A really, really, really overdue Sweet Charity fic for verstehen, who wanted a Dean-centric post-Apocalypse fic with Sam having given into his inner demons. It was only supposed to be 20,000 words long, but because it's so late, I tried to add on a couple thousand words for each month this should have been done, kind of like interest. Actually, the story totally got away from me.
The fic has substantial spoilers up through 5.14ish, but goes significantly AU after that. Title from Iron and Wine's brilliant song.
Before I let you go, I have to thank dotfic, who helped out wayyyyy back when I was trying to get this thing together, trinityofone for read-throughs and cheerleading, and 22by7 for IMing and encouragement above the call.
Freedom hangs like Heaven
The sky in Vermont was congested – the mountains and never-ending trees hemmed it in, and the clouds choked it where they lay heavily on the hilltops. Even when the state road broke reluctantly out onto a scenic turnoff, or slithered high along a mountain's green flank, the sky never really opened up, never ran off into its blue infinity. The clouds hung low on the mountains, and spilled down their sides into the valleys and the driving – already slow on the winding, narrow roads and stuck behind the world's most defensive, law-abiding drivers – made him almost crazy with the boredom.
That night, Dean found himself on a ridgeline, still twenty miles from the nearest motel, fumbling his way out of the Impala, bent-backed and clumsy with how his body thrummed after a day's driving. And, looking up – now the sky was open, so abruptly different he stood there with one hand on the Impala's warm hood for balance. A storm had chased the clouds off, and the sky arched up endless and black, dimensions and dimensions beyond the stars that crowded close.
Isolate, Dean studied the seam of the Milky Way for a moment, unwillingly remembered Sam’s eighth-grade astronomy class and a homemade telescope, then climbed back into the Impala and drove on. Not a minute later, the road pitched steeply downward into a valley, and the trees swallowed him, and the stars vanished. He cut the high beams on, and the long tunnel of darkness lit up in the soft yellow of the Impala's illumination, the cathedral of oaks and pines, and nothing but the night behind them.
On the seat next to him, the Brattleboro Reformer, acquired for the weather report and the sports that remained unread, predicted the peak of the Perseid meteor shower would come that night, and, with no moon in the sky, the viewing would be excellent. Above the ridge he'd just abandoned, meteors, as though flung from heaven, streaked silver across the sky's face and disappeared.
In the back seat, another fallen thing slept under Dean's extra coat and an army-surplus blanket.
* * *
Sam's pistoning elbow nailed him right in the gut, rode up hard against his ribcage. Breath left him and so did balance, and Sam, busy punching the demon (vicious hail of blows, Dean saw: hook to the head, chest, solar plexus, gut) didn't even falter. He had to pick himself up and hitch himself out of the way and just watch, like he'd let something out of its cage and had to wait until it stopped running and destroying to do anything about it.
The demon laughed, a wet, gurgling sound, the blood and salt mixing together and pulping its throat. Dean tried not to think of Alastair. "Heh," the demon wheezed, and Dean could have sworn it was looking right at him, blood-glossed black eyes still glittering and knowing despite the pain and the knowledge it was going to die.
"You fucking did this to me," Sam hissed, and the knife was out, shaking because Sam was gripping it that hard. The demon's gaze slid to the knife like oil, and its bloody grin widened, "Well, I didn't personally, buuuut…. I might have helped out some people who did."
The knife came down, and more blood joined the smears already decorating Sam's wrists and forearms, the splashes on his face and the spatter on the weatherworn wall behind him. Dean watched, not really noticing the brief flare and dying of the demon inside its host, and didn't even spare a thought for the poor bastard who was finally out of his misery.
Sam collapsed back, liquid and loose, staring at the dead body. The knife fell, soft clatter on the floor, when Sam had to open his hand to brace himself. He stared at the demon – the body, the body of some poor guy who probably hadn't deserved any of this – and Dean stared at Sam and watched as sanity slowly came crawling back.
"Dean, did you hear him?" Sam asked. His voice sounded small, confused, so much the little kid brother again that Dean didn't know whether to crawl close to help or get the hell out of there. "Dean, that was one of the demons who worked with Lilith. It's one of the ones from when Victor died."
"I know, Sammy."
"It deserved it," Sam said, vicious again, and desperate, and Dean had heard that tone before, of Sam trying to convince himself back into righteousness again. He wanted to say I know, Sammy, because the demon had – they all did – and Dean couldn’t fault Sam at all for wanting the thing dead and gone, but watching how he’d done it, that unleashing of rage and then all the red heat of that anger boiling down to coolness as the demon died locked up his words. There wasn’t much else to do except watch and know he was scared, and know that he’d been scared, not of the demon because he’d gotten used to the things, but of Sam, and to wonder if they weren’t just circling back to last year, to Sam angry and silent and wanting fights they couldn’t afford to have. Wanting death, and the slow, poisonous conviction that this Sam, the one with blood on him, with blood fucking in him like a virus, wasn’t the real Sam after all. Like being drunk, and in vino veritas, when the alcohol loosens the things you keep tied down for good reason.
