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Some Whispers Around the Trees

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Dean disappeared out the door, and Sam packed up their belongings, tried to ignore the spatters of blood staining the sheets and faded motel wallpaper, coating the clothes he still wore, sticky against his chest. Time must run different in Heaven than on Earth, because it was still red, the taste of copper fresh at the back of his throat, and no matter how he tried, Sam couldn't swallow it down.

He shifted both duffel bags over one shoulder and paused at the door, peered down at the tiny motel trash can. Trying not to think too hard about it, Sam crouched down and scooped up the abandoned pendant, pushed it in his jacket pocket to be forgotten with the rest of their dashed hopes and dreams. Dean was waiting in the car, seated in the driver's side with his hands on his head and his head on the wheel. He was very, very still, like if he didn't move, he couldn't attract the attention of anything else determined to bring him down, to fuck him over because it could, because it felt like it, because it was Thursday and this was what happened any day of the week ending on a Y. Sam loaded up the trunk, and still Dean didn't move.

When Sam slid into the passenger seat, Dean let out a long, slow, rattling breath, like the sound of the air slipping out of a still-warm corpse for the final time. He straightened and placed his hands on the wheel; the leather creaked under his grip.

"What's next?" he asked, his voice falsely bright, and Sam winced.

"I don't know," Sam said, too honest, feeling raw and cracked open, his chest burning like the bullet holes hadn't actually healed.

Dean shifted gears anyway and pulled out of the parking lot. The road was there, and the only way they knew was forward.

Castiel wasn't taking Dean's calls.

"Cas—" Dean said for what felt like the fortieth time. "Just—call me." He swallowed hard and blinked at the ceiling. "I need—" to know you're okay. Dean already knew Castiel wasn't okay, would probably never be okay after this. He thought of Castiel's bright, empty smile in 2014 and repeated, "Call me."

The window scraped open across the room, and Sam stood tall in front of it, spine straight and rigid. Dean closed his eyes and let the phone drop beside his pillow. A cool breeze wafted over, leeched the heat from his face and exposed hands and wrists.

Sam said, "I'm going out," and the quiet sound of the door closing followed after.

Dean put one hand over his eyes and clenched the other in the scratchy fabric of the comforter.

I need some help, he'd said, but Dean knew now that there'd be no answer.

God was not in the Andes.

Castiel stood on the tip of a peak as the wind whipped his coat and snow caught in his clothes and hair. His grace had always kept him warm before, but now his faith felt like a guttered flame, and only the ashes of prayer lingered on his tongue. The cold crept into this vessel's very bones. Castiel had seen Dean Winchester cry any number of times, and he wondered distantly if it helped, if the outpouring of tears acted as a pressure valve for his grief. Castiel's own tears felt frozen in their ducts.

God was not in the Andes.

Castiel couldn't bring himself to care.

Sam found them a job, because what else were they going to do in the meanwhile? They were tracking the omens, keeping an eye out for anything that might take Lucifer down, and waiting to hear back from Bobby, who'd said he'd look into something for them and then disappeared. Sam was trying not to take it too personally that Bobby'd stopped checking in, stopped checking up on them to make sure they hadn't gotten themselves killed that day.

(And how many days had that actually been true? How many mornings had they opened their eyes and rolled out of bed without remembering at all that only moments before they'd been knocking down Heaven's door? How many nights had they been murdered by hunters, killed by the monster of the week, died in a fiery car crash when Dean fell asleep at the wheel? How many? Sam knew only that he'd never know.)

Bobby needed his space, and Sam got that. Sam needed his space, too.

The problem, Sam thought, came with Castiel also needing space, so much space he might well be on another planet for all Sam or Dean knew. Nearly everyone needed space and time to piece themselves back together, but Sam had the feeling Dean had too much space, too much time alone, and there wasn't anyone else left. Sam and Dean and Bobby and Cas—they were all each other had anymore.

It wasn't enough. In theory, they had each other, but in practice? They were all alone.

Sam could only hope what looked like a simple salt and burn would distract Dean long enough for Sam to heal or Bobby to find something or Cas to come around. If it saved a few people's lives in the process, all the better. Just a nice, simple reminder of why they did what they did, why they carried forward. Some better answer than because they had no other option.

(Sam tried not to think that Lucifer was right, had told the truth when he'd said even suicide wasn't an escape route open to Sam.)

"You know what?" Dean said when they ran across another Wendigo. "Fuck this."

Sam was lying off to the side in the shadow of the fir tree he'd been thrown into, and he wasn't moving. Dean would be more concerned, but apparently death wasn't a problem for them anymore.

