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So Says The Sword

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And as you go, preach, saying ‘The kingdom of Heaven is at hand’.

***


"So," says the Michael Sword, "you the one here to babysit me?"

He's slouched in a brown leather chair, one knee haphazardly crooked over the arm of it. He has a glass of something strong and dark nursed in one hand, and he looks at Castiel with a judgement born of boredom.

Castiel says, "I'm not a babysitter."

The Sword snorts, rolls his eyes. "Right." He lifts the glass to his mouth and drinks, draining it in one noisy gulp. He exhales, sharp, through his teeth. He stares at the wall.

Five feet and nine inches from him, Castiel stands rigid and tall, his borrowed knees locked at attention. Around them, the Beautiful Room thrums faintly, just beyond the edges of human perception; to Castiel, it is crawling, wards and sigils breathing their careful protection. This is the safest place for the Sword to be, and all they have to do now is wait. For Castiel, it is an honour and a privilege to stand guard over the most powerful weapon in creation.

So far, the weapon in question has been quiet, subdued. He has drunk his way through three-quarters of a bottle of cheap, store-brand whiskey, and he has, until this point, said nothing.

Castiel stands motionless, ready, as the Sword retrieves the bottle from the foot of his armchair and pours himself another glass. He doesn't look at him; Castiel isn't here to talk to the Sword, or to look after him. He is just here to stand guard.

The instructions were simple: Stand guard over the Michael Sword until the battle is ready to commence. Await further instructions. Do not engage the Michael Sword in personal discussion. Do not touch the Michael Sword. Do not fail. Castiel doesn't mind the security duty; he has been in the vanguard of past celestial conflicts, and while that is doubtlessly where his strengths lie, he has seen enough violence in the past millennia that this is a welcome break.

The Sword clears his throat loudly. "You got any more of this shit?" he asks, lifting the now-empty bottle.

Castiel regards him evenly. "No."

"Thought this was supposed to be the magical room where I get whatever the hell I want. Thought you could click your fingers and just—poof." The Sword snaps his fingers to illustrate. He does it three times. The sound of it is grating.

"You don't need more," Castiel says.

"Thanks, mom. I'll be the judge of that."

"Do you intend to fight the Devil drunk?"

The Sword barks a bitter laugh, and then the Sword—this holy, chosen, Righteous Man—tells Castiel to go fuck himself. Castiel stares back, unfazed. The Sword's green eyes are bloodshot, heavy. He has dark bruises under his eyes, brought into starker contrast by the pallor of his skin. The ragged scars along his hairline and the edge of his jaw stand out pinkly. He is angry, like a wasp in a jar, and Castiel has no interest in that.

The Sword will soon tire, beating against the walls of this space, and he will be compliant. That is all that matters.


***

For the first few weeks, they barely speak. Time moves uneasily, here—haltingly linear, prone to passing too fast or stopping altogether if Castiel does not monitor it closely. On the third day, the Sword snaps at Castiel for a little more privacy, instigating the construction of an extra wing in the Beautiful Room, a door with a lock which is more for the illusion of privacy than anything that can actually keep Castiel out. In the second week, the Sword asks how many hours it’s been; the windows outside the locked room, through which the Sword is prone to sometimes staring, show November frosts and December snows, and the Sword scratches the tenth day into the wooden siding.

Outside the walls of the Beautiful Room, war rages on, and the Sword remains untouched by it.

He has been, for the most part, silent. Quietly sullen, glaring, argumentative when spoken to, and otherwise keeping to himself.

He retreats at semi-regular intervals to the extra room, and his sleep habits are the closest thing Castiel has to any measurement of the passage of time. Then again, Castiel supposes even this is not typical, as the duration of the Sword’s sleep seems to vary wildly, as well as the lapses between. He never looks rested, and Castiel does not pry, but he can sense the Sword on the other side of the door, and sometimes he is certain that the Sword is just sitting in there, in darkness, in silence. 

In the days that follow, the Michael Sword is silent, unwelcoming. He avoids looking at Castiel. He picks with his fingertips at the loose threads that snaggle from his armchair and he uses a fork to carve out dirt packed into the treads of his boots and he stares morosely out of the window at the flicker-fast changing of seasons—hailstorms into summer into snow.

