Castiel stands beside them during the final battle as one of them, armed with a short sword and stubbornness, still wearing the trench coat. Sam and Dean are loaded down with every weapon they can reasonably carry, and still retain maneuverability. Bobby's manning the makeshift command center some miles back, and every hunter they could rustle up is spread out in the surrounding countryside, doing what they do best.
He's got his brother and his best friend beside him, and Bobby at his back. It's uncertain as anything, ready to fall apart like a tower of cards. If their reinforcements don't make it they'll die here, every one of them. He looks at Sam, his jaw hard with all the fierce determination he's capable of. When he turns to look at Castiel - last one, maybe - he's already looking at Dean. There's nothing in him but this moment, no worry or hope. So Dean takes his cue from them and finds a place past worry, past grief. If he dies today beside his brother, both of them still human, and beside Castiel half fallen, still alien, but so much a part of them now, it's-- ok.
"It's a good day to die," Dean says.
"Jesus, you are such a nerd."
"Takes one to know one."
"Seriously?" Sam's eyebrows quirk, one of them upwards, the other down. "That's the best you've got?"
Dean's about to give him hell for that when Castiel cuts in. "Once more into the breach, dear friends."
Yes, he thinks, but what he says instead is, "When did you start reading Shakespeare?"
"Last Thursday," Castiel says flatly. His poker face is so perfect that Dean takes a second to savor the regret of never teaching him to play.
"Really?" Sam asks, a little too amazed for his own good.
"No." Castiel shrugs one shoulder. Dean has no idea where he picked the gesture up, if it's one of Jimmy's or some stranger Castiel met on his hunt for God. Sam actually manages to be disappointed.
"You made Sammy cry, Cas." Sam scowls at him.
"Wow, you're kind of an asshole," Dean says.
"Yes. I learned from the best."
Then the first wave of demons is there, and any further witty repartee is filed for later, if there is one. Dean tracks Sam and Cas, even when they're separated. Especially when they're separated. But with less attention than usual, because he can't do it the old way, not today. There'll be no take backs this time if they die. The thought is shockingly easy, too easy. He loses himself in the battle. For long minutes his world is his gun, his knife and the metaphorical flag he's going to plant on Lucifer's corpse.
Then the world shakes, fills with angels, and the plan that isn't a total suicide run unfolds. There's light, thunder, and Sam beside him as they send the devil home.
So they save the world.
Then it's the usual: "Things to do, heavenly wonders to see. brb angelic confab." All big eyes and tight jaw, a mix of endearing want and stubbornness. Castiel, along with all his remaining brothers and sisters disappears, with a crack of displaced air.
It isn't until Dean is behind the wheel of the Impala, Bobby riding shotgun and Sam crammed into the back along with Bobby's chair, that it hits him. They saved the world, so what business could an angel have on earth?
Forty minutes later, Castiel pops into Bobby's kitchen, bleeding power and too-human emotions. So obviously not a recent visitor of Bible Camp that Dean can't be worried about Castiel's siblings brainwashing him again, but there are plenty of other things for him to worry about. Power means heaven, and heaven has yet to mean anything good.
"Have a seat, hero," Dean says, offering him a beer. Castiel gives the can a fond look, but shakes his head.
"I can't. I'm needed elsewhere."
"We just sent the devil packing and saved the damn world. The only place you're needed is right here, sitting in Bobby's sad excuse for a kitchen, and throwing back beers with the winning team." That earns him a glare from Bobby, but Dean's ok with that.
"Dean, there is a power struggle in heaven."
"Power struggle?" Sam asks.
"The heavenly order-"
"Isn't so orderly anymore?"
Castiel frowns at Dean, but continues like he wasn't interrupted at all. "Has been disrupted. I need to be there." His eyes flick from Dean, to Sam, to Bobby.
They don't even put up the pretense of a debate. It's not like any of them can stop him, and of course he should be there - if something's going down in heaven, the angel in their corner needs to make sure some asshole like Zachariah doesn't end up in charge.
Dean presses the beer on him. "One for the road." Castiel takes it, pops it open and drinks it in one long pull. Then all too quickly, the goodbyes start.
Sam asks him if he's ok, will he be ok. Castiel says yes, in that way he has. Straight up and too honest by half.
Castiel lets out a ragged cough. No blood this time, which Dean figures is a plus. "As ok as can be expected." Which answers only half of Sam's question. "They will not compel me to do anything against my will."
"If we could go with you," Sam says earnestly. "We'd have your back, man."
"I know, Sam. But this is something I must do." Sam nods supportively, pure Sam. Then he slaps Castiel on the shoulder, pulling him into a not exactly brief man-hug.
Bobby keeps it simple, calls Castiel an idjit and tells him to get flying. "The last thing we need is a repeat performance out of those feathered morons."