At least Sam wasn’t going for the blood on his hands, thank God for small mercies. Dean pulled himself to his feet and made himself stretch to test the pain. It sparked and tugged at his ribs, and low and mean just beneath them. His breath shook on a curse to vent how much it fucking hurt. Sam didn’t even look at him.
"Come on, Sam," he muttered, "we need to clear out."
"Yeah," Sam said, not really paying attention. Dean prodded his shoulder, felt the unyielding muscle of it, like poking at something inhuman. Finally Sam shuddered and picked himself up with a grunt, and left Dean to pick up the knife. Sam looked at it with distant confusion when Dean offered it to him, and then said in a small voice that Dean could keep it.
"I'm so touched," Dean said. The sarcasm went over like a lead balloon, rolled right off Sam's Teflon shoulders and left awkwardness behind. "Let's go, Sam," he said, and led the way outside. Sam trailed silently behind, stopping only to collect their gear from the other room and pick up an empty beer bottle.
"It needed to die," Sam said, and it was, Dean knew, meant to convince himself as much as it was meant to convince Dean.
You don't need to tell me, he thought, and turned away from the image of Sam's eyes wild and glittering in the thin, naked light. Just, not like that Sam. Not like the way things have been going.
The night had that weird, uncertain cold, warming slowly into spring but humid and with a chill underneath. Sam dumped their duffel in the trunk, grunted in response to Dean's suggestion to get some sleep while he found them a place to stay that wasn't an old meth lab. Like everything else tonight, Sam didn't have much to say to that, but grabbed a towel from its corner in the trunk and obediently climbed into the passenger seat.
"No blood on the upholstery," he said weakly when Dean slid in beside him.
"Rule Number One," Dean agreed, and didn't bother trying to smile.
* * *
"Hey, hey, we're here."
Even though Dean was doing his best to whisper, his voice sounded way too loud in the deserted parking lot. The lights that picked out the motel's name, and the light from the lobby, only made the darkness more complete, and the silence out in the woods pressed in closer. With a quick glance at the lobby and its single, bored receptionist, Dean tried again.
"C'mon," he hissed, "wake up," but that didn't work either.
The Impala's dome light washed out Castiel's face to bloodlessness, and painted yellow shadows under his eyes. When he closed his palm around the unresponsive flesh under the blanket, only the slow warmth of Castiel's body told him life hid anywhere in that battered form. And under the blanket… Dean didn't want to think about that, only ran a finger down the side of Castiel's neck to check his pulse, the entirely human thump-thump of it that he couldn't bring himself to find reassuring.
"Guess I'll just check us in, then," he told Castiel's silent self, and went to do that.
Like most of the motels around here, the Black Bear Motor Inn traded on one of the major features of the area, black bearskin rug and black bear paintings, black bear sculpture on the front desk, carved black bear looming in the corner, black bear everything except the receptionist, who was human and bored. She checked Dean in without even a flicker of smile, not that Dean offered her one of his own, and dropped the plastic bear-paw keychain into his waiting hand.
"You get into something?" she asked with a jerk of her chin.
Dean squinted at her from behind the swelling over his left eye. "Bad side of a door."
"Okay," the woman said suspiciously. "Just keep it down, we got kids staying over." She paused. "Ice machine's at the end of the building."
"Right. Thanks." Dean jingled the keychain at her and went out. He felt her watching him, distrust layered on fear, and heard the electronic beep-beep of a cell phone's buttons being pressed.
"You think bears are big around here?" he asked Castiel as he idled the Impala down the row to their room. "Probably," Dean answered himself, "they are."
And then: "Fucking hell, this is lame."
Castiel didn't wake up until Dean shook him hard, and the wakefulness he came to faded in and out – there enough for him to sit up so Dean to get an arm under his shoulder and help him up, sliding away when he stood. Pressed close he smelled like earth and salt, his breath coppery. Dirt had worked into one cheek, the fold behind his ear, his elbow, and some had caked with the blood on his knuckles, before the nurses had cleaned it off and bandaged it.
"You're one heavy son of a bitch," he muttered as he hauled Castiel's body more firmly upright. Sorry, Cas sighed, head rolling loosely to its resting place on Dean's shoulder. "Let's go."
In the blurry edge of his vision he saw the receptionist watching him from the safety of her well-lit office, cell phone in her hand. "Rough week," he hollered at her, voice catching when Cas moaned. The receptionist vanished back into her office, and some of the light disappeared when she slammed the door behind her. Cas stirred briefly and settled again, heavier than before.
