Part One: Prodrome | Chapter One: Triage
There are too many of them.
Dean clutches the chunk of fence in his hands, a rusted and flaking security blanket. He knows that’s all it is, that it’s no match for what’s converging on them. Sam knows it too, Dean can feel this like he can feel his own heartbeat. A heavy hand lands hard on his shoulder.
“Close your eyes,” Cas says, not a shout, but a low warning, and well, Dean knows the drill, he doesn’t need to be told twice.
It isn’t enough, though. His eyelids are hot and the light’s going right through them, he has to drop the iron bar so he can cover his face with both arms. A thousand miles away, a second soft thud tells him Sam’s come to the same conclusion. The air is filled with an almost chlorinated, sterile smell that Dean recognizes as ozone, and there’s a whine, a high-pitched ringing sound that seems to drill right into Dean’s eardrums. It reminds him of the first time Cas tried to speak to him. Is that what he’s doing now? Speaking? Dean’s skin prickles with goosebumps.
Cas’ grip never lets up on the flesh of his shoulder, fingers digging hard enough to leave a bruise. Dean focuses on that, uses it to ground himself.
Something brushes against the back of his neck, soft and smooth, and there’s a sensation like a blanket thrown at him from behind.
Everything is whisked away, as if the entire landscape was the illusion of a stage magician.
There is silence, or near enough to it. Slowly, experimentally, he straightens up and pulls his arms away from his face. Seeing only the dark-red-nothing ordinary to closed eyes in a lit room, he permits himself a few blinks.
The bunker library has taken the place of the cemetery and for a frozen moment, it seems like everything is some variety of fine, like they all stumbled out of a nightmare and into a perfectly ordinary...
What time is it?
It had seemed like afternoon before, golden and hazy, but that was Chuck’s doing somehow, something he conjured for his own enjoyment. After he’d snapped it was night, but had he done that for the sake of drama too?
The clock on his phone is wild with unrecognizable glyphs.
“Sam?” Dean’s gaze is wild with flickering disbelief, the first place it lands is on Sam, scanning for signs of damage. “You uh… good?”
“I’m… I think so. More or less.” Gunshot wound aside, Sam probably means but does not say, because that is a problem that they know how to solve. Dean is obviously inquiring about more urgent maladies.
“Cas? Damage report?” Dean isn’t sure if Cas will get the reference or just take it literally. It’s hard to predict, anymore, but it doesn’t make much difference in this case. He almost asks how Cas got them past the wards, but there’s been any number of minor warding failures over the last couple of years.
Dean’s running theory about that is that Chuck screwed them up somehow when he visited on Amara-related business, but then, Chuck screwed it up is also his current theory on most things at this particular moment.
“I…” Cas swallows, frowns, does not meet Dean’s eyes. He slumps forward, leaning on the table like a runner with a cramp, and Dean’s across the room like a shot to guide him into chair before he collapses.
There’s a line between Sam’s eyebrows as he comes up behind Cas’ chair. He’s cradling one arm with the other, but his movements are still gentle and tightly controlled. Adrenaline, Dean suspects, still blocking some of the pain. Sam asks Cas, “What is it?”
Cas doesn’t answer. Instead, he swallows again, and then it becomes clear why: his face tenses, his mouth becomes a hard line, and he gags.
Dean wants to press him for what’s happening, but it’s no use. Cas’ won't answer, his mouth is occupied. He’s leaning forward in spasms, coughing, and doing something that isn’t quite vomiting, given that he hasn’t had almost anything in his stomach for probably years.
What’s coming up his throat and out through his mouth, falling between his knees and pooling on the library floor, is the blue-white light of grace. Cas’ hand comes up and grabs Dean’s for support and leverage, squeezing like he’s trying to break Dean’s fingers.
Dean, for his part, does nothing to prevent this. He looks at the place where their hands meet and decides he’s fine with it, fine with whatever is needed.
“Sam--” Cas rasps the warning between coughs, not turning around. “ Move.”
