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Lamb to the Slaughter

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"he was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;

he was led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as sheep before its shearers is silent,

so he opened not his mouth." --isaiah 53:7

 


 

Their father is back. A solid body; a familiar voice; a heart that beats against their own when they embrace. Wrinkles tied in clusters around the corners of his eyes; half-greying stubble dotted across both sides of his jaw. Hands holding their face s , the calluses of his palms aligning with the tremor of their chin s

He speaks and nothing bleeds.

He looks at them and nothing is black.

He stands there, and the world doesn’t tilt off its axis, doesn’t groan with the uneven balance.

Their father is back.

Suddenly all the bent angles are straightened out. All the fractures are sealed. He is the transplant they’ve been waiting for; he fits perfectly into the hollow carved out by time and tragedy. The hole in the tapestry is mended, the needle and thread dipping in and out in neat stitches.

It’s perfect. It’s whole.

It completely covers the giant abyss spawning underneath.

 

+

 

Castiel pushes the Bunker door open and then pauses on the landing. He stretches his shoulders back and releases some amalgamation of a sigh and an exhale. It’s been several long days with nothing to show for the artifact he’s been chasing–one that might be able to extract Michael from Dean’s mind without killing the Winchester. He has another potential lead to follow up in Oregon--a witch referred to him by Sergei--but the contact hasn’t responded yet. There’s a lull in the bustle and he has some extra time to spend here in the Bunker with his family. Being around them always recharges his spirit; it reinvigorates him with both the strength to keep fighting and the belief that they will succeed. Eventually. He’s been with Sam and Dean long enough to know that if they keep knocking on enough doors, eventually their fist is going to punch right through one.

He shifts the bag from one hand to the other and walks down the staircase. Usually by now one or both boys will have heard the front door clanging shut and come out to greet him. It seems unusually quiet; but then with Jack spending the weekend at Jody’s, and Mary leading the other Apocalypse World hunters on a vampire hunt, he’s not surprised by the hush in the normally busy front room. A little more breathing room would be welcome; he could use the time to finally catch up with Sam and Dean. They haven't found the space for many conversations in the past few weeks. He wants to make sure Dean is holding up well and that Sam isn’t overtaxing himself with training the new hunters.

By the time Castiel has put away his bag in the storage room he still hasn’t bumped into either of the boys. He senses people talking further in the Bunker and heads in the direction of the armory. As he enters the room he sees Sam and Dean standing around the table, looking over a spread of various angel blades, devil trap bullets, and knives.   

And there’s someone else. He doesn’t recognize the older man, yet there’s a peculiar hue tinting his aura. Castiel can’t quite place it yet, but he feels like he should recognize it.

Before he can ask who the visitor is, all three men turn and see him. Their response is immediate; they each grab a weapon off the table--Sam and Dean taking angel blades, the older man with a gun--and move towards him menacingly.

 “Who are you?” Dean barks. “And what are you doing here?”

“Who am I--who’s he?” Castiel points at the older man who’s been leveling him a lethal glare of vitriol.

“Their father,” the man says. Growls, really. “Who the hell are you?”

Castiel realizes why the man’s aura was calling to him. It has the telltale molted palette of resurrection, the kind that’s been dragged through time and history. “John Winchester?” Before he can ask another question he feels something hard against his collarbone and then he’s being shoved against the wall, blade to his throat, Dean’s bared teeth inches away from his face.

“Who and what are you?” Dean repeats.

“C-Castiel.” He nudges Dean’s elbow away. “What’s going on, why is your father here--how did you--”

The tip of the blade dips into Castiel’s throat, hard enough to start drawing droplets of blood. “I’m the one asking questions here,” Dean says. “What are you?”

“I’m an angel.” Castiel looks at Dean and then to Sam. “You know me, I live with you, I--”

“You live with an angel?” John practically snarls.

“We don’t.” Dean’s grip on the hilt of the blade tightens. “Or we didn’t know we did.”

“He must be a spy.” Sam steps closer. The blade in his hand is now aimed at Castiel too. “He got in here on his own, right? He must have infiltrated the Bunker, maybe by befriending one of the new hunters. Dammit, I should have been paying more attention to--”

“Sam. Dean.” Castiel raises his voice slightly. “What’s going on here? You know me, you’ve---” his throat suddenly goes dry. “Is this Michael?” If Michael is in control of Dean’s body again then it’s not just them that are in danger, but the rest of the world.

The word seems to have the opposite effect; instead of alleviating the situation, it only seems to exacerbate it. Sam takes a step back, still holding the blade out but pulling John away by the wrist.  Dean’s expression pales slightly but the pressure on the blade under his throat doesn’t waver.  

“So you’re one of Michael’s angels?” Dean says. “Is this his plan? Come into our home and spy on us like this?”  

It’s not Michael speaking, that’s Dean for sure. It must be something else. Castiel glances around frantically, his eyes landing on the man who claims to be their father. “How did John get here? If Michael brought him back I can assure you that he means to do you harm by it. That might not even be your father--”

“Oh, we didn’t need your boss’ help for this,” Dean smirks. “We got him back all on our own. He’s our dad, for real. Our family. And you’re trying to take that away. Did you really think we’d let you play us like that?”

“I’m not--Sam, Dean, you know this isn’t right. Stop and think.” He doesn’t dare budge, not with two blades still poised to run through him, but he searches their eyes for any trace of what might have happened. The mark of a sigil or spell. Or the lingering residue of sulfur or grace. “You know me. And your father is supposed to be dead.”

“We’re all supposed to be dead.” Sam comes forward again, hair falling over his darkened eyes.  “But we come back. We got our mom back, and now our dad. This is the way it’s meant to be, and you aren’t going to tear us apart.” He brings the end of the blade closer, up along Castiel’s side. The sharp end slits the fabric of his coat, and then Sam stops the blade to rest under his heart. “Because you’ll be dead.”

Castiel’s entire body goes numb. “Don’t,” he exhales. “I’m not your enemy. Sam. You know me. I’m part of your family.”

Sam snorts in disbelief and then turns back to discuss with the others. “Family, did you hear this guy?”--“Been undercover too deep.”--“Like we’d fall for that.” -- “We should just get rid of him-why’s he even still here?”-- “Because Michael, duh.” --“Yeah, he must have information.”

Castiel eyes the three of them carefully, calculating his chances of successfully escaping in this distracted moment. He needs to get out of here and go somewhere else to try and figure out what kind of magic or curse they’re under.

“And we’ll make sure to get it out of him,” Dean adds, and then suddenly they’re pressed around Castiel at every side. John jerks his arms back and Sam reignites his grip on the blade and Dean shoves his knee into Castiel’s back until he moves. They force him to walk out of the armory and down the hall. He knows where they’re headed even before the dungeon door comes into sight. He’s been talking all the way down, reiterating that he isn’t a spy, or one of Michael’s angels--in fact he’s barely any kind of angel these days--but as they throw him into the metal chair and strap cuffs around his wrists he starts repeating himself even faster, as if the velocity of his words can save him.

“Sam, Dean, you know me, you--” Dean slams the hilt of the blade against his mouth. Blood rushes to fill his cheeks and when he opens his mouth to defend himself again all that comes out is bubbling red.  

“Yeah,” Dean grins proudly, nodding at Sam who’s standing by the wall. There’s a slice across Sam’s palm and a painted sigil on the wall that Castiel recognizes instantly . “Your fancy angel powers are on the down-low now. You won’t be getting out of here any time soon. Not until we know what we want to.”

“I don’t know anything.”  

“We’ll see about that.” The light bulb hanging above John’s head illuminates the swarming hatred in his eyes.  “In my experience all monsters crack in the same place.” He motions at Dean. “Make sure it’s legs are bound too. We don’t want any chance of it getting away.”

As Dean bends over, pulling the ropes around Castiel’s legs so tightly his skin burns, Castiel tries again. “Dean, just stop and think. I’m not a stranger, I’m---” he pauses, searching for the right words; the one line to pierce through what cursed haze they're under and make them remember him. “I’m the one who gripped you tight and raised you from perdition.”

“Yeah?” Dean straightens up, half a grin one side of his face. “Thanks for that.” His arm hangs loosely by his side and then it moves in a flash of silver.

Agony rips up Castiel’s grace, igniting from the lower left side of his jaw and burning up to the right corner of his hairline. Dean just--Dean. Dean slashed him across the face with the angel blade. His left eye was in the path of the cut and is now severed, making the Winchester’s looming figure an imposing glitch that lingers only for a moment before it disappears into the darkness.

Castiel slumps forward, head bowed, gasping through the searing pain, praying for mercy to no one at all.

 

+

 

“Here.” Dean sets an uncapped beer bottle in front of Sam, who gives it a perfunctory look of interest. “Mom should be here soon. I didn’t tell her, by the way. Thought it might be a nice surprise.”

When Sam gives him a distracted nod Dean pauses. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He tucks a strand of hair behind his ear. “Look, I love that Dad’s back, okay, don’t get me wrong. I mean, Mom and Dad and us--this is something we’ve always dreamed of.”

“Yeah, since we were kids.”

“Since you were a kid,” Sam corrects him. “I don’t even have a memory of our family being together, this is…something that’s really only ever existed in my imagination.”

“But…?” Dean prompts.

“But we never get just good news, Dean! It always comes with something bad, something trying to take away what we have.”

“What are you talking about?”

“That Castiel guy. Who knows how long he’s been coming in and out of the Bunker, pretending to be a hunter and gathering information on us?”

Dean drops his legs over the bench and sits down across from Sam. “He’s just one angel, Sam. Once we figure out what he knows about Michael’s plans we can just get rid of him. Besides, he’s locked up securely down there. He can’t hurt us anymore.”

Sam shakes his head stubbornly. “Dean, he asked you about being in Hell. He knows more about us than he should. The new hunters, they don’t even know that about you.”

“That’s true.” Dean draws his eyebrows together. His fingers unconsciously clench around the beer bottle. “I don’t think--are you saying that–”

“--he’s been inside our heads? Maybe.” Sam’s mouth twists in disgust at the thought. “I don’t know how though, considering all the warding in the Bunker. But yeah that’s what I’m afraid of--”

The sound of the Bunker door opening interrupts him and the wafting notes of Mary’s voice pulls both of their attention away.

“She’s here.” Dean shoots a warning look back at Sam. “Don’t mention the Castiel problem to Mom, okay? We can handle it on our own.”

Sam nods. “Yeah, I can do some research later, too.” His expression shifts, the concern fading as an eagerness lights up his eyes. “Let’s go introduce Dad to her.”

 

+

 

Mary gets the call just as she and Maggie are cleaning their machetes after their successful vampire hunt. The headless bodies of the blood-sucking family lie sprawled among the blood-soaked hay of the abandoned barn. They’ll take them out and burn them later; right now Maggie looks like she needs an energy boost and some water. Mary is about to reach into her pocket and give her one of her favorite granola bars when her phone rings. It’s Dean, telling her to come back to the Bunker as soon as she can, although he doesn’t say why.

Mary helps pile the bodies for burning first. Maggie nibbles on the granola bar, the crackling flames dancing over her flushed face. She passes Mary a can of Sprite from one of the other hunters’ backpacks and Mary sips it slowly as the smell of seared flesh rises with a black plume above them.

When there’s nothing remaining of the fanged monsters but a mound of whispering ash Mary walks back to her car. Maggie is going to lead the other hunters up north to where there’s been reports of a shape-shifter. Mary suggested all of them returning to the Bunker, but Maggie wanted to keep hunting. She has that spark in her eyes of boundless energy and youth that Mary misses in herself. The rest of the hunters rally around Maggie; her quiet confidence inspires them, and Mary trusts her leadership enough to let her continue hunting.

On the drive back to the Bunker Mary starts to miss her boys. It doesn’t make sense, seeing as she’s headed towards, not away from them. Somehow knowing that she’s about to see them again reminds her of how little time they’ve actually been able to spend together. If it isn’t something cosmic separating them--like an alternate world or an archangel from an alternate world--then it’s the daily bustle of hunts and being on the road that makes their moments spent as a family short and scattered. She misses being able to talk to them about their day; to see them laugh over some television program that they insist isn’t their favorite despite knowing all the characters’ names by heart, or complain about each other’s cooking while asking for seconds.

The Bunker is quiet when she walks down the stairs. She expects Sam and Dean to be in the front room, waiting for her, and when they come barreling around the corner from the kitchen it gives her a start and she jumps back.

“Sorry,” Sam says, a timid smile crossing his face. “We didn’t mean to startle you.”

Mary pats his arm gently and then pulls him in for a hug. He towers over her, of course; they both do, but they’re still her children, and she misses holding them. “It’s fine. So, what happened? Is everything alright?”

“More than alright.” Dean pulls away from her embrace, eyes bright with unexpected joy. He gestures towards the adjacent room. “We’ve got someone here we thought you’d want to meet.”

She sees the shadow cross the floor before the person. Her eyes fall to watch the gray shape cross the stone tiles and then she looks up to see whose body is attached to the feet that are walking towards her. She recognizes the man instantly; he is old and ageless all at once, and she is a young wife in love and she runs to him like the few feet across the tiled floor are a petal-strewn aisle. When she kisses him he tastes like heaven, the heaven she remembers where Sam and Dean were small enough to sit on her knees. His arms slip around the small of her waist; his breath against her own fits just right, the way a scar belongs over a wound.

Mary.” He buries his face in her hair. “My beautiful girl.”

She can’t remember the last time someone called her beautiful. She becomes bashful, blushing a color she can’t hide, and tucks her body against his. Her cheek is flattened against his chest and she listens to a heartbeat that echoes with life, life, life.

She forgets to ask how and why. She remembers, later. Later, when they’re seated around the kitchen table, and so Dean shows her the pearl while Sam rambles about his theory of how the spell works. And John. John says nothing, just looks at her with a gaze so soft it might crumble.

She knows what he’s thinking. She can’t quite believe it either. She’s not in Heaven. She’s on Earth, but heaven is real and here in the kitchen of her home.

 

+

 

Castiel sits under a canopy of darkness. He’s stopped trying to break free of his cuffs; the more he tugged the deeper they cut into his wrists until the ends of his sleeves were soaked in blood. Instead he devotes energy into healing the slash across his face. With the sigils in the room his grace is reduced down to a mere trickle. He’s starting to feel what humans would call a migraine as he tries to force his energy towards the gaping wound. If he can heal his mangled eye and stop the precious little grace he has from bleeding out, then he can renew his efforts towards getting himself out of here.

The sound of the door hinges creaking makes his muscles tighten, body braced against the spine of the chair. He’s been held captive enough times to recognize what sounds signal the return of danger, and what sounds precede the return of his captors. But he’s not being held by some hateful angel or god or demon. He is at home, his home, and the person coming towards him is someone he loves.

This is my home, my home, my home, he repeats in his mind as Dean approaches. He doesn’t want to be afraid. He tells himself that he isn’t.  

Dean stops a few feet away from him. The angel blade twirls between his fingers. “You’ve got, uh, something in your eye,” he quips. John emerges from behind him and Dean silently passes him the angel blade and then retreats to the side, like he’s paved the way for the main attraction to enter.

Castiel doesn’t look at John. His gaze is fixed on Dean’s soul, the ember lines he can see beyond the physical plane. He needs to be sure that this is truly Dean, and not some doppelganger, not some shifter or version of him from another world. The gentle blends of Dean’s soul, the luminescent colors of his scars and sutures, are the same as they’ve always been.

It really is him.

And yet it isn’t, because Dean is watching him the way someone studies a caged tiger. John has started slowly circling around Castiel in that familiar motion that the seraph has seen Sam and Dean do before to a captive demon or monster. The careful, deliberate stride, the movement behind the head where the eyes can’t reach, it’s all part of intimidating a prisoner. To remind them who is in control of the narrative; whose watchful eye they are under; who holds their life in their hands.

This is my home.

It’s starting to sound like a dirge.

“For a Michael lap dog you sure do know a lot about us,” Dean leans against the wall, arms folded. “When did you first get assigned your little Mission Impossible?”

“I’m not Michael’s. I know you, Dean. And you know me. You just don’t remember right now, maybe it’s a spell but--” he leans towards him “--if you stop to think you’ll know something’s wrong. Just listen to me, please.”

“Stop talking to my son.” John seizes the back of his shirt collar and yanks him back. “You’re not the one asking the questions here. I am.” He leans over his shoulder, angling the blade down and popping a button off Castiel’s shirt. “I’m told that these are angel blades. What are they, made of angels?”

From the corner Dean chuckles at his father’s comment. The sound stings Castiel’s ears.

“John. I’m not your enemy.” Castiel doesn’t know the father Winchester, not enough to tell if his behavior is being influenced by the spell or his natural hunter instincts. “I mean your family no harm.”

John’s response is to position the end of the blade against Castiel’s navel, holding it there firmly enough for blood to start pooling around the tip. “Don’t let him kill me,” Castiel breathes, redirecting his attention towards Dean. “Let me explain. Please.”

“Kill you? It’s too soon for that.” John drags the blade up Castiel’s chest, splitting skin and grace inch by inch. Pain spikes through his vessel and form, and he curls his toes against the sole of his shoes, trying to restrain himself from gasping aloud. “That’s a mercy you don’t get until we find out what we want to.”

The blade stops below his collarbone and then John lowers it down to his waistline and starts carving its ascent again. His grace burns white hot, flaring against his ribcage, and Castiel bites through his tongue to stop himself from crying out. Blood splatters the white eaves of his shirt and he thinks of Malachi. Theo. Ephraim. Jonah. Amara. Lucifer. Zachariah. Metatron.  

Dean and his father are not his tormentors. They aren’t his enemies. Except Dean is just standing there, watching John cut into Castiel with a pleased expression on his face. The way a child might look satisfied when their father fixes something that was broken.

The blade breaks his flesh again and again, forming long, bloody stripes up his chest. The pain builds like a terrible choir until he can’t hold it in anymore.

 “Stop, stop, stop,” Castiel finally bursts out. “Please, Dean, tell him to stop.”

John lifts the blade away and then moves around to face Castiel, keeping one hand on his left shoulder like an iron claw. “Don’t talk to my son. I don’t want you to get into their heads anymore than you already have. God knows how long you’ve been here, contaminating my family. ” He steps away, the darkness curtaining his face. “But believe me, I’m going to find out. Everything.”

“Dean, I would never get inside your head without your--”

“Stop--” John reemerges, face flushed with fury, “--saying his name.” He reaches over to the storage shelf behind him and pulls out a long chain. The metal links rattle as he strides over to Castiel and slams it against his lips, forcing his teeth open and then wrapping the chain around his mouth. Castiel thrashes his head violently, trying to shake it off, but John snaps a lock around the links, securing the chain in place.  

“There.” Dean nods at Castiel, grinning. “Don’t go anywhere.” He follows his father as they walk away; when Dean opens the door and a triangle of light beams in, along with the sound of a new voice.  

Mary.

Castiel strains against the chain in his mouth, pushing until the metal split his gums; pushing until he feels the lining of his cheek tearing open.

Mary.

Not a sound emerges from him. The triangle of light evaporates and the door slams shut.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mary sits at the kitchen table, hand in hand with her husband. Husband. It’s hard to wrap her mind around the word again; like sweeping the dust off the ground and finding the faint markings of a road once walked long ago. Dean and Sam are at the kitchen counter, bickering about something trivial as they pull packages and boxes out of the fridge. She catches snippets of their conversation: something about too many uneaten leftovers and what ingredients actually belong in a burger.

She looks at John and wants to say something like “our kids turned out great” but then she remembers that she didn’t raise them, she never watched them grow up. In fact, who they are now has nothing to do with her, and the realization stings more than she thought it would.

John seems to read her mind, because he starts to rub a thumb over the back of her hand. “It’s not your fault that you weren’t there. You were dead. And I--” his voice grows weary with regret “--I wasn’t dead, but I still didn’t--I should have been there for them more. I thought I was getting justice for you but…I think I just-I think I often ended up leaving them behind.”

”I know what you mean.” Mary doesn’t know how to even begin to explain to John about working with the British Men of Letters and being brainwashed by them, or getting stuck in an alternate universe, but she feels the ache of absence too; her presence in her children’s lives has been scattered segments instead of one long continuum, and she wonders why they don’t hate her more for it.

“But they are so strong. And so good.” John nods in their direction where Dean is smacking away the plastic box of alfalfa sprouts Sam is dangling over his head. “They told me they’ve saved the world more than once. Can you believe that?”

“Not at first, I didn’t. But then this world that I came back to is so different.” John might be the first person who understands the feeling of being at home and yet finding every room unfamiliar. “It took me a while just to get used to the idea of how computers look now.”

John laughs, a sound all at once soft and rich and vibrant. Oh, how she missed hearing it. “Sam showed me his--what did he call it--a laptop? It’s amazing, isn’t it?”

“Wait until you get your own phone.” Mary pulls hers out of her pocket to show him. “There are games and cameras and all kinds of things just in one little device.”

“You’ll have to teach me how to use that,” John smiles and she leans her forehead against his shoulders and breathes. Just breathes. She’s glad that Maggie took that other hunt, because right now, with just the four of them in the Bunker, her family is whole and she can pretend that the world isn’t in danger or there isn’t a murderous archangel in her elder sons head or that their lives aren’t on the line every time they face down a many-fanged monster.

John is talking about the Bunker and all the new weapons Dean showed him, “….and you guys even use spell work now?”  

“Yeah. Everything isn’t what it seems, you know. We have one of the most powerful witches as our ally, and angels can be our friends and--”

“Angels?” John’s tone hardens. “Aren’t they soldiers of Heaven? Ruthless fanatics, from what I’ve heard.”

Mary understands the wariness; she was the same in the beginning. “Many of them are, but some aren’t. In fact, one of them--”

“Hey.” Dean comes over with beer bottles in each hand and sets them down on the table. “So, I was thinking. Family dinner tonight. Me and Sammy are gonna go out for a grocery run--anything you want? Dad?” He nods at Mary. “Mom?” Dean looks back at Sam and mutters, “God, I’ve always dreamed of saying that.”

“I’m good. Oh, maybe you should get some of those new different flavors of food that they have.” Mary leans towards John while looking at Dean knowingly. “They have lime chili beef jerky now.”

John chuckles. “I’ll be up for trying what beef jerky in 2020 tastes like.”

The boys leave the kitchen, squabbling about who’s going to drive, and Mary lets John put his arm around her shoulders and pull her close to his chest.

She inhales deeply. He smells different. She doesn’t know how to explain it.

“John,” she begins quietly. “Are you sure that you being here isn’t messing up any law of time or something? I love that you’re back, and I didn’t want to say anything in front of Sam and Dean, but I can’t help but wonder--”

“When the other shoe is gonna drop? I know, Mary, believe me. Hunters have learned to look all gift horses in the mouth.” He squeezes her against his chest. “We’ll keep our eyes open for anything going wrong but don’t worry. Anything or anyone that tries to come against us is going to have to take down the Winchesters, and we don’t go down easily.”

It hits her now. John smells old and sweaty. He never smelled that way in Heaven. He smells real. Tears fill her eyes.  “Okay,” she says, pressing kisses to the side of his neck. “Okay.”

 

+

 

After dinner Sam and John get deep into a conversation over dishes, and Dean follows Mary into the library, announcing that they need drinks. “We should have drinks in the sitting room,”  he says theatrically, in a fake posh accent. Then he starts laughing, loud guffaws with the corners of his eyes all crinkled, and it makes her heart ache to see him so happy now. How much grief and pain had he been carrying before?

Dean does have the right idea though; a little alcohol would be perfect to celebrate this reunion. She makes an excuse about getting something from her room and instead heads down to the basement, or what Dean calls the dungeon. It’s really used for much more than keeping the occasional prisoner that they’re interrogating; there are boxes of outdated files from the former Men of Letters days, but more importantly, it’s where Mary’s been stashing a prize bottle of Johnnie Walker. She’d been saving it for Dean’s birthday, but there’s just as good a reason to open it now.   

She flicks on the light and makes her way into the room. The bulb hums above her, flickering occasionally as she pulls down the third file box on the right.  

Then she hears it. A low, grunting sound, coming from behind the file shelves.  

No one else should be down here, and definitely not in the one area of the room that truly lives up to the name of a dungeon. Mary has been inside it a few times when she was showing the new hunters around the Bunker; the sigils in the center of the floor, the iron chair with the empty handcuffs, and the eerie yellow light bulb, like a cartoon villain’s lair.

Pushing aside the shelf doors Mary lets the light spill across the room and shine on the figure sitting in the chair.

Her hand flies to her mouth but not before she lets out a scream.

Castiel. Castiel is handcuffed to the chair, eyes wide and bloodshot as he strains against the chain wrapped around his mouth. His shirt is open and his chest is covered in jagged gashes that are oozing blood. He looks like he’s in agony.

“Stop, wait,” she gasps, running over to his side. “Don’t push, Castiel, you’re hurting yourself.” The metal links around his mouth are slick with blood but Castiel is still pushing hard against them, eyes shifting back and forth like he’s trying to tell her something urgent. “Just wait. I’ll get you out of these.” She glances around the room, looking for the keys, or anything to pick the lock keeping the chain in place. From the shelf behind her she sees a rusty hair pin and she uses it to jimmy the padlock open.

When the click finally resounds and the chain slips down with a noisy rattle Castiel pushes his forehead against her, sucking for air sharply. “Sam and Dean.” He utters those words like they’ve been stuck in the valley of his throat for days.

“What’s going on? Why aren’t you healing?” She presses both hands to the wounds in his chest, trying to stop the bleeding. “Who did this to you?”

“John,” he says, and then looks apologetic when Mary shakes her head immediately because no, he wouldn’t, he couldn’t ever do something like this to anyone. Let alone someone like Castiel.

“It’s not--something’s wrong,” Castiel corrects. “John Winchester is back and I think there’s a spell? They don’t know me, they don’t remember who I am.” His eyes flicker up and down nervously. “Mary, where are they, if they see you--”

“Get away from that!” John’s voice rings out like brash cymbals. Mary glances over her shoulder to see her husband and both boys marching over to her, Dean and Sam holding angel blades high.

“What the hell are you talking about?” She shifts her attention to rest squarely on her husband. “What have you done to him, John?”

“What we had to. This thing is a threat and a danger to our family, to everyone.”

“I told you she’d find out,” Sam snaps to Dean, exasperated. “We should’ve just told her.”

“I didn’t want to--can we have one family dinner without interruptions for once!” Dean throws his hands up in the air. “Fuck! We can work on him later, okay, whatever he knows about Michael isn’t going to make the world end today, alright?”

“Michael?” Mary stands up, her hands slipping from Castiel’s chest. “Is Michael doing this to you? Is he controlling you?”

Dean rolls his eyes, like she’s just guessed his favorite color wrong. “No, he---” the blade in his hand twirls in the direction of Castiel “--is one of Michael’s spies. We caught him snooping around the Bunker. I guess he’s been playing us for a while now because he knows a lot more about us than he should.”

“I don’t know anything about Michael that you don’t,” Castiel says from behind her, just as she hears herself say, “He doesn’t know any more about Michael than you do!”

“And he isn’t a spy, what the h–this is because you’re back, isn’t it?” Her stare still hasn’t left John. “I told you that there’d be consequences when you mess with time like this, did you even stop to think that--”

“Mary.” John walks over and puts a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to see this but we can’t get rid of it until we find out what he knows. It got into our home. Now that I’m here, I can make sure that that never happens again.”

Mary shakes her head, not believing her own ears. “He would never hurt any of you.” She shrugs John’s hand off and looks from one son to the other. “This is his home. He’s our family.”

The three men react to that last word like she’s just released some terrible toxin. They take a step back, their posture stiffening, and exchange a taut, wordless conversation of pointed looks with each other. She takes a step forward, chin tilted up stubbornly. “Give me the keys to the cuffs, right now. We can all go to the library and talk about this once he’s out of here.”

“I can’t do that, Mary.” She doesn’t remember John ever sounding like this. He sounds frigid, his posture braced like a weapon ready to strike. “I can’t let it hurt you more than it already has.”

“Stop calling him that! He’s not a thing, he’s--” She glances down at the angel who’s staring up at her imploringly. “John. He hasn’t even laid a finger on me.”

“They don’t have to. Sam and Dean told me that angels can do things other monsters can’t. Manipulate reality. Screw with your mind. You’re not yourself right now.”

“And who are you to tell me who I am?” Mary retortss, suddenly tasting fury on her tongue. “You just came back from the dead, you don’t know what my life’s been like. You don’t know anything about me.”

“Mary. Look at me.” John grabs a fistful of Castiel’s shirt and jerks him forward. “Tell me this thing hasn’t gotten to you. Tell me that you’re stronger than that.”

Castiel shrinks back. She only sees it from the corner of her eye but she feels it in her chest. And she sees Castiel, standing over a dead reaper and telling them that he won’t let any of them die; she sees him talking to her during sleepless nights about nothing at all, just until her eyelids closed; she sees him asking her how to make soup for Jack when the child was sick. And she sees him now, bloodied and terrified. She reacts instinctively and pushes John away from him, hard enough that her husband stumbles back.

“His name is Castiel.” She stretches one arm protectively across the angel, shielding him. “And I get it, it can be scary coming back and seeing how much the world has changed. Knowing that angels exist, and that they can be friends, and part of your family.”

John straightens his shoulders back. “Can you even hear yourself, Mary? Can’t you see what it’s done to you?”

“But this is not the same world you left, John,” she continues, ignoring his insults. “And you can’t just shoot at anything that’s not human. We even have an half--”

“Mary, don’t,” Castiel bursts out frantically, nudging his forehead against her arm. She doesn’t understand his reaction to the mention of Jack, but right now he’s the only one in the room making any kind of sense, so she listens to him.

“The point is,” she continues, “it’s not all black and white. Maybe it never was. And you need to learn to live with it, okay? Castiel isn’t just anyone. I would die for him, you understand?”

“Oh god,” John mumbles. His eyebrows slant and his expression morphs into crestfallen defeat. “It’s worse than I thought.” He’s not meeting her eyes, though. “You have to do it.”

“I’m not going to hurt Castiel, and neither will you.”

“You’ve seen it yourself, boys. It has to be done.” When nothing happens, John's eyes darken, glowering at something or someone behind her. “Do it now. That’s an order!”

Two hands clamp down on either arm and she twists her neck back to see Sam and Dean pulling at her arms and then tugging her away from Castiel. “Don’t listen to your father,” Mary shouts, wrestling her body from side to side to break free from their grip. “He doesn’t understand, he doesn’t know that Castiel isn’t a danger.”

“Of course he’s a danger,” Dean huffs, yanking Mary away harder. “I’m sorry, Mom, but he’s in your head. That’s how angels work, ‘kay? We just have to get you away from him.” He looks regretful but there’s a flash of steel there, too. “We’ll make him pay for this, I promise.”

"He hasn’t done anything wrong!” she screeches, kicking at her son’s shins. “Don’t do anything to him!”

“It’s okay, Mom, we’ll fix this, we’ll make it better,” Sam soothes in her ear, those overlong arms of his pinning her down on the ground. “It’ll be alright.

“Mary!” Castiel cries out and then chokes as John kicks him hard in the stomach.  

“Get--” she elbows Dean in the face, carefully to avoid the eyes but hitting him hard in the chin “--away--” Sam goes down with a solid headbutt and a kick to the back of his knees “--from him!”

Mary darts forward but before she can reach Castiel she feels fingers clamp down her ankle and she falls, face first. She digs her fingernails into the stone floor as she is dragged across it backwards, away from Castiel whose body jerks back silently as John kicks him in the stomach again and again.

Castiel stares at her with wide, terrified eyes, lips endlessly moving.

marymarymarymarymary

“No, no, stop, John.” Her fingernails break against the stone tiles. “John!” She shouts his name, lets the syllables break against the roof of her mouth, and he doesn’t even turn back to look at her. Then Sam grabs her around the waist and Dean grips her shoulders and pushes her down, submerging her in darkness.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mary opens her eyes. The white face of the ceiling stares back at her. She tries to sit up, only to feel something holding her back. She jerks harder, blinking faster to clear her blurry vision and see what’s holding her back. The room around her comes into view slowly, like a sketch outline being filled in with more details. She’s in a room--her room--and on her bed. Her knees are draped in her favorite dark blue comforter. There’s someone sitting on a chair beside her, some hunched over figure with elbows on their knees and chin in their hands.

When Mary yanks her arms forward again the figure moves, looming closer to her face. She sees John, looking at her with worry puckered around his eyes.

“Here.” John braces a hand behind her back and helps her to a sitting position against the headrest. Her wrists are still stinging and she finally registers the restraints around them. She’s seen them in the infirmary before, ones that Sam said might be used for patients with dangerous hallucinations or seizures.  

“Mary.”  

She throws him a dark scowl. “Get me out of here.”

“You know I can’t.” It irritates her how genuinely remorseful he sounds, how fragile his voice is as he gently touches the cuff on her left wrist. “I hate seeing you like this, too. Do you think I want to do this?”

 

Castiel grips the chair handle as John comes back into the room. After Mary was knocked out by Dean, John had abandoned kicking Castiel in favor of helping the boys carry Mary away. Castiel trusts that Mary is still alive, and hopefully relatively unharmed.

She is their mother, after all. Their blood.

But he isn’t. Whatever stands between them killing him is not much more than a thin gossamer film that could break at any time.

John doesn’t look at Castiel, though; he turns his back on him as he sets down a duffle bag on the table in the right corner. It’s one of the bags Sam and Dean take on their hunts, usually filled with weapons for monsters of all types. John reaches inside and digs around. Castiel hears the echo of vibrations rattling, the frequency of ether resonating against each other.

There are angel blades in there.

 

“I don’t know,” Mary admits. Because the John she remembers cried over Lifetime movies and was easy for Dean to trick into giving him a second cookie after dinner and hummed songs to himself while washing the dishes. But when she looks at him now, at this face aged with a hundred lines and stories she doesn’t even know; she sees him kicking Castiel, foot landing squarely in his gut again and again. “How could you….” she whispers, to herself more than anyone. “How could you do that to him?”

His touch withdraws from her wrist. “I was protecting our family. I’ve had to do that for years. You were gone, and I did what I had to. And I trained our sons to be able to protect themselves and others.”

Her eyes narrow. “Are you saying it was my fault that I got burned on the ceiling? That I was careless?”

“No, no, no,” John waves his hands quickly. “I’m saying that I-maybe I’m not the same person you knew, Mary, because you knew me when you were there. After you were gone, I…” his gaze drifts away. “You were gone,” he repeats, choking a little on the last word. “And I didn’t know what to do. You were always my guiding light.”

Mary lets her spine sink against the wooden headboard. She’s not just looking at her husband, she’s looking at a widower and a single father, both roles that he lived longer than that of being her husband.

“I don’t regret raising them to be hunters but…” John shakes his head. “I think I should have been there for them more often. Listened to them. Let them make their own path. But I kept our family together, Mary, and I’m doing the same thing now. Whatever it takes.”

 

“I was a soldier too,” John says, still without turning around. “I understand being under a commander and following orders. I know about loyalty and being trained to never give information to the enemy.”

“I am not working against you,” Castiel says tiredly. “And I don’t have any information for you. It doesn’t matter what you ask , I can’t--”

“Oh, I don’t want to know anything right now.” John pivots on his heels, turning to face Castiel. Gold brass knuckles are fitted over his fingers, the Enochian runes etched in the metal singing under the neon light bulb. His face is granite and his words fall like diamonds. “This is for what you did to Mary.”

 

Mary feels her heart stop. If Castiel is dead--if Castiel is dead (dead dead dead) she cannot even finish the thought. Her lips open but no sound comes out. Setting her teeth against each other she grinds the words out. “Where is he?”

 

Castiel braces himself for the first blow but they fall one thousand all at once. John is above him like a sky of black fury, the only stars the flashing gold of the knuckles that pound against Castiel’s face. Each blow flies faster and lands harder than the last. Castiel’s nose breaks first, aborting his heavy breathing and then teeth are raining inside his mouth as his jaw is bludgeoned from every side.

The pain drowns him, makes him forget to breathe or think.

But he needs to stay conscious. If he expects to heal from this without any permanent damage he needs to start now, awake enough to keep his grace pulsing towards the injuries and preventing his entire face from caving in. A prayer comes to mind, one he used to hum when falling asleep with a growling stomach as a human; one that he repeated when the stolen grace burned through him. When Amara’s temper scorched through Lucifer’s grace and scalded him. When Naomi.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.>

John’s fist comes down again, snapping his cheekbone and then driving it into his eye. His left retina tears, black spots dancing against his bleeding vision.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.>

The sharp corner of the knuckles punctures his other eye socket. He can’t feel anything but pure, unadulterated agony. John has become the brass and the runes, the pause and the landing, and Castiel can only wait for the next impact.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.>

 

John’s expression hardens. “Don’t worry, he can’t hurt you anymore. And Sam is studying up on something he calls sigils, he thinks he can reverse the angelic control inside you.”

“Where is he?” Mary repeats, charging up on her knees and flinging her shoulders forward. If she can gain enough momentum she could dislocate her wrists, or snap them, but either way she’ll be released from this bed and then go find Castiel. She ducks away from John’s outstretched hands as he moves to push her back down, but then she freezes, body half-raised and one leg suspended mid air.

Slowly she falls back into the arms of the mattress. There are blood stains under John’s fingernails. Fresh crimson crusts standing out boldly against the brittle nails.

“What did you do to him?” The question comes out barely audible at first. Then she repeats it again with all the volume of a clap of thunder. “What did you do to him?

 

 

<Lamb of God>

The white of Castiel’s eyes are pounded into a pulp that mixes with the splinters of his skull. He is blinded by all save for a the fissure in the skin that lets him glimpse a few spears of light

<who takes away the sins of the world>

He takes a deep breath and exhales blood from every pore.

<have mercy on us>

John speaks, or releases sounds, none of which Castiel can comprehend because his ears are ringing. He thinks a piece of jawbone might have punctured them, or the agony from the dent in his forehead is drowning out all resemblance of coherence.

The pain becomes him. There is no separation of where the prayer ends and the hurt begins.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.>

 

John backs away from her like she’s the one guilty of some heinous crime. “Sam thinks that we need to keep him alive in order to fix you,” he says shortly. He gives Mary one last long look before opening the door. “We’re going to fix you, my love. I promise.”

When the door closes Mary hears the sounds of a key being turned outside. Her room is now her jail cell. She lays out flat on her back, eyes drilling holes into the pasty gaze of the ceiling above her, and prays. Castiel. Castiel, I will come and find you and we’ll fix this. I’ll find a way to get out of here and come to you. I will, I just--

Something red catches the corner of her eye and she sees it for the first time. Painted on the wall beside her bed is a sigil. It takes her a few seconds to remember Ketch showing her and Sam this sigil and the correct order for the strokes. He told them that it wards off “not only any angelic powers, but also blocks the frequency of their communication airwaves.”

“Angel radio,” Sam had helpfully supplied, only to earn an unimpressed scowl from Ketch.

“I suppose the term would suffice,” he muttered. “But it also deters them from contacting other angels or even humans via the channels of dream-walking or prayer.”

They’ve blocked out her prayers. They’ve cut her off from him completely.

 

Castiel doesn’t know when John stops or leaves. At some point his head stops jerking from side to side but the pain is still as raucous as ever, perhaps even more. He tries to breathe through whatever orifice is still able to inhale. His neck aches and he dips forward, his chin--or the mangled flesh resembling it--grazing his chest.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.>

He starts to pray. Jack. Jack, are you there?

The boy is quick to respond. Yeah, I’m just helping Jody with dinner. Everything okay there?

Castiel tries not to wince as his cracked skull fractures further. Jack will be able to sense his pain if he so much as lends a thought towards it. There’s a spell, he prays. Around the Bunker. It affects anyone who’s angelic. Stay with Jody.

I can come and help--

No. Castiel bites down on his tongue to keep from sounding frantic. Don’t. You’ll be in danger. Jack, please.

He thinks of John raising those brass knuckles against his child and his steadiness almost breaks.

I won’t have to worry about you if you’re not here. Sam and Dean are helping me, okay.

Okay. There’s a pause and then Jack sends one more prayer his way. I love you.

<Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace>

I love you too.

 

Castiel can’t hear her. He’s alone–no, he’s being tortured and she can’t stop it. She’s stuck here in her own room. She wants to curl up on her side, to find some comfort in holding her body close but the cuffs prevent her from any position other than lying there exposed on her back.

Her eyelids fall shut and she prays anyways. Castiel. I’m coming. Hold on.

 

+

 

Sam closes the heavy leather-bound volume carefully, making sure not to crease the thin parchment pages inside.

“Any luck?” Dean says, coming over from the kitchen and balancing three mugs of coffee in his hands.

“Not really. I mean I’ve put all the warding sigils we know around the halls, but--” he accepts the coffee with a nod of thanks “--I want to find something we can use to get information from Castiel. I think I’m close to translating this truth potion we can use on him, and I think we should call Ketch to see if he has anything that might help us.”

“Good plan.” Dean pulls out a chair across the table from Sam and sits down, hands cradled around the warm mug. Steam wafts up in gray lines, momentarily clouding the worry etched into his brow. “Have you talked to Mom yet?”

“Yeah, I brought her dinner.” He hesitates. “She’s not--it’s not the same as--”

“When those British dicks got their screws in her head? Yeah.” Dean pulls a flask from his pocket and unscrews it before tipping some of the contents into his coffee mug. “She was someone else completely then, like night and day. But this time it’s like….she’s her, except for the parts that aren’t.” He lifts the flask directly to his lips for a mouthful before putting it away. “She really sounds like Mom sometimes.”

“Maybe it’s a good sign.” Sam tries for an encouraging smile. “It means she isn’t completely brainwashed. That means it’ll be easier to help her come back, once we figure out what that angel did to her.”

“Once he can talk again,” Dean grunts. In response to Sam’s raised eyebrows he adds, “Dad did a number on him. Practically wiped his face off his…face. I had to take one of the handcuffs off to let him heal himself a little or he wouldn’t be able to even make a sound.”

Sam shakes his head. “I’m not surprised. I mean, it’s Mom.”

“Yeah, but we need him alive to fix her.”

“I left it alive.” John’s voice echoes through the library and Dean quickly straightens his back and sits up at attention. “Which is more than it deserves.”

“How is she?” Sam nods at the tray of food in his hand that looks like it’s been barely touched.

“Still angry. She keeps saying the same mindless stuff about family and Castiel being someone we know and love.”

“Do you think it’s possible he was posing as someone else before?” Dean wonders. “Maybe another hunter?”

“Let’s start with what we do know.” Sam holds up a hand, counting off his fingers as he speaks. “Castiel is an angel. He knows all of our names and some of our histories, and he had access to the Bunker. Mary thinks that Castiel belongs here and that she needs to protect him from us.”

John hunches his shoulders, tapping a finger thoughtfully against the table. “The angel also denies being loyal to Michael. It seems to want to appeal to us emotionally, which is strange.” His eyebrows knit closer together and then he looks up. “And it’s afraid of dying.”

Sam stares at his father. “What?”

“I’ve seen soldiers. The best of them. There’s something different about this one, it’s not afraid of us finding out his plans, but a threat to its life and, well, the angel starts talking then. Nothing useful yet, but it’s definitely a weak point there.”

“But we don’t actually want to kill him,” Dean points out. “We need him around to fix Mary, right?”

“Yes,” Sam says, getting up slowly, the spark of an idea bright in his eyes. “But he doesn’t know that.”

 

+

 

If Castiel leans down far enough, chest to his knees, he can bring his face close enough to his hands for him to touch it. He brushes his fingers against his lips carefully, feeling their return to form. It’s been a few hours since John’s beating, and he’s managed to heal his jaw and his retina, although the left eye socket feels lopsided. The right side of his cheek is still heavy with the protruding piece of cheekbone. His forehead remains partially caved in from the fracture in his skull that isn’t repaired yet. His nose is probably crooked but at least its passageways are restored enough for him to draw air through.

Later, when he regains more of his strength, he’ll break his wrists to slip out of the cuffs. The feeling in his legs is long gone, the ropes aborting any circulation in his calves, but he can cut them away once his hands are free. Cut off his legs if he needs to. He’ll crawl out of here on his stomach if he must, all four limbs nothing but stumps, if it helps him reach Mary and find a way to break this spell.

There’s no one else who can help them. It has to be him or Mary. Jody might be able to assist with research, but appraising her of the situation would require going through Jack, and Castiel would rather die than let the child anywhere near the Bunker right now.

He tries to think through the throbbing ache and remember that scene yesterday, of walking into the armory and seeing Sam and Dean and someone else he now knows is John sitting there. His mind spreads out the moment in time like a map and he scrutinizes it for any clue or hint of what might have caused this. Sam and Dean mentioned a spell being instrumental in bringing their father back, but there was no spell work present, no incantation still reverberating in the air, no whiff of burnt herbs and blood.

All he knows is that whatever spell it is, it’s contained in the location of the Bunker. It didn’t reach Mary, or Jack, and he trusts that it won’t spread any further. Sam and Dean seem to know about angels, which tells him the timeline hasn’t been changed, but they don’t know him. He is not human, and that makes him wrong, an error to be corrected by violence and death.

The door hinges start to creak again.

Lamb of God have mercy on me.

He’s surprised to see Sam standing there, without any weapons, simply toying with a flask in one hand. He hasn’t seen much of the younger Winchester since all this began; Castiel saw him help to drag Mary away, but aside from that there’s been minimal interaction between them. Maybe he can still get through to Sam. Sam is the one who always gives him the benefit of the doubt, who’s slow to judge and quick to try and understand. The one who never gave up on him.

Sam pulls up a chair and sits across from him. Close, but just beyond arm’s reach. Not that Castiel could reach him anyways. He tilts his head slightly and looks over Castiel as if inspecting vermin. “What, no trying to convince me we know each other? No ‘I raised you from Hell’?”

“I did, actually,” Castiel replies. “I pulled you out of Lucifer’s Cage.”

Something haunted flits over Sam’s face but he quickly erases it. “So you’re picking through my memories. Can’t say that’s new, almost every angel has tried that. Including your big brother Lucifer.”

“You resisted Lucifer. You took control of your body in the cemetery. You’re strong, Sam, more than you know.” Castiel swallows through the sharp spike of pain in the front of his head. “You’re perceptive. You know what’s real and what isn’t.”

Sam shifts the flask from one hand to the other. His expression is carefully withdrawn, lips tightened, giving away nothing to Castiel.

“I’m not who you think I am. I am an angel, but I stand for humanity, I--” he draws his chest up, trying to put as much hope and strength as he can behind his next words. “You and your brother helped me do that. You showed me what it meant to have free will and use it to choose my own path.”

A ripple of laughter breaks Sam’s lips and he arches his head back, letting the awful noise echo through the dungeon. “You’re good,” he says, wiping the back of his hand across his eyes. “Whoever trained you, I wanna meet them, because they did a great job. You really believe it, don’t you? That you belong with us, that you’re--that you’re our family. That you’re special.”

He taps the flask against Castiel’s knee and grins, wide and terrible. “But you’re not. You’re not even a soldier, you’re a weapon. You fire where you’re pointed and once you’re out of ammunition you get thrown out. That’s all you’re ever good for, and that’s all you’ll ever be.”

“I’m not a hammer.” The same words he told Dean on a park bench all those years ago. “I don’t just follow Heaven’s orders. I haven’t for years.”

“So you want me to believe that you’re on your own, doing this little rogue mission by yourself? Trying to impress the higher ups with your initiative?” Castiel shakes his head, but before he can contradict him Sam picks up again. “You think humans are that naive? That we’d just believe that we’re your family? That we love and care about you? That we’d feel sorry for you?”  

“Sam, I--”

“We could never love something like you. You’re a monster, at the end and start of every day.”

Castiel restrains himself from giving Sam the reaction he knows he wants from this. This isn’t Sam. This is…someone. Someone who wants to break me but I won’t let him. I won’t.

“Even if you didn’t mean us any harm, like you keep claiming, do you think we’d ever make friends with a creature like you? You’d never fit in,” Sam sighs and shrugs nonchalantly. “We’d only ever keep you around if you were useful to us.”

This isn’t Sam, Castiel repeats but there’s no fire behind it.

“And if you weren’t useful anymore, we’d just throw you out. Replace you. You’re not special, Castiel,” he says, emphasizing the name with mockery. “You’re not. You’re just…lonely, maybe. Because no one will ever love you the way you want to be loved.”

Castiel finally flicks his gaze away. The mantra of not Sam not Sam is waning fast. “You’re scared of me,” he manages, eyes still averted. “But you have no reason to be. I won't hurt any of you.”

“Oh, we’re not afraid.” He hears the sound of the cap untwisting from the flask. “But you are.”

Castiel looks back and Sam locks him in a gaze of absolute hatred before hurling the contents of the flask at him. The liquid splashes him in the face and streams down, soaking his shirt around the collar and down to the waist. It takes a few seconds for the smell to hit Castiel and then his nostrils flare and his eyes widen.

Holy oil.

The air in his lungs becomes solid. He doesn’t dare even budge his eyeballs.

Sam pulls a lighter from his pocket, slowly, deliberately, never taking his eyes off him. Like he’s relishing the terror that is no doubt laid bare on Castiel’s face. “This isn’t just going to kill you, you know.” His thumbnail pricks the lighter lid open. “I heard it’s the worst way for an angel to die.”

I told you that. It was years ago, when he was in the boys’ motel room after a hunt. Castiel was on the run from angels and Sam was studying up about Lucifer. Sam wanted to know exactly how holy fire would work so Castiel explained how it tore through the layers of an angel’s essence, burning it atom by atom before the angel actually died. Sam had listened quietly all throughout and then asked Castiel if he had ever witnessed it before.

