AN: Well, here we are at the end. I suppose we came up on it rather quickly, although I never really intended this to be as long as it ended up being in the first place. ^^ I hope you've enjoyed it, and thank you to those who have left reviews, or who would care to.
Castiel is flitting around in his mind, sharp and quick as a bat under a streetlamp, and that's damn distracting. He tries to focus as Sam smashes the glass of the door with the butt of his pistol and reaches in to turn the lock and then pushes the door open. The little bell jingles sadly overhead.
Sam leads, hopping over the counter and hurrying back into the racks of plastic-wrapped clothes, stumbling in the darkness. The only light comes from the tiny red lights glowing demonically on the pressing machines, and the green exit sign at the back of the large room. They push their way through the muggy air smelling of laundry soap and humidity, guns drawn, and come up sharply against the back door. It's a fire door, and it's stuck.
Sam gives it a kick while Dean holds down the bar, to no effect. The two of them kicking it together produces no better results; it's blocked from the outside.
"Front door, double around," says Sam, and turns to fight his way back through the suffocating press of freshly laundered clothes and plastic. Dean follows, gun in one hand, shoving aside sleeves and pants legs with the other, and trying all the while to ignore Castiel rolling around heavy as a boulder in his mind. It feels like he's scraping against the edges of his mind with a hundred sharp fingertips, a thousand feathers tipped in lead.
Dammit, Cas, stop that.
We must find him. Castiel's voice contains nothing so human as panic, not even fear, but there is an underlying intensity there which suggests he thinks this is more important than his usual tasks.
We're working on it. Stop whatever the hell it is you're doing, it's driving me crazy.
I am not used to remaining idle. Reproval.
Get used to it.
They slam out the front door into the cold night air, and pick up into a true run again. Cut around the side of the building into a narrow alleyway, only the faint glow of light pollution and the fainter glow of the stars to light their way. Dean narrowly avoids running full-tilt into a dumpster; ahead of him Sam trips on a hidden step and goes flying, it's only his momentum that allows him to catch himself.
They brake into a full stop by instinct and training at the mouth of the alley, stare out from behind dark corners into the open lane beyond. It's a one-way street, lit only by a single street lamp at the corner some twenty yards away. There is no sign of anyone in the lane. No car, no people, no Jimmy. No banshee.
"Fuck." Dean slams the side of his fist into the wall, rage pouring through his veins like molten iron, burning him from the inside. He lets out his breath all at once, is vaguely surprised it doesn't steam. The night air, when he pulls in a fresh lungful, is so cold that he breaks into a coughing fit. "What now," he forces out between hacks. "How long do we have?"
Sam's looking around, although what he's hoping to find Dean can't even begin to guess. "A couple of hours, maybe. Maybe less. They like to play with their victims, to get the most out of them, but the level of fear they crave means –"
"Means they end up killing them quick," finishes Dean, harshly. Crappy timeline, what else is new? "Impatient bitches. Come on. Back to the car."
They run all the way back, taking the larger side road rather than the alley to avoid spraining ankles in the darkness. When they reach it Dean swings himself into the passenger seat without a word, Sam staring for a minute before rounding to slide in behind the wheel. At which point Dean sits back, and closes his eyes.
Cas? Do you know where he is?
I am trying. It is difficult; he is moving. The angel's tone is short and gruff, distracted.
Can you track him?
Dean waves an irritated hand.
Yes. To an extent. Open your eyes, and do as I tell you.
"Start the car," he says.
Castiel's not good at directions. More accurately, he's not good at directions given on the move, for someone driving a car and with a limited knowledge of the area.
"He says 500 yards north-east," relays Dean, as Sam glances left, right and straight at a crossroads.
65 degrees from your current position.
"65 degrees from our current position, thanks so much," spits out Dean wishing he had a compass, or a protractor, or both and what the hell is this, ninth grade math? "Can't you just give right or left?"
I am not a GPS system. Nevertheless he pauses, and the continues tersely, Turn left here, then straight 200 yards.
