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***


The new God beholds the Righteous Man, and yearns to make him most honorable over all His creation. And if the Righteous Man will cast away all his transgressions and fall down and worship his Lord, then, for the sake of His love, the new God shall grant the Righteous Man the Word.

The Word is life-giving.

I will give you all the kingdoms of the world, declares the new God, and the souls chitter and screech their agreement in concert with their whispered unease, because the Righteous Man scorns His intentions, and violates His law, and profanes His holy things. And it is written that the Righteous Man can be their undoing and their destruction from without, for he is Michael, who is like God, and who shall rise at the time of the end. Michael, who weighs the deeds of souls and judges them, and if they have been wicked, he shall damn them and banish them, the unchained souls of Purgatory, back into the waste land; Michael, who shall bind together the false prophet and the beast, and hurl them for all eternity into the lake of fire.

I will give you the Word, declares the new God, for His mercy and forbearance are eternal, and He is patient. False prophet, cries the one who redeemed the Righteous Man from deep within, for he will not give up even while his grace withers and dies.

I will give you the Word, declares the new God, and the Word is life-giving.

Death? What is death?


***



Carthage, Missouri
November 2009

The radio is playing, Springsteen, and he's on fire, a guitar and a throaty voice mumbling the lyrics out between bursts of crackle and static.

He doesn't remember the radio playing.

There's so much blood, too much blood, and he can see she's getting grayer with every moment that passes. He has his hand on her thigh, kneading the muscle, and the denim of her jeans is saturated, cold seeping up through it to his palm. Her chest is heaving, tiny, shallow pants that whistle out between blue lips. Her teeth are chattering, and he can hear their rhythmic clickety-click. She's staring up at him, blinking slowly.

Her eyes are brown. Her eyes are sad, and wise, because she knows.

Dean feels hollow and ill, because he just had his hand inside her belly. A cursory squirt of hand sanitizer, no time to scrub and no point anyway, because she won't last the hour, and then he was scooping up entrails, forcing them back in through the gaping hole they slithered and spilled out of like a litter of energetic snakes birthed by cesarean. They felt rubbery, warm, wet, and slippery. They felt familiar, because look, he used to trill in the Pit, as he grasped and pulled and twisted and squeezed while they screamed, your intestines have become your out-testines. Alastair never taught him that, he remembers abstractedly, it was John. Dean, pay attention, this is how you field dress a rabbit for the pot, cut open the abdomen, reach inside and remove all the internal organs, and then

She makes a sound when his hand is dipped in her as far as the knob of his wrist, and he never wants to hear a sound like that again. You're playing our song, he used to croon to them, when they sobbed and screamed at him like that, when they begged him to stop. I can name that tune in six notes!

He never thought he would ever make something create beautiful music like that again.

And…this isn't right, he's thinking.

The towels are nothing more than blotting paper, soaked scarlet within the first few minutes, but he packs them in, presses down hard. Her jeans are unzipped and he grips the tab, forces it up the teeth as far as he can, but it's sticky with bodily fluids, and it jams a third of the way up. He feeds the towel down inside, prodding and pushing at it with fingers gone stiff and clumsy.

She's wearing a belt.

"I'm sorry," he mutters, as he feeds the end of it through the buckle, pulls, and cinches it as tight as he can to hold the makeshift padding in place. She whimpers at the pressure, and he ignores her. "More towels," he says harshly, and there they are in his peripheral vision, already folded, incongruously neat. "Bandages."

He leans in so his lips are on her cheek as he winds the strips around her, several passes, followed by a tight knot to secure them over the top of the bulky fabric.

Movement, and he swivels his head towards it.

A curtain of brown hair, a woman's small, capable hand reaching up to cup her daughter's cheek. "It'll be okay, honey." Voice warm and throaty, the barest tremor revealing the strain, and then she fixes Dean with a devastated stare. "Dammit, Dean, where's Cas?"

Ellen's hands are stained red, and so are his.

"I don't know," he fumbles out confusedly, and he's still thinking, this isn't right. He says it out loud, "This isn't right," hears his own distress and disbelief making his voice reedy and pathetic as he pulls back and glances over his shoulder.

Hardware store, dimly-lit, moonlight trickling in through the windows. The doors chained shut, the crunch of his brother's boots on rock salt. Sam has his back to him, and he's peering out through the blinds, his gun cocked and ready.

Dean finds he's biting his knuckle, and the copper of her blood is rank on his tongue.

There behind him, arranged on the floor, metal buckets full of nails, blades, screws, and salt he poured in them himself, interspersed with stumpy propane cans joined with looping wire, a daisy-chain of destruction waiting to ignite behind them as they leave.

I'll see you on the other side, he said, and her lips tasted of death.

And Ellen, her face crumpled and ugly-beautiful in its grief, her make-up smearing down her cheeks and leaving black tear streaks in its wake, said, Get going now, boys.

The noise, the crash-boom of it resounding out into the dark, and sounds are louder at night. He saw the night sky flare brilliantly as it detonated, the flames a lurid orange flower bursting into bloom as debris scattered.

He says it again, his voice small and puzzled, "But this isn't right. We did this." He stares at Ellen, disoriented, because none of this is right.

"Dean."

He hasn't looked at his brother's face until now. Sam is pale and tense, but fuck, his eyes are clear and alert like Dean hasn't seen them in weeks, and his shoulders are squared and confident as he squats down opposite. He hasn't been there yet, Dean thinks, but how would he know that?

"Dean, Cas still isn't answering his cell. I told him where Ellen and Jo are, so—"

"Oh, thank God," Ellen yelps, and her hands are flying up to her face. "Oh, thank God...you can help her, say you'll help her."

And there he is, filling the space to Dean's left that was empty air before, and the relief is like an explosion of sheer comfort that shockwaves right through Dean. "It's fuckin' good to see you, Cas," he says, as he looks up, and his voice fractures on the odd feeling that he never expected to see Castiel alive again, the feeling that this might be a reprieve that goes beyond Jo Harvelle, that it somehow means even more.

The angel kneels down, reaches out a neat hand, long, gentle fingers tipping Jo's face up carefully. His eyes are liquid with compassion as he shakes his head. "I'm cut off from Heaven, healing is beyond me…" He sucks in his top lip, looks straight at Dean, the blue so familiar and direct. "A hospital…we passed one on the road."

Dean's mouth is dry, his voice like kindling when he replies. "McCune Brooks, it's on seventy-one…I've been in the ER there."

Castiel leans in, threads his hands under Jo, and pushes up effortlessly. Her head flops on his shoulder and her arm hangs limp. He holds her carefully, like he might a child, as Ellen fusses with handfuls of towels, tucking more of them in to stem the bloodflow. He doesn't break Dean's gaze.

"Be careful, Dean," he says quietly. "Please."

And then Dean is looking at thin air again.

Roughly twenty minutes after that, he shoots the devil in the head, smack-bang between the eyes, a magic bullet delivered straight into the frontal lobe. It's the textbook kill shot even without Samuel Colt's enchanted cartridges in the equation, but he stares down at the prone body and he doesn't celebrate. It's too good to be true, he thinks. He can't shake off the feeling that he knows it's too good to be true.

When Lucifer snaps awake, stands, gives him an irritated look and swings at him, some sixth sense tells Dean to duck. He dodges the blow as swiftly as he has ever taken evasive action, hollers at his brother to run, and crashes off into the trees. He lays low for ten minutes, but there aren't any sounds of pursuit. He hoots a couple of times, hears the standard reply, and his brother appears stealthily at his side.

"What the hell took you?" Dean hisses.

Sam gazes at him through eyes that pop wide with astonishment, and he ignores the question. "Fuck, Dean, it didn't work," he says faintly. "He said there are only five things in all of creation the Colt can't kill, and he's one of them."

Dean swipes a shaky hand across his brow. "You waited around to chat to him?" he snaps, and he shakes his head. Of course he did. "Of course you did. Jesus fuckin' Christ." An icy finger of suspicion trails its way up his spine then, its sharp fingernail scraping across the vertebrae. "What else did he say to you?" he asks, and he somehow knows the answer is there already, in his long-term memory, but misfiled somewhere so he can't find it. It spooks him again, the odd feeling that he knows this.

His brother's face goes crestfallen. "Uh," he mumbles, with something almost like guilt. "You know. The usual…evil monologue."

Even though the whole deal niggles like a bad tooth, there isn't time for this. "We need to get to the hospital," Dean diverts tightly. He roots in his pocket, pulls out his compass. "Car's that way."

