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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.

 

***

Chapter Text

The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.

***


The Sword scrapes a hand roughly back through his hair, and drops his head against the back of the chair with a loud thunk. “Jesus—get me out of here.”

Castiel pays him no attention; the Sword has been complaining loudly about his captivity for some time now. Hours, possibly. Weeks. It is hard to gauge, here.

The Sword has been experimenting with the limits of the Beautiful Room again, although this time, not through destruction. He has somehow figured out how manipulate the power simmering through the Beautiful Room, and is able to create for himself. He has conjured cheeseburger after cheeseburger until he made himself sick; he has made a stereo materialise and played rock music at top volume until the reverberations through the floor jarred an empty photo-frame from the wall. He has created an enormous balloon creature, taller than the ceiling, that buffeted and jerked unnaturally with some internal wind, arms flapping wildly; he has played videogames for hours. 

Some days ago, he jeered, “Hey, looks like I don’t need you anymore!”, hauling a grenade launcher up into his arms, the hook of his smirk cruel and sharp. Castiel spared him little more than a glance; when the Sword fired, the rocket fell out of the front, dead. 

The Sword may have figured out how it works, but he isn’t good at it. He can create small things in great detail, but often the reality falls slightly short of his imagination—such as the beautiful 1960s woman with red hair piled high on top of her head, who reclines elegantly in the Sword’s chair and then freezes, breathing, heart beating, but glassy-eyed and unresponsive.

He creates a television blaring with static; a new chair, squat and square and silver, black-cushioned, in which he sprawls and shouts out, Warp factor one, Mister Sulu, until it collapses beneath him; the metallic hilt of a laser sword that won’t turn on and which disappears when the Sword hurls it against the wall.

Neither of them have mentioned the sparrow. Castiel suspects this behaviour, pushing at the restrictions of this space, of what is real and what isn’t, may be rooted in it.

Now, from the far end of the dining table, the Sword says, “Hey. Asshole. You listening to me?”

At one point, the Sword made materialise several hundred copies of assorted science-fiction novels, which for the most part, appear complete; Castiel flips aimlessly through one, uncertain of the appeal. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, posits Philip K. Dick, which seems an absurd question on multiple levels. He doesn’t look at the Sword, but says, “What?”

“I said, get me out of here,” the Sword says. “You said you can change this place whenever, right?”

Castiel lifts his head.

“So do it again. Take me somewhere. Anywhere. That garden, whatever—I don’t care.”

“No,” Castiel says, and he drops his eyes back to the book.

“No?” the Sword repeats. “No—hey, pal, I got told I could get whatever I wanted in here while I waited—”

“And you can.” Castiel skim-reads the first page, and then turns to the back of the novel to see if the final page will give him the necessary answers. “But I shouldn’t keep changing this space for you.”

“Why the hell not?”

Castiel pauses. His fingers tap at the edge of the book’s pages. He weighs his words in his mouth. At last, he says, “It’s not real.” 

The Sword rolls his eyes. “No shit, Sherlock. Neither is this, though—so just me let go not exist somewhere more interesting,” he says.

Castiel closes the book over. “No.” He looks at the Sword again. “This is different. Here, we’re just—creating. We’re not altering the fabric of reality around you.”

The Sword’s eyebrows arch. “So you’re telling me that this,” he says, and abruptly, in his hand, there is a gruesome mask of something akin to a rabbit, toothy and distorted, “okay, this—pulling Donnie goddamn Darko out of thin air—that’s not altering the fabric of reality. But shoving me in some garden, that’s a step too far?”

He drops the mask.

It is gone before it hits the floor.

“I took you to a memory,” Castiel says. “I didn’t create it myself. It’s—different.”

“So make something yourself,” the Sword incredulously, spreading his hands.

“I can’t.”

The Sword steps in close. The tilt of his head is a challenge. “Can’t or won’t?”

Castiel stares back at him, and he opens his mouth to answer, but for several seconds, he can’t bring himself to admit it. At last, when he speaks, his voice is quiet. “I don’t know how.”

The Sword laughs, the sound mocking and bitter. “So let me get this straight,” he says. “I’m trapped here in this fucking cabin, because you’ve got no goddamn imagination?”

Castiel doesn’t answer. He has never before considered it a fault.

There is a long silence, and then the Sword takes another step forwards, closer still. There are less two feet between them. There is frayed thread on the collar of the Sword’s shirt. A sliver of his undershirt is visible beneath, and it is creased at the neck. There are scars over his collarbone, thick and red and ugly. Castiel lifts his eyes to the Sword’s face.

“Say you take me back to another memory,” the Sword says. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Castiel hesitates. “I don’t know.”

The Sword stares at him. “You—”

“I don’t know what would happen,” Castiel says. He doesn’t know if he should be telling him this, but it’s the truth, and Castiel thinks he deserves that. “This has never been done before.” He gestures to the Beautiful Room around them. “Any of this.”

“You guys did it to me before,” the Sword says.

“For a few days. You’ve been here—” Castiel pauses, uncertain. “Longer,” he says, at last, carefully, and he pretends not to see the disparaging look with which the Sword responds to his equivocation. He sits up straight and levels the Sword with a flat look, and he is frank: “A human should not exist this long outside of time and space. There are some who believe you won’t survive, some who believe your cells will be altered on a molecular level until you become incapable of maintaining any kind of earthly structural integrity. Others think you’ll slowly be driven to insanity.”

The Sword blinks at him, seemingly at a loss for words. His mouth opens, closes. He swallows. At last, he says, “Well, that wasn’t in the fine print.”

Castiel doesn’t understand his comment; he ignores it. “I won’t exacerbate the risks by indulging your desire for a change of scenery.”

This gives the Sword pause. He is, for a moment, quiet. He drums his fingers against the table. He looks at Castiel, searching, and Castiel stares evenly back.

“What about your vessel?” the Sword says, and whatever Castiel was expecting from him, it was not this. “He fried too?”

Castiel is surprised that the Sword cares. Then again, Castiel supposes that, as a vessel himself, it is perhaps understandable that he is invested in the well-being of the skin Castiel confines himself to. “I’m not in a vessel,” Castiel says.

The Sword frowns. "What, so you're just—"

"Borrowing his appearance for your comfort." Castiel tilts his head over. “The sight of my true form would likely destroy you, or at least blind you. However, as I’m able to manipulate your perception of time and space in order to create this room, so am I also able to alter your perception of me.”

For a moment, the Sword just goes on staring, his brow furrowed, bewildered. “Oh,” he says, at last. “So, if you’re like a hologram, can I just—”

He reaches out for a crumpled cheeseburger wrapper, balls it up in one fist, and then throws it. It bounces from Castiel’s shoulder.

“No,” Castiel says. “Evidently.”

The Sword pulls a face, as though disappointed. He reaches across the table for a second wrapper.

Castiel says, “Don’t,” and then the balled-up wrapper hits him square in the chest.

“Just checking,” the Sword says flippantly.

Castiel’s eyes narrow.

“Christ, come on.” The Sword drags his hands down over his face. “Just get me out of here. What the hell does it even matter if I start disintegrating? So put me back together again. Michael can scrape me off the goddamn floor if he has to. I’m already screwed either way. But being trapped in this goddamn cabin for another second is more likely than anything to make me go nuts.”

Castiel hesitates. There is some truth in his words: if anything does happen to the Michael Sword, it is easy enough to put him back together. Anna, stitching him together from nothing, ragged and broken in the Pit, had her work cut out; this, by comparison, would be simple.

“Please,” the Sword says, and his voice is quieter now. He stands. His hands fidget at his sides, thumb rubbing over knuckles in a gesture of uncertainty and self-comfort. He says, “Castiel.”

His name sounds different in the Michael Sword’s mouth.

To change the Beautiful Room would not be difficult or taxing; it would cost Castiel nothing. There is no definite evidence that it would have any negative repercussions on the Sword, and any potential damage to him could always be fixed.

If anything, it would keep him sedate. Docile. It would ensure his compliance in the battles to come. 

Truly, it makes more sense to accommodate him in this request than to deny him.

Castiel lifts his hand and tries to shake loose the inscrutable sense of wrongdoing that settles in his chest, and the Beautiful Room dissolves around them. The walls melt into trees, thick and full-leafed and sun-dappled; underfoot, the floorboards crumble into soft, good soil; the ceiling stretches higher and higher into a sumptuous green canopy overhead, through which sunlight spills, shimmering hotly. The Sword’s head tilts back and he turns, slowly, heliotropic. He is painted in soft, fresh colours by the thin yellow light, and he is quiet.

“This is different,” he says, and then he sees the tree.

It towers over them, steeple-high, tall enough that the highest branches cannot be seen even with Castiel’s head craned back. The branches—each one as thick as the trunk of an ordinary tree—twist and curl, borne downwards by their own weight to reach for the earth with thinning fingers, to kiss the soil. It bows and bends, all elbows, all veins, and there is a quiet wonder in the air about the trunk, the wood holding its breath.

The Sword doesn’t speak.

“They call it the Angel Oak,” Castiel says. “South Carolina.”

The Sword’s chin tilts up, his eyes moving over the knotted wood. “Convenient,” he says.

“Named for the man who discovered it,” Castiel tells him. “No relation.”

The Sword’s feet are rooted. He sways where he stands, with the breeze that stirs through the trees, lifting leaves from the soil about his boots. Some sixty foot above, the canopy moves with it, a slow undulation that scatters the green light across their faces.

“It’s four-hundred years old,” Castiel says.

The Sword lets out a low whistle through his teeth and he takes slow, tentative steps closer, placing his feet with care as though trying not to disturb the forest, and he reaches out a shy hand for the trunk. For a moment, his fingertips hover just short of the wood; Castiel does not know what stops him. He has never seen Dean Winchester particularly reverent.

“Probably seems like nothing to you,” the Sword says quietly.

Castiel tilts his head over. “During the first few million years of existence there were mostly eukaryotes,” he says mildly, and he crosses to join the Sword. “I like you better.”

The Sword rolls his eyes.

“Besides, it’s not insignificant,” Castiel goes on. He does what the Sword has not. He reaches out to touch the gnarled, ancient bark, tracing the cracks and ridges with his finger-tips. “In your lifetime, human civilisation has made greater technological advancements than in the last five-hundred years. It doesn’t mean less just because it happened more recently than the invention of the wheel. Just as your accomplishments don’t mean less for only having happened in thirty years instead of several centuries.”

The Sword gives a hollow laugh. “What accomplishments? Oh, right.” He snaps his fingers, points a mocking finger. “Right. You mean like—flunking out of high school, kickstarting the Apocalypse… those accomplishments.”

Castiel studies him closely. “You feel your contributions to humanity have been worthless,” he surmises, parsing it out.

The Sword’s shoulders tighten, his derisive smile flattening into a scowl.

“You’re wrong,” Castiel says, and he steps closer. “Every step in your path has been to lead you here. Everything—failure and success both—have been integral in leading you to this point.”

“A hundred and fifty years in Hell,” the Sword says, his voice angry now, picking up in pace, in volume. “You’re gonna tell me everything happens for a reason—what about Hell, huh? Did that happen for a reason? And are you really gonna tell me now, that this, me being held hostage in some fucking black hole and waiting to die, that’s as good as it ever gets? Really?”

Instinctively, Castiel wants to defend the orchestrations of Heaven—Dean’s parents, his conception, his life, all of it playing into his final destiny as the Sword of Michael, including, unfortunately, his time under Alistair in Hell—but he doesn’t say it. There is a question that has been perplexing Castiel for some time. Dean Winchester is doubtlessly righteous and chosen on high to be a holy vessel, but he is also gentle, compassionate, clever, and Castiel cannot help but wonder.

“Why did you say yes?”

The Sword stares at him. “What?”

"You said it yourself: you're going to die,” Castiel says. He doesn’t even consider softening his words until he sees the Sword flinch. He goes on, “It's going to be prolonged, and painful, and terrible. Why did you say yes?"

The Sword looks back at him, his gaze calculating. His eyes move over Castiel’s face as though searching for something there. He pushes his hands into his pockets of his jeans; his shoulders hunch over, curling in on himself. He makes for an unimposing figure. At last, he says, “I’m gonna save the world.”

"And every moment of that will be unrelenting agony,” Castiel says.

"I'm gonna get rewards beyond measure in Neverland." As a line, it sounds practiced.

Castiel cannot understand. "You won't reach Heaven for many centuries. You will suffer, first."

"Jesus. What do you want from me, Cas?"

Castiel blinks. Cas. It makes sense, as an abbreviation; it's simply one he has never considered.

"I'm saying your goddamn lines for you, here," the Sword goes on. "Okay. Yeah, I know it's gonna fucking suck. I don't care."

"You wanted to die," Castiel says. "When you said yes. You wanted to—" He doesn’t repeat himself. The words are bitter on his tongue.

For only a moment, the Sword’s certainty falters. His eyes shift, his gaze falling to his boots. He says, “So what?"

It doesn't make sense to Castiel. For an angel, death is something sought-after, glorious. After eons of watchful obedience, longevity becomes simply more of the same; to die for your cause is something noble and grand. For humanity, however, life is terribly transitory, and they have always been somewhat defined by their tenacity and their determination to survive.

"There are easier ways to die," Castiel says, at last.

The Sword laughs. The sound is dark and without humour. "Well, hell, I've never been one to go about things the easy way."

Castiel looks at him, at the sunny width of a grin that doesn’t reach his eyes. Slowly, the hollow smile fades from the Sword’s mouth, and then he is silent.

At Castiel’s back, there is distant birdsong, the wind in the leaves. He can hear the Sword’s pulse in his throat, the way his breath catches. The way he struggles for words.

The Sword says, “My brother said yes to the devil.”

“The Lucifer Sword,” Castiel says. “I know him.”

With a shake of his head, the Sword scoffs. He rubs a palm down over his face. “No,” he says. “You don’t.” He half-turns, looking back over his shoulder towards the oak, but his gaze is far-off and distracted, staring straight through the wood. His jaw works. “It’s okay—apparently I don’t, either.”

“Dean,” Castiel says, and he gets no further. It’s the first time that he has used the Michael Sword’s name, and it feels like sacrilege.

“I don’t want to talk about him,” the Sword says, abrupt and terse, and the line of his shoulders tightens.

There is something keenly felt within Castiel, a squeezing in the pit of him. In this body, it can be pinpointed to a place behind his ribs, and Castiel regrets. He says, “I’m sorry,” without knowing why.

The Sword’s eyes flash across to meet Castiel’s. “The hell are you sorry for?”

Castiel hesitates. “You’ll have to kill him,” he says.

The answering smile is sharp, like a fishhook to the corner of the Sword’s mouth. “Hey, maybe he’ll kill me first,” the Sword says, and there is real relief in it. His voice is broken glass. “No better way to die.”


***

The Sword stops testing the limits of the Beautiful Room. Everything disappears—the cheeseburgers, the mess. The science-fiction novels, too. Tentatively, Castiel searches for them. He doesn’t want to be disruptive to the Sword, who slumps again in the armchair and stares at the wall, but he is entertaining a foolish hope that perhaps they are still here, somewhere.

He moves dusty ornaments set up on shelves; he lifts boxes and glances into kitchen cupboards. Now that the Beautiful Room has gone back to a kind of default, everything is bare, if dusty and unclean. There aren’t many places for books to hide. Castiel moves a tottering stack of metal pots aside, and then puts them back. He crouches to look into drawers.

From behind Castiel comes the Sword’s voice. “What are you looking for?”

Castiel straightens. “A book,” he says, and he turns back.

The Sword has his chin propped in his palm. He watches Castiel, bored. He has his boots kicked off, left in a disorganised heap at the foot of his armchair. There is a hole in one of his socks, through which Castiel can see his big toe. “Shouldn’t you have the Bible memorised by now?”

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Castiel says.

The Sword lifts his head with a frown. “Why?”

“I don’t know the answer,” Castiel replies simply, and then, tipping his head over, amends: “Truthfully, I don’t understand the question. I want to know—whether they do or not.”

The Sword raises his eyebrows. “You want to read it,” he says, sceptical.

There is a note to the Sword’s voice that Castiel cannot determine—mocking, perhaps, or incredulous. Castiel isn’t interested in his judgement. “Can you bring it back?” he asks.

“You do it.”

“I can’t. It won’t be real.”

The Sword makes an exasperated noise in his throat and gestures loosely at the wall. “Dude, nothing is real. Just snap your fingers or whatever, and—”

Impatience curls Castiel’s fingers into fists. “I can’t,” he repeats. “I can only replicate things perceptible to the human senses. I can create a perfect physical likeness of the book, but the pages will be blank.”

With a huff of his breath, the Sword says, “Looks like I’m better at existing outside of space and time than you are.”

Castiel shuts the cupboard door and walks away.

It was a fatuous notion, anyway—what need does he have of human literature? He has a job to be doing. He walks the length of the Beautiful Room and he runs his hands over the peeling, greyed wallpaper, feeling the electric fizz of the warding sigils’ power beneath his fingertips. He checks every symbol, ensures that the Sword is safe here, that they cannot be found or watched.

Out in the crooked hallway, Castiel stares through the scene as he has created it: the dark wood, the scuffed wainscoting, the shelves sloping under the weight of old fishing equipment. The light from the living room does not reach this far, the corridor left dingy, shadows reaching from corners as far as to push at Castiel’s shoes. A single electric bulb swings overhead to cast an insipid white glow.

He reaches up with one hand to touch the lightbulb, and without meaning to, it bursts. There is a bang and a hot, bright flash, and then knocking against Castiel’s fingertips are a hundred tiny crystal tear-drops, through which the sunlight bounces and sparkles and shimmers, iridescent. The light gleams warmly against the curved gold branches of the chandelier, and above, there is the flickering comfort of tall, sweet-smelling candles.

There are many more beautiful things in humanity than a rotting cabin in the far-off mountains—beautiful things to which Dean Winchester is not privy.

Castiel lowers his hand, and small shards of heated plastic rain down onto his arm and shoulders from the shattered light-bulb. The hallway is in near-absolute darkness now, only illuminated by the light from the living room where the Sword still sits.

Castiel stretches up and untwists the broken bulb from its socket.

He walks back towards the kitchen, the still-hot bulb cupped in one hand. It would be easiest to simply recreate the light-bulb by thought, to restore the hallway to its default settings, but replacing it manually is something for which Castiel can take responsibility. Something with which he can occupy himself.

Castiel drops the bulb into the waste-bin and carefully dusts slivers of broken plastic from his trench-coat. He shuts the lid, and then as he turns to head back into the hallway, something catches his eye, set out on the side-table. A worn paperback copy of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

Castiel glances across at the Sword, who is seemingly oblivious, staring down at the arm of his chair and picking at a loose thread in the fabric. Castiel picks the book up, opens the front cover: A merry little surge of electricity piped by automatic alarm from the mood organ beside his bed awakened Rick Deckard. He smiles.

 

***

Castiel’s blade lies on the wood kitchen table, glinting dully in the electric half-light afforded by the cheap bulb swinging overhead. In battle, it would gleam, with Grace and with power – Castiel has faced enough enemies with it as his side to know that damage that can be wrought with it in his hand. Now, it is used as a paperweight.

Pinned beneath it are many sheets of paper, on which the Sword has been doodling: cartoonishly gruesome monsters; sigils; profanities in fat letters, stylised as graffiti; rough outlines of the room. Each line of the pencil is sloppy, careless, smudged, but he makes faithful representations of his subjects. Castiel feels unqualified to comment on skill, precisely—beauty is not something to which his kind are particularly attuned.

Castiel reaches out to touch, but as his fingertips skim over the rough lines, his attention is caught by a dull, hollow clang from behind him. Then: “Come on, you son of a bitch.”

Castiel lifts his head.

Again—clank. Resounding in echoes.

The Sword has been absent for some time, but Castiel has thought little of it. In the past, he has tried to regularly check the Sword’s well-being, but had quickly learned that it often led to obscenities and shouting and the Sword face flushed in fury, so he pays him no mind. Let the Sword fill his time however he pleases, behind closed doors.

Now, however, Castiel turns his head to look down the hall.

At the far end, the bathroom door is ajar; through it, Castiel catches a glimpse of the Michael Sword, on his knees beside the toilet.

Castiel picks up his angel blade, sheathes it, and moves down the hallway. When he peers through the door, he finds the Sword on his hands and knees, wedged awkwardly beneath the sink, his shirt-front wet. He has a wrench in one hand.

Nonplussed, Castiel blinks at him. “What are you doing?”

The Sword jolts, nearly smacking his head on the sink, and then he sits back on his heels. “Trying to get this piece of shit working,” he huffs. He knocks a fist against the side of the sink, and then wipes the back of a hand across his brow. He leaves a grey smear of grime across his forehead.

“You don’t have to do that,” Castiel points out. “It’s not real.”

The Sword stares at him, unblinking, for a moment, and then he turns a despondent look on the sink.

“If you want it to work, it should just—work.”

The Sword drops his face into an open hand. “I don’t want it to just work,” he says.  “I want to fix it.”

Castiel frowns. “I don’t understand.”

“I just want to do something that actually makes a difference.”

“Why?”

“Forget it.”

Castiel is quiet for a moment. Then, he says the only thing that he can think to show that, in some small way, he does understand. “I wanted to save that sparrow.”

The Sword’s hands become still.

“When I returned and it was gone—and I remembered—I felt…” Castiel searches for the word, but he isn’t sure how to articulate the abrupt, gut-lifting sense of weightlessness.

“You got attached,” the Sword says, incredulous. It sounds like an accusation.

“I wanted to help,” Castiel says.

“How the hell does that happen?” the Sword asks. “You getting invested. I thought you guys were all like the fucking Tin Man.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” Castiel says.

The Sword scoffs, rolls his eyes—evidently disbelieving—but before he can say anything further, there is an abrupt crack, the air shifting as though in preparation for thunder, and then there is Hester. They wear a young woman, blonde-haired, in a pinstriped pantsuit. Their hair is tied back in a single neat braid, and they have a clipboard in their hands.

“Hello, Hester,” Castiel says.

The Sword gets to his feet.

“Castiel,” Hester says, and ignores the Michael Sword.

“Where is Zachariah?” Castiel asks.

“Busy.” Hester clicks the top of their pen. “I’m here in his place.”

For all that Zachariah can be crass, he is at least consistent, if not reliable. It has been a long time since Castiel and Hester served in the same flight, but Castiel remembers finding their sense of tact and diplomacy wanting. He never thought he would miss Zachariah. He says, “How can I help?”

“There are some upstairs who are concerned, Castiel,” Hester says. “There have been an awful lot of fluctuations in Grace, here. Naomi sent me to see if I can pinpoint why, and if the warding needs to be adapted to accommodate this.”

“By all means.” With one hand, Castiel invites Hester to explore the room. “This is the majority of it. There is some space outside, extending no further than the edge of the clearing—and there are two more rooms at the end of that hallway.”

The Sword looks between them, his expression caught somewhere between disinterest and hostility, but he seems unwilling to resume his work in the bathroom in Hester’s presence, so he ends up standing awkward nearby, watching.

Hester walks a slow circle around the room first. They reach out, occasionally, to trace their fingertips over the room’s warding, testing each sigil. At one point, their circuit takes them past the Sword, who stands just slightly in their path. They stop dead, three feet from him, and look wordlessly at him until he rolls his eyes and shunts over out of the way.

Then, as Hester reaches the hallway, they pause. Castiel stands at their shoulder, and he doesn’t need to ask why they have stopped—he can sense it, as Hester evidently can. The uneven buzzing of Grace at the ceiling, around the light-bulb.

Hester lowers the clipboard, and stretches up onto tiptoe for the bulb. It bursts again, into glittering, gorgeous crystal, fracturing the sunlight into a shimmering, kaleidoscopic rainbow. Hester lowers their hand, and looks at Castiel. “You did this?”

Castiel doesn’t immediately answer. He didn’t consider that the temporary shift in space would leave behind a noticeable mark, that someone else would be able to pull his tampering back through the cracks so easily. He had thought it was only the broken bulb which had been altered, one easy switch—electric light to gleaming chandelier—but he was wrong.

Hester’s voice turns sharp. “Well, Dean Winchester’s never been to the Palace of Versailles—he couldn’t even stomach a flight to Vancouver.”

From behind them comes the Sword’s voice, indignant: “Hey.”

“So,” Hester continues, disregarding the Sword completely, “unless someone else has broken in and—”

“I did it,” Castiel says.

The confession doesn’t seem to give any Hester pleasure; they merely fix Castiel with a flat look as though the confirmation of their suspicion is a burden to them. “Why?”

Castiel hesitates. “It was an accident.”

Hester tilts their chin up, imperious and disbelieving. “You accidentally altered reality.”

“He’s been doing it for me,” the Sword interrupts. “So I don’t get bored.”

Hester turns that hard, displeased look on the Sword, past Castiel. They look back at Castiel, then. “Brother, would you keep your weapon out from underfoot, please?”

Castiel looks over his shoulder at the Sword, who has his arms folded over his chest, his shoulders pulled high and tense, his expression decidedly unimpressed. “Wait here,” Castiel says quietly.

The Sword scowls. “This is bullshit,” he mutters, but for once, mercifully, he does as he’s told.

Hester’s eyes linger on the Sword before falling to study their clipboard, and they click their pen again in one hand. “It’s opinionated,” they comment, pointedly.

“Yes,” Castiel says.

Humming, Hester writes something on their clipboard. “Try to squash that, will you? Zachariah won’t like it. Either way, I’ve made a note.” Hester clicks the pen again, again, again. The plastic squeaks and pops in Castiel’s ears. “In there, the weapon said you’ve been changing things.”

Castiel nods. “Yes, that’s true.”

“How many times?”

“Twice,” Castiel says, and then adds, “He never left the room, though.”

Hester makes a low sound of disapproval, but doesn’t comment. They scratch something down onto their clipboard. “It said it was to keep it from—what was it? Getting bored. Is that right?”

“Yes.”

“Why is it bored?”

Castiel frowns, but before he can respond, the Sword cuts in again from behind him. “Maybe since I’m trapped in a single goddamn room for weeks at a time,” he says, loud and heavily sarcastic. “Maybe that might have something to do with it.”

Irritation flashes through Hester—Castiel can sense it, like the crackling of a power surge. They curl, hot and electric, as a thunderstorm within their borrowed skin. “Castiel,” Hester says, their voice hardening. “Will you keep that thing quiet?”

Castiel bristles. “That thing, Hester, is the most fearsome weapon of Heaven. You should have some more respect.”

Hester laughs—a short, harsh outburst, without humour. “It’s not a weapon yet,” they say. “And it’s being disruptive.”

“He,” the Sword says emphatically, “can hear you.”

“This is the third time your weapon has interrupted us, Castiel,” Hester snaps, and there is a faint tremor through the floorboards, their Grace arcing and fizzing at the core of them, palpable to Castiel like a change in the weather, and the plastic of the pen in Hester’s hand cracks. “And you say it’s bored, but what I hear is that you can’t control it.”

Castiel’s eyes narrow. “I’m not here to control him—I’m here to keep him safe. A job I am so far executing perfectly.”

The curve of Hester’s smile is hair-thin and brittle. “I disagree. See, truthfully, Castiel, I think you’re the wrong angel for the job,” they say, “and I’ve made no secrets of my doubts about your suitability for this position.”

Castiel’s jaw tightens. He says nothing.

“You can’t be trusted. You’re headstrong, impulsive, irresponsible. I think you make a dangerous habit of spontaneity—” Hester lifts a hand towards the light-bulb, “—and that it makes you an inapt choice for the most important job in Heaven.”

Castiel lifts his chin. “I see,” he says. Quiet and calm. He can see this for what it is: Hester pushing at him, testing his limits. They say he’s overly demonstrative, irrational, even. He must prove them wrong.

“Moreover, I can’t understand why anyone would give you this task at all—except, perhaps, as one final demonstration of your incompetence, sufficient for you to be demoted to pencil-pushing, or flock-watching, or whatever menial task you’re deemed to be actually capable of—”

Anger sears beneath Castiel’s skin, but before he can say anything, there is the Sword, out of nowhere, stepping between them and up into Hester’s space, sudden and unexpected. “Hey,” he snaps, voice sharp. “Back off.”

“Dean,” Castiel says, bewildered. “What—”

“I think we’re done here,” the Sword says, and he squares up to Hester, tall and solid and imposing. He is taller than Hester’s vessel, more broadly built. Hester could shatter his skull in one hand, but in that moment, Castiel feels they might be evenly matched. “You can go back to your boss and tell him whatever the hell you want for your report, but next time you come back, you come with some fucking manners.”

Hester stares at the Sword like they have never seen a human being before, a lip-curling mixture of disbelief and disgust in their expression. “Step aside.”

Dean’s eyebrows arch. He steps in closer. “Or what?” he says, his voice dropping low, pleasant. Charming. “You’ll move me?” He smiles, bright and sunny and sharp. The glint of his teeth in the low light is predatory. “I’m the fucking Michael Sword. You lay a single, greasy finger on me, and you see what happens.”

Hester does not move. Their eyes harden, but they say nothing.

“So go ahead,” Dean says. He lifts his chin. The line of his shoulders, the tilt of his jaw, is a threat.  “Move me.”

Slowly, Hester’s eyes flick over, past the Sword, to Castiel. In a voice that is cold and clipped, they say, “You are supposed to be keeping the Michael Sword in line.”

“He is in line,” Castiel says. “Thank you for your concerns, Hester, but you’ve outstayed your welcome.”

The Sword folds his arms across his chest. He rocks lazily on his heels, swaying balefully closer into Hester’s space, until they takes one neat step backwards. Their eyes sweep slowly and disdainfully over him, from his scuffed boots to his face, and then to Castiel.

“Zachariah will hear of this,” Hester says. “Grace go with you.” They say the line like an insult. Then the air judders with static, and they are gone.

Into the absence, the Sword scoffs. “What an asshole.” He unfolds his arms and heads back into the living room.

He leaves Castiel in the darkened hallway, staring into the space that Hester was just occupying. At last, Castiel turns, and he watches the shape of the Sword through the doorway as he pours himself a measure of whiskey from a dark bottle.

Castiel says, “Why did you do that?”

“Hm?”

Castiel follows him. He stands in the warm yellow light, a long rectangle of sunlight spilling through the cabin windows, and his hands, loose at his sides, feel untethered. “I asked you to stay out of it, and yet you interfered. You were disrespectful. Were you any other human, Hester would have killed you.”

The Sword snorts derisively. “If I were any other human, I wouldn’t have had to listen to her horseshit in the first place.”

“Why did you do that?” Castiel repeats.

The Sword throws a look back over his shoulder. “You hear the way she was talking to you?”

As the Sword lifts the glass of whiskey to his mouth and drains it in one long gulp, Castiel is silent. He can’t understand Hester’s outburst. They have never particularly liked each other, but it has never before felt so personal. He does not know what he has done to invite this contempt.

The Sword reaches for the bottle, and his next words are quieter, half-lost in the sucking of the whiskey as it fills the glass. “Besides, you stuck up to Zachariah for me. Seems only fair.”

Castiel is quiet. He remembers: the insistence that Zachariah was pushing the Sword too far. In retrospect, he had argued, to himself, that Zachariah’s deliberate goading was counterproductive, that it would make the Sword less inclined to be helpful. In the moment, however, he had thought of none of this—only of the rage and grief flaring in the Sword, the bruised and hurting way he had retreated to solitude like a beaten dog. He had thought that Dean didn’t deserve that. This, however, is different. It twists uneasily in Castiel—something like loyalty.

***

 

Chapter Text

What causes fights and quarrels among you?
Don’t they come from desires that battle within you?


***


The Sword is sleeping, and Castiel is alone. He stares at the cabin, every inch now so familiar to him that he could recreate the room from memory even on Earth, with wood and with tools and with care—he knows the worn oak of the dining table, the dark red rug with its yellow detailing and threadbare patches, the places where the stitching has snagged and pulled when caught on a boot or the heavy leg of an armchair. The way the spray of rain clouds the windowpanes with condensation; the way that the sunlight slants through the unclean glass. Castiel knows it all.

He has been here a long time.

The Michael Sword sleeps more regularly now—disrupted more frequently by nightmares that rouse him with desperate, blood-throated cries of panic but Castiel ignores it now. The Sword doesn’t want his help.

It had been a snowy twilight-morning in early July when Castiel was first alerted by a strangled noise: a hoarse, half cut-off yell. There was panic and fear shivering in the air around the Michael Sword, thick enough to taste, and without a moment’s notice, Castiel had been on his feet, down the hallway, slamming open the door with his shoulder. His angel blade was drawn, hefted back, ready to fight—and he had encountered only darkness.

No intruder, no fight for the Michael Sword. Just the dark, and Dean Winchester sitting up in a tangle of blankets, breathing wild, sweat gleaming in the hollow of his throat. In the sliver of light afforded from the hallway, his eyes were wild.

For several long seconds, they had only stared at one another. Castiel had lowered the blade.

Finally, the Sword had managed, “Get out.”

Castiel didn’t have a chance to question it, because the Sword was saying it again, then shouting it—“Get the fuck out of here!”

Castiel had retreated. He shut the door behind him and he stood for a while in the hallway, listening to the Sword’s spiking pulse slowly calm. There was an uneasy, unsettled sensation within Castiel himself that would not go away, even long after the Sword’s breathing evened out in a way indicative of his return to sleep; it lingers even now.

At first, Castiel took that—the Sword’s repetitive cycle of sleeping and waking hours—as an indication of the passage of days, but sometimes he stands watch at the window and the seasons shutter by, photograph-fast, while the Sword rests in the next room. The grandfather-clock stutters, shivers, spins, stops.

Castiel is—tired, occasionally. Not physically, but he grows weary of the same room, the same thoughts.

He keeps thinking the same thoughts.

Castiel closes his eyes.

His fingers, resting lightly on the windowsill’s cool wood, smooth over a bump in the grain. He breathes, and he prays, O Father, leave me not in darkness to be surprised like a thief by the coming of Judgement Day. Let me be not like others, who are asleep, but let me be awake and sober.

He thinks of his flight—Balthazar at the head now, serving under Anna as Captain, his brothers and sisters acting as the vanguard to the Apocalypse, while he lingers here as though forgotten or discarded—and he prays, Let me wear faith and love like a breastplate, salvation as a helmet, and let me know my path.

He breathes, and when he opens his eyes, it shatters.

In an instant, there is instead a dark, expansive, empty space, a sharply vaulting ceiling that ripples from dark, hard stone into gold and glitter. The walls rise and rise and rise, into domes painted with angels, and higher still, there are windows, but they let in little light, leaving the hollow space with a sense of being heavy, hushed, as if the room is holding its breath. Solemn-eyed icons stare down, impassive, from their heights, crowned with darkly glittering jewels; an enormous chandelier drips with gold and with lessening candles; at the cathedral’s throat stands stone lions. All is ornate, ancient, silent, cast in a reverent, trembling light from the thousand candles that does not quite push the shadows back to their corners. Beneath every brick and every painting, Castiel can feel the finely thrumming pulse of a thousand lives beneath, the temptation to pluck out something else—castles and cliffs and everything in between.

Then, behind Castiel, a voice says, “Whoa.”

Castiel turns.

The Sword is in his socks and what passes for pyjamas. His expression is one of slack-jawed astonishment. After a moment’s struggle, his throat working, the Sword says, “Good morning, I guess.”

“I apologise,” Castiel says. “I’ll—”

“No,” the Sword interrupts, and one hand half-lifts towards Castiel, as though to stop him, but does not close the distance. He roughly knuckles at his eyes, and tilts his chin up to look heavenwards.

The tremulous yellow candle-glow settles softly on his skin, as though to paint him in gold-leaf. When he turns, slow, to take in his surroundings, he is framed by the dark wooden arches of the icons at his back. Tentatively, he steps forwards, moves through the dim, marbled nave of the cathedral.

“Always feel like I gotta keep my voice down in a place like this,” the Sword says, after a moment. His voice echoes faintly, hums in the dark “Like God’s listening.”

Castiel looks at him. “Do you think so?”

The Sword studies him for a second, a frown creasing his face. He searches Castiel for something for a long few seconds before he says, “I figure if he ever was gonna tune in, this would be a good place to start.”

“Sometimes, I used to listen,” Castiel says. “Before I was stationed on Earth. I would watch over churches and temples and synagogues, and I would just listen.”

“Why?” the Sword says.

The space around them flickers, bursts—and the echoing emptiness is filled, then, with faceless silhouettes in plain, formal clothing, palm leaves clutched in their two hands. Castiel cannot hold them back. The crowd surges into being, shushes and sways around them, caught somewhere between a frozen image and an indistinct memory of rushing movement, people walking in slowly, their footsteps ringing on the chequered marble underfoot. They lay palms at the feet of tall, solemn icons, press their lips carefully to the gold-leaf, light candles, murmur. Отче наш, Ти, който си на небето, да се свети името Ти—and then, as if a radio channel in static has been slowly re-tuned to allow the voices through: and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from—

--for watching over my son. He is strong again now and I—

--what to do. I feel helpless, lost, and no matter what I try, I cannot—

--my husband, please. I know he is a good man, if only—


Castiel is quiet. At last, he says, “Someone ought to.”

The pulsing rush of indistinct bodies on all sides is abruptly gone, disappearing with a snap of static as of an old television switching off. The palm fronds linger at the feet of each column, all at once suspended between verdant freshness and decomposition. Candlelight glints from the gold, a ring in the iris which catches the light. The eyes of the saint follow the Michael Sword as he moves deeper into the room.

“So where are we?” the Sword asks. He half-turns, slow, his head tilted heavenwards. His arms lift slightly at his sides, the ribs of the room breathing with him.

“Bulgaria,” Castiel says. “The Alexander Nevsky cathedral.”

“Bulgaria,” the Sword repeats. “That’s Europe.”

“Yes.”

The Sword reaches out, skims his fingertips over one of the carved, staring lions that lie before the throne. Overhead, the chandelier, colossal and ornate, glitters in the candle-glow. “Never left the US before,” he says distractedly. He turns his thumb to scrape the nail idly over the stone. He leaves a thin, ragged scuff; he rubs at it with the pad of his thumb, and it is gone. “Got a lead up in Alberta once but some other hunter got in there before me and cleared it all out, so I turned around in Montana.”

“Do you want to travel?”

“No. Sam, he went travelling,” the Sword says. “When he went off to college. He went with some friends to, like—Mexico. And one other time, they went all the way to Europe. For Mexico, Bobby got a postcard. Some fuck-ugly drawing on the front. Europe, I only found out about after. I think he went to France. We weren’t talking, then, so I don’t—I’m not sure. Might have been Germany or Poland or something. But me, I never…” the Sword shrugs loosely. “Never had the time. Or the money. More important things to do than dicking around with a backpack in some foreigner city.”

“No backpack, then,” Castiel says.

“No. I couldn’t—I couldn’t, anyway, so.”

Castiel frowns. “Why not?”

“Flying, it’s.” The Sword’s throat works. “It’s expensive.”

Castiel lifts one hand to gesture at the space around them. “We wouldn’t need to fly.”

The Sword’s mouth opens and closes uselessly. He looks away.

“Where would you choose?” Castiel pushes.

“Me?”

“You,” Castiel affirms. “If you could go anywhere. Where would you go?”

The Sword rubs a hand over his face. “Wouldn’t know where to start,” he says. “I mean, I never get to choose anything, so.”

Castiel steps in closer. His voice, in this echoing space, is quiet. “I’m giving you a choice now.”

With a short laugh, the Sword shakes his head. “No, you’re not,” he says. “Don’t pretend like I’m getting to decide shit—I’m not actually leaving, I’m not actually going anywhere. A prison’s still a prison if you wallpaper the bars.”

The Sword is being given a choice, of near-unlimited options. He can have almost anything he wants, and Castiel cannot comprehend why this is not enough. “But I’m not manipulating you into a decision—you still choose what you see.”

“I didn’t choose this.”

The cathedral flickers at the edges. The candles gutter.

“This—” Castiel pauses. “This was an accident.”

The Sword pins him with an appraising stare. “You made a mistake.”

Castiel lifts his chin. “An error of judgement.”

“Whatever helps you sleep at night, pal. Point is, you guys are meant to be all discipline, all perfect, and instead you got—” the Sword smacks his palm down hard upon the marble head of the throne lion; the resounding slap echoes dully. “—whatever the hell this is.”

 

 

The candles are extinguished. The chandelier hangs in darkness, and far above, the only light that remains is thin and grey, from the narrow windows that circle the cathedral’s domes. The Sword’s face is all hollows and shadows, but Castiel can see the Sword staring at him. His expression is unguarded, in the half-light; he looks at Castiel like an insect pinned to cork.

Castiel hesitates. “In Heaven,” he starts slowly, and he does not look at the Sword, “we maintain a certain detachment from humanity. We keep away from those places reserved for the curation of souls. We have no reason to concern ourselves with whatever memories they live out in Paradise.”

The Sword’s eyes are still on Castiel’s face, even as Castiel avoids looking at him.

He says, “Here, there is no such separation.”

“You’re the one who keeps changing things,” the Sword points out.

“I can feel them,” Castiel says. “In all the space around us. Amplified by your presence—made sharper. Harder to ignore.” Even now, he can feel the different lives creeping beneath the walls, and he knows that if he were to touch anything, he would feel it straining to burst into something new: into mountains or marshes, canopied forests and towers of stone. “Even before, I struggled with temptation. I would watch when I was not supposed to. Listen,” Castiel says, and he looks back into the cathedral, where only moments ago a thousand voices had murmured in prayer, “when I shouldn’t have. Now…” He trails off, uncertain. He lifts his head. He meets the Sword’s eyes.

“What about your memories?” the Sword asks.

It takes Castiel by surprise. “What about them?” 

“We don’t ever live in your memories.” The Sword’s voice is quiet. “How come?”

“You wouldn’t like my memories.” Over millennia, Castiel remembers the blood-slaked earth, the ruthless savagery of humans and angels alike. He remembers often seeing the massacres of their opposition and thinking that theirs was a neat, merciful killing worth envying. The armies of heaven are not cruel, but they are certainly not kind.

“Try me.”

Castiel studies him, considering. There is an element of a challenge to the cocky arch of the Sword’s eyebrows—a question of how bad can it be?—and the sensation that arises in Castiel is curious: a cold curl of displeasure, resentment. He feels under-estimated.

Castiel says, “Are you sure?”

The Sword nods.

Castiel gives him no warning.

All at once, there is the hiss of a spear through the air to bury itself, with a thick, wet sound, beneath a man’s jaw, flinging him from horseback to crash against sun-baked earth, and in the same moment, the crack of sword on sword, a rattling scream, the hollow ringing of metal striking shields. Sunlight sears off the metal, blinding with every swing of steel, every buckle glinting on mail and on armoured breast-place; the air is dry, heaving, and there is the tang of blood in it.

The Sword says, “Holy shit,” and flinches back from the chaos and bloodshed; Castiel doesn’t blink.

Before them, one man moves wrong—careless, too fast. He catches his combatant’s blade mid-swing and loses no fingers, crushes the metal in his fist, and then rips the sword away. Beneath the surface, then: a double-spined beast, a monster with many hands, eyeless, bloodless, frothing with thick yellow gas at the seams where meat should be. On the surface, the demon is a man, dark-haired, strong, clad in mail. One short thrust of a spear sees his enemy felled, the blade pushed deep through his breastplate.

“Jesus,” the Sword says.

The demon in human skin twists, ducks the lethal arc of a curved blade, slams their shoulder hard enough against a shield that their enemy staggers back, and in that time, the dagger in hand pushes through their carotid artery, slices out in a dark spray. They keep moving, unfazed by the carnage, and they are not alone. Demons are legion, chewing through their opponents without flinching—hewing muscle from bone and breaking metal, tearing men apart, all while churning, seething, a swarm of locusts and of flies and of putrid smoke. Eyes flash black, and one demon rips out a man’s throat with his fingernails.

“Are they all demons?”

Castiel looks across. “No. Only the commanders,” he says. “Nonetheless, their feats were—inspiring.”

The Sword grimaces. “No shit. Where are we?”

“Opis. Today, it no longer exists, within the Iraqi border—but it was Mesopotamia, then.” Castiel narrows his eyes in the harsh light. “Critical for control of the Median wall and a significant crossing point of the Tigris river, as it—”

“There’s angels,” the Sword interrupts.

Castiel follows his gaze, and yes—ahead, a tangle of razor-cold light and bone-shattering lightning heat, a hurricane with teeth, vainglorious—wielding a spear and a shield and a war-scream that rises in their throat like burning oil. The human vessel is blank-eyed through the slit in their helmet; there is blood dripping from the bronze.

“Hester,” Castiel says.

The Sword’s head snaps over. “Hester?” he repeats. “Clipboard Hester?”

“That’s right.”

The Sword pulls a face. He shields his eyes with one hand, squints out into the sunlight. He watches the battle rage.

He asks, “So which is the real fight?”

Castiel looks at him.

“The one in the dirt, or the one underneath?”

“They’re both real,” Castiel says. “The vessel can’t die of mortal injuries sustained by human weaponry while we inhabit it, but can be stopped by certain, more powerful materials—anything strong enough to kill the possessor will ultimately mean the death of the host as well. Even expulsion can be calamitous for a vessel.” Castiel pauses. “There are other ways.”

“What other ways?”

“Angels exist outside of time and space as it is understood on Earth. Vessels are—a kind of tether. If, however, the vessel is in some way compromised, it can cause…complications."

The Sword is quiet for a moment. “Where are you?” he asks.

Castiel squints.

“This is your memory, right? So where are you?”

Castiel inclines his head, and he searches. He recalls the lay of the land from his perspective, the way he could see the desert sweep hard and grey all the way to the river, and on the far side of the battlefield—Castiel points. “There.”

Figures, ahead. Three of them. They wear the same armour as every other man in the Persian army—light scale tunics, leather greaves, a bronze helmet. At the forefront, a human man, solidly built. Anna wears him easily, but Castiel doubts that the Sword would recognise her like this, fully garbed in armour and a male vessel. At her side, Castiel recognises himself, spear in hand. Uriel holds no weapon, his arms folded across his chest. His eyes are closed.

The Castiel of old is the one responsible for protecting the core of his flight as they prepare for what is to come. A group of Babylonian soldiers rush at the group, and he moves like lightning. The spear in his two hands turns easily, and the head of it glints whitely in the sunlight as it slices neatly through one man’s throat, and then it twists in his grip, wheels overhead, and the hook posed as counter-balance digs through the next man’s elbow and hauls him forwards into the dirt to meet with a boot to the face. The six human soldiers on the assault don’t have a chance to get close as Castiel sweeps their feet from beneath them, turns the spear over between his fingers, and thrusts it cleanly through a gap in the breastplate. He is untouchable, and he clears a path.

