He holds the small body in his hands and stares at it. It doesn’t move. Doesn’t take a breath. Its feathers are soft against the palms of his hands but its body is cold. Other than the fact that it’s dead, there’s nothing wrong with it that he can see.
“What is it, Castiel?”
He ignores the angel at his side and lets his power flow through him. The life of a bird is nothing—paltry in comparison to that of a human—so he uses only a fraction of the force he used to bring Bobby back from the dead. His hands grow warm, warmer…
And nothing happens.
“Sir, I’d prefer that we move to safer ground,” she says.
Castiel exhales loudly—it’s a habit that he’s picked up from humans, and he can tell that it makes Rachel uncomfortable—and sets the bird down carefully. Once on the ground, it becomes but one of hundreds. “I want a team on this,” he says.
Rachel nods, and then they’re gone in a flurry of wings.
Most angels only worry about pleasing their superiors. Despite numerous attempts to encourage individuality and independent thought among his fellow angels, Castiel finds himself in the uncomfortable position of leading a large number of troops, none of whom seem to understand the true meaning of the fight they are engaged in.
Don’t they understand what he’s trying to do? Don’t they understand that free will is no longer out of their reach? In the vacuum of power left after Michael’s imprisonment, the angels turned to either Raphael or Castiel for leadership, and as far as Castiel can tell, which side they chose was completely arbitrary.
Angels also seem to have very little concern for humanity in general, or for the planet on which humanity resides, and most of them are too oblivious to sense or not intelligent enough to understand the implications of adding 50,000 souls to the war effort.
Raphael is anything but oblivious, but even with all his power he couldn’t move fast enough to keep Castiel from claiming those souls for his own. 50,000 may seem insignificant when compared to the number of souls waiting to be claimed in Purgatory, but they are vital. Castiel isn’t sure that he can keep the fight up long enough for Crowley to find the door. If he can just delay the final confrontation until he’s ready...
Castiel thinks he should be more concerned about working with a demon, but what is it Dean is always saying? No use crying over spoiled milk? And telling Balthazar to alter the course of history may have been foolhardy, but nothing of importance seems to have been changed. There was no telling what would happen, despite Castiel’s rigorous research and theoretical mathematical equations. Perhaps Sam and Dean would not have been born, been raised as hunters, started the Apocalypse, stopped the Apocalypse, imprisoned Lucifer... the list goes on and on.
He watches, unseen and unheard, as Dean and Sam leave Bobby Singer’s home in their gold-striped Mustang. Perhaps Dean would not be happy about the Impala, but in this reality he has no idea that Chevy ever existed. In the grand scheme of things, the model of Dean’s car is insignificant. It was what the car stood for that motivated Sam to overpower Lucifer and...
Castiel cocks his head. He’s “waxing poetic” as Bobby says. He should check on a few more things before he decides that this reality is acceptable. With little more than a thought, he leaves South Dakota behind.
Although all else seems well, the birds - the birds are bothering him. As time passes, it becomes harder for Castiel to see things along the original timeline, but from what little he can see, nothing like this occurred. Rachel never called him out to a field, he never picked up a dead bird, he never failed to heal it... things get fuzzy beyond that.
Crowley, not surprisingly, is unconcerned. "So a bunch of buzzards are dead. So what?"
“My concern is that this should not be happening,” he says. "And whatever killed those birds did so in a way that I cannot heal them. It is unsettling."
Crowley, who is bent over a jar of ooze that is all that is left of Eve's newest monster, hums noncommittally.
"Could the perpetrator be something you've seen before? A monster you've recently dissected?"
“Hell if I know,” Crowley says, lifting a pair of forceps from his tray of tools. “But back to the task at hand: according to the Bobbsey twins, this thing said it was created by Eve? One of a kind?” He sticks the forceps in the ooze and stirs it up, the metal of the forceps clanging against the inside of the glass jar.
“No, there were no twins there. Dean and Sam spoke with it, and it claimed to be a new creature. Something created by Eve herself.”
Crowley rolls his eyes, which is something Castiel has seen Dean do before. “Right, Dean and Sam, then,” he says. "And what did the thing call itself?"
"I don't think it called itself anything, so they named it themselves. A worm, or a... a Khan Worm?"
Crowley huffs a breath that's almost, but not quite, a laugh. "Let me guess: Dean's the one that christened it? There's a closet nerd if I've ever seen one."
"I do not know who named it, and it hardly seems relevant." He looks at the jar pointedly. "Have you found anything?"
He shrugs in response. "What can I tell you? It's a jar of ooze. But if this is a new monster, I’d be interested in knowing how she created it." Crowley pauses—Crowley is very fond of dramatic pauses—and Castiel waits patiently for him to finish. Crowley looks cross for a moment before finally continuing. "I can’t tell much from the puddle it left behind, but maybe she has to start with something else? It’s hard to create something out of nothing.”
Castiel blinks a few times, considering. Crowley is quite intelligent for a demon. "You're right. Eve is not a creator, but a perverter. I will look into this."
