Twenty months ago in Dean’s sodding excuse for a life, just a few hours after getting un-demonized.
“Well, that sucked,” Dean informs his whiskey double.
The whiskey doesn’t have any immediate comeback. It swirls in its glass confines, breaking up the shards of light from the small reading lamp off to one side. In the lamp’s halo, the tick-tocking clock is telling Dean it’s fuck-this-shit AM and a recently-turned-human like himself should be asleep.
Side to side the whiskey sways, as if weighing which part of Dean's recent Hell Knight experience he has to hate himself for the most. Is it for the dark greedy joy of hunting down his brother with a claw hammer? Or Cas having to spend almost all of his fading strength to come wrestle Dean, all snarling and demony and damned, to a standstill to stop him?
Dean tosses back the fifth (sixth, seventh...?) shot and finds the answer at the bottom of the glass. Definitely C, both of the above.
The motion hikes up the edge of his rolled-up flannel sleeve. The reading light paints a hard shadow across his arm, cutting the Mark in two. Dark, light, black, white, human, demon, it’s always there. Fuck this bloody thing.
Fuck demons and their mindjobs.
And fuck this bottle of whiskey. What did Sammy go and buy while Dean was demonized? Sugarlight liquor-free Johnny Walker? He’s emptied half the contents down his throat at this juncture and he isn’t feeling the least bit buzzed.
The ceiling lights come on. The suddenness is a shock that breaks open the darkness like an egg, and out drops a library full of shelves, chairs, stacked books and a brother in PJ pants.
Awww, fuck his life.
“Sammy, I know you told me to go to sleep.” Dean rubs his face to avoid looking up at his brother’s expression. He’s only been un-demonized for a scant six hours now. Once they were sure he wasn’t going to have a relapse, Cas left to deal with something for Hannah, and Sam sent Dean to bed. As if being a Knight of Hell is the same as coming down with the mumps: a few shots, liquids, bed rest, yessir, all better. It’s a wonder Sam hasn’t made him chicken noodle soup.
“I tried, but I couldn’t sleep. Got out of the habit. When a demon hops into bed, it's not a pillow he’s aiming to hit, right?”
He tries to make it a joke. It falls predictably flat.
Sam looks about ready to go fetch the chicken noodle soup after all, but in the end he puts the wretched worried look away and goes for a practical concern instead. “If you don’t get any sleep, you won’t be able to drive tomorrow. We said a vacation would-”
“-do us some good, yeah, yeah, don’t worry, I think I can sleep now,” Dean lies, pushing back his chair. “Goin’ to bed.”
As soon as Sam’s back is turned, Dean reaches for the bottle, just to make sure he’s got half a chance to catch some zzzs tonight. Passing out is a traditional Winchester remedy against recurring nightmares.
The bottle’s not here. It’s empty and in the garbage.
Dean blinks slowly. Huh. Okay, so he’s shitfaced after all, because he does not remember doing that. Success! Dean snickers sourly and carries himself off to bed.
When he wakes up at the odious hour of seven AM, his head is oddly clear, but his stomach feels like the bottom of a werewolf’s kennel. He gets up abruptly, irritated at this sudden human frailty he hadn’t had this time yesterday - and ends up hunched over the crapper, hurling out whatever remained of last night’s liquid comfort. Shit, drink’s not done that to him in over ten years.
Dean hits the flush, solemnly vows to always buy his own booze from now on, and goes to join an obnoxiously fresh salad-and-sunshine-powered Sam for their drive out to that lake for their well deserved break. Too bad Cas can’t join them, but it seems Heaven needs its hero back.
Nineteen months ago in Castiel’s long and rather tarnished career, and a couple of days after the ‘oops’ of letting Metatron escape.
Castiel’s no hero. What he is, as far as his peers are concerned, is a headache.
Down on earth, when they’d all been cast out, Hannah and the others had been so keen to make him their general, their savior. He’d led them for awhile; gathering their forces, organizing them against Metatron, coming up with plans of attack. He hadn’t done too badly, all in all. Until he threw it all away for the sake of Dean Winchester.
He’d still managed to save Heaven in the end, thanks to Gadreel’s sacrifice and Metatron’s hubris. Some angels remember that. Others recall that it’s partly Castiel’s fault they’d been booted out of their home in the first place. Up until recently, the Host was evenly split between the pro-Castiel camp and the ‘Please send him down to earth and never mention him again’ faction.
Then he once again put Dean’s wellbeing above all else, somewhat-accidentally freeing Metatron the day before yesterday in order to help Dean with the Mark.
Now Heaven is a lot less divided on his subject.
Castiel doesn’t begrudge them their anger. For his part, he has no illusions about himself. He’s not a hero, much less a leader. No. He’s a soldier who turned his back on his duty; an angel who chose earth over Heaven. And those were his good choices. Castiel is a killer and a rebel, a traitor and a one-time fallen god. A being who has made many, many mistakes. They are finally coming home to roost.