At his back, Uriel’s eyes are still closed, but he steps forwards, slow, careful. His arms unfold.

Castiel watches himself heft the spear—twice the length of his arm—in one hand, and throw it to slam through the furthest assailant’s collarbone and pin him limply to the dirt. He ducks the slash of a scythe, steps neatly past the stab and thrust. There are two knives at his belt that glint white-silver, iridescent, and Castiel remembers with nostalgia how much easier the predecessors to the contemporary angel blade were to wield, watches the way he moves like water with them, the way he can move swift and strike fast and never falter. He makes it look easy.

“Holy shit,” the Sword breathes. “Who the hell is that one?”

Castiel tilts his head over. “Me.”

The Sword turns to stare at him, but whatever he is about to say, he doesn’t get a chance to say it, because Castiel is watching the steady progress of Uriel through the battlefield, and he realises what is about to happen.

He turns to the Sword, reaches for him to grab a handful of his jacket’s sleeve. “Shut your eyes,” he says urgently, his fingers tightening. “Now! Shut your—”

Uriel lifts two hands.

It is the last thing the Sword and Castiel see.

Everything is obliterated by a searing, icy light, no trace of the battlefield visible through it. The Sword’s knees buckle; he throws a hand over his face.

When finally the light dissipates and bleeds away, there is little left but charred earth. Scorched gold; shattered mail and cracked shields; dust, and a scattering of molars.

Slowly, the Sword lowers his arm. He straightens, silent, and he stares at the now-barren landscape before him. On the far side of the field, Uriel wipes his hands on his leather greaves. Anna turns his head and speaks. The Castiel of two millennia ago, at their side, is motionless.

From a great distance, Castiel watches himself.

The Sword says, “What the hell was that?”

“A decisive victory for the Persian empire,” Castiel says.

“Decisive?” the Sword echoes incredulously. “You nuked them.”

“We had an investment in Cyrus,” Castiel says. “Nabodinus’ reign was an inconvenience.”

“Do you have any idea how many people you killed?”

“No.”

“Do you care?”

Castiel looks at him. “No.” He turns to face the Sword. “If we hadn’t taken matters into our own hands, many more would have died, and much more painfully, in the defence of Sippar. As a result of our intervention, the city was captured peacefully.”

“Yeah, I can tell.” The Sword jerks his head at the battlefield. “Looks real peaceful.”

Castiel regards the Sword evenly. “I told you that you wouldn’t like my memories. I’m a soldier, Dean. This is what soldiers do.”

“This?” The Sword laughs. “No, this isn’t what soldiers do. This is a goddamn massacre—they didn’t stand a chance. That wasn’t fair.”

Castiel raises his eyebrows. “Is that what war is?” he asks. “Fair?”

The Sword stares at him.

“These losses were military,” Castiel says. “Regrettable, but necessary. Humanity has committed far greater atrocities in the name of far less substantial gains. Were those fair?”

“I don’t know,” the Sword says, voice low. “Were you behind those, too?”

Castiel starts.

“No,” he says. “I wasn’t. In my experience, mankind needs no assistance in tearing itself apart.” He steps in closer. “Since the beginning, your kind have pillaged and sacked and burned and laid to waste. Delighted in suffering for suffering’s sake, in the cases of those you deem unworthy—or those you deem to stand in your way. You inflict pain, incite vengeance, breed violence upon violence, and for what? For dirt? For power over one another?”

“And what was this for? Wait—” the Sword spreads his hands. “Let me guess. Destiny.”

Castiel’s eyes narrow. “How is it that you can speak with such derision about fate as though fate isn’t what brought you here?”

“Fate didn’t bring me here. I’m here because, for me, this is what rock bottom looks like. I’m here because my brother gave up on me. And you didn’t torch a thousand people because Fate made it so—you did it because you got told to. You got told to, and you don’t have the brains to suss out bad orders.”

Castiel looks at him. “Do you?”

The Sword’s mouth presses into a thin line; a muscle jumps in his jaw.

“Or do you do as you’re told?” Castiel lifts his chin, holds the Sword’s gaze. “When your father gives the order—”

“That’s different,” the Sword mutters. “That’s my choice.” 

“As it was mine.” Castiel does not look away. “As it still is.”



***

 


“Fortunately,” the Sword starts, “I got to go on the Ferris wheel.”

Castiel considers this, leaning back in his chair. “Unfortunately,” he continues, after a moment, “the natural entropy of the universe means all things will eventually die.”

The Sword says, “Jesus Christ.”

Castiel squints across the table at him. “No, he was resurrected and then ascended to Heaven,” Castiel explains. “He’s an exception—as, I suppose, technically, are you.”

Groaning, the Sword drops his head into his hands. At his elbow, his glass of whiskey is close to empty; although he has explained to Castiel when exactly the game stipulates that one of its contestants needs to drink, the Sword has been getting through his drink faster than Castiel has. “Okay,” the Sword says, slow and exasperated. “Okay, one more time.  Your statement’s gotta be related to mine.”

“I know that.”

“Like, unfortunately, the Ferris wheel was on fire. And then I go, fortunately, I’m a trained firefighter, or whatever—see, one statement is related to the other one.”

“My statement was related,” Castiel says. “Regardless of the temporary entertainment value of a Ferris wheel, death is inevitable for all things.”

The Sword sighs. “More closely related than that.”

Haltingly, Castiel surmises, “It has to relate specifically to the time on the Ferris wheel.”

“Yeah. It has to be close to what I said.” The Sword grabs his drink, takes a long sip, and sets it back down on the dining table with a clink. “Okay. We’ll try again. You ready?”

Castiel nods. “I’m ready.”

“So—” the Sword holds his hands out, as though in placation or in some kind of plea for mercy. “Fortunately, I got tickets to go see Led Zeppelin in concert.”

“Unfortunately,” Castiel responds, “they were terrible.”

The Sword chokes.

Castiel’s brow furrows. “That was related,” he says. “I don’t—”

“There is no reality in which any Led Zeppelin concert is terrible,” the Sword interrupts, loud enough that Castiel is drowned out; Castiel simply talks louder.

“You told me this didn’t have to adhere to the rules of reality,” Castiel argues. “That was your reasoning when you disagreed with my response about quantum superposition—”

“No, my reasoning was that I don’t want to play a drinking game that involves fucking chemistry—”

“Thermodynamics,” Castiel corrects.

The Sword throws his hands into the air. “I don’t want to hear anything about atoms, or molecules, or quantum whatever-the-fuck when I’m trying to get wasted.”

“There was nothing scientific in my last response.”

“Your last response was—it was offensive, frankly.” The Sword stretches across the table for the bottle of whiskey and pours another measure into his glass, the bottle glugging and glugging until the glass is precariously full. He pinches the glass between two fingers and slurps inelegantly from the rim until the liquid level is low enough for the glass to be safely moved, and then he gestures at Castiel with it. “Look—you start. Fortunately…”

“Fortunately,” Castiel echoes, and he considers it. He has already been chastised for mentioning things that the Sword claims are miserable, or boring, or both, for his statement of good fortune; now, he attempts to think of a statement and he struggles.

The Sword drums his fingers loudly on the table. “Come on. Anything good.”

Castiel hesitates. “Fortunately,” he tries again, “I—”

The Sword rolls his eyes. “Don’t hurt yourself, dude.”

Castiel’s eyes narrow. “Angels are called into action when humanity is in dire circumstances,” he says. “Forgive me if I have limited experience with objectively positive situations.”

The Sword stares at him. “That’s fucking sad,” he says.

“Fortunately,” Castiel bites out, irritation thrumming through him like a plucked wire, “I have Dean Winchester to elucidate me on all that my existence has so far been lacking.”

Sitting back in his chair, the Sword raises his eyebrows—and then, after a moment, raises his glass, as though impressed. “Alright,” he says. “Unfortunately, I’m being an asshole about it.”

Castiel breathes, and tension bleeds from his shoulders that he wasn’t aware he was holding. “Fortunately, I can be patient,” he says, at last.

“Unfortunately, we’re gonna be here for a hundred years and your patience is gonna run out.” The Sword’s smile is a strange one—rueful; presumptuous.

Castiel thinks. To buy himself time, he mimics the Sword; he lifts his own glass to his mouth and sips at the whiskey there. To him, the taste of it is muddy with many molecules—impossible to tell whether it is enjoyable or not. However, he can identify a sweet, warm burn of the liquid down his throat, and it spreads slow and easy beneath his skin, effervescent.

“Fortunately,” Castiel says, slow, considerate, and he licks the last traces of whiskey from his lower lip; he watches the Sword’s gaze shift, near imperceptibly, at the movement, “I have faith I will not be tempted beyond what I cannot stand.”

The Sword’s smile widens, and it is genuine now. His eyes crease at the corners; there is a light in him. “What, to strangle me?”

The wrong answer—Castiel wins. He points out as much, directing the Sword to his glass of whiskey, and as he watches the Sword theatrically roll his eyes and drink, Castiel realises that he, too, is smiling.

As the Sword sets his glass down, he looks at Castiel, appraising. He rocks onto the back two legs of his chair. “The way this place looks,” he says. “You’ve been taking me to memories, right?”

“Yes, that’s correct,” Castiel says, although haltingly. He is still not convinced that these excursions are a good idea, but so far the Sword seems to be unharmed by it, so he is willing to humour him—for the most part.

“So I’m thinking—we can zap all over to different places, different times, but can we do it with the memories of someone who isn’t dead yet?”

Castiel squints. “Who did you have in mind?”

The Sword doesn’t answer immediately. He picks at the seam of his jeans with his thumbnail. Then: “Mine.”

Castiel’s first instinct is flat-out refusal. Absolutely not. He does not immediately rebuff the Sword, however. He does not know why he even considers it. The idea of it is dangerous, recklessness bordering on lunacy.

“I’m guessing that face doesn’t mean, sure, Dean, that’d be great.”

Castiel hesitates. “It can be done,” he says, slowly.

The Sword’s eyebrows arch. “But…”

“You’ll be hosting the memory, not inhabiting it. You’ll be less present.” 

The Sword doesn’t react. Eventually, he says, “So?”

Castiel studies him, takes in the resolution set in his expression. He pushes back his chair. “I would be separating you from a part of yourself,” he says, as he rounds the end of the table to approach the Sword. “It would be—uncomfortable.”

“I can handle uncomfortable.”

Castiel doesn’t tell him that his grip on the Beautiful Room would be tenuous, at best, while hosting a memory—that he would be entirely reliant on Castiel. He doesn’t tell him that he is more at risk of coming apart from this reality, there. Castiel can handle it. He can keep him safe.

He reaches out for him, touches two fingers to his temple. It only takes a moment—the Sword has the memory at the forefront of his mind, ready, and so Castiel plucks it from him. The Sword’s eyes are closed, remembering; when he opens his eyes, the cabin is gone.

The crowd heaves and pulses like a living thing, men and women packed elbow to elbow—and faceless. Every one of them rocks and sways with the rhythm. On stage, hot blue lights pick out the silhouettes of two long-haired men, half-stooped over guitar or microphone, moving with the music. The sweat gleams on their faces, and at Castiel’s side, the Sword’s breath catches. His pulse is hammering loud enough that Castiel can hear it, thunderous, over the kick-drum.

The Sword turns to Castiel, his face split by a wide smile. “It’s not the real deal,” he shouts over the song. His voice is fragmented by the roaring guitar. “Too young—they split up—but Robert Page and—they carried on for a—”

Castiel leans in closer, near enough that the Sword’s breath rushes over the side of Castiel’s face. This close, his heartbeat rings in Castiel’s ears, and there is a warmth within him—something golden and sweet and shimmering—and Castiel realises, after a beat, that he can feel the Sword’s soul swelling behind his ribs. It is also easier to hear him.

“—one of the first shows I ever went to,” the Sword is saying. “One of the best things I ever did.”

On stage, one man rocks into the microphone, croons out long and slow, ain't no need to hide, Ain't no need to run, and the Sword grins over at Castiel. Then, his attention is caught somewhere past Castiel’s shoulder, and his smile falters. His eyes move across the audience, and then slowly, he turns to take it all in—the swaying, moving crowd, each person turning a blank face, like a smoothly blurred image, towards the stage. 

“What’s wrong with them?” the Sword asks.

“These are your memories,” Castiel explains, and as though on cue, the world around them slows. On all sides, the sea of people dulls to a slow roll. “Did you take the time to learn every face? Or were you watching the stage?”

The Sword lifts his face to the band, and together he and Castiel watch the slow trickle of sweat down the lead singer’s nose, the way he moves—but the Sword is not transfixed, now, as he was then. He turns, looking across and through the crowd.

“You remember the general, rather than the specific. Feelings. Atmosphere. Details escape you, as time passes. I’ve taken this memory from you, Dean, and this is the best you could do.”

“So, Heaven,” the Sword says. “It’s all memories. It’s all—like this. Fragments.”

“Yes.”

“Incomplete versions of the best things we ever did.” The Sword’s eyes move over the scene before him, his mouth slackly open as though to speak, but wordless. At last, he manages, “Some paradise.”

“The band is here,” Castiel says. “The music is the same. Is that not enough?”

The Sword is silent.

Before them, a man is jostled by the crowd, comes staggering forwards, slops the beer in his raised hand. It all happens different, though—slow, and dull, the sound half-muted as though heard through water. The Sword steps easily out of the way, and watches the beer arc and splatter on the sticky concrete.

“Got that all over my back last time,” the Sword says distantly. “Nearly gave him a black eye for it, only I was having too good a time.”

For a moment, it is as though the fog across the man’s features is lifted, like a thin veil, and they see—pale eyes, a thick nose, greying hair—as the man reels and splutters, and then he stumbles away, back to shouting out the lyrics—an instant in which his brash, tuneless voice rises above all the others, and then he is gone again, faceless, indistinct.

“No,” the Sword says, at last. “It’s not enough.”

Castiel stares at his dejection, unable to understand why this isn’t sufficient. The idea had filled the Sword with so much delight, and now he is silent, his back to the band. His shoulders are heavy. He says something, then—abruptly, forcefully—at precisely the same moment as the scene swells back into life. His words are swallowed by the roaring crowd, the squeal of electric guitars, the roiling waves of hundreds moving all together.

“What?” Castiel says, and steps closer.

The Sword reaches across, grabs a handful of Castiel’s coat, and his face rocks close to Castiel’s own. Tight-jawed, eyes dark, mouth a thin line, the Sword speaks again, and this time, Castiel catches, “—leave, now!”

Castiel frowns, but obliges, reaching for him.

He can taste it in the air around the Sword—his distress, his panic, his desire to escape—but before his hand can land on the Sword, there is a short, sharp, white pulse from him, and the concrete floor beneath them shudders. The music groans, every instrument abruptly out of key, twists higher and higher, discordant and shrill. The Sword is out of reach, then, somehow: at arms’ length and unreachable.

“Dean,” Castiel says. His voice is far away, as though heard through glass. Something tightens coldly within him—Dean disconnected from reality, more vulnerable now than ever, and Castiel unable to protect him. “Dean—”

The Sword shivers at the edges, like he’s breaking into static—and then he is solid, and he looms forehead as Castiel lifts two fingers to his temple, but just before he makes contact, he sees.

Over the Sword’s shoulder, there is the weaving approach of someone squeezing through the crowd—someone lucid, their face in perfect clarity, amongst the mist and the uncertainty that swirls around every other forgotten face.

Castiel’s breath catches in his throat.

He has heard stories, but he has never actually seen the Abomination before.

The Lucifer Sword looks just like a boy.

Then it is gone—the basement, the band, the baying crowd. There is the thin winter sunlight spilling through the cabin windows. Scuffs mark the floor around the armchair where the Sword drags his boots.

The Sword’s eyes are closed. He pulls his face from Castiel’s hand and turns away. 

Castiel wants to speak about the danger that the Sword just inadvertently placed himself in, to chastise the Sword—and himself—for getting them into a situation where his connection to the Beautiful Room was compromised. However, they are safely back in the cabin and the Sword is walking away from Castiel and the first thing out of Castiel’s mouth is, “Sam.”

The Sword says nothing. He moves away towards the kitchen, where he twists the cap off a new bottle of dark liquor.

Castiel follows, carefully, as though trying not to spook some frightened thing. In his mind, he replays and replays the moment of where the mere memory of his brother was enough to jar the Sword briefly from existence. He tries to understand.  “What happened with your brother?”

The Sword doesn’t look at him. “He picked some demonic bitch over his own brother, that’s what happened.”

Castiel is silent. He doesn’t know this part of the story. As far as his superiors cared when they briefed him, Sam Winchester was dead, beyond salvation—an instrument of evil to be destroyed at any cost.

There is a long moment in which the Sword doesn’t speak; he pours out a glass of whiskey, pouring and pouring. The glass is substantially more full than when they drank together earlier. He empties the bottle. He lifts it and drains the glass in three long gulps. He exhales through his teeth. “Went off to fight Lilith with her and never came back,” he says. “Next thing I know, the devil’s out and the world is ending.”

“You haven’t spoken to him since?”

The Sword scoffs. “Why the hell would I? Not like he’s gonna answer. We weren’t on good terms even before he wound up with Lucifer wearing his skin.”

Castiel watches the way he shakes the empty bottle and drops it heavily onto the countertop. He takes in the way he hunches over, closes himself off, and realises that this is not anger, but grief. Castiel says, “You were close, once.”

Finally, the Sword lifts his head and meets Castiel’s eyes. “Once,” he says.

“Forgiveness can be cathartic. It may do you good to face these memories and—”

“Forgiveness?” the Sword echoes incredulously. “You think forgiveness is what I need right now?”

“You’ll be at peace with him, soon. When all this is over—”

“Maybe I don’t want to be at peace with him!” the Sword bursts, and he swipes at the empty bottle on the table. In one smooth, furious motion, the bottle is shattering against the floor in a brown glass spray. The Beautiful Room shudders at the seams.

Castiel blinks.

“Maybe I don’t want to forgive him. You think of that? Maybe I’m angry and I want to go on being angry. I didn’t sign up to this suicide mission so I can be at fucking peace—Jesus, I could spend ten bucks and sign up to some fucking yoga meditation bullshit if all I wanted was some goddamn peace of mind. I want to kick his ass.” The Sword steps up into Castiel’s face—breathing ragged, chest heaving—and Castiel does not back down, but he feels the urge to. He feels it now: Dean Winchester, dangerous.

His soul thrums in the air like a thunderstorm, too big for his body, fierce and feral and raw. The air is burning hot, and Dean should not have power over this place, but he steps in close to Castiel and a pane of glass in the rearmost window cracks. The lightbulb overhead flickers. Castiel is breathless in the face of it, but he stands his ground. He meets Dean’s eyes.

“I want to beat the shit out of him,” Dean says, voice low and seething. His hands, at his sides, are curled into fists, but it does not hide the way that he is shaking. His restraint is brittle, bloodless; his throat works to swallow and his jaw ticks and his breathing is uneven. “You hear me? You can fuck your forgiveness. You can fuck your peace. I don’t want my brother back so we can hug and kumbaya and say it’s all okay; I want him to look me in the face and fucking explain—” and then the Sword lashes out, wordless, and he slams his fist hard against the wall.

It’s instant—the breaking of Dean’s knuckles; the impact jarring the side-table, toppling the lamp to the floor to break on the floorboards; the light-bulb exploding, shorting the power out; the windows shattering. A sigil etched into the wall flares hot white and gutters and fades. Dean’s grief slams through the Beautiful Room like a hurricane. It extinguishes a light in Castiel, and even in this body, he is dim, aching with regret.

Castiel says, “I’m sorry.”

Dean’s fist, where he has it pulled back as though to punch out again, drops. His fingers loosen at his side. Blood drips from his knuckles. 

After a long moment, he scrubs a hand down over his face. Through his trembling fingers, he gives a hollow laugh. “Bullshit, are you sorry,” he says. His voice is scraped thin. “You got exactly what you wanted. I’m here, aren’t I? I’m all lined up to die for this. Shit, you must be in for a hell of a pay-raise as soon as Michael’s wearing me.”

Castiel shakes his head. “I’ll receive nothing,” he says, his voice hollow. “No reward, no accolade, no glory. Just—more of the same.”

“Cry me a river, Cas.”

“I don’t mind. I don’t want that—gold, gratitude…” Castiel’s words trail into silence, and he feels the emptiness of them, the futility. “All I want is for you to get what you deserve.”

The Sword looks at him. “And what do I deserve?”

Castiel says, “Peace.”

For a long moment, the Sword stares him down. Then, out of nowhere, he says, “Take me to him.”

“I can’t,” Castiel says. “Even if I was permitted—even if it wasn’t ludicrously dangerous—I don’t know where he—”

The Sword strides across to him, and he reaches for Castiel’s hand, lifts it into the space between them. His fingers are ungentle on Castiel’s. “It doesn’t have to be real,” he says. “Just show me.”

Castiel hesitates. “Do you have a happy memory I can draw from?”

“No,” the Sword says. “I don’t want a happy memory. I want—show me one where I treat him like shit. Show me where I make him miserable.”

Something in Castiel aches. He says, “Dean—”

The Sword’s fingers tighten on Castiel’s hand—tight enough to hurt, were Castiel human. Tight enough that Castiel can perceive the touch, muted and distant as the sensation is in a ghost-like approximation of his vessel’s body. His fingertips are rough, calloused—warm.

It’s a motel room, small and dingy and cramped. There is a water-stain on the ceiling around the electric bulb; the thin carpet is badly scuffed, and there is a cigarette burn by the mini-fridge. Castiel and Dean stand unseen, in one corner, and John throws a bottle at the wall. At Castiel’s side, the Sword flinches back against the wall; on the far side of the room, he also flinches. Over there, he is younger, face smooth and eyes red. The scars at his jaw and hairline are gone; he must be barely twenty.

“Dad, don’t—” the other Dean says, his voice small and scared. “Come on, let’s just calm down—”

“You taking his side?” John asks. “After everything I’ve done for you?”

Dean shrinks. “No, I just—”

“What, for making us freaks?” The Lucifer Sword is too tall, his jeans shy of the white bone of his ankle. He has gangly limbs, fawn-like, and uncombed hair. On the second bed, his duffel bag is already packed. His father stands between him and the bag, and Sam Winchester is furious. “For destroying any hope I had of being normal? All ‘cause of your fucking psychotic—”

“You watch your language.”

“Sam,” Dean says desperately; at Castiel’s side, the Sword says it too, only softly, as though in echo.

“I’ve kept you safe. I’ve cared for you, trained you, made you the best versions of yourselves—”

Sam laughs bitterly.

“—some of the best damn hunters I’ve ever seen if you could only get your head out of your ass long enough to see it,” John goes on, his voice rising, and he points at Sam, finger shaking and accusatory. “You wouldn’t even be alive if not for me—maybe you could try some goddamn gratitude on for size, instead of—”

“Please,” says Dean Winchester at twenty-one, voice strained. “Don’t do this.”

Sam looks over, and he jolts with the realisation that it is him, and not their father, that Dean pleads with. His mouth falls slightly open, his brow crumples, and he stares at Dean. Castiel has seen betrayal over many eons, in many forms, but nowhere has it turned coldly in his gut the way it does when he sees Sam realises whose side his brother is taking.

“Dean,” Sam says.

“Don’t do this. Please. It isn’t fair. Goddamnit, it’s not—”

“Not fair?” Sam repeats. There are tears burning in his eyes. His lower lip judders, but he clenches his teeth and does not cry. “Not fair—you’re gonna talk to me about what’s not fair?”

“Yeah, it’s not fair,” Dean snaps. “We’re supposed to be a team. We’re supposed to be a family, a goddamn family, Sam, unless that doesn’t mean anything to you anymore since you got your head all full of stupid ideas about school like you’re too good for this—”

Dean is raging now, and it’s his mouth and his voice but the words are all John’s, and his father stands at his back with his arms folded across his chest, while before him, his eldest son moves like a wind-up toy, jerking, spluttering, furious and directionless.

Sam’s mouth lifts into a hollow smile, his head shaking. “Don’t do that,” he says, and his voice is unsteady now, too. “Don’t you put this on me. I’m not gonna saddle myself to being his punching bag just to spare you the blows of being too much a goddamn coward to—”

Dean snaps. “Shut your fucking mouth,” he says, and he rounds on Sam like an animal, spitting and hateful and red-eyed.

“I deserve better than this,” Sam says.

“Bullshit you do,” Dean says. “This is exactly what you deserve. You’re always acting like you’re better than us somehow, like me and Dad and what we do, that’s beneath you—but you’re not special, Sam. You’re not anything.”

John says, “Dean, that’s enough.”

Dean is crying.

At Castiel’s side, the Sword is silent, still. Castiel looks across at him to see him staring straight through the scene, his jaw tight, his expression hard.

Castiel says, “You wanted to see this.”

The Sword is silent for so long that at first Castiel thinks he has gone unheard, before at last the Sword mutters, “I couldn’t figure out why he did it. For the longest time, I couldn’t—”

“Why he left?”

“Why he said yes.” The Sword rubs a hand over his face. “I’ve seen enough.”

Castiel lifts a hand, and the room empties. The memories dissolve, but the motel stays, threadbare, tattered, hollow. There is static on the television; the fluorescent glow of the street lights are half-blue through the window.

The Sword stares, silent, into the empty room. “Knew he was unhappy,” he says quietly. “He was always like that—angry. But somehow that made him better. Me—Dad would get in my head and I’d be useless. It gave Sam focus. He was lethal. Sometimes I used to think my Dad got him riled up on purpose. Sam pissed-off was worth three of me calm. I was reliable, sure, but I was never good like Sam was.”

“You were good enough,” Castiel says. “You are good enough.”

The Sword grunts. “Yeah,” he says. “I know. Sure. I’m the Chosen One.”

“More than that.” Castiel reaches for him. His fingers graze over the back of Dean’s wrist. He does it to ground him, to return the Beautiful Room to its default setting – dark, heavy furniture; winter sunlight through window-panes; yellowing wallpaper, a rifle mounted on the far wall—but then the walls and floor settle, and his fingertips linger on the Sword’s skin. “You’re a good man.”

Dean’s eyes drop, slowly, to Castiel’s hand. He swallows, throat working. He doesn’t move away. He doesn’t say anything.

***

Chapter Text

I saw a dream and it made me fearful;

and these fantasies as I lay on my bed and the visions in my mind kept alarming me.

 

***


At Castiel’s back, there is the throaty clank of water moving in pipes; the wind knocks softly against the window-panes. Summer has come to the Beautiful Room, light as thick and yellow as butter spilling a wide, warm rectangle onto the floor, while simultaneously clouds tangle for a storm.

Castiel clears his throat. “I could change this place again,” he offers. “If you wanted.”

The Sword doesn’t lift his head. When he replies, his voice is muffled by the way that he is slumped, his arms folded on the table, his chin propped against the wood. “Nah, I’m good.”

Castiel takes a step closer. “A memory, perhaps, or—”

“I said, I’m good.”

“I know that. I merely thought—”

“It means, no thank you. The more you push it, the more it’s gonna mean, fuck off.”

Castiel straightens. “I understand.”

At last, the Sword looks up at him. “Seems you don’t, seeing as how you’re still here.”

Castiel turns away. He looks, for a moment, out of the window, at the unchanging portrait thrown the dusty glass—the same pines, jutting high into a cloud-heavy sky, their needles fanning, barb-like, until the wood is dense, thick, impermeable. Inside, looking out, the weather is impossible to judge. It could be April or August; it could be Oregon or Germany or somewhere on the far side of the equator.

He watches wind move, sluggish and slow, through the trees, and then he watches the shudder of a branch, almost high enough to be out of sight, almost beyond the window-frame.

Then he watches the sparrow fall. Again.

It plummets gracelessly, desperately, definitively. It crumples hard against the soil, all wrong angles. One wing twisted beneath its back.

Castiel cannot see it clearly from here, but he knows what he would find if he were to go outside. Dirt-scuffed, ragged, shivering in the soil. The uncertainty within himself as to whether he should rescue it or snap its spine, put it out of its misery.

He turns his back on it.

It isn’t real.

At the dining table, the Michael Sword remains slumped, inanimate. The only life in him is the idle shift of his fingertips, scrubbing over some bump in the grain of the dining table, smoothing out a splinter. He pays Castiel no attention.

Castiel moves past him, wanders out into the hallway into the side wing of the cabin, where Castiel had constructed the Sword’s own private space. 

There, he skims his fingertips across the dark wood panelling, distracted, and then there is prickling at his fingers, a muted sensation, and when Castiel looks across, his hand is scraped raw and bloody, the pain distant in this place, and he sees the sharp grey rock speckled with blood. The tsingy is a high rock spire, asymmetrically twisted, with ridges like broken glass; at the foot of the rock, lush green plant life froth and unfurls. Spilling through the stone forest’s narrow ravines, there is hot, muggy sunlight, caught between the serrated teeth of the tsingy like an animal carefully holding something in its mouth.

Castiel pulls his hand away. He clenches his fingers into a fist, and then relaxes to find his palm clean, unblemished. He lifts his eyes to find only the wood of the hallway, water-stained and scuffed and worn smooth.

Then, before his eyes, the wall shudders again, but this time, it is not of his making.

The hallway pitches and shivers, wood creaking, nails bending and popping, and Castiel lifts his head to quickly survey the sigils painted beneath the skin of this place. Protection spells, invisibility spells, spells to render them untraceable and untouchable, perpetually suspended between any ten places on Earth and separate from all of them—every symbol and rune intact.

Castiel’s angel blade slips into his waiting hand. He holds his breath.

As he watches, one sigil stretches and contorts at the edges—but it holds. It eases back into place, and slowly, it settles.

They are safe.

Castiel lets his breath out.

From the other room comes the Sword’s voice: “The hell was that?”

Castiel stows his angel-blade, not wanting to cause the Sword unnecessary concern. He returns along the hallway to the living room, and he stands in the doorway for a moment to survey the spell-work, to ensure there is no breach. At last, just as the Sword is drawing breath—to repeat the question, or to shout at him, presumably—Castiel says, “A test.”

The Sword’s eyebrows lift. “A test?” he echoes. “A test of what?”

“Our defences. Our location.” Castiel lifts one shoulder, non-committal. “I don’t know. Our enemies haven’t found you yet, but evidently, they’re trying to.”

“What happens when they do?”

“That’s what I’m here for.”

“Right,” the Sword says, and his eyes flick over Castiel from head to toe, appraising, critical. “To protect me.” The tone of his voice is not complimentary; Castiel narrows his eyes, but before he can respond, the Sword turns away, and Castiel can at least, by now, recognise that as the end of a conversation.

Castiel watches his turned back, the line of his shoulders, and he cannot help thinking of the correlation between his fracturing of reality here and then the attempted assault on the Beautiful Room.

It’s dangerous, these shifts in time and space. A chandelier from Versailles, a rock formation from Madagascar: they seem small, inconsequential, but Castiel worries that the prison in which Michael Sword is held may be splitting at the seams. They are in a room out of space—all at once tethered impossibly into the walk-in freezer of a ghost-town diner in Wyoming, and a boarded-up warehouse in Szczecin, and an empty gymnasium in Hangzhou, and drifting somewhere outside of the reaches of the human perception of time—and Dean is pinned here in a human body only by Enochian magic. His muscle and bone and skin is definitively the most important thing in the universe at this point, and if the Beautiful Room comes apart, then Castiel doesn't know what will happen to him.

He moves slowly through the cabin, checking every spell and symbol, carved in wood or scrawled in blood; he peels wallpaper, cracks wainscoting, lifts floorboards; he runs his fingertips over indented metal and etchings. He finds the wall that had been marked, not long ago, with blood from Dean’s split knuckles. The wallpaper is whole now; the lamp on the table beside it is intact, the bulb humming. Underneath, however, the sigil is incomplete. It has been badly damaged, and Castiel can feel the Empty pushing at its weak points. He traces the lines with his fingertips, but it snaps at his touch like a static charge and is not much strengthened. It will require greater intervention.

Castiel stands there, his fingers hovering just shy of the wallpaper, and he thinks of Dean’s grief and fury, like a thunderstorm in a matchbox; he thinks that Dean probably has no idea how close he came to inadvertently destroying the Beautiful Room and endangering his own life. He isn’t sure Dean even knows he is capable of it.

Distracted, Castiel lifts his head, and as he looks across the room, his attention is caught, through the far window, and dread sinks cold and heavy into his gut.

The fox pulls short, slick ribbons of meat from the sparrow’s gut, its snout darkly wet. One wing jerks weakly; the sparrow’s head twitches where it is jammed under the fox’s front paw. It is a far more brutal death that the one Castiel might have afforded it.

 

***

Dean wakes up screaming. It’s not the tenth or fifteenth time—Castiel has lost count.

He stands in the hallway, some four feet shy of Dean’s door, and through the wall, Castiel listens to Dean’s panic-jumping pulse. It thunders loud enough that Castiel can feel it reverberate softly through the floor. Dean breathes like a breaking radio, shuddering and shaking and struggling. His fear is palpable, even this far away; it burns in the air like a smell of frayed wires.

Castiel’s hand lifts, half-reaching towards the door, but thinks better of it. He lets his hand fall back to his side, and he steps back.

Beneath his foot, a nail in the floorboard groans, and Dean’s unsteady breath snags.

Castiel stops moving.

In the dark, he stays perfectly still, his eyes on the door to Dean’s room. He listens to Dean’s slowing pulse, tastes in the air the way that fear bleeds out until Dean’s hesitation is all that remains.

Castiel doesn’t know what that means. He doesn’t know what to do—whether Dean is waiting for him to leave, or to open the door, or something else besides.

He breathes. The air is recycled and stale in lungs with no need of it, but it spreads the weight of those seconds in which Castiel waits for a sign. His fingers move at his side, slow, testing. He could reach for the door again. He doesn’t.

He does nothing, and Dean is silent, unmoving, on the other side of the door, and the tension tightens like a straining thread between them, and it is anchored somewhere between Castiel’s ribs. He lowers his eyes to the floor.

He turns away. He shouldn’t interfere. He is here as watcher and guardian—if Dean Winchester needs a therapist or someone to hold his hand, that is not Castiel’s concern.

 

***

 

The following morning, Dean is all hollows. He sits at the table, chin propped in his hand, and he doesn’t speak. His eyes are heavy, dark, the skin beneath them gaunt and bruise-black. Castiel tries not to pay attention to the nod of Dean’s head into his palm, his slack mouth. Exhaustion echoes in him, but Castiel has more important things to concern himself with.

There is a sound like rustling paper, and then a crack of the air being torn in half, and the lights flicker. Castiel says, “Dean,” low and urgent, and Dean sways groggily upright, and then: Benjamin and Balthazar, standing in the midst of everything.

They make no introduction, but merely look at him expectantly. Benjamin clasps his hands politely before him and surveys the room with mild interest; Balthazar begins to wander, touching things, turning things over. He picks up a dog-eared copy of a book that lies on the dining table, and flips through the first few pages with curiosity.

“I didn’t take you for a book-worm, Castiel,” Balthazar says, and he arches his eyebrows. “You aren’t going to start quoting Proust at me, are you?”

“It’s not mine,” Castiel says stiffly—which is not precisely true. Catch-22 does not, strictly speaking, belong to him, but it wasn’t conjured for Dean, either.

“Fascinating.” Balthazar drops the book. It lands not quite flat; the front cover is bent backwards. “Well, we don’t have all day. Come along.”

Castiel frowns. “Where?”

“Back to the mothership. Naomi wants a word.”

This only raises more questions. Castiel stands. “Naomi?” he asks. His hand lingers on the back of his chair. “I would have assumed she had more pressing business to attend to.”

“One would hope—but it seems she always has time for the little people.” Balthazar offers a wry smile. “Are you coming?”

Castiel glances over his shoulder at Dean, who remains sat in his own chair, unmoving, and who has said nothing, but watches the conversation closely. Their eyes meet.

“Come, now, Castiel. Benjamin’s here to take care of it in your absence—you won’t be gone long. I’m told you’ll be back before the thing even knows you’re gone.”

Dean’s eyes flick past Castiel to Balthazar, irritation pulsing in his jaw, but he remains quiet. He looks back to Castiel, and just slightly, he inclines his head. It’s not permission, exactly—Castiel doesn’t need Dean’s permission—but it is appreciated. He turns back to Benjamin and Balthazar.

“Don’t let anything happen to him,” Castiel tells Benjamin.

Benjamin nods. “You have been entrusted with a most sacred task,” he says. “I would not see it compromised.”

Castiel wants to look at Dean again, just once, over his shoulder, before he goes. He keeps his back turned. He lifts his head, and he goes.

 

***

 

There is a certain freedom to it—not being confined to four limbs, to a small hunting cabin out of space and time—and Castiel is able to stretch, then, in the Empty. It is not quite a darkness; there is a constant, far-off glinting as of bright light on diamonds, or broken glass, and it creates the sense of a shattered thing sparkling. A long corridor of lights, tall as trees and searing white, stretches ahead of them to direct them, and in the spaces between each light, there the fast flickering of a thousand memories, of a thousand centuries all tangled together like thread, millions of places and people in snapshot-bursts.

As they traverse the path, Balthazar is impatiently shifting—boar’s head clicking dully as it spins to make way for a cold, eyeless mask.

Balthazar, what’s happening down there?


The mask contorts; the luminescence behind it ripples briefly through white, silver, green, then settles. Yellow, like a warning. The Apocalypse, Balthazar says.

I’m aware. Could you be more specific?

For a moment, Balthazar is silent. No, he says, at last. You’re to focus on your duties here.

What of Anna? Castiel asks. Will she be coming to give me further orders, or am I just to wait? 

Balthazar is quiet for a long moment. Then, he repeats: You’re to focus on your duties here.

Castiel studies him critically. He and Balthazar have served in the same flight for the past centuries; as siblings go, they are close, and he has never known to Balthazar to be deliberately evasive. Something else stops his tongue.

You’re under orders to keep me in the dark, Castiel says. Why?

You’re asking the wrong questions.

Castiel cannot understand what Balthazar means by it, but by then, they have arrived.

The darkness shimmers, wavers, and Castiel has the impression, through it, of an office. Glass and metal glint coldly under white lights. A white woman with her hair pulled back slowly turns over a sheet of paper to inspect the far side; in one hand, she has a pen—then the impression ripples again, and it is a blade—and Castiel sees behind her, the place where her armour hangs, the polished gold of her halberd—and she uses the pen to etch a careful line, crossing something out.

Castiel says, “Naomi?” The name comes from his mouth, and he recognises, then, that he has been filtered again into the guise of Jimmy Novak.

“Tell me about Sam,” Naomi says, matter-of-fact. She doesn’t even look up from her work.

Castiel frowns. “Sam Winchester?”

Naomi smiles, and at last, she lifts her head. Her smile is studied. “Who else? Yes, Castiel. Sam Winchester. Tell me about him.”

“There’s little to tell,” Castiel says haltingly. “I’ve never met him. Dean doesn’t speak of him—he doesn’t want to. I haven’t pushed. I didn’t think it was important to my mission.”

“You didn’t think it was important,” Naomi repeats. Her eyebrows lift, and she sets aside the papers in her hands, smooths them distractedly as she regards him. Her voice is still soft. “You didn’t think it might be important to gather intelligence on the weapon of the Devil, when we’re facing the armies of Hell for the battle of Judgement Day?”

Castiel stiffens. “I only meant—intelligence was not a part of my orders. Am I to consider this an addition to my initial briefing?”

Naomi’s steely eyes flick over him, appraising. “No,” she says, at last. “You focus on the mission at hand. Keeping him docile and ready to fight is your number one priority. I won’t distract you from your duty with additional concerns. Unless—is there something else that concerns you?

“He damaged a protective sigil. I have concerns that it won’t hold. I’ve repaired as best as I can, but I believe it would be beneficial to heighten security on the Beautiful Room, for Dean’s safety.”

Naomi retrieves a pen. She taps the nib once against a sheet of paper upon her desk, but writes nothing yet. “You say he damaged a sigil?”

“He punched it. He—” Castiel hesitates. “He was angry. He lashed out.”

“Did he try to harm you?”

“No.”

“Did he try to escape?”

“No.” Castiel frowns. “It wasn’t malicious or intentional. He was simply angry.”

“I see.” Naomi begins to write, her hand slanting swiftly over the page. “And this anger worries you.”

“Yes,” Castiel says, and then he turns it over in his head. “No—I’m not worried about the anger. He’s allowed to be angry. I’m worried about the sigil.”

“Of course.” Her pen scratches across the page. “And when you say he lashed out, he—”

“Punched a wall, broke a lamp, a window.” Castiel shifts in his seat. “Aside from the sigil, there was no other significant damage.”

“So he lashed out at you in anger, became violent—”

Castiel frowns. “But—that isn’t how it happened.”

Naomi sets her pen down. “Castiel,” she says gently. “The truth can be what we make it. You have nothing to fear. There won’t be any repercussions as a result of your mismanagement of the Michael Sword—everything is under control.” Her expression softens. “Don’t you trust me?”

“Of course.”

“Then you have nothing to worry about, do you?”

Castiel is silent.

“Castiel,” Naomi prompts. Her eyebrows arch. “Do you?”

“No,” Castiel says.

“Of course not. He attacked you. He’s dangerous.” She picks up her pen again. “It won’t happen again.”

Castiel swallows around a sensation that is unsettlingly physical, something cold trickling down his throat, puddling in his gut. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure, Castiel. Grace go with you.”

When, eventually, he is collected, Balthazar comes to stand at attention behind Castiel. He is head of Castiel’s flight now, and he wears the authority well, if uncomfortably. Castiel wants to ask of their brothers and sisters, what duty they have been tasked with, how they fare and if there is anything that he can do to assist in the run-up to the Rapture, but he understands that he will not get the answers that he wants. He is dismissed without further comment; Balthazar escorts him out in silence.

“Balthazar—” Castiel starts.

Not now. Soon.

The space splits like a ribcage, cleaving away from itself and stretching until there is life through the gaps—glimpses of daylight, of the open sky and mountain-ridges and a red-blinking city skyline—and Balthazar shepherds Castiel along.


***

 

“I’m thinking Italy.”

Castiel turns. His hand falls, distracted, from the windowsill, and he looks at the Sword, who stands some feet behind him, arms folded across his chest, avoiding Castiel’s eyes.

“Italy,” Castiel repeats.

“Yeah. If I could travel anywhere—you know.” The Sword shrugs, loose and nonchalant, but his arms stay crossed and his eyes stay low. He says it quietly and indistinctly, as though wanting to go to Italy is something to be ashamed of. “I was thinking Italy. You know, good pizza, good spaghetti, ice-cream, whatever. Wine. Gladiators. Sunshine, whatever.”

Castiel nods. “I can do Italy,” he says, and he leans across and touches two fingertips to Dean’s brow, but the room is not immediately changed; first Castiel reaches out, sifting memories and heavens like moving sand, and he searches. He filters through Florence and Milan and Venice—until he finds what he wants.

In the end, it is a hillside in the Val D’Orcia, the late afternoon light blushing like a sunburn on the horizon. The fields roll gently to the horizon and beyond, and beneath their shoes, the grass is soft, fresh, cool, and dry. They stand at the crest of a hill in the long-thrown shade of two cypress trees; at the base of the nearest tree, there is a worn, well-creased picnic blanket. There is food wrapped in brown paper; a loose checkered handkerchief; a bottle of wine.

The Sword shields his eyes with one hand against the pinkening light, and he looks out across the hills. “Middle of nowhere,” he says. “Where are we?”

“Tuscany.”

The Sword makes an approving noise in his throat. “Looks like the start of Gladiator,” he says. “Which way’s Rome?”

Castiel points.

“So if this is a memory, how far can we go?”

“I don’t understand.”

“I mean, I figure this is a little like a video game—you get a few free paths to choose between and the rest is blocked off, right? Because the person who remembered it, they didn’t go that way. So if I took off, if I walked over that hill and the next one and the one after that and just kept going—could I do that? Or would I eventually hit some kind of wall and go no further?”

“Imagine a tree, at the bank of a flooding river. The tree has many branches—one, with swarming honeycomb; one, jagged and thorny; one, fractured along a seam so as to break and collapse. And one good, solid branch. Myriad options, and only one real choice,” Castiel says. “That’s free will.”

The Sword stares at him.

Castiel shrugs. “Here? I believe you would be turned around. Without noticing, you would be redirected by your path to follow a new trajectory and wind up walking in circles.”

The Sword frowns. “Makes sense,” he says, begrudgingly. “Don’t want your prisoners finding the edges of the Truman Show.”

Castiel doesn’t understand; he doesn’t care enough to ask for clarification. “It’s designed like a maze, but beyond human perception. You may have an illusion of progression, but without ever moving forwards—and the longer you spend doing it, the more feel a sense of accomplishment, of having achieved your purpose, so that when you find yourself exactly where you started, you think nothing of it.”

The Sword pulls a face, but doesn’t comment. He crosses to the picnic blanket, stoops and snatches up one paper-wrapped parcel, and he sniffs at the package. Seemingly dissatisfied, he tosses it back down onto the blanket, and then he drops to sit cross-legged on the ground. He picks up the wine.

They drink from the bottle. To Castiel, the taste is thick and unclear, brimming with every atom until it burns on his tongue. He wrinkles his nose, and the Sword laughs at him, takes the bottle back. He drinks in one long, smooth gulp, head tilted back, the muscles of his throat pulling finely.

The Sword raises the bottle. “Here’s to me,” he says. “Way outside my comfort zone, but not dead yet.”

“You’re not going to die here, Dean.”

“Oh, yeah? You saying that nobody ever dies in Italy?”

“No,” Castiel objects. “That would be completely unsustainable. My point, however, is that despite all appearances, we are still safely within the confines of Heaven’s protective spells, and that I am here to protect you.”

“My hero.”

"You're not the first weapon I've protected," Castiel says irritably.

The Sword grins. "But I am the cutest."

“You’re the loudest,” Castiel says, and he takes the bottle back. “The most argumentative.”

“I’m not argumentative,” the Sword argues.

“I wouldn’t even be having this conversation with the Staff of Moses,” Castiel tells him. “My point precisely.”

“Can the Staff of Moses burp the alphabet?”

Castiel squints at him. “Can you?”

