"Bow down and profess your love unto Me, your Lord. Or I shall destroy you."
Their eyes are as delicate wine glasses, full to the brim. Their souls tremble as leaves in a cyclone, for He is the wind that roars across the chasm of the Abyss; He is the Light that proceeds from all of Heaven unto the Earth, and alights in their heads the Fire of thought. He watches it snap and burn behind their faces, small and fierce and beautiful. He loves them with a love that is beyond all language, beyond all prophecy. Something familiar quakes at the force of it, but that something is far within, tiny as a planet tucked away in a dark and dying part of the galaxy. He spreads His wings, as numerous as stars, and gazes down upon the Righteous Man and his companions. That two of them have been tainted with Hell matters not to Him, for Hell is the other side of Being, and it is just. He loves them with a love inexorable and vast as a universe, a love they will never escape.
The eternity of His gaze falls upon the Righteous Man, the Beloved. Beloved of whom…? something familiar cries out, and is silenced in the unending tide of Heaven's love watching the atoms of his face rearrange, pull tight in the flesh across the bones, the tiny fragile things which cling together to house him. His eyes are green as new grass, and in them the new God can see the beginnings of a true terror.
And is not to love God the same as to fear Him?
"Cas…? Come on…you're not thinking right. It's the souls. Come on, let them go. Please."
Dean drops into a crouch next to his brother a second after Sam's knees buckle and fold him gracelessly down to the ground, but he can't take his eyes off of Castiel. The last time he looked at the angel and really saw him, he looked devastated and defeated, but this new Castiel isn't gray-faced and careworn, and his shoulders aren't hunched. He doesn't stare into the middle distance and frown as he worries about waging war on another plane of existence. He looks immaculate, alert and unruffled, and he looks at Dean like the first Castiel did, the Castiel who studied him with clinical detachment and assured him he'd cast him back into the Pit if he didn't cooperate.
"My thinking is right, Dean," he says. "And all I ask is your loyalty." His tone is cold but reasonable, like Dean will hear what he's saying for the sense it is, and he floats a hand to his chest, rests his fingertips there briefly. "This – can be a good thing, used wisely. Join me, and together we can—"
"Rule the galaxy?" Dean cuts in. "Forget it. You said you'd fix my brother." He stops, watches for a sign, the merest flicker that might tell him this new Castiel is just a veneer, that his friend might be in there somewhere.
But this new Castiel's eyes are a chilly Pacific blue, unblinking, and they don't soften into liquid concern. He doesn't reach out gentle, healing fingers to brush Sam's brow, so that Sam's eyelids stop fluttering confusedly and his small, incoherent, huffed-out sounds turn into proper words. This new Castiel weighs up his options, his features impassive, his arms hanging loose and inactive by his sides. "I can't fix him," he says finally.
Dean hears himself gasp out like he's just been sucker-punched. "What the fuck does that mean?" he barks before he can stop himself, and in his peripheral vision he can see Bobby wince, see his jaw clench.
This new Castiel doesn't flinch and look troubled by Dean's anger, like the old Castiel would have. He's unperturbed. "It means that I can't fix him. Strictly speaking, he can't be fixed. Hell is. It's part of a bigger picture, Dean, part of the design. Its effects can't be cured or erased…if they could, don't you think I would have done it for you by now?" He gives a dismissive half-shrug. "I told you this. I warned you that this would happen."
Dean's gut lurches with sick guilt, and he flits his eyes to his brother, collapsed and shuddering under the weight of his memories. "Are you just going to leave him like that?" He knows there's nothing he can do to turn back the tide of Hell without Castiel's help, and his throat closes up at the back, so he has to swallow hard. He glances up and meets Castiel's gaze again. "Cas, please."
Castiel tilts his head with no sign of the fond curiosity of before, examines Sam as he huddles there on the floor, tinier than Dean has seen him since they were kids, gangling limbs folded up into a contorted version of the child pose Lisa used to maneuver Dean into when his back was killing him after a day on the site. After a moment, Castiel huffs out as if he has come to a decision, flicks his eyes back to Dean. "That's not what I said," he offers, with the same wintry composure as before. "Of course I won't leave him like that. What do you take me for? He's my friend."
There's a stifled choking sound from Dean's left, and he sees Castiel's eyes dart over to settle on Bobby. "You're all my friends, aren't you?" he says, but something changes in the atmosphere, something tenses and makes the air go thin and remorseless. "Do you think I could hurt you?" His eyes drift back to Dean. "Do you think I could ever hurt you?" he asks.
Castiel steps forward, reaches out and fits his hand to Dean's shoulder, to the brand he left there, and in that instant Dean can scarcely breathe for the sensation skating along the crest of his nerves. It's devotion and threat combined, pouring into him and filling him, making his heart swell with joy and judder with dread, making every cell in his body spark alive with fire and heat and making them recoil at the same time, thrilling him while it repels him.
Castiel squeezes him there almost reassuringly before he lets go and trails careful fingertips across Dean's shoulder and up his neck, along the line of his jaw. "You are the Righteous Man, Dean," he murmurs, and his tone is suddenly wistful and yearning, even if his eyes stay empty. "I sought you, and I found you, and I burned my love into you. My mark is on your soul. I don't think it's in me to hurt you. Not when you're so important…not when we can achieve so much together." He drags the pad of his thumb over Dean's chin, motions his head as he eases Dean up, fingers tender at Dean's throat. His touch is warm where Dean thought it would be cold.
This is Castiel feeling something, Dean is sure of it; this is an emotional reaction of some kind in comparison to the previous glacial calm, and even if there's still a wrongness about it, it might be an opportunity, an opening. He rises warily, tries again, breathless and urgent despite the disorienting turbulence swirling through him. "Please." He knows he sounds like he's begging and maybe he is, begging for some sign, something to prove his de-facto brother is still there. "Cas. I know you're in there. If you ever cared about me, please let the souls go. There isn't much time."
Castiel sighs. "You don't understand," he says, with a gentleness that sounds something like real sorrow to Dean, sounds something like Cas. "What it was like for me…to be alone, to have doubts, to be unsure."