Castiel looks up. Hannah’s hesitant tone does not sound promising. Maybe… maybe he should have said a proper goodbye to Dean and Sam before driving to Heaven’s portal and coming up here. He might not be going back
He gets to his feet nonetheless, resigned. It feels good to move. He’s been sitting in a bland meeting room in one of Heaven’s managerial wings, the kind of place Zachariah and Naomi once haunted, and he’s been waiting there for more than a day, earth-time. This new revolutionary idea that the Host can govern itself is wonderful, and it’ll hopefully ensure they won’t fall foul of more dictators in the future, but deciding by consensus seems to take an inordinate amount of time. (Then again, back in the good old days, it’d only take an archangel three seconds to decide he didn’t like your attitude, click his fingers and poof, so perhaps a lengthy debate by committee is the lesser evil.)
“So? Have you decided how I am to be punished?”
“... We don’t want to punish you, Castiel.” Which is not the same as ‘we won’t’, he notes. “You are the reason Metatron was in jail rather than in power in the first place. So we are going to let you go, so you can rectify your mistake by finding him and bringing him back.”
“That is merciful, thank you,” Castiel declares gravely.
“While you’re down there, we have other matters we would like you to attend to on our behalf.”
Hannah is staring fixedly at his left shoulder rather than looking him in the eye. The stiffness of her attitude makes it clear that ‘we would like’ is in fact a stern directive.
“There are still rogue angels that need to be dealt with. Other matters too. We have decided that angels should no longer go down to earth. It is too confusing down there. We will make an exception for you, since you are... acclimatized. But you need to be aware…”
“I’m on thin ice,” Castiel helpfully interprets her pause.
Hannah glares down at her feet. “I stood up for you, I tried to explain- the problem is the Winchesters.”
“The Winchesters are not a problem,” Castiel says sharply. “I told you Dean did not kill Tessa, it was-”
“They are the problem!” Hannah’s head whips up and she glares at him. “Look at you!”
Castiel glances down at himself. Suit, trenchcoat - he still isn’t wearing a tie, but surely that’s not a problem -
“I watched you present your case yesterday! Straightforward, calm- just coasting along on fatalism and resignation, a dutiful soldier awaiting his sentence. And all I need to say is the name Winchester, and suddenly you’re on the alert, like a dog hearing its master’s voice. Castiel! Don’t you see?! You’re obsessed with them! Particularly with Dean Winchester! The human is a menace, and you went and freed Metatron just to help him! Him! When I tried to do the same for you, you shot me down!”
“We will sort out the Mark.” Castiel’s voice holds an edge of warning, further making Hannah’s point, and he doesn’t care. He will not let the Host harm Dean in order to neutralize him before he falls into corruption again. Yes, the resurgence of a Knight of Hell frightened the angels badly, weakened as they are, but fear is no excuse to do something irredeemable.
“I hope you do, sincerely,” says Hannah in a sour way that makes that last word somewhat doubtful. “Because the Host has decided to treat you as a package deal, so to speak. You - all three of you - need to show the Host that you are allies we can rely on. You, Castiel, need to help us as our agent down on earth, and Dean and Sam Winchester need to get rid of that Mark before he falls into corruption again-...”
Hannah stops abruptly and pretends that’s where she planned on ending her sentence all along.
Castiel heard the “Or else” loud and clear anyway.
“...Fine. Where do you want me to go?”
“The remaining rogues have found ways of hiding themselves. We can’t pinpoint their locations, but we do have some leads.” Hannah flicks her fingers. Molecules weave and combine within Heaven’s malleable reality. Castiel lifts a hand and a dozen manila folders appear in his grip. This is when he realizes Hannah has not come close to him once in the twenty four hours he’s been here. No angel has. This bothers him more than he thought it would, though not as much as what Hannah implied a minute ago. “I suggest starting in Washington, there's indications Metatron headed that way.”
“Very well.” Castiel turns and trudges off in the direction of the exit.
… That was unnecessary. The Host did not need to implicitly make Sam and Dean’s safety the warranty on his behavior. But by the time his feet touch down on earth again, the anger boiling deep in Castiel’s being has cooled to resignation. He has much to make up for these past few years. Like two sides of a coin, his redemption in the eyes of his family and keeping his friends safe both depend on his obedience, so obey he will.
Nineteen months ago, a few weeks of being human again and Dean still can’t enjoy his booze in peace.
“I see. Glad the Host let you off the hook, at least. Good luck in Washington. Give us a call if you need any help, you hear me? Yeah, you too.” Dean disconnects the call (because Cas always forgets to do it on his end; Dean’s been left listening to the sound of a cell phone jostling around in a trench coat pocket before now.)
Sam looks up from his book in concern. “What’s up with Cas?”
“The angel squad wasn’t amused that Metatron’s in the wind.” Dean’s not surprised. He’d suggested Cas ignore the recall order and stay right here in the bunker, fuck the halo brigade. But Cas, after some hesitation, decided to go up and sort shit out with his family. Dean understands and disapproves at the same time, the usual mixed bag he feels towards most things angel-related (angels as a group as opposed to the trenchcoat-wearing one.)