It is the thirteenth day when, out of nowhere, the Sword says, "Last time, it looked like some fancy hotel lobby."

Castiel gives the room a cursory glance. Up until this moment, he had not considered his surroundings; he was only perfunctorily aware of existing at all, in the sense that he has that breathless, tight sense that accompanies inhabiting a human body. He sees now where he is—a large room, as though in some kind of hunting cabin, furnished in dark wood and heavy fabric. Through the broad sash windows, snow is melting.

Across the space, the Sword leans against a door-jamb. His arms are folded across his chest and he is frowning, but not at Castiel. The Sword rarely looks at him, but his aversion is something Castiel spares little thought or feeling for.

"I can change it, if it would make you more comfortable,” Castiel offers.

The Sword eyes him without turning his head. Surprisingly, he doesn’t start up a discussion about the way the Beautiful Room works, about the fact that it’s no more than a construct designed to imprison him and keep him sedate. He just says, “To what?”

"To whatever you prefer."

For a long moment, the Sword is quiet, staring down at his boots. Eventually, he says, in a wry voice, "How 'bout outside?"

"I can do that. Outside where?"

"Forget it." The Sword pushes himself off the wall with the heel of one boot, and he walks away. He walks into the other room, shuts the door, locks it behind him. Castiel can sense him through the wall—the way he tilts back to lean against the door, silent and still. He stays there for several minutes, motionless. He makes no sound.

He stays in that room for three days. He doesn’t come out for anything, and while Castiel knows that in this place, the Sword technically has no need of sustenance, it is nonetheless concerning. Through the wall, Castiel can hear the Sword’s pulse, steady and sure; he can hear him breathing.

As long as the Sword is here, and as long as he is compliant and unharmed, the mission is going according to plan. There is no part of this where the Sword’s personal happiness needs to be taken into consideration.



***

There is no word from Castiel’s garrison, but he is patient. He knows that someone will come soon to report on the war beyond these walls. All he has to do is wait, and ensure that the Michael Sword is safe. It doesn’t matter what the rest of his garrison is doing, or whether they need him in the coming battle—Balthazar has replaced him as the captain of his flight, and will serve Heaven well. Furthermore, Anna has promised that she will come to see him soon about his next orders. Castiel can be patient.

The Sword, it seems, cannot.

He throws darts—at the dartboard, first, with which he demonstrates an impressive skill, and then later at anything else in the room. He sinks darts into the wall, into the windowsill, into the spines of books. He draws an X on a slip of paper, leaves it on the rickety side-table by the door, and attempts to land a dart perfectly dead-centre from the far side of the room.

Just once, he holds a dart between two fingers, lines up his aim with Castiel, and moves his hand as though to throw, but doesn’t.

Just once. Only once.

He defaces books, scribbling in dark pen over the margins and over the words. He tears out pages. He stokes the fire high and burns them, and sometimes, then, he looks at Castiel, as though in challenge. Testing how destructive he can become before Castiel intervenes. He grows bored of this soon, however, as he seems to realise that Castiel doesn’t care. He reminds the Sword, once, that the Beautiful Room isn’t real. The Sword could burn the place down and inflict no real damage.

He masturbates, often. He disappears into the locked room, and Castiel ignores him. He can sense wherever the Sword is in the Beautiful Room at all times—even flat on his back and gasping behind a closed door—but at least the Sword is quiet. Human sexuality is even less interesting than the Sword’s destructive tendencies.

It seems the Sword’s boredom reaches breaking point, one day, when he exhales, slow and defeated, from his usual slumped position in the decrepit armchair, and says, “So who’d you piss off?”

Castiel looks at the Sword. "I don't follow."

The Sword waves a hand vaguely between them. "You ended up on shit duty somehow."

"It's an honour and a privilege to be the custodian of the Michael Sword," Castiel recites.

"That was neat," the Sword says, with a roll of his eyes. "I actually saw your wind-up string go, then."

Castiel frowns.

“You’re telling me this is what you wanted?” the Sword asks, sceptical. “Standing here—almost in the same spot, day in, day out—watching over my ass to make sure I don’t get into trouble.”

“I’m a good soldier. I do as I’m told.”

“Yeah. Me, too.”