He backs a few steps away from where Sam still crouches, and Bobby drops to the floor and crawls efficiently over to take Dean's place, placing a hand on Sam's back between his shoulder blades. "But they speak to me, they guide me, they comfort me," Castiel continues as Dean shuffles along, trying to stay in sequence with this warped slow dance they're doing. Castiel's hand is still warm on Dean's face, and Castiel is gazing into his eyes. "Now there is clarity of vision and purpose," Castiel continues. "And you will understand, eventually."
Castiel exhales sharply then, drops his hand back to his side, and Dean feels as if something has been ripped away from him, feels the loss of it in his core, misses it keenly and is simultaneously overcome with relief as he goes dull and tepid again inside.
"But that's not what I said," Castiel backtracks, newly crisp and business-like now that the moment is over. "I can't fix Sam, but I can exploit the same loophole Death did. I can put the wall back up." He curls his lips up into a slight smile that's almost shy, and there it is again, Dean thinks, that confusing hint that has him balancing on his back foot, feeling unsure exactly who or what he's talking to.
"See what I do for you, my friends, even though I have more pressing matters to attend to, even though you all plotted against me," Castiel continues as he moves around Dean and sinks down next to Sam and Bobby. "See what a benevolent God I am, Dean," he announces pointedly, as he reaches out. "See how I forgive your brother for his mistake, for his moment of panic and miscalculation when he tried to destroy me…see how I take care of my children even though they frustrate me and—"
It's strained, not much more than a groan of effort, and Castiel's hand stops in midair as he double takes. "No?" he echoes flatly.
Dean drops to his haunches again, paddles out a hand, and grips his brother at the scruff of his neck. "Shut the fuck up, Sam," he scrapes out. "Not a good time."
His brother shrinks under his touch, but he swivels his head and when he slants his eyes up his gaze is steadier, even though Dean can feel him trembling, the tiniest of tremors. Sam shifts, spreads his big hands out on the dirty concrete, pushes himself up and flops over onto his ass. He's pale, his face sheened with sweat and smeared with dirt. He looks shell-shocked, but his voice is firm even if it's faint. "No wall."
Dean gapes at him for a second. "Are you fucking insane?" he growls.
"That's quite possible," Castiel suggests, and it comes out as the dry, aloof monotone he uses when he's dicking with Dean. He tilts his head, lowers his eyebrows, and maybe there's a weird camaraderie in the gesture, another brief moment that might be a connection. Dean wants to believe he isn't imagining it, wonders where he should go with it and if he can go anywhere with it at all, but before he figures out his next step, his brother cuts in again.
"No wall," Sam reiterates, harsher now, snapping Dean's attention back. "It was coming down anyway. It'll come down again. And I can't do that over, I – it's done. I can't put myself back together again."
Castiel sniffs. "If that's your choice, well," he decides. "How brave you are. But...strange."
There's a note of perplexity, of huh? in his voice, and it blindsides Dean with the image of another Castiel, so much so that he almost expects the angel, God, whatever he is now, to ask him if it was Zachariah who did this. He pushes the memory away. "Are you going to listen to him even though he's insane?" he snaps at Castiel. "Brick him up. Now."
"Dean…" he hears Bobby breathe out tensely beside him.
Castiel rests his elbows on his knees and interlaces his fingers under his chin as he studies Sam. He raises an eyebrow and narrows his eyes as he rests them back on Dean. "Is that an order?" he asks quietly, and the air crackles energetic again, its restlessness undercut by a menace that sucks the moisture from Dean's mouth.
"I don't want the wall back, Dean," his brother insists, while he sways and leans into his palm. "I have to do this. I am doing it."
Dean saws the air with a hand. "You aren't compos mentis, Sam," he hisses. "And if you think I'm letting you—"
Castiel pushes up, graceful, fluid. "Enough," he declares loudly and emphatically, and he turns and strides away from them before spinning back. He stabs a finger at Sam. "You choose this, choose to reject my gift, of your own free will?" For a moment Dean thinks his eyes flash disappointment, and then he scrubs a hand through his hair so it musses untidily. "What more can I do, Dean?" he adds frostily, and he makes an unintelligible sound of exasperation, starts pacing up and down, his lips moving soundlessly as if he's having a conversation with himself.
"He's a fucking looney tune," Bobby hisses quietly. He sidles closer, cants his head towards Dean. "It's the souls messing with him, and we're running out of time to get this back under control. Do something."
Dean blinks at him in confusion for a moment because he doesn't really know what the fuck to do in the face of this capriciousness. But just as he's opening his mouth to reply, his brother speaks.
"Oh my God…"
Castiel stops dead in his tracks, whirls around and fixes Sam with a dead-eyed stare.
"Oh my God," Sam repeats, and he bows his head so his hair flops lank over his face. "I am heartily sorry for having offended you… and I detest all my sins…" He trails off, swallows and purses his lips, and his breathing speeds up.
"Because they offend you, our God, who art all good and deserving of all our love," Bobby says, following Sam's lead in reciting the act of contrition. "We firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin." He elbows Dean hard.
"A-fucking-men," Dean supplies obediently.
There's a minute where Castiel's expression goes dubious before it switches to pleasure, and he gives a tentative, beatific smile that disorients Dean anew, making his chest constrict. "I absolve you of your sins," he tells them softly. "And I'm so pleased you all made the right decision. I feared what might happen otherwise." He settles his gaze on Dean. "But I could never hurt you," he repeats. "At least…I don't think I could."
Castiel's gaze drifts from contemplative to speculative, and from there into something harder, something chilling that Dean can feel in his marrow. "But you said you would," Dean counters. "You said you'd destroy us. And that just isn't you, Cas…so was it the souls? Come on, can't you see they're messing with you?"
Dean takes a breath, and turns to glance at Sam and Bobby. He can feel the headlong dash of near-hysteria clattering through his brain, and an exhaustion so deep threatening to take over him. "Please," he says again turning to face Cas, feeling every second like it's the last they have. "Cas. I know you're in there. Please. Let them go. I don't want to lose you." He repeats the words he said earlier, means it as much as he has meant anything in his life, and he'll beg if he has to. "Cas…please. Fight them."