Dean doesn't know what to say. Heavenly power struggle. Castiel covered in blood and dirt and who knows what else, his engine running on empty, but still determined to face his brothers and sisters head on.
Dean went into the day half expecting to die, alongside everyone he loved, and maybe the whole world with them.Then at the last, the angels came, breaking ranks and forming new ones, outside of heaven's power structure. It was the distraction and fire power they needed to concentrate on Lucifer, and it won them the day. But when the angels started defecting, one by one, coming to Castiel or even Dean, with their doubts about heaven, and their much stronger conviction that the devil must be defeated, he'd known that something had changed upstairs. And it was still changing.
He grabs Castiel's hand and shakes it, one hand on his shoulder to steady him, both of them. After a while, maybe only a few seconds, but the moment feels long with everything he tries to say with it (and not to say), he says, "Don't let them fuck with you."
"I won't, Dean."
"Be seeing you," Dean says. He lets his hand drop from Castiel's shoulder, stares down into his eyes, determined not to close his own. Castiel doesn't blink, never has. But when Dean finally does, there's a pressure change, a rush of air, and in the time it takes Dean to open his eyes, Castiel is gone.
In the aftermath of the final battle, angel vessels drop like flies. Literally. One minute they contain the vast, cosmic whatever that makes up an angel, and the next they're falling like marionettes with cut strings. Some of them, at ground zero and probably all over the world, wake to carnage. Some wake to crippled bodies, and others don't wake at all.
In addition to the interrupted apocalypse, hospitals and law enforcement agencies will be dealing with a sudden influx of amnesiacs, trauma victims, and mysterious deaths. It's not anything that Sam and Dean can help with; it's not something they're trained to deal with. Not right away, at least. Once the survivors have stabilized, they can help them find their way home. So that's something.
In the meantime, Dean has been expecting him.
The Impala is parked by the side of the road, about a mile back and out of Dean's line of sight. The hill, he thinks, is part of some farmer's property. It's not fenced in, but below him are wide fields of soft-looking spring wheat.
It's not his usual thing. There's no magic fingers or wifi on the hillside, and no beer, although he could have brought some up from Bobby's place. But it's nice. Sam and Bobby are back at the house, probably still arguing about domestic minutia and the logistics of returning all the former vessels to their real lives. The other hunters are gone, to whatever passes for their homes. All items on the world saving agenda are crossed off: Lucifer gone and most of the demons with him; the angels, good and bad, picking up stakes. The world goes on.
There's nothing left but cleanup, burials, and mourning.
He's alone, and then he isn't. Castiel sits down, without bothering to tuck his coat beneath him.
"So, last night on earth," Dean says with a leer. Cas just looks at him. Stares at him really, with an expression that would read as blank to anyone who didn't know him. Not like Dean, and maybe Sam, know him. He's got a million years of personal history that don't include the Winchesters, but Castiel had said it himself - he isn't what he once was. It's not just the powers, or increasing lack thereof, it's like somewhere along the way (maybe when he disobeyed, maybe when he died), the substance of him changed.
"Yes," Castiel says. Dean isn't happy to have guessed right.
Castiel finally cedes the staring contest to Dean (he hadn't meant to stare back, not all this time), and looks away. He gives up on Dean, to look into the cloudless sky. His eyes are bright, a deeper blue than the sky, but just as clear. Dean notices this (not because he's suddenly fifteen years old and embarrassingly poetic), because he is staring - at the long line of Castiel's neck, his slightly parted, chapped lips, the stubble that's a little thicker than usual, the smudges on his usually white collar. He hadn't bothered to clean up after the final battle - probably had better things to use the last of his powers on.
Now that he was repowered, his batteries boosted by heaven's very own, he still hasn't cleaned himself up. Still hasn't cleaned up Jimmy. The correction is necessary. Jimmy doesn't come out to play all that often, and Castiel is so fully Castiel that it's easy to forget that there's anyone else in there. He's been reminding himself every day, for years.
"So, this again, huh?"
"This again," Castiel says, the words measured and possibly the agreement Dean doesn't want.
How many times has it been their last night on earth? Too many to count, at this point.
Dean's used to them by now. They have a certain pattern: Castiel says it's their last night on earth, alcohol is consumed, a few serious, personal revelations are imparted, and then they wait it out. Sometimes everybody makes it out, and sometimes they lose people along the way. Dean and Sam, Castiel and Bobby have made it through all of them, through dumb luck, resurrection, and the odd timely bit of divine intervention.
So what about this one? The angels are leaving for more heavenly pastures, and Castiel, well, he'd never wanted to be a rogue angel. Two years in, and some Winchester has rubbed off on him, but he's still an angel. This time, for the first time, it's his last night on earth, but not Dean's. Two years and Dean had gotten so used to his being there, exactly where he should be, that he'd almost convinced himself that Castiel would be staying.
