Castiel slammed the back door and stepped out onto the porch. The evening chill felt good after being trapped in the stuffy house all afternoon. Anna and Michael wouldn’t stop teasing each other, Gabriel had been singing off-key Christmas carols for the past half-hour, and their parents had taken up their long-standing, good natured squabble that marked all holidays: which of them was contributing the most effort to the festivities.
When they lived in the city, Castiel had been able to easily escape down the street to a friend’s house when his large family became too much to handle. But now they were here in the small village where his father had grown up, in this rambling, enormous house at the edge of the woods.
The forest was likely pleasant enough during bright spring and summer days, thought Castiel, but during the darkest part of winter, when the trees were bare, it looked downright sinister. He descended the worn steps into the yard, and seated himself on the old stone wall that overlooked the deserted lane.
Things would be different in a week or two, he mused. On New Year’s Day, he would turn sixteen, and his father had promised to take him for his driver’s test. Then he could at least drive to the local store, or to take Michael and Anna to one of their many activities. He could escape from this lonely house with the bleak view, if only for a little while.
After a time, he felt the prickling feeling of another human presence, and turned to see a man peering into the living room window of his house. “What do you think you’re doing?” Castiel called out indignantly. “I’ll call the police…”
The figure turned, and Castiel stopped short. The trespasser was barely a man, more of a boy, really; and he had the most beautiful face Castiel had ever seen. He yearned to draw the mysterious stranger, even though he knew he could never do his delicate features justice.
“Who are you?” The young man demanded. “You’re not supposed to be here. You’re all different...where’s the family that used to live here?”
“Well, they’re certainly not here, so I would suppose they moved out.” Castiel came back to his senses a bit. “You’re trespassing, you know. Who are you, anyway?”
The young man looked into the window again, at the scene of lively domesticity, and smiled bitterly. “It doesn’t matter. I don’t exist.”
“I beg to differ. I’m talking to you right now, so you must exist. Unless I’m having a psychotic episode, which seems unlikely.”
“I have to go. Time’s short.” The stranger turned away from Castiel, toward the wood.
“Don’t you want to come in? It’s freezing out here. You don’t even have a coat.”
“I’m always cold, now,” he murmured. “But I can’t go inside. I have to go.”
“Wait!” Castiel trotted along behind him. “What’s your name? Where did you come from?”
“I’m Dean. I came from there.” He pointed toward the forest, and stopped suddenly, turning to face Castiel. “How old are you?”
“That’s how old my little brother was, when I left.” At the mention of his brother, Dean’s face became almost soft, and Castiel realized he was probably even younger than he looked.
“Where did you go?”
“Do me a favor, kid. Go back to your house and don’t follow me. Keep out of these woods, too. They’re not safe.” Dean turned away and strode toward the forest. His back was hunched slightly, as if he carried something heavy.
Dean was halfway to the tree line when Castiel yelled after him. “My name’s Castiel!”
Dean lifted a hand slightly, but didn’t look back.
It must have been his eyes playing tricks on him, but Castiel could have sworn that Dean disappeared before he entered the forest.
Castiel passed his driver’s test easily. His father was very proud. It had taken Gabriel three tries. His mother was happy not to have to do all the grocery shopping herself. Castiel jumped at the first possible chance to drive to the village store. Without his parents present, it was a good chance to do some detective work.
“Hey, there, young Mr. Novak.” Mr. Singer remembered Castiel’s father when he was a boy. “What can I get for ya?”
“Mr. Singer, who lived in our house before we did?”
The storekeeper took on a guarded look. “The Winchester family.”
“What happened to them?”
Mr. Singer swept his eyes around the store. “Now why would you ask about that? That was something best forgotten, if you want my opinion.”
Castiel tried to look casual. “Just curious. I saw a name. Dean.”
“Fine. You’ll just poke around til you find out anyhow. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.” He leaned on the counter and took a deep breath. “There were two boys there, Dean and Samuel, and two finer kids I’ve never known. Mischievous, of course, but you’ll have that with boys. Dean grew up pretty good, had a steady job. Sam was smart as a whip. Guaranteed to get into any college he wanted. Til that happened.”
Castiel leaned in. “Til what happened?”
Mr. Singer sighed heavily. “Sam was about your age, I guess, when he got real sick. Overnight, almost. No one could find out what was wrong with him. He was just wasting away. His folks were desperate, and they ended up getting him into the Mayo Clinic. We took up some money here at the store to help with travel expenses. I went out to their place to give it to them, because they were going to leave the next day. John and Mary were trying to be cheerful, but they were losing hope. I’ll never forget Dean’s face. It was awful.”
“And then what?” Castiel demanded.
“The next morning, Sam Winchester was as well as if he’d never been sick. He looked like a different kid. And Dean...Dean was gone. None of us ever saw him again. It was hard on John and Mary, I guess. They’d gotten one son back, but lost another, and the not knowing was the worst part. And people started to talk, of course. Silly things. In the end, they couldn’t bear to stay. Sam got into Stanford, and they sold the house and moved out to California to be near him.”
“What kind of things did people talk about?”
“Hogwash, that’s what. There ain’t nothing out in that woods but trees, deer, and bobcats, boy, and that’s all I aim to say about the matter. Now, are you gonna buy anything or not?”
Castiel returned home with a loaf of bread, dishwashing detergent, and baking soda. As he got out of his mother’s car, he felt a familiar prickling of his skin, and turned to the trees. Nothing. He set the grocery bag on the hood of the car and hiked over to the edge of the woods. There was someone there, he could feel it.