The Sword’s mouth smiles widens, hangs crooked from his mouth, and Castiel’s face aches at the corners and edges, and gradually, he realises it is because he is smiling with him. His grin is wide, warm; there is an indescribable levity in the core of him that leaves him spinning.

They pass the bottle back and forth, and they watch the dimming colours along the knife-edge of the horizon, through rust-orange to a silky, crinkled twilight. The Sword’s fingers play, distracted, on the rim of the wine bottle.

At last, the Sword clears his throat. “So, the travelling thing. I, uh—I don’t like flying. But my whole issue… it’s not just that.” The Sword leans forwards, scratches his thumbnail idly over a scuff on the toe of his boot. “It’s dumb.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

The Sword scoffs, rolls his eyes. He is quiet, his mouth half-open, as though tasting the words before he surrenders them. “I get nervous around people from other places,” he mutters, at last. “Not like—I don’t think they’re bad, or whatever, I’m not like… it’s not a race thing, I just—shit.” He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “I was real bad at a lot of stuff in school. We moved around a lot so my classes were all out of order and I was always missing shit and, you know, ganking monsters was always more important than homework, anyway. I sucked at school, mostly. I sucked most of all at languages. Hell, I was bad enough at English. Then some schools did Spanish, some did French, or German—didn’t matter what language it was, I’d always missed the basics and couldn’t catch up. Spent all my time in those classes feeling dumb as dirt. So, uh. The idea of being in some other place, surrounded by people laughing at me and I can’t understand, and I’m just some big, dumbass American doing the wrong thing and saying the wrong thing and everyone staring at me—”

He is talking fast now, near rambling, and then abruptly he cuts himself off, shakes his head. It’s the most Castiel has ever heard him say at one time.

The Sword clears his throat. “Yeah. So—that’s, I guess, why.”

Castiel looks at him for a long moment. Then he sets down the bottle of wine, and he turns, shifting his position, so that he no longer sits parallel to Dean with his legs stretched out before him, but facing him. He says, “Repeat after me.”

The Sword frowns. “What?”

Castiel leans in closer. He says, “Ciao.”

At last, the Sword realises what is happening. He rocks back in his seat with a dry half-laugh. “Shut up,” he says, and he grabs a new bottle of wine.

“I said, hello.”

“Yeah, no shit. I know that one.”

Mi chiamo Castiel.”

“Yeah, yeah. Nice to meet you, Castiel.”

Penso che tu sia molto più intelligente di quanto credi,” Castiel says.

The Sword looks across, uncomprehending, but there is no hostility or resentment in his expression. He watches Castiel’s mouth.

Credo che tu abbia passato dei momenti difficili e credo che il fatto che tu sia diventato l’uomo che ora sei nonostante le circostanze sia una conquista straordinaria.” Castiel speaks slowly, evenly. He doesn’t look away from Dean’s face. “Credo che meriti solamente il massimo del rispetto, a prescindere dalla lingua che parli.”

The Sword swallows. He says, “I didn’t get that one.” His voice is quiet.

“It was complimentary,” Castiel says. “Would you like the translation?”

His eyes dropping to his boots, the Sword shakes his head. “No, I’m good,” he says. This time, it doesn’t sound like, fuck off.

He uncorks the bottle of wine and drinks. He takes several long pulls from the bottle, rather than speaking. He wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

The Sword sighs. “Okay, okay,” he says loudly, shattering the quiet. “I’ll bite. Teach me.”

Castiel holds out his hand for the bottle.

They exchange basic phrases, as well as some that the Sword asks for specifically—some that Castiel sees no purpose in, some that Castiel comes to understand are jokes or references. Some make the Sword laugh, even though Castiel does not understand why, a round, warm sound that Castiel makes to listen to for hours.

The Sword lolls back in the grass, props his weight on his elbows and tilts his chin up, eyes closed, in the warmth of the evening and the lessening light. He falls asleep, eventually, sprawled amongst the flowers, and Castiel looks at him.

Around them, the Beautiful Room fizzes and flickers.

The Sword is stretched out on the wooden floorboards of the hunting cabin, the threadbare rug rucked up by one boot. He is peaceful, for once, his face slack and untroubled, his mouth half-open.

There is something behind Castiel’s borrowed ribs that twists and aches at the sight of him, and Castiel feels—he feels. He looks at Dean Winchester and all he can do is feel.

 

***


Something shifts in the air, sharp and decisive as a gunshot, and Castiel lifts his head. It takes him only a split-second to identify: the damaged sigil, beside the lamp-table, cracked clean in two. The wallpaper has split with it, and the blood etched onto the wall is rent in half.

The warding is gone.

Castiel is out of his seat in an instant. 

Dean looks up. "What is it?"

"Something’s wrong." Castiel's blade appears, shimmering incandescently, in his hand. He balances it, two fingers and thumb, testing the familiar weight of it.

With a deafening scrape, Dean shoves his chair back. "I don't have a weapon," he says, his hands curling into fists.

"You won't need one."

"Bullshit. If something's coming, I can fight."

"Not here, you can't." Castiel can already feel the Beautiful Room straining at the seams, static electricity rippling unevenly through the edges. Perhaps Dean can sense it: he glances up at the ceiling with uncertainty as something shudders in the air.


Castiel turns the angel blade in his hand; it catches the light from the dim bulb overhead and glints cold white. The wood panelling on the far wall fizzes into static for a split-second before recovering.

"Stay behind me," Castiel says.

"What the fuck is happening?" Dean asks.

Again, the wall bursts into the static. The whole room tilts on its axis for a moment, juddering off-balance, and when it comes back it is for an instant all in monochrome and then they are weightless and then it is normal. All is silent. Castiel shifts from one foot to the other, stance set wide and defensive in front of Dean. He waits without breathing, eyes on the only door to this place. Behind him, Dean's pulse is steady, speeding with building adrenaline. It sounds like a war-drum in Castiel's ears.

The doors open.

Demons—seven of them. One wears a leather jacket, dark jeans, a sneer. Three are neatly attired in suits. One wears the skin of a child, as though they think that will give Castiel pause before the slaughter.

The demon at the forefront of the offense is one that Castiel recognises from the Han dynasty—Adramalech. A captain under Azazel when the Xiongnu laid siege to Baideng. She steps forwards in dark hair and a red lipstick smile, but beneath the vessel, Castiel can see the eddying of smoke, the shiver of peacock feathers and the head of a mule. Her mouth twists into a shark-thin smile. "I heard the Sword was going to be well-guarded," she says. "But you?"

Castiel breathes into his Grace, pulls it up until he can feel it crackle beneath his skin, singing in his fingertips. He squares off against them. "Go," he says, voice low with threat.

"No can do, kitten. You've got something I want."

Behind her, the other demons are straining at the constraints of their bodies, an unholy tangle of fire and hate and claws. One of them is a swarm of locusts biting to spill over. Castiel eyes them, weighing his strategic options. All they need is a hand on the Sword and they can vanish with him, and Castiel is outnumbered seven to one and unlikely to receive reinforcements.

"If you hand it over," Adramalech says, and she moves in a slow diagonal as though to flank him; three of her officers shift the other way, circling, "this doesn't have to get ugly."

Castiel steps forward. "Touch him, and I lay you to waste."

Adramalech lets out a low whistle. "Oh, promises, promises."

They pace back and forth slowly. Castiel is nearly surrounded, and he cannot keep the seven of them back by threat alone forever. A tremor is building through the floor and walls, ceramic cups trembling on the counters to clatter and clink. Over Castiel's head, the ceiling light flickers.

"Dean," Castiel says, without taking his eyes off the twisted creatures in front of him. "Close your eyes."

"Cas, I can fight—"

"Cas?" one of the demons echoes, bursting out into a sharp laugh like the shattering of glass. He is bleeding black at the edges, smoke unfurling from his mouth. The shape of his hands is disintegrating; something is uncurling, jagged and dark, from his spine. "I never. The seraph's got himself a pet."

The light overhead bursts in a crash of sparks and glass. "I said, close your eyes."

Castiel only has one play. The demons move in closer, now, and are almost near enough that if they lunged, one of them might be able to grab the Sword, at a reach. They are almost within range.

"You know that's Michael's meal you're playing house with, right? I can't imagine he'll be terribly happy."

The walls judder into static. Castiel's Grace is snapping hotly in his every nerve-ending, icy lightning sparking in his gut and in his mouth and at the base of his spine. He breathes and lifts his wings, electricity sizzling in the air, the air rushing hot and fast around them.

On an instantaneous signal, so fast that Castiel doesn't even recognise it, three demons surge forwards at him, and two lunge for the Sword, and Castiel reacts on instinct.

He doesn't have time to check whether the Sword has closed his eyes. He ignites.

The Beautiful Room disintegrates in the face of the unfurling of his form, and he wheels fiery white in three interlocking, blazing circles, and the three nearest demons are swept into his orbit—where they scream, high and broken and piercing, and are rent asunder into shards of smoke—but Castiel whirls, blades in the hand of his human form melting into a column of searing white light, to shove the two assaulting demons away from the Sword. He catches one, sweeps her up in a crackling wing and drags her inwards, screeching, to the point where Castiel's rings meet, and she is crushed, ripped into the light-swallowing heart of him, and he flashes back, lightning-hot and flaming.

He is aware, distantly, that when this is over he will need to put the Sword back together again, but for now he doesn't care.

If burning the Sword's eyes from his skull is what will keep him safe, so be it.

Adramalech is clever and quick, and she dissolves into thick yellow smoke and she darts away out of reach. Castiel slashes at her, spins and sings and his voice is a thundering yell, and she tangles three many-jointed arms around his outermost burning ring, rips hard as though to dislocate him, and pain bursts through Castiel in a hot flash of darkness. He is swung, thrown, and he swivels, reaching out a long-fingered hand to snatch at her, but she is fast and she moves past him, a tumbling smog of wrath and blackness, and there, hanging in the dark like starlight, is Dean Winchester. He is caught in the total nothing, untethered, and he looks, to Castiel, like the single, golden-bright point of Creation from which all things are built, and Adramalech moves on him hungrily.

A noise rises from the heart of Castiel, a roaring, rattling tornado howl, and he cascades fast, a whirling storm to outrun Adramalech's frothing smoke—and there is no time to slow down and pull up short to stand between Adramalech and the Sword, so Castiel makes a decision. He does the unthinkable.

He wraps all six wings, all limbs, around the Michael Sword, snatches him up, and envelopes him. He pulls him into his orbit, tucks the Sword safely within the heart of him, caged in by three spinning, blistering rings of Grace, and there he stands, white-hot and blazing. He faces Adramalech, unfolds wing after wing after wing, and he screams.

Adramalech reels back, aghast.

I warned you, Castiel burns. If you leave now, I will be merciful.

You touch what is not yours.

His Grace singing at a window-shattering pitch, Castiel blazes brighter, more fiercely, and Adramalech is cowed under it, shrinking back and yellow smoke swirling in a tighter circle around herself. Leave now, Castiel commands. I will not ask again.

Adramalech flattens, twists in on herself, and then she is gone, soaring away fast with a single trail of faint smoke in her wake.

Then Castiel is left in silence and darkness, the grinding, roaring song of his own body the only sound for millennia and for a million miles—but for a human pulse, gentle, rabbit-footed and fast. Dean Winchester is still breathing.

It is a relief, and better than Castiel could have hoped for. The proximity to Castiel's true form alone should have destroyed him completely, but Castiel can repair him. As long as the Sword is safe, he can be remade and restored in whatever ways are needed.

The fact, however, that Castiel has touched the untouchable, laid protective claim to Michael's property, is one he tries not to think about just yet. He will turn himself in at the first opportunity—once the Sword is safe.

Slowly, Castiel feels the Enochian spellcasting settle, and there is a split-second flicker of reality materialising around them before they are back in expansive darkness, and then, with a nauseating shudder, the Beautiful Room returns. It is incomplete—the fractured warding now shows starkly, painted blood-dark and ugly on the wallpaper, and there is a distant humming from all sides where the room is struggling to hold itself together. And there, on the floor in the far corner, is the Sword.

He is alive; he is conscious; he is, for all appearances, absolutely unharmed.

Dean is flat against the wall, his legs gone out beneath him to leave him inelegantly sprawled on the floorboards. His face is wet with tears, and he watches Castiel with an unreadable expression. In his slack mouth, the tilt of his brow, there is something of horror and awe and fear all at once. He is shaking, and he is looking at Castiel like he is glorious.

Castiel's blade drops from his hand and clatters on the floorboards.

He is aware, now, of a keen throbbing pain along his left side, the ache as deep and as sharp as a cracked rib, which he supposes is an approximation in this form to what damage Adramalech wrought on his real body. He ignores it, and crosses to Dean.

Around him, the Beautiful Room shifts and settles—four walls, floor, ceiling, solid furnishing and light falling heavy from the overhead lamp. Castiel kneels before him. "Dean," he says, and he looks over Dean, bewildered. There are Dean's ears, unbloodied; there are Dean's eyes, glass-green and wide and intact. Impossible. Castiel's hand reaches of its own accord for Dean's face. "You're alright?"

His fingertips find Dean's cheek; Dean flinches. Dean's skin is wet, gleaming in the low light, golden. His eyes are red-rimmed. In a voice that is hoarse and cracked raw, Dean says, "What the hell was that?"

Castiel meets his eyes. "That was the babysitter."

"Fuck."

Castiel skims his thumb over the apple of Dean's cheek, over the thin skin under his eye. Dean stares back at him, his gaze steady and unsure, and Castiel can't reconcile it. He says, "I don't understand. You shouldn't be unharmed by this."

"Hell." Dean clears his throat awkwardly, raises his eyebrows. He does not comment on Castiel's hand, gentle and hesitant where it cradles Dean's face; he also does not pull away. "Maybe I'm just special."

Castiel's throat is tight. "Maybe."

For a long moment, Dean is silent. His throat works, and Castiel can see him struggling for words. Finally, he manages, "You—you were—"

"It's too much to comprehend," Castiel says, and he moves his hand, holds up two fingers ready to press to Dean's temple and wipe him clean. "I'm sorry. I can take it from you."

Dean catches him by the wrist. "No. I want to—"

Castiel looks at him. His human bones are brittle; Castiel could shatter his hand, in escape, without thought. Castiel lets himself be held.

The Michael Sword says, "God, you were beautiful."

It is something foreign and terrifying in Castiel when he finds himself breathless.

***

Chapter Text

And he said, ‘Let me go, for the day breaketh.’

And he said, ‘I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.’

***


They don't talk about it.

Castiel restores the warding to the room, Dean proffering his arm reluctantly for Castiel to draw a neat cut and sweep careful fingers through the blood. Castiel draws them larger this time, draws them stronger. He writes the spells, and he writes words of protection, and he writes verses in circles—So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand—and then, as an afterthought, he adds another, the Enochian sigils smaller, secretive, along the wainscoting. No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear.

Castiel reports on the demon attack to his superiors. They lost all connection with the Beautiful Room when the warding was severed, and so he informs them of how the protective spell-work broke at the point damaged by Dean, how the seven demons swarmed in, how they circled and went for the Sword, how he fought them off and kept the Sword safe.

He realises only belatedly that he neglected to mention the part where he touched the Sword—not only touched, but pulled him into his Grace. It doesn’t matter, he reasons. There’s no point in bothering his superiors for a little extra detail on a mission about which they’ve already been briefed. They are busy; he'll tell them about it next time he checks in.

As it transpires, his next appointment with his superiors comes much sooner than anticipated: he is rearranging the contents of the cupboard in the hallway when the room is split with a dull, sizzling, thunder-sound, and the air burns at the back of Castiel’s nose. He sets back the box of old shoe polish, balances the wood-axe against the corner, and he turns to face the end of the hallway. Through the narrow rectangle of light, he can see Dean on his feet, arms folded, unwelcoming, and across from him, Balthazar. This time, Thaddeus stands at his side.

“Don’t mind me,” Dean says, his voice cold and biting. “Come right in like you own the place.”

Balthazar laughs softly. His smile is brittle. “But we do.”

Castiel steps in from the hallway. “Brothers,” he says. “How can I—”

“Naomi,” Thaddeus interrupts. His voice is flat, barren.

Castiel looks slowly between them. “Alright,” he says.

Behind them, Dean scoffs. “Come on, you really gonna leave me with these clowns?”

Castiel holds Balthazar’s gaze. There is something unsettling there—a hollowness behind the eyes. Castiel says, “Just the one.” He glances over at Thaddeus. “You stay and watch over him.”

“As you wish.”

“He’s not to be harmed,” Castiel says.

“Of course.”

Castiel hesitates. He isn’t sure what else to say in terms of parting instructions, but Thaddeus’ coldness is hardly confidence-inspiring. “If there’s any problems, you come to me. Naomi will understand. I’m sure she’ll permit the interruption."

Balthazar’s tongue clicks against his teeth. “Shall we let her decide that?”

“If anything happens to him—”

“Hey.” Dean’s voice is loud and sharp, and it cuts through all voices at once. His face is hard, his arms still folded across his chest, his shoulders still tight—but his eyes are on Castiel. There, in spite of everything else in him which is hostile, he is careful and quiet and still. “I can handle this asshole.”

Castiel understands. I’ll be fine, Dean says. Don’t worry. Just go. He nods, and he turns to let Balthazar escort him away.

With a dimly lit shimmering, the Beautiful Room dissolves at the edges and Castiel drops into darkness, limbless, faceless. He unfurls, sleepy chrysalis disintegrating, into silver and starlight, and he opens. He untwists the corkscrewed wing, the hands filtered into a guise like bone, and yellow-hot rings wheel wider and wider until the tornado-hum of his spinning reverberates through the space.

On all sides is a kaleidoscopic shattering of light. There is a constant rolling, rushing sound, and through the cracks between each fractured shard, there are human lives. They beat like insects against the glass of killing jar.

What can you tell me? Castiel asks, his voice thrumming low. 

Balthazar shutters, a dim clicking as of windows closing. The oil-black eyes of the many-pronged stag head that he wears are blank. Of what?

Castiel ripples, indignant. Anything, he says. Where is Anna? What’s happening down there? I have no sense of hours or years in that room with Dean and so I—

Our Captain is busy. And— Balthazar’s head swivels. The prongs are thorn-like, twisting, twining. They curl inwards. Dean? Balthazar repeats.

Castiel’s light flickers self-consciously. The Sword, he amends.

She’s ready for you now, Balthazar intones, and Castiel realises that they stand in two bodies, as before, in front of the space Naomi has been allocated, ever-shifting as it is.

This time, her desk is clear of paperwork. Her hands are folded neatly in front of her on the polished surface. She watches Castiel’s approach, smiling, still. She appears utterly unthreatening—a spider sleeping at the edge of its web. Castiel lifts his chin, respectful. The starched collar of his vessel’s coat presses like a hand to the back of his neck.

“Castiel,” Naomi says pleasantly, her smile widening. “Take a seat. I’m glad to have the opportunity to speak with you.”

Castiel glances behind him at where Balthazar is still standing. On the far side of the door, there is Bartholomew—silent, stern, staring into the middle distance.

Castiel steps forwards and sits on the edge of the proffered chair. “How can I help?” Castiel asks.

“I was wondering first and foremost about the Michael Sword’s state of mind. How does he feel about the task ahead?”

Castiel hesitates. “His patience is limited,” he says. “He is ready to do what he must but the longer he waits, the more doubt I feel he experiences. He understands that he is instrumental to the mission and that his sacrifice is regrettable but necessary, and yet he wants to live. He feels like a lamb at the slaughter,” Castiel says, and realises too late that these are not Dean’s doubts, but his own. “He thinks that he has value beyond that of a puppet to the Apocalypse. He deserves better.”

Naomi’s eyebrows arch. “Is that all?” she asks.

Castiel’s light gutters nervously. “Yes,” he says.

“So he grows apprehensive,” Naomi surmises. Her fingers fold together. “That’s to be expected. However, from your reports, he seems to be doing well in spite of the delays. You’re doing a commendable job. Now, what are you doing to appease this apprehension?”

“I’m sorry?”

“He’s a hunter. A violent, unpredictable man—Righteous or not. Has he threatened you or tried to harm you?”

Castiel shifts. “No.”

“What about when he lashed out at you? How has his behaviour been since then?”

“Much improved,” Castiel says. “He hasn’t tried to harm me in any way, since then. He’s more sedate now. He understands that I’m trying to help him.”

Naomi smiles. “That’s fantastic.”

Castiel does not answer, and after a beat, Naomi looks up.

Her head tilts over in her scrutiny, and just for a split-second, Castiel sees through the calm, placid expression of the human whose skin she is wearing, and sees the icy maelstrom beneath. “Castiel?” she says, voice gentle. “What is it?”

 Castiel lowers his eyes. He needs to confess.  “He has come to trust me,” he starts, hesitantly.

Naomi pauses. “And?”

“He shouldn’t.”

Naomi laughs. “Well, of course not, but that’s not your problem. That’s a fault of his judgement, not of anything you’re doing. You’ve given no indication of being on his side; he has no reason to get attached to you, but he doubtlessly will. Humans do that. He’s got a name for his car, of all things.” There is that smile again—shallow, lukewarm. “They’re sentimental. It happens.”

Castiel is not reassured. He says, “And—”

He gets no further. He can feel his vessel react fearfully; his heart palpitates quickly; his breath is unsteady in his throat. He thinks of his hand on Dean’s face, of the way Adramalech had recoil in horror and revulsion from Castiel’s assertion of something akin to ownership. There is no word in the English language for the purity of the bond between angel and vessel; there is no earthly equivalent for the severity of violating it.

Naomi’s eyes flick over him. “And?” she prompts.

It is a crime so heinous that Castiel does not even know the punishment. Exile is one possibility, being killed another. Castiel cannot imagine they would allow him to continue serving Heaven after this colossal a slight against the archangels.

He thinks, then, perversely—they would not allow him to see Dean again. Of all his concerns, this is what strikes him, and he thinks how selfish and pathetic a fear that is, and yet it stops his tongue all the same.

Naomi says, “Castiel—”

“And he likes me,” Castiel interrupts. “I was considering… encouraging his attachment. It would make him easier to control, if he viewed me as an ally rather than a prison-guard.”

He has never lied before. It surprises him, how easy it is.

For a moment, Naomi pauses, appraising him. The smile that turns her mouth, then, is new. Narrow, shark-toothed. For just a moment, her gaze moves past Castiel, and that smile is something she shares with Zachariah, beside the door. Private and knowing. To Castiel, she says, “Good idea.”

Castiel inclines his head. “Do you know how much longer it will be? I was hoping for news from my garrison by now, but—”

“I am assured it won’t be much longer.” Naomi reaches again for her paperwork, plucks the first leaf from the top of the stack with her fingernails.

“How long?” Castiel pushes.

Naomi’s eyes flick up to meet his, and the expression that settles on her face, then, is a strange one—a furrow between her vessel’s eyebrows as of confusion, as though she is hurt. “Castiel,” she says, voice soft. “After everything that I’ve done for you, your lack of faith worries me.”

“It’s not a lack of faith, I just—”

“Then what is it? Impatience? Discontent? Disrespect?” The gentleness is gone. “Insubordination? Explain it to me, Castiel.”

“I wasn’t being insubordinate,” Castiel replies. “It was only a question."

“A question implying that I’m either withholding something from you, or that I don’t know how to do my job. Is that what it was?”

“No—”

“I’m uncertain as to what you’re trying to prove, Castiel.” 

Castiel takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I didn’t mean to overstep.”

“It’s forgiven.” Naomi sits back. One hand rests lightly on top of the desk, her fingers splayed. “Castiel,” she says, her voice like honey. “Have patience. I’ll let you know as soon as it’s time.”

Castiel feels, of all things, relief. He says, “Thank you.”

 

***


When Castiel once again materialises in the middle of the Beautiful Room, he arrives alone. He takes a moment to settle into this skin, the Room humming around him, and as he does, he is surprised to find the room not in the guise of the hunting cabin to which he has become accustomed, but rather the lavish, gold-gilded waiting room into which Dean Winchester was first lured and promised glory. Upon the marble table in the centre of the room is an untouched six-pack of beer—still cold, when Castiel reaches out to graze a fingertip along the glass.

“Where is he?” Castiel asks.

From the other side of the room, Thaddeus is straight-spined, at attention, and solemn; between him and the statue mounted in polished stone at the foot of the table, it is hard to say precisely who looks more enthused.

Thaddeus lifts his chin slightly, says, “Castiel—”, and that’s as far as he gets before a side-door bursts open, and the Michael Sword comes barrelling in.

The door slams back against the wall—dents the immaculate white paint—and Dean pushes through, fast. His head swings wildly as he looks about for Castiel, and then when his eyes find Castiel’s, his shoulders slacken with what is unmistakably relief. He lets out a short breath, and something in him which was bristling and fierce then softens.

“Well,” he says, and he pushes his hands into the pockets of his jeans. “Took you long enough.” He leans his weight on one leg to tilt against the door-jamb.

Castiel glances around the room as though to find some indication of the passage of time here; he finds none. “How long?” he asks.

Dean lifts one shoulder, non-committal. “Long enough that I’ve been climbing the walls.” He jerks his head across at Thaddeus. “And Chuckles here isn’t exactly the life of the party—offense intended.”

Thaddeus’ brow furrows.

“He means no disrespect,” Castiel says apologetically.

Dean snorts. “Yeah, I do.” He pushes himself off the wall and moves to approach Castiel. “So what’s going on?”

Castiel watches Thaddeus’ gaze move, slow and critical, between them, and Castiel thinks better of talking to Dean about this now. He looks to Dean and he says, “Nothing for you to concern yourself with.”

Dean frowns, but doesn’t push it.

Castiel turns to Thaddeus, then. “Were there any issues of which I should be aware?”

“Nothing to report,” Thaddeus says. “The Michael Sword was—manageable.”

Castiel’s eyes flash to Dean, who smiles, bright and sunny and deliberately insufferable.

“Thank you,” Castiel says, “for seeing to this duty in my absence.”

“The honour is mine,” Thaddeus says, and he nods. “Grace go with you.”

Then Thaddeus is gone, and Castiel and Dean are left in silence. They look at each other, and the quiet is not entirely uncomfortable; Dean shifts his weight from one foot to another; Castiel stares at him, unblinking, and tries to think whether he has made the right decision. If he went back now, fell on Naomi’s mercy, confessed everything—perhaps he could escape with his life.

He looks at Dean and he wonders if he wants his life without this in it.

“So how long has it been?” Castiel asks, eventually.

Dean pulls a face. “Hard to say. Closest to normal human time, I’d say—maybe a little over a week.”

A week—Castiel would have guessed at fewer than forty-eight hours. He looks over Dean, trying to parse out any visible difference, but time stagnates here, and it is hard to say. He wears the same shirt and jeans that he wore a week ago; he wears his hair in much the same way; he has not lost weight, nor gained it. He is precisely the same as the moment Castiel left, as though he stepped out of the room only for a few seconds, and yet it has been more than a week.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says, and then, without thinking, “I didn’t want to leave you even for a moment.”

It is more than he meant to admit. There is a softness to his voice that he did not intend, and he wishes he could take it back.

“So what is going on?” Dean asks, and he tilts to lean against the table. Behind him, condensation drips from the perpetually-iced beer bottles arranged on the table, and meltwater puddles on the marble. In a blink, the puddle is gone; the first trickling droplet of condensation beads at the crown of the bottle.

Castiel doesn’t know where to begin. The relief that he felt in Naomi’s office is gone, and he thinks back on every word Naomi said, whether there were any clues as to her aroused suspicions—and he thinks, then, that Naomi never answered Castiel’s question about his garrison. It has been an age since he heard from Anna, his Captain. Balthazar, now at the head of his own flight, is not answering any of his questions.

“Cas?”

Castiel rubs at the corner of his eye.  He can understand the need for some secrecy, but he cannot shake the sense that something is wrong.

“Cas.”

He lifts his head, to find Dean looking at him expectantly. He hesitates. “Dean—do you trust me?”

Dean squints at him. “Uh,” he says. “Well, more than those guys, I do.”

“Don’t.”

Dean’s frown deepens. His eyes move over Castiel’s face, taking him in. “What happened up there?” he asks.

“I’m afraid I must ask something of you,” Castiel says, disregarding Dean’s question. "What do you remember of the day the demons came?"

"What—you mean the part where you grabbed me and, like... swallowed me?" Dean looks at him. “I remember that part.”

Something twists coldly in Castiel’s gut. “Tell no-one of this.”

Dean doesn’t ask why. He says, “What’s wrong?”

Castiel cannot answer immediately. The sensation that rises within him is unfamiliar—he feels it in his vessel’s throat, tight and hot and unpleasant. The light in him is smothered.

 There is Dean’s hand, then, on his shoulder. His touch is hesitant, light enough that Castiel can scarcely feel it, muted and distant as it is in his approximation of a body that is not his, and Castiel wants him closer. Dean says, “Cas?”

“It’s forbidden,” Castiel says, at last, inarticulately. “Any contact—”

Dean retracts his hand. “Oh.”

“—but what I did is… unthinkable.”

“But you saved me,” Dean says, incredulous.

“I doubt my superiors will be interested in that perspective. Violating the sanctity of an archangel’s property is without precedent, to say the least. I imagine they’ll want to make an example of me, in addition to whatever other sanctions need be applied.”

“Okay. So we don’t tell anyone.”

Castiel looks at him.

“I’m good at keeping my mouth shut. How about you?”

“Better than I anticipated.”

“Well, there you have it. We’ll have you playing poker in no time.”


***



It seems safer, then, to stay in the hunting cabin, to fill the time in mundane, human ways.

Dean teaches him to play cards. He learns ‘Go Fish’—with a twist—and learns the shape of Dean’s mouth when he laughs himself to tears the first time Castiel responds to, “Got any fours?” with, “Go fuck yourself.”

He learns that Dean is a sore loser; he learns this when he discovers that Blackjack is largely a game of calculating probability, something at which he excels, and Dean accuses him of witchcraft or some angelic bullshit. He learns how to read Dean’s tells—the way his mouth moves when he first checks his cards, dependent on a good or a bad hand; the thumb he rubs along the line of his jaw as he’s considering a bluff. Dean lets him in on the ones which are cultivated. He tells him that he figured out early on from getting his ass kicked too many times that he raises his eyebrows a little when he lies, and from then on started raising his eyebrows when he wants people to call his bluff.

He tells Castiel that he was always better at hustling pool, playing drunk and falling over all clumsy and uncoordinated and playing the idiot. Sam was the card-shark. Sharp-eyed, clever, unreadable. Dean says he thinks they both got a little too good at their roles.

Castiel reads—he lets Dean recommend him novels and he reads every word. Occasionally, he becomes frustrated with the tedium of it, of turning pages and sitting still and waiting to understand how it all comes together, and he considers that he could locate the memories of the author and simply take the knowledge from them, or he could find some lecture that explains it all for him—and then Dean will lift his head, and ask him where he’s up to, and Castiel will explain, and Dean will nod, all-knowing, satisfied, eager for Castiel to reach the best part, oh man, just wait ‘til you get to—I won’t say. Just wait. And so Castiel turns the page.

He reads science-fiction, fantasy, dystopias and alternate universe and speculative fiction—all Dean’s favourites. He dips in and out of Dean’s adolescent attempts at escapism, all the worlds that Dean would have rather lived in, and he reads the ones that have happy endings, and he reads the ones that don’t, and he thinks of Dean at sixteen.

Castiel turns the page. He reads.

‘That’s life for you,’ said McDunn. ‘Someone always waiting for someone who never comes home. Always someone loving something more than that thing loves them. And after a while you want to destroy whatever that thing is, so it can hurt you no more.’

Castiel looks across the room to Dean. He has one foot propped up on the arm of his chair, a hand in his hair. He has the corner of his thumb between his teeth, and he is drawing. His paper crumples, unsupported, against his leg. He is not exactly concentrating; his hand is slow, distracted, with the pencil.

At this angle, it is easy to see the Winchester bones—the Abomination has the same jaw, the same shoulders. The nose is different, the set of the eyes distinct, but there is enough of them in each other that their shared blood is unmistakeable.

Dean lifts his head, blinks when he finds Castiel’s eyes on him.

“What?” he says, defensive. “You wanna mind your own business?”

“I apologise,” Castiel says.

He moves through the Beautiful Room, sometimes, when Dean is sleeping, or otherwise occupied behind closed doors. He resists the temptation, when he can, but often he can feel every other reality, the bumps of the rest of time and space running beneath the walls of this places, and he wants so desperately to know all of it that he cannot keep away. He runs his fingertips across the dusty window-panes and breathes in the salt air when the wall disintegrates, the garden beyond it dissolving into a cliff edge, an expanse of still, dark water to the horizon and beyond, waves cracking on the black crags below and spilling into lace-edged breakwater. Overhead, birds circle, the white arrow of their wings catching the thin afternoon sunlight where storm-clouds shatter.

He lifts kitchen counters into limestone plateaus, the carved-wood ridges of dining chair backs in mountain-ranges, brushes his fingers in reverence over brightly-coloured stained glass in place of where the kitchen cupboard doors should be; he opens the cabin’s back door onto the fog-shrouded lanterns of the Charles Bridge, sunset bleeding red-gold through the mist, and in the electric light swinging over the narrow hallway, there is the silver light of the moon like an old coin over the cold steppes.

Behind him, there is the creak of a door opening.

Castiel jerks back from the wall—and it is a wall, now, dark wood and curling wallpaper and a light switch with daubs of dried off-white on the corners. The cliffs are gone, no trace of the sea but for the salt in Castiel’s borrowed lungs. He looks over to see Dean standing in the doorway, one hand still on the handle. His shirt is untucked, his hair dishevelled at the back. There is a pink flush on his jaw and throat. There is a hum of warm pleasure, still, beneath his skin, and Castiel has no interest in Dean’s private affairs, but when Dean is this close, his soul is hard to ignore.

 
Dean asks, “What was that?”

Without thinking, Castiel says, “A distraction.”

Dean’s eyebrows lift. “That exciting, huh?”

Castiel lets his hand fall from the wall. The instinct that rises within him is to make some sharp retort, but it would be unfounded, and he cannot place that defensive urge. In the harsh electric light, Dean’s eyes are glass-green, his eyelashes bronzing at the ends; the light picks out the curve of his lower lip, the line of his jaw. Castiel thinks of past millennia, when he has seen paintings of the Michael Sword, seen him carved from marble—perfect, pristine, pure. Here, Dean Winchester has a scattering of blackheads alongside his nose, and his hair is uncombed, untidy, and he stands with bowed knees, and he is lovely.

In front of him, Dean fidgets, as though uncomfortable, and Castiel realises that he is staring. He looks at the pink warmth of Dean’s skin, and then he looks away.

After a beat, Dean clucks his tongue against his teeth. “Jesus, don’t hurt yourself,” he says, and he pushes down the hallway past him. He tilts his shoulders as he passes, doesn’t bump Castiel, but Castiel feels the corridor he carves through the air, the way the Beautiful Room and every constructed atom within shifts to accommodate him.

***

 

Castiel opens the door to let the sunlight in.

For the last few hours, heavy dark clouds have hemmed the Beautiful Room in on all sides, and when those hours stretched into something approximating four days—Dean sleeping and rising and sleeping again four times while the grandfather clock’s two hands struggled to make any ground—it became claustrophobic, suffocating. Now, the sky through the dusty windowpanes is clear, pale, blood-blue. The light is stretched thin, lukewarm. A languid breeze lifts dust from the shelves as the door swings back to knock dully against the wall.

He moves onto the grass that spills, overlong, against the wooden step. His fingers uncurl from loose fists, and he turns to follow the sun. With eyes closed, he can pretend that this is not one identical memory being endlessly relived. He can breathe deep, fill these imaginary lungs with fresh mountain air, and pretend that he can smell it—the sharp tang of the pines, the bittersweet cloy of tree-sap, the rain-wet soil.

It happens when his eyes are still closed.

The sparrow screams, and it hits the ground with a dull crack.

Castiel exhales. He opens his eyes. He looks.

Several feet away, the sparrow shudders and shivers and shakes against the dirt. Bone pushes darkly through the arrow of its wing, and it pants, ragged. It is terrified. Trembling, the sparrow thrashes and struggles against the soil as it tries to right itself and escape. It is in pain, crying, wheezing.

Castiel moves closer. He drops to his knees. The bird is frightened by his nearness, screaming, struggling, its wings moving in desperate jerks against the dirt.

It isn’t real. Its suffering is not real. This is just one moment in which this hunting cabin is trapped, impervious to the tides of time even as seasons and sunsets press in on all sides. The bird is not real and does not matter. And yet—

He might as well spare it the agony of the death with the fox.

Castiel reaches out. He pushes his thumb under its jaw. The sparrow shivers, its tiny chest heaving with panic, and its one good wing spasms frantically to escape. It makes a weak, shrill noise. Castiel can feel every feather beneath his thumb. He can feel the terrified skitter of its heart.

Something tightens in Castiel’s throat.

Wings scrape against the soil as the bird tries to free itself, tries to move away from Castiel’s hand where he presses his thumb tight underneath its skull. It sings brokenly.

Castiel swallows.

He snaps its neck.

The sparrow is still. One wing twisted sickeningly behind its back, a thin spur of bloody bone jutting through the feathers. Its eyes are small and black and empty. It is not afraid anymore.

Castiel feels sick.

He pulls his hand back from the sparrow’s broken body.

For a moment, he kneels there in the dirt, his vessel’s coat puddling around his ankles, and he looks at the tiny corpse.

There is nothing more than can be done for it, now. Death is terribly final, for most things.

 

***

Castiel sits at the dining table, his head bowed, waiting for the night to pass. The hours or days of Dean’s absence no longer stretch endlessly the way they used to; he works his way through the novels that Dean has recommended, and then through novels that Dean said not to bother with, and then through slim volumes of poetry—which, truthfully, fascinates him more than anything else.

As far as he understands it, poetry is a peculiar endeavour, something which is simultaneously an exploration of the deeply personal and something which is shared for all the world to lay claim to. Here, exposed, is loss and heartbreak and grief and betrayal; here is conflict and confusion and desperate uncertainty, memorials of beautiful moments and pleas for a greater understanding. It makes no sense.

He turns from poem to poem, reading with a frown, tapping his fingers idly on the dining table as he reads, and then: Being with you or not being with you is the only way I have to measure time.

Castiel’s fingers become still.

He reads the whole poem through—and again—and again. He wonders if that’s what love is, then: splitting your life into Before and After. Here he sits, whittling away the time until Dean is awake, because—because that’s all there is now. Time with Dean; time without. Something curls uneasily within him, and he looks across the darkened room, through the hallway, at the closed door behind which Dean sleeps.

Love: it’s nothing so complex and ugly as that. It’s duty.

He turns the page. He reads a different poem. He reads ten more, then twenty, and hail rattles the windows on the far side of the living room, and then there is rain, and the darkness prevails over the flicker-fast changing of seasons and space.

When Dean’s pulse spikes in the next room, Castiel does not look up. He keeps reading.

When the panic and fear becomes thick enough to seep through the walls, to cloy heavy in the back of Castiel’s throat, he keeps reading. Dean has made clear that he doesn’t want Castiel’s interference. Castiel is here to guard him; they have found a kind of companionship, lately, but if Dean has nightmares, that is not Castiel’s concern.

There is a short, low noise from the private room, as of a shout abruptly strangled. Castiel’s fingers fidget with the corners of his pages. He realises, belatedly, that he is not reading now. He has been staring at the same page for some time, and he has not made it past the first three lines. He gives up, closes the book over.

The door opens.

Castiel lifts his head. He does not move from his position at the dining table, but he watches as Dean emerges from the extra room, hollowed by the lightless hallway.

He moves slowly, stumbling; his knuckles drag over the wallpaper like he’s feeling his way out of the labyrinth. He makes it to the doorway before he stops, and he leans one shoulder against the door-frame, where the yellow wash of the electric bulb does not quite reach. His eyes are red, the skin below dark and puffy; he looks ragged.

He meets Castiel’s eyes.

The silence echoes between them.

His fingers play over the door-frame. His throat works.

Castiel’s lips part but he doesn’t speak. He doesn’t find the words. He looks at Dean, and he says nothing, and finally, Dean moves from the doorway. He moves awkwardly, heavily, like an injured bear. He presses his thumb to the splinter-smooth wood of the dining table, traces the line along the grain to Castiel’s seat.

When he pulls out the chair beside Castiel, the legs grate and squeal over the floorboards. He drops into the seat, props an elbow on the table, and rubs a hand over his face. He looks at Castiel between his fingers.

Castiel says, “Dean.” The sound comes out too soft—a voice he should save for the confessional.

Dean closes his eyes. He says nothing, but slowly, he slumps, tilts his head against Castiel’s shoulder. Exhaustion lines his face, his mouth flat, and there is tension in his shoulders that tightens the cord of muscle in his throat. His pulse flutters beneath his skin, and for now, it is steady. Safe.

This close, Dean’s soul is irresistible. As he falls asleep, the jittery panic in him flattens into a warm constancy, and when Castiel lets his eyes drift closed, it is easy enough to imagine himself surrounded by the fluctuating colours of it—to feel where he is gold and grey, where rose, where green, where he shines. It curls around something in Castiel that shifts and shivers nervously, makes him still. He breathes easy.

 

***

 

"What's it like?"

Castiel doesn't look up from his book. "What's what like?"

Dean, in the seat next to him at the dining table, hesitates. He has a knife in one hand from a mismatched cutlery set, which has been using for some time to clumsily engrave obscene words in the table surface. He says nothing for a moment, digging the blunt, rounded end of the knife into one gouge – a wobbly F – before at last he says, "Being—small."

Castiel lifts his eyes. He studies Dean for a long moment, and Dean shifts uncomfortably under the scrutiny. At last, Castiel says, "Claustrophobic."

Dean snorts. "No shit."

Castiel says nothing else. He plays with the front cover of his book. Dean isn't supposed to know any of this. He isn't supposed to have any awareness of Castiel's true form, let alone be prying into what it feels like to be squeezed into a human body.

"You said you were only doing it for my comfort, right?"

"It would sear your eyes from your skull," Castiel says automatically.

"But—it wouldn't."

Castiel looks at him.

"I'm just saying. I’ve already seen it—or, you know, you. I’m not gonna get hurt.” Dean shrugs. “God only knows how long we're gonna be trapped here. Might as well get comfortable."

Dean is sitting near enough now that Castiel can feel the warmth of his skin where his arm pushes up alongside Castiel's own. Castiel says, "I am comfortable."

"Liar." Dean moves away, and Castiel feels the loss of his nearness like a bruise.

"I can't. This space isn't big enough."

"So make the space bigger."

Castiel stares at him.

"This room's not real, right? So make it big enough."

Castiel breathes, and the walls, groaning, slink away backwards like the withdrawal of the tide, pull away and away with the stretching of the ceiling into impossible, high arches. The lamps, still fixed on the walls, grow dimmer with distance until they are no more than soft yellow pinpricks in the dark, as of stars. Castiel and Dean are left standing in the centre, surrounded by the darkness and the enormity of the space.

For a long moment, Castiel doesn't move. He shouldn't be doing this. Dean shouldn't have seen his true form at all. He shouldn't be able to survive experiencing it. Rationally, he is able to compartmentalise and understand exactly what this is—it's the temptation of vanity. He is a creature of light and praise, and he is aware, if clinically, of his own glory and wonder, but he hears again in his head, the soft, awestruck whisper: God, you were beautiful. He aches to be that for Dean.

"Come on, big man," Dean says, and he cocks his eyebrows. "Let's see it."

Castiel doesn't move.

He shouldn't be doing this. Dean is not his. Dean belongs to Michael, and this alone is crime enough to have Castiel killed.

Dean steps forwards. "Hey," he says, quietly, and he bumps a knuckle under Castiel's jaw, and there is a hot rush of something inexplicable in Castiel's chest, and he doesn't even mean to do it. He burns brighter and brighter, Grace illuminating him until he is lost in light, the rough sketch of James Novak's body disintegrating, and slowly, Castiel uncurls.

First, his wings open, each pair larger and more terrifying that the one before, golden and iridescent and electricity, blistering heat emanating from every intangible feather. Then, Castiel's three smouldering wheels of fire swivel out wider and wider, chasing around each other in a widening sphere, each sweep slicing a wall of heat that leaves the air crackling with restrained power. The heart of him is searing bright white, casting impossible shadows as his light flickers and pulses and shines.

Dean staggers back a step, one hand lifting to shield his face, but his eyes are open. He sees Castiel.

Feeling ridiculous and self-conscious, Castiel rotates carefully. He says, Hello, Dean.

"Holy shit," Dean chokes out.

Thank you.

Dean stretches out a shaking hand. "Can I—?"

No. Castiel's external ring spins faster, tilting up away from Dean, out of his reach; the internal rings slow, clicking, until they come to a halt, and then gradually pick up speed in the reverse direction.

"You okay, there?" Dean asks. He points at the rings. "You're—"

Castiel blazes hotter. Do you mind?

"Oh—sorry." Dean puts his hand down. "Didn't realise you were—uh. Sorry."

The light in Castiel gently dims. I'm joking.

"You're—what?" Dean stares, incredulous, and Castiel spins fast, and his many-thousand eyes flicker whitely. Dean laughs with him. "You fucking asshole."

Castiel shifts, and he watches Dean's gaze move to try and follow him—the long, spindly wisp of arms that appear, disappear, return three-fold; the twisting aurora of green and blue, the way that the inside of his rings shimmer briefly ultraviolet and cast Dean's skin all in stark shades of blue. Castiel's whole being is humming, a throbbing noise that rises and falls like the creak of wood on a ship struggling through a storm, fidgeting song running all through him.

Dean's voice, by comparison, is soft when he says, "You're always like this?"

Castiel's light tilts, dimming. I don't understand.

"Whenever I see you all—you know—tall, grouchy, handsome. This is what's underneath, all the time?"

This form usually exists on a plane beyond human perception. My Grace, in scientific terms, is something like a radiowave. The brains of certain, special humans can be manipulated by it. The soul that usually inhabits this body is one of them.

"Am I?"

No.

Dean is quiet for a long moment.

Are you alright?

"Yeah. Fine. Just—seems crazy, is all. A little like trying to squeeze a supernova into a soda bottle."

Michael is vastly more powerful.


Dean looks away. "Yeah," he says. He swallows. "I'll bet."

