Disclaimer: Don't own Supernatural or the characters. I'll lay claim to the angels with the horrible names; seriously, even after wracking my brains I still can't come up with convincing names for them.
Notes: Just two chapters, no continuation, almost certainly no sequel. Set sometime after On The Head of a Pin, but before The Rapture. AU-wise, this assumes Castiel didn't tell Dean anything about Uriel in the hospital at the end of OtHoaP. Second half up tomorrow.
Dean wakes up lying flat on his back on a cold marble floor in his sleeping T and boxers.
He startles his way into full consciousness, pulls himself into a sitting position with the momentum, sparking a vicious complaint from his tailbone. Dean takes in the minor details – the gilt, the candles glowing warmly in silver holders on the walls, the crystal chandelier overhead – absently. The bulk of his attention is focused on the tall man standing on the other side of the room, a trim man of middle age with a receding hairline dressed in a tailored grey suit.
"Hello, Dean," says the suit, smiling mild as milk.
Dean's on his feet in an instant, marble unforgiving under his bare soles, with his back to the wall an instant later. "Who the hell're you?"
The man's smile doesn't exactly disappear, rather it withers into something smaller, meaner, while his eyes harden under sharp brows.
"Castiel has mentioned your impiety. I must say, I didn't expect to be struck by it so early."
"You know Castiel?" Dean keeps his back against the wall, but stops looking for a weapon. If this is an angel, it won't do any good. It says a lot about the turns his life has taken recently that that's a cause for concern.
"We're in the same garrison," answers the man – the possible angel.
"So what, you've got a message from him?"
"Not exactly." Mr. Possibly-Holy-Roller pulls out what looks a bit like a night-stick, albeit shorter and thinner and made of silver, from the breast pocket of his suit with a careless movement. Dean backs away with one guiding arm on the wall, staring at it.
"Hey, uh, why don't we talk about this?"
"There's nothing to talk about. Why we have been wasting our time with insignificant primordial slime like you is beyond my comprehension."
"See you went to the Uriel school of human relations," mutters Dean, and stumbles as he hits the corner. He tries to glance around without taking his eyes off the advancing figure, draws only an impression of white and gold and a definite lack of exits.
"We don't need a human to fight our battles for us. Why should we place ourselves beneath you? We might as well humble ourselves to cockroaches."
"Hey, I myself couldn't agree more. But people keep telling me that's not what the man upstairs thinks," says Dean lightly, eyes still on the silver pole which is definitely thin enough at the tip to skewer a man.
"Only according to some," growls the angel, and raises his weapon ready to stab. Dean makes to break away, and finds himself pinned in place with the same crushing power the demons are so fond of, his back to the wall. Helpless.
"I would say I'm sorry," a flick of an eyebrow, a twitch of the lips, "but that would be a lie." He stabs – Dean shuts his eyes waiting for the pain, the dark. The fire.
Instead there's a warm breath of air, a quiet wet sound, and a surprised hiss from the angel. Dean opens his eyes and finds himself staring at the back of Castiel's head. He looks down and his eyes are drawn and held by the gleaming tip of silver protruding from the shorter angel's back, just to the side of his shoulder blade. In the candlelight, the blood shines like a gem.
There's a lithe movement like a shrug which Dean doesn't wholly catch, and then Castiel is pressing forward while the other falls back and then topples. He hits the floor with a hole in the grey fabric above his heart, eyes staring up at the chandelier. Dean never even saw the weapon change hands.
"Shut your eyes," says Castiel in a voice full of broken glass.
There's a burst of light and warm wind; it flattens Dean's hair and rips briefly at his loose clothes. When he opens his eyes again, Castiel has slumped to his knees, back to Dean. On the floor beyond, the marble on either side of the fallen man has been scorched with a pattern of wings.
"Did you just kill him?" asks Dean, staring.
Castiel doesn't answer. The other angel doesn't move, and Dean doesn't have to look closer to know that the vessel, at least, is toast.
The angel is still, back straight as a pole, legs folded beneath him. His coat has fallen out to trail behind him in a neat echo of the wings burned into the marble opposite him. Dean pushes off from the wall and pads around to face the angel, feet slapping quietly on the cold marble. Castiel's staring at the corpse in front of him with narrow eyes, one hand pressed against his chest. And he's breathing hard.
"Are you okay?"