“I’m a soldier, Sam,” Castiel told him. “I’ve seen it all.”

Sam nodded. “I’m sorry,” he said. Castiel had wanted to point out that it wasn’t his fault, but he took the remark as a kind of reverent respect to those fallen on the battlefield.

“But I figure if you die,” Sam says now, letting one dancing tongue of flame emerge from the lighter in his hand, “then whatever hold you have on my mom ends.”

Castiel wants to say something, anything, but the oil is seeping into his skin pores. If he opens his mouth it will sneak in, it will pour down his throat, and he will never be rid of the wretched taste of the screams of his brothers and sisters, the singed flavor of scorched grace. His grace.

Don’t. He doesn’t even hear himself speak the word. And then a prayer slips out. 

Jack. I’m sorry. I love you.

Sam brings the lighter closer and Castiel takes his last breath. The underside of his mouth is scorching; bile painting sour on his tongue, blood prickling his lips, ribs cracking open wide to release a scream that never comes.

“One more time,” Sam enunciates. Behind the shadow of the flame his eyes are black orbs, shimmering almost demonically. “Who do you work for?”

“Michael.” It leaves his lips in an unstoppable rush. “Michael.”

The lighter drops shut and disappears back into Sam’s pocket. Disgust churns thick in Castiel’s stomach. He wants to reach into his mouth and scrape out every remnant of that lie. Sam comes over with a towel and wipes away the oil roughly. He balls the towel up and then tosses it into a corner of the dungeon. It sits there, a crumpled wad that still reeks with death and desolation. There are corners behind Castiel’s ear and collarbone that still glisten with smears of holy oil. He wants it off, he wants it all off. He wants to peel off his skin until not a single drop is left, but Sam turns and walks out the door without another word.  

The brick wall in his lungs dissolves. Castiel draws in giant, gulping breaths, doubled over in the chair.

Then Jack’s voice comes pattering through. What happened, Castiel? I heard your prayer, you sounded--

It’s okay. He gulps down a sob. It’s okay. I’m okay.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mary wiggles back and forth, trying to find a comfortable position to be in. The straps around her wrists extend long enough for her to sit up, but not for her to bring her hands together. She can barely raise a hand high enough to run through her disheveled hair, or to wrap her arm around herself to scratch her back. As she tugs the restraints back and forth, rattling the bed frame noisily, she’s aware that Sam is watching her. He’s sitting in that solitary chair across from her, tucked into the corner of the wall; it's the one seat that gets filled by rotation every few hours. Right now it’s Sam's shift on guard duty, and Mary would appreciate the look of concern he’s giving if he wasn’t also one of her jailers.

“Don’t do that,” he finally speaks up. “You’re just going to chafe your skin. Trust me, I know those don’t go any further than that.”

“Did you also get accused of being brainwashed when you were perfectly---” she jerks it one more time out of spite, hard enough to shake the entire bed “--of sound mind?”

Sam gives her one of those awful pitying smiles, the kind she’s been on the receiving end of for the two days she’s been imprisoned. “I’ve worn those before, too, you know--well, not the ones here. It was a long time ago. The bed was a lot less comfortable than this one.” He pauses, his gaze flicking away. “My feet were tied down too.”

Mary's heart twists simultaneously with ache and rage. “Who did that to you?”

“Dean. And Bobby. They had to,” he adds. “I was coming down from drinking demon blood, I was seeing things that weren’t there. They were afraid I might hurt myself. It was for my own safety.” He glances over at her with a strange expression. “Sometimes I would see you. Not really you, of course, but…you’d be there in the room.”

The demon blood. Sam had explained some of it to her when he told her the history of their past apocalypses, but he hadn’t told her much of the details. She thinks of her son strapped down in bed, in pain and scared, reaching for the comfort of a mother that wasn’t there, that had never been there. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly. It feels like handing a crumb to a starving man. “I’m so sorry, Sam.”

He shrugs dismissively. “It wasn’t your fault, Mom. And this isn’t your fault, either, okay? None of us blame you for it.” Sam gets up and moves to sit beside her on the bed. There’s so much genuine compassion in those big brown eyes of his that it hurts. There’s a pinched strain of exhaustion too, and she realizes that while her brainwashed condition isn’t real, the suffering that it’s bringing to her family is. Sam must be hardly sleeping and feverishly researching, the way he always does when someone’s in danger. Her son is splitting himself apart at well-worn seams to find a solution that she doesn’t need, for a problem that doesn’t exist.

”Sam.” The restraints extend just enough for her to fold her fingers over the back of his hand. “Just hear me out. You know that people don’t come back from the dead without consequences, right? What if the pearl that brought John back has changed your memory of past events? Is there a chance that what I’m saying about Castiel  is right? Because I wasn’t there when you made the wish with the pearl, so the side effects didn’t–”

“No, I don’t think so. I’ve been checking the news every day since Dad came back. Look, if history was being rewritten there should be problems on a cosmic level. Like people starting to not exist or come back into existence. But this? This is the same thing we’ve been fighting all our lives. A monster trying to ruin our family, get into our heads and separate us.” The corners of his mouth lift in a brave smile. “We’re going to fight this together, the way we always have.”

Mary pulls her hand away and lies down, angling her body towards the wall as much as she can. “Of course you will,” she says emptily. She ignores Sam when he asks what she wants to eat for breakfast. Instead she turns her thoughts towards the small shard of floor tile in her pocket that she picked up the last time she was released for a bathroom break. She imagines it sitting against the fabric of her pants like a sword in a sheath. It’s not enough to pick the cuffs, or the door, which is always locked from the outside, but it might be enough to scratch a line in the warding sigil above her bed.

Dean comes in with a tray, and he and Sam stand there at the foot of the bed talking about Mary like she isn’t there. Their words are a jumble she doesn’t even try to parse through. She’s staring at that sigil and thinking about the first prayer she’ll pray when she’s broken the warding. Castiel, I’m coming. Don’t give up. Don’t let them kill you. The words will have to wait until her vigilant guard falls asleep and she can scrape at the painted line.

“...see if he knows anything that can help us with Castiel.” The name leaps out at her and she snaps her head up.

“Who are you talking about?”

“No one, “ says Dean over the sound of Sam replying, “Ketch.

”Don’t tell her anything,” Dean hisses at his brother.

“She’s not going to do anything,” Sam retorts. “Stop treating her like the enemy.”

“She isn’t Mom right now, you get that right?”

“I’m right here,” Mary speaks up, prompting both boys to turn and face her. “And not Ketch, don’t get him involved, please.”  

Sam nods understandingly. “Don’t worry, Mom, we won’t let him anywhere near you. We won’t even mention what’s happening to you, we just need something to get the angel talking.”

“So we can figure out what he did to mojo you and get you back to normal,” Dean adds, then gestures towards the door. “Come on, Dad’ll take over here. Ketch should be online now, if he isn’t having another tea break.”

“No! No, no, no.” Mary tries to twist around and lunge forward. The cuffs bur against her wrists as she reaches the boys. She remembers Ketch showing his Enochian arsenal to her, boasting about all the weapons and sigil work the Men of Letters had developed to combat angels. “Please, not Ketch, don’t ask him for help, don’t--” the door slamming cuts her sentence in two.

Her fingers close around the empty air and then drop back down beside her. “I’m sorry.” The words drum between her teeth, a never-ending rhythm pounding against her skull as her eyes brim. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

Someone comes in and sits close to her, caressing her face, wiping the wet streaks from her cheeks. John. He’s saying that she doesn’t need to apologize to him, that it’s not her fault. She plants a fist in his chest and shoves him away as hard as she can.  

 

+

 

“An angel problem, you say? Didn’t the exorcism egg I sent work?” Ketch says with a slight frown.

Dean rolls his eyes. “No, it didn’t, thanks for the priority mail, by the way. No, we need something else, something that’ll help us get information from another angel. Not Michael.”

“Without killing it, I presume?”

Sam nods. “We have holy fire for that, but we don’t want to--”

“Waste a valuable source of information, I understand.” Ketch sits back and turns to a pile of files and papers at the side of his desk. “You do recall that without my affiliation with the---”

“Douchey British dickbags you don’t have your whole ammo, we get it.” Dean folds his arms. “You’ve been complaining about that in every call.”

“Well, one does regret the loss of resources.” Ketch shuffles a few more papers and then pulls out a folder. “I may still have this device that allows an angel's wings to become visible--only a prototype, though. The design is quite bulky in size, I’d have to pay extra for the postage--”

“Don’t you have something that doesn’t need to go through international shipping?” Sam interrupts him. “We need something fast, Ketch, people we care about are in danger now.”

A low sigh emits from the other side of the screen.. “I might have a sigil, but I haven't tested it yet, so I cannot guarantee the results. It also relies on knowing the angel’s name and a basic grasp of Enochian.”

“Great! We can manage that.” Sam claps his hands together. “Just fax it over.

”What’s it supposed to do?” Dean asks.

“It connects to an angel’s grace. In theory, it should create a bond with the electromagnetic pulse within the grace and then trigger it to be activated. Quite genius, if I may say so myself.”

Dean waves a hand at the screen. “English translation, please.”

Ketch offers them a deprecating raise of the left eyebrow. “You may simplify the process by calling it an internal electrocution, although the term is hardly accurate considering that angel grace is not merely--”

“Awesome. Thanks, man.” Dean leans down and presses the hang up button on the Skype call just as Ketch starts to say. “Why aren’t you asking Cas---”

The beeping sound of the fax machine in the library pulls their attention away from the laptop and they both rush into the next room, Ketch’s last words disappearing into the forgotten.

 

+

 

John is dozing lightly in the chair, head tipped back, hands folded over his stomach. It’s the same way he used to fall asleep while he was rocking Dean to sleep during long nights. Sometimes Mary would come into the nursery and find Dean wide-awake, sucking on his thumb, while John snored rhythmically.

She misses that man. He’s right in front of her, but he’s also not.

Right now she has to put aside her conflicted feelings about her resurrected husband; John’s midday nap is the opening she’s been waiting for. She slides a hand into her pants pocket and slowly pulls out the tile shard. It isn’t much longer than a fingernail but the end is sharp enough to pick at the thick red line of paint just within her reach.

As she works in halted movements she continues to keep one eye on John. His head lolls back and forth in his sleep; he wrinkles his nose when he snores in that way she always found so amusing. “You look like a pig,” she told him once, in the first year of their marriage. “Your nose gets all snout-y.” He didn’t believe her, not until she took a photo of him one night and showed him the Polaroid.

The tile shard slips from her hand, falling down the side of the bed and onto the floor with a merry tinkle.

John stirs.

Mary berates herself for getting distracted and hurriedly lies back down, trying to assume a position that doesn’t look too strained, like she’s been there all along.

John opens one eye and squints at her. “You hungry?” he asks drowsily.

Mary shakes her head faintly.

“I’ll get you something,” John yawns, eyelids falling back down. “ ‘N a minute.

Once John is again filling the room with the lullaby of gentle snores Mary glances back up at the sigil. The tile shard is lost somewhere on the floor, beyond her reach, but it’s already played its part. There’s a crack in the right corner of the paint; not large enough for anyone to notice unless they looked carefully, but enough, she hopes, to let her prayers go through.

Castiel. I’m coming. I’m coming.

As she prays she leans her head over the edge of the bed, stretching as far as she can to see if there’s anything else nearby that she can pick up for her next weapon. The floor is mostly swept clean, but there’s the silver glint of what might be a paperclip peeking out from under the chest of drawers near the bathroom door. Her heart soars; it’s like seeing another exit arrow on the map for getting out of a maze.

 

+

 

I’m coming for you.

Castiel wraps his grace around the tether of those words. Mary is alive, then. She’s alive and she’s coming. Her prayers have been coming through steadily in the past hour, telling him about the wishing pearl that brought John back, about being under watch twenty-four hours; and something to do with Ketch that she doesn’t know the details of but she tells him as a warning. He wishes he could respond somehow. Right now his grace barely has the stamina to heal his injuries between torture sessions, let alone travel through dreams and speak to Mary.

Not for the first time in his life he wishes that humans could receive prayers, too.

The details about the wishing pearl are new to Castiel; he’s never heard of such a spell. With some research and knowledge from Rowena they could figure out how to break it, but that would require contacting someone outside the Bunker; the only channel he has for that is through Jack, and he’s vowed to not put the boy in danger.  

All he can do is sit and wait for his grace to recover. The new lacerations that John made across his chest this morning are mostly healed; one strike of the angel blade went deeper than John might have anticipated and punctured a lung. His grace has repaired it by now, but it took several hours until the air stopped leaving his lips in aborted, frantic bursts. With the sigils suppressing his grace his body is so close to human, and it sweats and trembles and hurts more acutely than ever.

Dean was with John for this morning’s torture. Castiel had focused his energies towards the older Winchester son, talking to him about the most specific, detailed memories they’d shared, asking him to stop and try to remember. Nothing seemed to reach Dean, though; he either ignored Castiel’s entreating or would get agitated enough that he’d march over and grab the blade from John and start using it on Castiel himself. John’s torture technique tended towards brute force, but Dean’s was different. The elder Winchester knew exactly what nerves to hit, where to dig slow and deep, what points of the flesh were the most agonizing to bruise.

It reminds Castiel of a Dean he’d rather forget; a Dean he’s been trying to banish from his thoughts ever since this whole situation started and Dean first took the blade to his body. He tries not to think of Sam and Dean as Sam and Dean, or even John. He replaces them with faces of his other torturers throughout the years; there’s a wide enough selection to choose from, and he rewrites the narrative in his mind. Not only are Sam and Dean not themselves, but he isn’t himself to them. Their attacks aren’t truly aimed at him, but at this persona of a weak, pliable, dispensable pawn.

That isn’t him. That isn’t him.

The door opens and Castiel reacts instinctively, pressing himself as close to the chair and as far away from them as he can. Three days of being imprisoned down here and his physical senses have already adapted, shifting into the well-worn pattern of survival, his nerves tensed and ready to endure. This time both Sam and Dean come in; the latter is holding a paper in his hand that has what looks like sigils on it.

Sam glances at Castiel and the seraph automatically averts his gaze. Sam hasn’t come to see him since the holy oil incident. Castiel can’t disguise the shame he feels when seeing the younger Winchester, knowing that he let Sam strip him down enough to show fear and let that fear morph into a lie.

At first neither of the Winchesters seem particularly interested in him; they’re huddled around the paper, and then Dean pulls out a pocket knife and slices his palm open. More dampening sigils? Castiel’s grace huddles deeper inside his vessel, as if trying to shield itself.  

“Sam…Dean…” he croaks. “This isn’t who you are. Remember who you really are. You’re…incredibly strong. You can fight this.”

They don’t answer. 

“I know you..can hear me. You’ve defied the Devil himself and God and the end of the world. You can make it through…this. We’re a family, and we fight for humanity together.”

Then Castiel notices something different about the sigil that Dean is painting with bloody fingertips. That’s his name. His name in Enochian.

“What is that--what are you doing?”

Again they don’t respond. His grace knits itself into a ball so tightly it feels like a hard stone pressed against his spine. There’s only one reason for ever including the given name of an angel in a spell or sigilwork, and that is to focus the direction of the intent towards a single target. But he doesn’t recognize the sigil, so he can’t determine what the goal of it is; he can’t even prepare his body for the pain because he has no idea where it’s about to strike.  

Then Dean slams a hand against the sigil. Castiel's grace flares up instantaneously, unleashing a thousand claws that dig into him as it stretches and screams. His skin roars with fire, blue and white biting into his veins. The fangs of his grace sink in harder, trying to hold on or uproot him, he can’t tell. He can’t think, can’t think, can’t lamb of god can’t see who takes away the sins of the world have mercy on us on us on us--

It stops.

His grace retreats, whimpering against the ridges of his skeleton. His vision clears enough to see Dean standing by the wall, looking at his hand with a puzzled expression. The sigil drips on the wall above his head in a bloody halo. Then Dean flattens his palm against the sigil again and Castiel’s grace screeches.

lamb of god who takes away the sins of the world

He convulses. Grace and blood drip from the cracks in his mouth where the teeth John knocked out haven’t grown back yet.

have mercy on us

 

+

 

Dean lifts his hand and Castiel’s body stops wobbling back and forth. The angel collapses, flopped over the side of the chair, head bowed to his knees.

Sam takes his finger out of his ears and winces. "So the sigil only works if you keep your hand on it?”

The paper wrinkles in his hand as Dean studies it again. “Yeah, I guess so. Ketch sure came up with a lousy idea. Who has the time to stand around all day, palm to the wall?”

“Well, we might not need to.” Moving over to the unmoving angel Sam reaches out and grabs a tuff of his hair to pull his head up. Streams of blood leak from his eyes and nose, and a glazed sheen of silvery white wafts from the cracks in his split lips. “Looks like it does a number just in a matter of seconds.”

“Oh yeah, that ain’t pretty.” Dean hooks his fingers around Castiel’s jaw and shakes him. “Are you still in there, buddy? Feeling up for a little chat?”

When the angel doesn’t say anything, Dean nods to Sam who walks behind him and back to the sigil on the wall. “Now, I’m going to make this easy for you,” Dean begins as Sam picks up the pocket knife and draws a slit down the length of his palm.

“Just tell us if you know Michael’s plans,” Dean goes on,  “and we’ll get you cleaned up nice and good. Maybe crack open a can of soup if you want some.” He digs his nails into Castiel’s clammy skin. “All you gotta do is say the word.”

The angel doesn’t even blink. Dean can’t tell if the sigil has truly incapacitated him or if he’s faking it, so he nods at his little brother and Sam slaps the sigil on the wall.

Castiel’s eyes burst open. White light blasts from his eye sockets like lasers, hot enough to scald Dean’s fingers, and he jumps back. The angel writhes, knees bouncing up and down and  shoulders heaving from side to side, mouth contorted in guttural cries.

“Enough!” Dean shouts over the ruckus and Sam takes his hand away. Dean looks down at the bubbling blisters on his left hand and swears. “You bastard.” He lunges at Castiel and plows his knee into his already bleeding nose.

“Fucker fucked me up,” Dean mutters at Sam, who pulls him back by the elbow sleeve.

“Listen.” Sam waves a finger at Castiel’s moving lips. “He’s saying something.”

“Nothing that makes sense,” Dean grumbles, swiping a hand over the blood now staining the kneecap of his pants leg.

Sam tilts Castiel’s chin up and leans his ear closer. “It’s Latin. Hold on, let me--” he pulls out his phone and taps busily into it. “Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccatamundi, miserere nobis,” he says aloud.

“A spell?”

“Doesn’t look like it. It’s a prayer, taken from the Bible. ‘Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.’ And then…kinda repeated and then…grant us peace.”

“He’s praying?” Dean scoffs. “Hey, well, at least, we got an angel to pray. That’s gotta be one step away from confession, right?” He picks at the blister bubbles on his fingers. “I gotta put something on this. Let’s have some dinner and then try the sigil again tomorrow. “

“Yeah, I think he needs some time to catch his breath,” Sam chuckles as he follows his brother out.

 

+

 

Mary wakes up to Joni Mitchell in her room. The singer’s voice covers her like a warm comforter and Mary is tempted to keep her eyes shut. To pretend for a second that she’s not really here, and neither are the cuffs bruising her wrists and neither are Sam and Dean or Castiel or the Bunker at all. To pretend that she’s twenty-five and in love and carrying her first child and the biggest problem on her mind is if she can make it to the supermarket and back without vomiting. To pretend her favorite Joni albm is playing while she makes dinner for a husband that’s going to be home with the birthday cake for their son’s first birthday.

But her eyelids open, a shutter peeled back unwillingly, and John is sitting there at her side, smiling in the saddest possible way. He points to the tape player on his lap as Joni sings, “You’ve got all the lovin that I like all right/Turn this crazy bird around/I shouldn’t have got on this flight tonight.

“Remember this?” he says, moving closer. “I thought it might help you remember yourself.”

Suddenly Joni’s voice is the most cursed sound she’s ever heard. “Turn it off,” she snaps, and shifts away from his touch.

John gets up and presses the pause button, then sits back on the bed, but further towards the edge. “I’m sorry. I just wanted to help you somehow.” He kneads the back of his thumbs against the creases of the mattress. “I don’t know what to do, Mary. This isn’t how I wanted to spend our time together, you know.”

She pulls at the blanket, tying the two edges into a butterfly knot. “Believe me, this isn’t what I had in mind either. It doesn't have to be like this, you know.” The butterfly knot falls apart in her fingers. “You haven’t even tried to listen to me, John.”

He stares at her. “You really want me to believe that you’re not being controlled by this angel?”

She nibbles on her lower lip. Yes, of course, she wants to shout, but that won’t work. Not with someone like John. He seems more receptive to hearing her talk for the first time in days, and she needs to lead him to the realization on her own.  “You’re a hunter, right? Like in the timeline you were brought from--like, haven’t you ever misjudged a case, or a person? Haven’t you ever thought it was one thing but it turned out to be another?” When John nods hesitantly she continues, “well, what if it’s like this? Has Castiel even made any kind of attempt to physically hurt any of you?”

The reluctant shake of John’s head gives her confidence. “So what if he’s actually not dangerous? What if he’s just…not human? Is that a crime in and of itself?”

John opens his mouth to reply and then clamps it shut. There’s something unfamiliar crossing his face, a formless phantom of guilt. “When I figured out that Sam had demon blood in him,” he begins, and Mary’s heart sinks immediately. Her muscles tense, like her body can already predict what he’s going to say next. “I told Dean he might have to kill his brother. If Sam ever went…bad.” His voice drops. “I told our son that, I actually told him that.”

Mary chews the inside of her cheek to keep from releasing a hurricane of swears and screams at John. She’s too close to crying, for both Dean and Sam, and also for the fact that her husband took one look at their sweet, mild-mannered boy and wanted him dead. But she’s so close to a breakthrough with John right now, for him to be the one to turn this whole situation around. Besides, she can’t quite land a good punch from her restrained position. So instead she waits, counting seconds backwards in her mind until her voice is calm enough to say, “but you were wrong about him, weren’t you? Being human doesn’t make you automatically good any more than being not human makes you evil.”

“I know, but… Sam is my son. I’d love him even if he were evil.” You wanted to kill him, she almost shouts. “But this angel isn’t my blood, or yours. What reason would I have for trusting it or anything you say about it?”

It’s not always about blood. Again she restrains herself. She doesn’t want John to feel like this is a debate and get defensive. She wants to keep the conversation where she knows he’s weakest, at the emotions of the heart. “Don’t you trust me?” she asks, as softly as she can.

He swallows hard. She holds her breath, daring to believe that this is the moment when he sets her free. This is her husband, the man for whom she made a deal with a demon in order to save his life. This is the father of her children. This is the one she told secrets to at three a.m., the one who would duet radio hits with her while setting up the nursery, the one who always knew when her back was hurting and would silently pass her another cushion while watching television. He knows parts of her that no one else in this world she’s come back to will ever know; he’s going to believe her.

John meets her eager eyes with a long, echoing stare.

Then he leans forward and presses a kiss to her lips. It feels cold, like an open window in winter. He stands up without a word and presses play on the tape recorder. Once again Joni’s voice fills the room.

Just before our love got lost you said

“I am as constant as Northern Star”

Mary latches onto his sleeve as he stands. “John, please, listen to me. I’m your wife.” She hasn’t called herself that in so long that it feels strange on the surface of her tongue. “You don’t have to be afraid of me. You know me.”

There’s that hesitation again, that pause that lasts a millennia. “I-I don’t know, Mary.” His brow is furrowed in a hundred lines. “I want to believe you, I do, God knows I do, but. What if I’m wrong?” The dark desperation returns to his eyes. “What if I’m wrong and I put our children, our family, in danger?”

He peels himself away from her. “I can’t risk that, I’m sorry.”

The corner of his sleeve leaves her fingers and she falls back against the pillows. If she can’t persuade him to listen to her, then what chance does she have with her sons? And if she can’t turn any of them, then Castiel will keep suffering, and eventually get killed, and she won’t be able to do anything to prevent it. Her throat clogs with a lump the size of a skull and she blinks hard, trying to steady herself. She won’t allow herself to think of that end. She won’t allow the thought to even appear in the landscape of her mind.

Just before John leaves the room Mary asks for a bathroom break. If she can gain anything from this interaction then it’s going to be that paperclip under the chest of drawers. John dutifully undoes the cuffs and then waits for her just outside the bathroom door. She stumbles artfully over the landing between the door and bedroom, making John reach out to catch her, his eyes preoccupied with steadying her so that he doesn’t notice her snitching the tiny silver wire.  She feigns a cough and slides it under her tongue so he won’t find it when he inspects her sleeves and pockets before leading her back to bed.

And I said “Constantly in the darkness

Where’s that at

If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

Once the cuffs are strapped back around her wrist again Mary sinks into the mattress and puts the pillow over her head. She’s going to stab that tape the minute she gets out of here. She thinks about wielding the paper clip like a spear and breaking it against the plastic case; black ribbons of tape curling around her fingers, the two white circles spinning away at her feet.

Oh I could drink a case of you darling

Still I’d be on my feet

Oh I would still be on my feet

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Castiel is going blind. He can’t see out of his retinas anymore, and he can’t heal them. His grace is floundering inside him, gasping like a fish thrown on desert sands. He hears Dean moving around the room, footsteps hard against the stone floor, and he tilts his head in the direction of the Winchester.

“No more,” Castiel gasps. Then, “You’re going to kill me if you do it again.” It’s a pitiful bargain, but he knows that they want him alive–for information he doesn’t have and can’t give.

Dean moves closer. Castiel recoils from his touch until he feels those rough fingers undoing the cuffs on one wrist and then the other. The silver links fall away like scabs and he inhales deeply.

Then the cold line of an angel blade is pressed against his throat. “Heal,” Dean demands, “but don’t try anything funny.”

His grace crawls through the battered trenches of his true form and physical body like a slow trickle of water. It’s going to take several hours to restore himself to a functioning level of health, let alone strong enough to escape or fight to defend himself. He thinks of Mary languishing alone and tries to goad his grace to work faster, but his grace huddles away from him, snarling, angry, wounded.

“Heard you praying.” Dean’s voice comes at him like an ambush and he jolts away, only to feel the cold grip of Dean’s fingers pulling his head back in place against the silver blade. “Who do you think is listening to you? Not God, for sure.” His breath wafts in his ear, hot and prickling. “No one is ever going to come for you.

Castiel shuts out Dean’s voice. Or tries to.  

“And why should they? You’re just a tool, and no one risks their life for their favorite wrench or hammer. You’re not even as good as the other angels I’ve killed. You’re weaker, more crippled, more…broken.”

“You don’t know me,” he breathes, more to himself than to Dean.

“Oh, I know you. I can read you like a fucking book. You’re the runt of the litter, the last to be picked for the team. The rest of your crew hates you, because they sure haven’t showed up to help you out at all.” He hears Dean circle around to the other side, all the while keeping his hold on the back of Castiel’s neck. “You’re the one that nobody wanted to play with on the playground. And you think you can make us believe that we care about you because you’re different, you’re…a bit more fucked up than the rest.”

Castiel’s jaw clenches, a twisting ache settling in his stomach. Ignore him. It’s not really him.

“But here’s the thing.” Castiel feels the shadow of Dean’s face hovering close to his. “You will never be one of us. You can try all your tricks, your mojo, your brainwashing--hell, you can do the damn puppy eyes and it won’t work. Your Dad doesn’t give a rat’s ass about you, and you’ll always just be a hideous thing to hunt down and kill.”

“Dean.” He takes another deep breath. “You are not your father, you don’t see the world the way he does. You are good and kind and you protect your brother, you protect those who can’t protect themselves. You--”

The blade tightens against his throat so hard Castiel can’t get so much as an aborted garble out. “Shut up. You don’t know my dad. He’s here, which is more than you can say for yours. You are nothing to me, do you understand? No, you’re less than nothing.” He lets go suddenly and Castiel reaches for the spot on his neck, feeling for any blood.

Dean grabs his wrist and forces it back on the armrest, and then the cuffs are back on and the pain swells through Castiel's entire body. “When we finally get to kill you, I’m going to enjoy it.” He hears the swoosh of Dean twirling a weapon between his hands. An angel blade. “You’re going to wish you had never known me.”

“I don’t regret…anything.” If Castiel died right here and now at Dean’s hand he still wouldn’t trade any of it. Not the years with Sam and Dean, not the home he’s made here on Earth. Not Jack. “I would give my life to protect you. Any of you.”

His vision is returning to him. He sees the blurry outline of Dean standing there, facing him, immobile, not saying a word. “You’re disgusting,” Dean finally says, turning his back on him. “It’s actually kinda nauseating how pathetic you are. Playing this charade to go after my mom like that, after my family--you must really hate yourself, buddy, and you should. But none of your little games are gonna fix that.” His figure moves through the room, towards the wall where there’s the splash of red that Castiel knows is the sigil. “You’re nobody’s family. You’re just a sad little wannabe.”

Castiel wants to refute the accusation, deny it, but his throat is empty and no sound comes out. But the truth, the one that always hums beneath the surface of the skin that isn’t even his, is that he’ll always be an other; someone who isn’t human, something who’s very nature makes him an enemy to Sam and Dean. In the back of his mind he’s often wondered what it would take for the charade to drop; for Sam and Dean to stop pretending that he belongs with them and admit that Castiel--and Jack--are only with them because they have nowhere else to go. Not because this is their rightful place to be, their true home. They’ve been taken in because no one else will have them. 

Stop. Castiel shakes his head, reigning his thoughts in. “Dean,” he breathes heavily.

Dean moves his hand abruptly and Castiel doubles over, vomiting blood and grace all over his lap. He’s screaming a sound he can’t even hear. Somewhere in the prism of agony the notes of Dean Winchester’s laughter ring out.

 

+

 

Mary watches Sam sleeping in the chair at the foot of the bed. His arms hang over the sides like noodles spilling out of a pot and his legs stretch across the floor like tree roots. His eyes are closed, mouth slightly open as his chest heaves up and down. He’s bigger than she’d ever imagined he’d grow up to be, and yet he still looks so small to her, like he’d still fit in her arms. How could her husband have ever wanted to kill him? Their child?

Sam seemed especially exhausted tonight. He didn’t even try the incantation he’s been doing daily that is supposed to clear her mind of possession or evil influences. Dean claims that it’s not working, but Sam insists that it will if he just adjusts the spell work to tailor it for angelic mind control. Every time Sam does something slightly different--he adds more herbs or subtracts certain ingredients--then he performs it with passionate gusto, only to have his face drop when her answers to his series of questions come back the same.

Tonight Sam came in around one a.m, armed with a book on sigils, but he passed out after only reading a few pages.  

I’ll fix this for all of us, Mary prays to Castiel as she works soundlessly with the paper clip she’d nabbed earlier that day. Holding it between her teeth makes it scratch at her gums until she tastes the sticky tang of blood but she continues worming the wire back and forth until the cuff on her right hand pops loose. I will come get you, and then we will find out how to break this spell, and we’ll get our family back. 

Her fingers move faster now, undoing the other cuff. Just hang in there.

Releasing herself is the first and easiest step. Reaching the door requires her to move off the bed and find a way to pick the lock without causing him to stir. What’s beyond the confines of her room, she doesn’t know. She can’t afford to think that many steps ahead. She focuses on easing off the bed without creaking the springboards. Her legs wobble unsteadily from the disuse--she’s been forcibly bedridden for days--and grabs the side of the mattress to steady herself.

Keeping one hand braced on the wall she tip-toes towards the door. Her chest is clenched, holding in the sound of her breaths. I’m almost out of the room, she tells Castiel. Don’t try to break free yet. I’ll come to you.

The door handle gleams like a pearl among dark sands. It feels cool to her touch as she gives it an experimental tug. To her surprise it twists and the door opens, letting in a shaft of light across the darkened room. Sam must have forgotten to lock it tonight. She breathes a little louder, heart racing towards the finish line.

I’m out! Then she realizes volume might get passed along through prayers too. Sorry for raising my voice. Her hand movies the door handle back a bit more, just the few inches of space she needs to slip through. I’m just so glad to finally be--

“Mom?”

Her heart plummets down, a straight drop of one hundred fifty feet where it’s dashed to smithereens on the cliffs below. Because Dean is standing right in front of her. He has a bowl in one hand and the fingers on his other hand are red-tipped.There’s a swath of blood on the door, like half a sigil. She doesn’t recognize it, but she knows it must be yet another set of locks to keep her in and keep Castiel away from her.   

Dean puts the bowl down hurriedly and grabs her by the elbow. She slumps in his grip and lets him steer her back inside. She tunes out the heated conversation between her sons that follow, both blaming the other for her escape and then refocusing their efforts on securing her back in bed. Her body goes limp under their push and tug and she stares up at the ceiling, praying a single word on repeat.

Sorrysorrysorrysorrysorrysorry

Dean prowls through her bed covers and pillows, trying to find what she might have used to free herself. His voice is raised, face flushed red, and Sam yelling back at him with equal agitation.  Her children are at odds with each other and themselves, and she can’t stop it. She can’t save Castiel, either, and she can’t even get her husband to believe her.

When the cuffs squeeze around her skin again the pressure feels familiar. It makes her nauseous. She’s been held prisoner here for only a few days and her body is already accepting the reality of the situation.

She won’t. She can’t. She tries to stay awake to listen to what Sam and Dean are saying outside the closed door. The drowsiness fights against her and she forces her eyes to remain open. She needs to know their schedule, their plans, if her next attempt is going to succeed. Through the haze of exhaustion she thinks she hears a time, ten in the morning and three in the afternoon. Maybe that’s when they change shifts. Maybe that’s when they go to torture Castiel. She doesn’t know.

The ceiling turns into bubbles under her swollen eyes. She prays so hard it gives her a headache, and then wonders if that’s why portraits of saints always looked like they were in pain.

 

+

 

Mary wakes up around lunch time. because there’s a tray with a bowl of soup and a sandwich sitting on the dresser beside her. She doesn’t touch it. She doesn’t answer when Sam and Dean ask her why she tried to break free last night; where were you going? and did you hear the angel in your head?  She refuses any food that day, drinking only water. The saints were right about fasting; it clears a path in your head. It allows determination to consume you, even more than hunger. Nothing exists except what you desire. For some it might be closeness to God; for her, it’s how to get out. She thinks about it like it’s the only thing her blood and cells exist to do.

She doesn’t speak, except for praying to Castiel constantly. Her prayers range from short updates about the whereabouts of her husband and sons, to recollections of her time as a hunter, of her mother’s cooking, of Dean’s uneven sleeping schedule as a baby, of her best friend in third grade. She tells him about the past to distance herself from the reality of her family situation right now.  

During one of her bathroom breaks she cuts her finger on the chipped edge of the sink, deliberately. Dean bandages it carefully and while he’s somewhere between apologizing for her current state and admonishing her not to try and leave again, she nabs a tiny bottle of antiseptic cream. The flat end of the tube isn’t as sharp or as wiry as a paper clip but it’ll have to do.

During dinner time she tells Castiel about the time John was working late and she fell asleep with both boys in her lap and the DVD running. It was Halloween II, one of her favorites. When Laurie screams as Michael Myers is chasing her through the hospital she jolted in alarm and Sam almost rolled off her knees. His head would’ve hit the edge of the coffee table if Dean hadn’t snatched the edge of his onesie in time and given Mary that half a second to scoop him up to safety.

I was so scared, I thought he would crack his skull on the table and die. I thought if he ever died, I would die, too. I didn’t want to live in a world where I’d buried a child. She lies on her back, tuning out the background murmur of John’s pleas for her to eat. Then by the time I came back Sam had already died. More than once. So did Dean. But I still never had to bury them. Her body shifts to find a more comfortable position, letting the tube of cream hidden in the elastic of her bra roll to the other side of her ribs. Sometimes I think I have. I smell grave dirt in my dreams and I wonder if it’s my own or my children’s. Did you bury them? All the times they died?  Or did the other one of them burn the body each time? 

Has Castiel been more of a mother to her children than she will ever be?

Dean says you pulled him from Hell. And Sam, too. Were you there when they came back to life? It can be weird, I know. Did you help them feel safe? I hope they weren’t too scared.

Later that evening she hears something from outside. It sounds far away. It takes a minute for her to place the noise. Screaming. Not any human sound she’s ever heard.

“Castiel.” It burns her throat; it’s the first word she’s spoken all day.

John, who’s sitting in the room on guard duty, looks up and then puts on the Joni Mitchell tape again. He turns the volume higher as the screaming grows louder. Mary shuts her eyes and prays to Castiel by repeating the lyrics of Joni’s “River.”

Oh I wish I had a river

I could skate away on

I wish I had a river so long

I would teach my feet to fly

Tears dampen her eyelashes and she covers her face with her hands, pressing back the flood.   

Oh I wish I had a river

I could skate away on

 

+

 

“Anything?”

Sam looks up from the volume he’s studying and shoots Dean a pointed glare. “Still nothing. Just like ten minutes ago when you last asked.”

Dean sighs and rolls his shoulders back. “A whole Bunker of knowledge and we can’t hack one little angel’s programming? Come on, Sammy, there has to be something there. Your truth potions and spells aren’t doing shit! Mom’s not even talking anymore. It’s already been five days and--”

“You don’t think I want to find a way to stop all this? Just as much as you?”

He narrows his eyes. “She did get free under your watch last night.”

“Oh, really?” The book snaps shut as Sam gets to his feet. “You wanna start that again? Maybe if you were helping me more I could actually get in an hour or two of sleep before blinding myself with half a dozen--”

“Okay, okay,” Dean waves at him, both hands up in surrender. “I’m sorry. I know it wasn’t your fault. I’m just--

”--tired,” Sam finishes for him. He rubs his eyes with the back of his hands. “Yeah. We all are. I mean, we can’t risk bringing in any other hunter and having them get under that angel’s control. We don’t even know who else he might have compromised.”

“Sam, we’ve been using the sigil for two days now. If he’s not half dead, he’s putting himself back together from being half dead. And he still won’t talk. What else can we do?”

“I don’t know, either, I--maybe we need to get into his head? Think like him?”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “Okay. Pretend I’m an asshole angel. And someone wants me to give up info. I don’t, of course, not unless they have you or Mom, but then angels don’t have siblings--I mean, technically aren’t they all one big fucked up family? But it’s not like--it’s different, f you know what I mean, it’s not how we care about each-”

“So we need to threaten something or someone he cares about,” Sam interrupts him.

“Yeah.” Dean stops and shrugs. “But we don’t know who, if anyone, he cares about. I expect him to be as chatty about that as he’s been about everything else, which is nada.”

“We need something. What would an angel care about…” Sam mutters, lifting one book over the other as he searches through the spread of Enochian notes and encyclopedia on the table

“Heaven, I suppose, but we can’t exactly threaten the whole pie in the sky,” Dean chuckles mirthlessly. “Chuck would probably be pissed at us if he did, what with his whole thing for balance and all.”

“Angel physiology.” Sam brushes off the cover of a dark, leather bound book. “Maybe we can do something to his true form?”

“And get our eyes burned out in the process? No thanks.”

Sam scowls at him over the rim of the book. “Lots of negatives here, Dean. Come and help me find something that will work.”

“Fiiine,” Dean stretches his arms dramatically. “But we’ve just gone through all those books already. If I have to read one more diagram about the molecular structure of angel grace I’m going to--”

“That’s it!” Sam leaps up, pushing his chair back with a squeaking jolt. “Oh my god, I can’t believe I didn’t think of it before. Sleep deprivation,” he announces, wagging a finger at Dean. “A good night’s sleep would’ve reminded me of this sooner.”

“What and what?”

“What you said. Angel grace.”

Dean frowns. “Yeah, but those books didn’t tell us what we could do with grace, or if it can be used in mind control spells or anything. Unless you just want to take all of his grace and stash it somewhere.”

"Not all of it," he says slowly. "The angel would be human then, and he'd die too quickly. No, we need to take something that he'd desperately want back, enough that he'd actually start talking." Sam brushes the hair out of his eyes and smiles triumphantly. "We just need to take some of his grace."

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“Where did you--how did you know of this?” Dean asks, standing beside his brother in the storage room.

Sam flips the rectangle box over in his hand and opens the lid. “I had it used on me before--long story, Gadreel and all.”

“Seriously? Who did you let stab you with this?”

Sam furrows his eyebrows. “Can’t remember. The point is, I know it works. It’s going to work, Dean.”

 

+

 

When I said 'let’s name him' after my dad John said 'yes!' Like right away. He could see how much it meant to me. Castiel closes his eyes, letting his grace seal up the cracks in his body as he listens to Mary’s storytelling through her prayers. And when Sam was still teething, when he couldn’t sleep through the night, I’d tell him all about my dad. I wonder if he remembers anything; Sam said he met my father when he-he came back to life somehow? Like a while ago? I wonder if the stories I told him as a baby came back to him then.

He was soulless at the time, and Samuel tried to betray them to Crowley, Castiel answers in his mind. For once he’s glad that prayers don’t travel both ways. Mary doesn’t need to have her heart broken by another resurrection causing tragedy in her family. He shifts from side to side trying to find a more comfortable way to sit as his grace mends the internal injuries from that morning’s sigil session. Neither Sam or Dean or John have been back since; Castiel is worried that something might be happening on Mary’s side.

Don’t do anything stupid, he wants to tell her, and then he realizes how much he sounds like Dean. The real Dean, the one who offers him beer even though alcohol has no effect on him and who makes all kinds of ridiculous bargains to convince them to pick his favorite one for family movie night.

This Dean reminds him of one he’d rather forget; one shrouded in smoke and the burnt bowels of Hell. At the same time this Dean is also brimming with emotion and loyalty for his family, and it’s that part that makes it difficult for Castiel to hold the line of distinction in the narrative he’s weaving for himself He knows what Dean is like as a demon; what he was like corrupted by the Mark of Cain; and what he is as his own person. But this is something else. Some hybrid of cruelty and love melded into an even more dangerous persona.

The door opens and Castiel takes in a shaking gulp of air. One in, one out, just like he’s seen doctors tell humans to do. Mary is still praying to him, talking about how she’d talk to her dead mom when sitting up in the early morning hours nursing Sam. He focuses on her words--on the longing and tenderness in the memory--as Sam and Dean approach him. There’s no knife in their hand, which might mean no more sigils, but he doesn’t dare hope.

Then Sam moves into the light and pulls a distinctive box from behind his back

“No.” The word leaves Castiel’s lips in a quivering rush and he looks up at Sam, Mary’s prayers now immediately ignored.

Sam returns the desperate word with an unflinching stare. It reminds Castiel of when Sam saved him from Alistair--Sam, marching forward with palm outstretched and the stench of demon blood cloying all over him. Sam, soulless and yet determined to find a way to force Crowley to return his soul. There’s a spark of that same edge of stubbornness even in the Sam who isn’t soulless or full of demon blood. Castiel has often felt a kindred understanding between him and Sam; they share a willingness to cross boundaries that others balk from in order to save someone.

Sam has never shied away from sacrifice, or the price of salvation. Right now that makes him the most terrifying person Castiel has ever seen.

“So, you know what this is.” Sam lifts the lid of the box inch by inch. “Someone in Heaven must be keeping a good inventory.”

“I have nothing to give you, I haven’t done anything to Mary, I--” Castiel’s throat bobs as the syringe comes to light, the clear glass of the vial winking at him. “I can’t, Sam, I can’t give you what I don’t know.”

Sam just nods at Dean, who walks around Castiel’s chair and then both of Dean’s hands slam on Castiel’s shoulders, pinning him back. Castiel thrashes as hard as he can, whipping his head from side to side as Sam approaches.

“Sam, Sam, please listen to me. I’m the one who taught you how to use this, I’m the one who told you about angel grace.” He ducks away as Sam reaches out to grab his chin. “Don’t you remember? Nothing is worth losing you.”

Something flickers in Sam’s eyes and he blinks. A wave of blankness washing over his face.

Then it’s gone. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“No, no, please, Sam, don’t.” There are cracks spawning in his voice and he hates the weakness but he cannot help it. His grace has been assaulted enough. This would be too much, Father, he cannot bear it.  “You don’t have to do this.”

“Actually, I do.” Sam is nothing but a dark mass of spite looming above him. “You’ve really pushed my hand here, Castiel.  It’s your fault that it’s come to this. We gave you so many other chances.”

“I don’t know Michael’s plans,” Castiel pleads. “I truly don’t.”

“I’m sure they’ll come to mind after this.” The tip of the needle brushes against the side of his neck.

“Sam,” Castiel whispers helplessly. “I’m sorry.” He’s trying to bring back every line from that moment, anything that might trigger his memory. “I know what it means to feel sorry.”

Sam hesitates again. Behind his head Castiel can hear Dean asking why Sam isn’t doing it. “What are you waiting for? Just do it!” the elder Winchester barks.

“I am sorry.” Castiel can’t get a good look at Sam from the angle Dean is forcing his neck at but he focuses on him from the corner of his eye. “PB and J.”

Suddenly Sam lets go and stumbles back. “Why did you say that?”

“If angels can change, maybe Winchesters can too.” Castiel keeps talking as Sam bends towards the ground, head in his hands, fingers clawing at his locks of hair. “You remember this, Sam, you do. I know you do.”

Castiel feels hope lodge in his throat.

“Sammy?” Dean shouts from behind him and then he’s rushing over, putting one hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Talk to me, what’s happening? What’s going on? What did he say to you?”

The younger Winchester pushes Dean’s hand off and slowly raises his head. “Get. Out.” Sam growls, eyes wide with raw panic. “Get out of my head!” He darts forward, syringe held high.

Castiel jerks away as Sam grabs his chin and yanks his head back. “Sam, it’s true, I-”

“Lies,” Sam seethes. “All of these lies. You can’t fuck with me, Castiel. I won’t let you.”

“Sam.” Tears burn in his eyes and the younger Winchester becomes nothing but a dark outline towering over him. “I want you to know, I forgive yo--” the needle sinks into his neck and Castiel screams.

 

 +

 

Mary doesn’t sleep a wink that night. She rewinds and replays every tiny detail of her escape plan, squints at and scrutinizes the blueprints in her mind so she can spot any possible errors.

The first step begins tomorrow at ten in the morning, when her sons switch guard shifts. Ointment tube, slide out under the left side of her shirt, bend and bite. Right cuff first; it’s already loosened from careful wriggling, too small and infrequent for them to notice, but enough to soften the soil for her plan. Then the left cuff. Once free she needs to arm herself. The chair has been creaking when John sits on it, the squeaky sound coming from the back left leg. One or two good twists and it should come free.

She counts the cracks in the plaster of the ceiling to stay awake. She prays to Castiel. Sometimes they blur and she finds herself praying the number of cracks and counting the number of prayers. There’s no clock in her room, no way  to measure the passing of time except for the action, or lack of action, from her resident guard. Tonight it’s Dean who sits dozing in the chair, arms folded across his chest and angel blade tucked close under his arm.

It reminds her of the way he used to hug Bruce to sleep every night. Bruce was a teddy bear the nurse in the hospital gave Mary and it quickly became Dean’s favorite; eventually Dean passed it Bruce on to Sammy with much fanfare. Dean was convinced that he was bequeathing the stuffed animal as his greatest legacy, and his bright look of pride quickly became scrunched up in concern when Sam slobbered all over Bruce’s left ear.

Mary wonders if Bruce burned in the fire, too. Or if it was dragged out between tiny pink fingers, clutched to a crying four-year-old’s chest.

Morning comes when Dean wakes up, grunting noisily as he gets to his feet and then stomps off to the bathroom. Breakfast is served and Mary doesn’t touch it again. Except for the coffee. Dean mutters through some kind of persuasive comment about how she needs to eat, but his heart isn’t in it, she can tell. He’s too weary, too defeated. He sits slumped over in the chair, barely eating from his own plate. Her heart aches to comfort him, to make it better. But she can’t. Not yet, anyways.

Another hour passes, or at least that’s how long she surmises it takes for Dean to flip halfheartedly through an Enochian dictionary. He stops every few pages to pinch the bridge of his nose, and sometimes run a hand through his hair. It’s not ten o’clock yet--Dean is still sitting there, half-reading and half-eyeing her warily--when Sam’s voice comes from outside the door. “Dean! You need to see this!

Her elder son gives her a stern look before heading out. As soon as she hears the sound of the lock gears clicking behind him she straightens up and shakes the little tube down her shirt and into her lap. While she works to undo the right cuff she catches snatches of the conversation going on in the hallway.

“...almost dead, didn’t you tell Dad we’d taken his grace? He can’t just do that and expect him to survive.”

“It’s fine,” Dean sighs. “Just take off the cuffs for a bit and he can heal.” There’s a pause in his voice and then his voice drops. “Sammy, it’s not working anyways. Maybe we should just kill him. At least then we’ll know he can’t control Mom anymore than he already has. We’ll figure out how to undo the damage he’s already done after he’s dead.”

Mary slips her wrist out of the last cuff. In two quick steps she’s beside the chair and she tugs at  the wobbly leg. It breaks with a loud crack that echoes through the room.

“What was that?” Sam.

“It’s fine, we’re both out here.” Dean again. “Look, why don’t you take this shift and I’ll go down and see the damage Dad did. Maybe there’s still a little more info we can squeeze out of Castiel before he croaks.”

“Or we can just take all of his grace. I’m pretty sure being turned human is a much scarier prospect for him than dying.”

“True.” Dean stifles a yawn. “After lunch, we can have a meeting in the library. See what Dad thinks. By the way, no more sprouts in the sandwiches, ‘kay? I’m throwing out yours too if I see a single fleck of green.”