This new Castiel doesn't frown uncertainly as he thinks on what Dean said. This new Castiel gives Dean an assessing look, and then he glows unearthly and alien, like he's lit from within. "You will bow down and profess your love for me," he repeats serenely. "You will bow down and profess your love."
It isn't the Righteous Man who replies, but his companion. The old man steps forward as he interrupts, though his motion is short, abortive, and the new God can hear the dangerous racing of his heart.
"Give us some time, uh..." Bobby's face twitches around uncomfortably, lips struggling with the word he will not say. "We...we need some time. This is a big change, uh…Lord."
The new God chooses to ignore the way the honorific is coughed out of Bobby's mouth as though he might choke on it. He fixes his eyes on the old man, watching him back through the decades, a small, tow-haired boy with a red plaid shirt and many missing teeth, kicking his feet in his too-tall chair and using the title as he said grace over breakfast, quiet and worshipful. Bobby Singer isn't aware of the memory, nor the many others that all clamor animatedly beneath his wary expression, but the new God sees all and absolves him of all.
He inclines his head forgivingly, for though His name is not yet inscribed on the hearts of these, it soon will be. It will be sung by all tongues, and they will all love Him. "I will come to you in seven days," says the new God, and raising His hand, He sends them home.
Dean reels under his brother's weight as soon as the familiar plot of land appears around them from nowhere, and he feels the sick lurch in his gut he has learned to associate with angel airlines even as he squares himself and plants his feet securely in the dirt so his brother's extra twenty pounds doesn't send him tumbling onto his ass.
"The fuck?" Dean can hear Bobby saying, and then he's flanking Sam on the other side, his hand gripping Sam's bicep.
Sam looks at Dean with dazed eyes and slurs, "What just happened?"
And Dean wants to tell him, wants to sit down and tell him something awful happened, he just isn't sure what, but it's tearing him inside and he can't find the words, doesn't even want to think about it. Right now, this is his priority, he thinks, his brother, making sure Sam's head doesn't explode from what might be going on in there right now. And fuck knows, he's been there, he's seen those lurid, blood-drenched images himself, playing out in glorious Technicolor with Sensurround screaming echoing in the background. "It's alright," he reassures instead, keeping his voice steady. "We need to get you inside." He motions his head up Bobby's porch steps. "Door," he says tersely, and Bobby nods, strides ahead of them as Dean staggers Sam along, supporting his own ribs as best he can.
Bobby points as they range alongside him at the doorway. "He even sent the car," he says faintly.
When Dean swivels his head there she is, carefully placed off the track, her metal skin dusty, dented and scraped, her roof caved in. He gazes at her dumbly for a moment, until Sam grunts next to him and then he's back in the now again, steering his brother in and up the hallway into Bobby's study, to park him on the couch. "Whiskey," he rasps, and Bobby pulls open his desk drawer, fishes out a bottle and starts unscrewing the cap.
"I'm fine," Sam tells him tiredly, and he rubs a big hand across his eyes, stares up blearily and yawns. "Just really tired. Drained. And my head hurts."
Bobby rounds the desk, offers up a chipped mug with an inch of liquor swirling around the bottom. Sam takes it and stares in at the liquid doubtfully. "I'm alright," he repeats. "I really am."
Dean eyes him skeptically. "I don't think so," he ventures. "Jesus…you were comatose. How the fuck did you even get there?" It comes out tense and annoyed without him really meaning it to, and his brother frowns up at him.
"I don't really remember," Sam mumbles, and he's staring into empty space, his eyes gone vacant and faraway, as if he's lost in some memory or dream. Or maybe a waking nightmare, Dean thinks, and he blinks hard, dips his head in his palm because his own brain is turning too fast, and the room is spinning, and he needs to catch his breath, needs to take stock and plan even though he can't make sense of anything and feels like he's adrift. He feels a hand on his shoulder then, anchoring him, and he glances up into Bobby's face.
Bobby's gaze is knowing and sympathetic. "Sit down, boy. Before you fall down. How are the ribs?"
Dean lets himself be pushed down, tries to steady his breathing. "Just bruised. I'll live." He clears his throat and forces himself to focus, slants his eyes over at his brother. "What do you remember?" he says. "Anything at all? Sam?"
Sam frowns at him quizzically before he blanches. "What did I do?" he blurts out abruptly, and he looks down at his hand, makes a fist as if he's going through the motions of gripping something. "Fuck, did I…Cas – did I hurt him?"
It's instant replay, and the image of the angel arching his back as the blade rammed home fills Dean with the same bleak horror as it did then, in that fraction of a second when he thought he was about to see Castiel burn out right in front of him. It sends his stomach into a lazy barrel roll, and he has to slam a hand to his mouth and swallow down the burn of acid at the back of his throat.
He feels a nudge to his upper arm, twists around to see his brother leaning closer. Sam is offering him the cup, and he snatches at it, draining the dregs of the booze so fast his eyes water. He tells himself to get a grip as he wipes at his mouth with the back of his hand.
"You didn't hurt him," Dean says eventually, voice raw. He knows the bitterness and sheer disbelief he still feels at Castiel's betrayal color his words as he continues. "Cas is doing just fine. Better than fine, in fact. He thinks he's some kind of God. The God, actually. And he hurt you. Do you remember that?"
Sam's eyes are still bewildered, and Dean shrugs helplessly at him. "He broke your wall," he says quietly, even while he wonders in the back of his mind if he should have used logic on his friend after all, if it might have changed anything. "I'm sorry."
He sees Sam's expression go crestfallen and disappointed. "I don't understand why he'd do that," he replies, with a sort of baffled hurt that twists in Dean's gut.
"He did it to keep us occupied," Bobby cuts in sharply. "Jesus. What the hell happened to him? And how the fuck do we kill whatever he's become?"
Bobby's eyes are hard and beady now, all sympathy gone, but even so there's a moment when Dean hears the echo of the angel inside his head, his answer to the same question when Dean asked it in a motel room in Illinois: What happened to you? and the weary reply, I'm at war.