"You need to leave, now," says Castiel roughly, and looks up at Dean with fierce eyes.
"Yeah, okay," says Dean sarcastically. "Oh wait, I don't know where the hell I am. What's going on here?"
Overhead, the crystals in the chandelier begin to hum quietly. Dean looks up and sees they're trembling, shaking.
Castiel takes the hand from his chest and reaches out to Dean; the palm is bloody. Overhead, the crystals are now dancing and ringing like bells.
"Dean!" barks the angel, and Dean realises he's standing too far away for Castiel to reach. Steps closer, and the wet grip snags his wrist tight.
There's no flash of light, no sensation of movement, no warning. He doesn't even blink, although it feels like he has. One second he's staring at Castiel framed by a backdrop of elaborate opulence, the next he's staring at a Castiel-shaped shadow framed by a backdrop of dim fields.
Wherever they are, it's some time before dawn; the sky in what must be the east is only just beginning to be tinged with a lighter shade of blue than the navy velvet above. In the darkness all Dean can see is that the land is relatively flat, and the sky is wide. As his eyes adjust, he can pick out the stars scattered in the sky clear and bright – the moon must have set – which means they're nowhere near a big city. The air is cold against his bare skin, but not unbearably so. The ground under his feet is sharp and uneven; gravel.
There's a crunching shift ahead of him; Castiel changing position. Slumping further.
"Uh, Cas? Are you okay?" He's loath to touch the angel – for all Dean knows that carries some sort of insta-smite policy – but it's clear that the guy's not running on all cylinders. Either that or something's seriously off with his GPS.
"Not entirely," admits the angel. In the hush of the country night, he can still hear Cas breathing, and now has time to recognize that that's a first. He sounds like he's trying to catch his breath.
"Can't you just, you know, wave your hand and voilà?"
"No. Esriel's weapon was too powerful… it was made to kill angels. Even a miss apparently … does grievous harm." That the angel has to pause for breath is proof enough of that. Still, his voice is flat as ever, without any indication of pain.
It occurs to Dean for the first time, even knowing angels have been dying, even having just seen one iced, that Castiel could be killed. And then it occurs to him that he should be worried, not just mildly curious. He tries to kick his brain into the appropriate gear.
"Should I do something? Does it hurt?"
"Just go find Sam. Continue your work. I will be fine."
"Dude, I'm not gonna leave you out on the middle of some field in the back of nowhere – I don't even know where we are," says Dean, explosively. And then, on further reflection, "Besides, I'm out here with no clothes, no cash, and no car."
"I can't help that. I can't transport you again. You'll have to get to Sam on your own."
Dean bites back a sarcastic remark. "And what, you'll just lie here waiting for some demon to come along and find you bleeding on the road? Fuck, Cas, it doesn't take much to see that you're like a bird with his damn wings torn off right now, and the world's crammed full of cats looking for an easy meal."
"You should worry about yourself," says the angel, gruffly.
"I am. You think I'd get a gold star for leaving an angel lying around helpless?"
Castiel says nothing, but a shift in the gravel suggests he has slumped further.
"Right," says Dean, ignoring the silence. "Now, where are we?"
"About forty miles away from Warren, Arkansas," says the angel quietly.
"Great. Where's that?"
"A hundred miles south of Little Rock."
"Well. Only a couple hundred miles off. Not bad," says Dean with bright sarcasm. Sam is up in Fayetteville where they were tracking a possible Redcap, assuming no heavenly visitors popped in on him too. Which leaves them stuck in the middle of nowhere with miles to go and without food, supplies, proper clothes, weapons or money. And an angel doing a good stuck-pig impersonation. "Any idea how long it's going to take you to fix yourself up?"
"I have no experience with this," grits out the angel. Although his words are clear and strong, they're laced with the effort of keeping them that way. "A day or two, perhaps."
"Great. And I'm guessing you're not feeling up to walking?"
"You really should leave me… The danger will not be inordinate."
"Yeah, well, I'll keep that in mind. I'm sure I'll be much easier to convince after a few hours of lugging your ass out of here." He takes a step forwards and winces at the sharp press of gravel into his feet. "First thing's first. What size shoes do you wear?"
This is greeted with silence so long Dean wonders if the angel's passed out. "Cas?"
"How should I know?" His tone is one of exhaustion and uncertainty rather than reproof. Mostly.