Castiel wants to respond, but he isn’t sure how. He is struck by that—the uncertainty. It’s not a sensation to which he is particularly accustomed, and he doesn’t like it.

The Sword sighs, rubs the heel of his hands into his eyes. "Christ. So how long do we gotta stay here?"

"Until Michael is ready."

"Okay,” the Sword says, dragging the word out long and slow. “And when's that gonna be?"

"Only time will tell."

The Sword drops his head back down with a noise in the back of his throat, a noise somewhere between disgust and defeat. "Longest fucking suicide mission I ever been on."

Castiel looks at him. "This isn't a suicide mission. We're going to win."

"Speak for yourself." The Sword's eyes are closed, his expression oddly tranquil for a man declaring his own impending death. "I'm gonna get used up and fall apart like a cheap diner napkin."

"The glory of our victory will far exceed the—"

The Sword waves a dismissive hand in Castiel’s direction without looking at him. "Stow it, Squealer. I'm not interested. I just wanna get this over with."

Castiel studies the Sword’s silent profile, attempting to make some connection between the stories he was told and the resigned husk of a man before him. Castiel was warned, before he took this post, to expect some resistance.

Dean Winchester, although human, is not to be underestimated, Anna had said, after her time as the Sword’s guardian. He is capable of doing a great deal of damage when he puts his mind to it, and it is unlikely that he will submit to his duty without a fight. In this weeks afterwards, Castiel had heard little else but how obstinate and uncooperative the Winchesters could be. Now, he sees the Michael Sword in the flesh, and his orders seem gratuitous, to say the least.

If it comes to it, you have permission to harm him in order to gain his compliance, Zachariah had explained. Only ensure that his soul is untarnished.

Castiel has never questioned an order from his superiors. If Zachariah believes that this vessel is the sacred weapon of Heaven, then of course, it must be so. Castiel merely thinks, privately, that he would have expected something different. Someone pious, perhaps. Someone with a ferocity and a sense of righteousness to rival Michael’s own. Someone worth saving.


***


The ceiling shudders, and the electric bulb swings, flickers, and Castiel lifts his head. There is no disturbance in the warding, but he can feel beneath his borrowed skin that something is coming. He turns from the ice-frosted window to face the room, and he watches as the Michael Sword, slumped in the armchair, opens groggy eyes. There are two empty bottles at the foot of the chair, kicked over to spill a small, sticky puddle on the floorboards. The Sword’s loosened bootlaces trail through the stain.

“Get up,” Castiel says.

The Sword levels Castiel a flat look of disinterest. “Make me.”

Something prickles beneath Castiel’s skin—annoyance, he catalogues distractedly. A human emotion: a regrettable side-effect of being confined with one for a long time. However, there is no time to respond, because the bulb flickers again overhead, and then, with an icy rush of wind that disturbs the papers spread on the rickety table, there is Zachariah, straightening the lapels of his suit jacket. He smooths a hand over the bald crown of his head, and he turns.

"Zachariah." Castiel inclines his head, respectful. He fixes his eyes on a spot past him, perfectly still.

"How are we holding up in here?" Zachariah grins, white and wolfish. He steps past Castiel towards the Sword, in the armchair, still sprawled and ungainly and irreverent. "Nice and cosy? Excited for the big prize-fight?"

"I want this over," says the Sword. His words are muddy, consonants sliding and slipping into each other. "You said this would be quick."

"I said a lot of things."

Castiel's eyes flick over to Zachariah, wary.

"Be patient," Zachariah says softly, sweetly. He stoops, hands braced on his knees. “All in good time.”

The Sword eyes Zachariah with distaste, evidently made uncomfortable by the proximity, and then Zachariah reaches out for him. He envelopes the Sword's jaw with one hand, tilts his face carefully left and right as though examining his teeth. "You're looking well, at least. How are you feeling? Strong? Resilient?”

The Sword avoids Zachariah’s eyes; he squirms a little in his grip, trying to get away. “I guess.”

Zachariah’s smile thins. “Drunk,” he says.

This time, when the Sword jerks away, Zachariah lets him.

The Sword staggers up out of the chair, tripping over his feet, and he scrubs the back of his wrist over his face as though Zachariah’s touch has left something on his skin. “So?” he bites out, and he stoops, snatches one of the bottles from the floor. There is too much swilling at the bottom to drain in one mouthful, but the Sword makes a valiant effort of it.

