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Carterhaugh

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"O' I forbid you, maidens a',

That wear gowd on your hair,

To come or gae by Carterhaugh,

For young Tam Lin is there."

~ Opening verse of Tam Lin, Child Ballad 39A

 

Sam first hears about Carterhaugh in Bobby’s house, under the stairs with Dean, while Bobby and Dad sit at the kitchen table with sweating beers and an ocean of papers. The pale light from the kitchen smears across the old wooden floors polished by decades of foot traffic, just glancing off of the shadowy corner where Dean and Sam have sequestered themselves with piles of Bobby’s old comic books. Sam is working on a Spiderman arc. He’s laying on his stomach with a pillow under his chest, slowly turning the brittle, yellow pages. His legs are sprawled across Dean’s lap, who’s sitting propped against the wall with X-Men. In the kitchen, the men talk in low voices interspersed with the sound of paper shuffling and beer bottles tump-ing against the pitted tabletop. Sam turns a page and, somewhere in the corner of his mind, considers that this is one of those truly, deeply happy moments.

“Carterhaugh,” Dad says. “She kept telling me to go to Carterhaugh. Nothing like that around here, though. I’ve checked the damn map three times.”

“Carterhaugh,” Bobby echoes. Wood scrapes against wood. Sam glances up to find that Bobby has pushed away from the table slightly, gaze heavy.

“You know it?” Dad asks.

“Heard of it,” Bobby replies, still looking troubled. “Figure most hunters hear the name sooner or later.”

“Well?”

Bobby grunts and runs a hand over his mouth and chin. “It’s a real place. In Scotland. It’s tied up in a lot of the faerie lore.”

A beat of silence. Sam hasn’t dropped his gaze to his comic book yet.

“You suggesting I’m dealing with fairies?” his dad asks, voice starting to warm with humor.

“Not what I’m saying,” Bobby says, gruff. “I’m saying the name Carterhaugh means something. It’s…I think it’s like a name for the meeting places between people and things that aren’t people. It’s the place between our world and other worlds.”

“Other worlds? Like what? Hell?”

“Dunno, honestly.” Bobby sighs and leans on the table on crossed arms. “It’s just…Carterhaugh exists. I’ve talked to hunters who have seen it, even a few who have gone into it.”

“Into what?”

“Varies. Sometimes it’s a forest, a small town. Things run differently there; you can get in trouble if you’re not ready for it.” Bobby pauses, seems to choose his next words carefully. “Things live there that can persuade you to stay with them. You’ve heard of faerie hills, right? Like that. You eat their food, drink their water, you accidentally stay for decades. It’s happened.” John’s face is strung between incredulous and curious. He leans back in his chair and takes a contemplative swig of beer. “You don’t believe me,” Bobby growls.

“Singer, at this point, I’d be a damn idiot not to believe you.” John sets the beer back on the table. “Okay. So, I shouldn’t go into Carterhaugh even if I could find it. Which I can’t. Strike that as a dead end. What else?” The men bend over their papers again. Sam twists around to see if Dean was listening, but he’s bent over his comic book, attention riveted. Sam turns back around slowly and starts to read again.

***

It’s eleven years before Sam encounters the word Carterhaugh again. When it happens, he’s 550 miles from the bus station where Dean dropped him off. It’s almost twilight, and Sam’s standing just outside the entrance of the current bus station looking out over a gravel lot, a thin chain-link fence, and then a quilt of fields buried under winter wheat. The wind sifting through his greasy hair is damp with recent rain; it soughs through the wheat. His ears still ring with his dad telling him to never come back. His arms still hurt with how hard he grasped at Dean before he boarded the bus. His backpack is too light with how quickly he had to pack.

“You got a ride somewhere?”

Sam turns, and a middle-aged man he saw working behind the ticket counter a few minutes ago is looking at him. He has a cigarette between swollen knuckles.

“Not really,” Sam says truthfully. “I only had enough money to get to this station.”

“Where you headed?”

“California.”

The man whistles. “You got a ways to go,” he says.

“I know.” Sam shifts, his boots grinding into the pavement. “Is there anywhere to stay around here?”

“Hotel down the road.” The man gestures with the glowing butt of his cigarette. “Not a bad place. I know the manager; she’s a good egg.”

“Anything else?”

The man looks at him sideways. “If you really want to go around knocking on doors and asking for free room and board, I guess that’s your prerogative.”

“I’d work in exchange,” Sam says, and he does his best to keep his tone neutral. The man shrugs and takes a drag from his cigarette. Sam mumbles something like a thanks. He shrugs the backpack higher on his shoulders and walks down to the gate, gravel crunching under his boots. The bus station is on the very edge of town; to his right sits the scattering of buildings that make up the rest of the town. To his left is the highway and farmland. Sam goes left.

Twilight deepens around him, and on either side, the winter wheat dissolves into rustling shadows. Cars whip past every few minutes, and they light up Sam’s ratty gym shoes. Sam doesn’t stick out a thumb, and the cars don’t slow for him. He’s had enough of sitting for a while; he wants to walk so far and long that his legs hurt. He keeps on the road’s shoulder, navigating discarded beer bottles and occasional road kill. The only sounds are rushes: his own rush of breath, the rush of wind through cover crop, the rush of cars along the road.

When Sam approaches the highway sign, he slows and tilts his head up to squint at the reflecting lettering.

Carterhaugh County, the sign says. Sam pauses, and then for a moment he’s underneath warm stairs listening to Bobby and Dad talk at the kitchen table. He takes a step back and looks around, but the farmland is as regular as ever. The fields sweep past the county line without trouble; the road is a smooth river of black. Sam peers up at the sign again. Carterhaugh County, it says again.

He licks his lips but in the end steps past the sign. Nothing happens, and he keeps following the fields.

It’s sometime around midnight when the car—the first in nearly an hour—slows alongside him. Sam stiffens and keeps walking. The car rumbles alongside him, headlights blinding. A window rolls down.

“You shouldn’t be walking out here by yourself,” a voice says. It’s male. British. Sam turns his head despite himself and sees a round-faced man with dark hair and a wholly disconcerting smile. He’s ducking his head to see Sam through his passenger window.

“I’m fine,” Sam says.

“You won’t be sooner or later,” the man says. “Come on, can I get you somewhere?”

“No.”

“I really do insist. The next town is going to take you hours to reach.” Sam glances over, rolling in his lips. If worst comes to worst, he has a knife strapped to his belt and hidden by his jacket. He stops walking. The man grins and brakes; the car door clicks unlocked. Sam clambers inside and places his backpack between his knees while the man revs the car forward.

“McCloud.” The man reaches out a hand. Sam accepts it.

“Sam,” he replies.

“Good name.”

“Thanks.”

They drive in silence, and Sam watches farmhouses and silos blur past.

“Where you headed, then?” McCloud asks.

“California eventually, but first I’m going to need some work.” Sam shrugs. “Bus tickets get expensive.”

“Indeed,” McCloud says, and Sam can’t help but get the impression that McCloud’s experience with bus tickets is secondary at best. Sam pretends to shift in his seat so he can check that the knife is easily accessible.

“You live around here?” Sam asks.

“No, but I pass through quite a bit,” McCloud replies. “I know the area.”

“What’s it like?” Sam asks.

“Oh, you know,” McCloud says and doesn’t continue. Sam doesn’t know, but he doesn’t push the topic. He stares through the front windshield and keeps a firm grip on his backpack.

