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Oneiroi

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Prologue. 
"Better never to have met you in my dream than to wake and reach for hands that are not there."


He enjoys the ones that find them upon a lake or stream, both equally soaked in sunlight and comfortable silences, his side warm where Dean presses up against it. The words shared between them are few, but heavy with intent, and the tone in which they are spoken is always warm. Dean catches at least ten fish and always jokes that they are the same one, and shares the rod with him. Sometimes they are not on the water but on its banks, sitting at an old picnic table and sharing a beer. 

The ones that show him different outcomes, paths not taken or simply not even forged, are always surprising. How Dean might have reacted, had he told him everything -- everything -- before sending him away from the prophet Chuck's kitchen, as Raphael came to mete out his punishment. I'll hold them off! rewritten as It was always you, you, you, and the shocked viridian of Dean's gaze, white-washed by an archangel's arrival, the last thing he would ever see. How things might have changed if Dean had never faced Alastair in Cheyenne, if the angels had interrogated the demon instead and spared Dean the mental and physical trauma. Dean would not have broken, would have continued to look at him with that tenuous trust. How they might still have Ellen and Joanna Harvelle if he hadn't fallen into so obvious a trap.

He likes the ones when he's human and has always been, because his experiences give him new insight into the world and himself. In particular, he likes the one where he is a human and can fly. It is not second nature, but a struggle. He revels in the pull of muscle as he fights to keep aloft, the strain that causes the small of his back to twinge as he leaves the ground and bypasses the power lines, the roofs of houses, cresting the tops of the trees, desperate for thermal pockets to help ease the burden of such an impossible act. But oh, how he marvels at the world below for the wonder it truly is. 

He has been everything and everyone. A child, an animal, human and angel, a doctor like in Dean's television show, a Beltian body on the end of an Acacia leaf to be consumed by a spider. He has been chased by an unknown foe and relived boring days. He has been mundane and extraordinary both. 

He hates the falling ones.

But his favorite of all is the quiet one he has had more than once. He wakes up in unkempt sheets, alone, tired and aching from sexual intercourse the night before, warm from sleep and smelling of sweat and musk. There are photos behind glass frames. He moves from the room and into the narrow hallway with the steps of someone who has done so hundreds of times before, and knows the sound of the creaking wood of the stairs better than he has ever known anything else. There is a room with second-hand furniture, books strewn across a brand- new coffee table, the titles eclectic and all appealing, and he ignores them in favor of the sound of boiling grease coming from the kitchen, the sleek lines of Dean's body as he sings something about 'knocking him out with those American thighs'. He drops the bacon from the pan onto paper towels, pressing it down to wring the grease from it, and then dumps it onto a paper plate. 

Dean chides him -- teasingly, he knows it's all in good fun -- for sleeping in after Dean had done all the work last night, but hands him the plate and says everyone's going to be at Sam's around three. That gives them two hours to work off breakfast, Dean says, waggling his eyebrows in a way that never fails to make him laugh.

He never finds out what happens beyond that point, his own laughter the last thing he hears before it fades, but it doesn't matter. The feeling of it, the simple joy of being there -- in that moment -- is beautiful. It comes to him in technicolor light cast from glass spire prisms.

Regardless of its form, who he is and where he ends up, there is not a dream Castiel does not know.

Except.

There is a tree on a sun-soaked hill, an elm with resigned branches that birth globules of light and thought, heavy fruit sprouting wings. They tear from the boughs and fly away, leaving the sad elm, never to return and never missed. More blossom in their place almost immediately.

He studies it -- this well-oiled machine -- and is so engrossed in the process he does not hear the heavy footsteps in the grass behind him.

"Nice," Dean says, coming to stand beside Castiel. He shoves his hands into his pockets and looks up at the tree with a critical eye -- usually reserved for the Impala or a piece of pie. "You taking up botany now?"

Castiel shakes his head. "This is not my tree."

"Well, I don't see anyone else around, so it could be yours." Dean turns, presses his back to the tree, and slides down to sprawl comfortably at its base. He pats the grass beside him. "C'mon. Sit under your tree, dude. You're gonna give it a complex."

The trunk of the tree expands with a sigh of agreement, so Castiel sits.

They say nothing, content to sit in silence and watch the tall grass sway in the wind, saturated with gold. The whole world is filled to the brim with it. He turns to find Dean's gaze fixed on him, the green of his eyes gilded by the sun. He's fascinated by the palette of browns and burnished horn flecks there, and has to squint through the brightness to see them.