“We’re out of fresh greens anyways,” Sam grumbles. “No one’s got time for a supply run this week.”

“All in good time, Sammy. Keep your chin up, we’re gonna make it through this, ‘kay?” There’s the sound of a gentle slap, like a pat on the back, and then Dean’s voice grows more distant. “Call me if anything happens.”

Mary drops down to her stomach and slides into the small space under the bed. The mattress is only an inch away from suffocating her, and the broken chair leg gripped to her chest is stabbing splinters into her fingers. Dean’s footsteps melt away, and then there’s the sound of the lock being turned. This is even better than her prepared strategy. Not that she ever doubted the trusty chair leg could hold up in a fight against both boys, but having to only take one down does make this a lot easier.

Light drifts across the floor and then disappears as the door closes and the echo of the lock resounds again. Sam’s big brown loafers appear right in her line of sight as he crosses the room and then stops.

“Mom?”

She swears inwardly. She forgot to close the bathroom door. Her original plan was for Sam to go towards the closed bathroom door, giving her a chance to emerge from the bed unnoticed and knock him out from behind. But now he’s standing just inside the room and already aware that she’s missing.

With only seconds to improvise before her chance at freedom is wasted again she strikes out, stabbing the chair leg into Sam’s heel as hard as she can. He yelps and stumbles back, falling abruptly on his behind

”What the hell?” Sam grunts, eyes widening as Mary crawls out from under the bed, spitting cobwebs from the corner of her mouth.  

Instantly Sam turns towards the door. “D--” his call is cut off as Mary hurls a pillow in his face, then grabs the bed sheet and twists it in her hands like a rope. By the time Sam’s smacked the pillow aside Mary is behind him and the sheet is looped around his neck.

Sam grapples against the choking line of fabric, and then he goes for the angel blade in his pocket. Mary grabs the blade and throws it across the room before yanking the sheet harder. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she chatters frantically as the movement of her son’s flailing arms finally subsides and his eyelids flutter shut. “I’m so sorry.”

She’ll have time to earn his forgiveness later. Once he’s passed out she grits her teeth and heaves his giant body onto the bed. The cuffs go around his wrists and then she stuffs the sheet into his mouth as a gag. Finally she snatches the keys from his pocket and then picks up the discarded angel blade. The broken chair leg is her weapon for her other hand. It’s served her too well to be left behind now.

This time when she opens the door she’s careful to first open it a crack and look both ways. The hallway is clear, wide open and inviting. She slips out and locks the door behind her.

Castiel. I’m out. For real this time.  

She keeps her back to the side of the hallway and creeps barefoot along the cold stone floor. Voices come trickling through, reverberating against the walls; after a moment she realizes that they’re from the library. John and Dean, trading verbal blows that ring out through the entire Bunker.

“Don’t tell me how to do my job, Dean! I’m the one who taught you what you know.”

“No, you didn’t, Dad, you’ve been dead for years. Yellow Eyes? He’s nothing compared to the end of the world and God’s sister, okay? And you have to let Castiel heal or he can’t even talk when you want him to!”

“Never show mercy to monsters, Dean, how many times have I--”

“It’s not mercy, it’s strategy, Dad.”

“Are you saying--”

Mary silently thanks whatever deity is listening that her husband and son are distracted by being at odds, and then feels guilty for being glad that her family is fighting. It is a godsend, though; she’d been prepared for violent confrontations, for having to literally fight her way to Castiel. Instead she moves unhindered through the Bunker and down to the dungeon room.

Once inside the dungeon she’s assaulted by the smell of blood, thick and cloying. She stumbles over a discarded bolt on the floor and swears under her breath. The sole of her foot aches but she hurries on across the darkened room, then pushes the bookshelves aside that are blocking her from where Castiel is.

He raises his bowed head as she enters. “Mary.”

She’s never heard anyone say her name with so much utter relief before.

“Oh my god.” She runs forward and then drops down to her knees in front of him. The walls are covered in blood sigils and Castiel himself is stained from almost head to toe in red. His fingernails are cracked or broken, likely from gripping the armrest too tight. His chest--or what she can see of it through the blood--is streaked with scars and half-healed wounds. And his face. She touches a finger to his face and his skin feels cold and flush with sweat. His face is a molted mess of  bruised skin. She traces a shaking fingertip over the swollen lump of his cheekbone. It feels broken.

He drops his head and buries his face into her shoulder.

Mary,” he releases in a shudder.

Her children did this. Her boys--her husband--this was all done by their hands. Her chest constricts and she tries to keep her voice steady. “Okay, Cas, let’s go, I’m getting you out of here.” She pulls away gently, keeping one hand on his arm, and holds up the blade. “Will this work to open the cuffs?”

Castiel blinks and looks around the room. “Where are Sam and Dean? John?”

“Library, and one of them is tied up in my bed.” She nods at his visible confusion. “I doubt he’ll stay there for long, so tell me how I can get you out of here without hurting you.”

Something changes in Castiel’s expression. She doesn’t understand it but she doesn’t like it, even before he says, “You can’t.”

“Don’t say that.” She’ll figure out these cuffs herself. They can’t be any more complicated than the one she was trapped in--sigiled or not, they’re still just metal and hinges.

“Mary, stop.” Castiel sounds more alert now, more urgent. “You have to go, you can’t leave with me. They’ll find us, and they’ll kill me.”  

“No one’s dying today, Cas.”

“You said one of them is in your room. That’s good, they won’t check there for a while. But they’re coming back to…see me soon, and if I’m gone they’ll be alerted immediately. They’ll find us and they will kill me, Mary. I’m nothing to them but a threat. If they think I made you do anything, made you try to leave…” he swallows hard and wets his lip. “If you don’t know how to break the spell yet then it’s safer for you to leave me here.”

She shakes her head. “We’ll leave the Bunker, we’ll go somewhere safe first and then figure out how to–”

“They’ll come after us, Mary, and they’ll hunt me down to. They have angel-killing bullets, they have–” he sucks in a breath “-holy fire. They will use those.” The last time she saw terror in his eyes like this was when he was dying from Ramiel’s poisoned spear. She hates to think of what horrors they might have already done to him.

“I won’t leave you here,” she insists aloud. “I heard them talking, they’re already talking about-I-I have to get you--”

“They won’t kill me if I make them think I have information. I’ll buy you time.” He winces slightly, and she doesn’t even know which of his dozens of injuries is hurting him or how to help him ease the pain. “You have to figure out how to break the spell. Maybe call Jody Mills, or Rowena–just don’t let Jack know what’s happening, please.”

She stares at him. “They’re going to torture you.”

”I’m buying us time. If you can figure out how to break the spell then all of this ends. You have to do it alone, Mary, that’s the only way. As long as I’m here and giving them…what they want to hear…they won’t kill me.”

“They’re going to torture you.” Just hearing herself say the words makes her want to throw up.

“I’ll live.” He gives her a small sad smile, and it carves into her like a knife. “You have to go. Now.” His eyes dart towards the door. “They’re going to be back soon. You should hide over there--” he nods towards the darkened corners of the file cabinets behind her “--so that you won’t cross paths with them. When the door opens and they come in, you can leave.”

“I can’t, Castiel.” Mary pinches the bridge of her nose and exhales hard. She didn’t fast and pray and plot for days for this, to leave him behind again. “I can’t leave you.”

He looks at her with a kindness that feels wrong. “Mary. You’re saving my life this way.”  

He’s right. She hates that he’s right. If they’re found together, his life is at risk, not hers. They might imprison her, or even torture her in the name of curing her, but they’d never threaten her life. But right now he’s disposable to them, someone they’d kill without a second thought.

She tries to breathe and no air reaches her lungs. Her legs straighten of their own accord and she stands up numbly. Her hand slips from his arm and he bends towards her, like he’s trying to hold on to her presence as long as she can.

Then he drops his gaze to the floor.  “Go,” he whispers. “Quickly.

“I’ll come for you,” she says hoarsely. “I’m not leaving you behind. I promise.”

He nods, eyes still fixed below.

“No.” She can’t leave him like this. She drops back to her knees and cradles his face in her hands, lifting it to face her “Cas, look at me. Look at me. What did I say?”

“Mary, just g--”

“Castiel. Look at me. Tell me what I said.”

The line of his throat bobs silently. “You’ll come for me,” he says softly. “You’re not leaving me behind.”

“And?”

His gaze drifts up and the light bulb overhead glistens in his eye. His lips move so slightly she barely hears it. “You promise.”

“Yeah.” She pats his cheek gently and it kills how much he sinks into her palm, how hungry he is for a touch that will not not hurt him. She lingers for a moment longer, pressing her forehead to his. “I promise. I love you.”

He tries to say something back and all that comes out is a muffled sob.

When she pulls away it feels like peeling her own skin off. She forces herself not to look back but she feels his eyes on her anyways, watching her leave him behind. As she disappears behind the largest bookshelf, the one filled with boxes from the Men of Letters decades before, she starts praying to Castiel. Right now for some reason all she can think of is  “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” The nursery rhyme runs through her head like a war chant.

Mary had a little lamb

It’s fleece was white as snow

And everywhere that Mary went

The lamb was sure to go

The door opens and John and Dean come in, walking in step, disagreement seemingly resolved. They move over towards the center of the room; there’s the sound of feet shuffling and low murmured voices.

He followed her to school one day

That was against the rule

It made the children laugh and play

To see a lamb at school

Then she hears it--a thin, cracked voice--Castiel--saying “Michael” and then a string of words that sound like Enochian.

“Did you hear that? What was that?” John.

“I don’t know, but he’s stopped now.” Dean. “Let’s get him talking again.”

What makes the lamb love Mary so

The eager children cry

O Mary loves the lamb you know

The teacher did reply

She bites down on her thumb to keep from crying out when Castiel starts screaming, light bouncing off the walls in shuddering flashes. Under the din of an innocent angel being tortured she slips out of the room and starts to run down the hallway.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Mary doesn’t realize she’s been crying until she stops in Dean’s room to find an extra phone--her phone was taken the first night she was imprisoned--and catches a glimpse of her face in the mirror above the sink. Her hair is a straggly mess of knots falling around her puffy face; her eyes are rimmed with black circles like car tires; her cheeks are wet. Her teeth are chattering, even though it’s not cold.

She grabs the first burner phone from Dean's top drawer and then sneaks down to the infirmary. Hopefully they won’t think to look there, or at least not until she’s finished the phone call. She pushes the medicine cabinet forward and tucks herself down behind it, making sure the doorway is still within her line of sight. The angel blade is gripped in one hand and the chair leg is at her feet, ready to snatch up at a moment's notice.

When Jody picks up on the third ring it takes everything for Mary to keep herself from shouting for help. She remembers what Castiel said about Jack and carefully controls her voice. “It’s me, Mary. Is Jack there with you?”

“Yeah, he’s helping the girls with dinner--well, he might be helping make more of a mess actually. The kid's gotta learn somehow. Do you want me to get him?”

“No, Jody, listen, please, just do what I say, even if it sounds weird. Go outside, get in your car, and drive a couple miles away.” Mary isn’t sure how far Jack’s supernaturally sharp hearing is, but she figures that it’s got to be limited.

“Okay. Mary, is everything alright?”

No. Nothing is. “Just tell me when you’re down the road.”

The sound of the car engine starting rings in Mary's ear and she closes her eyes for just a second. Imagining that she’s not huddled on the floor of her own home, terrified that her children or husband might find her. Imaging that she’s there, next to Jody in the passenger’s seat. The window’s down and the open road is passing beneath her, and the radio is playing that silly soap commercial that always makes her laugh.

“ ‘Kay, I’ve driven for like ten minutes, is that far enough?” Jody asks.

“Yes. I just--I couldn’t have Jack hear this. You have to make sure he doesn’t ever know what I’m going to tell you.”

The car goes silent. The crisp jingle of keys turning the engine off. “Mary, what’s wrong? Jack said Castiel told him that there’s some kind of angelic curse around the Bunker and that’s why he should stay--”

“Cas was telling him a half truth, okay? It is a curse, but it’s not angelic. My boys--Sam and Dean--they used a wish-granting pearl to bring John back but it also erased their memories of Castiel. Somehow. I don’t know--but they think Cas is some kind of spy for Michael and they’ve been torturing him and when I tried to make them remember they locked me up and--”

“Mary. Mary.” Jody’s calm but firm voice interrupts the torrent. “Bullet points. Who’s in danger, and what do you need me to do?”

“Sam and Dean. And John, they’re all under a spell that’s affecting their memories.”

”John--your husband--okay, so I did hear that right,” Jody mutters to herself. “What about you? Can you leave the Bunker?”

“No.” She presses the phone to her cheek so tightly the dial buttons are cutting into her skin. “They might kill Castiel if I do.”

There’s a beat at the other end of the line, as if Jody is taking a moment to process that. “Castiel?” she repeats.

“They don’t remember him. I think the pearl that brought John back changed their memories. I need to know more about it, and how to break the spell, but--”

“You need someone to do research, okay. I’ll do that and get back to you as soon as I can. Should I come over and try to--”’

“No!” Mary takes a deep breath. “No, if you come they’ll probably ask you to help torture him. And if you don’t you’ll be locked up.”

“Okay, okay. What’s the time frame we’re looking at here, how much time have I got to figure this out?”

Mary thinks of Castiel--I’ll buy you time--and then his screams reverberate inside of her skull. “Not long,” she manages. “They’re torturing him.”

Jody’s breath catches. “Got it. I’ll call you back as soon as I can. Or do you want to stay on the line with me?”

Mary blinks hard. “Yes.”

“Alright. I’m right here. I’m going back to the house now, and I’m going to check the books we have.” The sound of the engine starting out again fills the phone and Mary slowly unfolds herself from her hiding place. She doesn’t want to be trapped in one room; she needs to know where in the Bunker Dean and John are, or if Sam is awake and on the hunt for her. With the silver tip of the angel blade leading the way she moves steathily from hall to hall, pausing at every corner to listen for footsteps.  

“Do you know where the pearl is now? Can you tell me what it looks like?” comes Jody's voice in her ear.

“Just looked like a normal pearl.” She tries to remember that moment when Dean and Sam sat at the kitchen table and showed it to her. How happy the four of them were, for one idyllic postcard moment. “They said it was supposed to grant your heart’s desires.”

“Like that never has one hell of a kick back.” The echo of the car door opening and closing. “Okay, I’m back at the house now, I’m going to research.”

“Don’t tell Jack,” Mary repeats, back pressed to the wall of the kitchen. “Castiel asked me to--he doesn’t want Jack to come here.”

“Don’t worry, he’s busy with the girls, there’s plenty for him to do here.” Jody’s footsteps patter through a smaller space, a space like home, home, home. The word stings in the back of her throat. “The connection might be spotty on this side of the house but I’m still here, okay, Mary? I’m here.”

“You’re here,” she repeats quietly. “I’m here.” Then the sound of Dean's voice makes her stop breathing. She covers the speaker of the phone and ducks into the pantry. The scuffle of people talking and walking edges closer to her and then stops.

“Maybe your mother was right.” John. “None of what he’s saying makes any sense. Maybe he isn’t actually a spy.”

“So he’s just an angel who happened to walk into the wrong home?” Dean scoffs. “Dad, trust me, angels don’t ever show up without it being bad news.”

“Yeah, but Mary–”

“--is under his control. They can make it look pretty convincing, alright?”

Against her instinct to run further away from them Mary starts to stalk after their drifting voices. She needs to know where the pearl is. Jody is still in her ear, talking about the articles she’s pulled up about wish-granting artifacts. Mary's seen enough magic to know that without the original source of the power they won’t be able to break the spell. The quiet of the Bunker and the stone walls play acoustics to her son and husband's words, letting them linger like footprints in the sand.

“...he was asking for the pearl, wasn’t he?” John again. “Do you think he wants its power?”

“Maybe. I mean if Michael gets his heart’s desires granted, I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be rainbow puppies and strippers.”

“Should we destroy it then? Or lock it up somewhere?”

“It’s in the safest place on earth.” Dean patting fabric. His pants pocket? “He’s going to have to take it off my lifeless body.”

The voices become fainter.

“...I'll go see if Sam finished translating the stuff I texted him.”  

Mary slinks away, heading towards the back of the Bunker. Dean is on his way to her room to get Sam, and once he gets in there he'll realize she's gone and then the countdown will really begin. The generator room is her first thought for a hiding place and she slips inside, tucking herself between the giant rumbling machines there. When they find out that she’s missing from her room they’re going to go and question Castiel. The knowledge of what they’re going to do to him makes her feel strangled, and she starts choking for air that somehow evades all her desperate inhales.

“Mary! Breathe. Slowly. In and out.” Jody. “I’m here, okay. Where are you? Are you okay?”

“I’m in the generator room. I think they’re going to be looking for me. I don’t have much time. Did you find anything?”

“I think so.” Pages rustle in the background. “Claire helped me and--don’t worry, Jack still doesn't know--but there’s an ancient Chinese pearl that grants the desires of the one who makes a wish, but in return takes away something or someone they treasure. It’s actually--the full name translates as an exchange artifact of some kind. It’s not a genie in a bottle.”

“Okay. “ She’s going to have to ask the boys if they ever stopped to read the fine print before they used the pearl. But right now her heart is pounding with anticipation. Finally there is a finish line in sight. “What do I need to break the spell?”  

“The good news is, nothing. You just need to destroy the pearl itself.” There’s a slight hesitation in Jody’s voice that makes Mary’s pulse hammer faster.

“And then what will happen?”

There’s a few seconds of static where Jody doesn’t answer. Then, “Everything will go back to the way it was.”  

John. Mary digs her teeth into her lower lip to stop it from quivering. She should have realized this would happen. She’d been so focused on breaking the spell she never thought about what would happen afterwards.  

“Are you still there, Mary?”

“Yes.”

“I’m so sorry.”

Breathe in, breathe out.  “I know,” Mary says, because of all people Jody truly does understand what is being asked of her. “Okay.” She gets to her feet and adjusts her grip on the angel blade. “I’m going to try to get the pearl and destroy it. If you don’t hear from me in a few hours, then you can send in the cavalry. Maybe you can play along with their fake reality long enough to get close to Castiel and free him. I’ll probably be locked back up in my room, if this doesn’t work.”

”Alright.” It’s clear that Jody isn’t thrilled with the idea. “What’s your plan?”

Mary takes another long deep breath of the musty air around her. “I don’t know yet.” She squares her shoulders back determinedly. “I think I need a gun.”

 

+

 

lamb of god sins of the world lamb mercy mercy on us

Castiel wraps his consciousness around those words like clinging to fistfuls of debris from a crumbling wall. Pain has invaded every atom of his being and there’s nothing he can do to stop it. He doesn’t even try to heal himself anymore. Instead he focuses the last vestiges of his energy on keeping up a mumbling string of audible words about the pearl and Michael and his plan to destroy worlds and his hatred for God. It’s nothing Sam and Dean don’t already know, but Castiel utters it in snatches of Enochian and Latin, hoping that the time it takes to translate and piece together what he’s saying will give Mary more time.

As long as Mary's safe, then it’s worth it. She’ll protect Jack. She’ll tell Sam and Dean that he forgave them.   

He doesn’t think of himself anymore. He can’t even feel his body anymore; the chair he’s been chained to for days has become him. His grace howls ceaselessly inside, the final utterance of a dying gale. He cannot see or hear anything except for the scorching burn.

This is Hell. This is how it felt to be down in the Pit, surrounded by unbridled evil and horror forever more.  

grant us peace lamb of god of god of the world

He shuts off his connection to Heaven, to other angels. To Jack. He doesn’t want Jack to hear his last breaths. Once he has sealed his mind inside it’s own tomb he lets loose the prayers he’s been holding in. He offers up his last rites offered to no god but himself.

Jack. I love you so much. I’m so proud of you. You’re everything your mother hoped you would be and more. I love you lamb take away take away sorry I’m sorry sins of the peace grant us so sorry peace peace peace

 

+

 

The winter when Mary was six years old a new family moved in next door. They had a boy who was in second grade, a boy who always rang his bike bell when no one was blocking him and blew gum bubbles at passing dogs. He told her a different version of “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; one where Mary’s lamb was killed and cooked for dinner, and then the mother made gloves for Mary with the wool.

“You’re wearing a dead baaaaaby,” he’d tease her, pointing at her white wool gloves. He and his friends sang it enough times that Mary started to believe him. One day after an especially vicious chorus of the song she came running home from the playground and threw her gloves in the fireplace. Deanna had been furious when she found the twisted black remains of knitted wool.

“I didn’t kill the baby,” Mary had sobbed insistently until her mother quieted her enough to understand what had happened. It didn’t take long for Deanna to both dispel the horror of the myth and have a stern discussion with Mrs. Barnes next door.

Mary thinks about that neighbor kid now. How he always had molasses smears on his sweater and how he’d stomp his right foot in rhythm to his awful little lullabies. She doesn’t know why the memory is coming to mind as she’s crouched down the hall from the dungeon room, listening to the strangled sound of an angel screaming and waiting for it to end. She has a plan, or the ingredients for one, but she needs Dean and John to leave the dungeon first. Sam should find the clue she’s planted in the front room any minute now, but a minute becomes a lifetime when the only soundtrack filling her ears is someone she loves being in agony.

She hums the tune of “Mary Had A Little Lamb” to herself, her mind filling in those morbid lyrics from her childhood nemesis:

Mary had a little lamb

Its fleece as white as snow

It would make the perfect supper

But Mary did not know

Then comes the clatter of Sam's footsteps up ahead and the heavy burst of exhaling air. “Dean! I found something, I think I know where Mom went!”

Mary went to school one day

The little lamb stayed home

And what a tasty meal it made

Poor Mary would never know

The screeching from the dungeon stops. A cacophony of footsteps and voices pour out and then fade away. She can just picture what’s happening: Sam has found the broken chair leg she’d planted near the staircase leading out of the Bunker, and now he’s leading his brother and father on a wild goose chase outside where he believes Mary might be. It’s not a particularly eloquent plan, but it should buy her the precious moment she needs to sneak inside the dungeon and implement Part Two of Bringing My Family Back.

Once she’s sure that Dean and John are gone she darts into the room. She’s careful this time to side-step anything sharp that might prick her bare feet; belatedly she thinks of how her plan should have involved getting her some sturdy escape-worthy footwear.

When she bursts back into the dungeon she sees Castiel slumped over in the chair, head tipped back, eyes open and sightless.  “No, no, no!” She runs over and presses a finger to his neck and wrist before resorting to slapping his face. “Come on, come on, wake up, Castiel, please.”

His left eyelid flutters. It opens halfway and a thick trail of blood oozes out from the corner of his eyes. His lips tremble and she leans in to hear what he’s saying but can only make out something that sounds like “lamb.” Had she accidentally been praying her childhood recollection to him?

“Castiel, come on. I need you to work with me, okay?” She works on picking the locks of his cuffs as she speaks. When the first one snaps open Castiel’s teeth start to chatter violently. After the other cuff is unlocked she hears him exhale heavily.  

“Okay.” His voice is so raw it hurts to hear. “What…do you need me..to do?”

He’s beginning to shake faintly, and Mary thinks he might be sick. She wants to grab him now. To take him away from this cursed room, to wrap him in something soft and warm and blood-free. To bring him soup and bread or crackers, whichever he prefers, anything to bring some color back into his pallid form. To promise him that he will never be hurt by anyone ever again. But she steels her nerves for one last battle charge. “I need you to do something to bring them in here. All of them. I’m leaving the cuffs on your wrists like this so it looks like--”

“I’m still restrained, yes.” His eyes glaze over her faintly. “What are you going to do?”

She nods towards the bookshelves behind her. “I’ll be there. When all of them come in, I’ll make my move. I know how to break the spell.” She rubs his limp fingers between her warm, sweaty ones. “You did it, Cas. You did it. You bought me enough time. Can you buy me just one minute more?”

He nods before she’s even finished asking. “Of course.”

It looks like he’s crying in crimson. She leans in and carefully wipes away the blood from his cheek with her sleeve. “Thank you.” Then she turns her back on him again, swearing silently that this is the last time she’s leaving him. Today she gets her family back or she dies trying.

As soon as she’s hidden behind the shelves she hears Castiel sucking in a long, broken gulp of air.

Then he screams.

The air in the room doubles over and then splinters. Her eardrums pop and as she slams her hands to either side of her head she feels like her brain is dissolving. Abruptly it stops, only to be followed by the cacophony of footsteps running in.

“What is it doing?” John.

“How am I supposed to know?" Dean.

“Maybe he’s calling for reinforcements?" Sam.

They’re here.  

Mary jumps up, pulling both pistols from her back pocket, and holds them out in front of her. “Get away from him. Now.”

The three of them turn in unison. “What are you doing, Mom?” says Dean with the irritated tone of someone telling a child to put down the candy they told them not to eat.

The trigger under her right thumb snaps back. The bullet soars through the air and into the wall behind John, burying itself into the painted sigil there. “I said to get away from him,” she repeats, stalking forward. “Weapons on the ground. Now.”

Dean and Sam look to John, only acting when he lowers his angel blade down to the ground and raises his palms up. Her children stare at her with wide-eyed fear, her husband with chagrin, but she keeps her posture resolute. She marches past them to Castiel, who’s fumbling to untie the ropes around his legs. She stands slightly in front of the angel, angling her body as a shield to protect him.

“This ends now.” She levels the gun at John. “Stand back. And you--” she points the other gun at Dean. “Give me the pearl.”

“Mom, this isn’t you,” Sam pleads.  “You don’t have to give in to him.”

“Oh, this is me. You’ll understand it soon. This is because of the pearl, because John is back. It’s not a wish-granting pearl, it’s an exchange artifact. It gives you what you want in exchange for taking something or someone you treasure.”

“What, so this broken pathetic thing is something we treasure?” Dean waves mockingly at Castiel. “You expect us to believe that?

“You just don’t remember.” She reaches behind her for Castiel’s hand and after a second of swinging back and forth emptily she finds his fingers and holds on. “I’ve watched him stand up to death itself for you, for me, for us. You told me about how he never left you, even when the world was ending or you were lost in hell. He knows you better than I do, in fact. He looked after you, and protected you when me and--” she looks at John “--when you were all alone. He’s died for you, for the---”

“Okay, enough with the manifesto,” Dean cuts in, stepping forward. “We don’t have to stand here and listen to this,” he continues and she realizes he’s not talking to her, but to Sam. “Let’s get her back to the room and fix this.”

She pulls the hammer back on the gun. “Move and I’ll shoot.”

Sam hesitates, feet rooted in place. “Dean,” he says warningly. “She’s being controlled by him. She might really do it.”

“The pearl,” Mary repeats. Castiel’s fingers are starting to slip away. She can’t take her eye off Dean to check on him but she prays please Castiel hang on we’re almost there I promise I promise.

Dean eyes Mary carefully. “Okay.” There’s a strange expression on his face, one that mirrors the rigid but unreadable expression that John has right now. “If you want it so bad, then take it.” His hand goes into his pocket and he pulls out the tiny lustrous orb.

“Roll it over on the ground,” she commands. It’s going to be okay, Cas. It’s going to be over soon.

Dean bends down, fingers unfurling, and then his arm twists and he sends the pearl spinning across the floor to John.

“No!” Mary lunges over, letting go of the gun in her right hand to reach for it and John swings, throwing her against the wall as he dives for the runaway pearl. Mary blinks, head spinning from the blow; then she catches sight of John’s foot rushing past her and grabs it, yanking with all her strength. John goes down with a string of curses and Mary scrambles to her feet and kicks him in the ribs before driving her fist against his jaw. “Give it to me,” she gasps, spittle falling onto his face.

He shakes his head, eyes dark and unyielding.

She punches him again, and hates how good it feels. His skin swells against the force of her fist and it doesn’t bother her the way it should. “Give it up, John,” she grunts, grinding her teeth against his name. She hits him again and he flops back unsteadily.

“This is Castiel’s doing,” he growls through a mouthful of blood.

“No. And you’ll never hurt him again.” She holds the muzzle of the gun to his forehead. “Ever. Give me the pearl!”

“I was trying to protect you.” There’s a different look in his eyes now. Confusion.

“I never asked you to. I just wanted you to trust me.” Her fury is extinguished by a sudden rush of sorrow. “Why don’t you believe me, John? Me? Not even for a moment?”

John’s lips move, and she thinks he says “I’m sorry,” but then a high-pitched gurgling scream jerks her attention around and she turns back to see Dean lifting both hands away from an angel blade that he’s stabbed into Castiel’s leg and down through the chair. Blood is pouring out from the hilt and dripping a bright red puddle onto the floor beneath him.

“Stay right where you are, you slimy bastard,” Dean growls and Mary reacts, her finger moving before her brain catches up and she fires.

Dean jerks away with a yelp and then clutches at his left calf where a red spot is forming.

“M-Mom?” he stammers, aghast. Sam quickly moves over and applies pressure to Dean’s wound.

John struggles to his feet but doesn’t attack Mary again. He backs away, looking from the boys to her with an expression of utter devastation. Mary gives Castiel a quick look--he’s bleeding out fast, and it doesn’t look like he can heal the wound. His body is slumped against the chair and only his eyes are moving, flicking back and forth, like he’s trying to find her.

Mary makes the decision in a heartbeat. “Stop,” she shouts, rising up, gun pinned to her own temple.

She doesn’t have to say it twice. Dean scoots away from Castiel, and Sam with him. John’s hands are starting to shake.  

“M-Mary,” Castiel breathes softly. Everyone turns to look at him. The words come out in a slow drip of blood. “Don’t...they’re your family.”

"So are you. And I’m not leaving you. I promised, remember?” She faces the rest of her family, her sons and husband who are looking at her like they’ve never seen her before. “You have to believe me. Castiel is your family. He loves you. It sounds crazy, I know.” She hears herself laugh brokenly. “Why would an angel choose to stay with us, to fight with us, to leave his home for us? I don’t know why either, and sometimes I wonder what we’ve done to deserve him, but he’s here. He’s always here for us. So I’m going to stand here, and if any of you try to touch him, you’ll be killing me.”

“Mom, you can’t be serious!” Sam protests.

“She is.” John sounds strange, like he can’t believe his own words. “I know that look. I know you, Mary, I-I don’t know–it doesn’t make sense, I don’t know how it could be true but–you really do love this angel, and you believe that he isn’t a danger.” The lines of his face soften into worn faded marks. “And I believe you.”

Tears burn the back of her eyes but she doesn’t dare breathe yet. She doesn’t take her eyes off him for a second as John's hand opens like a blossom. The pearl sits there glittering in the center of his palm.

“What will happen if I give this to you?” her husband asks quietly.

“I’ll destroy it.”

“And then what?”

She wets her lip. “I’m so sorry, John.”

He lowers his eyes and nods. He understands. She doesn’t need to say anything else.

Dean and Sam start shouting, yelling at their father not to listen to her, that she’s not in her right mind, that they’d be giving the power to Michael, and he turns to them with an expression of unbearable sorrow.

“I love you both so much.” His hand tilts as he utters the words. The pearl drops from between his fingers and bounces noisily across the floor.

Then he gazes at Mary. His eyes are glistening but there’s a bright smile haloing them. “My beautiful girl.” It leaves his lips in a sacred rush in the same instant that she aims the gun at the pearl. The shot rings out like a church bell, vibrating through her skin, and the weapon drops from her hands. John disappears without so much as a wispy trace and then her knees buckle underneath her, the weight of unsaid words stuck in her throat pulling her to the ground.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Castiel Castiel Castiel. Mary crawls over to the chair in the middle of the dungeon, not trusting her legs to hold her body up right now. Her fingers work as fast as they can, loosening the ropes from around his ankles and then reaching up to shake his arm. “Castiel--hey, hey, look at me. It’s over, okay?”

Mary. She hears it without seeing his lips move.

He’s alive. Her attention moves to the blade and gushing wound in his leg. If she pulls it out, he could bleed to death, but right now that could already be happening. She needs help; she needs her children. Sam. Dean. She hasn’t even checked on them yet to see if it worked, if they’re really back to who they were.

Before she can turn to face them she hears Dean’s voice over her shoulder. “Mom?”

Her body freezes, muscles tensed and ready for a fight. She doesn’t want to hurt her sons, but if they come for her and Castiel again, she’s going to have to. Her mind starts to run through the different places on their body she can break and bleed without causing fatal damage.

Then. “Cas?” Dean raises his voice. “What the hell happened? Who did this to you?”

The tension in Mary’s muscles release in a sudden rush. It feels like her body is dissolving. She almost collapses flat on the ground as her lips break and she exhales in a rushing sob. “Dean.”

“I’m here, Mom, what’s going on?”

“H-He--” she struggles to find her voice again. “Help me save him.”

Sam appears at her other side. “Dean, you’ve been shot, you should--oh my god.” He reaches out a hand to press against Castiel’s wrist.

“He’s alive.” Mary nods to the buried blade. “But he’s not--he’s not healing.”

“I think it hit a major artery.” Sam leans closer to the wound and then looks up at the walls around them. “The sigils, They’re suppressing his grace. Who did this, Jesus, that’s a lot of sigils.” He grabs the blade on the floor and then rushes to break them. “Gimme a minute.”

Mary glances at Dean who’s beside her. His injured leg has a tourniquet around it that looks like Sam’s jacket. “Is it bad?” she asks tentatively.

He shrugs. “Not really. It’s just a flesh wound. The son of a bitch that shot me must’ve been a poor shot.”

Mary turns back towards Castiel. “Or they were just trying to slow you down.”

“Either way, they’re done for when I get my hands on them.” Dean inches closer to Castiel. “And who did this to him, he looks…half dead. Is that blood coming out of his eyes? Fuck.”

“Are you almost done?” Mary calls out to Sam.  

“Two more, hold on!”

“Mom.” Dean’s eyebrows are drawn together. “Who did this? And where are they now, are they in the Bunker, could they be back at any minute--” he glances up at Sam “--maybe we should move him, but then he might bleed--”

“I shot you,” Mary blurts out, because it shuts Dean up immediately. “And you did this,” she gestures weakly to the blade embedded in Castiel’s leg. “It’s a long story,” she continues hurriedly, hushing the tsunami of questions on Dean’s lips, “but right now we need to keep him from bleeding out, okay? I’ll explain more later.”

Dean nods and pulls himself up a little. He leans in and presses his hands around the edges of Castiel’s wound. “Well, thanks for not shooting me in my good leg,” he quips, a typical attempt to soften the tension with humor, and Mary offers him a half smile.

“Done!” Sam drops down beside them again. “Okay, if we pull it out, he needs to heal the artery and stop the bleeding before we can stitch it up. Hold on, lemme get the kit.” He leaves them again, an arrow flying through the wind, and Mary motions to Dean.

“Keep the pressure on,” she directs him. “I’ll wake him up.”

She reaches up and pulls Castiel forward by the shoulders. “Hey, Castiel. You have to wake up now, you have to heal yourself.”

He opens one eye halfway and then closes it. “M’ sorry…Mary. Tell Jack…I love ‘im.”

“No, no, Cas, you tell him yourself. You heal yourself and you go find him and tell him, okay?” She shakes him back and forth, harder. “You need to do this for me, for us, for him, alright?”

“Come on, buddy,” Dean chimes in, reaching out to Castiel. Castiel shifts bodily away from him while at the same time curling into Mary, forehead digging hard into her collarbone.

“Forgive ‘em,” he mumbles against her skin. “Not their...fault.”

Mary swallows hard and holds him as tightly as she can without hurting him. “Castiel,” she says firmly. “I know you’re tired and in pain. I know I said I wouldn’t ask anything more of you, but I need you to do this one more thing. Can you do that? Can you just focus on my voice, yes, that’s good.” His eyes flutter open again. “Stay with me, okay? And when I tell you, put all of your grace towards the part that hurts in your leg.”

When his eyelids start dropping she holds his head up in her hands. “No, no, Cas, listen to me. What did I tell you, huh? Tell me again.”

“You…not…leaving.” His lower lip wobbles. “Promise.”

“Yeah, yeah. I’m here. Can you stay with me? Okay, that’s great,” she coaxes as he drags his eyes open again. His cheek is so cold against her palm. He feels like a corpse. “Sam, are you--”

“I’m here,” Sam huffs, dropping the box down beside them. “Dean, you gotta do the stitches, you’re faster. I’ll keep the pressure on.”

Mary worries for a moment that Castiel will react to the boys touching him, but she decides she’ll deal with it if it happens. She'll hold him down if she needs to, as long as it saves his life. “Okay, Cas, hey, hey, yes, okay, we’re going to pull it out and it’s going to hurt. But then you need to heal the artery. If you do that, you can see Jack again, you love him, right?”

“Yes.” Castiel’s voice strengthens slightly. “I need to…keep him safe.”

“And you can’t do that if we don’t fix your leg, okay? Okay--no--don’t look at it--” she guides his wandering gaze back to her. “Look at me. One, two--” his body jerks back as Dean yanks the blade out. His entire frame shudders and then all at once he goes limp, arms dangling off the side of the chair. His jaw is hanging open but no sound comes out.

“Heal, Castiel.” Mary hooks her arms under his armpits and pulls him back to an upright position. “Come on, please, Castiel, heal, now. You can do this.”

His head drops down like a boulder against her chest. When she tips his chin up his eyes are shut. There’s no whiff of breath coming off his lips or nostrils.

No. It won’t end like this.

It won’t it can’t it can't it can’t.

Mary moves closer to his ear and takes a deep breath. Then she screams with all her might, HEAL.

Castiel's shoulder shifts against her, and then something--his fingers--gripping the fabric of her sleeves. Castiel releases a single short, fluttering breath, and then falls silent. “Cas? No, no, no.” He can’t be--not after all this. “Come on, come on, please,” she begs, but his eyes are clamped shut. She’s about to scream at him again when Sam stops her.

“Mom. It’s working.”

She looks back at him and sees that the wound in Castiel's leg has stopped gurgling up a fountain of red. Sam’s fingers are so slick with blood that they look like an extension growing from Castiel’s skin. “He’s healing it,” Sam continues. His face is shining with that trademark optimism and faith that she’s missed seeing in the past week. “Just a few more seconds and it should be okay for Dean to stitch it up.”

Castiel stays unconscious all throughout the rest of the procedure but his fingers remain clamped around that bit of her sleeve. Even when Sam and Dean carry the chair through the Bunker halls--they’re too afraid to move him out of it and make the wound tstart bleeding again--his grip never wavers. Once they lower him into his bed Sam fusses with getting him enough pillows and blankets and Dean wonders about getting an IV set up or if Castiel will need painkillers when he wakes up. Mary sits there on the edge of the mattress and tries not to cry because these are her boys. This is who they are. Dean hasn’t even tended to his own bullet wound yet. He limps over and presses a hand to Castiel’s forehead, muttering about the possibility of fever and infections.

“He’ll be alright,” Mary tells him, and the look of doubt on her son’s face is entirely anticipated.

“He better be.” Dean grimaces and leans a hand against the wall for support. “Or I’ll kick his ass.”

“We should get your leg stitched up.” Mary nods to Sam. “Come on, let Castiel rest.” She makes a move to untangle his fingers from her arm when the angel stirs. His tired blue eyes gaze up blankly, like they’re trying to bring her into focus

“Mary.” He blinks. “Sam. Dean.”

“We’re right here.” Sam pats his knee and Mary notices how the blanket dips beneath his touch, like Castiel has moved his leg away. “Are you okay, do you want something for the pain?”

“We have morphine,” Dean adds helpfully/

”No.” Castiel keeps his gaze fixed on Mary. “Sam. Dean,” he repeats, and this time she understands that’s a question.

“It’s them, Cas. It really is them.”

Her shirt creases as he squeezes his fingers around her sleeve even tighter. Are you sure is written in his wide eyes.

Mary looks up at her sons. “Dean,” she begins, nodding towards Castiel, “who is he?”

Dean's face breaks open wide with laughter. “What kind of question is that?” He looks to Sam with a bemused “did you hear that?” expression.

“Just humor me,” Mary insists. “Who is Castiel? Who is he to you?” She raises an eyebrow at Sam. “To both of you.”

“He’s just…Cas. What is this for?” The giddiness on Dean’s face evaporates. “Is this some kind of test? Do you think we’re possessed?”

Something like it. “Just…answer the question.”

Sam steps closer. “Is everything okay, Mom?”

Yes. No. “Please, just tell me--what do you think of him when you see him?”

“I dunno, that’s just…Cas,” Dean shrugs. “Resident angel of the lord who likes his crappy truck a little too much. He’s one of us.”

Castiel’s fingers uncurl from her sleeve. He turns his face towards the wall, his chest rising and then falling tremorously. Mary tucks the blanket around his shoulders and rubs his arm gently “Okay.” She rises to her feet and nods towards the door. “Let’s give him some time to rest.”

Outside in the hall Mary almost drops to her knees in exhaustion. Behind her she hears Sam and Dean talking-- “what the hell was that about?” “I have no idea”--and the realization of what she has to tell them makes her ankles wobble. She braces herself against the hallway tiles. Her palm drinks in the comfort of the cold, smooth surface.

“Mom?” Sam’s hand on her elbow. “Are you okay?”

She makes herself smile. “I could do with a coffee.”

“You two grab some grub,” Dean says, and then gestures over his shoulder. “I’ll join you after a quick security check around the Bunker. Just to make sure.”

Mary doesn’t protest when Sam hooks his arm around hers and lets her lean on him. She’s forgotten about the fasting, how she hasn’t eaten anything in almost two days. The adrenaline that’s been keeping her body functioning seems to have run out of fuel. When they reach the kitchen she quickly folds herself onto the bench before she collapses in a starfish sprawl on the floor. Sam gets the coffee maker started and then opens the fridge door. “Who skipped the weekly shopping trip?” he mutters, cold light spilling out around his hair as he digs around. “This is--oh gross. There’s nothing edible here, not even for Dean.” He pops his head up. “You’re not hungry, are you?”

“Famished,” Mary enunciates.

“Okay. Crackers and canned soup it is then.” Shutting the fridge door, Sam moves across the fridge to the cupboard and pulls out a pack of saltines and a tin of Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. He puts the box of saltines down on the counter and Mary hears the rattle of the crackers inside like a siren’s call. She jumps up and rushes over, ripping open the box and stuffing the crumbly salty bits into her mouth.

“How long has it been since you’ve last eaten?”

Shame burns her face and she realizes that Sam is right there, watching her give herself a moustache of cracker crumbs. She dusts her lips off and straightens her shirt, then washing down the sticky mouthful with a gulp of coffee from the cup Sam’s put in front of her. She’s still hungry, but she doesn’t feel like eating anymore. Not with the way Sam’s looking at her.

“Where’s Dean?” she asks. If she’s going to tell them what happened, she’d rather say it once then twice. She’d rather say it never, actually, but they need to know.

“Here.” Dean comes into the kitchen, a frown creasing his brow. “Everything seems okay but there’s something weird--this is going to sound crazy, okay, but it kinda feels like someone else was here? Also your room--” he waves at Mary between walking to the fridge and pulling out a beer “--is really fucked up. There are sigils and cuffs and everything, but also it’s your business I’m not going to judge if--”

“You should sit down. Both of you.” Mary picks at the broken saltines scattered across the countertop in front of her and nibbles on one three-cornered piece until it dissolves under her tongue. Her children are seated across from her, like an x marking the spot, and she wishes she could delay the inevitable moment before she drops the proverbial anvil on their heads.

“Mom?” Sam prompts. His elbows are propped up on the counter, fingers folded together. Strands of dark hair fall into his face, curtaining the worry in his eyes. “What’s been going on here?”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It doesn’t work to just tell them in words, of course. That’s not possible--we would have never--it can’t be--he wouldn’t.

So Mary tucks the saltine box under one arm and, holding the mug of coffee in her hand, guides them on a tour of the devastation around the Bunker. She starts with the evidence in her own room: the three-legged chair and the angel warding on the wall. The tray of uneaten breakfast by the dresser. The tiny tube of cream tucked between the wall and the bed. On the way out she takes the Joni Mitchell tape out of the player and stuffs it in her pocket, making a mental note to hurl it into the next trash can she passes.

Then there’s the dungeon itself. The chair is still sitting there, all four legs steeped in a puddle of blood. The crooked lines of the broken sigils slashed across the wall. One angel blade, red-tipped,lying  in the left corner of the floor and then another in the right. Even standing on the border of the empty room--Sam and Dean brush past her, going in closer to see it for themselves--sends a pinch down Mary’s spine and she asks if they can leave.

Her children follow her back to the kitchen without a word. They sit apart from each other, Sam on the bench by the table and Dean on the bar stool at the other end of the counter.

“So let me get this straight,” Dean says. His forehead is pressed into the heel of his hands. “We brought our dad back, but we lost all our memories of Cas. Which somehow led to us torturing him and locking you up.” He looks up, glancing first at Sam and then at her. “It doesn’t make sense. It just doesn’t.”

Mary refills her cup of coffee. “Well, what do you remember? What’s the last thing you remember doing?”

“We had the pearl alright. But we were going to use it to get rid of Michael--” Dean taps the side of his head “--not play house of horrors.”

“Same,” Sam adds. “Then the next thing I know we’re on the floor of the dungeon and Dean’s been shot and Cas is--”

“You said that I did that.” There’s a pulse of disbelief in Dean’s voice. “Why did I do that?”

Mary closes her eyes for a moment. She hates this; she hates being the one to carve all these wounds into them. “Castiel--he was trying to escape. You wanted to stop him, you–” she exhales lightly. “You wanted to kill him.”

When she opens her eyes she expects to see the carnage of Dean’s anger–something spilled or shoved or shattered–but there’s nothing. Instead Dean’s expression closes like a curtain. He hunches his shoulders together, like he’s retreating into his own skin, and sits there, head bowed and body rigid.

“No.” Sam gets up and starts pacing around the kitchen. He’s tugging hard at the sleeves of his flannel shirt, at the fabric around his elbows. “We wouldn’t have--even if we didn’t remember Cas, we wouldn’t try to kill him. We’d figure out who he was and what he wanted, and Cas would’ve explained--that’s not what would happen. That’s not–” louder “we would not–I mean, Dad might be more wary because he doesn’t know about angels but we wouldn’t let him--”

“Sam--”

His fingers reach up, tearing through his hair. “We wouldn’t hurt him.”

“Sam.” Mary calls his name again but nothing else follows the single syllable. She can’t reassure him of anything other than the ugly, terrible truth. She looks over to Dean helplessly. He’s a stone, pale and gray.

“And if we tried to--Cas would have stopped us! He’s an angel, goddammit!” Sam swings his leg, kicking the nearest stool over and Mary jolts at the ringing clatter. “This wouldn’t have happened, this didn’t happen, Dean and I would have never, ever--”

“What else did I do to him?” Dean’s question comes out as barely a whisper but it’s deafening.

“I don’t know,” Mary says honestly. She knows that Castiel was in terrible agony, but telling them that isn’t going to give them the information they want.

“Don’t say that!” Sam snaps, turning on her, suddenly furious. He slams a fist against the refrigerator and then again, knuckles pounding the teal-colored metal. “Don’t lie to us, don’t--” he stops and drops his head in his hands, bending towards the ground. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, I don’t--I can’t.”

“Sam,” she calls softly, helplessly.

Sam’s fingers slip off his cheeks and he stares up at her with bloodshot eyes. “Did we hurt you?”

“No.” The skin on her wrists tingles, as if the cuffs are still around them, and she pulls the edge of her sleeves over her palms. “You thought Cas was hurting me.”

Dean’s fingers bend into a fist, a single “fuck” escaping his tightly pursed lips. He gets off the stool and walks out of the room without another word.

“I’m sorry,” Sam repeats. He’s leaning against the fridge, one hand still plastered to the fridge door like he needs the support to remain standing.  “I’m sorry, Mom, I’m--I don’t know how--I don’t know what to do.”

Mary moves over and cups her fingers around his chin. She tilts his head up and smooths out the tousled strands of his dark hair. “Get some sleep. We can talk more tomorrow. Maybe your memory will start to come back. Right now we’re all here, we’re alive, and we’re safe, sweetie. Okay?”

He nods, his jaw tensed in that same way Dean used to do when he was little and trying not to cry. She slips her arms around him, folding him into a quick hug, because if she lingers too long she’s going to be the one to break down. “Go,” she urges after pulling away. “You need the rest. I’ll clean up here,” she motions to the saltine massacre on the counter.

Once Sam is gone Mary clears all the crumbs and then empties out the coffee pot and washes it. Even when the kitchen’s cleaned she stays there, hands on her hips, looking around as if there’s something else she should do.

She knows she should go to sleep. She also knows she won’t be able to.

Her footsteps echo through the empty halls as she walks through the entire Bunker once, and then twice. Each time she passes by her room and stops to stand in the doorway for a moment. The bed is a mess of rumpled sheets; the blanket is a twisted rope lying on the floor, likely discarded from when Sam finally broke free. The red warding sigil is a scar burned into the chest of the wall, and she swears she hears the three-legged chair creak from the weight of John sitting in it.

Her fingertips grow numb, a prick of ice tingling the pores of her skin, and she turns away.

On her third round of circling the Bunker she picks up the blanket from her room and unravels it. It smells of her own unwashed hair and frantic sweat. It won’t do much to ease the shivers running through her skin but she wraps it around her shoulders and continues on.

On her fifth round she stops by Castiel’s room to check in on him. She puts a finger under his nose--still breathing--and then lifts the covers to make sure the bandages are holding and not soaked through. Castiel is sleeping soundly, arms folded over his stomach. There’s a small smear of dried blood around his ear that Sam missed when he helped to clean him up. She wets the corner of her blanket in the bathroom sink and wipes it off.