“Guess there were a lot of Scottish immigrants in the day,” he says. McCloud’s head jerks slightly in his direction.

“Makes you say that?” he asks.

“Carterhaugh. It’s in Scotland.”

McCloud laughs, short and sharp. “Smart one,” he says. “Yes, the name is Scottish. Home of Tam Lin.” Sam is silent, trying to remember if the name is familiar. “Know it?” McCloud presses.

“No.”

“Old ballad. A girl mustn’t let go of her true love while he turns into all manner of beasts, else he’s claimed by the fair folk.” Some old memory stirs in Sam’s mind, but it’s lost before he can claim it.

“Oh,” is all he says, and he tightens his grip on the backpack.

“I guess it’s a faerie tale in the truest sense of the word,” McCloud continues. “Americans bandy faerie tales around like it’s nothing. Back where I come from, you’re more careful with that kind of attitude.” He peers at Sam. “There’s certain hills you just don’t cross at night. Certain stones you leave alone. You see?” Sam nods. “Christianity came along and did a number on all that, sure,” McCloud says. “But it’s not like they could erase the fair folk. Not like the fair folk don’t know how to adapt.”

“Hm.”

“Not a chatty one, are you?”

“Just tired.”

The minutes pass silently, and Sam can see McCloud glance at him a few times, but he doesn’t push conversation.

After nearly forty-five minutes of driving, McCloud pulls into a sodium-lit gas station that, along with a handful of ramshackle buildings, seems to be the only indication that a town exists in that spot. Sam emerges from the car and stretches his back. He gazes around him.

“Want anything?” McCloud asks. Sam glances back to find him jerking a thumb at the convenience store.

“No.” Sam hesitates and continues, “Are we still in Carterhaugh?”

“Indeed.”

“How long are we going to be in it?”

McCloud gives Sam a wry look. “As long as we need to be.” Sam nods and shifts from foot to foot.

“Listen,” he says. “Thanks for the ride, but I think I’m going to go back to walking.”

“That would be a monumentally stupid thing to do,” McCloud says mildly. “There’s nothing out here.”

“Still.” Sam hikes the backpack straps higher up his shoulders. “Thanks again.” McCloud examines him lazily for several seconds then shrugs.

“Luck to you,” he says.

“Thanks.”

Sam turns and starts walking, leaving the orange glow of the station for the velvet darkness of the highway. When he glances back, he can see McCloud still watching him from beside his car.

The highway becomes less and less a highway and more into a spindly country road. The next time Sam turns around, the gas station is a mere speck in the distance. A fresh breeze picks up, and Sam crosses his arms over his chest. He ducks his head and keeps walking.

He loses track of how long he travels like that, head bowed and eyes fixed on his shoes scuffing across the pavement. At some point, his shoulders and upper back develop a deep ache that twinges every time he shifts the backpack straps. Eventually, he pauses to fish a water bottle from the backpack’s front pocket, and that’s when he catches sight of the pale gray sky and realizes it’s almost dawn. He takes three careful sips of the water and moves to place it back in his backpack when his eyes catch on a burst of muted yellow. He lifts his head and realizes he’s standing alongside a fence, and beyond the fence is a field of sunflowers. He freezes, blinking at the crowd of wide, brown faces framed in yellow. A breeze moves past them, making the flower heads bow and murmur like a crowd of curious onlookers. Sam settles the water bottle into the backpack and straightens, eyes fixed on the sunflowers. He glances up and down the road. The fence—a simple rough wooden affair—extends in either direction as far as he can see. Sam turns, and the land on the other side of the road has the same fence along it, and it too is swathed in flowers. Tulips. Thick swatches of yellow, then red, then orange, then yellow again. Sam realizes that his breath is caught in his throat. He wonders, a little wildly, how he could have missed this.

Sam turns forward again, and when he begins walking, he lets himself move so slowly it could be called meandering. He looks from side to side, watching the flowers pass in riots of color dulled by the pre-dawn light. On his right, the sunflowers eventually turn into a field of lavender. On his left, the tulips become daffodils.

It occurs to him it’s only February—although it doesn’t feel like February at the moment; if Sam didn’t know better he’d say that the breeze against his face is damp and green with spring—and that no one should be growing this many flowers outside of a greenhouse this time of year. His gut shifts uneasily, but there’s nothing to do about it but keep walking.

He comes across the gate after another ten minutes, and by then the sky is stained with the first pink blush. Sam slows then stops completely, swaying in the middle of the road, examining the simple rusted metal gate that stretches across a gravel driveway. He can see the driveway snake past the fields of flowers and disappear behind a thick copse of trees. He imagines he can see the outline of a house in the trees. Sam examines the gate. It’s low, unimpressive; he could scale it in a matter of seconds.

Sam could imagine, theoretically, that this property must be a flower farm with a steady flow of tourists. If Sam had gone to the motel, he would probably have seen a brochure next to the front desk with a full-color image of fields of daffodils with families strolling between beds. Sam can imagine that the farm will open to the public in a few hours, and that the owners are already awake, and it wouldn’t be too much trouble to ask them where the next town is and how far he still needs to travel. Sam tells himself all this as he tosses his backpack over the gate then clambers over. The metal clangs with his movements, but no one emerges to shout at him. Not even a dog’s bark breaks the dawn air.

Sam slowly picks up his backpack, dusts it off, and slings it over one shoulder. He glances at the rows of lilacs alongside him; they bob their heads back. Sam makes his way down the gravel driveway. The air, he realizes after a moment, is thick here. It’s like a snowy winter day when the snow muffles any sound, except the air smells like spring. The only sound, it seems, is Sam’s sneakers crackling against the gravel and his breathing whistling through his nose. He turns impulsively to check behind him, but the driveway is empty.

The driveway makes a wide swing, and Sam realizes that the thick copse of trees is an orchard. He passes gnarled apple trees, low bushy peach trees, stout pear trees. Each branch practically drips with globules of round, ripe fruit. The smell of the fruit is intoxicating, and Sam’s mouth becomes heavy with saliva. At one point, almost foggily, he stops and plucks a plum the color of early nightfall from a nearby branch. He presses his nose and lips to the firm, cool skin and inhales. He hasn’t eaten in well over a day. He bites into the flesh and the juice is almost warm when it bursts over his lower lips and chin. He eats the plum slightly bowed so the juice drips into the dewy grass. When he’s finished, he licks the sweetness from his fingers and drags his jacket sleeve across his mouth. He drops the plum’s pit into his pocket, planning to offer a dollar or two to the property owner for what he took. He’s certain now; people must come here to wander the flowerbeds and to pick their own fruit. He avoids the fact that peak flowering season and peak fruiting season are months apart.

The driveway bends again, and Sam inhales at the sight of a house. It’s made of red brick with wrought iron filigree along its windows and a bright white trim along a slate-gray roof. It’s comfortably large without being ostentatious. In front of the house, like the folds of a magnificent dress, sits a garden.

It’s not like the rows of flowers near the road. This is haphazard beds filled with so many different types of flowers, Sam isn’t sure all of them have names. Tall, short, bright, dark, veined, spotted, fleshy, delicate. It smells like the greenhouse Sam once went to for a class field trip, and even in the dim light, the sheer mix of colors is borderline overwhelming. But the farther Sam pushes into the garden, the more he realizes that roses are the garden’s mainstay. They appear in almost every bed, in almost every color and state of bloom. Their scent is what dominates the air, and it’s sweet, pervasive, and Sam feels a small headache push against his skull.

