It's a coastal town, small and cold and quiet in the early morning. The sky's hardly begun to pale, a misty pink on the horizon, soft blue further on, merging into darkness overhead. The sun is a golden glint on the skyline; its rays pierce a smattering of clouds that have begun to clump together. A storm from the south, Sam guesses. He doesn't think it'll hit today; they'll spend the day padding around under a thick covering of grey, but that'll be the extent of it.
The air is salty, and it pinches as Sam breathes.
Seagulls are sending their calls out over the sea. The wind cuts under Sam's thin jacket, as he lets the motel room door click shut behind him. The air carries the sound of muffled murmurs, coming from the boardwalk at the bottom of the hill the motel's built upon. Sam can see the gumbo shop opening, its gangly owner tying on an apron as his teenage helper drags tables and chairs out onto the causeway.
It's too early for gumbo; it's too early to be awake.
Sam doesn't know what to do with himself anymore.
There's a rustling, the sound of wings in his ear, a smell hinting of vanilla and electricity in the air. It's become something akin to familiar over the past few weeks.
"He's asleep," Sam says. "It's early."
His hands find their way into his pockets, though he's not that cold.
"I know," replies Castiel simply, shuffling slightly on the walkway, like a bird that's just landed. He looks out, over the boardwalk, at the rising sun.
Sam wonders how Jimmy is. He wonders if Castiel talks to his host. Meg had talked to him when he'd been possessed – but he's guessing Castiel's conversations don't include the many ways in which he's going to make Jimmy's wife and daughter eat their own intestines.
"How are you, Sam?" asks Castiel, looking at him.
Sam blinks. "Fine," he says. There's a moment's pause in which Castiel stares at him unabashedly, eyes travelling from face to neck and the harsh bruises there, and Sam looks away, tries to find something to say.
"How're you?" he returns, feebly.
"Good," says Castiel. "Good."
"Good," says Sam. "That's… great."
The gumbo man is shouting now. Sam still can't make out his words. A seagull decides the yelling is an invitation and quickly applies itself to out-shrieking the man.
"How're you doing it?" asks Sam.
Castiel looks up at him questioningly, and Sam goes on, "Stopping the angels from finding us. How're you doing it? Because—"
"—running will not protect you," finishes Castiel. "Something's cannot be explained. I have the ability to conceal myself when required. I've stretched it to encompass you as well."
"For how long?"
"Until one of my superiors has an urgent need for Dean," replies Castiel. "When they truly wish to find you, they will."
The protection seems pretty useless, then, but Sam gets it. He's living with Dean, after all, who's been running like fuck ever since Sam released Lucifer. Unless they're hunting (which they've been doing a lot less of lately), they're on the road, driving as far and as fast as they can. Sam doesn't feel the need to point out that there is no longer any place to run – just doing something, even something pointless, is enough to keep Dean from crawling up the walls. And that's okay. It's not hurting Sam to go along with it. It's partly for his sake, anyway. So that he won't ever have to wake up tied to a bed again, while hunters hold his mouth open and pour holy water down his throat, until blood is following the steam from his mouth and nose, until he can't even talk (beg) and he's praying for Dean (death)—
Castiel clears his throat and Sam starts. The angel is watching him out of the corner of his eye. Sam stares at the edge of the sun, coughs slightly.
"And you… are you—?" he asks.
"I am not a priority, at the moment," says Castiel.
Sam nods. A couple of other shops are opening on the boardwalk. Sam watches a woman piling old books on a table, thinks maybe he'll check it out later if they stay.
"You're doing the right thing, you know," says Sam, after a while. "I mean – maybe I'm not the – the best judge of that, but. You are. Angels are supposed to be—"
"Angels are supposed to follow orders sent down by God," says Castiel, and Sam detects a hint of bitterness.
"Well – yeah – but. God's not… here. Is He?"
There's a long silence. Sam strains to hear any sounds coming from inside the motel room, a sign that they've woken Dean – the muffled thump of footsteps, the shrieking of pipes – but there's nothing. Castiel shifts next to him, steps closer to the metal fencing. His hands curl around the top and he leans on it, tension in his stance.
"What if there is no God?" he asks, suddenly. "What if there never was one?"
He looks back at Sam, and there's guilt there; the very thought is blasphemous.
"You're an angel," says Sam, slightly incredulous. "You have to—"
"Have faith? Every angel who falls, falls because they've lost faith. I am no different."
He is different, though. Different because falling was the sacrifice he made, to reach the ends he needed to reach. He didn't choose it, like Sam didn't choose to wake up one day and find that he would never again be able to speak the name of God without pain.