“Dean?” Castiel called softly. There was nothing but silence. “Dean!” He bellowed, feeling irritated. The wind picked up suddenly, blowing tiny flecks of sleet into his eyes. Castiel retreated to the safety of his yard, and retrieved the groceries.
Even after he went into the house, Castiel could feel something watching from the forest.
He didn’t fit in at his new school. He was bookish and quiet, and the other students stared at him when they found out where he lived.
“The haunted house,” said one girl, and the others nodded in agreement.
“It’s not haunted,” Castiel protested. “I’ve never seen or heard one strange thing in our house.”
“Not so much the house,” the girl countered. “The woods. My dad always said to stay away from there.”
“Why did he say that? What’s in there?”
“Nothing natural, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t go in those woods for a million dollars.”
Castiel tilted his head and squinted at her. “Is it because of the Winchesters?”
The name clearly made everyone in the group uncomfortable, but only one boy spoke up. “We don’t talk about them. But whatever’s out there was there long before that.”
The group split up into twos and threes, and they moved away from Castiel, whispering to each other.
The next Christmas Eve, Castiel was given his mother’s car as a combined Christmas and birthday gift. His mother had a long commute into Kansas City, and she had chosen a new SUV for herself. She often drove through rain or falling snow in the winter, and needed a more reliable vehicle.
The car was nothing special, but now it was his. Castiel spent part of the afternoon cleaning out the rest of his mother’s belongings, and arranging his own in their place. He unwrapped a tiny rose quartz carving of an angel that his grandmother had given him, and placed it carefully in the glove compartment.
“Nice. She yours?”
Castiel startled, and turned to find Dean next to the driver’s side door. He rolled down the window. “Dean! I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
“Yeah?” Dean ran a hand absent-mindedly over the hood of the car. He was wearing the same thing as last year; t-shirt, blue plaid flannel, and no coat.
“Jesus. Aren’t you freezing? Get in, I’ll start the car.”
“I shouldn’t.” Nevertheless, he walked around and opened the passenger door. He glanced toward the trees, then quickly slid into the seat.
“I’ll turn the heater up. It gets warm pretty quickly.”
Dean shut the door gingerly, and put his hands up to the heater vents. He closed his eyes in pleasure. “I haven’t been warm in years.”
“Years? What’s your deal, anyway? Do you live out in the woods, like some kind of...of mountain man?”
Dean grinned, and Castiel could see a glimmer of the boy he must have once been. “Something like that.” He quickly turned serious again. “I heard you yelling for me, one time. You shouldn’t do that.”
“It’s not safe for you. Or me. She’ll hear you.”
Dean just shook his head.
“Um, this may not be my place to bring up, but I found out where your family went.”
Dean snapped his head around, eyes blazing. “What did you say?”
Castiel feared he had angered Dean--some people didn’t like to hear about estranged family members--but it was too late, so he continued.
“Your family. Sam and your parents. Sam got into Stanford, and your parents moved to California to be near him. I…” Castiel’s voice shook a little. “I just thought you might like to know that they’re okay.”
Dean’s eyes looked wet. “Sammy’s okay? He’s not sick anymore?”
“No. Mr. Singer said he was very healthy.”
“Bobby? You talked to Bobby?”
“Yes. He wouldn’t tell me much more than that, though. Everytime I bring it up, he keeps muttering ‘Hogwash’ and changing the subject.”
Dean chuckled and turned his head to wipe at his eyes. “Sounds like him. Thank you, Castiel. That does make me feel better. As long as Sam’s okay, it’s better that they forget about me.”
“I don’t think they’ve forgotten you, Dean. They just didn’t know what happened to you. Some of the people at school said you ran away, but some of them kept saying you’d been ‘taken’. They wouldn’t explain what they meant.” Castiel hesitated. “I could find out your family’s phone number, if you want. You could call them.”
Dean laughed bitterly. “No, we can’t do that. I only have this one hour out of the whole year. The hour before dusk on Christmas Eve. The rest of the time I have to stay with Her. It would be cruel to contact my parents and then just disappear again.”
Castiel fiddled with the heater knob. The car was already very warm. “I think you’d better tell me everything, Dean. Don’t say I won’t believe you. After the things I’ve heard this year, I’ll believe anything.”
“Fine. Just, keep this to yourself, okay? Don’t go spreading it around. People would call you crazy, anyway.” At Castiel’s nod, Dean took a deep breath. “A few years back, my little brother Sam got really sick. I guess Bobby told you about that. I was scared, but Mom and Dad said not to worry, they were taking him to the best doctors. They’d figure out how to cure him. But no one had any idea what was wrong. The doctors did more and more tests, but Sam just kept wasting away. Before long, he could barely walk. Just slept all the time.
Mom and Dad were going into debt fast, too. I had planned on going to college, but I got a job instead, and gave them all the money I made other than what I needed for gas. Finally they got him an appointment at Mayo. They were trying to be hopeful, but everything was looking pretty grim. I just had to get out of the house for a little while, so I went for a walk in the woods. And that’s where I met Her.”
Castiel frowned. “And who is she, exactly?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think She even has a name. She’s been out there for so long, no one even remembers where she came from.”
“All right. Okay. And then what did this “She” say to you?”
“She said she could sense my desperation. She also said she’d been watching me for a long time. She said that “my heart was as righteous as my physical form was beautiful.” Her words, not mine.” Dean’s face was pink, and he didn’t look at Castiel.
“That’s pretty creepy. I mean, she’s right, you are hot, but that she’d been stalking you or whatever? Ugh.”