"Goddammit," Dean hissed. Managing Cas, the keys, and the door was impossible, and if he'd been thinking he would have opened up the room and turned on the damn light before fetching Cas's useless carcass. Three steps behind, Winchester, he thought, and that was where his mind seemed to be these days, pulled back by some dragging weight he didn't let himself think about too closely.
At least Cas was good for a distraction, something to look after – something, Dean thought, ungrateful and with a mean right hook – and he was used to doing that. He'd done it God only knew how many times in the years with Sam and Dad, or just Dad, or just Sam, shouldering his way through another motel door, helping the other person through, getting them set in bed and cleaned up before seeing to himself. Routine, and Cas fit into it pretty neatly, feet trailing clumsily and catching on the threshold, collapsing onto the old, musty mattress the second Dean let him go. The army surplus blanket had fallen in the parking lot, sad and crumpled under the sidewalk lights, but if Cas missed the warmth he didn't show it.
Traveling for one, traveling post-End Times, hadn't changed much from Before, just his duffels with clothes and weapons, one flask of holy water and one of whiskey. The latter needed refilling, but the other Dean kept more out of habit than anything, the way things had been going the past month.
Unceremoniously he dropped his stuff next to Cas and inspected the room. "They really like bears here," he said. The wallpaper was black bears, and a water-stained print of some engraving – of a black bear – hung over the bedside table. Even the rug was fake black bear skin, with plastic eyes and tongue gaping. "Really like."
"It's called the Black Bear Motel," Castiel muttered. "Maybe that has something to do with it."
"Jesus, Cas." Dean dropped the channel listing card. "What the hell?"
Cas stared blankly at the ceiling for a moment before those blue eyes wandered over to Dean. They were hazy, cloudy, human, and slow to focus, but Dean felt that split second of awareness when they did. And as they did, Cas seemed to regain some of his old composure, drawing himself up to sit with his back against the headboard. The chain around his neck chimed softly, and the amulet it held swung gently back and forth until it settled against Castiel's chest.
"Where are we?" Castiel asked, and he frowned when Dean told him. "I fell here?"
"Right inside a state park, twenty miles up the road." Dean sat down on his own bed. "You weren't exactly subtle."
"That is…" Cas's mouth twisted. "Disturbing." He lifted one wrist, the one that still had the plastic bracelet from the local hospital listed. "I don't remember this."
"You've been pretty out of it; it happens." It felt like a nail in the coffin, or one more nail in whatever it was that tied Cas to this body. "There are some things your mind can't remember, not really."
Castiel gave him a look, way too knowing and too angel-like to be comfortable. And yeah, Cas probably knew exactly what he was thinking, because Dean's mind had something wrong with it that let it remember forty years of hellfire. Either way, it stood to reason that Cas's mind wasn't going to let him remember falling, like Dean had had happen to him a couple times in the hospital: one minute he'd been doing his thing, and then time had passed, some shapeless, indeterminate amount that might have been an hour or a month, and then he'd come to in a hospital bed, breathing in antiseptic.
Gravely, silently, Cas studied his hands, the hospital bracelet, the moose t-shirt Dean had acquired for him from the hospital gift shop, the hospital scrubs. His expression wasn't so much confused as it was cataloguing, working out assets and weapons and strategy, and Dean wondered if Cas was ever going to take a break.
"What do we do now?" Castiel asked calmly. His hands settled on the black bear patterned bedspread.
"You could apologize for clocking me," Dean suggested. He gestured to his eye, which hurt, and Cas looked at him. "When I found you in that forest, I shook you to wake you up and you suckerpunched me." It had been a good thing Cas hadn't been locked and loaded, angel-wise, otherwise Dean's eye and part of his skull would have been on the other side of that clearing.
"You must have startled me," Cas said, which meant Dean wasn't going to get an apology any time soon, or ever, and that was gratitude for you. "Where's Sam?"
"He's…." Dean swallowed. "Couldn't get him back, Cas."
"Oh." Mercifully, Castiel looked away. In the dirty yellow light he was a washed-out gold, skin made paler by the dark stubble on his cheeks and jaw. "But Lucifer…"
"That's the hell of it, I don't know." And Jesus Christ, was that going to be his life? "Just that we got to Detroit, and shit hit the cosmic fan, and he wouldn't tell me where Sam was, and none of your fucking worthless brothers could tell me anything, either."
"They couldn't know, not with my sigils marking him," Castiel said, strangely bitter and proud. "And Lucifer wouldn't have killed him." He paused. "At any rate, not permanently."
"Yeah, he could have done a fuck of a lot worse." The deep quiet of the night suddenly became fragile, hovering on the edge of breaking, or of violence. Dean reminded himself there were kids staying here, even though the building seemed otherwise empty, and it felt like just him and Cas in their small, lit space. "He could have stashed Sam somewhere – in Hell or goddamn Limbo or Dubuque, Iowa for all I know."