This isn't right, he thinks again a half-hour later, as his baby vacuums up the white lines. "Does anything about this seem off to you?" he blurts out into the tense silence.

Sam doesn't reply, and Dean sneaks a quick glance to his right, sees that his brother is drifting miles away, gazing into the middle distance, his arm slung casually along the window frame. He looks like he's meditating but Dean knows better, can see the tight line of Sam's clenched jaw, and how his fingers twitch restlessly.

"Sam," he announces sharply, and he boffs his brother on the shoulder so that Sam jumps. He swivels his head too slowly and his eyes don't really focus on Dean. It ramps Dean's anxiety up even higher, and he doesn't really know why, but he flaps a hand in his brother's line of sight. "Hey," he barks, with an urgency that surprises him. "Are you seeing stuff? Are you about to seize?"

He has no clue why he says it, and it seems Sam doesn't either because he blinks at Dean and his brow creases. "Seize?" he queries, bewildered. "Seize what? What does that even mean?"

And Sam is back, seems normal, but nothing seems normal, and Dean is floundering, feels like he's navigating hostile territory without a map, barefoot and armed only with a plastic spork. "Does anything about this, any of it, seem off to you?" he asks again.

His brother's reply is despondent. "You mean as well as the fact the only hope we had of ending this is firing blanks?"

Dean grits his teeth. "Yeah, as well as that."

He gets a weary headshake for his effort. "Isn't that enough?" Sam blows out resignedly. "Damn Crowley. What the fuck will we do? How are we supposed to—"

"We'll find another way," Dean cuts in. "Do you hear me?" And they will, he has a gut feeling they will, even if that intuition is grim and hopeless, and underpinned with the same crawling sense of unease as everything else is right now.

He doesn't know if Sam registers what he said or not because the bright lights of the hospital are looming, and he's peeling smoothly into the parking lot.

"This place looks familiar," Sam offers as they trudge towards the building.

"We were here about three years ago. After the rugaru." Dean floats a hand up to his temple reflexively, and he can still feel the silvery raised scar from the cut, remember his brother's disproportionate panic when he blacked out in the car.

Sam snorts at him. "Dean, that was last October."

It hits Dean again, a feeling of cognitive dissonance he can't quite get a handle on. "It's…" he starts, and he stops, has to really think about it. November 2009, he recalls.

When Ellen and Jo died.

Only it isn't, that memory must be some weird whiskey-soused head trip, because Ellen is up on the third floor, alive albeit that she isn't even in the ballpark of well. She's sitting on a couch in the relatives' room, bolt upright and rigid with tension.

Castiel is standing next to her like he's on guard duty, a hand resting on her shoulder, and seeing him there gives Dean the same jolt of surprise and pleasure, the same odd feeling of sheer contentment as before. He doesn't dwell on it though, he just cuts right to the chase. "The Colt didn't work. What's the deal with Jo?"

Castiel is damned good, his gaze stays rock-steady, and there isn't even a flicker of disappointment in his expression. "The doctors haven't really said much to us. They're operating on her. Someone is supposed to come and tell us if she di—" He brakes, glances down at Ellen. "Someone is supposed to come and tell us what happens," he continues stiltedly, and his composure cracks, just barely, into a frown. "I'm not sure what to do."

Sam clears his throat, leans in and speaks confidentially. "Have they asked how she was hurt? Do they seem suspicious? Have you seen any cops?" He raises a meaningful eyebrow at Dean. "We can't be here if the five-O show up, Dean."

Ellen's voice is faint and tired when she cuts in. "Dogs. I said it was dogs. Pitbulls."

It's fuckin' appropriate, Dean thinks, and he has to suppress the shudder, school his features hard so they don't give away the memory of their weight on him, and how they fought each other for him, how the fangs tore into his skin and muscles and shattered his bones, how he slithered and flopped about like a beached fish in scarlet puddles of his own blood, hearing his own garbled pain and distress and gulping down their stinking breath so desperately in his dying gasps.

Music is playing somewhere in the distance, outside the room. It doesn't fit, and what's wrong with this picture? he's thinking. He blinks hard for a moment, pinches the bridge of his nose. When he opens his eyes, Castiel is looking at him, impassive.

"Does anything about this seem off to you?" he croaks at the angel as he pulls his cellphone out of his pocket and speed-dials Bobby.

Castiel cants his head fractionally. "I think it's a miracle she's alive at all, Dean," he replies.

It's detached, glacial. It's poised, waiting expectantly for Dean to join the dots and figure out the answer.

It's not Cas.

The world is abruptly sluggish, slowing down around Dean as if the planet is creaking to a labored halt on its axis, in preparation for changing course and spinning the opposite way.

The radio is playing, Springsteen, and he's on fire, a guitar and a throaty voice mumbling the lyrics out between bursts of crackle and static.

It's not Cas.

The world slams back into gear, accelerates, zero-to-sixty in five seconds. It pitches and yaws around Dean like a fairground ride while the thought screams through his brain, it's not Cas, and his eyes blur with the speed at which the illusion is ripped away, his healthy brother, Ellen, Castiel, all gone, subsumed into corrugated metal, shelves lining the walls, benches laden with tools and equipment.

His boots are planted firmly on the concrete floor of Bobby's autoshop, his hands grimy with oil and gripping the bottom lip of his baby's wide-open mouth as he stares down at her innards.

The radio is playing, Springsteen, and he's on fire, a guitar and a throaty voice mumbling the lyrics out between bursts of crackle and static.

His cellphone is in his hand, and it's grinding out music at him.

"Take the call, Dean."

He yelps, jumps like a scalded cat as Castiel continues, his voice easy and unconcerned even if Dean can sense a hum of something malevolent, of power, emanating from him.

"You'll want to take this one."

Dean checks who's incoming, licks lips gone dry and parched. He puts the phone up to his ear, listens to the bittersweet minutiae of a hunt down south in Troy, Alabama, bittersweet because it's something that isn't, something that can't be. She barely draws breath as she tells him how the humidity is driving her crazy and frizzing her hair, and how Rufus Rufus too? keeps acting like he's her dad or something, and her mom told her to tell Dean to call and let her know how Sam is holding up, and Hey Dean, you're real quiet, cat got your tongue?

"No. No… I'm good," he fumbles out. "Sam's good, he's – managing. We’re just back from a hunt, a pack of hodags about five miles outside of Rhinelander. He did okay, only flipped out the once or twice. He's getting there."

Dean stops, stares into steely blue as she commiserates and then, Oh, it's Rufus, I'll call you back.

And she's gone.

He swallows thickly, scrolls down through his contacts. Ellen. Jo. Rufus. All present and accounted for.

"It can be this way, Dean," Castiel tells him calmly. "They can be a part of this new future. I can give you this. It's up to you." His eyes drift beyond Dean, and he takes a few slow steps that bring him closer to the side of the Impala. He frowns, examines her scars thoughtfully, trails a listless finger along her bruised skin.

"If I cooperate?" Dean spits out. "What is this, my payoff?"

Castiel slants his eyes up, gazes at Dean from under thick black lashes. He raps his knuckles lightly on the car. "I see you rejected my gift, Dean," he observes flatly. "Will you reject this new gift?"

It numbs Dean to the marrow at the same time it fills him with a sort of incredulous horror because he suddenly knows what's at stake in this choice. He hears his breath quicken, feels himself start to shake with the buzz of adrenaline, feels sweat prickle on his spine, and thinks he might even hear it trickle down his skin in the silence.

"What, you grease my palms by bringing my friends back so they can die of cancer, or walk under a bus?" Dean eventually dares. "Have you followed up on anything? Your miracles go wrong, pal. They all go wrong." He blows out a sharp, appalled breath before he continues. "Jesus. If you had fixed my brother, he'd probably have dropped dead of a fuckin' heart attack or something." As that dawns on him, it's all he needs to know that there really is no choice. "No deal."

Castiel reacts then, with what sounds like an affronted hiss, before his voice rumbles out low and lethally controlled. "You will do what you're supposed to do, Dean. I told you this already. It is written."

The atmosphere turns incendiary and vibrant, like one wrong word might set it off. Dean thinks he might try and figure out what that wrong word might be. "You are fuckin' cracked," he grates out deliberately. "You can take your sermon on the mount crap, and shove it up your ass sideways and dry. I know my friend is in there. I know. And I think you know I know…I think you saw me in the dream." Dean bites his lower lip so hard he thinks he might even draw blood as he remembers his friend's fear, remembers how this monster raised a hand and took Castiel from him like he has every time the angel has tried to reach out to him. There's nowhere Castiel can run that the souls can't hunt him down, and it fills Dean with a pristine, almost tranquil kind of fury. "Get out of him," he breathes. "You can have me if you get out of him."