He glances sideways at Sam again, and his brother looks exhausted, pale, bruised under the eyes. It dawns on Dean that it's how Castiel looked every time they called him during the past year, how Dean himself looked every time he woke in the middle of the night in Cicero, lost in the memories of his own Hell. He'd lurch into the bathroom to check that his eyes weren't black, that he was safe. They've all been at war for far too long, made too many mistakes.
Dean looks back up at Bobby. "The souls are messing with him," he says. "Cas—"
"Did that to your brother before he opened the damn portal," Bobby scathes out promptly, as if he's been expecting precisely that excuse. "And don't forget, he gutted Eleanor Visyak like—"
"The monster she was?" Dean interrupts before he can help it, defensive, his own tone clipped and harsh. "She crawled out of there, didn't she? Even you thought she might have killed Lovecraft and his buddies."
Bobby tightens his jaw and exudes hostility. "She said she didn't."
Dean snorts derisively. "Well, she would, wouldn't she?"
There's a moment of fraught silence where they bristle at each other, before Dean breathes out hard and eases it down a notch. "Look. That came out wrong, okay?" He rubs disconsolately at his sore ribs as he gropes for words. "This whole mess, it's," he starts. "I'm just – I'm trying to figure this out, trying to figure out where to go from here." He pauses, and suddenly he can see Castiel's face, his visible devastation, hear his friend's voice fracture as he spoke, I've earned that.
Dean meets Bobby's hard eyes, and he doesn't blink. "We aren't killing him. This is not turning into a John Winchester revenge quest."
Bobby grimaces, and it carves the stress lines even deeper into his face. "Dean," Bobby tries again, his voice quieter this time. "He was my friend too. But killing him may be the only choice we've got right now."
"We'll find another way." Dean makes his voice firm, raises a hand to silence Bobby's counter-argument, and what the fuck, maybe he'll even logic him and see if that does the trick. "You heard him," Dean snaps. "Millions and millions of souls, fresh out of Monster Gitmo and stir-crazy. If we kill him, what happens to them? If we unleash that kind of crap, it'll make the Apocalypse look like a trip to Disneyland."
Bobby sighs, shaking his head. "Is that the only reason?" he fields, meeting Dean's eyes.
It isn't, and Bobby is a shrewd old bastard, always has been able to read Dean almost as well as Sam and Cas can. "No," Dean concedes softly, and he steels himself for the outburst he knows will follow. "He's in there, trapped in there. I'm sure of it. And I'm not giving up on him after everything he's done for me. For us. We're his family, and we're not giving up on him."
"—and how are you so sure he won't try to kill us?"
Sam snaps to at Bobby's words, finds himself lolling back on the couch and staring up at the stained, cracked ceiling. He blinks hard, and a bolt of pain stabs him in his right temple. Aspirin, he thinks absently, and he pushes up off the couch and pads over into the kitchen on silent socked feet. He pauses in there, listens to the sounds of Dean and Bobby arguing in the other room, the volume and anger escalating as Dean gets progressively more flipped-out. Bobby's temper doesn't have a particularly long fuse at the best of times, and Dean's more often than not the one to light it. Better stay out of it until they've calmed down, Sam thinks. Then they can start getting things under control.
He stands in the kitchen, flexing his fingers uselessly, contemplating the steps it would involve to hook a six-pack from the refrigerator and then get completely shitfaced, even if the hangover won't do much for his head. After all, it's probably exactly what Dean's going to do. He vacillates briefly, peers around the partition to see if he can acquire the beer without drawing attention to himself. Dean's back is to him, his shoulders tense and rigid, and Sam can see over them to Bobby's face, puce with frustration, his hands gesturing dramatically. Best not, he decides. He needs to be able to think straight. They have enough on their plate now, what with Cas all 'roided up and everything.
He just needs to think.
His fingers won't stop clenching, unclenching.
He needs to take a deep breath, so he can think.
Only he can't, there's something pressing on his chest, and his throat is squeezed shut like a fist. Maybe a drink of water, he tells himself. Need to calm down. His body moves oddly as he locates the kitchen sink, jerking like a marionette he can't quite control. The lights flicker and dim as he manages to find the tap, and he thinks instantly, Cas, and then, oh shit. He freezes, waits to feel the displacement of air on his skin, but there's nothing, just his brother and Bobby going at it next door. The relief comes out as a tiny moan at the very back of his throat.
When he turns the faucet on, blood comes out.
Sam sucks in a sharp, horrified breath, and the air tastes of sulfur. The blood fills the sink and overflows, slicking his fingers as they desperately scrabble to turn off the flow. It spills out over Bobby's kitchen floor, widening into a river that churns and bubbles and fills the air with its thick, coppery scent. Sam stares down at the scarlet flood as it steadily rises, seeping into his jeans, and he blinks as the fumes sting his eyes. He wants to shout, wants to scream for Dean or Bobby, but the only thing that escapes his throat is a stunted gasp, a useless whistling of air as his ears suddenly fill with the earth-shattering roar of an enraged archangel sent swirling into the Pit.
The dull, solid thud he hears from somewhere behind him is imprinted in Dean's memory as the sound of a body hitting the floor. He whirls, and he's already crashing around the couch almost before he registers that Sam isn't still slouched there listening to him argue with Bobby. Sam is poleaxed on the grubby kitchen floor, and Dean skids to his knees beside him, starts slapping lightly at his face, ignoring the way Sam's eyes stare up, fixed and sightless. Dean can hear himself babbling his brother's name, intercut with a stream of curses. He's vaguely aware of Bobby opposite him, his hand pressed to Sam's chest.
"Is he breathing?"
Bobby's voice permeates through Dean's panic, sharp and urgent, and Dean gapes at him for a moment before he feels his brain shift out of park and into drive, and he thinks to lean down and hold his cheek above his brother's nose and lips. He waits through an endless millisecond of sheer, icy terror that might even stop his own heart, before he feels the warm puff of exhaled air. It brings him back to some degree of sense. "This is what happened in Bristol," he mutters. "He seized, and then it was like he left his body." He pushes up to kneeling again and brackets his brother's face with his hands. "Sam," he almost-shouts. "Sammy. Come on, man…"
Bobby crabs around him, reaches up and tugs a drawer open, before snapping on a flashlight and shining it directly into Sam's eyes. He flicks a finger against Sam's temple so hard Dean can hear the click of the impact. "He's out of it," he concludes, and he slants his eyes up to Dean's. "You said it lasted, what, five minutes before?"
