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Like an Echo Down a Canyon

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The bruises that mark the side of Sam’s face seem darker in the low light of the Man of Letters’ library. He didn’t bother with the reading lamp, slumping by the desk with a closed book in front of him, like even the pretense of reading is too much. He’s staring down when Cas comes in from his supply run -- usually an overly-social inconvenience, today it was a welcome relief from the atmosphere in the bunker -- and the angel can’t help but note that he looks worryingly pale. Disturbingly still.

Like even moving hurts, Cas thinks, and the wave of regret is instantaneous, washing over him and making his chest tighten because I did that, how hard did other-me hit him - -

But then Sam notices his presence, looks up at him.

Cas has watched Sam Winchester battle all kinds of torment. The fact is he’s seen more than Sam knows. He can’t -- he won’t -- tell either of the brothers about the glimpses from the Cage, carnivorous little seedlings that Lucifer planted with care in his mind back when Cas was foolish enough to play host. A malignant gift he can’t ever return, a way to remind him that this body, like Sam’s, once housed its worst enemy.

The memories of the Cage that Lucifer picked out for him bloom out of nowhere when he’s least expecting them, in ferocious color and impossible clarity: Sam’s eyes staring up from the ruins of his body, searching for mercy that he knows won’t come. The look on his face every time the fallen archangel wore Dean’s skin before picking up a scalpel. The shaking when he wore John’s. The devastation when Sam realized, again and again, he was still trapped out of whatever illusion Lucifer crafted for him, then peeled away strip by bloody strip. Every memory is a knife to the gut, leaving Cas breathless and shaken and Sam went through an eternity of this, how is he even sane, how - -

Castiel keeps quiet about this. Sometimes he tells himself that carrying it alone is his punishment for whatever failure he feels the most guilty of that day; there’s a long list of those to choose from.

But the point is, he’s seen Sam in every kind of pain imaginable. Dean, too. On earth alone, he’s been with the Winchesters long enough to see both of them broken and exhausted and even -- surprisingly rarely -- hopeless. So he would have thought that, by now, he could recognize all of Sam’s depths of agony. But this expression he hasn’t seen before.

Sam’s eyes are dark and wet, his mouth hanging open, his hands are pressed together between his knees, fingers intertwined. Cas can’t remember ever seeing him sit like that, can’t comprehend how, for all his height, he manages to look like an eight year old. And a miserable one at that.

He inches closer, sits carefully down by the hunter without moving the chair back, afraid to make a sound. Studies the drying tear tracks on Sam’s face. For a long time, he says nothing. Some lessons from heaven are still useful these days, and though he is not the same creature he once was -- the one that was able to watch silently for millennia and never consider getting involved -- he can still wait a human out.

Sam shudders. Glances at him sideways, like he’s not sure which version of the angel he’s looking at.

“It’s me, Sam,” Cas says, and he has no idea why he feels the need to add, “everything’s back to normal.”

He isn’t ready for the way the reassurance makes Sam’s face crumple. It’s not the tears -- he almost never sees him cry, but that alone wouldn’t scare him. No, it’s something else that makes his skin prickle, his heart beat faster. Sam looks - - he looks - -

“There wasn’t enough time.”

Oh.

Cas nods, searches for the words. Strings them together carefully, now. “I don’t think more time would have helped, Sam. You can’t just outrun temporal paradoxes. You had to let John go.”

Sam is shaking his head like Cas isn’t getting it. “No, I know. I know.”

“Then wh- - “

“I told him I was sorry,” Sam says, and his voice is shaky and small and the angel finds himself frowning at how different he sounds. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, too’.”

Cas tilts his head, considers his words again before he says, gently, “what are you sorry for?”

Sam blinks at him, his eyes big and watery and much, much too young -- wrong, this is wrong, too much old pain dragged back up to the surface and left there -- and shrugs. Even that motion looks somehow strange on him. “Don’t know, I, um. I think I was a shitty kid for a while. And I went away, I told him he was - - I went away. I got away. Even though I knew he wouldn’t take me back. I mean -- ” he breathes in, and it’s the most pained sound Cas has heard him make since the Cage. “I thought - - I thought he wouldn’t. He said he wouldn’t.”

Cas knows the story of Sam’s departure for college, and he’s never lingered on it much, because abandoning fathers are something he’s always accepted as a universal truth; has been programmed to, and then worked hard to forget. But he can feel the flicker of fresh anger at John Winchester now, an ugly, dark resentment that he never felt for his own maker, not really.