Dean sighs. "Great, comparing shoe sizes with an angel in the dark," he mutters. In the end, he's forced to sit down carefully in front of Castiel, sweeping away the pointiest stones first. "Give me your foot," he says, and then as the angel shifts slowly to sit with his feet in front of him, "This is probably really symbolic, or something." He finds one foot with searching hands, fingers brushing over worn and dusty leather. Scoots to allow him to put his own against the bottom, one hand at his heel, the other at his toes. With his heel against the heel of Castiel's shoe, the tips of his toes are even with the tapered tip of the sole. "Oh come on," he hisses, drawing away in disgust.
They sit there in the middle of the country road for a minute, a man wearing only a laundry-stretched t-shirt and boxers that are already gritty with the dust of the road, and an angel in a slumped over-dressed heap bleeding quietly into a dirty suit.
"Well, enough sulking," says Dean eventually, and gets to his feet, still squatting. "You mind me borrowing your coat? It's not exactly Florida out here. Besides, we're gonna get some strange looks as it is."
There's a pause, and then, "It doesn't matter," says the angel, as if the idea that he could change his clothes has never occurred to him. Maybe it hasn't. Warriors of Heaven probably have more on their minds than making a fashion statement. He pulls it off in slow, jerky movements, although whether his lack of coordination is due to inexperience or his injury or both Dean can't tell. It's heavy under Dean's hands – good material, well lined – and he's surprised. Association with Castiel has given it just a hint of insubstantiality in his mind. He rolls his eyes at himself and pulls it on; it fits well enough, a bit tight in the shoulders. Like Castiel, he doesn't bother to do it up. It's not that cold, or at least it won't be when he gets moving.
"Alright. Let's get going." Dean reaches out, pauses. And then, awkwardly, "Sorry about this," he adds as he grabs Castiel's wrist, is surprised to feel a watch under the jacket. He doesn't bother wondering about it, just hoists the angel up onto his shoulders. Castiel makes a quiet sound as the air is knocked out of him, head down by Dean's upper arm while his legs hang knocking against the hunter's right side. The extra weight drives the gravel into the soft undersides of Dean's feet all the harder, and he grits his teeth. "You okay?" he forces out.
"Yes," says Castiel, in a tone that sounds a lot like I'm really not sure.
"Great. Which way's Warren?"
"To your right," hisses the angel.
"Thanks." Dean hurries across the gravel, moving like water on a hot skillet, and hits the soft verge where dry dusty grass is growing. "Geronimo."
They walk a long way without talking. Or, more accurately, Dean walks while Castiel bounces along on his shoulders. He stops once to switch the angel to lie the other way; Castiel makes no comment.
Dean knows how long it takes him to run a mile, and he knows how long it takes him to sprint 100 yards – although that can depend on just how nasty the thing behind him is – but he's never been into walking and can only estimate from rough calculations how far they've come. He has no watch either, after all, and discovers early on that Castiel's has stopped. Surprise.
The sun's just coming up when they spot the buildings away near the horizon ahead. No cars have been by, but it's hardly surprising. The road's a one-lane back road, probably only used by farmers. Dean hitches Castiel higher on his shoulders and heads for the town.
Every now and then he asks the angel about his wound. The only answer is "acceptable." Dean takes this to mean it's not going to kill him in the immediate future.
It's only when they get closer to the town – more like a few houses lining a paved road – that Dean breaks the silence again.
"So," he says, "Do we have a plan here?"
Castiel says nothing.
"I mean, I'm good to go in all Clint Eastwood with you on my back, but it might raise a few eyebrows. Of course," he adds, in the obvious point, "it's not like a guy turning up in his PJs and a trench coat's gonna go unnoticed. You'd be a good option, if you could walk."
Castiel says nothing.
"Alright then. Guess I'll go in alone and try to call Sammy. You can wait in the ditch."
Castiel says nothing.
"I'm so glad we've got this great partnership going," mutters Dean.
The problem with the land being as flat as it is is that, while he was able to spot the town from a long way away, the town is therefore able to spot them from a long way away as well. Dean leaves it to less than a mile, but he's already getting itchy by that point; they really do not need to have a run in with the local sheriff.