Dean's mind races back to that last time, needing to reassure himself as much as he wants to reassure Bobby. "Yeah, five minutes, and then he was fine. No ill-effects, just stood up, said he had a headache and that was it. He was fine. He was fi—"
"Dean." Bobby's eyes zing get a fuckin' grip at him as he cuts in, and Dean forces himself to stem the tide of words that threaten to pour from his mouth.
"We need to move him somewhere safe," Bobby continues. "Somewhere he can't hurt himself or us."
Dean doesn't get it, frowns at him stupidly, and Bobby's face softens. "There's no telling how he could be when he comes out of this, boy," he says carefully. "It could be bad, bad for him, bad for us. He's a big guy. We need to take precautions…we don't want to end up hurting him in self-defense." He reaches up a hand, pats Dean's shoulder clumsily before clamping down, the fingers kneading into the bone for a second, so many unspoken words in the gesture. "It'll be okay," he reassures gruffly. "But we should get him downstairs, get him comfortable somewhere we can contain him if we have to."
Dean wants to respond, but his mouth is dry and uncooperative, his throat thick with a lump he can't seem to swallow down. He nods wordlessly, shuffles back down to wrap his hands around Sam's ankles, while Bobby slides his hands under Sam's shoulders. Brace, he thinks, and he's just starting to pull up when his brother shudders, spasms, and makes a sound.
Someone is calling out a word, insistently, loudly, over and over. It bludgeons at Sam's mind, and he chokes on blood as he tries to work his lips, tongue, and throat in response. An alarmed, gurgling yell bursts out of him, and he sucks air in like he's been drowning, eyes flying open, thrashing with all his limbs against the leaden tide carrying him swiftly away.
"Sam, goddammit!" Something pounds against his shoulder, gripping him like claws, and his own hands snap shut around a wrist, his acid-filled lungs flapping in panic in the effort to produce sound and breath.
"No…" His voice is a rusty, painful croak.
"Sammy, c'mon. Sam. Sam!"
"It's okay, son, you're here, you're with us. Sam, look at us!"
Bobby. Dean. A floor, cold linoleum, four walls, the ceiling creaking with the gyrations of a rickety fan. His brother's face solidifies above him, Bobby's just over Dean's shoulder, their eyes so pale and flat and dull, dark, almost, their features like flat latex masks, carved into comical frowns. Dean's hand, clutched around the top of his bicep, feels so light and cool. Sam can feel the bones of Dean's wrist pop and crackle in his grasp, and he unbends his own fingers, afraid his brother might shatter.
"Yeah, fuck, Sam, it's me. It's me."
Dean's mouth moves so curiously, a subtle, inexpressive flapping of skin, and Sam has to close his eyes.
"Dammit, boy, you should have had him put that wall back up." Bobby sounds far away, his voice floating somewhere up by the ceiling.
Something is approaching, from deep within the center of the Earth, barreling upwards inside Sam like a missile, growing larger and larger, hotter and hotter, but before it reaches its terrible zenith Sam's brain shuts down.
The last thing he hears is the faint echo of Dean's swearing.
The Impala isn't totaled like she was after the semi-truck t-boned her. There's that, Dean thinks, as he runs a careful hand along her skin, wincing as his fingertip tracks each nick and scratch, and catches on torn metal. Her quarter lights are popped out, the frames hanging askew, and her side mirrors are crushed flat. Her flanks are pitted with dents and bulges, and her hood gapes open. He glances upwards, into the wild blue yonder. "Could have fuckin' fixed her," he mutters morosely. "Douche."
He leans over, hooks a Bud from a bucket of ice, takes a long pull at it. He wipes the back of his mouth on his forearm, snags his gloves from his back pocket. Dents on replaceable panels should be fixed by replacing the panel, not fixing the dent, he thinks. "Okay," he announces to the lot, as he parks the beer back in his home-made cooler. He grips the closest edge of the hood, twists and heaves with all his might, and there's a grinding noise as the part comes away and crashes into the dust beside the car.
He steps back, sucks in a pained breath as his ribs throb tightly. "Doors, hood, fenders," he says gruffly, in his best Bobby Singer. "All them's removable panels, boy."
He hears Bobby's snort behind him, turns to see his surrogate father studying him with slitted eyes. There's a second where hope leaps in his chest. "Is he awake?"
Bobby shakes his head. "Nope. Still out of it. Sorry." He lifts a hand as Dean starts to protest. "He'll be fine for five minutes. There's something you need to see."
Dean has a feeling of foreboding as he trails along behind Bobby, through the lot and back into the house to the study, where Bobby leads him to the desk and points at his laptop.
Dean squints. "It's a – what? Hole in the ground? Meteorite hit? Volcano popped its cap?"
Bobby pulls his chair out, sits. "It's – it was – Drakonovo nuclear power plant in Smolensk, Russia. It got vaporized out of existence at 4:30 this morning eastern standard time."
Dean scratches the back of his head, nonplussed. "I'm sure this is relevant…how exactly?"
Bobby leans forward, clicks at the browser, nods at the screen. "And that there was the Kaishan nuclear power plant, Guangdong province, China. Until it got vaporized out of existence at 4:30 this morning eastern standard time." He taps the keyboard again. "And this steaming crater was Palo Grande nuclear power plant in New Mexico. Until it got vaporized out of existence at 4:30 this morning eastern standard time."
Dean is impressed despite himself, and he blinks owlishly at Bobby and scratches at his stubble. "I'm sensing there might be a pattern here," he supplies redundantly.
"Yeah. The wrath of God. All of them were rumored to produce weapons-grade plutonium." Bobby grimaces. "Ten other nuclear power plants vanished off the face of the earth at the exact same time. Gone. No emergencies, no alarms, no explosions. Just great big holes in the ground."
He pushes the other chair out with his boot. "Sheriff Mills's cousin works for the Department of Energy. She tells me the word is a young guy in a trench coat walked up to the front perimeter gate at Palo Grande and spouted some scripture before he waved his hand and torched the joint. With the power of his mind, according to the guards."
