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Grace

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For four weeks, Castiel existed in blinding glory and magnificence, guiding the world toward his concept of perfection. He allowed the Winchesters to live on, their free will intact, because of what they signified to him. They were powerless to halt his progress, and surely they saw what good he could do.

Castiel did a great deal of good, in those four weeks.

He punished those who would desire the downfall of earth. He punished the traitors, the liars, and the hypocrites as he saw fit. If the people began to take notice, that was all to the good.

He saw, but did not truly heed how those establishments founded in the name of his Father began to take advantage of his influence. How humans suffered at one another's hands in His name with more frequency and greater passion than they ever had before. God was present. God was no longer content with leaving breadcrumbs for the righteous. Castiel would not understand until much later why his Father had not intervened more directly since the death of Christ.

For four weeks, Dean was silent to him.

Then... the call.

Castiel answered, knowing they planned to release the souls he'd harnessed, but certain that they could do him no harm. He was God. What use were charms and herbs against him? When their plans failed, he would forgive them, and perhaps then they would believe. Their mistrust was still... unsettling, but Castiel would let it move him neither to strike them down nor wonder if they had a point.

When he arrived, they didn't try to contain him with holy fire, so at least they had learned something about the nature of his new status. Castiel found himself facing Dean, in the center of a room that seemed more bunker than living quarters. It was bare, its walls and floor plated with gray shale.

Dean was bleeding.

He looked white, taut and haggard. He was crosslegged on the floor like a child, his slashed forearm balanced over a silver bowl clutched in his lap. Castiel sensed Sam and looked over his shoulder. Sam could have been a mirror of his older brother, both in blood and the set of grisly determination on his face.

Sigils were drawn on the floor in a wide circle. The boys sat in smaller circles at the Eastern and Western edges, with Castiel at the hub as if they'd placed him there. Perhaps they had, and he marveled briefly over that. Castiel recognized the symbols on the floor at a glance as Enochian; symbols for Binding, for Purification, for Exorcism. On the walls there were others, in other languages. Sigils of burning, of banishment, of destruction. Each collection of symbols was grouped with respect to the Cardinal directions and painted in the coordinated color.

Even for this, Castiel's pride in the Winchester brothers swelled. They were creative and resourceful as he remembered. With the bliss of power coursing through him, he loved their human cleverness even while he knew they attempted to destroy him. The part of him that doubted the title he'd blithely given himself, that recognized the danger; that felt betrayed by how they had given up on him was too outnumbered to be heard.

His hubris was his downfall, for although no man could truly harm God, Castiel was not God. Not even a god. He was an angel, filled with a power he should not possess.

Sorcery of a strength he'd never contacted in a Work before surrounded him from within the circle of Enochian sigils on the floor. Temporarily, he found he could not move. Castiel tested it, set to breaking it, when another layer of magic closed like the mouth of a drawstring bag from the sigils glowing on the walls. Crackling energy rose and wound around him. Sam and Dean were still visible, closed in the barrier with him, crosslegged on the floor, facing one another with identical bowls in their laps. That was bravery; Castiel knew in a flash of vague and distant panic that they expected to die.

They expected to destroy him and die with him.

The part of him that cared and loved in more than a general way hurt fiercely enough over this that he did take notice for an instant.

"Dean," he said, stern and worried as a parent to a child on the curb of a busy intersection. But the power that he contained wiped it from his memory a moment later as unimportant.

He knew Dean was in pain after that, of a sort that was not physical, and wondered why, but the sigils prevented him from entering Dean's mind to better understand. Before giving up entirely, the part of his own thoughts that still cared for the Winchesters offered in a tired voice that he should pay more attention to that. But he didn't understand.

Fog crept around the edges of his vision, insulating, encapsulating. Then there was pain, all the more vibrant for having felt none in so long. He felt suspended for a moment, two, and saw the orb of his Grace sliding from his chest, trailing translucent, ruffled sea nettle tendrils. Its brightness washed his face with blinding beauty.

At last, he understood that he was doomed. Castiel reached out, to touch the escaping root of his power, and though his fingers passed through it, he felt the sizzle like an electric shock.

Protect the Winchesters, he thought at it, fierce and panicked.

The perfect orb cracked and he convulsed as his chest blossomed with new pain. But what was about to happen to him, he was certain, would only happen to him. This last reachable scrap of power, he flung about him in a blast shield.

Billions of souls escaped his being in a rush.

He came aware on the edge of a desert, in an alien landscape that was not Earth. And then he was Castiel. Not God. Crushed by the weight of comprehension, guilt, anger, and grief.

He was too lost to cry out, even if he had known how.

Chapter Text

When at last Castiel took notice of his surroundings, he recognized the place from his brief previous visit as Purgatory. It was not the nightmare of blood and torment that Bobby Singer envisioned. Purgatory was not intended to be a place of punishment, as a far more naive Castiel once believed. It was a means of containment: a habitat for creatures too dangerous for Earth.

In his case; however, it was both.

Vast plains and hills stretched away in every direction. The vault of the sky was blue, trees and tall grass moving lazily in a slow breeze. The place may have been a mirror of Earth, save one stunning difference – silence. There was no birdsong, no trill of insects, and certainly no sign of Eve's creations. It was empty as it must have been upon the day of its creation - though he was too young to know. He was alone in a deserted reality. A fitting prison for one who so willingly isolated himself in his pride.

When the first night fell, however, Castiel discovered that he was not alone. Creatures encroached upon the space where he knelt, their hisses and groans unlike anything he'd heard before. He pressed himself against the bluff, trying to hide from them. They found him out anyway. A rotting corpse shambled up the hillside, illuminated faintly by the stars wheeling overhead. It groaned and slurped, snarling like an offended lion as it came nearer. There were more below, suddenly, and Castiel stood to face them.

He held out his hand, palm up, and concentrated--

--And in one illogically swift movement, the monster reached out, gripped his wrist, and snapped it. Unspeakable pain seared up his arm. He cried out. The coarse, unfamiliar sound hurt as it wrestled past his vocal chords. It echoed across the shallow valley.

His cries summoned the creatures at the base of the hill, but by the time they reached Castiel, there wasn't much left of him. Hazy dark closed over him, and briefly, he knew nothing but shadows and silence.

Then Castiel was at the bottom of the hill, on his feet. He looked at his hands, to find them unscathed and whole. He felt queerly ill, aching to his bones in a way he could not name.

This was his punishment, Castiel decided, and the deep black well of guilt and grief yawned open before him. It was... not what he would have anticipated his punishment to be, as the denizens of Purgatory were not what he remembered, but his portion was no longer to question. It was to suffer.

He let the creatures take him, and again they ripped him apart. When he returned a third time, there were new horrors - giant hissing spiders with brutal fangs, and even more undead, these stripped of their flesh down to the bones, yet excellent marksman with a seemingly endless rain of arrows.

The final horror was worse than any of the previous creatures combined, but he would not encounter them until three nights later. And by then, Castiel had ceased to take much notice.

And so, he forgot about marking time.

Until the day the stranger arrived.

The sudden violence of his transfer must have killed the stranger. But Castiel couldn't know that for sure. He was crouched on a high hillside by the edge of the desert some distance away, looking listlessly out, when in his range of vision a man appeared.

When the man's feet touched earth, there seemed no strength left to hold him up. His knees buckled and he collapsed, without even a feeble attempt to catch himself. As Castiel surged to his feet, the stranger gaped like a landed fish and shuddered into stillness.

That wasn't the end. Castiel knew it. He used the time to halve the distance between them. Perhaps the stranger's regeneration would happen close by. It did, he vanished, and reappeared only a few steps to the left of where he'd collapsed. He was facing mostly away from Castiel, his figure made dark and imposing by a long wool coat. The darkness separated him crisply from the white heat of his surroundings. While Castiel watched, the stranger pushed back his sleeve to examine his left wrist, then lifted his head to scan the sea of dunes. With a prickle of surprise, Castiel noticed that the stranger - whether monster, demon or angel - seemed unafraid. It was hard to believe he'd been dead a few moments ago. He didn't look shaken, even by that. Was he a Reaper?

Still some distance away, Castiel spotted the oncoming creature before the stranger did. Clearly, the new arrival garnered their attention as much as his. Castiel started to walk a little faster. He breathed a little deeper with the added exertion; his fists doubled over. He'd never reach the man in time.

Why care? Upon his death, the stranger would return. Castiel knew from experience. There was no escape.

Castiel broke into a jog, then a flat run. He wasn't very good at it, not having much practice with the physical process. As soon as he thought he was in earshot, he started yelling, calling at the stranger to turn and run.


Captain Jack Harkness didn't know where the hell he was, but that wasn't an entirely new development. He remembered only vaguely the last few minutes before his arrival in this Never Never Land.

Every sentient species seemed to have its own unique set of woes, thus every one he'd met had their own variation on the local watering hole. Drowning one's sorrows with one's best mates, like the communal breaking of bread, seemed to be a tradition of societies everywhere. Seriously, if a sentient species didn't know what a bar was, or couldn't at least understand the concept, run.

For hundreds of years on Earth, Jack hadn't taken more than a thoughtful sip of anything with a proof on the label. He'd been waiting for the Doctor to return, and any day could be THE DAY. Even a few drinks could make the difference between meeting the Doctor again and... missing the boat for another century. Or millennium.

THE DAY came and went, but by then Jack's habit of temperance was so deeply ingrained that it took conscious effort to skirt it. And time and effort were things in short supply, best used elsewhere.

At a Denobian fueling platform light-years from earth, he made that conscious effort. He'd also discovered that it was going to take more alcohol than he really wanted to pay for, consumed faster than he really wanted to drink it, to generate a buzz lasting longer than a few minutes. Well, damn. There went his chances of developing sclerosis of the liver.

One more universal thing could be said about bars: they were frequented by at least one jackass with a God complex. And Jack was already in a foul mood. In hindsight, he shouldn't have insinuated that said jackass with said God complex couldn't do what it was threatening to do, but hindsight was something he generally tried to avoid. Whatever that thing was he'd pissed off, he'd have to think up a catchy name for it, and remember not to brazenly assume it couldn't make good on its threats.

Jack recalled a sensation of whirling, and a feeling of being wrenched through a hole too small for him to fit. He recalled dying, but of course that was no more a new development than suddenly finding himself in an unknown landscape.

Reaching for the vortex manipulator at his wrist, Jack found only bare skin. "Oh, great," he groaned, and checked his pockets.

Every bit of tech on him, right down to his Webley revolver... was gone.

Regular footsteps crunched through the grass to his left, and Jack whirled. At the sight, his fascination piqued, and he forgot to be upset over the loss of his weapons.

"Oh, hello, you," Jack murmured.

An alien life form ambled towards him on four legs. It was the perfect green of summer grass, with an upright torso and a slightly humanoid head on a very short neck. Two eyes set in the front of its face glowed like coals. It appeared to have no nose, but if it breathed at all, its large downturned mouth could easily provide access to oxygen. The motion of its body was eerily smooth, silent but for the occasional whisper of sand. Its feet were broad and toed, like an elephant. From the Time Agency to the Doctor to Torchwood, Jack Harkness encountered a lot of distinctly nonhuman creatures... but he'd never seen this one before.

"Greetings. Captain Jack Harkness," Jack introduced himself hopefully, keeping his voice mild and his hands lifted out from his sides in what he perceived was a friendly gesture. Until he remembered that the creature lacked hands.

It kept coming, direct and silent, and it occurred to Jack that it might not be friendly or sentient enough to interpret gestures as anything but a threat. As if to punctuate his thought, the creature hissed.

Jack backed up a step, dropping his hands to his sides, and pivoted to run. Before he could complete his turn, he saw it flash from green to deathly white... and explode.

The impact lifted Jack from his feet and tossed him on his face a few meters away. He landed like a ragdoll in a spray of sand, gasping, deaf, and semi-conscious. The wind stolen from his lungs, unable to lift his head, Jack watched one-eyed as three more of the green creatures loomed into view. They made straight for him, and he figured he had about five seconds to consider how long it would take to come back this time. Healing from jellied goo in a body bag was not something he ever wanted to do again.

He found enough breath to whisper at them, hoping faintly that the noise would startle them off, but mostly just to be doing something, period. "I didn't kill your pal! Can't we just be reasonable about this?"

A wall of black and beige passed in front of him, and Jack got a good look at one black patent leather shoe before the creatures (which looked like walking cacti, if he was feeling really whimsical) veered off to follow. He registered nothing but the vibration of footsteps, and then the ground shook with multiple blasts.

Jack thought of the Hub: the bodies of Suzie, Tosh and countless other Torchwood associates, blown to bits in the wreckage. Of Ianto's pterodactyl, probably launched straight through the roof of the Millennium Center with the blast and who knew where it was now? He'd had it up to here with explosives. Fury made him cold; the residual anger pushed him out of his daze. He fought his uncooperative body onto its knees and scanned the desert, looking for more creatures, or whoever was blowing them up. For all he knew, he'd just gotten unlucky enough to get in the middle of some interstellar snipe shoot. ...Or was the snipe. He only had about ninety seconds' worth of conversation with that jerk at the bar, who knew what sick sense of humor the thing had?

Jack shaded his bleary eyes against the sun and squinted. The desert stretched out emptily in every direction. Untrustworthy of his own senses at the moment, however, he'd have given a lot for a life signs detector. Finally, Jack paddled on his hands and knees in the direction the shoes had been heading, until he reached the lip of a massive crater.

The explosion that caught him left a divot, compared to this. The blast had even reached down to leave pits in the rock and earth below the sand.

A roughly man-shaped gob of red meat was plastered to the side of the empty hole. Meat that was, miraculously, still breathing. The angry sound of denial was out of Jack's throat before he could stop it, and he skidded down to the stranger in a waterfall of sand.

Even before he reached the man, Jack knew he was beyond saving. He cradled the body gingerly, heedless of gore, his own eyes wide and glassy with shock. "What the hell were you thinking, soldier?" he demanded.

The stranger was beyond speech, having very little left of the means to process it. He had one good eye, and Jack saw with the lurid detail of adrenaline just how blue it was. One beautiful blue eye in all this twisted, anonymous wreckage. What was his name? He'd given his life and Jack didn't even have that to remember. And if he asked, the stranger couldn't answer him, and he probably couldn't hear it even if he did.

Another mind touched his, tentative. Soothing balm flowed over his awareness like cool water.

Castiel, a low voice entered his thoughts, intimate as an embrace.

Castiel died.

Then Jack was holding nothing. Nothing, right where the body had been. The sand was completely clean at his side. He twitched backward from the spot and stared at his empty hands, then rolled onto his side to look at the rest of the crater.

Once again, Jack was alone. He looked at his arms and chest, but the only blood to be found was coming from his own wounds. His wounds? He was still bleeding? Was this a hallucination? He could still feel the sticky warm give of the stranger's battered body on his arm, and logic had yet to step in and offer a theory. Futhermore, his adrenaline was wearing off, leaving his brain without a buffer for the blend of pain and shock.

Jack pushed himself to his feet with impatience. Promptly, the world slithered sideways. Bad plan, he thought in dismay, and staggered.

Castiel caught him.

It couldn't be. But it was. Jack knew by the eyes. He'd seen a lot of blue eyes, but these were Different. His own personal brand of Different. Your eyes are too old for your face.

"Jack Harkness," he said.

"You shouldn't be here," Castiel growled, illogically whole. Jack flashed him a wide, relieved smile. His body finally reached its limit, and he passed out.

Chapter Text

Castiel realized with a shock that he couldn't carry Jack Harkness. The sudden limp, dead weight of the larger man pushed them both down into the crater. Castiel hit the bottom first, Jack's unconscious form draped across him a moment after his back struck the ground. Thankfully the fall was short and mostly sliding stumble, but the collision knocked the air from his lungs.

Jack's cheek lolled on Castiel's shoulder, upper body pinning his chest and arm and for a moment it looked distressingly as if Castiel would be trapped there until he came to. Thankfully, the weight of Jack's lower body and the movable quality of the sand beneath them both offered a solution. Castiel slithered sideways, allowing gravity to take its course. Jack slid off of his chest and onto the sand with a hiss of fabric and a light thump, and Castiel sat up.

The stranger introduced himself shortly before he collapsed, but Castiel still had no idea who or what he was, although he seemed mostly human. Moreover, he didn't know why the man was here in the first place. Was Crowley responsible? Had he found another means of entry? For the first time, Castiel wondered what had happened to the souls. The shield he'd constructed had only been intended to halt the effects of the spell the Winchesters had woven. He was certain that when the souls escaped, they were able to pass freely through it. But where were they now? Not here.

There was some grim satisfaction in the knowledge that when Crowley inevitably arrived here again, he would find nothing.

Were the souls of billions of monsters now roaming free through the universe? If so, other beings who knew of their power would pursue them. They could be captured, enslaved, consumed. Castiel needed out to find them. He was responsible for them. The entrance to Purgatory from Earth was a prison cell door, only accessible from the outside. But perhaps there were other entrances, from other planes...

Before Castiel could truly take up the threads of that thought, however, Jack Harkness woke up. Actually, it appeared that Jack had been awake and watching Castiel for some time, from the man's alert, clear-eyed expression.

"Hell of a way to meet," Jack said dryly, "sorry about ducking out on the introductions. I'm usually pretty keen on first impressions."

Nonplussed, Castiel stared. He'd been preparing himself to answer questions or clarify observations. As a result, he had absolutely nothing constructive to say. Thankfully, as Jack struggled to sit up, he began fulfilling Castiel's expectations with speed and thoroughness, if somewhat out of order.

"How'd you know I wanted your name?" The stranger's lips drew back from his teeth in a grimace as his abdominal muscles - presumably - protested movement. Having never withstood any kind of detonation directly(though he had suffered two in recent memory), Castiel was uncertain what the physical effects of a blast might be. Instinctively, before his hindbrain could engage and remind him of his curtailed abilities, Castiel placed his palm on Jack's stomach.

"I don't know," Castiel replied, organizing a shard of will and focus where his hand touched warm flesh, "I knew you wanted to know my name, so I--" he and Jack gazed at his hand simultaneously. His hand, which had accomplished nothing, and now had Jack's on top of it.

"You do that with all the boys?" Jack asked. He was smiling.

Castiel's gaze quickly veered left. "No," he replied, frustrated, "I was attempting to heal the damage done by the creature. The one that detonated near you. However, few of my abilities seem to have transferred here." It was aggravating. He could feel the power drawing together, but it refused to manifest. Like a filled lighter with no flint, Castiel decided, recognizing it as a reference Dean might have made. His mood darkened further, although he didn't recognize the signs.

Thankfully, Jack did not hear his thoughts. "So they're blowing themselves up?" he asked.

Dean would have immediately demanded to know how Castiel expected to heal him by touch. Jack, by comparison, seemed to ask questions with no predictable pattern of logic.

It was also irritating how frequently his questions prompted Castiel to admit his lack of understanding. Twice, in his opinion, was far more frequent than necessary. "I don't know," Castiel replied, "I believe they are self-detonating. The alternative involves an entity watching the creatures until they near a chosen target. That process seems prohibitive."

"But not impossible. No weirder than walking, exploding cacti," Jack pointed out.

"No," Castiel agreed, clipped. He realized that Jack still hadn't relinquished his hand. Or rather, he hadn't attempted to remove it. The moment Castiel withdrew; however, Jack let him go easily. "How did you come to be here?" Castiel demanded, "you don't belong here."

"Somehow I don't think you do, either." Jack began gingerly removing the heavy wool coat he wore. That made sense, the heat here on the edge of the desert was intense, and it was approaching midday. Midday. Nightfall would come quickly, and Castiel's shoulders tightened with the knowledge of what came after dark.

"You need shelter," Castiel got to his feet. "Can you walk?" He offered a hand to Jack, who looked up at him with surprise. After a moment though, he clasped Castiel's wrist and hauled himself up as well. Jack leaned against Castiel's shoulder for a few moments after that, and from the corner of his eye Castiel could see him surveying the edge of the hole.

"Getting out of this hole is the more immediate problem," Jack said, to which Castiel wanted to reply you have no idea, and refrained. Instead, he simply waited until Jack regained his balance, moved toward the edge of the crater, and plowed into it barehanded. The sand here was shallow, and gave way to stone in a dozen industrious scooped armfuls. Soon a short ledge of sandstone was visible, affording rough handholds up to the surface of the desert.

"Wow," was Jack's only comment. Castiel was vaguely gratified to note him mimicking this procedure, and within a few minutes they were helping one another up the stone to the desert's edge.

"So where's shelter?" Jack asked.

"I haven't constructed shelter," Castiel replied, anticipating a flurry of uncomfortable questions to follow.

Jack, however, only squared his shoulders and surveyed the sun's rapid, easily visible motion across the sky. "Then let's get going."

'Shelter,' as it turned out, was little more than a glorified foxhole in a hillside, widened from one of the shallow natural caves that seemed available in abundance, here. They located a source of clean water not two hundred yards from the site of the crater. Castiel was surprised by Jack's apparent nonchalance. The man worked easily alongside him, peppering him with questions as they fortified the entrance against creatures. Most humans would react to this situation with more trepidation, possibly even panic (although not the Winchesters). Eventually, Jack did get around to asking where they were. Somehow, Castiel found that... lessened his concerns, somewhat.

"I initially assumed you knew," Castiel admitted, when Jack's interrogation on the subject of Purgatory had, at last, ceased, "I anticipated that to be among your first questions. When it wasn't, I believed you might have come here purposefully. Or someone sent you."

"Oh, someone sent me, all right. You get visitors a lot?" Jack asked dryly. Together they heaved their makeshift door - a thick section of downed tree - into place across the mouth of the cave. Castiel had at least learned during his tenure that the predatory creatures - while fairly skilled in stalking - were neither bright nor particularly strong. Across the desert, the sun was setting, painting the sky a brilliant crimson at the rim of the world.

"No," Castiel took a seat in the dark beside Jack, "you're the first."

"How long have you been here?"

"I've lost track of time. As you've probably noticed," Castiel gestured towards the slice of red sky visible over the log, "days pass quickly."

Jack made a noise that might have been agreement, and subsided.

Temporarily.

As soon as the creatures began to appear, he found his tongue once again, commenting on their appearance and behavior, wondering if they could communicate, demanding all of Castiel's available knowledge on the undead horrors shambling across the desert. Castiel began to wonder if he wouldn't prefer the murderous quiet of the skeletal archers to this strange human's penchant to offer observations on everything.

But he didn't really have to think about it.

"So what are you, Castiel?" Jack asked as midnight neared.

"I'm an angel of the Lord," Castiel replied, then with growing alarm, added, "Jack, I believe I'm in some kind of physical distress."

"What?" Jack faltered, and if Castiel were in any state to be pleased, he might have been over finally disconcerting the man. "What's wrong?"

"I don't know," Castiel replied, and that was the eighth time in one day he'd made that particular reply. "I feel--weak. Languorous." And then his eyes closed and his mouth opened of its own accord, jaw tensing as he inhaled in a way he had never inhaled before. The whole physical process brought a strange rush of sensation that shivered almost pleasurably along his skin.

He could feel Jack looking at him, although it was nearly too dark to see one another.

"I don't know about the angel thing," Jack said, slow, "the only things I've ever run across called that were the weeping kind. Zap you into Nineteen-Twenty-Three soon as look at you. But I think you're tired, Cas. That's probably all it is. If it's not, you'll--come back, anyway, right?" Towards the last, his tone seemed... uncertain.

Tired? Tired? Castiel had never been fatigued. Not like this. He'd felt the weakness of blood loss, of having his energies taxed to their limits. But simple physical fatigue? He hadn't been human long enough at the advent of the Apocalypse to sleep. But he had-- yes. That was it. Castiel remembered a similar feeling as they measured holy oil into a bottle that had previously contained inexpensive whiskey. He did know 'tired,' after all.

"Yes, that's true," Castiel admitted. His jaw tensed and his mouth opened of its own volition once more.

Jack chuckled. "That's a yawn if I ever heard one. I'll take watch tonight. Get some sleep."

While it took Castiel several minutes and reckoning with some painful memories of watching the Winchesters sleep, he worked out the correct arrangement of body and limbs. It was perhaps for the best that he was too deeply fatigued to recall his dreams.

Red light streaming into the mouth of the cave reached at last through thick layers of sleep, and Castiel raised his head from his arms. Both hands were numb, and when he pushed himself onto his elbows, heavy fabric bunched at his neck and shoulders. He sat up, catching unsuccessfully at the fabric as it fell away: Jack's greatcoat.

"Evenin'" Jack said cheerfully, punctuated by a grunt as he lugged the log into place across the entryway.

"I've been asleep all day?" Castiel asked, puzzled. It was, indeed, sunset. His hands began to tingle painfully. He worried until he remembered snatches of conversation between his charges and recalled that this numbness was caused by lack of blood supply. The physiological reasons why supplied themselves afterwards, and he braced himself to withstand the discomfort.

"Two days, actually," Jack replied in the same breezy voice, and flung himself down next to Castiel. "Which means you're on watch tonight whether you like it or not, because I'm dead on my feet. But you earned a nap."

"Why?"

"I worked it out on my own. You didn't know you were tired, which means whatever you are, you don't normally sleep outside of 'Purgatory.'" His quotations around the name of the place were audible, and Castiel felt a twinge of irritation. "Since you didn't figure out you were tired until now, that means you haven't slept the whole time you've been here," Jack went on, sounding satisfied with himself, "And no shelter - you've been dying before you get a chance to get tired. Plus the creepy crawlies out there," he gestured at the doorway, "You've been letting those things rip you to shreds, haven't you? Every night."

Castiel gaped at Jack, speechless.

"I know, I know, I'm brilliant," Jack cupped his cheek and planted a kiss on his forehead, "and we've gotta do something about whatever guilt complex made you do that, Cas. But you take point tonight, all right? I'm about to keel over, for the first time in way too long. I could so go for pizza right now. Oh, and there's food. Back of the cave. Not much, but I haven't met toxic wild grain yet. Odd, figured I would have by now. I guess some things really are universal. Or multi-universal."

He retreated to the aforementioned rear of the shallow cave, allowing the one-sided conversation to trail off into ennui. Castiel spent his third night without dying at the entrance of their foxhole, watching the meandering undead and brooding.

Chapter Text

An unspecified amount of time, trial and tribulation later...

Castiel stood safely within the perimeter of fence surrounding the camp, and watched the wolves gambol aimlessly no more than twenty yards off.

They traveled in packs, like the wolves of his own world, and they preyed upon the wild sheep that also frequented the grassy plateau above the desert. He'd watched them avidly for days, perhaps even weeks, as this particular pack seemed to have claimed the territory surrounding his for their own.

He liked them: the lithe strength of them, and how they moved together in unconscious rhythm. The way their expressive, soft-looking ears planed back against their heads. The confident lift of their tails. Like wolves without the influence of civilization, they were curious but only a little wary, assuming - he believed - that Castiel was not food because he didn't look like their normal prey. Then again, Castiel was prone to being somewhat fanciful in that aspect. He was hungry for sentient companionship. Imprisonment here, even with Jack, was a trial of loneliness and desolation, and he knew Jack felt the same. Even their attempts at some sort of understanding with the monsters had some worth, however futile.

The wolves were mostly harmless. The sun was setting behind them, and Jack was on his way up from the caves on the western bluffs with the warm glow edging his silhouette. As he walked, the four-legged tribe drifted across his path like so many ghosts, paying him no more than a glance. Jack's head followed the trajectory of the wolf pack, then turned up to the spot where Castiel stood. Jack waved, hitching his stride into a long lope. The change in his pace surprised Castiel, who started for the gate to meet him, concerned that there might be an emergency. He still disliked the necessity of doorways. As a means of egress, they wasted precious time.

Before Castiel could get the gate open, Jack was there, broad hands pinning Castiel's to the top of the fenceline. Three things happened then in the span of as many seconds, or so it seemed at least: Castiel's forward inertia halted, Jack cupped Castiel's jaw with the hands that had been on his on the fencerow, and kissed him. Castiel stared at Jack, wide-eyed, surprise and worry and fascination warring for precedence. But Jack was already in motion again, digging in his own pockets with a grin that glowed out from the shadows on his face. Behind him, the sky was rosy.

"Look, Cas! It's flint! I found flint!" He took possession of Castiel's hand again and pressed three large, potato-sized nodules of the stone into his hand. Castiel's gaze flickered in confusion from Jack's smile to the stone.

Castiel knew what flint meant. Flint meant knives and arrows. Arrows. He could make a bow. At last, they could do more than helplessly lob rocks at the green perambulating cactus monsters, and run. "Do you know how to make arrowheads?" He asked, before he remembered Jack's bemoaning the loss of his revolver.

"No," Jack admitted sheepishly, "the arrows I used were always steel-tipped. But I bet we can learn."

Steel-tipped? Castiel tilted his head wonderingly at Jack.

"I'm a well-rounded guy," Jack shrugged, and put his hands back on the gate. Remembering that he still blocked the entrance, Castiel backed up to let him pass, hands filled with rough-edged chunks of flint. Jack slid the loop of stiff rawhide thong that served as the latch back into place, and paused to watch the sunset.

It wasn't the first time he'd done so. Castiel preferred being in Jack's proximity when evening closed in, and stayed nearby, examining the flint by the light of the torches in the yard. Part of him still cared that he didn't understand Jack's purpose here. He was concerned that Jack had disturbed the plan of whoever imprisoned Castiel, as he was completely certain the Winchesters meant to annihilate him rather than imprison him. In his experience, beings with this capacity for power tended to run roughshod over 'inconsequential' mortals. He wasn't sure what he could do to stop someone from trying to destroy or remove Jack, but evening seemed the likeliest time to try, and Castiel was determined not to let that happen. Since Jack arrived, Castiel had not died. Had not wanted to die.

No harm would come to that man without a battle.

"Busy day tomorrow," Jack said, "dinner, then bed?" With the advent of a proper door and a perimeter fence, at last they'd been able to relinquish their old habit of sleeping in shifts. Over time, their foxhole had grown into a much more liveable dwelling, with even rough sleeping quarters and a firepit.

"Agreed," Castiel nodded, and followed him inside.

Chapter Text

Flint arrowheads, as it turned out, were some of the simplest pieces of archery equipment to construct. Bows that bent properly and would not break, however, were the problem. At first, they'd soaked long smooth tree branches in water and bent them - but no matter how carefully formed, they snapped well before the spider silk string could be attached to both ends. Afterward, Castiel tried soaking planks of lumber. They split as well. He examined the broken bows closely, looking for an explanation of their failure.

So he was doing, one evening by the firelight with Jack, when he beheld an epiphany. "Jack," he called with urgency, looking up from his study of the splintered ends. Jack - seated next to him on the floor of their shelter - leaned back from his lapful of flint shards. He raised his eyebrows.

Castiel offered him the broken pieces. When they lay in Jack's hands, he leaned closer and traced a fingernail along the break. "It split here along the grain."

"I can see that."

"If we cut the wood differently - so the grain doesn't cut across the bends in the bow, I believe they will be less inclined to break."

Jack nodded thoughtfully, then smoothed his hand across the back of the broken bow. "I remember seeing something about bows being laminated."

"We don't have a means to make glue strong enough for that," Castiel protested.

"No, I know that," Jack replied, turning the wood in his hands, "but how about you cut it so these," he spun the long arm of wood and brushed his fingers down the woodgrain, "are on the side and not the back or the front?"

"Tree limbs," Castiel murmured, watching Jack's hands, "exposed wood splits and peels on the growth rings. If there is no visible grain where the wood bends, it is less likely to split."

"Now you've got it, Cas!"

Though the observation was far from the solution to a perfect bow, Castiel found it to be sound good sense. In the meantime, Jack flaked the flint into knives and arrowheads, axe heads and scrapers, and even a hoe. They began to eat much better than before, and stripped the exposed surface coal they could find to heat their fires and make torches that seemed to burn forever. Jack re-learned the process of tanning leather as they hunted the relatively docile cattle in the valley where they currently sheltered. He taught Castiel.

The months between deaths stretched out.

Castiel fired the first bow that did not splinter, just as the first snows began to melt. A few weeks later, he killed one of the green exploding marauders. It hadn't been his intent - he'd brought the bow along to practice while Jack continued stripping a surface deposit of coal. There was a second bow in construction, but as yet unfinished.

The creatures were usually gone by late morning, but Castiel and Jack ventured out earlier than usual, thinking the territory clear. He'd been firing arrows into the bluff across from Jack's worksite, when he heard his companion yell. Castiel swung around, craning to see one of the green creatures closing on Jack, who had dropped his pick and scrambled up the hillside. It was too steep, and severely slowed his progress. He would be within range to trigger the creature's explosion within seconds.

Castiel's bow swung up. He drew and fired with only a moment to aim. The arrow struck home with a meaty thump, and the creature hissed, then swung about, headed downslope for Castiel.

Castiel trotted in reverse. He reached for another arrow, irritated that most of them were in the bluff and needed to be collected. Two more arrow nocks came to his fingertips; he hoped that would be enough. He paused to aim, loosed the arrow, and began to back again before he registered a hit. The creature hissed as the arrow struck home - a sound that was half scream - and rushed at him.

A third shot, and the creature went down, skidding into the grass almost at Castiel's feet.

It faded away in death, leaving a handful of powdery substance behind in the weeds. Silence filled the valley around them, as if the entire world of Purgatory hushed in awe of what he'd done.

Then Jack's war whoop of victory echoed down the slope.

Castiel squatted and ran his hands through the powder left by the dead creature. Jack nearly pulled him off his feet in a boisterous spin of celebration, and Castiel's bow clattered to the ground as he struggled to grasp Jack's sleeve and stay upright.

"You DID it, Cas! What were you looking at?" he asked, as they slowed to a stop. Castiel held up powdery fingers for examination.

"It left this behind."

Still nearly pressed against Castiel, Jack caught him around the waist and reached for the offered hand to examine it. He sniffed it, then shook his head. "This place makes no sense."

Puzzled by the obvious statement, Castiel tipped his head. Jack sighed.

"Well, we know what makes them explode, at least. Cas? This is gunpowder. Or it's some sort of biological substance that looks, smells, and I'll bet--" Jack knelt by the little pile and struck a spark with the flint and iron tinder kit he carred. It flared instantly. "--ignites like gunpowder. It's got to be. Gunpowder's the result of a chemical process, what are these things? Some sort of droids?"

Castiel considered several responses, but each seemed more conducive to disagreement than conclusion. In the end, he turned and collected the rest of his arrows.

"I wish we could talk to them," Jack said, almost to himself, when Castiel returned and picked up his fallen bow.

"They are trying to kill us," Castiel observed, "I doubt it would be a productive conversation." Jack started back to the shelter, and Castiel fell in step beside him. The weight of his weapon seemed no longer alien, but comfortable and reassuring - a part of himself.

"How do we know that's what they're trying to do?" Jack countered, "That's why I wish we could talk to them. Maybe we could explain that we don't want to hurt them. I'd rather talk than fight."

Which left Castiel so thunderstruck that he was silent the rest of the way home.

The following morning, when one of the giant spiders lingered in the daylight, Castiel waited to see if it attacked first. He stayed on Jack's flank, watching the spider warily, hand stiff on the hilt of his sword.

It let him be.

Grudgingly, Castiel posited that perhaps Jack wasn't entirely wrong. …And then wondered if the creatures weren't meant to torment him, after all.

Chapter Text

Castiel was uncertain what had happened to him.

It certainly hadn't happened overnight. But perhaps, as it developed over time in small degrees, he - unused to being so closely moored to this vessel - couldn't have recognized it as new.

He was confident of his own rational mind. He was an angel of the Lord, with all of the personal control and will that such a title entailed. Abilities were perhaps curtailed, but discipline attained over time was not.

He supposed it might be permissible to blame Jack Harkness for some of Castiel's difficulties, but felt it unfair to lay the whole of it at the man's feet. Prior to meeting Jack, he'd been acquainted with the feeling called 'frustration,' but had not encountered it in quite this... nuance.

Fondness had grown for Jack, regardless of Castiel's best efforts to avoid it. Initially, he attempted to stem any developing attachments, for Jack's sake as well as his own. He could afford no more emotional links to mortals, and if any mortal seemed likely to cause Castiel trouble through a bond of friendship, it was this one.

However, as time passed and no rescue seemed forthcoming for Jack, Castiel made the conscious decision to end the deliberate emotional distance he maintained. That final decision was made more out of desperation than rational logic, as Jack refused to follow his example and continued to make inroads where Castiel really wished he wouldn't. He behaved with gallantry, with humor, he asked questions of Castiel that none had asked, and... simply regarded him as himself.

Not a subordinate. Not a superior. Not a child. Not a loaded weapon.

The walls were coming down. Castiel saw them falling. He chose to make the decision to like Jack a conscious one rather than something foisted upon him. It wasn't hard.

Shortly thereafter, the difficulties began.

Just his proximity was frustrating now, in that way that Castiel couldn't parse from its emotional cues and flood of hormonal signals. He knew enough by now to know that it was caused - unconsciously - by Jack. The man made him want something, but he had no memories or primordial instincts with which to understand this hunger. But it was linked to Jack, he knew that.

Whatever it was that he desired, Castiel felt its absence as a hole within him, yearning to be filled. Sometimes it ached, as his stomach did when he neglected to eat, but it was not that hunger. It urged him to stay close to Jack, although the warmth brought on by proximity was often as frustrating as it was pleasant. This confusion left him angry, and his temper slowly frayed as it began to take over his evenings. He began to dream of Jack, the man's solid presence driving off the frequent nightmares with his sheer thereness. In dreams, Castiel surrounded him, sometimes folding him in physical wings, sometimes in light, sometimes in patterns of energy and his own fluid network of being.

"Hey, Castiel?" Jack asked, a handful of flint nodules on a piece of soft leather in his lap.

Castiel glanced up from paring feathers into fletching, and found himself transfixed by the soft warmth of pink twilight on his cheek. "Yes, Jack?" he prompted.

"You said you had brothers."

"I did, yes. Many."

"Are you the oldest?"

Castiel exhaled on a soft laugh. "Hardly. I am quite young by comparison to the eldest. Though I have many younger brothers and sisters as well."

Jack nodded thoughtfully, keeping his eyes on his work for the moment. Castiel's memories of flint knapping among the early tribes allowed him to teach Jack the process with quick efficiency. His teeth bared as he applied pressure to the flint, chipping off another careful shard. Castiel watched his hands in fascination that - he realized with a start - had very little to do with the actual process. Jack's hands were marred and rough with work. His hands were broad, fingers blunt. They were not lovely hands, as Castiel understood human aesthetics. But they were strong, with pronounced knuckles and delicate ridges of tendons along the backs, and they moved with deft, fluid strength. Like the neck of a horse, or the shoulder of a lion.

"So, you have a favorite?" Jack interrupted his thoughts.

Castiel jerked up, focus broken. "Pardon?"

"I said: do you have a favorite brother?" Jack reiterated. Castiel met his eyes. The smile Jack wore intimated that he'd been caught watching. Jack liked being watched. Castiel watched him a great deal, although not because he knew Jack enjoyed it. The man was simply… too interesting not to observe.

Castiel considered the question carefully. Jack had the rare patience to allow the silence while he thought, which Castiel appreciated more than he could give words. "Balthazar," he offered, eventually, "although I care for them all. Some much more than others," Castiel's sense of honesty forced him to admit.

"Tell me about him."

Castiel did. Everything. It was such a relief to have someone to tell the story to, even though Jack seemed uncomfortable when he arrived at Balthazar's death. He did not apologize for asking, at least, and he offered neither condemnation nor absolution. It was not his sin to forgive, Castiel thought, and his respect for the man rose all the further as Jack allowed him to grieve the murder he'd committed without comment. Balthazar's blood would never be washed from Castiel's blade. He felt perhaps Jack understood.

"Do you have brothers?" Castiel asked, when the mood had settled again and he'd picked up his forgotten work.

"I had one," Jack replied, "but he died a long time ago."

Borrowing Jack's words, Castiel said, "tell me about him."

Jack took a long breath, opened his mouth, and shut it again. "Some other time, Cas, it's late." He flexed his fingers and set the leather full of flint shards aside. Twilight had descended into evening, and the room was lit only by the fire and the torches burning by the door. Castiel could no longer see his face. Outside the walls, he heard the footsteps of creatures. Snarls. Clanks.

"Of course," Castiel replied, tamping down his disappointment and frustration as irrational. Some of it must have leaked into his voice despite his intention.

Jack laid a hand on his shoulder as he passed by. "Sorry," he said quietly, "it's not you."

"There's no need to apologize," Castiel shook his head, and set his own work on the table. He patted Jack's hand awkwardly in the gesture of reassurance he'd seen humans use, and moved away from the warmth. There was that nameless hunger. He wanted to know everything about Jack. The denial only made him more aware of the empty space in his memories, but nothing more remained to be done tonight.

Chapter Text

"Hey, Cas?"

Castiel looked up from where he bent over a low - and growing - stone wall. Jack leaned on the wall a yard away, bow and blade resting on top. Somehow he'd crept up on Castiel without his notice - although considering how irritated Castiel was by his pathetic human strength, dexterity, and sticky, foul-smelling perspiration, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising. Castiel blinked at him and straightened. "Yes, Jack?"

"Does your name mean anything? 'Castiel.' You said some of your brothers' names - Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, Michael," Although Castiel had not pronounced it as such, Jack pronounced the latter name in the ancient way, 'Mikha-ell.' It surprised him. Oblivious to the reaction he'd drawn, Jack went on. "I know a little Hebrew, but just enough to be moderately dangerous." He smiled. "Was wondering if there was a reason why some of them are like yours and some of them aren't."

Castiel gazed at Jack steadily, thinking about his name as he had not thought about it in a literal age. "My name has alternate meanings in various languages," he said, "but in Hebrew - as you say - it means 'cover of God.' Alternately, it may be translated as 'my cover is God.'"

"And in other languages?"

"It is the name of a Swiss municipality, derived from the Latin word castellum,' or--"

"--castle," Jack finished, and the smile he'd worn a moment ago was wide with pleasure. He waved a hand at the stone walls, intended to become the foundation of a new shelter. "I think that's pretty appropriate. You're a hell of an architect."

Castiel looked at the wall. At Jack. "I hadn't considered the appropriateness of my name," he commented.

"Really? So there's not a reason you have that name?"

Castiel had only a few more hours of good daylight. He bent back to his work, nudging chunks of stone tightly together as he'd watched the Irish and Scots do for centuries. It was just as difficult and tedious now as it looked then. "I'm certain there is," Castiel grunted as he wedged a long, flat rock in among its brothers, "my Father is very deliberate, although often His reasons are quite subtle. But I was not made aware." He glanced over his handiwork, frowned, and worked the stone out again. An ill fit.

"You were named by God?" Jack sounded surprised. Castiel glanced up at him, squinting against the bright sun and the sweat stinging his eyes.

"I was created by God," he replied, perhaps a little more short with Jack than he meant, "of course He chose my name. Names have power. It would not have been done casually, anymore than I would assume your parents chose your name casually."

"That's kind of impressive, you know. Being named by God Himself. I mean, if you believe in that sort of thing."

Castiel resisted the urge to snort at Jack's persistent - and annoying - skepticism. "It's a fairly common occurrence, where I come from," he said dryly. With an especial yank, the stone came free. He tossed it with a sharp, heavy crack on the pile near his feet and considered the stones for a more appropriate shape.

"I guess it would be, yeah. Huh."

"It's the only thing that's truly mine," Castiel explained. He stepped into the pile, turning over rocks as he went.

"Really?"

"Yes. This body is borrowed - as you know. The clothing I wear, the voice I speak with, they belong to James." The stones were heavy, and his shoulders and back quivered now as he hefted a likely specimen and toted it to the wall. "But no other angel in the Garrison carries that name."

There was a long pause. Castiel continued to work in the silence, as he was accustomed. By the time Jack spoke again, he'd nearly forgotten about the man's presence.

"My name doesn't belong to me at all," Jack said suddenly. Castiel started and glanced up again. When their eyes met, Jack shook his head. "Scout's honor. I stole it. Lifted it off an officer in Her Majesty's Royal Air Force."

Castiel stared at him, unable to comprehend this data fully. A tiny illogical voice in the back of his mind wondered, did he mind? Did the original Captain Jack Harkness mind when you took it?

"What is your real name?" Castiel asked.

Jack shrugged. "It's been so long, I've forgotten. I've been going by Jack Harkness for hundreds of years. I had that one for maybe twenty."

Castiel's eyes narrowed. That was too flippant to be the truth.

"Okay, closer to thirty." Jack grinned, flashing Castiel a two-fingered salute, "but that's the closest you're going to get. I'm still younger than you by a jot, which I'm not used to yet."

With a sigh, Castiel went back to work.

"I honestly don't remember," Jack said, soft and serious, "It bothers me that I don't know, Castiel. That's why I laugh. Hey..."

Castiel felt the pressure of Jack's hand on his shoulder. He remembered then that he'd abandoned his shirt. The big palm was warm and sticky on his bare skin, and every thought emptied from his head.

"...you need help with this?"

Still mute from the unexpected contact, Castiel shook his head. He waved Jack off, and the hand vanished, although he could feel its imprint for minutes afterward. He found his voice. "I'll manage. This won't be completed today, anyhow."

"All right. I'll be close by if you need me. Just yell." Castiel heard the rattle of the bow as Jack reclaimed it and his crude stone sword from the wall.

Chapter Text

Castiel had the best of intentions, when he agreed to follow Jack's orders. It was prudent, as Castiel certainly wanted no part of making decisions and devising strategies. The idea of having sole responsibility for their day-to-day safety filled him with a nameless horror.

His intentions counted for little when Jack put the concept into practice. They spent several days underground, lighting passageways and collecting surface ore. Jack ordered him to guard their position, while he wielded the picks and shovels. Castiel followed orders easily for the first day, but by the next he was chafing with boredom and frustration at their pace. The cave system branched like the limb of a tree. Castiel stared into those dark mouths with an arrow nocked. They were a liability and a temptation, and Jack's progress seemed torturously slow. Castiel struck off on his own, lighting the passages alone while Jack worked on in the safe zones they'd already explored. He began to do so more and more frequently, leaving Jack for longer periods of time. Jack called him back once or twice, but Castiel believed they'd found a workable solution. He didn't explain where he'd been or his intent - after all, as Jack rarely paid the same courtesy, Castiel deemed it unnecessary. He dismissed Jack's frustration as no more than a reaction to their imprisonment. Castiel was frustrated too.

Disaster struck, of course, when he allowed himself complacency. Castiel was no more than a short distance away down an unexplored tunnel when he heard the clank of bones behind him, and a yell from Jack. Castiel turned and sprinted back, fear rising like a toxin in his blood. He arrived in time to see Jack fend off an arrow with his pick, but three already transfixed him, one lodged to the fletching in his back - Castiel could see it protruding from his chest as he hacked at the archer with the crude stone tools he carried.

Castiel finished the creature off from behind, but too late - Jack was seriously injured. They abandoned the mines and hurried to the surface. A day later, Jack was feverish with infection, and perished the next morning by the fireplace, in Castiel's arms. He vanished, leaving Castiel with an aching sense of absence for a moment or two before he heard Jack's boots on the floor overhead. He glanced towards the stairs.

Jack stood over him, forbidding in the greatcoat he hadn't worn in seasons. Castiel knew he hadn't put it on himself - somehow this world restored them to a kind of 'default' whenever they passed away.

"Could be worse," Jack shrugged, and gestured at his feet, "my boots were going to pieces anyway." His movements were tight and jerky, expression blank. "I'm going out for food. We need new axes."

Castiel nodded, eyes skating away from Jack as he recognized the anger in the man's voice. "I'll handle it," he glanced up afterward to see if Jack was mollified by the obedience. But Jack was already gone.

He spent the day grinding a block of stone into a wedge, grooving it to accept a split tree limb at the butt; honing the edge after he'd bound it to its haft. The process put him in a meditative mood. He was relatively content by the time Jack returned home.

"Archer?" Jack said, setting down a full game bag inside the door, "We need to talk." The tone of his voice stirred an alarm.

Castiel leaned the new axe against the wall and started to get up, but Jack's hand on his shoulder ordered him firmly to stay down. He relaxed, and Jack joined him on the floor before the fire. Leaning back against the storage chest behind him, Castiel watched Jack arrange his body. He was still tense, his expression resolute. As if whatever he needed to say, he knew he wouldn't enjoy the process.

Castiel tensed as well.

"Tell me how you're used to working with people," Jack said, after a slow breath.

Castiel saw the measured rise and fall of his chest and understood this as a sign of inward control. He tilted his head in confusion. "I'm not sure what you mean. I'm trained to observe."

Frustration skated across Jack's features. "We're both leaders," he spread his hands, "But we need to coordinate when we work together. So I want to know how you're used to working. Usually I work solo or as part of a team. Never been much for the whole Dynamic Duo bit."

Jack didn't think they were coordinating properly? Castiel had worked with other angels both as a superior and a subordinate, but he didn't understand why Jack felt there was a problem.

"You're used to being in charge too, right?"

"I commanded an army," Castiel answered, disinclined to elaborate at the moment, "as well as several smaller detachments for specific missions."

"Really? Nice," Jack commented, "That's all right, we don't need a chain of command, but we should each know what the other one will be responsible for."

The words struck an ill chord in Castiel. Suddenly, he understood the heart of this discussion. Jack thought he'd abandoned his post. "In my experience," he replied stiffly, "it's best to be aware of the enemy's location. I believed I had all the tunnel entrances noted. I never saw the overhang, and didn't anticipate an overhead drop. It was an isolated--"

Jack raised one hand. Castiel halted, glaring. Was he not to be allowed to defend his actions?

"No, Cas, you weren't wrong," Jack shook his head, lowering his palm once more to his thigh, "That's not what I'm saying. Your tactics were fine. I meant to talk about this earlier, and that's my fault. When we're working together…" Jack's fingertips twiddled midair and paused, then dropped. He sighed, "We need to be able to know what the other one will do, or is responsible for, or anticipate their thoughts. Like what happened in the mines a few days ago. We don't communicate well, you and I, and that's not going to help us survive here." He gestured between them, then offered Castiel both of his hands, palms open. "I want to change that."

Castiel's hands, meanwhile, curled into fists on his thighs. He got to his feet, slowly, and walked to the bubbly soda glass window. Helpless frustration surged, rising until it was difficult to find appropriate words in the haze of guilt and defensive anger.

"Castiel?" Jack prodded, gently.

"Just give me a moment," Castiel replied tightly, raising his hand and pushing it away from himself in a sharp, aggressive jab. He turned to look at it afterwards, not understanding his own gesture. He was still a foreigner in this borrowed body, and now these traitorous, illogical responses were choking him.

"We need to do this sometime."

"I don't know you," Castiel exploded, the syllables slow and sharp with staccato fury as he turned from the window, "I spent several years protecting a pair of obstinate adult children, herding them out of danger while attempting to fight a multi-front war. Then, I had the luxury of being able to know their pasts and behavior without the kind of... evasive waltz you subject me to. I can't predict you, because you tell me nothing!"

Jack withstood the blast without flinching, and rose in the silence after the outburst. Castiel watched him rise, staring into the shadows of the cool, emotionless face. Jack lifted his chin and Castiel saw calculation. Saw Jack deciding what hostages could be released.

"What do you want from me?" Jack asked, softly.

There was a familiar ache in Castiel's chest; one that burned when he thought of Dean abandoning him in a ring of holy fire. He knew the ache now as finality. They would never recover from this moment, he was certain, as Dean could not forgive his trespass. "What I want, you can't give me."

"Fair enough," Jack said, in precisely the same tone of voice, "second choice?"

"I would prefer less generalization when I ask a question," Castiel snapped.

"You haven't asked anything. " Jack spread his arms. "Go ahead. What do you want to know?"

"Who are you?" Castiel demanded, a question that had been burning since he first met the man, "Where did you come from? How did YOU end up here? Of all people, you seem the least likely candidate for this place."

"I can't tell you how I got here or why - best guess is I pissed off the wrong man at the bar. Who am I?" Jack shrugged. "Don't know how to answer that, I've been a lot of things. Leader, coward, time agent, con man, you name it, I've probably had a hand in it. I was hoping for something a little more specific."

"I'm not accustomed to requiring questions," Castiel protested, when he could think of nothing else to ask. His anger at being evaded made him slow, Castiel realized, only adding to his frustrations.

Jack's response was unsympathetic. "Don't take it out on me. I'm trying, here."

Castiel gave up. "Your fighting style is erratic. You vanish with no directive. I don't know how you evaluate situations, I can't anticipate your logic because you frequently make no sense. So what do you need me to do."

"Nothing, Cas. Just…" Jack shook his head, whatever he'd been about to say amended before Castiel could hear it. "Nothing. It was an idea. Didn't work." He shrugged and turned back to the fire, hands linked at the back of his neck.

Incensed almost beyond reason, Castiel realized that he was unsafe. He'd never felt shame before coming into contact with the humans, but now his guilt at his own utter loss of self control was so intense that he could not begin to guess how it might be alleviated.

Jack would certainly be no help.

Castiel was alone.

In the end, he went out.


Castiel didn't stop walking until he reached the sea, nearly half a day's walk north. It was the first time he'd truly been alone since Jack Harkness arrived, and now 'alone' had a far different flavor.

He didn't speak for nearly three days.

Worse than the loneliness was the confirmation that he was unsafe. Distracted by boredom and encouraged by the lethal arrogance he tried so hard to set aside, Castiel left Jack exposed in the caverns. Ruled by unfamiliar human emotions, he'd nearly attacked the man himself when confronted. He'd failed. No matter that Jack's death was only temporary, if unpleasant. No matter what lessons Castiel felt he'd learned, his nature remained unchanged. If he could not hope to defeat his own pride, then what was the point of continuing on?

On the second morning, Castiel placed his weapons and supplies carefully inside his makeshift wooden hut on the beach. Afterward, he walked unarmed directly into the timber lining the shore, further and further from safety. It was quite peaceful, at the outset. Long grass in the clearings brushed the palms of his hands. Fragrant fir needles crunched under his boots. His decision made, he thought of nothing. Castiel met only the occasional flock of sheep or herd of cattle; once a wolf pack ghosted through the trees. By noon, hunger began to gnaw at his empty belly, but what was the use of eating? He walked on.

As the shadows slanted, however, Castiel's steps slowed. He glanced more and more frequently in the direction he'd come. Jack had not called out to him once since he'd left, nor had he been pursued. Of course his absence had been noticed. Was this Jack's tacit acknowledgment that they would fare better apart?

Fare better? In a handful of hours, Castiel would attract the predators of this plane, and spend the night alternately eaten or torn to pieces. How was that better? Jack was argumentative and difficult (although no more argumentative than Castiel, he reminded himself), but Jack was not - generally - vicious.

Castiel might have chosen torment over Jack's company when he first arrived. But he no longer wanted to suffer. Whether he felt it was his portion or not, there were means on this God-forsaken plane of existence to avoid death, and he wouldn't have cared to find them without the influence of his human companion.

He turned back to the beach, first walking, then jogging as the light failed. Creatures appeared from the gloom, and Castiel sprinted the last few yards. Exhilaration flooded him. Fear poured in where this morning there had been none. Fear came from living, from wanting to live - or at the very least, from not wanting to die. Castiel lay on the floor of his hut that night, listening to the creatures and his own deliberately unchecked emotions.

At the end of the third day, Jack called to him.

:Castiel?:

Castiel glanced skyward, although there was no need. He stood mid-thigh in the ocean, fishing with a new, slender pole for the blue fish that seemed to frequent every body of water.

It was difficult to reply. Castiel ordered his thoughts and focused on Jack. They'd discovered - quite by accident - that they could speak over any distance by thought. Without his full battery of powers, Castiel did not yet know why. :Yes?:

:I miss you.:

That was an unexpected response. As it could simply be Jack's attempt to emotionally coerce him into a response, he remained wary. But Castiel realized - calling the statement into comparison with his own emotions - that yes, he felt Jack's absence keenly as well. While initially he believed his discomfort had been generalized 'loneliness,' he now understood it to be more specific. Had it been general, the cattle and sheep he encountered might be company enough for sheer number.

However, Castiel hadn't come here without reason. :You operate more efficiently alone. My presence puts your safety in jeopardy.:

:Come on, Castiel. I was trying to learn how to work together, that's all. I don't know how it went wrong.:

:I clearly failed you,: Castiel replied, and backed out of the surf. His interest in fishing crumbled.
:What? Arguments happen, Castiel.: The overtones of genuine surprise in Jack's response were so strong that Castiel could nearly taste them.

:The caverns, Jack. I failed to protect you.: Contrition spiraled rapidly down to despair. Castiel had no bulwarks to defend against it; no learned behaviors to circumvent it. It consumed him.

:STOP that,: Jack ordered, :Suck it up, soldier, or I'm coming to get you.:

Castiel could not stop it. But a finger length at a time, he was able to quiet it.

Jack continued to talk to him from afar. His voice rang solid and true in Castiel's thoughts, just the same as it sounded when he spoke aloud. The noon sun poured overhead and Castiel felt his skin beginning to burn, but could not move in his desperate fight to hold back the sense of futility and hopelessness.

:Worst case scenario here when we screw up is that we die and then we come back. You commanded an army, you know what it's like to lose people. It's part of learning to be a team. Well, we can do that here without risking any lives. Think of it as field training with a failsafe.:

The thought was so alien to Castiel's current circles of self-loathing, it suddenly commanded his full attention.

:Maybe that's the point of all this,: Jack suggested in a soft tone, :we both need to learn how to be part of a team again.:

:You don't believe in Fate,: Castiel replied, :in your opinion, therefore, events are entirely random. Our imprisonment in Purgatory is ultimately purposeless.:

:Horseshit,: Jack snapped back, and Castiel winced, :I don't believe in Fate, but this doesn't have to be meaningless. We can make it have a purpose, Castiel.:

The sun crept closer to the horizon while a pregnant silence lingered. Jack was waiting on an answer. Castiel stirred, entering his shelter as the sky grew rosy. Days and nights passed with unusual speed, and there was never enough sleep for this exhausted mortal body.

:Castiel?: Jack prompted again, when the stars wheeled overhead and he has not yet answered.

Crosslegged on the floor of his hut, Castiel leaned against the wall and turned his face towards the flickering torch on the wall. :When I worked in tandem with Dean,: he offered, halting, :we had many of the same difficulties you and I have.: Speaking about Dean like this was somehow worse than physically speaking the words. Castiel felt his chest tighten.

:What did you do about it?: Jack asked.

Castiel's mouth opened, the cry of pain soundless. :We had a working partnership for a very limited time. After that, Sam returned, and we returned to the previous pattern. There was no time to 'do' anything about it.:

:That sounds… bleak.:

:That's an apt description.:

Jack laughed gently in Castiel's mind.

:I took orders from Dean - I admired his certainty - but I disliked many of his decisions,: Castiel said. Silence followed the admission. Assuming Jack had fallen asleep, Castiel began to doze against the wall as well, until a voice in the back of his mind stirred him again.

:I had two years of my memories erased by an agency I worked for once.: Jack offered in a burst.

:--Why?:

:I don't know. They wouldn't tell me, and they wouldn't give them back.:

:You still haven't been able to retrieve them?:

:No. I couldn't accept that, so I separated myself from that organization.:

Castiel weighed this revelation for a few minutes. He resettled himself for the night, stretching out on the floor to ease cramped muscles as the night slipped on and the creatures slurped and rattled outside his walls. He cradled the new information, bundling it close.

:...it's what I would have done, in your position,: Castiel said at last.

:Yeah? They sure didn't take it that well,: Jack replied, his smile audible even across the miles of separation, :Goodnight, Castiel.:

:Goodnight, Jack.:

Castiel returned the next day. Jack welcomed him with a hug and a kiss on the forehead - neither of which Castiel knew what to do with - and asked no questions about his stay on the beach. A few days later, Castiel returned to the mines with Jack, but not the cavern they'd last entered. He led Castiel past it, on to another shaft further on, and Castiel peered at what had once been an active mining site when they passed.

"What happened, Jack? Was there a cave-in?"

Castiel watched Jack closely, as the man continued forward without a glance at the cave mouth now covered with stone.

"Figured it'd be better if we started fresh somewhere else. It's not like we need the resources down there. We can get them somewhere else."

Castiel stretched his stride to catch up with Jack, and glanced up at his profile. "How many mines have you covered up, Jack?" he asked. Jack glanced down at him, and a world of emotion Castiel couldn’t begin to put names to slipped over his features. They vanished in seconds.

"Just the one," Jack replied, sounding both puzzled and a little cooler than before. Castiel decided not to press.

Chapter Text

Castiel came to the gate at Jack's behest, bow in hand.

"Up there. Three creepers." Jack pointed up to the hills where three of the green creatures gamboled. His fingers brushed Castiel's shoulder on the way down. That nameless ache reared its head.

He did not know why Jack chose to name them so abruptly. But quite suddenly, Castiel had his fill of 'creepers.'

"I've got it," he said tersely, skirted Jack and stalked out into the morning fog. He could feel Jack behind him like the heat of the sun, which did nothing to improve his mood.

One by one, the creepers came for Castiel as he drew them from the hills. Quick and silent, he brought them down with lethal precision. When the last creeper vanished, leaving its pile of flammable dust, Jack behind him whistled.

"Nice shot, Archer," Jack said appreciatively.

Castiel said nothing at first, still trying to shake the sudden red-tinged desire to wipe the countryside of creepers.

"Everything all right?" Jack was asking, closer now.

"Fine," Castiel growled, and stalked back to camp.

Chapter Text

"You don't call me 'Cas,' anymore," Castiel observed one evening, over a dinner of roasted fish, bread and apples. They'd made several edible discoveries this year, including new game and fruit as they explored the world.

Jack pushed the razor edge of a sharp flint knife through his apple, segmenting it into neat quarters. He shook his head, lips drawn back from his teeth as he focused. "Nope, I don't. You want me to?"

The question gave Castiel pause. The answer, it seemed, was complicated. 'Cas' had been a nickname given to him by Dean, shortly after their acquaintance. Others used this truncated form since, but generally as a mocking diminutive. When Jack began to use it - in much the same way that the Winchesters had - Castiel wasn't comfortable with it initially, but never found the time or energy to correct him. First he'd felt irritated with Jack for using something that belonged to the Winchesters, then irritated that he'd allowed anyone to own any part of his name.

But Jack hadn't called him 'Cas' in weeks, and to be honest, Castiel felt a little... sad at its absence.

"Is there a reason why you stopped?" Castiel asked.

"It didn't feel right," Jack shrugged, peeling the rind from an apple slice, "from what you told me, I think your name must be a pretty sacred thing to you."

A few flakes of roasted fish frozen halfway to his mouth, Castiel gazed up at Jack in surprise. He wasn't generally the kind of man to use words like 'sacred.' Not in serious conversation. And - now that Castiel thought about it - he was right. It was.

"I can start again if you want," Jack offered again.

"No." Castiel reached out impulsively, resting his hand over Jack's knuckles as if he could quell the thought by touch, "Please, continue as you are." Jack nodded. He moved so quietly that Castiel nearly missed the shift of his hand, until he felt Jack's fingers close around his own and squeeze. He knew how to comfort with a touch - a skill Castiel longed after, and was certainly not immune to. The warmth shook him out of bleak memories.

"Still gonna call you 'Archer,' though. Because that's mine."

Castiel could find no issue with that.

Chapter Text

It was by no means the first time Jack had kissed him.

Although, considering the way things tumbled into place afterward, perhaps it was the seventh.

"Jack."

Jack turned.

"Do that again."

Castiel felt Jack's hands, cupping his face. He gazed at Jack steadily, unable to find the appropriate words. Having watched Dean do this many times, Castiel knew there were appropriate things to say right now, but couldn't remember what. His hands rose tentatively to slide over Jack's wrists. The hunger, the frustration, the sometimes anger culminated and sharpened, and even before Jack's lips met his, Castiel knew with certainty that this was what he wanted. His grip tightened and he pushed artlessly into the touch.

The silent invitation encouraged Jack. He lowered his hands and drew Castiel's body in against his.

Soft and simple gestures left Castiel tense. He was uncertain how to respond properly, in spite of his own new desires. …Not new, but unexamined. Even pressed to Jack's body, his own was stiff and unyielding as he tried not to panic. Fear gripped him; he'd only wanted a few things quite this much, and he had no idea how to do the right thing to keep Jack with him.

"Hey." The whisper against his mouth made Castiel shudder. "You okay?"

Castiel thought about it. He thought that perhaps admitting he was not 'okay' right now would lead Jack to pull away, and he didn't want that.

He'd be okay eventually.

"Yes, Jack," Castiel replied, grateful that Jack waited for him, no longer interpreting his silences as hesitation. And then he realized he'd just lied to Jack. Anxiety laced through him like cold water, and his hands closed on Jack's shoulders. "No," he amended, quiet and miserable.

Silence spun out between them, broken only by the occasional hiss of a spider or the clank of a skeletal archer, for it was night. Castiel, having discovered Jack's affinity for high places, constructed a ladder that allowed them access to the roof of this dwelling. They were outside at night, safe from the predations of the monsters below.

Jack's arms, thankfully, had not loosened. "Kinda new at this?" he asked, and somehow there was no sympathy, no pity in his voice. Only kindness, and curiosity. Castiel's eyes broke from his, veering left. He could explain, but this - again - seemed an inopportune time.

One of Jack's hands found the line of his jaw, and his lips found Castiel's temple on the opposite side. The sensation made him catch his breath, and he felt Jack's smile.

"Deep breaths, Archer," Jack suggested, and kissed him again.

Chapter Text

After Castiel, Sam slept for what seemed like a week. Dean rebuilt the Impala from the wheels up and worried over Sam because it was easier than thinking about everything else, and things went more or less back to normal. Sam and Dean couldn't put things back - not like the angels could, but by then Dean decided he preferred handling crises the Winchester way: freak the fuck out, debrief, move on. Resetting stuff was for dicks with wings, usually because it was their fault in the first place, and anyway, it never stayed reset.

Organized religion dealt with an unprecedented surge in popularity - all kinds, good and bad. The morning news was rife with stories of miracles, of whole prison wards felled inexplicably. Almost everyone agreed that it didn't make any scientific sense. Most people even agreed that it didn't match any omens of the endtimes (at which Dean always snorted) but if that wasn't the case, what was it?

He didn't care. The vicious cut on his arm ached a constant reminder why through its stitches and bandage. Forget some itty bitty cut; there was a hole in him the size of Vancouver. Sam knew it, and Dean knew Sam knew it. So he let Sam baby him without protesting, tacitly ignoring the 'bad breakup' vibe in Sam's attempts at comfort. It got him a little less grief over the bacon cheeseburgers and the alcohol. He resorted to both in proliferation, to comfort the molotov cocktail of anger, betrayal, and bone-deep grief. It wasn't like Jo’s death. He was still grieving for Jo and Ellen, but at least they'd died for something, however vain the attempt turned out to be. Their deaths had a nobility… for whatever that was worth.

By comparison, killing Castiel had been like putting down a dog with rabies. Or what Dean assumed a dog with rabies was like, having never had a pet himself. Cujo finally turned, he thought, and hated himself for giving Castiel that nickname even for a moment, as if by that action he'd caused all this.

The reality was that he was responsible, that he'd done his part, and while he'd stepped up to own that when they had their shot at taking Castiel out and took it, he didn't want to own it now. Not now, when he was alive. When he'd been expecting to sacrifice himself to save the world, it was easier to face up to the metaphorical demons.

When they finally got back on the road, at Sam's insistence they avoided hunting at first. Dean drove through rural towns. They watched little league tee ball and bar bands of all flavors and levels of talent; wandered listlessly through crappy rural museums about soybeans and barbed wire and clamshell button factories. It was all quiet and gentle and empty of stress, and at every turn Dean found reminders. Things Castiel would have enjoyed, or been perplexed by.

You remember what you kill, he thought. Especially when you kill a friend.

Sam was not up to par. Dean knew that before they hit the South Dakota state line, and he watched for it after that. Sam was doing some sort of slow-motion unraveling and trying really hard to keep it in the background, but whenever Dean asked him about it, he lied. That hurt, but it wasn't like lying was a new thing, and remembering his own experience with The Pit, Dean let him be. Besides, what was he going to do, find a padded couch and shrink Sam's head?

On the third Sunday without Castiel, they arrived in Beloit, Wisconsin. Shortly after the ubiquitous hunter green welcome sign was a hand-painted billboard advertising "The Angel Museum." Dean read the sign out loud and could almost smell the worry pouring off of Sam in the passenger seat.

Enough was enough. He wasn't happy, sure, but being a frigging mess on the inside did not make him an invalid. Sam was quite clearly NOT dealing with his own problems, and seemed to think it was okay to keep on making a big deal over Dean's problems instead. "Knock it off," Dean snorted, "it's probably just a bunch of dolls and velvet paintings of Elvis with wings. Good for a laugh, right?"

"Dean, I don't think that's--"

"--a good idea? Why, Sam?" His knuckles whitened on the steering wheel momentarily, and he shook first one hand, then the other, to relieve the angry tension. "You think I'm gonna take one look at all the haloes and feathers and start sobbing all over the Precious Moments?"

"No, it's just," Sam twisted in his seat, his voice all sympathy, and Dean started working up a retort nasty enough to shut him down. Because if this went on - if Sam kept being nice to him about it - he really would break.

"it's just," Sam repeated, in a harder tone, "it's bad enough as is, without you acting like you don't give a damn." His hands made frustrated slashes, like the rough, incisive motion could somehow cut Dean open to let all the crap boil out. "I didn't wanna kill Cas. I didn't wanna do that, Dean, and I'm having nightmares about it same's you are. It's not all right, so stop pretending--"

"Well you coulda acted like you gave a damn, back when you and Bobby talked me into stabbing him in the back!" Dean stamped the brake and the Impala's inertia even at twenty miles an hour was enough to throw Sam against his seatbelt. They glared at each other, Sam rubbing his sternum.

"You rather I'd just said 'no problem, Dean, I'll just ignore that all signs point to Cas going postal and teaming up with the New King of Hell?'" The harsh push of Sam's right hand moved out toward the windshield. Dean pulled onto the shoulder before someone rearended them, turned off the motor, slammed the door hard enough to make Sam wince, and stalked across the road in silence.

Sam tagged along after a minute, which was pretty classic Sam. Dean ignored him, hands dug deep in his pockets against the humid, unseasonably cold summer day. His boots crunched in the pebbly shoulder of the road.

"Dean," Sam called, and Dean heard the exasperation in his voice. Dean was being a bitch and he knew it. As much as he wanted to put all the blame on someone's shoulders - Crowley, Balthazar, Sam, Bobby, Cas - he knew it was his too. Every person who'd ever warned him that year was reminding him of how he'd ignored their advice. There was even that angel chick he'd met so briefly, Raquel? Rebecca? who accused them of using Castiel only when it suited them.

The memory of Bobby's voice, rough and hard, reached his ears. "You know when I knew Rufus was dead? The day I met 'em." Castiel was doomed the day he snatched Dean out of the Pit.

Dean walked back slowly to Sam. "I'm going to that museum tomorrow," he said, when Sam was within earshot, "and if you don't like it, wait in the car."

"Why are you doing this to yourself?" Sam spread his hands.

"And why don't you deal with your own crap instead of mine?" Dean brushed by Sam on the way to the Impala, ignoring his brother's bewildered frown.

That night after Dean went to sleep, Sam crept stealthily out of their hotel room, to the Impala. He opened the rear passenger door with care, and dug through the blue duffel wedged under the front seat.

Light flowed out, pouring onto Sam's hands and arms as he pushed aside a pair of jeans. The illumination came from a thick glass phial, wide as two fingers and painstakingly etched with warding sigils.

Amazing, that Castiel's Grace could fit into something so small. Sam held it gingerly, the warmth emanating from it soothing to his cool fingers. They hadn't really expected to touch it, but the Work called for a container to draw in the Grace of an angel. There had been an email for Bobby about where it was and how to find it, sent minutes before they walked into their carefully constructed blast shelter in the bottom of an old missile silo.

Not that Sam had wanted to die, but he couldn't help but feel there was something wrong with all this.

Oh, Cas, Sam thought sadly, the feeling escaping in a soft sigh. He palmed it, rose, and whipped around at the sound of the hotel door closing softly.

Dean watched him, arms folded across the chest of a battered Bad Company tee shirt. Deliberately, Sam held the phial up, and tucked it in the front pocket of his jacket.

"It's been bothering me," Sam said, "leaving it out here like this."

"The Impala's safe," Dean replied. The words were all soft consonants, but somehow the sentence came out harsh.

Sam stared at him. "You really don't want me to bring it in? Dude, it's Cas."

Silence opened out across the asphalt between them. "I know that," Dean retorted, all the force in his voice gone to air.

With a flash of comprehension, Sam walked toward him. Dean started to turn, to back away, and Sam caught his arm. "Don't move," he said. Dean stopped. His eyes fell to Sam's pocket.

Quickly, Sam withdrew a charm medallion from his breast pocket and stripped it of its lanyard. He fed the little bronze pendant back into the pocket, reached for the phial holding Castiel's Grace, and threaded the lanyard through the hoop of silver at the top. He advanced on Dean, who was just watching him, looking more frightened of this than he had of most monsters. In one swift motion, Sam looped the cord over Dean's head, grabbed his shoulders, hugged him fiercely, and walked back indoors. He heard Dean check the lock on the Impala, then nothing. Shrugging to himself, Sam went to bed.

When the hotel door opened a half hour later, the glow of Castiel's Grace danced on the opposite wall. The motion of it was fascinating, bobbing and flowing in a blue-white aurora. Sam watched it until Dean's covers rustled and darkness blotted it out.

Sam ached, and wasn't sure who for.

Chapter Text

Lying open for Jack was unexpectedly freeing, the first time Castiel did it. A warrior by creation and creed, with only a loose handful of stolen moments to call "peaceful," he was not a creature to offer his belly by natural inclination. Castiel discovered quickly that lying on his back was the most proficient means to give Jack access to his body. He also discovered that if encouraged regularly, Jack was more than willing to give Castiel what he wanted - both respite from the deep hunger he now knew to call "lust," and a thorough education.

Castiel understood why his father's disciples so often warned against pleasures of the flesh taken lightly. Lust was dangerous, distracting. It clouded rational thought. It could easily be used to forge lasting manipulation and false alliance. How could someone willfully use this to evil ends, Castiel thought in dismay. His hands found the softness of Jack's hair as Jack's lips found purchase on his throat. He stretched his chin up the moment his mind resisted, offering his neck willingly. Jack made a sound of approval and Castiel did his best to wrap his body around Jack's.

He wondered why Paul denounced this as an especial sin. Of course it was sinful; fornication was inherently sinful for a number of reasons, but for all that it was also beautiful and necessary for more than the continuation of the species.

He knew now, as he hadn't before, that it was also unspeakably fragile. Even the fastest and roughest of his encounters with Jack were wrapped in feelings and sensations that changed the outcome each time despite the repetitive motions. Why had Paul thought this act between two males a special sin of note? A sin to be extracted from fornication?

Castiel wondered if it was still sinful as Paul decreed, because he was neither male nor female - then recalled the Nephilim and blanched.

Jack caught the shift of his mood and asked if he was all right. Frantic to keep Jack with him, Castiel pushed his reaction away and leaned up to kiss Jack fiercely. Apparently, this was not the right thing to do. Jack returned it, then reiterated the previous question.

A kiss could give such things away? Castiel would need to be more cautious. He had not known this. "I was thinking about my Father," Castiel admitted with a sigh of frustration.

Jack raised an eyebrow. He smiled, although the expression seemed somehow lesser than the contented grin he'd worn a moment earlier. "Do you think about your dad during sex a lot?"

"No," Castiel replied, then amended, "although frequency is somewhat difficult to accurately determine, given my lack of experience."

Jack let this sink in, apparently not much surprised.

"It was traumatizing," Castiel added, "I prefer it did not happen."

"The intercourse, or your dad walking in on your mental space?"

At Castiel's affronted glare, Jack capitulated. He held up one hand, so that Castiel could see the pale palm in the moonlight. This was a truncated gesture of surrender, he knew from past experience, and relaxed.

"I was weighing the potential sin of this act," Castiel continued, when it seemed Jack would not press. He had an inexplicable need to tell this to someone - Jack, specifically - and have it outside of his thoughts. "I believe that here, while I previously identified as neuter, now I am entirely male."

"Right," Jack said slowly, nodding a fraction, "Bible study currently not my strong suit, but I know THAT rule. Can't tell you how many times it's come up."

Castiel chose to ignore the implication of frequent sexual encounters with other males. Not because it upset him - he was burning to ask. And that would not get Jack's mouth back to his throat in any reasonable length of time, if he did so now.

"It is, however, more prohibitive for an angel of the Lord to lie with the daughters of men," Castiel continued.

"Hey! I'm no daughter," Jack retorted, "and don't let the Carapenthians tell you any different."

"And I am not currently an angel," Castiel said, not able to keep the bitterness from his thoughts. He knew who the Carapenthians were, but again - the population of Carapenthia was nonconducive to sex, albeit extremely conducive to a fascinating conversation.

"So we fall under a moral gray area? Imagine that," Jack laughed, "and if we're already in Purgatory, can it really get any worse?"

"There is always worse, Jack," Castiel muttered darkly. Then he felt Jack's hand slide up the inside of his thigh, and tremored.

"Is this worse?" Jack whispered.

"Of course not," Castiel replied, as if it was perfectly obvious.

This time, it seemed, he had spoken correctly.

Chapter Text

The flatbow was warm in Castiel's hand, its grip silky from use. He'd been through many in his existence here, and though this was by no means the most long-lived, it was easily the best he'd ever made. Carved and shaped over many evenings from a single piece of local hardwood, it lacked the flexibility of a bow made of yew or hickory and would therefore not last more than a season. Still, for what it was, he was pleased. Castiel had long since learned to take pleasure from even small things like quality craftsmanship. There was so little to take joy in, here.

Jack Harkness moved ahead of him in the gloom of the cave system, occasionally pausing to light or replace one of the torches placed in braziers at intervals along the walls. For the past six days, they hadn't seen the sun; traveling in tandem down corridors of limestone and shale in search of iron and coal. When they were too exhausted or injured to proceed, they retreated to the permanent camp waiting in the largest section of the cave: a cathedral of arched ceilings and pillars of rock. Early on in his imprisonment here, Castiel marveled at the illogical arrangement of resources. Veins of iron appeared in strange places, clustered with other materials that they should never form beside or at depths which would render them impossible. They'd found gold and even diamonds; lapis lazuli and a strange red stone that glowed when struck.

Castiel had years, however, to grow accustomed to the rules. Their count of the seasons' turns made it autumn of the fifth year. If one ignored the laws that governed the world he'd come from, the rules of Purgatory made a peculiar sense - or were consistently illogical, at the very least. The Castiel of five years ago might have spent an evening contemplating how nonsense, applied in the same consistent patterns over years, could become logic to the highly adaptive, highly suggestible human brain. It would have fascinated him then.

The Castiel of now felt such practice was a waste of precious time for a theoretical discussion of absolutely no use to anyone. Whatever conclusion he came to would neither improve their astonishingly poor first aid supplies nor repel the beasts that plagued them in the dark.

He did wonder, sometimes, what Dean would think of how he'd changed.

They left Purgatory on a day like any other, at the outset. Although their departure was unplanned, it still had an appropriateness that Castiel thought would touch Jack's sensitivity to symbolism. Deep in the caves, they drew the attention of a cadre of the green creatures that tormented them on Jack's arrival. The creatures - dubbed 'creepers' by Jack for the way they spied and peeped and closed in on silent feet - were still just as mysterious as at first blush. Following them in an attempt to learn how they fed, bred; survived, proved fruitless. They could not - or would not - communicate, and all attempts to interact with them, well--

--the less Castiel thought about those unfortunate instances, the better.

He went for the arrows at his back.

Creepers had a tendency to come in fours. Rarely, all four were visible at once, but more commonly the remainder swept in for an attack after the first ones were gone. This was one of those rare times. By chance he'd spotted them coming down the tunnel, blocking off their exit. Only the dark, untried cave before them offered a possibility of escape.

He knew it was useless to try and shoot them. They moved too quickly. One, he could bring down before it reached them. But each time he needed to stop and aim, those he wasn't pelting with arrows would keep coming.

"Jack!" he shouted, firing a shot into the leader to slow it down as he backed rapidly down the tunnel, "Run!"

He saw Jack come around the corner, take stock, and gallop into the dark at Castiel's back. Light flared in his peripheral vision as Jack set the end of a fresh torch aflame.

"Clear!" Jack called back to him. Castiel turned to bolt, following the beacon of fire through the dark like a star.

A dozen steps down the tunnel, however, and Castiel's progress was halted by a strong hand on his wrist. Though he'd seen Jack turn aside, Castiel still stumbled, the weight of his body swinging in a wild arc around the fulcrum of Jack's grip. He collided painfully with the wall, and both the bow and the arrow nocked to it fell from his hands.

"Jack, what--" Anger spiked Castiel's blood, alongside a shudder of fear. If they didn't die immediately in the explosions, four creepers igniting at once would inevitably bring the cave roof down on top of them. In the past, that meant days of suffering until they died of dehydration or injury.

Jack didn't answer, just gripped him harder, bodily, clamping Castiel to him like a child as the creepers trundled nearer. Castiel stopped struggling. He had enough time to wonder if Jack had given up, before a web of golden power threaded around them both. It tried to separate them, he could feel it, but Jack's grip tightened until it nearly cracked his ribs. With a flash of comprehension, Castiel mirrored Jack's hold.

The creepers ignited around them, and the cave began to crumble with the force of four concussive blasts. Torches in their braziers visible further up the tunnel winked out like dying stars as falling debris blotted the light.

Unharmed, protected somehow by the power-net flowing around them in sunlight filaments, Castiel watched the cave collapse.

Then he felt pulled, wrenched, in the four cardinal directions and through several planes of reality. Lights spun and sparkled, died and reappeared again in every possible hue. Lightning flared, snow skated across his cheek, humidity pricked his skin with condensation and desert sunlight seared the unprotected nape of his neck. Castiel closed his eyes against Jack's lapel. So little of what he saw made sense to his human perceptions, and he was becoming ill.

The quiver was torn from his back. A moment later, he had no back, body left behind as if made of so much water vapor. Formless, with no identity of his own, droplets of the being called Castiel surged into the being called Jack Harkness like oil and water: penetrating; scrambling. For an instant Castiel knew what it was to love and lose a Welshman named Ianto Jones. He felt the shock of walking among his teammates' bodies at the turn of the Millennium. The sharp needle of rejection from the one creature in the universe he thought would understand.

"It's not easy… just lookin' at you, Jack," Castiel heard, a gunshot statement that echoed through the rest of his existence, "'cause you're wrong."

He wasn't overwhelmed. He had no sense of self. Jack's reality became his. He didn't wonder if his had also become Jack's. There was no his.

And then he noticed it.

It. It. What...?

It glowed so that his existence, eyeless and entwined with Jack's in the insulating golden capsule of power, could see it.

A spark. Blue-white and pure. A tiny spark.

His Grace. A piece, only a piece. But his.

There was a Castiel again. Then, he was clothed anew, returned to the body in which he belonged and sorted apart from what he was not.

He wore a trenchcoat. But his trenchcoat had deteriorated months ago, bloodstained and riddled with slashes, replaced with leather and wool as the only available resources. Normally it degraded until something killed him, then reappeared anew when he regenerated, but he hadn't died in--

--the world around him had settled, but it was too bright. Too loud. Sounds he never expected to hear again now turned his mind to chaos. Panicked, Castiel snatched for sanity against the wall of sensory input. He'd always had a buffer from all this. A degree of separation.

In the tumult, he forgot what he had seen. Forgot what it was like to be Jack Harkness.

"Castiel?"

Castiel realized he was still being held. He withdrew, unsteady, but the pressure of a palm in the center of his lower back persisted.

"Castiel!"

He looked up. Jack was watching him, and as they made eye contact his expression shifted from concern into the biggest, warmest grin Castiel saw the man wear. Why?

"Thought I'd lost you a minute there," Jack's voice held barely checked glee, "we're back. We're out." And with that, Castiel understood. He turned his head with ginger care to look past Jack's chest. To a bar, his jumbled memories supplied, this was a bar. A place where sentient species gathered to socialize.

At the counter stood a creature. There were many others, each as odd as this one or odder, but unlike them, this one gazed at him with open interest. If it was a creation of his Father's, Castiel could not place it, but that was not alarming. His Father was responsible for the act of creation, not the creation of every creature. Androgynous, mostly humanoid, slender-featured, it was big and grayish. Its thick lips and slanting tear-shaped eyes were magenta; the pupils oblong, like a sheep. Where the skin was stretched thin on its face, Castiel could see a flush of magenta beneath the gray hues. Incongruously, it wore a variation of blue jeans and a shirt that looked suspiciously as if it bore the logo of a band on the chest. As Castiel struggled to decide if it was a mimicry of Earth or a case of cultural parallels, his glazed confusion began to recede.

The creature opened its mouth in a wide, vaguely humanoid smile, displaying a row of teeth the color and sharpness of obsidian. A crest of almost phosphorescent pink hair suddenly lifted from its pate like the feathers of a tropical bird. In one of… several handlike appendages, it held a short glass tumbler filled with neon green liquid, which it offered to Castiel. "You might need this," it said in clear, but oddly accented English, "At least until your little mind - ah, what's the human twenty-first century term? Yes - defragments."

Castiel narrowed his eyes at the stranger, wracking his memory for a reference to its species. He didn't reach out to accept the drink. After a moment, the creature set the drink on the bar and turned its head back to them. Castiel always thought it odd how human other species looked. All subtly different, of course, but still. Head, arms, legs and feet in mostly the same places.

It also sounded vaguely European.

"What do you mean, 'defragments?'" Jack said, adding, "thanks for the vacation, by the way. I always wanted to visit sunny Purgatory. Totally fell for the hype."

Amazing how so many expressions were universal, as well. The creature looked surprised. "Purgatory? Jack Harkness, from our first chat, I took you for an anti-theist."

Castiel felt Jack's jaw brush his cheek as the man lifted his chin. Castiel wanted to back away, to observe, but the arm still around his waist had a note of caution in its grip. Irritation blossomed rapidly at this, but rather than give way to it, Castiel focused his own attention inward. He concentrated on the spark he'd seen in the -- on the way here. Wherever 'here' was.

He felt his wings stir as his thoughts brushed against them. Surprised, Castiel sought them, but lacked the power to bring them forth. The control was there, and he knew how, however they could only shift, sensual and slightly painful, like silk against a wound. How?

"It's complicated," Jack was saying, "I don't like talking theology with people I don't know. Especially people who zap other people to alternate planes of reality as a response to good-natured teasing."

"Sloshed at the time," the stranger sing-songed airily, spreading the long, sharp, fuschia-tipped fingers on its many hands. The gesture gave the impression of sea anemones opening and Castiel realized, quite suddenly, that he found the whole effect dangerously beautiful.

"That's not an excuse," Jack shrugged. His grip relaxed somewhat, allowing Castiel more room to breathe. He stayed within reach, but continued to probe at the weak tendrils of power. If he could just--

"You were anything but good-natured at the time, also, as I recall." One set of magenta-flushed gray arms crossed mulishly over the stranger's thin chest.

"You recall? I thought you were sloshed," Jack retorted. He turned his head fractionally, including Castiel in his range of focus, "Castiel, meet the reason I met you. You could say he introduced us. So," his gaze centered on the stranger again, and a lethal smile replaced his frown, "I guess I'm grateful enough not to kill you."

"Plus I brought you back, brought you both back - not that I meant to, specifically - and risked my life to do it." the stranger pointed out. Without further banter, he (Jack said 'he,' Castiel would just have to assume it was male) turned his focus on Castiel again. A few fingers twiddled, slow and gentle. "Odd, that. You certainly aren't a native. Humans don't fare well in Purgatory. What were you doing there?"

Clownfish, thought Castiel, distracted from his goal, there should be clownfish. He remembered standing inside the aquarium tunnel of the Henry Doorly Zoo a decade ago, watching manta rays drift overhead against the silver spangles of the water's skin. None of these thoughts, he realized belatedly, were appropriate for the situation, and Castiel dragged himself into the present.

"Getting back to your initial question," the stranger continued when Castiel didn't answer, "by 'defragment,' your friend here is suffering from memories temporarily out of order. I suppose I scrambled the eggs a little in the shopping bag on the way home. Anyhow, his mind needs time to sort it out. Until then, he'll be somewhat unreliable."

Unreliable? Castiel wondered. He still found speech difficult.

"How long?" Jack demanded.

The odd, gently cycling gray hands all opened at once, and Castiel found it increasingly difficult to look away. "The brain of any creature is unique and unpredictable," the stranger said indifferently, "you know that. It could be a few hours, or it could be a day, or longer. Your return was intended to be a trip for one. You're quite lucky that things turned out as positively as they did."

"Don't pretend you did me any favors," Jack snapped. His hand on Castiel's waist curled into a fist, and Castiel realized that on Captain Jack Harkness, righteous anger looked... magnificent. Something about the man's posture and the feelings he engendered touched off a chain reaction of disordered thought, picking up speed as they went. Suddenly Castiel found himself thinking of Normandy, in splatters of red and dirty gray-greens. Seconds afterward, the colors morphed into the vivid jewel tones of tomatoes in a Chicago apartment garden. Then cracks in the sidewalk, and disrepair, and desolation, and empty Greek ruins and blood again, Sam and Dean all blood-splattered and pale, blood all over the walls of--

His vision swam and pitched hard right, then collapsed into darkness.

Castiel came to, propped between Jack's side and a comfortingly solid wall. His forehead rested on his arms on the table in front of him, Jack's coat thrown around his shoulders. The angry babble around him earlier had quieted. Blessed dark surrounded him.

Castiel never felt so utterly helpless in his life.

He knew, distantly, that Jack was asking in increasing concern if he was all right. He knew it was Jack, but couldn't quite work up the correct words. They evaded him like small, wily goldfish.