"I've never been to Dubuque," Castiel said, "and Limbo, contrary to some doctrine, doesn't actually exist." He gestured to the hotel room and the darkness beyond it. "For trapped, unabsolved spirits, this world is Limbo."
"Anyone ever tell you that you really seriously suck at consoling people?"
"Once or twice," Cas said, with an unexpected twist to his mouth. "But I wasn't made for consolation to begin with."
That was true, in fucking spades. Cas didn't play harps or guide or provide a gentle, supporting wing to lean on; instead, he pushed and bullied and snapped, and the one time he'd shown Dean his wings had been to terrify him more than anything. The tired-looking figure on the bed, in its borrowed clothes and with its bare feet, didn't seem any less imposing, despite Cas's sudden, soft sigh and his eye sliding shut.
"We'll look for him tomorrow," Castiel said. "We'll find him."
"That's the thing, Cas," Dean said. Somehow his throat had gone tight and the edges of his vision blurry and hot, and he wasn't fucking going to cry, not when he'd spent the past thirty-two years shedding more than enough tears and blood for the goddamn world. "I don't know if I can."
* * *
He stood in one of the gigantic parking lots of a car factory, one long-abandoned with grass and weeds pushing the cement apart. The empty carcass of the car factory, its windows blinded by plywood, loomed behind him, covered – so Cas had said – with devil’s traps and charms to ward away angels. So far as Dean knew, Cas was still lurking on the periphery somewhere, trying to work his way in, and trying to close off Lucifer's escape.
"Thank you for keeping your word," Lucifer said. He wore old flannel and jeans and a soft smile, and skin slowly burning away around him.
"Yeah, that's me, Mr. Righteous Man. Didn't bring anyone with me." A terrible pressure weighed on his back, say yes say yes say yes. He imagined Cas out there, holding the lines, fuck only knew what else was hiding, and Cas was fucked either way if it was demonic or angelic. "You planning on holding up your end of the deal?"
"I'm an angel, Dean." Lucifer's smile became reproving. "You of all people should know that angels are bound to their word, once they give it."
"Fine, great. So, what the fucking hell did you do to him?"
"Nothing he didn't do to himself," Lucifer said calmly. He sighed, a long, tired breath with millennia of grief behind it. "Dean, just as it's possible to earn grace, it's possible to earn damnation."
"I never earned grace, or forgiveness, or whatever." His stomach clenched and the weight increased. It wasn't Cas, that presence, nothing half so familiar, but completely alien. You can kiss my ass, you winged bastard. "All I wanted, all my brother wanted, was for us to be left alone."
"Are you sure that's all Sam wanted?" Lucifer asked. His borrowed mouth settled into something entirely too knowing. "He didn't want your life. He didn't want you, Dean."
"What, like you didn't want your brother?" Dean took a step closer, and fate moved with him, and there was no backing out now. "You've got one more chance, Lucy: where the hell is Sam?"
Something on the edge of Dean's awareness gave, and he heard Cas, heard him, and Zachariah, the other angels, and the one angel he'd never met in his own time and could never escape. Dean, Cas said, voice as clear as though he were standing right by Dean's shoulder, and that made it better, not being alone at the end, Dean, it's now or never.
"Sorry," Lucifer said, all regret and loss, "you know I can't tell you that, but you can kill me if you'd like to live the rest of eternity not knowing."
"You know," Dean said, mind clear, hand steady, "I think I can live with that."
A stream of fire hit Lucifer square in the back, liquid flame burning up a container of holy oil – bona-fide genuine Winchester homemade flame thrower and angel-flambée maker. Like he'd summoned it, the long, cold blade – Cas's sword – fell down his sleeve and into Dean's hand.
Lucifer's eyes went wide. A light came – from the fire, from Lucifer, from all around – and killed the shadows of early morning.
Our covenant, Lucifer said, and didn't say, the words a fierce pressure inside Dean's skull. The glass behind the plywood blew out with a distant splintering sound.
"I didn't bring any angels with me," Dean heard himself say through the roaring and chaos. The sword was hot in his hand, hotter than the fire, not hotter than the fury in his blood. "Like I promised."
* * *
Dean woke up to daylight and utter silence. The gray light through the window said early morning, and Dean's body said to go back to sleep.
On the bed next to him Cas slept on, utterly still, and Dean had to watch closely to see the slow rise and fall of his silhouette. Cas had drawn up his shoulders and looked small and miserable and cold, a lot smaller without the coat and the immensity of his waking presence. And there was no easy way around that thought, no easy way at all.