The ghost of a smile plays across Castiel's lips. "It doesn't happen that way, Dean," he replies, oddly placid now. "It can't happen that way."

Dean thinks of Castiel's, his Castiel's sorrow and despair, the hesitant way he reached out for help, the way his voice broke when he confided in Dean while Dean was asleep and unaware, his panic when the new God appeared. "If you think I would leave him to you…" He trails off, sets his jaw and shakes his head.

"So be it," Castiel says quietly.

Nothing changes that Dean can see and he cocks his head, momentarily puzzled because he isn't really sure if anything happened at all. But then suddenly he knows.

He's gripping his cellphone still, his fingers clamped tight around it, his knuckles sharp and bloodless. He scrolls through his contacts again, and the same sadness he felt back then tightens his chest.

"She ran out of minutes, Dean," Castiel says. "They all did."


***


The fact he can't hear any clanging noises or curses as he approaches the autoshop sets Bobby's nerves on edge. He knows damn well the silence likely signals brooding, or drinking, or both. Truth be told, he doesn't really blame Dean, and he muses that he's been hitting it harder than usual himself.

Bobby can't see Dean anywhere, just the hood of the Impala wide open, still dented and streaked with silvery scars. It's dead quiet, the only sound the steady plink-plink of the dripping faucet he's been planning to fix since he can't remember when, because Sam keeps raising a judgmental eyebrow and telling him every fifteen-thousand drips is a gallon of water wasted. A drip a second is eighty-six thousand a day, give or take a few hundred, Bobby, he'd said, with an ego that could only be gained at some highfalutin' ivy league. That's more than two thousand gallons a year, and that's… Bobby can remember him squinting as he ran the numbers in his head. Forty-one baths! Fuckin' mathletes.

"You plan on just standing there?" the voice drifts out.

It sounds resigned, which is about par for the course these days, and when Bobby peers around the top end of the car he sees that Dean is sitting on the floor, legs sprawled out ahead of him and a whiskey bottle cradled loosely on his thigh. His eyes are watery and bloodshot, and his face is smudged with oil.

Bobby holds up the bundle he's toting, says, "I brought you some vittals." Since you'll be drinking out here most of the day on an empty gut if I don't goes unsaid. He drops the paper bag down between Dean's legs, glances over towards the car. "Need any help?"

Dean purses his lips. "Sam by himself in the house?" he says, his tone mildly accusing.

"Nope. Sheriff Mills is up there with him." Bobby steps over Dean's out-flung legs, lowers himself down onto his own backside, hearing his knees pop loudly as he does. "Thought she might be able to help him."

Dean fixes him with a skeptical look. "Sheriff Mills?"

Bobby nods. "She's got some kind of psychology degree, volunteers as a counselor at one of the local churches. She kept going on about cognitive behavioral therapy." He shrugs. "Something like that. Thought it might help him to talk to her about it. She's been through some stuff. As we know. After all, her and Sam—"

"Had that incredible bonding moment ganking her zombie kid after he chowed down on his dad?" Dean cuts in acidly.

"She said there's techniques you can use to distract yourself from psychological trauma," Bobby continues with a shrug. "Reframing stuff, so it looks less bad and you can deal with it. That’s what she said."

Dean shakes his head. "Don't tell me," he huffs out witheringly. "She's telling him how he can see the bright side of Hell. Well, good luck with that." He raises the liquor bottle in a mock toast, takes a pull at it. "Lisa sicced some shrink on me down in Cicero," he says after he gulps down his mouthful. "I was screaming myself awake most nights. Considering my trunk full of guns, I think she was afraid I was heading for a clocktower moment."

It reminds Bobby of the hurt and betrayal on Dean's face when he found out Bobby had been in the loop on his brother being topside for a whole year, and he shifts uncomfortably at the memory. "Did it help?" he sidetracks clumsily.

Dean doesn't look at him. "The shrink? Not one bit." He doesn't elaborate any further, just nudges Bobby and offers him the bottle. It feels light, more than three-quarters of a fifth of booze gone already.

Bobby clears his throat uneasily. "Maybe you shouldn't be pickling your liver, boy," he observes. "Not with things how they are right now."

Dean huffs like he's amused. "You mean now Cas can't fix me? Newsflash: the new, improved Cas is offering to do a lot more than fix me."

That pulls Bobby up. "He was here again?"

Dean nods. "Looks like all those new wards are about as effective as a fart in the wind." He pauses, takes another slug of whiskey, and hisses at its burn before he wipes his mouth. "Remember how Zachariah fast-forwarded me five years down the road? Well, our new God took me back. To Carthage. And then he beamed down in the nick of time and e-vacced Jo and Ellen to the nearest hospital."

Bobby gets a sour taste in his mouth, a twisting feeling of queasiness in his stomach. He puts one hand there to rub it away, hooks the whiskey bottle off Dean's leg, and has another swig of the booze himself. He remembers how damned useless he felt, chairbound and pep-talking Dean from hundreds of miles away, across a weak radio connection. He still regrets burning the photograph. "Dammit," he says, because Ellen Harvelle and her kid are collateral damage he'll regret until his last breath, and ever since Dean told him about the fake-marriage Balthazar inadvertently landed him in, some part of Bobby has regretted their loss even more.

Dean brings a hand up to rub at his brow. "He said it could be real. If I wanted it to be. He airlifted me back here, and she called me up on the phone." His voice cracks. "Jo. She was with Rufus, hunting."

It's another lightning bolt, and Bobby gapes. "Rufus?"

Dean nods at his look. "Yeah, Rufus. And I spoke to her, and it was here and now." He sighs, and it's defeated and weary. "He gave me the same line as before, pretty much. This is meant to be, it is written. So sign the pledge and get with the program or…" He trails off, waves a hand in the air.

"Or it all goes back to how it really is," Bobby finishes, and he doesn't need to ask to know that's exactly what happened – it's all there in Dean's slumped desolation and guilt-shadowed eyes.

They sit there in silence for a few moments. "Look, son," Bobby starts then. He waits a beat, isn't really sure what he's going to say, but then the words just pop up in his throat. "Killing my wife was bad enough the first time." He sees Dean slant his eyes across, sees a muscle twitch in Dean's cheek. "I’d never come up against anything supernatural, never even believed it existed before it got Karen," he goes on. "I panicked when she went for me. Self-defense." He swallows. "You saw her, in the dream. She got cut up pretty bad in the fray. I didn't know what to do, I didn't know a damn thing about exorcisms or demonology back then. All I knew was that something nasty, something evil, had gotten a hold of my wife. And when it left her, it was too late." He rubs a hand across his jaw as he casts his mind back. "And then there she was again, right out of the blue, in the kitchen baking pies." He chuckles fondly. "I still got some of those damn pies in the freezer."

Dean casts his eyes down. "Bobby, I—"

"What I'm saying is that I had to make a choice," Bobby interrupts gruffly. "I wanted it to turn out different. But I had to make a choice. The right choice, like you boys told me back then. Because God knows, we've seen what happens when you mess with the natural order."

Dean glances up at him again. "But what if he makes me an offer I can't refuse, Bobby?" he answers, and the strain is even more evident in his voice. "What then?"

Bobby blows out ruefully. "I don't know." He thinks on it for a minute, because there's still something in all of this he doesn't get. "He wants you playing on his team, but why?" he asks finally. "I mean – we haven't really worked that out. He can do anything he wants, why does he need you to do it for him? No offense…"

Dean snorts. "None taken." He shakes his head. "I have no damn idea, Bobby. I can't figure out if it's maybe some part of Cas that's still… you know." He colors.

"Intensely connected to you?" Bobby suggests tartly.

The flush on Dean's cheeks deepens. "Something like that," he concedes. "Cas – the old Cas – said we had this profound bond thing going on. I don't really know what that means...but maybe it's why."

Bobby can see Dean's fingers tighten around the bottle, see the fingers of the other hand start picking agitatedly at the fabric of his jeans. "You miss him," Bobby ventures.

"I don't want to do this," is the grim response, but Bobby sees Dean's face go dazed and dejected for a split second, before he glowers and cants his head away, his fingers dancing faster.

