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Finding Gracie

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"Is he gonna make it?" Dean resisted hugging himself as he asked the question, choosing instead to rub his temple.

Nodding, Sam wiped his hands on a filthy rag that didn't do much good. "Looks like it worked." He slapped an antiquated spellbook shut in passing. "He's pretty confused and he's asking where you are. I didn't know how you wanted me to handle that, so I only said you're waiting out here."

The blank spot on Dean's forearm remained completely void of sensation and it brought a fresh wave of uneasiness as he glanced at the door to one of the many unoccupied bunker bedrooms. Castiel sat in there recovering from a particularly nasty spell Rowena had put on him, probably thinking Dean was still under the Mark of Cain's control. He absently rubbed his naked forearm and remembered how savagely he'd beat Castiel just a few weeks before. Then suddenly, Death was gone, the Mark was gone, and he couldn't begin to process what was happening outside. All around them, the bunker rattled and shuddered under the assault of terrifying blackness. It all happened so fast. If the bunker strained under the pressure, he could only assume the black clouds sweeping the globe were causing mass destruction.

Sam came up behind Dean and rested a hand on his shoulder. They hadn't even begun to touch the fight they'd had before the Mark disappeared in a burst of white-hot lightning, yet there he was, still being his brother. Dean didn't deserve that kindness even if the evils he'd committed were because of the Mark driving his every whim. He certainly didn't deserve Castiel asking for him either.

"Can't seem to get my feet moving," Dean admitted with a sputtering, nervous chuckle. "There's no way either of you really want me around now."

"C'mon," replied Sam, taking him by the elbow.

The younger Winchester brother assumed the role of the older brother in charge once again as he ushered Dean into the bedroom. Dean's stomach flipped, both fearful and hungry since his diet had been terrible under the Mark's influence. He couldn't stop his mind from racing through nonsensical things either.

Sitting on the edge of the bed, back turned to the door, Castiel was stripped of his armor. The tan overcoat lay on a chair in the far corner of the room as if it had been thrown in haste. Dean wondered just how bad the spell had been if both Sam and Castiel looked both haunted and weakened. His brother pushed him into the room with a hand between his shoulderblades and he stumbled over his own shoes. Spinning, he threw an irritated glare over his shoulder but Sam only waved him toward Castiel and pulled the door shut.

The commotion attracted Castiel's attention. He looked back at Dean through exhausted blue eyes widened by ... what ... was that fear? Before Dean could say a word, the angel hopped to his feet and crushed him in an embrace, bringing to mind the way Dean had hugged him in Purgatory.

"You're different," Castiel said quietly. He pulled back and studied Dean's eyes--a little unnerving in such close proximity--and then he snatched the forearm. "Where is it?"

"Gone," replied Dean. "I ... I think I did something really bad."

Castiel's eyes narrowed and his brows lowered.

"Death ... uhm ... I summoned Death to kill me. He showed up and told me about the Mark, why I couldn't die." Acid rose from his stomach. Dean paused and shook back the unhelpful emotions boiling inside, which had been barricaded by the Mark for more than a year.

"What did he say?" probed Castiel. The gentleness in his tone, probably undetectable to other ears, bothered Dean as he still seemed to desire punishment.

"It's funny," he began, even though it wasn't. "I remember it word for word. He said, 'Before there was light, before there was God and the archangels there wasn't nothing--there was the Darkness. A horribly destructive amoral force that was beaten back by God and his archangels in a terrible war. God locked the Darkness away where it could do no harm, and he created a Mark that would serve as both lock and key, which he entrusted to his most valued lieutenant, Lucifer. But the Mark began to assert its own will, revealed itself as a curse and began to corrupt. Lucifer became jealous of Man, God banished Lucifer to Hell, Lucifer passed the Mark to Cain, who passed the Mark to you, the proverbial finger in the dyke.' And then he explained that he'd remove me from the playing field if I killed Sam because Sam will always try to find a way to bring me back. I lured Sam to where we were but ... uh ... it didn't go as planned."

"Clearly not if Sam is still here and removed Rowena's spell from me," Castiel pointed out, stating the obvious, but not maliciously so.

Dean swallowed back more of the acid taste rising in his stomach. "Death gave me his scythe to take Sam out and ... shit, Cas, he just sat there letting me do it ... but I couldn't. He had pictures of Mom and us and it ... it got to me. I couldn't go through with it but the Mark had me. I swung...." His eyes fell shut but the memories wouldn't fade.

