He can't believe they're going through with this. Dean turns around on the rickety porch to glare at Sam. "Dude, this is bullshit."
Sam has his head down, hovering at the foot of the porch steps, clicking through the property records he emailed to himself this morning on his phone. "Come on, Dean, just knock," he says without bothering to look up. As though Dean's objections no longer warrant even a half-assed rebuttal.
Like Dean’s being the crazy one here. For the record: Dean isn't.
This plan was trouble the moment Sam suggested it. The current landscape hasn't improved his opinion. For one thing, the house is freaking creeps-ville. Some kind of Victorian monstrosity, ass-ugly violet paint contrasts with flaking teal trim, revealing patches of rotted wood. Junk mail litters the doorstep, abandoned and left to rot like the rest of the property. The porch begs to be replaced, boards bowing with every subtle shift of Dean's weight. Rusty nails protrude from crumbling joints. Barren rose bushes scrape up the sides of the house and claw onto the porch, closing it in and making everything feel more confined than it is.
No one lives here. Nothing lives here, says the itch on the back of Dean's neck. At least nothing that lets you leave alive. Only a single sign suggests otherwise. Sam first saw it on the side of the highway about an hour out of Peoria. The cheap kind, poster board and metal spikes to plant it low against the ground. Dean kept missing it until Sam made him turn around and drive slow on the shoulder until the little sign popped into view. Blue with white lettering, it matches the wooden plaque screwed to the front door.
NOON - 8PM
NO SUNDAYS. NO PHONE CALLS.
Dean doesn't like faith healers, and makes no secret about it. His jaw aches from clenching his teeth too hard. "Come on. There's probably no one even here. Let's go hit the road and find a beach. Sun and sand, Sammy. That's what we really need."
He knows it's a futile wish even before Sam looks up, expression the perfect mix of exasperation and injury. "Dean, you promised."
And yeah, yeah, he promised. If everything checked out—no weird occurrences, no strange deaths or unexplained activity—he said they could talk to the guy. Once. Just talk. But he hadn't expected the research to come back clean. A place like Ordinary, Illinois was begging to have some kind of supernatural activity: a haunting, cattle mutilation. Something.
The fact they can't find anything only proves more suspicious.
Except Sam doesn't buy that argument. "There's nothing in the newspapers in the last five years," Sam says, reading off his phone. He said the same thing this morning at breakfast and last night in the motel. "The house records show no suspicious activity. It was bought by a James Novak five years ago, and since then, all clean. No one we've talked to has had anything bad to say."
Which is weird, Dean wants to argue. What kind of small town doesn't know its neighbors? The only thing they could get on the guy is that he's something of a hermit, and, depending on who they spoke to, once helped the friend of a friend or the husband of a co-worker's sister.
A real bonafide miracle worker, if you believe in that sort of thing.
Dean doesn't. "I just don't want you to get your hopes up, man."
But Dean knows Sam. Sam has his eyes locked on Dean with stubborn insistence, elastic face now carved from the stone of Winchester tenacity; determination nothing more than a thin excuse for desperation. Sam is going to do what Sam thinks he needs to do, with or without Dean. In this moment, it makes Sam look like Dad, and for some reason that makes a lump in Dean's throat ache.
Whenever someone in their family decides that their last option is their best option, bad shit happens. But Dean's spent 27 years knowing his concerns fall on deaf ears. "Yeah, well. Come on then. This was your idea."
He doesn't realize his hand has snaked around to check if the gun is still tucked into the back of his jeans until Sam clamps over his wrist to stop him. Standing right behind Dean's shoulder, Sam lets out a gusty sigh of the oppressed and leans over Dean to knock hard against the door.
"I'm just being prepared," Dean mutters.
"You're going to be polite," Sam mutters back.
Dean snorts—because yeah, that'll happen—but then Sammy's hand tightens on his wrist as a set of bolts begin to click open, tugging Dean a step closer to his side. It reminds him of the way Sam used to cling to him as a little kid, pulling on Dean's clothes and limbs, wanting hugs and stories read and the comfort of closeness. Back before Sam decided that "normal" doesn't mean cuddling with your big brother.
