When Cas wakes, it’s to the smell of unfamiliar sheets and a body that feels like it’s both burning up and frozen through, all at once. He groans into the lumpy, musty pillow beneath his face, relieved to feel the thick muscular heaviness of his tongue pressing against the smooth enamel of his teeth. His tongue and his teeth and—when he opens them—his eyes all feel like they’re made from solid nitrogen, fragile and frozen and ready to evaporate at any moment. It takes him far too long to focus on the dresser next to the bed, and Cas has no idea if it’s due to his own exhausted, shredded grace or from the rough job of healing when Lucifer had—
No. Not Lucifer. Sam. When Sam had poured shards of stolen grace into Cas’ vessel, not seeking to heal so much as driven by desperation to get rid of the seething, alien cold.
The cold that now churns in Cas’ core, slicing outwards and sending his body shivering in rough, uncontrollable spasms.
He’s currently lying face-down on the strange bed, naked but for a sheet pulled up to his shoulders. Every time his body shudders he can feel the awkward weight of his mutilated wings, cotton rubbing across exposed skin like sandpaper. He supposes he should feel grateful Lucifer and Michael only saw fit to get “creative” with his flight wings; the ancillary wings are still whole and safely incorporeal, albeit stiff and aching from where they’d been bound. Sam had done his best to break the bindings when he’d tried to heal Cas’ vessel but it’d been painful and imprecise. Like someone attempting a surgery they’d only ever read about. Cas is grateful—he knows he should be grateful, and he is—but…
He stretches his exposed wings, one after the other. The movement sends lances of agony through bones and muscle not meant to support such structures on a human form, but the range of motion is mostly there. Nothing irreparable. He’ll heal, but it’ll take time. Time the Winchesters now maybe do not have.
Stretching his wings sends the tips out from underneath the sheet, and the sight elicits a startled little shriek from the corner of the room. Cas withdraws the mangled appendages quickly and levers himself off the bed just enough to see Claire, cowering in the room’s corner, watching him with frightened eyes.
“Claire,” he says, repositioning himself to face her. She’s wearing one of Dean’s old Iron Maiden t-shirts and is looking cleaner than Cas remembers. Good. Seeing her in Pontiac for the first time, unkempt and filthy, hunger and fear and illness radiating from her like a miasma, had been heartbreaking. The knowledge that he’d failed her so thoroughly, failed Jimmy…
No wonder she’d been such an easy mark for Lucifer’s machinations.
“You’re alive,” Claire says, barely a whisper.
Cas allows the corner of his mouth to lift, just a little. “I am.” Then: “Where is this?”
Claire shrugs. “A house. I dunno. We drove. For a long time. But we had to stop.”
“The one with the hair won’t wake up,” Claire says. “And he keeps screaming.”
Cas closes his eyes, grace aching for whatever’s left of Sam’s soul. “All right,” he says, more to himself than Claire. “I’ll see if I can help.”
He won’t be able to, he knows, but he has to try. So he levers himself off the bed, Claire making herself scarce with a mumbled, “I’ll say you’re awake.”
Cas’ duffle is sitting on the dresser, and he rummages until he finds underwear and jeans. His old clothes—the ones he’d been wearing when he’d been caught in Claire’s trap—aren’t there. He wonders where they are, if they’re still in the Novaks’ basement, on the hollowed-out remains of his old vessel.
Cas sighs. He’d liked those clothes. He’d liked that vessel. He isn’t sure exactly what it had been about the combination that had finally, finally, enticed Dean to press against him with warm lips and warm desire, but, nonetheless, it’d worked. And now it’s gone.
In its place, Cas is left with an almost identical pair of jeans—bar for the fact Dean has never rubbed hot and wanton against them—and an almost identical vessel, bar the two huge, near-naked, scarred scythes that are all that remain of his wings. Lucifer (or Michael, it was hard to differentiate them sometimes, torn to tattered shreds and poured into the same ill-fitting flesh) had taken great pleasure in stripping the feathers, in turning the limbs into their current twisted, arachnid mockeries.
A lot of demons have— had limbs that looked similar. Made out of ribs, originally, as far as Cas could tell, but the intent was still the same. Crowley’s had been particularly egregious; scythe-like things of charcoal chitin that had twitched and flared with his moods. But Crowley is gone—nothing but a burnt-out corpse, rotting in the charnel-house former lair—and Cas is suddenly grateful for it. Having Dean see him so debased is bad enough. Cas couldn’t struggle through a demon doing the same.
Attempting to dematerialize the mutilated wings only sends a ripple of agony through vessel and grace alike, so Cas sighs and relents. There’s no way he can get a shirt over the limbs so he ends up with one of the bedsheets wrapped around his shoulders instead. Now all he needs is a harp and a shave and maybe people will actually believe him when he tells them he’s an angel.
Claire is sitting on the floor in the hall when Cas emerges. Her nose is buried in a paperback but her eyes are tracking Cas. She’s trying to hide the book’s cover behind her knees, like she’s worried it’ll be taken away if Cas knows what it is. Jimmy and Amelia, Cas dimly recalls, could be quite strict about their daughter’s exposure to certain aspects of popular culture. Specifically, anything dealing in demons or the supernatural; there had been several spectacularly large blow-ups about the work of a sorcerer named Harry Potter in particular.
Cas has no experience with what media is or isn’t appropriate for a twelve-year-old, though does approve of reading books in a general sense. He’ll have to remember to ask someone about the rest later, although given his most likely sources are Dean or perhaps Bobby, Cas can’t imagine either objecting to much.
Maybe he should attempt to locate a more reliable source of information on appropriate parenting.
He gives Claire a tight nod as he passes. She’s afraid of him, and he wants to change that. But there are other, more pressing things he needs to see to first.
He finds Dean in one of the other bedrooms, hunched over the restlessly sleeping body of his brother. Dean oozes exhaustion and fear, soul dim and flickering, and barely looks up when Cas enters.
“He won’t wake up,” Dean says, after a moment of silence. He has one of Sam’s hands clasped in his own, his other reaching out to soothe Sam’s brow every time it crumples in distress. “Even if he does wake up, I don’t… I don’t know who he’s going to be.”
“Sam,” Cas says, because even with shredded grace he can see that plain and clear.
“Yeah? You sure?”
“What… what happened? What did he do?”
Broke every rule Cas had ever though he’d known about the operation of grace and souls, for one, but Cas knows that isn’t what Dean means. So, instead, he says:
“I believe he used his connection as a former vessel to… consume pieces of Lucifer’s grace.”
“Jesus. You can do that?”
“No. But Sam did.” Even… indisposed as he’d been at the time, Cas had felt the reactions from Michael and Lucifer. He hadn’t known archangels could be afraid. He suspects they hadn’t, either.
“So, what? Sam’s juiced up on Satanaide?”
Cas scowls, trying to focus his bleary grace on the dull flicker of Sam’s soul. “Sam used most of the grace he took in the flight from Michael and Lucifer. The rest he… relinquished to me.”
“Right.” And if there was any hope Dean didn’t witness the… method of relinquishment, there it just went. Cas very virtuously does not sigh at the bitter tone. As if Dean could possibly think Cas is interested in sexual or romantic attention from Sam. Or from Lucifer. Honestly.
“So you’re the archangel now?” Dean asks.
“No. I consumed the grace attempting to heal my vessel.” Cas makes an abortive gesture to his own body. “With only partial success.”
“And Sam? If he ditched the Luce-juice, why is he…?” This time, it’s Dean’s turn to gesture.
“If you pour water from a glass, there’ll still be drops left when you’re done.” Cas can see them—dawn-bright stars and sunrise feathers—scattered like shrapnel across Sam’s soul. They hurt to look at, so he turns his eyes away, tries to shield his grace behind his wings before the lance of pain reminds him of the futility.
“Will he, um. Dry out?” Dean sounds so small, so helpless and so fragile. Cas hates hearing him like that. Hates that there’s nothing he can do to ease Dean’s pain.
“I don’t know.”
“Gee, Cas. Don’t just tell me what I want to hear or anything.”
Cas bites down on the reflexive I didn’t, and says nothing instead.
They can’t stay where they are. Sam’s actions may have bought them time and distance, but Michael and Lucifer will recover their nerve eventually.
Sam is still unconscious when they slip him into the front seat of the Impala, blanket tucked around his shoulders. Cas sits in the back with Claire, who has been watching them all with a wide-eyed fear that only abated when Dean bent down to assure her she wouldn’t be left behind.
The Impala is not designed for a creature with wings, let alone injured wings, and Cas ends up perched awkwardly on the back seat, trying not to crowd Claire and not to lean over the unconscious Sam in equal measures. Claire still has her book (City of Glass, proclaims the title), but is spending less time reading it and more time surreptitiously staring at the shifting of Cas’ injured wings beneath the sheet.
The car ride is, in other words, supremely uncomfortable.
They’re headed back to their previous destination, after some deliberation.
“Whatever this thing of Chuck’s is,” Dean had said, “I want it before Tenacious D back there can get their hands on it. Especially if it can help us waste those assholes.”
Cas says nothing. It’s easier to simply be silent and let Dean assume what he wants than to outright lie.
“Do you even know what it is?” Dean asks.
“No.” That’s not a lie, either. It’s just answering the question Dean asks, rather than the one he really wants to.
Cas doesn’t like lying, even by omission, and he isn’t Lucifer, won’t pretend he doesn’t knows the difference. He especially doesn’t like lying to Dean. Nonetheless, he’s grown distressingly good at it.
Cas exhales and thins his lips, a gesture of human exasperation he’s grown fond of. He shifts, leather creaking beneath his jeans, acutely aware of the unfamiliar sensations of being both restless and in pain. His grace still feels raw and ugly, thin and weak in a way that traps him uncomfortably deep within his current vessel. He is very, very conscious of the fact he’s in no condition to fight should Michael send forth another angel to hunt them.
(“This is the way it has to be, Castiel,” Michael had told him, Cas’ grace helpless and pinned. “This world is rotten with Father’s mistakes. There is no paradise, no hope. Even He fled rather than confront the enormity of His failure.”
“We can do better,” Lucifer had added. “The one truth Dad feared we’d learn from the humans. That every child must eventually grow up to replace his parents.”)
“How is your book?”
Claire looks up sharply at Cas’ voice, knees drawing up as she shrinks further back against the car seat. “‘S okay,” she says, eyes dropping back to the pages.
“What, um. What it’s about?”
From the front of the car, Dean snorts back a laugh. Cas goes to shoot a glare in the rear-view mirror but is diffused by the inexplicably soft, gentle green he finds looking back at him.
“I dunno,” Claire is saying. “People. They kill monsters.”
“Oh,” says Cas. “Good.”
“With magic.” Claire has an odd stress on the word, her body curling just slightly over. Protective of the book, like she expects Cas to demand she hand it over at any moment.
Jimmy, Cas thinks, would not have approved of his daughter reading a book in which magic was used to defeat monsters. He had been raised to believe magic was the work of the Devil, or at least contrary to the will of God.
“Daddy said magic was evil,” Claire adds presciently, eyes narrowed and defiant as she awaits Cas’ reaction.
“Some is,” Cas says, because it’s the truth. “If it comes from demons or is used to harm innocents. But it can be used for good, too.” He pauses, a feeling of unease settling heavy in his chest. “Magic… it defies the natural order, allows people”—and angels, he doesn’t add—”to enforce their will on the world. Because of that, it can be… difficult to tell whether its use is truly righteous. That’s why it’s favored by demons; with magic, it’s easy to twist a well-meaning desire to something evil.”
Cas is very keenly aware Dean is watching him in the rear-view. Thinking of Sam, Cas assumes, unknowing that Sam is not the well-meaning individual of whom Cas currently speaks.
(“Isn’t this what you wanted?” Lucifer had asked in the shadow of Samandriel’s defiled skull. “The end of Dad’s great Plan, free will for all!”)
“Have you ever used magic?”
Cas blinks, eyes refocusing on where Claire is studying him with intense fascination. He’s still thinking of the best way to answer when Dean beats him to it:
“Everyone in this car has, short stack. Wards and banishments, hex bags for protection, summoning for angels and demons.”
“Why would you summon demons?”
“To kill ‘em, if you’re doing it right.”
(“Dealing with demons, Castiel?” Michael had said. “All that talk of ‘free will’ to inspire the masses, but we both know what you really craved was power.”