"Turn left here, keep going for 200 yards."
Sam, thankfully, just does what he's told, and if he's freaked out by his brother having conversations with himself he doesn't say anything about it. Hell, this is hardly even strange for them, and no where near bizarre.
East from here – right at the next junction.
Do you know how you will stop her?
I'm going with fire, fire and more fire, with a side helping of bullets and iron if that doesn't do the trick. Dean keeps his eyes on the road, scans the area for Castiel; he can feel that pressure close behind his eyes, the angel watching carefully.
You will have to act quickly. And then, in a different tone. They have stopped. Five and a half miles away at twenty degrees – turn right at the intersection after next.
"Turn right, light after this. Cas says they've stopped."
"Is Jimmy okay?"
I can't tell. The bond is deep, but not complex.
"He doesn't know. But she's hardly had him any time."
"She must expect us to come looking for him."
"Yeah, but she won't expect us to find him. Not until she dumps him."
Sam concedes this with a shrug. "You want the torch?"
"I'll get Jimmy. You take the torch; watch my back."
And you keep out of the way, he adds, closing his eyes briefly. Castiel shifts; whether the gesture is one of acceptance, or irritation, or merely a shrug, Dean can't just at the moment tell.
The house they end up at is out of town, sequestered away down a narrow gravel road. A little farmhouse, surrounded by muddy fields still covered here and there with thin frosty blankets. A couple of outbuildings catch the car's headlights as they turn into the driveway; judging from their size probably a tool shed and an old barn.
The farmhouse itself is of the typical stock: two stories, white wooden walls, a wide porch. Lacy curtains flash moon-bright in the high beams. There are no lights on in the house, or the out buildings. But there is a car, an old battered station wagon, parked in the muddy driveway. And there are muddy prints on the white steps leading up to the front door. Of course, there's no way to tell how recent they are.
Sam shuts off the engine and slips out to open the trunk while Dean keeps an eye on the house, gun in hand, scanning the darkness. There are no lights out here in the back of beyond, nothing but the faint pinpricks of stars in the cloudy night sky. Now and again the clouds part to reveal a sliver of the crescent moon. It's enough, just barely.
Sam pulls out the propane torch and slips a lighter into his jacket pocket with a metallic click. There's a brief flash of light as he checks a flashlight, and then he hisses, "Done." Dean slides around to take his turn, grabs a knife and a second pistol, then a couple of clips. Finishes off with a flashlight for himself as well, and closes the trunk as gently as he can.
"Where is he?" asks Sam, back to Dean, eyes on the house.
Cas, begins Dean. And gets no further, because there is a scream from the house.
No one who's heard a banshee scream ever forgets it, if he's lucky enough to live through it with his ear drums intact. Half the windows in the house shatter, and the Impala shudders under Dean's hands. Dean curses and kneads fingers into his suddenly aching temples, and staggers off towards the house, Sam following. It's like trying to walk through waist-deep water. And then the scream finishes, sound cutting out like a light going off, and they nearly fall forward at the sudden lack of resistance. And begin to run in earnest.
The front door is unlocked, door knob cold and firm under his hand; he pushes it open and steps immediately to the right, Sam following and moving the other way.
There is no light inside, and the pale starlight does nothing to help them here. Turning on the lights will let the thing know they're here, but then again odds are it noticed the car driving up anyway. He looks at Sam, and can hardly make out his brother's form, never mind his expression.
From somewhere nearby comes the sound of shoes running on a wooden floor, and then the slamming of a door. Dean slams his hand against the wall, swiping it over a surface of dusty wallpaper until he finds the light switch and throws it on.
They're in a chintzy front room, the kind of room usually popular with the over 80s, all flowery upholstery and white lace doilies and porcelain statuettes. To the left there's a closed door, to the right an open hallway.
There will be time to joke about it later, about the undead and their god-awful taste, about things that kill for fun filling their houses with music boxes and snow-globes. Sam goes left, he goes right through the hall. The walls are an unadorned white here, and Dean searches the darkness ahead for any sign of movement, any flash of eyes or creak of weight on old floorboards. There is none.