Her bones are begging for her to lie down. But if she closes her eyes she might wake up handcuffed to her bed again, that damn Joni tape playing on a loop. She might wake up to Castiel’s screams, or John’s face looming over her. Or to her children morphed into strangers, cold and cruel.

If she stays right here, though, at least she can make sure Castiel is safe. She lets her knees bend and her body sink into the side of the bed beside the angel. Then her legs lift and tuck themselves under the warm covers. She hugs the edge of the blanket to her chin and rests her forehead to his shoulder. She just needs a moment of rest. She won’t fall asleep here.

She tells her ribcage not to stretch and relax, tells her eyelids not to fall.

They disobey her, of course.

 

+

 

Sam dreams of sheep, standing in a row in a field of new grass. They’re chanting in Latin, an distorted ancient choir. He can’t quite make out the words. Then the sheep open their mouths and, instead of bleating sounds, wool comes tumbling down their perfect oval tongues. The wool is thick and curly, in white fluffy shapes, the way a child might draw a cloud.

Then the sheep are naked, raw and pinked. They open their mouths again and this time their flesh comes spilling out, evacuating their bodies and streaming out between their teeth in red squiggles like yarn.

He wakes up, drenched in sweat. Drinks down the glass of water by his bed and goes back to sleep.

The sheep are waiting for him, now stripped down to nothing but skeletons. They open their mouths and their bones come pouring out, clattering to the ground like a handful of matchsticks. He runs around, trying to shut their gaping jaws, but it doesn’t work. They vomit their bones until their necks snap and then there are a dozen sheep heads at his feet, mouths hanging open like a slide for their eyeballs to roll down.

He wakes up, drenched in sweat. Knocks over the empty glass by his bed and cuts his foot when getting up.

He goes to the mirror and stares until he’s sure he’s only seeing one of himself. Rakes his fingernails across his forearm until he draws blood and doesn’t heal immediately, so he knows there’s no angel in him. Pulls the rosary out of the pocket of his pants in the laundry pile by the bathtub and presses it to his chest to see if it burns.

It doesn’t. It does leave a crucifix-shaped dent in his skin.

He’s himself, entirely and completely.

He puts a band-aid over the cut in the sole of his left foot and then pulls socks over his bare feet. Walks down the hallway, shoe-less, and sees that one of the bedroom doors is ajar. When he peers inside he sees Castiel lying there, sleeping, and Mary curled up at his side, sound asleep as well.

You thought he was hurting me. You tortured him. You didn’t remember who he was.

Sam’s tongue sticks against the roof of his mouth when he tries to breathe. He forces himself to drink and keep down a cup of coffee and it feels like swallowing cotton. He goes out for a run and then comes back after only half a mile. His knees are shaking so hard he almost trips down the staircase.

Sam takes the Impala and drives until he finds a supermarket open. The passenger seat is soon filled with fresh produce: bags of oranges, apples, lettuce, carrots, colorful peppers, tomatoes and cherry tomatoes, a side of ham, sausages, half a dozen chicken breasts, broccoli, zucchini, and three loaves of fresh wholewheat bread.

After he finishes filling the shelves of the Bunker fridge with the fresh produce he thinks of Cain, piling orchard goods onto his altar and how displeased God was with the sacrifice. God wanted a lamb. Redemption was only given when the offering bled; only something that would gasp a final breath and die could pay the price of absolution.

He punches his knuckles against his head until his vision spins. He wants to scrape his brain clean from his skull and fill the empty halves with enough water to drown it.

Instead he goes to his room and opens his computer. Mary said it was an exchange pearl, not a wishing one. Maybe she was wrong. He needs to find out the truth himself. Find out what really happened to them. He has to be able to do that much.

His laptop screen flickers at the press of his thumb and he sees a document open on the desktop. It’s a file watermarked “British Men of Letters” across each page. The title reads, “How to Interrogate Celestial Beings”, with a subheading of “Sigils and Spells to Encourage the Prisoner to Submit.”

He slams the laptop shut and vomits. A pile of half-digested bologna sandwich lands at his feet. White and red foaming lumps. He can’t remember when he’d eaten that and then figures that it must have been while he was still under the spell. He wonders if John made it for him, or if Dean handed it to him between torture sessions.

By the time Sam finishes cleaning it up and sweeping up the glass beside his bed he feels exhausted. But he doesn’t want to close his eyes and see those sheep again. Instead he opens the laptop once more. He forces himself to read through the entire document, like an inmate doing time. He doesn’t notice that he’s digging his nails into his hand the entire time until he feels the skin break and the red wetness ooze over his fingernails.

He’s still on page fifteen, though, and there’s another ten pages left.

He doesn’t release his fingers from his palm.

 

+

 

The first time Castiel opens his eyes a burst of panic spreads through him. He can’t move his arm. He can’t even feel it. Then he hears Mary’s soft breathing and sees her sleeping at his side and he knows that it’s over. Truly. And she’s here with him, she didn’t leave. Just like she promised.

His grace aches inside him as it tries to recollect itself. There’s an endless throbbing in his left leg. His head feels too heavy to lift even though he knows his muscles are perfectly capable of it. He decides to stay in place for a while. After all, Mary is here. No one will be able to hurt him.

The second time he opens his eyes Mary is gone.

His eyes drift over to the space that once held her and he sees a yellow Post-It scrawled with the following: “I got up to eat something. Stomach was rumbling too loudly to sleep. Everything’s alright. Don’t worry.”

He takes the note and carefully tucks it into his coat pocket. His grace feels stronger, but it’s still too weak to mend the wound in his leg. If he waits for it to heal naturally it could take weeks. He needs the rest of his grace--what Sam--what they--took from him. He has to figure out where the syringe might be, and then how to reintegrate the grace most efficiently into his vessel. If he injects the grace directly into this body’s bloodstream it’ll work faster to heal him rather than simply inhaling it. But he isn’t sure he can manage that procedure on his own and with a steady hand.

Maybe Mary can help him. First he needs to muster the strength to get off this bed. Right now no part of his body, either vessel or grace, can make a movement without pain. He feels like a deer trapped in a flaming forest. Anywhere he treads will scorch him.

While he’s still contemplating whether or not to attempt to run through the burning heat he hears Mary sitting back down beside him. His eyes are closed but he can hear the hum of her soul, the unique rhythm of her pulse as she presses a palm to his forehead and then a cold wet cloth lands on his skin. It feels like lying in the center of a galaxy, every rolling drop of water another passing comet, and he lets himself drift away.

The third time he opens his eyes there’s another Post-It beside him from Mary, saying that she’s gone to get him something for his fever. “Back in ten,” is the last line on the note.

Castiel pockets this note too and then carefully drags himself to the edge of the bed before slowly putting one foot down on the ground. And then the other.

He swears in Enochian under his breath when he tries to take a step forward. His body bows beneath the weight. He shifts his weight onto his uninjured leg and limps forward with marginal success. It’s a slow, pathetic gait, but it will have to do. The storage room is the first possible location of his grace; since Sam is the one who took it, it stands to reason that he stored it as well, since he knows the younger Winchester’s penchant for organization.

Not Sam, he chides himself. The person who took it wasn’t Sam, not the real Sam.

As Castiel limps down the hallway he tries to think of what to say should he encounter Sam or Dean. He could use the excuse of needing to go to the bathroom, but then he never needs to go and there is one right in his room. He could say he’s looking for Mary, but then he’d be guided to see her, which is firmly off course. He could tell them it’s not a matter which concerns them, but that would only earn him that well-patented look of annoyance and even more persistent questions.

By the time he reaches the hallway to the storage room he has settled on “I’m looking for something I misplaced.” It’s a truth, so he’ll be able to deliver it convincingly, and yet without having to disclose the reality that he’s looking for something that’s been stolen from him; a piece of his very being ripped from his core. He practices saying the words in his mind so he can be sure to voice it with confidence, and not expose the tremors collecting in the base of his throat.  

When his hand finally grazes the doorknob of the storage room he pushes the door open with a long sigh of relief. His breath that is abruptly aborted when he sees Sam standing there, in the room, digging through one of the cardboard boxes.

They stare at each other for a moment. Sam moves first. He practically trips over his own feet in the rush to Castiel’s side. When his hand grips his elbow to steady him Castiel wants to pull away, but he needs the support to remain on his feet. So he endures the touch as Sam guides him over to sit down in a chair by one of the shelves.

“I’m looking for something,” Castiel manages, trying to quiet the din of worry in Sam’s eyes.

”I’ll help you find it, what is it?”

“My grace.” He vocalizes the words before he realizes that he has.  

Sam’s face is instantly drained of all life and color.

 

+

 

The more Sam looks, he knows, the more horror he will unearth. Which is precisely why he keeps looking, why he’s reading through every British Men of Letters files from the past week. Most of the procedures detailed in the British Men of letters documents require complicated spell work or artifacts that Sam’s sure they don’t have. Or at least they didn’t since the week before.

He needs to be sure, though, so he brings the laptop with him down to the storage room and starts flipping through every sheet of spells and checking every single cabinet and safe box. He’s the one who made a spreadsheet for the ingredients and artifacts in the Bunker; he’ll know if something’s been used or taken.

So far he’s found nothing. It’s a small relief compared to the vast unknown of what they--what he--still could have done to Castiel when they thought he was the enemy. Castiel is the one who’s taught them everything they know about angels. How to hurt them. How to kill them.

Sam remembers the many conversations he and the angel have had over the years; sometimes late at night in motel rooms, sometimes during long drives; sometimes in the kitchen late at night. They talked about Enochian, how the version Lucifer uses is different from other angels, more archaic, more poetic. They discussed the linguistics behind Enochian magic and what elements are forbidden by Heaven. Castiel even tried to explain to him the complicated science of holy fire and grace.

Sam hopes that when he was under the spell he didn’t remember any of that. He clings to the frail desire that he didn’t turn everything his friend had confided in him into a weapon. He keeps going through the boxes in the file room, hoping denial will finally materialize into proof. When the door slowly opens he expects it to be Mary, pestering him to eat breakfast like she was earlier today. Or maybe it’s Dean, looking for another bottle to empty. He hasn’t seen his older brother since last night but Sam figures he’s probably in his room sleeping off a brutal hangover.

But seeing Castiel there, leaning heavily on the door frame, pale face flushed exhaustion, makes him drop the handful of folders onto the floor. Sam’s first thought is panic, like he’s been caught somewhere he doesn’t belong. He doesn’t belong anywhere near Castiel. Not after what he’s done to him.

Then he notices how Castiel looks about ready to topple over and he rushes to his side, giving him a hand to steady his steps, and then trying to find a chair for him to sit on.

Castiel looks up at him through bleary blue eyes. “I’m looking for something,”  he mumbles.

“What is it?”

“My grace.”

The room flips upside down and then crumbles it on itself. Sam feels the rubble hit him and he flinches from head to toe. His throat becomes a hollow well. He wants to fall to the bottom of it.

“Did we–” Sam forces the words to form. Makes them leave his lips, break against his teeth. “Did we take your grace?”

 Castiel looks uncomfortable. “It wasn’t really you--did Mary tell you what happened?”

“Yeah, she explained the basics, but I don’t remember--if we--did we….” he swallows hard. “We don’t remember anything.”

Castiel pushes himself back onto his feet and starts limping towards the nearest cupboard. “I don’t know where--it’s a wooden box with sigils carved on top.”

“Are you human now?” Sam’s legs feel like they’re becoming liquid. Soon the floor is going to bear the brunt of his face.

“No.” Castiel doesn’t turn back to look at him. “I’m just…missing some of my grace. I need it to help me heal this--” he points at his left leg, and Sam feels nausea building in the back of his throat at the sight of it “--faster. I don’t mean to disturb you, Sam, you can go back to what you were--”

“I’ll find it.” Sam scrapes his thumbnail against the inside of his palm and steadies himself. He guides Castiel back to the chair to rest, and then starts searching through the chests of drawers beside him.

“You really don’t remember anything?” Castiel asks quietly.

Sam can’t quite place the tone of his voice. Is that disappointment? Relief?  “Nothing. The past week is a blank for me and Dean. Mary thinks our memories might come back but I---” he stops, hand on the open drawer of dried herbs. “Cas. I don’t know how to say how sor--”

“You don’t need to apologize. It wasn’t you.” Castiel offers him a small smile that’s probably supposed to be comforting. It feels the exact opposite. It’s a noose to hang from. “It was the pearl and the spell.”

Mary said the same thing to him and Dean last night. Sam expects he’ll hear that line again and again over the next few days and weeks. Like it’s some kind of plaster that can cover the hole in the wall when it’s really more like duct tape trying to hide a gaping ravine. If Sam’s dreams are any indication--and by now he’s learned to pay attention to them--then something horrific was done, some that might have irreparably damaged Castiel. Like taking his grace. The idea that they might have something even worse than that is enough to make him pause midway through pulling down a stack of boxes from the metal shelf.  

“Cas, I don’t--I know you might not want to talk about it yet but--if we start to remember will you tell us if we’re--” he takes a deep breath. “Will you tell us if what we remember is true?”

Castiel looks at him with a kindness that’s sickening. “Of course, Sam. I’ll be happy to help however I can.”

Of course. Always happy to bleed for the Winchesters. Sam blocks out the surge of emotions coming to the fore of his mind and focuses on pulling open the next drawer. Behind the satchel of bird bones he sees a familiar corner of a rectangle and reaches in. The box isn’t much longer than four inches. He can’t bring himself to lift the lid. Instead he balances it gingerly between his fingers like it’s an explosive device and turns around. “Cas?”

Please don’t be it please be something else please be just the box and not the--

The angel nods. Sam shakes his head automatically. It’s not, it’s not, it can’t be.

But of course it is. Inside the box is a syringe with a vial pulsing full of silvery-white grace.

“Did I--” his jaw rattles inside his skin. “Did I-I-I take your grace? I took your grace.” When he looks up Castiel is standing in front of him, his gaze lowered. “I’m the only one who knew of this-this thing,” Sam continues, like he needs to convince Castiel of what he’s done.  “Why-why did I do it?”  

“You thought it would make me more cooperative. You said it was a last resort.” The angel lifts his eyes to face him, and there’s no recrimination in them. Just gentle understanding. “You were desperate to save Mary.”

“I did this.” He points down into the box, finger hovering just above the grace, as if it’ll be soiled if he touches it. “I took your grace.” Saying it the third time makes the fact harden like cement.

“It wasn’t you.” Castiel stifles a groan and presses himself closer to the chest of drawers. “Can I have it?”

“Oh god--yes, yes, of course.” It’s been in Sam’s hand all this time, he's been holding it hostage right in front of Castiel. Quickly he places the box into Castiel’s outstretched hand and then steps back slightly. “Do you--do you need help with it or--”

“No, that’s fine. I can do it myself. I should feel better after this. Thank you.”

Something wretched loosens in Sam’s throat. “Don’t say that,” he manages hoarsely.  

“Sam. You should get some rest. You look tired.”

“Yeah, um, sure.” Sam turns away. He can’t stand how little hate there is in Castiel’s eyes. Not even a smidgen of anger. “Let me know if you need anything. Oh, do you need help getting back to your room? I can-”

“I’m fine,” Castiel repeats. When Sam steps up to give him a hand Castiel’s body sways away from him. It might be incidental, or intentional, and the possibility of the latter makes Sam stay and not follow Castiel as he walks out of the storage room. After all, Sam took his grace. Why would Castiel ever want to be touched by hands that have committed such a sin? How could he have done that to Cas–

Sam stands there, alone and still for a second. Then he whirls around and shoves the chest of drawers beside him, sending it toppling over with a deafening crash. “I took his grace,” he says out loud to no one but the spilled open drawers of sweet herbs and scattered bones. The words leave his lips like a life sentence. The judge’s gavel has resounded and the verdict is sealed. He can never be forgiven for this.

After a minute Sam sets to work picking up the chest of drawers and putting the file room back in order. Once everything is back to its tidy state he heads down the hall, first to Dean’s room, which is strangely empty, and then to Mary’s room. She has to remember more than she told them. Maybe if she recounts the events of the past week, hour by hour, it might trigger his memory. Might allow more of the monsters to break through. He has to know them all by name.

Just before he reaches to knock on Mary’s door Sam hears Castiel’s voice, coming from inside. “…help me?”

“Can’t you just drink it or something?” Mary.

“I can, but it’ll work faster if you inject it. It will be painful…” Castiel tampers off before continuing. “But better in the long run to have it integrate immediately and directly with the rest of my grace. I can’t do it by myself, I need you to do it.”

Sam stumbles back. His stomach drops down to his ankles. The ground wraps around his toes.

“Castiel, I don’t want to hurt you.”

“Mary. Please.”

“Okay…do you want to--is it easier for you to lie down or stand?”

“Lying down. Do you have something for me to bite down on?”

Sam can’t move. He needs to, wants to, has to. But his legs have become part of the floor, skin welded into tile. Then he hears it, coming from the other side of the door.

Castiel. Screaming.

Sam runs. Runs down the hall, past his room, and around the corner into the next hall. He keeps running until he gets to the storage room where there’s a little bathroom on the side, one that no one else knows about and should be empty. He pushes the door in. Collapses in front of the toilet bowl. Vomits. 

Acidic bile pours through his mouth and the chant of the nightmare sheep rings through his ears.

Agnus Dei, que tolis peccata mundi, miserere nobis. 

He wipes the back of his hand across his mouth. He knows what it means now. Now that sleep isn’t shrouding his thoughts and terror isn’t spiking adrenaline through his brain like iron pokers.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Sam sits back on his heels, rocking back and forth. He feels like he’s going to retch again.

“Thought I drank all the crappy stuff. What’re you throwing up for?”

His brother's groggy voice sends him turning around so sharply that he loses his balance and lands flat on his bottom on the cold bathroom floor. Dean--Dean is there, sitting halfway under the sink; his eyes are bloodshot and an empty bottle dangling loosely from his fingers. As Sam pushes himself back up he notices more empty bottles around them. There’s two by the bathtub and another halfway behind the toilet.  Dean’s cheek bears the sleep marks in the pattern of the floor tiles. He’s still wearing the blood-stained clothes from the day before.

Sam drags a hand over his face and exhales slowly. He swallows down the last residue of sourness along with all the other emotions threatening to surge up. “Good morning to you too.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

The last silvery coil of grace finally swirls down the vial. Castiel’s pupils are blown open, eyes wide and wet, his entire frame shaking violently. He had asked Mary for something to bite down and she gave him a towel that barely muffled his agonized cries. Mary has been trying to keep her hand steady all throughout the procedure; there’s a rage coursing through her at the people who did this to Castiel, who made him have to suffer like this again. But her fury is met equally with the icy flood of knowledge that her children or her husband are the culprits. They’re the ones responsible for all of the angel’s pain, and at the same time they’re not.

She pulls out the syringe carefully and presses a swab of cotton over the entry point in Castiel’s neck. He spits out the towel wedged in his mouth and rolls over to lay flat onto his back. Before she can move any closer to him he presses his right arm over his face, like he doesn’t want her to see his display of emotion.

“I’m fine,” he pants under the muffle of his sleeve, preempting the question on her lips. “Just need a moment.”

“Take all the time you need.” She reaches out to pat his arm comfortingly and he grabs her hand and holds it with an intensity that surprises her. She doesn’t say anything, though; she just sits there beside the bed, his hand clasped between hers. She wonders when she’ll be able to stop seeing him in pain.

“It’s not your fault, you know,” Castiel says aloud.

Dammit. She was praying to him just now. She didn’t even realize it.

He shifts his right arm slightly but still doesn’t lift it from his face. “You saved my life, Mary. Again.”

She hasn’t so much saved him as dragged the pieces of him out of the rubble. If this is what salvation looks like then she’s a terrible savior.  

“You have suffered too, Mary. I’m sorry about what happened to John. I know he would have liked to stay with you and the boys. He loved you all very much.”  

“He hurt you,” she replies, and she doesn’t know who she’s reminding of the fact.

“He was protecting you. I would’ve done the same if I thought someone was threatening you or Sam or Dean.” His forehead becomes a furrow of lines. “Or Jack.”

“Oh, that reminds me, I have your phone. I found it with mine when I….” Castiel nods before Mary even finishes her sentence. He understands that they were both stripped of their connection to anyone else when they were being held captive. Their phones were the first thing taken and the first thing Mary went looking for once Castiel was safe and asleep last night.

“There’s a message from Jack on my phone,” Mary continues, leaning over to open the bedside drawer. “Once Jody knew what was happening she didn’t want him to leave it on yours. Just in case. Do you want to listen to it?”

Castiel finally lowers his arm. He looks a little better, even though his eyes are still somewhat bloodshot. He lifts a hand and gestures down the length of his body. “I think my leg is mostly healed now. Could you--hold on.” As he rises up stiffly, shuffling into an awkward position with his back against the headboard, Mary scoots over to help him. Once he’s comfortably in place she unwraps the tightly wound bandages above his knee, then uses some cotton swabs and alcohol to clean the blood smears away. Dean’s neat stitches are still in place but the skin around them is fresh and unblemished, as if it had never been torn.

Castiel picks up the scissors from the open first aid beside her and hands them to her. “It won’t hurt me,” he reassures her, perhaps because of the furrows in her brow. “But the stitches have to be taken out. I can do most of it myself but it’s hard to reach the one on the underside like this. I’m sorry to keep asking you for help, but I--”

“Cas.” Mary rests a hand on his other knee. “I want to help you. It’s never a problem, okay?”

He nods gratefully. As soon as the last stitch is removed Castiel releases a long sigh of relief. He flexes the right leg hesitantly, and again a few more times, each firmer than the last.  “Thank you,” he says, smiling softly. “Thank you for everything.”

“You’re always welcome.” She picks up her phone and hands it to him, swiping a thumb over the screen. “There--the second voice mail. Just press the triangle button to play it and then--yeah, like that.”

“Hey Cas!” Jack’s bright voice echoes through the room.

Castiel’s eyes immediately spring with tears. He quickly pushes a thumb over the screen, stopping the audio, and turns away bodily, facing the wall.

Mary’s heart cracks right down the center. This is his child. This is the one he spent what he thought were his last breaths telling her to protect. This is the one he asked her to tell him that he was loved. She squeezes his hand gently and then stands up. “I’ll be outside if you need anything.”

Castiel is still turned to the wall but he clings to her fingers for a few seconds longer before letting her go.

When the door closes behind her Mary inhales sharply. She exhales slowly, feeling the cold air rattling against her teeth. She’s in the middle of trying to take in another deep breath when she hears Sam and Dean’s voices approaching her from the left. Her body instinctively jolts back, sending the back of her heel smashing against the edge of the wall.

She’s not afraid of her children. She was just startled.  

Mary sets her teeth together like a fortress. She makes herself walk toward those voices, no matter how much her feet want to pivot in the opposite direction.

 

+

 

“Hey, Cas!”

It’s hard for Castiel to see the phone screen on his lap through the blur in his eyes, much less the small “play” button in the corner. He leans over to see clearer and the tears fall, hitting the glass surface like the wash of morning dew over primrose petals.

He dries the phone screen with the hem of his coat and then presses “play”.

“Hey Cas! Just wanted to let you know--Claire, don’t interrupt me now ,  I’m trying to--”

Castiel pushes the phone away, sending it disappearing into the lumps of blankets beside him. Both his hands fly up to clamp over his mouth.  There’s a sob building volume in his throat and he doesn’t want anyone to hear, even though the door’s closed. Mary might still be outside. Or Sam and Dean might be passing by. They would come in, all tangled up in knots of concern, and he won’t be able to explain to them the magnitude of joy that he’s experiencing right now. Jack is safe and alive and happy. A happiness that has not been scorched or stolen by anyone. Jack has been untouched by everything twisted and terrifying that’s transpired this past week.

Castiel remembers when Jimmy was still a part of this vessel; how Jimmy was always more peaceful when Castiel pulled air in slowly through the nostrils and then released it through his lips. He does this now, again and again. Pull in, hold, release, repeat.

The audio keeps playing from the phone speakers, muffled by the hood of the blanket folds.

“…and then Patience taught me how to set broken bones, so I don’t have to use my powers on hunts. I know you’re worried about that, Cas, but I promise I’m being careful. Jody said we can make dinner tonight and Claire says I have to do all the dishes because--hey, stop, give it back-Jody, Claire took my--I’m not a tattletale! You’re the one who said I can’t cook feed a starving man. But I’ve watched  Dean--no, he doesn’t just make burgers. Also what’s wrong with burgers? Cas says that they’re a very sensible sized meal.”

He pulls the air in, holds it captive, releases.  

“She’s just calling you an old man. She doesn’t even know how old you are-- you didn’t tell her your triceratops story, did you? Anyways, I hope you’re doing okay, and Sam and Dean too. I can’t wait for you guys to figure out this spell problem so I can come home. No, Claire, I’m not trying to leave you guys--I didn’t say I hated it here! Give it back--I have to go now, it’s time for our shopping trip. I love you, see you soon!” 

Castiel hits ‘repeat’ as soon as the audio ends. Then he pushes his hands into his pockets so he can pretend not to notice the tremor rippling through his veins. Over the sounds of Jack’s voice and Claire’s background laughter he hears Sam saying, “You’re just lonely maybe. Because no one will ever love you the way you want to be loved.”

He hits ‘repeat’ on the phone again. A shiver races through his body, goosebumps appearing on his skin that have nothing to do with the room temperature. His eyes jump nervously from the phone to the door and back to the phone once more.  

“She doesn’t even know how old you are -- you didn’t tell her your triceratops story, did you?”

You’re disgusting. You’re nobody’s family.

“I love you, see you soon!”

You’re just a sad little wannabe.

“I love you, see you soon!”

Disgusting. Pathetic.

“I love you, see you soon!”

“I love you, see you soon!”

Gradually the abnormal chill seeps out of Castiel’s body, like water receding from abyss. He reaches for his phone and then sends himself the audio from Mary’s phone so he can keep it for his own. When he’s finished sending it he huddles deeper into the bed, knees pulled up to his chest, phone clutched to his ear, Jack’s voice message playing over and over.

He’s aware of a presence--more than one--outside the door. Sam. Dean.

This is my home. I’m safe. The very words that used to help ease his mind after Rowena’s spell, after being possessed by Lucifer, after ever supernatural threat outside the Bunker, now ache like the bruise of handcuffs. His body hurts, at the wrists and ankles and throat. The walls seem thinner, like the concrete and plaster is being stripped away. The voices beyond grow louder.

Closer.

His finger presses the volume button on his phone.  “…so I don’t have to use my powers on hunts. I know you’re worried about that, Cas, and I promise I’m being careful.”

If Castiel focuses on the voice message he can hear all the layers of sound in it: Jack’s footsteps, Claire’s giggles behind him, and then Jody and Donna’s voices in the distance, like the background violin strings in an orchestral piece of music. Jack is alive and safe. That becomes his new mantra, the only truth that no torture could change.

Jack is alive and safe. And he loves me.

 

+

 

Sam sits with his spine wedged in the space between the tiles of the bathroom wall. Dean is perpendicular to him, one arm draped over the bathtub, and he’s looking at him. Loudly. If Sam turned and met his gaze it would feel like sticking his head in a bass speaker.

“So we didn’t take all of his grace, did we?” Dean finally says.

Sam both hates and appreciates his use of the plural. “No. He says he isn’t human and--I gave it back to him, of course but there’s a bunch of stuff on my laptop--British Men of Letters files. An outgoing call to Ketch.”

Christ. We got Ketch involved in this? What else did we do?”  

“I don’t know.” Sam doesn’t want to know. He’s going to die if he doesn’t know.

“Okay, let’s start with the dungeon then.” Dean latches onto the sink for support as he staggers up to a standing position. “I remember you were breaking all the sigils there yesterday when Cas was hurt.”  

“Yeah. I took photos of them all. Most of them seem to be grace-blocking sigils. There’s one I can’t recognize, I’m still working on translating it. Maybe it was something Dad used?”

Dean bends down to grab the necks of the two empty bottles by the trash can. “Doubt it. What could Dad know that we don’t?”

That brings up another question, one that makes Sam taste vomit in the back of his mouth even though he knows there’s nothing left in his stomach to heave up. “Do you think…”

He shouldn’t say it. Once verbalized it will become solid, it cannot be ignored ever again. But he sees John in the mosaic of his memory, the sketch of him all colored in with wrath and precision, and the answer is there before he even asks. “Do you think Dad hurt him?”

There’s a dip in the air where Dean inhales sharply and Sam can see it all before it happens: he notices the twitch of his brother’s shoulder and then witnesses the flight of the bottles even before Dean whirls around and throws them against the wall. The glass shards clink noisily as they fall into the bathtub. Then Dean is doubled over, fists pounding into his knees, swearing viciously, spit hitting his lips.

Sam grabs him by the elbow and jerks him up. “We’re going to fix this,” he tells him. “We’re going to fix this, okay?”

“How?” Dean grinds out.

He thinks for a moment. “We could repaint Mom’s room.”

The angel warding on the wall above Mary’s bed is clearly done in Sam’s handwriting, or Sam’s spray painting. Even when using a can of red paint there’s a difference in the way the two of them draw their lines; Dean’s sigils tend to be rounder while Sam’s have a more jagged corner look.

They don’t comment on it, of course, as they move the bed back and then get the paint and brushes from the garage. They don’t talk about the way the paint is chipped in the left side of the sigil, like someone scratched it off with something small and sharp. Sam finds a paper clip under the bed when they move it, a tiny pink wire twisted in two different directions. He pockets it carefully; it seems wrong to trash it, to forget the lengths their own mother had to take in order to escape from them.

When they finish painting over the sigil in Mary’s room they move onto the dungeon. Dean spends several minutes planted in the center of the room, hands on his hips, eyes roving over the walls around them. His jaw is clenched so tightly Sam thinks it might crack if he takes a deep breath.

Sam looks down at the chair in front of him, the one with the jagged hole in the left side of the seat. The Enochian handcuffs around the armrests, and the pile of chains slumped around the legs. Flecks of blood are splattered from the top to the dried puddle glistening on the floor.

Sam wants to take the chair outside and burn it.  

Dean rubs both his hands together and then cups them around his mouth, breathing hard. His eyes are glistening.

Then he goes over to open the next can of paint. They work in silence, only the harmony of brush strokes accompanying them. Even with the sigils covered by a fresh layer of white the room still feels like a crime scene. Sam scrubs the floor until his fingerprints are pink and wrinkled from the bleach and Castiel’s blood still stares back at him, whispering along the hairs on the back of his neck.  

I took his grace his grace grace grace

“We should ask Rowena,” Sam says to Dean when they’re washing out the clumpy paint brushes in the garage sink. “To see if she knows something that can boost the Bunker’s warding. So this doesn’t happen again.”

“You wanna dabble in spells now? After what just happened?”

“No,” Sam admits. “But I just--I don’t want this to ever happen again, Dean. Or anything like it.”

Dean picks harder at the paint around on his fingernails. “I know.” He pauses. “But how can we--we can’t ward the whole Bunker against magic, we use spells for tracking and stuff all the time.”

“Okay, so maybe not the whole Bunker.” Sam pauses as an idea starts to materialize in his mind. “If we have a designated room for spell work, that isn’t warded, then it’ll be fine. The rest of the Bunker can still be warded against, well, everything.”

Dean nods. “Okay.” He grabs a towel hanging off the stack of crates beside them and wipes his hands. “Maybe you should also find a way to ward me,” he mutters. “From doing dumb-ass crap like this.”

Sam has been anticipating this since the moment Mary explained what had happened. He knew that Dean would blame himself; he’s actually surprised that his brother managed to hold in the self-loathing this long. “What happened wasn’t your fault,” he says without looking up. “And you know that.”

“Oh, do you want to know what I know, Sammy?” Dean steps closer to him. “I know that I made the wish with that damn pearl. A wish that brought Dad back, and took our memories of Cas away. That’s the whole beginning and end of this mess, and I started it.”

“You didn’t--”

“You wouldn’t have taken Cas’ grace if it wasn’t for me.”  

Sam flinches but he stands his ground. He recognizes what Dean is trying to do. He’s trying to shoulder all the guilt, as if he needs to accumulate enough points on the scoreboard to warrant him doing something self-destructive and reckless in order to atone. Part of him feels grateful that Dean wants to alleviate him of the burden, but he also knows that nothing anyone says will ever shift the weight of what Sam’s done. “Dean, if you wanna play this game, I’m the one who suggested the whole pearl idea, okay. There’s no point in us going over who’s to blame.”

Dean deflates a little. At least he doesn’t start breaking things again. He sits down on the wooden stool beside the toolbox and folds his arms, looking slightly defeated. “The most important thing right now is figuring out what really happened,” Sam continues. “And I mean everything. All the details. Then we can deal with it.”

“Yeah, and how are we supposed to do that?”

“Maybe our memories will come back to us slowly.” He pauses, unsure if he should say what’s coming to mind. “I had a weird dream last night.”

“You too?”

Sam frowns. “You also had a dream about sheep singing in Latin?”

Dean raises an eyebrow. “No-o, that’s very specific. But I did have weird dreams.” He shakes his head. “I don’t want to go on anymore guesswork, though, we’re not going to go all Freudian on our dreams. We need concrete facts, Sam. We need to hear it from the people who were actually there and remember.”

Sam remembers Castiel standing there in the storage room, body leaning away from Sam any time he tried to step closer. Every inch of the seraph was poised for flight, even as he remained in place, like he had convinced his feet to cling to the floorboards. The flicker in his eyes, the twitch of his jaw. The fear.

“Let’s talk to Mom first,” they say at the same time.

 

+

 

Castiel waits for the Bunker to fall asleep so he can leave his room. He could have left any time earlier, but that would involve the risk of seeing Sam or Dean, or both of them. There’s no logical reason for this avoidance, so he convinces himself that he needs to stay in his room and recover fully from the reinserted grace. Even though he walked from Mary’s room to his without any discomfort at all. His grace is still raw in sections but he knows that it will repair itself over the next few days as long as he doesn’t strain himself.

“Not straining himself” is the reason he’s also given Mary for not leaving the room all day. She came by a few times to check on him and ask if he wanted anything. He politely declined each time, and she would always linger a little longer to talk with him and tell him where the Winchesters were. He never requested updates on their location, but she somehow knew it was important for him to know that they were in the kitchen, or in the library, or the garage, and nowhere near him.

“They wanted to talk more about what happened,” she said once, around noon. “I don’t want you to feel pressure to talk about it, though. In your own time, and only whatever you feel comfortable with.”

“Did you tell them what they did to you?”

She had looked away then. “I tried. It’s not easy, you know--I know they’d never hurt me--never want to hurt me--

“But they did,” Castiel said softly. “I can only imagine how much that would pain them to know.”

Mary had looked at him then with some indescribable palette of grief. “They hurt you, too, Cas.”

Castiel had given her a thin smile of acknowledgement and then changed the subject by talking about Jack and how it might be best if he stayed with Jody for a few more days. There wasn’t too much evidence in the Bunker of what had happened, not enough that Jack might figure out what happened. But Castiel wanted to wait a little longer. In a few days, he figured, they would get another case and go out for a hunt and forget what had happened here. Or they would at least get preoccupied enough with other things to bury it a few more feet below the surface so there was no trace of its existence. It would be better for Jack to come back then, when Castiel could be sure that the Bunker was safe. Not safe, he corrects himself. The Winchesters are not a threat anymore. Stable. Stability is important for a child.  

Castiel paces over to the door of his room now and listens to the blessed quiet teeming in the halls beyond before opening it. It’s been seven days since he could wander the way he always used to while his family slept. Typically he would pass from door to door to ensure their uninterrupted sleep, then look over the warding to ensure their fortitude, before finally sitting down in the library to read one of the books or magazines from his favorite selection.

Tonight he decides to forgo the first two steps and head straight to the library. There’s a magazine from a place called Pottery Barn that’s always been particularly calming for him to read; one article about cactus plants never fails to remind him about Balthazar and Uriel’s squabble over the use of cactus spines and why it wouldn’t make a useful addition to their wing armor. Gabriel was the one who mischievously planted the idea in their minds, and the archangel was the one who had to break up the discussion when it got heated enough that the two young angels drew their blades.

His chest relaxes a little at the memory. The library is just around the next corner of the hall, and he’s almost there when he stops, knees knocking into each other as he makes a botched attempt to backpedal. A tall, dark shape is heading towards him. At his current position it would be useless to turn and run. His instincts are screaming at him to charge first on the offense, but his legs are currently rebelling against any notion of movement.

Then the shape steps under the bulb of hallway light and is illuminated for a brief second. Sam.

Castiel quickly touches his fingertips to his own face. It feels dry and clean; somehow he can still smell the stench and wonders if he’s standing in a pool of holy oil. Or in a ring about to be lit. He’s going to die trapped here, just a few feet away from the safety of his room.  

Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world

“Cas? I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Castiel reaches into the ether for his blade. Sam is approaching him, apparently weaponless, but since when are the Winchesters ever truly unarmed? Sam probably has a blade or two in his back pocket. If Castiel wants to deter him all he’d have to do is draw his blade and swing it. Sam would duck away instinctively, giving Castiel a moment to either press forward in attack or flee.

“Sam,” he smiles hollowly. “What do you want?”

He doesn’t want to hurt Sam, but he will if Sam tries to restrain him again.  A surface wound is all Castiel needs to make; he’d do it somewhere on the arm or leg where it will be easy for Sam to stitch up later.

“I’m sorry,” Sam repeats. “I was just going to get some water. Well, coffee actually.”

“Can’t sleep?” Castiel wants to claw through the wall behind him and crawl away from this conversation. The sharp tongue of his blade pricks at his fingertips but he doesn’t withdraw it yet.

“Not really.” A shrug of the shoulders. “Thought I would do some research about the…Michael situation.”

He’s lying. Castiel flattens himself further into the concrete behind him. “I can help you, if you want. With the sleep thing.” The last thing he wants right now is to touch Sam. Unless it’s to shove him away.

“It’s fine, Cas, you don’t need to--”

“I want to.” He tastes terror, thick and tart in the back of his throat. He needs to prove to himself that he’s not afraid. He’s not. “Please.”

Sam looks at him for a long moment. “Okay. Only if it’s not straining your grace in any way.”

“My grace is fine.” He lifts two fingers to Sam’s forehead. Lamb of God have mercy on me. “I won’t put you straight to sleep,” he goes on, his tone as neutral as possible. “But this will help you drift off quickly. Without any interrupting dreams.”

“Thanks, Cas. I really appreciate it.” Sam reaches out to touch his hand and Castiel pulls away so fast that his elbow rams into the wall behind him. The concrete folds under the sudden force and a chunk of plaster falls out, landing at his feet with a clatter.

They both drop their eyes to stare at it and then lift their eyes at the same time.

“Are you okay,” Sam starts at the same time that Castiel rushes to say “I’m not afraid of you.”

Nothing in Sam’s expression gives Castiel any indication that he believes him. They stand in frozen stillness for several long seconds, neither of them speaking.

“I’m just tired,” Castiel amends, trying the well-worn excuse again.

 It gets Sam to exit faster than anything else. “Of course. You should get some rest, Cas.” He moves away from Castiel and in a minute he’s gone and the hallway is blessedly empty.

As soon as Castiel feels like he can move again he turns around and practically runs to Mary’s room. If he returns to his own room they might find him there--or they might go for Mary, alone in hers. They won’t, of course, because they’re not under a spell. At least not as far as he knows. But eight days ago he walked into the Bunker and his family became his captors. It could happen again. It could happen tonight.

Mary’s room is empty. The odor of paint hangs thick in the air and the bed is pulled out, now laying across the room as if blocking anyone from entering. He steps over it to check the bathroom but there’s no one there. They might have already taken her; not to the dungeon, they’d never treat their mother like that. But she could be somewhere else in this Bunker, fighting to break free, to survive. He moves stealthily through the hall, pressing his ear from door to door and listening for the telltale sound of her heartbeat.

At the end of the hall he hears the shuffle of feet moving around--too slow to be Sam’s, too light to be Dean’s. He draws his blade and raises it boldly before putting a fist to the knob and bursting the door open.

Mary spins around with a shriek. “Castiel! What’s going on?”

His steps grind to a halt, the heels of his shoes squeaking on the floorboards. “Mary.”

She’s dressed in gray pajamas, the ones she always wears. The bed is made neatly but without a dip in the covers. She must have moved to this room because her old room was being painted. She was pacing around her room. Because she can’t sleep, just like Sam. Sam, who never intended to hurt him, who just wanted to get a drink of water.

“Mary.” His arm falls to his side, adrenaline evaporating from him and being replaced by the shadow of shame. The blade clatters to the floor as a cold sweat flushes through his fingers.

Mary,” he whispers, hands flattened at his side. Shaking.

She moves forward, looking over him briefly before pulling him into her arms. Somehow she understands what’s happening without him even having to explain a word. Her touch is light yet warm and he tucks himself into her. “Couldn’t sleep either?” she murmurs, rubbing a hand up and down his back. “Well, I don’t know if you still need sleep. But you’re welcome to rest here if you want.”

Castiel waits until she lets go of him to nod his agreement. She keeps a hand on his shoulder as she guides him to the chair next to the bed. “There’s a book there--I think it’s a Tolstoy novel, Sam lent it to me awhile back. It’s pretty interesting. Not really my type of book, though.” Mary is climbing into bed as she talks, but she never stops looking at Castiel and he clings to that eye contact like a promise.

“You’ll be here when I wake up, right?” Mary laughs lightly as she sinks her head into the pillow. “Save me the trouble of looking for you.”

Castiel nods. He’s afraid that if he speaks he’ll break down completely.

She rolls over onto her side and closes her eyes. Her hand reaches towards him and he takes it, their fingers wrapping around each other. He waits for her to fall asleep, counting the beat of her heart to steady his own. As her breathing evens out to gentle snores he takes his own deep breaths, trying to unravel the ache in his gut.

Mary is here with him and he’s safe.

The word “safe” twists through his skin like barbed wire and nothing he does or tells himself can saturate the pain.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

There’s a hole in the middle of Dean’s hand. His keys fall through when he picks them up, the bottom of the whiskey glass gets stuck in the tangled strips of skin, and the gun slips between the cracked bones like it’s a holster. Then the gaping edges of the hole starts getting caught on zippers, door handles, key chain rings, and cupboard doors, tearing open even more.  

He tries to stitch up the hole--first with sewing thread, then with yarn, then the fuzzy wire of pipe cleaners. But the flesh burst open again each time, an impossible chasm of skin and blood.

Finally Dean takes a coil of steel cable and stabs it through the edge of his palm. He loops it through the bone and layers of skin, stitch by stitch. His hand becomes a bundle of flesh held together by thick, heavy wires, to the point where he has to use his other hand to even lift it off the ground. He holds it high like a trophy. He has succeeded at last, he has conquered the inexhaustible deep.

But when Dean drops his other arm to pick up his ringing phone the wire-bound hand breaks off his arm like a cut flower head. The stump of his wrist opens wide, bones splintering to show lips of marrow, and they scream.

Dean wakes up and rolls off the bed in the scramble to reach for his hand.

He sits there on the floor of his bedroom and presses his thumb into the dry skin of his palm. The seams of his skin are smooth and unbroken. There’s that faint scar on his left hand from repeatedly slicing it open for sigils, but that’s all. The scar almost looks a little fresher than usual, but then he hasn’t rubbed all the sleep from his eyes yet.

After a few minutes Dean gets up and goes to the bathroom to wash his face. As the cold water splashes over his skin he reviews the same sequence of sentences he’s been going through every morning since the spell was broken. My name is Dean Winchester. Sam is my brother. Mary is my mom. Cas is my best friend. Jack is our kid. John is my dad. He grabs a towel from the rack but then catches sight of his reflection in the mirror and stares at it. The towel sits bunched in his hand, water dripping off his chin. And John is dead.

He wonders what John thought of the Bunker (what he thought about me). If he was impressed by all the new weapons in their arsenal, or all the lore encyclopedias in the library (what he thought about my life). If he liked the kitchen with the giant refrigerators, or the infirmary with a fully-stocked medical cabinet (what he thought about me). If he was happy to see them (me).

Dean would give anything to be able to remember something, anything from his father’s time here. He gave himself a hell of a headache last night trying to force his mind to pull up images from thin air. He wants to believe that they might have had a meal together, or shared a drink in the library while catching up on the past decade. But he also knows that his father was a hunter first and foremost, one who would not rest as long as there was a mission to complete and an evil to defeat. The possibility that Dean might have tortured Castiel with John is one that lurks constantly like a sword suspended above his head by a thread.

Dean hasn’t seen Castiel for more than two days now. The angel has been in his room, “healing”, according to Mary. Every time Mary sees Dean her eyes drift to his left leg with a guilty pinch of her eyes. Dean always wants to tell her, you should have hit the bone. That would’ve hurt more.  

The clock on his bedside table tells him there’s still a few more hours until Sam might be awake. He doesn’t want to leave his room now and risk bumping into Castiel, whom he suspects spends most of the night in the library reading. Instead Dean sits back against his pillow and opens his laptop to continue reading through the British Men of Letters files that Sam sent him yesterday. The picture of the unknown sigil is also on his phone and he pores over the diagrams and graphs, trying to figure out what the bloody squiggles mean.

 After two hours of reading he’s nowhere closer to figuring out the sigil. All he’s learned are several more gruesome ways to interrogate angels, including using the amputated hand of a vessel (angel, he corrects mentally) to be used as a focal point for dismantling angel grace molecule by molecule. There’s a footnote on the bottom of the document page that reads: “If it does not work the first time, wait three to five days for the subject to regrow the hand and try again.”

Dean pushes the laptop away, letting it slide down the slope of the blanket and to the foot of the bed. They wouldn’t have--they could have. They took his grace and stabbed him through the leg.

They (I) might have taken his hand.

He gets up and prowls through the room, hunting for another bottle of whiskey. When all he finds are empty bottles he rushes out of his room and down the hall toward the kitchen. There’s a spot in the back of the furthest left cupboard where he keeps a flask. It’s one of the many hidden locations throughout the Bunker where he’s stashed a drink for emergencies.

Realizing you might have cut off your best friend’s hand ticks all the boxes of an emergency.

Of course when Dean walks into the kitchen Castiel has to be there, standing by the coffee maker. Dean feels his gut churning as he approaches, but he makes himself not turn around.

Castiel jolts a little when Dean enters, and then turns to face him with a smile pasted on like scotch tape. Dean wants to pick at it with his fingernails and rip it off.

“Dean.” Castiel nods towards the coffee maker. “Do you want some? It’s almost ready.”

“Yeah, sure,” Dean says, because he’s pretty sure he’s lost the right to deny Castiel anything for the next year or so. He limps over to the cupboard and starts pulling out the packages of pasta and biscuit boxes to get to the flask he buried behind them.

“Is your leg okay?” Dean doesn’t turn around but it sounds like Castiel is coming closer. “I can heal it, you know. I’m fully recovered.”

Dean slowly stops stacking packages. The last box of saltines falls from his hand onto the heap of alphabet pasta that Jack bought the last time they sent him on a supply run. The colorful bubbly letters labeling the package stare back at him. All the As are dotted with playful eyes and raised eyebrows.

“Did we cut off your hand?” Dean asks, facing the pasta.

Castiel doesn’t even miss a beat. “No, Dean. You didn’t.”

He raises his eyes to meet Castiel’s. His friend is standing there with an almost patient expression on his face, like he’s waiting for Dean to ask the next question.  

“Are you just saying I didn’t because you don’t want me to know?” Dean presses.

“No.” This time it comes out like a sigh. “I told Sam the same thing, I will tell you whatever you want to know. I know what it’s like to not remember what you’ve done…” his voice fades a little before he picks up stronger. “And I wouldn’t want either of you to have to suffer through the agony of not knowing.” He nods towards Dean’s leg. “Can I heal that?”

No. Never. “If you really want to.”

Castiel does something that looks like an eye roll and then presses two fingers to Dean’s forehead. His eyes glow for a second before fading and then he pulls away. “How does it feel now?”

“Better.” Dean wishes Castiel had pressed his palm to his head and smote him on the spot.  “Thanks, Cas. And look--I don’t know how to say how sor--”

“Dean.” Castiel goes back to the coffee maker and lifts the pot from the holder. “It wasn’t you.” He takes a mug from the dish rack and pours out the steaming brew in a steady stream. “And I’m sorry about your father. He loved you both very much. That was the last thing he said to you. I hope one day you can remember that moment.”

“H-he did?” Dean immediately tries to remember his father’s voice and then realizes that he really doesn’t know what John sounds like anymore. In his dreams of being a teenager again and learning to shoot or drive with his dad John never really speaks; his presence already says everything he needs to.

Castiel nods. “In the end he was the one who gave Mary the pearl to destroy. He knew what it cost, and yet he did it anyways…but he didn’t want to have to leave you again. I could see that.”

“Yeah, I-I-I wish you could have known him better--I mean, under different circumstances. I think he would have liked you, if he, uh, if he really knew you.” He can’t imagine John actually hating Castiel if he knew he meant him no harm.  

“Yes,” Castiel says shortly. Then, “He seemed so happy to be reunited with you and Sam and Mary.”

“Did we, uh, did we spend any time together”--that wasn’t imprisoning or torturing you two “--before it all went sour?”

Castiel frowns, like he’s trying to remember. He hands Dean a cup of coffee. “You talked about wanting to have a family dinner”

“I’ll bet,” Dean laughs, trying to imagine both of his parents in the kitchen poring over a recipe book. Sam would be giving them advice from the blogs he’s reading off his phone, and eventually they’d give up and let Dean fry them up a couple of burgers. “So did we?”

