That Perches In The Soul


A/N: Okay. Guys, this is my take on how I think things are rolling in the SPN verse. I kind of hope not, but at the same time, it just makes so much sense to me that... I don't know, you might think different. Anyway, it's EPIC. Probably the epic-est fic I've ever written.

And also? Has so consumed my life, you don't even know. So if I could hear some feedback on this, I'll be incredibly grateful.

I took the title from a line in Emily Dickinson's poem, Hope.


Warning: Spoilers for all aired episodes up to 4x16. Also, heavily edited and rewritten as of 7/27/11.


Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune-without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm...


Now

"My lady? He's here."

Blue eyes widen, then crinkle at the corners as they light up with a smile. The little girl raises her head and then, without a word, kicks at the air and jumps off the swing, hair blown back, arms spread open as if to fly - and for a split second, it's almost as though she does.

But instead Lilith lands neatly in Sam's arms, and her weight is so slight Sam only has to take a tiny step back to adjust. It's strange, holding a child; she's a warm, vulnerable burden, nothing like he's used to, but somehow it's no trouble at all to hoist her up a bit so they can both be more comfortable.

She burrows her nose into his chest as she attempts to wrap herself around him. Her small hands are very far from reaching all the way across, he notes helplessly.

"I've waited so long for you, Sammy," she breathes, eyes big with the heavy solemnity of a child. "I didn't mean to hurt you, before – just, I didn't really think you'd join us, and I was... angry." Her mouth trembles, fragile, and she looks so pitiful Sam's heart constricts. Her voice lowers. "You're not still mad at me, are you?"

Sam smiles down at her and shakes his head. He starts walking. "Not at all," he confides.

She grins at him with obvious relief, and suddenly the skinny arms loop around his neck and hug him tightly. Her cheek is feathery soft against his rough stubble, and a sigh explodes out of him in a shudder, as if this, this is what he's waited for, this is what his life has been leading to.

An end. And him drowning.

Her grip tightens, bringing him back to the present.

In a good way, though.

"So you're ready, aren't you?" she asks when she finally draws back, blue eyes searching his own. "Really really ready?"

"Really really ready," he tells her fondly.

"Oh good," Lilith sighs, then looks behind Sam and beams in excitement. "He says he's ready, Ruby!"

Ruby smiles back at them.

"Of course he is, my lady - after all, I made sure of it."

Then

"…Sam?"

Sam's eyes flutter open. He squints against the harsh fluorescent light, a moan tumbling from his mouth at the unwelcome interruption before it cuts off abruptly; he straightens quickly as he remembers where he is.

And, more importantly, who he's with.

"Dean?" he croaks out, blinking rapidly as he adjusts to the glare.

Green eyes follow his movements from behind swollen lids - a disconcerting sight, but easily dismissed because God, he's missed that green.

"The one and only," his brother says, and Sam is too relieved at hearing Dean's voice, at seeing Dean breathe by himself, to immediately notice that something's wrong.

The one and only.

The line's worn, routine, even welcome for all its irritating bravado, but in all its reiterations it has never once been said with such frank disinterest. It's like Dean's reluctantly following a script; his voice is just as listless as it is hoarse.

The relief promptly vanishes. It's infuriating, this apathy, for all its newfound hold on his brother, and the injustice stabs Sam sharply in the gut. He has to bite his tongue to stop himself from shaking his brother's frail shoulders, from snapping out a cruel and uncalled-for retort, from cramming that fucking breathing tube back down his fucking brother's throat because anything would be better than this, anything would be better than a Dean who didn't care - and how dare he, how dare he not care, how dare he sound like this when Sam's here, when Sam's right here, after all he's done to help

Power whistles through his veins, begging and suggesting and offering, there's nothing wrong with a little force – how dare he –

He chokes it off, reminds himself that this is Dean, this is his brother.

...Even if he is acting like a pod person right now.

