ad nauseum about this place when he had to do that project in middle school. Temple of the... Sun? The Moon? Kid was so proud of his goddamn diorama.

Eight months after Sam left for Palo Alto - right around the time he and his father started to split up for hunts - Dean went to Mexico. The chupacabra hadn’t taken that long to kill, so when Dean found himself with time on his hands, he thought why the hell not? The border was right there. Off he went to spend some beautiful nights with the lovely Socorro at the Playa Bagdad and, to his surprise and delight, learn how to fish. He might not have caught much, but that didn’t matter. He doesn’t remember how many fish he caught, but he remembers the light on the water and the best tortillas he ever ate in his life.

"You said those tortillas you ate in Arizona were the best," Cas says as they make their way down the avenue.

"Okay, so I lied," Dean replies. "Playa Bagdad tortillas, Cas, I am telling you." He pauses. "How far is that from here?"

Cas glances at him. "About six hundred miles north. Why?"

"No reason," Dean shrugs, shifting his grip around the flashlight. "Just curious."

He can still feel Cas's gaze on him after he turns away.

Out of the corner of Dean's eye, the amulet glows red.

The Temple of the Feathered Serpent is located in the southern end of the city at the nexus of a dig cordoned off from the public, not that this is a concern to Cas and therefore to Dean. "So," Dean says, "you ready to -"

Cas walks on inside.

"...guess you are."

Dean follows.

What awaits them in a place called Temple of the Feathered Serpent? It’s not something Dean wants to dwell on, but in a way he prefers foreboding ancient temples to sunny Italian cities. Sam used to accuse him of this mentality all the time: if it’s not dangerous, it’s not productive. It should be the other way around, Dean.

"So you think your dad’s hanging out with Quetzalcoatl?" Dean asks, just to break the silence.

Cas simply holds out the amulet in response. Dean sighs.

Is it getting darker or is the amulet getting brighter? Either way, it feels like the shadows are waiting for an excuse. Faded paintings of men and monsters watch them from the walls. Dean and Cas walk through tunnel after gallery after tunnel, and the deeper they go, the more mummies there are, yet to be excavated.

A hissing sound echoes through the tunnel and Dean is ashamed to say that he jumps.

A hand on his shoulder. Shh.

"I’m fine," Dean whispers defensively, wrenching away.

"I know." But Cas slows his pace so that they are walking side by side anyway, and Dean realizes that Cas is just as uncomfortable here as he is.

Good. Or not, he can't decide.

The smell is almost unbearable here - reeking beyond simple decomposition. It makes his eyes water and gives him an intense desire to spit, because he fucking tastes it. His throat almost rebels right then and there. At least it distracts him from how long they’ve been walking. Dean cannot pinpoint the exact moment they crossed over from the world into a more godly realm. He’s just sure they have - it’s the tingling on his skin, at the back of his eyes, tip of his tongue. It’s the paintings; he can’t be sure they’re not moving. A jaguar, a wolf, a many-limbed woman, following them through the dark.

It’s like Plato’s allegory of the cave in reverse. They are not escaping illusory shadows, but descending into them. Illusions are the only reality you have in a darkness like this, and Dean has had forty years in hell to acquaint himself with this fact.

Something hisses.

"Cas -" he starts to whisper, but Cas slaps a hand over his mouth. Peeved, Dean resists the childish temptation to lick it like Sam used to do when they were kids and hiding from Dad at bedtime, way back when. Way, way back when.

They stand very still.

The hissing is louder now, and constant, like a swarm of bees. Something crumbles and cracks above them, and Dean leaps out of the way as a huge piece of ceiling crashes down right where they were standing.

"Tell me that’s how feathered serpents show affection," Dean says.

"I was afraid of this." Cas touches the chamber wall, and murmurs, "The temple is rejecting us."

"What?"

"Someone doesn’t want us here."

"Oh, great, this is perfect, this is fucking perfect," Dean mutters, and the flashlight beam bounces all over the gallery as he bends to get the knife out of his boot. "Look, I really don’t want to spend my remaining minutes wiggling around in some feathered serpent’s belly, just so you know."

"You won’t," Cas replies, and the simplicity of his convictions still throw Dean for a loop sometimes. As if sincerity could make up for miscalculation. "I was hoping we would make it further before we were noticed."

"Yeah, man, me too."

The gallery shakes again, and somewhere from the darkest shadows, a scream echoes and bounces off the walls.

"Okay, so what now, do we go on, do we go back?" Dean yells over the din.

There is another cracking sound above them, and Cas barely has time to shove Dean back before another piece of ceiling crashes on the ground in front of them.

"Quickly," Cas orders, and they launch themselves forward only to narrowly avoid falling into a gorge where the floor used to be. It falls down into the darkness, and they do not hear it land. Dean shines the flashlight into it and sees nothing. He shines it in front of them; the other side of the pit is too far away to jump to.

Dean feels two fingers on his forehead and braces himself for -

Nothing. They haven’t moved.

Cas jabs him harder - "Ow, stop that!" - but it’s no use. The pit stretches open in front of them, uncrossable, and the temple continues to tremble around them.

"Something in the temple’s blocking me," Cas says. "We should -"

"Go back," Dean finishes.

Cas makes a sound of frustration, and Dean grabs his shoulder, saying, "Cas, come on."

"If only we can -"

"There’s nothing we can do!"

"If you see anything move," Cas grunts, "stab it."

They retreat, or try to. They haven’t even made it past the next gallery when something wraps around Dean’s ankle and he goes down.

"Dean!"

And through all this, the hissing, the hissing, the paintings on the walls undulating and wailing and demanding retribution from trespassers.

Dean slices at the thing around his ankle, and something wet and warm spills out over his hand.

"I can’t -" Cas grates out, and then is jerked away into the darkness, taking the glow of the amulet with him.

"Cas!"

Dean lunges forward, knife upraised, and then suddenly something drops from above and hisses belligerently in his face. Dean freezes. Even in the dim lighting, it is very clear: Dean is looking into the wide fanged mouth of a huge fucking snake. And that’s when Dean becomes painfully aware of the commotion at his feet, the things slithering over his boots.

The whole place is crawling with snakes, dangerous with magic and malicious with mission.

Why’d it have to be snakes?

The snake in his face hisses again and Dean dispatches it with his knife. Its body hits the ground with a slick plop. The flashlight beam bounces across Cas standing upright again, blood all over his hands and the front of his coat.

"Cas, you okay?"

"We should go."

"Ya’ think?"

Dean is going to kill Cas. Maybe. If the feathered serpent doesn’t do it for him.

Even as they run, snakes slither up the legs of his jeans, their scales dry on his skin, but Dean just shakes them off as best he can, gives them a little help with the knife sometimes. The flashlight beam bounces all over the place, all over the mummies, the snakes, the paintings on the wall. He doesn’t feel any fangs jabbing into him just yet: still got time. These aren’t poisonous snakes, right?

Fuck fuck fuck.

The way back feels twice as long, unless that’s just the snakes fucking with them. They crush snakes underfoot as they run, and Dean almost skids when his boot pops open something especially squelchy, but Cas catches him and shoves him forward, rechanneling momentum. There’s no time to waste.

A snake drops on Dean from above, and amid his panic to yank it off and throw it as far from him as possible, he thinks he feels fangs sink into his skin.

After far too long, the dark blue smudge of moonlight appears ahead. However, also up ahead: snakes dangling from the doorway like they’re streamers at Quetzalcoatl’s private party. He gets down low on the ground, slides out right on his ass, and Cas does the same. Dean turns around to check that he’s all right, but no, of course not, why would they be?

"Dean -" Cas cries out, but a snake coils around him and once again they’re pulled away from each other.

A tail wraps around Dean’s neck and lifts him off his feet. The flashlight clatters to the ground. Cas calls his name but it’s faint, an underwater sound. He reaches up and digs his nails into the snake’s body. It does no good: the grip tightens and he expels one tiny breath of air - his last? - before his throat closes up. Another tail loops around his knees and takes him down, winding up and around his body. His eyes search frantically for Cas, where the fuck is he, what the fuck, because if Dean’s still wrestling with these fucking pythons then what is Cas facing that can stop him -

Black spots flash in his vision and he widens his eyes, thinking that if he blinks he may never reopen them. With his arms pinned to his sides, all he can do is wiggle and twist his neck, and all he can see is snake and sky, the blurry stars, pale stain of the moon. A pinch, a slice to his neck, his bicep, his hip: hot blood flows, fuck, shit, he'll bet a million pesos that those things are -

His brain starts to shut down. Another jab in his neck and this time it doesn’t let go. Another snake circles his torso and it squeezes, slowly, surely. The trembling overtakes him. His mouth is so dry he might as well have sand stuck in his teeth. He feels heat - but doesn't he always? Isn't this what it comes down to, the fire, the searing of his flesh, smoke singing on his lips?

Dean thinks, maybe, that someone somewhere is calling his name. He’d like to call back.

He lets go, lets his body fall limp, and then he gets a brilliant idea: maybe this is how he’ll finally get to meet God. How about that, Cas? You stupid son of a bitch. Dean doesn’t know if that last uncharitable thought is directed to Cas, God, or himself. Is this the one that’s gonna stick? That final death and all of hell awaiting his return? He won’t scream as much this time, he promises. Back to the pit, back to dancing with demons as they descend upon his flesh like ravenous wolves.

You've been out, back there, mm, I've always loved that new car smell - I claim the neck.

Can't avoid fate, Pastor Jim would say.

We can make our own destiny, Sam would say. Bet he doesn't say that now.

Dean wonders where angels go when they die.

Acid bubbles on Dean’s skin, the familiar stench of hell taking him in and swallowing him whole - an old friend, the oldest one he's ever had.

He has no idea what that bright light is around him. Dean feels the heat of a fire that doesn’t burn.

The next thing he knows, he's released. Dean tumbles back to the ground and tastes dirt, and he doesn’t remember ever having that in the pit. Someone yanks him up. He’s pressed against something firm, warm - a heart beats against his cheek.

"Dean, hold on."

That’s what that voice said the last time, too.

"Dean, can you hear me? Hold on."

I know, Dean wants to say. Just like the last time. And then there are two fingers on his forehead and the world turns inside out.

+

They crash somewhere bright and unbearably sunny. Dean gets the wind knocked out of him, gets his hands all skinned, gets sand in his mouth, but he can’t even process these things right now. There's air here, fresh air, and his lungs are crying with relief for it.

They’re safe. They’re fine. They’re good for now, though he can still feel the phantom scales, the phantom fangs sinking into his skin. He comes to just enough to realize the warm weight resting on him, which shifts sluggishly. He feels a soft puff of breath against his neck.

Cas, with his head tucked under Dean’s chin, does not look in any of a better condition than Dean himself.

"Hey," Dean says, voice like sandpaper. He feels as if he’s swallowed razor blades. "Cas. Cas, wake up, man."

Cas grunts.

"Cas."

"What."

"Get up. Hey -"

The next words die on his lips when Cas suddenly touches his cheek, and Dean is too distracted by the unexpectedness of it to say anything when grace starts to flow. He widens his eyes, he draws a deep and shaky breath, and the sky is heartbreakingly blue, so endless above him. As the grace thrums through his body, he thinks he has never seen a more beautiful sky. Deep azure shade and the the pale brushstrokes of clouds, looking the way waves sound.

"Stop," Dean says weakly. "Cas, stop."

It’s like the first drink down the hatch after a hard day, the burn going down his throat. The grace warms up his body, and it has a certain sharpness that he has come to find comforting, having associated it with the alleviation of pain and the healing of wounds.

It’s very difficult to turn his face away.

"Dean -"

"Stop that," and he grabs Cas’ wrist, pulls it away. Squeezes his eyes shut as the fade of grace leaves him feeling empty and cold. "Cas... get the hell off me, can’t fucking breathe."

Cas assents with either difficulty or reluctance, Dean can’t really tell.

"You okay?" Dean rasps. Cas gives a weak nod. Bite marks on his jaw. Dean lifts a hand to his own neck where he got bit, but only feels smooth skin.

"I should’ve -" Cas croaks. "I should’ve -"

"Hey," Dean whispers, and neither of them move. They lay there, side by side on the sand, and they wait, but for what, neither of them know.

"Dean -"

"Yeah." Dean closes his eyes, and breathes deep. "Yeah."

+

"Slow down there, Carmen Sandiego," Dean says.

"Why do you keep calling me that?" Cas growls.

"You want to talk to a volcano god?"

"Goddess," Cas corrects, and Dean chooses to ignore his air of impatience because dude needs to calm the fuck down. Needs to stop hobbling around worsening all wounds, needs to let himself recover. Dean wouldn’t say no to a siesta for himself; he’s not sure if he’s tired or just jet-lagged.

Also, his stomach is rumbling. Who was that guy who said he believed in six impossible things before breakfast? Dean has got him beat. He’s not just believing them, he’s straight up getting choked by vicious temple snakes and prophesied by sari-sari store owners, so maybe belief counts for jack shit because no matter what Dean doesn’t believe in, they keep happening to him anyway. To hell with six impossible things before breakfast, and come to think of it, would this next meal be breakfast or technically lunch? What time is it?

Gathering themselves after crash-landing on the beach, Dean told Cas to take them to somewhere with food, and, well. Here they are. Late afternoon in downtown Bandung is hot and noisy, but cool in the shade. The equator may cut straight through Indonesia, but Bandung is 2500 feet above sea level and is blessed by the mildness of higher altitudes. During colonial times, the Dutch used to call it the Paris of Java, something that Cas seems to take particular issue with, much to Dean’s amusement. "I’ve watched both Paris and Bandung grow through the years," Cas says as Dean pokes around one food cart to another, "and they are nothing alike."

Dean frowned contemplatively at a cart whose vendor is busy shoveling noodles and boiled meatballs into a bowl for a girl, who is texting someone as she waits. "Maybe you take things too literally, Cas," Dean says absently.

"Maybe humans don’t take things literally enough," Cas mutters.

Dean raises his eyebrows. "Okay. So, which one is it you love so much? Paris or Bandung?"

Without hesitation, Cas answers, "Bandung."

Dean pauses at another food cart selling goat skewers in peanut sauce, and says, "Yeah? Why’s that?" The smells are making it hard to concentrate, all the aromas mingling together until he can’t tell one from the other and he’s so fucking hungry, man. He doesn’t even know where to start with all this, he just wants to stuff his face.

Instead of answering - or perhaps as an answer, Dean isn’t sure - Cas says, "You can see the mountains from anywhere in this city."

Dean follows Cas’s gaze to the the distance where blue-green mountains dwarf the skyline.

"The faster you eat, the faster we can talk to Pele," Cas hints.

"I don’t know, man," Dean replies. "You already pissed off one god today. That was no picnic, lemme tell ya’."

"I already apologized for that."

"Good for you."

He gets to the end of the food carts and stares at the McDonald’s sign across the street, but then Sam’s voice comes into his head. "You went all the way to the other side of the world and you ate burgers? Come on, Dean."

Come on, Dean.

And that’s how they end up eating baso tahu (or at least Dean is) and twiddling their thumbs (or at least Cas is, in his way) sitting on the side of the road with all the other people out to grab a quick bite. Dean takes his cue from a man eating the same thing he is and squeezes the lime over his meal. He pushes the dumplings around his plate, trying to keep the peanut sauce to the side. Dean is no coward when it comes to spicy food, but he still didn’t expect the sauce to be this spicy. He has already gone through two bottles of tea and he’s starting to feel kind of bad for the vendor, whom Cas mindwipes because they don’t have any rupiahs.