Dean drops heavily into the chair, and they're both silent for a moment as he breathes in deep, tries to suck in enough oxygen to stop his head spinning. "Jesus," he croaks. "How many people were in there?"
"Night staff's over a thousand," Bobby says. "But get this. He beamed them out. They all woke up safe in their beds as the sun came up."
Dean is silent for a moment. "You think he beamed them out of all the other ones too?" he asks then, tentative.
"Looks that way, according to the newswires. They're calling it a miracle." Bobby shakes his head. "He's gone flower child," he says with a baffled huff. "Pretty ironic considering what he did to your brother."
Dean drums his fingertips on his thigh for a moment, closes his eyes. It's too much. He shuts it down inside his brain, stands up. "I'm fixing my car," he tells Bobby quietly. "You come get me when Sam wakes up."
Sharp bursts of sound shriek endlessly past Sam's ears, a cacophony of grinding gears and the scream of freight trains that never fades into the distance. Light explodes behind his eyes, and he feels himself burning from the inside out, too quickly even to draw a last breath, or cry out, or think his brother's name. Lucifer incinerates him, and it feels as if he swallowed the sun, the heat so incredible that for a moment it feels almost icy.
The world is made of iron, dark and festering, the streaks on the distant walls of it illuminated by the blinding blaze of moving lights, crashing through the darkness and pummeling Sam's brain with the high, intense hum they make. Before him, Michael thrashes out of Adam's body screaming in frustration and rage, his sword like a column of fire. He tears through Adam like paper, wings bursting like nuclear explosions out of the disintegrating meat suit. And Sam knows, he knows, that what's happening to his half-brother is happening to him too, right now.
As his tortured flesh pulls tight across Lucifer's blazing grace, Sam feels his head forced back, his mouth gape open. He can't even harness his own voice, because his brain, popping apart into a million gray particles, doesn't register anything but a squealing electrical impulse, the precursor to an inchoate, silent scream of pain as the Devil laughs through his snapping vocal chords.
Heat sears him, brands of lightning streaking through the dark. His throat pulses with thunder, his mind filled with the endless roar of it. From somewhere distant — above? below? — he hears someone moaning, over and over, a horrible, ruined sound that seems to have no consciousness attached to it.
He forgets that he has to try to move until the next cycle of noise and light becomes too intense, too terrifying, and fear claws its way up his chest, stabbing at him with talons like a Hellhound's, and he lashes out against the insurmountable gravity of Lucifer, holding onto him with a terrible single-mindedness.
A piercing brightness incinerates his eyes, and Sam tries again to scream as he feels the wetness running down his cheeks. He is ripped apart, atom-by-atom, but the pain never recedes. Lucifer always makes him whole again.
Your brother did this, Sam. Lucifer's true voice, a raging volcano, nothing like the soft mildness of the human vessel Sam can still remember. He knew what Hell was like, and he threw you in here with me.
They stand in a river of blood, the sword in their hand a warped, twisted chunk of silver dripping with something black, thick, and foul. The sky churns. The smell is in everything, and Sam wants to choke but the Devil makes his mouth grin instead.
I chose... he tries to say. I—
Did you? Oh, Sam. This…this is what he always wanted.
The poisonous bars of the cage resonate with screams, far above through the miasma of Hell's air, all around. Michael is a flame on a mountaintop, and Lucifer spies him and howls in rage.
Sam is ripped through time and space, only to be destroyed again and again as the two angels clash like planetary storms meeting.
There's something so damn satisfying about pummeling it out of his system, about doing something he's good at and might actually succeed at, since he has fucked up with his brother and his...Cas so badly it isn't funny any more. But right now Dean has all the tools he needs to do this job properly at least, to rebuild something of what's broken, to get it up and running, to make a difference to the things he can control. And this car is his constant, ever since he was a child and woke up in her backseat, feeling her leather around him like a mother's embrace. Remembering now how he spied her across that parking lot and steered John Winchester in the right direction, Dean smiles. For as long as he can remember he's associated the smell of gasoline and leather, the roar of her engine, the wind howling in through her open windows, and the judder of the endless road under her tires, with stability. She has never let him down willingly, and maybe if he fixes her he can drive her as fast and as far as he can, so he won't ever have to feel...anything.
"Turns out the new Messiah is quite the environmentalist too."
He didn't hear Bobby approach, absorbed as he was in beating out the dimples in the roof of the car. He stops hammering, stares up at the old man from where he's lying prone across the front bench seat.
"This morning he ended the drought in the horn of Africa, and refilled the Aral Sea," Bobby goes on. He shrugs. "Had to have been him. No other explanation fits."
Dean grunts noncommittally, and thwacks the mallet into the metal again with a satisfying clang.
"And then there's his politics." Bobby lets it hang there for a minute, like bait. "CNN is reporting the sudden unexplained deaths of Parade magazine's top ten worst tinpot dictators. They all suffered hemorrhagic strokes at exactly the same time."
Dean takes the hook. "So he's helping to end world hunger and reviving the fishing industry in central Asia," he offers tartly. "As well as icing all the nukes on the planet, and liberating millions from a bunch of quack fuckin' revolutionaries-turned-tyrant." He chuckles mirthlessly. "Maybe he is a better God than the last one."
Bobby takes off his cap and scrubs a hand through what's left of his hair. "Excepting for the fact it turns out every silver lining has a cloud," he says ruefully. "The poor saps who built their shacks where the Aral Sea used to be were swamped…death toll's estimated to be in the thousands. And there's already flooding in southern Somalia. The tanks are out mowing down civilians in ten global capitals, and the radiation levels around all those power plants are in the stratosphere."
Dean wipes sweat from his brow, and for a minute he thinks abstractly of the wish coin and how it turned good luck bad, of how he ended up hurling his footlong Italian with jalapeno into the toilet and getting throttled by a grade-schooler while his brother was off somewhere being struck by lightning. It almost makes him smile, because fuck, it turns out those count as good times now.
"We have to do something to stop him, Dean."