So instead Sam tries to smile encouragingly at the pitiful effort at normalcy, puts a hand on Dean's bandaged shoulder and doesn't take it off even when his brother flinches at the touch. "It's good to have you back, man," he says, and squeezes lightly, so it won't hurt. "You had me worried."

Dean looks at him oddly, as if wondering where this is coming from, but then just shuts his eyes. "Oh yeah?"

He swallows past the anger, the bitterness, the shame. If nothing else, this is driving home perfectly just how far apart they've drifted these past months. His brother doesn't even expect the basics from him anymore, and it shakes him. "Of course," Sam says, trying hard to sound offended, but trying harder to make it not sound like a lie.

Dean almost smiles, but the almost is such that it's probably more accurate to just say that he doesn't. "Didn't think you'd be here," he admits, a tired whisper.

Sam's blood boils, pounds against his ears, and again he has to remind himself that this is his brother, that this is Dean. "Of course I -" he grits his teeth, starts over. "I've barely moved from this chair in the past three days, Dean," he says, and adds, just in case Dean needs reminding as well, "I'm your brother."

"I know," Dean says, with his eyes still closed.

And Sam hears, wasn't sure if you did.

He looks at Dean's vitals for a long moment, listens to the slow, steady beeping of the heart monitor, a throbbing reminder of how grateful he should be that they're having this conversation at all. And then he stares blankly across his brother's bed, before covering his face in his hands and breathing in deep.

Dean's had it bad enough without adding Sam's… irritability, into the mix.

He gracefully switches to a safer topic. "How're you feeling?"

The green shows itself for only a moment, hastily hiding back again. Sam isn't sure whether to be offended or worried.

"Sucky."

His lips quirk briefly, and he doesn't know if he's glad Dean's making light of the pain or worried that he's acknowledging it in the first place. "Thought so," he says, and hesitates. There are things Sam wants to ask - about Alastair, about angels, about being forced to… torture, again, but somehow his brother seems even more broken than he was before he got kidnapped by Castiel, and Sam doesn't think he can handle finding out if there are any more cracks in Dean's armor. "Want me to get a nurse?"

"I'm good," Dean answers, which is such an obvious lie it's not even funny anymore.

"Really?" he can't help but say. "Because newsflash, you're actually kind of looking like crap."

His brother turns his head away. "Yeah, well, that's what happens when you're God's bitch," he says bitterly.

And suddenly it hits him, with all the delicate subtlety of a brick. "Cas was here," he half-states, half-asks.

Dean blinks up and meets Sam's gaze. "Yeah."

The sudden urge to find the angel and bash his head in is so overpowering that Sam actually gets a headache from it. It isn't even that he obviously made Dean feel like shit, but the mere fact that Castiel took advantage of Sam's absence and was the first to see Dean wake up, that he was the first to greet him back from his week-long coma – when it's Sam's job, Sam's privilege – is enough for Sam to want to get homicidal. Angel-cidal. Whatever.

Just as abruptly, however, comes the realization that if Castiel's already had the chance to talk to Dean, he very well might have told Sam's brother things that Sam would really rather his brother didn't know at all.

He wets his lips, mouth suddenly gone dry. "What... what'd he say?"

Dean stares at him for what seems like eternity. Sam looks back apprehensively and tries not to squirm. He gets the odd feeling that he's being judged.

After a moment, Dean tells him, and immediately, Sam wishes he hadn't.

Now

They approach a wide circle of people with pitch-dark eyes. Lilith claps, grins. "Sacrifices," her sweet voice explains in Sam's ear. "They have to be willing, see?"

She flaps her arms, a clear command. Sam sets her gently on the ground and she skips across the empty graveyard to one of them, a round man with a receding hairline who kneels and reverently hands her a thin, ornate brush. She beams at him brightly.

...And then jams the paintbrush through his neck.

He falls to the floor, smile on his lips even as he chokes on the blood sputtering out of his mouth. His body seizes, flashes oddly as the demon dies along with the host, and the snowy palm of Lilith's hand becomes splattered with red.