Before, when Dean thought about the not-Apocalyptic future they were working for, when he'd allowed himself to really think about it, he figured a little grace time would be a given. Even if it was only a few days, before the the next crisis started up, just long enough for them to raise their glasses and enjoy a good night's sleep. If the four of them made it through when so few others had, then at the least, they were owed that much. That was about as far as he was willing to dream.
But hunters were used to getting short-changed, and Dean wasn't surprised when the angels up and abandoned their vessels. He wasn't surprised when those few days turned into a few minutes, just long enough to catch their breath. And for damn sure he wasn't surprised when 'made it through' turned into limped over the finishing line, only for another race to start up, and one of them to leave entirely.
They pick themselves up, and keep on going. That's the only wisdom he's learned from all of this.
If there's a loving, merciful God out there somewhere, Dean has yet to see evidence of his existence. Because everything good in the world is something people have made, or seized for themselves, despite the unfeeling indifference of the rest of it.
They stopped the apocalypse, vessels can go home to their families, and kids can grow up with their parents - that's all the mercy there is.
But that's maybe too bitter for this fine afternoon, and half the reason he'd taken a drive before Bobby threw a plate at him and told him to leave. The sun is shining, the breeze is on the comfortable side of cool and easy, and the view is plainly beautiful. That's all he's got right now, this moment, and he's determined to enjoy it for what it is.
"Dean," Castiel says. Intones Dean thinks, is the best word for it. Cas says his name like it's something terrible. Or maybe wonderful. "I can't return." Dean can practically hear the arms of the clock striking twelve, the bell tolling. It's that obvious in his voice. Not ever. And somehow, the first words that come to mind are, oh fucking great. He doesn't say them.
Dean's been expecting Cas, since he left. Figures he'd pick the one moment of quiet Dean's managed to carve out for himself since the end that wasn't. He finds himself studying Castiel. Openly, because it's not like Cas is going to take offense. He finds himself cataloging the shape of him, how he sits, how his coat hangs on his shoulders. He finds himself saving all of these things up, and he can't even manage to be annoyed with himself, because wouldn't he have done the same with Jo and Ellen, with Dad, if he'd had the chance?
"So that's it? Bad guys are smited and your work is done? No heavenly clean up crew, to deal with all the apocalyptic fallout?"
Cas tilts his head. He's not confused about Dean's words, that much Dean knows. Castiel has developed a whole range of confused expressions - one for strange human customs, one for linguistic tangles, one for the inter-species divide. This look, head tilted slightly to the side, squinting up at the sky even though the sun has never, and will never bother his eyes, is somewhere between that last one (humans do what, now?) and the look he's got specially for the Winchesters.
"Not all of us are leaving." Right away, Dean hears clearly.
Bobby and Sam crunched the numbers, did some quick research and it was obvious that there are still a few active angels on earth. Doing what, they don't know, but it's a sure thing they won't be staying forever. At the end of the day, angels aren't invested in what happens downstairs, unless it has prophetic implications. Why wallow in the mud, when you can watch from a distance? Once in a while you can tap one of God's chosen mouthpieces for intel. And the rest of the time? The rest of the time isn't their problem.
Castiel sighs. "There is much that Lucifer did to this world, that must be undone."
"But I won't be a part of that effort."
"So you're dodging your chores?" Dean asks, amused despite himself, at the thought of Castiel playing hooky.
Cas actually looks at him then, with a beginnings of a smile. "I'm a soldier first, Dean. Disaster relief isn't my specialty."
Castiel has been more than a soldier for a long time now, but he's not going to argue the point. Not yet. "And what, you've got new orders?"
"In a manner of speaking."
"What does that mean exactly?"
"I told you there was a power struggle. It's over. Things are different."
"That was fast. Your fights usually go a few more rounds than that."
Castiel's voice drops even lower than usual, until it's the slow, quiet grinding of sand against rock. It's quiet enough that Dean has to lean in to hear him, but Cas still doesn't bother to look at him. "We weren't the only ones playing."
"New orders," Dean says. What the hell else is he supposed to say to that? The archangels weren't a factor anymore, so there was only one place orders could come from; only one being that Castiel would take orders from now.
"Yes," Castiel says, back to staring up into the empty sky. He wonders if Castiel sees something that Dean can't. Are there angels watching over this conversation? Is there something else worth looking at, or is Castiel just looking at the most convenient thing that isn't Dean?
