There are few creatures that inspire instant respect from Dean Winchester. His father, first and foremost – but seeing John Winchester young, naïve, may have softened even that impression. Few others can command the emotion from him. Fear, sometimes; childlike admiration, occasionally; but very seldom respect, very seldom awe. Dean's told archangels to man up. Even God isn't scoring many points in his book these days.
But the creature in Bobby's kitchen right now has his heart skipping a beat or two.
"I'd hoped not to see your face again for a while," Death says, looking Dean over like one might eye a cockroach emerging from a crack in the wall. Every instinct of Dean's is to scurry backward like that very bug, to try to find the nearest nook or cranny and bury himself in it. A bell is tolling somewhere inside him. Death's presence is never a good thing.
Beside him, Sam has the presence of mind to say so out loud. "This can't possibly be good."
"Nope." Dean takes a step toward Death. "Not that we don't enjoy your company, but why are you here exactly?"
"I'm here because of your colossal, titanic stupidity." Death says it as though he's telling Dean he's here to return a borrowed book. Slightly bored, eyes darting here and there, interested in nothing he sees, he continues, "You're making all this very difficult for me. My workforce is being stretched to its limits – I've had to employ temps."
Dean frowns. "How's that?"
Death sighs. "It's remarkable how many recently departed spirits are willing to work part-time as a reaper," he says. "Not that it matters." He wanders to the counter and rifles briefly through the cabinets.
"Leftovers are in the fridge," Dean offers lamely.
"Really, Dean?" Sam hisses.
Dean shrugs. "Might as well make him happy."
Death opens the refrigerator door, nods approvingly, and reaches in to grab a half-eaten turkey sandwich. In the fridge's greenish light, his features pop, beak-like nose and round beads of eyes even more prominent. He closes the door and munches as Dean and Sam exchange a nervous look.
"So, uh." Dean takes another step forward. "What exactly am I being colossally, titanically stupid about again?"
The beady eyes roll. "What else?" He finishes up a bite of the sandwich and dots the corners of his mouth with a paper napkin plucked from Bobby's countertop before going on. "Your boyfriend."
Bobby and Sam blurt it out in unison, and Dean doesn't need to look to know they're sporting identical spit-takes. He keeps his eyes fixed on Death, his heart accelerating at the words not just because of their salacious connotation, but because Death coming to him about Castiel might just mean there's something he's not seeing, some solution they haven't found yet. It's hope in the form of a neatly suited harbinger of doom, and in an instant it's filling up his chest with warmth.
"You heard me." Death points a napkin-toting pair of fingers at Dean. "You need to rein him in."
"Great, I'd love to do just that," Dean says, back straightening up, his entire body primed to listen. "Any idea how?"
Death takes another bite, chews carefully and swallows. Dean feels the impact of every second that goes by, the looks Bobby and Sam are fixing on him, and the answer this close to coming but still not there yet. Death licks his lips. "The answer is still where I told you it would be, Dean. In the souls. Only you're looking at the wrong one."
Dean tries to fit his head around it and can't. "The wrong one? There are millions of them in there to worry about. You want to give me a clue?"
Death nods at him. Once. Simple and curt, and Dean understands immediately.
"Mine." He says it out loud because otherwise it doesn't feel real. His mind's been working overtime these past few weeks, and he's experienced so much in silence lately, so many dreams. He's seen the dead rise, he's felt the warm brush of lips on his, all of it taking place within his own mind, and none of it tangible. But this word – mine – drifts into the air and causes a reaction. Sam turns. Bobby takes in a breath. Dean can hear and feel the effect the knowledge has on the entire room. This is something he can count on.
"Okay," Dean says. "Okay. My soul." His eyes rake over Death's face. "What about it?"
Death shrugs almost carelessly. "It was saved," he says. "By that angel. You do know what happens when an angel claims a soul?"
Something nags at Dean's memory, but he comes up short. "Mind filling me in? Also, Cas never claimed my soul."
Death almost smiles. If you can call what he does anything like a smile. "Oh, but he did. I see his mark all over you. The angel marked you as his."
"Wait a minute, Dean," Sam breaks in, wide eyes meeting Dean's. "Remember that kid Aaron? In Pennsylvania?"
It takes Dean a second to catch up and then rewind to Balthazar getting his claws into the poor kid's soul. He swallows as he remembers the motel room in Easter, the lurid floral print on the walls, the scent of mothballs thick in the air. Castiel had thrown the lanky kid to the bed, tersely informed Dean that whoever they were messing with would have left a mark, and buried his arm in the kid's chest wrist deep while the kid writhed and moaned.
When a claim is laid on a living soul, it leaves a mark, a brand…
It was the first time Dean had heard of angels dealing in souls, but Castiel hadn't given him any hint he might have placed his own mark on Dean's soul when they were in Hell together. And then it dawns on him, what the new God said as he trailed his fingers fondly along Dean's jaw and gazed down at him with frigid eyes…my mark is on your soul. And it flew right over Dean's head in the panic of the moment, but the more he thinks about it, the more it makes sense. No wonder they've been able to communicate. No wonder he's been so sure that they could find Cas, save him. There really is something that links them.
Dean's eyes meet Death's. "So let me get this straight," he says slowly. "You're saying Cas put his mark on my soul? That when he raised me he claimed my soul? Literally?"
An infinitely patient nod follows. "That mark is a binding seal between you," Death confirms, voice still serenely bored and nonchalant. "It has already drawn you together in your dreams. You need only take control of it when you're awake."
Relief floods through Dean, and he shivers, raises a hand to his chest, because his heart is suddenly rocking erratically, like it's going to burst. "And I can use this mark to find him? Like some kind of lojack?"
In lieu of answering, Death finishes off the sandwich. Licking his lips with a skinny pink tongue that Dean really could have gone his whole life without seeing, he tosses the wrapper into the trashcan. It's a three-point shot from across the kitchen, but it hits the mark perfectly.
"Well…thanks," Dean starts, and Death cuts him off with a glare.
"Don't thank me. I'm not here to make your life easier, and I doubt you'll find that's the effect. You think you can take down God with the power of your…" He wiggles his fingers in the air. "Pure-hearted feeling, or whatnot."
Irked, Dean scowls. "Yeah, well, why not? Sam and I stopped the Apocalypse—"
Death peels his lips apart in another mournful fake-smile. "Sadly, no."
The words slice through the air, and the relief and hope that have been buoying Dean's heart vanish in an instant. "What are you talking about?"
"Fate is bigger than the Bible, Dean" Death says. "Just because you've taken the reins from Michael and Lucifer, don't think you've averted destiny entirely. You may have dodged Michael but you're still his true vessel, and you're still, and will always be, the Righteous Man."
Were it anyone else, Dean would have shouted back, Screw the righteous man. I never asked to be some poster boy for destiny. But this is Death, the only thing as old or perhaps even older than God. And Dean has been feeling it himself, without knowing – the weight of a world that still seems to be crumbling around him, still seems to cry out for his help. Maybe they didn't stop anything.
He had fooled himself for a time into thinking he was free of it, but it seems like the new God was right: it's not so easy to slip off the noose. All he can hope to do is use it to lasso Cas, his Cas, and haul him back to shore. He lowers his eyes, and his fists curl at his side.
"I would say I'm sorry," Death says, and takes a moment to lick his fingers. "But frankly, I couldn't care less. Nevertheless, the fact remains…only you can do this. So stop acting like the victim of circumstance, own up to your own capabilities, play your role like you were supposed to the last time, and get it done for once and for all."
His last words are as clipped as gunshots, and by the time Dean looks up to start the first words of an angry retort, Death is gone.
So there he is, again, center of the world for no good reason and despite his best intent. Why? It's a word Dean's almost lost the meaning of for how often he's said it. What idiot God looked at him and said, this guy, this beer-drinking pool-hustling spiky-haired kid with the stupid grin, he's going to take care of all the crap I let screw up the world? At least the new God's got a brain in his head, even if it's twisted beyond recognition. Even before all this, Castiel was nothing if not pragmatic.
Castiel had been a soldier, and he'd led an army in heaven. More than once he'd told Dean that his priorities precluded him coming to help Dean with his own problems. And still...
I always come when you call.
Castiel had bent his priorities for Dean, and over the years Dean had come to rely on the angel, trusting that he'd be there, that he'd have Dean's back when the shit hit the fan. Dean trusted Cas in a way he hadn't trusted many other people in his life. Maybe that's why the angel's betrayal had hurt so damn much. Dean knows he asked a lot from Cas, and Cas asked a lot from him in turn. Maybe neither of them knew how to ask for anything that wasn't world-changing and life-altering. Why would they bother, with the weight of heaven on Castiel's shoulders just as heavily as the earthly world sat on Dean's? The reason they needed so much from each other was because they'd been to Hell and back together. Literally.
Because we were friends, he thinks. We were nearly brothers.
That's it. That's all it can be.
And the sudden wet sweep of a mouth against his? That had been a trick, a deceit. It had nothing to do with how the real Castiel felt. No connection to this seal or connection between them. Dean has nothing to fear from reaching out to Cas now.
A creak sounds from the garret stairway, and Sam's peeking over the railing into the small bedroom, careful not to bump his head on the sloping roof. "You doing okay?" he asks.
"Yeah," Dean answers automatically. He almost never gives any thought to that question. The details of how he's really doing are usually grim, and what's more, they're nothing to worry anyone else about. "Yeah, I'm good. How's it going downstairs?"
"Quiet." Sam bows his head to keep from scraping the ceiling as he moves across the room to join Dean on the edge of the bed. "Bobby went out. He stood staring at his bookshelf for five minutes straight, then said, 'Damn it, I need a drink' and took off. I think he's pretty freaked out."
"Yeah, well, who wouldn't be?" Dean himself is still feeling jumpy, and he's made Death's acquaintance on a number of occasions. Bobby's only met him the once before tonight.
Sam nods and sits in silence for a moment, his hands folded between his knees. "So are you going to give Cas the heads-up? That we figure we can find him and pull him out?"
Dean's heartbeat thuds hard against his ribs. He swallows. "We don't have anything yet, though," he says.
"Well, we kind of do. We know you're supposed to get rid of the souls, right?" Sam pauses. "Or Michael is. And if Death is right, and you can link to the real Cas, then you should be able to pull him back out when you send whatever's in him back to Purgatory."
Dean looks up and smiles. "It's a mouthful, ain't it? But I'm with you – we know what to do. We just don't know how to do it yet."
"But maybe Cas knows," Sam says. "Maybe if you dial him up in a dream, he'll be able to shed some light."
Dean swallows hard. "Maybe," he says, fists curling on the bedspread. "But the souls are tricky. What if I can't reach Cas?"
Sam looks at Dean for a long moment, and then says, "You can reach him, Dean. You can save him. You've been saving my ass all my life. You reached me when the devil had me good. You can reach Cas. It'd be nice if we could save him for once, you know?"
Dean feels something tighten in his chest as he nods. "Yeah, it would. I wish we could have stopped him, Sammy. If I'd just known what he was doing…if I'd just been able to get him to stop—"
"Dean," Sam cuts in, shaking his head. "Stop blaming yourself. Cas is a grown…" He stops, furrows his brow. "A grown angel. He made his mistakes, same as I made my mistakes. Same as you made yours. We've all fucked up gloriously. Epically. But now all we can do is get him back, so you and he can…uh…sort out your thing."
"Our thing?" Dean scowls, bumping his shoulder against Sam's pointedly. "The thing where he owns my friggin' soul?"
Sam snickers. "Yeah, y'all can sort that out when we get him back."
Headlights flash a dim yellow reflection against the window. Sam looks up. "Guess Bobby's back," he says and pats Dean on the shoulder briefly. "Time to get back to work."
Dean nods in response and watches Sam head downstairs again.
