IN SORROW SHALT

For Satan was greatly wroth. Thy torments, he said, shall be eternal, and I shall do thrice unto thee whatsoever I visited upon thy brother, and there will be no bargain and no respite. [Sam 34:8]

At the end of the Apocalypse (the first Apocalypse), the angel Castiel wings away from Dean Winchester's passenger seat and flings himself toward Heaven. His Grace is strong; the glory of God's power thrums through him, and he knows only blissful certainty.

He is startled to find himself ascending through mortal paths; he sees a long tunnel, a bright light. But Castiel is an angel again, and there are no voices to call him home – instead he hears only a low moaning, edging to an arching scream. The sound comes from far below, echoing all around him. He has heard it since Hell's portal closed, and it threatens his newfound serenity with an edge of disquiet.

But Castiel will not doubt again.

Neither will he believe.

He steels himself and flies toward the light at the tunnel's end. He takes subdued but particular joy in the spread of his pinions.

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For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case enter into the kingdom of heaven. [Matthew 5:20]

Castiel pulls himself into existence at the base of Heaven's gates. He tilts his head back, staring upward, and the layers of light beyond light nearly sear the eyes from his mortal vessel before he remembers to look with his own gaze instead of Jimmy Novak's.

Habits, he thinks disapprovingly - he has developed bad ones.

The gate is not as brilliant as it should be. The great spikes at the top are shattered, uneven; the hinge swings open. The door to Heaven is not barred, and Castiel fancies it might hang loose, creaking, in an errant breeze.

There are no guards.

Castiel's reconstituted coat still smells of gasoline fumes, stale whisky, the sharp reek of blood. The angel looks down, blinks Heaven from his eyes and smoothes his lapel. He remembers, vaguely, the weight of cloth being heavy on his shoulders.

Nothing drags him down now. But he stands at the broken entrance to paradise, and in the distance, an archangel's anger rumbles like an oncoming storm.

Beneath it, very far beneath, the raw sounds of Hell's torment claw and scrape. The screaming has no pause.

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But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord. [Corinthians 3:18]

Castiel shifts sidelong into a long hallway filled with unearthly and broken mirrors, and stops. He does not like the peculiar fractured feeling the shattered reflections cause. But the mirrors, cracked as they are, show him the glory of his own restored wings, and he allows himself a single beat to stretch them.

He feels the feathers at his back; he sees the shards of mirror reflecting shadow-black softness and the brilliant sea-blue of his vessel's eyes.

It is only a moment's vanity before he hears the laughter. The giggling echoes hollowly, reverberating; the thin sound makes a white column crack. When Castiel turns, he sees a Cupid sprawled naked and bleeding against a mass of broken glass. The blood seeps, silvery and alight, along the floor.

"The purest form of love," offers the Cupid, breathless, "is self-love." He smiles through broken teeth, and his eyes are wild and innocent.

"I wasn't," begins Castiel, and the cherub adds, "That's a quote. I think."

Castiel walks carefully across the floor, hearing incorporeal shards crunch beneath the all-too-physical weight of his vessel's shoes. Crouching, he reaches a hand toward the cherub; he calls Heaven's power within himself, like holy ice.

"I'm done for," chokes the Cupid, as cheerfully as a Cupid can, under the circumstances. "You could... hug me goodbye, maybe."

Castiel hesitates.

It is enough time for the Cupid to burble, "Don't be lonely."

"Sam's plan," begins Castiel, but the cherub no longer cares.

Cupids do not leave shadow wingprints when they die. They expire in sunshine, and lovers' sighs, and the smiles of children. These things brush across Castiel's skin, wind through the dark glow of his feathers; the angel dips his fingertips in the blood of love, and frowns. In the distance, he hears the screaming still.

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If we assay to commune with thee, wilt thou be grieved? But who can withhold himself from speaking? [Job 4:3]

Castiel drops briefly down to Earth, to the darkness at the side of a cracked highway. Stalks of corn, unripened, tower above him.

Dean is hidden, ancient symbols still carved in his bones, but Castiel knows where the Impala is going. He waits perhaps forty human minutes before the sheen of headlights pierces the night (he almost doesn't notice, until he remembers to use Jimmy's eyes and not his own) and the old car rumbles past. It is going too fast for safety. No music plays, and Castiel can see Dean's rough hands tight on the wheel, Dean's figure hunched.

Castiel watches, and then the car is past; the angel stares after retreating red tail lights.

The screaming is still there, a vibration beneath the soil, setting the corn stalks to infinitesimal trembling.

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And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God. [Revelation 7:11]

Castiel whisks to the foot of God's golden throne, which he has seen but never before touched. He finds there the empty site of the battle aborted.

The throne is approximately as golden as he'd thought it would be, but marred now by the smoke of demons and the wing-scars of lost brethren. Castiel raises his palm, tracing the outlines where his siblings have died, but he does not – even now – dare to brush against the throne itself. He leans in to examine the worst of the scarring; there is a line bitten deep from some immortal sword, and spirit dried bright and sanctified in the crack.

("I don't know what God wants," he told Dean, and it is still true, and God is gone but Castiel still does not touch.)

He turns, and Heaven's vastness sprawls forever around him, cold and shattered. The choir stalls are empty.

When he sees the specks of wings approaching, he waits.

The other angels beat forward, remorseless and intent, and Castiel sees the gleam of weapons.

He lets his sword drop into his hand. As the seraphim swoop down toward him – when he can see the flat rage of their gazes, the hopeless righteous snarls – he offers earnestly, "I will be the new sheriff."