The door opens with a jolt, catching on the latched chain. A body appears. In the dim light of the house, Castiel the Faith Healer looks to be about at height with Dean, maybe an inch or so shorter. Little more than the hard edge of an unshaven jaw shows through the narrow opening of the door, a mop of shaggy dark hair plastered to a pale forehead, and one bloodshot, killer blue eye.
The intensity of that eye makes the hair on the back of Dean's neck rise. When Sam was a baby, Dean used to read to him from the Adventures of Frog and Toad. Dean has the sudden memory that in one story, Frog and Toad come across a snake who greets them with an ominous, hello, lunch. Dean would wager his last hundred dollars that Castiel the Faith Healer has been watching them from somewhere inside the house, plotting a similar opening line.
Or maybe blunt rudeness is more this guy's style. His voice goes deep like good whiskey, rough like the curl of smoke. Combine that with the red-rim glaze over the dude's eyes, and Dean blinks in surprise. Change that bet from snake to baked. The guy looks to be a huge stoner.
Dean sucks up a pointed whiff of air in the guy's direction, ignoring Sam's mortified glance and the slow, calculating inspection that single blue eye gives him. He can't get anything from the guy or the house except for maybe a strange metallic scent, like sparks from a car battery.
"Hi," Sam chirps with stumbling enthusiasm, elbowing Dean in the ribs, "sorry, hi." His baby brother smiles, dimples in full force. "I'm Sam, and this is my brother Dean." Dean makes an alarmed sound at the use of their real names but Sam barrels on as if nothing happened. "Are you Castiel? I saw your sign by the highway and I'd really like to talk to you. I could really use your help."
The blue eye swivels its attention to Sam. It takes him in, earnest face and floppy hair and broad shoulders hunched in to make him seem smaller. The lines of Sam's body almost reek with the plea for help, and Dean hates it. The blue eye fastens on Dean again for a brief moment before it takes in both of them.
The door slams shut in their faces before Dean can register that Castiel turned Sam down.
Dean stares in dumb silence while he works past the abrupt shock well enough to form words. "Okay, what the hell just happened?" Of all possible outcomes, Castiel rejecting them on first sight is not allowed to be one.
"I mean. People said he was kind of reclusive. I guess he's not taking on new business," Sam hedges, which is way too generous an assessment for Dean. "Either that, or he doesn't like strangers. Maybe we need someone from town to introduce us?"
No, okay, no. Dean has not spent two days in a shitty motel that believes in turning on the heat in October no matter the actual outside air temperature, and has not spent the last three weeks watching Sam alternatively brood or pace under the burden of believing something's wrong with him, to be turned down at the door. Fuck that shit. "Dude's not the freaking Queen of England. I'm not giving him a freaking character reference first."
Twisting free from Sam's loose grasp, Dean pounds his fist on the door, and keeps pounding until it lurches open again. That same blue eye appears, now half-hidden under a low, disgruntled brow. "Hi, you want to try that again?" Dean invites with as much graciousness as possible.
"What," Castiel rasps, the perfect balance between clueless stoner and impervious guard dog.
The smile Dean gives him is all teeth, wide and white like a shark. "My brother came here for your help so we're going to come in and talk to you and you're going to listen to what he has to say."
Castiel helping was never the plan. In fact it was the absolute opposite of the plan. But Dean isn't going to stand here and let some douche-nozzle tear away Sam's last thread of hope just because he's feeling anti-social today.
The blue eye tilts behind the crack of the door, bringing into view the sharp line of a cheekbone and a pink corner of a mouth. It concentrates its eerie focus on Dean.
"I don't think you understand how this works," Castiel says, enunciating with slow precision. "This is capitalism, not a charity. I have the right to turn away any business as I see fit." The unexpected bite behind the words rankles. Not many people have the balls to turn Dean down, let alone sass him back while doing it. "I decline your business. Now go away." The blatant look of disgust Castiel gives Sam punches the air from Dean's lungs. "Get off my property or I will summon a law enforcement officer to remove you at cost."