The room, so small when Sam's filling it up, expands into a cavern without him, and Dean feels tiny, a little boy in his uncle's guest bedroom like he was when he was eight and sick with an ear infection. Dad had been off burning the bones of an angry spirit, and Dean was left alone. The world had sounded muffled and faraway through the liquid in his ears. He's no less removed now, no less off-balance, as he treks through the world of dreams and illusions. Death says the bond between him and Castiel is a tangible thing, but Dean can't feel it, doesn't know how to reach out and grab on. How to work it between his hands, like he works any other weapon.
He leans back onto the bed and closes his eyes just to try to control his thoughts. He doesn't mean to fall asleep, but it happens with alarming speed, and in another half-moment the dreams take him.
Sam doesn't wait for Bobby to pull in.
Instead, he moves through the threshold, leaves the door swinging open behind him as he strides down the steps, into the cool air. The engine dies and the door creaks open, regurgitating Bobby's familiar bulk, baseball cap and all, along with a wrinkled paper bag tucked under his arm.
Sam notes it, shoving a hand into his pocket, and waits until Bobby crunches across the gravel and stops at the steps, his mouth a grim, straight line. They regard the skyline together, the winding road, and Sam feels that in their silence, they're voicing a thousand concerns through nervous motions, through the awkward shifting of feet and cracking of knuckles, and the whisper of the brown paper bag.
"Sam—" Bobby begins.
"I will," Sam cuts him off. He hears the slosh of the bottle as Bobby slips the cap, lifts it to his lips. Bobby tastes liquor, but what Sam sees is thick blood, the color of black cherries. "I will, Bobby," he repeats. "But I can't save him from himself."
Bobby bares his teeth to the air, as though he could breathe fire. "Then just save yourself, will you?" he mumbles. "You're the only one who's tall enough to change the lightbulb in the basement, so without you I'm fucked."
This dream's not like any of the others. Dean's used to finding himself in familiar territory, a place he knew from the past perhaps or, like that lake, a place he's dreamed before. He doesn't know where he is right now. It's dark, and it feels like the ground is moving, like there's a force struggling against his footsteps as he trudges forward into the darkness. "Cas?" he calls out uncertainly, his eyes fighting to adjust to the barely-there light. His logic tells him he's dreaming, and that Cas is here somewhere, but he can't see him. It's not as automatic or as comfortable as it was before though; it's a whole new landscape, just when he doesn't need one.
He closes his eyes to the dream and concentrates. I'm supposed to be able to find you, he thinks. Where are you? Come on, man.
It starts as a tingling at the edges of his fingers, and then the sensation shoots up to center in his upper arms. One upper arm in particular, where a handprint was burned, red and proud, on his skin. Dean swallows the beating lump of his pulse in his throat. A mark, Death had said. A binding seal, and not just on his body. He raises his other hand to layer over the sore spot, and when he opens his eyes, Castiel is right there.
"You found me again," Castiel says, his eyes searching Dean's. "How did you—" He stops abruptly, looks around furtively. "We don't have much time."
The urgency in his voice is unsettling. Dean's own anxiety starts to rise in answer, and he forgets what he was going to say. There's something he needs to be sure of. "Is this really you? Not just your evil twin screwing me over again?"
"It's me," Castiel says on a low hush. "But he's making it harder for me to reach you. Trying to bury me under layers of souls. I can't…" And Castiel fades out and in, his figure flickering like a film on a dying projector. Dean grabs for him, hand seizing his friend's shoulder. He half-expects his fingers to close over air, but the grip is real, solid, and Castiel relaxes beneath it. He closes his eyes and inhales, and the flickering slows and finally halts altogether.
"But you can still reach me," Dean says, holding Castiel's gaze out of some hunch that eye contact will help maintain the connection. The physical touch, too, and Dean doesn't want to let his friend's shoulder go. He should be disturbed by that, but in the presence of Cas – the real Cas – it's just comforting to feel the solidity of his body, even in a dream. "Doesn't matter where he puts you, we have a connection. You – you marked me." It sounds infinitely dirtier than when Death said it, and Dean can feel his face getting hot.
Castiel squints at him. "Dean?"
"My soul, right? You claimed it, so it belongs to you. He can't take it."
The angel's eyes glaze over with something that might be horror. "He can do anything," he whispers.
Dean shakes his head vehemently. "Not this. He can't do this, he has to ask permission. That's why he showed me all those things, why he—" Dean cuts off. He doesn't know how aware Castiel is of all the scenarios shown him by the imposter wearing his face, even if the expression he just saw in his friend's eyes might be a big, fat clue. He sure doesn't know how much he wants to share if there's any chance Castiel was out of the loop. There will be time for that later. "Listen, Cas, we're gonna find you," he reassures. "We're gonna pull you out of here. But you have to keep trying to reach us, okay? Don't give up."
Castiel nods, and he reaches out and grips Dean's arm, fingers clutching just short of the handprint, so his fingers brush the heel of the faded red mark. The same electricity buzzes up fast and sharp through Dean's body; it's like a circuit closing, a current suddenly flowing between them that's alive and fraught with excited energy. "Hurry."
"We're hurrying." Dean is burning with the urge to tell him something, but he can't think what it is. "Keep trying, okay?" he echoes instead. "Keep trying."
Castiel starts flickering again then, like the circuit is breaking. "Hurry," he repeats, and his voice is retreating, going muffled and indistinct. "Hurry up, Dean. Dean—"
It's Sam's voice, and Dean jack-knifes upright in his bed, and shouts.
When his eyes have focused and his balance returns, he looks up to see Sam rosy-cheeked, grinning hard enough to force dimples into his cheeks. "You're not going to believe this," Sam tells him. "There was a book just sitting on Bobby's desk. He swears he never took it down from the shelf, but it was open to the right page, right spell and everything. Death must have left it as a parting gift or something."
Dean blinks the sleep from his eyes and swings his legs over the edge of the bed. "Wait a second," he fumbles out blearily. "What are you talking about? A spell?"
"The spell," Sam says, smile growing even wider. He pulls Dean to his feet and glows at him like a thousand-watt bulb. "Dean, we've got a way to save Cas."
Dean writes it on his fingers.
He starts on his palm with a pen Sam took with him from Stanford, a nice ink Pilot pen that Sam used to scribble notes on the philosophy of law and the ethics of death penalty decisions by supreme court judges in fancy robes, and Dean could care less about the honorable Rehnquist or Scalia or Ginsburg, back in another life when he was floating in the cabin of the Impala on a back country road, worrying about his father, making his way to Sam.
The pen brings it all back in a hushed moment while he sits in Bobby's chair, staring at the shapes and the shadows that surround him, and the ones closest to his heart: Sam slumped and straining the limits of his shirt, Bobby snoring with an empty bottle of Jack trickling a teardrop of whiskey from its neck onto the polished wood of the mahogany desk.
Unspoken, there is a shadow in the room that does not exist: the shadow has a name and the name is Castiel, and Dean stares back at his blank palm with the fancy Stanford ink Pilot pen cocked in his calloused hand. Sam's hands were soft when he took him from Stanford, but they hardened up fast, except for the writer's bump. Dean doesn't have a writer's bump. He has scars. They are spider-web light across his knuckles. Some are from the car. Others are from demons and angels and monsters, and assorted go-bump-in-the-nights.
Dean can take apart the engine of the Impala and put it back together with memory alone. He could do it blindfolded.
But words? Memorizing words?
He snorts in disappointment, feels a moment of passing frustration that this should be so hard when Sam found it so easy.
His brother had read the exorcism for three hours, his mouth moving and tonguing the words like a bad actor in a high-school play before announcing he was finished. "It's up here," Sam had indicated, tapping a finger to his temple.
"Bullshit," Dean had challenged him.
There was a moment then, a moment when Sam emerged from inside of himself, penetrating the tenebrous shadow that clings to him like a mist, the constant drag of Hell that festoons him like a poison. He breaks through, leaving the glow of Sam as he has always been – fierce and rising to the challenge. It's in the arch of his eyebrow as he lifted his head with a smirk.
Come on, Sammy, show me how wrong I am.
Sam did. He repeated the exorcism back to Dean, sneaky-soft, as though the new God might hear them from across the miles. And no doubt He did, does, because He bides His time, He waits. He watches their uprisings from afar the way a giant watches ants fight among themselves and puzzles over their petty wars, their futile motions.
"Now you, Dean," Sam had returned, and when Dean opened his mouth nothing emerged but a dry whistling of air. Smug, Sam grinned wider, and said nothing at all, just gloated, in the way only a six-foot five-inch Goliath can gloat.
"Tell you what, Dean," Sam had said, pushing the couch cushions into shape and arching his back. "I'm gonna collect some hard-earned zees, and you can just let me know when you got that exorcism down-pat, all right?"
Dean had looked away and said nothing about the hollows beneath his brother's eyes, the red lining in his aqueous that brings out the dilute colors of his iris.
"I've got it," Dean had insisted.
And Sam had snorted at him. "At least you have a real excuse for staying awake while I sleep now."
Dean had said nothing, jarred by his brother's perceptiveness, the casual acknowledgment that he has known all this time that Dean is watching him while he sleeps, needing to be the big brother, needing to make sure Sam doesn't suffer from the sort of Hell nightmares Dean's been pushing down for more than four years.
But Sam still sleeps like the dead; it's the daymares that torment him, the seizures and hallucinations that follow him around like a shadow. He wonders briefly if things might get better if Sam gets on Sheriff Mills' psychobabble bandwagon. Dean doesn't put much faith in headshrinking or self-help mumbo jumbo, but anything's got to be better than the way he self-medicated after his time in the Pit – booze, and pills, and a slew of anonymous warm bodies. Anything to make the pain lessen, to make him forget.
Dean thinks about Cas then, the way Dean would wake from a nightmare and see the angel sitting beside him, watching him sleep. Dean wonders how often Cas did for him what Dean now does for Sam.
A snore from his brother distracts him from his thoughts. Sam's breathing is deep and even, and his arm is hanging down off the couch, his fingers just touching the floor. Dean wasn't sure any of them could sleep on this night, before the big knockdown drag out, the celebrity death match of the century – Castiel, God, all the souls of Purgatory versus Team Free Will.
But Sam and Bobby find the small spaces inside themselves where they still preserve a sense of comfort, where dreams could be hunted and chased down even if Dean doesn't. He stays awake, staring at the exorcism and reciting the words until his lips are numb and his throat is dry, and the world springs before his eyesight in doubles and triples, hour after hour, and he's still no closer to mastering the exorcism than when he started.
A new flavor of fear begins to set in – what if he can't? Behind his stoic mask, the hard line of his jaw and the accidental stubble he runs his thumb against, a nervous rasping of skin, he can't shake the silent fear and accusation that he's going to fail. It's what he does best – fail the people he loves. It has nothing to do with lack of courage, willpower, or strength. He can muster all these as he has been doing all of his life.
No. This time it's memory that will fail him.
Dean doesn't pause to think about the reasons he's doing this; he doesn't think about every moment he stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Castiel, ankle-deep in blood, with the thin sneers of demons standing between survival and destruction. He knows that if he thinks of this, all his determination will erode under the fear of failure. And he will do this one thing right, do it well, save Cas, Goddammit, if I can just fucking save him for once – return the favor for the way he pulled me and Sam out of Hell, Dean tells himself. Cas saved him and Sam from the shitty consequences of their own worst mistakes. Dean wants to return the favor – raise Cas from a Hell of the angel's own making.
He owes Cas that much.
And that's it. It isn't anything else. Just debits and credits on his supernatural soul-account, something that must be balanced. As cold and dry as accounting, and Dean refuses to think of all the permutations of Castiel that led up to this, because if he does it's not cold and dry like he wants it to be, it's not a balance and an obligation, it's not a military operation – it's a friend, and if he ascribes that much to Castiel, he'll never be able to do this, never be able to save him. Easier to relegate him to just another hunt, another job. It takes the nervous punch out of his belly, clears his mind. The memory of the fake-Castiel's tongue over his mouth burns with traitorous heat, and somewhere between that moment and now he sees in hyper-real vision just how clever this new monster is.
