The thing is, Dean doesn't really do horses. It has to do with a Fourth of July parade and a string of fire crackers and a horse dressed, improbably, like Uncle Sam. Dean doesn't remember a lot of the incident, if he's honest with himself, but he does remember horseshoes striking asphalt so hard and frenzied that they seemed to spark, and the thing's eyes rolled back so they were nothing but whites, and in hindsight, Dean thinks that maybe the thing was possessed.
Sam snorts. "Right," he says. "Possessed by the spirit of Mister Ed, maybe." He bumps his shoulder against Dean's, a little ribbing elbow thrown in for good measure, and Christ, the kid's not just muscle, he's like fucking granite. Dean needs to make sure he stops eating his Wheaties. Definitely buy more donuts for breakfast.
"Fuck off," Dean says, like an afterthought, and gives Sam a nice solid shove at the same time. He doesn't put much effort into the profanity for two reasons: first, because Sam never fucks off when Dean tells him to, so what's the use; and second, because Dean's busy listening for the hoofbeats of hellspawn or whatever. It's not the kind of thing he wants sneaking up on him.
Sam doesn't just roll his eyes, he does that whole facial shrug that's meant to say, 'Excuse my brother, he's a little slow. And ugly.' Dean isn't watching, but he can tell that Sam's doing it anyway. "Dude, it was a pony," Sam says, but he's not even talking to Dean anymore, which is awesome, because Dean is way too cool for this conversation anyway.
"It was a Clydesdale," Dean corrects, and squints toward the horizon. There's something there, shapes under the shadow of a tree. They don't seem to be moving, so they could just be bushes. Then again, they could be evil. There's an old decrepit barn off on the right, being encroached upon by woodland that in the coming twilight looks sinister. There's definitely something evil in the barn, Dean thinks. There's always something evil in the barn.
"Pony," Sam repeats, apparently for Castiel's benefit, and helpfully illustrates by outlining a phantom gestural creature somewhere around knee-height. "A tiny, shaggy little pony."
Castiel watches Sam sketch out the movement, but not in any way that indicates he's actually taking it in. He's got his head cocked to the side, watchful but somehow simultaneously uninterested, eyes flat and shining like a crow's. When Sam stops talking he stops looking, as if his obligation to the strange human custom of conversation has been fulfilled. And his coat's kind of... lumpy. Like he's got something heavy and strangely shaped in his pockets. It drags the material tight around his shoulders and makes him look even weirder than he usually does. Dean really, really doesn't want to know what the angel's got in his pockets, or whether it's related to his being happy to see Dean.
It's creepy, is what it is. Dean shifts his shoulders under his jacket, clears his throat, and says, "Whatever, man. You weren't even born yet. You don't know how it was."
"Prob'ly peed yourself," Sam says, and dodges neatly when Dean tries to grab him around the neck. Fucker's fast for being so huge. Dean'll get him later, when he least expects it.
The thought is so normal that it's a comfort. It's been awhile since it's been this easy between them, since they've traded jokes and insults without having to stray into heavier territory. It's nice. Even the day is nice: overcast, so Dean's not squinting into the sun in deference to his lingering hangover, and the world smells like soil and growing things, like life. Not even the creepy angel keeping pace at Dean's shoulder can spoil his good mood. He's alive, he's walking in the world again, he's got a gun tucked in his waistband and his brother by his side, and Dean feels like he can handle anything right now, even horses.
"You don't know shit," Dean says, chin lifted confidently, Sam's still keeping his distance, out of arm's reach. The shadows beneath the tree are just bushes after all, and there's nothing here to trouble them, but they're nearly to the barn now, and Castiel's frowning at it, so Dean knows the peace isn't going to last. He holds onto it tight with both hands. "I spent two months working in a stockyard in Nevada while you were living the easy life with co-eds and frat parties. I was horseback every day, man, real life cowboy."
"Bullshit," Sam says, and throws him a look that's only halfway skeptical.
"My hand to God," Dean swears, and doesn't even bother with a sideways glance at Castiel, because he isn't even lying on this one, so nobody's got any reason to smite him. "Undercover gig. And the ranch foreman had this daughter who... well, I won't go into details, but let me tell you, that cowgirl knew how to ride 'em."
And okay, maybe that's not the whole truth. (It's definitely not the whole truth about Cheyenne, who had hair down to her waist and a cross she never took off and thighs made of sterner stuff than steel.) Dean doesn't do horses, and the first reason is the horse -- okay, maybe it was a pony -- dressed like Uncle Sam, and the second reason is Rooster. Dean's been through a lot of deeply and profoundly fucked up shit, but having to get up every morning and put his foot into that stirrup and hoist himself up onto the back of an equine sociopath named Rooster was its own special brand of terror.