Dean sits back and lets Bandung soak into him. The roads downtown are small and tree-lined, and the trees are tall and thick. He is grateful for the shade the foliage provides. Over by the intersection, a couple of guys charge into the sea of cars every red light, strumming a guitar and banging a tambourine. The guitarist attempts to sing. Occasionally the cars give them money for their effort. Most times they get nothing. Across the boulevard is a field; some teenagers are playing a pick-up game of soccer, and their yelling carries over even the honking of the cars.

This is the world that heaven and hell have marked for reformatting. This is what they’re going to destroy. Dean tries to not let himself think in terms of what’s fair and what’s not anymore. That shit never gets you anywhere - it just makes you angry. But he lets himself think it now. Baso tahu, soccer, and people who can’t sing - destroyed by the will of heaven and the audacity of hell.

"Are you done?" Cas asks.

"Eat it," Dean says suddenly, holding out a forkful of fried tofu to Cas, who just stares at it suspiciously. "Eat it. Go on, eat it, you gotta keep up your energy, man, eat it," and wouldn’t let up until Cas relents and eats it, biting it off Dean’s fork.

Sam would probably like this stuff. He’s always been the more adventurous brother when it comes to food. Growing up, the kid had always won the tabasco-chugging contests, always the one who lit up when someone said, "I dare you to eat this jalapeno." Sam. Fucking tenacious, that one.

Dean’s about to take a phone pic of the baso tahu and send it to Sam before he remembers that he doesn’t get signal here. He takes a picture anyway. He’ll send it later.

"Pele, huh?" Dean says around a mouthful of food, then chugs down the rest of the bottled tea. He’s going to need like three more of these.

"I wish it were otherwise," Cas mutters, "but yes: Pele."

"Does she have beef with you too? I ask only because it’s nice to know these things beforehand so that when I get smote, I’ll know why."

"She has... beef... with all the angels. And no one will smite you."

"Oh. Perfect."

"It’s not the best lead," Cas concedes, "but it’s the only lead we have. If you want to stop, if you want to go back to your motel, then say the word, I’ll take you back. I’ll do this alone."

He supposes he shouldn’t be surprised at the defiance in Cas’s tone, but it grates anyway. There’s a hardness in Cas’s eyes that Dean still sees the cracks in. The show of bravado you must shell out when all you’ve got is scraps, devil may care, devil may not give a shit, and you have to go at it no matter what people say or don’t say. You’re just following an order that you never needed to be ordered to do.

"Alone?" Dean snorts. "In your condition? Dude, you’ll probably get deep-fried extra-crispy, the way you’ve been going at this."

Cas narrows his eyes. "And what way exactly have I been going at this?"

"Do you just wait until the amulet lights up and then see where it goes?"

"Yes."

"That’s it?"

"What else can I do?" Cas demands.

"I don’t know, seek out intel? Make some friends? You’re supposed to be the million-year-old warrior here, I thought you’d have this shit figured out!"

"If I had it figured out, I wouldn’t -"

"What? You wouldn’t what?"

Conversations are dying around them. This argument is drawing attention but Dean doesn’t much care. It’s not that Dean wishes Cas hadn’t rebelled against heaven, but there is an imbalance in Castiel now that sets Dean on edge. The guy is full of wild intention and too much follow-through, and it hits too close to home. Launching himself into the dark at the slightest provocation. Dean goes from not understanding him to understanding parts of him a little too well.

"Is this what you do?" Dean asks. "Is this what you do when I’m not around?"

"Yes," Cas snaps. "What do you do when I’m not with you?"

"Save the world, I guess. Try not to die."

"Well. Me too."

It’s not easy. Dean supposes it never is.

"So, what?" Dean sighs. "Pele? Detour to Hawai’i?"

"She’s not in Hawai’i. Not right now, anyway."

"Where is she?"

"Costa Rica."

Dean contemplates this. "Okay, I’ll take Costa Rica. What’s she doing in Costa Rica?"

"Business, from what I understand. Or politics, depending on how you phrase the question."

"Business? What kind of business are volcano gods up to these days? What, like the price of igneous rocks? Lahar inflation?"

"The apocalypse."

The stoplight changes to red; someone honks their horn and curses. The buskers scurry between the cars and serenade a Toyota Corolla with a rough rendition of ‘Every Rose Has Its Thorn’.

Dean opens his mouth to reply. Then closes it.

The apocalypse. Of course.

"Guess we better get on it," Dean mutters, with no clue as to what "it" is. He’s used to not having a plan, and he’s not sure why he expected Cas to be any better. At the very least, this failing seems to have honed their talent for narrow escapes.

Silver linings are cold comfort.

He pops another forkful of dumpling in his mouth and wonders if he can get one more bowl of this (sans peanut sauce, though the sweet soy sauce is way okay) before they go.

+

It’s 6 PM in Bandung and 6 AM in Oklahoma. It occurs to him that if he tries getting any further from his brother, he’d only be going back. They’re literally at opposite ends of the earth.

"We’re making another stop before we go," Cas says.

Dean raises his eyebrows. "What’s up? You were raring to go when I called a food break. Where?"

"Masjid al-Sunnah."

"Who?"

"This way."

Dean falls in step with Cas, dodging around the oncoming traffic of pedestrians. He is not unaware of the locals’ lingering looks on him. Dean is used to feeling ill-fitting. He is also used to making himself inconspicuous in a crowd situation, but that doesn’t work here.

Cas takes a sharp left off the main avenue and down a back street, and Dean nearly trips over a couple of kids running out. "Watch it!" he snaps, but the kids just giggle over their shoulders at him and then they giggle at each other. They disappear into the hubbub of the sidewalk, and Dean continues on his way.

The back street is tiny, barely big enough for one car to drive through, and more tidy than it is clean. On either side are small houses and humble businesses. There’s a signpost with a picture of scissors and a bunch of photos of women with different hairstyles, all of them looking like they’re from the eighties. Another store shows off swathes of fabric in it, and another displays shoes. In front of one house, an old woman in a sarong and a t-shirt sits on the porch and smokes her clove cigarette. Dean smiles at her.

"How you doin’?" he says.

The old woman frowns, then nods at him and tentatively waves.

They stop in front of a building crowned by a gleaming aluminum dome. Its floors are tiled with green marbled ceramic, and the mosaics on the wall are simple but elegant in their geometric design. Through the double doors, Dean can see an open carpeted space and people sitting in rows facing west. In front of the entrance, there stands a huge drum like a taiko drum like he saw on that National Geographic documentary one time.

Beside the building, there is a minaret.

"We’re here," Cas says.

"A mosque?"

"Yes."

"Who are we meeting here?"

"No one," says Cas, pulling at his tie. "I’m here to pray."

"...really?"

"The shape of the Lord’s house doesn’t matter." Cas takes off his tie and hands it to Dean.

"Dude, I thought we were in a hurry."

"Praying helps me think. You can amuse yourself in the meantime, if you wish."

"What -" Dean says, then Cas shrugs off his coat and hands it to him. "Um," he says, and Cas drops the blazer onto the pile in his arms, too. He thinks about Cas always looking disheveled, and wonders if this is why.

It occurs to Dean that he has never seen Castiel pray. Angels are warriors of God, Cas told him once, but that was not even the image that had stuck in Dean’s head. He never realized how much he internalized Cas’s faith as something to oppose instead of something that still anchored the guy.

"There’s also a temple in Kyoto that I favor," Cas adds, "and a monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas, but this was closer."

Beside the mosque, there’s a communal washing area with a row of taps jutting out of the wall. There are a handful of men there washing their hands and feet, pants rolled up to their knees, sleeves rolled up to their elbows. A few are in sarongs. Cas takes off his shoes and socks, then places them at the edge of the mountain of footwear piling up by the steps. These movements are precise and practiced. Perhaps Cas has prayed here many times before.

Dean shifts his armful of clothes awkwardly, and watches as Cas rolls up his sleeves and twists the tap, the water splashing over Cas’s hands. Technically, Cas can probably just zap himself clean and whole again, but Dean understands the respect for ritual. Not rules per se, but ceremony.

Sometimes it helps you think.

Cas splashes water on his face, and Dean thinks disconnectedly that it must feel nice, a hot day like today. Hell, they’ve been to two beaches and didn’t even go down to the water. When Cas finishes his ablutions, the loudspeakers atop of the minaret begin to sing the adzan in long and complex notes that call to the heart. Cas goes inside with everyone else, faces Mecca, and seeks revelation.

Dean watches the call and answer between congregation and the imam, the way they all move as one. Like a wave. Cas sticks out like a sore thumb in the back, lone white guy a head taller than everyone else. No one gives him so much as a glance now, with all their hearts turned to God.

Would God hide here?

Bandung is a city unlike any other Dean has ever been in, but it inspires the same kind of restlessness. Dean has never done well in cities. It makes him itch under the skin, and he is always too aware of everything - the bustle, the honking, the roar of humanity. There is too much to focus on, so he can focus on nothing. He and Sam didn’t go into big cities that often, but when they did they would stick closer together, each other’s touchstones in a volatile landscape. Dean appreciates the transience of city-living, but there is always something in him that misses the open road.

Dean would admit to not knowing (or caring) much about God, but now that he knows a little about angels, he knows about God even less. He always figured that if God was going to be anywhere, he’d be on a mountain, the desert, the sea - some ancient and natural place conquered by no man, made by nothing but God’s own will. If God were running away though, maybe he would run to the city. Bright lights, fast living, and the breathing room to finally not be surrounded by the evidence of his own hand. It could happen. City-dwellers are used to seeing the signs of their own greatness around them, their ability to erect tall buildings and build build facsimiles of nature in parks. In nature, you are humbled. You didn’t create the trees, nor did you call down the stars.

In the city, buildings scrape the sky, but at least in Bandung, you can always see the mountains.

The prayer doesn’t take long. When it’s over, the mosque fills with the buzz of conversation. Humanity leaks back into the sacred, or maybe it’s the other way around. People begin to exit the mosque en masse, and when Cas emerges, he finds Dean across the way, shadowed in twilight as he leans against a fence.

"Your coat, sir," Dean says, holding it out.

"Thank you."

"How’d your thinking go?"

"About as well as can be expected."

"Should I be drawing up my last will and testament before we head to Costa Rica?"

Cas puts on the blazer, then the trench coat. "No."

He takes the tie and then pauses, frowning at it until Dean sighs and says, "Here."

Dean takes the tie back.

He unknots it, slips it under Cas’ collar, and ties it in a full Windsor, up and over just like Pastor Jim taught him, just like he used to have to do for Sam when he was going to junior prom with that girl, what’s her name, Kathleen, Kathy, Katy. "There," Dean says, giving the tie a final tug and then appraising his handiwork. When they have more time and a little more peace, he will have to teach Cas properly. "At no extra charge, even."

There’s something missing.

Dean hmms, then reaches out and tugs the front part of the tie, twisting it around so it’s backwards. "There. Perfect."

"Come on," Cas says. No thanks of course. "We shouldn’t be late."

+

Late for what, Dean has no idea: gods don’t seem to be fond of appointments, after all.

Dean won’t lie, but even the thought of Pele scares the shit out of him. Maybe it’s the flaming hot lava. Or tectonic plates.

No, just the lava. Hopefully.

"This volcano better not be trying to reject us either, Cas," Dean says, glaring at Cas’s back ahead of him.

"It’s not," Cas says, laying a hand against rock. He concentrates, as if he’s listening, and stiffens.

"What?" Dean asks warily, already taking a step back in preparation.

"It’s fine," he replies, avoiding his gaze. "You’re fine."

Dean doesn’t miss how Cas omits himself.

Arenal in the pre-dawn light is a sight to behold, or so Cas tells Dean. All Dean sees right now are trees, huge fucking trees, sunlight speckling through the canopy above them, but barely touching the ground on which they walk. The world is wreathed in mist. He hears the cawing of strange birds, or hell, maybe they’re monkeys for all of the zoology Dean has under his belt. He thinks he actually sees a monkey at some point, but he can’t be sure. There’s just movement at the corner of his eye, and by the time he looks, all he sees are rustling leaves. All he hears is chittering that sounds like laughter, maybe saying, "Look at these two bozos trying to find God."

Dean prattles to Cas about gods giving decent people a hard time, and to his delight, it needles Cas enough into retorting. "Gods are stupid." "No, humans are stupid." It’s the kind of immature sniping that Dean doesn’t really give a fuck about, replete with shit-eating grin. Cas is full of irritated anecdotes about the endless incompetence of ancient prophets that Dean can’t help but egg him on.

"Hey," Dean says, "why don’t you just zap us the rest of the way up there?"

"You can’t just "zap" to this place," Cas says. "Besides, if I zapped us to the peak, there is no guarantee the gods will be there."

"But if we walk there, there is."

"For the most part."

"How does that even make sense?" Dean demands, but the question is rhetorical. He has performed enough rituals with improvised ingredients to know that some shortcuts won’t work. Some shortcuts don’t exist. Sometimes the journey itself is the door.

Be quiet, Pastor Jim.

The path becomes steeper.

"Fog’s picking up," Dean comments.

"It’s not fog," Cas replies. "They’re clouds."

As they rise deeper into the sky, silence settles over them, as if their words are earthly things to be left at the door between the worlds. Color, too, then must be an earthly thing, because the clouds leech it out of their surroundings. The world becomes muted in all ways as they climb higher, and for a few moments Dean gets the feeling that it’s not the clouds obscuring everything, but the world itself fading away.

"Cas -" he says, because Cas is a graying silhouette several feet in front of him. At Dean’s voice, though - the silhouette stops.

Dean keeps his eyes on him and takes a shaky breath, trying to catch hold of the world again.

"Are you all right?" Cas asks in a voice that sounds closer than the distance between them would suggest.

Cas waits for him to catch up, and as Dean stumbles closer, familiar details sharpen themselves out of the mist, anchoring him. The angle of Cas’s jaw, blue of his eyes. The crease between his brows when he frowns, and the look on his face when he’s trying to figure something out. They have been each other’s unknown quantity since their first meeting, but even this has become a habit. A sign that the world is still here and that nothing is fading away.

"Dean -"

Dean swallows, coming to a stop before him. "I’m fine."

"This is unstable territory," Cas says quietly. "The veil between the worlds is thin here. It’s dangerous to stray."

"How dangerous?"

"As in ‘never seen again’ dangerous."

He forces a smirk. "What, like they get eaten by the mist?"

"This is an intersection of many worlds. What you must worry about is not what disappears into the mist, but what appears from it."

"Like what?"

But instead of answering, Cas just says, "It’s best not to attract attention."

They walk.

Condensation clings to his skin like cold sweat. When Dean looks up, he can't see the sky - only trees disappearing into a swirl of mist. Into the clouds. He can't see more than a few yards in any direction. There’s a holiness that hangs in the air. It’s not a sensation he can rationally explain, but a life spent immersed in the supernatural and a death spent bleeding in hell have taught Dean to notice the boundaries between one reality and the next.