“Is he okay?”
“Oh, yeah, he’s back on earth. They’ve put him in charge of hunting Metatron and other runaways.”
“Oh, that’s good. Right?”
“Better than jail, but not by much, I think.” Dean scratches the back of his head. “When Cas said ‘entrusted with an important mission’, I heard ‘community service’. Picking up angel roadkill alongside the highway sort of thing.”
“Still, useful for us if he does find Metatron,” Sam sighs, nodding back at his book. “I’d love to have more information than the dribs and drabs he gave Cas. I haven't-... really, man? It’s eleven in the morning.”
“So?” Dean pops the cap off the bottle he snagged from the fridge during the phone call. “It’s just a beer.”
“It’s the fifth beer.”
Dean pauses with the glass near his lips. “No, it’s not.”
Sam gestures aggrievedly off to one side where, indeed, four more beer bottles lurk on the elegant side table the Men of Letters originally intended for fancy brandy decanters.
“Didn’t know you were counting,” Dean shoots back at his brother before taking a swig. “Anyway, I don’t know what froufrou brew you bought, but it’s weak, I don’t feel a thing.”
He swaps his bottle for the book he’d been reading when Cas called; an 18th century tome about curses penned by one Boris Sheithunberg, Austro-Hungarian refugee in America’s branch of the MoL, yada yada yawn. The only thing Boring Shitbird has taught Dean so far is that you can document the effects of a curse that turns a man inside-out and still make it sound fucking dull.
After a few seconds and the line, ‘Thus it is evident that this malediction cannot be too potent in order to ensure compliance by the subject‘, something nudges his concentration - not that hard to do, really. It’s the lack of response from his brother. It’s rare for a Winchester not to try to have the last word.
He looks up to find Sam staring at him in a worried way.
“...you really don’t feel anything?”
“Because that’s one of your normal brands, they just changed the label while you-... were away.”
Dean blinks down at his beer and oh, yeah.
It’s not Dean’s lack of beer literacy that seems to worry his brother, though. Sam is still looking at him with concern that’s slowly circling the issue rather than charging right at it.
“It’s weird you didn’t know how much you drank. That is… you wouldn’t drink that much before lunchtime, before…”
“What are you talking about?”
Sam hesitates, licks his lips. “You told me that before you… uh…”
“Went dark side, yeah?”
“That your appetite had flagged.”
“Oh.” That sours the taste of beer in his mouth before he spots the flaw in the implication and shakes his head. “Nah, completely different. I didn’t feel like eating or drinking back then. Now I am drinking, it just doesn’t seem to affect me that much. My liver’s tougher than old boot, that’s all.”
“Dude, did I or did I not eat all my pancakes this morning, and then finish yours, and then went and cooked another batch?”
Every pancake point he makes sees Sammy relax a bit more until he even snickers. “Yeah, what the hell was that? Feeding time at the zoo? I have to go back and buy more syrup.”
“Shut up, they were fucking good pancakes.”
“Yeah, I grant you, they were. And I can understand why you’re hungry after that bout of food poisoning you had there. That’s better, right?”
“Sure,” says Dean, lying through his teeth. He’s still hurling every three days like clockwork, no idea why. At this point he wakes up knowing exactly if and when he’ll toss his cookies that morning, which is helpful, if weird. Means he’s doing shit in the workshop or garage with the handy toilet furthest away from the library and living quarters. He doesn’t want Sammy to worry about it, his brother’s got enough on his plate as it is.
“So now all you need to do is swap half those pancakes for fruit, slow down on the beer, get some exercise, and think how healthy you’ll be,” Sam says with a smug grin, the salad-munching daily-jogging bastard.
Dean loads a sardonic look into the chamber and pulls the trigger as he reaches for his beer, sight unseen so he won’t miss the bitchface the next sip will earn him-
The bottle explodes before his fingers even touch it. Glass skitters across the table and suds cascade all over Boring Shitbird’s volume.
You can hear the beer bubbles fizzing in the second of stunned silence that follows.
“Okay, that was weird, right?” Dean asks tightly.
“Yeah,” Sam answers, voice hoarse. The instant the bottle went bang, Sam’s hand was at the back of his belt where he usually keeps his piece, though he never walks around armed in the bunker and there is, as it happens, nothing here to shoot. Nothing visible.
The brothers look at the broken glass and the beer now streaming off the table like a sudsy waterfall. They look at each other. They deliberately close their books on curses, and go get their weapons, EMF reader and different books on the subject of things that make other things explode from a distance, because they live in a place that has books on that.
It’s an intense afternoon, but not very productive, and Dean never does get to drink his fifth beer.
Next Chapter: You Had Me Before Hello
In which Castiel decides to make Dean’s life even more complicated, which is the best bad idea ever.