Dean shrugged. “Anyway, she said that I was one of the few worthy of attending her, and in exchange for my service, she would grant my desire. She knew everything about Sam, about my family. I told her I couldn’t go without ever seeing them again, and that’s when she granted me the hour every year.”
“Not very generous.”
“That’s what I said. But she told me she knew the future, and that my brother had very little time left. She said I had to decide right then, or the offer would be rescinded.”
“So you gave yourself up to save your brother. That was very noble of you. Stupid, but brave.”
“What else was I supposed to do, Castiel? Sam was--is--special. He was meant to accomplish things with his life. I’m just me. If a choice had to be made, it was better that he get to live.”
Castiel sighed. “That is so fucking unfair.”
“You’re telling me.”
“So what do you do, exactly? What does it mean to “attend” her?”
Dean huffed. “Not what you’re thinking. I don’t think she even does that. Her court is in a grove of trees, hidden from human eyes. I kneel at her feet while she sits on her throne. I’m always tired, but I never sleep. I’m always cold, but I never freeze. I’m always hungry, but I never starve. And I never get any older.”
Castiel felt a chill down to his very core. “I’m sorry, Dean. God, I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do?”
Dean gave him a shy smile. “It’s nice of you to offer. But there’s nothing. She’s very old and very powerful.”
“Do you ever get to leave?”
“When she’s resting, I can walk around the forest. But no one can see me.”
“I’ll come to you there,” Castiel promised. ‘Even if I can’t see you, I’ll know if you’re there.”
Dean’s face lit up. “Really? You would do that?”
“Yeah. I would.”
Dean leaned closer to him. “You have to be careful, though. Only come on sunny days--that’s when she rests. Be as quiet as you can. And keep that little angel carving on you whenever you come. For protection.” Dean put his hand on the door latch.
“Do you have to go already?”
“Yeah, I think so. I can’t risk being late.” Dean looked at him and smiled, very sweetly. “Thank you for talking to me. At least I’ll have something else to think about this year. And at least I know about Sam.” He opened the door.
“Wait. You said you were always cold. Take my coat.”
Dean shook his head. “I can’t. She’ll notice.”
Castiel sighed in frustration. “I can’t think about you freezing for a whole year. What about an undershirt? Would she notice that?”
Dean considered this. “Maybe not.”
“All right, then.” Castiel removed his coat and unbuttoned his shirt, revealing his blue undershirt. He pulled it off and handed it to Dean, whose eyes had gone wide. “Well, go ahead. Put it on.”
Dean stripped off his top layers and wiggled into Castiel’s shirt. “It’s warm. And it smells like you.” He pulled on the t-shirt and the flannel, and straightened them. “That feels a lot better.” He stepped out of the car.
“Wait. I’ll walk with you a little ways.”
When they reached the halfway point to the tree line, Dean stopped. “This is as far as you should go. Good-bye, Castiel. Thank you.” He took a few more steps and then turned again. “The little clearing right inside the woods. That’s where I’ll be.”
Castiel stood, resolute, to watch him go; but a sudden sharp breeze caused him to squint. When he opened his eyes, Dean was gone.
It snowed overnight, but Christmas Day dawned bright and sunny. As soon as he could slip away from the family festivities, he wrapped a couple of cookies up in a paper napkin and walked to the woods. He sat on a large rock in the clearing and waited.
A cardinal sang insistently from a nearby bush, and when Castiel glared at it, he noticed words written in the snow. Hey, Cas.
Castiel grinned from ear to ear. “Hello, Dean.”
No further words appeared; maybe that act had sapped Dean’s strength, or maybe he was afraid of being seen. At any rate, Castiel talked to him, telling him about Gabriel getting tipsy on the night before and being scolded by their mother, about Anna’s tantrum because she wasn’t allowed to drink any wine, and about Michael’s new girlfriend, a quiet, mousy girl that he’d insisted on inviting to Christmas Eve dinner.
Castiel didn’t know if hearing stories of a family Christmas would entertain Dean, or make him sad; but he decided that just having company was probably the main thing. He talked, on and off, for a quarter of an hour, until a cloud covered the sun.
Castiel shivered. “I’d better go, Dean. Merry Christmas. Um, I don’t know if you can even eat these, but in case you can, here.” He laid the cookies on the rock and took his leave hastily. He had no desire to meet the mysterious She. “I’ll come back!” He yelled over his shoulder.
He kept his word, and visited often on sunny afternoons. Castiel was not a talkative person, and keeping up a one-way conversation was tiring, so he often brought his sketchbook. He would tell Dean things that happened at school, with long pauses in between while he drew trees and birds and the moss-covered rocks.
He always brought some food and left it sitting on the rock. It was always gone by the next visit, but of course animals could have eaten it. After a few visits, however, Castiel began to find objects placed on the rock when he arrived. A pretty rock, a pine cone, and as the weather grew warmer, wildflowers.
In the spring, Castiel was accepted to the art program at the University a few hours away. His father had wanted him to follow Gabriel into pre-law, while his mother thought pre-med would be more suitable; she wanted a doctor and a lawyer in the family. Castiel, for the first time in his life, put his foot down. He thought of Dean, and how little time people have with the things they love, and refused to be dissuaded.
In late summer, with a heavy heart, Castiel went to the forest for the last time before leaving. “Dean, I hope you can hear me.” He sat down on the rock. “I have to go away for a while. I’m going to school, to study art. But I don’t want you to worry. I’ll come home as many weekends as I can, and I’ll be here for sure on Christmas Eve.” Castiel sat with Dean until the sun started to go down, and as he got up to leave, he placed a piece of paper on top of the rock. It was a drawing of the clearing on a sunny day, with wildflowers among the trees. “This is for you.”