But it happened. And he has to live with it. Because there are always consequences.
Sam shakes his head. "You can lose faith in the other angels, but you can't – God's out there."
Castiel glances at him. "Do you still have faith, Sam? How can you? After everything you have lost? You still trust that there's a God?"
"Yes," says Sam, firmly, without thinking.
Castiel shakes his head, looking back out at the sea. "I have searched… for the Lord. As far as I can. I have found nothing. I've been following orders from a God I've never seen. My entire existence – longer than the existence of humankind, of this planet – has revolved around my orders. And I don't even know where those orders came from."
The ocean waves are stronger now, and Sam can hear them, their whisper carried on the building wind. It buffets Sam's hair.
"I've gotta believe," he says. "I mean – I'm a demon, Cas. Or as good as. I can't eat salt. I can't step on consecrated ground. I can't drink holy water." My brother woke me up six weeks ago and was halfway through an exorcism after I opened my eyes, before he realized that it was still me. Sam looks up at the sky, almost completely blue now. "I don't – I don't want to go to Hell. And I have to think that there's a God, out there, who knows… who knows—"
"That you are a good man?"
"That I wanted to do the right thing."
Castiel is silent, watching a seagull that's landed near their feet. It pushes its beak through the wooden boards, comes up with a crumb of something and gazes at Castiel through one eye.
"There's good out there," says Sam. "You can't tell me that it's all just an accident."
"What good?" murmurs Castiel.
Sam's eyes shift to the motel room they're standing in front of, and Castiel follows his gaze.
The door flies open suddenly and Sam jumps, for a brief moment thinks he'd done that – before Dean appears in the opening, Sam's name dying on his lips as he catches sight of the two of them.
"Fuck," he says, looking at Castiel. "It's too early for this."
"I was speaking with Sam," says Castiel solemnly. There's a pause, before he adds, "I can bring you gumbo. I understand that it's delicious."
"I can get my own gumbo, Cas," says Dean, letting go of the doorknob and running a hand over his face. His eyes flick to Sam. "You okay, Sammy?"
Sam attempts a smile. He's not sure he gets it, but it must be close, because Dean relaxes, yawns. "Jesus Christ," he says rather unapologetically around it, and then flinches with Sam. "Sorry, sorry," he mumbles. "I – sorry."
Sam waves it away, trying to breath against the acid-like burn, looks at the brass number on the partly-opened door so he doesn't have to look at Dean's face.
"Freezing out here," Dean mutters. "You should come inside. Unless you were planning on some sorta gumbo man-date that I'm not supposed to know about."
"We weren't," says Sam, rolling his eyes.
"If you would like to," says Castiel at the same moment. Sam looks at him and he backtracks, "No. We were not."
"Uh-huh," says Dean. "Well, hurry up and finish smooching or whatever. I wanna leave before eight."
He steps back into the room and closes the door.
"I think it will rain," says Castiel in the silence that follows. Sam hears the murmur of voices through the room door; Dean's switched on the television.
"Nah," he says. "Just cloudy today."
He watches as the motel receptionist appears below, her back to them. Cigarette smokes rises around her, one of her hands on her hip, the other near her mouth. A passerby waves at her and she waves back.
"I will keep searching," says Castiel.
"Good," says Sam. "Someone should."
Castiel nods. He starts to walk away, then turns. "Your intentions were pure, Sam."
Sam swallows. He wants… he wants it to be the truth. More than anything. More than he wants to be okay, again – as human as he ever was. He wants it to stop sounding like an excuse. He wants it to mean something.
"The Lord's Mercy far surpasses His Wrath," Castiel continues, "I do not believe that perdition is your destiny."
Sam looks down then, the word "destiny" burning through him. He knows about destiny, he thinks.
The hairs on his arms stand. Air rushes against his cheeks, the sound of flapping wings, and then Sam's alone in the open hallway, breathing in salty sea air mixed with vanilla. It doesn't pinch as much.
Dean slides the window open, pokes his head out. "Hey, Sam—" he starts, then sniffs the air. "Pheromones?"
Sam faces his brother, shakes his head. "Ha ha."
"Hey, it's a valid suspicion," says Dean, ducking back inside. "For the love of God, tell me there's something besides gumbo for breakfast!" he calls, slamming the window shut.
"We'll find something," says Sam quietly, too low for Dean to hear.
He rests his hand on the doorknob for a moment, looking out at the sea and the blazing sun, before stepping into the welcoming warmth of the motel room.