Not all the motel rooms Sam has been in were old relics from the heyday of Route 66, but most of them certainly were. Many of them had been designed around some sort of cheesy theme to lure in tourists, and so room after countless room is decked out in themed wallpaper, partitions, and bizarre decorations. Nowadays, motel owners are smart enough to realize that people don't want to admire the décor. They just want a bed and a shower, maybe cable if they're picky. Regardless, Sam has left behind a string of motel rooms scattered across the country, and together they make up as much of a home as any. These days the inside of the car is home to more ghosts than the American countryside, and there are no bones to salt and burn.
Motels it is, then, unless you count the ruined house he's been squatting in, but even that is more like a home base than a real place to rest his head at night. It's only the last refuge of the damned.
At least it has running water. No electricity, though, which makes room 47 of the Wampum Inn in Decatur more appealing, but he's itching to get this over with, so he doesn't even bother to laugh at the incredibly clichéd and probably politically incorrect Native American theme.
Sam has pulled on his jacket and is reaching for the keys on the dresser when the TV flicks suddenly on, no signal, just the crackle of television snow, and then blinks out again. Guess not even the electricity can be trusted in this one, after all. He wonders if maintenance knows it's on the fritz.
He doesn't go into the office, though. He just drives right past, because Ruby gets impatient with that knife of hers, and a trapped demon is never smart enough to keep its mouth shut.
They're sitting in Ruby's car on the way back - a failed exorcism, at least on Sam's part - and his head is screaming with pain. At least when he'd had visions, the pain would only last as long as they did. Now he's cursing the distance between the stretch of road they're on and his bag in the motel room, stocked with painkillers.
"... That you've got the technique under control, but you're just not strong enough without it," Ruby's saying, and it's a conversation Sam is definitely not up for at the moment. He reaches over to fiddle with the radio, switching it to AM in search of the low, soothing voices of talk show hosts.
"Sam,“ Ruby says angrily, reaching over to shut off the radio with a sharp jab. "Are you going to pay attention? This is important."
Sam shuts his eyes, jaw clenching. "Drop it, Ruby," he murmurs. He didn't sign up for this.
Ruby's patience is apparently up. "Fine. If you don't want my help —"
"—then you can figure it out on your own. Worked really fucking well last time, didn't it?"
Anger flares through his chest, and the familiar heat is almost a comfort. "I want your help, okay?! I do. I just... I can't." He turns from her then, watching the roadside blur cornfields together with asphalt, familiar and repetitive. If he closes his eyes, he can almost....
Ruby is blessedly silent. There is no normal here. No matter how many acres pass outside the window, no matter how familiar the rocking of Ruby's car feels when he closes his eyes, it is nowhere near normal. There is no low rumble of the Impala's engine, running on a little creative engineering and a lot of sheer willpower. There is no hunt, no music coming from the radio, no forgetting what he is for a moment, lost in the roadmap or the book open on his lap. Now it's there, the not normal, thrumming underneath his skin, too late. Too late.
The radio begins crackling again, loud enough in the silence to make both of them jump and stare. The sound grows—it screeches. Sam covers his ears with his hands, looks at Ruby, jerks forward against his seatbelt as she slams on the brakes. Their protest is unheard over the sound pouring out of the radio, and the rearview mirror begins to shake. Sam is grateful that the windows have been rolled down, sure the ear-splitting screech would make them crack and shatter, but he screws his eyes shut anyway, blindly reaching out for the radio control. His fingers twist the nob but nothing changes, and he's just starting to feel a tight pressure in his head when the sound stops as suddenly as it had begun, leaving his ears ringing.
"What the hell?"
Ruby hasn't moved. Her hands are still on the steering wheel and her eyes are still on the radio console, wide and fearful.
"Ruby? Hey." Sam snaps his fingers in front of her eyes and she jerks back into motion.
She says in a low voice, "That was strange."
The television in the motel room, Sam thinks suddenly. It had turned on and off just as quickly, nothing but static. No supernatural activity. He makes a mental note to ask Bobby about it, but cuts that train of thought short. No, he'll just have to look into it himself. His gut twists at the notion of a hunt, a real hunt after all these weeks chasing down demons.
Ruby shifts the car back into first, and Sam doesn't notice the way her hand trembles on the gearshift.
Opening the floodgates had been easiest thing in the world. Easier than thinking. Easier than drinking. Easier than Ruby had made it sound with her talk of not enough time and too late for that.
And it terrifies him. More than anything else Sam has done, more than everything he'd not done, this thought terrifies him the most. It was so easy to just let it all in. Exactly - and the thought makes his stomach roil - exactly like the Ava had said it would be.
He can still feel the thrum in his veins, and now that the aspirin has knocked out his headache, Sam feels almost like he is ready to try again. He runs his hand through his hair and frowns, remembering the way Ruby had stepped in to finish the demon off with her knife to its throat. He could have saved him. He's not sure, but it was possible. If he had been just that much stronger, he could have finished off the demon without any harm to the man it was wearing.
No more, he decides. Ruby is taking no more lives, not if he can help it.
Sam grabs a bottle of water from the mini fridge and downs it in one go. He grabs another and ignores the tiny bottles of Jim and Jose, pleased that he can shut the door without even considering drinking one of them. Or drinking all of them.
"You know," Ruby says, leaning against the frame of the bathroom door, "you could have ganked that son of a bitch. All of him, I mean. Finished the job yourself."
Sam sighs, twisting the cap off his water bottle and turning to face her. "Come on, Ruby. You know I couldn't. Spare me the lecture, okay?"
"That's not what I mean."
His jaw clenches, eyes drifting away to stare at the wallpaper somewhere near the floor. When he speaks, his voice rings with finality, promising danger. "We're not talking about this," he says, and she stares.
"Sam. It's the only way."
"It's not." Sam jerks into motion, tossing the water bottle on the bed and yanking his dirty clothes off of the bedspread, rolling them hastily. He shoves them into the open duffle bag, turning his back on the demon.
"You know it is—" Ruby starts, but Sam cuts her off with one final "It's not!“ His voice falls flat in the small space, unable to find room to echo, to ring out like he wished it would.
Better than mother's milk. He sees yellow eyes in his mind's eye, the tiny child who was himself, unspoiled, lying in a crib.
No. There was no way. He's still human, damn it, and he zips the duffel so violently that the fabric almost rips the stitches away. If he was doing this, he was hanging on to every shred of humanity he had left. So what if Ruby was right? So what if he couldn't kill Lilith without more blood? He had the knife. It was enough. He wasn't expecting to get out of there alive, anyway. He doesn't want to. When he dies, Sam Winchester is still going to be Sam Winchester, no more and no less.
No more monster; no less human.
Ruby steps further into the room, putting herself in between Sam and the wall. Everything about her posture is confrontational—the way she cants her hip to the side, the ways she folds her arms across her chest, the way her foot taps, once, on the carpet. She doesn't say anything as Sam bends down to pull on his boots, silently watches him tie the laces, and when he reaches for his jacket where it had been slung across the bed, she sighs.
"Where are you going, Sam? Huh? Where are we going now, back to Pontiac?"
"Because there's nothing in Pontiac. Not anymore. Listen to me Sam, there is nothing for you there."
He's almost shocked to find himself already trapping her against the wall, his hand curled into the neck of her blouse, but Ruby doesn't flinch. "Shut up," he says again, and spreads his fingers around the curve of her throat. She raises her chin defiantly.
Neither of them move for a moment, two, three, and then Sam says through his teeth, "Go. Now."
He releases her and turns away, shoulders hunching as he reaches again for the bag, this time to slide the zipper slowly back open.
"I want you gone, Ruby." He shoves aside the wadded clothes. "We're leaving in the morning. If you're not here, I'm going without you."
She's still for almost a full minute, watching Sam's shoulder blades move under his t-shirt as he pulls a book out of his bag, then another, then his sawed-off, and sets them carefully onto the twin bedspread. He doesn't hear her when she leaves, just feels the absence of her stare, and then the quiet snick as the motel room door shuts behind her. Sam finally lets his shoulders relax, sliding his eyes shut.
The TV in the corner pops on without warning. Sam twists to look, staring at the snow on the screen, mind completely blank. After a bewildered moment he moves to shut it off, hand lingering over the buttons. Across the room, the EMF is silent inside his duffel bag.
Electrical short, then, Sam decides. Twice in one day. Something nags at him. The radio. No sulfur near the door or the window.
He crosses back to the bed and picks up a dusty encyclopedia of omens, one he had promised to return to Bobby months ago, opens to an ear-marked page and settles down on the mattress. Barely two sentences later, the TV turns on again. Sam stares.
Reaching across the bed to the small table there, Sam picks up the remote and points it at the TV set. The power button doesn't work; neither do the channel buttons.
For a second Sam thinks that the black and white noise is mixing with his headache, making his ears ring, but then he realizes that it's the insistent hum that is getting louder and louder. Then a high, keening pitch starts bouncing from wall to wall and Sam has a second to think that's definitely not coming from the TV before it's too much to handle. He scrambles forward, one hand to his left ear while the other punches at the buttons below the screen, desperately trying to shut it off. Nothing happens, nothing works; Sam abandons the set in favor of pressing both hands to both ears, doubled over on the floor in front of the bed. He tries to shout, but his voice is lost in the noise, rising in pitch; it's earsplitting, shrill, it's going to burst his eardrums if it doesn't—
The window next to the motel room door shatters inwards, shards of glass tangling with the drawn blinds and scattering across the floor. The light bulbs in the ceiling burst apart and the television shorts out with an intense blink that Sam doesn't see, head cradled in his arms against the floor, eyes squeezed shut against the rain of glass coming from the ceiling; the deafening signal continues on for several seconds more before ending, abruptly, finally.
For too long Sam can hear nothing, nothing at all, silence that doesn't ring but just is, oppressive and absolute. Cautiously, he lifts his head to take in the wreckage. There's blood between his fingers where they had been pressed to his ears.
He takes two seconds to process this, and then it dawns on him that he can hear a faint buzzing, gentle, so much softer than the earsplitting pitch had been that it takes a second for him to realize that he's just hearing the sound of the world coming back to him. It's muffled, strange. Quieter, even, than the pressing silence that had come before.
Sam's boots crunch on glass shards as he stands. He waits until he's less disoriented before making his way to the bathroom, checking his balance against the wall. The mirror has shattered, glass scattered on the tile floor and across the counter, filling the sink. It crunches under his feet as he steps inside. As he takes a hand towel off the rack to blindly wipe the fluid from his ears, all he can think is that he didn't have much luck to begin with, anyway.
Sam Winchester is not a superstitious man. He knows an omen when he sees one, and he knows what to do about it. Luck does not enter into the equation. He can't think of any supernatural creature that would cause that sort of noise, but it could be an omen, the thinks, and remembers the book he had tossed on the floor in his haste to shut off the television set.
Back in the main room, Sam takes stock of the damage. There's only one thing he can think of that would target him specifically, but Ruby would have told him if Lilith was anywhere near. Sam strips the bedspread and digs his flashlight out of his bag, finding the book covered in the glass that used to be the television screen. He spends the rest of the night reading by the beam of his flashlight. He's familiar with reading by the low yellow illumination, but he's used to the Impala's roof inches from the top of his head as he reads. Before that, it was huddled under the sheets after lights out.
He falls asleep with the book still open on his lap. When he wakes up the flashlight has died and he has found nothing to explain what happened the night before, nothing at all.
At first they had tried to get demons from wherever they were skulking to the house Sam was squatting in Pontiac. The devil's trap there was drawn precisely enough so that there was little chance of escape, and the iron pentagram they hung from the ceiling was an added bonus. It had worked out well enough at first, as long as they made sure to drug the demons long enough to get them tied down before they had a chance to realize what was happening, but one messy mistake had Sam second-guessing. He was stronger now, strong enough to keep them paralyzed where they stood, and that had made their operation much more mobile.
Ruby seemed to have feelers everywhere and she was good at covering her tracks—not many of the demons she came in contact with suspected her to turn on them, and the element of surprise was definitely on her side. Not to mention information that came relatively free from scouring newspapers for omens and tracking weather patterns.
She wanted to strike fast, she'd told him. Sam hadn't let her into the ruined motel room. He didn't think Lilith was behind it, and she'd disapprove of him dividing his attention between his strength and a hunt.
Truth be told, he wasn't sure he could. The last time he'd done a hunt on his own, he was a freshman at Stanford. There'd been stories circling around of a malevolent haunting in one of the old buildings that had been turned into apartments for students, and it turned out to be your basic salt and burn job. Not a big deal, but Sam decided that he would never do it again. Not when he wanted to put the past behind him, and definitely not without backup.
So when Ruby tells him that she's managed to lure a demon to a sheet metal factory on a Sunday, devoid of employees, he's eager to go. Eager to prove that he can do this without Ruby's help, that he's strong enough to take out demons as he comes across them, because whether or not he'll ever be strong enough to kill Lilith, the least he can do is this. The least he can do is try and save those people, the ones who are possessed, the ones who would end up dead if Sam doesn't intervene.
The factory's out in Coal City, but Sam doesn't complain. He knows Ruby wants him out of Pontiac. He rents a motel room for the night just in case things go badly and he can't make the drive, however short, back home. One more motel room, one more demon, and he can go back to the comfort of anonymity, the ruined shell of a house that reminds him how he got there in the first place. Another cabin. Another state. Another way to make a contract with the devil.
It seems deserted when he gets there, no other cars in sight and huge, industrial buildings that smell like metal and oil. Sam wanders through the main floor and out to the back, where an empty gravel parking lot opens up to more factory outbuildings.
At the south end of the lot stands a smaller, brick building that he guesses might be the head office.
He's heading back down the main aisle, planning to move the Impala around to the parking lot in case he needs a quick getaway, when he feels a pull—it's not physical, like the hair standing up on the back of his neck, or even that strange feeling you get when you're being watched. It's just something that he can't put a name to, as if his blood is magnetized.
And there—there he is. No more than a shadow moving around in the darkness back the way he came, but it's enough, and Sam moves, sliding behind one of the hulking machines and out of sight.
The advantage to the twisting, cavernous room is that there are a lot of places to hide. Shadows melt into each other and trick the eye, the machines are nearly impossible to see around, and Sam's boots are almost completely silent on the concrete floor.
The demon doesn't seem to care about hiding, however. He circles around to the back door without even bothering to check the shadows, heading across the parking lot in broad daylight. He doesn't know he's being followed. Perfect.
Sam ducks out into the sunlight.
"Hey!" he calls, amiably, jogging towards the demon. It stops and turns, frowning. "Hey," Sam says again, smiling. "I think I'm lost. Is this the gate to Hell, or are you just eager to die?"
Blue eyes flick quickly to black, spreading from corner to corner, and the demon sneers.
"Hunter," he says, shaking his head. "Your kind is always asking for trouble."
"I am trouble." Sam takes a deep breath and raises his hand, palm out. He feels the demon lock immediately into place and takes a deep breath, sliding his eyes closed. Something hooks, pulls, and the demon coughs. It's all easy; no sign of a headache, not yet, and Sam pulls harder. He can do this. This is it.
Something washes over him from the left and he feels another presence. Sam looks, startled, to see a man standing there, plain as day, vulnerable. The demon moves toward the stranger immediately, reaching for an arm. Wherever this guy had come from, he'd managed to put himself into the perfect hostage situation. The knife comes out of nowhere, glinting at the stranger's throat, and Sam holds out his hand again—this time, as a sign of surrender.
"Let him go. Just let him go and you can go back to whatever rock you crawled out from under, I swear."
The demon pretends to deliberate, mockingly, and then says, "Nah, I think I'll just you both. Much more entertaining."
The stranger has other ideas. He darts a hand out and grabs the demon by the collar, pulling back his arm as if he means to strike with the flat of his palm.
"Don't!" Sam attempts to put himself between the demon and this fragile, innocent human, who obviously has no idea what he's messing with, what kind of strength it possesses. The man lets go, looking askance at Sam, and his arms fall to his sides. Just like that. Like he's waiting for Sam to make the next move.
He's not fast enough. The demon launches himself forward before Sam has time to react, inky black eyes glinting, and even though Sam is bigger, the demon has one advantage. One small, sharp advantage.
Sam brings up an arm to defend himself, hoping he can overpower the demon and wrestle the knife away, but he's weakened, off guard, and he barely has time to think about his next move before he feels the sharp sting of the blade sinking into his shoulder. He pulls back, but the demon doesn't, and the knife slices deeper into the flesh at Sam's collarbone.
Then the demon's suddenly gone, yanked backwards by the collar of his jacket, and Sam is too focused on the knife handle still protruding from his shoulder to pay attention to the fight that ensues. The demon manages to land a few blows, but just barely—the stranger looks like he knows what he's doing.
Sam grasps the handle, grits his teeth, and pulls. Luckily, the knife is small—a switchblade, easily concealed, and the demon hadn't been able to land it anywhere vital. The wound is still inches deep and long enough to need stitches and time to heal. (This pain, Sam can deal with.)
He tosses the knife aside and hefts himself back to his feet just in time to see the stranger approach the demon, arm raised as if he's going for his head, but the demon is too quick.
Pacing backwards, it looks from Sam to the stranger and back again, and Sam has barely enough time to appreciate the terror on the demon's face before he throws his head back violently, spewing dark twisting demon smoke into the clear sky.
"No!" Sam shouts, watching the smoke coil together tightly and slip across the sky like a snake, out of sight in seconds. The man the demon had been possessing crumples to the ground.
Sam runs a hand over his face and turns to the stranger. "What're you— how did—?"
"Samuel," the man says, already calm. "Sam Winchester."
Sam's eyebrows pinch inwards and he feels the thrill in his veins slide slowly away. "I'm sorry, do I... Have we met somewhere? Before?"
"We have not." The man is perfectly calm, seeming to have shaken off the shock completely and replaced it with the kind of expression that has Sam's hackles raised. He takes a short step back, unconsciously squaring his shoulders as his years of training automatically recognize something off about this man. Something not human. The strange man watches him for only a moment before his eyes slide stoically to the right, looking past Sam at the body laying on the ground behind him.
Sam turns on his heel to look as well, swallowing thickly. How long had the body been dead? How— what if he had found that demon yesterday? The day before? Would he have been able to save him then? Probably not, Sam thinks, but it doesn't make him feel any better.
"The demon inhabited that body for several months," his companion says suddenly. "He will likely find another."
Sam starts. "What?" he says, and the word comes out sharper than he had intended. "How do you..." He looks from the man to the body and back again, taking a closer look. He doesn't look a thing like a hunter. He's wearing dress slacks. A tie. Hunters don't hold day jobs.
"Who are you?" Sam finishes, suddenly needing to know exactly who this man is, how he knows his name, and what the fuck he is doing here in the first place. That demon should be back in the pit right now, not on its way to its next victim. He had him, right there, completely unaware that Sam was a bigger threat than anything he'd faced since clawing his way out of Hell, but this guy had to show up and ruin his chances. Sam's fingers twitch with impatience and he curls them into loose fists at his sides.
"I am called Castiel."
"Castiel," Sam deadpans, his voice short with frustration.
"Yes." The man cants his head slightly to the left. "There is an unholy gift inside you, Samuel. I have come to shape your path and lead you from the darkness."
Sam's anger leaves him in a rush, leaving him suddenly exhausted. He lets his fists fall open, blood pounding in his ears, and when the pressure dies down he feels months of fitful, sleepless nights settle like sand over his bones, weighting him down.
"How do you know that?" he asks, mind racing. Missouri hadn't even been able to answer his questions, way back when they were just premonitions. Nobody else knew about him, just Bobby. And Ruby.