Any sleep after that was the weird half-waking sleep, with the roar and whoosh of the cars on the highway weaving itself into the pattern of the past three months and memories, and the not-memory of standing on that overlook from last night, leaning out over the guardrail, and crash-landing in the forest with the shadows of his wings pressed into roots and dirt and grass.
He'd seen that, but hadn't done it himself. The rescue team had thought it was a small plane, two conspiracy theorists had thought it was an extraterrestrial and wanted to get there before the government could hush it up, and crazily, they'd turned out to be right, almost. It had been a hell of a time keeping up with them and then sneaking past them, trying to remember the trajectory and make his way through the darkness, skidding downhill and falling over rocks, roots, and finally, almost, Castiel.
Cas hadn't been wearing anything (and that had been hell to explain to the paramedics), and he'd been curled around a tiny sapling, unconscious, warm, naked as the day he was born because, and Dean knew it now, that had been the day he was born, stumbling and falling into the world. Dean had grabbed him, too overcome with relief and shock, and then Cas had reared up, wild-eyed in the darkness, and punched him in the face.
Slowly the room brightened, and Dean's dream stumbled its way through the hallucination of the trip to the hospital, insisting on staying with Cas and pretending to be a paramedic to do it. He'd done that so many times it had come effortlessly even as his body dragged with exhaustion, and by the time he worked his way through to dropping Cas in bed and pulling off his socks and shoes, Dean wanted another night of sleep.
Even as he thought that and turned over to hide from the sunlight, Cas stirred, pushing himself upright, eyes going from sleep-soft to alert more slowly than Dean wanted.
"Sleep well?" Dean croaked. His mouth, he realized, tasted awful, like hospital and whiskey, and a bit of industrial detergent from the pillow.
"I've slept before," Cas said curtly. He stretched, spine and shoulders popping, and as he rolled his neck – more popping, and Dean winced – looked around the room. "What are we doing today?"
"I don't know, man." Possibilities suggested themselves: finding a hunt, finding a bar, sleeping for another year, even if he did have to stay at the Black Bear Motor Inn to do it. Only none of them sounded good, all of them different mountains to climb, and he didn't have the strength for any of them anymore.
"Sam," Cas said, with unexpected and un-Caslike delicacy. Dean cracked on eye open and frowned at him. "What about Sam?" he asked, and Cas looked at him, all sleep vanished now. "We could look for him," and Cas's patience had an edge of sarcasm to it.
"We could." Dean swung out of bed and stomped to the bathroom, slammed the door right in Cas's questioning face. "We could also go fucking look for unicorns, if we wanted to waste our goddamn time." He didn't want your life. He didn't want you, Dean. "He's dead, or he's gone, or both, Cas," he said over the rushing hiss of the water. "And I can't… I can't chase after him anymore."
"There aren't any unicorns in North America," Cas said from the other side of the door. "But…" His voice trailed away and silence replaced it, long and permanent enough that Dean got worried and yanked the door open.
"We could go somewhere," Cas said, right up in Dean's face. "Do something."
"You got a bucket list?" Dean asked after he took a careful step back. Cas smelled like antiseptic and a bit of dirt that the nurses had missed. "For that matter, you got a toothbrush?"
Castiel's forehead wrinkled, a brief dip into confusion before he pulled himself out of it. "No, I don't," Cas said eventually, "but I'm not used to doing nothing."
That was one lesson they'd never got around to, not that there'd been time for it in the first place, how to do nothing.
* * *
Three months to go before the Big Show, although they didn't know it yet. Dean mechanically cleaned the guns and checked the salt, the industrial-sized jug of holy water with the rosary wrapped around the mouth. Cas made a cross, impatient sound behind him, "I may not be what I once was, but I can still bless the damn water," and "touchy-touchy," Dean said and recapped the container.
"Hey, Princess, you going to eat that?" he asked, to ask something, when Cas retreated into silence and Sam seemed content to stare like an idiot at his dinner. He poked Sam's knee and fiddled with the fork speared through the lettuce and hard-boiled egg on Sam's plate. "Eyes bigger than your stomach?"
"Bite me," Sam muttered, pushing Dean's hand away. "Not really hungry tonight." The look he gave Dean said like you have room to talk.
"Need to keep our strength up, Sammy," he said, and heard himself back at twelve years old saying that to a recalcitrant little brother tired of macaroni and cheese. Sam heard the same thing, shoulders tensing, muscle going hard under his shirt and Dean's hand.
"You ever think things are getting worse?" Sam asked in a small voice.
"I don't think," Dean said, and tried not to remember the latest round of bad news from the day. "I know."
* * *
They headed west later that day, chasing down the sun with Cas riding shotgun and staring out the window. "That's where I found you," Dean said, tilting his chin toward the anonymous trailhead where he'd parked that night, and where the ambulance had hauled him and Cas's unconscious self to the hospital. A few cars, unremarkable, peppered the turnoff. Cas turned to look as they whisked by.