She stares at the broken handle with a pout. "I need a new one!" she says shrilly. "A new one! I need a –"

Another demon from the circle – a boy no older than fifteen – offers Lilith a new brush, shyly. She takes it graciously, curtsying prettily in her stained new dress as she thanks him with sudden aplomb.

"One down," she sings, dips the brush in the spurt of blood, and begins to draw.

Then

Sam runs a hand through his hair. His eyes scour the walls of the bland little motel room, but if they hold any answers he can't find them.

"You're absolutely sure," he says again, one last time. "This is the only way."

Ruby's black eyes show something oddly reminiscent of sympathy. "Only way I can think of." She watches him silently for a moment, then says, "Look, Lilith is going for the last seal, with or without you. If you got a better idea, well, feel free to share."

He paces, throws a nervous glance at the clock in the wall even though he knows there's nothing to worry about. Dean is back at their own motel across town, asleep, for all intents and purposes dead to the world.

…Which isn't much of a change from when he's awake, these days.

Sam sighs, scrubs at his face roughly. "No. You're right." He stops pacing and heavily slumps into the bed. "You're sure you can do this?"

"For your sake, Sam, I'm going to pretend you didn't just ask me such an incredibly stupid question."

He raises his head, meeting her gaze sharply. "Ruby."

She rolls her eyes, folds her arms. "Yes, I'm sure, okay? I did it before, I'll do it again, deception is my middle name."

"I know," he says flatly, making her flinch.

She shakes her head and walks to him, straddling his hips when she gets close. "Trust me, Sammy," Ruby whispers, a caress of breath against his cheek. "The last thing I want to do is give away our endgame. I want Lilith dead just as much as you do, you know."

"I know," he says, and absently threads his fingers through her hair. "I just… this has to be convincing, Ruby."

The demon presses her lips against his mouth, and smiles.

"Don't worry about that, Sam. I have a feeling it will be exactly that."

Now

It takes longer than he expects.

The little girl hums merrily and tunelessly as her strokes soon take on the shape of huge interwoven circles, painted with the blood of humans and energies of demons. Thanks to Ruby's blood and his own, Sam can actually seethe entirety of it, the curves and lines and words drawn both on the ground and in the air, invisible to the normal human eye. It's a spectacular interweaving of sickly yellow and red.

He has yet to decide whether the bodies, neatly arranged in a circle, add or detract from its beauty.

Then

He turns off the Impala's engine with a familiar quarter-turn of his hand and pockets the keys in his jacket. One foot is already out the door before Sam suddenly realizes he's the only one moving.

"Dean? You coming?"

His brother's eyes are closed. "Think I'll just sit here for a while."

He furrows his forehead. "It's eighty degrees out, Dean. You trying to melt your brain or something?" He tries on a sad imitation of a smirk. "And by brain I mean the two brain cells you have left, you know."

Once Dean would have responded to that with a leer, maybe declared how interesting it is that those two neurons of his beat out Sam's giant head in poker last night. Once Sam would have rolled his eyes and informed his brother that in this case, less is definitely not more, and anyway, Dean, you cheated. Once, they would have glared and jabbed at each other until someone either threw up his arms in defeat or finally burst out laughing.

Once, they would have laughed.

Without opening his eyes, Dean cranks open his window. "I'm good."

"But…" he trails off. Then gives in, throat tight. He clears his throat. "Yeah, okay. I'll be back in a few."

He stretches his legs, gasses up the Impala and goes to the john, all in what must be less than ten minutes. He eats alone, glancing through the window at the forlorn black car in the middle of the lot, and reflects on how strange this all is, to feel alone when he really isn't anymore.

Except Sam can't really complain. Partly because yeah, you could say he's brought all this on himself, but mostly because even this is ten times better than feeling alone when you really are.

He'll take anything over being the last Winchester again.

Sam walks aimlessly around the gas station for a while, until he finally thinks he's given it enough time. He returns to the car and cranes his head through the passenger side window. "Anything I can get you?" he tries cheerily.

