An hour after he hits the ground, the last of the falling angels flashes bright against the stratosphere, and the sun begins to rise.
The smell of sweet flag iris is thick, almost cloying, and as he makes his way across spongy earth he tries to remember if he's ever seen this place before. It seems wholly unfamiliar.
A fallen twig snaps underfoot, loud enough to startle a fallow doe, half-hidden by rushes. She scrambles from the lakes edge, kicking up water and stones in her haste to get away, and Castiel stares after her in the pink haze. He hadn't even known she was there.
The frogs, until now the source of a constant chirping in the bullweed, fall silent, and quiet descends over the marsh. It's the first true silence he's ever known, and he isn't prepared for the weight of it, the sheer magnitude of what it means to be alone. It presses down on him until he sinks down on his haunches, elbows on his knees, his knees, and covers his face with his palms. They come away wet.
He tries not to think, to just feel the warmth on his back, rising with the sun.
Wings shredded by flame, burning, burning.
The breeze, curling cool over his damp cheeks.
The current of the rushing wind, whipping, dragging, falling through cloud.
The cold tickle of long grass that sneaks up his ankles where he crouches.
The ice-sharp press of an angel blade at his throat, trickling blood, seeping grace, gone all gone.
He focuses on the sensation of his pulse, thrumming fast; on his breath, forcing it to remain steady and slow, all in effort to drown out the emotions that swell and swell and swell in his chest, feelings too big and terrible to put a name to. It's futile in the end, and then it's fear and guilt and uncertainty that overcome him. Rage and shame and a melancholy so overwhelming that he wishes Metatron had taken his life along with his grace, because it's just too much.
He presses his fingers down into the wet earth, digs in with his nails, lets the gritty dirt sink beneath them, breathes in, out, in, out. Tells himself that he needs to get up. Needs to find a road, find a house, a phone. Needs to call Dean. Needs to tell Dean what happened. Just plain needs Dean, here, now, to tell him it's okay, even if it's not. He'd done it before; that night when Castiel had landed on the road in front of the Impala, bleeding from his torn stomach. He'd sat with him, dressed his wound, told Castiel soothing lies until he fell asleep.
Something hopeful tells him that this time maybe it wont be lies; maybe it's going to be okay, he'll be welcomed back, welcomed home, and he'll be able to live out this mortal life with the only people he'd ever want to spend it with. Because yesterday, while he had been sitting with Dean waiting for the cupid, he had felt something hanging in the air between them, and he wants to believe that it was forgiveness, even if he doesn't believe he truly deserves it.
Selfishness, he's fairly certain, is a major part of being human. He feels very human right now.
When he finally starts walking, the sun is high, and his shadow all but disappears beneath his feet.
He comes to a river, and follows it for lack of a better idea. Tiny birds swoop around him when he gets too close, and he steps carefully to avoid crushing their speckled eggs where they lie between round stones on the ground.
He tries not to wonder where his brothers and sisters are; if they are in their vessels, forced unwilling into flesh and bone by the fall, or drifting in the ether, unseen and lost, reaching for a Heaven that can no longer hold them. Neither is right. Neither is just.
Wherever Metatron is, Castiel hopes he feels their anguish. Hopes he feels a regret so exquisite that it will never leave him, not for the eternity he has claimed for himself alone in Heaven. Walking along the river's edge, Castiel stares up into the cloud and damns him. He demands it.
He has never known spite until now. It scares him a little, how easily it comes.
Soon, the river narrows, and on the other side, beyond a copse of silver-leaved trees, he sees a small collection of white-shuttered houses. There is no bridge in sight, so he wades across, and the water is painfully cold against his thighs, his groin, his stomach. At it's deepest point, it reaches all the way to his armpits, and he grits his teeth in discomfort at the crawling chill of it.
The air when he emerges is no longer warm; it blows over the wet fabric of his clothes, setting the fine hairs at the back of his neck on end, goosebumps rising on his skin. Branches and cobwebs catch in his hair, pulling, and he feels every one.
When he steps out from the trees, the first thing he sees is a street sign that reads Rue des Anges. He'd laugh if it weren't so awful.
He hopes he's in Québec—it would certainly be easier to get back to the Winchesters if he were only so far from them as Canada—but on the rear window of a parked car he sees a sticker advertising a Parisian car dealership, and knows he hasn't been quite so lucky.
His coat hangs heavy with water, and he pulls it off, dumps it in a trash can on the road side. He feels a strange pang when he sees it there, something like regret, and thinks it absurd. It's just a coat, after all. For a moment he stands, staring into the trash can, and contemplates taking it back out, keeping it despite its stained, waterlogged state. In the end, he decides against it. It would slow him down, he thinks.