He comes out in an old fashioned kitchen, impeccably clean with the same geriatric taste in decorating; the chairs are covered with knitted antimacassars, the walls feature framed embroidery, the walnut cupboards painted china.
This is weird, even for the undead. Your Grandma Gone Wrong.
There are stairs leading up to the second floor, a door to the other side of the house, and another door leading outside, presumably to the back porch. Dean freezes, and in the darkness ahead of him something creaks.
He's got his gun on the door before it even begins to open, shoulder resting on the wall for support and somewhere to dodge if the thing starts to scream – a blast head-on can dent steel but much more relevantly can also burst ear drums and turn eyeballs to jelly and bone to paste.
The door opens, and before he even steps out Dean recognises his brother by his silhouette, relaxes. Sam walks in with his gun raised in stiff arms, face hard with the effort of maintaining such taut senses. He meets Dean's eyes and shakes his head. Dean nods to the stairs, Sam to the door.
Splitting up's a bad plan, but they're on a damn short time limit. He nods to the stairs again, and Sam to the door.
They split up.
The stairs creak. They creak like trees in the wind and old men's joints and rusty hinges, and any one of a thousand things that creaks and happens right now to be giving him the hell away. There is no way to move silently through old houses, and Dean hates that. Hates it all the more because it has the very real potential to get him killed.
The stairs let out on to a long hall with doors on both sides, two each, and one at the end. They're all closed. Of course. He turns on the light – there's no way the thing doesn't know they're here by now – and steps forward. Takes the left, because that's easier to clear right-handed.
The first door turns out to be a linen closet, full of dusty sheets and knitted coverlets and quaint little quilts, and he rolls his eyes at himself. The second is a large room, completely empty except for a gigantic couch under a dust sheet. He throws it to the ground, but the thing isn't hiding beneath it. Just an ocean of dust motes.
Dean tracks right, now, pushes open the first door and slips in gun first. Another bedroom, this one fully furnished but also dust-sheeted. He throws open the closet, the wardrobe; empty. Checks behind the bed, nothing. Grits his teeth and drops to his knees to throw the dust-sheet up and check beneath the bed, dreading the possibility of shining eyes staring back at him from the darkness there, of the mouth already opened to scream. Nothing.
Heart pounding in his chest – he must be getting old – he moves on to the next room. A study, just a desk and wooden trunk. He checks under the desk; the trunk has books piled on it and can't contain anyone. Not anyone who wasn't put there, anyway – Dean's still got some gruesome memories of their last encounter with a ghoul. Which leaves just the room at the end of the hall.
Flower-shaped lamps casting his shadow ahead of him, he takes a breath, hand on the cold knob, and throws the door open.
A large bedroom, in use, with bed and dresser and book shelves. The plain wooden floor, uncarpeted, is scratched and gouged, and in the poor buttery light shining in from the hallway, the old blood spattered on it looks more like molasses than anything else. Many of the grooves are unmistakably close to the spread of human fingers.
On the bed, the white duvet stained with a rusty red pattern, Jimmy is lying on his back, unmoving. Castiel turns over so sharply Dean nearly loses his balance stepping into the room.
"Jimmy! Jimmy, hey! Wake up!" Dean's at his side shaking him, back to the wall, even before the dizziness has worn off. His shirt has been ripped open, shallow scrapes cut down his chest. His head lolls at Dean's shaking, and his eyes open, slightly unfocused.
"Not… completely. It was the laundry lady – she grabbed me – her eyes, God…"
"Where is she? Jimmy, where'd she go?"
For a heart-stopping instant, he imagines hands reaching out to grab him from under the bed, sharp teeth smiling at a cunning trap. Then he remembers the door slamming.
"Dunno. She… she was staring at me, scratching me. Looking at me like …" he shivers, trying to draw in on himself. "I could see it, in her eyes, all the horrible things she'd done – the horrible things she was going to do. How she was going to rip me apart, one piece at a time, laughing –" he's white-faced, and Dean thinks he might toss his cookies soon, but they don't have time for that. He shakes the man again, waits until he's looking at him straight in the eye.