His brother's smile is just a curve of the lips, nothing more. "Nah," he says.

…And that's it. That's all Dean says.

He blinks rapidly, forces a smile even though Dean won't see it.

"I saw the Gasmart guy put out some fresh donuts," he wheedles. "Extra sprinkles."

Eyes still shut, Dean simply shrugs. It's a tiny, tired movement, almost invisible, and it only accentuates the newfound boniness of his shoulders. "Not hungry."

That's it, the apocalypse really is coming, Sam thinks wearily. "You sure? They even have those custard-filled ones you like. Custard and sprinkles, even, it's our lucky day." He waits. "Well? What do you say?"

At that, Dean finally opens his eyes. Sam gets a baffled look. "It's fine."

He scowls, on the verge of protesting that no it's not fine, you're not fine but you have to let me make you fine, but before the words come out Sam catches himself and stops. It won't do any good, and Dean would just ignore him, anyway.

"How about a burger?" he asks instead, because he's a Winchester, and that's what Winchesters do. "Tomatoes, pickles, hold the onions?"

His brother's forehead scrunches up into thin faint lines when he raises his eyebrows, nonplussed. "Dude," he says, sounding almost like himself for the first time in… in a long time. "What's up with you?"

Sam widens his eyes innocently, then on second thought narrows them, trying to go back to the old days, Sammy instead of Sam. "What are you talking about? I'm just trying to see if you want a hamburger, you jerk."

Dean looks suspicious, but after a moment of silent staring he wearily shuts his eyes again and tells Sam to not forget the goddamn pickles. Bitch.

Buoyed by success, Sam buys the burger, grinning the entire time.

He also buys an entire box of donuts, because really, fuck it all. They'll be fine.

Now

Lilith skips over the twitching body of the thirty-ninth, which puts her neatly in the center of the cadaver circle. She mutters something under her breath, and Sam steps closer eagerly, curiously, trying to make out what it is. As soon as he does so, however, her eyes flare white and she puts out a hand in warning.

He stops, stomach roiling.

"Not yet," Lilith tells him rigidly, something too old and ancient flashing in her expression. "It's not right yet."

He swallows, ashamed. But then she smiles at him briefly, despite his insolence, and Sam relaxes.

"Witch." Her voice is ragged but clear. Without the inflection of a child's speech, it suddenly sounds otherworldly. "You have proven yourself loyal."

Sam watches Ruby freeze and then drop to her knees, shaking with fear.

"I live to serve," she answers. Large, tremulous tears begin to steadily run down her face.

"Come then," Lilith beckons to her. "We will raise Him together."

Ruby chokes and stumbles to her feet. She runs almost blindly into the circle, slipping on wet blood before righting herself, muttering thank you, thank you over and over again until she practically falls in front of the little girl.

Sam watches, envious, and does nothing to stop it.

"Hush now," Lilith says soothingly, small hand patting the dark head. "My dear, dear Ruby, don't cry. You will be special, my love. You will be the key."

The woman's shaking stops, and she looks up. "You will tell Him?" she whispers, so softly Sam can barely hear her.

Lilith kisses her mouth warmly, then her forehead. "I will be sure to."

The woman's eyes widen. Another salty drop spills out, landing on the bloody ground.

"Thank you," she whispers again, then falls silent. She closes her eyes, and rests her head against Lilith's soft, warm stomach, as if returning to a loving mother's embrace.

She smiles a little, then, and makes no noise when Lilith snaps her neck.

Then

He lingers beside Dean's bed, a last moment of weakness. It's all right because no one's awake to see, and even if Castiel or one of the others shows up there's nothing they can do to stop him. Castiel made that clear enough when he was defeated by Alastair, when he failed to protect Dean - Sam's the only one who can save Dean now, the only one Dean can count on. He's so very far from righteous, but to spare Dean from his fate, Sam would do anything.

Even save the world.