"You swung...? At what?" Sensing the imbalance, it seemed, Castiel grabbed him by the shoulders and shook him. "Dean, what did you do?"

"I swung at Death. He crumbled into ash and disappeared."

The news hit Castiel hard enough to push him down to sitting on the bed again and he stared into the middle ground at nothing in particular as he tried to make sense of it. Dean remembered the questions of who was older--Death or God--so Castiel probably couldn't imagine existence without one or the other. The consequences had only begun to reveal themselves. The thing Death had called The Darkness battered away at everything outside like the worst hurricane anyone ever imagined.

"Death ceases to exist," Castiel muttered to himself, "but the reapers are still out there. The cycle of human life should remain uninterrupted for now at least."


Blue eyes lifted to Dean's face.

He sighed. "A few seconds after Death disappeared, so did the Mark. It shot out of me like lightning. It broke through the ceiling at the bar and then everything went to shit after that. Don't you hear it out there?"

"Yes," he said. "We're trapped here, aren't we?"

"I think it's The Darkness. I think Death wasn't bullshitting me when he said the Mark was like a lock and key keeping The Darkness stashed away somewhere. Sammy and I made a run for my car right when these black spouts exploded from the ground. It was like huge clouds but thicker and ... like ... intelligent. It knew what it was doing and now everything's going to hell in a handbasket out there." Impulsively, Dean sat next to Castiel and found his courage again. "Cas, I gotta fix this. I gotta know everything you know about The Darkness."

The eyes looking over at him hadn't lost their dark shades of fear, while other shades of shock and awe crept in as well. "Dean," he said ominously, "I'm not an archangel. I never knew there was such a thing as The Darkness. At this moment, you know more than I do because you've seen it."

Dean felt the color bleed away from his face. The rattling, roaring echoes beyond the bunker walls pounded away even louder as the awful truth settled between them, sitting together on the bed. Something substantial and massive hit the outside wall on the other side of the residential wing, making Dean jump, startled. He gazed toward the terrible sound and imagined something as large as a truck getting swept off the highway and slammed into the bunker.

"People are dying out there. I did this," he said, going numb.

A warm hand slid into his, linking them together. Dean peered down just as Castiel's long fingers slid between each of Dean's touch, work-worn fingers and folded tightly around his palm. It was a forgiving, accepting touch that Dean thought maybe he should back away from but the starvation for affection ran too deep. He couldn't let go. Castiel reached over with his other hand and rubbed the rounded curve of Dean's thick shoulder, offering the silent support that threatened to shatter his inner resolve. Burning tears edged his ducts and it took everything he had to swallow down his remorse, especially when he thought of the bloody damage he'd done to that very forgiving creature.

"I'm sorry, Cas," he whispered hoarsely, averting his eyes. He was sorry for all of it but he couldn't articulate the regret without sending himself into a mental breakdown.

"I know, Dean," murmured Castiel. "I wouldn't be here if I didn't have faith in you."

"Why?" he replied, more defeated by Castiel's faith than his rejection.

"Because I love you and I know you're going to continue helping your fellow man. I have no home now, except here, and I'm going to help you."

Dean heard the words but they didn't sink in immediately. His head swiveled around and he found Castiel leaning up against his shoulder as if he needed support just as much. Even so, Dean lacked the words to respond to such a casual confession with any kind of eloquence. Did Castiel know what he said? Did he understand what it meant? Dean studied his eyes, searching for some hidden motivation, but he realized it was more on him in that moment. Not letting go of Castiel's hand, not getting up, and not running away certainly meant something.


"Guys!" Sam exploded into the room looking wild and unhinged.

Jumping to his feet, Dean instantly regretted moving away as if he was ashamed to let his brother see Castiel holding his hand.

It didn't even register for Sam, however. "C'mon, we gotta go deeper in the bunker. I can't see anything on the surveillance monitors anymore. Everything outside's blacked out and I'm worried the western wall exposed to the brunt of The Darkness is gonna start to buckle."

"It's like a fucking hurricane," muttered Dean.

"Yeah, except I think it's global. TV stations are getting knocked out one by one. I was just flipping through trying to find news and they're calling it a megastorm. I even saw a guy on MSNBC say it's every man for himself." As he spoke, Sam seemed jittery and damn near terrified but he kept it together enough to hustle Dean and Castiel through the bunker stairwells. "I think the garage is the best place. It's deep in the hill, it's encased in cement, and all the vehicles are safe."

"My baby?" Dean tossed a glance back at his brother.