“And they call me arrogant,” Lucifer had added, Adam’s stolen mouth twisted into a vicious smirk. “You thought you’d just, what? Set yourself up in Dad’s place? And you thought we’d just stand aside and let you?”)
“Can you teach me magic?” Claire is saying, book completely forgotten as her eyes flick eagerly between Dean and Cas. “I wanna fight monsters. I wanna help people!”
“Well…” Dean’s eyes seek out Cas in the mirror. “You should ask Cas that one.”
“Can I? Please? I won’t do anything bad, I promise.”
Cas feels like he’s caught in the middle of some human spiderweb of social expectations, one with Dean and Claire and even Jimmy as the strands. He has no idea what he’s supposed to do. His vessel aches and his grace flickers and, more than anything, he’s tired. Tired and he can’t even sleep, thanks to the mauled remains of his limbs.
All he has to go on are the soft creases at the corners of Dean’s eyes and the bright flare of hope in Claire’s soul. There’s really only one place those things can send him.
“You should know some warding, if nothing else. Just… no jars this time.”
Cas still has no idea if this is the right thing to say. But Claire gives him a brief flicker of what is almost a smile, and he tells himself it’s enough.
Sam wakes just before dawn the next day. Cas is driving, Dean passed out on the back seat, Claire’s feet resting in his lap. Driving is slightly more comfortable than being a passenger, so long as Cas keeps the seat back and hunches forward in what Dean had derisively referred to as “grandma position”.
Cas knows Sam’s awake when the Winchester’s body goes rigidly still, his breathing shifting from a series of short, sharp gasps into long, forcefully controlled inhales and exhales. It’s the startled wakefulness of someone who has spent a lifetime training himself not to scream.
“Hello, Sam,” Cas says.
Sam blinks, eyes flicking rapidly around to take in Cas and the car. Even still, Cas is not expecting Sam’s first words to be:
“Is this real?”
Cas considers this, because a serious question requires a serious—and a seriously considered—answer. Eventually, he settles on:
“I don’t know how to answer that in a way you’ll find convincing.”
And Sam… Sam just huffs laughter. Small and hurt-sounding, but laughter nonetheless. “Good enough,” he says, some of the tension unwinding from his body.
Sam checks the back seat, gaze lingering on his sleeping brother, expression unreadable, before turning back to try and peer at the road.
“Where are we going?”
“To the address the Prophet provided.”
“Is that… wise? I mean. If L-Lu—” He swallows thickly, then: “If the archangels are after what… whatever this is?”
“I believe they’ll leave us alone if we’re actively searching for it,” Cas says.
“Right. And once we find it?”
Cas has no answer to this, so says nothing. After a moment, Sam huffs and turns away.
“I can… he’s still in me.” Sam’s voice is barely a whisper.
“Yes. You’re his True Vessel. You were created to hold his grace; removing it was never intended to be easy.”
This is true, but not the correct thing to say, judging by the pained twist of Sam’s mouth. “Will… what’s gonna happen to me?”
“I don’t know,” Cas says, honestly. “I’ve never heard of a vessel consuming parts of its angel.”
“Great,” Sam mutters. “Once an abomination, always an abomination.”
“Sam…” Cas starts. “What you did was unprecedented. But we’re alive because of it. You stole Lucifer’s wings and you flew. That’s twice he’s underestimated you and twice you’ve bested him. You frightened him. Lucifer, the proud Morningstar himself, brought low by one of the humans he despises. Don’t underestimate that.”
Silence, then a soft snort. “Well. When you put it like that…”
Another stretch of quiet, then:
“Thanks, Cas. I just… thanks.”
Somewhere, overhead, the dawn bursts forth in the same pink-gold as Lucifer’s wings.
The address the Prophet left them is for a motel, and they arrive a little before sundown. The place is, near as Cas can tell, entirely unremarkable. Just the sort of squat, squalid collection of buildings the Winchesters have spent most of their lives bouncing between. They have a room number, which leads to a brief squabble in the car over who should go in and who should stay in the car with Claire.
“I’m fine, Dean,” Sam keeps insisting, exiting the Impala despite his brother’s well-meaning attempts to get him to stay inside. “If anyone should be on the bench it’s Cas.”
Cas feels the stubby remains of his feathers fluffing up in irritation. “I won’t let Dean go alone,” he declares.
In the end, the three of them go, leaving Claire in the car with both her book and explicit instructions to scream and/or pray if anything happens. She just sort of scoffs and rolls her eyes at the fussing, which results in Dean thumping Cas in the arm good-naturedly with an eye-roll and an inexplicable, “Teenagers, man.”
The motel room door succumbs easily to Dean’s boot. Inside, the room is musty and stale and obviously undisturbed since the Landing. Sam and Dean sweep it anyway, although there isn’t much to find; two beds, a bathroom, a scattering of tattered furniture.
“Anything?” Dean asks at one point. Cas shakes his head, scowling. The room is, near as he can tell, entirely unremarkable.
(“There’s nothing there,” Michael had said, after returning from the same room.
“I don’t know,” Cas had managed to grit out. Lucifer had been carefully flaying the skin from his vessel’s stomach and the sensation had been… unpleasant. “The address was all we had. Maybe… maybe the Winchesters…”)
And then Sam opens the closet.
The change in the air is instantaneous; the sharp copper flare of magic and the rich sulfur-stink of demons. Sam yelps in surprise at the same time as Cas calls his name, useless wings unfurling in a stab of pain that sends him double. There are two thumping noises, heavy shapes falling from the closet and hitting the carpet in another cloud of Hell-choked ash. Then coughing, and cursing, and Dean’s loud: “What the fuck?”
“They fell out of the closet!” Sam is saying, brushing his hands urgently down his front to try and dislodge the demon ash.
“They” turn out to be two bodies, a man and a woman. They’re both very definitely dead; the man is nothing much more than a mummified husk, the woman is burnt-out and blackened by demon smoke. They both reek of a very particular magic.
“What the hell?” Dean reiterates, staring down at the bodies. “Chuck sent us corpses?”
“What happened here?” Sam crouches down, examining the male corpse’s clothing.
“I believe they’ve been… stuck,” Cas tries. He holds out a hand, watching the tattered remains of powerful magic curl around his fingers.
“‘Stuck’? Stuck where?”
“In time.” That’s the… it isn’t truly a “smell” but that’s how his body interprets it. The copper-green imprint of a spell designed to tear open temporal paths.
“I thought you said time travel doesn’t work any more?” Sam has that glint in his eye, the tell-me-more stare. Cas shifts, just slightly, under the scrutiny. The… “Landing” is hardly his favorite topic of exposition.
(“What did you think was going to happen?” Lucifer had asked, all honest curiosity and the red-brown smears of Cas’ vessel-blood. “If you and the little imp had succeeded? Father created Purgatory for a reason. We put things down there your tiny little mind couldn’t even comprehend. Where did you think they were going to go? Into you?”)
“The temporal pathways are… gone,” Cas starts slowly. “They were a gift from Father, along with Heaven. But I think if something was… already there, when they closed…” He trails off, frustrated at his inability to describe it. At English’s limited ability to conceptualize it.
Nonetheless, Sam seems to understand what he’s trying to say. “Oh!” he says, eyes and mouth mimicking the sound. “Oh, gee. That’s… that’d suck…”
“What?” says Dean.
“It’s like, okay,” Sam thinks of a moment. “Think of a tunnel. These guys”—he gestures to the bodies—”enter in at one end. Back before the Landing, when time travel still worked. From their end, the ‘exit’ is still visible. But halfway through? Boom. Landing. Time’s closed. The tunnel collapses, they get crushed inside.”
“That makes no fucking sense. If the tunnel was collapsed in the future they would’ve seen it from the past.”
“The future is not that fixed,” Cas says. “As you yourselves have shown.”
“Hey, Dean? Um. You might… you might wanna look at this.” Sam has found the male corpse’s wallet. He hands it to Dean, who scowls, then double-takes.
“It can’t be a coincidence, right?” Sam has a very strange expression. Cas still isn’t good at reading human emotions without the use of his grace, but if he had to guess, he’d say Sam almost looks… vulnerable. Hurt and young in some undefinable way.
“I don’t think Chuckles sent us all this way for a coincidence, Sammy.” Dean hands the wallet back, voice and expression oddly soft.
Sam studies it, then the corpse. “But… why? Dad always said… I mean, I always thought granddad was a mechanic? Why would a mechanic…” Sam gestures at the bodies. “And the sulfur… I just… was he a— a demon?”
“The woman is, was, the one possessed,” Cas says. He hasn’t been following much of the conversation, but that he can contribute.
“You sure?” asks Dean.
“Yes. The marks on the body… I’ve seen them before.”
Dean nods, and Cas feels a sick sense of relief that the Winchesters are prepared to take his knowledge at face value. As if it’s something he knows because it’s something any angel would know, and not something Cas knows because he saw the same marks on the burnt-out husk of what was left of Crowley.
“Okay, so,” Dean says, clapping his hands together and rubbing them. “We have maybe-gramps and demon lady dead in some weird time travel accident. Doesn’t explain why Chuck would send us here, or why Tenacious D would think there was some ‘great power’ to find.”
“There is this?” Sam has continued searching the corpses, and is holding up his find: a small wooden box carved with an odd symbol, like a star made from two interlocking arrowheads, one pointing up, one pointing down. The box rattles when Sam shakes it.
“That’s more like it.” Dean grabs the box and hands it to Cas. “We gonna explode if we open this?”
Cas turns the box over, then over again. Extending his grace is painful and exhausting but he does it anyway, hating the way it quickens his vessel’s heart and sets sweat beading across his brow and down his back. This should be trivial, something he shouldn’t even have to expend effort on, and—
Cas blinks, looks up. “What?” Both Winchesters and staring at him in horror.
At Dean’s words, Cas feels it; the tiny trickle running down his lip. He licks it without thinking—the taste is both unpleasant and unfortunately familiar—then scrubs a hand beneath his nose. Afterwards, his fingers come away red.
“I’m sorry,” he says. Then, when this just earns him an inexplicably horrified look: “I… I think it’s safe. But my grace is still weak. I can’t be sure.”
Dean looks from the box to Cas and back again, then grabs the former back. “No,” he says. “No, dude. It’s cool. Um… just… don’t worry about it.”
Cas sighs and readjusts the sheet over his shoulders. Over the wings that sit ugly and useless against his back. “I’m sorry.” He doesn’t know what else to say.
Dean just gives him a brief, inscrutable look. Then opens the box.
No one explodes, though Cas’ nose persists with bleeding.
“Huh,” says Dean.
Inside the box is large lever-lock key. The same strange star symbol sits inside the loop at the end, though it’s otherwise unremarkable. The three of them stare at it for a while, as if daring it to move or glow or something. It doesn’t, not even when Sam lifts it out of the box to get a better look.
“It’s a key,” Dean says, after a while.
“Yeah, but to what?”
They search the bodies again, this time more thoroughly. The man has a set of house-keys and what looks like a crumpled receipt for lunch. The woman has nothing at all bar herself and her clothes.
“Okay, so.” Dean is pacing, hands steepled and index fingers tapping against his top lip. “Question: why was grandpa here traveling in time with a demon?”
“Maybe they weren’t, exactly,” Sam says. “Maybe she was chasing him? Or he was chasing her?”
“It’s gotta be about the key, right? Maybe she wanted it, like Lucifer and Michael want it?”
“Maybe. And maybe my shit is made of gold and next time I take a crap I’m gonna be a millionaire. We still got no answers and no leads. We don’t even know who this bitch”—here he toes the body, just shy of a kick—“even is. Or was. And even if we could find someone to ID the body, she’s just a smear of stinking ash. She could’ve been anyone.”
“Um…” says Cas.
Very abruptly, he finds himself on the receiving end of two very intense stares.
“The demon… it only looks like ash to human eyes.”
Dean looks between Cas and the body again. “You can see her?” he asks. “Demon-her, I mean?”
“Yes.” It’s not sight per se, but the semantics of it aren’t important.
“So you recognize her?”
Cas sighs, short and frustrated. “In the same way you can ‘recognize’ her human vessel,” he says.
“Right,” says Sam. “And so even though we could identify her, it doesn’t matter because this is the first time we’ve seen her.”
Dean sighs. “Great. So we just need to find the demon’s next-of-kin which, oh yeah. They’re all dead. So no. Or, yanno. Maybe we could ask Luci. ‘Hey, man. I know you tortured my friend and keep trying to get into my brother, and we kinda kicked your ass the last two times we met, but would you mind doing us a solid and seeing if you can ID this bitch?’ Yeah, no. I don’t think so.”