Dean dropped his shot gun and picked up an axe, said, "Come on. Come get this, you ugly piece of shit."

If Castiel were here, he would say something like, "That's inadvisable, Dean," all serious eyes and lips pressed thin.

If Bobby were here, he would shake his head and call Dean an idiot.

If Sam were conscious, he would shoot the Wendigo again and accuse Dean of having hit his head too hard when he'd been thrown into the Impala a few minutes ago.

But this was Dean, alone, and what was the worst that could happen? It wasn't like the angels were going to let Michael's vessel be permanently maimed.

It took Dean another twenty minutes to take the Wendigo down. He hacked off the head, then each limb, then reduced it to pieces small enough to fit into supermarket packaging. His sleeves were sodden with blood, his grip on the axe slippery with it. It lingered in his nostrils, heavy at the back of his tongue. His lungs and throat burned with each drag of air in, and his legs trembled with fatigue.

"Dean," Sam said, and from the tone, Dean was pretty sure it wasn't the first or even the fifteenth time Sam had called his name. "Dean, you can stop now."

Dean let the axe fall from his numb fingers, and he headed back for the Impala and the towel he knew he'd left in the trunk. He left whorls that would fade brown in the paint, and when he spoke, his voice was rough. "No. I can't."

In his time on Earth, there were many things Castiel had never tried. In his search for God, Castiel had stood in the Basilica, stalked down the streets and side alleys of Tokyo, searched the deep ravines of the Pacific Ocean. He'd stood on the surface of the moon to stare down at the Earth's surface, full of hope that he might catch a glimmer of God from a distance. Castiel had stood in temples, on rooftops, under the filtered light of stained glass. He'd seen so many things and yet never actually looked, because what he was searching for had not been there.

Castiel had never walked barefoot into the ocean to feel the grit of sand beneath his toes and the rush of water against his calves and ankles. He had never sipped champagne to feel it sparkle against his tongue, bubble against the roof of his mouth and down his throat. He'd never stopped and closed his eyes at the center of a bazaar to experience the drifting, overlapping scents of smoked meats and sweating people and incense, the din of pounding feet and rustling skirts and voices, hundreds of voices, pressing at his ears and against his skin like a physical touch. There were so many things, and while they were still there, Castiel wanted to try them all.

In America, he perched next to the world's largest ball of twine and wondered at the human who created it, the many more who flocked to it like it was a place of power, of holiness. In France, he ate a lemon tart, a zing of sweet, sour flavor against his tongue. In China, he followed an elderly woman up the steps of the Great Wall and peered out at the expansive landscape. Everywhere he went, there were new things to see, to feel. Every place held another experience, and always a new vista beckoned. Humans had created many ingenuities, and nature held untold wonders.

For days, Castiel wandered, following within sight of the sun and traversing the rotation of the Earth as a human at the gym might walk across a treadmill, moving and moving and making no real progress. After a week, he plunged into dark spaces, watched the glitter of cities against the night sky, the glimmer of stars in the countryside. He followed a kangaroo mouse across the desert floor and stayed next to its burrow to watch the sun rise over Nevada.

At first, his phone rang every five minutes, and he ignored the tinny melody, because it was too soon. He loved his Father as Dean loved his, and likewise he'd been abandoned. The pain was too raw to bear even empathy, like a fresh burn he was hesitant to touch. Then the calls tapered off to once every twenty or so hours for the remaining week. After that, they stopped altogether.

Castiel checked every message, listened to Dean's concerned voice curl softly against his ears, alternately soothing and pleading and angry. One message was from Sam, who said only, "We're worried, but—we're here. Whenever you're ready." Castiel saved it, but the only message he repeated was from Dean.

"Cas—" Dean's voice was tight with undefined emotion. There was the almost inaudible sound of him swallowing, steeling himself for words he would not, under lighter circumstances, have spoken. "Cas, you're worth so much more than this. You deserve better. You hear me? It doesn't matter that—fuck them, okay? Fuck everyone else, all our absent fucking father figures. You and me and Sam, we—" There was a small clicking sound produced by Dean working his throat as if swallowing down the words. After a long pause, voice hushed and broken, Dean repeated, "You deserve better."

Every few minutes to every few hours, holding out for as long as he could stand it before giving in again, Castiel replayed that message. "Cas—" Dean had said, like he could pull Castiel in with voice alone, like words were hands and arms he would wrap around Castiel and use to hold him tight, keep him safe and secure at Dean's side. "Cas—"

Castiel found the glory of a desert sunrise, all scarlet and auburn and vivid pink hues, faded in contrast to Dean's voice, three weeks old and still calling him home.