So, he chooses a spot with a conveniently gentle slope into the field to the left of the road and hurries down into the dirt. The field is growing some kind of big green leafy vegetable; Dean's no agriculture expert but probably something like cabbage, he thinks. The earth is dry and dusty with lack of rain, lying in thick clumps that disintegrate into fine dirt when he steps on them. He walks along until he's at the point where the slope between the road and the field is highest, and stops.
"Time to get down," he hisses, and with a complicated shrug and duck of his head slides the angel off his shoulders and onto his own feet. Castiel's legs promptly give out under him, and Dean's forced to lunge to catch him and help him sit in a graceless heap leaning back against the grass of the slope. His face is pale and sweat-soaked; the front of his suit is stained red. Dean stares.
"Shit, Cas, why didn't you say something?" He reaches out to pull the dark jacket away from the angel's chest to reveal the bright crimson-stained shirt beneath. "You need a hospital or a doctor or… something."
Castiel's eyes are unconcerned, and although his body is clearly suffering, there is no pain in them. "The wound can't kill me, Dean… It will merely weaken me… for a while."
"You're bleeding like a stuck pig!" He turns to look over his shoulder; sure enough, the trench coat has a corresponding stain over the shoulder and back. "Dammit, Cas!" Fists bunched, he fights not to drive one into the earth.
The angel watches him calmly. Dean has no idea whether he's really ignorant of how hard he's making this, or whether he just doesn't care.
"Look," Dean snarls, "one of us has to go into that town to call Sam and get him to drag his ass out here and pick us up. It's not going to be you, so it's gotta be me, and that means I can't show up covered in blood. Or do you want to sit out here eating cabbages until you heal up enough to click your heels and take us where we need to go?"
"Broccoli," says the angel, absently.
"The crop is broccoli," repeats Castiel.
"Well that's fucking dandy. You gonna work with me here, Cas?"
Castiel focuses his gaze from the point in the distance he's been staring at to Dean, with a speed that makes the hunter tense. But he simply raises and hand and lays it light as snow on Dean's shoulder. Then drops it again. Dean turns; the stain is gone. Turns back; the angel is slumped against the grass with his eyes closed.
"Do what you need to." His voice is flat and empty.
"Right." Dean stands, glances back down at the angel. Opens his mouth, then shuts it again. Sets off towards the town again, without another word.
It's a one-horse town, the kind Dean's seen more of than he can count. The faded sign a few yards from the first buildings reads "Dry Creek." No shit, thinks Dean.
He knows how things work in this kind of place, knows everything revolves around the general store. Knows that it'll be the centre of activity, something he wants desperately to avoid. But he also knows that there's no chance of breaking into a house to use a phone – everyone sees everything in a town this small, and he's got nowhere to run to. So he pulls the coat around him, doing up the buttons in the horrible clawing knowledge that this is a prime flasher coat and there is not enough bleach in the world to score out the thoughts that just popped into his head. Snarling, he buries his hands deep in the coat's pockets for the first time, having needed his hands to keep Castiel from tumbling off his shoulders until now.
He is really and truly shocked to find that they're not empty; yanks his hands out as though he plunged them into scalding water, and stops where he's standing to glance down slowly.
Dean had simply never imagined the angel might carry things around with him, and now that he's been presented with proof that he does, Dean can't imagine what they might be. He's not at all sure he wants to know. But there's no such thing as a hunter who doesn't investigate oddities, because they end up underground before they can claim the title. So Dean slips his hand back into the left pocket, slow as he'd skirt a rattler. And pulls out a couple of crinkled receipts, a piece of grey string, and a penny.
He stares down at the exceedingly unexceptional collection in his palm, then unfolds the receipts with careful fingers. They're badly creased and in some places stained, but Dean can still make out the bills of sale for 20 gallons of gas at a pump & pay, a $15.00 hair cut, and some unnamed produce.
It has to be the most mundane collection Dean's ever seen. Even he and Sam do better: hideous silver picture frames, iron rods, bloodwart, pie… Dean crumples the papers all together again and drops the ball back into the pocket. Reaches into the other, and pulls out a slim leather wallet.
There is no way angels carry wallets – or buy gas or haircuts or – or – broccoli – and staring at the black square in his palm, Dean knows exactly what he's holding. Possibly the only proof there ever was another soul in what is now the angel's body. Proof that, whatever Castiel says, Dean's a willing – or at least silent – accomplice to some helpless Joe's possession.
The disgust burns like acid in his throat.