Sam's eyes widen at the thought, and then he narrows them quickly at this 'Castiel'. "What sort of demon are you?"
Castiel doesn't exactly smile, but his expression softens somehow, like he is humoring him. The amusement, if it can be called that, replaces his intensity. There is something not quite right about the blue of his eyes.
"I am not a demon, Sam, you should know that. I see that you have faith. I know that you prayed for our help."
Sam is dimly aware that his jaw has gone slack, the pounding having returned to his ears. He doesn't dare to believe it. "You— Are you telling me you're—"
"Yes, Sam." Castiel tips his chin forward confidently. Sam has the sense to brace himself for the revelation. "I am an angel of the Lord. We have plans for you."
Castiel never questions his orders. There is never a need for it. The part of Samuel Winchester that wars with itself, brimstone crackling with potential and burning from within, feels like the Division of Heaven. Castiel had known where he stood then. He knows where he stands now. If God has a need for him, he will fight.
Sam is overwhelmingly human. He is, Castiel has deduced, not chosen to carry out God's will as he had originally thought—he's not one of the few who can hear the voice of an angel and see their true form. Even so, there is something about Sam that reminds him of his vessel. The determination to do right. Blind faith is rare, even for a vessel, and Jimmy Novak had been no exception. But there is hope in him, as there is in Sam.
It's a selfish thing, Castiel has realized. Angels have no need for hope, for their faith is knowledge and their knowledge is truth. But people are not meant to know - they are meant to believe, and hope is a stepping stone.
"Plans?" Sam is asking, and it's curious, how pure his hope is now, when he had let in such darkness only moments earlier. "What do you mean?"
"You have to trust your destiny, Sam."
"My destiny," he says mouthing the words as if they're foreign. "You don't mean I'm supposed to use this... thing that Azazel gave me, right? Because I've seen what it does to people, and I don't think..." Sam trails off, his attention focused in on himself.
Castiel wonders, abruptly, if it's lonely. Casting his thoughts inwards he can always touch onto the voices of his brothers and sisters, a connection both intimate and broad, teeming with information, support, answers. The human has none but himself. Perhaps this is why they reach out to one another, two beings together in their loneliness.
He can feel the demon-bourne influence in Sam, almost a separate entity that his body fights like infection. According to Zachariah, it could make him stronger than even an angel against demonic presence, an important weapon in the oncoming fight for dominion over the Earth. The power to kill even Lilith. Like fighting fire with fire.
"You have already begun," Castiel says.
Sam shakes his head. "But this is different. This is helping people. That has to be what my destiny is, right?"
"We believe that you will be much help in the coming months, yes."
Sam asks no further questions, determination in the lines of his face as he nods. A second later he winces, pressing his hand against the bridge of his nose.
"Sorry," he says, taking in a slow breath. "Headache."
"You should regain your strength," Castiel says, noticing the knife wound in Sam's shoulder. So fragile, these humans.
"What? Oh... yeah, I can... in the motel room. Is that okay? I mean, do you have to... I can't believe I'm talking to an angel." The last he mutters.
Castiel gathers that it is meant sarcastically. Belief had been effortless for this one.
He nods. "This motel room, is it close?"
Sam massages his forehead. "Uh. Yeah. Twenty minutes?"
Distance judged in length of time. Castiel hasn't gotten used to the slowness of human travel, the limitations on their bodies. His own vessel still seems to weigh him down, heavy with flesh and bone and gravity. Still, he'd had the advantage over the demon as they fought: the vessel is given freely to the angel as his own, but the demon forces its control into the human body. It's the difference between swimming against the current and letting it take you where it wants.
"Then I will meet you in less than an hour," Castiel says, leaving Sam to his own struggles.
The Impala still feels normal. Sam's head is killing him: pain throbs around the thoughts warring with themselves, and he feels like he can't catch his breath. But the car still rattles comfortingly, still as wide as ever and it smells the same, and the feel of the road beneath the wheels is the same, even if everything else feels like it's newer, wider. Knowing that angels are real - assuming that Castiel is who he says he is - that there really is a good to balance the evil, makes the world both scarier and safer at the same time.
One moment, Castiel had been telling him he was doing God's will, and the next he had just been gone. Sam spends the whole twenty minute drive wondering if his headache had started before or after Castiel appeared; if he had just been seeing things from the pain of it.
Thing is, even when he'd been getting visions of the future, he could trust them. After all, Sam's life had always been about believing the impossible.
Turns out he didn't have to wonder about it for very long. When Sam enters his locked motel room, Castiel is waiting for him, still in the long trench coat. He wonders if there's someone else in that body with him, or if it's just a shell, like the one Ruby possesses. He can't imagine that an angel would forcefully possess someone.
He says nothing, just inclines his head in Sam's direction. Sam flashes a quick, awkward smile in return, shoving his keys into his pocket. There's a flare of pain in his shoulder. "I'll just... um... be a minute."
He doesn't know why, but he takes care to stay a comfortable distance away from Castiel when he steps around him, heading towards the one king-size bed centered on the adjacent wall. Respect, he tells himself.
Sam eyes Castiel from the far end of the bed, searching through his duffel bag for the first aid kit. He can't see any injuries or bruises on the man who calls himself an angel, hovering near the door of the motel room, eyes narrowing on the decades-old TV set like he's never seen anything like it.
Pulling a needle and cotton floss from the kit, Sam unbuttons his shirt and takes it off along with the jacket, clenching his jaw to keep from cringing as pain lances itself across his collar bone and down his the back of his arm.
He doesn't notice that Castiel has moved until he is already crowding into Sam's space, having crossed the room in three quick strides (too quick, can't possibly have been that quick), his tousled hair blocking Sam's vision. The other man grasps onto his good shoulder hard enough to knock him off balance. Sam twists, wrenching back and away as if Castiel's touch burns his skin, heart beating high in his throat; he backs hard into the wall, unaware that he had even begun moving backward until his shoulder blades hit with a thunk. Sharp pain spikes again in his shoulder and what the hell dies on his lips when he sees that Castiel isn't attacking, just staring. His eyes are fixed somewhere below Sam's collar bone.
Sam presses himself further into the wall. He raises his hand slowly to the cord around his neck, fist closing around the amulet where it rests against his chest like a weight. It digs sharply into his palm. "It's... I... " He hates the sound of his own voice, small and more fragile than he's allowed himself to be since— ever since—
He swallows. His eyes fall shut. "It's my brother's."
The world concentrates into this, into those words, that word: brother, my brother, and Sam feels the absence of it more sharply than he had felt the demon's knife, ripping through muscle. For a long moment Sam stands, the pain in his shoulder stinging dully, pulsing in time with the too-quick rise and fall of his chest. When he opens his eyes, Castiel is still standing closer than is comfortable, steady blue eyes gaze locked with Sam's. He feels strung out and laid bare under the scrutiny, suddenly nervous, wishing he had kept his eyes closed.
"Your brother," Castiel says finally, "Dean Winchester."
Sam freezes, staring at the stranger in disbelief, his dead brother's amulet still heavy in his grasp. "How... ?"
"His name has echoed down through ranks higher than my own. He is righteous."
"Was," Sam croaks, "yeah. He was. Why are the angels...?"
"We believe Lilith is planning something for him. Who gave him that token?"
Castiel is silent for a long time. Sam breathes around the heaviness that has settled in his chest. Angels. There are angels, and they're tracking Dean. He never would have believed it.
He flinches again when Castiel reaches toward him, toward the cut in his shoulder, and the angel pauses. "May I?"
"Um. Uh, I guess, yeah. What're you...?" He trails off at the change that comes over Castiel, eyes focusing inward and yet far at the same time, so, so far.
He looks somehow too bright, too soft around the edges, like he doesn't fit inside his own body; Sam blinks and Castiel looks human again. Something shivers down his back, the feeling that he wasn't supposed to have seen that. No, he decides - it's more like he didn't deserve to. He looks down and away.
Castiel starts muttering, sounds too low and unfamiliar for Sam to understand. Sam thinks, he's praying, and then he hears a word, Deus. A name as part of a ritual: an invocation. The angel reaches his hand to the wound again, and this time he presses a finger to the ruined flesh.
The first thing Sam thinks is that he was wrong about the Latin, that maybe he has always been wrong, that from the angel Deus had meant prayer, permission, humility, all wrapped up in the words he hadn't heard Castiel say. Somehow he thinks he knows what they were, now.
Then he feels pain, searing heat, unimaginable heat; realizes that it's spreading down beneath his skin, filling all his empty spaces, curling, searing, tugging, and he wants to move. The pain is heat and the heat is light; he wants to close his eyes against it but can't, can't turn away, doesn't want to look: to see those parts of him that are awash in darkness, tendrils of it like an infection, standing out in sharp relief. He chokes, wants to rip it out of him and leave only the bright white heat, hating the way he taints it, ashamed that the angel has to see it at all.
It stops suddenly, accompanied with no feeling of relief, as if it had never even happened. He realizes that his eyes are squeezed shut and opens them to see his hand gripped tight around Castiel's wrist, the angel looking back unflinchingly. Sam lets go.
Castiel says nothing, but his eyes flicker once to the amulet, then back to the spot on Sam's shoulder where only a moment ago had been a deep gash. There's a scar there now, smooth and shiny like a burn—not the raised flesh that split skin would leave behind.
"I apologize," Castiel says flatly, and Sam knows he doesn't mean about the scar. "The wound was small. But I needed to see."
Sam nods, contrite. He becomes aware of the sound of beating wings, as if they're coming to him as a memory, and then Castiel is gone before he even realizes that he had been hearing the sound of his leaving. The room feels smaller than it had been before. Sam is left staring at empty space.
His cell phone rings from the pocket of his jacket, forgotten on the bed along with the first aid kit. Sam knows who it is before he answers—there are only two people who ever call him nowadays, and Bobby stopped trying two weeks ago.
"Ruby," he answers.
"Is it gone?" She sounds furious, but her voice is uneven. Sam pinches the bridge of his nose, feeling time come rushing back to him, as if he'd forgotten it and was only just remembering.
"Yeah, but it ran before I could finish it. The demon killed the host." His headache is gone too, he realizes.
"What? That's not what I'm - your 'friend', Sam, I'm talking about that, that thing you brought back with you."
Oh. "Ruby, where are you? You were supposed to meet me here"—he glances at the clock—"forty minutes ago."
"I'm outside. Is it gone or not, Sam?" Now she is furious, seething with it, and when Sam flicks the curtains open he can see her leaning against her car where it's parked next to the Impala.
"Yeah, he's gone." Sam sees her flips her phone shut and makes her way towards the door to the motel, looking left and right as she crosses in front of the cars.
Sam lets her in and grabs his blood-stained shirt from the bed, buttoning it on before she can ask about the scar hidden beneath the rip in the fabric.
"I can't believe it." Ruby's checking every corner of the room like she's looking for some trap, or a remnant that Castiel might have left behind, but the only thing that's in there is Sam's bag. She checks that too, just in case.
When she looks at Sam, he can see a muted sort of fear in her eyes. "I can't believe it," she says again. "Sam, this is bad. The angels haven't walked the Earth for millennia."
So it's true, Sam thinks. Castiel wasn't anything like he'd thought an angel might be. Instead he was both unsettling and a little bit terrifying, but as he lets the confirmation settle over him, it feels like all the tension is draining away from his shoulders.
"You've never seen one?"
"No, and I'd like it to stay that way. In case you haven't noticed, Sam, I'm a demon. Angels aren't exactly our BFFs."
Sam sighs. "Of course not. But you and Castiel have the same end game, so maybe you should reconsider."
"Reconsider. Reconsider. I don't care if he's going to bring us Lilith tied up in a bow on the front stoop, what you're asking me to do is like telling a lamb to go cozy up with a lion. No, Sam."
He shrugs. "That's your choice."
She gapes. Sam rubs his temples.
"Look, I'm not trying to kick you to the curb. Can you just think about this? Maybe he knows something you don't. From what I can tell the angels want Lilith just as dead as we do. You know what they say. The enemy of my enemy..."
"Is my friend, yeah." She's pacing now, back and forth, back and forth, and the longer it goes on, the less patience Sam has. He just wants to sleep. He needs to get some sleep, and then get back to Dean.
"Okay," Ruby says, coming to a halt in front of him. "Sam? Hello? I said okay. I'll play nice, but only if he does."
Sam cracks a wry smile that doesn't even come close to reaching his eyes, but it's still the first smile he's worn in a long time. "He's an angel, Ruby. I don't think you have to worry about him playing nice."
She gives him a withering look. "Warriors of God, Sam. Ever heard of Sodom and Gomorrah? Wait. You'll see what I mean."
It's a rare thing for Castiel to mourn a brother. In the coming months, he expects that he will be able to better understand the loss Sam feels. His superiors have ensured him that the Host is doing everything they can to prevent the breaking of the first seal, but the armies of Heaven are well aware that the prophesied war must come to pass. They will be called to duty, and the signs are undeniable. Evil gains a foothold on the Earth; a devil's gate was breached only a year ago. And Lilith is on the move.
Still, this grief of Sam's is more than a mourning— it's guilt, helplessness, leaving him adrift. It's no wonder that he's found his way here, to a ruined home that has given itself up to nature. Leaves clutter the hallway, insects invade the walls, which have given in to the chaos around him. It's hardly strong, or sturdy. Very much like Sam himself.
"She'll be here any minute, I promise," Sam is saying, hovering around the entryway to the hall.
For all its disarray, the house is well secured to hold a demon. The large devil's trap painted onto the floor is surprisingly detailed and certainly powerful— powerful enough to unsettle any demon. Castiel isn't surprised that the demon Ruby would be reluctant to meet him here. She must have a lot of trust in Sam. That doesn't surprise him, either.
Sam combs a hand through his hair and shrugs apologetically. Ruby, he has explained, is working towards the same goal. "I should have listened to her sooner," Sam had said regretfully, unable to meet Castiel's eyes. "But Dean—well. What reason did he ever have to trust a demon?"
Castiel had yet to see why Sam himself trusted her.
A knock comes at the door and Sam disappears into the hallway. Castiel hears the low murmer of voices and returns a moment later, a dark-haired woman following close behind. She moves in from of Sam to stand defiantly despite her fear, strength in her small frame.
"So," Sam says, "uh, this is Ruby. Ruby — Castiel."
"You don't have to introduce us," Ruby says shortly. Her tone is biting.
She is much like every other demon Castiel has been in contact with— anger like a fire, smoke twisting and coiling, given wholly to sin. Her vessel is empty.
Castiel looks at Sam. Earning his trust must be tedious for her, a creature whose natural proclivity is to simply take.
"I wouldn't think your side would bother with getting to know the enemy's tricks of the trade," Ruby continues. "So? What do you know about Sam's abilities?"
Ruby snorts. "So much for your expertise," she mutters under her breath, and Sam sighs heavily.
"Don't," he says. "He wouldn't be here if there wasn't a plan. Right?"
The question he directs at Castiel, as if he suddenly needs reassurance.
"God has a plan," the angel confirms.
"God has nothing to do with it," Ruby sneers. Castiel ignores the comment; he can't expect any less from the faithless.
"You said that before," Sam says, ignoring Ruby himself. "What does it mean? What am I even supposed to do?"
"We aren't here for your sake, Sam. We're here because there is a war brewing." Ruby meets Castiel's eyes briefly and then lowers them to the floor. She must know more than she has told Sam, otherwise she wouldn't still be here at all. "Losing your brother to Hell has given Lilith the upper hand. There is nothing you can do for him, Sam, but both sides of this battle are awaiting his choices."
Sam opens his mouth to speak but closes it again, looking at Ruby. She shrugs one shoulder.
"I don't know what's so special about him," she says dismissively.
"Not helping, Ruby," Sam says through his teeth.
Castiel is surprised to see her expression soften in response."You know what I meant. As much as I hate to say it, the angel's right. Lilith wanted him down in the pit for a reason, and whatever she wants can't be good for them." She jerks her head in Castiel's direction, as if his presence is an indication of Heaven as a whole.
"So, what?" Sam says, "You want me to make sure she can't pull it off, no matter what Dean decides?"
"Something like that," Castiel admits.
"Obviously we're all on the same page, here," Ruby says, "but I want you to know that I'm doing this for Sam. Not you or your angel buddies, capiche?"
"He gets it, Ruby," Sam says wearily, saving Castiel from his reply.
"Then allow me to get the party started." She says it sarcastically, but Castiel doesn't miss the way she waits for Sam's nod of approval anyway.
"There's another demon passing through to Chicago. I can have him here before midnight. Better go wash the angel stink off me first, or I'll never get anywhere near him."
She dares a quick glare in Castiel's direction as she says so, striding out of the room with purpose.
"The other demons," Castiel wonders, "They trust her to come here?"
Sam shrugs. "Demons can be convinced to do anything if they think they'll get a reward out of it. Lilith's got a bounty on my head and they all want it. Ruby just has to convince them that she has inside information, and my guess is that she overpowers them once their defenses are down."
It's a curious thing, this demon who hunts her own kind. The angels don't concern themselves with the goings on of the damned, but he knows that their relationships with one another can simply be described as chaos: every demon for itself, unlike the shared connection of the Host. And their views on humanity range from jealousy for what they have lost to hatred.
Ruby, at this point in time, poses no threat that Castiel can see. For now he'll let her deal with her own kind as long as she has the resources. He doesn't know what she knows about Lilith, but she's hardly powerful enough to become a problem. It's possible that being on Earth like this is enough of a reminder of what it was like to be one of God's children, so that she takes pity on those souls that Lilith twists into corruption for her own gain.
"So..." Sam says awkwardly, "that went well."
God's will though it may be, Castiel expects Sam's powers to be not unlike a demon's, given its nature. How he will be of help, he isn't sure. All things in time, he reminds himself, will be revealed.
Sam's determination does nothing to help his obvious lack of strength. Standing there in front of the demon, he feels like he's trying to demonstrate lock-picking to Houdini. He doesn't really know what he's doing here, despite Ruby's coaching. He's sure Castiel can see right through him, has seen right through him.
Sam is sure an angel would have a much more efficient—and powerful - method of expelling a demon. As it turns out, they do. It involves brightness and fire, brings to mind no thoughts of "killing" or "exorcising"; the word for it is smite.
As exorcisms go, this one was proving to be pretty manageable. Ruby had done her job well, and there wasn't even a struggle, getting the demon secured inside the circle of the devil's trap.
Sam's just tapping into the strength he knows is lurking somewhere in his blood, eyes closed in concentration, when he hears a low sound coming from somewhere near the front of the property, almost like tires squealing. He snaps his eyes open.
Castiel is frowning in the direction of the doorway, back turned on Sam and demon alike. The nameless man tied to the chair is eerily quiet. Castiel slips into the hallway without making a sound, and a moment later Sam hears what he thinks is the sound of an engine being shut off, rumbling quietly to a stop.
To his right, Sam sees the glint of Ruby's knife as she twists her wrist into the ready position. He meets her eyes sharply.
"Did anyone follow you?" he asks.
She shakes her head no, but it's not convincing enough.
Castiel returns from the front hall, sparing Ruby a quick glance before giving Sam a look that lets Sam see, for the first time, just why he is the leader of his garrison.
"There are six," Castiel says. Sam swears under his breath.
"Ruby, the spray paint— "
"There's no time for that," she snaps. Ruby crosses the room swiftly and digging through Sam's duffel bag. She pulls out his model 92 and holds it out to him while the demon they've got tied to the chair laughs pityingly. Sam ignores him, taking the offered weapon at the same time as the front door slams back against the wall.