Carefully, Dean walks in a slow circle around Castiel, his chin tilted up to see him. His brow furrows as though he’s searching the skies for starlight, and Castiel wants, selfishly, to be that for him. He cannot control himself as he spins and he hums and the light in him is brightening, dappling across Dean’s skin in watercolour-soft hues and yellow and pink and blue, and they move in a slow, uncertain dance. Dean, turning with him as he wheels and burns, Dean stepping slow and sure, Castiel aching to be nearer.

“What’s his name?” Dean asks. His voice is soft. “The vessel.”

James Novak.

“He a good guy?”

He’s devout.

“That’s not what I asked.”

Castiel falters. He searches, through what he recalls of his brief time on Earth, for any concrete idea of who James Novak is—beyond the knowledge of his clasped hands, his knees aching on the floorboards, his closed eyes and slow breath and, Lord, guide me—and he comes up blank.

Castiel says, I don’t know. I never— He trails off in silence. He doesn’t want to admit to not having cared enough about his vessel to get to know him.

Dean jerks one shoulder, a non-committal half-shrug. “I guess I never asked my jacket what its hobbies are, so—”

Castiel spins, slow. His rings click, dull and metallic, and the vibrating at the heart of him thrums low. He has no answer for Dean. He doesn’t know his vessel; he doesn’t suppose he ever will. From the moment of possession, a small space was carved out for James Novak to keep him quiet and sedate within his own skin, leaving Castiel room to twist and contort himself through from lungs to fingertips like a parasite. His light wanes, blue bleeding into green, paling until all colour is gone, and his wings are still.

You know, Castiel says haltingly, that’s not what you are.

“Sure it is,” Dean says. “A tether, right? You guys can’t keep to one time or place without us.” He tips his head over. “Okay, so I guess less like a jacket, more like a life-line.”

Castiel is silent.

He hangs in the darkness, silent, spinning—ashamed. He says, I’m sorry.

Dean doesn’t answer, and Castiel is glad of it. He just steps in again, his head tilted back, and when Castiel’s rings wheel around fast, the air snapping and sizzling as they crack through like an electric current, he does not flinch. The hot white light picks out the scars at the edges of his hairline, at the crease of his jaw; it throws into shadow the uneven line of his nose, the curve of his lower lip, the hollow of his throat. His mouth falls half-open, and his eyes move as though trying to take in every part of Castiel at once, impossible though that is—following the arc of each ring, the shimmer and shift of immaterial hands, the wings that fold and stretch and fade from view and flare back brighter.

Slowly, Castiel shines in colour again, swinging and spinning to follow Dean’s slow circle around him, and he has no body but he feels close to breathless with the way Dean stretches a hand out as to touch him. He doesn’t—but his fingertips skim close enough that there is a static charge crackling and a dizzying frisson of light flaring hot between them. It is beyond Castiel’s control, the way the rings at the heart of him burn brighter and brighter with every inch that Dean’s draws nearer, and he cannot help but think that Dean has never been more beautiful than when painted in all the colours of Castiel’s light.


Then, abruptly, Dean pulls his hand back, and Castiel is dizzy, voiceless, still captivated in Dean’s warmth and goodness, until Dean says, “What is that?” and he points.

Castiel swivels, but he can find nothing. What?

“That—the black part,” Dean says, and he steps up closer.

Castiel spins again, his spokes clattering dully, but he can’t find what Dean is referring to.

“You’re going past it—wait. Stop there.” Dean steps carefully over Castiel’s outer ring. “Here,” he says, and he points again. His hands are close enough that his fingertip raises something like static in Castiel, but it is not the usual dizzying frisson of light that Castiel experiences whenever Dean is particularly close; now Castiel’s gut lurches and he feels sick.

He sees now, and cannot understand why he had not noticed it before—there is a part of him which is rotten.

I don’t know what that is,
Castiel says faintly. There are gaping holes like crumbling driftwood, and there is a thin, deep gouge along which Dean’s skirts his fingertip hesitantly, and Castiel feels dread rise sickly within him, beyond his control. Don’t, he says, and he cannot explain why.

 

***

 

Chapter Text

And though I give my body to be burned,

But have not love, it profits me nothing.

 

***


Without introduction, Dean plants both hands on the table across from Castiel, leans forwards, and says, “Dude—Japan.”

Distracted, Castiel says, “What about it?”

“What do you mean what about it?” Dean says incredulously. He straightens. “I mean, let’s go.”

Castiel blinks, and lifts his head. “Japan,” he says, realising what Dean is saying. He knuckles at the corner of his eyes. “No. It’s too dangerous to keep doing that.”

Dean scoffs. “Bullshit is it dangerous. You’ve been doing it whenever you think I’m not looking.”

Something tightens within Castiel, and he finds himself defensive again, drawn into argument. “I wasn’t—not on the scale you’re suggesting,” he says, bristling, and he can hear that it is weak even to his own ears. “I was only—”

“Excuses, excuses, dude.”

“They’re not excuses,” Castiel says. “I’m merely creating windows. You want to reshape everything.”

Groaning, Dean drops into the chair opposite him. “Come on,” he says. “I haven’t come apart yet, have I? And I’m pretty sure I still got all my marbles—or at least the same number of marbles as I came in with.”

Castiel doesn’t understand what Dean is saying, and at the moment, he doesn’t care enough to ask. He says, “It weakens the structural integrity of all the safeguards created to protect you.”

“I mean,” Dean says, gesturing vaguely between them, “that’s what you’re here for, and it doesn’t weaken you.” He pauses for a moment, and his voice is careful. “Does it weaken you?”

“No,” Castiel says, frowning.

“Like, if you wanna be more careful now—I get it, okay,” Dean says, and he rubs a hand over his mouth. “But are we even sure the time-hopping is the problem? So nothing’s gone wrong yet, right?”

Castiel’s frown deepens. He says, “No, it hasn’t.”

“So then…” Dean follows, trailing off, “what? What’s the issue?”

Castiel’s mouth opens but he gets no further. He hesitates. “In Japan—where?”

Dean’s face splits into a wide smile. “Man, I don’t know. You tell me. I don’t know shit about Japan.”

Indecision gives Castiel pause, as he is faced with every mile of Japan in every year since it’s inception, thousand of years ago—and then he narrows it down. He considers his options, and he chooses.

From nothing, Castiel plucks a clear, crisp afternoon, a corridor of curling wisteria, a breeze slightly cooler than is comfortable, the flowers swollen and heavy with pollen, fat bees heaving themselves, laden, into the air. Dean tilts his head out of the looping path of one and then he walks. Beneath his boots, the gravel crunches; in the distance there are voices of children crowing excitedly in play, and otherwise there is silence. Dean breathing. The stillness.

“You always show me places like this,” Dean comments, after a moment. “Never cities. Never anywhere busy.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No.” Dean stretches a hand out to the side, grazes his fingertips through the bloom. His skin comes away stained with pollen. “I like the quiet.”

For a moment, he is quiet.

“I guess I’ve gotten used to noise. Motel rooms with the interstate blazing past outside, other people in other rooms watching cable or arguing or knocking headboards. And when it’s quiet I never really trusted it. Made me think of a trap. Or just—made me think.”

“And now?”

Dean throws him a flat look. “Yeah, ‘cause I’m such a dumbass now. No. There was a whole lot of stuff I just—ignored. No time to deal with it. Always something that needed prioritising, something to hunt, something to kill. Never enough time.” He smiles wryly. “Perks of being a prisoner—I got nothing but time.”

Castiel says, “You’re welcome.”

Dean snorts.
                    
He wanders further ahead, until the corridor opens onto the sweeping green hillside and open skies. “It feels like no-one has ever been here. Like no-one ever got hurt here. No-one ever lost someone here. Like we’re a hundred miles from any place where bad things happen.”

“Bad things happen everywhere.”

“Yeah, you’re telling me. That’s all I ever really wanted. To get away. To be normal. That’s why when Sam…” Dean trails off, his eyes lost somewhere past Castiel.

“He saw his chance and he took it,” Castiel says. “You never got that chance.”

Dean is quiet. He rubs a hand over the back of his neck. “I resented the hell out of him for leaving me behind,” he admits lowly. “I just—I always figured we either get out together or not at all.”

“When were you going to get out?” Castiel asks.

Dean looks at him, a frown creasing his face. “What’re you talking out?”

“You and him, getting out together—when was that going to be?”

Dean’s looks away. His jaw works. “Don’t know.”

“Maybe Sam couldn’t wait that long.”

Dean shakes his head, but he doesn’t argue. He is silent, scraping the toe of his boot through the gravel underfoot. “We were a team,” he says, at last. “I know it don’t mean much to say that but—Jesus, we were a hell of a team.”

On an impulse, Castiel says, “Show me.”

Dean looks over and studies him, hesitant. He takes a deep breath, sets his shoulders, and he nods. He lets Castiel step in close—close enough that his breath rushes warm over Castiel’s face—and then Castiel lifts two fingers to his brow.

What follows is unsteady for a moment, Dean still deciding what to show him. The walls and ceiling jitter and flash, as of someone flipping through radio shows, static filling the spaces in between where one world stops and another starts—there are two boys curled together in the backseat of an old car; there are two boys, making a competitive game out of stripping down a pistol, seeing who can do it faster; two boys, hitch-hiking, splitting a carton of fries. In childhood, the resemblances are stronger, both of them round-cheeked and freckle-faced. Then they grow older and more different, separating from each other in the sweeping line of Sam’s nose and the almond shape of his eyes, the edge of Dean’s jaw and the curve of his lip.

At last, the Beautiful Room settles for a moment on the backseat of a large car. It pulls into a drive-through burger joint at the side of a traffic-choked interstate snaking through the centre of some pulsing city, the skyline illuminated red and silver in the distance as twilight settles overhead. In front seat are the Winchesters.

In this memory, Dean is scrawny, perhaps sixteen, one wrist in an ace-bandage; Sam’s hair is unwashed, and he is swamped in a sweatshirt too large for him. They squabble in undertones—fine, I guess I’m ready—dude, suck it up—look, she’s there, get the window—shut up—you shut up—and then Dean cranks the window down.

The cashier at the window is bored, young, with a nose piercing. Her eyes flick critically over Dean, up and down.

“Hey, sweetheart,” he says, and he grins, wide, sunny. “I’m real sorry to bother you. We got a situation back here and no time to stop—I was just wondering if you could spare us a big cup, is all. Maybe one of the size you give out for, like, bottomless drinks. You know?”

The cashier arches her eyebrows. “You want a cup.”

“Like I said,” Dean says, and he leans through the window, lowers his voice conspiratorially, and jerks a thumb towards Sam in the front seat, “we got a situation.”

She looks between Dean’s grimace and Sam, who stares out of the far window, seemingly mortified. Her lip curls, and she half-turns to glance over her shoulder as though in search of help.

“Hey, hey,” Dean says, before she can call for back-up. “God—the kid already wants to die, I don’t wanna make it worse, here. And we’re on a real tight schedule.” He holds the girl’s eyes, and even from the back seat, Castiel can feel how earnest he is, how imploring, how handsome. “Cross my heart and hope to die—we’re not trying to pull anything. Just one measly cup. Please.”

The girl sighs. She grabs a giant Styrofoam cup the size of her head and thrusts it unceremoniously at him. “Jesus, there you go. Get out of here.”

“Thank you,” Dean says, and he peers at the girl’s badge, “Bianca.”

Dean cranks the car into drive and forwards. He tosses the cup over his shoulder at Sam, who catches it in both hands with a muttered, “I friggin’ hate you.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Dean pulls into the next stop, and the middle-aged man in the window frowns, tugs at the front of his cap. Before he can speak, Dean intercedes: “Sorry—sorry. I didn’t order anything, I just—jeez, this looks weird as hell, I bet. I go to school with Bianca, sir. Known her since we were playing in the sand-box and she still won’t go out with me!”

The man squints at him. “You didn’t order anything?”

“No, sir. Just wanted to catch her outside of school, you know? God, it can be hard to talk to her—Bee’s got all these friends and they’re all way cooler than me, so I thought, what the hell, I could borrow my Dad’s car, rock up at work, impress her, and maybe she’ll—”

“Get out of here, kid.”

“Yes, sir.”

Dean takes the hand-brake off, lets the car silently roll a couple of feet—out of sight of the cashier—and he waits for the next car in the queue to pull up close behind them to the payment window. On the far side of the front seat, Sam leans against the window, quiet, wary. As he waits, he reaches across to push the door-lock. Castiel gets the feeling that whatever they’re trying has gone wrong before. Sam is watching the rear-view mirror.

“Now,” Sam says suddenly, and without a sound, Dean rolls into view of the final window.

“Good afternoon,” he says brightly.

“One veggie wrapper, one bacon and cheese, and one kid’s meal,” the cashier recites from the receipt stapled to the paper bag, and then she lifts her eyes and squints into the car—at Dean and Sam.

“Young at heart,” Dean says, and he winks. He has already taken the bag from her unsuspecting hands, already passed it to Sam. “You have a good day, ma’am.”

“Hey, wait—”

Dean slams his foot down on the accelerator and tears away so fast that he bumps the sidewalk, rattling the whole car from side to side, but then they are gone, pulling away onto the interstate, squeezing between two trucks and out of sight.

As he drives, Sam is picking through the paper bag. He wrinkles his nose. “This smells like feet.”

“It’s gourmet. Shut your face.” Dean glances over. “How far to the next one?”

There is a map folded out on the dash; Sam pulls it towards him and skates his fingers over the roads and contours. “Twelve miles. Wait, no—that’s Avoca. We were there like a week ago, they’ll remember us.”

“Well, we gotta fill up this stupid bottomless cup somewhere,” Dean mutters.

“Unless you wanna drive all the way to Des Moines—”

“Like hell.” Dean splits a glance between the road and the rear-view mirror. “What about a Burger King?”

“They have self-service but their cups look different.”

“So what?” Dean flicks the turn signal on. “You got your puppy eyes ready, Choir Boy?”

Sam fishes a sleek, badge-emblazoned tie from the dash compartment and starts threading it around his neck. “Shut up.”

In the back-seat, Castiel is smiling. The two of them, squabbling, working together—it speaks to a camaraderie that Castiel cannot help but admire and envy in equal measure. His own brothers and sisters have the advantage of a ten-millennia head-start in terms of building a close familial bond, and yet it pales alongside the easy way that Dean, at sixteen, nudges his younger brother with his elbow, teases him about his white button-up, asks him to sing some Beethoven. Sam flips his middle finger at Dean, and the Dean of the present day—older, more tired, his eyes dark and heavy—smiles.

The memory shifts again, shivers through shared motels rooms, through silly arguments, through handfuls of popcorn tossed at each other at the movies, through endless journeys in the Impala with the road unwinding ahead and the radio crackling and their voices rising over it. In another moment, Sam and Dean are older—Sam with the thin, ragged facial hair of a boy who has only recently acquired the ability to grow any, Dean with a bold arc of whiteheads along his jaw. They stand in some warehouse, the roof overhead broken in enough places that rainwater puddles, shiny as oil in the thin light, on the concrete. Between them and the exit stands a man, fair-haired, sneering, with blood in his teeth. There is a mould-mottled wall at their back, and Dean leans heavily on Sam. One ankle bends wrong. He breathes heavily, sways where he stands.

“You stay away from him,” Dean says. “He’s just a kid. He doesn’t need to die, alright? Just let my brother go. Please.”

“Dean,” Sam says, frightened, urgent. His voice cracks. “What are you doing?”

“Sammy, you’re all I got left, and I ain’t risking that,” Dean says, his arm outstretched to keep Sam back. He backs up, limping, until he has Sam pinned between him and the wall, and he is shaking his head, frantic, desperate, as he tries to reason with the ghoul. “I swear to God, don’t you hurt him. Please. He’s only a kid.” 

The ghoul tilts his head back, his mouth curving into a predatory smile. “Oh, you’re pathetic,” he says.

“You wanna hurt him, you get through me first,” Dean says. The hand clutching the silver knife falls, with resignation to his side. “If you kill me, just let him go.”

Castiel only sees it when it’s almost too late—how close Sam’s hand is to Dean’s.

Realisation strikes him as it strikes the ghoul, and then everything happens too fast.

Dean, ducking down—Dean’s knife in Sam’s hand as he lunges forwards—Dean’s hand braced on Sam’s side to keep him upright on his bad ankle—the hot spray of blood as Sam slashes the ghoul’s throat.

Sam, small, skinny, underestimated, nearly takes the ghoul’s head off. He is perhaps fifteen or sixteen years old and he wears blood well.

Behind him, Dean sags against the wall. “Shit,” he says. “Nice one. Thanks.”

Sam blinks and the heel of a hand into his eye to clear his vision, his eyelashes tacky with blood. “How bad’s your ankle broken?” he asks.

Dean’s face is pale, sweat prickling at his brow. “Not too bad,” he says, his jaw tightened against the pain. From here, Castiel can’t see the break, but based on the angle of Dean’s boot, he is willing to bet the bone is jutting out.

“I’ll make a splint,” Sam says, disregarding Dean’s bravado completely. As soon as he walks away in search of materials, Dean slumps against the wall and slides gradually down to sit inelegantly on the floor.

“Hell of a kid,” Dean says, at Castiel’s side, pride colouring his every word. “You see the way he took out that ghoul? Jesus.”

“It was a good strategy,” Castiel says. “Your protection of Sam—letting them underestimate him.”

Dean gives a low whistle, shakes his head. “Their mistake.”

“You know each other well.”

“Used to,” Dean corrects distractedly. He scratches his jaw. “Hard not to. We grew up in each other pockets. We had the craziest codewords and secret ways of getting each other messages—when Dad was pissed as hell and we didn’t want to set him off, or when we were being watched. We had ‘Poughkeepsie’ for drop everything and run, ‘funky town’ for someone with a gun, ‘Calrissian’ for a trap, we had—” Dean wipes a hand over his face. “Fuck, we had some crazy contingencies back then. One time, we were up against these vamps. They got the drop on me, knocked me out cold, but someone had already called the cops. They got me in the back of their van and they just started driving. Woke up two states over when they tried to dump me in the Delaware. I got away, but—no phone, no wallet, nothing. I couldn’t get a hold of Sam on any number, so: saw him last in West Virginia. I go to the third-biggest city, Chesapeake, then the first motel in the phonebook, and fuck if he isn’t getting a Coke from the vending machine in the parking lot when I get there.”

 

“He knew what to do?”

“We spent our whole life hunting,” Dean says, with a shrug. “When we weren’t old enough yet, we were sitting on the side-lines watching the mistakes everybody else made and talking about how we’d do it different. How we’d do it better. We spent too much time seeing what happened when your team gets split up. I think I must have been… fifteen? Maybe sixteen? When Sam comes up with this batshit-stupid, complicated plan and he says, now we’ll always find each other.”

Dean is quiet, abruptly. He looks down at his boots, scrubs his toe through the dirt and sawdust underfoot.

“Seems crazy,” he says. “Back then. Thinking it was us against the world.”

Castiel reaches a hand, grazes his fingers over Dean’s sleeve. He cannot think of what words to offer as some measure of reassurance, but Dean glances over, looks at Castiel’s fingers at his elbow, and he looks comforted. Some of the tension bleeds from his shoulders. He clears his throat.

“Doesn’t matter now, anyway,” Dean mutters.

“It matters,” Castiel says.

Dean looks at him and his face is unreadable. His eyes track across Castiel’s face. He looks at his mouth. He swallows, thick, and drops his gaze to the floor. He takes a deep breath. “Yeah,” he says, at last. “Okay.”

Castiel’s fingers trail from Dean’s sleeve, run like water the length of his arm, skim lightly over the back of his hands. His fingertips bump Dean’s knuckles and then hover just out of reach, not quite touching. Dean’s hand shifts as though almost to close the distance. They do not touch. Castiel wants him to.

At last, Dean pulls his hand back. He exhales through his teeth, a long, slow sigh, and he presses a thumb into the bridge of his nose. “Got a headache. Shit.”

It’s taking its toll on Dean—controlling the memories, pulling them forwards, helping Castiel to recreate it—and so Castiel touches his shoulder, directs him towards the armchair as the hunting cabin slowly flickers back into place around them.

There is a bottle of whiskey on the table; Castiel retrieves it and holds it out for Dean to take. Dean pours Castiel’s first, then his own. Their fingers bump on the glass.

Dean pulls his feet up onto the seat of the armchair, slings an arm around one knee, and he talks. He tells Castiel about the time him and Sam got left behind in Assfuck, Nowhere for two weeks, with nothing to do except kill time—and the revelation of an arcade down the street from their motel. They played hour after hour, day after day, until they beat the Galaga high score, left their names behind, and found glory in the form of two free cans of Pepsi. Dean went back when Sam was at Stanford to see if they were still at the top of the league, but the arcade had been torn down, replaced by a Blockbuster.

He tells Castiel about Bobby—recalcitrant, careful, bad-tempered, kind—and how he used to get sent up to Sioux Falls to keep out of trouble when he was too young to tag along on his Dad’s hunts; how he used to get sent up there when he was old enough and no good at it; how he used to make his own way there when his Dad took too long coming back to the motel where he’d left them and they had no food left. Bobby used to grouch at him but would still play catch for hours, as long as Dean wanted to play. He gave Dean the first beer he enjoyed. Not his first beer—that had been with his father, choking it down and feeling queasy in a dive-bar with four other hunters who made fun of him and told him to get some hair on his chest, man up, grow a pair.

He tells Castiel that Bobby got a little meaner after Karen died: Karen, who cooked him dinner, made him take his shoes off when he came inside, snapped dishtowels at him when he complained about having to wash up. He has Ellen now, but she’s not exactly gentle, Dean says with a laugh, and admits she scares the shit out of him. Dean relaxes into the armchair as he talks. He gestures with his hands. He smiles, nostalgic.

He shows Castiel his car. It takes a while for him to get to it—he spends ten minutes on explaining, no, it’s not just a car, okay, it’s—it’s more than that, she’s beautiful and she moves like a dream and she’s like home to me—until he becomes impatient. Castiel makes the mistake of saying that in the memory with Sam, at the drive-through, the car had seemed comfortable enough, big, but ungainly in driving. 

Dean reaches across, seizes Castiel’s hand where it hangs between his knees, and pulls it up to press Castiel’s fingers to his brow. Then they are flying.

Ahead of them, the road stretches all the way to the bruise-red, bleeding horizon, and the sky is enormous above them, wide and warm and unbroken. Rust-red buttresses rise, ragged and fierce, from the desert like broken knuckles, and the heat prickles beneath Castiel’s shirt. It’s hard to say how fast the Impala is going; with the windows down, the wind snaps Dean’s collar against his throat and twists through his hair and thrums lowly like a contented animal. The wheels murmur over the asphalt. The sun glints, white and fierce, from the sleek black bonnet. 

For several long minutes, they do not speak. Dean drives. Castiel tilts his head against the window-frame and closes his eyes and lets the hot wind of eighty, maybe ninety, a hundred miles an hour sting his cheeks and his brow and his throat. He breathes in the desert and lets his fingers drift beyond the windowsill to dance where they are caught and buffeted. He feels like he is soaring with wings spread and like the highway has no end.

Dean tilts his elbow against the windowsill and throws a lazy smile across the bench at Castiel. “What do you think?” he prompts.

Castiel opens his eyes. He has seen places infinitely greater and more glorious than this—this, here, will have no place in history, no songs written for the dusty breathless beauty of this desert sky—but Castiel feels closer to paradise than he has in a long time.

The unadulterated joy in Dean’s crooked smile is radiant, and his loveliness becomes the sunset that silhouettes him. The sunlight smiths him golden-hued at the edge of his jaw and the uneven line of his nose; his eyelashes are butter-yellow at the ends, and Castiel feels helplessly, terrifyingly human when he looks at him, a knot behind his ribs.

He opens his mouth, and he doesn’t say anything.

He means to say, breathtaking, or beautiful, but he can’t think of anything except the tilt of Dean’s smile, and how soon everything that Dean is will be carved out to make room for an archangel within his skin, and everything bottlenecks in Castiel, the way he feels and the impossibility of it brimming in his throat.

Dean says, “Cas?” and the word comes out soft.

Castiel will need significantly longer than the time he has left with Dean to figure out how to articulate this—the light in Dean to which Castiel is helplessly drawn, like a star into orbit.

Dean reaches for him. His fingertips graze the underside of Castiel’s jaw; he touches his thumb to Castiel’s lower lip.

The Beautiful Room disintegrates around them, crumbling into an unsteady, static-flickering blackness, the dark cracking like broken glass. It is hard for Castiel to hold the illusion together.

They kneel together in a shapeless dark, and Dean is silhouetted by it. His thumb brushes, slow, over Castiel’s mouth. His skin is dry; it catches against Castiel’s lip, pulls. His hand is warm.

Slowly, Dean’s eyes move over Castiel’s face, hesitant, appraising.

Castiel doesn’t breathe.

Dean leans in and kisses him.

Castiel doesn’t know what he expected. Kissing is no more than a physical tool with which to demonstrate interest, and Dean is interested. He wants Castiel, physically, or at least wants the body he’s in—that much has been apparent for some time. He has seen humans do this. He has watched the way that they clutch at each other and writhe and gasp and become animals with each other. He has heard the violent things they say to each other—about this, because of this, in the midst of the pleasure it brings them. Sex, it seems to him, is mindless repetition, habit, instinct, need, nothing more.

When he kisses Castiel, it isn’t like that.

Something blooms in him, a warm, sweet unfolding of light, as of summer mornings, and Castiel feels it in Dean’s pulse in his throat, in his breath caught behind his teeth, in the unsteady tremor through his fingertips against Castiel’s skin. This close, Dean’s soul is near-tangible, golden—gleaming, glorious, heavy, hopeful—and Castiel kneels, unresisting, dizzy with it.

He watches, with eyes open, the furrow crinkle in Dean’s brow, the freckles become distinct across the bridge of his nose, and then Dean pulls away, far enough to breathe. His nose knocks Castiel’s. He breathes, shaky, through his teeth.

“Can I do this?” Dean says, voice strained and thin. He doesn’t meet Castiel’s eyes. “Is this okay?”

Castiel cradles his face in two hands and he pulls Dean back in. He doesn’t understand it, and can barely feel the physicality of it in this space and in this approximation of a borrowed body, but he understands the way Dean’s soul reacts when Castiel kisses him back, and he aches for it. Against Dean’s mouth, he says, “Please—yes,” and he presses their lips together, and Dean is incandescent.

Dean palms Castiel’s jaw, slides a hand around to thread through the hair at the nape of his neck and Castiel can almost feel it, the sensation distant but near enough that his breath catches in his throat and he wants to be closer. When Dean opens his mouth, when Castiel follows his lead, he breathes Dean in and he can almost taste him. It’s almost real enough.

When at last Dean pulls away, just far enough to breathe, Castiel can feel the uncertainty rolling off him like smoke. His forehead bumps Castiel’s; their noses rub alongside each other.

“Okay,” Dean says, slowly, and he nods. He exhales through his teeth. He doesn’t meet Castiel’s eyes. “Okay.”

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says. He doesn’t know what he’s apologising for.

“Oh, God,” Dean mutters. “I’m going to hell.” He wipes a hand over his face. “Again.”

Castiel’s hand glides over Dean’s shoulder down the length of his arm. The fabric of Dean’s jacket is coarse and it passes Castiel by like air.  “No harm will come to you.”

“What?” Dean stares at him. “Look, I’m no Biblical expert here, but I’m pretty sure you guys have razed cities to the fucking ground over this.”

Castiel hesitates. “That was—different.”

“Like hell is it different.”

Castiel doesn’t know why he is trying to convince Dean—he knows better than anyone the consequences of this. It has been some time since his superiors last came to him for an update, but sooner or later they will want to speak to him, and he will need to lie. He will need to say that the Sword is compliant and ready to die for the Apocalypse and that Castiel is ready to let him. Castiel doesn’t think he can do it. He wants to taste Dean’s mouth. He wants the way that Dean’s soul wants him—wants so fervently that he cannot understand sinfulness in it. Something that makes him feel like this can’t be inherently wicked.

“You’re the Michael Sword,” he says, at last. “No-one would touch you.”

Dean holds his eyes, as though in scrutiny. “Right,” he says. He doesn’t sound convinced.

“I won’t let them,” Castiel says. He reaches for Dean and his fingertips skim over Dean’s face before he thinks better of cupping Dean’s cheek; his hand settles instead on Dean’s shoulder. “Trust me.”


*** 

Castiel is being ruined by the Michael Sword—this he knows as fact.

It doesn’t stop him.

He takes him to the Pink Mosque, lets him revel in the low, vaulting arches of polished stones, tiny panes of painted glass and stone and ceramic, immaculate shards in pinks and reds and oranges so that the light fractures like a kaleidoscope, shimmering. Everything is precise symmetry and methodical, geometric angles to build flowers and stars and great clusters of diamonds, fitting together in harmony in repeating patterns. The air is sweet and still, the hush and the rosy glow settling gently on Castiel’s skin. The light on him, through the stained glass as it bounces and reflects, is warm and pink, painting his skin in a soft morning-gentle glow. Dean stands, transfixed, to stare at the spectrum of colour, and cannot be moved until Castiel touches the back of Dean’s hand. His fingers graze over Dean’s knuckles; when Dean’s fingers shift, Castiel finds them tangled with his own.

He shows Dean the red dirt and open skies of the Kalahari, Dean with a sunburn across the bridge of his nose and a hand shielding his eyes; he shows him the gleaming golden lúkovichnaya glavá, the onion domes high above Moscow; he shows him the needle-crowned peaks of Zhangjiajie, the mist curling around their craggy feet, and Dean’s hand brushes over the small of Castiel’s back with his fingertips to say, look, and point out the shimmering of small birds darting among the rocks.

It is hard to think that soon he will be dead.

Castiel tries to remember. He tries not to let himself forget. He says it to himself, like a mantra: The Michael Sword. The Michael Sword. He holds onto what Dean is, what his purpose is here, the fact that soon he will be scraped hollow and filled instead with the all-consuming glory of an archangel, and that he will not survive the process. 

At Salar de Uyuni, Dean stretches his arms out akimbo, a single speck swallowed by the unfolding sunrise and the bruise-red reflection of it in the salt flat. He looks back at Castiel, grinning, giddy, and Castiel breathes him in like fresh air, finds himself dizzy with it.

It is hard to remember.

Castiel is drunk on him—on his open-mouthed wonderment at anemone and red-backed crabs as bright as apples beneath the water as Dean’s hand bobs to bump a shy finger along their spines, on his white-knuckle grip either side of a narrow boat along the Mekong, then on his growing confidence, his hand over the side, his fingers disturbing the yellow rind of the moon reflected on black glass water. He finds fish, darting like quicksilver, glinting in the starlight, and when he looks back in delight, his knee knocks Castiel’s. Castiel is in love with his stumbling, ungainly consonants as he sounds out mamnūnam with a blurry-faced half-ghost at a bazaar south of Tehran, the delight in his face when he gets it right, and proudly exclaims, as easy as Italian, right? and Castiel wonders when he learned Italian.

They climb the loose rock and baked earth at Nemrut, meander slow circles around the hierothesian, the staring stone eyes of half-forgotten gods. Around them, the Beautiful Room shimmers through a conjoining of memories, all impermanent and half-faded as though seen in an underdeveloped photograph—there are stern-faced, slope-shouldered, weary men in fine-plumed helmets and polished Commagenian armour; there are sunburnt tourists in glinting glasses, toting long-lensed cameras the size of their heads; there are cravat-choked men clearing dirt by the fistful, a chain-gang snaking down the mountain to pass rock hand over hand. They shimmer, indistinct, as sunlight streams through, and at one moment, Dean steps too close and one man shatters into glittering pixels.

Then they are in a field, together, somewhere in South Dakota, while Dean folds Castiel’s hands around the butt of a pistol. He tells Castiel about learning to shoot, how it was the first thing he ever found that he was good at. I was no good at school smarts—I liked reading plenty but I was slow at it, got called stupid, but this? This I could do. He describes the thrill of knocking down his first tin-can at thirty feet. He says it’s different, though, when it’s moving. When it’s breathing. He tells Castiel how to breathe—in, out, hold. Arms loose. And fire. Castiel doesn’t hit a single can, but it’s hard to care with Dean’s warm weight pressed against the back of his shoulder and his fingers, like the ghost of a memory on Castiel’s borrowed skin, curled around his wrist and steering his grip. His thumb bumps Castiel’s knuckles. Dean’s breath is a rush of static over the back of Castiel’s neck.

They crash over the roaring, black mouth of whirlpools in boats that judder and groan and seem scarcely powerful enough to deliver them from the jaws of the sea, and Dean sips banana wine, blinks at the sweetness of it on his tongue, steals Castiel’s drink from him when he thinks he isn’t looking. Dean climbs hills, tilts his face into the sun, tries to fit his mouth around Spanish, Serbian, Lao, avoids looking into Castiel’s face too long. There is sunlight, dazzling, on blue crystal shallows, a curve of white sand, the jungle behind thrumming with insect noise and hair-curling humidity. Dean rolls his jeans up to the knee, paddles in the surf, pokes with his big toe at small, moving things in the waves. He runs a hand backwards through his sweaty hair, makes it stand on end, damp and salt-unruly. Freckles stand out on the apples of his cheeks, and his eyes are glass-green in the light. He snags his boots by the laces, and leads the way up the beach.

Castiel follows, and his foot sinks into flaking grey ash. He recoils, but—no. He was mistaken. The sand beneath his shoes in soft, crisp, golden. A salt breeze whispers through his hair, curls gently beneath the collar of his trenchcoat.

He walks no further. He doesn’t trust the earth beneath his feet.

He stands motionless, staring at the ground, but nothing changes. This place is stable, certain. He can feel the Beautiful Room’s warding, painted invisible on the sky and on the jungle ahead where walls should be. This memory is as strong as any other than he has selected; there is no reason for it to come apart.

“Cas?”

With a jolt, Castiel lifts his head. He finds Dean in front of him, his expression creased with worry.

“I’ve never been here before,” Castiel says. His voice is unsteady.

“Okay,” Dean says. “What’s wrong?”

Castiel’s ears are ringing—there is the soothing shush of sea waves at his back, the chirping of far-off birds, and beneath it all, the last echoes of a roaring sound, the rising and failing of a siren, and someone is screaming. He blinks, and it is gone. Silence: sea-sound and bird-song.

Castiel says, “Where are we?”

Dean gestures helplessly. “I don’t know, man. You picked it.”

“I’ve never been here,” Castiel says. “I remember everything. I would know.”

“Okay, sure.” Dean settles a hand on Castiel’s forearm. “So what? You’ve never been here—hell, me neither. Cas?”

“There’s a ledge at the end of the sand—not steep, but—” Castiel braces the heel of a hand against his forehead. “There’s a—at the bottom of the path, where it curves around, there’s a pond. No, a stream. It runs south-east. There’s blood in it.”

Castiel can smell burning.

The Beautiful Room collapses.

Dean jerks back, startled, as the dark wood and heavy furnishings slam back into place around them, hard enough that every surface jitters as though with static, the floor shaking. Then all is still, and Castiel stands hunched, unmoving. He blinks. He blinks again.

Slowly, Dean lets out a long breath. “A little warning next time wouldn’t go amiss,” he mutters. He pauses, looking Castiel over. “Cas?”

There is a pressure at Castiel’s centre. In the illusion of this body, it manifests as though pushing behind his eyes.

“Hey. Cas.” Dean tilts his head over, leans into Castiel’s space. “Cas? You with me?”

Castiel straightens.

“My apologies,” he says. “Our departure was abrupt. I’ll warn you, next time.”

Dean stares at him. “Okay,” he says slowly. “So, you wanna tell me what just happened there? What—you’d been there before?”

“No, I was mistaken,” Castiel says. It’s clear to him now, and while he remains perplexed by the way in which his distance from Heaven has manipulated his perception of the Beautiful Room, he understands that it is no cause for concern.  “Doubtlessly a consequence of the frequency of the changes to this place.”

Dean’s eyebrows arch. “Seriously?”

Castiel lifts his head. “Yes,” he says, and he rubs at his temple with one thumb. He has a headache—a dull, blooming pain behind his eyes. “I warned you of the side-effects.”

Dean looks unconvinced. “Yeah. I guess.”

“You should rest. It’ll ensure that you aren’t also suffering from the side-effects.”

“Right.”

“Grace go with you,” Castiel says.

 

***

Chapter Text

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face:

now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.



***

 

For some reason, it’s worse than usual tonight. There is the usual swell of terror and dread, heavy enough to seep through the walls and settle thickly on the floorboards, to reach Castiel and prickle coldly beneath his borrowed skin, but where usually it would shift and break soon, it builds and builds. The nightmare endures, and Castiel watches the sky through the far window twist darkly into a storm cloud, watches the ensuing rain beat the windows as Dean, in the other room, struggles to breathe. His pulse hammers hard enough to drum the walls with it; a picture-frame swings lopsidedly from its hook, shivers, and then falls. The pane of glass cracks, face-down. The fear does not ease.

Castiel gets to his feet, and he stands, hesitant, in the middle of the room, listening to Dean’s palpable terror from within the room in which he is not permitted. His hand rests on the back of the dining room chair, and he feels the tremor through the floor. The Beautiful Room is shivering with it. A saucepot drops from the hook over the kitchen sink and rings out like an alarm-bell as it lands, metal on metal.

He moves down the hallway.

At the door to Dean’s private room, Castiel pauses. This close, Dean’s fear is overwhelming, nauseating; it fills the room and spills over like a monstrous thing swelling beyond the bars of its cage. He imagines he can smell the inky blood of it oozing under the door. He takes a deep breath and he knocks.

There is no response—no lessening in the oppressive foulness of whatever waits inside. It pulses and it builds and the door-handle rattles in its socket with a faint, high ringing, and Castiel makes up his mind.

He opens the door and goes inside.

There is no monster. There is only Dean.

Suffocating in a tangle of blankets around his legs and waist, Dean lies curled on his side, his back to Castiel, and he is breathing ragged, every exhalation a low, desperate burst of noise, as though he is choking. He is shaking, hunched in on himself, and his head jerks unnaturally from side to side.

“Dean,” Castiel says, his voice low and soft. His hand stays on the bedroom door, like a tether. “Dean?”

There is no response, and so Castiel’s hand slips from the door.

He crosses to the bed, sitting carefully on the edge, and he reaches across tentatively to touch Dean’s shoulder. “Dean,” he says again. “Dean, wake up.” He moves Dean, shakes him. “It isn’t real. You’re safe, Dean. You’re—”

Dean wakes.

It happens fast—jarringly fast, for a human. For Castiel, it is slower, sequential, but he lets it happen: Dean’s hand on Castiel’s wrist, yanking him forwards, off-balance; the hand in his jacket to haul his weight over; landing flat on his back in an inelegant, disarming tumble; Dean’s knee slamming hard into his groin; Dean’s hand at his throat; the fist drawn back for the first punch.

It doesn’t hurt, but Castiel goes limp. He lets his hands drop either side of his head in clear surrender—I’m not going to hurt you—and he is slack, unresisting. He holds Dean’s eyes, wild as they are, empty, feral, and he waits.

Slowly, Dean realises. He is shaking so fiercely where he pins Castiel by the throat that his elbow threatens to buckle beneath his weight; his fist shudders in the air to the extent that Castiel is not sure Dean could land a clear punch if he wanted to. He breathes, in and out, in and out, gulping and uneven. His chest is heaving.

Castiel doesn’t move. He doesn’t speak. He looks up at Dean, steady and silent and unflinching, and is not afraid of him.

Dean’s trembling fist slackens, and then drops. His grip on Castiel’s throat gives out, and as he sinks back to sit on his heels, his hand drags down Castiel’s chest to rest there, over the human heart. He has a leg over Castiel’s waist, and he sinks further still, pressing his face into Castiel’s side, and he does not move. He bows over Castiel as though in prayer, and he shakes apart, not quite breathing, until his breath hitches all at once with the sharp, ugly sound of a sob.

At last, Castiel feels the Beautiful Room settle and become still. Now there is only Dean’s grief and distress in the complicated, human way—not so destructive, but no less terrible to witness. It aches in the core of Castiel, and he finds himself reaching up to touch Dean without meaning to, fingers threading through the short hair at the back of Dean’s neck, a hand smoothing over his side.

It takes a long time for Dean to come down, but he does. The shaking slows; his breath evens into tremulous constancy, thick in his throat but regular; the tension bleeds from his spine where he curls over Castiel. It takes him longer still to sit up and face Castiel.

Once finally upright, Dean scrubs two hands roughly down over his face. He sniffs, the sound wet, and forces a brittle laugh. “Always figured if I ever got you in here, we’d have a little foreplay first,” he mumbles.

Castiel doesn’t laugh. His fingers run from Dean’s hair down his jaw. Dean doesn’t meet his eyes.

“Um,” Dean says. He clears his throat, and he picks at the hem of his T-shirt. He is still kneeling over Castiel. “Sorry if I hurt you.”

“You didn’t,” Castiel says.

“Right." Dean is quiet for a long moment. He says, “I’ll let you up, so you can—yeah.”

He doesn’t move.

Castiel says, “If you’d like me to stay, I’ll stay.”

Dean still won’t look at him. His throat works. When he says, “Yeah, okay,” his voice is hoarse.

He climbs off Castiel and sits instead on the edge of the bed; Castiel moves to follow him, to sit at his side. They don’t touch one another, but their shoulders rub as they breathe, and for Dean, it seems, that is enough.

After several minutes’ silence, Dean speaks.

“First thing I did when I got topside was go find Sam,” he says, his voice quiet, half-lost even in the silence. In the narrow sliver of light from the hallway, Castiel can pick out the line of his nose, the slope of his crumpled brow, the hopeless curve of his mouth. “I couldn’t get there fast enough. Lucky for me, I got buried near a gas station. Had an abandoned truck there just waiting for me to hotwire her—but I probably would’ve run the whole way back otherwise.” He is quiet. “Nearly ran off the goddamn road three times. It was like I couldn’t see straight. Like tunnel vision. Every time I blinked, it was—it was too dark. Like my eyes weren’t opening right. Hands couldn’t stop shaking, and—and there was something under my skin. Something cold.” Dean swallows, and the sound of it is thick, wet. “Felt more real than anything else on that road, in that truck.”

His head ducks into his chest, and he just breathes. The sound of it is shaky, and Castiel does not know what to do to steady him. He leans into Dean’s shoulder, lets him lean back on him. Their legs press together the length of their thighs. Dean picks at a loose thread in his jeans, and his thumb bumps Castiel’s knee.

“I found Bobby first,” Dean goes on. He tilts his head over and clarifies: “Well, Sam was off the map somewhere, I couldn’t get through. And Bobby, he’s always careful, so he tested me before he’d accept I was who I said I was. Salt, silver, holy water, standing me in the centre of a devil’s trap—and I was scared. I didn’t think I was gonna pass the test. I couldn’t get past that feeling that I wasn’t me anymore. That there was something inside me that was still—”

He trails off.

“When I found out, later, what happened, how I came back, I kept thinking you guys brought me back wrong. Like I wasn’t all here. Like you couldn’t scrub off what they did to me.” Dean takes a long, slow breath; it shivers from him. “Half the time I felt more demon than anything else.”

Castiel longs to reach for him. He keeps his distance.

“I couldn’t get away from it—from the anger, from knowing what I was capable of,” Dean says. “Sam could tell. He was… he wasn’t scared of me, but he sure as hell didn’t trust me either. The first few hunts we went on, me and Sam, I felt like I had this bad taste in the back of my mouth all the time. Like waking up after drinking yourself stupid. Only I couldn’t rinse it out and wash my teeth and forget about it, and it was this—regret. This disappointment that I hadn’t got to take anything apart.”

Dean swallows. He looks at his hands.

“It’s why I went nuts when I found out about Sam. The idea that I died and I went through all of that so that he could keep his soul, and he threw it away like it was nothing. Like,” Dean rubs a hand over his face, and his voice cracks, “like, I didn’t get a choice in becoming a monster, that got put on me, and he just—volunteered for it. Because some chick told him it made him special.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to say. The idea that this is destiny, that Dean has to lie back and accept it, seems deeply unfair. There is nothing that he can say to make this better. Dean went to Hell for more than a hundred years and he will never be rid of those scars, and he did it for nothing. Castiel reaches across and curls his fingers through Dean’s. He rubs his thumb over the backs of Dean’s knuckles, and he doesn’t speak, and slowly Dean tilts to lean into him.

“Is there anything I can do to help?”

“Not unless you got a time-machine handy.”

“You would do it differently?”

Dean chokes out a half-laugh, the sound wet and uncontrolled, like he is close to tears. “Yeah,” he says. “Fuck. Right, I’m just gonna—leave my brother to be tortured for millions of years. Yeah.” He lets out a slow, shaky breath. “No. I’m always gonna try and keep him safe—whether he wants it or not. He can throw it back in my face, but I’m always gonna try.” He is quiet. “He’s all I got. Or—was.”

Castiel hesitates. “He’s not.”

Dean scoffs. “What the hell else is there? My car? My jacket? I got nothing else rooting for me.”

Castiel is silent, and after a long moment, Dean lifts his head to look at him. Their eyes meet in the half-dark, Castiel exasperated, Dean uncertain. After all he has done for Dean—and this is still in doubt.

At last, Dean says, “You.” The word is somewhere between an accusation and a breath of relief. 

“For as long as I am,” Castiel says. “With all that I am.”

 

***

 

"Keeping busy, are we?"

Dean shifts his weight between his two feet. "I guess," he says.

Zachariah peers into his face, holds his chin and turns his head left, then right. Zachariah scrutinises him, then calls back notes to the angels at his back with clipboards. They appraise him like an antique, evaluating whether he's worthless or whether he can be repurposed with polish and paint.  

Zachariah tucks his fingertips into the front of Dean’s belt, tugs at it. He tuts, shakes his head, and gives Dean in a narrow smile. "Getting a little heavy there, Dean."

Dean is silent, but his eyes narrow. He stares past Zachariah, over his shoulder, his chin held high.

Zachariah pulls back Dean's eyelid. He checks his ears.

Castiel watches, something hot and bristling within his chest, but before he can speak, Dean looks over. There is irritation belied in the tightness of his jaw, but he holds Castiel's eyes and he is calm. He makes Castiel calm.

They aren't in armour. They aren't in vessels. They wear an illusory approximation of them, as Castiel does, but otherwise they seem unprepared for Judgement Day.

"How much longer?" Castiel asks.

Zachariah goes on, disregarding Castiel entirely.

Dean pulls back his head from Zachariah's ministrations. "Hey, asshole. He asked you a question. How much longer?"