It may come out cautious and apologetic, but Dean can read the subtext clearly in Bobby's laser stare, and it fills him with the same aching, sick feeling it did when his father leaned down and whispered the equivalent in his ear: Something is wrong with your brother, Dean, and if you can't save him you'll have to kill him before he ends it all.
Dean pulls his eyes away, clears his throat. "You come get me when Sam wakes up," he says.
Bobby tugs at his beard, turns and walks back to the house, and Dean can hear him rassum-frassum under his breath as he goes. He passes a hand across his eyes, tries to rub away the steely band of pressure squeezing at his skull, hides behind his forearm for an endless, stretched-out moment as he considers the subtext. "Don't make me have to kill you, Cas," he breathes. "Please." But some part of him thinks it's inevitable, and that he will be the one to do it. Some part of him thinks that it needs to be him who does it, that it's the only way this can be, and that they both might take comfort in that last moment of connection when it happens. Some part of him thinks Castiel might even want it to be him if he had the choice.
The voice, when it gravels out from a few feet away, startles Dean with a shock that's part hope.
Castiel is standing there where Bobby stood, composed and assured, gazing down into the car. "It's the seventh day," he says.
"Then shouldn't you be resting?" Dean snaps out, and he crashes the hammer up into the metal as hard as he has all morning, turning concave into convex with that one blow.
"So you've had a change of heart, Dean," Castiel sidetracks evenly. "And concluded that I am a better God than the last one."
Dean snorts. "Still spying on my conversations, I see. Well, newsflash, buddies. However many of you are in there. You're not God." He twists over onto his front and walks forward on his hands, belly-surfing agilely off the seat to kneel in the dirt for a few seconds before pushing up to stand. "That's the only time I'm kneeling in this conversation," he snarls. "And I wasn't kneeling for you."
Castiel huffs out a soft sigh. "You're making this more difficult than it has to be, Dean."
Dean fishes a rag out of his back pocket, twists it around in his fingers like it's a string of worry beads, knows he's doing it to keep his hands busy so the tremor won't give him away. "I plan to keep making it difficult until you fuckers let my friend go," he challenges. "I know he's in there." He steps up closer, bores into familiar blue eyes with his own. "I know you're in there, Cas," he says. "I'm not giving up on you. But you have to fight this."
He waits then, expecting something, though he isn't really sure what. But the eyes stay blank and unimpressed as they examine him for an excruciatingly long moment, until he can't stand it anymore. He reaches up with the rag, wipes away the sweat that's trickling down his face as an excuse to break the freezing cold stare. "Why are you even here?" he dares. "Whatever you are."
Castiel gives a tolerant half-smile. "You're significant," he says mildly. "You're the Righteous Man. One of Heaven's weapons. My enforcer here on Earth, as Crowley is in Hell."
Dean curls his own lips up into a crooked grin, even while his brain is processing the words. "You have to be fucking kidding me."
Castiel tilts his head, and it's almost teasing. "Do I look like I'm kidding? You swore allegiance to God, Dean. You swore to follow His will and His word."
He doesn't look like he's kidding. He looks damn serious. "Yeah, I remember that," Dean responds, and he even manages to muster up some bravado despite the hollow, raw feeling of loss in his stomach. "I remember promising to give myself over wholly to the service of God and his angels. But like I said, you aren't God. So I guess that leaves the angel." He pauses a beat, hopes his significance might mean he isn't about to get himself smote to kingdom come. "I serve him. Castiel. The real one." He swallows thickly, and then sticks his neck out even further. "Now get out of him. Or I will find a way to make you."
Almost before Dean sees him move, Castiel is right up there in his personal space, his eyes burning intense, leaning in so close Dean feels the warmth of exhaled air as he speaks.
"You are the Righteous Man," he reiterates firmly. "Michael's vessel. God's lieutenant. It is what it is, Dean. It's still your destiny. And you will play your part."
And then Dean is staring into empty airspace, and he's shaking, his throat parched with something that feels like real fear. He reels around, leans his hands on the Impala, on pristine jet-black shined to perfection, every scratch and every dent gone, her metal skin restored and gleaming so brightly it makes his eyes water.
He takes a confused step back and drinks her in. She's mint, as if she just rolled off the production line, and he'd put money on her having a full tank of gas and zero mileage too. "You fixed her," he murmurs dazedly, and then he laughs, helpless and confused, puts a hand up to rub at his jaw. "What about free will?" he mumbles. "Cas? What about free will? Remember what we fought for, sacrificed for?"
His baby winks enticingly at him, her curves seductive. Flawless, new. Too perfect.
His panel-beating hammer is lying in the dirt where he dropped it. He picks it up and crashes it down into her, again and again, until she crumples and collapses under the force, and his tears blind him.
Dean stands at the door of the panic room and watches his brother, lying motionless on the cot, for a full minute before he speaks.
"I know you think me wanting to save Cas instead of kill him is all kinds of fucked up."
Dean stops as Bobby's gaze flicks up from the book he's poring over to focus on him. It's the only reaction he gets, even though he knows his eyes are swollen and red-rimmed.
"He pulled me out of there," he continues softly. "He told me I deserved to be saved." He steps over the lip of the doorway, leans on the metal wall. "You don't know what that meant to me. You don't know what I did there."
Bobby raises an eyebrow, an unspoken question, and Dean swallows, clears his throat. "I can never tell you what I did there," he says. "But Cas saw me. He saw what I did, and what I was." His voice cracks on the memory, and he has to force it back to steadiness. "And I don't care if he was sent, if he was only following orders. He saw what I became there, and he never judged me for it. He had faith in me. And he never looked at me like the monster I was."
Bobby contemplates him for a moment. "That was then," he offers neutrally. "And maybe whatever there is…" He stops, thinks on it. "Was between you and him is clouding your judgment."
Dean scrubs a hand across his brow. "He's in there," he breathes. "I could see – I don't know. Signs. Hints. I'm sure I could."
Bobby closes his book, leans forward a little. "Are you sure?" he asks bluntly. "Because if you could see even a shadow of Cas in whatever that was, then you got better eyesight than me, boy. Either that or a vivid imagination."