They kept moving because that's what they did. They took out a few demons in Texas, some ghouls in Nevada, and a series of ghosts in California.

"Seriously," Sam said, "is someone deliberately raising these things or something? I don't think I've seen this many ghosts in a week since Lilith."

(Someone was. They took care of that, too.)

They were in Ohio, looking into rumors of more walking dead, when Dean's phone played a few bars of "Stairway to Heaven" and Dean scrambled for it, flipped it hastily open. "Ada, Ohio," Dean said. "Room 117, the Red Roof—" and Dean stumbled to a halt. Castiel stood maybe four inches in front of him, and Sam wasn't so emotionally repressed that he could hold back his smile.

"Welcome back, Cas." He crossed the room to grasp Castiel's shoulder in a brief hello, and Castiel nodded to him before turning to face Dean with an inscrutable expression.

"So, uh. Where've you been?" Dean asked, and Sam didn't think anyone was taken in by that weak, it doesn't matter smile.

"When you searched for your father," Castiel said, "did you ever consider that he did not wish to be found?"

Dean blinked, and Sam thought Dean's disbelief spoke for both of them when he asked, "After all that, you decided to go back to searching for God?"

"No," Castiel replied, even, almost as unshakable as he'd been before their side trip to Heaven. "I was busy contemplating the question."

Dean swallowed, and Sam noted that Dean had made no move to put any distance between him and Castiel, hadn't told Castiel to back off or reminded him about personal space again. "You could've just asked."

"I meant my own." Castiel's stare was steady, eyes wide and open and entirely focused. "Joshua said that He was lonely." Castiel looked down briefly, then back to Dean. "I don't—I can't believe that He wishes to be alone. That there is no purpose to this."

"Believe what you want," Dean said, rough, and for some reason Sam felt like he was intruding. "I placed faith in my dad, and we all know how that turned out."

"He sacrificed himself for you," Castiel said, "but you misunderstand me. I'm placing my faith in you." He paused. From anyone else, this would be wry, but Castiel's voice was earnest as he said, "In Team Free Will."

"Maybe," Sam said, and he couldn't believe that he was the one actually speaking up on behalf of faith, of God and Heaven after all they'd been through, but, "maybe that's the point. Dean, you're always saying that there's no such thing as fate, that we make our own destiny and live with our own choices." Sam ran a hand through his hair and said, "What's choice without consequences?"

"Are you serious?" Dean demanded. "How can you even say that after all this?"

"Come on, Dean, why else is there evil in the world? Why would God allow evil if not for free will?"

"And what? We made our bed and now we have to lie in it?"

Quietly, Sam said, "Our mom did." Dean looked furious, and Castiel remained quiet. "I'm not saying I'm okay with this, that I'm happy things turned out this way, but—what's the point if we only have free will so long as it achieves the optimal outcome? So long as we don't hurt each other or ourselves? What's the point if we're only given safety scissors and construction paper and kept locked in the play pen? Maybe this is—humanity and angels and demons and all—our adolescence, our nascent adulthood. Maybe this is Dad giving you the Winchester and letting you hunt alone." Sam looked down at the carpet, examined a dark stain in the dirty brown fibers. "Or maybe you're right. Maybe we have been abandoned and really are alone."

A hand gripped Sam's shoulder, and he looked up to meet Castiel's all too serious gaze. "There is much I don't know, Sam," Castiel said slowly. "But I am sure of this: you are not alone."

"I'm going out," Dean said abruptly. He grabbed his keys off the table and jacket off the back of the motel's one chair. "Don't wait up." He didn't look back as he walked out the door.

"Dean," Castiel said, and Dean waved his bottle of Jack in greeting, but didn't look over. He was sprawled in the cold, wet grass of some field out in the middle of nowhere, had driven and driven until he wasn't sure where he was in relation to the motel. He'd been drinking for what felt like hours, and it was closer to early morning than late at night; even the crickets were quiet now. Castiel's voice was careful as he asked, "Are you okay?"

Dean couldn't help it; he laughed until his sides ached, his stomach hurt, and tears pressed at the corners of his eyes. Castiel waited him out. "Yeah," Dean said finally. "I'm just peachy." Then, "Is that why you called? To check up on me?"

"Yes," Castiel said simply.

The stars were bright this far out from the city, white pinpricks in a vast expanse of dark sky. It was a new moon, and the stars were the only thing to see by as Castiel crossed over to Dean's side, stared down at him with an unreadable expression. The world was spinning, and Dean imagined he could feel the rotation of the earth itself. Dean took another burning swallow, and Castiel, at least, didn't seem to judge Dean for it.