“No.” Castiel looks at the ground. “Because I was there. I’m sorry.”

“Cas, don’t. It’s not your fault.” He reaches into the back of the cupboard and finally feels the edge of the silver flask. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t rob us of anything.”

Castiel nods faintly and then picks up his mug of coffee and starts to leave when suddenly, like finding the answer key to a quiz, all the answers come to light and Dean sees the situation unfold before him: John, reunited with his sons in a future where his wife is also alive--his family together for the first time in decades--then what he thinks is a malicious monster intent on destroying the very people he loves the most.

“My dad thought it was your fault,” Dean says slowly. “He thought you--he was angry with you..”

Castiel pauses on the threshold of the room, his back to Dean. “Yes.”

“And he took out all that anger on you. You were the target of his--of everything.” The words lie so close to him it’s like a needle slipping under his skin.

“Yes.” Castiel shifts his feet back and forth, still with his back to Dean. “I need to go check on Mary now.”

Castiel leaves as quickly as someone can walk without looking like they’re running away. Dean remembers John yelling at him after he failed to protect Sammy; how the spit would fly and his hands would become claws latching onto Dean’s shoulders, shaking him back and forth. How he’d carry the bruises of John’s disapproval under his shirt and in his spirit for days afterwards. And Dean was his son, someone he loved. Castiel would have been less than nothing to John. He would have torn him apart without remorse, again and again.

The flask falls from Dean’s hand in a rush of wind and he grabs onto the counter to keep from falling over.  He needs something to break that isn’t himself. The package of alphabet pasta is nearest to him. It becomes a grind of flakes under his fist, and then the guilt sets in when he sees the crunchy massacre.

He goes out and buys three more packages as well as a package of pasta shaped like toy cars. When Jack comes back to the Bunker Dean will cook them for him. He’ll make pasta sauce fresh, not from the can. There will be real tomato chunks in it, maybe some mushrooms. Sam will know which ones go best with the sauce; he’ll probably want to rustle up a salad to go with it, too. They’ll have their family meal after all, with Mary and Jack and Castiel, the ones he loves and would kill to protect. The ones he hurt the most.

He looks down at his left hand and thinks he sees the hole in his palm opening up again, wide enough to swallow him whole.

 

+

 

Later that day Rowena finally sends them the updated warding sigils. Sam is busy painting the ones around the designated magic room, Castiel is working in the library, and Dean and Mary have teamed up to work on the ones in the hallway. ‘We’re going to need the blood of everyone in the Bunker for the final layer of warding,” Sam had told him before they started. Dean knew he meant they’d have to all gather together in one place--Castiel, too--and he’s already dreading it.

Mary keeps giving Dean continuous sidelong glances as they make their way down the hall, and he can’t tell if she’s watching him warily or checking on him to see if he’s okay. Either way it’s annoying, but he can’t bring himself to tell her to stop. She shot him less than forty-eight hours ago because he was trying to kill Castiel. If she wants to follow him with an unrepentant stare for the rest of his life then that’s her right. He wonders when he’ll stop feeling like every waking moment is a crime. When will his home stop feeling like a personally designed Hell, where even the walls are a reminder of what he’s done?.

“What’s wrong?” Mary’s voice breaks through his thoughts. “You look upset about something.”

”It’s nothing.” Dean hands her the spell bowl and nods towards the next hall. “I just hope this works. Can’t afford a repeat of what happened.”

Mary stirs the red potion with the wooden spoon. “That’s not what’s bothering you right now, Dean. Please, talk to me.”

Dean positions the ladder below the designated spot above them and holds out his hand for the bowl. Mary shakes his head, lips pursed stubbornly, as if she can force him into talking like he’s a toddler. “Oh come on,” he groans. “Look, Mom, you know how fucked up this all is. How am I supposed to talk to you about any of it? I just--” he sighs, long and noisy.

She waits for him to continue, her eyes meeting his gently.

“I just–I just feel like such an idiot,” Dean goes on. “I wanted Dad back because I missed him, you know, I just wanted to remember what he sounds like, what it feels like to not have that hollow inside, to be completely whole. And instead I caused all this to happen.”

Mary puts the bowl down on the ground and moves in, attentive, concerned, caring. Everything he doesn’t deserve. “There’s nothing wrong with wanting to see the people you love, Dean. If you had known what would have happened you would never have used the pearl. Because you’d rather live with that loss than risk hurting any of us. That’s who you are. And you aren’t to blame for anything John did.”

“Is it true that he--” Dean swallows hard “--he said he loved us before he left?”

Mary nods. “One of the last things he said was ‘I love you both so much’.”

Dean tries to add an audio to those words in his mind, tries to piece together snatches of memories to make the sentence become spoken and real, but he can’t. It’s only static in his head right now. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember his voice, Mom, I don’t remember anything.”

“I know,” she soothes. For some reason her words irritate him even more.

“No, you don’t, because you remember all of it! You were there and you talked to him and you know what he thought about me, and Sam, and--” (me) “--and if he asked about us-- (if he was proud of me) “--and everything we said to him--” (proud of me) “--and I don’t, I have nothing! Except seeing you and Cas and remembering all the shit I did. Cas can barely even look at me!”

Mary steps back slightly. She lifts a hand, palm open, as if trying to shield herself from him. “Dean, calm down, it’s not like that.”

“You don’t want to be around me either,” he throws back. “And you shouldn’t, because you know what I did. But I’m here being judged for something I can’t remember doing, and I can’t stand it, I can’t. I can’t be here anymore.”

Mary starts to say something and Dean doesn’t stay there long enough to hear it. He jumps down from the ladder and storms back to his room, the door swinging shut behind him. The floor greets him as he slumps down into it, lying flat on his stomach. He presses his cheek to the cool wooden panels and imagines digging a tunnel with his bare hands, wood and dirt caving in until he has a space large enough to fit his body. The ground will take him away from all the fires he started, it will bury him in an unbreakable hold.

They’d all be safer without him; happier, even.

He doesn’t know how long he lies there but eventually someone knocks on the door and then Sam hollers his name. He gets up and drags himself over to the light shining under the door. “What?” he groans, pulling the handle back an inch.

“I told you we’d need to all be there for the final layer of warding.” Sam eyes him carefully and then lowers his voice. “Are you okay? I heard you and mom--”

“Shuddup, ‘kay?” He steps out, pushing past his brother and into the hallway. “Let’s just get this over with.”

Sam trails close behind him, muttering about how they need to talk. Dean ignores him and marches on into the library. Castiel and Mary are standing on the other side of the table, looking like they want to be anywhere but there.That makes three of us. Dean moves around the table without greeting them and snatches up the knife.

He presses the blade to his palm and drags it open, opening up his skin like a book.

Don’t.” Suddenly Castiel is at his side, yanking the knife from his hand and slamming his palm over the wound. The skin seals up like it was never broken. “Please don’t.” His voice shakes. “Have mercy on me.”

“What the h--” Dean stops mid-swear. Castiel’s eyes are open wide, his entire body tensed like he’s anticipating a blow. Then he blinks and his demeanor shifts. The panic drains away and is replaced by a flush of horrified embarrassment.

“I didn’t--I’m sorry. My mistake.” Castiel withdraws himself even more. “Go ahead,” he manages weakly.

Dean cuts his palm open again and it sounds like scraping metal against wire. His dream comes back to him--his palm, the endless hole, the black twisted stitches. The wide flaps of skin and blood spurting from the stump.   

“Okay, it worked,” Sam says in the distance, his voice sounding garbled and a mile away. Dean touches his hand carefully, runs his thumb from fingertip to wrist. The appendage is still attached to him, but it feels lighter than it should. Lighter than it did with all those steel cables.

“Are you alright?” Castiel’s words filter through to him like light between tree branches. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you earlier. I just--I got confused.”

Dean looks up to find that Sam and Mary and the spell bowl are all gone. It’s just him and the angel, eye to eye with nothing but the table between them. “Was it something I did,” Dean starts, surprised at the hoarseness of his voice, “under the spell?”

Castiel studies the pattern of the table his fingers are silently tracing. “Yes. It was a sigil.”

Pulling out his phone Dean flips to the photo Sam sent him yesterday. “This one?”

Castiel gives the phone screen a brief glance and then nods tersely.

“What did it do? And where did we get it from, because I couldn’t find it in any of the books.” Dean pauses. “If you want to tell me,” he adds quickly.

“I think you got it from Ketch, I heard you two talking about him…he made it himself, it was untested until he gave it to you. I think he intended it to be used against Lucifer.”

“Lucifer,” Dean repeats numbly. He pulls out a chair to sit down before his knees evaporate beneath him. “So it’s archangel-grade. What did it do? And what do those markings mean?”

“That’s my name in Enochian.” Castiel remains standing but he slips his hands in his pockets. Not before Dean notices that his hands are shaking.

“Cas.” He can hear himself practically begging. “What did it do?

Castiel finally takes a seat, but his eyes are still looking anywhere but at Dean. They’re fixated on some point in the distance. “It electrocutes an angel’s grace. Having the angel’s name focuses the intensity of the sigil.” The tone of his voice is flat and steady. “It only worked with direct contact from the blood flow, so the wielder of the sigil would have to continuously cut their palm and place it to where the sigil was painted. When the wielder’s hand was removed the sigil would cease.”

“Not some random wielder,” Dean says lowly. “Me. I did this to you, Cas.” His bones hurt. He thinks they might be screaming at each other, elbow to humerus to rotator cuffs.

Castiel scratches harder at the table. He must be getting splinters by the dozen. “I tried to help you remember me. I would tell you moments we've shared together, memories I thought would help you remember, but…eventually I stopped doing that because it only made you do the sigil even more often. You thought I was rifling through your mind and stealing parts of your life to retell as if I had been there.”

Castiel’s fingernail gouges out an inch sized piece of wood and he stops and lowers his hands into his lap. “The only times you’d let up…sometimes…was when I’d beg for mercy. You said humiliation was a good look on me. And I didn’t…I-I…” He swallows audibly. “I begged and begged for you to stop. So today when you cut your palm-- for a moment I thought--I was wrong, of course. It won’t happen again.”

He glances up at Dean, eyes soft and apologetic. “I will try to be more focused from now on.”

Dean wishes he was back in his dream, where he wore the evidence of his wrongdoing via the hole in his palm, like a mark of sin given by God. Because here in the waking world there is nothing visible for him to tear at. No flesh to stab with steel wires, no wound to mend. No bone to break and shock his body with the pain.

Cas.” The name leaves his throat in a trembling whisper. “How can you even look at me?”

“It wasn’t you.” The reply comes too quickly. “I know that. Please don’t blame yourself, Dean.”

I’d beg for mercy. You said humiliation was a good look on me. I begged for you to stop. 

He hears Castiel asking him to stop years ago, when the Mark of Cain was burning through his veins. That’s all his friend did. He asked for Dean to stop. And Dean had turned and rained his fists on him, breaking him to the point of death where Castiel had to beg for his life.

Dean. Please.

Castiel is wrong. It is Dean's fault. It is always his hands, covered in the sacrificial blood of an innocent lamb.

The sound of a chair being pushed back squeaks faintly and then there are fading footsteps. Castiel has left. Dean finds himself alone with nothing but the chair holding up his drowning body. He can’t feel his limbs, much less move. He drops his forehead down to the table and closes his eyes. When Dean falls asleep he dreams about the hole in his hand again. 

This time it’s not his bones screaming. It’s Castiel.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

The clock on the bedside dresser reads 6:30 when Mary opens her eyes. That’s two more hours of sleep than yesterday; and several less nightmares than before. From the corner of her eye she sees Castiel sitting in a chair beside her desk. His arms are crossed and his eyes are closed as if he’s sleeping, even though he insists he doesn’t need to sleep anymore.

She’s pretty sure that having Castiel in the room is what’s helping her sleep better. She didn’t exactly ask him to be there; it had been a slip of the tongue, or mind, when she’d prayed while getting into bed last night. Castiel. Where are you? 

He had knocked on the door a few minutes later, and when she let him in he went to the chair, without a word, and started reading a book. She didn’t even have to ask him to stay; she knew he’d still be here when she woke up.  

Mary tosses the covers back and heads to the bathroom. There’s no new towels on the rack, and she makes a mental note to restock them and get more toilet paper rolls. This is one of the guest rooms, and it doesn’t have everything set up the way her original room did. She can’t quite bring herself to go back there. The walls are like a sponge; they’ve absorbed Joni Mitchell’s wails and Castiel’s screams, and she can’t step through the doorway without feeling suffocated, like a hand has slammed against her throat. So she’s been sleeping here, most nights with Castiel somewhere in the room. There’s no discussions around it, no terms of the arrangement, neither of them admitting that they’re afraid the other might disappear again. Sometimes Castiel stays in his chair at the left corner; other times she’ll wake up in the middle of the night to see him sitting at the foot of the bed, legs hugged to his chest and head bowed against his knees.  

After she washes her face she grabs the Post-it pad from beside the clock and scribbles a note to Castiel about going for a run. She’s probably going to just pace a few times outside the Bunker, but it sounds better to say she’s going for a run. Like she’s developing healthy life habits and not marching around like a perimeter guard, the way she used to back in the camps in the Apocalypse World.

On the way out Mary hears the tap running in the kitchen and wonders if one of the boys forgot to turn it off. She knows that they’ve been up at early hours too; their footsteps often patter outside the door and down the halls when she lies awake trying to fall back asleep after a nightmare.

She shrugs into her coat sleeves and hurries over to the sink to turn the tap off, only to stop when she sees her younger son standing there. “Oh, hi, Sam. Good morning. I’m about to go out for a walk, do you wanna join me? Unless you already had your run.”

When Sam doesn’t reply--doesn’t so much as turn and acknowledge her--her heart starts rumbling against her chest. Making sure there’s a wide berth between her and his arm’s reach, Mary cautiously circles around until she’s beside the counter by the sink. “Sam, honey, are you okay?”

Her eyes fall to his hands. They’re under the running faucet, moving back and forth without a break. His eyes are rigid and glassy; they’re fixed on his hands where she sees the rushing of water and a rustle of silver. Stretching her arm as far as she can without getting too close to him, she twists the knob and turns the tap off.

Sam keeps scrubbing. Without the blur of the water Mary can see that he has a metal sponge in one hand and is scraping it against his other palm as hard as he can. Spots of red and flecks of skin are tangled in the curls of the wire mesh.

“Sam!” She yanks the brush out of his grip, then grabs a towel and presses it tightly against his hand. “Sam, what are you doing? Can you hear me?”

“I have to get the oil off,” her son drones, monotone, eyes still glued to his palms. “I have to get it off. The oil…I have to get it off.”

“Sam, what are you talking about?” She shakes his arm desperately, “You’re bleeding.”

 

+

 

After bandaging up Sam’s hand--”I don’t remember when I left my room”--”There was this feeling of oil, Mom. Thick and slippery”--”Was I sleepwalking”--and making him a cup of coffee and some toast, she leaves him in the care of a frazzled Dean and goes to go talk to Castiel. She’s been meaning to have this conversation with him ever since Dean snapped at her about the torment of not knowing what he did. But she put it off for the past few days, because how do you tell someone’s who been tortured that they need to share their memories of abuse with the very people who committed it?

She knows what it’s like to be in Dean and Sam’s shoes; to have fragmented snatches of atrocities done when you weren’t yourself, to dream in flickers of blood and terror. But she would never have been able to, for example, talk about her experiences to Ketch or Toni, she would. She wouldn’t be willing to expose them to all the wounds they made. Sam and Dean aren’t the British Men of Letters, though. They love Castiel. They never wanted to hurt him. Hopefully that will make this a little easier.

Mary takes a deep breath and pushes open the door to her room.

Castiel is still there, of course. He’s taken off his coat and suit jacket and is sitting cross-legged on her bed, leafing through a large yellowed book that looks like an ancient encyclopedia. He greets her with a smile. “How was your run?”

She pauses. The neatly-printed lie comes to mind. “Oh, I--” she decides to forgo the facade. “I didn’t do it. I mean, I was just planning to walk outside, after all, but then Sam--”

The encyclopedia closes immediately. “Is he alright?”

“Yes, he’s okay. I mean, he’s not really fine. Neither of them are.” She sits down next to him on the bed. “It’s hard for them, not knowing what really happened. I think they’re starting to remember some things in their dreams but it’s not…clear. And that’s frustrating. For them.”

“Okay,” Castiel straightens up. “What can I do to help?”

Her stomach lurches. He’s so eager and ready to help anyone but himself. He would do anything they asked him, and she wants to make sure he knows that this isn’t a request. She doesn’t want him to do it as a favor. “I don’t want to push you, Castiel. This isn’t something you should do because I’m asking you, only if you feel completely comfortable. You can say no, or wait, or anything at all, and that’s totally fine, but if you feel ready to--”

“You want me to tell them.” His posture shifts, slackening slightly. Not in anger or irritation. He looks defeated, like he’s lost something he was trying to hold onto. “Everything.”

“Not if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to hurt them. I think they’d be upset to know.”

“They’re upset now, though, because they don’t know.”

He rubs a thumb over the corner of the encyclopedia. “You really think it would help them?”

“Yes. I mean, I think so,” she corrects herself, because that first acknowledgement sounded too adamant and she’s desperate not to make him feel forced to do it. “They’ve told me how hard it is to work through what happened without knowing what really happened. I think there’s a lot of fear there, fear that they might have done something… Unforgivable.”

Castiel looks up at her. “They didn’t hurt Jack. Anything else they did or could have done I would forgive.”

She files away that sweetly devoted and terrifying declaration to talk to him about later. “Cas, look, you don’t have to talk to them about it, if that’s not something you want to do. Maybe there’s a better way…” she furrows her brow, her gaze drifting over the room as she thinks of how she could possibly make this easier for him. “What if-what if you wrote it down? Would that be better--I know some things might be harder to say out loud.”

His face brightens a little. “That would be good. For clarity,” he adds, like he can’t afford to be seen wanting anything for his own comfort. “So they can refer back to it when they’re confused or having nightmares.”

“Okay. I’ll grab you a pen and  paper and be back in a minute.”

When Mary comes back Castiel has put his trench coat back on and is sitting at the little desk on the right, flipping the light switch of the lamp back and forth. He stops when she enters the room. “Where are they right now?” he asks as he takes the sheet of notebook paper.

“Sam’s in his room and Dean went for a beer run. Take your time. You don’t have to finish it today or tomorrow or anything.” She rubs a hand across his shoulders, trying to massage away some of the tension gathered there, and he leans into towards her touch. “Just write whatever you feel okay with letting them know. This isn’t just about them, you know. You and how you feel comes first.”

Castiel grunts in vague acknowledgement and picks up the pen.

She stops. “What did I say, Cas?”

“How I feel comes first,” he says faintly.  

“That’s right.” She squeezes his shoulder and he reaches up and covers a hand over her fingers. “Don’t forget that, okay?”

He nods. “I won’t. Thank you, Mary.”

“I didn’t do anything.”

Castiel gives her that look again, that same expression of tender gratitude that he wore when she finished helping him with the grace earlier this week. She wonders when he’s learned to be thankful for those who hurt him, who ask too much and give too little.

A weight grows in her chest and she leaves the room before the blockage in her throat loosens.  The front door clangs in the distance--Dean returning--and all she thinks of is where she can run. She doesn’t want to talk to any of her sons, or Castiel, right now. She just needs to be somewhere alone, somewhere with space to can breathe. Her chest heaves as she runs into the garage and collapses into the back seat of the Impala, drinking for air in noisy gulps.

As she pants heavily, knees digging into the seat, she notices the tape deck from the corner of her eye. John. Joni Mitchell. The tightness around her ribs only increases. She grabs a fistful of her shirt and pounds against her chest, like it might help loosen whatever giant mass is increasing there. Breathe, Mary. Breathe. Her teeth bite down hard on her lower lip and her nostrils flare. Breathe.

By the time it stops feeling like there’s a tornado twisting between her ribcage she feels her phone beeping and pulls it out of her pocket and notices the time. It’s been fifteen minutes since she left Castiel in her room. Had she been here all the time, kneeling in the back seat of her dead husband’s car, gasping for air like a beached whale?

Castiel’s text flashes over the screen. I’ve run out of paper. Do you know where I can get more?

On the way back to her room she gets a sudden thought and grabs another chair from one of the guest rooms. It might be of help to him, she realizes, or even to Sam and Dean. But she mostly wants to do this for herself. To have a chronology of what she’d experienced so she knows the difference between the memories and the nightmares. To remember what was then, and is not happening right now.

“Hey.” She knocks on her bedroom door before opening it so as not to startle him. “Thought I might as well also write down what I remember. In case they have questions about that, too.”

Castiel scoots his chair over to make room for her. “That’s a good idea. We can also compare timelines to see if they match up.” He hands her the sheets of paper he’s already filled with neat rows of writing that look like they’ve been printed fresh from a typewriter. “I’ve only written for the first three days though.”

“Your handwriting is very nice.” Mary pulls her chair in, knees bumping into the drawers on the side of the desk.

“I thought to use a less artistic font. So it’s easier to read.”

“You can write in different fonts?”

Castiel beams proudly. “I picked it up recently after I read an article in the Pottery Barn magazine about handwriting. It’s quite relaxing to practice.”

“Well, you’ve got me beat for sure,” Mary laughs, smoothing out the papers in front of her. “Mine is either close to a prescription scribble or a kindergartner's print.” As her eyes drift down the first paragraph she forgets her admiration of his handwriting when she realizes what he’s written there. This is just the first three days, he said. She was handcuffed to her bed and he was experiencing this.

“Okay,” she sucks in a tight breath. “Okay.” He really is going to tell them everything. As her eyes travel down the page Mary wonders if it ever occurred to Castiel that he could have said no, and written nothing at all.

 

+

 

“This is like being called into the principal’s office,” Dean quips, a weak grin punctuating his joke. Sam tries to laugh, for his sake. They’re both nervous, he knows. Petrified. Nauseated. And Castiel hasn’t even started telling them what happened. Just knowing that he’s about to is simultaneously a choke-hold and a release.

They’re sitting in the library next to the longest table, side by side. The two empty seats across from them are for Mary and Castiel, an unspoken arrangement that divides them into victims and perpetrators. Saints and sinners. Lambs and lions.

Sam picks at the gauze around his hand until Dean nudges him with a mutter of “stop it.” After the incident this morning Sam had told Dean about his dreams, and heard Dean’s own nightmare recollections. If Dean’s steel wire-stitched hand references the electrocution sigil, then Sam can already guess what the dream he had last night about his hands drenched in oil means. Sam keeps telling himself it’s not possible, because if they had used holy oil then Castiel would be dead, and not awkwardly coming into the room right now, clutching papers to his chest like a test sheet.

But Sam also knows that holy oil isn’t just used for killing angels. There was a particularly vivid passage in the British Men of Letters document about mixing holy oil with holy water and using it to brand angel vessels from the inside out. He tastes this morning’s toast rising sour in the back of his throat and drags himself away from the thought. He’ll know in a matter of minutes exactly what he’d done. He can’t afford to fall apart. Not now, when he’s on trial.

Sam takes a deep breath and discreetly digs his thumbnail into his other palm. Focus. Ten seconds at a time. Just get through this.

“I don’t want you to apologize to me after reading this,” Castiel is saying. “I know it wasn’t you. This is just to help you know what happened so you won’t have those--” he glances at Mary, like they’ve discussed this before “--nightmares. And so we can move past this together.” He carefully pushes several papers across the table. “You can ask if anything isn’t clear.” He looks to Mary again and she follows suit, sliding her own single sheet of paper over.

“For clarity,” Castiel says, motioning to both of their offerings. “So you know what happened each day.”

Sam glances at Dean, hoping he’ll pick up Castiel’s paper first. Instead his older brother grabs Mary’s, leaving the seraph’s record of horrors all to Sam. He gingerly tugs Castiel’s stack of papers forward and starts to skim the neat handwriting. He used Constantia. Castiel told Sam about his font learning and the two had played a game during sleepless nights where Castiel would write a word and Sam would guess what font it was by typing the same word into an open Word document. Sam had always gotten Cambria and Constantia mixed up.

Castiel has organized the events to read like a shopping list. There’s three columns: the day of the week, and the weapon of torture used, followed by an x and a number. It takes Sam a second to realize that it stands for the number of times the torture was repeated in a day. Just on Wednesday there’s already “angel blade x2” and then the digit is tripled by the second day.

Dean looks over his shoulder. Sam can feel the catch of his breath on his neck, the faintly mouthed swearing as both their eyes travel down the page.

It’s there, right on the bottom, at the end of Friday. Two words, and a single digit after it.

Holy oil. X1

“What did I--” Sam can’t get the words out. He already took Castiel’s grace. He cannot have done this, too, please God no. “Did I--” he looks to Dean helplessly.

“Did we light the holy oil?” Dean asks. There’s that use of plural again.  

“No!” Castiel looks mortified. “Of course you didn’t. I’m standing right here as testament to that.”

Sam wishes he hadn’t eaten anything that day. It’s going to exit his body anyways, this body that’s always only ever been a receptacle for the waste of his mistakes

“I poured it on you,” Sam hears himself say. Even without looking he can feel the burn of Dean’s aghast stare.

“No,” Castiel corrects him. “You…you threw it in my face. You threatened to light it but you never did.” He tries to meet Sam’s eyes. “You didn’t light it, Sam.”

“Why didn’t I?” Sam can’t stop the question from coming out. But he knows that if he was in a state of mind where he’d freely douse Castiel in the one substance that would give him a horrendous death, what possibly stopped him from following through? Does he have Dean to thank for pulling him back, or his father? Or Mary?

Castiel presses his shoulders against the chair like he’s trying to disappear into the wood. “I lied,” he says, his gaze dropping the ground. “I said I worked for Michael and so you didn’t--you didn’t light it. It wasn’t--” his voice lowers to a thin sound. “I just didn’t want to die.”

Sam gets up from the table and walks away. Stumbles, really. Half a foot away from crawling on the ground. His stomach feels like it’s crumbling in on itself. He might as well vomit out the rest of his organs, too, purging the evil that is himself. The wrongness since infancy has stayed with him, has bled over every love he ever had, and has hurt every kind soul that was foolish enough to get close to him.

As Sam staggers down the hallway he hears Dean shouting. “Six times a day? I fucking electrocuted you six times?” and the tears break from his eyes. He can’t even see where he’s going and he doesn’t care. If he falls into nothingness he hopes he doesn’t wake up.

 

+

 

It doesn’t help to drink. Dean drinks anyway. At least there’s some other taste in his mouth than disgust. After Sam practically ran away from the table Dean had stayed long enough to finish reading Castiel’s report. The numbers next to the torture methods rose higher with each day. He hadn’t meant to raise his voice, but he had. He just couldn’t believe what he was reading. Castiel had flinched at his rage, and that was when Dean had dropped the papers and fled to his own room. Mary came several times to try and talk to him through the closed door, and then to beg him to come and eat some dinner. He’d ignored her until she stopped coming by.

He had read her journal of abuse too. How he drugged her, how he monitored her down to bathroom breaks and taken away her pillowcase so she couldn’t hide anything in it. She had made a grab to take it back once he started reading but he pulled away from her. He needed this information; he’d been going insane without it.

Now he has exactly what he asked for. The insanity is gone, replaced by an overwhelming sense of futility. He can never make up for this. He can never be redeemed. He will always have tortured Castiel. He will always have electrocuted his best friend, over and over while he begged for mercy. He will always have not believed his own mother and been her jailer in her own room.

The bottle’s empty. Again. Or was it full before? He doesn’t know. Maybe it’s a different bottle. Either way his mouth is dry and his head isn’t spinning fast enough to make the screaming in his skull become a muted blur.  He checks his phone. It’s 10 p.m. He’s been here for hours.

There’s another bottle stashed behind the toilet of the secret bathroom in the back of the storage room--well, Sam apparently knows about it, too. He’s pretty sure that his brother won’t drink the bottle, though; Sam is probably barricaded in his own room. If Dean knew what to say to comfort him, to wipe that look of utter terror off his face, he’d go and talk to him. But he knows he can’t, and anything he says will just make Sam even more upset.

So instead Dean cracks his door open and then steals out to go get a whiskey refill from the bathroom stash. He makes it to the storage room without incident and is almost through to the back when he hears something. Someone. Someone’s in the bathroom already.

Dammit, Sam, is on the tip of his tongue when hears the person speaking. He recognizes the voice immediately.

It’s Castiel. He’s speaking in Latin. Dean doesn’t have the time to listen and translate, and doesn’t need to, because in a second the sound changes. It’s a long, strange, gasping noise and Dean steps forward quickly, thinking that Castiel is having a panic attack or needs help, but his foot stops a few inches from the bathroom door.

Castiel is not fighting for air, not suffocating. He’s crying.

Huge, shaking, desperate sobs. The kind that physically wrench your gut and blind your eyes and clog your nose. The kind that don’t stop, no matter how much you want them to. The kind that ache long after the tears have stopped leaking from your eyes.

Dean’s knees bend and he slides down to the ground, his shoulder blades braced against the stack of boxes behind the bathroom. He can’t offer Castiel any comfort, and he can’t leave because that would be turning his back on him, on what he’s done.

I did this. I broke him. I broke my family. 

And what’s worse, Dean realizes, is that it could happen again. With Michael locked up in his head Dean will always be a threat to the people he loves. If Michael gets out and takes over his body his hands could be the ones torturing them again, the ones making them cry for mercy that never comes.

He balls his hands into fists and presses them against his closed eyelids. Castiel has started whispering in Latin some broken sound that must be an attempt to calm himself, before he starts sobbing again. Tomorrow, Dean promises himself. Tomorrow he will leave behind any chance of him ever hurting Castiel or anyone ever again.

He should have taken that one-way trip to the bottom of the ocean a long time ago.  

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Mary wakes up and someone is breaking her face apart. Hard brass slamming into her cheekbones; the first flush of pain and then the secondary sting ripping across her skin. Before the grogginess clears her vision her hands jump up to her face, frantically feeling for the injury. But there’s nothing there. Her skin is whole and in the right place. She still feels the incoming blows, though like they’re happening to a her that isn’t attached to her body. Between the flashing gold of brass knuckles and the splash of bright blood she sees someone. Her husband.

John.  

John, face purple with rage.

John, arm swinging back and then landing hard again.

John, with spit around his mouth and cold eyes.

She screams. The bed sheets crumple beneath her as she scrambles backwards and the back of her head bumps into the headboard.

Suddenly the brutality and John disappear. Mary rubs her eyes and blinks hard, but all she sees is Castiel sitting at the foot of her bed, knees to his chest and eyes shut. There’s a strange white cloud around his head, like a swirl of smoke. She squints, staring at it harder, and sees the thin outline of two figures. John. And Castiel. Castiel, chained to that chair in the basement. It’s his face that John is pummeling, not hers. The image flickers in and out, like a television glitch.

Is this some kind of angelic nightmare? She swipes a hand through the fog, trying to brush it away, and instead she feels the full force of John’s fists raining on her bones. When she jerks back the illusion immediately disperses. It must only affect her like that when she touches it.

“Cas! Wake up, wake up now!” She grips her fingers around his coat sleeve and shakes him, hard.  

Castiel shudders, his eyelids peeling back slowly. His gaze is wide and unfocused, drifting around the room. “Mary?

“Are you still dreaming?” She gestures to the horrendous John-fog above them. “Why is that still here?”

“Oh. Oh,” Castiel breathes, some strange hue of emotion coloring his face. “It’s not a dream, it’s a memory. I just withdrew my grace and--…just a minute, let me re-settle it.”

“Hold on.” Her fingers dig tighter into the side of his arm. “This happened? This actually--John--John--” she can’t stop saying his name, each time more and more shrill. “John?”

“Let me expand my grace again. It will disappear.” He shuts his eyes again and places his hands on his knees. “Don’t touch it,” he adds as Mary reaches up to do just that. She has to know. If this really happened she has to know how it ends. Her fingers graze the edge of the wispy blur just as she hears Castiel somewhere below her yelling, “Mary, don’t!”

She’s in the chair. She can’t move her arms or legs. In fact she can’t move any part of her body except to sway back after each punch and then to dip forward, only to jerk against the chair again. Her teeth fall and fill her mouth like hard candies. She’s not breathing. She can’t feel her nose anymore. Her left eye splashes around the curve of brass. Her throat is full of Latin, the same lines over and over, clogging up her esophagus. John becomes a shard of fury that pierces through her skin and she hurts in a way she’s never hurt before. The pain drinks down every single molecule of her, gargles her, and then vomits her back out.

Before she can think another thought--help, get me out here--the front of her skull cracks and crumbles like a graham cracker.

“Mary!”

That’s not John’s voice. She turns towards it, throws her body in that single blessed direction of mercy, and finds herself rolling to the other side of the bed, her face in the pillows. When she pulls herself back up Castiel is on his feet at the foot of the bed, arms wrapped around himself protectively.

“I told you not to touch it,” he says. He sounds angry.

The John-storm is gone. Mary touches a finger to her head and then runs it down her face to her chin. There’s no wound, no fracture, nothing at all. “That wasn't in the schedule you wrote,” she rasps.

“It wasn’t something Sam and Dean did,” Castiel retorts. Then, “John was just protecting you, Mary.”

“That wasn’t--no. That wasn’t--he wasn’t asking you for information or anything--that was--how could you not tell me about this?”

“I told you not to touch it,” Castiel repeats coldly.

“He broke your skull. Oh god,” her hands come up to cover her mouth. Her ribs feel like they’re collapsing in on themselves. “How are you--I saw it, he--”

“I healed,” Castiel says. “Look at me now, I’m fine.” He flings out his arms as if to demonstrate his wellness and then he stomps towards the door. “I’m going to make some coffee,” he mutters, closing the door a little more forcefully behind him.

Mary tries to get off the bed to follow him but her legs simply fold underneath her. She drops to her side, knees tucked against her stomach, mouth open and gasping for air. Somehow she manages to get her phone out of her pocket. Jody is the last person she called so she doesn’t even need to dial the numbers; she hits the call button and then lets the phone fall to the ground beside her.

As soon as Jody’s voice comes through the phone speakers Mary chokes on a mouthful of nothing. “My John,” she babbles, sucking in huge noisy gulps of air. “John, he hurt him. He hurt him so bad, why, he was defenseless, he couldn’t even do anything, he couldn’t even hide, and John just kept --” her lungs rumble like thunder inside her skin “--he kept--”

“Mary, don’t try to talk, just breathe.” Jody sounds soft and steady. Like the first gust of warm air from a heater in winter. “Breathe in, breathe out. Okay, good. Let’s do it again. Breathe in--” and Mary obeys “--breathe out. Let’s do it a few more times, okay? I’m going to count backwards from five, and you breathe out on one, okay? Good. You’re doing great.”

By the time Jody’s counted backwards a dozen times Mary feels her lungs stop trembling and her legs feel solid again, like they might be able to support her weight. She pushes herself up on her hands, still half kneeling on the floor, and exhales a long stream of air.

“Okay,” Mary whispers into the phone. “I’m sorry, Jody, I don’t know what happened just then.”

“It sounded like you had something like a panic attack. Don’t apologize. There’s nothin’ to be sorry for. Are you okay now?”

”Yeah, I just--I found out something that John did to Castiel.” She squeezes her eyes shut. “I saw a memory from Castiel when John…” she bites down on her lower lip hard, enough that she starts to taste blood.  

Jody doesn’t ask, doesn’t press for details. She just waits. “I’m here,” she says at one point.

“John beat him to a pulp. Broke every bone in his face. His skull. Castiel was tied up in that chair and he couldn’t do anything, and John was just--I’ve never seen him like that, Jody. He was a monster.” The word lands with a thud in her stomach.

“Do you know why John did that?”

“Cas said something about him trying to protect me, but that-that wasn’t it. That was just rage, Jody. Pure, unchecked anger, lashing out on someone who couldn’t possibly defend themselves. I didn’t recognize him, there was no…there was nothing of the man I loved there.”

“Hmm. Well, maybe because he isn’t the man you married, literally. You said he was brought back from 2003 right? So that’s after you died. This is a John who’s been a widower, a single father, a hunter. You’ve never known him in any of those ways, right?”

“No,” Mary admits. “I knew he’d be different, of course. I mean, I’m not the same person I used to be either. I’ve done things--” she swallows hard “--and been to places that have changed me. But I’m not--I’m not that.”

Jody laughs lightly on the other end of the line. “Mary, you’re a good person. Your instinct is to protect people first, not hunt them. That’s what makes you such a great hunter. If we were all motivated by revenge or to make sense of all the messed up things that happen, we’d get lost in our own heads pretty quickly.”

Mary pulls herself up to sit on the edge of the bed. “Do you think that’s what happened to John? Because I died–this is what he became?”

“Now don’t go blaming yourself, honey. You don’t make a man change, that’s a journey they take for themselves. Always. And look, I didn’t know John before I met your boys, but it might help to talk to them about him. If you feel comfortable with that. Find out what he was like….”

Toni Bevell’s words comes back into Mary’s mind. Jody’s voice becomes a distant reverberation as Mary remembers what Toni said about John. The weeks of abandonment, the drunken rages, the training like child soldiers. At the time she’d thought it was another mind manipulation on Toni’s part, another attempt to corrupt the truths she knew. But now…now Mary doesn’t know what to think; or she does know, and the realization makes a shiver shudder down the length of her body.

“…and none of you are at fault for what he did,” Jody is saying. “Those were his actions, and his responsibility.”

“Okay. Thank you, Jody. For being here.” Mary clears her throat. “How are the girls doing?”

“Oh, you know, same old,” she chuckles. “Still can’t get ‘em to sort the laundry properly before doing a load. Right now they’re off on a hunting trip with Jack so I can finally put in some clothes that’ll come out in the same color they were when I put ‘em in.”

“I think Cas would want to see Jack again. Maybe they can come by once the hunt is over? How soon would that be, a few days, a week?

“Hold on, lemme see. They’ve been gone by Monday, and this morning Jack said they already found the vamp nest so maybe in two or three days?” Jody pauses. “Do you think it’s okay for Jack to be in the Bunker now?”

“I think so. I think it might help. For all of us, to get some sense of normalcy.

“Y’know, what happened to all of you was anything but normal. It’s okay to not feel like yourself for days, weeks, or even months afterwards. There’s no timetable for recovery, Mary.”

Mary thinks that it’s not recovery, but discovery that she needs to embark on. There’s a blank map in her mind now, one in the shape of her dead husband, and she’s almost afraid to let it be colored in with all that happened since she was gone. She needs to find Castiel first, and apologize for intruding on a memory that she had no right to. Then she needs to talk to Sam or Dean about John and find out what kind of father he really was. She’s not looking forward to that conversation, but she needs to know if he ever hurt them like that. Who’d be more ready to tell her the truth, Sam or Dean?

As if reading her mind, Dean knocks on her door just after she finishes the call with Jody. Her son pokes his head around the door when she calls “come in” and then slides into the room in an awkward shuffle. He’s fidgeting with the left corner of his shirt, the way he would as a little boy whenever he was trying to hide a lie.

“Hey,” Dean grins weakly. “How’re you doing?”

“Okay, I guess, How about you?”

“Not great.” The speed at which he’s jumped to honesty surprises her. Normally it would take a few more pleasantries and subtle wrangling to get him to open up. She pats the spot on the bed beside her and he takes the seat. He sits on the edge, body pulled in and hunched over, elbows on his knees.

She reaches up and rubs her hand across his shoulders. “What can I do to help?”

“Nothing. I think I need to get away from the Bunker for a bit, just to not be…here, you know?” She nods, and he continues, “I was thinking of staying over at Jody’s for a few days.”

“That’s a good idea. I was just talking to her and she says the girls and Jack are on a hunt, so the house should be pretty empty.

“Great!” Dean slaps his knees and stands up abruptly, letting her hand slip off his back and fall back down to the bed. Her fingers tug at the dip in the mattress that his presence has left. She wants him to stay longer, to talk to her, really talk to her. She wants to hold him and tell him it’s going to be alright.   

“You should tell Sam and Cas where you’re going,” is all she says. “So they don’t worry.”

Dean hesitates, turned halfway towards the door. “Cas?”  

“Dean. If you leave without him telling he’ll think it’s because of what he told you. You know how he blames himself. Don’t do that to him.”

“Yeah, yeah, okay.” Dean drags a hand over his face. “I’ll tell him. I will.” He looks like can’t wait to leave her room.

“Dean, I…wait.” It comes out before she can stop it. “Did John ever hit you?

His face hardens even more. “Why do you ask?” he says stiffly.

“I--I saw a memory that Castiel had. Something terrible John did to him when he was here. John was so…angry. I’ve never seen him like that before.”

Dean shifts his weight from one foot to the other. “I was kinda hoping to make it to Jody’s before dark. Can we talk about this later? I can call you when I get there.”

“Yeah, of course. Drive safely.” She stands up to give him a goodbye hug but Dean’s already hurried out of the room. He goes down the hall without looking back at her and she watches him leave. It’s only a distance of a few feet but it feels like watching her child walk off the edge of the world.

 

+

 

By the time Mary works up the courage to actually go and talk to Castiel it’s almost lunch time. She spent a good thirty minutes pacing in her room and preparing what to say, and then another thirty minutes picking apart and dismantling the entire speech scripted in her mind. It was when Sam came in to ask her if she wanted tuna or salmon in her sandwich that she took the opportunity to force herself out of her room and down the hall.

When Castiel answers her knock and opens the door there’s a trace of a grin playing around the corners of his mouth. “Oh, you finally came.”

“What do you mean finally--oh god.” She clamps a hand over her mouth. “I was praying the whole time, wasn’t I?”

“Yeah. The rewrites too.” Castiel looks like he’s trying very hard not to show his amusement. “I think the third version was the best of all of them.”

“Shit--I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.” She ducks her head as he gestures for her to come in. “It’s just a habit--I don’t even realize it sometimes, I think I pray by accident now because--”

“That was the only way you could reach me before.” His expression softens. “I heard all those too, when I was….” he nods meaningfully. “They were--they helped a lot. Whenever I heard them I knew that you were still alive.”

“Did you ever think I was dead?” Mary sits down on the chair instead of the bed where Castiel has settled. She doesn’t want to be too close to him in case it makes him feel uncomfortable.

Castiel picks at a string in the fold of the bedspread. “No. I knew they wouldn’t kill you. But I thought you might not be…okay.”

Tortured, her mind fills in. “Castiel, I’m so sorry for what I did this morning. I had no right to touch your grace--your memory--and it was--”

“Mary, I know,” he interrupts her gently. “I heard you praying, remember? I don’t judge you for doing it. Curiosity is a powerful thing. To know that you could know, but not have that knowledge, is a kind of suffering in itself.” He wraps the loose thread tightly around his index finger, lines of flesh pushing at the squeeze. “I just--I didn’t want you to see me like that.”

Mary swallows tightly. “I-I heard Latin. Or that's what it sounded like. You were saying something in Latin when John was…hurting you.”

“Oh. That.” Castiel looks away, as if embarrassed. “It’s a Gregorian chant. Agnus Dei, Lamb of God. The lines are repeated. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on me.” He lets go of the string and it falls away from his pull in a gasping curl. His thumb traces the red indents left on his index finger. “It helps to keep the mind conscious during pain. That way I can heal faster.”

“You were praying?”  

“Not to God, I know He--I was just trying to…” his voice fades and then comes back. “Prayer can be very strengthening, even if you know no one is listening.”  

“I’m so sorry.” She exhales through her nostrils, lips taunt, trying to keep her voice steady. “I’m sorry that John ever got near you. And don’t tell me he was doing it out of love for me, to protect me, because that wasn’t any kind of love. That was wrong, Castiel.” 

“John wasn’t a bad person,” Castiel says under his breath. “I’m sure he thought what he was doing was right.”

Don’t defend him, she almost retorts but then she stops herself. Maybe his defense of John is the only way he can process what happened to him. Maybe he needs to believe the righteous conviction of his attacker to make it sting less. “When you saw that memory again this morning,” she begins. “How did it make you feel?”

Castiel picks up the thread again but he doesn’t coil it around his finger. He just plucks it free from the bedspread and then lays it in his palm . “I couldn’t even scream,” he whispers to his hand. “I couldn’t barely even see him or see what he wanted from me. Most of the time when I’m being tortured there’s a reason: the first being for information. But he never said a word the whole time. So I knew it was for the second reason. Punishment. I never hurt John, though. I’d never even met him before.” And then, barely audible. “I don’t think I deserved that.”

“You didn’t. You didn’t,” Mary repeats louder. “Look at me, Cas. You didn’t deserve that, or anything else that happened to you. None of it. None of it.”

He glances up at her and she sees the gleam of tears shining in his lost blue eyes. She gets up and moves the chair over until she’s in front of him, sitting knee to knee. He unfolds both hands and reaches out to her and she slips her fingers between his and holds on. They sit there silently, foreheads braced against each other, doing nothing except breathing the air between them.

“Can I show you something?” Castiel says after some time. His eyes are shut. There are dried tear tracks on his cheeks.

“Of course.”

“It’s a memory. I want you to see this one.”

“Okay. I’m here. Whenever you’re ready”

Castiel inhales and then squeezes her left hand softly. The room evaporates.

In a blink she’s drowning in blackness. It’s the kind of midnight that devours every inch of her. She’s losing the sense of her arms, her legs, her back and neck, every nerve and sensation is crumbling away. She’s disintegrating.

And then it breaks, like the pictures in Bible story books of Moses parting the sea. Light like molten gold pours into her body, solidifying everything that was feeble and frail before. She hears a word coursing through her veins, a word that stitches life into every part of her that was dying before. It embraces her like a single shaft of sunlight on a cold winter morning, heating her bones down to her soul.

HEAL.

When she opens her eyes it takes her a moment to readjust her vision to the dull lightning of the room. “What was that?” she breathes. Her eyes are wet but she doesn’t remember crying.

“You,” he replies simply. “Don’t you remember?”

The scene she’s tried not to think about comes to mind: Castiel, stabbed by Dean and bleeding out; her, yelling at him to heal. “That’s not how--that’s not-- I turned my back for a second and that’s when Dean got close enough to hurt you, that’s not--” she withdraws her hands from his. “I didn’t save you, you saved yourself.”

“You asked me what the memory of John made me feel, and I told you.” He looks her in the eyes. “This is what the memory of that moment makes me feel. I remember fading away, being too weak to fight, and then you were there. You brought me back to life.”

She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t want this. It feels like Castiel is trying to pardon her, to show her how one so-called good deed she did makes up for the atrocity of John’s crime.

“Mary, you don’t have to atone for what John did. His actions are completely apart from you.”

How did he-- “I was praying again, wasn’t I?”

He nods, smiling.

“It’s kinda useful actually,” she shrugs sheepishly. “Some things are a lot easier to say with your mind than out loud. Thank you for sharing that with me, Castiel, I…I’m glad I was there.”

“Me too.” He holds out his arms and she folds into his embrace, drying her eyes on the corner of his shoulder.

“By the way,” she adds after they break apart, “when I was in your memory, there was something comparing it to Moses and a parting of the Red Sea? Was that you or me?”

Oh.” Castiel blushes slightly. “That was me. That’s how I describe the memory in my own words, so to speak. The parting of the Red Sea was one of my first miracle assignments. I got quite excited and carried away. I don’t think Raphael wanted it to be that…splashy.”

The idea of Castiel showing off like an overeager kid on his first school presentation makes Mary laugh. It builds from a slight giggle to a full-throated sound, and then Castiel joins in. Her eyes grow wet, for the first time in days, not with sorrow or fear, but with joy. The brief moment of reprieve is interrupted, however, when Dean knocks on the door. Mary is still chuckling quietly to herself when he comes in, but she notices how Castiel quickly retracts himself. His entire demeanor shifts, becoming more guarded and poised. As if he is ready for a confrontation.  

“Hey.” Dean stays just inside the doorway, not stepping closer. “I need a hand with the Impala--I think there’s something stuck underneath and Sam’s elbow-deep in salad.” His words are clearly directed at Castiel, but the angel still turns to Mary with a questioning expression.  

“Go ahead,” she encourages him. “I think Sam might need some help with lunch.”

“Okay.” Castiel says, getting up reluctantly. He looks back at Mary as he follows her son out the room, his eyes asking her for reassurance. She holds his gaze as if she was holding him in her arms and prays to him.

It’s okay. It’s going to be alright.

 

+

 

“Can you shine the flashlight over--yeah, to the right. I almost got it--there.” Dean jerks the screw loose and slides out from under the car. Of course he knew where it was; he’s the one who put it there in the first place. He just needed a reason to talk to Castiel alone. He’s been hoping his friend will notice the bag in the passenger seat or the fact that Dean’s wearing one of his outdoor jackets, and ask him where he’s going, but so far Castiel has been mostly silent. The only thing Castiel said since coming into the garage was to hum along to the home insurance commercial that was playing on the radio, then to comment, “I don’t think they included apocalypses in their insurance plan, did they?”

Dean had been so shocked by the joke that he’d forgotten to laugh at it.

But now the screw is out and Castiel is turning around to walk away, probably back to his room or to Mary (any place except for where I am). Dean knows what he needs to say--needs to say now--but he still can’t get the words out. As he’s mentally scrambling for something to say the angel stops, one foot on the threshold.

Then Castiel turns around and moves over the driver’s seat, squinting through the window like something in the reflection has caught his eye. When he straightens up there’s an entirely new expression on his face: abject defeat. “You’re leaving.” It’s not even a question.

“Yeah, but it’s not what it looks like--I mean, it is, cuz I’m heading out, but it’s not--” Dean scratches the back of his neck and grits his teeth. “It’s not because of you, okay?”