It occurs to Bobby then that he hasn't really broached Dean's loss in any of this, that he's been shooting first with both barrels and no questions asked. But even if he's had damn good reason to, it doesn't mean the kid isn't grieving for his friend, isn't torn up inside by the same dull ache Bobby still feels for the Harvelles, for Pamela Barnes, for Rufus Turner, for his wife and everyone else sacrificed in the fight. "I'm real sorry about what happened to Cas, son," he says quietly. "I do get what he meant to you. And this whole plan B deal was only ever me be—"

"Being realistic," Dean interrupts, and his tone is flat and despondent. "I know that."

Bobby plows on regardless. "He was – a good guy. A grumpy little fucker at the best of times, but a good guy. Just walked the wrong path. Made piss-poor choices." He ponders that briefly. "Maybe he was a Winchester after all that," he throws out wryly.

Dean makes a small, harsh noise Bobby can't quite decode, followed by a brittle laugh, but he doesn't comment.

"You dreaming about him still?" Bobby asks then, because he knows that now they're getting to what he suspects is a deeper attachment than Dean has ever let on or maybe even admitted to himself, he'll default to repression and denial any second. "Only if you are, then maybe the next time he dreamstalks you, you need to pin him down and ask him what the hell the souls want with you."

Dean's expression darkens even more. "It isn't that easy," he mutters. "I've been trying, but it's like they keep tabs on him or something. He's there one moment, gone the next. They're aware of him in there…it's like they snatch him away when we're close to getting anywhere."

Bobby sucks his tooth for a few seconds. "So, it is written is still about all we have to go on," he ponders. "Still sounds like some kind of prophecy to me, but I'm damned if I can find anything."

They sit there in another moment of silent contemplation before Bobby reaches over to snag the paper bag and dangles it in front of Dean's face. "Eat your sandwich," he orders. "Then we work the books again. Maybe something'll jump out at you."


***


Greybull, Wyoming
Winter Solstice, 2008

Carbondale was Pamela's hometown, where her dad still lived and where her family took her back to, and the next time he and his brother saw her, she was wearing a dress that would have matched her eyes if she'd had any.

Those bare facts keep looping around Dean's brain, and he shakes his head, and wonders if it's coming back to life – again – that has him off-kilter, or maybe it's the way his gut clenches as Pamela wearily removes her sunglasses. The off-white of her fake eyes is stark against her sallow skin, and fuck, but it still brings up a sour taste at the back of his throat to see them. He remembers her joking about them to Anna, Demony, I know, but they're just plastic…good for business, before they knew what Anna was. The joke was never funny, and the milky hue reminds him too much of Lilith, of Alastair.

Dean still remembers the awful stench as her eyes burned from their sockets, the heat from the flames and the way she'd screamed, agonized enough to trigger the first wave of Hell-memories following his resurrection. He'd stared down into charred, empty sockets, fighting back images of himself hooking her eyeballs out with his fingers. Blunt tools hurt more. He'd told her it would be okay, and she sobbed and wailed but there were no tears because there was nothing left for her to weep from.


Blood is pouring out from under her hand, dark red and viscous, almost unreal in the dim light of the motel room. More of it coats her lips, as she coughs and chokes out her final breaths.

My fault, Dean thinks. My fault she's dying, because hey, we're talking the end of the world, here, okay? No more tasseled leather pants, no more Ramones CDs, no more nothing. Cas, you remember her, you burned her eyes out…

Castiel, and the angel was just there, outside, pale under the cold moonlight, his eyes glowing bright and unearthly. "Cas," Dean stutters, and for some reason the name sends a frisson of worry and grief resonating through his core. It seems out-of-place and ridiculous because there's no reason he should be worrying about Castiel. The guy is a friggin' angel for Chrissakes, sometimes tolerable but mostly a dick, and a frustratingly cryptic one at that. Dean puts the thought out of his mind, blaming it on the weird, disconnected feeling that comes from having spent several hours wandering around as a disembodied spirit, and he focuses on Pamela, who's dying right in front of him and—

"Will he come?"

Sam is almost hollering right in Dean’s face as he pushes against Pamela's middle with a thick wad of towels under his splayed-out hand, the cloth soaked scarlet. For some reason it makes Dean think of Ellen and Jo, of blood oozing. He cinched her belt so tightly she cried out. It makes him see a flash-glimpse of a place, bright light, running, turning, and seeing it all go up—

"Dean!"

Spittle flecks his cheek, and Sam's eyes are dark and intense. "Cas – will he come if you call him? Come on, man, snap out of it."

Pamela scowls at them even though she has no eyes to do it with, and Dean will never blame her for it because God, she told them she wanted out, but they dragged her back into it. Maybe they didn't believe anything would actually happen to her, no matter that something already had, that her eyes smoked right out of her head an hour after they first knocked at her door.

"Do me a favor?" Pamela grits out. "Tell that bastard Bobby Singer to go to Hell for ever introducing me to you two in the first place."

The words hit Dean right in the center of his chest with the weight of their blame, and if anyone has just cause to hate them, she does. She starts coughing again, violent and heaving, struggling to draw breath in between hacks. Dean finds that he can't tear his gaze from her even though part of him wants nothing more than to run away, bury his head in the sand and refuse to accept responsibility for this. And beneath the grief, and the guilt that turns his stomach and rises up his throat like so much bile, there's a niggling sense of detachment and repetition at the back of his mind. It's like déjà vu. He can see himself and his brother shoveling soft, fresh-dug earth, and she was wearing a dress, a dress!, blue like her eyes used to be, and they salted and burned her at Winchester Cemetery. Winchester Cemetery, how fuckin' ironic is that?

He's losing it, worn out from the strain of everything. He's weak and broken, struggling under his memories of torturing souls in Hell. But he knows what he's supposed to say here, and the words come out dull and mechanical, as if he's reading them from a script, as if he's said them before. "If it's any consolation, you're going to a better place."



It sounds flat and empty to his own ears, because even though an angel's been holding the other end of his leash for months now, he still can't bring himself to believe that this life is anything other than random, meaningless violence and chaos, that there might be something like peace waiting for them on the other side. And yet, You told me I was going someplace better…you were right! My Heaven? It is one long show at the Meadowlands… He can see her, smiling and beautiful, her eyes dancing at him as she swatted his head, That's for getting me killed.

He blinks, pushes it away, and just what the hell is wrong with him anyway? "Stop spacing out," he breathes.

Pamela scoffs, sighs, turns her head blindly towards him, and he can tell she isn't buying his crap any more than he is. "You're lying." A bitter half-smirk curves her lips even as she struggles and wheezes, lungs straining for oxygen. "But what the hell, right? Everybody's gotta go sometime."



"True. But this isn't your time."



The words are spoken along to the rippling, tearing sound of wet cloth and feathers that's become irritatingly familiar to Dean in recent months, and he whirls to see Castiel standing there, regarding them calmly. It spikes his sense of displacement tenfold, has him feeling like they've just veered wildly off-script somewhere, though he doesn't know how or why. He just knows, with a deathly certainty that leaves him feeling sick, that Pamela is supposed to die today. There can be no dei ex machina or last-minute rescues from on high.


"Who is that?" Pamela demands, head snapping round to pinpoint the source of the new voice. At the same time, Sam rises from the bed and takes three long strides across the room to Castiel, the wariness he usually displays around the angel gone in the face of his desperation.


"Cas, thank God. Can you help…?" He trails off, as if he's remembering who he's speaking to and realizing that he's overstepping his bounds.

Castiel affords him a brief glance before zeroing in on Dean, treating him to that laser-focused attention that never fails to make Dean exceedingly uncomfortable. Dean quails under it more than he normally would, suddenly possessed by the notion that there's something off about Castiel, even more so than usual, though he's damned if he knows what it could be.


The moment passes as quickly as it arrived, broken when Castiel moves purposefully to where Pamela is propped up and bleeding into the towels. He pulls the bundled fabric away, places a hand over the gaping wound in her abdomen, and she gasps, arching back and jack-knifing on the bed. It's alarming enough that Dean shakes off his stupor and starts forward to intervene, but then her entire body relaxes on a sigh, her breathing settling into a more comfortable rhythm and color returning to her face. When Castiel removes his hand, there's nothing there but smooth, unblemished skin, a jagged rip in her shirt and drying streaks of blood.


He lifts the same hand again, up to Pamela's face, and passes it over her eyes. She groans deeply and Dean watches in fascinated revulsion as the white plastic spheres bulge like they're being pushed from behind, before popping out of the sockets, bouncing and rolling slightly where they land on the mattress, replaced by a pair of healthy, fully-functional blue eyes that seem to grow and fill the cavities left behind.


"Oh my God," Pamela breathes, waving her own hand in front of her face.