He follows the strips of grass that wind between the beds, and the dew dampens his tennis shoes. The sun has begun to push over the horizon, and in its pale pink light, Sam sees a stone structure rising above the garden. It’s almost completely drowned in roses; red roses thick with full bloom. Sam slows the nearer he draws to the stone building until he stops completely, swaying a little in the breeze that is heavy with pollen. The structure reminds Sam of a gazebo or a pagoda. It’s about as tall as a shed and has four openings, one in each cardinal direction. Sam can see more greenery inside, and after a moment of consideration, steps into one of the openings.

The space is immediately damp and cool. Sam examines the nearest wall. Under the thick green of twining rose stems, he can see bricks of pale stone covered in lichen and moss. Sam reaches past the rose thorns to press the pads of his fingers against the stone; he can feel the coolness seep off of them. He lifts his head and is promptly splashed in the eye with a falling drop of water. He wipes at his eye and peers up to find the ceiling hanging over him, dim and swathed in moss and ivy. He looks forward again. In the center of the structure is something like a statue, but it’s drenched in roses, and at best Sam can tell that the figure is humanoid. Sam ventures forward. When he reaches the statue, he reaches out to push aside a cluster of twining rose stems, and he sees a glimpse of a face, but it’s not quite right and—

“What are you doing?”

Sam flinches; the movement makes his right index finger catch on a thorn. A bead of red wells across the skin, and Sam buries the finger in a fist as he whirls around. The light outside has grown enough that, for a moment, the figure standing at the entrance is silhouetted. Another moment, and Sam can see that it’s a man in large trench coat, his hands resting almost casually in the pockets. He has dark, messy hair and painfully blue eyes that are fixed on Sam.

“I—sorry.” Sam steps away from the statue; he can feel the pricked finger pulsing. “I shouldn’t have—I was looking for a phone.”

He hadn’t been looking for a phone at all. Sam gets an irrational sense that the man knows this. The man, for his part, inclines his head slightly.

“I’m afraid there are no phones here,” he says. He speaks in a perfectly even, flat voice. It unnerves Sam enough to want to do something reckless like insult the man, just so he’ll tip over into anger. Instead, Sam nods.

“Okay,” he says. “How far is the next town?”

The man squints as if the question confuses him. “I assume if you walk far enough, you’ll run into one,” he says. “Is that all?”

“I—yeah.” Sam still doesn’t move. “I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to trespass.”

“Yet you still entered uninvited,” the man says mildly. Sam presses his lips together, face flushing.

“Sorry,” he repeats. “I’ll get going.”

The man doesn’t move, so Sam doesn’t move either. They stare at one another as water drips into Sam’s hair and trickles across his scalp. Then, slowly, the man steps back, his eyes never leaving Sam. Sam mumbles a thanks and ducks past him. He hurries down the damp strips of grass without looking behind him to see if the man is following. He doesn’t break into a run, but it’s a near thing. He moves at a brisk trot out of the garden, through the orchard, down the gravel driveway, and over the gate, which is still closed. He does start jogging once he reaches the road, and he still hasn’t checked behind him.

Sam only slows down once the gate has disappeared from view. He pants, examining his injured finger. It beads up when he loosens the pressure on it, so he buries it in a fist again. He looks around at the quiet rows of geraniums on one side and peonies on the other. It’s rows and rows of perfect blooms, no workers or equipment in sight, stretching as far as Sam can see. Unnatural. That’s the first thought in Sam’s head, and right on its tail is the deepening conviction that he shouldn’t have entered Carterhaugh. His dad would be smacking him for the sheer stupidity.

Sam groans and wipes a hand down his face, but he shoulders his backpack and starts walking again. That’s all he has, is walking.

The man’s property is massive, Sam decides, because the flowers keep coming. They cycle through species after species, some of which Sam knows, some he doesn’t. Eventually, he sees sunflowers on one side of the road again, tulips on the other. He picks up his pace, eager to return to the staid greenery of winter wheat. There aren’t even any silos present.

The sunflowers become lavendar; the tulips become daffodils. Sam breaks into a jog again. His chest is tightening. It releases in the form of a long groan when he sees a low metal gate across a gravel driveway. The sun is fully risen and throws the gate in unmistakable light. It could conceivably be another entrance into the property, but Sam can see the same winding driveway, the same copse of trees, the same outline of the house.

And this time, the man is waiting for him, standing just outside the gate, hands in his pockets. Sam slows until he’s a few feet from the man. His heart is threatening to burst from between his ribs.

The man looks him up and down, expression blank, almost bored. “You took something,” he says.

It hits Sam then, and he squeezes his eyes shut. It’s the first rule in the faerie tales, isn’t it? The first rule for anyone wandering into places like this. The plum pit is suddenly like a lead weight in his pocket. Persephone only ate three pomegranate seeds; Sam wonders what a whole plum costs.

The man is still watching him like he knows exactly what is going through Sam’s head and is merely waiting. Sam thrusts his hand into his pocket and pulls out the pit. He uses the hand with the pricked finger, and a slight smear of blood ends up on the pit. Sam offers it on his open palm.

“I was going to pay for it,” he says. “I forgot. Sorry.” The man’s mouth twitches at the edge in what might be the hint of a smile. “I have some money,” Sam continues. With his other hand, he pats at his pockets until he finds two crumpled bills. He holds them out to the man. The man doesn’t even glance at them.

“I’m sorry,” he says, and he almost sounds genuine. “That’s not worth much here.”

Sam swallows. “Then what is?”

The man tilts his head. “You can stay and work.”

Sam licks his lips and slowly stashes the money. “How long would I have to work?”

“As long as you need to.”

Sam almost snorts. It’s like every faerie story he’s heard of. “What, a year and a day?” he asks. The man tilts his head again. Sam clenches the plum pit hard enough to make its hard edges dig into his palm. “I’m not going to be able to leave until I pay for this, am I?” he says. The man shakes his head. Sam exhales hard. “Then I don’t really have a choice.”

“Humans always have choice,” the man says, and his tone is more animated than Sam has heard it yet. He sways toward Sam. “You possess that much.”

Sam stares at him. He licks his lips and says slowly, “Then, uh, my choice is to work.”

The man nods and turns away, pushing at the metal gate and starting down the gravel driveway. Sam follows, the plum pit still buried in his hand.

The second trip down the driveway feels longer and thicker than the one before. The man keeps a leisurely pace, and Sam takes care not to overtake him. The air stifles against his lungs, but it’s not with heat. They walk through the orchard, through the riotous garden, and Sam’s heart picks up pace when the man clacks open the red brick house’s front door. The wooden door groans open to reveal gray flagstones and a wide entry hall. The moment Sam steps into the house, he feels a rush and a chill settle over him, and it’s as if he’s plunged into a deep, cool lake. A shuffle comes from his right, and suddenly drapes are snapped open to reveal huge windows that let in the morning sunlight. It bathes the white plaster walls and flagstones in pale pink. A central stairway with dark wooden bannisters winds up to a second floor; on either side of the stairway, hallways disappear into dimness.

The man starts to walk down the left-hand hallway, and Sam hurries to follow. Before entering the hallway, the man presses on a small switch, and suddenly the hall is lit up by rows of sconces. Sam pauses by the first one. It’s electric; he can hear the low hum. But the bulb shape and the wires running up to the sconce makes him think the setup is a remnant from several decades past. He leaves it to keep up with the man, who is walking faster now. They pass rooms that resemble dining and sitting rooms before the man pushes open a small, wooden door and they enter a dusty little kitchen. Sam takes in the rough wooden table with four matching chairs, the sink and stove set that must have come from the turn of the century, the wide brick oven, the hooks hanging with utensils and pans, the swinging back door that leads into the garden again. The air is still cool and thick, but it also smells like decades of ground in spices and smoke. Sam looks to the man, who is standing beside a little, black pot-bellied stove and contemplating the flagstones.