"It's nice here," Dean remarks, the corners of his mouth relaxed. 

"I don't know this place."

Dean smiles and looks out into the endless stretch of golden grass, a veritable sea, as if such a thing were completely normal. There is no horizon. "Are you sure?"

"There is no place like this on Earth," Castiel says, tilting his head back to gaze into the sky. Built into it is a series of windows, each one framed by the same unwashed curtains that are part of the décor of Dean and Sam's current motel room. A bird flies by on the other side of the center pane then disappears once it clears the frame. 

He tilts his chin down, eyes burning from the brightness of the sky, and starts in surprise when Dean's fingers covers his, his knuckles bumping Dean's palm. Something in his chest flutters and it feels as though he has breathed in something brilliant -- a star gone supernova, perhaps. It happens whenever he is close to Dean, his heart thudding almost painfully in his chest, and every time it feels brand new, as if he has never felt anything like it. It feels like flying.

"Dean, I am sorry for --"

"Hey, hey, it's all right. Relax. I'm not pissed anymore. Let's just sit, yeah? We could stay here for a bit," Dean says, and Castiel hears the smile in his words. "We could stay as long as you want."

Dean elbows him lightly in the side, drawing his attention, and nods toward the field. Castiel follows his gaze and finds something standing in the distance. It is a silhouette, but it is obviously some kind of construct, older than anything that may have ever existed. Castiel squints through the gold tint of the world around them and realizes bemusedly that it is a gate. 

Fingers catch his chin and turn his head away. Dean smiles at him, and his eyes -- beautiful, precious eyes -- drop down to Castiel's lips, which are soft and moist in a way they have never been, and the heart Castiel stole beats a frantic tattoo in his chest. He knows what such a look means. He has watched so many people share kisses of the mouth and he wants them for himself. More than anything he wants to know Dean this way. 

He can hear his own trembling breath, a thin and reedy thing that escapes his parted lips like frightened birds, and hates himself for the way his hands quiver, unable to remain still as Dean coaxes him nearer. Soon, he can taste Dean's steady exhalations, and his eyes slide shut of their own volition.

He knows what he is risking and it is more than worth it. Dean will be his to know, to have. Their noses bump and his heart lurches, his Grace screaming through every part of him at the way the hair at the nape of his neck stands on end when Dean places his hand there and strokes. The skin below the swell of his lip brushes against Dean's chin and he shudders, tilts his head just so to --

"Castiel."

He freezes.

Dean pauses and frowns at him, so close. So, so very close. Their eyelashes whisper together. "Are you okay?"

He pulls away, those calloused fingers falling away and leaving him bereft. The world fills up with shadows, coming like a tidal wave, swallowing the golden sea of grass whole. "This is a dream. I am dreaming."

His frustration upon opening his eyes and finding himself in Jodhpur cannot be measured. Gone are the golden hill and sad elm, replaced by congested air and endless blue walls. There is no Dean; there is no forgiveness; there is no kiss. There is only Jodhpur, where he ended up barely a day ago with the losses of Ellen and Joanna Harvelle still fresh wounds on his soul, and the lack of his Father in the world.

There is not a dream Castiel does not know, because he knows the disappointment of waking up.

He exhales long and low, closing his eyes against the desperately empty feeling in his lungs, the body panicking at the lack of oxygen. The cells clamor in surprise and alarm, conserving the little they can in a frantic attempt to live. He feels them scream out together, then subside, withering and dying. Hypoxia.

Taking a breath and feeling the ones on the brink swell and rejuvenate, he pushes away from the wall he'd been leaning against and steps onto a narrow street framed in bright blue. Jodhpur has always held his attention and admiration; a cramped but devastatingly beautiful city, a haven for him now, a place to go when the search yields unhappy results. He mostly likes it for the noise; it fills the silence left behind by the Host, who took the Song away from him. It had been punishment for standing against Zachariah in John Winchester's storage unit while Sam and Dean suffocated and bled at his feet. 

He gropes in the pocket of his coat and pulls out the phone Sam procured for him weeks ago, carefully pressing the side button to illuminate the display screen. He has two numbers in the phone and neither of them come up as having attempted to contact him. There are no missed calls. There are no texts in his inbox. After what happened in Carthage, his phone will be undoubtedly silent for a long time.

Carthage.

A group of children brushes by him, giggling in Hindi about the odd American wearing a coat in this warm clime, and he waits for them to turn the corner before winging miles away to walk down the steps of the palace of Umaid Bhawan and settle in the gardens, which are surprisingly empty. Surrounded by well-trimmed and carefully positioned flora, he closes his eyes and inhales.

