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So Says The Sword

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Alleluia; alleluia; alleluia.

 

***

Castiel does not know precisely where Dean will be, but he knows where to start looking.

Dean is stitched through time and space, a single thread pulled smoothly through a crease in the fabric, but he is coming loose, and he knows that Dean will search—even if instinctively, unconsciously, without control of his own power—for something familiar.

He opens his eyes in the summoning sigil, a circle of angels hemming him in on all sides. Directly in front of him is Zachariah, his hands in the pockets of his suit pants. A disdainful frown turns his mouth; he looks at Castiel like something unpleasant that crawled from the mud.

“I’ll need help,” Castiel says, straightening up. He lifts his head high, carries his newfound, God-given authority through every inch of his bearing. It almost stifles the feeling of being an ant under a microscope.

Zachariah says nothing. His eyes flick past Castiel, over his shoulder.

Castiel turns, and there is Naomi. In the smouldering red glow from the low-burning holy oil, her vessel’s face is dry and pale as aged parchment, cracking at the edges. Her eyes are dark in the firelight. Her hands hang loose at her sides. She stands tall and unmoving as a saint on the pyre. Dignified in defeat.

“You shall have help,” she says.

Castiel steps over the holy oil. Fire licks at his ankles, snaps against his boots, but he is unharmed.

“Balthazar,” Castiel says. “He should suffice.”

Naomi does not respond, but for a slight incline of the head. Her mouth is a hard line and there is no steel-edged hurricane in her.

Then there is a hand on Castiel’s shoulder, fingers tight, and Castiel looks over to see Balthazar, stone-faced and solemn, before everything disappears. The barn collapses into nothing as they are sucked out from space, and Castiel’s throat closes off, his gut churning, during a split-second in which his skull aches fiercely with the pressure as though to implode—and then they are gone.

Before them stands the hunting cabin, unharmed as Naomi promised. All is quiet and still, no sign of the confrontation earlier but for the crater left in the soil by Hector’s impact.

Then, from within, there is a voice: “Cas? Is that Cas?” It’s Sam’s voice, growing louder in realisation. “Bobby—Anna—”

The screen-door slams open, and there Sam is, crossing the verandah in two steps, and behind him—Ellen, Anna, Jo. They wear matching expressions of relief and concern, and as Sam jumps the verandah steps to reach him, Castiel finally feels it as Dean had always said he should: family.

Sam reaches him first. He wraps one hand around Castiel’s arm and clings on tight, almost shaking him. “Cas, what the hell happened?”

Then there is Anna, the colour returned to her face and the blood mopped from her nose. She wears the bruises around her throat unflinchingly and she smiles seeing him. “Castiel,” she says. “When you left, I had feared—”

Jo finds him, punching him on the shoulder hard enough that it stings: “—bag of crazy. Don’t do that again—” and simultaneously, there is Ellen, saying something about how hard he is to kill, and then, from the verandah, Bobby’s voice rises. “Well? You coming inside, or am I gonna have to get someone to carry me down these goddamn steps?”

Castiel opens his mouth, but his throat works uselessly and he says nothing. He has never before been looked at as though he has mattered, and with this plan—he will have met none of them, saved none of them, done nothing worth remembering.

He is conscious of Balthazar, ten steps behind, and for a moment, he worries what his brother thinks of all this—this demonstrative affection, this homecoming. He wonders if Balthazar is scornful, behind his name. Castiel wonders if he is envious.

He looks between them all, and he says, “I have to go.”

There is a beat in which they don’t understand, but just blink at him, nonplussed, and don’t speak.

At last, it is Ellen who says, “Go where?”

“To Dean.” Castiel’s throat is thick. “I’m going to save Dean.”

Voices tangle, then, all under and over one another—what? How? What happened? What did Naomi say to you? How? What do you mean?—and Castiel looks from each of them, at the bewilderment and hope blooming openly on their faces, and he does not know how to explain what he needs to do.

He says, “It’s hard to explain.”

“You’re bringing him back here, right?” Jo says.

“What’s the catch?” Ellen says.

“Why are they doing this?” Anna asks.

“Let me come with you,” Sam says.

Castiel shakes his head, and he backs away a step, pulling away from their hands. “No—I can’t. I’m sorry. I have to go.” He can only repeat himself. “I’m sorry.”

Sam’s hand catches Castiel’s arm again. “Cas—” He doesn’t ask again to come with Castiel. He doesn’t argue. He asks, “Is everything okay?”