As Castiel left the forest, a light rain started to fall.
Castiel found that he liked college more than he had expected. He could always find a quiet corner in the art building to work, and a comfortable chair in the library for studying. The other freshmen in his art classes tried periodically to convince him to come to their parties, especially a spiky, sarcastic brunette named Meg, but he always refused.
One chilly afternoon, he found himself sketching a face he’d seen only twice, but was nevertheless familiar. As he ran his pencil over the curve of Dean’s lips, he was startled to find Meg’s chin propped on his shoulder.
“Well, this certainly explains things!”
“Explains what?” Castiel was irritated by the sudden interruption.
“Oh, ya know. Why you won’t come out with us. Why you’ve rejected all my advances.”
Castiel squinted at her. “You’ve been making advances toward me?”
Meg sighed heavily. “Only you would be preoccupied enough not to notice all my sexual innuendos. I understand now. If I had a boyfriend who looked like that, I wouldn’t be looking around, either.” She gestured toward the drawing.
“My boyfriend? Oh no, he’s not…” Castiel sputtered.
“Excuse me, Castiel, but you don’t look at someone like that unless you’re either together, or you want to be.”
Castiel stared down at his drawing. “I...I really don’t know him that well.”
“Then get to know him! You’ll always regret it if you don’t. Life’s short, ya know.”
He put down his pencil. He clearly wasn’t going to get any more work done right now. “It’s complicated, Meg.”
She snorted. “Look, winter break starts next week. Go talk to loverboy here and at least see if he feels the same way. If he does, you can start unraveling all these so-called complications.”
Castiel’s heart felt lightened, suddenly. “You know what? You’re right. Start simple.”
“I’m always right, Cas. And if he turns you down, you’ve always got me on the back burner.” Meg winked at him.
“Where are you off to, little bro?” Gabe loomed over Castiel’s shoulder. “Having a picnic?”
“Maybe.” Castiel was packing up odds and ends of holiday dishes in Tupperware containers. His mother had to work Christmas Eve morning, so she had picked dishes that could be made ahead and reheated. Ham, potatoes, rolls, casserole. A slice of pie.
“Mom’s gonna be pissed that you dipped into all the dishes.”
“Well, tell her it’s for someone who doesn’t have any Christmas dinner. We won’t miss it.”
Gabriel was intrigued. “So, you’re like, doing a holiday good deed? That’s really...charitable of you. Who’s it for?”
Castiel packed the containers into a shopping bag. “Cover for me, ‘kay? I’ll be back before dark.”
“My brother, the man of mystery. Yeah, I’ll cover for you. Consider this MY Christmas good deed.”
“Thanks, Gabe. See you later.” Castiel slipped out the door and sat under the backyard tree, waiting.
His heart leaped in his chest when he saw the familiar blue flannel materialize at the edge of the woods. He stood and waved wildly, and Dean walked toward him, faster and faster until he was almost running into the yard.
“Come on, get in the car!” Castiel grabbed Dean’s hand and pulled him toward the waiting vehicle.
“Not quite as cold as last Christmas Eve,” Dean said softly as he settled into the passenger seat.
“Still bad enough. Here, I brought you some food. That is, if you can eat it? I’m still not sure.”
Dean grinned and reached for the bag. “I can eat. I’ve been appreciating the snacks you’ve left me all year.”
Castiel sighed in relief. “Oh, good! You have been getting them.”
“Did you see the things I left for you? I know they weren’t much, but it’s all I could give you in return.”
“I saved them all, actually. Kept them in a box under my bed.”
“Oh,” Dean whispered when he saw the contents of the bag. He opened containers and began eating like a hungry animal. He took the fork that was in the bottom of the bag, but Castiel thought that if Dean had been alone, he would have eaten with his fingers and licked the dishes.
When Castiel reached Dean the last container--the slice of pecan pie--his expression became reverent. He picked the slice up and took small bites, closing his eyes as he chewed. “God, that’s so good. I love pie.”
Castiel packed the dishes back into the bag as Dean rubbed his stomach and drank from a thermos of tea. “Better?”
“So much better. I’m warm and fed. You can’t imagine how good it feels.” Dean leaned back against the headrest. “But seriously, the food you’ve been leaving made a big difference. Took the edge off. Gave me something to look forward to.” He ran his fingers over the plush car seat. “The stories, too. And watching you draw. You’re really good, you know. I kept the one you gave me. Hid it in a safe place.”
“I want to ask you something important.” Castiel breathed deep, gathering his wits. “Dean, if I could do something about your situation--if I could find a way to help you--would you let me?”
Dean frowned. “It’s too much to ask. I can’t let you risk yourself.”
“It wouldn’t be like that. No more deals; I’d get you free fair and square. But you must tell me if you would accept my help.”
“Jesus, Castiel.” Dean breathed. “Do you even have to ask?”
“Yes, I do. If I don’t, I’m no better than her.”
“Do you have any idea how to do it?”
“I have ideas, yes. But I don’t know if any of them will work, or how long it would take.”
“It doesn’t matter how long it takes. As long as I have something to hope for.”
“All right. It’s settled. Dean, I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I promise you I’ll try my very hardest.”
“Why would you do this for me?”
Castiel thought for a moment. “Because I like you. Because it’s so fucking unfair. Because I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try to help you.”
“Thank you. Even if it doesn’t work, I can never thank you enough.”
“Is there anything I can do in the meantime? To make things easier for you?”