It's cowardly and pathetic, but he flips the wallet open, pulls out the bills in the centre fold, and snaps it shut before he can see anything other than the gleam of laminated plastic.
A couple of twenties. Not bad. He holds onto that thought as he slips the wallet back into the coat's pocket – it drops like a stone in a well. He shoves the bills in after it, crisp paper crackling against his fingers. Pulls his hands out again and sighs. Starts walking.
There's not much activity in the town – a couple of kids chasing each other on rusty bikes, the postman wandering from door to door with his mail bag slung over his shoulder, a couple of old ladies in hideous floral print dresses gossiping on a porch at the far end of the main street.
Dean slips around the house at the head of his end of the street – wooden slats smeared with an uneven layer of cracking yellow paint, window frames done in white that's now a nice pale fawn brown with the dust – and keeps in the shade of the houses as he shuffles along towards the general store; predictably it's several buildings in.
Dry Creek's a thirsty town. Everywhere the wood has sucked all the moisture from the paint, leaving it as parched as mud on the bottom of a dry riverbed. The trees are gnarled and mean, leaves tough and shiny in the already-bright morning sun. A thick layer of dust covers everything.
Everything includes the aluminum step leading up to the General Store – Ralph's, the flaking sign says. It's just as well, since otherwise Dean's bare foot would have left a perfect print behind.
He steps into the store, and immediately shuffles over to the counter to keep his feet out of sight. The store's dim after the morning brightness, and smells of cigarettes and 5 cent bubblegum and cut grass. The bell over the door jingles away for several seconds before someone lurches forward out of the depths of the narrow store aisles. Dean doesn't need to look to know they're packed with junk food, home supplies, tools, magazines, clothes and, doubtless somewhere in the back, the ubiquitous fishing and gardening supplies even if there aren't many rivers or gardens around.
"Morning," says the clerk – possibly Ralph – in a lazy drawl, plastic-weave cap shading a middle-aged face with more crags than a mountainside, leathery skin split through with deep crevasses.
"Morning," says Dean, full of confidence and bravado and projecting a "just one of the boys" field so strong birds would have run right into it. "Had some trouble on the road. Can I use your phone?" He pulls out a bill as a reference, twists it between two fingers.
"Sure. You know, every year we write to Warren for a payphone, but do they listen? Nah, 'ain't got no call for it,' they say," the man produces an exaggerated drawl. "Goddamn politicians." Possibly-Ralph fishes a dirty eggshell-coloured phone from behind the counter and puts it on the board with a clatter. "Local call?"
"In state," says Dean, putting down the bill and picking up the receiver in exchange. He punches in Sam's number, and waits for the call to connect. There's the sharp click of the line picking up, and then another click. Dean's eyes narrow. Sure enough, Sam's voice comes on loud and clear a second later, the same "This is Sam, leave a message," that his brother's been sporting at least since Dean got back from Below and judging by the ruffled tone probably before. Dean bites back a snarl and a curse, irritatingly aware of the man behind the counter painstakingly making change from his bill.
"It's me," says Dean in a falsely easy-going tone. "Took a ride with one of Cas' friends, but he ditched us down in –" Dean recalls the sign, and Cas' words, "Dry Creek, 30 miles out of Warren. We're heading there. Get your ass down here and pick us up." He drops the phone back into its cradle more gently than he feels like.
"Sounds like you're in a spot of trouble," says might-be-Ralph, pushing his change over the scarred countertop.
Dean smiles falsely, scooping it up. "Nah, just a stupid prank. You know those Little Rock frat boys." But, since he seems to have lucked out with his reception, "But, uh, you wouldn't happen to have some shoes for sale, would you?"
The day's already heating up when he makes it back to Cas, coat hanging open, rustling bags in each hand and plastic crocs on his feet. He feels like he just walked out of a damn trailer park.
Castiel is sitting where Dean left him, staring out into the broccoli field with far-focused eyes. He glances at Dean as he slides down the slope, which is more recognition than Dean's seen from the angel since they started.
"How're you doing?" Dean squats down beside him, coat tails trailing in the dirt, and fishes through the bags for a bottle of water. Finds it and opens the lid with a plastic crack.
"Here." He holds out the water. Castiel looks at it, then back at Dean.
"I don't drink."
"Yeah, well, this isn't exactly 90% proof." A blank stare. Dean sighs. "Okay, seriously, with the amount of blood you've lost, if you don't replace it with something you're gonna keel over."
