A/N: A companion piece for In Excelsis and The Mountains in Reply, but it reads just fine on its own.
ANGELS WE HAVE HEARD
Castiel looks for God. It is a tiresome and thankless task, and he is running out of time.
In Marrakesh, he finds a woman who can see the future. She sits in the corner of a tiny shack, corrugated metal roof slanting above her head, and she rocks back and forth, moaning quietly to herself. She shrugs off the water her granddaughter tries to give her, but when Castiel enters, she chokes back a sob and hurls herself, landing like a pile of matchsticks, to kneel at his feet. Her withered hands grasp at his ankles, and he must crouch very awkwardly to take her shoulders.
"Malak," she breathes in Arabic, and he hears it as angel, because Castiel speaks all tongues but he can only keep so many thoughts in Jimmy Novak's mind. "Malak," sobs the woman, and he touches the soft wrinkles of her face, curious and sorrowing; the amulet he wears against his skin is cold and dead.
The cell phone vibrates in the pocket of his coat. When he checks it, he sees that Dean has written hey whatr u doin can u bring chiinese.
Castiel, carefully, sends back no. He lays his palm across the weeping woman's forehead, very lightly, and wills her what blessing he can. Then he steps outside again and raises his eyes to the sky. He has no pattern, no plan; the world is too large, and in this vessel, Castiel is very small. He must trust in the very Father for whom he searches - so he spreads his wings, and lets the wind pull him.
He catches a whisper of Cajun music, low and throbbing. It's as good a lead as any.
One morning, as they're waiting for Dean to finish shaving (he mutters a curse in the other room, razor skimming along his throat, and Castiel's shoulders twitch nearly imperceptibly), Sam asks, "How old are you, anyway?"
The angel goes still, surprised by the question. He spreads his hands - Jimmy Novak's long thin fingers - and means to speak, but then he's silent for an awkward moment before venturing, "There are no words for the concept." No words in any language Sam understands, at least, but it seems ungracious to say.
Even with his presence partly muted by the sigils carved into his ribs, Sam Winchester is always slightly jagged against Castiel's senses - a shattered glass, cracked and imperfectly mended. Right now he's leaning forward, intrigued. "Like, we don't have a number high enough?" He doesn't seem certain whether or not to be intimidated by this thought.
Castiel isn't entirely sure how to respond. "Your time is... linear," he says, finally. "One breath after the next. Heartbeats. It's a very... human way of perceiving. In some ways, I've counted moments for less than a year."
"Wait - seriously? So you're talking Jimmy. But before that..."
Before that. Castiel gazes at Sam, perplexed; he says, "This vessel, and others. Time does not always move forward." Sam fidgets uncomfortably, tapping a finger against the leg of his jeans, and then he shakes his head. "Dude. Nevermind."
The angel frowns, but then Dean exits the bathroom with a shred of tissue held to his throat, and Castiel is distracted by the brilliant red gleam of blood.
"They gave you the baby angel," offers Sam, and Dean mutters, amiably, "You're fucking telling me."
In the back alleys of New Orleans, where the air tastes of smoke and wormwood, Castiel does not find God. But he finds a girl with round hips and flashing dark humour, who laughs at his tie and tells him he has eyes like the sea.
She programs her number into his phone, before he even realizes she has plucked it away, and she plants a kiss on his cheek before dancing off into the dark. Castiel can feel her past trailing behind her; he can read it if he chooses, full of music and sloppy brothers and giggling nights spent drinking on porch stoops. She has no agony in her.
He will never call her, but he doesn't delete the entry she left. As he is studying it, the phone buzzes again: how about now. Before he can begin an appropriate response, another message follows: ill be ur best friend.
Castiel stares at the screen.
not now, he replies, finally, and then he raises his head as he turns to glance down the darkness of the bourbon-stained street. He senses a familiar presence, and doesn't stay long enough to confirm the impression; he slips sidelong into a shadow and is gone.
Castiel is honestly not certain whether Jimmy Novak still exists. He used to feel the vessel's soul, a tiny spark of determined worship that had shifted, over time, into an even smaller gleam of resigned fear. Since the archangel ripped this form apart - since Castiel knew blood-drenched silence, and then the edged, agonizing brightness of rebirth - Castiel has felt nothing within the body except his own presence. He doesn't know if this is a sign of Jimmy's demise, or only of his own diminished senses.
The first time Jimmy Novak gave up his body was for love of God. The second time was for love of Claire. Castiel understands this, and it brings him a certain degree of discomfort.
He tries not to dwell on the state of Novak's soul. In the wake of his rebellion, it is the least of the silences that confront him.
There is no silence in the Impala.