“You won’t be able to fight the Devil in this state.”

“I’m not going to fight the goddamn Devil,” the Sword snaps. “Michael’s gonna do it.” He waves the bottle in the air, his movements loose and uncontrolled. “Shit, I’m sure he can figure out the controls even if I’ve had a couple drinks.”

“Remind me, Dean,” Zachariah says, stepping up close, “what you were doing before we scraped you out of the gutter?”

The Sword’s mouth presses into a thin line.

“As I recall, you were doing nothing. Wasting your life. Moping after your brot—”

“You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about,” the Sword says, low and seething.

“You were worthless, Dean Winchester. You have a purpose now, an important job—something only you can do. Do you really want to squander the opportunity to do something meaningful with what life you have left in you?”

“I’m not squandering shit. I’m enjoying the time I got left on Earth and if you don’t like it, then why don’t you go find another fucking Sword of whatever?” The Sword points at him. “You need me more than I need you, buddy.”

“That’s what I like to see. A little self-confidence.” Zachariah’s head tilts. “Did you get that from the bottle? Is that what you need it for?” His smile is all teeth. “Do you like yourself without it?”

The Sword hurls the bottle at his head.

He has been, until this point, somewhat belligerent in conversation, but quiet. This volatility is new and unexpected—it is the first time he has managed to surprise Castiel.

Castiel watches the bottle smash against the wall past Zachariah’s head. It leaves a stinking trail of whiskey, over the floorboards and the rug, staining the wall. The wallpaper, now sodden, curls and crumples; where it begins to peel from the wall, it leaves behind a sliver of Enochian warding etched in blood.

“You might wanna get that,” the Sword says flatly. “Someone might break in here and steal something worthless.”

He walks away. The door into the other room slams behind him hard enough that the wall rattles, and a picture frame drops from the wall to land face-down, glass cracking.

Zachariah seems pleased. “He’s got a little fighting spirit in him, now, don’t you think?”

“You push him too far,” Castiel says. “You’re hard on him.”

Zachariah looks at him, surprise in his expression as though he had forgotten Castiel was there, otherwise content to merely monologuing. “Castiel,” he says. “How goes the security detail?”

Castiel’s eyes flick towards the hallway down which the Sword has disappeared, the locked door. He wonders if the Sword is listening, now. “Fine,” he says.

“Fine,” Zachariah echoes, thoughtful. “That’s good. See that he stays dry, will you? I’d hate for it to all come back to your custodianship if he ends up in no fit state for possession.”

Castiel wants to say, this burden weighs heavily on him, but he doesn’t know what purpose that comment would serve. The Apocalypse weighs heavily on all of them. He says, “It keeps him occupied.”

Zachariah snorts a laugh. “What do I give a hoot about whether he’s occupied?” he says, incredulous. “He’s a weapon, Castiel. Not a toddler. If he won’t stay quiet, just make him quiet.”

Castiel nods.

Zachariah straightens his lapels. “That’ll be all for now, Castiel. I’ll be in touch soon—Grace go with you.”

Castiel says quickly, “Zachariah—”

Zachariah half-turns, eyebrows raised.

“Is there any news as to how long it may be?” Castiel asks.

Zachariah’s gaze wanders over the stream of whiskey, the spreading brown stain on the ugly wallpaper. He stoops to pick up a shard of glass, turns it over between finger and thumb. “You don’t get any of the reports, here?”

“No.”

The glass pulls a neat groove through the skin of Zachariah’s thumb, blood welling up in one neat bubble. “If Dean Winchester makes any more problems for you, let me know,” he says. “I’m sure I can make him cooperate.”

***

Castiel cleans up the mess. It’s done in only a moment—he fixes the Enochian warding, and then with the spell-work in place, he only has to concentrate for a moment on shifting the space around them in order to restore it as it was. Sash windows; yellowing wallpaper; dark, heavy furnishings. He crouches by the wall to smooth his hand over it, and beneath his fingertips, there is the sensation of touch, of pressure. It is real enough.

"You said you could change this place."

Castiel looks over.