"Talk to me, Archer," Jack murmured, "hey, you got me worried, here. The walking coral reef seems to think it's no big deal, but I'm pretty sure you seized." The strap on his wrist made a soft b-deep and Jack cocked his arm to examine the display. "In fact, I'm very sure you did."

Castiel comprehended, but couldn't collect his thoughts enough to respond. He rolled his head to one side, glancing up at Jack with one eye. "Can't... focus," he groaned with difficulty.

"Deep breaths," Jack suggested. Meditation was a process Castiel understood, and he obeyed, imposing his will on his unruly brain. After a few minutes of slow, careful breathing, Castiel could sit up. He saw relief in Jack's expression, but did his best not to dwell on it.

His first priority reasserted itself. Castiel listened for the Host.

...And listened.

"I can’t hear them," Castiel blurted. The timing was inappropriate, but he was too distressed by the fact to censor himself.

"Can't hear what?" Jack passed him a mug of something steaming, and blocked him in with the breadth of his frame. Castiel couldn't find the energy to move over. His body felt drained.

"The Host," Castiel replied, unable to keep the despair from his voice, "the other angels. I can't hear them." He watched as Jack opened his mouth to inevitably ask another question, then seemed to think better of it. Instead, he took a sip of what passed for coffee on Denobia and turned his attention towards the rest of the room. He gestured with his mug towards their benefactor, who - having absolved himself entirely of guilt - was having an uproarious time at the bar.

"Raistlin over there says you're just jetlagged from the process," he said, "I've got someone coming for us, but it'll take an hour for them to get within range. You feeling any better?"

Castiel said "Yes," because it was less taxing than a nod, adding "Raistlin?" with puzzlement a moment later. He'd distinctly heard the stranger say his name was something else, requiring the throat musculature to create chords. Jack's smile at that was sly, as if Castiel caught him at something naughty.

"I can't pronounce his name," Jack explained with a shrug, "you can't pronounce his name. I figured it's preferable to 'that alien who rezzed us with the D Major chord.'"

"C Major," Castiel corrected.

"You're tone deaf," Jack observed cheerfully.

Castiel dragged his eyes up from the cooling mug of coffee that seemed intended for him. "My true form has no ears," he said, "therefore I can't be tone deaf."

"How do you know chords if you have no ears?"

"You didn't question my ability to hear your call."

"That was before I found out you had no ears."

They stared at one another stonily for a few seconds, before Castiel allowed himself a faint smile. Jack began to chuckle, reached out and scuffed his fingers through Castiel's hair.

"Raistlin's a magician from a book. Kind of a cheater. Sort of ugly, too, with funky eyes. I thought it was appropriate. What?" Jack assumed a patently false expression of injury at Castiel's stare, "a guy can't read?"

"I suppose you've had plenty of hours to fill," Castiel observed slowly. He leaned away from Jack until his temple rested against the wall. The sense of despair that Jack had so briefly been able to stave off returned. He couldn't hear Heaven. But even Anna, who had torn out her Grace, could hear the Host. And how could he feel these scraps of power? Sam and Dean extracted his Grace. He knew the ritual, having had years to contemplate his memories. His return would not call it back; he must destroy whatever contained it.

This was not normal for a fallen angel. Castiel fell once before. He knew how it was supposed to feel. He didn't even have Anna to ask, because Anna was long since dead.

Had Heaven blocked him off, permanently? Or was there anyone left to speak?

Jack's fingers laced through his and Castiel looked up, surprised. Jack turned Castiel's wrist, and he felt the leather of the black wrist strap Jack retrieved from the stranger. The display glowed blue, garnering all of Jack's attention.

"What is that?" Castiel asked.

Jack smiled. "Long story. Save it for the trip home. I'm checking your vitals, but I'd give a lot to have Owen here. They've got a decent medic on the freighter coming to get us, at least. Or they did the last time I was on board."

"How long ago?"

Jack pushed a button on the display and his eyebrows went up. "Less than a year. Castiel, we haven't even been gone two months."

Castiel drew a deep, relieved breath. "Good." In the midst of this wreckage, there was one positive note: he hadn't been gone long enough for Sam and Dean to come to harm. Perhaps it was arrogance, or the gross overconfidence in their abilities that he was regularly accused of, but he found the odds of their deaths much higher over a span of years rather than weeks.

"Does Purgatory have some sort of temporal distortion field? Because that felt like years."

Castiel looked away, unsure how to explain in a manner that Jack would accept, then regarded their twined hands with pointed curiosity. Jack's expression grew impish. "No, that's not necessary. I could just scan you. But I'd rather monitor you continually, and for that I need contact. It's the least conspicuous way I could think of." He paused, looking thoughtful. "We could try one of the other--"

Castiel broke in before he could finish the thought, volume rising, "Considering your lack of scruples and my--"

"Inability to resist me?"

"--difficulty restraining certain impulses... if you 'try one of the others,' we'll quickly attract unwanted attention."

"Nah, I bet they've seen worse in here. I mean, come on. Intergalactic dive bar?" Jack's free hand encompassed the bar and its assortment of patrons with a single sweep. "The things you're gonna see in here will sear your eyeballs worse than anything I'm personally capable of. The courtship rituals of the Harragardians alone... I couldn't eat seafood for months." His gaze dropped to the display on his wrist once more.

The stretch of Castiel's severely underutilized imagination could only reach so far without help. He gave up trying to piece together Jack's dark hints and bowed his head, eyes sliding closed. He leaned into the solid presence of Jack's shoulder, as it was warmer and far more comfortable than the wall.

"Less than an hour," Jack reported cheerfully, a few minutes later. He might have been referring to the time left before their rescuers arrived or the typical amount of time Harragardians required to mate. Castiel, asleep despite the noise and chaos of the bar, couldn't have cared.

Chapter Text

"I'm handling this," Jack said. His tone did not open the topic for discussion, but Castiel argued anyway.

"Bobby is Sam and Dean's-- Blood relations don't factor in, but he's the closest thing to a father they have. That makes him important to me, as well."

"No argument there," Jack replied, in precisely the same even, immovable tone he'd used previously, "but - and I'll be blunt here, Castiel - I'm still not convinced you're up for it. That was not a fun trip for you."

The space freighter that carried them back to Earth had spartan accommodations and a choppy propulsion system that made a johnboat seem like a luxury oceanliner, but Castiel didn't remember most of the trip. Their 'rescuer' hadn't exaggerated the side effects of Castiel's escape from Purgatory. The few memories he had were jumbled nightmares, interspersed between long pauses of drugged darkness. Reality stabilized a few days before they'd been dropped off, planetside. Castiel hated to admit it, but that, at least, was a fair concern.

"And you're not much for stalking," Jack added.

Castiel considered denying the allegation, glaring at an apparently unperturbed Jack.

Jack sighed. "This isn't Purgatory. Bobby's not a Creeper - and you said if he sees you, he'll probably try to kill you."

"He'll think I'm a revenant," Castiel reiterated, annoyed, "or any number of things."

"And from what you told me about him, if he wants to kill you, he'll do it. Look, I know you could do this solo on all eight cylinders. And you're not." He gazed at Castiel frankly. After a moment more, Castiel's eyes flickered away.

"I'll bear that in mind," Castiel replied, low, slow and deadly.

Jack huffed. "You're just lucky I can't dart you," he snapped, "or I would. I'm doing this. And you're going to stay here. Or so help me Castiel, we are not doing this at all."

Although he hated it, in the end Castiel let Jack go alone. From a safe distance away, he watched Jack vanish into the scrapyard, armed with all of Castiel's gleaned knowledge of the old drunk's booby traps and pitfalls.

Knowledge that did neither of them any good. Fifteen minutes after Jack's departure, Castiel turned at the crackle of brush behind him and glanced up just in time to see the butt of a rifle swinging down. It connected solidly with his nose. Blackness whirled over a burst of pain and multicolored lights.

When he came to, face throbbing, Castiel instantly knew the chair he was sitting in. He knew the room, right down to the rust on the walls and the slowly oscillating shadow of the iron Devil's Trap overhead. This was Bobby Singer's Panic Room. Apparently they'd done a poor job of concealing their activities.

Bobby Singer stood in the doorway, a rifle (probably the same one he'd put Castiel down with) trained on Castiel where he sat.

"Howdy," Bobby said warily. Castiel shifted and glanced down, taking in the knots securing his wrists to the arms of the chair. He assumed, if he could lean out to look down, both his waist and his ankles had also been secured in the same fashion. Bobby Singer had a determination of will that went leagues to cover for the infirmity of age and alcoholism. He was as competent as the Winchesters, perhaps even more so in some areas.

"Bobby, this is unnecessary. It's me," Castiel said slowly, raising his eyes to meet Bobby's with some difficulty. He winced a little as working the muscles in his face only reminded him further that he'd have one, possibly two black eyes in a few minutes.

Bobby whistled, low and impressed. "Wow, you sure done your homework. If I didn't know Castiel was hamburger, I'd almost think you were the real deal." He hitched up the rifle a little, one-handed, and set down a familiar little earthen jug. Holy oil. Leftovers from their previous interrogation?

"I'm sure there's no use in attempting to reassure you," Castiel observed, with a sudden sag of exhaustion. Bobby's head twitched a confirmation.

"Nope," Bobby said, upbeat in the way that usually meant the torture implements were coming out next, "not a chance. So how about you save me some time and tell me what you are and why you were hangin' out in my timber. Because you ain't no shapeshifter, you ain't no demon, and you sure as hell ain't no angel."

"All of the tests indicated that I'm human." It hurt less to move his eyes than his head, and Castiel relaxed his neck before his forehead exploded. He'd known his share of pain, fairly recently in fact, but the creatures patrolling Purgatory rarely aimed for the face. "Bobby, none of the creatures you know can pass those tests. Please, think. I need your help."

He was gratified to see Bobby's lined features soften a fraction. Then he could almost see the walls slam down, grief and rage replacing the flash of self-doubt.

"You twisted sonuva--" Bobby hiked the rifle again, two-handed this time, and sighted along the barrel. "I should gut you on principle. You got no right wearing Cas like some coat. This is as far as that disguise is ever gonna get you."

At this, Castiel felt a number of emotions. Satisfaction was the most inexplicable. He was pleased because Bobby was grieved that someone might use him to gain access to them? Irritation, of course, and that made sense considering that their plan had gone so wrong. Guilt, that he was causing Bobby undue pain. He tilted his head in consternation, scrutinizing the man as if - like the old days - he could read Bobby's motivation.

Bobby hesitated again. He went for his cellphone - presumably to tell Sam and Dean about the Castiel doppelganger in his basement - but got no further than digging it out of his pocket. The butt of an antique pistol came down across the back of his skull, and suddenly Castiel was looking at Jack across Bobby Singer's prone form.

Castiel made a noise of protest, and then Jack was at his side, rapidly undoing the knots. "Are you all right?" Jack demanded.

"I'm fine." Castiel's nose and cheeks felt about twice the size of the space they were meant to fit, and pulsed with every turn of his head.

"Did he call anyone?"

"Not while I was conscious," Castiel snarled, out of the chair and across the floor to Bobby in seconds.

"He's fine," Jack tossed the heavy cord aside impatiently and got to his feet, "I've had a few hundred years to perfect that move. I think I should know how to apply correct force by now."

Castiel pressed his palm briefly to the man's temple, frustrated that he couldn't sense more than Bobby's physical vitals. His skin was warm and slightly damp. Castiel felt his mind sliding out of focus. He once stood with Bobby Singer at the apocalypse, at every end, the two of them flanking the Winchesters straightforward as rooks on a chessboard... and now...

Jack knelt across from him a moment later. His urgent expression drew Castiel back from the shadows. "Castiel, we have to move. Now. Help me lift him."

It was an unpleasant shock to be reminded that Castiel could no longer lift Bobby Singer on his own. His body seemed to at least remember the years of hard labor in Purgatory, but without Jack's aid, Bobby would have been awake sometime during the trip across the basement floor and up the stairs to the living room.

When they'd settled him on the couch, Jack dug a bottle from one of his many pockets and held a small white tab out to Castiel. "You ever given a pill to an unconscious man?" Pause. "...Of course you haven't." Casting to his left, Jack snagged the remains of a glass of scotch from the nearby desk, dropped the tab into it, and swished it. "Give him this. Slowly."

Castiel didn't ask what it was as he took it, but his suspicion must have translated itself clearly enough. Jack sighed, and turned away. "Didn't take you long, did it? It's called Retcon." he approached Bobby's answering machine, "Special Torchwood design. Causes memory loss. Pretty sturdy sedative in that batch. Any history of heart problems?"

This gave Castiel pause. "Nothing hereditary," he replied, frozen in the process of propping Bobby up to administer the dosed scotch.

Jack punched the play button on the machine and moved to sift through the tangle of books and papers on Bobby's desk. "Probably fine then."

Bobby's eyelids fluttered. Castiel made a choice, and with a brief look at Jack, forced the liquid down Bobby's throat. The man was conscious enough to swallow, and all but the last drops were gone before he fully came to.

The less said about the next two and a half minutes, the better. Castiel sported a split lip and a few bruised ribs by the time Bobby passed out again. In his opinion, they were a fractional atonement, but at least Bobby wouldn't remember this betrayal.

Meanwhile, Jack had reviewed all of Bobby's messages and retrieved his cellular phone from the Panic Room. He looked satisfied when he returned to the living room. "No calls," Jack said, holding up the phone. They resettled Bobby on the couch again and returned the slim device to his pocket. "And I got some interesting information. Wish I had Tosh to hack that voicemail, but--" he shrugged, "anyway. Saddle up."

Twenty minutes later, they'd checked into a small hotel for the night - or rather, after one good look at Castiel's face, Jack had checked them in and come out for him later. Jack silently drew the curtains, commandeered the bed furthest from the window to spread out his equipment, and excused himself from the room. Castiel examined his face in the mirror. One eye, his nose and lower lip were dark, reddened and puffy. It was not a condition he was used to seeing on his own features, although he'd seen it - and healed it - often enough on Dean's. Castiel wondered if James Novak had ever been in a serious fight. He wondered what James would have thought of all this, consent be damned.

Perhaps best not to think of that.

As if summoned by the downturn of Castiel's thoughts, the door clicked and Jack was standing behind him in his shirtsleeves. His smile in the glass was sympathetic. As Castiel found himself smiling tentatively in return, Jack hoisted a clear plastic bag of ice.

"C'mon, Archer," he said gently, "let's get you cleaned up."

Castiel sighed and dropped his eyes to the sink. "Jack--"

"Later." Jack's arm snagged him around the waist, palm spread at his navel. Castiel acquiesced at the touch, finally admitting to himself just how tired he truly was. He allowed Jack to help him undress and took the ibuprofen he was offered before he let himself be shepherded to bed. A washcloth insulated his skin from the icebag now resting over most of his face. Jack stayed with him until he was settled, then moved to the other bed. As the medication slowly rounded off the edges of pain, Castiel focused on the irregular, thoughtful tap of Jack's keyboard and tried to quiet his mind.

"The voicemails," he began cautiously, "you said you found something."

"I did," Jack drawled, concentration elsewhere at the moment. A few more taps, stab of the return key, and he added, "Sam and Dean are dealing with something new. I had a look through Bobby's papers, but it looks like he hasn't found anything for them yet. They're in St. Paul. I booked us a flight out tomorrow."

Castiel nodded.

"A couple other--" Jack's voice was thoughtful, "--you call them 'hunters,' right? A couple hunters left similar messages. They were pretty cryptic. You guys all have issues with paranoia."

"I know," Castiel replied dryly.

"Anyway, I've started a search for any news reports in the past few days of strange deaths, eyewitness accounts, that sort of thing." At Castiel's noise of amusement, Jack's smile was audible. "I know. Humans, right? The amount of 'eyewitness accounts' tonight alone could almost fill a server rack. So I left the software to search for patterns. It's even smart enough to recognize phrases from any original wire stories, so we won't end up with a million and one small-town plagiarized newspaper articles."

"Anything yet?"

"No. It may be a few hours before the Torchwood software compiles all the information. Tosh could have made this all go a lot faster," Jack said. Castiel did not know the 'wistful' tones of many voices, but he knew it in Jack's. He lifted the ice bag from the bridge of his nose, but Jack was already coming toward the bed.

"No," Jack chided quietly, "put that back. Can't have that gorgeous profile damaged."

Castiel frowned, ignoring the pressure it put on the split in his lip. "I can't feel my nose, Jack."

"All to the good," Jack replied, "that pack doesn't come off unless ice crystals start forming in your retinas."

"This cold isn't intense enough for that."

"Of course it isn't."

Castiel listened to Jack snapping equipment closed, then the softer sounds of undressing. He felt the covers shift and the bed dip a little beneath the weight of a second body, and Jack curled around him until the pillow was replaced with the warmth of his chest. His fingers, languid and slow, sifted through Castiel's hair. The intimacy brought down a barrier Castiel had unconsciously erected. Vividly now, he remembered the man's expression before Jack turned away to the answering machine. Castiel shook his head slowly and reached up until his fingers bumped blindly against Jack's wrist.

"I do trust you, Jack," he murmured. There was silence for a space after that, and Jack's hand stilled in his grip.

"No, Castiel, you don't. And it's okay that you don't," Jack replied, the pace of his words quickening before Castiel could protest, "I don't expect it. I've lived for so long and seen so much, I have a different philosophy than-- sometimes it's hard to remember what it's like to be fragile."

Castiel tightened his grip. "Listen, Jack."

Jack subsided. The atmosphere around them tensed.

"I trusted that medication to do what you said it would, or I would never have given it to Bobby. You have blind obedience confused with trust." Castiel said. He kept his grip tight, pulling Jack's hand down to rest alongside his cheek. Silence descended again for a few long seconds, and then Castiel felt the soft press of Jack's mouth at his hairline.

"Hey, I like my blindly obedient staff," Jack chuckled. His fingertips traced the soft edge of Castiel's jaw.

"I'm not your staff," Castiel retorted, amusement lacing his voice. The tension evaporated.

"Well, if you ever do apply, just bear in mind: blind obedience a plus. Particularly after hours."

They laughed together, and Jack kissed the top of his head again. "How's your nose?"

"Numb." Castiel paused. "Faith takes time, Jack. I'm trying."

"It's because I'm not Dean, isn't it?" Jack asked.

Often, when faced with blindness or deafness, humans reported heightened sensitivity in other areas. Unable to see Jack, Castiel was certain he caught a faint edge of hurt. He'd been in the man's presence long enough to know that Jack was the emotional equivalent of the iceberg that sank the Titanic. For this reason, Castiel dug deep for his answer, making fully certain of himself before he proceeded.

Two weeks and five years ago, he would have been able to forgive what Dean and Sam had done to him as an honest mistake - as something they had to do. Now, however, while he still could - and did - hold to that philosophy, he knew that something in him had been shattered that day, compounded by being forced to confront the emotions head-on.

He cared deeply for Dean - and Sam, and Bobby as well - but he no longer trusted them. Not completely. Or rather, he trusted them to be human, and to be human was to be frightened and angry. Well... and aroused, which didn't apply to this situation but had certainly clouded Castiel's judgment in the past.

"It's because of Dean, yes," Castiel admitted, slowly, "But it's nothing you've done, Jack, and it's certainly not because you aren't him. For the record," Castiel added with a flash of humor, "sometimes I doubt his orders as well."

"And here I felt special."

They left Castiel's ice bag on as long as he could stand it. When the plastic bag full of meltwater was back in the hotel ice bucket and Jack had a good, sturdy hold on him, Castiel let himself sleep. He knew the man would be up and at those computers in a half hour, but that was all right. They'd make more progress that way.

"I wish you could sleep," Castiel murmured into his shoulder, too tired to pay much attention to his words.

"Wish I could, too," Jack sighed, "I forgot how nice it is."


The next morning, Castiel's face felt better and looked worse. By luck or the ice, he'd only developed one black eye. As Jack pointed out, however, it was 'a beauty,' encircling the lower half of his right eye in a rosy purple arc. The bridge of his nose was still swollen and the force of impact had broken the skin enough to form a small scab, but it was still less noticeable than the shiner he sported. They'd also discovered a sizeable goose egg on the back of Castiel's head, which - in conjunction with the bedliner-shaped stripes of dirt on his trenchcoat - handily explained how Bobby had managed to transport him from the woods behind the scrapyard to his basement.

Castiel had wondered about that.

"We're gonna need a cover story for the airport," Jack said as they loaded their gear into the back of the rental, "I've got the ID to cover us, but they're gonna want to know what happened to you. We'll make you a hero. Wrestled down some seven-foot gorilla."

"Do we have to tell them?" Castiel asked, as the heavy laptop case went into the trunk. He worried. He'd observed Dean and Sam enough to know that attracting attention was generally a bad idea during covert operations.

"Maybe he was threatening a woman. A really cute one. And she was pregnant." Jack slammed the trunk lid closed and flashed a grin over the top, "Oh, you're gonna look like an angel."

Castiel stood motionless by the back of the vehicle, staring at Jack in consternation while the other man opened the driver's side door, blithely unaware of his concern.

"I dislike this plan," Castiel protested. It came out a little more desperate than he intended, and Jack's head popped up over the roof of the sedan. He chuckled.

"You should see your face, Castiel," Jack said. He relented a moment later, opening one hand out across the roof of the car. "Come on, I wouldn't do that to you. We won't worry about it unless they ask, and if they ask, we tell them the perp we're chasing got a little rough with my partner, and that's why we both look like funeral directors."

Castiel felt his pulse jump at the word 'partner.' He breathed it down, fiercely, and nodded once with grim agreement before circling to the passenger door.

"Did you take more painkillers this morning?" Jack asked, after Castiel had dutifully clipped his seatbelt in place. The process of turning his head enough to see what he was doing made his face pound, no matter how slowly he went about it.

"No," Castiel replied, chagrined. Jack smiled, reached into his breast pocket, and flipped Castiel the small bottle.

"Thought not. Take two. Water bottle's still in the console."

Castiel medicated himself as directed, taking faint pleasure in his rapidly increasing skills with child-proof safety caps. He lapsed into meditative silence afterward, and as Jack seemed in a similar frame of mind, the brief trip to the Sioux Falls Regional Airport was a quiet one.

The airport was large for the size of the surrounding township, Castiel thought. He guessed that it must provide air traffic for other nearby municipalities, but could hazard no other theories than that. Jack dropped off the rental (sheer good manners, considering he'd rented it under a false identity), and they made their way toward the large glass-enclosed building.

God works in mysterious ways. Castiel knew that better than most, even if Dean didn't want to hear it. He was always open to the word of his Father. It was part of his construction, as intrinsic to his makeup as the power Sam and Dean held captive. That he'd never specifically heard his Father's voice had little bearing; Castiel knew a sign when he saw one.

Sioux Falls, South Dakota, wasn't known for religious activism. Its varied patchwork of faiths and denominations cared for their own with quiet fortitude, like many other towns of the same size. The average search for online news articles turned up baseball, award-winning gardens and city council decisions. Not sign-carrying vagrants going on about the end being near. Especially not loitering around the Sioux Falls Regional Airport.

A man stood on the sidewalk outside the airport with a vacant expression, wearing a neo-Christian's impression of Christ's attire and carrying a sign painted with the words "ARE U READY 4 THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN?" Security was attempting to shoo him with only moderate success when Castiel and Jack passed the tableau.

Castiel froze. "Jack," he hissed, not taking his eyes from the sign. A moment later, Jack returned, and together they watched as a pair of uniformed guards hustled the stranger back to his van.

"What?"

"I'm not ready," Castiel blurted in horror, "the moment I assume my true form, the remainder of the Host will be aware of my return." What could have happened in two weeks? Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, even Lucifer - everyone who could have assumed leadership over Heaven was dead or trapped indefinitely. Could war have broken out? Who would fight it? Balthazar was one of the few lower angels Castiel believed could possibly manage such a thing on his own--but Balthazar had been--

"Is that a bad thing?" Jack asked.

Castiel nodded, looking sharply away in frustration. He knew his siblings' penchant for fighting, but the core of his soul still loyal to them would always resent admitting their shortcomings. "Potentially. I need to know what's happened in Heaven since my absence, before I draw their attention. Otherwise we could be attacked."

"Bring 'em on." Jack held his unburdened arm out, fist curled in challenge.

"I'm not concerned for your safety or mine," Castiel replied soberly, "But the Winchesters could also be at risk, as accidental casualties during the fray. ...Or deliberate targeting."

Jack whistled. "I'm not going to judge your taste in friends, Archer, but seriously, you know how to pick 'em. So how do we find out what's happened? Does the Host have a weekly podcast we can hack?"

Castiel turned again toward the man dressed as Jesus, shouting distantly now, still bravely holding his handpainted sign.

"What day is it, Jack?" Castiel asked.

Jack consulted his wrist strap. "It's Friday. August twenty-seventh."

"Change of plans," Castiel nodded with relief, turning back to look up at Jack, "we need to go to the Black Rock Desert."

"And where is that?"

"Nevada."

Jack pulled a face. "I hate the climate out there. Whoever decided to put Las Vegas in the middle of a desert clearly never bothered to consult me first. Couldn't you have said Los Angeles?" When Castiel refused to smile, however, Jack sobered as well. "What's out there, Castiel?" Jack asked softly.

"Burning Man," Castiel replied, "and Shamsiel."

"Shamsiel?"

"An older brother."

"Another one?" Jack turned again and started for the door once again, retrieving their tickets from his pocket. "I'm starting to wonder about your family."

"He was cast from Heaven for disobedience," Castiel said on reflex, falling into step behind Jack. He regretted the words immediately. They were remnants of his training, given no more real insight than the recitation of rhymes by schoolchildren. "He took our Father's desire that we worship mankind... somewhat out of context," Castiel amended, "and caused a great deal of damage."

"Damage?" Jack was only half listening. Castiel continued, mostly for himself.

"Have you heard the story of the Nephilim?"

"Can't say I have."

"The Great Flood, then."

"You mean the whole 'forty days and forty nights, animals two-by-two' thing?"

Castiel took a cleansing breath. "Yes, Jack."

"Sure. Hang on a minute." They'd reached the customer service counter, where Jack - with the aid of fake security clearance convincing enough to make the Winchesters envious - changed their flight to Reno, Nevada, the closest airport to the Black Rock Desert. That same identification got them through security without trouble a few hours later, and when one of the guards commented on Castiel's black eye, he could tell Jack took an unholy glee in acting like an investigator from a television police procedural.

"Okay," Jack said, when they and their gear were safely onboard the next plane to Reno (by way of St. Paul) and a few minutes of silence had passed, "so back to Noah's Ark." He'd taken the aisle seat, allowing Castiel the window.

"The Biblical story of the Ark is an oversimplification of a process that was a great deal more complex," Castiel said, watching other planes taxi down the runway. He caught a glimpse of the red slash across the bridge of his nose in the window reflection and reached up to touch the skin. "Do you remember when I mentioned the prohibition against taking humans as lovers?"

"Yes," Jack said, smiling presumably over the recollection of that conversation. "And I established that we fall in a gray area."

"Shamsiel took a human wife," Castiel explained in an undertone, turning from the window, "as did others. Children were born unto them. Those children were the Nephilim."

Jack grimaced, teeth drawn back with a hiss. "In my experience, hybrids are rarely a good thing."

Castiel nodded, slow and deliberate. "They were giants."

Jack stared. "Giants."

Once more, Castiel nodded. "'These devoured all which the labor of men produced;'" he quoted, "'until it became impossible to feed them; When they turned themselves against men, in order to devour them; And began to injure birds, beasts, reptiles, and fishes, to eat their flesh one after another, and to drink their blood'."

"If I'd known that was in the Bible, I might have read it sooner."

"It isn't in the Bible as you know it," Castiel replied, "I find it... strange... how humans accept without question the creation of Earth by a single sentient entity, Abraham's lifespan of one hundred and seventy five years, the works of Moses, and the Voice within the Burning Bush. Yet in the same breath they denounce the Nephilim as myth. The Book of Enoch, 'apocrypha:' written at the same time, yet untrue."

Jack dismissed the irrationality of humanity with a shrug. After a span of silence, Castiel continued.

"God called the rains to wipe the majority of the Nephilim from the Earth, for no other weapon availed against them. As punishment for their part," he sighed, "Shamsiel and others were cast from Heaven, to walk the Earth for eternity. Their powers are bound. 'Chained in darkness,' as it were." He said the latter as emptily as he could, anticipating a protest. An argument. It was rote as children's poetry to the Host, which in his experience meant Jack was going to have a problem with it.

Tension rose and fell between them like an ocean tide. Jack gazed at him soberly. "What do you think about all that?" he asked.

Castiel exhaled gustily. He thought it over. It was perhaps the first time in eons that he'd truly done so. It was the only time he'd been asked.

"He's my brother," Castiel said, as fiercely as Dean said it, with as much loyalty. It was the first time he'd said it that way, and the shift inside him as a result was breathtaking, like a spell undone, "they all are."

He was like Dean. He had a brother who made mistakes, and Castiel still-- he was like Dean.

Jack nodded. For once, Castiel believed he'd said the right thing. Better still, he found he meant it. He realized that Dean was not the only man he knew who harbored such fierce loyalty to a sibling.

"So there are others?" Jack asked. The flight attendants called for their attention, and the plane at last began taxiing out onto the runway. Castiel turned rapt attention to the window once more, savoring every gee of force pressing him into his seat. He'd been on an airplane before, but only briefly, and he hadn't really been a passenger. Man-made flying machines were ingenious. They'd come so far from the first spruce-and-silk gliders.

"Many others," Castiel confirmed, when their trajectory leveled out. The lights instructing them to remain in their seats winked off.

"What's so special about Shamsiel that we're going all the way out to a blistering hot desert in Nevada?"

For the first time since they'd left the hotel, Castiel smiled. "He can hack the podcast."

"What?"

"Shamsiel can hear the communication of the Host, unless they deliberately mask their conversations, and many have long since forgotten about the Two Hundred. He's one of the few who haven't retreated into total isolation."

"Convenient."

"Or fallen into insanity."

"Ah. What if he's got the same problem you do? You know, can't 'hack the podcast' anymore?"

The question startled Castiel. Irritated by the fact that he hadn't considered it as a possibility, he watched in silence as Jack's fingers moved on the plastic tumbler of cola, slowly rotating it like the gears in a clock movement. What if Shamsiel had been cut off, just as he had? Or - Castiel thought once again, gripped by the same cold coils of panic - what if Heaven itself was empty? He continued to watch Jack's fingers rotate the curves of plastic and the bubbles dislodged by the motion, and truly saw none of it.

He'd been watching Jack's right hand; he should have been watching the left. Solid warmth closed over Castiel's wrist, bringing his attention down to the pressure. He looked at the ridge of Jack's knuckles, the darker tan against his own sleeve, and back up.

Jack looked nonchalant. The glass in his opposite hand, however, had stopped turning. "You were going to say something before I interrupted."

After a brief scramble, Castiel rearranged his thoughts. "Shamsiel is simple to locate, this time of year. As my abilities to hear the Host still seem inexplicably curtailed, it--"

"--seemed prudent. Gotcha."

With an amused exhale, Castiel was able to push aside his earlier concerns for the moment. "You seem to make a habit of interruption, Jack."

"I wasn't interrupting. I was finishing your sentence. There's a difference."

"You halted me before I was able to complete my statement. That falls within the definition. I fail to see--"

"--how it's different?" Jack pivoted in his seat until his body mostly faced Castiel. "I spent five years with your voice in my head, Archer," and the familiar name in tandem with the memories it called made Castiel's pulse jump, "and sometimes what you thought, and felt, and wanted... I can almost hear what you're gonna say before you say it."

The cabin of the aircraft was suddenly very warm. Castiel watched Jack with fascination, certain of the low, velvet intent in his voice. He remembered how they had used that ability to speak over long distances for other purposes, once they began to test its limits.

Jack leaned back with a triumphant smile. "I think it's pretty cool, actually. But if it bothers you--"

"It doesn't bother me, Jack," Castiel reassured quickly, still awash in memories.

He had the impression that Jack had just done something to him intentionally that he might want to be angry about, but didn't have the interest in working it out.

Chapter Text

Castiel was glad for the canvas convertible top of Jack's jeep as they idled in a long Sunday line of automobiles processing through the gates of Burning Man. The sun bore down on them from a clear sky, just a few hours from its zenith. The resulting heat was intense, and while Castiel rarely noticed the weather before, without his array of powers he seemed to feel every increasing degree. Even Jack relinquished his normal gear with respect to the hostile nature of their environment. Ever the thespian, he'd convinced Castiel to lose the tie, and they'd both changed from dress shirts and slacks to ribbed tawny tanktops and sturdy desert camouflage fatigues. Each wore cheap dog tags punched with their names, all courtesy of an army surplus location.

"We're soldiers," Jack explained when they tried on the gear, grinning over Castiel's shoulder at his reflection.

Albeit initially dubious of the costumes, Castiel did have to admit that Jack 'in the spirit of things' was much easier to deal with in this case than his somewhat aggravating skepticism. He didn't blame Jack for not entirely believing him - at best believing that Castiel wholeheartedly believed his own words. Perhaps the appearance of their contact would help dispel that.

Then again, Jack had a talent rivaling even the most hardened anti-theist for finding scientific rationale in mystical phenomena. Honestly, if he cited Clarke's Third Law once more...

"You're sure we have to spend all week here?" Jack asked, caressing the steering wheel restlessly with his thumbs as the line of traffic inched forward. Castiel squeezed his eyes against the glare as he gazed across the desert. He sighed.

"The organization seems to frown upon only staying a few days," Castiel explained, shrugging, "We may need all week to locate Shamsiel, Jack. Depending upon the level of participation this year, there could be upwards of fifty thousand people. Although," he amended, "in the past, Anna said he created large communal camps themed with solar iconography - that shouldn't be too hard to find." He skinned out of his jacket and leaned on the windowsill briefly, whipping his arm away when a bar of pain flared up along the soft underside of his forearm. Examining it curiously, Castiel watched the skin blossom pink from the heat of the metal.

"Yeah," Jack said, amusement in his voice, "you're gonna want sunscreen, Castiel. You'll look like a lobster by this afternoon if we don't get some SPF5000 on that handsome hide."

"I included--" Castiel began, still squinting at the desert. The heat ripples rising from the sand were fascinating.

"Thought you might," Jack laughed, and tapped Castiel's bare shoulder until he turned from the window. Jack held out a pair of polarized sunglasses, their mirrored lenses reflecting Castiel's perplexed expression. "Put these on before you go blind," Jack insisted, and - after a flash of irritation at his companion's sudden proprietary demeanor - Castiel accepted them. He put them on carefully, then glanced out once more at the desert. To his delight, he could not only see further, but the light no longer caused him pain.

"As an added bonus," Jack was saying, "it covers up that shiner. And you can stare at the locals all you want and nobody will call you on it. Or make a pass," he chuckled, then turned his eyes from the road to look Castiel over thoughtfully.

"On second thought," he reached out, trailing his thumb along Castiel's jaw with a softness that defused any residual irritation, "I'll probably have to beat 'em off with a stick. Boys and their obsession with men in uniform. Sigh."

Castiel understood little more than a quarter of this, even after all the time they'd spent in one another's company. However, he knew the innuendo in Jack's voice, thus knew the observation was complimentary. A few moments' deduction and he had it. He waited until Jack was once more focused on the approaching gate, then leaned into his shoulder and murmured against his ear, "In that case, you'll be leaving your greatcoat in the jeep." Castiel's breath on Jack's ear elicited the desired response, and Jack had his arm loosely around Castiel's shoulders when they presented their tickets at the gate. The attendants queried them about their gear, briefly searched the jeep, and allowed them through.

"I'm surprised you've never been here before," Castiel mused as they sought an open campsite, gazing out at the proliferation of attractive young men and women in various degrees of undress. He smiled, thinking briefly of Jack drifting freely through this font of human creativity and expression. Some of his brethren might have seen it as sinful, even blasphemous. Castiel, however, had a far different set of sensibilities these days.

Jack shrugged. "Not my scene," he explained shortly, and pulled into an open spot along one of the radial streets. His tone invited no further discussion, and as Castiel was not really that interested in exploring the reason, he turned his attention once more to their surroundings. Taken as a whole, "Black Rock City" was a great semicircle of tents and temporary structures on a vast empty sea of desert. It was divided up into neighborhoods via roads. There were any number of oddly shaped buildings going up all around them like hot air balloons beside the more conventional tents and RVs. A small knot of neighbors - three young men and two young women - approached them as they climbed out of their vehicle.

"Jack Harkness. This spot taken?" Jack asked. Even on the opposite side of the jeep, Castiel could hear the wattage in his smile. He came around the back bumper, watching the strangers warily from behind his new sunglasses as he unsnapped the canvas top. Thanks to the reflective nature of his eyeware - so he guessed, anyhow - none of them seemed to notice his concern.

"Free and clear," one of the women replied cheerfully, "we were hoping Tim and Jesse would be able to make it this year, so we circled the wagons to save them a spot." She wore a bright blue bucket hat painted with glittering spirals that distracted Castiel from her expression, "but they cancelled last minute."

"Poor bastards," Jack replied with sympathy, "don't know what they're missing."

"You wanna be Tim and Jesse this week?" one of the young men asked. Castiel watched as he offered Jack his hand, transfixed by the silent transfer of interest between them. How could something so simple as a touch and a shared glance convey so much? "I'm Trent."

Castiel put down the tailgate a little louder than he meant to. The panel was heavier than he anticipated, and his mind had been elsewhere up to the point that the catch loosed and the full weight of the door swung out into his hands. Suddenly every eye was on him, including Jack's.

"Trent," Jack said, beaming, "this is Cass." And in three words, the man somehow managed to convey affection, pride, and a certain possessiveness that flustered Castiel. Trent backed up a few steps like a noble dismissed from a medieval court and Castiel realized what had happened with a rush of emotions too fleeting to track.

Feeling awkward, Castiel tried to smile and shuffled a step away from the back of the jeep. "Good to meet you," he said somewhat woodenly, inhaled a calming breath and added, "am I Tim or Jesse?"

The quintet watching him seemed taken aback by his voice. They shared a few quick, consulting glances, then responded nearly in unison, "Definitely Jesse." The unanimous decision made him wonder what the absent Jesse was actually like, and what about him made them decide so.

Jack swaggered around the fender of the jeep, slung an arm across his shoulders and planted a kiss on his temple. "All right, 'Jesse,'" he grinned, "let's get this gear unloaded before you cook. I don't wanna hand you back to the Holy Host half baked."

"Need help?" one of the other young men volunteered, "I'm Patrick." Jack glanced to Castiel for confirmation, and at his cautious smile everyone descended on the jeep. The work allowed for bits and pieces of casual conversation, and soon Castiel felt more comfortable with his 'neighbors,' to the point of consenting to tours of the buildings and tents surrounding theirs. Patrick plied them with his homemade concoction of vodka, pink grapefruit juice and Sprite, and the girls - their names were Kat and Tao, Castiel learned - displayed a bewildering array of knitting projects in various states of completion. During it all, Jack was unusually attentive, touching Castiel unexpectedly to draw him over, leaning against him as he laughed. His hand was generally in Castiel's hair or hovering at the nape of his neck. This was odd - Castiel knew Jack liked his neck as much as anything else, but not enough to warrant so much attention.

When Castiel realized what was really happening, what Jack was doing for him, he wasn't sure how he felt - aside from somewhat triumphant that he'd successfully sussed out the meaning behind a very intricate set of human behaviors on his own.

These people thought they were a couple. Together.

Nothing was said specifically, but human territorial behavior was as universal as any other species. Trent and Patrick watched them (and with another edge of surprise, Castiel realized he was being watched as well as Jack) with interest, but didn't approach. Jack could have had either one of them, easily, if he'd wanted.

When they were in their own tent, Castiel decided to confront him. He spent a few minutes considering how to go about it, deciding eventually that frank directness would be the best means.

"I appreciate your concern," Castiel said calmly, offering Jack an insulated mug of cool water, "but you don't need to hold back on my account."

Jack looked puzzled. He glanced from Castiel to the mug and back, as if he thought he might be referring to the contents.

"Trent," Castiel clarified. He saw comprehension flit across Jack's expression, followed by a gentle smile. He handed back the mug. Both hands descended on Castiel's shoulders, and the tags around his neck clicked as Jack's grip bunched the fabric of his tanktop.

"Of course you wouldn't be jealous," Jack said, and in his voice Castiel thought he heard relief. "you're an angel."

"It isn't in my nature," Castiel replied, matter-of-fact. He set down the mug and stepped into Jack. With the easy intimacy that had grown between them over the years, Castiel pushed both hands beneath the hem of Jack's tanktop.

"As long as you aren't gone all night," he added, a flicker of hunger roughening his voice.

"This has gotta be the easiest talk I've ever had about this," Jack groaned happily, tugged the sunglasses from Castiel's face with his free hand, and kissed him deeply. "But for the record," he added, pulling back, "Trent is totally not my type. When I find one, I'll let you know. For inspection."

Castiel raised an eyebrow. Jack gestured for the mug and Castiel gave it to him wordlessly, thoughts galloping.

"You can watch if you want," Jack suggested, gaze never leaving Castiel's face. He sucked thoughtfully on the straw in his mug, lips curling into a smirk around the tip. Castiel couldn't help himself, watching with fascination as the thin, ridged orange tube slipped from Jack's mouth. It glistened wetly, and Castiel tucked the edge of his lower lip behind his teeth.

"Or, you know," suggestion laced Jack's voice like the vodka in Patrick's cocktail, "Always room for one more."

He got no further than that in the scramble for their bedroll.

The playa cooled rapidly after dusk. Castiel woke as chill settled over his bare skin like a garment, seeping into his muscles. He knew from experience that if he didn't move soon, he'd spend an inordinate amount of time working the stiffness from his shoulders and back. Jack was warm beneath him in the places where their skin met, but a perusal of his exposed flesh revealed that he was also just as cool and clammy as Castiel everywhere else.

He thought briefly about waking Jack up. Then a hand skated down his spine and he remembered that Jack hadn't slept. That Jack no longer slept, period. Remembering the detail brought a flash of fury when compared to his own current vulnerability. He needed his Grace. First, he needed to find Shamsiel and learn what he could before attracting the attention of the Host, but after that, he needed his Grace. This fatigue was just a reminder of how different Castiel was from Jack at the moment, and he wanted to close that gap as quickly as possible.

...Of course he needed it for more than that. It was a vital part of him, of who he was, and Castiel knew that if he didn't retrieve it soon, he would lose himself again. Only this time, there would be no redemption. No alien to snatch him from Purgatory. Moreover, he was useless to protect the Winchesters in this state.

"Archer. Hey."

Castiel relaxed at the soft concern in Jack's voice. His eyes flicked up guiltily, and he raised his head. Jack's face was turned toward his, expression shrouded in the pools of inky shadow beneath his brow. The tent was too dark to see much more than generic shapes, so Castiel assumed the palpable tension in his body had given him away once again. Body language had its uses, but it was also the worst liability against him right now.

"Should we start looking for your buddy Sham?" Jack asked, "I heard a few conversations while people were walking past our tent. They're going to be... 'taunting the Man' in about fifteen minutes?"

"We won't find Shamsiel in the crowd," Castiel shook his head, "Under normal circumstances, I could sense him, but--"

"But the Winchesters unplugged you," Castiel's head bent a little under the soft, understanding weight of Jack's hand ruffling through his hair.

"This day was wasted," Castiel murmured, trying and failing to be neutral about it. For all that there seemed countless positive human emotions, the negative ones numbered even higher.

"No way," Jack countered, "we're here. I talked you into a shirt that actually flatters you. And by the way? Rowr. Plus, we made some connections, for free drinks if nothing else. It's something." He shifted, and Castiel moved to let him up. He felt Jack lean away from him, and a camp lantern flickered on, illuminating the clean lines of Jack's chest, arm and stomach with warm yellow light. Castiel felt the stirrings of hunger again, just regarding his companion's exquisite body, but Jack's thoughts were not centered on the physical at the moment, and so he curbed his desires.

It was refreshing to be able to curb his desires. This body had been so rebellious at first. Every part of him responded to Jack's touch: the heat of it, the intent in it. No-one had ever touched him with desire before. The kiss he shared with the demon named Meg had been eye-opening, but he'd initiated it. He hadn't intended it in the manner it was taken, and his own physical response was still confusing.

Compared to that experience, Jack's kiss had the clarity of a roadside billboard, both his intent and Castiel's response.

As an observer of mankind, Castiel witnessed countless sexual encounters. He'd seen it in all its hues, intensities, and emotional ranges. His previous observations, however, had about as much in common with his first direct experience as watching Van Gogh paint, and lifting a palette knife for himself.

It also involved about the same amount of awkward fumbling.

Jack had a particular skill for drawing out foreplay, but the act itself - at least for Castiel - lasted seconds. Seconds, during which he had no control, no say over his own physical response, and if it hadn't been Jack he would have hated it intensely. Surrendering so wholly to weakness of the flesh was not in his creed.

But it had been Jack. And while Jack could be callous and downright cruel, in this instance he showed a level of patience and empathy Castiel wouldn't have anticipated. Whereas Castiel imagined Dean would have teased him and Sam pitied him, Jack simply proceeded to give him more experience, eager and often. He laughed about plenty, but never at Castiel. In a way, he taught Castiel as much about laughter as he had about sex.

"So this man they're going to taunt," Jack said conversationally, sitting naked beside Castiel, his arms loosely circling his knees, "you want to go do this thing? I think we should. We're here."

Castiel gazed up at him quietly, still shedding thoughts of the past. His eyes wandered of their own volition down the warm curves of Jack's arm and thigh in the lamplight. A flickering image of Jack gliding through the crowd with firelight licking around his body made his blood heat. He turned his head away, rubbing his eyes as he tried to find words that didn't sound too childishly eager.

"Call it a team-building exercise," Jack cajoled, a grin in his voice.

Castiel gave up on words. "Yeah," he said with a frustrated exhale, fingertips trailing the perfect contour of golden thigh next to his head, "I want that."

Jack tilted his head in an unconscious mimicry of Castiel, looking nonplussed. "I'm not sure what I'm more surprised by," he said, "the admission that you want something, or the 'yeah.'"

"I use that word on occasion," Castiel replied, confused. He hadn't really thought about it before it came out. ...That in itself was unusual.

A few minutes later, laced back into his boots with a white kerchief tied over his mouth to ward off the fine film of silt in the air, Castiel followed Jack out of the tent. The significant temperature drop made him grateful for his overshirt. The thought brought another pang, as he remembered the Winchesters' penchant for dressing in layers against all kinds of weather. Deliberately, he emptied his mind. They had their place in all this, but he couldn't afford to waste thoughts on regret right now.

People were drifting along the path with them, sometimes singly, sometimes in small knots. Magnetized by like purpose, they moved slowly towards the central platform, where the Man burned out of the dark in bold lines of neon. Castiel drank in the hum of human energy, walking easily at Jack's left flank as he had almost daily in the deep tunnels of Purgatory.

In spite of the electric joy surrounding them, an itch of anxiety persisted, crawling along his skin. When he identified it, he tugged down his kerchief and touched Jack's shoulder with his fingertips. "We're outside at night," he said in exultation.

Jack laughed, deep and strong, and if a sound could be an embrace, his was nearly tangible. "Feels good, doesn't it? If any of these people bite, I think we'll like it."

The crowd began to thicken as they passed the last rows of tents and started across the great central space. The Man held court on an intricate metal platform. At its foot, a number of people were already dancing in abandon, some twirling batons of flame. Anticipation, pleasure and goodwill rode the sturdy breeze, twined with the dust of the playa and the scents of food and smoke. This was freedom of choice - no longer symbolic, no longer a chalice embroidered on his standard, but real and true. He could drink from this cup if he wanted; nobody, not Jack, not anyone would tell him he couldn't.

Lucifer was wrong. Uriel was wrong. Humans had the capacity for great evil, but then... then there was this.

In the morning, Castiel wasn't sure when he'd been consumed. He started running. For no reason at all. Just to run. Jack shouted a question after him, then caught up. They wove through the crowd at a gallop, like matched horses. Others began to join them, until they led a loose pack - some running, some coasting alongside on bicycles. Jack commenced to whooping filthy things at the sculpture overhead. Castiel tried to follow suit, but while he knew an astonishing amount of vulgarities by now, they simply wouldn’t come to his mouth, and so he listened to the others around him with a foolish grin. They choked on dust - Castiel's kerchief a long forgotten memory - and people gave them water, admonished Castiel cheerfully to sit down before he fell down. Castiel felt as if his skin were as incandescent as the neon beaming overhead, like a message to God. Jack rolled down next to him, laughing breathlessly.

Father, these are humans, Castiel sent up a prayer, tilting up a crackling bottle of lukewarm water, closing his eyes as blessed liquid cooled his throat, I see them. I understand.

Too delirious to care, Castiel didn't notice when Shamsiel passed no more than six feet away from him. He dismissed the heat that flushed his skin as another torchbearer sweeping by.

Chapter Text

Castiel dreamed of the horrors of the creatures that called themselves the 456. And how he had failed the children of Earth. So exhausted when at last he tumbled into sleep, however, Castiel would not remember them upon waking.

He surfaced in a tent that wasn't his. He was cold. Filmy pale fabric swooped on thick wooden ribs in a sleek arc overhead, filtering the early dawn without robbing the room of light.

Castiel had no idea how he got there. He sat up with a start. ...Tried to, anyway. A warm bar of thigh and calf draped over his stomach, the weight surprising him enough to anchor him momentarily.

It wasn't Jack's.

It was female.

Gingerly, Castiel disentangled himself from the body attached to that thigh, and sat up completely. He took in his surroundings at a glance. Bodies - all sleeping, and coated with a film of silt - were strewn haphazardly around the large room. Some had pillows and blankets, others merely looked to have slept where they fell. His companion - Castiel didn't recognize her - was one of these.

Castiel knew the human propensity for... romantic error... during mental incapacitation. Literature exaggerated it to comic proportions, but there were seeds of truth, nevertheless. Given that he was currently mostly human, and had apparently been incapacitated for an as-yet unidentified length of time, well--

--he checked. Fast, furtive, and flushing furiously over the possibility that his body might have heeded base instinct and taken advantage of another mentally incapacitated human body. Thankfully, nothing appeared to have happened. He was still completely clothed and fastened up, right down to his boots. She - while wearing considerably less than he - seemed to be in the same state.

"That was so sweet, I didn't want to wake you up," came a quiet voice from the entryway. Castiel's head swiveled. He met Jack's eyes with consternation.

"Looked like a litter of puppies," Jack added, and gestured for him to come away.

Castiel tried not to look as affronted as he felt. He didn't think being compared to any of God's creatures was an insult, but Jack's tone had been condescending, and - he noticed those sorts of things, now.

Judging from Jack's smile as they met, Castiel hadn't been as good at hiding it as he believed.

"You wouldn't have made it back to camp," Jack explained as they exited out onto the desert, "almost had to carry you. Not that I would've minded," he winked, and Castiel looked quickly away. "Talked to someone with a big tent, they said we could stay there for the night." He fell silent, and they walked in quiet companionship for a few meters down the radial street that led to their tent. The silt that coated their clothing hung in the air like smoke, turning the sky and the horizon to opal milk.

"I haven't found a reason yet," Jack offered, "been all around this place this morning, still don't have a clue." The spread of his arms encompassed most of the city.

"A reason?" Castiel echoed blankly.

"For why all these people are so darn nice."

Inwardly, Castiel gaped.

"I did a scan for alien tech. Had a couple tools stowed with the gold I traded in when we got back to earth. Old school, twentieth century, pre-Tosh. Rudimentary, but useful. And there's nothing."

"Jack--"

"I can't scan for alien biology, but if somebody out here was spewing mind-altering frequencies or pheromones - other than me, of course - I'd notice."

"I don't--" Castiel tried again, but Jack's requirement of an audience was filled, and he was no longer listening. He imagined with a flicker of amusement that he was probably seeing the mannerisms Jack displayed on a daily basis at Torchwood.

"--Gifting. Gifting. There's no charge for anything here, except coffee! That's not only inhuman, that's just flatly unAmerican." He subsided then, and in the few yards left between them and the tent, Castiel gave it some thought.

"You don't think humans are inherently good?" He asked, at last.

"I am one, Archer," Jack replied, as if the answer should be completely obvious. He bent to unzip the tent flap, and held it back with a short, genteel bow. Castiel ducked inside, then straightened as the cooler shadows of the shelter enveloped him.

"What is your opinion on humanity?" Castiel asked.

"Look at you with the questions," Jack replied, grinning with an air of proprietary pride. Castiel kept on looking at him, until the mask slipped.

"We're animals," he said flatly, dropping into a canvas folding chair. His eyes, when they met Castiel's, were frank. "we're quick to fear what we don't understand, and we respond to that fear by attacking or running away. We're mostly ruled by our own bodies - as you've come to understand - and what bits of us aren't thinking about how to get food or sex are desperate to fit in at any cost. Because the zebra with the weird stripes won't get the protection of the herd."

"Humans are also capable of great nobility and sacrifice," Castiel argued, thinking of Dean, Sam, and Bobby. Of John Winchester; Jo and Ellen Harvelle.

"When their own interests are at stake," Jack retorted. His expression and his voice were suddenly hard.

Overwhelmed by irritation at the response as if Jack had knowingly desecrated Ellen's memory, Castiel was unable to answer immediately. He looked sharply away, controlling the corner of him that would always defend the Winchesters and their companions, and applied his thoughts instead towards refilling their mugs from the large water reservoir stowed in another partition of the tent.

"Hey, Archer?" Jack asked softly from the other room. Castiel didn't answer. Couldn't. He knew that brand of cynicism; many of his siblings had shared it. He kept his thumb on the spigot until he felt a hand on his arm.

"I really don't want to fight with you over this," Jack said with a sigh.

"There are many exceptions to your observation," Castiel's voice was tight. He didn't want to fight over this, either, of course, but - sometimes his control over himself was weaker.

Jack said nothing. After a few moments, he released Castiel's shoulder, turned, and walked out of the partition. Castiel heard the scuff of the tent flap unzipping, then the silence of an empty room.

Less than a quarter of an hour later, Jack returned, vibrant and smiling again. He said nothing of their previous encounter, but suggested they might want to get a move on to start the search for Shamsiel. It was, after all - and even Castiel reluctantly agreed - two parts wild goose chase to three parts needle in a haystack. Or in their case, needle in a giant sandbox.

Cautiously, Castiel consented to start the search. He was frustrated to note that part of him stubbornly clung to his earlier anger, but was determined not to let Jack know. He put on the billed hat that came with his uniform, the sunglasses Jack had given him, shouldered a satchel of filled water bottles and followed him out into the hazy morning glow.

The dust hadn't settled. If anything, it was worse.

"There any way your buddy will be able to find us instead of the other way around?" Jack asked. He glanced sideways at Castiel, the yellow film of his goggles (and where had he been keeping those, Castiel wondered) turning his eyes an interesting green.

Shaking his head, Castiel tugged down the fresh kerchief Jack had tied over his mouth and nose five minutes outside the tent. "He has a very limited range of power. If I don't attract the Host's attention like this, I certainly won't attract his."

And God bless him, Jack turned, smiled at Castiel’s weak, mortal and dirt-caked form, and said "you wanna bet?" with every ounce of sincerity. Castiel started to correct him, because Shamsiel could only detect him by the presence of certain conditions. Comprehension came a moment before he spoke, and he stopped. Wanted very much, quite suddenly, to apologize for their earlier argument regardless of differences in opinion.

Unfortunately, all he managed to do was stare at Jack.

At least the man was used to it by now.

"Well," Jack said cheerfully, facing front once more, "this narrows our options down. Normally I'd say 'split up,' each take half the camp. But considering the elements, and the fact that you've got the water and I really don't want to have to explain dying of exposure..." Jack let the sentence trail off.

Castiel's brow furrowed in confusion as he fell into step, "You said you can't die."

"Oh, I can die," Jack replied lightly, "have. It's just not permanent."

The added piece of information was no more enlightening. Castiel adjusted his kerchief and continued to walk, because Jack was walking, but his mind remained several yards behind them, falling further back with every step.

The morning passed slowly as they walked to the edge of Black Rock City and worked their way inward, one street at a time. The dust dissipated at last, revealing massive anvil clouds boiling on the horizon, growing larger with every passing minute. The sky beyond it rolled into dangerous purples and teals, and lightning strobed through the clouds.

"Head back," Jack barked, and Castiel could tell they shared the same frustration. They made it to their tent and had secured all the gear still in the jeep before the first fat drops began falling. Soon, Jack reappeared at the entryway, zipped them in, and sat down to untie mud-caked boots. Rain scoured the nylon roof, and the noise was deafening.

"Dust's so fine, it's like wet concrete," he shouted irritably, and retreated to the water reservoir in the partition. Wisely, Castiel let him be, recalling Jack's fastidious nature even in the harsh environment of Purgatory. He wondered if he ought to clean up as well, and began unlacing his boots.

He had discarded both shirt and tanktop and was gingerly shaking silt out of his hair at the entryway when Jack's voice sounded over the rain. "Castiel?"

Castiel peered through the open partition flap. Lightning lit up the small room, thunder making the ground rumble beneath it a few seconds later. The light illuminated Jack's eyes for a moment. Castiel felt a moment of wordless communion pass between them. Jack was unhappy. While it stormed outside, they couldn't search, and Jack seemed as sorry for that as if he'd called the rain. It was more than that, though, Castiel sensed. Things had a tendency to compound with Captain Jack Harkness, until one small thing became a symbol for a thousand other things. Like the cave system that caused their first major clash. What began as a disagreement over duties - and the fact that Castiel couldn't seem to follow orders from anyone short of God Himself - devolved into a magnificent shouting match encompassing every frustration over the past six months. Castiel abandoned their shared camp for several nights, and returned to find the cave mouth closed over with stones.

"I sealed up that mine. We didn't need the resources, anyway."

"How many other mines have you sealed up, Jack?"

"...Just the one, Archer."

Castiel circled Jack, tentative, then knelt behind him. His knees forked around Jack's hips, and his hands closed over Jack's shoulders. With a slow exhale, Castiel brought his chest against Jack's spine.

The small space was too noisy to talk, and so they didn't at first. He felt the press of Jack's body into his, the twist of his head until his forehead touched Castiel's throat. The silt on his skin grated between them like sandpaper, and Jack's low chuckle vibrated through them both. "Just like old times," he murmured, and though the sound was muffled, Castiel could hear the words on his skin.

"I was never this dirty," Castiel said. There was more complaint in his tone than he’d really wanted to admit.

"No, but we got close. Remember the caves under the Stockade? All that sand?"

At some point during their tenure in Purgatory - neither of them truly knew when - Jack began naming the increasingly larger and more skillfully constructed shelters. The Stockade, so titled for the enclosing wall built to keep out unwanted guests at night, had been situated over an expansive cave system. So many of them were. Castiel could still remember how it felt to guard Jack while he worked, a handmade arrow nocked to a handmade bow, adrenaline bitter and metallic on his tongue. Every sense had been alive, as he strained for the sucking snarl of shuffling undead, or the rattle of a skeletal archer, or worse... the hiss that was their only warning before the hellish explosion...

Bending forward over Jack's shoulder, fingers at his jaw to tip his head back, Castiel kissed him fiercely. If it was possible to kiss an apology into Jack's skin, he would try.

Jack pushed him off with a breathless laugh and turned around. A few moments later, Castiel felt the cool damp of a wet paper towel slide down his cheek. Jack pressed another wet pad into Castiel's hand, and in silent agreement he copied the slow, gentle ministrations. There was no noticeable dirt on Jack. He could let his hands wander, then.

Jack was careful of his nose and forehead as he swabbed away the accumulated silt with slow strokes. Castiel could feel the consideration in his touch as he worked. He wanted to say a number of things. Our discussion this morning was unfortunate, Jack. I should have erred on the side of caution. Forgive me for once again assuming that all people feel the same.

It was still too loud to communicate verbally. The moment Jack lowered his hand from Castiel's face, he leaned forward to resume his previously interrupted kiss, and Jack let him. He pressed Jack down against the floor of the tent, there in the partition beside the water cooler.

Something in this was new. Castiel could sense it in the air like a faint charge. The way Jack arched his throat to Castiel's mouth, the way his palms lay slow and passive against Castiel's chest communicated a shift in demeanor from Jack's normal, playful sensuality. Castiel bent to kiss him a third time and spread his hand on the soft swell of Jack's stomach. His fingertips skated down from there, under the waistband of Jack's fatigues.

Jack's hand curled over his, separated by the thin fabric. "Wait," Jack mouthed silently, and reached up with his free hand to catch the back of Castiel's neck. This wasn't entirely new, Jack preferred to be in control, and most of the time Castiel was happy to let him remind them both of who called the shots. They traded off duties everywhere else, but Jack seemed to need Castiel to yield to him physically, and Castiel complied because he felt no specific reason not to, because everything they did felt good, and above anything else, he wanted to please. Pliant, Castiel leaned down at a touch until the rim of his ear rested nearly against Jack's lips. His exhale, soft and warm, stirred against the sensitive skin of his ear canal. Castiel shivered.

"You take point," Jack murmured, "I got tail." And just to clarify - Castiel thought - Jack caught his wrist and transferred his hand meaningfully a few inches further down between Jack's legs, past the swell of his arousal. The tips of Castiel's fingers rode into the warm cleft of Jack's rear, the seam of his pants yielding only a little at the sudden hungry pressure behind Castiel's touch.

Jack smiled as Castiel lifted his head, then claimed his mouth again in a lush kiss. The press of his lips did a curious thing to Castiel - he'd often heard the human euphemism of 'having one's heart in one's throat.' But he'd never really felt his heart seem to dislodge until he understood, here and now, what he was being offered.

It took a great deal for Jack Harkness to put trust in someone's abilities. They'd clashed over that many times during their imprisonment, as Castiel was no better at it than he was. But Jack had put trust in him. In fact, he put his trust in Castiel far sooner than Castiel was able to reciprocate. He could still remember when Jack began stepping aside, allowing Castiel to venture into the caves first, to clear the monsters below with his bow before either of them moved forward. Even now, Castiel remembered in vibrant detail how he felt when he understood what had changed.

The act was not what he was being offered; they'd done this before. With his words and his body language, however, Jack gave Castiel control over it. The means of doing so(you take point,) was in itself an act of control, of course, but it was Jack. He could and did play delicate games of control just for his own diversion. Having lived among the convoluted politics of the angels, Castiel understood this perhaps better than most.

Jack relaxed after he'd gotten his message across. In fact, he went so far as to deliberately lift his hands over his head, linking his fingers together loosely.

"No," Castiel leaned down to speak against Jack's ear over the storm, "touch me." Then he rose, and went to the bedroll for the clear bottle of lubricant stowed under the pillows. They only had one opportunity to use it since Jack introduced Castiel to its properties, but he knew where it was.

When he returned, Jack was sitting up, face turned toward the faint light outside the tent wall. Castiel knelt and touched his jaw, inviting a kiss that Jack returned with interest. The drum of the rain intensified almost as if on cue, and they smiled at one another. Rain existed in Purgatory and storms were frequent and unpredictable, seemingly created for the sole purpose of keeping them wet and miserable.

The rain shielded them, drawing a sense of isolation around them like Castiel hadn't known since they were rescued. The light within the tent was filtered to a soft gray-green; thick seams in the nylon casting dark stripes across Jack's nude chest from hip to shoulder like a bandoleer.

Taking cues from everything he knew, everything he'd learned, Castiel led them. Jack put his hands where he asked, but Castiel had to ask Jack with his own hands, mute as they both were beneath the storm. Kneeling beside Jack still, Castiel took his wrist with mild trepidation. He brought the broad palm and strong fingers to his throat. The touch seemed to warm even the blood beneath it, as the rest of Castiel's skin felt flushed in sympathy. Jack's fingertips traced the tendons that ran from behind his ear to the hollow of his throat, and with the lightest encouragement from Castiel he moved down to explore the planes of his chest. Curiously, Castiel found asking in such a manner as arousing as the caress that followed. Jack was in clear agreement, his chest rising and falling rapidly against Castiel's when desire pitched to a heat that drew their bodies together. His breath panted warm into Castiel's shoulder as their hands - Jack's beneath his - skated along the length of hip and thigh.

When the tension and hunger for release grew too powerful to delay another moment, Castiel took him. The game of asking permission dissolved. Jack surrounded him with his body, hands in Castiel's hair, ankles locked at the small of his back, gripping Castiel with possessive intent. Castiel kissed him in answer, over and over until neither could focus enough to reciprocate. His breath washed against Jack's parted lips. The edges of reality blurred after that, and Castiel remembered very little in detail, but through it all Jack's fingers curled tight in his hair and dug into his shoulder, and afterward Jack's tongue licked slow and velvet into his mouth. The rain slowed into a soft, quiet patter, then petered out.

It took some time for Castiel to remember why he'd been unhappy earlier. Judging from the soft expression Jack had trained on him, Castiel surmised he didn't remember much of the disagreement, either, and so let it lie for now.

He wouldn't neglect to address it, however, and began working through it there against Jack's chest. Castiel was asleep before he'd gotten well started. In so doing, he never noticed when Jack gathered him in, kissed the top of his head and curled protectively around him. If he'd been awake, he would have heard Jack, and realized that the man remembered the morning better than he assumed.

"Hold onto that, Castiel," Jack murmured, "don't you ever let that go."


The storm spun itself to nothing in less than fifteen minutes, leaving a double rainbow in its wake that Castiel and Jack missed entirely in favor of other pursuits. It took the better part of the day for the playa to dry out. By five, however, the ground was as firm and dry as if there had never been a rain, and the dust settled to display a vivid blue sky. The old, easy camaraderie returned, and Castiel noticed with pleasure how he and Jack moved once again in silent tandem, anticipating one another as they had in Purgatory. It reminded him of home, and of the way he'd worked alongside Anna, Uriel, Rachel.

The next few days blended into one another. Though they had no luck locating Shamsiel, Castiel felt none of the frustration that he had during the previous days. Their hours had a purpose, a shape, and the surroundings in which they searched were fascinating. They met new people at every turn, and he watched with a mix of amusement and curiosity as Jack preened beneath the attention he inevitably received. Castiel knew as much about Jack Harkness as any one person was likely to get out of him in the same volume of time, but he'd only recently begun to understand just how Jack related to people.

On Thursday - although he held to the utmost kindness - Castiel called him on his bullshit.

"You like people," Castiel observed, cheek pressed against Jack's shoulderblade. They retreated from the afternoon sun a short while before. Castiel was, of course, the more exhausted of the two, and Jack obligingly offered to be his pillow while he dozed.

There was the dry shussh of a page turning before Jack spoke. "I like people, sure," he said inattentively, "what's that got to do with anything?"

"From our earlier discussion, I inferred you felt differently."

Another page turned. "I guess I feel about people the same way you feel about Dean. They've got a lot of problems, and I hate those problems; they've let me down. But in spite of it, I'll always love them. I wish they could do better, because I know they've got it in them."

No-one, not even in teasing, had ever suggested in Castiel's hearing that he loved Dean. Saying that he cared and felt responsible for the Winchesters, plural, had a far different set of connotations. He and Dean shared a profound bond, he'd said as much before because it was true. They were connected irrevocably by the shared experience of escaping from Hell. No angel had ever braved the depths of Hell, no angel rescued a soul from Hell before Castiel and his soldiers saved Dean. Dean would always bear his handprint.

And Jack was not positing it for a reaction. He was stating it for a truth. From all of the bits and pieces of information they'd traded, Jack extrapolated that Castiel loved Dean. Working out from that observation, Castiel understood that he did, in reality, love the man. Separate from and not equal to the way he felt about Sam.

Almost simultaneously, Castiel remembered why he was here, and not in St. Paul. Why he had to search for Shamsiel on foot; why he needed Shamsiel at all.

"Archer?" Jack asked, and in the single syllable Castiel heard concern. He hurried to reassure Jack that he hadn't spurred another disagreement, choking down the fresh injury that came in the wake of his realization.

"I can see the reason in that, Jack," he said quietly, and stretched his right arm to encompass more of his companion's back.

"Glad to hear that," Jack replied, preceded by a soft exhale.

"However," Castiel added with some hesitation, "It might be in your best interests to consider curbing your verbal condemnation of the human race." When no immediate response followed, he continued, "Words have power, Jack. If you speak it often enough, your faith in it will outgrow any other."

"I'll take that under advisement, Castiel," Jack's tone was flippant, "but really, you're the only one who cares."

"You lead Torchwood," Castiel was emphatic, "isn't that reason enough to care how you view humanity?"

"Torchwood is dead."

The flat finality hurt as much as if Jack had slammed a door in Castiel's face. He warred briefly with a flurry of irrational emotions. Jack shut him out. Into the memories of ancient Torchwood past, Castiel was permitted, provided he asked the right questions. But Torchwood's recent past: the destruction of Torchwood 3, the deaths of Jack's associates, Torchwood's involvement with the 456 - he was denied access at every turn. Castiel knew the paper details, but no more, and only from his own memories.

Castiel knew that for a long period of time, there had been four associates. Two were killed while attempting to secure the nuclear facility outside Cardiff. Another fell victim to the 456. The fourth's whereabouts - presumably Gwen, given that Jack spoke of her in the present tense - were unknown to him.

Jack mentioned Gwen often. He occasionally spoke of Toshiko (Castiel understood her to be extremely technologically gifted), and Owen (a talented medic and quite the chemist, as well). But the last member of the team, he never mentioned. Castiel didn't know their name. He felt, somehow, that he should know it, but in spite of his reaching, it remained elusive on the outer edges of his thoughts.

When time ran out for Torchwood, Castiel had been deep in research, trying to untangle the story of the 456 and how Michael and Raphael had known that this abomination would return without bothering to put a contingency plan in motion. So many things could have been done and hadn't - had this lacked a protocol because it was simply so unimportant to his brothers? Before he could act, the creatures left, with a grisly tally in their wake. Eleven human children locked in endless slavery, four more children dead, and one Torchwood associate murdered by the 456.

Castiel missed it entirely. Nor could he undo what had been done - he stood on tenuous ground with the Fates as it was. Castiel wondered if the Winchesters tried to intervene. He hadn't been paying attention. God knew all things, Castiel thought with a burning stab of regret. God knew all things, he hadn't known.

That Torchwood associate must be as responsible for Jack's tone as his determination to keep Gwen's whereabouts a secret. It hurt more than it should have - which is to say, it shouldn't have hurt at all. But it did. Slowly, Castiel removed his arm from Jack's shoulders. He turned, and put his full attention towards the sleep he intended to get before continuing their search. Jack let him be, and for once he was grateful to be ignored.

All the while, in a gentle but pervasive undertone like the susurration of the ocean, his heart thrummed painfully, heatedly, you love Dean. You love Dean. But it was far, far too late for that.

Chapter Text

They found the Sun of God on Friday night, burning his way through a trumpet solo in a wash of pink neon.

Castiel knew they were close. Power brushed against his limited awareness with the intensity of a hot summer afternoon. He tried to push away the din and chaos, focusing on that thread of energy while Jack followed close behind. The street they currently walked was full of people, illuminated unreliably by pulses of multicolored light from the surrounding structures. Castiel frowned, muscles tightening in frustration. He knew he was right to suggest searching at dusk, but his pride resisted admitting that Jack had been right as well when he pointed out that the dark was not currently their ally.

One large tent loomed a dozen yards away, the angles of its stretched canvas roof rising concave and pale above the others like a circus big top. Recalling Anna's descriptions of Shamsiel's camp in years past, he quickened his pace. The tendril of power grew stronger, as if in confirmation. Percussion roared a challenge over the deluge of frenetic, multicultural music seething from the tents around them. The call of drums was too immediate, too crystalline pure not to be live.

Half a dozen male voices chanted a military cadence. After them came a trio of female voices. Their sweet, perfect harmony caused an unanticipated tightening in his chest. Though he had only a small range of experience with human emotional response to aesthetics, Castiel already understood the phrase "so beautiful it hurt." He slowed, looking down as he touched the spot - right above his breastbone - where he'd felt the sharp ache.

Then he heard them: Trumpets.

The pulse of energy intensified, its swell and ebb shifting with the brassy twin voices. Buoyed up by some indescribable emotion, Castiel broke into a trot. He no longer felt tired, or sore, or frustrated - although by rights, he should have felt all three. Heavy bass and percussion vibrated his body through the fine silt beneath the soles of his boots. The crush of bodies grew thicker as he left the main street for the smaller avenue arcing among the tents. Castiel wove his way into the mob, heedless of his partner struggling to follow.

The volume of the music increased; throb of bass and power intensifying as he neared its source. Castiel turned one more corner and froze, eyes narrowed while he struggled to comprehend the scene before him. A flatbed trailer served as a makeshift stage, at least two feet above the ground. Plywood had been laid out on the ground and covered with large tiles of some glossy flooring, presumably to keep the dust down for the dancers. For dancers there were in plenty.

It wasn't out of character for an angel to have musical preferences. Uriel, for example, found reasons to attend productions of Bizet's Carmen. Michael - to the surprise of none - had a singular taste for John Williams overtures and had been listening to them long before they were written in the natural progression of human time. Anna - shortly before her fall from grace - professed an appreciation of Patsy Cline. Music was perhaps the most evocative and universal of any language; was a barometer of human change.

The source of the music tonight was a band, perched on the flatbed trailer. Three female singers posed in a perfect row at the edge of the makeshift stage. Their fawn and white saddle heels were tucked primly together while they shimmied in Army green jackets and tapering pencil skirts. Big band brass, piano and percussion sprawled out behind them in gold streamers of sound. A bass fiddle pulsed a humming heartbeat. Under the lights, trombones and trumpets blazed fire. Sparks flared on the rims of snares and cymbals.

This was war music: the sound of humans clinging as hard as they could to scraps of happiness in the midst of strife. It had been so long since he'd heard it this way.

This was his music. It found the part of his psyche that generated physical pleasure, and pressed it. And pressed it.

Castiel felt a hand on his shoulder.

"Stay with me, Archer," Jack murmured against Castiel's ear, pleasant but firm. "What are we doing? The music? Is that it? Is this all him?" His breath washed warm on Castiel's skin. He shivered.

Wordless, still undone by his physical response to the music - and Jack - Castiel gestured to the tents around them. The exterior of every structure surrounding the stage was decorated with solar symbols.

"Aha," Jack's tone was dry. "So how do we start narrowing--" he trailed off as a trumpet squealed, and Castiel turned back to look at him in concern. Jack's attention was focused on the performers. One of two trumpet players - presumably the one who'd just called attention to himself - stepped around the keyboard and joined the three women at the front of the stage. As Castiel watched, he lifted the bell of his instrument to the heavens and--

--what he did with that trumpet, Castiel had no words to describe.

The very air burned with heat and lightning joy while he held the stage. The man's pale hair was a white-hot corona, his body taut with focus and pleasure. He seemed grounded, immovable, every swallow of air pushed from his chest with implacable force through the tube of golden brass at his lips. He played lust. He played defiance. He played everything that Castiel thought was good and precious about humanity and elevated it, somehow, in half a page of score. For the span of that solo, both the stranger and Castiel were creatures in their element, soaring untethered.

When he lowered his trumpet, he looked right at them. The hurtling, raucous dance floor might have been empty. For a beat, Castiel held his gaze.

The man onstage flashed a coy smile. He stepped backward into his spot among his bandmates and picked up the threads of the song once more. His eyes remained - mostly - on them.

"Wow," Jack breathed suddenly, squeezing Castiel's shoulder, "I want that one, Archer. Did you see that? I think he likes me."

Castiel closed his eyes against another shudder, and inhaled carefully. "That," he said, "is Shamsiel."

"Oh. Well, I usually aim high," Jack laughed, then nuzzled in close to his ear, "not that they seem to mind. What now?"

"He knows we're here," Castiel replied, a trickle of fear gliding down his spine as he acknowledged it aloud, blending with the low coil of arousal that always seemed to follow in Jack's wake, "we wait."

The song came to a close. The young women departed the microphones at the fore of the stage, replaced by a lean man in a tattered, filthy antique US Army officer's uniform. Castiel surveyed the rest of the band, only to note with surprise that they all wore similar clothing. Covered in dust, blood and bandages, everyone looked as if they'd just stumbled in from the playa, fresh from battle.

The man at the microphone turned, and Castiel spotted a sun on the shoulder of his uniform, painted in stark orange against the green. He picked up a guitar and lunged into another fast-paced, more contemporary swing tune.

"So we're not doing anything?" Jack asked, scanning the crowd as he spoke.

"Interrupting his performance would not only draw unnecessary attention, it might make Shamsiel less willing to cooperate," Castiel shook his head, "no."

A pause, then. Jack moved directly into Castiel's line of sight, blocking his view of the stage. "You wanna dance?" He crooked an elbow in invitation.

Dance? With Jack? He'd given Castiel thorough tutoring on several variations of dance during their long years in isolation, but the last time had been… some time ago. Additionally, Castiel felt it was inappropriate to dance during a mission. Unless dancing was required for the mission, which it wasn't. Castiel couldn't think of any missions with such a requirement. Not the kind they were likely to take. "No."

Jack bounced on his heels. His body squared and his hands vanished, slipping into his pockets in what Castiel instantly recognized as a deliberate posture of confidence. This was Captain Jack Harkness, promising they'd make it over the hill in one piece and damn those Germans to hell. "Don't know what you're missing," he tempted.

Out in the crowd, someone tossed their partner over one shoulder. She shrieked in what might have been glee or distress, and Castiel glared up at Jack in a brief flurry of panic. "These movements weren't part of your instructions." he protested.

"Hey, hey! Easy, Archer. Suit yourself." Jack shrugged and departed, headed where the dancers were thickest.

By the time Castiel changed his mind, it was far too late. He resigned himself to watch instead, dividing his attention between Jack's progress and the band's. Castiel tried very hard to remind himself that this was not the reason why they'd come here, and of course, dancing during a mission – in his opinion – was still highly inappropriate.

An irritating sense of failure; however, persisted.


When the band took an extended break, Shamsiel vaulted from the edge of the trailer and made a beeline for Castiel. Watching his rapid approach with a mix of hungry anticipation and fear, Castiel's gaze flickered between the older angel's eyes and Jack's, a few paces behind him. Shamsiel had Castiel in his arms before anyone could react.

"I was expecting you yesterday, mi hermano!" Shamsiel yodeled happily, oblivious to Castiel's sudden bout of full-body tension, "You're still Thursday's angel, right?" He slapped the middle of Castiel's back hard enough to sting, then shoved him out to arms' length.

Castiel stared at him, wide-eyed. Shamsiel's mannerisms were shockingly casual. He smelled earthy, metallic with sweat, as Jack's skin sometimes did. He was animated, expressive, perspiration spiking his hair and glinting on his face. Castiel had... well... to be honest he'd anticipated something different from an angel as old as the one standing in front of him now. But it was Shamsiel, without doubt. Even Castiel's faint senses picked up the crackle of painfully familiar energy in his thin frame. It stung, reminding him of what he no longer was; no longer held. "No," he said, sharper than he'd intended.

"Well, just so long as it's not Friday," Shamsiel continued easily, punctuated with another swat, "It's already got so many hangers-on you'd be lucky to find a free hour. End of the workweek, popular with the kids, and all that. Eesh," he made a face, touching the bruised and still puffy bridge of Castiel's nose, "you look like hell. Feel like hell, too. Been through the wringer, I know." He squeezed Castiel's upper arms.

Castiel struggled with the urge to twitch away from his touch. The only hand he'd felt in some time - until recently, anyway - had been Jack's, and he wasn't sure he liked being handled by a relative stranger. Not with this kind of familiarity. Not even if the stranger was his brother. He met Shamsiel's gaze soberly. "You know," he echoed suspiciously.

"Not everything, no," Shamsiel shrugged, "but I've been generally apprised. Who's this?" His gaze cut away from Castiel, crawling with slow curiosity over Jack, who still stood several paces off and had his back mostly to their conversation. To all appearances, he seemed focused on the crowd. It was a ruse, Castiel knew. An attempt to conceal one of them from Shamsiel's attention, as Sam and Dean often did. But, as also occurred just as frequently when they tried this maneuver, their quarry already knew what they were up to.

Had he been within earshot when Jack made the attempt, Castiel would have informed him of how unlikely it was to escape Shamsiel's notice, considering that he knew Castiel's identity from yards away. But he also knew that Jack disliked it when someone drew attention to the subjects in which he lacked expertise. Perhaps it was best that the opportunity didn't present itself. Their tenure here had already been difficult.

Jack swung around, beaming as if it had been his intention all along. As if Shamsiel's notice was just a flattering surprise. "Captain Jack Harkness," he said as he moved into their space, and offered Shamsiel his hand. Shamsiel released Castiel's shoulder to take it, and as the handshake dragged into stillness and still did not release, Castiel found himself confronted by an alien cocktail of emotion.

Anger. Aggression. Desire to separate the two men standing in front of him; challenge Shamsiel; mark Jack somehow as--

--his.

Oh.

Castiel looked away, ashamed of his thoughts as he recognized them for what they were. Experiences during the observation of human and animal alike made his current emotional state abundantly clear. He believed he was beyond such blatantly primitive territorial behavior, but Shamsiel - unlike the thousands of humans here - had the potential to leave a lasting impression on Jack. To shape his understanding of angels.

Castiel didn't want to share that duty with anyone.

"Castiel?" Jack's voice called Castiel back to the present. He shoved down the thought as well as the associated guilt before allowing his eyes to meet Jack's. This was no time for messy, incomprehensible human emotion.

"I expect I know why you're here," Shamsiel said, tucking his hands into the pockets of his trousers. His expression sobered.

Cool dread closed around Castiel's thoughts. "I can perceive no communications from the Host," he said.

Shamsiel nodded, slowly. "I know. It's my fault. Or rather, ours."

Castiel felt Jack's hand freeze just below his shoulderblades. Waves of heat and cold roared over his skin. "You."

For a few moments, nobody spoke. The crowd swirled in chaos around them. Somehow the pedestrians maintained a respectful distance on all sides despite the relatively small open space, like skittish animals. Shamsiel watched Castiel. He looked apologetic, but Castiel had no means to judge his sincerity.

"Max will fill my spot for the next set, I have a few minutes at least." Shamsiel sighed. He reached out to grip Castiel's shoulder. His hand was hard through Castiel's jacket, offering no other option but to go where he led. "You come with me. I'm sure you have questions, and I have things to tell you. Both of you," he added, gaze transferring from Castiel to Jack.

"I'd rather talk out here," Jack replied casually, "if you don't mind. It's such a nice night. Plus, you've got quite the setup. Love the costumes." His fingers skated up Castiel's back; squeezed just at the soft place below his nape. A warning? Or a signal that he was to go along with Jack's plan?

"I'd prefer it as well," Castiel said, somewhat forced.

Shamsiel huffed. His gaze flicked briefly upward, then he spoke directly to Jack with amusement in his voice, "Yes, I'm well aware that Castiel is currently mortal, just as I am aware that you aren't, which is why you're so adorably intent on not risking his neck, self-worth issues, existential crisis, blah blah, blah blah. While I can't say I'm pleased that parts of our not-so-dearly departed brother Raphael are probably still soaking into someone's grouting, I'm not out for revenge, thank you. I thought he was an overreaching little prick, anyhow."

Castiel stiffened. He'd had plenty of time to think about how he'd murdered his brother, among others.

"So you already know the score, but we don't even know the game," Jack said flatly, playful demeanor vanishing, "you gonna clue us in on that?"

"For starters," said Shamsiel, "'the game,' as you call it, does not include killing my little brother. Big plans for him."

"Not exactly reassuring, here," Jack persisted. Castiel was about to intervene, when a scrap of memory surfaced from ages ago, as the world was just beginning. His older brother had been a warm presence behind him, like the sun. On the shoreline, as they and others around them watched, a wet, dark, glistening creature hauled itself from the water and took a few unsteady steps.

Don't step on that fish, Castiel. Big plans for that fish.

Shamsiel pinned him with his gaze then, beautiful and terrifying as holy fire. "You remember that?"

Castiel's eyes narrowed. "I remember nearly pointing out that as none of us held earthly corporeal forms at the time, we could not step on it." He tilted his head, "How is it that you sound the same?"

"Smart as a whip," Shamsiel chuckled, "even back then. And apparently just as impressionable." He cast a meaningful glance from Castiel to Jack, and back. Castiel continued to squint at him. Over the years, Shamsiel had apparently developed the mannerisms and language patterns of the humans that existed around him. As a result, he was as confusing as Jack.

Well, maybe not quite, but nearly so.

"You have changed," Castiel observed.

Shamsiel grinned. "Being marooned on this planet for a few thousand years will do that to a person."

"Hah! Being marooned on Earth for one year will do that to a person," Jack added emphatically, "this world is all about change."

High, silvery percussion brushed out across the crowd. Everyone looked up to the stage, where the drummer tinkered with his high hats.

"If we're going to discuss the nature of time and human culture, I suggest we take it some distance away from the concert," Shamsiel suggested. He looked doubtful, as if he anticipated yet another argument. Jack appeared unconvinced, and Castiel made a decision before he could speak.

"I want to know how you cut me off from Heaven," Castiel said, "but that can wait. Before I go anywhere with you, I want to know why."

"Haven't we gotten demanding?" Shamsiel chided. His smile slipped as Castiel continued to regard him steadily, until Shamsiel relented with a sigh. "I'm certain you haven't become so inured to human thought patterns that you honestly believe it functions like a radio, Castiel." He sounded disappointed. "If you can hear them, they can potentially hear you. Locate you. And in your case - take possession of you the same way you once occupied that vessel."

Shamsiel's chin lifted suddenly and his gaze jerked sharply to Jack. "You already know this body isn't his? And yet you still touch him?"

Castiel's attention shifted to Jack as well. His jaw set, expression stony and immovable.

"You grow more fascinating by the moment," Shamsiel murmured after a moment of silence. Castiel felt his older sibling's focus settle on him once again, and forced himself to breathe slowly. Although he was currently uncertain where Shamsiel's loyalties lay, he would not panic. No matter how fervently his adrenal glands disagreed.

"The remaining members of the Twenty of the Two Hundred are protecting you," Shamsiel said, "because, currently, you are the only thing between us and the Apocalypse."

Castiel went cold. Beside him, Jack made a derisive noise. "Again?" he asked.

For a split second, the surprise on Shamsiel's lively features was visible.

Then he began to laugh. "Oh, I can already tell you'll be useful, Captain Jack Harkness." Shamsiel caught Castiel by the shoulder again. This time, however, he included Jack in his grip as well. "Have I satisfied your suspicions thoroughly enough now? Or would you like me to arrange for a full psychiatric evaluation?"

"We would each have questionable results," Castiel replied gravely, which was nothing less than the truth.


Rather than leading them to the largest tent - as Castiel presumed he would - Shamsiel led them an avenue over and down a short walk to a nylon camp tent like any ten in the nearby area. He entered the tent first and a light flickered on inside, illuminating the sturdy yellow dome like the tail of a firefly.

"Come on in," Shamsiel called from inside.

"Summons from the Hobo King," Jack sighed. Castiel glared at him, but although he could have pointed out that Jack lived a rootless existence himself for many years, he lacked the words for a suitable defense. He wrote it up to their mutual lack of control over this situation, and let the man enter ahead of him to ease his nerves.

The inside of the tent was a far cry from its spartan exterior. A small heater sat to one side, humming quietly as it poured warmth into the space. Rugs done in patterns of bright, natural colors padded the floors, with large, overstuffed cushions and short padded benches pushed against the walls. A low central table of highly polished oak held a number of books, folders of musical notation, and battered college notebooks in a state of organized chaos. Zipped panels on the rear and left side of the tent hinted at other rooms off the central one where they stood.

Shamsiel waved them in, shrugging off the suit jacket he wore afterward. "Have a seat. You should both drink something. I can't imagine how long you've been wandering around out there." He handed them bottles of room temperature water, and knelt at the table. Castiel twisted off the cap of his bottle, sharing a glance with Jack as he did so. At the tiny, slow shake of Jack's head, he lowered it to his lap untouched.

"It's not drugged," Shamsiel said lightly.

Jack dragged brooding eyes away from Castiel to Shamsiel at the table. "You're reading my mind," he accused, his voice rough with anger, "Nobody can read my mind."

"Because of what you are, you mean?" Shamsiel looked up, "The Immortal Man?"

Jack said nothing.

Slender, agile fingers sorted papers into piles, opening space on the tabletop. Shamsiel's eyes never broke contact with Jack's. His voice was without mockery. "And how did you come to this conclusion? Did your technology fail you?"

Again, Jack did not reply.

"I've lived far longer than you, Jack. Why do you find it so hard to believe that I can do something technology can't?"

"Do you want to know the truth?" Jack asked, cool and sharp.

This time it was Castiel, rather than Shamsiel, who answered. "Yes, Jack." His voice seemed to surprise Jack, or remind him of Castiel's presence. He turned towards Castiel with an unreadable expression, then away.

"I don't know what you are," Jack said, "but I believe you're a species that doesn't belong here, with delusions of grandeur as protectors of the world. Nice guys, mostly, the ones I've met anyway…" he trailed off, resting a light hand on Castiel's back.

Castiel didn't move. Barely breathed.

"…but definitely Grade-A crazy."

Focused on Jack as he was, Castiel missed Shamsiel's approach until his hand was nearly on Jack's forehead. Without thinking, he snatched Shamsiel's wrist. Jack sat stone-still, eyes half closed in anticipation of whatever was coming.

"No," Castiel demanded. His gaze cut to Shamsiel, fear curling around the edges of his thoughts now in the wake of what he'd done. "It proves nothing."

"Where were you in 1965?" Jack's voice was quiet and lethal, calm as if Shamsiel's hand weren't a breath from his face, "If you're angels, if there's a God, where were you when monsters kidnapped those orphans?" His volume rose; broke just a little. If Castiel hadn't heard it before, he would have missed it. "And where the hell were you last year?"