"Cowboy," Sam says, with a whuffed chuckle and another sideways look. He isn't calling bullshit again but he clearly isn't buying the story, either. "You know, I can actually kind of see you pulling off the look. Vegas nightclub, cowboy hat, assless chaps..."
"You gotta stop fantasizing about me like that, Sammy," Dean says. "It isn't right. And with an angel here, too. What would God say?"
"They are inside," Castiel says, which Dean supposes is the closest an angel's going to come to telling them to shut the fuck up, but it ends the conversation just as effectively. Dean lets it slide away. They've arrived at the barn now, which is even creepier close up -- especially with the unfamiliar-looking sigils that are painted, chalked, and etched into the old wooden planks that pass for walls -- and even Dean can see that the time for jokes and friendly abuse is behind them.
"Okay," Dean says, finally ready for an answer to the question that he'd ended up vocalizing to an empty motel room when Castiel had appeared to tell him to haul ass out here, and then disappeared just as quickly. "So. Four horsemen of the apocalypse."
"Horses," Castiel corrects, gently, like Dean's a particularly slow two-year-old. "The four horses of the apocalypse. If the horsemen already walked the earth, I doubt that either of you would be alive to witness it."
"That's cheerful," Sam says, with a tone of voice that almost sounds like it actually is cheerful in his bizarro Sam-world. And he wonders why Dean worries.
"But doesn't exactly explain what we're supposed to do with them, now that we're here," Dean says.
"The animals were stolen," Castiel says. "We are here simply to return them to their proper places."
"Stolen?" Sam says, and the word has an incredulous squeak at the end. "What, demons are into horse rustling now?"
"You must realize by now that nothing is beyond them," Castiel says, and gives Sam that hooded look like Sam's barely worth speaking to. That's pretty much how he looks at everything, including shrubs and doors and Dean. Dean figures all of those things are equally capable of witty conversation, when you're an angel. Or asshole. Whichever.
"Whatever," Dean says, to Castiel and to his own train of thought. "So what do we do?"
"It's very simple," Cas says, which is clearly a relief to him. "The horses are inside the barn. Go in, release them, and your work is done."
"Wait," Sam says, and holds up both hands like he's trying to talk down a crazy person, which he probably is. "I'm not gonna claim to be an expert on the Book of Revelation, but isn't letting loose the Four Horsemen going to bring on the end of the world?"
"Don't be ridiculous," Castiel says. The phrase is flat, lacking the proper cadence, like it's something he learned by rote from the Mortal Plane Phrasebook For Celestial Travelers. It isn't an admonition so much as an order. "The horses are merely the vehicles of the Lord's will, when they carry their riders. There is nothing inherently good or bad or apocalyptic about them."
"So no armageddon," Dean clarifies. "Good. I hate Ben Affleck. Can we do this thing, please?"
Castiel nods, like he's glad to hear somebody finally talking sense. "I cannot enter with you -- traps have been laid to prevent my kind from crossing the threshold."
"Oh, hell," Sam says, and drops his kit bag to pull out a shotgun.
"Meaning there are probably booby traps to blow human heads off, too?" Dean says, but it isn't really a question.
Castiel frowns like he never thought of that, which just illustrates why Dean's always pestering him with a thousand questions: it's not like it occurs to Castiel to offer anything. Dean sometimes wonders if the guys on the other side have this problem, too. Or maybe Lilith's an excellent communicator, sends a lot of interoffice memos.
Dean pulls his favorite shotgun out of the bag and grabs another pistol, too, just for good measure. And a flask of holy water. And an extra knife. Because you really just never know.
Once Sam's as armed as he wants to be -- which, Dean notes proudly, is pretty fucking armed -- they do a circuit around the barn, checking the lay of the land and all possible exits. There's another big barn door on the structure's opposite end, and a bunch of split doors along one side that must lead into stalls. All those exits are firmly sealed, either nailed shut or just profoundly rusted and unoiled. The sigils and wards seem to be carved onto every plank of the place, and Dean wonders, if the horse-nappers have gone to those lengths to prevent the angels from recovering the horses, exactly how far they might've gone to prevent humans from doing the same.
It doesn't matter much, though, because Castiel's still waiting for them when they get back around to the front of the barn, and it's not like Dean can say no to God or fate or angels or whatever else they'd intending to pitch at him. He already knows it's a bad idea; he isn't sure he wants to know what Castiel would actually do, whether the supposed good guys would actually throw him back into the pit. He isn't willing to find out, not even to avoid having to deal with whatever's waiting in that barn.