The Michael Sword stands in the doorway, half-hidden by it, as though undecided as to whether he should leave the privacy of the other room. His arms are folded across his chest. His expression is hard and unforgiving; his eyes move over the room behind Castiel with evident dissatisfaction.

Slowly, Castiel straightens. "Yes,” he says. “Only on an aesthetic level—you understand that technically we inhabit no corporeal plane but rather exist on a—"

"Yeah, yeah,” the Sword interrupts, not looking at him. “Do it."

Castiel hesitates. "Where do you wish to be?"

"Anywhere but here."

Indecision halts Castiel. The possibilities are limitless; he is presented with unquantifiable options and doesn’t know what to do. He says, “Be specific.”

The Sword rolls his eyes, makes a low noise of irritation in the back of his throat. “Jesus, I don’t fucking care,” he says. “Anywhere. The first place that pops into your head, whatever. Just get me out of this place.”

Castiel isn’t able to draw from his own knowledge, so he closes his eyes, and he tries to remember—anything. Any human memory he has seen before.

The walls and furnishings dissolve around them. The threadbare rug and water-warped floorboards bleed out into thick, soft grass. Dandelions and daisies thread through the green, dot the grass in artless asymmetry. The sky overhead, when the ceiling disintegrates, is a crisp blue, interrupted by rough scribbles of pale cloud, through which the sun comes unevenly, light shifting, In the distance, there is the joyful noise of children playing; there is birdsong, voices overlapping. At the edge of the grass verge, flowerbeds swell into a tangle of colour, cyclamen unfurling, flowers pushing through to bloom nearer the light.

In the centre of it all, the Sword turns a slow circle. He lifts his chin. His eyes close; he takes a deep breath through his nose. When he opens his eyes, he looks tired, still, but some of the tension has bled from his shoulders. “What is this?”

"Heaven,” Castiel says simply, and then amends, “One of them, at least. One of my favourites."

This gives the Sword pause. “Didn’t know you were capable of having favourites.”

Castiel tilts his head over. “It’s merely a matter of preference. I prefer being alive to being dead. I prefer fighting with my blade to fighting with human weapons. I prefer being on the battlefield to—”

He stops, catching himself.

The Sword looks at him. “To what?” he says. He already knows what Castiel was about to say.

Castiel lowers his eyes. He speaks too candidly; he should remember himself. “To administrative duties,” he finishes, carefully.

The Sword gives an empty laugh. He pushes his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans and he wanders away, through the open gardens. He tilts his head away from the buzzing of some small insect, pauses by the flowerbeds, where a fat bumblebee lazily circles the throat of a flower. He looks towards the bubble of laughter that filters through the trees from the children’s playpark, and he doesn’t smile, but his mouth is soft. His shoulders are not hunched, his jaw not tight.

It is the first time Castiel has seen him without anger in every line of his body, and Castiel can’t stop looking at him—his eyelashes golden-tipped, his eyes glass-green in the light. The breadth of his sturdy shoulders looks, for the first time, unlike a burden.

Out of nowhere, the Sword says, “You got a name?”

Castiel looks at him, startled into silence. They have been sharing one another’s space, if not necessarily their company, for anywhere between forty-eight hours and six weeks now—time moving indistinctly here, like the shimmer of heat-waves over hot asphalt—and the Sword wants to know his name.

He says, “My name is Castiel.”

The Sword nods his head. “Cool.” He scuffs the toe of his boot through the grass. “I’m Dean.”

“I know.”

The Sword grunts a little. After a beat, he says, "It’s not like I pictured.” He pauses. “Heaven, I mean.”

Castiel moves to catch up with him, but before he reaches him, the Sword goes on.

“Then again,” the Sword says, as an afterthought, “neither was Hell, so."

Everything Castiel was going to say—asking the Sword what he had imagined of Heaven, saying that he was surprised the Sword had thought of it at all, explaining that this was not, technically, Heaven, but a representation of a single soul’s best memories—vanishes. He says, instead, "You remember Hell?"

The Sword is quiet for a long moment. "Been there longer than I been anywhere else," he says eventually. "So, yeah. I remember."