Even trying to seduce him.
Dean sighs and sets to writing the letters on the whorls of his fingertips, all the way down each finger and the undersides of the knuckles, into the palm lines, the health line, the heart line, lifelines, and fate lines. In deep creases the ink runs, and he waits patiently for it to dry before he continues on, the sensation of prickling fear, of creeping failure abating before the proud stoke of every letter he writes on himself.
I ain't gonna let you down, Cas, he thinks, while he etches the letters into himself, pressing the nub of the pen into his flesh hard enough to hurt, to burn, to mark. He thinks if he can cut deep enough, maybe the blood will flow and he will tattoo it there, where he can never forget it.
In the moment before he drifts off to sleep, head nodding and then falling to the hard wood surface of the table with his palm open and ink-stained, he hugs his other hand to the shoulder, the shoulder that Castiel once gripped with a burning palm, setting it to his skin and branding him the way they branded cattle and horses in Kansas when he was just a child. He remembers the burn, the hiss, the smoke, and maybe he remembers it from when Castiel's light blazed them both forth from Hell.
He rubs the scar in the fading moment between consciousness and unconsciousness, and he will not remember that he does it. He holds it like he can find Castiel inside the burn-print and pull him out of it, the way a person pulls a friend out of the path of a closing door.
There's a moment between consciousness that Dean can't define; it's a split-second of time caught between the end of his nightmares and the beginning of awakening. He's aware of his head face down on Bobby's rickety kitchen table, coffee percolating in the waking world, but he isn't quite there yet, not ready for the rising sun and all it will bring. His hand is still clutched at the old handprint scar, and it soothes him, the uneven texture of the burn. A familiar tingling builds from his fingertips.
His thoughts meander in those moments before waking. Castiel, he thinks, as though the name were intertwined in the molecules of his breath, impossible to separate and break apart, and there's an answer, like a responding echo on the wind, distant and faint.
Cas! Where are you?
But the connection breaks up, crackles like an old cellphone with bad reception. Dean senses darkness, senses that the ground shakes and sways beneath their feet, senses the ghostly impression of Castiel side-by-side with him, scrabbling for purchase. But the images and feelings are insubstantial, and the second Dean attempts to lock in on them they scatter into nothingness. He keeps his hand on Castiel's mark. It's the only thing connecting them, and even that is no longer reliable.
I'm losing you, Cas! Where are you?
—the wasteland, the place where he can forget us. He exiles everything he's frustrated with here. It's just a dumping ground…by the…Kansas…
Dammit, I'm losing you…Kansas?
And then there's a sound that shakes everything, huge and mythic and ringing in Dean's ears, causing him to lose his grip with a convulsive clench of his fist, and endless throaty whistle that vibrates around him, and it sounds like—
—Dean jerks awake when Sam slaps him on the back, and he can still hear the reverberation of his nightmare deep in his ear canal, carving a path into his brain.
A train, that was a train, right?
But nothing of those fragmented dream images and sounds makes sense, and he lets them dissipate as he comes to himself. His head lifts upright before his eyes open, and he's cursing, rubbing at his jaw where the lines of the mahogany table are embedded in his skin and will take hours and several cups of coffee to smooth away.
There is rustling in the kitchen where Bobby and Sam are both puttering, and Dean watches them, leaning back in the chair until the joints creak, thinking of nothing at all. He watches with every muscle relaxed and loosened, the way he cases hunts and tracks creatures, because this moment is perfection, when there is no blood and screaming, and one does not tamper with perfection while it lives. It dies beneath the force of a sound, a breath, an ill-considered thought. So Dean enjoys this moment of quiet, this ritual comfort as the preparations are made. The bowl is set on the table before him and then he looks at Bobby, at Sam, and suddenly, the moment of perfection is passed and nothing is perfect any more, because the hour is now.
Dean has been still all this time, and it comes to him that they're staring at him. He looks back at Bobby, at Sam, and gives them each a quiet nod in their turn. There are many things they could say, that could be said, but soldiers on the battlefield don't need to wish each other luck, or waste their breath on trivial well-wishing. They know it without having to speak it. Castiel would have understood.
Sam checks his Beretta, and Dean knows that out of sight he's packing the Taurus, too. Dean keeps a Colt 1911 holstered at his thigh and another at the small of his back. He can feel the cold metal where it rides against his skin. He isn't sweating there yet – but he will be.
Dean clears his throat, and a smile, bitter and tight, lengthens his lips, curls at his cheek. "Go ahead, Bobby. Let's get this show on the road."
Bobby tugs at his beard, and then looks at Dean for a long moment. "This could be for nothing, Dean," he says, voice solemn. "Are you sure you want to go through with this? I mean, we're not even sure about this bit with the Righteous Man and his seal. Seals are angel-business, son, and not for nothing—"
"Just spit it out, Bobby."
Bobby eyes Dean steadily. "Well, we can call you righteous all day long and twice on Sunday but you ain't no angel."
Dean shrugs, coughs up a hollow smile. "Your faith is inspiring, old man."
"These are ancient rites, son," Bobby continues, words pitched-low, anxiety leaking in. "Story goes that the one doin' the exorcising takes a lot of energy into himself in order to cast it out, and if he wasn't in the right shape for it, he could…well, he could die."
Dean considers him for a moment. "That's a chance I have to take. You don't have to do this with me, neither of you."
The old man grimaces crookedly. "It's not just us I'm worried about."
Sam steps closer, says softly, "You're worried about Castiel."
Bobby blows out reflectively. "Be a damn shame to go to all this trouble just to have him be sucked back into Purgatory along with the souls. I want you to know the risks, Dean."
What about the risk of leaving him like he is? Dean thinks. "You mean something worse than what's going on with him already?" he says aloud. "Is that even possible?"
Bobby throws up his hands. "For all we know there could be nothing but a scorch mark left by the time we're done, or maybe we'll be left with nothing but a catatonic shell," he replies gruffly. "Didn't that happen to Raphael's vessel when you and Feathers went joyriding by yourselves?"
Sam answers before Dean can, and there's a tone of steel that slides into his voice, forcing Dean to track a sideways glance to his brother in curiosity. "We have to try, Bobby. Leaving Castiel trapped there with them all…" His voice goes faint. "One is bad enough."
Dean says nothing, but his silence is filled with weight as he runs that over in his mind, ponders how it must be to share the space of one's flesh with an uninvited intruder without hope, without end.
Castiel has several million of them.
"It's settled then," Dean says. "Now let's just get on with—"
"Dean," Bobby cuts in, voice sharp and eyes fierce. "You listen here. I cared about Castiel too, but if this goes wrong you could get yourself killed. I ain't gonna watch you set yourself up for martyrdom, you're worth more—"
Dean's fist comes down and everything rattles, from bowls and the burnt offerings in their center and even from his wrist to his shoulder when he splits the wood board beneath it. Sam doesn't flinch, but Dean feels the swell of purpose, of ruthless courage wax strong between them both, a shared resolve.
He loosens his fist, and he sees the words of the spell there, print in miniature.
"Say the damn words, Bobby," he breathes. "And I ain't gonna remind you again of what I owe him."
Sam sighs and runs a hand through his hair. He lifts his cup of coffee off the desk as Dean and Bobby lock eyes on either side of him, and sets the cup at his feet while he waits.
Reluctant, Bobby begins.
He's two words in when the shit hits the fan.
A wind rolls up the porch and blows open the door. The single ceremony candle set in the middle of the table and pooling milky wax over the side extinguishes with a hiss. Bobby speeds up the tempo even as his voice goes to gravel, desperate to choke out the words before the Almighty turns around and sees the games they've been up to in the shadow of his holy trenchcoat.
But no plan for distraction, not all the sigils and signs in the world are enough, because Dean still feels it like a stain spreading through cloth, infecting every pore – the force of His focus, from fathoms away. He could be in the Philippines, the Bahamas, the Bermuda Triangle, Antarctica, Turkey; He could be split over the course of dimensions, and every particle of Him would still have stopped in concert and heard Bobby's voice across the miles, like a betrayal.
"Jesus," Dean bites out, because He knows. "Say it faster, Bobby."
The rushing sound fills and shakes the house with an infinite number of vibrations, and Dean stands, Sam lifting out of his chair beside him, both alert, hands at their sides, loose and ready. While their gazes wander to the open door where it swings and slams in the recurring wind, Dean hears the sound of Him beside Bobby, and the brothers turn together, breathless.
Dean allows himself the smallest of gestures, pressing a hand into his sleeve just so he can feel the pulse of his blood, as though he can stop how it races in the heat of his rage. How he hates this thing, how he loathes it, wants to strip it of skin until he can get to the real Castiel beneath. Somewhere, inside this monster who wears Castiel's face as though it were no more than a party mask, seething with souls like a carcass riddled with maggots, an angel languishes, and in that dark, dark place his only relief is the moments he escapes long enough to dream. And what does he dream of?
Oh, he dreams of me, thinks Dean bitterly. You sorry sonofabitch.
Castiel's voice cuts through, uses Jimmy Novak's vocal chords to chide them like the body is a rental car. "Dean. My first thoughts are for the well being of you and yours, yet your every waking moment is bent on dismantling me."
The words whine from the fake-god in a churlish complaint, as though he were a child who lost a precious toy and doesn't know how to recover it. "I have only your safety, your survival at the forefront of my mind. Out of all the problems this universe faces, you are the first of my priorities. I am ever returning to you, to save you. It's like watching children play with matches. I fear the day will come when I cannot make it to you before you burn yourself, Dean. Do not do this."
If the god in Castiel had hoped to lure Dean in conversation, into halting the progress of the exorcism, there's no response forthcoming. Dean digs his heels into the boards of Bobby's floor and holds his ground. Bobby's voice has fallen to a whisper, but he doesn't stop. He keeps on, relentless, the words flowing from him faster.
"Stop that," the god in Castiel warns, and his brow creases with the admonishment.
Bobby closes his eyes and the paper wavers and rattles in his hands, but he doesn't stop. He knows the spell by heart.
A lazy curl of smoke issues from the burnt offerings in the center of the bowl, and the god growls this time, urgent.
"We stop when you stop," Dean hisses. "When you let him go. When you send the souls back."
The god turns a mean eye on him. "That's not possible Dean. And I am disappointed. There are problems in this world, people who need my attention and my care. I can't help those in need when I must halt everything to attend to your small needs."
Dean notes with surprise the delicate flex of muscle in Castiel's jaw, a hairline fracture in his composure. The small detail is enough to cause an instant Pavlovian reaction, forty years of whip-smart training under Alistair, and Dean moves in for the kill, unrepentant and delighted to have the chance to exploit the one moment the fake-god trips up in his perfect masquerade.
If Dean can upset him he might make mistakes.
"Pressure getting to you?" he mocks.
Castiel doesn't look away as he lifts his hand and makes a gesture in the air, meaningless until Dean realizes Bobby has stopped speaking. Dean looks, and he damn well doesn't like what he sees.
Bobby's mouth is gone. There is a mustache, the usual arrangement of facial hair, and then just a slight indentation of peach-toned flesh where his mouth should be – nothing more, no lips. Bobby slaps a hand against newly knitted flesh, a set of irate vertical lines forming between his eyebrows until Dean could swear he sees a curse spelled there.
Sam steps forward, grinds his heel into the floor and Dean bites on a gasp, because if it were possible, Sam has gained height as he leans forward, picking up where Bobby left off.
Dean snaps his gaze back to the new god. "We don't stop until you do," he says again.
Sam's words form a backdrop, and beneath it Dean can hear a humming noise from Bobby – even through the barrier of flesh, he is still speaking the exorcism, his eyes like burning coals as he stares at the god with unadulterated hate. Dean thinks Bobby could set fire to stone with a stare like that.