“Umm, could you keep coming to see me sometimes? It really helps, even if I can’t talk to you.”
“Of course I will.” Castiel held out his hand, and Dean took it. They sat there together until it was time for Dean to go. “I’ll walk with you. I’ll stay with you as long as I can.”
They walked together, hand in hand, across the field. Castiel wouldn’t let go until they were a few yards from the forest’s edge. They stopped, and Dean stared into the trees. Castiel squeezed his hand, hard. “I’ll come see you,” he promised. “As often as I can. And I’ll be here next Christmas.”
Dean tried to smile. “I’ll see you around, then.” He squared his shoulders as he walked away. Castiel could not have put his finger on the exact moment that he disappeared from view.
On the day after Christmas, Castiel made an excuse to his mother and drove out to the edge of the village. Hannah, a high-school classmate who he’d run into at Bobby Singer’s store, had given him the address. He parked his car far enough off the road that it wouldn’t be spotted by a nosy neighbor, and walked through a break in the tall hedge. The house was small, with white gingerbread trim, and ivy vined up the walls. There was a holly wreath on the front door. Castiel took a deep breath, and knocked twice.
A tiny, red-haired woman opened the door, and stood there looking at him silently.
“Who sent you?”
Rowena stared into his eyes for several seconds, then gave a sharp nod. “Come in, then.” She turned and walked down the passageway, her long black dress swishing.
Castiel followed her into the kitchen, where he handed her a package of Christmas cookies. “These are for you.” He’d had no idea what to give a lady who was supposed to be a witch, but it had felt rude to bring nothing.
Rowena peeked at them and laughed softly. “Well, thank you kindly. I don’t celebrate Christmas, as such, but I appreciate the gesture.”
“But you have holly everywhere.” Not only did she have a wreath at the door, but she had a garland at every window, and on the mantel over the fireplace.
“Of course. Keeps evil from entering.” Rowena held out both her hands and gestured for Castiel to take them. Her hands were smooth, and cool, though warmer than Dean’s. She held his hands for almost a full minute, then let go abruptly, shaking her head. Her pale face was a few shades whiter. “So it’s like that, then.” She motioned toward the kitchen table. “Sit. I’ll brew the tea. This may take a while.”
She put on a kettle of water to boil, and sat across from him, eyes narrowed. “You really are bold as brass, aren’t you? You show up, unannounced, with some cookies and your earnest face, to ask me to help you take on The Lady.”
“Would you have let me in if you’d known why I came?”
“Of course not.”
“Who is she? The Lady, I mean.”
“Would that I could tell you, dear. I’ve walked the earth for over three hundred years, and I’m like a babe in arms compared to her.”
“Will you help me? I can pay you.” Castiel winced inwardly as he said it, because he knew he could not pay her enough to make it worth her while. His parents were well-off, and provided him with whatever he needed, but he didn’t have much cash of his own.
“I’ll accept your money, dear. I could get by without money, but it makes things so much easier in this day and age. But what I really want from you is a favor.”
Castiel felt cold prickles go down his back. “What kind of favor? You want my first-born child, or what?”
“Nothing like that, love. But I won’t know the exact nature of it until the time comes.” The kettle whistled, and she went to the stove. “Your family is well-liked. Wealthy. Influential. What I want is an assurance that I will have friends if I have a time of need. If public opinion should turn against me.”
“You mean like a witch hunt? People don’t do that anymore.”
“Not now. But I’ve lived a long time, and I know that things wax and wane. One can never be too careful.”
Castiel tried to corral his racing thoughts. The promise sounded harmless enough, although she could be tricking him somehow. But what choice did he really have? He would try to pin her down a bit. “I have conditions. One, that none of my family or Dean will suffer for it. Two, that we’ll only provide succor if you haven’t harmed anyone.”
“I have no wish to harm anyone unless they threaten me,” Rowena replied, as she poured him a mug of tea. “I’ve seen enough bloodshed in my time. All I want is to be left alone, here behind the hedges. It’s a lonely life, but not a bad one.”
“All right. If you harm someone in self-defense, the offer still stands.”
“You’re a clever one, for sure. Are you going to be a lawyer?”
“No. That’s my brother.”
“Your conditions are acceptable, Castiel Novak. Put your money on the table, and we’ll get started.”
Getting started meant making lists, evidently. Rowena pushed a steno pad and a half-sharpened away pencil across the table toward him. “A sack of pure sea salt. A length of iron chain--100 yards should do. A silver lock to fasten it with.”
“Have to be sterling. Just plain silver’s too soft. But solid, yes. Surely you can find a silversmith off in the big city.”
“What exactly are we doing?”
“What YOU are doing, Castiel, is trying to bind her. To trap her in the grove of trees where she lives. She’ll be be shut in her throne room, where she can’t harm anyone else.”
“Not feeling sorry for her, surely? It’s not just your friend Dean who’s run afoul of her. Her victims number into the hundreds. Dean is lucky that she found him fair enough to keep him alive. That’s not the case for most.”
“Let’s do this, then.” Castiel scribbled furiously on the steno pad. “What else?”
“You’ll have to learn the incantation to bind her. The items on the list are merely to try and keep her hemmed in while you recite the spell. It’s quite lengthy, by the way. It will take you a while to memorize and perfect it. You’ll be coming to see me often, I’m afraid.”
Castiel perked up. “Is it Latin? I’ve studied Latin. I’m pretty good at it.”
“No, my dear. It’s a language no one speaks anymore. You see, The Lady used to live where Scotland is today. That’s right; she’s from my neck of the woods. It’s said that she sailed over on a Viking ship, and eventually made her way here. No one knows why.”