It's the first time Dean's ever seen her lost for words, and he knows he should be overjoyed, ecstatic, but he still can't shake the feeling that something is all wrong here, We just got back from Pamela's funeral…you know, psychic Pamela? You remember her? Cas, you remember her, you burned her eyes out…

Uriel was there, but it hasn't happened yet, and Cas was distant and quiet, but it hasn't happened yet, looking down at his shoes when—



"You," Pamela says suddenly, flicking her eyes up to Castiel's face. "You're the angel. Castiel."


Castiel inclines his head slightly. "My apologies for the harm I caused you…and for failing to rectify the situation sooner."



"Better late than never, I suppose," Pamela grunts reluctantly, and her voice only shakes a little.


And, things aren't supposed to play out this way, Dean thinks. Castiel's presence in the room makes him uneasy in a way it never has before, not even when they first met, makes him feel like the natural order is being tipped off-balance and subverted just by the angel being here. "Why did you do that?" he demands, and he knows it's unreasonably hostile, that he should be thanking Castiel, but something about this whole situation has him seriously on edge and the fact he can't put his finger on what it is only makes it a hundred times worse.


"Uh, maybe not the best time to go looking the gift horse in the mouth, Dean," Sam hedges nervously, while Pamela glares at him like it's going out of fashion.

Dean ignores them, because if there's one thing he's sure of, it's that nothing supernatural comes without a price tag. Besides, he knows Castiel well enough by now to know the angel isn't in the business of doing favors. He doesn't do things on a whim or out of the goodness of his heart. He doesn't make exceptions. Only he does for Dean, because you're different, and Dean is still totally floored by that, has to push that entire conversation to the back of his mind because he can't even begin to unravel all the layers of meaning hidden in that one brief exchange.


Castiel sighs, all mournful regret, and when his gaze meets Dean's, his eyes are brimming liquid with sympathy. "I know what you think of me, Dean, but I'm not a…heartless son of a bitch, as you say. I can feel regret. Guilt. Remorse."


The words strike a chord in Dean, make him feel as though they've had this conversation before. And there's a coldness, an emptiness when he looks at Castiel, tangled up in his own feelings of fear, and disgust, and a bone-aching sorrow not unlike what he'd felt when Lucifer was wearing his brother's skin…only that hasn't happened yet either, has it?

Carbondale was Pamela's hometown, where her dad still lived and where her family took her back to. And Winchester Cemetery, outside of Carbondale, was where her family buried her and where he and Sam dug her up after night fell. She was wearing a dress that would have matched her eyes if she'd had any.

They aren't getting her, Bobby had snarled. And then they salted and burned her bones.

Winchester Cemetery. Dean still sometimes thinks how fuckin' ironic that was.


And now, suddenly, he knows. He stretches out a hand to touch the motel room wall and it feels real enough, solid beneath his fingers, but it's nothing more than window dressing.


"Oh, this is so wrong," he mutters under his breath. Looking at Castiel, he adds, "Again? Really?"


"Dean, what are you talking about?" Sam chips in, his forehead folding up into a bemused concertina. "Are you okay?"


Dean snorts. "No, Sam, I'm not okay. Because this isn't real. And that's not really Cas."



It's not like the last one. Time crawls to a halt in this illusion, Sam and Pamela freezing in position like store-display mannequins. They look flat and two-dimensional somehow, and now that Dean knows what's really going on here, he can't quite believe he ever mistook them for the real thing.

"How did you know?"

"Because I know him," Dean replies, and he chokes on the bitter laugh trying to claw its way up his throat. "He wouldn't have fixed her, not back then. Dick liked to pretend he didn't have a conscience."

Castiel – not-Castiel – moves forward, stands just there in front of him, silent and expectant.

"What is this, really?" Dean challenges with far more bravado than he actually feels. "This whole temptation of Christ thing – is that how you get your rocks off? I thought you were supposed to be God, not Lucifer."



Castiel doesn't move but his eyes flash with something unnamable that has Dean taking an instinctive step back. He grits his teeth and forces himself to hold his ground.

"I'm better than Lucifer," Castiel says icily. "I succeeded where he failed, after all. But we're not here to talk about me. You've had adequate time to consider my proposition since the last time we spoke, Dean. Tell me, have you changed your mind yet?"


He waves a lazy hand at Pamela, and Dean watches in horror as a thin red scar appears on the bare flesh of her stomach, widening into a chasm that splits her open all over again. Bright red blood wells up and spills from the wound in cascading rivulets, soaking the bedspread, but Pamela doesn't change or react in any way; she's a fixed point in time, frozen in stasis.



It reminds Dean of his mom, of Jess, the way that yellow-eyed bastard ripped them apart before he toasted them on the ceiling, and he has to swallow hard before forcing himself to look away. "Why her?" he chokes out, because it's something he can't wrap his head around, as awful as it sounds. He barely knew Pamela before she died, and of all the people Castiel could hold over his head to tempt him to the Dark Side, the choice seems odd. "She's in Heaven now, she's happy. I've seen her, you son of a bitch. Why did you think this would work on me?"


Castiel quirks his lips thoughtfully. "We both know your thoughts on Heaven," he points out. "Memorex, was it? And I think you know, deep down, why I chose her…"

He tilts his head, studies Dean, an assessing look, before he continues. "Because all this was your fault, wasn't it, Dean? With Ellen and Joanna Harvelle you could rationalize that guilt away, because it was their choice. It might have been your fool's errand that placed them in danger to begin with, but they ultimately exercised their free will and chose to martyr themselves for your cause. Pamela Barnes, on the other hand…" His gaze drifts over to where her bleeding carcass still lies prone on the bed. "She never wanted anything to do with this, but you just had to keep calling her back. And look where it got her."



The words hit their target with deadly accuracy, and Dean reels with the blows. Fuck it, the bastard is right: this is what comes from associating with Dean Winchester. When he thinks on all the lives he's destroyed, the list stretches to infinity. Pamela is just one of many.


"And she isn't the only one you let fall by the wayside, is she?" Castiel pushes on relentlessly, and the scene begins to shift and warp around them, the motel room falling away like a house made of cards, colors bleaching white as Sam and Pamela fade into nothing…and suddenly they're standing in a warehouse that Dean recognizes as being outside the beautiful room in Van Nuys, California. The otherwise nondescript door directly in front of them glows white-hot with what can only be celestial grace, and on the other side someone is screaming in what sounds like terror, like desperation. It's a voice Dean's only heard a handful of times in his life, but one that he has no trouble recognizing.


"Dean! Help…it won't open!"

Adam.


"You do remember your other little brother, Dean?" Castiel asks coolly. "The one who's been locked in Hell for longer than you and Sam put together, all because you refused Michael? Your father never wanted him to be a part of this life, but I think we both know he was doomed from the moment he met you."



"That's not fair," Dean protests, but it comes out weak, half-hearted, because Adam is still screaming on the other side of the door, and he knows that somewhere in there, Heaven's first archangel is eradicating the brother he never knew. "He was dead before we even knew he existed."


Castiel nods reasonably. "True. But you were given another chance, weren't you? When the angels brought him back. I would have thought you of all people could appreciate just how rare second chances are in this life, but you failed him again. How do you think John would feel if he knew you'd left his youngest son to rot in Hell for all this time?"


Dean recoils, and he'll say one thing for this so-called God: he knows how to hit him where it hurts. His dad would be heartbroken if knew what became of Adam, and livid at Dean for letting it happen in the first place.


"I tried to save him," he whispers, voice thick and dragging. "I tried to save all of them." But he doesn't know who he's trying to convince any more, and Castiel seizes on it as if he can sense Dean's uncertainty, his moment of weakness.

He lifts a hand up and rests it on Dean's shoulder, face softening into an approximation of sympathy. "I know, Dean," he soothes. "I know how hard it must be, living with all that guilt weighing you down. Let me relieve some of the burden. I can bring them all back, give them the lives they would have had if they'd never met you…and I'm not asking for much in return. It wouldn't be like making another deal. I don't want your soul, just your allegiance."


There's a brief moment – just a fraction of a second – when Dean is seriously tempted, because they didn't deserve it, any of them: not Adam, or Pamela, or any of the other countless numbers of people who are dead or worse as a direct consequence of his existence. He opens his mouth, and maybe he's about to say yes, and maybe Castiel sees his lips starting to form the word, because his fingers tighten and dig into the line of Dean's shoulder. Dean pauses at the pressure, slants his eyes down to Castiel's hand, remembers how he reached his own hand out to his friend, and how Castiel smiled back at him, his eyes gentle.

Don't ever change.