His brother grunts only, "Why are you wearing that suit?"

Castiel offers no parry. Before they reach him – as the first sword blade slices down toward his vessel's chest - he spreads his own wings, and flickers between and away.

He would like very much to escape the neverending wail.

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Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. [Psalm 23:4]

Castiel walks through the valley of the shadow of death, and he is not afraid, but he finds it somewhat chilly.

The screaming is particularly loud here; it makes the mountains shiver, and grates along the edges of Castiel's bones. He does not linger long.

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Remember Lot's wife. [Luke 17:32]

Castiel finds no silence in the long doomed city; the raw groan seeps upward through the cracked ground.

There is no life, either, and there are no angels.

Castiel stands on the path at the edge of ruined walls, in a place without shadows, and he looks into the face of the woman who is made of salt. She is surprisingly small; the glittering crust of her hair does not rise past the height of his chest.

She is frozen half-turned, staring back at the blasted ruins; the scents of smoke and brimstone are long faded, but the salt taint of the statue's perfume still remains. Her eyes are crystalline and empty.

"Your fate," Castiel tells her, "could have been worse."

The sound of his voice wends with the moans of Hell, disturbs the delicate balance; the statue trembles once, as though drawing breath. But there is no forgiveness; the figure's edges ripple and fall before the entire form gives way, weeping into a rough and graceless pile.

"Dean would have looked back," Castiel adds, to the puddled glimmer. "I'm not entirely certain about Sam."

He supposes she would not find that very comforting.

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Oh, won't you come with me
And take my hand
Oh, won't you come with me
And walk this land
Please take my hand

[Iron Butterfly 1:3-6; The Book of Dean]

In the Garden of Eden (… 'baby,' Castiel wants to add, and he doesn't know why except for a vague notion of Dean singing) Castiel stands among the shadows of lost and forgotten things, and closes his eyes. There are no angels here, and it has been a long, long time – even by the standards of those who do not measure – since footprints have been left in this dust. Dead leaves are a thick, still carpet on the ground.

"Hello," says the snake, curled around the memory of its tree.

It is not a real snake – it never was – but Castiel turns to look, regardless.

"Just doing my job." The snake cultivates an air of mild apology. "Have an apple." Its scales gleam dark and dull.

Castiel explains, "I do not require fruit."

"Some cider?" asks the snake then. "It's pretty strong."

Castiel takes the ghost flask from the ghost tree, with a nod. He unscrews the phantom cap and takes a sip, letting warmth trickle down his throat. The taste is pleasant, and he is not surprised, though it doesn't burn quite as much as he would like.

"You hear that?" The snake tightens a little around the tree trunk, scales gently scraping.

"Yes," admits Castiel, because even in the last true exile, the shrieks of Hell are a slight, perceptible whisper. He can almost pretend it is the leaves, if he tries, but the leaves make no sound and Castiel is not very good at lying.

"Hm," says the snake. They are both silent for a while, and Castiel begins to think that perhaps he can just stay and drink until the world ends, but then the snake adds, conversationally, "Don't often get angels here."

"I am … somewhat eccentric." Castiel can admit this to a snake that does not really exist.

The snake doesn't say anything, so Castiel drinks again. After a while, he drops to his heels and sits under the tree, and the snake writhes up the lowest branch to make room.

"This vessel," continues Castiel, after a while, "has… needs. It hungers. It… fears, and the fear is a battle, and after the fear comes despair." He frowns, and looks down at the flask. "I think I was someone named Cas."

"I wouldn't know," replies the snake. "I'm only a metaphor. Are you really going to let that racket continue?"

"He's where he fought to be," says Castiel.

The snake is silent.

"His world is safer." Castiel thinks his tone is very reasonable.

The snake tilts its head, studying the faint outline of a leaf that isn't there.

"Things are broken up here," adds the angel, somewhat more insistently, but the snake acknowledges nothing, and Castiel leans his back against the rough trunk and looks far, far up at the spreading branches of the tree.

He can hear the screaming, still, and the screamer's voice is raw and thready but Castiel knows the sound will never, ever, die.

"The knowledge of good and evil," observes the snake, "is a real bitch sometimes. I like your tie."

Castiel looks at the foliage that isn't, and at the snake's slitted, shining eyes. He places the cider flask carefully down on the ground, and then he folds his wings and falls back toward the world.

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But I will sacrifice unto thee with the voice of thanksgiving; I will pay that that I have vowed. Salvation is of the Lord. [Jonah 2:9]

Castiel stands in the trees near a tilting stop sign very close to Lisa Braeden (who is mentally counting her son's vegetables, and thinking of soccer, and not at all of the Apocalypse). He waits a long time for the Impala.

When the black car finally growls past, much slower than before, there is still no music and Dean does not seem to have budged behind the wheel; his profile is still taut, jaw clenched, fingers hard. The man stares at the road ahead, signals left and brakes without twitching.

The screaming is loudest here, where the Impala passes; it undulates beneath the car's tires, crunched in gravel, rattling in the intake of an engine that Hell knows well.

Castiel waits, watching, until the Impala makes the turn, Dean heading toward the distant, dizzy gleam of mortal lives.

Castiel looks down at his vessel's human hands. He stretches his fingers, examining the cracks and lines of someone else's (mostly someone else's) life. Then, calling his blade to hand, he raises his chin, and drops toward flame.

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Thrice in mercy did he make the Descent, and hellfire darkened his wings, and out of all the Host the demons marked him. [Castiel 20:3]