Zachariah blinks. "Not long," he assures him, smiling wide and toothy. "We're closing in."

"Closing in?" Dean repeats. "What the hell does closing in mean? I thought we were just waiting for Michael to get his head out of his ass and come lay his hands on."

Zachariah's smile widens. "Dean. I understand that your kind like to go in guns blazing, as it were. We, however, prefer to invest in a little something called strategy. When we face the demonic hoard—with your brother at the head—we would like to actually win. Therefore, we would like to fight on our terms, not on theirs, and when conditions are favourable to us. Patience is a virtue, Dean."

Dean says, "Fuck off."

Castiel almost smiles—and then Zachariah laughs, too.

“Oh, I like that,” Zachariah says, and he claps his hands together. Once. Twice. “All  that righteous indignation. That awareness of your own power.” He steps in close, still smiling. The shape of it is unsettling, hollow. He lifts a finger, wags it admonishingly before Dean’s face. “You know how to get what you want, Dean. Do you know who I am? Etcetera, etcetera. That’s right. Throw your weight around a little.”

Dean fidgets. His eyes dart from Zachariah to Castiel, and back. There are four feet between Castiel and Zachariah’s back. He cannot see the way Dean’s hands move at his sides, to see if he is nervous, and from this perspective, Dean looks—small.

Zachariah’s eyes are dark and shiny, like the backs of beetles. “You’re precious and sacred and untouchable,” he says, his voice syrup-sweet, cloying. “You tell me how to do my job.”

He has not laid a finger on Dean, and yet Castiel can feel the hand around Dean’s throat. For now, a caress—but it would not take much for him to start squeezing.

Zachariah takes another step forwards, into Dean’s space. His voice drops lower still. His head tilts over, as though to breathe Dean in, to smell something off his skin. “Isn’t that right?”

Castiel says, “I want to speak to Anna.”

Zachariah lifts his head.

Castiel’s voice feels too loud, abrasive, in the intrusion. He barrels on regardless. “Where is she?” he asks. “I’ve had no orders since this mission began.”

 “You’ve had orders from Naomi.”

“Naomi doesn’t command my garrison,” Castiel says.

Zachariah’s eyebrows raise. He turns to Castiel, and says, “Naomi commands all garrisons.”

Castiel’s mouth closes. There is no way he can win—nothing he can say to make himself heard.

“Perhaps a word with Naomi would be advisable. Perhaps she should experience your little temper tantrum first-hand.” Zachariah’s mouth pulls down at the corners, thoughtful. His gaze is unwavering. “What do you think?”

Dean’s eyes, over Zachariah’s shoulder, are on Castiel.

“No,” Castiel says. He doesn’t want to leave Dean alone with them. “No, it’s—forgive me. I spoke imprudently.”

“Sure,” Zachariah says. “I understand that.” He turns to face Dean once more, and his eyebrows arch. “It can be so easy—to forget one’s place.”

Castiel ducks his head and says nothing.

Zachariah reaches out, dusts his hand along the top of Dean’s shoulder, picks lint from the seam of his shirt. Dean stares silently past him.

“Do let us know if anything changes,” Zachariah says, smile glittering, and then the air is split, static hissing, and the angels are gone.

Dean wheels around and slams the flat of his hand against the grandfather clock, which makes a dusty, wounded groan. “Fucking—goddamnit.”

Castiel closes his eyes. 

"You know, I'm starting to get the impression there is no goddamn battle,” Dean says, low and rough, and he doesn’t look at Castiel. “I've been here for months and nothing has changed. You guys told me this would be quick and painless—well, I'm telling you now, it fucking hurts."

There is a weight in Castiel, something that pulls heavy in the heart of him, and he doesn’t know how to ease it in himself, let alone in Dean. He wishes he had the answers for him. All he can say is, "I'm sorry."

“You’re sorry?” Dean’s voice, when he repeats Castiel’s words back to him, are soft, faint, an echo in a dark place. He straightens up. His back is a hard line; his shoulders tighten. "You're sorry?"

"I could not have foretold—"

"What the hell,” Dean says, turning, slow, “are you sorry for?” He moves on Castiel, anger thinly restrained in the set of his jaw. “You're not the one waiting to die. You're not the one bouncing off the goddamn walls with cabin fever. You’re not the one being weighed up and measured like a fucking meal.” He steps in close enough that Castiel can feel the roiling fury-fever of him beneath his skin, the way it snaps in his bones. “You’re just a good little soldier. You do as you’re told. You—”

“I’m not.”

Dean stares at him. “What?”

“I’m not,” Castiel says quietly, “a good soldier. Not by the standards against which I’m measured, at least. I think too much. I feel—” He cuts himself off; he has said enough. He isn’t supposed to feel at all.

Dean is silent. He doesn’t step back. He stays there, near enough for Castiel to pick out the tired lines beneath his eyes, the exhausted furrow in his brow that lingers even when his eyes close. He’s near enough for Castiel to feel him—not fury, now, Castiel realises, but worse. Grief. It is thick and heavy and grey as bloodless bodies. “Half the time,” Dean says, “I think you like it here."

The accusation is meant to hurt. Dean is swinging with that which he thinks will cut deepest, and Castiel doesn’t flinch. He says, “You’re right.”

Dean’s face is hard.

“When Michael comes, you’re going to die,” Castiel says, and he doesn’t mean to say it like that: low, soft, like a confession. His voice sounds raw. “I don’t want you to.”

“I thought making sure I die was your job,” Dean says, and he is unknowable. His words come out flat. His face is impassive, his eyes dark, and Castiel wants to interpret it as anger or irritation or something else familiar, but Dean is looking at Castiel in a way that makes him feel—slow-moving. Like river-water. That look hurts more than the accusation. “Protect me,” Dean says. “Keep me happy, keep me occupied. Lamb before the slaughter, all that.” 

“I don’t want that,” Castiel says.

Dean says nothing.

After a long, aching moment, Castiel says, “I need to show you something.”

Dean folds his arms across his chest. “Where?” he asks, somewhat petulantly.

Castiel pauses. “Nowhere,” he says. “Here. Heaven. Of my memories.” He moves in closer, and lifts his hand towards Dean’s face. “You’ll need to close your eyes.”

“Why?”

“Because at the time, we weren’t in vessels.” Castiel withdraws his hand, lets it hover in the space between them. “I can alter the memory to make it accessible to you, but it won’t be instantaneous. You may have survived experiencing my true form, but I’d rather not find out whether it’s exclusive to me when your eyes are burned from your skull.”

Dean huffs, but for once, he does as he’s told.

Castiel touches two fingers to Dean’s brow. Almost imperceptibly, Dean tilts his face into Castiel’s touch. Castiel’s knuckles skim his cheek.

It takes a long time for the memory to settle around them. Gradually, the light simmers from searing iridescence to a cool light, electric overheads buzzing in a space like an office—or a laboratory: cold, sterile—and the many faceless angels are filtered into bodies, into suits and ties. They stand around a table of highly polished glass and speak to one another in a throng of overlapping voices. The sound of it is melodious, with teeth underneath, a steel-sharp shrillness that echoes in Castiel’s ears. It stings strongest when Naomi bares her teeth in a magnanimous smile. At the other end of the table, Zachariah throws head back in a laugh and, beneath his skin, there is a shivering, as though something shedding its skin.

“You can open your eyes, now,” Castiel says.

Dean looks. A frown furrows his brow. “What is this?” he asks. His voice rides low in his chest, like he already knows he isn’t going to like the answer.

“This is your salvation,” Castiel says. “The Righteous Man has gone to Hell and needs to be retrieved. This is where the decision was made.”

Dean stands, unmoving, and looks around slowly—at Uriel, discussing the end of days in a flat, disinterested voice; at Thaddeus, picking at something in their vessel’s teeth; at the lack of urgency.

“How long have I been down there?” Dean asks.

“Nine days,” Castiel says.

Dean looks at him, his lips pressing thin.

“As you experienced it,” Castiel translates, “just over three years.”

Dean’s head ducks. He doesn’t say anything, and Castiel listens to Naomi, at the head of the table, calmly explaining that there’s no hurry, of course—we need to give him time to break, if we want him malleable.

“It was the first time I’d been invited to a meeting of this importance,” Castiel says quietly. “I remember what an honour it was. To be among the angels with whom Naomi shared her plan for you. I felt—significant. Involved in greatness. Maybe it was vanity, but…” He trails off. He doesn’t know how to explain it. At last, he says, “This is family—as I understood it.” Castiel looks at him. “Before you.”

Dean is silent.

“You don’t need to tell me that it’s… dissatisfactory.”

“Not the word I was gonna use,” Dean mutters.

Castiel looks at him. “You’re angry.”

Dean doesn’t look at him. “You left me down there, strung up like meat.” His voice is shaking finely. “Did you know what they were doing to me?”

Castiel aches. “Yes.”

“Tell me.” Dean’s fists tighten at his sides until his knuckles show white and sharp through the skin. “Tell me what they—”

“They tortured you,” Castiel says. He turns to face Dean head-on. “Took you apart. Made you face all that makes you scared and weak. They hacked at you. They made you exact the same suffering on others. They told you that you were good at it. That tearing people apart was all you were good for.” He swallows. “They made you believe it.”

Dean’s eyes are shining red. His throat works and he breathes unsteadily and he stares Castiel down without speaking.

“And we did nothing,” Castiel says. “I did nothing.”

A muscle ticks in Dean’s jaw.

“We were proud of this. Self-congratulatory. We knew we wouldn’t reach you before you were utterly destroyed and we considered that a job well done.”

“And while you left me to rot in there,” Dean says, “did you know that Sam was drugging himself on demon blood? That some bitch was grooming him to be possessed by the devil? Did you know?”

“We knew.”

“You left me down there for more than a century while she got his hooks in him—and you’re surprised when he goes to the Dark Side?” Dean starts laughing. The sound is hollow and bitter and mean, and it roils coldly in the core of Castiel. His grin is wild-eyed, brittle. “I mean, fuck, I was surprised, but give me some credit, I’d been dead for a hundred years and I came out a goddamn monster. It was no wonder he didn’t recognise me—I barely recognised myself after what they did to me.”

He rubs a hand over his face, and he is still laughing, his grin wild-eyed and brittle. He reels back. His hands are shaking.

“Fuck,” he says, and it comes through his teeth. “Fuck. I lost my brother and the world is ending because you all stood around a table and decided my humanity was collateral damage,” he is saying, and it is pitching up louder and louder, until Castiel feels the impulse to back away, “because you thought—you thought I’d be easier to fucking micromanage if I had nothing left to live for—” and his smile is feral, metal and glass in his voice.

Castiel takes a step back.

Dean snarls, “You can micromanage this—”

He picks up the straight-backed wooden chair from where it is pushed against the wall, and he brings it down with a resounding crash through the glass table in the middle of the memory.

The fluorescent overheads explode in a shower of sparks and every angel in the room abruptly jars out of their places, breaking into static and shadow as the chair comes shattering through.

The Beautiful Room splits at the seams and Castiel can see daylight through the cracks—Paris and the Sundarbans and the spray of the Iguazú Falls; Sam in elementary school, Dean wearing blood on his knuckles, the looming, dark-eyed menace of John Winchester’s disapproval, Dean’s trembling hands as he learns to tie sutures with dental floss—as the room collapses, and Castiel has no part in any of it.

Castiel wants to speak, but the words snag in his throat and he is speechless as the space shudders around them and one wall buckles as if to implode.

There is a wild fury in him, brilliant and terrible and fruitless, and Castiel stands in the eye of the storm, breathless before it. Dean is unbridled, hurricane made flesh, in anger, and Castiel thinks of Michael, then—of the archangel’s cold, storm-calm stoicism—and that even his oldest brother could not wear Dean and deserve the space in his skin.

He tears it all down, rips the room wide open, and at last, Castiel manages, softly, “Dean.”

Dean wheels to face him, turns on Castiel, and rears up like a threat.

Castiel catches his wrist and holds him still.

A slow, shivering breath pulls from Dean’s mouth. He stares at Castiel, silent and severe.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says. “For Sam, for Hell, for all of it. I’m sorry.”

Dean doesn’t answer. He slackens. His fingers uncurl from fists to hang limp and loose at his sides.

“I’m sorry,” Castiel says again, and he doesn’t know how to go on saying it so that Dean understands.

“Why are you showing me this?” Dean’s voice is flat, empty.

“To make you understand. You accused me of liking it here. That isn’t the case. I’ve shown you a lot of things but—what you’ve shown me—”

“Cas—”

“Before you, this is what I thought family was,” Castiel rattles on. “I thought this was good.” He takes a deep breath. “Dean, there is so much of this world that has never been available to me. Through you, I can almost touch it. I almost feel human.” He hesitates, and then, quietly, he recites: “You have to be with other people. In order to live at all.”

Dean stares at him. “What?”

“You can’t go back. Do Androids Dream Of—”

“That’s where you’re getting all this?” Dean says, incredulous. “From fucking Blade Runner?”

“Maybe humanity isn’t a species. Maybe humanity is something you have. Something you strive towards.” Castiel touches him. He’s speaking desperately. “Mercy; honesty; integrity—”

“Cas, listen to me—”

“Maybe it quantifies how good you are—or the good you do.”

“You’ve seen humanity,” Dean argues. “You’ve seen it at its lowest and darkest and ugliest—”

“It’s a start,” Castiel breaks in, voice rising. “It’s more than anything we have here. The fact that you and your brother—you help people. You care. You get nothing out of it. No glory, no reward. All it has brought you is misery and pain, and yet you persevere because it’s the right thing to do.” He has his hand curled into Dean’s sleeve, nothing but static against the palms of his hands, but he holds Dean still. “Why do you think we need a Righteous Man? We don’t have that ourselves. What happened in that room—I thought it was normal. I thought it was righteous, but we don’t know right from wrong. We do as we’re told.”

Dean looks at him. He says, “You don’t." 

Castiel takes a deep breath. “I have only ever been an instrument. Light, praise, obedience—there isn’t room in us for much else. I suppose my inclination towards insubordination may have vacated some space for what I feel now. I admire your tenacity, your desire to be more than what was planned for you—”

“Yeah, only that didn’t turn out too well for me.”

“But it’s fate,” Castiel says. “Regardless of the decisions you make, regardless of the steps that you take. All roads lead here.”

“To you,” Dean says.

“To Michael.”

Dean lowers his eyes.

Something is burning in Castiel, and he can’t explain himself in a way that makes Dean understand. “I’m only a paving-stone. The Apocalypse, your role in it, the salvation of Earth—I get you there. That’s all.”

“So you’re telling me,” Dean says, “that if they assigned someone else this job—that if all of this unfolded some other way, I get pulled out of Hell some other way—I’d still end up here. In this room. Looking at you, feeling like this.”

Castiel says again, “It’s your destiny, Dean—”

“Destiny?” Dean scoffs, the sound harsh and bitter. “Don’t give me that holy crap. Destiny, God’s plan—it’s all a bunch of lies, Cas—”

“It’s your destiny, and I’ve allowed myself to play a larger part in it that I deserve. I may well have ruined everything—and all out of selfishness. All because—”

“Because what?”

“Because I feel when I’m with you.” The words burst out of Castiel, beyond his control. “I feel everything. Doubt, anger, grief, joy—I feel more than should be possible, and I don’t want to lose that. The world is so much vaster than I could have imagined and all because you took me there, and—”

“I didn’t take you anywhere,” Dean says. “We never left this goddamn room.”

“You have no idea,” Castiel says, head shaking, “how it is—to feel when you shouldn’t. When you aren’t built for it. You just take this for granted, that you can speak and you know what this is, what it does—” He can hear himself; he’s making no sense. He is stepping in closer, closer, until he is breathing the Michael Sword’s air, and Dean isn’t backing down. “I’m—my hands are shaking. These aren’t even my hands and they’re shaking, and you are infuriating, and I could strangle—I am deciding, for myself, not to. That’s my choice. I’m choosing this—I’m choosing all of this—”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Dean says, but he is looking at Castiel as though he does.

“I’m choosing you,” Castiel says, and the light in him is brilliant, blinding, and he is full to the throat with it. “Dean—”

“Fuck it,” Dean mutters, and again, under his breath, lower now, “Fuck it—” and he twists two hands into the front of Castiel’s coat to kiss him.

Castiel leans into him, and then Dean uses that grip in his clothes to push him inelegantly, stumbling, backwards. His hands come up to steady himself, cupping the back of Dean’s neck, fingers threading through Dean’s hair, and Dean opens his mouth on a soft sound. Castiel’s back hits the wall. The electric bulb flickers overhead.

Dean pushes Castiel’s trenchcoat back over his shoulders, but Castiel is unwilling to let go and so it hangs loose in long draping folds from Castiel’s arms. He presses back into Dean, opens his mouth, lets Dean kiss him breathless. This close, Dean’s pulse is hammering beneath his skin and his soul is a brightly burning thing, and when Castiel tightens his grip and pulls Dean in closer, until they are flush from chest to thighs, he can feel the way his soul shifts and shines.

Dean’s hands run down over Castiel’s chest, over his stomach, to tug out his shirt-ends from his pants, and then his fingers find their way under Castiel’s shirt, skim over the skin of his hips and his waist. He leaves fizzing trails of static everywhere his fingertips graze, and Castiel can almost feel the contact and he wants so badly to know what it is to be touched by him.

They kiss and kiss again, and Dean’s nose knocks Castiel’s as he pulls back far enough to breathe, mouth open and panting against Castiel’s jaw. Castiel’s hand shifts, his thumb brushing over Dean’s throat, where his blood beats fastest, where he swallows and shivers, and Dean buries a kiss beneath Castiel’s ear. His hands spread wide across the small of Castiel’s back, and his hips push forwards into Castiel’s own, an unconscious roll that presses the line of his cock against Castiel’s thigh.

Castiel knows what Dean wants. He jerks Dean’s belt loose of the buckle in one brisk movement that tugs Dean’s hips forwards and lifts a startled noise from Dean’s mouth—as though Castiel has been watching humanity for six millennia and has never seen this. He thumbs open Dean’s jeans, and Dean’s breath hitches.

Dean manages, “Cas—” with a hoarse voice, and says nothing else, as Castiel pushes his hand into Dean’s jeans and touches him.

From the first bump of Castiel’s fingertips, Dean’s head drops towards his chest and his mouth falls open. His hips rock forwards into Castiel’s hand, a shiver traces the length of his spine, a soft noise in the back of his throat.

Then Dean slips his hand between Castiel’s thighs—and then stops moving. His mouth, on Castiel’s, is slow, and then still. He ducks his head, breaking from Castiel until there is room enough to breathe, and he says, “Oh. Okay.” He retracts his hand. “You’re, uh—you’re not…”

He trails off, the words fizzling out like a wet fuse, and he jerks his head meaningfully over.

Castiel looks at him intently, patient, waiting.

Dean rolls his eyes, shifts his weight from one foot to another. “Come on,” he mutters. “You gonna at least hit me with the, uh, it’s not you, it’s me schtick, or…?”

A frown creases Castiel’s brow. “You’re worried that my lack of physical response reflects a lack of interest in you,” he realises, studying the discomfort on Dean’s face. “That’s not the case.”

Dean rubs a hand over his face.

“I’m interested in you,” Castiel says, and he leans in, trying to catch and hold Dean’s eyes, to make his earnestness known. “I don’t—feel it the way you do, but I take great pleasure in seeing your responses.”

Dean reels back a step and he heaves a long sigh. “Okay,” he says. “There’s gotta be a way to phrase that so it doesn’t sound so much like a science experiment.”

Castiel follows him still, moving in closer. “I want you,” he says, “and I want you to feel good. I want to make you feel good—but if this is what you want, I can’t do that.” He reaches across the space between them and touches Dean’s hips. His voice gentle, he reminds Dean, “This isn’t my body.”

Dean meets his eyes, realisation in the way that his lips part, and Castiel knows that Dean had forgotten. When they’re together like this, Castiel is distantly aware of each sensation, but it is far-off and insubstantial. It’s like watching a sex act from Heaven, in a memory, watching humans writhe and shout and shudder, and to Castiel, it doesn’t feel like anything. Castiel guesses that to Dean, skin is skin, and that Castiel’s mouth is as real as anything; to Castiel, it’s just short of disappointing.

For a moment, Dean struggles wordlessly. His throat works. At last, in a voice that is small and borders on defensive, he says, “You got something out of it before.”

“The closer I am to you physically, the more I can perceive your soul.” Castiel steps closer, and he touches Dean’s face. He cups Dean’s jaw in his hand, smooths over the apple of his cheek. It feels like brushing velvet the wrong way—static-laced, uncomfortable. He does not feel skin, but something warm swells within Dean, and Castiel sways in nearer, wanting. “The shape of it,” he says. His hand sweeps down to palm Dean’s neck, to brush his fingers through the back of Dean’s hair. “What it looks like—how it feels.”

Dean’s eyes move over Castiel’s face, uncertain. He swallows.

“Your soul makes me—” Castiel hesitates. He doesn’t know how to describe it. There is a word in Enochian—one used in reverence of holy things, to describe something touched by God and the magnetic pull it exerts on angels, the way they become more glorious, more magnificent, just by proximity, a word used when praise and song and alleluia is not enough. The word in his approximation of a human mouth sounds clunky, harsh – AD-GMACH—and Dean’s brow furrows. Castiel searches in English, but any translations are weak and cannot convey the enormity of what he is trying to express. Dean is still staring at him, and so at last, softly, Castiel says, “—shine.”

Dean’s expression softens. “You—” Dean starts, and gets no further. His voice is small. He fidgets under Castiel’s palm, but he leans into the touch. “I do that?”

Castiel smiles, small and private, and he holds Dean’s eyes. He nods.

Dean steps in close. “So when I’m close—”

Castiel’s eyes fall to Dean’s mouth. “The closer the better,” he murmurs.

“Yeah?” Dean takes another step in. There are inches between them. Their noses bump as Dean tilts his head over, and he settles his hands carefully on Castiel’s hips. “Can you feel this?” Dean says, and his hands skate slowly up the length of Castiel’s sides. Abstractly, Castiel can feel Dean’s fingers in the dip and rise of his ribcage, knows from a distance that Dean’s fingers are warm, but it is as though through a memory.

“Almost,” Castiel says.

Dean’s fingernails catch on the thin cotton of Castiel’s shirt and he slides his hands back down, digging his fingers in. Castiel watches Dean’s eyes flick from his mouth to his eyes and back. Castiel’s lips part.

His eyes drift closed, concentrating. The shush, like waves, of Dean’s breathing. His tremulous pulse. The scrape of his thumbnail over the seam of Castiel’s shirt.

Dean pushes his leg between Castiel’s thighs; his forehead rolls over Castiel’s temple. His breath rushes over the shell of Castiel’s ear and it feels like static.

When Dean’s hand rise again, Castiel’s shirt rucks up over his abdomen, and it is the easiest thing, Dean’s hands slipping under to palm his waist, to sweep his thumbs over Castiel’s ribs. Castiel is closer to the sensation—he is pressed against the glass.

“Almost,” Castiel says again. His hands are loose at his sides, unmoving. He doesn’t want to touch Dean and be unable to feel him. He would prefer not to try. Like this, Dean’s soul is shivering and Castiel knows its warmth but cannot feel it. He wants to.

Dean presses a kiss beneath Castiel’s ear, his lower lip dragging over the hinge of Castiel’s jaw, and when he shifts where he stands, Castiel can feel the thick line of him in his jeans. There is a flickering in Dean’s light—desire—but Castiel can’t find whether it is a thing of heat, snap-spinning, if he is effervescent, if he breaks into colours

His breath snags in his throat. “Almost,” he whispers.

Dean’s fingers find the buttons of Castiel’s shirt. He undresses him slowly, kisses the line of Castiel’s throat and down the slope of his shoulder as his shirt opens. To Castiel, Dean’s mouth is a dry breeze, barely a touch. He tries to focus, to pay attention, to find sensation, and the swell of want like a surge within Dean leaves Castiel breathless.

“Almost,” he breathes, and he brings his hands up to cup the back of Dean’s head and he kisses him.

Dean makes a low, inspiring noise in his throat, and his fingers tighten on Castiel’s hips to pull them flush. Castiel doesn’t need to breathe but he feels breathless nonetheless, and his fingers are on Dean’s skin but he isn’t close enough, and Dean pulls in a long, shuddering breath, his fingers tightening in the fabric of Castiel’s coat, and Castiel pushes in closer, closer.

Castiel removes Dean’s clothes. He opens his shirt, button by button, and peels it back from his shoulders. In only a thin, grey T-shirt underneath, Dean looks vulnerable. Castiel’s hands move to the hem of Dean’s undershirt, and at first, Dean flinches back. His hands lift partway as though to protect himself, but he says nothing. He looks to Castiel and away again, and his fingers worry at the hem of his shirt. He is breathing softly.

“Are you alright?” Castiel asks. “Is this alright?”

With a deep breath, Dean hooks a thumb into the collar of his shirt and yanks it over his head. He contorts himself out of it, and Castiel sees.

There is a thick, dark ridge that circles the ball of his shoulder, as though welding back together a thing unmade; his stomach and abdomen are a landscape transformed by the lines of old lacerations that start wide and narrow as the claws pull out; at his sternum, the skin is close to grey, spiderwebbed with thin, blue veins. He is peppered with blood-bruises, shallow wounds, the blistered, mottled places along his side where flayed skin has returned. Castiel sees, now, what Zachariah meant when he said Dean was heavy; he carries this with him wherever he goes.

“Dean,” Castiel breathes.

“You can talk,” Dean mutters, without meeting his eyes. He shifts back, shoulders hunched, and he crosses his arms over his chest. “You’re a fucking—wheel with eyes. So what if I’m a little—”

Castiel kisses him.

He wants to say that he would not have raised Dean like this—with these mementos of his death and all the suffering he faced before they could reach him. He would not have made him some half-formed creature; he would have made him whole. However, he knows enough of Dean, now, to know that Dean will not want hear this. He will not want to hear the injustices that have been done to him, how unfairly he has been treated, how much better he deserves. Castiel runs his hands, gentle, over his scarred skin, and he kisses his mouth, and he tells him he’s beautiful.

With a sizzle of static, Castiel is pressing Dean into the spines of old books, leather-bound, gold-bound, on shelves of varnished mahogany, the high arches of the Girolamini Oratory Library, cherub-etched and frothing with angels above, and Dean is trembling against him. His hands clench and unclench in Castiel’s clothes, and he opens his mouth over Castiel’s, kisses him with teeth and tongue and shaking breath, and Castiel does not feel lust—is not quite sure he is capable of it—but just for an instant, he feels the desperate kick of Dean’s soul, honey-bright and hot, when Dean pushes his hips back against Castiel, and he wants that.

There is a juddering tilt, and it’s a marble table over which Dean sprawls, his legs falling open, and Castiel presses into him. He smooths his thumb over a hard, red knot of scarring, bumps Dean’s nipple, and a low noise catches in the back of Dean’s throat. Dean slides a hand up to fit his palm to the back of Castiel’s neck, angles his head to kiss him deep and hot and slow. He gets his other hand into the front of Castiel’s shirt, wrestling with buttons, and then working at his belt, and his elbow hits something—knocks it sideways—and there is an echoing crack as some small white statue shatters, an angel or guardian or something sacred, and then it’s a rock, baking in the yellow sun, over which Dean scrapes the skin of the small of his back as he rocks against Castiel’s thigh, finds friction, gasps. The noise he makes is holy.

“Yes,” Castiel whispers. “Please—yes—”

He presses his face into the slope of Dean's shoulder and he takes a long, shaky breath. He knows that in this body, he is two arms, two legs, but Dean’s soul is bigger than his body, spilling summer heat and a champagne-shimmering sweetness that Castiel can feel in the back of his teeth, and Castiel is unsteady. The light in him is stoked by Dean, spins faster, searing hotter. Castiel feels out of control.

Dean leans back to fumble with the button and fly of his zipper, and Castiel’s hand cups his elbow to steady him, and he watches as Dean touches himself roughly. A hoarse, desperate noise shudders from his open mouth, and then there is a shivering of space and Dean falls back flat against lush green grass. Overhead, the sky is bruise-blue, the frothing clouds haloed by white sunlight, pinned in place by the slant of mountains, and Castiel’s fingers slip over Dean’s, wanting to be a part of what makes Dean feel like this—hot and frantic and impossibly lovely.

His pulse drums like music and he flushes pink up from his chest, and when Castiel curls his fingers around the length of Dean’s cock, a sound hitches in the back of Dean’s throat like a sob. They are in the cabin again, Dean’s foot knocking the armchair as he lies back on the floor, and his hips lift in Castiel’s hand, chasing his touch. He is breathing ragged, and he pulls Castiel forwards as though to kiss him—sucks Castiel’s bottom lip between his teeth, and there is the hot slide of his tongue, and then he is gasping, open-mouthed, against the line of Castiel’s jaw.

Castiel’s fingers slip over Dean’s cock, and he murmurs into his skin, Beloved, in rough Enochian, let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth, for his kisses are sweeter than— and then Dean moves, and says, "Fuck—yeah, that's—" and Castiel can't say anything. He is burning. The fire in him is blazing hotter than he has ever experienced, the core of him whirling and sparking, and the electricity under his skin is singing like a storm. Overheard, a lightbulb shatters in an explosion of white sparks, and Castiel gasps out, "Holy—"

He is shaking with the effort of restraining himself, all his light and glory hissing and snapping at the edges of his skin, at his fingertips, and then Dean's mouth grazes, hot and wet, along the bolt of Castiel's jaw, and he says, "I got you, I got you, let it go—"

Castiel lets go. 

He is a surge of white-hot energy, an incandescent blazing heat in six rings that roar and grind and scream. His rings split the air, a sizzling noise like shining, and swings close enough to Dean that he should flinch back, recoil out of harm’s way, but he doesn’t yield and he is not hurt. This time, when Dean lifts a hand to touch the outermost of Castiel’s rings, Castiel lets him.

Dean’s fingers—all at once on the bare skin of Castiel’s hip, and curling around the razor-blade edge of Castiel’s light—are breaking him apart. His rings split the air, a sizzling noise like shining, and he is fiercely hot, Grace-glorious, breathless and voiceless and shaking, and Dean is chanting in his ear, sweet, filthy, reverent, and Castiel can only say, holy, holy— in the face of Dean’s golden warmth and fractured soul.

Dean’s fingers skim over Castiel’s slow spinning rings, and his touch paints light over every inch, and the star of Castiel’s core shivers desperately. It doesn’t feel like sacrilege. His fingertips are a snapping, surging current that rises white-hot in Castiel and curls at the heart of him, all incandescent heat and skin-searing light, and Castiel feels it when Dean can’t breathe—doesn’t want him to—and Dean’s face is wet with tears. The way the light catches, reflects in his irises, makes him look illuminated from within as though by starlight. He looks glorious.

Castiel sees him—the Righteous Man, the gift from God—and in the all-dazzling light of Castiel’s Grace, it is hard to delineate his limbs and limits from Castiel, but Castiel can feel his summer-sweet soul and it is singing. Holy—Castiel says, and Dean turns with him, in wonder, his face open.

Castiel understands.

He has not seen much of humanity, but if it is anything like Dean Winchester—brash, rude, loyal to a fault, hesitant and impossibly gentle and kind beyond measure—then Castiel thinks he understands. Of course, he is obedient, but there have been times when he doubted, when he was asked to have faith and he found himself wanting. He looks at Dean now, the instrument of salvation, and he believes.

 

***

 

Castiel is not claustrophobic—he is not sure he has the capacity for any real fears—but he is beginning to feel that he understands the human tendency towards it. The Beautiful Room may be designed to satisfy all desires, to be altered and adapted to keep the Michael Sword occupied and compliant, but at its default, it’s still just one room. As a hunting cabin, there is the addition of a hallway, a bathroom, a private room for Dean that Castiel squeezed into the space. There are books, thanks to Dean, and a dartboard, and a grandfather clock with whose ticking Castiel occasionally entertains himself, watching time stutter and stop and start over. There is little else, and Castiel wants more.

He walks the outside perimeter of the memory under the premise of checking the warding. He stretches out with one hand to let his fingertips graze over the wooden siding, the places where weeds and ivy twine up the walls and try to press into the boards. He tests each sigil, presses at them for weak spots, and he tilts his face up into his sunlight. He closes his eyes and tries to imagine that he can feel the warmth of the afternoon on his skin—his vessel’s skin.

Castiel opens his eyes. It is not his skin.

These days, it feels the boundary is blurrier and blurrier.

It is no surprise, then, when Castiel’s concentration is broken by a now-familiar sound—the shrill fearful cry of an injured bird.

The sparrow screams, and when it hits the ground, there is a crunch, a muted shattering. Castiel looks over to see the wing twisted underneath its own body, the yellow glint of bone jutting through the bloody feathers, and he feels impossibly heavy.

“I don’t know what to do,” Castiel says quietly to the crumpled bird. “I don’t know what to do.”

Terrified, desperate, the sparrow breathes raggedly and struggles in the loose soil to try and get away as Castiel moves closer. Its legs scrape uselessly against the dirt, and it screams and screams as the wing is jarred badly by its thrashing, and Castiel stands over it, helpless.

Castiel says, “Every choice I make here is wrong. You die anyway.” His fingers curl into fists at his sides. “You always die.”

The sparrow cries and Castiel feels its grief ache beneath his borrowed ribs, and all he can do is watch and wish.

Then, behind him, the door clatters, and there are footsteps crunching across the dry soil. “Hey—what are you doing out here?” Dean says, and he comes to stand at Castiel’s shoulder, his hands pushed into the pockets of his jeans.

“Nothing,” Castiel mutters. “Just—” He trails off and gestures hopelessly at the fallen sparrow.

“Aw, shit,” Dean says. He takes a deep breath, pushing it out through his teeth. “That the same bird as last time?”

“Yeah,” Castiel says. “And the time before that. And the time before.”

Dean looks over at him, eyebrows raised. “How many times has this happened?”

Castiel lifts one shoulder dismissively, the movement jerky and sudden, like a puppet with its strings cut. By this point, he’s lost count. All he knows is that he can’t break out of this seemingly endless cycle—flying and falling, over and over and over. 

Rocking back on his heels, Dean grimaces. “Shit,” he says again. “Well, it looks like there’s not a whole lot we can do for him, then.”

Castiel is about to agree, to explain how he has tried repeatedly and unsuccessfully to avert the sparrow’s death, but before he can get a word out, Dean steps over the sparrow and up to the base of the tree from which it fell. “Which one is it he comes down out of? This one?”

Bewildered, Castiel follows. “I think so—what are you doing?”

Dean braces a hand against the tree as he tilts back to peer up into the branches. “Must be coming from pretty high up. Yeah—there. I think I can see it. Broken branch. Poor bastard—not even his fault. You know if we have any duct tape or something?”

“I’m not sure,” Castiel says, slow, halting, uncertain. “I can check inside.”

“And something like a splint.” Dean clucks his tongue against his teeth as he looks up, contemplative. “A wooden spoon or something will work, I figure. I can brace it, give it a little more support at least.”

Castiel stares at him. “You’re going to repair the branch,” he says flatly.

Dean looks back over his shoulder, eyebrows cocked. “What, you didn’t think of that?”

Castiel doesn’t say anything.

“It’s already fallen off, what, five times? Six?” Dean pushes his weight off the tree, and he shrugs. “So maybe it’s a lost cause, but it’s something. A start.”

He walks past Castiel, down the path, and back into the cabin, leaving Castiel behind in the sunlight. It’s true that Castiel hadn’t considered this alternative, but the impetus behind it is one that unsettles Castiel at his core—the idea that an inconvenient reality can simply be edited by going back and changing the order of the dominos before they fall.

Castiel turns to look back at the sparrow, no longer struggling on the ground, but lying flat, shivering, breathing hard. Then the door bangs again as it swings out hard to hit the wall, and Dean is back with a wooden spatula and a roll of black tape.

“Yahtzee,” he says triumphantly, grinning, and he moves past Castiel towards the tree.

He makes quick work of it—save the intermittent swearing and grunts of come the fuck on, you piece of shit tree—and then drops the roll of tape down to Castiel before inelegantly shimmying back down. He drops the last few feet to land heavily on both feet and he makes a scene of dusting off his hands.

“There,” he says. “All better.” He stoops to retrieve the tape, and then as he steps over the bird on his way back inside, he points at it, accusatory. “You,” he says firmly, “be more careful, next time.” With that, he heads back into the cabin.

Castiel watches him go, dumbfounded, and he remembers his briefing on Dean Winchester—caretaker to the vessel of Lucifer, in childhood; caretaker, on occasion, to his own father; the Righteous Man; one of the most dangerous human beings alive. Dean is kaleidoscopic: every time Castiel thinks that he has pinpointed the kind of man that the Michael Sword is, something changes and he is dazzled by the breaking light.

At the door, Dean pauses, his hand on the doorframe, and he turns back. “You coming?”

Castiel swallows. “Of course.”

 

***

“And how is Dean?”

Castiel shifts uncomfortably in his seat in Naomi’s office. “He’s fine,” he says, awkward, halting. “Impatient, still. If there were only word about what is happening on Earth, he might be appeased.”

“He wouldn’t want to know what’s happening on Earth,” Naomi says dismissively. “It’s chaos. It would only disturb him further.”

It’s the first morsel of information about the Apocalypse that has been tossed Castiel’s way since this duty began; he falls upon it hungrily. “Chaos?” he asks. “Is it the demon hoard? Is Lucifer amassing his forces already? What—”

“That’s enough, Castiel.” Naomi’s voice is flinty, cool, brooks no arguments. “I’ve told you before and I’ll repeat it now—in good time, all will be—”

“In good time,” Castiel repeats. “I don’t know what that means. All I know is that we’ve been waiting—I don’t know how long. Months? Years? With no knowledge of what’s happening. Dean Winchester is waiting to die. He’s a time-bomb with a seemingly interminable fuse and you can’t keep deferring the discussion.”

Naomi sits back, her eyebrows lifting. “You seem to have strong ideas, now, about what it is that I can and can’t do,” she says mildly.

Shame burns hot at Castiel’s core, but he pushes through it. He holds Naomi’s eyes. “I speak for the Michael Sword,” he says, deflecting the criticism. He tilts his head to one side. “I feel that the single most important weapon in Creation should probably be permitted a voice in matters that concern him.”

Naomi spreads her hands. “By all means,” she says, and she manages to make it sound like a threat. “What are some of  your—forgive me—some of the Sword’s concerns?”

Castiel hesitates. He hadn’t expected to get this far. “When will Michael possess him?”

“When Michael’s ready.”

A muscle in Castiel’s jaw ticks. “When will that be?”

Naomi’s gaze moves slowly over Castiel’s face, over his body. Castiel is aware, under her eyes, of the body language that he is adopting—mimicked from Dean. Leaning forwards, aggressive. Hands in fists. He wears his human flesh too well, he realises, and as he takes in Naomi’s calm posture, the absence of physicality, he knows that she must be coming to the same conclusion.

Castiel leans back in his seat. He relaxes his hands, his fingers hanging loose from the arm of the chair. It is a conscious effort, and Naomi watches it with a scientific interest. A narrow smile turns the corner of her mouth.

“Would you like to ask him?” Naomi asks.

Castiel tenses. “No,” he says, after a beat. “Thank you.”

“I insist,” Naomi says. “If you’re concerned. I’m sure he can be diverted from—”

“That isn’t necessary.”

Naomi folds her hands on top of her desk. Her expression is soft, compassion in the gentle line of her mouth. There is steel in her smile. “But you’re concerned.”

Castiel drops his eyes to his lap, where his hands twist together. “No, I—I can wait,” he says. “Forgive my impatience.”

“Consider it forgiven. I know that you don’t mean to be impertinent. The pressure on you is enormous—I understand that. I imagine the considerable stress you’re under would make anyone obstructive.”

“I didn’t mean to—”

“Of course not,” Naomi says. “No. Don’t worry. We’ll all remember how obliging you’ve been, how resilient, how dutiful, up until this point.”

Castiel swallows. “Thank you.”

“Now—you’re worried about when, exactly, the Michael Sword’s purpose will come to fruition.”

“That’s right.”

“Unfortunately, Castiel, I can’t give you any more information than what I already have,” Naomi says, regretful, solemn. “You understand that I’m doing my best with a difficult situation. I, too, would like more clarity. You and I are in this together.”

Castiel shifts in his seat. “I know that.”

“Do you?”

Castiel looks up.

“Because, to tell the truth,” Naomi goes on, her voice soft, “sometimes it’s hard to ascertain exactly whose side you’re on. Ours, or his.”

“Yours,” Castiel says.

Naomi’s head tilts.

Castiel says, “Ours.”

“That’s reassuring,” Naomi says. “Thank you for making the right decision. I only pray that we can put all this behind us in order to move forwards and work together, to complete the mission at hand.” Her smile is wide and warm. “No more concerns about Dean Winchester lashing out in anger, or breaking the warding, or putting you both at risk. No more worrying about his wants, or his moods, or his nightmares. Trust in us, and we will ensure that he is delivered safely, and promptly, to Michael.”

“Of course,” Castiel says. “When we next meet, I hope I’ll—” He stops, then, his mouth open and the words rotting in his mouth as the cogs turn and he processes Naomi’s words. Wary, unsettled, he lifts his head to meet her eyes. Quietly, he asks, “Nightmares?”

Naomi’s smile thins.


***

Chapter Text

Behold, the day of the Lord is coming,
Cruel, with fury and burning anger.

***

 

Something is wrong with Dean Winchester.

Castiel can’t understand it, but his behaviour has radically altered, seemingly without reason. In the past, Dean has been content to occupy himself, whether that be through drinking or through eating until he’s sick, through books or darts or idly carving obscenities into the top of the dining table. Now he seems dissatisfied with that. He hovers near-constantly close to Castiel, often without speaking—more than once, Castiel has had to ask him if everything is alright, if there is something that he needs, and always Dean has retreated, then, without explanation.

It’s puzzling, but nothing that particularly concerns Castiel. If Dean has a problem, he can tell Castiel. If he wants something, he can say so. Otherwise, Dean can deal with whatever the issue is, and Castiel can focus on doing his job.

He checks sigils, paints fresh protection along the walls wherever the Beautiful Room stretches thin. There are patches of hallway where Grace is especially sparse—tendrils of Madagascar and Paris and the open sky twining through the gaps. He mends these. He makes the place solid

As Castiel repairs a threadbare concealment sigil, he hears the heavy footfall of Dean’s approach behind him. Without looking up, Castiel says, “What is it?”

Dean’s footsteps stall. He pauses, out of sight, silent. He says nothing.

After a moment, Castiel lifts his head to look at him.

“Hey,” Dean says. He pushes his hands deep into the pockets of his jeans. “How’s it going?”

Castiel stares at him. “Fine,” he says, but then there is an awkward silence, and Dean is still looking at him, expectant. Castiel takes a deep breath and lowers his blood-smeared hand, resigning himself to the duration of this conversation, confined by the irritating conventions of human socialisation. “How are you?”

Dean’s eyebrows arch. “I’m doing great. You wanna talk about the weather, next?”

Castiel squints. The Beautiful Room exists beyond time or space—at any given point, they straddle multiple climates, day and night and the changing of seasons all bleeding into one. Castiel has, on one occasion, noted the simultaneous presence of summer sunlight, hail, and fog through the cabin windows. It would make for a pointless conversation. At last, Castiel says, “I don’t see how that would be relevant.”

“Right.”

Another long moment stretches between them, stretches thin to snapping point but does not break. Dean scrutinises him, hands in his pockets, and slowly he comes to lean his shoulder against the wall that Castiel is working. He boxes Castiel into the corner with his body, all long, lazy lines and irreverence.

Castiel says, harshly, “Can I help you?”

Dean’s brow furrows. “What are you—”

“Let me pass,” Castiel interrupts. He can only presume that Dean means to intimidate him by this, and although he is unintimidated, he doesn’t like the proximity. He doesn’t want to have to hurt him.

Dean stares at him.

Castiel’s shoulders tighten. His eyes narrow. “Am I about to ask twice?”

Dean doesn’t move. He says, “What happens if you ask twice?”

Castiel is not like his brothers. He doesn’t like the threat of force; he feels it to be clumsy, undignified, needless. Furthermore, he understands that a threat made needs to be followed through, and he likes violence for violence’s sake even less. He swallows. He turns, then—no longer passively pinned between Dean and the corner, but squaring up to him. He lifts his chin. “I’ve been given permission to use whatever means necessary to gain your compliance. I take no pleasure in—”

Dean pushes himself off from the wall. He leaves Castiel with a clear route past, and with the rest of his barbed words turning lukewarm in his mouth. He tilts his head back, towards the end of the hallway. “All yours,” he says, and he is still watching Castiel closely.

“Thank you,” Castiel says. He doesn’t leave. “I need to finish repairing the warding.”

“Okay.”

For all Castiel’s inexperience with human socialisation, he’s fairly certain that he’s making clear his desire for Dean to be gone. He doesn’t understand why it isn’t working. He lifts his chin, holding Dean’s eyes. “Excuse me.”

Something breaks. Castiel doesn’t know what it is, but Dean ducks his head into his chest, exhales through his teeth, and he turns to leave. Castiel watches him go—his slow, rolling gait, the way he dawdles in the doorway. He pauses there, runs his fingertips over the doorjamb, and then he half-turns back. “Hey, Cas,” he says, distracted. “I’m thinking of a number.”

Castiel stares at him, bewildered. “Alright,” he says.

Dean looks back over his shoulder at him. “Between one and ten.”

“Fine,” Castiel says.

Dean keeps looking at him.

Castiel’s eyes narrow, studying Dean’s expression—the crease of his brow, the uncertainty in the set of his mouth. Castiel says, “Was that all you wanted?”

Dean makes a low noise in the back of his throat and turns away. “Forget it,” he says, and finally, finally, he goes.

 

***

 

For the best part of a day, Dean sits at the dining table with a scrap of paper and the stub of a pencil, doodling idly. He rarely bestows more than a glance on his work; mostly, his eyes follow Castiel around the room. On occasion, he asks Castiel random, pointless questions: what’s your favourite colour? Do you think Lando and Han were, you know, together? What’s it like, being small? He seems permanently dissatisfied with Castiel’s responses, but never vocalises his distaste, preferring instead to huff and mutter under his breath and apply his focus to his doodling with greater vigour. Castiel cannot shake the sense of being put to a series of tests—tests that he is clearly failing.