And his friend doesn't deserve his fate either, even if he did bring it on himself, and neither do the thousands of innocents who'll likely be slaughtered if the fake deity is allowed to continue his campaign. He remembers Castiel being ripped from his arms as the dock collapsed from under them in a dream that might as well have been reality, and he knows that as bad as he might feel about those who are already dead and gone, he'll never forgive himself if he doesn't do everything in his power to save the ones that are left. The ones it isn't too late for.



"I've been feeling guilty my whole life," he grates out, and his self-loathing discolors the words audibly. "Why stop now?"


Castiel moves forward, takes Dean's face between his hands, and it would almost be the same as every other time Dean's fallen into that unblinking stare if not for the fact that there isn't a trace of the angel he knows behind those eyes.


"This is simple, Dean," Castiel murmurs, murder-soft. "I have plans for you, and you'll fall into line eventually. You will weigh the souls of the righteous and the wicked, and present them to me. It's meant to be. It's your purpose. Your destiny."



"Yeah, I've never heard that speech before," Dean tells him, and something violent and ugly flashes across Castiel's features, a hint of psychosis bubbling up beneath the calm exterior.



"It's true that I'm willing to bring people back for you, but don't assume that I won't start taking them away if you refuse to cooperate. Not that there are many left to choose from…but enough to prove a point, I think. Look."


He jerks Dean's head to the side, and it becomes apparent that they're no longer in the warehouse. They're standing in an agonizingly familiar cemetery, right on the spot where Hell opened up and swallowed Dean's brothers whole.


Stull Cemetery is different from the last time he was here, though: the fields of crumbling headstones are gone, and instead Dean is confronted with a single row of four tidy graves, the earth looking freshly turned and the marble monuments immaculate. He fights back a growing sense of nausea as his eyes skim over the epitaphs inscribed on each one.

Robert Singer. Lisa Braeden. Benjamin Braeden. Sam Winchester.



"You wouldn't," he gasps, turning his head back to face Castiel once more, but even if the thing in front of him looks like Castiel, and sounds like Castiel, in reality it's a whole new animal, a haphazard patchwork of thousands upon thousands of souls, a creature for which righteousness is a fallacy and morality nothing more than a myth. There's no telling what it might do if he pushes it far enough.


Castiel smiles, and it's almost sorrowful. "The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away."


***


"Was I gone just then?" Dean blurts out as his brother and Bobby snap back into focus, Sam still sitting opposite him less than three feet away, and Bobby still standing with his back to them in front of his bookshelves, running a finger along the tattered spines of old leather-bound books that hold secrets no one can conceive of.

Sam slants his eyes up from the volume he's studying. "No…" he says suspiciously, stretching out the word way longer than its two letters require. It takes him about a fraction of a second longer to work out what Dean means by the question, and then he tenses. "Again?"

Dean has to take a moment to regroup, to purge the horror from his head. "Again," he confirms, forcing the word out past the dryness in his throat.

"What was it this time?" Bobby asks him cautiously. "And did he say anything we can use?"

Dean shields his face with his palms. "Pamela Barnes, eyes and all. And – other stuff." He blinks hard, forces himself to backtrack, to think past the sickly dread that's making him want nothing so much as to puke up the sandwich Bobby fed him earlier and top up the space it leaves behind with the nearest bottle of Jack. And, "Wait a minute…" he breathes as he hears the new God's words again in his head. "He said something…something that rings bells." He can almost feel his brain start whirring, the mental rewind button taking him back through where he just was, scene by scene, and then even further. "He said something to me before," he races out urgently. "When he showed up before, out in the lot, remember? A couple of weeks back, the seventh day. And there was so much going on, it slipped my mind."

His heart is thudding, adrenaline flooding through him. He pushes up so fast the chair overbalances and clatters to the floor behind him, and he strides over to a column of battered books behind the couch. "I'm sure it's here somewhere," he mutters, as he starts sorting through them, casting them aside as he hunts.

A shadow falls over him, and Bobby squats down. "Anything in particular?" he asks, and he starts stacking the books tidily again as fast as Dean throws them.

"It was about Michael. I read it back when all that vessel stuff was going down." He's aware of the old man's level stare, and he shrugs. "Know thine enemy," he clarifies. "But Cas – God, whatever – he said I was important because I was the Righteous Man, because I was Michael. And then today he spouted some Chuck Heston-Ben Hur-type crap about me weighing up souls and delivering them to him."

Sam jumps into the conversation from where he's still sitting at the desk. "Michael weighed the souls of the dead…" he supplies. "He was there when souls passed."

Dean pounces on the volume he's searching for, starts flicking through it. "And I was Death's stunt double for a day," he recalls, as he skims the dense print. "No wonder that sly old bastard nominated me." He stabs a finger at the page he's scanning. "There it is. Michael weighed the souls on his holy scales, and he judged whether they were righteous or wicked. Listen to this: To you, the Lord has entrusted the souls of the redeemed to be led into Paradise."

Bobby frowns speculatively. "So…what? You think he wants you to deliver souls to him? For…" He throws up his hands. "Energy? Replenishment?"

Dean swipes a shaky hand across his brow as his eyes track the words. "Yeah, that’s how they work isn't it? But there's more." He finds it, the passage he remembers just vaguely, and for the first time since the shit hit the fan he feels hope swell inside him. He rises to his feet. "Fuck, this could be it," he says, and he feels breathless and excited with the possibility. He reads from the book again. "If we have been selfish and cruel, it's you who will banish us."

He looks across at his brother, and Sam's expression is still puzzled. "Michael banished them to Hell," Dean says triumphantly. "Or – get this – to Purgatory." He sees it dawn on Sam's face then, hears Bobby's sharp exhale as he goes on. "He thinks I can gather the souls for his power boost, but maybe he doesn't just want me on-side because of what I can do for him – maybe he wants me because of what I can do to him. I can get the souls out of him. I can send them back."

Sam cards a hand through his hair. "That's a bit of a reach, Dean," he concludes doubtfully. "And how would you do it? I mean – wouldn't you need grace? Michael's grace?"

It's a stark reminder of the fact they sent the vital ingredient tumbling into the cage inside their half-brother more than a year ago, and a brand-new nugget of tension suddenly starts throbbing dully between Dean's eyes. He scowls, drops his chin to his chest, rubs the spot with the heel of his hand, and tries to stay positive. "Bobby, there's got to be a spell to make up for that, hasn't there?" he asks, with an air of forced confidence he doesn't honestly feel deep down where it matters. He zips his eyes back and forth between his brother and the old man. "Come on, isn't it worth a shot?" he persists. "It's not like we have anything else to go on."

Bobby pulls at his beard distractedly for a moment, before he shuffles past Dean and drops back down into his chair. "I'll get on it," he says simply.


***


Dean is sitting on an all-too-familiar park bench, the wood solid and reassuring against his back and thighs. There's a slight, cool breeze picking up dead leaves from the ground and causing them to turn cartwheels, end over end, but the sun is bright where it hangs in the sky, rays washing warm against his skin. He feels…at peace.

There's something wrong with the picture, though, and it takes him a second or two to realize that the park is utterly devoid of life, not a child in sight. Two of the swings are still moving slightly, chains creaking audibly, as though recently vacated by small bodies. There's a tiny, empty shoe abandoned at the bottom of the jungle gym, looking unexpectedly forlorn. It all reminds Dean – somewhat ridiculously – of Terminator 2, and yeah, he could really do without the apocalyptic comparisons, thanks.

The unmistakable rustle of wings and trenchcoat sounds from his right, and his side is suddenly warmed by body heat where previously it had been exposed to the chill air. He doesn't need to turn his head and look to know that Castiel has appeared beside him, though if things were progressing the way they should, the angel should have beamed down onto the other bench, respectful of Dean's personal space.

When Dean glances to his right, Castiel seems uptight and nervous, exuding nothing of the self-assured confidence of the monster wearing his face. That, coupled with the fact that this was one of the few days on the job where only the bad guys died, convinces him that this is somehow the real Cas, popping in once again for another of his cryptic dream-visits. Dean feels his heart leap for the first time in weeks, and he doesn't even berate himself for reacting like a fourteen-year-old girl. "Cas, is that you?"

Castiel nods once, a short, unhappy, up-and-down jerk of his head. Dean wonders if he's scared of speaking aloud. "You okay?" he ventures tentatively.

The look Castiel directs at him in response is all exasperation, with a hint of what the hell do you think? and goddammit, but Dean's missed seeing that expression on that face. "I'm not…I can't stay long, Dean," he says softly. "They're distracted. I managed to slip away, but they'll find me eventually. They always do." He sighs. "As you know."

