It was like looking into a smudged mirror of the past: a dark room, a ring of fire, desperate voices bouncing off the walls. Only the roles were wrong. Inside the circle this time stood not Castiel, but Dean Winchester, illuminated by burning holy oil—and it was Castiel, not Dean, who was begging at the outer rim of the flames. Not far behind him was Jack instead of Crowley, and Sam—the only constant.
It had been months since Dean gave his body over to Michael. Almost six. Half a year. Exactly five months, three weeks, six days, eleven hours, thirty-one minutes, and seven seconds, by Castiel’s count. Eight seconds. Nine. Ten. Eleven…each stretching on longer than the last. Staring down Dean—or the body of Dean—across the wall of fire, Castiel made a note to start adding milliseconds if this didn’t work.
Tracking Michael had been the easy part; the archangel was proving to be rather ostentatious with his fashion. Within a day of commandeering Dean Winchester’s body Michael had used one of Dean’s credit cards to make nearly two thousand dollars’ worth of purchases from high-end clothing stores. Why he didn’t just take them Castiel wasn’t certain. Perhaps he’d been living in the apocalypse world too long, or perhaps he was trying to blend in and lie low—disappearing in the middle of Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was sure to draw attention, and Castiel suspected attention was, at least for the moment, the last thing Michael wanted. He’d want to take stock of this new world, do some scouting and planning before he made his power play to control it.
Catching up to Michael had been more difficult. Sam pulled the credit card records as soon as he and Jack were home and healed. That placed Michael in New York City in as little as fourteen hours since he disappeared with Dean, but he never stayed anywhere long. Castiel assumed it was systematic—Michael knew it would take the boys days to get to him in the Impala wherever he was, and by the time they got there, he could have been a thousand other places. Sam dug out an archangel tracking spell that worked via the vessel’s DNA (which, thankfully, there was plenty of around the bunker), but it wasn’t much help: the pendulum that hung over the US map moved just about every six hours, if not more often, and sometimes pointed off at nothing, meaning Michael wasn’t limiting himself to the country. Finally, they managed to rig a new pendulum over the world map in the war room, but it soon became clear that Michael was often not even on the planet. And through all of it, Castiel could feel Dean’s longing—strong and wild at first, like invisible roots reaching out for him in the dark—but growing weaker every day.
They spent that maddening half-year chasing dead-end leads, watching the pendulum swing ceaselessly across the map, stationing the apocalypse world refugees across the country, alerting hunters in every major city, and finally—with Rowena’s help—they caught Michael in a mistake.
After the incident, Rowena had gone off the grid, enjoying her newfound freedom from Lucifer. But in late September, Sam’s phone rang, and Rowena said there was “static” coming off New Orleans in waves, and it hadn’t let up for weeks. The credit card trails had largely gone dead—Michael didn’t need to eat or sleep. Every now and then they’d find a hotel charge, but the pendulum alerted them quickly that Michael hadn’t stayed there long. When Rowena called, Sam pulled up the records again and found a large deposit to rent out an empty warehouse in the New Orleans business district, right beside the water. The map placed Michael somewhere in Northern California, but if he’d paid for the warehouse, Sam figured he’d been making trips back there—probably in the middle of the night, which is why they hadn’t noticed the repeated Louisiana pit stops. When he figured it out, Sam bolted for the library where Castiel was digging through whatever lore he could find on expelling archangels from hosts. It only took three words to get Castiel on his feet: “We got him.”
And now they had him, trapped and subdued in a ring of fire. Inside Dean’s body Michael was quiet. Dean’s eyes were closed, his head lolled back, mouth open. If the circumstances were different, Castiel might have thought him only sleeping, he looked so peaceful.
“Dean?” he ventured quietly, stepping toward the flames.
“Cas, careful,” said Sam behind him. He held a gun, and Jack an angel blade, though they all knew neither would do any good.
“I’m alright, Sam,” said Castiel, shuffling one step closer, then another, and finally stopping when he was so close the heat from the flames was painful and stung his grace.
“Dean?” he spoke again, more firmly, then growled, “Dean! Answer me!”
One of Dean’s fingers twitched at his side and slowly his head rolled forward. After a beat his eyes fluttered open. He looked around blearily, blinking through the bright light of the fire, and caught sight of Castiel. “Cas?” he grumbled, voice thick with something like sleep.
“Dean! Are you alright?” asked Castiel, instinctively stepping yet closer to the circle only to cringe back against the heat. “I’m here with Sam and Jack. You have to cast him out. You have to cast out Michael.”
“Cas?” Dean asked again, quietly, and his eyelids began to droop. His chin tipped forward, and despite a chorus of his name and wake up and hold on from the three voices on the other side of the fire, Dean Winchester slipped back into still silence.
And then he smiled, and though it was Dean’s face, it wasn’t Dean.