He sits lightly, cautiously on the bed, even though Dean returned from hell an incredibly heavy sleeper. Force of habit, Sam supposes to himself idly, or maybe just because it feels appropriate to be careful, here, under the cover of night, before sneaking away to fight the apocalypse.

...Strange. Only hours before the telling moment, and Dean is sleeping deeply, peacefully, without the slightest clue that it's happening.

Hopefully that's how he'll stay.

His hand makes as if to touch Dean's face but he stops it mid-motion, remembering himself just in time. Can't risk waking him. And there's no point to this sentimentality anyway, Sam reminds himself, because he'll be back soon enough, after all.

Because there's no other way this could end. Sam is not accepting anything but a happy ending - the Winchesters will not have bloody or sad.

He can succeed where Dean would fail. He's strong enough, capable enough, with no memory of hell to make him falter. He can take the burden put on Dean, finish this, and then… then, they will put everything behind them. Hunting, demons, all of it. And finally Sam will be able to remember what he has, and he'll help Dean remember who he is, and then…

...And then.

They'll be brothers again.

Sam lets his hand fall. "Sorry," he whispers, because something has to be said, even if Dean can't hear it. It's that kind of moment.

He stands. Hesitates.

"I'll be back soon," he promises too. Because he will, he will.

When Sam leaves the room, he's so focused on what is yet to come that he doesn't hear the rustle from the bed he just left.

…Or the slight hitch of breath, as if someone is strangling a cry.

Now

The circle lights up brilliantly when Ruby's head hits the floor, the crimson glowing and the sickly yellow light growing stronger, brighter.

And yes, Sam decides, it's beautiful.

Lilith breaks off from her chanting. "Ready, Sam?" she asks, white eyes staring blindly upwards, but this time her voice sounds nothing like the little girl she's possessing, but instead something else – something more ancient, more powerful than Sam can ever possibly comprehend.

It excites him. Strength courses freely through his veins in an uninhibited dance, exhilarated just from the proximity to its sister's power. It's such an adrenaline rush that Sam feels almost lightheaded, dizzy, but not in a bad way, exactly, not in a bad way at all. He feels like building the Tower of Babel, like flying to the moon, like ripping someone's head from their shoulders.

He feels good.

He raises his chin, somehow knowing his pupils are blown so wide his eyes practically look black. "I am."

Lilith raises her little bloody hands to the sky, shouting in a language Sam doesn't know and yet thoroughly understands.

"The body is prepared." A breeze picks up, lifting Lilith's black hair. "The soul is willing." Trees creak as they sway. "The mind is eager." Thunder, in the distance.

Lilith throws back her head and opens her blind eyes. Her next words are more a raw sentiment than a prescribed verse, but somehow it fits.

"Fuck you, God. Rise, Lucifer!"

Then

"He actually thinks this will work," he says at the sound of wings fluttering, the feeling of a familiar presence settle on the leather seat next to him. His eyes, set firmly on the horizon, are anything but tranquil. "Taking on Lucifer alone. He actually thinks he can win."

"Sam may be strong enough," his companion admits. "But that is irrelevant. Once he encounters Lilith, his vision will be… clouded."

He glances at him. "Clouded?"

A sigh. "The blood that provides Sam with strength also makes him extremely vulnerable to… certain influences. Whatever Sam's intentions are, they will conveniently disappear once the seal begins to break – which is, most likely, what Lilith and Lucifer are counting on." He pauses, then continues quietly, "I'm afraid it will grant Lucifer a considerable advantage."

"Fantastic," Dean says bleakly. "How big an advantage are we talking about?"

The angel looks away, wets his lips. "Dean…"

Fingers clutch the wheel tightly, knuckles growing white. "Cas," he says. "If there was ever a time to tell it to me straight, it's right. Fucking. Now."

Hesitation. And then -

"…If Sam and Lucifer fight over the same body, Sam will fall."

Now

The swollen yellow turns to a murky brown, darkens to black that gets consumed in a blinding flash of white. The earth shudders. The circle's design rises from the ground and spins about Lilith, who stands at the eye of the storm, eyes wide open and lifeless.