“Can the spell be written down for me to study?”
“Afraid not. Her language doesn’t have a written form--it’s so old, you see. And even if we could, it wouldn’t be a good idea to have something that powerful given physical form and left lying around.”
Castiel nodded. “I can come here every weekend that I come home. And summer of course. How long do you think it’ll take?”
“Depends on how quickly you can memorize things. But you can’t do it until next Christmas Eve, anyhow. That’s the only time she releases Dean, correct? If you do this while he’s under her power, he’ll be trapped in there with her.”
“It’s a long time to wait.” Castiel started to chew on the pencil eraser, before he remembered that it wasn’t his. “Is there anything else I’ll need?”
“Let me see that angel carving you carry in your pocket.”
“How did you know about that?” He drew it out of his jeans pocket and placed it on the table gingerly.
Rowena rolled her eyes. “When I held your hands, dear boy, I saw everything.” She picked up the angel and rolled it over in her hands. “From your grandmother, right? It’s too bad she’s passed, or she could help you with this.”
Castiel gripped the edge of the table. “Are you saying my Gran was a witch?”
“Not really a witch. But she knew things.” She put the figure back on the table. “For example, she knew that you are one of the people for whom stones hold a great deal of power. They don’t respond to everyone in the same way, did you know? But in your case, they could prove very useful.” She motioned for the pad and pencil. “I know someone in the city who could help you. I’ll give you the address of her shop.”
Castiel had been able to obtain the chain and sea salt easily enough by way of the internet. He arranged for it to be delivered one day when his parents were at work, and hid it in an outbuilding. He sent an inquiry about making a silver lock to a metal smith in the city, hoping that the cost would not be too steep. And the first day he was back in St. Louis, he visited Alicia Bane’s store.
A bell jingled as he eased into the door, peering at the dim interior. There were glass displays filled with precious stones, and baskets of crystals arranged on the counters. Incense burned near the register. “Hey,” a voice called from the back room. “I’ll be right out!”
Castiel idly stroked a clear quartz heart, but he felt nothing from it. Maybe Rowena was wrong. A young woman came bustling out of the back. “Hello, hello,” she said smiling, then squinted at him. “You’re a first-timer, right? I don’t remember seeing you before.”
“That’s right. Rowena MacLeod sent me.” Castiel could tell, from the woman’s slight intake of breath, that the name commanded respect and maybe a touch of fear.
“Yes. We’ve been emailing each other. You’re Castiel. I’m Alicia.” She held out her hand, and Cas shook it. “Okay, so today we’re going to get you stocked up on items that repel negative energies. I should mention that I offer a discount to other, um, practitioners.”
“Oh, no, I’m not. It’s very kind of you, but I...don’t.”
“Hmm. Well, you could be if you wanted, I think. The offer still stands.”
Castiel blinked. “Thank you. It’s much appreciated. This whole debacle is running into quite a bit of money.”
“I know the feeling. C’mere. Hold out your hand.” Alicia scooped up a shiny black stone from a basket and dropped it in his hand.
Castiel closed his fingers around it. “Oh.”
“It feels right, doesn’t it? It’s black tourmaline.” Alicia grinned at him. “It protects you from evil, negative energy and psychic attacks. It also helps cleanse negative energy that is already present.”
“Sounds very useful.”
“It is. I always wear one.” Alicia extended her hand to show Castiel her bracelet. “Another good one is selenite. It’s a powerful cleansing stone. It absorbs negative energies, and helps repair their effects on the body and mind.” The selenite was a delicate white crystal. “They’re very soft, though. Best not to get them wet.”
“Sounds like the two would go well together.”
“Exactly. I often add some white jade into the mix as well. Not only does it protect against negative influences, it helps you stay calm and confident. It’s considered to be lucky.”
Castiel nodded. “I definitely need some luck. They’re beautiful.” He ran his fingers gently over the crystals.
Alicia nodded with approval. “This is good. You’re very respectful. They’ll respond well to you.” She walked behind the counter, and dug through some boxes. “And now, the piece de resistance: tourmilated quartz. It’s clear quartz with streaks of tourmaline in it, see? It amplifies the actions of the tourmaline.”
Castiel took the stone carefully. It was milky white with sharp streaks of black running through it. This one felt better in his hand than any of the others; he felt suddenly clear-headed. “Oh, yes. This is the one, I think.”
Alicia clapped her hands together in delight. “I thought so. It’s especially good to wear one. It shields you from harm and creates a circle of light around you. Good for both protection and healing. It also helps you focus.”
Castiel gave her back the crystal reluctantly. “So how do I use these, exactly?”
“Rowena’s only told me a little bit about what you’re attempting. Said I’m on a need-to-know basis, which I’m fine with. I don’t like getting mixed up in other people’s shit, generally. But I gather you’re trying to trap some negative energy, and that you have a friend involved in this as well. So here’s what I’d recommend.”
Alicia held up a finger for him to wait and disappeared into the back again, returning with some small burlap bags. “So the tourmaline, selenite, and white jade are all available in small chips. Best bang for your buck, they’re the cheapest and will go the farthest.”
“Great idea.” Castiel looked into the bags. “But I’ll need more.”
“Phew. Good thing you got a discount, then. Now, you should also get several of the tourmilated quartz. Put some around your house, in your car. I’d also take two of these bracelets, one for you and one for your friend.” Alicia proudly showed him a basket of bracelets. “These are kind of my specialty. A large quartz in the middle, surrounded by alternating tourmaline and selenite, with tiny white jades in between. I got a lot of customers that swear by these.”