There is - he suspects Dean calls it 'music' - thumping over the speakers, and in the front of the car, the Winchesters are bickering. Again.
"Dude," says Dean, indignantly, "It's Poison."
"Yeah, to my ears."
"Cheap, Sam. This is a classic album. Look, if you just -" Dean leans forward, takes one hand off the steering wheel and cranks the volume on the stereo.
Sam promptly turns it back down. "I've heard it. I heard it the first six hundred times you played it. And the next time you stick it in, I'm still going to hate it."
"I cannot believe we're related." Dean's jade gaze flicks to the rearview mirror, and fixes on Castiel. "Cas, you're thinking too hard back there."
Castiel pauses, taken somewhat off guard. "Thinking seems an appropriate response to -"
"Oh shit, you'll love this one." Dean's hand flashes downward, turning the music up again. "Fallen Angel!" he calls back, over the sudden cacophony of sound.
"I'll meet you at your destination," says Castiel, tightly. He wills himself to Poland, following an eddy of warm wind, and spends several hours failing to find a single trace of the Lord.
New Orleans night becomes Bangkok sunlight; Castiel steps into a mass of teeming traffic, pacing fearlessly through scooters and cars and three-wheeled tuktuks as they wend about him. Someone shouts at him in Thai, laughing abuse; his clothing is inappropriate here, in the wet heat. The angel is unbothered. This place is sprawling, chaotic; he feels the pressure of lives descend on him anew, human thoughts swirling like wind-blown leaves.
He ducks down a narrow side street, and steps into a beam of rich daylight, shifting himself to the other side of the city. He's moving quickly, his vessel's shoes steady and confident on the uneven streets.
When his phone buzzes again, Castiel experiences a certain degree of exasperation and suspects he may be forced to text Dean an unhappy face. But he slides the fragile bit of electronics into his hand, nevertheless, and glances down. Sam. Photo message.
Hey, it says, do you know this one?. The digital image is blurry, but Castiel peers at the sigil and frowns.
He flits sideways, shifting to a rooftop a mile to the east, then stands still for a moment, composing his reply. The concrete beneath his feet is cracked; the air smells of sweat and spices.
egyptian wait for me, he types, more slowly than he would like. The instant he hits 'send', that niggling presence brushes past his consciousness again, and Castiel knows he has a pursuer.
He waits half a precious second for the phone to transfer the message, and then he heads for France.
The Winchesters are less challenging when they sleep - when the hot, broken urgency of their thoughts subsides. Castiel has grown accustomed to motel rooms, dark nights, the sounds of traffic. More frequently than not, he circles back to the brothers in the small hours - night is when hell reaches up for Dean, and Lucifer's easy chuckle drifts across Sam's mind. Night is when Castiel stills, for a little while (human moments ticking by); he doesn't sleep, but lately, he finds he feels the urge to rest.
His grace is no longer bolstered by heaven's eternal force. He parcels his energy with caution. The bruises wearying his muscles - his vessel's muscles, he must remind himself - are more difficult to will away, and the rends in his clothing last a little longer before he bothers to repair them. There is an emptiness in him, where heaven should be; there is nothingness where the voices of his brethren once sang.
Flesh is closing around him; it is a prison of bone and warm, needy meat. Time is linear and slow. Castiel counts each breath; he is weaker than he was.
It is an issue of concern.
Against the edges of his consciousness, he feels Dean's tarnished but steady gleam, Sam's sharp and delicate precision. Dean is dreaming of freshly cut grass.
In the next room, a woman is fornicating with a man who is not her husband. She is thinking of tomorrow's laundry, while he is lost in the almond scent of her skin.
To Castiel's left, Dean stirs. The angel turns his head, wary and waiting for nightmares, but the hunter is relaxed, still; Dean raises a hand, scrubs it over his eyes. "Hey, Cas," he mumbles, weary but waking. "Anything up?"
"No," says the angel. When Dean keeps looking at him, he allows, "Perhaps the end of the world."
"Oh," says Dean, and he chuffs half a quiet laugh. "Yeah. That. They had a fucking plague of locusts in Poughkeepsie today."
It isn't a real laugh; Castiel is learning these things. He still finds much of human expression confusing.
Angels speak with their eyes. He watches Dean. They study each other in the darkness, steady and even.
Dean makes a sound in the back of his throat, then, and leans, reaching for the remote control on the nightstand. "Tell you what. Let's see what's on TV."
Castiel tilts his head to the side, puzzled. He's about to speak, but then Sam mutters blurrily, from the other bed, "Do not show the angel porn."
"Dude, fuck off. What do you think I am?"
"Annoyingly loud at 3am. Cas, don't let him go to pay-per-view."