"I told you already: I won't die."
"You sure about that? 'Cause right now you're looking pretty damn pasty."
The angel is in fact looking relatively good for the fact that he's got a hole right next to his heart and has a nice set of matching blood stains on the front and back of his suit. He is paler than usual, with shadows under his eyes and a light sheen of sweat on his skin, but shows nothing like the symptoms a normal person would suffer in the same circumstances.
Mostly he just looks tired. Weary. It's a look Dean recognises well enough; he's been seeing it in the mirror a lot lately.
"I'm sure. Did you contact Sam?"
"I left a message," says Dean darkly, still irritated with the lack of answer. And then suddenly not, as another thought occurs. He drops the water and looks sharply at Castiel. "He's okay, right? I mean, no one else picked him up?" If some of the angels want him dead, he doesn't even have a word for how much they must want Sam iced. "Cas?" he barks, deep and gruff.
"I'm not omniscient, Dean." Castiel's staring off into the distance, looking out over miles of farmland.
"I'm not asking you to know goddamn everything, I'm asking you to know one thing: is my brother okay?" He reaches out to grab the angel's lapels, but thinks the better of it when Castiel turns his eyes on him, and just fists his hands tight and hard instead.
After a minute, Castiel's gaze softens. "I can't tell you how he is now… but when I came to you… you alone had been taken."
"Dammit, Sam," hisses Dean, slamming his hand on the water bottle, driving it several inches down into the soft soil. Behind him, the wind rustles through the heavy green leaves. Far away, a hawk whistles.
"Alright," says Dean, looking up. "We get ready, and then we keep heading on. We can't count on Sam coming to get us. We need to get to a bigger town. Can you walk?"
"Not very far," says the angel, shifting stiffly.
"Perfect. You still bleeding?"
Castiel looks down, then pulls the dark jacket away from his chest. His shirt is a canvas of different shades of red, ranging from light pink to dark brown. In the centre, it is still the dark shiny red of fresh blood. "Somewhat," he answers, completely unconcerned.
"Okay. Here." Dean pulls a thick adhesive pad from the bag, stripping off the plastic and handing it to the angel.
"This isn't necessary."
"Yeah, well, you can wear it for my peace of mind. And your damn coat."
Castiel gives him an unimpressed look, but begins to fumble one-handedly with the buttons of his shirt. Dean takes this opportunity to eat a few energy bars and chug half the bottle of water. By the time Castiel has stuck the gauze over his wound and straightened his clothes again – odd how he makes such an effort to keep them in the same state rather than improving them, but who's Dean to comment? – Dean has finished his impromptu brunch and is straightening up the bags. He leaves the one filled with empty wrappers beside him – Sam would whine about littering, but Sam's not here – and puts the only defensive item he could find in his pocket. The salt container is heavy and bulky, but he wasn't leaving with nothing. The rest goes all together in the other bag. Castiel's staring out at the horizon again when he finishes; probably spending so much time with a human is a new experience for him. Except the one he's in, obviously. Dean flinches away from that thought, and straightens up.
"Right. Time to hit the road. You ready?"
Castiel makes no answer, which Dean takes for a yes. He grabs the angel's arm and pulls him up onto his back again, Castiel giving the same quiet sigh as the wind is knocked out of him. Dean hands him the remaining bag. "Here, you can hold this. And tell me when you're okay to walk."
Castiel says nothing, but takes the bag.
Dean rolls his eyes, and starts walking.
Dean skirts Dry Creek good and wide, cutting through fields of miscellaneous agricultural produce and ducking down to avoid trucks and tractors. They're easy enough to spot in the flat lands and besides, he can always hear them coming a long time before they're in visual range.
They come up on a larger town several hours later, when the sun is already getting low in the western sky. By this point Dean's throat feels like the inside of an hourglass left on a hotplate, and his back is drenched in sweat. He bought three bottles of water from Ralph; they weren't enough.
He hunkers down on the edge of a corn field, corn just barely above knee-height and so useless for hiding, and lets Cas down. The angel doesn't look much less pale, but his sweating has mostly stopped.
"You up to walking?" Dean glances at the first house of the town, only a field's length down the road. Larger than Dry Creek, the town also has a wider urban sprawl, if that word can apply to a town of 30,000, houses out here standing here and there on small properties fronted by gravel roads, too far from the town centre for paved roads and sidewalks.