Castiel looks up at Sam, and he understands all at once every measure of Dean’s pride and envy and love for his brother—who is a warrior in his own right, and ferociously intelligent, and powerful in his blood and in the way he turns his back on destiny, and who is kind. Castiel wants to tell him. He wants to say, I hope you get a better chance next time. I hope you find peace. I hope it isn’t too late for you. He doesn’t know how.

“I’m fine,” Castiel says. He smiles, and he can feel that the shape of it is brittle. “I’ll see you soon.”

“You better.” Sam slaps his hand to Castiel’s shoulder, and his grin spreads wider. “You bring Dean back in one piece, okay?”

By now, Castiel is good at lying. “I will.”

When he steps back, the others don’t follow, and fall back to the hunting cabin, returning to Bobby and the end of the world. Only Anna remains.

“Castiel,” she says. Her voice is low, so as not to be overheard. She is quiet for a long moment, and then she says, “You’re not coming back.”

“No.”

Anna gives a curt nod, as though she had expected as much—pragmatic as ever. Then, for once, she is surprising: she reaches for the faintly shining vial of Grace around her neck, hooks her fingers into the chain, and she lifts it over her head. “Take it.”

Castiel takes a step back. “Anna, no.”

“I fell by choice,” she says. “By all rights, I should have lost it. Were it not for you intervening today, I definitely would have. But you could use it—”

“It won’t make a difference.”

The chain swings from Anna’s fingers, the vial swaying in the air. Within the glass, the Grace curls and shimmers and blossoms. She slowly reels the chain back in, the chain slipping through her hand, until she holds the vial in her hand. She regards Castiel quietly, and even if she still had her true form, Castiel would not be able to sense it, but at that moment, he feels rainstorms within her and her colours are gone.

She says, “What are you going to do?”

“It’s like you said,” Castiel says, and his smile is rueful, now, but it’s genuine. “End of the road. Sometimes that’s all there is.”

Anna hangs the chain of her Grace around her neck. For a moment, with her arms lifted, it looks as though she might embrace Castiel, but then the moment passes. “Take care of yourself,” she says. “Try to come back. If you can.”

Castiel nods, and then she turns and is gone. On the verandah, Jo leans against the wooden siding and waits for her; she pushes off the wall now to greet her, and they go in together. The screen door clicks softly shut behind them, and then Castiel is alone in the woods, looking at the home he might have built with these hunters in different circumstances. Just briefly, he allows himself to entertain the idea—Dean, here. The two of them. What that might be like.

“Where to, Castiel?”

Balthazar’s voice behind Castiel is loud and shatters the illusion entirely.

Castiel looks over his shoulder. “Italy,” he says. “We’ll begin there.”

He starts with Italy—the Val d’Orcia, the picnic blanket, the uncorked bottle of wine, the hills unfolding wide and verdant below and as far as the eye can see. It overwhelms him for a moment, understanding what it was like when Dean first materialised here, under the summer sunlight and the open sky, the fading warmth of a hot day on his skin. There is no time for Castiel to drink it in; he has work to do. He leaves signs.

Wait for me, he etches into rock and into tree-bark. He moves through memory after memory, paints his message on the dry earth and on stone and he writes it in water. He carves it out into bright scars of brick-dust. Wait as long as you can. Wait for me.

It’s what Sam would call a long shot, but it’s the only way Castiel can think to reach him. Leave enough signs that Dean has to see one somewhere, at some point, as he is dragged relentlessly through time, and ask him to try to hold still. It’s all Castiel can do.

“Hard to believe we were brothers, once,” Balthazar says, offhandedly, as Castiel is painting the words across the walls of cathedrals.

Castiel’s hand becomes still on the gold-leaf, blood dripping from his fingers just shy of the wall, but he doesn’t look up.

Balthazar shifts his weight from one foot to another. “How are the mighty fallen, and all that, I suppose.”

“And the weapons of war perished,” Castiel finishes. He stares straight at his work, and he reaches forwards to daub the message again: Wait for me, Dean. Wait as long as you can. As his hand curves around to form the last letters, he thinks, with regret, on Balthazar’s detachment and disinterest. He asks, “How many times have they reset you?”

Balthazar clicks his tongue against his teeth. “As ever, Castiel, I have no idea what you’re talking about. Are you nearly done?”

Castiel lowers his hand. He looks at Balthazar. He swallows, and says, “One more.”