Dean doesn't really want to contemplate what havoc the false god is wreaking in order for it to be distracted, and he suppresses the thought with a shiver. "Yeah. I gotta tell you, Cas, your evil twin is a dick."

The angel shrugs slightly. "It wants your allegiance."

Dean huffs derisively. "Don't worry, I'm not giving in."

Castiel purses his lips, looking troubled. "Maybe you should." He must sense the outraged protests building on Dean's tongue, because he presses on. "I know how it works, Dean. It's unpredictable. It's willing to wait for now, but what happens when it runs out of patience? What if it hurts you? Or Sam?"

"What, like you hurt Sam?" Dean lashes out before he can stop himself, letting fly with all the anger and resentment that's been building up with no outlet since Castiel went and conveniently got himself possessed. He doesn't take the words back, because they're true, but he can't help feeling a little guilty about them; it wasn't his intention to hurt Castiel, not while he's trapped and weighted down beneath a million rabid souls, never mind that it's a prison of his own making.

Castiel doesn't even flinch at the barb, though, not like Dean would expect; he just tilts his head and looks at Dean calmly, his gaze even and blue. A cold finger of unease brushes down Dean's spine, but he ignores it. "Look," he sighs, trying a different tack, "I appreciate the concern, but this isn't up for discussion, okay? I wasn't going to be Michael's bitch, and I won't be some two-bit fake God's bitch either."

"Two-bit fake God?" Castiel repeats, sounding vaguely affronted. His eyes bore into Dean clinically, and there's a sudden coldness about him that makes the fine hairs at Dean's nape stand on end.

"Uh, yeah," he defends. "He ain't the real thing, Cas. Never will be."

"I see," Castiel remarks, and he's neutral again, might even be smiling just barely. "This is something that you do. Inflict demeaning names on beings with power far greater than your own in order to make them seem less threatening. It…humanizes them."

"I guess," Dean hedges, shifting uncomfortably, but after all these years he's grown used to Castiel's habit of mentally dissecting him. It's just Cas, he tells himself, and the alarm bells lower their volume a little.

"Do you remember this?" Castiel asks, gesturing at the scene before them, and Dean blinks a little at the sudden U-turn in the conversation.

"Yeah, course I do," he replies truthfully. Halloween 2008, the rising of Samhain, the destruction of another seal, but none of those events are the reason this particular day stands out like a mile marker in Dean's mind. Instead, he remembers this moment as the first time he started seeing Castiel as something approaching a friend, rather than the shadowy, untrustworthy figure who threatened to throw Dean back to the Pit and talked about a Heaven and a God that Dean couldn't – didn't want to – believe in.

They were still practically strangers at this point in their relationship, every one of their interactions still underscored by the fact that they were made from painfully different stuff. But Castiel had laughed, sort-of, at Dean's lame joke, and confided in him, confessed that he had questions and doubts. That he wasn't a hammer, daddy's blunt little instrument.

It was the first time Dean had seen the similarities between them – and he discovered a startling number, once he learned to look beneath the surface – as well as the differences. The first time he had looked at Castiel and begun to consider that maybe he wasn't just another disposable tin soldier in Heaven's infinite army; that there was an actual person hidden beneath all those layers of military conditioning. A real, living person, with opinions and fears and regret, even if he had wings made of thought and shadow, and a voice that shattered eardrums if unleashed.

It had fairly blown Dean's mind at the time. Castiel was indestructible, more powerful by far than anything he had encountered in all his years on the job, something whose existence even the mighty John Winchester couldn't have conceived of. And yet this enigmatic force of nature had chosen to reveal something of himself to Dean, of all people. Dean, who didn't even believe, who drank too much and lived for hedonistic pleasures, and was so fresh from Hell he probably still carried the reek of sulfur on his skin. Yet, Castiel had trusted Dean to safeguard his deepest and darkest secrets, not even two months into their dealings with each other.

Can I tell you something if you promise not to tell another soul?

"I was relieved that you chose to save this town," Castiel reminds him now, jarring Dean back to the present. "It was the first time I felt certain that you were truly the Righteous Man spoken of in prophecy, the one who would save us all."

Dean snorts, the familiar taste of self-loathing bitter at the back of his throat. "Yeah, except it didn't exactly pan out that way, did it? I didn't even stop Lucifer. I just sat in the grass and did fuck all."

"Perhaps the full extent of your role in all of this has yet to be revealed," Castiel murmurs, a tiny frown marring the center of his forehead like he's mulling something over.

Dean opens his mouth to tell Castiel he might be right, that his role might mean he can free him, at the same time as he allows himself a sideways glance at the angel, and quite unexpectedly he feels something lock up tight in his chest. The sky appears to be taking on the hue of late afternoon, despite the fact that they can only have been sitting here twenty minutes at most, and he views Castiel through a filter of hazy sunlight that gilds the sharpness of his friend's profile and his errant, tousled spikes of hair in burnished gold. It can't be denied that the angel is easy on the eyes; Dean's always tried his damnedest to ignore it, but Castiel makes it practically impossible when he insists on always sitting this close, when he looks at Dean like there's something between them that looks and feels a hell of a lot different than friendship.

Like now. Castiel turns to meet Dean's gaze head-on, that instantaneous connection snapping into existence between them. Dean remembers when he was unnerved by Castiel's stare, what seems like such a long time ago now, back when Castiel had still been strange and alien, something to be feared and not trusted. If asked, he wouldn't be able to pinpoint exactly when all that changed, when it became soothing, a comfort, a knee-jerk reflex as familiar as breathing. When they became as magnets or corresponding puzzle pieces drawn to each other time and time again; when all he would have to do was search out cool, steady blue, and no matter what other crazy shit was going down, he'd be able to slow down and breathe, just a little.

He doesn't remember when it changed, but now he realizes it makes him feel the same way as it did the first time, like he's being split open for inspection, every inch of him cross-examined for this divine being to pass judgment on his soul. It jars him, and suddenly he feels claustrophobic despite the wide-open skies above, like his skin wants to crawl right off his body, his nerves cringing and clamoring uncomfortably where they wrap around muscle and bone.

Then something shifts behind Castiel's eyes, an almost imperceptible softening, and the moment is gone, fading like a bad dream until Dean can't remember why he ever felt that way in the first place. It's just Castiel, familiar and reassuring as he always is, and now he's shuffling his body around on the bench to face Dean head-on, shifting even closer until all of Dean's personal space boundaries are well and truly violated. Dean can feel Castiel's breath on his cheek, and he thinks that maybe he ought to back away, but he's captivated, transfixed, held in thrall like a mouse before a striking cobra.

"Human beings truly are works of art," Castiel murmurs, echoing his words from the first time they had sat on these benches together. His gaze is no longer still, but roving ceaselessly over Dean's face, like he's committing every detail to memory. "But you more than any other."

He reaches a hand up to Dean's face, strong fingers brushing the ridge of Dean's brow, his thumb smoothing over the thin skin beneath his eye and tracing the curvature of his lips before cradling his cheek in a warm palm.


Dean blinks, feeling cast adrift, utterly thrown for a loop and having no idea of the appropriate response. Despite all of the unacknowledged things floating between them, the suffocating tension that hangs thick and cloying in the air whenever they occupy the same space, they've never been like this before, never afforded each other any touches more lingering and intimate than a clasped shoulder or a pat on the back. But still he remembers the way Castiel's devotion ached out of his eyes in the dream at Lisa's, and even if he half-wants to fling himself away and put as much space between them as possible, Dean holds himself perfectly still, wanting so badly to lean into the touch.

"It's alright, Dean," Castiel reassures, though to what end, Dean has no idea. "You don't have to pretend, not with me. I know you, right down to your cells, your atoms. There is no other being in this universe or the next who knows you better than I."

Dean swallows tightly, forcing saliva down past the hard lump that's formed in his throat. If he ever had an idea where this conversation was going, then he's lost the fucking roadmap. "Cas, I don't…what is this?"

Castiel leans in even closer, until their lips are less than an inch apart, and Dean has to pick one blue eye to focus on. "Is this what you want, Dean?" he murmurs. "Me? Us…like this?"

A million and one denials bloom on the tip of Dean's tongue, ready to mock and scorn and decry the very idea as ludicrous. But something tightens in his chest, and the rush of his blood is loud in his ears. Castiel is looking at him, waiting, his eyes dark and penetrating. He's close enough to touch, but Dean is having a hard time just making his mouth work, needing to say something but unsure what he's feeling. Unsure of what he can say to that.