The bracelets were lovely, yet understated; something that Castiel could easily wear without calling attention to himself, especially being an art student. “These are quite well-done, Alicia. You have an artist’s eye.”
She waved a hand dismissively. “My twin brother, Max, is the real artist. A painter. He’s fantastic. I just took over the family business.”
“Don’t sell yourself short. Jewelry design is an art form as well.” Castiel put his hand in his back pocket for his wallet and was reminded of the rose quartz figure. He drew it out and placed it on the counter. “I wonder if you could tell me anything about this?”
Alicia brightened and scooped up the little angel, turning it over to look at the base. “Oh my gosh, this is one of my mother’s! See the little emblem carved here? That’s her mark. She started this store, before Max and I were even born.” She held the rose quartz in her hands and closed her eyes for a moment. “Someone who loved you bought you this. They put a protective spell on it.”
Castiel shook his head in amazement. “My grandmother. There was a lot I didn’t know about her, I’m finding out.”
“Well, she knew her stuff, I’ll tell you that. And she cared about you a great deal. It comes through, when you know what you’re looking for.”
“Thank you. I can’t thank you enough.”
“Well. Come back and see me sometime. Bring your friend. Us witches got to stick together.”
Castiel entered the sunny forest on the first day of summer break. “Dean? Are you here?”
The breeze swirled through the trees and around Castiel, caressing his face.
“Things are going well with our plans. I’ve gotten everything we need, I think, and I’ll be spending a lot of time with our neighbor this summer. Learning things. I can’t tell you too much, out in the open like this.” Castiel sat down on the rock, tucking one of his feet up under him. “I just wanted to tell you to have hope. Okay? Half the year has gone by. It’s only six months until Christmas. I can’t wait to see you again.”
The wind whispered past his ear, almost like a sigh.
He went to Rowena’s house the next day, when the sun was hidden by clouds. She opened the door before he even knocked. “Come in, then. It doesn’t do to be hanging around a lady’s doorstep.”
“I brought you a gift.” Castiel tried to hand her one of the tourmilated quartz stones he had gotten from Alicia.
Rowena touched it gingerly, then shook her head. “Nah, not for me. It’s sweet of you, truly, but stones don’t do for me like they do for you. My specialities are botanical--plants, dried leaves, brews. That sort of thing.” She smiled at him. “I appreciate the gesture, but it would do you far more good to keep it.”
“Very well.” Castiel moved to put the quartz into his bag.
“No, leave it out. Put it on the table while we work. It’ll give you clarity. I’m brewing a tea with rosemary in it, for remembrance. We’ll need all the help we can get. I hope you’re as good a student as they say.”
“I think Castiel has a love interest at school,” he heard his mother whisper one day. “He’s so distracted this summer. Always has something on his mind. And he’s constantly slipping away and disappearing.”
“I’ve heard him talk about an Alicia,” Anna piped up. “Someone he knows in St. Louis. A jewelry artist, I think? She made the bracelet that he wears.”
“That must be it. I wonder when he’ll say anything.”
“Leave him alone, ladies.” His father’s soft voice came from the next room. “Castiel’s never had a girlfriend before. He’ll tell us in his own good time.”
Castiel was far from distracted. He was as focused as he’d ever been. He recited the incantations Rowena was teaching him in his head, over and over. She’d warned him never to say them aloud, except in her home, until he was ready. “They’re powerful words, but only with the proper focus behind them. If they’re said idly, they’ll only attract the wrong kind of attention.”
He learned the whole of the incantation soon enough to surprise even Rowena. “You’ve quite the knack for this, dear boy. But you have to master the intention behind the words, as well. Keep coming to see me. I’ve gotten used to having you around.”
Castiel kept practicing after he returned to school in the fall. The incantation eventually set itself to a kind of music inside his mind, and he would hum the melody as he walked alone to his apartment after class. Meg demanded to know why he was so withdrawn, and Castiel finally told her a little bit about Dean--not the unbelievable part, only that he was away and Castiel didn’t know when he might see him again.
Meg, contrary to her usual nature, pitied him and no longer teased Castiel to come on outings. Instead, she would sometimes bring cups of hot chocolate to the corner where he went to work.
For the first time, Castiel looked forward to final exams; he only had to get through them so he could be at home again. He purchased gifts for his family from Alicia, and hoped that Christmas Day came without event. A rose quartz necklace for Anna, whose red hair would look pretty with the pink, a pair of labradorite earrings for his mother, who rarely wore jewelry other than her wedding ring or a pair of small gold hoops. For Gabriel, he selected a leather bracelet with an amethyst bead. Alicia told him amethyst could protect against the effects of alcohol, and Castiel had his suspicions. For Michael and his father, who would never have worn any jewelry, he got keychains with a small tourmaline set in a silver disk.
The day after his return home, he was at Rowena’s doorstep. She smiled when she opened the door to find Castiel waiting among the ivy with the gift of a holly wreath.
“There now, that’s the kind of present for someone like me, dear. It’s lovely. I’ll hang it over the mantel, I hadn’t got one for the chimney opening yet. Sit down, and we’ll have tea.”
“Do you think I’m ready?” Castiel blurted out, as she poured him a cup.
“Who can say, dear boy? I will say it’s a good sign that you have doubt. Pride goeth before a fall, as they say.”
“Maybe.” Castiel dipped a scone into his tea.
“Do you think you’ll continue with this? Even when, and if, you get what you want?”
“Who can say?” He echoed. “Does anyone ever really quit this?”