"Sam," Ruby whispers hurriedly, "you can do this. I've got your back; just try, okay?"
Before he can answer, a dark-haired man, probably in his late twenties, saunters into the room flanked by a blonde woman and a boy who looks to be in his teens. Jesus, Sam thinks, discreetly tucking his gun into the waistband at the small of his back, he's only a kid.
Castiel, he notices, is nowhere in sight.
"Well, well! Looks like we made it in time for the party!" the first demon calls.
The one in the chair pulls at his restraints. "About damn time, you asshole."
His friend smirks without looking at him, eyes trained on Ruby instead.
"Ruby! Thought I'd find you here."
She's still standing close enough to Sam that he can feel her stiffen beside him, but her face gives nothing away.
"I've got a message for ya," the demon continues, and then his cocky tone drops along with his grin, morphing into something more menacing. "Lilith says she's got an eye on you. She just can't wait to peel the skin off your bones."
"What do you know about Lilith?" Sam asks, at the same time that Ruby lays a hand on his arm and says, "Wait".
The demon curls his lip at Sam, shaking his head sadly. "And your little dog, too."
Sam clenches his jaw and pushes past Ruby's restraining arm. A step later and suddenly light bursts from out in the hallway, flashes like lightning and is accompanied by the thudding sound of a human dropping to the ground.
The demon in front of Sam whirls around and his lackeys close in to cover his back. Castiel strides purposefully back into the room, expression darkened with the fear of God. He easily parries the dark-haired demon's fist, raises his left hand to grab onto the counter-attack from the demon's right, and twists his wrist so hard that the demon's knees nearly buckle under the strain of keeping his shoulder from twisting along with it. The angel's presses the palm of his free hand to the demon's forehead and in seconds, there's a dull glow illuminating Castiel's face. The light seems to explode outward in another bright flash, and then the demon crumples.
All bets are off before his body even hits the ground; Sam has the time to see two more demons come at Castiel from out in the hallway before the blonde demon lands a kick to his ribcage.
He recovers easily and she advances, sizing him up this time. There's a shout from the younger demon and Sam chances a look: Ruby has him backed against the wall in an instant, the knife pressed firmly to his throat, effectively cutting off his windpipe. He'd been too distracted trying to warn his buddies that there was an angel in the room to think about protecting himself from the rogue demon.
Sam winces when Ruby replaces the knife at the demon's throat with her forearm and sticks the knife up under the demon's ribcage instead. The light of his destruction is only a dull glow and a crackle of heat in comparison with the blinding, wild method of Castiel's.
The blonde takes his distraction as opportunity and lands a blow to his jaw, snapping Sam's head to the side and sending him stumbling backwards. She smirks at him when he looks back, lifts a hand and pushes it against the air.
He feels the tug of it, the intent of it, trying to immobilize his limbs and send him reeling back against the wall. She's not strong enough, though—or rather, she's no match against Sam. Her smirk falls into confusion and Sam lifts his own hand, fingers together, lets his eyes close, and tugs.
She coughs up a tendril of smoke, hand at her throat, and then coughs again. The smoke slips out of Sam's grasp and reels back into the body. Sam frowns, screws his eyes shut tighter and tries again. This time he manages to pull the demon smoke away from the body, leaving the woman's legs too weak to support her as she doubles over, coughing.
And then he loses it. It's like a firefly slipping out through the gap in your pinky—safe in your grip one second, wriggling lose and winging its way out the next, quicker than you can blink. Sam's grip is suddenly empty, as if the demon smoke is slippery, and the demon is laughing when he opens his eyes.
Sam registers the movement behind her a half second before the demon does; he shouts at Ruby, but it's too late—her knife is already twisting in the blonde demon's side, light crackling through her eyes and mouth, open wide in surprise.
"Sam," Ruby says, gesturing to his left, and with a pointed raise of her eyebrows whirls to grasp the shoulder of a demon wearing the skin of a construction worker twice her size—one of the men who ambushed Castiel from the hallway. He's holding a small butterfly knife, which she deftly dodges; Sam turns in time to see the demon he'd tied to the chair stride easily out of the devil's trap painted on the floor, one small sliver of red paint scratched away.
This time, Sam feels his limbs lock up under the demon's influence just long enough to earn him a spot against the wall, the demon's hand at his throat. He grapples at his wrist with his left hand, straining for air as he struggles against the wall.
"Not so impressive without that trap, now are you?"
Sam slips his right arm behind his back, still struggling to breathe. Darkness edges its way into his vision for a second as his fingers grip the handle of his gun. The effort it takes to tug it free blacks out his sight completely and Sam's mind swims nauseatingly; the demon realizes what's happening just a second too late.
Aiming hadn't exactly been Sam's first priority. The bullet lodges itself into the demon's hipbone, shot ringing out loudly. Sam winces as the recoil sends his shoulder slamming back against the wood of the wall. The demon howls, lets go of Sam's throat in favor of pressing his palms to the wound, and Sam drags in a breath.
There's nothing left in his reserve— no power source to tap into, no way to reach out with his mind and take the demon out of the injured body supernaturally. Instead he draws in another shaky breath and exhales it on an exorcism.
"Exorcizamus te, omnis immundus spiritus, omnis satanica potestas, omnis incursio infernalis adversarii—“
The demon turns his head to gnash his teeth angrily in Sam's direction, eyes black as ink. Over his shoulder, Sam sees Ruby slap her palms over her ears - as if it would help - and turn a wide eyed gaze in Sam's direction.
"—omnis legio, omnis congregatio et secta diabolica, in nomine et virtute Domini Nostri Jesu Christi— “
Calling on the virtue of Christ is too much for the injured demon. He throws his head back and black smoke snakes its way from his mouth and straight out the door, to escape out the windows that his friends had snuck in for their ambush.
The host's body is still where it lies on the floor, blood still soaking his jeans. Chest heaving, Sam reaches out a hand that he refuses to admit is shaking and presses it against the man's throat. There's no pulse. The body hadn't lost enough blood to kill him. There's no telling how long he'd already been dead.
Sam scrambles back to his feet, thinks about grabbing the gun from the floor where it had slipped from his fingers, and decides against it.
Ruby seems to have recovered, but not as quickly as the huge demon she's still sparring; Castiel is defending himself against a demon whose build is fairly matched with his vessel's own. He fights in blocks and dodges, and this demon seems to know what it's doing, not just relying on brute strength.
Sam makes his decision. Long legs make short work of the room and he approaches the angel, easily catching the demon as it dodges Castiel's attack. One sharp kick to the back of his knees is all it takes to make them buckle to the ground, Sam keeping hold of his shoulders. Castiel takes the invitation and palms the man's forehead; Sam shields his eyes against the light. The body drops.
Castiel straightens and meets Sam's eyes. There's a low thrum in Sam's limbs— not demon blood, but the lingering power of the exorcism ritual. Neither says a word.
Ruby's demon seems to have figured out that he doesn't stand a chance against the three of them and bails. She crosses her arms and scowls at him as the smoke spews forth, spinning around the room and taking the same path out as the demon Sam had shot.
"Well," she says sarcastically, "that was fun."
Sam doesn't exactly think that "fun" is the word he would use to describe five dead bodies on the ground.
Stepping over the body in front of her, Ruby stands on her toes in front of Sam to examine the faint bruises now blooming across his throat in the shape of the demon's fingers.
"Are you okay?"
Sam turns away. "'M fine."
Castiel is still silent, that scrutinizing look of his impossible to ignore. The thrumming is gone from his veins, but the presence of angel in the room is as large as ever. Sam does his best to ignore it.
"That trick of yours is pretty effective," Ruby says conversationally, but it's forced, and Castiel doesn't even look her way. It's probably for the best, because Ruby's still facing Sam like she's afraid to get too close to the angel. She stands no chance against Castiel should he decide she's a pest, and she knows it.
Ruby looks from Castiel to Sam and back again, then heaves a put-upon sigh. "Well? Are we going after them or not?"
"They had a message from Lilith, Sam. They know something. She's close."
Sam hesitates. "Ruby, do you really think..."
He directs his question at Castiel instead. "Do you think I'm strong enough?"
Sam looks to Ruby and shrugs.
"Fine. Then I'll go stop them before they manage to joy-ride another body to death, if you two don't mind," she says drily, daring to brush roughly past Castiel on her way out the door.
"The ritual," Castiel says without sparing Ruby a glance. "You've studied Latin?"
"I've been studying it since I was nine."
Castiel looks at him curiously and doesn't say a word.
Taking care of the bodies is easy with an angel around to help, but 'easy' is relative. Sam regrets each death, each body lifeless. He couldn't save a single one of them, despite all his powers.
"There are so many souls at balance," Castiel asks while Sam gently closes the eyes of a dead man, lying on the floor like a discarded toy. "Why do you feel the need to save them all?"
It's not a question that Sam expects to hear from an angel, but he's long since realized that the angels are not at all what he expected them to be. "It's always been about saving people," he tells him.
Castiel does not leave like Sam expects him to, following him instead into the remains of the kitchen, scattered about with trash, old newspapers, and a gun, taken apart to be cleaned. He wants to know how Sam learned about demons, about devil's traps and Latin exorcisms, and about more. Much more. So Sam tells him.
He stays away from talking about Dean, but he can tell him about Dad, about growing up on the road, about learning that monsters are real and dangerous and they can kill you. About saving people. About deciding he hates this life; about leaving it, and moreover, about realizing that he can't. Even if he wants to. Because this, this curse, won't let him be anything but what he is.
At this Castiel looks at him sadly, and Sam feels like a petulant child.
He doesn't want to seem ungrateful.
So he shows the angel Dad's journal. (He doesn't tell him about how Dean used to call it the Dad's Bible. ("In here," he'd said once, when Sam was young, when he'd first learned the truth about their family, "Is proof. Of everything. It's us against them, Sammy, and we have to win. We always have to win. Got it?")
He sits on a chair in the kitchen, elbows on his knees, and tells the angel that he had tried to leave it all behind. Four years, he thinks now, mind skirting the memory of his brother, four years wasted.
Sam does not look up from where he's staring at the floor, from where dust swirls evenly through the slanting light, but he hears the gentle sound of a page turning in Dad's journal.
"What was it that you were looking for?"
Sam frowns. "What?"
"You said leaving was a conscious decision. What is it that you wanted to find?"
Sam opens his mouth to answer, the word on the tip of his tongue - safety - but then his mouth goes dry. When he looks, Castiel is still idly turning the pages of the journal, trying to decipher John's script, distracted. Sam finds himself staring at his companion, throat closed, horrified.
"I thought... Castiel, if I left, then yeah, I would be safer. But—" Sam forces himself to swallow, to slow down. "It was more than that, you have to understand. I wanted to be normal. Dad— he always told us what to do but he never told us why. Dean— Dad—" he cuts off, pressing a hand to his forehead. His head is swimming.
"Normal." Castiel says it like it's a statement and not a question. Sam runs his hand through his hair. It's so damn confusing, an angel in the form of a man. Sam wishes he would just know, just know and cast judgment. It would be so much easier.
"Look," Sam says, "look," and gets up to cross the room, tapping his finger on the journal where Castiel is still holding it. "This, all of this." He turns a page at random and it lands on the entry marked Reapers, flips another few pages through lists of places, names, scribbled notes; he passes an entry on the Woman in White, on strigas, werewolves, the djinn. "This is our life, Castiel. Most people grow up in one town, go to school, get a job, get married. That's normal. That's what I wanted."
"And you... are not 'normal'."
Sam stares. "No. No, you're right. I'm not normal. I know that. I know that now."
"Yes." Castiel turns another page.
Sam hates it. He hates that Castiel knows this about him. He feels, not for the first time, like all his sins are laid bare in front of the angel, and he hates it.
"And what did Dean say?"
"What did Dean say?" Sam echoes, suddenly defensive. He doesn't want to talk about Dean. Not now. Not yet. Maybe not ever.
"When you left."
Sam swallows. "He didn't say anything."
Not even goodbye. Dean hadn't tried to stop him, either— Sam's argument with Dad had been final, and Dean wasn't going to disobey. Sam wonders now how hard it must have been to stand there at the motel doorway and watch Sam hoist a duffel bag full of everything he owned without saying a word.
It hadn't been nearly as hard to walk out that door as it should have been.
"... He didn't have to. He came back for me, and he didn't have to do that, either. It's explanation enough."
"Sam, your brother is a righteous man." Castiel turns another page. "You should feel honored."
Honored. Sam's heart is suddenly a steady pressure at the base of his throat. He swallows thickly.
Castiel stands from his chair in the corner and presses the old worn leather of the journal into Sam's arms.
"It's not an obligation," he says. "It's a choice. You and your brother both have chosen this path. You have been there to protect your kind when mine has not. No path, however righteous, has even been easy."
With that, the angel is gone, his sudden absence as disorienting as ever.
"Hey!" Sam yells into the empty air, then, quieter, "wait." He swallows, breathless, staring through the open doorframe. As if Castiel had used it. As if a door would have stopped him.
"Angel," it says, sneering. Sam meets Ruby's raised eyebrows across the room. Brave, this demon. Ruby shrugs, dismissing it, looking pointedly away. Or stupid, Sam translates. He doesn't miss the fact that she never looks Castiel's way, leaning still against the wall, posture stiff.
The demon pitches his voice louder so that it carries flatly across the room, the harsh edges of his tone lost through the missing slats of siding down the hall, into the creeping green.
"What do you want from me, angel? Daddy send you out to do his dirty work? Can't handle his precious creations being corrupted, can he? I've got news for him. They've done it all on their own, these humans. They're just begging for this."
Castiel doesn't stop pacing, doesn't look his way, and certainly doesn't respond.
"Begging for what?" Sam says. The demon ignores him completely—definitely stupid, Sam decides—sneering again in Castiel's direction. He tugs at the restrains tying his wrists to the chair. "I asked you a question. Begging. For. What?"
The demon finally snaps his eyes to Sam, flashing black, then back to brown. "None of your fucking business, that's what."
Sam steps inside the circle of the devil's trap and looms over the demon, using his height to his advantage. He wraps his hands around the ropes at the demon's wrists, pressing them down into the hard wood of the chair.
"What do you think you're gonna do, huh?" he says, voice pitched low and dangerous. Ruby smirks. "If I let you go, what would you do to that angel? Would you try to fight him? Do you think you could win?"
The demon says nothing in response. Sam steps away. "That's right. You wouldn't dare. You don't have the guts to take on an angel. So you're going to tell me what your pathetic taunting meant, or my friend over there is going to remind you why you're the one tied up."
"Oh, my. My my my. Sam Winchester. They let us think you were special. They didn't tell us you were letting your pet angel do all the dirty work."
Sam's fingers twitch, his lip curling involuntarily. Ruby sighs dramatically, uncrossing her arms and taking a step forward, feet well away from the red spray paint on the floor. "Come on, Sam. Make him talk. We don't have all night."
"I didn't ask your opinion, Ruby."
"Then don't make me wait, Sam."
The demon laughs then, cocky, and with a flare of anger Sam cuts the laughter short with no more than a palm stretched out in front of him, fingers spread.
Its eyes widen so that he looks much more human, pupils tiny pinpoints as he struggles to breathe. Sam lets up slightly, surprised at how easy it is, how little pain accompanies the control he has.
The demon slumps forward and gasps in a few breaths of air, letting them out again in a shaky laugh, still so goddamn cocky.
"The end," he rasps, one side of his mouth twisted in a sick grin. "Your precious humans have prepared themselves so well for the end of times. Their pathetic souls are practically lined up outside the gates, just waiting to be tortured. I hear your brother's down there, Winchester. I hear he's a real good boy. I can't wait to work alongside Hell's most valuable player."
The words hit Sam like a blow to the gut, a kick of cold water to the stomach. Behind him, Castiel comes to a halt, all his attention now on the demon. He doesn't comment as Sam twists his hand violently, fingers curling into a fist, feeling the dirty bulk of demonic ether tear away from the human body it possesses. "Oh, I'm not sending you back to Hell," he hisses. The words don't even sound like they're his own. "You don't deserve it."
The demon's eyes widen, the whites of his eyes showing like a spooked horse just before he jerks forward, thick tendrils of purpleblack smoke pouring out of his mouth and onto the floor. Sam grins, letting his eyes fall shut as he concentrates on tugging the demon out, away, forming itself into an agonized whirlpool on the prison surface of the devil's trap. The demon heaves forward once, twice more, and Sam relaxes his fist as the smoke begins to crackle, the smell of sulfur thick in the air, just before it dissolves into oblivion.
"You did it." Ruby has the gall to sound surprised and Sam smirks, feeling the sheer energy coursing through his blood, and with each pound of his heart he knows that he can do this, can get stronger, all on his own. No demon blood needed. He grins wider and turns on his heel to face Castiel.
He says, "There, see?" and then trails off, confused. Castiel is nowhere to be found.
Just like that, the things the demon had said about Dean come crashing back to him and his stomach heaves.
"Typical," Ruby snorts, "The asshole leaves before the applause." She turns away and crosses right into the devil's trap, leaning over the man still tied to the chair. He's coming to slowly, head lolling on his chest.
"Do you think it's true?" Sam asks.
Ruby tilts the man's chin upward with a finger, waiting for signs of recognition on his face. "What?"
"What it said about Dean. It's not true, is it? The demon was just lying. They all lie."
She straightens then, turning on her heel to level a silent stare at Sam. Right.
Finally she relents, something softening in her expression. "I don't know, Sam. I'm sorry. Are you going to take him to the hospital, or should I?"
"Him," Ruby says, pointing a thumb back at the man still tied to the chair. It registers that he's alive, that he's going to be okay, that he's probably going to make it back to his family. Thanks to Sam.
Maybe he wasn't meant to command an army. Maybe he was meant to destroy one.
"Earth to Sam?"
"Oh. Uh... could you... ? I mean, just in case Castiel comes back. I want to... you know. Be here."
She rolls her eyes and slips the knife out of the holster on her thigh to cut away at the ropes around the man's wrists, then looks expectantly at Sam. "You gonna let me out of here?"
Sam's not really paying any attention after she tosses him the knife, scraping away at the spray paint on the floor with this thoughts tumbling over one another. He has tried carefully not to think about what Dean's soul is enduring in the pit—he'd tried, once, back when he'd driven all the way out to Wyoming, to imagine what he might find there if he could somehow to get in. His imagination had ended up somewhere dark and sticky, filled with screams and sharp, dark pain, had wandered past that to darkness, still and alone, and he'd thrown up in the grass next to the mausoleum until Bobby caught up to him.
But what he hadn't thought of was the alternative. That maybe Dean was becoming a demon himself, soul twisting so that despair felt more like hatred. It was something like Sam's own darkness, maybe, but magnified a hundredfold.
For him. For this abandoned shithole in the middle of nowhere. For every promise he'd made to be broken.
Sam hears Ruby's car lurch to life outside the door and realizes that they're gone, the demon and the one he'd saved. It feels like a hollow victory.
On the kitchen table and sits the last bottle of Jack Daniels Sam bought before Ruby convinced him to stop. Sam stares at it for a long time before he takes the first sip.
It's not the last.
"Just— no, Ruby, okay? I'm not going to drink—" He sighs, weary. If only Ruby would just lay off for a second. "Just. Please."
"It's the only way you can kill Lilith, Sam, you have to try. Or don't," she shrugs, "It's not like it would bring Dean back."
Sam seethes. "God damn it, Ruby, don't bring him into this."