This is nowhere near enough information, but Sam’s spent his whole life interpreting sudden, life-or-death instructions, so he dives out of the way through sheer instinct. Dean follows the movement with his eyes, relieved to find Sam clear of the mess of darkness that erupts with a pop and a shock-wave precisely into the space where he’d been standing.
“Cas, what--” Dean’s speech cuts off the moment his eyes actually process the scene in front of him -- the rain of feathers and scraps of cloth.
Cas’ clothes -- coat, jacket, and shirt -- are no more than a pile of neutral-toned ribbons around him. For a second, all he’s got on above the waist is his tie and a torn-away bit of his shirt collar, which Dean makes a mental note to be amused by later. He scrabbles off the tie (leaving the collar to fall to the floor as well) either in discomfort or frustration or both.
“Wings,” Sam identifies, a little stunned and picking himself up off the floor between the library stacks. He eyes the chaos of overturned tables and broken chairs -- including the back and arms snapped clean off of the one Cas is sitting in. It’s not hard to imagine how hard he’d have been hit, how far he’d have been thrown, if he hadn’t dodged on command. “Cas, can you tell us what’s happening? Is there something we can do?”
“Curse box,” Cas croaks. “Contain as much grace as we can. Loose feathers. ...It’s... evaporating.”
He’s right, at least on spec: the grace that came out of him most obviously so far has already vanished into the ether, which seems very much not normal.
“Sam?” This is all Dean has to say. Sam hears the rest of the words anyway. Sam, go get a curse box while I stay here and watch Cas.
A hush falls after Sam leaves the room, the only sound Cas’ ragged breathing and the rustle of feathers. Dean can’t help but look -- the wings are enormous, black and velvety, shot through with little lines of gunmetal gray in places, calling to mind myths of rocs and thunderbirds. They’ve never met or hunted either of those, though, not once, and it occurs to Dean to wonder if they’re real, or just the result of people getting an eyeful of angel.
This is a question for another time. Still, despite their condition they’re easy to admire. Any number of words of praise about them rise to his lips, but he stops them before they make it out. Dean doesn’t know much about angel wings, but the way they droop and shudder and shed feathers doesn’t look like what he’d think of as healthy, and the last thing he wants to do is make Cas feel worse about it, if it’s headed somewhere bad.
Standing next to Cas’ chair is awkward, so he crouches beside it instead. The lull in the heaving continues, and Cas’ breaths even out. A thin sheen of sweat stands out on his forehead. The grip on Dean’s hand has loosened, but not let go.
Dean has already been making little circles on Cas’ skin with the pad of his thumb for almost a solid minute before he realizes he’s doing it.
He gets lost in his own head for a moment.
A memory floats past, of when he was eight years old and his father gave him five bucks and sent him into a dollar store to buy toys for Sam. He was allowed to pick out exactly one thing for himself, and he did: a pair of cheap plastic sunglasses. He thought they looked cool (they didn’t) and he wore them for hours, refused to take them off in the car, in the motel, even fell asleep wearing them. When he took them off, his eyes had gotten used to the dark cast on everything, and the world without them looked so bright it was almost blinding.
He’s realizing now that some other kind of Jacob-Marley-esque chain he was dragging has broken and fallen off, and the resistance is gone. He didn’t notice it happening in the moment (and he’s got a guess, now, of what moment it might have been) but all of the sudden he can feel its absence acutely.
“We’re gonna keep you safe, we’ll do what we gotta do, whatever it is,” Dean murmurs, soft and close. This is probably awful timing but he has to test this boundary, it’s going to drive him nuts if he doesn’t, and when he does, he finds it gone, the words come out easy, as if he’s always been saying them. “Cas, I love you.”
Cas’ head turns, just a little, and even that seems to bring a fresh wave of vertigo judging by the way he winces. His bloodshot eyes are a study in contrasts, in primary colors, and his brows twitch. At this distance, inches, really, Dean can make out every little micro-expression. Confusion. Surprise. Caution. Comprehension.