This time the door shuts with a whisper, the lock clicking closed with impossible finality.
"I just don't understand."
Sitting in the Impala outside the house, Sam keeps staring down at his hands, opening and closing his fingers like he can conjure the answers in his palms with enough practice. Dean drums his fingers against the steering wheel, torn between just gunning the engine or blasting through the front door to punch Castiel in his smug, judgmental face.
"What's to understand? So the dude's a jerk."
Sam shakes his head. "But the way he looked at me . . ."
"Yeah. Jerk," Dean emphasizes. He lifts his elbow from the back of the seat and sticks the keys in the ignition. "Look, sucks that it didn't work out. But I for one am glad we got to skip an hour of small talk and jumped straight to: guy's a dick; let's go eat."
Sam's eyebrows are bunched together over his nose, making sad, tiny lines appear around the corners of his eyes and his down-turned mouth. "But what if he knows, Dean? What if he knows that there's something really wrong with me? What if that's why he wouldn't even talk to me?"
"What?" Dean recoils with a scowl, stomping his foot on the clutch and revving the engine. "There's nothing wrong with you."
"Dean, you know what Dad said," Sam presses, eyes going big and wide with conviction. "You know what Scott Carey said. About Yellow Eyes. About him having plans for us. All the kids. If I'm going to become something evil—"
This conversation is suddenly nothing Dean wants to have. "You're not." He shifts gears, easing the Impala away from the curb, and flicks on the stereo. The soothing guitar strains of Deep Purple erupt from the speakers, drowning out everything else.
Except the hollow ring in Sam's voice as he gets in the last word. "What if we don't have a choice?"
Ordinary, Illinois, with its population of less than 1500 people, has a whopping total of two bars and one diner to choose from. The Copper Kettle should be considered more of a restaurant than a diner. The leather booths are sticky enough to qualify for a diner, and the tables just as greasy. But the menu lists a small beer selection. Dean pulls the Impala into a parking space just in time for the six o'clock dinner rush, as well as happy hour.
Food may be the answer to Dean's mood, but alcohol is not the solution to Sam's. Three orders of half-off hot wings for Dean, and twelve beers and counting for Sam, and Sam droops into a sloppy, combative drunk.
"But I just can't," Sam mumbles into the table, disconsolate and unintelligible, head lolling against his too-long, orangutan arm. "The dreams. They keep happening, and I can't make them stop, and what am I supposed to do? Just never sleep again?" He paws at Dean's sleeve, eyes round and glassy as he tries to peer up at Dean without relying on any neck muscles. "Dean. What am I suppose to do, Dean? What're you gonna do?"
Dean watches Sam and concentrates on not feeling anything. "Dump your drunk ass into bed, sasquatch, that's what I'm going to do."
"No. No." Sam waggles his head from side to side like a dog shaking off water. "What're you gonna do? You're gonna—you gotta do what Dad says, Dean."
Snatching his arm away from Sam, Dean ignores the puppyish look of hurt that flashes across his face. "No. I'm not. And I'm not talking about this."
Signaling for the waitress to bring the check, he digs the last three crumpled twenties out of his wallet to throw down next to Sam's collection of empty beer bottles. Sam shoves at him clumsily when Dean bends down to haul him up from the booth. Lugging a depressed and drunken Sammy around was easier when Sam was fifteen and Dean still had the height and strength advantage. He manages to get Sam's arms draped around his neck well enough that he can half-drag, half-carry him towards the door, trying to tune out Sam's mournful mumbling.
"If he didn't cure me, Dean, then you gotta. Everyone else can see it about me and you're gonna too. One day you're gonna . . . You gotta do it. Gotta kill me."
Fending off Sam's grabby hands, he dumps him into the Impala and watches Sam curl up against the window.
A steady thrum of anger vibrates inside his chest, in tune with the rumble of the road as he drives them back to the motel. Sam sees Castiel as his second-to-last option to fix whatever Yellow Eyes plans for him, with Dean as the final solution. Castiel might be nothing more than a sham, but Dean will die before he lets a bullet be the answer to Sam's problem. Given his history of doing for himself what he thinks others won't do for him, Sammy might be the one who eventually decides to pull the trigger.