The sky breaks open with a crack of lightning. There's no rain.

Lilith raises her hand, and the blood of forty possessed humans begins to glow.

Then

"...Fall? What the hell does that mean, 'fall'? What's gonna happen to him?"

"Lucifer will be greatly strengthened by having Sam as his vessel. He will become bound to the body and this earth, no longer able to be exorcised by normal means. And with Sam's powers…" Regretful pause. "He'll be unstoppable. I'm sorry."

A moment stretches out, only filled by the dull roar of the engine as it stops, and a long, shuddering breath.

"You didn't answer my question, Cas. What about my brother? What'll happen to Sam?"

"Lucifer will not allow the presence of another soul in his vessel. I… I'm afraid Sam won't survive."

Now

His power sings, rushing through his veins. This, it tells him. This is his cue.

He squares his shoulders.

Then

"Then you can't let him get to that point, Cas, you can't let him do it. Knock him out, blast him with some angel mojo, I don't care. Whatever it takes." A swallow. "Please, Cas. You gotta help me save him."

"I… I'd like to, Dean, but the breaking of the seal can no longer be prevented. The apocalypse is coming, you understand? Lucifer will have a vessel."

"I know, I- I realize that." A long, drawn-out exhale. "But still. I can't let Sam… I can't let him do that. I can't. I don't care what he wants, I don't care what he's done. This is Sam, man. I can't let him go like that."

Gently. "He knew the risks, he's made his choice –"

"Then I'm unmaking it for him!"

Castiel closes his eyes, knowing full well that it is a futile gesture. "What would you have me do?"

"Promise me, Cas. Whatever you need to do, whatever it takes. You'll do it. You'll save him."

He nods.

Then frowns. "What about you?"

Now

Sam steps forward.

Then

"...Dean?"

Now

His foot hangs in the air, perfectly still.

It's not until it slowly comes back down a good distance away that Sam snaps out of… whatever it was he had to snap out of. Soon after which Sam realizes that things are not going according to plan.

…And that's before he notices he's paralyzed.

He panics, but the heartbeat in his ears doesn't even change its tempo. His eyes don't blink, his hands don't run through his hair in confusion. Instead a white film blankets his vision, and a sense – a presence – of calm, of peace, surrounds Sam like tepid bathwater.

It kind of feels familiar.

!Sam.!

…Castiel?! he thinks, since apparently he can't move his mouth to speak.

!Yes.!

He doesn't understand at first, but then it hits him. Are you – are you possessing me?

The white recedes, leaving his sight with a dazzling afterimage. !It was a necessary measure.!

Under any other circumstance, Sam would be absolutely livid at the violation of his body – by the angel who's failed his brother countless times, no less. But his head is clear for the first time in hours, the strange want to obey and, for some reason, hug Lilith is gone, and the only thing he can feel is a staggering, overwhelming relief.

Followed by horror.

God, I – I almost –

!Almost let Lucifer take possession of the most powerful human on Earth.!

If Sam could wince, he would.

I thought I could beat him. I'm stronger now, I didn't think it would affect me like… like that. He suddenly recalls his reunion with Lilith. God, I… I was a goner from the very start, wasn't I.

!Aside from granting you power, the blood you… procured, has made you very, very vulnerable to certain coercions. If I hadn't stopped you, you would have relinquished control of your body willingly. There would have been no fight.!

But now there will be, he thinks determinedly. Thanks for that, Castiel. I owe you one. But I'm gonna need you to leave now, all right? I don't think there's enough room in here for three.

There's obvious surprise in the angel's thoughts. !You mean to try again?

Um, obviously.

!You will not succeed.!

Sam goes through a mental checklist, but he can't find anything to corroborate Castiel's claim; everything seems like it's in running order. He feels his power stir again, quietly, in the bottom of his soul. And why's that, exactly?

!The last seal requires willing participants. You seek to defeat Lucifer, push him out of your mind. The seal will no longer recognize you.!