“Some do. But if you decide to continue developing your abilities, I’ll be here if you need me.”
Castiel raised an eyebrow. “Very kind of you.”
Rowena threw her head back and laughed. “Well, my motives are not entirely benevolent. I have a feeling you’d be a powerful ally.”
Before he left, Rowena handed him a corsage made from holly and ivy leaves. “Humor me. Pin it on your jacket. A little additional protection.”
“You’ve told me you didn’t get attached to people anymore.”
“Shut up.” Rowena was chuckling as she saw him out.
Castiel had done some behind-the-scenes string pulling in order to get his family out of the house on Christmas Eve afternoon. He thought he would feel better the farther away they were. The Singers always had a Christmas Eve potluck, and Castiel had finagled an invitation for the entire family. All he had to do was beg off at the last minute, saying he wasn’t feeling well.
The first deserter from the family Christmas plans, however, was Anna. Her best friend, Emily, had invited some of the boys from their class for a Christmas cookie decorating party, and Anna was determined to go. Castiel wisely kept silent; she would still be away from the house.
An hour before the family was to leave, Castiel emerged from his room with a regretful look on his face and a well-practiced cough. “Think I’m coming down with a head cold,” he mumbled. “I really shouldn’t expose everyone to my germs.”
“Oh, honey, what rotten luck,” his mother sympathized. “Getting sick on Christmas Eve! Well, it’s all right. We’ll bring back a plate for you.”
Castiel could practically see Gabriel’s ears perk up. Oh, no, he thought.
His worst fears were confirmed. “Ahh-chooo!” Gabriel trumpeted loudly. “Hack hack ackkkk.”
His long-suffering mother pursed her lips grimly. “Fine, Gabriel,” she said, rubbing her temples. “We’ll bring back TWO plates.” Seeing Castiel’s disbelieving look, she replied, “Oh, let it go. He only would have said something inappropriate and shocked the neighbors anyway.” She stomped away to finish getting ready.
Gabriel winked. “Don’t worry, bro. I’ve got no interest in interfering with whatever your plans are. I’m gonna take a nap.” He turned on his heel and entered his bedroom, closing the door softly.
His parents left the house, an unenthusiastic Michael in tow, two hours before sunset, and Castiel settled in to wait. Everything was prepared already, so he sat at the bottom of the stairs in the house, his mind empty.
He had looked up the time of the sunset weeks ago, of course, and at one hour and fifteen minutes before, he arose and went into the storage shed, where he had his supplies packed in a sturdy wheelbarrow. He made his way through the field, with a little difficulty due to gopher holes, and stood waiting at the edge of the wood. Thank goodness it wasn’t cloudy, he thought. The Lady would be sleeping, at least for a little while.
Soon a strong breeze gathered, and the birdsong grew quiet. As Castiel watched, Dean materialized from a wispy shape to the solid form he knew. “Castiel!” he called out, smiling, and ran to him, coming to a sudden stop about a foot away. “Castiel?” Dean repeated, hesitantly.
He reached for Dean’s right hand and slipped the bracelet over it. “Keep this on,” he murmured, “And whatever you do, be as quiet as you can. It’s time, Dean. Can you help me?”
Dean’s eyes were frightened, but he set his jaw. “I can help. Whatever you need me to do, Cas.”
“We have to work quickly. Show me the grove of trees she lives in.” Dean gestured, and Castiel was shocked at how close it was to their house. “All right. You have to make a circle of salt around it. Use this bucket to sprinkle it over the ground. Sparingly at first, so that we have enough to complete the circle. If you have some left over, go back over it to reinforce the circle.”
“Got it.” Dean sprang into action, and Castiel pulled out the length of iron chain. It was too heavy for him to carry all at once, and he struggled to pull it around the trees.
“Wait, Cas! It’ll be easier with both of us.” Dean took the other end, and they stretched the chain around the grove. They met on the far side, and Castiel locked the chain in place with the silver padlock.
“Okay, okay, now go back to the salt.” Castiel felt a little better that at least one barrier was in place, but his heart was still in his throat. He pulled out the bags of crystals that Alicia had sold to him and scattered them just inside Dean’s circle of salt.
Deep within the earth, something rumbled, and Castiel noticed that the sun had gone behind the clouds. Dean had at first ran back to the wheelbarrow to refill his bucket, but then had decided to push it along with him to save time. Castiel walked behind him, making a line of crystals and making sure Dean didn’t leave any gaps in the salt circle. By the time they had finished, they were both dripping with sweat, and a fierce wind was blowing through the trees.
“Now for the last step,” Castiel grabbed Dean’s hand, the one with the bracelet, and held it tightly. “Don’t let go. Concentrate as hard as you can on Her being trapped within the grove, and bound there forever.”
Dean nodded, and Castiel began to chant. The incantation was now as much a part of him as his own name, and he sang it to the melody he had invented. He could not have told later how long they spent there, or how many times he repeated it.
Dean’s face was terrified, but he clung to Castiel’s hand even as the wind grew fierce enough to break the branches of the trees, and as tiny balls of ice pelted their faces. The ground rumbled as if the earth might open up, and just as Castiel lost hope, he heard a high, unearthly scream.
Castiel’s ears rang in the sudden silence. The sun had set, and when he looked up at the sky, he could see the stars.
Dean cleared his throat. “This may be really inappropriate of me to say, but that was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Castiel laughed in pure joy, and surged forward to embrace him. He was met halfway by a very solid, very real, Dean Winchester.
“Come on,” he mumbled into Dean’s shoulder. “I’m taking you back to my house. You can finally get warm.”