This place would give Missouri a headache, Dean thinks absently, and his memories do a double take. Missouri. He hasn’t thought about her in a long time. How is she holding up during the end times? Is she -?

He should give her a call after all this is over.

Someone calls his name and Dean stops in his tracks.

The warning is that it sounds like Sam, and Dean has to remind himself in a very deliberate way that Sam is very far from where he is and has no business being in a place like this. Stepford Sam busing tables in Oklahoma, playing house with civilians. No business crossing over to sacred lands on top of mountains. Get your shit together, Winchester.

One foot in front of the other and keep walking on. Sam’s voice eventually fades behind him. Cas doesn’t seem to have noticed. Dean quickens his pace. The clouds get thicker and it’s not unlike walking through the the temple again, the monsters waiting in the wings. In the temple, there was no light to show him the outlines of reality. In the clouds, there are no contours that outline it. No birds sing here; no insects buzz. It is a soundless, shapeless world, and the only things Dean can see are the trees beside him and the angel that leads the way. Dean resists the urge to call out to him again.

Sam is only the beginning. Other voices float out of the mist, like smoke rising out of the embers of his past. He hears accusations, apologies, entreaties to come back. Dean thinks he hears his mother’s voice. He grits his teeth and trudges on. Remember what happened to Orpheus when he looked back.

A voice that is sweet and clearer than the others beckons, If you want to stick around for a while, you’re welcome to stay, and the damndest thing is that Dean can’t tell if it’s memory or just a wish he hadn’t buried as deeply as he thought. Dean, you’re welcome to stay, the voice comes again, and the words come wreathed in images of dark hair, weekend mornings, a throaty laugh. Dark eyes. A kiss.

Don’t let the bastards get to your head, son. Once they get to your head, you can’t rely on your instincts anymore. And is this one a memory or a voice from the fog? Has Dean been hearing the words with his ears or do they speak in his heart? He can’t tell. He finds himself wishing with a sudden desperate pang that his father was around again. The man may have been a bastard who made all the wrong decisions, but for a long and significant portion of Dean’s life, John Winchester was the world. He was the ground, unquestionable and unquestioned, and he was the mountain, carrying sunrises on his back.

You stick with your family. There’s nothing more important.

The "yessir" slips out of Dean’s mouth before he realizes what he’s doing.

Dean, you get back here!

He walks a little faster.

How did Cas get so far ahead?

Dean, Dean, Dean, someone tuts, and this time it’s easy for Dean to keep going. Alastair is not anyone he wants to stop for, and he quickens his pace. Gonna have to do better than that, clouds.

Aww, Dean. I’m hurt. Where do you have to be in such a hurry?

He doesn’t have to talk to illusions.

Ahead of him, Cas continues walking between the trees, head down, and faster now as if he’d rather get the journey over with as quickly as possible.

"Hey -" Dean begins to call out, but then the clouds thicken and just like that the world disappears.

He smells sulfur.

Alastair is dead, he reminds himself. This is all in my head., Not that it’s much of a comfort, because he knows by now that just because it’s in his head, doesn’t mean it can’t kill you. Dean picks up the pace, but then he trips on a root and crashes face-first into a tree, the mist is so fucking thick. He can’t see a goddamn thing.

Oopsie daisies, says a shape emerging itself out of the mist. It vaguely looks like Alastair’s second vessel, still dripping blood, but then it changes and it’s his first vessel, then the mess of gnashing teeth and sharpened blades that he was in hell.

Dean scrambles to his feet, but where is there to go to now? There is no path anymore. He can barely see a foot in front of him.

He’s trapped.

You gotta watch your step around here, kiddo, Alastair says, shifting closer to him and holding out his hand.

Dean shakes his head and steps away, but Alastair is there, here, all over. In his skin, his marrow.

Don't you hear that pathetic soul? He needs to be silenced, boy. He misses you. Your touch. The skill of your hand. So proud of you. So proud. But you've been slipping, haven't you? Not practicing. I know.

Dean's hand curl in a habitual motion before he notices he's doing it, and he shakes it loose, horrified.

Alastair laughs. What are you doing here? Look at you - that angel is playing you like a fiddle and he doesn’t even know what song he’s playing. When he finds God, he'll cut those strings, and where will you be? Left on the curb like rotten leftovers. But not with me. Never with me.

"Shut up," Dean hisses, swallows. He tastes ash.

What will God say when he finds out you've been looking for him? God's going to laugh, my boy," and then Alastair laughs himself. "Laugh and send you right back to me.

"He raised me," Dean mutters, shutting his eyes for a moment. When he opens them again, Alastair will be gone. He will be gone. He must be gone.

No, Castiel, he doesn't need you. If he did, why would he wait forty years before finding you? Why would he sit back and listen as you squirmed and writhed and cried as I carved your pretty bones, painted your flesh as my canvas?

"He needs me," Dean manages, but the words feel thick on his tongue. They feel like an excuse - hollow, contrived. Alastair has always had that effect on him.

You don't know what he wants. But you know what I want. I'll never lie to you. Never have. I know you, have seen every inch of you, tasted each bite. So beautiful. Your cries, my lullabies.

And it’s true, it’s true, Alastair has never lied to him, he has never -

See? You can't even bear to leave me, can you? Who's Sammy, Daddy, sweet little Lisa, when you've got me?

But no, no no no, Alastair's just like those other shadows in the clouds, he’s not real, he’s not real, and if Dean could lift his feet, just one step, that's all he needs is one step -

You miss it, Alastair hisses, the sibilance trilling on the back of Dean’s neck. You miss feeling like you deserve to be exactly where you are.

"I am exactly where I belong," Dean says hoarsely.

That’s cute, Dean, Alastair continues. Tell me it’s not true, then. Tell me you don’t miss feeling like you belong.

"I don’t belong in hell."

Ah, but you chose to be there, which is almost the same. And Alastair, that dark and sin-sweet weight on his mind, refusing to leave him alone, to let him forget - he holds out his hand to Dean. Come home.

Somewhere nearby, Cas calls his name.

It’s all he needs.

"Cas!" Dean yells, and takes one step, then another, and another even as Alastair’s shade drifts closer to him, grinning menacingly. Dean turns around and takes off in the direction of Cas’s voice, hands in front of him just in case any other trees decide to get anymore smart ideas. "Cas!"

"Dean!"

"Over here!"

Just a quick round of Marco Polo in a mystical cloud forest in Costa Rica. No big deal. If you average six impossible things before breakfast, just wait until after lunch.

He stumbles through the mist. He dodges around trees and ignores the voices he hears behind them. Cas’s voice gets louder, closer, and then Dean is closing his hands around a handful of trenchcoat, and he pulls Cas out of the mist.

Rabbit out of a hat, Dean thinks in bewildered. Cas looks as stunned as Dean feels, and glances down at Dean clutching his arms, knuckles turning white. Abracadabra.

"Dean, what -"

"You -"

"What -"

"You walk too fucking fast," Dean bursts out. "What happened to staying close, huh?"

Cas blinks. Dean’s heart is not calming down any; his heart is busy remembering hell.

"Dean," Cas says, removing Dean’s hands from his arms. "What happened?"

"Just - you walk too goddamn fast is all."

His stomach feels like it's about to crawl out of his mouth, and he presses a hand to it. He can still feel hot breath on his neck, the curl of a hand on his hip, the lick of flame on his skin. He swallows down a heave. It doesn’t take Cas long to figure out what happened.

"You shouldn’t pay attention to them," Cas says. He rests his palm on Dean's chest, and he frowns as he feels Dean's heartbeat.

Slow. Slow down. Slow.

"What, did you think I was taking notes or something?" He looks down at Cas’s hand. "Uh, what are you -"

"This place," Cas continues, "takes advantage of intangible things - your past, your dreams, your doubts. Focus on the here and now."

Under Cas’s palm, Dean’s heartbeat slows. It calms.

"Stay close," he says softly, curling his fingers against Dean’s chest, and then he looks into Dean’s eyes, making sure.

Dean gives Cas a little mock salute and gives him a shaky smile.

They continue walking.

It’s not like the voices let up. Not like the illusions give him any mercy. The shades stalk the periphery of his awareness, their siren calls inviting Dean to dash himself against their rocks. He focuses straight ahead, eyes on Cas’s back, the way the angel makes his way through the underbrush without making a sound. Dean wonders what Cas sees in the mist, what could ever possibly tempt him to abandon his way.

And then finally, finally, they emerge above the clouds.

Chapter Text

"Aw, shit," Dean murmurs. "We’re not in Kansas anymore, are we?"

And really, if Cas’s reply were anything but, "We were never in Kansas," Dean would’ve been disappointed.

Around them, the clouds are a sea, a vast ocean of white. Mountain peaks poke through them like islands. It reminds Dean of a bedtime story a babysitter used to read to him about a little girl who sailed a boat across the sky and caught the stars in her fishing net. She might have sailed through this same sky. Here, atop Arenal which is not Arenal anymore, Dean is surrounded on all sides by endless things. Even Cas seems moved, awed into silence by the godly weight of the air in this world.

This is the other side of the looking glass. As far as Platonic cave allegories go, Dean is not sure if they’ve escaped the cave or are in its deepest recesses. In the immortal sacred places of the world, perhaps they are one and the same.

The majesty is interrupted by the ground rumbling beneath their feet, and then, of course, the mountain speaks.

"How did you get here?" says a voice as deep as canyons, old as time.

"We’re looking for Pele," Cas announces. "We don’t mean any harm."

A laugh, and Dean looks around for the source of it, some sign of - what, some face in a boulder or something. But there is only the mountain.

"I wasn’t worried about that, angel," it says. "You are no threat. Especially in your state."

If that hits a nerve, Cas doesn’t show it. "Tell Pele we wish to see her."

"We were wondering if you were going to get around to us," it rumbles, and are they being sneered at by a fucking rock? You are brave to come here, but we have no time to listen to those who have not listened to us before."

"Funny," Cas says, narrowing his eyes, "how you talk about who should be listening to whom when in fact it was your faction who -"

"Just -" Dean holds up his hand to Cas’s face. "No." He turns back to the mountain. "Hey, look, whatever Cas and his... faction did in the past, I’m sure they’re sorry about it."

"We are not -" Cas protests.

"We just want to talk to her, okay?" Dean says, stepping in front of him. "Just a few minutes of her time and then she can go back to... uh. Volcano stuff."

"We seek justice!" Cas demands.

"We seek Pele," Dean amends.

"Stop."

A female voice: low and steady, commanding respect. Dean turns around. A woman stands on the ledge against the sea of clouds, and she is no ordinary woman. She looks young, younger than Dean, even, but her gaze is old and encompassing. Her long hair flutters around her body and dances in the wind, and her eyes - all iris, no pupil - shimmer as if harboring a hidden fire.

"Get out," she says. "Get out, angel. You’re not welcome here."

Dean sees her veins pulsing, lava straining against its confinement. She flexes her hand, and it cools and settles down.

"I only wish to talk," Cas says. Then, in afterthought, he adds, "Please."

"Now you just want to talk," Pele says, because who else could this be? Who else could wear this crown? Fire dances on the tips of her hair, and magma bubbles under her feet. She controls every inch of this place. This volcano is for her as much as she is for this volcano - an impression of danger, of being larger than life. Dormant, but don’t tempt fate. She says to Castiel, "We have nothing to discuss."

"Five minutes," Dean says, and her gaze shoots over to him.

"And you," she says, "who are you?"

"Not an angel," he promises.

"What are you doing with him, not-an-angel?"

"Looking for someone," Dean hedges.

"Yes," Cas says, "we're -"

A crack appears under him. Cas stumbles forward and Dean grabs him before falls. Pele chuckles to herself, and Dean sees an unwise reply imminent in Cas’s glare.

"Cas, maybe you should step out for a second," Dean says under his breath.

"No," Cas says immediately. "I’m not going anywhere."

"She’s not gonna talk with you here, man. Let me take this one."

"You’re not staying here by yourself."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Can it. I don’t need you to babysit me, okay? Do you want the information or not? You’re not going to hurt me, are ya’?" He directs the last question at Pele.

Smoke spills from her lips as she smiles. "No promises."

"...Close enough."

"I can convince her," Cas insists.

"Somehow I don’t think your charm is going to work here," Dean says dryly. "I’m beginning to see why your little search isn’t going so well. Look, let me handle this."

Cas hesitates. "Call for me if things take a turn for the worse," he says. "Don’t be stupid."

"Me? Never."

"Ten minutes."

"Cas."

Cas nods, eyes hard. He pauses for a moment before he reaches into his pocket and pulls out the amulet. He runs a finger over the horns then slips it around Dean’s neck. How odd, Dean thinks. How odd to be blessed with something that he has always thought of as his. Perhaps Dean should be used to this by now: the stories he thought were his alone are always so much bigger than he thought. His destiny, if such a thing exists, contains so much more than just himself. It carries the weight of other people’s sorrows, their hopes. The amulet is no different; it, too, is accumulating stories. There is something fierce beginning to fracture in Cas’s eyes, some tangled tale, and Dean tries not to buckle under his gaze.

"Fine," Dean rasps, and swallows. He tries again in a normal voice. "Fine."

Straightening his back, Cas gives Pele the stinkeye, but she just gestures him away.

"I don't know your deal with angels," Dean starts out when Cas is gone. "Sure, most of them are assholes, but Cas? He's all right. Well, he’s kinda -"

"You seek the angel’s father," Pele says impassively. "Your friend’s search methods are not very stealthy," she explains when she sees Dean’s surprised expression.

"Yeah. Tell me about it." He clears his throat. "So, uh. Seen God around?"

"There are many gods."

"Yeah, right, of course. Uh, one in particular."

"Why?"

"What do you mean, ‘why’?"

"Why are you helping him find... God?" She smiles indulgently at the last word.

"Well, did you guys happen to notice the part where the apocalypse is happening?"

"We noticed," Pele says dryly. "Why do you think the gods have gathered here today?"

A breeze gusts past, and Pele’s hair undulates in the wind, beautiful but out of sync with the world, like seaweed in the water. She is not the first god that Dean has faced, by far, but she is the first he has faced in these apocalyptic circumstances, and her displeasure is tangible. He has not given thought to how one pantheon’s apocalypse would affect another’s stories, but the questions poke at him now. If Lucifer and Michael have their way, what then would happen to Ragnarok? To Qiamah? What will be left for Vishnu’s tenth avatar to deal with?

Everyone’s stories are colliding, and maybe all anyone is really trying to do is tell their own.

"Your angel friends -"

"Whoa, lady, they’re hardly my friends."

"Your angel friends seem to think it is easy to lay claim to the end. They are severely mistaken."

"We’re trying to give them hell the best we can," Dean says, "which is where you come in. See, my, uh, associate has it on good authority that you know a little something about something about his dad, so -"

"Don't think you can come seek us out and ask us these questions, boy." Dean feels the mountain rumble. Molten rock glows around her feet. "You meddle in many affairs you don’t understand."

"It’s a bad habit that sometimes yields good results," he replies. He ventures a shit-eating grin. "In other words, ‘s a hard one to break."

Dean hears laughter behind him and whirls around.

"I like this one, Pele," says a man with craggy features. He carries a large hammer slung over his shoulder as he limps towards them. "He amuses me."

Pele sighs. "What do you want, Hephaestus?"