Silence, as everyone stares at the corpse, wondering what’s next.
And it’s about then that Cas gets what, in retrospect, is the second worst idea of his life.
“Dude. This is the worst idea of your life,” Dean says, when Cas has explained it. “And you’ve lived a really fucking long time.” Cas suspects Dean’s only saying that because he does not, in fact, know what the worst was.
“Yeah, but will it work?” Sam is overly eager, and Cas… maybe Cas knew he would be.
“I don’t know,” Cas admits, because he doesn’t. “Even… before, I don’t know if such a thing had ever been attempted.”
“But it could work?”
“The grace of an archangel is very powerful.” Because that’s the trick, the thing that has Sam’s eyes shining in unhidden desperation. For the spell, they’d need the remainder of Lucifer’s stolen grace.
“Yeah, and getting at it’ll tear out your soul, Sammy!” Dean says, not quite a shout but very close to it. “I don’t wanna go through that shit again!”
“It wouldn’t… remove Sam’s soul,” Cas says carefully.
“Oh, right. It’ll just damage it. That’s much better!”
“Human souls are, in some ways, even more powerful than an angel’s grace,” Cas says. “It’s harnessing them accurately that’s difficult.”
“Like the difference between a lightning bolt and a power socket,” Sam says. He and Cas are sitting on the hotel beds, Dean is pacing up and down the floor, agitated and unhappy.
“Sam. No. I can’t believe you’re even considering this. Pretty much the only decent thing about this crapsack future is there are no fucking demons in it. And you wanna bring ‘em back?”
“‘Want’ is a strong word. And it wouldn’t be all of them.”
“Look, Dean. I don’t want to do this any more than you do, but I’m not really seeing any other option.”
“‘Walk away’. That’s a fucking option for you. We take the key, bury the bodies, and walk the fuck away. Done.”
“And when Lucifer and Michael decide they want to come after us for it, what then?” Then, before Dean can answer: “You really think Chuck sent us here to just walk away? ‘Cause I don’t. You wanna know what I think? I think whatever this key unlocks is so freakin’ powerful two archangels want it. Michael and Lucifer are prepared to work together to get it. Dean, those guys hate each other. Trust me, I know; I was the one they were taking it out on—”
“No! Shut the hell up and just listen.” Sam stands, looming over his brother. “You saw what they were doing to the people in that town, man. Maybe they caused all this, maybe they didn’t, but how is this any different than the last apocalypse? I jumped into the goddamn Cage for that and it didn’t fucking work! The world still fucking ended! All that… that shit. Everything that happened in there, and after… it was all for nothing! People died for nothing! Dad, Mom, Jess, Ellen and Jo, Ash, fucking… fucking Jimmy.” He gestures at Cas, the motion sharp and angry. “And it was like, ‘Oh, well. At least they’re in Heaven now.’ Except that’s fucking gone, too. So it’s nothing. It was all for nothing. The apocalypse happened anyway, and the angels are busy sending us back to shivering naked in the garden, and everyone who’s dead is just fucking dead and we have, maybe, just a tiny chance of actually doing something and you’re getting your panties in a twist because of one fucking demon? Come on! I don’t believe you sometimes! Fuck!” He grabs at his hair with both hands, lets loose a roar, and kicks a dresser hard enough to smash a hole in the side.
After that, silence. Just the heaving of Sam’s shoulders and Dean, eyes wide and hands raised in surrender.
Very slowly, Dean lowers his hands. “Um,” he says. “Wow. Feel better?”
Sam has one hand covering his face, and he huffs into it. “No. Not really.”
Dean looks to Cas, but Cas has nothing to add, so simply stares back. After a moment, Dean sighs.
“Right,” he says. “So. Um. Resurrecting a demon, huh? How, um. How’s that work, then?”
It’s Enochian magic, so there isn’t much to prepare. Some sigils, a Devil’s Trap, blood from Sam, and the Colt. Though technically the latter is insurance, not part of the ritual.
“We get what we need, then I put a bullet straight between that smug fucker’s eyes,” is Dean’s explanation.
After that, it’s mostly up to Cas.
Truthfully, he has no idea what he’s doing, let alone any idea if he should be doing it. It’s not a true resurrection, given there’s no soul to resurrect. More like a recreation. Theoretically possible, but one of the deepest blasphemies in Creation, to usurp the power of God.
Except God is dead, so what throne is left to steal?
Sam screams when Cas pushes an arm into his soul, seeking to cut loose the last fragments of Lucifer. It isn’t easy; Sam is Lucifer’s True Vessel and the grace has bonded with him in the way it’d always intended. Cutting it out is like excising a tumor, hot-bright chunks of soul sloughing away alongside glimmering pink. Cas tries to be gentle at first then, when that proves impossible, tries to at least work quickly. Throughout the entire ordeal, Sam never once begs him to stop.
And then, when at last Cas is holding the grotesque pulsing mass of soul and grace, he works the rest of it, forbidden Enochian dripping from his lips, burning the bright soul-light black and rotten.
Lucifer had, most famously, been the first to do this; to twist a human’s soul into that of a demon. He’d been the first to do it but, technically, the process itself isn’t hard. Simple enough, in fact, that humans do it to themselves, literally in their sleep. A widening of cracks already present, a perversion of dreams into demands, and the soul collapses like a star.
Cas lets go. As he does, two things happen.
The first is the room explodes in thick red-black smoke, choking and dark. It swirls in a sulfurous gyre, chthonic winds sending the Winchesters staggering and the furniture scraping across the ratty carpet tiles. It coalesces thick and putrid in the centre of the Trap, ground shaking with a deep bass rumble that seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, all at once.
The second thing is the old burn on Cas’ palm, not-quite healed and long-since forgotten, even as it’s reformed with every broken vessel. Here, now, it flares with such a bright-sharp agony that Cas crumples, crying out and clutching at his hand as the flesh smolders and smokes anew.
The brothers don’t notice. Not when their attention is focused on the six magma-bright eyes that open within the looming dark as a booming, hissing voice snarls:
“WHO DARES SUMMON THE KING OF— oh. It’s just you morons.”
The smoke doesn’t so much clear as settle. And when it does:
“Holy shit what the fuck?”
The Winchesters are both looking up, the newly reformed Crowley is looking down. The former have nearly identical expressions of shock and revulsion. The latter just blinks, a slow wave that runs from one side to the other, then:
“Is this Earth?” Crowley looks down at himself, claws flexing and scales shifting. He makes a little disappointed hissing sound. “Where’s my agent? What happened to—?” He looks around, brows creasing in confusion. “Did I miss a season? I feel like I’ve missed a season. This is definitely not the last episode I remember.”
“You died. We resurrected you. A lot has… changed since,” Cas says slowly, when it becomes clear the Winchesters are in no position to reply.
Crowley gestures to himself with his lower set of arms. “No shit, ducky. What did you idiots fuck up now?”
“Hey!” exclaims Sam, at the same time as Dean says: “It was you!”
“In Hell,” Dean is saying. His expression is inscrutable but his finger is shaking, just slightly, where it points at Crowley. “It was, wasn’t it? You were the one who—”
“Oi!” Crowley hisses, rearing back, hands raised. “Oi, no. What happens in Hell stays in Hell, get it?”
Everyone stares at Dean, who in turn stares at Crowley. Dean opens his mouth as if to say something, then closes it, then: “Yeah. Yeah, okay.”
“Dean?” Sam’s eyes flick between his brother and the demon.
“It’s fine, Sammy,” Dean says. “It’s just… don’t worry about it.” He’s lowered the Colt, Cas notices.
“This is lovely,” Crowley says. “But some of us are still waiting for the recap, so…” He twirls a claw, impatient.
“Something happened,” Cas says. “We don’t know what. Heaven and Hell are gone—”
“What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“I mean gone.” Cas has no better way to explain it. Assuming they let Crowley live, the demon can see for himself when they’re done. “The demons are dead. The remaining angels are… insane. They’ve manifested on Earth in their true forms—”
“Since when was that possible?”
Cas shrugs. “Since when was it possible for you?”
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. Except, right now, all I’m hearing is while I was taking a little nap, you idiots let the apocalypse happen!”
“Hey, we didn’t do shit!” snaps Dean. Then barreling right over the top of Crowley’s muttered apparently: “Whatever this was, it was sudden. No build-up, no warning. Just… bam. Fucking thousand foot monster appears in the middle of the Strip and starts smashing casinos.”
“Wonderful. And what was Team Tartan doing while this was— what?” This last directed with a scowl at Sam, whose shoulders are shaking, head bowed and face buried in his hand.
There’s one moment of tense panic, before it becomes clear Sam is laughing. “You,” he says, in between gulping breaths. “Your lisp! You sound like the snake from The Jungle Book.”
Crowley crosses his lower arms and flexes the scythes on the upper ones, rearing back and up on his tail in a display of wounded pride. “Fuck you, Moose.”
“Oh my god. Say ‘moose’ again.”
“‘Moos-ss-sth’,” Dean corrects, smirking.
Crowley hisses, mouth open and fangs extended. The Winchesters don’t react and neither does Cas; the Trap will hold and it seems more like frustrated posturing than an actual threat. Crowley’s true form is huge and broad, with coal-dark scales and spines seamed in oozing lava-red. He stands even taller than Sam, sitting on a thick serpent’s tail over twice as long again, and has four heavily muscled arms, two ending in taloned hands, two in those wicked scythes. Objectively, Cas supposes, Crowley is terrifying. But Cas is an angel and the Winchesters have both spent time in Hell. Besides, they know him. Crowley is Crowley, whether in a vessel or not.
“Is there a point to this, or are we all just here for a chuckle?”
“We need you to identify a body,” Cas says, mostly because the Winchesters are still giggling to each other over Crowley’s accent.
“Really? That was worth perverting your— was I really dead?”
“Will you help us?”
Crowley seems to consider this, tongue flicking out to taste the air. “Show me,” he finally says.
Between them, the Winchesters haul the female corpse so Crowley can see. He studies it, expression suspiciously still.
“Yeah,” he says eventually. “I know her.”
“And?” Dean prompts.
“And I’m thinking it’s a bit cramped in here, mate.” Crowley shifts his coils to demonstrate. There really in quite a lot of him stuffed into the Trap’s ring.
“Well, we were expecting someone a bit shorter,” Dean says.
“Clearly. Point still stands. So how ‘bout you break this little ring, then I fill you in on la femme Nikita.”
The Winchesters look at each other, dubious. “And how do we know you won’t skip town as soon as we do?” Dean asks.
Crowley scoffs. “Oh, please. I’m the professional here. I’m not the one who reneges on deals.”
“I’m not kissing you,” Dean says, perhaps too quickly.
Crowley makes a disappointed little clucking hiss, right at Cas. “The homophobia gets so tedious after a while, doesn’t it?” Then, to Dean: “Don’t worry, sweetheart. Your precious virtue is safe.”
The brothers give each other another look but, in the end, Sam steps forward to break the line of the Trap. As soon as he does, Crowley groans in lascivious relief, stretching all four limbs, the coils of his tail sprawling out across the carpet.
“Name’s— ah! Abaddon,” Crowley says, cracking his back and rolling his shoulders. “What you’ve got right there, my Teen Vogue friends, is, was, a bonafide Knight of Hell.”
“Oh-kay,” Dean says. “Which is—?”
Except Cas cuts him off: “No. The Knights have been dead for centuries.”
Crowley’s mouth splits into a toothy grin. “It’s cute that you believed that.” He pats Cas’ cheek as he moves past, towards the other body. Cas doesn’t recoil from the touch, but it’s… difficult.
“What are these ‘Knights’?” Sam asks.
“Irrelevant now, apparently,” Crowley says. “And dead for realsies .” But the spines on his back shift as he says it. “Who’s the human stiff?”
“No idea,” Dean lies, before anyone else can answer.
“Mm. Rumor has it Abaddon went AWOL half a century ago. And your John Doe doesn’t look like a local, if you know what I mean.”
The brothers exchange a glance. “We think they, uh. Got caught in a… time travel accident?” Sam tries.
At Crowley’s expression, Cas adds: “When Heaven… vanished, the temporal passages closed. Being caught inside would’ve been… unfortunate.”
“What else can you tell us about Abaddon?” Sam asks.