Fear isn't something Dean's good at -- it's either completely unfamiliar or so much a part of his daily existence that he just doesn't notice it anymore, and he isn't sure which -- but he knows at least how to erase it. He nods to Sam, Sam eases the barn door open enough for them to slip it, and Dean clutches his shotgun in both hands, ducks his head, and slips into the darkness.
He's sort of expecting... something. Explosions or gunshots or at very least some sort of an alarm, but there's nothing: just quiet, and warmth, and a rustling of straw. Nothing happens.
"That was kind of a let-down," Dean says, and keeps his voice quiet in case that's going to set off some booby-trap of doom.
Sam says, "Huh," at a normal enough volume, and the only thing that happens is that one of the horses sticks its head out into the barn aisle to look at them.
Sam isn't going to be able to say anything later about these horses being ponies. The one that's looking out at them is massive, bigger still than any Budweiser Clydesdale, and its coat is a glossy red that looks almost blood-wet, but other than that it just kind of... looks like a horse. Its big dark eyes aren't black or flaming or anything, and it doesn't snort smoke. It just looks at them and blinks and chews slowly on its hay and leans carelessly against its stall door. The door's padlocked, Dean notes, and there are more sigils scrawled on its surface, but it still groans ominously under the horse's weight, which isn't surprising because the thing is kind of pushing the limits of when you have to stop calling something a horse and start calling it a freaking elephant.
"Okay," Dean says. "Well, there's one. That wasn't very hard. Only three more to go."
Sam steps further into the barn and Dean follows, always at a proper distance, always watching his brother's back; Sam steps too far away and Dean can feel the tug of it in his gut, like he's the beast of burden on the wrong end of the leadrope. He can't help but follow.
"Make that one more to go," Sam says, and points: in one stall, there's a massive white horse skulking in the back corner and staring at them resentfully; in the next there's a coal-black rump pointed in their direction. The stalls are double-wide, designed for foaling or just for spaciousness; had they been a little closer to standard, Dean is pretty sure these behemoths wouldn't fit inside.
"Okay," Dean says, and lowers his shotgun because he's not about to shoot some apocalyptic pony in the face. With his luck, that'll only make them mad. "So where's the fourth one?"
The fourth one, which is sooty gray like it's been frolicking in the ash pits of Hell, reaches out from behind and nearly takes its pound flesh out of Dean's ass with massive grass-tinted teeth. Dean yelps in a decidedly unmanly fashion and jumps away so fast that he hits the floor in a clatter of gunmetal and shattered ego.
Sam laughs and holds out his hand, palm open and flat, for the gray horse to inspect. It does so with a remarkable thoroughness, its upper lip carefully investigating every inch of Sam's palm, before it whuffs out a disgusted breath against his palm and stretches its neck out toward Dean, like maybe he's the one with the snacks after all and he's just holding out.
"You are such a girl," Sam says.
"Whatever, dude," Dean says, and picks himself up off the floor, tries to dust off his pride along with his jeans. "You're the one forming the deep and meaningful connection over there. I think that makes you the girl. Next thing I know you'll be calling him 'Lightning' and braiding his hair."
"Don't be stupid," Sam says, and turns his back on the monster horse like it's nothing. "This one would be 'Buttercup,' obviously."
"Obviously," Dean says. He shifts his shotgun to his left hand and pretends he's never thought about strangling his own brother. "Let's just get these things out of here. I've got a motel bed with my name on it. I was planning on sleeping for about a month before Touched By An Angel out there decided to teach me how to fetch."
"That sounds kind of awesome," Sam admits, which is possibly the first time he's agreed with one of Dean's ideas since before Dean died. Dean's been noticing that particular worrying trend.
"Crowbar," Dean says, and pulls the tool -- a little rusted and a little dented, but perfectly serviceable -- out of a tangle of chicken wire in the corner. It should do the job for popping the locks open, though Lord only knows what's going to happen when the damned horses are loose.
"For the record," Dean continues, pretending that Sam is even listening, "I hate this plan. What's to stop Gigantor over there from taking my head off when I let him out of his little box?"
Dean eyes the horse while he works the crowbar into the clasp of the lock holding its stall door shut. The horse eyes him back, somberly, and then turns its head very gently into him and rests its forehead against his chest. Dean holds very still. He can feel the thing's breath against his hip -- its freaking head is longer than his whole torso -- but it doesn't try to bite again.
"Huh," Sam says, and he sounds almost impressed. "I think he likes you, Dean."