“Why am I here?” Sam asks. The man lifts his head.

“You’re covered in road dust,” he says like it’s the plainest thing in the world. “I thought you’d like to wash off.”

Sam blinks at him. Then, slowly, he slips off his backpack and sets it on the floor beside one of the chairs. He moves to the old sink and, with the man watching, squeals open one of the taps. The sink gurgles ominously for a moment, but the water that spurts out is clear of rust or dirt. So Sam gathers water in his cupped palms and ducks his head to splash it over his face. He does this three more times, the final time wetting his hand and running it through his hair. When he straightens, he turns automatically to find the man again; he’s in the same place as before, gaze on the floor again. As if sensing Sam’s attention, he lifts his head. His expression is still as blank as the flagstones.

“Who are you?” Sam asks before he can stop himself.

The man blinks once, slowly. “Castiel,” he says. “My name is Castiel.”

Sam nods, unsure of whether to press for more information. The man had given his name like it explained everything about him.

“Have you ever chopped wood?” the man—Castiel—asks. Sam nods again, remembering November mornings bundled in pullovers and gloves at Bobby’s house. “Come on, then,” the man says, and moves toward the door. Sam follows.

***

The woodpile sits just outside the garden, beneath a single spreading oak, several yards from where the rows and rows of flowerbeds begin. Castiel shows him the axe and the stack of logs and then departs for the house and disappears into the kitchen door. Sam watches the door for several moments before setting down his backpack and picking up the axe.

Sam expects his strength to flag quickly with only a plum and a few sips of water in his system. But the sun inches its way toward noon, and at midday when Sam sets down the axe—a sturdy thing with a handle worn soft as butter—his muscles only have the pleasant, faint ache of work well done. He retreats to the oak’s shade and sips slowly from his water bottle, trying to keep it at least halfway full. He’s hesitant to go back into the kitchen to refill it at the sink; he’s unsure if he can be penalized for eating and drinking more, whether he could be caught in a endless loop of debt. Somewhere in the back of his head, he wonders if when he finally is able to leave, he’ll emerge into a world that has jumped ahead by decades. Dean could be—no. Sam doesn’t let himself dwell on that. He just needs to do the work and get out.

When he’s rested, Sam returns to the woodpile. He lets himself get lost in the receptive swing of the axe, the crack of wood that’s the only real sound able to disturb the heavy, close air. The rows of flowers watch, only stirring in occasional breezes.

When Sam splits the final log in early evening, he stacks it and leans the axe against the pile. He brings his hands over his head, stretching his back with a small groan. He drops his arms and looks around him. He hasn’t seen anyone at all that day except for Castiel. No workers, no tourists, not even the rush of a car along the main road. It’s unnerving, of course it is, and a true sign that he’s in trouble, but it’s also polar opposite to crowded buses and the Impala, and he can appreciate that part, at least.

Sam considers trying to leave again then decides it would be useless. So he picks up his backpack and turns to the house. As he’s passing through the garden, he catches sight of the stone structure visible past several beds. He hesitates before leaving it be and pushing the kitchen door open.

It takes him a moment to adjust to the kitchen’s dimness, and once he does, he registers a single steaming bowl sitting on the low wooden table. He inches forward and realizes that it’s filled with stew, thick with potatoes and carrots and chunks of meat. Sam’s stomach tightens, and he looks around the kitchen as if he’ll find Castiel lurking in a corner. It’s empty, naturally. Sam gives the stew a longing glance then turns away from it, instead moving down the hallway toward the entryway. When he steps into the space, he finds that the drapes have been closed and that the only light comes from more sconces on the second level. Sam climbs the stairs slowly, each step groaning and rippling through the cold, deep air. Sam pads along the landing, along several white doors. The sconces provide buzzing, livid light until, at one worn door, a final bulb hums and past it, the hallway is drenched in shadow. When Sam returns his attention to the door, he realizes it’s slightly ajar.

He pushes it open and finds himself in a simple bedroom with pale blue walls, a dark wooden chest of drawers, a wardrobe made of the same wood, a knitted green rug on a soft hardwood floor, and a long bed with a paisley comforter. Sam hovers at the entryway, and that’s when he feels a draft push ever so slightly at his back. He shuts his eyes briefly before he steps forward and the draft drops away. He doesn’t bother to turn and look behind him. Instead, Sam examines the room and realizes that it reminds him of the bedroom where he and Dean used to sleep in Bobby’s house; it has the same smell of mothballs and old wood.

He’s tired. He has to admit that much. He hasn’t properly slept in 48 hours; his nerves have been strained for most of that time. He probably shouldn’t sleep in a place like this, but he has to sleep at some point; he’s only human.

So, with the feeling that he’s somehow capitulating to something, he sets his backpack on a stout stool perched at the bed’s foot. After a moment of consideration, he moves to a second doorway along the right wall and discovers a tiny bathroom complete with a narrow tub and a cracked yet clean sink and toilet. Sam peels off the clothes he’s been wearing since Dad found his college applications, another lifetime ago, and leaves them in a pile on the bathroom floor. Naked, he steps into the tub and crouches at its bottom as he twists at the knobs. The water that spurts out is freezing, but it feels good against the dried sweat caking Sam’s skin. He gives himself a rudimentary bath, splashing water across himself. When he shifts, he realizes that a cake of soap is sitting on the tub’s rim. He pauses because he could have sworn the rim had been clear a moment ago. He does grab the soap, though, lathering it between his hands. It smells faintly of lavender. When he’s finished and squeals the taps shut, he realizes that a well-worn, blue towel is folded on the sink’s edge and that a bathmat has appeared along the tub. Sam wraps the towel around him, lets his toes sink into the mat, and doesn’t let himself think about it.

In short order, Sam has dressed himself a clean t-shirt and sweatpants, tousled his hair dry, and left the towel draped over the radiator to dry. He peels back the bed’s cover and slips into thin sheets that smell like must and faded detergent, like they’ve only recently been taken out of storage. The mattress sags a little but holds, and when Sam pulls the covers up, they’re a comforting weight over him.

He falls asleep almost immediately.

***

Sam doesn’t dream. One moment he’s buried in soft blackness, the next his eyes are open and he’s half sitting up. The window a few feet from the bed’s headboard lets in a stream of silvery moonlight that smears across the floorboards and the green rug. He shifts his head and realizes that the air has sunk into something even more muted and cold. It’s as if he’s floating in water that is right on the edge of freezing; he can almost feel the gossamer threads of ice. It hurts to breathe; it hurts to move.

The moonlight is rippling across the floor, surging like white fire, and Sam registers that this can’t possibly be moonlight. He tosses the blankets back and clenches his teeth at the cold splashing over his skin. He eases off the mattress and pads to the window. His room overlooks the back of the house. Directly below him is the stone structure choked in roses. The roses are limned in the same churning light; Sam shifts his gaze past the garden, to the rows of lilacs.

There. He makes a small sound in the back of his throat and steps back because there’s something among the lilacs. He squeezes his eyes shut; he’s having trouble explaining to himself what he’s seeing and why it’s making his heart ram against his ribs and his skin burn with the need to run. He tries to inhale, fails, tries again, succeeds. He peels his eyes open and drags them to the thing among the lilacs.