“You know,” Crowley shifts back, as if sitting on his own tail, “you seem pretty interested in two vintage stiffs. Guy could get the wrong idea.”
“Not us,” Dean says.
“Lucifer,” adds Sam.
“And Michael,” Dean finishes.
This time, the spines on Crowley’s back definitely shift. “Wonderful,” he says. “Of course they are.”
“Luci seems to think there’s some kind of great power to be found,” Dean says.
“We’re pretty sure we don’t want him to find it,” Sam adds.
“Mate, you are not making your case.”
“You’re the only demon left on a planet crawling with angry angels,” Dean says. “Until five minutes ago you were dead, and I think the only reason you haven’t smoked outta this room is you know if you do you’ll be back that way in five more. Way I see it, you tell us what you know and maybe we think about keeping your ugly, scaled ass alive. Or you don’t, and we blow this joint and leave Luce and Mikey to clean up the rest. ‘Cause they? Are not gonna so much as give you the time of day. And we both know it.”
Crowley’s eyes shift; from Dean to Sam to Cas, then back. His jaw works, like he’s rolling something over on his tongue. Then:
“Rumor had it—and it’s just that, a rumor—that before she went missing, Abaddon found herself a pet project.”
“Slaughtering her way through some little boy’s club. The Men of Letters. You know the sort; secret handshakes, vaguely homoerotic rituals, and a vast secret lair filed to the brim with magic artifacts.”
“Did she ever find it?” Sam asks. “The secret, um, ‘lair’?”
“Oh, it’s not about finding it. We’ve always known where it is. The problem was getting in. That place is locked down tighter than granny’s purse.”
“So where is it?”
Crowley grins. “Lebanon, Kansas. Right in the middle of the map. Look for the big power station. Built in the 20s. Lots of Art Deco, you know the type. Even you blind idiots can’t miss it.” Then, without even taking a breath: “Cute rugrat, by the way. You Winchesters always did recruit ‘em young.”
The panic spikes in Cas’ grace, cold and bright and pure, and he’s reaching for his blade even as he turns to the motel room door. Crowley’s been keeping them facing away from it, eyes on him, the whole time, and Cas feels the thought rise, very clearly, If you’ve hurt her there’s nowhere in Creation you can hide…
Except Claire isn’t hurt. She’s peering through the broken front door, fingers white-knuckled on the jamb, eyes wide-bright moons. She’s staring straight at Crowley.
“Fuck,” Dean mutters. Then, to Crowley: “You’re an asshole, you know that right?”
Crowley just shrugs, unrepentant. “Princess, I’m not the one who left her in the car.”
“Claire,” Cas strides forward, gets halfway, then realizes he had no idea what to do.
Claire’s eyes flick to him, briefly, then back to Crowley.
“Hey, cupcake,” says Crowley. “Feeling educated yet?”
Claire takes one step into the room, then another. Cas feels his blade slide into his hand, feels Dean move carefully to flank them, grip careful on the Colt.
“Are you the Devil?” Claire asks. Then, as if in explanation: “‘Cause Dean just said you were an asshole. He said the Devil was an asshole.”
Cowley laughs, loud and surprisingly honest, while Dean buries his face in one palm.
“I’m not the Devil,” Crowley says. “Though I am a devil. My name’s Crowley.”
Claire nods. “Okay.”
“And you’re Claire Novak. Jimmy and Amelia’s little girl.”
Cas feels whatever’s left of his feathers start to bristle.
“How do you know my name?”
“Oh, I keep track of all the important assets. It’s what you’d call my job.”
“Crowley…” Cas growls.
Except Claire says: “Do… do you know where Mom is?”
Crowley actually has the audacity to give Cas a disapproving look. “I did,” he says. “But not for a while now, it seems.”
Claire nods, shoulders slumping. “It’s okay. I think she’s dead.” Sharp intakes of breath from both Winchesters, plus a feeling like someone’s thrust an angel blade through Cas’ heart. “Why else wouldn’t she come home?”
“Cupcake,” Crowley says, “This is not a conversation you should be having with me.”
“Okay. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t apologize to demons, kid. That’s rule one.”
Claire just nods.
Reluctantly, Dean insists they don’t shoot Crowley, under the reasoning that, “You get one pass. And now we’re even.” (Cas just shrugs at Sam’s raised eyebrow. He doesn’t know either.)
So, instead, they send Crowley to Bobby’s with a note. The note, dictated by Sam and written in Crowley’s ornate copperplate on cheap motel stationery, reads:
I was mildly not an asshole in exchange for protection from angels.
Protection is contingent on my continued “good behavior”.*
I am to be smoked immediately on
suspicion reasonable evidence of any “funny business”.*
* Definitions thereof to be determined at the discretion of Mr. Robert Singer and/or his nominated delegate(s).
Then the four of them sign it.
“Think it’ll work?” Dean asks, once Crowley has smoked out in the direction of New Falls.
“Not a chance,” says Sam. “But hopefully trying to slither out of it’ll keep him busy for a while.”
It’s Dean who handles the when-we-say-stay-in-the-car-we-mean-stay-in-the-car chat, Cas looming useless in the background, trying to look paternally authoritative.
“I know it sucks, short stack,” Dean is saying. “I used to hate it when Dad left me behind, too. But we deal with some dangerous sh— er, stuff. And none of us want you getting hurt, okay?”
“I can help, though,” Claire says. She’s clutching her book again. “I can fight monsters.”
Dean just sighs and ruffles a hand through her perpetually tangled hair. “I don’t doubt it,” he says, “but we’re all really hoping it won’t have to come to that, okay?”
“‘Kay,” Claire mumbles, but Cas gets a feeling they haven’t heard the last of it.
They still have to do something with the bodies, and eventually settle on building a pyre. The earth around the motel is hard and barren and they don’t have full-length shovels. So, instead, they smash up motel furniture into a big pile in the centre of the parking lot, wrap the bodies in sheets, and lay them across the top.
“Do you think it really was him?” Sam asks, as they watch the flames build. “Our grandfather, I mean.”
Dean still has the man’s wallet, and is studying a photograph he found inside. He hands it to Sam. “What does it matter? If it was him, he’s dead. If it wasn’t? He’s still dead.”
Sam looks at the photo. “Yeah, but… do you think he was one of them? These Letters people? I mean, it would explain what happened, right? Dad always said his Dad ran out of them but… but what if he didn’t? What if he just… got stuck in a motel closet thanks to a freak time travel accident instead?”
Dean shrugs. Even with muted grace, Cas can tell the nonchalance is affected. “Doesn’t change what happened. Whether he bailed or… or whatever. He wasn’t there.”
Cas remembers once, what seems like a very long time ago, Dean uttering the words, This whole industry runs on absent fathers. It’s the natural order. He hadn’t been talking about hunting at the time, but Cas has known Dean long enough now to know that sometimes what Dean thinks he’s talking about and what he’s actually talking about aren’t the same thing.
When they walk away, Claire is sitting in the car, reading her book, and Sam has the photograph tucked away in a jacket pocket. The flames from the pyre burn to the sky as they drive off.
Two hours later, they get Bobby on the radio.
“You idiots mind telling me why I’ve got a literal goddamn thirty-foot snake in my panic room?”
“I, um. I guess Crowley made it okay?” Sam is biting his lip, trying not to laugh.
Dean, meanwhile, says: “He sent himself to the panic room?”
“No. He sent himself to my goddamn liquor cabinet! Barnes found him complaining about the scotch!”
“How’d he get into the panic room?”
“Barnes and Demian drew a Devil’s Trap on a sheet, snuck up behind him, and threw it over his head. Then they dragged him down there.”
“He weighs a ton!” calls a voice in the background, impossible to tell whose. “I think I put my back out!”
Both Dean and Sam are laughing now. It’s… nice to see. In spite of everything.
“Wish I could’ve been there,” Sam says, completely sincerely.
“I thought all the demons were supposed to be dead?”
“They, um. Were,” Sam says. “And now… one is not.”
There’s a pause at the other end of the line. Then: “You know, most people, they’d learn their lesson after raisin’ the devil the first time.”
Sam winces, but he’s still biting back laughter. “Yeah,” he says, with faux cheer. “Well, you know us!”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
“Say, Bobby,” Sam continues, in the same breath. “You don’t happen to know anything about an, um. ‘Men of Letters’?”
Another pause, and Cas can almost feel Bobby forcing himself to change the topic. “A who of what now?”
“Men of Letters,” Sam repeats. “Some… secret society? They had this symbol, um—” he gestures to Dean, who shifts around to retrieve and hand over the key box. “Like… a six-pointed star?”
“… I know you know what a Star of David is, Sam.”
“No! I mean, yes! But this isn’t that. It’s, like…” He does something with his fingers. Tracing the outline of the symbol. “It’s one line. Not two triangles.”
Bobby makes a thoughtful sound, and for a while the radio is mostly just the rough static of someone shifting things around. When Bobby’s voice comes back, he says: “An Aquarian star? Sorta like two arrowheads on top’a one another?”
“That’s the one.”
“Hm.” More shifting static. “It shows up, here ’n’ there. Protection from evil, looks like.”
“Nothing about the Men of Letters?”
Sam makes a frustrated noise. Dean says: “Who would’ve thought. A secret society that’s actually a secret.”
“You boys chasing this for any particular reason?”
“Maybe,” Sam says. “Could be nothing. Let you know when we get back there.” Which is code for can’t talk now, someone might be listening.
Dean might call the Heavenly choir “angel radio”, but the truth is actual radio signals aren’t that hard to listen to either.
“Sure,” says Bobby. “Meantime, what’m I supposed to do with your little present? He had a note…”
“What’d it say?” Despite his many catastrophic faults, Crowley can usually be relied on to honor a deal once it’s done. Sam’s still wise to check.
Except Booby just scoffs. “Like my eyes’re young enough to read Crowley’s damn loopy chicken-scratch. What’s it supposed to say?”
“He can stay in the AAP so long as he behaves,” Sam says. “If he doesn’t, smoke him. Or kick him out so the Creatures can do it for you.”
“Great. Now I gotta babysit a demon?”
“Well. Technically the panic room is warded from angels,” Dean points out.
“Easy for you to say,” Bobby grumbles. “You can’t hear him singing.”
Dean suppresses a laugh as Sam says, “… Singing?”
“Simple Minds, Sam.”
Dean laughs for real. Bobby must hear it, because he adds: “I’ll get the boys to hook the radio up inside the room. Talent like that deserved to be shared.”
“I don’t think that’ll be necessary.” Sam is laughing too. “Maybe, uh. Get some Traps up around the place?”
“Get a leash and take him for walks,” is Dean’s suggestion.
“You two’re real helpful, you know that?”
“We aim to please,” Sam says brightly. Bobby just grumbles something the microphone doesn’t catch.
They spend the night at a farmhouse. It isn’t abandoned, and the family inside is wary until they catch sight of Claire. Three strange men in a car is, as Dean explains, intimidating. Three strange men with a little girl is another family. Even if explaining the relationship is… difficult.
“He’s my uncle,” Claire says, when the farmer’s wife, Mel Cox, asks. Cas is grateful for her quick thinking, if only because his own answer of she is the last of my vessel bloodline and the daughter of the deceased human of whom this body is a genetic copy may, in retrospect, have raised more questions than it answered.
The family offers them a meal, in exchange for Dean and Sam performing some chores of the heavy-lifting sort. Chopping wood and the like. Cas attempts to help, but is stopped by Mel, who says something about his back.
It takes Cas a moment to realize she means his wings, still hidden beneath the motel sheet. He supposes “injured wings” are not what his oddly hunched silhouette reminds most people of, and he isn’t sure whether to feel grateful or irritated because of it.
“I’m not… it interferes very little,” Cas explains slowly. “I can still help.”
“Oh, no, honey it’s fine. You just—”
“Man wants to help, Mel,” grumbles her husband, Dale. “Not be treated like an invalid.”
Which is how Cas ends up chopping vegetables in the kitchen, watched by Mel’s two younger children. (The third, a girl of about thirteen, is busy showing Claire various books that line a large bookcase in the den.)
Mel’s kitchen knife feels odd in Cas’ hand, and in between the carrots and the potatoes he tests the weight of it almost unconsciously, switching from a backhand to a forehand wield. The action earns him a wide-eyed, “Whoa!” from his audience, and he freezes until it’s followed up with an, “Awesome! Do more!”