Castiel realized he was included in this barrage of accusations. He wanted to say a number of things in an attempt to explain himself: You were not my detail in 1965, the information was concealed from me afterward. I was searching for a solution. I didn't know to look for you. In the end, he said none of them. Before Purgatory, before Jack, he might have offered them and believed they were valid because they were true. But he also knew that Jack numbered himself among the monsters, and Jack had a wealth of perfectly valid explanations for his failings, too. Good intentions could not change past events.

"We're monsters, Jack," Castiel said in the end, "and we've been orphans for a very long time. That's why we weren't there." Under his hand, he felt Shamsiel twitch, then relax. Castiel released his wrist and he stepped back.

A span of somewhat awkward silence stretched, wherein they could all hear the muffled drumbeats and clarion brass from the continuing concert. "I apologize," Shamsiel said with contrition, "I played fast and loose with the rules this evening."

"Angels sure do that a lot, I'm noticing." Jack folded his arms. He lowered his chin and squared his shoulders with a small sigh. Then he looked up, expression lax. To Castiel it seemed that a curtain had risen, revealing a total set change. "So I'll be honest," Jack said with a slight smile, "I'm not here to help you. I'm not here to be converted. I'm here for Castiel. He needs my help, he gets it, because he's earned it. And let me make one more thing abundantly clear: nothing you do can convince me. So save your parlor tricks for the people who want to be saved, because I've seen what death is like, and it's dark, and it's empty, and I am way beyond hoping for some Never Never Land at the end of my rainbow. Got it?"

Shamsiel looked impressed, though by what, Castiel couldn't fathom. He nodded, once.

"And quit reading my thoughts."

"You're very loud," Shamsiel shrugged, "I'm afraid that's difficult."

"Then stop telling me about it."

"That, I can do."

In the ensuing silence, Castiel went for his water bottle and drank, ignoring any warning glances Jack threw his way. Although he was certain by now that it was only water, incapacitation would have been a relief. Sadness swelled to an almost unmanageable thing. Jack made himself abundantly clear. Castiel didn't believe things could ever go back to how they had been, in the face of that.

Shamsiel noticed, of course. "I believe it will take far too long tonight to explain the situation at hand, and if I abandon my band, they may defect. Would you be averse to a dawn meeting?"

"Of course not," Castiel answered immediately, before Jack could reply. Of the three of them, he was the only one who required sleep - the only one who might be adversely affected by the early hour. Irrational loathing at his weakness rose. Castiel felt himself spinning out of control.

Enough was enough. "Jack," he said tightly, "I am going to leave now, as my self control is rapidly dissolving. I am not walking away from you. Please don't think I am acting in breach of my promise."

He exited the tent, bathed in cold night air, and started walking back to their neighborhood and their tent.

Well before he got there, his resolve gave out. Castiel sank to his knees.

Jack, at least, did not seem to think he was lying. He did think, however, that Castiel and all of his kin believed in a phenomenal lie. And maybe they did. How did he know? He had existed for an untold length of time, believing with utter certainty that his orders came from God. He had no proof, he only believed. His instincts had been wrong then. From there to the possibility that he wasn't really an angel was a short leap.

His faith trembled to the very foundations, and no argument he could make would stand. Even the most anomalous parts of his existence could be explained away. Except...

"Archer?"

There were hands on his shoulders. Castiel raised his head and looked up into Jack's face. The avenue was dark here; he could see nothing but shadows.

"You move fast when you want to," Jack's hands slid down his arms and tugged, urging Castiel to his feet. His voice was warm, but careful. Castiel rose at his touch. His body felt heavier than normal; tired. He knew Jack would offer no apology, and didn't ask for one. Instead, he simply continued on his trajectory towards their camp, allowing Jack to follow as he chose.

Though part of him wanted to stay awake the remainder of the night, Castiel knew that he could not afford such a wasteful expenditure of personal energy. Like Shamsiel's abortive attempt to show Jack what angels were capable of, it would prove nothing. He undressed in silence, ignoring Jack as he followed suit.

Eventually, Jack seemed to realize that his mood was not going to improve on its own. Rather than leave him alone, however, he grew more insistent.

"That wasn't exactly how I wanted to meet your family," Jack said. The fondness in his tone was fragile as a skin of ice. When Castiel didn't answer, he tried again. "You know, I like Shamsiel. Even if he is kind of a jerk. I think if he'd been kind and sympathetic and all that jazz I wouldn't have. How messed up is that?" His chuckle was mostly air.

"Please don't," Castiel said quietly.

"Please don't what?"

"Don't pretend as if nothing has changed."

"Oh. If you want to talk about it, we can."

Castiel pushed himself up abruptly and glared at the spot where Jack lay beside him. "You infuriate me," he spat, "I told you about my family. You asked, Jack. You asked about my abilities, about my duties, things I've seen and done, and let me tell you everything as if I were a child. And all the while, you were thinking--" he couldn't repeat the words, "--that."

"No," Jack said, soft, "no, I didn't think that, Archer. I don't think you're crazy. Maybe that was a little too--"

"You made me question the validity of my entire existence with a dozen words!" Castiel cut Jack off, voice rising. He should not have come to value Jack's opinion so highly. He should have maintained a greater distance. The way in which he believed Jack had distressingly familiar overtones of Dean, which he could no longer abide. To behave with Jack – with anyone – and lose sight of who and what he was (and what he was could be lies, all lies…) as he had behaved with Dean was to invite catastrophe.

With the scraps of control Castiel had left, he struggled to get himself in hand. To gain the distance he needed before… before the pain once again outweighed the tenuous purpose. Every time that happened in the past, Dean came away bloody, and Castiel had no doubt that Jack would suffer the same fate – Immortal Man or not.

"I've let you in too far, for too long," Castiel reminded himself.

"Wondered when I was gonna see him again," now Jack sounded bitter.

"I don't know who you're talking about."

"The good little soldier. The guy who'd rather play target practice for the Undead Army than admit he's completely lost control. Who'd rather die alone than ask for help. Do me one favor, Castiel. Be angry with me if you want, but don't vanish behind that wall again."

"Jack, you have no--"

"--because I know that wall, and it's so very cold and lonely back there. God help me, I've let you past mine."

"You do realize the irony of invoking the name of God," Castiel said stiffly, after a few moments of tense quiet. He heard the sound of Jack's hands sliding through his hair.

"Castiel, so what if I'm not convinced that your god is the God? I dated a very nice girl once who believed her cat was the physical incarnation of Bast. And don't even get me started on Rose Tyler and her obsession with-- well, let's just say she needed a doctor. Pretty sure I dodged a bullet there. Or didn't, and now I don't have to. Dodge bullets. Ha."

Castiel narrowed his eyes, unwilling to be sidetracked. "Faith is my reality, Jack. Not just my belief, but my family. My existence. My purpose. Every time you ask me a question, I will know you're simply... humoring me."

"I would never humor you," Jack's hand brushed over Castiel's, caught his wrist and held it.

"You said you believe we're all crazy," Castiel reiterated stubbornly, "were you lying?"

"I would rather believe you were crazy than right," Jack replied.

"Why?"

"Because if you're right, then you don't have a soul. Right? You told me that once. And that wouldn't be a problem except that even after you get your Grace back, you can still die."

"Be killed," Castiel corrected, "it's different."

"All right, you can still 'be killed.' When I died, and when Owen died, it was just like I told Shamsiel, but we were still us. I don't like the idea of you just… stopping."

The incongruity of the statement gave Castiel pause, and he was forced to review the last few exchanges for some seconds before he could come to any conclusion. When the revelation hit, it was startling and uncomfortable and strangely endearing all at once. "You're hinging an entire set of metaphysical conjectures on whether or not I'll continue to exist after death?"

"If you were still out there, I could get you back."

Castiel bowed his head beneath the sudden weight of exhaustion. The determination of that claim carried weight. Jack would come for him, as he'd come for Gwen, as he'd come for others so many times, and if it was a partial kind of loyalty it was loyalty to Castiel. As desperately beautiful as it was to imagine someone so bent on rescuing him, as much as he'd wanted someone to make good on a promise like that, Castiel could tell he was being diverted. "I don't believe you this time, Jack. I'm—sorry."

Pain made Jack's voice brittle. It could mean any number of things, but Castiel knew that he hurt; that this – that he -- was hurting Jack, somehow, and that made him pay more attention.

"Okay, sure, there's more to it than that. I didn't think anything I said would have this kind of effect on you. You strike me as the 'immovable object' sort." With the soft hiss of sleeping bag folding back, Jack sat up. He moved in until his hip pressed against Castiel's, and his voice gentled to a murmur. "If I'd known, I would have been more careful about what I said."

"If you're attempting to apologize for telling me the truth—"

"I'm not. I'm a healthy skeptic; never made any secret about that. But I make a living out of challenging beliefs, and that includes my own. When I ask you things, it's because I'm trying to learn. You're the first angel I've ever met."

"A new species," Castiel's voice was sharp with sarcasm, reminded yet again of Clarke's Third Law. "As you said, nothing I do can convince you otherwise."

"Right." Jack kissed the curve of Castiel's shoulder. "I have to convince myself."

"But you've already reached a conclusion. You said as much."

"Faith is hard to build and easy to lose, Castiel. From what you've told me, you of all people should know that. Plus, angels have no souls? Major issues with that. All the same," the hand on Castiel's wrist slid upward, shifting the fine hairs on his arm with a tingle that would have been pleasant any other time, "I wasn't lying about the getting you back part. I would. I'd find you."

"The Torchwood associates who have gone," Castiel prompted, "you would find them as well."

Silence after that. Jack put an arm around his ribs, slowly, and Castiel let him. Eventually, he returned the touch in kind, sifting his fingertips through Jack's hair.

"One issue at a time, Archer," Jack said.

Chapter Text

Just after dawn, Castiel and Jack returned to Shamsiel's tent. They moved through the city in silence, although even at this hour, activity rustled quietly around them like the murmur of restless birds. Conditions on the playa remained remarkably quiet since the storm. Although there were gusts of wind from time to time, the haze had - as yet - not reappeared.

Castiel was out of words. His exhaustion persisted, somehow intensified by the few hours of sleep he'd captured before Jack woke him. He felt strangely light, hollowed out like bird bones. He had so many questions, so many things to consider, but tracking those thoughts in his current state was as fruitless as he assumed catching fish barehanded must be. One, at least, did persist: his sources regarding Shamsiel were incorrect or outdated. By his understanding of history, Shamsiel and the other Nineteen were bound on Earth; the Two Hundred they led destroyed after the Great Flood. But Shamsiel retained a great deal more of his original power than Castiel anticipated. How much of the tales were incorrect? Had the collectors of this data been mistaken... or deliberately misinformed? Or had they been instructed to provide misinformation?

His first theories involved subterfuge, Castiel thought with a huff of irritation. Whether it was a statement of how far he had fallen, or how far the denizens of Heaven had, he could not say.

Outside their own tent, Jack pushed a protein bar from their rations into Castiel's hand. He realized he'd forgotten to eat. His stomach rejected the thought of the bar's sticky sweetness, but Castiel had enough will, at least, to force it down.

Shamsiel met them at the entrance to his tent, finger held to his lips. He stepped out, zipped it shut behind him, handed a plastic coffee thermos to each of them and gestured for them to follow.

As with the bar he'd eaten fifteen minutes ago, Castiel was uninterested - at least initially - in whatever the thermos held. He assumed it was some sort of food or drink. Shamsiel carried a thermos, too, and held it to his own mouth a few times in transit. Curiosity prompted Castiel, finally, to examine the lid. When he'd worked out the relatively uncomplicated slide mechanism covering the opening and thumbed back the thick plastic tab, a familiar smell curled out. Coffee. Real coffee.

The scent called up half a dozen memories, brief and bittersweet. The Winchesters drank coffee in the morning, or late at night over important research. Castiel thought of coffee passed from Sam to Dean; Dean to Bobby. Since coming into contact with the Winchesters, he'd interpreted the act of giving coffee as a gesture of support. Somehow, it didn't register as such when Jack brought him a mug at the Denobian fueling platform - but the beverage was not Earth coffee, lacked the correct scent. It had not triggered the memories, but looking back, Castiel realized Jack's offering was made in much the same spirit.

For all that it was bound up so tightly with his past, Castiel had never actually tasted it. He peered down into the opening, fascinated by the flickering gleam of liquid moving inside.

"It's quite good, Castiel. Try it," Shamsiel suggested, just ahead of him. Castiel glanced up from the thermos and saw the other angel watching him over his shoulder.

"You drink coffee?" Castiel asked in surprise.

"I have to eat," Shamsiel replied, facing front once more, "Both a drawback and a perk of this existence, I'd say. I've developed an appreciation for good coffee."

"That makes two of us," Jack said. They exited the avenue onto its intersecting radial street, and turned towards the center of the campsite.

"I'm sorry for the rather abrupt greeting," Shamsiel gestured in the direction they'd come, "There are guests in my tent, both still asleep at this hour."

"Members of your band?" Jack asked.

From the rear, Castiel watched Shamsiel tilt his head and glance at Jack, a grin in his voice. "...Not exactly, no."

Jack chuckled. "That's what I like to hear."

Castiel cautiously tasted his coffee and swerved around the implications of their exchange. He knew what they meant, but he didn't have the luxury of time to think about it in detail.

They reached an art installation of giant steel dandelions. The tall gray stems soared upward to fluffy balls of spikes and rings, deceptively soft-looking regardless of their materials. This early, it was unusually devoid of other visitors. Shamsiel halted and turned back to them with a smile.

"I don't understand," said Castiel, who had been thinking about Shamsiel's answer to his question. "I was led to believe that you were locked inside your vessel with little to no access to your power. Yet you are capable of disguising my presence from Heaven. And you can sense thoughts."

"Only in my immediate vicinity," Shamsiel corrected with a grin, "the thought sensing bit, I mean."

Castiel put his head to one side. "I'm curious to know what else you can do."

"Wait," Jack cut in, "your vessel? You've been stuck inside that guy for thousands of years? Did he get full disclosure on the length of his contract?"

"Flawed assumption, Jack," Shamsiel waggled a finger," This vessel has always been mine - and to answer a much earlier question of yours, Castiel, that's why I sound much the same as I did before. It was created for me, as the bodies of the other Nineteen were created for them, when we were allowed to walk freely among the humans. It's only ever had one owner. But the mileage..." He spread his hands with a grin. The sunny expression melted after a pause, and Shamsiel continued in a somber tone. "After the events leading up to the Deluge, the... rules were changed. Angels weren't allowed to walk among mankind - not without orders and some extensive paperwork, so to speak. Those of us responsible for the events leading up to the Deluge were... put on permanent lockdown."

Castiel's eyes widened as the ancient memory stirred. He nodded slightly. While he had not attained sufficient rank... of a sort... to be affected, he'd certainly heard the whispers of surprise and disapproval within the Garrison. How could such a thing happen among their kind?

"In answer to your current question, Castiel..." Shamsiel trailed off as he leaned inward. He reached out with his left hand, index and middle finger extended, and pressed the tips of them lightly to Castiel's forehead.

Indescribable pain sparked between Castiel's eyes, searing outward with the quickness of thought. An instant later, the fullness and faint ache of his nose - still slightly swollen from his encounter with Bobby - had vanished. He turned toward Jack, reaching up to touch the spot where the skin was once broken and scabbed.

It was smooth. Jack whistled, low and impressed.

"I have access to all of my abilities but for the ones that manipulate my vessel," Shamsiel explained with a shrug, "such as self healing, teleportation, invisibility, you get the idea. Plus I have to maintain it as any human would, with food and sleep - albeit far less than a human requires." He shot a pointed look at Castiel, then continued, "I wasn't always able to do even this much, but given a few thousand years, I wriggled out of the handcuffs. We all have."

"That's how you've been able to shield me from Heaven," Castiel observed thoughtfully, "but I fail to understand how you knew when I returned."

Shamsiel shrugged again. "It took some coordination with the others, but when we heard how bad things were going in Heaven, we set up a Work to shield you the moment you turned up again."

"You knew?"

"Even before our suspicions were confirmed, we suspected. I believe the phrase 'like a bad penny' applies to you fairly accurately."

Castiel knew Jack was smiling, even before their eyes met.

"News reached us through a variety of sources that you battled with Raphael and won. We also heard of what followed. Asahel has, unfortunately, succumbed to madness, but his prophetic inclinations have strengthened as a result. He assured us that you would return, but you would be changed. Asahel said that change would follow you."

"Asahel?" Jack echoed.

"One of the Twenty," Castiel murmured. He took another sip of his coffee, and unexpectedly found himself warming under Shamsiel's approving smile. He reminded himself sternly to remember the previous evening, and approach this angel with more caution.

"Of our number," Shamsiel was saying, "only eight remain besides myself, though Yomiel has since followed Asahel's descent into madness. Two we know are dead, one is lost to The Pit, and the others, we cannot locate." He paused, rotating his thermos thoughtfully with the tips of his long fingers. The gesture drew Castiel's attention, as it had Jack's.

The next question was inevitable. Castiel did not want to ask it, even as he burned for its answer. The pressure of it built as the conversation progressed, until at last the silence stretched and he could no longer hold it back. "Things are going badly in Heaven, you said," he prompted Shamsiel.

"Yes," Shamsiel took a slow swallow from his thermos. "The absence of the Archangels has created an obvious power vacuum. A Heaven in search of leadership is dangerous." He did not append as you know, but might well have. Castiel briefly bowed his head.

"The communication we've intercepted indicates that a bid for leadership has been made."

Castiel's head shot back up. He stared at Shamsiel, mute with shock.

"By who?" Jack asked for both of them.

Shamsiel lifted one hand to the smooth curve of a steel dandelion stem. "The Fates," he said.

"The Fates have no capacity to rule over the angels," Castiel argued, as if by denying it he might brush it from existence. That any one of them might consider abandoning their posts, however obsolete, was unthinkable. They were The Fates.

He was half right, as it turned out.

Shamsiel went on, explaining the situation at hand in a sober, businesslike manner out of keeping with his earlier cheer. While the Fates, collectively, did lack the strength to oppose an archangel, well, things being what they were, it wasn't difficult to gain an audience with Heaven. They were not rulers. They were not leaders. Cold and dispassionate, they had neither the interests of Heaven nor the interests of Mankind at heart. But they had an idea, and to that idea, Heaven swarmed like starving calves.

Put things back the way they were.

"The Apocalypse was fated," Shamsiel said, "allowing it to happen will allow this existence to return to that predestined course. As long as that series of events remains incomplete, the Fates are, essentially, useless."

"Fate?" Jack echoed in disbelief, "Someone wants to predetermine everything? Not only is that fundamentally wrong, it's just plain boring."

"The Fates have worked smoothly and tirelessly since the Deluge," Shamsiel countered, voice and features blank, "whether you believe in them or not."

"I've seen the future, Shamsiel. I've seen it change. Completely. A whole year wiped from existence. So as far as I can tell, those gals have been out of a job for a lot longer than they think. Time to move on."

"Tell them that," Castiel commented dryly, "Atropos is entrusted with the manner of a person's death. She's very inventive."

"Then she should have a lot of fun with me," Jack retorted. Castiel glared at him disapprovingly, then sighed. Perhaps Death would take Jack to task for his cavalier attitude, but Castiel was long past the point at which it was appropriate to argue.

"When I challenged her," he said, hoping to dissuade Jack, "she threatened the Winchesters."

"You took on the Fates, too?" Jack laughed, "You are something else, Archer."

Though he was certain it was an inappropriate time for such a response, Castiel felt a swell of pleasure at the impressed tone of Jack's voice. He looked sharply away, quashing the emotion.

"There is one obstacle still in their path, having - to all appearances - garnered the support of what remains of the Host," Shamsiel began again, in precisely the same tone as before, "Besides you, there are relatively few beings with the combined intelligence and power to free Michael and Lucifer. Death isn't what I'd call a team player, and Crowley isn't biting, for obvious reasons." He gave Castiel an apologetic smile. "You're turning out to be a popular guy, slugger."

"But I'm... dead," Castiel said slowly.

"They still believe you're dead, and are pursuing other avenues. But we're certain that if they should learn that you are alive - and in your current state - they'll come for you. It's vitally important that you recover the remainder of your Grace as soon as possible. As I'm certain you're planning to do," he nodded with a faint smile. "Once you have it, the playing field will level, and you won't need our protection."

Castiel absorbed this silently. While Shamsiel's apparent confidence in his ability to resist the Fates was... heartening, Atropos, Lachesis and Clothos were more than a match for him even when he had a sizable portion of Heaven's power. They were devious, unscrupulous and creative within the rules that defined them. He did not like to consider what - and who - they would use to gain necessary leverage.

At his back, Black Rock City was returning to life. The arc of the city breathed with the sounds of human activity and he turned to hear it more clearly. There were voices and snatches of music; laughter and the slam of tailgates. People moved at the edge of the encampment. Some people were coming towards them, both on foot and on bicycle.

If the Apocalypse was allowed to proceed, these people would be in danger. As would every other creature on earth. To say nothing of the Winchesters, who would inevitably find themselves at the eye of the storm. The Fates would unquestionably defeat Castiel, but not rising to meet them was never an option. His thoughts whirled as he frantically sought a possibility with a better margin of success. Without the souls of Purgatory he could not succeed alone, and there were none to aid him that he trusted. He was losing control. Had, if he was truly honest, already lost it.

The good little soldier, Jack called him. Though Castiel could point out a dozen inaccuracies in Jack's comparison, he knew full well that it was no compliment. A commander of the Host. The man who preferred to fight alone, because he could not trust.

"I can't defeat the Fates on my own," Castiel said, turning back to Shamsiel.

"You won't do it on your own." Jack moved further into his peripheral view. While he didn't touch Castiel, his presence and the ferocious certainty in his voice was nearly tangible. Castiel glanced at him, a soaring emotion that was neither love nor joy swelling within him. He found himself wanting to believe that together, they would be enough. His rational mind disagreed. It was supremely ridiculous to even imagine.

He didn't realize that the back of Shamsiel's hand was on his stomach until his body began to thrum. Every part of his being pulsed painfully to the rhythm of the ancient angel's power. Castiel's jaw tensed in anticipation of more agony, but in a moment Shamsiel released him and Castiel tumbled into the dust like a casually dropped stone.

Jack was growling something at Shamsiel, but Castiel's hearing was muzzy and faint. He heard his own heart pounding in his ears, hard as if he'd just run a great distance. Looking up, he saw that Jack had moved to stand between him and Shamsiel.

Anger frothed up furiously, burning away the residue of whatever Shamsiel had done. Castiel was tired of falling down. "Jack, wait," he panted, forcing himself back onto his feet. Jack looked back at him, then moved aside. He appeared to be just as furious as Castiel, but in stark comparison, Shamsiel seemed... awed? He had not moved; had neither lowered his hand nor taken his eyes from Castiel's form.

"Well, that's interesting," Shamsiel breathed.

Gingerly, Castiel touched the spot, sore as if he'd overused the muscles there, in the vee where his ribcage opened. Castiel tugged up his shirt and blinked at the red, faintly glowing mark. It receded as he watched.

"What did you do to him?" Jack demanded, and Castiel could see him going for the device on his wrist.

"I'm sorry, Castiel," Shamsiel's voice was still soft, "I needed to be certain and had no time to warn you. Are you aware of what's happened to your Grace?"

It was taken from him, Castiel thought, fingers still on the spot. Taken and contained and hidden away before he could use what God had given him to destroy the human race with his good intent. "Yes," he replied.

"Not that," Shamsiel sighed, "I'm referring to the change that has occurred to the remnant of Grace still inside you. A minute ago, you did something that no member of the Host should be able to do. You hoped."

Hoped?

"I don't understand," Castiel said.

"I don't, either," Shamsiel replied, "which... to be honest... is new. You've managed to utterly transform the energy within your remaining Grace."

Castiel stared at Shamsiel, unable to scrape up a response. What did that mean? What would happen when he retrieved the rest of his Grace? He had no means to even identify how different it was, or gauge the likely outcome. Furthermore, how had it happened at all?

"If you want my opinion," Shamsiel murmured, moving in closer as more people arrived around the sculpture, "That power signature is more human than angel. It may merge with the rest of your Grace, it may not. It may transmute it, or it may be returned to its original state upon contact. But... for the time being? Congratulations, Castiel. You've got a brand new soul."

Chapter Text

Jack had a lot to take in.

If it wasn't all important, need-to-know information, he'd have filed away and forgotten (or dismissed) most of it by the time they exited the gates of Burning Man. Unfortunately, it was vitally important. Every piece belonged to an equation that had very little in common with the equations he was used to solving. It did have the bonus of being new and interesting - a not inconsiderable detail.

Shamsiel made his goodbyes on Saturday, intending to contact the remaining commanders of the Two Hundred. Happily, the plan was never for Castiel to stand against the Fates alone. Without the burden of the protective field, the Twenty would be able to join the battle as well, if it came to that. Of course, Jack being Jack, he was already working on contingency plans for when the cavalry was inevitably late or worse, never showed. Shamsiel promised to contact them soon. Jack knew an 'I'll call you,' when he heard one, having used variations of the line himself, and didn't hold his breath. He glanced over at Castiel, asleep in the passenger seat of the jeep.

The trench coat was definitely back, wrapped around him against the wind. Somehow, the cut and color of it was welcome and familiar in spite of how good Jack thought the angel looked in his desert fatigues. Castiel had changed clothes a day ago, but left the straitlaced suit jacket off in concession to the heat. The wind stirred his hair, but he didn't wake. Jack reached from the steering wheel to tuck the trench around him a little more tightly, then turned his attention back to the road and the battery of problems awaiting them.

It stood to reason that Sam and Dean would have moved on from St. Paul by now, and could - in a week - easily be anywhere in the country. That meant returning to South Dakota for another run at Bobby Singer, or figuring out a means to lure the Winchesters to them. Jack disliked both prospects. They potentially had the time to trace Sam and Dean's known aliases, but Jack could already anticipate Castiel's response to that. His presence might be masked from the Host at large, but they knew his vessel. He was at risk (Castiel would call himself a liability,) as long as he remained human.

Oh, so very human.

Jack looked at Castiel again. According to Shamsiel, a piece of Castiel's Grace (and here he revised his concept to resemble something more like a biological power plant) made it all the way through Purgatory with him and popped out the other side. Between then and now, some of its programming changed, and it looked - to Shamsiel, who may or may not be a reliable source - like a human soul.

Whatever that was.

Jack's eyes slipped back to the oncoming traffic, and the fingertips of his left hand touched the spot below his ribs where Shamsiel had touched Castiel. Was there one in him, too? He'd been a skeptic since well before he met the Doctor, and both life and death since then only hardened his view. Surely if he had a soul, someone knowledgeable would have said something before now.

Once they got Castiel back in working order, Jack decided, he'd ask him to check. Because he was curious, of course.

What would he do if Castiel said no?

What would he do if Castiel said yes?

Jack rolled his eyes at himself, putting both hands firmly back on the wheel. "I am not having a crisis of faith," he announced to the uninteresting Wyoming landscape, shrugged his shoulders and laughed. "Where are you when I need you, Gwen? Could use one of those verbal smacks you know I like. All these American accents, I don't feel so special anymore."

He tried not to think of it much. It wasn't that hard, especially considering how good he was at it. But he'd brought it on himself, talking to Gwen like she was there in the jeep. There'd been no answer, of course, and he intentionally hadn't thought of how much he wanted one until he couldn't ignore it. Hungry for the sound of her voice, Jack could almost hear her bantering with Ianto, fond and amused. Another moment, and there was caustic Owen; Tosh's timid questions slipping in between. The vehicle came alive around him, and for a few miles he was lost in vivid memories of trips just like this.

Of course it couldn't last. But he knew that. Hence the 'not thinking about it.' A glint of sunlight, a road sign, Jack didn't know what brought him back to the present, but the voices melted into the rush of desolate September wind. He was driving through Wyoming on his way to Sioux Falls, South Dakota for Round Two with Bobby Singer. Tosh, Owen, and Ianto were dead, Jack reminded himself with sharp rebuke, and he'd never hear Gwen's voice again.

He wasn't alone, at least. Captain Jack Harkness had an angel of the Lord riding shotgun. And that was about the newest, most unusual thing to have happened to him in about a year. Give or take that five year stint in Purgatory.

"Archer? You awake?" Jack asked, and when there was no reply, he smiled. "Tosh would have liked you. If anybody could teach you how to ask questions, she could. Maybe better than me, even. Owen would have pretended to ignore you until he figured out how he could use you," he tilted his head in apologetic concession for his former medic's proclivities, "or how to talk you into submitting to experiments. But you'd have been watching him right back, wouldn't you?"

Castiel didn't stir.

"Gwen won't like you no matter what," He laughed, smoothly changing lanes to skirt a livestock trailer, "until she decides to. I'm sorry, but I can't make her. She sounds a lot like Dean, come to think of it." He waited, in case there might be an answer, and when there wasn't he added, soft enough to slide under the wind, "Ianto... he'd be another story."

No sound issued from the other side of the cab. Even Castiel's breathing was muffled by the wind. Not that it mattered. Talking about Ianto was deadly hard until it got easy and he couldn't stop. Like an invocation, saying the name unlocked a closed door.

"I can't tell you who he was," Jack explained, "because I don't believe he knew. Under that perfectly tailored suit he was, well," here he sighed happily, unable to escape the opening for an innuendo even to an unconscious audience, "he was a lot of things. Always a mystery, our Ianto."

He smiled. The warmth was still there, of course. Ianto asked him to remember, and he promised he would. 'Not thinking about it' wasn't the same as 'forgetting.'

"Besides, you don't want me to tell you about him. You want me to tell you about the things he did. The things we did. Figured you'd have asked by now. Then again," Jack shrugged carelessly, "sometimes I forget you've got the patience of an angel."

Castiel didn't respond, so Jack told him. He relived Ianto's arrival ("I need to find out what happened to that pterodactyl."), Ianto's betrayal ("I don't know what surprised me more: that Ianto went behind our backs or that he did it for love."), even his brief tenure as a woman ("He wore those heels better than a lot of gals I know."). Unhearing, lost to sleep, Castiel heard his share of missions gone horribly wrong and missions where they really did save the day and the orphans. The sun slowly dipped behind them and more of Wyoming slipped away under their wheels.

Jack carefully neglected the 456 and the closure of the Rift. When he ran out of things to say, he stopped.

"This is all practice, you know," he murmured after a short span of silence, "because you're going to ask someday. You know, I think if you wanted to know about--" Jack censored himself. The door was closed again. "--if you wanted to research Torchwood, maybe four years ago, maybe three, you would have just done it however you research everything else. Gone back in time and watched our greatest hits. But I think you'll ask."

"I prefer your answers," Castiel replied, and the presence of a second voice in the cab caught Jack off guard. Jack swallowed, realizing how dry his throat had gone. He checked the clock. It was nearly seven - he'd been talking for almost two hours. How much of that had Castiel been awake for?

"Good morning, Archer," Jack grinned, putting the question out of mind, "Tank's low, figure it's time for a pit stop. You hungry?"

And then Castiel sat up, looking bewildered and disoriented. It was the way he'd looked every morning, that first year they spent in Purgatory. Jack remembered how he'd sit there on his bedroll, looking at the walls as if he didn't understand the concept of walls in general, and then at Jack like he had the answer.

"Cheyenne, ten minutes out," Jack reported, cupped his hand around the back of Castiel's neck, and squeezed. "Come on over here."

No sooner had Jack gotten his arm around Castiel's shoulders when a strong, steady beeping roused him from the dusky sunset edges of his memory. He pulled off the road, threw the jeep into park, and legged it around to the back with a boom of satisfied laughter.

"Jack?" Castiel asked, and the driver's side door slammed as the angel followed him out onto the shoulder.

"It's the software!" Jack crowed in triumph. He dug his laptop case from its insulation of sleeping bags, worries momentarily forgotten. "We hit paydirt."

"Last week you said it would only require a few hours," Castiel observed.

"Last week my gear wasn't in the middle of a desert," Jack retorted, a trifle defensive, "and this laptop's a backup. Didn't have time to upgrade the wireless card." Tosh had done some major improvements on the Torchwood software's capabilities, but 'better' didn't mean 'lightweight.' Tosh would have gotten to that, of course... but.

A moment later, Jack forgot to be irritated at Castiel's lack of faith in Torchwood tech.

Kansas. The majority of stories were all from Kansas. Sam and Dean's report was from St. Paul. A smattering of reports from elsewhere littered the screen. Nebraska, Iowa, Oklahoma and Texas also registered in the pattern recognition software with a report or two apiece - as well as the Minnesota case. "So all these reports are of -- strange holes?" Jack narrowed his eyes at the screen, drumming his fingertips on the tailgate seal while he thought. "Within the past two weeks, all these places have reported large holes in pastures. Human bodies found near or in the hole. Explosion sites and victims' bodies appear similar to those of military landmine detonation." Jack looked up from the screen, a question on his lips - hadn't Castiel once mentioned the Winchesters' Kansas heritage? - but the angel's expression wiped it out of his mind.

"You look like you've seen a ghost," Jack said softly, "What do you see?"

Castiel blinked, startled. His eyes flicked from the screen to Jack. "Bootback, Kansas," he said slowly, and Jack resisted the urge to huff when he trailed off. If someone was going to indulge in theatrics around here, it was Jack or nobody.

"Yeah, it's on the list," Jack replied, "is it important?"

Castiel looked quickly away and down. "Very," he sighed, "Bootback is the location of an abandoned sanitarium. The structure was used to treat tuberculosis patients in the nineteenth century. More recently, it was used by a demon named Crowley."

Oh, Jack knew about Crowley by now. He knew plenty. "The monster lab?" He asked. At Castiel's nod, he leaned over the laptop and plotted a change of course from their current location.

"Good a place to start as any," Jack said, "let's move out."

Chapter Text

Bootback, Kansas

Dean balanced a spiral bound atlas on the wheel of the Impala and carefully marked explosion sites with a red felt-tipped pen while he waited for Sam.

Explosions? Try craters. Dean was used to monsters that burned, monsters that bit, monsters that sucked out your brain juices with a handy straw. What he wasn't used to were monsters that blew people up. He'd seen monsters melt people, freeze them, char them into ash, but turning them into chunky meat salsa? That was a new one, even for him.

At the St. Paul case, they'd initially thought 'vengeful spirit,' because a psychopathic ghost could and had carried off deaths like this in the past. But the EMF detector never even gave off so much as a flicker or a halfhearted bleat. Furthermore, the deaths seemed completely random. Poor bastards were just out walking in their pastures when they turned into beef stew. Some of them weren't as disfigured - Dean guessed that whatever was responsible for these killings, the ones with most of their body still intact had seen it coming and tried to run.

He tugged at the collar of his oxford, irritated by so many layers of clothing in this heat. Black suit plus black car was never a good idea, and this late in the summer, Kansas was brutal even in the shade.

"Sam," Dean groaned out the window, "is there any chance this is just some nutjob with a handful of claymores and a couple thousand frequent flyer miles?"

Sam, who had been on his way up the sidewalk after leaving their latest witness, spread his hands in a helpless gesture. "You'd rather it was a nutjob?" He wore an identical dark suit. Today they were posing as Homeland Security.

"I'd rather it was something that made a little sense," Dean replied. Sam leaned against the fender and Dean got out to join him and escape the interior heat of the car. "Any luck?"

"Nothing we don't already know," Sam shook his head, "no shrapnel at the crime scenes means no landmines, right? How about you?"

"There's still no connection between any of these people," Dean waved the atlas, "I mean, I searched birth records, service records, criminal records, the works. Nothing stands out. Town small as this, you'd figure they'd have something in common, right?"

"Other than the town," Sam pointed out. He pushed a hand through his hair and crossed his arms.

Dean nodded unhappily. "Other than the town, right. But there's nothing up there at Casa de Crowley. That was the first place we looked. Plus, St. Paul? As far as I know, Crowley's not a Timberwolves fan."

"The Timberwolves play in Minneapolis, Dean," Sam corrected, in the bored 'distracted-but-still-smarter-than-you-Dean' voice that never failed to piss him off. Then Sam's eyes fell on the atlas. Dean promptly handed it over, happy to be rid of the thing.

Sam gave the red-speckled county a slow once-over. "Hey, that missile silo where we... you know. That was in..."

"Abilene," Dean blurted, because the location of that missile silo was on the back of his tongue most days, always in the rear of his mind, and burned indelibly on the surface of his memory like Cold Oak and Lawrence. "And yeah, it's right in Bootback's backyard. I noticed the first time we were there, Sam, what's your point? You think this's got something to do with Cas?"

"I think where we are is a pretty big coincidence, if it doesn't."

"Maybe it's Crowley," Dean said, eager for any other reason, even the one he'd just tried to rule out. He willed Sam not to say what they were both thinking, because the minute he said it, that'd make it real, "this was his stomping ground, maybe it still is. Another one of his twisted little projects."

"Or maybe that door Cas opened didn't get closed like we thought," Sam continued, deaf to Dean's private denial, "and something's getting through. Or what if it's--"

"Then we find a way to shove it back in," Dean barked, glaring at anything but Sam, "and we make sure it doesn't get back out." He pivoted, fingers under the door latch. "I need a burger."

The local family restaurant was a somber little place, in the aftermaths of the deaths. It was full of people, apparently believing in safety in numbers, but the volume was subdued. Sam and Dean claimed an empty booth. While Dean perused the menu, Sam promptly filled half the table with his laptop, notebook, and the polka-dot atlas.

"Christ, Sam, can't we eat in peace?" Dean demanded, glaring at his brother over the laptop screen.

"When as far as I can tell--" With a furtive glance at the people surrounding him, Sam lowered his voice and leaned forward, "when as far as I can tell, people are randomly detonating all over town? No."

"Boy, you've gone right back to being Jimmy Workaholic." Dean gestured at Sam with the wrapper of his straw. "And they're detonating in random pastures, not all over town."

"So, great, all we have to worry about are exploding cows?" Sam's gaze flicked up once, then down, then up again and stayed, boring into Dean's. The icy blue-white reflection of the screen on his eyeballs made it sort of difficult to tell where he was looking, but Dean had developed a kind of sixth sense about when he was on the receiving end of Sam's glare. "This is about Cas."

"What? Come on," Dean retorted, "because I actually want to not have a working lunch?"

"Because you don't want to deal with it," Sam could usually be depended on to skip right past the formalities and get straight into pissing Dean off, "That spell we used? You know where it came from. You know what it was supposed to do."

Dean's hand went up to the phial at his neck, its glow shielded by two shirts and his suit jacket. For security reasons, he just couldn't leave it in the car anymore, never mind a motel room, and it wasn't safe in some random pocket. Not that anyone had come after them for it, but you never knew. "And it did, didn't it?" he shrugged, putting his hand firmly around his soda before his fingers could contact the warm, bullet-shaped glass.

"Maybe," Sam's tone was noncommittal, "but the fact that we're still here also says maybe it didn't."

Dean knew. He didn't need Sam to explain that one to him, he'd been turning it over since they came out of the silo alive. The spell that allowed a human to banish an angel permanently was a gnarly-ass mother. They'd dug it out of the deep, dark, and messed-up world of John Dee's journals, but it was the only scrap of opportunity they had at the time. It was easily the most lethal of any Work they'd attempted.

Plus, it required two human sacrifices.

So, yeah. Even Dean could see where Sam was coming from there. What with the whole 'not being dead' part and all.

"We never used it before, how could I tell, right?" Sam shrugged, then glanced away from Dean as the waitress arrived with their orders. He made room in his neatly organized swamp of research material for their plates. "I've just got a feeling it went sideways," Sam continued, a few minutes after the waitress departed, and nudged his laptop towards the wall.

Dean bit the end off of a crinkle fry and watched Sam fidget. "Because we're not dead and Jimmy's not sprayed all over the silo walls? We did what we had to do, Sam," he said firmly, the same way he'd been repeating it internally in the weeks since. "Cas was out of control. I mean, come on. Buddying up with Crowley."

Sam's eyes flicked up from his forkful of lettuce and hardboiled egg and Dean read sympathy on his furrowed caveman brow. It was the kind of sympathy he should have hated on the spot, but didn't, because a second later Sam sighed, "Yeah, I tell myself that too," and poked the mess of greens into his mouth. They chewed in silence for a while.

"Thing is," Sam severed a tomato wedge with the side of his fork, "I keep thinking, if that spell went sideways, and we're here when we're not supposed to be, maybe Cas is, too."

Dean's appetite soured. He tossed down his burger. "You know what?" he growled, fingers flexing an inch above his plate like a catcher anticipating a painful speedball, "Cas ripped a hole in Purgatory, we screwed up the universe, whatever, I don't care, Sam. What I do care about is figuring out what's blowing up those people and stopping it."

Sam looked surprised, then knowing, then surprised again.

"What." Dean snapped.

Sam tossed his bangs back (like a total girl, Dean noted with venom) and went back to his salad with patent innocence. "Nothing. Okay. Then we should start looking."

"I thought that's what we were doing."

"I thought you didn't want another working lunch."

Dean glared. "If it'll shut you up, I've changed my mind."

So Sam went back to dividing his attention between his laptop and his salad, while Dean drowned his aggressions with trans-fats, salt, and ketchup. Sam bounced ideas and Dean commented between bites, until they managed to ratchet things between them more or less back to some kind of normal. The waitress came and went, refilled their drinks, and took Dean's credit card (addressing him politely afterward as "Mr. Gawetrzraminer."). No solution to the immediate problem showed up, not that Dean expected one so quick. He figured he'd call Bobby with an update (and beg him for help) once they'd gotten back to the car, when Sam made a surprised noise on his side of the table and dropped his fork.

Dean raised his eyebrows. Sam's gaze went from him to the screen and back, and judging from his expression, whatever got his attention was something big. "Dean, you gotta see this. Somebody posted a YouTube video of the thing."

"The thing?"

"The thing blowing people up."

Dean snagged the laptop away from Sam and turned it around, ignoring his sibling's irritated protest. To avoid drawing attention, Sam had muted the sound, but sound wasn't really... necessary in this case, to figure out what was going on. As Dean watched the shaky, sideways footage, a monster that looked more cactus than creature wandered across a pasture, at least thirty yards off. It moved smoothly, like a hovercraft on four short, trundling legs. It wove through a loose herd of cattle, even as the cows scattered in the opposite direction.

Dean squinted, trying to make out the thing's motion against a backdrop of late summer grass. He clenched his jaw as a dog - presumably owned by the cameraman - launched itself across the pasture towards the monster. Its head swiveled towards the unlucky mutt, followed by the rest of its body, and then a tiny, silent mushroom cloud of dirt and grass erupted where they met in the middle. A split second later, the camera rocked, and Dean could see the fenceline trembling under an impressive blast wave.

The video ended before the dust cleared, but Dean knew what he'd see. A crater. "What the hell did I just watch, Sam?"

"Don't close that window," Sam admonished, "YouTube's gonna have it down in minutes, if they haven't already."

Dean turned the laptop back to Sam. "This could be faked," he said, still chewing over the details of the video in his mind. "does it say where it was taken?"

Sam scanned the screen for a moment or two. Dean watched the reflection of it scrolling across the whites of his brother's eyes. "Not on the video page, but--wait. We can find out, plus whether it was faked or not." After a few more minutes of typing and tapping, Sam sat back with a grin. "Bingo. See, lots of phones tag the video you take now with gps data. That way when you upload it to places like Facebook, other people can see where you've been. It's called geotagging."

"And?" Dean prodded.

"If this was a faked video, the data on the video might be messed up or missing, because they ran it through another program."

"This isn't NCIS, Sam, we don't have all day."

Sam huffed and tipped his head at Dean, broadcasting exasperation like a bitchy Sam-shaped radio tower. "It's not faked. All the info is there, right down to the type of phone and the cell service. ...But you're not gonna believe where it's from. Sayre, Oklahoma.

"Oklahoma? What, are these things just falling out of the sky? Not to mention, why do they have a problem with dogs and people, but not cows?"

"I don't know, Dean." Sam shrugged, closed the lid of his laptop, and reached for the atlas. He flipped a few pages for Oklahoma, and Dean watched as he circled Sayre with the red pen. Then frowned. Then... tore out the page. Then flipped to Minnesota and repeated the process.

"What are you thinking?" Dean muttered. Sam shook his head and flipped the atlas open to Kansas. He aligned the map sections and examined the span of red dots.

Nobody said a word. Certainly not Dean, who couldn't think of a damn thing to say. Silently, Sam unfolded a napkin and used the long edge to connect St. Paul with Sayre. All of the reported attacks fell along that line. The line which, give or take a few miles, passed right through Abilene.

Dean looked up at Sam, and caught him looking right back. And if Sam's expression looked guilty, Dean figured his was twice that.

"Let's move out," Dean said shortly.

Chapter Text

"Have you considered just asking them to give it back, Castiel?"

Castiel kept his eyes straight ahead, on the tail of the Impala in the motel parking lot across the street. It was extremely late, but Sam and Dean were still awake. Shadows moved faintly behind the closed curtains. "Yes," he said, "but they would never comply."

"You never know," Jack replied, leaning back in his seat with a stretch, "maybe they miss you. 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder,' and all that."

Slowly, Castiel dragged his gaze to Jack. "I threatened to kill them."

"Guess there's that," Jack conceded, and silence descended on the jeep once more. Briefly. "But it's not like you're the first guy ever to do that, I'm sure."

Castiel raised his eyes and sent up a prayer for patience before he was entirely aware of his own actions. He sighed. "I'm uncertain if this is an extended attempt at humor - in which case, I don't find it humorous, Jack - or if you are in earnest. In either case," the irritation and tension he felt leaked into his voice, "please stop talking."

Jack raised his hands in a gesture of submission, and subsided without further protest. A few minutes later, the lights in the motel room flicked off and the door opened. "Duck," Jack hissed, and they both dove down behind the jeep's dashboard. Castiel watched Jack, who kept one eye on the Winchesters. Streetlights cast bars of deeper shadow across his face through the steering wheel.

"They're packing up," Jack reported in a whisper, "I think they're pulling out. Who's who? Looks like one of 'em got all the height genes in the family."

"Sam," Castiel supplied, and it was only through supreme effort that he kept his head down. The desire to see Sam and Dean, alive and well, was overpowering. Until now, it truly had not occurred to him that his attempt to protect them from the effects of the spell might have failed. While he was in Purgatory, praying for their safety, for their survival until he could return, their corpses could have been rotting in that room. In the wake of that came a wash of panic so deep and sharp that he could hardly breathe. Had he been so arrogant then? Was he still?

"Huh. Figured you'd go for the tall one." Jack raised a quelling hand out to Castiel, slow and easy. "Don't move. They've got their backs to us, but they could catch us in the motel window reflection."

Determination renewed by the threat of giving away their position, Castiel obeyed. A few moments later, he heard the familiar, heavy slam of Chevy steel doors, nearly in tandem.

"Wonder where they're headed this late at night," Jack murmured, as the Impala's motor turned over. The popping purr of it echoed up and down the street. Castiel breathed shallowly as the sound intensified, then receded in the distance. His chest burned with a pain unlike the sear of any weapon. Castiel well knew by this point that grief could result in physical discomfort, but it had never been quite so strong. He straightened at Jack's signal and reached for his seatbelt.

"A good old-fashioned tail," Jack said gleefully, "haven't done this in way too long."

"Be forewarned," Castiel cautioned, touching the spot below his sternum that still ached, "Sam and Dean are quite good at knowing when they're being followed."

"Hey, I was tailing people when Sam and Dean were in diapers," Jack's wide, cocky grin glinted under the passing streetlights as they pulled out to follow, "I've tailed people on foot, with an S-3150 Grisham Starcruiser, and on horseback, just to name a few. You have any idea how hard it is to tail someone when your ride takes a fancy to theirs and starts yodeling love songs?"

"Horses are interesting creatures," Castiel was only half listening.

"Nah, I was talking about the Starcruiser. The AI system installed in that model was... affectionate, and that's putting it mildly."

"If you had intercourse with a spacecraft, Jack, I would prefer not to know."

Jack's laughter rolled out, expansive and warm, and the pain in Castiel's chest began to recede. He leaned forward in his seat, hands on the dashboard, watching with growing interest as Jack played an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with the Impala. In a town like Bootback, there wasn't much camouflage at this hour. Jack kept a street between himself and the Winchesters until they rolled off onto a gravel road.

"We can't tail them further," Castiel observed, maintaining a damper on his frustration only barely, "there's no other option but to follow them directly." They watched the Impala's headlights scissoring away into the dark, tiny now in the distance.

Jack switched off the headlights of the jeep. When running lights still glowed fore and aft, he grumped, pushed a button on his wrist strap, and held it under the dash. A moment later, the lights winked out.

"Watch me," Jack growled, and turned down the road the Winchesters had taken.

Driving in the dark was strange and exhilarating. The danger of the exercise was tangible, especially in Castiel's current form. Every bump in the road reminded him that his frail mortal vessel could die if he was pitched from the vehicle. Jack, on the other hand, seemed not to notice the danger the low light presented. He accelerated, careering around curves as gravel spit from the tires like buckshot.

"You tell me when you see 'em!" Jack shouted over the din of engine sounds and road noise, "and you tell me if they stop!"

Adrenaline spiking, Castiel steadied himself on the dashboard. The road canted sharply down and he dangled at the limits of his seatbelt. "I see them!" he called back, then gritted his teeth in frustration as the hill and the fields obscured his view. If he could only--

Castiel unclipped his harness, grasped the top edge of the windshield with both hands, and pulled himself up to stand in the footwell. The rush of night air snatched his breath and brought tears to his eyes. Below him, Jack laughed like a madman. "Hang on, Archer!"

They raced through the dark, Castiel's knuckles tight on the windshield, stance wide to accommodate the rolling of the jeep along the rutted country road. Once they'd covered enough distance to mark the Impala without difficulty, Jack's speed dropped back to a safer pace. The glow of city lights came into view, still at least half a mile in the distance. Halfway between the jeep and the city, a shadowy cluster of buildings rose out of the countryside, and Castiel saw the brightening of Dean's taillights. "They're stopping," he called down to Jack, and was surprised when Jack braked as well. Long before the Impala's lights faded, the jeep was silent on the shoulder of the road.

"Give 'em five minutes. If they're still there, we follow on foot." Jack gestured for Castiel to follow him as he circled to the rear of the jeep. He dislodged several weapons from beneath the gear. Castiel looked on with disapproval. Jack must have caught wind of this, and pushed a lethal-looking black recurve bow into his hands.

"For the beasts, not the boys, Archer, relax. Haven't had time to give you the full Torchwood training seminar," Jack said, holding out an arcane-looking quiver as Castiel examined the weapon, "so here. Works just like your old bow, but the poundage may be a little bigger. Fiberglass and maple," he added, just as Castiel was opening his mouth to ask, "feather fletches, flint heads. The bow's too light for steel, trust me."

"Where did you--" Castiel trailed off, touching the fine edge of a flint arrowhead to his thumb. The stone was sharp, snagging on his skin.

Jack shrugged. "I'm that good. But the heads are from Burning Man."

"There was a flint knapper?"

"You're really going to ask that question?"

The quiver was ingenious - a rack, rather than the leather tube he'd used in Purgatory - with arrows clipped gently in place. There were no words to describe the sheer rightness of the bow in his hands. Castiel ran his hands down the smooth arms of the wood-and-fiberglass frame, then quickly wound the bottom nock around his ankle. He bent the wood and pushed the loop at the top of the loose string into place. The moment it popped into the grooves at the top nock, Castiel could feel its tethered, living power. He ached every day with the sensation of helplessness, battled nightly against the looming fear that all of this was futile. But this? This he understood to the center of his bones. He'd spent years at hunting and defense by the hour alongside Jack with a weapon like this in his hands. He knew its trajectory, its reach; its simple efficiency in a way only daily survival could teach.

Jack called him 'Archer' for a reason. Castiel tested the bundle of animal sinew that served for a string and felt a thrill of pleasure just on this side of sexual.

Five minutes and more had passed by the time Jack helped him strap the quiver snugly to his back. He picked up a Winchester pump-action shotgun leaning against the tailgate and gestured for Castiel to follow. Together, they moved into the ditch and slipped closer to the structure with practiced silence.

At the edge of the wheat field adjacent the buildings, Jack called a halt. He came up the side of the ditch until his head was just above the ground, and edged forward, peering out of the shadows. Castiel turned, keeping an arrow nocked but not drawn, and warily watched the dark behind them.

"Pretty sure they're inside," Jack reported in a hushed undertone as he dropped back to Castiel, "So you said you think it'll be in the car?"

"The trunk," Castiel said tersely, eyes and ears still trained on the night.

"Can you jimmy a lock?"

"No."

Jack sighed. "Didn't think so. All right. Stay on my six, Archer, and pray the boys don't come out."

"I could provide a distraction," Castiel offered.

"You're not walking in there alone," Jack gave his head a firm, final shake, and gestured for Castiel to follow him once again as he ducked into the safety of the ditch. As the groove grew shallower, they were forced to crouch. Although he liked the bow, Castiel couldn't help but notice how much simpler it was for Jack to maneuver the shotgun in these quarters. Jack kept them moving until the Impala rested squarely between them and the building. He waved Castiel down and crept slowly toward the trunk latch.

Castiel bit down on his frustration at being left behind yet again, tempted to disobey and join Jack at the fender anyway. With the force of will, he swung his head away, and came out of the ditch just enough to find a good, solid base. Knee screwed into the slope, bow up, he watched the dark for movement, squinting against the yellow light. As he did so, he became more aware of the buildings the Impala faced. Beyond the spot where it was parked was a row of chain link fence, and beyond that a handful of sheds, a propane tank, and the squat, corrugated cylinder of a grain bin around a larger metal hangar.

Then, in the shallow wash of security light, Castiel noticed something else. He sidled to get a better look around the back of the car, and his eyes widened in shock.

"Jack," he breathed, then more urgently, "Jack."

Jack looked up as the trunk latch popped. He looked at Castiel, then turned his head to follow Castiel's gaze. Jack cursed, more vibrantly than Castiel knew he was capable. Then he laughed. Castiel had come to know that laughter had many meanings and tones, not all of which were responses to humor. In this case, the warm spill of sound held frustration, anger, and a certain hunger for battle that Castiel recognized and resonated to. Once, Jack said Castiel had a 'complicated relationship with violence.'

He was more accurate than he knew.

Creepers were coming out of the dark. Everywhere. Castiel counted a dozen at least. They descended on the hangar with unexpected speed and vanished into the doorway, while Castiel and Jack were still paralyzed with shock.

"Come on, Archer," Jack shouted as he snapped up the firearm where he'd leaned it against the Impala's bumper and launched himself full tilt towards the hangar, "let's save those boys! Walking nitro waits for no man!"

Castiel rose to follow, adrenaline spiked. The world slowed down as he moved, narrowing to the yawning hangar entrance and the creatures that had just disappeared inside. Then a crackle to his left drew his attention sideways, in time to spot another platoon of creepers exiting the long grass. The pupils of their eyes caught the light and flashed red like the flickering coals of a fire. "Jack!" Castiel cried, paused long enough to take aim at one flashing red pupil, and fired into the crowd. The string whiffed against his sleeve and the arrow sailed off into the dark with a rush of air like wind over feathers. A moment later, a meaty thump and an angry hiss let him know he'd found his mark. Backing up rapidly to reach Jack, Castiel released another arrow, and another in rapid succession. The calluses he'd developed had come through from Purgatory, as had the muscle tone and agility he'd developed there, but his fingertips were still stinging by the third arrow.

Creepers fell before him, dropped - he noted with relief, as his number of arrows was finite - with only one shot apiece. Perhaps the rules were different here, or perhaps the bow's superior power and the carbon arrows fired therefrom could penetrate the creatures' skulls with greater proficiency. He rushed to the fallen bodies, additionally relieved to see that his arrows were still intact. That too was different from Purgatory, as the fragile shafts inevitably shattered on impact.

The susurration of an angry hiss broke his concentration, far too close on his right. Chill fear swept over Castiel's skin.

A shot rang out. The subsequent blast of heat and sound roared past him, but there was no explosion. Only the short, furious bark of Jack's voice, demanding Castiel stay on his six where he told him to stay.

Heedless of the order, Castiel dove for his arrows. It had been Jack, of course, who fired. He was still watching the fence line, eyes narrowed and shotgun raised, when Castiel returned. "Shut the gate?" Jack asked, loping sideways towards the hangar door, muzzle towards their right flank.

"It doesn't matter," Castiel replied tightly, mirroring Jack, "they're coming from here."

"How do you know?"

"Watch the fence, Jack." Though the light at the edges of the property was dim, they could see creepers materializing from thin air inside the fence behind them.

A moment later, a muffled explosion shook the earth and rattled the metal panels of the hangar. Castiel and Jack both staggered.

Castiel forgot himself completely. The plan, Jack, his Grace, himself. "DEAN," he barked, and raced into the hangar.

"DAMMIT Castiel!" Jack shouted. In a moment his footsteps sounded a counterpoint to Castiel's own.

Chapter Text

Two stories down, Sam's wild-hair theories were proven wholesale. The barn disguised a round missile silo, plunging for nearly a quarter mile into the Kansas soil. The underground structure was actually two cylinders of nuclear hardened concrete - the control center, under the hanger, and then the silo itself at the end of a long, steep stairwell. Adapted from its original intention of housing Atlas missiles during the Cold War, the silo had been separated into levels, connected by one single staircase, drilling down the center of each room in a tight spiral. And hopping like oversized chickens, a pair of monsters like the one on Sam's video scaled the stairs from the third floor. Sam hurdled the rail to get out of his brother's line of sight and came up firing. The first one, they'd dropped with no problem, although they seemed to require an inordinate amount of bullets and neither man knew where to aim. The second one, by chance, had turned toward Sam and - either because they'd nicked it and it was pissed or this just wasn't their day - exploded less than twenty feet from him. The following shockwave knocked the wind out of both men. Dean rolled bonelessly down the steps to the landing, liberally splattered with goop.

Dean heard Sam coming towards him. At least, he hoped it was Sam. He rolled over and groaned, doing his best to reassure his brother that he was still alive.

"Guess we're in the right place," Sam panted, scraping gooey green monster flesh out of his eyes.

Above them, fluorescent panel lights flickered weakly, and Sam waved at Dean to stay quiet. Dean didn't have a problem with that order; he'd had the wind knocked out of him from the blast. And, you know, falling down a flight of stairs on top of it all like the cherry on a hurtin' sundae.

Both above and below them, they could hear scuffing footsteps.

Dean crawled commando-style towards Sam as quickly as his battered body would allow. This level was littered with sixties-era office castoffs: metal desks, chairs, and shelving in taupes and greens. That made sense, actually, in a weird way. Every bit of it was probably assembled down here, and who in their right mind would try to carry all that shit back up a spiral staircase? None of it was in good condition, but if they could get some of it between themselves and the things after them, maybe they'd go unnoticed. After all, it looked like they were limited to attacking based on line-of-sight. Things didn't have ears (maybe snake ears?), much less a nose. Did they?

Sam reached out to Dean and helped him into the maze of rusting furniture, and Dean let him because he knew he'd never make it in time otherwise. They took up positions that afforded clean shots at the landing, close enough to stay out of one another's range. Dean really, really hoped they wouldn't have to shoot. Both hands ached from his tumble down the stairs, and every miss could richochet off a curving concrete wall and back into his own face. Or Sam's. He kept one eye trained on the slice of stairwell he could see, and tried not to breathe too obviously.

A shuffle at a time, a parade of nasty green whatsits filed up the stairs and down, meeting in the middle like a wedding march right out of a low-budget Sci-Fi Channel flick. They looked confused, and Dean got the treat of witnessing their heads rotate almost a full three-sixty on what passed for their shoulders like a mutant barn owl.

Great. Exploding cactus owls. Naming these things was gonna be a bitch.

On the plus side, they didn't seem able to locate either hunter. However, at the rate they were coming up from down below - seriously, were they hatching down there? - Dean figured one would accidentally crowd into them long before they gave themselves away. His finger curled around the trigger, adrenaline metallic and bitter in the back of his mouth. Looked like the larger numbers were coming up, rather than down, which was good, because if they didn't shoot their way back to the surface and get the hell out of Dodge stat, they'd be a couple hundred pounds of cat food in seconds. Ground up by all the handy dandy lightweight metal they'd chosen to hide behind. What appeared as sound survival tactics at first blush now looked like they'd just walked themselves into a giant Cuisinart.

Then, on the stairs overhead, Dean heard footsteps. Real human footsteps, coming up fast.

The monsters turned towards the stairwell and started crowding at the bottom like a handful of drunk groupies at a Bon Jovi concert. One of them made it through the living barricade. Dean watched it go up, and up, and then just as its feet were visible, THWANG.

It toppled backwards onto its buddies, the black shaft of an arrow poking from one eye socket. The space echoed with sibilant hisses.

There were more. Three more, to be exact, all down in seconds, boom-boom-boom, and Dean could have cried for joy. Could have kissed whoever decided to go all Dukes of Hazzard on their asses, could have--

"Dean!"

Cas?

The face that starred a recurring role in some of Dean's worst nightmares now peeked just under ceiling level and scanned the room with wide eyes.

The monsters renewed their attack on the stairwell, more and more of them turning towards the narrow egress as their assailant became visible. Dean shifted his view to take in more of the room, moving as slowly as he reasonably could. The monsters, meanwhile, took no notice whatsoever. They shoved one another, mindless as zombies, treading on their fallen pals like just another part of the floor.

"Don't move! We'll lead them off!" the man-who-totally-couldn't-be-Castiel ordered. He had the same rough voice, the same mix of concern and 'obey or I will so smite you' in his tone, but it just couldn't be. Dean wasn't completely sure of where Castiel was, but he did know for certain where Castiel wasn't. And that was here. His exhausted logical brain threw up its hands in panic and threw the switch on Dean's Automatic Pilot before it got him killed, and probably Sam right along with him.

His mind cleared, then, and Dean's eyes narrowed as he realized that he knew something their unexpected ally may not know - the creatures were coming up the staircase in impressive numbers. The only thing that would clear them fast enough for he and Sam to get up the stairs themselves was at least a semiautomatic. He didn't want to risk firing in here, but he didn't want to die even more. Dean waited for Sam to look at him, then signaled him to break cover. Sam tipped his head, then Dean saw understanding dawn. Sam gave a tight nod, and they rose as one, using the monsters' preoccupation with the staircase to take aim. The sound of gunfire was deafening in the enclosed space, and Dean momentarily forgot everything but one simple process: aim, fire, aim, fire, run. Sam kept moving and Dean stayed on his flank, out of his brother's range with practiced, unconscious ease.

Upstairs, they heard the faint but distinct shukk-shukk of a shotgun cycling, then a much louder report followed by a delayed spray of green goo from the top of the stairs. The sound surprised Dean enough to throw him off, and one of the few monsters left on the floor made the most of that opportunity. He winged it, but before he could get off another shot it hissed at him.

"DOWN!" Dean bellowed, shoving into Sam. A full second later, it exploded, spraying them with goo and lifting furniture like a formica-and-aluminum tidal wave. The majority of the furniture was already behind them, but a chair leg struck Dean a glancing blow to the back of the head that left him dazed, and at least forty pounds of metal desk toppled over onto his kidneys.

Sam struggled underneath him, yelling his name like a total idiot as he wrenched himself out from under Dean and the weight of the table. Dean would have helped him, really, but his eyes wouldn't focus and his thoughts kept slipping sideways of center. He was faintly aware that Sam stood over him, one foot planted on either side of his shoulders, protecting him like a B-flick action hero.

God, his head hurt. And the table was still on his back, and that hurt too, like a mother. All of his thoughts fuzzed and blurred except for one. One thought, which became vitally important as the only thing he could hold onto.

What was Cas doing here?

Dean watched with one eye, glazed and staring, as his brother fired, and fired, and fired. He heard other voices, but they sounded muffled, obscured as if Dean were listening underwater.

Then, he saw two figures descending the staircase almost at a run, slipping on the goo of dead cactus owls. One was light, the other dark. Many hands hauled the table off of his back and reached for him; half pushed, half carried him up to the command center. He heard doors slamming behind them. Sam dumped him facedown on a long, metal table. The shock of cold against his cheek helped bring him around, as did the endorphins pumping through his body.

His hearing was a little better, by then. Sam was talking louder than everyone else, which probably meant he was a little deaf, too. Then again, he had mutant Bigfoot ears, they probably healed faster than the average human's.

"What's Cas doing here?" Dean demanded.

Words flew over him, none of them directed at him.

"What happened?"

"I don't know. There was a lot of stuff flying around after the blast. The back of his head's bleeding."

"What's Cas doing here?" Dean insisted again. Everyone around him went quiet.

"That's the second time he's said that."

"He's breathing, Sam, take it easy." An indescribable hum and a flood of warmth. "Mild concussion. That explains the repetitive question. Some pretty--whoa. He's gonna have a humdinger of a bruise in a few minutes. That table we pulled off him. No internal bleeding though. First aid kit?"

"In the Impala." Sam suddenly sounded out of breath. Sam? The does-chin-ups-on-the-doorframe hunting all-star?

God, his head hurt.

"No good. I think we're safe here, but nobody goes up without cover. Think there might be one in here?"

The pain continued to throb as Dean listened to the shuffling of an apparent search. He wanted to know what Castiel was doing here. Because he wasn't supposed to be.

"Damn. All right. You're Sam, right? Sam, you get that kit, I'll cover you. Castiel? You're on guard duty 'til we get back."

Castiel.

Dean started to say 'I don't need a babysitter,' but it came out as, "What's Cas doing here?"

"I'm out of arrows, Jack."

"Here, take this. I've got my gun, I'll be fine." The metallic click of a gun - presumably the shotgun - being handed over.

"I don't know what to do with this."

"Then it's about time you learned, Archer. Pull on the casing there to reload." Shukk-shukk. "That's right. And keep him awake."

"Look, I'm not just going to leave my brother with--"

"You've got another option, Sam? Because I'd be glad to hear it."

Another door opened and closed, and then the room fell silent. As adrenaline ebbed, Dean realized how tired he was. But still, dammit, he was going to get up. He felt the vibration as the shotgun came down to rest on the table against his hip. Then, the soft whisper of fabric. He turned his head with difficulty, to see the dude-who-still-totally-couldn't-be-Castiel shrugging out of a goo-splattered trenchcoat. Dean watched, indifferent, as the trenchcoat folded inside-out, and then he felt a hand slide under his cheek and lift his head. The folded trenchcoat slipped between his face and the cold metal tabletop.

Dean's cheek scuffed against the soft tan fabric as his head came down again, and on the next inhale he smelled a mix of monster blood and male body.

Dammit. It smelled like Castiel.

"Cas?" Dean croaked. It sounded more broken than he'd meant it to, but what the hell, he had a concussion and bruised kidneys or something and probably exploding cactus owl bones embedded in his ass, he was allowed.

"Yes, Dean."

Finally, somebody answered him. Something that had gone unexpectedly tight in him relaxed. Oh, good. So he wasn't dead.

"Cas, what are you doing here? You're not supposed to be here," Dean said. His thoughts were still slippery, but at last, his brain seemed to be gelling again. Enough to be suspicious that maybe he'd asked - or at least thought - the same damn question a couple times too many.

"I know," Castiel replied, "I'm sorry."

And that sounded so like Castiel, so stiff and apologetic and sad at the same time that it made Dean angry. Now that he was coherent (or mostly), he remembered that this wasn't his Castiel at all. And with that, Dean's brain crashed from neutral to third gear, teeth catching in the gearbox so abruptly that his transmission had to be smoking. His thoughts raced a mile a minute, trying to narrow down the potential monsters that this guy in a Castiel-a-like meatsuit could be. And boy, did the idea of somebody borrowing the angel's face piss him off. Not only because that meant somebody knew - or at least guessed - Dean's particular weak spot there, but because they were sloppy enough not to have done their homework all the way through the past few months.

"You picked a hell of a time to come back from the dead." Dean kept his voice to a low growl, fury flooding his body with energy he didn't really have. He struggled to push himself up onto his elbows, at the very least.

"Please, Dean, don't move. Your injuries are--"

Every time the thing said Dean's name, his heart jumped toward his throat. "Screw my injuries," he snapped, shimmying towards the edge of the table, "We either get out of here or the next time we open that door this place is gonna be a smoking crater." Flexing his legs reminded him sharply that someone said something about 'a humdinger of a bruise.' His lower back ached. But hell, it wasn't the worst thing to ever happen to him. Standing was worlds better than lying helpless on his stomach. He braced the one corner of a hip that didn't hurt against the table, and when the Castiel-a-like came at him, presumably to 'help' him, Dean snatched his wrist. Not that he liked emergency tests like this, but there was a reason he kept a folded silver letter opener on hand, sharpened to a fine edge. A line of crimson blood welled on the inside of the thing's forearm, soaking through the sliced fabric of his shirtsleeve.

Sometimes, reactions spoke louder than even the clearest test results. Most monsters, once they knew you were onto their act, would attack instead of trying to prolong the charade. Pragmatic, if not too smart. If the silver test didn't take, but the critter masquerading as a human attacked him anyway, Dean could pretty much just rule out anything silver-reactive and proceed accordingly.

This time, however, something was off. It just stood there, looking hurt and puzzled, staring at the tiny trickle of blood starting to leak down his arm from the corner of the wound.

But it bled. Which meant it sure as hell couldn't be Castiel, because Castiel only kept on bleeding this long when somebody hit him with an angel blade. At least as far as Dean knew.

"Well, you're not a shapeshifter," Dean muttered, letting him go without offering something to stop the blood. After all, even if it was Castiel? Which it probably (definitely) wasn't. He had a pretty big bone to pick, and definitely no interest in finding the bastard a damn compress.

"No," the thing replied, "I'm not." Its eyes went from Dean's face to the wound and back again, and was just turning away from him when the door leading to the surface opened and Sam ducked through the doorway, holding their entire emergency kit. Behind him was the other guy, the one Dean hadn't really looked at yet. He backed down the stairs, an antique handgun directed up the shaft until they could close the door. Then he turned, and his eyes went right to the blood.

Sam's attention was more on the fact that Dean had gotten off the table on his own steam. Dean could tell he wasn't sure if he was supposed to be disapproving or relieved, but relief won out pretty quick.

The stranger in blue had Castiel-a-like's forearm in his hands in a second. He was glaring at everyone, but Dean in particular. "Sam?" he asked, "you need any help, or you got this?"

"Got it," Sam said tersely. Evidently no happier about the situation than Dean, which came as a relief.

"All right," the stranger reached for the folded trenchcoat on the table with an ease that irritated Dean in spite of himself, "Toss me a roll of bandage and antiseptic spray, and we'll leave you to it."

For whatever reason, Sam cooperated. They retreated to the opposite end of the room, and Sam coerced Dean into letting him handle the damage done to the back of his head. The less said about that, the better.

Chapter Text

"What is this?" Jack rolled up Castiel's shirtsleeve. His fingertips touched a spot just beside the broken skin with tenderness, but his gaze was cool. He swabbed the blood away with a gauze pad and sprayed the wound with antiseptic. Castiel had been led to believe such things stung. He was surprised to feel soothing coolness instead.

"He suspected I was a shapeshifter," Castiel explained, keeping his voice low. His eyes kept treacherously tracking right, towards the table where Sam was suturing the skin on the back of Dean's head. Sam's large frame blocked much of the process, which was probably for the best, seeing as how Castiel was utterly helpless to aid him.

"He tried to kill you?" Jack asked slowly. The dangerous slide of his voice drew Castiel's focus back to center.

"No, Jack. He was testing me for a reaction to silver."

"You let him cut you?"

"I was not aware of his plan at the time."

While Castiel was certain his answers were far from satisfactory, Jack applied the gauze and wound the bandage around Castiel's injury without further comment. He patted the spot afterward and rolled Castiel's sleeve down over it, then picked up the shotgun.

"Just like old times, Archer. I'm going mining. You sit tight." Castiel watched as Jack cracked the gun and peered inside at the cartridges loaded there. Castiel's gaze swept towards the table again.

Beside him, Jack's voice was flat. "You got your Grace? He gave it to you?"

Desolation swept in, strong and hard. Castiel had felt the pulse of his Grace, so achingly close as Dean stood before him, that for an instant he could think of nothing else. He could have taken it and didn't. Not because he didn't want it, but because he desperately wanted Dean to give it to him. He shouldn't have waited. "No."

"Then you can't help him. But I get to the bottom of this, and we can make sure it doesn't happen again." He stood up, and Castiel met his eyes. His gaze was cold. "On second thought, you're coming with me. Let's go. Get your bow."

For one fleeting instant, Castiel wanted to lash out at Jack. He resented being ordered, resented that Jack wanted him to leave his charge, and had the distinct impression that whatever explanation he could give, Jack didn't care. He was helpless to disobey, helpless to heal Dean's wounds, helpless to defend them should the creepers attack again. Were the full battery of his powers returned to him, Castiel could very easily have immolated Jack on the spot.

But in that moment, as his hard-won emotional control flashed red flags of warning, he remembered something he had forgotten. Whether he remained an angel or not in this limited form, he was a soldier, and his training had not been taken away. He withstood greater torments than this for the sake of discipline. It was as if the warm liquid part of him that loved and hated and feared chilled into an immovable solid. He felt the flash of anger cool. "I'm still out of arrows, Jack," he said after a breath.

"Did they break?"

"Not that I noticed. Most are likely still in the corpses."

"All right, we'll find them."

Several minutes later, Castiel thought he was fortunate to have shed the larger burden of emotion. Had he not felt so coldly nonresponsive, his proximity to the bodies of so many creepers would certainly inspire fear. During his tenure in Purgatory, he could never be so close. Living creatures detonated in seconds, and dead creatures vanished. When Castiel placed his hand on the side of a dead creeper to steady it as he withdrew an arrow, he was surprised to find its outer flesh soft and covered in fine, sleek hair. He'd drawn his arrows from the corpses in the yard above the bunker, but hadn't tarried to examine them. The flint tips were still sharp and glistened with green goo. Two had, indeed, broken. Only six remained.

"No life signs above us except the boys, at least for now," Jack reported, "just down."

"I don't understand," Castiel replied, straining to hear Jack's words as the successive shotgun fire took its toll on his hearing, "they manifested outside this facility at random."

"Maybe it wasn't random. Maybe they're trying to stop us."

About four stories down, there were no more functional lights. Perhaps ironically, one of the few things Jack's wrist strap did not do was function as a flashlight. He stepped off the stairs to the floor and scanned the lower levels a few steps from the landing, while Castiel guarded them both.

"Not too many life signs," Jack muttered, then whistled, "but major energy surges." He paused, then added, "That looks like Rift energy."

Castiel looked up from the dark portal below them. Jack's voice sounded as if he were having difficulty breathing, but the oxygen in this location seemed viable enough.

"Sometimes a cataclysmic event can widen a naturally-occurring space-time fissure," Jack explained, eyes trained on the faceplate of his scanner, "ghosts, hauntings, that sort of thing - those are caused by fissures. People and stuff goes in, but the only things that get back out are like... snapshots. Projections. Then something feeds it power, a lot of power, like a really big hyperdrive exploding on top of it, and wham, you've got a rift. Then it works both ways."

While Jack spoke, Castiel had been considering pointing out the inaccuracy of his blanket statement. After all, salt could hardly close a time fissure, but it could certainly stop any of the ghosts Sam and Dean encountered - temporarily, at least.

As the topic shifted to space-time rifts, however, all other thoughts dropped away in a sickening swell of recognition. "Could Sam and Dean have made a rift of a space-time fissure when they banished me?" Castiel asked, "because they did it here."

"Here? They opened a portal to Purgatory in this silo?" Jack echoed, looking up.

"I was not here long. I did not understand why it seemed so familiar until now."

"What did they use to do it?"

"A spell I have never encountered before," Castiel replied.

"They-- a spell."

There was open disbelief in Jack's voice. Again, even after Black Rock Desert, when Jack reassured him that he was trying to believe. Castiel had been ordered, he'd been towed along like a child, and now, yet again, his word was dismissed.

And that was when, as they say, Castiel 'had it.'

"Yes, Jack, there are spells that work," Castiel's low growl rebounded in the empty space, "Just as there are real ghosts, angels, God. Countless things that Torchwood does not have in its abysmally inadequate database. While your skepticism is understandable," he allowed, "trust me when encountering a thing I have encountered and you have not." A soreness at the inequality between them rose, and Castiel added, "As I trust you," a bit more bitterly than he might have otherwise spoken.

Below them, a creeper had been working its way up the staircase. Distracted, Castiel didn't notice until it hissed, but in his current state, had no room for fear. His bow arced down and an arrow loosed with a THWANG. It tipped backwards and tumbled down the stairs, the black shaft of the arrow protruding from its perpetual frown.

He looked up, and Jack was looking at the dash of his wrist strap with total focus.

"I think we need to get something cleared up," Jack said, "before we go any further."

Castiel glared at him, but did not trust himself to speak.

"You have a point. But talk about Torchwood like that again, and you'll wish you hadn't."

"You question the things that are important to me regularly." Castiel reminded him coolly.

"Some things are off limits, Castiel, and that's one of them."

"Then Dean is off limits as well."

"Only if you'll stop going on about him. Do I go on about Torchwood?"

"You don't have to," Castiel snapped, pushed beyond the limits of his patience, "You're clearly unable to consider a possibility that might contradict the gospel of your 'Doctor.'"

"Excuse me, 'gospel?' Science exists whether you believe in it or not."

Castiel's voice blazed. "As. Does. Heaven."

A step away from them both, a creeper flashed deadly white.

"SSSSSSSSssssss..."

A hot wind and a deafening report blew past Castiel as a shotgun blast from above and to his left splattered another creeper across the concrete floor. Castiel dodged with a surge of adrenaline and looked up to see Sam just lowering his weapon. Dean was behind him on the stairs, holding the sawed-off they regularly kept loaded with salt rounds. His head was bandaged, but Castiel was relieved to see he seemed relatively steady.

"Nice shot," Jack's voice was quiet and flat, but seemed loud in the sudden silence.

Sam shrugged. "Noticed shotguns take them down faster."

"Sam, what spell did you use to banish me?" Castiel asked, shaking his head in an attempt to dispel the ringing in his ears. The argument with Jack had been cut off. Considering the miniscule likelihood of resolution, he saw no reason to revive it. Sam never took his eyes from the stairwell. He fumbled in his back pocket and produced a flashlight that he pressed against the barrel of his shotgun.

"It wasn't supposed to banish you," Sam replied, aiming flashlight and weapon down the hole, "We got it from--" he raised his eyes to Castiel briefly and seemed to hesitate.

"Why do you need to know?" Dean interrupted.

"Because it is likely the source of these creatures," Castiel explained, and like Sam, trained his weapon on the open stairwell. His fingertips pressed lightly on the string, but did not draw. While years of hunting primed his back and shoulders to hold a drawn string for long seconds, it reduced his accuracy. He could not afford to miss.

"You know what they are?" The cold reverberation of Dean's voice bounced off the round walls of the room like sheets of steel.

"No," Castiel replied honestly, because he didn't.

"We call them creepers," Jack added in a growl, "they're from Purgatory. Explode when threatened. Not much for conversation."

"Yeah, we figured that out on our own," Sam's response was dry. He glanced up afterward, squeezing his eyes at Jack. "Wait. They're from--"

"--Purgatory?" Jack finished, "We fought them there. Now answer the damn question."

It was one of the rare times Jack used profanity within Castiel's hearing. He winced.

"It was from a book," Sam replied, "One of John Dee's journals. We found it in Bobby's library."

Disbelief flowed cool across Castiel's thoughts. "John Dee was not competent enough to assemble such a spell," he stated with utter certainty, "not from his misguided eavesdropping."

"Well, it did something," Sam argued. Before he could continue, the cycle of Jack's shotgun silenced him.

"Everyone back upstairs," Jack ordered. Castiel glanced up at him in surprise, then at Dean and Sam.

"Why?" Dean challenged. In his tone was a familiar note of defiance, and Castiel swallowed against a fresh swell of emotion. Dean was still very much a survivalist. While his sizable ego balked at following the order, he wouldn't completely ignore it. Castiel's loyalty had apparently not waned with the passage of time. Those long years in Purgatory with Jack seemed to matter little. He found himself questioning the order now as well. Castiel loved Dean for it, even as it angered him.

"Later. Move," Jack's tone chilled.

The Winchesters looked mutinous. Neither budged.

Castiel, however, did.

With a deep breath, he lowered his bow, relaxed his arms, and stepped back from the landing. He would not leave the Winchesters to plunge into the stairwell alone, but neither would he defy Jack's clear order - unless, of course, he had no other choice. It left Castiel feeling bitterly conflicted to do so, but confliction was a feeling Castiel had experienced long before Purgatory. Trust was a newer, far stronger thing. Jack had earned it.

He felt Dean's eyes on him and looked up the stairwell. The man's expression was unreadable, but even so, just having those eyes on Castiel felt like accusation. A second or two ticked off before Dean lifted the barrels of his shotgun and turned. Sam followed, then Castiel, and finally Jack, crabstepping up the metal stairs with his weapon aimed down the shaft.

There were more, of course. The trip up was as unpleasant as the trip down, although Castiel at least managed to recover his remaining arrows - five now, in all. Castiel expected Jack to call a halt when they reached the control center. However, Jack only paused to see that Dean was still able to walk unsupported, before driving them out of the silo completely, towards the Impala.

Inside the fence, creepers shuffled towards them on all sides. Castiel went for his bow.

"No," Jack said, although he neglected to lower his own weapon, "Dean, can you run?"

"Yep," Dean barked, from somewhere off to Jack's right.

"Good. Run." And Jack bolted down the weedy gravel drive leading to the road. Castiel ran after him from deeply ingrained habit alone, realizing too late that he'd left the Winchesters behind. He couldn't stop now, the creatures were too close and would ignite if he paused even a moment. For a cold, wild breath, Castiel wanted to stop anyway. If the Winchesters died again under Castiel's watch, he intended to follow.

But there was Jack's coat ahead of him, dark but still visible in the yellow security lights. His thick-soled boots crunched along the path to the gate, and the barrels of the shotgun he held were an occasional glint over his shoulder. Castiel's memories were filled with similar images. But Jack carried a sword then, and there were never so many creepers surging in on them as tonight.

Jack would not forgive him for dying. Not like that, anyway. Not after all he'd done to keep Castiel alive.

Castiel heard footsteps on the gravel behind him. Profound relief spread over him like warm water, and he redoubled his speed. The creatures were relatively swift, but only had one gait and could be easily outdistanced. He reached the Impala before Sam and Dean and pivoted, calculating the distance between the Winchesters and the creepers. Castiel raised his bow and began firing into the quietly gliding mob. Creepers fell beneath his arrows without a twitch of expression, and their brothers walked over them without looking down. A mass of blank, black-eyed faces gazed at him. Still, downturned snarls gaped dark in the shadowy faces. If the creepers felt fear at their inevitable death, Castiel couldn't see it.

He heard the click and the labored squeak of a car door opening behind him. The sound was still alien to him, but this particular pitch and timbre, he knew. Castiel looked over his shoulder to see Dean a footstep away. Sam threw himself into the driver's seat, the ignition turned over even before he'd swung the door shut.

"I'll hold them off!" Castiel barked at Dean, "GO!" He turned back to the approaching creepers and darted forward, yanking arrows from corpses and firing again, clearing an ever-shrinking arc around the Impala's front bumper. Castiel loosed two arrows for every one he could reclaim. Five arrows became three, and then one.

The muzzle of a gun poked into Castiel's peripheral vision.

"Dean!" Castiel protested angrily.

"Getting us confused already, Archer?" Jack shouted, bathed in the wash of headlights now, "I'm sexier than he'll ever be!" The shotgun's roar drowned out the engine for a split second. "And dashing, you must have noticed that!"

"Yes," Castiel shouted back over the roar of gun and accelerator, voice bright with relief, "I have!"

His left ear felt thick and full now; the other whining a single, constant pitch. He fired once more as the Impala began to roll away down the drive. The headlights' glare scissored around his coat and Jack's, playing shadows across the approaching creepers.

His hand grasped empty air at his back. Castiel knew it would be empty, but - as Shamsiel pointed out - now he had hope.

"Retreat!" Jack shouted. Castiel backed towards the gate. He kept just a step ahead of Jack, watching him until he saw the coattails spin.

He followed.

Jack didn't stop running until they'd reached the jeep once more. True to Castiel's memories of Purgatory, once he and Jack were out of the creepers' sensory range, they stopped following. He could see them in the floodlights far off, milling at the gate.

The twin red stars of the Impala's taillights shone a hundred yards past them, idling.

Jack swung himself into the driver's seat as he reached the jeep. Castiel's quiver was empty, and his stomach felt similarly hollow. He couldn't keep his eyes from the taillights in the distance, although he did try. He climbed awkwardly into the vehicle as well, discarding bow and quiver over the back seat. Jack leaned the shotgun against Castiel's hip and turned over the ignition. Castiel didn't need to ask why, although he was far from confident with the weapon. Then again, he'd never fired a bow from a moving vehicle, either.

Turning the jeep around, Jack pulled abreast of the Impala. Castiel expected him to stop and braced for it. He watched Sam's surprised upturned face slide past as the jeep continued around the long dark vehicle and into the wash of its headlights.

He glanced at Jack in consternation. The Impala's lights and the reflection of their own picked out the highlights of Jack's profile in soft tones. But for that, his face was stony still. He could have been a painted silhouette on a deep blue wall.

"Don't worry, Archer," Jack said, before Castiel could ask him to stop, "look, they're following."

Castiel looked. Behind them, the Impala began to gain. He slumped his shoulder against the seat with a long, slow exhale.

"Figured you'd go with 'em," Jack said lightly.

"They wouldn't have me," Castiel lowered his eyes.

"They've got your Grace. Kind of incentive to make them, isn't it?"

Castiel frowned. "It doesn't work like that."

Jack shook his head with a soft chuckle. "You give up way too easy for someone who took on the Devil."

"I was filled with purpose, then."

"Apocalypse. Missing Grace. Your big brothers covering your butt for you. You don't have a purpose now?" Jack shot back, sharper than before. Castiel turned abruptly and jerked his face away to stare moodily at the dark blur of the passing wheat.

"You have a job to do and you won't let me do it for you," Jack snapped, "so stop feeling sorry for yourself and do it!"

"You don't understand!" Castiel shouted angrily over the road noise and his own thick hearing.

"Oh, you bet I do! I get not feeling good enough for the guy." The jeep accelerated incrementally; Castiel felt it. "Not asking for what you want. Not going for it. But come on, Castiel."

Castiel glared at the wheat, irritated by the vibration startled in the pit of his being by the invocation of his name. If Dean did not willingly give him his Grace, it meant nothing.

"If you don't get your Grace tonight, I'm getting it."

"No."

"Yes. This isn't just for you. This is to protect them, too. And humanity. And Earth."

"I am exquisitely aware of my duty, Jack."

Road noise and the ringing in Castiel's ear filled the chasm of silence that split between them.

Chapter Text

Sam turned his head slowly, watching the taillights dwindle as Castiel and Jack (whoever that was) rolled past. He'd been expecting a reconvene. When it didn't happen, for a few puzzled seconds, he didn't know what to do.

"What just happened?" Sam asked the vanishing red rounds of light, glanced at Dean for confirmation. They looked at one another for a beat, then Sam shifted into drive. Never a question of whether to follow. Only, those things were still out there, behind them.

"I don't know," Dean said. His voice was soft, words puffing a circle of fog on the glass where his body was slumped against the door. Sam watched him from the corner of his eye, rapidly running through what he knew about concussions. How did they even know it was a concussion? He could only trust his scanty field knowledge and what he'd been told by some strange guy walking around with Castiel.

Who was that? Was he another angel? An angel toting guns and wearing military surplus wasn't exactly out of character. Seriously, between Gabriel, Balthazar and Zachariah, Sam's first visions of glowing holy rollers had fizzled into ash. Or was he a demon? It wouldn't be the first time Castiel worked with one.

Before Sam could get any further, he caught a flicker of movement in his periphery, and glanced sideways to see Dean struggling out of his overshirt. His whole body seemed to wince with every bump. While Sam watched, Dean rolled the fabric into a bundle and tucked it gingerly between his head and the window.

"Maybe we should actually get you to the ER," Sam suggested, dividing his attention between Dean's obvious discomfort and the road.

"I'm fine," Dean growled, "We've gotta go back. We can't just leave that stuff out there. What if somebody else gets hurt?"

"We can't do it alone. You almost got your head taken off in that explosion."

"We did okay once we had the shotguns."

"Yeah," Sam huffed, "and we had to shoot our way back out, after we shot our way in. They just kept coming. Sure, we'd take a few of them out, but there'd be more. I think that's why Jack told us to pull back."

Sam could feel Dean tighten up all the way from the driver's seat, and instantly regretted mentioning the stranger by name.

"Jack." Dean's head lolled over and he glared one-eyed at Sam. "Jack?"

Sam uncurled his fingers from the steering wheel, spreading his hands in a gesture of defeat.

"I want to know who that guy is and how he found us," Dean growled.

"And what he's doing with Cas," Sam prompted.

"Yeah. And that. I mean, is he another angel? Because," Dean's laugh was a derisive, ugly puff of sound, "even for an angel, that guy's a dick."

Sam disagreed, but kept it to himself for the moment. "What are we going to do about the fact that Cas is back?" he asked quietly. Dean couldn't ignore it. The taillights they were following were definitive proof of the man's continued existence, whether he liked it or not.

"You sure it's him now?" Dean asked.

"No, of course I'm not. But what else could it be, Dean? He's not reactive to silver, and as far as I know, sirens can't duplicate people."

"Why would a siren wanna duplicate him anyway?" Dean grumped, sounding ticked off by the idea alone. Sam rolled his eyes and saved his pointed glare for the next mile marker.

"So if he's not a shapeshifter or a siren, what else is there?"