Carthage, Missouri will be the first of many. Castiel can feel the very earth shudder as Lucifer's campaign against Heaven is rendered anathema, seeping into the soil and spreading out. By morning, Lucifer's reach will have spanned across the oceans, more towns will have fallen, and the dead will mean as little as the population counts on city welcome signs. 

He cannot see them, but even thousands of miles away he can feel Dean and Sam burying blood and loss under layers of gauze and the adhesive of band-aids while Bobby restlessly glides across the first floor of his home, drowning in grief and whisky.

Castiel was still haunting the halls of Bobby's house as Dean's thoughts screamed vitriol, rage, and hate for him. He lowered his eyes whenever Castiel passed by, something for which he is absurdly grateful -- even oceans away. He could not face the accusation, the hurt and betrayal that were in the forefront of Dean's gaze. They had been there once before, in the Green Room, and Castiel had buckled under those eyes in a matter of moments, keen to throw away all that he was for the chance Dean might look at him with something other than mistrust and hate. He is loathe to think what he might do now.

"You're sorry?! You weren't there, Cas! Ellen and Jo? Your fault. Their blood is on your hands! We lost two people because you fucking deserted us when we needed you! You need to leave, Cas. We're done. Don't you ever come back because we are done."

Castiel won't be able to continue this reprieve in India for much longer. He will have to return to the Winchesters to plan the next strike against Lucifer, to start gathering resources and securing allies, to face Dean's wrath and rescinded friendship. But for now… For now, Castiel wants nothing more than to cultivate the emptiness inside of himself and wallow in it.

"One of those days, huh?"

He doesn't turn to meet Zachariah. Exhaustion and sorrow weigh him down, a frighteningly human feeling, and he has no strength to fight should the situation call for it. The burns from his proximity to Lucifer's holy fire still throb. 

"Ah, but that's what happens. It's always hard when the time comes for you to put them down."

"Say what you came to say and go," Castiel snarls, with more anger and hate than he should be capable of feeling. He doesn't enjoy feeling anger in Jodhpur; this is his place of respite, and Zachariah is tainting it.

Zachariah grins, the vessel's cheeks pulling back to reveal pointed teeth. He looks like a reptile. The breast pocket of his suit jacket bulges once, like an exhale, then subsides. Zachariah does not seem to notice. "You won't ask twice?"

Castiel says nothing but his fingers itch for a blade. Zachariah must sense his impatience because his smirk slips away and he holds up his hands, imploringly. 

"I'm not going to attack."

"I don't believe you."

The distrust he has for Zachariah is startlingly sharp, a somewhat surprising reminder of everything he has given up in the name of Winchester, in the name of righteousness. 

He once followed Zachariah loyally, blindly, with pleasure even. He implicitly trusted the orders Zachariah had given, because they had come from their Father and His will was always done. He knows this, and yet can only look at these memories as if they belong to someone else. Because he knows now that Zachariah can't be trusted for anything. Castiel knows now the orders given to him were flawed, and wrong, and could never have been handed down from on high. 

There is a schism now, Heaven on one side and Dean the other. He knows on which side he stands. 

"God is gone, Castiel." The words are spoken without a hint of irony and Castiel knows what is coming next. He's surprised it even took this long. "We've watched you scour this pathetic mudball for Him and carry out what will prove to be a fruitless campaign against Lucifer, and we won't watch any longer. Paradise isn't worth this. We're forfeiting."

"Coward," Castiel spits, finally turning to face him. The chasm in him widens further. "He would want us to fight for them."

Zachariah explodes with laughter, and the shoulder of his jacket, the breast pocket, the sides, swell. "You have no idea what He wants. None of us knows. What we do know is that we aren't contenders in this anymore. We played the hand we were dealt and the cards were shit. Lucifer's killed off all the vessels, did you know that? Entire bloodlines wiped out; nothing to spare for us. They're all gone. We've lost any advantage we might have had in fighting on this plane."

That can't be true. "How could Lucifer have that kind of reach?"

"Does it matter? We have no vessels. And as soon as I'm done here, I'm abandoning mine and getting as far away from these pig-filthyhumans as I can. If you had any sense underneath that rat's nest, you'd do the same."

"I won't leave them." He won't leave Dean to die. "I won't leave."