“I, uh…” Cas looks at Mel, who’s watching him with a fond smile. “Sorry,” he tells her. “Habit.”
“Hunter or soldier?” Mel asks picking what, Cas assumes, she thinks are the professions most likely to be skilled with a blade.
“Both,” he says, even if not in the way she means.
“Well, thank you for your service.”
“I wanna see more tricks!” the youngest, a boy, demands.
“Maybe later honey, if Mister, um—”
“—is feeling up to it. But we don’t play with knives in the kitchen. It’s dangerous.”
Dinner is a simple, wholesome affair of stew and fresh-baked bread. The Coxes say grace beforehand. Sam joins in, Cas abstains, Claire follows his lead, and—for some inexplicable reason—Dean chokes on his beer and spends the entire time staring resolutely at his plate, cheeks burning red.
“Not a prayin’ man, Cas?” Dale asks once the meal has started. He has a sharp sort of look as he says it, one that has the Winchesters tensing even as Mel none-too-subtly kicks her husband under the table.
“That’s… a complicated question,” Cas says.
“Don’t see how.”
“Dale…” Mel hisses.
“Theologically, there’s very little for me to pray to,” Cas says, because this is true. Inasmuch as angels pray, they do so to Father. Except that no longer seems the option it once was, for more than one reason.
“Don’t tell me you’re one a’them ‘God is dead’ types,” Dale says. “Think the Creatures are demons freed from Hell ‘cause He don’t exist to hold ‘em down no more.”
Cas physically recoils at the words, nausea curling in his gut. It hadn’t occurred to him, that people would look at his pitiful, deranged brothers and see demons. He’s still trying to form a response when Dean saves him the trouble.
“The Creatures ain’t demons.”
“Demons are usually shorter, for one,” Sam adds.
Dale makes a contemplative sound, gaze searching between the three of them. Finally, he says:
“Heard a funny story on the radio the other day. Supposedly there’s two men out there traveling in a big black car with one’a the Lord God’s own angels. Don’t suppose you’d know anything ‘bout that, would you?”
Next to her husband, Mel folds her hands and prays for forgiveness. Silently, but Cas is close enough that he can hear it, even with wounded grace.
Claire, meanwhile, covers her face with both hands and, not entirely softly, groans: “You guys are the worst.”
Cas meets Dale’s stare and, very carefully, extends his wings. Not enough that the ruined skin peeks out from underneath the sheet, but certainly far enough that the shape of them is unmistakable.
(Mel gasps at the sight, while her youngest son exclaims, “Awesome!” Claire’s new friend leans over and whispers, “Your uncle is an angel!” To which Claire promptly hisses, “Don’t remind me!”)
Dale meanwhile, just nods, jaw working. “Alright,” he says, as Cas resettles his wings. “Alright then, angel. Just… just one question, then.” Cas nods, and so: “What… what did we do wrong?”
Of all the things Cas was expecting, that isn’t one. “I… excuse me?”
“Just… it musta been something, right? To make God so angry that He’d… He’d send the Creatures. Or… or not stop ‘em when they came. It’s just… there was the Covenant. After the Flood, I mean. That God… begging your pardon, but He promised that He wouldn’t destroy us again? So, I just… what did we do wrong? We musta broke it somehow. And I just… I been a God-fearin’ man all my life. I try to do right. And now I… I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what’s right no more.”
Everything is very quiet, just the dull snap of burning logs from the fireplace. Cas is suddenly very conscious that every eye is focused on him, waiting for his response. Even Dean and Sam, though maybe not for the same reason as the Coxes.
“I can’t… I’m sorry, I can’t speak for Father. But I think… what’s happening now, it isn’t a punishment. Not intentionally.” Beneath the table, Cas’ hand balls into a fist, blunt fingernails digging into the burn on his palm, sending lances of pain up his arm. “Something has gone very wrong with Creation, but it isn’t… I don’t think it’s Father’s wrath. Father loved Earth and He loved humanity, for all your difference and all your flaws. And I think… if you want to honor Him, then you should honor that. Love the world, and each other, as He loved you.”
The silence that greets the statement is… unsettling. Truth be told, Cas hates this. When humans look to him for guidance on Father’s plan, as if Cas knows any more than they do. He’s used to the Winchesters, who ask Cas things because they want Cas’ answers, not answers on behalf of an absent and unknowable Father.
Still, Cas can’t deny Dale Cox his question, can’t deny the man his search for a small grain of comfort in this harsh and broken world. So Cas gives what he can—the only thing he can—and hopes that it’s enough.
Dale, for his part, nods. He nods and looks away and raises a hand to his cheek to brush away the tear. His wife puts a hand on his shoulder to comfort him, and his children cling to each other to do the same.
“Yeah,” Dale says, after a moment. “Yeah, I… Thanks. Thank you. We will.”
Cas nods. He feels a warm hand grasp his shoulder and shake, just a little. When he turns, Dean is looking at him with a half-formed smile and soft eyes and Cas thinks that maybe, just maybe, it’s okay.
While the others sleep, Cas wards the farm against angels. He’s in the barn surrounded by the smell of horses and just putting the finishing touches on a sigil when the animals begin to whinny. Cas has one moment to straighten up before the reek of sulfur and ash sends his bloodfeathers bristling and, a moment later, a patch of shadow smokes and solidifies.
“I would ask ‘what the fucking Hell happened’,” Crowley says, by way of greeting, “but the irony is a bit too obvious.”
The demon in question emerges from the darkness of the barn; six red flame-bright eyes followed by the heavy, sinuous weave of muscle and fat and scale and spine.
“Picture it,” Crowley says, body leaning against Cas’ and claws spreading as if to indicate all the things Cas should be picturing. “There’s me, Crowley, King of Hell, standing at the Gates of Heaven. Standing where the Gates of Heaven should be. Except, oh wait. There’s nothing there. Just a big empty fucking space. And another one in Hell. Then a third and, hey, looks like we found the ol’ Purgatory after all. Except oh, wait. It’s fucking empty. Just like everything else. What the fuck?” He hisses, backing off to… “pace” isn’t quite the right word, though the intent is apropos.
“You’re frightening the animals,” Cas says, because the horses are nickering and stamping, distressed at the presence of something seething and unnatural.
“I told you the other realms were gone.”
“I don’t know.”
“Billions of souls, Kentucky Fried. The blessed, the damned, and everything in between. All gone. You aren’t telling me that shit just disappears!”
“I have no answers for you.”
This earns him a face full of fangs and a hissed, “Bullshit!”
Cas neither blinks nor flinches. Even wounded and weakened, he isn’t afraid of Crowley.
“That was my realm,” Crowley says. “Mine! I worked hard for that!”
Cas doubts this, but says nothing.
“I asked those neurotic scrapyard meatsacks. They say this ‘just happened’. How did something like this ‘just happen’?”
“I told you—”
“You have ‘no answers’. Yeah, yeah. Bloody useless fledgling mook.” Crowley hisses again, this time more of a frustrated exhale, and raises one claw to rub across his snout in an oddly human gesture. “Right. Fine. Hell is gone, Lucifer is loose… Fine. We’re all dead. I was already dead! It was all right, you know. Being dead. Just nothing. Relaxing. But now? Full steam apocalypse panic! Again! And you morons, again.” He takes a deep breath, exhales. “Bloody fantastic.”
Cas still has nothing to say, so remains stoic. It doesn’t seem to matter. It never does, with Crowley. Sometimes, Cas thinks, Crowley just needs someone to rant at. It’s for spectating more so than participation.
“So what now?” Crowley finally asks.
“Now, Dean and Sam and I will deal with Lucifer and Michael.”
Crowley gives him an inscrutable look, all six goat-pupil eyes seemingly folded into differing expressions. “Ri-ii-ii-ight,” he says.
“I suggest you return to Bobby’s. You’ve been given a rare opportunity, the first demon who ever has. I’d suggest not squandering it.”
Crowley gives a hissing sort of laugh. “I suppose you’d know from experience, yeah?” Then, before Cas can reply: “Toodles!” And then he’s gone, and Cas is alone in the barn.
Sam is sitting on the porch, cradling a glass and a bottle of Maker’s, when Cas returns to the farmhouse.
Sam waves him off. “I’m fine. Couldn’t sleep.”
Sam is not fine, Cas can tell this from both the pallor in Sam’s skin and the weak flickering of his damaged soul.
“I said I’m fine!” Sam snaps, then instantly folds back in on himself in regret. “Sorry, I just… sorry.”
Cas doesn’t move, just stands quiet and watchful. He’s found that, more of than not, silence will entice confession more than words.
In this instance, Sam does not disappoint.
“It’s… it’s the Cage, okay? I just… When, um, I did”—he mines reaching out and tearing something free—”I… I started remembering it. Not everything. Bits and pieces. And if I lie down, and close my eyes, it’s like…” He trails off, making an abortive gesture in the air.
“I’m sorry I can’t help.”
Sam just smiles, thin and pained. “It’s fine, Cas,” he says. “I’m not telling you this because I expect—”
Cas thins his lips in frustration. “Sam,” he says. “I can’t help. My grace is too weak. If it weren’t, I would gladly try.”
“Oh.” Sam looks away, biting at his lip. “Um. Thanks. Yeah, thanks man, I… I appreciate it.” Sam pauses for a moment, then: “And that helps. Just, y’know. Knowing you give a shit.”
Cas frowns. It’s true that he hasn’t always been kind to Sam, but: “Of course I do.” He loves Sam. It’s not the same love he has for Dean, but nor is it the sort of general love he feels for all Father’s favored creations. It’s… sharper, more direct. Cas loves Sam because Sam is a good man. One so good he was prepared to suffer eternal to save the world. One who, despite every manipulation—the murder of his loved ones, the violation of his body, his mind, his soul—keeps believing, keeps fighting. Keeps sacrificing himself to save others from suffering. How can Cas not “give a shit” about that?
“Hey, um, Cas?”
Sam pauses. He’s staring off at nothing in particular, mouth pressed as if he’s considering how to phrase his next words. “I just, um. I want you to know, whatever happens—whatever did happen—its been good having you around, man. Real good.”
Cas tilts his head, considering. “It’s been good being around.” And it has been. Despite everything else—despite mad angels and an obliterated Heaven—traveling with the Winchesters has been… good. Better than good. It’s been everything.
“I mean,” Sam is saying. “After the Landing, before Hawaii… it was rough. For Dean especially. Not knowing where you were, whether you were okay… he took it hard. Harder than he’ll ever admit.”
Cas nods, even though Sam isn’t looking at him. He thinks of those awful weeks, between returning to himself and relocating the brothers. Lost and alone in a sea of screaming madness, hunted by his own family and exiled into a realm he didn’t fit. The joy he’d felt in San Francisco, at seeing the flare burst above the cruise ship, knowing Sam and Dean had fired it for him, had been… transcendental. A pure-bright gratitude he hadn’t known for centuries, maybe hadn’t known since the beginning of Creation.
“Cas…” Sam says, carefully. “Dean, he, um. Maybe I shouldn’t say this, but, um. He loves you.” This last pushed out in a rush, like some kind of confession.
Cas scowls in confusion. “Yes,” he says. “I know. I love him, too.”
“Right.” Sam sighs, which isn’t the reaction Cas expects. “Right, sure. But, I mean. Like, loves in… in the human way.”
“Yes,” Cas agrees. “Dean desires sexual and romantic intimacy but is unsure how to pursue it with an entity, myself, that’s both non-human and that he perceives as male. I reciprocate his feelings but am… inexperienced. But I’m patient. So I’ll wait. And when Dean is ready, I’ll be here.”
Sam just stares at him, mouth slightly parted in surprise. Cas returns the gaze evenly and, after a moment, Sam snorts, lips curling up into a smile. “I think… We underestimate you, don’t we?”
Cas allows his own small smile. “Sometimes,” he confesses.
Sam laughs. It isn’t loud, but it’s real and it’s happy, and it soothes Cas’ grace to hear it, to have been the cause of it.
“Though I confess,” Cas adds, “I had help.”
Sam squints, considering. Then: “Demian and Barnes.”