"Demon."

"I don't think demons can possess a couple hundred pounds of hamburger."

"Okay," Dean covered his eyes, "not a demon. Bobby mentioned something called a 'revenant,' once."

"He's an angel, Dean. I've hunted a revenant before. You've got to have a soul before you can become one. Come on, Dean, it's Cas. I don't know how, but it's him."

"That's your Jiminy Cricket conscience talking, Sammy."

"What?"

They'd reached the edge of Bootback now, the bright slap of streetlights rolling over the cab. Dean shrank back from the orange glow, turning his head sharply away from the window and shading his eyes. "You don't want him to be gone," he muttered.

"And you do?"

"No," Dean answered with the defensive bluster of a twelve-year-old, "I just know this can't be him. I keep trying to talk myself into it. I know, all right? But you saw it. We splattered him."

As if the words invoked it, Sam saw the memory again. Shreds of cloth and bits of flesh and bone. Entrails in gobs. An eyeball, crushed. Fingernails. Teeth. Clumps of hair. And blood. So much blood. The coppery smell of it covered him. He and Dean were both soaked in Castiel. Even with shower after shower, even after he'd burned the clothes and doused himself in hotel soap and scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed his fingernails… he could still smell it. Sometimes, after the Impala had been parked in the sun a long time, Sam thought he could smell it now.

His memories of the Cage were worse. A thousand, billion times worse. But although the pain and the horror and the fear followed Sam out of the Pit, he couldn't remember the smell.

"Raphael splattered him too," Sam replied with some difficulty, "back at Chuck's place. Didn't stick that time, either."

Dean's near hand waved out, palm forward in a gesture of impatience. "Whatever. Important thing here is we find out what he's after."

Sam rolled his shoulders. "I don't know, your forgiveness, maybe? You guys parted on some pretty bad terms."

Dean didn't answer right away, but the cock of his head was attitude enough to let Sam know exactly what he thought of that answer. "Yeah, well, if the dumb son of a--if he'd just listened to me and done what I asked him to do, he wouldn't NEED that."

"So you haven't forgiven him."

"He took down your wall, Sammy." Dean's voice went to ice, "Blew it to pieces. Made you a hostage."

"Dean--"

"Look. My opinion of the guy doesn't matter. What matters is what he wants, how he got out, and what kind of battery he's got. We don't know any of that right now, so after we figure out how to stop the exploding cactus owls--"

Sam blew out a snicker in spite of himself.

"--we find out," Dean finished.

"So you want to actually talk to Cas?"

"No. I want to talk to Sergeant Dickwad, the guy pretending to be Dad. He knows something we don't, and I'm not just gonna sit here and take orders until I know what that is!"

The Impala rolled into the motel parking lot. Sam leaned forward afterward, scanning the cars. "Well, here's your chance," he said.

Pale in the cold wash of their headlights was the imposing figure of Jack.

Chapter Text

Dean closed his car door in the motel parking lot and looked up. The stranger waiting for them with Castiel had eyes as blue, but different. Calculating, while the rest of his face was all 'how's it going, pal, buy you a beer?'

If he wasn't human, he was a damned good actor, but Dean had seen a lot of monsters who were damned good actors. Eventually, something would give them away.

"So you're Dean," Jack said - Dean might as well start calling him something, "how's the concussion?" He lifted his head. Dean did the same, irritated by the fact that Jack was taller than he was. That maneuver greenlighted the pissing match, and Dean took an aggressive step forward.

"Dean," admonished Sam and Castiel at nearly the same time, with nearly identical levels of anxiety.

"I'll live," Dean growled, pushing aside his lingering lightheadedness, the ache in the back of his skull and his kidneys, and the way even the bad light in this parking lot seemed to stab him in the eyeballs. "I'm gonna give you the benefit of the doubt here, since you saved our asses. That we didn't just run away back there. That you didn't order us to leave a missile silo full of-- of--"

"Creepers?"

"--of exploding monsters, for someone else to run across."

"No, I didn't." Jack replied, in the same light tone he'd used earlier, "but unless you two have the means to close a tear in reality," his expression sobered, and his tone flattened, "we go back down there, you'll die. They won't stop coming."

Aggravating as it was, he was right. Sam said the same thing: they'd been attacked on their way in and out. Dean wasn't inclined to believe anything from the guy who'd showed up with Castiel, but the sheer volume of monsters they'd taken down tonight hinted that maybe Jack had a clue.

As if pulled by Dean's swerving thoughts, Castiel came fully around the bumper of the jeep. Dean met his eyes for the first time in nearly three months and his stomach dropped into his boots. He'd looked into that face a thousand times and never seen that expression before. He didn't like how it made him feel; how the regret he could plainly see made him remember. Three months, he'd lived with the reality of Castiel's death. Of Castiel's blood covering him like a sheet. It got a little hard to breathe.

"Tell me what you did to Cas," Dean barked, rounding on Jack again. He didn't like the smile he got in return. Catty usually didn't look good on guys, but Jack somehow made everything look good. The fact that Dean noticed, period, did nothing to improve his mood.

"What didn't I do?" Jack said mildly. Lightly. Like whatever that statement encompassed was no big deal; was kind of funny now that he thought about it. Dean's gaze flickered to Castiel. His hands tightened on the shotgun he held, vision misting red.

He was aware of the sound of heavy boots scraping on the concrete and suddenly Jack was inside Dean's personal space. Too close to raise the gun, right past 'macho threat display' and into 'gonna do you.' Close as Castiel liked to get, maybe closer. Dean didn't like it. He liked the fact that he liked how Jack smelled even less.

"He's cute, Castiel," Jack said lightly over his shoulder, his gaze locked on Dean's, "I totally get it." Their chests nearly brushed, and when Jack breathed, Dean could feel it. But he wasn't about to stand down.

Then Jack's expression shifted, the amused mask dropping just a fraction. In that fraction, Dean's combat training informed him that Jack had already evaluated him as a potential threat, which meant Dean should stop underestimating this joker, pronto. "But that's not gonna save you," Jack's voice was a sibilant, velvet undertone, "and the next time you start making demands, Dean, make sure you know what you're dealing with. Castiel is part of my team. And I protect my team. Which means that if you try to put him in that hellhole again? You'll regret it."

Dean's jaw clenched, which was Sam's cue to enter the fray. Across the Impala's roof, he leveled the pearl-handled revolver on Jack and shouted to draw him off. "Hey! He was--" Sam belatedly realized that he was about to refer to Castiel as if he wasn't there, and his gaze flicked to the angel guiltily.

"You were unstable, Cas," Sam continued, "we did what we had to do." The revolver vanished and he walked around the back fender of the Impala to join Dean, eyes still on Castiel. "You think we wanted to do that to you? You think we forgot everything you did for us?"

"Sam," Castiel's hands spread, "I understand." He shifted uneasily, then stepped into the space occupied by the three other men.

"Let me handle this," Castiel murmured to Jack, contrite. Dean noticed the pale flicker of his sleeve behind Jack; the whisper of his palm sliding against Jack's coat. Jack broke eye contact with Dean to look at Castiel. The silent communication between them was aggravating.

"All right. I've got some things to take care of." He stepped back, posture relaxing like a soldier at ease, but before Dean could register what had just happened--

--Jack was kissing Castiel. Awkward, straitlaced, angel-of-the-freaking-Lord Castiel.

And from the looks of things, not only was Castiel not fighting it, he was enjoying it. All the stiffness went out of him and if anything, Dean could have sworn he looked relieved. The contact lasted a hot second, but Dean knew a territorial display when he saw one. Mouth dry, he glanced at Sam, whose eyebrows were nearly buried in his hairline.

Jack released Castiel and stepped back, grinning like a cat in cream. Call me, he mouthed silently, holding an imaginary receiver to his ear, and spun to leave in a swirl of coattail. The jeep rumbled to life and rolled out of the parking lot. As the taillights vanished around the corner, Castiel's gaze slid back to Dean's. Dean knew that look. It was guilt.

And guilt was Castiel, all right, through and through. The familiarity of it made Dean's heart lurch painfully all over again.

"We should take this inside," Sam suggested quickly. Dean's head snapped up and away, focus widening to encompass the street. They'd been having a fight this obvious in a parking lot? Stupid. Stupid, stupid. He didn't like inviting Castiel across the threshold either, honestly, but that was at least somewhat less risky than allowing himself to be so distracted in such an exposed area. He conceded the lead to Sam.

"Cas, what the hell," Dean snapped, as soon as the door was closed. He lowered his shotgun in quick jerks, angry at the way his body vibrated with nerves, and pressed it onto the table with a gentleness he didn't feel. "Who's Sergeant Dickwad?"

Castiel's chin came up, the guilt vanished, and Dean suddenly wished he could take that back. Would have given a lot to do it.

"He's a Captain, Dean," Castiel corrected in a low voice, his gaze moving from Dean to Sam and back. "and he's only a 'dickwad' when he has to be." His tone implied that Dean, unlike Jack, was a dickwad most of the time.

"Yeah? Captain of what?" Dean prodded, suddenly feeling less sorry. Sam dropped himself unceremoniously on the edge of the bed near the table, frowning at Dean with an are-you-seriously-going-there glare. Castiel, on the other hand, studied the carpet between them. When he looked up again, his expression was strained.

"Dean, is this really how it's going to be?"

And didn't that note of tired exasperation just take the wind out of Dean's sail. He could only watch the pale lips move as Castiel went on, all angles and sharpness like a box of broken glass. "I understand what you did, and the risk you took to do it," Castiel was saying, "It was deserved, I won't argue that. But I'm not here to dwell on the past. I need my Grace, Dean. You have it."

And there it was, at last: the motive behind this whole charade. Dean relaxed a fraction, taking refuge in good old-fashioned cynicism. If Castiel really searched them out, saved their asses, and wanted nothing... he might have shattered. God knew he was close enough to that already.

Dean shook his head and wished he hadn't, backing out of Castiel's space as another touch of dizziness spun the world. He blinked to steady it, bracing himself against the table. "What, so you can pull the Cujo routine again? That thing's not safe with you."

"That 'thing' is part of me," Castiel replied, even and reasonable and sad, "and as such, you have no right to keep it from me."

"Like you kept Sam's soul from him?"

"Dean," Sam snapped, so sharply that Dean lost his staring match with Castiel to look at his brother in surprise. He was even more surprised to see the genuine pity on Sam's face. The 'I acknowledge your pain' look Dean responded to all the more deeply, because it had been absent for months. Dean shook his head at Sam. You can't be serious. You believe this now?

Sam nodded, once, directing Dean back to Castiel by the angle of his head and the sideways flick of his eyes. Dean looked back, right into Castiel's honest-to-God wounded expression, a second before he dropped his eyes.

"As I told you," Castiel said, focused hard on anything but Dean, "had I known the consequences of that action, I would have approached it differently. I wasn't aware that Sam's soul had not returned with his body until you--"

Dean opened his mouth to call bullshit. "Wait," Sam ordered, stretching a hand out to him before he could start. Dean waited. He wasn't the introspective sort, but he knew he was pissed, and when Dean was pissed, he had a wicked tendency to make things worse. If anyone could string some words together that made sense of this mess, Sam could. Sam would be nicer about it, probably mention things like broken trust and how an apology couldn't just put things back the way they were. Could throw in something about how Castiel had obviously been through a lot and he was really sorry about that. But he would tell Castiel to fuck off. He had to. There was no option B.

Castiel's eyes flicked to Sam, and the two men regarded each other steadily. Silence settled over the space, until all Dean could hear were the sounds of his own body.

A minute stretched into an eternity. At last, Sam sat up a little straighter, squared his shoulders. "I wanna hear him out." His gaze, in contrast with Dean's, was calm. Dean heard a soft sigh to his left and his gaze went to Castiel, who looked like a death row inmate two seconds after a reprieve. That wasn't fair; Dean thought angrily, he shouldn't be able to make them feel bad for him. Not after what he did.

"Yeah, well," Dean countered with a heavy lacing of sarcasm, "hope you feel a lot better, Cas. But you lied. You lied, and you--"

"Every part of that was done for you," Castiel snapped. Dean watched as the other man's slighter frame seemed to flood with restless energy, and he shifted, flopping his arms in a gesture of exasperated helplessness.

Dean knew one thing for certain. He'd never seen Castiel like this. Never. Castiel was supposed to be a blank slate, whatever he felt and thought all compressed like a cheap piece of plywood. Maybe he felt sad, maybe angry, maybe horny, but whatever was going on inside, the Castiel Dean knew would stand there and look disapproving and that was it. This guy, compared to Castiel's typical gray wash, was a frigging rainbow of visible emotion. It was the Castiel that had beaten the shit out of him, the Castiel that threw a molotov cocktail of holy fire at his own brother. But more than that, even.

He made Dean feel strange. Not even including guilty, because that was in there too, so help him, even though Dean wanted to bite at the feeling. He spent some time choosing his next words, then fired them at Castiel like a spray of buckshot.

"So what happens next time you wanna take over the world, for us, Cas? Earthquakes, hurricanes, killing people, for us? You gonna think twice all of a sudden?" Dean thrust an angry finger at Castiel, "You've been gone almost three months and now you're back, and we don't know HOW you're back, but it's all good because you learned your lesson. Is that how it is? I mean, really."

Sam made a disgusted noise. "Dean, would you just--"

"Five years," Castiel corrected, quietly.

Dean squinted, not comprehending. He shared a glance with Sam, who looked just about as flummoxed. "What?" Dean asked, turning back. This new, alien Castiel squared himself and rolled his head up slowly to look at Dean, with a world of pain and guilt behind his eyes.

"I was in Purgatory, Dean. Roughly six weeks passed for you, but time passed much more slowly for me - as you well know," Castiel said, and Dean winced. "I had plenty of opportunity to see the... errors in my decisions." Castiel was no longer looking away, a thread of anger sliding into his tone, and Dean began to find looking back at him difficult.

"We put you in Purgatory?" Sam asked, blankly, "That's what Jack meant - about the 'creepers.'"

"Yes," Castiel's reply was clipped, but his body relaxed afterward, as if just having someone acknowledge that fact was a release. Dean stepped away from that thought. Memories of Hell haunted him, asleep and awake, and his best bid for sanity was to avoid deliberately remembering.

"We didn't mean to," Sam replied, and Dean heard him take responsibility, and that pissed him off. Of all the people who maybe needed to take even a fraction of responsibility for this, Dean was pretty damn sure Sam wasn't one.

"So," Castiel said on a breath, "I can only assume you meant to--" and then his eyes closed, he inhaled, and when he looked up again the pain was definitely back. "I understand, Sam. Yes, I was imprisoned within Purgatory for... some time. You had my Grace. All of that time, I was mortal. Able to fully experience pain. Grief. Guilt. Regret. I assure you, I know exactly what I've done."

Dean opened his mouth to make a retort. To snort. To do something to negate the truth he could clearly see and didn't want to. It had been easier to own Castiel's destruction when he thought it was a rabid monster he'd given a mercy-killing, and even that had been no picnic.

"Do you, Dean?" Castiel cut him off.

"What do you mean?" Dean meant to sound insulting, but the words came out like he'd been punched.

"You said I was like a brother," Castiel replied, "and although Sam lied to you, again," he moved aggressively into Dean's space, "and again, and again, you allowed Sam to explain himself. You gave him the chance."

"Leave Sam out of this," Dean demanded hotly.

"I can't," Castiel replied.

"I asked you to stop."

"And it was too late to stop."

"I don't have to listen to this," Dean waved a dismissive hand at Castiel and turned, "c'mon, Sam." When Sam didn't move, Dean went anyway.

"You betrayed me." The rusty voice, bright with anguish, halted Dean's steps. He felt a number of things then, but when he turned back, slowly, they sheared off like shattering ice.

Their eyes met once more, Castiel's almost closed. Dean could see the pain, and that was worse than just knowing, because on Castiel, in spite of everything, it broke his heart.

"I watched you," Castiel blurted, "how you are with Sam. How you were with Lisa and her son. With your father, with Bobby. I wanted to be part of your family. You made me believe that I was. I did everything to keep you safe. To give you freedom. What you wanted, Dean. And when I needed your help, you didn't come."

"Cas, it wasn't--"

"You didn't come," Castiel repeated, overrunning Dean. "You went to hell for Sam, Dean. You let me fight alone."

Dean could have heard a pin drop in the silence that followed. He stared Castiel down, fighting past all the things rucked up by the words. All the things he'd spent burying.

"We've been through that already. You want an apology, Cas? Mm?" Dean tilted his head, brows raised, "I gave you chances, man. I tried to get you to talk to me. I went to the mat for you when everybody else had you pegged. And you lied. To me." His fingers pushed in on his own sternum, almost to pain, "And hell, even after you cracked open Purgatory, I offered to help you! You shot me down!"

"Yes, and Sam rejected your help as well, and broke the final seal."

That's different, Dean wanted to say, but before the words escaped he saw Castiel's eyes narrow, his lips thin. And that expression he did know.

Of course it is, said Castiel's narrowed eyes.

"The least you can do," Castiel took a slow breath, "is give me back what you took from me."

"Oh, and after that performance, I'm just supposed to hand it over? To trust you?"

"I know better than to ask for that," Castiel replied. Dean nodded, satisfied. He had the sinking feeling that he hadn't exactly won the argument (or anything, really), but at least he'd made his point. He got himself moving again somehow, turning his mind towards getting back to the Impala.

Sam caught his arm. By the way he pushed into Dean's space (and seriously, what was it with guys invading Dean's bubble today? Had this turned into a gay Axe commercial?) Dean pretty much knew he was going to say something he thought was Important, and moreover... Dean wouldn't like it.

"Dean, he's right," Sam murmured, "look, with his Grace back he'll just be an angel."

"Yeah, and he'd be king of Angelville again in thirty seconds. Plus maybe he's just got all those souls in a jar somewhere, Sam," Dean whispered furtively, "you didn't want me to trust him, I don't trust him."

"You trust me," Sam said, and his eyes went liquid and he got that little dent between his eyebrows and Dean growled.

"Don't go all 'sympathy for the Devil' on me, here, Sam. It was a different situation."

"I jumpstarted the Apocalypse. How is that different?"

It was very different, and Dean wanted to go into the dozen reasons why it was different. But in spite of himself, in spite of how badly he wanted to just walk away, Dean gave it some thought. Because... as much as he wanted to be pissed at Castiel, he didn't really want to hate him. He still had that Vancouver-sized hole in his gut, and just looking at the man made it ache. But everything in him that was a hunter and not a brother had wanted to put Sam down, too. And now here was Sam, his brother and partner again.

Man, he had a lot of messed up people in his family.

"I believe him, Dean," Sam added, "He's different, can't you see that? Like... five years human, different."

And... yeah, Dean could see that, now that Sam mentioned it. He still wasn't sure he believed the story, but if he did buy it, that would explain one thing at least. Castiel wasn't a pod person, he was a result.

With a sigh and a straightening of his spine, Dean turned. He moved stiffly, every step a struggle of will, but eventually reached Castiel; stayed a good step and a half away, because unlike everybody else around him, Dean did not have issues with maintaining personal space. He hesitated a moment, considering the action before he clamped Castiel's shoulder in an iron grip. He reached down the front of his own shirt then, retrieved the phial containing Castiel's Grace, and drew it over his head. In Castiel's proximity, it seemed to fluoresce. Dean watched fear and something like hunger flicker across Castiel's face, and waited until the man's gaze peeled off the bottle before he continued.

"I've got some conditions," Dean said, and at Castiel's curt nod, went on, "Condition One: You do not spy on us. Ever again."

Castiel looked nervous. "But Dean, I hear--I sense--there's no way I can completely--"

Dean grimaced impatiently. "Your Spidey-senses tell you we're in trouble, or whatever, you come on down, Cas. But no more hanging around eavesdropping."

Blue eyes squinted in thought, flicked down, then up resolutely. Castiel nodded, and so did Dean.

"All right. Condition Two. You're in trouble? You come to us. Got it? I mean big trouble. I mean the kind of trouble you got in that got you here. What you do not do is try to solve it yourself. That is not what we do."

After he said it, Dean thought maybe that sounded a little high handed. Evidently Castiel did too. He bristled under Dean's grip, and his jaw pulsed as he glared. But what the hell, no sense in backing down. God only knew what kind of damage was up there in Heaven now with Raphael splattered and Crowley MIA and whatever Castiel had been up to before they ganked him. ...Contained him. Whatever.

After a little longer pause, Castiel nodded, and Dean could see it cost him a lot to do that. He got the sense that Castiel would be true to his word, just because Castiel clearly didn't like agreeing.

"Condition Three," Sam spoke up, joining them, eyes on Castiel, "you don't let Dean run you over anymore." His hand came down on the shoulder not taken up by Dean's. Dean noticed the triangle they formed, and found a drop of comfort in it. Even if he was sort of irked at Sam stealing his thunder.

"I don't run him over," Dean protested.

"Yeah Dean," Sam nodded, "you do."

"But Dean has never collided--" Castiel started to argue, put down his head, and smiled. Faintly, but Dean saw it was definitely there. He'd seen Castiel put on some corny, totally obvious smiles to try and snow them, and ordinarily he'd put a look like this in that category, but... it was a private smile.

Dean kind of wanted to know what he was smiling about.

"--never mind," Castiel continued, "I understand."

"I don't think I have to even say what Condition Four is," Dean added, coolly. His eyes met Castiel's one more time, and in the depths of clear blue he saw deadly resolute agreement. Reaching out, Dean let the phial slip from his fingers, holding the lanyard until Castiel reached up to take it. The bottle glowed like a tiny sun when it touched his palm.

Dean stepped back, Sam a moment later. They watched Castiel expectantly, who examined the bottle with - for once - a completely unreadable expression.

"Do we need to cover our eyes or anything?" Sam asked, after a moment. Dean wondered the same thing, but couldn't quite find his voice.

Dragging his attention from the phial, Castiel focused for a moment on the Winchesters. "Thank you. I'll be right back." And with that, he swept from the motel room.

Actually walked.

As in, used the door handles and everything.

Dean and Sam pivoted in tandem to watch him go, then looked at each other.

Sam frowned at Dean. He didn't have to say a word, Dean knew exactly what he was wondering, because frankly? So was he. Had they done the right thing?

Finally, Dean shrugged. "I don't know," he said.

Chapter Text

Pre-dawn light framed the city's short, dark silhouette. Castiel closed the door gently behind him, gazing at the brightening Eastern sky. Despite his stillness, an urgent jump and shudder persisted in his stomach and beneath his skin. Relief was not a new thing, but what Castiel knew to call 'relief' had a dozen different nuances; all of them distracting. At the same time, hope twisted in filaments of spun glass, and worry was a cool sourness that clung.

Several things needed to be done quickly. Tucked in his fist, in the left pocket of his trench coat, Castiel's Grace beat a reminding pulse. Duty called, and he could not delay much longer. When his eyes lowered from the pale gold of the skyline to skim the parking lot, Castiel was glad to see the nondescript black jeep and Jack, waiting for him next to the fender. Castiel approached at a brisk walk, Grace in his pocket and heart in his throat. As the tension of the night cooled, he'd begun to regret his part in the disagreement with Jack. While at no time had he exaggerated or lied, Castiel felt that he'd attacked Jack with unwarranted cruelty. The words stung him, but they were not without weight.

This man brought him so far. Gave him so much; asked for so little. Castiel realized what the remnants of celestial arrogance had been masking - he'd blithely accepted Jack's allegiance as his due, once they'd escaped Purgatory. They shared a common goal, of course Jack would ally himself with Castiel. And he had, but somehow the reality of what Jack snapped at Shamsiel - that he was with Castiel because he'd earned that allegiance - didn't sink in until tonight.

His Grace was in his hand because of Jack - who stayed because he chose to. Who certainly didn't have to. Anyway, all moral obligation aside, Castiel could not claim to care for Jack, yet allow things to remain as they were.

"You didn't call," Jack's voice was granite.

Castiel lifted his chin. "You didn't stay away."

Jack shrugged. "Gas stations aren't that entertaining."

"Clearly. The cashier must have been unattractive."

Like sunlight beyond the rim of a storm, Jack's smile burst forward. He gave a theatrical, full-body shudder and pulled a face. "And mean. I don't care if it is four-thirty in the morning, customer service is customer service. He wasn't even the fun kind of grizzly bear."

Castiel pressed forward again, and Jack fell silent, watching him as the space between them closed. Expectation lay radiant on him as body heat, and Castiel knew what he was waiting for. He half-drew his left hand from his pocket, and rays of brilliance washed over Jack's hip and forearm. Jack's answering smile blossomed to crease his cheeks, so big and deep it seemed to tug his mouth open. He took Castiel's face in both hands and kissed him exuberantly.

For the first time since Dean gave him the phial, Castiel let it go. His hands slipped under Jack's arms, cupping the hard corners of his jaw.

Jack pulled back first. "It's done? You're an angel again?" he asked, glee pushing back the tired years in his voice, and Castiel wondered if this was what he'd been like as a young man.

"No, Jack," Castiel replied quietly, relinquishing his hold but not the closeness, "I have to open it." He saw the puzzled look on Jack's face. The weight of desire in the pause that followed dragged his eyes away at last. Jack's palms slipped away from Castiel's neck and down to the shallow cup of his back. They rested there, large and warm with invitation. Castiel wet his lips to speak, but lost his voice when another shared glance thieved all the words away.

"I'll get you some privacy," Jack shifted his weight. Castiel held him in place, hands on his shoulders. He shook his head.

"I can't leave them," Castiel said, "Dean's injured."

The breath that pushed underneath Castiel's palms was deeper than the last. "Yeah, that's important," Jack's voice was soft and mostly air, "you take care of your boys, all right, Archer? I can--"

Castiel's hands curled into Jack's lapels, and he stilled. Seconds passed in silence, while dawn lightened the sky and cast the motel lot in a warm gray pall.

"You're part of my team, Jack," Castiel said at last, tasting the unfamiliar word. The thought was still new. Bright and translucent as the morning.

"You're my Archer," Jack said, the fondness in his words radiant from every part of his body. His smile seemed to fill the last corners of the night. This was all likely what Dean might call 'sappy,' and even Castiel was aware that typical romance was not quite so overblown these days. The very core of his being quivered anyway, and he decided he didn't care. That he liked overdone gestures of romance.

"And you're my Captain," he replied, punctuating the statement with a firm nod.

Jack sipped a breath, looking startled. He watched Castiel like a new star. The air around them charged.

"Can I be your Captain?" Jack asked, all the amusement drained from a voice that was no longer entirely steady. After a moment of confusion, Castiel thought of Torchwood; of Jack's insistence that the agency was dead. That Gwen should never know he was here. This was no overdone gesture of romance, but an honest question of ability.

"Yes," Castiel said, putting every ounce of trust and certainty he held for the man into the word.

The hard plane of Jack's shoulders suddenly rounded, and his head bowed forward and down. Castiel caught his cheek once more, to slow the fall. The air warmed between them, and for a moment or two their bond was what it had been. "I'm here because of your actions, as well as mine," Castiel murmured, Jack's temple soft and ticklish against his ear, "Please know that I've taken notice of your choice to come this far with me. …And I'm aware that I can be very difficult," he added.

Jack laughed into his shoulder. "Only on days that end in 'y,' Castiel." The kiss that followed was softer than the last. He drew back. "But you've got to go."

"No," Castiel replied, "I have objectives to accomplish, true; however I have a reason to be here as well. I wanted to be with you when I open this."

"Still trying to convert me?" Jack chuckled.

Castiel's eyes rolled skyward briefly. "I believe that subject is best avoided."

"You could be right."

"Actually, I felt it was something you would enjoy witnessing. Although, you should close your eyes," Castiel warned, "the flash will damage your sight."

Jack barked a short, easy laugh. "They'll grow back."

Castiel moved back a few steps, withdrawing from the illusory safety of Jack's body, and reached for the slender glass phial. He drew a deep breath, slipping the brightly glowing tube from its lanyard. It teetered on his fingers, rocking gently at the tips.

Desperation surged up and through him like a hot lance. His stomach dipped with foreboding, so strong it made him momentarily ill. Castiel froze. His fist clamped fast around the bottle. He shouldn't do this. This was wrong. What if he succumbed to the lure of power? What if his Grace left him numb again? Castiel had fallen once before. Had been human once before. Those memories hadn't stopped him from taking up the role of God. Once they faded, he'd forgotten what it truly meant to live as a mortal.

Or was it fear of his responsibilities that halted him? Existence had been so simple with Jack over their years immured in Purgatory. Basic. Uncomplicated. The complexities of his life hadn't lessened while he was gone. They crowded around instead, waiting. When the phial shattered, he might need to be gone for some time. He might be attacked the moment Shamsiel's veil fell away. They might all be attacked.

Worse yet, he didn't know how much of the tenuous humanity he'd gained would be... lost in the transfer. He thought of their first night in Black Rock City, of the rapturous joy he'd felt on his knees at the base of a steel-and-neon Man.

"Jack, I don't-- I'm uncertain--"

Jack was on him almost before the words escaped. Strong hands closed around his face like blinders, tilting his jaw until Jack's mouth was on his.

"Sh," Jack whispered afterward. So Castiel was silent for a time in the warm circle of Jack's arms, sorting through a jumble of emotions. He knew them all for what they were, but sometimes... sometimes they still moved too quickly for him to understand their nature.

"I can't delay any further," Castiel protested, tight and sharp, "this is ridiculous."

"Forget about everything else, Archer. Be right here, right now. We've got all night."

"It's dawn."

"As far as you're concerned, we've got all night. Deep breaths, Archer."

With an inhale, Castiel ordered his thoughts. "I lost my Grace because I succumbed to… good intentions and power. It's difficult to ignore the obvious potential."

"Not so obvious," Jack said firmly, "Things were different then; you were different."

"I could become that again. I could forget. I will forget what it was to be human."

"Then I'll be here to remind you. I'll keep you honest, Castiel."

The offer was so utterly unexpected, Castiel's internal panic ceased as he tried to comprehend. Jack could not possibly be aware of all the parameters surrounding his statement. "Promise me that if I lose everything, you will stop me," he said. Jack was more than capable of that, at least; for pure resourcefulness if nothing else.

"You won't lose everything." Jack shook him gently, "We got this far, didn't we? I'm not giving up on you. I won't give up. If you start to forget, you'll learn again. If it takes a thousand years, well," he chuckled, "we've got the time. You know we do."

If a smile could be a sun, his could have warmed a planet. It certainly had that effect on Castiel. He knew a lifeline when he felt one in his hands. Jack offered the impossible, but it was still something.

"You sure you have to do this right now?" Jack asked, quieter now. Castiel knew that in spite of Jack's earlier insistence, he was being subtly given a way out. He could hide his Grace, live the remainder of a short mortal existence, die and not be anymore, with no responsibilities. The path remained open to him, so long as the phial remained closed.

Odd, that. He'd known a man with no soul, who would have taken that offer because it was easier. It had more to offer him, personally. Looking at it with all its temptation of joy and simplicity, and then at his self-appointed responsibilities, Castiel knew it was not even truly on offer.

"Yes, I do," Castiel countered. He feathered the tips of his fingers through Jack's hair at the warm space just beneath the collar of his coat, still holding tight to his Grace with his left. With a flash of humor, he tilted his head and added, "but not right now." There was a space of silence after that, a slow inhale before the dive.

This time, Castiel made the first move. He shoved Jack into the side of the jeep and inhaled the grunt Jack made at the impact. Jack caught his arm and the curve of one hip, one thigh slotting between Castiel's legs when their bodies were flush. Castiel rode it hungrily, drowning in this last surge of human arousal. He felt, rather than saw the hand come up, lifting his own from its place under Jack's collar. The strong, blunt fingers wove through his, sparking delicate sensation and a deep well of nameless emotion. Then they gripped vice-tight, the unwilling goodbye in the single gesture so sharp Castiel could sense it; taste it on Jack's kiss and feel it in the spread of his hand. In some way, Jack understood how things would change. Had already changed. Jack was no longer sleeping; hadn't since they'd returned to Earth. He was immortal again, the 'fixed point in time' that re-made Torchwood and saved the world. Unlike Castiel, he didn't have a say. For some things to begin, others must end. Their time in Purgatory was over.

It shouldn't ache as it did.

His mouth still on Jack's, Castiel tossed down the phial. The thin glass shattered, rich white light bathing them both as a coil of incandescent mist swirled upwards. When he withdrew from Jack it was there, pressing insistently into Castiel's mouth. He expected it to hurt, although with his decision made, he no longer feared. Instead, it was warm, humid on the back of his throat like summer rain. The heat intensified as it worked further inside him, the force of the invasion pushing him backward. He saw Jack watching, caught between worry and fascination, before Castiel's head arched back and left him only a view of a star-pricked dawn sky. Numbness collapsed over him, robbing every sensation but the heat, the heat, the heat, as it drove into and through him. The tail of it slipped down his throat and he had a moment to breathe.

His skin began to glow. Light burst outward, hotter and whiter as it crawled inside his clothes and leaked from his cuffs, his collar; between the buttons of his shirt. And still he couldn't feel. Could only look from his wrists to Jack, whitened by the reflection of Castiel's light. Jack's eyes stood out so blue; the color translucent as shallow water.

The sun drifted over the horizon, dwarfed by the blaze of power in a quiet Kansas parking lot. Castiel's Grace sounded a chord of glory so perfect it made his mind swim, then expand outward in a rush. The universe unfurled before him, unfolding like a paper flower as the power of Heaven twined around his being once more. He perceived the spectrum of the cosmos; the expanding of galaxies; births of solar systems and deaths of suns. He knew a moment of unnamable brilliance. A beauty greater than the human mind could comprehend, and a deep serenity of purpose.

Castiel's wings snapped to life and swept out. Up and up, to the sky. To the stars. To Heaven. Then the intake of power overwhelmed his fragile human vessel, and once again the body dissolved in a surge of heat and light.

Chapter Text

Everything hinged upon the briefest moment; finer and sharper than a blade. The glory of purpose, of transcending his broken, dying human vessel threatened to drive away all that he'd gained.

But something was instantly wrong. So immediate that he was jerked away from the pleasure of homecoming almost before it began.

No euphoria of perfection. Castiel felt... indescribably off. Uncomfortable. He was an angel, he wasn't supposed to feel uncomfortable, because there were no body parts to feed him sensory information. He existed again as he was meant to exist, too much to be contained in a frail human body. Of course the human shell he wore was with him, part of him, but out here in the realm of thought, he didn't wear a body of any kind.

He itched. The currents of power in which he dove made him itch.

Heaven was not supposed to itch.

The process worked, and yet it hadn't.

Imperfect. Broken.

He had no eyes to see, but Castiel knew his own thoughts, and his own being. As Castiel paid more attention to those thoughts and that core of existence, he became aware of a change. He knew the pulse of his Grace, but alongside it was another pulse, offset, like a second human heartbeat.

Castiel explored it, touching it with his intent, only to shrink back in shock. No. No, that was wrong. That was impossible.

Shamsiel told him truthfully.

He carried a soul. It had not been transmuted by his Grace, but remained a separate entity. Living. In a space where sensation did not exist, should not exist, Castiel perceived its touch. It felt warm.

Just as Castiel identified it, both it and his Grace began to flare erratically. Arcs of energy snapped against one another. Each bore its own wavelength, each was perfect, but together they created a dischord that distorted the space around them. Terrified that he would harm his surroundings, Castiel sought to cushion the alien object. He nearly succeeded. Would have succeeded.

But there were angels. Many. Surrounding him like antigens in the ether. Their intent brushed his, and they knew him. And their intent became violent. Malevolent. Hate.

Castiel tossed himself downward in a headlong rush.

Odd.

It had never been down before.

He feared briefly that his vessel would not accept all of him, but as the body that was - and was not - James Novak enclosed Castiel again, everything slotted neatly into place.

Jack was moving towards him. Distantly, Castiel heard the slam of a door and knew the Winchesters would be there soon as well. He stood perfectly, perfectly still, hand over the sternum of his vessel. He could feel it again, thrumming with energy, hot; familiar. It filled the last empty space.

His Grace.

His head jerked up.

"They're COMING," Castiel barked, and the thick pommel of his blade slipped into his hand. "RUN."

Chapter Text

Jack witnessed many beautiful things. He'd gazed on tiny firebirds and watched the turning of solar systems like gems on black velvet. Through it all, Jack clung to his sense of wonder as the years passed, ever curious, drinking in the first moments of beauty and rarity. Castiel's transformation was nothing less than he'd expected. Intense light bleached the color from the dawn. Somewhere at the heart of all that power and light was Castiel. Shading his eyes against the blaze, Jack took a step closer, then another. He reached out into the whirl, ignoring the intense heat, when great wings flared in a skyward arc. They snapped him back with the wind and boom of a passing jet.

Though he'd held out longer than most reasonable humans, Jack winced against the pain and couldn't force his eyes open again. Castiel remained behind his eyelids for several minutes: a bright white afterimage of a winged man. Heat pushed against his face, and was gone in a flash. Cold morning air swept over him, raising gooseflesh on his arms.

Only the afterimage greeted him when he opened his eyes. Jack patted backwards for the fender of the jeep and waited, blind and blinking and breathing deeply until his burned-out retinas defaulted once again. He grinned. What a rush. Castiel was something else.

When he could see, Jack peeled back the cover of his wrist strap and scanned the parking lot for Castiel, but he seemed truly gone. Jack took a steadying breath against an unexpected swell of grief, laughed, and dug deep into the excitement underneath. The Castiel he'd come to know might be changed, but he was not completely gone. Jack trusted him to come back. No way to know what he'd be when he did come back. But something unexplored. Oh yes. Definitely that.

The space directly in front of Jack registered traces of an unusual temporal event. Curious, Jack shuffled forward.

All hell broke loose.

A few steps to his left, Castiel reappeared. He smelled of ozone and fizzed with energy particles that left Jack's wrist strap shrugging cluelessly - as if he'd time to look at it. Castiel's head jerked up and a squat, oddly-shaped blade materialized in his right hand. From the corner of his eye, Jack saw the Winchesters duck behind the Impala, parked just outside their motel room - no doubt drawn by the earlier flash.

Castiel barked at them to run. Of course, nobody did. Jack thought a being who claimed to have watched the human race from its creation would know when people lacked basic self-preservation instincts.

The angels arrived in the silence between one breath and the next. They appeared in a crescent around Castiel, spaced apart with the precision of measuring tape, and hit the ground running. Before Jack could even think the right profanity, bright skewer-swords flashed arcs of silver in their hands. They lunged for Castiel like lions on a zebra.

Their formation put Jack nearly in the path of one of the two males - a tall, sturdy man with a Scandinavian complexion, blonde to the eyebrows and lashes. Jack trusted Castiel to handle himself, but he was outnumbered three to one.

With a view to evening the odds just a little, Jack barreled into the closest opponent. The angel shoved a forearm out to meet Jack's forward drive.

Looked like an arm, anyway. Felt like the grille of a Peterbilt.

Jack rebounded off the fender of his jeep, starbursts of sharp pain sizzling out from socket to elbow of his left shoulder, up the side of his neck, and across his lower back. Even more bruising than the collision was that 'Thor' there had only moved a fraction. Jack left a dent in the quarter panel, and the angel extended about the effort of a handshake to do it.

Still reeling, kidneys supplying the profanity he'd forgotten, Jack staggered back against the jeep and yanked out his sidearm from its holster. Too late, he remembered Castiel's explanation that bullets couldn't harm an angel. He put a couple holes in Thor's polo, and the angel turned fully to face him, dribbles of blood dotting his arm and ribs. All right, so he got a flinch at least. Then the angel deadpanned across the asphalt with the business end of his skewer aimed for Jack.

Across from him, too far away to help, Jack saw Sam rise from behind the Impala's flank. The skewer-sword in Sam's hand was a lean blaze of silver, and where the hell had Jack's memo been that this was standard issue? Sam charged the middle angel, another thirtysomething man, this one square, sharp-edged and dark. Jack watched over Thor's shoulder. Adrenaline dialed the world down to half speed, and Jack watched the scene - and his own oncoming death - as if in slow motion.

"No!" Jack heard Castiel cry. Sam hesitated and his target backhanded him.

Then Thor was on Jack, wielding his blade like a butcher knife. Jack tried to duck, but the angel was impossibly fast. The skewer slipped through the cartilage under his sternum like a hot knife in warm butter. Jack felt the pressure of the downthrust as the blade slammed home. The force bounced Jack back to the jeep, and the tip of the skewer screeched its way across the hood. Pain plowed over his senses, but between Thor and the vehicle, held in place by the bar of hot metal in his chest, Jack couldn't fall. The sideways slip of his body nudged the blade. Distantly, he felt the grate of it against his spine.

It had been a few years since the last time he'd felt that, Jack thought abstractly.

Thor fell into Jack. The weight of him shoved the tip of the skewer into the hood with a savage snap. Dazed by endorphins, Jack barely felt the pain as the weight of the angel's body tried to drag him with it. The sword held, and the pressure underneath his sternum was both strange and uncomfortable.

Jack glanced up as Thor's hands vanished over the edge of the fender. He was stunned to see Dean Winchester, standing over the spot where Thor went down. Dean held another one of those silver skewer-swords like a baseball bat, the edge of it bloodied and matted with Nordic blonde hair. His expression was one of horror - understandable, considering Jack's current resemblance to a kebab.

Jack tried to find his feet, but he was off balance, and his blood was running down the groove of the hood now in a thin but steady line. "Forget me," Jack grunted, when Dean circled him and found the point of the sword buried in the jeep's hood. Castiel needed backup worse than he needed unstuck.

He saw Castiel fighting, the blade in his hand flashing as he feinted and spun and clashed again. He could have killed them, easily. Jack knew their opponents in Purgatory were straightforward and slow, but what they lacked in creativity they made up for in sheer volume. He'd been slaying the undead and giant spiders and hair-trigger creepers on a daily basis for years. How was a fat old woman - even a fat old woman with an angel inside - getting the better of him?

Castiel was refusing to kill.

The realization brought a burst of fierce pride and a sharp laugh that he swallowed as the spasm of muscles sparked new pain. Finally, one of his assailants found a lucky mark and forced Castiel down. He was bloodied, light surging from slashes in his coat. He was alive, Jack could see that, but clearly not for much longer.

The movement of Dean's hands caught Jack's wandering attention. His fingers shifted, choking up on the hilt of the skewer-sword. Concussed, bruised and sleep-deprived, Dean was still on his feet. Evaluating the odds. Contemplating a suicide run. About to do something incredibly stupid for people he loved.

All right. He was starting to see why Castiel had a thing for the guy.

Jack tried to push himself up. The blade shifted a few centimeters, and his vision swam. He gritted his teeth to try again. Dean spun away from him at the screech of tires. A powerful humming sparked along Jack's nerve endings, gooseflesh shivering down his arms again. Shoe soles scuffed on the pavement. Then he heard a new voice. Not a total stranger, though - the last time, Jack had been in Nevada with Castiel. "Lailah! Stop!" Shamsiel shouted. Hands and swords caught the blade poised to strike Castiel and knocked it away. So the cavalry did show up, after all.

If Jack didn't feel like a kebab, he might actually be relieved. "Dean," he panted, changing his mind, "help me!"

Dean turned back to him. Jack saw his jaw tighten; eyes like an emergency room surgeon. He saw a lot more death than he wanted to, Jack could tell, and thought he was looking at another one.

"Not unless you've got some Jaws of Life handy," Dean muttered. He turned, leaned his hip against the fender - heedless of the blood - and wrapped Jack's arm over his shoulder. With a little tug, he urged Jack to let him take the weight of his body, and as he did so, Jack felt the pressure against his back recede.

"Thought you didn't like me," Jack teased. The words were quiet and mostly air.

"Shut up," Dean retorted.

Jack licked his lips, closed his eyes, and braced himself. "Pull it out," he ordered.

"No, it's no good! You need a doctor!"

"Not anymore," Jack grunted, "Pull it out. I am not going to die."

Dean was dubious.

Jack growled. "Dean. Now."

"Pretend you're my dad one more time and I'll kick your ass," Dean snapped.

Beyond them, the angel standing over Castiel faltered. She was clearly the leader, defined by her demeanor rather than her build. Probably the 'Lailah' Shamsiel was yelling at. She was short and round, nearly fifty with a small gray-blonde ponytail under a trucker ball cap. "Who are you? Oriel, To me!" Lailah demanded, and signaled in her second, who left off of whaling on Sam. Thor, Jack was grimly satisfied to note, was still down for the count. Not dead. Dean had somewhen, somehow, started believing Castiel. Whether he'd followed the order out of habit or honest trust, Jack didn't know.

Shamsiel approached, did... something with his hands, and Jack felt the air around the parking lot abruptly still. Four angels followed him - two men, two women, none of whom Jack recognized from Burning Man. Sam limped his way over to join Jack and Dean at the jeep. He wore much the same look as his brother, and Jack amended his earlier convictions about Dean and death to include Sam as well.

"Jack?" Castiel coughed from across the parking lot.

"He's good!" Sam raised his head from examining the spot where the skewer entered the hood and shot Jack a warning look.

Jack tossed him a pale grin. "What's the verdict, Sam?"

Sam shook his head. "Too deep. We need to cut the hood."

"Got those Jaws of Life handy?" Jack panted, not quite able to get his head up. Neither of the Winchesters saw the humor, of course, but that was all right. Priorities.

The clash of swords yanked everyone's attention back to the angel standoff in the middle of the motel parking lot. Two of Shamsiel's soldiers engaged Lailah and Oriel. The rest made a beeline for Thor, just beginning to stir where Dean had knocked him cold.

Jack felt Dean tensing up, while Sam moved between them and the approaching angels. "Easy, boys," Jack breathed; all he could manage, really. Later, Jack guessed that an argument of some sort had gone on. It was the Winchesters, of course they'd caused a problem - he knew that much already. But he couldn't say for sure, as the voices all blurred together. Dean stopped holding him up, his living bulk replaced by four strong, hot hands. They held him effortlessly, rigid as steel.

The blade slipped out of his chest the way it had come - with a furious blaze of pain. Jack screamed right along with the jeep as the strange, otherworldly metal came free.

He heard Castiel's voice, rough and sharp-edged. "JACK!"

"What the hell?" Dean gasped a few feet away.

"Can't heal," someone said. Or rather, thought. The words boomed painfully inside his head with the vibrating weight of cathedral bells, "she won't allow."

"Bad Wolf," someone else whispered against his thoughts, this one like the air after a lightning strike.

"JACK!" Castiel cried again. And somehow, although the volume wasn't any louder than before, he sounded bigger.

Jack's vision pinked, as the world beyond his eyelids lit up like a young star.

He died.

Temporarily, anyway.


Jack stumbled across a glass-smooth, seamless floor. He groped through the black, endless and thick. Resurrection in Purgatory had been nearly instantaneous; he'd almost forgotten what death was like. The weight of nothingness was crushing. Jack ran and went nowhere, hating how it made him feel; how insignificant he was in the emptiness. Then every square inch of Jack began to itch and burn, and life came rocketing back at him like a marble from a slingshot.

He arched and gasped, and looked up into deep blue eyes. Shamsiel. The first words he heard were Dean's: "Seriously. What the hell?"

Shamsiel leaned over Jack. "How do you even make that look like sex?"

"Talent," Jack grumped. Using the jeep for leverage - and avoiding the ugly puncture in the hood - he pulled himself to his feet. One of Shamsiel's angels reached for him when he reeled a little, but he shook off her hand. He searched the lot for Castiel and found him, just being helped to his feet by yet another stranger… although at least this one wasn't blonde and blue-eyed. Dean had come up to flank Sam and was still staring at him, but now his eyes were narrowed. In his mind, the index cards were flipping, deciding what Jack was based on process of elimination. Jack flashed him a flirty Hollywood smile and probed the hole in his own shirt with two fingers. The wound was still closing, and the light pressure hurt. Far as he could tell though, fabric hadn't healed into the opening - at least not in the front. Good; never wanted to go through that again.

Jack looked back at Shamsiel, the young women who'd gotten him unskewered, and Sam, who was watching him with a mixture of fascination and worry.

Lailah, Oriel, and 'Thor' (Jack would really have to find out what his name was) huddled together inside a ring of fire - who lit that? - watched by the remainder of Shamsiel's detachment. Thor still looked a little dazed. For angels of the Lord, they managed a pretty fantastic impression of wet cats. Fire held angels at bay? Jack made a mental note to ask about the particulars on that, later.

"We need to get out of here," Sam pointed out, "it's a miracle this place isn't crawling with state troopers."

"Isn't it just?" Shamsiel's smile didn't quite reach his eyes. "Call it a 'force field,' Neo. No need to bake your noodle."

Sam bristled. "Actually, my name's Sam," he corrected, and Jack heard "...asshole," in the pause. "Thanks for riding to the rescue. I'm guessing you're an angel, what do you want?"

"I see you've met Zachariah," Shamsiel replied dryly.

"I thought you couldn't teleport," Jack interrupted. He was grateful for the intervention, but still uncertain about this alliance. Interesting guy, Shamsiel; definitely playing with more than the hand of cards he showed.

"We've never been far behind you, Jack," Shamsiel replied. Jack heard the this should be obvious in his voice. Ah. There was the family resemblance.

Dean, who'd been diverting his attention between Jack and Castiel, looked back across Sam's shoulder and added his own two cents. "All I know is, this place is crawling with angels trying to knock us into next week. On top of that, you're apparently some Jedi angel with the whole force field thing, there's exploding cactus owls outside of town, and Jack looks pretty good for a zombie. Somebody explain what the fuck is going on."

Shamsiel looked puzzled. "Exploding cactus owls?" he echoed.

"Creatures from Purgatory," Castiel's low voice cut across the tension. He joined the loose circle, supporting himself now, although he still looked uncomfortable. "However," Castiel added, "that needs to wait. I intend to question the angels who attacked me. Considering their original intent, I would--appreciate backup."

Jack stepped back from the circle and walked behind Sam and Dean to touch Castiel's shoulder. "I've got your six, Archer."

"Thank you, Jack," Castiel said sincerely, and Jack was gratified to feel his body lift a little under the touch, "but I was referring more specifically to Shamsiel, who seems to intimidate them." He nodded towards the angel in question. "Lailah and her fellows will not attack us while the fire burns. Not unless they have a death wish."

"Shamsiel?" Sam echoed. The incredulity of his tone drew Jack's attention. Dean's as well, apparently. Nobody else seemed to pay much notice.

Shamsiel nodded, brisk, and turned to the burning ring and its occupants a half dozen steps off. The two young women flanking him fell in immediately. Jack slid his hand up to Castiel's neck as they followed. "How are you?"

Castiel turned his head slightly, returning Jack's gaze one-eyed. "Please don't lie to me in the future regarding your condition." Jack swallowed a prick of irritation and a flip response. There was an otherness about the man now that - in Jack's proximity - raised a tingle like a static charge along his skin. When Castiel continued, he was glad he'd held his tongue.

"It will take me some time to... adjust," Castiel said. He met Jack's eyes fully now, sober and sad. "In Purgatory, I could not feel you die."

Jack let that sink in a moment. Angels were fascinating, he thought, utterly non sequitur. But they apparently had no personal boundaries whatsoever.

"It's not a choice," Castiel protested.

Jack took a deep breath. "I didn't say anything."

"You didn't? You--" Suddenly Castiel's voice was contrite, "I'm sorry. But Shamsiel is correct. Your thoughts are unusually focused. And quite loud." Then Shamsiel called for him, and Castiel stepped past Jack. Across his path, actually, bringing Jack up short without so much as a sidelong glance. He watched, caught between amused and irritated, then took up an open spot on the ring. Which, as it so happened, was right next to Sam Winchester.

"You've met these guys?" Jack murmured. Beside him, Sam twitched his head sideways.

"No. I just--Shamsiel. That's the name of one of the Grigori. Sometimes they're called 'The Watchers.' Old angels, according to the Book of Enoch. Which is, uh, about the same age as the Bible, give or take. Religious scholars argue-- what?" Sam's sober stare into the fire became a pointed glare at Jack who probably deserved it for the grin alone. He tried to tone it down to something less predatory.

"Nothing… just, that's brilliant," Jack replied with a laugh, waving for Sam to go on. He'd already heard a piece of this story from Castiel, but if Sam could flesh it out a little further, he was all ears. It seemed Sam only needed an audience in order to forget his suspicions; the young man happily volunteered.

"These angels are older than the Flood. They may even be older than Michael and Lucifer; at least as badass if not worse. They mated with humans and ended up with monster babies that started eating everyone."

Jack decided that of the two stories he'd heard so far, he liked Sam's better than Castiel's. This was like the comic book. He could almost see the illustrated sound effects.

"But God threw them out of Heaven for the whole monster baby thing," Sam continued, "They're supposed to be dead or in Hell, or something."

"Bound in darkness for eternity," Jack murmured back, attention and mood shifting as Shamsiel and his company faced the angels inside the ring. In his periphery, he saw Sam's nod.

"Hello, Lailah," Castiel began, "under other circumstances, I would say it's good to see you."

Lailah said nothing. Her shoulders drew back, posture already ramrod straight in a way her vessel probably never had. Jack wondered about the woman inside, and why she'd given the angel permission to take her.

"You attacked me on sight," Castiel said, "why?"

Silence.

"I sensed your intent," he continued, as if they hadn't ignored his question, "I'm curious as to why the Fates would charge you to kill me."

"Nobody charged us," Lailah spat, "certainly not those self-important whores." Castiel's expression flatlined. Jack's inability to see Lailah's face was frustrating, but as he caught the flicker of quickly muffled pain in Castiel's eyes, he was glad. He tucked his hands in his pockets and set his feet a little further apart. The ache of Thor's blade was fainter now.

"You were going to destroy him without orders?" Shamsiel demanded. Though the prisoners didn't reply, Shamsiel seemed to find an answer in their gazes. He shook his head. "Why?"

Before him, Lailah seemed to shrink. "Castiel brought us chaos," she protested. Her words held sullen deference now, as a child to a teacher.

"As opposed to the general chaos occurring in Paradise at any other given time? We could still hear you, even if we couldn't pitch in. As I understand it, things weren't exactly peachy before your darling Michael ended up in the Pit." Shamsiel's gaze shifted from Lailah to Oriel, "What about you? What do you think, brother?"

Oriel looked up from where he knelt beside 'Thor,' and Jack remembered that he still didn't know the angel's real name. Oriel pushed himself to his feet, large fists curled at his sides. "Castiel should not have returned. The Garrison no longer needs him."

"You never needed me," Castiel protested, sounding tired, "you needed orders. Purpose."

Jack watched the slow sweep of Oriel's head as he looked from Shamsiel to Castiel. "We have new purpose, now."

"Of course," sarcasm soured Castiel's tone, "A new purpose that does not require you to think for yourselves."

"We are meant to serve," Oriel boomed, deep voice edged and resonant in the stillness, "If you understood your own role, we would not be here. The Apocalypse would have come and gone."

Jack watched Castiel's face. He could see the frustration lining his expression, and the disappointment. Even now, with the blood of his brothers on his blade, Castiel hoped for a different outcome from Oriel. Here was the illustrated definition of insanity. Jack withdrew his hands from his pockets and stretched, making the gesture as wide and obvious as possible. When he saw Castiel's gaze flick to him, he folded his hands behind his back, set his feet a little wider, and chinned up.

The lightest curve of a smile ghosted across Castiel's lips. He inclined his head a slow fraction of an inch, and mirrored Jack's posture. "Is that what you've been told?" Castiel asked, redirecting his attention once again to the angels trapped within the blaze, "Since when is the Host happy to serve the whims of Fate?"

"We don't," hissed Lailah, "you left us in chaos, Castiel. The Fates have offered to help us restore order. To free Michael. When he returns, that alliance will end. It will all be over."

"Not for nothing," Jack heard Dean's drawl and the scuff of his boots as he paced slowly around the edge of the burning ring, "but - it's Lailah, right?"

Lailah's head snapped to follow him like a falcon. The silver ponytail under her ballcap whipped against her ear, tendrils captured there and sparking in the firelight. Dean looked unimpressed. Bored, even.

"Lailah, I've heard this pep talk before - from Gabriel. You know, the saner archangel? And boy, that's not saying much."

Lailah's gaze could have burned holes in Dean's jacket. Jack felt like doing the same, honestly, although he kept his expression in check. He didn't know why Dean felt it necessary to jump in, but it was grandstanding that belonged in a spaghetti western, not here. If it was just that, he could have let it go and maybe even admired the kid's spunk. But Dean was angry and letting it spill over. About what, Jack couldn't quite figure out.

"It's never gonna be over, sister," Dean barked, "not as long as angels keep lining themselves up to get steamrolled."

"Dean," Castiel admonished.

The other angels' faces turned, and now Jack could see them all. Their eyes skated over Dean, dismissive. "Gabriel is dead," 'Thor' answered Dean, and it was the first time he'd spoken since he'd arrived, "because you refused to take up your own responsibilities, Dean Winchester. Don't pretend to school us on ours."

"That's not on me," Dean retorted, "The only ones who wanted that destiny for me were you guys. It's not my fault you pigeons can't use your own brains."

Castiel's body was rigid with tension. "Dean!"

"Hey," Jack interrupted, smiling as eleven pairs of eyes were suddenly on him. He pointed at Thor. "What's your name?"

Thor eyed him in silence, then offered grudgingly: "Nuriel."

"Huh. I liked mine better. Anyway, Nuriel, it's pretty clear none of us are buying what you're selling. Can we stop trying to figure out whose stream goes further, and get back on topic?"

"Yes," Shamsiel added his voice, "such as when we can expect another attack on Castiel from the Host."

Nuriel's expression was vaguely annoyed, and his eyes flicked to Dean. Jack half expected to hear him protest that Dean started it. "Call off your dog," Nuriel demanded.

"I'm not his dog," Dean snapped. Finally, Jack let the other man feel the full weight of his glare, sorely tempted to threaten Dean with a much coarser canine reference if he didn't get his ass in line and under control. He knew the angels couldn't be allowed to see any more dissention in the ranks than they'd already observed.

Instead, he flashed a charming smile at Nuriel. "Consider him called off." From the corner of his eye, Jack could see Dean bristle, but he held his peace. Maybe there is a God, Jack thought whimsically.

"Answer my question," Shamsiel commanded.

Lailah's jaw and shoulders tightened, and her fist closed on the hilt of her blade until the knuckles paled. The fire licking up around her made her fiercer than she looked at the outset. Avenging trucker angels, Jack thought, amused in spite of everything, I don't know whether to call Paramount or Victoria's Secret.

"We will do what must be done," Lailah replied, "plans to open the Cage are already in motion."

Castiel's voice was quiet. Almost gentle. "How do the Fates plan to open the Cage, Lailah? The seals are broken; Lilith is dead. You lack the numbers and the experience to storm the gates of Hell."

"Plans are in motion," Lailah repeated, sharp syllables pinging like hailstones on a tin roof.

Shamsiel leaned back, rolling his shoulders. "What plans?"

Lailah maintained a defiant silence.

"You've gone this route once already; be original. Anyhow, I can take it from your mind," Shamsiel threatened, with a reasonable cheeriness that wrenched a shudder from Jack, "Even like this, with one hand tied behind my back." He followed up with the appropriate gesture, tucking his right hand into his back pocket and waggling the other.

"Your arrogance has certainly not lessened over time."

"That's not my ego, darling."

They stared at one another across the flames, and Jack wondered if pissing matches comprised as much of celestial battle as it did here on Earth. War is war, he thought, interrogation styles never change. Maybe he'd ask Castiel later. Yeah, and that would go over like the Hindenburg in a Biblical hail of fire.

With a frustrated sigh, Lailah broke first. "Secrecy matters not. We learned quickly that the Fates may go anywhere, unseen and untouchable. You will be as unable to halt their intents as the Garrison."

"You tried to halt them?" Castiel asked.

"Briefly, yes," Oriel replied, and as his voice grew tired, even his massive frame seemed to shrink, "those still loyal to your cause. Too few, and too divided."

Unhappy surprise flitted across Castiel's features, vanishing as resolve took its place. Glad to know his people put up a fight, Jack figured. Not so glad to know they fought in his name. Poor guy. "Tell us their intent," Castiel insisted, "the Fates."

After a long hesitation, during which Jack worried that she might have changed her mind, Lailah spoke. "The song of God."

"What?" Dean squinted, "Phoebe, Prue and Piper are looking for God's greatest hits album?"

Sam blinked. "Dude. Seriously. Charmed?"

"What? You like saying their actual names? Plus I always thought Prue was kinda hot."

Jack huffed a laugh. Nobody else really saw the humor. Particularly Lailah, who didn't seem to appreciate having her thunder stolen. "The Fates are searching for the song that will destroy the Cage," she explained.

"The song of creation," Castiel breathed. Lailah's glare had been favored on Dean. When Castiel spoke, her expression flickered. Relaxed. No, Archer, thought Jack, that's not-- and then abruptly blanked his thoughts as he remembered Castiel's earlier comment. If one angel could hear him - two, counting Shamsiel - so could everyone else. Potentially, anyway. Luck seemed to be on his side, as everyone seemed too focused on one another to overhear him. Lailah turned away from Jack's part of the circle, and back to Castiel and Shamsiel opposite them.

"When the song of God is heard in Hell, fetters shall fall in twain. Prison walls shall shatter as glass," Lailah continued, clearly quoting, "The foundations of Hell shall tremble before it."

"Have they found it?" Jack asked, before Lailah could rhapsodize any further.

Oriel nodded, looking less than pleased about it. "But they don't have it. It has to be awakened, and there's only one who can do that."

"Oriel!" Lailah barked. Unflinching, Oriel kept his eyes on Jack.

"Let me guess," Jack replied, indicating the Winchesters with a loose wave.

Oriel shook his head. "No. But it gives you time."

"Oriel!" Lailah's blade flashed. Before she could strike, one of Shamsiel's angels raised her hands, and the circle of holy fire extinguished. Chaos descended as everyone leaped forward to intercept. Jack didn't know what he could do, exactly, considering how Nuriel had casually backhanded him into the jeep before. But damned if Oriel was getting shivved for helping them.

Castiel didn't yell, but his words filled the space. "Let them go, Shamsiel. Enough of our people have been murdered. I'm sure the Fates already know that I'm alive and you exist."

"My thoughts exactly," Shamsiel stepped up to the three angels now in his soldiers' grip. He folded his hands behind his back. "If you wish to help us in our endeavor to once again thwart the Apocalypse, you are welcome to stay. If you wish to continue following the Charmed Ones..."

Dean's grin was nearly audible.

"Go in peace," Shamsiel finished.

Lailah and Nuriel departed in a flurry of wingbeats, leaving Oriel behind.

"I thought you said I bring chaos," Castiel said, as the Winchesters, angels, and Jack closed in around him.

Oriel smiled, turning his eyes to Shamsiel. "I'm not following you, Castiel," he answered.

Shamsiel pressed his fist above his own heart and returned the smile.

Chapter Text

Castiel had experienced exactly one hot shower in his existence, but not as an angel. He'd been human just long enough to require one, when he'd fallen. There was no hot water in Purgatory - although buckets of coals helped ease the chill. The lack of amenities in the Black Rock Desert was unsurprising. Castiel didn't have enough experiences with hot water to miss it - or at least not as greatly as Jack seemed to. But here and now, he could certainly see the appeal.

He didn't really need a shower. Extending his powers to clean his vessel of dirt, sweat and blood was a simple task, but after his recent discussion with Shamsiel... Castiel touched the spot below his breastbone, over the space where his soul resided. He took his brother's words of caution seriously. Angels didn't have souls, clearly for good reason, as his was already problematic. Why did it still exist? As he understood, it originated from his Grace. Having examined it in detail, Castiel could see a resemblance (moreover, he could see for certain that it was his). He could see the potential for conversion, as a human might see a plug and a socket and assume they might fit. And yet it didn't fit. Didn't even seem to try.

One thing was for certain - as long as his soul existed, the power of Castiel's Grace would be unpredictable. And exhausting. The dissonance between the two power sources made even the simplest tasks more difficult. There was also the unexpected surge, this morning in the lot of the motel...

Hence the shower, rather than risking the safety of others.

He'd wanted isolation, anyhow, with a pressure that grew as the sense of purpose that had carried him through the past twenty-four hours dissolved. For so long, he'd only had Jack for company. Now he was surrounded by people he knew, and with his newfound awareness they pressed in on him like the walls of a tiny room. As a human, his mind worked imperfectly; memories faded, images were faint or rough or strangely associated. Now, he once again had the vivid and flawless powers of recollection he once had. He remembered everything.

Hindsight being what it is, that was not so fortunate.

Feeling raw and edging into panic, he'd escaped as quickly as possible. By a miraculous collective lack of observation skills, none of the humans staying at the motel noticed the confrontation in the parking lot, even before Shamsiel arrived. Jack requested the room adjacent to the Winchesters' and got it without much fuss.

They had an enforced space of time now. Oriel reassured them that the Fates would not be able to activate the song of God at this time, although he claimed to need to speak directly to the leader of the Watchers before he would explain why. The Winchesters needed food and sleep. Dean's condition was improved and he was sleeping now in the room adjoining this one.

He'd insisted that only Castiel deal with his concussion. The sweep of emotion coupled with that memory rolled out beneath Castiel's ribs and spread across his chest like the hot water on his skin. He desired to hold something, to fold himself around it, and that was only the foremost thing he could name. Castiel felt. An angel, yet he felt with the same magnitude. Though it cost Castiel more than he'd like to admit - and tasted the acid bite of fear for the entire duration - he was able to heal Dean's injuries as well as Sam's. No matter the years spent apart from them, Castiel still knew them inside and out; the colors and scars and textures of their bodies. The signature of his own work was still on them, although it had been some time since he'd last laid hands over their hurts.

Mine, Castiel thought, and was instantly ashamed. He turned his focus back to the process of working soap through his hair. He knew the process, having watched humans shower since the technology's inception. The concept of propriety and privacy; however, hadn't occurred to him until he began interacting with humans directly - and had no relevance to him, personally. Thus he was unbothered when Jack - barefoot and bare-chested - leaned against the wall outside the shower curtain and began to talk to him.

He'd already known Jack was there, of course, from the moment Jack's hand touched the bathroom doorknob. An individual's presence carried its own signature. As Castiel understood - better now and more deeply than before - he recognized their subtle differences much as humans recognized personal scent.

The susurration of water through the shower head was persistent and hypnotizing; soothing. "Been in there a while, Archer," Jack said gently, over the sound.

"I'm aware," Castiel replied. He turned his face into the spray and bowed his head. Hot rivulets pooled naturally in the contours of his vessel, pouring down his chest and across his back.

"Long day."

The thought of Castiel's vessel, naked, wet, and apparently arousing, skated across the surface of his thoughts like the wings of a moth. "Jack," Castiel sighed, bowing his head, "the angels guarding this room may as well be inside it." Before Shamsiel's departure, he'd asked two of the generals to stay with Castiel: Araciel and Remiel, neither of whom Castiel knew well. The others took their leave. ("Things to do," Shamsiel explained, "it's better if you don't know where we are, tiger." Castiel wasn't sure how he felt about the nickname. Or nicknames in general, 'Archer' notwithstanding.)

"If you don't care, I don't," Jack answered, a smile in his voice, "also, you were eavesdropping again."

"Considering your choice of location for a conversation, I don't think reading your mind was strictly necessary to discern your intent."

Jack laughed. "Check that tone, Castiel. Don't pretend you've never invited yourself into my bathtime."

Castiel thought of sitting on the edge of a natural cave spring, cold as ice, which made Jack's skin against his seem fevered. He shivered. The part of him that was still persistently human hummed a happy counterpoint. "Of course not," he said.

"Shamsiel took you aside after everything settled down," Jack shifted the topic, "you looked worried. More worried than you usually look, anyway. Everything all right?"

Castiel considered several responses, turned, and tipped his head back to sluice the soap from his hair. He considered evasive maneuvers as well, casting them aside almost as soon as they surfaced. "I'm not sure I want to talk about it, Jack," he answered honestly.

Jack was quiet for a moment, then asked, "Do you need to?"

"Yes," Castiel admitted, not liking the prospect of doing so, "eventually. Soon."

"Okay."

Castiel heard Jack move, and then the click of the doorknob turning. Being alone in the bathroom was suddenly an inconsiderable threat. "Jack. Wait." Quiet, again. A waiting quiet. Castiel realized then how total Jack's silence was. "I can't hear your thoughts."

"Yeah? Good," Jack replied, sounding satisfied, "It took me a while to remember the advanced techniques. I'm not used to needing them."

Castiel's brow furrowed. "Your control is imperfect. I heard you a few minutes ago."

"Did you?"

"Yes, of--" Castiel stilled, considered the arch tone of the question, then turned to where he sensed Jack's presence beyond the shower curtain. "--you projected that."

Jack laughed. "Not really. I just let the gates open a little. In case you were listening."

Connecting the image he'd caught of himself from Jack's mind with the obvious intent, Castiel pushed aside the curtain and leaned out. Jack met him, lips parting as their mouths came together. Jack's fingers worked into Castiel's wet hair, fingers curling around the back of his head. Castiel knew a pang of sadness, as a kiss was not what it had been in Purgatory. It would never be such a simple and one-sided experience again. His awareness encompassed the kiss and sketches of Jack's intent, and the room, and the hotel, the glimmers of living things all around him and the lighthouse-bright beacon of Jack's life force. He wanted, with a hunger that surprised him, to lose himself to the simple, private experience of a human kiss.

But it was soft, and warm, and Castiel could appreciate the musky-dark scent of Jack's pheromones as he couldn't before. Before, he'd only known that Jack smelled good, in a way that made him want to… to roll in the man's clothing, no matter that they'd been sweating in the sun all afternoon. Now he knew it for what it was, enhanced by the humidity of the bathroom.

"Come here," Castiel murmured, backing away into the shower. Jack obliged, shedding his trousers before he joined Castiel under the hot water. Not so hot anymore; he'd nearly exhausted the supply. Jack pushed against him. Castiel looked at him, perplexed. Jack tried again.

"Archer," Jack said, "wall."

Oh. Oh.

Castiel backed up. His shoulders collided with the shower wall, no longer under the spray, but Jack's naked form supplied its own heat. "Go slowly," Castiel requested. Jack nuzzled his ear, prompting a shudder at the gust of warm breath.

"No rush," Jack replied, the whispered words lush and bright with promise, "we have the time."

Four hours at least, Castiel thought, thinking of Dean's sleep patterns. He didn't speak it. Wet hands claimed his hips; cupped at the small of his back just above his tailbone. The touch carried streams of warm water from Jack's shoulder, crossing from his hands to Castiel's hips and connecting them in fragile, sleek webs. Jack's life force beamed like a small sun. Its brilliance and strength were tangible - light and heat, Castiel's human soul translated. He felt it somehow, like the memory of sunlight on his skin.

Jack must have felt his pause. He drew back from kissing Castiel's throat below the ear and smiled at him. "Penny for your thoughts?"

"It's different now," Castiel replied, softly. Jack nodded a fraction, almost to himself, apparently not much surprised.

"Good different, bad different...?"

Was it good or bad? How was he to accurately determine? If Castiel considered all the things he perceived now, he felt more, rather than less, which certainly flew in the face of his original concerns. Although he did feel... less grounded. Less attached. Loose, inside his skin. He remembered being appalled by Anna's yearning to discard her Grace for a human existence. Was still appalled. But he could understand now, a little better.

After a minute or so of fruitless analysis, he gave up. "Neither," Castiel sighed, "but new."

"Everything?"

"Not everything." Because at the bottom, beneath all the enhanced perceptions, Jack's kiss was still the soft, wet, intriguing thing it had been once before.

Jack nodded again. "Okay," he said, and shifted, seaming the full line of his frame to Castiel's once again. "So let's spend the next few hours finding all the new places."

Castiel could hear his smile. Furthermore, he could feel it. What Jack suggested with that smile, Castiel would move planets from alignment to follow through. For an unmeasured time, they contented themselves with touches and searching kisses. Jack explored him, giving way to his insatiable curiosity, and in turn Castiel explored himself. He did his best to maintain his focus, but while the sensations were not dimmed, physical arousal was a distant thing. He could feel it, but vaguely, beyond the sprawl of his Grace like the warmth of a torch down a far, cold corridor. He could not connect with it firmly enough; could not lose himself in its single-minded driving force. Jack's touch was soothing balm and pleasant, but without that intense burn, the rest of reality crowded in.

The water ran too cold to stand. Jack reached around Castiel to turn it off and they moved - wet and uncaring - to one of the motel beds. Castiel growled, frustrated by the everything pull; by the thousand distractions. Planets grew and stars calved; elements joined in their furnace hearts. He couldn't feel the grip of sex while galaxies breathed like great, slow whales.

Could he?

"Tell me what you feel," Jack demanded. He bent to Castiel's chest.

"All of it," Castiel replied, "everything."

"Think smaller, Castiel."

Castiel thought smaller. He tried to brush away the vastness of space. Tried to bring himself down to here.

Life, humming life. The city teemed with heartbeats, with pinpricks of rage and pleasure and grief like the tingling of blood returning to a numb hand. Castiel glanced up at Jack, and the distress on his features must have been visible. Jack smiled. "Smaller," he nodded into the words. His body hung over Castiel's like the moon above the Earth, and his tongue stroked hot across Castiel's nipple. No. The nipple of his vessel - no, his. Castiel hissed and pressed up into Jack as desire pulsed: a quick, hot metal sting. A sting that lingered; spread into a deep, humming glow. Jack murmured, "Easy," his fingernails scuffing Castiel's chest. Castiel felt it. Felt the heat it brought as his thoughts paused in their spangling and connected Jack to touch to memories.

Castiel's body remembered. His, his. As if he'd always lived inside it. As if it belonged to him. Stars wheeling, tides swelling, and Jack's hands and mouth on his skin. Jack repeated his question. "Tell me what you feel."

The patterns broke; tiny fingerholds of coherence slipped as they had on the Denobian fueling platform. "I don't know, Jack," Castiel wailed. The glow receded.

"Can you feel what I'm doing?" Jack set his teeth to Castiel, gentle but firm.

The thin, sharp sensation slipped through him like a needle. "Yes," he breathed.

"What am I doing to you, Archer?" Jack repeated the action, harder.

Considering that Jack clearly knew what he was doing, probably in a dozen languages and twice as many colorful euphemisms, Castiel assumed the question was pressed for his own benefit. He thought about it. Jack had closed his fine white teeth sharply around the soft flesh and pressed down. Then, as he completed the thought, he could feel it, not generally but specifically; felt it as all there was. It filled the sky with streamers of gold and drowned out every other thought in a short, sharp burst. He tried to say, "Jack, you bit me," but at some point the beginning of the sentence transmuted into another low, helpless cry. His lower back curved up, pushing his stomach into Jack's, and his hands spasmed in Jack's hair.

"Mff, not so hard."

With an effort, Castiel let go. "You bit me," he panted. And he panted, not because he required the extra oxygen, but because base need boiled with a suddenly unavoidable heat. It flared up, beyond his Grace and around it. It warmed him, consumed him wholly; transcended primordial urges.

"Good, you noticed," Jack replied, and it had not taken Castiel five years to learn 'smug' when he heard it. His body hummed, but his mind was quiet, and Castiel thought that perhaps Jack deserved to feel satisfied. The noise of endless shifting, breathing tessellations receded. He took a slow breath.

"Better?" Jack asked, brushing with light fingertips the gently sore spot where his teeth had been.

Castiel hissed again.

"Better," Jack chuckled.

"Much," Castiel agreed, and dropped back to the pillows with a sigh.

The hours unfurled before them in slow waves, like an uncoiling lotus. Or perhaps more accurately, the expanding concentric rings of a disturbance in a pool. Jack was the stone, smooth and unchanging, while the ripples of his passing pushed out across Castiel's existence. He felt his strength and center returning as Jack stroked and steadied him, in no apparent hurry to move on to the next objective. When Castiel wandered, Jack called him back. He demanded words, descriptions; forced his attention with the nip of teeth and nails. For there was pain, just as there was pleasure with this newfound connection. They were changed. Not the same sensations he'd known in Purgatory. He grew accustomed to the newness of both. The vessel had become the body. His. Unintentional, not particularly desired, but true nonetheless.

Once again, he thought of James Novak, who had done nothing to deserve an eviction from his own form. He put his faith in Castiel, who in turn put faith in those that perhaps he should not have. That was James's only mistake: faith. What would he think of this? Would he begrudge Castiel this freedom? Would he forgive him for it? Making love did not sully a body, but James could not make love with Amelia. Nor could he hold his daughter's fingers when she feared, or make a meal for them, or wrap their holiday gifts. Humans had a right to these small things. It was not right to take it from them, even well meant.

If he had learned one thing from Jack, however, Castiel understood how to live beneath the weight of his own darkness. Sometimes it was to live for another or a purpose; sometimes it was only a matter of moving forward until the guilt and grief receded. No penance would earn him the forgiveness he wanted. But he could keep it from consuming him. To give up would be a desecration of the sacrifice made.

He laid Jack out in the dark and knelt over him, cupping the nape of his neck to bring him up into a kiss.

"Wouldn't have pegged you as a man of initiative," Jack's smile caught the faint light from the window, "a few years back, anyway."

"A few years back, I was barely in control of my own body," Castiel replied.

Jack's fingers pressed into Castiel's hip, rapid breath breaking up his words now as they came together. "Most confused, aggressive virgin I ever deflowered. At least--"

"I had motivation," Castiel interrupted, before Jack could find (or create) someone from memory. He inhaled sharply, shifting his knees further apart, and eased a hand back to guide with the experience of years. There were many things he still did not know about human life. Many things that still confounded him despite his observations and experiences. But this… this he knew and understood. It was not to be disregarded or ridiculed that of all his memories of Jack, the times when he shared his body with Castiel were the brightest and most vivid. There was - and had been for some time - more in it than the sensuality and motion of this simple act.

He loved Jack. For his potential and his imperfections. Jack was not Dean and was not a replacement, not a surrogate, not a displaced means to earn forgiveness. He loved Jack, because he was Jack.

Castiel knew it was possible to love many. He'd watched Dean with his family, and enough humans over the centuries to understand the emotion could be shared. But this intensity? This desire to stand beside a person, to touch them, to be acknowledged by them, remembered by them? He'd been mistakenly led to believe it could exist only for one. In Man's poetry, music and art, sex seemed as if it could be for many, but this kind of love seemed just for one person at a time… or even only one person throughout eternity.

Having experienced it just once before now, and only recently acknowledged at that, Castiel was unprepared for the lightning realization that his heart could break twice over. Considering his choice of partners, that possibility had excellent odds.

Jack settled home inside him. The long, slow slide of it forced him back to himself. Castiel arched back with the intensity of sleek pressure, breath hitching roughly on each labored pant.

As they had been since the day they met, Jack's arms were there. "You've got a hell of a learning curve, Archer," he sucked in a breath, and the hands on Castiel's body shifted from supportive to possessive.

Castiel couldn't tell Jack of this emotional shift. That was no torment in itself, though Castiel believed Jack deserved to know that he was loved. What Jack wanted and what Castiel felt he deserved, however, were two entirely different things. So he gave Jack his body; traced him with his hands, marked his skin - for the moment, at least - with kisses and teeth and fingernails.

The words, he kept it to himself.

Chapter Text

With the world so successfully pushed away, Castiel missed the moment when Dean woke on the opposite side of the wall. Sam knew some kind of sleep Kung Fu and could sleep through a demon thunderstorm if he felt safe. Dean trusted Sam's instincts, but he was jittery after this morning's adrenaline rush. Tense pieces of his brain just couldn't come down, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Seriously, though? If he'd known this was how that boot would hit the pavement, Dean would've taken Tylenol PM.

"Jack," Dean heard faintly through the wall, and then more clearly, "Jack!"

The first time he heard it, Dean bolted upright and went for his gun, because that was Castiel, making very un-Castiel noises of distress. He'd slept in his shoes - slept right where he dropped, really - and was reaching out to shake Sam's shoulder when the second groan filtered through the plaster.

Okay, no. That was not pain. Dean froze. He knew tones, and even if he'd never heard that tone in Castiel's voice, he still knew what it meant. Dean sat back down on the side of his bed, laid his gun on the mattress next to his thigh, and then thought, what.

As if to punctuate that thought, he heard the thunk of box springs hitting the wall. Everything else on a motel bed was bolted or screwed down, geez, they must really be going at it.

And for the second time, he thought, what. Maybe a little louder, if mental volume counted for anything. His eyes swung up to the cheap art print on the wall above his bed and abruptly back down, like somehow the moisture-rippled paper was going to pop open into a window over the bed next door, where... where... over the bed next door, Dean amended, closing down the thought before he ended up with permanent burn-in.

Thunk, went the box springs.

Overlaid on the sounds, Dean saw the kiss he'd witnessed last night. Castiel kissing a too-tall, too-handsome man wearing a too-fucking-badass coat. Captain Jack Harkness, who walked like an action hero and apparently couldn't die from an angel blade to the liver. Castiel sliding his hand down Jack's back, leaning into him and just giving it up to him like he had some clue about how it all fit together. Maybe he did? Maybe he and Jack--

Too late. Permanent burn-in.

Dean put his Colt on the nightstand and pivoted, swinging his legs up. He rolled away from Sam, choosing the window instead, because there was something weird about looking at his brother's face while he was eavesdropping on angel sex. That had to be crossing a line, somewhere. Not that Dean was eavesdropping on purpose. If he went out to the car he could probably hear it even louder. The only things thinner than motel walls were motel doors and motel glass.

"Jack," the voice on the other side of the wall thundered, warm with things Castiel shouldn't know firsthand. That was the voice (and volume) of someone who didn't care if people overheard. Speaking of which, what the hell, there were other angels around here probably watching, did he just not care? Never mind the two humans trying to take a nap on the other side of the wall.

And what was Jack doing to him? He wrenched raw animal sounds out of Castiel that Dean had never heard before. Sounds he'd never make around Dean. And that was totally okay. Never mind that Castiel had been back in Dean's life for less than forty-eight hours and already brought trouble to his door. Never mind that he'd returned as an almost complete stranger - it wasn't like they'd been bosom buddies before he'd gone, right? This was fine. No different than when Sam was out getting laid while Dean got kidnapped by aliens. Hurt a little to see the priorities rearranged, but that was life. So Castiel was having sex now and hadn't bothered to shoot him a memo. Dean was totally not bothered by that. Totally not--

"JACK."

--jealous.

There were, actually, worse things than your brother catching you listening in on a symphony of sex noises. Much worse. Not that they hadn't occasionally caught each other reacting to things; share a bathroom with someone long enough and you're bound to see a lot of stuff you wish you hadn't. But seriously. Cas. Dean was glad he'd rolled over, because somewhere behind the completely justifiable irritation, he'd started getting turned on. And somehow, wanting to shake Castiel (for being such a thoughtless jerk, of course) only made things harder. Now, there was just no good goddamned reason for that, Dean protested at his body in frustration. He didn't want to hurt anyone. He just...

Dean sighed at the shift in his thoughts. He relaxed, letting it move his body like the force of a curve. He was straight, yeah, straight like a Slinky, which was really okay as long as nobody ever found out. He liked women, sure. But he also liked guys in uniform; guys who understood cars and talked like Paul Newman. Guys who saved his ass in a blaze of fire and fury, apparently. Straightedge angels with a rebellious streak. He could think about it here and now in the dark; too exhausted to keep taking the Business Traffic Exit.

It wasn't fair that Jack could turn on a passion in Castiel that Dean hadn't seen. The thought made Dean want to thump on the wall, yell, piss them off. He knew how to piss Castiel off. But somehow, Jack tapped into this mysterious other place behind Castiel's mask. For all Dean's trying, he'd only gotten glimpses: a laugh, a drunken spark of sarcasm. That was before Castiel became the new sheriff of Angelville and shut Dean and Sam out of what little space he'd let them in.

If Dean was honest with himself - really really honest, as in the kind he only took out and looked over right before sleep - he'd felt the most deeply betrayed to find how much Castiel kept from him. Not the decision to open Purgatory, or to play Jeeves to Crowley's Wooster. Although, ew. Dean would take the mental image of Captain Jack Harkness fucking Castiel over that.

Speaking of which, hello, mental image. Shadowy but distinct, Dean could see the breadth of Jack's shoulders and the push of his hips, ass tensing up with the forward drive. He'd never seen the guy naked but seriously. Anyone with an appreciation for conventional porn could guess what he looked like under the coat, or at least paste him onto the nearest fantasy body.

Again, Dean thought, what - this time because since when had he come to that conclusion about porn and furthermore, why was he thinking about Jack? No, wait; he knew why he was thinking about Jack. If they'd been naked in the same room (God, please, no), Dean would be comparing himself. He'd look for the things that Dean didn't have. The things that must have made Castiel willing to take Jack to bed, but not Dean. He'd lock this down in the morning and bury it underneath the lingering suspicions, but right now Dean wanted to see Castiel - however he looked on the other side of the wall. Because Dean didn't know. He could imagine Jack; could see his back arch and his eyes close in pleasure. But he couldn't conjure up Castiel's face.

Meanwhile, things quieted down in the adjacent room. Dean took a few more minutes to calm himself, ears stretched with a mixture of dread and anticipation for the first signs of the next round. When all he could hear was the hum of the soda machine outside and Sam's steady, familiar breath, Dean shuffled to the bathroom for a drink of water. From his peripheral vision, Dean could see the motion of his body in the dark mirror. He didn't look up.

He thought about the Tylenol in the first aid kit, laced with enough Diphenhydramine to make sure he didn't wake up - and didn't care - the next time. But that was for emergencies. This didn't count as one. Plus, he'd be a lucky bastard if they actually got the minimum requirement of hours for the sleep aid to wear off.

Nope.

Dean tossed back the last of his water and went back to bed. He closed his eyes, if only because it was marginally more interesting than the motel room's cottage-cheese ceiling.

Sleep was a long time coming.

Chapter Text

Dean was still sleeping when Sam stirred. Castiel caught the shift in his thoughts; the magnetizing of loose particles into regular patterns. That wasn't surprising, considering Sam's past and his proclivities for control.

The despair was new.

Castiel reached out, remembered yesterday's promises and withdrew. He didn't need to touch Sam's mind directly, anyway. The surface thoughts shimmered with remembered heat and the faint dry stench of burning rock.

It was early afternoon, sunny, and the air conditioners in both rooms labored to combat the September heat. Had less than a full day passed since he regained his Grace? Sam tapped on the door of the adjacent room; Araciel let him inside. When the door closed behind him, Castiel watched him take in the arc of relative strangers. If he was frightened or bewildered, he kept it in check. But then, Sam faced fiercer things in his brief life than the company of this room.

"Hello, Sam," Castiel said. Jack nudged a vacant chair away from the table with the toe of his boot and waved Sam towards a cardboard caddy of paper cups. The printing on its wrapper was misaligned; pink frosting bleeding into brown doughnut in a dark red line.

Sam picked up a coffee with a wordless nod of thanks, snapping on the plastic lid Jack held out. "Dean's still out," he reported, and didn't offer to wake him. He took the empty seat, sipped the coffee, set it on the table and rubbed his hands on his thighs.

"Look," Sam said, eyes down, "don't get me wrong, I'm grateful you showed up to save our butts yesterday. But I still don't have my mind wrapped around this yet. Around you," he looked up, glancing from Remiel to Araciel, and from there to Jack. When his gaze met Castiel's, he seemed to hesitate again. Castiel looked away, down, lacing his fingers together between his knees. He was itching for something to do. Stillness hadn't upset him before, but in Purgatory, stillness was risk. Time indoors could be filled with purposeful work. Time outdoors required constant movement and vigilance. He'd almost reached for the last coffee, just to have something to do with his hands. Additionally, he liked coffee.

Jack laughed and got to his feet. "It's a long story, Sam," he said, and edged through the loose circle of bodies towards a stack of gear in black plastic cases. "What do you need to know?" Sam watched Jack sort through the cases. Castiel watched Sam.

"What you are, for starters," Sam replied, "Usually an angel blade leaves more of a mark on a human."

Jack selected a case and swung it up on the nearest bed. "Maybe I'm a fairy."

Sam shook his head, shoulders jumping with a soft chuckle. "You couldn't drive that jeep. Too much steel."

"Maybe it's a fairy jeep." The catches on the case opened with a double click.

"Jack what are you?" Sam insisted, spreading his hands.

"Jack is from the future. He's a fixed point in time," Castiel volunteered, impatient with them both, "he originated in the Fifty-First Century, and was killed in battle. A powerful being resurrected him. As a result, he cannot die."

Jack raised his brows at Castiel. "Excuse me, is your name Jack?"

"I'm well aware of your penchant for dramatics," Castiel huffed, "however, gaming Sam is not a means to gain his trust, and it's clear he has more questions."

Jack squeezed back into the crowd gathered by the table, and pushed a soft green cotton bag into Castiel's hands. "Mea culpa. That's the last time I get you presents, Castiel."

Castiel opened the sack. Inside were a dozen uncut carbon arrow shafts, weights and a box of carefully padded broadhead tips. Each shaft bore a set of green fletches. He glanced up at Jack, who passed him the garbage can and a pocket knife.

"What does 'fixed point in time,' mean?" Sam asked.

"As it pertains to me? No clue," Jack grunted, straightening in his seat. He retrieved his coffee and leaned back. "Time's not linear, Sam. Actually? It's a mess. A great big beautiful mess. 'Fixed points' are the only things that absolutely can't be changed in time. Except they're always centered around events, not people."

Sam's gaze narrowed. "So..."

"So I'm one of a kind. Everything else moves on in time, I don't. But Castiel's not completely right. I can die. I die pretty frequently. It just doesn't take."

"The angel blade?" Sam asked.

Jack shrugged. "Yep. Apparently as susceptible to angel steel as everybody else." He winked at Castiel.

"The Bad Wolf is why you're still around," Araciel added, "when we tried to heal you, we were blocked." She leaned back against the wall near the door, folding her arms.

Jack's gaze flicked up to hers. "Why would it do that?"