The god crosses his arms and does a terrible job of faking nonchalance. "The council wishes to know what’s keeping you. Kali is getting restless."

Pele smiles, and Dean is surprised to note the fondness in it. "She’s always restless."

"What should I tell them?"

She looks Dean up and down. "Tell them that preventing the end of the world requires many sacrifices." She wrinkles her nose. "Now leave. I have matters to attend to."

"Wait," Dean blurts out. "We haven’t even -"

"Not you, stupid boy," she snaps.

Hephaestus makes a sound of disbelief. "Pele, what are you -"

"I said leave, Hephaestus."

Hephaestus’s look of surprise turns to anger when he looks at Dean. Dean shrugs. Tough cookies, man.

"I don't agree with this," Hephaestus scowls.

"I’m not asking you to agree with me," says Pele, her eyes flaring gold. "Not that you or anyone would, if the past few days are an indication."

"You need to surround yourself with better people, you know," Dean tells her as Hephaestus vanishes is a huffy swirl of flame.

"Oh, like you?" Pele’s mouth thins. "I don’t know you at all. Nor why you trust the angels."

"Angel," Dean emphasizes. "Singular. I trust one angel."

"Angels deceive you or they will turn on you," she continues. Her words are eerily similar to Alastair's, and Dean has to blink him away. Just like in Manila, Dean gets the impression of standing on the very tip of an iceberg, all that history in the water and none of it under the bridge. "This is how it has always been and how it will be. He convinces you to follow him now, but what then?"

And then Sam’s voice, clear as a bell: I'm not pathetic like you. I have a mind of my own.

Dean replies, "We’re working on that."

"Terribly."

"Hey, with all due respect, whatever problem you got with angels, don’t push that onto me. Cas and me are fine." More or less. "We just want some answers, and if you don’t got any, just say so."

Pele looks amused. "My dear, what has he done that has got you so wrapped around his finger?"

Dean laughs harshly. "Lady, I’m not around anyone’s finger."

"Hmm. Yes. My mistake. Perhaps he is the one around yours." Before Dean can retort, she asks, "Why are you helping him?"

"I don’t know, because it was better than sitting in a shitty motel room with my thumb up my ass."

Pele arches an eyebrow.

He throws up his hands. "Because it was the right to do. What do you want me to say? I’m not trying to get in the middle of whatever feud you guys got going on here. I’m just trying to help a friend. I’m trying to stop billions of people from dying because a couple of angels need their diapers changed. You got a problem with that?"

She doesn’t answer right away, studying him. "You need to be on your guard with angels," she says. "To them, you are vermin and they would think nothing of striking you down if their father asked them to. They are self-absorbed creatures, despite being made to serve." Pele snorts. "Delightful little contradictions."

"They sure are weird," he agrees.

"Don’t patronize me, boy," Pele warns.

"No, I’m - no, seriously. Angels are pretty weird."

Pele seems to be waiting for something from him, but he doesn’t know what and he doesn’t want to give her the satisfaction. She wants to know why they’re looking for God? Dean wants to leave it at because lost causes are another habit hard to break, then he wonders if he’d be talking about Cas or himself. Cas is going to run himself into the ground going at it like this, and is this what Sam saw in Dean? What Bobby yells at him about over the phone?

There's a heaviness in Dean’s chest; he squares up, shakes it off. It's not the time for that, not the time for weakness, to be a coward, to - "I wouldn’t mind asking God a few questions myself," Dean says.

"Oh? Such as?"

"Oh, I don’t know. Such as what the hell he's doing while his kids are flushing his favorite planet down the toilet. Why Michael and Lucifer can’t deal with their shit on their own. Why my brother -" And then Dean stops himself. He doesn’t know why he says that. He doesn’t want to talk about his brother. Sam is happy, Sam is safe. That’s all that matters and there’s no need to bring him up in this insanity. "Why Cas says he rebelled for me, but uses me as a bullet shield. I thought -"

Stop, he tells himself. Stop there. Dean swallows, looks down at the ground.

"You thought what?"

"I don’t know," Dean blurts out. "Okay? I played your little game. I answered your questions. Do I win? Do you get to tell me what you know now or what, ‘cos I can tell you, I’m just as pissed at those angels as you are. I can also tell you that I don’t know a good goddamn beyond that. As much as I hate to say it, I don’t think Cas does either. So there you have it." He takes a deep breath. "We’re looking for God because we got nothing else."

The world stills, awaiting verdict. Dean can practically hear the Final Jeopardy theme play in the background. "I think I don’t know whether to call you a good man or a stupid one," Pele finally says.

"I like to leave ‘em guessing," Dean replies, then pauses. "You know what I mean."

"If I tell you," Pele says, "it’s not because of the angel, but because of you."

"Aw, shucks. Never knew you cared."

"We don’t," she replies, "but as warriors as well as gods, we have to recognize and take into account the weaknesses of those around us."

Dean frowns. "The hell is that supposed to mean?"

"It means be careful, little one." She approaches Dean, the rock lighting up like heated coals where she steps. "To an angel, there is no difference between love and loss, so keep close to you the things you wish to keep."

"Uh. Sure. Okay."

"You don’t understand," she observes sadly.

Pele raises her hand to touch his cheek, and he stops himself from recoiling. Her palm is very hot; he can feel her power hum against his skin. Dean looks into her eyes and sees the fire at the center of the earth, the inferno at the beginning and end of all things.

"That’s all right," she says. "You will in time."

+

In the middle of the night, above the neon-lit bustle of a city, and under the quarter moon, Dean is telling a story.

His father hunted an ifrit in Keene once, or tried to. The memory stands out in Dean’s mind because of the surge of hope that preceded it, the way Dad had been manic and sleepless for days. "This is it, son, this is it," cutting out newspaper clippings of burning buildings and people dead from ‘spontaneous combustion’. Dad dropped everything and drove everyone up to New Hampshire, Sam infuriated in the backseat because he was missing his quizbowl semifinal.

In the end, the ifrit wasn’t the thing that killed Mom at all. No answers, no satisfaction, nothing, just Dad laid up for a week with second-degree burns and Dean wondering why he should ever listen to his dad when the guy is so full of shit sometimes, fuck. Dean and Sam had stayed on the perimeter of the property just like Dad said - stay put, stay sharp, I need you here - but only for as long as it took the ifrit to take their father down (not long) and rise into the sky like the dawn. At the first flash of fire in the sky, Dean took off through the woods like a shot, trusting Sam to follow. They found their father trembling on the ground in the center of a blackened clearing, the grass burnt and the tree trunks charred. "Sam, get the first aid!" Dean yelled, dropping to his knees, watching in terror as his dad could do nothing more than curse and repeat his mother’s name.

"Your father was lucky," Cas says. They stand on the edge of the roof, watching the sidewalks burble with pedestrians thirty stories below. The traffic moves slowly - a lazy, brightly-colored river. "If the ifrit had wanted him dead, he would’ve been. They’re powerful creatures."

"And we’re going to go talk to one. Great."

"How did you get Pele to tell you?" Cas asks.

"Sleight of hand and some pixie dust," Dean replies, and pastes on the shit-eating grin again for good measure. Deflection, distraction, and absurdity - all the best magic tricks have them. You want to make something disappear, you make the audience look the other way.

Somewhere below them, someone honks furiously.

"Where are we anyway?" Dean asks.

"Hong Kong."

"What’s in Hong Kong?"

"Yofiel."

"Who’s Yo -" And then Dean realizes that Cas isn’t talking to him.

He turns around.

"Castiel," says the other angel, and yeah, Dean can tell. He likes to think he’s getting better at recognizing them. There’s a certain aloofness, a way of carrying themselves as if the dirt of this world might stain them. Yofiel’s vessel has dark-lined eyes and red red lips, as if she said yes in the middle of dressing for a party. The whole get-up is a change from the dowdy business chic that heaven usually prefers. Dean thinks she would be attractive if the angel riding her hadn’t purged the humanity from her body. As is, she is merely beautiful the way a sword is beautiful, the precision of a bullet straight to the heart.

"Thank you for meeting me," Cas says, going to her. "How are the others? Balthazar? Rachel?"

"You’ve been very reckless," Yofiel scolds. There is a South Asian lilt to her voice.

"That’s what I'm telling him," Dean says. "Your brother’s a stubborn bastard, did you know that?"

Yofiel frowns over Cas’s shoulders. "Is that the Righteous Man?"

"My reputation precedes me." Dean winks at her. "Howdy."

"I can’t stay long," Yofiel says, looking back at Cas.

"Right." Cas’s jaw clenches. "Of course."

They give her a brief account of the events that took place on Arenal, and somehow Dean is not surprised when the first thing Yofiel has to say about it is, "Pele spoke to you?"

Can someone give him a little bit of credit? "Yeah," Dean answers, perhaps a bit too harshly judging by how Cas sends him a glare. "Yeah, she talked to me. That a shock?"

"Yes," Yofiel answers. "She doesn't often talk to outsiders. Especially not -"

"What? Pathetic little humans?" he scoffs. "Well, guess what - she wants nothing to do with you angels. I wonder why that is."

"Dean," Cas hisses. "Stop."

"Don't you tell me to keep quiet like I’m some fuckin’ child, don't -" Dean bursts out.

"It's okay, Castiel," Yofiel interrupts. "I imagine it's been a difficult day for him as well. It's all right."

Dean bites down on his irritation. He doesn’t need her condescension.

"It doesn’t matter," Cas says. "I’ll be talking to the ifrit later."

"We," Dean corrects. "We’re gonna talk to the ifrit."

"You don’t speak its language, and it doesn’t speak yours," Yofiel tells him, polite but dismissive.

"What about this inter-pantheon coup?" Cas asks. "What are they saying about it back home?"

"There is unrest among some of them, this is true," she muses. "Some have already tried to sabotage our plans, but their numbers are small at this point. We know Odin, Kali, and Baron Samedi have a hand in it. That is all we know." And then she smiles. "Hanuman came to try diplomacy to convince us to see the error of our ways."

"How did that work out?"

"He talked to Raphael," she chuckles, and a corner of Cas’s mouth quirks upward. "How do you think that went? Hanuman left angry and calling us fools."

"What did Zachariah say?"

"I think you can guess."

Cas and Yofiel share a smile. Dean rolls his eyes.

"Brother," she says, "if you must bargain with the ifrit, take precaution. Carry Zamzam water with you."

Dean says, "My dad went after his ifrit with just the exorcism verse from the Quran."

Without looking at him, Yofiel replies, "That would be a mistake."

"We’ll take Zamzam water," Cas assures her.

Yofiel holds his gaze for a heartbeat, two, and then looks down and away. "I should go," she whispers.

"Wait," Cas says, and grabs her arm before she disappears. "Wait."

"Castiel -"

For a second, neither of them says anything. Yofiel leans into Cas’s touch, and Cas’s mouth hangs open as if only waiting for the right words to come. Dean shifts his weight and scratches his neck. He takes a step back and looks up at the sky, and resists the urge to whistle pointedly.

"Come with me," Cas says.

She looks pained. "Castiel, I’ve already told you -"

"You know I’m right, I see you know I’m right," Cas says urgently. "You saw the same things I saw, Yofiel. I know you ask questions, too."

"Please -"

"I know you have doubt. You asked me once, long ago, what would I do if heaven was ever wrong. This is it. This is what I’ve done."

Yofiel wrenches her arm away and steps back. Her shoulders tense, and Dean imagines wings outstretched, ready to fly at the slightest provocation. "I can’t," she says in a quiet little horrified voice.

"Think for yourself, for once," Cas bursts out.

Dean gets an uncomfortable feeling in his gut, sharp pang of déjà vu.

Come on, man, you and me in California, we’ll have a blast.

"I know you know what’s right," Cas says, and the insistence turns into a plea halfway through.

Aren’t you sick of Dad ordering you around all the time?

There had been a crack in Sam’s voice that Dean hadn’t expected to hear. Sam had spent so long fighting against them that Dean forgot that the desire to be apart doesn’t always mean the death of love. This is a difficult thing to remember, and it hurts to hold it close.

Yofiel gives him a beseeching look. "Castiel..."

High above the streets of Hong Kong, the wind carries the salt sea air and finds only silence.

"Cas," Dean murmurs. "Come on, man."

Reluctantly, Cas lets go of his sister.

Anna may not have been afraid of being alone, but Dean has to wonder if she doesn’t hate it sometimes anyway.

"Be careful, brother," Yofiel whispers.

"You too," says Cas.

And then it’s just him and an angel in a trenchcoat, slice of the moon above them, the stars drowned out by the city lights below.

Cas doesn’t move. Dean comes up beside him.

"Hey," he says. "Look, man, I’m sure she cares."

"Caring’s not enough," Cas mutters. "She knows what’s right."

"You just...sometimes you just gotta give people some time. Doesn’t mean they don’t love you."

"It’s not about love," Cas snaps.

"Yeah, well, it’s not all about faith either."

Cas glares at him, but Dean will not rise to this challenge; he knows it too well. Perhaps this is both their weaknesses. Love or faith is the glue, love or faith is the impetus, and someone always mistakes it for something else. Perhaps neither love nor faith are meant to be the lowest common denominator, and this is another difficult thing to remember.

"You make it sound easy," Cas says. "You always make my decision to rebel against my family and all of heaven sound like it was an easy decision for me to make."

Dean breathes out. "Listen, Cas -"

"I’ll be right back."

Dean widens his eyes. "Wait, no -"

Too late. The sound of wingbeats is lost in the wind, and the chill pushes against Dean, making him shiver. He is no longer surprised by Cas’s sudden disappearances, but they irritate him and he is irritated at his irritation.

"Oh, come on!" Dean yells at the sky.

Fucking angels.

Dean walks again to the edge as close as he dares. Below him, the world is zoomed out and small, as if made to be cupped in his hands. English translations subtitle Chinese letters, glowing neon red, neon blue, neon yellow. Billboards advertise sneakers and perfume, their models pouting in unlikely positions. The cars and buses look like a child’s toys. It’s Friday night and the streets are teeming with tourists and weekend revelers, small as insects from up here.

Something feels knotted and tight in his chest.

The numbness in his hands only sinks in now, and Dean isn’t sure if it’s from the cold or the snake venom. He looks at them, expecting them to still be riddled by teeth marks. It’s still vivid in his mind, how clearly he can imagine those things sinking their fangs into him. But Dean’s skin is unmarred. Cas healed it all.

He absolutely doesn’ t think about the snakes wrapping around him, the long bodies tightening around his neck. He doesn’t think of his vision going dark, his body stiffening all over, and how it was a little too much like waking up six feet under with grave dirt filling his mouth. A little too much like someone else’s god looking too deep into his soul and pulling out the truths no one even asked for.

Lightning flashes in the distance over the South China Sea, and and Dean turns around to face Castiel before the angel even says his name.

"Don’t," Dean says, "don’t ask me along on your goddamn world tour if you’re going to leave me stranded on the other side of the world."

Cas frowns. "I was going to come back."

"Doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter, you don’t just fucking lea -" Dean just rubs his mouth and looks away.

"Dean -"

"So where’d you go?"

Cas looks relieved at the change in topic. "Mecca. This is Zamzam water." Cas holds out Dean's flask, returning it, and Dean's hand goes to his pocket where it should be. He hadn’t even realized his flask was gone. "Holy water kicked up by Ishmael himself."