"Ok," Dean says. He braces his hands behind him on the grass, and leans back, tilting his face up to the sun. Beside him, Cas does the same. Then Dean closes his eyes and savors the feel of sun on his face. It's quiet here. It's quiet, and clean, and easy - things Dean hasn't had in months, or maybe longer. Dean's never been one to look a gift horse in the mouth, so he flops back onto the grass, and then stretches; wriggles his way to the perfect, comfortable spot to just be.
Castiel has faith. That's been a given since the start, and Dean has never had much to say on the subject, except that placing his faith in archangels and heaven's version of middle-to-upper management was plain stupid. And yeah, Castiel spent two years searching for his father, never once finding him, not until now, when everything's over. There's a part of Dean that's surprised, because come on, God. There's a bigger part of him that's exactly zero percent surprised, that the big guy chose now to show up, his what, social experiment having run its course?
The thing is, this is Castiel's father they're talking about, as well as the douchebag who is called I
Am. Dean doesn't know how to deal with either of those things, not exactly, so he simply doesn't. For at least the next ten minutes, he promises himself.
"So how's it working out?" he asks, without opening his eyes.
"How is what working out?"
"The new and improved heaven, thing." He's not just dancing around the issue, he's driving fucking miles wide circles around it, hoping that another handshake will get him out of this. Or that Sammy will show up and take over this particular conversational burden.
"It's different," Castiel says. Dean figures that's the understatement of the millennium.
Dean never had clear figures on the host, but when Cas had said their numbers were reduced, he'd meant it. He'd spat the words out like he could hardly stand to say them. So, figure there were heavy casualties among the rank and file, and more than half their command structure rooted out for rampant douchbaggery. Then figure that they were no longer lost boys and girls, with their daddy home to lay down the law. Heaven would have to be different.
"You don't have to go," he says, without meaning to. He stops himself right there, clenches his jaw long enough for the urge to vomit out whatever words are itching to be said, passes.
Fuck your orders, he doesn't say, although really, Castiel probably wouldn't care about the obvious blasphemy, not anymore. He could disobey again. Castiel was getting the hang of this free will thing, and changed heaven or no, helping to stop the apocalypse must have earned him some points with the big guy. He doesn't say a lot of things. He doesn't think them either, pushing them down somewhere dark.
"Yes, I do."
"So... this is your choice?" Dean makes a conscious and concerted effort to keep it light; to keep things easy.
"Yes," Castiel says firmly. Then more reluctantly, "No." More information doesn't seem to be forthcoming, and while Dean half wants to pull it out of him, Castiel doesn't seem to be going anywhere. So he waits. He waits long enough to be struck by the thought that hell, maybe Cas wants to leave. It comes with a sudden rush of adrenaline that leaves him tense, his heart beating way the hell out of resting state. He takes a deep breath and cools down the reaction, pushing aside the impulse to knock Cas down, get in his face and demand answers, assurances. Something.
Cas shifts beside him. Dean reluctantly opens his eyes long enough to watch Castiel shed his trench coat and jacket, and then lie down on them. He mimics Dean, hands folded to cushion his head, ankles crossed. He's as stiff and unyielding as an i-beam, and just looking at him is making Dean uncomfortable.
"Dude, relax." Castiel fidgets, fidgets some more - trying to figure out this alien 'relaxation' thing, even after all this time on earth - and then just collapses against the grass, like spending lazy afternoons on some unnamed hillside is something he does all the time. Like he's decided to go professional with his unbelievable relaxation skills. He could do a book tour.
"Nice, right?" Castiel hums his agreement.
It's a few minutes before Castiel speaks again. A few minutes of almost-silence, while Dean soaks up the afternoon sun, lazily taps his boots, one against the other, and determinedly doesn't think. A few minutes while Castiel does pretty much the same thing, judging by the lack of angel noises from beside him.
"Things are changing, Dean." Castiel doesn't make the same effort that Dean did, to keep things light. His words sound exactly as heavy as they should; exactly as portentous. If this is it, he finds himself thinking again. If this is how it's going to be, then there's no point in fighting Castiel on having the conversation. Figures he would choose now to spill his guts. But there are other things worth fighting for. He has this dizzying moment of "What the hell? When did this become my life?" confusion, until he tells himself fuck it: he's mad that his friend is leaving. He's mad that an angel is leaving him for his God. Damn straight. So he'll let Cas have his say, and then he'll have his.
Dean sighs and rolls onto his side, propping his head up with his hand. Castiel, maybe a foot and a half away from him, is still lying on his back, his eyes closed. He looks tired; worn out in spirit and body. His shirt has gone from white to grey, sometime during the apocalypse, and it's missing a few buttons. There are flecks of dried blood and dirt in his hair. Dean would look the same, if he hadn't showered before driving out here. It was only yesterday, but it already feels longer.
"You're not just talking about heaven," he guesses.
"No. This world - we no longer have a place in it."
"Back to the heavenly peepshow, to wait for the next go-round?"