"What? Not going to delegate it to your favorite exterminators?" Crowley asks, eyebrow raised. "You know, if Sam and Dean are no longer useful, it would really ease my mind if we just took them out of the picture now. When they find out about this partnership of ours, they're not going to take it well. And really, I can make it painless -"
“No,” Castiel commands, and his voice echoes in the examination room. He’s about to elaborate when he hears a slight whisper—a suggestion. Rachel is calling him. He tilts his head to the side, considering, and then looks back to Crowley. “I must attend to other matters,” he says.
Crowley says nothing in return, just watches him with narrowed eyes, and Castiel feels something inside him wind tighter.
Working with demons is exhausting.
“I will return,” he says, and leaves with barely a flutter of his wings.
Another site, almost identical to the last, has been found. Rachel leads him to a remote farm in Nebraska, where the back acreage lies fallow, and Castiel surveys the decimation, face blank. Hundreds of birds, from the slightest sparrow to the greatest eagle, have died here. Their fragile bodies are strewn across the field, blanketing it in a macabre quilt of feathers.
Rachel stands behind him, her long, blond hair whipping around her in the wind. “Their souls are missing, sir. They may be slight, but it has become obvious with the sheer number of them: they have not gone back to the Earth as they should. It is causing an imbalance in the natural order. If it continues —”
Castiel raises a hand, and Rachel ceases her conjecture. “Please have the team clear this field as they did the last. We don’t want the humans to discover anything amiss.”
Rachel, usually so impassive, sneers in contempt, “How could they? They would probably blame it on pollution or something else equally ridiculous.”
“I would not totally discount them,” he says, his voice as sharp as steel. “They’ve discovered what they call ‘dark matter,’ and that is close enough. Just do it.”
“Yes, sir,” she answers, face once again as blank as any other angel, like the sky on a cloudless day. "I'll recall the team."
He says nothing, just waits quietly until she leaves with an audible flapping of her wings, obviously annoyed. Once he's alone, he does a quick scan of his surroundings and then bends down to pick up one of the smaller birds—a sparrow. He'll have his team investigate this, but he wants a second opinion.
Castiel has dropped the sparrow off with Crowley and is talking to the investigative team when he hears another whisper—Balthazar. When Castiel arrives in their favored meeting place, a secluded wood in southern Wyoming, Balthazar is already waiting. "We've got a problem."
Castiel is instantly on alert. "The birds -?"
Balthazar shakes his head. "No." He starts to pace, movements jerky. "Apparently something is killing the people we... 'created.'"
Castiel clenches his fists. "Could it be Raphael?"
"I don't think so. The deaths are too subtle for him—or should I say her?—anyways, no lightning or hellfire." He stops pacing and looks to Castiel, waiting for his orders.
"See what you can find out and call me again when you have something."
Balthazar averts his eyes and pretends to brush lint off his suit. "Hmm... I may have failed to mention—Sam and Dean are already on the case."
Castiel startles. "They are? But... do they know that we altered -?"
"No, nothing like that—they haven't even spotted the pattern between the deaths yet. But if it's okay with you, I'd rather keep an eye on them instead of going off to investigate on my own. See what they can uncover."
"Fine," Castiel says, "but we need to come up with a story for them, in case they find out what we did. They can't know about the souls."
"Whatever you say, boss—hey, were you ever a fan of Celine Dion?"
Balthazar grins. "Exactly. Don't worry if they start asking questions—I have just the thing."
Dean and Sam are busy investigating the deaths of the people who would never have existed if not for his and Balthazar's intervention, so Castiel focuses on the problem of the birds. If Eve is behind their corruption and is somehow stealing their souls, then she needs to be stopped. He revisits the sites, listens to inconclusive reports, and when Rachel tells him that another site has been found, this one somewhere high in the Rocky Mountains, he goes to check it out first, alone.
At least 300 high-altitude birds—eagles, falcons, and the like—are scattered across the snow-covered mountainside, their bodies already partially obscured by white powder. It's snowing lightly now, and the small flakes catch in his dark hair and stick: it's too cold for them to melt. He's contemplating the open vista around him, unsure of his next move, when a shadow falls across his own.
In an instant, he leaps to the side and lands hard in the packed snow. Something—he doesn't see what—lands just where he was standing and then takes off into the air again, shrieking.
"Damn!" He's up again and quickly scanning the craggy mountaintop above him. He isn't usually caught off guard so easily. There must be — there! He can see several openings in the mountainside. Whatever it is, it's probably hiding in a cave. He trains his eyes on one such opening and with a thought, he's standing there.
"Whatever you are, come out! Now!" he shouts into the darkness. Nothing. He back out and looks higher up. There! Another cave opening.
He jumps up again, but before he can catch his balance, something crashes into him and then he's falling, feathers in his face. "Damn it! What –"
Whatever it is, its talons are caught in his trenchcoat—he can feel the sharp nails where they pierce his flesh—as they fly backwards off the side of the mountain. He extends his wings, hoping to slow their descent and capture the thing alive, but it's struggling frantically and Castiel can feel one of its wings break in his grip. The thing's face is suddenly just in front of him as it cries out in pain. It appears to be a hideously deformed woman with the body of a bird, a harpy, and she's shrieking and shrieking and his ears are ringing and Castiel can't get his bearings.