"You were fortunate to find me," he said, and then, more slowly, "I was fortunate."
"Yeah," Dean said, and stared fixedly at the road.
They hit the state line at New York at twilight, a patch of countryside with its fields burnt away, and ravaged, skeletonized trees clinging to the hills. Cas peered more closely at them, "Something happened here," and the stress in his voice said something supernatural.
"There aren't many places something didn't happen," Dean grunted. The road curved along the side of one rolling hill and took them down into a town. It lay half in ruins, too, but it was just age, the town taking a long time dying and most of its people having left long before; the other half was new, or mostly new, fresh repairs and paint, and people looking purposeful. Old buildings and open, unstocked stores flashed by and the road propelled them back into the open country again.
"Dean," Cas said, quick and authoritative, "stop the car. Now."
Obediently, because there wasn't much else to do when Cas got bossy and impatient, Dean pulled over to the narrow, barely-there shoulder. A tractor-trailer howled by them and set the Impala to rocking. A truck came next, wheezing diesel and the driver's curses.
Cas was out of the Impala almost before it stopped, stumbling and slipping down the verge. Barely remembering to check the rearview, Dean got out himself, circling around the Impala's hood before the asshole in the sports car could run him over too. By the time he skidded down through the grass and almost sprained his ankles, Cas was kneeling by the fence line, bent close to a worn and abraded post. On the other side of the wire, a cow blinked at them sleepily; one carcass, its ribs vaulted and empty, rotted quietly behind it.
"Dude, told you to go at the last gas station." The sun felt unreal, prickling and hot despite the hazy cloud cover, and the air was still.
"Go where? Never mind," Cas snapped. "Look."
Reluctant and stiff with five hours of driving, Dean knelt obediently and looked where Cas was pointing. He hadn't cut off the hospital bracelet yet. "What am I looking at?" he asked, and Cas exhaled an exasperated breath.
"Those are protective sigils."
Dean looked closer, the random scratchings in the wood resolving themselves into patterns. Right under 'J+R 4eva' there was – "That's Enochian," Dean said. It felt Enochian, with the strange resonance those symbols had for him ever since that day. He wondered if he still had his ribs scrimshawed and touched his chest reflexively, no way to read the letters through layers of muscle and skin.
"Yes." Castiel nodded shortly. "It's meant to indicate that angels must stay clear of a certain place in the course of their…" He paused delicately, mouth twisted with something much less graceful. "Missions. It's a sign of mercy, that the inhabitants of a place should be spared. There's probably a companion symbol scratched somewhere on the other sides of the town as well. They'll match the four points of the compass."
"You mean angels took time out of their busy schedule trying to end the world to save a ghost town?" Dean frowned. "Hate to say it, Cas, but that doesn't sound like the MO of most of the ones I know."
"It could have been any one of a dozen reasons." Cas stood up, shoulders falling into their habitual military correctness, odd under the t-shirt and jeans. They'd had to scrounge in a thrift store for them, not much that people weren't holding onto these days, just in case. "There might have been a prophet living there, or something of strategic value kept there. Something I didn't know about." Frustration touched his voice.
It weirded Dean out, that the vacant-eyed Cas who'd been in his passenger seat for half the day had actually been keeping track of things. Cas looked at him appraisingly, not much human in those very human eyes, and Dean wondered how much Cas was fallen, if he was, with that amulet around his neck, tucked safely under his shirt. Absently, Cas brushed at the dirt on his palm.
"You want to stay and check it out?"
Cas hesitated. "We should keep moving."
They got back on the road, and didn't stop until Cleveland and daybreak.
* * *
"I loved my brother." The words were tired, the voice belonged to a middle-aged man who'd seen too much and the eyes reminded him of Cas, ancient and sad and not quite understanding why Dean tolerated such pain. "The strength of your love for Sam? Imagine if you'd had an eternity to feel that, and then to have it ripped away."
"No one told me the end of the world was going to be fucking group therapy," Dean said crossly. He shifted his grip on the useless gun and prayed – to Cas, the only person he could pray to these days, without God in the picture – that Cas would stay away. "What the hell do you want?"
"I want it to be over, Dean," Lucifer said. "Just like you do." He looked around the motel room, Dean's dream-replica of the Crossroads Moto-Tel in a no-name Appalachian byway. He'd lost his way once he'd gone off into the warren of back roads, the tucks and hollows of the mountains. "What's the use in prolonging any of this? Any of my pain, my brothers'… yours?"