Dean sketches long, uneven loops, traces them over and over until they form thick chains across the page. He watches Castiel, and he doodles box after box after box in short, angry lines. He sketches and scribbles until he has filled the sheet of paper, and then he flattens his hand over it, scrunches the paper into a ball. His hand tightens over the paper until his knuckles crack.

From his position on the other side of the room, where he stands, watchful, Castiel says, “Do you need more paper?”

Dean lifts his head. “What?”

“More paper,” Castiel says again, more emphatically. His eyes flick to Dean’s clenched hand. “To draw on—or destroy. The choice is yours.”

“Yeah,” Dean says. “Thanks for that.” He looks at Castiel for a long moment, his expression unreadable. Then, slowly, he leans back in his seat. “If you could travel anywhere,” he says, and there it is again—that harmless, quizzical tone, with something hostile underneath, “where would you go?”

“I don’t know.”

“You sure?” Dean pulls a face. “Huh.” He pushes back his chair, wooden legs squealing over the floor. He stands, and he opens his hand to let the crumpled ball of paper fall to the floor. Castiel watches it fall and roll beneath the dining table. “Me, I think I’d like to go to… I’m gonna say—Japan.” He pauses, and his mouth is still pulled down at that corners in that half-grimace, but his eyes are careful on Castiel’s face. He rounds the end of the table towards Castiel, moving slowly. He says, “Never been.”

“Japan is beautiful,” Castiel says.

“Yeah. I heard that.” Dean steps in closer. “But actually, I just had a better idea. Italy.” He tilts his head to one side, exposes the line of his throat. “I feel like maybe I got unfinished business there. You know what I mean?”

“What kind of unfinished business?”

Dean is close enough now for Castiel to see where his eyelashes lighten at the end, where he has a patch of dry skin on one side of his mouth. He watches Dean’s lips part, and he is close enough to notice, surreally, the wet shine of his lower lip. He is closer than is permitted, and yet Castiel does not step back. “Like maybe I put a pin in something,” Dean says, voice low and smooth. Castiel sways unthinkingly close so as not to miss a word. Dean’s mouth tilts in a half-smile. He says, “I’m thinking I ought to finish what I started.”

Castiel still doesn’t know what Dean is talking about, but he is distracted by Dean’s nearness, and what he can sense of Dean’s soul, simmering beneath his skin, is sweet and bright. He doesn’t know how he has not noticed it before.  “Alright,” he says, half-listening.

Dean settles his hands on Castiel’s hips.

Time is slower, more sequential, for Castiel than it is for humans—as a result, he knows that it takes him precisely three seconds to react.

Dean touches him; Castiel’s breath snags with the abrupt, rabbit-fast rush of everything Dean is beneath the bravado and belligerence, his soul sparking hotly within arms’ reach; he recognises that any physical contact with the Michael Sword is forbidden, but that the intimacy in this is something wholly unprecedented; he realises that he wants it.

“You and me—” Dean says, and at last, Castiel responds.

He jerks back away from him, and in the same moment, he shoves Dean, hard—hard enough that he stumbles and crashes into the kitchen table at his back. A half-empty beer bottle falls to shatter on the floorboards in a spray of brown glass, and the electric light overheard flickers, and Dean’s mouth falls open, and there is a shiver through the walls, as of a distant earthquake felt through the floor.

Castiel has never given Dean any reason to think that this acceptable behaviour. He has never encouraged this from his charge. He turns to Dean, his shoulders squared, and he tries not to think about the cold distance between them now, where moments ago, Dean’s proximity was a firestarter.

“Don’t touch me,” Castiel grits through his teeth, at the same time as Dean says, “They did something to you.”

The absolute certainty in Dean’s voice throws Castiel off-balance. He watches Dean straighten and face him, and he doesn’t understand what is happening, but he knows that something is curling coldly in his core and he is not in control. Dean stands in the centre of the Beautiful Room, human, mortal, fragile, and there is no doubt in Castiel’s mind that he has the upper hand. He could tear this space apart.

“You know how long we’ve been here?” Dean challenges. “Do you remember any of it?”

Castiel is frozen.

“You chose me,” Dean says. “Do you remember that?”

Throat working, Castiel manages, “I don’t know what you’re—”

“Fuck,” Dean says, and again, louder, dragging his hand over his face, “Fuck.”

“Dean,” Castiel says, and gets no further, because then the Michael Sword is striding back towards him, purposeful and aggressive.

“Cas, I’m sorry,” Dean says into the lessening space between them, sounding resolute and utterly without sympathy.

Castiel says, “What are you—”

He kisses Castiel. It’s brief, forceful—a click of teeth, his lower lip too wet—and then it’s over. Castiel stands, reeling, eyes wide, as he tries to reconcile the insanity of it with the way that everything in him yearns for Dean to kiss him again—but then there is no time to think, because Dean brings him to his knees.

Castiel doesn’t know how he does it.

Dean has his hand cupped around the back of Castiel’s neck and his hand in Castiel’s hair, and then there is a sickening jolt, and Castiel is jarred from the Beautiful Room with a sensation akin to the kick of a banishing sigil. All is black and bare, and Castiel can’t move, and it is unlike anything he has experienced before—hanging, useless, in the Empty, as if half-alive.

His rings spin, but slowly, off-clicking in echoes and echoes, and the light in him wavers, pulses, brightens, as though seen through glass, and in the perfect centre of it, moving easily—Dean. Dean, who Castiel is helpless to protect himself from, who Castiel could not stop if he wanted to.

Dean moves about him, a single sun-bright point of life amongst the nothing that presses in on all sides, and his hands touch Castiel. His fingertips are burning with all the golden-sweet light within him, and it sears a scalding mark on Castiel everywhere his skin finds Castiel’s form, and Castiel cannot move. He can feel, a thousand miles away, the knees of his vessel aching on the floorboards of the Beautiful Room. He is frozen, and Dean, quick and sturdy and untouchable, takes him apart.

Dean navigates through the motionless rings, searching, and then Castiel sees it when Dean does: a part of his innermost ring which is blackened and broken and blooming with rot. The light is crumbling, black, into decay, and Castiel doesn’t know what is wrong, has never seen Grace corrupted like that before. Dread swoops low in him as Dean moves in. Castiel wants to scream—don’t, no, please—but his voice is stoppered, and it is too late. Dean weaves between the motionless spokes of Castiel’s outer ring, ducks the slow-flicker burst at heart of him, and he lays his hands on. He digs his fingers in. He shatters him, and Castiel finds his voice again with a howl, an agonised, sky-splintering scream.

It blazes through him, hotter and hotter, the undoing, and he is made whole again—wheels spinning, fire burning, wings unfurling and light searing—and he can’t control his own Grace as it shudders and shakes, even when there is Dean at the centre of him, tiny, fragile, human. It seethes and it roils in Castiel, blood-hot and burning, and—

Castiel remembers everything.

He bursts.

In the Beautiful Room again—Castiel still on his knees, still screaming, his lungs scraped raw—and Dean hits the far wall with a sickening, awful crack.

Castiel doesn’t know how to stop, his fingers curling against the floorboards until his fingernails snag and break and bleed, his spine arching in on itself, and he remembers. He remembers. In blinding bursts and breathless, rapid-flickering pulses behind his eyes, he remembers, gasping and desperate.

His mind is spinning so fast with things he should have known all along, things that were stolen from—he can’t get the words out. He can’t explain:

Now that we have Dean, it’s only a matter of time for Sam. The Winchesters cannot bear to be apart; if we make it clear that this is the only way Sam will ever see—gore-spattered and shaking as the lifeless Egyptian infant slips from his arms, with Anna standing in the unmarked doorway giving unintelligible orders, and he stares at his darkly stained hands—must find the Abomination. Lead the Devil straight to him. It’s the only—and on his knees, at Golgotha, before the crucifix, with a raw sound of grief and rage rising hot in his throat, and the cold press of an angel blade beneath his jaw—essential to make the Michael Sword believe that the Apocalypse is—and ankle-deep in a welter of meat and blood as it spilled down the open streets of Jerusalem, trembling until the morning-star falls, useless, from his hand to land with a thick, wet sound on the cobbles—and always, always, the cold bite of metal beneath Castiel’s eyelid.

“Cas—” Across the room, Dean drags himself up from the floor to lean on his hands. His leg, crumpled beneath him, is curved at an unnatural angle; there is blood seeping through the denim of his jeans. He is pale-faced, sweat prickling from his hairline. “Cas? That you?”

Castiel, get up.

I won’t, in his mouth, head held high, unflinching, I won’t—and the threatening presence of a fist curled into his hair, to yank his throat back and expose the parts of him that are soft and vulnerable to the cold sting of a blade, I won’t— until he chokes on it, blood in his teeth, I won’t—and then all that’s left is the calm and the glory and the sword in his hand. The devotion. The duty.

“Cas?” Dean’s voice is ragged, desperate. “Cas, can you hear me?”

Did you hear me, Castiel? I said—

It rises in his throat now like blood, instinctively, even now as he fights free of it. “Alleluia,” he says, between his teeth, and it tastes like every innocent, beloved thing he has ever killed.

He’s not listening. Again. You said this wouldn’t happen again. You said—

The needle slides home.

Castiel’s elbows shake to buckle beneath him. His fingernails screech over the floorboards as his hands curl convulsively.

Hold him down.

It’s happening again, all of it, behind his eyes. The plagues; the first-borns—the metal through his eye and—the conquest of Canaan—the sky searing hot above, the blood beneath his vessel’s fingernails, his borrowed throat scraped raw as he shouts and struggles—hold him down—Sodom and Gomorrah; the Amalekites; the Crucifixion—

I don’t know which is worse, Zachariah’s voice says, slow and distant, as though heard from underwater—that he might fall in love with the weapon, or that he might fall in love with free will.

Naomi gives the gentle bubble of a laugh. Let him do it.

“Jesus—” Castiel says, and his face is wet. Another human—another good, honest man, full of love and light and compassion, and Castiel could do nothing to save him. He remembers his vessel’s arm twisted painfully behind his back to pin him down, the angel-blade at his throat, the insistence in his ear—Hester’s voice—watch, Castiel. You watch this. And Castiel watched. Every nail. Every thorn. Every trickle of blood.

A good, righteous man, full to the throat with anger and compassion and defiance, and Castiel, on his knees, powerless, watching him suffocate. He remembers weeping, shaking so hard he couldn’t see straight, until the cross blurred and the blood ran and the skin went grey—and he feels, abruptly, the painfully human lurch of grief in his gut until he thinks he could retch himself free of it, and his breath breaks into a sob—and then:

Hold him down.

“Cas, can you hear me?” There is the slow scraping, as of bone over wood—or bone against metal—or bone against bone—and there are pits that Castiel has hauled himself from, lions’ dens, sacrificial places where he has fallen to put himself between the blade and the innocent—and the dull, wet sound of his blood-sick sword falling to the dirt is mangled in with something else, something coming closer. “Cas, if you’re in there, answer me.”

Sieges upon sieges, crusades and holy wars, sacrifice and sacrilege and suffering without end, and Castiel gasps, winded, as he tries to recalibrate what is real and what has been taken from him.

Then, out of nowhere, there are hands on his face, and Castiel jerks back, but this is not a touch that seeks to pin him down, to hold him still and push back his eyelid and— “Grace go with you,” Castiel says, the words spilling out of his mouth, half-slurred, as though hooked from his gut and pulled out, sharp, on a coil of fishing-wire.

Those hands are cool and sturdy, and they frame Castiel’s face, cradle his jaw. There are fingers in his hair, and slowly, Castiel understands.

Dean says, “Cas?”

His eyes are green and wide with worry, and his nose is not quite straight, and the ends of his eyelashes lighten to gold, and his lovely mouth hangs half-open as he looks desperately into Castiel’s face.

“Cas, that you?”

Castiel doesn’t trust himself to answer. He says, “I—I remember—”, but he is still struggling to unpick everything—real from constructed, the things he has forgotten and the blank spaces they are now filling—and to decide what is important. There is something he needs to tell Dean. Something he has known all along.

“You scared the shit out of me,” Dean says. “I didn’t know what to do.”

Castiel blinks, his head swimming, and as he focuses, at last, on Dean, he sees the way he is washed white and clammy, grimacing, sweat beading at his hairline. He reaches for him, his hand curling into Dean’s sleeve. He says, “Dean—what happened? You’re hurt.”

“Uh,” Dean says. He is breathing through his teeth, the sound of it ragged and unsteady. His hand is trembling where it cups Castiel’s jaw, and he lowers that hand now, tightens it into a fist until his knuckles whiten. “Yeah. You—you broke my leg, I think.”

At first, Castiel can’t understand what Dean is saying. He would never hurt him. He’s here as guardian and protector—to hurt Dean would be unthinkable. Then, as his head clears, he sees the ragged split in Dean’s jeans, the yellowing jut of bone. Horror seeps, icy and terrible, through him, and his fingers tighten in Dean’s sleeve. 

“Dean,” he whispers. “I didn’t mean to—” His Grace brims beneath his skin, sparking hotly, and it is nothing, then, to reach for Dean with it, to fuse bone and stitch muscle and mend until all is well, but it doesn’t undo the breaking.

Dean sags at the waist, leaning into Castiel’s touch, his eyes drifting closed. “Not your fault,” he mumbles. “I did, like… kick you out of space and time.”

Castiel’s finger tighten, only momentarily, on Dean’s wrist. “How did you do that?” he asks.

Dean sways against him, groggy. “Do what?”

Castiel cannot understand what Dean did to even begin to articulate it. Ejected from one plane of reality to exist outside of time and space—and then followed there, by a human, manipulated in that empty expanse of void where he was helpless to Dean’s ministrations. It was impossible and terrifying, and Castiel thinks, now, of Anna’s warning about this mission: Dean Winchester is dangerous.

And then he remembers.

“Sam,” he gasps. “Sam.”

Dean becomes still. “Sam?” he repeats. “What about Sam?”

“It’s—I can’t—” Castiel says. “They took it from me, but I knew. All along I knew. Sam never—he never said yes.”

Dean stares at him. “What are you talking about?”

“He never said yes. He’s not—Lucifer never found him. That’s what we’re waiting for. All this time, we were just waiting for—”

Dean drags a hand down over his face. “No,” he says. “No, that’s not right. My brother—he went out to fight Lilith and he never came back. He never—he didn’t—”

“He’s alive,” Castiel says. “I can feel it. I don’t know where but I can feel that he lives, yet. It isn’t over. There’s still time.”

 

***


Wary, unsettled, Castiel lifts his head to meet her eyes. Quietly, he asks, “Nightmares?”

Naomi’s smile thins.

“I didn’t mention Dean’s nightmares,” Castiel says, and even he can hear the accusation lying underneath. “You’re monitoring the Beautiful Room. For how long?”

“Since the beginning,” Naomi says, and folds her hands together on her desk. “There is nothing we haven’t seen.”

“All those checks and all my reports—they were meaningless.” Castiel stares at her. “These meetings are meaningless.” Something is turning over coldly within him. “If you already know everything I’m going to say, what am I doing here?”

Her smile is soft and sweet—like rotting fruit.

“Oh, Castiel.” Naomi stands, rounds the desk, and comes to stand in front of him. She leans back against the edge of the desk and folds her arms across her chest. “Did you really think it would escape our notice? Your lies, and lust, and deceit—did you think we were just oblivious? Too busy to pay attention? Wilfully ignorant, perhaps?”

The realisation sinks through Castiel, heavy and viscous, like swallowing a cold lump of animal fat. Naomi has seen everything. The shape Dean’s mouth makes, Castiel’s hands on his skin—all of it.

“Is this where I beg your forgiveness? Ask to be spared?”

“If you want. It’ll give me no pleasure."  

“Why am I still alive?” Castiel remembers Balthazar: you’re asking the wrong questions. If his every move has been monitored since the outset, then it is not just the larger, more unforgivable transgressions that have been witnessed, but everything leading up to it. Every moment of doubt and uncertainty, every graze of his fingers over Dean’s skin where he did not pull away, every time he smiled and struggled and felt something. “Why did you let me do it?”

“Do you know the easiest way to pacify a frightened bird? Of course, you can get a larger cage; get it some playthings. More straightforward still—get another bird."

“You let me ruin myself,” Castiel says, slow, “to keep the Michael Sword busy?”

“Dean Winchester destroys everything he touches. We might as well give him someone already broken. Someone expendable.”

Castiel, like someone piecing together an image seen from the far side of a grate, begins to remember. Not all of it—fragments. Conversations, with Naomi, with Dean. He remembers ways Dean has touched him, brushing his fingertips over Castiel’s jaw, rubbing his thumb at the corner of Dean’s mouth. He remembers saying the wrong thing in meetings; he remembers the cold steel grip of restraints.

“You were a guaranteed, controlled risk—rather than someone unpredictable. In the wrong hands, the Sword could be volatile. Dangerous. With you, he could be managed.”

Castiel remembers every time he has sat in this chair and described the events of the Beautiful Room. He remembers every time he has lied and hedged and made half-truths. He remembers Naomi’s patient, calm smile.

“Don’t look so shocked, Castiel,” Naomi says. “This isn’t the first time you’ve ruined yourself over one of them. Over all of them. To tell the truth, you’ve started to make a reputation for yourself. It had to be dealt with at some point—you were going to fall at some point.” Her head tilts over slightly; she folds her hands in front of herself on the polished desk. “It just so happened at this point to coincide with our interests.”

They gave him just enough to rope to hang himself with; just enough freedom to fall. “You set me up to fail.”

The expression that flickers onto Naomi’s face is one of shock and hurt. It is almost believable as genuine. “No, Castiel,” Naomi exclaims emphatically. “We were on your side. We were rooting for you to make the right choices. You built your own gallows, I’m afraid. All we did was give you the tools.” Her smile is almost kindly, pitying. “Why make an example of you when you can do it so well yourself?”

“And Dean?”

“What about it?”

“You would let me defile the Michael Sword just to prove a point? Mount my head on a spike and say, this is what happens to those who choose to disobey—”

“Obedience is not a choice, Castiel. Obedience just is. It’s absolute. The moment you start to think about whether something is right or wrong, you are already lost. We don’t need you to question what’s about to happen.”

“What is about to happen?”

Naomi’s eyes are cold. She says, “Hold him.”

Unseen, Thaddeus and Uriel are suddenly at his sides; they seize his arms, pin him to the chair.

“What is this?” Castiel asks. “What are you—”

“Silence him.”

Castiel struggles. He kicks and he writhes and he screams, but then a rag is forced into his open mouth—and he sees the impression of the office flicker, the reality beneath. Naomi, fog-like, twists between his rings, curls cold and smothering through the heart of him, holds him still. He is shaking. Let me go, he screams, but with the rag between his teeth and the choking mist of Naomi’s influence at the core of him, he is voiceless.

Rage surges hot through him, and he wants to shout, I claimed him, to spite them—did you know that? When the room came apart, when the demons came and you lost your connection with us. Did you know that I made him mine?

The metal pushes in easy alongside his tear-duct.

As he feels it grate along the bone—as he feels Naomi pull at and corrode Castiel’s Grace at the inner, most vulnerable part of his rings—he remembers, distantly, being in this chair. The conversations he has heard, while slumped, vacant, half-alive. Naomi’s hand, gentle, through his hair.

The needle slides home.

 

***

“Sam’s alive,” Dean says, and again: “Sam’s alive. Sam is—”

He reels backwards to sit on his heels, and he scrubs a hand down over his face. Castiel, however, is still unsteady, still shaking, and he grips Dean’s arm tight, his fingers curled tight enough into his jacket sleeve that he drags the fabric taut. “I don’t know what to do,” he whispers. “She knows—Naomi knows everything. She always knew. All along, she was just waiting.”

“We gotta get out of here.” It bursts out of Dean, sudden, and when he looks at Castiel, his eyes are red, and the sound of his breathing is rough. “Cas, my brother’s alive and he’s out there somewhere—we gotta go.”

“Where?” Castiel says. “How?”

“What are you—”

“We aren’t anywhere, Dean.” Castiel is trying not to be afraid but it is seeping through him regardless, like smoke under a barricaded door, and he doesn’t know what to do. His voice is low and rough. “The only way to get back would be through Heaven, and we’d never make it.”

Castiel won’t be permitted to leave. It would be disobedience to do so. He’ll be unmade—again. Now that Castiel knows, now that he understands how many times it has happened before, the idea seizes within him, paralysing. He kneels on the floor of the cabin, motionless and terrified.

Dean is shaking his head. “There’s gotta be something,” he says urgently. “If we just get to Sam—we can find Bobby, or Ellen, and they can help us. If we can get to Sam, we’ll be fine. We just gotta get out of here and go find him, that’s all.”

“I don’t know,” Castiel says, and it is humiliating—to be truly awake for the first time in eons, a pawn stumbling over the edge of the chess-board—and so immobilised by indecision. He doesn’t know how to think for himself. He doesn’t know what to do next. He has no idea where to go from here. All he knows is the glint of the needle is in every direction he looks.

“Fuck.” Dean closes his eyes. “Fuck.

Castiel can’t forget again. He looks at Dean, and he decides that he will die before he lets them takes this from him.

“They’ll come soon,” Castiel says, slowly. “They must know what you’ve done. They’ll be on their way to set things right—to recapture you.”

Dean lifts his head and he meets Castiel’s eyes.

Castiel reaches for him, and his hand finds Dean’s face, cradling his jaw. “Dean,” he says. “Dean, listen to me. When they get here, you tell them you revoke your consent. Do you understand?”

Dean swallows, and he nods. “I revoke my consent,” he recites, as though committing it to memory. His voice is shaky but sure. “I revoke my consent, you son of a bitch, I—”

“He can’t possess you without your permission,” Castiel says. His thumb rubs over the corner of Dean’s mouth, and to him the touch is all static, but Dean’s face tilts into his palm, and there is the warm flicker of his soul beneath his skin, and Castiel has never before felt more desperate to hold onto something. “You refuse to let him take you, and we can figure out what to do next.”

“Cas, what about you?"

Castiel falters. “I’ll be fine,” he says, and the lie feels too big for his mouth.

“That’s bullshit and you know it.” Dean is quiet, but his eyes are frantic as they move over Castiel’s face, trying to read him. He says, “They’ll kill you for this,” and his voice is scraped hollow.

Castiel says, “They can try.”

There is silence between them, and while Castiel knows that the armies of Heaven will be moving on them, for this moment, kneeling together on the floor of the cabin, in the thin yellow light that spills from the open window, it is easy to imagine that it is only the two of them—that nothing else exists. 

“I’m sorry,” Dean says. “For this. For all of it.” He swallows, and he leans into Castiel’s touch, but he stares down into his lap. “If it weren’t for me…” He trails off, and he tilts his head over non-commitally, but Castiel understands the meaning: this wouldn’t have happened without me. You’d be better off without me.

Castiel is silent for a long time. When he finally speaks, he says, voice low, “Don’t you dare demean the significance of everything we’ve done together.”

Dean looks at him.

“I have made a great deal of mistakes,” Castiel says, “and when I look back on those millennia, you are the only part I don’t regret. The only part I would choose and choose again, were I given the choice to change what I’ve done.”

Dean can’t hold his eyes. His fingers find Castiel’s and curl through, tight, and he nods once, small and jerky. His throat works as he swallows. After a long moment, he lets out his breath, slow, shaky, and he says, “Okay. So now what? I mean, we’re gonna fight, right? Promise me. We’re gonna fight.”

“There may not be a fight,” Castiel says. “They’re unlikely to allow any opportunity where we could gain the upper hand.”

“Okay,” Dean says, drawing the word out long and slow. He searches Castiel’s face. “So we force them to fight.” He gives a loose shrug. “Hell—that much, I know how to do.”

Castiel frowns. “What are you talking about?”

Dean pulls away from Castiel’s hands and he stands up. He sways for a moment, adjusting to his weight on his once-broken, miraculously-mended leg, and then he moves from the living room.

Castiel leans over to watch him go, following him down the hallway, towards the storage closet. “Dean, what are you—"

The door bangs closed. Dean comes back wielding the wood-axe.

He comes striding back in, hands twisting over the handle. “You ready?” he asks.

“Dean—”

“I’ll take that as a yes.”

Dean pulls the axe back over his shoulder and he swings.

He slams it hard through the kitchen wall, and with a colossal crack, carves a deep gouge, wood splintering, wallpaper splitting. Castiel stares in horror as Dean strains, hauls the axe out of the wall—and swings again.

Castiel can’t understand it—and then he sees, beneath the peeling wallpaper, the fading blue glow of his Enochian warding, now half-severed. Castiel staggers to his feet, but before he can cross the room, Dean strikes again. He splits the sigil.

Almost instantly, the Beautiful Room judders around them, the floor heaving like a sinking ship, and the walls shiver with static as the hunting cabin comes apart at the seams.

Castiel stares at Dean. “What have you done?” he shouts, and then Dean lowers the axe to let the head thump heavily against the floorboards. He breathes ragged.

“What are they gonna do now?” Dean says. His voice is almost lost beneath the roaring as everything comes apart. “When the demons come for me—” Castiel reaches him, and Dean curls his free hand into the front of Castiel’s coat. He doesn’t have the strength to haul Castiel forwards, but he pulls himself in close, and he says, “How are they gonna protect me now?”

“Dean,” Castiel says breathlessly, but that’s all the time they have, because then the Room collapses.

Darkness presses in on all sides, cold and terrifying and absolute, Castiel still in a human body, Dean pressed in behind him.

Light flickers, as of a bulb coming back on, and when the world settles back around them, there is no cabin. It is, again, the waiting room—baroque gold crowning the white walls; heavy paintings of dark-eyed angels staring down over the cold glint of their weaponry, their wings outstretched; a polished marble floor in which Dean and Castiel’s reflections are cast unevenly like ghosts.

On the far side of the room, there are angels. Naomi; Zachariah; Hester; Iphraim; Ishim; Bartholomew—angels he has served with, and angels he has served, and angels he has feared alongside ones he has called friends.

“Evening, gentlemen,” Zachariah says. “Dean, I’m afraid you’ll need to come with us.” 

With a scoff, Dean shakes his head. He shifts his grip on the wood-axe, swings it up to rest on his shoulder. “Like hell.”

Assembled, the angels look misfit, disorganised, in their human vessels—some in dark suits, some in jeans and worn T-shirts, one in sweatpants. Beneath their skin, Castiel can sense the flickering instability of their barely restrained glory, shuddering at the seams of the skeletons that contain them. They shiver and snap like an electric fire, and Castiel can taste their fury crackling in the air. They are armed for battle; the garrison leaders have the sigils of battle-armour on their bodies, whether painted in blood or etched into flesh.

Castiel stands, back to Dean’s, and his eyes track slowly over the angels who surround them—eight of them. He does not like their odds.

His angel-blade slips coldly into his hand. He turns it between his fingers.

At his side, Dean’s fingers brush over the sleeve of his coat. “Cas,” Dean says, low and urgent. “You got a plan?”

Castiel looks across his siblings, comrades, and friends—angels he has fought alongside for millennia. He looks back on each battle now, not out of nostalgia or regret, but evaluatively. He looks for weaknesses. “Almost.”

Slowly, the angels fan out, looking to surround them.

Castiel backs up, one step at a time, towards the wall. He throws one arm out across Dean’s chest to keep him back. “Stay behind me,” he says.

“Cas, I can fight—”

Castiel knows he can. He says, “No, you can’t.”

“There is nowhere for you to go, brother.” Ephraim’s voice is soft, almost pleading. He stands at Bartholomew’s shoulder as Azrael moves nearer to them. Castiel remembers Ephraim in the battlefield, his hesitance at Bagradas. When Ephraim steps forwards now, he is halting, slow. The white-hot churning light at the core of him is unsettled, moving irregularly with his uncertainty. “You cannot escape from this. Give us the Michael Sword.”

“Don’t fight us, Castiel,” Azrael says, her voice flint-sharp. The light gleams from the angel-blade at her side. She holds it with the loose, easy-fingered confidence of a creature who knows her own ability, knows that she cannot be bested hand-to-hand.

Further from them—Zachariah, his smile like shattered glass; Thaddeus, Hester, Ishim. Naomi, at the head of the room, sphinx-like, unsmiling, hard.

Castiel’s fingers flex on his angel-blade. He steps back again, towards the wall. He keeps his eyes on Azrael. “Please,” he says. “Don’t do this. Don’t hurt him.”

“If you give him up, we can ensure that your death will be quick and painless.”

“No,” Castiel says. “I won’t let you take him. I won’t let you harm him. You’ll have to kill me.”

At Castiel’s back, Dean says, “Cas—” His voice cracks.

Castiel steps back again. Behind him, Dean’s back hits the wall. There is nowhere else to go.

“Please,” Castiel says. He half-lifts one hand as though to hold Azrael back; in his other hand, the angel-blade falls to his side. “You can kill me, but I won’t let you hurt him.”

“Cas, no—”

Castiel remembers the words. He remembers the precise intonation with which they were said. He half-turns his head to Dean and he says, the phrase clumsy in his mouth as a foreign tongue, “Dean, you’re all I got, and I ain’t risking that.”

The angel-blade in Azrael’s hand glints coldly as she raises it over them.

“Castiel, please,” Ephraim says, a step behind her. “Give us the Sword, and this will be easy.”

“Please,” Castiel says, “Please, no—please—” and then: “Now.”

Azrael moves; Castiel drops the angel-blade, and then onto one knee; the angel-blade falls into Dean’s hand and he pushes it through Azrael’s throat.

Her mouth falls wide open in shock just as her Grace ignites, white and terrible and blinding, and the angel-blade falls from her fingers. Castiel catches it, turns it over in his hand, and he throws it. The blade sings through the air and then slams hard through Hester’s kneecap, who lets out a glass-shattering howl as their leg buckles beneath them, silver light leaking from the wound, and Ephraim, ahead of Castiel, falters. Castiel surges forwards to grab him by the throat, and hurls him backwards. He crashes hard onto his back, and by then the other angels are rushing at them.

“Dean,” Castiel yells, and Dean slides the angel-blade across the floor in time for Castiel to snatch it up, and push it through Ephraim’s eye until the hilt hits skull. Castiel moves, swift, sudden—thrusts the angel-blade through Thaddeus’ throat, hauls it out, drops to one knee to duck the slash of a knife, and he slams the butt of the blade hard into someone’s gut. Castiel wheels, angel-blade turning over in hand, and he lashes out, cuts, carves.

A grunt catches Castiel’s attention, and he turns to see Dean pinned to the far wall—Dean, with his axe gripped in two hands as Bartholomew tries to shove the wooden handle hard against his windpipe to suffocate him. Something rises within Castiel, fierce and protective and furious, and he throws the angel-blade. It slams home between Bartholomew’s shoulder-blades, and a thin scream rattles from his throat as he slumps forwards onto Dean.

Dean doesn’t thank Castiel; in a voice which is hoarse from near-suffocation, he says, “Watch your back,” and he tosses the axe, one-handed. Castiel catches it, swings.

It catches the next angel across the face, buries deep into the muscle and bone—and then Naomi’s face flickers, disintegrates into glittering pixels as the approximation of their vessel comes apart and the Grace takes over, blinding white beneath the skin. Castiel hauls the axe back, and Naomi’s face pulls back together, flawlessly composed, unharmed.

“Is this how you treat your family?” Naomi says, Grace lighting behind her teeth like a mouthful of white blood. “After everything we have suffered and fought through together, and you throw it away for the chance to debase yourself with some ape—”

“You lied to me,” Castiel says. “You took me apart.”

“You were broken. I fixed you.”

Castiel lunges for her, throws her backwards. She recovers easily, turns on him like an unfolding storm; Castiel flips his blade over in his hand as he shifts to face her, but before he can move, the Beautiful Room cracks.

The sound is deafening; it echoes and echoes in Castiel’s head. It roots him to the floor. He can feel the reverberations of impact through the floor, through his bones. He is frozen and does not move.

Zachariah’s mouth tilts into a slow, ice-thin smile. There is blood in his teeth. “Well,” he says. “It looks like your time is up.”

“No,” Castiel whispers.

The second impact nearly wrenches the Beautiful Room in half. The plaster cracks further as the walls judder and shake, and the light-bulb bursts overhead, and the windows shatter, and everything is shaking so hard that nails are vibrating out of the floorboards underfoot. A high whine is building in volume, from a whistle to a scream, until Castiel’s skull is swimming and his eyes are filled with tears.

Castiel spins to find Dean, but the light in the Beautiful Room is growing brighter and harsher and more terrible until Castiel can barely see him.

“What’s happening?” Dean shouts, his voice strangled and lost in the tornado of the angel’s coming.

“Say it,” Castiel yells, and he reaches out for Dean, but the screaming has built to a pitch and volume that buckles his legs beneath him. He falls to his knees. He is unable to move. “Dean, you revoke your—”

“I revoke my consent,” Dean says. His voice is swallowed by the thunder. The Beautiful Room is rent into pieces, splintered by ferocious light. Dean screws up his face and he screams it. “I revoke my consent. You hear that, you son of a bitch—I revoke my consent.”

Across the room, Zachariah’s smile is blood-grim. “You’re purpose-built for this, Dean,” he says. “You’ve been unmade. We don’t need your consent anymore.”

“Dean—” Castiel yells, and he is voiceless. Everything is lost to the shuddering, screaming light, and then it is over.

Slowly, Castiel straightens. There is a ringing in his ears. He cannot stop his hands from shaking.

On the other side of the room, Dean kneels on one knee, curled over into himself. His head is bowed; Castiel can’t see his face.

As one, the surviving angels drop to their hands and knees, heads ducked to prostrate themselves before him.

Castiel remains standing.

In an unsteady voice, he says, “Dean.”

Slowly, Dean’s body straightens. It uncurls from itself like an insect unfolding.

It lifts his head, twists his jaw. It rolls his shoulders back. It is bleeding copiously from the nose and mouth; it lifts one hand to wipe his face and his fingers come away dripping darkly.

For a moment, it stares at that hand. It flexes those fingers. His knuckles pop. Blood trickles down the inside of his wrist and into his sleeve.

Castiel takes one unsteady step forwards. He says again, “Dean.”

Dean’s body stands all wrong—tall and straight, his head held high. At last, Dean’s head lifts, and turns to fix Castiel with a gaze that is cold and hard. His bloody mouth is a thin line. His lips say, “Castiel, was it?”

Dread roils sickeningly in Castiel’s gut. He wants to back away, back down. He forces himself to hold his ground. “Michael.” His voice comes out hoarse. “What’s wrong with him?”

Dean's mouth says, "Do you see what you have done, Brother? You have ruined him.”

"I didn't—"

"You have corrupted him," Dean's mouth says, blood spilling up over his lower lip. "The Sword is useless to me now. Look at him. He can't contain me."

"Why?"

"You stole him," Dean's mouth roars, and it thunders not only from him but from a thousand screaming voices that surround and crush Castiel down small. Wings unfold from Dean's back - enormous, electricity-charged, that reach to towering heights with a noise like shattering. "You stole him, and he is bonded now to you instead of to me. You made my Sword your perfect match—"

"I don't want him as a vessel!" Castiel bursts out. "I don't want him."

"You do want him. You want him in the carnal, human way. You want him for your heart."

Castiel's breath hitches in his throat. "I—"

"You cannot have him."

"Brother," Castiel tries, desperate. "Forgive me. Please—don't—please—"

Michael wraps a hand around Castiel's throat, tight beneath his jaw. He throws him down, and it is with Dean's hands that Michael digs into Castiel's spine, reaches into his Grace, and tears him apart.

“Howl,” says Dean’s mouth, “for the day of the Lord is at hand. It shall come as destruction from the Almighty.”

Michael snaps the joint of a wing between his two fists, bone cracking with a noise like thunder, and Castiel crumples to his knees. A hollow, agonised sound rises in his throat and his fingers curl against stone, in this world, and in the Empty he is spinning fast with terror, engulfed by hands of light and dread. He can hear himself screaming, an incoherent tangle of Enochian and prayer and no, no, no, please, but Dean's hands are thorough.

“Therefore all hands should be faint, and every man’s heart shall melt, and they shall be terrified.” Dean’s fingers twist hard into the socket of Castiel’s wing, snaps bone and Grace as one with a white-hot burst of agony that presses Castiel’s face, screaming, into the marble. Dean’s hands shatter him, carves the starlight from him and hollows him. “Pain and anguish will take hold of them,” Dean’s mouth says, his voice smooth and terrible. “The heavens will be black above them; the stars will give no light.”

There is a sickening crack, a wet ripping— “Thus,” says Dean’s mouth, “will I punish the world for its evil. And the wicked for their iniquity,"—as Dean’s hands pulls something from Castiel’s spine, and there is a dull, heavy noise as it is dropped to lie discarded on the marble like a forgotten thing—“I will also put an end to the arrogance of the proud,”—and in Castiel’s periphery he can see the ragged, bloody tangle of meat, the fading light within it— “and abase the haughtiness of the ruthless.” Then Michael wraps two shining, glorious hands around the outermost of Castiel’s flaming rings, and with one hard yank, he twists it out of place, bending it out of shape until it can twist no more—and it snaps.

Castiel’s elbows go out from beneath him and he collapses. His chin cracks, hard, off the floor, and there is a hot burst of blood in his mouth, and with his face pushed against the marble, he cries. He breathes, and he watches the last pale, silver twist of his Grace leak from his mouth and disappear.

“Therefore,” Michael says, smoothing Dean’s low voice, his round vowels and his accent, into something clipped and business-like, “will I make the Earth tremble.”

Michael steps in closer. His footsteps, in Dean’s boots, ring dully in Castiel’s ears. Then there are no more footsteps—and Dean’s boot presses gently against the back of Castiel’s skull.

“Well, Castiel,” Michael says as he stands over him, his voice soft. “You’re a real boy, now.” His boot presses harder. Castiel can feel his pulse within his temple, throbbing against the hard ground. Michael says, “Are you trembling?”

Castiel is shaking so hard he can’t see, crushed flat into the stone. He can't breathe. He is overwhelmed by the cold touch of the marble beneath his fingertips, by the chill in the air, by the pain, knife-sharp and white-hot, all through his body, and by the terrifying realisation that he can feel all this because he has fallen. This body—this pulse—every ragged, panicked drag of oxygen into his lungs—all of it is his. No longer a parasite, taking over the body of someone corporeal.

He is human.

Of all things, the first thing he manages to croak out is, “Where is James Novak?”

Michael takes his foot from Castiel’s skull. “Who?”

“My vessel. His soul.” Castiel’s hands curl against the cold floor. “Where has he gone?”

Michael’s laugh is high and cold and cruel. “Why do I care what happens to your puppet?”

Castiel thinks of Michael’s own puppet—Dean Winchester, who is good and kind and doesn’t want to die—and Castiel listens that that empty laugh and hears nothing of Dean there. It feels like a fist tightening around Castiel’s throat, squeezing beneath his jaw, and he can’t breathe.

“Is this not what you wanted?” Michael asks. The mockery in it digs deep underneath Castiel’s skin and buries itself there. “To feel?” 

No, Castiel says, but his mouth isn’t working. All he is capable of is dragging in these awful, shuddering breaths, making this broken noise on every exhalation, crying into the stone.

Dean's mouth says, "Get up."

Castiel drags himself up onto his hands and knees, but he is blinded by tears and shaking so badly that he can scarcely support himself.

Michael's voice turns sharp, electricity snapping beneath his words, and the air drops in temperature, a chill sweeping goose-bumps up the length of Castiel's spine. "I said, get up."

Castiel slowly pushes himself back to sit on his heels, and as he sits upright, he feels the blood spill, hot and wet, down between his shoulder-blades. The pain is not so intense anymore—not a sharp burst of agony, but rather a relentless pounding ache that strangles every breath in his throat. His eyes are burning, his face wet, and he says, “Let him go.” 

He kneels, not in the midst of the marble waiting room, not in the hunting cabin, but in an enormous, dark space, under blinding floodlights, as though in a colosseum. The other angels have disappeared from sight, but Castiel knows they are there, in the blackness, along with many others. He is circled by the distant twinkling of far-off lights, and he knows that much of the Host must be here, watching out of sight. He is on display. He is made an example of, just as Naomi wanted.

Before Castiel, Michael stands over him in Dean’s body, tall and imposing and glorious, breathing hard, chest heaving. There is blood dripping from Dean's nose, smearing his mouth and chin dark red. His hands are stained a thick, chalky white by Castiel's mangled Grace.

Castiel says, “Please.” His voice is a hoarse rasp, utterly without power. “I’m ruined. But let him go.”

"Why?” Michael tilts Dean’s head over. “So you can have him?"

"He'll die."

Michael’s mouths thins into a narrow smile. "He knew that when he said yes."

Then Michael kneels—Dean's knees in the dirt, Dean's narrow thighs in Dean's worn jeans—and reaches out to Castiel. He cradles Castiel's face in one large, calloused hand, and tilts his jaw up to force him to meet his gaze. Dean's eyes. Glass-green, golden-flecked, bright and warm as sunlight. Those eyes are cold, now.

Dean's mouth says, "Is this what it was like? When he looked at you?"

Castiel says nothing.

"Look at me. Look at my face." Michael's words are hard. "This is my face. This belongs to me. He was never yours."

Castiel cannot look away.

“Close your eyes,” Michael says.

Reluctantly, Castiel does as he’s told. He thinks, at least it will be over soon. At least he will no longer have to worry about what is wrong and what is right and whether love is so great a sin as to be worth dying for. At least now there will be peace. There will be no Dean, and no opportunity for the freedom he has come to long for above all things, but at least there will be peace.

“If you look on this form again,” Michael says, “it will be the last thing you see.”

Castiel’s breath snags in his chest.

“I will carve your eyes from your skull. Your agony will know no end.”

Castiel doesn’t understand.

Michael says, “Do I make myself clear?”

Castiel swallows. He fights to find the words as terror paralyses him and his head spins and his heartbeat—his own, new, human heartbeat—drums in his ears loud enough to drown out all other things, and finally, he manages, “You’re not going to kill me.”

 “No,” Michael says. “You would choose death, as an escape from what you have done.” Castiel’s eyes are still shut, but he can hear the way Michael’s slow smile twists Dean’s voice. “I will not grant you that freedom.”

***

Chapter Text

Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground,

And from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and wanderer on the earth.

 

***

 

They dump him in a field somewhere.

North America—somewhere summer-scorched, flat and huge beneath an endless sky. When Castiel heaves himself from the dirt, breathing ragged and bleeding from between his shoulder-blades, he can see the spine of a far-off city, rising just above the horizon, like a half-buried thing. His shirt is heavy with blood, slick against his skin, putrid.

For several moments, he does nothing. He stands in the centre of a circle of earth, wheat flattened, the dirt charred; his knees wobble beneath him. He does not remember falling. He does not remember the impact as his body hit the earth. He just knows that it is over.

Dean is gone.

Castiel watches the ragged thread of clouds wind across the sky, watches them stretch and thin and colour grey to yellow to white. He stares too long at that place where the clouds burn white over the sun and his eyes ache, dull spots flaring at the edges of his vision. He lifts a hand, eventually, to shield his eyes, and there is a relief in the shade.

It takes a long time for him to think: I need to do something.

The beating of the sun against his skin is beginning to lift a hot, uncomfortable sensation on his nose and the back of his neck. There is an ache in his belly, and his tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth when he swallows. Sweat prickles at his hairline. If he stays here, these things will worsen.

This, he thinks, is all humanity is: choosing between inaction and survival, over and over and over.

He supposes he will have to survive.

So he walks.

Castiel staggers two miles through harvest and loam towards the city before he finds any more immediate trace of civilisation, and it comes in the form of an abandoned gas station, wilting at the side of the interstate like a scorched weed. One solitary window out of five is boarded up, as though someone began planning for the worst in a panic and then thought better of it, realised there was no time or that it was futile. The others are shattered. Dried black blood clings to the ragged glass, like broken teeth, along the edges of the windowpane.

Castiel steps over puddles of gleaming petrol on the asphalt and tries the door. It is splintered on its hinge, and partially blocked by an upended crate in the doorway. He considers climbing through a window, but his muscles ache and his back burns and his shirt is sticking, heavy and glutinous, to the sores between his shoulder-blades. He slams a shoulder into the door, then kicks at it, until eventually the crate shifts, and he picks his way inside through the dust and debris.

Heaven’s Rapture is grubby, derelict; it smells like a chemical burn. Dented cans roll across the floor. The cash register is popped open and empty.

Castiel searches for water, a clean shirt or a jacket to hide the blood seeping into his clothes. He finds a heavy blue work-jacket, the word MAINTENANCE emblazoned on the back, and he carefully slides into it, wincing as the movement twists his shoulders and cracks the scabbing wounds there. He finds Mountain Dew, which makes him retch and spit fizzing bile onto the cracked laminate floor. He braces a hand against the counter and hunches over, trying to breathe.

Everything in him is in open rebellion—I don’t want to do this. I don’t want this. I don’t want to have to drink and eat and worry about the blood on my skin. The longer Castiel stays there, stooped, breathing through his teeth, the fiercer the ache at the backs of his eyes burn, and the tighter the knot in his throat is pulled. I don’t want to decide what to do next. There are tears on his cheeks. I don’t want to choose.

Inaction or survival—that’s all it is.

Castiel spits the last of the bitter taste from his mouth. Slowly, he straightens. He scrubs the back of his hand roughly over his face.

It’s the end of the world, and Dean is gone, and it sits like a rock in his gut, and Castiel has to do something.

He looks for a map.

Castiel remembers: Dean last saw his brother in Arkansas. The system the Winchesters have in place for finding each other if they were ever split up is complicated, but he’ll need to start there. He has no idea what he plans to do—if there is anything he can do—to save Dean, save himself, save humanity, but he is certain that finding Sam Winchester will be the first step. Lucifer hasn’t found him yet; that means there’s still hope.

At last, after spending what feels like an age, to Castiel’s newly human sense of the passage of time, he finds a phonebook.

Kansas—near Salina.

Arkansas is some four-hundred miles away, but it’s a start.

Through the far window, there is an old car in the ditch at the side of the road, and Castiel pauses for a moment to stare dejectedly at it—but he doesn’t know how to drive. He sets out walking.

Four-hundred miles is nothing. He has stood sentry at the gates of Heaven for millennia; he has walked the length of the Earth in one sacred task or another. Four-hundred miles is easy.

He walks until the city is no more a smear along the horizon behind him, until there is nothing but the flat, open sky and the prairie, abandoned houses sitting squat and peeling along the roadside, their shattered windows glinting in the sun. He peers into cars abandoned at the roadside for any residual sign of life.