"Yes," says the angel, in a voice full of gravel. "Why?"
Dean doesn't bother to grumble about the angel's failing to mention it earlier. "Because I burned through the money in your wallet buying that stuff," he indicates the plastic bag at Cas' side. "We're gonna have to use plastic. Which means you're gonna have to use plastic, 'cause I've got no ID to back it up and it's going to be real awkward if they ask for some – which, you know, in their place, I totally would – and see your picture on it."
Dean reaches into his pocket and pulls out the wallet again. Flips it open and, face blank, and pulls out a gold visa card. He reads the name printed in raised letters, "Jimmy Novac." Looks to Castiel. "That's who you are? I mean, that's him?" It's hard to indicate the man you're using like a puppet with his eyes.
"Yes," says Castiel, simply.
"And he's in there, right now? Watching you running around in his meat suit?" It's easier to joke, to euphemise, to hide from the intense connotations. Dean learned that a long time ago.
"No. He is buried deep. My actions are not his; we do not burden our hosts with our choices." Unspoken: we are not demons. Dean's still not so sure of the distinction.
"So, what, you just pull a nice little time-warp stunt? He's gonna wake up some day and everyone he knows'll be 10, 20, 50 years older? Will be dead? That's kinder?"
"He volunteered, Dean. He asked to help me of his own initiative. Without vessels, we couldn't stop the demons. Without vessels, the Apocalypse would already have come about. Sacrifices are necessary."
"Oh, well, that's okay then," snarls Dean. He's been over this ground so often it's trampled and bare with his steps well worn in. There's no simple solution, no button to press to make everything work, and no matter how long he rails against the stupid unfairness of it all, there's nothing he can do to change it. And that goes against everything he was ever taught. Dad raised him and Sam to do the impossible, to kill things that don't exist, to save people no one else even knew were in danger, and he can't lift a finger to save this poor bastard.
And, a hundred, a thousand, a million times worse, he's not entirely sure that he should. For the first time in his life, he's found something he knows is wrong, and isn't doing anything to stop it. And every time he looks at Castiel – at Jimmy – that betrayal twists like a knife in his heart.
Dean turns to look at the corn waving in the breeze for a while, until the pounding fades from his ears and his skin cools. When he turns back, Castiel is staring at the horizon. After a second, he looks at Dean.
"Can you forge this?" Dean asks, handing Castiel the card with Jimmy Novac's signature on the back. Castiel takes the piece of plastic between his fingers, the way he holds it says that to him it is nothing more than a scrap of useless garbage, and glances down at it. The signature on the back is careful and elaborate, but has the flowing grace which suggests it's one which is used frequently.
"Yes," he says, and hands it back. Dean slips it into the wallet, pausing to pull out a driver's licence made out to Jimmy Novac of Pontiac, Illinois, 34. The photo matches Castiel sure enough, although the hair style is flatter and more white collar. Dean flips it over in his hands a couple of times. It's stupid, he knows, but still he feels like he's holding the only proof that there's someone in there other than Castiel. Feels like he's holding a plea for help. He shoves it back into the wallet in one sharp motion, and then hands the whole thing to Castiel, prods it at the angel until he takes it.
Castiel does, giving it a short glance which nevertheless suggests he's never seen it. Probably, he never has.
"Keep it somewhere safe; it's important," says Dean gruffly. Castiel looks down at the suit jacket – another thing he's probably never seen – and puts it into the right pocket. His left side is still covered in blood, just a darker patch against the black of the suit and a dull rusty colour on the white linen visible under it. "You're gonna have to do something about that stain," Dean waves at it.
Castiel closes his eyes briefly and waves a passes hand over his chest. When it's finished moving by, the stain is gone. Dean gets up to look at the angel's back; the stain there is gone as well, as is the hole in the fabric.
"Good. Let's go."
He stands, grabbing the bag from beside Castiel and shaking it to knock away the dust. Castiel gets to his feet with a slow looseness that almost looks like grace but is more likely due to weak muscles. Turns to face the town.
"Come on," says Dean gruffly, and starts. Behind him, Castiel waits for a moment, then follows.
Feeling only slightly more normal with a pair of shoes on his feet, Dean stalks through Terrence with a bag of empty packaging in his hand and an angel behind him. Confident now that he doesn't have a wounded man to lug around with him just waiting to create awkward situations, he walks into the first store he comes to and asks for the bus stop for Little Rock.