Dean made himself ignore that. Lucifer smiled at him, gently knowing, and turned away to inspect his reflection in the mirror. Dean tried to look, but the mirror burned with fierce, unrelenting brightness, and he had to look away. "It's so curious, that you've never been able to see any of us in our true forms, not even poor Castiel… Perhaps you could see my brother." He smiled again, and it was almost wistful. "It would be… good to see him again."
"Get Cas's name right," Dean snapped, "and believe me, I'd be happy to see your ass back down in Hell, right after you tell me where you stashed Sam."
"What makes you think I have him?" Lucifer asked, wheeling back to face Dean again. The terrible light in the mirror peered at him from out of those eyes, that grizzled face. "It's true, I do have my ways… And you know your brother, what he's capable of."
The words pressed him hard with their implication – no, what they said, the images clear as the worst possible day: Sam with blood smeared across his mouth, Sam howling in the panic room, Sam running off with Ruby, high as a kite on power and demon mojo and whatever other unholiness Ruby'd managed to sink into him. He'd worked past that, Dean told himself, closing his eyes against the knowledge in Lucifer's eyes, and Lucifer laughed and said, "Are you sure about that, Dean? Are you truly sure?"
"No way he said yes to you," Dean ground out, "otherwise you wouldn't be in that second-rate meatsuit."
"Nick gave himself to me willingly." The light was worse now, and Dean was looking away to save his sight even as he laughed, You mean you lied to him? he heard his voice, small and mortal, say and Lucifer laughed as well. "If it's a lie to tell people God doesn't care what they suffer… maybe that should be the new truth."
* * *
The undine who lived in Lake Erie had become a lifeguard at a Cleveland city pool, a limber, graceful girl with brown hair and eyes as blue as the water she came from. "Maybe I'll find a husband one of these days, finally," she said, scanning the bar, suddenly shy when she saw Cas. "Ever since your covenant, Dean Winchester, things have gotten better for some of us."
She bounced to her feet and kissed him on the mouth. "My sisters and I thank you," she said with a quick, girlish smile – it reminded him of Cas, that weird flickering between old-young-old – and she vanished into the crowd.
For his part, Cas watched her go without saying anything.
"I didn't include any undines in my deal," Dean whispered to him, "although maybe I should have." Her lips had been cool, moist, a shockingly clear memory of him and Sam playing in a lake near Bobby's house. "Damn."
"Your deal was to bar angels from…. 'screwing around with people down here,'" Cas said. He took a sip of his beer and set it aside, shoulders a little looser from the alcohol and Dean ordering him to relax. The chain of the necklace was just visible under the collar of his shirt. "The world has possibilities again."
"Doesn't feel like it," Dean muttered, and finished off his whiskey.
* * *
"No, no, no, Dean, that's not how this is done." Another motel, another night, Cas out fighting the impossible battle while Dean tried to get some sleep. Lucifer hauled him up out of bed and had him somewhere else entirely, an empty street that didn't belong in Charleston, West Virginia.
"How's what done?" Even in a dream he had morning mouth, made worse by the beer, which had been bad and cheap, and by the tickle of headache. "Can't you fucking let me sleep? This is just playing dirty."
Lucifer gestured impatiently and shook his head; a piece of skin at his temple dissolved in a brief flaring of light.
"You have your… angel," Lucifer said the word like a curse, "out looking for me. Really, Dean?"
Fear gripped him, cold claws around his stomach sharp enough to take the hangover and exhaustion away. Cas.
"I can understand why my brothers stay in heaven – they're all brainwashed, most of them, but I can understand them not wanting to tempt our non-existent father's wrath." And he did sound understanding, which was the hell of it, understanding like the one judge who'd dropped Dean in juvie for a week for shoplifting, never mind it had been a pack of Ramen and that it had been for Sam. "But Castiel… Cas," and Lucifer laughed a little, rich, rough, amused, "I could count on one hand the number of angels who have wanted to be human. He's the only one I can think of who's wanted to serve them."
"Not everyone's perfect." Especially not Cas, who was ninety-nine kinds of stupid to hang around with him, and way too determined. "Figured you'd know about that and all."
"Give him to me," Lucifer said. In the twilight he was brilliant light and shadows both at once, the light in his eyes and the darkness in his smile, or suddenly reversed. "He's almost spent anyway… Give him to me, and I'll tell you where Sam is."
"I want Sam back alive, you son of a bitch."
"Oh, Dean." Lucifer smiled, terrifying and fond. "We're so much alike, both of us… I don't have a mother either."
* * *
The state highway traced a loose parallel to the interstate further south, angling along the lakeshore for a few miles before tilting away from it. Cas rode shotgun, head resting on the window and the glass bouncing his reflection back at him. For his part, Dean tried to ignore the countryside scrolling by on either side of the road, or the detours they had to take onto gravel when the road disintegrated. The land was a checkerboard of destruction and salvation, long stretches of burned-black fields and then new growth, late summer corn standing tall and close up against the road. With his window down, the air was a mix of sweet grass and smoke.