Dean punches the steering wheel. Fuck Castiel. Dean is going to wrangle his passed out brother into bed and then he's going to hunt that son of bitch down. There's no way he's letting Scott Carey or Yellow Eyes or a fucking faith healer dictate what Sam is or isn't.
The sign on Castiel's door advertises business hours end at eight. Dean stands before the sagging porch a little after 10:30 at night. A steady throb of what sounds like fuck-awful electronica pulses from somewhere in the house. Craning his head back, Dean gazes up at the distant attic window.
Tucked under the sloping eaves of the roof, a circular stained glass window dominates the top third of the house. A soft flickering glow of what must be candles dances across the colored panes of glass. It banishes the night in a glorious sunburst of ruby red and deep blue and burnished gold, leaving jeweled-tone afterimages spiraling behind Dean's eyelids. A dark silhouette passes beyond the window every few moments as it crisscrosses the room. After he stares for a while, he detects the subtle movement of a head jerking in time to the pulsating beat of the music.
A grin catches across Dean's face despite himself. Now that shit's just embarrassing. Who knew the right honorable Castiel danced?
Hobbling onto the porch, taking care to jump the boards that seem most at risk of breaking, Dean bangs a fist against the door. He keeps banging every couple minutes or so, counting to ninety in his head between rounds of knocks. It takes several minutes but eventually he gets a reply shouted through the wood.
"Read the sign. Come back during hours."
"Castiel? Open up, it's Dean. From this afternoon." He raps his knuckles against the door again on reflex, and then rolls his eyes at himself. As if not knocking enough is the reason Castiel hasn't opened the door yet. "I got to speak with you."
Only from an amazing force of will power does he not stick his ear against the door to listen for sounds inside. The pulse of a drum machine echoes through the door but nothing else. He can't tell if Castiel is moving or thinking or even still breathing. His own breaths puff loudly in the quiet. After a few more seconds, Dean sighs. "Come on, man. Please? It's important."
When he speaks next, Castiel sounds as though he's standing right behind the door, his voice a low bass in contrast to the music. "It's always important."
Dean knows he's edging into begging territory, but dammit, Castiel needs to listen. "Please? I'll double your normal rate."
A soft sound that might be a laugh come from the other side of the door. "You don't know what my normal rate is."
"Kind of gives you carte blanche then, doesn't it?" After a second, the bolts of the locks click open and Dean punches the air in victory. The chain slithers free of its latch and then Dean's grinning into the frowning face of Castiel. "Hey, there's a sucker born every minute, am I right?"
"That may apply to both of us right now," is all Castiel says as he steps aside to let Dean enter.
The house, of what Dean can see in the dim light, seems bigger than it looks from the outside, replete with a formal entryway and what must be original woodwork. A thick layer of dust covers the floor. Castiel leads him out of the main room and down a narrow corridor. Electricity must have insulted the guy's mother once because Castiel makes no effort to flip on a switch or a lamp anywhere. Dean does his best not to trip but still bangs his shin into the leg of a low-set table set next to the doorway of a sitting room. A strong hand closes around his arm to guide him the rest of the way and shoves him into the plush seat of a carved wingback chair. Castiel tugs the cord of a desk lamp as he takes the chair across from Dean, their knees knocking in the cramped space. It's one of those old green library lamps from the 40s and it casts a warm circle of light over their legs, cutting Castiel's face half in shadow.
The bastard looks amused. "I forgot that most don't have night vision as good as mine."
Dean scowls and rubs at his shin. "My night vision's fine. It ever occur to you that strangers won't know your furniture placement as well as you do?"
Castiel shrugs. He has his feet tucked under him, knees bent Indian-style, clad in black sweat pants. His blue bathrobe gapes open at the chest, revealing tight skin stretched over a narrow sternum and strong pectoral muscles. Strange swirls of ink twist around Castiel's neck like a collar. The same thick black lines decorate the backs of his hands, slinking up his arms to disappear into the cuffs of his robe.