Finally, unable to take the silence, "I can't do this alone, Cas. I can't—" Dean choked off the words, choked down another mouthful of whiskey.

"You don't have to," Castiel said, seating himself on the cool ground next to Dean.

"Right," Dean said bitterly. "I'm not alone."

"You're not," Castiel agreed, and his fingers were warm splayed against Dean's jaw; the tips made a soft rasping sound as he drew them across Dean's cheeks and throat. Castiel traced Dean's Adam's apple as he swallowed, then reached back up to thread his fingers through Dean's hair. Cas was close, so close now, and Dean let the bottle fall from his fingers to grab the lapels of Castiel's coat, pull him in even closer. From inches, then centimeters away, Castiel said, "There are many things I wish to experience, Dean." Then, "This," and, "You," and finally Castiel stopped trying to talk at all—acquiesced to Dean's demanding lips and tongue, his grasping hands—and pressed back into him.

Castiel's lips were chapped, rough against Dean's own, and along Castiel's jaw the beginnings of stubble scraped against Dean's tongue. Dean wondered idly if Castiel needed to shave, or if he simply willed the stubble away; he wondered how long Castiel's grace would last before he gave in and grew a scruffy beard, if it would look out of place, or if Dean wouldn't notice or care anymore. Dean wondered how far off 2014 really was these days. A sharp nip on his chin, and Dean's attention drew back to Castiel, who was staring sharply at Dean like he could read every unspoken thought as easily as Dean might a road sign. Castiel didn't say anything, though, just pulled Dean into another long kiss, cradled Dean's face in his warm, warm hands.

Sometime before dawn, Dean fell asleep between one soft press of lips and the next, and when he woke, the sun beat down bright and hot against his face. Castiel's trench coat was spread carefully over his body, and his car keys were on his chest. The bottle of Jack Daniels and Castiel were gone.

"When this is over," Castiel said, and there was no need to clarify what this was—the apocalypse loomed heavy on everyone's minds, lingered unspoken behind every conversation, "I have a favor to ask of you." Some emotion Castiel couldn't quite identify had kindled in him, caused the muscles of his vessel's chest and throat to unpleasantly constrict. It was something like pain, something like shame. Castiel was finding it difficult to adjust. Faith, love—even anger—had been easy. Disappointment, despair? These were new, foreign lands in which Castiel was only now learning to abide.

Sam had one hand in his jacket pocket, the outline of his fist barely visible, as though he had his hand curled around something, had pressed his fingers close to it for comfort. "When this is over—" and Sam's smile twisted, but it was clear he was trying, "—I'll do my best to grant it."

"You have not heard the favor." And this, this burning in his vessel's throat, was it hope? Fear? Castiel didn't know.

"So ask," Sam said, as thought it were that simple, that easy for him.

Sam Winchester, Castiel knew, was a good friend. Nevertheless, he found himself hesitating before he finally said, "I would like to resume my search for God." Sam's expression was—complicated. "Not to request help, but—" Castiel trailed off, uncertain how to explain.

"Dean won't be too happy about it," Sam said carefully.

"Dean is unhappy about many things," Castiel said, "but I have some idea of how to placate him." Castiel didn't elucidate, and, to Castiel's relief, Sam didn't ask.

"There are things," Sam said slowly, "I would ask my dad, given the chance." He withdrew his hand from his pocket, and the pendant he pressed into Castiel's hands was warm only from residual body heat. Even so, it felt like a benediction. "Don't—don't lose it this time."

Castiel couldn't pretend to misunderstand, to think that Sam was talking about the pendant alone. All he could promise was, "I will try."

When Dean stumbled into the motel room, he was rumpled, covered in grass stains, and had dirt smudged across his left cheekbone. A strand of grass clung to his hair.

"Were you attacked by a meadow?" Sam asked.

Dean made a face at him, but turned to Castiel, and Sam noticed, abruptly, that Dean was carrying Castiel's missing coat. Dean thrust it at Castiel and said only, voice gruff, "Thanks."

Castiel stared a long time at Dean, and when he accepted the coat, their hands brushed. In a level voice, "Any time."

"Really?" Dean asked, expression utterly serious, and Castiel nodded in turn.

Sam had that feeling again, like he was intruding, and this time he said, "I'm going to check out that lead at the courthouse. Dean, you've got the widow, right?"

"Sure," Dean said, but he didn't look away from Castiel.

"Right," Sam said again, and he walked out into the early spring afternoon.

(It wasn't okay. Sam didn't think it would ever be okay. But maybe, for now, it could be enough.)