“Sam, you were never a bad kid. I don’t think you even have it in you.” He raises a hand at Sam’s bitter chuckle, at the way the hunter turns his head away, almost in disgust. “I know what you were capable of when you were soulless, but that’s different. It is.”

Sam shrugs again, wipes sloppily at his eyes. He takes another long, stuttering breath, and Cas watches the way his face grows slack, the way his eyes widen, unseeing, as he stares into the middle distance between them. Something in Sam is shutting down, he can tell -- something that has to do with logic, with careful calculation, is fading away as he blurts out, “doesn’t matter. I had to tell him. Doesn’t matter. He was so alone when Mom died. He didn’t know what to do. He was so tired all the time. I should’ve - - I wasn’t - - “

Sam stops mid-sentence like he’s forgotten where he was going, lifts his head to look at the angel. “But I told him.”

“Yeah.” He wasn’t there for it, none of it, but he can tell that Sam is seeking an echo more than a debate. The concept of John Winchester’s son asking the man for forgiveness makes Castiel uneasy, makes his heart break in ways that he doesn’t quite understand. But he does his best to sound convincing as he says, “yeah, you did. You told him you were sorry, got that off your chest. That’s good.”

Sam sinks in his chair, his eyelids drooping, fluttering. “Doesn’t - - feel better.”

It wouldn’t, Cas thinks, but he says nothing. Sam’s guilt is his own, illogical and radioactive and as intractable as the man himself.

But Sam looks up at him like he’s expecting an explanation. Why does this hurt? Why aren’t you making it go away?

And it’s then that it occurs to Cas what he’s seeing. It occurs to him to ask.

“Sam, how old are you?”

Sam frowns like he finds the question too hard and unfair. “Huh?”

“How old do you think you are, right now?”

Those eyes. The way the mouth dips at the corners, same as a child’s does when they’re trying hard not to cry. He recalls that from Claire; one of Jimmy Novak’s forsaken memories, a bright April morning on the lawn and an argument that she was adamant on winning. She couldn’t have been more than five, stubborn even then. He sometimes wonders if she’ll ever be okay.

Sam makes a soft sound in his chair, his gaze wanders. His fingers dig distractedly into his palm and stay there.

“Sam.”

He shudders again, shakes his head like he’s trying to clear it. “That’s - - a strange question.”

Cas sighs. “I know. But I need you to answer it. I’m a little worried about your state of mind.”

Sam looks mildly surprised at that. “You’re - - worried?”

He seems to consider that fact for a moment before his face changes again, like he can’t quite hold on to the thought. Comes back to the question instead. “I don’t, I don’t know. Don’ remember. Doesn’t matter. I told him. Did I tell him?”

Cas nods again, ignores the sick feeling in the pit of his stomach. His voice still comes out choked where he wants it to be comforting. “You did.”

He wants to call him Sammy, can tell that the man he’s sitting next to has, somehow, mentally stumbled back into a time and place where that nickname was appropriate; but he can’t. Only Dean is allowed to use that name, and Dean is in his room, huddled in bed with a bottle of Hunter’s Helper. His own, solitary grieving ritual that he’s performing for the umpteenth time, second time for his dad. This wasn’t John flickering in for a moment from beyond the grave; Cas knows that Dean thought he had his father back this time, that both brothers dared to hope for at least a short while, which makes it so much worse. No one should have to do this twice.

Sam jumps a little at the touch of the angel’s hand on his shoulder. “No, ‘m okay,” he says, and then, as Cas wraps his arms around him without warning or a sound or his usual hesitation, “I got to hug him. Before I sent him back. He said he was really sorry. He said - - he said he was proud of us.”

Cas nods. “He should be,” he says, and for a rare, brief moment Sam’s head grows heavier against his chest, like he’s letting himself lean in for once.

It doesn’t last. The words that Sam slurs tiredly into the worn fabric of his coat are muffled, and so Cas has to pull back, look at him. “What?”

Sam blinks, reaches up to rub his eyes. “He said to t-take care of each other. I need to go see how Dean’s doing. I need - - “

Cas doesn’t let go, squeezes Sam’s shoulders, hard. “I’ll go check on him. You shouldn’t talk to him right now, not when you’re - - listen, you need -- “ and the words feel unfair, cruel, they’re not his own, but he says them anyway because they’re what Dean would say. They’re what Sam is used to hearing. “You need to pull yourself together, first.”