Araciel shrugged her brown shoulders. "The math would bore you. All right, maybe not you," she amended, at Jack's smile, "but everyone else. Short version? The Bad Wolf altered time to save you. Healing moves forward in time. You're static. When you die, you don't 'heal.' You default."

Forgotten, the arrow shafts and knife stilled in Castiel's lap. He glanced at Jack, stricken. Once again he would have to watch Jack die and do nothing? Angel he might be, but he was still as helpless as he'd been in Purgatory to save Jack from mortal wounds. For a moment, Jack seemed just as unhappy to receive the news. Then he looked at Castiel and brightened. "Too bad it can't do something for the hole in my shirt. And my coat. I like that coat."

Later, when his emotions were smooth again, Castiel mended both with a thought. He felt a little better.

"So, you're some immortal guy from the future," Sam prodded, refusing to be sidetracked, "Jack, how did you end up in Purgatory?"

Jack grinned. "Would you believe me if I said it was a bar brawl gone horribly wrong?"

Castiel watched Sam's eyes flick from Jack's face to his and back. He did his best to look sincere. "No," Sam pulled a face, "really?"

"I met the creature who put him there," Castiel offered gravely, "he retrieved Jack after an apparent fit of conscience. I was close enough to be transferred out as well." After a pause, he added, "We returned to this reality in a very out-of-the-way location. Hence the time it took us to intercept you."

"Out of the way? Like, Africa, out of the way?"

"The 'Sculptor Galaxy,' as I believe humans refer to it. I was in poor condition for several days," Castiel averted his eyes, moving quickly past the memories, "so the delay was for the best."

Sam's head dropped, one hand flailing out in a gesture of... well... supplication or benediction, and Castiel was rather certain he hadn't said anything to warrant a blessing. He paused, perplexed, then realized the hand motion was a request for time.

"Cas, you exploded," Sam said eventually, "Then you fell. Then you exploded again."

"Yes?"

"I don't know, I'm just surprised to find out you were rescued by aliens."

Jack grinned around the lip of his paper cup. "Normally I'd protest that remark - we're all aliens, as far as Denobia is concerned. But Raistlin was a dick, so I don't care."

Castiel blinked at the language, thought it over in context, then nodded. "He was, yes."

"Raistlin?" Sam echoed, tinged with recognition as well as disbelief, "The wizard Raistlin?"

"You read those books?" Jack asked. He tipped back in his chair and thrust out gleeful hands. "Finally! Someone gets it!"

"It isn't his real name," Castiel explained.

Sam's expression was a closed door. "Sure."

"Sam," Jack drained his cup and leaned forward again into Sam's space, deep, almost crouched to spring, "how about we get to the question you can't ask. How can you trust me? As far as you're concerned, I'm some kind of monster. Normally, you'd be Googling immortality legends on your laptop, am I right?"

Sam sat up straight, a hound on point. Or… moving his body outside of the quiet threat Jack exuded. Castiel watched him carefully - then expanded his wariness to include Jack as well.

"Remember the 4-5-6?" Jack challenged.

"Of course I do. Even if most of the world's forgotten already." Sam's gaze was leaden, "or calls it a hoax."

"Bet a smart kid like you snapped up all the leaked footage you could find before it vanished off the Internet."

Sam gave no indication either way. On the other side of the wall, Castiel felt Dean stir.

"You saw the idiots who opened fire on the glass box?" Jack pressed. The tension in the room was nearly tangible, tacky and cold as humidity on a late Fall morning.

"They died," Sam replied, cautious, "didn't they?"

Jack shook his head. "Just one of them, Sam."

Sam's mouth opened, then closed. The silence stretched while he processed. Castiel digested the information as well. Still no name. Jack had said it once. Castiel was certain, although he couldn't draw it forward. As if somehow Jack's reticence seeped through with the information, it was locked away from him.

"Are they dead? The 4-5-6, I mean. Did you kill them?" Sam asked, with the flatness of duty.

"I don't think so. Not all of them." Jack paused. "But they won't be back."

Sam's mind, which had been grinding quietly in the background, suddenly surged against Castiel's perception. "You're from Torchwood," he declared.

"Torchwood is dead," Jack insisted, "But yes, I was."

"So who's scrubbing Torchwood out of the search engines?" Sam blurted, turning in his seat to wave a hand towards the wall and his laptop in the other hotel room, "Because I started looking for you guys after that happened, trying to find out what you were. But the more I looked, the less there was to find."

Jack looked genuinely surprised. "In a manner of speaking, that's my doing." He grinned. "Keep on impressing me, Sam Winchester. I like where this is headed."

Sam, on the other hand, did not look impressed. In fact, Sam looked very upset.

"Torchwood needs to stay dead," Jack explained, as toneless and firm as he'd been in the desert, "I've got my reasons."

"So, there's aliens, you have the information we need to handle them, you won't share, but you've given up yourself? In what world is there a good reason for that?"

Jack's laughter was tight. "So the ego's genetic too. And here all I thought you had in common with your brother was good teeth and a taste for lumberjack chic."

Castiel felt the rustle of Sam's thoughts rearranging. Sam breathed deeply, squared his shoulders, and the deep frown became a self-depreciating smile. "Sorry," Sam said, voice soft with schooled contrition, "But we need Torchwood's information, Jack. Aliens can't only be landing in London."

"I'm erasing Torchwood, Sam. I didn't say anything about Torchwood's database," Jack grin flipped to Castiel. "Can I keep him?" he asked.

Castiel smiled. "No."

A rap on the door muted further discussion, its shave-and-a-haircut rhythm recognizable as one of the Winchesters' simplest safety codes. Still leaning against the wall, Araciel made a small come-along gesture with her right arm. Castiel caught the faint ripple of energy passing, and the door swung open. Dean stepped into the doorway, but paused. His gaze went first to Sam, who twisted in his seat and waved Dean on, sober. Castiel watched their silent exchange hungrily, noting the smallest gestures. They shared information on a subtle level that even some of the Host might admire. The bond they shared was just short of telepathic.

"So what's the good word, brothers?" Dean drawled. He closed the door gently behind him, surface currents of his mind flowing quick and cold. Castiel withdrew to his handiwork, giving that his focus to shut out the open minds around him.

"Jack was explaining about his, um, affiliation with Torchwood," Sam recapped. He stretched for the extra coffee and handed it back to Dean without looking.

"Torchwood?" Dean echoed, open skepticism in his voice and the quirk of his brows, "Thought that was just X-Files conspiracy bullshit." He accepted the coffee and took a cautious sip.

"The truth is out there, Scully," Jack quipped.

Sam huffed. "We had an alien invasion, Dean."

"And we've also got a list as long as your arm of things that eat kids."

Castiel sighed. "Life exists on other planets, whether you believe in aliens or not." He nearly felt the brilliance of Jack's smile, and patently kept his gaze far from it. Jack's ego – like Dean's skepticism – did not need any further encouragement. For the first time since he stepped inside the room, Dean's gaze met Castiel's. Just as quickly, it skated away, and Castiel's brow furrowed with concern.

"Come on, Cas," Dean argued, "you're telling me you do angel duty on Neptune?"

"There are no living things on Neptune," Castiel retorted, preoccupied by the shortness of pulse caused by that familiar name, and how Dean's eyes swerved his own, "I met them. I don't claim responsibility for them."

"What I'd give for a weevil right now," Jack mused, "never thought I'd actually miss Janet."

"I doubt she could help," Castiel replied.

"Hey, a good weevil scare has convinced a lot of people. Efficient and cheap!"

Castiel waved at Sam and Dean with the arrow shaft he'd just finished weighting, "Most people don't have their history. Don't underestimate their talent for rationalization."

Dean spread his hands. "Hey! I'm in the room?

Castiel rolled his eyes up to Dean's, irritated. "I'm speaking in your defense," Castiel said, as if to a sullen child, "You've seen many of Eve's creations that could easily bear resemblance to the species Jack mentioned." Dean looked away. Castiel leaned to the side to catch his wavering gaze. "Dean."

"What? Keep me out of your weird foreplay, thanks."

Castiel's vessel suddenly felt flushed. He tugged the bag of pieces a little deeper across his lap, as if it might somehow dispel the scurrying sense of exposure.

Sharp, sonorous Enochian rolled across the room like a thunderclap.

Sam spoke. Or rather, tried to. When nothing came out, he reached for his throat in surprise. From the varying expressions of irritation around the room, Dean and Jack were in the same predicament.

"Finally," Araciel muttered, "I can't take anymore bickering."

"Agreed," Remiel took a seat on the foot of the bed beside Castiel, "Even among humans, you three seem uniquely compelled to squabble."

"Release them," Castiel ordered.

Remiel shook his thick mane of blonde hair and exhaled on a quiet laugh. "I left you free to speak as a courtesy, Castiel. Make me regret this decision at your peril."

"We've got time, but not forever, guys," Araciel reminded them, hands tucked now into the pockets of her jeans, "so can we all stow the crap? It's your future on the line, and mine. I'd like to get a move on before the Fates change their minds and decide it'd be easier to keep your bodies on ice."

Judging from the glares, Castiel believed her words reached their mark - although the reception of said advice seemed anything but friendly.

"Do not be so petty with one another," Remiel added. He stood and spread his hands, "Trust or do not, as you choose. But we are currently all there is. Is this not better than working alone?"

"They aren't children," Castiel offered, as only more long stares and silence greeted the question, "I'm afraid whatever awe they held for angels has been drained away by their experiences." Much of which was his fault.

Remiel sighed. "And these are the men who thwarted the Apocalypse?"

"Believe me," Castiel's smile was faint but touched with fondness nonetheless, "you aren't the first to ask that question."

Remiel released them with a word.

"So," Jack cleared his throat, "since we're all awake now, and the alternative is a bad case of laryngitis, shall we start on battle plans?"

To Castiel's intense relief, there was no more discussion of foreplay.


"No, it's him," Sam reassured an hour later, one hand on the Impala's steering wheel, other on the tiny flip phone at his ear, "I'm sure. He's one hundred percent angel, Bobby. Or near enough." He guided the borrowed vehicle into the motel parking lot, eyes tracking to his brother and the angel in question. Castiel cut a stark pale figure against the dark fender of Jack's jeep. From the looks of things, they were arguing. Or, well, Dean was arguing. Castiel mostly stood still and looked annoyed.

Sam huffed, torn between amusement and exasperation. They'd been at it since he left to get pizza - they were why he'd gone to get pizza, as a matter of fact. Bobby was still in his ear, asking about one of the more obscure tests to verify Castiel's identity. "I know," Sam interrupted, as gently as possible, "Trust me. We went through all that already. We're in Bootback again." He parked the Impala on the opposite side of the jeep. "That'll work. ...Yes, sir. Thanks, Bobby." Sam closed his phone when he entered the lot, just as the discussion outside the motel room wound down. Through the ripple of heat across the Impala's black hood, Sam watched Castiel stalk by without a sideways glance. Even back when he was mostly expressionless, Sam reflected, the angel could still do an aggressive walk better than most humans. He cranked up the window and pulled the stack of pizza boxes from the passenger seat. The parking lot still sizzled with early September heat, hotter than the interior of the Impala even without air conditioning. No longer pushed away by the flow of moving air, humidity sealed around Sam like a heavy coat. He bumped the door shut with his hip.

"What did you do now?" Sam tossed at Dean, not really caring if Castiel was out of earshot. Dean, shoulders hunched into tense, square angles, shot Sam a glare that could have ignited the cardboard in Sam's hands. Before molten cheese ran down his pant leg, Sam set the boxes on the hood of the car. "Dean."

"Jesus, not on the paint! How many times, dude? How many?" Dean scooped up the pizza.

"Dean."

"And quit using that like it's a bad word. There's already too many people saying my name like I pissed in their cheerios." Which pretty much just meant Castiel, Sam guessed, but the angel could throw Dean's name like an insult better than most people.

Sam counted to ten. "Look, I know it's been a long day, but—"

Dean jammed to a halt. The boxes hit the paint again with a dull thud, and Sam's vision filled with angry older brother. The collar of his tee shirt was a dark, wet ring. He'd been sweating, profusely, and he smelled like it. "No, you look, Sam," Dean muttered, struggling with his volume, "somebody's trying to put the Apocalypse back on the rails. Me, you, Michael and Lucifer hit the Doomsday Senior Prom."

Sam shuddered involuntarily. He'd thought about it, sure, but it was the first time he'd heard Dean actually confirm it since the news hit home.

"Our specialists," Dean continued, with a loose wave of his hand towards the motel room, "are three handicapped angels and a dude who can't die – and none of them will give a straight answer. Cas is all over me to trust these guys, but he can't give me one good reason why. And get this – to top it all off, he's getting freaky with Sergeant Dickwad."

Sam blinked, forgot about mentally correcting Dean's poor plural grammar, and let the Impala's door take his weight. "What? No. …What?"

"You didn't hear them this morning?"

Well, no, obviously. Like most well-adjusted people who lived in motel rooms, Sam tried to ignore that kind of thing. "Dude. You were eavesdropping?"

"No," Dean growled back defensively after a pause, and Sam glanced quickly away before he succumbed to the urge to mock. Dean expanded on his alibi as if he could read Sam's mind. "Hard to sleep when the neighbors are going at it like a couple horny—"

Sam threw out his hands. "—Stop. Whatever vivid mental image you're about to paint for me, just, no." He crossed his arms and took a deep breath. "First, I didn't even know Cas could do that. Second, why should we care? Jimmy's not... not riding shotgun anymore, and—"

"Way to make it even more freaky, Sam."

Sam counted to ten again, plus an extra five for safety's sake. "—and it sounds like Jack and Cas were stuck together for a long time. If Cas trusts him enough for that, isn't it kind of a good thing?" A split second after the words were out of his mouth, Sam regretted his choice of phrasing – but stuck by the intent.

Dean looked at him like he'd lost his mind. "How'd that work out for you, Sam?"

The jab hurt, Sam would admit. Hurt a lot. But it wasn't a new jab, and he always kept the muscles tense there. Giving Dean a sardonic smile, Sam snagged the pizza from his hands, balancing the stack on one arm while he dug for the Impala's keys. "Fine. Whatever." The keys jingled as they arced from Sam's hand to Dean's in a soft lob. "When you're done standing out here worrying about Cas's sex life, I got you extra bacon." Giving the stack of cardboard boxes a little heft – and thus driving home what a good and thoughtful little brother he was for remembering – Sam went inside.

He was never, never going to repeat that conversation. 'Jimmy's not riding shotgun anymore' as it referred to Castiel's sex life was not something he wanted to say ever, let alone repeat. Or even think about again. Thinking about everything that encompassed Ruby from his current distance was painful and weird enough.

Sam put the pizza down on the bureau, as the table was full of maps, notebooks, computers, and the elbows of three people deep in conversation. It was early evening by now, light beginning to fail outside, and the lamp over the table made a little pool of warmth in the dim room. Sam piled a napkin with four slices of pizza and dropped onto the edge of the bed closest to the conversation. He hadn't eaten since dinner yesterday. These were important carbohydrates. He'd just squeegee off the worst of the grease and try not to think about it.

Jack looked up at him and smiled. The invitation in his expression seemed like a permanent feature, reminding Sam of Dean's comments a few minutes ago. Jack and Castiel? And geez, was this the bed that - no. No way was he going to get sucked into that. Composing his thoughts with a firm hand, Sam smiled back and indicated the pizza boxes stacked on the bureau with the twitch of his shoulder. "Food's on. Bobby's gonna be here in a couple days. Figure we need all the help we can muster."

"Bobby's your contact in South Dakota?" Jack asked, "The one you mentioned?"

Sam nodded. "What Dad didn't teach us about hunting, Bobby did."

"Looking forward to meeting him," Jack rose, stretched, and reached for his coat. The long one. The one Sam hadn't quite been able to stop looking at whenever Jack reminded him of its existence. Like now. He tore his eyes off the fabric sweeping away from Jack's knees. Judging from the width of Jack's smile, he'd been caught. Jack leaned sideways and twitched open the curtain a fraction. "If he taught you two, I'm sure he certainly knows his way around a shotgun." Jack sounded privately amused - seriously, if that was some weird double entendre, Sam was not going to play. "Which way did Castiel go?"

Sam's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Had Jack heard the argument? What else had he picked up? Come to think of it, what had the other angels heard? Sam had no idea if they were blessed with Castiel's supersonic hearing too, but he figured they were even if they had some sort of limitations. Much as he hated to admit it, Dean had one valid point. They knew almost nothing about their new teammates. And yeah, it did make him uncomfortable. "Uh. West. I think. Towards the office."

Jack edged between Sam's knees and the table. "Thanks." He swatted Sam's shoulder in passing, snapped up a slice of pizza and swept out of the room with the point of it in his mouth.

Sam tried to ignore how good he smelled. Because he smelled really, really good. He took the empty place at the table, facing two amused angels. "Some things have changed since you left. We've moved the site investigations forward, and we're moving out in twenty minutes." Araciel said, the whenever you're all, you know, done, clear in her tone.

"How far forward?" Sam asked.

"Tonight."

"Outstanding," Sam replied, passing a hand over the red hashes on an outstretched road map, "I want details."

"Same here," Dean said, words punctuated by the clack of the door. He sorted through the pizza boxes for the promised extra bacon and joined them at the small table. Sam moved over to make room, glancing at his brother quickly as Remiel and Araciel briefly summed up the current plan. Whatever was going on between Dean, Castiel and Jack, Dean switched it off the moment he sat down. It wasn't a healthy thing to do, but that didn't make it wrong - or unusual. Frankly, Sam was relieved to see he'd done it. This was why he didn't like big group hunts. Too much drama. He and Dean had enough between the two of them to gum up the works on an easy day. Add in the personalities they were working with this week, and it was a recipe for a bloody disaster.
"We've got a lot of ground to cover and not a lot of time to do it in," Araciel explained, "So we're splitting up. Sam, Remy and Jack take the Atlas silo," she folded her arms on the tabletop and leaned forward, "Dean, Cas and myself to Crowley's Fun Factory."

"And I already told you no," Dean growled, "Sam's with my team, or we fly solo and you yahoos can do whatever you want."

"Dean, you can't go with Sam," Araciel's left hand sliced the air in surprisingly human agitation, "We've been over this. Remy and Jack have the firepower, but they need a guide – and you can't make a rational decision within ten feet of Jack. Alone, you'll both die. In a large, Kansas-dirt-flavored mushroom cloud."

"I don't like it either," Sam protested, before Dean could speak, "What good am I to those two? Send Cas. He's used to working with Jack, he's been there, and he knows how to fight those things. Plus he's like… Bo Duke with that recurve."

"Dean must be in Castiel's vicinity," Remiel stated, with a blasé kind of certainty that pretty much guaranteed Dean would have a problem with it, "or Castiel will be constantly distracted by the unknown state of Dean's welfare. In his current situation, strong emotions will render him useless at best – dangerous at worst."

The crust of Dean's current pizza slice dropped onto his napkin. "So that's all I'm good for – the goat to Castiel's high-strung racehorse. Look, I know Cas. He can go overboard sometimes, but he knows how to handle himself." His empty hand slid through the air, cool and level. "He'll get a grip."

Araciel shook her head. "I won't risk splitting you two idiots up, even if you are fighting every ten minutes. I'd rather babysit--"

"Babysit?" Dean echoed. He turned to Sam and mouthed silently, incredulously, 'babysit?'

"--you together than apart. At least then maybe you'll be of some use."

Remiel leaned in. He and Sam were of a height, and he could loom when he wanted to, even sitting down. Thick blonde hair swung forward and thick brows dropped as he gazed at Dean. "I made this clear earlier. If you don't cooperate, then you and Castiel will remain here."

"Like hell," Dean retorted.

"I did not infer an alternative," Remiel rumbled.

Sam didn't like the sound of that. He didn't want to take orders from angels any more than Dean, especially if these particular angels were going to treat them like naughty kids. …Granted, most angels treated them like naughty kids, but with Zachariah and company, they at least had the satisfaction of saying 'fuck you' knowing they weren't screwing themselves over at the same time. Remiel and Araciel were control-freak dicks like every other angel in existence ever, but they had a stake in the fight on Sam and Dean's side of the front line. They had the power to help. Given there wasn't a lot of time to waste - and they'd already wasted plenty in this motel - the list of options was short. He knew Dean wasn't happy, but when they looked at one another, Sam also knew Dean saw the same gameboard.

"I'd rather that didn't happen. You're a hunter, Dean, a good one," Araciel added, the edge of a teasing smile at her red mouth, "I don't pick losers for my kickball team."

"Fine," Dean grumped, "whatever. Somebody page the rest of the Dream Team so we can pull up the stakes and roll out before the God Squad comes back for Round Two."

"They know," Remiel said, "they helped form the plan. Jack removed his equipment some time ago - I recommend you do the same."

Sam's jaw tightened, but he kept his peace. The sooner they could find a solution, the sooner the new and improved Angel Squad could find somebody else to harass. He and Dean could get back to calling their own shots.

Then again, he thought, as he wolfed down the rest of his pizza, when had they ever really been calling their own shots? At least Remiel and Araciel had the good manners to pretend like this plan was actually a plan, and not a set of marching orders. Sam couldn't quite make himself grateful for that. He could vent off frustration and rage like a yoga champ, but that didn't make him any less tired of douchier-than-thou monsters leading them around like a pair of trained attack dogs.

The hair at the back of Sam's neck prickled, and he looked up from his plate and straight into Remiel's bricklike stare. Just like Castiel, Remiel had the ability to look at Sam and into him at the same time. Like ancient scripture was written in very small type on the inside of Sam's skull, and Remiel could read it if he squinted and looked really really hard.

Remiel's expression softened with a long exhale. "I'm sorry," he said, leaning forward in his chair. He then added earnestly, "you are not an inconvenience. Neither are you a calculated risk, nor a weapon. I am accustomed to the company of my own people." Remiel waved at Araciel, who raised an eyebrow. "My similarly trained equals," Remiel added.

"So we're just--" Dean started.

"--equals," Remiel finished firmly, with another pointed look, "who know one another's strengths and failings, and trust their companions to remind them of such."

From the corner of his eye, Sam saw Dean sit back and straighten up in surprise. Sam blinked. "So to you guys, this is treating each other equally?"

"Until such time as you recover from your current stupidity, yes," Remiel replied.

"You should see him in front of an army," Araciel commented wryly.


In an alcove around the corner of the building, Castiel strove valiantly to sort his feelings. Encouraged by the sea of sunbaked asphalt, the Kansas humidity lingered on. Ordinarily, he rather enjoyed the wet heat - although relatively few humans seemed to share his opinion. Tonight, however, Castiel was in no mood to appreciate it. His soul's current lack of cooperation was worse than inconvenient – it made him a hazard. He had far more important things to do than wallow in how much Dean's words irritated him, particularly if these washes of emotion would render him useless. Castiel stood in the cool ambient glow of a Pepsi vending machine and focused on deep, slow breaths. He was not angry. He was just disappointed in Dean's lack of faith. Faith could be restored. Jack would prove himself in deeds, as he'd proven himself to Castiel, and Dean would not be so wary of him then.

Of course, even touching the surface of his responses unleashed a torrent of greater pain, and Castiel's frustration at his inability to control it doubled back on him. He knew fear – fear of imminent failure in all things – and now undeniably a low, pounding rage. Dean hadn't only been concerned about Castiel's trust in Jack – and in these new, heretofore unknown siblings. He'd clearly heard them making love. Somehow that amounted to a desertion of Castiel's post and magnified Dean's suspicions of Jack – although Castiel didn't know why and Dean refused to offer a more concise explanation. Human social taboos notwithstanding, Dean - as the saying went - didn't have a leg to stand on. If Castiel didn't know better, he'd suspect some sort of emotional irrationality was involved, but couldn't be certain short of invading Dean's mind. He'd promised he wouldn't do that again. Although Dean seemed to have no such prohibitions regarding verbally prying into Castiel's private affairs.

Had Castiel still been human, he might have taken his aggressions out on a nearby tree. Or gone for a run. Those sorts of activities helped to vent frustration and rage in Purgatory, but only because of the welcome exhaustion they brought. Physical exertion would not tire him now. So he simply moved as close to the edge of sensory range as he dared and stood, guarding the parking lot and radiating fury like body heat.

"You catch that rabbit?" Jack's voice, easy and soft, cut across Castiel's staring contest with the motel door. He'd known Jack was coming for some minutes but simply couldn't make himself care.

"I'm not hunting a rabbit," Castiel informed him, snappish.

"Oh. It's duck season?"

Humans and their endless nonsense. Castiel blew out an exasperated breath. "I don't know what you're talking about." He knew Jack was smiling, which did nothing to improve his disposition.

"You're being melodramatic enough for both of us," Jack replied, voice going even softer, "I thought I'd leaven the mood a little. I've seen expressions like yours on a few royal falcons."

Thus the question about rabbits. Enlightened, Castiel took another breath, and saw the absurdity of it. "You should have brought gloves," he warned.

"With you?" Jack shifted in Castiel's peripheral vision, sliding his hands into his pockets, "I'm not afraid of a little drawn blood."

There was a brief pause. "Dean is being difficult," Castiel explained.

"Dean being difficult is new?"

"No."

Jack chuckled. "Didn't think so. I'm not taking it personally, neither is the rest of the A-Team, I'm sure. Wariness is as much a part of his job as it is mine." He shrugged.

"It concerns me," Castiel insisted, "he seemed more readily willing to trust the word of various demons before yours. Seemingly on the basis that you and I have--" he paused, searching for the appropriate phrase.

"--slept together?"

Castiel recalled that particular phrase as a human euphemism for sex, and nodded curtly. "You heard."

"No. I guessed."

Surprised, Castiel briefly forgot his aggravation at the situation. His gaze swung towards Jack. "How?"

Jack laughed again, gently. "Oh, Castiel," he murmured. When he offered nothing further for a minute or so, Castiel made a soft, questioning noise to prod him.

Jack tipped his head back, sober now, watching the stars visible beyond the amber city glow. Or perhaps he wasn't. Perhaps he was thinking of something else entirely. Unlike Sam, Castiel could no longer sense him at all; either because he'd walled himself off so firmly or because the distance between them blurred the last traces. Jack tucked his hands into his coat pockets. Castiel disliked the pose. It isolated Jack. Set him deliberately apart.

"Leave it alone for now," Jack said, "time to break camp."

"Jack," Castiel admonished, knowing he'd been put off - and in the same breath, knowing it hadn't been entirely about Dean. Jack only waved towards the lot, where their companions were assembling by the vehicles.

He didn't need to say it. Castiel knew it well before he'd spoken, but Jack said it anyway: "Time to go."

Chapter Text

"If it helps, I don't really want to be here either, Sam." Jack's voice echoed up the stairwell. Sam edited a disbelieving huff. Yeah, right. Jack's demeanor shifted a good shove left of center after they'd rolled out of the motel. No grim-faced determination here, and Jack's cheer wasn't bravado - Sam worked with enough hunters covering their fear to know the difference. By stark contrast, Jack seemed... eager. Gleeful, and high-energy manic glee on a deadly, explosive monster hunt indicated drug use. Or mental instability. As the night wore on, Sam's paranoia that he'd indeed agreed to saddle up with a madman only increased.

On the other hand, Jack was interesting.

"I mean it," Jack continued, apparently perceiving Sam's skepticism, "I've already been here. I've heard stories about old Crowley's Shop of Horrors, and I wanted to see that. What was he, some kind of mad scientist?"

"Aren't we supposed to be worried that these things could hear us?" Sam prodded. They'd just exited the control center for the silo proper, and still had good light for a few more floors - provided a stray explosion hadn't shattered the Cold War-era fluorescent bulbs. Jack shrugged.

"Nope. They aren't attracted by sound. I don't know if they can even hear. They aren't attracted by bodyheat, either, at least not as far as I've seen. Trust me. Dying of hypothermia? They'll still find you and come at you. Speaking of which, tread carefully. There's been a few explosions in here already. I don't think they destabilized the silo, but just - stay alert." He shrugged again, pale blue shirt bunching up around the white bands of his suspenders. Suspenders. Sam thought guys Bobby's age might still wear those. He didn't understand the getup, but guessed it was some sort of affectation - he knew people who did that sort of thing, including Dean. Jack left the greatcoat in the jeep at least, thus saving Sam from the distraction of wondering how he didn't suffocate. The heat - tolerable yesterday - notched up today by a few degrees, and now it was hedging onto miserable. The damp cool of the silo was a welcome relief.

They moved through the level containing the jumble of metal office equipment in a silent procession. The goo was dry, the thinner railing of the staircase a little warped, but the concrete seemed relatively undamaged.

"So like I said, Crowley," Jack repeated, two levels further down, "Frustrated morgue technician or what?"

"Demon," Sam corrected.

"Shyeah, knew that already. But most of the demons I heard about didn't get their kicks de-veining vampires."

Sam snorted. Behind him, Remiel's deep voice penetrated the stillness like summer thunder. "You've given that phrase some thought."

Jack's grin was audible. "Yep."

"I could tell," Remiel replied, dry.

"I really do see the family resemblance now, Remy," Jack answered conversationally as he led the procession down, "You may have gotten the tall-and-blond genes, but you sound just like your little brother."

Sam listened to the exchange, fighting off growing agitation at his travelmates' blasé attitudes. Why did they need a guide, again? A couple miles of freaking spiral staircase, if they got lost it was pure natural selection. Sam wondered why he and Dean hadn't picked a place with an elevator to blast themselves into oblivion. Oh, right. Because they were planning to blast themselves to oblivion. Sam's shoulders and stomach tightened up, irritation churning under his mind like grit in his boot. Old, familiar alarm bells jingled. He snagged Jack by the shoulder.

"Something's wrong," Sam said. The trio paused, Remiel pivoting to watch the staircase above them.

"Yeah," Jack's voice was hushed, "I feel it too, Sam. Uneasy. More than fear. Not fear."

"Low frequency sound waves," Remiel observed. Jack and Sam both looked back at him. Rather, the back of his head. "While they occur below the range of human hearing, I have an extended sensory range," he added.

"We'll have to test drive that sometime," Jack chuckled, still quiet as he faced front again, "So where's it coming from?"

"Down." Remiel paused. Sam heard the soft rustle of Remiel's impressive hair as he tilted his head back. "And up. The walls."

"Walls?" Jack echoed blankly, then handed his shotgun up to Sam. Sam took it, watching in mute fascination as he peeled back the top flap of the bulky, bracer-like utility on his left wrist. The dashboard was simple and small, but a world of data flowed across the tiny panel. Jack had used it to scan Dean the last time they'd been here.

"What is that?" Sam asked, interested despite his caution.

"Vortex manipulator," Jack explained, unhelpfully, lips pulled back from his teeth in a grimace of concentration. His entire focus rested on the dash, which he manipulated by touch and a handful of small silver buttons that resembled a traditional console game controller. And really, it looked like the most complex thing Jack could do on it was play Tetris. But Sam read about watches that ran kernels of LINUX and three-millimeter-thick transparent plastic computers.

He leaned in. "What does it do?"

"It manipulates vortexes. Might wanna keep an eye out for things that explode, Sam," Jack suggested. There was amusement in his voice, and Sam yanked himself upright. He did not flush, but reminded himself firmly that whatever cool technology Jack had brought along, it wasn't the mission here. Ignoring the soft blue glow of the screen, Sam squeezed past Jack on the curl of stairs and turned his attention to the gathering darkness below them.

"I'll show you mine later," Jack offered, "if you show me yours."

"Thanks, I'll pass," Sam replied, pushing away the reminder of how good Jack smelled with practiced care.

Jack gave a theatrical sigh without looking up from his wrist. "You humans and your obsession with sex. I meant I want a closer look at those 'angel swords' you and Castiel flashed around the parking lot yesterday."

Now Sam did flush. "Ah. Right."

"You made them?"

"No," Sam said shortly, still pushing away his embarrassment, irritated by Jack's calm, "we took them off the bodies of dead angels."

"Hm." Jack quieted for a few minutes, before the wrist strap bleated a final-sounding b-deep. "You're brilliant, Remiel," Jack reported, excited, "there are definitely low-frequency sound waves bouncing all over this place. That's probably why we feel paranoid."

No, that might be the sudden concern that Sam was a little bit more gay than previously suspected? He took a breath and let it out in a rush, squaring his shoulders. "Right. Exposure to large amounts of low-frequency sound makes up about forty percent of all reported ghost phenomenon. Causes paranoia and unease. If it goes on too long, it can even make people feel sick and panic."

"So what's the other sixty percent?"

"Another forty percent of reports are caused by overloaded or faulty wiring - the volume of electricity can make you feel like you're being watched."

"Okay, I'll bite - the other twenty?"

Sam returned Jack's shotgun. "Actual ghosts."

Jack laughed. "Right. The next time I spot a temporal anomaly, I'll be sure to tell it that it doesn't fall in the pie graph."

Sam gave a mental shrug, not all that concerned with Jack's skepticism. After all, he'd been dealing with skeptics since he was old enough to take a case himself. "I think we should compare notes," he said, and gestured for them to follow. Which - surprisingly - they did.

"Oh, really?" Jack sounded just as surprised as Sam was. He nodded.

"Really." Sam adjusted the weight of his shotgun more comfortably, and nodded. "I mean, we've never dealt with a temporal anomaly before, whatever that is, but if it looks like a ghost, we've probably seen one and just not known what it was. Plus, it sounds like you've never met an actual ghost before."

"The thing you guys can disperse with pokers and rounds of salt buckshot, right?"

"Right."

There was a lengthy silence after that, punctuated only by the metallic tramp of their boots on the staircase as they continued to descend.

"You know," Jack said thoughtfully, "I think you're onto something. All right, Sam Winchester. If we survive this mess without causing Chernobyl: Kansas, we'll trade notes."

Sam tried not to grin. "Deal."

"Meanwhile," Remiel boomed, "incoming."

Everyone looked up. Sure enough, there were two green, empty-eyed faces peering down at them from overhead. Sam whirled, slamming one hand on the railing for balance. He had two bodies in his shot, so instead of trying to maintain the poor vantage, Sam tightened his grip on his shotgun, hurdled the staircase railing (feeling a really awful sense of deja vu while he was at it) and landed heavily on the floor of the level. "Get clear!" Sam called, hoping his companions would understand what he meant. Also surprisingly, they did, both of them clearing the stairs in variations on Sam's maneuver, assuming positions out of one another's field range.

Okay. Working with these guys was going a lot better than expected, even Sam could admit. He expelled a breath in preparation to fire when Jack suddenly called out, "Sam. WAIT."

Sam waited. Holding back from squeezing that trigger was hard on a level of will he'd rarely encountered, but he tried to trust.

"They're not moving," Jack said.

"They're still blocking the exit," Sam replied, watching the bizarre open-mouthed faces over his gun sight.

"But they're not moving," Jack repeated, as if the observation somehow made all the difference between not firing and spraying green glop all over the ceiling of the next floor.

"Then they'll make excellent targets," Remiel vaulted towards the stairwell. He moved like a cat: stone stillness one moment, and then an explosion of fluid athletic grace. Sam knew from experience that Remiel was too fast to catch, but all things considered, it was still sort of funny to watch Jack try.

And then Jack shot Remiel. Stopped, hauled up the muzzle of the massive Winchester, and fired on him. Of course, bullets weren't enough to really damage an angel, but the spray of buckshot peppered Remiel's right shoulder, which surprised him enough to halt his forward motion. A few strays pinged off the railing. Sam ducked, and heard the whiz of shot flying past his ear. He could have sworn but didn't, swinging his shotgun instead on Jack as soon as the sound of bullets striking concrete ceased.

Jack was ignoring him. Maybe he glanced sideways when Sam moved, but then his attention was on the ceiling. Not on Remiel, but on the creatures. Who were now coming down the stairs, passing Remiel (God, sidling to get past him even!), and advancing on Jack with menacing hisses. The barrel of Sam's shotgun swiveled, sighting the creatures instead of Jack. His heart was racing, sweat popping out on his skin now with the confusion and adrenaline pulse of shock. There was no question - shoot the creepers before they exploded, but--

"STOP," Remiel thundered, and Sam thought fuck that, and then he heard a screech that made him double over and cover his ears.

The creepers... stopped. Inches from Jack.

They stared up at him, both square green heads tilted, flat faces trained on him with the menace of overprotective mastiffs. They were still snarling - and was the one on the left a little paler than it had been a minute ago? - but they weren't exploding.

The not exploding part was important.

"Um," Jack said.

"Stop," Remiel repeated, and suddenly Sam's ears felt full. He did the wisest thing he could think of, and lowered his weapon. Hand still pressed to his right shoulder, Remiel approached Jack and his unhappy pair of wardens.

"Jack," Remiel said quietly, "I'm sorry."

Sam stared. Jack winced, hands flexing with tension, but relaxed as nothing continued to happen but the rising and falling of hisses.

"Quiet," Remiel added. The pressure in Sam's ears increased, and the hissing halted. Also, the lightbulbs - already overtaxed and flickering warningly - popped, in a shower of molten glass. Still shaking his head against the persistent ringing in his ears, Sam flicked on his flashlight, reorienting himself in the dark. The beam bounced over Jack, Remiel, and their uninvited company.

"I wouldn't shoot you if it wasn't important," Jack said.

"Of course," Remiel replied, "However, I will need help soon, or I will die." With an impassive expression, he raised his hand from his injured shoulder. The place where the shot connected was torn and messy meat, almost indistinguishable from the vibrant crimson of his tee shirt. Blood soaked into the damaged fabric in a darker red ring.

"You can't heal yourself, Remy." Horror at what Jack had done dawned on his features, made lurid by Sam's sharp spotlight.

"No." Remiel smiled. "It does not pain me." Pause. "Much."

Meanwhile, the creepers still stared malevolently up at Jack. "Uh," Sam said, uncertain, "guys?" He bobbed his flashlight at the creatures in question, and wondered when his marbles had all finally poured out of the jar. "Are we done shooting each other now? Because..."

"Don't approach," Remiel cut him off, raising a bloody, cautioning hand.

Sam was more than happy to comply. "Are you controlling them?" he asked. The question gave Remiel pause, who looked from Sam to the monsters, to Jack, and back.

"Not consciously," Remiel admitted, sounding sheepish (for an angel), "I planned to halt them, but not with verbal commands. Initially."

Sam wondered why Remiel didn't just remove their lungs or turn them into chunky green salsa, the way he'd seen other angels do to their annoyances. Remiel glanced at him as if he'd heard. Which - Sam understood in retrospect - he had.

"Their physiognomy is alien," Remiel explained, "and they contain biological explosives. Without proper study, at such close proximity to Jack, I feared destroying them might cause greater peril. Also," he paused, and turned his gaze back to Jack - who was still being stared at, hawkish, by silent creepers, "he said not to."

"Yeah," Jack said slowly, gently, "um. I was hoping we could talk to them. You have no idea how long I've been waiting for creepers who do something unexpected." As if hearing the disbelief registering around him, Jack added firmly, "I don't believe they really want to hurt us. If they can talk, we can talk to them, and if we find out why they're here, maybe we can convince them to go home."

The concept was so simple, so logical, and so alien to Sam that he couldn't process it at first. When he did at last, however, Sam remembered that this kind of strategy wasn't so alien. It was his mentality, oh, four or five years ago. When it still seemed like a better move to exist peaceably with the things that went bump in the night if they weren't hurting anyone. When he wasn't instinctively moved to kill at the first opportunity, because the thing you didn't kill when you had the chance would inevitably come back to eat your face later. And your brother's face, and your dad's. He sidled and - because he was the only one not currently preoccupied with the creepers tagging Jack - backed until he had the stairwell and his teammates in his gunsights. They'd been lucky so far, best not to assume no more were coming. "You know how to talk to them?" was all Sam said.

"No," Remiel and Jack replied in tandem.

"Although," Remiel added, "when I utilize my true voice, it transmits across a range of frequencies. Most sentient beings can perceive it on some level. Humans are the unfortunate exception," which explained the exploding lights and the ear pain.

"Sentient, but not too bright, that's us," Jack quipped, still softly. "Can you ask them to back off?"

"I will try," Remiel replied. Sam braced himself for another screech. It came, building slowly in pulses that made him want to shove a pick through his eardrums just to stop the torment. Just before blood started trickling out of every orifice, the creepers shuffled out of his flashlight's halo.

Remiel abruptly sat down. Sam moved in on him, shoving off the way his skin crawled at the knowledge that the creepers were somewhere in the dark and that he couldn't keep a flashlight on them if he wanted to help patch the angel's ravaged shoulder. Jack was already there. "We need cover," he barked at Sam, who took up a spot between Jack, Remiel, and the stairwell, the spotlight of his flashlight scything through the dark as he clapped it to the barrel of his shotgun. Another spot of light glowed in his peripheral vision and he glanced back; Jack had pulled out a penlight and clamped it in his teeth while he worked on Remiel.

Jack ripped Remiel's shirt from the point where the shotgun blast shredded it; removed it without protest. Turning away, Sam listened to the sound of tearing fabric. "Hope you weren't attached to that tee shirt," Jack lisped around the penlight's barrel. The chuckle that followed was taut.

"It was not Royal Air Force issue, therefore I will cope without it," Remiel replied, which seemed to startle another laugh out of Jack. Looser, this time.

Jack bound the strips of fabric tightly under the glow of his penlight. If it hurt, Remiel gave no sound. "You noticed the coat, huh?" Jack asked.

"Your sentimentality towards it is difficult to miss."

Jack took the penlight from his mouth for a moment as he turned Remiel's arm for a final inspection. His voice softened again. "Someone very special gave it to me. I've been through a few of them before this one but, well... I'd like to hang onto it as long as I can." He gave the improvised bandage a last pat and rolled back on his haunches. "How's the shoulder now?"

Remiel tested it, cautiously as Sam shifted locations. "Restricted. But you have adequately slowed the blood loss. I need a few moments to recover, however, before I am able to proceed."

"That's what I was hoping you'd say," Jack grinned. "You mind helping me with something? Get those creepers talking again. I've got translation software." He touched the heavy leather strap on his left wrist. "Those low frequency sound waves are definitely them talking to each other. We heard them before I shot you."

"I could try to translate," Remiel offered, "Although I'm uncertain of the results."

Jack shook his head. "You may not be around the next time. I need my own dictionary. Sam?" He lifted his head. Sam stepped sideways, his attention divided between the stairwell and the animal red pupils flickering near the curve of the wall. The beam of his flashlight scythed through the inky dark, illuminating the creepers. They didn't blink. They didn't even squint. Somehow, that was even creepier than their huge mouths and armless torsos.

"How are we doing?" Jack asked.

"All clear so far," Sam said, "our new pals are behaving themselves right now, too."

"Good. I've got a hunch why they're giving us space. All the same, you mind covering me a few minutes longer?" Suddenly Jack was at Sam's shoulder. Then he was moving past, leaving Sam behind as he approached the pair of creepers. Sam hurried to follow, firming up his grip on his shotgun without raising it. Cover meant nothing, if he provoked them into exploding. Jack, meanwhile, had clamped his penlight once again between his teeth and aimed it at the exposed dash of his... 'vortex manipulator,' which was apparently some kind of diagnostic device.

"Hello, boys," Jack greeted the creepers from a respectful distance, words slurred around the handle of the penlight. "Remy, you ready?"

"Yes," Remiel replied, behind them.

"Ask them why they attacked me," Jack ordered. Sam ducked his head, eyes squeezing as the screeching began to build again. When it died away, there was a pause, and then he registered pressure like a subwoofer next to his head.

"Was that an answer?" Jack called.

"I believe so."

Jack thumbed a button, watched the screen for a few minutes, then nodded. "Got a guess as to what they said?"

"…You asked me not to translate."

"Humor me."

There was a pause, and Sam imagined Remiel casting Jack a sour look. "You are dangerous," he translated.

"That's it?"

"'Like to threat,'" Remiel murmured to himself, "No, that is incorrect."

"Come on, Remy. Give me something I can use."

Remiel grumped. "It's in concepts, not words, Jack. And it's all reversed. 'Threat to like.' Danger to your own kind. You shot me. they believe you are an angel."

"O-ho, have I got news for them," Jack laughed as he typed, then sobered. "But how do they know what an angel is?"

Remiel had another exchange with the creepers, and Sam regretted neglecting earplugs. "I apologize. I misinterpreted," Remiel shook his head with chagrin, like he translated creeper frequencies all the time and this should have been obvious. "By 'your own kind,' they imply we are also their kind."

"They think we're creepers, too?" Sam said blankly.

"That makes no sense," Jack's lip curled in frustration as he worked on the dash of his wrist strap, "Okay. Years in Purgatory and they always attacked us. Yesterday, they attacked us. Tonight, they don't attack us – at least until I shot the angel. So what's different from last night? Remiel? But we had an angel with us last night, too."

It clicked. "No, you didn't," Sam corrected, "you had an angel without his Grace. Cas didn't get that back until after we left. The angel is the difference."

Jack snapped his fingers. "Ha! Good! Okay, so angels are creeper repellent. Why?"

Sam's gears whirred furiously. "Not repellent, it's a mask. It doesn't run them off, they just don't see us. They think we're them."

"At least until we point a gun at one of them," Jack rejoined, pointedly. Sam dropped his shotgun to his side.

"Maybe angels smell different," Sam suggested, rubbed an aching ear, then looked at his fingertips in surprise "No. They communicate through low frequency sound waves. Through vibrations. Angel energy gives off a different set of vibrations than human energy does. I know, I've checked." Jack's eyebrows shot up in the flashlight's reflected glow, and Sam shrugged. "What? Cas was around a while that day for no reason, watching TV. I was bored."

"So you happened to have the tools to scan for energy patterns?"

"I held an audio recorder next to Cas for about thirty seconds, then used Audacity to look for EVP. Uh. Soundwave anomalies. Been doing that kind of thing since I was a kid."

Jack started to laugh.

"What?" Sam demanded again, not sure if he needed to be defensive.

"Nothing, just," Jack's one visible eye rolled up to his. He was beaming around the silver tube between his teeth, so wide it made him look half shark, "if you want a job, I could use your creativity."

"I have a job," Sam replied, smiling tentatively back (okay, so no need to be defensive after all), "plus, Torchwood's closed, right?"

Jack’s grin vanished, abruptly as it bloomed. "Right," he said, and yanked the penlight out of his mouth. "So best guess, they detect life forms based on energy readings. Remy must put out an energy field wide enough to override ours. Which means that Remy's energy patterns look a lot like creeper patterns, at least to the creepers," Pause. "Why is that?"

"I am curious about that as well," Remiel interrupted, "but as I have sufficiently recovered, we should proceed to the site of the spell."

"We should stick close to Remy," Sam added, "we don't know how far it transmits."

"Good point," Jack agreed, faced front and saluted the creepers. "See you later, boys," he said, signalling Sam to back off. When they reached Remiel, the angel was on his feet – if certainly less healthy-looking. The strips of red shirt binding his shoulder made a bright streak of crimson across his chest, which reminded him of a Roman soldier. Sam wondered why – if these angels had their vessels custom-made billions of years ago – they looked like Scandinavian models (or in Araciel's case, Hispanic) instead of cro-magnon? But whatever; Heaven stopped making sense from the moment the natives showed up a few years ago. It didn't need to start now. Cro-magnon angels were still pretty funny, though. Ha, imagine a knuckle-dragging Castiel.

"Sam?"

Sam blinked up, guiltily smoothing off a faint smile as his thoughts meandered back in from abstract pastures. Jack raised his brows again. "You still with us?"

Dropping his gaze with a tight nod, Sam pressed his flashlight to the flank of his shotgun once more and headed for the stairs. Remiel and Jack made a tight phalanx behind him, and as one they descended into the void.

Chapter Text

Despite their intent to investigate in the daytime, pushing plans forward in order to shift camp meant another night hunt. Night favored the creepy-crawlies. Dean wasn't afraid of the dark, but he sure as hell liked being able to see. Struggling while his eyes adjusted was bad enough, but to top that off, Araciel and Castiel didn't seem fazed at all. He maintained his best and most professional behavior; however, although more out of spite than any real desire to cooperate. So they thought he'd do nothing but bicker with Castiel? He'd show them. The result was a stony silence for the entire trip to the Fun Factory, but hey, it wasn't fighting and it wasn't uncooperative. 'Happy' would cost them a steep upgrade fee.

Castiel claimed the front passenger seat. He took up much less space than Sam by matter of course (because Sam was a yeti) but he seemed tucked in somehow, like he'd folded himself into the smallest possible package, as far away from Dean as the cramped space allowed. On his lap was an oblong device that resembled an old Eighties walkie-talkie, with a thick black antenna poking up from the slate gray plastic casing. It had a keypad, but where the receiver should be was a glowing display behind a glass pane. Jack called it a 'handheld Rift monitor,' whatever the hell that meant.

It was the first time in a long time for Castiel to ride shotgun; longer than Dean cared to reckon. Like a shoulder popped back into joint, Castiel's quiet presence was a sharp ache that still carried relief. As the minutes passed in the car, Dean's muscles unwound a little, but as soon as they reached their destination and left his American steel armor behind, he tensed right back up again.

Castiel moved in a different way. He still broke locks with a touch and opened doors with a finger flick, but he also used door handles with human nonchalance, and he stalked like a hunter. Carried a weapon like a hunter. The bow and the quiver didn't belong and yet they were there and clearly familiar to Castiel, but that was nothing compared to the entire lack of trench coat. Castiel in just his rolled-up shirtsleeves (and no tie) was tantamount to naked. When they rolled out, he'd stripped off both articles, folded them neatly, and put them in Dean's trunk along with the bow case and back quiver. But at least they were in his trunk. Dean hated how edgy he'd been about that. How he'd waited, stiff, for the coat to land in Jack's jeep. Then Castiel tucked it in with Dean's jumble of firearms and salt cans and his heart jumped, which didn't make him any happier. Of course, by the time they pulled into the gravel outside of the abandoned sanitarium, pretty much nobody was happy about anything.

Maybe if Castiel could peel his fingers off of that 'handheld Rift monitor' for a minute and put it between him and Dean, it would glow red. It should.

Wow, that was bitter.

Dean hated Crowley's hideout; hated it with the special kind of hate reserved for places where life-alteringly bad shit happened. Bad memories nudged up everywhere like kudzu, triggered by everything from sounds and smells to the filter of moonlight from the windows. Sensory memories were unpredictable, and the continuing act of pushing them off distracted him. Even now, the sanitarium carried a pervasive scent of old blood. The heavy metallic stench lined Dean's nostrils, until it seemed like he'd smell it forever. When he investigated the site with Sam two nights before, it was all the same. Dean certainly didn't want to come back. However, he also didn't want to waste time trying to wriggle out of angel handcuffs.

Araciel led the way, slim as a shadow in a black tank top and dark cargo pants. Dean resisted his flashlight. Artificial light made an enemy out of everything beyond its halo. Once his eyes adjusted, he could see her more clearly ahead of him. She went unarmed – but she was some sort of all-powerful superangel, which sort of made things like guns and knives passé by comparison. Every now and then, her fingers connected with the walls, pausing, tasting with the tips like the feelers of a cricket. If she wasn't so superior about her freaking maturity and emotional health, she'd be hot. But she was. And while hot babysitters were the subject of an occasional Penthouse Forum letter, in this instance it made for a major buzzkill.

"I don't date minors," Araciel glanced back at him; it was too dark to see any more but her silhouette in the hall, but he could almost feel her smile. Dean heard a disgusted huff in the dark behind him: Castiel, who was probably rolling his eyes.

Be professional, be cooperative.

You douchebags don't know me, Dean thought acidly for Araciel's benefit (and Castiel's too, if he'd broken his promise and was eavesdropping again), You think you do, but you don't. Then he refocused his attention on the job. If they heard, neither angel appeared to take any notice, continuing on in silence. The hallway fed out into a large round room: the surgery auditorium where Crowley did most of his more imaginative experiments.

"The streams of energy running through here are pretty hot and heavy," Araciel commented. She approached the tile wall where the bloody sigils had been painted, and pressed both hands to the surface. Dean left her to it, because if he squinted he could still see the shape, stained into the grout between the tiles along with a wider spatter from Raphael's explosion. He preferred not to commune with those bad memories. Dean kept a weather eye out for monsters instead. His investigation here with Sam hadn't been interrupted by creepers, but that didn't mean they wouldn't show up tonight.

"No surprise there," Dean called back, leaning briefly into another hallway, "Crowley used this place for all kinds of weird crap. He had it angel-proofed at one point."

"You're right, but not how you think you are," Araciel answered, "The energy flows – they're older than the building. Crowley was here because they're here, not the other way around." She looked up, cheek and the curve of her throat catching the moonlight as she followed the vault of the ceiling to the balcony catwalks overhead. "This place is bad, guys," Wariness threaded Araciel's dusky voice, "Bad clear through. There's so much power and history here, it's alive. It's just waiting for something to touch off the right fuse."

"Yes," Castiel agreed unhappily, "it was many things before it fell into Crowley's possession, most of them unpleasant." The box he held let out an affirming blip.

"And you knew the whole time." Araciel's voice sharpened, although she was still preoccupied with the walls, "I like you, Castiel. For a Garrison grunt, you've got a lot of spine. But don't you ever do anything that stupid again."

On the far side of the room, Castiel's head snapped around, and Dean could almost feel the temperature in the room drop as he glared. In the dark, only the outline of his head and shoulders was visible, his face picked out in low blues from the glow of his device. But Dean didn't need to be a freaking mind-reader to know how it felt when someone talked to you like a child.

"I did what was necessary," Castiel replied. The soft consonants hissed. "But I will never find enough penance to make peace with my choices. That is one 'stupid thing' I will not repeat."

"Good," Araciel answered, "because you're responsible for this mess too."

"Hey lady, lay off, okay?" Dean moved further into the room, until he stood loosely between Araciel and Castiel. Enough was enough. Dean had the right to lay into Castiel about his stupid mistakes, but a damn stranger sure as hell didn't. Araciel might be some omniscient asshat, and she might even be Castiel's family, but she hadn't been there. She hadn't lived through it, which pretty much disqualified her from taking pieces out of anyone's ass. "Enough people have taken crap today. Can you smell a connection to what's going on in the silo, and can you fix it or not?" His head swung to Castiel, still passing his monitor in long sweeps. "How 'bout you, Cas? Because I don't see one. Plus, we haven't seen a single creeper."

"Of course you haven't," a familiar husky, accented male voice answered, before Araciel could speak, "Unlike certain scrappy adventurers, I set up a spellcasting properly."

All eyes snapped to the balcony, where a darkly featureless silhouette perched against the pipe railing. It was certainly Crowley, but Dean bit down on calling him out. The dude had enough supervillain ego going on without other people dropping into bad comic book dialog.

"You've sure got the dramatic entrance thing down," Dean drawled, "now come down here and say that to my face."

"Let me think?" The silhouette above them tipped its head, rimed in moonlight silver. "You have my former business partner with you, the news of whose death was clearly exaggerated, you've come into my territory uninvited, and there's a horde forming outside. No. Considering your primeval penchant for throwing things, I'd rather stay out of range, thank you."

Crowley always had at least two angles and a couple outside games running, plus a security detail that could kick the Secret Service's ass even on a down day. If he wasn't willing to get into Dean's face; if he was admitting to caution - real or not - that was a problem. Apparently Dean's teammates thought the same thing; both of them swung in to flank him almost simultaneously.

Wait. Horde?

"Hello, Cas," Crowley said with fondness, "I'm surprised to see you looking so… unplucked. The last I'd heard, your pet hunters finally showed you their teeth. Not the most loyal creatures, are they? But then, loyalty has never been of particular value to you."

Castiel's hand moved on the grip of his bow, but he didn't speak.

"I see your manners certainly haven't improved. And who is this?" Crowley's head inclined towards Araciel, "I don't recognize you from the Heaven's Most Wanted posters, but you certainly smell like a celestial pigeon. What brought you down to slumming with these characters?"

Dean felt Castiel's shoulder brush his. He would have moved away, but then Castiel's nearest hand – his right – bumped into Dean's left wrist. The thump was a solid connection, just the snap of a knuckle, abrupt and clear; Dean's thoughts shifted gears before he even consciously registered what happened. Not only was it a signal, it was one of Sam and Dean's. It meant 'I think he's lying,' in English, but over time the gesture had become so nuanced that given the context, Dean recognized it as 'he's stalling.' And Crowley was stalling. It made sense – he wasn't coming down so they'd stay put and make easy pickings for whatever goons he had waiting in the wings. Dean gaze flicked from one doorway to the next: yawning dark and exposed. Trespassing on Crowley's territory made them targets, and he knew this mission wasn't necessarily safe or smart, but it had been a calculated risk. Now the scales tipped the other way. They needed to go.

"And where's Moose?" Crowley asked, dark shape shifting as he craned his neck, "Lost in the woods?"

Dean ignored the question. "What horde?" he fired at Crowley. But of course Araciel opened her mouth by then, and Crowley returned Dean's favor by ignoring him in lieu of her. Araciel's voice was slow and firm, with a predatory smile in it. The pitch rose and fell, slow but definite like the warning growl of a cat. Dean could almost hear her coiling up to jump. "Crowley, you know why we're here," she said, "there's a tear in reality between this place and Purgatory, and another not far from here. You know about it. It happened in your backyard, sure you do."

Crowley shrugged. "I don't play with fire without taking proper precautions. Just because those creatures aren't inside doesn't mean they aren't here, sweetheart," his right hand spread to the windows on the balcony, "Dean? Horde."

For the first time in some minutes, Castiel spoke. "Creepers. In the woods."

Dean exhaled in a rush. He firmed up his jaw and snagged his courage around him like a cloak, letting his anger shove out the fear.

"Somehow he's keeping them outside, but…" Castiel glanced at Dean, features pale and furrowed with worry in the slanting moonlight, "there are many."

"Given their track record, I'd drive carefully on my way out." Still perched immovably on the balcony, Crowley spread his hands. "If I wanted to keep that classic in one piece, that is. Also, fast." The arch amusement drained from his voice. "Purgatory isn't Narnia. You can't make a doorway with a handy piece of Empire furniture; you've got to tear your way in. Well. Unless you're a dead werewolf. But of course, you knew that before you scribbled on the walls. Didn't you?"

"Oh, shut up," Dean snarled, never taking his eyes from their restless scan of the perimeter, "Skip the lecture, Belding. You gonna play your hand, or are you just here to dick with us?" If he had to, Dean decided he could leave the Impala. He didn't want to, but it wasn't like anyone else would be stealing her in the meantime. The creepers didn't seem offended by Detroit steel, so she'd be safe. Safe-ish, anyway. But Araciel couldn't I-dream-of-Jeannie herself anywhere, as far as he'd been told. Castiel could, but if he was worked up they could end up in Timbuktu, or pureed into gravy. Really, the Impala seemed about the safest option to get everyone out in one piece.

Castiel skirted him, moving forward until he stood in front of Dean's shoulder. "Speaking of that, why are you dicking with us, Crowley?" Castiel asked. Dean stared at the back of his head in shock. "I assume you have better things to do. Debauchery to orchestrate. Malevolent laughter to practice. Furthermore--"

Then Castiel was gone, and there were two silhouettes on the balcony.

"--why do it up here?" Castiel finished, already swinging, bow in a two-handed grip like a Klingon bat'leth. He connected with enough force to swat Crowley forward against the low railing, bounce him off, and back into a vicious upswing that tossed him over and onto the auditorium floor.

Okay, so Castiel clearly had some rage to work out.

He was blowing like he'd just done a sprint when he reappeared nearby, and that set off alarm bells. "Cool it, Cas," Dean ordered. Araciel took custody of a very unhappy King of Hell. Dean waited warily for the henchman to come pouring out of nowhere.

Nobody showed.

Crowley popped his neck. "It did occur to you boys that you're being watched?" His words carried a similar stinging snap.

"Of course it did," Castiel grated. Crowley smiled in answer, which would have been really nice – charming almost – if it belonged to anyone but him. On the demon, it usually meant impending doom, extra large, with a supersized order of chaos.

Crowley's next words were soft. "Then you realize you've basically forced my hand, haven't you now?" He raised his head.

The next instant, bootheels thundered on the tile beyond the dark doorways. Pale round faces broke the surface of the shadows, as that flood of anticipated henchman broke the dam. Dean flashed into action by reflex, unsheathing the demon-killing blade he'd taken custody of when he and Sam split up. Araciel let go of Crowley, who was gone in an instant.

"Cas, you gonna go nuclear?" Dean muttered, as both angels packed in closer.

"I'm very angry," Castiel growled.

Dean readjusted his grip on the pommel of his knife and watched the arc of dark-eyed, stolen faces. People screaming in the back of every one of those heads, he knew. Yeah, he'd qualify as very angry, too. "Can you lock it down?"

The demons rushed them before Castiel could answer, and the auditorium descended into blood. Adrenaline cleared Dean's mind. The air around him boiled with screeches and growls. Castiel and Araciel plowed into battle, punctuating the dark with short, sharp bursts of light. Dean stayed between them, allowing them to slow the rush. He was the lightweight of the trio. Any one goon had the capacity to toss him against the wall like a ragdoll.

Araciel handed out damage like a pro kickboxer, her tightly controlled motion too fast to track. Something was definitely up with her; every time the fight took him close to her, the hair stood up on his arms. Whatever it was cooking under the surface, it didn't distract her from the fight in the least. Dean moved, and she matched him, dark hair spinning around her shoulders, expression lax, full mouth open around a grunt. Despite the obvious physical differences, it all seemed so familiar that for a second Dean felt like Sam was there.

Araciel and Castiel maneuvered around him like they'd spent years doing it, bouncing off-balance demons his way. The elation and satisfaction of a good fight with a good team settled over Dean, and he found himself grinning into the fray.

The ranks finally broke, and they pounded down an empty hallway, half a dozen healthy goons pelting after them. Araciel brought up the rear, eyes glowing almost white now whenever Dean glanced back. "Too easy!" Araciel shouted. She had a point. Why had Crowley done a Houdini and left his pack of demons to brawl with them? Yeah, sure, that wasn't a terrible strategy, but it was also way too cut-rate videogame simple. If Crowley didn't want something, he'd never have given himself away.

But they had no-point-two seconds to get to the car, and a legion of exploding monsters waiting to close in as soon as they crossed Crowley's barriers. Dean put his attention on that, taking the lead to shove open the massive door.

Out across the parking lot, feet away from the stairs to the ground… were creepers. Dozens of them. Maybe even in the low hundreds – Dean couldn't count them. Their square green heads made a forest of restless upturned faces, eyes huge and black in the moonlight, mouths wide in silent screams. They pressed on an unseen barrier, crowding each other. The constant shuffling raised a haze of gravel dust, and Dean could hear their big elephant feet grinding into the limestone. The stale, humid night air flickered to life. He caught the scent of them. Fireworks. Sparklers. Chemicals.

The sheer scale staggered Dean's instincts. His stride faltered. With a swallow, he shouldered his shotgun, but where should he aim? Splattering one creeper could set them all off, and there were enough walking piles of nitro here to make this clearing a crater.

"Close your eyes!" Araciel screamed.

Dean catapulted off the stairs, landed in the dirt, and ducked.

Strong fingers snatched his elbow. Dean fought it, but the world flashed painfully white beyond his eyelids. He felt a rush of air, then caught the stench of brimstone. Then nothing.

Chapter Text

Sam's skin crawled as they passed another set of empty eyes. He'd strapped his shotgun to his back in order to free up his arm, but his fingers itched for the illusory protection. The creepers weren't an enemy he could tussle, kick or swat out of the way; the most he could hope to do if they rushed was throw himself out of their blast radius. And he couldn't do that with an angel draped against his side. Worse yet, if Remiel actually died, he'd likely take their dubious security with him. Every foot deeper into the bunker brought their imminent death closer and closer.

Jack didn't seem concerned. He moved a step or two ahead of them, following the cuff on his arm like a compass needle. Sam kept his flashlight on Jack, as they moved in absolute darkness now, and losing him meant wasting minutes at best, and exposing Jack to the creepers at worst. His eardrums ached like he had a bad cold, from the constant pressure of the creepers' communication. And there were the eyes, dark holes in the squareish faces shuffling back to make them a path. Always the eyes, watching them pass at the rim of his flashlight's halo.

So, no. Not exactly his idea of a good time.

The stairs stopped. Over a sea of creeper heads, Sam's light caught the neat white lines of still-perfect chalk drawings on the walls. "This is it," Sam panted, and helped Remiel sit on the lower steps, "where we summoned Cas."

"Gotcha," Jack replied. He drew out his penlight again and circled the staircase where Remiel and Sam waited. Jack's voice softened, to an excited whisper. "We're swimming in Rift energy down here, and so are they." He gestured to the creatures around them. "Whatever you did, Sam, it left a mark. There's a tear in reality right here." There were a few beeps from the direction of Jack's wrist, and he made a satisfied noise. "The translator's been listening to them, trying to break the code. I think we can try asking them some more questions."

Beside Sam, Remiel swung an arm out in a tired gesture of acquiescence. Jack returned to them. "Remy, how are you holding up?"

"I'll manage. Ask away."

And so they began. Sam trained his attention on Jack's silhouette, framed in the penlight's glow, and tried not to rub his ears. By the third question, however, he'd forgotten all about his ears. The creepers were not only talking, they were highly intelligent. As Jack read off their responses from his dash and Remiel corroborated, the gears in Sam's mind whirred furiously to match. A new sentient species. A species that spoke to each other like elephants and dolphins, with low frequency sound.

"Our purpose is to guard the gates of Purgatory," the creepers explained, through Jack.

"To keep the natives in?" Jack asked, through Remiel.

"To keep everything else out," the creepers corrected.

Sam shook his head in surprise. "That's why they attacked you and Cas every night, Jack," he said.

Back to him, Jack nodded. He addressed the creepers again. "Do you know you aren't in Purgatory now?"

"Yes," the creepers replied, "when the border appeared, we were summoned to protect it."

"How big is the border?" Jack asked.

"Small, right now. But it grows every day."

"What if the border gets too big to protect?"

There was absolute silence for a few moments – even the constant current of buzzing in Sam's ears stopped while the creepers seemed to take this in. He wondered if they shared a collective consciousness, like a beehive or a termite colony.

"We do not know," the creepers answered eventually, "but our purpose is always to guard the gates of Purgatory."

"Can you go home?"

"Our purpose does not allow us to leave the gates unprotected."

"Can you ignore your purpose?"

"We don't understand."

Jack shook his head and tried another tack. "Can you choose not to guard the gates of Purgatory?"

Silence again, longer this time. Sam couldn't tell a happy creeper from a sad one, but he could have sworn the ones in the halo of Jack's penlight looked confused. Or… tottered in a confused way. Or something. Or hell, maybe he was starting to speak creeper now.

"It is our purpose," they said finally, "to ignore our purpose is to ignore our existence."

Jack groaned. "I've had this conversation with Castiel," he said, taking his thumb from the button he'd been holding down, "couldn't you lot have been eavesdropping or something and saved me the trouble—wait." He thumbed the translation key on his dash again and demanded, "Who gave you that purpose?"

"Our Father," the creepers answered, Jack's dashboard beeping with the response almost before Remiel finished asking the question. He laid a hand on Sam's arm and squeezed. Sam blinked at his expression in the wan light, then reached out to nudge Jack.

"Keep very still. Do not interfere," Remiel commanded. Then he stretched forward, leaning out as far as he could from his step, and held one cupped palm out to the creepers. With a dry, gentle rustling, one of them shuffled within his reach. Remiel laid two fingertips against the creeper's forehead, then fitted his palm to the flat plane of its jaw and cheek.

"They are older than I," Remiel murmured, "they feel—"

Jack's wrist strap beeped. Sam's gaze flicked up from the weird tableau.

"'Little brothers,'" Jack read, "'do not fear.'" He looked up. "Little brothers?"

Remiel cupped the creeper's head in both hands, and rested his forehead against the flat, deep green face. "I will not slay another, I swear it," he said, and when he drew back Sam realized he'd been speaking to them, rather than the creatures.

Jack's expression clouded with concentration, then lightened. "You won't have to. I have a plan. Come on, let's get Remy back to base before he passes out."

Chapter Text

Dean opened his eyes in absolute dark.

Crowley spoke behind him. "You're a hard man to get hold of." Dean whirled. He flexed empty hands around the memory of a shotgun; pushed out against the black and found only void. Everything was void; the space felt dead. His stomach squirmed.

"Where am I?" Dean demanded, "Where's Cas?"

"Didn't touch your pretty pigeons. Scout's honor." Crowley answered, behind him yet again. Dean stopped turning. He crouched, and his hands met slick, cool floor. A few steps into the dark and Dean collided with more cold glass. Still, a wall was good. A wall was something other than endless.

Dean felt his way along the wall with careful fingertips, until he found a corner (one) and another wall intersecting it. "Not what I'd call reassuring. What do you want?"

"The same things as you," Crowley's voice was smooth, "A world ruled by Fate? An unstoppable Armageddon? Come on, Dean, that's defeatist. Viva la Revolucion!"

Dean growled, rolling his eyes as he encountered another corner (two). "You say one thing, your buddies back there say different. Where am I?"

Crowley chuckled. "Not familiar to you?"

Purring, malevolent power caressed him like a breeze; like Crowley opened a window somewhere to let in alien air. The space was no longer dead black void, but filled with the smell of sulfur, anguished voices, the cold, and the hum of intense, incredible energy. The power of Hell was unlike nothing else in Dean's experience. It corroded like battery acid, eating away at a soul with profound despair. Nausea rolled in Dean's belly, while a sheen of cold terror shivered down his back. His hands slid to another damned corner (three). "Cas?" Dean called, tipping his head back as he tried to still his palms; tried not to paw at the unyielding blackness like a trapped rat. "Castiel? Araciel? Need some backup here!"

The push of power vanished, but no-one came. To be honest, he hadn't really expected it. Dean stopped. There might be a fourth, a seventh and a twenty-third perfectly perpendicular corner. He knew where he was, and the right turns could just go on forever.

"Don't suppose it's worth anything to say 'please?'" Dean asked, stepping back from the wall before he was tempted to lean against it. He tried to swallow the surge of fear. None of this existed. It was in his head. And if it wasn't, when Sam and the rest of the A-Team put Dean back into his body again, it would still go away. "I've got stuff to deal with. You know? Like exploding aliens."

Suddenly the lights came up. Right under Dean's feet, as a matter of fact. The floor lived with glowing white ground lights, revealing his prison cell as a cube of perfectly smooth black walls. Crowley - at last - was in front of him, impeccably tailored and unruffled as ever, hands spread in supplication. The footlights cast him in dramatic shadows.

"Yes, the aliens are a complication." Crowley shrugged. "You're not dead, Dean, and you're not here permanently - yet - so please, put the coping mechanisms away." He took in the slick black walls at a glance, reached out, and tapped his knuckle on the smooth surface. "Dwarf star alloy. Completely impermeable to every form of energy - you don't want to know what it took to move it down here. I realized the need for a bit of quiet office space, and it was just sitting about in crates. I love bureaucracy."

Dean pushed his hands in his pockets, took a deep breath and ground his transmission into park. Set the emergency brake for good measure. Cynicism eased in over the fear, and Dean smirked. "'Dwarf star alloy?' So you're giving up monster mortuary science? You got me. What's it gonna take to get me out of here?"

Crowley's smile disappeared. "I apologize for the abrupt departure from your pals. Once the opportunity arose, all the details had to look authentic. We need to talk, Dean - but your every move is watched. Except," his index fingers stabbed downward, "here."

Dean's gaze roved the room, while he tried to ignore that 'here' meant 'Hell.' "Seems kinda bare for your style of interrogation. No fingernail pullers? No probes?" Wicked grin smoothed over the pool of terrified adrenaline, Dean added, "You know I love probes."

"Easy, big fella. On the contrary," Crowley's eyes gleamed, cheeks rounded with a broad smile, "I brought you here to interrogate me." He circled Dean. "Believe me, if I could take care of the Fates any other way, I'd do it gladly. But I can't. I need – and you need – those harridans to think I'm off the field."

"So what the hell do you call this?" Dean waved at the black walls. Crowley came front and center again, sober.

"A defensive gesture, which you'll be rescued from shortly." Crowley said lightly, "You waltzed into my territory. I saw an opportunity. With Michael's vessel imprisoned indefinitely, I can stop the Apocalypse in its tracks, even if the Fates do eventually manage their little jailbreak."

Huh. Dean could actually buy that. God knows he and Sam tried similar tactics to keep the vessels as far apart as possible. "They're not gonna be a little pissed with you about that?"

Crowley shrugged. "It looks opportunistic, as opposed to a plan. Which it is, by the way. I've been looking for a chance to contact one of you for a while now."

All things considered, Dean didn't figure he rated very high on Crowley's list of contacts. The feeling was mutual, which meant that any reason for Crowley to seek him and his brother out was a bad one. There were a hundred reasons why he should refuse to cooperate, besides the plain fact that Crowley made his skin crawl. "About what?" Dean asked.

"Not what," Crowley corrected, "Who. The Song of God isn't a piece of sheet music."

The penny dropped. "A guy?" Dean muttered in disbelief, "The Song of God is a person?" In hindsight, that should have been obvious. In a world filled with deities personifying weather and planets and human emotions, why shouldn't a song be a person?

Crowley rolled his eyes and huffed. "Think higher, Dean. Think haloes, feathers and eons' worth of repression."

Dean processed this bit of information. His lip curled. "Come on. If the Song of God is an angel, how come the Fates don't have him yet?" And how come Castiel thought it was some sort of Narnian creation song, Dean wondered too, but left that bit out. "They've got three quarters of Heaven peeling their grapes. Even if they don't know what they're looking for, somebody would have ratted him out by now."

A not-quite smile curved the corner of Crowley's thin mouth. "Three quarters? Hardly. They put on a good show, but try an ambitious sixteenth, at best. The majority - and trust me when I say that's not a lot of bodies no matter how you shake it - are opting into their usual modus operandi - nada. None of them like the irritating little tramps, or weren't you listening?"

"So what, now you got a man on the inside?"

"Something like that." Crowley's smile took a darker turn, eyes and teeth full of malicious glee, and Dean's skin crawled like ants. Or cockroaches. His hindbrain screamed get it off me! "But that's sideways to the point," Crowley continued, "Find the Song of God, kill him before the Fates get to him. He's an angel, but he's - forgotten. He's… oh…" Crowley shrugged helplessly, "…a sleeper, if you will. Until Mission Control pushes the button, he and all of the other sleepers look like people."

Sleeper angels, plural. "You mean there's more? And how are we supposed to find this poor slob?" Dean asked, and wondered how long the guy had been waiting around to be called on. Wait. Humans didn't have an angel life span. So really, how long had this guy been waiting? If he was immortal like Cas, he could have been sitting on some back porch in Appalachia for centuries. Or—

"Wait," Dean took a step back from Crowley, aiming an accusing index finger at him, "don't tell me. Cary Grant dimples, parades around in old military surplus, smiles like he just rolled outta bed with the Doublemint Twins?" And smelled like it too, in a very good, very enticing way that made Dean's brain (and his jeans) hurt.

Crowley's eyebrows went up. He cocked his head. "No. Although those dimples do sound impressive."

Dean was old and jaded enough not to let a demon's bullshit get to him. He flushed anyway, and dropped his hand. "So if it's not Captain Douchebag, where is this dude?"

"That's the rub," Crowley replied, "What I'm about to give you, you can't discuss with the angels – OR your brother, for that matter. And try not to think about it too loudly. Beyond that, how you proceed is up to you."

He held out a photo to Dean, who gazed at it in confusion.

"You said 'he,'" Dean muttered. Furthermore, Crowley didn't say anything about cute, which she was.

"The angel is genderless, and as old as the one traveling with you and Cas tonight. The vessel - that's complicated. You don't need to know why. Just find him, and kill him, before he manifests." Crowley nodded to the photo. "Name and last known location's on the back."

Dean flipped the photo and gawked at the directions. "You've gotta be kidding me."

Crowley shrugged. "I can't touch him – as soon as those pigeons see me move, the game's over. You have to handle this. And you have to keep it a secret."

"Yeah, and Sam's definitely gonna buy it when I say 'Hey, how about a trip to Wales?' What the hell is even in Wales, besides sheep and rocks?"

Crowley frowned, eyes narrowed in a way that made Dean wonder in alarm if he'd impugned the honor of the demon's homeland or something. But he was Scottish (maybe), and while Dean wasn't great on geography, he was aware that Wales was neither in Scotland nor particularly close to it, and it was a bad idea to confuse the two.

"Torchwood, Dean. What's left of it. By happy circumstance, that," Crowley gestured to the photo, "happens to be the last living teammate of – Captain Douchebag, was it? Which gives you plenty of reason to go find her."

Yeah. Oh, yeah. And kill her. That was gonna go over so well with Jack, let alone Castiel. A mental picture of himself standing over the cute (old as dirt, apparently) brunette's body began to unfold. "Son of a bitch," he muttered, folded the photo and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket. "How do you know all this?"

Crowley shrugged and Hell swallowed Dean in a frigid, howling rush. The room snapped to blackness. Screams surrounded him. "Azazel researched a variety of contingencies to free Lucifer," Crowley purred, magically comprehensible above the riot, "including waking the Song of God. In the end, baby Sam was the better option."

On his knees, drowning in nausea and fear, Dean choked out "Why?" before he could censor it. Cold wind ripped away his voice, but Crowley heard.

"Wake one, wake them all," was Crowley's reply, before a rush of heat bit off the frigid air. Strong arms fell around Dean like a house on fire. He felt safety and fought against its lure, until his beleaguered mind shut down.

When he woke, Dean heard the Impala's familiar rumble; felt it vibrating under him. He choked. Or smothered. Whatever - he couldn't breathe. Dean flailed and kicked. The pressure abruptly eased, and he sucked in a few lungfuls of good, clean, crazy-free air. He also smelled Castiel, which made sense, considering all the huffing and puffing Dean was doing right into his lapel. His forehead tucked into Castiel's neck, the rest of him sprawled all along his lap and the rest of the seat, and Castiel's arms cradled him effortlessly. Not the most dignified way for a dude to wake up after a trip to Hell – although it definitely had more appeal than a pine box and a shallow grave.

"Dean?" Castiel asked, tight with concern, and Dean felt the rumble of it everywhere, right to the pit of his stomach. He tried to sit up, which Castiel accommodated, depositing him on the seat next to him. There wasn't much room to maneuver, but Dean's determination matched Castiel's freakish strength.

"I'm good," Dean gasped when he slouched on his own side of the bench seat, still quelling adrenaline, "What happened? Who's driving?"

Araciel twisted back to look at him sideways from the driver's seat, and waved shortly. "Hiya."

Castiel's expression was grave. "You were taken from us as Araciel cleared an escape route. When you called for me—"

"—Us," Araciel reminded, and that was maybe the first time Dean heard her sound happy. Castiel blew out an impatient breath.

"Forgive me, us," he continued dryly, "I was able to locate and fetch you."

The gravity of that statement staggered Dean. "Dude. You followed me to Hell? Again?"

Castiel looked puzzled, then angry. "I followed you to an abandoned brewery in Burlington, Iowa." He leaned into Dean's space. "Is that where you were told you'd been taken?"

"No," Dean snapped, "Look, I know what Hell feels like. That was definitely it."

Then, Castiel did this full-body twitch thing. His hands – located on the precise center of each thigh – balled into fists and relaxed a few times. Dean thought about suggesting a stress ball. He reached out, sensing the radiant rage. "Cas, I'm okay. I'm here. Right?" Dean got a handful of rigid shoulder, before Castiel waved him off with a quick jerk of his hand.

Araciel was watching this play out from the rearview mirror. Dean looked up and caught the reflection of her dark, worried eyes as a passing street light bathed her in gold.

"Castiel?" Araciel asked, calm like she was checking if he wanted a large combo at the drive through, "Breathe."

The tone of Castiel's voice reminded Dean of Biblical passages. Angels spoke and cities fell. "They made him--"

Like a flash fire, the kindness abruptly burned out of Araciel's voice. "Let it go.

Dean slid to the opposite side of the back seat, just to give Castiel some breathing room – or as much blast radius as he could manage. After about ten or twenty seconds, during which nobody in the car seemed to breathe at all, Castiel released a slow, trembling exhale. When he fixed his sights on Dean afterward, his eyes were still hard, but calmer. Not so likely to smite first and ask questions later.

"Only Crowley currently has the kind of power it would take to convince you that you were in Hell," Castiel said, "But there are a number of reasons why true dwarf star alloy cannot exist there – as it cannot exist in Heaven. What did he want?"

Dean didn't want to, but the sharp edge of the photograph nudged his side through his jacket, and he lied. Told them Crowley planned to keep Michael's vessel locked up in a magic box in the Pit forever – or apparently a magic box in an abandoned brewery in Burlington, Iowa. He carefully thought of nothing but the story he told. Neither Castiel nor Araciel seemed pleased by the news, but they bought it.

"Plus, if you believe this, he's got a man on the inside," Dean finished up, figuring it could only help things if Heaven overheard, and started doubting its own integrity.

"It's been done before," Araciel answered, unconcerned, "Much as I don't like working with demons, good on whoever decided to rage against the Man."

"His 'perfect prison' is clearly imperfect," Castiel observed with vicious satisfaction, "I found you."

Dean wasn't completely sure what happened, but he had a good guess. Castiel got to him because Crowley wanted him to. Dean had totally been the goat-on-a-rope, luring in the Velociraptors in Crowley's version of Jurassic Park.

Again with the goat references. He really needed to stop that. "Yeah, you did good," Dean said, and patted Castiel's arm, "I owe you one." Looking towards the front seat, Dean leaned forward and folded his arms on the backrest. "I want my car back."

Araciel grinned. "We're going to camp. I haven't driven one of these babies since the seventies." She patted the steering wheel.

"We're done?"

"You're a target," Castiel explained, "the longer we remain in Crowley's territory, the more likely you will be taken again."

Dean nodded, trying to think of blank walls. "Guess we know what we need to know."

Castiel bent his head once. He leaned down and drew up the chunky diagnostic tool from Jack. Miraculously, Castiel made it out with his weapons and that thing. Maybe he'd overheard that douchey hookman fan's bungee-cord advice. "The information will need to be compared with readings from the silo, but I anticipate it will be similar. If not identical. The Rift is there."

"And so are the creepy crawlies." Cinching himself a little closer to the front seat backrest, Dean leaned further into Araciel's space. "Now pull over."

It was the middle of the night, but nevertheless, Araciel tugged open the glove compartment and drew out a pair of Dean's sunglasses. She perched them on her nose with a grin. "Nope."

The horror of the night faded just enough for Dean to see the humor. "Let me at least come up front," he cajoled.

"Nope," Araciel laughed, and Dean's cellphone vibrated. He ceded the battle for now, slumping into the deep bucket of the back seat while he fished in his pocket. It was Sam, sounding weary and worried, but otherwise intact. Dean put him on speaker and rested the phone on the backrest of the front seat where they could all hear.

"We're done, coming in, about twenty minutes out of camp," Sam informed them, voice small and tinny through the white noise, "Remy's been hurt and he's lost a lot of blood."

"Not far behind you, Sam," Araciel said over her shoulder, expression sobering behind the sunglasses, "Castiel, you want to go on ahead?"

Castiel nodded, and was gone. The back seat suddenly seemed far larger in his absence.

"Cas is headed your way," Dean confirmed to Sam.

"Great," Sam's voice tripped, "but he just passed out."

Dean blinked. "Cas?"

"No. Remy."

In the front seat, Araciel ripped off her sunglasses. The Impala's engine roared open, and Dean felt the drag of inertia nudge him towards the trunk. Without Castiel to bear witness, Dean scrambled into the front seat, landed with a thud, and buckled himself in. Araciel floored it like Sulu on a suicide run, and Dean wasn't gonna catapult into Hell strapped in the back seat like a grandma.

Dean picked up the phone where he'd dropped it on the front seat. "You still there, Sam?"

"Yeah—what was that? Are you guys okay?"

"We're fine," Dean reassured, "let me know when Cas gets there." On the other end, he thought he could hear Jack's jeep finding a higher gear.

"He's not breathing," Sam reported, and dropped the phone. Dean tensed at the faint scrabble of voices, saw Sam in his mind, administering CPR in the back of an open vehicle. He looked up at Araciel. Her face was set, eyes on the road. Every now and then her jaw reeled a little tighter. He expected to hear teeth cracking.

"Castiel, come on, follow my voice!" Sam pleaded, praying to Castiel as neither of them had done in a very long time, "Castiel? We need you!" His voice cut in and out over wind and road noise.

The phone line shrieked.

Araciel jerked, and the Impala coughed as her foot momentarily twitched off the accelerator. Dean fought the instinct to cover his ears and fumbled for the volume, but it didn't seem to matter. Then the shrieking stopped and he heard Castiel's voice, faint and tired, but calm. "Move, Sam."

For a while after that, static and the echoes of road noise filled the line. Dean picked up the phone again like it might break. Araciel didn't speak, or decelerate. Dean leaned into the receiver, only to jerk his head away when rustling on Sam's end – amplified by the forgotten speaker mode – nearly burst an eardrum.

"Okay," Sam breathed, back on the line, relief in his voice, "…okay."

Dean and Araciel exhaled in unison, glanced at each other, and shared a brief smile. He turned off the speaker. "All right, Sammy. See you in thirty. Maybe less, if Danika Patrick's lead foot over here doesn't get us pulled over. You can slow down now, by the way," he raised an eyebrow at Araciel, "before you owe me a new block." No answer from the phone. "Sam?"

Static, shuffling, muted conversation. No answer.

"Sam?" Dean repeated.

"Sorry, he passed out," Sam reported.

Dean tensed and shot a quick look at Araciel to see if she'd overheard. "Again?"

"No. Cas."

Dean licked his lips and looked at the ceiling, filtering sudden fear. "Is he okay?"

Another pause.

"SAM."

"He's okay, Dean," Sam replied, somehow managing to sound relieved and slightly accusatory in the same breath. "I think it's that soul friction thing he told us about. It wore him out."

Dean reminded his shoulders to relax. "Okay."

"I'm hanging up now. We need to move these guys, and I can't help Jack one-handed."

"Okay." Dean repeated, unable to think of another word. He closed the phone to the sound of Jack's laughter. Around him, he could feel the Impala's intertia decreasing, pulling him forward in his seat. Dean shot a disbelieving glare at the driver. "You're actually gonna do what I tell you? Now?"

Araciel smirked and sketched a salute. "No, sir."

Dean rolled down his window a little as the Impala's rapid acceleration echoed across passing farmland. The wind whipping off the hood was too strong now to breathe, but he kept his nose out of the current and inhaled clean night air, rinsing out the chemical brimstone burn. He let the silence carry them, different from the sullen quiet at the beginning of the night. His body was tired, just beginning to remind him of the battle as adrenaline wound down. Castiel hadn't healed him, which was good. If he'd done that, he might not have had enough left in the tank to save Remiel. Or he could have gone down in transit and been captured, or killed.

"You okay?" Araciel asked. Dean grimaced.

"I'm good," he laughed, sardonic, and scrubbed his thumb in frustration down the windowsill, "peachy."

Quiet in the car again. Dean twiddled with his phone, stared out the window, and resisted calling to check up on Sam.

"Fia was a lot like you," Araciel said, over the road noise, "angry at her life, but nobody ever knew. She said she laughed when bad things happened, because it made more sense than breaking her fists."

Outside Dean's window, fireflies in the wheat made glowing racing stripes. He turned away from them to look at Araciel in surprise. "Who's Fia?"

"My wife," she replied, after a pause.

"You have a wife?" Dean echoed in surprise.

Araciel rolled her neck and fitted her hands to the steering wheel a finger at a time. "Had," she corrected, "I'm a general of the Two Hundred; we all had wives." She shrugged, "Hence the whole 'bound in darkness for eternity' thing."

Dean thought a lot of things and didn't say them. Araciel caught a few anyway.

"I don't have a gender," she explained, dusky voice gentler than Dean had ever heard it, "at least not outside of this body. Fia wanted women. So I created a vessel that matched what she wanted."

Maybe Sam would have handled it more delicately. But there were no warning flags about appropriateness popping up to stop Dean from blurting, "But you got locked up over the monster babies." At least not until after he'd said it, and immediately wanted to belt himself in the mouth.

Araciel didn't get angry. In fact, she tilted her head back and laughed, while the speedometer vibrated just to the left of red. "I'm an angel, Dean," she said, her exasperation with his mortal human stupidity a dead ringer for Castiel's, "do you really think I had to have the equipment?"

At the state border, a huge white sign announcing the city of "Chester" slid by, and a green state sign bearing a county name. The department of transportation must be a lot of humorless drones to pass on a Wizard of Oz quote – after all, what else did Kansas have going for it? They screamed through a crossroads on the four-lane, to Nebraska's welcoming promise of 'the good life.' Dean sat back. He realized that Araciel had, more or less, just told him about her dead wife and child - both of whom she hadn't seen in a very long time. And probably missed. Dean ached over Lisa and Ben, and Araciel's brand of ache just had to be off the charts. He couldn't leave the conversation like that. "Well, I mean," Dean plowed on, determined to find leavening humor if it killed him, "that could have been fun, right?" Araciel's lips pursed, head cocked a little in consideration, before she grinned. Her teeth gleamed wetly in the glow of the dash lights.

"Yeah, maybe," Araciel answered, thoughtful, "in certain genres of porn, anyway."

For a shocked second, Dean saw Araciel in his mind's eye, wearing that same grin as she watched the dirty things he liked to watch. The idea of an angel watching pornography was still so incongruous, and so completely off the weirdness scale that he laughed. Laughed until he had to scrub off the tears squeezing from his eyes.

"What?" Araciel asked, the sincerity of her affront shaken by giggles, "I've been around a while. I was watching it before it had its own channels."

Dean laughed even harder. Their exit loomed up, and he found the focus to wave her onto Highway 136. The state patrols seemed to be taking a nap.

"I was looking at it when the Romans were painting it on their living room walls," Araciel added, "and back when it was dirty pictures in a Brewster Stereoscope."