Dean is still so damn sure he wasn't imagining those trace elements of the old Castiel he could see through the veneer of the new version, and after scuffing his boot uneasily along the floor underfoot, he comes back carefully but insistently. "I know him. I know what to look for."
Shrewd as ever, Bobby bats it right back at him. "Really? Only you didn't know he was lying to you all this time, manipulating all of us. So are you sure you aren't seeing what isn't there? Looking for what isn't there? How do you know he wasn't faking it, messing with your head so you'll do what he wants?" His eyes go flinty and critical. "Together we can rule the galaxy," he airquotes balefully. "Or did you forget that part of the conversation? Because it sounded like Crowley isn't the only one he has plans for."
After eyeballing Bobby for a few seconds while he mentally rewinds through what just happened out in the lot, Dean presses the easy button and diverts around the question. "Look. I can't just give up on him. I have to try to do something, try to reach out to him, help him fight them."
Fuck, but Bobby's stare is unyielding and unconvinced, and he always did have a brain like a steel trap. "How do you know he can fight them?" he challenges. "Even if he is in there?"
Dean glowers, throws up his hands. "I don't know. But maybe I want to give him the benefit of the doubt. You fought back, didn't you? You stabbed yourself. Sam fought back, he fought the fuckin' devil for Christ's sake."
Bobby watches Dean for a long moment before releasing a soft breath. "We're family. Maybe that makes a difference—"
"And family don't end with blood," Dean cuts in sharply, because that damn well hurts him, that dismissal of a connection that's way more than acquaintance or just friendship, that's way more than he can even really categorize, even if it isn't genetic. "Your words." He pauses to temper his ire and lower his voice. "He's family too."
Bobby's lips pull thin. "Not according to whatever it is that's wearing him."
Dean wonders if something in his face might give him away as he stares back, because Bobby sighs again, shakes his head. "Look, son," he says then, and he's more careful, gentle even. "What if Cas is in there? What if he's trapped in there, and he doesn't want to exist like that?" His look goes dark and troubled. "I know what it's like to be on lockdown inside my own meat, screaming at some monster to stop using my hands to hurt you. So does your brother. Maybe we'd be doing Cas a favor, putting him out of his misery before he can do any more harm. Before he can harm you."
Dean can hear the strain that undercuts his voice when he replies, "I don't think he'll hurt me, or any of us."
Bobby disregards that. "Thinking he won't hurt us isn't good enough," he replies levelly. "I'm sorry, boy, but there it is. And it means I'll help you look for a solution to this, for a way to save him, but you need to know I'll be looking for plan B too."
Dean swallows, nods. He knows what Plan B is.
"A way to destroy him and the souls," Bobby continues, voicing what Dean didn't want to hear aloud. "And if I find one, and it becomes necessary, you have to be ready to do what needs doing. Because it isn't just us at risk here. The bodycount is climbing as we speak."
Dean closes his eyes on the world, but he starts talking. "I know that. But what he's done...I've done things too, Bobby. Fucked up big enough to start an apocalypse. What about the lives lost because of my actions? And do you really want to know about my time in Hell? How many second deaths I dished out down there? Pick a number, add six zeros, multiply it by ten." He can't bring himself to look up and see what might be in Bobby's eyes. "There are a thousand ways to kill, and I've used them all," he says harshly. "You have no fuckin' idea. If you judge him, you judge me."
When Dean opens his eyes again, Bobby's face is pale and troubled, like Dean knew it would be.
"I hear what you're saying, believe me," Bobby says after a long, tense moment. He gentles his voice, adding, "But it isn't that simple, son. This isn't happening in some other dimension; it's happening here and now, and it's time we start seeing the big picture. And what about your brother? What do you suppose he'll think of your mission to save Castiel?"
Dean can't help the laugh that punches out of him. "A demon led Sam around by his dick for the best part of six months. I think he'll relate." He shields his face with his hands. "Bobby, I need to do this," he insists wearily. "I need to make a difference, or at least try to. I need to do this for me as well as for him, because if I don't, I think I might—"
He doesn't get the chance to finish, because his brother is suddenly pushing up onto his elbows.
Sam gives him a gluey-eyed look, frowns as he tugs on the metal bracelet cuffing him to the cot, and his voice is dried-out and husky. It's also annoyed.
"Again? Seriously? What the fuck, Dean?"
They clamor in bliss, in adoration, in confusion, they that have only known the cold plains of Purgatory. Within Him, they race like stars in their tracks, colliding and sparking and churning. They are so raw and so new to the Light, and they tear apart what they encounter, but He forgives them, for they know not what they do.
The new God walks among the gardens, and touches things that the souls within might also touch, through Him. The Gates of Heaven, at the four directions, quake and tremble as He walks through, the empty rooms, the aghast Thrones and Powers standing aside, the Dominions and Principalities crouching in wary confusion. He is a thousand thousand wheels, all turning. He is hundred-faced, million-winged, a glorious Abomination of Light and Dark, the likes of which even they have never seen. The many eyes of the Thrones blink as though they almost recognize something of Him, some torn and distended thread, a tortured blue luminescence that is stretched throughout the turning galaxy of Him, some part that even yet clutches to itself, shaking in confusion, horror and pain.
When the four great Seraphim stop in their movements, terrified, and slowly, slowly, bow before Him, covering their heads with their wings, He feels the cacophony of souls pulse brighter, a roaring like a quasar spinning endlessly, and He smiles, banishing all imaginings of that broken, familiar thing.
The new God ascends the empty throne of Heaven, and looks down upon the vastness of His Dominion, all planets, all lands and all nations, all things that breathe or swim through the waters, or walk upon the land, or fly through the air. And if there is a darkness, a curdling strain of something old and deep and foul gathering at the far edges of all that is perceived, or if a desperate blue light still flares plaintively deep inside of Him, if there is a diamond-shard memory of green eyes that gaze out of Hell, these things are dismissed as the Lord God, the new ruler of Heaven and Earth, breathes in the screaming, singing, clamoring, cursing, adulating souls of Purgatory, and breathes out a rushing hurricane of light.
In time, all will be made perfect in His image. All will be given unto its appointed place, and all fear, all pain, all sin and sorrow, will be wiped from the face of His kingdom.
There is work to do