The look in Sam’s eyes is another indication of how far back his mind has slid, because there’s no automatic nod, no attempt at gaining back control. None of the usual, instinctive Winchester unease in the face of vulnerability. Sam just looks hurt, and confused, and Cas can’t help but wonder if this is how he looked all those years back, when his one living parent told him the same thing time and time again. If that’s what he thinks is happening now. How old are you? I don’t know.

“Sam,” he says, more softly now. “Look at me.”

The hazel eyes that meet his are still disturbingly different, still all wrong. He recognizes only a shred of that pained intelligence, of the usual guardedness and worry that have Sam constantly taking in everything and everyone, always appraising, considering. This isn’t the man he’s gotten to know, not fully. This is Sam stripped of his defenses, wavering between now and then, somehow stuck.

It dawns on him that John took something with him when he went back; that messing with the fabric of time doesn’t ever get fixed that easily, a chess piece nudged back to its rightful place on the board. The thing that’s unraveling now isn’t a chain of events that they retroactively set in motion, it’s something much more nebulous and elusive, so much harder to mend.

He wonders if he’ll find Dean’s repression tearing at the seams, too, when the older brother will finally emerge out of his locked room.

“Sam,” he says, and it takes all of his concentration to sound calm and reassuring, “hey. I think you might be having something… something like a flashback, maybe. I don’t know. I want you to try to focus, okay? You’re in the bunker, and you’re in your thirties. Do you remember that? You’re an adult now.”

Sam’s gaze falls. He looks like he thinks he’s being punished, like he expects pain. And then, heartbreakingly, like he hopes to avoid it. He brings his thumb up to his lips, chews on the end of the nail nervously. “I’m, umm - - what?”

“Do you remember what year it is?”

Sam begins to shake his head, then stops like he’s trying not to give himself away.

“19 - - “

He stalls, thinks for a long moment, unable to come up with the rest of what is already a wrong answer.

“Dunno,” he finally admits. Looks back down. Cas swallows hard, takes a breath before he can continue.

“Will you remind me how old you are?” He tries again, though he knows what he’ll get. He still hopes to jostle something free, make Sam’s mind stagger back into the present.

Sam fails to answer that and all of his other questions, looking increasingly distracted and adrift the more the angel speaks, the more he tells him where they are, when they are, what happened today. It makes Cas suspect that he’s doing the wrong thing entirely; that knowing John is gone again is too much right now for the exhausted man that he’s trying to herd back to present reality. Maybe that reality is what’s keeping him away.

Away is the wrong word, though. Sam’s not away. He’s here, looking right at him now, still chewing on his thumbnail like an anxious habit that maybe he managed to shake once, and that’s somehow resurfaced with the rest of his ghosts. His other hand is clenching and unclenching almost convulsively around the chair’s armrest, and somehow that breaks Castiel’s heart more than anything because he can see. He can see Sam’s fear and old desperation to be someone else, someone good enough; can see for a fleeting moment how that would have been for a child. A wound he hasn’t yet seen on Sam for all his years of careful observation, a wound that’s now reopened. It’s impossible to overlook, clear as the light of day and just as brutal.

He wishes he could unsee it. The unfairness of the Winchesters’ lives is something he is careful not to think about too often, because that leads to considering other injustices of the human condition and that, in turn, leads to thinking about who’s responsible. A path he can’t afford to walk down again; a rage that he allowed once to make him believe he could do a better job. He sighs, pulls away from it. Don’t.

Sam flinches at the sound he makes, looks up at him, appearing troubled. Of course he is, of course he would be. So adapt at locating distress in everyone else, always the fixer. Even when he’s in pieces. Cas watches the hunter’s eyes as they clear; watches familiar lines of more-recent pain etch themselves back onto a face that was inexplicably free of them just now. He waits.

Sam wavers on the precipice of awareness for a while, blinking and taking uneven, hitched breaths. Looking around. It’s a struggle that Cas has no idea how he can aid in, and he’s too afraid to move, to reach over and place a calming hand on his second-favorite human’s shoulder for comfort. For an anchor. He’s too unsure if that would be an anchor, unsure what might chase clarity away again. He waits. He waits.

It hurts to wait. Hurts not to be able to pull Sam out of his turmoil the way he plucked Dean out of Hell. The memory of the older brother hanging from his grip, lax and lifeless the way only a devastatingly broken thing can be -- yet still alive, still somehow holding on -- is painful not because of how tortured Dean was back then; it’s unbearable because of how blind to human pain he, himself, was as he carried the shredded soul away from Alastair’s domain. It was just a task, then. A delivery he was told to make. He can’t imagine how many other broken humans he disregarded throughout his years as an unquestioning soldier.