Castiel passes a hand over his forehead, squeezes the bridge of his nose as though they are just a headache that can be willed away, and suddenly Bobby is gone, vanished away as if he was never there to begin with.
"Hey!" Dean yells, panicked. "What'd you do? Where'd you take him?"
Castiel sighs as Sam's voice lifts and falls in the background, and then Sam is gone too.
Dean steps closer. "You bring them back!"
"I'll do you one better, Dean," comes the acid reply. "I'll send you to them."
Dean braces himself, hands clenching into his fist, but there is a pause and Castiel wears a look on his angel face at once so familiar and alien. It's Jimmy Novak's skin, the up-sweep of tousled, dark hair, the dark shade of stubble forming at his jaw and chin, but inside is this new fake-Castiel, a facsimile that leaves Dean with a bitter taste against his tongue. This Castiel that Dean cannot stand leans forward into the space between them and skirts a hand against Dean's cheek, thumbs his lower lip.
Dean jerks back, violent, suspicious, and he dredges courage up from the depths. "You don't get to touch me."
Dean wants to pretend that he's not afraid, that his stomach isn't doing trapeze tricks against the heat of fake-Cas's thumb on his lip, but it comes out in shades of vitriol. Dean won't tolerate that seduction again, but the monster in Castiel has something new to say, in a gentled voice that surprises Dean and terrifies him in uncomfortable ways.
"You get to keep your mouth, Dean. But only because Castiel likes it so much."
Dean blinks, and then everything around him is gone too.
When he opens his eyes, Dean has a moment of terrified recognition: this powder blue sky, the rolling fields, the black-top highway in the distance and the entire land has a sense of surreal unreality – like a dream, but more real than any dream he can remember. He's standing dead-center of a train yard, old and abandoned, boxcars sunken and rusting in long brown lines over bolts of metal, some resting on tracks and others strewn across the landscape like toys scattered in a child's sandbox. Train tracks measure out miles in the distance.
It could be real, or it could be a fantasy. It feels like the Green Room, but ten thousand miles wide, and it hits him then that it's the wasteland Castiel spoke of in the dream, and most of all that it's—
—Kansas. It's Dodge City, Kansas, and the mud beneath his boots is real. He hitches in a breath and spins in place, searching.
Sam is beside him, and so is Bobby, and if the circumstances were different, Dean would be tempted to laugh – except nothing is funny about their scowling faces and the smooth patch of flesh where their mouths should be. Dean slaps a hand to his own face, expecting the same – You get to keep your mouth, because Castiel likes it so much. His face is still intact. He presses his fingers against his damp lips, whimpers his relief, but when he opens them to form the words, nothing comes out.
He looks at his hand, where he so painstakingly wrote out the spell, the spell he was going to recite and save Castiel with, and everything inside his solar plexus falls into his shoes, bile creeping up his throat in a warm, brackish push.
He clenches his fist and opens his mouth to scream, but the new God has stolen his voice and there is nothing but the narrowed stares of his brother and Bobby, Sam's hands on his hips like he's twelve again. Dean can't remember the last time he saw him so pissed, so vehement that his eyes are nothing but chips of brimstone, as though Hell is a part of him and the fire is seething just under his skin.
Dean licks his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
Castiel, he thinks. I'm gonna find you, do you hear me?
But there's no telling if Castiel hears or not. Dean's fingers creep up, ink-stained and scarred, and he scratches abstractly at the material of his shirt, traces over the brand, the spot where Castiel's handprint still raises a scar on his skin.
If only there was a sign, he thinks. Any angel mojo left over, something, anything. Where are you, Cas, where are you?
Almost in answer, there's a sudden, faint buzz at his fingertips where he touches the brand. It's like an electric shock and Dean slants his eyes down in surprise, fixes his gaze where the ink stains his fingers, because he half expects to see them smart red.
There is a hiss then, like the exhale of a dragon, and they all startle in unison, turning together to pinpoint the sound. Unmistakable, Dean hears it again, and he slaps Sam on the shoulder, points into the tangle of metal that is the trainyard.
In the distance, smoke is rising from a single locomotive, and the hiss sounds again as a white plume of steam shoots into the blue sky. And then there is the squeal of unwilling metal, the guttural protest of grinding gears and cogs and chains, and Dean's mouth falls open as the ancient locomotive begins to move, tearing through its own rust and seized-up wheels, lurching forward along the tracks. In that instant, Sam is running, tearing through knee-high weeds and bare patches of mud without regard, leaving Dean rooted to the spot, watching as the locomotive labors to quicken its passage along the rails, sending a thunder vibrating underfoot that he can feel through the soles of his boots.
He glances at Bobby. The man makes an irritated gesture, all knuckles and calloused palms, and then Dean is moving too, tearing after Sam, denim whipping against stalks of wheat. He follows Sam's long stride, and it's like flushing a rabbit from a bush that goes bounding away from his pursuit, like childhood games of tag. He pushes harder, faster, races to the tracks after his brother and after the locomotive that trails boxcar after boxcar in its wake. The staccato rhythm of the tracks picks up pace, and he knows that if they don't reach it soon, the train will outstrip them.
Dean knows Castiel is in there.
He knows it like he knows the beat of his own heart, senses that it's no coincidence that he asked for Castiel's location, pleaded, Where are you, Cas, where are you?, and suddenly there's a moving locomotive in the boxcar graveyard; an iron relic that spent the last fifty years or so falling into flaking disrepair until it groaned to life here and now. Why else? And on impulse, he slides his fingers inside his shirt and pushes past the fabric of his tee, slaps his hand against his shoulder, presses his ink-stained palm into the heated skin of the scar until he can feel his cartilage grinding against bone beneath.
Dean gasps. Quick and gone again, there is a faint impression of darkness, of impossible heat and sweat crawling down his back. There is the red hot glow of coals in the furnace that drives the train from the engineer room, the panic of Castiel inside, and then Dean feels it, Castiel's shove backward and—
Hurry, Dean…this may be the only chance you have to send them back. He made a mistake…He sent you to the wasteland, but you've opened up the way here. This is your chance. You've created the line to Purgatory, and you must continue with the—
—the brief link is gone then, scattered to the winds if he'd ever held it at all, if it wasn't his imagination, adrenaline-fueled as he pounds beside the track, his muscles burning.
He outpaces another boxcar, keeping his eyes focused ahead of him to where his brother leaps, snapping a fist around a side ladder. Sam makes it look graceful, effortless as he leans back, spine hitting the sheet metal of the boxcar before he extends a hand for Dean, his teeth gritted, his hair blowing wild with the increasing speed of the train.
Leave it to Sam to make it look easy.
Every breath sears harshly out of him, and Dean forces himself into more speed, driving all his oxygen into his feet and his legs, thighs pistoning, urging even more speed as they propel him faster with every second. He gains ground, and pushes up, off from terra firma, one hand out. His fingers find Sam's and lace through them, his brother's fist swallowing his own, and then he swings up onto the ladder and keeps going, climbing to the top and heaving himself up into the wide wooden roof. Sam follows, as Dean crouches, one hand pressed to the floor surface beneath him to keep his balance as the car rocks and sways.
He stares down the line of the rails.
Four boxcars stand between them and the engineer's cab, but the last two carriages look like coachcars. He can board them and hijack the train through there. Dean recalculates plans, plots out new strategies, and all the while his fingers burn where the spell is inked, so that he grinds his palm into the wood, irritated.
Up ahead, he can make out the distant outline of a tunnel, the black circle that announces it like a mouth that gapes wide open and ready to swallow them whole. He doesn't like the look of that tunnel, not at all. Even at this distance, he can see that where the light from the sun should fall further into it, there is only a thick, roiling blackness, like smoke, like this is more than a cut-and-cover underground passageway excavated for the simple convenience of rapid transit. It's the portal, he realizes, and they must have said enough of the spell to open it.
Dean motions toward the tunnel, tight lipped, and his mouthless brother nods back, a concerned crease in his brow as he withdraws his Beretta. Its dark metal glints in the sunlight, and Dean grins.
"What do you think you're doing, exactly?"
The voice echoes from behind them, and together they turn and push up unsteadily, feet spread wide and knees bent, to stand shoulder-to-shoulder.
Oh, how nice of you to drop by, Dean thinks, and the thing in Castiel's skin smiles.
Sam's hand curls on Dean's shoulder, and Dean glances at him. Sam doesn't look away from Castiel, he holds the fake-god's gaze, and with a rough shove, he pushes Dean in the direction of the locomotive. Dean almost stumbles, looks back. The wind whips through Sam's hair but he's waving Dean on, standing between him and the imposter. Dean feels the despair of the moment, pulled between his brother and the possibility of his Castiel on this train.
What if I can't save them both? he thinks suddenly, and then there is a wake-up call of sharp pain at his shoulder – Sam, pinching him hard with strong fingers, and shoving at him again.
Dean huffs a breath, annoyed, but now there's no time for despair or pity or fright. All he sees is Sam lifting his middle finger to the fake-Castiel's face, which gazes on him with a condescending expression reserved for the unimportant, the insignificant, the hopeless; for the animals in the zoo that howl and throw their feces.
Dean is moving then, fast, feet pounding over the wood as it pitches underneath him, and he doesn't even think as he makes the leap to the next boxcar. His breath scorches across his tongue, and his throat is raw and dry. He doesn't look back, because if he looks back and sees what this monster version of Castiel might be doing to his brother, he will not be able to do this. He will falter, and all will be lost.
Just how the hell he's supposed to send all the souls back to Purgatory without being able to say the exorcism makes him wonder if he has lost this fight already.
Dean breaks into the coach, kicking out the door with his feet and crashing into the empty cabin, its curtains shaking out a greeting with the motion of the train. It's a restaurant car, with row upon row of empty place settings where passengers would sit to dine upon meals. Linens and napkins are arranged for passengers that don't exist, the silverware a mocking gleam in the light that filters through dirty windows.
This smells like a trap, he thinks, hesitating in place. He hears the wind howling through the open windows, can see the rushing countryside beyond the gauzy fabric that buffets in the breeze. He reaches for his Colt 1911, his fingers sliding against the ivory handle grips as he draws. A bead of sweat gathers at his temple. There's no time for regrets now. He's in this, and there's no going back. He drives out thoughts of Sam, several boxcars back, and focuses on reaching Castiel.
Some of that angel mojo would be really helpful right about now, he thinks, and no sooner is the thought formed than the door ahead opens, and there he is.
Castiel skids to a stop, sensible business shoes skimming smoothly against the carpet, sleeves whipping against seats and the hem of his trenchcoat furling out behind him. It's as though he hasn't been aware Dean was even here until this moment, and he swallows, his Adam's apple working in his throat like a counterweight, before he's running forward, toward Dean.
Dean lifts the gun, takes a step back. It looks like Castiel, but Dean presses his lips tight-closed in his anxiety, his eyes unblinking as he feels the skin along the back of his neck tighten, the hairs along his arms stand on end. The sleeve of his shirt rides up against the handprint scar.
Castiel shows no concern for the gun. Instead, he pushes past Dean's outstretched firearm, invades his personal space. It looks like Cas, smells like Cas, but everything feels wrong as the man leans into Dean and plants a kiss right on his lips.
Dean jerks backward from the wet warmth, the ripe flow of an insidious tongue, and in the next second, Dean knows this is not Castiel.
A grin splits the fake-Castiel's face as he observes Dean's reaction, and then he cries out, his voice a guttural taunt, nothing at all like the angel's.
"Tag! You're it!"
And then the fake Castiel turns on his heels and runs, disappearing into the coach ahead.
Snarling, Dean moves forward.
Blue sky rushes over Sam as he listens to Dean's receding footsteps along the roof of the boxcar. With Dean's vanishing presence goes a thousand feelings, all of them like lights receding in the darkness – how long has his brother been his safety net, his security blanket, his parachute, and his armor? He clenches a fist and loosens his fingers where they dig into the matte black of Beretta steel.