"Jimmy – where did she go? She's not here, where'd she go?"
"Out. Out. I don't know – she was staring at me, and then… maybe she recognised me – recognised Castiel. She screamed – I thought my head was going to explode – and when I looked again she was gone."
"Crap." Dean steps over to the window overlooking the front of the house, looks down. In the light streaming out from the now-lit front room, he can see the black gleam of the Impala. And, closer, the duller sheen of the station wagon. "Well, if she took off, she didn't take the car. Come on."
He helps the man up off the bed, Jimmy staggering slightly as he gets to his feet but managing from there, albeit walking like he's been punched in the gut.
Dean leads them out the room and down the stairs, considering giving Jimmy a gun as he does so, and then deciding firmly against it on the premise that he enjoys not having bullets in his back.
The back door is open slightly, knocking against the frame in the wind rolling in over the flat, icy land. There's no light out here, and after the lit interior Dean can feel his eyes struggling to adjust to the darkness. Jimmy walks right into his back.
Dean seriously considers just shoving the man in the Impala's truck, the only remotely safe place he can think of. They should never have taken him along in the first place. Shit, they should never have taken the job at all in the first place.
"Stay close, but don't get between me and it," he hisses gruffly. There's no answer, but he can hear the man shuffling quietly behind him.
He starts forward across the muddy ground heading for the shed, eyes only half-way to adjusted. No point reaching for the flashlight out in the open – if it's here, that'll help it find them long before they find it. Out in the darkness, something creaks. In the back of his mind, Castiel stiffens. Dean pauses, and then creeps forward, smooth and quiet. The grip of his gun is warm and familiar in his hands.
Thin ice breaks under a foot with a sharp crunch. Behind him, Jimmy slips in the frosty mud. Dean catches just a sliver of starlight reflected in a pair of eyes, sees them widen and knows they have seen him.
And then, out of nowhere, Castiel is thundering in his mind, bright and clear and fierce as a waterfall crashing on rocks, It's her, Dean, it's her – fire! Fire, now!
He does, and knows it's too late – the thing's already dodged, and he can't see jack squat out here, but he hears it suck in a deep breath and throws himself to the ground, hands over his ears, as it screams. It's worse than Castiel, ten times, a hundred times, a thousand times worse. His skull is cracking, is shattering, is imploding, and dear God it hurts, hurts like a thousand spears driving in all at once to grind his bones to dust under their sharp points.
It stops just as he's about to beat his head in with the butt of his own pistol, writhing screaming on the ground in the mud. He doesn't remember falling, didn't notice the damp or the cold, or anything other than the pain. Only now, ear drums still reverberating painfully with the scream, does he realise Castiel's been trying to speak to him.
Dean, she is behind you, behind!
He swivels, but he can't see anything, and he can't just shoot randomly – Jimmy's out there somewhere too.
Where? Where, dammit?
There's a flash of movement, red hair shining in a brief beam of moonlight, and he fires. But there is no wail of pain, just Castiel's voice in his head, whispering. That dry, paperish whisper that Dean recognises as a kind of angel-speak.
He wonders if Castiel is praying.
And then the thing is screaming again, and there is no room inside his shattering head for anything except the pain. His brains are curdling, are turning to liquid, are pressing heavy and viscous against his shattering skull, trying to seep through the cracks.
It stops, eventually. He hardly notices. His ears are full of thunder, ear drums still vibrating, each tiny shiver a world of agony. He can feel hot tears coursing down his face, can feel himself panting but can't hear his breath, his sobs.
Dean – Castiel is speaking softly, gently as feathers and sheep fleece and warm beds in winter – Dean – but he can't make sense of the words, can't clear the thick muddle of his mind. DEAN. There's nothing in his head but the rumble of thunder, waiting for the crack of lightning to split it apart, waiting, and – Dean Winchester!