“They were very kind.” And very patient in explaining what Cas thinks of as certain modern cultural trends. Cas has watched humanity for millennia. Humans, in his experience, are very… human, no matter when or where he finds himself amongst them. There are certain constants to their existence, and love and sex are two of those. Cas knows what they are; knows the texture they leave in a soul and the flavor they imbue to his grace. He’s even been the object of longing and desire before. Most angels who’ve been to Earth have, at one point or another, because angels are beautiful and powerful and full of Father’s love for His Creation, and humans can feel as much, even if they don’t know what it is they’re feeling. Cas’ vessels have been male and they’ve been female and he’s been desired by men and women in equal measure. The difference now is that he’s free to desire in return, constrained neither by the edicts or Heaven nor by consideration for his vessel’s human life.
For the first time in Cas’ existence, the only person who can tell him his desire for Dean Winchester is wrong is Dean Winchester.
“Well,” Sam is saying, “you’ve got my vote. Dean, I mean… he’s my brother. I want him to be happy.”
“I want Dean to be happy too.”
“I know, man. And he’s gonna fight you every step of the way there, trust me. But… he’ll come around. And I’m cheering for you two. You both deserve it.”
“Thank you,” says Cas, and means it more than he can say.
Sam falls asleep on the porch steps sometime just before dawn. It’s a restless and twitching sleep, full of soft whimpers and sharp breaths, and so Cas stands guard as best he can, reaching out with what little grace he has to try and soothe and calm. The shards of Lucifer have been pulled out, but the wounds remain, seeping and fetid. Even if Cas weren’t injured himself, he still wouldn’t know how to heal them.
While he stands, he thinks. There are, he has to admit to himself, certain things he’s been avoiding. Secrets he’s been keeping, both from the Winchesters and from himself. It’d seemed easy enough, before, to hold them close and not reveal them, if for no other reason than they hadn’t seem relevant to the new and broken world. But now, with Lucifer freed and Crowley returned, with the angry red scar of a burn that won’t heal, no matter how many times he recreates his vessel…
Cas sighs. Not so long ago, things had seemed so simple; millennia flowing by with little change in thought or order. Now, every day feels like being tossed through a storm, reeling and unrelenting, Cas reaching blindly to hold onto any solid thing he can.
“Hey. You been up all night?”
Dean, emerging from the farmhouse, sleep-rough and wearing only shorts and a too-tight too-thin t-shirt. Cas allows himself the sight, allows himself the thought of his hands on bed-warmed skin, carding through soft hair and caressing firm swells of muscle. The fantasy curls soft and hot in his belly, and he allows it to settle, to bring the smile to his lips. Human reactions for a human body, and Cas is slowly learning how to feel them.
Dean pauses next to Cas, eyes settling on where Sam is slumped against the porch railing. “Is he…?” Dean asks, then swallows thickly, unwilling to give voice to his fears.
“Sam is strong,” Cas says, not quite in answer to the question.
Dean nods. “Yeah. Yeah, he is.” Then, after a moment: “We should hit the road. You wanna go wake Claire?”
Cas’ lips curl into a rueful grin. “No,” he says, completely sincerely, even as he moves to do it anyway.
Dean just chuckles, thumping him on the shoulder good-naturedly as he does.
Cas has faced down the hordes of Hell and faced off against not one but two archangels. None of those experiences have anything on trying to rouse a surly pre-teen from bed before nine in the morning. He eventually gets Claire to capitulate to something like a shower, then waits patiently for his own turn.
In the bathroom, he locks the door and runs a washcloth over his skin and a toothbrush across his teeth. He needs a shave but decides the task can wait; Sam practically has a beard all the time now and Dean’s not far behind, which Cas takes as a cue that facial hair is back in style. Inspecting his wings is less pleasant. The room is small enough that he can’t fully stretch them and the size of the mirror means he can’t see the back. Nonetheless, bloodfeathers are coming through along the pinions and the covets. Slower than Cas would like, but they’re healing. It could be worse.
By the time Cas is done in the bathroom, breakfast is on in the kitchen; bacon and pancakes and syrup and espresso coffee from a machine as big and black and chrome as the Impala.
Cas makes his decision sometime between his second cup of coffee and third helping of pancakes. He waits until after breakfast to act on it. Claire is packed and flicking through old magazines with the Coxes’ daughter, and it’s probably the best time Cas is going to get. If things go… poorly, he doesn’t believe the Coxes will evict them, at least until Cas is well enough to fly them somewhere else.
“Dean, Sam,” Cas starts. “I need to… tell you something.”
The brothers exchange a glance, but readily put aside their duffles in favor of focusing on Cas.
“Sure, buddy,” Dean says. “What’s up?”
“It’s… there’s something I think you should know,” Cas starts. His spine is pulled very straight and he can’t meet Dean’s eyes when he speaks. “It’s something I did. Before… before all of this.”
“In the angel war?” Dean asks.
“Yes. I haven’t told you this because it didn’t seem… relevant.” Cas pauses, decides if he’s being truthful, he may as well be fully truthful, so: “And because I was ashamed.”
“You, um. You know you can tell us anything, right?” Sam says.
Cas sighs, stares very resolutely at the wall, and says:
“I told you once the war wasn’t going well. The truth was… We were up against Raphael. An archangel. There shouldn’t even have been a war to start with. You’ve seen the archangels’ power for yourselves; Raphael should’ve been able to quash our… rebellion with a thought.”
“But he didn’t, obviously?” Sam says.
“But…?” Dean prompts.
“To stand against an archangel I needed to find a way to be as powerful as an archangel.”
Cas is still staring at the join between the ceiling and the wall, but he can hear the sound of shifting denim as the brothers share another look in silent communication.
“And you found one?” Dean says. Cas nods, and tries to tell himself Dean’s voice doesn’t sound like an accusation when it adds: “Dude. I’d say that’s very fucking ‘relevant’ right now, yeah?”
Cas says nothing, and it’s Sam who asks:
“So what did you do?”
And Cas answers:
“I did a deal with Crowley.”
He tells them everything: from watching Dean rake leaves, to using Crowley’s souls against Raphael, to resurrecting Sam, to the hunt for Purgatory.
Sam is quiet through most of the story, Dean is livid.
“I can’t fucking believe…” he says, at multiple points, thumb and forefinger punching at the bridge of his nose as if warding off a headache.
When Cas runs out of words, he stops, then waits silently for whatever judgement the Winchesters dole out.
The silence is long and awful, and eventually broken by Sam raising his head from his hands and exhaling, long and loud.
“Is this… The Landing. Is what you were doing—?”
“No,” Cas says, because he honestly believes it. “At least… not directly.”
“If… if someone discovered what we were doing, it’s possible they could have tried to… preempt it. But obliterating Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory wholesale… there isn’t a single being in Creation capable of such a thing.” Truthful, if only because, technically, Father existed outside of the worlds He made.
“You sure Purgatory’s gone? How do you know if you never found it?”
“There is a… space,” Cas says. “Similar to the ones that exist for Heaven and Hell. Crowley also believes it to have once been Purgatory.”
“Oh, he does, does he?” Dean interjects. “When, exactly, did he get time to ‘believe’ this?”
“He spoke to me last night—”
“I thought he was locked up at Bobby’s?”
“So he just, what? Busted out, did some inter-dimensional scouting, then popped in to chat about it?”
That hurts. It’s not undeserved, but it still hurts. “Dean…”
“Is this why you got us to resurrect that piece of shit? Because you’re, what? Fuckin’ besties? I can’t fucking believe you!”
“Raphael intended to continue Michael and Lucifer’s work. Unopposed, he would’ve obliterated humanity. What else would you’ve had me do?”
“Not do deals with Crowley, of all people! You were just going to hand over half a box of unlimited power to that egg-stinking asshole?”
“Of course not!” Cas snaps. “You think I would truly offer that much power to a demon?”
Dean blinks. “Wait,” he says. “Wait, you were planning on backstabbing him?”
“Er…” When Dean puts it like that, it doesn’t sound quite as… honorable as Cas had imagined it.
And then, quite inexplicably, Dean laughs. “Holy shit,” he mutters, not to Cas. “Holy shit this is messed up. I didn’t think things could get more messed up, but… hah! Of course they can!”
“It’s the Winchester Way,” Sam adds, with something that might almost be a smile.
The smile isn’t for Cas, and he sighs. Returns his eyes to the wall and says: “I understand if this… changes things.”
“Damn right it does,” Dean says.
It hurts. It’s what Cas expected, but it’s no more than he deserves. He betrayed the brothers’ trust. Consorting with demons. And, worse, he’d hurt Sam; torn him open and used Sam’s soulless body for his own ends. His own excuses—that he’d had no other choice, that he’d been doing it for the greater good—suddenly seem hollow and small in comparison.
“I understand,” Cas says. “I… Claire and I will stay here until I’m healed enough to fly. I will find somewhere safe for her. And know that— that despite everything, I still… you are still important to me. If you call for me I will—”
“Whoa whoa whoa!” Dean, who had been pacing on the far side of the room, is suddenly very close. And very angry. “What the fuck?”
“I—” Cas recoils, unsure. “You—”
“You think we’re gonna kick you out!”
“I betrayed your trust. I—”
Dean punches him. Not hard, and only in the shoulder. The impact still startles Cas to silence.
“You fucking idiot!”
“Cas,” Sam says, quieter and more collected than his brother. “We’re not gonna throw you out ‘cause you fucked up.”
“And you did!” Dean emphasizes it with a stab of his finger against Cas’ chest. “You fucked up big time!”
“Well, good! So don’t do it again!”
“I—” Cas doesn’t know what to say. He looks first to Dean (furious), then to Sam (resigned).
“We’ve all messed up, Cas,” Sam says. “That’s what humans do. The usual expression is ‘it’s not the end of the world’ but, uh. In our case, maybe not so much.” He gives a tight smile. “The point is, you learn from it and move on.”
“Right,” says Dean. “New family rules: no deals with demons and no sneaking around keeping secrets. Okay?”
Cas bites his lip, fist clenching. To Sam he says: “I’m sorry.”
Sam just shrugs, hands open in a gesture of peace. “I won’t lie,” he says. “I’m pretty pissed off. But I… there’s so much other shit. I can’t deal with this right now, too.”
Cas nods, accepting. It’s more understanding than he deserves, he knows.
Dean’s hand lands on Cas’ shoulder, big and heavy and warm, and gives it a shake. “You were right to tell us,” he says. “We’re still pissed, but…” He sighs, looks at his brother, then looks back. “But it happened. Can’t change that. You’re family, and God only knows this family? Makes some pretty fuckin’ awful decisions. We’ll get through this one, too.” A pause, then: “But you’d better believe the next time I see that shit-slithering demon I’m gonna give him a fucking holy water fucking enema right up the… whatever the fuck snakes have instead of assholes.”
(“Cloaca,” Sam supplies, helpfully.)
Cas just closes his eyes, huffs a laugh, and nods.
Dean gives Cas’ shoulder another shake, and Cas allows himself to enjoy the sensation. It’s a small gesture of connection, but the bright spark of warm hope that it brings is anything but. Forgiveness, Cas thinks, and the notion is strange. He’s an angel, made to be the perfect instrument of the will of God. Requiring and receiving absolution isn’t something he’s used to. The feel of it is… conflicting. Awful, that he should require it.
And still wonderful, that it might yet be received.
It takes the better part of the day to reach Lebanon. The place is a tiny, barely there blip of a few hundred souls next to the highway, untouched and still inhabited.
The people are in their yards and on the street, tending crops and livestock. They watch the Impala with a kind of careful suspicion, shotguns and rifles within reach but not raised. Dean rolls the car up and his window down next to one cluster of people, then flashes his best smile and asks about the power station.
It’s an older woman who replies, although her eyes are fixed on Cas rather than Dean.
“You the boys with the angel?” she asks.
“News travels fast all of a sudden,” Sam mutters, although they’ve been listening to KRFW and so have heard the broadcasts about their travels.
“I’m Dean,” Dean says, not quite answering the question. “This is my brother Sam, our friend Cas, and his niece Claire. We’ve come down from Sioux, er, New Falls.”
“You know Bobby Singer, then?”
“Yes, ma’am. Since we were kids.”
Bobby’s name works like a charm, and five minutes later they’re driving a roughshod road out of town.
The drive is longer than they expect, to the point Sam and Dean start debating whether to turn back and double-check the directions. In the end, however, it’s Claire who points out the window at a shadow looming on the horizon and asks, “Is that it?”
Crowley, as it turns out, hadn’t been lying when he’d told them they “couldn’t miss it”.
The building is an enormous, bleak concrete structure jutting like the Kaaba over the landscape. Sam whistles as they approach it, leaning forward to get a better look. “They sure don’t make ‘em like this any more.”