"He already is."
"Of course he is! Christ," he mutters, and doesn't have the energy to feel sorry when she flinches.
"So are you going to do anything about it, or are you just going to let Lilith get what she wants?"
"She already has Dean, remember?" Sam chases the thought away with a long pull from the bottle of whiskey.
"That's not what I'm talking about."
Sam pauses, toying with the edge of the label. Castiel's words echo on the heels of suspicion. We don't know what Lilith wants with your brother. But we know that she wants you dead.
"What are you talking about?" he says quietly, gauging her reaction. "Do you know what she's planning? Ruby, do you know why Lilith wants me dead?"
"No." Her eyes are flint; she crosses her arms in front of her chest, confident. "I don't know why she's trying to kill you."
"Maybe. Maybe you're still lying. Maybe you can't keep your stories straight."
"I'm not lying about this, I swear to—whatever. I swear. All I know is that Lilith wants you dead, and nothing good can come of whatever that bitch has been planning. You don't have room for mistakes, Sam. You're the only one who can kill her, and there's just no other way. Sam. I'm sorry. There isn't."
"I think... maybe there is." Sam shrugs a shoulder, trying to make it look less like he hasn't been thinking about it nearly every second of the goddamn day. "Maybe you just don't know it. I mean, you said angels were practically a superstition, right? So what if they know something you don't? Castiel said—" he breathes out through his nose, shaking his head. "I'm supposed to do something with this thing, Ruby. Somehow I don't think your method is what they would want."
She scoffs. "The angels? Are not good news, Sam."
"I don't think you have any right to decide what's good or bad here, Ruby.“
She opens her mouth to retort but says nothing; closes it again and looks away.
"You know, you'd think you could give me a little credit," she says, finally, and she doesn't sound petulant or whiny, just hard-edged and angry. "How many times do I have to save your ass before you trust me?"
"I never asked for your help. If you don't like messing with angels, maybe you should just leave."
She stares, open-mouthed. Sam can't bring himself to be concerned. For a second he thinks she's going to lash out, lay into him, self-righteous as ever, but she doesn't. She shuts her mouth and replaces her expression with one that looks suspiciously like pity. The last thing Sam needs now is pity.
Sam preempts whatever she's about to say with a placating hand and turns away. "I don't want to hear it," he says, snatching the whiskey bottle from the table and bringing it to his lips. Before he can get so much as a sip, Ruby's pulling his arm away, grappling at the bottle and snatching it out of Sam's fingers.
"You never want to hear it, Sam, that's your problem."
"Ruby," he warns, reaching for the bottle.
"No." She pulls her arm back. "This isn't going to get you anywhere."
"Oh, right, that's right. The alcohol's not gonna help me, but oh, the demon blood will," he sneers. Fucking ridiculous, keeping him from—God, it's not like it's going to hurt; God, he needs that—
Sam lunges for the whiskey. He's much bigger than Ruby, but she's strong, stronger than she has any right to be, or maybe he just has too much alcohol in his veins. The bottle clatters to the floor when she wrenches out of his grasp and he thinks, It's her blood.
"You're not listening to me," she says, and he just stares at her, seeing demon and human, wondering at the black smoke that must curl around nerves and impulses, blood and bone; sinking in and taking over, black on white. If he wanted, he could pull it away from the body and leave just one behind, just white and clean humanity, whatever was in the blood gone, gone, gone. But not him. For him it will always be there.
He licks his lips nervously, stumbling backwards into one of the rickety chairs at the table, all his own strength leached away, none of the slow burn of whiskey to anchor to.
"Don't forget what you're doing this for," Ruby says quietly. "Your brother wouldn't want you to get yourself killed. Even I know that. And those angels, they don't know shit about you, Sam. You or Dean. How long were you ignored? How long did it take them to decide you were worthy of their help? They don't even know what it's like to be human."
"And you do?"
"Yes. I do." Ruby brings a hand to his face, cool and small, and he flinches under her touch. "Sam," she murmurs, so close, and he has to curl his hands into fists to keep them still. His eyes slide closed when she rests her forehead against his, bringing her free hand to his wrist. He flexes his fingers.
The alcohol buzzes through his veins and she's so close, has never been closer, heady and intoxicating; when he presses his nose under her jaw he can feel the pulse of heat and wonders, wonders, breathes in, lets it curl down his spine. The hand on his cheek moves to tangle in his hair and Sam reaches his own up to her thin wrist, tracing the soft skin above her pulse with the pad of his thumb, and her voice breaks on his name: "Sammy."
He freezes. No. He tightens the hand on her wrist, trapping it there against his head, and then flips his other hand to grasp at them both, stilling her. "Don't," he says, meeting her eyes, and ah, there it is: a rush of fresh air in his head, suddenly sharp, the taste of steel on the back of his tongue. "Don't call me that."
"I—Sam—" Ruby pulls back; he tightens his grip, holding her still.
"What do you think you're doing?" Anger flares, familiar but different: no guilt bringing it to its boiling point. Just Sam, realigning.
Her mouth works soundlessly for a second and she finally settles on "I just want you to know you're not alone in this."
Sam scoffs and pushes her away. She's wrong. He is alone in this.
"I want you to leave, Ruby. Now. Don't make me ask you twice."
"I knew you would do this," she hisses, grabbing her jacket off the back of the chair. "I knew you would choose that damn angel over me."
He thinks that the slam of the door as she leaves must be more satisfying for him to hear than it was for her to do.
He doesn't make it back into the kitchen. There's an angel standing in his way.
"Well, well, well," he says, "You too? You here to tell me that I should—that I—that you're so much better than me, o holier-than-thou, Chosen One of the Lord?"
Castiel is silent, unmoving, offering nothing at all. He finally says, "You have consumed too much, Sam," and Sam laughs bitterly.
"You sound just like Ruby."
"I... agree, reluctantly, with the demon in this case. Alcohol impairs the human brain's ability to function rationally, Sam, and you— "
"I know." He can hear the sneer in his voice, but he can't stop it. Too far, he thinks, he went too far, feeling his guilt like sharp corners in his mind. He was fine, he was doing just fine, but now Dean—now the angel is telling him, oh god, Dean, the angels could have—
Sam sits roughly, letting gravity sink his weight onto the mattress. He grips the edge of the bed with white knuckles as he goes and lets his eyes trail the wet line left in the wake of the whiskey bottle to where it rests now against the wall. He doesn't move towards it. His skin feels like it's on fire.
Castiel is silent. Sam shivers.
"I prayed for you," he whispers. It sounds sick. "Every day. For years. I had faith in you." The word feels like ash on his tongue. "Where were you then?"
The angel moves closer and Sam doesn't flinch, not even when he hears the sigh. Through the fall of hair covering his forehead, Sam attempts to glare up at Castiel, but he knows his face is betraying his emotions. Dean would have laughed, told him to stop being a girl or maybe, maybe he would have told him again how stupid he was, how stupid he was, to have believed in angels. “I don't see any angels here," he would have said, “do you?“
Sam almost laughs, then. How Dean managed to be dead wrong, but exactly right, he'll never know.
But he doesn't laugh. He swallows the hard lump in his throat, instead. "Why now? Why not when Dean...? You could have saved him. You, you angels, you could have saved my brother, goddamnit, where were you?"
Sam doesn't have the energy left for malice, his words breaking and tumbling wetly into the short distance between them.
Castiel doesn't give him an answer. The silence stretches out and out, so long that Sam knows he'll never get an answer. He doesn't want one. What he wants is to stop feeling regret for something he could never change.
He half expects the angel to leave him there as a lost cause, go back to God and say sorry, Sam's not who you're looking for. He doesn't, though. He doesn't move. Sam squeezes the bridge of his nose where he can already feel a headache forming, maybe even the same one he'd given himself earlier, trying to kill a demon. He's surprised when Castiel speaks.
He says, "We're here now."
It's not an excuse, and it's certainly not an apology. It's just the truth.
Maybe, Sam thinks, that's more than he ever deserved.
"Castiel?" he says, and the angel looks up from his spot near the window.
"Don't give up on me."
There is a short, pregnant silence before Castiel lets out a sigh and pushes himself away from the wall.
"Sam," he says, kneeling in front of him, the edges of his coat pooling on the dusty floor. "I am not the one whose strength of will is in question."
The angel reaches his left hand forward, lightly presses his fingers just above Sam's temple. As he draws his hand away, Sam feels the pressure in his head ease, the lingering exhaustion free itself from his bones.
He's gone before Sam can even thank him, but he's not worried. Castiel will be back. Sam spends the next ten minutes packing up what little he's left around the house, and well before the summer heat hits its peak, leaves the broken building for the last time.
He doesn't look back.
To say that Castiel was surprised to realize that Sam had left the broken house would not be accurate: instead, he was relieved. If Sam is to move forward with his purpose, he'll have to leave the wreckage behind. It doesn't take long to locate him—he's driving East to an unknown location, and so Castiel manifests into the car.
It swerves sharply to the left, headlights swinging to illuminate the side of the highway.
"Woah! Castiel? Man, don't do that!" Sam says, straightening out the car and glancing frantically from Castiel back to the road.
"No, it's okay." He takes a deep breath. "You just surprised me. I didn't know you could do that, you know, just pop into a moving vehicle."
"I wasn't sure how long you'd be driving. You are not returning to Pontiac." It's not a command, but an observation.
"No," Sam says quietly, peering through the windshield. "There're people out there who I can still save."
They are not chasing demons this time, he explains. There is something stealing children in a town that is three states away, taking them and returning them exactly two days after their disappearance, healthy but unresponsive. He thinks something is stealing their souls.
Castiel watches out the opposite window at the pitch black night, no street lamps to see anything by. The car rattles on in silence for three slow miles before Sam twists his grip on the steering wheel and starts, "My brother... "
Castiel doesn't look away from the shadows thrown onto the road by the headlights, but he listens.
"Dean used to drive for nine or ten hours straight without waking me up, even when he was so tired he couldn't see the road. I woke up once in a motel room and couldn't remember how I got there. Dean must've carried me in. No way had I dragged myself into that room."
Now Castiel is looks. The expression on Sam's face is not one he is familiar with, but his eyes are pleading for forgiveness. He is not here to forgive, Castiel must remind himself.
"I yelled at him for letting me sleep so long. We'd been finishing off a skin-walker and Dean was bleeding pretty bad from his thigh, but he carried me into that room and I yelled at him. I wasn't even hurt. I was just afraid of the nightmares."
Sam is staring straight ahead now, and Castiel squints against the glare off the windshield. "Nightmares."
"You don't know?"
"I assume you are referring to the premonitions that began in your twenty-second year."
"Yeah, those. I thought they were just bad dreams at first, you know?"
Castiel thinks he might know. Human dreams seem fluid and weightless to them; real one moment and thin as air the next. Sam wouldn't have suspected his visions to be anything more or less than that.
"It was... important to your brother that you sleep?"
"Yeah. He was always bugging me about it back then. I thought, I dunno, that he was trying to ignore what was happening to me. We didn't know anything about it back then, we needed help, but Dad wasn't even there. I was terrified, man."
Castiel recalls Sam's earlier words: Where were you when we needed you?
As much as he wishes he had an answer to Sam's questions, he doesn't. For Castiel, there isn't any need to question God's will, but for Sam, there are no justifications in the world that could give sense to the loss of his brother. It doesn't matter to him that loss and doubt are all part of the ineffable plan, or that it is belief despite lack of evidence that drives the plan forward.
He only wants to know why his prayers went unanswered when he asked for help, why his went faith unrewarded when he was afraid, and where the only possible salvation was when he had needed it. When they had both needed it, Sam and Dean alike—Dean, who was about to serve the ultimate punishment for the crime of protecting his brother.
He hadn't told Sam that he is wrong: that they could never have saved his brother, even if they had known from the start what Lilith wanted with him. He hadn't told him that only the Archangels could wield that kind of power, or that they could have done so under God's orders only. But no orders had been given. He knows now: telling Sam the truth would be... ah, cold comfort. He wonders, briefly, suddenly, what Dean Winchester would have done to comfort his brother.
“We're here now,“ Castiel had told him then. It was the only thing he could think to say.
He had thought about finding Zachariah and seeking the information he needed, but something stopped him. His mission was to ensure Sam's strength, he told himself, and that includes the emotional.
But it was more than that. His garrison is spread out, preparing for what is to come, and although they are always within contact, Castiel feels a strange disconnect from Heaven. To ask Zachariah why they hadn't save an innocent man from hellfire would have been to question the plan. To question his orders.
"Dean's buried back there, you know." Sam says. His voice is rough, but his eyes are steady on the road. "In Pontiac. I thought if I stayed... no, I don't know what I was thinking. He told me to keep fighting."
"He was wise."
"He was a pain in the ass," Sam says, but he's grinning, glancing sideways at Castiel. "He knew I'd sit around trying to figure out how to save him forever if he didn't tell me what to do."
Sam sighs heavily, and Castiel can feel the taint of sorrow begin to ease. Breathing is so simple, so vital; taking in the good and expelling the bad. "He was always telling me what to do. Guess I should've listened, huh?"
Castiel doesn't respond, content to watch the world pass by slowly, shrouded in the night. It's slow, infuriatingly so, and he knows that wherever Sam needs to be, he could take him in an instant if he so wished. But for now he'll wait, and take a closer look at the world his Father so loves. He has only seen the evils of the world—anger and grief, hatred, corruption. It's about time he learned exactly what he had been called to protect.
Truth be told, he doesn't feel like dealing with demons again anytime soon. Less than a week ago, picking up a hunt and leaving Pontiac had felt impossible, the very idea if it making him nauseous. An angel shows up and tells him he's part of God's plan, and here he is. It's practically an episode of Touched by an Angel.
So he's surprised that Castiel offered his services on the hunt he'd taken up, one he'd been trying to ignore. At first, he'd been scanning The Pontiac Daily Leader for demonic omens, trying to locate anything suspicious in the area, and then he'd expanded to The Chicago Tribune—two weeks ago they picked up a story about a string of alleged kidnappings, and for days after, the number of missing kids increased just about as quickly as the accounts of children turning up again in their homes, completely unresponsive. A "waking coma".
It was the first thing on his mind when he pulled away from the deserted old house, and, carefully, the only thing on his mind. What Castiel's mission had to do with this, he had no idea. It's not like he was going to be teaching Sam how to exorcise demons any time soon.
He'd been in the car when he parked it outside the office, but when Sam returned with the old-fashioned room key, the passenger seat of the Impala was once again vacant.
Sometimes, it's not even as if Dean is the one missing while he's driving down the highway. It's Sam that's missing from the empty seat, the one who had something to fight for, the one who had hoped he could return the favor and take care of his brother. He wonders if that Sam will ever be back.
Now, lying on the lumpy mattress in this room, Sam wonders idly where Castiel goes when he leaves; what he is doing when he is gone. What is it that angels do? What the hell where they doing for two thousand years? There is a war brewing, he had said. A war. And apparently, Dean's soul is the big prize.
Sam swallows his guilt, feeling his gut twist. He's sickened at the very thought: Dean, the center of some pissing match. But it's more than just that, he admits, rolling over onto his back. The ceiling is stained in this dingy motel room, just like the one before this, and the one before that, and all the rooms he shared with his brother. Before Dean had been dragged down to Hell in New Harmony. Before Sam had let himself be killed in Cold Oak. Before.
He swallows that guilt, too.
"You hungry?" Sam asks when the food arrives, pushing his plate of toast forward in offering. Castiel doesn't answer, but he doesn't eat, either. "There aren't any demonic omens here," Sam says conversationally, having folded and set the paper down on the table beside them, "but that doesn't mean there aren't any demons. Ruby—um. Well, she thinks I should keep, you know, practicing. But I don't know, man. I think maybe I should take a step back for a while."
He waits for some sort of response from the angel: a confirming nod, a verbal agreement, any kind of sign that he's on the right track.
"You congregate here often," Castiel says instead. It isn't a question, but he seems confused, titling his head again in the direction of the waitress. "Is eating a social event?"
"Eating? Breakfast? No. Well eating out is, I guess, it's just something... why do you ask?"
Castiel doesn't answer.
After another few minutes of silence, Sam ventures, "You should really eat something. Dean—"
He stops when Castiel looks at him. His expression is unreadable. "Dean loved pancakes and bacon. He ate way too much bacon."
When the waitress comes back, Castiel quietly and politely asks for coffee, black. And then, with a glance at Sam, asks for a side order of bacon.
And Sam thinks, he's trying. He hasn't decided yet what Castiel is trying to do, exactly, but it's something, and it makes him feel like he's not alone in this.
Castiel eats the bacon politely, but unenthusiastically, and then asks where they're going next. Sam smiles into his coffee and tells him that he's planning on interviewing families of the missing children, since they'll be in Nebraska City before noon.
"Nebraska City," Castiel echoes, eyes now watching the people pass outside the front window of the diner.
Sam goes up front to pay when he finishes his breakfast, and when he turns around, their table is empty. But he's sitting in the car when Sam heads out to the parking lot like he belongs there. He looks out of place, sitting there waiting for Sam, and he almost laughs at Castiel's impatience.
The is only a few hours long, he tells himself. He's driven longer distances by himself—much, much longer. That doesn't explain how relieved he is that Castiel stays, even though he bears the journey without saying a word.
The door to the shop opens again and it's Sam. He shifts the bag he's holding from his right hand to his left and uses his free hand to prop open the door, watches a child sprint out under his arm, and then nods politely at the man who follows after.
"Do you want anything? Are you hungry?" Sam asks once he's back behind the wheel, rifling through a plastic bag that is filled with packaged food. Castiel's eyes are drawn past Sam, however, at the man now strapping his child into the car that sits two pumps away from theirs.
After a moment Sam shrugs and drops his bag of food into the back seat, turning his head in time to see the father ruffle his little girls' hair and close the door for her.
Sam starts the car, but it doesn't go anywhere. Instead he sits and looks out at the small convenience store where he'd just paid for his gas, the words "Stop 'N Go" in large letters above the door.
"When I was little," he begins to say, "Six, I think, we were staying somewhere cold. I don't remember where, just that it was cold, and the motel room looked like some sort of hunting cabin. I left this toy there, this stuffed dog. Buddy, I called him. Dad had brought it back for me once, and he'd given Dean something that I wasn't allowed to see. It was probably—oh, man, it was probably a gun, wasn't it? Anyway, I realized Buddy was gone when we were maybe four hours away, I don't know. Could have been only twenty minutes, but it's hard to tell when you're a kid, you know?"
Castiel doesn't. He doesn't mention it.
"Um. But I started crying, and Dean crawled back from the front seat and told me he'd get me another one. I didn't want another one. I wanted the one in the motel room. So when we got to, you know, wherever the hell it was, and Dad left again, Dean and I went around to this general store. They had all these toys in the back aisle, and Dean gave me a stuffed dog from one of the shelves. He stuffed it under his shirt and then carried me outta there so the employees wouldn't look too closely at him."
Sam smiles softly, staring out at the building but seeing something completely different. "I kept that thing for years. I wish I still had it."
Castiel is not sure if Sam is talking about the toy, anymore.
A young girl, 8 years old, had gone missing one night from her bed. They found her body three days later, cause of death unknown. There had been a wake, a memorial service, a buriel. Good Christian family, active in the church. Her body had been in the woods less than a mile from her girl's home.
Sam was sitting in the one chair at the tiny desk in his motel room in Nebraska City when Castiel finally turned up. He didn't bother to ask where the angel had been; he wasn't Castiel's keeper. But he was curious about the hunt.