Castiel seems to relax, but only marginally. “Then why are you going?”

“I just need to get away for a bit, get my head right.” He folds his arms on the edge of the car’s roof. “I’m heading over to Jody’s, and Mary said Jack and the girls are gonna drop by here in a few days. It’ll be fine, you’ll have Mary, Sam, and Jack all here.” (All the people in your life you’ll ever need. The ones who won't hurt you like I do.)

“I understand.” Castiel drops his gaze. “It’s not easy to--I know that what I told you might be overwhelming, and I wouldn’t have told it if I didn’t think it would help--”

“Stop it, man, come on, it’s not your fault.” Dean rounds the hood of the car to come face to face with Castiel. “Believe me, it did help. It did, ‘kay? I just need some time alone to process it and figure out some stuff.”

Castiel nods, but he still looks so forlorn, with his shoulder slumped and head drooping. Like he’s an eight-year-old kid standing on the doorstep and Dean is in the driveway, leaving him behind in the rear view mirror.

“Look, I’m--” his chest contracts tightly “--I’m coming back, alright? I promise.” (Liar liar liar)

“You promise?

“Yeah.” (liar) He forces himself to sound light and confident. Then he holds out his arms and shrugs awkwardly. “Can I?”

Castiel hasn’t let Dean touch him since the spell was broken, much less voluntarily been close to him, but now Castiel eagerly reaches out and wraps himself around him like an octopus in those memes Claire is always sending him.

“Okay, okay,” Dean mutters, patting a hand against his back. “Come on. You know the drill.”

He expects Castiel to pull back and say something like “no chick flicks”, which would give him a chance to offer a funny quip back and break the heavy sentiment of the moment, but instead Castiel just presses himself tighter against his chest and says, “You’re coming back for me. You’re not leaving me.”

“Yeah--wait what? Who said that to you?”

Castiel is still clinging onto him. Dean wonders if he’s going to have to pry him off. “Mary told me that when she came for me. She told me to say it back.” 

When she came to rescue you from the dungeon we were torturing you in. Suddenly Dean feels like crying. He’s never going to see Castiel again. Or his brother, or Mom, or Jack, or anyone else for that matter. He’s going to have nothing but memories as he drowns again and again in that coffin for thousands of years. But he can’t live with the slightest chance of ever hurting them again. He hates what he’s about to do, but not as much as he hates what he’s already done and could do again.

“Okay,” he breathes shakily. “What else did she say?”

“I’m coming back for you. I’m not leaving you. I promise. I love you.”

“Yeah.” Dean closes his fingers around the back of the trench coat and shuts his eyes, trying to hold onto the moment as long as he can. “Ditto.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Mary scoops up another dollop of the tuna mixture with the tip of her butter knife. She spreads it over the slice of bread in her palm before pressing it into the other piece. Then she adds it to the stack of sandwiches on the tray beside her. “You’re only eating one?” She waves her knife in the direction of the single sandwich sitting on the plate near Sam.

“Actually I was going to ask if you wanted to split this with me.” His back is turned to her--he’s washing the cutting board in the sink--so she waits until he turns to face her. He must see the look of reprimand in her eyes because he gives her a little awkward shrug, like a kid trying to get out of doing something they know they should do. “I’m not hungry.”

“Tell you what.” Mary adds another sandwich to Sam’s plate and then scoops it up and nods towards the library. “We’ll each eat one, and while we eat you can tell me about John.”

A procession of stammering “wait-what-why-why Dad-are you serious?” trails after Mary as she walks on into the library with Sam’s footsteps close behind her. She picks her favorite table to sit at, the one with the floral lampshade. With Dean going to Jody's, she only has Sam to ask, and she needs to ask him now. She won’t let this brew and thicken into something that becomes harder and harder to talk about as time passes. She needs to know before her nightmare demons start wearing the face of her dead husband.

Sam slouches into the chair opposite her. “Why do you want to talk about--oh.” He pokes at the sandwich with his thumb, nudging it in circles around the circumference of the plate. “He talked to you. About us. When he was….”  

“Yeah. Eat up. I’ll talk first, and then we’ll switch.” She waits until Sam takes his first bite before continuing. “John, he--um--” savagely beat Castiel “--he mentioned that--” broke Castiel’s skull “--he told me that he--” practically gouged out his eyes with “--he said that he told Dean to kill you.”

Sam chokes on a string of lettuce. His face flushes red and he quickly stuffs the bit of green back into his mouth. “Oh. Yeah. That was years ago, though.”

“That doesn’t make it right.” Shivers snake up and down Mary’s skin and she leans her elbows on the table, wrapping her fingers around her arms. “He--”

“--wasn’t wrong either,” Sam mutters through a sip of water.

Sam.” Softly. Soft enough that it hides the fractures in her voice.

“I mean, you know that I did get addicted to demon blood and let Lucifer out, right? And that’s not even the first fuck up I--” he stuffs another bite of bread into his mouth “--through the years-” another gulp of water to wash it down “--I mean look at what I did to Ca--”

“Don’t,” Mary interrupts him. “Don’t do that, Sam. I know, without a doubt, that you would never hurt Castiel. You would die for him. Don’t put what you did on yourself. You didn’t know it was him.”

Sam keeps his eyes fixed on the half-eaten sandwich on his plate. After a moment he lifts his head and nods faintly. She’s not quite sure if he’s really taken her words to heart, or if he’s just going along with them to appease her. Either way he seems determined to move past the topic; he brushes the strands of hair out of his face and clears his throat. “What else did you want to know about John?”

Did he ever hurt you, the way he did to Cas? Mary tears off the crust off her sandwich and nibbles on it slowly. “John was different than I remembered him,” she begins tentatively. “He was… a lot angrier. More--violent. I don’t know if that’s because of the circumstances, or if that’s just…” the bread sticks to the side of her throat and she takes a minute to swallow it down. “I want to know what he was like after I died.”

“Well, I don’t remember how he was before you died,” Sam smiles thinly, “but my memory of him is pretty much how you just described him. He was very disciplined, and focused, but also, well, angry.” He laughs, and it thumps like a hammer against her heart. “You could never get a word in with him. What he said was law, and god help you if you disobeyed him.”

“Did he ever--” Mary takes a deep breath. “Did he ever hit you?”

Sam’s brow furrows. “No, I mean--he came close, but never really--I was bigger than him by then anyways.” He dips his head to take another bite of the sandwich, and Mary waits, like there’s an avalanche about to come cascading down after that first snowball.

“He’d get mad, alright, shouting and swearing and all that.” Sam grabs a napkin and wipes the mayonnaise from the corner of his mouth. “I remember when we were kids he’d always go for Dean first. He’d be in the corner of the motel room, going on about how Dean was supposed to protect me--he’d grab him by the arm, shaking him, and I-I’d hide behind the bed or the bathroom door. I always thought he was going to come for me next, but…he never did. Dean took it all.” Something crosses her son’s face, some crooked flash of bitterness, and he exhales sharply. “Fuck what Dad said. Dean always protected me. Even when he shouldn’t have had to.”

“You’re right.” Mary bites the tip of her tongue to control her voice. She wants to scream, but the person her rage is aimed at isn’t here and will never be here again. “I’m so sorry, Sam. I’m so sorry that…” she doesn’t want to say it, but it's the truth, burning a hole through her gums. “I’m so sorry that I left you two with him.”

“Mom.” Sam shakes his head doggedly. “You didn’t leave us with him. You were gone, and he became that on his own. You didn’t have anything to do with it.”

“I know, but-I wish-”

“That he wasn’t such an asshole? Yeah. Likewise.” Sam finishes the last quarter of the sandwich in two big bites. “I’m glad I got out of there when I did.”

Mary studies the crumbs on the side of her plate. She’s barely touched her sandwich. The tuna mix is falling out on one side. “He talked about that, you know, when he was…here. He said he regretted being so hard on you for leaving. For making you boys choose this life and for…spending all his time finding my killer and not enough time with you.”

“Really?” There’s a layer of doubt in Sam’s voice.

“Yeah, I think seeing you again made him think about the past and how he’d--”

“Fucked up?”

“Yeah. He wanted to--to talk to you about it afterwards. After….” she stops. “After-” she stops again. She needs to take a deep breath before her chest explodes.

Sam reaches across the table for her hand. “Mom--

“I tried to get through to him,” she whispers shakily. “I tried to make him believe me about Castiel, I tried so hard, Sam. I came close but he wouldn’t--”

“Mom.” His hand is there on the table, palm facing upwards, waiting patiently. She slowly slides her fingers between his. “You did get through to him in the end. If he didn’t listen before, that wasn’t your fault. Believe me, when Dad gets his mind set on something, not even heaven and hell can move him.”

Mary laughs a little at that, and Sam rubs his other hand over her tensed knuckles. “You did it. You got through to him, and you saved all of us. Cas…” he falters a little. “You saved him. You don’t have anything to apologize for.”

“Neither do you.” She holds his gaze tightly. “Neither do you, Sam.

He squirms a little--there’s a clear rebuttal on his lips--but then his shoulders sag slightly, as if the argument has deflated in his chest. “I’m trying to believe that,” he mumbles. “I don’t think I’m there yet.”

“Okay.” She squeezes his hand before letting go. “Okay. I’m here if you need to talk, or vent, or just….need some company. I’m pretty good at brewing tea now.”

“You mean putting a tea bag in a mug and pouring hot water over it?”

“Maybe,” Mary grins. “But I pour that hot water really well.”

 

+

 

Sam sits ramrod-straight against the spine of the wooden chair. Muscles tensed. Toes curled against the floor. As if he’s expecting a fight. Even though there’s nothing and no one in the library right now. Just several sheets of paper in his hand.

The papers.

Dean left for Jody’s that morning, and after his talk with Mary during lunch Sam’s decided to re-tackle the one task he’s been avoiding: a thorough read of Castiel and Mary’s torture schedules. The ones he never finished reading in that aborted family meeting. He’s taken a few casual glances over the pages in the days since, but was never able to get more than halfway down the first page of Castiel’s list before the panic and nausea returned in suffocating waves.

This afternoon Sam is determined to at least make it to the bottom of the first page. On the table in front of him is his notebook full of his personal observations from around the Bunker; things that were misplaced or obviously used during the spell week. He wants to see if any of them match what happened to Mary and Castiel. If they fill in what he and Dean and John were doing while they weren’t tormenting their loved ones.

So far he’s managed to read through several paragraphs without spiraling. He thinks it might be the tea he’s drinking--Mary bought several boxes of mint tea after Jody said it helped Claire with her anxiety--or the fact that he’s convinced himself to approach this like a case. There are different accounts of what happened; all he needs to do is compare and contrast them in order to have a seamless timeline. Castiel’s schedule doesn’t name who was doing the tortures. Mary has written down who she remembered was guarding her. By eliminating whoever was on guard duty for their Mom, Sam can figure out who was in the dungeon with Castiel.

So far he’s matched John and Dean as the primary ones who were doing the interrogating--torturing, he rephrases in his mind--for the first two days. There is, of course, the third day incident. The little black letters that he tries, unsuccessfully, to look at with all the disconnect of it being a case. The words that burn like the scald of hot tea in the back of his throat.

Holy Oil. x1.

Sam stares at it like it’s a bottomless pit of sin. His sin. Then he sees a faint outline of something else behind the words and brings the paper closer to his eyes. Something’s been erased and written over. It takes him a few seconds of studying it before he realizes what it says.

Interrogation.

Why would Castiel write that and then remove it? Could he be hiding something worse than holy oil? Dread crawls back into Sam’s stomach, upsetting the sloshing tea inside. He doesn’t want to vomit again, not when he’s been able to keep the queasiness at bay this long. He digs his nails into his palms and breathes hard through his nostrils. In and out, in and out.

He focuses on the wood pattern of the table before his eyes. Lets his nails sink through the softness of his flesh.

Breathe. In and out.

Footsteps. Someone’s walking over. “Are you working on a case?” Castiel. “I can help with research if you--oh.” The sound of someone putting down a paper they picked up. “Sam.” Kindness. He abhors it. “If you need to know anything else, if it gives you peace of mind, I will tell you. I-I’ve recently learned that as painful as honesty is, it can be helpful.”

Peace of mind is definitely off the table, but Sam could do with some honesty. “Why did you erase ‘interrogation’?” he grits out.

Castiel sighs. “It wasn’t--it wasn’t relevant. Before the holy oil was used, you talked to me. Tried to get information out of me with conversation. But that happened several times before you or Dean resorted to more… drastic measures.” He looks at Sam with genuine apology in his eyes. “I didn’t think it was important, I wasn’t trying to cover up anything.”

Sam feels his heart twist. “Cas, you don’t have to tell us anything you don’t want to. You know that right? You don’t owe us an explanation, or an apology, if you don’t want to share something.”

“I know.”

Sam shifts in the chair. His thumb is flicking the knob of his pen up and down. “Is there anything--do you want to talk about what I said? In the-um-interrogation?”

“I’m sure you can imagine how it went,” Castiel says wryly. “You’ve used similar tactics on our enemies, and you thought that I was one, too. That I was a monster, that I was trying to tear your family apart. You saw me as a weapon of Heaven who only cared about following orders. Not unlike other angels you have met.” He pauses. “Not unlike me when we first met.”

“Yeah, and I pulled a gun on you before I even knew who you were.” Sam laughs a little. “I’m sure we could have both worked on our introductions when we first met.”

“You are trained to be a hunter, Sam, to fight what isn’t human. I think aiming a weapon at me was the proper response.”

“And you weren’t trained for thousands of years to follow orders? Weren’t tortured whenever you stepped out of line?” He looks up at Castiel, searching for some glint of recognition in his downcast gaze. “You were following the pattern you were taught, just like me. You didn’t know that there would be another way.” He nudges Castiel lightly with his elbow. “I sure didn’t know that an angel would end up being my best friend.”

Castiel cracks a small smile. “Thank you, Sam.” He picks up the paper of his schedule again. “If you like I can fill in the places where you used dialogue for interrogation. It was quite uncanny, actually,” he muses under his breath, “how well you and Dean knew me without knowing me at all.”

Sam hands him another pen from his pencil case and motions for him to take a seat. “What do you mean?”

The seraph doesn’t sit down. He stays there, standing beside Sam, the pencil in his hand scribbling up and down the page . “The things you said--they weren’t things I’d never heard before. Other angels have said similar things to me, angels who knew me and my history.” The edge of the paper is lifted high, hiding his eyes. “But under the spell you didn’t know anything about me. You were meeting me for the first time. Yet you could still read me the same way as if we had known each other all along.”

“Well, I’m sure if someone googled me and Dean they’d also find a lot of crap that people have said about us before. They’d call us serial killers, grave robbers, thieves, the whole works. And in a sense we are those people, but that’s without the context of knowing why we do it. We don’t kill for fun, or steal for kicks. They don’t know that we’re doing these things to save lives.”

“Does it ever bother you? Seeing those kinds of things about you online?”

“No, not really. I know they’re not true.” Sam cranes his neck, trying to look at Castiel over the paper he’s holding up. “You know that, too, don’t you?”

There’s half a beat of hesitation before he answers “yes.” Then he lowers the sheets and slides them across the table. “There. I filled it in as much as I remember. Let me know if you have any more questions.”

Sam’s eyes roam over the surface of the schedule that’s now littered with the word ‘interrogation’. Each word is thin and dark, like a coffee stain. “Of course, Cas, and don’t feel like you have to tell us, you know? Like I said--” he glances up again but there’s no one at his side.

Castiel is gone.

Sam hears the sound of footsteps disappearing down the hall and wonders why the angel left in such a hurry.

 

+

 

Castiel slips into his room and backs into the door, closing it just in time before his legs give way and he collapses onto the ground. With one hand he shuts his mouth, silencing the hitching breath escaping his lips; with the other he searches frantically through his pockets for his phone.

You’re disgusting pathetic nobody nobody will ever love you beg for mercy

Tears sting his eyelids and he tries not to blink, but the tears come rolling down anyways, soaking into the fingers clenched over his lips. He fumbles blindly with the phone, pressing the familiar buttons until the voicemail starts playing.

“Hey Cas! Just wanted to let you know--Claire, don’t interrupt me--” 

We’d only keep you around if you were useful

He turns the volume up louder.  

Nobody will ever love you “I’m being careful, Cas, I promise. Jody said it's our turn to make dinner tonight, but Claire says I also have to do the dishes because I’m the youngest--stop, give it back-” sad little wannabe “-I was eating that!--and she always tries to make me do her work, yes, that’s true, I’m not lying! Remember yesterday?” You’re nobody’s family “Jody told you to take the trash out--Patience, you were there, you heard her, right?”

He rewinds it back to the beginning. “Hey Cas! Just wanted to let you know--”

Castiel focuses his attention on controlling the volume of air entering and exiting his body. He times his breaths in accordance to the rhythm of Jack’s voice bubbling from the phone speaker. Every time his body resists the pattern and the tears surge up again he drags back the marker on the screen and plays the voicemail again from the start. Once he can get through the forty-seconds of Jack’s message with dry eyes and the air moving placidly in and out of his lungs he sets the phone down.

This is my room, he tells himself. I’m safe here. For now.

The timing of his restabilization is perfect, because Mary comes knocking at his door just then. He stands up quickly and moves to sit on the bed instead of the spot on the floor where he was crumpled. “Come in.”

Mary enters holding a mug of tea between her palms. “Hey. How’re you doing?”

“I’m fine. My grace is fully recovered.”

She sits down beside him. “That’s not what I meant. I mean, I’m happy you’re feeling better physically.”

He frowns. “Our grace isn’t just a physical aspect of our being. It’s also tied to our mental fortitude and emotional discipline.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that.” She sips cautiously from the steaming cup. “Did you have something like psychologists in Heaven--I know you talked about being a soldier, so--for example, I know  the US army has psychologists at bases and in the field.  Not that everyone chooses to talk to them,” she adds. “But if they wanted to, there are professionals who can help them with whatever they are going through.”

Naomi and her pristine office reverberating with screams comes to his mind. “No. If we were feeling upset about something, they fixed it.” The gleam of her needle--that relentless, never-ending silver sheen, even when it was coated with blood. “Then we weren’t upset anymore.”

“That doesn’t seem like a healthy way to deal with things.” Her eyes peer over the rim of the cup at him. “If you could choose, what would you like to do when you’re feeling…upset?”

Fly. Fly away. It used to be second nature to him. Years ago, when he was searching for God and he’d turned up another frustrating dead end, he would simply fly as fast and high as he could, without any destination in mind. Sometimes it would be days before his wings tired enough for him to need to descend. When he first fell after Metatron stole his grace he had tried to run through the forest on two legs that he hoped would carry him away like wings. He only got a few feet before he tripped and went sprawling headlong  into the dirt. Above him a mocking jay had fluttered through the tree branches, laughing at him.

But Mary is still looking at him with that patience expression, one that’s open and eager and ready to help him. She can’t, though. Even if she managed to help him manifest what remains of his wings, all she’d see is the gaunt frame of broken, decadent appendages thick with slime and black rot. She would smell the putrid grime of the ether and crippled grace, one that can’t be removed or cleansed.

You will always be alone and miserable. Hideous thing. Weaker. Crippled. Broken.

“I like to go on long drives,” he says out loud.

Mary beams like he just said the greatest thing in the world. “That’s a good idea! Do you want to go on a drive with me now? There’s this place I’ve always wanted to go to, I saw a brochure for it awhile back, it’s like a conservation area.” She takes out her phone and starts typing into it while she talks. “I think it’s just a few hours drive away--Mussel Fork, was that the name?

“I got a pamphlet about that place once too. While I was at the gas station.” He wrinkles his nose slightly. “The attendant told me that I looked like someone who might enjoy bird watching.”

“Well, you do know the names of all the animals, right? Or is that Adam--wait, was Adam real?” She looks up quickly. “Sorry, was that weird to ask?”

“Adam is real,” Castiel smiles. “Although he wasn’t quite like your Bible describes him.”

“I would love to hear the gospel according to Castiel--oh crap, it’s like over five hours away?” Her expression falls away. “Sorry, I didn’t think it was all the way over in Missouri. It’ll be dark by the time we get there and I think they close the main gate around--”

“Mary, it’s alright. I’ll go for a short drive nearby.” More than anything he wants her to leave his room. Right now. Not because her presence causes him discomfort, but because he can feel another wave of emotion surging up and he needs to be able to ride it out alone.

Instead of leaving though, Mary accompanies him to the door, and then fusses about him wearing a scarf even though he repeatedly tells her he doesn’t feel any cold. She offers to go with him several times, only acquiescing when he suggests that he needs some time alone.

Before he steps out of the Bunker she reaches over and squeezes him on the shoulder and says, “take care.”

Take care of what, he thinks as he pulls out of the driveway and onto the road outside the Bunker. There’s nothing but a dusty cracked husk of a celestial left here. One that wouldn’t need more than a flick of a finger to be completely shattered. Would you take care of a waste bin, or a faulty machine that’s rusted beyond repair? Or a weapon that doesn’t work anymore? Not to fight or even defend as a shield?

You’re not even as scary as the other angels I’ve killed.

When we finally get to kill you, I’m going to enjoy it.

I hear it's the worst way for an angel to die.

He stares out the side-view mirror as his foot presses down on the gas pedal. The sun peels behind him like the curl of a yellow leaf falling from its branch. Eventually he runs out of gas and so he leaves the truck behind him and starts walking. The night itches behind his shoulders and he doesn’t look back. He walks until there’s nothing around him but the uneven skin of tree bark and the whisper of the dark between their tear-shaped leaves.

Oh, we’re not afraid. But you are.

That’s the crucible, isn’t it? He’s afraid of losing the people he loves. Not because of some peril out there waiting to snatch them away, but because he fears them discovering the truth of his  broken hollow. He’s afraid one day they’ll realize that they never loved him; they only needed him, and need is a river that inevitably runs dry.

A bird squawks over his left shoulder before flapping its wings and flying away. He wishes he could fly; that if he peeled off the flaps of his skin the sheets of blood vessels and tissue could carry him far, far away from here, where the treacherous thing called his mind could stop.

Sam and Dean’s mocking voice drum through his ears on a loop and his knees start to wobble. He throws his hands up over his ears as he crashes into the fallen leaves, but of course it doesn’t block a single decibel out. He still hears them. He just wants it to stop.

He wants everything to stop.

Then it does.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Sam wakes up from that sheep dream he’s been having some variation of every night since the--since the--he doesn’t know what to call it. The incident. The tragedy. The spell being broken. The end of the nightmare.

That last one is a lie; the nightmare didn’t end with the pearl being broken. Last night the cartoon sheep were on fire. Even while the fires singed their wool to a crispy black they kept bleating, baa-baa, baa-baa. The sound erupted from their mouths in bright speech bubbles while their eyeballs oozed out of their sockets.

He rolls his shirt sleeve up and runs a finger over the scabs stitched there from his early morning scratches in the past few days. His fingernails claw at the fresh scabs, popping the wrinkled brown lumps open until he sees the pinked raw skin beneath. It satisfies the buzzing terror in his blood, reminding him that he’s awake and that he is who he thinks he is.

As Sam brushes his teeth he goes through his new mental ritual of reviewing the names of his brother, mother, and friends and what they mean to him. To diversify the monologue he’s started thinking of new things to associate each person with each day. Today it’s Dean, my brother who wouldn’t eat arugula to save his life; Mary, my mom who insists on shopping in person even though we can easily get toilet paper delivered; Castiel, my best friend, who has a favorite ring on Saturn; Jack, our kid, who can eat five bags of gummy worms in one sitting without getting a stomach ache.

He spits out the mouthful of toothpaste water and sticks his head under the faucet. When he looks in the mirror a few strands of hair are wet, and dripping droplets down his chin.

John, my father, is dead.

That one is always saved for last.

Baa. Baa. Headphones go on, podcast turned up. Today’s is about John Dee and the study of Enochian.

Baa. Baa. Rams his foot into his bedpost to shut up the sound. Sam ties his shoelaces with one hand while pinching his fingers together.

Baa. Baa. Adds an extra mile for his morning run. When he’s panting for air it’s harder for the strangled cry to echo through.

Then he decides to walk to the nearby diner instead of taking the car. He could make breakfast, but that would mean going back into the Bunker, where Castiel is probably making coffee. I’m not avoiding him, he assures himself as he stands in line for a milkshake--make that two, no three please--and hash browns. I’m giving him space.

Part of him wanted to leave with Dean. Get away to Jody’s, or anywhere really. Somewhere that wasn’t the same place where the terror happened. But it felt too much like running away from the very people he had hurt. If it stings him to see them every day--if the night terrors persist because he’s living in a womb of undying memories--then he deserves it.

While slurping down the milkshake on the walk home he gets a sudden memory of Castiel and Lucifer, sitting as one on a hospital bed, hand pressed to his forehead. “If I can't tell you later, I’m sorry I ever did this to you.” How the twin faces had shimmered and then snapped. How Sam had sat up and saw clearly for the first time in weeks. How the first thing he saw was Castiel, the friend he’d thought was dead, paralyzed in abject fear.

The milkshake falls from Sam’s hand and lands in an ugly splat in the roadside grass.

He blames it on brain freeze.

If Sam could redeem himself by taking away Castiel’s trauma of what they did to him, he would immediately drink it down like a shot. The thing is, he’s seen that exact same look of paralytic fear on Castiel’s face. And it wasn’t because he was seeing Lucifer. It was recently. It was because Castiel was seeing him, Sam. He wonders if Castiel has always seen some Lucifer in him, ever since he--Lucifer--blew him up in Stull Cemetery.

Sam or Lucifer. Lucifer or Sam. Either way his hands are covered in an innocent angel’s blood.

The hash browns are cold by the time Sam gets back to the Bunker. He doesn’t heat them up. He’s not hungry anymore. On his way to take a shower he bumps into Mary in the hallway. “There’s breakfast in the kitchen,” he tells her as he passes by. “Might have to warm it up first.”

Mary doesn’t say anything. Her head is bent over her phone, fingers moving rapidly. He backtracks his steps. “Mom?”

She snaps her head up, eyes taut with fear. “Have you seen Castiel?”

“No, I just came back from outside--Mom, what’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I.” She looks away briefly, chewing her lower lip in agitation. “I haven’t seen him all morning, and I thought--maybe I’m just being paranoid.”

Something tingles in the back of Sam’s spine, that by now familiar feeling of imminent danger. Castiel can definitely take care of himself, but then Mary isn’t the kind of person to worry easily. “Well, let’s go over the facts then.” The shower is going to have to wait. Sam dabs at the sweat around his chin with the collar of his shirt. “When did you last see him?”

“Yesterday afternoon, around three. He said he wanted to go for a short drive. Then he didn’t come to my room last night. It’s not what that sounds like,” she adds, embarrassed. “He just comes to sit and read and it...it helps me sleep better.”

“I get it, Mom.” He wants to ask more about why she’s not sleeping well--does she have creepy sheep dreams too?-- but there’s a more pressing issue right now. “So what about today?”

“He’s not anywhere. I checked his room and the kitchen and I thought he might have gone outside for a walk, but he’s not answering his phone.” Sam wouldn’t be surprised if Castiel left the Bunker to avoid having to interact with or be near him or Dean. But Mary? He’s been practically glued to her side ever since the incident. He has no doubt that he’d come if she called for him.

“Okay, let me see if I can track his phone. We’ll find him, okay?” He puts a hand on Mary’s arm and feels her shaking minutely under his grip. She nods and they hurry towards the library where he left his computer yesterday. As he waits for the desktop to load he notices that Mary is wringing her hands back and forth and her lips are moving slightly, as if in prayer.

“Just a few minutes, this program takes a sec--okay, here we go.”

Mary squeezes at his side, almost shoving him away from being in the front of the screen as she crowds forward. “Where is he?”

Sam frowns. “The signal isn’t great, it’s--is that Missouri?--shit!” The red beeping circle stops and an error message pops up across the screen. “He--he must have run out of battery. At least we have a general area. We can start by--”

“No! We need a specific area. Otherwise it’s too late.”

“Too late for what?”

“What do you think?” she bursts out, shoving his chair aside violently. “He’s out there alone. How the hell are we supposed to find him in an entire state before something or someone else gets to him? What if--” she stops abruptly, her face drained of color. “I’m sorry, Sam.” Her hands reach up to cover her mouth. “I’m sorry. I don’t--I’m scared.” The confession falls in a tremble. “I’m so scared.”

“Hey, hey, hey.” When he stands up and reaches out she falls against him like he’s a ballast in a storm. “We’re going to find him, okay?” He rubs a hand up and down her back rhythmically. “Let’s drive to Missouri now. We can get Dean and Jody out looking too.”

Mary’s arms are wrapped around his waist the way a child holds on. “Okay.” Suddenly she loosens her hold on him. “Wait. Missouri?” She pulls out her phone and scrolls through it. “We should try--we should go to Mussel Fork Park. I was telling him about it before he left for the walk.”

“Okay, we’ll start there. Let’s see if we can get there before dark.” Sam glances at his watch. “Make that a five and a half hour drive.”

 

+

 

Mary sits in the passenger seat, facing to the window, hands clenched in her lap. In the end she convinced Sam to not call Dean or Jody; her excuse was that she didn’t want them to get all frantic in case it was a false alarm. Sam thinks the real reason is that she blames herself for Castiel’s disappearance.

“I thought he was just going for a walk,” she says after an hour of silence. “I didn’t know--he didn’t want me to go with him, but I should--I should have.”

“He’ll be fine,” Sam tries to reassure her. “Maybe he just got sidetracked following up on a new case or something.”

“You don’t know that. He could be in danger, he could be--” she cuts herself off and curls tighter into the fabric of the seat. Her jaw is set firmly, the way Sam grinds his own teeth against each other when he’s fighting off a panic attack. Nothing he says does anything to alleviate the coil she’s wound herself in.

Eventually Sam turns on the radio to crowd out the suffocating quiet. Mary’s only reaction is to jerk her arm over and switch it off when Joni Mitchell’s “River” comes on. Then they’re left with no soundtrack. Nothing but the grunt of tires on the road and the fast-beating of Sam’s own heart.

Sam prays to Castiel, too, like he’s sure Mary has been doing the entire drive. He tells the seraph that they’re on their way. They’re coming for him. They’re passing mile markers on the road like knocking down dominoes to get to the end. To him.

When they get to Mussel Fork Conservation their fake Ranger badges are enough to get them access to the whole park. Including keys to the little ranger carts. Sam saddles up in one, and Mary runs and hops onto another. “We’ll cover more ground faster if we split up,” she yells over her shoulder. Then she’s gone, before he can even respond. Her white cart goes roaring down the narrow path until it’s just a speck among the forest green.

Sam twists the key in the ignition of his own cart and prays again. Cas. We’re coming for you.

 

+

When the footpath ends–there’s a small wooden signpost proclaiming the end of the tourist trail–Mary jumps out of the cart and dashes into the woods. She swings her arms as she goes, swatting away long-hanging branches. Her mind is running an endless loop of Castiel I’m coming I’m coming Castiel where are you where are you I’m coming. Beads of sweat, cold and hard as ice, cluster around the line of her forehead. Terror fills her lungs like thick, bitter smoke.

What’s worse is that this isn’t a new feeling for her. It’s familiar, too familiar. She smells her bedroom with the unwashed sheets and the dried blood sigil; she swears the birds are humming Joni Mitchell. She’s trapped, again, away from Castiel, not knowing if he’s dead or alive, praying to him like he’s a god.

But he’s not God. He can’t answer her prayers. He can’t talk to her or send her signs and wonders confirming his presence. It isn’t so much prayer as it is gasping into a disconnected phone receiver and believing that the dial tone of the lost connection is somehow a response. Her pants rip when she trips over a protruding root, and she cuts the back of her hand while smacking aside thorny brambles, but she refuses to stop moving. She thinks about what he told her in that room, when he shared the rawness of his memory with her and said You saved me.

Some savior she is. She had to abandon him then, back in the dungeon, and she’s done it again now. What if he had a panic attack or a flashback, and was caught off guard long enough for some enemy to attack? What if he forgot where he was and tried to hurt himself to escape his surroundings? What if he decided that the Bunker wasn’t safe enough? What if he left on purpose--left to try and find a home that didn’t cut into him every minute of every day?

She stops for a second, doubled over, hands on her knees, choking for air. Ivy leaves snake around her shoes, bright vines murmuring along the uneven dirt. A ladybug scoots along the veins of the largest leaf; it’s black spots fit snugly against the cherry red. The world around her is screeching in color, so loudly that it swallows up all the oxygen and there’s nothing left for her.

Her jaw drops open and she screams. She goes to her knees, fingers tearing out the vines in shredded clumps, roots and nectar getting stuck under her nails. She screams at the ladybug that flutters off, screams at the shredded plant lying in her palms, and screams because nothing and no one will ever answer her back.  

 

+

 

Sam presses his hand against a tree trunk and pauses to catch his breath. He’s been running through the woods for about two miles now, stopping every few feet to call out Castiel’s name. So far only a scampering squirrel has paid him any attention. He glances at his watch. One more hour before the sun starts to set. He should’ve called Dean. But it would’ve been night time anyways by the time his brother arrived. There would have been nothing to do then but to sit in the blackness and watch him rant and rage.

Dean has always been better with releasing his emotions into the open. Sometimes Sam wishes he was like him; wishes he could shout and beat his fists against the broken cracks in the walls, instead of letting them sink into him, become part of his breathing pattern. Right now, though, he has to be focused. For Mom, for Castiel, for Dean, too. No one wants to have to pick up the pieces of Sam again. If he’s tired of doing it, he’s pretty sure they’re all exhausted of his constant brokenness, too.

It’s when he picks up the pace again that he hears it. At first he ignores it. It’s not real.

Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccatamundi, miserere nobis.

The forest is mocking him. It’s teasing him with choirs from his nightmares. It’s just the vocals of his fears, turned up to the highest volume.   

As Sam squints through the darkened foliage around him he notices something. It’s pale, like a mist, up ahead towards the left. Or maybe it’s just a patch of unevenly lit shadows. But it seems to be moving, swirling. Like the satellite images of hurricanes.

Sam edges in the direction of the mist while pulling out an angel blade from the inside of his jacket. There could be witches out here, or shapeshifters, or any other supernatural creature taking refuge in this area of the park that visitors don’t come to.

The chanting is still going on. The song the black-eyed lambs sing every time he closes his eyes.

AgnusDeiquitolispeccatamundimisererenobisAgnusDeiquitolispeccatamundimisererenobis

He pushes a fingernail into the center of his palm. It’s not real. It’s from his dreams.

As he nears the spot he sees that the mist is emitting from a strange shape sitting against the base of the tree trunk. Or it’s just a pile of fallen leaves. The wind blows, helpfully, scattering some of the crinkled red and brown leaves and Sam makes out the outline of a nose and left eye.  

The gun lifts higher in his hand. It’s a body.

Whoever or whatever killed the person might still be close.

He gets close enough to be within arms reach and then stops, the heel of his shoe grinding into the coarse forest floor. Because the mist is speaking. Speaking. He doesn’t know he’s managed to make that sentence form in his mind. It doesn’t make sense. But right there, within the translucent fog, the words can be clearly seen written: Agnus Dei, qui tolis peccatamundi, miserere nobis. Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.

Sam presses down harder into his palm. Waits for the first bubble of blood to rise from the broken skin. He could be hallucinating, or hexed. The fingers of his other hand stretch out towards the mist. Whether he wants to swat it away, or pull it nearer to him, he doesn’t know. Not yet. Not until his fingertips graze the edge.

Suddenly he’s in a chair--metal cuffs around his wrist, blood circulation cut off at the ankles-- and he can’t move and his blood is electricity. Pain spikes through his skin like a sky full of lightning and he’s the rod. The jagged lines come swarming for him and he can’t duck away. He’s going to get cooked alive.

“Don’t.”

Someone’s voice beckons from above the clouds. God?

“Don’t touch it. Sam!”

Hands shove him, hard, and he blinks in time to see the forest floor somersault around him, trees turning on their heads and the sky under the soles of his shoes. He’s been thrown across the ground. Sam shakes his head, trying to regain his footing, and then  jumps back to his feet. His hands reach out, searching for the gun he dropped as his eyes scan his surroundings for the threat. The mist is still there. So is the body beneath it--the body which is Castiel, staring at him wide-eyed, palm outstretched.

“Don’t touch it,” Castiel--Castiel--repeats hoarsely. His voice sounds wrecked, like he hasn’t drank water in days.

“Cas!” Sam lunges forward and then moves back when Castiel shrinks from him. “Oh my god. Cas?”

 

+

 

Mary’s cheek grates against the snapped twig under her. She’s on her side, half scratched by the towering thistles around her. Her knees jerk and pop as her legs flail and she opens her mouth, sucking desperately for air that evades her.

Castiel. Sam. Her mind claws for someone to help her. Jody.

She can’t feel her fingers, can’t command her muscles to work and pull out her phone. Her heart is a caged animal trying to escape, and she doesn’t know how to talk it down from chewing through the bars of its enclosure.

Her shoulders twitch, bruising against the tree roots running beneath her. Focus on your surroundings. Jody’s instructions from the last time she had a panic attack flicker to life. Mary stops panting just long enough to locate a purple thistle bud right across from her. She fixes her energy, her gaze, on that tiny layered bulb. The thorns beneath the thistle stem, thin and glistening in the fading light, look like a tiny army of men with spears.

Castiel. I’m so sorry. I should have never let you go. She envisions the thistle bud as a carrier pigeon, a strange purple bird lifting her prayers away and delivering them to wherever the angel is. I’m sorry. Please don’t leave. Please come back. 

Her heart paces back and forth, agitated, but listening. She gulps and then pushes air out through her nostrils. Jody’s instructions come to mind again. Hold it in and count backwards from five. 

Mary reaches up and wraps her arms around herself.  Five, four, three, two, one.

Castiel, I’m so tired. I’m sorry. I’m coming. Wait for me.

The wind brushes against her forehead, crystallizing the beads of sweat there. She forces herself to keep counting, to keep looking at that thistle bud even when the breeze sways it back and forth like a fluttering flag post.

Five, four, three, two one. She bites her lip until she tastes a drop of the iron tang. Then she exhales another billow through her nose.

Mary had a little lamb--inhale--its fleece as white as snow--exhale.

And everywhere that Mary went--breathe in--the lamb was sure to go--breathe out.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

“Please don’t touch me.” Castiel sounds almost frantic. “I--It’s going to go away. I just need a moment.”

“Okay.” Sam moves carefully and deliberately to the tree stump across from Castiel. He sits down, back against the brittle bark, eyes never leaving the angel. There’s no obvious injuries, aside from the fact that Castiel is sitting in the middle of a national park, immobile. With a talking mist about his head. “Are you-are you alright?”

Castiel doesn’t answer. His eyes are shut again, brow furrowed in concentration. The mist above his head flickers and then starts to recede, until both it and the Latin chanting are gone. Sam shakes his head, like he needs to confirm what his eyes are seeing. But there’s no more mist, not even a wispy trace. His ears are completely free of the tortured chanting. The only sound between them is the gentle rustle of the evening wind crawling along the forest floor.

Then Castiel opens his eyes and looks around. “Where am I?”

“Mussel Fork Conservation Park. Mom and I were looking for you, you went out yesterday and didn’t come back--”

“Y-y-yesterday?” he stammers, then raises his eyes upwards. “Oh.” Quieter. “It’s going to be night again.”

“Are you alright?” Sam repeats.  He knows how easy it is for Castiel to keep his injuries to himself, or heal them before anyone even knows that the damage was there. “Did someone do something to you? What was that-that misty thing?”

Castiel averts his eyes to the ground. “It was nothing. I’m unhurt. I-I don’t think I can stand up yet. I withdrew too deep this time.” He’s not talking to Sam. He’s murmuring to himself. “I didn’t realize so much time had passed, I didn’t mean to-”

“What do you mean, withdrew? Withdrew what, where? And you can’t walk, what you do mean--you’re not hurt but you can’t--”

Sam,” Castiel says and Sam realizes that his voice has been escalating louder with every word.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “We were just so worried about you.”

The angel’s expression changes to understanding. “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t--” His eyes widen. “Where’s Mary?”

“Oh shit, I need to tell her I found you. Hold on, lemme call her. Just stay right there, okay?” As he fumbles with his phone he sees Castiel raise his eyebrows dryly.

“Like I said, I can’t move. Where would I go?”

“Okay. Mom, are you okay? Yeah--we’ll stay here--okay. He’s fine, don't worry.” Sam hangs up. “She's on her way over. So what happened? Or what do you remember? How did you get here?”

“I drove. Part of the way, I think. And then…” he pauses. “I walked. I-I-” his eyes drop to the ground beside him. “I withdrew. My grace, I withdrew it into the depths of my body, my vessel. I didn’t mean to do it out here, I just…wanted a moment of calm. I guess I withdrew too much. Usually I only do it for a few hours.” He gestures to his legs. “That’s why I can’t stand up yet. The grace needs time to re-accommodate itself in the spaces of this body and resume function.”

Questions thunder through Sam’s mind like a stampede but he barricades them back, letting them vocalize one at a time. “Okay. And the mist?”

Castiel brushes his fingers over a dying weed, and fresh color blooms back into it’s withered stem. “When my grace withdraws my memories can sometimes go errant and...take form. I guess my memories present themselves in the physical form of  a mist–Mary also described it like that.” He lifts his gaze to meet Sam’s, a contrite expression on his face. “I’m sorry I pushed you. I just…I didn’t want you to see that.”

“Mary’s seen the mist? So this has happened before.”

Castiel nods but doesn’t elaborate.

“The mist was you,” Sam blurts out. He sees it again in his mind--handcuffed to a chair--the dungeon--and realizes where the memory is from. “You-” his tongue feels like it’s made of titanium. “You were…praying.”

“Yes. Not now, but when it happened.”

His dreams. The bleeding sheep. Dying and chanting. Castiel. The chair he was bound to, the lightning spikes of pain. The schedule, the electrocution sigil. “When we used the Men of Letters sigil on you,” Sam breathes. “That was the memory.”

Castiel nods. Sam folds his hands over his knees and breathes in and out, in and out. Tries to fixate on some other part of what Castiel said. Not the part that’s as large and terrible as a tidal wave. The withdrawal. Is it some kind of angelic coping mechanism? 

“Catatonia,” Sam says out loud. “It’s when we--well, humans, it’s kinda similar to how you described your grace withdrawing. Like sometimes someone might shut down mentally--their body is there and it can move, but it doesn’t--they don’t move. Or eat or drink or talk. Usually they’d have to go to a hospital and be cared for, otherwise, you know, our human bodies would just die.” It helps, giving his mind facts to focus on like this. Analyze it like it’s a case. “But I guess angels wouldn’t need to…it’s usually because of something traumatic that happened. Like it’s not a natural occurrence, there’s always a cause. Usually an emotional or psychological one. Aaaand you probably already know all that,” he finishes lamely.

Castiel shakes his head. “I didn’t know it happened to humans too. I thought it was--I’ve seen other angels do it. Often after a great battle lost, or one that cost them many soldiers. Sometimes they wouldn’t move for months, even years.” He nods at Sam’s surprised expression. “I know that seems like a long while, but back before humans closely guarded time, a year was not the length you perceive it as. We had battles that lasted millennia.”

“Okay, so it was just a blip in time for them? What happened to those other angels who-um-withdrew?”

“Eventually when they returned to us they were much weaker than before. They’d be given the most rudimentary positions in the battalion.” Castiel’s gaze drifts away again. “It was a disgrace.”

“It’s not a disgrace-- Cas, it’s a trauma response. I can only imagine what they had gone through to react like that.” What you’ve gone through. What I did to you. What I put you through. “Were you…was something bothering you when you left the Bunker yesterday? You don’t have to talk to me about it,” he adds quickly. “Just. Maybe think about it and tell Mary when she comes.”

He feels wrong for even being here. Castiel withdrew and went into practically a state of catatonia because of him. Castiel was praying while they tortured him, the same way Sam used to recite commercial jingles to himself when Lucifer was--Sam blocks the thought out. He shouldn’t be here. By being here Sam is forcing Castiel to be in the same space as his torturer.

“It’s okay. I can talk to you about it,” Castiel says quietly. Not want to. Can. Like it’s a task he’s being asked to complete. Sam is about to backpedal--tell him he shouldn’t say what he doesn’t want to--when Castiel starts talking again.

“It’s not--it wasn’t anything--I was just thinking. About some of the things that was said--” he corrects himself “--to me when you were under the spell. It comes back to me frequently, more than the memories of the physical actions. I don’t know why.”

“Okay.” Sam tucks a thumb under the squeeze of his other fingers, discreetly pinching himself. “What are some of the things you remember most? What did we say?”

Castiel pops the second button of the coat and then seemingly sticks it back on with magic. His grace. Then he pops it off again. “You’re disgusting. You’re weak and pathetic and broken. You’re nothing.”

The button flies off and lands in the dirt. Sam wants to crawl under the ground and disappear forever. He said that. He looked in the eyes of someone who has died for him and said that.

“You’ll never belong. You’re nobody’s family. We will never love you. No one will ever love you.”

The button jumps back on its rightful spot on the coat. Castiel clears his throat. “And I know it wasn’t you that said those things, Sam, but--”

“Part of you believes them. Or thinks that there’s a truth to them.” Sam tastes the word unclean in the back of his throat when he swallows hard. “Cas, I--” he’s about to apologize when he thinks of something else, something more important than his repentance. “Cas. I’ve known you for years now. I’ve seen you in lots of different situations, some of them good, some of them less so, but I’ve never once thought that you were disgusting or weak or pathetic. Your strength has always been amazing to me.” He waits until Castiel is looking at him and holds that eye contact before continuing. “Remember what you said to me once? Nothing is worth losing you? It’s the same here, okay? Nothing is worth losing you. That’s what you mean to me, and not any of those lies that I said under the spell.”

Castiel breaks into a soft smile. “You do remember that.” He looks practically radiant with hope. “Thank you, Sam.”

“Remember what--what do you mean? When you told me that--of course I remember that. I’d never forget it.”

“I tried to tell you about that moment when you were…” he doesn’t finish his sentence and Sam immediately knows. “I thought it would help you remember, that it could break through the spell.”

“And it didn’t?” Sam asks weakly, even though he already knows it didn’t. Just once he wants the terrible reality of himself to be denied. No, you didn’t hurt your best friend. No, you didn’t violate him by taking the most precious thing from him. No, you didn’t threaten him with the worst way to die.

“I think it might have because it made you stop for a moment. You were going to take my grace and then you stopped and…” Castiel’s expression slackens. “But you thought I was in your head, that it wasn’t a real memory. You screamed at me to get out.” The fond smile returns to his face. “I’m glad to know you, the real you, didn’t forget.”

The tears come before Sam can stop them. “Tell me what to do, Cas, to make this up to you,” he breathes shakily. “I don’t know if there is anything at all but please, just tell me what I can do. I’ll do anything for you.”

Castiel looks thoughtful. “There is one thing you can do. It’s not easy though.”

“I’ll do it, Cas, I promise.” He smears his fingers over his wet cheeks, leaving a smudge of dirt there. “Just tell me.”

“Don’t live every moment like its penance.” His eyes are full of compassion, but there’s also sorrow there. “Sam, believe me, I’ve lived that way before, and it’s nothing but misery. Your mistakes do not define you. You might not be able to forgive yourself yet, but I do. I don't want to feel like your existence is a punishment. It’s not.” He looks Sam in the eyes. “It’s never been.”

Sam brushes away the last of his tears with his sleeve. “That’s a pretty tall order, Cas,” he mutters, and the angel laughs lightly. “But I’ll try. If you try and remember how much we really love you. Okay?”

Castiel nods. “I think I can stand up now. Could you help me?” He reaches out and Sam lifts him up. supporting him with one arm around his back. “We should probably head towards the entrance and meet Mary there,” he says once Castiel has stabilized his uneven balance. “She’s been super worried.

”Oh. Oh.” He scrunches up his face. “When I withdrew I didn’t--I couldn’t hear prayers. She must have been praying a lot.”

“Yeah, I figured. I was, too.” Sam gestures towards the path. “We thought you got caught by some demons or angels or something.”

“I just wanted to go for a drive,” he says meekly. Sam pats him on the back to reassure him, only to feel Castiel’s muscles flinch at the touch, shoulder blades caving in.

Sam stills. He withdraws his hand immediately.  

“It’s not--it’s okay, Sam, I don’t--” Castiel grabs his arm, searching his eyes earnestly. “I don’t know why my body reacts that way, but it doesn’t mean I don’t want to be near you, Sam. Please believe me.”

“Okay.” Sam swallows down the boulder in his throat. “I do, Cas. I get it. Just--tell me if anything I do makes you uncomfortable, okay? Just say it, I won’t be offended.”

“Okay,” Castiel agrees. “I didn’t feel uncomfortable with that,” he nods towards his back and Sam pats him again for good measure.

“Alright. Let’s get Mom and go home.”

They’re almost at the place where Sam parked the cart at the end of the foot trail when they see someone hurtling toward them. At first Sam thinks it’s an irate park attendant telling them they need to leave, that it’s long past closing time, but then he realizes it’s his mom. Mary comes flying in like a storm, face pinched and red, jacket flailing behind her. For a second it looks like she’s going to clock Castiel in the face. Sam almost moves in front of the angel to shield him when Mary practically jumps into Castiel arms.

Mary.” Castiel wraps his arms around her and bends to kiss the top of her head. “I know, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he murmurs into her hair. “No, don’t say that. I shouldn’t have--I didn’t mean to scare you. I’m sorry. I’m here. I’m here.”