The thing wearing Castiel's skin cuts a silhouette against the Kansas sky like a bolt of lightning, and it stares at him as though there is nothing of note on top of this train, racing at seventy miles an hour with the steady thump of the freighters beating out time over the tracks, eyes him as if he's just another obstacle to be eliminated. There's a coldness in this Castiel that Sam loathes, but he understands, knows that the way to Hell is cold.
The way the Cage was cold.
Sam burns to say a thousand things, and he rubs a rough hand over the space where his mouth should be, his palm leaving a sting in its wake.
The fake Castiel arches an eyebrow. "Here you are, protecting the brother who left you to rot in the Cage. Who, even now, leaves you to face me alone while going to save the angel who broke your wall. What kind of brother is that?" he observes, icy-calm.
Sam surges forward suddenly, then stops short, breath coming in fast through his nostrils. Don't talk about what you don't know, he sends out on his thoughts, and he can tell the fake Castiel hears him.
"Doesn't Dean have a brother in need of saving right in front of him, every day, every hour, every second?" the fake Castiel presses on. "Sammy, Sammy, always needing to be saved by his big brother. But I guess big brother has finally abandoned you this time. For Castiel of all things."
Sam thinks nothing, and is almost thankful to be left without a mouth to speak through. He counts his thousand-and-one nights spent shuddering in the memory of the cage, draws out the time in memories of blood, and bone, of freezing Arctic cold counterpointed with Lucifer's heat. Oh, the cries, the screams, the wails of anguish more bitter than pain. Sam need only turn and the ambiance of Hell is in every small moment, every gesture, in the smell of bacon when Bobby cooks, or the exhaust fumes when Dean turns the key in the Impala. Hell is eternal, and Sam is always there, and in this moment he wonders if Dean still is. Still surviving with the memories of his own time in Hell. Sam doesn't understand how his brother is still functioning, much less how he's still fighting to save the people he loves everyday. Sam. And now Cas. And make no mistake, his brother loves Castiel, Sam knows, even if Dean might not be ready to admit it.
The monster wearing Castiel's face is watching him closely. "You and I should be working for the same goal, Sam," he says. "You're fighting so hard. Dean had his chance to retire. When were you ever offered such an opportunity? Hasn't your suffering cost you just as much? Castiel raised you half-assed, and then shattered the one thing holding you together so he could rule Heaven unchallenged. You don't need him. I can make that happen. Just do nothing, Sam."
Sam listens, running a finger along the handle of the Beretta, and time stops on top of the train, his hair whipping in his eyes as this clever monster in the shape of Castiel, paternal, head tilted, face gentled and kind, points out the obvious.
"The choice is clear, Sam. If Dean can't wrest Castiel from his fate, you can still occupy the favored place in your brother's heart. Isn't this what you want?"
Sam listens to the seductive argument, can see the way this imposter version of Castiel aims to drive a wedge between him and his brother. He's trying to make Sam believe he's the unfortunate victim of a selfish brother who has abandoned him. And maybe it would have worked if Sam didn't remember every single moment of Dean's single-minded devotion to Sam over the years. Dean was the father Sam always needed. Dean was the one who nursed Sam through every illness, who held his hand on his first day of kindergarten, who sat with him as he cried his eyes out every time Dad left. Dean gave up his childhood so Sam could have one. There is nothing about his brother that's selfish; in fact he's the most selfless bastard Sam has ever known; the brother he loves, the brother he admires, the brother he wanted to be every day of his young life – the brother who carried him out of the fire. Brother, father-figure, guardian.
Sam had spent a good portion of his life running away, wanting to prove he could stand on his own two feet, to prove he was strong enough to take care of things himself. And he remembered a time when he thought he was, when he had Ruby in the passenger side and the girl in the trunk, and Lucifer tapping on the other side of Hell like a moth beats itself against a glass.
Yet, the words coming out of the monster's mouth are eerily familiar, but it takes Sam a moment as he fixes on the thing in front of him to recall a memory filtered through with burning red, with feathers, with fiery eyes and sounds that shatter glass and perforate ear drums, because he has heard this sad tale over and over again, in the Cage. He has heard it from Lucifer, from Michael, as they mourn their devastated love and rail against the humans that came between them. In Sam's last memory of the Cage, they were unable to forgive and unable to escape each other, both forever bound and eternally separated by the volatile nature of their love.
It sends a flare of rage through him.
Castiel didn't raise Sam from perdition so he could remain locked in the same divine soap opera, playing out the same mistakes of two prideful angels that didn't have the courage to meet in the middle, crack open a beer, and start fresh. Sam and his brother had started over, had learned to forgive.
The real Castiel knew that. And this monster is not him.
"You and Dean don't need him, Sam!"
Yeah, you're right, Sam thinks, pausing to glance at the landscape. It rushes by so fast. In another time, he'd like to take a closer look at this place where he was born, might even take the time to know these lands, to feel the stalks of wheat beneath his fingers, to be wistful the way Dean is when he talks about Kansas.
You're right, he thinks. We don't need Castiel. This time he needs us!
In the next second, Sam's fingers snap, a jerk of his wrist too fast to see, an effortless blur of sinew and bone, drawing the Beretta up and then squeezing off the rounds, one after the other into this fool's gold-Castiel. He feels the muscle burn in his arm, the recoil of the gun as it kicks back into his folded fingers, the satisfaction of the thunder that follows, the lick of flame.
Castiel takes each hit with serene composure, puffs of blood and fabric spilling out from the holes that appear in the trenchcoat, blinking delicately with each punch of metal through flesh. Sam looks down at the Beretta with faint dismay; no bullet could finish off this thing in Castiel's skin, and he knew it before he squeezed the trigger. But if there's anything you learn in Hell, it's that the satisfaction is in the execution.
"Sam, let's talk about this," the fake Castiel responds amiably, brushing a hand down the ruined lapel of his trenchcoat. "We have plenty of time."
Of course. You're a decoy, Sam realizes, and Castiel blinks, another head tilt. He's like a doll, an empty puppet, an automaton, a distraction to keep Sam from his brother, keep him from helping Dean find Castiel. He turns away from it, running clumsily in the opposite direction.
"Sam, wait! Don't go! You can't find him there!"
But Sam is done talking to the monster, and he picks up speed against the force of the howling wind, finding the ladder to the coach and sliding down, metal burning against his fingers as he hits the door. He hears Castiel running across the top of the boxcar after him, and his breath speeds up, frantic. He jerks open the door as the steps draw near, sliding it across loud, thunderous. The door hinges squeal with the force, and he can make out the shadow of the tunnel in the distance, drawing closer.
End of the line, he thinks, studying the murky darkness within the tunnel that roils and bubbles like smoke from a cauldron. How long do they have? Minutes at most? He falls in through the door of the coach, breathless, sweat trickling down his back as he launches forward and—
—now his boots are sliding along wooden boards, as he registers that this place is new and it isn't a railroad coach at all. The howling wind and the beating tracks are gone, there is only the calm water of a lake spread out before him as the soles of his boots skid him down a long jetty that extends into it, pointing towards the distant landscape of trees and forest beyond the water, on the opposite shoreline. He trips over a tackle box, tracks his gaze past a set of abandoned fishing poles, and flails to keep his balance as he stops just short of the end of the dock, seconds from running out of decking and plunging into the lake.
What the fuck?
He spins around on his heel, hands out, Beretta hot against his sweating palm, but there's no one there, and the door to the coach is gone.
The voice is soft, hoarse, and there is a sensation of light across his face, slicing the lines of a new mouth, and Sam answers, his voice a gasp of relief.
Dean opens the door, and things go from bad to worse.
He had his finger on the trigger with every intention of making the imposter's head disappear, but the second the door slides open on the next coach all the breath leaves Dean's lungs.
This coach is filled to the brim with upwards of forty passengers. People rub shoulders and crowd in and incline their heads and talk in soft, muted notes, their eyes wide and blue, a faint impression of stubble along their hard-angled jaws, their ties in various stages of unknotted and meticulous, adjusting sleeves and lapels and clearing their throats or swallowing between words.
Dean's jaw drops.
All as one, they turn together and fall silent, sighting Dean and settling their gazes upon him.
They are all Castiel. A trainload of Castiels, and an explosion of hatred worms through Dean's veins in time with his adrenaline, shaking the gun in his hands. Will the real Castiel please stand up? he thinks, and together, the Castiels slowly tilt their heads in varying degrees of incline, so like the Castiel that was, so like the angel he knew, the motion is eerie to witness repeated and cloned ad infinitum.
One of the Castiels nearest the front smiles, and speaks.
"You didn't think you could just hijack us all, did you?"
Dean says nothing. He lifts the gun, breathes deep to steady the shaking of his hand. He exhales in a growl and squeezes the trigger.
The explosion resounds in the enclosed space of the coach, and he takes the recoil through his wrist and tastes lead on his lips with a curl of his tongue. He blinks, and the Castiel look-a-like stands there still, a bullet hole in his trenchcoat, the edges of the tan fabric that surround it singed, a wisp of smoke rising from the entry wound. A slow drip of black blood oozes out and down his chest, to the floor.
Shit, Dean thinks and shoves the gun back into the holster with a disgusted grunt. Who the hell are these guys? Where's the real Cas?
Gunshot Castiel blinks. "We're the souls you're trying to destroy," he says as soft as treachery. "And you're looking in the wrong place for your friend. We will not help you. He is not here."
That's a lie, Dean thinks fiercely. His hand slaps against his shoulder, back against the brand, the whorls of his fingerprints embedding themselves into the scar as he pushes. He knows it's a lie because he feels it, a pulse in his blood when he touches the brand – something of the angel calling to him, here, on this train. But it tells him everything he needs to know about where he stands among the many Castiels that crowd the room.
They will not help him because once he knows where Castiel is, once he finds him, he will flush them down the drain like a bad memory. Keeping Castiel secret is the only leverage they have left.
Where are you, Cas? he hollers out hoarsely inside his head, but there's no answer.
Dean bites down into his lip until he tastes blood; it gives vent to his frustration, but it isn't enough. The thrum of the locomotive beneath his feet builds a fire in his veins, stokes the rage he feels at all this waiting, fans the flames of his need to do the right thing, right now. What right does the new God have, what right do these filthy, depraved souls have, to stand between him and the right thing? Between him and Castiel?
And that's the core of his fury, and it ignites and explodes through his belly in a sun flare. It should never have gotten this far. Any God worth the while should have taken care of his son, and his son was Castiel, and his son is broken and bleeding somewhere on this godforsaken train. And Dean knows the sensation, that moment when the ones you depend on the most fail you; the ones who should love you the most, care for you the most, who should always put your welfare before their own, falter and fail.
When there was no one there for Dean, Castiel was there.
He will not turn back now. And none of these base monsters can stop him.
Gunshot Castiel sneers, as though he has picked Dean's thoughts from the atmosphere like a leaf on the wind. "Righteous Man."
Dean snaps a hand in a short gesture, beckons the angel imposter forward with an inarticulate sound. When the gunshot Castiel doesn't move, Dean jumps forward, digging a heel into the carpet, anchoring himself as he grabs him by the lapel and twists him around, letting go and shoving him into the crowd of clones. They tumble like ninepins, grunting like animals as they struggle to catch their brother and right him, as they flail for balance. Dean punches a fist into the face of the next one, flinching as he feels the crunch of bone and the slick flower of blood blossoming beneath his knuckles. It isn't Castiel, but he can't shake the guilt that follows, because it feels traitorous, feels like he hurt his Castiel.