A hundred and fifty years—his lifetime, five times over. Castiel recalls, when the siege of Hell was done, Anna’s return to the garrison to report on the rescue of the Righteous Man. She had stood before them, blazing and brilliant in triumph, and said, Dean Winchester is saved. She had recounted the brutality of the skirmish with the demon forces; she had described, with clinical detachment, the state of the Michael Sword as she had found him. Like stuffing a rag-doll with dirt, she had said. More stitches than skin to keep him together. His face, indistinguishable from the demons I had slain on the way down. It took time, finding the right eyes, the right mouth, in the rubble and rot where they had been carving at him. Anna had served him, as guardian on Earth, in the lead-up to the Apocalypse, and said that he was a creature of anger and violence. She had said he was a monster.

In the front of him, Dean Winchester is quiet. He turns his face up to the sunlight, his hands open at his sides.

 

***

"I'm thinking of a number," the Sword announces. He slumps, low, in the armchair of the hunting cabin, his boots propped on the table in front of him, feet crossed at the ankle.

Castiel sits at the table, just away from the Sword’s boots—while he is, of course, capable of standing guard without movement for eons, he has recently come to prefer this seat. Here, he is close enough to the Sword that he can answer any question, protect him at a moment’s notice from any intrusion, however unlikely; it makes the Sword less cagey, who has taken to snapping at Castiel when he stands still for too long, accusing him of being a robot or a creep or all of the above. In addition, to these benefits, it is comfortable. It has a clear view through the largest window of the hunting cabin, allowing Castiel to watch the drifting descent of snow.

Now, however, he lifts his head. "What number?"

"Between one and ten."

As far as conversation starters go, Castiel is perplexed by this one. He has heard of a human term: ice-breaker. Frequently taking the form of a joke, or a thought-provoking question designed to instigate discussion. He says, "Alright."

"You think you know it?"

Castiel frowns. "Know what?"

The Sword makes a low noise of exasperation in his throat. "The number, idiot."

"You haven't told me the number."

"No. Fuck.” The Sword drags a hand down over his face in apparent agony. “No, I haven't. Look—just… what do you think the number is?"

Castiel stares at him, bewildered. "I have no idea."

"So guess."

Castiel is quiet for a long moment, studying the Sword, who has for some reason picked a completely arbitrary number for Castiel to divine—unless it isn't arbitrary. The Sword has a brother: two siblings. "Two," Castiel says.

"No."

The Sword has a car built in 1967 A.D. "Six," says Castiel.

"Nope."

"Seven."

"No."

This is irritating. Castiel is aware, now, that he has increased his probability from a ten per cent likelihood of success up to little more than fourteen per cent, and he wants to get it right.

"Four."

"Yahtzee."

Castiel feels a pull at his mouth, and he indulges it—victorious. It's a good feeling.

"You're smiling,” the Sword says. His voice is not quite an accusation. It is something suspicious, but there is curiosity in it, too.

"I apologise."

"No, it's—" The Sword grunts. "Whatever." He stretches in his seat, reaching for the half-bottle of malt whiskey on the table, but it’s just beyond him, his fingertips grazing over the glass without purchase.

Castiel takes the bottle and he leans from his chair to pass it to the Sword, who gives a nod which Castiel supposes is some indication of gratitude.

The Sword unscrews the lid and drinks. He takes a long gulp, swallowing without pausing to taste the liquor, and then he surprises Castiel once more. He holds the bottle out. “Your turn.”

***

Through the windows, snow melts and gives way to the tentative unfurling of yellow flowers; The Michael Sword has taken to scratching a tally of days on the wallpaper. Twenty-six days, according to his etchings, and spring-time thaws the frost on the glass-panes, and the grandfather clock alongside the chimney-stove has been at two-o’clock all day.

Castiel opens the cabin door to let the sunlight in.

The Beautiful Room’s control extends as far as the treeline at the edge of the clearing, leaving a few yards of untidy grass and wildflowers trapped within the mercurial shifts in season and time, but he does not often come out here. The pines are crystal-tipped with dew and meltwater; the sky, through the narrow spires of the uppermost branches, is overcast, heavy; a hush falls over it all, as of someone holding their breath, broken only by birdsong, high above.

Castiel doesn’t see it fall—he only hears the shrill cry, and the dull crunch of something hitting the soil.