Large. That’s one descriptor. It’s large enough that clouds skim the oblong shape at the top that ought to be a head.

Pale. Pale like faintly luminescent jellyfish somewhere in the trenches of the ocean. Pale like soft fungi in caves. Pale like the first pulses of a head wound. Unblinkingly, chokingly pale.

Bright. Sam can’t quite look at it, can only squint in its direction or gaze toward the road and watch it out of the corner of his eye. Its surface churns and shifts like a luminescent oil sheen on water, and the light it throws off is somehow a precarious mix of sunlight and the sort of harsh, white light that comes from a fluorescent bulb.

Large. Pale. Bright. Anything other than that is hard to describe because Sam thinks he sees a definite humanoid shape one moment only to have it melt into a featureless pillar the next, and he thinks he sees animal heads but he blinks and it becomes strange, twisted angles that he’s not sure make rational sense.

He loses track of how long he stands there, glued to his place by the window, before he realizes that the thing is changing. That it’s moving, slowly but steadily, to the south away from the road, into the never-ending expanse of flowers. Sam clenches his fists and, with a push through the sluggish cold air, moves toward the bedroom door.

He blinks furiously as he clatters down the stairs in his socked feet, one hand skimming the plaster wall. He bursts from the front door and rounds the house. The thing is still there, hovering large, pale, bright like a column. Sam’s feet become damp with dew as he plows through the grass. The thing doesn’t move quickly; he catches up with it soon enough. It’s not far from him then, maybe a quarter mile into the lilac field. Sam pauses at the field’s edge, chest heaving, and watches the thing churn past. He wants to keep going, to continue through the field, but he’s not sure he’d survive the encounter. So he stays rooted in position, eyes glued. That’s how he spots the figure. It’s miniscule, almost swallowed by the heaving light, but it’s definitely there. A smudge of silhouette; a shape that looks human. It strides through the flowers, its pace matched by the column’s movement. Sam keeps his eyes fixed on the tiny silhouette. He watches as long as it takes for the seething column to start to shrink with distance, then eventually be swallowed by the horizon.

***

When the sun rises, Sam is standing at the metal gate, backpack on, hands resting lightly on the bars. The road sits on the other side. Above, the sky is edging toward cerulean with mounds of puffy white clouds forming to the east. Sam inhales and doesn’t move.

“Hello.”

Sam flinches and turns. Castiel is standing a few feet behind, feet shoulder-width apart, hands hanging by his sides. The more Sam sees him, the more he’s certain that Castiel doesn’t know how to hold his own body. He gets a little flip in his stomach when he considers the reasons why Castiel wouldn’t know how to navigate a human body. Sam could ask about the glowing column among the lilacs. He doesn’t.

“If I start walking,” Sam says with far more bravado than he feels, “will I be able to leave?”

Castiel’s eyes flick to the ground for a moment before he brings them up to meet Sam again.

“I don’t know,” he says.

Sam purses his lips then grunts and begins walking toward the house again. His blood is a roar in his ears.

“Let me know what I’m supposed to be doing today,” he calls without looking behind him. A shuffle, and suddenly Castiel is walking alongside him.

“You’re angry,” Castiel observes.

“No shit.”

A long pause.

“My apologies.”

“If you’re so sorry, you could accept what I gave for your fucking fruit and let me go.”

“I’m not the one keeping you here.”

Sam stops, feet grinding in the gravel. He whirls around. “What?”

“It’s…” Castiel falters. His blank face, strangely, is marred by a slight furrowing around the eyes. “This will be easier to explain in the house.”

Sam doesn’t move. The thought of re-entering the cold, heavy air of the house makes his chest tighten. Castiel watches him for a long moment then begins walking down the road. And Sam hates himself for it, but he follows.

***

When he follows Castiel through the back door into the kitchen, there is a yellow ceramic plate sitting on the table atop a thick blue placemat. The plate holds a sandwich and an apple. Other than that, the kitchen has no discernible hint of human activity. The air is still cold. Not icy like last night. But cold.

Castiel and Sam stand side by side, both examining the food.

“It’s trying to make amends,” Castiel finally says.

“Who is? This wasn’t you?”

“No.” Castiel moves toward the table and pulls out a chair. He sits fastidiously, like he doesn’t have much experience with sitting in chairs. He gestures at the chair beside him. “Sit. Eat.”

“I ate a plum and now I can’t leave,” Sam says. “Why would I eat anything else?”

“This has been offered to you,” Castiel says patiently like Sam is a child who needs to understand that yes, the fire really is hot. “There are old rules, you know, about taking things that weren’t offered to you.”

Sam doesn’t move for a long moment. Then, slowly, he inches toward the table. He sits, but gingerly, on the front half of the chair and with his backpack hanging off of one shoulder. Castiel looks hard at it, and Sam lowers the backpack to the floor, within easy grabbing distance. He turns his attention to the food. It looks so utterly normal—rough brown bread with an edging of lettuce, the apple streaked with russet and yellow—that it puts his stomach on edge. His mouth waters traitorously. He glances to Castiel, who is watching with the usual blank expression.

“Who’s making amends?” Sam asks. His tongue sticks when he tries to talk.

“This place.” Castiel gestures. “I think it likes having a soul around.”

“A…” Sam closes his mouth, swallows. “What?”

“This place,” Castiel says slowly, “is designed to respond to a single human soul’s needs and desires. It hasn’t had one in a long time. It probably finds you refreshing.”

“And where is this place?” Sam presses.

Castiel doesn’t answer for several seconds. “It’s in Carterhaugh.”

“I got that part.”

“And Carterhaugh,” Castiel continues, “is an in-between place.” Sam’s stomach clenches. Bobby had been right.

“In between what?” Sam asks.

“For this place, in between Earth and heaven.”

Sam’s mind goes blank for a moment before rearranging into a comprehensive word.

“Heaven?” he blurts. “Like, heaven heaven? Where God and the angels live?”

“Your wording is awkward, but yes.”

Sam swallows, his muscles tightening like he’s getting ready to leap out of his chair and run. The burning white column hovers right at the edge of his awareness.

“What are you?” Sam demands. Castiel’s eyes grow heavier at their edges.

“Angel,” he says. Sam nods, inhaling deeply.

“As in, the angels people pray to?” he asks. “The ‘do not be afraid’ angels?”

“Yes.”

Sam exhales hard and splays his hands across the tabletop, staring hard at his knuckles. When he lifts his head again, Castiel hasn’t so much as shifted his position.

“God is real?” he asks faintly. Castiel’s entire face softens, and Sam realizes he’s witnessing something like a smile.

“Yes,” Castiel says. “Undoubtedly.”

Another several beats of silence pass.

“Have you met God?” Sam asks. Castiel’s expression shutters.

“I take my orders from Him,” he says.

“But you don’t know Him?”

“He made me. I know enough.”

Sam’s instinct tells him not to push this further because Castiel’s posture looks suddenly fragile somehow. He inhales abruptly and wipes a hand down his face.

“Ok. Ok. Um. But this place. I...I still don’t get it. Souls and. In between heaven and Earth.”

Castiel nudges at the plate. “You really should eat.”

“I’m gonna need a good reason why.”

Castiel settles back in his chair. “In heaven,” he says, “each soul is given their own personal paradise. Mostly it’s projections of their best memories, their most loved places and people.” He gestures. “This used to be part of someone’s heaven. A beloved home, surrounded by flowers.”