He steps forwards with the place swimming clear at the forefront of his mind. He closes his eyes and waits for the touch of Balthazar’s hand.

Everything churns, the air is ripped in half, and Castiel’s ears pop as a monumental pressure builds inside his head—and then it settles. Castiel opens his eyes, and there, finally, is the hunting cabin. The final resting place.

For a moment, everything appears jarringly unfamiliar, and Castiel is sure that he might be in the wrong place. Much of it is perfectly preserved—the yellowing wallpaper, the bare electric bulb swinging, the dark-wood bookcases, but as he stands in the doorway and looks in, he is struck, abruptly, by the smallness of it.

There is less than five feet of floorboard between Castiel’s feet and the dining table—a distance that, in Castiel’s memory, is substantial enough for him to move with Dean in some new memory, to press Dean into the floor and kiss him breathless. The space echoes, empty as though gutted.

Castiel’s hand drifts, distracted, along the door-frame. A splinter snags his fingertip, and its bite, although fleeting, is sharp. A button of blood wells brightly upon his skin.

Dean isn’t here.

Our Father, he starts, more out of blind desperation than of real faith, who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name. He says, bring him back to me, please. Help him to find me.

He walks through the cabin, checking every room, feeling out the hallway. His hand sweeps over the wallpaper in the hall, the place where a door used to be, where Castiel created an entire additional room. It wrenches in his gut, that the place where he kissed Dean never truly existed. He returns to the main room; his fingers trail over the back of the armchair, intimately familiar.

He takes a deep breath, and he stands, and he waits.

Balthazar leaves him alone, returns to the Heavenly host, and Castiel is stranded. He supposes he doesn’t exactly need to be supervised; if he succeeds, he most likely won’t need help getting away from here when the universe unravels. 

Time moves uneasily, here—in a straight line, heavy, unflinching, relentless. Here, in the real cabin, not in the memory echo if it, the clock just goes ticking monotonously on. Castiel wants to watch the passing of seasons through the window, to know that the universe is hurrying Dean closer, but instead he stares at the languid crawl of the second-hand around the grandfather clock.

Castiel watches the first hour tick into the second and then the third. Humanity has sapped the well of his patience, and his knees ache at standing motionless for so long. He sits at the dining table. He sits in Dean’s armchair. He drums his fingers on the wall. He stands at the window and looks through at the dew-frosted pines. He wonders if the sparrow still died.

A tremor rises through the floorboards, as of a far-off earthquake, and Castiel half-turns to face the living room fully. A painting on one wall shivers in its frame but does not fall. Then there is stillness, and out of the corner of his eye, Castiel sees a dark impression on the air outside, as of a smudge being wiped clean. It is there only a moment, and then everything returns again to silence. The thin, clear sunlight spills yellow through the window. Castiel releases a breath that he had not realised he was holding.

He moves to the door and steps outside into a cold afternoon. Whatever sign there might have been, it was fleeting, and it is gone now.

Grass crunches under Castiel’s feet; a cool breeze lifts goosebumps on the back of his neck.

Overhead, there is a small, shrill cry, and then—Castiel looks over to see the sparrow falling.

His breath snags. This shouldn’t be happening now. This should have already happened.

The bird never hits the ground.

With a sound like rolling thunder, there is Dean Winchester.

Blood drips from his nose and mouth, oozes long dark tracks from his ears. One of his eyes is bloody, red-rimmed. His shoulders hunch in and he is shaking.

“Dean,” Castiel bursts out, and he moves quickly.

Dean’s silhouette is shuddering like a rough sketch, the colour and lines out of alignment, like bad radio reception, he judders and shakes and he seems to collapse in on himself and be bursting outwards all at once.

Castiel can’t get to him fast enough.

“Dean,” he calls. “Dean, I’m here. I’m here. Stay with me—”

Slowly, Dean lifts his head. He meets Castiel’s eyes.

Then, electricity cracking, he is gone.

Castiel staggers, slows, stops. He stares at the place where he last saw Dean.

“No,” Castiel gasps. “No—Dean?”

He can’t just be gone.

He takes slow, hesitant steps to where he last saw him, and there is no trace of Dean there—no footprints, no broken blades of grass.

He waits. He waits and waits and then—

There is a firework-crack and a shivering of the air, and Dean appears like a ghost out of nowhere. He is haloed by a terrifying white light and he shakes at the seams and there is a white light behind his teeth and his irises. His eyes are unfocused, shifting rapidly as though blinded by a thousand lights and unsure where to turn his attention. Blood drips from his nose.