"Yeah," Dean says, and reaches up tentatively to return the creature's affection. He touches its forelock, which is very soft, and its ears, which are even softer.
The horse sighs as if this pleases it, and then starts rubbing its head vigorously against Dean's chest like he's its new favorite scratching post. The top of its head nearly catches Dean under the jaw before he manages to scramble back away from it, and when he does the horse just stretches out its neck like it can't believe he'd be so cruel as to put himself out of reach.
"Don't you dare laugh," Dean says, but it's a lost cause; he can hear Sam's barely-contained guffaws behind him. The horse is throwing its head up and down like it agrees.
Dean's life is many shades of crappy, but he's really tired of being his own one-man Stooges act. He scowls at his brother, waves the horse's massive head away, puts both hands on the crowbar -- which is still jammed into the lock's clasp -- and pulls.
That, of course, is when everything goes to hell.
Later, Dean will refuse to admit to being saved by a horse. It's not really the kind of thing his pride can take, and so he chooses simply to ignore the horse slobber and tooth marks on the collar of his leather jacket, and does not at all remember the sensation of being carried out of a burning barn, dangling from the mouth of a four-legged animal like a helpless kitten.
As far as Dean is concerned, it never happened. Ever. None of it.
And anyway, it's not like it's something that Sam can hold over his head, because he saw how Sam got out of the barn, and considering the way Sam's pants ripped, his was definitely a less dignified exit than Dean's.
From the outside, the blazing barn fire looks more like a pleasant bonfire; Dean watches it appreciatively while he puts his smoldering pantleg out, and the horses don't seem to pay it any mind at all; they're snuffling at the long yellow meadow grasses and seem oblivious to the destruction around them. Sam's digging in his kit bag for duct tape to hold his pants together, and the black horse is still visible inside the burning barn, its stall door hanging wide open; the horse seems uninterested in its freedom. There's burning wood draped across its back, and it seems a little put out that its hay is on fire, but it also doesn't seem very inclined to join its friends outside. If Dean were keeping a list of bizarre things in his life, that wouldn't even rate.
It probably wouldn't even make the list next to Castiel solemnly feeding apples -- whole apples, right out of his pockets -- to two of the horses whose job description involves carrying doom into the world. The gray one stares longingly at the apples, but it doesn't move itself: it's standing over Dean like he's its foundling foal, and when he tries to get to his feet, it gives him a helpful nudge that nearly sends him sprawling again.
"I'm fine," he tells it, and hopelessly attempts to brush the ash and splinters and horse hair from his shirt. The horse doesn't look real convinced, but it's hard to tell: it is a horse.
"Okay," Dean says. "The horses are free. Mission accomplished. I mean, we nearly got killed by a flying fireball booby trap, but whatever. What're a few fireballs between friends? Are we done here now?"
"Yes, please," Sam says, miserably. In attempting to duct-tape his pants back into working order, he kind of looks like he might've duct-taped something more vital. He's standing kind of funny and has a pained expression on his face. Dean, being the bigger man, comments only with his eyebrows.
Castiel just blinks at them like they're stupid, which obviously they are if they thought that one death-defying stunt was enough for a single outting.
"There's still one horse inside," Castiel says. "You'll need to get it out. They'll all leave together, once they're free of the barn; if that one stays inside, the others will stay with it, and then they'll just be here waiting to be recaptured when their demon keepers come to check on them."
Dean stares at Castiel, and then at the burning barn. The horse inside throws them a look over its shoulder like it dares them to try it. It chews slowly on its hay, which is still on fire, though the horse doesn't seem to notice. Now the creature itself definitely looks more ominous -- more like what it truly is -- with the fire casting reflections against its eyes.
Castiel looks back at Dean, and then at the horse, and then back at Dean again, and something in his eyes has softened into understanding. "It may take some time to burn down," he says, as if this admission to the laws of nature is both a surrender and a concession, when really it's neither. "We will wait."
He hands Dean the last apple from his pocket. The weight of it is cool and smooth in Dean's hand.
"Enjoy yourself," Castiel says quietly, and tucks his trench coat underneath himself as he sits himself on an ancient stump and watches the fire burn.
The night is cool, the air smells of grass and woodsmoke, Dean's guardian angel has for once not disappeared on him, and Dean's brother has accidentally taped his balls. All things considered, it really isn't a bad way to spend an evening.
Dean stretches out his hand, holding the apple like an offering. The end times, cloaked in sooty horse hair and soft brown eyes, reaches delicately out to take it from his hand, and then lingers with him while he watches this little corner of the world burn.