Sam shifted uneasily. “Used to be,” he says. “What happened?”

Castiel blinks, glances down, looks back up. “The soul left. The heaven dissolved. This shard drifted until it was caught here.”

“Do souls usually leave?”

Castiel doesn’t answer for almost a full minute. “No,” he says at length. “Not usually.” He exhales and looks pointedly at the food. “Heavens are designed to respond to a soul’s needs. You need food, it provides food. It’s trying to be kind.” He makes that soft expression that’s almost a smile again. “It wants you to pay for what you took; it doesn’t want you to starve.”

Sam glances at the plate again and this time is only surprised for a few seconds when he sees that it’s accompanied by a tall glass of water, its top half brimming with ice. His right hand squeezes at his thigh. Slowly, he reaches out and drags the glass closer. He lifts it and takes a sip. The water is clean, almost sweet, and Sam has to work not to groan with relief. He takes a second, longer sip. His eyes fall on the food, but he decides he’s not at that point yet. Water is enough, and he still has beef jerky in his backpack.

Sam carefully sets the glass back on the table and, with his eyes still on the glass, says, “You really are an angel.” It’s not a question, and Castiel doesn’t answer. Sam inhales abruptly and lifts his eyes. “I pray,” he says like he’s confessing something, and in a way he is. “My dad and brother aren’t really big on that. But I like to pray. It helps.”

“Yes,” Castiel says, his eyes soft and his tone unreadable.

“So I…” Sam struggles with what he’s trying to say, what he’s even feeling. “This is important. Knowing it’s real. That someone’s actually listening.” Castiel nods, but his eyes are rapidly growing distant. Sam wants to grab at him before he disappears. “Are you listening?” Sam presses, suddenly desperate, suddenly the eleven-year-old who held onto every scrap of belief in Santa Claus.

Castiel tilts his head. He exhales. “Yes, Sam,” he says. “Someone is listening.” Sam starts; he had never told his name. He stares at Castiel, and Castiel gazes back with an even expression. At length, he nods at the sandwich. “Will you eat?” he asks.

“Maybe later,” Sam says.

Castiel nods again. “Do you like weeding?”

“Enough.”

***

Sam weeds on the second day. He works in the garden, crawling among beds to tug green shoots from the dark soil. For a while, his thought is that a garden in heaven shouldn’t produce any weeds. After a few hours moving beneath the soft shadow of magnolia bushes and sprawling dogwoods, he wonders if the place is specifically producing the weeds for him. The thought almost humors him; he imagines soft green sprouts emerging from the soil seconds before he arrives.

Sometimes, when he leans back on his heels to wipe away sweat, he finds a soft cotton rag folded neatly on a nearby bench. Several times, glasses of water and plates with sandwiches appear next to the rags. Sam always accepts the water but leaves the food. By afternoon, only the water appears. Sam notices that the ice grows small and half melted. He is struck with the strange idea that the place is scolding him. He’s not sure what to make of that.

Castiel becomes scarce after making sure Sam knows what he’s doing. Once, in the late morning, Sam spots Castiel striding down the driveway toward the road. Sam pauses, wiping a thin sheen of sweat from his brow, to watch him until he disappears from view.

When dusk settles in like smoke, Sam levers himself to his feet and stretches his arms over his head to relieve sore muscles. A breeze lifts his hair in lazy waves and makes the garden beds shush. Sam collects his backpack and makes his way in the direction where he thinks the kitchen door is. The garden beds are high and thick with flowers and grasses, and Sam has to use the looming red brick house as a compass. He’s skirting between a plot bursting with lavender and a plot drenched in ivy when he realizes he’s a few feet away from the stone structure swathed in roses. Sam pauses, eying the structure’s dim innards. Sam’s right foot shifts, and then he’s walking in the direction of the structure.

It’s just the same as the last time: lichen-covered stones, a ceiling of ivy and moss, rose stems braiding over the walls. Sam hovers at the space’s edge, watching the water drip past his face in steady increments. He wonders how it can stay so damp in here, but he suspects the answer wouldn’t be nearly straightforward enough to be comforting. He moves toward the center of the space in even paces, blinking when the water splashes into his hair and trickles toward his eyes. He pauses just in front of the statue at the center. He glances behind him half expecting to see Castiel there, but the entryway is empty. So Sam turns around again and reaches out to lift away rose stems.

The statue’s features are weathered almost into obscurity; any possible hard edges have been smoothed into roundness. But the body and the face are still discernable. They’re not human. They can’t be. There’s two legs and two arms, to be fair, and an almost-human face looming over Sam. But there’s also three other heads ringing the human head, and they look like a lion, an eagle, an ox. The human’s face has something, maybe a cloth, covering the place where its eyes ought to be, and its mouth is cracked open like it’s singing or it’s screaming. One hand is raised as if in benediction or cursing; Sam can’t tell at all. Behind the heads is a shape like a sun, with points splaying in all directions. Like a halo.

Sam’s hand holding aside the rose stems is shaking slightly. He reaches out with his other hand and lets the pads of his fingers rest against the weathered robes the figure wears. He keeps his fingers rested there one second, two seconds, then he inhales hard and jerks both hands back. The rose stems fall back into place with barely a rustle. Sam examines his fingers, looks at the obscured statue again. It had been warm, the same temperature as skin. It had been pulsing.

Sam leaves. He almost runs from the structure and darts down grassy paths until he spots the kitchen door again. He slams through, ignores the plate of mashed potatoes and pot roast, and hurries up to his room again. He slams the door shut and braces himself against it. His knees are shaking.

The clothes he discarded on the bathroom door last night are folded up neatly and waiting on his bed. He stares at them while he tries to steady his breathing. It’s hard with the cold, heavy air, but he does his best.

He doesn’t bother washing, doesn’t bother changing out of his clothes. He toes off his boots and curls up on top of the bed covers and he tells himself he’s not going to let himself fall asleep, until he does.

***

He wakes up abruptly, like the night before, and the floor is washed in the same flickering white fire. Tendrils of ice are in the air again. Sam shivers and curls up tighter on himself. He can’t see out the window from this angle, but he can imagine the livid white column nevertheless. He tells himself he’s not going to let himself fall asleep again, until he does.

***

The second time waking up, Sam thinks it’s still night for the several seconds it takes for him to register the rain. It patters against the roof and window; it’s gentle, thoughtful rain, the kind accompanied by distant growls of thunder that are too muffled to be alarming. Sam remains where he is, knees partway to his chest, and listens. The rain is the only thing cutting through the heavy air. He can smell the damp and slightly fragrant mold. He closes his eyes, his lashes rasping against the bed sheet; he inhales hard, exhales in stutters.

He eases himself up slowly. The bed whines beneath him. Sometime in the middle of the night, he kicked his clean, folded clothes to the floor. He considers them before standing and carefully changing out of his sweat-stiffened clothes from yesterday and into the fresh ones. The smell of cheap detergent drifts up to his nose. He glances around at the walls, clears his throat, and says in a thin voice, “Um. Thanks.”

Nothing happens. Of course it doesn’t. Sam clears his throat again, feeling stupid, and goes to his backpack to collect a stick of jerky for breakfast. He realizes with a sinking feeling that he’s on his last stick, and that marks the end of his food supply. Sam eats half of the stick and, ignoring the tight pinch in his middle, wraps it up and places it in his pocket for dinner.