He looks over to find a sparrow crumpled against the wet grass, one wing limp and useless at its side. It drags itself, slow and struggling, over the ground for a moment, before giving up. It gasps, over-exerted. It trembles, feathers quivering, and its head turns frantically, fearful. It is dirt-scuffed, ragged. It shivers in the soil like an altar sacrifice.

Castiel drops into a crouch.

His nearness frightens the bird, makes it scream and struggle, wings jerking desperately against the dirt.

The simplest thing to do would be to snap its neck. It would be easy—his thumb under its jaw. He would barely even need to twist.

Castiel places the tip of his finger against the sparrow’s breastbone, holds it still. Its heart stammers with wild panic beneath his touch. Even in this borrowed flesh—or the approximation of it, in this incorporeal room constructed for the Sword’s own comfort—he has power enough to crush the bird without effort or thought. He could take it into his hand and close his fist. He could end its suffering.

Castiel scoops it carefully into his hands and cradles it against his shirt.

Gradually, the sparrow becomes still, exhausted, shivering, and Castiel strokes over the sparrow’s back. His Grace, a constant murmur beneath the surface of this skin, swells within him, and the wing is mended—but the sparrow doesn’t get up and fly away. It remains sagging limply against his hand, breathing ragged, frightened, as though the wing is still broken, and when Castiel adjusts his grip on the bird to check, it screams again in pain. Castiel doesn’t understand.

Inside the cabin, the Sword is sprawled once again in his armchair. He picks at a loose thread in the coarse fabric, and he lifts his eyes without moving as Castiel comes to stand in the doorway. “What?” he says, tone flat and disinterested, and then his eyes drop to Castiel’s hands, clutched to his stomach. He sits up. “The hell have you—”

“It’s hurt,” Castiel says, and then: “I’m not sure what to do.”

The Sword gets up. “Here—let me see.” He crosses to Castiel, and stands close to peer at the sparrow as Castiel’s carefully opens his hands. “Okay. We gotta get a towel—if he wiggles he’ll make it worse, so we gotta keep him still. Pass him here.”

There is no moment of hesitation or uncertainty. The Sword cups his hands beneath Castiel’s fingers, and he is gentle as he cradles the panting, frightened sparrow between his two palms.

“Hey,” the Sword says softly, tilting his head down towards the sparrow. “Hey, buddy. It’s okay. You’re okay.” He speaks to Castiel in a different voice: firm, decisive. “Go get a towel. And see if you can find, like, a box or something small we can put him in. And something to use as a bandage.”

Castiel stands. He turns his head to the hallway, and for a moment his fingers twitch at his side, the image of a towel drawing together in his mind until he can almost feel the weight of it in his hand—but before it materialises, he lets his hand fall loose and it is gone. The Sword glances at him, apprehensive, and Castiel recognises his desire for Castiel to leave, so he does.

There are many rooms in the cabin into which he rarely goes; he has no need of the bathroom’s various facilities, and no interest in the various small closets in the hallway. Nevertheless, he searches now. He moves old coats, pushes past a battered metal wood-axe, the blade blunted from long ago over-use, the handle worn smooth and shiny. At last he finds an old shoebox holding decrepit hiking boots. He takes this, and a towel, and rummages through the drawers until he finds a battered first-aid kit containing a length of thin gauze.

For some time, he stands awkwardly between the open doors of the closet, looking in, hands full. He could have created these, easy as breathing, but this feels… better. He closes the doors with his shoulder, and then returns to the Sword, in the living room, who is still talking softly to the sparrow.

“—got you now. Alright?” His voice is low and soothing. “How about we get you some water and someplace safe to rest, huh? You’ll be back to your old self in no time. How’s that?”

Castiel stands in the doorway, unseen, behind the Sword, with the box and towel in hand. He watches a version of Dean Winchester that he has not seen before—careful and quiet and tender, thumb stroking gently over the sparrow feathers in reassurance. He sits cross-legged on the floor and he has shed his outer shirt in order to create a cushion in his lap.

After a moment, the Sword lifts his head and looks back over his shoulder, and sees Castiel standing there, motionless.

“You getting that shit today, or…?”