There'd been something huge and rotting on the lakeshore when they had detoured north around some catastrophe. "Leviathan," Cas had said, glancing at it dismissively. "One of my brothers destroyed it," and my brothers had so little inflection in it that it hurt.
No way could Dean bring that up, the huge white elephant in the backseat with "Why the hell is Cas down here?" painted on its side. Cas wasn't volunteering, keeping his secrets as close as he'd ever kept them, no matter that he ate and slept and pissed like any mortal. It was hard not watching as Cas dressed and undressed without any pretense of modesty, and something about the glint of dirty sunlight across Cas's shoulders made Dean feel scared and alive, trapped in too-tight skin.
"It's fourteen towns now, Dean," Cas said when they stopped for lunch at a town so small Dean missed the sign driving in. He'd lost track of the distances and the number of havens, as Cas had taken to calling them.
"None have populations of over two thousand." Cas swung himself easily out of the car and stretched, skim of bare, tan skin where his shirt rode up. It was heartbreakingly human, effortless. "They're small, out of the way."
"And the symbols are all the same?" Dean moved around to Cas's side of the Impala, voice carefully low. A lot of people these days knew something had happened, even if few of them understood. Dean wasn't entirely sure he understood, and he'd seen it, all of it, had lived through the End Times and got spat out on the other side.
"Yes. They're… elementary. Hasty." With a considering look, Cas peered back down the road they'd taken in.
Despite himself, Dean found himself warming to what he definitely was not about to call a case. "So what, an angel just happened to love small-town life that much that he went around and warded all these places?"
"We should get something to eat," Castiel said, brushing by Dean like Dean's agreement was a foregone conclusion. Which it was, but dammit, Cas's angelic presumption still grated. He tried to shrug it off, and it wasn't like he didn't need to eat.
Castiel watched closely as he ordered, meatloaf and mashed potatoes, and even more closely as Dean ate. "Have I got something?" Dean asked, and Cas wanted to know what, and looked confused, so Dean scrubbed at his face with his napkin. "You can lay off the staring," Dean told him. "It doesn't get any less creepy."
"We should go to Bobby's," Castiel said after a moment, in which he'd devoted a second to studying his french fries before refocusing his attention on Dean again. "You need rest."
"I can rest when I'm dead," Dean said. Only now that he knew what Heaven was, how much rest he was going to get there, he had no idea. Would they let him forget that? Would he want to forget that? He stared at Cas, who looked right back, and Cas's expression was as angelic as it ever was.
"You've been doing what you've always done." It sounded, almost, like accusation, and Dean bristled. "Maybe… it's time for a change."
In the silence afterward, the waitress came and refilled Dean's coffee and Cas's water, and made an observation about Cas's eating like a bird.
"Excuse me," Cas said, and even the politeness sounded weird, "have you had any…" He took a breath and seemed to struggle, and Dean realized this was Cas trying to be tactful. "Have you had any odd occurrences in town this past year?"
"Quiet as Sunday since January." The waitress deposited a fresh lemon slice in Cas's water glass. "Not like what happened over at Huron. All those people – the ones that made it anyway – are here now." She slid the check under Dean's plate. "We got someone watching out for us, for sure."
"Thank you," Cas said, and the waitress beamed at him, face all grandmotherly creases, and shuffled off.
"You're on a mission," Dean hissed once the waitress was out of earshot. "Is this why you're down here, Cas?"
"No." Cas bit into a fry, dipped the bitten end into the ketchup and ate the rest of it in one go.
"What," Dean paused for breath and a chance to moderate his voice before people started looking, "I drive around like I've got no direction for three months, almost nothing supernatural in sight, and you show up, and a weird-ass case drops in my lap?"
"That's coincidental," Cas said dismissively, and actually had the nerve to frown at Dean's soft, disbelieving exhale of a curse. Nothing was coincidental when it came to him, and definitely not when it came to angels, even ex-angels, and especially Cas. "I came down here for different reasons."
"And those reasons just happened to materialize three months after you zapped out of here," Dean snorted. "What the hell were you doing up there, anyway?" And because he couldn't help it, because the thought had chased him since he'd stepped out of that chain-link fence with Lucifer's wings charcoaled to the cement behind him, and Cas hadn't answered his call. "I fucking… Cas, I thought you were dead."
"No, but it was three months – of your time – before I could complete my preparations for coming down here." Cas looked angry now, in his quiet, intense Cas way, mostly in the eyes, the tightness and fierce light in them. He stood up, shoving his plate across the table, abrupt so that the waitress glanced up from her post at the counter, and bent close, warm breath on the side of Dean’s face, lips close enough to touch almost. "You forgot one thing when you made your covenant: no angels at all."