He goes into the bathroom to splash water on his face and run a toothbrush over his teeth before, reluctantly, he pushes open the bedroom door and peers into the second landing. The electric lights are all on, humming and buzzing. He can see down into the main entry hall, can see the drapes pulled open and the gray rain spattering against the glass. It takes him another moment to pull the door shut behind him and pad along the landing and down the stairs. The rain and the lights provide a constant coursing white noise that drowns out the small sounds of his movements. When he reaches the bottom of the stairs, he turns left and takes the hallway leading to the kitchen.

When he pushes into the kitchen, he’s startled to find it downright warm. There’s a real, honest fire with a heap of logs and rain hissing as it falls down the chimney and hits the flames. On the table sit a small white dish with a single slice of buttered toast and a blue speckled mug. Sam approaches the table and peers into the mug. Coffee. Freshly roasted, by the smell. He bites at his bottom lip then picks up the mug. He presses the rim to his lips and inhales. When he sips, the temperature is just this side of hot. He ignores the toast and shuffles to a low stool perched in front of the fire like someone has just left and is coming back soon. Sam settles himself onto the stool, coffee in both hands, and takes a second sip while he watches the fire pop and hiss. He hears the barest hint of a clatter behind him, and he turns with his heart in his mouth. The plate and toast are gone; in their place is a full coffee pot. Sam has no idea how a coffee pot can look mulish, but this one does. He almost smiles.

“Sorry,” he says, ignoring for the moment how stupid he is to talk to…whatever this thing is. “The coffee’s good.” The coffee pot has no response, so Sam turns back around and sighs, settling the speckled mug into his lap. He lets himself drink the coffee at a leisurely pace, losing himself in watching the fire and listening to the rain beat against the house. He even pours himself a second mug as a sort of olive branch.

He finishes the second mug by the back door. It’s a double door, one plastic and glass, and one screen. He has the solid door propped open and watches the garden through the mesh. The rain churns the beds into muddy soups, and flower heads bow under the weight of extra water. From this angle, he can just see the top of the stone structure; the roses are blurs of red and pink. He ignores the twist in his gut and takes another sip from his mug.

He suspects he must spend an hour in the kitchen with his coffee, and by the end of it, Castiel has yet to appear. Sam wonders if this means he can leave, and he imagines himself grabbing his things and walking away, rain or no rain. And then what? He might loop back to the gate, and he doesn’t know if he can handle that happening to him again. He doesn’t want to remind himself that he’s being held hostage here. He’ll leave when he’s sure he can make it out.

So he rinses out his mug in the sink and sets it in the old wire dish rack. He glances around the kitchen one last time before he heads for the door that leads to the hallway. He wonders if he’s imagining the air thickening and cooling in front of his face as he pushes the door open and peers out at the buzzing electric lights, the gray flagstones. He moves forward, his boots grinding against the stone. He pauses at the first entryway on his right; it leads into a shadowy space only identifiable as a sitting room by the outline of furniture. He leans into the room, one hand brushing against the wall to try and find a switch. He’s not sure if he actually finds it, but suddenly a pale light floods the room. Sam squints up at a simple chandelier hanging over an arrangement of tables and chairs. The walls, covered in dull flowered wallpaper, are lined in bookshelves, and across the hardwood floor is a vast rug that looks threadbare with use. Sam walks in; the hardwood groans under his feet. He moves to the bookshelves almost on instinct, letting his eyes slide over the spines. Most of the books have frayed edges and are missing their dust jackets; it’s a lot of poetry and old classics and memoirs, not organized in any specific manner. There’s a distinct lack of dust that, if nothing else, reminds Sam this place isn’t normal. He drifts away from the shelves, skirting a wide, low couch and passing an empty fireplace to approach a tall window with charcoal-gray curtains. He twitches the curtains aside and finds himself confronted with a bobbing crowd of dripping foxgloves. He can see the driveway from this window; it’s blurred and soggy under the rain. He lets the curtain fall.

Sam turns from the window and spots the door nestled into the far wall. He strides across the room to open it and finds himself in an office. As soon as he steps through, the lamps scattered around the room light up. Sam hesitates, but moves further into the room. There are bookshelves here too, along with a cluttered desk. Sam approaches the desk and peers at the shelves stuffed with papers and envelopes. A pile of newspapers, yellowed and wrinkling, leans against the desk’s right, and on the left is stacks of National Geographic. The topmost issue is from July 1945. Sam hums and looks around, realizing that a second entryway leads into the hallway again. He has little desire to go there at the moment, though. The office and its books and its wooden floor feel slightly less foreboding, the air a little warmer and lighter. So Sam moves to the nearest bookshelf and scans what’s available. He pauses when he glimpses a spine with “Celtic Faerie Tales” embossed on the cover. He snorts, bowing his head briefly as if in capitulation before he reaches out and tugs the book free from the shelf. It’s comfortably heavy in his hand, the rough cover a dark green. He carries the book into the sitting room and only starts a little at the realization that a fire has been started in the fireplace. He opens the window’s curtains properly then settles into the couch closest to the fire—an old, squishy leather thing—and flips the book open. He opens on a page with “Fair, Brown, and Trembling” printed on the top. He looks down to the story’s first line: “King Hugh Curucha lived in Tir Conal, and he had three daughters, whose names were Fair, Brown, and Trembling.” He leans back in the couch and begins to read.

He moves through four stories, which takes up most of the morning, and then his stomach grumbling at him makes it hard to concentrate. He sets the book on a small side table and stands, rolling kinks from his shoulders before making his way into the hallway and up the stairs so he can use the bathroom in his room.

When he’s finished with his business, Sam passes the window and then has to stop because there’s two bright yellow smudges in the distance. Sam rushes to the window and cups his hands over his eyes so he can confirm that yes, the yellow smudges are at the end of the driveway, in the main road, and that they’re coming from a large, blurry shape that must be a car. Sam stands frozen with indecision for a few seconds then turns and grabs his backpack where it’s leaning against the wall. He clatters from his room and down the stairs, barely pausing so he can push open the front doors and rush down the stone path that winds through the garden. The car hasn’t moved; he can just make out its outline through the rain. His hair and clothes rapidly start to sag with water, but he doesn’t care, because this might be a way out. He has to hope.

Halfway down the drive, he realizes there’s someone in a long, dark coat standing alongside the car, a matching black umbrella over their head. When Sam reaches the gate, the umbrella tilts and the man named McCloud peers out at him with a round smile. Sam skids to a halt, his hands clapping against the metal gate. Across the bars, McCloud continues to grin.

“Hello,” McCloud says as if this is a perfectly normal meeting. Silence follows. The car rumbles to itself, its yellow lights picking out the raindrops. Sam grips the gate’s metal bars. “You see,” McCloud continues. “I believe you should have followed my advice.”

The cold feeling in the base of Sam’s gut crawls up through his lungs and clings to his throat. His grip on the gate’s metal bars is painful; his fingers ache with cold and strain. McCloud keeps the same round, pasty smile.

“Wh—“ Sam falters. His clothes are becoming heavy; his hair is pasted to his skull. He shuts his eyes briefly and wipes a hand over the lower half of his face.

McCloud tilts his head. “See, I knew this place was floating out here,” he says mildly. “Though I didn’t know you’d be stupid enough to get entangled in it.” He shrugs. “But I should know better than to expect too much of humans.”

Sam’s gut twinges. “You’re a uh…an angel too?”