And suddenly she's free of him. He immediately alights on the mountainside and watches helplessly as she wheels out of control, her left wing flapping uselessly until she smashes into the mountain and then falls. The craggy mountainside batters her body until there's nothing left but a broken corpse a mile below his perch.
"That could have gone better."
“In the other reality, Eve never takes an interest in birds—it is curious. If I'm right and this is her doing, what could have changed?”
"Any number of things." Crowley leans down to peer closer at the harpy's body on his examination table. "You can't predict every outcome or effect of an event, you know." He watches Castiel from the corner of his eye as he runs his fingers through the harpy's feathers.
"I am aware," Castiel snaps.
"No need to get huffy, princess," Crowley says, a grin on his face as he starts positioning the harpy more carefully for dissection. "I'm sure loads of things have changed, not just Eve's priorities. Kind of makes you wonder if playing God should be left to... well, God. Doesn't it?" He wheels his tool tray closer and taps his fingers along its length a few times before picking up a scalpel.
Castiel watches him silently for a moment, trying to curb his anger. "You know perfectly well that there is no God," he finally spits out. "Not anymore. He's gone."
Crowley twirls the scalpel between his stubby fingers a few times before bending to the task, sharp point of the blade at the top of the harpy's sternum. "And while the cat’s away the mice will play," he says, in a singsong tone of voice.
Castiel leaves quickly, before the first trickle of blood wells up from the harpy's chest.
Balthazar is just telling him about the gold threads that Dean and Sam have found at two of the murder sites when he all of a sudden jerks upright.
"I'm being summoned," Balthazar says, voice urgent. "I think it's –"
And then he's gone, leaving Castiel in a panic. With a slight push, Castiel follows him, careful to stay invisible in case Balthazar has been dragged into a hostile situation. If it's Raphael, he doesn't know what he can do. He's not ready –!
When he pops into existence at Balthazar's side, he finds Sam and Dean facing him. A wave of relief passes over him, and he lays a hand on Balthazar's shoulder so that he'll know he's not alone. Balthazar moves forward, away from the touch, and Castiel backs out of the way of the enfolding drama.
Of course Sam and Dean have discovered the similarities between the victims and even linked Balthazar to the whole mess. Castiel feels a surge of pride. These are his friends. They are resourceful and intelligent and… everything that he wishes his fellow angels were. Balthazar and Rachel are anomalies, but humanity is full of people like Dean and Sam. It is worth saving. It is worth every sacrifice and every concession.
Castiel stays invisible to their gaze and watches as Balthazar feeds Dean and Sam their prepared story. Because it is true that Ellen and Jo would have died, but have been spared in this reality, he doesn’t feel remorse for deceiving them. And Bobby is so much happier here. It truly is better for everyone…
After Balthazar leaves Sam and Dean's motel room, Castiel follows him back to their meeting point and then immediately sends him back. "I'd have you go to Bobby's, because I'm sure that's who they'll call next for answers, but I have no idea if you'll be able to remain undetected on his property," Castiel explains. "Return to their motel and see what Bobby comes up with—we're too close to this."
Balthazar seems reluctant to spend any more time watching the Winchesters, but it pays off when Bobby comes through for them again.
"Looks like Fate didn't get the 'free will' memo," Balthazar jokes, but Castiel can see that he's worried.
"No, I suppose not," he says. He looks down at the pine needles at his feet, then up at the sky he can see between the tree tops. "What with the disappearance of God and averting the Apocalypse, I assumed that she’d simply ceased to be. Obviously, that was a mistake." It is so frustrating, dealing with artifacts of the old ways, when he is trying to create a new world—a better world—for both humans and angels alike.
Balthazar follows his gaze upwards. "What are our options?"
"We'll see if she's willing to negotiate. If not… do you have anything in your weapons cache that can handle her?"
Balthazar takes a moment to consider. "I think so. Let me check and get back to you on that."
Castiel waits a beat, and then turns his gaze on him. "Well, what are you waiting for?"
Balthazar sighs in a put upon way one instant and in the next he's gone.
Now that he knows Fate is behind the killings, he's going to have to put the issue of Eve and the harpy behind him. This is more important. Not just because he needs those 50,000 souls, but also because Dean and Sam are in danger. If they cross her path... well, Fate is fickle and capricious and impetuous and powerful, and she likely really hates Dean and Sam. He can't let anything happen to them, so while Balthazar searches for a weapon that can kill her, Castiel puts himself on watch. What was it that Balthazar called it? Oh, yes: Winchester Watch.
He's just in time to save them from an exploding kitchen.
When everything pans out, he's right back where he started. Too weak to fight Raphael and still waiting, endlessly waiting for Crowley to find a way into Purgatory.
But Dean and Sam are safe.