“I see,” Cas says, quietly worn too threadbare for tact, the corner of his mouth flicking like it wants to smile or grimace and can’t decide which. He visibly braces himself, like he’s about to lift something heavy. With eye contact that feels like staring into the sun, he says it one word at a time: “I love you.” And then, after he waits for a moment to see if anything else comes out and it doesn't: “That is interesting.”
“No kidding,” Dean agrees, a little breathless.
He recalls moments when it’s been a drumbeat in his head: I love you, I love you, I love you, but he’d open his mouth and it would stopper his throat, and somehow what came out would be some ambiguous or familial expression, something true, certainly, but incomplete.
All this time Dean thought it was his own fears and failings, a blame he carried on his own, but a different truth is making itself known, now.
“His story, His rules,” Dean says. The implications roll at him like thunder. It isn’t just this. It’s everything. He laughs darkly, almost a choke. “Now I can’t tell what I’ve fucked up on my own and what was Chuck’s idea.”
“I just...” Cas stops, and his eyes go out of focus for a moment as he fights a wave of nausea. “I wish Jack could have lived long enough to ask himself that same question. He was so fixated on what was real, or true. Dean, I think, deep down, he might have known… something . ”
Dean draws a deep breath and lets it out, a moment to collect himself. “How far do you think it’s gone? I mean--” it’s impossible to bring himself to say it, given how he’s treated Jack recently.
Fortunately, Cas spares him: “I suspect now that there have been times he exerted direct control, or tried to, especially in the last few years. In general maybe, but since Amara, certainly. On Jack -- on all of us.”
Cas’ eyes say what his mouth doesn’t: he has only scraps of evidence, but he’s choosing to believe it. He squeezes Dean’s hand where he’s holding it, and Dean squeezes back. Whether it’s true or not, Cas is grieving, they’re all grieving, and he’s right, it feels right to think this way.
It gives them an excuse to come together despite how far apart they’d been only hours before, to save face and still reach for what they need, and that’s good enough.
Dean’s thighs and knees are starting to burn from the crouch, and he tugs a chair noisily into position, facing Cas. When he slides into it, he scoots forward a little further and leans forward, his posture a mirror of Cas, so that their kneecaps touch and their foreheads don’t quite, but it’s a near thing.
“Sam’s here. I’m here. You’re here. We’re gonna get you stable, and then we can…” Dean allows himself the littlest of smiles, now. “Compare notes. All you want. Figure it all out, together.”
Sam’s footsteps change from tile to cement to wood as he comes back through the kitchen into the library. Dean doesn’t leap away, or scoot back. For the first time, the scrabbling desperation to make excuses just fails him.
Shit, Sam probably knows, anyway. That’s how Dean would have done it, if he were Chuck, writing the story. Though, there’s a lot of things he’d have done differently, so maybe that’s no indication. He wonders if this -- him and Cas -- was meant to be a tragic, star-crossed sort of thing, or if Chuck would have let them come together, eventually.
Maybe only to kill one of them again, maybe bring them back again. Maybe again and again, since he seems to like that sort of thing so much. The very thought of it leaves him tired.
Dean gets a flash of pleasure out of the thought that however Chuck meant for the air to clear between them, it definitely wasn’t supposed to be like this: easy and pragmatic, a natural understanding. Not His style, not by a long shot.
Well, fuck Him.
There’s no comment from Sam, in any case.
Cas’ eyes glaze over. “Box,” is all he manages to get out, shakingly, before he starts to spasm again. Sam passes the box to Dean, who grabs it and presses it into Cas’ hands just in time for it to catch the next bout of expectorated grace. Somewhere amid it all, Cas burns a new sigil into the side of it, a reinforcement for this specific purpose.
At the bottom of the little wooden chest, no bigger than a shoebox, the grace swirls around like oil, like the stuff in a lava lamp, but at least it doesn’t vanish the way it had on the floor. Cas pulls back from Dean, trying to get enough space to heave mightily this time, no longer making any effort to keep it all inside now that a suitable receptacle has been found. If anything, he seems like he’s putting his back into it, trying to get it over with.