"There's a Dr. Sexy rerun."
"... porn's great."
Castiel stays for several hundred heartbeats longer, while Sam drowses and Dean chuckles at the glowing screen; the television brings certain actions of Gabriel's into context. On one level, the angel appreciates the enlightenment - but when Dean's eyes drift shut again, Castiel lifts a finger to silence the television, and then is gone.
In Nice, along the French coastline, Castiel steps from the shadow of a cathedral and gazes toward the east, where dawn is doing very little to lighten the grey of the cloudy sky. He hears a muffled curse, to his left; he turns his head to spot the fight ensuing at the corner of the cobbled street. There are two men in denim jackets, and they're kicking viciously at a third as he falls.
Castiel knows in a flash that the victim is a homeless man who is hoping to get past this with a minimum of bruising because there is a kind girl who will bring him a pastry later; he knows that the two thugs are bored and drunk and one has a two-year-old son at home who is in danger of becoming just the same.
They are human concerns. Minuscule, inconsequential lives. A moment later, the particular confrontation with all of its petty violence is lost in the chaotic hum of thoughts flickering through the waking city.
The angel is fleeing; he senses that presence licking at his heels, and it tastes of heaven. He flits to Bermuda, emerging beneath the spreading leaves of a palm, and leaves the cathedral tall and silhouetted behind.
When Castiel reaches to catch the demon Meg, presses his palm to her forehead, and wills her back to hell, his grace stutters and ebbs within him. For a moment, they're both frozen; she in fear, he in impotent shock.
Flames circle all around them; he feels the sacred heat, the searing ring that holds him. He feels, too, the cage of Jimmy Novak's bones. There is no one to help him.
He stares into the demon's eyes, and watches her fear shift to skepticism, and then a bright, mocking smile. She's too close to him. She leans in, taunting, inches from his lips, and he inhales the scent of the soul her presence decays. He holds her stolen young body and feels a taste like sawdust in his mouth.
He hurls Meg to the fire, and steps free. The feel of Lucifer lingers in the room, dark and seductive, all confident laughter and sick, corrupted power.
Castiel leaves the demon screaming. He slips into the shadows, and away.
He lingers in Bermuda for less than a heartbeat; Castiel's next step lands on a dirt road in Ecuador, and when his left foot comes down, it's on a pitted road outside Baghdad. There are soldiers there; the worn hardness of their terrified determination reminds him of Dean, or Sam. The angel sees a startled rifle come up, dull and black, but he's already sliding sideways to Madagascar, where a monkey chitters indignantly from the safety of a jungle tree.
Castiel thinks of the sugared French pastry. He has no need of it, but the homeless man's helpless, tiny desire lingers in his mind.
Lips thinning, he slips himself between tangled vines and walks back around the corner in France, where the two drunken men have barely had time for another laughing, vicious kick. They don't even register his presence before the angel catches one with an elbow across the throat; striding past the other, he raises his palm, intercepts a clumsy punch and feels the soft bones of the man's hand crack beneath his grip.
When he flicks his wings out to catch the wind, he hears the start of the second man's scream. He catches the first hint of the homeless man's stunned relief; there is pain there, still, raw, and the taste of blood. He knows that the girl yet to come reminds the man of another child, long lost.
He thinks to check his phone, but it says, 'acquiring signal,' and Castiel has no time. He darts across the world.
On a beach in the Philippines, where the air is light and salted, he finds his sister already waiting. The sunlight turns her golden; the breeze does not so much as brush her skin.
"That was kind," she says, soft and sweet. "Like a man nudging an ant off the sidewalk. Did it accomplish anything?"
"No," replies Castiel; he pulls to a stop, there in the shifting sand, and finds his breath coming harder than he likes. "But it was right."
"Castiel," she breathes, herself - uncomprehending, gentle. She is glorious in all the ways he has left behind. "I've missed you."
He is conscious of dirt on his trenchcoat, a smear of mud at the hem. He is conscious of the ragged edges of his wings. He doesn't know why it should matter.
Castiel has always been aware of the way human souls dance and glimmer and die, as small and distant as fireflies. They are effervescent, evanescent. Angels are immortal and unconcerned.
Castiel knows Ellen and Jo Harvelle for less than twenty-four hours, but their deaths cause a peculiar tightness in his chest that in the past he has attributed only to Dean. It's constricting, as though his ribs are compressing around his lungs; as though his vessel cannot quite draw enough air.
When Dean and Sam and Bobby close in on themselves, a soldiers' knot of silent grief, Castiel goes to the mountains, where humanity is distant and quiet. In safety there, he lets himself stretch a little outside of Jimmy Novak's body - just enough to let time begin to dissipate and blend.