"Brewster what?" Dean wheezed.

"Stereoscope," Araciel repeated, gesturing with finger flicks over the steering wheel like she wasn't doing eighty, "you know, like one of those red plastic Viewmaster things. Except older. Just one picture. Had to use your imagination, back then."

An angel looking at dirty 3D pictures on a Viewmaster. Every emotion boiling under Dean's skin suddenly transduced, like Castiel's Grace, from one kind of energy into another. Into laughter. He laughed like his sanity depended on it. "You are the great-great-great-great-grandma of porn," Dean choked.

Araciel shook her head, laughing. "Screw that. I'm a Smut Jedi," she corrected, squinted, and braked. The familiar brown sign of a state park ghosted through the Impala's headlights, and their fragile good mood evaporated.

"We're not in Kansas anymore," Dean muttered, because it had been bouncing around in his head since Chester, "keep going until you hit 57th Avenue. There's a gravel road into the back end of the park by the railroad tracks. They've got cameras on the front gates."

"You said this park's safe?" Araciel asked, as she followed Dean's instructions. They decelerated. The lack of road noise suddenly made everything else seem three times as loud.

Dean nodded. "Heaven, Hell, Rock Creek Station's warded to the eyeballs for both and more. They might know we're here, but they won't know what we're up to unless they walk right into camp. Those angel radios in your heads," he mentioned casually, "you can turn those off?"

"Not really," Araciel replied, "but we don't use it. Until now, nobody seemed to be listening."

"I think we're all gonna need a tutorial in how exactly that works," Dean said, and gestured up the road, where a crossing arm reflected back at them in red and white peppermint stripes. The Impala's nose bucked up a slight rise, dropped off the concrete with a squeak and crunched into pea gravel. Another right turn, on a farmer's access road, and gravel turned into dirt.

"Shitty hotels and campgrounds in the boonies? You boys sure like to rough it."

"We like to stay off the grid." Dean rolled down his window completely and leaned out, searching the treeline for lights. The fields around them were quiet – not a fire or a flashlight, and the service road emptied them into the trees. Then, the Impala's headlights washed over a pair of vehicles by the roadside: Jack's jeep and a black Ford pickup that didn't belong to anyone Dean knew. He tensed.

"You were saying?" Araciel muttered.

Dean reached under his seat for his Glock. He didn't use it much – the cartridges were a pain to find – but there wasn't a spot in this car he couldn't reach a gun from in two seconds. He wasn't sure where his shotgun went, but it wasn't in the back seat when he woke up.

He hoped there weren't any creepers this time. The Impala's headlights whitened the trees at either side of the road, jailing them in a cattle chute of thick, pale wood. Araciel put her foot on the brake and gestured for Dean to go ahead. He nodded again and stepped out of the car, leaving the door open between himself and the strange truck.

Next to the vehicles was Sam. Dean kept his gun behind the door, and waved. Sam crossed his arms, and at this silent all-clear, the knot in Dean's stomach released. He tucked the Glock in the waistband of his pants and stepped back to shut the door. God they were a paranoid bunch. The Impala rolled forward into the space beside the pickup, idled down to silence, and Araciel joined him. Their boots crisped through a thick layer of leaves and brush. She lobbed his keys in a soft, sideways arc. "Nice car."

Dean caught them and pocketed them, glad to feel the weight of them against his hip again. "Thanks. Take her again without asking, I will end you."

She snorted. "Unless you've been kidnapped."

Dean tucked his hands in his hip pockets and rolled his shoulders. "Unless I've been kidnapped, okay."

Sam made a beeline for Dean, gait swinging out in a long lope. "How's our boys?" Dean asked as his brother reached them, adding, "Whose truck?" with a thumb jerked at the strange pickup.

"Good," Sam bobbed his head, excitement crackling around him, "Cas is passed out in one of the cabins, but Remy's up. Dean, the creepers can talk. We might have a way to shut that thing down before it gets any bigger. And that?" he waved loosely at the truck, "Belongs to John Bonham."

Dean blew out a puff of laughter. "Who is? Aside from somebody with really awesome parents."

Sam stepped in front of him, halting his trajectory. Araciel abandoned them, jogging down the narrow path like she had some very important business at the other end. "No, you don't get it. John Bonham." He said it like it mattered; like Dean needed to take this very seriously. That in combination with the electric grin that shone right through Sam's voice, and Dean's stomach did a backflip.

"What?"

"Dean, he's an angel. You just—come on, come with me. You've got to see this." Sam's hands made excited windmills, fingers wide in emphatic claws. It clicked and Dean forgot about everything else. He knew his eyes were probably saucers, but John fucking Bonham. It was impossible not to think the man's name in italics.

Caught up in Sam's infectious enthusiasm, Dean temporarily let everything else go by the wayside and double-timed it into the woods at Sam's side. "But, I mean, how is that possible?" Dean puffed, "He grew up in Britain - there's baby pictures. He was like some child drum prodigy at sixteen. And he had two kids – how come aren't they Purple People Eaters?"

"Long story," Sam panted, "but I'm telling you, Dean. It's him."

Even under strong moonlight, the campsite was inky dark. Old cabins at the edge of the park had long since been forgotten by the service, and passing hunters in need of safety took extra care to make certain it continued to look abandoned. Canned goods stocked in deep cellars under the floorboards could keep someone alive for a few weeks, at least. It was a five-minute walk through the timber from the spot where they left the vehicles, shielded from the roads (and, hopefully, the owner of the field) by timber and thick brush. Dean visited the place a few times in younger days, and again later, after he'd learned to add hex bags and carefully hidden Enochian sigils. Other protections had been added, as other hunters moved through the area, weaving a living supernatural barbed wire fence out of trees and rocks.

Park services across the country – world, more like – had long ago been infiltrated by 'in the know' folks. By now, any Ranger with more than a couple years of service had a brush with the weird. Werewolves, wendigos, rugurus and faeries: weird things liked woods infested with unwary tourists. Over time, a tenuous partnership struck up between hunters and the forest wardens. There were 'safe' spots like this all over the United States, left alone with a wink and nod. Sam opened the door to one of the cabins, and warm light spilled out. Dean took in the circle as they arrived. Araciel and Remiel leaned against a wall by the door, Remiel's shoulder dressed in strips of his own shirt. Jack Harkness sat on the edge of the bottom bunk by a small, cold wood stove. Castiel filled up the rest of the bunk and overflowed it, still apparently out like a light. At the table that dominated the right side of the small room were two strange men, neither of whom looked a bit like John Bonham.

Dean's gaze clung to the bunk, his gut twisting into a fist. Castiel stirred when Jack shifted, turning onto his side to curve around the man's hips. One hand rested on Jack's thigh with easy intimacy. Dean snapped his eyes away, enthusiasm draining. "We know Crowley's onto us now, where are we at?"

"Ready for war," one of the strangers answered, rising from the table. He was young, no more than twenty, clean-cut with dark hair, eyes like Sam, and a light British accent. He braced one hand on the table and leaned out, offering the other to Dean, who took it with caution.

"Dean Winchester," Dean said, "you are…?"

The kid grinned, something too familiar about the retreating slyness in it. "I know you, Dean. Don't recognize me with a naked chin?" he teased. Dean's eyes widened, and he looked over his shoulder at Sam, who beamed like this was all his fault.

"Cut him a break, John," Jack laughed, "You were dead when he was still wearing Pull-Ups." Dean flashed a silent, sarcastic laugh in Jack's direction and rolled his eyes, then refocused on the kid. The kid, who was probably John fucking Bonham. Dean squinted, trying to overlay the long wavy hair and beard over the unfamiliar face. They fit, or at least as well as his imagination could allow. This was the face in the photos, on the tee shirts, in the interviews, behind the vibrating liquid brass drum set. Younger yes, but maybe that was just the beard all this time, and the jowly cheeks. He was a hell of a lot thinner than he'd been.

Dean dropped the eye contact and ducked, sudden nerves flaring. Before this private idol, his stomach jigged and adrenaline licked chills across his chest. His hunter's reflexes howled a protest, but his instincts, the ones that made him warm-blooded and craving, wanted to worship.

"'John?' Nobody's called me that in thirty years," John mused.

"What should I call you?" Jack asked. Dean heard unspoken innuendo in his voice and silently found himself adding 'when I scream it in bed' to that sentence.

John chuckled. Evidently he'd heard it too. "These days, they call me Tory," he replied, "it does with less explaining than 'Turiel.' You, however, can call me whatever you like."

Dean looked up, expecting to see that faint smile bestowed on Jack, because hey, every other angel in the room seemed to want to fuck him, why not John Bonham? But John's – or, he supposed, Tory's - smile was for Dean. The inquisitive focus in his gaze made Dean's stomach somersault all over again. His mind screamed at him: he wants you! He wants you! Dean had been hit on by guys before – hell, less than forty-eight hours ago, counting Jack – but not with this directness. Usually, he could slide away gracefully; usually he wasn't being propositioned by John fucking Bonham.

"My middle name was 'Henry,' actually," Tory offered, amused. And holy shit, he could read minds just like everyone else. Or maybe Dean's brain was shouting in panic – which was likely. He ducked again, at a loss for words and hating it. The whole situation was comical – so comical that he could feel the ludicrous smile bubbling up despite his nerves.

Castiel abruptly drained Dean's chaotic mental swamp. "As Remiel and I are conscious, and there is a war on, perhaps we should move forward." His voice was dry, and sharp.

The second stranger rose from the table as Tory returned to his seat. "I agree," he said, and extended his hand to Dean. For a moment, Dean mistook him for Raphael. The shadows beyond the lamps only conceded from him a fraction; his voice heavy, white eyes fierce. But then he smiled; something Raphael never did in Dean's vicinity. "I understand your brother's name is Sam," the stranger continued, as Dean took the offered hand in a wary grip, "so for the sake of simplicity, call me Shem. I lead the Watchers. In times such as these. Ordinarily, they are law unto themselves."

Here he was. The commander of the whole damn feathery fleet. And he had flawless diction. He talked the way angels should talk. The way Castiel talked, under raining sparks and molten glass.

"Please show me what you've found," Shem asked. Dean reminded himself to breathe. In his peripheral vision, he caught Jack's salute.

"Yes, sir."

Chapter Text

A few hours later, Castiel scaled the ladder to the root cellar beneath his cabin, lantern in hand. He chose to temporarily avoid any unnecessary use of power, as he was not yet at full strength. Remiel's circulatory system thankfully responded to Castiel's insistence, but as the angel had been dead when he arrived, Castiel severely overextended himself in the process. He was surprised to wake next to Jack with his 'battery' nearly charged, as it were; certain Heaven would have cut him off by now. Perhaps they lacked the power and know-how, these days. Unfortunately, the stream was thin, and 'nearly' was not 'fully.' Until he was whole, Castiel determined to make himself useful in other ways. Thus his foray into the cellar, to take stock of their rations and take over meal construction. He and Jack shared cooking duties in Purgatory, but only for equality's sake. Jack hated the job. Despite the meager diversity, Castiel found he enjoyed cooking as a care-taking responsibility and creative outlet. It soothed him; he was good at it.

Castiel's lantern picked out rows of cans, jars and boxes in disarray on wooden shelves anchored into the earth with long, heavy bolts. While the chaos frustrated him, it also offered a convenient, productive means to vent. He wedged his lantern high on the ladder rungs and got to work.

Overhead, the camp was quiet. Before moving on, Shemyazaz and Turiel absorbed all the information they had – on Crowley, on the Fates, and on the growing Rift crossing the United States. They echoed Remiel's shock and dismay at his discoveries related to the creepers – though Castiel and Araciel certainly outdistanced all of them in that respect. Castiel felt Araciel's pain when confronted with her culpability for so many unnecessary deaths, although he seemed – strangely – better equipped to manage it. He comforted her as best he could, glad to pass on his object lesson - although her response left him uncertain of its success.

How many fell beneath his arrows in Purgatory? Castiel's Grace was a tentative surety against creeper attacks in the future. However, until he saw their lack of aggression for himself, he would still go armed for battle. There were days, in fact, when he felt the creatures made more a target of him than Jack. As if they knew he was not there by accident.

Castiel tilted his head at a row of green beans. That bit of dogma was familiar and old. Was it true? The Winchesters intended to kill him, not imprison him. By semantics, his imprisonment was accidental. Accidents were uncommon for the Winchesters. They could be cavalier, but not in the execution of a deadly ritual. Castiel believed their sincerity. The story remained suspect.

Castiel sorted vegetables, separating cans of beans and tomatoes in the earth-scented half light. The rims clicked together as he stacked them, punctuating sharp, unpleasant thoughts. The Rift and its continuing explosive payload was the smallest of converging storm fronts. Shemyazaz meant to take the remaining Watchers and loyal angels to war against the Fates, which was foolhardy. Castiel still believed Atropos could be killed, but the others' weaknesses remained uncertain.

Even so, if Atropos and her sisters could amass the support of the Host, a few dozen angels locked inside their vessels could not hope for victory. The Watchers were limited. The General of the Twenty arrived here in a pickup truck. And then there was Turiel, with his easy, flip humanity. Castiel dropped an oblong can of corned beef, and the shelf trembled.

By the time Jack's shadow wavered across the shelves, Castiel completed his sorting system. Orderly rows of non-perishable goods glinted softly. Jack plucked the lantern from the rungs as he descended, jumped to the dirt floor with a low thud and admired Castiel's handiwork. "We could have used you in the Great War," Jack leaned in to murmur, "I swear there's more food here than there was the last time I was down." He traced Castiel's spine, light fingertips asking gently. Castiel turned to put an arm around his waist.

Jack hummed a questioning note, blunt fingertips taking in the nape of Castiel's neck. The light sensation stirred a shudder of arousal. He nodded. "I've almost recovered - faster than I anticipated, given my current status where Heaven is concerned. As this seems to be our base for the moment, I'm assuming… kitchen patrol," Castiel smiled at the last, faint and wry. He felt Jack's smile against his temple.

"Ah. I've got some fond memories of KP. Peeled too many potatoes to count, but the company usually made up for it." His breath brushed Castiel's ear with warmth, prompting a flood of answering heat and the low clench of arousal. After consistent, daily physical contact with Jack, Castiel realized now that he'd been hungering. He wanted to be touched, which ran opposite his uneasiness with everyone else. He tipped his head to kiss Jack at the sharp jawline and earned a happy groan.

"I assume you don't mean Purgatory," Castiel murmured, "we didn't have potatoes."

"No. Wasn't talking about you, soldier," Jack laughed, deep and more than half breath.

"I thought so." Castiel's private, gratified smile flickered in the dark. "Tell me about one of your memories. While I make dinner."

"Only one?" Jack pulled a disappointed face. "All right." His fingers sifted Castiel's hair. Pleasant tingling fanned outward and down Castiel's neck like sunlight, drawing his focus swiftly to center. It was not nearly so difficult to locate Jack through the oscillations of the universe. His life force still burned like a star. "Software's tracking last known locations for all of the equipment we need," Jack said, "I'm trying to pinpoint as accurately as I can, to save your energy. We've got some time. Need me for anything?"

Castiel made no comment on the plan and the mission to come, leaning instead into Jack's touch. "Yes." He didn't move. Jack's laughter crackled with warmth.

"I meant dinner," Jack clarified.

"That, too."

Moving in unison was something old to them; something comforting. One of Jack's old goals included learning to anticipate one another. In sex they achieved it - if absolutely nowhere else.

Castiel blamed that on sheer volume.

Bunks on a space freighter had roomier appointments than this storage cache. Even so, it was larger than many shelters in Purgatory. Just enough space to discard their equipment, and sleep. Or, not sleep.

Castiel stepped back as Jack turned. He moved unbidden now, heeding the cues in Jack's broad hands. The cool, hard-packed wall by the ladder pressed against his shoulders, and soft crumbles of earth rained down to his heels. In close quarters, the tension Castiel carried spilled outward, cramping his muscles into knots. He lifted his arm to Jack's shoulders and tucked his forehead in the warm dark between his bicep and Jack's neck.

"Yeah," Jack murmured, closing him in slowly, "you hang on, Archer. Busy few days."

"There are so many people." Castiel's voice was muffled.

"Lots of people needing you," Jack offered while his fingers scuffed lightly along Castiel's back, and yes, that was it exactly. So exact that he didn't bother to acknowledge it. No need; Jack knew and that was fine.

Castiel's head shot up. "I find Turiel annoying," he declared impulsively.

Jack's smile was broad enough to feel. "You thought the same thing about Shamsiel."

Pause. Not that Castiel had forgotten Shamsiel, but with distance his response lessened. Yes, he was annoying. Beautiful; Castiel loved him and knew relief that he lived, yet his presence irritated.

Because of Jack.

Oh.

Castiel relaxed again, whuffing a sigh of frustration into Jack's collar. "This is irrational behavior."

"Sure it is. But, you know Archer, if you're upset about Tory—"

"I'm not upset about Tory," Castiel flashed, followed by the hot creep of shame at his sudden petulance. Jealousy sat like a coal in his stomach, and it made him feel no better now than it had at Burning Man.

"I was only going to say," Jack went on gently, "I'm maybe not who you should tell."

"Dean is not—" Castiel began, caught his own words and where the path of his thoughts had gone. He tipped his head back to survey Jack in consternation. Jack smiled.

"You know him better than I do," Jack said with a shrug.

Castiel continued to stare. "I don't think it's wise to open that subject with him," he said after several seconds ticked off in silence, "He remains wary of me, and there are many other… storms converging."

"Not ever?" Jack seemed dubious.

"I don't think it's wise," Castiel repeated. Against his stomach, he felt Jack's measured breath.

"Okay," Jack said at last, and – to Castiel's relief – let the topic rest there. For a few minutes, they stood together in silence, Jack's fingers kneading Castiel's shoulders in slow circles. With a sigh, Jack offered in a lighter tone, "For the record, I'm not a Led Zeppelin fan."

"Turiel is attractive," Castiel observed, carefully neutral.

"Yes he is," Jack agreed, "more than he used to be. Music wasn't pretty in the seventies. Or most of the eighties. You know what?"

Heat began to build again, slowly. Castiel found new places to put his hands. He went to Jack's belt and tugged out the tails of his shirt. "Yes, Jack?"

Jack's laughter filtered into breath. "I like it when you say that. I was just thinking – I've always been a little suspicious about Bonham. Humans are brilliant, but one person is responsible for an entire musical movement?"

Castiel found himself smiling. "Aliens."

"Aliens," Jack repeated, "right,” and kissed him.

Castiel heard the breath of the earth and felt the intense, nuclear heat of Jack's soul, then teeth at the corner of his mouth. He'd drifted, and his irritation at that plus the pain cued a surge of arousal strong enough to burn off both. His hands snapped up to Jack's neck and tipped his mouth into a nearly vicious kiss. This was so familiar, from the scent and taste to the earth at his back. Castiel's vessel - his body - remembered Jack. By the invitation in Jack's hands, his body remembered Castiel as well. His fingers slipped under Jack’s waistband.

The first time he held Jack in his hands, Castiel investigated with such frank curiosity that it tickled Jack's sense of humor. Jack hadn't explained what was funny until well after, which was probably for the best. Castiel tested the heft and warmth; pushed down the foreskin, experimenting with its unique elasticity as the chuckles went to air. Castiel remembered slow nights when they pushed each other, drove themselves to shuddering sweat, blissfully deaf of the undead hammering outside. Castiel found his fascination and patience matched by Jack, who seemed just as curious. In all his observations of human sexuality, Castiel never tried to imagine for himself how hands could give comfort and release. Touch seemed a segue way for another act. But Jack loved to use his fingertips and palms beyond anything else, and his skill with them was formidable. He passed this love to Castiel along with a portion of that skill.

"Go—" Castiel began to ask.

"—slow," Jack finished, lips drawn back from his teeth as he worked Castiel's shirt and trousers open, "you bet."

In a pace that anyone else might have found excruciating, they played out, kissing a counterpoint to the slow rhythm of hands. Senses stretched for the first sound of intruders, Castiel pulled his consciousness inside his vessel as fully as it would fit. It wasn't as hard as it had been at first, and the restraint brought freedom. Perhaps the pleasure of touch would never be the simple thing it was. But now it was good, with all the fire of Jack's presence spinning and flaring beneath. Jack was beautiful, and terrifying. The pure energy of life burned down at his core, and Castiel wanted it. He wanted all things at once; to claim it and be claimed, to take hold, examine and cherish, and oh yes - fuck it hard into the wall until he could feel it searing him inside. Jack responded, or maybe Jack was already there. The weight of kisses increased, losing finesse. They panted together, knees and thighs threatening to give.

When Castiel's touch grew erratic, the barrage of sensation eating his focus, Jack caught his wrist and swept the arm around his own neck. "Hang on," he said, warm and humid into Castiel's ear. He did, both arms tight, every muscle tight, as Jack drove him to a relentless climax.

Behind them, the lantern bulb exploded in a shower of molten glass within its chimney, and the cellar went abruptly dark. Jack's hand was warm and tacky as he guided Castiel back to stroke him again. His laughter snapped off into growls. "You are something ELSE, Castiel."

Suddenly the touch was not enough. Protected by the dark, Castiel went to his knees. His fingers and mouth trailed down soft belly and light grooves of muscle, mapping Jack by touch and taste. Heavy, living warmth stretched his jaw as he took Jack in. His tongue rolled against the skin in long strokes. Salt-bitter damp coated his mouth. Jack shouted encouragement. Hungry hands tumbled into Castiel's hair and deep laughter echoed down Jack's body. He felt aware of every passing moment, marked by Jack's rapid metronome breaths. At last, nothing diverted his attention from the brilliant glow of the present.

"Well, this is familiar," Jack said afterward, smiling against Castiel's temple. They sat together on the cellar floor in the dark, catching their breath.

Castiel let out a soft huff of laughter, feeling spent and firm in his skin. The fatigue in his jaw was welcome. It matched the warm water softness of his body. "Without the spiders. Thankfully."

"Earth hasn't got any spiders that big yet. Nothing native, anyway."

"Or that noisy." Purgatory's horse-sized spiders had a raspy, penetrating scream.

"Not spiders," Jack nudged Castiel's shoulder.

Castiel smiled in the dark, conceding with a good-natured sigh. "I should exhibit more personal restraint. It feeds your ego." His head lolled against Jack's shoulder. "Which is not starving."

Jack laughed. "Hard to believe it's only been a few weeks since we busted out," Jack mused, "sometimes I expect to wake up there. Like I hit my head and this is just a hallucination."

"Hallucinations don't feel like this," Castiel offered in reassurance. He felt Jack's nod.

"They always feel real while you're in them though, Archer."

Castiel rolled his eyes upward to the cellar door. He might have argued, but there wasn't time. The door swung up, and Castiel found himself gazing into Bobby Singer's lined face.

Bobby squinted down at them, bent over the hole with his hands braced on his knees. "Cas?"

"Hello, Bobby."

"…Well, I'll be damned."

Reluctantly, Castiel peeled away from Jack's side and pushed himself to his feet. He could feel Bobby's stare on the crown of his head, and glanced up again as he brushed crumbles of earth from his hands.

"Did you just arrive?" Castiel asked. Apparently Sam and Dean's mission to refresh some of the wards had been successful; he'd missed the man's arrival. Either that or Jack was a keener distraction than he expected.

Bobby nodded, straightened, and withdrew from the mouth of the cellar opening. "About ten minutes ago. Heard voices this way, figured this was where the party's at."

Jack laughed. "Just missed it. Our lantern broke." With a grunt, he joined Castiel at the ladder. They collected the ingredients for tonight's dinner in the canvas totes Castiel brought down with him, and exited the cellar. Bobby was waiting for them at the top. His gaze followed Castiel intently, out of the hole and towards the small table in the cabin, until Jack's head and shoulders popped over the edge. Castiel turned as the sound of movement on the ladder ceased, in time to see Jack swing the broken lantern out of the hole and offer his free hand up to Bobby.

"Captain Jack Harkness," Jack beamed, "nice to meet you."

For a few moments, Bobby seemed rooted to the spot. Then, very carefully, he clasped the offered hand and helped haul Jack up and out of the cellar. "Bobby Singer."

"Some of the wards on the perimeter required replacing," Castiel offered, watching Bobby's stillness with growing concern, "Sam and Dean should return shortly."

Bobby nodded, eyes slow to return from Jack. When they did meet Castiel's again at last, Bobby's expression was wary. "Sam says it's really you."

"They did extensive testing," Castiel's reply was frosty, "Sam and Dean appear convinced."

An uncomfortable silence followed.

Rolling his eyes, Castiel brandished his blade. Both men took a step back.

"Here," Castiel said impatiently, flipping the blade pommel end out and offering it to Bobby, who took it as if it might burn.

Castiel began to roll up his sleeve.

"Whoa," Jack reached for Castiel's elbow, "no. Seriously, isn't Sam and Dean's word good enough?" He looked up in irritation at Bobby.

Bobby hiked his eyebrows. "And who the hell are you?"

"Someone could have impersonated Sam," Castiel explained, "via cellular phone, it's not difficult." He offered Bobby his arm.

"Yeah? Well, your ID system is horrible," Jack's voice registered the barest hint of a snarl. To Castiel's relief, however, he allowed the process to play out unhindered. Bobby supported Castiel's wrist and slid one edge of the sword along the tender inside of his forearm. Red blood welled up, and pain, but as Bobby pressed deeper light began to pour out as well. It was - he noted with odd satisfaction - nearly the same place Dean opened in the missile silo. The blue-white purity bathed their faces.

"Satisfied?" Castiel asked as Bobby withdrew. Jack took his place, pressing a pad of clean handkerchief over the wound and blotting out the light. Beneath his hand, Castiel concentrated on closing the wound. He didn't need medical attention, but the process seemed to have a calming effect on Jack, so Castiel let it be.

His gaze met Bobby's once more. Once, a very long time ago, Castiel viewed Bobby with contemptuous wonder. He was only an old man; a drunk with the audacity to hunt an angel with buckshot. But Bobby stood beside Dean, not because he thought they could kill Castiel all those years ago, but because he would protect his sons at any cost. Such a broken, feeble thing could still show Castiel more about fatherhood than his own.

"S'been a while," Bobby answered gruffly.

Not so long, Castiel thought. A little over a week ago, Bobby trained a rifle at his head. He might not remember, but Castiel certainly did. He could still feel Bobby's eyes on him, but verbal apologies seemed poor and pale. Jack's hands left Castiel's arm, the skin beneath the handkerchief unbroken again.

Bobby adjusted his ballcap. "You got anything to say for yourself?"

"I failed you," Castiel said, the words folding his heart.

Bobby was nodding, emphatic. "You're damn right you did," he snapped.

Castiel's courage quailed. Then arms drew around him, awkward and tense. The bill of Bobby's cap grazed Castiel's jaw and their chests connected with a hard, abrupt thump.

"You pick up a goddamned phone next time, boy," Bobby growled.

Heat roared under Castiel's skin. He shuddered, and yanked Bobby to him after a shocked delay. "Yes, sir," he muttered, voice muffled against Bobby's shoulder.

When they did separate, Bobby returned to business as if nothing had occurred. He cleared his throat and went to get the door. "Last I heard, you planned to pay Crowley's bunker a visit. Find anything?"

Castiel provided him with an extensive report over dinner preparations. Talking to Bobby was unexpectedly satisfying. Castiel hadn't realized until now how the man gave his full attention, asked pointed questions, and did not interrupt. "I can see you didn't train Dean in the art of interrogation," he said.

Bobby grinned and humphed. "You think that chucklehead would get into half these scrapes if I had?"

With three pairs of hands, the process of assembling basic vegetable stew progressed rapidly. It was an unexpected pleasure to have Bobby's help. Their exchange remained understandably stilted, but it was still talking, as allies. He touched the emotional response to that gingerly. Castiel marveled, too, at the variety of canned food. Everything they ate in Purgatory was fresh, mostly meat and grains baked in crude stone ovens. Unfortunately, while the cans of potatoes and beans could last for years, they also tasted salty and metallic. Castiel didn't care for it. He thought the food might help restore him; however, and ate with the others when everyone returned. They crowded around the tiny table in the primary cabin where they'd first contacted Shemyazaz and Turiel.

"And John Bonham is an angel, seriously, Bobby. I met him." Dean enthused.

"John who?"

"Bonham. You know, drummer? British? Led Zeppelin?"

Bobby snorted. "Never did get how you and your daddy listened to that racket," he complained.

"I know, right?" Sam spread his hands, "Try sitting in the backseat with that for seven hundred miles."

"Never heard you complain," Dean argued into his stew.

Sam laughed. "Sure, because that would have worked."

Despite their friendly bickering, Sam and Dean appeared tense, taking furtive glances at one another without making eye contact. Intense worry skated over the surface of their thoughts, but Castiel maintained his promised distance. They were usually worried as a matter of course, and he felt too good at the moment to press them.

Jack noticed, too. "How'd the rounds go?" he asked. Sam and Dean shrugged almost in unison.

Dean looked pointedly at Castiel. "How are you doing, Cas? You gonna be good to go for your big European vacation tomorrow?"

Surprised to be asked, Castiel nodded. "I'm nearing full strength. When the remaining devices are located, I will be fully capable of transporting Jack."

"What are these things?" Dean's attention shifted to Jack as he scooped another mouthful of stew, "you said you could close the rifts with them."

"Handheld Rift Manipulators?" Sam felt out the phrase, leaning over his bowl with interest, "That's new to us."

Jack smiled. "We used them from time to time - call it a Rift Key. The most recent case was a time fissure in an old military hospital, dating back to the second World War. 1941 was slipping into the present, and vice versa. If we didn't close the tear, basically – you're familiar with how plate shifts can cause an earthquake?"

Sam nodded.

"Think of that, but with plates of time colliding instead of land." His hands lay over one another above the scarred tabletop, miming the process, "It starts at one weak point, then ripples out, causing more events; more quakes. Except unlike an earthquake - it won't stop. It'll just keep rippling out. I don't know what'll happen if it destabilizes time completely."

Sam sat back. Dean looked skeptical. His gaze flicked to Castiel, who raised his eyebrows, silently daring him to question the fluidity of time. Dean huffed and looked away. "Okay, but what does this 'Rift Key' do? I mean, what is a 'rift'? Other than what happens when you tear open a hole to Purgatory," he challenged Jack.

Sam answered before Jack could open his mouth. "Rifts are expanded time fissures," he said, "some of the hauntings we've investigated that were harmless, or we couldn't duplicate? Those were probably caused by the same thing. I think really strong emotions can trigger one - a fissure, I mean, not a rift. Like the silo, and Crowley's Funhouse - intense fear probably got the wheels turning."

Castiel gazed at Sam in surprise. From his periphery, he saw Jack's head shoot up from his meal as well.

"I don't remember telling you that," Jack said cautiously.

Sam shrugged. "You didn't. I figured it out myself. Missile silo in Kansas? That's an Atlas silo, it was built in the Fifties and manned through around 1965 - it's soaked in fear from the Cold War. Even before Crowley got hold of that place in Bootback, it belonged to a looney tune 'doctor' with a lot of money and an obsession with human brains." Sam pointed the mouth of his water bottle at Jack. "You told me how human emotions are energy, and how Rifts come from time fissures after some huge cataclysm. I started putting pieces together."

"Hell of a jigsaw to play with all by yourself," Jack sounded impressed, "but your hypothesis holds water. Lot of fear wrapped up in that military hospital, too."

Sam turned to Dean. "There was already a weak spot there in the silo. Like… structural damage to a building. We poured a bunch of power on top of it and," he clicked his fingers, "boom. Same with Crowley's place."

"A Rift Key can seal that rip in time," Jack explained, "It can't negate the damage that happened there, but it can stabilize the energy in the silo so it won't happen again."

"Speaking of that silo," Bobby interrupted, "you boys said you got the spell out of my Dee journals?"

"Which isn't possible," Castiel volunteered, still irritated by even the conjecture that Dee might have been able to create such a work on his own.

Bobby nodded. "Darn right it's not. Back when we first started looking for a way to stop Cas's promotion, I went through those journals. Front to back."

Sam frowned. "It was there. Maybe you missed it. It's a lot of stuff to go through."

Bobby cocked his head at Sam, lip curled as if he'd smelled something rancid. "Right. And how long before it showed up in the stack, genius? I needed a week to go through those books and came up with squat."

"Two… days…" Sam sat back, flicking a worried glance at Dean.

"More to the point," Bobby sighed, "Dee couldn't have made something like that. Not in his wildest freakin' fantasies. Wasn't his style and wasn't what he was after, besides. I don't know where you got that, but it wasn't from me."

Dean and Sam exchanged a wary glance. Dean licked his lips, hesitating before he met Bobby's eyes. "Bobby, I know for a fact, we got that from your place. I transcribed that whole thing myself out of those journals."

"And I'm telling you, Dean," Bobby's spoon dropped to his empty bowl, "from what you've just said? There is nothing like that. I've got some creepy, dangerous crap in my library, and I know where every single bit of it is. If I had a spell to drop an angel on steroids, I'd remember. Not to mention hidden it from you two idiots," his mouth tilted, "before you tried to off yourselves. Again."

Both Sam and Dean ducked like chastised boys.

Like Sam, Castiel began to piece the puzzle together from the disparate bits of information. "I don't know you to make mistakes," he said slowly, voicing his earlier concerns, "but the spell was clearly not intended to do as you expected." He paused. "I believe you were deliberately misled."

"By who?" Dean asked, "the Fates?"

"Yes," Remiel spoke up. He and Araciel joined the dinner gathering with the others, but had not spoken until now.

"They've been mustering a support base ever since Castiel 'punished' the first round of Raphael's loyalists," Araciel added, "The angels must have been avoiding the usual frequencies, but we caught enough."

"I didn't hear of a rebellion," Castiel cut in.

Remiel shrugged. "You were preoccupied."

"Smiting the sinners," Araciel said.

Castiel rose from the table, the dregs of his stew no longer appealing. The table behind him was quiet.

"Castiel, I didn't—" Araciel began. The heavy scrape of a chair cut her off.

"Okay, we went through this once," Dean grumped, "I'll be nice this time, because you saved my ass and I like you. "Lay off."

Castiel turned in surprise to see Dean standing, looming over Araciel from across the table. She didn't look particularly worried - but she wasn't smiling, either. "Dean, that's not necessary," Castiel protested.

"As I understand it, every person at this table owns a fuckup that brought the world down. Now, you got a problem with what Cas did, fine. But if we're gonna get through this without killing each other," Dean planted both hands on the table a few inches from Araciel's folded arms, "you ditch the attitude, or you walk."

Araciel's body went rigid. "I don't care whose vessel you are, kid," her bared teeth and dark eyes glimmered in the lamplight as she leaned into Dean's space, "you don't give--" her head dropped and her hand flew to her throat. She threw a glare at Remiel, who sighed.

"Stop bickering," Remiel commanded, "the human's concern is valid. You were flip, and they do not appreciate your sense of humor."

"Dean," Dean gestured to himself, motions still jerky with anger, "I've got a name."

Remiel nodded slowly. "Dean," he repeated, turning back to Araciel. She lowered her eyes.

For what felt like the first time since he'd returned, Dean held Castiel's gaze. There was something defiant in it. Something that dared him. To do what, Castiel wasn't certain.

Jack laughed. "Almost like home," he said, "all we need to do is order a pizza." He peeled back the cover of his wrist strap, and stood. "Got 'em. You said this trip is instantaneous, Archer?"

"More or less," Castiel replied.

Jack's eyes rolled upward in thought. "Then we go tomorrow evening. Should hit London around midnight."

Chapter Text

At 11:55PM on a Sunday night, Gwen's mobile lit up like a Christmas tree. Or, seemed like it. Honestly, only Andy had occasion to ring her here in the back of beyond, which was how she needed it. She made certain it was always charged, but when she lifted it, Gwen could see a wee clean oblong in the layer of dust.

Jesus, she was rubbish at this housewife stuff.

The light woke her as the only point of brightness in the total Swansea darkness. Until now, she'd never lived in a place where the stars were so clear; where the Milky Way burned brighter than the downtown spotlights. Shielded from the light and snoring brilliantly on the opposite side of the bed, Rhys didn't stir. Gwen unplugged the mobile from its charger and carried it out into the hallway. Hazy sleep receded as she unfolded the phone and the clean white light blazed in her face.

A text message.

Gwen didn't get text messages. If Andy needed her this late at night, he'd call. If Andy needed anything, in fact, his distaste for fiddly keypads meant he'd go out of his way to avoid them.

Probably a junk text, Gwen thought, denying herself the hope; probably some drunk teenager texting his girlfriend.

The text was blank, but she recognized the number: 2306-308, which went nowhere important. Anyone silly enough to try dialing it would be routed to the Cardiff Department of Tourism.

Gwen thought Ianto might find that bit funny.

Sleep melted like wet salt. Moving quietly, Gwen tugged on the jeans she'd discarded earlier that night, pocketed the phone and hurried down the upstairs hall. Habit prompted her to peek into Anwen's room as she passed, but Gwen resisted going any further in than the doorway. If Anwen was sleeping now, let her sleep. At nearly six months, her sleep patterns weren't nearly so regular as the baby developmental websites said she ought to be. Gwen guessed that had more to do with her own erratic nighttime routine.

Rubbish housewife, rubbish mum.

If Anwen cried now, she'd wake Rhys before Gwen got to the front door. Once she was out of the house though, she'd at least have a little more time to work out an excuse.

Zipping up her jacket against the cold, wet ocean wind, torch in her pocket, Gwen walked into the night. She reached the road at the end of her lane and turned to follow it, tennis shoes soft-footed on the macadam. The sea rolled ceaselessly, louder outside, and Gwen hadn't lived in Swansea long enough to ignore it. The sound filled Torchwood most days, particularly in the undersea tunnels, but the flat she shared with Rhys was closer to city centre and insulated from the endless roar. God, she missed Cardiff. Most days she felt how she fancied amputees did, reaching out with a missing hand. A part of her was gone forever, sometimes the empty space ached, and she hadn't a shot in Hell at getting it back.

When the road ran out, Gwen turned right, up the mild grade of a private driveway to a row of lock-ups. Every unit was identical, garage doors glowing whitely under the security lamps. Gwen swept the grounds one last time with her gaze, opened one of the garage doors and shut it quickly behind her. When it was latched again, she pulled the torch from her hip pocket, and a separate set of keys.

When she clicked the fob attached to the keys, something in the dark beeped, briefly bathing the small space in red and white light. Gwen's heart squeezed, but urgency prodded her forward. Nearly all available space was taken by the black hulk beneath its tarpaulin, and Gwen turned sideways to squeeze around it to the rear bumper. She'd located the SUV by chance less than a month ago, and its continued existence still surprised her when she opened the lock-up.

She climbed inside through the rear with a crackle of tarp, as she'd done many times in the past few weeks. The rear interior of the last surviving Torchwood vehicle was gone, every saleable bit stripped long before she found it. Gwen pulled herself to the front of the vehicle, pushing aside a thick black plastic liner from the floorboard as she did so. She aimed the key fob at the center space of the bombed-out rear compartment, although it wasn't necessary, and clicked a pattern: three beeps, pause, two more.

The floor came to life, sliding open before a short platform with a computer monitor and keyboard emerged.

The carjackers took almost everything, but they'd missed this. On the roof, a satellite antenna nudged out of the skylight. Gwen took a deep breath to calm her nerves, shutting her eyes for a second or two against the soft blue wash of the login screen. Then she pushed forward, settling herself more comfortably in front of the console as she logged into the system. They had a computer, but for safety Gwen refused to risk bringing the Torchwood system into her home. Rhys knew about the SUV, but he didn't know about this. Gwen expected the worst if he ever learned about it. Besides, she hadn't needed it before now. Once she'd tossed out her nets, there was very little to be done here but sit with a cup of tea and think.

Gwen left policework behind when she left Torchwood; Andy kept her abreast of her parents' situation. She'd been forced to accept that she was useless against aliens without her team and the Hub. The few Rift monitors left in the city registered little to no activity since a few months after the 4-5-6. The SUV summoned Gwen here, but not for that. Her 'nets' relied on the United Kingdom's love of CCTV, and the facial recognition software Torchwood employed at least five years before InterPol.

Somewhere on this island, they'd caught Jack.

Gwen opened up the messaging system, the only new system alert bold and black above the others. She reminded herself to breathe as she clicked the link in the alert, which took her to a series of recently captured video clips. This was the first alert since Gwen put the system in place. She'd never known it to give false positives but then, Toshiko had been at the helm. Gwen reminded herself to breathe and clicked play.

London, the location details said; Thamesmead West at the very Eastern edge nearing Abbey Wood. Street CCTV picked up two men moving at a brisk walk north along White Hart Avenue. Gwen slapped her palm over a gasp as her stomach flipped; she didn't need the software to recognize Jack's walk or the flare of his coat. He never buttoned it, sodding showoff, and it flapped like a cape when he walked.

On the heels of shock came a righteous, flaming wall of rage. He'd come back to Earth again, and he wasn't here. Captain Jack bloody Harkness prowled the streets of London, leaving Gwen to housewife and mam at the end of the world without a peep. What was he doing? Where was he going? This might be the first time Gwen's surveillance system alerted her, but she'd only had it a brief time. What if he was here and hiding from her? Pretending to protect her. Hiding things from her like he always did. For her 'own good.'

"No," Gwen muttered in the dark, "no you bloody don't." She activated the facial recognition software and fed the compiled footage into it a second time, searching for the identity of the second man. Sitting back, Gwen flipped to the clips again and continued to watch them on their way north. More footage continued to arrive, and Gwen's skin went cold with the knowledge that this was happening now. Jack was in London, she at least five hours away just sitting, helpless as someone's gran.

The software bleated a soft confirmation alert. Gwen's eyes skated left to the readout and the identity of the second man.

"James Novak," Gwen mouthed quietly, skimming the sheet, "an American?"

James had no record. Gwen was able to quickly access his last employment - a radio station in Illinois - but nothing after that.

He did have a death certificate, however. James Novak had been declared dead by an American court at the behest of his wife Amelia. He had a daughter too, Claire.

Gwen blinked back to the screen in confusion, eyes narrowed. What was James Novak? And what was Jack doing in Thamesmead in the company of a dead man?

The current clip ran out and another started, this one watching them from a little behind. Gwen saw twin low, long buildings across the street, white as ice in the dark.

The footage fuzzed with static and bent sideways. When it cleared, both Jack and James were gone. Just, gone. Gwen checked the output from the alert system and sure enough, footage stopped coming in a little over a minute ago.

Gwen rushed to open a map of the location on her screen. Come to think of it, how had CCTV only now picked them up? Thamesmead was home to HMP Belmarsh; somehow they'd waltzed around a prison without a squawk. Not only was her suspicion confirmed, but the prison in question was close enough that heavy security was likely everywhere in this neighborhood. She pushed her hands into the front pocket of her jacket, fingers working frantically over the torch and key fob as she struggled to think calmly. This was Tosh's arena; what would Tosh do? Gwen needed to know what they were doing there. Where could she start?

The area. What was in the area? Gwen leaned forward and set her fingers to the keys, handing off the street name and area to the Torchwood software. Mostly, besides Belmarsh, it was just a few shops, a cafe and a lot of empty buildings.

Well. Except for an Mi5 warehouse, which appeared to Google as the HMP Belmarsh laundry.

Gwen felt like a moron. Shortly before Gwen and Rhys moved from Cardiff, she'd seen the crews cleaning out the crater at Roald Dahl Plass. Gwen - to Rhys's protests - insisted on covert surveillance. That was back in the bad old days, when she shook and screamed at night, and sometimes even the life inside her couldn't seem to cut the cold, obsessive rage. Though the crews were disguised in construction grunt orange, Gwen saw far too much security to be anything but a military operation. Things came out of the burnt-out Hub: huge metal shipping containers, numbering at least a dozen over the course of a week. Technology and bodies, Gwen thought: Toshiko's body. Suzie's, if there was anything left of either one. Owen's couldn't be pillaged, at least; he'd been incinerated in a vat of radioactive coolant over a year before.

The baby kept her from charging. The baby kept her alive.

Gwen guessed the security detail belonged to the government, given Torchwood's status before its dissolution.Once she had the Torchwood software back, Gwen tracked the shipping boxes by their serial numbers, and one ended up at this warehouse.

Pulling up another screen, she pointed the software at the warehouse inventory. Everything was cataloged - even the especially tightly guarded artifacts and data. If those records were in a server or a hard drive with network access, they were impossible to hide from the Torchwood software. Gwen wasn't Tosh, but she could certainly manage. It took a few minutes more to cross-reference the database against Torchwood archives. About seventy items surfaced, along with a number of files. Gwen half believed Jack chose to put the filing cabinets in the basement because he couldn't be arsed with paperwork. Besides, if he wanted information, every scrap of data was backed up digitally.

For Jack to suddenly appear out of the blue at a classified Mi5 warehouse meant he was looking for something.

She scanned the list of items quickly. Almost all of them were weapons of some sort - their standard-issue M1911 handguns, a few modified Thompson submachine guns (damaged), lazer guns and the like. There was also a collection of gas masks, four boxes that "couldn't be opened," and several "unidentifiable" objects of "alien origin." Gwen pulled up the Mi5 archive photos. She recognized pieces of Owen's more extraterrestrial medical equipment - all charred, their delicate parts mangled by the blast. The bomb's epicenter was the lab, small wonder. For a moment, Gwen saw Owen's thin face, but crowded the memories out. He'd have mocked her for wasting time on regrets.

The last three items were dirty, but looked undamaged. One of the sonic gizmos Jack never put a solid name to, and two round, bronze clock faces done up with cogs, a crank, a bulky casing and a cracked green light. They looked familiar to Gwen, but without the proper title to jog her memory, she couldn't put her finger on it. Ianto would know. Not that any of it mattered. They could be after any of those things, and she was still too far away to intercept. Gwen closed the photograph collection and flicked back to the list of objects.

That was when she noticed the wee yellow arrows at the corner of each entry's title field but the firearms. Clicking one, Gwen read the memo that swept out to the side.

These objects were no longer at this warehouse. Less than thirty days ago, testing determined that they were neither radioactive nor weapons, thus moved back to general Torchwood storage in Cardiff. Under Mermaid Quay.

So in some form or another, they'd put it back. What for? Was the government launching a new Torchwood? What if Jack had arranged all this? What if he relaunched Torchwood without her?

Gwen's heart clenched and she narrowed her eyes, diving back into the work. Paranoia, she thought in disgust, don't be stupid. If he ever did, not there. Not on your life.
Gwen searched for the facility, found it, and acquired its inventory. Most of the entries were descriptions, as the technology was beyond guessing. Given the lack of information, Gwen guessed the Torchwood software had - thus far - been unmolested.

Gwen powered down her equipment and sat in the dark a moment. Could she do this? Cardiff meant leaving Rhys and Anwen behind and risking the exposure they'd tried so hard to avoid. She hadn't seen her parents or spoken to them since two weeks before Christmas, and it was September, for God's sake! Leaving now would prove she'd failed at being a wife. That the job had gotten under her skin, just like Jack tried to avoid. If she could walk away from her own baby daughter to chase monsters in the bay, Gwen was that rubbish mother, for sure now.

Gwen rocked a little, pushed back to the rear of the SUV, and covered the secret panel carefully again with plastic. If she left, she'd have to do it now. If Jack could appear out of nowhere, then vanish just as fast, he could probably get to Cardiff in seconds.

She let herself out of the lock-up and bolted for the house.


For the second time in two years, Roald Dahl Plass looked like a war zone. A human war zone, anyway; celestial battles were hardly so dark and filthy. The whizz of bullets had tamed considerably since they vanished from sight. A messy barricade of people and vehicles cordoned off the area surrounding the Millennium Tower and the Jolyons Hotel at the edge of the Plass. Smoke still issued from the old Torchwood entrance at Mermaid Quay, and from the Jolyons Hotel basement access. There, the steel doors in the sidewalk had been blown open, bowed with the force of the blast.

A block away on top of a car park, Castiel crouched behind a car with a splitting headache and a bloody hand pressed to the wound on his thigh. Comparatively, he thought the wars of his homeland were poetry and ballet.

Next to him, Jack was - surprisingly - not quite dead. Castiel had been forced to drag him the last few meters, but Jack managed to hold onto their prize. Or rather, the copious pockets of his great coat held it. The dusky bronze curve of one Rift Key spilled halfway out on the pavement from beneath the gray wool.

Well before dawn, they traveled from London to Cardiff and infiltrated the Torchwood Archive beneath the Plass. The destruction of Jack's 'Hub' a year ago had been absolute; however, Torchwood Archive storage went much further beneath the Plass, right up to and under the Bay. Some of the old ways in were blocked now, the rest laced with traps and pitfalls by its new guard - some branch of government in interminable black and Viper assault vests. Jack was angry - and careless. Dismantling those traps summoned a small army. Castiel and Jack fought their way back out, escaping with the last known pair of handheld Rift Key. He was glad the paper trail led there. One small blessing, at least. If not there, they might have been anywhere.

Castiel's head canted back against the blocky white fender of the sedan. He was empty. Not even enough power remained in reserve to heal himself. He was bleeding to death from a simple human bullet. Castiel grimaced and rolled his eyes to Heaven, hidden behind the faint stars and light pollution. His kindest siblings would be ashamed for him. The others would laugh.

Beside him, Jack stopped breathing. Castiel registered the stillness where that regular rasp had been, and for a moment his own lungs seemed full of ice. Then another absence distracted him. As Jack died, so too did the thin thread of power trickling back to Castiel from Heaven. Spots jumped on his vision in time to his pulse, sliding away slow and then fast as he tried to follow them. His heart lunged against its moorings like an animal, and the air seemed full of bitter chemicals. Jack was dead and he'd been found, without the strength to fight and friends to help.

Jack and Castiel gasped at the same time. As the life wrenched back into Jack's body and bowed him upward, power scorched across Castiel's Grace. Like hot water over cold hands, it washed through him with an erotic thrill - and burned. His headache boomed and vanished with the speed of a thunderclap, leaving a faint ache behind. His thigh was no longer bleeding.

Jack groaned.

Castiel looked up from the unbroken flesh as Jack stretched. At last, Jack noticed the straying Rift Key and tucked it back into his pocket.

"Hell of an exit, Archer," Jack blew out a gusty breath, head lolled back to look at Castiel. "How's your battery?"

The phrase drove reality home. A colossal cosmic joke. A human made him an angel when Heaven refused. Castiel stared at Jack, angry that he hadn't noticed the transfer of power before. Hadn't questioned it. Where else could that power come but from Heaven, he thought bitterly.

Jack's smile faded. "What?"

Castiel dropped his eyes. "I'm fine. We're on top of a parking garage a few blocks away. I was able to transport us out of the gunfire. Clearly not soon enough, however." He gestured to the large holes and stains on Jack's shirt.

"You know, you're kind of hazardous to my health, Archer." Jack leaned over and swatted Castiel's shoulder, then used him as a prop to stand. He dusted himself off. "Good thing I'm hardy."

Dousing a smile with difficulty despite himself, Castiel followed suit. Jack offered him a hand up, which he took for comfort's sake. Then again, his leg was still stiff, vessel aching, skin tender as a sunburn from the wash of intense power. His resources were not restored by the burst of Jack's life force - if that was indeed its source. Is this what they go through for us, Castiel wondered, is this how we hurt them when we wear them?

He'd never asked Jimmy. They hadn't ever really talked, once Castiel took control.

Jack moved away from him to lean on the low concrete wall of the car park, gazing down at the wreckage in the Plass. "Guess nobody saw us leave the party."

"They persist in believing we are only humans," Castiel answered, dry.

Jack laughed. "All right, Superman. You good to get us back to base camp?" He patted his pocket, "The sooner we get these to Kansas, the sooner we can sew up those holes in Purgatory."

Castiel joined Jack at the wall. "I'm 'good,'" he confirmed, "don't call me that." Jack's eyes cut to him and Castiel met them soberly. "Superman," he explained, "don't."

After a moment, Jack shrugged and reached up to squeeze the back of Castiel's neck. "All right. It just seemed to suit you."

Castiel nodded and left it at that. Jack was not wrong, after all. He gathered his focus and conjured an image of the camp from memory, its location glowing out from the Earth's curves as he did. When it was firm in his mind, Castiel released the compressed coil of power at his core and reached out to Jack.

In his concentration, he'd missed the running feet. Hands slapped his shoulders, the beginnings of a word shouted in his ear - but they were already in flight. Castiel panicked, feeling the stranger twisting out of shape as they blew home. Warping. He'd cushioned only Jack, not expecting a third. Castiel caught the stranger and held her, protecting her with the rest of his reserve, and deposited her along with Jack in the leaf litter at the edge of camp.

Castiel wasn't so lucky. He landed several yards away in a heap, with a contrail of furrowed soil and slowly smoldering leaves. People were yelling, and running. He could feel the vibration of the earth.

It hurt to even think about moving. He heard Sam. "Cas? Cas!"

Castiel inhaled dirt and detritus, and coughed as threads of pain snagged in his ribs. Strong hands gripped his arms and turned him onto his back, where he blinked up at Sam's furrowed brow. Voices issued not too far away, sliding up and down the scale. Castiel's head lolled sideways. He saw the sharp, angry cutout of Dean against the treeline, gun in hand. The muzzle was down, but far from relaxed.

Gwen, Castiel realized. The stranger was Gwen Cooper. Jack described her so vividly, so many times. He heard Dean call something, and Jack answer. The words were unclear, wary tone less so.

"Cas, you hear me?" Sam asked, much closer.

Castiel spat dirt to the side and looked up again. Sam stood over him, his face upside-down in Castiel's vision. "Yes," he replied, and struggled to sit. The unexpected passenger left him an empty well all over again - a familiar sensation these days.

Sam knelt and pressed him down. "Just stay put for now, all right?" Then the volume of shouting increased and his head shot up. More shouting. Sam hurdled Castiel in a flurry of loose earth and leaves.

The earth trembled with footsteps, then the heavy thud of a body on the ground. Castiel tried again to sit up and succeeded.

Beyond him, Jack sat on Dean's chest, hands on his throat. Sam and Gwen stared one another down over their own gunsights. Panicked, Castiel forced himself to his feet. He got no further than that, as the loud, obvious shuck-shuck of a cycling rifle slammed the chaos to a halt.

Bobby stood a few feet away from the main cabin door, shotgun tucked under his arm. "Really? We're gonna do this now?"

"Call off your boys!" Jack shouted.

"You call 'em off," Bobby retorted, "and stow the pissing match. One person fires a gun in here and the rangers'll be on us like coyotes on sheep. Or didja forget that we're on the same side here?"

Castiel watched as Jack evaluated. He smiled, held his palms up and out and started to dismount.

"No, sir," Jack replied - and Dean slugged him.

"DEAN!" Castiel and Sam shouted in unison. Castiel limped forward as quickly as he could, while Sam jigged in place, not sure if he should intervene. Thankfully, Dean seemed content to leave it there. He scooted sideways from where Jack toppled, massaging his neck and glowering as Sam reached down for him.

Gwen watched Jack roll to his feet, rubbing his jaw. "I suppose I needn't ask if you've met," she said dryly.

Jack rounded on Gwen, expression darkening with bad weather. "What were you doing in Cardiff?"

Gwen's full mouth rounded, working soundlessly a moment. She advanced on Jack, her voice low and soft with danger. "You mean to ask me that?"

Their total focus on one another created an invisible barrier. Castiel looked right, to see Sam and Dean had regrouped and been joined by Bobby. The three of them looked at Castiel as he turned his head. Bobby raised his eyebrows. Sam pursed his lips and shrugged. Clearly none of them wanted to interrupt, any more than Castiel did.

Unmoved, Jack pushed his hands into his pockets. The bright red evidence of Dean's punch began to purple on his jaw. "You know you shouldn't have come. You're putting everyone's lives in danger - yours, Rhys and the baby."

"The baby? It's a girl. Her name's Anwen," Gwen snapped, "not that you'd know. Or maybe you do? Maybe this isn't the first time you've been back without telling me."

"Maybe it isn't," Jack retorted, although Castiel knew it was a lie, "and this is why. Does Rhys know you left? Do I even want to know how you managed to find me in the first place?"

"You mention Rhys to me one more time, Jack Harkness, and I'll bruise your gob to match the first," Gwen snarled, her voice sharpening, "And you can stow your disapproval, because I'm not leaving. Not until you tell me what the hell is going on."

They glared at one another.

"It's good to see you, Gwen," Jack offered, in a tone of voice Castiel had never heard.

Gwen softened and shifted, electric restlessness filling her frame. Her eyes settled everywhere but on Jack. "Where've you been?" she asked, hushed.

Then they were in each other's arms, Gwen's head under Jack's chin, his body nearly swallowing hers.

Castiel watched without surprise. He felt an arm slip around his back and realized belatedly that he'd been listing. Sam cocked half a grin at him. "Come on, Cas. Guess that could've gone worse. You gotta sit down before you fall down." On the way back to the cabin, he added, "That's Gwen Cooper, right?"

"Jack told you?" Castiel asked. Sam shook his head.

"Looked them up, a long time ago. Last I heard though, she was dead."

"News of her death was clearly exaggerated," Castiel replied. Around him, Bobby and Dean's surprised laughter lit up like stars. Castiel felt another arm sweep around him from the opposite side.

"Let go, Sam," Dean said, "I got 'em. You're a friggin' yeti, you're gonna pop his shoulder out."

Sam relented. He walked on ahead, holding the door of the cabin open for them to edge through.

"You all right, Cas?" Dean asked.

"Eventually, yes," Castiel replied, uncertainty clouding his thoughts. Dean was warm and solid, and hadn't touched him deliberately since their unfortunate confrontation at the silo. Even his adrenaline seemed confused, firing unexpected bursts until he quivered. Or maybe that was the trauma. He wasn't healing as quickly as he should have been. "I need Jack," he said.

Dean tightened up under his arm and Castiel immediately wished he'd chosen a different phrase. "Yeah?" Dean said after a pause, "Well, I'm sure he'll be here once he's done hugging it out with his girlfriend."

"Gwen is married," Castiel flashed, "they're not involved."

Dean snorted. "Coulda fooled me. Nobody who doesn't wanna bone acts like that."

The sharpness in Dean's voice stung. "Dean," Castiel chastised in soft disbelief.

"I'm just saying, maybe you don't know everything about this guy."

And that was true. Jack had been many things before Castiel, and would be many more. While it was in Castiel's abilities as an angel to learn everything about Captain Jack Harkness, he chose to limit himself. That left the secrets up to Jack to tell - and he'd told Castiel comparatively little. Dean levered Castiel down onto the edge of the cot. He glanced out the door before Sam closed it, at Gwen and Jack in the early evening light. They were talking, still as wrapped up in one another as before.

Sitting up a little with resolve, Castiel faced Dean squarely. "Nevertheless, I need him," he said, "I discovered today that Heaven truly has cut me off."

Dean pulled a chair over and straddled it, arms folded on the back. "What's that got to do with anything?"

"At some point, my power began to come from Jack."

"What?"

"His life force. His soul," Castiel amended, speaking slowly to avoid another misstep, "it's large… I think it spills over. I'm not certain yet. But somehow, my Grace processes that energy. It's how I was able to transport him to retrieve the Rift Key in the first place."

Dean squinted. "So Jack's your—?"

Castiel cut him off with an impatient gesture. "Don't. Don't translate this into something else, Dean. This is not about sex."

"Dude, I thought we agreed on this. You had better not be reading my mind again."

"It spends most of its time in the gutter. I don't need to read your thoughts to know that."

Dean held up both hands in surrender. "Fine. Whatever. So does he know? That he's powering your circuits?"

Castiel averted his eyes guiltily. "Not yet. At least, I don't believe he knows."

Another small silence stretched between them.

"Don't tell him," Dean said suddenly.

The thought of keeping it from Jack hadn't occurred to Castiel. There simply hadn't been time. It was, in fact, something Castiel thought he'd be fascinated by. He'd want to help test it, and they could reach a conclusion faster. "No," Castiel replied, thought it over, and began again. "Why would I do that?"

"Because it's clearly not bothering him, and if he knows you need him he'll use that against you." Dean abruptly dismounted the chair and spun it back beneath the table. "Look at what happened today. Okay? Guy was gonna choke me, and Gwen almost shot Sam."

You started it, thought Castiel.

Dean's fingertips tapped on the soft wood. When he spoke, it was to the chair. "We'll find another way to get you the power you need - but don't do this. Don't let him know you need him."

"You'll find a way?" Castiel asked with an evenness he didn't feel, fingers curled tight around the cot's frame, "You were never what I would call 'eager' to help me in the past, Dean."

"Yeah? When did you ever give me the chance?"

Castiel rolled his eyes. "When were you ever interested, when it didn't suit your own ends?"

Dean's expression closed.

"I'm useful to you and Sam," Castiel continued, "But be honest with me. I'm a monster. I'm not human. I'm your ally, not your friend, and certainly not your brother."

Dean's shape in the dark cabin seemed to grow, shoulders squaring and drawing back like a flaring bird of prey. "Fine. You got me there. I know you're not human, believe what you want. But the rest of that's bullshit."

"Then don't assume I'm yours to order."

Dean laughed and went to the door. "You're kidding, right? Since when have you been the good little soldier?" He pushed it open and peered outside. "Looks like Gwen and Jack didn't shoot each other."

For the first time since returning, Castiel noticed that their numbers were short. "Where are Remiel and Araciel? I didn't see them outside."

Dean looked back at him, features obscured half in shadow. "Left," he said shortly, "Called back. Apparently the big kahuna we met a couple days ago is about to start shit with the Fates. But we've got our own problems. Those rifts get any bigger and the U.S. is gonna blow skyhigh." He stepped back from the door, letting the influx of people divide them.

Chapter Text

Even a few angels short, the cabin threatened to overflow. Dean and Castiel were the two polar stars by which everyone navigated. Jack and Gwen took up spots near Castiel, Bobby and Sam crammed around the table with Dean on the opposite side of the room. Even after introductions were over, wariness and aggression still colored the air, and Castiel could feel the stifling heat. Chaos reigned around him, questions and accusations flashing over his head like summer lightning. He longed for Remiel's ability to silence the room, but even if he could, the expense would be too great.

Jack's proximity offered a welcome increase in energy, but the knowledge carried a different flavor now. Jack smiled at him, but Dean's cautionary words were a fresh ghost between them. Before he was tempted to speak, Castiel turned away. He caught Dean's eyes, frowned, and averted his gaze again.

Damn them both.

Jack relinquished custody of one Rift Key to Sam. Castiel watched him investigate it. His broad hands engulfed the round of bronze.

"We're down a few men," Jack said, "where's Remy?"

"Got a call from their boss and vamoosed," Dean leaned on his arms at the edge of the table, "he's mobilizing the troops against the Fates."

Castiel's heart sank. "That's suicide. They don't have the power or the numbers to survive a fight with Heaven."

"They didn't seem worried," Dean answered.

"Where is this big shakedown going to happen?" Jack asked, "Shamsiel's bunch can't get into Heaven, last I knew."

"They still can't," Castiel agreed.

"Place called 'Saint Stephen,'" Dean offered, "we looked it up after they left. About four hours west of here."

Jack looked surprised, "Is it just me, or does everything seem to happen in Kansas?"

Dean snorted. "Buddy, you got no idea."

Gwen sat up a little and leaned forward, elbows on her knees. She looked bleary with lack of sleep, fighting for focus and hating it. "Sorry, but, who's Shamsiel? He's… the leader of these 'angels,' right? He's on our side? Like Castiel?"

Castiel could hear the quotation marks in Gwen's phrasing as she tried out the words. She'd clearly been filled in by Jack. "Yes, he's an angel, but not the leader. The Watchers have a deep stake in humanity. They're allies."

Gwen's chin lifted as the focus settled onto her. "And this battle you mentioned?" her voice sharpened, "Does that include people?" She looked over her shoulder at him, dark eyes pinning his. Castiel found his patience waning. "My people will fight and likely die, yes," he answered.

"I mean human casualties. Innocent lives."

Castiel sighed in disappointment. "It's likely. Unwanted, but likely, given your species' numbers and voyeuristic nature."

Gwen's eyes flashed.

"Knock it off, both of you," Jack ordered.

"No," Dean interrupted, "you back off. She's not in this fight. Nobody owes her an explanation."

"Fine with this 'angel' war, then, are you?" Gwen shot back.

Dean's eyes rolled up to Gwen's. "No," he growled, "I'm also not fine with civvies inviting themselves on a hunt. I don't care what you were in Wales, I don't know you."

"Oh, God," Gwen's accent rounded with outrage as she pushed away from the wall, "you did not—"

"—Gwen," Jack barked, cutting her off, "you can hit him later, with my blessing." He gestured at the laptop balanced on the tiny counter next to him, where numbers and line graphs rippled steadily upward. "We've got a more immediate problem. The fissures could join any minute."

Bobby squinted. "And that's bad."

Jack nodded. "If they do that, the force released by the change will destabilize them even further. Whole chunks of Purgatory might start showing up here."

Bobby's attention drifted to the laptop. "Just how're you fixing to get these Rift Keys into Purgatory in the first place? Door's closed on our end," he lifted his hat to sweep the sweat from his forehead, "least as far as we could see. And anyway, creepers don't have hands."

Jack's gaze lanced around the room, before he blew out a sigh. "I can open the Rift temporarily. But we have to move quickly, before Purgatory starts spewing more than just creepers all over the Midwest. As far as how to get the Rift Keys across? Even if we can explain how they work, you're right. The creepers can't manipulate them, and we don't have time to adapt them."

"How much time do we have?" Gwen asked.

Jack shook his head. "Less than a day. It's picking up speed." Tension rippled through the following silence, a notch or two tighter than before. Castiel felt the press of thoughts around him, thick and insistent as the heat.

"So I'm just gonna say what everyone's thinking," Dean said, tearing off the words in quick jerks, "someone's gotta take 'em in. I'll go."

The concerned voices around Castiel boiled into a furious sea of background noise as Jack and Dean watched one another. Dean gave no ground, challenging Jack for the few seconds of isolation. Then Sam leaned into Dean's space, breaking the tenuous contact, and the swell of sound closed in over Castiel's head.

"That's a one-way ticket," Sam protested, "Whoever goes in isn't coming out."

"Maybe not," Jack said, "I've got a distress beacon."

"Let me guess, on the magic wrist thing?" Dean rolled his eyes, "Which you lost last time? You can't call a cab from Purgatory."

Jack glared at him. "Says you."

"Says me and every single book on the subject," Bobby interrupted, "Purgatory's a closed system. If we jailbreak whoever goes in there, the whole damn things starts over again."

Jack held his hands out, fingers curled as if he'd like to grab Bobby and shake him. "And I lived it."

"Besides," Castiel added, "The creepers are programmed to attack any frequency they don't recognize. You won't make it without me."

"Or me," Jack added, patting his wrist strap once again, "I can speak creeper now."

"So give me the wrist thing. Boom, problem solved," Dean said.

Jack snorted. "Sorry Dean, me and the 'magic wrist thing' come as a set."

Sam straightened in his seat as if reaching an epiphany. He weighed the Rift Key in his hands, eyes cutting to Dean. "I'm going."

"No," Dean growled, "You said it yourself: life sentence."

"So?" Sam shrugged, "If Heaven's war goes bad, Michael and Lucifer walk and it's Apocalypse Now all over again. But they can't have the party without us."

"Without both of us. They need the whole set. You could have a life."

"What kind of a life is that gonna be, Dean, if Lucifer walks?"

The constant murmuring of surface thoughts from the group was suddenly one voice fewer in Castiel's mind. Dean. Dean was missing. He wasn't thinking at all, the low burr of his thoughts no longer a regular rhythm against the others', just long enough to notice.

Then, inside Castiel's head, Dean wailed.

Fear and anguish strobed past Castiel's protections, dragging crisp memories with them. Sam in a blinding white jacket, wearing Lucifer's smile. Sam standing over Dean, his polished white boot on Dean's neck. Dean tamped the reaction down in seconds, but electric anxiety hummed around him. Flinching away, Castiel tightened his shields, caught between a desire to help, his promise to stay out, and a ripe fear of his own.

Jack smiled tightly. "Not asking for volunteers, enjoyable as your company might be, Sam." He turned to the group at large. "That goes for everyone. This is a two-man job, and there's two of us who can take the Rift Keys across alone."

"I'll take Sam," Castiel said, prodded to his feet by the itch of Dean's worry, "If Lucifer is freed, Sam may be in immediate danger. He's safer with us." He looked at Sam. "It's your call."

Sam nodded.

"Archer—" Jack sighed.

Castiel's gaze shifted to him, holding his eyes steadily. "You believe we can leave Purgatory."

Jack chinned up. "I believe it."

"Then this is a temporary arrangement. I do not intend to leave my brothers to this war alone. And Sam Winchester will not be a liability."

They regarded one another in tense silence. "Fine," Jack snapped icily, reaching back for his laptop, "Sam goes. Dean stays."

"Not an option!" Dean snarled.

"I need someone here to make sure there's a world to come back to, Dean!" Jack shouted, "There's seven billion people on this planet in danger if the angels lose that war!"

The back of Bobby's chair smacked the cabin wall hard enough to rattle the pans, and everyone ducked from the crash. "Just shut up," he thundered, eyes roving the room as if he'd never seen any of them before in his life. "We ain't got time for this, so zip up, stow your crap, and let's move."


Sam let his fingers ride the Impala's topline as he walked to the rear passenger door. His touch left clean black streaks in the gray film of gravel dust, and he itched a little, knowing what Dean had to say about scratching the paint. He'd said goodbye to the Impala several times in his past. The flavor now was no different than before: a bitter relief with a sense of inevitability. Earth had been trying to buck him off for years. Sam swung open the door, punctuating the thought as he bent for his duffel bag on the floorboard. The lingering scent of takeout wrappers, old wet towels and sunbaked blood exhaled over him, into the hot night.

The car trembled around him as he heard the trunk creak open. Sam made a second sweep over the back seat and joined Dean at the back, slinging the duffel down on the chaos of firearms in the trunk. For a few minutes, they worked shoulder to shoulder in silence, picking out the equipment for a long-term camp from checklists grooved into their memories.

Dean picked up a shotgun from the pile, broke it and eyed the barrel by the compartment light. "So what's our play?" He asked, handing the weapon to Sam.

"Our play?" Sam echoed blankly.

Dean's head jerked up. "Yeah, our play. Because I know you did not just agree to that bullshit without a plan. So what are we doing?"

Sam tucked the shotgun into the duffel and reached into the trunk for boxes of shells. He shook his head, pushing his hair back from damp temples. "There's no play, Dean. I'm going so they can't use me again to run their Apocalypse."

"You're just gonna check out. You're not even gonna try and stop it." Dean's voice went flat. He shoved a set of holsters into Sam's hands like an accusation.

"And walk right out where the Fates can grab me, the way Crowley grabbed you?" Sam's fingers squeezed around the woven black straps. "Dean, if Lucifer takes me again, it's game over for good." For a little while Dean said nothing. Sam finished packing in the spell of his silence, trying unsuccessfully to ignore the wall of shock and disapproval.

"You'd have to say yes again, and nothing's ever gonna make you do that," Dean argued. Slowly. Uncertainly.

Sam took a swallow of humid air and squared up to Dean. "How do you know?"

"What, that you're not gonna be Hell's bitch?" Dean's shrug rustled softly in the dark. "Call it a hunch."

"No. That I have to say yes this time. That if Lucifer has his Get Out of Jail Free card, he can't just…"

"…Pass Go and collect two hundred dollars?"

"Yeah." Sam's fingertips collided with a bundle of soft fabric. Castiel's coat. Desperate for a distraction from Dean's gaze, he turned and picked it up. "Dean, it's my fault. This whole thing."

"Sammy, come on."

"And I can't shut it down." The words splattered out of Sam, "The only good I can do now is take myself off the chessboard, so far away that he can't get a piece of me. I can't even die, even if you burned the body, he'd bring me back. The angels resurrected Adam, and we burned him too." Sam started to withdraw, to tuck the coat into his bag. Dean's hand closed on his forearm like a band of steel.

"How am I supposed to fight this war without you, man? Without Cas? Somehow Gwen Cooper is gonna have my back? I'm supposed to trust her?"

In spite of the heat, Dean's touch was hot on Sam's skin, too desperate. His insides balled up like a fist. "I wouldn't leave if there was any other choice," Sam replied, breathing carefully through his words.

Dean reached into the trunk for his own gear. "Then you know what? Screw it. I'm going with you," he said, punctuating the words with the shuffle of leather and steel, "Like hell I'm letting you walk into God knows what alone."

Sam felt himself stretching towards Dean, though his hands never left the fold of Castiel's coat at the top of his duffel. But they'd been at this crossroads before, just as it was not new for Sam to say goodbye to the Impala and believe it was forever. He reached for the last shot in his locker, regretting it while he said it. "Dean, I get it, but we need you here. Me and Cas."

"Yeah, to keep the home fires burning, fight the good fight? Screw that." Dean scooped boxes of shells efficiently into the pockets of another bag and reached for the crossbow, "I didn't swallow that speech from Jack and I'm not taking it from you. I don't care, Sam. I mean, yeah, sure I do, but not enough to just—"

Sam shook his head and put a hand over the thick wooden grip. "Dean. Just shut up a minute, okay?" A few seconds of quiet passed, filled by the whine of cicadas. "If our side wins, get us out."

Dean stared at him. "I thought we just spent the last twenty minutes in there rehashing how I can't get you out."

Sam bit down on a smile. He deserved a punch in the mouth for wanting to smile at a time like this. "Like something Jack Harkness said is gonna stop you for a second. If anyone can find a way into Purgatory that won't blow up the planet, you can."

The smile must have leaked into Sam's voice. Dean went very still, the air around them brittle. "You know what a steaming pile of crap that excuse is."

Sam sobered. "I'm serious."

"I know you are. And you're putting this on me."

Sam didn't answer, knowing that he was; knowing it wasn't fair. He waited Dean out, matching him in silence until his head dropped, until the crossbow Dean held went gently back into the trunk. The breath punched out of Sam, a hard clawing cold in his chest that even the Kansas summer couldn't touch.

Chapter Text

The town of Saint Stephen, Kansas had the creep factor on lock. As Kansas native, Dean didn't know whether to be proud or concerned about the number of horror movie-ready parks inside the state border. Considering the high frequency of demonic activity in his hometown alone, Dean figured concern was pretty superfluous at this point. They rolled through a forest of shadowy oaks and willows on a cracked asphalt street. Empty houses crouched between the trees and overgrown bushes. One lonely street lamp stood sentry in the middle of town. Outside its cold halo, the night crowded in. "So run me through this place again," Dean asked Gwen over his shoulder, to break the silence. She'd ended up in the back seat, resenting every minute of it. Her face suddenly appeared in his rear view mirror like a phantom as she consulted her phone.

"State park," Gwen supplied in a fuck you tone, "middle of nowhere. Last census lists…" She pursed her lips, "Five residents. All park services employees."

"Happenin' place," Dean commented.

Gwen locked eyes with him in the rear view mirror, with an expression to match her voice. "It was built by freed slaves after the Civil War. Did well for itself up until the railroad went through too far north. Abandoned completely by World War Two, declared a Kansas Historic Site in the late Eighties."

"Let me guess, the state slaps up a couple info boards and mows the lawn once a year?"

Gwen's phone snapped off. Her face vanished from Dean's mirror. "About right."

"And there's only one church in town?"

"So the map says," Gwen replied, still icy, "anything else? Shall I order a pizza? Set a reminder on your parents' anniversary?"

"Ouch," Dean drawled, "you wanna scoot over, sweetheart? This side of the car's getting a little frigid."

"I'm not your PDA, Dean Winchester, or on your 'team,' Gwen snapped, "my priorities are those five people. And I'm not a 'civvie.'"

Dean snorted, loud enough to be heard over the road noise."You're still stuck on that? We've got Purgatory spewing exploding monsters, we're staring down the barrel of another apocalypse, and you're worried about five friggin' people."

"And how long has it been since you saved someone because you could?"

"I don't know, how long's it been since you stowed the self-righteous bullshit?" Dean rolled his eyes, but the question wormed under his skin like a sliver of glass. "You wanna know what I think? I think whatever you did back at 'Torchwood,' you never had to make the tough calls. Bet you threw all that on somebody like Jack, so you could save five people and feel like a saint."

"Oh, you bastard," Gwen started out at a murmur, gaining speed and rage with each syllable.

"Am I wrong?"

"In case you've missed it, America isn't the center of the bleeding universe. Too right you're wrong, you bloody idiot, and don't you make this about me. You think the people in this town can die because you're about to lose Sam."

A cold wall slammed down over Dean's empathy, sucking away any drop of concern he had for Gwen Cooper. "Are you done?"

"Right. Stop the fucking car."

Dean abruptly stepped on the brake. He took a little vicious pleasure in hearing Gwen grunt against the seatbelt. "Be my guest," Dean said coldly. The back door flung open, hard enough to rock the Impala on its suspension.

With more speed than Dean would have expected for his years, Bobby reached into the back seat and snatched Gwen's elbow. "Hold up a minute, Gwen. Where are you going?"

"To do my job," Gwen snarled, whipped her elbow out of his reach and stalked off into the marshy grass.

For a few seconds, Dean enjoyed the new silence inside the cab. Bobby's tangible aggravation made him itch a little, but at least Dean didn't have to deal with the loaded missile launcher in his back seat. He knew he shouldn't let her out of his sight, but he couldn't help thinking, good riddance. "Say whatever you're gonna," Dean drawled as the Impala nosed forward into the dark.

"Sure," Bobby's chuckle was ugly, "because you'll listen to me about as well as you listened to her."

"She's a distraction."

"And you're a dick," Bobby replied. He shook his head. "Gwen tracked Jack down. She hijacked an angel to get here. We don't know a thing about her otherwise, and what you just said was way outta line, boy."

Rebellion surged up in Dean. He was tempted to spill the whole story - what Crowley said about her, what he said Dean had to do. Gwen was a liability, a constant risk, and Bobby's words were sandpaper on Dean's skin. "So why aren't you following her?" He demanded, regretting it as the full ice of Bobby's glare landed on him. Angry as he was, Dean couldn't stop the tiny quailing urge to tack on a mollifying 'sir.'

"Because I've gotta keep your dumb ass alive," Bobby spat.

Dean's hands clenched on the steering wheel. He shoved at a hard-edged lump of resentment.

After an eternity of silence, Bobby sighed, the hard angles of him sagging. "We're all scared. Gwen's got a man in there too."

Not quite willing to concede, Dean jerked his head down in a reluctant nod. But Gwen had vanished out of view and above the last handful of thick trees and snaggletoothed houses, he saw the outline of the church steeple.

"The head honcho said for sure this is where they're gonna make their play?" Bobby asked. The road opened up ahead of them, allowing their first clear view. Shemyazaz was there, and probably Turiel besides. The pickup truck Dean saw at the Rock Creek camp site was parked in the grass. Beside it was a heavy SUV and a low, flat-looking sports car. Dean recognized neither of them. Faint light from within the church picked out glints of color in the old stained glass; the broken holes shone pale.

"Araciel said they're using holy ground as a conduit," Dean said, "it'll even the odds."

Bobby's eyes followed the parked cars until the trees obscured them again. "Makes as much sense as anything."

Dean parked on an overgrown side street, the Impala's tires moving softly to a stop on thick turf. Giraffe spears of flowering bushes walled the cemetery surrounding the church. The sickly-sweet smell of blossoms overpowered the windless humidity, settling in the back of Dean's throat until he could hardly breathe. He and Bobby armed themselves in silence and waded through the bushes. Flowers pattered down on Dean's shoulders. They sifted into his collar, cold as fingers on his neck. He fished them out with a shudder.

Clover and moss carpeted the graveyard around the church, softening their footsteps as Dean and Bobby picked a path between the pale stones. A plain, heavy door shrank into the side of the church, hiding under the shadows of its archway. A heavy new padlock and steel plate were bolted to the wood, which might have been security enough for tourists or vandals. To Dean and Bobby, it just meant a few extra minutes spent popping out the hinge pins. Together, they eased the door open enough to slip inside.

The side door deposited them into a black, claustrophobic corridor. Bobby snapped on his flashlight. Someone was trying to restore this church, or it belonged to a Home Depot hoarder. The floor was littered with piles of lumber and construction detritus. A thick layer of dust blurred everything together. The corridor followed the outer walls of the church, narrow and low, leading to another locked door on their right. Dean tried this one while Bobby hung back, watching their six. If he quieted his body enough, Dean could hear faint voices beyond the wall at his right, inside the sanctuary. He wondered if the fireworks had already gone off. If Araciel was okay.

"Think a little louder," Araciel ordered, her voice small, yards behind them, "The angels a county over couldn't hear."

Dean turned. The beam of Bobby's flashlight found found Araciel leaning out of a doorway at the other end. Her voice was changed; flattened. Like Castiel's in the early days.

"You okay?" Dean called.

"Fine. We're about to make the call. You should leave." Araciel shifted, coming into the hallway a step to face them, her figure still small in the distance, hands on her hips like a Wonder Woman figurine. "If you're not going to leave, calm down. Panic makes you hard to hide."

"I'm not panicking," Dean muttered.

"We're sure the Fates won't figure out we're crashing the party?" Bobby asked.

"We've got you covered," Araciel's chin jerked up.

Bobby shook his head. "No offense ma'am, but we've tangled with Atropos. Cas couldn't do much to check her, even at full steam."

Araciel spread her hands. "I can't guarantee you'll be safe from the Fates if you choose to tempt them. You should leave," she added, more forcefully than before. Dean tipped his head thoughtfully at her, considering the distance she kept from them and her carefully measured words.

"But you're not gonna kick us out," Dean observed, "or you would have already." He expected a smile, but didn't get one. Araciel seemed to fill the narrow space now, glowing in Bobby's flashlight beam. She waved them back towards the locked door, which clicked and eased open.

"Stay out of the way," Araciel snapped, and vanished. Dean glanced at Bobby, whose flashlight bobbed with his shrug.

"Friendly as always," Dean sighed, not quite buying his own dismissal as he turned back. Araciel wasn't a known entity, but hadn't they bonded a little over the wife-and-babies thing? Even with her default Celestial Dick setting switched on, the weird tone was out of character. Something was up, and Dean didn't like being herded. He also didn't want to be exposed in the sanctuary when the Fates strolled in - which meant he couldn't follow Araciel. So, he cut his losses and tugged on the doorknob, spilling uncertain light into the dark corridor.

He and Bobby edged forward, into a narrow space below a massive stained glass window. Dean tipped his head back, following the flaking plaster walls up until they vanished in the shadows. He guessed the window was the central one behind the altar, and that they'd somehow entered a 'backstage' area behind the pulpit dais. The voices in the sanctuary were much clearer, and as Dean approached the wall that separated this space from the angels, he noticed it didn't reach the ceiling. A narrow set of stairs led to the top of the partial wall, into an upper choir loft. The rotting door curtains at the top dribbled slowly off their rods, letting shards of light from the sanctuary spill on Dean's face.

Dean beckoned Bobby over and gestured up the stairs. Cautiously, Bobby climbed up, bent deeply at the waist, warily distributing his weight on his hands and feet in case the boards were fragile. Dean eased to one of the side portals in the partial wall, sliding an inch at a time until he got one eye around the door frame. The view confirmed his navigation - he and Bobby were right behind the pulpit. The sanctuary sprawled out before him, candles dotting windowsills and floor with peachy light. There were only a few lonely pews left, their counterparts marked by darker spots on the floor.

Perched on one of the orphan pews were a handful of angels like birds on a wire. John Bonham (Tory, Dean remembered with a flutter that irritated him) leaned back, arms crossed in the center of the bench. Remiel and Araciel flanked him, hands resting on their knees. To Remiel's right was the angel who'd jumped ship to join the cause in the motel parking lot, although Dean couldn't remember his name. The blond ringleader from the same day - Shamsiel - stood next to Shemyazaz at the altar, speaking quietly with his back to Dean. They separated, and the other angels rose to join them, fanning out to circle a white chalk diagram scratched in front of the altar. As they took up spots, the chalk lines raised a foggy glow around their ankles.

Shemyazaz began to chant. Strident, guttural Enochian marched like a Led Zeppelin drum line. Minutes passed and power built inside the church like an electrical charge. Soon Dean could feel it, arms gone to gooseflesh, vision shimmering at the edges when he blinked.

"Left the door open," Gwen whispered, close enough to Dean's ear to make him jump.

"Jesus," Dean growled, "you're late. How's Parks and Rec?"

"Safe," Gwen answered, smug. She edged around him, watching the sanctuary proceedings herself. "And these are the angels?"

"Mm," Dean murmured. He was surprised when Gwen had no further comment, but slotted herself into the shadows on the other side of the doorway. Eyes adjusted to the low light, Dean watched her settle, handgun drawn but low and relaxed. He wondered what she was. Not a civilian.

"At this rate we'll get one another killed," Gwen observed.

Dean shrugged one shoulder. "What do you suggest."

"I wouldn't follow your orders if you were the last sod on earth, Dean."

Dean saluted her. "Feeling's mutual. So?"

"I'll stay out of your way, you stay out of mine, and we agree not to shoot one another."

Dean weighed the odds. Crowley seemed sure that neither the Fates nor the Watchers knew about Gwen, hence his needing someone else to put her down before she could turn into Shiriel (however that worked). That made her chances of dying in a firefight tonight astronomically better than Dean's. Now she practically absolved him of any obligation to keep her safe.

It was a perfect opportunity.

Too bad the guilt was eating the bottom out of his stomach.

Sam liked Gwen. Cas called Gwen out, but even he seemed to admire her. Both of them knew more about her than Dean did.

Plus, Bobby was right. She had a man headed into Purgatory too. Dean didn't have much faith in Jack's plan, but he still appreciated the sacrifice. Maybe he had let the nerves get to him and gone overboard on Gwen. He still didn't trust her, but stepping out of the way so Atropos could lop Gwen's head off wasn't right. Even if it was convenient.

He set his teeth and swallowed, then gestured at the entryway at the back of the sanctuary. "They're probably coming in that way. Whatever this is, it's formal - and I've never met a god that didn't like a big entrance."

"So?"

"Got any ideas how we take 'em down from here?"

Gwen's lips quirked, halfway to a smile.


There were three more people in the sanctuary as Shemyazaz finished speaking. Three young women, one of which Dean recognized immediately as Atropos. She still wore black-rimmed librarian's glasses and a severe suit buttoned up to the neck. Her sisters looked nothing like her, which was great; Heaven already had the market cornered on the Allstate Corporate Headquarters look. One of the Fates looked fresh off the front of a Grecian urn (or out of a frat house toga party). The other one must have stolen every stitch from the Hot Topic Disney rack. Dean didn't even know Donald Duck could DO goth, but there he was on her oversize tee shirt, sporting a glossy black bill, eyeliner and a spiked collar. She looked about fifteen and Dean thought, of course. If he was gonna go down tonight, of course it would be to the adolescent mythological throwback wearing galaxy-print yoga pants.

Atropos and the Greek Revival Sister took up flanking defense positions on either side of Hot Topic Sister; Dean tucked that information away for later.

"So the great betrayer did survive," Atropos said, clipboard pressed to her chest. She was looking towards the dais, and Dean screwed himself a little tighter into the shadows. "Thank you so much for the fireworks that led us here. I assume that was intentional."

Others began filing into the back of the church. Dean recognized the graying trucker lady angel from the hotel parking lot, as well as a few others from the same fight. Even in the flickering light, Dean could see the fear chase across their faces as they saw Shemyazaz. Castiel had never mentioned him once before this - when they were facing off against Heaven, it was the Archangels that scared the crap out of him. Maybe he was so old, Castiel had forgotten about him. Or maybe he was a boogieman legend the angels told each other.

Shemyazaz shrugged and spread his hands. "I felt a conversation was far past due," he said. His voice boomed, echoing into the rafters.

Atropos gave a nasty smile. "I can't think why."

"I would prefer to avoid further mayhem. Enough of my people have been slain."

"And?"

"You have no claim to the thrones of Heaven, Fates. You must leave."

The Hot Topic Sister stepped up, moving past the baby gate of her sisters' bodies. "Not while our work is undone," she said, "Not while your failed Armageddon robs us of our purpose."

"Clotho, you've been out of the destiny business for a few years, now," Shamsiel interrupted. He took in the world with a sweep of his hands, "yet the planet's still spinning. So what purpose is that?"

"Could be time for a career change," Araciel chimed in, smirking.

Clotho (Hot Topic Sister, apparently) smiled with the sweet acidity of a teenage girl. "And who made you career counselors? You," her gaze crawled over Araciel, disdainful, "you've been bumming off of this planet after Daddy changed the locks for how long, now?"

"Longer than you've existed," Shamsiel drawled, "This planet and its people have gotten along just fine without your manipulation."

Pretty face twisting into a scowl, Atropos moved to intercept, but a gesture from Clotho shut her down. "You hold no power to compel us," Clotho said, gently mocking, "and we won't meet your demands. Instead, here's a counter offer."

Lachesis, the Greek Revival Sister who had as yet not spoken, suddenly sported a jacket of glittering light. It solidified into a chestplate and arm guards, enameled black and burnished like bronze in the candlelight. Lachesis hefted a thick stave tipped on both ends with ornate bronze spearheads, and Dean rolled his eyes. Deities were black holes of attention-seeking neediness. Just once, he'd like to see a god come dressed for actual battle. With camouflage and a holy hand grenade.

"Surrender the Song of God to us," Clotho went on after Lachesis finished her costume change, "and we will kill only Shemyazaz, and those who do not submit."

Dean heard a few chuckles from the Watchers' ranks. He saw Shamsiel rub the back of his head as if the offer puzzled him. "If we aren't a threat, can I ask why you're so hot to start a war? Not to mention bringing the proverbial cannon to kill mosquitoes."

Clotho's beatific expression soured. "As a lesson for your insurrection."