“Just kidding,” said Dean’s voice, though it wasn’t Dean. Michael rolled his shoulders and folded his arms, grin spreading as he stared down Castiel. “Did you really think that would work on me? Castiel, you’ve lost your touch.”
“Let him go,” Castiel growled, the archangel blade dropping from his sleeve. Michael smirked.
“Spare me the dramatics,” he said and rolled his eyes. “We both know you wouldn’t hurt Dean. Not even to get to me.”
“Is that a risk you’d like to take?” asked Castiel, his eyes dark.
“Oh, Cassie, you don’t know me at all,” said Michael.
“And you don’t know Dean Winchester,” said Castiel, tightening his grip on the blade. “But I do. And I know he’d rather die than be trapped in there with you.”
“Would he, now?” asked Michael, his smile widening. He turned his back to Castiel, pacing around the inside of the circle. “That’s not what it looks like on my end.”
“Then I suggest you look more closely.”
“Would you like to see?” said Michael, turning abruptly and arching a mocking brow at Castiel. “You shouldn’t worry so, little brother. I’m keeping your pet well fed.”
Castiel growled and stepped so close to the flames they nearly singed his coat, only held back by Sam’s voice behind him, calling, “Cas, don’t!”
“Come a little closer,” beckoned Michael. “These flames won’t hold me much longer, and my quarrel’s not with you. Well—unless you keep pestering me about the vessel. You are nothing to me. You’re ants. If I wanted you dead, I’d have squished you all already. Lucky for you, you’re not worth the effort.”
“Shut up,” growled Castiel, though his hand with the blade lowered to his side. His stoic anger faltered.
“Come on, baby bro,” said Michael, sneering. “It’ll ease your mind.” He paused, considering, then shrugged and added, “Or it won’t.”
“Cas, don’t listen to him! It’s a trick! You know it’s a trick,” called Sam, and suddenly there was a hand on his shoulder, pulling him back from the fire. “You know he’s just trying to get under your skin. Don’t let him.”
“Sam,” said Castiel, turning, “I have to. I need—we need to know he’s okay.” He peeled Sam’s hand off his shoulder.
“Then let me,” said Jack, finally speaking up. “We can’t lose you, Cas. Without my powers, I’m—”
“Stop it,” said Cas, shaking his head at Jack. “You’re not useless. I won’t sacrifice you. Or Sam. Michael is my brother, and that makes him my responsibility.”
“C’mon Cas, you don’t have to do this. We’ll figure—” Sam began, but was cut off.
“I’m sorry,” said Castiel, and placed two fingers on Sam’s forehead. He crumpled to the floor in a dead sleep.
“Cas!” yelled Jack, lunging forward, but Castiel threatened him with those fingers as well.
“Watch over Sam,” he commanded. “If something goes wrong, get him out of here.” Jack advanced again, stubborn, and Castiel lowered his chin. “Don’t make me put you under too, Jack. You’re no good to Sam unconscious.”
Jack’s eyes widened and his jaw set, and he backed away to crouch beside Sam and drag him heavily away from the fire. Castiel turned back to Michael.
“No tricks,” said Michael, holding out a hand across the slowly dying fire. “Scout’s honor.”
Castiel stepped forward, and Michael’s other hand stretched out, palms pressing to Castiel’s temples.
There was a rush of light and noise, and faintly, Jack’s voice calling out his name, but it turned into an echo that mellowed into silence and dark.
Slowly, Castiel’s senses returned, and he found himself—or rather, a projection of himself—in the entryway of the bunker. It felt so real he had flashbacks of his own time holed away in this corner of the mind while he’d been possessed by Lucifer, but this was somehow even more intense, more true. He could smell the scent of coffee wafting lazily in from the kitchen. He walked down the hall and could see Sam—or rather, a projection of Sam—reading in the library. Mary’s voice called to her son from somewhere, and Sam rose to find her, walking straight through Castiel’s non-body and disappearing around the corner.
Castiel stood there a moment longer to get his bearings. He closed his eyes and focused hard on the silence. He’d just made up his mind to check the kitchen for Dean when he heard the faintest sound of music drifting down the hallway from the direction of Dean’s room.
Castiel moved more slowly than he meant to, something twisting in his gut, the sound growing louder with his approach. He stood outside Dean’s room for a moment, listening to the slow, muffled song and staring at the slat of soft light that spilled from beneath the door. Finally, he put his hand out to push it, but it went straight through as if he was a ghost. Castiel steeled himself for what he might find and stepped through Dean’s door.
An invisible band tightened around his stomach and punched the air from his lungs; sent his heart thundering up into his throat.
As if on cue, when Castiel stepped into the room a slow, bluesy drumbeat began. The room was dark, but not completely—a small lamp on the bedside table with a black t-shirt thrown haphazardly over the shade cast a faint yellow haze over the room, mimicking candles. On the dresser, a record player proved to be the source of the sound. Propped against the wall beside it was the record’s sleeve—a barely-recognizable image of a man in a hat leaning over a bar. The music was turned up just a bit too loud, and it made the room feel smoky and secluded.