He turns over onto his chest, tries by instinct to push himself to his hands and knees in the frozen mud, fingers numb and icy; he slips and falls heavily. Lies on his side, scrabbling and struggling like a newborn foal.
Dean. Strength and warmth holding him in quiet hands, soothing him. He stills.
Cas? His thoughts are thick and muggy, hard to fit together into coherence.
Dean, you need to leave. Take Jimmy and go, run.
She will kill you, and him.
Sam… That's an instinct, at least as much as survival. More so, so much more.
Dean, you must go, now. The car is close, go!
Not without Sam – where …? Dean stirs, tenses his muscles and pours proper thought into pulling himself up again, out of the thick, frosty mud. He rises slow as a mountain range, but just as inexorably.
Dean, there's no time. You can't save him.
Screw you. What do you know?
Goddamn angel who spends more time smiting than saving people. You don't even think of your damn vessel as a person. The hell do you know? He drags himself up to his knees, tries to find his gun with numb hands, fails.
I know I do not wish to see either of you killed. Leave. Now. Castiel's voice is closer to an order than a plea, but there is still a hint of bargaining. A request made in the face of the surety of its denial.
Five steps to your left. Take him and go.
Dean's ears are beginning to work again; he can hear the thing trudging through the mud, looking for them in the dark. Trying to find its prey, and the thing that came between them.
Dean finds him first, by the simple expediency of tripping over him. He will have given himself away with the noise, he knows it. Imagines the thing stalking over to finish them off right this instant. He lays a hand on Jimmy's back, tries to drag him up.
Hurry, advises the angel tersely, so tense Dean can feel his own spine tingling from the fallout.
Can you heal him? Heal him now?
We don't have a lot of damn choices. Can you? A few yards away, the thing's eyes flash, and he recognises it with senses he shouldn't have, knows: evil, abomination, wrong. Maybe it's that same recognition – the thing seeing Castiel behind his eyes – that buys them just a few instants.
It's too much at once, it could very well –
Do it. Do it now.
Do it! snarls Dean, hand contracting over Jimmy's back. Damn you Castiel, do it!
It doesn't hurt. No pain at all. Just a great bounding river of warmth, forcing and pounding wide smooth paths as it courses through him, until he's hollow. It's light and strength and goodness, so pure it scorches and burns through every inch of him. Softly, painlessly, relentlessly, it cauterises him from the inside out. And then it's gone, newly bored river-beds dry, and it leaves him empty as a broken eggshell.
Dean sinks limply into the cold mud, and stares up into the dark sky with dead eyes. Sees, without watching, the shower of light that rains down on Jimmy even as the man tries to struggle to his feet beside Dean. Hears the quiet, gruff voice without listening: "Goodbye, child."
There is a flash of light. A sigh, and a wet thump. Dean, utterly hollow, mind a gaping void, stares dully up at the sliver of moon above him. After a moment, a pale face leans over him, and then strong arms pull him up out of the cold.
"I told you it was a foolish plan," says Castiel. "I can't imagine why I expected that to stop you." And then, eventually, bright eyes staring not down at the man in his arms but at the corpse lying some yards away and the fields beyond, "Perhaps you are right not to trust me."
The angel sighs, and finally does look down. Raises one hand, and presses two fingers against the bridge of Dean's nose, gentle as snowflakes.
The world turns back on in a burst of light and sound and sensation. Dean starts, and then twists himself away, gasping and wrapping stiff arms around his chest. It's like waking up and finding he's missing half of himself; he feels cold and somehow… tiny, insignificant. Like he's all alone in a huge room, where a minute ago it was full. He blinks, and stares up at the man above him.
"What the hell? Jimmy?"
"No," says Castiel. Dean, on his knees in the mud, narrows his eyes.
"Cas? Are – is he okay?"
"Yes," says Castiel, simply. "He is."
Dean nods once, eyes hard and teeth gritted tight. Then he looks around, hand going to his side for his back-up weapon. "Shit – the thing –"
"And Sam?" He's on his feet now, slipping and sliding as he tries to catch his balance.