When he chooses to see the world again through human eyes - when he settles again for dulled colours, sad and muffled fleshy sounds - the sky is still black, lit with coldly shimmering stars. He tastes the memory of bourbon on his lips, oaked and warm and marked by Ellen Harvelle's steady, accepting gaze. He thinks of Jo, smiling, her gleam like silk draped over hidden scars.
He spreads his wings and bends the world around himself, reaching through space to Bobby's house. He materializes in the junkyard, where Dean is standing in the cold night throwing stones at the relic of a rusted car.
The hunter has a mostly-empty whiskey bottle in one hand. He whips the other hand forward, and a screw pings off the hood of the old automobile. When Castiel appears beneath the harsh light of a security lamp, Dean pauses, unsteady, and says, "Hey. Find me more rocks."
Castiel can feel the tear in Dean's soul, a ragged wound gaping.
The hunter's request is little trouble to the angel; it is a moment's breath to stretch himself out over the junkyard and gather a handful of rocks and bits of metal. He wings himself back just in front of Dean, and Dean stumbles back half a step, blinking.
"Awesome." Dean holds out his free hand, palm cupped, and Castiel carefully pours his motley collection; the man offers the whiskey bottle to Castiel in trade.
The angel takes it. He holds the bottle at his side and stands still, watching Dean.
"Space, Cas," reminds the hunter, and Castiel takes two steps back. He doesn't like the way Dean's eyes slide over him, unfocused.
Dean picks a wing nut out of the objects in his hand, and lobs it at the car. It bounces off the rear fender. "The fuck were you?" he asks, after a moment.
Castiel pauses. "Montana."
Dean frowns, like that doesn't make any sense, and then he shakes his head. "No, man. Fucking earlier. When... you don't ever watch horror movies?" He flings a rock, and it flies wide, falling three feet past the car and hitting a pile of tires with a dull thud. Dean scowls in the direction of his failed missile. "You don't. Ever. Go off. On your own."
Castiel is silent. He has known failure for hours, all those human seconds and minutes trickling past the weight in his chest. "I regret their loss," he says, quietly, and then he thinks he's chosen the wrong word, because Dean's mouth twists, tight and thin.
Dean hurls his entire handful of rocks and jagged metal at the defenseless car, and a window cracks while tiny dents ping themselves into the hood. Castiel finds it a shallow and unsatisfying sound. "Fuck you," says Dean then, sharply. "Fuck off."
Castiel stands where he is, stubbornly determined.
Dean closes his eyes and sucks in a breath, nostrils flaring. He sways dangerously. Castiel shifts, barely touching the world with his wings, and his right hand closes over Dean's left arm, exactly where the mark is burned.
Dean's agony washes over Castiel, incoherent and red, new wounds over old gouges, never healed. The angel sees Ellen weeping, and Jo's sick grin, and Sam, bleeding; he sees John Winchester, and the vague soft face of Dean's mother; he sees an empty, bullet-ridden wheelchair; he sees, oddly, his own vessel, glassy-eyed and loose.
"Fuck off," snarls Dean, more forcefully, and he slams his right fist like a hammer at Castiel's chest; Castiel lets himself rock back an inch on impact, so the hunter won't hurt himself. (Won't hurt himself more, he realizes; he can feel how Dean is battered and bruised, the way the hunter's spine would be a sharp stab without the dull of the whiskey.)
Castiel cannot perform miracles anymore. But this is Dean, whose soul he held like water - the angel drops the whiskey bottle to the ground, unceremonious, and reaches his other hand forward to rest his palm at the back of the man's neck.
"Cas." Dean's voice is a low growl, moving past warning; his hand clenches around the lapel of Castiel's trenchcoat. Castiel stands steady, and lets grace flow - a trickle, a warmth through the hunter's skin.
Dean's breath shudders. "Cas," he says again, but this time it's confused; Castiel firms his grip on Dean's arm, ever so slightly. He is careful of human fragility; he is conscious of Dean's small brightness. Like a firefly, he thinks again, and he feels something curl even tighter inside him. It is oddly like pain.
He sends forth what he has left of heaven; he reaches into the hunter, soothes muscles, drifts peace across jagged thought. Dean shakes his head, a mulish child, but the man is listing forward; the grip he has on Castiel's coat is for balance, now. He lets his head drop down, with a sigh; he rests his forehead against Castiel's shoulder, leaning. He reeks of alcohol; of blood, and stale sweat. He would be heavy, if Castiel were mortal.
"They," chokes Dean. "We..." He doesn't finish, and Castiel says nothing. The angel stands still and straight and strong, keeping his hands carefully motionless; he resists the strange urge to stroke Dean's hair, like a cat.