The old lady behind the counter of the knitting shop – okay, first store was a mistake – gives him a half-suspicious, half-cowed look, and directs him to the station two streets over. "But," she adds in a voice like newspaper rustling, "the last bus to Little Rock went some ten minutes ago. Furthest you'll get is Warren. Might be one from there."
Dean bites back a curse, thanks her instead, and barges out. Castiel is waiting on the porch outside and follows him wordlessly, nearly back to his usual disapproving self. As natural states go, it's a pretty irritating one.
The station – two roads over as indicated – turns out to be a booth in a store which also contains the post office and local hunting and fishing licence counter. As predicted by the knitting store grandma, the last bus to Little Rock's gone, and there's not even a chance of Fayetteville. He requests two tickets to Warren – $23.50 – and glances behind him to Castiel who's glowering vacantly at the envelope rack.
"Hey, Jimmy," he says shortly. Castiel takes the hint and comes over. With more normalcy than Dean could ever have imagined from him, he pulls the wallet out, slips the Visa from its sheath and lays it on the counter with a quiet click as if it's something he does every day. Dean struggles not to stare. The man behind the counter takes the card without a glance and runs it through the machine while Castiel waits patiently. Hands him the long thin receipt and a well-chewed blue pen. As Dean watches with a carefully idle expression, the angel takes the pen and, without any apparent effort, directs it into a clean flowing signature and then hands both pen and receipt back.
It's a tiny thing, but it's the most normal thing Dean has ever seen the angel do, period. Not that he's seen him do much other than stand around looking unimpressed or occasionally lose fights. And, while it's probably the thing most like his vessel which Castiel has ever done, all it makes Dean wonder about is the angel himself. Makes him wonder just how human Castiel is. Before this minute, he would have rated him somewhere around hammer on the scale of rock to Oprah. But no one can act so completely with no understanding of the part, right? Right?
He's not sure, and Dean's never dealt well with uncertainty. Gordon Walker was a complete 100% raving psychopath, but the one stance of his Dean would have liked to be able to buy into was the black and white world. No grey scale.
As far as he can tell, all angels are is grey scale.
The man behind the counter hands Castiel the tickets, the angel takes them with a nod and turns.
"Thanks," says Dean, and follows the angel out.
He stops in at the tiny convenience store on the corner to pick up a bottle of water, a coke and a bag of chips, pays with the small change left in his pocket. When he comes out, Castiel's sitting on the bench in front of the sole bus stop. According to the ticket man, the bus should be showing up pretty soon. Dean lumbers over and sits, cracks open the water and takes a long drink.
"Want some?" he asks, when he's drained half the bottle.
"No," says Castiel, staring into the empty road.
Dean takes another swig. "Nice job with the signature," he says, eventually. Castiel doesn't answer, and Dean sees another solution to his problem: a lack of acting entirely. "You did do it yourself, right? Didn't drag a little bit of Jimmy up to give you a hand?" he uses a falsely playful tone.
Castiel turns and gives him a long, slow look. "I know it is difficult for you to believe, but we do not abuse our vessels. A signature is simply a collection of variables arranged in a constant and predictable pattern; it is not difficult to reproduce."
It's not the answer he was expecting, in part because it is an answer. Castiel's never taken accusations silently, although he hasn't always disagreed with them either, but he's rarely explained his actions. Dean, surprised, lets the matter drop. It might also be partially due to the fact that the bus rounds the corner at this point.
Apparently Warren's not a popular run; there are only a handful of people lounging around who trundle over to board the grey steel bus: a young couple, a kid with headphones almost bigger than his head, a few old people. Each takes his or her own window seat. Dean chooses a free one without stains halfway down the left side and slides in next to the window, drops his bag down by his feet. Castiel sits down next to him in a slow, stiff movement and immediately slackens against the seat back, eyes closing.
"Acceptable," answers the angel, without opening his eyes. It's only now that Dean notices he's sweating again, although less profusely than before.
"Maybe you should get some sleep. It'll be a couple of hours to Warren."
"I don't sleep," answers Cas in a low murmur.
"Yeah, well, you should consider it."
Castiel doesn't answer. Dean turns to look out the window as the bus starts up, and rumbles off down the road.