It’s a long time since Castiel was on Earth. In Carlton, ragged grey newspaper drifts underfoot; Castiel pins one sheet under his shoe and reads April 14th. Ten months since the capturing of the Michael Sword, although from the water-warped paper and the desolation of the town, it is longer still since anyone was here to read this newspaper.

He drinks rainwater gathered in a tarp tossed over an old car, cupping two hands to his mouth and gulping greedily. It tastes thick and metallic, sour on his tongue, and he splutters, but drinks anyway. He wipes his face with his fingers and comes away grime-streaked. He pushes wet hands through his hair to relieve some of the heat, but the motion, lifting his hands over his hands, contorts his shoulders, and pain lances sharply through him.

A noise bursts from his mouth, and he curls over into himself. He grits his teeth until his jaw aches, and tears swim in his eyes, and he wishes he could be rid of this, more than anything else—the crying. At every bump and bruise; at the pain where his wings should be; at the thought of Dean, suffocating inside his own skin. Castiel feels full to the throat with everything at once and it is so overwhelming that he doesn’t understand how anyone can stand it.

He walks until he chases the sun to the edge of the flatlands ahead, until the horizon bleeds bruise-red into lilacs, the ragged edges of cloud spun in gold, and his skin is painted in it as by stained-glass windows. He walks until blisters bubble at the peak of his ankle and at the ball of his foot and underneath his big toe. He feels them rub, swell, break, bleed, scab, bleed again. He does not limp. He tries to walk through the night and he doesn’t make it beyond sunset.

His knees give out; he skins his hands on the asphalt. He gasps into the blue twilight, and he kneels in the middle of the road as though in prayer, unable to go any further. Defeated.

“You win,” he says into the empty sky, where it bleeds bruise-red from the edge of the horizon, and his voice cracks. “Are you happy? You win.”

The sky overhead is silent. A thin sliver of moon hangs, faintly yellow, ahead of the encroaching dark. Castiel tilts his head up, breathing deep to try and stave off the shaking that creeps up from his fingertips, and he looks up into that hollow, empty sky, and there is nothing of comfort there. There is no indication that anyone is listening.

Castiel says, “I was wrong.” His voice is ragged. “I was wrong—being human is awful. Everything hurts.” His admission to weakness burns in his throat and he can feel new tears biting at the backs of his eyes, and it isn’t fair. “I can’t help Dean.” His voice cracks. “I can’t help anyone. I am tired and helpless and I don’t know what to do.” He drops his chin into his chest and he breathes shakily, his bloody hands loose in his lap. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to do.”

The road is quiet—no answer, no resolution. It is desolately peaceful, disturbed only by the creaking of insects at the roadside, and the ticking of spokes turning in the wheel of an abandoned bicycle caught by the wind.

When the truck comes, Castiel hears it before he sees it.

From miles away, the sputtering roar of its engine rises above the absolute pond-still hush of the night—growing incrementally louder as it comes nearer. The headlamps are visible, then, twin yellow eyes in the dark that veer from side to side. It drives away in another direction, then back the way it came. It drives in circles. It stops. It starts. It is coming this way.

Castiel knows, objectively, that he should prepare to defend himself. He has no weapon. He has no strength. It wouldn’t be much of a fight, but he would not die on his knees.

Slowly, he hauls himself to his feet. His fingers scrape across the tarmac, in search of something, anything, that he can use as a weapon. He finds a loose chunk of asphalt, heavy and sharp enough to do some damage, and he drags himself upright. His knees buckle, and his head swims, and his back sears with pain as the scabbing wounds of his wings crack and bleed anew, but he stands, and he faces the oncoming light.

It’s a pick-up truck, dusty and blue. The lights wash over him, and then the truck screeches to a halt, brakes squealing. The engine stalls.

Castiel’s hands are loose at his sides, the chunk of asphalt held just out of sight. His best hope for a successful outcome is the element of surprise. He looks ragged—he’s certain he will be underestimated.

The door pops open, and the person who gets out is small, light of step. Behind the headlights, they are unrecognisable, but the voice is familiar: “Oh, Castiel.”

Castiel shields his face from the headlights with one hand and frowns into the glare.

The driver steps in front of the headlights, and Castiel can see clearly now. A woman. Red hair scraped back in a lopsided ponytail. Make-up smudged where she has rubbed at one eye. White shirt unironed, creases standing out at her collar, and worn jeans. Old boots. A grubby ace bandage on one elbow. From a thin metal chain around her neck swings a small glass vial filled with a small, terrible white light. She looks sturdy, and older than Castiel has ever seen her, and beautiful.

“Sister,” Castiel says, voice hoarse, reverent. “What are you doing here?”

Anna says, “Come on. Get in.”

 

***

 

For the first twenty or so minutes, they drive in silence. Castiel doesn’t know where she is taking him; he didn’t say where he was going, and neither did she. He just huddles in the passenger seat, filthy, and he looks at her, at her uneven skin and her eyes illuminated by the orange glow of the dashboard lights. The Grace around her neck is ever-shifting, casting shadows; she tucks it inside the collar of her shirt, and the truck’s cab is returned to the gloom. Anna doesn’t comment on his staring, nor does she glance back. She just drives.

Most of the road is dark, streetlamps extinguished, and she drives slowly, navigating around detritus, abandoned cars, pot-holes and tarmac damage. The engine rumbles steadily beneath them, sputters a little when she accelerates hard. It’s a stick-shift; Castiel watches her hand on the gear-stick, as practiced and instinctive as with a blade.

When at last, he speaks, his voice is raspy with disuse, mouth still dry. He says, “How did you know where to find me?”

Anna tilts her head over. “Look around,” she says. “The world’s pretty quiet these days. A meteor shaped like a man is pretty eye-catching.” She is quiet for a beat, her fingers drumming idly on the steering wheel. Then she adds, “Helps that I still listen to angel radio, too.”

Castiel imagines what she must have heard. Castiel disgraced. The Michael Sword ruined. Apocalypse underway. He swallows around the lump thickening in his throat. “What happened to you?” he asks. “Why are you here?”

It takes Anna a long time to answer. There is no sound between them but the engine and the road.

“It’s complicated,” she says, at last.

Castiel says, “You’re human. That, at least, seems profoundly uncomplicated.”

Anna’s short laugh is without humour. “You’re human, too,” she says. “You want to talk about Grace getting carved out, you go first.”

Castiel doesn’t answer. He turns his head to the window to avoid looking at her, staring out instead at the moon hanging heavy overhead, white and staring, sculpted by tumbling streaks of cloud. Anna wears her Grace around her neck—which can only indicate that her disgrace is a voluntary one, something she inflicted on herself. Not long ago, Castiel would thought that inconceivable; now, he looks back on Heaven and he wonders at there being only two forsaken angels wandering the end of the world.

Beyond his window, the Earth is barren, lifeless. They pass stores with smashed-in windows, bars with outside benches upturned and lying broken. They cross an intersection whose traffic lights still wink red, orange, green, for an empty road; Anna pauses obediently at the red and lets the truck idle while she waits for nothing to cross in front of them. The red glow is the only light around, save the truck’s headlamps, and it casts the garbage and weeds in a sinister gloom.

“What happened here?” Castiel asks.

“Fear.” The traffic light blinks amber, then green. Anna hesitates a second longer at the intersection before she goes. “With the Seals breaking, the Winchesters failing, the world was already coming apart enough for people to notice. Enough for them to start worrying. But none of it lasted. Outbreaks of disease, the rising of the dead, the demonic attacks—it was only temporary. And then, almost overnight…” She trails off. She snaps on her turn signal, indicating her next move into an empty, unseeing dark. The rhythmic tick-tick-tick of it echoes in Castiel’s ears. “I don’t know what happened. Everyone got scared.”

Castiel looks across at her.

“This terror, it spread like locusts. Everyone fixed with this idea that the end had come, that it was time to run.” Anna’s face is impassive, staring out at the way ahead. Her eyes never leave the road. Her single-minded focus, her certainty, was always something that Castiel envied. Her voice is quiet, now. “There were stampedes in supermarkets, everyone rushing to get supplies. People started attacking each other. There were fights and fires. Everyone running. So much panic that places were declaring martial law.”

“Did it come?” Castiel asks. “Whatever they were running from.”

“I haven’t seen anything yet.” Anna smiles, then, the shape of it rueful and wry. “You find any survivors, they’ll tell you for sure what’s coming—zombies, or a flood, or the death of the firstborns, maybe Godzilla. But the fear is all there actually is.”

Castiel picks at the upholstery. In the far distance, there is the blinking white light of a solitary standing radio tower; on the radio in Anna’s truck, there is only white noise. He says, “So what’s the plan?”

Anna tips her head towards him, her eyes still on the road. “Plan?” she repeats distractedly.

Castiel looks at her. “What do we do next? With this—fear. The Apocalypse.”

Anna gives a small laugh. She shakes her head. “You mean,” she says, gently, “what are the orders?”

Castiel says nothing.

“There are no orders, Castiel. There is no plan.”

“So the world ends,” he says dully. “Dean dies. Sam becomes the weapon of Lucifer. Humanity is extinguished.”

“I know you want me to have all the answers, but sometimes there aren’t any. Something things happen and that’s all there is. One thing after another.” She gestures to the darkness beyond her windshield. “End of the road.”

Frustration boils hot beneath Castiel’s skin, sudden and searing and beyond his control. He feels his throat swell until he can’t breathe right and he sets his jaw, teeth gritted, until he can be certain that he isn’t about to start weeping like a child in front of his old commander just because—just because it’s not fair. None of it is fair. There can’t just be no answer.

Finally, Anna splits a glance between him and the road. Her expression softens. “I’m sorry.”

“Why did you find me?” Castiel says, and he can’t control the way that he bites the words out, bitter and burning. “If it’s all hopeless—”

Anna’s voice is quiet. “Because you’re good, Castiel.”

“I don’t know what that means.” A good soldier, a good tactician, a willing martyr—he is able to believe he can fill these criteria, at least. What it means, however, to be objectively good, is something that entirely defies his understanding.

“It means you deserve better.”

Of one thing Castiel is certain—he has received exactly what he deserves.

 

***

 

Anna takes them to a safe house—a derelict warehouse just shy of off Route 400. A dead fluorescent sign looms blackly overhead; a dented Pepsi can rolls across the entry and bumps the kerb. Anna pulls into a space concealed by a row of fetid dumpsters—spends a good few minutes rumbling back and forth to get the truck exactly straight—and then she leads Castiel inside.

“This way,” Anna says, and she strides straight past the abandoned gear. There are double-doors at the back of the warehouse, the handles choked by a thick padlock, opened by a key which Anna produces from the duffel bag slung over one shoulder.

Through the doors is something like a break room—a small, grubby kitchen; a selection of dirty, distended couches in lurid patterns. Anna points towards a door standing open on the far side of the room, through which a glimpse of white-tile washroom can be seen.

“Go get showered,” Anna directs him. She scoops a towel from a wooden rack of faded clothes that tilts against the wall, and she passes it to him. “I’ll be out here. You need fresh clothes?”

Castiel says, “Yes.” He is fallen. Human and weak and worthless. Blood has saturated his shirt, sticks thickly to his skin and seals against his scabbing sores. His hair prickles, greasy, against his scalp, and when he pushes it clear of his face with one hand, it leaves him feeling unclean.

He heads into the washroom, shuts the door behind him. Overhead, the dim electric bulb washes the dingy walls in a harsh white light. It buzzes, flickers, and makes his eyes sting.

He peels the shirt away, gritting his teeth against the cracking of his sores as he lifts his hands over his shoulder, ignoring the fresh blood that oozes down between his shoulder-blades. He tries to rinse the sensation away under the harsh spray of the shower, but fruitlessly. The water pounds at his skin like a stoning, leaves him feeling raw, broken open.

The towel Anna has given him is white. He passes it once, perfunctorily, across the back of his neck, and it comes away darkly stained, half-molten scabs prickling brown against the threadbare cotton. He deflates, shoulders slumping, and he tries to avoid looking at his back in the fogged bathroom mirror, but he can catch glimpses—the wide gouges on either side of his spine; the burns that radiate from all sides of the split skin; the blistering sores; the boot-print burned into the back of his neck.

Castiel balls the ruined towel in his fist, and he stumbles out of the bathroom.

“Anna,” he says. “Your towel—I’m sorry.”

From where she is arranging pillows upon the couch for him, Anna lifts her head. Her eyes widen as she takes in the blood, and her mouth falls slack. She says, “What did they do to you?”

Castiel turns the towel over in his two hands. He doesn’t meet her eyes, and he doesn’t answer, but he allows himself to be shepherded from the doorway, to sit down, to be treated. He turns his naked back to her and is grateful when she says nothing. She merely retrieves a medical kit.

For several minutes, there is only silence—Anna washing his wounds. Castiel cannot imagine what it looks like, and he doesn’t want to. He listens, instead, to the humming of the electric bulb overhead, the groan of wind against the windowpanes. The constant, dull noise is almost like the old litany of prayer at the back of his head. It both comforts him and twists like a knife in his gut.

“I knew this would happen,” Anna says softly.

Castiel becomes still.

Anna drops another blood-pink wad of cotton into the trashcan at her feet. “Castiel, you’re nothing if not consistent, but your devotion to the cause has often been… wanting.”

“I know your thoughts on that. As I recall, you were often the one holding the needle.”

“I may have followed the orders, but I didn’t enjoy them.” There is a crinkle at Castiel’s back, packaging being ripped open, and then there is the cold sting of alcohol over his shoulder-blades. Anna’s voice is quiet. “They never wiped me. Not once. I remember everything.” Her hands are steady and sure. There is a waver in her voice. “I remember thinking you were braver than I was.”

Castiel stares down at his loosely tangled hands. His voice, when he speaks, is low, and he can hear the accusation in it: “You should have done something.”

Anna pauses. “What would you have had me do?” she says, and there is no anger in it. “Rebel? Tell me, how did that go for you?”

Castiel says nothing.

“Right.” With that, Anna briskly tears open a new roll of gauze and starts measuring out strips. “I won’t be able to give you stitches, but if I bandage these up, they should hold for now,” she tells him offhandedly, while she works with scissors and tape.

Castiel grunts, but stays staring straight ahead.

Anna carefully lays gauze over Castiel’s wounds, padded with fat cotton to soak up the blood. She fumbles clumsily with tape to seal the bandages to his skin.

After a moment, she murmurs, “And I did do something.” She snaps the tape with her teeth. “I waited.” Her hands are steady and sure. “Waited until there was enough chaos that no-one would notice I was gone, no-one would be able to spare a force to find me, and I got out.” She is quiet, focused. She smooths the tape against his skin, her fingers cool. “It took me a thousand years of deliberating and being unsure and then—the Winchesters came along.”

Castiel’s head lifts.

“I raised Dean from Hell—badly—and then I was assigned to watch over them, to lead them through botching the Seals, and I was doing my duty, but… it didn’t feel like it. I couldn’t stop thinking I was doing the wrong thing.” Anna huffs, shaking her head. “My charge certainly didn’t help, either. It’s pretty hard to argue right from wrong with the Righteous Man—like, it’s in the name.”

A smile pulls at Castiel’s mouth. “Dean has that effect on people.”

“He has a way of pulling you into his orbit that can be hard to resist,” Anna admits. She takes a deep breath, lets it out slow. “So when I started to realise how badly things were going wrong—how much I had contributed to a broken Apocalypse we never should have wanted—how much I had worked to destroy these good men, the only people who cared enough about humanity to try and save it…” Her hands become still. “Well.”

Castiel half-turns to her. “Does it hurt?” he asks quietly. “When it’s your choice.”

“Falling?” Anna is quiet for a moment. “Yes. It hurts.” She folds away her equipment, tucks it back into the medical kit. “All done. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than nothing. You won’t get infected, at least.”

Castiel means to thank her, but as he watches her move across the small room to stow away her first-aid kit, he sees her as she is now: human. He takes in her quick, sloping walk; the strands of greasy hair that fall short of her ponytail; the pink rash that the ace bandage on her elbow leaves on her skin. Instead, he says, “I’m sorry, Anna.”

Anna hums a little, dismissive. “You don’t have to apologise to me,” she says. “I’m not your commander anymore.” She stands on tiptoes to push the first-aid kit on top of a cupboard; for a moment, she struggles, stretching. It is surreal to see her momentarily defeated by so mundane a thing. Then, at last, she succeeds, and she lets out a sharp sigh of relief as she rocks back onto her heels. “Anyway,” she adds, pointedly, “I’m not the one you failed. I just don’t see how you’re going to help Dean Winchester from the dirt.”

Castiel hesitates. “Actually, I was planning on finding Sam Winchester.”

Anna turns to give him a puzzled look. “What good will that do?”

“I don’t know. But he’s one of the most important human beings in Creation—I’m sure he must be of some use.” Castiel tilts his head over. “I’m getting pretty good at improvising.”

“To what end?”

Castiel can’t understand it—her speech about the good that the Winchesters do, about her desire to do the right thing, and now this aimless acceptance of defeat. “And what would you have me do?” he challenges. “Give up?”

“It’s not giving up, it’s called self-preservation,” Anna says, and she brings across a bundle of clean clothes. They are faded and scruffy, and smell stale, but Castiel takes them willingly, and he dresses as Anna goes on, “I carved my Grace out and I fell—I already have a target on my back. I exacerbated that risk by rescuing you.” She lets out a short, incredulous laugh. “Excuse me if I don’t want to then throw myself into the middle of the Lucifer Sword witch-hunt.”

Castiel carefully twists himself into the shirt, trying not to disturb his bandages. “So,” he says, voice muffled in the starched cotton as he navigates his way to the collar, “you aren’t coming with me.”

“No.”

Castiel emerges, triumphant. He tugs the hem down, and he stares at her. “You won’t.”

“I can’t,” Anna corrects. “And you shouldn’t want me to, either. I didn’t leave the Winchesters on good terms. Sam, I pushed into the arms of the devil myself. I moved them like chess-pieces for Heaven’s amusement, and I did it well but not subtly. I’m not popular.”

“Are you not interested in atonement?” Castiel says. “Do you not want to be forgiven?”

Anna lowers her eyes. After a beat, she says only, “Get some rest,” and Castiel recognises it as the end of the conversation. She reaches out to graze her fingertips over the back of the couch. “You need to sleep. There’s a blanket if you need it—I’ll be here in the morning.”

Castiel says, “Anna—”

“Goodnight, Castiel,” Anna says—but she stands beside him a moment longer, watchful, as he finishes dressing and climbs under the coarse wool blanket that she has provided, to settle on the bloated cushions.

It’s a relief, aware though he is of every thread, every stitch, every inch of threadbare corduroy against his skin, but sleep does not come easily; he is a creature of light and he struggles in darkness.

 

***

 

Morning comes like a headache—it settles, heavy and oppressive, beneath Castiel’s eyelids and will not be budged until at last he surrenders. He has a crick in his neck from sleeping wrong, and his back is stiff with a pinching pain above one hip. Somewhere beyond him, there is a low whistling, a clanking of metal on metal. He opens his eyes.

On the other side of the break-room, Anna sits in a straight-backed wooden chair and reads an instruction manual on how to put together a bookcase. She doesn’t seem to have any of the necessary components for building a bookcase, but she reads with painstaking diligence. A metal teapot shudders on one of the kitchen burners, white steam rising in a pale twist from its spout.

Slowly, Castiel struggles free of Anna’s coarse wool blanket, and he sits upright.

Anna’s head lifts. “Morning, Castiel,” she says. “Tea will be ready in a moment.”

Castiel’s eyes are tacky, grit in his eyelids, and his tongue cleaves to the roof of his mouth. There is a thick, sour taste on his tongue. He rubs both hands over his face.

When he drags himself to his feet, everything aches—his back, his shoulders, his throat, the soles of his feet, the backs of his eyes. He stumbles into the bathroom, where he wets his face under the cold spray of a rusty faucet, and this does not change much, but somehow it helps.

In the main room, when he returns, Anna is pouring dark, fragrant tea into two chipped ceramic mugs. Anna’s is yellow, emblazoned with a series of leering faces. Castiel’s is decorated with small harlequin diamonds. The mug itself is too hot to hold, as Castiel discovers when he tries to hold the body of the mug and then jerks, slopping tea, scalding his thumb, making a mess of everything. Anna says nothing, but says the mug carefully down at the foot of the couch, while Castiel nurses his burnt hand.

She returns to the kitchen workspace for her own mug—holding it carefully by the handle—and perches on the couch’s arm. “So,” she says, and she blows air over the surface of her tea, rippling waves across its face, “what’s next, Castiel?”

“I find Sam Winchester.”

Anna is quiet. “Still?” she says, at last.

“Unless the fate of the universe shifted into someone else’s hands while I was sleeping—”

She sighs. “Castiel, don’t be—”

“Don’t be what?”

“I was going to say recalcitrant, but then that hardly seems apt, given your track record.”

The spike of anger that flares within Castiel is sudden and startling. He feels unbalanced by it, unsettling human and out of control, and he snaps at her before he has the chance to think through his words. “Yesterday, you said I was good—and this is me trying to be. This is what good entails.”

There is something soft and sad in Anna when she looks at him, and Castiel doesn’t understand it, but it only makes him angrier.

“Now, I may have lost my Grace, but I’m not going to be incapacitated by it,” he says sharply. “I’m not going to just sit here and wait for the end to come. I’m going to do something about it, if I can. Now, you may well have decided that you don’t care, but I wouldn’t be able to live with myself.”’

Anna studies him, and it is with resignation that she lifts her mug, then, to sip at her tea. She drinks slowly, and in silence, and when she lowers the mug again, it is with halting uncertainty.

“If, theoretically,” she says, slow, “we were to go with your plan—if we were going to find the Winchesters—where would we even start?”

Castiel looks at her. For a moment, he cannot find the words to respond. Then, at last: “Arkansas.”

Anna’s eyebrows arch.

“It’s where they last saw each other,” Castiel explains. “They have a system. The third-biggest town in the last state where they saw each other, then the first motel in the phonebook.”

“That’s… organised.”

“They’re good tacticians,” Castiel says, retrieving his cup of tea from the floor. “They like to be underestimated.”

Anna looks at him. “And you?”

Castiel lifts his tea to his mouth, and pauses. “I know exactly what I’m capable of.”

They drink mostly in silence, while Anna digs about for a series of creased maps that she has stowed away, and then Castiel shrugs back into the comforting weight of his jacket, and Anna pulls her hair up again into a ponytail, and then they are ready to go.

It is a long way to Sam Winchester, still.

Outside, the morning is cool and clear, the sun still climbing; the clouds at the horizon have a grey, lazy tinge to their edges. The light glints thinly off the grimy front windshield of Anna’s truck as they climb inside. Anna flips the mirror down to shield her eyes, pulls back out carefully, and then they drive.

They cross the thick band of the Walnut River, slow-moving and dark, and when they reach it, Oklahoma looks much the same as Kansas did for many miles. Flat as still water. Bare, like scraping meat from bone with a blunt knife.

Truth be told, the Apocalypse does not look the way that Castiel had imagined it. He isn’t sure what he had imagined—rivers of blood, a dead sun, cities in flames—but the reality is subdued. It’s dead, but like a hollowed corpse, the remnant of a predator’s meal left abandoned to bake hard in the sun. Anna excepted, Castiel has not seen another person since he landed in Kansas, and it is hard to keep faith that he is going the right way.

Everywhere they drive, there are signs of evacuation, but nothing concrete. Someone has painted a message on their garage door in dripping blue paint: MELANIE GO TO GRAMMY’S LOVE YOU. The glass door to a pancake house hangs ajar, the hinges busted.

The Arkansas border is marked by a small, unobtrusive blue sign, and shortly after, they find a gas station, find a tank of gas from which to refill the cans in the bed of Anna’s truck; they also find a well-thumbed copy of the Yellow Pages. Arkansas’ biggest cities, by population—Little Rock; Fort Smith; Fayetteville. Twenty-something miles.

The first motel in the Yellow Pages is an Econo-Lodge just off the I-49; uncleanly, Castiel tears the page out and stuffs it into the pocket of his jacket, and he steals a map of Washington County to direct him the rest of the way.

When, at last, the ashen road leads back to the motel indicated in the Yellow Pages, Castiel feels no relief. Dread sinks coldly through his bones, because if there is nothing here, he doesn’t know what he will do. It tightens in his throat as Anna pulls into the motor court, and Castiel climbs out of the truck slowly, haltingly, fearful of what he will find.

Thankfully, the door to the receptionist is not locked—and then he sees it. There, scuffed in the dirt behind the front desk, is a message—Poughkeepsie—and an address. There is a map folded beneath the abandoned receptionist’s log-book, and Castiel sweeps the contours and roads to find the place indicated. It’s sixty miles from here.

The address scrawled into the grime at the Econo-Lodge motel takes them south, to Arbaugh, and then out beyond into the Ozarks. They follow the interstate through the throat of the mountains, beyond small, squat villages of wood smoke, beyond a rotwood church leaning unevenly between the road and the tree-line. The road runs ever narrower, ever deeper into the woods, until it is nothing more than an uneven dirt trail that judders Anna’s truck tyres and makes Castiel’s brain rattle within his skull.

Anna pulls up onto the side of the road, and she kills the engine.

“It’s less than a mile’s walk from here,” she says. “A straight shot.”

Castiel looks at her. “You’re not coming.”

“I can’t. I’m—Castiel, I’m not ready.”

“Are you ever going to be ready?” Castiel asks. “Or are you going to keep stalling indefinitely until you don’t have to think about it anymore?”

The corner of Anna’s mouth tilts ruefully. “You know,” she says. “You’re starting to sound like him.” She hands Castiel the map. “Righteous.”

“Thank you.”

“Then again, you always had that,” Anna says, after a beat. “Wrong from right—it was in your marrow.  Or whatever it is we had.” She is quiet, and her smile fades. “You know, I can’t remember what I used to look like—but it doesn’t matter now.” She looks at him. “Some of us don’t have that instinct for finding what’s right. Some of us have to work for it.”

“This is right,” Castiel tells her.

“Maybe for you. For me, it’s dangerous.” She reaches over him to pop the passenger door, and then sits back. “You remember that church, ten minutes back? I’m gonna hide out there for twenty-four hours. If this is a dead-end—or worse—you make your way back there.”

Castiel stares at her. “Thank you,” he says, at last. He doesn’t know what else to say. “Take care of yourself.”

“Yeah,” Anna says. “You, too. Don’t get killed.”

Castiel climbs out of the truck.

The way ahead is hardly a road—an uneven dirt track that slopes from one side to another by turn, that gathers stagnant pools of rainwater at what might pass for a hard shoulder. As Castiel walks, the track wears thinner and fainter, until he is fumbling through the woods, the sky overhead strangled by the white-throated stretch of trees either side, haloed by cloud.

As he walks, he feels again his blisters lifting everywhere that his flimsy dress shoes meet flesh—blisters on blisters.

He was so preoccupied, last night, by his exhaustion, and by the severing of his wings, that he didn’t think to even mention blisters to Anna. He thought them negligible, but they are not negligible now. There is blood slicking slowly across his skin, soaking the heel of his socks.

He walks and he hikes and he stumbles, and then, at last, he sees it.

A laugh bubbles, half-hysterical, out of his mouth.

A hunting cabin—squat and square and dark. Castiel almost expects to see Dean sprawled in the armchair through the open window. He doesn’t know if this is the place, but if it isn’t, he doesn’t know that he can go any further.

The front door swings open so fast that it cracks back against the wooden siding, and there is a woman, then, in the doorway—wielding a pump-action shotgun.

“Afternoon,” she says flatly, and racks the gun with an echoing crunch. “Who the hell are you?”

Breathless, tired, Castiel takes a moment to respond. He says, “Is Sam here?”

It’s the wrong thing to say. In an instant, the woman pulls the shotgun up into her shoulder, trains it somewhere between Castiel’s chest and his face. “Don’t move.”

Castiel hadn’t planned to. He can feel the last four-hundred miles in his bones. He slept badly in Anna’s safe house, and every bump in the road has bruised and rattled him, and the hike here from the road was anything but easy. Fatigue presses like a screw in the centre of his forehead and he blinks, slow, sluggish. His vessel—his body—has a few inches and fifty pounds on this woman, but if she attacked him, he is certain it would not be a fair fight. He can barely stand.

“Is he here?” Castiel asks again. “Please. I need to find him.”

The woman watches him, cagey. Her face is cut in two by the metal of the shotgun. “Who’s asking?”

Castiel hesitates. “Cas,” he says. “A friend of Dean Winchester’s.”

Whatever the woman may have been expecting, this catches her off-guard. The shotgun lowers a fraction. “Dean’s good as dead,” she says.

Castiel’s head drops. There is no way to explain this without seeming mad—or incriminating himself. All he says, at last, is, “Not yet.”

The woman eyes him, unmoving. After a moment, she seems to come to an unspoken conclusion about him, as she says, “Doesn’t matter. Sam’s not here.”

“I don’t believe you,” Castiel says bluntly. “He has to be here. I followed all the signs.”

The woman’s eyes narrow. “What signs?”

“I need to speak to Sam,” Castiel carries on, and he can hear the way that impatience sharpens his words, but he cares little for diplomacy at this point. “It’s a matter of urgency—he might be able to get Dean back. Now, either you’re a help, or you’re a hindrance, and at the moment, I—”

Behind her, there is a man’s voice, gruff and low: “Ellen? What’s going on?”

The woman pauses, glancing back over her shoulder; Castiel stops completely. He looks at her, re-evaluating.

“Ellen,” he says, testing it out. “Ellen Harvelle.”

The woman’s eyes flash back to him. “Beg your pardon?”

Castiel’s gaze moves past to her the man coming up behind her now—squashed baseball cap; wheelchair; sour expression. “Bobby Singer?”

The man in the wheelchair stares him down. “Who the hell is this?”

“You’re the closest thing Dean has to a father. You helped raise him. You and your wife—Karen. She cooked him dinner, made him take his shoes off in the house. She died.” Castiel realises too late that he has been unkind. “I’m sorry.”

“How in the hell—”

Castiel steps up towards them; Ellen’s shotgun snaps up to train on the dead-centre of his chest, and Castiel takes another step. “I need to find Sam,” he says, voice low and unwavering. “I was told that when they get split up, there’s—a procedure of sorts. To go to the state in which they last saw each other, to the third largest city, to the first motel in the phone book. They last saw one another in Arkansas, and I followed every step and every clue to get here, to Fayetteville, to the Econo Lodge, to the middle of nowhere. And here I find you. The nearest Dean Winchester has to family.” His head cants over, appraising. He stops just short of the steps up to the verandah. “Now, I don’t like coincidences. I’ll ask you again: where is Sam?”

Bobby Singer’s eyes narrow. “You watch your tone, boy.”

Boy. Castiel’s lips thin. “Dean’s life is in jeopardy. Forgive me if manners are low on my list of priorities.” He looks between them. “Dean assured me that you are the people who care most about him—he led me to believe if anyone could help me to rescue him, it would be you. Perhaps he was mistaken in that regard.”

For a long moment, Bobby Singer and Ellen Harvelle are silent, measuring Castiel up.

Slowly, the shotgun lowers.

“You’ve seen him,” Ellen says, accusatory. “How? We were told that the angels have him. No way out.”

“I was imprisoned with him,” Castiel hedges, not untruthfully.

Bobby’s gaze flicks past Castiel to the dirt track where it winds into the trees behind him. “Get him inside,” he says to Ellen. “If he’s been followed, I don’t want to be having this chat out here. And test him.” With that, Bobby rolls his chair backwards, away from Castiel, and slowly swivels to wheel himself back inside. “I don’t trust him as far as I can throw him.”

Ellen snaps the safety on the shotgun. She arches her eyebrows. “Well, come on in,” she says.

He is blindfolded and led, stumbling, through the cabin and then down a short flight of stairs—knocking his head against a low, sloping ceiling before Ellen thinks to say, careful—into a cold room where the air is thick and clammy. There, he reaches up to pull the blindfold from his face, and winces as the movement tugs on his wounds. After a moment in which he adjusts to the low light, he turns a slow circle to find himself in a small, roughly circular room. It looks to have been some kind of tornado shelter once, but now it has the appearance of a bunker for the end of days.

It is dimly lit, the electric bulb humming lethargically, and unsteady shadows are cast in the corners of the room; on one side, there is a narrow desk that does not quite stand straight, while on the other there is a rickety bed. The floor is painted with an enormous devils’ trap, the walls lined with shelves of canned food and bottled water, and even human, Castiel can sense that the walls are imbued with protective marks against demons, ghosts, every monstrous thing these hunters could imagine. On the far war, there is a single banishing sigil painted in dried blood—so old that it would probably not be effective—and that is their only testament to the nature of this particular Apocalypse.

Ellen tests him with salt and silver, makes him swallow holy water until he chokes on it. She searches him and empties his pockets. She questions his ill-fitting clothes and his limp and his lack of equipment—if he’s a hunter, they ask, then why is he without a weapon? Without a car? How did he get all the way out here on his own? How can he be certain that he wasn’t followed, if he so ill-prepared as to not even carry a gun? She asks him who he is, why he was imprisoned with Dean—the only answer he gives to that is a vague explanation of being an enemy of Michael’s. That seems good enough for now. Mercifully, she stops shy of stripping him, and so the ragged red ridges of his wing scars are kept out of sight.

At last, she is satisfied, and she leaves him—sliding the deadbolt closed behind her.

Castiel can’t fault her logic.

He sinks to sit on the edge of the bed, his knees shaky beneath him.

It makes no sense, the roiling sensation, heavy in his gut—relief and dread and fatigue all combining in a way that makes him feel close to vomiting. He curls into himself, drops his face into his two hands, and he tries to breathe evenly. He wants to take his boots off, but the effort of unlacing seems too colossal to attempt, and he feels similarly about removing his jacket, or lying back on the bed to relax properly. All he can do is sit motionless on the bed with his head in his hands and try to breathe.

He wishes Anna were with him. He understands why she couldn’t be—nothing would be surer to make these hunters more mistrustful of him than showing up in the shadow of the angel who manipulated and betrayed them from Dean’s first salvation—but it doesn’t mean that he likes it. He wishes she could be here to tell him to how to feel, or how not to, or how to pretend to be human. However, more than anything, more than Anna, Castiel wishes—

He takes a deep breath

He doesn’t think about Dean. He tries hard not to.

Castiel has been in this position, half-groggy with the desperate need for sleep, close to an hour, when there is the sound of footsteps coming down the stairs on the other side of the dead-bolted door.

Someone knocks, a sharp rhythmic sound, and then there is a brash female voice: “Hey. You decent?”

Castiel doesn’t look up. “When possible.”

The deadbolt groans, metal over metal, and then the door slams open. The girl who comes in has a hardness to her face, but her eyes are kind. A lopsided braid of blonde hair is coming loose; she wears a denim jacket and a frown. In one hand is a plate, upon which sits two wilting sandwiches. “Okay, so I got ham and cheese, or—cheese.”

Castiel lifts his head. “No, thank you.”

“Wrong answer.” The girl picks up the cheese sandwich and takes a large bite out of the corner. She leans back against the desk on the other side of the room. “Cas, right? Hi. I’m Jo.”

Castiel doesn’t remember a Jo from Dean’s stories. Instead of looking at her, he picks at a loose thread that snakes from the bedsheets beneath him. “Is this an interrogation?” he asks.

“You think they’d send me in with sandwiches if I was only gonna interrogate you? I’m offended.”

There’s a phrase for this, Castiel recalls: good cop. “I’m not talking to you,” he says flatly. “You’re not on my list.”

Jo frowns. “List?”

“Sam Winchester; Bobby Singer; Ellen Harvelle. The people Dean said I could trust.”

“Well, that hurts my feelings.” Jo takes another bite of sandwich. “Ellen’s my mom.”

Castiel looks at Jo. He tries to imagine the relationship between Jo and Dean—if they shared a sandpit, if they argued, if he had ever tried to kiss her. He is not sure how he feels about that. The pit of his stomach tightens coldly at the thought of it. “You know Dean well?”

Jo lifts one shoulder a little helplessly. “I know his face,” she says. “Not sure any of us know him that well.”

 “He never mentioned you.”

“Asshole,” Jo says, around a mouthful of cheese. She wipes at her mouth with the back of one hand. “Him, not you. Jury’s still out on you.”

Castiel says nothing.

“So, my mom says you were holed up with Dean. Same cell, or something like that.”

“Something like that.”

“You must have done something to really piss off those holy jerkwads.”

“It’s likely, yes.”

“I’m surprised they locked you up, anyway,” Jo says. Her voice is loud, conversational, friendly. It belies the cross-examination. “I got the impression that wasn’t their style. I always got more of a smite-now, talk-later sort of vibe.”

“That approach sounds impractical.”

“Yeah.” Jo pulls a face. “I mean, we did know one angel, for a while. She was more of a talker—she seemed cooler than the others. But then, she did also try to sell Sam to a demon, so.”

Castiel’s hands become still. Anna—she can only mean Anna.

“No such thing as a good angel, right?”

Castiel echoes obediently, “No such thing.”

“So why do you think the angels wanted to keep you around?”

Dean would answer this with a joke—something about his physical appearance, quick-witted and charming enough to disarm any further questions. Castiel says, “My arms.”

He doesn’t say it quite the way Dean does; his voice is flat, inflectionless, and Jo only frowns. “What?”

There is a beat. Awkwardly, Castiel says, “They kept me around for my… arms.”

Jo’s eyebrows lift. “Oh,” she says. “Cool. You’re a stand-up comedian. That’s nice.”

Castiel goes back to picking at the thread of the bedsheet. Dean’s bravado never received such a disparaging reaction—it’s disheartening, to say the least.

“So,” Jo says again, and she draws the word out long and slow, “how long you known Dean for?”

It’s a test. Castiel sees it in the nonchalant air to her question, the way she doesn’t look at him as she unfolds her sandwich to peer at the contents, the impression of disinterest she carefully cultivates. He defers to silence; he says again, “I’m not talking to you.”

Her eyes flick up to meet his, and her expression is hard now. “You know,” she says, slow and thoughtful, “for someone who wants us to trust him, you sure are acting like someone untrustworthy.”

“Forgive me if I have no interest in jeopardising Dean’s safety,” Castiel says. “You may well decide not to trust me, but given that I’m the only person to have seen Dean in months, I would assume that I’m a resource not to be wasted.”

Jo lowers the sandwich. “How many months?” she asks.

Castiel stares at her. “What?”

“We haven’t seen him for months,” Jo says. “Like you said. How many?”

She’s shrewder than Castiel gave her credit for, and now he’s facing a question that he doesn’t know how to answer. He knows it’s been at least ten months since Dean disappeared, by the newspaper he found in Carlton—but he doesn’t know how much time has passed since then. The newspaper was weather-worn and faded, which means it wasn’t recent, but he has no idea if that means the passage of weeks or years.

He settles, at last, for the truth. “I don’t know,” he says quietly. “I don’t know what the date is. Where we were imprisoned—time moves differently there.”

Jo settles the plate with the half-eaten sandwiches down on the desk beside her hip. For a moment, she only studies him. Castiel takes in the sleepless lines beneath her eyes, the dark mottling of a blood-spray dried into her jeans. She can’t be more than twenty, and she evaluates Castiel’s silence like a prison officer.

Jo says, “He’s been gone two years.”

Two years these people have been waiting for the world to end—watching friends and neighbours tear each other apart in the name of an invisible, unknowable terror, and waiting to see Dean Winchester unmade in the last moments of destruction.

Castiel’s hand twist together in his lap. “I’m sorry,” he manages, at last.

“What are you sorry for?” Jo asks, brusquely, and in that instant, her voice is just like Dean’s: a challenge. She pushes herself up off the desk and stands, towering over Castiel. “You’re helping us get him back, right?”

Castiel nods.

Jo dusts her hands off on her stained jeans, and she grabs the remainder of her cheese sandwich, leaving the plate behind. “Let me know when you’re ready to be useful,” she says, cheerfully acidic. “And eat the friggin’ sandwich.”

With that, she goes, slamming the door and heaving the dead-bolt across behind her, and Castiel is left in the gloom and the hush of being six feet underground.

 

***

Chapter Text

I haven given you authority to trample snakes and scorpions,
And to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

 

***

 

It’s three days before they let Castiel out of the storm shelter. Jo delivers meals, semi-regularly, and there is access to a washroom at the side of the room, so he needs for nothing, but it is gloomy and isolated and he cannot shake the feeling of being a prisoner. There’s nothing to do except sit in his chair and stare at the wall and pace and wait—and he knows now, how Dean felt, initially, in the Beautiful Room. He finds a pencil and he scribbles rough approximations of Enochian protection sigils on the walls. It is not strong enough to last, and it will do little against any real military force, but for now, it gives him some comfort.

Three days in, however, the door opens, and there is Ellen Harvelle.

Castiel stands. He faces the door.

She has a pistol in one hand. She holds it up for Castiel to see, and then, carefully, she thumbs the hammer back. Then, with a glance back over her shoulder, she steps back, out of the doorway, to make room for someone to come past.

Slowly, Sam Winchester steps into the light.

The Lucifer Sword is taller in person than he is in Dean’s memories, more widely built. His hair is longer. He wears a dark jacket and the wary expression of a thing hunted. Behind him, the muzzle of Ellen’s pistol glints coldly in the electric light—not trained on anything, but visible, in case Castiel forgets. Jo sits on the concrete steps, seen only in a narrow slash of morning light through the shelter doors overhead.

“Sam,” Castiel says, relief colouring his tone.

Sam stares at Castiel, unblinking. “Where’s my brother?”

“Michael has him,” Castiel says. “He’s taken Dean on as his vessel.”

“Yeah,” Sam says. “I’ve heard.”

“He intends to use him to fight the Apocalypse—although not immediately. He is still missing one critical chess-piece. You.”

“Everyone’s trying to find me,” Sam says bluntly. He folds his arms across his chest. “Whoever finds me first wins. It’s capture the goddamn flag out there.” Without his eyes leaving Castiel, Sam half-turns his head back to Ellen. “I thought you said he had new information.”

Ellen nods. “He says they were imprisoned together.”

Sam turns back. He leans back against the door-frame, but there is nothing relaxed in it. The line of his shoulders is tense; his pulse jumps in his throat. His mouth is a thin line. Castiel spent so long looking at mistrust in one Winchester that he recognises it easily in another. Sam says, “How come?”

“I was a threat to the fate of the Apocalypse.”

“And you got out, and Dean didn’t.”

“Did I mention that Michael has him?” Castiel says sharply. “I decided not to challenge the most powerful archangel in Heaven to single combat. Surely common sense doesn’t warrant examination.”

There is temptation, briefly, to show them what Michael can do—to remove his shirt and let them see what it’s like to have bone ripped from your body. He knows that this new body of his has been mutilated by the experience; he would not even be able to find the words to describe the destruction wrought by Michael on his true form. Even as he considers trying to explain, he feels his throat close off, and he hears again the sickening crack, the popping of sinew and bone, the scream rising in his own throat. It rings in his ears, louder than any accusations of Sam Winchester’s.

“Something doesn’t add up here,” Sam says. “If you’re a threat, why didn’t Michael just kill you?”

“That’s what I said,” Jo chimes in from the stairwell. “They should’ve just zapped him.”

“So you’re a threat,” Sam repeats flatly, “and then Michael just—let you go.”

Castiel’s jaw tightens. “I escaped.”

“I’m pretty sure the most powerful archangel in Heaven doesn’t just let prisoners slip through his fingers,” Sam says. It’s unclear whether he means to be condescending, but his voice makes Castiel small, and it burns in Castiel’s blood, sears beneath his skin and makes his fingers curl into fists. “If you’re out, he let you go. Why?”

Frustration tightens in Castiel’s shoulder, pain flaring where the tension pulls at his bandaging, and he can understand Sam’s scepticism, even admires it, that he would not allow himself to led astray by false prophets—but Castiel is telling the truth, and he doesn’t know how to convince them. He isn’t good at this. He doesn’t know how to be charming. He doesn’t know how to bluff and smile and de-escalate. All he knows is this snapping, hot anger that builds behind his ribs, and he wants to shout at Sam.

Castiel takes a deep breath, steadying. “He let me go,” he says quietly, eyes lowered, “as a warning. He made an example of me.”

Sam’s brow furrows. “What do you mean?”

There is nothing left but the truth.

Castiel swallows. With an effort, his hands lift to his throat, and he begins to unbutton his shirt. “My name is Castiel,” he says, and his fingers are slow, fumbling. “When Judgement Day came, I was ordered to stand guard over Michael’s true vessel until everything was set up for the final battle.”

He works at each button, hands slow and steady.

Sam takes a step back.

“I was told the Apocalypse was already underway. That Sam Winchester had already said yes to the Devil and it was only a matter of time,” Castiel says, and with his eyes on the floor, he does not see Sam react, but he hears the hitch in his breath. “I was lied to.” He opens the last button, and, laboriously, wincing, he twists his shoulders free of the fabric. “Two years I lived with Dean—for us, it was… different. I don’t know how long it was. I know him as well as any could claim to.”

The shirt drops. It is stiff with sweat and dried blood; it lands heavily in the dust.

Castiel cannot bring himself to turn around and show them the worst of it. “I defied all that I know for him, and I lost everything,” he says, voice low. He lifts his eyes to meet Sam’s. “And if I can’t get Dean back, then it was for nothing. I am ruined for nothing.”

Sam murmurs, “You’re an angel.”

Castiel’s face hardens. “Not anymore.”

There is silence, all eyes on Castiel, as he stands before them, and he knows that they can see the edges of his bandaging, the raw and blistering skin of his shoulders. He has a burn on the back of his neck in the shape of a boot-print.

Metal snaps dully as Ellen disengages the hammer of her pistol. She clicks the safety back on.

“You fell for Dean?” Sam says.

“I would use the word fell loosely,” Castiel says bluntly. “Michael tore me apart.”

The sense of lost footing is perceptible. Jo glances between Sam and her mother; Ellen tucks the pistol back into the holster at her hip, but does not speak; Sam stays motionless, staring at him.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Castiel says, somewhat belatedly. He feels exposed, then, without his shirt; he stands awkwardly, his hands loose at his sides. “But if you’re concerned that I’m an agent of Michael’s, I can assure you Michael would not have me.”

Sam lets his breath out through his teeth. He twists at the waist to face Ellen, and they exchange a look without words.

Ellen says, “Come on, Cas. Let’s get you upstairs.”