There are things he should tell Dean. Like the fact that Castiel is losing his power, in slow increments; the fact that he couldn't banish Meg. The fact that Lucifer was right, and stopping the Devil means that Castiel is the next and only target of heaven. These are things that trouble the angel a great deal.
Castiel waits in silence, until Dean exhales a low, trembling breath, eyes sliding closed as thoughts scatter. The angel lets grace and drink do their work, and then he sends the hunter away, with a thought - upstairs, to worn blankets and warded, dreamless sleep.
The night seems suddenly very cold.
"Thanks for that," says Sam, tonelessly, from the steps of the house. Castiel feels the younger Winchester wash over him, dark edged and cool, and the angel nods.
He thinks Sam is about to ask him something - he hears the "Are you" - but Castiel has work to do. He spreads his wings, and flies.
"Iofiel," says Castiel, quietly, and her name whispers beneath the cool calm of the surf. He is standing too close to the ocean; he can feel each wave pressing slightly further, soaking through his shoes. The tiny lives of fish flicker around them; he feels scuttling crabs, hidden clams.
The vessel she wears is a dark-skinned man, portly, dressed in a ragged green polo shirt and jeans. Castiel registers the fact, but it's irrelevant; he doesn't need Jimmy's eyes just now. His sister is a glowing wisp of glory, and only in her presence does he realize just how badly his own grace has frayed.
She sees it, too. Her eyes are sad. "It's true," she whispers, like rain. "Brother, what's become of you? You're so... small. Castiel, full of doubt."
She lingers on that last word. She doesn't understand. Explain, her eyes ask. Brother, please.
He says nothing.
"Tell me," she begs, tenderly, "where to find the Michael Sword."
Castiel says, simply, "No." Iofiel tilts her head to the side, uncomprehending.
He thinks she learned that gesture from him.
"Lucifer's vessel, then." She is earnest and terrible; he makes choices she cannot begin to follow. "The tainted thing. We can destroy it - you and I."
"No," he says, firmly. The sun is hot on his shoulders. In his coat pocket, Castiel's phone buzzes again.
"This is not how it's going down," snarls Dean, fingers tightening on the stock of the shotgun he carries. "Apocalypse or no, we are not dying outside a strip mall in fucking Hartford."
It is dark, and raining. Overhead, a pale yellow sign flickers, advertising Chicago-style pizza. In the cracked parking lot, the puddles below reflect the sign's light; it turns the water golden. Rain patters, almost outlining the hellhounds as they approach, ranged out, heads down and growling. They're looking only at Dean.
Castiel is the only one who can see them. Sam holds Ruby's knife in his right hand, loose and ready. "Cas, can you get us out of here?"
"This is bullshit," says Dean again, as though the protest will help. As though God is listening, thinks Castiel, but the angel is praying (he is always praying) and nothing comes to save them.
"I suspect they have your scent," he replies, evenly. "Lucifer has likely released several packs, to search."
"Really reassuring, Cas. Thanks."
He didn't mention the beasts were slavering, thinks Castiel. He didn't tell Dean about the teeth. He sees the slide of iridescent scales, the rot of flapping flesh, and he thinks it is a kindness to let the Winchesters think of hellhounds as dogs.
Then the things charge, and Dean fires, a straight clear shot where he can see claws splashing through water. The rock salt slams into one beast's side. Sam hurls himself in front of Dean, stabbing in the direction of the second, and Castiel steps solidly before them both, hands open and outstretched toward the last two hellhounds' razored jaws.
He tries very hard; he calls forth all the grace he has. He lets it flare just enough to distract the beasts - angel is a better scent than Dean. He slams his palms directly between the hellhounds' eyes, as they leap in perfect harmony. He wills them, fiercely and clearly, back to the pit.
Time eludes him, then; Castiel feels nothing. He sees only the brightness of eternity. For one glorious, expanding moment, he wonders if the war is over.
When he blinks his eyes again, his legs are wet and cold, and there is a hard wall against his back. The world is slowed, each second dripping past; he seeks to count the heartbeats. He finds there are none. He reminds the vessel's heart to - yes. There.
" - goddamn stupid son of a bitch what the hell-"
Dean is swearing.
"Shit!" So is Sam. "Cas, you're bleeding out -" Castiel realizes that Sam's hands are pressed tight against the vessel's ribs, and Dean's fingers are clamped even more fiercely around his arm. Sam is correct; the restored heartbeat is only serving to pump blood through tears in flesh and muscle.
It isn't a comfortable sensation.
Castiel gathers the rags of his grace, willing sheared vessels to mend; he brings Jimmy Novak's body back together, sealing one shred at a time. He works on the hemorrhaging first.