Dean snatches the flask back from Cas.

There is a hesitant look on Cas’s face, which draws out a Pavlovian instinct to prepare for argument, but all Cas says is, "Are you sure you’re all right?"

"I’m fine," Dean grunts.

"You don’t look fine."

"That’s because you’re like the king of bad ideas right now," he spits. "If ifrits are as dangerous as you say they are -"

"It’s not like we have any other choice, Dean."

"You could die," Dean says, as if no one here knows that Castiel does not fear death.

" You could die," Cas counters, and okay. Fair point. "I’ll need to get closer than is advisable for someone in my state -"

"Your state?"

"- of diminished power."

Their eyes meet for one beat, two, and Dean swallows.

Cas says, "I just need you to -"

Dean nods. "Got it."

And those eyes are always too solemn. Heart on his fucking sleeve, and it’s going to destroy him. It’s going to destroy them both if Cas keeps up like this, chasing geese all over the world and catching not one feather.

"Cas," Dean says, "look, okay, same deal with Pele: at the first sign of trouble, we’re hauling ass out of there, I don’t care what this ifrit knows. I’m not - you’re always -"

Cas just says - as explanation or assurance or something else, Dean’s not entirely sure - "I trust you."

+

They are deep beneath the earth, and Dean can’t see anything. He stumbles, not seeing where he’s landed, and feels Cas’s steadying hand on his arm.

"’M fine."

Cas hesitates before letting him go.

"Ready?" Cas asks.

"I said I’m fine."

Cas says something in a language that sounds like tectonic plates shifting, and the world explodes with light.

"Stand down," Cas barks, because Dean’s hands immediately go to the Zamzam water and his gun. "Dean, get back!"

The ifrit appears like the big bang in reverse, pulling in fire from he doesn’t even know where, from the darkness, something coming from nothing, coalescing around a center of gravity and taking shape. It has legs. It has arms. It has a facsimile of a face with two black pits for eyes, and a mane of flame that flares around its head like a sunburst. Like many dangerous things Dean has encountered in his life, it’s unbearably beautiful.

Santelmo , Sam would think. Johnny Storm , Dean would have countered.

The ifrit doesn’t walk so much as burns its way across the ground. Dean and Cas stay very still. You don’t run away from an ifrit, you don’t look away unless it looks away first, and you definitely do not approach it first. That’s the kind of thing that sets them off. Ifrits may be temperamental, but they also have a great respect for ceremony, and you have to play their game to lure them in.

The ifrit turns its head to look at Dean, who raises his hands to show that he’s unarmed. "I got no problem if you got no problem," he tells it. The ifrit’s eyes don’t reflect anything back; they are opaque, a void, and they make Dean feel both hollowed out and subjected.

He’s relieved when it turns its attention back to Cas.

"Stay back," Cas says quietly without taking his eyes off it. "Stay as far back as you can."

"What? You said -"

"Dean. Do it."

He grits his teeth and does as he’s told.

Was this how Dad played it? Did he walk up to the creature with his hands raised and his face exposed, like a prisoner? Did he sneak up on it thinking he can actually outwit the fucking thing because he doesn’t know the difference between courage and recklessness? Dean will never know, but he would put good money on the latter. ( Mary Mary Mary - )

The creature is tall, and Dean didn’t realize how tall until it is standing in front of Cas. Cas raises his chin in a gesture that manages to look both proud and supplicating, and Dean’s fingers itch to go for the Zamzam water. He mentally runs through the al-Kursi instead, memorized long ago but still clear in his head because he memorized it at his father’s bedside when he thought Dad was going to die. A thousand hypothetical worst-case scenarios had flitted through Dean’s head as he committed Arabic transliterations to memory, and he went through the day and night both dreading and craving the ifrit’s return. He wanted revenge. He wanted to undo the past twenty-four hours.

I dare you , he had thought. I dare you , he thinks now, watching the creature cradle Cas’s face with unexpected tenderness. Dean can feel the heat of the flames from where he stands, here against the cave wall, but it doesn’t burn Cas at all. Miracle of miracles, Cas is unharmed. He says something soft and crooning in that strange guttural language, and the ifrit flares and trails one fiery thumb down Cas’s cheek. And then the ifrit speaks.

Its voice is like crumbling rock; it is the birth of canyons cutting into the ground. It resounds, and Dean can tell from the echoes that wherever they are, it’s pretty big. The ifrit burns bright enough for Dean to see that they are on the shore of a great lake, and from that alone Dean tries to gauge where they are. Where are there underground lakes? There's one in Tennessee. (Wampus cat, 1998. First hunt with Sam along, and they chased the thing for half a mile into the belly of a mountain before their father shot it dead.) China, Slovenia, Switzerland...too fucking many to name. Didn’t Sam mention there was one in England? There is no way of telling where they are. They can be on the moon for all he knows.

The lake stretches out into the darkness, where its boundaries are swallowed by the shadows. Stalagmites rise out of the water, or so Dean thinks, until he realizes that no, those aren't stalagmites - they're just reflections of the stalactites above. With nothing to disturb it, the water is a mirror, so still, so clean. Dean looks up at the ceiling of limestone formations pointing down at them. Like teeth. He is reminded for a brief paralytic moment of hell’s many countries, of Alastair telling him their different customs for breaking a soul. I will try each of them on you, and then you can pass on what you’ve learned. You’ll make me proud.

A brilliant flare snaps Dean’s attention back to Castiel, just in time to see the ifrit abandon its shape and consume Cas in flames.

"Cas!"

"Stay back!" Cas yells, and it’s only because he sounds more panicked than pained that Dean does as he’s told. Right, yeah, Cas’s signal. The fear pumps through Dean’s heart; his veins are cold with it. Cas may be weakened now but that’s twice the reason they have to stick to the plan. Right?

("Don’t do anything until my signal," Cas instructed.

"Yeah, right," Dean snorted, "because the last time you took point on a plan, it ended so well.")

Calm your shit, Winchester.

He keeps his hand on the Zamzam water.

The ifrit condenses into its human shape once more, this time behind Cas but with its arms draped around his shoulders, like a friend come visiting on a weekend afternoon or a sister about to whisper a secret in his ear. It’s deceptively intimate, playing at an air of lazy camaraderie, but even Cas is tense now. The ifrit traces his jaw with one fiery finger and leans in close, and Dean can’t tell if it’s saying something in Cas’s ear or kissing him or eating his goddamn face or what. Already the ayat is scrolling through Dean’s head, the tip of his tongue, Bismillahir rahmanir rahim on the trigger.

Without warning, the ifrit spins Cas around to face him and tugs him close until their bodies are flush with one another. Dean lunges forward but Cas throws out his hand, desperate look on his face. The ifrit is talking, the ifrit is making promises or telling lies, Dean’s not sure, but there is a degree of malice to the way it wraps itself around Cas. Its body changes into a rope of flame that winds around him, but the head remains unchanged with those terrible black eyes, a monster-headed snake. Cas’s expression is the kind of frozen that people get when they’re trying to not give anything away. The ifrit asks Cas a question, and then to Dean’s horror, the ifrit’s head turns slowly, very slowly, to him.

Dean doesn’t do well with fires. He doesn’t do well with the illusion of enclosed spaces that the darkness can bring. This is both these fears combined, there in those eyes that aren’t eyes but holes in the universe waiting for him to fall through.

Yes, good boy, good boy, you do me proud, and then laughter whose joy has nothing to do with joy at all.

It’s always fire. It’s always fire that threatens to make him less of who he is.

The ifrit doesn’t take his gaze from Dean, but when it speaks again, it addresses Castiel. It says Cas’s name, accented with igneous rock, and it sounds closer to angels’ names than any sound a human throat can make. A tendril of flame takes Cas’s chin, tilts it Dean-ward as if saying look . So Cas looks, and Dean is caught between a hole in the universe and the light of stars. He thinks he might’ve remembered this from the pit. Great gust of grace that parted the darkness, and when he looked up, he was face to face with a what he can only name as vastness. A presence that threatened to fill the space and drown him, but when it had him in its clutches, all Dean felt was something like sunlight, disorienting in its gentleness and terrifying in its unfamiliarity. A promise in an unfamiliar language that he understood anyway.

This is what he sees in Cas’s eyes now, those wide eyes, the struggle to tread water, the shallow breaths as the ifrit’s tendrils slither around Cas’s body. Cas is trying to convince him with a look that everything is okay. Cas, who no longer has heaven’s power backing him, who still makes the same promises anyway as he stumbles through the dark.

A vine of fire slithers around Cas’s neck and constricts, and the ifrit demands its question again, louder, harsher. Its voice shakes the foundations of this place. Out of the corner of Dean’s eye, he sees the water ripple with its anger.

Castiel’s answer is one syllable - sibilant, affirmative. A small clear sound that stands out in its simplicity, and Dean feels something constrict in his chest, the way Cas looks at him, eyes on Dean like a lifeline and Dean doesn’t know whose lifeline it is because his own heart is pounding, threatening to escape from its cage.

Then the ifrit does a strange thing.

It laughs.

It throws back its head and laughs, but Dean knows the laughter of creatures like this. The joy that has nothing to do with joy.

Suddenly the ifrit abandons its shape, changing into the starburst that Dean imagines its true form would be. The ifrit is a bonfire, and in its center is Cas, crying out in pain, and Dean is a bullet shot out of a gun.

"Dean! No!" Cas shouts, but Dean already has the Zamzam water out, and all Dean can think about is how it’s always fire, it’s always fucking fire. "Stop!"

"Are you kidding me?" Dean exclaims in frustration, but he stops anyway.

The plan, the fucking plan.

The ifrit’s fire is almost blinding at this proximity. The heat blankets his face and the sweat beads on his forehead. It turns its gaze to Dean again, unimpressed but amused. Dean clenches his jaw. If this is not a challenge, he can make it into one.

"Cas, you okay?" Dean asks, and Cas lifts his hand for silence.

Cas speaks to the creature again and he is losing his deference, perhaps because he is losing time, perhaps because he is at the heart of a localized inferno and they need to cut to the chase. Dean suddenly wishes he knows how to speak the creature’s language, to be able to navigate these negotiations too so Cas doesn’t have to go it alone.

Something niggles.

Dean’s senses are trying to tell him something. He is trying to figure out what that is. An angel addresses a monster from inside its own belly, and Dean is missing something.

Something crackles.

Here is something that all fire demons have in common: they burn silently. Ifrits are no exception. Their fire is not of this earth; it is a sacred thing. It doesn’t need fuel to burn because it burns not to conquer, but because it simply is. It burns to be. If Dean hears crackling, then that means the fire is consuming something. Something is burning.

In the belly of the beast, Cas falls to his knees.

Shit. Shit shit shit shit -

The ifrit’s fire glows closer to white now. When it speaks, it is a roar in Dean’s ears, a storm, the thunder.

Dean unscrews his flask.

Fuck the plan.

"No!" Cas yells. His voice is hoarse, raw with pain. "I need more time!"

But Dean is already praying at the top of his lungs, in the name of Allah, the most gracious, the most merciful -

The ifrit whirls around to face Dean, but it’s too late. An arc of holy water sprays it in the face, and Dean is already calling upon Allah as He that is living, that is self-subsisting, eternal. The words fly out of him like arrows loosed from a bow. He is too consumed to make a mistake or worry about mispronunciation, and does not even entertain the thought that he could do this wrong. There is no space for faltering. Who is there who can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth?

Dean runs full-tilt at the ifrit, trusting it’ll dissipate when it gets another faceful of Zamzam water but he doesn’t get the chance.

"Ya'lamu ma baina aidihim wa -" Dean manages, and the ifrit roars and sends a blast of flame in his direction, knocking him off his feet. He sees stars. Strange, seeing stars underground. In the distance: Cas’s voice. Dean grabs onto the momentum of the words on his tongue, struggling to latch onto it again. "Wa ma khalfahum - " His throne doth extend over the heavens and on earth.

His flask lies empty beside him.

The ifrit roars. Dean can make out the silhouette of Cas on his hands and knees, trembling as the creature slips off of him and roils towards Dean. Already he can see the ifrit flickering. The ayat is working, and Dean quashes down the thrill of tentative victory.

...and He feeleth no fatigue in guarding and preserving them... "wa huwal -" Dean shouts, and his voice cracks. He licks his lips, takes a deep breath. "Wa huwal 'aliyul-adheem."

The ifrit screams. Dean lifts a hand to shield his eyes, but even through closed eyelids, he sees the world glow red, hears it roaring deafeningly as a hot wind blows past him.

Everything goes dark.

Dean can’t see a damn thing, but he is ready for that this time. He has the distance and direction to Cas mapped out in his mind, and he runs to him, following the sound of harsh breathing, that worn-in gravel voice going, "No, no, no -"

"Cas? Cas, hey." Dean drops to his knees and reaches out, and Cas is hot to the touch, skin raw. Clearly injured but not as bad as it looked from afar, and thank fuck, because if Cas still has the grace to protect himself, then he has the grace to get them the hell out of Dodge. "Cas -"

Cas rears back. He pushes Dean away, grunting, "No, I should -"

Dean grabs him again before he disappears into the darkness. Cas hisses in pain at the touch, but Dean doesn’t care. There is no time to be gentle. "Cas," he says, "get us out of here."

Cas smells like smoke, like ashes and coal, the acrid aroma of burnt hair, burnt fabric. "No, I need -"

Out over the lake, a spark of flame appears, small but obvious in the pitch darkness of the cave. The water catches the ifrit’s reflection like a twin moon, but the water ripples under it, rendering the symmetry useless.

"You need to get us out of here," Dean hisses. "Right now. We’re out of Zamzam water, man, and it’s coming back."

"I’m not finished!" Cas protests, glaring at the ifrit with a combination of frustration and rage and humiliation.

"Yes, you are."

"Dean -"

"Cas, listen to me: yes you are, you are finished, you are so finished. If you don’t get us out of here right now, Cas, we are both finished. You hear me? Cas. Cas!" Dean shakes him.

Cas looks up at him, and the ifrit shines bright enough that it lights Cas’s face in sharp contrast - one half gilded and defiant, the other in shadows.

"We have to leave," Dean insists. "Now."

"This isn’t part of the plan."

"Fuck the plan."

Out over the water, the ifrit stares at them from two black eyes, two holes into hell, unless they are already in it.

"I need more time," Cas keeps saying, but he too sees the ifrit drawing closer to them over the water, and he is as transfixed as Dean.

Dean takes a deep breath. "Bismillahir rahmanir raheem -"

"Dean, no -"

It has the intended effect: the ifrit rears up in recognition at the words and speeds its journey across the water, intent on beating Dean to the punch line. Every monster delights in revenge. Its reflection in the lake becomes its twin comet.As it picks up speed, wings of water spray up alongside it, sizzling against the creature and turning to steam.

"Allahu la ilaha illa huwa -" Come on, Cas, come on. " Al-haiyul-qaiyum -"

"Stop," Cas pleads, twisting to look at him and grab his shoulder, but Dean keeps his eyes on the ifrit, who looks back, who doesn’t blink. "Stop. You’ll only anger it!"

At least Cas is catching on.

"La ta'khudhuhu sina... sinatun wa la... nawm." Dean’s throat is parched. It’s sore, it hurts from thirst and from yelling and from all the memories of fire and darkness that have plagued him all his life.