"No, we are... leaving this plane of existence. It's difficult to explain." Castiel sighs and shifts to look at Dean. It's another of his thousand yard, inhuman stares. Maybe Dean has spent too much time with him, or maybe his angel-to-human translator is finally firing on all cylinders, but for once he thinks he can see to the ends of that stare.
Castiel rolls onto his side, mirroring Dean's body language, save for a few Castiel-specific differences. It's suddenly very close, the tips of Castiel's shoes almost touching Dean's boots, and that (not so) infinite blue gaze that's become too readable for his comfort.
"Where are you going?"
"I can't say," Castiel says hesitantly.
"What, is it a secret?" he asks, a nasty edge creeping into his voice. "Cas-"
"I don't know," he says in a rush. "Dean, we are-- we are becoming."
"Becoming what? Real boys and girls?"
"What the hell kind of answer is that?" Castiel's eyes widen, but he doesn't look away. He doesn't drop his gaze, or respond with annoyance; he doesn't give Dean back much of anything, none of Castiel's usual responses. Instead, he looks like he's searching.
"Angels are not born." Dean opens his mouth to reply, because it's such a perfect setup, one last joke for the road, but stops. Castiel looks so earnest. "We were called to existence, close to this universe's beginning."
"You're that old? Dude, you don't look a day over thirty-five."
Castiel drops his eyes and smirks. "Human scientists estimate the age of this universe at twenty billion years. It's one of their better guesses."
"You're twenty billion years old?" Castiel nods. "Seriously?"
"We have existed, as we are now, for those billions of years." Dean had always figured a few thousand years, tops. Maybe that was a failure of imagination on his part, or just a complete inability to fathom how anything so ancient could even be sitting here, carrying on a conversation with him. He'd taken Cas to Burger King for his first Whopper. He'd taken him to a brothel, and made him watch Looney Toons.
Twenty billion years. "Then we came along and screwed everything up for you," Dean said.
"Then you were born, and you changed everything." Castiel grimaces. "Dean, you must understand, we were alone for so long. The universe was beautiful, but it was empty. We did not know why should exist, save to praise Our Father. Then there was life." Castiel presses his free hand against the ground between them. When he lifts his hand, rough blades of grass pop back up again. Cas closes his fingers around them, but lightly so that some blades peak out. "Single celled organisms, and then more complex ones. It changed everything. It was fascinating - you were."
"Cas, no offense but this is more Sammy's speed," Dean protests.
"Then you can relay the story when you return to Bobby's." There's something so final about it, that the last piece of denial drains out of him - this is the last time he will ever see Castiel. He wants to tell him to skip to the end, to the parts where the angels are leaving, and why. He wants to slow him down, to make this conversation last a year. Years. Decades. But Castiel is already pushing forward.
"The universe sang, and heaven with it."
"For life," Castiel agrees. "We were consumed by it; fascinated. But some of us were horrified."
"No. He was... taken with life, at first. He saw in it the revealed glory of Our Father. But there were others who were not so pleased with this distraction from Our Father."
"Are you telling me that you guys had an angel fight over amoebas?"
Castiel smiles. "Essentially, although it was more of a debate than a fight. War came later."
"Heavenly nerdfight," Dean says - more to say it, than to say it to Cas - wishing Sam were here. Castiel never did properly appreciate Dean's genius. And moreover, just wishing that his brother were here with him for this.
"In those days, echoes of Our Father were easier to find. Even common angels, like myself, knew Him. We knew Him Dean; the fact of His existence was plain. As plain as our own." Dean nods, because Castiel's desire to be understood is so obvious - but he can't. He can't understand. It's too big maybe, too alien - he doesn't even know what Castiel is. "The advent of life was the first new thing in billions of years. We fought, we debated, angel and archangel - all the choirs of heaven were preoccupied. Until Lucifer descended from heaven to know life, and found in it Our Father's Will."
Castiel lets go of the grass, and it springs free, unharmed. He reaches out. Dean watches his fingers move closer, as if in slow motion. Castiel's fingers. Castiel's body. This shape that houses something so different from him; this twenty billion year old being who witnessed the birth of life. His fingers, then his palm, come to rest against Dean's chest. He follows Castiel's fingers, to his wrist, his forearm, his elbow - all the way back to his so familiar face, and that gaze, soft now. Dean is instantly grounded.
"Our Father loved life, Dean, and so we loved it too."
"You keep saying that."
"We loved life. Life happened." What about you?
If his position didn't make it impossible, Castiel would probably tilt his head. Instead he lifts an eyebrow. What about me? Dean isn't entirely sure he wants the answer.
"We are. But we are not alive - we have not been alive. We were not born. We do not grow, or change."