"Okay," says Sam, a low breath; his shoulders fall. His hair is wet with rain, falling streaking and sodden into his face. Overhead, the yellow sign still flickers.
"Not okay! Not okay. Cas, what the fuck was that, you stupid goddamn -"
Castiel has heard this part already. He parts his lips to speak, then chokes up something crimson and viscous instead; it tastes of hot copper. The angel takes a moment to repair the rent flesh in his throat. "Dean," he says, mildly. And to Sam, "Hounds?"
Sam raises his wet red hands cautiously away from Castiel, then picks up the knife from the concrete and holds it up where the angel can see. "Got the last two when you held 'em," he says. "Thanks, Cas." Castiel nods, or tries to, but the motion unexpectedly makes him catch his breath. Sam's eyes, normally hooded, are just now brown and very warm, and distantly, the angel thinks, this is what Dean sees.
"Fuck," says Dean again, and he shakes Castiel's shoulder, a quick hard jerk; the angel finds the way it pulls shredded muscles to be very distracting. "The hell were you thinking?"
Castiel points out reasonably, "I can heal this vessel. I can't heal you." He works to seal the rents in his skin; he wipes the blood away, between one of Sam's blinks and the next. He works at healing the outer layers first; his appearance is upsetting Dean, and something dark and violent within the hunter is threatening to spill. It is nearly as discomfiting as the way shards of Castiel's ribs are grating against his organs.
"That doesn't make you the goddamn Terminator." Dean lets go, rises with a snap of leather, and stalks in the direction of the car. "We had to get the fucking kamikaze angel." The rain falls hard, cold on Castiel's skin; it obscures the hunter's form in the shadows.
"It's cool," mutters Sam, when Dean can't hear him. "Just prepare to go deaf when he turns the music on."
Castiel is uncertain how to respond, but apparently nothing is required; Sam sheathes the knife, then slides an arm around the angel, heaving him up. Time briefly threatens to shatter again; seconds continue to tick by, but the world greys at the edges. "You gonna heal that?"
Sam is right. The volume of the Impala's stereo is nearly unbearable. Dean doesn't speak to either of them for an hour.
"Excuse me," says Castiel, politely. "I need to take this."
Iofiel blinks at him, once, with her vessel's mortal eyes. After a moment, she gestures slightly with her right hand, fingers extending. "I am curious," she admits.
Castiel takes the phone out of his pocket and flips it open; the screen is bright, and hard to read in the sunlight. Tiny crabs flounder in the inch of water around his shoes.
The phone is slow, here; its signal is erratic and stuttering. Photo message, sees Castiel. And, Dean.
There is no text; there is only a picture. It is an image of a hand, fingers tucked in, thumb extended upward. Behind this enthusiastic gesture, slightly out of focus, are a blurry beer bottle and a thick-sliced piece of pie.
Iofiel waits until she sees the lines in Castiel's forehead wrinkle. "That is a telephone," she observes, with delicate wonder. "You are using a telephone."
"It's... inefficient," he admits. "Humans are very restricted by distance."
"Castiel." There is benediction and aching sorrow, in that word. "You must be so alone."
It occurs to Castiel that perhaps God finds humanity exhausting.
The angel shifts his search. He has already ascertained a lack of the Lord in the mountains of Montana, but there are more remote places. Castiel stands one moment in the Winchesters' motel room, breathing out a ward against dreams; the next, he's in the Arctic. It is colder than he'd thought it would be, but the sky is streaked with colour and the snow is brilliant and untouched, stretching around him.
He breathes in crisp stillness, ignoring the twinge that still lives beneath his vessel's ribs. The space around him is free of thought, or desire, or anguish.
The amulet fails to warm against his flesh, but Castiel lingers an unnecessary moment, regardless. Then an eddy of breeze takes him to Tibet, where the peaks are high and jagged; the air is thin, but still blessedly empty.
But there is no God there.
Easter Island is rather startlingly full of tourists; there are cruise ships, there are people taking photos. After the silence of the Himalayas, Castiel is nearly overwhelmed by their massed memories - he tastes dark closets, seasickness, forced conga lines, the easy blur of alcohol.
No trace of the Divine.
In the Antarctic, he finds only penguins. They bob their heads before him; he touches one just near the beak, curious, and it is warm and smooth to his vessel's fingertips.
Iofiel drifts toward him, her footsteps leaving barely an impression in the wet sand. Castiel takes a step back, calmly, fingers fumbling at the phone's keypad.
"You were always the best tracker," he acknowledges, keeping his eyes steady on his sister.
She meets his gaze easily, directly, the way of their kind. "Please don't run away."