Sam’s on feather-duty. Dean realizes his hands are covered in what looks like sigil-covered gardening gloves -- a smart move, possibly unnecessary, but prudent -- and he’s going around the chaos of Cas’ wings, finding where feathers have fallen to the ground, collecting them.
Dean gets to his feet. He doesn’t know if grace leaves a taste on the way out, but he goes looking for a remedy just in case. All they’ve got on hand is beer, but it’s cold and it’ll do, so he pops the top off a few bottles and brings them in to set down on the table. His mother’s voice in his head (still painful, but he knows where the blame really belongs, now) says the word coasters, and he ignores it.
Did she bother with them, when she was here? Suddenly he can’t remember. Maybe it’s his own voice, after all.
When he returns to his seat, Cas is still holding the box, examining its contents. Relief is in his eyes when they come up to meet Dean’s.
“Seems to be the last of it,” Cas declares, voice heavy with exhaustion. “At least, what’s coming out that way, rather than…” he gestures weakly to the wings. They’ve stopped shaking and twitching, now, but that’s almost worse, makes them seem like they’re hardly connected to him at all. An onlooker would be forgiven for imagining them some kind of elaborate, badly damaged costume.
Sam makes a gesture that Cas interprets correctly, and the box gets passed momentarily across the table so that Sam can add the loose feathers to it. Once it’s back in Cas’ hands, Sam shucks the gloves and takes his own seat, across the table.
“Usually I’d say better out than in, but in your case…” Dean concedes. It earns him the ghost of a dry smirk.
There’s a moment of uneasy quiet. Sam regards the two of them, one by one and then together, with unguarded curiosity. Then he asks, “Cas, I know this is probably all new, but, do you think you’re out of the woods, or…?”
Cas sighs miserably. “No. That was nothing. Losing the wings will be the bigger danger. I’m not sure... I can’t even put them away , because there’s nowhere to put them.”
“Where do they normally go?” A line appears between Sam’s eyebrows. He’s worried, and he’s thinking.
“A plane of reality that, as far as I can detect, no longer exists. Or, at least, is no longer connected to this one.”
“And you’re sure you’re gonna lose them?” Sam asks, and Dean winces at how direct it is, but it’s relevant, and he wants to know the answer just as much.
“I’m not sure of anything,” Cas says, impatience with the questions coming through in his voice. He’s sensitive about the wing thing, which makes sense enough. “I’d like to lie down.”
He experiments with standing, and gets it on the second try, with the help of the table. Dean moves like he’s going to assist, but the look Cas shoots him is clear: he wants to do it by himself, no matter how much concentration it takes to drag himself, wings and all, down the hallway.
Unfortunately, he’s just past the edge of the table when he stumbles, and Dean has to catch him, because what is he going to do, just let him fall down? Sam’s on the other side of him immediately, and between the two of them, they get him to the room that’s long been earmarked as Cas’, no matter how infrequently he’s occupied it.
Cas goes to open his mouth, maybe to apologize, maybe to give ashamed thanks, but it doesn’t matter. Dean cuts him off.
“You saved our bacon back there, man. An assist down the hall’s about the least we can do. You want some rest, you got it. Got your phone?”
There’s no reply, just Cas leaning to one side and fishing in his pants pocket.
As soon as he draws it out, Dean plucks it from his hand and deposits it on the nightstand. “You need anything, I mean anything, no matter how stupid you think it is, you call. Text. Something.”
Sam nods along. On the way out, he asks, “Door open or closed?”
“Open,” Cas says, and Sam, last out the door, obliges.
A few steps back down the hall, Sam and Dean exchange weighty, anxious looks. By silent agreement, they head back to the library. If Cas really tries to hear them, he probably can, which is fine.
“Alright. So. All hands on deck. Who are we calling first?” Sam says, all business.