In the center of the room was Dean—barefoot in jeans and a t-shirt, and he was clinging to another man dressed just the same—another Castiel. A dream Castiel. They were pulled close, chest to chest. Dean had his arm around the dream Cas’s waist, hand on the small of his back, and dream Cas had his hand curled around the back of Dean’s neck. Their foreheads were pressed together, and their other hands were linked and held lazily out to the side. Castiel stared for a solid minute before it occurred to him they were dancing. He watched, unable to even blink, as Dean and dream Cas swayed and rotated slowly, barely moving, eyes closed.
A voice Castiel had heard a million times crooned, If I dream too much at night, somebody please bring me down, and he watched as Dean lowered his forehead to drag the tip of his nose slowly down the side of dream Cas’s. Dream Cas sighed and angled up his chin to catch Dean’s lips in the gentlest kiss, and Castiel shivered. Despite his lack of physical form, his knees felt weak and he reached behind him to steady himself against the door, but found nothing solid, and stumbled backwards. As before, he went straight through it, and suddenly found himself back in the hallway, listening to the muffled song.
He stood there in the dark, staring at the door, breathing as if he’d run a marathon. It felt like he was intruding on something incredibly private, some secret wish that belonged to Dean and not him, but—wasn’t he there too? Or a version of him. And wasn’t this also what he wanted? Castiel straightened his shoulders and stepped slowly back through into the room, where he found Dean and dream Cas still wrapped in their embrace, lips locked, oblivious to everything else in the world.
…I get down on my knees, oh, I pray that love won’t die…
Castiel watched, frozen with bitter joy and strange jealousy as Dean and dream Cas broke the kiss but stayed close to breathe each other’s air; loosed their entwined hands and started using them to explore each other’s bodies. Dream Cas left his hand behind Dean’s neck in place while the other wound its fingers through a beltloop at Dean’s hip, and Dean lifted his free hand to cup dream Cas’s jaw and run his thumb along his cheekbone, other arm still holding his lover close.
…every little bit, every little bit of my love, oh…
Dean lifted his head to press his cheek against dream Cas’s and speak low in his ear. “I’m sorry, Cas,” he said, barely audible above the music.
“What for?” dream Cas answered, just as softly.
Castiel stood by the door, transfixed.
“Waiting so long,” Dean answered. “Being so afraid.”
Dream Cas made a low, content “mmm” sound in his throat, and nuzzled his temple against Dean’s. “Don’t,” he answered. “We’re here now.”
“Yeah,” said Dean. “I love you, Cas,” he added, pulling back to tilt dream Cas’s chin up and look him in the eye.
Dream Cas stared back just as fiercely, and Castiel recognized the look. The tightness in his chest gripped him harder, squeezed until there was pain—and that was familiar too.
“I love you, Dean Winchester,” dream Cas murmured.
Dean sighed and closed his eyes, dipping his head down to bruise his lips against dream Cas’s, and dream Cas moaned low and soft in his throat, rolling his jaw to part Dean’s lips.
…yes I love her, I guess I love her, yes I love her, I’m gonna crawl…
The song faded out and the album ended, filling the room with the soft clicks and static hum of vinyl, but Dean and dream Cas didn’t part. Castiel watched as the couple ceased their dancing and stood still, lost to time and each other. The breathy sounds of kisses mingled with the skipping static, and the very air was like electricity. Dean and dream Cas worked themselves into a slow passion—gently biting and sucking and pulling the breath from each other’s lungs. Dream Cas leaned away and reached for Dean’s hand, backing up towards the bed, blue eyes a cold fire.
Castiel was sure this was where the fantasy would end—things would get too real for Dean and he’d back away, and Castiel would see the mirror of his own hurt and shame played out in front of him. He braced himself for the vicarious pain, already feeling the familiar, pre-existing tendrils of it clawing at his heart, but to his shock they halted: Dean had followed and was crawling on top of dream Cas in his bed.
Castiel’s whole body lit up from the inside as he watched Dean tug his t-shirt over his head, and his heart seized when Dean reached to pull off dream Cas’s shirt as well, then leaned down for another greedy kiss. Dream Cas crooked up one leg to hug his knee into Dean’s side, and moaned as Dean licked into his mouth, the whole display somehow gentle and fiery all at once.
Castiel could feel himself splitting apart on a molecular level. It was too much, watching something this secret, something he craved deep in his bones but knew he could never hope to have out there in the real world. When Dean reached down to fidget with the button of dream Cas’s jeans, Castiel lost his nerve.
“STOP!” he roared, and almost instantly all the sounds of love and static were consumed by a deafening, high-pitched ring. His vision started flaring with a bright blue light around the edges, and soon it obliterated everything—but not before he caught sight of a very startled Dean look up over his bare shoulder and straight into Castiel’s—the real Castiel’s—eyes.