Castiel stoops to retrieve his shirt, and as he bends, he hears the air go out of Jo’s lungs, a whispered, Jesus—but Castiel ignores it.

“Leave the shirt off,” Ellen says, and “we’ll get that looked at.”

 

***

 

This time, he is not blindfolded through the hunting cabin. He is led up from the storm shelter into a place with the clear marks of hurried abandonment—cardboard boxes half-packed, dust-sheets balled up in corners or half-draped over furniture pushed to the sides of the room. It is lived-in, now, with wooden crates of ammunition stacked on top of careful house-preservation efforts, a sawn-off shotgun in the middle of the mug-ringed coffee table, a pile of leather-backed books whose spines speak of monsters and ghouls and the end of all things alongside newspaper-packed wineglasses.

“Here,” Ellen says, and Castiel is directed to a white couch still in the plastic wrapping, albeit pocked and scuffed and dappled darkly with blood, and he takes a seat gingerly on the edge. Ellen grabs a wooden chair from the kitchen table, and drags it, legs squealing, to join Castiel. “Jo—the medical kit, please. And a bottle of vodka.”

Jo rolls her eyes as she goes. “Mom, there’s antiseptic wipes in the first-aid box.”

Ellen grunts, giving a shake of the head as she rolls her sleeves up. “Vodka does it just as well.”

Jo squats on the kitchen floor to retrieve a slim red crate from beneath the sink, but she pauses to shoot a filthy look over her shoulder. “That’s so unhygienic. I’m not bringing the vodka over there.”

Ellen sits up straight, her eyebrows arching as she looks over to Jo. “Um, yes, you are. Look, vodka’s never let me down yet, so until it does, I’m gonna keep—”

“God, you’re a dinosaur.”

“A dinosaur who was swabbing wounds with alcohol before you were born, Joanna.”

From behind them, Bobby sighs. “The pair of you—you trying to give him an infection?” He wheels over, takes the medical kit—and the vodka—from Jo, to set in his lap, before he barges between Ellen and Castiel. “Alright, outta the way. Let me.”

Castiel looks over the group before him—the team of people Dean trusts most, the ones still standing as the Earth comes apart. He watches them bicker and jostle and get on each other’s nerves, and Castiel aches with envy.

Ellen clicks her tongue against her teeth, and she does not budge. “Bobby, I am more than capable of—”

“Yeah, don’t I know it. But someone’s gotta go deal with him, and I’m no good at that,” Bobby says, jerking his head over, past the kitchen, and Castiel looks up in time to see Sam disappear through the back door.

With a hum under her breath, Ellen stands, dragging her chair back to the table, and she goes.

Castiel watches her follow Sam out; through the glass windowpane, he watches her check and double-check that the door is shut behind her before she starts speaking. Her words are unintelligible, but her voice is low, and the tilt of her head makes her seem softer, more approachable. Castiel studies it. He tries to learn the angles and shapes she makes.

“Right, what are we working with here?” Bobby sets down the medical kit and the vodka on the table by Castiel’s knee, and he looks at Castiel expectantly.

Castiel turns, and Bobby lets out a low whistle between his teeth. “Someone did a number on you,” he comments.

Castiel doesn’t answer; it is Jo who says, “Michael.”

Mercifully, Bobby says nothing to that, and if he reacts at all, Castiel doesn’t see it. Bobby just begins to carefully peel off Anna’s bandaging

Unstitched, his wounds have only continued to slowly bleed, and the gauze is sodden now, sealed into his sores, and every inch of cotton that Bobby picks at sends a fresh pulse of pain through Castiel, spiking up into his neck and making his head spin. He sets his jaw, closes his eyes. He breathes through his nose.

Something cold and hard knocks against Castiel’s shoulder.

Castiel opens his eyes.  He looks over to see Bobby holding out the bottle of vodka.

Bobby cocks his eyebrows. “That’s what this is for,” he says, and then, as Castiel reluctantly takes it, Bobby opens an antiseptic wipe.

Jo snorts a laugh.

Castiel twists the cap off the vodka with clumsy, trembling hands, and before he can drink any, he catches the acrid chemical smell of it, burning in his nose. Hesitantly, he drinks a mouthful—and chokes.

“Yeah, Bobby usually likes ‘em with a little more fruit juice and a tiny umbrella,” Jo comments from the sidelines.

Bobby’s voice is withering. “Shut the hell up.”

It burns all the way down, making Castiel’s eyes sting, and for a horrifying second, his stomach lurches, before settling. He coughs, clears his throat, and passes the bottle back. “Thank you,” he rasps.

With a laugh, Jo gets up. She takes the bottle and returns it to the kitchen, and Bobby resumes his work in silence. There is only the soft snip of scissors as he cuts away the gauze, the wet, heavy thump of blood-soaked rags and antiseptic wipes falling into a heap on the coffee table, the whisper of unravelling thread as Bobby gets the needle ready.

“Just so you know,” Bobby says distractedly as he threads the needle, “this is gonna hurt.”

Castiel’s fingers dig into his knees until his knuckles stand out, peaks of white bone jagged beneath his skin.

He says, “I’ve had worse.”

Hold him down.

The needle slides home.

It is hard for Castiel to focus on anything except the way that his hands are shaking. He keeps his eyes wide open as Bobby works, and he forces himself to attend to every detail—the sharp prick of each stitch, the whisper of the thread pulling taut, the discomfort of skin pulling together—but his head is swimming, and he can feel his breath hitch unevenly behind his teeth.

His wounds are cleanly stitched in a little under ten minutes, but it takes much longer for Castiel to stop trembling. The medical kit goes away; Bobby slaps a hand to his shoulder and says, all done—now go easy on it; Jo sits in the chair opposite the couch and starts working to fill shotgun shells. All this, and still Castiel is unsteady.

He carefully puts his shirt back on, and in his head, with every button, he goes over what he remembers—the plagues, the Canaanites, Golgotha, the Crusades, the uneven tilt of Dean’s smile, the shape his soul was. He takes his time. He makes sure that nothing is missing.

 

***

It transpires that the hunters’ style for a call to action is a slow one—namely, because it becomes quickly apparent that there is no plan. They sit in heavy, distended armchairs and they read books and they drink beer and clean their weapons

Castiel has a near-infinite wealth of knowledge and little ability to parse out what is and is not strategically valuable. He feels Naomi’s hooks in his brains still and each new defiance is something with which he struggles anew. At one point, he comes to Bobby in urgency to inform him that the route through Heaven is often a hallway; he paints better protective sigils into the walls and neglects to mention the excruciating pain to be exacted on any who make contact with it, until Jo’s elbow brushes against it on the way to the bathroom. His apologies have little conciliatory power until he also accidentally bumps into it, at which Jo laughs and calls him an idiot.

Largely, however, Castiel keeps to himself. Jo, Ellen, and Bobby seem busy with research and with preparations for some last stand they foresee to be inevitable—whether real or imagined, Castiel cannot say—and Sam gives him a wide berth, so for the most part, Castiel is alone.

He spends a long time making the cabin and its inhabitants safe. He paints warding into the walls and floor and into every nook and cranny he can find—sigils to hide them, sigils that angels cannot cross, sigils to harm and hinder. He daubs banishing spells and defensive symbols in blood, both his own and Ellen’s, when she spots him pale-faced and swaying on the verandah. Sam is already warded from angels, but Castiel wards the rest of them. He doubts he will be much help if or when it does come to a fight, but this, at least, he can do.

He takes apart guns, cleans them, puts them together again. He does it privately, where no-one can see him fumble with the components, unused to handling the mechanism. He similarly seeks solitude when he looks to be able to actually use the things, and so he heads into the woods and lines up empty beer bottles along a fallen tree.

They sit precariously—a strong gust could topple them without the interference of a bullet—and yet as Castiel grits his teeth and levels a pistol at the targets, they all remain standing upright.

Sweat trickles the length of nose, beads on his upper lip. He steadies the butt of the pistol in his palm, braces himself for the recoil—and fires past. Again. Again.

From off to one side, a voice says, “You’re going high.”

Castiel does not look over.

Sam carries on regardless as Castiel squares up to the beer bottles again. He says, “It’s the recoil which is throwing your shot.”

“I know that,” Castiel mutters. “I’m out of practice.”

Sam huffs. “You’ve actually shot one of these things before?” He sounds reluctantly impressed. “I figured most angels were more into—I don’t know. Swords.”

Castiel’s fingers flex on the pistol. “I am better with a sword,” he says. “But this is faster.” He rocks his weight from side to side, plants his feet wide and even, and he trains the pistol dead ahead, the bottle pinned down the length of the sights. He falters. “Dean taught me.”

The silence that follows is long, heavy. It echoes. There is no bird-song. Wind curls through the trees, rustles the branches into a murmuring of leaves; it snags the collar of Castiel’s jacket against his neck.

At last, Sam says, “Dean taught you to stand like that?”

Castiel lowers the gun, and he looks over, exasperated.

Sam shrugs, his hands dug deep into the pockets of his jeans. “Well, at least I got real proof now that his posture sucks,” Sam says, and he approaches, his boots crunching in the dry soil. “Your balance is all off.”

He comes to stand beside Castiel, and he doesn’t meet Castiel’s eyes, but his voice is calm as he instructs him on how to stand—knees over toes, then bend a little. No, forwards. Yeah, like that—and Castiel awkwardly manoeuvres this body of his like trying to manipulate the limbs of a rust-stiff puppet. He is unused to having to consider where his knees are in relation to his hips, the bend of his arms.

“You want to be leaning forwards,” Sam tells him. “That way, when the pistol kicks back, you can fight against it.”

For the past week, Sam has avoided talking to Castiel for more than five words at a time, has gone to elaborate lengths to ensure they are never alone together. Now, Sam stands close and uses a hand to help him hold the pistol right. The change is not entirely unexpected, but Castiel has been dreading this: the moment Sam will want to talk about it.

“Okay,” Sam says. “Now try.”

Castiel levels the pistol at the beer-bottle. He breathes—in, out, hold. In phantom memory, Dean’s fingers slide, warm, along the inside of his wrist.

He fires.

The shot goes high.

Castiel huffs his breath, and lets the pistol fall to hang by his side. He stares at the unbroken line of bottles.

Sam holds his hand out for the pistol. “Here, let me.”

Castiel gives him a flat look. “I know you can do it,” he mutters, but begrudgingly he passes the pistol over and he lets Sam embarrass him.

The pistol in Sam’s hand is like an extension of his arm. He doesn’t have to take a moment to adjust to the weight, to figure out how to get his fingers around the grip comfortable. He snaps the muzzle up, arms loose, face hard, and—one, two—he cracks the first two bottles off the tree. He tracks the pistol across to the final bottle, fast, but then he pauses and he doesn’t fire. He stares down the barrel of the gun, and his mouth opens, but he says nothing.

Castiel watches him struggle with it.

Sam’s throat works. His mouth closes, and he swallows, hard.

 “They tricked him,” Castiel says quietly. “They tricked me, too.”

Sam puts the gun down. He doesn’t look at Castiel.

“You said that they told him I was gone already,” Sam says. “That I said yes. And he believed them.”

“The last he had seen of you was—”

“Me going off with Ruby. Right.” He weighs the pistol in one hand, still staring down the bottles ahead. “He thought I left him. That I picked her and I walked away. That’s not what happened.”

It takes Castiel by surprise, although it shouldn’t—he already knows that he has not been given the entire truth. “What did happen?”

“I fought with Dean. I fought with her, too. I cut ties with everyone and I just ran. Didn’t even know the hell I caused ‘til I came crawling back to Bobby and found out there’d been demons crawling all over the place—wanting to know where I was, when I’d be back. I was already warded—I can thank one of you guys for that.”

“Anna,” Castiel says.

Finally, Sam looks over. “You know her?”

Castiel gives a loose, non-committal shrug. “She was my commander.”

Sam huffs under his breath. “She’s the one who brought Dean back,” he says—and then pauses, his head tipping. “Or at least, she’s the one who tried.”

Castiel says nothing.

“He told me, eventually.” The toe of Sam’s boot scuffs through the dirt. “A hundred and fifty years. And I know I’m such an asshole, because he went so I wouldn’t have to, and then… I couldn’t handle it when he came back different. But he scared me, a little. He scared himself. And I kept thinking—you want this guy to save the world? He’s barely holding it together. I kept thinking, someone else has got to step up and take charge. I thought that was me. I thought I knew what I was doing.”

They don’t know each other. Castiel only recognises Sam at all through memories. They aren’t friends, and yet Castiel wants to reassure him. “You’d already been on demon blood a long time by the time he came back.”

Sam says again, more softly now, “I thought I knew what I was doing.”

Castiel shakes his head. “You made a mistake.”

“I was angry. I was so sure that what I was doing was right and—I don’t know. But I never would’ve said yes.” Sam swallows, hard, with a dry click that seems too loud for the quiet between them. “Never. He had to know that.”

“He didn’t know you at all.”

 

***

 

Things are easier, then. With the tension punctured between Castiel and Sam, the hunters are more at ease, and there is a degree of normalcy that Castiel discovers there.

He joins Ellen and Jo on a forty-five minute supply run to the Hagarville grocery store, an establishment which offers two derelict gas pumps and little else. The shelves have long since been stripped bare, with only a few battered jars left leaking preservatives through cracked glass, but Ellen leads the way to a barricaded store-room door. Castiel helps her to clear the debris of stacking crates until they can push their way inside, and there he finds what she and the others have been jealously guarding—a faucet still running clean water. He helps to balance three-gallon bottles precariously under the stream, and then to haul them back to the truck.

“Come on, let’s hustle,” Jo calls out to Castiel, and with a struggle, he peers over the top of the bottle that he heaves across the parking lot—to see Jo walking along beside him, arms empty.

He frowns. “You’re not carrying anything,” he says.

“Moral support. I’m here for you.”

Castiel narrows his eyes at her—but then when his ankle goes over on a loose chunk of asphalt on his way to the back of the truck, there is a hand at his side, and Jo, steadying his load, before he drops it and hurts himself.

“Hey, hey, easy,” Jo says, and she waits for Castiel to straighten up. “You got it?”

Castiel takes a second to breathe, carefully shaking out the twinge of discomfort in his ankle, and then he adjusts his grip on the bottle, and nods. “I got it.”

He helps with preparing meals, shaking things from cans and stirring them on the stove until they burn with an acrid smell that makes Sam grab the pot from him with exclamations of, no, it’s great, you’re doing fine, it’s just—it’s a little over-done, it’s fine—and he learns, then, that he is better at washing up. He can polish knives into gleaming and arrange them into neat rank-and-file in the kitchen drawer; it gives him focus, makes him calm, puts into order the things that roil and churn within him that he does not yet have words for.

He tidies up, keeps neat the space in the living room that he has been allocated—a new couch, not unlike the last one; a pair of blankets; spare socks and underpants retrieved on another supply run out of the mountains; his jacket, neatly folded. He tries not take up space.

As he moves around, one morning, stowing his blankets beneath the couch, he catches the sound of Sam’s and Bobby’s voices rising from the next room—first in heated discussion, and then in argument.

“—won’t work.”

“Why the hell not?”

Bobby’s voice comes back dry and irritated. “Jeez, where do you want me to start? I mean, for one thing, that summoning is designed for lost spirits, not angelic body-snatchers—”

Castiel becomes still.

“—and second of all, it says that all that does is get rid of the spirit, not restore it. So even if it did work, all it would do is send him off somewhere we’d never get him back, not—”

Castiel is not eavesdropping, but he stays frozen, crouched on the floor, and the conversation is loud enough for him to hear the way that Sam’s voice wavers.

 “But look, if you just reread this section here, okay, it says—”

“I know what it says, Sam. I know that it won’t work.”

“So what the hell are we supposed to do?”

“We go back to square one.”

“Back to—?” There is a slamming sound, and then stifling silence.

Bobby says, “Sam.”

When at last Sam’s voice comes through, it is quiet. “Yeah. No, you’re right.”

“I don’t mean to burst your bubble, here, but—”

“No, I know.” Castiel recognises that tone of voice: defeat. There is nothing that can be done.

Castiel finishes folding his blanket. He tucks it beneath the couch, and when he lifts his head, there is Jo, her fingers drifting aimlessly along the back of the couch. She isn’t looking at him; her gaze is directed, similarly, to the half-closed door and the frustration that drifts through it.

“I thought you guys were supposed to have all the answers,” Jo says. It doesn’t sound like an accusation, but rather like the last thread of hope.

Castiel doesn’t look up. “We don’t,” he says, and then: “I don’t.”

Jo hums under her breath, distracted, and nothing more is said about it.

This is a recurring theme of life at the cabin, Castiel learns: dead-ends.

Most days, Bobby will pore through thick leather tomes that exhale dust from every page, and he will mumble under his breath until Ellen comes to run a hand over the back of his neck and offer him a cup of coffee; the book will then be passed to Sam, who reads the same page, presses a fist to his mouth to hold back the dust-cough, and offer ideas that Bobby has already considered; Ellen will suggest going in guns blazing, and then they fall into a heavy silence which is never worse than when they look to the empty seat on the couch. Since everyone began running, an answer to the end of the world has only seemed more and more remote— the internet is down, and the books they need are not easy to come by. They also can’t regularly retrieve more without drawing attention to themselves by those who would hunt them down.

Castiel does what he can in this effort: he teaches them banishing sigils, and what snippets of Enochian he can think of that would have some temporary incapacitating power. He practices the pronunciation, over and over, particularly with Bobby, whose drawl makes the consonants slide into each other until he’s no longer commanding a foe to be silent and dwindle, but making a rather unflattering comment about himself. Bobby makes Castiel smile; he makes Ellen laugh.

They eat at the same table. They break bread. They let him try again in the kitchen. Truthfully, he is more hindrance than help, there, but he tries, and they let him. At dinner, Jo lunges across the table for the salt shaker—just to add a little flavour, Cas, sorry—and then passes it around to everyone else, who at least have the decency to look apologetic as they try to conceal the taste of Castiel’s poor cooking. It is disappointing, a heaviness sinking in Castiel’s gut, that even this is something he can’t get right, and then Sam starts to laugh

“You’ve, uh,” Sam starts, and he clears his throat. “You’ve outdone yourself, Cas. The last time I—”

“I swear to God,” Ellen says warningly, but with the hint of a smile playing in creases of her eyes, “if you’re about to tell that goddamn meatloaf story—”

Bobby’s head drops. “Jesus, not this again.”

Jo looks between them wildly. “Meatloaf story?”

“Not you, too—”

“You’ve not heard this?” Ellen asks.

Sam raises his eyebrows. “Be glad you didn’t live through it.”

“This God-awful meatloaf Dean cooked one night,” Ellen says. “It was someone’s birthday—or some kind of celebration, I don’t remember—and Dean—”

“What was in it?”

“Jesus, Sam, I don’t know—but—” Ellen says, and she turns to Castiel here, eyebrows raised, her voice almost conspiratorial, “And believe me, I say this with all the love and admiration in the world for that boy—but that was the worst thing I’ve ever tasted. Like feet and salt and rubber—”

“It tasted how demon sulphur smells,” Sam joins in, and Jo makes a retching noise across the table.

Castiel blinks. “How did he—”

Ellen waves a hand. “God knows. He was usually a good cook, too, whenever I let him in the kitchen, but I don’t know what he did to that meatloaf. Honestly—”

Sam is smiling wider than Castiel has seen since the shadows of Sam in the backs of Dean’s memories, and Bobby shakes his head, and Ellen is still trying not to smile as she heaps more salt onto her food, and Jo opens her mouth to share another story, some chocolate cake that Ellen tried to put together for a birthday party when she was younger—and life goes on, but Castiel can’t stop seeing it. The space, at this table, in these lives, where Dean should be.

 

***

 

Castiel is getting better at reading. He still becomes frustrated with how slow it is, with waiting to find out the answers, but it helps to imagine Dean beside him. He tries to imagine which parts Dean would find most interesting, which parts would make Dean laugh and which would make him swear and spread his hands and rant about the injustice of it all. Castiel is still being accustomed to humanity, but this helps him to make sense of it all.

‘Never again will you be capable of ordinary human feeling,’ Castiel reads, silent, in the armchair that he has come to claim for himself. ‘Everything will be dead inside you. Never again will you be capable of love, or friendship, or joy of living, or laughter, or curiosity, or courage, or integrity. You will be hollow. We shall squeeze you empty and then we shall fill you with ourselves—’

Castiel closes the book, abruptly seized by a hot, suffocating sensation in his throat, and his fingers tighten on the front cover until the paper creases and the spine folds, and he realises that his fingernails are digging crescent moons into it. He lets the book go.

He chose this. He chose to be here. He chose to rebel and to fall and to wander hundreds of miles in search of Dean Winchester’s family, to rescue him and bring him home. The forces of Heaven have no sway over him now.

There is the creak of footsteps over the old floorboards, and Castiel lifts his head to see Jo appear in the doorway. For a moment, she says nothing, hesitating with her mouth half-open. There is an odd, strained look on her face. She has a pistol in one hand, but she holds it limply, hanging down at her side. “Cas,” she says, at last. “You have… visitors.”

Castiel frowns.

She jerks her head over, back down the hall, the way she came. “Outside.”

Foreboding settles thick beneath his skin like cold grease, but Jo has already left the room without any clarification, and Castiel has no choice but to follow.

He pushes his chair back with a dull scrape, and heads out to the verandah. Through the screen door, he can already see the reason for Jo’s disturbed, lacklustre entrance.

Amassed on the grass alongside the dirt trail are angels—at least thirty. Most wield celestial weapons. There is Zachariah, who uses the tip of an angel-blade to pick something out from under his fingernails. There is Uriel, with his arms folded. There is Hester, a blade in each hand. Jutting above the group of bodies are the narrow slivers of polearms. They wear vessels and full armour—Enochian sigils of protection painted in blood upon their skin. Beneath the surface, hailstorms churn, lightning cracks, fires rage.

Even human, Castiel can sense the overwhelming power seething within every one of them. He is not surprised that Jo retreated with her tail between her legs. No hunter is a match for this, no matter how competent.

At the forefront of the group, there is Naomi, steel and lightning in her stance. She stands very still, and her smile is all teeth. In one hand, she holds a shimmering glass vial, the squid-silver light within twisting and pale. Castiel recognises the vial before he recognises Anna—sprawled in the dirt at Naomi’s feet, one arm twisted behind her back by Ishim, in a dark grey suit. There is a smear of blood across her mouth, her nose angled badly and black around the nostrils.

“One wrong move and I smash it,” Naomi says, her voice ringing loud in the stillness of the woods.

Castiel stands frozen in the doorway. It is not his own Grace, but regardless, he feels the magnetic pull of it, the desperate panic that it be preserved. He’s nothing without his own—but Anna still has the chance to get her wings back.

Anna says, “I’m sorry,” and blood leaks between her teeth.

The screen door clatters behind Castiel—reinforcements. Castiel doesn’t turn, but he watches Zachariah’s gaze move past him, watches his smile turn smug.

“Is this your army, Castiel?” Zachariah asks, his voice dripping with saccharine pity. “Your resistance force?”

At Castiel’s back, Bobby’s voice comes gruff and unwelcoming. “What in the fresh hell is this?”

Castiel does not move. He says, “Get back inside.”

Bobby scoffs. “Like Hell, kid,” he mutters, unmoving, and Castiel silently curses the stubborn courage of hunters. Bobby lifts his voice, his unimpressed sneer carrying down the steps and across to the angels assembled. “You got a permit for that arsenal?”

Castiel half-turns his head to Bobby, but he keeps his eyes on the angels. “Inside,” he says. “Where is…?”

“Ellen?” Bobby says. Castiel glances at him. As much as he has come to appreciate Ellen, he is substantially more preoccupied by the safety of Sam Winchester—but when he looks, Bobby cocks his eyebrows with a knowing look. “In the kitchen. Just putting the finishing touches on something.”

“I wouldn’t trust this one, if I were you,” Naomi says coolly. “He has a reputation for rapidly shifting loyalties.”

Anger flares hot in Castiel and he has nowhere for it to go, so he borrows from Dean. He turns back to the angels, his jaw pulled tight, and he says, flatly, “Fuck off.”

Behind him, Jo sputters a laugh. It’s oddly satisfying.

Naomi’s eyes narrow.

Castiel raises his voice. “Sam Winchester isn’t here.” The warding should hold. If Ellen can get Sam far enough away now, the angels might not realise he was ever in the building—as long as the place isn’t surrounded. He just needs to buy Sam time. “It’s a dead-end. I couldn’t find him.”

Naomi’s eyes are gentle, but they swallow all sunlight. “A shame,” she says. “Search the place.”

“By all means,” Castiel says, calm through the thundering of his pulse in his ears. “You’ll find nothing.”

Jo flashes Castiel a look of wide-eyed panic.

As vivid as the blisters on his heels, Castiel remembers Egypt, the grit under his fingers, the lambs’ blood slick on his palms, as he tried to hide the firstborns, frantically daubing every door with the thought that he could save one more, he could hide one more—but the angels are already here, and there is nothing he can do to hide Sam from their passing over. He can only stall them.

Castiel steps forwards. “I will warn you, however—in the interest of transparency—to go carefully. It’s heavily warded.” He moves down the front steps onto the grass, between the angels and the cabin. “Angelic weapons will not be able to pass through the front door, but you’re more than welcome to leave them with your commander. Additionally, I would recommend avoiding the kitchen as there are step-triggered banishing sigils, so—”

Naomi turns her head to the angels at her side. “Burn it all down,” she interrupts. Her voice is smooth and even. “If you find Sam Winchester, cut a hand off and bring him to me. If you don’t, throw the others in the fire.”

“Mom?” Jo yells, her voice a rising sound of terror. “Mom—”

Uriel steps forwards. He unfolds his arms.

“Wait,” Castiel says, jerking forwards. “Wait—no, don’t—”

“Stop.”

All faces turn to the open front door of the hunting cabin. Young as he is, Sam Winchester has a certain undeniable gravitas.

He stands behind Jo and Bobby in a rumpled shirt, his long hair uncombed, a white toothpaste mark at the corner of his mouth, and his head held high. “I’m right here,” he says, and he steps past Bobby’s wheelchair. “Nobody needs to get hurt.”

Naomi’s chin lifts. She smiles. “Sam Winchester,” she says. “You’ve led us on quite a chase.”

Sam’s face is hard, and he pushes past Castiel to face Naomi. “Where’s my brother?”

“Gone.”

A muscle jumps in Sam’s jaw. He shakes his head minutely, and for a moment his throat works, before he grits out, “I want him back.”

“Naturally.” Naomi’s smile is warm and kind, and for Castiel, who has spent too many millennia having his strings pulled by the whim and wane of Naomi’s smiles, feels an instinctive relief in his gut at the sight of it—Sam has done well; Naomi is pleased; she will be good to him. The desire to obey is hard to ignore. “If you come with us, you can see him again.”

Sam hesitates. He shifts his weight from side to side. “If I say yes.”

Naomi smooths two hands over the front of her suit jacket. She straightens her lapels. “We can cross that bridge when we get to it. There’s no need for us to be hasty, now. We can discuss this like adults, Sam.”

She is calm. She sounds perfectly reasonable. Castiel’s heart hammers in his throat. “Sam, no,” he says.

From the verandah, Jo says, “You go with them and I’ll beat you to death myself.”

“How curious—that so many other people have a say in what you do with your life,” Naomi says softly. Her head angles over, as though contemplative. “Do they always try to tell you what to do? Always dictate what you do with your body? Always argue what’s good for you?”

Sam is quiet for one, long moment.

Castiel’s hands tighten into fists.

At last, Sam exhales, the sound short and sharp. His shoulders heave. “Nice try,” he says, and he backs up one step. “You’ll have to do better than that. I’ll die before I say yes.”

“That can be arranged.” Naomi jerks her head over to the side. “Grab him.” Her eyes are level, hard. “Uriel—torch the rest.”

Castiel reels back. “No—no—”

At her side, Ishim looks up. “And the ex-commander?”

“Naomi, let them go,” Castiel bursts out. “Naomi—"

Naomi’s mouth opens, thoughtful. She uses the edge of her thumb to carefully wipe away a smear of pearl-pink lipstick at the corner of her mouth. “Take off her head,” she says. “Castiel can keep it as a memento to remind him of what happens to rebellious little angels.”

Bobby shouts, “Sam—”

They move fast—Uriel with hands opening flat, a hollow white light shining behind his eyes, a vibrating pulse in the air as it builds—Ishim seizing Anna by the throat, fingers digging in tight beneath her jaw—Hester surging forwards, angel-blade in hand, towards Sam.

Castiel doesn’t think.

He moves.

He doesn’t know what he is doing until he is planted solidly in front of Hester, blocking their way to Sam, and then when Hester reaches for Castiel—to rip him in half or slit his throat or hurl him easily sideways—Castiel comes apart.

Castiel has a hand around their throat and a hand in the front of their neatly buttoned shirt, and then in the same moment, he has his fingers wrapped tight around the outermost of Hester’s smouldering white rings. There is the sickening, hot smell of burning flesh, and the lightning vibrations of Hester’s Grace shudder through Castiel’s bones until he feels as though his joints could rattle from his sockets, pain searing white and fierce through every nerve in his body—and then Castiel shoves them.

Everything goes silent.

Castiel’s ears pop.

All the oxygen is sucked from the space around him, crushing the air from his lungs, and for a moment, he can’t breathe.

Then the world rushes back around Castiel—trees and sky and soil and the hunters at his back—in time for him to see Hester hit the ground like a meteor-strike. They are thrown back six, maybe seven feet, the impact smashing a small crater into the packed dirt, and then they slowly skid to a halt in front of Naomi’s feet, where they lie crumpled in the dirt and shaking.

Slowly, Castiel straightens, breathing ragged. “I said,” he repeats, and he wipes a hand under his nose; his knuckles come away bloody, “let them go.”

Naomi stares at him, aghast.

Ishim’s hand falls away from Anna’s throat.

At Castiel’s back, there is silence from the hunters. There is the creak of weight shifting on the verandah boards, but no-one moves.

Naomi whispers, “What did the Sword do to you?”

“I don’t know,” Castiel says, and he takes one unsteady step forwards. His head is spinning; there are dark spots blooming in the corners of his vision. He can feel the blistering skin on his palms peel and come away, burnt down to the muscle. “Do you want to find out?”

Naomi stares him down, unmoving, silent as steel. After a long moment, she says, “Uriel, stand down. Ishim—let the commander go.”

Ishim looks to Naomi, startled, but obeys. He releases his grip on Anna, who falls, choking, to the dirt. Uriel lowers his hands, a frown creasing his face, but the low throb of his burgeoning Grace is quieted, and the cabin remains standing. Naomi tosses the vial of Grace; it lands with a soft thump in the soil, unharmed.

Anna scrabbles in the dirt for it, breathing a long sigh as her fingers close around the grubby glass. There are already dark bruises blossoming under her jaw, and her nose is badly broken, but her eyes close and her mouth falls open and she is trembling with relief.

Naomi says, “Let them all go.”

There is a perceptible moment, a bewildered pause, in which the angels are directionless, unsure.

Castiel stalls, uncertain. He says, “What is this?”

“Mercy,” Naomi says. “More than you deserve.”

It makes no sense. Castiel knows that he surprised Naomi—truth be told, he surprised himself. He knew some of the side-effects of an extended stay in the Beautiful Room, has seen the way that Dean’s moods in later weeks had shattered and shivered and unbuilt, but he did not expect it to affect him as well. He isn’t even sure of what it is that he did to Hester; all he knows is that they are gone and they have not got back up.

Nonetheless, Castiel fails to believe that his revelation could be so momentous as to entirely turn the tide of this confrontation. Something else is going on.

“Why?” Castiel demands.

“I want to speak to you,” Naomi says. “Alone.”

“No.”

Naomi’s frown is one of wounded pride, her feelings hurts. “I’ve just given you a gift,” she says. “I’ve spared the lives of your friends. Have I not earned at least trust enough for a single private conversation?”

Castiel feels it kick within him again—the urge to apologise, to grovel, to make things right. He sets his jaw and stares her down, unflinching. “Last time we had a private conversation you remade me.”

Naomi pauses. “Castiel, we need your help.”

Castiel stares.

“Help us, and we’ll stand down.” She is quiet. “I’d thought Sam would be the answer—but it’s clear you are. Please.”

Castiel doesn’t know what to do. He turns back to the hunters behind him—at Sam’s mistrustful glare, at the open horror on Jo’s face, at Ellen with the shotgun cocked, at Bobby glowering under his baseball cap. One by one, they meet his eyes, but no-one has an answer for him. It’s a question he has to answer himself. A question, not of inaction or survival, but of trust.

He doesn’t trust Naomi, of that much he’s certain.

However, if they had thought they needed Sam, but Castiel’s display changed their mind—it’s something to do with Dean.

Castiel turns back to them. “Something is wrong with Michael.”

For several seconds, Naomi is silent, unblinking, her eyes on Castiel. She considers him, seeming to weigh her options, and then, at last, she answers. “Yes.”

Castiel’s eyes flick over the crowd before him. “Where is he?”

Naomi spreads her hands. “Not here, evidently. You need to come with us.”

Sam says, “Cas, wait.”

Castiel looks at him. “What other plan do we have?” he says, and he doesn’t mean it as a slap, but Sam flinches all the same.

“There’s gotta be another way,” Sam says. “This can’t end well, Cas. Don’t—”

There is nothing that Sam can say, at this point, to change Castiel’s mind. They’re getting nowhere, and Castiel can no longer sit here doing nothing while Dean is pulled apart atom by atom. This is a chance, in whatever form it might take, and it’s a risk Castiel is willing to take.

“It’s Dean,” Castiel says simply. “I’m going.”

He crosses to where Anna is struggling in the dirt, and he helps her onto his feet. She is battered and bruised, but she rises with dignity, eyes closed, her Grace clutched tight on her fist. Castiel guides her back towards the house; Jo descends the front steps and lets Anna sling an arm around her shoulders to hold her upright. Castiel offers Jo a small, grateful smile, and then he goes.

Naomi touches two fingers to Castiel’s brow and he is sucked out of the Ozarks—with a stomach-dropping, sickening squeeze, his ears popping, his skull aching—and when he settles, dizzy, he opens his eyes to find a barn. It is mostly empty, some rusted agricultural equipment pushed unceremoniously to one side, a harrow half-covered in tarpaulin. Crusted animal droppings and dust litter the wet-warped floorboards; the long line of weak fluorescent bulbs overhead buzz and flicker and cast the room in an inconstant glow, as though the room is shivering. Castiel thinks of the Beautiful Room—perhaps it is.

“There,” Naomi says, from beside Castiel, and he points.

In the middle of the floor, there is a summoning circle. It’s unlike anything Castiel has ever seen before—enormous and intricate, long spirals and arcs and Enochian lettering daubed carefully in a chalky white paste. At the centre, there is a carved wooden bow, in which lies the carcass of a bloodied dove.

Castiel can smell holy oil. He knows that without his wings, there is nothing a circle of holy fire could do to him now, but it stops him all the same.

“What is this?” Castiel asks.

Naomi folds her arms across her chest. “Step inside.”

Castiel looks back over his shoulder at where the rest of the angels have followed. They spread in a wide semi-circle behind him, nearly filling the barn. No way to escape.

Tentatively, Castiel moves forwards. He steps over the painted lines and into the centre of the summoning circle. He stands with his toes either side of the dove, and he tries not to look at the glassy eyes staring hollowly upwards.

After a moment, there is the distinctive sizzling sound of a match being struck at Castiel’s back. Instinctively, he tenses, his knees locking, and his shoulders hunch—he makes himself as small as possible, pulls his wings in tight.

Behind him, Naomi exhales.

The match hits the floor, and Castiel closes his eyes.

There is silence. No breathing; no footsteps; no whisper of wind through the barn’s roof-tiles. No crackling of holy fire. Only the quiet, heavy and absolute, oppressive as the weight of dirt packed upon a coffin. He is holding his breath, and when he lets it out, the sound echoes, fizzes strangely in his ears. His fingers are cold.

Castiel opens his eyes.

The barn is gone, all swallowed by darkness, save the summoning circle beneath his feet, and then—

Michael is colossal and fearsome to behold.

Castiel has heard stories of Michael’s power and glory and greatness, but it pales to being confronted with it now. Undiluted by a vessel, Michael is to Castiel as man to an ant. There is a black hole at the pit of him, an echoing hollow that stares Castiel down like a terrible eye. The pull it exerts on the light around it is ungentle, a splintering as of a crystal crushed by a fist. The light turns to shards, ice-white and steel-cold and glittering silver. They are electricity and static and so numerous that Castiel can perceive it only as a constant rolling white noise, a dull clicking, as of an exoskeleton, joints and carapace meeting sharply.

Castiel, Michael says. His voice is strident, glass shattering; it rattles Castiel’s bones in their joints.

The absolute nothing on all sides is suffocating, squeezing Castiel like a fist. He has seen the Empty, but he has never seen it like this. He is grateful for the white chalk lines of the summoning circle beneath his feet, something to pin him to reality. “Where are you?”

Nowhere. No-when.

Castiel hesitates, swallowing. “Where is Dean?”

Good question. The light shutters unevenly, a slow, reptile-blink. Colombia; Japan; Tobago; Scotland. At any given millisecond, he exists in no less than ten different places. Twenty different times.

Just as Castiel had once feared, a long time ago, Dean is undone: he is unable to hold onto one position in reality at a time. Castiel had feared it would kill Dean or drive him insane—he had never imagined Dean surviving the process to then inflict the inconstancy on Michael. “He’s dragging you with him.”

My tether to their world is—untethered. I cannot say precisely how long this summoning sigil will last before I am, again, lost.

Castiel scarcely dares to breathe, hope curling in his chest. “You could leave him.”

I cannot.

The sinking of Castiel’s grief is made so much worse by that single, hopeless moment of levity. Like a hand beneath his jaw, it crushes the air from his throat and he finds himself speechless, just trying to breathe. He’s stupid. He should never have thought it possible. He should never have hoped.

The bond between us was already weak. I have you to thank for that.

Castiel says, “You’re welcome.”

Michael’s light ripples, like the flicker of a thousand bulbs, like swords tilting in their hilt to reflect the sun. It is the shifting of something settling. Castiel imagines the magnitude of that, siphoned into one person’s skin; he imagines what you would have to hack out and starve and corrupt into order to make room for it.

He imagines it filling every nook of Dean’s skull, pushing like knives behind his eyes. He imagines Michael spitting blood from Dean’s teeth, tonguing at the sores inside his mouth where the skin would split from the effort of staying whole. He imagines all the ways Dean would break apart. It makes it easier, somehow. Anger and violence are simple, straightforward. When he is angry, he doesn’t feel the burn behind his eyes and the tightening in his throat.

Disconnected as I am now, Michael says, I have no control—meanwhile Dean Winchester grows increasingly powerful, with no idea of how to use it.

“So what do you want from me?” Castiel says.

Michael’s voice shudders through Castiel like an electric surge. Your help.

Castiel almost wants to laugh at the absurdity of it: Michael, most high of all archangels, wanting his help. Castiel has a blister on one heel that won’t scab over, and there is an itch across his scalp where his hair is overdue for a wash, and this morning he put his shirt on inside out until Jo tugged at the label at the back of his collar to point out where he’d gone wrong—and Michael wants his help. “Why would I help you?”

Because I can give you a second chance. The sound of static rolls ever higher, thunderous. Your honour. Your wings. It roars louder, intensifies, beyond a crackle of electricity, into a continuous crunching and destruction, as though the black hole at the core of Michael is drawing light in and swallowing it whole. Dean back.

Castiel will not make the mistake of falling prey to hope twice. “You can’t,” he says coldly. “Dean won’t survive this. You ripped my Grace from me. You broke my wings. You exiled me. There are no second chances.”

Not all roads are roads. Some are dead-ends.

The light is blinding. It burns and it builds and it blisters until Castiel has to lift a hand to shield his eyes. “What are you saying?” he asks, and he hears his own voice as though through glass.

We’ve run our course here, Castiel. Run aground.

The brilliant, white blaze of it is breaking, prismatic, into colours—cold blues and thin yellows—and there are tears prickling in Castiel’s eyes, even behind the shade of his hand. There is no way forwards for us here—unless, first, we go back, Michael says. We do it differently.

The heat and ferocity of it leaves Castiel breathless. He swallows. “I don’t understand.”

Rotating carefully, those splinters of light sharpen into blades, edges glinting, blood-hungry. We let Dean Winchester sell his soul to the devil. We retrieve him. And we try again.

“Reset the Apocalypse,” Castiel says faintly.

Reset it all.

He closes his eyes, colours blooming and bursting in the dark. He can still see Michael’s radiance through the thin skin of his eyelids. He ducks his head, and for a long moment he is silent. He tries to picture it—the last two years, unlived; the Earth, bustling once more with life; Dean, aging beyond his time, still under the knife in Hell. In the Beautiful Room, Dean and Castiel sculpted realities together, created from nothing and brought memories to life and inhabited a thousand different lifetimes, but this—Castiel opens his eyes. “It’s impossible,” he says.

Through Dean, it is possible. Michael shifts, shimmering coldly. You have seen firsthand what he is capable of—even before he unconsciously began manipulating my Grace. The power he is amassing is more than substantial enough. His light shivers unevenly. It is the first time he has seemed unsure of himself.

Castiel lowers his hand from his eyes. He looks into Michael’s unwavering light.

Michael says, Naomi tells me you were recalibrated, multiple times—and that he unmade you.

Castiel lifts his chin. “Yes,” he says. “He—I can’t explain it.” He hesitates, trying to find the words to express the enormity of Dean’s interference. “He found a way to force me into the Empty, into my true form, and… he followed me. It was like nothing I knew was possible. A human, in that space. I couldn’t fight him. I could do nothing. He brought me to my knees.”

She tells me you did it to one of our own. Human as you are. Weak as you are.

Castiel lifts one of his hands and he stares down at his blackened and bleeding palm, where the contact with Hester’s rings had flayed and seared away all skin. At the time, it hadn’t seemed important.

Michael says, Can you do it again?

Castiel lets his hand fall to his side. He stares up into the all-swallowing heart of Michael, at the arrhythmic throb of it, the way it crushes and obliterates everything that comes too close  stares. “To you?” he asks. “I have no idea. I could try, but with what success, I couldn’t say. And it’ll hurt.”

Michael doesn’t immediately respond. He shifts and sharpens; the blackness at the heart of him pulses threateningly as though preparing to grow larger, to swallow everything in its path. The blades of breaking light rotate slowly, twist to bare their sharpest points. You think you can hurt me?

Castiel, before him, is miniscule, hemmed in on all sides by the sheer enormity of it—thousands of sheets of broken glass twisting before him. He doesn’t back down. “A needle is small and insignificant. A needle beneath the thumbnail is not.”

At last, Michael says, But it can be done.

“If I say yes,” Castiel says.

Michael becomes still. The staring emptiness of his black core swells slowly larger, more absolute. It stretches wide like a gaping maw; it yawns higher and higher to tower over him. It expands until the light-shattering edges are as far from Castiel as any sunrise-smeared horizon, and the thunderous roar of his destruction builds beyond the point of deafening, until Castiel’s bones shudder and his knees buckle beneath him and he cannot stay upright. His knees hit the summoning circle and his spine is bowing as though curved into prayer.

If you say yes, Michael confirms.

It takes Castiel’s every last trembling reserve of strength to keep his head upright. He stares back into Michael’s void. Through his teeth, he says, “And if I say no?”

If you say no, Michael says slowly, then Dean Winchester will continue to come apart, and he will be killed, and the irregular surges of my uncontrolled Grace’s power would decimate the humanity you care so dearly about. His voice is matter-of-fact, cold. It could only be combatted by a comparable force—Lucifer’s offers to the Sword’s brother would appear increasingly appealing. He recites the future as though reciting verse. Sam will die. Dean will die. In his tongue, it sounds irrefutable. Our Apocalypse will happen, anyway, with the exception that there will no victors. Only annihilation on all sides.

Castiel swallows.

If there were to be any victor at all to reign over the ashes, Michael says, it would be the Devil. You have, I believe, grown fond of humanity. Is this the choice you want for them?

“There is no choice,” Castiel says. His voice is lost in the tumultuous maelstrom-crash of Michael’s orbit. “I can’t win.”

Win? Castiel—you were never going to win.

“Humanity is destroyed whatever I do,” Castiel says, and the words come out whisper-soft, crushed from him as by a boot on his ribcage. Or on the back of his skull.

It’s destiny, Castiel. You can’t just make it up as you go. One way or another, we will be victorious.

It’s exactly as Anna said. No right answers; no real plan. Sometimes things happen and that’s all there is. One thing after another. The Apocalypse is already underway—if Castiel refuses to help, it will continue on its path of destruction until there is nothing left. If he helps, the Apocalypse will begin again in precisely the same way—but at least this way, he will have a chance. The time to make it right.

Castiel takes a deep breath. He says haltingly, “So I take him apart. Eject you and him into the Empty as he did to me—use your Grace and his soul. And then what?”

I’ll take care of the rest. And then we start again.

“And he won’t remember any of this,” Castiel says.

No.

“And I—”

You’ve been recalibrated countless times before, Castiel. Michael’s voice is almost kind. This will be no different. You won’t even know what you’ve lost.

Castiel is silent. The curve of Dean’s smile, the slope of his shoulders, the freckle-dusted knuckles, the way he pulls himself up tall when he’s trying to be intimidating, the half-surprised bark of a laugh startled out of him—all of it, lost to him, with no guarantee that he’ll find it again.

Do you agree to it?

“My consent is of little consequence. I have no real choice,” Castiel says. “I’ll take him apart, I’ll reset it if you want. I’ll reset all of it. But do not doubt that I will find a way to undo it again. I will find my way back to him and I will fight this ending for him and I will not let you win.”

Michael tilts, his rotation slow and self-assured. The steel skeleton of his light moves in sharp clicks, as of something caught in the spokes of a wheel. Gradually, the black hole heart of him dwindles, settling back into its original space—no less terrible and devastating, but without the arrogant display of superiority. His voice is cool, vibrating lowly beneath Castiel’s skin. I’m sure you’ll try.

Castiel sets his jaw.

However, it’ll be easier for us if you cooperate.

“I’ll do it,” Castiel says, and he climbs onto shaky feet. “But on one condition—I get a head-start with him.” He draws himself upright and he stares Michael down, eyes narrowed. “Next time, when we come for him, raise him from Hell,” he says, “I get there first.”

 

***

Chapter Text

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