Come on, Cas, come on, fucking do it, fucking -

"The ayat without the Zamzam water won’t banish it," Cas says, and yeah, Dean knows that. He knows.

Dean hangs on tighter to Cas, resisting the urge to move back or look away from the monster.

"lahu ma fis-samawati," and the ifrit moves faster, closer, blinding like the sun, "wa ma fil-'ard," and Cas full of protest, struggling in Dean’s arms. A flash of middle school history class: don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes.

"Dean -"

Who is there who can intercede in His presence except as He permitteth?

Cas makes a frustrated sound, a desperate animal cry, and twists in Dean’s arms to pin him to the floor, covering him with his body. He knocks the wind out of the both of them, and Dean loses the thread, grapples for the next line as he sees the cave fill with light, hears something sizzling, feels heat rising. It’s not two fingers to the forehead, but a messy clasp of palm to the side of Dean’s face, almost a slap. Fingernails dig into his scalp, and Cas exhales a ragged breath against his neck.

"Cas -" Dean gasps.

And then the world shatters around them. The darkness falls away. Dean hangs on with all his might as they fly and leave the ifrit and its shadows far underground.

+

Imagine you’re standing on the edge of a cliff. You know that dream where you’re on the edge of a cliff in the middle of a storm? And then the ground gives way.

Flying is like that. It’s that first step off the cliff over and over again. The world turns inside out and you don’t recognize things for what they are anymore. Everything goes by too fast. You will not make it out of this alive, of that you are sure.

But then you know that moment, that specific point when a nightmare becomes a dream? The moment when you don’t fall down, but fall up, and the world may still be overwhelming and on the verge of swallowing you whole, but you go with it even as you let it take you apart, because somehow you know that in the end, you’re going to be okay, whichever way you arrive.

Flying with Cas is like that.

+

White.

No one has seen this much white before, Dean is pretty sure. He closes his eyes at the world’s sudden radiance, and it hurts to close his eyes. He is too stunned by the brightness, too relieved at escape that he doesn’t realize it’s cold until it hurts to breathe. The snow seeps through his jeans. He tries to call Cas’s name and only breathes out steam.

Dean crosses his arms, tucking them close to his chest, slipping his fists under his armpits. Gotta keep the core warm, Dean. He can’t fucking move except to roll over on his side and curl in on himself like an armadillo, nudging against the bulk of a tan trenchcoat. Cas isn’t moving either.

Dean tries to say hey and makes a sound like a rusty dying heater. He elbows Cas, but no response. The world is much too cold for it. For them.

This can’t be it. They haven’t come this fucking far, escaped from snakes, Pele, fucking ifrits to die in this wasteland like lost cattle. Any second now he’s gonna get up and start walking. Any moment. Just give him a minute.

Just give him...

Just -

Chapter Text

White. Again.

Dean tries to get up but he can’t move, or doesn’t want to. He can’t tell. Doesn’t matter. The cold is a solid thing pressing in on him on all sides. It slows him down. It makes him small.

Where are they?

There’s a murmur somewhere beside him and yeah, it could be Cas, but it could be the wind, who the fuck knows. Hey, what if it’s the amulet, taunting him? If that fucking thing speaks to anyone, it should be him , not Cas, and definitely not God. It should speak to a lifetime of small gestures, not grand ones that are difficult to understand. We’ve been though some rough times, amulet. And maybe…maybe you’ve been keeping secrets this whole time, you little bastard.

His teeth chatter like those cymbal-banging monkeys, and man, wouldn’t fur be fucking fantastic, right now? One of those little vests, too.

A fucking stove.

An inferno, because contrary to popular belief, some parts of hell are very cold. Some parts are very wet and some are dry, some are filled with cacophony, some with a ghastly silence. Hell is creative and diverse in its cruelty. It is, after all, the final destination of those who are beyond penitence, and there is no need to hold back. In the end, it should be difficult to distinguish the frost from the flame, the way they both destroyed the blood, extreme temperatures licking his skin, his throat constricted, his throat destroyed, he cannot say no, he cannot say stop. Like this. Just like this, the cold like hands that grab him, fingertips clinging to his skin, a battle of transubstantiation, blood into wine into ice into air.

Forty years in the fire. He sees it everywhere and it’s never going to let him go.

Take the knife, kiddo. I know you want to.

And Dean, unable to say no, no, please, no.

+

How long has he been lying here? He tries to move his fingers and toes, but can’t tell if he succeeds. Quick flash of a memory: a hunter who called himself Two-Toe Joe because he lost the rest up in the Rockies going after the werewolf that killed his cousin.

Something calls Dean’s name, unless that’s just the howling of the wind. Something nudges into him, then again with more force. The words are lost in the wind, the curses unrecognizable. Language is meaningless here, flawed. It scratches the surface of his consciousness, then makes his eardrums reverberate and it’s too much, it’s all too much, he can’t -

+

How long has he been -

+

Be kind to yourself, Dean, and take the knife.

+

He is having a dream, and in the dream, his knife drips blood and his eyes are black, but then a great white light rains down upon him. Dean calls its name.

+

"Dean! Wake up!"

There are hands on his face. A clumsy bolt of light surges through him and Dean gasps for breath, choking on the frigidity of the air.

"Cas -" He can barely make the syllable.

"Wake up!"

Somewhere out in the great big world, someone is turning down the volume, and thank fuck for that.

Then, as much as he can feel anything right now, he feels himself lifted from the snow and held tight, one arm clutching him, another hand on his face, then on his neck, then on his heart.

And then there is light.

What’s the Latin for it again? Fiat lux. Fiat gratia. Fiat amo. It’s all of those and none of those. The only thing Dean can comprehend is Cas’s touch, the heat that flows through him and tugs him back from hell. Dean is slowly losing his grip on reality, on himself, falling into something warm and bright, unless that’s just Cas, unless it’s just angels again, motherfucking angels with ten thousand wings and a host of spinning wheels and -

And just like that, Dean is back. Weak, but back.

He blinks in confusion, just to make sure his eyes aren’t frozen over. Checks his lips, too, but don’t wet them. Nobody wants icicles on their face, after all, but then it occurs to him that it isn’t cold enough for icicles. Dean’s clothes are damp. So’s his hair. So’s his face.

He can see.

The world is still mostly shades of white, white all around them, white falling from the sky, but shapes swim into clarity. The small hill that slopes up in front of them, and on top of it there is a small spired building with a domed roof and a cross. Behind them, he can hear the ocean. He is leaning against something soft, and a heart beats against his ear.

Everything is illuminated by a steady golden glow.

Cas clutches him too hard, breathing unevenly, and then Dean realizes what’s going on.

"Cas," Dean croaks, and just like on the beach after the snakes, it’s hard to ask him to stop. Dean wants this, can get high off of this, he needs this warmth, and what’s worse, he needs it or else he will die. If Cas keeps this up, he will die. The both of them will die ignominious deaths in the middle of this frozen wasteland, and what then?

Where are they?

"Stop," Dean says through gritted teeth. He balls his fists around the lapels of Cas’ coats and fails to shake him out of his stupor, he can barely move. "Stop. Cas."

It’s like Chuck’s kitchen all over again. It’s Raphael blowing out the windows in Maine and how Cas’s first instinct had been to shield Dean from the shards. Cas is so determined to destroy himself for Dean and he gives Dean no choice in the matter. I’ll save you whether you want it or not. It’s such a hilariously familiar habit that if Dean had had the energy to laugh, he would have. Welcome to the family, Cas. Enjoy your stay, however brief you may choose for it to be.

"Dean -" Cas’s voice is a strained and crackly thing, lost to the wind. "I can’t -"

"It’s okay," Dean says. It’s not okay. It’s not okay, but it is.

The golden light disappears. The cold rushes back in. With the light, everything is twice as blinding. Without grace sustaining him, the cold attacks with even more ferocity. Dean loses to it faster than before.

"I’m trying -"

"‘S okay," Dean says, already slipping away.

And before Dean passes out, he sees an impossible thing: someone appears over the crest of the hill.

"Cavalry’s here," Dean murmurs, and closes his eyes.

+

Dean can feel a hand pressing against his chest, another on the nape of his neck. He veers into consciousness when someone lifts him up, and then the pale white world continues winking in and out. He cannot move but he is moving. Okay. Good. Now if only someone had a space heater. Or a s’more. Or even a hot water bottle.

He would fucking love a s’more right now.

Suddenly there’s a rush of air, the smell of polished wood and old incense.

Cas’s voice: "Ne trogai evo."

"No, on bolen-"

"Skazal tebe, ne trogai evo!" Cas barks.

Someone’s hand runs through his hair, combing out the snow and ice. It toggles a memory loose.

Winter up in Minnesota, a seal was to be saved. Some demons, some missing kids. Some bad decisions in the woods that had Dean on his back and bleeding out into the snow, staring up at the shivering stars. The pain had eventually dulled to a low ache and the cold softened its grip. The world fuzzed at the edges. He knew that these are all bad signs. Already Dean was thinking about homecoming, the claws that would reach for him and the million sharp teeth welcoming him back to the pit.

This is it, Dean had thought, trying to not be surprised at fate. This is it, I’m sorry, Sam, fuck, this is it.

But then it wasn’t.

It was like seeing the hidden picture in a stereogram. It was the whisper of wings and flurry of wind that brought with it the scent of far-off lands. By that point, Dean could not speak and could only make the shape of the name on his lips, but Cas appeared as if summoned anyway, an austere smudge of beige disturbing the winter night’s slate gray. Cas drew closer to him, and was he angry at their failure? Was he relieved that Dean was alive? Dean couldn’t tell. All he knew was how Cas knelt by him and the snow didn’t settle on his body, as if it was showing deference to angels. The cold didn’t bend him, and his hands on Dean’s wound, channeling grace, were so warm.

Dean is fading fast, but then an angel’s grace surges through him, reaching out to collect all the parts of him already disappearing, pulling it all back together.

Somewhere off to the side, someone prays in a language he doesn’t understand.

And Dean opens his eyes, death falling off him like a dream or like something as unreal, because death is unreal in the face of this, of their mission, of Castiel kneeling on the ground beside him with one hand on Dean’s chest and the other on his cheek, forcing whatever’s left of heaven out of himself and into Dean.

Somewhere outside of his vision, someone says, "Slava bogy... Slava bogy..."

"Dean," Cas rasps, his voice cracking, stretched thin. "Dean, thank God."

Dean’s throat won’t work, and Cas is likewise inarticulate, having lost all vocabulary except Dean’s name. The best Dean can do is to put his hand over Cas’s hand, the one over his heart, and squeeze. He breathes in deep, and then he sleeps.

+

Dean wakes up and Cas isn’t there.

Last night comes back to him as a series of disconnected images - the cold, the angel, the light. Someone else’s prayer in the background of his resurrection. How many times can he keep cheating death? He tenses, gathering the instinct against enemies as is his usual habit when waking up somewhere he doesn’t recognize, but there is no one else in the room.

Dean lets the relief of escape wash over him.

He widens his eyes, trying to clear his vision. He’s on the floor tucked in the corner of a small wood-paneled room. There’s a blanket folded under his head and several more more draped on top of him, heavy and uncomfortable. There’s a cross nailed over the doorway. Framed photographs of people in heavy jackets grinning at the camera and the signs behind them are written in Cyrillic script.

Large golden bells hang from the ceiling.

Where the hell did Cas land them now?

The door creaks open and Dean goes for his gun, his knife. His fingers come up empty. The man standing in the doorway is around Bobby’s age, with a beard twice as impressive. His eyes are pale and clear, inquisitive, and his hair pulled back in a ponytail. He wears a bright blue winter coat over the somber black robes of a Russian Orthodox monk, and the effect is both comical and humanizing. In his hand, he holds a steaming mug of coffee that Dean can smell from all the way over here.

"Good morning," he says, the 'r' trilled. The accent is hard, firm.

"Morning." Dean’s throat is so dry. "You’re... you’re the guy from earlier."

The man shakes his head. "No, that’s Sergei." He crouches by Dean and offers him the coffee. Dean takes it gratefully. The coffee is sweet, more sugar than he’d usually put in, but it’s hot and that is all that matters. "You really give him a spin. He comes into my room like demons chase him and says to me, ‘Nikolay, I show you something. Nikolay, it’s a miracle.’ I thought he went mad." He gives Dean a small smile. "But here you are."

"Where are we?"

"Trinity Church," Nikolay answers. "Bellingshausen Station." Taking in Dean’s blank expression, he adds, "Antarctica."

"Antarctica, huh?" Dean says, because by now he has lost the ability to be surprised at anything.

"You don’t know?"

"Been losing track," he mutters.

Nikolay pulls a chair out and sits, crossing his legs. "What are you doing here? Besides the scenery and golden beaches."

Dean flops back down and stares at the ceiling. "Wasn’t our choice, man. It was a mistake." He squirms. "Uh, no offense."

"None taken."

"It’s kind of complicated."

"How did you get here?"

Dean grunts. "That’s complicated too."

"Then perhaps before you tell your story," Nikolay says, "it is time for breakfast."

Dean smiles. "Sounds good. Sounds real good. Thanks." Then he adds, "I’m Dean, by the way."

"I know," Nikolay replies. "The angel told me."

+

The room at the back of the tiny church that Nikolay leads him to is full of the bachelor clutter that Dean has seen in Bobby’s study on late nights. It has the look of a room that has accumulated many purposes - library, kitchenette, bedroom, and some kind of mission control. A radio console rises out of a pile of papers on the table, beeping occasionally. Portraits of dark-eyed saints watch Dean somberly from the walls, alongside an expired calendar, framed maps of the continent, and diagrams charting the tides.

They sit at the table and Dean is on his fourth cup of coffee.

"So I been chased, choked, threatened, and burned non-stop for the past day, pretty much, and I guess we can also add ‘being frozen’ to the list of fun things to do on world tours with angels. And here we are. And now we’re all out of goddamn chips. Uh. ‘Scuse my French." Dean makes a sign of the cross, just in case.

Nikolay just looks at him in amusement. "Not necessary. You lead an interesting life."

Dean snorts. "Too interesting."

There is a way about Nikolay that puts him at ease. Nikolay listens, laughs instead of judging, and doesn’t mind when Dean swears in his church. The very idea of being in Antarctica is slightly funny in a depressing way, but Nikolay’s company is a distraction from that. Here in this room, with their coffee, the rest of the world feels kept at bay.

"You’re really taking this all in a stride," Dean observes. "I’m surprised you haven’t brought out the straitjacket, with the shit I’m saying."

Nikolay gestures at himself. "As you can see, I am a man of faith. Besides," Nikolay exhales a breath, the steam swirling around his mouth. "there has been stranger things here these days. The temperature, for one thing. Here, on our island, usually it’s minus three Celsius, little more, little less." He makes a face. "Not anymore. It’s colder now, much more so. Poor bastards in the American station, they don’t leave it much anymore, they just stay inside. Though if what you say is correct? The end of the world? The devil walks free?" He smiles, and Dean wonders if he detects a little resignation in it. "Makes sense."

"That’s it?" Dean says. "‘Makes sense’? I tell you the apocalypse is here and you say ‘makes sense’?"

"Sorry," Nikolay says airily. "I can protest instead, if you like? Call you an idiot maybe? Arrest this man, he is telling lies!" He takes a sip of his coffee. "But is easier my way."