"Bullshit. Bullshit, Cas. You've grown and changed plenty. And what about Anna? What about Lucy? He sure as hell changed. Unless you're going to tell me that he was always a homicidal dick?"
"We gain experience, but we do not grow. We do not evolve." Castiel presses against Dean's chest, his hand suddenly hot, and his eyes wide and bright. He is pushing, literally, and meta-freaking-physically, pushing toward some point that Dean can't quite grasp. "Until now."
"We loved life, Dean, as Our Father Willed us to. It was difficult for some of us. Life isn't like gas, or dust, or light. It changes. It ends - dies, and then becomes some new form of life. We watched, we sang, and we even touched. Then you came."
Castiel smiles. It's a fond, tired smile, and something about it makes Dean want to punch it right off of his face. "Humanity. Once again Lucifer, always the bravest of us, descended from heaven, and knew life, and in it, he found Our Father's Will: that we love you, and bow to you, his most beloved creation."
"And then he threw an epic tantrum."
"Yes, about that much your holy books are correct, although the time scale is... somewhat off."
"I tell you this so that you understand: in all these billions of years, we have remained, in essence the same. Our relationships have changed, but we have not. We are what we were called to be."
"Until now," Dean says. Castiel smiles, and nods awkwardly - hard when you're lying on your side with your head propped up. Until now, Cas had said, as if Dean should just get the significance of that. "So now you're different. You're... becoming."
"The possibility of change, Dean, the fact of it-" Castiel sighs. "Fallen, Lucifer was still the most powerful of the host - he was merely imprisoned. During Anna's human life, she was still in truth, in essence, an angel. She tore her grace from her angelic form, and took on human shape, but that is all it was. She was... stretched; the two parts of her still connected, still pulling towards each other."
"What, like an elastic?" Sam would have something intelligent to add here. Sam would have questions, lots of them, and lore to back him up. Dean almost wishes he were here, for that alone.
"Yes - stretched between two points of space and time, her grace and her human form, but with the same nature." He tries to picture it: Anna the angel, crammed into a human body, and then stretched into a long thin line, all the way to the thing that represented her grace.
"But Anna lived. She was born, and she grew up."
"Anna was never truly human - not so long as her grace existed somewhere, in the universe. She merely changed her perception. She masked her true form, even to herself."
"But what's the difference?"
"You know what the difference is Dean."
"How the hell can I know it, when I don't even know what you are?"
"But you know what I am," Castiel says. Dean spends about a second coming up with creative ways to tell him to quit it with the cryptics and the philosophy, before he realizes that Castiel is getting closer. Is suddenly crowding him, his body all over Dean's. And yet not - it's like twisted 3D double vision, or possibly an incipient aneurysm, because Castiel hasn't moved at all. The air between them is getting thin and cold, and Dean can't seem to get enough of it into his lungs. He can see Cas, clear as ever - the line of his body, lying beside Dean, the persistent stubble, and rumpled suit - and yet he burns, his vision is filled with light--
He is holding a knife. There is blood on the blade, and on his hands. The sky is ash. The ground, ash. There's something like human senses; something like sight, and taste and touch. He has no eyes, only the representation of them, but he sees. No eyes, but he knows intimately, the feel of fingers pushing into them, pressing into the sockets until they're empty of anything except leftovers. Invading fingers stronger than anything human, inexorable. Nothing stops them; not screams, not pleading. And now those hands are his. He slices parallel lines into the tender flesh around her eyes, a fan of split skin that isn't skin. Blood pours into her eyes, and her open, screaming mouth. Her flesh is his now, for now; so long as he reenacts every detail of his own torture, the horrible, empty core of him is full.
Then, like a meteor strike, something lands behind him. The ground drops out from under him, even as the shock wave hits. The racks shiver, shiver, crack apart, sending their captives tumbling to the spider-web killing grounds, and some of them over the side, into the lightless depths. No longer so lightless, he can see the unlucky, strapped down, clutching their wounds, as they fall steadily down, down, down. He can't hear their screams; his ears are full of blood. He hits the ground hard, his bones snapping like dried twigs. The rack and his victim come down on top of him. If he still had his human body, if he were human here at all, he would black out. Here he is just screaming muscles, twisting limbs, blood pouring out to stain the ground. Her face is next to his, contorted with agony and hate.
Past her, and the crumpled rack he'd strapped her to, he can see patches of sky, roiling and lit up with cracks of lightning. The ground trembles, something like an aftershock. He would close his eyes, if he had eyelids, or the illusion of them.
Then with a snap (crackle, pop, a boy eating breakfast cereal, air, memories of breathing, tasting, seeing truly, the beginnings of a name), the rack is gone. He sits up, dizzy with it, a sudden rush of memory, and finds his body whole. He has eyelids (not truly, not like he had once, when was that, flesh shuttering closed over another kind of flesh, light shining through it regardless) and he immediately closes them. They take your eyelids first, so there's no escape.