He hesitates and in that moment the pretense is broken. Their faces change and twist, strange parodies of Castiel himself, and none of them like him at all. Dean feels a fist at his chest, knocking the wind from his lungs as he goes backward, tears forming at the corners of his eyes as he squeezes them shut, dragging a breath in. He forms curse words without sound, fuck you, fuck you, fuck you. He scrabbles backward in a sea of limbs, a forest of legs clad in suit pants beneath trenchcoats whose belts dangle in his way as he hits the floor. He feels a business shoe find his ribs, and he brings his hands to his face, protecting his head the only way he knows how.
The ink on his palm itches, raw and burning, and when he opens his eyes he realizes that the letters on his flesh are glowing with a subtle light. Dean blinks: it's a trick of the eye, surely? And then the light is gone.
He rocks back beneath the force of another blow, everything all elbows and knees and sharp-ended shoes, and on an impulse he doesn't understand, he splays out the fingers of the hand with the exorcism written on it, and shoves it at the closest fake-Castiel, snaking his palm up the pant leg and setting it against the naked flesh.
Screaming, all he can hear is screaming then. Everything stops, all the pummeling and the violence, and a circle of breathing space widens around Dean's fallen body as he gasps out his panic.
An empty set of clothes falls with a whisper in a puddle beside him. The leg he clutched in his hands moments ago is gone: there's nothing there but an empty pair of pants, a trenchcoat, a shirt, and a tie, collapsed untidily across the clone's shoes. There is nothing else of it left, and the smell of burnt offerings, like the ones they prepared at Bobby's before the exorcism, hangs pungent in the air as Dean climbs to his feet, spitting blood from his lips.
The Castiels move backward, lips pulled back from their teeth in ivory white flashes, and Dean lifts his hand, fingers strumming their tension as he grins, wolfish. The ink of the exorcism rite undulates along his skin, and he feels a jolt of electricity that powers through his bones and up his spine to his brain, where the knowledge is like a clarion call to arms.
Jesus fucking Christ, I am the exorcism.
They never stopped to think that a spell can be cast with more than a voice, and Dean bears the evidence of it now.
All the Castiels pant hard. Blood dots their trenchcoats and sleeves, some of it his where it stains red, some of it theirs where it stains black, and they all eye his fingers and his hand with a look of disgust, of thinly disguised terror. Dean grins wider, triumphant. Victorious.
"No!" another one of them cries, stepping backward. "No, you cannot do this!"
Give me Castiel!
Dean snaps a hand forward, slaps the closest Castiel clone across the face, and no sooner is the connection made than there is a hiss and a blast of light, and vacant clothing spills to the ground with no one inside it. He lurches forward, his hand outstretched, again, and a hum of energy snaps through the air, charging the atmosphere with invisible ions. There is no negotiation on this 3:10 to Purgatory, do you hear? he cries out inside his head. Give me Castiel, or I will take you down, one by one.
"Wait! Don't do this," is the hubbub he gets in answer. "We don't know where he is! Don't you understand? He's hiding! He's hiding from us! We can't give you what we don't have."
Dean lurches forward, his hand outstretched, and there is a humming of energy in the air, charging the atmosphere with invisible ions. He can almost taste it, the power thrumming in those ink lines along his skin, but he knows that he could exorcise the imposters night and day, like a harvest, his hand the scythe that rises and falls and cuts them down, and there will still be too many. How many more of them will he have to burn through before he finds the real Castiel? Has he been silenced, as the new God silenced Dean? Is he unable to speak up, held captive in the mob? Or concealed in another part of the train?
Maybe there is another way to find him.
Dean reaches up and fists his sleeve, tearing at the fabric. The seam rips, shreds, and he lets it drop to the cabin floor, baring his naked shoulder to the light. The Kansas skyline races by like stop-motion photography, eating the miles with lightning speed. His scar in the shape of Castiel's hand stands in relief. Dean shuts his eyes and reaches, settling his fingers into the shape of the brand, ink pressing into the scar.
Come on, Cas. We're running out of time.
But Dean is more than running out of time. The Castiels are growing braver and they crowd around him with their hands reaching, fingers restless and twitching, eager to tear, and strip, and destroy. Dean is out of options, and then running will be all that's left.
With his hand flattened against the mark and his skin burning up beneath the letters, he prays to Castiel, and he holds onto the memory of that forbidden kiss, so real and heartfelt in that moment when he thought it was the angel, his saliva like a baptism, his fear like a crucifix.
"It should have been Dean here instead of me," Sam mutters.
Sam can still hear the sound of the train, the steam pouring from the smokestack and painting a white line through the blue sky in his head, but there's nothing here but lake stillness, murky water that smells like rich garden soil and puddled rainwater.
Sam doesn't ask the other man in the trenchcoat for proof that he's Castiel – the proof is in the bruised hollows beneath sad eyes, his exhausted, red-rimmed stare, his disheveled appearance, the tie loose and waving in the breeze that rolls off the lake surface. Sam knows the sorrow and pain that aches from him is the angel eroding beneath the force of the souls riding him.
"You shouldn't have come, Sam…neither of you should be here," Castiel whispers.
Sam shakes his head decisively. "We need to get you out of here, Cas. Dean's looking for you."
The angel's gaze drifts away out over the lake. "I would send you back, Sam, if I could. Leave me, find your brother and go…"
Castiel looks back then, his stare as frank as it has ever been, and Sam finds it impossible to hate him for what he did, or feel jealousy that Castiel fills a space in his brother's heart that he can't. Instead, Sam sees his own haggard face reflected in Castiel's, because they are mirrors of each other, and both walked the crooked path that took them low. It makes a twinge of something fierce and protective tense like a tiger in the space of Sam's chest.
Castiel does need them. It isn't just Sam or Dean who deserve to be saved.
When the revelation comes to him, Sam hears it in Dean's voice, the voice he uses when he's pissed off at the world, when he decides fate has nothing on the Winchesters just because he says so, because he's the oldest: Doesn't everyone? Doesn't everyone deserve to be saved? That's something his brother learned from the angel.
Then Castiel cries out, low and guttural, his knees buckling and his hands at his temples, eyes rolling up at the sky as he crumples. Sam is quick, grips at the trenchcoat as the angel folds and leans into him, his insubstantial frame little more than skeleton beneath skin.
"I can feel Dean," Castiel gasps, finding his feet. "You shouldn't have come here," he insists again, and Sam thinks the angel is almost angry, almost enraged that they made the effort. "The way is open, and there isn't much time left. You have to get out of here."
Castiel needs them, Sam knows. "Just breathe," he says. "Good. Take a deep breath."
Shuddering, Castiel does so, taking a step away from Sam on his own power and jerking his trenchcoat back into place, as though he's embarrassed to be in such a state of disarray.
"Take another deep breath," Sam advises him. "And get ready, Cas."
Castiel tents his eyebrows, comically bewildered. "Ready for what?"
Sam reaches out a hand, like the hand the boy with demon blood reached out to this same angel so long ago. "It's time for us to raise you for once. And there's nothing you can do to stop us."
Castiel smiles, but it's the ghost of an expression, weary and hard-bitten. It dies as fast as it lives, when the angel jerks his head sharply upright as though he hears a distant call. He looks past Sam, back down the dock, where the wooden boards meet woodland ground and forest leaves, down a dirt path that wends out of sight through the treeline.
"What is it?" Sam whispers, looking down the path.
Castiel reaches out and wraps a splay of fingers around the fabric of Sam's shirt, bunching it in his fist. His stare doesn't deviate from the forest path beyond.
"It's not me you need to worry about, Sam," Castiel says, hushed.
And then Sam hears the swift steps of a man running, and Dean appears right there in the treeline, as if by magic, as if he teleported there in the style of bad sci-fi movies. He arrives with a sudden slice of light, and it's like he walked through a door from another room.
Sam feels the lift in his heart, the excitement in his veins. "Dean!" he yells.
Dean sights him and moves faster, weeds whipping against denim as he sprints, arms pumping, legs blurring as his boots carry him over the mud. He doesn't look relieved or pleased to see Sam and Castiel, and Sam feels the tightening of the angel's fingers against his skin, pinching there until pain needles through his nerves and into his spine.
And then figures spill out of the forest behind Dean.
Sam breathes out the only words that seem appropriate.
Dean opens the door of the coach and stumbles out the other side into a place he knows; the lake, the dock, the dream world he has always retreated to in moments of peace, and he has a moment of regret. It has nothing to do with Sam's mouth forming the words oh shit as Dean eats the space from here to there; it has nothing to do with the way his heart double-times and hammers and then skids to a stop when he catches sight of Castiel; and it has nothing to do with the way the lines and words on his palm suddenly feel like a hundred pinpricks and needles working the skin in a violent frenzy.
No, his regret has everything to do with the fifty million Castiels in hot pursuit behind him. This haven has always been his, and then it became Castiel's and his, and now he's bringing an infinite number of party crashers with him and not a single one of the bastards is considerate enough to bring his own fuckin' beer.
Dean whistles breath through his mouth as he calculates the distance from land to dock, and he doesn't dare look back in case he loses speed and is caught by the mob behind him. Time speeds up as though he is contained in a shaft of light, eclipsing distance as he crushes grass beneath his boots, tears up mud beneath his heels, and gives everything to the final yards, leaning forward and gulping air.
"Run, Dean, run!" Castiel hollers, and then Castiel is turning, dragging Sam with him as he begins to run down the dock. Dean wants to gasp in gratitude at seeing him herding Sam along ahead of him even as his brother tries to draw his gun, slipping into the gunfighter's stance to fight back. But there can be no fighting this – the Purgatory partycrashers have arrived, and what they lack in firepower against the mojo of the spell, they make up for in sheer numbers.
Dean's boots hit the boards, rolling thunder. He counts the seconds and reaches five when he hears the first of the Castiels hit the dock behind him. Ahead, Cas's trenchcoat flares in the wind and the angel is ripping it off in-stride as he and Sam reach the end, running out of space.
Dean didn't think beyond the end of the dock.
What the fuck will we do when we run out? he wonders, and the thought in his head is a long, slow wail of despair. He can't bring himself to believe he could come so far just to fail now.
It can't be.
He closes the distance to Sam and Castiel, and the angel's trenchcoat is gone now, abandoned on the dock, and with a rake of his hand, so is the black suit jacket Jimmy Novak purchased a lifetime ago. He beckons Dean, his face studied, serious, and it's enough for Dean to shiver with the sense of Hell, because it's a look that threatens rapture, and brings apocalypse in its wake.
A look to lay waste.
Castiel holds a hand out, facing Dean. His other hand grips Sam's shoulder and will not let go. Dean can make out the tendons in his wrist, the bones in his knuckles, the skin white.
"Don't stop! Don't slow down! Come to me, Dean!"
Come to me, Dean!
Dean bursts out a molten breath he didn't know he was holding, because the words have an effect on him he can't analyze, the faith of a friend, the support of a fellow soldier—
the voice of a beloved
—but the thought is lost on the wind, buried deep in the basement of Dean's mind as Castiel's hand draws back, and Dean launches himself to the end of the dock. He feels the whip of Castiel's tie brush against him, caught in the wind like a ribbon as he takes to the air, and before he catapults off the end, arms wide, frozen in space, he feels Castiel's fingertips ghost across his mouth, a slide down his throat that sets his body on fire in a slow ache that feels like a thousand-and-one women whose beds he claimed across the continental United States, in midnight rides and diners and one-night stand motels. Every nerve-ending catches alight and blazes fire at that single touch – and Dean's voice is restored.
He hears himself screaming from light years away as Castiel's hand finds the back of his shirt, bears him up like puppy-scruff, and their shadows are rushing up from the water to meet them, Sam and Dean and Castiel in tandem, airborne and breathing in together as they hit the water.
There is an instant of floating that Dean thinks he will remember for the rest of his life and beyond, the knowledge that this is what it would be like to fly, to know what Castiel takes for granted, to be a part of the sky, the air, the jet stream and zephyrs. He does not have time to fear it, to protest, to turn away.
They hit the arc of descent, and then he's plunging into cold lake water with his brother and the angel side-by-side, his boots filling with cold, his heart stuttering as his chest submerges—
And then there's no water.