Shemyazaz shrugged. "There is no insurrection. There is no uprising. You are not of Heaven, and you do not lead us." A blade as silvery as Castiel's dropped into Shemyazaz's fist. It was heavy and flat; not a skewer but a true sword. Shemyazaz took three steps towards the Fates, blade down, and stopped before the front row of pews. His followers took up positions all around him.

"I will ask you once more, Fates, to leave the thrones of Heaven," Shemyazaz continued, "They are not yours to claim. No more than they are ours. Find a new purpose, sisters, or attack me at your peril."

The Fates smiled. Dean saw sweeter grins at Bayou Pierre's Gator Park.

Atropos laughed. "Who made you a captain of God's army? The same angels who shrink away from you in shame?" She gestured to the multitude standing behind her, "Do you think they'll follow you?"

"I don't ask for followers," Shemyazaz replied, and Dean saw him turn his head, slowly taking in the army assembled by the Fates, "I ask you to remember what you are, and that you were made to follow God, not fear."

Clotho threw out her hands, and a swarm of angels and magic rolled over the Watchers.

Chapter Text

"So on my list of things to do again, this was maybe at the bottom," Sam muttered. Shoulder to shoulder at the back of Bobby's Camaro, he and Castiel armed themselves in silence. Mosquitoes swarmed Sam, who waved at them in frustration. The needle-thin whine of wings was everywhere around Castiel, but if the insects pricked him, he never noticed. He felt the heat though, in rolling fever-waves behind each swell of anxiety. Aware that both Jack and Dean were walking into danger miles away, Castiel wasn't in a talkative mood.

He counted two missing from the flint-tipped arrows Jack gave him, and frowned. He never wanted another creeper to fall beneath these weapons, yet Sam was still his comrade, and his charge. Purgatory might not let Sam die; might put him beyond the Devil's reach, but he had to make it there.

Sam passed him a shotgun and a box of shells. "These won't work," Castiel protested.

Sam cracked a casing and showed him the stone fragments inside. He shook a few into Castiel's palm. "Dean's idea," he shrugged at the angel's incredulous look, "I can't make arrowheads, but you said flint put the creepers down. We loaded these up with flint flakes." Tucking the flint back into the casing, Sam took the shotgun gently from Castiel and began loading it. "Plus I'm not a badass with a bow," he added with an apologetic chuckle, as if Sam wasn't a deadly sharpshooter. They completed their task and abandoned the Camaro. Castiel cradled the shotgun in his arms as Sam showed him, the bow Jack gave him strapped to his packs. Their shoes rolled in the loose gravel as they tramped up the road to the missile silo grounds.

Sam waved away more mosquitoes. "Tell me there's no bugs in Purgatory, Cas."

"There's no bugs," Castiel replied.

Sam chuckled, then paused. "Wait, really?"

"Really." Castiel tipped his head, counting off the known inhabitants in his mind, "Only fish, poultry, a handful of mammals, and cephalopods. And monsters."

"Cephalopod?" Sam shifted his pack. "Like an octopus?"

"Giant squid," Castiel corrected, "Harmless and stupid. Inedible, unfortunately."

Their steps slowed a few feet away from the line of chain link fence. "Good thing I hate calamari," Sam muttered, "I didn't know we'd have to eat in Purgatory."

Fond amusement creased Castiel's features. "My cooking skills certainly didn't come from you, Sam."

"I hope not. My cooking skills stop at wedging limes and putting milk on my cereal," Sam said with a smile in his voice.

"An apple pie isn't much more complicated than a summoning spell. You could improve with experience."

"I'll take your word for it."

Castiel shook his head. "No you won't. We may become separated at some point, Sam, and starvation is an unpleasant way to…" he trailed off, as creepers began ambling towards them across the grass. The conversation had apparently drawn their attention, but they still seemed calm. Red irises glowed; moving shadows the only thing separating them from the grass. Castiel's sharper gaze could pick them out despite the dark, and registered twenty-four in the yard. It took a substantial amount of courage to hold his ground. "You don't have to come," Castiel spoke across his shoulder. Sam cycled his shotgun. In his peripheral vision, Castiel caught a glimpse of its barrel, still trustingly low.

The creepers milled, jostling one another. "Remy talked to them," Sam suggested nervously, "maybe that's what they want."

So Castiel closed his eyes, and listened. He felt the pressure of low vibrations in his vessel's eardrums first. Then a hundred voices murmured into his mind; a quiet but regular hum like a radio in another room. Castiel sought them, sorting through the waves. "They're sensing us. Tasting my frequency patterns and saying… roughly, 'one of us.'"

Dead silence behind Castiel for a beat. Then Sam's voice, incredulous: "You're kidding."

"This would be a horrible time to kid."

"They're saying 'one of us,'" Sam repeated.

"Roughly," Castiel sighed, with relief and exasperation in about equal parts.

They kept moving, deeper into the dead air of the Abilene missile silo, the persistent shuffle of creepers closing over their heads. Everywhere Sam's flashlight turned, Castiel saw the glint of red pupils in black sockets, downturned mouths opened wide in green faces. In Purgatory, just one creeper had been a significant threat. Two could maim; more invariably killed. Here, they numbered in the dozens on each floor, leaving barely enough room for Castiel and Sam to edge by. Enough to make a vast crater; raze a city. Mortal fear crawled over his nerves and through his veins. Fear could short out what little shield Castiel had, he reminded himself, and fought for calm.

"There's a lot more than last time," Sam observed. His voice shook a little, and Castiel believed his own would do the same. If Remiel's first translations were correct, then Jack was right as well - the widening rift attracted them in greater numbers. Their time was almost out. The realization choked both of them into silence.

Nearly at the bottom of the silo, Sam spoke once more. "Why did you let me come?"

"I trust your judgment, Sam," Castiel said as they crabstepped along the handrail, "Purgatory is difficult, but manageable. I want you safe from Lucifer's reach."

Sam blew out a self-depreciating chuckle. "Because I'm a liability."

"Because you've already suffered," Castiel replied slowly. They reached the bottom of the stairs in silence, continuing on for several minutes. "I'm sorry this is the only option."

Sam shook his head. "I'm not."

"You prefer Purgatory to freedom?"

"No. I want to fight. But we'll lose. Throwing the Devil in the Cage was a Hail Mary. If the Fates bust him out, he won't make the same mistake twice."

"That's unusually defeatist of you."

Nudging Castiel to move on, Sam lowered his voice. Like the words were a secret. "I remember being Lucifer's vessel, Cas. I know what I did. I know I can't beat him, and the world deserves better than that."

"The world deserves better than the Fates," Castiel remained stubbornly in place, "I believe you can defeat them. You won't be alone, Sam. You'll have the Watchers, and Dean."

Sam's hand landed on Castiel's shoulder. "You go," Sam said suddenly, "You're not the liability to Dean that I am if this goes south. Just get me down there and go."

"Dean needs you," Castiel protested, "and he'd never accept leaving you to this."

"Dean needs both of us, but someone has to do this," Sam argued.

Castiel set his jaw. "No, Sam."

"Do you trust Jack?" Sam demanded, seemingly apropos of nothing. Castiel hesitated, startled by the question. 'Yes' would be simplest, and not untrue, but… not honest. It was complex now, more so than Castiel wanted to admit. The altercation at Burning Man, and in the pit of this very silo seemed small in the face of world destruction, but it still left a gap where a comfortable certainty had been. It was a simple thing to throw his own lot in with Jack… but not Sam's. Not without Castiel.

And then there had been Dean.

"You aren't sure?" Sam prodded.

"It's a complex question," Castiel replied in frustration, "but Dean urged me not to put faith in Jack. Do you think he'll accept me after I help you trap yourself in Purgatory alone with the man?"

"What?" Sam sighed in the dark beside him. "Of course he did. God forbid you care about somebody he didn't vet first."

Castiel frowned. "That's not the point, Sam. Anyway, he's usually right."

Sam snorted. "Cas, he's not always right. Okay, occasionally," Sam admitted, tossing his head in lieu of a free hand, "but Dean doesn't trust people he doesn't know, and ever since Jack's friend Gwen showed up he's been even more paranoid than usual. Maybe in our line of work, that means he's seventy percent right. Doesn't mean he's right about Jack."

"I want to trust Jack," Castiel said, then edited the statement, adding more vehemence, "I do. But Sam…"

"Then get me down there and—"

Sam's final words were cut off by a meaty thump. Castiel heard the clank of bone and hiss of a bowstring in the dark a moment before, but it was too late. Sam looked down at an arrow, fletch protruding from his chest. It was, a cool corner of Castiel's mind noted, a near perfect heart shot.


The church quaked around Dean and Gwen, dragging down more dust and plaster chips from the roof. The Fates clearly brought an army - at least three fighters for every Watcher. Dean chose to take it as a good sign, because it meant they were definitely afraid. Even outnumbered, the Watchers held their own. They grouped together tightly, tossing their hands towards the onslaught while ripples of light and bursts of sound collided with the trucker angel's warriors. For a few seconds it looked like an unbalanced high school dogfight. The Watchers didn't even seem to break a sweat. Lailah - the trucker angel - swung and missed, her sword and those of her fighters deflected in every direction. Someone's bolt of power rocked the partial wall where Dean, Gwen and Bobby hid. Judging from the muffled curse Dean heard from the choir loft just above his head, it must have been a near miss for Bobby. Dean reminded himself to stay frosty.

The Fates bored of this quickly. In a blink Lachesis was gone; at the altar in another. She lashed out at the Watchers, her stave throwing white sparks like a hammer on hot steel. The shield wall held, but the Watchers staggered. Streaks of lightning crazed over and around them in an arc. The Fates' magic was different than the angels; stronger, and Dean guessed the field wouldn't take too many more hits like that. Like they'd read his mind, the Watchers dropped their shield, giving off a high-powered electric blat like a tesla coil. Huge chunks of plaster plummeted from the ceiling now, exploding into powdery shrapnel. By the miracle of human engineering or the Watchers' power; however, the church structure continued to hold.

The battle spread out before them now, criss-crossing the sanctuary with steel and firecracker bursts of light. The Watchers splintered off into pairs as the Fates' forces met them head on. Dean found Shemyazaz, swinging his sword in the middle of the pack. Easy to see why he had followers. But they were losing ground now, rapidly, the building's energy boost and their own ancient fighting skills wearing down under the greater numbers.

Dean glanced right and caught the round whites of Gwen's eyes. She looked stunned by the battle. Maybe it was out of her league, maybe she couldn't believe they were fighting with swords. He nodded to her, tossed his head back towards the exit to the hallway, and let her lead him into the shadows.

Gwen dropped off to Dean's flank like she'd been doing it all her life. She divided her attention between him and the open doorways as they sprinted down the hallway where they came in. At the turn that would take them towards the sanctuary, they slowed. Dean had a moment to marvel again how quietly she moved. But he hardened up. So she could do her job. At least he didn't have to worry about her exposing his position. Dean took a deep breath as Gwen came abreast, and they eased around the corner.

Araciel barreled into them, bleeding Grace from half a dozen wounds. Her eyes were wide, white blanks, twisted snarl filling up Dean's vision as she shoved them both back. Dean recoiled before he could help himself.

"We'll cut you a path," Araciel hissed, "kill one of them and this battle isn't a waste."

Remy was dead, Dean realized in a flash. The burly Nordic-looking angel and Araciel had been joined at the hip. Dean remembered Araciel's fists on his steering wheel, so tight the vinyl screamed.

Gwen's hair tossed around her head with the force of her nod. She didn't say anything, maybe couldn't. Adrenaline had already shoved Dean into sharp edges and hard motion.

Araciel let go of Dean abruptly, tucked her pain back inside while she pulled up the skewed straps of her tanktop. "Ten seconds. Then haul ass." She vanished around the corner again.

With no time left to do anything else, Dean counted. At three, Araciel belted out a war cry, taken up by other voices. By five the flashes of light intensified; by eight the floor and walls vibrated under his boots and raised the dust into a haze. It roiled like smoke in the doorway to the sanctuary, and a constant, dangerous rumbling pushed every other distraction from his mind. Dean touched Gwen's shoulder and tugged when it was time to go, then launched himself down the hallway. He didn't know if he trusted Araciel or not, didn't know what he'd find when he galloped into the foyer and spun towards the sanctuary doors. All he knew was that they were perilously close to failing, and even Bobby's failsafe might not be enough.

A bloody battlefield spread out before Dean as he and Gwen plunged into the sanctuary proper. Directly in front of Dean like a pair of ripe fruit were Atropos and Clotho, their backs to him as they closed in on Araciel. She screamed at the Fates, crouched like a lion over Remiel's inert form. Goth Donald Duck's black-billed smile mocked Dean from the back of Clotho's oversize shirt.

Dean glanced at Gwen. She'd holstered her firearm and now brandished the blocky bronze dagger Castiel once gave Balthazar to destroy Atropos. She clearly had about as much confidence in the weapon's effectiveness as Dean had in his own demon-killing blade. It laid a lot of things low, but there were only three Fates to test it on. He tightened up his grip and stretched his stride. No time like the present. If they lived through this, there'd be an endless supply of Fate puns to go around.

The angels abruptly lit up around them, blurring into oblivion with shrieks of pain and frustration.

Bobby, Dean thought, you're awesome.

Dean's blade sliced into Clotho's Donald Duck goth shirt. Her shrieks joined the others as the serrated steel bit into her, and Dean threw his forearm around her neck when her body twisted away. She looked like nothing more than a little girl, somebody's precocious kid sister, and he pushed away the revulsion at his own actions as the blade's magic made her insides glow like a miniature electrical storm. He twisted, thinking Sam, Cas, Mom, Dad. If the bitches were right, then they were just as responsible for Dean's messed-up life as the angels or the Yellow-Eyed Demon. The world was better without them in it, and it got easier to feel the life slipping out of Clotho's adolescent body.

Gwen wasn't so lucky. Atropos fought her, glasses askew, hair disheveled, neck dark with ichor where Gwen had rammed the dagger. She screamed, her voice abnormally loud in the absence of battle, and spun, reaching out with clawing fingers to throttle Gwen.

Dean let go of Clotho's corpse and dodged for the pair.

Gwen dodged the flailing hands and buried her fist in Atropos's cheek. The youngest Fate toppled like a felled tree, glazed shock in her face a moment before it blanked.

Before Dean could process that Gwen had just punched Fate in the face, she lunged for Atropos again, kneeling on her chest and pummeling her with both fists. She screamed. Names, Dean realized; names hissed out of Gwen like rockets with every blow. She began to take on a light of her own. Only a little at first, then more obviously. Atropos crunched under her fists.

Dean looked up from her to the motion around him: Watchers rising, blown off their feet and injured by Bobby's banishing sigil.

Lachesis, dragging her bloodied stave out of Shemyazaz.

She looked up, locked eyes with Dean and froze. He could see her calculating, every physical tell tucked away in her stillness, dark-eyed as a coiled lion. Then she was moving, coming at him in a short arc with incredible speed. Dean spun to meet her, praying he could slow her enough for the others to take down.

He never got the chance. Lachesis slowed on her own, staggered to a panting halt at the foot of Clotho's body. She looked past Dean to Atropos, Gwen crouched on her still chest.

Dean's gaze swung back to Gwen. Her hands were sticky, Atropos's blood dark in the creases of her turned-up palms. When she lifted her eyes to Dean, they were like Araciel's: colorless. White as opals.

"Dean?" Gwen asked, unsteadily. Her voice had a bass line now, Dean thought. A much deeper note twinned her words. She reached out to him with one red hand and Dean saw everything Crowley foretold. He was right: Gwen was the sleeper angel. The Song of God. A key to Lucifer's cage and losing Sam forever. Gwen's mouth worked soundlessly as she stared at Dean. She rocked back onto the balls of her feet, hands held far away from her, like enemies. She was in shock, Dean thought, killing her would be easy. She was probably too out of it to fight, and he had Ruby's knife. He could stop it all.

She wasn't Gwen. She was an angel with another name, a dangerous one. Dean knew angels. They burned the other person out. Gwen was dead either way.

On the floor, Clotho and Atropos unraveled and fell into shreds. Lachesis dragged round eyes from the spot where they'd been. The point of her stave trembled; short escaped ringlets stood out around her head. "No," Lachesis said, dragging Dean's attention away from Gwen at last. The last remaining Fate was dirty but unhurt and clearly expected to find her sisters in the same condition.

Dean wanted to taunt her and couldn't. The grief in Lachesis stood out starker than the red gore on her flimsy white dress. Dean knew that expression from Dad; from his own reflection in Lisa's bathroom mirror. She was alone for the first time in her existence.

"Look," Dean said before he thought about it; mouth tripping over the words, "just walk away. You go yours, we'll go ours. Okay?" Lachesis looked away from Gwen. Good. If she figured out what Gwen was, they might still be screwed.

"What are you?" Lachesis demanded. Real horror lined her voice.

"Out of time," Dean replied. He choked up on the pommel of his knife. "One last chance, Greek Revival Sister. Get gone."

Underneath them, the church shook.

Lachesis squared off in answer, rage tightening her face as she menaced him with her (much larger) weapon. Here we go, Dean thought with a swallow.

A shock wave erupted with Gwen at the epicenter, and slammed into Dean's chest. The world tipped crazily and the floor ramped up, crashing into his back. His lungs felt paralyzed from the fall. Ruby's blade skittered away from his hand and Dean groped after it, choking for air. Gwen's afterimage blocked his vision, colors inverted black. Her head tipped back, hands curled into agonized claws visible even in the blurry sunspot left behind. Too late; it was all too late. Dean beat at panic and fought to reach that elusive knife, eyes kiting in all directions against the black.

A soft shadow fell across the remaining edges of Dean's sight. Warm, tacky fingers touched his forehead and the world cleared. He looked up into Gwen's calm face.

She straightened and spun away. Dean could hear the sounds of struggle over his own labored breath. He felt the hilt of Ruby's blade at last, snatched it up and rocketed to his feet. Adrenaline sang in him, pushing aside his panic. Beyond him, Gwen and Lachesis fought, quick and brutal as wolves. Lachesis no longer seemed to care about her purpose - whether she knew what Gwen was or not, she intended to kill. The church rocked under a thunderclap. Timbers cracked overhead, screaming like felled trees as the wood gave way.

Dean looked up at the pregnant ceiling, wondering if it would even be worth running. Hell, it wasn't like he had Sam to save. He remembered Bobby in the choir loft too late; started running as the whole building jerked down around him.

He ran right into Shamsiel's open arms. Funny, Shamsiel hadn't been there a second ago. Before Dean could fight it, the world blurred, lines of color raining around him, bleeding away into blackness. Dean skidded into wet grass and fresh dirt, stomach in knots and head pounding. Around him was nothing but dark and still.

"Forgot how that worked," Shamsiel muttered a few yards away, weak and frayed.

"Bobby?" Dean coughed. He squinted into the dark when there was no reply. "Bobby!"

"He's safe," Shamsiel replied, the grass rustling as he moved, "or rather, he's not dead."

Dean let out a shivery breath. "Where are we? Heaven?"

Shamsiel snorted. "Hardly," he said, followed by "oh, shit."

A creeper hissed in Dean's ear.

Chapter Text

Finger bones clicking, Sam's bony assailant drew a second shot.

Whatever brought it here, it hadn't been fooled by Castiel's Grace. It didn't like him any more than Sam: the next shot buzzed by Castiel's ear. He dodged to Sam, who was miraculously on his feet, but wavering. Blood seeped around the shaft of the arrow, staining Sam's thick shirt. It looked almost negligible, but inside, Castiel knew the great strong heart was shattered. Sam moved woodenly, eyes glazed. Castiel wrapped one of Sam's arms over his own shoulders, and felt the much larger man topple into him like a felled tree.

Hot magenta light seared the room. Glowing white lines bloomed from its center, unzipping the gloom. Castiel saw a translucent, familiar landscape through the light, bleeding slowly further and further into their world.

Purgatory.

He'd expected a horde of creatures waiting for them when Jack opened the portal. Instead, conifers seemed to be the only welcome party, dark against pink dusk and blurred by a haze of snow. Frigid air washed the room with the scent of snow and sap. In the distance, the sharp edges of a building glowed like honey held to the sun.

Against him, Sam grew heavier.

Urgency seized Castiel. He lunged into the portal, clamping Sam to his side in a death grip. He felt a drop, sickening like falling from a great height, and sat down hard in a thick layer of snow. Sam rolled down sideways into his lap, limp and warm. His packs jabbed Castiel's shins.

The landscape around them glowed with the light of the portal, still open and feathering wider by the second. Castiel could see the room they'd left, surreal now as Purgatory had seemed from the opposite side. The process seemed to have destabilized the missile silo at last, and Castiel watched in dismay as the ceiling sagged over the remaining creepers. A few straggled through the Rift, dust exhaled over them as they fled.

Duty brought him up sharply. He fumbled for the Rift Key. Cupping one of Sam's hands to the warm metal, Castiel turned the key as he'd been shown. He felt the fingers twitch and tighten; felt Sam's other hand slide over his, and they turned the mechanism together.

A panel in the curve of the Rift Key slid back with the last turn. Twisting golden smoke poured out, dispersing towards the open Rift's angry red glow.

It faded, their reality rippling away like a mirage. Time and space resumed their natural dance, and Sam's hands went soft around the Rift Key. The night closed in around them, peppering Castiel's exposed skin with snow. He reached for the Grace inside himself to heal Sam, but it surged wildly against the friction of human fear. He gave up and shut it down, consoling himself with Purgatory's regenerative power. In a minute, Sam would vanish. When he reappeared nearby, Castiel only hoped they could find one another in the blizzard before Sam froze.

Castiel waited, while Sam's bulk cooled in his lap. The snow began to accumulate on Sam's fingers; on his eyelashes. Castiel wondered if Jack's vortex manipulator made the trip with him, as their packs had. How long would it take him to find them? If Jack was right, how long before they hailed a ship? How many Earth days might pass?

Why was Sam still dead?

Castiel looked over the body, barely visible by the fey moonlight through the heavy snow. He was still, and should have vanished long before now.

A spider hissed. The intrusion on the silence drove Castiel to his feet. He dropped his packs and tore his bow from its bindings. "No!" Castiel shouted at the night as he stalked an arc around Sam's body.

Around him, Purgatory seemed to pause. There were no sounds but the squeak of Castiel's boots in the soft accumulation. Then the dark snarled back at him.

"FIX him!" Castiel railed on, taking another circuit. The snow blinded him beyond a few yards, but he kept Sam's dark bulk to his right. Pain poured out of him in wounded growls. "You dragged me back here for years! If anyone deserves to be saved, save Sam!"

The hissing came again, followed by sounds of combat in the distance. Castiel stopped short. "Jack?" he called into the dark, and backed up until his heel brushed Sam's leg. He couldn't leave. If he lost Sam in the snow tonight—

A surge of intense energy swept through and around Castiel, pressing on him like a wind. His gaze followed it, to find an empty, Sam-shaped depression in the snow at his feet. Nothing - not even Sam's discarded pack - remained.

A few moments later, Castiel heard Sam's voice out of the snowfall. "Cas? Are you here?" He sounded bewildered, worried, and so familiar that Castiel's relief was pain.

"I'm here, Sam," Castiel called back to him, "don't move. I'll find you."

"Right." Pause. "I'm gonna keep talking, so you can find me, okay?"

"Please do," Castiel replied. With a slow breath, he closed his eyes and reached out with other senses. At last, his Grace answered, and Sam's bright soul pulsed a beacon.

"So this is Purgatory?"

"Yes, Sam."

"Is it always this snowy?"

Another spider gave a hissing shriek. Castiel made sure of his nocked arrow, set his fingers lightly around the string, and kept walking. It felt good. Safe. "Not in the places we settled."

"'Settled'?" Sam's voice was louder now, his wry skepticism clear. "That sounds permanent. With like, fields and animals and things."

"Yes, Sam," Castiel replied, smiling against the snow as he remembered, "all of those things."

And then there was Sam. He towered over Castiel, pack on his shoulders, knife in his fist. Big, solid, alive.

Bow and arrow sliding into one hand, Castiel reached up to wrap Sam's neck in a one-armed hug. "Well done, Sam," he murmured, relief seeping through him with a warmth that caught and held. Sam seemed to hesitate, then responded in kind.

"We won?" Sam asked, half joking.

Castiel sighed. "A round. I'm afraid we'll be battling Purgatory, from now on."

A third voice plunged out of the snowfall. "That's kinda dark, Archer!"

Startled, Castiel spun, stretching every sense out to the slowly lightening murk. A brilliant, bobbing ball of energy crossed his vision - Jack, soul burning like a star, indifferent to the blizzard - just before he swept out of the snow. Castiel reached out for him, caught him by the arm as he reached them. Jack's glow of life force brushed all of Castiel's senses, radiating heat that swept away the cold before they'd done more than touch. Castiel wrapped his arm around Jack's neck and hugged him close, relieved all over again to feel him respond. Cold fear, at least, began to recede. Other emotions pushed at Castiel, demanding acknowledgment, but he didn't have the time.

Later, when they were safe, he could grieve what they'd done to Dean. Or spin out the centuries distracting himself from it.

"Follow me," Jack laughed, "The snow stops about thirty meters from here. It's almost daybreak. Between the three of us, we can hold 'em off until the sun's up." He looked Sam up and down with a grin. "Nice to see you made it in once piece, Sam."

Sam shared a look with Castiel, then flicked a polite, guarded smile at Jack. "Yeah. Same to you."

"Before sundown, I saw the Stockade almost due west," Castiel reported. He nocked an arrow again, ready to fire. He wanted several things at once, involving hot water, warm blankets and nudity. But the brief respite from attack would be over soon. All the blankets were at the Stockade.

Still, it was good to have goals.

"How far?" Jack asked.

"A morning's walk, maybe less." Castiel gestured to Jack's considerable luggage as they started walking, keeping Sam between them. "I see your supplies came through."

At the mention, Jack's smile widened further. "Every bit. We may be off this rock sooner than you think, Castiel."

It was a tantalizing invitation to argue, but Castiel dutifully ignored it.

Jack was right - in less than five minutes, they stepped through a curtain of snow and into lush, hilly countryside. Sam made a bewildered noise when his boots hit grass and a warm breeze stirred around them - then a grunt as he noticed the creatures dotting the landscape in the pre-dawn light. Castiel fitted his fingers lightly beneath the arrow nock once more, ready to draw, and shouldered Sam.

"The undead are slow," Castiel murmured, old habits from the hunt spilling back into his mind, "and they'll be gone soon. Stay close, and the creepers should leave you alone." He nodded towards a spider a few meters away. "It'll notice us in a moment. You can have it."

Sam blinked. "Kill it?"

Castiel smiled. "We could try to keep it, but they make poor pets."

The spider hissed and trundled towards them, leg joints clicking like teeth. As Sam engaged it, the sun burst over the horizon. All around them, creatures went up in flames.

Jack frowned at Castiel. "You could have waited ten more seconds, Archer!" He shouted over the spider's piercing shrieks.

Castiel shrugged. "It marked us."

"We could have gone wide!"

Beyond them, the spider's death rattle gurgled around Sam's blade. It collapsed and vanished, leaving Sam holding down nothing but air. Understandably, he fell over.

"I don't think we had anything to worry about, Jack," Castiel said.

They helped Sam to his feet, tended to a few minor scratches, and headed on. Over the next rise, they could see the Stockade clearly, its outer walls warmed by the morning sun. The structure was one of Castiel's favorites, and one of the few where it was (marginally) safe to venture out in the night. Two towers guarded opposite corners of the thick, crenelated outer walls. The pitched roofs of buildings inside could just be seen from this height. The gravel paths at the base were weedy and overgrown, but visible, and only a thin layer of snow dotted the coast. "Home, sweet home," Castiel murmured, thinking of his bed there, and his dog; tasting the human phrase to see if it fit.

Sam looked shocked, more so when he discovered Castiel was the architect. "You built this?"

"And every stick of furniture in it," Jack laughed, the warmth of his voice pulling Castiel's attention from the path, "and most of the weapons; plus armor."

With a chuckle, Sam shook his head. "So what do you do?"

Jack caught Castiel looking at him. "I make sure he's got what he needs."

The hollow place in Castiel's chest felt a little less empty, at least for the moment. "At which you excel," he replied.


The bottom dropped out again in the middle of the night. Castiel's return to Purgatory hadn't robbed him of his Grace this time, but like Jack - in this place he could still find sleep.

That wasn't the good thing he'd missed, as it turned out.

Castiel struggled out of a nightmare, cries caught in his throat, and woke to the distant snarls and screams of creatures beyond their walls. The undead crowded their doors; spiders stalked the walls. They'd have a busy morning - the first of many. And on Earth, however far away that might be, Dean struggled on alone.

Castiel rolled over, seeking Jack's warm, naked bulk, and pressed his face to Jack's back. Good reasons aside, Castiel abetted separating Sam and Dean. In the pit of his being, Castiel knew it was wrong, now too late to change. Though it had been barely an eye blink for Dean, the seconds would accumulate like snowflakes. Acid grief gnawed a hole in Castiel, as the dark and the chaos outside sucked hope away. If Dean died while they were trapped here, if he died alone…

On the other side of the wall, Sam made a ragged noise of pain.

Castiel rose, wound a blanket around himself as the night air hit his skin, and went to investigate.

Sam was a shadowy hulk in his nest of bedding, propped against the wall. He made another sound, smaller than the last, but clearer, and the pain in him pulled Castiel closer. He knelt at the edge of Sam's improvised bed. "Sam?" Castiel whispered.

Sam jerked away from Castiel. He scrubbed his own face in his palms. "Cas? What?" His voice was congested and slow. "Thought you guys were asleep."

"Are you all right, Sam?" Castiel asked. Sam gave a soft, hollow laugh and tipped his head back.

"Yeah," Sam answered, "Just overwhelmed. Are the things outside always this noisy?" He extended a hand, finding Castiel's arm in the drape of his blanket, and squeezed. "Don't worry."

"Always," Castiel replied with a long-suffering sigh, "But I'm not worried. Not about you, anyway," Castiel shifted his weight and rested his opposite hand on Sam's knuckles, "though I wish I hadn't taken you from Dean."

Sam's covers rustled as he moved closer to Castiel again. "Not your choice, Cas," Sam murmured, "and it's done. How long's it been for him, you think?"

Castiel shook his head, herding his thoughts. "Dean? Seconds, minutes at most. He's still with Gwen and Bobby."

"I hope they're all right," Sam said, voice bleak.

Without any reassurance to give, Castiel sat beside him in silence, head bowed together with Sam's. The hand on Castiel's arm began to shiver, until there was nothing to do but reel Sam in and wrap him up. His bigness and weight was still surprising… but not as shocking as how he relaxed into Castiel's shoulder. It was something they'd never done before, and the longer it went on, the more Castiel realized he'd like to repeat it.

"We've gotta keep moving, right?" Sam's voice was muffled in the thick wool blanket, "Find a way home, if Dean doesn't first."

His words weren't a revelation. Jack said the same thing often enough, one way or another. Nothing to do but move forward. Had it not been for Jack - and those words - Castiel would still be wallowing, wasting time and pain on guilt.

"Yes," Castiel said with new conviction, "we do."

In a few minutes, Sam pulled away, rubbing his eye sockets with the heel of his palm. "Jack seems pretty confident his tech can get us out of here."

Castiel rearranged his blanket around his shoulders again, and tipped his head to hear the sound of Jack's quiet snores in the other room of the cabin. The thought of falling asleep beside him suddenly had merit again. "He's usually 'pretty confident,' Sam," Castiel replied with amusement, "but while he's imperfect - I do trust him. With my life."

"How about my life?" Sam asked wryly. On impulse, Castiel reached out and squeezed Sam's shoulder.

"No," Castiel said with a sigh, "but I think that's Dean's influence. We'll get back to him, Sam. I believe it."

With a last murmured goodnight, they parted, and Castiel returned to his own bed. The windows here were thick soda glass, bubbly and rippled as glue, but he could still see the wan morning light in the courtyard. It was an unhealthy green, promising a storm. As Castiel pulled the covers up and tucked himself against Jack, he caught the scent of ozone.

Chapter Text

Dean ran harder than he'd ever run in his life. Thick grass dragged at Dean's boots and low branches whipped his face, but the scrubby trees were better than out in the open, and the pounding rain. The trace of sunset left when he'd arrived had been dead in seconds; last of its light choked by the goddamned rain. He didn't have the firepower to fight the monsters lurking behind every tree and in every ravine, and they all seemed to be gunning for him. They sniffed him out no matter how well he camouflaged himself, or how quietly he hid.

But he could outrun them. For now, Dean made that the plan.

He wasn't sure where he was, or how he'd survived the creeper's explosion. The moments after the blast were suspiciously missing. So was Shamsiel, for that matter, and his angel powers would have come in handy.

Not that Dean needed an angel to know he'd scored a ticket to Purgatory.

An arrow thunked into the trunk of a tree near Dean's head. Skeleton archers surrounded him, like something straight out of Clash of the Titans. The fact that they were also extremely good shots with a significant range was just fricking unfair. They were hard to outrun, but the trees protected Dean from more than just the relentless rain.

Two things kept him moving: If this was Purgatory (and he believed it was), Sam and Cas were holed up in this mess, somewhere. Dean had no idea how big Purgatory was, or how they were doing, or where they were, but those were familiar odds. As soon as it was daylight, he'd get some weapons together, and then he'd find them.

A husky-sized tarantula rolled across Dean's path, clicking its joints like popping knuckles. It heaved in place with leather creaks and soft scuffs, sizing him up.

Fear pumped a new surge of adrenaline into Dean's blood. He slung himself behind a tree, fingertips bitten by the rough bark.

The overexcited predator rushed after him and collided with the tree trunk. It screamed again, close enough to make Dean's brain rattle.

The blow wasn't enough to stun the monster, but it gave Dean a few seconds' head start in the confusion.

Dean sprinted. Or, tried.

He'd been playing tag with the monsters for at least an hour. Fear couldn't ignore the lungs sewn with razor wire. His thighs burned, mouth dry and scummy from panting, and behind him Dean could still hear it, chugging through the trees like a runaway train.

The ground slanted down and Dean saw a flare of light, hidden by the brush until now. Someone called his name. It could be wishful thinking, could be a trap, but it wasn't shadows and Tolkien spiders. Dean tightened his fists and pushed his speed, fighting the streaks of color that pulsed in his vision with every step.

The light glowed within reach, but as Dean reached for it, the ground kicked up and dropped away. Dean tumbled headfirst down a sharp decline, into flickering firelight and a soft pile of dirt. The spider thrashed at the entrance, screaming its frustration when it couldn't squeeze its body inside.

Dean twisted and pushed himself to his knees, only to be shoved into the wall of the narrow passageway.

"Sorry, Dean!" Shamsiel grunted. He charged up the incline and thrust the sharp end of a long branch into the spider's face. It made an aggravated sound and lashed out.

Shamsiel staggered back, lines of blood clawed across his forehead.

Lightning quick, Dean surveyed his options, and seized the branch from Shamsiel's hands. He squeezed around the angel, shoving Shamsiel further back with his body.

"Hey Shelob!" Dean addressed the spider, "Haven't you got some hobbits to chase?" He choked up on the branch like a baseball bat.

The spider was missing a couple eyes, thanks to Shamsiel. And she couldn't get in. Maybe she'd get bored and leave.

Or maybe she'd get crafty and wait them out.

Dean might be exhausted and bruised, but if he didn't kill her now, while he could see her, God knew where she'd show up next. With his luck, Shelob here would drop on them from a tree in the morning. Did he want to chance that? Judging by Shamsiel's face, she was pretty lethal already, without the element of surprise on her side.

Dean looked over her eyes, the undamaged ones still glittering like black marbles in the firelight. Then, he saw her mouth, the little mandibles twiddling like a dog licking its chops. He aimed for that, with a roar and a lunge. There was a squelchy pop, she squealed, and went flat. The dead spider vanished in front of his eyes like a hallucination.

Adrenaline still surging, Dean crawled towards Shamsiel at the opposite end of the crevice. Shamsiel's hands and face were full of blood. Dean whipped off his outer shirt and handed it to Shamsiel, trying not to wince as red soaked into the flannel.

"Let me see," Dean said, after the worst of the mess had been wiped away. Shamsiel turned his face up to the torch light, quiet and obedient. Those were two words Dean would never have used to describe the angel in the past, and although he didn't know Shamsiel all that well, he worried.

The spider left two long, shallow slashes across Shamsiel's face, from just above his left eyebrow to his upper lip. They bled like a stuck pig, the way most face wounds did. "I haven't been in this much pain in quite a long time," Shamsiel answered in a thin voice.

"It doesn't look too bad," Dean lied, balling up his shirt and pressing it to Shamsiel's wounds. "I'm short a first aid kit. Can you fix it?"

"No," Shamsiel sighed, then blinked. "Or maybe yes?"

"You don't know?" Dean asked, incredulous.

With an aggravated huff, Shamsiel batted Dean's hands away from his face. He cupped his own palm over the bridge of his nose, and a wan blue light flashed under his fingers. When he lowered his hand, Shamsiel's face was no longer bleeding, and the wounds were closed, angry red lines. It never stopped being miraculous to watch, even if a little of the shine was gone.

"Well," Shamsiel's voice was dry, "that's some good news."

With the last of their strength, they barricaded the entryway with the brush and earth piled at the foot. The space smelled doggy, and musty, like an animal had been here before them. With spiders the size of huskies, how big were the dogs?

Dean flopped down beside Shamsiel at the back of the cave at last, muscles stinging as they unwound. His heart still thudded in his throat, scratches and bruises beginning to hurt now as adrenaline faded. "Where the hell were you?"

Shamsiel cast him a dry look. "Dead. Temporarily. As were you. When I couldn't find you, I struck out for shelter."

Dean made an unimpressed noise, and didn't think too hard about the whole 'being dead' thing. Same shit, different day. "So this is Purgatory, right? How'd we get here?"

Shamsiel pretzeled his legs into a yoga position. "It wasn't me, if that's what you were thinking. I'm almost positive that it was Shiriel's doing."

"You know anything about this place?" Dean asked, folding his hands behind his head, "Cas was here before. Is there somewhere he'd head to?"

Head down, Shamsiel slumped against the wall. The shadows hid his eyes. "Purgatory is huge," he replied, monotone, "They probably came through here, but we have no way of knowing how much time has passed."

Dean blinked. "What do you mean? We got through the portal, right? You guys can't just wander in and out of Purgatory whenever you want."

"Of course not."

"So we got here while the door was still open. Right? Which means it was almost the same time they did."

"Time passes far more quickly here." Beyond their little barricade, the hiss of rain began to lighten.

Castiel said the same thing, Dean remembered. He'd been in Purgatory for five years, to Dean's three months in the real world, which explained how the angel somehow got himself common-law-married to Captain Jack fucking Harkness. "Look, I'm no MIT grad, but even I know that's bullshit. You couldn't buzz us through a door that didn't exist anymore."

"The 'door' existed, and Shiriel 'buzzed us through,'" Shamsiel corrected, tight-fisted hands opening to wave his dismissal, "But do as you please. You have your search, I have mine. Shiriel is my soldier. She's all I have."

Dean dropped his eyes. He wiped his hands on his jeans and got to his feet, reaching for the flannel shirt stained with angel blood. He tied it around his waist, aware of Shamsiel's eyes on him.

"What happened is not your fault," Shamsiel said.

Dean blew out a bitter laugh. "How do you figure? I was right there."

The Watcher rolled to his feet and walked up the cave's egress into the growing dappled light. "Gwen's fate wasn't your doing. It's the Watchers' doing; my doing. You didn't fail her." His voice was heavy, words ripped and raw. "I did."

The wheels began to turn in Dean's paranoid brain. Gwen - on Shamsiel's authority - was in Purgatory with them. Trapped, to all accounts, like they were. Whatever reason she had for locking them all in here, Gwen was in a place where Dean could reach her. "Is Gwen still in there? Is Shiriel just riding her?" He asked, guilt driving him, "Can we save her?"

"It was Shemyazaz," Shamsiel replied, "he was the keystone. His death."

Crowley's ominous words filtered through Dean's memory. "He pushed the button at Mission Control?"

Shamsiel scrubbed his fingers through his hair. "He never told me. I'm certain he believed he was doing what was best for all of us. But I would have stopped him if I'd known." He turned away from Dean, into the dappled light, hands behind his back like a soldier at ease. Dean noticed the skin going pale where Shamsiel's fingers circled his own wrist. "I don't know if she's in there, Dean. I'm not completely sure what happened, but I have guesses. Gwen's family must… date back to the Great Flood. They've been passing Shiriel down for generations." He turned his head, not quite looking at Dean. "Gwen could have been released, or she could have been consumed."

In spite of himself, Dean found a kernel of sympathy. He hardened himself against it. If Gwen was still in there, if she could be saved, it was on Dean to pull her out. And Shamsiel - while he'd be sorry about it - would try to kick his ass to stop him. Angels never freaking changed.

Neither did he.

In the end, he joined Shamsiel in the sun, and they started marching.

They stayed together for a while. Dark and silent, the waiting isolation of the forest made Dean hesitant to split. He chiseled a branch into a crude spear with the short, ugly blade of his utility tool. The rest of his weapons were probably buried under feet of rubble in backwater Kansas. Of course the St. Stephen church was leveled; destruction of holy historical sites was part of the Winchester gig. Right up there next to grave desecration.

The forest was warm, humid from the rain, and smelled of wet earth. To Dean's left, he could see the edge of the woods, and an open plain beyond. The sun rolled overhead like a time-lapse film, so fast that Dean could see the shadows change. Add the weird monsters and the randomly changing landscape, and moving through Purgatory felt like a bad acid trip. Hunger gnawed at him now, as well as thirst, and that was just frigging unfair. The afterlife was supposed to be uncomfortable for sinners, but while Hell was… well… Hell, Purgatory just seemed to be filled with annoyances. Dean anticipated mosquitoes and ticks any minute.

The forest ended on a beach, abrupt as a child's drawing. Dean slogged out into the sand, and the temperature dropped exponentially. His breath fogged and the cold shocked his lungs. "What the hell?"

The water was ice. Dean backed up, into the warmth of the tree line. He squinted, searching for the source of the cold, and missed the comfort of his tools. Could there even be hauntings in Purgatory? He put a hand out, stepping forward until his fingers passed into the intense cold again. Shuffling an inch at a time, Dean eased between the cold beach and damp forest warmth.

Dean fumbled for Shamsiel's name. The angel's nickname - given to him what felt like a century ago - felt strange in Dean's mouth. "Shane, take a look at this."

Shamsiel came out of the trees, echoing Dean's surprise. He raised his hands over his head, moving them down in front of him like a mime investigating a make-believe wall.

"It's a barrier," Shamsiel said after a few moments, "the air pressure is significantly different beyond the trees."

"What's doing that?"

"I have no idea."

"Great, well, at least it matches the rest of Bizarre-o-world." Dean's eyes followed the fine blue film of frozen water until it touched the horizon.

A building rose up there. No, not a building, a castle. A box of tall crenelated walls on a hilltop like a Tuscan wet dream, burned red by the setting sun at Dean's back.

Setting sun? Already?

Dean didn't have a watch to check, but even without one, he could tell it hadn't been more than a few hours since morning. "Son of a bitch," Dean snapped in disgust.

Beside him, Shamsiel shaded his eyes and peered at the building on the horizon. "Unless you plan to camp here, you should run for that building. I can sense Castiel from here."

Not 'we'? Dean glanced at Shamsiel. "You buzzing off?"

Shamsiel nodded. "There's another storm coming, but if you run, you might make it to their front door before you freeze."

"Nice attitude."

"Did you miss the part where I said run?"

Dean ran on alone. At first, he followed the beach, cold air slashing at his lungs. Night poured over the sky like dark spiced rum, bringing even more intense chill with it, and desperation drove Dean onto the ice. It was slick, but solid, bearing his weight without so much as a crack. His fingers were long since numb, cheeks and nose dead from the cold by the time he reached the opposite bank. At the top of the hill beyond, half hidden by tall firs, was the castle's dark silhouette.

Snarls greeted Dean. Zombies and skeletons waited for him on the beach. When the last of the sun slipped away, they started across the remaining feet of ice towards him. Utility knife in one numb hand, crude spear in the other, Dean squared up to meet them. Adrenaline flooded his body with heat and a burst of frightened energy.

An arrow buzzed over Dean's head, close enough to feel the wind of it. The skeleton taking aim at him caught it in the eye socket and flew backward.

And then the arrow ignited, setting the skeleton on fire.

As if this wasn't Dukes of Hazzard Hell enough.

"Dean!" Someone called his name, as his opponent crumpled to the ground in a clattering blaze, "On your left!"

The words were still in the air when Castiel thrust across Dean's vision and hurtled past him; a comet of fiery rage in dark leather. He fired off shots from his bow with deadly accuracy; Dean might have been jealous of the skill if he wasn't so busy trying not to die. Every shot lit the target on fire, igniting shambling bonfires all around him.

Too breathless to say a word, Dean did his best to angle in behind him and let Castiel clear a path. He didn't have much dignity left to bruise - most of it was frozen solid to the ice, about twenty feet back.

And then there was help. Like Castiel, Sam wore a chestplate, with leather arm guards over the sleeves of an ordinary flannel plaid shirt. They were a couple sizes too small for him, and he wore a huge iron sword strapped to his shoulders. "Up the hill, can you move?" Sam ducked under Dean's arm, wrapping his elbow around his neck. "God, you're freezing."

Sam was okay, and everything got a whole lot easier. Even with his muscles clenched against the bone-chilling cold, Dean could feel himself unwind.

Castiel rejoined them. His gaze flashed over Dean, the flat assessment cold enough to push him over into hypothermia. Then he looped Dean's free arm across his shoulders, and the three of them started up the hill.

In less than a minute, the sky was black and starry, an alien moon casting watery light overhead. Warmer air slapped Dean's face, burning away the bitter cold with a sting like rubbing alcohol. Torches along the bluff lit the way, guiding them from one pool of light to the next, until they reached a set of hewn stone stairs and the huge, looming walls of the castle.

Looking up, Dean saw a figure on the parapet above the doorway, bow up, quiet as a statue, footed with torchlight. Jack Harkness.

They didn't wait for Dean's teeth to stop chattering before pelting him with questions. He was ready to punch every one of them - Sam included - by the time they got him into their kitchen and sat him down with blankets before the fire. The bread Sam pushed into his hands tasted strange, but the apples, at least, seemed the same.

"Dean, what are you doing here?" Sam asked.

"Wow, not even a 'hi, we missed you'?" Dean said around a mouthful of apple, abortive smile fading as he watched Sam's expression do emotional acrobatics. "I don't know," Dean lied, finally, "I thought it was Shane, but he said he didn't do it."

"I don't believe you," Castiel crouched on Dean's other side like a gargoyle, his voice still deadly cold. Every movement pushed the scent of body warmed leather over Dean, and there should totally not have been a part of him going wow, turned on here.

"Please tell me you didn't do this, Dean." Castiel leaned forward, "Please. Tell me your obsessive need to martyr yourself didn't just undo everything."

Dean clenched his jaw, the vague prickle of arousal vanishing. "You know what? Bite me, Cas."

Sam reached between them. "All right, enough." He slotted himself down into Castiel's place, who practically leaped out of his way with a disgusted sigh. "Of course we're glad to see you alive. But when we hit the portal topside, you guys were hundreds of miles away. What happened?"

The door opened and closed with a gust of cool air behind them, and Dean could feel Jack's stare on his neck like a rising thunderstorm.

"Where's Gwen?" Jack demanded, "is she still out there?"

Anger and fear knotted in Dean's gut at the mention of Gwen's name. "I didn't see her. Shane's out looking for her." He wrapped the blankets tighter, eyes on the fire until its light left flickering spots. "We got two of the Fates, but we pissed off the third. She and Gwen threw down like a couple angry wolves. Everything went white, then lights out. I woke up here, with Shane, and one of those fricking creepers practically on top of our heads."

Lightning burst below the clouds on the horizon, near enough to reflect off the inner walls of the keep. Jack shook his head. "That's not like Gwen."

No, Dean thought, of course it wasn't. Then he was tired of carrying it all. The angel was out of the bag anyway, right? "It wasn't Gwen."

The motion around him stopped. "It was something else. An angel took her over, when… when Shemyazaz bit it. They're like sleepers, I don't know."

A growl crept into Jack's voice. "What are you saying?"

Dean turned back, looking up at Jack. "Gwen is one of them, Jack," he said. "She's an angel."

Jack's eyes slashed him open. "That's not--" Jack waved at Castiel. "Angels need permission."

Dean shook his head. "Not this one. The angel inside her woke up and took the wheel when Shemyazaz died. He was some kind of keystone for whatever magic kept the Watchers locked down."

Dean watched the gutshot expression crawl across Jack's face. He'd killed Gwen anyway - Shamsiel's absolution be damned - but this was worse than death. Maybe if he'd gotten to her first, she'd have a nice Heaven kicking ass and taking names, and Shiriel would never have manifested at all. Now, there maybe wasn't even a Gwen left. She'd just been erased. The angels fucked things up (per usual), but he could have saved Gwen from this. Or he could have told her.

Castiel knelt again in Dean's space. Close. Too close. The firelight licked his skin red, and his eyes were dark, angry slits. "You knew."

"Get out of my head, Cas," Dean warned.

"I'm not in your head, Dean," Castiel snapped, "I can read it in your face. How long?"

"How long?" Dean's chin lifted, hands hitting his pockets as he squared up to meet Castiel's rage. "Boy, you just couldn't wait to find an excuse to put this one on me, could you?"

Sam stepped in again. "Look," he said quietly, "if there's a chance we can get Gwen back, what does it matter? It's done."

For a moment, it looked like Castiel wanted to say more. Fight him. But Castiel turned away.

In some ways, that hurt worse. "I've known since Crowley yanked me into Neverland, okay?" Dean spat at him, "He wanted me to gank her. Gwen's what they're after. She was the target the whole time, I didn't know who to trust!"

"Me, Dean!" Castiel swung back, "Us."

Dean opened his mouth to say something sarcastic. Something bitter. Hell, probably something a little jealous, even - he wasn't much into navel gazing (his own, anyway) but he'd figured out the lay of the land. And then he thought about Castiel crashing into the missile silo like the cavalry, firing off arrows like Luke Duke's demented brother. And that first night afterward, when Castiel asked forgiveness, for trust, like a stranger.

For as long as he could remember, Dean went with his gut. His gut was suspicious and paranoid and usually right. His gut wanted to brush this off, because trust and forgiveness were as uncomfortable at the same table as a conservative and a liberal at a family reunion.

But this time, something stopped him. This time, when he saw the pain in the faces around him, he was tired. Too tired to goad them into hitting him, until he'd taken enough Hail Mary's and Our Father's to the face to grind out the guilt.

"Look, this is all on me, okay?" Dean said, "But Sam's right. If there's a chance—

A crack of thunder cut Dean off, hammering his eardrums. It left a heavy humming behind, like a jet flying too close to the ground. The noise dopplered, getting louder and closer until Dean's instincts shoved him to his feet with the others. They plunged out into the courtyard, as three brilliant streaks of light unzipped the sky and the clouds let loose with another downpour.

Jack spun away from them, headed for the castle gates. "Get them to the Stockade cellar, Archer!" he shouted back as the portcullis clanked open.

"No! We shouldn't split up!"

"Bound to happen sometime," Jack replied, and vanished.

For a beat or two, everything was quiet but the rain. The portcullis reeled down again, and Jack's silhouette blurred in the downpour. Dean looked from the gates to Sam and Castiel, whose hard expressions matched.

Castiel snapped up his bow and a handful of arrows from inside the cabin. "The cellar entrance is in the armory. Get your things, both of you."

Sam's mouth hung open. "Cas, you can't be serious - we have to find Jack. Right? Before he does something stupid!"

"Jack is capable enough," Castiel replied. He turned his attention to Dean. "Are you well enough to fight?"

Not really, Dean thought, but since when is that anything new? Surprised by the question, he gave Castiel a knowing once-over. "You got an extra sword stashed in there?" He asked as he fell in behind the angel. Castiel's eyes flashed approval and relief, which was almost (repeat: almost) worth the price of admission.

"Several," Castiel confirmed, put his free hand behind his back, and pulled out a slick black handgun. He tossed it to Dean, as he passed. "But you might be more comfortable with this. It's loaded with the flint-filled bullets you made for me."

Dean smirked at Sam's stunned expression, feeling a little better as the weight of the Glock settled in his hands. The two of them hurried to catch up. "There's a way out of the basement, isn't there?" Sam asked, understanding dawning in his voice.

The armory door swung inward with a creak under Castiel's hand. "It's quieter than the gate."

Chapter Text

The frozen lake thawed halfway around the Stockade as the coast took a sharp, brief inward curve. The water in the bay was frigid, shallow, and boiling black under the storm. It was here that the ball of white fire hurtled to earth, landing in the water below the Stockade with a tidal wave that drowned the beach.

Sam and Dean crouched in the narrow escape tunnel with Castiel at the root of the Stockade's foundations. The impact shook the stones around them.

"What is that?" Sam asked, wincing as chips of rock glanced off his shoulder.

Castiel closed his eyes and pressed his perceptions outward. The bay illuminated in his mind, fizzing with pockets of living energy: plants, fish, giant squid, and the twin stars of Jack and the creature in the water. As he pushed past Jack's blinding soul, pure creation energy skittered over his senses like soda bubbles, leaving the taste of clean water in his mouth.

"Angel," Castiel said, rising.

"Shane?" Dean joined him.

Castiel thought about the energy signature he'd seen. It was old; unfamiliar. "I don't think so," he replied slowly.

Only a few yards away, Jack stood at the water's edge. Foam washed up to his shins and receded again. He was a statue on the shore; ignoring the downpour that drenched him in seconds as he stripped off his armor.

Gwen surfaced, throwing back her head with a corona of water. She gasped for air, strands of dark wet hair glued to her face.

As she scraped the hair from her eyes, Castiel could see Gwen's hands were red, knuckles raw. Blood from half a dozen small cuts streamed down her temple and cheek. Bruises circled her skin, in red and purple.

Jack stripped off his coat and plunged into the icy lake, calling her name.

Gwen staggered towards him, but the water erupted around them both. She disappeared with another spray of foam, followed by Jack.

The water churned while Castiel scanned desperately for sight of them. He knew this world was different, Purgatory wouldn't let any of them die. If they drowned, they'd come back. They always came back.

The boys called for Castiel, oddly faint. Castiel realized he was running only when the lake dragged at his ankles. He staggered and the Winchesters caught him, pulling him back.

Gwen reappeared between one panted breath and the next, grappling with a strange woman.

Lachesis.

In his career with Heaven, Castiel had met only Atropos, but he knew them all. He recognized the eldest Fate by the white Grecian dress and draggled crown of dark braids. He'd missed her in the water, blinded by the presence of Shiriel inside Gwen. Lachesis fought with the weary determination of a boxer, one side stained red from shoulder to hip by a deep cut above her heart. She broke from Gwen, and her stave materialized in her slim hands.

Gwen shouted something in a foreign language, every part of her buried beneath Shiriel's confused consciousness. Castiel hadn't heard the words in well over three millennia. Grieving for Gwen, frantic to do something, he dug at the dustiest corners of his memory for a translation.

"Is that Enochian?" Sam asked.

Castiel shook his head. "Older."

"Aramaic?" Sam hazarded.

"No," Castiel growled, but at last was able to retrieve the language. "It's like Dean said - Shiriel's taken over. She's confused. She doesn't know why Lachesis is attacking her."

Lachesis replied in the same tongue, laughed, and clapped her free hand to the sharp point of her stave. Blood trickled down her wrist. It was a sacrifice, Castiel realized. He could feel power accumulating towards her. The energy of Purgatory was raw; carving wild fractals across his senses as it spiraled in.

"Poor little Watcher," Lachesis sneered, still speaking Shiriel's language, "Chained to humanity like a wolf in a fighting pit." Her bloody palm came away from the bronze, filled with blinding light.

With a flick of her hand, Lachesis cast a red shockwave across the lake. "Well, fight, wolf."

Too tired to dodge, Shiriel fell.

Lachesis would never stop, Castiel realized, driven mad by the loss of her sisters. He knew Dean and Gwen had killed Atropos and Clothos, and for the first time in her existence, Lachesis was completely alone. Now, they were all trapped in Purgatory with her, and nothing could kill her. She'd always come back. What could they do? What could stop the last of the Fates?

Clenching his jaw, Castiel turned back to the Winchesters. "Help Gwen," he ordered, "keep Lachesis distracted."

Dean jogged up the shore, away from them. "Shouldn't be a problem. She and I are old pals."

"What're you gonna do?" Sam asked Castiel, as he backed away.

"Get help," Castiel replied, and dove in the opposite direction, disappearing under shadowy trees.


 

Jack inhaled too much water and sank into frigid dark. He woke up drowning in blankets, kicking at the quilt on his bed at the Stockade. The day had slipping into evening, and for a panicked instant, Jack thought he'd been left alone, or separated from the others. Then the sounds of combat vibrated the Stockade, gunfire and shouting mixed with clashing metal. His sword made a sharp, cold line beside him in bed, dry as if he hadn't been waterlogged and choking a moment before. He dashed outside, the last image of Gwen's bloodied face burned in his mind.

A two-on-one battle raged at the water's edge below him. The Winchesters kept Lachesis up to her calves in the roiling surf; her back to the bay and her bronze-tipped stave gleaming dully in her hands. They fought her with blades: Sam with the heavy broadsword forged for him here by Castiel, Dean with a machete as long as his arm. Blades rang and bodies thudded, over the thunder and the persistent hiss of rain.

Even with the numbers and terrain in their favor, they were clearly outmatched. Dean's left arm dangled at his side, probably shattered from blocking a strike. Close-range weapons against Lachesis (and most creatures in Purgatory) were insanity.

What were they doing?

Then Jack's eyes found Gwen, under the strobes of lightning. No more than five steps from Sam's heels, her body made a dark, broken smudge in a deep furrow in the sand. Her pale face lolled towards Jack, draggled wet hair plastered to her forehead and over her eyes. Death made an object of her; a drowned animal, throat exposed and limbs slack.

Jack's ears roared. Gwen's name caught in his throat as he ran towards her; raking its way out of him with steel barbs. Heat rolled over his chilly, soaked skin like a fever.

He knew he'd lose her, but not now.

Not like this.

Blindered by his own ghosts, Jack didn't realize he'd been spotted until he heard Sam shout his name. Footsteps barrelled towards him on the right, light and fast. The sharp bronze tip of Lachesis's stave flashed in front of his face as she surged into his view. Jack dodged out of her way with a sloppy spin, staggering backwards a step or two as he lost his balance. She kept coming, swinging with more power than precision, driving him away from Gwen and the Winchesters.

It was simple to evade her, but Jack was already tired from struggling through the wet sand and the rain, and Lachesis pressed him too hard to reach for his own weapons. For the moment, the best he could do was duck. His brain slipped into auto-pilot, soaked in adrenaline and a fine red haze of rage. He expected the sear of one of those bronze needles in his gut, any minute. A cold part of him welcomed it.

What he didn't expect were the Winchesters. Whooping like Scottish highlanders, Sam and Dean charged after them. Exhausted as she was, Lachesis wasn't fast enough for Sam's long legs. He came abreast of her in a few seconds, and pulled a page out of Jack's playbook.

With the flat of his sword, he hit her, grand slam style.

Even followed through on the swing, like an all-star from the Mudville Nine.

Lachesis tumbled sideways into Dean, who grabbed her by the shoulder with his good hand, added a little shove, and sent her spinning into the sand.

Had Lachesis been in reach, Jack would have ripped into her himself. The familiar pommel of his iron sword was in his hand before he knew it, Webley forgotten as the instincts of Purgatory took over. But the Winchesters blocked his way. Dean knelt over Lachesis, knee on her neck. To all accounts, she seemed unconscious. They didn't kill her outright, which was a show of restraint Jack wouldn't have credited either one of them. God knows he would have, and not thought twice about it.

"What's the plan?" He asked.

Standing over Lachesis and Dean, Sam looked back at him. The stave that belonged to Lachesis hung limply in his left hand. "Buying time," Sam said, and gestured to Lachesis under Dean's weight. "Once she wakes up, we probably can't hold her for more than a couple minutes. But if we off her, she'll just disappear and come back, right? And we won't know when or where."

Jack turned his face away first, dredging an ounce of composure from beneath the flood of adrenaline. He stared hard at the dark shadow of Gwen's fallen form, and the rain on his neck felt like sharp hooves. Then Sam's words were sunlight, piercing Jack's stormclouds as he processed them.

She'll just disappear and come back.

"Jack," Sam said, "I'm sorry. What happened to Gwen - I'm sorry. Wait, Jack?"

But Jack was already gone.

His knees dug into the sand as he dropped by Gwen's side in the dark. They'd only gone a few yards, Jack realized, surprised - and then not surprised - by the shortlived fight. He took Gwen's nearest hand in his, sweeping the grit from her skin with his thumb. Her fingers were cold.

"Gwen?" Jack asked, shoving her name through gritted teeth, "Gwen!"

He nudged her, then shook her. "Come on, Gwen. You can do this. You're in there, and you're stubborn."

Behind him, Jack heard Sam shouting his name. He pushed it away. Gwen's hand was pliant in his, chilly and still.

Every drop of heat drained out of Jack, too. Exhaustion weighed him down like the armor and heavy wet wool he wore.

He'd had this nightmare many, many times. Ever since Gwen joined the team all those years ago, this moment lurked in the back of his mind. As if somehow, forcing himself to think about her eventual death would make it easier to witness. Part of him hoped it would be peaceful. Part of him hoped it would be for something; a cause, a person who wasn't him.

She'd been the last. The last to find him, the last to join his team; the last to die because she followed him. The end of Torchwood Cardiff. Jack could neither think back, or look forward. He was anchored here in the present, mired by the cold weight of Gwen's body next to him.

Midnight came. As it did, the rain fell away like a curtain drawn back. Everything was soaked and smelled of wet earth. Without the storm's constant percussion, the night around him was cemetery silent.

With his free hand, Jack smoothed the wet draggles of hair from Gwen's eyes. The heel of his palm passed over her mouth.

A warm gust of breath pushed against his wrist.

Jack went still, searching Gwen's face for a shift, a twitch, while he held his palm over her lips.

There it was again.

Suddenly frantic, Jack felt for the pulse at her throat, and found it. Relief anesthetized him, driving away the exhaustion and the cold with a fresh surge of adrenaline.

Her eyes rolled beneath the lids, then opened as she took a deep breath and pushed it out. The torch light around the Stockade was clearer, brighter after the rain, washing Gwen's features with orange light. She spoke, but in a tongue even Jack's TARDIS-enhanced translation faculties couldn't parse. The tones were right, but the syllables were jumbled and strange. Had she hit her head?

"Gwen?" Jack bent over her, cupping her cheek.

She furrowed her brow at him, closed her eyes, and swallowed. When she looked at him next, there was recognition.

"Jack?" Gwen asked, and his heart cracked.

"Yeah," Jack murmured fondly, leaning down to kiss her cold forehead with a thick laugh, "Hi. Can you move? Can you sit up?"

With his help, she could and did. He had his arms around her head in a minute, forgetting Lachesis and the night dangers of Purgatory as he hugged her like his soul given back to him.

She didn't return the gesture.

"Who are you?" Gwen said against his chest, accentless and stilted.

Jack's stomach bobbed, bitter bile swimming up to the back of his throat. He pushed Gwen back to arm's length and searched her face once more. "What happened, Gwen?"

Gwen frowned at him. "Gwen? No," she said, and covered his hand with hers, "Shiriel."

Before Jack could react, an arrow thudded into the sand at his side.

His head shot up.

The creatures of Purgatory shuffled out of the dark. At midnight, the world rolled onto its belly and true night called them from the caverns. All around him were the low, glowing orange eyes of spiders; sucking undead snarls; and white, empty-eyed faces.

There would only be more, as the night wore on. Morning seemed a hundred years away.

"You have the worst timing!" Jack shouted at them.

He spotted his assailant: a skeletal archer up the beach and near the treeline. Its bones gleamed wet in the torchlight, burnished with rain.

Grabbing for the bow he usually wore at his back, Jack's hands came up empty.

Then, he remembered the weight of the Webley, heavy against his thigh. He whipped the pistol from its holster, twisting as he did to sight between the skull's bottomless eyeholes.

He fired, and fired again.

The skeleton crumpled into a pile of dust.

Jack turned, reached for Gwen's arm, and helped her to her feet. More creatures shambled towards the beach. There were always more, and Jack wanted Castiel with him with an ache that burned. Castiel would charge around him at times like this; dive into the creatures with bloody, single-minded purpose. His absence in the fight was a missing limb.

Where was Castiel? Jack expected him to be at Dean's side, if not throttling the life out of Lachesis himself. He hadn't seen Castiel at all since Jack walked (stalked, really) out of the Stockade. His anger was still real, still present, but seemed to have lost all of its weight.

"I understand none of this," Gwen complained, behind him. Her hand was still firmly in his. At least he had that.

"There's shelter about ten minutes' run from here," Jack explained, scanning the onslaught for the weakest and the slowest, "we can't stay here. She wants you and she'll find you." He let go of Gwen's hand, tossed her his Webley, and drew his sword as they left the beach and headed towards the trees.

"Stick close," Jack turned back to Gwen, "It'll be a scary walk."

They nearly fell over a creeper. It gazed up at him, fearless, and didn't explode.

Castiel ghosted out of the trees behind it, arrows flying as he tore into the monsters' ranks. Shamsiel fought beside him, a silvery angel blade in one hand, torch held aloft with the other. His white-blond hair burned a halo around his head against the dark. Jack's heart lifted momentarily. The four of them surged together with common purpose, clearing creatures from their path until they held a small radius of peace.

"Shiriel?" Shamsiel panted, when they paused.

Before Jack could blink, Gwen was no longer behind him. She abandoned his side, skirted through the creepers without a twitch, and wrapped her arms around Shamsiel's neck. The spoke in quick bursts, in the same strange words Gwen spoke when she first came to. Jack's gaze shifted from them to Castiel, stomach knotted with a fear he couldn't put name to.

"Gwen?" Jack begged. His voice tremored.

"Not anymore, Jack," Shamsiel said, "I'm—"

The words choked off, as Jack grabbed him by the throat. He squeezed.

"What did you do to her?" Jack demanded, "Put her back!"

And then he felt a sharp, cold swordpoint jab into his neck. Was it Castiel? Was this where they'd ended up at last? Jack had a dozen more furious words to pour out, but the blade pushed into his windpipe at the join of his head and neck. Even swallowing hurt.

"Let him go," Gwen demanded, near his ear.

The blade was hers. Jack saw it, as his shocked fingers released Shamsiel's throat. Shamsiel still held his, but somehow, Gwen conjured another. She lowered the weapon, and held out his Webley, grip first.

"I am not Gwen," she said, "I do not wish to hurt you. But do not threaten the general again."

Jack accepted the weapon and sought Castiel's eyes, as if somehow he could make sense of the horror. Castiel looked back at him, features blank in the torch light. He said nothing. More creepers emerged from the trees around them, the tops of their square heads bunching and shifting like a restless hedge maze.

It was an army, he realized. An army with the collective explosive force to leave a city-sized crater.

Jack's skin crawled. "What is this, Castiel?"

Castiel lifted his chin. "We can't kill her. We may not be able to contain her."

"You think that an army of creepers can scare her into good behavior?"

"No."

"Then what?" Jack asked.

"I'm going to show her what will be waiting, if she ever comes back."

Understanding dawned, and Jack wanted to scream. To hit something, someone, specifically of an angelic persuasion. The only things - the only people - he gave a damn about right this minute were both looking at him with a stranger's eyes. And if he was a religious man, he'd say it was all Heaven's fault.

"No!" Jack shouted, fists and shoulders clenched tight enough to hurt as he flung the word at Castiel like an arrow, "NO."

"We have no options, Jack!" Castiel shouted back.

"We can run!"

"She'll find us!"

"Then we run again!"

They were interrupted by the bass thrum of a nearby explosion. A shockwave of force and sound blew through them, and they turned from one another to the beach, in time to see Lachesis give Dean's head a ruthless twist. His body went limp as she released him, dropping into the sand face-first.

Lachesis turned slowly towards where Jack, Castiel and the others stood. Her palms opened at her sides, her bloodied gown glowing like a ghost as light began to fill the eastern horizon again.

She smiled at them.

"Is that always going to be your answer, Jack?" Castiel's voice was charred with rage, "Running?"

Before Jack could answer, Castiel signaled the others. They swept around Jack, leaving him behind.


 

Castiel's Grace flared a constellation of heat and power. He let it flood him; let it overwhelm and numb him until his vessel's heartbeat slowed.

All that remained was rage - an angel's rage. The territorial kind, the kind he knew when the filth of Hell threatened his charges. When creatures unworthy to touch the Righteous Man laid hands on him; when they endangered the things Castiel vowed to protect. His human's soul went cold and quiet.

Purgatory's brief night slipped steadily away, highlighting the carnage. Dean's body had vanished, but Sam wasn't quite dead. He made a long silhouette behind Lachesis in the sand, his breaths ragged; face a bloody wreck.

Castiel raised his bow as he walked. He didn't know if the others followed him, aware only of the solid smooth wood in his hands and the whisper of the creepers all around him. Fletches buzzed through the morning air as arrows left the string; two, three, six, more. They found their marks, all of them, the sharp crack of them echoing the snap of Dean's neck.

Lachesis bled.

Lachesis smiled on.

Behind her, Sam went still.

Castiel's last coherent thought was that he'd died in agony, as Lachesis intended. She was the target. He felt power surging up, a force like a waterfall bursting out of him in white light. She was the target. She was the target. She was—

The creepers didn't need to be told. They already knew.

The beach evaporated in a blue-white blaze, taking the hillside and part of the Stockade with it.


 

When Castiel stirred, it was to the sounds of a waterfall. Cool water spattered his cheek, stinging the burned skin like fire. His shoulders felt wrenched, hands shattered as some primordial instinct tried to break his fall. He lay facedown, cheek scraping hard stone, hazed over with pain.

The night around him was quiet, except for the water pouring past him. Castiel heard it echo below him, as if he hung out over a vast empty space. His hearing was muffled from the blast, but he could feel the rumble of the water as much as hear it, and the noise hypnotized him. The creepers' blast must have cut a new canyon, which was filling with water from the bay.

He realized he could not see.

Footsteps thundered close, followed by sucking groans and clanking as the undead creatures of Purgatory moved to defend their territory. The sounds were familiar and Castiel's free-floating brain thought 'Jack.'

But it wasn't Jack. Hands came around him, firing new bursts of pain through his body as they turned him over.

"Oh god," Sam choked.

And then he remembered. Why he was here. What had happened.

What he'd done.

"Is that him?" Dean called, from further away. More screams, more thuds, as someone put down another spider.

"Yeah!" Sam's hands glanced over Castiel's face; he felt the touch at a remove. "Cas?" He was asking, closer now, "Can you hear me?"

Castiel tried to speak and found his throat and jaw unresponsive. His lungs were full, too full even to breathe. But he remembered the mental connection he'd shared with Jack here, and thought, Yes, Sam. I'm dying. You should go, it isn't safe.

Sam, ignoring him the way he typically did, began shouting for Dean. Castiel's mind detached from his burned body, and began sliding sideways. Jack? he asked, trying to find and touch the mind that had been so familiar in this place.

Archer? Jack sent back, startled. Guilt and grief and fury came with it, bitter enough even for Castiel's ruined mouth to taste.

There you are, Castiel thought with relief, breathed a last ragged exhale, and let death claim him.

Chapter Text

For a few weeks, survival made them a team.

Well, maybe team was a strong word. Team conveyed a common purpose, with leadership and goals. Outside survival and outrunning Lachesis, they had none.

An uneasy alliance; then. A handful of individuals who wanted none of one another's company, but recognized a dire situation couldn't be improved by separating. They were all lost, and knew it.

Even Dean agreed to stay. When Dean Winchester didn't believe a group fared better without him, the future was bleak.

Castiel's 'hail Mary,' as Dean called it, left the Stockade a ruin. A few buildings inside the walls escaped harm, but most were in splinters. The outer walls that faced the lake were rubble, the bay below it scooped out. Where stairs had been carved into the slope, blazing with torches, now there was a great chasm. A rabbit warren of caves lurked beneath the Stockade, and the explosion exposed them. Water poured into the caverns, and the roar of it drowned out everything else.

Until today, the Stockade was Castiel's best achievement in Purgatory. A feat of skill and resources, its high, thick walls encircled and protected Jack and Castiel. Within its walls, they could sit in the grass and watch the stars.

Now only tatters remained. Castiel could sympathize.

They took what they could carry from the Stockade and moved from camp to camp, steadily west. Castiel led them on his own. He knew the way, and Jack had become a ghost.

Jack slipped away from Castiel like mist. Not physically - he was there in the circle of the fire, or in the glow of a coal stove when they reached another shuttered camp. Jack contributed only what was necessary. As if some of the Stockade's rubble lodged inside Jack in the explosion, a cold wall blocked Jack from the group. It was nothing Castiel had ever seen from him before; nothing he could anticipate. Jack made himself unreachable, with a silence that bruised.

Uncertainty was a low panic curling in Castiel's gut. It kept him awake, staring across the stone floor of a camp hearth at Jack's silhouette until his eyes were dry and sore. He wasn't alone in the insomnia. Lachesis would find them soon; maybe tonight. The threat of her loomed, pushing down on them like a thunderstorm. They all took turns jumping at sounds and watching one another fail to sleep.

In the daytime, they marched. The landscape changed around them, sometimes in dramatic sweeps. Steep, shadowy canyons; shallow swamps, miniature deserts and lush river valleys. The paths were weedy with disuse, but torches still smoldered on fences and low stone walls. They swept the camps for supplies as they passed, staying no more than a night in any place. Castiel watched Jack and the others rifle through the chests. He tried to help at first, but absented himself by the second camp. The memories cut him. He focused on adding whatever they found to their existing packs.

Now, they'd come upon the little house at the edge of a desert, dug into a hillside and protected with layers of rough hewn stone. There were still crude woven wool rugs on the floor; coal waiting in a chest by the bank of stoves. Cattle grazed in the pasture nearby, unworried by neglect. A few hardy stalks of wheat made thin refugees beside the stream.

Within sight of the front gate was a crater. Time hadn't blown sand in to fill the space; Castiel didn't know how.

He'd met Jack here. This was First Camp.

Everyone fanned out. Castiel glanced at the sun - nearly noon. By the time they were done here, it would be sunset. Of all the camps, he wanted to stay here the least. Over time, First Camp had taken on a sacred color. It was home. His first real home after Heaven, at the mercy of strange hands with nothing to stop them. They needed whatever they could take. Once the path ran out, they would keep moving - on into unexplored territory, leaving as little trace of their passage as they could.

If Jack felt it too, he said nothing. He rifled through chests with no expression, casting aside the flotsam, handing out the swords and bags of creeper gunpowder beneath. Castiel watched as he dropped an armful of dried flowers on the floor. They were roses, yellow and red about evenly mixed, and rustled in Jack's hands like paper.

The flowers had been fresh when they went in on top, once upon a time. He and Jack picked them at random; brought them home to one another. Jack started it. Like so many of their traditions. Sometimes he'd worn Castiel's gifted roses in his lapel.

Castiel's chest flushed with heat, tight and dry as if he'd inhaled smoke. He felt the friction of his Grace like a sunburn.

A hand on his shoulder made him jump. He looked up to see Sam's profile, bristling with two days' beard.

Of them all, Sam seemed to manage best. His good humor and hope had yet to abandon him, and it was Sam - Castiel admitted - that kept them together. His eyes moved slowly from Jack, to Castiel, worry as loud as words in his expression.

"Is something wrong?" Castiel asked. He rubbed his throat, annoyed at the sudden thickness of his voice.

Sam shook his head. "Dean found some boxes of seeds in the chest in the back, by the bed? And—" The bridge of Sam's nose flushed, "I think it was maybe your… side? There was a journal." He pressed a little leather-bound book into Castiel's hands. The pages were sewn together with unskilled hands, and filled with Castiel's painfully neat handwriting. "I didn't read it," Sam said quickly, defensively, "but he wanted you to take a look at these seeds. We can't tell what kind they are."

Castiel's gaze flicked from the journal in his hands, to Jack - who by now had stopped, and was watching them both.

Leaving Sam's side, Castiel covered the space between Jack and himself in a few strides. He went to one knee next to Jack and the pile of flowers. With Jack's eyes on him the whole time, Castiel removed a pair of roses from the mess on the floor - one red, one yellow. He tucked them between the pages of his journal, put the book in his pocket, rose, and returned to Sam's side.

"Show me," Castiel said.

They climbed the ladder to the bedroom. After a few creatures surprised them in their beds, Castiel began to build shelters with a high loft and enough clear space to shoot over the railing. The undead seemed unable to parse the complexities of ladders - an unexpected blessing.

The space was claustrophobic and dark - not his favorite. But the blankets on the bed were soft, dyed shades of deep, restful green. He knew how the black wool rugs felt on the soles of his feet. He knew the rough-made books on the shelves in the stone wall were filled with handwriting; his and Jack's. He woke to a hundred mornings in this room; spent a hundred sleepless nights listening to the dark, with Jack's even breath beside him for reassurance.

He felt now like he had then, with no quiet breath to ease him back to sleep.

Dean looked over his shoulder at the ladder as Castiel's head appeared over the top. They spent a moment or two gazing at each other. Then the ladder vibrated with Sam's presence behind him, and Castiel pulled himself over the top rung to the second floor.

"Dean," Castiel said as evenly as he could manage, "Why did Sam bring me here? You don't care about farming."

Blowing out a soft chuckle, Dean turned to face him. He plucked one of the leather-bound books from the shelf and held it up as he closed the distance. "How did you get out of Purgatory the first time, Cas?"

Castiel recognized the book by the burned-in arched doorway on the cover. He'd done it himself, with a sharp-ended nugget of iron, warmed in the fire. He shook his head. "Not with that, Dean."

"But you were researching a way out? How'd that go?"

Castiel held his hands up. "No. We found a number of old writings as we explored - some of them spells. We have no idea who made them. If you read more than the preface of that book," he pointed to the tome in Dean's hands, "all of our research came to nothing. Well. Nothing conducive to escaping."

He took a seat on the edge of the bed near where Dean stood, and brushed his palms over the cover as he watched the brothers exchange glances.

"I'm not lying," Castiel added, defensive, "The magic we encountered was extremely limited. Jack used it to enchant my bow."

Sam raised a finger and tipped his head, like someone straining to remember lyrics. "The one that sets things on fire?"

"And knocks the target backward, yes," Castiel confirmed.

Dean shifted restlessly, clearly impatient to drag them back on topic. "Look, I meant what I said - tearing a way out of here is a non-starter. But what if Lachesis is working on an escape hatch of her own? If you know anything she might use—"

"I don't believe she'll try to escape. Even if she were, what I'm telling you is still true."

"What makes you so sure?"

"Lachesis isn't human," Castiel said, temper slipping, "she's me. She had a purpose. She had her sisters."

"So?"

"So, those were the only things of value she possessed. When Clotho and Atropos died, we took everything from her. A human might adapt, given enough time. But not her. She can't adapt. Fate doesn't adapt."

"Meaning?"

"Alone? With no purpose? Lachesis wants to die," Castiel said, closing his eyes as he saw Dean's expression flatten and Sam's flash with alarm, "Thanks to my fireworks, she's discovered that oblivion is not on offer. That leaves revenge. Hence the reason we're moving quickly. Once we've collected what we can, we're headed for new territory. Jack's suggestion that we move underground is unpleasant, but it might work."

Silence spun out between them all, thick and strained.

"Cas," Sam started, in a sympathetic tone that grated on Castiel like sandpaper to skin, "I know it's been—"

Anger slid under Castiel's ribs. "I'm not suicidal," he snapped, pushing to his feet, "not anymore. If you don't have any further questions, we need to hurry."

"Yeah, no. Sit down, Cas," Dean demanded. An easy threat lingered in his voice, and a certainty that he would be obeyed.

Castiel stood fast. "What."

Dean's jaw clenched. "We need to know everything you know," he demanded, and pointed towards the floor. To Shamsiel and Shiriel, busy sorting gear on the ground floor.

"I know as much as you," Castiel said.

"Come on," Dean said with a huff, "a bunch of you get put away for eons, and you don't have a clue? I mean, seriously, giants? You missed that?"

Castiel rolled his eyes. "As I've informed you many times: if the Garrison was not called to action, I was not involved."

"But angel radio, you guys were all constantly up in each other's—"

"Not like that," Castiel cut him off.

Sam's voice pushed between them. "We really can't talk to them about this, Cas," he said, shaking his head, "We need anything you know - anything at all. Like, is Shiriel an angel the way you are? Is she like you, and Gwen's still in there? The way Jimmy was?"

The line of questions jangled alarm bells. Castiel pushed both hands into his pockets and tipped his head, eyes narrowed at Sam. "Shane seems to indicate otherwise," he replied, Shamsiel's nickname feeling odd in his mouth, "Why do you want to know?"

"Is he even sure?" Sam countered, "He has a theory, but from what he's said, Shiriel woke up because of a curse on Shemyazaz."

"It's my fault she's like this," Dean said, "she saved my ass and I just let her walk in there without a clue."

"You couldn't have stopped Shemyazaz," Castiel argued, "we didn't know - none of us knew that his death would release the Watchers."

"Yeah, but I knew about Shiriel," Dean replied, "If I'd told you all, maybe we could have stopped him. Anyway, I figure the more we know about her, the better prepared we'll be. If and when we ever get a chance to yank that feathery bitch out of her."

He made it sound so easy. So uncomplicated. As if freeing Gwen from Shiriel's possession was as simple as picking the lock on a door. "They are my sibling - one who had no control over this situation," Castiel replied, "and is not a bitch."

Both Winchesters backed up a step. Castiel watched them shift their weight and square their shoulders.

Castiel closed his eyes. He lowered his voice. "Your plans include Shiriel - as a person, whose life is valuable - or they don't include me. The only difference between my existence and theirs is that I approached James Novak with the intent to possess him, and he agreed. Gwen and Shiriel's current state is not the fault of either. They are both innocent."

The Winchesters stood up a little straighter, and traded glances.

Castiel had neither the time nor the interest for any of this. Frustration frothed up and over. "And now that I won't fall in line, you don't trust me."

Sam held up his hands. "No, it's just—"

"—that I'm a threat? A monster? Of course I am," Castiel interrupted, fists clenched until the nails bit.

"She's got a family," Dean hissed, "A husband and a baby girl."

The reminder of Gwen's family stung. "So does Shiriel," Castiel shot back.

Dean's eyes narrowed. "Are you even listening to yourself? That's the side you're picking?"

"Dean—" Sam chided. He reached between them, barring them from one another with one arm.

Castiel's senses fuzzed in and out of depth and range as anger and guilt clotted his thoughts. He stalked to the ladder, feeling his way blindly as the whole room pulsed.

"That third condition you gave, when you returned my Grace? This is me, honoring it," Castiel said, and left. Distracted as he was, the rungs of the First Camp ladder were familiar as breath. He'd done it half asleep, half drunk, half conscious and half dead; he managed it now with at least a semblance of capability.

He marched to the door, propelled by rage and a sense of futility strong enough to touch. His hand was on the latch, was lifting it, until he stopped. He imagined that he kept going; saw himself out the door and across the plains, across the deserts, into the empty unknown alone.

From the corner of his eye, Castiel saw Jack. He turned back from the door.

Jack watched him, saying nothing, with a look like cool, still water. He knelt by the box at the hearth, where they'd spent nights together too exhausted to talk. Everything was a reminder here. Of who he'd become, of what he'd lost.

Saving Gwen might redeem him. If he brought her back to Jack, all of this grief could heal.

Castiel's hand slipped away from the knob.

He turned back, passed beneath the ladder without looking up, on his way to pick up his tasks.

Not all of this grief, no.


They abandoned First Camp an hour or two later, with everything they could carry. The next camp - Glen House - was better hidden, and just under a day's walk. Jack covered their tracks as they went, cutting down the torches that marked their trails like stars. Sam and Dean kept their own company, as far from the group as they could. Castiel pretended not to notice.

Shamsiel did not.

"How is it you have such a talent for putting your own friends in such a bad mood?" he asked, stretching his stride to walk alongside Castiel. Shiriel followed, taking up a spot on Shamsiel's opposite side. They neared a tunnel entrance, opening up at the base of a soaring cliff. The topmost rocks actually scraped the clouds here. Castiel remembered hiking to the summit; the way the clouds kissed his skin with misty coolness.

Beyond the tunnel and through the cliffs was Glen House. Castiel paused to string his bow. Caves riddled the canyon walls, and caves brought creatures.

"It's genetic," he growled.

Shamsiel let out a chuckle. "Stung! Blunt honesty does seem to be a family failing. The humans don't like it. As much as they claim to seek the truth, they really don't want to know. Use them, dominate them, kill them even. They'll all but do it for you, so long as you spin them gorgeous lies."

"Hope is not a lie," Castiel retorted.

"Isn't it?" Shamsiel's voice darkened, "I know why they cornered you today."

Castiel's skin went cold. His gaze flicked between Shamsiel, and the puzzled Shiriel at his elbow. "I don't know what you mean," Castiel said.

His brother shrugged. "As you will. Don't worry. Even if I wanted to, I couldn't retaliate here - they'd only come back, even more quickly than usual."

"Retaliate?" Shiriel echoed, "What is this about? We don't harm the humans, Shamsiel."

Shamsiel's eyes never swerved from Castiel's face. His cheerful features were granite. "Castiel's faithful human friends are plotting to remove you from your vessel."

Shiriel cast a look over their shoulder, at Sam and Dean on the hillside above them.

A hint of threat hung in the air afterward. The others were catching up to them, and they started moving again to stay out of earshot. "I took your part, Shiriel," Castiel said, voice hard, "I don't know what was overheard—"

"All of it," Shamsiel replied with a shrug, "But I've known almost since the moment Shiriel manifested. Dean feels responsible for Gwen Cooper. He's not subtle."

"He's not," Castiel agreed, and paused to gather his words, "but - brothers, please hear me. Gwen - she's an innocent. And she has a family."

Shamsiel's head turned up, surveying the cliffs as they passed under the arch and into the tunnel. When he spoke, he was quiet; the flippant disregard drained from his voice. "If the rest of the Two Hundred arrived as Shiriel did, then Gwen is not alone. There are innocent human families just like hers."

"Brother," Shiriel murmured, hesitant, "I am sorry, but Gwen is gone. I have looked for her. I cannot find her."

"I've told you before, Castiel, we aren't like you," Shamsiel said, "We don't borrow human vessels."

"You don't know that," Castiel argued, panic like whirling water under his breastbone.

The shake of Shamsiel's head was slow. "I know what I see. I know what I am. I also know you think this is cruelty."

"Refusing to consider a solution that could save an innocent person? What would you call it?" Castiel spat back.

"Protecting my family. Accepting reality. You're beginning to prefer the lies," Shamsiel said, "maybe the soul is winning."

"The Winchesters thwarted the Apocalypse on hope alone," Castiel insisted, "Even angels can be wrong. If there was a way." He persisted, and leaned back to look at Shiriel "A way to free you and Gwen from one another - would you help me?" His voice echoed in the tunnel, loud and eerie as it bounced along the stone. All three of them fell silent, listening to it until it vanished under their footsteps.

"And if I was free, where would I go?" Shiriel asked.

"Home. Heaven," Castiel said.

"Heaven is not home," Shiriel replied. Gwen's green eyes burned. "If I can save Gwen, I will. At any cost. I promise you that."

"Shiriel—" Shamsiel began.

"No," Shiriel interrupted, leaning into the force of the word, "It's been ages for you, Shamsiel. But my wife - I feel her in my arms. I do not want a life without her. When I see Gwen's reflection, I see her. We don't harm the humans, and I've taken this woman's family away."

The undead took notice of them. Conversation halted as slurping and growling filled the narrow passageway. A few of the smarter ones spilled out into the tunnel, through an opening in the wall.

"Hurry," Castiel barked over his shoulder to the others, and reached for his arrows. His siblings went for their blades.

The next few minutes were a violent blur.

The tunnel's egress spilled them down a set of stone stairs to the back gates of a two-story stone house. Castiel opened the gate, guarding the flanks of the group until everyone was safe behind the fence. He slammed it nearly on the toes of the last undead, earning himself a set of ragged scratches across the face. Sam offered to treat the scratches, but Castiel refused. He was restless, gaze drifting east to the opposite end of the little canyon as the others bivouacked on the cramped first floor.

He caught Jack looking up the ladder, towards the second floor. They traded glances and pretended they hadn't. The second floor was mostly bedroom, with another sturdy bed and thick comforter and bookshelves stacked with notes and curios.

All theirs. All made by their hands.

Castiel slipped out into the yard as the sky turned peach. His hands were on the top of the gate, when Jack's voice drifted over his shoulder. "It's late. You going out there?"

"I may never see it again," Castiel replied, not looking back, "I can take care of myself."

"You should sleep, Castiel," Jack said, warm and soft as a hand on Castiel's cheek, "If something gets you out there, no telling where you'll end up."

Castiel's fingers tightened on the gate. He closed his eyes, discarding one reply and then another. What, after all, was the point. "I won't stay long."

He waited. In case Jack spoke again; in case he wanted to come along.

The valley floor grew purple. Jack said nothing. Castiel picked up his bow, and went out.

On the other end of the canyon was another tunnel, carved out of the soft rock. It began as a simple quarry, extending further as Glen House required more stone. Castiel remembered Glen House as a place of mourning. Loss caught up with him here, when his blunted emotions decompressed. Maybe that was when it happened, Castiel thought, moving into the tunnel. Maybe that last scrap of Grace within him began to change here. His mortal memories of Glen House blurred into one another with typical human imprecision, but one thing lingered behind them all.

The memorial.

The Great Work.