McCloud throws back his head and guffaws. It’s not a friendly sound. “On my bitch mother’s grave, not at all,” he says. Sam gives a tiny nod. He feels like there’s a very clear alternative for what the man under the umbrella could be, but he’s wary to say it aloud. McCloud examines him like he knows what Sam is thinking and enjoys it.

“Okay,” Sam says, pushing as much bravado into his voice as he can. “So what’re you doing here?”

“I’m here to see if the rumor was true.”

“What rumor?”

“You.” McCloud’s grin expands into a toothy smile. “You’re something very valuable locked in with a very dangerous creature, Sam. Many of us are intensely curious about what happens next.”

A blinding white column. A statue with four heads and a hot, pulsing surface. Sam blinks hard and inhales. “What’re you—“

“Crowley.”

Sam turns, his boots crunching in the muddy gravel. Castiel stands a few paces behind him, back ramrod straight, fists clenched at his side. It’s the first time Sam can say he’s looked mad. Castiel’s blue eyes flick over Sam, and Sam swears he can see them grow dark.

“Did he touch you?” Castiel asks. Sam takes a moment to register that Castiel is talking to him.

“No,” he says dumbly. Castiel flicks his eyes to McCloud.

“You’re feeling bold,” Castiel says. His voice is cold, cold enough to make Sam’s muscles tense. McCloud’s smile turns magnanimous.

“Curiosity killed the cat, I suppose,” he says. “Though satisfaction brings it back.”

“And are you satisfied?” Castiel asks, his voice like a slab of ice. “Then go. If I see you around here again, I’ll turn you into a pile of ash.”

“Promises, promises,” McCloud says. He tilts his head toward Sam, eyes still on Castiel. “I trust you realize what could happen if you—“

“Go,” Castiel says. Something in the timbre of his voice shifts. He sounds like he’s speaking from down a long tunnel, like there’s something huge and rushing behind him. It’s enough to make McCloud pause, chin lifted. He shrugs after a moment, though it doesn’t look as loose and indolent as he probably intends it to look. He shifts his attention to Sam one more time.

“Best of luck,” he says without sounding at all sincere. He turns to the car and clacks it open, closing the umbrella before slipping inside. The car’s engine shifts pitch before it lurches down the road, its headlights bouncing slightly. Neither Sam nor Castiel move until the car’s red rear-end lights are swallowed up by the rain. A growl of thunder echoes over the fields of flowers. Sam’s hands are still curled around the metal bars.

“Sam.”

Sam flinches despite himself. He turns enough to see Castiel watching him like he’s not sure what Sam is going to do next. “You’re soaked,” Castiel finally says. Sam shrugs. When he finally pries his fingers from the bar, he realizes how cold and stiff they’ve become. He opens and closes his fingers a few times to loosen the joints and looks over at Castiel. He realizes that the rain somehow isn’t reaching him; his clothes are completely dry. Sam shouldn’t be surprised by this.

“What is he?” he asks.

“Demon.”

Sam’s heart sinks. “I was in a car with him, before I came here.” Sam peers closely at Castiel. “He didn’t do anything to me.”

Castiel sighs and rolls his shoulders once. “Crowley doesn’t do things unless he has a reason for it. I suppose, if nothing else, it’s preferable to the ones who like to sow chaos for its own sake.” Castiel eyes him. “You really are soaked,” he says. Sam lifts one shoulder in a resigned sort of shrug. “Would you like to go inside?” Castiel pushes.

Sam shifts his backpack higher on his shoulders. “Will you tell me what he was talking about?”

Castiel’s entire frame stiffens. “I can’t.”

“Okay.” Sam wipes soaked strands of hair from his eyes. Then, without another word, he sets off down the driveway, past an unmoving Castiel. Sam has no idea where he’s going; he just knows he can’t stay here anymore. He doesn’t sense Castiel following him; he doesn’t let himself look back.

It’s when he aimlessly rounds the house that Sam spots his saving grace in the form of a low, wooden shed with a tin roof. Sam hurries through the muddy grass, shoes squelching. He pushes at the faded wooden door with its ancient remnants of paint and finds himself in a dim, dusty space reeking of mold. The sound of rain on the tin roof is deafening. Around the shed are sundry gardening tools: shovels, hoes, flower pots, bags of mulch and potting soil, pruning shears, rakes. Sam squelches across the shed to an overturned paint bucket and sits heavily. He’s soaked to his skin and he wishes he could peel off his clothes. Instead he sits on his paint bucket, hunched over and feeling monumentally sorry for himself. He’d find it funny if the situation didn’t feel so dire. He abruptly wishes Dean were here, then immediately after wants to scold himself for wishing his brother into this situation. Doesn’t stop him from wanting, though.

So he sits, head in his hands, and breathes his way through the next ten minutes, then the next half hour, then the next hour. And he stays like that until, with a small hitch in his stomach, he realizes that the rain has faded away. He lifts his head and blinks at the rush of blood. The roof is silent; the only sound is wind. Sam stands, damp clothes chafing against his skin, and goes to the shed’s door to push it open. The light outside is a dim, grayish yellow from a sun still shrouded in thin clouds. The entire world shimmers in raindrops caught in grass and leaves. It’s gorgeous. Sam glances at the house and realizes that several windows are lit up yellow. He sighs, ducks back into the shed to fetch his backpack, then starts trudging toward the house. He enters through the front door, half expecting to see Castiel waiting for him. He isn’t, and Sam fights back a strange mix of disappointment and relief as he makes his way up the stairs to his bedroom.

For the next half hour, he takes his time setting the contents of his backpack out to dry and taking a hot bath. The towel he finds waiting on the sink is newer and fluffier than the last one, and Sam wonders if someone is trying to apologize.

When he’s dressed in his driest clothes, Sam fishes around for the last half of beef jerky and eats it in two bites. It does very little for the tightness around his middle. And then he does what he’s always done on nights that the food is scarce: he crawls into bed, curls up, and tries to fall asleep. In the past, he’s also tried praying to keep his mind occupied. Tonight, he can’t quite find the words.

***

Once again, Sam doesn’t even register waking up. He sifts into the awareness that the air is frozen again, the white fire is smeared across the floor again. This time, Sam throws back the covers with a pulse of something like annoyance. He deliberately jams his feet into his shoes, grabs his jacket from the end of the bed, and makes his way to the front door.

The column is like a skyscraper; the same unreal angles and shapes shift in and out of perception; Sam makes sure to keep his legs moving. He reaches the edge of the lilac field and doesn’t stop. The sickly sweet scent crashes into him in waves, and lilac flowers scatter in front of him. The column pulses, its incandescent oily sheen impossible to look at. Sam’s pupils already ache, and peering through barely squinted eyes doesn’t seem to do much.

The closer he gets to the column, the heavier his feet become. He feels as if he’s trudging through chilled molasses; everything slows and pitches forward, and the light is so big and painful that it’s threatening to burn through his eyes right into his brain. But still, he can make out the small, dark silhouette at the column’s base; he can see the outline of a large coat.

Sam shouts Castiel’s name. Or, he thinks he shouts. He can’t actually hear himself over the light and the cold molasses. But it must do something because the silhouette slows, then pauses, then it seems to actually turn in his direction, and the shrieking bright column echoes its movements like a great, floating ribbon.

“Hey,” Sam says, again without hearing himself at all and without feeling his lips move because everything has become numb with cold and light. He’s not honestly sure whether he’s still moving, whether he’s upright, whether he has a body; everything has stopped existing except for the pale, painful light and the feeling of falling into something very deep and very slow.