Still, as he makes his way through the tiny town, he keeps thinking of it, glancing back guiltily.
It doesn't leave his mind until he notices the clumps of green stems that have forced their way up through the dirt overnight, cracking impossibly through pavement and asphalt and brick and reaching up toward the sun. In some places, he sees vines spreading outward, lush with glossy leaves and bright buds blooming. In others, seedlings that will fast become saplings, then fully-grown cedars, magnolias, chestnuts; each sprung from the pure creation of an angels grace.
It must be like this everywhere, all over the world.
He imagines the bottom of the ocean as a tangled garden; blind fish weaving between impossible flowers that dance in the current, and smiles at the relief of it, because it's beautiful, and in nine months time, thousands of new eyes will open.
They'll squint against the harsh bright of the world that they used to watch over, and perhaps some will remember, but like Anna, they'll all forget in time.
Eventually, he'll be the only one who knows the truth. The only one who'll remember them as they were. That thought terrifies him, but deep down he thinks that it's better this way. If they remembered, if they'd all fallen as he had, with the full knowledge of what is and what was crowding in their minds, he doubted many would be able to cope. They wouldn't know how to find one another, and without any humans who could help them, they'd truly be lost.
It's not long before he finds a small corner store with a payphone, but there's no place to put coins, and he quickly realizes that the small amount of money he does have in his pockets is the wrong kind anyway. Before he knows it, he's leaning heavily against the wall, breathing hard, eyes pressed closed and leaking warmth, his entire body shaking, because this had been all that was getting him through; he'd known that if he could call Dean, he'd be okay. But he can't, and he's not, and he's alone. Utterly alone.
He sinks down, back to the wall, and is still there forty minutes later, shuddering in his still-damp clothes, when footsteps slow in front of him.
Looking up through clouded eyes, he sees a dark-haired man peering down at him. Castiel takes a breath, meaning to nod and tell the man he's fine, but instead he chokes, a sob escaping his lips, and the man's thick brows tilt upward in concern. He glances around, apparently looking for the source of Castiel's upset, then back at him before taking a hesitant step forward.
Castiel wipes at his face, embarrassed by his state—and there's another thing that comes too easily. Blinking, he clears his throat.
The man frowns, looking from Castiel to the payphone.
Castiel shakes his head, and the man seems to study him for a moment befor holding out a hand to help him up.
He smiles, gesturing toward the other side of the street.
It's unsettling, not being able to see the man's soul, to know whether he is pure of heart. But Castiel has no other options, and the man seems friendly enough, so he nods and takes his hand, pulling himself to his feet.
The house over the road is old, and a tangled vine crawls over the cracked white wall. Castiel wonders if the vine had been there a day ago. As Henri unlocks the green door, pushing it open with a noisy creak, Castiel tilts his head in thanks.
Henri just waves his hand, a gesture of good-natured dismissal that Castiel realizes must be common to all humans regardless of where they live. The thought that there are such constants in humanity is a pleasant one, but it reminds him of an important question he has neglected to ask.
As soon as he's asked, he realizes that it was likely an unsual question, and worries he will have to come up with a fast lie about where he had been and what had happened to him, but for a reason he cannot discern, Henri points toward the lower half of France on a framed world map with a strangely sympathetic smile.
Castiel nods, a little dazed, and Henri leaves him in the living room. There's a small altar, set into an alcove on the far wall, and Castiel takes a moment to look at it while he waits for him to return. When he does, he's carrying a phone book, and he flips through the pages until he finds the list of international call codes, traces a finger along the page, and taps twice on the listing for the United States before handing Castiel a phone.
He leaves, and Castiel finds himself alone in the living room, fingers hovering over the glowing blue buttons of an unfamiliar phone. He takes a steadying breath before he dials, waits for the tinny ring that comes from too far away, the click of the connection.
The voice is ragged, exhausted, rough, and Castiel's breath catches in his throat at the sound of it, because it's Dean, finally it's Dean, and he suddenly feels so much.
There's a dissonance, a disconnect within him; things he's felt and thought these past few years, things he's heard and touched and tasted; memories somehow changed, shifted, layered with new meaning now that he lacks the filter of grace that at once simplified and complicated everything. Dean's voice, the warmth it emits, even tired as it is, is at the forefront of most of them.
“Who is this?” Dean asks, and Castiel shakes his head, forcing himself back into the moment.
“It's me,” he says, too quiet.