There is a sound, a piercing whine, a low inexorable rumble, all over the spectrum of hearable sound, and his ears (facsimile of them, not real, only real enough to feel pain)-- are they bleeding again? It's going to tear him apart, more thoroughly than the knives ever did, even as it remakes him. His body stitches itself back together, better than it's ever been down here, all the protective functions restored (is this what it was like to be whole?) but it's not the itching crawl that it usually is, healing just enough to keep things going; the healing itself another form of torture. No, it's like he snaps between two states of being, complete and incomplete. The noise stops and so does the pain, and he feels, whole. Whole enough. The light comes through, irrespective of his eyelids, so he chances it, opens them, and sees.
A thousand images, superimposed upon each other: a being, something like the shape of a man, a star folding in on itself, himself, himself (was that him, in that place that is not here?), sunlight and its absence, a star-filled canopy that is the real sky of that place, that place.
"What are you?" he asks, sure that there is something, some consciousness there.
It answers him in more images, more sensations: they close around him, no longer a show but something he is experiencing; and for the first time in so long he is without pain. Time and space stretch, collapse and reform around him. Hell blinks out of existence (hell, he remembers, that is its name, and with that name come others), and then back, less solid this time, less real to his imaginary senses. Every second of its absence is awful, because the misery comes back with it, the horrible empty chill. They are moving through it, or moving it, reshaping it - this lurching push/pull that isn't flight, or any kind of motion, that remakes him with every trip, every detour around a knot, a trap, a cluster of them, those beings of smoke. Until finally they stop.
A colourless nothing place, nothing time. His senses are assaulted by its absolute lack, until the being moves closer to him (is it moving, or is he?) and all he knows is it: the black pull of its endless center; the bright corona that surrounds it like a halo; time folding in on itself, all around it, this thing, this fixed point made up of dust, and light, and folded time.
"What are you?" he asks again, and he's answered with a reflection of himself. With the feeling of something, something like hands, taking him up, moving around the pieces of his soul until they're just right, like they're simple blocks to this thing (blocks, or lego, they had lego, for about a year until Sam forgot them in one of the motels, Dean was sure he'd packed them, but Sam, he'd snuck them out and then forgotten them on the bathroom floor).
He's answered with an explosion into physical being, into the world. Trees crash to the ground around them, a wide circle of devastation that uproots everything for at least a mile. Some crop circle, he thinks. Some crop circle - he knows that voice, he knows those thoughts, that self. Dean, he remembers. My name is Dean.
"What are you?" he asks, this time raggedly. This time he's answered in something like words, or concepts, an idea: I am an angel of the Lord. And before he can even begin to process that, the being is thrusting him down, down into the ground, into the remains of his body. He tries to fight back, grab hold of something, keep himself from being pushed back into that rotted flesh that is now a meal for other creatures, but there's no point - nothing to grab hold of. The being is there, and then not there.
"No, god dammit!" he gets out. He feels-- disapproval. His father yelling at him, his fifth grade teacher keeping him back after class, Sammy hitting him with his worst bitchface, and a thousand other memories, personal and impersonal that he supplies. The being, it feels, and Dean fills in the rest, somehow translates it into something understandable. It has no face, no expression, but he swears somehow that he can see it frowning at him, confused as much as it is disappointed. It touches him, stills him completely, and he knows that whatever he is, soul stuff or whatever floating in the fucking ether, there is no way that Dean can fight this thing. Not in this state.
And that's it - it pushes him down, knitting together his human body as easily as it did him. Dean is anchored to his body; it ties him tighter and tighter, closing off that other plane, until all Dean can remember is flesh. Until all Dean knows, is that he has to get out. He wakes with a gasp, his first breath in months.
Dean comes back to himself, sprawled on the grass. "What did you do to me?" he asks, before anything else.
"I helped you to remember."
About a foot away from him is a damp looking patch of grass. He pushes himself up, shakily. Cas is sitting behind him, leaning against the tree. They've apparently moved further up the hill. "Dude, did I hurl?"
"Yes," Castiel says simply.
Dean does a quick self-exam, and finds that he's dry, and clean of vomit, except for the lingering taste of it in his mouth. "Did you hold my hair?"
"Your hair is too short to hold," Castiel says, frowning. Hell or no, it still manages to be funny, how easily confused he is. Dean could - and has - happily spent an entire day throwing pop culture references at Castiel, until he snaps. He holds onto the amusement while he finds his bearings, and resettles himself with his forearms resting on his knees. He rubs a hand over his hair.
"Got any gum?" Castiel silently reaches into the inside pocket of his coat, and tosses Dean a pack of Excel. "Seriously?"