So the plan, my plan, would have never worked in the first place? Is… is that what you're saying?

Yes.

I see. He takes a moment. So is that it? he wonders. Does this mean it's all over?

!You may be the ideal receptacle for Lucifer, Sam, yet you're not the only one by far. My brothers and sisters are fighting as we speak, but sooner or later someone will slip through our defenses and offer Lucifer a vessel to inhabit.!

Shit, he thinks vehemently, and the expletive amplifies and multiplies in his mind into a hundred echoing swears. Isn't there any way for you to somehow… reseal the seal? I can buy you time, fight off anything that comes close -

!No. It's too late for that. Lucifer will have a body, that much is assured.!

The angel's voice – tone – is unreadable, something held back in their tenuous connection - a thought, or perhaps an idea. He has no idea what it is, but merged as they are, Sam can sense a sadness coming from Cas that, restrained as it is, nonetheless overflows into him. It mystifies him for a moment – angels aren't really supposed to have emotions, after all – but then Sam realizes he's missing something.

A very important something.

A horrible, impossible suspicion enters Sam's mind. Because if the angel is here, then.

Then -

Cas… where's Dean?

Then

"You always said I'm the only one who can stop it. You never said how."

Castiel takes a deep breath. He doesn't actually need to, he knows, and yet…

And yet.

"Ever since you showed up, it's always been like that. 'Save the world, Dean Winchester.' 'Stop the apocalypse, ye mortal.' Except you never told me the first thing on how to go about doing that. You didn't even tell me where the seals were." Dry chuckle. "Drove me crazy, you know."

"Dean, I - I wasn't told everything. And there were things I wasn't… wasn't allowed to say."

Green eyes look over at him, steady in their gaze. "I know. I realize that. And you know what, I finally get why." His lips quirk – a small, Deanesque sort of gesture that somehow wounds the angel to see. It's not the smile he knows, but, as Castiel knows full well, it is the smile he deserves. "It's a lot easier to save the world if you think you're making the choice to."

Cas wonders if this is what humans feel like all the time, small and ignorant and utterly helpless. "What do you mean?" he asks softly. His vessel's heart constricts, unbidden.

Dean smiles wistfully.

"It's funny, you know? All this time, I was worried I'd have to kill Sam."

Now

Where's Dean? Sam repeats, and again, Castiel doesn't reply. He's not – Cas, please tell me—

Dean didn't come with you. Please tell me Dean's not here.

"Cas, you in there?" A familiar voice asks, jolting Sam's attention outward.

…No. No.

Sam's lips move, and his head bobs downward in a nod. "I am."

Dean smirks, eyes reflecting a white torrent of light he probably can't see. His short hair ruffles a little in the wind. "Gotta hand it to you, when I said to do whatever it takes, possession was really not one of the things that came to mind. Thought you angels had a free will clause in your rulebook."

"It's a courtesy," Castiel says with Sam's mouth, teaching even now. "Nothing more."

"Huh. Well, you won't hear me complaining. Sam –" he clears his throat. "Sam okay in there?"

No NO Dean you bastard I am NOT okay I am NOT fucking OKAY!

"…He's listening."

Dean blinks. His expression looks torn between dread and relief, then seems to settle on dread. "Oh. That… didn't know you could do that. Uh. So… he can hear me, right now?"

Cas, get out of my body, get the FUCK out of my body!

"Yes," Cas says.

"Right. Okay." Dean glances over at Lilith, still waiting mindlessly over Ruby's body. "Well, I gotta go, but Cas, you stay with Sam, okay? I don't really know how possession works, but if you can give his powers a little extra kick… well, it'd be really fucking helpful, is all I'm saying."

Some part of Sam notes, even as he struggles wildly, how entirely screwed up it is that Dean sounds more together than he's been in months, now, with the apocalypse not five feet away.

"I will do my best."

"Thanks," and Dean smiles. For the first time in months, it reaches his eyes. "And hey, Sam? You blast Lucy with everything you got, all right? Don't hold back on my account."