"Sometimes souls just stay behind," he says, shrugging. "All we know is that something keeps them here. Afraid to move on, maybe. Or just angry. Lost. Hurt. This one was just lonely."
The woods near her house had been empty, of course. The authorities had searched them time and again for the missing children, probably due to the very case that Sam had researched himself. But there's one thing they wouldn't look for.
Poppies. Wildflowers aren't exactly suspicious, unless you know what you're looking for, and Sam knows what he's looking for. There was a patch of red poppies growing in the woods, which is far from unusual, except that they were nowhere else in the area. Normal wildflowers spread quickly, they don't confine themselves to one area. And poppies in particular symbolize sleep and death.
"She's bringing their spirits there," Sam explains, while Castiel looks carefully at each newspaper clipping spread out on the desk, each printout of the missing children. "I've seen similar cases before, where ghosts can't leave a loved one behind. I don't know what's stopping this one from moving on, but my guess is that she's lonely. She wants someone to play with."
"And you will help her move on," Castiel concludes.
Sam nods. "It's a simple salt and burn job, really."
"Salt to purify," Castiel says, nodding. "She should not be afraid."
It takes a long, long time do dig her grave. Sam relishes the burn in his muscles, feeling useful and strong. He salts the child's body and adds in kerosene, drops in a match, and prays that she finds whatever it was she was looking for.
And he talks about Dean. About the hunt they'd gone on just after Sam had joined the search for their missing father, where Dean had gotten a traumatized child to begin speaking again, laughing again; about the time he'd surprised Sam by driving him to a musical concert, which Sam enjoyed; about the things that remind him of Dean and the things he doesn't want to be reminded of.
But he goes on, and Castiel wonders at human strength. This was a man broken, this was a man who had reached depths that he never imagined and had pulled himself from them, saying he had no other choice.
Humanity is bustling, it is angry and exultant, capable of horror and corruption; it ebbs and flows with energy that it cannot fully understand. And so they create, and they forgive.
He has never known Dean Winchester, never seen his face or judged his character. Three weeks after he took for the road, Sam sits down and tells Castiel about the night he died. He tells him how Dean had bargained his soul away because he couldn't bear the loss. He tells him he's afraid he wasn't worth it, that he never gave back the simple things Dean did for him—fed him when they were hungry, sat with him when he learned the true nature of his mother's death, constantly became the source of Sam's ire and fought with him about everything, every decision, all but one.
It's a complexity Castiel cannot grasp. He's seen the great light of the angelic Hosts and the awe of creation, felt every victory and failure of his brothers and sisters as they have felt it, but he cannot understand the kind of sacrifice Dean made on behalf of his brother.
Sam's guilt is heavy, and his path is long. Every step is worth a memory for him; every step is too painful for him to bear.
The threat of destruction looms on the horizon for all creation, and Castiel is beginning to learn what is so worth saving.
It's from this forest in the early morning of September 18th that there comes a high, keening sort of sound, like screams in the night. They're guttural and agonized, rising in pitch until they cut off in the middle of a shrill, unearthly echo. Most of Pontiac's inhabitants forget the sound they heard. Some don't even wake to hear it at all.
But if you ask those closest to the source, living on the outskirts, used to the sounds of nature, they will tell you exactly what they heard. They'll swear it honestly on God's good name. They'll tell you that what woke them in the early hours that Thursday morning was the sound of the very gates of Hell, opening to the world just long enough to send a clear, unmistakable message: the end is coming.
It has been a long time since he's been home.
Zachariah asks him to meet on Earth, where it is easier to keep track of the garrisons. Not for many eons have so many angels been borrowing human bodies and forming armies, amassed for battle. It isn't hard to find Zachariah's vessel, a middle-aged man with an air of authority amid a bar full of people who just want to get away from their troubles.
"Castiel. Have a seat."
He does, while Zachariah motions to the man behind the counter. Seconds later a short glass of drink is placed in front of Castiel; it has the sharp smell of alcohol. Sam, he reflects, hasn't imbibed since the day he began to remember his brother's memory rather than drown it. Castiel leaves the glass untouched.
"How is our Sam? I trust he is embracing his gift?" Zachariah asks.
Castiel's immediate thought is that 'gift', in the sense that humans use the words, might not be the one Sam would choose. "His abilities are growing stronger, but he struggles with it. His loss drives him forward."
"Yes. Humans have a nasty disposition toward revenge. Is he strong enough to destroy Lilith?"
"He has the potential."
"Ah. But there's something missing, isn't there?" Zachariah asks the question as if he already knows the answer. Castiel trusts that he will be given information when it is necessary, but he hopes he will be forgiven for his curiosity.
"We know about the demon Ruby," Zachariah continues, picking up his own glass and watching the liquid swirl lazily before sipping from it. "He should trust her, Castiel. Your alliance was a good choice."
Castiel forces himself to thank his superior, but he doesn't feel the truth in it. His tolerance of the demon Ruby had been for Sam's benefit, but it had only lasted as long as Sam's patience.
"It is more important now than ever that he's strong enough when the time is right." Zachariah turns in his seat to face Castiel.
"There's something you should know, Castiel, but I need you to understand that it won't affect your mission. Dean Winchester's soul has been raised from the pit."
Dean. The man who devoted his life to protecting others; the man who gave his soul to save the person he loved. A righteous man in Hell. The one to begin it. "You've discovered Lilith's plans for him."
"Yes, yes. It was your second in command who found him, you know," Zachariah says lightly. "We are all proud of Uriel."
"The mission that our Father chose for my garrison," he realizes. "It was to raise Dean Winchester from Hell before he broke the first seal of the apocalypse." He casts his mind for any memory of being told that Lilith's plans were revealed; he finds none. Castiel has been away from his brothers and sisters for too long. This should have been news they all shared with one another, across all garrisons, spanning the entire hierarchy.
"Ah, I see you've already figured it out. We had hoped to find him much sooner, but we were too late. A whole month, by human standards."
"Why wasn't I informed when the garrison moved out?"
"We needed you elsewhere, of course. Samuel is just as important as his brother, you know. We need him strong, Castiel, it's the only way we can stop Lilith. It's the only way we can win. But—and this is very important—Dean cannot come into contact with his brother. He is... less cooperative than we had hoped, and we fear corruption of Sam's faith. Do you understand your orders?"
"Yes," Castiel says. Yes, he understands what is expected of him.
Zachariah's voice is final. It resonates with power. It should feel right. His orders should ring true.
Something about this news doesn't. Dean Winchester had been in Hell for three months and none of his garrison could find him. Dean Winchester breaks the first seal of the apocalypse, and Uriel locates his burdened soul in less than a third of that time.
The righteous man who begins it is the only one who can end it. These are the words of prophecy that has been with him since his creation, information about protecting the Father's most perfect creation. And yet Zachariah is telling him that the one to end it will be the one who can destroy Lilith—Sam. Not Dean.
He shouldn't question his orders. But he does. He does so silently out of sight of his superiors, but he does, and when he arrives in Sam's current motel room, he feels like he made the right decision.
Decision. The idea is at once both terrifying and confusing.
He can only hope that he will be forgiven.
"What?" Sam says. Castiel hesitates.
"It is not my place to tell you."
"Tell me what?" Sam pulls himself closer, perching on the edge of the bed. "Castiel?"
It isn't Castiel's place. He knows this. Keeping this information from the boy seems wrong in a way that he's never felt before once given a direct order. The idea of telling Sam that his brother is alive feels right, and it is this alone that decides it. Regardless of Sam's repeated attempts to make him "think for himself," Castiel will always trust this first: the sense of rightness that can only be perceived as such because he knows, now, what the wrongness truly is. Perhaps Sam has been more of an influence than Castiel expected.
He draws himself up to the full height of his vessel. "My brothers have discovered the demon Lilith's true intentions for Dean Winchester's soul. They affected an immediate rescue mission in an attempt to raise your brother from perdition."
"Then... he's... so, Hell...?" Sam doesn't sound sure of what he's saying, but there's a lilt to his voice that might be hope.
"No. He is under the protection of angels now. You need not worry about his whereabouts."
"What does that mean?" Sam swallows. "Are you telling me... are you telling me that Dean is alive?"
"Yes. Your brother is alive."
Sam lurches up and takes a half-step towards Castiel, eyes wide. He reaches out a hand, draws it back, then reconsiders, placing both hands on Castiel's shoulders.
"Where?" His voice is urgent. "Man, you gotta tell me where he is."
Then he laughs, nothing like the harsh barks of disbelief or spite that Castiel is used to, but clear and breathless. Sam drops his hands and grips his own hair instead, laughs again. Castiel thinks, This is the promise of faith.
He knows now that Zachariah was lead astray, watching Sam move about the motel room to gather his things with a renewed vigor, a lightness in his movements which he has never seen before. Sam's grief was not preparing him for the final destruction of Lilith; it was preparing him for this. To learn the strength of humanity; to choose hope over despair in preparation for the battle to come. God's plan was perfect.
This is the promise of faith.
But now he looks at Castiel and thinks maybe he heard wrong, maybe there's something he's missing, and realizes that his belief was only egg-shell thin, waiting to be told he was just dreaming. That the monsters under his bed are real after all. That it's not Dad they rescued, it's the Yellow-Eyed demon. That he's not going to wake up on Tuesday morning. That he couldn't save Dean's soul in the first place.
He's afraid to ask, but the asking is inevitable. "What's wrong?"
Castiel's expression smooths out to one that might be apology, eyes intense with it, but Sam can't be sure. "I can't take you to your brother," he says.
"What? But you said—but he is here, right? On—on Earth?"
"He is here, yes, but he is under guarded protection, hidden from human eyes. He is—we believe he is important, Sam."
"Right, you said that. Lilith wants something from him. Why does that mean I can't... Castiel."
Sam looks down at the angel pleadingly. "Please. I have to see him."
And it's true. It's selfish, but it's true. Once, hell, yesterday, he would have given anything just to know Dean wasn't being tortured in the pit, that he was okay, even if Sam would still be without him. But now Dean is so close. Alive. And he needs him.
"I agree. But Lilith may have already gotten all she needed. My superiors believe that it is best if you don't come into contact with Dean until we know for sure what she is planning."
Sam stares. "Bullshit. That's bullshit."
Castiel's reaction is a strange one, because he looks, for all the world, like he agrees.
"Sam," Castiel says, suddenly more sure of himself than he had been before, "What of Enochian linguistics and symbolism do you know?"
"Not much, really. Just the Bible story. The language has never really been taken seriously, so I never bothered to... Wait." He smiles. "I think I know someone who does."
"Sam Winchester, you son of a bitch." Bobby's voice is rough, scowling, but as soon as he's close enough he pulls Sam into a hug anyway, releasing him after only a short moment with a violent push.
"Hey, Bobby," Sam says, sheepishly.
Bobby looks over Sam's left shoulder where Castiel is hovering, expressionless. "Who's that?"
"This is—uh—Castiel." Sam feels stupid now for not calling ahead and warning the man, who is currently looking at Castiel like he can't quite figure out if he's human or not. Sam knows the feeling. "I think we should go inside. You're probably going to need a seat."
"Come on in, then." Bobby steps aside to let them pass, eyes never leaving the stranger. "You boys need a drink?" he asks, shutting the door without turning his back.
"Sam does not handle alcohol well. He will not be needing a drink," Castiel says, inspecting the wallpaper. Sam feels like a teenager being scolded for stealing a beer, except that his own father hadn't cared and his brother had encouraged him to sneak alcohol whenever possible. He makes a point not to meet Bobby's knowing eyes.
"All right," the older man mutters, scratching his beard, "What's so important that you're actin' jumpier'n a hare caught in a trap?"
"Sit," Sam says pointedly, grabbing one of the desk chairs for himself. Bobby takes a seat on the couch. "Bobby. Dean's alive."
Bobby stares. "Don't fool with me, boy." His voice rumbles low, hard-edged.
"I would never lie about this, Bobby." Sam matches his tone. "He's alive, but he's—we don't—" He gestures uselessly at Castiel.
"Dean Winchester was pulled out of the pit two weeks ago, by your standards of time. He is being guarded by my superior and, from what I can tell, five other angels. Samuel and I have... decided that a rescue mission is warranted."
Bobby stares. He looks from Sam to Castiel to Sam again and says, "Angels?"
Sam just nods, jutting his chin in Castiel's direction. Bobby is literally gaping, eyes going wide, and he absently straightens his shirt.
"Whatever I got that you need," he says, "is yours."
Ten minutes later finds them crowded around the small table in Bobby's kitchen. At Castiel's behest he had done a quick round-up of any books on Enochian text that he could find, which were few by Bobby's standards, and set them on the desk in his living room.
He'd gone and pulled an only slightly dirty glass from one of his cupboards, filling it with water from the tap and handing it to Sam with a shake of his head before grabbing a beer out of the fridge and parking himself in a chair.
"So," he says, twisting the cap off the bottle, "what's the game plan here?"
Sam moves a pile of books off a plastic chair on the corner and sits on the other side of the table, leaving a third spot for Castiel.
"Have a seat," Bobby says, kicking the chair leg so that it angles outward in invitation.
Castiel does, looking out of place in his coat and suit, sitting in the middle of Bobby's haphazard living room. He folds his hands in his lap.
Bobby takes a swing from his beer bottle and sets it on the table with a thunk, looking from Castiel to Sam.
"I'm not really sure," Sam admits. There hadn't been much conversation on the drive over, just Sam's foot impatient on the gas pedal and Castiel quiet in the seat next to him. He looked like he was listening to something Sam couldn't hear, and then stared out the window as they passed cars along the highway. "I know that the angels have him somewhere protected, right?"
"Yes, but I don't know the whereabouts. I can locate your brother, Sam, but it's protected. Not even I can pinpoint the geography."
"Could we? I mean, there are other ways of finding someone."
"I know a gal," Bobby cuts in, "A real good psychic, Pamela Barnes. She can find anybody."
"It would not be... wise, to attempt revealing the location of angels. Human's aren't made to perceive our true nature. It's why we must take a vessel."
"You're sayin' there's some poor shmuck in there that you took away from his home and family?" Bobby says darkly.
Castiel tilts his head in Bobby's direction, a politely confused expression on his face. "Yes. But he prayed to serve the Father. He agreed to this."
"Uh-huh," Bobby mutters skeptically, taking a swig of his beer.
Sam, for his part, isn't paying too close attention. He's remembering the radio in the car nearly bursting his eardrums and the sound in the motel back in Illinois actually bursting them, along with the television, lightbulbs, and mirrors.
"You tried to talk to me," he says. "In Illinois."
"Yes. I had thought you would be able to hear me, given the nature of my mission. I apologize."
Sam looks pointedly at Bobby. "I think the psychic idea is out. And I don't know about you, but a ritual sounds like we'd be playing with fire. Castiel actually wanted to talk to me, there's no telling what would happen if we went prying."
"It's no matter," Castiel says. "I will learn his whereabouts in time."
"Okay, great. So, assuming you can find Dean, what are we dealing with? Five angels, you said?"
Castiel nods, thoughtful. "Zachariah is busy elsewhere, so he won't be a problem. Uriel, however, has probably been assigned Dean's protection as his first priority. Other of my garrison will be under his command."
Sam thinks he's heard that name before, but it can't be the same Uriel he's thinking of. An archangel. He knows that Zachariah isn't of the highest order of angels, so there's no way an actual archangel would be working under him. Admittedly, he doesn't know how true any of the popular angel lore is, but he's seen crazier things. "Who's Uriel?"
"My second in command. He's the one who saved your brother, Sam, a fact that is... perplexing. Uriel's specialties lie more in destruction than creation. He deals with the purification of sins."
"I thought you said Dean was righteous."
Castiel's expression is carefully blank. "Yes. He was."
Sam sucks in a breath, staring down at the table. He can feel Bobby's eyes on him, but he can't face the questions he knows Bobby will ask. He doesn't know what Dean did in Hell, but he refuses to blame his brother for any of it, no matter what the angels think of as good or bad.
"Christ," Bobby mutters, "hasn't the kid suffered enough?"
Castiel knits his brow for a second, fixing one of those scrutinizing stares on Bobby. Sam's glad he isn't on the receiving end this time: that look always manages to make him second guess whatever it was he said to earn it.
"Uriel's mission was only salvation. In a sense, yes, you are correct. He has suffered enough. I don't question my superiors' choice to save Dean. Indeed, I think it was long overdue. But I must wonder..."
Castiel fists the end of his coat where it lies across his thigh, then smoothes it out again. He looks like a kid caught stealing cookies. It's unnerving. Castiel stares at a spot on the table without really seeing it.
"Why would they send Uriel in your place?" Sam asks, if only to break the angel out of his thoughts.
"They believed me to be better suited for helping you realize your full potential, I imagine. My patience here is an asset."
Sam raises an eyebrow, though Castiel doesn't see it. If he's an example of an angel with patience, Sam's glad they didn't send Uriel to him after all. Castiel doesn't put up with the slowness of human life in the least.
Sam rubs a hand through his hair. He doesn't doubt that if the angels' roles had been reversed, Dean's stubbornness would have pushed Castiel's patience to its limits, whatever those might be.
"Uriel doesn't... appreciate our Father's creation as well as some," Castiel explains. "He is a valuable ally to Zachariah and his supporters."
Sam shares a look with Bobby across the table. "'His supporters'. So I take it you're not one of them?"
The angel is silent for so long that Sam's not sure he's even going to answer. Castiel had always talked about the Has if they were one—his brothers and sisters, all of them called to a purpose. One legion in Heaven.
Sam's been the outcast before. Doubted his path. Separated. He thinks he'd understand if Castiel left right now and never returned.
"God asks us to serve in his name," Castiel says finally. He fixes his eyes on Sam with sharp focus. "To serve you. I have reason to doubt my brothers, Sam. Dean was cast down under the manipulation of the Adversary and his servants. He should have been given reprieve in the name of our service to you, but he was not. Until I can understand Zachariah's methods, then no. I am not his supporter."
The gravity of his admission is not lost on Sam. He meets Castiel's eyes with confidence.
Bobby clears his throat. Sam reaches for the glass of water in front of him, suddenly thirsty.
"All right. So the plan here is to sneak past the angels guarding Dean, grab him, and get him the hell out of Dodge. How do we make that happen?"
Sam shrugs, looking askance at Castiel. He looks... mildly confused.
"Dodge?" he finally asks, and Bobby's beer pauses halfway to his mouth.
"Uh. It's just an expression," Sam explains.
"So, I'm assuming this plan involves angelic rituals of some sort?"
"I am hoping it will be less complicated than that, but yes. Dean is being well protected, but he is also well imprisoned. Much of the information you have about protection against demons draws its power through a similar source. Lucifer was, after all, one of our Father's children."
Sam shares a look with Bobby, who shrugs. "Last year Dean met a demon who told him that Lucifer was just a myth. Or at least, most of the demons thought so."
"Then they are wrong."
Sam really wishes he had a beer.
"Those marks and rituals," Castiel continues, "work because they were given to you. In essence, the devil's traps that you currently use are versions of protection spells given to humans as protection by the angels."
"You're saying they're Enochian? How is that possible?"
"They're not. They are derivations that humans created when they did not fully understand the power they had been given. They work because you have dictated that they will."
"So," Sam starts, sinking deeper into his chair, "they're like the same language, but a different dialect?"
"Something like that. A better metaphor might be that they are a pidgin. Humans made clever assumptions based on what little they had seen from angels themselves."
"Okay, okay," Bobby cuts in. "So how does that help us?"
"It does not."