Dean says, “Cas?” and his voice is the same.  He sounds terrified.

Castiel wastes no time; he seizes him and holds him still. He cradles Dean’s jaw in two hands and he kisses him. He tastes like bloody glass.

Beneath Castiel’s fingers, Dean’s skin shimmers and wavers, inconstant. At one moment, Castiel can feel the rough touch of Dean’s skull, no meat on it; at another, he is grasping empty air.

“I’m here,” Castiel says against Dean’s mouth. His fingertips are blistering. “Stay with me. Be still.”

Under Castiel’s touch, Dean becomes corporeal—now, half-felt, like mist—now solid. In Castiel’s hands he is real. His hands curl into the front of Castiel’s shirt, and slowly his grip on the fabric tightens as his fingers are made flesh.

“I found Sam,” Castiel says, and he looks over Dean, committing to memory, desperate to hold onto this—the golden-tipped sweep of Dean’s eyelashes, the scattering of freckles, the green of his eyes, the curve of his mouth—even though he knows he won’t remember any of it. “He’s well. He’s safe. And Jo, and Bobby, and Ellen.”

Dean sways, clinging to him. He is wide-eyed, staring Castiel down, trying to keep him in focus. He shivers at the edges, crackles and blurs, and when he opens his mouth, his lips are moving with something like forgive, but there is only the terrible silver light in his throat and behind his eyes and he cannot speak.

Castiel cups his jaw in two hands. “You’ll see him again,” he tells Dean, and rubs his thumb over the apple of Dean’s cheek. The sores on his fingers are breaking; blood drips from his palms. “I promise—you’ll be with Sam again. You’ll be at peace.”

Dean is losing shape; he can’t hold still much longer. He is nodding his head frantically, wordless, everything in him desperately trying to keep in this moment, and there are tears in his eyes. He is shaking, his fingers tightening fearfully on Castiel’s clothes, even as he becomes air so that his grip dwindles.

“And I’ll find you,” Castiel says, and his throat is tightening. He swallows hard. “Next time, you and I will have a real chance. We’ll find each other. And—if we don’t—” His voice cracks.

Dean is disappearing. He is all teeth, all skull. He is shaking apart at the edges.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says, low and hoarse and desperate. “I’m sorry. I’ll find you.”

He slides his hand around to the cradle the back of Dean’s skull in his blood-wet hand, and then he shatters him.

 

 

 

There is only the dark and the cold and the empty.

Castiel stands like an insect before Michael’s light under the magnifying glass glare. He is colossal and terrifying, and he hangs frozen, light rippling, helpless. At the heart of him, Castiel can see it—a tiny shimmering ball, golden warm and glowing, radiant. It is dwarfed by the form around it, but Castiel would know Dean blind.

He runs.

Even paralysed, Michael is deadly—his shattered light is blade-sharp obelisks and a breaking of crystals that slices Castiel’s hands open at the first touch. With bloody fingers, Castiel climbs. He scales the mountain of ice and lightning, and Michael spins, slow, detached, in the black, as Castiel moves. He ducks the half-frozen, slow sweep of Michael’s crackling wings of static, and he burns his palms black and bloody against his form as he drags himself upright. He sears holes in his clothes where he scrambles on his knees or staggers or slips. He stretches, scrabbles on glass-smooth spears for purchase, and he tears loose fingernails.

He worries that he will not make it, that he will be torn apart before he can reach Dean, but if there is anything worth dying for, this is it.

Dean’s soul is suspended as within a monstrance, pinned in on all sides by the fanning halo of Michael’s splintered light—like swords at his throat. He hangs in the centre, small, insignificant, forgotten. A hidden away spot amongst all the Grace and the duty, where the host of whatever body has been stolen can suffer in silence. Castiel knows it well—he built a similar prison for James Novak.

He wraps his hands around the bars of searing gold that pin Dean’s soul in place, and from the first instant of contact, he is burnt. It’s worse than the blaze of Hester’s rings; the light spins lightning-fast, scrapes the scabbing, bloody skin from his palms and his fingers. He can barely hold on, a thin, hollow noise of pain dragged from between his teeth. He strains, pulling with everything in him, and blood drips from his blistered and lacerated palms. He manages, “Dean—”

His ears ring with a high, quaking whine that rises into a storm-whistle scream, and he can feel his skeleton rattle within him as he pulls, and he pulls, and the ache in his muscles and in his spine builds to a sharp pain, now burning, now searing. There are tears swimming in his eyes, and he can feel the slow trickle of blood between his shoulder-blades. Something in his shoulder pops. There is a crack of bone. Castiel feels the ball of his shoulder shifting beneath his skin, wrenched out of alignment as he pulls.