Abruptly she moves herself forward, appearing just behind his current position - but Castiel has shifted, too, feathers flashing, five feet to the side. They look at each other, in the brilliant light. The sun catches the glimmer of her wings, shines in her translucent hair. Castiel is scruffy and tired.
"It's true," murmurs Iofiel, quietly. "You do doubt. You... brother, how can you?"
"They're wrong," he grits, low and earnest. "Zachariah. Raphael. God didn't start the Apocalypse. We did."
"The Winchesters did," she corrects, mildly. "And really, Castiel - haven't you seen it? This world? These... people? We will make peace. Paradise, again. The end will be a blessing for us all."
Castiel says, "They choose otherwise." He's still holding the phone; he means to reply to Dean, but he doesn't have a great deal of time. The letter 'q' is the first thing he hits, and he presses 'send' and flips the phone shut, not knowing if the message works. The phone goes back in his pocket and he takes another step backward, but he doesn't flee the beach; there is no point.
"Barakiel and Camael are dead. Did you really -?" Iofiel cannot say it. In the endless depths of her gaze, he sees only perplexed hurt, and the last of hope.
"Yes," admits Castiel, quietly and with regret, and he sees the hope die.
Iofiel closes her eyes.
Castiel observes, "You haven't summoned Zachariah."
"Zachariah," she breathes, "will stretch you across the sea in crimson threads, and burn your wings in hellfire." The angel, beautiful, shakes her head; when she raises her lashes again (delicate, gossamer), there is only purest belief. "That is cruel." She is faith. She is devout in her purpose.
Castiel misses faith a great deal.
"I love you," says his sister, peacefully - he sees it in her. The distant, snowy love of angels; she means it, all the same. "I will not hurt you."
Then she's moved again, fast, because she has always been the faster and Castiel's wings are growing tattered and worn. He jerks back - seeks to fly - and is trapped, because her hand is hard on his shoulder, holding him in place. "You will not feel it at all," Iofiel assures Castiel, and she is infinitely gentle. Her sadness is soft and reserved. She reaches, inexorable and firm, to lay her other palm against his chest.
He feels her beaming power wrap around his grace like a python.
Castiel clenches his jaw, and slams Uriel's blade without hesitation into the base of Iofiel's throat.
He seeks the smallest of islands. He stands at the edges of the most jagged cliffs. Castiel finds moray eels and white falcons. On a distant path in the north of Mongolia, he comes across a withered hermit with thoughts as rich and green as a forest. The man displays no curiosity whatsoever at Castiel's presence, but offers him a toothless smile and a small, dried flower.
Castiel cups his hands around the wasted petals, and returns to the man the tiny flower, now blooming. The hermit's smile grows only wider. He accepts the ivory blossom, and bows.
The angel returns the gesture, politely, before sliding to a cave far below the heart of Portugal. Stalactites loom above him in the darkness, but his Father does not stir.
Eventually, the air grows too quiet around him. In that moment, the blackness grows somehow... oppressive. And vast.
Abruptly, and with the slightest start, Castiel realizes he has lost track of time.
He shifts himself back, immediately, to the Winchesters' last motel - but a strange, mustached man snores in the bed, dreaming of cheesecake, and Castiel's phone seems to have stopped working.
Uneasy, he flits across shadow to Bobby's. The man in the wheelchair splashes Castiel with a shotglass of holy water, gun trained all the while, and then he grunts. "Get your rear to North Carolina and maybe those idjits will stop calling me every damn hour."
Bobby's soul is a mass of broken light; something golden still lurks beneath the old man's grizzled skin, though it is streaked and marked with regret, with violence and loss. His eyes are haunted by the last time Jo Harvelle brushed her lips over his cheek. "Don't be a moron," he advises Castiel, roughly. "You take care of those boys, and watch your own ass, too."
Castiel finds the Impala just outside Charlotte. He suspects, from the speed with which it passes other vehicles, that Dean may be breaking the law.
"Hey," says Sam, when Castiel breathes into existence in the back seat. "Your angel's alive." Then he grabs at the wheel, to keep his brother from driving off the road.
Castiel does not have a mother, and he certainly wouldn't wish to have sexual intercourse with her if he did. However, it doesn't seem worth correcting Dean, who waxes eloquent on the subject for some time.
When the hunter finally pauses for breath, Castiel offers, "The phone doesn't work if I venture too far. Also, it... currently isn't functioning."
"Give it," says Sam, stretching back a hand, and when Castiel passes it forward, the younger Winchester glances down only briefly. "You have to recharge the battery or it dies. Anyway, nevermind this one." He fishes around in his pack, then draws out a different phone and offers it back. "Got you this. It's international."