"I moved her to the garage corner cut deepest into the hill," assured Sam.

The three of them settled in for a long, tense night. Not one of them understood what battered away at the world outside their bunker but they each agreed that The Darkness was a massive intelligent entity rather than a natural disaster. God, Castiel reasoned, would never have waged an entire full-scale war with the archangels on something that could have been controlled with a thought. Only in intelligent and witty based in the darkest corner of evil could force God to engage it on a celestial battlefield, so to speak.

Castiel's lack of knowledge about The Darkness worried Dean more than anything, not that he said so. For most of the night, he kept quiet. He didn't think he had the right to debate and speculate about the thing that his actions caused to be unleashed on the planet.

Buy three in the morning, The Darkness still raged and took out its fury on humanity. It showed no signs of letting up even though it had been something like nine hours if Dean estimated right. His watch had stopped measuring time at the moment the Mark of Cain bolted out of his soul. He found an antique football helmet from somewhere around the 1940s and carefully picked his way upstairs to the bunker kitchen in search of sustenance for he and his brother. The angel, of course, the one who said he loved that damaged hunter, desired nothing to eat.

"How many people are we talking about here? How many do you think are gonna die because of this?" Dean finally asked over a can of baked beans a little while after making his way down to the garage again. The three of them sat cross-legged in a circle on the floor.

Sam bristled under the implications of the question. "I don't think we should speculate right now. We just gotta stay alive 'til this blows over, whatever it is."

"Stay alive, exactly," Dean snapped. "That's what all those innocent people out there are thinking right now before their skulls get smashed in by flying debris! Hell, this thing could be feeding on souls for all we know! Seven billion souls out on a buffet for this thing to get bigger a bigger and eat Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Earth, and who knows what else! You know who's fault it is? Mine. Forever."

A soothing hand touched Dean's forearm. "Dean, you're spiraling. Slow down."

Castiel's touch jerked Dean out of his freakout--he didn't know what else to call it--and he turned, looking into cool blue eyes. It slowly brought him down again. He released a dark sigh, letting his head drop low with his arms encircled around his drawn up knees.

"Whatever happens," began Sam calmly, "and whatever we find out there when we open the bunker again, we're sticking together and we're working the problem together. We're not going down without a fight. Deal?"

"This is my home now," said Castiel for the second time that night.

"Dean?" asked Sam.

"Yeah," he muttered. "I don't have a choice. I don't trust myself alone anymore."

"You will learn to care for yourself again," promised Castiel, "and that'll come through helping me return The Darkness to where it belongs. I don't know how we'll do it or what it even is yet but if anybody can lock it up again once and for all, it's us."

Hearing his faith still made Dean uneasy but he began sorting through his jumbled emotions inch by inch. The Mark of Cain had numbed everything so thoroughly for so long that he realized basic emotions were overwhelming his senses. As he looked at Castiel, he found a comrade there, a partner, a soulmate--someone who understood being devoid of emotion and then getting slammed with all of them once more like flipping on a lightswitch. That, he realized, was why Castiel and Sam being so forgiving frightened him so much. He craved the forgiveness and support but he had no idea how to articulate it anymore. He craved what Castiel offered up in the empty bedroom too. Learning to feel again for Dean was going to be like learning to walk again after a horrible car accident.

"Are you sticking with us?" Sam asked, breaking Dean's thoughts. "We're better for protecting innocent people and ourselves if we stick together and stop hiding things."

Slowly, Dean nodded. "Yeah. Yeah, Sammy, I'm here. And Cas, yeah ... I'm with you." He stared pointedly into Castiel with those last few words.

"Team Free Will rides again," said Sam, leaning back on his elbow and crossing his ankles with a casual flare bordering on egotism. "I'll never forget that, you know. During the apocalypse. It was the three of us against the universe back then too and Dean, you called us Team Free Will. Remember that?"

A faint smile lifted Dean's cheeks. "Seems like a hundred years ago."

"Billions were supposed to die then too," Castiel pointed out. "Don't lose hope. Humanity has taught me repeatedly just how resilient a species it is. Even if The Darkness consumes many of your kind, I know you'll rebuild and come back stronger. The Black Plague comes to mind. Millions died in such a short time that people thought it was the end of the world. When the dust settled, the survivors began rebuilding society. The Black Death gave birth to the Renaissance."

"Life always finds a way," Sam agreed with a definite nod.

"Now if we can just survive The Darkness blowing all over us," said Dean, glancing up at the rumbling structure of the bunker protecting them from certain death.