"The strange don’t seem to rock your world very much, does it?"

"Strange?" Nikolay looks at his window. "You mean strange like -" he indicates outside. "Strange like -" he gestures at Dean. "And the angel? Many strange things here right now."

Dean doesn’t know whether to be amused or irritated. "How do you find it so easy to believe?"

"How do you find it so difficult?"

He grinds his teeth. "You wouldn’t happen to have seen God hiding behind one of those glaciers, wouldja?"

"Not to my knowledge, but I have not looked very closely. Maybe you should ask one of the scientists here. They go out often. I like to stay inside, where it’s warm."

"Yeah, doesn’t seem like anyone knows anything much about God," Dean sighs. "Or, Cas’s god, anyway," he adds hastily, remembering Pele. "Or if they do, they ain’t talking."

"He speaks good Russian, your Castiel," Nikolay says. "But his accent needs work."

Dean laughs, because of all the things to say about angels, Nikolay would pick the accent? If Jimmy Novak had been Russian, would the accent have been better?

"You always like this?" Dean smiles.

"Not always. I asked your friend for proof he was an angel, for one thing."

"What happened to ‘thou shall not test the Lord’?"

"Your angel is not God."

"He’s not my angel, man."

"Are you not his charge?"

"Not really. We’re just... y’know. We’re helping each other out."

Nikolay gives him a look like he’s turning some thoughts over in his head, then says, "I see."

"Why? What did Cas tell you?"

But Nikolay just shrugs. "The same." He toys with the handle of his own mug, then clears his throat. "Shall I bring you another coffee?"

Dean slides his mug over with a thanks. He's starting to feel that headache again.

+

Outside of the church, there is a signpost with arrows pointing in every direction, each labeled with a city and their distance from the bottom of the world. It’s 15,509 kilometers to Moscow. It’s 4,938 kilometers to São Paulo and 14,022 to Budapest. Sergei has walked past it so many times, he says, that he has committed all the cities and distances to memory.

"It’s sixteen thousand seven hundred and sixty six kilometers from here to Tokyo," Sergei says. Nikolay has gone back to the station proper. Apparently he and Sergei are tag-teaming on Dean-sitting duty. "Did you go to Tokyo when you looked for God?"

Dean admits that, regrettably, he never made it to Tokyo, though Cas might have before.

He asked Sergei about Cas first thing when Sergei arrived, and he replied that the angel was still searching for his father.

"He told me to tell you," Sergei answered, "to pray for him if you need him, when you are able."

"Right," Dean said, biting down on the twinge of annoyance. "Of course."

They sit in the sanctuary, where there is a table and two chairs instead of rows of pews. ("Usually during the services, people stand. There is not much room, you see.") The paperwork that covered it has been pushed to the side, and he and Sergei sit across from each other with their mugs of coffee, again very strong and very sweet. The room smells vaguely of incense.

"I have always wanted to go to Japan," Sergei muses. "Especially during the cherry blossom season. I have heard so much. I watch one time a documentary, with the springtime. Everyone goes for a picnic. The sakura goes everywhere. It gets in everything. They interview this woman, outside under the cherry trees. There was cherry blossoms in her hair and she didn’t notice. She just speaks. She looks at the camera and talks about pollenation with flowers in her hair."

Sergei is younger than Nikolay, though his beard is not any less impressive. He’s Dean’s age at most, though probably a few years younger, with wistful eyes that give off the impression he is listening to music tuned to a different frequency. Where Nikolay exudes an air of general affability, there is a disoriented optimism to Sergei that makes him seem younger than he is. He is prone to wonderment and ridiculous questions ("Have you ever touched his wings?"). Maybe it’s just the look on his face. Hopeful people look young.

"My brother tried to get me into sushi for a while but then he gave up," Dean says. "I’m not so hot with the raw meat thing."

"I have not tried much sushi," Sergei admits. Then, in a subject change so sudden it’s obvious he has been thinking about it for a while, he says, "When I found you, you were almost dead."

"Yeah, well," Dean mutters. "I’m used to it."

"The angel said he found you in hell."

Dean wonders if Sergei knows that 'the angel' has a name, but all he can say is "yeah."

"He told me of your destiny, how you fought it," Sergei continues. "That there is no destiny anymore."

Dean looks down at his coffee mug and swirls its contents around. "I don’t think there ever really was."

"I have never seen anything like it," Sergei murmurs, and at this point Dean wonders if he’s needed in the conversation. "It was a miracle. I saw a miracle. You and your angel."

"He’s not my angel," Dean repeats, resisting the urge to fold his arms on the table and bury his head in them.

"He cares for you. Doesn’t speak much, but I can see. He stayed with you all night."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "He did?"

"Of course. Why wouldn’t he?" As if he already knows Cas better than Dean does.

"Probably felt guilty," Dean mutters, rubbing the back of his neck. He still feels heat radiating of his skin, and he wonders if Cas left his mark there, too. He cranes his head but it just makes him dizzy so he stops.

"You know," Sergei says carefully, "so many people live their lives saying they don’t see any evidence of God’s mercy at work."

"For a given definition of mercy," Dean quips. "And I hate to break it to you, man, but God’s still MIA."

"Do you not see?" Sergei asks. "You have been at the heart of so many miracles."

Dean looks him in the eye. "You don’t know anything about my miracles."

Instead of looking chastised, the monk just gives him a look of pitying concern. "It seems," he replies, "that you don’t either."

"Okay." Dean puts the mug down on the table. "Look, I probably should get going. Thanks for the coffee, and you thank your friend for me too. ‘S been real. Nice church you got here. We’ll send a card on Christmas, if postage isn’t too expensive."

"Dean -" Sergei says.

Dean bows his head. "Cas, come in, Castiel. Uh. Our Castiel who art in - somewhere, I guess - hallowed be thy -"

A gust of cold air, the rustle of wings or a trenchcoat.

"Dean." There is snow on Cas’s shoes, frost in his hair.

For a few seconds, Dean’s irritation takes a backseat to the relief of seeing a familiar face. He pushes his chair back and stands up. "Hey."

"You look well."

"I feel like shit."

"That’s understandable," Cas replies, moving closer to him. "I did the best I could."

"Yeah. Yeah, thanks for that. You, uh. You still have my amulet?"

Dean can see the lump of it under Cas’s shirt. Cas takes it out and lets it dangle from his hand, and Dean reaches out and runs his fingers over it, watching it catch the light. He closes his hand around it, a reassurance that it’s real, that it’s still here. They’re both still here, and thank fuck for small miracles.

"Good," Dean murmurs. "That’s good."

Out of the corner of his eye, Dean sees Sergei still seated at the table, watching them quietly with some undecipherable expression on his face. Dean lets the amulet go and shoves his hands in his pockets.

Cas nods at Sergei. "Thank you for letting him stay here."

Sergei’s eyes widen. "You’re welcome. You’re welcome, anytime. Of course."

The silence that follows stretches on too long. Sergei eventually excuses himself to see to something in the back room, but only after confirming that no, Dean doesn’t want anymore coffee, and no, Cas doesn’t want any coffee right now, thank you.

Once more, it’s just the two of them, thousands of miles away from home.

Cas asks, "Are you all right?"

"Yeah, I - yeah. I am."

"Good." Then, "You shouldn’t have done that, back at the cave."

Dean flares his nostrils. "You shouldn’t have done that."

"You shouldn’t -" Cas says, then just glares at him. "I needed more time. I could’ve -"

"Could’ve died," Dean finishes flatly.

"I needed -" Cas starts, and Dean wants to say I know, I know, because he does, but the anger is welling up again and he feels no desire to pull his punches.

"You don’t," Dean interrupts. "Look at you, man. You have no idea what you need."

"And you do?"

Dean holds up his hands in mock surrender. "Hey, I'm just playing your game here."

Cas’s expression darkens. "This is not a game that you play."

"You're the one who asked me to come, remember?"

"Back in the cave," Cas says, "I did what I had to."

"Fuck you," Dean retorts. "Of all the times I’ve ever heard that fucking excuse in my life, Cas -" He shakes his head. "Okay, you know what what? Fine. Fine! That's fucking life, isn't it? I don't mind. Take me along then shove me to the side, never tell me shit. You're just like -"

"Like who?" Cas spits out. "Like who, Dean?"

Suddenly Dean is just tired. He rubs his eyes and sighs. "Like Dad, okay? Like my fucking dad."

Dean can’t tell if it’s hurt or anger in Cas’s expression, but when he says, "I am nothing like him," his voice is very calm. "If you’re afraid that I can’t protect you, maybe I should take you back home."

Home. Home is the smell of leather, the rumbling of an engine. Home is Sam.

"I don’t need protection," Dean bristles. "And I don’t need you to take me home. I need you to just take a moment. We’ve been going to all these places nonstop and getting nowhere. I need you to fill me in, fifty-fifty. I need to - hell. Cas. You asked me to come. You said you trusted me. So trust me."

"I do." Cas straightens, hands shaking before he balls them into fists. "I didn’t mean to for it to come to this," he says. "I never told you it would be easy. I have no other choice."

"Stop that, stop fucking saying that. That’s not true and you know it. The choice exists. It’s why you’re here. It’s why I’m here. Okay? We can choose to lay down and die, but we’re not doing that. We’re here, right here, right now. Okay? So be here."

Dean takes a deep breath. This probably isn’t the best place to have this conversation: Cas still looks worn down. Old . They’re both sweating, somehow, despite the snow screaming by the window. The saints are watching them from the walls, and Mary and Christ Pantocrator bear silent witness from the altar. Dean’s shirt sticks uncomfortably to his chest, and he tugs at his collar.

"If you ask someone for help, then let them fucking help you. It’s simple," he says, and hopes they both believe that. "Come on, Cas. We’re fuckin’ drowning, man. How much longer can we do this? How much longer can you pull a save out of your ass?"

"As long as it takes," Cas says, but Dean sees how drained he is, how stretched thin.

"You’re falling apart," Dean insists. "And this? This isn’t going anywhere and you got jack shit most times."

"You may be ready to give up, but I’m not," Cas growls.

"Fuck you," Dean retorts. "I’m not giving up. It’s a rethinking of strategies, something you can’t seem to pull your head out of your ass long enough to do."

It's Sam all over again, his whole fucking family all over again, with Sam's we're not any closer to finding Dad and the truth of it hanging heavy in his heart, the unspoken blame lingering all around them.

"If there is a better strategy, tell me," Cas says, narrowing his eyes. "If you had given me more time with the ifrit, we wouldn’t -"

"If I had given you more time with that asshole," Dean shouts, "we’d both be dead by now."

Cas leans in; Dean stands his ground. He wishes he were less used to anger. They are standing too close again because neither of them are proud enough to back down. "I never forced you to come," Cas says, "and I’ll do this alone if I must."

"That’s not what I said."

Cas turns around and walks to the doors.

"Cas, damn it -"

The church doors swing open and Cas turns and leaves. Dean goes after him, cursing under his breath as he squints against the glare, but by the time he steps outside, Cas is gone.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" he yells at the sky. There's no irritation this time, but blinding rage, hopelessness.

Dean scans the landscape but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for really. He hears Pele in his head, there is no difference between love and loss and Alastair he's playing you like a fiddle, he's gonna cut those strings and for a moment he thinks what if you're right -

"Come back inside." A touch to his elbow. The nature of the touch is strangely familiar, but the hand itself is not. Sergei.

"Yeah." Dean doesn't move.

"He’ll come back."

Dean doesn't answer.

Sergei is persistent. "A loss of faith is a powerful thing."

"Too much faith seems to be the problem here." Dean looks back and meets the concerned gaze of the young monk.

Sergei asks, "You have never heard of overcompensating?"

Dean barks laughter. "Heard of it? Hell..."

"You feel close to the things that you love, whether you understand them or not. Perhaps even because. Come." Sergei lays a hand on his shoulder. "He’ll come back. He cannot leave you when he relies on you so."

"Rely on me for what?" Dean demands.

To his credit, Sergei asks, "When was the last time you ate?"

"Uh, Nikolay gave me some bread earlier..."

"Can find something for you," Sergei says. "Come."

Dean lets Sergei take his elbow and lead him back inside. It's frustrating how his feet still don't want to work for him, how his limbs still feel heavy and leaden.

Sergei hands Dean a thick coat and says, "Dress properly this time."

They strike out into the landscape.

"Bellingshausen used to be so gray," Sergei says. "Dirty. That hill there? It’s rusty barrels underneath. The snow covers it up. The snow covers everything. All over the shoreline, you see lumber, parts of machines, all these things. But then it snowed and snowed. You cannot see them now."

He points out the signpost to Dean. They can’t read any of the cities or distances at all; the snow has swallowed it whole.

"Welcome to the resort," says Sergei.

There’s a violence in how the winter rewrites the landscape. Dean tries to imagine Bellingshausen Station before the snow fell; he tries to imagine the grayness, the debris, the sterile functionality of an outpost at the end of the world. He can’t. Everything has been forcibly rendered pristine. Whatever clue Cas is looking for, perhaps it too is buried.

"Hey, so," Dean says. "You’re a man of God. Have you seen him around here?"

"Nyet, I have not seen him," Sergei replies. "Used to hear him, maybe. But quieter now."

"Hearing God like how? What does he say?"

"Not words. Leanings. Feelings."

Dean smirks. "Like having oatmeal versus pancakes for breakfast?"

"Not exactly," Sergei smiles back. "Anyway. Oatmeal is the favorite here."

At the main compound, in the real kitchen of a squat snow-covered building, Dean sits at a table and watches Sergei and a woman converse in Russian as Sergei peers through the tupperwares in the fridge. Sergei shrugs and says something in a resigned tone; the woman laughs. She refills her mug with hot water from the kettle, and smiles at Dean.

"The weather is bad everywhere, my friend," she says, and winks, then leaves.

"What’d you tell her?" Dean asks.

"I tell her you’re from McMurdo," Sergei says, and tosses a container on the table. "Perhaps here to escape the cold."

Dean opens the tupperware. It looks like croissants, four of them, and he finds his mouth watering. "What’s this?"

"Pirozhki." Sergei takes utensils from the drawer. "You will like it. My mother’s recipe."

Dean smiles. "Your mother mailed you food all the way out here?"

He swears that Sergei flushes. "It is her recipe, but Nikolay made it. Said I am too thin."

"Haven't eaten it, huh?"

"Saving it," he says. "Special occasion. I will heat it up for you."

"I don't think I count as a -"

"You count," Sergei beams, and he sets the oven to preheat, nodding to himself.

"Thanks," Dean says. "Hey, you, uh... you got any drink on you? Something to warm a body up?"

"Ah," Sergei lifts his head in understanding. "You like vodka?"

"I don’t know, the vodka in Antarctica any good?"

Sergei lifts a shoulder. "Good? Debatable."

Shit, Dean doesn’t care. He’s about to ask if it’s cold, but thinks maybe that’s not going to be an issue.

Sergei pours him a few fingers, leaving a glass of orange juice next to it. "Just in case," he says.

Dean ignores the orange juice. Sergei leaves him the bottle.

"I'm sorry, we don't have much."

"Trust me, this is a fu -" Dean stops. "A Thanksgiving dinner."