What are you… what is he talking about?

!Sam, I told you. Lucifer will have a vessel.!

He doesn't understand. What does that have to do with… he starts, then feels something in him freeze, crack. Shatter.

No. No. It can't be - you can't mean that –

!I'm afraid that's exactly what I mean.!

He's not – he can't. This is… this is crazy, Cas, this is beyond crazy, this is INSANE.

!I'm sorry, Sam,! The angel tells him, and for a moment he can feel the grief that is Castiel's flood over him. !It's the only way.!

It takes a moment for all of it to truly sink in, Sam's failure and Dean's decision and all of the ramifications, all the possibilities, all the things that can't ever happen, now, that never will, and then emotions roil and punish their way through him, all the guilt and rage and devastating fear, threatening to burst and perforate and take him out with them -

Fuck that. FUCK that, you hear me? FUCK the only way, you did NOT save Dean from hell just so he could throw it all away!

!You're angry. Understandably so. Please, think what you like, but I feel the same as you.!

Dean claps a warm hand unto Sam's immobile shoulder, and turns.

W-wait. Wait! Cas, you can't let him go! You can't – you can't let him die! Please, I'll… I'll do anything, Cas, I promise, I swear, just don't let him go!

!This is his choice. If I could… but I can't. I cannot stop him.!

Then

"I wish it didn't have to be like this," Castiel says, and for the first time in his long, want-less life, he utterly comprehends why an angel could fall. Such dangerous, precious things, this human teaches him. "I wish I could save you."

Dean glances at him for a long, silent moment. Then, for some reason Castiel fails to understand, he seems to feel the need to reach out a hand and roughly ruffle Castiel's already windblown hair.

What a bizarre human gesture, Castiel thinks to himself distantly, even as the warmth in his chest threatens to rise and choke him at the throat.

"Don't worry about me, Cas," his friend says simply, eyes bright in the morning light. "Just save Sam."

Now

"Dean!"

The figure of his brother is blurred, but it stops moving.

"You can't, Dean," he says, struggling with the words. Castiel won't let him do more than talk, but suddenly even that seems more than hard enough. "You – you just can't."

Somehow Dean seems to know it's him. He looks back. "I gotta do this, Sam. I'm sorry. I have to."

!He has to,! Castiel echoes.

Sam's had enough of those apologies, enough of hearing sorry. Sorry means nothing, sorry gets you nowhere – those are lessons Sam knows very well by now.

Actions are what matters. Going back in time and not dying this time around, going back in time and do it all over again, and right. Shoving his brother into the car so they could drive and drive and never get out, grabbing Dean, holding onto him so he can't ever leave, no matter what the fucking jerk wants or thinks.

He can't do any of that, though.

It's ridiculous. There shouldn't be a choice about this, there shouldn't even be a fucking decision, Dean should stay because he's supposed to, that's what he does, this is where he belongs – here, with Sam, being nothing more or less than Sam's stupid, irritating, amazing older brother. It doesn't make sense. Dean shouldn't go.

...But Dean has to.

"I know," he chokes out, wetness running down his cheeks, because apparently his eyes work just fine. "Me... me too. I'm sorry too."

Dean hesitates for only a moment before wrapping his arms around Sam, his warmth solid and comforting in every way except for how it'll soon be gone.

Sam wants to hold on tighter, as if that way he'll be able to stop time, or maybe absorb enough of Dean into himself so that he'll be fine... except that will never happen, no matter how much he might like it to.

He can't even hug him back.

Cas, he says.

!Would you let him go?

And Sam can't really deny that because no, of course not. Of course he won't.

"Take care of yourself, Sam," Dean whispers tightly in his ear, voice only trembling a little. He takes a deep breath, as if to say something else – keep fighting, take care of my wheels, go for that white picket fence, Sammy, remember Dad, remember me –

But then, all too quickly, lets go and steps over the line.

"Dean!" Sam screams. "DEAN!"

The circle flares red, and the world glows.