Castiel crosses to him, passing across the box and towel. He lets the Sword take over the resources, but the Sword can only work one-handed and clumsily, still cradling the bird in his lap, so Castiel drops to his knees beside him and helps. He arranges the towel carefully at the bottom of the shoebox to create a soft nest, and then sits back. He watches as the Sword manoeuvres the sparrow’s wing to fold it back against its back in its natural position—the bird screeching, struggling; the Sword of Michael softly shushing it, murmuring, it’s okay, there you go, you’re fine, it’s not that bad—and then the Sword holds out his hand.

“Get me some of that bandage. A long bit.”

Castiel unwinds the gauze and passes it over. He helps the Sword to secure the sparrow’s wing to its body and to keep it still. He watches the Sword’s profile, the way he tucks his tongue into the corner of his mouth as he focuses, the furrow of his brow, the way he sucks in a shallow breath in sympathy with the sparrow as he ties the bandage tight.

“Alrighty, then,” the Sword says. “Let’s see if you can still move. Come on, now.” He gently lowers the sparrow to the floorboards and sets it down. For a second, it remains still, staring at them in fear, but then it shakes itself, stumbles onto its feet. Trembling, the sparrow takes unsteady steps across the floor.

“You think he’ll ever fly again?” the Sword asks.

“No.” Castiel rearranges the towel in the shoe-box. He considers, for a moment, telling the Sword not to romanticise the sparrow’s desire for flight—to remind him that it’s a means of survival, not a hobby—but he doesn’t find the words.

For a few seconds, the Sword is quiet. Then: “You think he’ll survive?”

Castiel’s hands falter. He smooths the fraying edge of the towel between his fingers, and he says, “I’d like him to.”

The Sword grunts, unimpressed, and Castiel doesn’t begrudge him that—it’s not a genuine answer. He lifts his head to watch the sparrow, shivering and hopping across the worn floor, while the Sword gets to his feet. He returns a moment later, with a small dish full of water, which he lowers into the shoe-box.

There is only so much that can be done for the sparrow, and after a while, when the bird is nestled amongst the towels and resting, the Sword retreats to his room. He shuts the door behind him, and Castiel can hear the dull, steady drum of his heartbeat, but he pries no further.

Castiel takes a seat in the chair that he has come to prefer. He looks out of the window at the melting spring, branches fresh and green again, new growth unfurling. He wonders at the state of affairs on Earth—at the destruction that Lucifer is exacting upon humanity, the suffering that he must be reaping across the continents. It would give him some small comfort to know how the Apocalypse is progressing, and additionally, it would give him some indication of how long he is to remain in his security detail.

He sits in his chair, and he does his duty. He guards. He listens to the Sword’s pulse through the closed door, and he occupies space, all his light and glory funnelled into two legs, two arms, no wings—not a vessel, but the approximation of one. He stretches a hand at his side until his knuckles crack. He straightens the lapels of his coat, a mostly shapeless tan thing. He touches the buttons: round, smooth, tortoiseshell. He has not previously taken the time to notice it. He is not particularly interested in it now, but it is something to which he can turn his idle attention.

It isn’t that Castiel is bored. He has stood watch over humanity for centuries, watched the turn of civilisation, the growth of cities and the fall of empires, and he has never once been bored. He lacks the capacity for it. He simply wishes there were more in the Beautiful Room to monitor.

Shadows lengthen across the floorboards. Outside, there is a fizzing crack of thunder, and the sunshine glares brightly off the glass window-panes. The grandfather-clock in the corner chimes ten.

Castiel wonders how the sparrow is doing, and he crosses to the side-table in the sun where he and the Michael Sword had left the shoe-box. The table, however, is empty.

Castiel frowns, and he looks past the table—under it—half-turns to glance about the room, in case the Sword has moved it somewhere else, and then he remembers.

The bird isn’t real.

With an uncomfortable curling in his gut, Castiel realises that the bird was never real. That nothing, here, is real. Even his skin—the place where the Sword’s fingers skimmed over his knuckles in taking the injured bird from his hands—is not real.

He had, if only for a moment, forgotten.

The stream of pale morning sunlight spilling through the crack in the curtains abruptly shivers, vanishes. Outside the window there is darkness. It has been five days or five hundred, and when Castiel turns his head to trace the sigils and warding and spell-work decisively etched into the air around him, there is a heaviness that blooms behind his ribs.

 

***