Sam doesn’t hear his mom say anything; in fact all he can hear is the muffled noise of her sobbing into Castiel’s chest. As if the confusion is evident on his face, Castiel tells him, “she’s praying.”

Mary tucks herself even closer to Castiel, if that was possible. Her hands are clenched around the back of his coat like she’s never going to let go. Sam stays at their side, unsure of what to do. Castiel holds out a hand and Sam takes it, then puts his other hand on Mary’s shoulders. The three of them stand there, surrounded by the whispering woods and the inky cold of night and each other.

 

+

 

When they get back to the Bunker Sam is about to suggest hot chocolate and a movie night to relax when Castiel suddenly freezes. He bends over, hands gripping the edge of the table in the front room.

“Cas?” Mary’s at his side. “What’s wrong?”

Something switches in Castiel’s expression. His eyes are wide with a new kind of fear. “Dean just prayed to me. I don’t think he meant to. He’s going to use the Ma’lak Box.”

Not fear. Fury.

No,” Sam practically shouts. “No, no, no.” Because they just got Castiel back from another life-or-death scare. They just managed to start forming some kind of scab over their wounds. They don’t need another knife wound. “He said he was going to Jody’s. He wouldn’t do that.”

Mary’s already on the phone, calling Jody. Sam doesn’t hear their conversation but judging by the look in her eyes it’s not good news. Sam darts into the library for his laptop and sets the tracking system to Dean’s phone. Come on, you idiot, he thinks, not at the computer, but at his brother. Please be in Sioux Falls.

“Jody said he never got there,” he hears Mary saying from the next room. “He said he was going to be delayed last night and he still hasn’t arrived.”

“Got him!” Sam balances the laptop between his hands and scrambles back into the front room.  He jabs a thumb at the blinking location spot on the screen. “He’s in Texas? That’s in the opposite direction.”

“Why is he there and not at Jody’s?” Mary asks.

“Because he’s headed towards the coast,” Castiel says stonily.

Neither of them move. They stand there like someone has just dropped a glass at a party, eyes fixed on each other, bodies too stunned to break out into action.

Then Sam feels himself snap into action, like a glow stick cracking. His limbs jerk into movement, sudden and frenzied. “I’ll drive. Cas, you come with me, Mom, do you want to--”

“I’m not going.” Castiel is still gripping the edge of the table, his fingers starting to leave dents in the wood.

Sam skids to halt halfway to the garage. The adrenaline stabbing through his veins suddenly pulses to slow motion. He can’t quite believe what he’s just heard. “Cas-w-what do you mean?”

“He lied. He promised--” Castiel’s voice drops to a shallow hiss. “He is doing this because of me. He’s leaving. Because of me. Why would I be a reason for him to come back?”

Sam opens his mouth, ready to refute everything that’s just been said, but nothing comes out. His mind is a blank storm of white; whatever words his tongue should be forming have abruptly abandoned him.

His mom is the one who breaks the frozen moment. “Go, Sam. Go get Dean.” She rests a hand over Castiel’s whitening knuckles and looks at Sam meaningfully, as if to say “I’ll handle this.”   

Sam manages a nod and then turns around and barrels towards the garage. Before he’s fully out of the Bunker he hears the faint sound of glass exploding. He doesn’t know who he’d rather be tasked with, his thickheaded brother or an angry angel. He does know that he’s going to bring Dean home, and if he has to knock out his lights to do it, then so be it.

 

+

 

Mary tucks her fingers around Castiel’s hand as the light bulbs start flickering. She notices that Castiel’s eyes are starting to glow that ethereal shade of blue that she always associates with fighting and smiting. “Castiel?” she prods gently, trying to get him to talk about what’s wrong instead of whatever destructive thing is about to happen. She’s not afraid of him, but she is worried that if he decimates the place it’ll be hard to explain to her sons when they return. Both of them. She holds to that thought like a promise.

Then comes the pop crackle pop of light bulbs fizzling out before the glass shatters all at once. She ducks instinctively, throwing her arms about her head to shield herself. It takes a few seconds for her to realize that none of the sparks or glass shards are falling on her. The single light bulb above her is still in place; the other ones around the room are now splattered on the ground.

Castiel might be furious, but he’s in control enough to protect her.

When the last bulb in the room explodes-- save for the one above her head that glows like a spotlight over them--Castiel is still standing rigidly, eyes glowing that unearthly hue.

Then he snaps his eyes shut. “Mary.” His voice is shaking. “Would you like to watch TV with me?”

The sudden change surprises her but she goes with it. “Sure. Yes, of course. What do you want to watch?”

“I…I don’t know.” He turns to face her helplessly. His posture sinks towards the ground, like all the righteous wrath has been siphoned from him. “Is that okay?”

“Of course. We’ll just pick something new.” She keeps her arm around his and guides him towards the bedroom. “I heard that Netflix will actually tell you what you’ll like.”

“Their recommendations can be quite odd, though,” Castiel adds disdainfully. “One time it told me to watch this series about tiger kings. But they weren’t actually royalty.”

Mary laughs, and Castiel seems to relax a little. I can do this, she tells herself. I can make sure he’s safe and sound and Sam can get Dean back, and Claire and Jack can come visit us tomorrow. We can be together for once without hurting each other. She weaves those words into a rope to hold onto, a rope long enough to loop round and round and form a line to safety. We can be together without hurting each other.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

There’s a Waffle House near the motel where Dean’s staying. It’s not the first choice for his last supper but it’s the closest place with food so he goes there anyways. He orders a double cheeseburger set, then decides, what the hell, he might as well also get waffles, hash browns, chicken nuggets and an ice cream sundae. The table fills up with plate after plate of rich sweet bubbling greasy delights. He remembers Sam once listening to a true crime broadcast in the Impala and the hosts were talking about death row inmates’ last meals. How John Wayne Gacy asked for a bucket of KFC fried chicken, fries, and a pound of strawberries.

I carved you into a new animal, Dean. (I know men like you. You’re a killer, with oceans of blood on your hands) You left part of yourself back in the Pit. Let’s see if we can get the two of you back together, shall we? (I begged you to stop, just once. You said humility was a good look on me) Grasshopper, you’re gonna have to get creative to impress me. (I electrocuted you six times?)

Suddenly Dean’s not hungry anymore. He picks at the crisp edges of the hash browns and pokes his spoon around the sundae. He hears Sam’s voice in his head, telling him he should have at least ordered a salad; Mary would be laughing and saying he should’ve ordered more bacon; Jack would be busy eating the fries from his plate without asking. And Cas.

Dean gets up and leaves several hundred dollars as a tip. He walks outside, ignoring the growl of his stomach, and stares up at the sky. How many times has it fallen, literally or figuratively? Somehow he has survived it all; survived to become an instrument of pain and destruction more terrible than even the end of the world.

Castiel has died more than once in trying to save the world. Dean looks down at his hands and thinks of how he’s hurt Castiel in ways that death never could. If only he hadn’t listened to Sam and Castiel. If he had been at the bottom of the ocean all this time, then everything with the pearl would have never happened. The people he loves would have been safe from him.

When dawn comes, he’s going to guarantee that they will be.

He circles around the block a few times before going back to his motel room. There’s not much to see in this town: the usual nightlife of drunks and young people getting high in the parking lot; nine to fivers hurrying home with too much shopping; business owners looking haggard and ready to pull down the shutters any minute now. It’s just dull, ordinary life, and he’s going to miss it. He already feels the ache in his gut. He wants to remember this. He wants to pin a postcard to the wall of his mind, of this humdrum life that is going to be preserved by him lying in a coffin for eternity.

He doesn’t think about the people he’s leaving behind. He can’t afford to give himself room to doubt. Not now, when he’s so close to finally doing the right thing.

When he unlocks the door of his motel room there’s someone sitting on the bed. His hand reaches for the gun in his back pocket while his other hand goes for the light switch. “Who are you and what do you want?” he barks.

“I’m tryna to decide whether or not to kick your ass.”

Sam. Fuck.

Dean doesn’t let go of the gun in his hands. Instead he points at his brother, who looks thoroughly irritated. “Get out of here, Sammy.” The threat in his voice doesn’t waver. “You can’t stop me. I’m going to do it no matter what.” He doesn’t bother asking how he found him, or how he knows. It’s his brother. When they want to find each other, they always do.

Sam doesn’t budge. “Fine. Guess the ass kicking is going to have to wait. Put the gun down, Dean. I’m not going to punch you. Again,” he amends. “I just want to talk.”

“Nothing you say is going to--”

“It’s about Cas. I found out something about what happened when we were…under the spell.”

Dean lowers his arm and then shuts the door behind him. He feels Sam’s gaze watching him as he pulls up a chair and sits down across from the bed where his brother is. This doesn’t make sense. There’s no reason why Sam would come here to tell him even more reasons why he should be nowhere near his best friend. “How would that change my mind?”

“You prayed to him, you know.” Sam gives him an odd look. “That’s how we knew you weren’t at Jody’s. Why did you do that? Did you want to be stopped?”

“I did not--oh. Shit,” Dean mutters. “Shit, shit shit.” It had been in a lull between the all-night cross-state drive. He was exhausted but still couldn’t fall asleep in the back seat of the car. “It wasn’t a prayer. At least I didn’t mean it to be. I just--I didn’t want him to think this--” he gestures around him lamely “--was his fault. It’s my life, my decision. I have the right to make it.”

Sam doesn’t say anything. In fact he looks guilty, and drops his gaze. There’s none of the shouting and moralizing Dean expected when he first recognized him as the intruder in his room. No passionate speech about not giving up or bitter remarks about lying and betrayal (both of which he’s guilty of). He should be the one staring at the ground right now, not Sam.

The silence between them grows like a balloon being blown up and suddenly there doesn’t seem to be any space left to move or breathe.

“Did you know,” Sam begins, quietly, “what we told Cas when we were--you know. He said we told him that he was disgusting and pathetic and broken. That he would never be loved. That he was nobody and would never belong anywhere.”

Dean wants to break the chair he’s sitting on and stab himself with the splinters.

“He actually..uh, he sort of went out for a drive yesterday and didn’t come back. We went to find him and he was in the forest, just sitting there, had been there for half the day. Practically catatonic.” Sam looks up at Dean and goddammit he hates having to meet his eyes right now. “I asked him what triggered it and he said he remembered what we said.”

The worst part is Dean can absolutely hear himself saying every one of those words. Saying them with conviction, because that’s how you tear someone down; that’s how you destroy an opponent, by digging into their psyche and their fears and weaknesses.  “Sam.” He doesn’t want to hear anymore. “Don’t--”

“When I left to come get you, he refused to come. Do you know why?” Sam stands up now, pacing up and down the room. He’s blowing into his hands, trying to control his breathing. “You know what he said? He said ‘if I’m the reason he’s leaving, why would he ever come back for me?”

“That’s not--that’s--I didn’t--” Dean loses all feeling in his throat. “That’s stupid. I’m leaving to keep him safe! How does he not get that?”

“Because that’s what he’s afraid of, Dean!” Sam whirls around, eyes wet and furious. “You leaving, us leaving him behind because he’s not good enough! How could you not see that?”

(You can’t stay--I’ll come with you--Let’s go home--I needed to come back with a win for you--How long was I gone--Dean)

Dean tries to get off the chair and meet Sam’s boiling emotion with some equally stirred-up defense to his actions. But all he succeeds in doing is careening off his feet, balance abandoning him. He crashes into the closet behind him and throws up a hand to steady himself. “I’m trying to protect him,” he whispers to the floor. “Sammy, I’m trying to fix this.”

He feels a hand on his shoulder, warm and familiar. “Dean. We can’t fix this. We can’t fix any of it. We did all of that to him, and that’s never going to change. You being in the Ma’lak Box won’t make that go away either.”

“Sam-I-I have to do. There’s--there’s no other way.” His legs fold beneath the weight of his body. Sam’s grip never leaves him as he goes down to his knees, hands covering his face, forehead tipped forward to almost touching the carpet. He wants to disappear, he wants to stop existing in a world where he hurt his best friend; where he told him he was disgusting and unlovable; where he made him scream for mercy. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t live with this, I can’t.”

And then it comes out, whole and raw. “I don’t want to.”

“Neither do I.” It comes out in a rush from Sam’s breath, like something that shouldn’t be said. “But I’m going to. Because the person I hurt the most is still alive. And I need to make sure, somehow, that he never ever forgets how much he’s loved. That I find some way to show him that--that everything terrible he thinks about himself is wrong. It’s all wrong.” Sam sniffs lightly. “He doesn’t even know--he doesn’t know he’s the coolest fucking friend we’ve ever had.”

“He is pretty damn neat.” Dean feels himself laugh a little. He lifts himself up gradually, wiping the back of his hand across his face, and adjusts his posture to sitting down on the ground. He keeps his face towards the window; he doesn’t want to face his younger brother, not after gutting himself open like that. “So your brilliant solution is for us to stay and be miserable together?”

“Yeah.” Sam sits down beside him, shoulder pressed against his. “I know it’s gonna suck, but it sure beats Cas living the rest of his life thinking that all that crap we said is actually true. You know how he is. It’s not enough to just tell him. We have to prove it to him.”

“Prove to him how? You gonna make a PowerPoint?”

“Maybe,” Sam chuckles. “Was thinking you could help me with that.” He says it casually, like it’s just an afterthought, but Dean knows what he’s fishing for. Sam wants a definite answer, a promise that he’s not going to go through with the Ma’lak Box plan.

“You know I’m shit at that kinda stuff,” Dean mumbles, running a hand over his face. Moonlight comes pouring in from the window, faint but still glowing. “I’ll do my best, though.”

They sit there for a moment, not saying anything. Dean feels the cold from the temperature dropping outside and it prickles the hairs of his skin. His brother’s shirt sleeve cuff brushes against the back of his hand, soft and stiff at the same time. The etched pattern of the closet door itches against his spine, while the slender panels of wood support his neck. He’s alive so acutely that it’s almost overwhelming. When he takes a deep breath it feels like all the air in the universe streams into his lungs and then pours back out like an overflowing fountain.

“By the way,” Sam says, breaking the quiet. “How were you gonna get yourself into the ocean? Like were you just going to sit in the box on the top of a hill and then give it a nudge so it’d slide all the way down to the water?”

“What?” Dean opens his eyes and stares at his little brother whose eyes are shut but he’s wearing a sly grin. “What?” The image comes to his mind of Scooby-Doo and his friends all sliding down the hill in a trash can lid and Dean starts cackling. Little restrained sounds at first and then it builds and Sam is guffawing too, clutching at his side and whacking his arm away as Dean feigns a punch. Then they both double over and whoop with laughter again.

 

+

 

Of course Dean has to arrive at the Bunker just after Claire and Jack get there. It’s s punishment from fate, and rightly so, to have a crowd of people watching his descent down the Bunker staircase like he’s just been released from jail. Mary’s in the front, and Jack is slightly behind her. Claire is at the side with Jody (who must be there because he never actually arrived at her place) and then he sees Patience and Donna at the left. 

Jesus Christ. The whole town has come out to witness his shame.

Dean’s only really looking for one person though. The one person he doesn’t want to see.

Castiel is in the back, near Claire’s side of the room. He’s not looking at Dean; his gaze is on whatever new fascination he’s discovered with the tiles on the floor.

“Dean!” Jack exclaims, bright and happy like no crime’s been committed. The kid rushes forward to give him a hug. Mary and Jody follow next, and Dean presses apologies into their shoulders.

“It’s okay.” Mary runs her fingers through the back of his hair and rocks him back and forth tightly. “I’m just glad you’re here.”

“Good to see you, old man,” Claire quips, giving him a high five. “By the way, the mess in the kitchen is Alex’s fault.”

“I didn’t do anything!” comes an irritated shout from that direction of the house. “That was Jack!”

“As long as you didn’t touch the sourdough--oh no, she didn’t.” Sam disappears immediately, tailed by Patience who’s waving frantically and trying to explain what’s undoubtedly a cooking disaster.

Donna releases Dean from her arms and he’s about to head towards Castiel--with the help of a subtle shove from the sheriff--when the angel turns to Claire and says quietly, but loud enough for Dean to hear, “do you want to watch television with me?”

Then Castiel turns and walks down the hallway before she even answers.

Claire throws Dean a shrug and a “sorry about that” face before traipsing after the angel.

Dean feels the slosh of a horrible sludge growing in his gut. It comes back to him now, what he told Castiel, all those days ago, right before he left. That he wasn’t leaving him, that he was going to come back. He promised he would. It hits him all at once like freezing water and he takes a step back instinctively. He hurt Castiel, again. He should be nowhere near him-

“Give him some time.” He feels Jody rubbing his shoulder gently. “I know he’s glad that you’re back. Just give him some space to work through everything else.”

Dean nods numbly, tethering his mind to what Sam said. We can’t fix it. We did this. But we can stay. Don’t leave him.

 

+

 

Claire grabs the pillows from the end of the bed and props them around her before sidling up next to Castiel, who’s scrolling listlessly through the Netflix home page.

“Some Like It Hot?” she points at the “continue watching” column. “Black and white movies, you tryna binge all the classics?”

“Mary chose that. She said it was her favorite.” He continues whisking the page up and down and up and down at increasing speeds.

“Hey, hey, slow down, lemme read the titles--go up, yeah, to the comedy section. I wanna watch Santa Clarita Diet. It’s zombies, but, like, white-woman-in-the-suburbs zombies.” She selects the squishiest pillow to hug between her chest and knees. “Also she only eats bad people, like Nazis. If I came across her on a hunt, I’d let her go. She’s practically vegan, y’know.”

Under her direction Castiel clicks on the fifth episode of season two.

Claire grins as Drew Barrymore appears on the screen. “The daughter is my favorite, though, she’s always like ‘what the fuck is wrong with you guys?’ And she still has to go to school while all this is happening and she’s like ‘why?’ Exactly what I said to Jody when she….” she pauses, glancing up to catch Castiel’s reaction, and finds there’s nothing there at all. He’s looking at the screen but also not looking at it; his eyes are glassy, his gaze going right through it. His arms are wrapped around himself, fingers clenched around the lumps of fabric at his elbows. His head keeps nodding, as if she’s still talking and he’s responding on autopilot.

He doesn’t really want to watch anything with her, she realizes. 

He just wants to be away from Dean.

She feels a small twinge of injury, but then chides herself for being selfish. Considering what he’s been through, he’s allowed to use her company as a distraction. Maybe she can also use this chance to find out how he’s really doing. Jody and Mary won’t tell her anything, but Claire’s heard enough snatches from Jody’s phone calls to be more than a little worried about him. And more than a little pissed at Sam and Dean.

Claire waits until there’s a lengthy car ride conversation between Drew Barrymore and the husband character before asking her question. “You’re angry at Dean.”

Well, more of a statement. Castiel shakes his head automatically. “I’m not.”

“You are. And you have every right to be, considering what he did.”

He actually turns to look at her now. “How--how do you know? You weren’t supposed to--” his voice spikes, rising in hysteria. “Does Jack know? Did you tell him anything--”

“No, no, no, I didn’t,” she rushes to reply. “Jack still doesn’t know anything, and I just know…the basics. I know there was a spell that made them forget you--and their dad was back? And, uh…” she flicks her gaze back to the screen. Drew Barrymore is sinking her teeth into a young Nazi while her husband watches. “They tortured you. Then Dean tried to drown himself in a coffin in the sea. Or something.”

The red spray of blood spurting from Nazi No. 2’s neck reflects in Castiel’s unblinking stare. “He didn’t actually do it.”

“Yeah, cuz you guys stopped his dumb ass. But the point is, you have a right to be angry. And you should let him know that you are. You shouldn’t hold it in, it’s not healthy. Or that’s what my therapist says, anyways,” she half-mumbles.

“A therapist?” Castiel says the word like it’s some foreign food he’s never seen on the menu before. Claire is about to laugh before she realizes that he might really have no idea what it is. She can bet that none of the I-deal-with-trauma-by-drinking-and-shooting-things-Winchesters has ever mentioned that therapists even exist.

“Yeah, they’re like. Doctors for your emotions. I know, it sounds bogus, I didn’t want to go to one for awhile either. But Alex said it was helping her work through some of her…stuff, and I thought I’d give it a try.” Drew Barrymore is packing away the Nazi limbs in her freezer for later meals. “Just started a few weeks ago. I think it’s helping. The nightmares are less, anyways.”

He turns to face her again. “I’m sorry that you’re not sleeping well. Is there anything I can--”

“No, Cas, this is not--we were talking about you, okay? You need to take care of yourself right now. Ever heard of self-care?” she sighs.

He shakes his head hesitantly and Claire rolls her eyes. She needs to sit him and the Winchesters down and make them listen to Jody’s lecture about prioritizing your mental health above all.

On the screen Drew Barrymore comes back and her husband is ready to apologize for their argument earlier. The villains of the season show up--or who Claire figures are the baddies this season. There’s a dramatic tattoo reveal--of course--and Claire is about to comment about how antagonists in the media often have tattoos, which is reinforcing a negative stereotype, when she notices that Castiel has started fidgeting. He’s starting to scratch vigorously at his sleeves, and when she tries to meet his eyes he angles his head away.

“Cas?”

He’s breathing hard. His jaw twitches from side to side and he doesn’t answer her.

“Cas, what’s wrong?”

“Claire--” his voice cracks and he pushes the laptop aside to stand up. “Where’s my phone? I need my phone.”

“Okay, hold on, I’ll help you look for it.” She tosses the pillows aside, then lifts up the sheet to see if it slipped between the folds. “Just tell me what’s wrong, Cas, what do you need? Can you use my phone?”

“No, I need the recording, I need--” his voice fractures even more, like a sea of ice splitting into a hundred islands. His entire body is starting to shake. She moves towards him and he crowds away from her, towards the shadowed corner of the room. “Just go, Claire. Go.”

“No, let me find your phone first--” she ducks her head under the bed and spies a shiny glint “--here, lemme get it, just a sec--”

“Please go,” he begs in a tiny voice.

Claire snags the phone and straightens up. Then she stops. Her fingers subconsciously curl, squeezing the edges of the phone hard. Because Castiel is crying. He’s standing in the corner of the room, one arm braced against the wall and face buried in the crook of his elbow. Everything she thinks she could say or should say to help him dries up in the bottom of her throat because this is Castiel. He’s not her father, but it still feels like walking in on a parent crying. It’s something that you shouldn’t witness, that you’d slip out and pretend you didn’t see. But she can’t bring herself to leave him alone now.   

She takes a tentative step towards him. “Cas?”  

He presses himself even closer to the wall, like he’s hoping it’ll absorb him. Between heaving breaths she hears him mutter something that sounds like “go.”

Then she remembers. He said he needed a recording from his phone? She swipes at the screen in her hand and goes to the audio app. The last file played is titled “Jack”; it’s been played almost twenty times this month. She presses the play button and Jack’s bubbly voice fills the room.

“Hey Cas, it's me!”

She remembers Jack leaving this message--he’d wanted to call Castiel but Jody suggested he try Mary’s number instead. Claire couldn’t figure it out at the time but now she realizes that it must have been during the time Castiel was being tortured by Sam and Dean. Jack was marching around the living room going on and on into the phone, and she was trying to get him to do the dishes like he promised. It ended up with Jack running between the sofas, still babbling into the receiver, while Claire chased him, twirling the towel over her head like a lasso.

Castiel doesn’t turn around at the sound, but as the message plays his breath seems to even out slightly.. He’s still trembling at the end of the audio so she presses play again. As Jack’s effusive commentary carries on she inches closer to Castiel, until she’s standing at his side. She slips her free hand into his and waits for him to gradually tuck his fingers around hers.

By the third time she’s played the recording Castiel lifts his arm from the wall and wipes the sleeve across his face. He’s still turned determinedly away from her but he doesn’t let go of her hand.

In the middle of the fourth run of the audio she hears Castiel say “okay.” Very softly.

She presses the pause button on the phone screen and watches as he untangles his fingers from hers. His shoulders are drawn together. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.

“Don’t. Never apologize for how you feel, Cas. Also wise words from my therapist.”

Castiel inches back towards the bed and sits down close to where the laptop is. He clicks on the next episode, letting the sounds of the zombie drama crowd out the emotion of what just happened. The light from the screen flickers over his face, briefly highlighting his bloodshot eyes and splotchy face before throwing it back in the shadows. He clearly doesn’t want to talk about it. Claire hesitates for a second before joining him back on the bed. She knows she can’t just let this go.  

“Do you want to tell me what made that happen?” she asks in what she hopes is a calm, matter -of-fact voice.

It takes until the next scene for Castiel to answer. “I just--I remembered something.”

He doesn’t need to specify. She’s had her own share of flashbacks--the faces of the victims she’s too late to save--Kaia’s hand slipping from hers--her mother dying in her arms. “It’s probably a flashback. That’s, um, it’s actually pretty common for someone with PTSD.”

“Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?” Castiel turns slightly towards her. “This happens to you too?”

“Yeah, well, not exactly like that, but, I remember things from before and it…it upsets me. My therapist taught me some breathing exercises that help, but it still gets bad some days.” She chews on her lower lips before asking, “How often does it happen for you?”  

“It’s not--it doesn’t happen every day.” He stiffens noticeably, his forehead creasing. “Claire, please don’t tell Sam and Dean about this. I don’t want them to worry.”

“Cas, it’s not--there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Pain is pain, and the fact that it’s emotional or mental doesn’t make it any less important than if it was physical. Think of it this way, if you broke your leg would you try to hide it from everyone else? Would you apologize for it?”

“Depends. If my broken leg caused a delay in some vital mission then I would apolo--”

“God, you’re such a martyr,” Claire groans, elbowing him lightly. He gives her a faint smile and she snuggles closer to his side. Something is happening on the screen with Drew Barrymore and feral zombies but she doesn’t even see it. All she can think of is that voice message and the number of times it’s been played. How often has Castiel struggled through a flashback alone in his room, clinging to nothing but the tether of her and Jack’s voices? Of them being ridiculous and giddy while he was off somewhere being tortured?

“What’s with that dinosaur story Jack was talking about?” Claire says aloud, because if someone doesn’t start talking about something--anything--she’s going to take a turn in falling apart.

“The triceratops? He was one of my friends. My first friend, actually. Outside of those within a garrison.”

“You had a real dinosaur friend?” She cranes her head up to look at him. “And you’re only telling me about it now?”

“You never asked. And I thought it might bore you.”

“Hell no! I wanna hear all about little Cas making friends on his first day of school.”

“I wasn’t little,” Castiel says defensively. “I had already completed my basic training. My wings were fully grown.”

“Okay, so Castiel is off to earth-college, freshman year.” She waves a hand in the air as if setting the scene. “Did all of the angels make friends with the dinosaurs?”

“No. I was…not typical. I believe I was what you’d call a freak.”

Claire laughs. “Dude, you were a freak with a triceratops friend! That’s fucking cool. I need to know all the details--wait, you named him, didn’t you? Or her? Or did they already have their own name--wait, can you speak dinosaur?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. But don’t tell Jack that you know. I think he likes having that knowledge for himself.”

“Pinky promise.” She holds out her little finger, and Castiel carefully studies his right hand before extending his own.

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

Dean has the same dream again. The one he’s been having at least once every night ever since. The one with the hole in his hand and the metal cable stitches. Tonight it’s different though; both of his palms have holes in them. He tries to patch them up and only succeeds in ripping the skin off his fingers. They dangle off his raw bones like crudely cut ribbons. Then comes the roaring din of rushing water; pouring down the Bunker hall, chasing him like a hound.

He wakes up gasping for air, legs tangled up in the bed sheet.

He decides to forget trying to fall back asleep in favor of getting a head start with breakfast. With Jody and the girls staying over he should make sure there’s plenty of French toast to go around. He’s still rubbing the grogginess and blurry nightmares from his eyes when he walks into the kitchen and sees a shadow standing there. He jolts back, ramming his heel into the chair behind him, and swears loudly.

“Good morning to you, too.” Claire holds up a fresh pot of coffee to greet him.

“What’re you doing up so early?” Dean grumbles, readjusting his posture. “Aren’t you supposed to be at the age where you sleep until noon?”

“Very funny.” She rolls her eyes. “Also that’s Patience. I never sleep in when there’s a hunt ahead.”

“What?” He motions for her to pass him a cup from the dish rack. ‘Where?”

“Werewolves. Couple of hours drive away.” Balancing the coffee pot in one hand and a teddy bear mug in the other Claire nods towards the open laptop on the counter. “Just saw the news last night.”

A good old fashioned hunt might be exactly what he needs. “So when are we headin’ out?”

Her nose crinkles up and she stares at him for a second before bursting out in laughter. “You? Nah, me and Alex and Donna are going. I’m pretty sure you’re grounded after you-know-what,” she adds, heading towards the refrigerator. “Milk?”

“Second shelf.” So Claire knows about the Ma’lak Box, too. He wonders what else she knows about what’s happened. “Fine, I’ll find my own hunt and take Sam. Or the kid.”

“Aren’t you needed here? Don’t you have someone to talk to?” She raises an eyebrow knowingly.

Fuck. “I don’t--I don’t know what you’re talking about.” If she knows what he did to Castiel--if she really knew--she’d never want to look at him again.

“I’m just saying,” she carries on, tipping a thin stream of frothy milk into her mug. A few drops bounce out and hit the counter. “People aren’t always as okay as they seem. Sometimes it’s hard to talk about fucked up stuff, y’know, but if you see something happening, you should ask about it.”

“I have no idea what you’re trying to say.” 

“Whatever, old man. Listen, if Cas ever takes my advice and gives you a piece of his mind, try not to be an ass about it.” She sets the jug down and grabs a spoon to stir the coffee a few times. “Just let him let it out, y’know?”

Then she’s gone, puttering out of the kitchen cradling her mug. Dean sits there, staring at the splash of milk in front of him, the perfect circle of white on the stone gray. He can’t remember the last time Castiel has been mad--like, really mad at him. Raised voice, hurling things across the room, lights flickering or ground shaking. He can recall the last dozen times in the past few years where he wished that the angel had gotten angry at him; when he wished Castiel had thrown a punch or two or ten. Just to make Dean’s guilt take the shape of something visible and visceral.

He finds himself almost looking forward to Castiel giving him a piece of his mind. It would be welcome. He’d roll out the red carpet for it like it’s a once in a lifetime premiere.

Well, almost once.

I rebelled for this? 

It comes to mind like a sharp needle prick. That was the last time he saw Castiel getting riled up with righteous fury. That was also almost ten years ago. How much hurt and pain and pent-up fury can someone contain, even a celestial being who's supposed to be as tall as a skyscraper?

The anticipation towards his best friend losing his shit quickly dissipates. He wonders if they should go outside, out to the field or clearing somewhere, before Castiel unleashes his wrath and the walls of the Bunker come crashing down like Jericho. There’s another part of him that is also worried that the explosion will never happen. He’s afraid that Castiel will carry on like Dean didn’t torture him and tear him apart mentally and physically, didn’t betray him, didn’t realize his worst fear by leaving him, didn’t--

“Hey.” His mom’s hand ghosts over his left shoulder. “You okay? You’re up early.”

Dean gives Mary a weak smile. “Was gonna make breakfast for us all but, uh, Claire says some of them are heading out?”

“Yeah.” Mary circles around the counter, a thermos between her hands. As she nears the sink she grabs the washcloth hanging over the edge and wipes up the spot of milk that Claire left. Dean’s morose, murky reflection disappears with the swish of the blue fabric. “Cas is helping them load up the car now, I think they wanted to get a head start on the drive. Or he’s getting breakfast with them? Claire said something about wanting waffles.” Mary refills her thermos with coffee from the pot and then slides over onto the stool next to Dean. “He should be back in an hour or two.”

That last sentence says much more than those nine words. Dean raises an eyebrow at her. “What, you gunning for Cas to rip me a new one, too?”

Mary’s brow wrinkles. “What?”

Dean rubs a finger over the squeaky clean spot on the counter where the milk drop once was. “Claire said, uh, that Cas was--is--mad at me. Which I figured, by the way. Kinda feels like waiting for a bomb to go off.”

He’s hoping that Mary will deny it and say some reassuring bullshit about Castiel actually not being mad. Right now he could use the paper-thin comfort of a lie. But she just peers into her thermos thoughtfully before taking a sip. “When we realized where you were and what you were doing,” she finally says, “he broke all the light bulbs in the front room. Well, he didn’t break them, but they definitely broke because of him. I’d never seen him do that before.”

Shit. “Well, if he wants to give me a black eye, I won’t duck,” he tries for a laugh.

Mary doesn’t stop looking at him. Like her eyes are peeling him down layer by layer. “What happened with the pearl wasn’t your fault, Dean. Neither was any of what happened because of the spell. You know that we’ve all experienced being possessed and made to do things--” here she winces slightly “-- we’d never do if we were in full control of our bodies and minds.”

His stomach tightens with the memory. “I wasn’t possessed,” he says hollowly. “Believe me, I know the difference. I was fighting to be in control of Michael all the time, Mom. I was fighting to be myself again. I never fought against this--this fucked up spell. And it wasn’t even--it was just one thing that changed. One little thing--our memories of Cas. And I became a--”

“Don’t say it,” Mary warns, her voice thin but firm. “You are not a monster, Dean. You thought that you were protecting your family. You were fighting, you were fighting for the people you loved. You just weren’t aware of who the enemy really was. If I was in your place, if I…” she shakes her head. “If I thought that a stranger had hurt you or Sam or Castiel, or Jack, I would do anything to save you.”

“I know but--” Dean exhales hard. The truth of what Mary’s saying doesn’t distill the stain on his hands. “Why wouldn’t we listen when you or Cas tried to tell us? If even one of us had listened, we could have stopped it sooner. Much sooner.”

Mary frowns thoughtfully, absently nibbling on her lower lip. “Was Castiel one of the first people you worked with that wasn’t… human?”

“Pretty much.” Dean pauses. “I mean, there were some monsters that we came across that weren’t hurting people, or trying not to, but yeah. I mean, we didn’t become buddies with them or anything. Not until Cas.”

“So it wasn’t just that the spell made you lose your memory of Cas, it changed--your whole worldview was changed.”

“Went back to the old ways,” Dean adds. A name comes to mind, along with the memories he’s been trying to ignore. “Like how we were when Dad was still around.”

At the mention of John Mary’s posture stiffens. “Dean, I--” she swallows hard. “I’m sorry for what he put you through. Both of you.” There’s a glisten starting in her eyes. “You didn’t deserve it, any of it. I’m so sorry I couldn’t be there for you and Sam.”

He’s about to ask what she’s referring to when he realizes she must have found out something about John when he was here because of the spell. Maybe Sam, or even Castiel, filled in the blanks for her. John would never have confessed it to her himself; he was always the last person to own up to his mistakes. “Mom, you were dead. You know it’s not your fault.”

“Yeah, but…” she reaches out to him and he lets her take his hand in hers. She starts rubbing her thumb over his calloused knuckles. “I can still be sorry about it. I wish he never put any of that on you. He should have protected you, not given you the weight of his fears.” Her lashes blink, letting a tear fall, and then she breathes out softly. “I’m glad you didn’t kill Sam, though.”

Fuck. Why the hell would Sam tell her about that?

As if reading his mind she pats his arm gently. “John told me, when he was…here. He said he regretted it, but I know that doesn’t make up for what he did.”

Dean tastes the horrible tartness of the past in the back of his throat. He forces it down with a grim smile.

“I was handcuffed at the time, or I would’ve thrashed him,” Mary continues in a matter-of-fact voice.

Dean chokes a little and then bursts out laughing. “God, I would’ve paid to see that.”

She shrugs. “I got in a few swings later.”

“I’ll bet.” Dean rubs a hand over his face and exhales. “I’m sorry, I never really asked you how you were dealing with, um, everything with John being back. If you want to talk about it, I mean--” how was it seeing your dead husband again and then having him and your sons hold you against your will--”it must have been…weird.”  

She keeps rubbing her thumb over his knuckles in steady, soft circles, like a calming ritual. Her throat works visibly. “There was one nice moment,” she finally says. The emphasis is on the singular.

Dean doesn’t say anything. Instead he brings up his other hand and cups it around hers. He presses his fingertips to the back of her hand where the veins are bright with tension and tries to massage away the tightness webbed across her skin.  

Later he’ll make that big breakfast he came into the kitchen for, even if it’s just him and Mom and his brother and Jack. He’ll make orange juice and fried potatoes and toasted muffins and scrambled eggs. There should be a pack of raisin-free muffins from Walmart still in the fridge. He’ll add onions and diced tomatoes to the scrambled eggs and just a hint of black pepper and chili. They’ll all eat at the table together, and then Sam and Jack will do the dishes, and he’ll wait.

He’ll wait for Castiel to come back.

 

+

 

By the time the afternoon rolls around, though, Dean has decided he’s tired of waiting.

Jack and Patience are making dinner, or trying to; they’ve forbidden anyone from coming into the kitchen and have some kind of secret online recipe that’s supposed to be a winner on TikTok. Mary has been put in charge of supervising them from the nearby library, in case they need a fire extinguisher or for her to make a quick delivery call for something actually edible for them to eat.

Sam is with Mary, working on research about Michael. Dean knows his younger brother is also still looking into the origins of the pearl and the spell. As if understanding it better can change what’s already happened.

And Castiel. Since he came back from breakfast with Claire and seeing her team off, he’s been in his room all day. Only Jack has been in to see him, to watch some new episode of a show that they’d been waiting to see. Both Sam and Mary have been giving Dean subtle and then just plain overt nudges to go talk to Castiel. Dean’s managed to find an excuse each time--Alex needed him, Donna was on the phone, another hunter needed advice--but now he’s just sitting in the garage on the plastic work stool, wondering how in the world he’s supposed to approach his best friend whom he tortured and abandoned and then abandoned. Again.

Cas. Come on out here. It’s a cheap move, but Dean figures if he prays enough it’ll be like having an ear-worm to the angel. He’ll have to leave his room, if only just to shut him up. We gotta talk. Get your ass out. It also prevents Dean from having to do the terrifying act of knocking on his door and being turned away. If Castiel actually doesn’t want to see him--never wants to see him again--then what’s the point of him being here? If his presence is bringing Castiel more misery then it defeats the whole point of him leaving behind the safety of the coffin and the sea.

“I never said that.” The terse voice behind him makes Dean jerk his head up and look behind him. Castiel is standing in the entrance to the garage, hands in his pockets and shoulders squared back. His eyes are focused on the spot in the room just above Dean’s head

“Ah, he speaks,” Dean announces with feigned annoyance.

“I’m here, so you can stop praying,” Castiel says, matching his irritation. “What do you want?’

Here goes. Dean pushes his hands against his knees and stands up slowly. “We need to talk, man. You and I. We, um.” He scrubs both hands over his face, muffling a quiet fuck.

Castiel’s expression remains passive. “What do you want to talk about?” He still hasn’t moved from his position in the doorway.

“Good question,” Dean chuckles. “We’ve got a lot to talk about, and I know it doesn’t help any but I’m sorry that I--”

“Lied to me, to Sam, to Mary, to Jody, to all of us?” Castiel ticks them off his fingers as he descends the steps into the garage. Dean instinctively moves back, keeping the Impala between them. He’s not afraid of Castiel. He is, however, thinking about what Mary said because the lights above him are already starting to flicker.

“I know, Cas, I know I shouldn’t have done it, okay? But believe or me--or actually don’t believe me, cuz that’s proven to be a shit track record, but for what it’s worth I was trying to protect you from me.” He jabs a finger hard into the center of his chest. “I wasn’t trying to leave you, alright, I was trying to contain the shitstorm of everlasting fucked-up-ness that is me.”

Castiel stares at him coldly. Like everything Dean’s just said has bounced right off him. Like he’s waiting for something worse to emerge, black and gnarled and oozing.

“And I couldn’t--I hated being here, alright?” Dean throws his hands up in concession. “It was selfish, I know, but knowing what I’d done here, what I’d done to you and Mom in this place--”  

“Do you think I want to be here?” Castiel takes a step forward, leaning over the hood of the Impala. The light bulbs hiss, glitching in and out like a horror movie scene. Black and white, shadow and light. Dean glances nervously above him, waiting for the glass rain to start.

“Do you think every single minute I’m awake--which is all the time, every day--doesn’t remind me of what happened? I can’t even think of this place as my home anymore, because you tortured me--” Castiel cuts himself off and looks away. The lights wink out, throwing the room into darkness. “In our home. The one place in the whole world that I’m supposed to be safe.”

Before Dean can say anything the light bulbs glare back on, suddenly bright and blinding. Castiel whips his gaze up and it feels like being struck across the face. “Did you know that? You can go out anywhere, you can make a home anywhere because you’re human. I can’t do that, because there will always be demons and monsters and people, hunters, who’d want to kill me, just because of what I am. When you die you’re going to Heaven and I won’t be allowed to-” he cuts himself off again and shakes his head. “This Bunker and the people in it are all I have. And now I’m afraid to even be here.”

Dean feels nauseous. He swallows thickly. “Cas, I’m sorry.” He wishes there was another word in the English language that could carry a hundred times of what he means to say by that paltry five-letter word. “I didn’t know--”

“The only place I feel safe right now is withdrawing into my body. And it’s not even mine!” Castiel pounds a fist against his chest, fracturing the notes of his voice. “This body remembers everything, Dean, the way you laughed when you hurt me and you--” he gulps back something frightening. “But I stay. I stay, because if I leave then I truly will have nothing. I don’t have the option of running away like you do, of some glorified martyrdom, because if I leave--if I go out there, into a world that hates me, then that just proves that everything you said was right.”

No. Don’t ask. “What did I say--what are you talking about?”

The color suddenly slips from the angel’s face. “Y-you didn’t even know me, but you knew me. Everything you said--that I was disgusting, that I was no one’s family, that I was pathetic and weak and no one cared about--” his lips twist and he lowers his head. His fingers curl into fists that he braces against the hood of the car.  

Dean wants to sink into the stone floor. Wants to crawl under the car and hope it crushes him. He feels the scrape of that word on his tongue, disgusting, and it tastes like blood.  

It’s not true, he tries to say, but all that comes out is a strained “not.”

“Don’t say that,” Castiel snaps, eyes blazing blue. “You don’t know me. You don’t, you can never--you don’t see me the way other angels can, the way I truly am, the way I--” he grates his teeth against each other. He’s clearly holding himself back but it’s like trying to contain a tsunami. “I know what I am, Dean. I know what I’ll always be to you, to everyone. I know what I was created to be, a soldier, and I can barely win a single war for you now but--”

“So what.” Dean throws back. “So what if you think you’re broken. We all are. It doesn’t matter, Cas. We love you just the same, we always have. Don’t you know that?”

The room suddenly falls into a terrible quiet. The whine of the glitching light bulbs and the jagged sound of Castiel’s breathing fills Dean’s ears. The angel is standing immobile across from him, shoulders hunched and head bowed.  

Dean presses a hand to his mouth and turns away to hide the tears in his eyes. “Cas,” he breathes into his hand. “Cas.”

It takes him a few seconds to pull himself together. “Cas, look at me.” When the angel refuses to lift his head Dean keeps talking anyways. “Cas, listen, if you knew, really knew what we think of you, you’d never doubt for a second where you belonged. You mean the world to us. And there is nothing, past or present, or damn future, that could change that. Do you understand?”

Castiel doesn’t respond. With the lights still on the fritz Dean can’t really tell what expression he’s making, or if he’s even listening to him. What could he possibly do to show his friend, to prove to him that what he’s saying is more than just words? An idea starts to form in his mind--he’ll need Sam’s help for it--the kid’s always been better at this kind of thing anyways--but it just might help. It’s not something Dean would normally feel comfortable doing (it’s corny as fuck) but its one way to irrefutably show Castiel what he means to them.

Right now though, he leans forward, getting as close as he can with the Impala still between them. “And I know that sometimes it doesn’t matter what other people think, because deep down you still feel rotten and unworthy. And maybe--maybe that doesn’t go away right away, or even for a while. But I--” he rubs the back of his neck with one hand. How is he supposed to tell Castiel not to hate himself the way Dean’s been detesting himself for decades? “But we can help remind each other--I’m going to remind you that it’s not true, as often as you need me to, okay?”

Castiel remains rooted in place. Dean slowly steps around the hood of the car to approach him, but he hesitates a few inches away. He remembers what Sam told him about Castiel freaking out in the forest when he touched him. “Cas? Can I--can I touch you?”

Castiel sucks in a shaking breath. Then he nods. He still hasn't changed his posture.

Dean edges closer and wraps his arms awkwardly around him sideways, then rests his head on his shoulder. He feels the ripple of Castiel’s heavy breathing under his cheek, the rise and fall of his back. 

Dean holds Castiel and waits, just like he promised he would.

The light bulbs squeak above him, cracked crescents slipping over his face.

Then Castiel speaks. 

“You promised you wouldn’t leave me.”

It comes out in a tiny voice, barely more than a whisper.

It fills Dean’s ears like a roar, engulfing him from every side.  

“I’m sorry.” Dean buries his face into the trench coat, clutching Castiel so tight it feels like his chest is going to crack. “I’m sorry,” he sobs. “I’m so sorry.”

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

For the second time that month the four of them are gathered for a family meeting in the library. Sam and Dean on one side, Mary and Castiel opposite them. Same as last time. Sam’s pretty sure that the arrangement is unintentional; he tries not to think of it as criminals vs victims, the judged and the jury. These people are his family. It’s just that one half of the family tortured and imprisoned the other half.

Keep it together Sam. He makes a mental promise to himself to actually try and stay this time, at least for as long as he can. Mary has specifically talked to them beforehand about taking it slow, and having as many breaks as they need, so no one feels the need to flee the scene when the conversation gets too tense or emotional. Jody is chaperoning Jack on his first movie night out with some friends he made in the neighborhood, so the Bunker is empty and hushed in a nervous quiet.

Sam toys with the folded square of paper in his hand as he waits for Castiel to come join them from the kitchen where he and Mary are selecting their choice of tea. His left leg is bobbing up and down minutely, toes curled against the inside of his shoes.

“Maybe we should’ve put it in an envelope,” Dean mutters beside him.

“That would make it weird.”

“I dunno.” His older brother frowns. “I think it’s already weird enough. Nothing we do to it can make it any weirder.”

Sam wacks his elbow with the corner of the paper. “Dean. This was your idea.”

“I know!” Dean throws his hands up in mock defeat. “That’s part of the weirdness. This is what happens when I get desperate.

“Or when you watch too many chick flicks,” Sam coughs behind his hand.

“Oh, don’t you start with me, Sammy. You wanna reread that first bit of what you wrote? That was all you, I had nothing to do with that.”

“You didn’t stop me from doing it either,” Sam shoots back. “And do you want me to read that last line you added?”

“Jerk.”

“Bitch.”

Dean rolls his eyes dramatically, prompting a cheeky smile from Sam. Then Dean’s expression sobers and he leans forward, elbows on the table.  “I just-I hope it works. That it helps him, somehow.”

“Same,” Sam says quietly. Just then Castiel comes into the room, a steaming mug in each hand, followed by Mary who is also carrying two mugs. They pause in front of Sam and Dean and Mary raises an eyebrow.

“Lemon or--” she nods at Castiel “--chamomile?”

“We’re all drinking tea?” Dean grimaces.

“It smells nice,” Castiel says. He hands Dean one mug, the Starbucks one that Jack got from collecting stickers on his point card. “This one has honey in it.”

Dean sniffs at it warily like he’s been handed a witch’s concoction. “Fine, whatever.”

Castiel beams brightly and he goes to take his seat across the table. Sam takes one of Mary’s mugs. He bobs the tea bag back and forth in the yellowed murky brew.

“Okay.” Mary sits down at the head of the table. She’s not sitting next to Castiel after all. It should’t matter that the seating arrangement is more of a triangle now than two opposing sides, but somehow it makes the weight in Sam’s chest feel a little lighter.

“Before we start,” Mary continues, “I’d like to remind everyone that we can stop at any time. Whenever anyone’s feeling like they need some time alone, we can break and then regroup a little later. I don’t want anyone to feel forced to be here, but there are--” her eyes drift over the three of them “--some things we need to talk about and be willing to share with each other.”

“Yeah, like how you were comatose in the forest for a day,” Dean speaks up, his gaze narrowed at Castiel.

“I wasn’t--I withdrew, that’s not the same thing.” He throws Dean a glinting glare. “I wasn’t going to, for example, put myself in a coffin at the bottom of the ocean.”

“Oh great,” Sam mumbles, slouching deeper into his chair. His brother and his friend are going for each other’s throats before they’ve even started. This is starting to look like less of a safe space and more like a space filled with many sharp objects. This is why they don’t have family meetings regularly. This is why group therapy would never work for them.

“Wow, cheap shot there,” Dean throws back. “Who would’ve thought--

“I get panic attacks sometimes,” Mary announces.

Dean clamps his jaw shut. Sam slowly straightens up, gazing in almost wonder at his mother.

“They started after…what happened. I didn’t know what they were, just that I would get--I'd be short of breath and my chest would hurt, like I was about to keel over.” Mary slips her fingers around the curve of her mug, cradling it in both hands. “Jody told me what it was. She helped pull me out of one of them, and taught me how to count and breathe. How to ground myself”

“I’m sorry, Mom,” Dean says quietly. “I didn’t know.”

“It’s not your fault, I didn’t tell you. I didn’t want you to worry. But I-I think sometimes it’s easier to keep things to yourself. It takes a lot more courage to be willing to allow people to worry about you. I trust all of you, and I want us to be able to heal from what happened together.”