Torches burned in the tunnel, guarding it with warm, steady light. While parts of the world seemed abandoned for years; others - like this one - looked as if they'd never left. White steps greeted him at the tunnel's end, ushering him up into a garden of stone pillars. Torches burned like stars; like a miniature constellation, casting an illusion of safety and driving out the night.

A set of sandstone steps built into the hill he'd just passed through, curved around and over a busy stream. Water burst from the ground near the top and dropped a few feet in a short waterfall. The sound of its descent had been in his ears from the moment he entered the tunnel.

Here and there were more pillars.

Everywhere, there were names.

Angels' names. Some dead by his hands, some murdered by others. Still more dead in service, to him or to his allies. All the names he could remember had been carved into the soft stone, quarried and brought here, block by block.

Let me get you what you need, Jack offered, while Castiel tried not to drown in the memories of what he'd done and who he'd lost; tell me what you need and I'll get it.

Jack brought him the pale stone. The stuff was treacherous to gather; they'd both suffocated and drowned more than once while quarrying it along the shoreline. But Jack - bored, restless and eager to help - kept bringing it. Jack reached out for Castiel's reliance; for his trust.

Castiel sat down on the steps, halfway up to the head of the waterfall. He touched Balthazar's name in the stone, and folded his hands between his knees.

Weariness tumbled over him like the roar of the water. He closed his eyes. A building pressure released all at once, and suddenly water - warm water - splashed on his knuckles. Tears burned as they crossed the still-angry scratches.

Time passed. The world outside the memorial went dark, and Castiel's pulse quickened as the chance of intruders went from a possibility to a certainty. They would avoid the light for a while; he had a few more minutes of safety at least, but danger mounted with every minute he dallied. He registered footsteps, quicker than a creature's, and heard the slide of fabric as someone took a seat the next step down. "I didn't think you'd—" Castiel started, and stopped as he looked up.

It wasn't Jack.

It was Dean. "Hey," he said, gazing out over the white stone pavers and torches.

"You shouldn't be here," Castiel answered; swallowed the sudden thickness in his voice and scrubbed at his eyes.

Arms folded over one thigh like a football player in a huddle, Dean looked back at him. His expression surpassed Castiel's limited ability to read. "Neither of us should be out here," Dean said. He unfolded one arm, waving a hand at the memorial before tucking it away again, "What is all this?"

"A memorial," Castiel snapped, when the silence dragged too long. He braced for the condemnation. For caring too much. For not letting go.

"You did all this?" Dean said at last, "You built this."

"I did."

Another pause. "Man," Dean ventured, and his voice sounded airless, "You even got Lucifer up there. I don't know where to start."

Castiel's fists balled over. "Dean, it's private—" he began impatiently, stopping as Dean lifted both hands.

"That's not what I mean, Cas, I'm not trying to— Look, I get it." His gaze shifted from Castiel to the names on the stones, and back again, and a warmth returned that Castiel hadn't seen in a long time. "I'm starting to. It's hard. All right?"

"I'm sorry that it's difficult for you," Castiel drawled.

Dean raised an eyebrow. "Most of these guys tried to kill me. When they weren't after Sam. Or you."

"I know," Castiel replied, "but they're my family."

Dean watched the water, and his hands, a while longer. The dark outside the fringes of the torch light deepened. Far off, Castiel thought he heard the rustle of bones.

"I poked around a while, before I came over," Dean said, waving towards a monolith in a quiet pool a few yards away, where the stream collected, "I saw you put Sam and I up over there. Plus Mom and Dad and the Harvelles."

"And Bobby," Castiel added, "All of your parents are here."

The rustling became a clanking. Slow. Small. They were being stalked.

Dean was still looking at him. "Jo and Ellen might be getting their kicks up in Heaven, but Sam and Bobby and me are a long ways from dead."

"I didn't add your names as a memorial," Castiel replied, "I did it to be close to you."

"But we put you here," Dean said, "Figured you'd want as far away from us as you could get, after that."

With a shake of his head, Castiel got to his feet. He offered Dean a hand up. "You were doing what you thought was right. I was angry, eventually, but it made no difference. I still missed you. We should go."

"Guess the honeymoon's over though, huh?" Dean laughed, taking the offered hand.

"What do you mean?"

"You just told us to go fuck ourselves? You forget already?"

"I wouldn't tell you that," Castiel replied hastily, "But if you're referring to Shiriel - I was honest about my issues with your strategy."

"Which amounts to about the same thing," Dean said with half a smile and a chuckle that he tried and failed to shrug off, "guess this is the part where I say we missed you too, Cas. I mean, me. I missed you."

Over the months since Castiel escaped from Purgatory; over the days since his reunion with the Winchesters, he made an effort to keep his expectations low. They put him in Purgatory; they tried to kill him. Their collateral sacrifice for that feat had been their lives; had at least been intended. The whole of that made a veritable mountain range of emotional damage to scale.

And here was Dean, fingers interlaced so tight the skin was stretched and white. Dean, laughing as he hid his eyes from Castiel; admitting with his body - if not his words - that he was afraid. Afraid of what, Castiel's rejection?

He didn't know what to do with that. He didn't deserve it, but craved that kind of importance to Dean even so. His thoughts kept circling back to that, sneaking around the levees he'd shoveled up against it. His absence meant something to Dean. His absence hurt.

Arrows buzzed over their heads. The bolts wedged into the rock above their heads in an explosion of power and chips. Gray, ragged fletches ended the shafts: skeletons. As if it could possibly be anyone else.

They had seconds to move before the archers perfected their aim. "Dean! Run!"

Dean spun, Sam's pearl-handled pistol in his hands as he scrambled off the steps and into cover.

Two archers rushed them, bones shifting and clanking. They fired shots with supernatural speed, arrows whistling past Castiel's ear.

His armor deflected a few shots, but the skeletons' arrows seemed to find the weak points in the worn out leather. One burrowed through, burying itself in Castiel's shoulder.

His teeth gritted against a scream. His arm went numb, nerveless fingers slipping off the bowstring. The arrow arced out into the dark and vanished.

Castiel dropped his bow. Thankfully the arrow hadn't taken his sword arm, and the sheath was still in reach at his back. He ripped the blade free, but two strides down the stairs, Dean's voice rang out behind him.

"Get down!"

The two words were a command, shot through with a snarl. Castiel knew the sound like he knew the color of Dean's eyes. Like he knew the texture of Dean's bones. His body reacted before he could think, and he dropped to one knee.

Dean rose up behind him, four shots cracking off into the night from the little silver pistol.

The archers collapsed with a rattle of bones.

In the silence that followed, Castiel heard distant groans. "There's more coming," he said, reaching out for the bow he'd dropped, "we need to go. Now."

They took the stairs three at a time, landing at the bottom just in time to see the blank, green faces of three undead shuffle out of the tunnel. Castiel's jaw tightened.

"This Welcome Wagon sucks," Dean grumbled.

The creatures made a beeline for them, and promptly fell in the memorial stream. The current washed them a dozen yards away, where they wallowed in the chest-deep water.

"We can't go back that way," Castiel said, "follow me!" He spun, gesturing for Dean to follow him away from the tunnel. His shoulder screamed with every stride.

Dean jogged after him. "Long way home?"

Dark closed around Castiel as they left the lights of the memorial behind. His fist clenched on the pommel of his blade. "No. If we go home, we'll lead the horde to the others. There's a shelter not far from here. We'll wait them out there."

Around them, the forest woke. Screams and growls echoed through the trees. At least they didn't need to worry about the creepers, Castiel thought. Or at least, not as long as Dean stayed close by.

Unfortunately, Dean seemed to be having some difficulty in that area.

His breath came rougher with every creature they dodged. By the time their feet sank into sand, he was panting like an exhausted Labrador. Castiel circled back to help, re-evaluating his concept of 'not far.'

They staggered together through the double doors of the Sand Castle. By the time Dean stopped panting, they crouched behind the crenelations on the roof, gazing down at an army of horrors milling on the beach.

"We'll be safe until morning," Castiel said, then cast a glance at the hills rising up from the beach at his left, "so long as none of the spiders spot us."

"Great, they climb walls?" Dean replied, and reloaded his pistol.

"If they spot us, yes. You shouldn't have brought that," Castiel admonished, as he heard the metal snick of the cartridge.

"Saved your ass," Dean muttered.

Castiel rolled his eyes. "Yes, thank you for 'saving my ass' from a pair of completely manageable opponents. With a weapon that may have exposed our position to Lachesis. I'm very appreciative."

"Really?" Dean said with irritation, "Says the dude with an arrow in his shoulder. They would have 'managed' you all the way back to First Camp."

"Dean—" Castiel snapped, only to feel a hand cup the injured shoulder. He looked back to see Dean so close, with a heat intense as the burning torches around them. Both hands cradled Castiel's arm.

"Hold still," Dean muttered, and began to free the buckles on Castiel's armor.

Shocked to stillness, Castiel let him. Dean broke the arrow and threaded the shortened shaft through the hole in the leather. He sliced through Castiel's shirt as well, and took a closer look at the wound. His fingers were warmer than Castiel's skin, but every touch jostled the embedded broadhead. Fire lanced through Castiel's muscles.

"Missed the artery for sure," Dean pronounced, "I think Sam's got first aid equipment back at camp." He waved at the damage, and at the angry welts of scratches still on Castiel's face. "You can't fix it?"

The question reminded Castiel of his precarious position. He closed his eyes. "I can't risk spending the power. I haven't spent much time in proximity to Jack—"

"I noticed," Dean muttered, and demolished the rest of Castiel's shirt for an improvised bandage. "Never thought I'd say this, but him being so quiet weirds me out. All right. I'll bind it tight for now. I've sewed up messes like this before."

"As have I," Castiel replied.

Dean cocked his head. "Yeah? I guess you would have, up against those things all the time with no powers to fix you up."

"Not until you die, anyway," Castiel corrected.

"I wouldn't call that an option."

A number of replies surfaced in Castiel's mind. He huffed a laugh. "You'd be surprised," he said.

Dean didn't have an answer for that. He pulled the arrow from Castiel's skin and bandaged the wound without a word.

The silence was a welcome break. Castiel studied the horde beyond the walls of the Sand Castle. It hadn't grown, at least, and every face seemed turned back to the forest between the beach and the glen. When in doubt, go high, Castiel thought. He and Dean moved apart afterward, sitting on the edge of the rooftop with a thick stone block between them. If Castiel leaned forward, he could just see the toes of Dean's boots. He leaned into the crenelation, the stone bleeding pleasant cool through his bandages.

"I suppose there was a little 'go fuck yourself,' in what I said before," Castiel said, smiling to himself, "I apologize for that. I know you want to save Gwen. So do I."

"And I get it," Dean replied, like the words had been punched out of him, "you protecting the angel."

"Shiriel," Castiel offered, soft, resting his head against the stone.

Dean echoed the name, feeling it out. "Shiriel. Man, when I saw all the stuff you built, I thought, 'he's lost it.' What you said though, about family being family even when they screw up? I get that, even if I don't exactly feel the warm fuzzies for Michael and Lucifer. I uh, guess I didn't know you felt that way about them."

"To be fair, when you and I met, I couldn't say if I did," Castiel replied wryly, "things were not so immediate. But now," he closed his eyes, his brothers' voices soft in his mind, "I grieve them, that I hardly knew them before we were all set down this path. They weren't innocents; they threatened people I care for. But Shiriel—"

"—didn't ask for this, I hear you," Dean finished for him, reached around the crenelation and wrapped his hand around Castiel's elbow, "I gotta be honest though, Cas. I'm not gonna stop looking for a way to get Gwen back. I'll give Shiriel a fair shake, but I'm doing whatever it takes."

Dean's hand blossomed heat along Castiel's skin like a fire. "Shiriel is also willing. She's searched for Gwen," he said, "Shamsiel believes she's gone."

"What do you believe?"

"I have hope," Castiel replied, looking up, "I believe Gwen is still there, somewhere. And she deserves to be free."

"Glad we understand each other," Dean said. Still looking at Castiel with half a smile. Still touching him. A different warmth rose, something lost and cherished; painful in the finding. Castiel ached for Dean's approval, and here it was again. They were a team, reliant on one another. Pointed to a common goal.

But now, there was more. Dean's eyes lingered on Castiel's face as they had in those first days. Reverence, he'd thought then. Of course, Castiel was the first angel Dean remembered seeing, though he'd encountered others in Heaven, many times, and well before that day.

The thumb that stroked along the inside of Castiel's elbow now was hardly reverent. The angle of Dean's body, leaning close as the stone block between them allowed, spoke of desire. The sky had lightened with false dawn, offering a better view of his soft expression. As if to punctuate that, Castiel caught the shifting murmur of Dean's surface thoughts, and the most powerful among them: fear, and want.

His own desire rose up to meet it. It would be so easy to give way. So easy to convince himself that things were different, as the thing he'd wanted presented itself unasked.

Below them, the creatures turned. As a unit, they rushed the edge of the forest, leaving the Sand Castle behind.

Castiel clambered away from the edge of the roof and stood. He heard the sounds of combat under the trees, before the shapes of Jack and Sam broke clear. They fought the creatures back, shoulder to shoulder with blade and bow. Castiel would have taken the time to be proud of them, had he not been seized with panic. Creepers were in the mob, shuffling closer to the two unprotected humans below.

Castiel snatched up his bow. His shoulder wound reopened, screaming aftershocks down his arm. Castiel tried to ignore it, fitting an arrow to the string to fire—

:ARCHER. NO.:

The sudden voice in his head jolted him, flooding him with a warm cocktail of emotions as unique to Jack as his signature.

Castiel relaxed his draw, stunned. They hadn't spoken to one another this way since they'd returned to Purgatory. The sudden intimacy burned him, like hot water on cold hands.

"Sam!" Dean shouted, and spun for the stairs.

At the same time, Sam and Jack trotted backward, skirting the mob. The creepers tried to follow but lagged, too slow to win a battle with wary prey.

A relieved laugh punched its way out of Castiel's stomach. He pushed the arrow back into his quiver, and spun for the stairs. Dean was ahead of him, drawn by the same purpose, and together they launched out the Sand Castle's double doors and into the fray.

By the time Sam and Jack emerged on the beach again, the sun crested the edge of the ocean. Distant islands made purple clouds on the horizon as warm sunlight streamed onto the beach. The undead multitude went up around them like torches, burning to ash. Soon, they were alone.

Well. Alone if one failed to count the spiders and the creepers. Who, since becoming relatives, needed a less ominous, shoot-first-questions-later name.

"What happened? We heard shots!" Sam shouted, jogging across the sand to reach Castiel and Dean. Jack followed at a slower pace. Castiel's breath came easier once they were all within the circumference of his Grace.

"It's all right, Sam," Dean replied, with a shrug and a self-depreciating laugh, "Instincts. I see why you guys got so twitchy after dark."

"What happened?" Jack asked, gently touching the bandage looped around Castiel's arm and chest.

"Arrow," Castiel replied.

"Just one hit? You guys had a hell of a fanclub on the beach," Sam said with surprise.

"I think we're disturbing them," Jack said, "something is, for the numbers to be this high. It's time to leave the road. Lachesis may not have been eavesdropping, but we can't risk another confrontation right now. And no more night adventures," he added, raising an eyebrow at Castiel.

Castiel agreed, stiffly.

"Then let's get back. We gotta get Cas stitched up before we haul ass," Dean prodded. The proprietary tone of his voice was new. Castiel looked up, trading a glance with Jack. His hand slipped from Castiel's shoulder; a bemused smile quirking his lips.

:I don't know what you're thinking, but don't make assumptions,: Castiel warned, pushed the thought at Jack with a huff.

Jack's smile tugged a little wider, there and gone in a flash.

They took a different path back to Glen House. Dean claimed a spot next to Castiel, while Sam shot them brief, warm sideways looks. Castiel felt welcomed and wanted; absolved of sin. The greedy, lonely parts of him snatched at the feeling.

Deep in his core, however; Castiel knew a solid truth. This moment would pass. Absolution was never his portion.

Whatever Dean spoke to the contrary, Castiel didn't believe they understood one another. Or, perhaps, they understood one another too well. When the Winchesters discovered a means to separate Gwen from Shiriel - and Castiel had no doubt that they would in time - then the true test of understanding would come.

It made him tired, with a slow-growing, sludgy nausea. Hungry for something, anything, certain.

By late morning they broke from the road, into the wild cliffs that bordered the Sand Castle's beaches. The untouched land drove them closer together; burdens made them too tired to argue. They slumped around a low fire just before sunset, in a loose circle at the mouth of a cave. Castiel caught Jack's eyes in the firelight.

:If you can't forgive me, for what's happened to Gwen,: Castiel began, tentative, :I understand.:

After a few long minutes, Jack replied. :But?:

:I don't understand,: Castiel said.

:There's always a 'but,' Castiel. I can feel it in your thoughts,: Jack elaborated, :What do you want?:

Castiel cast his eyes down. :Your companionship,: He admitted, after some hesitation, :But I can't ask that of you.:

:You know better than that, Archer,: Jack said. The tone of his thought was chiding.

:Why must this division remain between us?: Castiel asked. His conscience brought him up short of saying more. The secret of Castiel's power dangled in front of him, unshared, and digging a fair ditch of its own between them. Beside it, Dean's warning. Don't tell Jack, Dean asked. He hadn't said a word about why in the cabin; not directly. Castiel caught his meaning well enough.

:Things aren't good,: Jack said, deaf to Castiel's turmoil, :but you don't need to ask for my friendship. You never lost it.:

Castiel sagged forward, elbows on his knees and arms wrapped around his stomach with relief so profound it was pain. :Thank you. I was sure that—:

:Not going to happen,: Jack replied, firmly, before Castiel could finish. There was a touch of his old swagger in the words.

He fit in Castiel's thoughts, his smooth voice sliding into comfortable grooves. :I miss you,: Castiel blurted.

Something that wasn't firelight flickered through Jack's eyes, intimate as a kiss. His smile softened. For a breath, the fire and the people around them were gone. There were no shadows or fear. Only he and Castiel, reaching out in a velvet, private silence.

:So, you showed Dean the memorial?: Jack asked. The quality of his voice in Castiel's mind had changed. After its absence, Castiel felt it like a finger trailing down his spine. His eyes shut against a shiver.

:I did,: he said, :I'm not certain if he understood, but he wanted to. At least, I think he did.:

:Why you built it, you mean?:

Castiel glanced at the Winchesters. The lack of safety hemmed them into the group, and they were chatting with Shiriel and Shamsiel in awkward fits and starts. Dean was still vigilant; Castiel could tell from the questions he peppered Shiriel with. But his demeanor was new. More relaxed, curious and listening.

Dean as he truly was. Somewhere in the general vicinity, at least.

:Among other things,: Castiel replied, turning back, :I'm never sure. He and I have done this dance before. He forgets that I'm not human.:

:That bothers you?:

:Only when he remembers,: Castiel said wryly.

Thoughtful quiet filled the space again. One at a time, he and Jack rejoined the others, before putting the fire out for the evening and setting up sentries at the mouth of the shallow cave. Castiel thought the discussion over. Disquiet lingered when he thought about the answers he'd given - and the ones he'd withheld. Even sitting in the ring of the firelight with Jack had done much to restore Castiel's Grace. Sam's careful stitches were superfluous now; Castiel pulled them out of his shoulder as he stood sentry.

He needed to tell Jack, soon. Whatever had been said to the contrary, a rift remained. Things were 'not good,' as Jack said; trust fragile. Continuing to withhold the nature of Castiel's power would end badly.

:Archer?: Jack's voice touched Castiel's mind again, soft. The word made his pulse jump.

:Yes, Jack?: Castiel answered, and started as a soft chuckle registered behind him. He turned from the dim forest, but Jack's hand landed on the small of his back to still him before his eyes adjusted to the pitch black of the cave.

"Sometimes I ask just so you'll say that," Jack murmured. His fingers spread, tucking under the edge of Castiel's leather jerkin. The warmth offset the chill of the night, and roused an ache sharper than the cold.

Castiel found himself smiling anyway. "I know," he said, "what do you need?"

He heard Jack sigh in the dark; small and soft. "What we talked about earlier. I've been thinking. Maybe I haven't been in your shoes exactly - but I know what it's like when someone you love, someone who put you on a pedestal, figures out the truth. The pedestal isn't your fault, Castiel. Though let's be honest," Jack's voice dropped to a whisper, "you liked it. You liked someone thinking you were perfect."

"He—" Castiel lowered his voice, "I doubt I've been seen as perfect. I've made many mistakes."

Jack laughed again. "Oh, Archer," he sighed, "All right. If it's not the same, your options are. It could be years before things change. Maybe they never will. You can decide that's too much to ask, or decide you don't care."

"But I do care," Castiel replied with a frown.

"Then decide if it's worth it. The risk; that he may always see you as someone else."

The forest woke, as creatures ventured out into the night. Their screams rolled through the trees. The presence at Castiel's back was warm and safe by comparison. Eventually he couldn't resist the temptation to lean back. His body fitted lightly against Jack's chest, then with more surety as Jack stepped into him. The hand on his back became an arm around his waist. Just a few moments more, he thought.

"Was it for you?" Castiel asked, "Worth it?"

"Yeah," Jack replied without hesitation, "it sure as hell was."

Chapter Text

The next morning, they emerged from the cave to anvil clouds on the eastern horizon. Castiel spotted them as they broke camp, and one by one the others joined his horrified stare. The tops of the clouds reached high, flattened where they boiled against the upper atmosphere. Their bellies glowed red, hazed with dark smudges of rain. Storms were a part of life here, but not like this. Never so massive. Castiel guessed at least three cells, spread across the rim of the world and rolling towards them.

Lachesis was closing in.

They ran along the edges of unfamiliar cliffs, as the morning darkened and the sea yawned fangs and froth in the jagged rocks below. This was a place they'd never ventured, for all their time on the beaches near the Sand Castle. Castiel saw Purgatory again as he'd first seen it: uncaring and wild.

They were gambling with their lives. In the opposite direction, a path to another camp wound along the beach in a smooth curve. Castiel had no idea where the cliffs led, or if they'd cut off sharp in a quarter mile. If the storms Lachesis wrought with her presence didn't fling them to pieces, she might pass them by.

"Look for caves!" Jack shouted, "we have to get underground!"

Castiel agreed, but had his doubts. Lachesis might have only a third of her power, but she was still a Fate. For all their frantic running, they might never truly escape her eye.

Not even to the hot, impenetrable core of this world.

The winds turned wet, whipping their necks as it pushed them towards the sheer drop on their left. Castiel smelled rain, and doubled his speed. A cave eventually did appear, its narrow entrance black beneath the bending trees. The wind tore at them with brush and branch as they stooped into the dark.

They didn't dare light a torch, but as Castiel's eyes adjusted to the gloom, the contours of the cave began to make more sense. He drew his blade, feeling his way cautiously through the low light with his free hand. The howling of the wind intensified, filling the space until Castiel's ears began to hurt. He looked back to see the others following, their silhouettes huddled. Behind them, the mouth of the cave cast a sickly green light.

The tunnel looked deep. He saw the moon of Jack's flashlight on the wall at his left, sliding along the smooth rock face. A few meters past where Castiel stood, the dark gobbled up the light.

Castiel sagged, as the last drops of adrenaline in his blood burned away. He shed his packs with a double thud.

Jack came abreast of him, flashlight filling the space with strong, bluish light. "Well, here we are!" he said brightly, over the roaring wind.

"So what's the plan?" Dean asked, "Spelunking 101? Or are we just gonna sit tight and hope the Wicked Witch of the East left her X-ray specs at home?"

"I vote for spelunking," Shamsiel replied sourly, "I've had my fill of sitting duck, thanks."

"It's not safe," Castiel argued, "we're too slow. And without torches to mark the path, we'll be dead in hours."

"We'll light the tunnels further down," Jack replied.

Castiel kept his eyes to the spot where the flashlight beam vanished. "Even venturing blind this far is a risk. I won't go further without light. If you die now, I have no idea where you'll return. We might never find you again."

The gravity of the statement silenced every other voice. The wind intensified, until Castiel could hear nothing but the roar.

He felt a hand on the wrist of his sword arm.

"Castiel?" Shiriel said, very close. Even with their lips at his ear, Shiriel nearly had to shout. Castiel looked down as Jack's flashlight beam moved, catching Shiriel's wide, worried eyes. Their face, already pale, seemed ghostly in the bleach of the flashlight. Lips almost black, freckles standing out like flecks of ash.

Shiriel gestured for him to follow, and took him to the cave mouth. As the heavy winds flattened their hair against their head, Shiriel took his hand without a word. They stretched the other out to the green roiling sky, looked at Castiel, and sang.

One note, soft and low, building in power. In a moment it was a blast of wind in his face, then a wall of air and sound.

Every ounce of energy rushed out of Castiel. The carefully hoarded scraps of power he clung to were gone, drained like water from a burst dam. He felt it leave, arcing from his hand to Shiriel's.

Over the mouth of the cave a wall began to grow. The rock seemed to melt; more and more material sliding down, narrowing their view of the sea.

Castiel's eyes unfocused. His concentration slid sideways and he crashed into Shiriel's leg.

Shiriel's voice muted, and the work faltered. "I don't—I don't understand. When I looked into you, your power was limitless." Their fingers clenched around Castiel's, but the pain numbed away as his thoughts fogged.

Many footsteps made the stone beneath his head quiver. "Archer?" Jack shouted, his voice very near now, "Castiel!"

Jack's fingers pressed into his neck. A rush of golden energy slipped through him like the heat of arousal. Castiel's head arched back, gasping as the world jerked back into clarity.

Above them, the work resumed.

Jack toppled onto him.

Bright life energy flowed through him, not stopping on its journey to Shiriel. Castiel was the conduit. The riverbed. He could no more hold the power coursing through him than he could stop the wind that whistled through the last cracks in the wall.

He could see Shiriel from this point. Their head was thrown back, throat working, as they sang; long notes flowing out in a high chant. The sounds hardened into Enochian, monosyllables rolling up and down. Shiriel never breathed until the work was done.

In the end, a natural stone wall filled the mouth of the cave, shrouding it in darkness. Afterimages danced before Castiel's eyes in the pitch black. His ears felt thick and buzzed with a high-pitched whine. Shiriel stopped singing, and at last Castiel felt Jack's energy flow into him, and stay.

Somewhere, a lighter flicked open with a metallic chime. A torch sizzled to life, and the cave flooded with yellow light. Shiriel swayed, and went to one knee, clutching her head.

"Well, that was something," Dean said, in a stunned voice.

"That," Shamsiel sighed, "was the Song of God."

 




When Jack came to, he had questions. He was up to date on the state of things before he could sit up, having ramrodded his way through the what and the how. Shiriel had used Castiel to access the power necessary to shut the cave mouth. When Jack touched Castiel, Shiriel's ability began siphoning from his life force. What he was told seemed to satisfy, or maybe the thunder reminded him of other priorities.

But of course, that would hardly be the end of it. When the others were busy, Jack caught Castiel's eye. He walked just to the edge of the torch light and leaned against the wall, waiting for Castiel to join him.

"How are you?" Jack asked.

"Tired," Castiel replied, "afraid. You?"

Jack waggled a hand midair. "Once I get some answers, I'll be great."

Castiel's stomach clenched.

"So, I get that you're the converter to my nuclear power plant," Jack went on, "But how did that happen? Shiriel didn't know it was me. She thought it was you."

"I don't know," Castiel said, slow, the Winchesters' voices warring in his thoughts, "I have theories."

"Which are…?" Jack prodded.

"You have a soul. A… power source, you called it. All humans do, unless it's taken from them." Encouraged by Jack's silence, Castiel went on. "My Grace draws from it, just as it draws from the souls in Heaven. In most cases, I have to physically touch the soul - the power source. Yours is different."

Jack's head dropped back to the wall, expression smooth.

"Either because it's stronger, or because of something that happened to us." Castiel's voice tightened with frustration, "Maybe this new soul has something to do with it. I don't know."

"So you can pull my life force out of me."

"Apparently."

"And, apparently, other things can pull my life force out of me through you."

Until that moment, Castiel hadn't considered the implications of that. He closed his eyes; felt a flush of shame burn his throat and cheeks. "In this instance, yes. Shiriel is… not typical."

He wanted to withdraw the words as soon as they were out. Jack stuffed his hands in his pockets, jaw tense, but didn't comment. An uncomfortable pause strung out from there, growing and itching until Castiel found himself fidgeting.

"Jack, I—"

"How much can you take from me?" Jack interrupted.

"I don't know."

"Can you shut it off?"

"I don't know."

Jack went quiet, processing the new information - or more accurately, lack thereof. "How long have you known about this?" he asked, eventually.

"Since Cardiff."

Another lingering pause, as Jack took in the time that encompassed. The grief in him was palpable, as if Castiel's betrayal ripped out his last bulwarks. "You should have told me, Archer." The quiet, resigned statement was a blade to the heart.

"I didn't want to admit it," Castiel said, hurrying to elaborate as he realized how it sounded, "it meant Heaven had cut me off, all along."

"But that's not why you didn't say anything."

Regret burned hot in Castiel's belly. "No."

The others around them stirred. Castiel reached out. Jack evaded his touch. "Not now," he said, and turned away.

Pain and adrenaline flooded Castiel's vessel, making the dim cavern suddenly brighter and slower. He withdrew, tried for words, and coughed on them. "I understand," he said, then caught a flash of movement and looked up.

Jack turned back to him, eyes on him with a calculation Castiel hadn't seen before; at least, not towards him.

He'd just been evaluated as a threat.

"No, you don't," Jack said urgently, "you don't know how your powers work? Neither do I. And I can't risk dying. Not now. Not with Gwen this way."

Something new threaded Jack's voice as he spoke.

Fear.

Castiel hit reverse, adding distance to the gap between them with a tight chest. His insides felt loose, vibrating on their own with adrenaline, until the feeling intensified and the cave filled with an altogether different roar.

Shamsiel rolled his eyes to Heaven as if in prayer. "Fuck," he said, as the cavern walls began to quake.

 


 

Until now, Castiel trusted the earth in Purgatory. Only sand and loose gravel seemed to need a foundation - sometimes he and Jack encountered a chunk of stone or earth suspended in midair. All their years in Purgatory hadn't lent them the tools to make a proper study, but learned experience taught Castiel one core principal: gravity does not apply to earth and stone.

As a result, the caverns seemed deeply stable, unconcerned with mundane things like structural integrity.

With those same tunnels rumbling like an onrushing train, Castiel considered the vast weight of rock. How it could, reasonably, collapse with enough force. What held up these cavern walls? Was it enough to save them from the unknown force of Fate's wrath?

The path behind them boomed as something huge and heavy struck the earth. Boomed again. And again.

"Run!" Jack shouted, and they did.

Lachesis caught them anyway.

Castiel missed her arrival. The ground bucked beneath him, mid-stride, and his chin collided with the stone floor. His friends lay scattered before him, all of them fallen in a sudden, terrifying stillness. He tried to move, tried to speak and couldn't. Then he saw her, the energy crackling from her in a faint red aura. The stave she held before her burned red as the light of her power, and he could see the small bones of her hands illuminated by its glow… and the blood that streaked the skin of her fingers. As he focused, Castiel could make out the fine web of burning red threads, spinning out from the butt of her stave on the cave floor like cracks in cooling lava. From here he could see how the lines webbed over Jack's chest; made Sam's throat glow with inner light.

A red thread cast its line into him, too. Castiel felt its heat, burning him where it wound around his human soul.

"I thought so," she said, and her voice was bland. An impersonal statement of fact.

Castiel heard a soft scuff behind him, and Shamsiel's thick boot heel obscured his view of the deity. "I wish I could call this a pleasure, Lachesis," Shamsiel said, "please don't harm the humans. They're doing their best."

Lachesis stared at him in silence.

"Whatever you're looking for, you won't find it here," Shamsiel added, more softly, "Killing us is futile. I suggest a truce."

"The Song of God," Lachesis stated, "you have it. I heard it. I felt it. I have no interest in your games. Give it to me."

Shamsiel's stance shifted; weight moving to the balls of his feet. "And if I refuse?" He asked.

Castiel saw Lachesis twist the stave. The lines of red reaching inside Castiel pulsed and straightened, going taut. Pain worked its needle claws deep, but he couldn't move; couldn't speak. Sam's breathing shuddered and hitched beside him. Jack closed his eyes.

A dry puff of laughter disturbed the quiet. "Torture? You picked the wrong humans for that."

More silence.

"If you think I can't witness their suffering, Lachesis, you've forgotten who I am," Shamsiel said. The bleak pitch of his words was a familiar one. In it, Castiel heard Jack.

"I'm not interested in your suffering," Lachesis replied.

Another voice joined the conversation. "I'll help you," Shiriel pleaded, thick and rough, "They were only protecting one another. Harm them no more, and I'll help you."

"Shiriel—" Shamsiel started.

Shiriel cut him off. "Release them, Lachesis. And tell me what you need."

The deity's face became a mask, her body quieting into a perfect stillness that no living thing could duplicate. "The humans murdered my sisters. I demand justice."

Castiel heard the soft toss of Gwen's hair, as Shiriel shook her head. "I cannot give you justice. That is my Father's right. What do you need?"

"I want these humans destroyed," Lachesis said, "I want every atom of their being scattered across the universe."

"That is not what I am made for. Even if it were, I fear Purgatory would not permit it. Tell me what you need."

"Then destroy me."

Shiriel sighed. "The Song of God is creation. But I have a counter-offer."

Lachesis waited. Castiel, too, waited.

"You will be changed," Shiriel warned, "you will never wield the rod of Fate again."

There was a waiting pause. Lachesis lifted her chin, interest sparking at last. "But?"

"But you will be free. And you will have your sisters."

In his peripheral vision, Castiel caught a glimpse of Shiriel as they moved forward. Past him; past Shamsiel with his tight, balled fists. The white stripes of Gwen's tennis shoes glowed pink as they padded between the red life-lines.

Shiriel offered a hand. "Release the humans, hunt and torment us no more, and I will give you your freedom."

Castiel felt the power holding him waver.

Lachesis touched blood-smeared fingertips to Shiriel's. "You have the Song of God. I hear it now." Her eyes squeezed in suspicion, "But I remember you. Atropos died by your hand. You're a watcher. Why should I trust you?"

Both of Shiriel's hands enfolded Lachesis's. "I am a watcher," she echoed, "and I was bound in darkness; bound to serve my Father's purpose. Blind to my chains until loss and grief revealed them. You know who I am."

And what have you got to lose, Castiel thought.

He could see Lachesis weighing the prospect. Sifting it for tricks.

She raised her staff. The red lines faded; Castiel found he could move. Around him, the others stirred.

"It is done," Lachesis said.

Chapter Text

Lachesis vanished, declaring her intent to meet them on the surface for the fulfillment of her bargain. Chaos descended on the ring of unhappy faces that turned to Shiriel, Castiel's among them. Whether or not Shiriel truly knew how to make a goddess (or three), the power required was sure to exceed the watcher's reserves.

Which meant Shiriel needed Castiel's cooperation.

And Jack's, Castiel thought, with a sting of shame.

Dean said what they were all thinking. "Look, no offense, but you couldn't build a wall without help - and that put Cas and Jack on the ground."

"The potential gain of this experiment outweighs the risk," Shiriel observed calmly, "No permanent harm comes to anyone in Purgatory."

"We know that," Dean replied, "but do we really know that? Sure, goddess snaps my neck, I wake up in my bed like it was all a bad dream. But being siphoned off to make a god? What if there's nothing left to resurrect?"

Jack stood a little away from the group, hands pushed into his pockets. "I agree."

Dean's brows shot up. He traded pseudo-shocked glances with Sam, while Castiel rolled his eyes.

"What potential gain, Shiriel?" Castiel asked, "Instead of one powerful, insane deity, to contend with, we'll have three. With no guarantees that they won't come seeking revenge. Or escape."

Shiriel's face turned to him, pale and funereal. "It will make no difference if they escape. They will be harmless."

"How can you be sure?"

"Because I cannot make a goddess, Castiel," Shiriel replied, "Some things require God. But I can take what is, and transform. Lachesis and her sisters are one and three together. Part of them is also part of her. She might not know, but they are there. I felt them."

Sam cocked his head. "You're going to make Atropos and Clotho out of Lachesis?" Disbelief colored his words.

"Not quite. I can't make Atropos and Clotho as they were. But I can build upon what is already present in their sister. It will divide her power; change her and change them."

"Lachesis is gonna buy that? What if she realizes these aren't her real sisters, and beats your skull in?" Dean asked.

"But they will be her sisters," Shiriel insisted, "she will know them and feel their connection, and her pain will cease."

Jack crossed his arms. "Sorry if I'm not sympathetic," he said, the evergreen swagger in his voice honing a sharp edge on chilly steel, "Lachesis and her sisters haven't exactly been friendly. I don't care if she's happy, I care if she stops."

Shiriel studied him, then mirrored his pose. "Is it worth a risk?

Jack shook his head. "You seem pretty sure of yourself," he said, doubtful, "you play 'miracle of the loaves and fishes' with a lot?"

Shiriel's head tilted. "I don't understand."

"He means," Castiel translated with an exasperated glance at Jack, "do you have experience with what you're proposing?"

"Oh. No. But the mechanics are straightforward."

"I mean," Sam interjected, "do we really have a choice? Lachesis just proved she can find us no matter how deep we hide."

Shamsiel's hands covered his face. He groaned. "This is a horrible idea."

Shiriel turned to him. "But you know I can do it. You know this is our only option."

"Yes, I know you're capable. But if you fail, the least of our consequences include a broken, angry Fate."

It hadn't been so long since Shiriel came to consciousness, Castiel thought; a Watcher infused with all the ancient powers he knew, and much he hadn't learned. And yet as Shiriel stared Shamsiel down, their jaw tightened and their eyes flashed, grief and outrage writ large across Gwen's freckled features.

"She is not broken," Shiriel snapped, "she is mourning. As I am. As you are. General," she tacked on, with a wince.

At his shoulder, Castiel felt Sam fidget. He leaned forward, weight shifting to the balls of his feet as if he expected a fight. And for a few moments, Castiel thought perhaps he was right. The air in the cavern charged as the pair of Watchers regarded one another in silence; shoulders taut and fists doubled. Then, with a slow inhale, Shamsiel's drum-tight posture eased.

"You don't need my permission," Shamsiel said, and waved one tired hand towards Castiel, "you need his."

Shiriel's dark eyes swung to Castiel, followed a split second later by everyone else's. Their scrutiny; the pressure of their minds forced him back a step. Every surface thought bent towards him, whispering for him in five different voices. He closed his eyes and clamped down on the surge of adrenaline that shot through him. Took a deep, steadying breath of his own.

For a moment, it was tempting. He knew what was being asked of him, and he weighed the prospects. The unknown variants of Shiriel's proposal, the ever present possibility of destruction in the wake of so much power, against the hope of freedom for all of them. Of returning the Winchesters to the world where they belonged, free from another circuit on the apocalypse carousel. If he could help Shiriel, he should. This was, after all, their only option.

Another thought cut across the cool pragmatism, like a dash of hot water.

"Not mine," Castiel replied, and gestured to Jack, "his."

Across the circle from him, Jack's eyes found his, and held. His lips quirked, a gallows smile from one soldier in the trench to another, and the gravity of Jack's words came down on Castiel with the force of a landslide.

Even if Jack refused, Castiel's unique ability to siphon off his life force functioned regardless. And if Castiel refused, he could - likely would - be forced. Shiriel would do what was necessary to reach the goal.

Permission was an illusion.

"Whatever it takes," Jack said, with a nod.

 


 

A few moments into the process, Castiel wondered if 'whatever it takes,' might very well mean all.

Castiel sat crosslegged, with Jack's head in his lap and a dreadful anticipation leaden in his stomach. His fingers lay on Jack's stomach, loosely entwined, but Jack's eyes were on Shiriel above their heads. Castiel was surprised, and then not at all. If it killed him; if it killed all three of them, Jack would watch until his eyes melted.

They'd gone back the way they came, the short walk back to the surface, with feet slower for the threat of why ahead. Voices rose as they neared the entrance to the cave, against the thunder of the rain and the feverish search for another solution. But Castiel knew the conclusion was foregone. He believed they all knew, as they carried their doubts with them, all the way to the deity waiting for them at the mouth of the cave.

At first, the business of splitting Lachesis in three was a strangely quiet affair; underscored by no music but the storm. Shiriel was made for such things; efficient. Castiel felt himself empty in a flash, then fill again, as his Grace and Jack's life force fed the growing field of light around Lachesis. Then Castiel could no longer see her, his head too heavy to hold.

When at last Shiriel began to sing, Jack screamed a counterpoint. The longer it went on, the more of Jack's thoughts Castiel could hear, as the power burned away every tissue of division between them. He felt Jack's mind without walls; saw the whole of him with no protection, without Jack's ever-present guard.

And he knew why that guard stood fast. Knew why, perhaps even better than Jack.

The truth of Jack, the all of him, was a vast and terrifying thing. Humanity was not designed to go on forever. Yet someone made him so. Here was Jack, as human as he was massive, unfolding endlessly in a golden moebius strip of being. Touching this soul should have incinerated Castiel; should have caused a cataclysm. Should have birthed a new universe. Jack was a universe, compressed into the space where a soul should sit - and to all accounts seemed perfectly content to remain so. An impossible thing, connected to him by touch and by a river of power.

The energy Shiriel pulled through Castiel from Jack could never find the bottom, because there was no bottom. Jack would never, ever, not exist. Not completely.

Cold and heat surged inside Castiel, freezing and scalding him by turns. A headache blossomed at the back of his neck and spread around his temples and eye sockets with hot hands. It pressed in, harder and harder, until the pulse of it was all he knew. His nerves crisped; skin and eyes and muscles and bones afire. He gritted his teeth; tried to remember the feel of Jack's skin between his fingers. Tried to think smaller, as Shiriel peeled the universe back.

He lost the fight. He knew he would.

When his his voice joined Jack's, Shiriel clung to him, and sang on.

The song became a shriek. Castiel felt the earth shudder again. Distant as if it didn't belong to him, he felt the grip on his wrist release. Felt the soft vibration of Shiriel's body as they collapsed behind him. The constant rush of energy through him slowed, trickling a last, thin thread of gold inside him like an apology. Numbness closed around him in a cool, soft blanket.

Jack's face stood out moon pale in Castiel's lap. His eyes were open, fixed on the spot where Shiriel once stood. Castiel touched his face with numb fingers.

Jack didn't blink.

The others surged around them. Their relief, their grief and their nauseating fear clawed at Castiel's unprotected mind.

Sam felt for Jack's pulse.

"Don't worry," Castiel tried to say, "he's not dead. He's never dead. Not him, especially not here." But his voice refused to come when he beckoned.

Dean's hand was almost feverish on the back of Castiel's neck as he landed next to him in the dirt. He called Castiel's name - not all of it, just the first syllable. Just the little, fond piece he'd claimed.

Castiel stared at him. The sound of his name echoed down dark, charred passageways. He blinked, and Dean came into focus.

"It's over, Cas, you did it," Sam said, adding words where Dean's failed.

Castiel turned to him, peering past him, at the place where Lachesis had been.

He could just make out the pile of bodies in the thin torchlight. Hands and heads and shoulders. Three women, curled up together like children. Breathing. Alive.

"But Jack—shouldn't he be—?" Sam said.

Jack was gone. The memory of his weight pressed against Castiel's legs; between his fingers. His empty hand dropped to his thigh.

The first emotion he knew for certain as his own was loss. Castiel slumped into Dean's hands.

Behind them, Shiriel sat up.

"Dean?" She asked, in an accent that was more Swansea than seraphim, "Where the hell are we?"

Chapter Text

Three weeks later…


 

"There," Sam said, as the last nail drove into the wood. He turned the sign for Castiel's inspection.

"I appreciate the addition," Castiel said, "although your handwriting is still poor."

With a laugh, Sam thrust the little wooden placard towards him. "Yeah? I haven't seen you doing any calligraphy lately."

Accepting the sign, Castiel offered Sam a hand up. "My language isn't designed to be decorative," he protested.

"Well, it makes my x-rays look a lot prettier," Sam replied, dusting his hands, "shouldn't we get going? We've got about two hours of daylight."

Castiel looked up at Sam and nodded, pride briefly dispelling his gloom. Sam adapted so well to this country, throwing himself into understanding it with a curiosity and enthusiasm that echoed Jack's. While Castiel wouldn't go as far as calling him 'cheerful,' his hope was infectious.

He was certainly faking at least some of it, for the good of the group. Castiel could respect that. "Shamsiel - Shane - checked in a few minutes ago. He's already there."

They walked, arms swinging in the coolish afternoon air, enjoying the brief moment of quiet before evening brought the creatures in. With the fissures closed and the most anomalous power signatures removed, the creature population was quickly returning to normal. But even a handful of them in the glen were noisy.

After events transpired, they'd returned to Glen House, shielded in its canyon - well, most of them, at least. Castiel made the request. With a defensible position and a well-stocked tool chest even after their earlier predations, it garnered little protest.

He had his reasons. Jack knew why, but said nothing. His attention was very much elsewhere.

"How's Shane doing at the beach resort?" Sam asked.

"Not well," Castiel replied with a sigh, "he's trying to call home."

"Still? But nobody's picking up."

Castiel shrugged, and redistributed the weight of the boards in his arms. "I hoped that he might have more luck than I did, but Heaven must be out of range. Even for a Watcher. I can always find work. Shane's… struggling."

They were both silent for a few moments, quiet thoughts accompanied by the swish of their boots through knee-high grass. "Other than that," Castiel said, "I've taught him to fletch arrows. And he sleeps. As much as any of us can, anyway. How are things—"

"—In the canyon?" Sam asked, "Good."

The edges of a shy smile betrayed him. Castiel prodded gently. "Is that all?"

Sam shook his head with a huff. "I mean, we don't see much of Jack. But Gwen? She's everything the reports I've read make her out to be. I know things were rough when she first showed up, but we've been filling her in about monsters, and hunting, and she's had some great ideas about weapons storage and a greenhouse, if we ever find a permanent place to settle down. A hub, you know? Like the old Cardiff Torchwood? Under the bay?"

Castiel's chest tightened. "I know it."

The grass shortened as they passed into the shade of the canyon wall, giving way to shale scree. It crunched under their boots in the long, shady tunnel through the rock. To his left and right, Castiel saw the familiar scratches of an inexpert pick. His own pick. The scratches hadn't softened with time; not enough had passed.

"Sorry," Sam said.

"It's fine," Castiel replied, and leaned sideways to bump his shoulder against Sam's arm. Sunlight poured into the end of the tunnel, and they emerged into the dazzling white stonework of the memorial. A few steps away, sitting crosslegged on a folded blanket at the foot of the waterfall, was Shamsiel. He stood, and Sam took a step back.

"Oh! Uh," Sam averted his eyes. Castiel could mark the furious red blush as it rolled up his throat to his cheeks.

Castiel swung back to Shamsiel. "We've been through this," he said.

"If you wanted formal attire, you should have included it in the invitation," Shamsiel retorted. He stepped off the blanket and picked it up, slinging the soft brown fabric around his nude body like a cloak.

"It's not safe to be outside without armor," Castiel persisted, "there's—"

Shamsiel snorted. "I could be shot, stabbed, beaten, eaten, or blown to smithereens by our neighbors. Yes, I know. All things considered, the possibility of a brief deceasing doesn't seem worth the effort. Hello, Sam. My apologies for subjecting your sensibilities to my naughty bits."

Sam's blush faded as rapidly as it appeared. "No problem. Just a little warning, next time," he replied, firmly.

"Of course. In my defense, I believed I had a few more minutes before your arrival. I'm not in the habit of springing nakedness on the unwary."

"We don't have much time before sunset," Castiel said, before any further delay.

They placed the new markers while the light failed, turning the white stone pathways rosy. Shemyazaz, Remiel, Araciel and Shiriel joined their siblings, their markers bearing names in English and Enochian. Shamsiel stood back, a little apart from the process as Sam and Castiel drove nails into the soft rock.

Sam's fingers smoothed along the top edge of Shiriel's placard. "I wish we knew what happened. I know Gwen seems fine. But I'm worried."

"It shouldn't have been possible," Shamsiel agreed, softly, "but we've looked for them. As much as I can, anyway, in this place."

Overhead, the sky rolled into violet. The torches around the memorial blazed a denial of the dark, warm flickers of light dancing over names etched in wooden plaques.

"I can't be grateful for this," Shamsiel said, after a long pause, "Don't take this for criticism, Castiel. I know you've done what you could. But names on a wall are still dead."

"I didn't—" Castiel started.

"—I know it wasn't your fault," Shamsiel snapped, "Whether Shiriel chose this risk, whether they made the decision, does it matter? They're gone. A noble reason does not cover that."

Castiel drew a slow breath. "As I was going to say? I didn't do this for you. Shiriel deserves better, but they deserve to be remembered. They all do."

Shamsiel tilted his head, inhaled as if to speak, then let it out in a rush. He turned away.

"It's time to head back, Sam," Castiel said after a few moments, watching Shamsiel's figure move down the gentle slope of the memorial. Towards the beach, and his self-imposed exile.

Sam sighed. "You wanna stay with us tonight? I think Gwen and Dean are trying to roast a whole chicken."

An image of them all around the stove, faces warm in the firelight, rose in Castiel's mind. The yes was on his tongue, until he reached the familiar angles of Jack's expression. The wary gaze; the way Jack always kept himself on the opposite side of any room. The absence of his touch was a sensation of its own.

And then there was Shamsiel, defined by the empty place at his side. Loss and loyalty left Castiel once again asea. "Thank you, Sam. We'll be fine. You need to go before it gets darker."

"Cas—" Sam started, pleading; withdrew a reaching hand just short of Castiel's shoulder. "—okay. You're always welcome. Remember that. Meet back here tomorrow?"

Castiel nodded. "The fishing expedition, yes."

Sam turned back to the tunnel with a laugh. "Yeah. Ever since I hooked that enchanted sword out of the lake last week, Dean's been chomping at the bit. See you later."

With a wave to Sam's retreating shoulders, Castiel started in the opposite direction. Back to the beach, the Sand Castle, and his brother. The first floor was dark when Castiel arrived, and the second floor as well, save a lantern's glow creeping down the ladder from the roof. Castiel considered the rungs a moment; put his hands on the smooth slats, then turned for bed.

He disrobed his armor with a struggle, rubbing the spots where the ill-fit breastplate chafed. The thick leather straps and heavy buckles fought him, as unwilling to come off as they'd been to go on that morning. Shamsiel was right, he thought; without help, the process was hardly worth the effort.

As the last piece of metal hit the floor, Castiel looked at the neat, smooth expanse of empty mattress. The blanket here was sunset red, the wool dipped in strong dye from the roses that proliferated along the top and bottom of the canyon - roses like the pair pressed in his journal. Two feather pillows perched at the head of the thick, down mattress; a 'feather tick,' if Castiel remembered correctly. The cover was cool to the touch.

He backed up, reached for a blanket to throw around his shoulders, and stalked downstairs.

The First Camp journal waited on his workbench. Castiel took a seat, set the pressed roses aside as he smoothed the rough pages open to where he'd left off, and began to read once more.

When he'd first revisited the journal, Castiel expected nostalgia. Once he'd begun, however, he only felt like a stranger. The entries were brief at first - terse descriptions of the day's labor. Lists of tasks for the next day. Statements that hinted at a larger story, like "Jack was difficult today," "Nightmares again," and "We drowned."

The voice within the early pages was unrecognizable, but as Castiel read on, he saw flashes of himself emerge. The entries lengthened. Humor, here and there. A rapid downspiral as trauma, guilt and grief abruptly decompressed. Then tentative connection. Purpose. Hope. He planned ahead, imagined new architecture, wondered about his own species. So much had changed in such a little time. What would this place do to the others, in a year? In five?

A thin length of wood waited a little further down the counter, to be shaved into a longbow. It was fitted to Sam's proportions; the largest he'd ever made. Dean's waited beside it. Castiel planned to involve them in the finishing process. In a few months, he hoped, they would make weapons of their own.

So many plans. For bows, fishing expeditions, teaching and exploring. Three weeks gone, an eternity to go. Before he and Jack found their way out of Purgatory, the possibility of permanent residency was—fine. Sometimes comforting. Through the Winchesters' eyes; however, Castiel saw the days crawl. He imagined his friends losing hope and sanity. Sam and Dean seemed content enough for now, healthy and whole with one another's company on an extended camping trip in exotic Purgatory. But neither of them seemed to accept this as their new reality.

Castiel picked up a quill pen from the cup at the back of the bench, and uncapped the jar of squid ink. He started a new entry and allowed his thoughts to flow down the creamy, handmade paper.

Maybe the Winchesters had the right of it. For them, the networks of Heaven and Hell were full of back channels and loopholes. The insurmountable tasks achieved. Help came at the darkest moments, and a door opened in the shadows where no door should have been. Perhaps the key was simply to believe in a solution - and to keep looking. Castiel snorted. Taking lessons on faith from the Winchesters? Hell was due a blizzard.

Existence here had turned from perilous to pastoral so quickly, but the quiet was no longer soothing; the day-to-day sameness a promise of doom. It felt so unfinished. As Dean might have said, this was a shitty end to the movie. Where was the swelling, victorious score? Where was the sense of a mission accomplished? The Fates would never trouble another soul with their predeterminations. Neither Jack nor the Winchesters remained at their mercy. He guessed how that should make him feel, and it had nothing in common with the reality.

Lachesis and her patched-together sisters took weapons, tools, a few weeks' worth of supplies and went due North. They offered neither gratitude nor goodbye - Castiel supposed he wasn't entitled to either. The others seemed surprised by their abrupt departure, but Castiel understood. When violence offered no permanent solutions, the only thing to do was leave.

He didn't wish them well, but they'd abided by their promise. In that, Shiriel was right.

A spider hissed outside. The faint, high-pitched sound fizzed through the Sand Castle, shattering Castiel's meditative quiet. His flinched, but kept his hand moving. The spiders marked them through the walls, even from a distance. He'd worry about it if it tried to scale the building.

It screamed again, closer, followed by undead rumblings.

Shamsiel shouted down the ladder. "We've got incoming! Somebody's coming over from the other place!"

"What?" Castiel dropped his pen and shoved away from the bench. He dashed for his weapons, then started up the ladder. "It's too late to be outside!"

Overhead, he saw Shamsiel's face with its halo of blonde hair, hanging over the roof end of the ladder. "I can't tell who it is, but they've just about cleared the woods. They've picked up a tail."

"Maybe someone's hurt," Castiel said, after he'd rolled over the top, "but they could have called us. Or they could have had Jack call me, since they're squeamish about telepathy." He paused to string his bow, then headed for the edge of the roof.

Shamsiel joined him, his own bow at the ready. "Unless it's Jack who's hurt," Shamsiel said, "I'll take the spiders."

A few uncharitable thoughts hummed through Castiel's mind. "Good," he muttered, "they're much bigger targets."

Out in the tall grass between the forest at the mouth of the canyon, a tiny figure ran. A torch glowed in their grip, and that was all he could make out. Castiel let an arrow fly, knocking an undead away from the runner's path.

Shamsiel scoffed. "Yes, well, we can't all be crack shots, o Mighty Hunter."

Together, they kept the handful of lingering creatures at bay long enough. As the figure grew close enough for the Sand Castle's torches to reach, Castiel recognized him.

"Dean?"

And Dean it was. He let himself into the Sand Castle, heaving like a spent racehorse. When Castiel and Shamsiel reached the ground floor, he was leaning back against the door, backpack in hand.

Castiel reached for it. "What is it? What's wrong?"

Dean shook his head. He pointed to the bag. "Dinner."

A warm, roasted smell exhaled from the neck of the bag. Castiel stared at Dean. "You risked your life to bring us chicken?"

"Hey, really good chicken," Dean retorted, wiping the sweat from his eyes with his sleeve.

Uncertain how to react, Castiel exchanged glances with Shamsiel. His brother raised an eyebrow, closed his eyes, and lifted his hands in defeat. He turned back to the ladder, and went upstairs without a word.

Wonderful.

Castiel turned back to Dean, wondering if this was how human parents felt. His cooling fear passed, replaced by anger. "What were you doing? You could have been killed!"

"Who cares? I would have respawned in five minutes," Dean replied. His breath was slowing now, and he stepped away from the door, taking the unopened backpack away from Castiel once more. He turned to the counter of the Sand Castle's small kitchen, where he dug into the sack.

It took Castiel a moment to place the unfamiliar word. When he did, his brow furrowed. "This isn't a video game, Dean."

"Are you gonna eat or not? It's about five minutes from stone cold, so hurry up," Dean replied, not turning around. He'd removed a handful of clay dishes and uncovered them, releasing the scent of roasted tubers and butter into the room. For the first time all day, Castiel's stomach rumbled.

He took a few minutes to compose himself, unstringing his bow as a pretense, then joined Dean - slowly - at the counter.

"It does smell very good," he said.

Dean slapped him on the back and handed him a plate. He joined Castiel a few minutes later by the stove, where the coals still cast a little heat.

"I get why you like it here," Dean said, "This is the best damn chicken I've ever eaten. These are the best damn carrots I've ever eaten."

Castiel listened, taking slow bites and watching Dean whenever he thought the other man wasn't looking. "You don't say that about carrots, generally."

Dean snickered into his chicken. "Right? This food is insane."

The meal tasted as good as it smelled. Castiel could admit that Dean was the better cook, after years of eating his own experiments. He wasn't certain where Dean built the skills, given that most of the cooking Castiel had witnessed involved frozen burritos and truck stop microwaves. Maybe he'd been reading cookbooks when Castiel was elsewhere. Maybe Lisa taught him.

With a stab of guilt, Castiel quickly swerved the thought. "I appreciate the food and fellowship, Dean, but I still don't understand why you're here. You could have brought it over tomorrow, when we go fishing. In the daylight."

Very carefully, Dean set aside his plate. "Sammy mentioned you were sort of down. You've been over here all by yourself for a couple weeks - or over here with Shane," he corrected, lifting a hand as Castiel opened his mouth, "which is the next best thing to all by yourself. I just. Uh. Know how you get. You and me, we think we do alone great. But we suck at it."

Was it so obvious? Castiel lowered his eyes. "He needs someone," he said quietly, "and he doesn't trust himself around Gwen anymore than I trust him. He's my responsibility. I need to be here."

Now both of Dean's hands were up, fingers spread like he was pushing a heavy weight. "Whoa. Whoa. I get it. I noticed him watching Gwen, too. Believe me, I'm glad he's out here with someone else's eyes on him, at least until we get some answers."

"He would never harm a human," Castiel protested in a hush with a glance towards the ladder, "but he's grieving, and he's an angel."

"Pragmatic and emotionally stupid," Dean muttered, waving a hand and shaking his head as he caught the brunt of Castiel's glare, "You know I'm right."

"But you don't need to be rude."

"Okay! Christ."

"And you're not exactly a savant about your feelings," Castiel said stiffly.

Dean sat back. "Really."

"You started it." Castiel rose, collecting the empty dishes. "Thank you for the meal and the company, but you don't need to worry about me. I'm fine," he said over his shoulder. He heard Dean get up, with a grunt. Felt the soft tremor of his boots on the floor as he came into the kitchen.

"Look, I didn't come over here to talk about Shane," Dean said, "I um. Thought there were some things still hanging out there, from before. Remember that first night we ended up here, you and me?"

Castiel remembered. He beheld the revelation of Dean's words, slow and measured as if he'd rehearsed them in his head a dozen times. The top blew off the universe. "I do," he said, just as careful, and at last, let himself look fully into Dean's face.

"I'm not a genius in the feelings department, I know that," Dean said, "and you're right. But I've had a lot of time to think, recently. Some stuff's changed. I mean, not me exactly, but priorities. You know?"

"I think so," Castiel replied, with a squint.

"I've missed shots before, when I was too dumb to see what was in front of me. Or too blind, take your pick," Dean went on, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "If you're - I mean, I don't know how things stand with you and Captain D—"

"His name is Jack," Castiel corrected, with a patience and a calm he didn't feel. It was out of his mouth before he could stop it, and he winced inwardly as he saw Dean withdraw.

"Right," Dean said, "yeah."

They stood together, too close to be casual, as the moments ticked off and the air between them grew more and more fragile. Castiel saw this moment slipping away. Maybe it wouldn't be the last one. They did have a potential eternity to figure this out, after all.

He turned, and the movement seemed to free Dean. He started backing up.

Castiel caught the edge of his shirt. The evergreen plaid button-down, hanging open over a tee shirt. It came in handy in times like these, when Castiel could use it to reel Dean in.

"Take your shot," Castiel said, and kissed him.

The moment was a meteor; fast, brilliant and searing. Dean leaned into the kiss, hands landing on Castiel's upper arms with feather light touches. Like he wasn't sure Castiel was real. Like he wasn't sure Castiel would stay.

And then it wasn't a meteor.

It was a bonfire.

A homecoming. An earthquake. An explosion. The words rolled into Castiel's head and away again, leaving nothing but blissful quiet in its wake. He pushed Dean against the counter and kissed him harder. His hands went around Dean's waist, and joy poured heat under his skin as Castiel felt the hesitation go out of the hands on his shoulders. They curled around the back of his head, fisted in his hair, and the embers under Castiel's ribs sparked a fresh flame.

Somehow, when he'd thought about this moment, the details had always been… somewhat abstract. As if his subconscious mind refused to place it in reality as even a remote possibility. Sometimes it was talking; confessing florid and melodramatic things to each other. Other times, just a long look, a nod, and a bone-deep certainty that Dean loved him.

The sharp here and now was nothing like that, at all.

Castiel wanted Dean. Wanted to lay him back and possess him, every inch; brush his skin with hands and mouth until that skin was flushed and his breathing hard. He wanted to arouse Dean. To make him respond; to feel him as he reacted with desire. Maybe those abstracted desires were a buffer, protecting Castiel from all the pent-up thirst he couldn't slake. There was almost too much of it to handle, and Castiel fought himself to contain it.

In a moment he had Dean up on the counter. Dean grinned into his mouth, wrapped his legs around Castiel's waist, and yanked him into a kiss by the collar of his shirt.

It was all over but the screaming.

In Castiel's head, to be accurate.

:ARCHER,: Jack shouted, loud although the word never touched Castiel's ears, :There's a ship. Someone picked up my distress beacon! They heard us! This IS a planet!:

Castiel pressed his hand to his temple, sagging forward in shock. Dean caught him. "Hey," he murmured, and the rough emotion in his voice played arpeggios up Castiel's spine, "what's wrong? You okay?"

:Archer, did you hear me? Purgatory's a planet! We're going home!: Excitement buoyed up the thought, spilling over from Jack into Castiel. He hadn't been this happy in years.

Castiel squeezed his eyes shut, shoving away his questions to focus on the present. :Loud and clear, Jack. When are they coming?:

:Six hours, give or take. We'll rally the troops tomorrow. I think your fishing trip is indefinitely postponed.:

The genuine enthusiasm in Jack pulled a smile from Castiel. :I don't understand how this could be possible, Jack. But - you were right. And I'm grateful.:

"Cas?" Dean said, and snapped his fingers, "you're scaring me, buddy."

Castiel straightened, opening his eyes to see Dean watching him with concern. He took a breath, traces of joy from Jack's words still coursing through him. "I'm fine. I just - got a call. From Jack."

"Is everyone all right?"

"Everyone's fine," Castiel replied, licked his lips, and let the balls of his thumbs ride the top of Dean's thighs. "We have plenty of time. Can I - tell you later?"

Dean's smile could have powered a sun. "Middle of the night phonecall - sounds serious. You sure it can wait?"

"I think it's worth the risk."

 


 

 

Purgatory - or Skware, as the rest of the universe knew it - was also universally understood as an armpit of space. The small planet lingered in a wildly spinning solar system in the middle of nowhere, off the edge of a regular trade route. There were few serious studies about its idiosyncrasies - just enough to determine its natural resources weren't of the quality or proliferation to be worth stripping. The intrepid explorers and scientists who visited had to be rescued months later, their ships malfunctioning or destroyed by explosions. They told stories of an alien landscape and a fate worse than death; of a hallucinogenic atmosphere that induced nightmares of dying and resurrecting in ever more horrible ways.

It was marked on every star chart with a long list of warnings. While it enjoyed a certain amount of trendy infamy from thrillseekers in millennia past, most travelers ignored it today. The freighter that picked them up refused to come further in than was absolutely necessary. When he heard the name the crew called Purgatory, Jack sat down on a supply crate with a thump.

"That's Skware?" he asked, bewildered.

Castiel spent his first minutes in space at the back of the ship, watching the planet recede through a small, dirty portal in his quarters. He squeezed the grip of the bow he'd brought aboard. The enchantments that sizzled through it were fading, the further they drew away from Purgatory. When this ship spat them all back onto Earth's surface, it would be nothing more than a very serviceable bow.

Were they all planets? All the parts of Earth's hierarchy? Hell …Heaven?

That couldn't be true. But then, less than a day ago, Jack's distress beacon seemed like a fool's gambit.

Castiel supposed he'd have to find out for himself.

When Purgatory - when Skware - vanished from the viewport, he turned away.

 


 

 

Finding Jack in the jungle had been simpler than finding him in the cramped catacombs of the freight carrier. In the jungle, at least, Jack wanted to be found.

It took a full week before Castiel caught him - and then only with Gwen's help.

"I know it's not been easy," Gwen said, sitting next to him in the crew's mess with tea and a handful of stale biscuits, "but believe me, it could be worse. Jack can be right next to you, and if he's pissed, or he's grieving, it's like he's not even there. I suppose he thinks he's doing you a kindness, by being honest," she dipped a biscuit and bit off the soaked end, "for once, the bastard."

Castiel hunched over his own mug. "Thank you. I appreciate the sympathy, although all things considered, I don't deserve it."

With a sigh, Gwen pushed a biscuit under Castiel's arm. She stayed, her arm hooked into his, hand curled lightly around his elbow. "Castiel, of all the people who could possibly be to blame for the fact that I'm sitting on a spaceship, having just been possessed by an angel, which came about because of a punishment from God, I think you're the least likely person I could be pissed at." She tugged her tea closer and picked up her half-eaten biscuit. "Hell," she said, "I suppose I can be angry at the Fates - you did say it was the Fates, right?"

"I did."

Gwen blew out a breath. "God. Anyway. Okay. So, I could be angry at them, but they're apparently going to live alone on a planet forever, chased by those… green exploding things. So I can't even have a proper sulk over it."

"We did look for them," Castiel said, "I called for them, as well."

"I've been trying to put all the pieces together, ever since I, you know, came back," Gwen said, the tip of her finger riding the rim of her mug, "but I don't remember anything. Just one moment, I was in the church, and we were winning - and then the whole thing went wrong. There's all this lost time, and every time Jack looks at me, it's like he thinks I'm going to break into a million pieces."

"At least you see him," Castiel grumbled. Gwen smiled, then sighed again.

"We'll get him sorted, Castiel," Gwen said, and took a swallow of her tea, "at least he's a captive audience here. When he gets to Earth, he'll outrun you. He outruns me, every time."

Castiel glanced down at the top of her head, where her cheek rested on his arm. "Doesn't that bother you?"

"I've got Anwen, and I've got Rhys. Hard to stay angry," Gwen answered with a light shrug, "If I'm bothered, it's because he thinks I wouldn't want to come along - or would but shouldn't. It's not been about him for a long time, you see - whatever he says. I miss the work. And I was good at it. Going about my life now, I don't know. It feels off."

"Could you start your own team?" Castiel asked.

"I'm working on it," Gwen replied, after a brief hesitation, "I may never get anywhere. All the networks and money were tied to Jack's reputation. But it's something. And the trouble keeps right on finding me, yeah? Best I can do is meet it. I'm—sorry, Castiel. I've been talking your ear off. I don't know why Jack's taking so long."

"Because Jack's been eavesdropping," Jack said, sliding into a seat at the table across from them, "and you two make a cute couple. But watch out, Archer - she's a married woman, and her husband's a firecracker."

Gwen straightened, uncurling her arm from Castiel's. She gave his hand a pat, kissed him on the cheek, and picked up her mug. "Best of luck."

"Hey, when do I get one of those?" Jack asked.

"When you've earned one," Gwen replied, already halfway to the mess hall receiving window.

Her departure left a tangible gap behind, one that neither Castiel nor Jack were interested in filling. It was the first time they'd been alone together in weeks, Castiel realized, and his resolve drained away at Jack's questioning expression. So much had changed in Castiel's orbit, and yet it was as if nothing had.

"I hear congratulations are in order," Jack said, finally. He smiled. "I can play the jilted lover if you want. You know I'd be great."

Castiel folded his hands around his mug. He studied Jack until eventually, the smile faded.

"I'm not sorry," Jack said, a little frosty at the edges.

"I know. That doesn't explain why you won't talk to me," Castiel answered, "I can't suck you dry through a communicator."

"I'm here, aren't I?"

"Yes you are. Under false pretenses. I've left you messages, offered neutral spaces to meet; asked anyone who might know where you were. I've been here, Jack."

Jack's mouth quirked. "From the hot gossip flying around, I'd say you haven't."

A hot flush poured across Castiel's chest and nose. His jaw clenched. "Dean is NOT your excuse," he snarled, and swatted the table hard enough to make the cups rattle. Heads turned at the noise.

"Fine," Jack said, and looked away. He took a deep breath, rolled his shoulders, and turned back to Castiel with a neutral expression. "I assume there's a reason you roped Gwen in."

It took a few breaths to draw the words together. Indecision scattered them, furthered by the last few moments. When Castiel spoke, it was with his eyes on his hands. "I made you a promise, once. After I left you, after you died in the mines and we fought. I promised I wouldn't walk away." He looked up, "I wouldn't leave, unless you asked me to."

For once, Jack had nothing to say. He sat back, hands slowly sliding off the table to flop in his lap. He watched Castiel with a flat expression, tracking him like a sniper's crosshairs. "You went to all this trouble so I'd let you out of it?"

At Jack's implication, a hard lump pushed up under Castiel's breastbone and into his throat. He shoved his mug away and swiped at his eyes in frustration.

"You think I made that promise for you," He said. It was tough to look at Jack. Looking made the memories sharper; made the things mixed up in the memories harder to ignore. "I wanted a chance to fix this. I wanted to try. You said nothing could cost me your friendship. But the first mistake I made, you disappeared."

"What you did was unacceptable, Castiel," Jack said through his teeth, "I know that what happened wasn't your choice; keeping it from me was. If that's the way things are going to be, I can't trust you."

"It was one mistake," Castiel snapped.

"You don't make mistakes," Jack replied, "you make decisions."

Anger and pain unspooled in Castiel, seeking a target. Any target. It snatched the worst of his fears, sharpened it to a cutting edge, and threw it like a dagger. "Tell me you wouldn't use it against me, Jack," he said, regretting the words and sick at the euphoria that came from giving them air, "Tell me you wouldn't use this connection, if you needed to."

They glared at one another in shocked silence. Castiel watched injury turn to anger, then disappear behind a cold wall.

After a few minutes, Jack slapped his thighs, and got to his feet. "Consider your promise revoked. Go be happy, Castiel. Make use of the time you have. Look me up when you've gotten the Winchester out of your system."

Castiel's last glimpse of Jack was his back - spine ramrod straight, shoulders squared, hands in his pockets as he walked out of the mess hall.

 


 

 

The crew of the freight transport notified them of Earth's approach a few days later. They would slow down just enough to ensure safe transport to the planet's surface, and requested destination coordinates a few hours before departure. Everyone would be deposited at once.

"At least they aren't going to drop us in the Pacific," Sam said with a tight smile, after the communications officer walked away.

"I vote for South Dakota," Dean said, "lots of open land, people mind their own business, and we can have them drop us at Bobby's place. America's a lot more willing to let people out than in."

"Hold on," Gwen said, "Swansea's plenty quiet, and I'm not going to risk plummeting into a junk yard, just so I can argue with an army of ballcap-sporting peons at the airport."

Castiel glanced towards Shamsiel, ready to trade wry looks, only to see him staring out one of the mess hall portals with his hands to his temples. Castiel joined his brother at the thick glass, and touched his shoulder.

Shamsiel's cheeks were wet, shining with the brilliance of the passing stars outside. His silence lingered long enough for Castiel to worry, when Shamsiel's hand reached up beneath his arm, clapping him hard on the back.

"There's so many," he breathed, like a child marveling for the first time at the night sky, "so many voices."

Not comprehending at first, Castiel watched in silence until he felt the sudden flow of power, sweet and cool, rushing out to meet him with welcome. Then at last, the words and his brother's posture fit together into a new whole. Castiel closed his eyes, called out to his people, and listened.

The answering chorus of angels was staggering. Strange and familiar voices hailed him, Araciel and Remiel among them. There were many, as Shamsiel said. Nearly as many as when Castiel was new.

And they loved him again. All past sins forgiven for the raising of the Watchers, as if it had been his design and the work of his hands. A new, naive family of angels for him to wreck, torn from human families. Families waiting for phone calls about missing persons reports, putting up posters on library corkboards, holding funerals for empty caskets, grieving an absence, left only questions.

All but one woman, Castiel thought. He wanted to run; to beg the crew to take him on. He would have begged Jack, had the man been present.

Sometimes there was nothing left to do with consequences but live through them. He'd learned that at the shoulder of the man who was absent; who, the communications officer informed them, would be traveling on with the ship to another port.

Appropriate, Castiel thought with a spark of anger. But then, these weren't Jack's consequences. They were his, and he had work to do.

Behind Castiel, Gwen and the Winchesters were still arguing. Castiel turned, let the wash of emotions in him swell and recede, and called upon a Grace that answered his summons, strong and clear. "How about both?" he asked.

His voice surprised the others so much that they actually stopped. All three turned to him.

Castiel felt the cool surge of Grace, rising into the familiar pressure behind his eyes; knew they glowed blue-white.

"We can take you home," he said, "all of you."

On his boys' faces - on Dean's face - was an expression he hadn't anticipated. An expression that came with a surge of joy so profound, he nearly lost his focus.

Smiles.

Relief.

Love.

Chapter Text

25 years, 4 months, and 21 days later (Christmas Eve, 2036)
The Painterly Cryptid, Seattle


 

 

The lighting was cool and understated in the bar, with clean white walls and varnished pine floors. The simplistic atmosphere made the artwork - garish and frightening as it was - seem almost classy. There was no smell of paint thinner, no splatters of tar on the woodwork, no graffiti on the bare, unoccupied brick. From the design, it wasn't the kind of place one would expect to find paintings of Shaun Riley and his loose post-apocalyptic tribe bashing zombies with cricket bats and pool cues. Nor would a typical tourist anticipate angels and demons locked in mortal combat on black velvet, surrounded by chains of roses and electric guitars.

But it was Seattle. And both the drinks - and the art - sold like hotcakes.

Aletta Saloma, age twenty-five, was working late. The bar staff had been gone about an hour, finished cleaning up the typical three-in-the-morning mess left by Christmas Eve-Eve revelers. She had her laptop open on the bar, nursing an energy drink while she combed through data, a stack of police reports, and a folder of newspaper clips.

As in an actual folder. The manila kind, with the slicing edges that already put her index finger in a band-aid.

It was snowing, thin and wispy, and suitably romantic for Christmas Eve. The winters had gotten wilder and more unpredictable, so the meteorologists reported with the hand-rubbing glee of children. This was by no means the first snow of the season. Snow clung in fragments to the curbs, mailboxes and windshields, and by six the street was already dark. The party set, lucky enough to have tomorrow off - or a late start to a shift, at least - crowded into The Painterly Cryptid. They warded off the stark, dry chill with mulled wine (a house specialty this month), hot toddies and Irish coffee.

Aletta knew she wouldn't be going home until well after dawn. There'd been some strange reports from the cemeteries, and the Torchwood singularity monitor (Daniel's design) had been beeping every few days for the past week. Because it was snowing, and way too cold even for Seattle, and Christmas Eve, Jack Harkness would of course want to investigate tonight.

Aletta had enough of a crush on him to insist he not go alone, at the expense of her mother's lamb adobo - and her mother's subsequent wrath.

Until the stranger rapped on the door.

 


 

 

"Jack!" Aletta bolted down the stairs into the Torchwood 5 central systems hub, "Jack! Someone for you upstairs!"

Jack looked up from where he leaned over a thin laptop (and Daniel) in the conference room. "Who is it?"

"He won't say!" She bounded over a spiral of mesh catwalks to reach Jack, putting her weight on the thin metal grillework as little as possible. She'd never liked them, but she liked leaving the stranger upstairs alone even less.

"He?" Jack said with curiosity. Not Martha, he thought with a touch of disappointment, but came out of the conference room and headed toward Aletta anyway. Martha Jones was getting on, but she still visited. Less often now, understandably, with a large family and a great deal of political obligation. Although her visits had never been what one might call 'frequent.'

Aletta held out her hand, tangled with black ball chain, and dropped what she held into the palm Jack offered. Dog tags clattered into the cup of his fingers.

"He said to give you these," Aletta said, "who is he? What's going on?"

"Stay here," Jack ordered, and leaped across the catwalks at a dead run.

Aletta turned back to her audience. Daniel and Liam regarded her from the entry to the conference room, their eyebrows nearly buried in their hairlines.

"Yes, we're going to do what he says," Aletta said, "maybe one of you came out of the womb with a gun in your hand, but I'm a disaster."

Liam started past her. "I'll go," he said.

Daniel grabbed his arm. He pulled out his phone, tapped the screen with his thumb, then glanced up at Aletta. "We have surveillance for this sort of thing? I've secured the Hub doors - go pull up the cameras in the bar. He didn't say anything about what he's doing here?"

"I asked, and he just told me he was here to see Jack, he'd wait outside if I wanted him to, and gave me a set of dog tags," Aletta said, defensive, "It's cold and snowing like a bitch, so I told him to come in. I mean, he's cute as fuck. Killer blue eyes. He could have stepped on my face and I'd let him."

"Pretty sure that's not correct MLA format, Reuters," Liam chuckled, relaxing a little.

"'Seattle man attractive enough for assault, says local X-Files cosplayer,'" Daniel said, quoting an imaginary headline.

"I think it's 'attractive enough to commit assault,'" Liam corrected.

Aletta stalked to the surveillance system and called up the cameras in the bar. "See for yourselves, assholes," she declared, "also, this is not a cosplay. I wear suit jackets with jeans. Also, fuck you."

Daniel and Liam joined Aletta at the monitors, and watched Jack approach the stranger.

 


 

 

Jack flicked off the lights at the upstairs landing to avoid drawing attention. He walked briskly across the bar in the dark. "You could have called."

No answer.

"I would have made dinner. Or reservations. You know I don't like to cook."

No answer. Just the sound of Jack's boots, loud and lonely. He stopped, sighed, and spread his hands. "All right, I know you've got a thing for entrances, but…"

As Jack's eyes adjusted to the gloom, he spotted the darker void of Castiel's silhouette at the door. One palm was pressed to the glass right under the Painterly Cryptid's beret-sporting unicorn logo. He looked up at the snow, swirling in an orange haze in the street lights. Then he looked down, the high points of his features reflected in the dark glass. Still he said nothing, and Jack's heart cracked.

"When?" he asked, softly.

"A year ago," Castiel replied. He turned from the window, "they made me let them go, Jack."

The tags Jack clutched slipped to the floor with a clatter. Jack had his arms around Castiel's head before he knew he was moving. It was easy enough, as the moment Castiel registered Jack's approach, he buckled.

"They made me promise," Castiel said.

"You and promises." The kiss Jack dropped on the angel's hair was lost on Castiel, but that was all right. Eventually, they made it to the floor, together, and Jack let Castiel grieve in understanding silence.

"Sam, too?" Jack asked gently. Castiel's tiny nod shuffled against his arm. "They're good guys," he murmured in private tribute, then added, "Stay, tonight at least. You don't have to be alone."

 


 

 

Aletta abruptly switched the monitor to cover another area, and the little semicircle around the surveillance system broke apart.

They shared a round of awkward silence. Aletta clapped Liam and Daniel on the shoulders. "Who wants IHOP? Christmas Eve team breakfast."

Both men tossed her grateful, relieved smiles, snapped up their coats and followed her out the back exit into the snow. IHOP was a few blocks north, and had become a familiar haven for the fledgling team.

Like Torchwood, even if it wasn't always good, it was still always open.

Jack texted them halfway to IHOP, giving them all the next two days off.

"'Merry Christmas,' he says," Daniel grumbled.

"You guys going anywhere for dinner tonight? Mom's making lamb. And lumpia." Aletta said, dampened spirits raising as she remembered. No need to cancel those plans, after all. She wasn't as disappointed by the canceled investigation as she expected to be.

"Is that an invitation?" Liam asked in surprise.

"Bring booze, and yes it is."

 


 

 

Castiel stayed. At first, Jack didn't know if he did it because he really wanted to, or needed to, or because it was just nice to take orders from somebody else. Even Jack was occasionally prey to that, although he hadn't felt like taking orders since it was vogue to wear brown pinstripe suits with red Converse. He intended to introduce Castiel to the current team, but came downstairs to a deserted Hub.

Suddenly, he didn't feel much like the added company. A jealous, little-boy part of him that didn't see daylight all that much, wanted Castiel all too himself. Jack took Castiel's overcoat, and took a few moments on his phone to message his people. After all, they had lives and families to get to. Things to mark the season.

Castiel waited for him. When Jack looked up, the familiar blue eyes held him, worried and sad, in the face that hadn't changed. No new scars, nor wrinkles, nor flecks of gray hair. Maybe a little less angry since the day Jack last saw him. Other than that, he could have just popped out of a time capsule.

It stirred things, in Jack. Things he didn't take out much. Shoving all of it aside with practice, he offered Castiel his hand.

For once, he could wait. For once, he had the time.

The story of how and why the Winchesters extracted their promise from Castiel came out slowly over the evening, while Jack gave him the grand tour. Bobby went down facing off against something called a 'Knight of Hell,' several years ago. As deaths went, killed while saving Dean - and the world - from an evil as old as the planet had more storytelling appeal than liver cancer.

Castiel knew about the cancer. Sam and Dean never did. Well, maybe they did now, although Jack believed Bobby was as unlikely to share details of his personal infirmity in the hereafter as he was anywhere else. Jack caught himself thinking in terms of things like 'Heaven' and 'hereafter' and wanted to swat himself. Where had his healthy skepticism gone?

Then again, he was reheating leftover takeout curry for an angel.

The Doctor would laugh himself silly, if he ever found out.

With that possessive edge that resurfaced tonight, Jack decided Castiel was his secret. He didn't have to, and wouldn't, explain him to the Doctor. Ever. Provided, of course, he saw the Doctor again. That wasn't off the table, but he wouldn't bet on it.

Yes I would, Jack thought, of course I would. I'd bet on it just to see what happened.

The beginning of the end came nearly a year ago, when Sam wound up with a concussion and a shattered leg during an otherwise routine pursuit. Dean half carried, half dragged him back to the Impala - still running in spite of its endangered-species-level scarcity of parts. Once they'd reached safety, Dean called for Castiel. Hospitals hadn't been safe for a very long time; with their success came too many enemies.

Castiel repaired the injuries. There were new sheriffs in Heaven, plural, and one of the first things Shamsiel did was make sure the metaphorical garden hose couldn't be turned off again, for anyone. Things, as far as he was concerned, were normal. Or as normal as they could ever be, with a new army of bewildered angels in Heaven, a bewildered human population struggling with the sudden disappearance of thousands, a few billion monster souls running loose in the world and the near-constant friction of a human soul against his Grace.

Castiel noticed the sober expressions and shared glances while he worked on Sam's broken leg. Resisting the urge to touch their minds for answers, he waited for an explanation.

The next time he went down, Sam said, hesitant and apologetic, he didn't want to get back up. Dean corroborated, a little slower and softer. Not things like broken arms and sprained ankles, of course. But the big stuff. The stuff they couldn't - shouldn't - walk off.

Castiel refused at first. He thought Dean didn't want peace, but to continue the life he had now. As they explained, however, he found he understood.

Everyone they loved, everyone they knew was gone, with the exception of each other and Castiel. Bobby had been followed by many others, as the life and the harsh reality picked them off, one by one. The Winchesters' bodies were letting them down, slow but sure. Breaks, scars, and wear overrode what attempts they made to stay in condition. Never mind the emotional scars, which were harder to see and never truly healed. Castiel might be able to close a bullet hole, but he couldn't unmake forty years in Hell. Nor could he negate Sam's centuries as Lucifer's scapegoat.

They had no children. No family but Castiel and one another.

Castiel gave them his word.

Had he known so little time remained, he would have refused.

Jack had more in common with the Winchesters than he wanted to admit. But unlike them, he didn't have an emergency eject handle. No angel would ever have to yank him back from death. Not that he needed any help, thank you very much - the 'afterlife' Castiel described sounded cramped and boring. He'd take wandering in the dark and then more life, however meaningless it sometimes seemed.

"I told them that the world was their family," Castiel said with a humorless laugh, slumped on a chair beside Jack's desk, "I was that desperate to keep them here."

"I don't get it," Jack said, pushing aside a pile of disassembled gadgets to set the plate of curry by Castiel's elbow, "can't you visit them as much as you want? It's not like they're gone, as far as you're concerned." He ladled up a plate for himself and leaned against the edge of the desk to eat it, less than an arm's length away.

Castiel dragged his fork through the thick red sauce, turning over bricks of potato and cheese. "Paradise for them is a family dinner. A dog. Afternoons for Dean in a hammock in a backyard. Nights at the Road House."

"It doesn't include you?"

Castiel shook his head, slow, resisting. "Dean has me," he said, "or a 'me,' I suppose. He's happy. He's, um. Married. His Cas wears his old band shirts to bed, and gets along with his parents. Likes rock music. Eats cheeseburgers. He's—" he trailed off.

Jack closed his eyes, and took a breath. "Human," he ventured, and heard Castiel sigh.

"I don't belong there," Castiel said, "I didn't let them see me. It would only confuse them, or remind them. They don't, um. They don't need me."

Castiel put down the fork, slow. He kept his head down, returning both hands to his thighs. "I am relieved, however," he said in a rough monotone, "that they are no longer in pain."

"That's what people say," Jack said, and lowered his plate to the desk, taking care not to let it clatter. He leaned back. Considered a few things to say, then put his hand gently on Castiel's shoulder. "I'm sorry," he said, and meant it.

They shared the silence a while.

"I wanted to come to you," Castiel said, pressing his hand over Jack's, "I knew where you were. I've always known where you were, since you came back. I'm sorry. I tried not to pay attention to it."

"Why didn't you?"

"I wanted to find a solution first," Castiel said, "So, I read everything I could find. I asked everyone who would talk to me. If I couldn't switch it off, maybe I could control it. The soul is the problem. If I get rid of it, this will stop."

As he spoke, Castiel's grip tightened until Jack winced. "You're hurting me, Archer."

Castiel dropped his hold as if the skin burned him. He folded his hands in his lap. "I'm sorry, Jack."

Stepping around him, Jack collected the unoccupied chair from in front of his desk. He set it before Castiel, turned it backwards and straddled it. "Go on," he said, arms folded on the backrest, "please."

"Without it, I'll be more efficient. I won't be so," Castiel gestured at himself, "this."

"Archer—"

Castiel pushed on. "No-one will be able to use me against you. But I need help. I can't find a way to take it out myself, and nobody will help me. I even," his eyes cast down, "I went to a crossroads. I tried to deal."

Jack blinked. "Crossroads?"

"Demons," Castiel explained, "humans trade their souls for favors. Crowley was waiting for me. The demon who—" he gave his head a single, fierce shake, "—it doesn't matter. He said no. Apparently I'm not human enough to have a soul worth trading."

Castiel had only occasionally spoken about demons. Most of his answers to Jack's questions had been very Catholic in substance - holy water, flinching at the name of Christ - so in the end Jack stopped asking. The concept of a 'crossroads deal' stirred a dusty corner of his memory, but this was a heavy drop of new information. Jack leaned back.

Castiel's expression tightened. He turned sad eyes on Jack. "I know you don't want me here. I didn't want to come here until it was—"

"Castiel," Jack said, calm but firm, and the name cut across Castiel's monologue. Slumped and folded in on himself, he studied Jack in silence.

"Is that what you want?" Jack asked. "That soul seems to come with a few perks. Like feelings," he added, indicating Castiel with a broad, circular wave, "and food. And sex, which I remember you liked."

Castiel's gaze veered left. "I miss you, Jack. I don't want to be alone. Neither of those things mix well with a safe distance."

Jack nodded. "All right," he said, "but if you had a choice - if you could have what you wanted without sacrificing pieces of yourself - would you?"

He could almost feel Castiel's suspicion. He was probably wondering if this was a test. What answer would most efficiently reach his goal? Jack fought off a smile, waiting for the inevitable dissertation as Castiel avoided a decision.

But something had changed, in all that time apart.

"No," Castiel said, chin lifted as if in defiance, "I don't want to let it go. It's complicated, but it's allowed me to experience love in a way I couldn't, before. It's a part of me that formed, somehow, with you. Dean loves a symbol of me, made out of memories. If this soul is a symbol of you, but I have the luxury to trade it for reality, I will. I always will."

His fists balled in his lap as he spoke, body coiled with tension. He looked at Jack, with a determination familiar from memories hemmed in firelight; from nights at the windows, shoulder to shoulder against the creatures outside. From dreams and nightmares, while Jack watched the drama of sleep play across his face and pushed back his unkempt hair.

Jack rose, pushed away the chair between them, and offered Castiel his hand. "Then hang onto it, Archer. We'll figure out the details."

Castiel tipped his head. Hesitant. Hopeful. "I don't understand," he said, but slipped his hand into Jack's anyway.

"I've had a long time to think," Jack said, "I missed you, too, Castiel. There's a home here, if you want it. Some things are worth the risk."

Jack pulled him up, into his arms, and closed his eyes against a wave of relief as the angel washed around him like an unfurling star.

And so Castiel came home. And Castiel stayed.