Castiel looks around slowly, stops with his eyes on the shed. "He's in there, unconscious, with three fractured ribs. He'll recover."
"Shit," says Dean again, and begins to shuck through the mud in that direction. Pauses, and turns back. The angel is staring out over the fields, still down on one knee. His coat is spread around him, although when and how he changed his clothes, Dean doesn't know. "Uh, are you –"
"I will be going now. I've been gone too long. But I am … thankful, for your cooperation. Your aid," says the angel, slowly.
"Yeah, well," says Dean, shrugging, eyes narrow. He knows better than to expect Castiel to stick around and play at Happy Families with them. The fact that the angel didn't just take off immediately is pretty shocking on its own. It's probably stupid to have expected any closure on the whole Jimmy/Castiel front – when has he ever gotten closure on anything? – but even so, he was expecting… something. He supposes it's typical of the entire relationship between the angel and Jimmy, that the man ended up shafted again without even a say in it. "If I had had a choice… that poor bastard doesn't deserve it, Cas."
"No," agrees the angel, standing now. "Nevertheless. What must be, is. The world is not a fair place."
"And it's not your job to make it one?"
"No," says the angel again, with more steel this time. "We are fighting a war. My job is to see that we win."
"And if you have to use a tax accountant or two for cannon fodder, that's okay?"
Castiel tilts his head – tilts Jimmy's head – just slightly. A few months ago, it would have been a gesture of puzzlement, of confusion with the bizarre ways of humans. Now, it's nearly a challenge. "Yes, it is. To save billions of his brothers, I will use him as cannon fodder. I will take his family, his world, his life from him, and give him nothing in return but the knowledge that I will use his sacrifice as best I can. And in thousands, millions of years, when no one on this planet knows what a radio is, much less English, I will remember a radio-advertisement salesman from Pontiac, Illinois. It isn't fair. It is simply what must be." The angel's voice is harder than stone, than steel, and it cuts.
"That's a load of crap, Cas." It's the cold making his voice shake. Definitely the cold.
Castiel is staring up at the sky, at the thin blanket of covering separating them from the stars. What it is he's looking at, Dean has no idea. He stands there, looking up, for several moments before speaking. "I realise we don't see eye to eye on many things – or don't seem to," he adds, not looking at Dean at all. "Nevertheless…" He straightens, eyes settling even and bright on Dean, who stiffens without knowing why, "Of all people, Dean, and all things, I wish I could promise you hope. Or, perhaps, simply that you could take it if I did."
Dean blinks at the non-sequitur, sputters slightly. "What – hope's not like a – a puppy. You can't just box it up and give it to people."
"No," says Castiel, in a soft voice with just a hint of grit. "I suppose not. Not to Dean Winchester, at least."
Dean bridles. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"It takes trust to hope, Dean."
"And I don't trust you."
Castiel shrugs, coat shifting in the breeze. "I do not blame you." He returns it fast and easy, and it seems to Dean he's been thinking about it.
Dean takes a deep breath, cold tingling in his lungs. "People change, Cas. Sometimes." He turns towards the shed, where Sam's probably catching hypothermia. Behind him, he feels Castiel turn, just a light press of warmth against his shoulders, enough to stop him cold. Castiel's feet away by now, standing real and corporeal in Jimmy's meat suit. Definitely not in his head. Maybe just… lingering, a bit. Like an illness. Yeah, that sounds about right. Something he's glad to be rid of. Absolutely.
"Maybe they do," agrees the angel, and Dean can tell by his voice that he's looking away, maybe up at the sky, or over the fields. Maybe at the dark corpse lying in the mud, and Dean finds himself wondering whether the angel's thinking of her ancestors. He's damn sure he'll never know.
The wind whips at Dean, brief and fierce, and then dies down. He doesn't have to look to know the angel's gone. He's almost forgotten what it's like to be in conversations where the angel doesn't have to stick around. He has a feeling it'll come back pretty quick.
Dean sighs, then curses more on principle than anything else, and heads towards the shed to pick up his brother.