In his mind Sam sees Mary running towards them in Mussel Fork Park, breathless, her face pale and pinched in terror. “In the forest,” he begins hesitantly. “Did you…”

She nods. “That was a pretty bad one. I managed to get myself through it but it was…” she pauses to take a sip of tea. “It was rough.”

Castiel starts to say something that sounds like “I’m sorry” but Mary shakes her head at him. “This isn’t about blame, that’s not why I’m telling you. I’m telling you because it’s something I’m struggling with, and something I…need help with. It's..it’s easier for me to come out of it when someone else is there, with me, helping me count and breathe in and out.”

“Yeah, okay.” Dean’s voice softens. “I used to, uh, help Sammy with his panic attacks too. Years ago, after--” he shoots Sam a knowing glance.

Jessica. Sam is surprised that Dean remembers. He nods. “Yeah, I used to have them a lot, not so much anymore but I-I know how much it sucks. It’s a pretty shitty feeling,” he adds and Mary cracks a small smile

“That sounds about right.”

“We’re here for you, Mom,” Sam says, meeting her eyes earnestly, “anytime you need it.”

Mary reaches out and squeezes his arm gently. “Thank you.”

Sam can't help but stiffen slightly. Her fingers are laced right over the scars under his sleeve. He's relieved when she withdraws her hand.

Castiel puts his mug down. “I--I think I should explain what it means when I withdraw my grace. I told Sam that it was a kind of--kind of hibernation for wounded angels, and that’s maybe a--a better description than comatose.” His eyes are darting around the room as he speaks. “And I-I-I-”

“Cas.” Sam leans forward to be in his line of sight. “Do you want to take a minute?”

The seraph nods. His hands are hidden under the table but Sam can tell from the rapid twitch of his shoulders that they’re probably shaking. Mary is looking at Castiel, and from the deliberateness of her gaze Sam figures that she’s probably praying to him. Maybe she's telling him to take deep breaths, because then Castiel starts inhaling and exhaling with obvious rhythm.

After a few minutes of steady breathing Castiel clears his throat and nods at Sam, like he’s ready to try again. “I-It makes me feel safe to withdraw, but one of the side effects is that my memories will often come loose. Think of it as---um---” he grabs a napkin from the box on the table and covers the back of his right hand with it “--my memories are part of the outer layer of my being. To withdraw means to exist solely in my grace, a place without thought or thinking. So sometimes it causes the outer layer--” he moves the napkin off his knuckles “--to loosen and become visible without the tether of my grace holding both my mind and vessel together.”

“So it’s like overflow, when you’re boiling a pot of water,” Dean suggests.

“Yes, except that I’m not boiling. I’m quite the opposite. I’m still and immobile.”

“Is it dangerous or harmful to you?” Sam asks.

“No, but--if I do it for too long it’s harder to come out of it. There’s a risk of it becoming a permanent state of being, like you said, comatose. Normally I know how to regulate myself to only withdraw for a few hours, at night for example, but…if I’m more overwhelmed I might withdraw for longer.”

“Okay, so could we maybe wake you up, in some way?” Mary speaks up. “If it’s been longer than a certain number of hours, for example?”

“Yes. I shouldn’t withdraw for more than three or four hours at a time. But--” his eyebrows draw together and he looks at the boys and then Mary. “To reach me when I’ve withdrawn--the only way is to touch one of the loose memories.”

“And what, are we going to get zapped or something?” Dean asks.

Sam thinks about being in the forest--of touching the mist and being transported into that horrific scene. How he felt every burn and blister as if it was happening to his own skin.

Castiel twists the end of the tissue between his fingers into a gnarled knot. “No. You’re going to experience my memories as your own, as Mary and Sam have found out already.”

“Does it bother you for us–is it okay for us to experience your memories?” Sam asks. He has a feeling he already knows the answer, but he wants Castiel to tell them himself.

Castiel sighs reluctantly. "I don't want you to see them, but there's no other way to pull me out. I can’t hear any prayers when I’m in that state. Just…don’t touch the memory for longer than you need to. Let go when I say so.”

“Maybe we should go wake you up as a team of two then,” Sam offers. “That way one of us can pull the other away after they’ve touched the memory, so they don’t have to stay in it for more than a few seconds.”

“That would work.” Castiel looks a little less crestfallen. “A moment of contact is all that’s necessary. I can tell when someone else is in my memory; it’s a definite intrusion, and my grace--me--would respond to that quickly.”

“Alright. That's good to know." Mary pauses, like she’s wary of pushing further. “But what about what might make you want to withdraw? Do you-do you want to talk about that?"

Castiel tightens his lips. “Sometimes I get tired,” he says thinly.

From the look on Mary and Dean’s faces Sam’s pretty sure that none of them believe him. Sam  glances sideways at Dean, and his brother nods in acknowledgement.

Dean clears his throat and hesitantly pushes the folded paper across the table. “We know that you remember everything that happened,” he begins, and then stops. “What we did,” he amends, “and what we said, and we can’t change that. But we wanted to write down some things…” here he throws Sam a look that says come-back-me-up-for-the-cheesy-part, and Sam joins in.

“We wrote down some truths, Cas, about how we really feel about you. So when you remember the horrible things we said, that aren’t true in any way, you can have this.” Dean’s original idea was for them to just tell Castiel the statements verbally, but Sam had insisted on something physical, something with weight and texture and visual text. Something Castiel could hold in his hands as actual evidence against the ghosts of the memories. “It’s yours to keep and read--”

“--later,” Dean jumps in hurriedly. “In your own time. When you want to.”

Sam chuckles under his breath. “Dean’s just embarrassed that you’ll find out that he’s a real softie.”

“Or-or-” Dean stammers. “-or that my handwriting sucks. Which it does, by the way.”

“I’ll read it later,” Castiel says graciously, pocketing the paper. “Thank you very much. It’s very thoughtful of you to do this.”

“No, Cas, we should’ve done this sooner,” Sam says.

“Yeah.” Dean pulls back into the frame of his seat, his jaw tightening. “You should never have any reason to doubt what we think of you, Cas. You’re the best friend we’ve got, you’re--” he inhales shortly and rubs a hand over his face. “Fuck. Anyways,” he says, blinking hard. “It’s all in there. Everything in there is one hundred percent fact.”

“Thank you.” Castiel looks close to crying himself.

There’s a lull of silence in the room. Like they’re all waiting for the next person to take the stand and confess their unhealthy coping mechanism. Sam’s hand moves imperceptibly over the scars under his arm. His fingers lace over the fabric of his sleeve, like an additional layer of armor to shield anyone from seeing them.

“Well, I guess you all know I wanted to jump in the ocean,” Dean speaks up. “In a box in the ocean,” he corrects himself. “I don’t-there’s not much more to say to that, I guess? I felt like--” he cuts himself off again. “I feel like I’m a danger to everyone around me. Everyone I love.”

“Okay,” Mary says calmly. Sam can tell that she’s restraining herself from contradicting him, from telling him no you’re not a danger you are my son my brother my family and there’s no way we could carry on without you.

Fine. So maybe Sam’s the one holding himself from bursting out. He wants to grab Dean by the shoulders and make him promise that he’ll never believe the world would be a better place without him.

“What can we do to help?” Castiel asks gently.

“Ground me?” Dean laughs weakly. “I don’t know, honestly, maybe-if I’m feeling the itch to go deep sea diving again, I can…tell someone…?” He scrunches up his nose, like the very thought is appalling to him.

“You can pray to me. If you don’t want to say it out loud. All of you can do that, you know.” Castiel's gaze sweeps across the table. “Anytime, about anything. I don’t sleep, so you can pray to me at any time of the day or night. It doesn’t bother me. I want to listen.” His eyes finally land on Sam. “I want to help.”

The idea of being able to talk to someone without having to actually talk is wonderful. Of course the reassurance of the suggestion lasts only as long until a new concern pops into Sam’s mind. “But-how will you reply? We can’t receive angel prayers, can we?”

“No, you can’t.” Castiel frowns, lines appearing across his forehead. “I don’t know how--”

“You can text us back,” Mary pipes up. “You always have your phone with you, right?”

Castiel’s face brightens. “I do!” He pats his left coat pocket proudly.

“Then the communication is still non-verbal,” Mary adds, “which is how it’s meant to be right? Because sometimes it’s just too hard to say things out loud.”

“Yeah, okay.” Sam feels himself smiling. “That sounds good.”

Next to him Dean exhales softly with what sounds like a sigh of relief. “Yeah, I think so, too.”

“Thank you,” Mary says to Castiel, and the boys echo her. Castiel shakes his head and tells them there’s nothing to be grateful for, and the effusive merry-go-round of thanks and denial of them continues for a few more seconds. Sam is about to push back his chair and announce the end of a very effective family meeting when he notices the lull in the room.

It’s heavy. It’s sharp-tipped. It’s aimed right at him

His fingers tighten around his left sleeve. Daring anyone to pry them off.

“Sammy.” Dean sounds so grave it’s almost frightening.

He can’t tell them. He can’t. He remembers the disappointment in Dean’s eyes before, whenever he’d catch Sam digging into his palm even after Lucifer’s hallucinations were lifted from him. “I’m fine,” Sam verbalizes automatically.

It’s the wrong thing to say. He might as well have poured gasoline on a campfire.

“No, you’re not.” Dean’s voice hardens. “I saw the scars when you came to get me.”

“The what?” Mary’s voice is high. Shrill. “What did you do, Sam?”

Fine. If they’re going to put him on trial like this, the way they’ve always done--whether it was about his psychic powers, or the demon blood, or Lucifer--then he might as well give them the show they want. Cry guilty, cry sinner. That’s all they ever see him as anyways. He’s about to yank his sleeve up and wave his arm in their faces when his phone buzzes in his pocket. He pulls it halfway out and sees a text from Castiel across the screen.

It’s just six words: “We all love you very much.”

His eyes flick up and he sees Castiel looking at him. Just looking at him, eyes soft and void of judgment or expectation. He wonders if Castiel already knows. Then he realizes it doesn’t matter. His friend--his best friend--knows him. Knows exactly what he needs to hear right now.

“When I wake up,” Sam says quietly, eyes lowered to the table, “sometimes I don’t know if I’m myself. Or if there’s something--someone possessing me. I test myself to find out-I-I have to do something until I bleed. Just to make sure. Sometimes I just need to be sure.”

He waits for the anger. The incredulous exclamations. The picking apart of himself from head to toe.

“Is there--” Dean inhales shortly “--is there any way you can--we can find to help you test yourself that doesn’t…hurt you?”

“Maybe like a sigil or something?” Mary’s words shift direction. “Castiel, is that possible?”

“We can make one, yes. It won’t be too complicated.”

That’s not the fury. That’s not the criticism. Where is it? Is it coming after this charade?

“What do you think, Sam?” Dean’s leaning towards him. “Or if that makes you uncomfortable we can also find something else.”

“Sigil’s good,” Sam manages to croak out. His throat is full of tears waiting to spill out. They don’t--they’re not--they. They love him. They love him, and they want to help him exist with less pain, not more.  

“Do you want me to heal them?” Castiel’s question brings him back to the present and the pressure of his own hand around his arm.

Sam thinks about it for a moment. From the tone of Castiel’s voice he knows that the seraph wouldn’t push if he said no. Wouldn’t force him to get rid of his handmade wounds. “Yes.”

Castiel gets to his feet and comes around the table. Sam expects him to press two fingers to his forehead, but instead Castiel holds out his left hand. A panicked surge courses through Sam--he’s going to want to see the scars, expose the evidence for all to see--but Castiel then tilts his open hand to the side, like he’s waiting for a handshake.

Confused, Sam meets the gesture and tucks his palm against Castiel’s. Castiel clasps his hand gently and then turns it over, placing his other hand on the back of Sam’s. A slight tingle rushes through Sam’s skin, warm and soothing. He doesn’t really pay attention to it, though, because his mind is swimming with the memory of their first meeting. Sam Winchester. Castiel turning his hand over. It’s an honor to meet you. The boy with the demon blood.

Thank you, Sam prays to Castiel. Thank you.

Castiel lets go of his hand and Sam stands up beside him. Mary and Dean get up,  too, as if finally signaling the end of the meeting, but none of them exit the room. They stand there in an awkward semi-circle, neither of them wanting to be the one to make the first move and fracture what feels like a tenuously repaired string.

Thankfully Castiel breaks the tension. “I don’t know if this is the right time to say this,” he begins hesitantly, and immediately a chorus of “yes go ahead” “feel free” and “this is a safe space” answer him. He smiles nervously, acknowledging their permission, but doesn’t continue.

Mary puts a hand on his arm. “In your own time, okay?”

He nods. “It’s not--I don’t. I don’t know if you want to talk about…John.”

The room quiets immediately. From the corner of his eye Sam sees Mary shoot Dean a glance and his brother responds with a slight shrug of the shoulders. None of them are going to deny Castiel from saying what he wants to, but John is the one shadow that they haven’t really approached yet, much less tried to clear.  

“I know--I know he cared about you,” Castiel says, directing his gaze to the three of them. “And I know how much you wanted to be a family again. I’m sorry that you didn’t get to spend time with him after the spell was broken. If there was any other way to bring him back without disastrous consequences I would have--”

“I’mma stop you right there,” Dean interrupts him. “Cas, look, you know I wanted Dad back--hell that’s the whole reason we got in this mess in the first place.”

“Not true,” Sam interjects. “You didn’t know--”

Dean waves his hand dismissively. “Okay, yeah, I didn’t know what would happen, and that’s the point here, Cas. Because if I knew what bringing my Dad back would cost, I would have never used the pearl. Never. You get it? I wouldn’t trade knowing you and everything, for my Dad. I wouldn’t trade you for anyone.”

Castiel looks away. “Okay,” he breathes. Mary still has her fingers clutched around the hem of his sleeve and when Castiel turns back to them she lets go only to pull him into her arms. She rocks back and forth on her toes, the back of his coat bunched up in her fists, and then Dean moves forward, embracing both of them. Sam’s arms are the last to be added onto the pile; he towers over all of them, and yet he feels like a child climbing onto a soft comforting pile of flannel and beige and sniffles.

Somewhere from the middle of the group hug comes Castiel’s muffled voice saying, “I love you all so much. You know that, right?”

Sam laughs, a tear-streaked hiccup. “Cas. How could we not know that?”

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

It’s supposed to be okay after that meeting. It’s not.

But there’s a tentative acceptance of the not-okay-ness, like they've all realized that it's alright to have their wounds out in the open. Jody and Donna and the girls go back a few days later, leaving the Bunker to the way it was one month ago: hunters passing in and out, with Mary and her four boys being the permanent residents, and the Michael problem still in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

Except it’s not the same as it was. It might never be. Sometimes Mary thinks wonders when she’ll ever be able to close her eyes and not feel that faint ripple of fear under her eyelids. She tries not to pray to Castiel every night--she figures she needs to learn to get through it on her own, so she waits to call on him until it’s really bad, like an emergency sedative hidden in the bottom of the last drawer.

When she can’t fall back asleep she often takes to pacing around the Bunker and checking on her boys. One night sometime after 3 a.m. she steps into Sam’s room after the sound of gargled noises and strangled coughing alerts her. She catches sight of Sam, kneeling over the toilet bowl, saliva dripping off his lips. Before she can rush in to help him she sees that Castiel is already there, sitting cross-legged beside him on the bathroom floor. Castiel is rubbing a hand over her younger son’s heaving shoulders and whispering steadily in his ear.

Sometimes Dean will be awake in the early hours too, and he'll join Mary in the kitchen to drink black coffee and talk about their nightmares. They take turns describing them, as if they’re telling each other the plot summaries of movies they’ve watched recently. Dean will always try to weave a punchline out of his distorted visions; half the time he picks just the right play on words that it actually makes Mary laugh. Sometimes they end up laughing so hard they have to press their fingers over their mouths and hush themselves from disturbing the rest of their family.

This Friday Mary comes into the kitchen around four a.m. and sees that both Dean and Castiel are already there. Dean’s frying up bacon, and Castiel reaches over to the frying pan, as if about to snitch a piece. It’s a casual playfulness that she hasn’t seen between them in so long, and she feels a smile lifting her tired bones when Dean whacks Castiel’s arm away playfully.

Castiel reacts to the gesture like it’s a bare-knuckled blow. He jolts away and then backpedals frantically, only to freeze in place after a few seconds.

Mary’s heart burns against her chest. She wants to step up and smooth it over, but what can she even say? Dean’s standing still by the stove, face ashen, and Castiel is still immobile, eyes wide and lips breathing hard. Both of them look like they’re about to burst out in apologies when Castiel moves forward without a word and grabs Dean into a hug. Her son puts down the spatula and wraps his arms around the angel, rocking slightly back and forth.

She joins them later when Dean catches her lingering by the doorway. He claims the bacon is burnt on purpose.

Having Jack around helps, too; the child is the only true exhale of lightness in the Bunker. Whenever he’s around Mary can almost forget that anything ever happened. Jack is as effusive as ever; he’s excited about new cereal flavors and goes on about the new episode of his favorite show at dinner time, like nothing’s changed. Sometimes, though, she worries that Jack might have noticed something by now. But Castiel reassures her he’s made sure to reinforce his alibi and explain away all of Jack’s concerns.

“Please don’t tell him,” he’s begged her countless times, and according to Sam and Dean, he’s sworn them to silence as well. Mary wonders who he’s trying to protect more: himself, or Sam and Dean.

“I want Jack to feel safe,” Castiel finally admits to her one night when her musings on the subject have clearly turned into prayers without her realizing it. Again.

She looks up from the novel she’s reading across the bed from him. “Do you mean--”

“If he knew.” Castiel thumbs at the spell book laying across his lap. “He wouldn’t--he would worry. He would be afraid that it might happen again, he’d think that he needs to protect me and I don’t--” he pauses, two fingers resting on the edge of the yellowed page. “It’s my job to protect him. Not the other way around.”

Mary nods. “I understand that, I do, Castiel. And I-we-all respect your decision not to tell him.”

She studies Castiel for a moment, even as the angel returns to studying the page. This is his third night in a row that he’s spent in her room. He hasn’t talked to her about why he wants to stay there; he just comes in like clockwork at nine p.m, and he’s always there when she wakes up again. “Do you feel safe here?”

Castiel starts flipping pages again. “In this room?”

“In the Bunker. In spaces around--” my children “--around us.”

Castiel keeps turning the pages, albeit slower. He’s getting to the end of the book and soon there’s going to be no more pages, nothing else to distract him. So she waits.

“Castiel,” she says when he’s left staring at nothing but the back of the book. “Do you feel--”

“Mary.” He traces a thumb over the stitches of the book’s spine. “I don’t want to lie. Please don’t ask me that.”

She bites her lower lip and looks away. She’s powerless to take this away, to defeat this foe, to heal this hurt. If only she could grab it by the fistfuls and hurl it out the door. If only it could be salted and burned. If only it could be killed and he could know without a doubt that he would never be harmed in his own home again.

After a minute she pulls herself together and then scoots over across the bed to get closer to him. Before she’s even beside him Castiel holds out his arms and she gathers him into an embrace. She dips her forehead, burying her face in his shoulder and gripping the back of his neck. He breathes softly against her collarbone and she closes her eyes, holding to this feeling as if nothing in the world could ever rip him away from them.

Once they’ve let go of the hug Castiel doesn’t leave her side. She picks up her novel again and gestures to the open page. “Look at this. The vampire in this book can’t even eat normal food. But he invites the witch over for dinner, and then he tells her, ‘you smell so good’. That’s the big romantic scene between them. I think?”

Castiel raises an eyebrow. “Is this another one of Sam’s recommendations?”

“No,” Mary laughs. “Alex left it for me. She said it was hilarious.”

He leans in. “Then what happens? Does he drink her blood?”

“No, it’s supposed to be better than those books Claire made you read.” She pushes one side of the book towards him. “Here, you read this part, it’s so…weird.”

When she wakes up the next morning Castiel has already finished reading all three books in the trilogy, and he eagerly informs her that the vampire and witch couple are married and have children by now. “The vampire did drink her blood in the end,” he adds solemnly, “but it was consensual. Also he said it tasted like honey.” His nose wrinkles up a little. “I’ve tasted all kinds of blood before and never sampled any that resembled honey.”

“Cas,” she murmurs, rubbing the sleep from her eyes, “why were you sampling blood?”

He’s deep into a thorough explanation of Heaven’s taste test experiments and Balthazar’s ill-advised methods when Sam pops his head in the door and announces that he’s found a case for them. It’s just a werewolf sighting--nothing complicated--but Mary hasn’t been on a hunt since that day five weeks ago with Maggie and the vampires. The day she got the call from Dean and went home to find her dead husband and a whole spool of unraveled nightmares. So she jumps at the invitation to do something, anything, that can be fixed with her own two hands.

The hunt goes smoothly; it’s relatively uneventful, but it does invigorate her. She’s back in the Bunker by the next day, and that afternoon she and Jack are tasked with sorting the new shipment of spell ingredients. Jack telling her all about the real witch he and Claire took down who was similar to “the made up witches on television” because she also had a wand. Mary is in the middle of telling him that a cursed piece of twig isn’t really a wand when she notices the chips of wood dusting her fingertips from the box of hyssop. Her index finger throbs and she brings it closer to her eyes to inspect the splinter embedded between the lines of her fingerprint.

As she heads to the infirmary for some alcohol and a pair of tweezers she feels the weight of a chair leg pressed into her palm and she starts walking faster. Then running.

No one’s after her. There’s nothing to escape from. She reminds herself of this fact, one that her heart is blatantly ignoring. It is beating a riot against her ribs and she can’t get it to stop. When she bursts into the garage, hands clutched around her chest, she can hardly even see the floor she’s collapsing onto. It’s just a page of white folding her up until there’s not a single empty space, no exit to punch through, no crack to slip out from.

Then the last quarter of air is squeezed out with the sound of Joni Mitchell’s voice.

The fight returns to her, even though the sound of her own voice gasping for air is so loud it scares her. She stumbles to her feet and rushes blindly in the direction of the singing. The outline of a car zooms in and out of her focus and she flails her arms forward, swinging aimlessly a few times before she connects with the door and jerks it back.

Joni looms large as a twister, churning and gurgling around her own throat.

Mary pounds a fist against the tape deck in the dashboard until it stops.

She stops. Her elbows hold her up, digging into the driver’s seat cushions for support as she drinks the air greedily and counts backwards in her mind. Five, four, three, two, one.  

“Mary?” Someone’s in the back seat of the car. “Are you alright?”

“Counting,” she gasps, and the person helpfully starts listing the numbers aloud. “One, two, three, four, five.” She fixates on the rhythm of their voice, the unwavering cadence of the syllables. By the time they reach one hundred-fifty-four her heart is finally sinking back below the surface of the waves.

She lifts her head up slowly. It feels like hoisting a wrecking ball above her shoulders. When she rests her forehead against the headrest of the driver’s seat she finally realizes who’s peering at her with undiminished concern. “Castiel?”

“Are you alright, Mary?” he repeats. “Do you want me to get someone or--”

“I’m fine.” She exhales hard through pursed lips. “I’m fine now. Thanks for counting with me.” Her eyes move around her and she registers that the car is the Impala, and Castiel is sitting in the backseat, with both doors closed. He must have been here before she ever burst in. "Wait, what are you doing here?”

He eases back into the backseat, like he’s retreating. “I was just…ah--it’s not important. How are you feeling now? Do you need some water? I can get you some water, or do you want some tea?”

The broken plastic spears of the tape deck wink at her. She turns from the dashboard to the angel and then back to the dashboard again. The Joni tape. “Cas,” she starts slowly, disbelieving the question even as it forms. “Were you sitting here listening to that?”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t know it would upset you--I thought no one would come here--”

“No, no, that’s not what I mean.” She pulls up her knees and shifts to sit fully on the driver’s seat. “I mean, you like it?”

Castiel ducks his head almost shyly. “I--I found it in the storage room and I listened to it and it’s…different from what Sam or Dean usually play. There's sadness there, but it’s also comforting, somehow. Also--” and here the bashfulness grows even more “--the Impala has a better sound system than my truck.”

“I know,” Mary laughs weakly.  

“I didn’t know you didn’t like it,” Castiel adds quickly.

She takes another deep breath and then nods towards the empty space on the backseat. “Can I join you back there?”

“Of course.”

Mary clambers through the shoulders of the front seats and flops into the back. It’s darker here, but also more still, more settled. Like lying under the cover of a blanket.

She tips her head back and closes her eyes. “I used to love those songs,” she says aloud. “They were my fucking favorites. I knew all the words, I’d sing them when I was sad and when I was happy. But John made this tape when he was here--he used to play it while he was guarding me in the room. When you were screaming, he’d turn it up louder.”

“I’m sorry, Mary,” Castiel breathes. “I’m sorry that he took that from you.”

“Yeah.” Her eyelids flicker open and she turns to face him now. “Sorry, I can help you find the songs on your phone if you want. There’s an app where you can make playlists, I can get all the same songs that are on the tape.”

“It’s okay, I already know them all. I listened to it a lot,” he mumbles awkwardly. “When you’re sleeping sometimes I like to sit here.” His thumb traces the worn out patches in the seat like he’s outlining a memory. She wonders how many times in the past decade he’s been in the backseat of this car--if he watched the apocalypse dawn from these tinted windows; if he saw the angels falling in the rearview mirror; if he’s watched over her boys sleeping here.

“What’s your--” she clears her throat “what’s your favorite song on the tape?”

Castiel smiles, small wrinkles creasing around his eyes. “Little Green.”

“Oh, that’s a good one. Did you know that it’s about Joni’s daughter? She had to give her up for adoption when she was young and couldn’t afford to raise her.”

He nods. “I felt that sorrow there, of a parent leaving their child behind.” There’s a swell of emotion behind his voice that she can’t quite place. “But there’s love there too. She loved her greatly, even though she couldn’t be with her. I like the part where she says--” here he starts to sing “-‘just a little green / like the color when the spring is born / there’ll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow.’ ”

Castiel stops singing. “Crocuses are beautiful.”

“Keep going,” Mary whispers. It doesn’t make her nauseous when she’s listening to the lyrics in his voice. It doesn’t make her want to cover her ears and run. Maybe one day she’ll be able to listen to the whole album again without remembering the shape of John’s cruelty, but today she wants to be able to reclaim just one song.

“Keep going with what?”

“The song. Little Green.”

He fidgets a little, as if self-conscious. “Where should I start from?”

“Wherever you want.”

He meets her gaze and then nods. Mary leans her head against his shoulder and lets her lungs fill with air. Slowly, like filling up a bathtub with warm water for a lazy afternoon bath.

 

Born with the moon in Cancer

Choose her a name she’ll answer to

Call her green and the winters can not fade her

Call her green for the children who’ve made her

Little green, be a gypsy dancer

 

She slips her arm around his, feeling the texture of his coat fabric against her fingerprints. Her eyelids close as the air settles around her.

 

Just a little green

Like the color when the spring is born

There'll be crocuses to bring to school tomorrow

 

She imagines a garden. Wearing rubber gloves. Dirt around the toes of her shoes. Pink plastic watering jug. A striped bee buzzing in the background.

 

Just a little green

Like the night's when the Northern lights perform

There'll be icicles and birthday clothes

And sometimes there'll be sorrow

 

+

 

Sam opens his eyes and sees a field of one hundred sheep drenched in blood.

They’re swimming towards him, splashing wildly. He turns to run and tumbles off the edge of his bed, elbow grinding hard into the floor. Staggering to his feet he flicks the lamp on and throws up a hand against the sigil on the wall beside his bed.

Breathes in. Slips his fingers around the familiar curve of paint. Breathes out.   

He knows, without looking, that it says “my peace I give unto you” in Enochian. Castiel added the line from the Bible that wasn’t in the original sigil design. When Sam asked if it added any extra protection, Castiel had shook his head slightly and smiled. “It’s a beautiful line, though.” He had stepped back then, the bowl of paint in both hands. “If I could give you anything, Sam,” he had said, looking him in the eyes, “I would give you peace. ”

Breathe in. He lets his finger trace the marking again, from the top to the bottom. Breathe out.

Usually after several rounds of running his hand over the sigil Sam can calm down enough to lay back down without feeling like suffocating. If not, he knows that Castiel is just a thought away. Recently it’s been getting easier for him to coax his mind to steadiness and fall back asleep on his own. He thinks that having started to go out on hunts again helps. It’s like he’s reinstating himself, rebuilding who he is and what he does. His job is to protect those who can’t protect themselves. Not torture his best friend with knowledge that said friend told him in trusting confidence.

His ribs clench like a fist around his lungs. He flattens his hand against the sigil, fingertips grazing the top.

My peace I give unto you.

If I could give you anything, Sam, I would give you peace.

The best and worst part about that was that Sam knew that Castiel meant it. He truly would give them everything until he had nothing left, and even then he’d be trying to give them that nothing. What had they given him in return? Loss, a hundred fold. Misery, multiplied by a thousand. Sometimes its like, don’t you have anyone better to hang out with?

Sam’s phone buzzes and he opens his eyes to grab his phone from beside his pillow.

“Not really,” the text from Castiel reads. “Although Claire has frequently told me to come visit her and stop being around these ‘losers.’ ”

Sam feels his lips curling upwards a little at the last line. He can just see Castiel physically making those quotation marks with his fingers.

The phone buzzes again. “I told her I’m a loser too. She said that wasn’t true and then Jack said ‘but I heard you call him that.’ ”

The kid’s a real tattletale, isn’t he, Sam thinks. If he was in school he’d totally be the teacher’s pet.

Another text appears across the screen. “I think Jack would excel at his studies.”

Yeah, that’s part of being a teacher’s pet. Sam stifles a yawn. I could’ve been a teacher’s pet, you know. If I stayed in any school long enough to earn the reputation.

He glances at the phone screen. Castiel texts, “Lie back down and tell me about it.”

Sam knows what Castiel is doing. He also knows that it works every time. Castiel will get him on a subject, or memory, something far away from John and the dungeon and screaming blood; Sam will lay there and let his thoughts wander, creating what Castiel calls a ‘storybook prayer’ where Sam envisions what he’s thinking about. Sam never quite finishes a storybook, because eventually he’ll fall asleep, but Castiel claims he doesn’t mind. “One day you’ll tell me the rest of the story,” he says, “and that gives me something to look forward to.”

Sam slips the phone back into down and stretches out his legs. He sinks into his mattress tepidly, nervously, like entering a battle zone again. Before he starts thinking about that one English teacher who loved his essays he sends a message to Castiel.

Thank you for being here, he prays.

He doesn’t have to look at his vibrating phone to know that Castiel texted back, “Thank you for letting me be here with you.”

Sometimes Sam is still worried that Castiel is giving too much to them. He tells himself that what Castiel says is true--about how their prayers to him are a form of comfort for him, too, and that they keep him company during the quiet of night--but he can’t shake the itching feeling that he should be doing more. More of what, Sam doesn’t know. He would rip out his soul and give it to Castiel if there was even the slightest indication that it would soothe the angel. He wouldn’t even hesitate.

But Castiel tends to mostly keep to himself, or be in Mary’s room. Sam doesn’t blame him for finding solace in the one person who didn’t betray him and brutalize him. He remembers what Castiel said in the forest--how the best redemption Sam could earn is in forgiving himself--but Sam wants to find another way to help him.

Then he discovers something that Castiel’s been hiding from him. Not just him. From Dean and Mary, too.

Not that Sam is looking to uncover one of the angel’s secrets. It just happens one afternoon.

He and Castiel are about to go follow-up on a lead about an artifact that might help them get Michael out of Dean. Castiel is checking their duffle bags in the front room while Mary is telling him about stopping by Jody's on the way home. Sam comes in from the kitchen with a pack of trail mix for the drive when he notices that Castiel has stopped nodding along to Mary’s instructions; he’s staring at the angel blade in his hand, then he drops it back into the folds of the bag with an abrupt clatter.

“Castiel?” Mary pauses. “Are you alright?”

Castiel forces a smile. “Yes. I just forgot my phone in my room.”

Mary eyes Castiel as he rushes down the hallway in a rhythm that’s much too hurried for just picking up a phone. Sam deposits the trail mix bag onto the table and gives his mom a meaningful “I’ll go check on him” nod before following after the angel.

By the time Sam catches up to Castiel’s room he finds it empty. He texts Mary to see if Castiel returned to the main room and she says he’s not there. “I’ll get him”, he messages her and then hesitates in the room’s entrance. There’s a limited number of places one might go for privacy in the Bunker; he figures if Castiel is upset about something then he’d want to be alone. The dungeon is one of those places, but none of them ever choose to set foot in there except to grab a file they’ve needed from the archives. That leaves the kitchen pantry, where Sam just came from, or the storage room.  

Sam opens the door of the storage room slowly, hoping not to startle Castiel if he’s in there. He doesn’t see anything at first--just cupboards and drawers and that box of bullets that Dean still hasn’t put away--but then he hears it. A heavy, gasping sound, coming from the back. He moves over and sees Castiel leaning against the door frame of the bathroom.

”Cas? Are you okay?”

At those words Castiel immediately shuffles further away, practically plastering himself into the concrete of the wall. He throws up both hands to shield his face as Sam circles around to see him.

“Cas, I’m here. I’m not going to come any closer. Just tell me what I can do to help.”

The angel sounds like he’s hyperventilating. He’s starting to shake so hard that his shoulders are slamming into the wall, setting off little clouds of  plaster dust. But he seems to be aware of his surroundings, and of Sam, because he ducks his head and lowers one hand to reach into his pocket. A small white folded square of paper comes out and Castiel drops it onto the floor before scooting further back into the corner.

“Okay.” Sam edges forward with obvious, deliberate movement. “Is this something for me?” He picks up the paper and carefully unfolds it. The paper is deeply creased, the lines of the folds practically gray from being opened and refolded dozens of times. It takes a few seconds for Sam to realize what he’s looking at and then a knot blooms in his chest.

It’s the list. The one that Sam and Dean wrote out and gave him in that meeting two weeks ago. 

“Cas…” Sam swallows hard. “Do you want me to read it?”

Castiel nods. His face is still buried in his hands. His knees bend as he slides down to the ground, shoulders hunched around himself.

Sam starts to read. The angel is sitting in the corner a few feet away from him, legs pulled up to his chest and forehead braced against them. Sam can tell by now that he’s definitely crying.

Sam keeps reading, even when the paper shakes in his hand, and gradually Castiel’s sobbing quiets down to a steady low keening sound. When Sam gets to the end of the list he pauses. “Should I read it again,” he asks softly, “or do you want me to leave?”

Castiel unfurls two fingers from the grip around his elbows and bends them, as if beckoning him to come. Sam walks over and then kneels down at his side. He brushes a sweaty strand of hair from Castiel’s forehead and runs his fingers through his hair, the way Dean used to do for him when he was sick as a kid. “Do you want to talk about what happened?”

Castiel tips his body towards him, his left shoulder digging into Sam’s ribcage. “I remembered,” he says, voice tangled around those two words. His fingers slip down, for a second exposing his swollen, bloodshot eyes. A sob breaks through the tightly pressed palms and he bows his head again. “I remembered.”

Sam pulls him close against his chest, one arm supporting him below and the other wrapped around his shoulders. “I’ve got you,” he breathes. “I’ve got you. I’m here. I’m here.”

 

+

 

Later, when Sam gets Castiel to tell Dean and Mary about the flashbacks, they ask him why he didn’t tell them about it earlier. “We could’ve helped you.” “You didn’t have to go through this alone.”

“I wasn’t alone,” Castiel insists. “I had help.” He pulls his phone and the paper out of his pocket. He plays the voice message from Jack that is clearly from when he was at Jody’s during the spell. “I used this at first, and then--” his fingers graze over the corner of the folded paper square, “--when you gave me this I…I found that I could use this, too.”

“Is that--” Dean sucks in a breath and looks over at Sam.

Sam nods. He can tell from Dean’s expression that he’s thinking the same thing. They’d never imagined that their little list would become a lifeline that Castiel’s been clinging onto with both hands.

“But was it easier to get through when Sam was there?” Mary asks gently.

It takes a good several seconds for the angel to nod. It’s just a tiny dip of the head, like that’s already too much of a concession to make. “Also when Claire was there,” he mumbles under his breath.

“Claire?” Dean repeats, something flickering in his eyes. Then he exhales loudly. “Oh god that’s why she said that!” He rubs a hand vigorously over his face. “Fuck, I should have--I’m such an idiot. Fuck. I’m sorry, Cas.

The angel lifts his head, eyes bright and sincere. “What for?”

 

+

 

It’s just supposed to be a typical hunt. Hex bags, witches, and bullets. It’s not supposed to end up with all three of them being hurled into a bog of cold, slimy mud and Castiel nearly choking to death under her spell before they finally land the killing shot. They’re all toweling off by the Impala when Castiel lets out a panicked gasp of “oh no, no, no.”

“What’s wrong?” Sam darts to his side while Dean raises his gun, looking left and right for danger.

Castiel is clutching his right fist to his side. “I can’t…I can’t fix it.”

Sam pulls his arm away and feels through the fabric of the trench coat for the wetness of blood. “What’s wrong, are you hurt? Where’s the wound?”

Castiel’s fingers open and Sam’s gaze drops to see the crumpled bits of paper lying there. “I can’t fix it--my grace is too weak and it’s not working.” His eyes light up cerulean before they blink and sputter back to normal. “I need to fix it--I have to fix it, Sam, but I can’t, I can’t--” he sways back and forth. “I can’t.”

It’s the list. The one Sam and Dean wrote for him. Sam brushes a finger over the soiled edges. “Cas, it's okay, we’ll write you a new one. I promise.”

“Yeah.” Dean’s standing at the other side of him, gripping his other arm to steady him. “We’ll write you a hundred more, okay? As many as you want.”

“I want this one.” Castiel’s lower lip is starting to shake. “I need to fix it.”

“I’ll fix it. I know how,” Sam says firmly, ignoring the suspiciously raised eyebrow of his brother standing across from him. “I have an idea.”

 

+

 

 

Dean’s got all three Christopher Nolan Batman movies queued up on his laptop. He figures that since he’s on Castiel watch tonight he might as well educate him in the second-best cinematic version of Batman (Claire couldn’t download the animated Batman series in time for tonight).

Castiel’s already sitting on his bed, the covers pulled up his waist. He hasn’t moved since Dean and Sam practically carried him over after finding him comatose (okay, withdrawn) in the library. They’d gone out for a hunt and come back hours later to see him still sitting there, solid as a boulder. Mary was out shopping with Jack, but when they called her she said he was also like that before they left the house. That made it more than eight hours, and they had to wake him up. Dean had gone in to touch the memory fog and pull him out, with Sam as his tether. It had gone about as good as they could’ve hoped; after a few seconds Castiel’s eyes had flown out and he’d as good as screamed at Dean not to touch him. Sam had yanked Dean away and eventually the memory fog had dissipated. They weren’t quite finished though; Castiel almost face-planted when he tried to get off the chair, leading the boys to carry him over to Dean’s room and give him an order of bed rest until his withdrawn grace fully reinstated itself.

“You’re gonna like these movies,” Dean grins at the angel, trying to lighten the mood. “They’re so badass. I mean, the third one is kinda shitty but the first two are solid.”

“I know the plot already.” Castiel taps the side of his head. “Metatron, remember? But it is different seeing the visuals for the first time.”

“Yeah!” Dean wiggles over and balances the laptop between the bridge of their knees. “Besides, I’m sure Metatron’s little cheatsheet didn’t have audio. He probably missed Bane’s awesome voice.”

“You mean the one that sounds like-” he glances down at his phone “there’s a bee’s nest in his throat?”

Dean rolls his eyes. “Tell Claire to stop spoiling things. She’s supposed to be finding my favorite Batman show!” Grabbing a bowl of popcorn (prepared by Sam, of course, “if you’re going to have a movie night do it right” he said before taking a call from Rowena about a new spell they’ve been working on) Dean fills one hand full of the white fluffiness before passing it to Castiel.

Castiel pops one, then two into his mouth as the credits play and the iconic score fills the room.

(Just do it Sam! What are you waiting for?) Dean tries to focus on the screen in front of him and not the memory he saw when he touched the memory fog. Not of Dean yelling at Sam to rob their friend’s grace. Not of Castiel gasping “I forgive you” before breaking out in an agonized scream. Not of himself, in what seems like a century ago, standing in front of Castiel and telling Death Call him what you want, just kill him now!

“There’s Batman,” Castiel points out eagerly. “Or as he’s known in his civilian disguise, Bruce Wayne.” He chews on another ear of popcorn. “And yes, Metatron did include the essays about if Batman is the disguise or if millionaire Bruce Wayne is the mask.”

Crunch. Popcorn flaking between the teeth. (Just do it Sam!) (Just kill him now!)

“Personally,” Castiel goes on, “I lean towards the latter. I think Bruce is a hunter at heart.”

Dean manages a grunt of acknowledgement. He doesn’t see the images in front of him anymore, doesn’t see the Wayne manor that Castiel is commenting on, something about architecture and butler uniforms. He sees Castiel, handcuffed in that chair in the dungeon, painted in blood, blood, blood carved by Dean’s hands.

His palm itches. The veins are scratching him from the inside out. Cas, he starts to pray. The angel pauses in his movie observations, and Dean’s sure that he’s looking at him, but he keeps his own gaze on the screen as if he’s still watching whatever drama is going on between Alfred and Bruce right now. 

Cas I-fuck. I don’t know what to say. I need to-god this is hard, even without saying anything out loud.

Dean’s phone buzzes and he risks a glance at it. He sees a text from Castiel: “I’m listening.”

Great. Okay, you know I saw one of your memories when we-ah-when I went to wake you up. And it’s not like- Dean pitches the bridge of his nose. I know you told us what we did, but it’s different seeing it like that.

The phone wiggles in the fabric of his pants pocket and Dean furrows his brow. Dude if you just texted 'I’m sorry' I’m going to kick your ass. Anyways it’s-it’s also not different, you know, because it makes me feel the same way as I did before. The way I feel almost every day. And that is wishing that I wasn’t here. Not here with you, he rushes to mentally clarify. I mean here here. You know.

This time Dean does look at his phone to see Castiel’s text. “Yes.”

I know you guys want me here, I know-- He swallows hard. It’s bad enough that he’s telling Castiel all of this. He’s not going to add a breakdown on top of it. I know you guys love me. But Cas. I--sometimes it feels like I can’t do this anymore. I wake up every day, every goddamn day, to the reality that I hurt you. That’s something that nothing I do will ever change. I didn’t just hurt you, I hurt you in the worst possible ways. That’s the thought that greets me every morning, and I will never ever forget that, that goddamn awful truth of what I did, of what--of what I am.

The phone lies dormant against his thigh.

I’m not going to check out or go throw myself in the ocean, cuz I promised you I wouldn’t, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still think about…doing it.

Some days it’s literally all I think about. 

Dean can’t believe he just said--well, thought--that. He hasn’t told his mom, or even his brother about it. He can predict how they’d respond--the immediate reassurances, the undisguised concern. Right now Castiel’s silence is actually the most comforting reaction. That, and the fact that he’s still sitting there next to him. He hasn’t left, he hasn’t distanced himself, like he should.

I know it’s selfish, me wanting to escape what I did wrong. But it’s everywhere, Cas, it’s what I think about during the day and what I dream about at night. Sometimes it’s like it’s the only thing that ever exists. And-- Dean breathes out through his lips. God, I know I am a selfish prick, but some days I just want it all to stop. Just for a minute, at least.

Dean takes his phone out. “I can help with that,” reads the text from Castiel. Then, “No, I’m not going to smite you. I can help with the dreams, if you want.”

What, will your angel knock-out mojo help? I don’t think that’s a very practical solution. You might as well whack me across the head then. Actually that might be a good--

The phone buzzes almost irritably. “No. I just need to be in your room when you sleep. Mary says it helps. Just me being there.” There’s a pause before the next message arrives. “The nightmares are less and when you do have them, I’ll be there, unharmed and whole. You’ll know that you aren’t hurting me anymore.”

You’d do that for me? Just hang out in my room all night?

“Everyone deserves a good night’s sleep.” Dean almost jumps at Castiel’s voice when he says that out loud. He turns to see the angel looking at him with a compassion he doesn’t want or deserve.

“Dean,” Castiel sighs softly. “Sometimes you have to be willing to put it down.”

He doesn’t have to specify. Dean knows exactly what he’s talking about. The big unnamed “it”, the monster that’s has it’s claws digging into his shoulder blade ever since the spell broke, the pull under his ribs that makes him taste the wood varnish of the Ma’lak Box on the back of his tongue. He’s never believed that he could let go of it, never really wanted to. Because that would mean stopping the punishment he believes he needs to be undergoing every minute of every day.

Dean refocuses his attention to the laptop. Well, not really his attention. His eyes are pointed in that direction, but he doesn’t really notice anything other than the shifting patches of color. He knows that Castiel is waiting for him to say yes to the idea, for his consent to stay, for an invitation to be wanted here.

“There’s three of these movies anyways,” Dean finally says huskily. “If I fall asleep before Bane shows up you gotta give me your review of his performance tomorrow.”

Castiel nods. “The third one is shitty,” he reminds Dean, and the elder Winchester laughs.

“Hey, don’t take my word for it.” Dean snags an ear of popcorn that’s fallen on the sheets and pops it in his mouth. “You gotta see it yourself before you can have an opinion on it.”

“That’s not what you said about those scintillating vampire movies Claire wanted to make you watch.”

”Everyone’s entitled to think Twilight is trash without seeing that crap,” Dean snorts, tossing a piece of popcorn at Castiel who deftly snatches it up with his open mouth. When Dean gives him a look of surprise the angel breaks out into a proud grin.

“Jack’s been practicing with me.” He leans forward conspiratorially. “We’re supposed to compete against Claire next time I see her.”

Dean laughs again, and it fills his chest with a lightness that feels almost foreign to him. “I’ll be cheering you on from the sidelines then.”

 

+

 

Castiel leans against the headboard of his bed. He presses his shoulders back and releases a slow, steady exhale. His fingers bend down, running through Jack’s tousled hair from the top of his head to the back to his neck, and then back up again. The boy is sleeping soundly, one arm in his lap and the other slung across the laptop that Castiel’s closed by now. Faint wisps of blue light beam across the wall beside the bed, emanating from the little glowing power button on the side of the laptop.

A small knocking sound penetrates the quiet of the room and Castiel calls out, “Come in, Mary.”

The door creaks open and she peeks her head in. “Hey.” Her eyes fall to Jack and she smiles. “Sorry, I didn’t know he was asleep.”

“It’s okay, he’s a sound sleeper.” Castiel nods towards the empty side of the bed for Mary to take a seat. “Is everything alright? How’re Sam and Dean?”

“Just wrapping up the hunt. They should be home by tomorrow noon, they said.” She doesn’t sit down, but she does move closer to Castiel, resting a hand on his shoulder. “I was about to go to bed. Just wanted to check in on you. How are you doing?”

“Better.” He looks up at her, grateful for the concern reflecting in her eyes. “Today was…today was better.”

Mary smiles, and it wreaths her face like a halo. “I’m glad to hear that.” She rubs the slope of his shoulder a few times

”Okay, see you tomorrow. Good night.” She draws her arm around him, pulling him in before pressing a kiss into the side of his head.

He closes his eyes to listen to her prayer. His fingers lightly grip the curve of her elbow.

“I love you, too,” he says.

Once Mary’s gone Castiel goes back to combing his fingers through Jack’s hair. He’s pretty sure that Sam will probably pray to him soon, the way he usually does before he falls asleep. Dean's already prayed to him earlier that day-it might’ve been while he was driving-telling him about the hunt and complaining about how Sam almost broke his ankle by tripping over the stairs with his “long noodle legs.” Castiel’s phone sits at his right side, the screen open to the meme that Claire sent him that afternoon when he texted her about finally beating the computerized chess tournament Castiel has been playing all week. The meme is a picture of what looks like a three year old child making a tight-lipped expression of determination, his tiny fist clenched in triumph.

Castiel jaw twitches abruptly. His eyes flick around the room, expecting the glint of brass or white of knuckles rubbing raw against his skin. But there's nothing around him but the pale blue of the laptop light and Jack’s gentle, rhythmic breathing.

His heart thunders louder in the cavity of his chest. His nerves tense themselves, ready and alert. His hand stills in the center of Jack’s head, palm flat and trembling.

This is where I belong. He trains his mind to swaddle around the sentence like a cocoon. I am allowed to be here.

His other hand curls into a fist unconsciously, like his body is fighting the statement.

He brings his gaze up and across the room to the frame hanging on the wall. He knows what’s in there, even with the shadows masquerading the clarity of his view. He can make out the jagged shapes of the pieces of paper behind the glass, the ones that Sam painstakingly dried and pressed flat all those weeks ago. Mary dug out the frame from the storage room, taking out the old medical certificate that was in it, and Dean installed the nail hook in the wall. Sam and Dean have since written Castiel a new list on small squares of laminated cardstock--squares that fit neatly into his wallet--but the original list always eases the pressure on his lungs in a unique way.

Castiel inhales and exhales slowly. His eyes are brimming but he doesn’t need to read the words to remind himself of what he’s committed to memory by now:

You are not a weapon, or a tool. You’re a person (or however you identify) and you are a part of our family. You will always have a place with us.

Your feelings are important. How you feel matters to us.

You are worthy of happiness, love, belonging, and everything you want. You don’t have to earn it. You deserve good and beautiful things in life.

You are not the sum of your past mistakes. You are good, strong, courageous, and wonderful.

You are not broken (and if you were it wouldn’t change how we feel about you)

You are loved for who you are, not for what you do. You are enough.

You have and will always be loved by us.

(and fuck anyone who ever tells you otherwise)