Bobby taps the edge of his near-empty bottle on the table, eyeing Sam. He ignores the look.
"Only true Enochian sigils and rituals are powerful enough," he concludes.
"Correct. None of your books will have sufficient information, but they should be a viable starting point. Sam, I trust your knowledge of Latin and Greek will help you here."
"Yeah, yeah," Sam nods, "but what about the rituals? Can a human perform them?"
"They were made to protect you, not be used against you."
"Right. Assuming we can find this place, then, how do I get in without being noticed?
"You'll be hidden."
Castiel leans forward in his chair, reaching across to place his palm square in the middle of Sam's chest. There's a moment of searing pain, like all his ribs being broken at once, and then it's gone, leaving him vaguely sore but no worse for wear.
"What did you..." Sam rubs absently at his chest. "What was that?"
"Protection of your own. Sigils, carved into your ribs. You're hidden from sight of every angel in creation."
"Well that's... uh. Okay. So, I can get in. Then what?"
"I'll teach you what you need to know to avoid a fight, and to avoid the others finding Dean once you've left. If I can see him, remember, so can the others."
"Well, then let's get to work. Bobby? Can you get me a notebook, or some paper?"
"Sure will, kid," Bobby says, pushing his chair back. "The sooner we get to work, the sooner we can get your brother back."
"I think that's it." Bobby dumps another pile of books on the edge of the desk, where Sam sits pouring over all the angel lore he can find. Bobby disappears again anyway, heading towards a precarious tower of smaller texts in the corner of the living room, muttering to himself.
"Thanks," Sam calls, scanning the spines of the new pile. He's able to discard three of them based on title alone, but he sets the pile near one of the desk's legs so that they won't be swallowed up in the dusty labyrinth that is Bobby's library. Living room. House. Just in case.
Sam tries not to think about the last time he'd been in this house. Then, he was reading texts on demons, on Hell; binding deals and old magick, a far cry from the speculative lore he's reading over now. There are two Bibles stacked on the far edge of the desk, one in English and the other in Latin; under that is a copy of the Tanakh, written in Hebrew.
They feel good, these words. Sam pours himself over the weathered book in front of him, finger skating down lines of Enochian text. He checks the notebook under his left hand, scribbled with words, with keys, with information that he holds in his mind like he would a baby bird in the palm of his hand.
Castiel had given him notes on Enochian translation, words with ancient power that no angel has trusted a human with, not for centuries. Sam lets himself get lost between the pages, and it feels like breathing clean air. Like coming home might feel, if he had ever known what home felt like beyond the passenger seat of the car.
Some of it is difficult to understand, doesn't fit in with a lifetime of studying language and ritual, so he pushes it to the back of his mind; lets it sit there like swirls of dust until he has a place for it. A lot of this angel stuff is like that: understood better intrinsically than anything else. Dean was always good with that. With just knowing and not thinking. It's probably why he was still able to make spells work in the eleventh hour, when time was running out and Sam wasn't able to do it himself. Dean never bothered to properly learn the Latin, but what the words meant, how they connected and didn't connect and formed an idea, was more important. For Sam the power was bound to the words themselves; for Dean, it was sheer determination.
But he has Castiel to help him with this, an angel fluent in all the ancient languages, especially the one most holy, the one that Sam thought to be a fake for his entire grown life. Enochian lore and magick reads too much like the Key of Solomon for comfort, but he takes the information as truth, no questions asked.
Castiel shows him marks, sigils, letters and invocations; prayers instead of séances and light instead of darkness. Much of it relies on blood—a connection that Sam doesn't fail to make; how everything circles right back to blood in the end, whose it is and what can be done with it—and at first he's afraid that only the blood of a vessel will work. Castiel assures him that he is wrong, and the finality in his voices suggests that he knows more about this than he's willing to tell even Sam.
But they come up with a plan. It's not a very good plan, Sam thinks. Castiel assures him that the angels want both him and Dean alive, but he can't imagine getting so close to his brother and losing him again.
On top of that, Castiel won't be there to help. He'll be the diversion, or... at the diversion; Sam isn't sure what exactly he had meant by "protecting seals" and "more than one garrison", but he's taken his word for it. Now it was time to wait. Wait and rehearse Enochian prayers, wait and prep the Impala, wait and practice writing sigils.
Castiel had gone about four hours ago to "gather his thoughts", which Sam takes to mean that he's doing a little research of his own—finding Dean. Sam had been startled, copying notes on translation into the pages of one of Bobby's books, hoping he wouldn't mind, when Castiel had announced that he was going to visit Dean. It was like saying I'm going to meet him for lunch or I'm going to visit him at work; like Dean was just down the street or behind the corner. Sam knew he was out there, somewhere, but 'somewhere' was vast and untouchable. This was different. He'd given Castiel a message to repeat to his brother, nothing anywhere near all the words he would really like to say, but something he still thought Dean needed to hear. I'm coming for you. Don't worry.
His passing had done more to convince Bobby that he was a bona fide angel than any of Sam's explanations. It was one thing that Castiel was there one second and gone another, human brain trying to follow logic and seek him out with the eyes, finding nothing; it was still another to actually feel his absence, a heaviness lifting from the room, as if the angel had taken his gravity with him.
He'd been instructed, very carefully, not to leave. Castiel could no longer find him just by thinking about it, thanks to the sigils now permanently etched into Sam's bones.
He had never felt quite so alone.
A small scuffle sounds from the direction of the front porch. Sam stops mid-page turn, waits, hears only the chirp and buzz of insects. The page falls. The crickets chirp. The front porch creaks.
Sam has the gun out of the desk's drawer and is already into the hallway when someone actually knocks on the door. He hesitates, lowers the gun, and eases it open.
She meets his eyes for the barest second before leaning to look around him at the interior of Bobby's house, arms folded across her chest. Her shoulders are stiff, like she's nervous.
"Are you going to let me in?"
"No," Sam says and steps out the front door, forcing Ruby backwards. He twists the knob so that the door shuts silently, hoping Bobby won't notice that there's a demon on his front step. "How did you find me?"
"Most of the angels are busy elsewhere. It's not hard to find the one that isn't." She hunches her shoulders closer to her ears as if she's warding off the cold. It's not chilly. "But your little lap-dog with wings isn't home right now, is he?"
Sam hops off the porch and heads to the nearby hulk of a scrapped car in the yard, shaking his head. Ruby follows him and he looks up pointedly at the house.
"You shouldn't be here, Ruby. I asked you to leave."
"No, you told me to leave. But there's something you need to know, Sam."
He leans against the side of the car and settles his hands on his hips, shrugging widely. "Well? What?"
"The angels have their own agenda, is what. You're not gonna like what they're hiding from you."
"Oh, like Dean?"
Ruby stares at him. She shifts her weight, shakes her head at the ground, a wry smirk just barely revealed amid her dark curls. "Yeah, like Dean. And what he's done."
Sam is suddenly grateful of the solid weight of the car behind him. It's been a while since he's been this mistrustful of Ruby, back before Lilith got a hold of her. Back when his mistrust had cost him the chance to get rid of Lilith and the deal she held for his brother's soul. He wants to believe that's she's lying now, but only because he doesn't want to hear the secrets she's keeping.
"And what is it that Dean's done?" he asks, looking out across the lot of broken autos piled high in the evening twilight, the last of the sun dipping below the horizon.
"You heard what that demon said. The end times are a-comin', Sammy-boy. And your precious angels were too late to stop Dean from flipping the switch on judgement day."
"What are you talking about? The apocalypse?"
"Repent now," Ruby says sarcastically.
Sam pushes off from the car. "You're talking about the four-horsemen, wormwood and poisoned water, Lucifer-walking-the-earth end of times," he deadpans.
"Why do you think the angels have shown up all of a sudden? For you? Sorry, but this is much bigger than you and your poor brother's soul, Sam. Lilith's been playing you two like fiddles. Lucifer's down there in his cage, and she can't get him free without breaking the seals that keep him locked up. Dean was genius enough to break the first one. It's a heaven-versus-hell free for all out there."
Sam's mouth is like sandpaper, heart slamming against his rib cage. "Why are you telling me this?"
"You're the only one who can stop it, Sam. Just you. Azazel's big winner. Lilith wants your head on a pike just as badly as you want hers. And I'm the only one willing to help."
His jaw sets. "No, you're not."
"Come on, Sam! What has Castiel done? How much help have the angels been, keeping Dean a secret from you?"
"Castiel is different."
"Uh-huh. Because you're the best judge of character. I tried to help you once, Sam, and you rejected me. I'm here to give you one more chance. You need demon blood, I don't care how many angels they send down here to coach you. You'll never be strong enough to stop Lilith without it."
"I'm sorry, Ruby." He shivers against the sudden cold; dusk had fallen. Ruby's boot scuffs against the gravel as she steps back, looking away.
"This was my final offer, Sam, I'm not kidding. It's your funeral. Or, well, everyone else's." She takes a step backwards. Her mouth is tight with frustration, but there's a sadness pulling it down at the corners. "Just remember that you can't escape this. Every demon is temptation. You'll long for their blood, and one day, you'll give in. Just wait."
Sam watches her back as she heads off toward her car, parked next to Bobby's truck. She gives him one last look as she pulls the door open, eyebrows raised, and doesn't hesitate any longer than that before she drops into the front seat and turns the engine.
The dust follows her car out of the auto lot, and Sam follows the dirty clouds of it as they dissipate upwards, outwards, into the dusklight.
He wonders when Castiel is going to return. He has a few questions to ask.
It's not a pleasant feeling. There is no one to turn to with his thoughts.
The angels protecting Dean had let him pass through easily, which is encouraging. Zachariah would surely know by now that he intends to help Sam Winchester reunite with his brother if he had been suspicious of Castiel's motives. He has called Uriel to meet him here, hoping that his fellow soldier will trust him with the information he has and share it.
He already knows this is betrayal. Where is his path taking him?
"So what do you want?"
The words jar Castiel from his thoughts and he focuses on his surroundings. The room he is in is very pleasantly decorated, not at all like the rooms he has seen Sam rent or even the modest homes in many of the towns they passed through on Earth. Zachariah must have attempted to add a sense of comfort and luxury, but Castiel imagines that Dean would feel out of place here. Sam certainly would.
The man standing before him is a much louder presence than his brother. Where Sam's anger and passion lie beneath a calm, calculating exterior, Dean's life pulses strongly, commanding attention. It's defensive, and beneath it all Castiel knows that he is unsure of himself, however confident his demeanor.
Castiel inclines his head by way of greeting. "Dean Winchester."
"The one and only," he smirks. It looks more like a sneer. "Who are you supposed to be? Another one of Zachariah's lap dogs?"
"No," Castiel says, and is surprised to realize that he means it. Even more surprised that he feels more affinity towards the human who stands before him - a man he has never met and known only through his grief-stricken brother; a man whose well being is apparently of more concern to him than his orders. His direct orders. From God, by way of... by way of Zachariah.
Castiel takes a step forward. "I have a message for you."
"I don't want to hear any more bullshit from you dicks, okay? Save it. Tell your buddies they can take their message and shove it right up—"
"It's from your brother."
Dean freezes. His expression goes from lip-curling irate to open and vulnerable, eyes wide and hopeful. Castiel is struck for the first time with the resemblance between the two brothers.
Dean says, cautiously, unsteadily, "Sam?"
An instant later - just a fraction of a second, the change so quick that it makes Castiel wonder, not for the first time, at the complexity of human emotions—Dean's jaw is clenched tight with anger. "I don't know what you're trying to do, but you can save your breath." His voice leaks venom. "Just what the hell do you take me for, huh?"
"Dean. I need you to listen to me. I am not here on behalf of Zachariah. It is of high import that you do not tell Uriel the purpose of my visit. I'm here because Sam Winchester has asked me to confirm your safety."
Dean takes a moment to respond. "If you're lying—"
"I can assure you that I am not. Just as you are important to God's plan, Dean, so is your brother."
"So you've got him on a leash too, huh? Poor Sam. Please don't tell me he believes in all your religious mission-from-God propaganda."
"God does have a plan, Dean. But neither of us believes that Zachariah is receiving any orders from Him."
Disbelief is heavy in Dean, but this gives him pause. "But you guys are always spouting off about doing God's will and all that shit."
"We have reason enough to believe that Zachariah is carrying out unnecessary precautions in your case. Sam wishes you to know that he will do everything in his power to get you out of here."
"Oh, he said that, huh?"
"I believe his exact words were, "I'm going to save his ass whether he likes it or not."'
Dean smiles cheekily. "Yeah, that does sound like Sammy," he mutters. "So what, are you here to spring me from Angel Watch?"
"Not exactly at the moment, no."
Dean clenches his teeth in distaste. "What can I do?"
"Nothing. It is important that you say nothing of this matter to the others."
"Oh, goody." Dean says sarcastically. He rolls his eyes to the ceiling, muttering things under his breath that Castiel is sure are not prayers. Most likely, they are curses.
Castiel doesn't have time to think of a response, sensing the arrival of Uriel. He doesn't have to turn to recognize his brother's presence in the room.
"Uriel," he says, acknowledging him with a nod. It would be good to see him again were it not for the present situation.
"You called me here, of all places. The dog cage." Uriel sneers at Dean.
"Haven't seen you in a few days," Dean says conversationally, "Did Zachariah give you a new chew toy? Let you off the leash? 'Cuz you're the only one I see here following after his master."
Uriel ignores Dean's taunts, focusing on Castiel. "Brother. I know what you intend to ask."
"I only seek information, Uriel. Zachariah has already explained to me the importance of Dean's safety."
Uriel starts forward. "Yes, about that. Castiel, you need to come with me."
He has never felt threatened before, certainly not by another of his garrison, but Castiel feels the urge to take a step back. He doesn't give in to his vessel's instinct. "Why?" he asks.
"To receive revelation." Uriel's hand closes over Castiel's shoulder, and together they vanish before he has the chance to decipher the strangeness of his brother's smile—if he didn't know any better, he'd say it was contempt.
Still, it was what she'd said that bothered him—bothered both of them—the most. It had taken Castiel another two hours to return, night having fallen completely around them, lingering with humidity that promised rain.
Sam had wanted to demand to know what Castiel knew, why he hadn't told him, but one look at the angel has all of his anger dying in his throat.
He'd appeared in the living room next to the couch Bobby had set up for Sam as a make-shift bed, artificial light making him seem too rough around the edges. Sam, who had begun re-reading his notes in his impatience, was sitting at the desk when he appeared, immediately calling Bobby up from the basement. Castiel isn't any worse for wear, but he nods to Sam and Bobby each in turn with a grave expression on his face.
"I don't have much time here, but what I have to say is important," he begins in a voice to match his expression.
"Is it about the apocalypse?" Sam ventures.
Castiel looks at him, mouth slightly agape, and it would be funny if Sam hadn't been absolutely serious.
"Ruby paid us a visit," Sam explains. "She said that Dean broke the first seal of the apocalypse when he was in Hell, that Lilith plans to break them all. And that I'm the only one who can kill her before she can do it."
The angel nods.
"How long have you known?" The betrayal in Sam's voice is almost embarrassing, but there's nobody there to call him out on it.
"I knew that you were meant to destroy Lilith," Castiel says, leaning against the wall. He looks bone-weary, and it's strange for Sam to see him act so human. The slump in his shoulders makes the trench coat he wears seem suddenly big for him, like the angel is wearing the coat instead of wearing the body. "I just didn't know that to destroy Lilith would be to break the final seal."
"Was this the plan, then? Why you were supposed to help me with my—with the demon blood?"
Castiel fixes him with a stare that makes Sam's blood run cold, but it's not directed at him. "Your abilities were not a gift from God, Samuel. They were part of a plan, long in the making. Zachariah tells me that God has abandoned us." His voice is like iron.
He hears Bobby suck in a gasp from where he's standing by the entrance to the stairway, but the hunter doesn't interrupt. Sam can say nothing; he just stares at Castiel like he might shout April Fool's at any moment.
"I don't understand," he says at last, although he understands perfectly well. "What plan? You were instructed to help me become strong enough to kill Lilith, isn't that what the angels would want? God or no God, I can still stop the apocalypse."
Castiel shakes his head. "This was a test."
"A test." Sam nods to himself, rolling his lips into his mouth. "Right. Well? Did I pass?"
"I believe it is I who has failed here."
Sam's head snaps up. "What?"
"I failed you, Sam, according to my orders. Zachariah sent me to you because he was testing my obedience."
The desk wobbles, the books stacked precariously high threatening to crash as Sam jars it in his haste to stand. "You're telling me this whole—you, being here, all of this—was a lie?" The blood is pounding in his ears. What he was doing, it was never right. It was wrong, all of it, all along.
A test. They had wanted Sam to use his powers. They had wanted Castiel to obey in spite of his doubts.
"I am sorry, Sam. Truly."
"Your—your obedience," Sam says, trying to keep on track. "What does that mean?"
"Zachariah was not receiving his orders from God; they were from Michael?"
"The archangel?" asks Bobby.
"Yes. They have decided that the Earth belongs to only the worthy. They have decided that now will be the End of Times, there was no chance here. No word from God. They have given up on Him."
Sam feels strangely disconnected from the whole situation, unwilling to accept that the angels could be capable of such deceit, such... blasphemy. It hits him then that Dean must have been part of the plan too, that the angels had never interfered with his deal because they wanted him there.
He feels righteous with anger. "Dean," he grinds out, meeting Bobby's eyes and seeing his anger mirrored there. "He was sent down there to start this, wasn't he? Castiel, he was manipulated by everyone, wasn't he?"
"Uriel did not have trouble finding Dean at all," he says, "they wanted him there. They waited until he had broken."
Sam digs his fingernails into his palms, feeling helpless, like he would tear Zachariah apart with his bare hands if he had the chance.
Castiel looks at him with such sadness that for the first time, Sam realizes what this must feel like to him. Betrayed by his own kind.
"Wait a minute—does this change anything? Castiel, you know you don't have faith in this "—he says the word like it's a curse—"plan. What does it matter if you failed Zachariah?"
Castiel turns away, clenching his jaw in a flash of emotion that is gone so quickly, Sam might have imagined it. He works his mouth silently, and then closes his eyes. Maybe he's counting to ten. Maybe he's praying. Maybe he's just losing his patience.
"It matters because I'm being removed from my command."
Sam doesn't have anything to say to that. Not when he can hear in his voice the way it's being forced past the hurt. The air in the room feels a little more stale.
Castiel opens his eyes again and turns back to Sam, expression unreadable, just like it had been two months ago.
"It matters," Castiel repeats, "because I'm being placed in the front lines of this false war against Lilith—this farce that Zachariah and his followers have created, exploiting the faith of our brothers and sisters. I can't help you, Sam."
"But you are." The pages of his notebook slip underneath Sam's palms; there's ink under his fingernails. "You are helping. Me and Dean—we may be just people, Castiel, but Zachariah needs us if he wants to pull this off. We're stronger then he thinks. And you can trust us."
Castel stares stubbornly at the ugly wallpaper of Bobby's sitting room without even seeing it. Finally he turns and approaches the desk, pressing his knuckles to the wooden edge. He looks at Sam imploringly, and then repeats, "I can't help you."
Can't. Not under Zachariah's orders. Doesn't mean he won't.
Castiel's expression is positively conspiratorial. Sam returns it, an answering grin pulling at the corner of his mouth. The angel nods, bringing himself back to his full height.
"You'll know when the time is right."
Sam believes him. In less time than it would take to blink, the angel is gone, leaving behind a rustle of pages and the rush of wings.