"Thank you," says Castiel, accepting the item. He catches a vague impression of thought from Sam, something about '3-G' and satellites and networking, but the angel lets it flow past, not understanding. He gazes down at the new and unfamiliar screen. "I'm sorry," he adds. "I was - I didn't mean to leave you unprotected so long." God is not in Antarctica, he wants to say, but it seems hardly worth mentioning, because Dean won't be surprised.
"Fuck you, Cas," says Dean, without heat, but his hands are still tight on the steering wheel. "Look - it's just us now, got that? Me, Sam, Bobby, you. We check in. All of us. We call, you pick up. We text, you reply. Got it?"
"Yes." Castiel does get it, then; he senses Dean's tension slicing against his skin, like a shard of glass. Dean is thinking about hellhounds, and Lucifer's calm smile. "I'm sorry," he says, again, carefully.
"Just answer your goddamn phone."
Castiel meets Iofiel's eyes until there is nothing left there to see - until her passing is brighter than the sun, leaving the beach dull and grey to his senses. He drops the body in the water, hearing the splash, and he knows that shadowed wings are scattered across the sand.
He doesn't look. He sheathes the horrible blade, and stretches himself thin, reaching for South Carolina.
"Dude," says Dean, "What does 'q' mean?" He has his phone in one hand and a beer in the other, pie carefully balanced on his chest; he's sprawled across a thin-sheeted bed in the latest rented room. On the other bed, Sam is awash in papers, his fingertips on his laptop's keyboard; he glances up, unstartled, and nods a greeting as the angel appears.
"It means I'm busy." Castiel stands quietly; Dean deletes the message and tosses his phone casually on the table by the bed. After a moment's pause, it occurs to the angel to ask, "Do you still desire Chinese food?"
"Nah, we're good." Dean sets the pie aside, too, and sits up, taking a sip of his beer. His gaze rakes over Castiel. "You look like shit," he notes. "And why are your shoes wet?"
There is another hole in the universe, he wants to say, where one of his siblings used to be. Instead he only dries his shoes, with a thought, and looks back at Dean.
Dean frowns, rising, and steps across the ratty carpet, stopping in front of Castiel. "You didn't find God, did you?"
The angel slides his gaze down and to the side, studying a stain on the floor. "Not yet," is all he says.
"Hey," says Dean, and he waits until Castiel looks back again.
Heartbeats pass, one after the other, linear and unrelenting. Dean's gaze is guarded, flat and steady, but Castiel knows it will crack if he watches long enough. Dean is self-conscious, flawed, aggressive. Fierce and fervent. There is nothing of angels in him.
Castiel feels a certain constriction in his chest ease slightly. The lessened tension feels somehow strange.
"Found that Egyptian stuff," says Sam, across the room. "Thanks. And did I mention it is still really creepy when you guys play stare-eyes?"
"Yeah," Dean lobs back, "but only three times today." He does look away, though; he walks to the fridge in the ratty kitchenette, and opens it, leaning in to snag another bottle of beer. "You want pie, Cas?"
"I don't -"
"If your next word is 'require,' I will make Sam hit you."
Sam looks up, tossing brown hair out of his eyes. "Dude."
"What? I'm not doing it; it fucking hurts. Cas, do you want some pie?"
Dean waits, patiently. Castiel stares, lost. After several moments pass, he admits, "I don't know."
"Have some pie." Dean sets the new beer on the small card table by the wall, and looks around for a plate.
The light from Sam's computer plays across his skin as he scrolls. "Cas, we're going to hit up the pharaoh tomorrow, or whatever that thing is - can you be on backup?"
"Great," says Dean, setting pie on the table. "So quit playing statue. Sit down. Have a beer. We're gonna watch a movie once Sam's done."
Sam, his attention nearly wholly on the laptop, waves an acquiescent hand. "I get to pick, though," he interjects. "You can help. He keeps his hole shut."
Dean drops himself into a chair at the table, his own beer still in his hand. He raises his eyebrows at the angel, expectantly. Castiel says, "There is little time. I need to -"
"Dude," interrupts Dean, "It's the fucking Apocalypse. We know." His green gaze is steady on Castiel again, measuring. There is a question there; it goes unasked. "Hang out here tonight."
The angel hesitates, then blinks himself into the other chair. Dean, unfazed, reaches over to hand Castiel the other beer, condensation beginning to bead on the cool bottle.
Seconds tick by. Heartbeats. One after another. Castiel counts them, privately, holding that chilled glass in his hand.
"Cas. Where the hell are you?" Dean leans over, extending his own bottle to clink it lightly against the angel's. "Relax. Drink up."
The angel takes a slow, deliberate breath, and does.