If that’s how it is, then that’s how it is, and Dean lets himself be carried along on a stream of decisions. They work off the assumption that the graveyard isn’t the only place where things got hairy when Chuck made his grand exit, and start listing friends -- hunters, witches, monsters they’d let go, anyone that might take their call or know someone who would.
This comes before they circle back to the Cas issue, and after a brief debate over whether it’s most likely a grudge thing that hit Cas alone, or an effect of Chuck’s departure with an impact on all of the few living angels, they realize there’s only one way to know, and that’s to find another angel and ask.
With reluctance, they add Naomi -- the only angel they have any idea how to get hold of -- goes on the list, the singular name under the Cas column on the divided-up call list. That one can wait, probably.
They reach almost everyone they most care about reaching (thank… well, not god, but someone, Dean thinks) and get to the following conclusions:
The Mills household is alive and well, much to the collective relief. They’ve all retreated to Jody’s cabin, along with New Bobby. Jody and Donna are mobilizing their respective police departments remotely, giving abbreviated, clipped versions of The Talk to anyone who was still in the dark before now, creating a kind of law enforcement phone tree.
It’s exactly as they feared, to hear Claire tell it. Calls and messages and tweets, reports multiplying by the hour of just about every thing-that-goes-bump-in-the-night Dean can think of, and any number of things he can’t. Claire sounds almost excited, to Dean’s ears.
Dean’s the one to call New Charlie, who answers the phone in tears. Donna volunteers her currently unoccupied camping cabin -- the closest safe place to her current location. Talk to as few people as you can manage on the road, Dean said to her, stop as little as you can. If you get into trouble, even just a little, you call immediately. After a moment’s thought, he suggests calling every couple of hours until she gets there, to check in. He warns her that she might not be the last person sent that way, and they come up with a password she can ask for if someone comes to the door. (Dean has to reject both "swordfish" and "mellon" as being too obvious.)
Rowena, it turns out, is already on the way to the bunker when Sam reaches her. She’d felt it, the… shift, or whatever it’s going to eventually be called when it’s eventually spoken of in past tense, but she doesn’t know why until Sam tells her the whole story. When he’s done, she reaffirms her plan to meet them. My son always bet on you, Dean hears her voice, tinny and harried on the other end. And he was always right. Even when… well, he was always right, anyway.
Sam warns her, “I’m not sure we’re the safe bet we used to be.”
She doesn’t care, she hangs up, impossible to dissuade.
It feels strange, to hear him say that out loud. Never before would Dean have called anything he touched a safe bet, but both of them have something of a point. Crowley had found a pattern, like the sailboat in a Magic Eye picture, wherein the Sam-and-Dean unit always seemed to come out more-or-less on top, no matter how miserable they made themselves or anyone else in the process.
Crowley had seen it. He may not have known the reason, but he’d cannily plucked order from the chaos of the universe, and he’d possibly come closer to the real truth of things than anyone else. As odd as it is, there’s a part of Dean that’s a little sour that Crowley had to die without ever knowing that.
Much like what Cas said, about Jack dying before they could talk about what this new truth meant, it doesn’t seem fair.
Of course, all that is over now.
“Is that the only reason we’re alive?” Dean mutters between swigs of beer. He wants something stronger. “Plot armor?”
The look on Sam’s face makes him regret giving voice to that thought. Sam, for all the strength and resilience that Dean admires in him, has never done well with the idea of meaninglessness. He can sense Sam’s itch to get in the car and go, to drive right back to that damn cemetery and swing that iron post until he goes down fair and square, fighting his knowledge that it just isn’t the most efficient use of his time. On his face is a strange variety of fear, a new type of fear, that Dean’s never seen on him before.
They’re all feeling it. The only person Dean’s spoken to that was open about it was Charlie, but that didn’t mean that the rest of them haven’t been stricken by the same rudderless, existential loss so clear on Sam’s face.
Still, they work.
At some point, Dean’s phone rings. Sam glances over in time to watch Dean’s face register that it’s Cas, and with a sort of pained sympathy, he jerks his head toward the door. Go.