"Cas...what. I don't know what…"

Some clinical part of Dean that's managed to detach from the thudding of his heart and roiling of his stomach notes how strange it is to be here in this moment with Castiel, to see his friend looking at him with something in his eyes Dean can't even begin to describe. Dean wants, but he doesn't know what he wants. And if Castiel notices that the universe is crashing down around Dean's ears, he doesn't show it. He simply smiles, and Dean feels the shape of it against his own lips, an oddly triumphant quirk that strikes him as somehow out-of-place.

"I want this, and I know you want this," Castiel whispers, voice rough and heated. "You can have this, Dean. You can take something for yourself for once." And then he closes the distance between them.

The first meeting of their mouths is a shock to Dean's system, like licking a battery or being submerged in ice-cold water. Castiel is relentless, sliding his hand from Dean's cheek to grip the back of his neck in order to lock them tighter together, teeth grazing Dean's lower lip in a manner that's just this side of painful. Dean yields, succumbs, and surrenders himself to it completely, because every molecule in his body is suddenly crying out for this so loudly that their call is a crescendo, and allowing it now is like the first draw of a breath to bring him back from the edge of hypoxia.

Castiel's tongue glides across the seam of his lips, not so much requesting permission to enter as demanding it, and Dean is helpless but to let him in. He tries to wrest back control, slow the pace, because some part of his brain is protesting that this isn't just about lust, it's so much more than that, but Castiel is insatiable, monopolizing the inside of Dean's mouth like he would enemy territory. It's an invasion, and he kisses like he's fighting a war, like he's trying to win, almost violent where he clenches his fists in Dean's jacket and shoves him back against the wood of the bench, and this – isn't right. Although they've never done this together, although Dean has never given into the hazy, half-formed urges he has suppressed and repressed and denied for years now, he somehow knows that Cas – his Cas – would never be so callous with this, for all that he can be ruthless and terrifying when the mood takes him.

Even before he has completed the train of thought, Dean is shoving Castiel away from him, breathing hard. Beneath the rapidly-fading hum of arousal he doesn't want to acknowledge, his body is awash with the acid-sharp sting of betrayal, because a fucking line has just been crossed.

"You're not Cas," he chokes out.

Castiel's head tips to the side, brow creasing in hurt and confusion. The gesture is achingly familiar, but it's nothing more than a parody. There's a vital component missing somewhere, something cold and calculating behind those blue eyes that Dean didn't follow through to the obvious conclusion when he noticed it before. Jesus, but he can't believe he's been duped again, hook, line and fucking sinker.

"Dean, what…?"

"God, just shut it," Dean snaps, feeling sick to his stomach. He can't believe he let the thing kiss him. It feels like infidelity, like he's been cheating on Cas, which is about twenty different shades of ridiculous, but he can't shake the feeling. He wipes his sleeve across his mouth viciously. "Drop the fuckin' act, okay?"

And Castiel falls away like a veil, leaving the impostor God in his place: all smug, arrogant condescension, and Dean never really understood blasphemy before but he thinks he gets it now.

"Why do you persist in this stubborn refusal to understand? I am still Castiel." He speaks slowly, as if addressing a particularly difficult child, and he couldn't sound less like Castiel if he tried. "I still have his thoughts, his memories, his passions and prejudices. The same body that you desire so amorously. I'm just…different. Upgraded." His lips tilt upwards at the corners, almost nostalgic, as if he's looking upon a fond memory. "New and improved."

"You're no more Castiel than Sam was Sam without his soul," Dean grits out, all the anger, frustration, and grief he's been keeping locked down surging up like a tidal wave, pounding away at the dam of self-preservation and good sense that keeps him fearing the abomination that claims to be a god. "And guess what? I got Sam back, and I'll damn well get Cas back, too." He feels triumph flare brightly in his gut, because if they're right, and they can find the right spell, then this monster's sell-by date is fast approaching. "That's a fuckin' promise, asshole."

Castiel exhales, a drawn-out, regretful sound, like Dean is making things so very difficult for him. "My intentions are the same as they've always been, Dean, the only difference is that now I have the power to act on them. I'm improving the world that my Father so callously abandoned, purging it of the violence and sin that's been allowed to fester away unchecked for millennia. I'm creating Paradise in your name. I'm building a utopia, the new Heaven, and all of it for you. I can bring back your loved ones. I can give you eternal life, if you so desire. You can't tell me you don't want that. You can't continue to reject my gifts, when I'm offering you everything you've ever wanted."

Dean thinks of Ellen and Jo. Pamela, Rufus, Ash. Adam, burning in Hell for longer than Sam or Dean ever did, just for having the misfortune to be John Winchester's son. He silently begs forgiveness from every one of them, wherever they are, for what he's about to say next.

"That's exactly what I'm doing," he says clearly and steadily. "I don't want utopia, I don't want Paradise, and I definitely don't want Heaven. What I want is real life, even when it's ugly, and messy, and painful, because that's what real life is. And if you were really Cas, you'd get that. Cas ripped up divine prophecy because he got that." It flashes through his mind, guilty blue eyes darting away from his as he leaned in, his voice earnest because he was begging, You can take your peace and shove it up your lily-white ass. 'Cause I'll take the pain, and the guilt. I'll even take Sam as is. "You know, all those people you promised to bring back?" he continues. "They're dead, and I mourned them. Your false miracles aren't going to fix that. But Cas?" He smiles. "It's not too late for Cas. He's not dead yet, and I am going to get him back if it's the last goddamn thing I do. So yeah, for the last time, I reject your fuckin' gifts. Final answer, douchewad."

The effect of his words is instantaneous. The instant he stops speaking dark purple thunderheads bloom on the horizon, swelling like overripe fruit fit to burst, and what had previously been a light autumn breeze turns gale force, whipping the dead leaves into a frenzied cyclone, as the swings start flying back and forth on their rusted chains as if possessed. Castiel's face hardens, for lack of a better word, his eyes going slitty and mean, the angles of his face becoming sharp and cruel as finest-cut diamond, a geometry so perfect as to be unnatural. Monstrous. Even at his most morally objectionable, even in the midst of their very worst fights – and God knows, they've had some humdingers – Dean has never seen Castiel wear an expression like this before. He resembles a demon more than an angel, so much so that Dean almost expects his eyes to flash obsidian, and if the thing in front of him shared even a single thread of commonality with the real Castiel, Dean knows he wouldn't be capable of it.

"I warned you, Dean," the new God hisses. "Unlike our Father, I am not a God of infinite patience. If you're going to change your mind, I suggest you do so quickly."

"Don't hold your breath," Dean retorts.

"As you wish."

Castiel raises a hand, starts to snap his thumb across his middle finger, and Dean flinches, expecting to be thrown back into the Pit, to explode in a starburst of red mist and gore like Raphael, for his atoms to be scattered across the cosmos, tucked away inside far-flung nebulae and the strange bacteria found at the bottom of the deepest sea-trenches—

And he's flat on his back on Bobby's couch, broken spring digging into his spine, staring up at the ceiling, drawing in great, heaving lungfuls of breath and choking on his own air. He feels like something monumental just happened, like all the rules have been changed, or maybe the whole damn game, and they're running out of time.

"Another dream?"

Sam is still hunched over the book he was reading when Dean took his break, and Bobby is sitting across from him. They're both pointing concerned eyes at him.

"Yeah," he mutters. "It's okay, I'm good."

When he's calmed down enough to stop hyperventilating, he touches contemplative fingers to his lips, lost in thought. It might have been an impostor that he kissed, but he'd thought that it was Castiel, in every second that counted. And he'll freak out about exactly what that might mean later, but right now he just hopes that if any of it filtered through to his friend, wherever he's trapped or hiding, he at least understood the care behind it.

Just a little while longer, he thinks. I'm coming for you, Cas. I'm going to find a way. Please, just hold on a little while longer.

He heaves himself up, rubs at gritty eyes. "I don't think we have much time," he declares. "I think I just pissed him off in a big way."

Bobby rolls his eyes. "Tell us something surprising," he says balefully.

Dean ignores the old man's churlishness and goes on the defensive. "It wasn't my fault, I had to—"

"Hello, Dean."

The voice is languid and bored like it always is, as it drifts out of the kitchen just off the study. It's proof things just got even more complicated and possibly even worse, and Dean swivels his head around so fast his brain takes about thirty seconds longer than his skull to make the turn, and takes the bend on two wheels.

"Oh," he says, and he swallows dryly. "Death. Uh…how are you?"


***