"I like gum," is all that he gets in response.
He pops two pieces into his mouth, hoping they'll be enough to cancel out the sour taste of yesterday's burger (or was it the day before?) and stomach bile. He tosses the pack back to Cas, who starts chewing his way through a piece of his own, proving that yes, Clarence likes gum. He wonders when that happened - how Castiel came to try it out in the first place. And how incredibly hilarious it must have been. It's easy to picture, Castiel's brow furrowed in a combination of confusion, concentration and determination. His jaw working horse-like, while he figures out another strange human activity.
Then, when his mind's done sketching in the details, he looks at Castiel. Really looks at him, new memories laid over the face he's practically got memorized.
"I didn't remember any of that," is what he finally says. He remembered hell of course, not every detail, but enough to keep him from sleeping well most nights. What he'd never remembered was leaving it. There was a gap in his already patchy recollection, hell and then waking. There were other things he didn't remember - he recognized the outline of them, and knew from them that the memories themselves were missing - but leaving? That had been a big zero, a total unknown until now - and somehow it had never occurred to him to wonder about that.
"What do you mean couldn't?"
"Hell is beyond what your body and mind are truly capable of processing. Heaven even more so."
"So what, I couldn't remember you, because of a design flaw in my brain?"
"It's not a flaw," Castiel says shortly. This close to scolding him. "This is how your brain works Dean: stimulus that can't immediately be processed is translated into something that it can."
"And over-stimulus either shorts out executive function entirely, or gets wiped from the memory banks," Dean says. "Paranormal debunkers are crazy about this stuff," he says by way of explanation. "Sam too."
He sits there for a minute then, Castiel just watching him. Dean feels energized, exhausted - like everything is subtly off. He feels the ground beneath him solidly, more solidly than he ever has, anchored to it. But his skin feels electric, his body light. Like he can feel the exact shape of the distance between them, measure it in some indefinable way. Hear Cas, barely breathing. Feel his skin, dirty from yesterday's battle. Dean could just reach out... He feels like he's coming off a high.
"Can you... can you do that again?" Castiel frowns. "Help me to understand what you were saying before?"
"You want to share my experiences."
"Dean, I've never done anything like that. I'm not sure if it's even possible."
"I'm not supposed to be able to remember hell. Neither of us is supposed to be alive. Everything we've done together is impossible - what's one more impossible thing?"
"All right," Castiel says softly.
"Ok, so how do we do this?"
Castiel frowns at him. Through him, maybe, because his eyes are unfocused. "Shut up Dean."
"Shut up Dean?"
"I'm trying to concentrate."
"Shutting up. Do all the staring you need."
Then Castiel's eyes lock with Dean's and he says, "I want you to see."
"I want to see too, buddy."
"Dean." He's ready with another comeback, but before he can say anything, things start to change. It's not like the last time. He doesn't feel like he's falling, instead he's... opening up. There's a moment, a too-heady rush where he feels- feels like he's going to spiral out of control, everything is too bright, too much. Then Castiel grabs hold of Dean's hands and keeps him steady.
"I want you to see," Castiel says again, and this time Dean hears it with more than his ears.
I'm sharing a piece of my grace, Castiel says without Jimmy's voice. You are not what you were.
That's Dean's cue to make a crack about crypto-Enochian-angel-speak, but he gets it. You are not what you were. Castiel's words echo inside of him, and with them comes Castiel, moving through him like a wave. A transference of energy, Castiel says. Hopefully without permanent displacement of the particles it travels through.
Hopefully, without breaking me, Dean translates. Why are you talking science, all of a sudden? Castiel's answer is something like a mental shrug.
Would you prefer metaphysics? Look.
So he does. Dean opens his eyes and looks at Cas, still in Jimmy's body, but so much more - the sense of immense mass and energy, compressed to a single, white point, bending time and space around him. But past him, the world too, is different. He is seeing like Castiel does.
Castiel leaves, and soon after, Sam and Dean leave the area to Bobby's dubious care. Their job, for the next few months at least, is checking in on former vessels and once mobilized hunters. Neither of them is ideal for the work--Dean is too dismissive, Sam too invested--so they do it with an eye toward training up their replacements.
It's an easier adjustment than Dean expected. There are still monsters to hunt, so their days aren't all handholding and war stories. Most nights, Dean doesn't drink himself to sleep. Sam is ok too. They got off easy, he tells himself, and he knows that's the absolute truth: the inky outline of it, what could have been, isn't so much his nightmare, as well travelled ground. They got off easy, and if pressed he could extemporate on all the could-have-been-worses, but he isn't pressed, and doesn't go looking into those dark corners himself.
He'd been a star once, for an afternoon. That's more than weird enough for him.