The building has obviously seen better days, the concrete is corroding and streaked with rust, but looks solid nonetheless. There’s a patch of land that looks like it had once been a sort of car lot, and Dean parks the Impala there as they all climb out and crane their necks up at the looming building.
“Some secret base,” Dean says. “It looks like a goddamn castle.”
“Guess we try and find our way in,” is Sam’s suggestion.
Getting inside the building proves both suspiciously easy and disappointingly mundane; the doors are unlocked and the inside is filled with old-fashioned consoles and humming machinery.
“Guess it really is a power station,” Sam says, inspecting a console. “I wonder how it’s still operational?”
“Magic,” Cas says, because he can feel it, itching through his grace. “This place… someone’s poured a great deal of effort into preserving it.” The wards aren’t quite forcing Cas to leave so much as very strongly suggesting he might like to. They aren’t designed for angels but there are enough catch-all protections from non-humans that it’s clear his presence wasn’t wanted by the building’s original owners.
“So… this is it?” Dean is looking around skeptically. “As far as ‘great powers’ go, this seems kinda literal.”
“What about the key?” Sam asks.
So Dean takes out the key and the brothers spend a great deal of time studying it and waving it around and generally attempting to get it to do something. It resolutely fails to do so.
Cas is so busy watching he’s not paying much attention to Claire. She’s exploring the space on her own, running her hands across dusty equipment and peering into empty cupboards. But it isn’t until she starts jumping up to look out the windows that she calls:
“Um. Is there supposed to be a tiny house out here?”
Sam and Dean are still busy arguing over the key, paying no attention. So it’s Cas who wanders over alone.
“Out the window, see?” Claire points, jumping and standing on tip-toes to try and peer outside. Cas, who is somewhat taller than a twelve-year-old, is able to look without the theatrics. He isn’t sure what he’s expecting, but it turns out to be exactly what Claire described: a tiny house.
It looks like a cross between a trailer and a log cabin; wheeled and obviously meant to be towed behind a vehicle. But the sides are done in wood paneling and the roof is a cascade of plant-life. The whole house is set in the middle of a garden, in fact; fruits and vegetables and herbs share space with ornamental plants, a wisteria-draped gazebo, a row of beehives, a chicken coup, and what looks like a small herd of goats. Like someone has an entire tiny farm hidden away behind the power station.
“Cas? What’cha got?” Dean, with Sam close behind. Cas gestures them to the window.
“Huh,” Dean says after a moment. “Would you look at that. Guess we’d better say hi to the locals.”
The garden is no less impressive close up, sprawling all along one side of the building. The little house on wheels doesn’t have a door so much as it has two big glass sliding segments in the center. They’re currently open, curtains billowing slightly in the breeze, a small living room with a wooden floor and two chairs and a cream shag rug visible just beyond.
“Well, this is quaint,” Dean mutters as they approach. Then, louder: “Hey! Hello? Anyone there?”
Five small steps lead up over the house’s wheels and into the den. Dean walks up them, one hand on either side of the open doorway as he puts his head in. “Hello?”
The inside of the house is more wood panelling and cream tiles. To the left, two steps lead up into a small but fully functional kitchen. To the right, an open door leads to a combined bathroom/laundry. Every empty surface is covered in plants. Herbs, by the smell of it, overflowing from rough timber bookshelves and lining the edges of the kitchen counters.
“Someone’s really into gardening,” Sam says.
“No way this is abandoned,” Dean adds. Then he steps up into the house.
They all hear the click of the gun at the same time. Dean and Sam are halfway through drawing their own weapons, Cas has stepped into front of Claire, useless wings half-opening to shield her. Then the voice says:
“D-drop the weapons and get out. I don’t want to shoot you, but I will!”
It’s a woman’s voice. She’s in the space above the bathroom; a loft bed, ladder pulled up and duvet still covering her head from where she’s been hiding. She’s holding a pistol but her grip on it isn’t steady. It doesn’t mean she won’t shoot, only that she might miss if she tries.
Very slowly, Dean raises his hands. “Whoa,” he says. “No need for that, sweetheart. We ain’t here to hurt you.”
“Yeah?” the woman says. “Bunch of strange men come crashing into my house, out here in the middle of nowhere? Color me skeptical.”
Dean does his usual spiel: “Name’s Dean. Giant Jesus over there is my brother, Sam. Scruffy Plato is our friend Cas, short stack is his niece, Claire.”
The woman chews on her lip, eyes darting between the four of them. “What the hell’s wrong with your friend’s back?”
Cas refolds his wings, straightening and trying not to let his affront overly show. From Dean’s chuckle, he suspects he doesn’t succeed.
“Cas, Castiel, is an angel. They’re his wings.”
“Like fuck they are. Show me.”
“No,” says Cas, who is not putting himself on display for a stranger. “Also, please don’t use that word in front of Claire.”
(“Ugh. I’ve heard swears before,” is Claire’s response, complete with unnecessary emphasis and accompanying eye roll.)
“Wh-what are you doing out here?”
“We’re investigating the big building over there,” Sam says, leaning into the house, apparently unconcerned that the woman is still pointing her gun in Dean’s vicinity. “Know anything about it?”
“I know it’s got power and water,” the woman says. “And thus, so do I.”
“A friend of ours, um. He left us a key,” Sam says. “We know it’s for this place but we can’t find where, exactly.”
“Why don’t you ask him?”
“Well,” Dean says. “Bit hard, given his corpse is busy feeding the worms and our direct line to Heaven dried up a while back.”
“Angel not earning his keep, huh?”
“You know how it is. Just can’t get good wifi since the world went to shit.”
The woman eyes them again then, finally, lowers her gun. “Rilla,” she says. “Call me Rilla. And don’t swear in front of the kid. Angel’s orders.”
When she comes down from the loft, Rilla turns out to be a short, plump woman with olive skin and hair and cleavage in equal, and copious, amounts.
She also offers them rose-hip tea and honey-drizzled qatayef stuffed with goat’s cheese. Cas must get an odd look when he eats them, because Rilla asks him if everything’s okay.
“I haven’t eaten these in a long time,” Cas says, honestly.
Rilla’s eyes dart to his shoulders, where the hunch of his wings sits heavy and awkward under the sheet. “When you say ‘a long time’…?”
“I mean we didn’t have wifi.”
“They’re really good,” is Sam’s opinion, reaching to take more. “What did you call them?”
“Qatayef,” Rilla says. “You’re supposed to only eat them during Ramadan, but…” She shrugs. “The goats make the cheese and the bees make the honey, and I like them.”
“I ate an Easter egg in September once,” Dean confesses. “No one died.” He pauses for a moment. “Well. Not ‘cause of that.”
As they eat, they get Rilla’s story.
“I used to do tech journalism in the Valley,” she says. “WIRED, GigaOm, that sort of thing. Unicorn hunting, and I was good at it; I could pick the start ups that were going to make it from the ones that were going to fold. It was pretty much the Valley dream, you know? Nice apartment, fat paycheck, job I didn't totally hate.” Rilla shrugs.
“Then, about two, three years ago… bam. Wake up one morning and it's like someone’s downloaded an OS update overnight. I get, like, this primal urge to get out. Just drop everything and run. So I did. Jumped in my car and just started driving, following wherever that feeling took me.”
“And you ended up here?” Sam asks.
“Yup. Soon as I saw this place I was like, here. Here’s where I'm supposed to be. Got the cabin made by a tiny house specialist in Texas, taught myself micro-farming, and here we are.” She gestures to the room. “Livin’ the Good Life life. Then the Landing happens and… well. Suddenly it all makes sense. I’d be dead by now if I'd stayed in the Valley. I dunno what came over me that day when I left, but I thank God every night that it did.”
Sam scowls, thoughtful. “Have you, uh. Had anything else like that?” he asks. “Premonitions? Visions from, um. God?”
Rilla shakes her head. “Nope, just the one.”
“You thinkin’ she’s Chuck 2.0?” Dean asks, chair creaking as he leans back in a languid stretch.
“I’m thinking Chuck sent us here for some reason…”
“Who’s Chuck?” asks Rilla, at the same time as Cas says, “She's not a Prophet.”
Dean turns to him. “You sure?”
Cas nods. “Yes.”
Dean shrugs. “You'd know, I guess.”
Sam, meanwhile, is saying: “Chuck is, uh. The friend who gave us the key to the building out there. We think. He was, um. A Prophet.”
Rilla’s eyebrows hike up her brow. “A prophet as in Idris-Ibrahim-Musa capital-p Prophet, or…?”
“Chuck Shurley was a Prophet of the Lord,” Cas clarifies, because humans are more likely to accept the word of angels on things like this.
“Wow.” Rilla leans back, exhaling. “Wow.”
“We think he was murdered,” Sam says.
“That seems like a bad career move. Murdering the Prophets of God.”
“It's not easy,” Dean says. “They usually come with archangel babysitters. ‘Cept Heaven was starting to run short.”
“Do… I want to know why?”
“Bit of an apocalypse a few years back. Gabe got knocked off by Luce, Luce and Mikey got thrown in angel jail. Raf was left running the ship and I guess he got, uh. Distracted.”
Cas’ wings shift, just slightly. Dean doesn't look his way.
“You do this a lot, then?” Rilla says. “Apocalypses and angels?”
“Only the last few years. Before that it was just regular stuff; ghosts and demons, that sort of thing.”
“Man, I never thought I'd say this,” Sam adds, “but I kinda miss the ghosts.”
Rilla whistles. “You know, not long ago, I would've thought you were crazy.” She pauses. “I mean… I still do. But… I believe you, too. After the Landing… I'd believe pretty much anything after that.”
Sam just shrugs. “Anyway, that's why we're here.”
“You're a regular pair of Blues Brothers, you know that, right?”
“On a mission from Chuck.” Dean grins.
“So anything you can tell us about the building,” Sam adds, “that'd be really helpful.”
Rilla considers this. “Not much to tell. I've searched inside but there's not much there. Just machinery. It never breaks down, never needs maintenance… Nice roof space, though. I was thinking of extending the garden up there. But I guess that's not really what you're after?”
“Hey, um. Do you have a pen? I wanna draw something.”
Rilla does, in fact, have a pen. And a notebook, and she brings both to Sam. He draws a picture of the six-pointed Aquarian star, and holds it up. “Have you seen anything like this around?”
Rilla looks at the star, then looks again, closer. “You know what,” she says. “Yeah. Yeah, I think I have.”
There’s a door beneath the power station, a six-pointed star engraved into the jamb. Rilla calls it “the Hobbit hole” and says it’s the only door she’s never managed to get open.
“Is always assumed it was, I dunno. Maintenance tunnels.”
“It looks like some kind of… of bomb shelter,” Sam says, inspecting the door. “Or a bunker.”
“Well,” Dean steps forward, key in hand. “Let’s open her up.”
The key fits into the lock, the door opening with a squeal of hinges into a large, dark space beyond.
Dean and Sam enter first, weapons drawn. Cas stays back with Rilla and Claire, blade in hand and wings mantling. The crackle of wards is stronger here than outside, almost a physical wall he has to push through to enter. He suspects the only reason he can at all is because Dean used the key.
The five of them descend into the space.
“Look at this.” Sam has a flashlight in one hand and is sweeping over a bank of consoles. “Ham radio, telegraph, switchboard…”
“Is this… it’s like some kind of Cold War military base,” Rilla says. “This stuff’s gotta be half a century old at least.” She runs a hand along the top of one of the machines, then turns it over to inspect her fingers. “No dust,” she says.
“You think someone’s been cleaning up?” Sam asks.
Rilla shrugs. “Haven’t seen anyone,” she says. “But—”
“Doesn’t mean no-one’s here,” Dean finishes.
The radio room opens into another area, this one partially lit. As they move into it, Dean gives a low whistle.
“I think we found the Batcave.”
The space in enormous, finished with marble and polished wood, bookcases lining the edges and long tables running through the middle. The complex sprawls deep beyond what they can see; stairs ascending to a second floor mezzanine as well as more doors leading deeper underground.
“Holy sh— er, crap,” Rilla says. “I was sitting on this the whole time?”
“Signs point to occupation.” Sam taps the silver cover of a laptop, humming on one of the tables. The screen is locked, but the background is a pentagram surrounded by flame. Cas didn’t think demons could possess computer equipment, though he supposes it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.
“I smell pizza.” Claire, who has wandered over to look at the books, announces.