We were supposed to be their shepherds, he told Naomi, and he meant to say, back then, that angels were not created to rain death on their charges; but the humanity that she so despised in him -- that thing he contracted which makes him so unlike his old brethren -- has given him more than just a distaste for casual murder. It’s given him a type of perception that he sometimes, on his worst days, wishes he had remained immune to. It’s given him pain.

Sam frowns at him from his chair, worried. His old self again. Funny how you can tell, even before he utters one word.

Cas tries to smile. “Feeling better?”

It’s a strange thing to ask someone who’s just lost their father, but Sam doesn’t seem to take offense. “I’m - - yeah,” he says, pulling his hand away from his mouth like he’s surprised to find it there. “Sorry, I don’t really know what just happened. Did I - - ”

Cas watches as the memory of the last few minutes recedes out of Sam’s reach like a tide that’s too fast to catch up with. Like a fading dream. Some things are better off left in their own realm, he thinks, and he doesn’t mean John as much as the ghost of John, the scars of him. The desperate child that his coming and going has torn out of hiding like a bird thrown out of its nest, forced to the forefront of Sam’s mind and then gone again, back to oblivion. Please, let that boy stay where he was.

“It’s okay,” Cas says, “you must have nodded off while I was out. You were talking in your sleep just now.”

Not a complete lie; he has a feeling he’ll be seeing that version of Sam in the hunter’s actual dreams. He silently promises himself to listen for that child, too, to somehow find and comfort that part of the adult who’s now watching him back, confused and already forgetting.

“Okay,” Sam says, and the fact that he doesn’t ask what it was that he said in his sleep is both proof and a relief: it means that doors are slamming closed in his mind, fences are being mended. Things are being erased as they speak, or at least buried, though not laid to rest. Sam would refuse the mercy that John was granted, anyway, would refuse to forget his father’s visit; but maybe some of its consequences can be avoided.

For now.

Cas follows Sam to the kitchen, watches him try to put together some sort of a meal from the groceries he brought from town. Something to leave by Dean’s door without knocking -- too soon to knock. The kid that wanted to go comfort his older brother is safely tucked away, now; enough, at least, that Sam knows better than to try. Not yet. Mary’s son all the way, Dean needs time to curl up and bleed at a safe distance before he can let anyone in.

Cas has no idea where Mary is, in fact, but he’s far too tired to ask. And reluctant to remind Sam of yet another parent who’s come back from the dead. Both Sam and Dean must wonder if her time with them is limited; he imagines they’d be worried by now that Mary, too, is bound by the family rule that comfort never comes without consequences.

He imagines they’d be right.

Neither he nor Sam speak after Sam leaves the tray by his brother’s door and returns to the kitchen, his shoulders slumped. Too much to say.

It’s around midnight that Sam turns off his laptop and gets up with a sigh, the kind that means he’s feeling today’s bruises. He walks to the other room, stands there for a long moment like he isn’t quite sure what he came in for.

“I’m going to bed,” he finally says, and Cas knows that neither of the Winchesters will be sleeping tonight. 

He feels an urgent need to say something, not to let Sam walk away without somehow trying to make right what can never be fixed.

“Sam. Listen, I - -”

Sam turns around, looks at him like he wasn’t expecting a response, like he was already alone in the room.

“Cas, it’s okay. We’ll be okay.”

Castiel persists, though he doesn't know what he plans to say until he says it. “I know you and Dean are hurting right now, Sam. But - - “

A warning, a plea, a hope that he isn’t allowed to voice. He can’t say what he really wants to say, tell him keep moving don’t look back don’t let things catch up with you, please. Wouldn’t do much good if he did; both Sam and Dean have spent their lives running, could never survive otherwise. Either that roaring wall of destruction that’s been flattening their lives like a tsunami will someday match their speed, or it won’t.

He still tries in vain to find comfort where there is none, not tonight. “Maybe it’s a good thing that you got to talk to your father one last time. Maybe it can make it easier to move on.”

The words feel hollow, they ring hollow in the dark, empty room. From where he stands he can look down the hall, see the plate of scrambled eggs and toast sitting on the cold tray that hasn’t been touched.

Sam’s hand lingers for a moment over the dark wooden surface of the table, fingers hovering over the fine dust left by the crushed pearl. His eyes search the corners of the room for something they can’t find.

“Yeah.”

 

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