Dean digs into the pirozhki (onion and egg, a weird combination, but it works surprisingly well) with gusto, and Sergei watches him with curiosity, as if at anytime Dean might sprout antlers or reveal the secrets of heaven and hell. Well, Dean’s got none of those. He’s just going to eat this dinner. It’s a damn fine dinner. The bread is almost hot enough to burn his fingers, and the filling definitely is, but considering recent events, he does not mind at all. After umpteen cups of the monks’ coffee, the savory taste is a welcome change.

"He asked me if I talked with him," Sergei says. "With God. Recently."

"I’m guessing that would be a no," Dean says around a mouthful of food.

Sergei’s smile is dry and worn.

"Uh-huh. Cas didn’t like that answer, did he?"

"I didn’t know what to say," Sergei says. "To an angel? What right do I have? But he wanted to talk. I gave him the honesty he wanted."

"Guy’s not very good with honesty," Dean quips.

"And yet...this gives me hope. All of this. It gives me hope."

Dean raises his eyebrows. "Hope?"

Sergei frowns, considering his words. Then he says, "If the angels deign to descend from the heavens to save us from the cold, then surely we are not alone. Surely something is watching over us.If an angel can still reach for one man, then there is hope for all angels and all men."

Dean tries to respond, and finds he has no words.

"This is where the evidence of God lies," Sergei continues. "There is no proof of God, you see. There is only evidence of him. Perhaps this is it."

"I don’t think that’s God, man." Dean pours himself a little more vodka. "I think that’s just evidence of Cas. And I’m tired of - " He falters. He pours himself a little more. "I’m tired."

"We are all tired," Sergei says, not that this helps.

+

Sergei leads him to a bedroom at the end of the hall, explaining that Sasha, its usual occupant, is at Artigas investigating the crazy weather patterns with the Uruguayans. Dean can have the room for now. He’s not exactly sure when he falls asleep, but wakefulness prods at him now, and even before Dean opens his eyes, he know Cas is there.

"How long was I asleep?" he asks.

"Five hours," Cas says from where he’s seated on the chair by the bed. For a quick moment, Dean flashes back to a hospital room, to Alastair and the wounds that Cas was forbidden to heal. (He came back later in the dead of night, and Dean knew because he dreamed of the sun that night, and when he woke up the next day, the doctor examined him and declared a clean bill of health, joking about acts of God.) "Thirty-seven minutes," he adds, "give or take."

"What did we just fucking talk about, man?"

Cas frowns. "We talked about several things."

Dean groans and rolls over, burying his face in the pillow. "Never mind."

Cas continues to watch him. "Dean, I was always going to come back," he says.

"So, what, did you find your dad?" he asks. If Cas did, would he even have come back?

"I thought -" Cas begins, and hesitates. "I thought maybe..." Then he gathers himself, begins again. "I was in Boston, and the amulet started to glow."

Dean smirks. "God’s in Beantown?"

"I followed -"

"Is God a Pats fan?"

"I followed -"

"Does He pahk His kah in Hahvahd Yahd?"

"I followed where it led," Cas says, not even bothering to be irritated at his interruptions. He tells Dean about how he had shoved people out of the way, tells him about how the amulet burned into his skin, but the pain didn’t stop him. How could it? "And I thought about all the things I'd say, all the things I wanted to apologize for and everything I wanted to know," he says, but when Cas got there, it was not his father at all.

"Who was it?" Dean asks.

"Aphrodite."

"...come again?"

"Aphrodite. The Greek goddess of lo -"

"I know who Aphrodite is." Dean says, amused. "Just making sure. So. What did the goddess of love have to say?"

Cas smiles grimly and shakes his head. "Nothing."

"Nothing?"

"Nothing about my father."

Dean eyes him. "Great. At least she didn’t try to drown you in foam, I guess."

"She bought me coffee."

Dean raises his eyebrows, but he feels the incredulous smile on his face. "Goddess of love bought you coffee?"

"A grande cappuccino with extra caramel syrup."

"That’s not coffee," Dean corrects, and grins. "Tell me, Cas. What do an angel of the Lord and a goddess of love have to say to each other?"

Cas shrugs, an uncomfortable gesture that's he’s been doing more and more. He looks down at the amulet in his hand. "It does this sometimes," he says instead. "My father is just one of many gods. The amulet gets confused."

"Yeah, I kinda figured that one out."

"I’m sorry."

Dean meets his eyes. They don’t say anything for a long while, and then he just says, "So where to now?"

"I don’t know," Cas sighs. "Someplace warmer for you, maybe."

"Okay. I’m good with that." He’s about to slip about of bed when he realizes he still has Sergei's jacket draped over him. He rolls it up and lays it on the bed.

"That's not your coat."

"I know. Sergei let me borrow it."

"Oh." Cas pauses. "I have a coat."

Dean frowns. "Yeah, I know? What -"

"Never mind," Cas interrupts. "Come, let's go."

"Back to the motel?"

"Not just yet," Cas says. "Can you do with one more place?"

"Depends on the place."

Cas holds out a hand. "Trust me."

A gentle knock on the door, and Cas's hand falters, drops away.

"Come in," Dean says.

The door opens and Dean feels like they're on stage. Sergei and Nikolay stand in the doorway, watching them. Sergei’s mouth moves silently, as if he’s in prayer.

"How do you say "thank you" in Russian?" Dean asks Cas.

"Spasiba," Cas says, and Dean nods at the monks and repeats the word.

"No need for thanks," Sergei assures them.

Nikolay smiles at Dean. "Ni pukha ni pera!"

Dean just blinks. "Um?"

"Similar to your "break a leg"," Nikolay says. "You say back "k chortu"! Means -"

"It also means "thank you"," Cas provides. He looks at Dean. "We should go."

Dean mock-salutes Sergei and Nikolay with two fingers and a smile. "Dasvidanya."

"And to you," Nikolay says.

Sergei steps forward and, looking like he's about to lose his nerve, gives Cas a kiss to each cheek. He clears his throat and follows by giving Cas a hug. Cas's bewildered expression is visible over Sergei's shoulder, and Dean looks down and stifles his own laughter, but then Sergei releases Cas and kisses Dean’s cheeks too, giving Dean his own hug. Very tentatively, as if handling a bomb, Dean hugs him back. Pats his back for good measure.

"Will you come back?" Sergei asks, pulling back. "Or let us know that you are all right?"

Cas smiles: relaxed, easy. "You'll know."

+

There is light, and then Dean sees water. His boots sink into the sand, and a balloon vendor rolls past them under the colorful cloud of his own wares. A little girl tugs on her mother’s arm and points at them, wide-eyed. He hears the roll of the ocean, streams of Spanish. The sky is blue in its purest form, all clouds chased away.

It’s the Playa Bagdad.

"What -"

"You mentioned this place," Cas says, "back in Teotihuacán."

"Yeah," Dean says, stumped.

Cas starts walking along the shore, away from the crowds, and Dean speeds up to follow.

There’s a small smile on Cas’s face. "I figured you deserve it."

He waits as Dean sits in the sand and removes his shoes and socks. He watches curiously as Dean sinks his toes into the sand, then walks to the edge of the waves, feeling the water lap at his feet.

"Maybe you’re right," Cas says, coming next to him. The water washes over his loafers, but he doesn’t seem to mind. "Maybe God is hiding. Maybe he doesn’t want to be found."

He doesn’t sound angry. He doesn’t sound happy either.

"Wanna fish?" Dean asks. He expects Cas to say no.

Cas says yes.

Dean smiles. Throws an arm around Cas's shoulders. "We should probably rent some rods."

+

The Playa Bagdad stands out in Dean’s head for the peace he still associates with it. The years Sam was at Stanford tend to blur together in Dean’s head, but there were two bright spots. One was Cassie. The other was the wide blue waters of Matamoros. No Dad, no Sam - just Dean alone in the whole wide world, and for once it was a thought that didn’t terrify him.

Dean leads them down the shore to the boat rental. "Can't we just -" Cas starts, but Dean shakes his head.

"Protocol, Cas."

Cas looks around the dock, the boats bobbing around it. "We can borrow one," he says.

"Steal one, you mean?"

"Borrow," Cas repeats. "I'll return it. We have no currency. Would you like to fish or not?"

"Yeah, sure," Dean says. Suddenly, everyone finds something fascinating to watch in the opposite direction, and they slip on by. Cas picks up some rods and leads him to a boat. "Dude, you need to come along the next time I hustle pool."

Cas sits in the boat, setting the rod against the side. Dean starts up the engine. And they’re off.

They ride in comfortable silence for a moment, the whir of the engine keeping them company. The beach gets smaller and smaller behind them, and Dean takes a deep breath and relaxes. The Blue Grotto flashes through his mind, and he tucks it into a corner of his memory. A promise. Someday.

"Here’s good," Dean says, because his instincts say so.

He turns off the engine, and Cas watches as Dean picks out the bait, then swishes the line out into the blue with a flick of his wrist. It barely makes a splash. Still got it, Dean smiles to himself. A moment later, Cas follows suit.

For the first time in who the hell knows how long, Dean is fishing.

"So... we just sit here," Cas says.

"Yep. Enjoy."

Cas holds the rod in his lap, and after another moment, crosses his legs at the ankles. There's not much space, and his thigh bumps against Dean's. He still doesn’t look convinced, but he leans back in the seat. "Do you expect to catch fish like this?"

Dean shrugs. "Hey, if one happens to wander by, cool. If not, no big deal."

"This isn’t an ideal fishing spot," Cas says. "There aren’t many -"

"Cas. You’re ruining it."

They sit in silence for a while, their rods quiet and still.

"You know I’m not saying to give up on looking, right?" Dean says finally. "I mean, nothing could stop me and Sam finding our dad, you know? At least mine told me he was dropping off the face of the earth."

"Maybe my father did, as well," Cas says, eyes drifting up to the sky. "Maybe I overlooked it."

"It’s better to look and be wrong, than to not look and be right." He thinks he read that in a fortune cookie once. Or was it that Morgan Freeman movie?

Cas frowns. "That makes no sense. The apocalypse doesn’t give us much time. It’s better to be right."

Dean rolls his eyes. "Dude, do you ever -"

"What?"

"Do you ever just... turn it off? Look, here’s a tip from one mortal to the new kid on the block."

"I’m not mortal," Cas snaps, and Dean feels Cas's shoulders tense.

"Okay, look," Dean sighs. "When an angel goes to take a minute, where do you go? You told me about Anna’s favorite place, but... where’s yours?"

Cas stares at him, and his frown deepens but somehow is less agitated. It’s still so strange how that happens. Dean still remembers Cas threatening to throw him back in hell, but sometimes Cas looks at him like this and Dean’s mind goes blank. He can only wait for the next thing to come.

Cas stands up. Dean braces himself in case the boat tips over, but nothing of the sort happens.

"Come here," Cas says.

"What?" says Dean, but he is already pushing himself to his feet. Cas lays a hand on his shoulder, right over the scar, and he steps behind Dean, back to front, arm like a seatbelt. He slips an arm around Dean’s waist, and then he speaks into Dean’s ear.

"Hold on tight."

"Um," says Dean. He’s about to say, "What’s going on," but he doesn’t get to because suddenly, beautifully, impossibly, the world fills up with light.

+

The great beat of wings, the heartbeat of wings, the wings of a heart - it’s all blurring for him and then Dean is rising, he is soaring above the earth. He feels the heat of grace all around him, and yes, he can see now, he sees the blue sky fading into stars and stars and stars. He breaks on through to the other side, and Dean hears in his heart rather than his ears a roar of triumph. This is what angels sounds like, he thinks, remembering Pontiac and Cas’s voice shattering the glass.

The earth, the planet, the fucking planet falls away beneath him until it is a small blue marble, until it is gone.

Until Dean sees the stars around him, separated by vast distances from each other, but such distances mean little to angels and Dean knows this now. He knows so much. It’s a direct hit, a transfusion straight to the veins, and he can scarcely process it, the way angels see, the way angels hear. He passes Jupiter, where Castiel is suffused with a nostalgia for the fierce winds and roiling storms. They remind him of his family’s hosannahs.

And then the asteroids, and then the nebulae, and then the shooting stars, the galaxy falling away beneath him, and it should be terrifying. It should be scary how small he is in all this, how tiny he is in the context of all this. Instead he feels oddly comforted. He is small, and small enough that he can be contained in cupped hands. He doesn’t feel dwarfed. He feels held.

And Castiel, around him, beside him, behind him, a thousand arcs of flame, says, Here.

Dean is aware of great arcs of light at the edge of his vision, some unnameable substance that inspires both surrender and awe. Wings that stretch as far as the heart can sing.

Castiel says, Here.

+

When Dean was seventeen, he fell in with a crowd of self-styled rebels in Massachusetts and dropped acid for the first time. It was six hours of bliss and genius, and when the effects began to wear off, the return of the normal world was like an offense to him. The return to his motel room in Kansas City is kind of like that. Suddenly Dean is back in the same motel room he was in one day ago. (Two? The time zones throw him off.) There's no fire or snakes or gods or demons here. Everything is unremarkable, and set for one.

It's quiet. He can just hear the water dripping from the leaky faucet, the springs of the bed creaking next door. He runs a hand over his dresser, expecting dust or some evidence of how long he's been gone, but his fingers come away clean.

A touch to the small of his back and he blinks. It's careful, soft: a touch that he's come to associate with Cas. Was Cas like this before? He can't remember. Dean takes the comfort without a word, because this might be it, this might be all he ever gets again.

Finally, he turns to face Cas, and Cas's hand slips away. There's a small smile on Cas's face, and an expression that Dean can't quite read, but he thinks he will be able to, in time. They just need a little more time. A little more peace, maybe, but if wishes were fishes...

"Thank you," Cas says.

"I didn’t do anything."

"You did plenty. You were what I..." Cas falters, then settles on: "Thank you, Dean."

"Glad I could help." Dean shifts his weight. He scratches the back of his head, then shoves both hands in his pockets. "Hey, you want a drink?"

Cas shakes his head. "No, I should go."

"Cas, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’ve been going for like the past twenty-four hours straight."

"Actually, it’s been longer -"

"Man, shut up." Dean laughs. He’s already heading for the bottle on the table. "Not the fucking point. Okay? Look, if God wants to play hide and seek, that’s his prerogative. Maybe he’s not ready to come out of hiding yet, who the hell knows. The point is..." He pours the whiskey into the two styrofoam cups the motel provides. "Maybe sometimes you just gotta... I mean. Maybe he just... Look, lost things want to be found."

"What if I don’t find them?"

Dean approaches and hands him one cup. "Then there are other lost things that want to be found."

Cas looks at him and there it is again, that contemplative frown, borderline confusion and borderline surprise.

Dean sits down on the edge of the bed, balancing the drink on his knee, and looks back up at Cas. He says, "Stay."

He reasons to himself that it’s not any stranger of a request than "come help me look for God".

It’s only when Cas says okay that Dean exhales.

Cas puts his drink down on the bedside table. He shrugs off his coat and folds it over the back of a chair. He takes off his blazer and does the same thing. Dean watches wordlessly from the bed as Cas's fingers go to the knot of his tie and tugs, lifting it over his head. He hangs the tie over the blazer.

Cas picks up his drink.

Dean smiles as he holds up his glass. "Bottoms up."

"Yes," Cas agrees, clinking their glasses.

They drink.

THE END