The pizza-smell turns out to be coming from a kitchen, oven slowly reheating the item in question. The appliances are dated but functional, the sink covered in an assortment of dishes, both dirty and clean. The trash is filled with empty cans and boxes from frozen meals, which elicits a disapproving sound from Rilla.
They’re halfway through exploring a corridor of bedrooms when they hear the shower. Or, rather, hear the shower stop; the running water had been white noise, indistinguishable from the general hum of the building until ceasing.
They find the shower room by the steam. The door is closed but the air is damp, and someone is moving around on the far side. Sam and Dean flank the door, Cas stands guard over the women some distance down the hall. They’ve already had guns pointed on them once today. No one wants a repeat performance.
As it turns out, the showering person is not armed. She emerges from the room dressed in a grey robe with her hair up in a towel, a screams the instant she sees them, dropping an armful of clothing and toiletries in her shock. She has a painfully vivacious scream, amplified by the hard surfaces of the hall, but it cuts off suddenly as she leans forward and says:
“Oh, thank God!” The woman, Becky Rosen Cas assumes, lunges forward and embraces Sam vigorously enough to send him staggering. “You’re alive!” she’s saying. “You made it!” She kisses him, although Sam isn’t enthusiastic by the reception, judging from the way he gently peels her off.
“Becky,” Sam repeats. “What… how did you get here?”
“What do you mean? I—” She looks around, brow furrowed, until her gaze lands on Cas. “Ohmigawd!” She squeals it, all one word. “It’s Castiel!” Cas has half a second to prepare before he, too, is enveloped in a crushing hug. “It’s so good to finally meet!” Becky says. Then, all in one sudden rush: “Although it’s weird because Chuck told me so much about you it’s kind of like we’re already friends but holy crap you are way cuter than I expected and also kinda shorter but I guess everyone is short compared to Sam and—” She freezes, looks around, then: “Wait. Where is he?”
“Er, I’m right here?” says Sam, confused.
Becky backs off, which is… relieving. Her soul is bright and well-meaning but Cas finds her regard… intense.
“No, not you!” Becky is saying. “Chuck. I mean, you have the key, right? He must’ve given it to you? He said he was going to and I should just wait and… and you brought him, right?”
Sam and Dean exchange glances, and Cas feels something sharp and tight and sad curl up inside his grace. Oh, he thinks.
“Becky,” Sam says, voice gentle. “We’re really sorry, but… Chuck’s dead.”
To say Becky takes the news of the Prophet’s death poorly would be an understatement. In deference to the moment, Rilla takes Claire back outside to tend the animals. Cas and the Winchesters, meanwhile, end up sitting with Becky in the kitchen, consoling her as she cries through her version of the story.
“I got a-a call,” she tells them, from behind a pile of damp and crumpled tissues. “I d-didn’t answer at first. I m-mean… things hadn’t ended a-all that well and I was still m-mad. But Chuck kept calling and eventually I a-answered and…” She takes a deep breath. “He insisted I had to come see him. It was a l-long drive and I didn’t want to but he said it was… was really important. That something b-bad was going to happen.”
“Bad like the Landing or bad like, um. His death?” Sam asks.
“I d-don’t know. He w-wouldn’t say, but… But he didn’t l-look…” She makes a vague gesture. “I m-mean, you know— knew him. But I’ve n-never seen him so… disheveled. Twitchy. L-like he was hiding a p-pinboard of red string and newspaper cutouts in the b-basement, y’know?”
Dean chuckles at the reference, but it’s bleak. Gallows humor. Sam just nods.
Becky takes a deep breath, exhaling it slowly in an attempt to calm herself. “I asked him what was s-so important that we couldn’t just S-Skype about it. He said he… he c-couldn’t tell me—”
“Couldn’t or wouldn’t?”
She considers this, fingernails scratching absently at something on the surface of the table. “I don’t know,” she says eventually. “But… he kept s-saying that… that ‘things had gone AU’. Exactly those words. ‘Things had gone AU’.”
“That mean anything to you?”
Becky nods. “‘Alternate universe’,” she says. “It’s a-a fanfic thing. Like, you w-write Star Trek but everyone works at a c-coffee shop instead of on a sp-spaceship.”
“Okay,” Sam says. “Any idea why Chuck would say that?”
“M-maybe?” Becky says. “I— We didn’t t-talk long. He was too r-rattled. He gave me his l-laptop and this weird old key, then t-told me to drive to this address. He s-said to hide in the B-Bunker, th-that I’d be s-safe th-there—” Here she breaks off, sobbing. She covers her face with her hands, muttering apologies into her palms.
Her grief is awful, sickly and grey, and Cas reaches out a hand to try and console her. He isn’t good at human affection but Becky turns into him nonetheless, sobbing against his shoulder as the months of loss and uncertainty catch up. Like at the Prophet’s house, Cas is struck once again with the urge to sing; to raise his Voice to an empty Heaven and grieve on behalf of an absent Father.
Like at the Prophet’s, he squashes the urge down, and consoles himself by consoling Becky, instead.
After a while, she pulls away. She sniffs and wipes her eyes and nose, mutters apologies and accepts a glass of water when Sam offers it.
“S-sorry,” she mutters into the cup.
Sam just shakes his head. “Take your time.”
Strangely, the allowance seems to strengthen her. She takes another deep breath, and when she continues, her voice is clearer.
“Ch-Chuck told me to wait here, in the Bunker. He said it might be a wh-while but someone would come when they could, and I’d be safe. I got here”—she tilts her head, thinking—”eight? Nine hours before Vegas? I was still exploring rooms when my phone went nuts. Facebook, Twitter, you name it. That’s how I f-found out. I haven’t left this place since.”
“That’s a long time to be on your own.”
Becky presses her lips together in something halfway between a smile and a sob. “I do okay. There’s a gym, plenty of food, power and water. Heaps of books. Holy shit the books. I’ve learnt so many magic spells. Like, so many. Totally useless, but so many.” She pauses. “And… and I’ve had Chuck’s laptop. That’s kept me busy.”
“It has his… notes? I guess. Or… prophecies?”
“Stuff about the future?”
Becky nods. “Except, not this future.”
“What do you mean?”
Becky takes a deep breath, a tiny spark of light seeming to return to her soul. “Okay, so. Chuck’s stuff… it’s a total mess, but I’ve been trying to sort it out. Put it in a wiki, y’know? It’s got all the published work—Azazel, Dean’s deal, Hell—plus the apocalypse stuff, Sam jumping into the Cage, Sam getting out, the stuff with, um—” She bites her lip, eyes flicking to Cas.
“They know,” he says.
Becky nods. “The stuff with Crowley and Purgatory,” she continues. “That’s about when the Landing happens, real time. But not in Chuck’s stuff. He has, like, an entirely different plot.” She looks at Cas. “You find Purgatory, you drain it. It, um. Goes badly?” Cas shifts, ignoring the reproachful look from Dean. “These things called Leviathans escape, so then it’s about dealing with those. Then Purgatory again, then… all this stuff with translating tablets and Crowley again and, uh, closing gates of this and that and all the angels getting expelled from Heaven and Cas being a human and Sam being possessed and Dean turning into a demon—you all get better, don’t worry!—and, oh, then Crowley’s mom shows up and— Look, it’s kind of convoluted. I’m probably not telling it right.” She takes a deep breath. “Anyway. The dates are vague, but it’s like, stuff until 2015, 2016-ish? After that it sort of tapers off? There’s a kinda crappy timeline and pretty much the only thing is an entry from like 2016-on called ‘vacation’. But it has a bunch of question marks, so God only knows what it’s supposed to mean.”
“That’s… a lot of stuff for not many years.” Dean looks sort of shell-shocked, as does Sam.
“Um… hn?” Becky just raises her hands, helpless.
“I mean, I know the world ended and whatever,” Dean adds, “but I’m kinda feeling like we dodged a bullet here.”
Sam makes an expression that implies he agrees. “But I guess this is what Chuck meant by things going, er…?”
“AU,” supplies Becky.
“Right,” Dean says. Then huffs. “Not that it helps. A bunch of stuff about a bunch of stuff that didn’t happen and isn’t going to happen. Great. And no way of knowing whether any of it’s important, or relevant, or even true.”
“You think Chuck was writing his own fanfic?”
“We told him to stop publishing those damn books. Maybe he decided to continue them, only… made up?”
“A Prophet would not knowingly pollute the Word of God.” Cas feels his wings rise as he says it.
“Yeah, okay,” says Dean. “Except it wasn’t, was it? It was the Word of, I dunno. Heaven’s Bullshit Faux-Prophecy Department.”
“Um,” says Becky. “I… don’t know about that. It’s just… Chuck knew some pretty, um”—she shoots an apologetic glance at Cas—“some pretty dirty things about Heaven. He didn’t write it all down, but he’d rant about it sometimes. It was… pretty bleak. Like, maybe not stuff Heaven would want mere mortals to know, if they were the ones sending the transmissions.”
“Chuck ‘knew’ or Chuck ’made up’?”
Cas shakes his head, barely even a motion. It doesn’t matter. Whatever it was—whatever Becky thinks it was—Heaven is gone and it doesn’t matter. Becky to her credit, bites her lip and says:
“Anyway. I have his laptop. You can look through it, I guess. It has his porn collection. That’s, like, gonna be a holy relic one day, right?”
“Actually.” Sam’s tapping his fingers against his chin. “Did you know any of Chuck’s passwords? Or did he write any down anywhere?”
Becky shrugs. “Maybe,” she says. “Why?”
The why turns out to be the backup hard drive, which Sam retrieves from the car.
“I took it from Chuck’s,” he says. “I tried it when we stopped at Bobby’s for a bit but it’s encrypted, and ‘password123’ wasn’t cutting it to get in.”
The pair of them get to work trying to plug it in first to Becky’s laptop—the one that’d been in the library—then the Prophet’s (whose wallpaper is a self-taken photo of the Prophet looking at the camera while kissing a woman who is very definitely not Becky). They’re in the library, arguing over the drive when Rilla calls, “Knock knock!” from the entryway, and comes back down carrying a bag full of things from her garden.
“I thought one pizza might not be enough for the six of us,” she says. Then, to Becky: “Hey, honey. The boys didn’t introduce us before because they’re savages, but I’m Rilla. I’m the one who’s been living on top of you this whole time.”
“Oh, thank God, another girl,” says Becky, laughing, and hugs her. Then: “I’m Becky. And… you should’ve knocked!”
“I did! Multiple times!”
“Oh. Um…” Then they’re both laughing, only interrupted by the sound of barking and Claire, barreling in holding a small dog.
She presents it to Cas with a smile and a, “Look! Rilla has a puppy!”
“Yes,” says Cas, because he is looking and it is, if not strictly speaking a puppy, then certainly a small dog.
It’s probably not the right thing to say, but Claire just rolls her eyes. “You’re hopeless,” she says. Then: “Ril is gonna teach me how to make falafel!”
“Oh,” says Cas. “Good. I like falafel.”
Claire beams, then scurries off, dog and all.
“You know,” Dean says, appearing from behind a shelf. “For a guy who doesn’t eat, you sure do like a lot of weird food.” He’s holding two beers, and hands one to Cas.
Cas accepts the beer—the glass is cold, fresh from the fridge—and says, “It’s not ‘weird’ it’s… regional.”
“We used to come to Earth more, a long time ago,” Cas explains. “And humans… your holy texts are quite clear about how to treat the messengers of God. So when we appeared, people would feed us. I always thought it was… ungrateful to refuse hospitality from the faithful.” It’d been a belief he’d picked up from Anael. Uriel, meanwhile, had never eaten. Cas supposes some things should’ve been obvious, in retrospect.
“So what you’re telling me,” Dean says, “is you like fala-whatsit because it reminds you of being a flappy lil’ fledgeling hanging out with goat-herders in the Bronze Age?”
Cas smirks. “Something like that.”
“Huh,” says Dean. He leans back against the bookshelf, eyes falling shut as he exhales in one great big long breath. As he does, the tension seems to melt out of both his body and his soul, and Cas aches to feel it. Dean deserves rest. They all do.
There’ll be more work tomorrow. With Michael and Lucifer, and now Crowley. But for now, for tonight, Cas can hear Claire laughing in the kitchen, can watch Sam puzzle over computers with Becky. And he can feel Dean, breathing slow and even beside him.
There’ll be more tomorrow, Cas knows. But not tonight.