—Dean's eardrums pop with the change in pressure, a flare of nausea hits him, and his boots connect with solid ground. The landscape changes, the lake and the water and the dock erased in a shimmer like a mirage, and there is only the railway ahead of them as he hits the gravel embankment with a punched-out oof. And then he's rolling down into a field of grass and wheat, the momentum forcing him head-over-heels. He catches glimpses of Sam tumbling beside him, all big hands and feet, spitting out curses, as weeds slap them both across the face before they roll to a stop.
Dean is on his back and he opens his eyes, breathing hard, and stares up into cotton-puff clouds. The adrenaline pulses energetically through his bloodstream, and he jerks upright, sighting the train as it continues on without them, the locomotive plunging into the murk of the tunnel. He blinks, feeling the first sting of a thousand hurts: cuts and bruises that will make their presence known tomorrow. The shadow of the tunnel roils and then appears to swell in anticipation of the train, extending past the opening and swallowing coach after coach that goes rolling into it, and he can hear a howling from within the boxcars, bloodcurdling and climbing through the octaves in the souls' desperation to be freed.
The others. "Sam!" he blurts out. "Cas!"
He springs to his feet and spins, wild and terrified, almost expecting to find them missing. But there's movement, Sam pushing up on his elbows, legs splayed, staring at the disappearing train, and Castiel looking forlorn and lost without his trenchcoat, his dress shirt and tie out of place amid the fields that wave like an ocean around them, as though he is on his way to a business meeting in the middle of the rural landscape.
Dean begins to laugh.
He can't help it. The feeling rises from his belly until he's shaking with it, bending over double to set his hands on his knees, ears of wheat brushing his cheeks as he does, laughing, laughing. When he rises again he runs up to the gravel embankment, where weeds and errant wildflowers fight their way through stone, and he's as excited as a little boy, climbing up to the tracks and straddling them as he faces the tunnel and lets loose a howl.
"Woo-hooooo! Fuck yeah! Holy shit, Sam! Did you see that? We jumped from a train, Sammy!"
Dean looks to his brother for approval, and Sam stares back at him, eyes huge, before he folds his hands over the back of his neck and flops back down to the ground with an agitated sigh. Dean shakes his head with a smirk, light and floating on the endorphins, alive in the moment and without a thought. He wants to hold onto the blue Kansas sky forever, and when he turns around once more, it's Castiel he finds.
His knees still shake with adrenaline, but he forces himself down the embankment, into the cool grasses. They will reap for harvest soon, make great wheels of hay and send threshers out in lines to quilt this land. Castiel cuts a slight figure through the vast, waving field, and Dean relishes the burrs that stick to his denim, scaring the snakes from their hiding places as he rustles along.
"Cas," he begins as he nears, and the adrenaline doesn't quit; it increases exponentially with each heartbeat as Castiel meets his gaze, the expression in his eyes as subtle as a hammer-blow.
"Dean," he allows, and then his shoulders tilt, his head lowers and he looks down at his feet.
"What now?" Dean mocks gently. "You're going to tell me that I shouldn't have come? Tell me that I should have left you there? That you're sorry, and that you don't deserve to be saved?"
Castiel catches his breath, looks up and the hard angle of his jaw runs counterpoint to the softness that animates the rest of his face and settles in his eyes. "No, Dean, I was going to tell you that you don't deserve this," he says carefully. "You don't deserve any of the things that have happened in these past few months, and most of all, you don't deserve to bear the burden of my decisions, and the consequences that followed."
Dean examines the tall grasses, looks at the buttons on Castiel's shirt, his unknotted tie, looks everywhere but at Castiel.
"Or the burden of my all-too-human desires," his friend mutters.
And this, most of all, is why Dean looks everywhere but at Castiel. Dean coughs and he fidgets; he rubs a hand against the pocket of his jeans where it rides along his thigh, runs a finger along the strap of the thigh holster that holds the 1911. He wants to shoot something, hit something. The ink along his palm burns like an etching made in fire, and the burning only increases the closer his proximity to Castiel.
…my all too human desires.
That's ridiculous, Dean thinks. Castiel means greed, power, corruption; those are human desires. He doesn't mean…Dean lets the thought hang, reluctant to verbalize the concept even in the privacy of his own head.
Me. He's talking about me. No way.
When the moment becomes unbearable, when Dean is running out of things to think, and is starting to wonder if he'll have to say something instead of staring into the endless blue of the angel's gaze, a voice bails him out.
"Well, I'll be. You idjits almost done something better than half-assed."
Dean twists, looks behind him, and down the track is Bobby, the sun glinting off the metal handcar as he pushes the lever, his ragged shirt riding up his belly. Dean can hear the choppy rhythm of his breath as he approaches.
"Hold up, old man," Sam calls, and he lurches to his feet as Bobby lets go of the handcar with a bitter curse, bending over to catch his breath as the vehicle rolls to a stop on its own. "Is that registered? You got insurance on that?"
"I think it's in my pocket," Bobby groans, and he digs out a middle finger for Sam's benefit before he slides off and to the ground, wincing the whole way.
Sam reaches Bobby and pounds him on the back, and together they make their way to Castiel and Dean, and Dean couldn't be happier to have something, anything, to stand between him and the angel – anything to fill the space haunted with the ghost of that kiss, the thousand-and-one touches traded between them in battle that could mean everything, or nothing at all.
Nothing. It means nothing.
"You got your mouth back, so how come the sign language?" he quips.
"Yeah, well, I got an angel to thank for that, I suppose," Bobby says, glancing at Castiel and nodding. Lines crosshatch his brow, stern as he assesses the angel, and then steps back, beckoning Dean to him.
"We'll talk," Dean promises Castiel as he brushes past him, and he hears a sigh, a sigh that could be the wind or it could be an exhale from Castiel himself. Dean gives no sign that he heard, just puts a hand against Bobby's shoulder, squeezes there. He's happy to see him.
"Son," Bobby says, pulling him further away from Castiel and Sam, who trade conversation with each other as Bobby faces him. The old man points to the tunnel, with its center of rolling shadow and blackened edges, like an entry wound in the atmosphere itself. "That ain't gonna close by itself."
Dean's eyes narrow.
"The exorcism," Bobby continues. "You need to finish it, boy."
Dean opens his fist. Again, there is an impression of light bleeding off the text inked into his palm, a trick of the eye that's gone when he blinks. "But the souls are gone, Bobby, what's left to—"
He stops cold mid-sentence and rotates slowly until Castiel is in the dead center of his line of sight.
"It's only ever been about exorcising him, boy," Bobby says gruffly. "Not the train. Not that God-version of him we been dealing with. And you're the only one that can do it. Close off Purgatory, and let's get the fuck back before Miller-time. What do you say?"
Dean shakes his head. "I don't like it, Bobby. I mean, look at him – it's him. He's back. I can tell, it's in the way he moves, the way he talks—"
"I'm sure you're right boy, but we can't leave the door open."
An uneasy feeling of doubt starts spreading out from Dean's belly. "What'll it do to him, Bobby?"
Bobby huffs. "I'm more worried about what it might do to you." He folds his arms across his chest. "Exorcisms before this were like shootin' with a .22, but what you're wielding now is a .50 cal Desert Eagle, with flames shootin' out the end. People get hurt that way. Don't hurt yourself." He glances over to where Sam and Castiel still hover. "And yeah, try not to hurt him. I'm worried about what it'll do to you if all we have left of Feathers is enough to stuff a pillow."
Dean doesn't like it one damn bit. "I'm starting to think I preferred you without your mouth," he retorts.
"Yeah, yeah," Bobby smirks, but then sobers up as he adds, "Dean – just don't let him see you coming with it."
Dean nods, turns away and crosses the distance between them, his palm burning like he soaked it in lamp-oil and set it on fire the closer he gets to the angel. He catches Sam by the arm, jerks his head over his shoulder. "I think the old man could do with a hand," he says, and Sam nods, moves away, giving Dean the space he needs to talk to Castiel.
When Dean feels comfortable with the distance, he turns back around and nearly meets Castiel chest to chest. "Jesus, Cas," he almost-yelps, and he falls back a step, the closeness familiar but unexpected. Sarcasm comes to a halt against his tongue, a smart-ass remark like still up my ass, but the connotation sends heat rising up his collar and into his cheeks. Worse yet, he feels the weight of Castiel's stare track his blush upward.
He doesn't want to talk about it. He wants to return to a simpler time, when Castiel was only Castiel, an angel without an anchor, searching for a way to express his faith and finding Dean instead. But he knows there can be no return to that uncomplicated time of fight, kill, and die. The passion of Castiel's devotion, his loyalty, and his warrior-nature, means something to Dean. It's something he doesn't really understand, but he can't cast it away and ignore it, can't assign it a lesser value so he can feel more comfortable with his own desires.
He turns his heart cold and ruthless for this last act, invents a lie for himself so he can believe that what he does has no meaning, no feeling, no heat or burn of desire. It's a strategy, a military tactic, a move to breach Castiel's guard and cleanse the final taint of Purgatory from him, before he shuts down the portal the spell opened up and barricades the evil the angel released back into its prison for eternity.
"So," Dean says. "That kiss, huh?"
Now it's Castiel who flushes crimson, whose frame trembles as he looks aside. "Dean, I never meant—"
Dean leans forward, swallows him up with his own kiss. It's exactly the distraction he needs to rip open the angel's shirt, buttons popping off and skittering against the underside of his chin before they patter to the grass like rain.
Castiel startles, breathes out air; Dean swallows this too. He tastes fire and the dark undertones of blood and bitter suffering, as he pulls the fabric apart and slams his hand against Castiel's naked chest.
Castiel gasps, the kiss broken, and his pupils contract to pinpricks, bleeding light around their edges. "Dean!" he stutters.
But Dean presses harder, can feel the bones that push up under Castiel's skin, and with them a moment of clarity that pierces right through to his heart. He had wanted a house and wife, and maybe some kids and a pain-in-the-ass dog that would shit in the neighbor's yard, and maybe another project car he would work on during the weekends. And none of it had panned out and he isn't sorry, not in the least.
With the flat press of Castiel beneath his hand, the span of life completes, beginnings and endings, his burning mother, his dying father, his damned brother. And now there is only this, he and the angel who saved him, the endless defiance that links their natures, their refusal to accept pain as the final word, their refusal to bow to the fates in the face of agony, even if they would be reviled and hunted for it – for always doing the right thing.
And here with him is the one eternal thing that has never hated him for it.
There's a sound like a hiss, and it's the sound of sizzling flesh. Dean looks down, astonished, sees light eclipsing his hand as it scorches into the tissue. The angel makes no sound but he's filling with light, and Dean senses the pulse and flow of Castiel, like a river running through his heart.
In that river there are flashes of human shadows, things Castiel learned from Dean, things he found and collected in himself, in the form of a thousand memories, of locked-away secrets, of desires unexpressed. Dean gasps, but the secret is here, in this connection between them, and in what makes this angel an angel at all. One second Dean didn't know such a thing could exist, but in the next, the world splits open inside the angel and Dean is here to see it, to stand witness, to feel it with a touch: Castiel's grace, this ethereal, otherworldly matter that makes him inhuman.
But there is a darkness flowing there too, chaotic and bitter against the purity, the trace element of the legions that possessed Castiel. And for this brief instant, Dean has the power to send it on its way and close the door behind it.
If he can hold onto one while he banishes the other, he can set it all right. He narrows his concentration. He can do this. He will do this.
His hand trembles with the weight of the words, but he doesn't need to look at them now. He knows them by heart, and the heat is palpable, radiates from his fingers. The sound builds from his chest in tandem, volcanic pressure vaporizing everything in its path as he cries out the spell:
"I-re-ni-pa` sag i-re-ni-pa`, zi an-na i-re-pa` zi ki-a i-re-pa`, zi hendur-sag-ga nimgir ge i-re-pa`, zi dingir gal-gal-e-ne i-re-pa`, tu mu-un-na -ab-sum-mu-ta!"