He shifts against the car and reaches back through the open window to where the cooler is sitting, flipping up the lid to grab a Coke, when his cell phone buzzes in his pocket. Dean's name is in the caller I.D. Finally, Sam thinks, smiling. He flips the phone open, looking up again as he brings it to his ear, and does a double-take.
Castiel is standing in front of him, just a tad too close for comfort, wearing a grave expression. The phone at Sam's ear is beeping out a dial tone. Sam swallows and lowers it slowly back into his pocket.
"Sam," Castiel says, and his voice is urgent. "Now is your only chance."
"Now?" Sam's heart is pounding painfully in his ears and he's pretty sure he's never had a dream that felt this real before, premonition or otherwise.
"Yes. We don't have much time. I can only promise 36 hours at the most."
"Dean is at 452 Steinway Boulevard in Van Nuys, California." Castiel's eyes lose focus for a moment and he tilts his head, as though he's listening to something Sam can't hear. "Sam, you must remember that the others will know as soon as you activate your first sigil. Get in and get out. I will... most likely be unable to provide you with any aide."
"Castiel, you don't—"
"Now," he commands, and an instant later, the angel is gone.
Sam jerks back to consciousness so fast that it takes him a second to realize where he is, and once he does, his heart is still pounding against his ribcage.
He's out of the bed and swinging on a button-down in an instant, pulling on his jeans from where they were draped across the foot of the guest bed.
"Bobby!" he calls, thundering down the stairs. He moves from the hall to the kitchen and into the living room, flipping on light switches as he goes. He finds the Impala's keys on top of Bobby's now heavily-annotated Enochian Alphabet and Linguistic Analysis and grabs that too, just in case. He gathers up the scraps of notebook paper off the desk as well, shoving them into his pockets.
Sam pauses in the kitchen, looking at the refrigerator, and cocks his head to listen. After a few moments he hears the stairs creak, letting his breath slow. Calm down, calm down. It won't take 36 hours to get to California, not if he drives straight through.
"What the hell is the matter with you, boy?" Bobby does not look pleased to be awake, but he's managed to pull on a ball cap, at least.
"Bobby, I have to go. I gotta go get Dean."
"You mean that angel fella' of yours—"
"Yeah, yeah. He's in Van Nuys."
Bobby raises an eyebrow. "Better get your ass movin', son."
Sam brushes past him and reaches for his boots where they sit next to the door. "Bobby, man, thank you so much; I have to borrow this book, I think, I don't know, God I hope I can remember those sigils."
"You know 'em. And don't thank me. Just bring your brother back."
Sam straightens, looks Bobby in the eye, and nods. "I will. This time I can do something, Bobby." He takes a deep, steadying breath. "I will."
Halfway across Wyoming the Impala starts sputtering, and Sam has to pull over onto the side of the road.
He's been staring under the hood, the clicking of the engine as it cools down mocking him, for nearly an hour now. The sweaty smell of motor oil is making his head swim and the skin on his fingertips is raw from touching the still hot metal, pressing here and there as if the car is going to tell him where it hurts.
The Impala's inner workings have been starting to make a little more sense lately, but he's nowhere near as good at reading them as Dean was. Sam digs out the toolbox out and tries hard to remember those few lessons Dean had given him. He knows all the parts by now, what they did and how they worked, but nothing seems to be wrong with them. The car just won't start.
Sam straightens, hands on his hips, and squints against the glare of the sun. He had driven through the pouring rain nearer to the mountains, cold and shivering even in his jacket, then through the humidity towards the southern part of the state, where the sun had risen hot and angry.
“She's picky about the temperature,“ Dean had told him, ages ago, “So don't let her be a priss. The engine just needs time to warm up. If you push her too fast she'll freeze up. Wait it out. Haven't had trouble with that since Dad first gave me the keys, but this girl's gotta be won over, man.“ Sam had made fun of him through three counties straight.
He checks his watch. Checks the sun. Lowers the hood slowly, dusts it off a bit, and gets back into the driver's seat.
"Come on," he mutters, turning the key. The engine growls, stutters, and dies. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon." Sam tries again. Nothing. He lets his head fall against the steering wheel. "All right, listen to me. Dean is counting on me. You gotta please, please just start."
He curls his fingers around the key, twists, and the car roars back into life. Sam laughs out loud, listening to the car purr and rumble underneath him, vibrations from the steering wheel going clean through his bones, and doesn't have any more trouble with it, all the way to California.
Three hours is all he needs, maybe less, and he can still make it with time to spare, assuming that Castiel holds to his promise. Thirty-six hours. He's been on the road for thirteen, the big car rattling as if empty, feeling expectant.
He sets an alarm on his cell phone, and wakes up nearly thirty minutes before it's set to go off.
He doesn't remember his dreams.
From the outside it looks deserted and on the inside it's just as eerie, dark and much cooler than the heat outside. Sam rolls the warehouse door shut behind him, facing forward so that he might see anything that comes out at him from the depths. The darkness blurs away into the far corners while his eyes adjust. There's a shack in there, rickety and out of place. Sam quickly paces the perimeter—there's no door.
He digs a pocket knife out of his jacket and begins carving careful sigils into the old wood. Ethamza; hidden, caos; physical, odo; unveil. He'd practiced the letters, the symbols that bind them together, over and over. The wood is soft under the blade of the knife and falls away with ease.
When he finishes, the change is instantaneous. Where there was once a solid wall is now a door, as if it had been there all along and Sam just hadn't noticed it. The doorknob is rusted. The hinges are rusted. Sam doesn't even need to pick a lock, just pushes his way inside
The sudden light from within is much easier to readjust to, and in the second that it takes Sam to blink the door snaps shut behind him. When he turns to look, the plane of the wall is smooth—absolutely flat, no sign that a door was just there nor that there ever had been. He swallows. Castiel had warned him about this.
The inside of the shack is comes as a momentary shock. It's decorated with beautiful ornate tables and chairs in exquisite craftsmanship: wainscoting, crown molding, the works. There are paintings, ones he'd seen reprinted or represented in Bobby's books, of avenging angels and warriors of God, Michael and Raphael and Gabriel, and -
Dean, sitting at an ornate dining table with a plate of untouched—untouched—cheeseburgers in front of him. He pushes back his chair, standing abruptly, something like disbelief in his eyes. He makes his way around the table and stops, one hand still anchored to the tabletop behind him, like he thinks Sam might vanish if he moves too fast.
And it is.
His brother starts toward him again. His expression is definitely relief now, the weary kind like he used get at the end of a hunt, right after some crazy Hail Mary had just saved their asses from certain supernatural doom. Dean looks Sam over, the path his eyes takes a familiar one: he's taking stock, making sure his little brother is still in one piece. And it's strange, how Sam seems to miss him more now that he's standing right in front of him, real and whole and alive.
Dean stops five paces off and says, "You're bleeding."
Sam looks down to his arm where blood is twining around his wrist, dripping steadily onto the floor, and remembers that he's got to get them out of there, now.
"Dean," he says again, hastily stepping back to the wall and tracing the lines of the sigil he's practiced over and over, written now in his own blood on a consecrated wall, "close your eyes."
Sam shields his own eyes with a forearm and then slams his right hand onto the sigil.
The lines he had drawn blaze with brightness for an instant and then the whole room is awash in light, just long enough to disorient the both of them for a few seconds. As soon as Sam's eyes readjust, relief spreads through his whole body—the once smooth wall at the end of the room is a door now, and he grins.
"It worked." He's not sure if he's surprised or just plain grateful.
"Damn right it worked," Dean says, grinning over at Sam. "Your angel buddy teach you that?"
As soon as he thinks of Castiel, the angel's warning comes back to him in a rush. The others will know as soon as you activate the first sigil. His momentary panic must show on his face, because Dean's expression falls.
"They're gonna be here any second. Castiel's with them and I just broadcast my position to his entire garrison. They'll know I'm here."
"Then we gotta move," Dean says urgently, and he's halfway to the door before there's a faint sound of rushing wings and then an angel is standing there, hands in his pockets and a smug look on his face like he's the cat that just caught the canary.
Sam doesn't pause to see what happens next, instead turns back to the wall and paints fresh lines of blood next to the others. He thinks, a bit crazily, that at least banishing demons hadn't required the letting of vital fluids.
Dean is fighting the angel - and it must be Uriel, Sam thinks, the angel who'd saved his brother from Hell, and he wonders briefly how differently things might have gone if Castiel had been assigned to watch over Dean instead of himself.
Dean is losing. He smashes into one of the fancy side tables, sending trinkets scattering onto the floor, and struggles back to his feet.
"It's like squashing a bug," Uriel says, and chuckles.
But Dean's been a distraction just long enough, and by the time Uriel notices Sam, it's too late. He takes only two steps toward the younger Winchester before Sam finishes the last line and flattens his palm against the sigil. This time it's Uriel who flares into light, violent and quick, his shout fading away along with a burst of white that washes over the boys, and then the angel is gone.
Sam catches Dean's eye and neither of them say anything—the look of surprise on their faces is identical.
After a moment of awed silence, Dean says "Come on," and starts toward the door.
"Wait! There might be more of them out there. Castiel said Zachariah's got this place pretty well protected."
Dean's lip curls in disgust at the mention of Zachariah, then smirks at his brother. "I know. I'm kind of a big deal."
Sam tries very hard not to roll his eyes.
"Here," he says, and tosses his brother the knife he'd used on his arm. "Just like drawing a devil's trap."
Dean nods, looking up at Sam seriously, and then turns to study the second, simpler drawn sigil that Sam had used to banish Uriel. He's muttering something too quietly for Sam to hear, but he knows Dean is committing the figure to memory. He traces it through the air with his finger and then grips the knife. "Okay."
They move. The double doors open easily and Dean slows to a momentary halt when they step out onto the warehouse floor.
"What the... ?" He twists to jog backwards, gaping at the tiny, care-worn shed they had just exited. "You gotta be kidding me."
Sam is already halfway to the exit before it dawns on him that there's nothing stopping them. There's no way the angels only sent one soldier when Sam activated the sigil. Either they want them to get away, or...
"Wait." He holds out an arm as Dean catches up to him, effectively stopping his brother in his tracks. "We're alone."
"Yeah, unless we keep standing around. Let's get the fuck out of here. Unless you wanted to slow dance." Dean's eyeing the shaft on sunlight streaming underneath the warehouse exit.
"No, I mean, I think it's a trap."
"Probably, but I'll take my chances." Dean still walks with a little more alertness, and Sam falls into step beside him, glancing into the shadows on either end of the building.
He was right. Three strides from the door, another angel appears to block his path. Her face is carefully blank, giving away nothing. "Dean," she says sadly, "this is for your own good." She reaches for him and Dean ducks out of the way, angling to the left corner he'd gone to before.
"Woah there, missy. None of that angel voodoo, okay? I just want to take a walk. Get some fresh air. Maybe a taco or somethin', would you believe that even burgers start to taste like sawdust when they's all you're eating? Don't even try it, Sammy, it's like punching a rock."
The angel catches Sam's fist midair when he pauses, twisting. Sam stumbles backwards and she rounds on Dean, no more Mrs. Nice Angel, lunging for him.
He doesn't see what happens next, because there are two more angels suddenly in their midst, and they are much stronger than either human.
Sam dodges a tall angel, something silver glittering in his hand that Sam doesn't have time to look at, and grabs Dean's shirtsleeve.
"I hope you have a good memory," hisses, pressing his pocket knife into Dean's hand just before a shoulder check sends Sam into the concrete floor a good two feet from where he started.
Dean flips open the knife and digs the blade into his arm without even a second though, running towards the door as he does so. Sam staggers to his feet and tries to grab two angels at once, distracting them from the chase. It earns him an elbow to the ribs and a narrowly-dodged kick to the bruise that must already be forming on his hipbone where it had broken his fall, but when he glances towards Dean he's got half a circle drawn into the door, trying to fight off an angel and draw with his own blood at the same time.
Sam staggers upright just in time to meet the eyes of the first angel, who is less apologetic now, and casts his mind to the rituals Castiel had made him memorize. "Omni potentus de potestatem invoco, hunc anegelo ominum sequentum, domine expoei—“
She stops, staring at him with wide eyes. Sam dares a glance to see how Dean is doing, and he's standing there in front of a half-drawn sigil staring at Sam open-mouthed. He looks for only a second and then turns around, completely ignoring the angel he'd been fighting off only moments before—he's now clutching his ears over his hands, only surprise written on his face.
Sam continues the chant, heart beating wildly. None of the angels look to be in pain; only shock, and then a searingly bright light begins to form behind their eyes and mouths. Sam has to look away, chanting more loudly.
One of the angels—the one who'd thrown him to the ground—disappears. Sam stops, unsure, and the hesitation costs him. The other angel recovers in an instant, fist connecting with his bruised hip, and Sam can only hope that he'd bought Dean enough time.
It turns out he had; Sam is protecting his face from a blow when Dean grabs the angel by the back of her collar, yanking her backwards.
Sam's heart stop-start-stop-stutters in his chest, just like the car had done on the road, stop-start-stop—the car, they have to get back to the car; "Dean! Just go!"
Dean does, abandoning his opponent in favor of snatching Sam by the back of his shirt and hauling them both towards the door. He shoves open the large warehouse door just enough to let him through, and the brightness of the sun is momentarily disorienting. The three angels are only seconds behind them, still recovering from Sam's attempt at ridding them from their vessels.
"Now!" he shouts, and Dean slams his hand onto the sigil painted on the inside of the door.
It is, apparently, strong enough to rid them of all three angels, who flicker with a whiteness that surpasses even the bright sunlight streaming into the building.
"They won't be gone for long," he breathes, and follows Dean out into the daylight.
The heat crashes down onto them immediately and the Impala, parked not ten feet away, shimmers like a mirage.
"Oh, baby, it's good to see you," Dean says, grinning as runs his hand lightly along the curve of the Impala's trunk. He reaches the door on the driver's side in two long strides.
"Sam," he says expectantly, "keys!"
Sam hesitates, digging the keys out of the pocket of his jeans. "You don't know where you're going, Dean—"
"I've been sitting in that damn room for weeks, man, I can't—"
He cuts off when Sam tosses the keys to him over the hood of the car, unable to deny his brother anything at this point. Dean tosses him a grin and Sam slides into the passenger seat, fitting there easily while Dean adjusts the driver's seat to suit.
"Freakin' Sasquatch," he's saying, still grinning anyway, twisting the key in the ignition. He rolls his eyes back obscenely when the engine purrs to life, then freezes, staring at the ceiling. "What the hell is that?"
Sam glances up briefly, then out the back windshield, but the lot is deserted. "It's Enochian," he explains, smiling nervously, "We had to hide the car."
"Right," Dean says, finally hitting the gas, "from the fucking angels. They are so going to pay for this."
But he's grinning as the wheels churn up gravel, the Impala growling as it peels away from the building un-pursued, leaving the warehouse—and its angelic prison—in her dust.
He wakes up hours later, stiff from being folded into the passenger seat, and it's quiet. The radio is on low, Dean's arm resting on the seat, and Sam looks up at him. He's there. He looks calm. Sam sits up.
Dean glances his way with a small smile but doesn't say anything.
Sam swallows, clearing his throat. "Dean - "
"Yeah. I know."
The silence is too awkward. It's the brightness straining between them; it's the hollow in the back of Sam's throat that his heartbeat has settled into. It's no chick-flick moments. Sam doesn't know what happened to Dean in Hell, isn't sure he wants to know, but he isn't about to push it. Not yet. First his brother has to let himself believe that he's not going back into the pit, not ever. Not if Sam can help it. He failed his brother once. He isn't about to let that happen again anytime soon.
Sam pulls himself up from his slouching position, letting his legs stretch into the familiar empty space of the foot well beneath the Impala's glove compartment. "How do you know I wasn't going to say, 'Dean, do we really have to listen to this crap?'" he says, unable to keep the grin from spreading across his face. "I was getting used to having control over the radio, you know."
Dean grips the steering wheel, indignant. "What do you mean, 'crap'? Don't listen to him, baby," he says, stroking the dashboard reverently.
"Two words, man." Sam counts on his fingers. "Mullet. Rock."
"Hey, at least it's not that girly whining shit that you listen to, Samantha."
Sam reaches forward to turn the radio dial. "Jerk."
Dean lunges forward to slap his hand away, readjusting the dial until Bon Scott's voice comes through loud and clear. Or, well. As clear as it's gonna get. He twists the volume up violently, muttering, "God, you're such a bitch," under his breath.
Sam's grin is wide as the Impala continues to hurtle over black highway. If Dean's foot is a little too heavy on the gas pedal, his eyes a little too bright, the music a little too loud, then Sam doesn't say anything. He doesn't mention the grin lurking at the corner of Dean's mouth, either.
Yeah, Dean, he thinks. I know.
Dean just nods and turns up the volume, sinking a little in the driver's seat while Zeppelin's Whole Lotta Love pumps through the speakers. Sam's hesitant, but Dean looks all right, and he'd redone the sigil about four hours ago when they'd stopped to pump gas.
It doesn't take long to get a room rented. Two queens. The woman behind the counter doesn't even bother to check his ID, handing him a room key with a pop of her bubble gum. Once inside, Sam paints another sigil: the three signs of the Watchtowers and one for Lucifer; the invocations he'd memorized in Enochian and repeated to himself over and over. It was this that was marked on his ribcage, Castiel had told him.
He's uncomfortable writing it in paint rather than blood, but Castiel had promised that it would hold temporarily with the correct prayer. ("Not spell," he'd corrected, back at Bobby's when Sam had still been struggling to understand the system. "This is no magic," and it had been final.)
"Okay," he says, sliding back into the car, "Over there, room 22."
Dean turns over the engine and clicks off the stereo, parking the Impala as close to the sidewalk outside of room 22 as possible. "Okay, college boy, how am I supposed to get across that?" he says, pointing towards the maybe four feet between the car and the motel room door. "They're going to be watching for me, right?"
"Just—here." Sam gets out and unlocks the door, pushing it open wide, then circles around to Dean's side of the car and pulls the door open. Dean stares at him, eyebrows raised, and Sam grabs the shoulder of his brother's jacket and pulls. "Stay close."
They jog awkwardly towards the room, and Sam thinks this is probably not the most well-thought out plan ever, but short of driving the Impala right into the room, he can't think of another option. Where the hell is Castiel?
Sam slams the door shut and deadbolts it. He turns and meets Dean's eyes, wide, waiting, probably a mirror of Sam's own expression.
After about thirty seconds Dean relaxes, turning to examine the room. "Yep," he mutters. "Home sweet home."
Sam lets out his own breath, grinning. "Gotta be better than that fancy hideout, huh?" he asks, and Dean nods.
"Sam," he says, slowly, and turns back around. "Sammy. You are a genius. This motel room,"- he points back toward the bed - "has Magic Fingers."
Sam laughs; keeps laughing even as Dean holds out an expectant palm. "Fine," he says, "I'll go get you some quarters."
Sam frowns, pulling his duffel bag out of the trunk. The angel had seemed like he was about to make a last stand and the others had managed to figure out what was going on, so... But no, he's just going to have to hope that he's okay. One thing at a time.
Dean's bag had been stuffed under the front seats along with his box of cassette tapes and all his fake IDs. Sam hadn't been able to stand seeing it there alongside his in the trunk, and the first time he'd opened the glove box to grab a credit card for a motel room... well. He doesn't remember much that happened after. The alcohol had taken care of that.