Zachariah snorts, then takes a step closer. There are things beneath his jacket, swelling and collapsing like pockets of air, and more are pushing against the fabric of his slacks. "Well, then let me tell you how this is going to go: at the end of today, we're closing the Gates. For good. And every hour between then and now, every minute they slide shut a little bit more? That much of your Grace will flake away until there's nothing left. You think they'll still want you? You think Dean will give two shits about you then?"

He can't dispute Zachariah's warning, nor his bleak prediction. If the Gates close, it will sever his connection with the Host and render him powerless. Mortal. He's under no false pretenses that Dean keeps him around for anything more than his abilities and knowledge; becoming mortal will only give Dean reason to turn from him. 

Even if he is no longer welcome, Castiel won't see his name added to the list of those who have abandoned Dean.

"I'm staying."

"Of course you are. Such a loyal dog. Do your masters reward you well? Can you take both of them at once, or are you only Dean's bitch --" Zachariah stops and takes notice of the movement in his clothing. The skin of his jaw fluctuates, presses outward. His throat. His forehead. His gut bloats outward, the buttons of his jacket flying away like bullets, imprecise and erratic the way Dean's shots never are.

Zachariah opens his mouth and something slides from between his lips. The wings are gossamer, the body made entirely of light, and it flutters past Castiel's cheek. It's warm; he can feel it against his skin as it goes, the barest murmur of disturbance.

"What --" More pour out from his thin mouth, drifting like dandelion clocks, their wings barely disturbing the air, so unlike the complicated, intricately designed monstrosities angels carry. "What is this?!"

The vessel -- who the man was before Zachariah took him, Castiel does not know -- balloons out, the sallow skin straining until it cracks, crimson blossoming in fault lines that keep growing and expanding, the body misshapen and bloated, inflating until it resembles little more than a pustule ready to pop, or a volcano about to erupt. 

Zachariah's screams are drowned under the weight of the millions of impossibly light wing-beats as they tear him asunder, exploding into the air as the first winter snowfall, filling the sky with light. Fireflies, like the ones Dean used to catch in his yard when he was three and untainted by the supernatural world. 

Castiel closes his eyes and inhales. 

Children squeal with laughter and old, loved metal creaks beneath the weight of bodies upon swings. He opens his eyes and sits down upon the park bench, watching a group of little girls jump into squares drawn in chalk. They sing songs with each hop upon the asphalt. 

Three little angels all dressed in white
Trying to get to Heaven on the end of a kite
But the kite string broke and down they all fell
Instead of going to Heaven, they all went to --

He remembers being here with Dean at the beginning of their allegiance, everything so strained and new. Distrust and hate had bled from Dean's soul as if Castiel had cut those very wounds himself, but Dean had listened to the voicing of Castiel's fears, his doubts, his offense at being called a hammer. He is still relieved the town had not been razed to the ground; he is relieved Dean did not compromise himself.

Exhaling, he flexes his wings. He will not have many excuses to do so very soon. He will not have the ability. What will it be like to be tied to one place, tethered to the ground like every other human being? It will probably be much more degrading than riding in automobiles, confining as they are. But riding in automobiles may have to become his new way of flying. He will get used to it. He will have to.

It's worth it. For Dean, for this world, the sacrifice is the only gift he can give.

Two little angels all dressed in white
Trying to get to Heaven on the end of a kite
But the kite string broke and down they all fell
Instead of going to Heaven, they all went to --

The children pay him no heed, too engrossed in their games of play. Even the globules of light ignore him and instead flock to the grand yet wilted elm tree that stands rather sadly in the center of the park.

It is dark. It is night. The world is alight with pulsating whispers and gossamer. There is something odd about all of this.

One little angel all dressed in blue
Trying to figure out where his human went to
But the ground rose up, from which two were born
One was made of ivory, the other made of --

Castiel wakes to the loud, unpleasant sound of his cellular phone ringing. His eyes open, startled against the onslaught of blue walls and bustling people in the streets of Jodhpur. 

He is still in Jodhpur.

A dream.

Licking his lips, he takes his phone from his pocket and quells the thrill of happiness that bursts in his chest at the display name on his screen. Dean is calling.

"Dean," he answers, prompt, to the point. Dean has never been one for useless pleasantries, and Castiel has never been one to pander to the human need for ever-changing social etiquettes. Even if all he wants is to sit and quietly ask Dean what he has been up to in Castiel's absence, if he is okay.

But it is not Dean.

"Cas? Oh God, Cas, you need to come here now."

Castiel swallows disappointment; it is a taste with which he is becoming too familiar. "Hello, Sam."

"It's Dean. God, it's -- You need to get here, you need to get here right now. Cas, he won't wake up."