If Dean didn't know any better, he would guess that the tattoos are some kind of language. Runes, maybe. Or sigils. But none he's ever seen before.
He realizes Castiel is staring at him, a blank, expectant expression on his face like someone hit pause on Castiel's mental cassette tape. Dean's plan extended as far as this: find Castiel; make him listen. But now that he's sitting in Castiel's strange living room festooned with antiques and wall-to-wall books and so much dust Dean thinks he might spontaneously develop asthma, the technicalities of making Castiel listen escape him.
"So about my brother," Dean starts, in hopes that Castiel will pick up the topic for himself. All he gets in return is that same still, focused stare. "Okay, look." He leans forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "Sam's a good kid, okay? He's—he's the best kid. And we've been going through some stuff lately and he just, he really wants to talk to you. If you still don't want to help after you've talked to him, that's your call. But at least talk to him."
Castiel keeps on that measured stare. Dean stares back, unwilling to back down. After a few long seconds, Castiel mercifully looks away. "I cannot help your brother. That's why I refused." After a pause, as if the words are foreign, he adds, "I'm . . . sorry."
"You're sorry?" Dean scoffs. "You don't even know what's wrong with him."
This whole thing was stupid. Of course a faith healer who can't heal isn’t going to take on someone who’s really sick. Better off being an asshole and driving away actual needy people. "You can't really do anything, can you?" he asks, raising an eyebrow in challenge. "I've met faith healers before. Not a single one's been legit."
Castiel blinks as if surprised. "You don't think faith comes at a price? That it only gives and never takes?"
Just what the hell that means, Dean has no idea. "I think faith's for people who believe in fairy tales. Me, I trust what I can see."
He pushes up from the chair, ready to leave, when strong fingers curl around his wrist. Tugging doesn't dislodge the grip or budge Castiel, who seems to have become as solid as stone. Dean would probably pull his own arm out of his socket before he'd break that gentle but immovable grasp. "What—" he starts, but as soon as he stops resisting, Castiel turns his hand over to cradle it in his palm. His fingers trail feather-light over the back of Dean's hand, across his knuckles and down his fingers.
The fucked up thing is, he can feel the bones twisting, breaking and rejoining. Warm pressure suffuses his joints, but no pain. He stares down incomprehensibly at where his fingers, once crooked from countless breaks and fistfights, now lie straight atop Castiel's palm.
As soon as Castiel releases his hand, Dean stumbles back and draws his gun, aiming it square between Castiel's eyes. Castiel, the idiot, just blinks at him. "Faith comes at a price, Dean. But that doesn't mean there aren't still things worth believing in."
"What the fuck?" Dean gasps, clenching his muscles to steady the gun. If he pretends his hand isn't shaking, Castiel can damn well pretend along too. "What the hell are you?"
Castiel tilts his head to the side like a confused bird. "I am, as you say, 'legit'. Is that not what you wanted?"
Nothing about this is what Dean wanted. He didn't want Sam to get mixed up with a faith healer. Roy Le Grange may have been a year ago, but Dean remembers the horror of seeing that reaper, of knowing that some innocent guy died to give him a new heart. That then didn't feel like what Castiel just did. One moment, Dean's heart hadn't been able to keep him upright and walking, and the next, he was fine, as strong as he'd ever been. With Castiel he could feel Castiel reshaping his fingers, snapping the joints into proper alignment and knitting together the cartilage and muscle around the mended bones.
That kind of power shouldn't be natural. Isn't natural.
"If you shoot me, Dean," Castiel says, placid as ever, "I cannot meet with you and your brother tomorrow at noon." Before he knows what's happening, Castiel has that soft-iron grip around his wrist again, prying the gun free from Dean's hand, and Dean is being shepherded towards the hallway. "Return tomorrow with your brother," Castiel is saying as he guides Dean out the door. "At noon, Dean. Do not forget." Castiel gives him a stern look, as though he suspects Dean is prone to tardiness, and then tucks the gun back into the waistband of Dean's jeans.
Dean stands alone in the dark of Castiel's porch for a long time. No matter how many times he goes over it in his head, he can't figure out what the fuck just happened.