For a few seconds he thinks Dean hasn't heard him. He's about to speak again when Dean does.
“Cas?” Dean breathes, and Castiel's tense shoulders settle. He leans back against the soft cushioned back of Henri's sofa. “I thought you were—” there's a gulp, and Castiel hears the creak of wood, “did you fall?”
To Castiel's relief, Dean doesn't ask him how or why; he just takes another breath and asks “Are you okay?”
“I'm alive,” Castiel says, and hopes that conveys enough, all the things he can't quite bring himself to say, “is Sam okay?”
“Yeah, he's... he's better. He's good. Where are you?”
“Tarsacq. In France.”
There's silence, and Castiel waits, worries that the line has cut out.
“It's... I don't know why he... Metatron. He just dropped me here. I don't know how to get back. A man is letting me use his phone, but I don't think I can stay here, I think—”
“Hey, hey, hold on—” Castiel hears shuffling as Dean moves his phone away from his ear, and then his voice is muffled, calling out, “Sam? Bring your laptop. It's Cas.”
There's the distant scraping of a chair, and Castiel can just barely make out the sound of Sam's voice, though the words are unintelligible.
“Yeah, he fell. France. No, I'm joking. Of course I'm serious. Here, let me just—”
Something clatters over wood.
“I'm sorting this out, Cas, just give me a minute.”
There's the sound of clicking, and he catches the occasional word in Sam's speech, and all of Deans. It's confusing, and he wants to tell Dean to turn on the speaker so he can hear what's going on, but he assumes Dean still can't hear him.
“No, that one.”
“I'll bring him one, then.”
“...sure? I can...know you...like fourteen hours...okay?”
“No, I'll go. You're the one who wanted to bring Chuckles back, I'm not gonna stay here to look after him.”
“...able to swing it...day...anything to go by...”
“Just book one way then. I'll call her and we can sort out the rest before I go.”
“...have to...nearly twenty-five...”
“Jesus. Okay. There's enough on this one. Just do it, we can work it out later.”
There's silence for a moment, then Dean speaks into the phone again.
“Cas? You still there?”
“Do you think you'll be able to get to the airport in Paris?”
“I can try.”
“Good. You're gonna need a passport to get out of the country, so I'm getting in touch with a friend who'll whip one up, then I'll come get you.”
“Sam's booking me a flight now, and—” more shuffling, “alright, done. I'll be landing in Paris in... twenty-six hours.”
“How the hell else am I gonna get there?”
“You hate flying.”
Dean clears his throat.
“I guess you owe me, then. This guy lending you his phone, does he speak English?”
“I don't think so.”
“You speak French though, I'm guessing?”
“I speak all languages.”
“Of course you do,” Dean sounds exasperated but there's a hint of something akin to fondness in his voice, and Castiel smiles into the receiver, “find out if he'll let me send some cash to him to give you. Tell him you lost your bank cards or something. I'll pay him.”
“You don't need to—”
“Cas, you've gotta eat between now and when I get there, and getting to Paris ain't gonna be free. Just ask him.”
Castiel lowers the phone from his ear and walks to the kitchen, where Henri is making coffee. He glances over his shoulder when he hears Castiel in the doorway.
A half hour later, Castiel follows Henri out of the house to a small blue car on the roadside. It starts on the third try, shuddering to life, and something under the hood rattles noisily as they go, headed for the coach terminal in Bordeaux.
As they cross the river he'd waded through earlier, a small white sign announcing it's name as Gave de Pau, Castiel glances over toward Henri in the drivers seat.
Henri looks over at him, chewing thoughtfully on his lip.
“My name wasn't always Henri,” he says after a moment, and Castiel's brows shoot up at the sudden switch to fluent English, “I don't believe we ever met, but not too long ago I was known as Hariel.”
Castiel's eyes grow wide.
“Well, I say not too long ago... it's been thirty-two years.”
“I am. Or, was, I suppose.”
“How do you remember?”
“Dean Winchester is saved,” he quotes, with an eye-crinkling smile, “I'm sure I'm not the only one who heard you, Castiel. It was... remembering was overwhelming.”
“I'm sorry, I was—” Castiel starts, but Henri just raises his hand again, waving it away.
“Don't be. It has been wonderful, remembering my purpose.”
Henri—Hariel, Castiel reminds himself—nods, slowing at a roundabout and waiting for a break in passing traffic.
“As an angel, I embodied the spirit of altruism. As a human, that remains my duty.”
“To help,” Henri agrees with a smile, and reaches over to flick on the radio, “so, Castiel. Tell me how else I can help you.”