Castiel senses the banishing in the fraction of a second before the woman's hand touches the sigil. There's a dissonance in his grace -- something akin to a human itch, but subtly different and buried too deep to scratch. He's engulfed by a blazing light, and then he's hurtling through the fabric of reality, helpless and unable to gather his strength. His vessel's human instincts prompt him to curl in on himself, protect his head, breathe until the ground comes up and knocks the air from his lungs.
He lands in the woods. The smell greets him before he opens his eyes -- decaying acorns, wet bark, crushed leaves, dew-damp soil churned by deep, reaching roots. Castiel rolls onto his back and blinks up at the stars. Trees tower over him, their jagged tops jutting against the sky like broken teeth. Castiel breathes in and out as he acclimates to his new surroundings. The forest is young, perhaps two hundred years old. A field was cleared for some purpose and then abandoned, neglected long enough that nature returned and reclaimed it.
Dean -- Dean is dead.
The long ride back to the bunker had been silent. Static had buzzed on the radio, and the windshield wipers had scraped at faint, uncertain rain. Castiel had kept his focus on Sam -- Sam, who'd been thin-lipped and shaking, who'd driven with his back straight and his hands white-knuckled on the wheel. Castiel had used the map Sam gave him to plot a course between Louisville and Lebanon, and he'd pumped more gas into the Impala at a service station in St. Louis, because Sam had been frowning out the window, close to tears. He'd insisted Sam eat once the reborn sun finally dipped below the horizon. Outside Kansas City, Sam had started to yawn; Castiel had eased his fatigue with his slowly buoying grace.
Now that he's alone -- alone and spell-weak and lying in the dirt -- Castiel has no distraction from his grief. It consumes him entirely, gnawing beneath is ribs with an ache that recalls fangs grating against bone. It leaves him hollowed out and empty, less than a husk. His eyes sting, and a thick, sour feeling sinks into his throat, like a hand squeezing everything under his jaw. He digs his fingers into the loamy soil and swallows a noise.
I should've gone with him. Rescuing Dean from Hell was one of the few things Castiel ever did right; dying beside him might've lessened some of Castiel's regrets.
If he was still welcome in Heaven -- but he isn't. And that Dean would only be a fragment of the man he's known -- known and treasured and loved. That Dean would be cradled in the warmth of cherished memories. He would be at something close to peace; he might not welcome a ghost he didn't resurrect with his own mind.
Dean might not even be in Heaven. His bright, luminous soul could've been obliterated when Amara died.
Castiel unclenches his hands and brushes the wet dirt off his palms. The grit feels sandpaper-rough against his skin. Although affliction cometh not forth of the soil, neither doth trouble spring out of the ground. He breathes in and out, in and out. Sam. Sam is in danger.
An owl hoots in the trees. The cicadas -- startled into silence by Castiel's arrival -- are cautiously beginning to chirp again. The soft, discordant hum tugs and Castiel's ears, and he thinks, strangely, of the night he discovered Dean had taken the Mark of Cain -- of the puddles dotting the motel parking lot and the dull ping of the Impala's cooling engine. A neon sign had buzzed above their heads, louder than a swarm of bees. The red and blue light had danced against the side of Dean's face, carving it into hard, tired angles that had made Castiel ache.
The smell of wet grass crowds into his nose. He gets to his feet, wincing as pain throbs in his shoulder and hip. He has no idea where he is. His grace is ebbing low because of the banishing; without it, he can't orient himself by the stars and the moon and the steady shift of the tides.
He needs to find a town. Then he can steal a car and drive back to the bunker. If Sam isn't there, he can cast a tracking spell. Blood would work best, but he can use anything from Sam -- his hair, his clothing, the bristles from his toothbrush.
Castiel's phone is dead; the screen is black and a spidery crack is fanning across the glass. He puts it back in his pocket and turns in a slow circle. He doesn't see any lights between the trees. He pauses, listening for the thrum of traffic or the rush of moving water, anything that would give him a starting point.
The owl hoots again. Something rustles the underbrush -- a squirrel or a fox.
Cas? Cas, you got your ears on?
Castiel closes his eyes. That's -- that's impossible. But before he can dismiss it as a phantom of his grief, he feels a familiar, desperate pull in the center of his chest. Its strength is unmistakable.
"Dean," he murmurs.
Cas? I, uh -- I hope you can hear this. I just wanna let you and Sammy know I'm alive.
A deer leaps out of the brush -- a large doe with quivering ears and wide, frightened eyes. The moonlight pushing through the trees dapples her tawny coat. She studies Castiel for a moment, then whips her head around and darts off. Castiel walks the direction she came, hoping whatever startled her had been human rather than animal.
One hundred yards away, the trees abruptly thin into a cemetery. Castiel breathes in and out until he can feel the grass spreading under his feet and the headstones cutting shapes into the air. Then he recognizes it -- the place Mary Winchester is buried.
Another impossibility. Still, he asks, "Dean?"
"Cas?" Twigs snap under a boot. "You -- Cas?"
A shadow shifts at the forest's edge. Then Dean is walking toward him -- Dean, who is whole and healthy and alive. For there is hope of a tree, if it be cut down, that it will sprout again, and that the tender branch thereof will not cease. Dirt is smudged on Dean's jaw. His jeans are grass-wet, and fallen leaves are crunching under his feet.
As soon as Dean's in reach, Castiel pulls him into a hug. He fists one hand in the fabric of Dean's shirt and brushes the other into Dean's hair. He turns his face into Dean's neck and breathes him in. He lets his vessel's heart pound. Relief brims in his throat.
"Hey." Dean steps back, but his hand lingers on Castiel's arm. "How -- how'd you find me?"
"I didn't," Castiel admits. "I was banished, and --"
"Banished? What --? You -- who?"
"I barely saw her. She ambushed us at the bunker."
"Fuck. Sam." Dean scrubs at his hair. "Fuck. Okay, okay. We --"
A blonde woman melts out of the shadows -- Mary Winchester. She's wearing Dean's jacket over the nightgown she died in, her long hair hidden inside the collar. Castiel thinks of the memory he visited shortly before Heaven laid siege to Hell. Dean had been nothing to him then -- just a soul his father wanted rescued, just a little boy laughing as his mother read him a book. John had been across the room, dozing in front of the television with Sam tucked in the curve of his arm.
A smile lights up Dean's face. He tugs at Castiel's sleeve and says, "Hey. This -- I, um. I want you to meet my mom."