Sam feels the vibration shake up into him through his boots.
He's standing shoulder to shoulder with Bobby and looking at the silhouette of the train yard on the horizon, distant and small. They trade shared concerns about Dean and Castiel, and then there is a sound, a sound that Sam recognizes from a decade of salt and burns on the road, the sound a match makes when it first hits the gas fumes, and the very air ignites in a blast of sulfur that makes the hair on the back of his neck stand erect.
He and Bobby turn in unison. In the near distance, in the waving wheat, Dean and Castiel sink together to the ground, Castiel's shirt ripped open, Dean's hand on his chest. The angel is filling with light, and its incandescence is creeping and curling up Dean's arm as though he grasps it in his fist like a weapon.
But Dean doesn't hear his shout as Sam takes off running. Instead, he and Castiel disappear in a dizzying spin of light, and somewhere beyond it Sam can hear his brother roaring in that ancient language, in the tongue of Gilgamesh, of religion before all religion, a tongue so old angels barely remember it.
Sam reaches the place in the field where he saw them, and when he arrives there, crushing vegetation beneath his tread, Dean is kneeling in a singed outline in the wheat, an obscene scar on the land, like a controlled burn that extends out from each side of Castiel's body.
Castiel's face is expressionless, his eyes open and staring into the sky. They reflect blue into blue into blue. They do not track the shadow Sam casts overhead. Nor do they flicker, or blink, or register any sign of life at all. Castiel's arms are out-flung, his shirt is torn open, and his chest flares red.
Sam sinks to his knees, leans down to float his cheek over Castiel's face, and he feels the soft caress of expelled air. Cas is breathing steadily. Sam straightens, slaps Castiel's cheek. "Cas," he says. "Cas, come on, wake up. Dean, help me."
In his peripheral vision Sam can see plant matter and stray broken stalks caught incongruously in Dean's hair, and Dean doesn't look up. "He isn't in there any more, Sammy," he says dully. "There's nothing there to wake up."
Sam snaps, "But he's breathing," and he's aggressive in his desperation, like if he insists hard enough this won't be true.
His brother is utterly still. "I couldn't hold him," he whispers. "I felt him slipping away from me, and I couldn't hold him."
Sam says nothing. He looks away and along the railway track, and ahead where the tunnel is, there is only a tunnel. There is only a shadow, and nothing else, no swirling smoke at its center, no trace of a supernatural presence, everything ordinary and normal.
Purgatory is closed, and Castiel is gone.
"I'm so sorry, Dean," Sam whispers, and when he puts out his hand again, Dean reaches across and grips it, his fingers pressing into Sam's skin.
Dean doesn't cry. Sam thinks this will be it, the moment the tears fall, but there's nothing, only the gritty blown-out pupils of his eyes in their green-hazel centers. And Sam doesn't have to tell his brother what he already knows – there is a sadness that cuts so deep, the tears won't come, a grief that is as parched and thirsty as a well that runs dry.
It's not machismo, it's not because Dean won't allow himself to cry.
It's because he can't.
They have to walk back.
Sam takes Castiel. He doesn't sling Castiel over his shoulder like he's carrying a body, he leans down and lifts him up in his arms, like a child. He expects to be weighed down, for this to be a bitch of a hike toting a six-foot angel, but the frightening aspect of angelic possession is just how starved Jimmy's body is, how ethereal-light. It's like holding a man constructed of hollow bones, as if Castiel could float away on the wind itself. Sam suspects they will have to trade-off on the long walk back to civilization, but for now he wants to carry Castiel, to bear this burden for his brother so that Dean doesn't have to bear the proof of his loss, in the dead weightlessness that marks the vessel as empty.
He walks, through stalks, and burrs, and he's reminded of the time Dean told him about John pushing baby Sam into Dean's arms on the night of the fire, the night they rarely talk about, because Sam can't remember and Dean can't forget. This moment bears all the hallmarks of that loss without end, without relief, but is nothing like it. In the tips of his fingers pressed up against the suit jacket, he feels a sense of wonder: this was the being that brought him out of the Cage, even if it was only by fragments; this was the being that raised Dean, restored Sam's brother.
Dean marches next to Sam but alone, without looking at anything or anyone around him, his lips a tight slash across his face, the set of his shoulders taut as though he carries the world, as though he is Sisyphus. The ink on his hand is smeared and illegible, but he flexes it and looks at it now and again. After a silent hour or so, he forges ahead steadily, ramrod-straight and stiff-legged.
Back behind, Sam finally breaks the silence. "What are we going to do?" he husks out dryly to Bobby as the man plods along next to him.
Bobby keeps his eyes on his boots. "I got no fuckin' idea," he mutters morosely. "I just…godfuckindammit. This wasn't supposed to happen, and your brother, he…" He lets the words trail off, shakes his head. "This wasn't supposed to happen," he echoes himself.
"What are we going to do with Cas?" Sam broaches then, and he allows himself a glance down to where Castiel's glassy eyes gaze eerily up at the sky through half-shuttered eyelids.
Bobby pulls off his cap, scrubs a hand through his hair. "I got no idea," he says again. "Dump him at a hospital?"
Sam stops, hefts the vessel up slightly in his arms, and Castiel's head lolls slackly on his shoulder. "No," he decides abruptly, and he isn't even really sure why. "We'll take care of him."
Bobby makes a dubious noise that isn't a real word. "If he ain't even really alive, I don't see how we can—"
"We'll take care of him," Sam repeats, more firmly. "Until Dean tells us not to."
They shuffle on quietly for a few more minutes before Bobby looks up. "Sun's going down," he notes. "We ain't getting out of here tonight, wherever here is." He stops, scans the horizon and points. "We'll bed down under that tree, pick this up again at first light. There must be a farm or something around here where we can hotwire a truck."
He doesn't wait for Sam to answer, breaks into a slow jog to catch up to Dean, reaches out to tow him towards the stopgap camp.
They take shelter under the branches, padding down the wheat and scaring off the snakes and the mice. Sam sets Castiel down, closing his eyes with a soft brush of his hand against the empty vessel's lashes. They sweep like lace on the underside of his fingertips. Other than his regular breathing, Sam would believe Castiel dead. He flicks his eyes over to his brother, sitting almost peacefully, and staring at nothing. Sam sighs. Dean hasn't spoken since it went down, and he won't look at the angel laying beside him.
The weather is fair; they'll sleep fitfully, if any of them can. Bobby takes off his overshirt and bundles it up in a makeshift pillow and within ten minutes, he begins to snore.
The sky darkens. Polaris appears. Venus shows up along the skyline, with Orion's Belt, and Taurus, and Cygnus, and gradually the whole of the Milky Way spills out. Sam lies beside his brother and stargazes. The loam is soft beneath them, and Sam thinks if it weren't for their circumstances this would be enjoyable, this would be grand and glorious, and they would build a fire, tell dirty jokes and drink beer, maybe try to get Castiel drunk, and dip Bobby's hand in a bowl of water while he slept. Family.
Sam breaks the silence first; he knows Dean isn't sleeping, and that he won't. His breathing is steady, and every now and then it hitches like something bigger is working its way out, but it won't come, like a stubborn horse that refuses to ford a violent river.
"Don't you fucking give up on him," Sam blurts out.
He hears the shift of Dean as he turns to study Sam in the darkness, feels his brother's stare on him, but Sam keeps his gaze resolute, fixed unerringly on the Big Dipper, dead above them. "You've always been my constant, Dean," he says. "Everybody else on planet Earth could die, but there was never a bullet with your name on it. You defied reason, every time, pulled my ass out of more fires—"
Dean snorts, a weak, unwilling sound of amusement.
"—than I can remember," Sam plows on, "and when you died…it wasn't real. For the longest time, it wasn't real. And I did everything. I was ready to give everything. And it didn't matter, because my everything wasn't enough to break you out of Hell. I couldn't imagine what you were going through down there."
He stops, blows out his distress harshly. "I know now, but back then I didn't have a clue, and not knowing was almost worse than knowing. Every time I sat down at a greasy roadside diner, I'd lose my appetite, thinking about how you weren't there beside me. Every time I started the car, it made me sick. Every time I fucking took in air, Dean, without you…it felt like a crime. What right did I have to do any of these things when I couldn't save you?" He swallows, pauses a beat. "And then along comes Castiel. Everything I did and tried came to fuck all, and what did he do? It was like he waved his hand and that was it, popped you free, easy as you please."
Dean's voice grates out, small and hurt. "I can't do it, Sam. Look at what I did. This was supposed to fix him, supposed to fix everything. I don't even know if he's alive." There's a fracture in the word before he keeps going. "Or if he fucking exists anymore. I can't wave my hand and make it better. Maybe it's time to cut my losses. Cash out before I lose everything I love that I have left."
Dean falls silent then, and their breathing finds a harmony.
These memories are ancient, long-ago things he felt, Sam thinks, and he wants Dean to know. "I wanted to be the one to save you, Dean," he says. "I can only stand back and admire him for having the chance to give you that second life. And sometimes I think he's given you more, Dean. All the times I try to make you see the world from a different angle, to just convince you not to be so much of a nihilistic dick—"
Sam feels the push of Dean's fist as his brother hits him weakly on the shoulder, but for all his half-hearted horseplay, Dean is still silent, as cemeteries are silent, as graveyards are eternally silent.
"Castiel managed to do that for you," Sam whispers on. "I think Castiel saved you in more ways than one. I think he adds something to you. He doesn't take it away. He doesn't reduce you. He changes you for the good. And that's all I've ever wanted for you, Dean. And I think if Cas was here, he'd feel the same. So whatever you're feeling, whatever is going on? Don't let it reduce you, make you less than what you are. Don't fucking leave him behind, Dean."
Dean makes a sound, a thin and reedy sigh, the distant cousin to a death rattle, as though he's dying. Sam counts the stars, and then Dean speaks.
"Tell me about the Cage."
Sam startles. Of all the things he expected Dean to say, this hadn't been one of them, and isn't his brother the most adept of them when it comes to changing the subject, of quietly steering things away from his own time in Hell?
Why plunge into it now?
Dean is quiet for a moment, and then he speaks again. "Tell me about him."
Sam glances over sharply, but Dean is still staring up at the sky. "I didn't think you wanted to talk about Hell, Dean," he offers. "I'm amazed you let me get this chatty with you."
"I need to know, Sam."
Sam bites his lip. "It's not important. They were dick angels who can't resolve their trivial bullshit. What is there to know?"
Dean sits up in the darkness, but in the moonlight Sam can make out the pallor of his skin, the red, raw look around his eyes and his nostrils, as though he has been crying. Maybe he has been, lying there beside Sam in the dark. But he's alert, fervent, fierce. Sam tries to remember a time he ever looked so determined, and he thinks the closest he can compare it to is the day Dean called him after they spent their time apart, when he came back from 2014.
"Tell me everything about Michael," Dean persists. "I want to know his favorite color, what underwear he prefers, what he fucking eats for lunch. Everything."
"Dean, what does it matter? Why?"
Dean draws a hand across his shoulder. Sam notices how the blunt ends of his nails drag deeper into the old burn mark, as though he could either claw it off his skin or sink his hand right into it like water. He pauses, and when Dean speaks next, there's a tone to his voice that stills Sam, and forces him to recall that there are things outside Heaven and Hell that have the power to frighten him.
One of those just happens to be his own brother, and never more so than when he says, "Because I'm going to Purgatory, Sammy. I'm running back into the burning house."
A/N: The banishing rite is part of a Sumerian Exorcism, which can be found here.
Translation: "I adjure there, first I adjured you, I adjured you by heaven, I adjure you by earth, I adjure by Hendursag, the night watchman, I adjure you by the great gods, when I deliver the spell."