He is shaking, near-blinded by tears, deafened by the juddering sound as of metal on bone as the burning light burns Castiel’s hands down to metal. A raw, desperate noise rises in his throat, forced between his clenched teeth. He can’t do this. He isn’t strong enough.

Castiel lifts his head, something tearing raggedly at the juncture of his neck and shoulder, and he yells it: “Dean—”

There is a pulse, between the girders of Michael’s light.

Everything goes silent, the pulse swallowing all noise.

It is a brightening of light, a dazzling, ardent flare of gold. It crushes Castiel’s lungs, leaves him gasping. One of his eardrums bursts in a skull-squeezing burst of pain that nearly takes him to his knees.

The bars of terrible Grace holding Dean waver, then. They fade, edges flickering—and as Castiel pulls, one bends. It begins to give way.

Castiel speaks, voiceless, his own words lost in the silence. He says, again, Dean?

The second pulse obliterates.

The blast-wave is catastrophic, the light raging unfathomably hotter and whiter, and Michael’s prison splinters beneath Castiel’s ragged hands—and Castiel is unhurt.

He opens his eyes, and Dean shines.

Castiel sways there on the brink of the nothing, dizzy and unsteady. Blood trickles down the inside of his wrist. There is no skin left on his palms. Around his base of thumb, the skin is almost cauterised, black and hard. He can feel something wet, from his ear, down the line of his jaw.

The distance is dwindling between them.

Castiel stands, breathless, and he reaches for him.

Dean’s soul quakes and shivers, and Castiel is terrified of what he will feel when he touches him. His hand falters, just out of reach, his heart a thunderous drum within his ribs—and then his fingertips skate over the rippling surface of him.

Castiel’s breath is torn from him and his chest tightens, something swelling impossibly behind his ribs until he is full to the throat with starlight. Every time he has pressed in close to Dean, every time he has kissed him and cupped his face in his hands, it has been this that he felt brimming beneath the surface— sunrise-gentle, bruised to blood, summer-gold and glorious—and there is nothing, now, holding Castiel back from it. He is made whole.

He can feel Dean’s raw, unbridled power in the back of his teeth, rattling in his skull, but he is unhurt by it. As much cannot be said for Michael, for his towering pillars of steel and fire, for the Empty all around them, which shudders for collapse. Castiel doesn’t have much time.

Castiel says, “I’m sorry,” and his voice vanishes into the silence, with no indication of whether or not Dean has understood. I’m sorry.

Dean is magnificent, and Castiel carves him out like removing a bullet.

He digs his fingers in and pulls apart the threads of him. Beneath him, Castiel can feel Michael shuddering spasmodically inwards for collapse or eruption.

The cracks in the fractured dark are widening, searing white oblivion spilling through. It glares in Castiel’s eyes, near-blinds him.

I’m sorry, Castiel says, and he rends light from light. We’ll have our chance. We’ll get it right. He is whispering the words into the smothering dark, and Dean roars ever brighter in his hands, ever more brilliant in desperation, and Castiel can feel him holding on. He clings like water to Castiel’s touch for as long as he can. I’ll find you, Castiel gasps, and he is glad of the silence when his voice cracks.

Dean’s soul comes apart like the loosening of a ball of string; in Castiel’s hands, he unravels.

I’ll find you, Castiel breathes. I promise I will.

If it takes a thousand years, he will bring Dean back to him. 

The emptiness is widening around him, hungry, all-consuming.

He unmakes.


***


It’s September. In a box, six feet under, something is stirring. Breaks skin hammering at the coffin-lid. Scrapes fingernails raw until the wood cracks.

There is soil, spilling into his own mouth and burning in his eyes, and there is the desperate struggle through the dirt, through the sting of unused muscles stretching, blood pumping fresh. He is made whole, his skin made new, unburnt—but for an ache, on the ball of his shoulder, as he digs upwards. Filtering through the loose dirt overhead, there is daylight, and the open sky, and he breathes. He breathes deep.

Dean Winchester is saved, and he claws his way out into the sun.



THE END