He pulls the bag out from under the seat—the cassettes are already back in the glove box; Dean must have dug them out while Sam was asleep—and drops it alongside his on the pavement with a small smile. He hadn't even questioned it when Dean had smacked his arm and asked him to grab Zeppelin II from the glove box sometime after he'd woken up. It just seemed natural to have them in there while Dean was sitting next to him, dictating the music choice. Sam had everything in the box alphabetically, which Dean managed to mess up every time he touched the damn thing.
The Zeppelin album had been somewhere between Foreigner and Bad Company when he had grabbed it.
He can't keep the grin off his face while he locks up the car again and hefts both duffel bags onto his shoulder, carrying them the short distance back to his brother.
"So," Dean says. "Angels."
"Yeah. No kidding."
Dean turns and leans his back against the wall against the sigil, arms folded in front of his chest. "Why?"
"What do you mean, why?"
Dean shrugs. "Why now? Why us?"
Sam nods a few times, settling down at the edge of the bed. "I know. Believe me, I wondered 'why me' a lot, too."
Dean doesn't reply, but Sam can tell by the set of his mouth that he's assumed correctly. Sam takes a deep breath and rubs his hands across his thighs. "Castiel told me he's a soldier. I think—you know. Something big's going on, man."
Dean just shakes his head, looking at the floor. Sam remembers him needing hard proof that angels were out there, and now he has it. But proof and faith aren't the same thing.
Dean takes in a breath. "The apocalypse."
Sam nods. Dean meets his eyes and says lowly, "Do you believe it?"
"Man, I don't want to. What did they tell you?"
"That they're fighting to save "the sixty-six seals" that will apparently break Lucifer out of Hell, and that I'm the only one who can stop it."
Dean's voice is laced with cynicism, but Sam's throat feels suddenly dry. Ruby had told Sam he could stop Lilith from breaking the final seal, but the angels seemed pretty sure that they were going to need Dean to fight the devil. And Castiel had said it was all a test anyway, that helping Sam's powers along wasn't the goal at all. What's missing?
His mind reviews Dean's words and quickly latches onto the new information. "They said there were sixty-six seals?"
"Yeah, and that they'd already lost "The Rising of the Witnesses" or something like that."
Sam wonders if Dean knows what he'd done—what hell had done; that he'd been the one to break the first seal. Whether or not Dean remembers anything at all.
He must be staring because Dean narrows his eyes at him, shifting against the wall. "What?"
"Dean—you don't have to tell me anything, I swear, but I just, I mean I don't want to—"
"Just spit it out, Sammy."
Sam winces in apology. "Do you remember anything? From Hell."
Dean shakes his head immediately. "Nothing, man. I remember the hellhounds making mincemeat out of me, and then waking up six feet under. I had to fucking dig myself out, and then there's this guy just standing there. Place was a mess, trees knocked over, looked like a bomb went off. I thought it was—" Dean pauses, rubbing a hand over his face. "Anyway, then that dickface Uriel or whatever tells me to thank him for being absolutely no help at all, and the next thing I know I'm being held hostage by the so-called angels of the Lord."
Sam breathes out a sigh of relief. He knows Dean is going to learn the truth eventually. Maybe he'll have to be the one to tell him. But not today. Not tomorrow. He knows it's a lie of omission, but - well, he doesn't want that on Dean's shoulders. The weight of the world. He's already been through so much.
"Look, I know the angels aren't really what you'd expect—"
"Yeah, they're dicks."
"- But they're real, Dean. It's not some demon trick; Castiel got through all of Bobby's wards without a hitch."
Dean perks up. "Bobby? He knows about this?"
"He knows. I spent the last week and half sleeping on his couch and learning everything about Enochian rituals that all the books in Bobby's house plus one angel could teach me."
"Huh. So how much longer do I have to be in hiding from Heaven's bounty hunters before I can see him?"
"Whenever Castiel shows up," Sam says, worry spiking again when he thinks of the angel's whereabouts. Dean snorts.
"Great. Better not take his sweet-ass time."
"Castiel's different, Dean. I mean it. He risked a lot to help me—to help you. And I don't even know if he's okay right now, so just cut the crap."
Dean has the decency to look contrite, but it's for Sam's sake, not the angel's. "All I'm saying is that Uriel and, and Zachariah weren't exactly playing the harp and asking me about my feelings, okay? We've never seen an angel before, no one has seen an angel before, and if this damned apocalypse is going to change that then we need to be prepared to be fucked over. I mean what the hell would they want with a guy like me, anyway?"
Sam shrugs. "I dunno, Dean. Did you ever think that maybe they weren't lying? That maybe you can stop Lucifer? Look around, man. There aren't any other hunters who've been to Hell and back. And besides, all the lore says there's only one thing that can grab a soul from Hell anyway, and it's angels. That's it. Believe me, I've looked."
"You looked at angel lore before all this?"
"Well—no. Not until after. When I was at Bobby's. He's probably the only hunter who ever bothered to look, and it's right there in the books. God's warriors can carry out His will, and if His will is to bring someone back from Hell... well, you're living proof."
Dean's looking at the wall, arms still crossed, and Sam can see the muscles in his jaw working as he clenches his teeth.
"Okay, Sammy," he says, quietly. His voice is eerily calm. "Let's believe in this stuff for now. Let's say that I'm supposed to stop the apocalypse, you and me and the angels. But there won't be anybody else to blame when this all goes south, you got it? I don't care what the angels think I'm supposed to do, they're betting on the wrong horse."
Sam pushes off from the bed, unable to keep his voice calm enough to match. "Are you saying that saving you was a mistake? Because that's bullshit, Dean. Even if you're right, and I don't think you are, even if I can't stop Lilith and you can't stop Lucifer, it doesn't change the fact that you were worth taking a chance on."
Dean's expression is carefully blank, but Sam can read it anyway: disbelief. It hurts to look at.
"Well," Dean mutters, scrubbing a hand over his face, "I need a shower." He turns away and Sam reaches out to stops him with a hand to his arm.
"Dean, wait. I... here." Reaching back, Sam easily finds the knot at the back of his neck and follows it down the string, pulling the amulet from underneath his shirt. He holds it out, palm up. "This is yours."
Dean looks at the amulet for a second, and then up at Sam. He just stares, really looks, like he's finally admitting to himself that Sam is really there in front of him.
Finally he takes the necklace, hefting its small weight in his palm before curling his fingers over the pendant. "Thanks, Sammy."
Sam nods, blinking. He feels so much lighter. "No problem, man. Don't lose it."
Dean cracks a smile, chuckling. "I won't," he promises, and heads for the shower.
Sam calls Bobby while he waits. He can imagine the shock Bobby would get if Dean had called himself and decides to save the man a heart attack.
Bobby, of course, wastes no time demanding that Dean be put on the phone, drilling Sam—had he checked with a silver knife? Devil's trap? Maybe a little holy water?—and Sam assures him that it's really Dean, and no, he doesn't have to check.
Castiel hasn't been there, but Bobby reluctantly agrees to stay in South Dakota just in case the angel shows up. Sam has him write down their motel information, wishing there had been time to discuss a rendezvous situation. Castiel is smart, Sam tells himself, as long as he's okay he'll be able to figure it out.
He's giving Bobby a run-down of the last three days—a number that surprises even him, because it certainly hasn't felt that long—just as Dean wanders out of the bathroom, wearing what must be the first change of clothes in weeks. He points at the phone against Sam's ears, eyebrows raised and mouths, Bobby? "Here," Sam says into the phone, "let him tell you himself."
Dean snatches the phone away greedily and Sam watches him grin into the phone for what must be thirty full seconds, Bobby's gruff voice sounding muffled but happy. Sam stretches his legs and grabs a change of clothes for himself.
He's just shutting the bathroom door behind him when he hears Dean say, thickly, "I missed you too, Bobby."
"What do you mean, we can't have breakfast? I need pancakes and bacon, Sam, and coffee. Can we at least get coffee?"
Sam sighs, glancing at the sigil on the wall. It's strong; he'd re-done it in the morning while Dean had still been asleep on top of the covers. He'd been asleep before Sam, even breathing coming from the other side of the room to remind Sam, with every intake of breath, that Dean is alive, alive, alive.
But now it looks like he hadn't slept well at all, eyes red and weary.
Sam shakes his head. He's sorry, truly, but they can't risk going out for even a minute, not for all the bacon in the world. "No coffee either, dude. We're gonna have to make do with that," he says, pointing to the tiny coffee machine on the dresser next to the TV. Permanent coffee stains have turned the once-clear plastic of the carafe a muddy brown, two packets of cheap-as-shit coffee sitting next to it. Dean makes a face.
"Motel coffee," he deadpans. "You want me to drink coffee provided by the motel. How is that crap even real coffee? Come on. I'll probably starve to death before Cas shows up."
Sam raises an eyebrow. "'Cas'? Really?"
Dean matches Sam's expression, eyebrow raised as if to say yeah, and?
"Dean, names are important to angels. They're give to them by God. The suffix '-el'—"
"Woah woah, hey. You and angel boy might bond over geeky shit, but honestly man, I just don't care. Please tell me you at least have pop-tarts in the car or something, because I don't think I can—"
Dean is forced to stop mid-rant in favor of staring at the front of the room, where a man in a long, tan coat has just appeared.
"Castiel!" Sam says. "Oh, thank God."
The angel frowns. He looks tired, hair messy like he hadn't bothered to think about it, or anything at all concerning his appearance, for that matter.
"Cas, man!" Dean says cheerily, throwing Sam a cocky grin. Sam shakes his head. "Good to see you made it out alive, wherever the hell you were."
"Dean," the angel acknowledges, "I'm glad to see that you made it out alive as well."
It's sincere enough, but throws Dean off and turns his grin into bemusement. Sam ignores him.
"I see you talked to Bobby?"
"Yes. I apologize; it took some time for me to avoid Zachariah."
Sam only nods. He doesn't want to ask what exactly Castiel gave up for them; he can't grasp the magnitude.
"Does this mean we can get food now?" Dean asks. Sam rolls his eyes, but Dean's expression is completely serious. He's looking at Castiel.
"You need your strength," Castiel says, sounding like he needs rest more than anyone. Sam catches his eye, hoping that the expression on his face says all that it needs to—thank you, and I won't be long and he doesn't need to know he broke that seal.
"You're getting whatever's closest, no complaining," he says to Dean, grabbing his jacket. "And don't even think about it, I'm not buying you pie at eight in the morning."
He's grinning when he shuts the door, stifling the sounds of Dean's protest. He knows that he just left Dean stuck in a room with an angel, but it's not just any angel—it's Castiel, and that makes all the difference.
Dean is much less guarded than he had been before, standing comfortably in his presence.
"I am indeed glad you're safe, Dean," he says sincerely, starting towards the mark on the wall. It will need to be fortified.
"Hey," Dean says, reaching out a hand towards Castiel's arm. He catches fabric briefly and then recoils, bringing his hand instead to the back of his neck before letting it drop. "Um, I wanted to, to thank you. You know. For taking care of Sam." He takes a breath and lets it out on a nod, placing his hands into the pockets of his jacket.
"My orders were not to "take care of" your brother," Castiel replies, and Dean's eyebrows climb to his hairline.
"Well, fine. Jesus. I was just... you know what? Forget it." Dean turns his head away and scrubs a hand over his face. "You angels, I fucking swear."
Castiel searches for what mistake he might have made that garnered this reaction.
"It is not my place to take care of Sam," he amends. Dean snorts. "Nor is it yours, Dean."
He reacts almost violently then, taking a step towards Castiel with an expression of righteousness that would terrify and intimidate. Castiel tilts his head slightly; perhaps he was wrong about human communication.
But then Dean softens, lets his eyes clear of anger and stares back at Castiel as if he could learn all of his secrets just by looked closely enough. Castiel doesn't hold secrets. He holds truths, and they are never learned. They are given. He gives this to Dean.
"You wanted to," Dean concludes. He takes a step back. "I thought you guys couldn't think for yourselves."
"We do not choose to follow orders. Or to disobey them."
But humans do. It isn't spoken, but it is nevertheless understood.
Dean is no longer righteous, but neither is he contrite, looking at Castiel now like he's trying to see through the dark: the shapes are there, but the details are lost.
"But you did."
"I had many reasons."
Dean's expression scrutinizes, and then he laughs, humorless. "You don't even know why you did it, do you? Sucks to be down here in the mud. Nobody to tell you if what you're doing is right, or even sane."
'There is a plan, Dean," Castiel says. His eyes travel to the amulet that Sam had once worn as a reminder of what he had lost, returned now to its owner. "God hasn't abandoned us."
"God never cared."
Suddenly, Castiel understands his anger. It's similar to Sam's hurt when he'd wondered why he'd been ignored, but this wasn't the sort of pain borne from regret. This was fear—fear that he'd been abandoned because he was unworthy. This was disbelief as protection from the knowledge that one has not been saved because he hadn't deserved it.
"Dean, I know you're angry. I know that you were raised to serve a God you don't believe in, and the circumstances surrounding your salvation were part of the selfishness of my brothers and sisters. But I know what you've done for your brother, and I know what you've done for humanity. You didn't deserve to go to Hell, Dean, but you did deserve to be saved."
Dean's expression is defensive, the line of his shoulders tense. "There are things that matter in this world," he says tightly, "and what I do is to protect them. Family, Cas. Real people. Sam. So tell me, why doesn't it make any difference? Why do we get dragged into the dirt if you or God or whoever thinks we're worth a damn?"
There was a time when Castiel would have had answers to Dean's questions—have faith, all will be revealed in time, God works in mysterious ways. But what applies to the angelic race does not compare with the human experience, and maybe that is where the difference lies.
Dean is looking at him now almost as if he hopes Castiel can tell him something that will make him believe. He wishes there was something he could say.
"Listen," Dean continues, defensive as ever. "I'm on board with this. But I'm not doing it for you, and I'm not doing it for God. Sam needs you, I get it, and I wasn't lying when I said I appreciate what you did. But don't forget what I'm doing this for, Cas, because nothing you or any other angel says is going to make a difference one way or another, you got it?"
"I'm not asking anything of you, Dean. I won't. I don't know where this is going either, or whether or not I did the right thing, but this is where we are now. It's up to you and Sam and Bobby to continue on the path you've started down."
Dean relaxes, tilting his chin in appraisal. Castiel bears the scrutiny with the respect he feels Dean deserves.
Whatever the consequences, he has to trust these humans. His brothers and sisters are dying across the Earth and he can do nothing to help them, nothing to warn them, nothing but this: finish what he has started, one way or another.
Sam pushes his way into the room in record time, bags of McDonald's fake breakfast foods warm in his arms. To his surprise (and relief), Dean and Castiel are both sitting at the small round table in the back of the room, chatting.
They eat in near silence, Dean moving twice as fast as normal. Sam is struck by how easy this all is: sitting at the table like nothing happened, almost as if the last four and a half months had never happened. He knows it isn't that simple, that things will never be the same. He isn't quite sure he believes that Dean has no memories of Hell—there's a haunted look in his eyes that Sam has never seen before, not even after Dad died.
Not to mention the apocalypse looming over all their heads, seals being broken as they speak. Castiel gives them a run-down of what he knows, as well as a heads up—information will be much harder to come by now that he's refused to join Zachariah's cause. They're standing at the base of a mountain, getting ready to climb without any safety equipment.
"Sam," Castiel says, interrupting his thoughts, "You need to eat more than that if you want to make up for the last few days."
Dean glances up at Castiel, balling his greasy sandwich wrapper and tossing it lightly onto the pile of empty bags in the middle of the table. "You know," he says, "You're not that much of a dick after all. For an angel."
Sam grips the bridge of his nose and takes in a deep breath, but Castiel only says, "Thank you, Dean."
Sam can't keep from laughing at the expression on Dean's face, mouth open in disbelief. Then he glares at them both, pushing away from the table.
"Are you two finished? I wanna get to Bobby's before we have to stop in another piece of shit motel for the night."
"Uh," Sam starts, but Castiel interrupts him.
"There are entire armies looking for you, Dean. You must be protected before you can move anywhere." He eyes the sigil markings on the wall. "Those won't hold for much longer."
Dean stands. "Okay, then. Let's get this over with."
Castiel moves forward with no preamble, pressing his palm to Dean's sternum as he had done with Sam. There's no visible sign that he's done anything, other than the grimace of pain on Dean's face.
"What the fuck," Dean breathes, pressing a hand to his ribs. "Warn a guy next time, huh?"
Sam frowns. Dean is still taking in deep breaths, rubbing a hand absently over his collarbone. When he'd had his carvings done, the pain only lasted a few seconds and then it was gone, no lingering throb. Sure, it had hurt like hell at the time, but Dean was acting like he'd been stabbed.
"Dude, are you okay?" Sam shares a quick look with Castiel, who is watching Dean with concern.
"What? Yeah, I'll be fine. It's the damn scars, I must have torn one open or something."
"Scars?" Sam asks, alarmed. To his surprise, Castiel is wearing an expression of anger.
"Uriel," he grinds out. "He was not as careful as he should have been."
"Yeah," Dean agrees, scoffing, "you can say that again. Those hellhounds really... wait, what?"
Uriel wasn't so good at putting Humpty Dumpty back together, Castiel tells them. In not so many words. The places where the Hellhounds had ripped into Dean were the hardest to heal, and there were scars—deep, thick, the kind that don't go away. Ever.
Dean's reluctant to show him—"they're just scars, Sam, it's not like I don't have hundreds of them already"—but Sam is insistent. Sure enough, they're still wounds in places—much shallower than the ones the hounds gave him, but deep enough that Sam has to wonder how many times Dean had torn them during his weeks under the angels' watch. One of the scars has broken through his tattoo, and while they might be invisible to the armies of Heaven, Sam knows how dangerous it is to be unprotected from demons.
"Seriously, dude, just leave it." They're sitting side-by-side on the end of one of the beds, and Dean's trying not to be too self-conscious while Sam looks him over. "I'll wear a charm until I can get it redone, okay?"
Sam nods, but he isn't really thinking about that anymore. He's thinking instead about his own scar, small and smooth, left there in place of a much larger wound.
"Cas," Sam says over his shoulder, and ignores Dean's raised-eyebrow smirk, the smug I told you so written all over his face. "Could you fix him?"
Dean sobers as the angel turns from where he's standing at the window, looking respectfully out into the parking lot. Castiel is expressionless as he studies the thick, rope-like scars covering the man's torso; Dean's shoulders and back are tense under the scrutiny. Sam gives him what he hopes is a reassuring smile, barely there, and backs away.
"Yes," Castiel says, moving to stand in front of Dean. Sam watches as the two meet eyes, sees something rare in his brother's expression. He's seen it before: after every time that he'd told Dean he would save him; after every time he'd promised Dean he wouldn't let him go to Hell.
And once, right before Sam had pressed his bleeding hand to the wall, right after Sam had made the first promise he could actually keep. This was trust, that shaky look in the widening of Dean's eyes. Insecure, yes; Dean not quite willing to believe it, but there it was. Trust.
Castiel nods to himself, repeats, "Yes," warns, "Shut your eyes," utters no prayer, and reaches out to Dean, fingers splayed. He sets the pads of his fingers over the scars, and the last thing Sam sees is his brother: shoulders square, head up, eyes closed. More content than he can remember seeing Dean since that first night, four years ago, driving down the blackened highway out of Stanford, Sam right there next to him in the front seat.
Home, Sam thinks, sinking his eyelids, and again when the brightness begins to wash over the room, enveloping the three of them.
“I needed to think there was something else watching too, you know? Some higher power. Some greater good. And that maybe I… maybe I could be saved.” - Sam Winchester, 'Houses of the Holy'